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!

Friday, March 6, 2015

Winter Escape

Our January winter escape to Florida worked out really well so we decided to go for another.  This time we picked a cruise out of Port Canaveral and we flew since we had free tickets on United.
MNM and Atlantis

Yep, Like a kid!
We arrived a couple of days early because we wanted to visit the Kennedy Space Center before our cruise.  We rented a car and drove about 30 minutes to the visitor center.  There we visited the Atlantis Shuttle Exhibit, watched the IMAX show about the International Space Station and took a bus tour throughout the launch area; ending up with a visit to the Apollo/Saturn exhibit.  The entire visit was awesome and emotional; evoking tears of memories and pride in the USA at every turn.  We definitely want to come back!

Us and Our Shipmates: Randy and Mary Ann
We spent two nights on Cocoa Beach meeting up with cousins Randy and Mary Ann on the second night.  They were on the same ship and celebrating their wedding anniversary.  Next morning we headed for the port.  Randy and Mary Ann are Platinum Members of Carnival so they got expedited boarding.  We are not, so we expected an hour before we go on board.  NOT. The lines moved incredibly fast and within 15 minutes we were on board and heading for Guy’s Burgers. There we met up with Randy and Mary Ann and enjoyed the sail-away festivities.

Next morning we docked at Nassau, Bahamas.  We debarked and headed out to find a geocache.  Our target cache was located at the British Colonial Hilton where Sean Connery stayed when filming the James Bond movies.  Incredibly cool hotel and beautiful grounds….we’d love to come here to stay in this hotel!

We then wandered the streets of Nassau,
Fresh Conch!

Nassau Officers
visiting the Parliament and walking by hundreds of shops.  The best thing about the shops was the air conditioning blasting out the doors.  We stopped at Conch Fritters to have a couple of Bahamian beers in honor of our friend Trae and to use their WiFi.  Then we moved on to a little local bar right on the waterfront.  There we linked up with three crazy guys from our ship: Chris, Brett and John.  We traded stories, drinks and jokes with them for a couple hours and then made our way back to the Liberty…a little worse for the wear but happy happy happy!

St. Thomas was our next port of call.  We had a couple of errands to run before our excursion so we debarked and headed out.  First task was to find a geocache which was only about 500 feet from our ship.  Finding it took only a few minutes and then we were off to shop.  Bought our items, dropped them off on the ship and then headed back out to join our excursion on a catamaran to St. John’s.  

It was Mona's birthday and she chose to celebrate on the Champagne Catamaran excursion from Carnival because it took us to St. John’s AND it had champagne!  The excursion started with a twenty minute bus ride to the other side of the island where we took off our sandals and boarded the catamaran.  Our crew was Micky, Michael and Alex the captain.
My "Jaws Pic".  I was snorkeling and happened to look up as
the crew was boating Mona back to the Catamaran.

We sailed over to St. Johns taking about a half hour. Along the way the crew briefed us on how to use the snorkel gear and where the best spots were in the bay. As soon as we arrived I jumped in to see lots of fish, rays and spiny sea urchins. Others on our boat saw turtles, but it wasn't my day for them. Mona doesn't snorkel so the crew boated her to the beach where she enjoyed shelling and talking to other non-snorkelers.  She was perfectly happy there!

We were in the water for about an hour, then back to the catamaran. We sailed back to St. Thomas while enjoying champagne, rum punch, cheese and bread. Okay, more champagne and rum than cheese and bread.  Lots of fun sailing but no dolphins.

Next up was San Juan, Puerto Rico.  This was our third visit to the island and this time we were determined to try mofongo; a local speciality made of crushed fried plantains molded into a cup shape and then stuffed with the meat of your choice.  We made our way to the Aji Dulce in Old Town  and once there we chose mofongo with pork and mojitos.  We both loved the new tastes and maybe, just maybe, the Mojitos might of helped make it taste even better.

Mona with Jack's Shack owners, Jack and Joan
Grand Turk was our last port of call.  Here, as with our last visit, we waded to the left of the pier for about a quarter mile till we came to Jack’s Shack.  This little place has a volleyball net, a bar and tables and a grill which puts out some of the best jerk chicken we’ve ever had.  We spent several hours here, talking to the owners, trading stories with other visitors and just enjoying the sun and breeze.  There’s nothing fancy here, just quality relaxation!

Our time on ship was spent watching shows, eating, playing trivia and just laying in the sun or shade as our whims dictated.  The Liberty has activities for all ages and we had no trouble finding something to do at all times.  And, since there are plenty of quiet spaces we had no trouble finding ways to just relax and listen to the sounds of the ship cutting through the water.  

The Liberty has Carnival’s new American Table Menu which we really enjoyed.  It has lots of new selections as well as many of the old-time favorites.  What we liked most was the port-specific selections which offer foods that are typical for the post just visited.  This had the effect of extending our stay on the island and we love that!

All too soon our cruise ended and we took the Road Runner Shuttle back to Orlando.  We spent several hours in the United lounge before flying back to Chicago. Our flight was delayed several times but we didn’t mind too much as we had free drinks and food.  From there we drove home to 11 inches of newly fallen snow. We are already ready to escape again!

Travel Tips

We get a lot of questions on traveling so I decided to add this new section to the blog to share a few of our tips and experiences.

Free airfare: We both flew free round trip to Orlando.  We found a promotion where you sign up for a United Airlines Credit card and you get enough miles for a free ticket.  We both got cards, charged the minimum and got the tickets.  We paid off the charges immediately so we didn’t pay any interest.  As a bonus, we both got free passes to the United Lounge which really paid off as we had a multi-hour wait at Orlando.  Free drinks and food all day!

Sleep and Park: We bought a package deal at the Elk Grove Quality Inn and Suites.  The deal included a shuttle to and from the airport plus free parking for nine days.  Essentially, we stayed for free (instead of paying for parking at the airport) plus they shoveled out our car and cleaned the windows before we got back.  Also note, this is a Choice Hotel and they have a promotion right now for a free night’s stay after two nights.  We’ll get the second night in March.

Medical Issues: On Grand Turk I stepped on a rusty nail sticking up from the deck.  (Okay, two tips here: get your shots and don’t go barefoot!)  We quickly reviewed my tetanus shot history and breathed a big sigh of relief as it’s been less than 5 years since my last shot.  When you plan your cruise you aren’t thinking about medical issues, but you need to think about what will happen if you have problems on a trip.  Carnival offers medical insurance that’s worth considering.

Thrifty Rental Cars: We had prebooked a rental car at Thrifty for our trip to the Space Center.  However, when we got there they reneged on the deal.  I surmise that they could rent the car for more to Daytona 500 visitors.  Lesson learned: I won't be booking with Thrifty again.

Booking Flights: I just learned about Google Flights.  This is an amazing tool to help you find bargains: Google Flights from Huffington Post

The Points Guy:  As always, if you’re looking for ways to maximize your frequent flyer miles we highly recommend you follow The Points Guy:  He also has tips on the best credit cards for travelers, ways to maximize hotel points, etc. etc. etc. The Points Guy is just an awesome reference for any traveler!