One day and night in Monument Valley, Utah/Arizona on the Navajo Reservation: One of the most beautiful and magical places in the United States.
Monument Valley is one of my favorite places on this planet. When you visit, you aren’t really sure if you are in a Wild West movie or on Mars. It is a magical place. Photos don’t do it justice. We really wished we would have had more time there on this trip to do a tour through the valley with a Navajo guide. Next time, we’ll plan to stay at least two nights.
We began our day in Pagosa Springs, Colorado, toured Mesa Verde National Park in the morning, and then drove on to Monument Valley in the afternoon. It was a long day, but fun. On the way to Monument Valley as we crossed from Colorado into Arizona, and we passed the Four Corners monument. We figured we should stop and do the obligatory photo op of us standing in four states at one time (Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico).
The Four Corners Monument is part of the Navajo Nation, and requires an entrance fee of $5 per person. Unfortunately, it is out in the middle of nowhere and requires cash payment, no credit or debit cards. We only had $8 cash, so we moved on. If you want to see the four corners, be sure to have cash on hand to cover your group. If you need an ATM, there is one at the Teec Nos Pos trading post store and gas station is about a 10 minute drive away. They also have restrooms.
An hour and a half later, we finally approached Monument Valley. The first time I visited Monument Valley was on my road trip with my friend in March 2004, and I had been so excited to see it. We just did a drive through and unfortunately, there was a dust storm that day. The iconic wild-west views of red buttes were something I had always wanted to go back and experience again, in better weather and with more time.
We had a reservation at The View Hotel in Monument Valley tribal park, which ended up being worth every penny of the high $250/night price tag. It was our one big hotel splurge of the trip.
*Note: The View Hotel is inside the Navajo Tribal park and requires a $20 entrance fee per vehicle for up to two days. This isn’t included in the price of the room.
The View Hotel is aptly named, as every room has a balcony and a panoramic view of the iconic “Mittens,” The two buttes in the valley that look like right and left hand mittens. It was a stunning view, and my number one plan was to drink some wine on the balcony ad watch the sunset all evening.
*Note about wine/alcohol: The Navajo Nation does not permit the sale of alcohol, so no alcohol can be bought anywhere near or at the hotel. There isn’t a rule against bringing your own and drinking it in your room, however. If you plan on having adult beverages and enjoying the sunset like we did, be sure to stock up beforehand and bring your own. Each room is equipped with a fridge.
The View Hotel has a restaurant, with halfway decent prices and solidly mediocre food. The food isn’t bad, but it’s on par with good cafeteria food. That being said, it is convenient and the view from the restaurant is stunning. If you want to come here just for dinner and are staying elsewhere, be aware that the restaurant serves hotel guests only after 7:00 PM.
We decided to share the Navajo Sampler platter and the fried chicken dinner. The Navajo Sampler platter actually has enough food for two people, and we ended up with leftovers (good thing our room had a fridge). The sampler consisted of Green Chili Stew (be warned, it’s spicy), Red Chili Posole, Sheep Camp Mutton Stew, a mini Navajo fry bread taco, and Navajo fry bread with honey.
We highly recommend getting the Navajo tea, it was delicious. They also sell it in the gift shop.
After dinner, it was sunset and wine time. It was everything I’d hoped it would be. The View Hotel faces east, so while you can’t see the sun going down over the buttes, the sunlight from the setting sun in the west illuminates the buttes in a gorgeous red-orange light. The photos I took don’t even begin to capture the real-life beauty of the valley.
Once it was dark, the hotel showed an outdoor John Wayne movie outside the restaurant, projected onto the wall of the building.
We didn’t stay up late enough to watch the stars come out, but I did wake up in the middle of the night and went outside and looked at them. It was a surreal glitter display over the dark shadows of the buttes.
We did set our alarms for the sunrise, however. Trust me, it’s worth it.
Sunrise over Monument Valley, seen from the balcony in our room:
Monument Valley was the highlight of our entire road trip. We were sad to leave and wished we’d had another day to go on the slow dirt-road drive through the valley or go on a guided tour with a Navajo guide. I think we’ll be back though. It is a truly magical place.
We had breakfast a 10 minute drive away at Goulding’s Stagecoach. The breakfast there was outstanding, we both had their signature dish of Navajo fry bread huevos rancheros with green chili. We recommend skipping the View Hotel breakfast and coming here. Had we stayed a second night, we would have come back to Goulding’s for dinner as well.
After breakfast we drove around for a little bit to get some photos, and stopped at a Navajo handicraft stand to buy some souvenirs. We wanted to buy directly from the local Navajo people instead of the hotel gift shop.
The best roadside photos of the Valley are taken on the Utah side facing south. There are many pull-outs along the highway 163 to top and take a picture from.
If a tourist from outside the US were to ask me what the top places to see in the mainland United States are, I would put Monument Valley up towards the top of the list. There’s nowhere like it, it is truly an American experience. Not only is it beautiful, but it is a great opportunity to learn about the native Navajo people, their history and culture. Skip the Grand Canyon, go see Monument Valley.
A day in Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado. Discovering the lives of ancient cliff-dwelling Native Americans and Pueblo culture.
We visited Mesa Verde National Park on a one-week road trip through Colorado and Utah in September. I had done a Southwest road trip years ago with a friend after graduating college, and we had wanted to visit Mesa Verde but we were traveling in March and it wasn’t open yet. Summer is the best time to visit, as the high elevations and winter snowfall prevent the park from being fully open during the winter season.
We spent the night in nearby Pagosa Springs the night before, which is a good home base for exploring the park and surrounding area.
Mesa Verde National Park is located in the southwest corner of Colorado, and contains over 5,000 archeological sites and 600 ancient cliff dwellings. Only a few are open to the public. A couple cliff dwellings can be toured with a ranger guide.
We stopped by the ranger station when we arrived, and considered signing up for a ranger-guided tour of the Cliff Palace, but since we only had the morning to tour the park we opted to just do a drive and view tour at our own pace.
The road into the park ascends dramatically, offering beautiful views of the surrounding landscape. There were several viewpoint areas to pull over at.
*Note: The drive down to the cliff dwellings and pit house sites is 45 minutes from the park entrance one way, so allow at least half a day to see the park.
We stopped at the remains of some early Anasazi pit houses along the Mesa View Loop road, a few dating back to 600 AD. The houses were dug into the ground, and then walls and a roof built up from the dugout with sticks and mud.
At the end of the park are several cliff dwellings to view. Cliff Palace was the most spectacular one that we saw, and you can get a really great view of Cliff Palace from above on the Cliff Palace Loop Road.
Note that if you decide to tour Cliff Palace, Balcony House, or other open dwellings in the park, they do involve climbing stairs, steep trails, and ladders. Cliff Palace sounded like it was the least strenuous, but all of them are at high elevation. Higher elevations make exercise and hiking a lot more strenuous, so if you have a heart condition or any type of physical disability, you may want to skip the tours.
It is amazing to imagine these dwellings alive and full of the daily activity of the Anasazi people. Tiny cities tucked into the steep cliffs in the canyon. I wonder if there were more cliff trails along the canyon between the dwellings back in 1300 AD, it doesn’t look easy to access them currently. I’m sure there has been some significant erosion since they were populated.
After checking out the Cliff Dwellings, it was 1:00 PM and we were starving. Mesa Verde has two cafeteria-style restaurants, one at Far View Terrace closer to the entrance, and one at Spruce Tree Terrace closer to the cliff dwellings. Prices were reasonable, with many Southwest-style options. Paddy ordered the Navajo Taco, which was huge. It was a dinner-plate sized Navajo fry bread with chili and all your standard American taco fixings. He said it was really good, but didn’t quite make it through the whole thing. I had the black bean burger and fries which was also good.
The high elevation (and the big lunch) made us pretty tired, and we still had a couple hours to drive to our next destination, Monument Valley.
We really enjoyed Mesa Verde, but wished that we had a bit more time there. Being from Seattle, we tend to forget how much high elevations can affect your energy level if you aren’t used to it. I would have loved to hike down to the Cliff Palace, but would need to take more time. I’d recommend at least a full day or two days to really see the park. Don’t forget to bring lots of water with you and stay hydrated.
When I was sixteen, I got on a plane and flew halfway across the country to live with a family I didn’t know in a country I’d never been to, and learn a language I’d never even heard spoken before. It was the most important thing I’ve ever done, and I don’t know who I would be if I had not done it.
It was hard. It was amazing. It was frustrating. It was an educational experience that surpassed anything I could ever learn in a classroom. I made life-long friendships with other kids from all around the world, and I gained a second family. I learned about the world. I learned how to be independent.
Nineteen years later, I was boarding a plane again with Paddy back to Denmark. We’ve embarked on many international adventures together, but this one was different. I wasn’t going away this time. I was coming home.
I was nervous. The last time I saw my host family and classmates was when I was 17. Would they even want to see me after nineteen years? Did they even remember me that well? When I left Denmark in 1998, email was a new phenomenon. I had managed to find almost all of them on Facebook around 2006 or so, and I’d maintained some contact with everyone on social media since then. My classmate Ann visited me in Seattle in 2011, and urged me to come back to visit. I wanted to, but building up vacation time is a bit more of a challenge for Americans, and there were so many places in the world that I hadn’t seen yet.
Finally, I decided I had to go. I made plans with my host family and friends, brushed up on my Danish with the Duolingo App (wish I had that when I was an exchange student!), and bought our plane tickets.
We began our trip with four days in Stockholm, Sweden as I didn’t get a chance to see Sweden during my exchange year. We got over our jet lag and had a little tourist time before boarding the train to Copenhagen. Read about our adventures in Stockholm here.
I had booked tickets in advance through the Scandinavian Rail website. With train tickets, the earlier you book, the better rate you get. I think the earliest you can book in advance is three months. You do need to print your ticket. I had forgotten to print my ticket, and had only printed the confirmation. The info desk at the Stockholm Central station directed us to the auto kiosks where we were able to print our tickets using our reservation number.
We weren’t sure which train car we were supposed to be in, and we ended up in the right seats in the wrong car. We found this out when someone else showed up with a reservation for our seats. We located the correct seats, but they were unfortunately facing backwards. I get extremely motion sick if I don’t face forward in a vehicle. Fortunately the train employee was able to find us two seats facing forward that didn’t have a reservation.
When we arrived at Copenhagen Central Station, my friend Pan was waiting for us. Pan was a fellow exchange student from Thailand during my year in Denmark, and liked Denmark so much she ended up moving there and working for MAERSK. She had invited us to stay with her and her boyfriend Sebastian from Germany in their apartment near the Copenhagen airport.
If you’ve read about our travels in Thailand, the lake safari tour that we took on the floating lake house in Thailand is run by my friend Pan and her family. She runs the website from Denmark. Her family’s lake safari tour is one of our most memorable travel experiences and we highly recommend it.
It was strawberry season in Denmark, and Pan welcomed us with a traditional danish tart with strawberries and marzipan and tea. Danes have a tradition of having cake after work on Wednesdays.
For dinner, Pan showed Paddy how to cook several home-style Thai dishes that she grew up with. We were impressed with the variety of Asian produce available in Copenhagen.
Our first meal in Denmark consisted of Thai home cooking and German beer. It was delicious.
Pan and Sebastian had to work, so Paddy and I set out to be tourists in Copenhagen for the day. We got some breakfast sandwiches and coffee at a little cafe in the mall across the street, and then caught the Metro into the city center.
The Copenhagen Metro is very easy to use. If you don’t have a multi-use pass, you can purchase single use tickets from the electronic kiosks. There is often a metro employee on site to answer questions or help if needed.
No one takes your ticket when you get on the train, and there are no turnstiles to scan your ticket through to get to the train platform. If you are tempted not to pay and take a free ride, don’t. Metro employees randomly (and semi-frequently) do ticket checks on the trains and the fine for not having a ticket is pretty steep.
There was no metro in Copenhagen back in the late nineties, so it was nice to be able to easily and quickly get around the city.
We got off the train at Kongens Nytorv, which is the stop fairly close to the city center (Indre by). We used Google maps on our phones to navigate to Strøget, the pedestrian shopping street.
I remembered always wanting to go to Strøget as a teenage exchange student when I visited Copenhagen, but we walked around for approximately 5-10 minutes before we decided that there wasn’t really anything we wanted to shop for. There are some interesting shops and cafes, but clothing and other merchandise in Denmark is very expensive. It’s a nice area to see for a short amount of time, however.
We walked over to Christiansborg Palace and admired it from the perimeter. Christiansborg is the Danish parliamentary building, housing the offices of the Prime Minister and the Danish supreme court. The Danish Royal Family uses portions of the castle for receptions and events.
Several royal castles had been built and re-built at Christiansborg’s location since 1167. Christiansborg was first built in 1733 but burnt down and was rebuilt twice, with the third and current version standing since the early 1900’s.
You can tour many parts of the palace including the royal reception rooms and chapel, and some ruins of the very first castle that were excavated in the palace basement. Paddy wasn’t feeling too up to touring fancy palace rooms and I’d seen it once before, so we moved on.
We walked across the canal to the Christianshavn neighborhood. Christianshavn is a man-made island surrounded by canals. It is also home to the infamous Christiania neighborhood.
Christiania is a “free town, ” (AKA hippie commune) that began when some hippies took over some abandoned military barracks back in 1971 and set up camp. In addition to the military barracks that were there, people built their own houses with whatever free materials they could find, making for some pretty artsy and funky little abodes.
The original settlers of Christiania wanted to be able to make their own laws and government, including making marijuana legal. As you can imagine, controversy ensued and the area has had off and on battles with the police. In the 1970’s hard drugs were also part of Christiania’s culture, but after several overdoses and problems, the people of Christiania have outlawed all drugs other than marijuana. Unfortunately, this hasn’t been a completely successful campaign and problems with drug dealers and criminal gangs has been an intermittent issue.
If there is a “sketchy” neighborhood in Copenhagen, I suppose this would be it. I don’t feel threatened there but police raids are still known to happen and there have been violent incidents here in the last 10 years. Use caution, but don’t be afraid to check it out in the daytime.
If there has not been a police raid lately, you will probably see pot dealers on Pusher Street selling their wares. Note that cameras are not allowed in this area by the residents, and if you take a photo of a pot dealer he/she will not be happy with you. Leave the camera/phone in your bag.
Christiania has a number of cafes and music venues, as well as art galleries and a few shops and souvenir stands. We stopped into a bar and had a beer outside in the sun. Bring cash if you want to buy something, I’m not sure if credit cards are accepted.
On the way out we tried to stop into an art gallery but it was closed for another hour or so. I wouldn’t plan on visiting Christiania in the morning, things seem to open a little later around here. Early evening or late afternoon would probably be the best time to go. Do your Copenhagen sightseeing earlier in the day, and then come to Christiania to have a beer and check out the scene.
We hung out for a little while until it was time to meet my friend Jakob for a late lunch.
Jakob had been one of my AFS exchange program orientation leaders when I was an exchange student. He was only three years older than me and one of three young Danish volunteers that our orientation group had a lot of fun with. He had also been on exchange in South America in the mid nineties.
We had originally planned on meeting Jakob for coffee, but we hadn’t had lunch yet and were hungry. Jakob suggested Ravelinen restaurant nearby, which served upscale traditional Danish smørrebrød in a nice quiet location on the water.
Danish smørrebrød is probably the cuisine that Denmark is known the most for. It literally means “butter and bread” and consists of an open-faced sandwich on rugbrød (hearty pumpernickel bread). Rugbrød is an acquired taste for many people (myself included), but it is very hearty and healthy. You don’t need to eat very much of it to be full and you stay full for hours.
Rugbrød is just a vehicle for other delicious foods, however so if you don’t like the taste just pile on the toppings.
Jakob and I each had a dish with herring, and Paddy had a pork dish. My herring came with apples and curry and dill, and was delicious. The dishes look small, but when you put them on rugbrød and create multiple open-faced sandwiches, you soon become very full.
I can count on my hand the number of times I remember eating out at a restaurant during my year in Denmark, and I don’t even think it totals more than five. So needless to say, this was the fanciest smørrebrød I’d ever had. It was also priced accordingly.
Danes don’t go out to eat very often. Going out to eat is very expensive in Denmark, so when Danes do go out to eat it is usually a special occasion or while on vacation. You won’t find a lot of mid-range restaurants in Denmark (or Scandinavia). You will either find cheap casual eateries or fancier pricey places.
If you want to experience some traditional Danish food done very upscale, Ravelinen is a great place to go and in the summer has a nice open air view of the water.
After lunch we said goodbye to Jakob and headed back towards the metro. Paddy’s allergies were really acting up as the grass pollen was really high, so we went back to Pan and Sebastian’s apartment to rest for a while before meeting up with them for dinner.
*Note: If you have allergies or think you could possibly need any kind of over-the-counter American medicines while in Denmark, bring them with you. Most medicines in Denmark are available by prescription only, and even cold medicines aren’t available.
That evening Pan and Sebastian took us to their favorite Szechuan restaurant near the Copenhagen Central Station called Magasasa.
We didn’t expect the best Szechuan food we’d ever had to be in Copenhagen, Denmark, but it was. If you are in Copenhagen and need a break from Scandinavian cuisine, definitely check this place out.
We told Pan and Sebastian just to order their favorites and we would share. We had the crispy duck, string bean pork, beef with black pepper sauce, tofu with mixed seafood, and chow mein.
The string bean pork and the crispy fried duck were absolutely the best we’d ever had. Everything was amazing. The prices were pretty reasonable too (for Denmark anyway).
Pan and Sebastian had annual passes to Tivoli Gardens amusement park that included two guests free of charge. Tivoli Gardens is one of the biggest tourist attractions in Copenhagen, for Danes and international tourists. It is nothing like an American amusement park–you won’t find deep fried butter or toothless carnies manning sketchy rides with half of the light bulbs working.
Tivoli is meticulously maintained down to the most finite details. Beautiful manicured gardens, stages for musical acts and other performances, bars, restaurants, shops, and a variety of fun rides. Peacocks and other exotic birds freely roam the grounds.
It was raining and after 9:00 PM, so there were very few other people in the park. All the lights were coming on, and it was actually really nice to stroll around in rain coats. Downright “hyggelig,” as the Danes would say.
You may have read about the Danish word/concept of “hyggelig.” It doesn’t translate entirely to English, the closest word we have in English is “cozy.” But hyggelig is more than just warming up by a fireplace in a sweater with a hot mug of cocoa. It is about nice atmosphere, and spending time with friends and family. Inviting your friends over to drink wine and play board games on a stormy winter night with candles is hyggelig. Having a picnic dinner in a nearby park is hyggelig. Walking through Tivoli Gardens in the rain with friends and lots of colorful lights is hyggelig.
We got some beers (Carlsberg and Tuborg, of course) from an outdoor beer stand and sat and talked under a covered patio for awhile, and then walked around some more. I was glad we didn’t pay full price for the short time that we were there, but we had a really nice time exploring the park and catching up with our friends. It was really beautiful at night with all the lights, and the rain didn’t bother us. We’re from the Pacific Northwest, we are used to outdoor activities in the rain.
We stayed at Tivoli until closing time at 11:00, and decided that a few more beers might be in order before we went home. Sebastian took us to Vesterbro Bryghus (Vesterbro brewery) right around the corner from Tivoli Gardens. It was a cozy little spot with live music and good craft beer. Craft beer wasn’t really a thing in Denmark back in the 90’s, but has since become extremely popular (much like it has in many parts of the US).
Not wanting to overstay our welcome with Pan and Sebastian, and needing a couple days of alone time, we had arranged to check into an Airbnb in downtown Copenhagen for the next two nights.
Note: Airbnb is the best way to go for lodging in Denmark. Hotels are extremely expensive and tiny. With Airbnb you can find a one bedroom or studio apartment with a kitchen for less than the cost of a hotel room. We ended up staying in a hotel the last three nights of this trip, and what you get for your money in a budget hotel is pretty disappointing.
We met our Airbnb host at 11:00 AM for an early check in, which we appreciated. The apartment was located in some historic military barracks in the northern part of downtown Copenhagen, and had everything we needed including a fully stocked kitchen.
To get across town, we had to take the train to the Osterport station, and then walk about 10 minutes with all our luggage. An easy walk if you aren’t carrying a bunch of stuff. Not so much if you are. (*Tip: pack light. You will be doing a lot of walking).
After a short rest, we walked down to Nyhavn, Copenhagen’s famous picturesque harbor. If you see any tourist brochure or guidebook for Copenhagen, Nyhavn will probably be the picture on the cover. It really is colorful and lovely.
Pan had suggested that we take a canal tour of the city from Nyhavn. While super touristy, this ended up being a fabulous idea. It was a nice day, and we were a little tired from lugging our stuff around and walking around the city a bit that morning.
The canal tour was 80 Kr (about $13 US) each, and leaves Nyhavn once every hour. We showed up right as one was about too leave–perfect timing.
The tour takes you through all the canals around the city: Christianshavn, the canal around Christiansborg palace, and out to the Little Mermaid statue. Don’t expect a good view of the Little Mermaid (Lille Havfrue) from the canal tour, you only see her backside from far away. Mostly you get a view of all the tourists taking photos of her.
In fact, you don’t really get a good tour of anything in particular, but you get a nice relaxing, restful boat ride with a guide telling you about parts of the city in English, Danish, and German. If you’re tired of walking and need a break, the canal tour is a good way to rest and keep sightseeing at the same time.
After the tour we stopped at the little hotdog kiosk next to the harbor. I had the frikadeller sandwich, and Paddy had a red hot dog.
Danes love their hotdogs (pølser.) The “red hotdog” (røde pølser) is just that–a bright red hot dog. It is dyed with a red dye, which can’t be good for you. I have no idea why it’s red (maybe to match the Danish flag??). In any event, it is a very Danish fast food item. Not all the pølser at the kiosks are red, however– in case you want to try the Danish hot dogs without day-glo artificial dyes.
Paddy’s allergies were acting up again, so we decided to go back to the apartment to relax for a few before heading back out again. On the way back, we stopped in a few shops and visited Amalienborg Palace, the home of the Danish queen and royal family.
Flashback! Me at Amalienborg Palace in 1997:
Later in the afternoon we decided to walk to see the Little Mermaid statue, the proverbial Eiffel Tower of Denmark and an ode to Danish author Hans Christian Andersen. I suppose everyone has to see it, it is the number one tourist landmark in the country, but it really is rather disappointing. I’d seen it before during my exchange year but felt like I should go back and see it again with Paddy. It was early evening and the weather was nice. We had a lovely stroll through the park on the way there.
The Little Mermaid has been a victim of vandalism by teens and political activists over the years. She has had her head and arm taken off (I think more than once?), and has been painted different colors. The week before we arrived, she had been painted red as a protest against the pilot whale slaughter in the Faroe Islands.
It turned out early evening was a good time to visit Den Lille Havfrue, most of the tourist crowds visit during the day. There were a few tourists but not too many. As we were walking away I heard a man say to his friend, “She really is unremarkable, isn’t she?”
If you are a fan of Hans Christian Andersen and the Little Mermaid story, I’d suggest visiting his house and museum in the town of Odense on the island of Fyn. Odense is an easy two hour train ride from Copenhagen and the museum is just a short walk from the train station. The museum has the original hand-written stories including Den Lille Havfrue from 1837. I find his house and the museum to be much more interesting than the statue.
On the way back to the apartment we grabbed some pizza from a nearby fast food pizza restaurant for dinner. Pizza in Denmark is everywhere and cheap. It is often the preferred snack of drunk young Danes at 4:00 AM outside the bars.
At 8:00 PM we met up with a former classmate of mine, Ann and her husband Martin at a restaurant called Cofoco. Cofoco is located in the Vesterbro neighborhood not far from Copenhagen Central Station. Ann had been one of my closest classmates during my year in Denmark, and had visited us in Seattle back in 2011. It was really great to see her again and meet her husband.
Cofoco is a fancier restaurant with small plates, and we just wanted to have a few small things and some drinks. I had the ceviche dish, and the kaffir lime ice cream for dessert. Both were delicious, the ceviche was a unique preparation with green tomatoes and herbs. The kaffir lime ice cream came with white chocolate cream, crisp honey cakes, and fresh strawberries.
We finished our evening at Copenhagen’s tiki bar Brass Monkey. Because you know we just had to go to the tiki bar in Denmark.
We had originally tried to get a group of classmates together for the evening, and Ann had booked a table for us. However, it ended up just being us as one classmate came down with the flu, another had a sick child, and another was having a difficult pregnancy and ordered to be on bed rest from her doctor. It was disappointing not to see them, but I assured them I’d be back in town again in a few years. I suppose I timed my visit to be at a time when many of my classmates are at the age where they have small children to tend to. I’ll try my next visit in 5 or so years when their kids are a bit older.
Brass Monkey was a great tiki bar. The DJ played a lot of great American garage and surf hits from the 60’s, and the decor was on point. The drinks were delicious, albeit expensive (it’s Denmark after all). Ann and I shared a Volcano Bowl and then I tried a classic daiquiri. The drinks tasted like they used real fruit juice and were not overly sweet.
It was a fun evening, and we made plans to do something the next day as Ann and Martin had the day off.
We slept in and had breakfast at the apartment, and then met up with a friend and her husband for coffee at The Corner coffee bar at Restaurant 108. The coffee and pastries were great, the barista was extremely pretentious. He was annoyed when Paddy ordered a drip coffee and said that they were out and he didn’t want to make any more, so Paddy got an Americano instead. I was snapped at when I ordered a pastry off the menu that he was out of as well. Despite snobby man bun barista with the attitude, the coffee was good and we had a nice visit.
Ann and Martin had originally planned on going sight seeing outside the city with us, but I got a message from Ann that she was very hungover from the night before and would need to rest, leaving us with a free day.
We spent the afternoon walking around the neighborhood near Copenhagen University. We found some fun shops on Studiestræde, including Sex Beat Records and Wasteland vintage clothing.
In the Gameltorv (Old Square) we found a festival of Thai food and culture going on. There were many Thai street food booths and some Thai dancers performing.
We took a rest in the late afternoon back at the apartment and then headed out for dinner and a couple of drinks.
We had dinner at one of the many casual Middle Eastern “kabab” restaurants on the pedestrian shopping street. It was good and affordable. Not as cheap as in the US, but much less expensive than if we went out to a nicer restaurant.
After dinner we went to a bar called the Voodoo Lounge, which seemed like a funky little dive bar that Paddy would like.
There was some metal playing on the juke box, and lots of novelty shot specials on the drink menu. I took this opportunity to make sure that Paddy didn’t leave Denmark without trying a shot of the Hot N’ Sweet salt licorice vodka for only 20 kr (about $3).
It wasn’t his favorite. However, you shouldn’t go to Denmark without trying it once. It is very Danish.
It was early was early and we were the only patrons at the Voodoo Lounge aside from a group of 18 year old kids a couple booths down who were getting their Saturday night started early.
Young people in Denmark usually don’t go out until about 11:00 or so in the evening, after having several drinks at home with friends first to save money. Many bars don’t close until 6:00 or 7:00 in the morning, so a night out for the youth crowd pretty much means all night.
Good news for the older folks: You can usually go out and have some drinks earlier in the evening and head home around 11:00 PM, avoiding the weekend warrior brigade of drunk youngsters.
We called it a night pretty early, as we had a train to catch at 9:00 AM the next morning and we didn’t have much money to drink out at bars with (Denmark is expensive!).
Tip: Beer, wine, and booze are easily purchased at local grocery stores and bodegas, so it is easy to have a few cheap drinks in your room to save money. This isn’t the case in other Scandinavian countries like Sweden, Norway, and Iceland where you have to buy all alcohol in a government liquor store. Denmark is much more liberal with their alcohol laws and alcohol is cheaper in Denmark than elsewhere in Scandinavia.
Today was the day that I would travel to Fanø Island to visit my host family for the first time in 19 years. I was excited and nervous.
Fanø is a popular summer tourist destination for Danes and Germans who visit Fanø for its big, sandy beaches. To get to Fanø Island, you have to catch the ferry from the west coast city of Esbjerg.
The train from Copenhagen to Esbjerg takes about three hours with no transfers. The further in advance you book your train tickets, the cheaper they are. I booked the orange non-refundable tickets on the Danish DSB train website for about $15 per person a month in advance, which was a really good deal.
We managed to find our correct train car this time, and the train ride was pretty smooth.
We arrived in Esbjerg about noon, and proceeded to walk through town to the Fanø ferry. (We later learned that we could have caught the bus from the train station to the ferry, the bus is usually timed with the train and ferry arrivals). It is about a 15 minute walk.
Esbjerg was where I went to school when I lived in Denmark and where I spent a lot of time with my friends. It was a quiet Sunday, and most of the shops weren’t open quite yet despite it being past noon.
I’ve had so many dreams about going back over the past 19 years. Walking through Esbjerg, catching the ferry, walking up my host parents’ driveway. It was surreal to finally do it.
The Fanø ferry terminal had been expanded since I lived there in the 90’s, and the ferries were different. No more smoking section!
The ferry takes about 12 minutes and leaves every 30 minutes in the summer (every hour in late evening and certain times in the winter). The cost for a an adult walk on passenger is 45 Kr (about $7.25) round trip.
After another 10 minute walk through town, we arrived at my host parents’ house. My host parents (Mogens and Tove) were working in the garden. It was so great to see them after all this time.
Mogens and Tove welcomed us and prepared a traditional Danish smørrebrød (open-faced sandwich) lunch in their little garden house. We had pickled herring, ham and deli pork with a mayonnaise-vegetable salad, and hard boiled eggs with tomatoes, all served with Danish rugbrød (dense pumpernickel bread).
Shortly after lunch my host brother Jeppe and his family came over for cake and coffee, along with my host sister Sofie and and her husband. It was so great to see them, and quite a warm welcome.
Paddy and I stayed in my old room, which was just what I had hoped we would do. Mogens and Tove’s lovely house looked pretty much the same as it did in 1998, save a few updates and improvements in the kitchen and upstairs bathroom. They run a bed and breakfast during the busy summer season on Fanø called Engbo Bed & Breakfast. If you visit Fanø in the summer, you can stay with them too–and I highly recommend you do. They are wonderful people and their house is central to everything in the main town of Norby.
Tove wouldn’t let me help her with dinner that evening, so I took a short walk around town.
Fanø has many traditional grass-roof houses that date back to the 1700’s and 1800’s. They are very cute and well-maintained to this day.
Flashback! Here I am riding a bike on Hovedgaden back in 1997:
We had a really nice home-cooked dinner that evening with Mogens and Tove, drinking wine and catching up on the past 19 years.
We had breakfast in the garden in the morning–bread rolls with cheese and jam and yogurt with muesli. I love the Danish muesli-it isn’t so sweet like American granola and is much healthier for you. Yogurt in Denmark comes in milk cartons and you pour it into a bowl and put muesli on top.
After breakfast, Mogens took us on a little adventure down to Sønderho, the town on the south end of the island.
We stopped by the beach on the south end in attempt to see the seals that are often laying around on the sand bars there, but the seals were pretty far out and you needed waterproof rain boots to walk to them. It was pretty windy as well, so we skipped the seals and headed into Sønderho town for some coffee.
Funny thing about the seals–they weren’t there in the 90’s when I was living on Fanø. They showed up some time later and are now a large tourist attraction.
The restaurant Mogens took us to wasn’t open yet, but the owner let us in and served us some coffee anyway. Mogens told us all about the history of Fanø.
After coffee, we stopped by Hanne’s Hus (Hanne’s house), a historical house made into a museum to show a typical home during Fanø’s “golden age” of ship-building back in the late 1700’s. It wasn’t open as it was a Monday, but we peeked inside anyway.
Before heading back, Mogens took us on a walk to see an old duck trap on the island. It’s use for hunting was prohibited in 1931, but was used after that for many years to put tracking tags on the ducks for the purpose of scientific study. There is a large outdoor informational display at the duck decoy/trap about birds and wildlife on Fanø and the history of the duck trap.
On the way back to the car, Mogens suddenly darted off the path and out into the field, and came back with a plant that is a relative of the venus fly trap. It looked like a venus fly trap, but very tiny. A little online research upon returning home revealed it to be a relative of the venus fly trap, but a smaller carnivorous species called drosera intermedia or a “”sundew.”I’d never seen one in the wild before. Mogens took it home to try and pot it.
When we arrived back in Norby, Mogens and Tove had some things they had to do, so we took a walk through town and poked around in some of the shops. It was mostly standard butik shops and tourist fare.
On the way back we stopped at Fanø Vaffel og Bolsjehus for some soft ice cream. Before you leave Denmark, be sure to try the ice cream. The soft ice cream (soft is) is very sweet and creamy and different than the soft ice cream in the US. It is often served with sprinkles or chocolate dust on top.
Hard ice cream is also delicious in Denmark, and is served with real whip cream and a sweet cream on top. It’s hard to describe–just try it. As a matter of fact, don’t leave Denmark without trying some sort of local dairy product. Cheese, ice cream, butter–try it all. Dairy is something that Danes do very well.
Fanø Vaffel og Bolsjehus is also a great place to buy candy to take home to share with family and co-workers. Danes love hard candy and gummy candies, especially black licorice. Try the salt licorice–it’s an acquired taste but very Scandinavian.
Later that evening I helped Tove harvest some new potatoes from her garden for dinner. When I lived in Denmark, we didn’t always have fresh garden potatoes for dinner, but we always had potatoes. Every night. I didn’t know how to cook when I was an exchange student, but I could peel potatoes and wash dishes. So that’s what I did every night. Every night. Fortunately, I love potatoes.
For dinner Tove and Mogens made the quintessential Danish dinner, Frikadeller. Frikadeller are fried meatballs made with pork or a combo of beef and pork, and usually served with boiled potatoes and some sort of gravy sauce. Mogens and Tove argued about how they should be cooked, Mogens thought they should be crispy on the outside and Tove was worried that he would burn them. They turned out delicious, whatever the cooking consensus.
We had a traditional Danish appetizer while cooking of some laks (smoked salmon lox) on French bread with butter and fresh dill from the garden. I remember my host parents serving this at Christmas and whenever we had company over for dinner. It’s delicious with white wine.
Dinner was just how I remembered many dinners as an exchange student, and it was really nice to share the experience with Paddy.
After dinner we sat at the table and had coffee, wine, and snaps, talking until late in the evening.
Danish snaps (schnapps) is not like what we consider schnapps in the US. It is more of a vodka/potato based aquavit type of liquor, not a sweet syrupy flavoring liqueur.
Mogens had a couple kinds of snaps he flavored with berries and herbs from his garden. Danes drink snaps at celebrations, when company comes to dinner–or any time at all, really. It is a drink meant to be sipped.
After another lovely breakfast of bread, cheese, and yogurt with museli, Paddy and I ventured out into town in search of the infamous Fanø seals. Mogens and Tove told us that they often like to lay on the sand bar near the Norby ferry.
Sure enough, there were many fat, lazy, happy seals sunning themselves on the sand bar by the ferry. They were in many different colors, and all seemed to be smiling and quite pleased with themselves.
After enjoying the seals, we continued down to the ferry dock and strolled along the beach near the ferry in search of more seals, and amber. We found a few amber-colored rocks, but no amber.
Amber (fossilized tree sap) washes up on the beaches of Fanø during storms, and can be polished up to make jewelry. You can find amber jewelry in the little shops in Norby to buy as a souvenir. The best place to look for Amber is on the southern beaches of the island.
We happened to be on Fanø during the Fanø International Kite Festival, which happens every June. I remembered the festival from my exchange year, and was excited to see it again. People come from all over the world to fly unique and interesting kites on Fanø’s immense sandy beaches.
Tove and Mogens let us borrow their bikes, so we rode to the beach to check it out.
Bikes are a main mode of transportation for many people in Denmark, and was my only mode of transportation around the city and island when I was an exchange student. My host family didn’t even own a car back then. I hadn’t been on a bike since I was about 18 years old, but turns out–you really don’t forget how to do it.
It was a little less windy than the day before (there is such a thing as too windy for kites), and closer to the weekend so there were many kites out on the beach.
We could have ridden for miles and looked at all the kites, but the wind was a bit difficult to ride a bike in, so we just went a little ways.
On the way home, we stopped at the Mission Afrika Genbrug thrift store. If you see a shop in Denmark that has “genbrug” in it’s name, it means thrift store (literal translation: recycle/reuse). I love thrift stores in foreign countries, you can often find a very inexpensive and unique souvenir.
I hit the jackpot on this thrift store visit– I found a Norwegian wool sweater for only 40 kr –a little over $6.00 USD. Norwegian sweaters are upwards of $200-$300 USD new, and this one fit me and was in great condition. Score!
We ended the afternoon with a beer at the new Fanø Bryghhus across the street. Inside the brewery was pretty production oriented, but you could ring a bell and buy a glass of beer on tap from one of the workers inside. I tried the special kite beer they had for the festival weekend. It was really good. There was outdoor seating available.
That evening Mogens and Tove had invited my host Aunt and Uncle and my AFS liason from my exchange year and her husband over for dinner. My AFS liason Marianne had also been the host mother of one of my closest exchange student friends. Paddy is a great cook, and we wanted to cook an American dinner for everyone. We decided prior to traveling that we would do this, and brought along a recipe for Louisiana style shrimp and grits with collard greens and cornbread.
Grits, collard greens, and cornbread are all things that you won’t find in Denmark (at least they would be very difficult to come by). Anticipating this, I had been lugging a box of grits, cornbread mix, Cajun seasoning, and smoked paprika around in my suitcase since we landed in Stockholm.
Having purchased our shrimp earlier that day at Fanø Fisk in Norby, we walked next door to the shiny new Super Brugsen in search of the rest of our ingredients.
We managed to find a type of green leafy cabbage that was similar to collard greens, and we found everything else we needed including a spicy sausage that ended up tasting just like Cajun andouille sausage. We even found cheddar cheese for the grits–which I’ve never seen in any household in Denmark, but someone must eat it if they sell it at the grocery store.
It was successful! I think our dining companions found the food to be tasty but a bit rich to eat very often. We chose southern American food because Pacific Northwest food would be a delicious salmon dinner–and salmon is already common meal in Denmark as well. We wanted to go with something different and possibly something new that my Danish family hadn’t had before.
It was so nice to catch up with everyone and I felt very welcomed “home.” After dinner the conversation turned into mostly Danish and I felt a bit bad for Paddy as I could follow most of it but not all…but then again that was what the first three months of being an exchange student was like: a lot of participation in family activities and not understanding anything. Paddy was a good sport.
The next day, it was time to say goodbye and head back to Esbjerg. We took some photos in the garden and then Mogens drove us to the ferry. They said they would like to come visit us in Seattle next summer and I hope they do.
Mogens stood on the pier and waved at us until the ferry was out of sight. I teared up a little.
At the Esbjerg ferry terminal we were able to catch the bus to the train station. The driver was even able to provide change.
From the train station we walked a short block over to the Cabinn Hotel on Skolegade. Our room was ready. This was our first taste of a budget hotel in Denmark–the Cabinn was like getting the shittiest room on a cruise ship. The bathroom had a very airplane bathroom-like quality to it. The shower was pretty much on top of the toilet. This is what you get for $135/night in Denmark. I think I booked the second from the lowest rate room as well. The “economy” room advertised a very skinny twin bed with an equally skinny pull-out trundle bed underneath. The rate did include a more than adequate continental breakfast, however.
Esbjerg was the city I went to school in during my exchange year, and the city where most of my classmates lived. I spent a lot of time in Esbjerg, and it was a trip to be back after so long.
We freshened up at the hotel and then walked around the pedestrian shopping street (Kongensgade) and main square a bit. We wanted to get something inexpensive for lunch, but there weren’t a lot of casual, affordable lunch options. We settled on dönerkebab sandwiches at Babylon Pizza on Skolegade. Skolegade street is where all the bars and nightlife are, and I remember going to Babylon Pizza for a late night slice or two back during my exchange year. I’d never been there in the light of day. The chicken dönerkebab I had was really good. It was huge, a bit too big for me to finish. Good value for an inexpensive lunch.
After lunch we walked around Esbjerg some more. The town square looked just as I remembered it.
We also walked up to my old school, which was a different school now. There wasn’t anyone there, exams were over and the school was empty. The door was unlocked though, so we walked in and peeked inside. It looked exactly the same.
Later that evening, we met up with some of my old classmates at the restaurant Dronning Louise in the town square. Dronning means queen in Danish, and Dronning Louise restaurant and bar has been around since before I was an exchange student. I remember many nights dancing until the wee hours in the upstairs bar with my classmates. I’d never eaten at the restaurant though–eating out in Denmark was too expensive for me back then.
It was really great to see some of my classmates again. We had a really nice time catching up. I wished I had more time in Esbjerg to spend with them other than just the one evening.
The menu was good, mostly upscale pub grub. Expensive, but not too outrageous. Paddy and I both ordered burgers. I had the grilled halloumi burger with portobello mushrooms, avocado, red onion, and pepper chutney. It was delicious, but HUGE. I only made it through half of my burger–I definitely wasn’t expecting the biggest burger ever to be served to me in Denmark.
It was a Wednesday night, so we didn’t make it a late one. Paddy and I had an early train to catch the next morning anyway. It was a really nice evening, the best weather we’d had so far during our trip.
Back to Copenhagen
The Cabinn had a nice continental breakfast, despite the small, cramped rooms. It was typical Scandinavian breakfast fare– breads, meats, cheeses, cucumbers, hard boiled eggs, yogurt, museli, etc.
The Cabinn location next to the Esbjerg train station was also a big bonus.
Once again, we ended up in the right seats in the wrong train car. The train cars were not labeled with the same car numbers as on the tickets when we boarded, and the digital car numbers weren’t changed until after we had settled in. So we had to get all our bags and move once again, which was super annoying. Be sure to double check your train car number.
We had booked two last nights in Copenhagen before flying home at the First Hotel Twentyseven near the Copenhagen Central Station. I realized as we walked the half mile to the hotel that “near” is a relative term when carrying luggage.
Our room wasn’t ready, but they were happy to store our luggage while we walked around. We were hungry, so we began a hunt for an affordable lunch in the area. This once again proved difficult. If you don’t want pizza, kebab, or McDonalds, you are pretty much going to pay high prices.
We circled around a few times, realizing that we were in the touristy area of Copenhagen. We finally settled on a place called Rio Bravo, which had a comical American “wild west” theme but served Danish food. Mostly, we just wanted to sit down and kill time and have a beer and some lunch. It was close to the hotel. Not cheap, but we were there, so we went in.
Paddy had a Caesar salad with chicken and I had a Danish fried fish dish with pumpernickel bread, and we each had a beer. I think we spent around $50. The food was alright. Not $50 alright, but alright.
Back at First Hotel Twentyseven, we waited until check in time exactly before our room was ready. The hotel definitely has a hipster theme going on.
Our room was small, but not too cramped with a nice bathroom. It included complimentary instant coffee, tea, and a few snacks. I think we spent about $175 a night, breakfast not included. The bed had an older, saggy mattress which was disappointing. Overall, we can’t recommend Airbnb enough. Hotels in Scandinavia are expensive and just not worth the price.
We spent a little while relaxing and then walked to the metro station to take the metro to visit my host sister Ny and her family for dinner at her house. It was great to meet her husband and beautiful daughters, and there was even a surprise visit from my host cousin Johan.
On the way back to the hotel from the metro station we walked by Mojo Blues Club and went in. A Danish woman and her band were performing classic American blues songs. It wasn’t what we were expecting to find in Copenhagen, but the band was really good. We wanted to stay longer but the cigarette smoke was too much. We found it odd that it is illegal to smoke in all bars in Denmark except this one (??). It’s too bad, it’s a great music spot.
On our last day in Denmark, I had grandiose plans of getting up early and taking the train to Kronborg Castle (AKA “Hamlet’s Castle) in Helsingør, as it was my favorite castle that I saw during my exchange year. I had also wanted to try and tour Rosenborg Castle as well in Copenhagen.
However, after non-stop going from place to place and visiting people, we really just needed a lazy day. We had a great time visiting everyone, but we kind of felt like we needed a vacation from our vacation. So we slept in late, and then went and had coffee and sandwiches at Kontra Coffee around the corner from our hotel. Their coffee was delicious and came with a little piece of chocolate to dip in. The sandwiches were also great and the price was reasonable.
We spent the rest of the afternoon resting and reading books and doing a lot of nothing.
That evening we had dinner plans with my friend Ann and her husband again at their house in the town of Ganløse, about an hour’s train ride northwest of Copenhagen.
We met Ann at the train station in Hillerød and she drove us by Fredericksborg Castle on the way home. The castle was closing and it began pouring rain, so we didn’t get a great look at it but it was really awesome. Fredericksborg Castle is a good day trip idea from Copenhagen if you have a few days in the city.
Ann introduced us to her kids and she and her husband Martin made a delicious home-cooked Danish dinner. We wished we could have stayed later to continue catching up with them, but we had a 6:00 AM flight back home the next morning so we couldn’t stay that late. It was a nice evening.
We had originally chosen First Hotel Twentyseven because it was close to the Copenhagen Central Station so that we could easily get to the airport when we left. After considering the half mile walk with luggage, the pouring rain, and leaving for the airport at 3:00 AM, we opted just to take a taxi to the airport from the hotel. It was expensive–about $50 USD but worth it to avoid the hassle of carrying luggage in the rain and trying to catch a train at 3:00 AM. Sometimes your convenience is worth it, and this was definitely one of those times.
My return to Denmark was the trip I had hoped it would be. I didn’t get to see everyone I wanted to see, and I had wanted to do a few more tourist things with Paddy, but overall it was a fantastic trip back.
If you are visiting Denmark for the first time, my biggest piece of advice for you is to get out of Copenhagen. Most tourists just stop off in Copenhagen and call it good. There is much more to Denmark than Copenhagen. It may be a tiny country, but it has some interesting things to offer.
Here is a list of suggested places to visit in Denmark outside of Copenhagen:
And finally, if my host family or Danish classmates are reading this, I want to say thank you. Thank you to my host family for taking a strange American girl into their home for a year and making her part of your family. Thank you for such a warm welcome “home.” And thank you to my classmates for accepting me for who I was, helping me learn Danish, and helping me navigate teenage Danish culture. Being an exchange student in your country grew my soul and helped define the person I wanted to be more than any other experience in my life. I went home humbled, empowered, confident, and hungry to see the world. I promise it won’t take another 20 years for me to make it back to Denmark again. Thank you.
A fun camping weekend and an easy relaxing day hike on the Sunrise side of Mt Rainier National Park. A perfect day hike if you are out of shape or short on time and want some great views of Mt Rainier.
Paddy and I have been to Mt Rainier National Park a few times, but only to the Sunrise Side once and that time we didn’t actually go to the visitor’s center. Every time we go to Mt Rainier National Park we are blown away by how beautiful it is. On this trip we camped outside of the park at Silver Springs Campground, and did a quick and easy trek on the Silver Forest hike from the Sunrise Visitor Center in the park.
The Sunrise side of Mt Rainier National Park is the northern side of the mountain, and is a little less visited then the popular Paradise visitor center. At 6,400 ft above sea level, it is the highest elevation point in the park to visit by vehicle. There are several great hiking trails that start at the Sunrise visitor center parking lot.
*Camping tip: Even though spring seems way too early to make summer camping plans, the recreation.gov website allows you to make camping reservations up to six months in advance, starting in January. Weekends in July and August fill up fast, so I like to get a reservation in for a good site (you get to pick your site out) around March. If your plans change and you have to cancel, you get a full refund minus the $10 reservation fee as long as you cancel at least two days before your arrival date.
The campground hosts have firewood for sale (cash only) or you can purchase it at the Greenwater General Store about 15 minutes away. This is the closest store with provisions, so if you find that you have forgotten something, stock up here.
We set up camp, sprayed ourselves with bug spray, and cooked hot dogs, beans, and corn for dinner with the campfire.
I set the alarm for 7:00, as it is best to get an early start when hiking at Mt Rainier on a summer weekend. We made coffee with our camp stove and french press, ate hard boiled eggs and granola for breakfast, and set out up the mountain.
Not far down on the 410 highway heading south from the campground is the Sunrise Park Road. The White River ranger station will collect your national park entrance fee of $25.00, good for one week. After passing the fee station, the visitor center is another 40 minutes up the mountain. It is a beautiful drive.
We arrived at the Sunrise Visitor Center at around 9:00 AM. There were lots of cars in the parking lot already, but still a lot of spaces left. The Visitor Center building wasn’t open yet, but a park ranger was standing outside and answering questions from the hikers. He provided lots of helpful info on trail conditions. Even though it was July, some of the higher elevation trails had too much snow still and weren’t suitable for hiking in certain areas.
Everyone there was gung-ho about going up the high elevation trails, but we opted for the easy-breezy Silver Forest hike. The Sunrise elevation is pretty high for us sea-level dwellers with desk jobs, and we prefer to do uphill hiking at lower elevations. The Silver Forest hike is fairly even the whole way. The trail starts from the left side of the parking lot facing the visitor center building. The trail is an out-and-back hike, so you have to hike to the end and then turn around and return back to where you started.
For such an easy trail, the Silver Forest hike offered amazing views of Mt. Rainier. If you’re not very in shape or are short on time, this hike offers big bang for your hiking buck (so to speak).
After a (too) short amount of time, we reached the end of the maintained trail (about a mile in). We weren’t ready to go back so we continued for a little ways on the not-so-maintained part of the trail, which was really more or less a ditch someone dug. It kept going, but was a bit difficult to walk in as it was deep and narrow. We stopped when we ran into some snow. We could have gone around, but decided to head back.
The way back had the best views, as you are facing Mt Rainier the entire time.
Overall, the trail was shorter than I would have preferred, but the views were excellent. If you are visiting Seattle and want to do a day trip to Rainier and don’t have time for a big hike, the Silver Forest hike is perfect for a quick dose of “Mt. Rainier-lite.” Your photos will look like you did some major hiking, and all your friends will be jealous.
When we arrived back at the parking lot we checked out the information displays at the visitor center, and then began our descent down the mountain. We left at a little before 11:00 AM, and rangers were already directing traffic into the overflow parking on the side of the road.
*Tip: If going to Mt Rainier on a Saturday or Sunday in July or August, GET THERE EARLY. If you are doing a day trip from Seattle, I’d recommend getting on the road around 7:00 AM at the latest to make sure you get a decent parking spot and get on your hike before the trails get crowded.
We stopped at a lookout a short ways down the mountain that provided views of some alpine lakes and Mt Adams in the distance.
At the bottom of Sunrise Park Rd, we passed a very long line of cars waiting at the entrance fee station. It looked like about a half hour wait just to enter the park. Again, GET THERE EARLY.
We spent the rest of the afternoon reading and relaxing at the camp site, and listening to the White River. Living in the city near the airport makes us really appreciate the sounds of nature whenever we are able to get away.
The Silver Forest hike wasn’t my favorite hike in Mt Rainier National Park, but it was a nice and easy scenic jaunt. If you are able to do a longer hike that is slightly more challenging at a lower elevation, I’d recommend the Naches Peak loop hike. It is also on the Sunrise side of the park and one of our favorites.
Stockholm, Sweden 2017: Exploring the old world charm of Gamla Stan and up-and-coming Södermalm, dinner at a viking restaurant, and the ABBA Museum
Paddy and I were heading to Denmark in 2017, my first time visiting the country since spending a year as a high school exchange student back in 1997-98. During my exchange year I visited Norway twice with my host family, but never made it to Sweden. (Okay technically we drove through Sweden once in the middle of the night, but that doesn’t count). Since it was easy to book our flight into Stockholm and out of Copenhagen, we spent the first four days of our Scandinavian adventure in Stockholm.
First, a note about Stockholm: Like the rest of Scandinavia, it’s EXPENSIVE. After a bit of research while planning this trip, I came to the conclusion that renting an Airbnb is hands-down the best way to go for lodging. I had a difficult time finding a hotel room in a good location with a private bathroom for under $200 USD per night. I was able to find us a one bedroom apartment in Södermalm (the southern, “hipster” neighborhood) in a great location near public transit for $150 a night. Not only did we get a full one-bedroom apartment all to ourselves, we had a full kitchen and were able to save a lot of money on breakfast and lunch through self-catering. If you are looking to do Stockholm on a budget, Airbnb is definitely the way to go.
We arrived in Stockholm in early evening after approximately 15 hours of travel from Seattle (10 hour Delta flight from Seattle to Amsterdam, and a two hour KLM flight from Amsterdam to Stockholm). We collected our luggage and after a fair amount of walking through the airport located the airport train station.
*Side note about Delta’s long-haul international flights: I haven’t always had the best experiences with Delta’s domestic flights within the US, but we were surprisingly pleased with the international flight. The flight attendants were friendly, we were fed a hot meal and two snacks, had a wide array of free movies to choose from on individual seat-back screens, and we were provided with alcoholic beverages free of charge. We were even given hot towels at the beginning and end of the flight.
The Stockholm Arlanda Airport train station (look for the Arlanda C signs in the airport) has three train options to choose from. There is the Arlanda Express, the high speed train between the airport and Stockholm Central Station downtown, the SJ train for long distance commutes outside of Stockholm, and the Pendeltåg commuter train which makes more stops throughout the city and south of the city.
Since we were going past the city center to the southern Södermalm neighborhood, the Pendeltåg commuter train was the one we wanted, according to Google Maps. (The Google Maps app has become my most valuable app while traveling, it is great at figuring out public transportation almost anywhere). There were automated machines for tickets on the Arlanda Express and the SJ trains, but we didn’t see one for the Pendeltåg. We were able to buy our tickets directly from a ticket seller in the train station and pay with our credit card. It was roughly $17 per person for the train tickets, including the airport transportation fee (120 SEK per person).
The Pendeltåg took 40 minutes to get to Stockholm Södra station (twice the time of the Arlanda Express to Stockholm Central) but it was an easy ride.
From Stockholm Södra station we used Google Maps to navigate to our Airbnb apartment on Högbergsgatan. It was a bit more of a walk than we anticipated, mostly because Google Maps took us through some sort of “short cut” through a couple parks and we got a bit confused. When we arrived at the apartment, our Airbnb host Marco was waiting for us with the key and made sure we were able to find everything we might need in the apartment.
After unpacking and washing up, we were starving. We headed out in search of sustenance.
We walked over to the main arterial street Gotgatan and found ourselves eventually in Medborgarplatsen, or “citizen square.” It was about 8:00 PM on a Saturday night, and there were several outdoor eateries and beer gardens full of people getting their evening started. We looked at several menus and decided on fish and chips from Bodanra By Melander.
Two relatively small portions of fish and chips and two beers ran us about $47.00 USD. More than we wanted to spend, but those are typical Swedish prices for you. The fish and chips were delicious, though, and came with a side of Danish curry remoulade.
It was a nice evening, but not super warm. There were carts of complimentary blankets out for diners to keep warm. Nice touch.
**Money saving tip: If you like to drink, bring booze with you.
One of the most expensive things that you will encounter in Sweden is alcohol. A beer at a bar will run you between $7-$10 each, a glass of wine $10-$12, and a cocktail $15-$20. Sweden imposes a high tax on alcohol, with the highest alcohol content incurring the highest tax (cocktails and hard liquor). Beers sold in the grocery stores are only allowed to be 3.5% alcohol. Beer with higher alcohol percentages and all other wines and spirits are sold only at Systembolaget state-run liquor stores. These stores are closed on Sundays and in the evenings.
Having read this before traveling, we brought box wine with us from home. According to the Swedish customs website, you are allowed to bring one liter of spirits or four liters of wine per person into the country. Box wine packs well in a suitcase and fits four bottles of wine per box. We like the Bota Box brand. It’s cheap, but decent quality.
After our $47 fish and chips and beer, we headed back to the apartment to have a couple glasses of our box wine before bed. We stopped at the grocery store near our apartment building and picked up some bread, cheese, and other items for breakfast in the morning. We found the Swedish grocery prices to be very reasonable, and not much different from in the US.
**Regarding tipping at bars and restaurants: It isn’t customary to tip in Stockholm, which helps ease the pain of the high prices a bit. It isn’t uncommon however to tip for exceptional service. If you do tip your server, the standard tip is 10%. We tipped our server 10% at the two nicer dinners we had at this trip, as the service was very good.
After making our own coffee and breakfast at the apartment, we were ready to go explore Gamla Stan.
Gamla Stan is the original old town of Stockholm, dating back to 1252. The old buildings are well-preserved and it is one of the biggest tourist attractions in the city. If you are looking for quaint little shops and restaurants and souvenirs, this is the place to find them.
Gamla Stan was only a half mile north of our apartment in Södermalm, so we were easily able to walk there. If you aren’t someone who is able to walk a lot, the T-Bana (Tunnelbana) subway train is a good option from most parts of the city. It can get pricey for single-use tickets, however at $5.00 USD per person per ride. The train is very easy to use, and you can buy tickets with your credit card from any of the electronic kiosks available when you enter the underground stations.
We wandered through the narrow medieval cobble-stone streets until we ended up on the north end of Gamla Stan in front of the Royal Palace.
The Royal Palace wasn’t too crowded, so we decided to check it out. If you are someone who is interested in European monarchies and history, this would probably be a good attraction for you. It was interesting, but not the highlight of our trip. There are several sections of the museum to explore, but we just toured the Royal Treasury and the Royal Apartments.
We started with the Royal Treasury as that is where you purchase tickets. It was interesting to see all the royal crowns, sceptres, and orbs of past royal family members.
We moved on to the Royal Chapel and Royal Apartments.
It was all very regal and somewhat interesting and worth a stop. However, if you are trying to fit a lot into a short amount of time in Stockholm and don’t have time for everything, I think this is one attraction that you can skip if you aren’t really interested in Royal family history.
When we had enough of the Royal Palace, we found an exit and ended up walking out into a front row view of the changing of the guards, which a large crowd of people had obviously been waiting a while to see. I’ve seen a few changing of guards in my day, and it’s not THAT exciting. It’s cool to see if you happen upon it, but it’s not something I would wait around for in a crowd.
We wandered around Gamla Stan a little more, stopping by the infamous Stortorget (big square) in the middle of Gamla Stan. It is the oldest town square in the city, and host to colorful and picturesque buildings. I read that in December Stortorget is host to a big Christmas market, which sounds like it would be fun to see if you are visiting at that time.
By this time it was late afternoon and our feet were getting a bit tired, so we walked back to our apartment in Södermalm for a rest.
That evening we had a dinner reservation at Aifur Krog and Bar Viking Restaurant in Gamla Stan. Aifur Krog and Bar ended up being one of the highlights of our trip. Aifur was a surprising example of touristy done right.
**Tip–definitely make a reservation here, it’s a popular place. I easily made a reservation through their website a week prior to our trip.
Aifur is set up to look like the inside of an old medieval viking tavern or ship. The tables are communal and the light is from candles. Sheep skins are draped across the benches at the tables and the silverware is modeled after old viking utensils. The staff dress in old viking attire and appeared to enjoy their jobs. The attention to detail throughout the restaurant was very impressive.
When you arrive, the host asks your names and where you are from, and then blows on a sheep horn and loudly announces you to the entire restaurant. Everyone claps.
We were seated next to a couple who didn’t seem to want to be social, but they left shortly after we arrived. Our next dining companions were a woman from California and her Mom (announced to the restaurant by our host as “Lydia and her Mom”). They were much friendlier.
We ordered mead, as it seemed like the right thing to do. The mead menu was extensive. I had a berry mead and Paddy had a spicy chili mead. The waitress let us sample the meads before we committed to a full glass, which was nice. The chili mead was really good. Not sure if they had chili peppers back in the viking days, but it was damn good.
Aifur’s menu was full of historical detail about each dish. I went with Varangian’s Roasted Dwarf Chicken, and Paddy had the Indulgence of the Raven Lord. Paddy chose his mostly on title alone, because he couldn’t not try something called “The Indulgence of the Raven Lord.” The Indulgence was a marinated flap steak, with juniper roasted pork belly, parsnip cake, sprouts, baby onions, and a red wine sauce.
The dishes were plenty hearty by themselves, we were glad that we hadn’t ordered appetizers.
Towards the end of our meal, the restaurant was looking more and more empty. We wondered for a moment if reservations had been necessary, but were assured that they were when our host blew the sheep horn and announced the arrival of “a bunch of Austrian bankers.” The restaurant was soon filled with Austrian bankers, ready to eat, drink, and make merry. We asked for our bill, as the waitstaff was quickly becoming overwhelmed with the new guests.
Aifur viking restaurant was a bigger highlight of our trip to Stockholm than we expected it to be. The attention to detail in everything from the decor to the well-researched menu to the attire of the waitstaff was phenomenal. If you’re going to Stockholm, try not to miss this place. Be sure to make an advance online reservation.
After dinner, we thought maybe we’d continue with the theme and duck into the bar at nearby Sjätte Tunnen medieval restaurant for a drink.
Sjätte Tunnen was a little campier than Aifur, but still looked like it might be fun. I ordered their rose hip mead special, which was good but a very tiny pour, not sure it was $8.00 USD worth. The bar portion of the restaurant was rather empty and isolated, good for a date or intimate conversation if that’s what you are looking for.
We would have loved to have some more drinks and explore more bars in the Gamla Stan area, but it was just too expensive. We brought box wine for this reason, so we went back to our apartment to relax.
**Money-saving tip: If you do bring your own booze but don’t want to drink in your room/apartment, bring a water bottle or thermos and take it to the park. It is not illegal to drink in parks in Sweden. Even cheaper–get some food at the grocery store and have a picnic for dinner.
Our second full day in Stockholm was my birthday, and the thing I wanted to do most was go to the ABBA Museum. I’m not a huge fan of ABBA, but I am all about unusual museums. I am also not at all opposed to getting on the dance floor when “Dancing Queen” comes on at a wedding reception. ABBA did write some catchy tunes.
Just about all the museums in Stockholm are conveniently located in one island location in the city called Djurgården. You can easily get to Djurgården by passenger ferry from the Slussen/Gamla Stan ferry terminal, tickets are just like the T-bana and are $5.00 USD per person each way. You may purchase tickets at the ticket window at the ferry terminal.
I had read that the ABBA Museum get’s pretty busy, and they only allow a certain amount of visitors into the museum at a time to make the experience enjoyable and not over-crowded. You can also buy your tickets in advance online for a slight discount.
We didn’t want to have a set schedule, so we just got up early and arrived shortly after the museum opened. The ABBA Museum was a short walk from the Djurgården ferry.
On the way to the museum, we witnessed a procession of policemen on horses. Not sure what this was about.
When we arrived, the ABBA Museum was pretty empty, and no one was in line. Tickets were a bit more than I expected at $30 USD per adult, but se la vie.
We walked down a spiral staircase into a brightly colored disco-tastic experience, but this was only the pre-ABBA museum area. The museum combines the main ABBA attraction with a Swedish music and pop exhibit, which you can view before and at the end of the ABBA experience.
We left the rainbow disco room through a black curtained door, and were immediately assaulted by a larger-than-life movie screen montage of ABBA music and performances. After that, we entered the main portion of the ABBA museum. There were very detailed exhibits on each performer’s history and background, what their recording studio and dressing rooms would have looked like, and all of their glorious (or horrendous?) costumes.
There were interactive exhibits as well where you could sing (and record and purchase) your karaoke ABBA track, or have a photo of your face imposed on each ABBA member’s face and dance around, your moves reflected back on a video screen (this part was a bit creepy). You could also go onstage and karaoke your favorite ABBA song with projections of ABBA dancing and performing on a stage along side you. If you are someone who is really into ABBA, you will probably have a great time.
The museum ended with more of the Swedish music exhibit, complete with videos of famous bands from the US, UK, and other countries performing at the amusement park next to the ABBA Museum (Tivoli Grönalund).
There are all sorts of fun, over-priced things to tempt you in the gift shop on your way out, we left with a Christmas ornament, magnet, and some ABBA Museum chapstick. We passed on the $25 coffee mugs and the “knit-your-own Agnetha hat” kit.
When we left, there was a line at the ABBA Museum that we were glad we avoided by getting there early.
There are a number of museums in Djurgården, all within walking distance from each other. There is only so much museum we can handle in one day, so we thought we’d check out the most popular of all the museums, the Vasa Museum and then call it good for the day. The Vasa Museum is an exhibit of the infamous Vasa ship that sank in Stockholm Harbor in 1628, and was dredged up and made into a museum 333 years later.
To our disappointment, we didn’t get to the Vasa Museum early enough. The tour buses had all arrived, and the line to get into the museum was almost a half mile long. We decided it wasn’t worth it.
In retrospect, it might have been a better idea to visit the Vasa Museum first right when it opened, and then the ABBA Museum afterward as the Vasa Museum was clearly the most popular attraction.
We made our way back to the ferry, fighting through the massive ticket crowds outside the Tivoli amusement park, and enjoyed a nearly-empty boat ride back to Gamla Stan while incoming ferries arrived overflowing with tourists. We were happy to escape.
We were pretty hungry when we arrived back, so we stopped at the nearby fried-herring food truck called Nystekt Strömming just a short walk from the ferry towards Södermalm in Slussen. For a very reasonable price, we enjoyed delicious fried herring burgers and sparkling waters. Also offered were fried or grilled herring plate lunches with mashed potatoes and pickles. This was probably the most affordable authentic Swedish food we encountered on our trip.
We spent the rest of the afternoon exploring some of the shops on Götgatan Street in Södermalm. My favorite was a shop called Flying Tiger that had a bunch of really random (but fun) inexpensive stuff.
For dinner that evening, we decided to splurge as it was my birthday and all. We had made a reservation at Pelikan, an upscale traditional Swedish restaurant in Södermalm that was featured on Anthony Bourdain’s show No Reservations.
Pelikan has been a restaurant in Stockholm since 1664, has moved twice and has been in it’s current location since 1931.
The service was excellent, as was the food. We started with the charcuterie plate and the Gubbröra, a sort of salad with eggs, fresh anchovies, parsley and dill served on sweet brown bread with an egg yolk to put on top. The charcuterie plate included prosciutto, reindeer salami, pickles, and two types of Swedish cheeses. The reindeer salami was our favorite thing on the charcuterie plate, hands down.
The Swedish aquavit menu was quite extensive. I’ve never tried aquavit before, so I asked the waitress what she would recommend. She brought us two different kinds, mine had “floral” flavors. It was served on ice and definitely tasted like flowers. Paddy had only tried an anise-based aquavit before, and he found it refreshing to taste a more herbaceous variety. We had no idea there were so many different kinds. From what I understand, aquavit is essentially a vodka distilled with herbs and other flavors. It is something you sip slowly and is often served at celebratory dinners or gatherings.
For our entrees Paddy tried the roasted reindeer with root vegetable terrine and lingonberry sauce, and I had the fish special with fresh herbs, bleak roe, and mushrooms with a light sauce (I am not sure exactly what fish it was, but it tasted a bit like trout). It was light and fragrant and delicious. Paddy really enjoyed his reindeer, which he said had a strong, rich flavor.
For dessert we shared the chocolate terrine, which was delicious. It wasn’t super sweet–almost kind of like a chocolate cheese. It’s hard to describe but was very good. The waitress even added a candle for my birthday.
Pelikan was the biggest meal splurge on our trip to Stockholm and Denmark, and it didn’t disappoint. If you are looking for upscale traditional Swedish cuisine in an historic beer hall location, this is your place.
Having spent a pretty penny on dinner, we opted not to go out for some drinks afterward, but to relax back at the apartment with our box wine.
Our last full day in Stockholm had the best weather. There were a number of things we could have done with our day: day trips to either Drottningholm Palace or the historic viking village of Sigtuna, a ferry ride in the Stockholm archipelago, or another attempt at the Vasa Museum. But we didn’t really feel like having a plan, or dealing with buses or ferries or trains. So we opted just to walk around and see a bit more of Gamla Stan and Södermalm.
We walked around Stockholm harbor in the sunshine, and then back through Gamla Stan for a little bit of final souvenir shopping.
After much walking in the sun, we decided to take a “fika” (Swedish coffee break) at Wayne’s Coffee in Södermalm. Paddy had a coffee and I had a mojito lemonade (lemonade with mint leaves) and a kanelbullar, which is pretty much the national pastry of Sweden. It is essentially a yeast-bread cinnamon bun, but without all the nasty frosting and extra sugar the American cinnamon buns come with. Instead, it is light and airy, and has a sprinkling of pearl sugar on top with a light egg wash glaze. It was a perfect little afternoon snack.
We spent some more time walking around Södermalm. Most of the interesting shops were on Götgatan.
For dinner that evening we decided that we couldn’t leave Sweden without trying a tunnbrödsrulle.
A tunnbrödsrulle (“thin bread roll” in Swedish) is a hot dog rolled up in thin flat bread with mashed potatoes, lettuce, onions, ketchup, mustard, and shrimp salad. It is typically something Swedes get at a kiosk on the way home from the bar in the wee hours of the morning. However, since we did a mega-splurge for dinner the night before, we thought this would be an inexpensive dinner option.
We ordered from the Maxi Grillen on Gotgatan near the Medborgarplatsen. Service was less than friendly, but food was served fast. The tunnbrödsrulle came with a fork.
Our verdict: Definitely order sans ketchup. The ketchup was a bit overly sweet. Also, I think it might be better with a higher quality shrimp salad. This just tasted like bay shrimp drowned in mayo and thousand island dressing. I didn’t make it all the way through mine, it was really rich and gave me a bit of a stomach ache. In any event, it was uniquely Swedish and we were glad to have tried it.
If you go to Stockholm and want to try a tunnbrödsrulle sober, I would recommend trying chef Magnus Nilsson’s tunnbrödsrulle at Teatern in Södermalm. Otherwise, the junky kiosk dogs might be tasty after many, many beers. If you do try Magnus Nilsson’s tunnbrödsrulle, please let us know how it was–we wanted to go there but didn’t have time.
After our tunnbrödsrulle adventure, we got on the T-Bana subway and headed north to the Tiki Room bar in the Vasastan neighborhood.
If you’ve read much of our blog, you may have noticed that we have a tiki bar fascination.
It was very early in the evening, and most of the bar patrons were upstairs enjoying the outdoor patio. The patio was nice, but we came for the tiki bar. We ordered some drinks downstairs in the tiki lounge area and chatted with the bartender.
Since we were in Stockholm, the drinks were pretty ridiculously expensive. At $15-$20 a drink, we could really only afford to try one each. The drinks were very good, however. Tiki drinks are often made a bit too sweet, but these were perfect. I had the Red Tide, which I really enjoyed (and wished I could have tried another one).
The bartender was super friendly, and after talking to us for awhile, he ended up only charging us for one drink (sweet!).
The Tiki Room was a pretty classic-style tiki bar, very nicely done with a lot of attention to detail. There was a private back room area that I assume you can reserve for parties.
We would have loved to explore some more bars in Stockholm, but the cocktails were just too pricey. The Vasastan neighborhood was lively with people enjoying dinner and drinks at various restaurants, but most of the shops had closed by 6:00 PM. We walked around a little before heading back to the T-Bana train.
Overall, we had a great four days in Stockholm. Gamla Stan was definitely a highlight, with it’s old buildings, cobbled streets and cute little alleyways. Stockholm isn’t the best place to visit on a budget, so if you don’t have a lot of money to spend you won’t be going out much. Nice dinners and nightlife are not something that should be on your agenda if you need to be frugal. There are many things to do and see during the day, however. If you visit during the summer, there are lots of parks and places to enjoy a picnic in the evenings and the sun doesn’t go down until after 10:00 PM.
If we were to return to Stockholm again, I would like to explore the Stockholm Archipelago and take a day trip to the ancient viking town of Sigtuna to look at the ancient viking rune stones.
Stay tuned for the rest of our Scandinavian adventure in Denmark…
We left Fort Collins, Colorado at 7:00 AM to begin our trip to Pagosa Springs, our first stop on a week-long road trip around Colorado and Utah. Pagosa Springs is located in the southern part of Colorado, which was about a 5 hour drive from Denver.
It was a long drive from Fort Collins, but it was a beautiful drive. As soon as we passed Denver, we began an ascent into the Rocky Mountains, heading south.
The 4th Street Diner and Bakery was a great place to stop for lunch. Tiny and eclectic, with mis-matched tables and chairs and a wood stove for cold winter days, it was homey and welcoming. Paddy had a burger with organic beef and I had a chicken quesadilla. There were a lot of tempting pies in the case at the counter, but we decided to pass and get back on the road.
We made a final stop at Wolf Creek Pass to get a photo at the view point there. The elevation was 10,856 ft, and it made me so light-headed that I stumbled a bit getting out of the car. It was a gorgeous view.
We made it to Pagosa Springs around 3:00 PM and checked into the Healing Waters Resort and Spa. It wasn’t really a resort, more of a budget hotel with a hot springs pool, steam room and sauna. It was clean and comfortable, and while I’m sure their pool was nice we were actually staying there because it was an affordable option next to the main hot springs.
The small town of Pagosa Springs is centered around the developed hot springs resort on the river, with several hot springs pools at various temperatures. They are open until 11:00 PM daily, so we planned on spending the evening soaking our troubles away.
We walked through the town and poked about in a few shops. We eventually made it up the main street to Riff Raff Brewing, and decided to relax and sample the local beer.
The beer at Riff Raff was tasty and diverse. I did a sampler with the English Pale, the El Duende Green Chili Ale, the Stepchild American Red, and the Plebian Porter. The El Duende was tasty but I expected a bit more green chili flavor. The Skallywag English Pale and the Plebian Porter were my two favorites. The Stepchild Red was a bit too hoppy for me, I’m not a huge fan of hoppy beers.
Pagosa Springs is at a fairly high elevation at just over 7,000 ft (pretty high-especially for us sea-level dwellers). Alcohol effects everyone a bit more at high elevations, and after the beer sampler I was quite buzzed. We stayed for dinner, and the food was excellent. Paddy tried the yak burger, which he really enjoyed. Riff Raff makes their own pickles, which were delicious.
After dinner, we were ready for the hot springs. It was $30 per person for admittance, which was a little expensive but included a towel and a locker. They have an adults-only terrace with drink service which was very tempting but would have been $23 extra dollars each just to be able to use it. We couldn’t justify that kind of price. I tried to bargain with the guy at the counter, it being a Tuesday evening and all, but no dice.
The hot springs had a large pool (mostly used by children and families), and a series of small pools at a range of different temperatures from 92 to 111 degrees Fahrenheit. We found that we were most comfortable between 90 to 100 degrees. I tried to go in the Paradise pool at 109 degrees, but it was so painfully hot that I didn’t get past ankle deep.
Our favorite pools were Boulder, Aspen, and Serendipity. Serendipity had a waterfall and a good overlook for the river and the rest of the resort. The waterfall was a good shoulder massage. The adults only terrace didn’t seem like such a big deal, as all the kids seemed to be in the big pool and not the regular hot spring tubs. We were glad we hadn’t shelled out an extra $46.00.
There was a Canteen in the center of the pool complex where you could buy drinks and snacks, including beer and wine. We only got one drink each, we figured that high elevation and hot springs and alcohol probably weren’t a great combo. Drinks weren’t too overpriced.
We stayed and soaked our sore muscles until the stars came out. We were able to find a quiet pool that wasn’t too hot with just a couple other people in it. Most of the kids were up at the big pool so we were able to enjoy the stars and the moon without much disruption.
We would recommend Pagosa Springs as an overnight stop on a road trip. I’m sure it is great in the winter as well. There isn’t a whole lot to do in the town itself, but Mesa Verde National Park (our next destination) is pretty close by. This would be a great town to use as a base for exploring Mesa Verde, which would take two days to fully explore if you want to hike to multiple cliff dwellings. When you come back in the evening, you can soak your sore hiking muscles in the hot springs.
Tulum, Mexico: Three days on the most beautiful stretch of beach we’ve seen in all our world travels.
This was our second trip to Tulum. Our first trip was back in 2009. We stayed in a little bungalow a the end of the Boca Paila beach road next to the Sian Ka’an Biosphere. There was only electricity from a generator after 5:00 PM, and our Argentinian host cooked delicious yet simple BBQ dinners in the evenings. The powdered-sugar beach was amazing, and we often had it all to ourselves. Far (but not too far) from the maddening tourist crowds and all-inclusive resorts of Cancun and Playa Del Carmen, Tulum felt like an undiscovered, sleepy paradise.
Needless to say, we’d been longing to go back. The two drawbacks to our first trip to Tulum were the time of year (September was WAY too hot for our taste, although we did enjoy the lack of crowds), and our bungalow at the end of the Boca Paila road was nice and remote, but if we needed to go to town we had to hire a taxi to take us the seven miles into town, which was expensive if we wanted to go to town frequently.
This trip, we went with a couple friends of ours during peak season in March, and stayed on the north end of the Boca Paila road closer to town. I had done a little research on the hotels along the beach road, and there were sections in the middle that were fairly rocky without a really nice sandy beach. It looked like the best beach stretches were on the north and south ends. (Tip–to see what kind of beach a hotel has, use the Google Maps satellite feature to see the coast from above).
We opted to stay at La Vita e Bella, which was a bit more money than we wanted to spend but looked like it had a great beach.
When we arrived at Hotel La Vita e Bella in Tulum at 12:30, we were told that our room wouldn’t be ready until 3:00 but that we could leave our bags at the front desk luggage storage until then. Our friends Heather and Stephen had arrived a couple days prior and Heather met us in the beach bar and we took a taxi into town (Tulum Pueblo) for lunch. Unfortunately, Stephen had made the mistake of drinking some tamarind water from a taco truck on Isla Holbox, and had been pretty sick for their first two days.
**Pro tip: stick to bottled drinks only.
The Tulum Pueblo is a few miles from the hotels along the Boca Paila beach road, and a taxi or car is necessary to get to and from. The hotels and restaurants in the pueblo are much less expensive than the ones on the beach. That being said, the beach is the best beach we’ve ever been to in all our travels, and the extra money to stay on the beach is worth it. The sand is a soft, powdered sugar texture with no rocks or coral in the water in many places, and the water is electric blue.
In the Tulum Pueblo, we had lunch at La Barracuda, a great little local seafood restaurant on the far end of the main drag. Lunch came with complimentary chips and a tiny cup of a brothy crab soup. We had fish, shrimp, and octopus tacos and they were all outstanding. Prices were excellent—if you are in town looking for food, this place is worth the trek down to the end of the main street.
When we arrived back to check into our room at La Vita e Bella, the girl working at the desk showed us to a very tiny bungalow near the public bathrooms with a view of the bushes in front of the restaurant, just steps from the front desk. Pretty much the shittiest mid-range bungalow they had.
We had booked a “junior suite,” which was described as being large with a large private deck. I went back and asked the front desk girl and she told me that the tiny bungalow was the same price as the junior suite (not sure what that was supposed to mean). She then said that she might have another room available if we would like to look at it. I said that we would.
We were then shown to a room that was exactly the description of what we booked, on the top floor of a four unit building. It had an ocean view, a large balcony with a hammock, and was very private. We opted to move.
We were a bit annoyed that we weren’t put in this room to begin with. Heather had been taking care of Stephen while he was sick the last two days, and wasn’t so impressed with the front desk service. The front desk staff seemed unwelcoming and indifferent, more content to play around on Facebook on the computer than assist guests. Heather did say that the restaurant staff was very helpful and accommodating, however.
We spent the afternoon relaxing at the beach and in the hammock on our deck. It was pretty windy and the snorkel tour we had booked at Akumal the next day was cancelled. I was still recovering from my cold and we were sort of relieved to spend the rest of our last two days relaxing before flying home.
For dinner, Heather, Paddy, and I went down the road a short ways and across the street to Kitchen Table, a restaurant that pops up every night with a wood fired stove, coolers, and a grill to serve fresh food for dinner. The only light is from candles and a few solar powered lights in the kitchen and bar. We had some appetizers and cocktails, and they were outstanding. We knew Stephen would want to come here (he was back at the room trying to keep down some rice and beans) so we made a reservation for dinner on our last night. Note: Kitchen Table is cash only.
**Tip: When eating at restaurants on the jungle side of the beach road, wear LOTS of bug spray with DEET. The mosquitos are particularly bad after dusk.
Since our snorkel tour was canceled due to strong winds, we decided to have a lazy day. Heather and Stephen (who was finally feeling better after his bout with tamarind tap water) had gone to Chichen Itza for the day with Eduardo from MyCancunTransportation.com. We had been to Chichen Itza on our previous visit, and we highly recommend it. We do recommend getting there right when they open in the morning, however as all the tour buses start showing up at about 10:30-11:00 AM. They said that Eduarado charged them about $200 USD for being their personal driver/tour guide for the day, and he was great. The drive to Chichen Itza from Tulum is about 2.5 hours each way, and they went at their own pace and made stops in Valladolid and at the Gran Cenote as well. Considering that a ticket on a tour bus is about $80-$115 per person, it was a great deal for them. They enthusiastically recommend Eduardo and said that he was a great guide.
Breakfast is complimentary at La Vita e Bella, and has a choice of a Mexican style breakfast, an American style breakfast, a “natural” style breakfast with yogurt, fruit, and granola, or a continental breakfast with fruit and croissants. We opted for the Mexican style breakfast, which was scrambled eggs with salsa, beans, tortillas, and rice.
We spent the day reading, relaxing, and walking on the beach.
That afternoon we went to the beach bar in front of the restaurant and sat down in some beach chairs. A staff member came by and asked us what our room number was. We told him 23, and were told that our beach chairs and palapa umbrella were further down away from the restaurant. (It would have been nice to be told that we had our own beach chairs, or anything about the way the beach restaurant/bar operated when we checked in…but that is the fabulous front desk service for you). We asked if we could sit in front of the restaurant as we wanted to order food and drinks and the waiter decided that it was okay that we sat there. I read the sign in front of the restaurant a little later and saw that they charge people 150 pesos to sit at the beach chair, intended for people who are visiting Tulum for the day and want a beach club to hang out at. There were a lot of beach chairs open, and for what they charge for the rooms there, we should be able to sit wherever the hell we want. But I digress…
We ordered some beers and pizzas for lunch, but we weren’t allowed to eat the pizza on the beach, and the restaurant service was separate from the beach service, so there was some confusion at the end when we asked for our bill for the two 7-Ups we drank on the beach and the two beers and two pizzas we ate in the restaurant. It was a little annoying.
That evening we met back up with Heather and Stephen and decided to check out the bars and restaurants further down the beach road. We were easily able to get a taxi upon walking out to the road, and found a little hub of restaurants, shops and bars about two miles down. We were a bit blown away by how developed the beach road had gotten. We remember it being just a gravel road with barely anything on it besides palm-shaded little driveways to little beach hotels back in 2009. Now it was paved for quite a ways and pretty built up. Paddy and I took a walk down the road a little ways while Heather and Stephen went to Mateo’s Mexican Grill for a drink.
We walked down to a rocky section of coast where some locals were fishing in the water. There was a group of seagulls and pelicans following them everywhere begging for fish.
One thing we noticed in this section of the Boca Paila road was an abundance of stand-alone ATMs, all dispensing US dollars. It was pretty perplexing—why not pesos? Are the shops and restaurants trying to cater to the average American tourists who find it too difficult to deal with pesos? Or is it because the peso has fallen recently and they want to accept the stronger dollar as currency to exchange for a better rate later? I tend to suspect the latter, since most of the shops and restaurants offer a poor exchange rate of 14 pesos to the dollar (vs the current rate of 18 pesos to the dollar if you withdraw pesos from a regular ATM).
When we arrived back to Mateo’s Mexican Grill, Heather and Stephen were just then getting the beers they ordered 15 minutes ago. The bar wasn’t that busy yet, so the slow service was a little odd. We ordered beers and were considering ordering food for dinner, but after our beers took 20 minutes and we began to get eaten alive by mosquitos, we decided just to ask for the check. It was a shame, because the ambiance at Mateo’s is pretty nice, despite the mosquitos.
Across the street and a bit north of Mateo’s is a little tapas restaurant called Mi Vida Tapas. Paddy and I love Spanish tapas, and it was on the beach side of the road so no mosquitos. We were seated in a little greenhouse type structure on the beach, which was very nicely decorated and lit by candlelight. The glass windows blocked the beach wind. We were the only people eating there and had the place to ourselves.
The food and service were phenomenal. I had the Pulpo y Garbanzos (octopus with mashed chickpeas, garlic, and olive oil), and the Atun Sashimi (seared ahi tuna with tamarind sauce and mashed potatoes). Everyone else had the Mini Brochetas (filet mignon bites), and the Tagliata Pequeña de Res (small beef tenderloin with polenta, parmesean, arugula, and truffle oil), and a few others I can’t remember. Everyone was very happy with what they ordered. For dessert I tried the Chocolate Salami, because I can’t see something called “chocolate salami” on a menu without finding out what the hell that is. It turned out to be a roll of chocolate ganache with little rice crispies in it, sliced to look like slices of salami. A bit comical, but delicious.
After dinner we flagged down a taxi back to our hotel and had a few drinks at the hotel bar before going to bed.
We wanted to spend our last day enjoying the gorgeous Tulum beach, and that we did. We woke early enough to catch the sunrise at 7:00 on the beach, then went back to bed for a while, and then had a lazy morning reading and relaxing.
In late morning, we spent about an hour and a half in Tulum Pueblo (the main part of town) shopping for souvenirs. There are lots of great shops to explore. Be sure to negotiate, the vendors will always give you a really high price at first. It helps to bargain the price down if you are buying several things from one store, and it also helps if you speak a little Spanish.
In the afternoon the wind died down considerably and we enjoyed a great time at the beach. The waves were still pretty big and a lot of fun to body surf in. Mostly, we just spent time getting knocked around by the waves, which is actually a pretty good workout. It was a good last day in Mexico.
We had our last dinner at Kitchen Table, and I think it was the best dinner we had on our whole trip. If you make it to Tulum, don’t miss Kitchen Table. I had the Deviled Avocado and the Pan Roasted Octopus with sweet potatoes and caramelized onions, which was the best octopus I’ve ever had. It even trumped the octopus I had the first night in Cancun, which was hard to top. Everything was outstanding and you can tell that the chefs at Kitchen Table really love what they do.