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Adventures in Home Improvement: Installing Vinyl Plank Flooring

Adventures in Home Improvement: Installing Vinyl Plank Flooring. Re-flooring our basement with “luxury vinyl” Drop & Done plank flooring turned out to be an easy, durable, and aesthetically pleasing solution.

 

Vinyl flooring has a bad rep. When most people hear “vinyl flooring,” they think of kitchen sheet vinyl circa 1991. Vinyl flooring has come a long way since the 80’s and 90’s kitchens we remember. Our adventure installing vinyl plank flooring in our basement went well and turned out better than we had originally envisioned.

The basement of our house was mostly covered in two different kinds of carpeting: white and stained carpet, and old, ugly wine-colored carpet. We decided when we bought the house that we would re-do the floors as soon as we could, and after successfully installing laminate wood flooring in our attic, we figured we’d do that again in the basement as soon as we had time and money.

When we were finally ready, a friend of ours who is a contractor took a look at our basement sub floor and recommended that we do vinyl instead. Our basement has a two inch wood sub floor “bump up” on top of the concrete foundation, and the sub floor is not as level as it should be in some areas. There is also the chance that future moisture issues (common in basements) could require us to pull up and repair the sub floor in the future. He said that if we did wood laminate flooring, we’d end up having to tear it all up again in a few years. Vinyl was more resilient, flexible, and often less expensive.

To read about our experience installing wood laminate flooring in our attic, click here

We looked at the scant selection of sheet vinyls at Lowe’s and Home Depot, which was disappointing. Most of the flooring at both big box stores was only sold online, so we couldn’t look at it in person. Not to mention that the employees there don’t know much about flooring and weren’t very helpful.

Our search finally led us to Great Floors, and the sales rep did an excellent job of selling us on one of their new products, XL Flooring Drop & Done vinyl plank flooring. To be honest, the product really sold itself. We were standing on a nice wood-look vinyl floor near the front entry to the store, and the sales rep bent down and pulled up one of the planks, then laid it back down again. There was no visual indication on the flooring that pulling up a plank would be possible. It still looked tight and finished.

installing vinyl plank flooring
XL Flooring Drop & Done vinyl plank flooring. Image from http://xlflooring.ca

The vinyl plank flooring is called “Drop & Done” flooring, because it is essentially just that–lay it on the floor, fit it together, and it’s installed. Adhesive is only required for the perimeters of the room, and after that it is installed using the “tight fit” method of fitting the planks together as tightly as possible.

The price of $3.49/square foot was a bit more than we had originally budgeted for, but the easy installation, variety of styles of beautiful wood-look planks, and the ability to tear it up in the future and lay it back down if we needed to make any sub floor repairs had us sold.

The first step in installing vinyl plank flooring in our basement was to remove the old carpet, tack strips, and all the little staples out of the sub flooring. Whoever installed the carpet was a bit overzealous with the staple gun, and Paddy repeatedly shouted out expletives while painstakingly prying up all of the staples. This was by and far the worst part.

Installing vinyl plank flooring
Installing vinyl plank flooring: Paddy prying out all the carpet staples, and swearing up a storm.

**Tip: We highly recommend getting a pair of knee pads for installing vinyl plank flooring or any other type of flooring. You’re going to be spending a lot of time on your knees on a hard surface.

Once the sub floor was clean of staples and debris, we opted to start with the back room area of our basement. I read the instructions on the XL Flooring website. We had ordered one of their recommended pressure-sensitive vinyl flooring adhesives on Amazon (Home Depot and Lowe’s didn’t carry it). It said to spread the adhesive around the perimeter in a 6-9″ wide strip using a 3/32 x 3/32 U notch trowel or paint roller.

**Note: The XL Flooring company recommends that the room you are installing in be heated to room temperature at least 24 hours before and after installation. If you are installing in a room that  you don’t heat regularly, be sure to bring it up to temperature the day before. The vinyl expands and contracts with temperature fluctuation, so temperature is important for proper fit during installation. You also want your flooring to be stored in the room you are going to install it in for 24 hours or more prior to installation, to give it time to acclimate to its new environment. 

Installing vinyl plank flooring
Installing vinyl plank flooring: Boxes of XL Flooring Drop & Done vinyl planks
Installing vinyl plank flooring
Installing vinyl plank flooring: Henry 640 pressure-sensitive adhesive

We opted for the trowel method. The U trowel they recommended was sold out at the hardware store, so we got a 1/8 V-notch trowel instead. We spread the adhesive around the perimeter of the room with the trowel, trying to keep it as thin and even as possible. Then we followed the instructions on the XL Flooring installation guide and waited 45 minutes for it to “flash off,” or dry to the point where it doesn’t transfer to your finger when touched.

Installing vinyl plank flooring
Installing vinyl plank flooring: spreading pressure-sensitive adhesive with a trowel around the perimeter of the room
Installing vinyl plank flooring
Installing vinyl plank flooring

While waiting for the adhesive to flash off/dry, XL Flooring suggested taking flooring planks out of the box and letting them adjust to being out of the packaging.

Installing vinyl plank flooring
Installing vinyl plank flooring–letting the planks “breathe” before installation

We waited 45 minutes, and then went back down to check on our adhesive. It was as wet as it was when I applied it. We decided to give it some more time, and watch videos about installing vinyl plank flooring in the meantime.

We came across this video on YouTube, which informed us that adhesive can take one to two hours to flash off. They used the paint roller method, and did a lot more floor prep than we did. They also had a handy-dandy vinyl plank cutter that made it look super easy. We didn’t have such a wonderful and magical contraption, we were going to go the utility knife route.

Two hours later, the adhesive was still wet. I came to the conclusion that I had applied it too thick, and scraped off excess adhesive with a clean, stiff piece of cardboard.

Another hour later, the adhesive was getting there but I had to resort to helping it along with a hair dryer. We decided that the paint roller method of adhesive application is the better way to go.

Finally, it was ready to go. We began laying the planks tight along the wall, cutting the last plank to size with the cut edge against the wall.

Installing vinyl plank flooring
Installing vinyl plank flooring
Installing vinyl plank flooring
Installing vinyl plank flooring–you can cut with a utility knife. Always place the cut edge side against the wall.
Installing vinyl plank flooring
Installing vinyl plank flooring

On the next row of planks, start at the same end that you finished on with the last row. This will help stagger the joints for more strength and a better appearance for the floor.

Installing vinyl plank flooring
Installing vinyl plank flooring
Installing vinyl plank flooring
Installing vinyl plank flooring

Even though the actual laying of the flooring was easier than laminate flooring that you have to click together in a single row and tap into place, the cutting with a utility knife ended up being pretty cumbersome. The last row was the most difficult, as Paddy had to cut the planks lengthwise to fit into the last narrow space.

Installing vinyl plank flooring
Installing vinyl plank flooring–first finished room

Overall, the 8.5 ft x 11 ft room took three hours to complete. Paddy vowed that we needed to find a vinyl plank cutter like they had in the instructional video.

Not wanting to buy a tool that we would only want to use once, we went to the West Seattle Tool Library to see if they had one we could loan out. We brought a drop end of one of the planks with us to see what they might suggest.

The West Seattle Tool Library didn’t have a vinyl tile cutter, but they looked at our plank and said that we could just use a miter saw. We are a bit green when it comes to power tools, but we had invested in a miter saw a couple years back, and were happy to know that the planks were okay to use with it.

 

Installing vinyl plank flooring in the first room was a learning experience, and now we were a bit more prepared for the main part of our basement.

We bought a low-pile paint roll cover and rolled the adhesive in a much thinner application around the perimeter of the room. it was L-shaped, so we did an adhesive strip down the intersection of the room as well. The paint roller method was much easier and provided a much thinner and more even application of the adhesive.

Installing vinyl plank flooring
Installing vinyl plank flooring: Applying the pressure-sensitive adhesive with a paint roller was much easier than with the trowel
Installing vinyl plank flooring
Installing vinyl plank flooring: Adhesive around the perimeter and down the middle of the room, using the paint roller method

We applied the adhesive a bit thicker around the fireplace edge of the sub floor, as there was no wall for it to press up against. We thought we would need to wait a couple hours again for it to flash off, but within an hour it was ready. The adhesive dries clear/yellowish, so you will start to see the white disappear as the adhesive dries to the point where it is ready to lay flooring on.

This time, with the saw set up, the process went a bit faster. It was still a lot of work. A lot of bending and squatting, getting up and down again. We were sorer at the end of the day than we expected.

Also, I know these photos are all of Paddy working, but I was helping too, I swear!

Installing vinyl plank flooring
Installing vinyl plank flooring
Installing vinyl plank flooring
Installing vinyl plank flooring

We ran into a couple tricky spots around the fireplace and door frames, but were able to cut a few funky pieces to fit with the utility knife.

Installing vinyl plank flooring
Installing vinyl plank flooring
Installing vinyl plank flooring
Installing vinyl plank flooring: tricky spots around door frames require extra utility knife cuts to fit.

Finally, we had a new floor. We are extremely happy with it.

Installing vinyl plank flooring
Installing vinyl plank flooring
Installing vinyl plank flooring
Installing vinyl plank flooring: Finished Tiki bar!

 

**Note: XL Flooring recommends not putting any furniture back onto the new flooring for 24 hours after installation, to give the flooring time to adjust. 

To add the finishing touch to our new floor floor, we bought a matching piece of Versatrim trim strip (also sold at Great Floors) to transition between the new vinyl plank flooring, and the sheet vinyl in the other part of our basement. It was fairly easy to install, just cut to size, screw the metal track into the floor, and snap the top trim piece into the track. Once you’re sure it’s snapped into the metal track, lightly pound it with a rubber mallet to secure.

Installing vinyl plank flooring
Installing the trim strip transition piece between the two types of flooring
Installing vinyl plank flooring
Installing the trim strip transition piece between the two types of flooring
Installing vinyl plank flooring
Installing the trim strip transition piece between the two types of flooring

With the main parts of our basement floor finished, we just had one last room to do: our storage room. We figured that we were pros by this point, and it would be a cinch.

Then we pulled up the carpet in the storage room and found the worst sub floor job ever.

http://www.versatrim.com/
Unfortunate sub floor situation

There was a gap down the middle of the floor that someone had screwed random pieces of wood into, and one half of the floor was about 0.25″ lower than the other half of the floor.

We consulted the great Facebook hive mind, and floor leveling compound was suggested by a few friends.

installing vinyl plank flooring
Floor leveling compound to fix the sub floor gap

The floor leveling compound was kind of like spackle for floors. We really didn’t know what we were doing, and we probably didn’t do the most professional job. But we filled in the gaps and created a sort of slope between the two different thicknesses of sub floor. The flooring compound dries FAST. The instructions said not to mix more than you can use in 15 minutes, but I’d almost say don’t mix more than you can use in 10 minutes. It wasn’t a very easy substance to work with.

We finished the storage room flooring, and there is still a part where there is a ridge that you can feel when you step on it. At this point, we decided that it was a low-traffic storage room and we just wanted to be done with it. Had this been a main room, we would have probably tried to fix the sub floor or level it out better. We were thankful that we went with flexible vinyl flooring as opposed to laminate, which is not flexible and requires a completely flat surface.

Overall we are super happy with our new floors and would absolutely recommend the XL Drop & Done vinyl plank flooring. It feels durable, comes with a lifetime guarantee (haven’t read the fine print on that yet), and was easier to install than laminate. It does come with a higher price tag, but it was worth it. Installing vinyl plank flooring is a good DIY home project. No need to hire someone.

Summer Road Trip 2016: Colorado and Utah

Our end of summer one-week road trip around Colorado and Utah: Rocky Mountains, hot springs, ancient Native American ruins, canyons and arches.

 

Our week-long road trip adventure through Colorado and Utah began as a plan to visit some of my family in Fort Collins, Colorado over Labor Day Weekend. Neither of us had ever been to Colorado, so we decided to rent a car and make a road trip out of it the week following.

In addition to Colorado, we decided to incorporate Utah into our road trip as well. When I graduated college back in 2004, one of my best friends and I went on a three-week road trip around Southwest USA. It was an amazing trip, and two of the places that I really wanted to go back to with Paddy were Arches National Park in Utah and Monument Valley in Utah/Arizona.

Days 1-3:

We arrived in Denver mid-morning on Saturday, an easy two and a half our flight from Seattle. We had reserved a car with Enterprise through Kayak.com, which we were able to pick up and return back to the airport. We chose Enterprise over the slightly less expensive Budget car rental because Enterprise does not charge for an extra driver if the two drivers are married. Budget wanted to charge an additional $20.00 per day if we both wanted to be drivers.

**Note: Always reserve a rental car ahead of time, especially on busy holiday weekends. I saw a gentleman turned away at the counter at Enterprise, as they weren’t accepting walk-ins for the holiday weekend. In addition, you often get a better rate if you reserve far in advance.

My parents joined us for the weekend as well, and the first three days were mostly spent visiting with my family. Paddy and I were staying with my cousin and her fiance in Severance, CO just outside of Fort Collins.

Our biggest adventure on Saturday was eating Rocky Mountain oysters with my cousin at Bruce’s Bar in Severance. Bruce’s is known for its “oysters,” and their sampler platter included buffalo, beef, and lamb oysters, cut in strips, breaded and deep-fried. They are all served with cocktail sauce.

Paddy and I are adventurous eaters, and they didn’t look that intimidating, so we dove right in.

Rocky Mountain oysters at Bruce's Bar in Severance, CO: Buffalo, lamb, and beef
Rocky Mountain oysters at Bruce’s Bar in Severance, CO: Buffalo, lamb, and beef
Rocky Mountain oysters at Bruce's Bar in Severance, CO
Rocky Mountain oysters at Bruce’s Bar in Severance, CO

The lamb oysters were our favorite. I didn’t try the beef ones because I don’t like beef, but Paddy said those were his least favorite as they were a bit tough. I liked the lamb ones. They kind of tasted like chicken nuggets.

 

On Sunday Paddy, my Mom, and I took a drive up to Estes Park in hopes of visiting the Rocky Mountain National Park and the Stanley Hotel. It was a really pretty drive into the Rocky Mountains, and only an hour long road trip to get to Estes Park from Fort Collins.

Road to Estes Park in the Rocky Mountains
Road to Estes Park in the Rocky Mountains

We were hungry when we arrived in Estes Park, so we had lunch at a mediocre Mexican restaurant off the highway and then headed to the Stanley Hotel.

The Stanley Hotel gets its fame by being the hotel that inspired Stephen King to write The Shining in 1977. He and his wife stayed there for a night in room 217. They were the only guests at the hotel that night, as the hotel was getting ready to close for the season. Contrary to popular belief, The Shining was not actually filmed at The Stanley Hotel. The exterior aerial shots of the Overlook Hotel in the movie are actually of the Timberline Lodge at Mt Hood, Oregon. The hotel interior shots in the film were a set.

However, the Stanley Hotel was a creepy inspiration to Stephen King, and is rumored to be haunted. You can request the Stephen King suite (room 217) or a “haunted room” if you wish, but the haunted rooms book up fast. Tours of the hotel also book up in advance, as we learned when we arrived.

We were able to walk around the lobby and peek into some of the event rooms on the main floor, and there were some more historical exhibits downstairs. There is a gift shop with souvenirs from The Shining if you feel so inclined. We now own a Redrum coffee mug.

The Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado
The Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado
The Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado
The Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado

It turned out that Labor Day weekend was the wrong weekend to try to go to the Rocky Mountain National Park. Traffic towards the park was bumper to bumper, so we decided to skip it. Before heading back to Fort Collins, we thought we might try to check out the downtown area of Estes Park. This was also a bad idea. There wasn’t one parking space left in town, and traffic was so bad it took us 20 minutes just to get back to the road. It’s a small town. Estes Park looked like a cute town to visit, but I would recommend visiting in the off-season.

rainbow severance co
Rainbow on Paddy’s birthday–good luck?

Sunday was also Paddy’s birthday, so later that evening my cousin took us to downtown Fort Collins to celebrate.

The first place we went was the oldest bar in Fort Collins, The Town Pump. Built in 1909, The Town Pump is small and cozy with a full bar and a good local beer selection (Fort Collins is all about craft beer). It was a good spot to start the night.

The Town Pump bar in Fort Collins
The Town Pump bar in Fort Collins
The Town Pump bar in Fort Collins
The Town Pump bar in Fort Collins

For dinner we headed down the block to The Crown Pub, an English style pub with good food. We shared the Prince Edward Island Mussels to start, and then Paddy had the New York Strip Steak and I had the Relleno Royale chicken burger. Everything was great including the service.

The Relleno Royale burger with a chicken breast at the Crown Pub in Fort Collins
The Relleno Royale burger with a chicken breast at the Crown Pub in Fort Collins
The New York Strip Steak at the Crown Pub in Fort Collins
The New York Strip Steak at the Crown Pub in Fort Collins

We ended the evening at the Trail Head Tavern on W Mountain Ave. My cousin told me it used to be a movie theater a long time ago, where our grandparents would go to the movies together. There is the remnants of an old theater box office to the left of the front door.

The Trail Head had cheap drinks, a college-y vibe (Fort Collins is a college town), and a casual atmosphere.

The Trailhead Tavern in Fort Collins
The Trailhead Tavern in Fort Collins

On Monday morning we had breakfast out at The Egg and I in Windsor near my cousin’s house. For a chain restaurant, the food was surprisingly good and had a lot of healthy options available in addition to classic favorites. I had the Hiker’s Benedict which was delicious.

We spent the rest of the day with my family.

Hiker's Benedict at The Egg and I in Windsor, Colorado
Hiker’s Benedict at The Egg and I in Windsor, Colorado

Day 4: 

On Tuesday morning, we hit the road at 7:00 AM to begin our road trip. Our first destination was Pagosa Springs, in the southern part of Colorado, which was about a 6 hour drive away.

It was a long day of driving, but it was a beautiful drive. As soon as we passed Denver, we began an ascent into the Rocky Mountains, heading south.

rocky-mountain-road-trip-colorado-11

rocky-mountain-road-trip-colorado-10

rocky-mountain-road-trip-colorado-13

rocky-mountain-road-trip-colorado-4

rocky-mountain-road-trip-colorado-2

After four hours, we were ready for a lunch stop. We stopped in the tiny town of Saguache at the Saguache 4th Street Diner and Bakery.

Saguache 4th Street Diner and Bakery
Saguache 4th Street Diner and Bakery
Saguache Colorado
Saguache main street, Colorado
Saguache 4th Street Diner and Bakery
Saguache 4th Street Diner and Bakery

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.

Wolf Creek Pass, Colorado
Wolf Creek Pass, Colorado

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.

Healing Waters Resort and Spa, Pagosa Springs
Healing Waters Resort and Spa, Pagosa 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.

Pagosa Hot Springs, Colorado
Pagosa Hot Springs, Colorado

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.

Mural in Pagosa Springs, Colorado
Mural in Pagosa Springs, Colorado
Riff Raff Brewing Company, Pagosa Springs, Colorado
Riff Raff Brewing Company, Pagosa Springs, Colorado
Riff Raff Brewing Company, Pagosa Springs, Colorado
Sampler at Riff Raff Brewing Company, Pagosa Springs, Colorado: Skallywag English Pale, Ele Duende Green Chili, Stepchild American Red, and the Plebian Porter
Riff Raff Brewing Company, Pagosa Springs, Colorado
Riff Raff Brewing Company, Pagosa Springs, Colorado

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 (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.

Riff Raff Brewing Company, Pagosa Springs, Colorado
Smokey the Chicken Burger at Riff Raff Brewing Company, Pagosa Springs, Colorado
Riff Raff Brewing Company, Pagosa Springs, Colorado
Yakkity-Yak Burger at Riff Raff Brewing Company, Pagosa Springs, Colorado

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.

Pagosa Hot Springs Colorado road trip
Pagosa Hot Springs, Colorado
Pagosa Hot Springs, Colorado
Pagosa Hot Springs, Colorado
Pagosa Hot Springs, Colorado
Pagosa Hot Springs, Colorado
Pagosa Hot Springs, Colorado
Pagosa Hot Springs, Colorado
Pagosa Hot Springs, Colorado
Pagosa Hot Springs, Colorado
Pagosa Hot Springs, Colorado
Pagosa Hot Springs, Colorado
Pagosa Hot Springs, Colorado
Pagosa Hot Springs, Colorado
Pagosa Hot Springs, Colorado
Pagosa Hot Springs, Colorado
Pagosa Hot Springs, Colorado
Pagosa Hot Springs, Colorado

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.

 

Day 5: 

Aside from hot springs, we picked Pagosa Springs as a first night stop on our road trip because it was close to Mesa Verde National Park. 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.

Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado
Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado
Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado
Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado
Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado
Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado
Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado
Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

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.

Mesa Verde National Park pit houses
Mesa Verde National Park pit houses
Mesa Verde National Park pit houses
Mesa Verde National Park pit houses
Mesa Verde National Park pit houses
Mesa Verde National Park pit houses
Mesa Verde National Park pit houses
Mesa Verde National Park pit houses
Mesa Verde National Park pit houses
Mesa Verde National Park pit houses

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.

Canyon where cliff dwellings are located, Mesa Verde National Park
Canyon where cliff dwellings are located, Mesa Verde National Park
Cliff dwellings, Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado
Cliff dwellings, Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado
Cliff dwellings, Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado
Cliff dwellings, Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado
Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde National Park
Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde National Park
Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde National Park
Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde National Park

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.

Navajo taco at the Spruce Tree Terrace restaurant in Mesa Verde National Park
Navajo taco at the Spruce Tree Terrace restaurant in Mesa Verde National Park

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.

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 Monument Valley
The View Hotel Monument Valley
The View Hotel Monument Valley
The View Hotel Monument Valley

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 Monument Valley
The View Hotel Monument Valley
The View Hotel Monument Valley
The View Hotel Monument Valley
The View Hotel Monument Valley
The View Hotel Monument Valley

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 only serves hotel guests after 7:00 PM.

The View Hotel restaurant, Monument Valley
The View Hotel restaurant, Monument Valley
The View Hotel restaurant, Monument Valley
The View Hotel restaurant, Monument Valley

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.

The Navajo sampler platter: Green Chili Stew, Red Chili Pork Posole, Sheep Camp Mutton Stew
The Navajo sampler platter: Green Chili Stew, Red Chili Pork Posole, Sheep Camp Mutton Stew
Fried chicken dinner at The View Hotel restaurant
Fried chicken dinner at The View Hotel restaurant
The Navajo sampler platter: Green Chili Stew, Red Chili Pork Posole, Sheep Camp Mutton Stew, mini Navajo Taco, and Navajo fry bread with honey
The Navajo sampler platter: Green Chili Stew, Red Chili Pork Posole, Sheep Camp Mutton Stew, mini Navajo Taco, and Navajo fry bread with honey

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 can’t do it justice.

The View Hotel, Monument Valley
The View Hotel, Monument Valley
Sunset from The View Hotel Monument Valley
Sunset from The View Hotel Monument Valley
Sunset from The View Hotel Monument Valley
Sunset from The View Hotel Monument Valley
Sunset from The View Hotel Monument Valley
Sunset from The View Hotel Monument Valley
Sunset from The View Hotel Monument Valley
Sunset from The View Hotel Monument Valley

Once it was dark, the hotel showed an outdoor John Wayne movie outside the restaurant, projected onto the wall of the building.

The View Hotel Monument Valley
The View Hotel Monument Valley–outdoor John Wayne movie

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.

 

Day 6:

Sunrise over Monument Valley, seen from the balcony in our room:

Sunrise from The View Hotel, Monument Valley
Sunrise from The View Hotel, Monument Valley
Sunrise from The View Hotel, Monument Valley
Sunrise from The View Hotel, Monument Valley
Sunrise from The View Hotel, Monument Valley
Sunrise from The View Hotel, Monument Valley
Sunrise from The View Hotel, Monument Valley
Sunrise from The View Hotel, Monument Valley

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.

Navajo fry bread huevos rancheros at Goulding's Stagecoach in Monument Valley
Navajo fry bread huevos rancheros at Goulding’s Stagecoach in Monument Valley
Navajo fry bread huevos rancheros at Goulding's Stagecoach in Monument Valley
Navajo fry bread huevos rancheros at Goulding’s Stagecoach in Monument Valley

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.

Monument Valley
Monument Valley
Monument Valley
Monument Valley–classic view

Our next destination was Moab, where we planned on staying for two nights. The drive was only 2.5 hours and fairly scenic. On the way into town we passed Church Rock and Wilson Arch.

Church Rock, Utah road trip
Church Rock, Utah
Wilson Arch outside Moab, Utah
Wilson Arch outside Moab, Utah

We checked into the Inca Inn, a budget hotel that prides itself on “budget done right.” I’d have to say that we agree. The rooms are small but very clean, beds comfy, the towels weren’t sandpaper, there was a minimal complimentary continental breakfast and Starbucks coffee provided, and a small swimming pool. In addition, they care about the environment. The roof was lined with solar panels and there were prominent recycling bins in the parking lot. Rooms also include fridges and microwaves.

inca-inn-moab-utah-1

The Inca Inn, Moab Utah
The Inca Inn, Moab Utah
The Inca Inn, Moab Utah
The Inca Inn, Moab Utah

The bonus we discovered in our room the following morning: Disco shower.

Color-changing disco shower head at the Inca Inn in Moab Utah
Color-changing disco shower head at the Inca Inn in Moab Utah

We checked into the hotel and then walked around town a bit. Moab was HOT. It was in the 90’s, and although it was a dry heat the sun beat down on us.

Moab is a liberal, youthful outdoor adventure town. It is situated on the Colorado River and in very close proximity to Arches and Canyonlands National Parks. The area is very popular with rock climbers and river rafters, and is very busy in the summer. Be sure to make your hotel reservations in advance for the summer season.

Around 4:30 we took an air-conditioned drive through Arches National Park. Arches was my favorite National Park that my friend and I visited on our road trip in 2004, and I’d always wanted to go back. There are some pretty cool day hikes in the park, but if you want to hike in the summer I would recommend going at dawn when it is not so hot and the crowds are less. Take lots of water with you.

Arches National Park, Utah
Arches National Park, Utah
Arches National Park, Utah
“Organ Pipes,” Arches National Park, Utah
Arches National Park, Utah
Arches National Park, Utah
Arches National Park, Utah
Arches National Park, Utah
Arches National Park, Utah
Arches National Park, Utah

The rock formations in Arches National Park are like no other I’ve seen anywhere else. The natural sandstone formations are created from wind and rain soil erosion. The park is home to the largest amount of natural rock arches in the world. Read more about how they are formed here.

Evening is a good time to drive through the park, as the low sun sets the red sandstone ablaze with orange light, creating some dramatic photo opportunities.

The most famous arch in the park is the Delicate Arch. You can see it from walking a very short trail from the parking lot, but it is pretty far away. To reach the arch, you have to hike a three mile round trip trail up the sandstone rock ledge, which can be a fairly strenuous hike–especially in high heat. We opted to just get a photo from the view point with a zoom lens and call it good.

delicate arch, Arches National Park
Delicate Arch seen from the lower view point
delicate arch, Arches National Park
Delicate Arch, Arches National Park

If you just want to drive through the park and check out the viewpoints, allow about two hours or so. Allow a half day if you want to get out and do some short hikes. Take lots of water with you and wear sunscreen.

Firey Furnace, Arches National Park, Utah
Firey Furnace, Arches National Park, Utah
Arches National Park, Utah
Arches National Park, Utah
Arches National Park, Utah
Arches National Park, Utah

When we arrived back at our hotel, we were starving. The hotel front desk guy had recommended La Hacienda Mexican restaurant right next door, so we checked it out. It was very good. Great atmosphere, nice booths, and an extensive margarita menu. The sweet barbacoa pork is highly recommended.

La Hacienda Mexican Restaurant, Moab
La Hacienda Mexican Restaurant, Moab
Burrito at La Hacienda Mexican Restaurant, Moab
Barbacoa pork burrito at La Hacienda Mexican Restaurant, Moab
Seared ahi tacos at La Hacienda Mexican Restaurant, Moab
Seared ahi tacos at La Hacienda Mexican Restaurant, Moab

 

Day 7:

Friday was our only day with no driving to a different location, so we took it easy. We started the day with some sight seeing in Canyonlands National Park. Canyonlands has two main entrances, Island in the Sky and Needles. Island in the Sky is about 30 minutes north of Moab, and Needles is about an hour south of Moab and then another 45 minutes northwest. We opted to just go to the Island in the Sky portion of the park.

Canyonlands National Park, Utah
Canyonlands National Park, Utah
Canyonlands National Park, Utah
Canyonlands National Park, Utah

There are many overlooks from the “Island,” as well as several hiking trails. We did the extremely short and extremely popular half mile round-trip hike to Mesa Arch. It is an easy hike with stunning views. You’ll have to take your turn for photos at the arch, unless you want to get there really early.

Mesa Arch hike, Canyonlands National Park, Utah
Mesa Arch hike, Canyonlands National Park, Utah
Mesa Arch hike, Canyonlands National Park, Utah
Mesa Arch hike, Canyonlands National Park, Utah
Mesa Arch hike, Canyonlands National Park, Utah
Mesa Arch hike, Canyonlands National Park, Utah
Mesa Arch hike, Canyonlands National Park, Utah
Mesa Arch hike, Canyonlands National Park, Utah

We checked out some more overlooks, and then headed back to Moab. Overall including the short Mesa Arch hike we spent about three hours there. If you have more time, you can also check out Dead Horse Point State Park on the way in or out of Island in the Sky. We opted to skip it on this trip, but I went with my friend in 2004 and it does have nice views.

Canyonlands National Park, Utah
Canyonlands National Park, Utah
Canyonlands National Park, Utah
Canyonlands National Park, Utah
Canyonlands National Park, Utah
Canyonlands National Park, Utah

Back in Moab, we ate lunch at the Moab Brewery on the south side of the main drag through town. Their beers were a little hoppy for my taste, but the salads and chicken wings were excellent. We also tried a cup each of their beer and cheese soup, but it was a lot more like cheese fondue than soup. Skip the beer cheese soup.

Moab Brewery
Moab Brewery

We spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing back at the hotel and enjoying our day of not driving. The pool didn’t have umbrellas, but at around 3:30 there was enough shade in the corner of the pool area for me to sit and enjoy myself without feeling like I was in an oven. The water was refreshing.

Relaxing by the pool at the Inca Inn
Relaxing by the pool at the Inca Inn

That evening we went for dinner at the Sunset Grill. The main reason to eat at the Sunset Grill is the view. Perched high on the cliff overlooking the north part of town, The Sunset Grill is the former home of Charlie Steen, who came to Moab in the 1950’s in search of uranium and struck it rich.

View from Sunset Grill, Moab, Utah
View from Sunset Grill, Moab, Utah
View from Sunset Grill, Moab, Utah
View from Sunset Grill, Moab, Utah

The food was decent, and the service was great. It was a bit of a splurge dinner as entrees run around $25-$32 each, but they come with a choice of soup or salad and fresh baked bread or cornbread muffins. We just had an entree each and it was more than enough food. I wouldn’t come back here just for the food, but the view and good service made the experience one we would definitely recommend.

New York Strip Steak at The Sunset Grill, Moab, Utah
New York Strip Steak at The Sunset Grill, Moab, Utah
Raspberry duck at The Sunset Grill, Moab, Utah
Raspberry duck at The Sunset Grill, Moab, Utah

 

Day 8: 

Saturday was the last day of our road trip and we had a long 6 hour drive back to Denver. We got an early morning start at 7:00 AM, and took a detour to Woody Creek for lunch.

Woody Creek is a small town near Aspen, Colorado and the home of of the late writer Hunter S Thompson. Paddy is a huge Thompson fan, and so we had to go check it out.

Hunter S Thompson had a large property called Owl Farm in Woody Creek, but we didn’t know exactly where it was. Google Maps led us down Owl Creek Road in Aspen but all we found was some nice farm scenery.

Aspen, Colorado
Aspen, Colorado
Aspen, Colorado
Aspen, Colorado

After touring the Aspen countryside, we went for lunch at Hunter’s favorite watering hole, the Woody Creek Tavern. We got there pretty soon after it opened and Hunter’s favorite corner table was available. Paddy was stoked.

Hunter's favorite table at the Woody Creek Tavern, Colorado
Hunter’s favorite table at the Woody Creek Tavern, Colorado
Woody Creek Tavern, Colorado
Woody Creek Tavern, Colorado
Woody Creek Tavern, Colorado
Woody Creek Tavern, Colorado

The food was good and the people were friendly. It seemed to be a popular lunch spot for bicycle tourists in the area.

Ralph Steadman doodle of Hunter S Thompson on the wall at Woody Creek Tavern
Ralph Steadman doodle of Hunter S Thompson on the wall at Woody Creek Tavern

After lunch, we drove the last  three and a half hours to Denver, where we were staying our last night with our friends Sean and Lillian at their apartment.

We didn’t have a whole lot of time in Denver, just enough time to get some dinner and go out for a few drinks. Sean and Lillian took us to Ace Eat Serve, an Asian fusion restaurant with house-made sodas and a room full of ping pong tables.

Ace Eat Serve restaurant in Denver, Colorado
Ace Eat Serve restaurant in Denver, Colorado

We shared the shumai and the kimchi fritters to start, which were delicious. I had the Shoyu Ramen and Paddy had the Bulgogi (Korean dish with marinated ribeye steak and kimchi). Everything was fantastic and flavorful and pretty reasonably priced. The cocktails were expensive, but that’s to be expected. They make all their own kimchi and pickles in house, and they were outstanding. I couldn’t stop picking the radish kimchi off of Paddy’s plate.

Ace Eat Serve restaurant in Denver, Colorado
Ace Eat Serve restaurant in Denver, Colorado
Ace Eat Serve restaurant in Denver, Colorado
Shoyu Ramen at Ace Eat Serve restaurant in Denver, Colorado

After dinner we walked over to Colfax Avenue, a main drag in Denver with ample nightlife. Lillian and Sean took us to the Nob Hill Inn bar for more drinks. Nob Hill has been a Denver institution since 1954, and the furniture and decor don’t look like it has changed much since then. Drinks were cheap. I think if we lived in Denver it would be a favorite spot of ours.

We ended our (not so late) evening at Charlies, a gay cowboy bar with line dancing lessons. We figured we should give line dancing a shot. It was a $5.00 cover, and the evening was young so it was not very crowded yet. A very nice and very patient line dancing instructor invited newbies in to learn the basic “Freeze,” which he said is similar to the Electric Slide disco dance of the 70’s. It kind of reminded me of basic aerobics to country music. We weren’t the most coordinated people in the group, but it was fun. Afterward the dance instructor came over to our table and gave us free drink coupons. Bonus!

Line dancing at Charlie's bar in Denver
Line dancing at Charlie’s bar in Denver
At Charlie's Cowboy Bar in Denver
At Charlie’s Cowboy Bar in Denver
Cowboy boots disco ball at Charlies in Denver
Cowboy boots disco ball at Charlies in Denver

They did some more advanced dances afterward and we were impressed with the quick-stepping talent on the floor. It looked like a lot of fun. I’d try it again.

 

Our road trip around Colorado and Utah was quick and pretty fast-paced, but it was fun. I wished we’d had more time at each place we visited. I really want to go back to Monument Valley again and spend some more time there exploring the Valley. Colorado and Utah are very different and very beautiful states, each with a lot of different things to offer. We’d love to spend more time in Denver as well.

 

Walla Walla, WA 2016: Sweet Onions and Wine

Walla Walla, Washington 2016: A quick girls’ weekend trip to Walla Walla during their annual Sweet Onion festival. Onions, great food, and wine, wine, and more wine…

 

I’d never been to Walla Walla, WA, or knew much about Walla Walla other than that it was in Eastern Washington, contained the state penitentiary, and was the home of the infamous Walla Walla sweet yellow onion.

My friend and I read that there was an annual Sweet Onion Festival every year in June, and we decided this year we’d check it out. In addition to onions, we assumed we’d be guaranteed sunshine on the east side of the Cascade Mountains (sunshine is not as frequent in Seattle in June), and we’d heard there was lots of great wine in the area and were hoping to do some wine tasting. Onions, sunshine, and wine–(three great tastes that go great together?) A girls’ trip seemed in order.

Day 1:

We left cold, rainy, Seattle at 6:30 AM to get a head start on the long drive. We were all wearing sundresses and tank tops, expecting gorgeous rays of 75 degree summer sun to blind us at any moment as we went over Snoqualmie Pass in the Cascades.

To our disappointment, the rain and 56 degree temperatures continued to follow us from Seattle. Confident that the 75 degree sunshine that the weather report promised us would appear any moment, we cranked up some disco on the stereo and sallied forth to wine and onion country.

We ran into a little snag in our route with an accident fully blocking both lanes of a highway, and had to detour which turned our 4.5 hour drive into a 5 hour drive, but it wasn’t too bad. We had snacks. We arrived in Walla Walla at 11:30 AM, and checked into the Motel 6.

Motel 6 Walla Walla
Motel 6 Walla Walla

The Motel 6 was clean, basic, and the beds were comfy. A fridge was included, which we utilized. There was a laughably small pool off of the parking lot, and a convenience store next door. The best thing about the Motel 6 however, was the location. It was right in downtown Walla Walla and in walking distance to everywhere.

**Note: Hotel reservations recommended in advance for the Onion Festival weekend.

Unfortunately, it was still rainy and not any warmer than when we left Seattle. Gretchen (who is always prepared) had brought a couple umbrellas which helped tremendously as we walked around town. We were hungry, so we scouted out somewhere for lunch.

We didn’t scout very long. Despite the umbrellas, we were unprepared in our cardigan sweaters and sundresses for rain and the light wind that seemed to be picking up. We settled on the first place that looked good, which was Wingman Birdz & Brewz.

Wingman Birdz & Brewz, Walla Walla
Wingman Birdz & Brewz, Walla Walla

The food was good and the service was friendly. I had the “Second Runner-Up Grilled Cheese” which was grilled cheese on brioche with three kinds of cheese, tomato, bacon, and avocado. It was delicious, albiet a little pricey at $12.00 for grilled cheese.

Second Runner-Up Grilled Cheese at Wingman Birdz & Brew Walla Walla
Second Runner-Up Grilled Cheese at Wingman Birdz & Brew Walla Walla

The rain and wind still weren’t letting up after lunch, so we ducked into the little Macy’s on Main Street in hopes of finding raincoats on sale. We were in luck, and found a raincoat and a hooded sweatshirt for $15 -$20 each in the deep discount section. Macy’s is a pricey store, but when they have a sale, they have a SALE.

The locals kept remarking on how unusual the weather was, and lamenting about the poor Onion Festival that was getting rained out. We passed the small corridor of vendor tents comprising the festival on our walk, but just didn’t feel like being in the rain. It didn’t look like we were the only ones, there weren’t a lot of people milling around at the festival.

We explored a couple antique shops, and a great little soap and body care shop on Main Street called Midnight Oil Soap and Apothecary. The very creative and fun soaps and personal care products are all made by the owner Kim on her farm outside of town, many made from goat milk from her own goats. I was enticed by some glittery cucumber melon body butter, which I regretted not purchasing then as we discovered the next day that she was closed on Sundays. Fortunately, she sells her products online as well. If you’re looking for a gift for someone, this is a great place to shop.

midnight oil wine soap walla walla
Image from http://midnight-oil-soap-apothecaary.myshopify.com/
The Hot Poop record store, Walla Walla
The Hot Poop record store, Walla Walla

The rain still wasn’t letting up, (despite the weather reports on our phones still proclaiming 73 and sunny weather for the afternoon) so we decided it was time to start wine tasting. We ducked into the first tasting room we encountered, which was the Mark Ryan Winery.

Mark Ryan winery tasting room, Walla Walla
Mark Ryan winery tasting room, Walla Walla

We tasted several wines, some with names that led me to believe that Mr. Ryan is an avid Pearl Jam fan (“Crazy Mary” and “The Dissident” for example). The tasting room had nice atmosphere and a very friendly host who came around to pour the wines for us while we sat by the window. We did find the $10 tasting fee to be a little steep here, but it is waived if you buy a bottle.

Mark Ryan winery tasting room, Walla Walla
Mark Ryan winery tasting room, Walla Walla
Mark Ryan winery tasting room, Walla Walla
Mark Ryan winery tasting room, Walla Walla

The Dissident was our favorite wine that we tasted, a hearty red blend of cabernet, cabernet franc, merlot, and petit verdot.

Mark Ryan winery tasting room, Walla Walla
Mark Ryan winery tasting room, Walla Walla

Walla Walla has 25+ tasting rooms in the downtown area, which is actually a little overwhelming. We decided to ask our friendly host where she recommended we head to next, and she recommended the Rotie Cellars tasting room across the street.

The Rotie Cellars tasting room felt like a law office waiting room, pretty bland with not much character. The wines were quite the opposite, however. We loved them all, but the Southern White was my favorite. A very summery, fruity and refreshing wine for a hot summer day. The name and flavor made me want to go sit on a big porch in Georgia, eating peaches and drinking this wine on a hot, sticky, southern summer night.

There weren’t a lot of wines to taste (I think we tasted 4?) but they were all very nice. Tasting fee was $5.00.

Rotie Winery tasting room Walla Walla
Rotie Winery tasting room Walla Walla

We asked our friendly wine server at Rotie where he recommended going next, and he directed us over to 2nd Avenue just off of Main Street where there were a few of his favorites.

We found Spring Valley Vineyard, which our Rotie server highly recommended. This tasting room proved to be our favorite one hands down.

Spring Valley Vineyard tasting room, Walla Walla
Spring Valley Vineyard tasting room, Walla Walla

In addition to fabulous wines, Spring Valley is a family run vineyard with a lot of family history going back to the 1890’s. The service was excellent, with a dose of the family history to go along with it. I don’t know what the tasting fee was because we all bought wine here (it was waived with purchase, whatever it was), but if it is $10.00 it is worth it. They invite you to try all six of their wines, each one proudly named after a member of their family. You can taste the love in each sip.

In addition to delicious wine and excellent hospitality, we were served a chocolate truffle with our last wine–a Syrah named Nina Lee. The truffle was infused with the Nina Lee Syrah as well. That is the wine I went home with, along with a little two pack of the truffles to share with Paddy later.

Spring Valley Vineyard tasting room, Walla Walla
Spring Valley Vineyard tasting room, Walla Walla
Spring Valley Vineyard tasting room, Walla Walla
Spring Valley Vineyard tasting room, Walla Walla
Wine tasting at Spring Valley tasting room, Walla Walla
Wine tasting at Spring Valley tasting room, Walla Walla

When we left Spring Valley, we were significantly buzzed but couldn’t resist one more tasting room next door at Maison Bleue, another family-run winery with extensive vineyards in the Walla Walla area and two in the Columbia Valley.

Maison Bleue Winery Walla Walla
Maison Bleue Winery Walla Walla
Maison Bleue tasting room Walla Walla
Maison Bleue tasting room Walla Walla
Maison Bleue tasting room Walla Walla
Maison Bleue tasting room Walla Walla

At Maison Bleue we tasted four reds and two whites, including two different Chardonnays. The first Chardonnay was aged in stainless steel, the second was aged in a traditional oak barrel. I’m not a fan of oakey Chardonnay, but the stainless steel aged chardonnay was very nice. The Syrah was my favorite red, but I’m a little partial to Syrah.

When we left Maison Bleue– low and behold–the sun was finally out. A little drunk, we walked back to the hotel to lay in the sun near the tiny parking lot swimming pool. One of us may or may not have fallen into the pool fully clothed. The sun was nice. Eventually we were joined by children doing cannonballs, so we retired to the room to take naps before dinner.

Lounging by the Motel 6 pool, Walla Walla
Lounging by the Motel 6 pool, Walla Walla
Lounging by the Motel 6 pool, Walla Walla
Lounging by the Motel 6 pool, Walla Walla

 

For dinner we had made an 8:00 PM reservation at The Ox & Cart at the recommendation of the wonderful people at Spring Valley Winery. We’d had visions of enjoying more lovely Walla Walla wine with a nice dinner, but we were a bit wined out. The waitress gave me a funny look when I ordered a bloody mary, and asked if I had an evening hangover. Yes, something like that. The bloody mary was excellent–it came with house pickled pearl onions.

Ox & Cart, Walla Walla
Ox & Cart, Walla Walla
Ox & Cart, Walla Walla
Ox & Cart, Walla Walla

We were hoping that there might be a special dish for the onion festival highlighting the Walla Walla sweet onion, but it didn’t seem that many restaurants were on board with that. Nonetheless, The Ox & Cart was a great choice for dinner. It is part of the new farm-to-table style of cuisine focusing on regional organically grown food.

Gretchen and Kari shared the Amberjack Crudo appetizer, which they said was outstanding. I felt like I needed some fresh veggies in my life, so I ordered the Spring’s Bounty Salad as a starter, a fresh mix of asparagus tips, fava beans, cucumbers, and other veggies with green garlic and a champagne vinaigrette. It was just what I needed.

Spring's Bounty Salad, Ox & Cart restaurant, Walla Walla
Spring’s Bounty Salad, Ox & Cart restaurant, Walla Walla
Amberjack Crudo,Ox & Cart restaurant, Walla Walla
Amberjack Crudo,Ox & Cart restaurant, Walla Walla

For an entree I had the Oregon Sole  with crispy potato cake and sauteed spinach, which I didn’t expect to be battered and fried but it was great regardless. I found it a tiny bit under-seasoned and could have used a bit of salt to jazz it up, but salt wasn’t provided on the table.

Gretchen had the Buttermilk Fried Chicken with waffles, which she said was amazing. Kari had the Study in Foraged Mushrooms with charbroiled morels and porcini mushrooms, asparagus and wheat berries.

Oregon Sole, Ox & Cart restaurant, Walla Walla
Oregon Sole, Ox & Cart restaurant, Walla Walla
Buttermilk Fried Chicken & Waffles, Ox & Cart restaurant, Walla Walla
Buttermilk Fried Chicken & Waffles, Ox & Cart restaurant, Walla Walla

All the food tasted extremely fresh and a lot of care was put into each dish. If I go back I may be tempted to bring some sea salt along in my purse though.

After dinner it was about 10:00, and we were tired but curious to see what kind of Walla Walla nightlife was going down. We did not find much. We found two bars that had some action–one was very crowded and the other had some kind of punk band all ages show going on. We weren’t feeling it for either of those scenes.

There was also a country/classic rock band playing the remnants of the little Onion Festival on Main Street, to a crowd of about 20. It was cute.

We were hoping to find a bar to have a quiet drink in, but there wasn’t much of any place that we saw to have a quiet drink in open at 11:00 PM. We were tired from an early morning and all that day drinking, so we decided to turn in for the night.

Walla Walla Onion Festival nightlife
Walla Walla Onion Festival nightlife

 

Day 2:

We woke up to the Eastern Washington summer sun shining full force outside. We checked out of the hotel and walked into town in search of sustenance.

We walked by Bacon and Eggs, which must be awesome because it was packed with a line out the door. We weren’t in the mood for a long wait, and decided on the Olive Marketplace on Main Street. There was no wait, and had shady tables outside on the sidewalk. Their menu was amazing. I wanted everything, it was hard to decide. Breakfast flatbread pizza with pork belly and farm fresh egg? Chevre asparagus strata? Maple braised pork belly with sweet potato hash? It was all too much. And that doesn’t even cover their baked goods, which were completely out of control.

Kari had a fig danish and the vegetable benedict with roasted veggies, Gretchen had the baked brioche french toast with pink lady apples and fresh berries, and I had the smoked salmon benedict with lox and poached eggs on a home baked biscuit with spinach. It was all outstanding.

Smoked Salmon Benedict, Olive Marketplace, Walla
Smoked Salmon Benedict, Olive Marketplace, Walla Walla
Vegetable Benedict, Olive Marketplace, Walla Walla
Vegetable Benedict, Olive Marketplace, Walla Walla
Baked Brioche French Toast, Olive Marketplace, Walla
Baked Brioche French Toast, Olive Marketplace, Walla

I got a peek into the kitchen from the expansive dining area and there were several huge, delicious looking layer cakes standing on the kitchen island that were waiting for something.

You order at the counter, and food and coffee are brought out to you when they are ready. The prices were very reasonable. They also had a large display case of deli items such as olives and fancy cheeses ready for someone’s picnic. Their lunch menu looked amazing as well. I will definitely be coming back here next time I make it to Walla Walla.

Olive Marketplace, Walla
Olive Marketplace, Walla
Olive Marketplace, Walla
Olive Marketplace, Walla

After breakfast, we decided to check out the Sweet Onion Festival on Main Street. It was mostly two blocks of vendors lining the street, all selling arts, handicrafts, and local gourmet foods. I bought some organic garlic and some Walla Walla sweet onion mustard.

Walla Walla Sweet Onion Festival
Walla Walla Sweet Onion Festival
Walla Walla Onion Festival
Walla Walla Onion Festival

There were also some good photo opportunities:

Walla Walla Sweet Onion Festival
Walla Walla Sweet Onion Festival
Walla Walla Onion Festival
Walla Walla Onion Festival
Walla Walla Onion Festival
Walla Walla Onion Festival
Walla Walla Onion Festival
Walla Walla Onion Festival

We walked around the main part of town a little longer, visiting another great antique store called Tra Vigne on Main Street that had all kinds of treasures. Gretchen found a pie safe that she was in love with but was too big to transport back in her car. However, we found out that the owner does trips to Seattle and will deliver for a very reasonable price.

We made one last stop at Bright’s Candies to pick up some jelly beans for Kari’s kids before we headed home. They sell all kinds of classic candy as well as ice cream and house-made chocolates.

Brights Candies, Walla Walla
Brights Candies, Walla Walla
Brights Candies, Walla Walla
Brights Candies, Walla Walla

The drive back to Seattle took about 5 hours again, due to a slight slow-down on I-90 due to a couple of accidents. The long drive was worth it though, it was a short but very fun weekend.

I liked Walla Walla more than I thought I would, and I would absolutely visit Walla Walla again. The only large drawback is the long drive from Seattle. While the Sweet Onion Festival was cute, it turned out not to be the main draw. The main draw to Walla Walla these days is wine. It was the perfect place to sample some of the great wine that Washington State has to offer, with many vineyards you can drive to outside of town and tour, and a plethora of tasting rooms in the downtown area that don’t require driving (always something we look for with wine tasting). In addition, there seemed to be a number of great restaurants to compliment all that great wine, something that Paddy and I have had trouble finding on some of our other Washington wine tasting adventures.

I am looking forward to bringing Paddy back to Walla Walla in the future, and staying a bit longer than one night to see more of the area.

Renting a Car in Iceland

Renting a Car in Iceland: What you need to know about road safety, insurance, and how to avoid unexpected charges.

 

Excerpt from original post Iceland 2015: Reykjavik & the South Coast

Things to know about renting a car in Iceland:

There are tons of threads on Tripadvisor about renting a car in Iceland, many of them filled with horror stories of being charged hundreds or even over a thousand dollars for dings, dents, etc. After reading through many of them, I determined that the big name car rental companies had the most horror stories, and Blue Car Rental had the least horror stories, so we went with them. In general, here is what you need to know:

1. The insurance barely covers anything.

If you damage the car in any way, there is a high deductible that you have to pay. This includes small dents. Blue Car Rental’s deductible was $1,100.00. If the windshield is cracked and needs to be replaced, you pay $100.00. If the chassis/underside of the car is damaged due to off-roading or driving too fast on rough bumpy roads, you are responsible for the whole amount of the damage. If the strong winds blow the doors off the car (it happens), you will be responsible for the damage as well.

2. You must pre-pay with most companies.

Reserving a car online was very easy, and I asked a couple questions via email to Blue Car before reserving, and they were very responsive and helpful. However–you have to pre-pay, and if you cancel your trip last minute, you might not get all your money back. (Your might consider travel insurance for emergency cancellations on your trip).

3. Rental rates double in the summer.

Renting a car in Iceland is going to be expensive regardless, but consider going in the spring, or after September 15th to get the best rates. Like hotel rates, everything is double the price in the peak summer season.

4. Get the sand and ash protection.

Winds in Iceland can be insanely strong. Right before we went we read news stories of cars being blown off the road by the wind and rocks being blown off cliffs into people’s car windows. These are extreme examples, but the winds are strong at times and will blow sand and volcanic ash at your car, causing damage to the paint. The sand and ash protection doesn’t cost that much extra, and could save you some money in the event that you run into these conditions.

5. In the winter, pay close attention to the road conditions and weather reports.

The most invaluable website during our trip was http://www.vegagerdin.is/english/road-conditions-and-weather/, which we were checking several times a day. They keep the road conditions up to date and you must check to make sure your route is clear before venturing out, especially in the winter. You don’t want to end up a search-and-rescue tourist trapped in a snow storm. For an up to date weather report for the day, http://en.vedur.is/weather/forecasts/areas/ is the Icelandic weather site. If a storm is predicted in the area you are planning on driving to, check with locals to see if they think going there is a good idea. If not, you may need to change your plans.

6. American credit cards and debit cards without chips don’t work on Icelandic gas pumps.

As of the end of 2015 American cards are supposed to now have “chip and PIN” card model that has been used in Europe for years. My credit card has it now, but my debit card still doesn’t. I’m hoping this will change soon. Most bars, restaurants, and shops have card machines that can process the old-style magnetic strip that American credit cards have, but gas pumps don’t. We didn’t have cards with the chip yet when we were in Iceland. We were able to get around this by pre-paying the gas station attendant, either by having them open the pump or put a pre-paid amount on the pump, or the N1 stations could provide a pre-paid gas card that could be used at the pump. If you are going out into no-man’s land, make sure you fill up your tank first. You may also want to buy a pre-paid gas card at the N1 to use at any N1 stations that might not have an attendant. Worst case scenario, have some cash on hand for emergencies–you might have to wait for someone with a card to come along that you could ask to buy the gas for you in exchange for cash. If you don’t have a card with a chip in it yet, talk to your bank and find out when they will be getting one for you.

 

Here is a video about driving in Iceland that I found on Icelandair’s video selection on the plane. It was corny, but pretty helpful.

Overall, everything worked out with renting a car, the wind didn’t blow our car doors off, no rocks or hail flew through the air and dented the body or nicked the paint. We received no additional unexpected charges. We would Recommend Blue Car Rental, and from what we read, would also recommend avoiding the big name car companies. Just be cautious, don’t drive when there’s a storm, and stay on top of the weather report. Renting a car in Iceland is the best way to see the country.

The Phi Phi Islands, Thailand

The Phi Phi Islands, Thailand: Tonsai Village, Long Beach, Maya Bay, Bamboo Island, and a lot of drunk European college kids.

 

We went to the Phi Phi Islands (pronounced “pee-pee”) while on a two and a half week trip around Thailand in March 2014. The Phi Phi Islands are beautiful, albeit heavily visited by hoards of tourists hoping to visit the infamous Maya Bay from the movie The Beach. I think we were there during European college spring break, and there were drunk twentysomething European tourists everywhere whooping it up in Tonsai Village and Loh Dalum Bay. February might be a better time to visit, but I couldn’t say for sure. We do highly recommend an accommodation a good distance away from Loh Dalum Bay for some peace and quiet at night. Our hotel fortunately fit the bill.

 

(Excerpt from original post http://childfreelifeadventures.com/thailand-2014-phi-phi-islands-bangkok-chanthaburi-kao-laem-national-park/)

Day 1:

We caught the early 7:30 AM flight from Bangkok to Krabi, packed in like sardines onto a small Air Asia commuter plane, which was about an hour and a half plane ride.

Once in Krabi, we got a taxi to the Klong Jilard Pier on the outskirts of Krabi town, and had a little time to grab some sandwiches at a food stall before the 10:30 AM ferry. When you walk in to the terminal, you are greeted by a tourist guide selling tickets, who we purchased tickets from. When we went to get on the boat, we passed a ticket window around the corner where some locals were buying tickets from and realized that was the real ticket window. Our tickets were valid, but more expensive. I think we overpaid about $10.00 total. Oh well, live and learn.

We boarded the boat and were instructed to put our large backpacks in a pile on the boat deck. The boat was air conditioned, and there is a deck where you can sit in the sun if you want to. The sun was too hot even in the breeze, so we sat down below.

ferry to Phi Phi Don Thailand
ferry photo by Heather Smith
Phi Phi ferry ride Thailand
Phi Phi ferry

**Note: I read that in the spring and summer the southern Islands have rougher weather and sea, so the best time to visit the islands in the Southern part of Thailand is November through March.

We arrived Phi Phi Don at noon, and a man from our hotel was waiting at the ferry to show us the way there. He grabbed a big metal hand cart off the side of the road and instructed us to put our bags in it, and we followed him through a maze of little streets in Tonsai Village to the JJ Bungalow, which we booked through Booking.com.

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Tonsai Village

JJ Bungalow had decent enough reviews, and was about $75.00 a night. The attraction here was that it had AC, a pool, and was reported to be far away from the party scene on Phi Phi, so a quiet night could be expected.

The downside to JJ Bungalow, was the three flights of stairs up the hillside to the bungalows and pool. In the stifling afternoon heat, this wasn’t so pleasant. Fortunately, our super in-shape and used-to-the-heat bag carrier carried my backpack up for me. I was super thankful.

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JJ Bungalow

There was a fridge with bottled waters in it, and a little convenience store in the office downstairs that sold more beverages until late at night, which was very convenient. We cranked up the AC in our rooms and waited to cool down.

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JJ Bungalow
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JJ Bungalow

After a little while, I went and took a dip in the pool near our rooms, which had some nice shady areas and no one in it.

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JJ Bungalow pool

After a rest and a cool-down, we were getting hungry. We walked a short ways down the road from our hotel, and took a right down a beach road to Loh Dalum Bay beach. We were starving, and the beach was nice and quiet this late in the afternoon, so we just sat down at the first place we saw, Woody’s. There was barely anyone there, and after ordering some food we realized that we were in a popular nighttime party spot. There was a giant wood penis sticking out of the sand in front of the place, and next to it was another bar called the Slinky Bar, which also had a giant penis sticking out of the sand, although theirs was more….realistic. The food wasn’t bad, my pad see ew was actually really tasty. It’s always a little dicey eating somewhere that isn’t known for its food, though.

Below: Loh Dalum Bay

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Loh Dalum Bay
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Loh Dalum Bay
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Loh Dalum Bay

After some food, we did a little walking around, and then went back to rest a little more. The jet lag was catching up with us.

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Interesting graffiti on the street near our hotel

Below: a typical Thai clusterfuck of low-hanging power lines.

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Later that evening, Heather was tired, but Stephen, Paddy, and I were curious about the nightlife. We decided to walk back to the beach and check it out. On the way we grabbed some snacks from a stand selling all kinds of barbequed meats on skewers. Paddy got a chicken skewer and Stephen and I ordered squid. It was tasty.

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chicken satay night market Phi Phi Don Thailand 442

night market grill Phi Phi Don Thailand 443

When we got to the beach, Woody’s and the Slinky Bar were having competing fire shows with equally competing loud techno music. It was entertaining for about 15 minutes. At Woody’s, one of the fire jugglers seemed to be an 8 year old boy. I wonder how his mother feels about his profession.

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Woody’s fire show Phi Phi
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Woody’s fire show Phi Phi
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Woody’s fire show Phi Phi
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Slinky Bar fire show Phi Phi
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Slinky Bar Phi Phi

The crowd was growing on the beach and in the streets of the village. Mostly Europeans and Australians wearing next to nothing and looking to party. Street stands were selling “buckets” which were comprised of some sort of do-it-yourself cocktail. It was all a little obnoxious. Maybe we’re just old.

buckets cocktails Phi Phi Don Thailand 504

We wanted to get another snack before we ended our evening, and I’d read great things about Papaya Restaurant in Tonsai Village. We found it, a little place at the end of a short alley next to a Middle Eastern restaurant, with a few tables inside and outside.

We decided not to let the pregnant cat lounging on the counter of the restaurant next door discourage us, and ordered up some noodles. Stephen ordered their signature papaya salad. He said it was one of the best things he’s ever eaten. Our noodles were mediocre. Definitely come here for the papaya salad. It tends to be served nuclear spicy, so ask for not spicy if you want it milder.

cat at restaurant Phi Phi Island Thailand 453

Papaya salad at Papaya Restaurant Phi Phi Thailand 456
Best papaya salad on Phi Phi

Day 2:

The next day we were anxious to check out the beach. We weren’t so keen on the party beach (Loh Dalum Bay), and our guidebook recommended a beach just a 10 minute long tail boat ride away called Long Beach. We packed up our gear and headed into the village for breakfast at Anna’s Restaurant, as also recommended by our guidebook. It was a European owned place and the breakfast was probably the best one we had in Thailand. It tends to open late for the hangover crowd, and the next two days we tried going there and it wasn’t open yet.

After breakfast, we easily located a longtail driver waiting to be hired. For 100 Baht each ($3.00) he drove us over to Long Beach.

Long Beach has several accommodations, and would be a good choice for people wanting to stay far away from the party scene in Tonsai. There is one resort restaurant and bar there on the beach, and one ATM. The beach itself was gorgeous, and offered great views of Phi Phi Leh, the neighboring national park island where where the movie The Beach was filmed.

My guidebook told us there was great snorkeling just off the beach, but there wasn’t a ton of coral (good for swimming, however).  I saw a few fish and a big squishy sea cucumber. Not the best snorkeling, but there is a little to see. Maybe I wasn’t in the right spot.

Long Beach Phi Phi Don Thailand

sea cucumber Long Beach Phi Phi Don Thailand
Sea cucumber

Heather and Stephen had lunch at the Phi Phi Paradise Pearl Resort restaurant on the beach. Paddy and I weren’t hungry, so we enjoyed the beach and read for awhile. When we were all ready to go, we easily located a longtail driver again to take us back to town.

We went back to our bungalows to shower and clean up. The stairs and the midday heat got to me when we reached our bungalow, I was overheated and trying to get my wet bathing suit top over my head so I could jump in the cold shower and cool down. I got stuck and had a small over-heated freakout moment that resulted in a bathing suit top being violently flung across the room. The AC kicked on, and eventually all was well again.

After we’d cooled down and got dressed, Paddy and I went into the village by ourselves to get a light lunch and do a little souvenir shopping. We went back to Papaya and had the papaya salad and some spring rolls. We then walked around a little bit and haggled with a few vendors over some souvenirs. Paddy bought a pair of sunglasses that didn’t disintegrate like the ones he bought off of a street vendor in Bangkok.

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Tonsai Village Phi Phi Thailand 460

Above: Fruit stands in Tonsai Village

We ended the afternoon with hour long foot massages at a little place near Loh Dahlum beach for $8.00 each. They were nice. They also included some stretching and bending of the neck at weird angles at the end. I’m not sure if that was good for me or not…but “buy the ticket take the ride,” right? Our feet sure did feel better though.

Below: Loh Dalum Bay at sunset

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Loh Dalum Beach sunset Phi Ph Thailand 458

Loh Dalum Beach sunset Phi Phi Thailand 457

We split up from Heather and Stephen and did our own thing for dinner that night. Our guidebook raved about Tonsai Seafood down on the beach near the ferry, so we decided to check it out. I don’t know what the guidebook was talking about. I recently looked it up on Tripadvisor and it sounds like we were lucky not to get food poisoning.

it is on the beach, and the seafood looks really fresh, on ice right near the sidewalk and you can see the cooks working in the open air kitchen.

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Tonsai Seafood

While the location was nice, the plastic tables and chairs were dirty, the cocktails mediocre and expensive, and the service was terrible. Paddy ordered a steak, which he said was alright. I ordered a seafood salad-not too spicy. I got a tasty seafood salad but it was nuclear and I couldn’t finish it. My whole fried fish was chosen out of the fresh fish on ice, and it was okay. Not great. We made it out without food poisoning (it sounds like some others weren’t so lucky) but not the best dining experience. Skip this place.

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Tonsai Seafood
Tonsai Seafood Phi Phi Don Thailand 463
Tonsai Seafood

Day 3:

We wanted to see the famous Maya Bay on Phi Phi Leh, the beach made famous by the 2000 movie The Beach starring Leonardo DiCaprio. We were also well aware that every other tourist in the Andaman Sea island area has the same agenda. Therefore, we wanted to get up early and try and get there before the crowds.

We got up and headed into Tonsai Village around 7:30, and found some breakfast at a European style cafe called Capu Latte, which serves espresso, baked goods to go, and a full breakfast menu.

Our plan was to go negotiate a day tour with a longtail driver down on the beach, but we ended up going with a tour operator who booked us a full day with a driver including a fried rice and fresh pineapple lunch for $100 total. We might have gotten a better deal without lunch on our own, but $100 for a personal boat driver for the day with lunch was a reasonable price so we went with it. We were able to rent snorkel fins for $2.00 from a man around the corner from the tour desk.

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Longtail boats Phi Phi Don Thailand 465
Longtail boats waiting for hire in the morning

We found our driver and boat and set off to our first stop on Phi Phi Leh.

Longtail boat to Phi Phi Leh Thailand 042

I had taken a Dramamine, but the channel between the two islands was pretty rough and when we arrived I was beginning to doubt my ability to make it to the other locations on our agenda. I doubled up with another motion sickness medication called Bonine when we got to the beach, hoping that would work.

Phi Phi Leh is a national park protected island with no inhabitants or accommodations. We arrived at around 9:30 AM and the beach was already busy. The amount of tourism the island receives each day hasn’t had a great impact on the environment, and it’s unfortunate. Blame Hollywood.

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Maya Bay, Phi Phi Leh
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Maya Bay, Phi Phi Leh

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All that being said, Maya Bay really is a spectacular site to see.

Maya Bay Phi Phi Leh Thailand 479

The crowds were growing, so after an hour we got back in the boat and moved on north towards Phi Phi Don. The sea wasn’t so rough after we got past the channel to the west side of Phi Phi Don.

Our next stop was Monkey Beach. We had read some disturbing things about Monkey Beach: Monkeys being fed potato chips, candy, and soda by tourists, monkeys chasing and attacking tourists, tourists being bit by monkeys and having to get rabies shots. So we were all a bit wary of visiting this beach.

We arrived at monkey beach and there were several other tour groups there….but not one monkey in site. It was kind of a let down.

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Monkey Beach, Koh Phi Phi

Also a let down was the disgusting amount of garbage left on the beach by tourists. I can’t believe people. Why would anyone think that it is okay to leave your trash on a beach? Tourism really saddens me sometimes.

Trash piles and rabid monkeys in hiding aside, it was a really beautiful beach. If you go here, don’t get close to monkeys, (maybe they’re around in the afternoon only?) don’t feed them, and keep all of your belongings on your person. They steal stuff, and you don’t want to try to get your camera back from a monkey. Also, pack it in, pack it out. Littering is a seriously shitty thing to do.

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Monkey Beach
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Monkey Beach
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Monkey Beach, Koh Phi Phi

After monkey beach, Heather and Stephen decided they had enough for the day and we dropped them off at nearby Loh Dalum Bay.

We were stoked on snorkeling and seeing our final destination, Bamboo Island, so we continued on with our driver.

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After a few minutes, our driver pulled into a small cove with a few other boats and told us that this was the best snorkeling spot. He was right–the water was deep and clear and like swimming in an aquarium. The fish were beautiful and we were having a great time for about 10 minutes.

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snorkeling koh phi phi Thailand 051

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Then I saw a huge white jellyfish the size of a trashcan lid. I quickly paddled back towards the boat, hoping that was the only one. We snorkeled for a minute in the other direction, and then I saw another jellyfish the size of a basketball. There were a lot of other people snorkeling and no one seemed to be getting stung by anything, but we weren’t going to chance it. We got out of the water and ate our packed veggie fried rice and fresh pineapple in the boat with our guide. It was kind of a bummer, because the snorkeling was really amazing.

Moving on, we headed north to Bamboo Island, a small national park island off the north coast of Phi Phi Don. There were tour groups here as well, but the island was large and the tourists were fewer. It was beautiful, and definitely worth the trip.

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Bamboo Island
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Bamboo Island

There was a little stand selling beers so we had a couple cold Singhas on the beach and then went for a swim. It was nice.

Finally, we headed back to Tonsai Bay and went back to the hotel to cool down and relax for a few.

For dinner we had read great things about Le Grand Bleu, a French-Thai fusion restaurant in Tonsai near the ferry pier, so we checked it out. The atmosphere and food were outstanding, as well as the service. It was a little more expensive than many other restaurants on Phi Phi, but worth the splurge. Don’t miss this place.

After dinner, we were all tired except Paddy, who really wanted to go see some live rock music advertised at the Rolling Stoned bar in Tonsai Village. He went out and had a crazy evening involving a hilarious massage parlor experience, partying with some guys from Spain, and getting up on stage singing AC/DC songs with the Thai cover band at the Rolling Stoned Bar. His story is best told by him over a few beers. Maybe if you have some beers with us sometime, he’ll tell it to you.

Day 4:

We had one last day on Phi Phi, and in retrospect I think we would have had a better time going back to Krabi instead of staying our fourth night in Phi Phi. Three nights of European spring break was plenty. Paddy was having some stomach issues so he decided that he was fine spending a day in the room reading in the air conditioning. Heather and Stephen were doing some shopping, and I felt like I should go to the beach at least one more time.

I went down to Loh Dalum Bay with a book, and paid $5.00 for a beach chair in front of Woody’s with an umbrella. The sun was scorching hot, and when I tried to walk on the sand without sandals, it burned my feet. The tide was out really far, so to cool off I had to walk way out there (in sandals) to get to knee deep water where I could try to dunk myself.

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Loh Dalum Bay Phi Phi Don Thailand 066

I went back to my beach chair to read a book in the shade. Two British girls in their early 20’s sat down in the chairs behind me, and were so hungover that one of them was vomiting bile into a puddle in the sand next to her chair. Then she got on Skype on her tablet and began chatting with some dude in London about all the partying they were doing. And that was enough beach for me.

That evening, Paddy wasn’t feeling so great, so Heather, Stephen and I went out without him. We went to Banana Sombrero, a Mexican restaurant in Tonsai Village. We ordered some ceviche, which wasn’t bad…but it wasn’t ceviche. I think it had a little mayonnaise in it. After we ate we climbed the precarious spiral staircase to the Banana Bar on the roof, which was a laid back little hippie bar with lots of lounge seating and wafting marijuana smoke in the air.

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Banana Sombrero

Another climb up a ladder to a higher platform gets you to a viewing deck and more seating. The view isn’t great, but it’s worth a peak.

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View from Banana Sombrero bar
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View from Banana Sombrero bar

We sat at the bar and had some drinks. I had a very tasty mango daiquiri.

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Banana Bar

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They were clearly setting up for a party that night, and we decided to move on. We went down to the waterfront near the ferry and sat in an open air bar and restaurant for another drink. The service was terrible, and 20 minutes after ordering our drinks and not receiving them we were getting up to leave, but a waiter rushed over and told us our drinks were on the way and told us to sit back down. We eventually got our drinks.

**Tip: Don’t order a bloody mary in Thailand. Just don’t.

Overall, I’d recommend avoiding all open-air tourist restaurants on the beach on Phi Phi. The food and service is much better in the village.

 

The next day we took the ferry back to Krabi for a night before heading back to Bangkok and continuing our travels around Thailand. I think if we went back to Phi Phi Island, we’d like to see some of the rest of the island, but most of it involves being shuttled to and from Tonsai Bay in a longtail boat when you stay at the more remote locations and resorts. The islands are gorgeous and well worth the trip, but we could do without the drunk spring breakers.

I think our hotel was a good option for being away from the action but still in walking distance to everything in Tonsai Village, which is what we wanted. If we were to go back to Phi Phi a second time, we might try one of the more remote places I was looking at such as Vikings Nature Resort near Long Beach, or Zeavola Resort (super swanky) up near the northern tip of the island.

Why it is Important to Have Adventure in a Relationship

Why it is important to have adventure in a relationship: Learning, discovery, and fun are the antithesis of boredom and essential to growing your bond. And you don’t have to go to Morocco to do it.

Adventure in a relationship is essential. Not to downplay the necessity of those nights on the couch with Netflix and popcorn (those are essential to our sanity), but you don’t want to get stuck in a rut. Learning is what keeps the brain fresh, and adventure is about learning, discovery, and creativity.

Sharing an adventure with your partner strengthens the bond between you, and helps you grow as a couple and individuals. If you have a good time or share something exciting together, you will associate that experience with your partner.

Adventure in a relationship
Hiking near Mt Rainier, Washington

Travel is the ultimate great adventure, but you don’t have to travel to have adventure in a relationship. An adventure can simply be trying something new. Go try Ethiopian food. Try a new hiking trail. Learn how to brew beer. Spend a day in a neighborhood you never go to. You don’t have to spend money, you just have to make some time and be adventurous. Take turns picking what you do on your next “adventure date.”

Here are some ideas:

Camping

Learn to make pickles

Explore a nearby town you’ve never spent time in

Wine tasting

Snowshoeing

River tubing

Snow tubing

Bike riding

Do a fun home improvement project, like a tile back splash in your kitchen

Take a cooking class

Take a swing dancing class

Volunteer

Go to a show and check out a new band

adventure in a relationship
Wine tasting in Chelan, Washington

You can also out festivals in your city or nearby cities/towns and attend an event. Summertime is full of these. Whatever adventures you embark on, just make sure you do something new together at least every couple months. Don’t get too bogged down with life and end up stuck in a TV rut. Adventure in a relationship is essential, it keeps your relationship growing.

 

Winter Driving in Iceland

 Winter Driving in Iceland: Tips on how to navigate the roads without ending up being a search and rescue statistic, or ending up with an expensive rental car repair bill

 

Driving in Iceland in the winter can be scary for even the most seasoned winter driver. The main reason is Iceland’s furious and ferocious winds, which have been reported to blow rocks off of glaciers and cars right off of the roads. Rental cars come equipped with snow tires but very little insurance, and there are places in Iceland on the ring road with absolutely nothing around for miles.

We drove around the southern part of Iceland in March with very little snow driving experience, and made it out alive. Here is our advice:

1. Pay close attention to the road conditions and weather reports

The most invaluable website during our trip was http://www.vegagerdin.is/english/road-conditions-and-weather/, which we were checking several times a day. They keep the road conditions up to date and you must check to make sure your route is clear before venturing out, especially in the winter. You don’t want to end up a search-and-rescue tourist trapped in a snow storm. For an up to date weather report for the day, http://en.vedur.is/weather/forecasts/areas/ is the Icelandic weather site. If a storm is predicted in the area you are planning on driving to, check with locals to see if they think going there is a good idea. If not, you may need to change your plans. On the day we wanted to go up to see Gullfoss the snow and wind wouldn’t let up, so we played it safe and stayed in. After we got back to the US, we read a news story about 50 tourists that had to be search and rescued up there the very next day. We were glad we stayed at our cabin and had a lazy snow day instead.

winter driving in Iceland
Winter driving in Iceland: Wind can cause snow to blow into the road causing very low visibility

2. The insurance is pretty much useless, but get the sand and ash protection just in case

Winds in Iceland can be insanely strong. Right before we went we read news stories of cars being blown off the road by the wind and rocks being blown off cliffs into people’s car windows. These are extreme examples, but the winds are strong at times and will blow sand and volcanic ash at your car, causing damage to the paint. The sand and ash protection doesn’t cost that much extra, and could save you some money in the event that you run into these conditions.

3. Park on a flat surface overnight, and don’t set your parking brake

Our car rental company told us not to set the parking brake overnight, or it would freeze and break off, and we would have to pay for it.

4. Go slow and let cars pass you if you are not used to driving in the snow

It’s okay to be the slow asshole on the highway if you aren’t comfortable or sure about the road conditions. I’m sure we pissed a lot of locals off on our first day out on snow-covered roads, but they drove around us and we made it in one piece. It’s better to take it easy than to risk an accident due to overconfidence.

Winter driving in Iceland
Winter driving in Iceland

5. Never slam on the brakes for any reason

Slamming on your brakes on an icy road is the best way to have your car spin out of control. If you need to slow down, take your foot off of the gas and downshift (this is where a manual shift car is a plus), and gently tap the brake.

We were driving along a snowy road in the southern part of the ring road, and I stopped the car to get out and take a picture of the white, desolate landscape. When I stepped out of the car and my foot hit the road I almost fell right on my ass. I didn’t fully realize that we were driving on a solid sheet of ice. Take caution and make slow stops.

winter driving in Iceland
Southern ring road winter wonderland: winter driving in Iceland

6. If you start to slide, don’t jerk the steering wheel

Aside from slamming on the brakes, the worst thing you can do if you start to slide is over-correct and jerk the wheel. Slow down by down-shifting and taking your foot off the gas, and keep a tight grip on the wheel to keep it as steady as you can.

7. Hold onto the car doors when getting in and out of the car

Again, the winds are the most dangerous part of driving in Iceland. They are STRONG. Strong enough to blow the door right off of your car. When getting in and out of the car, hold the door TIGHT to keep it from blowing back open. If the door comes off, you have to pay for it. Even the insurance with a $1000 deductible won’t cover it. And everything is more expensive in Iceland.

8. Never attempt driving on the F Roads in winter

Iceland blocks the F Roads (in the highlands in the middle of the country) off in the winter time, but every now and then some idiot will think his four wheel drive SUV can make it. Locals report seeing tire tracks around the blockades all the time. These people end up putting the lives of volunteer search and rescue workers at stake when they get lost or stuck. Don’t be a dumbass, just stick to the ring road. There are plenty of amazing sights to see there.

9. Bring a credit card with a chip in it for the gas pumps

Bring a credit card or debit card with a chip in it, and know your PIN number. Gas pumps won’t take American credit cards without a chip. We traveled just before the chip came out in the US, and we had to only use gas stations where we could pay inside. Some wouldn’t let us and we had to find one that did. Fortunately, in 2015 banks in the US started to put out chip cards, so hopefully this won’t be a hassle for you like it was for us.

Also, remember to fill up the tank before you attempt long stretches of road in between towns.

 

Iceland is a beautiful country. Summer is the peak visiting time, and the hotel, airfare, and lodging prices double June through September. We went in March, which is still winter in Iceland, and it was amazing. We didn’t get to see some of the things we wanted to because of the weather, but we had a great time in winter wonderland. Driving in Iceland in the winter was intimidating, but the snow tires made a big difference and we were cautious and everything went fine. If you plan on driving in Iceland in the winter, make sure you keep up to date daily on the weather report (it can change on a dime) and stay put if there is a big storm. Wind is the most dangerous factor in winter driving in Iceland, especially on the south coast. Stay safe and have a great trip!

Glacier on the southern ring road, Iceland
Glacier on the southern ring road, Iceland