Oregon Coast Summer 2018: Lincoln City, Newport, and Pacific Beach: Summer getaway with friends to the beautiful Oregon Coast. Attractions and Activities from Astoria to Newport on Highway 101.
We are part of a small group of friends who like to do a 5 day group vacation together every summer. The last few years we have all rented a house somewhere in driving distance from Seattle, and this year the Oregon Coast was suggested as a destination.
I’m the planner in the group, so I scouted out rental houses in our budget up and down the northern Oregon coast on HomeAway, VRBO.com, AirBNB, etc. Our budget wasn’t huge, and the time of year was peak season. We wanted something close to the beach if not on the beach, and found nothing that fit our budget and required house size in Cannon Beach, Seaside, or the northern coast areas.
We finally found a nice house one block from the beach in the Roads End area in Lincoln City, Oregon. It was a little bit further of a drive than we had hoped for, but since none of us were super familiar with that part of the coast, we decided to make an adventure out of it. Turns out, there are a lot of fun things to do up and down the northern Oregon coast, and we had a great time.
*Tip: As we quickly discovered, the temperatures on the coast are a lot lower than further inland. While it was between 85-95 degrees in Seattle and Portland, the temperatures on the coast stayed between 65-69 as a daytime high. Pack lots of layers!
We all set off from the Seattle area around 8:30 AM, breezing down I-5 to Olympia, where we branched off heading west on highway 8 towards the 101 south. We all planned to meet in Cannon Beach for lunch at Mo’s Chowder. There were wistful and well-intentioned thoughts of poking around the town and shops in Cannon Beach as well.
Paddy and I made it to Cannon Beach first, and made the mistake of heading into town. It was complete tourist insanity and there was absolutely nowhere to park. It took us about 15-20 minutes just to get back to the highway 101 driving through the main drag. We texted the rest of our party and advised them not to stop in town.
Having been to Cannon Beach a few times, I had suggested Mo’s Chowder in Tolovana Park just south of Cannon Beach town for three reasons:
1. It’s not in downtown Cannon Beach, so it is easy to get to and there is ample parking
2. It is large and caters to large families and groups–easier to get a table for 8
3. Beach views!!
As I had hoped, getting a table for 8 was no problem next to windows with lovely beach views. The temperature was a bit of a shock when we stepped out of the car. It was quite windy and only 62 degrees. It was also pretty foggy over the water, so our views of Haystack Rock up the coast were obscured. Either way, we were at the coast and it was awesome.
The rest of our group trickled in shortly after us. Paddy and I shared some oysters as an appetizer, and then I had fish and chips and Paddy had the clam chowder in a bread bowl with bay shrimp. Mo’s isn’t the best seafood I’ve ever had, but it’s pretty good and eating it on the beach is what makes it delicious. The prices aren’t bad either.
After lunch we drove another hour down the 101 to Tillamook, and all made a stop at the newly re-vamped Tillimook Creamery (formerly known as the Tillimook Cheese Factory).
If you’re not from the Northwest, Tillimook cheese (particularly their cheddar cheeses) are a staple in Pacific Northwest grocery stores. They also produce ice cream, yogurt, and sour cream.
The Tillimook Creamery had just gone through a remodel and had recently re-opened a few weeks prior, and it was crazy busy. Our original plan was to check out the creamery and gift shop, and get some ice cream. However, the ice cream line was complete insanity and none of us felt it was worth the wait for a cone.
Instead, we went upstairs for the self “tour,” viewing the cheese logs being made in the factory below, and purchased a few cheeses and specialty food items in their gift shop.
Thoroughly cheesed out, we continued one last hour down the coast to our Lincoln City beach house.
We had rented the house through Meredith Lodging, and everything was as described in the listing. There was beach access just a very short ways down the road across the street, and the beach was beautiful.
We spent the evening BBQing, walking on the beach, and enjoying the house’s hot tub after a long day of driving.
On our first full day on the coast, we opted to drive another 45 minutes south of Lincoln City to the town of Newport to check out the local attractions that Newport had to offer. Newport is a bit more touristy than Lincoln City, and has a lot of silly beach town things to do such as a Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, and a wax museum. There is also plenty of fudge, salt water taffy, and fish and chips if you feel so inclined.
The main event for us was the Oregon Coast Aquarium, one of the top aquariums in the US. Admission is $22.95 per adult, and there are quite a few exhibits to look at.
My favorite exhibits were the jellyfish (they have two different species–the pacific sea nettle, and moon jellies) and the colorful tidal tanks of sea stars and sea anemones. It can be quite relaxing watching the jellies pulsate and swirl around in the tanks. Jellyfish are one of the most fascinating creatures on the planet to me. They are beautiful and terrifying, and I I have a sort of respect for a creature who has stubbornly refused to evolve since the dinosaur days.
After the aquarium we were ready for lunch, so we drove a short ways from the aquarium to the Rogue Brewery and headquarters. You might be familiar with their beers such as the famous Dead Guy Ale.
There was a bit of a wait but not too bad. The upstairs bar and restaurant has a view of Yaquina Bay and a nice lunch menu. I had their clam chowder which was very tasty. You can order a beer sampler if you want to taste a variety of their beers, or just order a full pint if you like.
After lunch we split up a bit to explore the town. Paddy and I are always looking for more unique treasures to add to our home Tiki Bar, so we ducked into an antique shop nearby called Pirate’s Plunder with another couple from our group. Pirate’s Plunder had a huge amount of random items and antiques, many nautical in theme. We didn’t find any perfect treasures for our Tiki bar, but it was fun to browse and there were some good photo ops outside the building.
Before heading back to the beach house, I wanted to see downtown Newport and the Sea Lion Docks. The Sea Lion Docks are literally just a small collection of docks that sea lions enjoy laying on in piles at the downtown Newport marina. Sadly, the sea lions were elsewhere for the afternoon and all that we saw on the docks were crab carcasses. The marina was nice though.
On our second full day, half our group wanted to check out the nearby outlet mall, and the other half (including me) wanted to go check out the beach at Pacific City and the Pelican Brewery.
Pacific City is about 30 minutes north of Lincoln City, and it is a gorgeous sandy beach. It seemed pretty popular with surfers and families. There are sand dunes adjacent to the beach that looked cool but climbing uphill in sand is not my idea of fun.
We decided to stop into Pelican Brewing on the beach to sample their beers before having a picnic in the sand. There was a bit of a wait for a table as it was peak season. Cass and I each had a sampler, which to our delight came in an impressive little spin tray with a large pelican. None of the beers blew my mind, but they were good. Except the IPAs, but I hate IPAs in general. Devin and Heather just had a couple pints.
After sampling all those beers we had a buzzy beach picnic and enjoyed watching the surfers and laying in the sun. It wasn’t hot, but it was pleasant. Just about everyone in the water was wearing a wetsuit except for a few kids splashing around on the shore.
We relaxed, ate sandwiches, and watched a seagull feeding frenzy over someone’s unattended bag of potato chips.
Later that evening after we all cooked dinner together, five of us decided to go check out the nearby Chinook Winds Casino. The Chinook Winds website advertised dancing in their upstairs lounge after 10:00 PM.
We arrived around 9:00, and walked around the casino playing a few slots. There were quite a few bachelorette parties roaming around, as well as the usual sad gambling scene amidst a cloud of cigarette smoke.
We went up to the lounge just after 10:00 and were somewhat surprised to see almost all men on the dance floor. A few couples and a few bachelorette parties joined in eventually. The music was standard boring top 40, the demographic mostly caucasian. We danced a little, drank a little, people watched a little, and opted not to eat the penis candy given to us by a bachelorette party.
On our last day, we decided we should probably actually check out the town of Lincoln City, since we were staying there and all. Paddy and I wanted to go “antiquing” to search for treasures for our home Tiki bar, so we split up from the rest of the group, who walked around a little bit and ended up spending a while at the Game Over Arcade in town.
Paddy and I enjoyed treasure hunting at Granny’s Attic and the Rocking Horse Mall. Rocking Horse Mall had two floors of antiques combined with some newer nautical items such as mermaid Christmas ornaments and new glass floats.
There seemed to be no shortage of creepy Santas.
We ended our antiquing excursion at the Little Antique Mall in the north part of town, where we found an awesome mint-condition mid-century glass lamp and a Tiki mug.
Our last stop of the day was at Barnacle Bill’s for some fresh seafood for our seafood boil/clam bake that evening.
Barnacle Bill’s is probably your best bet for fresh seafood in town, although it is cash only so be sure to hit the ATM before you go there.
We had hoped to get some crab, but their dungeness crabs were $20-$25 each which was a lot more than we wanted to spend. We ended up getting some fresh jumbo prawns instead. A couple other seafood-loving members of our group picked up some lobster tails, mussels, and clams at Safeway.
Our seafood boil was a success, and included corn on the cob, andouille sausage, and potatoes in addition to seafood. Kind of a hybrid Northwest/Cajun style clambake. It was delicious.
We had hoped the fog would lift to enjoy a beach sunset for our last night, but it did not. That didn’t stop us from taking a last stroll on the beach before heading home the next day. It was breezy and peaceful, and we were the only people on the beach.
Sunday morning we got a somewhat early start heading back to Seattle. Traffic was unfortunately not as smooth as on the trip down.
We stopped for a photo op with a giant inflatable crab in Garibaldi, and lunch at the Fort George Brewery in Astoria, Oregon near the Oregon-Washington border.
Parking in Astoria turned out to be a little crazy, as were the hills. Astoria could give San Francisco challenge for the most hilly West Coast village. The Fort George Brewery turned out to be pretty busy too, but we didn’t have to wait too long for a table for four. The food was tasty, I didn’t try the beer but was told by the rest of the group that it was good as well. There is a nice upstairs area and deck with a view, but the full menu is not available upstairs.
Astoria is famous for being the town that the Goonies movie was filmed in back in the 1980’s. Don’t try to visit the Goonies house, however. The people who live there are very tired of curious tourists and will call the police if you try to enter their driveway for a photo. There are new strict parking fines for improperly parked cars near the house as well.
Afternoon traffic was less than fun heading back to Seattle, and we didn’t make it home until 6:00 PM. It was a great trip though and worth the long drive. There were a lot of things to do and see on the way down.
The Oregon Coast is one of my favorite places in the US. It is big, beautiful, and wild. The rocky Washington beaches don’t live up to the beauty of Oregon’s coast by a long shot. Oregon beaches aren’t going to be a hot, sunny, beach vacation like the East Coast, but their raw natural beauty and the sunsets can’t be beat. I never get tired of watching the sun set behind Haystack Rock in Cannon Beach, or looking at bright-colored sea stars and anemones at it’s base during the day at low tide. It is fun and lively in the summer, but Paddy and I like to visit by ourselves in the winter when it is calm and quiet. Watching the stormy waves or the sunset from a room with a fireplace is one of our favorite winter getaway activities.
Portland’s Tiki Kon 2018: Dipping our toes into the rum-soaked tropical fantasy-land of the Tiki revival community
Both Paddy and I have always been fans of mid-century pop culture. I’m also a big fan of Polynesia and spent some time living in Hawaii and learning about Pacific Island cultures in college. Since then, I had always fantasized about having a basement Tiki bar in my house.
In 2015, we bought a house with a basement and I convinced Paddy that a Tiki bar was of utmost necessity. We found vintage bar at an estate sale, put up some grass matting and bamboo, a grass thatch overhang and invested in a Tiki mug collection. We’ve realized since the initial build-out of our Tiki bar that adding to a Tiki bar can easily become an obsession. I began reading up on Polynesian Pop and Tiki cocktails, and we formed a hobby of scouring antique stores for mid-century treasures and Polynesian art. When we read that Portland, Oregon hosts an annual Tiki Kon every summer, we figured it might be time to check out this cult that we may have inadvertently joined.
Tiki Kon started as a small bar crawl of home Tiki bars in the Portland area in 2003, and has since become a fairly large production. It is run by a couple with the help of volunteers, in addition to their full time jobs. This is no small undertaking and I am very impressed with what they have managed to pull off. It seems that the Tiki revival is growing, which was confirmed when the Tiki Kon website crashed within minutes of tickets going on sale this year.
The site crash was a bit of a mess, and I really felt for the producers as they scrambled to go through transactions by time stamp and sort out over-sold VIP tickets. We had opted to just purchase a la carte tickets to the Friday and Saturday night events, and our ticket purchase made it through and was not part of the oversold ticket group.
The hot item was the VIP ticket, which included all events, a private VIP cocktail lounge, and a Sunday home Tiki bar tour. The home bar tour had a hard limit on the number of guests that could be accommodated on the buses and in the home Tiki bars, so unfortunately there were some folks who were disappointed by having their ticket downgraded or refunded. All in all, it was well handled and the Tiki Kon producers upgraded their website to handle more traffic and ticket sales.
*Tip: Ticket sales happen in March, and they go FAST. If you want to attend Tiki Kon, make your ticket selection before the go-live time and get your purchase in online ASAP. Also, make sure you have a PayPal account. I’m not sure if they plan on taking credit cards in the future, but this year PayPal was the only payment option.
Each year has a theme, and this year’s theme was Fantasy Island.
Custom souvenir Tiki mugs are produced for each year, but in limited quantities of 100. You can go online before the event and try to buy one for $100 when they go on sale, and invites to buy are sent to ticket holders only. They sell out within 5 minutes of going on sale. The Tiki mugs were really cool, and I understand the whole limited-edition collector mentality, but I’m not so keen on only allowing a small fraction of guests to acquire a souvenir Tiki mug for Tiki Kon. Yes, this makes them more valuable and more coveted, but it makes them nearly impossible to get and extremely exclusive. All in all, we didn’t really want to spend $100 on a Tiki mug regardless–but they were really cool.
We opted to take Friday off of work and left Seattle around 8:30 AM, and made record time down to Portland with no traffic. I would recommend not trying to drive to Portland on a Friday afternoon from Seattle. We did this once and hit Seattle, Tacoma, Olympia, and Portland rush hours and it took 5+ hours to get there. Not worth it. Take the day off if you are driving from Seattle and trying to get to Portland on a Friday night, or take the Bolt Bus in the early afternoon.
After arrival in Portland, we went straight to the Hawthorne neighborhood to get lunch and do a little vintage shopping. We opted for sandwiches at Lardo, partly because it looked amazing, and partly because they had frosty cold AC and house-made Arnold Palmers.
I had the Italian Tuna sandwich, which was delicious but a little salty with the olive tapenade. I scraped it off and the sandwich was perfect without the tapenade.
Paddy had the Second Hand Smoke brisket sandwich with pickled serrano peppers, American cheese and smokey mayo, which he loved. He also had a side of their potato salad which tasted just like a baked potato. We would definitely come back here.
After lunch, we went swag lamp shopping at the Lounge Lizard up the street. Lounge Lizard is a great place to shop for mid-century modern furniture and lamps, and other antiques. They have a small amount of vintage clothing as well. They have two locations on Hawthorne Blvd, very close to each other. We found a blue vintage swag lamp at the Eastern location on Hawthorne, and Paddy found a very groovy 70’s polyester shirt. He doesn’t know where he will wear it, but there will be some occasion I’m sure.
We also made a last shopping stop at Fat Fancy, a used clothing store for plus size people. It’s my favorite store in Portland and has moved from downtown to the Hollywood area of East Portland. They have a parking lot now. I found a couple used Torrid tops and the sales lady was very friendly and helpful. If you are plus size, check this place out.
After lunch and shopping, we were ready to check into the hotel and relax for a bit. We had reserved a room at the historic Palms Motel in North Portland. We chose this hotel for the low price ($120/night), the location across from the Alibi Tiki Lounge and near the Mississippi neighborhood, and for the sign out front. The sign out front was a significant draw. I mean, it has a blue monkey.
The rooms were clean, and the beds were decent. It is a cheap motel, no frills. But the AC was nice and frosty and there was a fridge, both being a necessity on the 95-degree July weekend. There was even beer left in the fridge from the previous renters. I suppose that means that housekeeping wasn’t super thorough, but I won’t fault them for leaving free beer. There are worse things to overlook.
We checked in and relaxed a bit before getting changed into our Tiki Kon attire and heading across the street to the Alibi Tiki Lounge for food and drinks.
The Alibi is a classic Tiki bar, since 1947. It’s gone through some changes over the years, but the epic flashing neon sign and dark kitschy Tiki atmosphere remain and flourish. The Alibi is mostly known to locals as a karaoke dive bar, but no matter what time of day you go, it’s fun. Be prepared for crowds on weekend evenings.
We opted to eat here, although I can’t say I recommend coming here for the food. The food is alright, if you are drinking and need some fried food to soak up booze. However, we just wanted dinner to be cheap and easy and being able to eat some food along with our Tiki drinks was the ideal situation at the time. It was happy hour, and we had the garlic green beans, the potstickers, the chicken fingers, and the lumpia. It was all average.
They have alcoholic slushies at the Alibi, which on a hot day go down really easy. I had the strawberry daiquiri slushy and Paddy had the Alibi Old Fashioned cocktail. They were selling signature Tiki mugs for $20 with a drink in them, so I got my slushy in a souvenir mug.
After we had food and drinks, we caught a Lyft to Tiki Kon to check out our first a la carte evening show, which was a “surf and turf” show featuring surf rock bands and a “horror” theme.
We checked in at the Tiki Kon booth and acquired our “passports” with stamps for the events that we had paid for. To enter and exit the event, we needed to show our passports. They were pretty fun little souvenirs and very nicely done, with info inside about Tiki Kon and the events of the weekend.
A few vendors were selling artisan Tiki mugs and other items, and there was a bar with pre-mixed signature cocktails of the evening as well as beer and wine. There was a photo op area, which of course we took advantage of.
In the main event room, there was a dance floor, stage, and large tables with table clothes and small centerpieces. People-watching was pretty fun, everyone had put a lot of thoughts into their outfits.
The Red Lion event room setting sort of made it feel like we were at a wedding. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I was hoping for a little more Tiki atmosphere, which is a big part of what Tiki is all about. However, I can see how challenging creating that atmosphere would be in this location and for an event this size. They did a good job with what they had to work with…but….we still felt like we were at a wedding. I suppose that is the nature of a convention.
We were trying to brainstorm on what they could do to create more Tiki atmosphere at future events that would be cost-effective and easy to put up and take down. I think if they had a large storage space and a lot of theatrically-minded volunteers, they could create some stage set walls on casters with fake lava rock (spray painted black styrofoam?) or jungle foliage or bamboo. These could be constructed and then wheeled in and out and stored somewhere the rest of the year. This would of course require ample volunteers, truck rentals, and a large storage space for the “sets.” But it would be an idea to take Tiki Kon to the next level. Some paper lanterns strung across the space overhead could really add a lot of atmosphere too. Again, this would require a lot of set up and take-down volunteers. Looking at the enthusiasm for the event around us at the event, I think there would be a lot of people willing to volunteer time in exchange for free or discounted tickets.
We knew no one at this event, so we decided to sit at a central empty table and let people sit with us. It worked, we ended up with friendly company quickly. We met two other couples–one who had been to one Tiki Kon before, and another couple who were newbies like us. They had also opted to just do the a la carte Friday and Saturday events to check it out without going full throttle.
There was a dance performance by MeduSirena Marina, a professional mermaid, and then three surf bands: Jon and the Vons from France, The Boss Martians, and Satan’s Pilgrims. All had go-go dancers and put on a good show.
Our new friends both left before we did due to the fact that there was no food at the event. The lack of food is my main critique of Tiki Kon. If you plan on serving people copious amounts of booze, food is essential. I think there might have been some catering in the VIP suite parties, but for us lowly basic ticket holders, there was no food to be found. I think if Tiki Kon could convince the hosting hotel to put some food trucks in their parking lot from 8:00 PM on, it would keep people partying longer and the local food vendors would make a ton of money.
We really wanted to stick around and check out Satan’s Pilgrims, but even we eventually succumbed to the drunk munchies and left a bit early as well. We took a Lyft back over to the Mississippi neighborhood near our hotel and found a taco truck.
The next morning, we thought we’d head over to Mississippi Ave and get breakfast at Miss Delta, one of my favorite Portland restaurants. Unfortunately, there was a street fair being set up all along Mississippi Ave and Miss Delta was closed so that they could set up a street fair booth for lunch. There was only one restaurant open for breakfast across the street with a very long wait list.
Our new friends Tom and Sarah from Tiki Kon were local and had suggested the Cadillac Cafe in the Irvington neighborhood as a good spot for breakfast, so we got in the car and drove there.
There was no wait and the food was amazing. We were so happy we took their advice.
I had the smoked salmon hash with house-smoked salmon, green beans, leeks, potatoes, eggs, and lemon dill creme fraiche. Paddy had the eggs in purgatory with cheesy grits and a Cajun-Creole sauce. Everything was delicious and the service was great. There is even a real mint-condition 1950’s pink Cadillac on display in the restaurant.
After breakfast, we went back up to Tiki Kon for their Saturday Tiki Marketplace.
The Tiki Marketplace is open to the public and free to enter. It ended up being our favorite part of Tiki Kon, as it gave us an opportunity to look at the work of a lot of amazing artists and craftspeople we’d never heard of, and shop for items to add to our home Tiki Bar.
We were immediately drawn into the vintage Aloha shirt and dress racks that were front and center in the market. It was a little intense–people were furiously and aggressively flipping through racks of dresses, kaftans, and mumus. I didn’t see anything in my size and didn’t really expect to, so I quickly lost interest and exited the vintage clothing feeding frenzy while Paddy persisted.
At the next booth I found a fabulous vintage lamp for only $65, and we also bought several art prints at other vendor booths to decorate our home Tiki bar with.
Later that afternoon, we met up with our new Tiki Kon friends Tom and Sarah at Portland’s other Tiki bar, Hale Pele.
Hale Pele has been written up as one of the top 10 Tiki Bars in the world by Critiki.com, and we had not been there yet. Just for Tiki Kon weekend, they opened early at 2:00 PM (normally they open at 4:00 PM daily). Sarah and Tom were regulars at Hale Pele, and they had some great food and drink recommendations for us.
Hale Pele is easy to miss from the street, which is sort of a classic Tiki bar thing. The idea is to create a hidden, exotic, transporting environment that assaults your senses when you open the door. Tiki bars are also supposed to be fairly dark, so no windows to the outside world. As soon as we walked in, we knew why it was rated as one of the world’s best. It is small and intimate, with a ton of attention to detail. The owners clearly put a lot of love into this bar, and it shows.
If it is your first time at Hale Pele and you are not driving after you leave, order the Jet Pilot cocktail. It is quite a production and does not disappoint. It also tastes amazing and is super strong. I really liked that Hale Pale divides their drink menu up into sections according to how strong the drinks are, so you know what you are getting into. Paddy opted to be the designated driver, so he chose a cocktail off the weaker list. I ordered the Jet Pilot.
The Jet Pilot comes on fire, and just before it is served, the lights in the bar flicker and thunder sounds are played over the speakers. The bartender brings out the drink and sprinkles cinnamon onto the open flame, causing a large fiery flare. It was really quite exciting (Did you know cinnamon was flammable? Neither did we).
Tom and Sarah told us that we HAD to try the Hawaiian bread, which is grilled and buttered and sprinkled with sea salt, served with a guava jam. It was delicious and yes, you HAVE to order it.
We tried a few of their other small plates as well, and everything was outstanding. We spent some time talking to the friendly bartender/manager Sierra, who was a lot of fun and really seems to enjoy her job. We will be back to Hale Pele on our future trips to Portland for sure.
For dinner that evening we wanted to save a little money and go somewhere relatively inexpensive. Tom and Sarah recommended Tamale Boy for good inexpensive Mexican fare. I had the tacos de pescado and Paddy had a quesadilla. Both were excellent. Tamale Boy is attached to the LABrewatory brewery next door, and you are welcome to eat your food from Tamale Boy while sampling LABrewatory’s beers in their taproom.
The Tiki Kon event for Saturday evening was fairly similar to the night prior, with more bands and a cabaret act by the Starella Sisters. When we arrived they were just finishing the Iron TikiTender bar-tending competition, where bartenders from Tiki Bars around the country compete for the Iron TikiTender title and a grand prize trip. The winner was Jeanie Grant from San Francisco’s Pagan Idol Tiki Bar. After the competition, we were able to walk into the main event room and get a view of the three finalists’ over-the-top drink garnishes.
The evening was yet again another big Tiki fashion show and we enjoyed checking out everyone’s fun outfits and accessories. There was a charity raffle with proceeds supporting the people affected by the volcanic lava flows in Hawaii.
We had a few drinks and watched the music for a while (more awesome surf music by a band called Tikiyaki 5-0. It was fun, but we didn’t stay until the end.
On the way back to the hotel we stopped into The Alibi again for a late night snack and another drink. It was packed with karaoke revelers. The Alibi is a hoppin’ place on a Saturday night!
There were a lot of Tiki Kon events that we skipped, including a banquet dinner and Polynesian dance show, and several educational symposiums. The VIP package included a home Tiki bar tour on Sunday, which is extremely popular (a tour of Portland’s home Tiki bars including bus transportation). It seemed that the magic of Tiki Kon really is in knowing people in the Tiki revival community, and getting a VIP ticket that includes the VIP lounges and the home Tiki bar tour. We only dipped our toes in the lagoon for this event.
Would we go again? Well…it was fun, but I think the people who have the most fun are the hardcore loyal returnees, who know each other and look forward to celebrating with each other at this event every year. There were a lot of events we opted not to pay for or participate in, so we can’t give an accurate review of the entire weekend. The highlights of the weekend for us were visiting Portland’s Tiki bars the Alibi and Hale Pele, and the Tiki Kon Saturday Marketplace. I think that if we go again, we may just get a la carte tickets to only one of the evening events and hit the Saturday Marketplace and the local Tiki Bars.
I did just see an announcement that Tiki Kon is moving to the DoubleTree Hilton Lloyd Center, closer to one of my favorite Portland neighborhoods (Buckman) and downtown. It is clear that the interest in Tiki Kon is growing, and I’m curious to see what next year brings. The fact that a couple with full time regular jobs put this event together in their spare time is really impressive, and I think the event will continue to grow.
Other Tiki events that happen annually around the country are Tiki Caliente in Palm Springs, CA, The Hukilau in Fort Lauderdale, FL, and Tiki Oasis in San Diego, CA. Of the three Tiki Oasis seems to be the largest event. I’m curious about checking out Tiki Oasis, but it would be a splurge between airfare, hotel, and the event tickets. If we combine it into a vacation to San Diego it might be pretty fun. I also saw something about a second Tiki Oasis going on in Arizona starting in 2019. The Tiki revival continues to expand.
One week in Barbados 2018: Gorgeous beaches, delicious Caribbean food, and snorkeling over shipwrecks with sea turtles
Barbados is the most southeastern island in the Caribbean island chain, not very far off the coast of Venezuela. When we told our friends in the US that we were going to Barbados, the reaction was usually excitement, followed by “where is that again?”
Barbados was colonized by the British, and remained a British colony until 1966, when it became a sovereign nation. The original Arawak and Carib native population was sadly decimated by colonization, and sugarcane and slavery were introduced to the island in the 1640’s. The majority of slaves were imported from West Africa until slavery was finally abolished in the 1800’s. The resulting culture in Barbados today is a mix of British, Caribbean, and African cultures that is uniquely Bajan.
There are a couple things about Barbados that make visiting this beautiful country easy for American travelers. The first is that the national language is English, so there is no language barrier for English-speaking travelers. The second is that the Barbados dollar is tied to the US dollar, at a rate of $2.00 BBD to $1.00 USD. This makes converting prices super easy–just cut all the prices in half to convert the rate to USD. No need to exchange currency, just withdraw cash from a bank ATM with your debit card on arrival (be sure to give your bank a travel notification before you leave the country). Many stores and restaurants and all taxi drivers take cash only, so be sure to have some cash on you while you are there. There is an ATM at the airport that you can use. US dollars are also widely accepted.
In addition, the water is clean and safe to drink, the crime rate is one of the lowest of all the Caribbean islands, and the beaches are some of the best in the world.
When I was a high school exchange student in Denmark in the 90’s, two of my fellow exchange student friends were students from Barbados, and this trip was our first time reuniting in 20 years. In addition, another of our mutual exchange student friends from Turkey came to join the reunion with her boyfriend as well. It was a fantastic week and an awesome experience to have our local friends show us around and share their island and culture with us.
We took JetBlue overnight with an early morning layover in New York. When we arrived, the line through passport control was long but it was a quick 15 minute taxi ride to our hotel from the airport once we got through.
We stayed at the Butterfly Beach Hotel on the south coast. Our room was a reasonable price and included a small balcony with a partial ocean view and a mini fridge and hot water kettle. Butterfly Beach hotel also offers more expensive rooms with full ocean views, and rooms with kitchenettes for self-catering.
Butterfly Beach Hotel is on the beach, but the waves were pretty rough so we didn’t go swimming here. They do have a nice pool and plenty of lounge chairs with ocean views.
We were starving when we checked in at 3:30, so we unpacked our stuff and headed down to the hotel bar for a little snack and a beer. We had Banks Beer (local beer in Barbados), Bajan fish cakes (deep fried balls of salt fish mixed with dough), and chicken wings. We loved the fish cakes.
We had thought we were going to dinner at 7:00 and would have some time to rest a bit, but my friend Damien messaged me and told me the only reservation he could get was at 6:00 and he would pick us up at 5:45. It was 4:45, so we rushed back to the room to shower and get ready to go. No nap time for us.
Dinner was at Shakers Bar & Grill in Brown’s Gap. According to Damien, this is one of the favorite local restaurants on the island.
We met with Damien’s wife Kyesha and his son Dimitri, and my other Bajan friend from my AFS Denmark exchange year, Monique.
I had blackened lionfish with grilled potato and salad, and Paddy had BBQ chicken. It was delicious and reasonably priced. I tried the rum punch, which is the national cocktail. It was strong! Rum punch does not mess around.
I had never had lionfish before. Damien and Kyesha told us that lionfish are an invasive species and are devastating the fish population and coral reefs in the area. Fisherman have been fishing them and encouraging people to eat them as an effort to control their populations. I had only known of lionfish as a fish to stay far away from when snorkeling, due to their venomous stinging spines. But apparently, once you take the spines out, the fish are safe to eat (and delicious).
If you want a truly local experience and great local food, Shakers should be on your restaurant list for your trip to Barbados.
After dinner, Damien’s wife and son headed home and Damien and Monique took us out for drinks in St Lawrence Gap.
St Lawrence Gap is where the party is at. Tourists and locals mix in the bars and restaurants along this little strip on the south coast. It is the most touristy area, but also the number one spot for nightlife. We went to Damien’s favorite spot, Hal’s Bar–a low-key open air sports bar with strong drinks and continued to catch up on the last 20 years.
We had to call it a night around 11:00 , we were tired from traveling. Before we went back to the hotel, Monique insisted that we had to try the BBQ pig tails from the street vendor outside Hal’s.
At first, I was picturing the long, curly part of the pig tail and wasn’t sure what eating that would be like. But BBQ pig tails are actually the tail bone of the pig with the little nub of a tail at the end. The long curly part is cut off and not used. They are slow cooked and tender, and were kind of like a pork rib. They were delicious! Don’t be afraid to try the pig tails, or you will miss out. Be sure to grab extra napkins.
Our first full day in Barbados was Sunday, and Monique and Damien had plans with their families, so we took the day to relax and recover from traveling.
We started our day with breakfast at the Surfer’s Cafe, a 10 minute walk down the road from our hotel. We snagged a two person table overlooking the gorgeous beach.
The prices weren’t super cheap, but not crazy expensive. The view was worth it. We each had the Barrel, a breakfast sandwich with egg, cheese, bacon, lettuce, tomato, and cucumber. It was the perfect amount of food. Coffee was great.
The service was on island time (a bit slow), but we weren’t in a hurry. Be sure to come here if you have time to relax, if you have limited time it is not the best choice.
*Tipping in Barbados:
According to our local friends, tipping isn’t expected in Barbados. It is nice to leave 10% for really good service, but not expected as in the US. Often there will be a 10% service charge already added to the bill.
After breakfast we walked across the street to Massy grocery store to stock up on water, bug spray, and beer. I bought a loaf of whole wheat coconut bread in the bakery section which was pretty good– a bit sweet. We always love going to grocery stores in other countries to see what people eat.
We spent the rest of the day relaxing by the pool at the hotel.
That evening we wanted to eat at Brown Sugar, a restaurant serving upscale Bajan fare. Looking at the map, it appeared to be next to Brownes Beach, and we figured there were probably some beach bars nearby that we could have a drink at beforehand.
We hired a taxi to take us within the vicinity of Brown Sugar. He was surprised that we didn’t want to go to one of the fancy tourist restaurants on the beach. He wanted to make sure we knew that it was more of a “jungle” setting and not on the beach. We were fine with that. Having reviewed a lot of the popular upscale restaurant menus online, they all seemed like a lot of money for food we could probably get at home. We wanted to try local flavors, and a beach view wasn’t a priority.
We were dropped off on Brownes Beach, the sun was starting to set. We walked up the main road towards Bridgetown, searching for a beach bar or anything interesting. Unfortunately, there was nothing along this stretch of road. There were a few small restaurants that were closed, but not much to see or do. We walked about a mile, thinking there had to be something around the corner, but there wasn’t. We turned back and went to the restaurant.
Our taxi driver said that Brown Sugar was popular for their Caribbean lunch buffet with cruise ship tourists and locals. Dinner is more relaxed. We had no problem getting a nice table without a reservation.
Brown Sugar isn’t really in the jungle, but once inside the restaurant you wouldn’t know that. Lush tropical plants surround the restaurant and frogs and crickets chirp, giving the open-air restaurant a tropical ambiance.
We both ordered the Stuffed Roast Pork Caribe, which was pork stuffed with bacon and plantain stuffing and Bajan gravy. It came with potatoes and vegetables and was delicious!
They had tempting starters as well, but we weren’t starving and the entree alone was the perfect amount of food. Prices here are a little spendy, but not nearly as expensive as the tourist restaurants on the beach. We couldn’t pass on the dessert menu. I had the orange coconut cheesecake, and Paddy had the Caribbean coffee, which had brandy and Bajan falernum (sweet syrup with lime and spices), topped with whipped cream.
Dinner at Brown Sugar was one of the highlights of our trip. We were worried it would be touristy, but it was romantic and the food was outstanding. We would definitely recommend this place.
After a day of relaxing, we were ready for a day of adventure. I had booked a snorkel tour with Stiletto Catamaran Cruises. I get seasick, so I opted for the three hour tour instead of the full five hour tour with lunch, hoping for minimum time on the catamaran. It was still a roll of the dice, but I wanted to see turtles and shipwrecks!
We were picked up at the hotel in a shuttle bus and dropped off at the canal in the capital city of Bridgetown. I had sunscreen, acupressure bracelets for motion sickness, and had taken two Bonine tablets. I was doing well and hoping for the best. It was hot, but there was a nice breeze.
The canal was calm, and it didn’t take us long to sail to Carlisle Bay to snorkel with some sea turtles. Carlisle Bay is very sandy, so don’t expect beautiful coral gardens teeming with fish. However, we saw turtles and sting rays and that was plenty exciting. Paddy had never seen a sea turtle before and he was pretty stoked.
The sting rays we saw appeared to be a mother and a baby. They were swimming around on the sandy ocean floor looking for food. Paddy said they are kind of like the “roombas of the sea.” The baby sting ray was bright green and zipped around much faster than it’s mother.
After we had enjoyed the turtles and sting rays, we got back on the catamaran and sailed a very short ways across the bay to a shipwreck. From the boat, it just looked like a big dark shape under the water. But as soon as we got in, it was right there, very close and a full marine ecosystem with lots of fish. Damien and his wife told me later that they have purposefully sunk some ships recently to try and create a faux coral reef to promote new coral growth and help sustain the local marine life.
This was our first time snorkeling over shipwrecks, and it was pretty interesting. There were quite a few fish. We saw two wrecks that were right next to each other.
After we finished snorkeling, we got back on the boat and I started to feel woozy. I would have liked to get off at Carlisle Bay and head back to the hotel at that point, but the rest of the tour was an hour long sail up the west coast of the island, where we would be dropped off and the rest of the group who was on the five hour tour would continue sailing and have lunch. I ended up throwing up twice off the back of the catamaran while we sailed up the coast. It was not a fun way to end our adventure, but still worth it in my opinion. I did have a great time snorkeling and I’m glad we did it.
**Tip for people who get seasick and still want to snorkel:
The Boatyard at Brownes Beach offers quick snorkel trips from the shore, included in the beach club price. We didn’t find this out until later in our trip–see details below on day 6.
Back at the hotel later that afternoon, I spent the rest of the afternoon recovering from seasickness and resting.
My friend Sinem from Turkey and her boyfriend Hakan had arrived early that morning, had spent the day resting, and were ready to meet us downstairs at the hotel bar for a beer before we were all picked up for dinner by Damien. It was my first time seeing her in 20 years since our exchange year in Denmark, and it was a happy reunion.
Damien took us to his favorite Italian restaurant on the island, Buzo. We met Monique and had a nice dinner catching up on the last 20 years and reminiscing about our high school year abroad in Denmark.
Buzo was pretty fancy and the food was great. It is easy to rack up a large bill here, we ended up spending more here than we did at Brown Sugar. It was very nice Italian cuisine though, and the cocktails were outstanding.
After dinner we ended the night with a couple drinks at Sharkey’s, a very touristy bar in St Lawrence Gap. It was pretty quiet for a Monday night, and a fun place for a nightcap.
On Tuesday, Damien took part of the day off to show us some of the island. We started the day off with a rum tasting and history lesson at Mount Gay Rum. I had recently learned prior to our trip that rum originated in Barbados, and Mount Gay Rum is the oldest rum distillery still in operation, since 1703.
Rum is a lot more complex than I realized. In the Pacific Northwest, rum is something you put in a mixed drink such as a mojito or rum and coke, and we don’t think much about the type of rum or where it comes from.
In Barbados, rum is extremely complex. There are rums made from molasses or different ranges of sugar that produce very different flavor profiles. Barbados is proud of their Mount Gay Rum (as they should be), and they consume quite a bit of it–most commonly in rum punch.
The tour was $20 per person, and included tasting three rums.
The tour doesn’t actually happen at the distillery, which is located on the North end of the island, due to safety and sanitary concerns. Instead we were given a short overview of rum production and a rum punch to enjoy in an air-conditioned room, and then went to a different building to watch a short film about the history of Mount Gay Rum.
At the end, we were given three rums to taste in the tasting room: The Eclipse, the Black Barrel, and the XO (extra old). Our favorite was the Black Barrel, which was spicy and full bodied, able to be sipped or mixed. XO is aged longer and meant to be a sipping rum.
We weren’t able to taste the 1703 rum, which is the oldest and rarest variety and double-distilled and aged 10-30 years. However, for $15 we could pay for it in the bar downstairs. Paddy’s curiosity was peaked, and he went for it. It was very smooth.
You can buy some delicious cocktails at the bar there, as well as bottles to take home. The prices of the bottles are a bit high though, and we found Mount Gay rum for a lot less at the local grocery store. They also sell it at many liquor stores in the US, including BevMo.
After all that rum tasting we were ready for lunch. Damien took us to one of his favorite lunch spots, Rolli’s Bar and Grill in Pelican Village, where we met up with his wife and son for lunch.
Rolli’s has an affordable menu of classic Bajan and Caribbean fare, and it was delicious. I had flying fish with potato and salad, and Paddy had pulled Caribbean jerk pork with salad and fries. Paddy’s pork dish was really tender and flavorful.
Be sure to try the Bajan pepper sauce —it is a yellowish color and on every table just about everywhere. It has mustard and turmeric and a fantastic unique flavor. We stocked up on this sauce at the grocery store before we flew home. It is delicious on fried flying fish. You can get different varieties but the standard yellow one is fairly mild.
After lunch it was beach time. The best beaches in Barbados for swimming are on the West Coast. The sea is calmer and the sand is powdery white.
Damien took us to Sandy Lane Beach, where we parked across the street from Rihanna’s house (!!) and used the beach access next to her property.
Technically, this giant mansion isn’t all Rihanna’s house. It is comprised of six apartments, the other five of which are owned by other rich and/or famous people as well.
Sandy Lane Beach is where the fancy people swim. Lots of private houses and B&Bs and fancy hotels. It isn’t a huge beach but looks kind of exclusive. We tried to set up our towels in one spot only to have the owner come out and tell us we had to move. We found a spot nearby—but be prepared for snobbery to the general public if you visit this beach.
The shore is a tiny bit rocky at first, but drops off pretty quickly to soft sand. It wasn’t the best beach for kids because it gets shoulder to neck deep on adults very close off the shore. The water felt really good.
By the time we got back to our hotel on the South Shore that evening, it was about 7:00 and we were salty, sandy, and hungry. We quickly showered and changed and went with Sinem and Hakan in search of sustenance nearby.
Just a block or two up the road we found Breezer’s Bar & Grill, a local spot serving British pub food and blaring hits of the 80’s.
We sat outside and had some Banks beers and pub food, as well as a shared appetizer of Bajan fish cakes. It was casual and the food was great. Paddy had a curry dish that he really enjoyed, I tried a chicken mushroom pot pie with mashed potatoes and veggies. The prices were very reasonable.
Wednesday was Safari Tour day. Both Damien and Monique said we absolutely HAD to do an island safari tour while we were here, and they came along on the tour for the day as well. Damien made a group reservation for us with Island Safari Barbados, and they picked us up at the hotel in the morning. We did the Adventure Safari, which was $98.00 USD per person, and includes a five hour tour of the island, hotel pick up and drop off, and a buffet lunch with alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages.
There aren’t many countries that you can see all in one day, but Barbados is one of them. We drove all around the island and saw many sights and viewpoints, with stops for photo ops and rum punch.
The safari tour ended with a Bajan buffet lunch, including chicken, flying fish, macaroni pie, peas and rice, salad, and desserts. Wine and beer are included as well.
That evening Sinem and Hakan were too tired and jet lagged to go out, so we decided to see what Oistin’s was all about down the road.
Oistin’s is a small south shore town where the fishermen bring in and clean their fish, known most notoriously for their Fish Fry every Friday night. All the vendors are open on Fridays and it turns into a big street party with locals and tourists alike.
On a Wednesday, it was pretty quiet. A lot of food stalls were closed but quite a few were open, serving different varieties of grilled and fried fish and Bajan dishes. We were hustled into Pat’s Place by a woman with menus pulling people in off the sidewalk. We took a look around at the other stalls, and then decided Pat’s Place looked just as good as any other, and there was plenty of open seating.
There was table service, and our agressive but friendly street hustler/server brought us some Banks beers and took our order. For $15 USD we could order a meat or fish and three sides. We decided to order some different things and share. I ordered fried chicken with peas and rice, macaroni pie, and breadfruit, and Paddy ordered kingfish with grilled potato, coleslaw, and macaroni pie.
Holy huge portions, Batman! We easily could have shared one dinner between the two of us. Fortunately our hotel room came with a fridge, so I ended up eating the leftovers for breakfast for the next two mornings.
The kingfish was grilled in a flavorful sauce, and the macaroni pie was delicious. Macaroni pie is pretty much like macaroni and cheese in casserole-form, with a bit more tomato flavor and spices mixed in than just cheese. Everything was fantastic. It was some of the best food we had our whole trip.
If you want real local Bajan food, go to Oistins. If you’re on a budget, two people can easily share one $15 dinner.
Thursday was Sinem and Hakan’s last day, and both Sinem and I wanted some more relaxing beach time before heading home. Damien suggested The Boatyard, a beach club on Brownes Beach, which is the best beach on the island. Extremely touristy, but $25.00 USD per person includes a beach chair and umbrella for the day, bathrooms and showers, and $20 credit towards food and drinks at the bar. A sun umbrella is essential for Paddy and I with our fair skin, and I wanted to relax somewhere with amenities like food and drinks and changing rooms.
Also, the Boatyard offers free snorkel trips out to the bay a few times during the day. Just sign up for a time after you pay your entrance fee. These are quick trips right to the shipwrecks and sea turtles in Carlisle Bay from the dock at the boatyard, so there is very little time spent on the boat. Had I known this before, this definitely would have been the best option for me with my seasickness issues.
We took the local van shuttles, which is the best way to get around if you don’t have a car. They come down the road about every 2 minutes, and you can just wave at one to flag it down. You pay $2.00 BBD when you exit, just tell the driver where you are going and he or she will stop at the closest place on their route.
The Boatyard is very close to downtown Bridgetown, and Paddy wanted to check out the city. While we set up to relax on the beach, he went for a walk around town. He came back after a couple hours saying he saw a lot of tourist shops, and when he tried to get off the main drag people thought he was lost or trying to buy weed.
According to our local friends, Brownes Beach is the best beach on the island, and I would have to say that it must be. The powdered sugar sand was so soft and there was hardly any coral or rocks in the water. The only other beaches I’ve been to so far that compare are the ones on the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico: Tulum and Isla Mujeres. The beach is very long, with the north end being more for tourists as it is closest to the cruise ship pier, and the south end being a bit more of a locals beach.
I think we were the only people at the Boatyard who weren’t off a cruise ship. It was REALLY touristy, and the party music (UB40 anyone?) was a little obnoxious, but the beach was so beautiful I was able to tune it out. Paddy had a more difficult time with it.
For lunch I had a fish sandwich (or “cutter” as they are called in Barbados). It was good, and reasonably priced. There were two for one cocktail specials going on so we ended up getting a few drinks and lunch for me (Paddy wasn’t hungry) and didn’t end up using more than the total $40 USD worth of food and drink included in our entrance fee.
There were one or two times where “free shots” were offered to whoever wanted them, during which a really obnoxious song about shots was blared and the bartenders got up on the bar and poured bright colored liquids into people’s mouths. Sinem and Hakan went for it just for fun. I don’t know what was in those bottles, but I didn’t think that neon high-fructose corn syrup with a tiny bit of alcohol needed to be in my body, so I opted out.
Damien and his son Dimitri joined us for a bit in the afternoon, and we stayed until closing around 5:00 PM. It was a good day and I would definitely make Brownes Beach a top priority when visiting Barbados. If beach chairs and amenities aren’t a priority and you can’t handle cruise ship tourist free-shot UB40 time, head further south down the beach for a more local experience.
That evening, we went back to Shaker’s for dinner again, as Sinem and Hakan hadn’t been there yet and it was their last night before heading back to Turkey. Damien’s wife and son met up with us for dinner and we had a nice evening. This time Paddy tried the steak and I dried the grilled shrimp. The shrimp were good, but I liked the blackened lionfish I had the first night better.
After dinner we went out for a few drinks in St Lawrence Gap, where Monique joined us. We started off with some upscale cocktails at Cocktail Kitchen. The cocktails were a bit pricey, but delicious. I felt like I needed a little kick along with my drink, so I had the Espresso Martini. The espresso shot and the vodka made the drink just the after dinner pick me up that I was looking for, and tasted like dessert. Damien had the classic Zombie tiki drink, made with Mount Gay black barrel and silver rums. He said it was good.
After starting with a few nice cocktails, we stopped back off at Damien’s favorite bar (Hal’s Bar) again for some beers. It was busy with locals getting their Thursday night on. We had a few drinks and celebrated Sinem and Hakan’s last night.
Our last day in Barbados, we took it easy. We had a mediocre breakfast at the hotel (the breakfast buffet isn’t that great at Butterfly, but we didn’t feel like going anywhere else). We walked down to the Massy grocery store to pick up some rum, jerk seasonings, and Bajan pepper sauce to take home. We then packed, read books, and lounged by the pool.
That evening, Damien picked us up and took us to the Oistin’s Fish Fry, a Friday night tradition in Barbados. If you are in Barbados on a Friday, you MUST go to the Fish Fry. It’s a great way to get a full dose of Bajan food and culture all in one.
The Fish Fry was BUSY. Traffic on the main road was bad so Damien took a back hills secret-squirrel route. Parking wasn’t too hard to find in the lot across the street, but it was filling up fast.
We weaved through the food stalls and stands selling souvenirs and crafts until we got to Damien’s favorite fish stand, Uncle George’s Fish Net Grill, where there was a line. The line didn’t seem that long, but it wasn’t moving very fast. Damien got us some beers from a rum shop next door to drink while we waited.
Of course, it started pouring rain while we were in line. We ducked under the overhang of the rum shop for a bit, but had to jump back in to claim our spots once the rain got back down to a drizzle.
Uncle George’s was selling all kinds of fish. You chose your fish and it comes with a couple sides: macaroni salad, peas and rice, coleslaw, fries, or potato. The line took about an hour (good food takes time I suppose) but it was worth it.
Once we had placed our orders, we realized we had a conundrum–where to sit. The place was packed. We finally saw some people getting up to leave so we gave Damien our money and went with his son Dimitri to hold the table while Damien waited for the food. Paddy got another beer and a rum punch from the rum shop –the rum punch was STRONG. Delicious, but I couldn’t finish it as I didn’t want to be hungover for our 6:00 AM flight the next morning.
Monique joined us and after we ate we watched some of the dancers on the stage for a bit. The first three weren’t that great, but then a Michael Jackson duo started up and they were fabulous. One was doing an 80’s Michael impersonation and the other was 90’s Michael. Their dance moves and facial expressions were spot on. 80’s Michael was my favorite.
We wanted to stay late but we had an early flight the next morning. If you go to Barbados, try to make a point to arrange for a Friday night at Oistins. It was pretty fun.
Barbados is a beautiful country. A lot of people only see it for a day on a cruise ship stop, or spend most of their time at a mega resort. There is a lot more to see away from the tourist trail, but some of the touristy things are still pretty fun. We would definitely recommend the island safari as a great way to see the country, Oistins Fish Fry, and snorkeling with turtles and shipwrecks. The best beaches are on the west coast, but staying there can be pretty pricey. We liked staying near Oistins and being able to walk to a grocery store and good local food.
It was great to see my long lost exchange student friends again, and we felt fortunate to have local guides to show us what they love about their country. Damien and Monique showed us a great time and we are thankful for their hospitality on this trip.
One day and night in Monument Valley, Utah/Arizona on the Navajo Reservation: One of the most beautiful and magical places in the United States.
Monument Valley is one of my favorite places on this planet. When you visit, you aren’t really sure if you are in a Wild West movie or on Mars. It is a magical place. Photos don’t do it justice. We really wished we would have had more time there on this trip to do a tour through the valley with a Navajo guide. Next time, we’ll plan to stay at least two nights.
We began our day in Pagosa Springs, Colorado, toured Mesa Verde National Park in the morning, and then drove on to Monument Valley in the afternoon. It was a long day, but fun. On the way to Monument Valley as we crossed from Colorado into Arizona, and we passed the Four Corners monument. We figured we should stop and do the obligatory photo op of us standing in four states at one time (Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico).
The Four Corners Monument is part of the Navajo Nation, and requires an entrance fee of $5 per person. Unfortunately, it is out in the middle of nowhere and requires cash payment, no credit or debit cards. We only had $8 cash, so we moved on. If you want to see the four corners, be sure to have cash on hand to cover your group. If you need an ATM, there is one at the Teec Nos Pos trading post store and gas station is about a 10 minute drive away. They also have restrooms.
An hour and a half later, we finally approached Monument Valley. The first time I visited Monument Valley was on my road trip with my friend in March 2004, and I had been so excited to see it. We just did a drive through and unfortunately, there was a dust storm that day. The iconic wild-west views of red buttes were something I had always wanted to go back and experience again, in better weather and with more time.
We had a reservation at The View Hotel in Monument Valley tribal park, which ended up being worth every penny of the high $250/night price tag. It was our one big hotel splurge of the trip.
*Note: The View Hotel is inside the Navajo Tribal park and requires a $20 entrance fee per vehicle for up to two days. This isn’t included in the price of the room.
The View Hotel is aptly named, as every room has a balcony and a panoramic view of the iconic “Mittens,” The two buttes in the valley that look like right and left hand mittens. It was a stunning view, and my number one plan was to drink some wine on the balcony ad watch the sunset all evening.
*Note about wine/alcohol: The Navajo Nation does not permit the sale of alcohol, so no alcohol can be bought anywhere near or at the hotel. There isn’t a rule against bringing your own and drinking it in your room, however. If you plan on having adult beverages and enjoying the sunset like we did, be sure to stock up beforehand and bring your own. Each room is equipped with a fridge.
The View Hotel has a restaurant, with halfway decent prices and solidly mediocre food. The food isn’t bad, but it’s on par with good cafeteria food. That being said, it is convenient and the view from the restaurant is stunning. If you want to come here just for dinner and are staying elsewhere, be aware that the restaurant serves hotel guests only after 7:00 PM.
We decided to share the Navajo Sampler platter and the fried chicken dinner. The Navajo Sampler platter actually has enough food for two people, and we ended up with leftovers (good thing our room had a fridge). The sampler consisted of Green Chili Stew (be warned, it’s spicy), Red Chili Posole, Sheep Camp Mutton Stew, a mini Navajo fry bread taco, and Navajo fry bread with honey.
We highly recommend getting the Navajo tea, it was delicious. They also sell it in the gift shop.
After dinner, it was sunset and wine time. It was everything I’d hoped it would be. The View Hotel faces east, so while you can’t see the sun going down over the buttes, the sunlight from the setting sun in the west illuminates the buttes in a gorgeous red-orange light. The photos I took don’t even begin to capture the real-life beauty of the valley.
Once it was dark, the hotel showed an outdoor John Wayne movie outside the restaurant, projected onto the wall of the building.
We didn’t stay up late enough to watch the stars come out, but I did wake up in the middle of the night and went outside and looked at them. It was a surreal glitter display over the dark shadows of the buttes.
We did set our alarms for the sunrise, however. Trust me, it’s worth it.
Sunrise over Monument Valley, seen from the balcony in our room:
Monument Valley was the highlight of our entire road trip. We were sad to leave and wished we’d had another day to go on the slow dirt-road drive through the valley or go on a guided tour with a Navajo guide. I think we’ll be back though. It is a truly magical place.
We had breakfast a 10 minute drive away at Goulding’s Stagecoach. The breakfast there was outstanding, we both had their signature dish of Navajo fry bread huevos rancheros with green chili. We recommend skipping the View Hotel breakfast and coming here. Had we stayed a second night, we would have come back to Goulding’s for dinner as well.
After breakfast we drove around for a little bit to get some photos, and stopped at a Navajo handicraft stand to buy some souvenirs. We wanted to buy directly from the local Navajo people instead of the hotel gift shop.
The best roadside photos of the Valley are taken on the Utah side facing south. There are many pull-outs along the highway 163 to top and take a picture from.
If a tourist from outside the US were to ask me what the top places to see in the mainland United States are, I would put Monument Valley up towards the top of the list. There’s nowhere like it, it is truly an American experience. Not only is it beautiful, but it is a great opportunity to learn about the native Navajo people, their history and culture. Skip the Grand Canyon, go see Monument Valley.
A day in Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado. Discovering the lives of ancient cliff-dwelling Native Americans and Pueblo culture.
We visited Mesa Verde National Park on a one-week road trip through Colorado and Utah in September. I had done a Southwest road trip years ago with a friend after graduating college, and we had wanted to visit Mesa Verde but we were traveling in March and it wasn’t open yet. Summer is the best time to visit, as the high elevations and winter snowfall prevent the park from being fully open during the winter season.
We spent the night in nearby Pagosa Springs the night before, which is a good home base for exploring the park and surrounding area.
Mesa Verde National Park is located in the southwest corner of Colorado, and contains over 5,000 archeological sites and 600 ancient cliff dwellings. Only a few are open to the public. A couple cliff dwellings can be toured with a ranger guide.
We stopped by the ranger station when we arrived, and considered signing up for a ranger-guided tour of the Cliff Palace, but since we only had the morning to tour the park we opted to just do a drive and view tour at our own pace.
The road into the park ascends dramatically, offering beautiful views of the surrounding landscape. There were several viewpoint areas to pull over at.
*Note: The drive down to the cliff dwellings and pit house sites is 45 minutes from the park entrance one way, so allow at least half a day to see the park.
We stopped at the remains of some early Anasazi pit houses along the Mesa View Loop road, a few dating back to 600 AD. The houses were dug into the ground, and then walls and a roof built up from the dugout with sticks and mud.
At the end of the park are several cliff dwellings to view. Cliff Palace was the most spectacular one that we saw, and you can get a really great view of Cliff Palace from above on the Cliff Palace Loop Road.
Note that if you decide to tour Cliff Palace, Balcony House, or other open dwellings in the park, they do involve climbing stairs, steep trails, and ladders. Cliff Palace sounded like it was the least strenuous, but all of them are at high elevation. Higher elevations make exercise and hiking a lot more strenuous, so if you have a heart condition or any type of physical disability, you may want to skip the tours.
It is amazing to imagine these dwellings alive and full of the daily activity of the Anasazi people. Tiny cities tucked into the steep cliffs in the canyon. I wonder if there were more cliff trails along the canyon between the dwellings back in 1300 AD, it doesn’t look easy to access them currently. I’m sure there has been some significant erosion since they were populated.
After checking out the Cliff Dwellings, it was 1:00 PM and we were starving. Mesa Verde has two cafeteria-style restaurants, one at Far View Terrace closer to the entrance, and one at Spruce Tree Terrace closer to the cliff dwellings. Prices were reasonable, with many Southwest-style options. Paddy ordered the Navajo Taco, which was huge. It was a dinner-plate sized Navajo fry bread with chili and all your standard American taco fixings. He said it was really good, but didn’t quite make it through the whole thing. I had the black bean burger and fries which was also good.
The high elevation (and the big lunch) made us pretty tired, and we still had a couple hours to drive to our next destination, Monument Valley.
We really enjoyed Mesa Verde, but wished that we had a bit more time there. Being from Seattle, we tend to forget how much high elevations can affect your energy level if you aren’t used to it. I would have loved to hike down to the Cliff Palace, but would need to take more time. I’d recommend at least a full day or two days to really see the park. Don’t forget to bring lots of water with you and stay hydrated.
When I was sixteen, I got on a plane and flew halfway across the country to live with a family I didn’t know in a country I’d never been to, and learn a language I’d never even heard spoken before. It was the most important thing I’ve ever done, and I don’t know who I would be if I had not done it.
It was hard. It was amazing. It was frustrating. It was an educational experience that surpassed anything I could ever learn in a classroom. I made life-long friendships with other kids from all around the world, and I gained a second family. I learned about the world. I learned how to be independent.
Nineteen years later, I was boarding a plane again with Paddy back to Denmark. We’ve embarked on many international adventures together, but this one was different. I wasn’t going away this time. I was coming home.
I was nervous. The last time I saw my host family and classmates was when I was 17. Would they even want to see me after nineteen years? Did they even remember me that well? When I left Denmark in 1998, email was a new phenomenon. I had managed to find almost all of them on Facebook around 2006 or so, and I’d maintained some contact with everyone on social media since then. My classmate Ann visited me in Seattle in 2011, and urged me to come back to visit. I wanted to, but building up vacation time is a bit more of a challenge for Americans, and there were so many places in the world that I hadn’t seen yet.
Finally, I decided I had to go. I made plans with my host family and friends, brushed up on my Danish with the Duolingo App (wish I had that when I was an exchange student!), and bought our plane tickets.
We began our trip with four days in Stockholm, Sweden as I didn’t get a chance to see Sweden during my exchange year. We got over our jet lag and had a little tourist time before boarding the train to Copenhagen. Read about our adventures in Stockholm here.
I had booked tickets in advance through the Scandinavian Rail website. With train tickets, the earlier you book, the better rate you get. I think the earliest you can book in advance is three months. You do need to print your ticket. I had forgotten to print my ticket, and had only printed the confirmation. The info desk at the Stockholm Central station directed us to the auto kiosks where we were able to print our tickets using our reservation number.
We weren’t sure which train car we were supposed to be in, and we ended up in the right seats in the wrong car. We found this out when someone else showed up with a reservation for our seats. We located the correct seats, but they were unfortunately facing backwards. I get extremely motion sick if I don’t face forward in a vehicle. Fortunately the train employee was able to find us two seats facing forward that didn’t have a reservation.
When we arrived at Copenhagen Central Station, my friend Pan was waiting for us. Pan was a fellow exchange student from Thailand during my year in Denmark, and liked Denmark so much she ended up moving there and working for MAERSK. She had invited us to stay with her and her boyfriend Sebastian from Germany in their apartment near the Copenhagen airport.
If you’ve read about our travels in Thailand, the lake safari tour that we took on the floating lake house in Thailand is run by my friend Pan and her family. She runs the website from Denmark. Her family’s lake safari tour is one of our most memorable travel experiences and we highly recommend it.
It was strawberry season in Denmark, and Pan welcomed us with a traditional danish tart with strawberries and marzipan and tea. Danes have a tradition of having cake after work on Wednesdays.
For dinner, Pan showed Paddy how to cook several home-style Thai dishes that she grew up with. We were impressed with the variety of Asian produce available in Copenhagen.
Our first meal in Denmark consisted of Thai home cooking and German beer. It was delicious.
Pan and Sebastian had to work, so Paddy and I set out to be tourists in Copenhagen for the day. We got some breakfast sandwiches and coffee at a little cafe in the mall across the street, and then caught the Metro into the city center.
The Copenhagen Metro is very easy to use. If you don’t have a multi-use pass, you can purchase single use tickets from the electronic kiosks. There is often a metro employee on site to answer questions or help if needed.
No one takes your ticket when you get on the train, and there are no turnstiles to scan your ticket through to get to the train platform. If you are tempted not to pay and take a free ride, don’t. Metro employees randomly (and semi-frequently) do ticket checks on the trains and the fine for not having a ticket is pretty steep.
There was no metro in Copenhagen back in the late nineties, so it was nice to be able to easily and quickly get around the city.
We got off the train at Kongens Nytorv, which is the stop fairly close to the city center (Indre by). We used Google maps on our phones to navigate to Strøget, the pedestrian shopping street.
I remembered always wanting to go to Strøget as a teenage exchange student when I visited Copenhagen, but we walked around for approximately 5-10 minutes before we decided that there wasn’t really anything we wanted to shop for. There are some interesting shops and cafes, but clothing and other merchandise in Denmark is very expensive. It’s a nice area to see for a short amount of time, however.
We walked over to Christiansborg Palace and admired it from the perimeter. Christiansborg is the Danish parliamentary building, housing the offices of the Prime Minister and the Danish supreme court. The Danish Royal Family uses portions of the castle for receptions and events.
Several royal castles had been built and re-built at Christiansborg’s location since 1167. Christiansborg was first built in 1733 but burnt down and was rebuilt twice, with the third and current version standing since the early 1900’s.
You can tour many parts of the palace including the royal reception rooms and chapel, and some ruins of the very first castle that were excavated in the palace basement. Paddy wasn’t feeling too up to touring fancy palace rooms and I’d seen it once before, so we moved on.
We walked across the canal to the Christianshavn neighborhood. Christianshavn is a man-made island surrounded by canals. It is also home to the infamous Christiania neighborhood.
Christiania is a “free town, ” (AKA hippie commune) that began when some hippies took over some abandoned military barracks back in 1971 and set up camp. In addition to the military barracks that were there, people built their own houses with whatever free materials they could find, making for some pretty artsy and funky little abodes.
The original settlers of Christiania wanted to be able to make their own laws and government, including making marijuana legal. As you can imagine, controversy ensued and the area has had off and on battles with the police. In the 1970’s hard drugs were also part of Christiania’s culture, but after several overdoses and problems, the people of Christiania have outlawed all drugs other than marijuana. Unfortunately, this hasn’t been a completely successful campaign and problems with drug dealers and criminal gangs has been an intermittent issue.
If there is a “sketchy” neighborhood in Copenhagen, I suppose this would be it. I don’t feel threatened there but police raids are still known to happen and there have been violent incidents here in the last 10 years. Use caution, but don’t be afraid to check it out in the daytime.
If there has not been a police raid lately, you will probably see pot dealers on Pusher Street selling their wares. Note that cameras are not allowed in this area by the residents, and if you take a photo of a pot dealer he/she will not be happy with you. Leave the camera/phone in your bag.
Christiania has a number of cafes and music venues, as well as art galleries and a few shops and souvenir stands. We stopped into a bar and had a beer outside in the sun. Bring cash if you want to buy something, I’m not sure if credit cards are accepted.
On the way out we tried to stop into an art gallery but it was closed for another hour or so. I wouldn’t plan on visiting Christiania in the morning, things seem to open a little later around here. Early evening or late afternoon would probably be the best time to go. Do your Copenhagen sightseeing earlier in the day, and then come to Christiania to have a beer and check out the scene.
We hung out for a little while until it was time to meet my friend Jakob for a late lunch.
Jakob had been one of my AFS exchange program orientation leaders when I was an exchange student. He was only three years older than me and one of three young Danish volunteers that our orientation group had a lot of fun with. He had also been on exchange in South America in the mid nineties.
We had originally planned on meeting Jakob for coffee, but we hadn’t had lunch yet and were hungry. Jakob suggested Ravelinen restaurant nearby, which served upscale traditional Danish smørrebrød in a nice quiet location on the water.
Danish smørrebrød is probably the cuisine that Denmark is known the most for. It literally means “butter and bread” and consists of an open-faced sandwich on rugbrød (hearty pumpernickel bread). Rugbrød is an acquired taste for many people (myself included), but it is very hearty and healthy. You don’t need to eat very much of it to be full and you stay full for hours.
Rugbrød is just a vehicle for other delicious foods, however so if you don’t like the taste just pile on the toppings.
Jakob and I each had a dish with herring, and Paddy had a pork dish. My herring came with apples and curry and dill, and was delicious. The dishes look small, but when you put them on rugbrød and create multiple open-faced sandwiches, you soon become very full.
I can count on my hand the number of times I remember eating out at a restaurant during my year in Denmark, and I don’t even think it totals more than five. So needless to say, this was the fanciest smørrebrød I’d ever had. It was also priced accordingly.
Danes don’t go out to eat very often. Going out to eat is very expensive in Denmark, so when Danes do go out to eat it is usually a special occasion or while on vacation. You won’t find a lot of mid-range restaurants in Denmark (or Scandinavia). You will either find cheap casual eateries or fancier pricey places.
If you want to experience some traditional Danish food done very upscale, Ravelinen is a great place to go and in the summer has a nice open air view of the water.
After lunch we said goodbye to Jakob and headed back towards the metro. Paddy’s allergies were really acting up as the grass pollen was really high, so we went back to Pan and Sebastian’s apartment to rest for a while before meeting up with them for dinner.
*Note: If you have allergies or think you could possibly need any kind of over-the-counter American medicines while in Denmark, bring them with you. Most medicines in Denmark are available by prescription only, and even cold medicines aren’t available.
That evening Pan and Sebastian took us to their favorite Szechuan restaurant near the Copenhagen Central Station called Magasasa.
We didn’t expect the best Szechuan food we’d ever had to be in Copenhagen, Denmark, but it was. If you are in Copenhagen and need a break from Scandinavian cuisine, definitely check this place out.
We told Pan and Sebastian just to order their favorites and we would share. We had the crispy duck, string bean pork, beef with black pepper sauce, tofu with mixed seafood, and chow mein.
The string bean pork and the crispy fried duck were absolutely the best we’d ever had. Everything was amazing. The prices were pretty reasonable too (for Denmark anyway).
Pan and Sebastian had annual passes to Tivoli Gardens amusement park that included two guests free of charge. Tivoli Gardens is one of the biggest tourist attractions in Copenhagen, for Danes and international tourists. It is nothing like an American amusement park–you won’t find deep fried butter or toothless carnies manning sketchy rides with half of the light bulbs working.
Tivoli is meticulously maintained down to the most finite details. Beautiful manicured gardens, stages for musical acts and other performances, bars, restaurants, shops, and a variety of fun rides. Peacocks and other exotic birds freely roam the grounds.
It was raining and after 9:00 PM, so there were very few other people in the park. All the lights were coming on, and it was actually really nice to stroll around in rain coats. Downright “hyggelig,” as the Danes would say.
You may have read about the Danish word/concept of “hyggelig.” It doesn’t translate entirely to English, the closest word we have in English is “cozy.” But hyggelig is more than just warming up by a fireplace in a sweater with a hot mug of cocoa. It is about nice atmosphere, and spending time with friends and family. Inviting your friends over to drink wine and play board games on a stormy winter night with candles is hyggelig. Having a picnic dinner in a nearby park is hyggelig. Walking through Tivoli Gardens in the rain with friends and lots of colorful lights is hyggelig.
We got some beers (Carlsberg and Tuborg, of course) from an outdoor beer stand and sat and talked under a covered patio for awhile, and then walked around some more. I was glad we didn’t pay full price for the short time that we were there, but we had a really nice time exploring the park and catching up with our friends. It was really beautiful at night with all the lights, and the rain didn’t bother us. We’re from the Pacific Northwest, we are used to outdoor activities in the rain.
We stayed at Tivoli until closing time at 11:00, and decided that a few more beers might be in order before we went home. Sebastian took us to Vesterbro Bryghus (Vesterbro brewery) right around the corner from Tivoli Gardens. It was a cozy little spot with live music and good craft beer. Craft beer wasn’t really a thing in Denmark back in the 90’s, but has since become extremely popular (much like it has in many parts of the US).
Not wanting to overstay our welcome with Pan and Sebastian, and needing a couple days of alone time, we had arranged to check into an Airbnb in downtown Copenhagen for the next two nights.
Note: Airbnb is the best way to go for lodging in Denmark. Hotels are extremely expensive and tiny. With Airbnb you can find a one bedroom or studio apartment with a kitchen for less than the cost of a hotel room. We ended up staying in a hotel the last three nights of this trip, and what you get for your money in a budget hotel is pretty disappointing.
We met our Airbnb host at 11:00 AM for an early check in, which we appreciated. The apartment was located in some historic military barracks in the northern part of downtown Copenhagen, and had everything we needed including a fully stocked kitchen.
To get across town, we had to take the train to the Osterport station, and then walk about 10 minutes with all our luggage. An easy walk if you aren’t carrying a bunch of stuff. Not so much if you are. (*Tip: pack light. You will be doing a lot of walking).
After a short rest, we walked down to Nyhavn, Copenhagen’s famous picturesque harbor. If you see any tourist brochure or guidebook for Copenhagen, Nyhavn will probably be the picture on the cover. It really is colorful and lovely.
Pan had suggested that we take a canal tour of the city from Nyhavn. While super touristy, this ended up being a fabulous idea. It was a nice day, and we were a little tired from lugging our stuff around and walking around the city a bit that morning.
The canal tour was 80 Kr (about $13 US) each, and leaves Nyhavn once every hour. We showed up right as one was about too leave–perfect timing.
The tour takes you through all the canals around the city: Christianshavn, the canal around Christiansborg palace, and out to the Little Mermaid statue. Don’t expect a good view of the Little Mermaid (Lille Havfrue) from the canal tour, you only see her backside from far away. Mostly you get a view of all the tourists taking photos of her.
In fact, you don’t really get a good tour of anything in particular, but you get a nice relaxing, restful boat ride with a guide telling you about parts of the city in English, Danish, and German. If you’re tired of walking and need a break, the canal tour is a good way to rest and keep sightseeing at the same time.
After the tour we stopped at the little hotdog kiosk next to the harbor. I had the frikadeller sandwich, and Paddy had a red hot dog.
Danes love their hotdogs (pølser.) The “red hotdog” (røde pølser) is just that–a bright red hot dog. It is dyed with a red dye, which can’t be good for you. I have no idea why it’s red (maybe to match the Danish flag??). In any event, it is a very Danish fast food item. Not all the pølser at the kiosks are red, however– in case you want to try the Danish hot dogs without day-glo artificial dyes.
Paddy’s allergies were acting up again, so we decided to go back to the apartment to relax for a few before heading back out again. On the way back, we stopped in a few shops and visited Amalienborg Palace, the home of the Danish queen and royal family.
Flashback! Me at Amalienborg Palace in 1997:
Later in the afternoon we decided to walk to see the Little Mermaid statue, the proverbial Eiffel Tower of Denmark and an ode to Danish author Hans Christian Andersen. I suppose everyone has to see it, it is the number one tourist landmark in the country, but it really is rather disappointing. I’d seen it before during my exchange year but felt like I should go back and see it again with Paddy. It was early evening and the weather was nice. We had a lovely stroll through the park on the way there.
The Little Mermaid has been a victim of vandalism by teens and political activists over the years. She has had her head and arm taken off (I think more than once?), and has been painted different colors. The week before we arrived, she had been painted red as a protest against the pilot whale slaughter in the Faroe Islands.
It turned out early evening was a good time to visit Den Lille Havfrue, most of the tourist crowds visit during the day. There were a few tourists but not too many. As we were walking away I heard a man say to his friend, “She really is unremarkable, isn’t she?”
If you are a fan of Hans Christian Andersen and the Little Mermaid story, I’d suggest visiting his house and museum in the town of Odense on the island of Fyn. Odense is an easy two hour train ride from Copenhagen and the museum is just a short walk from the train station. The museum has the original hand-written stories including Den Lille Havfrue from 1837. I find his house and the museum to be much more interesting than the statue.
On the way back to the apartment we grabbed some pizza from a nearby fast food pizza restaurant for dinner. Pizza in Denmark is everywhere and cheap. It is often the preferred snack of drunk young Danes at 4:00 AM outside the bars.
At 8:00 PM we met up with a former classmate of mine, Ann and her husband Martin at a restaurant called Cofoco. Cofoco is located in the Vesterbro neighborhood not far from Copenhagen Central Station. Ann had been one of my closest classmates during my year in Denmark, and had visited us in Seattle back in 2011. It was really great to see her again and meet her husband.
Cofoco is a fancier restaurant with small plates, and we just wanted to have a few small things and some drinks. I had the ceviche dish, and the kaffir lime ice cream for dessert. Both were delicious, the ceviche was a unique preparation with green tomatoes and herbs. The kaffir lime ice cream came with white chocolate cream, crisp honey cakes, and fresh strawberries.
We finished our evening at Copenhagen’s tiki bar Brass Monkey. Because you know we just had to go to the tiki bar in Denmark.
We had originally tried to get a group of classmates together for the evening, and Ann had booked a table for us. However, it ended up just being us as one classmate came down with the flu, another had a sick child, and another was having a difficult pregnancy and ordered to be on bed rest from her doctor. It was disappointing not to see them, but I assured them I’d be back in town again in a few years. I suppose I timed my visit to be at a time when many of my classmates are at the age where they have small children to tend to. I’ll try my next visit in 5 or so years when their kids are a bit older.
Brass Monkey was a great tiki bar. The DJ played a lot of great American garage and surf hits from the 60’s, and the decor was on point. The drinks were delicious, albeit expensive (it’s Denmark after all). Ann and I shared a Volcano Bowl and then I tried a classic daiquiri. The drinks tasted like they used real fruit juice and were not overly sweet.
It was a fun evening, and we made plans to do something the next day as Ann and Martin had the day off.
We slept in and had breakfast at the apartment, and then met up with a friend and her husband for coffee at The Corner coffee bar at Restaurant 108. The coffee and pastries were great, the barista was extremely pretentious. He was annoyed when Paddy ordered a drip coffee and said that they were out and he didn’t want to make any more, so Paddy got an Americano instead. I was snapped at when I ordered a pastry off the menu that he was out of as well. Despite snobby man bun barista with the attitude, the coffee was good and we had a nice visit.
Ann and Martin had originally planned on going sight seeing outside the city with us, but I got a message from Ann that she was very hungover from the night before and would need to rest, leaving us with a free day.
We spent the afternoon walking around the neighborhood near Copenhagen University. We found some fun shops on Studiestræde, including Sex Beat Records and Wasteland vintage clothing.
In the Gameltorv (Old Square) we found a festival of Thai food and culture going on. There were many Thai street food booths and some Thai dancers performing.
We took a rest in the late afternoon back at the apartment and then headed out for dinner and a couple of drinks.
We had dinner at one of the many casual Middle Eastern “kabab” restaurants on the pedestrian shopping street. It was good and affordable. Not as cheap as in the US, but much less expensive than if we went out to a nicer restaurant.
After dinner we went to a bar called the Voodoo Lounge, which seemed like a funky little dive bar that Paddy would like.
There was some metal playing on the juke box, and lots of novelty shot specials on the drink menu. I took this opportunity to make sure that Paddy didn’t leave Denmark without trying a shot of the Hot N’ Sweet salt licorice vodka for only 20 kr (about $3).
It wasn’t his favorite. However, you shouldn’t go to Denmark without trying it once. It is very Danish.
It was early was early and we were the only patrons at the Voodoo Lounge aside from a group of 18 year old kids a couple booths down who were getting their Saturday night started early.
Young people in Denmark usually don’t go out until about 11:00 or so in the evening, after having several drinks at home with friends first to save money. Many bars don’t close until 6:00 or 7:00 in the morning, so a night out for the youth crowd pretty much means all night.
Good news for the older folks: You can usually go out and have some drinks earlier in the evening and head home around 11:00 PM, avoiding the weekend warrior brigade of drunk youngsters.
We called it a night pretty early, as we had a train to catch at 9:00 AM the next morning and we didn’t have much money to drink out at bars with (Denmark is expensive!).
Tip: Beer, wine, and booze are easily purchased at local grocery stores and bodegas, so it is easy to have a few cheap drinks in your room to save money. This isn’t the case in other Scandinavian countries like Sweden, Norway, and Iceland where you have to buy all alcohol in a government liquor store. Denmark is much more liberal with their alcohol laws and alcohol is cheaper in Denmark than elsewhere in Scandinavia.
Today was the day that I would travel to Fanø Island to visit my host family for the first time in 19 years. I was excited and nervous.
Fanø is a popular summer tourist destination for Danes and Germans who visit Fanø for its big, sandy beaches. To get to Fanø Island, you have to catch the ferry from the west coast city of Esbjerg.
The train from Copenhagen to Esbjerg takes about three hours with no transfers. The further in advance you book your train tickets, the cheaper they are. I booked the orange non-refundable tickets on the Danish DSB train website for about $15 per person a month in advance, which was a really good deal.
We managed to find our correct train car this time, and the train ride was pretty smooth.
We arrived in Esbjerg about noon, and proceeded to walk through town to the Fanø ferry. (We later learned that we could have caught the bus from the train station to the ferry, the bus is usually timed with the train and ferry arrivals). It is about a 15 minute walk.
Esbjerg was where I went to school when I lived in Denmark and where I spent a lot of time with my friends. It was a quiet Sunday, and most of the shops weren’t open quite yet despite it being past noon.
I’ve had so many dreams about going back over the past 19 years. Walking through Esbjerg, catching the ferry, walking up my host parents’ driveway. It was surreal to finally do it.
The Fanø ferry terminal had been expanded since I lived there in the 90’s, and the ferries were different. No more smoking section!
The ferry takes about 12 minutes and leaves every 30 minutes in the summer (every hour in late evening and certain times in the winter). The cost for a an adult walk on passenger is 45 Kr (about $7.25) round trip.
After another 10 minute walk through town, we arrived at my host parents’ house. My host parents (Mogens and Tove) were working in the garden. It was so great to see them after all this time.
Mogens and Tove welcomed us and prepared a traditional Danish smørrebrød (open-faced sandwich) lunch in their little garden house. We had pickled herring, ham and deli pork with a mayonnaise-vegetable salad, and hard boiled eggs with tomatoes, all served with Danish rugbrød (dense pumpernickel bread).
Shortly after lunch my host brother Jeppe and his family came over for cake and coffee, along with my host sister Sofie and and her husband. It was so great to see them, and quite a warm welcome.
Paddy and I stayed in my old room, which was just what I had hoped we would do. Mogens and Tove’s lovely house looked pretty much the same as it did in 1998, save a few updates and improvements in the kitchen and upstairs bathroom. They run a bed and breakfast during the busy summer season on Fanø called Engbo Bed & Breakfast. If you visit Fanø in the summer, you can stay with them too–and I highly recommend you do. They are wonderful people and their house is central to everything in the main town of Norby.
Tove wouldn’t let me help her with dinner that evening, so I took a short walk around town.
Fanø has many traditional grass-roof houses that date back to the 1700’s and 1800’s. They are very cute and well-maintained to this day.
Flashback! Here I am riding a bike on Hovedgaden back in 1997:
We had a really nice home-cooked dinner that evening with Mogens and Tove, drinking wine and catching up on the past 19 years.
We had breakfast in the garden in the morning–bread rolls with cheese and jam and yogurt with muesli. I love the Danish muesli-it isn’t so sweet like American granola and is much healthier for you. Yogurt in Denmark comes in milk cartons and you pour it into a bowl and put muesli on top.
After breakfast, Mogens took us on a little adventure down to Sønderho, the town on the south end of the island.
We stopped by the beach on the south end in attempt to see the seals that are often laying around on the sand bars there, but the seals were pretty far out and you needed waterproof rain boots to walk to them. It was pretty windy as well, so we skipped the seals and headed into Sønderho town for some coffee.
Funny thing about the seals–they weren’t there in the 90’s when I was living on Fanø. They showed up some time later and are now a large tourist attraction.
The restaurant Mogens took us to wasn’t open yet, but the owner let us in and served us some coffee anyway. Mogens told us all about the history of Fanø.
After coffee, we stopped by Hanne’s Hus (Hanne’s house), a historical house made into a museum to show a typical home during Fanø’s “golden age” of ship-building back in the late 1700’s. It wasn’t open as it was a Monday, but we peeked inside anyway.
Before heading back, Mogens took us on a walk to see an old duck trap on the island. It’s use for hunting was prohibited in 1931, but was used after that for many years to put tracking tags on the ducks for the purpose of scientific study. There is a large outdoor informational display at the duck decoy/trap about birds and wildlife on Fanø and the history of the duck trap.
On the way back to the car, Mogens suddenly darted off the path and out into the field, and came back with a plant that is a relative of the venus fly trap. It looked like a venus fly trap, but very tiny. A little online research upon returning home revealed it to be a relative of the venus fly trap, but a smaller carnivorous species called drosera intermedia or a “”sundew.”I’d never seen one in the wild before. Mogens took it home to try and pot it.
When we arrived back in Norby, Mogens and Tove had some things they had to do, so we took a walk through town and poked around in some of the shops. It was mostly standard butik shops and tourist fare.
On the way back we stopped at Fanø Vaffel og Bolsjehus for some soft ice cream. Before you leave Denmark, be sure to try the ice cream. The soft ice cream (soft is) is very sweet and creamy and different than the soft ice cream in the US. It is often served with sprinkles or chocolate dust on top.
Hard ice cream is also delicious in Denmark, and is served with real whip cream and a sweet cream on top. It’s hard to describe–just try it. As a matter of fact, don’t leave Denmark without trying some sort of local dairy product. Cheese, ice cream, butter–try it all. Dairy is something that Danes do very well.
Fanø Vaffel og Bolsjehus is also a great place to buy candy to take home to share with family and co-workers. Danes love hard candy and gummy candies, especially black licorice. Try the salt licorice–it’s an acquired taste but very Scandinavian.
Later that evening I helped Tove harvest some new potatoes from her garden for dinner. When I lived in Denmark, we didn’t always have fresh garden potatoes for dinner, but we always had potatoes. Every night. I didn’t know how to cook when I was an exchange student, but I could peel potatoes and wash dishes. So that’s what I did every night. Every night. Fortunately, I love potatoes.
For dinner Tove and Mogens made the quintessential Danish dinner, Frikadeller. Frikadeller are fried meatballs made with pork or a combo of beef and pork, and usually served with boiled potatoes and some sort of gravy sauce. Mogens and Tove argued about how they should be cooked, Mogens thought they should be crispy on the outside and Tove was worried that he would burn them. They turned out delicious, whatever the cooking consensus.
We had a traditional Danish appetizer while cooking of some laks (smoked salmon lox) on French bread with butter and fresh dill from the garden. I remember my host parents serving this at Christmas and whenever we had company over for dinner. It’s delicious with white wine.
Dinner was just how I remembered many dinners as an exchange student, and it was really nice to share the experience with Paddy.
After dinner we sat at the table and had coffee, wine, and snaps, talking until late in the evening.
Danish snaps (schnapps) is not like what we consider schnapps in the US. It is more of a vodka/potato based aquavit type of liquor, not a sweet syrupy flavoring liqueur.
Mogens had a couple kinds of snaps he flavored with berries and herbs from his garden. Danes drink snaps at celebrations, when company comes to dinner–or any time at all, really. It is a drink meant to be sipped.
After another lovely breakfast of bread, cheese, and yogurt with museli, Paddy and I ventured out into town in search of the infamous Fanø seals. Mogens and Tove told us that they often like to lay on the sand bar near the Norby ferry.
Sure enough, there were many fat, lazy, happy seals sunning themselves on the sand bar by the ferry. They were in many different colors, and all seemed to be smiling and quite pleased with themselves.
After enjoying the seals, we continued down to the ferry dock and strolled along the beach near the ferry in search of more seals, and amber. We found a few amber-colored rocks, but no amber.
Amber (fossilized tree sap) washes up on the beaches of Fanø during storms, and can be polished up to make jewelry. You can find amber jewelry in the little shops in Norby to buy as a souvenir. The best place to look for Amber is on the southern beaches of the island.
We happened to be on Fanø during the Fanø International Kite Festival, which happens every June. I remembered the festival from my exchange year, and was excited to see it again. People come from all over the world to fly unique and interesting kites on Fanø’s immense sandy beaches.
Tove and Mogens let us borrow their bikes, so we rode to the beach to check it out.
Bikes are a main mode of transportation for many people in Denmark, and was my only mode of transportation around the city and island when I was an exchange student. My host family didn’t even own a car back then. I hadn’t been on a bike since I was about 18 years old, but turns out–you really don’t forget how to do it.
It was a little less windy than the day before (there is such a thing as too windy for kites), and closer to the weekend so there were many kites out on the beach.
We could have ridden for miles and looked at all the kites, but the wind was a bit difficult to ride a bike in, so we just went a little ways.
On the way home, we stopped at the Mission Afrika Genbrug thrift store. If you see a shop in Denmark that has “genbrug” in it’s name, it means thrift store (literal translation: recycle/reuse). I love thrift stores in foreign countries, you can often find a very inexpensive and unique souvenir.
I hit the jackpot on this thrift store visit– I found a Norwegian wool sweater for only 40 kr –a little over $6.00 USD. Norwegian sweaters are upwards of $200-$300 USD new, and this one fit me and was in great condition. Score!
We ended the afternoon with a beer at the new Fanø Bryghhus across the street. Inside the brewery was pretty production oriented, but you could ring a bell and buy a glass of beer on tap from one of the workers inside. I tried the special kite beer they had for the festival weekend. It was really good. There was outdoor seating available.
That evening Mogens and Tove had invited my host Aunt and Uncle and my AFS liason from my exchange year and her husband over for dinner. My AFS liason Marianne had also been the host mother of one of my closest exchange student friends. Paddy is a great cook, and we wanted to cook an American dinner for everyone. We decided prior to traveling that we would do this, and brought along a recipe for Louisiana style shrimp and grits with collard greens and cornbread.
Grits, collard greens, and cornbread are all things that you won’t find in Denmark (at least they would be very difficult to come by). Anticipating this, I had been lugging a box of grits, cornbread mix, Cajun seasoning, and smoked paprika around in my suitcase since we landed in Stockholm.
Having purchased our shrimp earlier that day at Fanø Fisk in Norby, we walked next door to the shiny new Super Brugsen in search of the rest of our ingredients.
We managed to find a type of green leafy cabbage that was similar to collard greens, and we found everything else we needed including a spicy sausage that ended up tasting just like Cajun andouille sausage. We even found cheddar cheese for the grits–which I’ve never seen in any household in Denmark, but someone must eat it if they sell it at the grocery store.
It was successful! I think our dining companions found the food to be tasty but a bit rich to eat very often. We chose southern American food because Pacific Northwest food would be a delicious salmon dinner–and salmon is already common meal in Denmark as well. We wanted to go with something different and possibly something new that my Danish family hadn’t had before.
It was so nice to catch up with everyone and I felt very welcomed “home.” After dinner the conversation turned into mostly Danish and I felt a bit bad for Paddy as I could follow most of it but not all…but then again that was what the first three months of being an exchange student was like: a lot of participation in family activities and not understanding anything. Paddy was a good sport.
The next day, it was time to say goodbye and head back to Esbjerg. We took some photos in the garden and then Mogens drove us to the ferry. They said they would like to come visit us in Seattle next summer and I hope they do.
Mogens stood on the pier and waved at us until the ferry was out of sight. I teared up a little.
At the Esbjerg ferry terminal we were able to catch the bus to the train station. The driver was even able to provide change.
From the train station we walked a short block over to the Cabinn Hotel on Skolegade. Our room was ready. This was our first taste of a budget hotel in Denmark–the Cabinn was like getting the shittiest room on a cruise ship. The bathroom had a very airplane bathroom-like quality to it. The shower was pretty much on top of the toilet. This is what you get for $135/night in Denmark. I think I booked the second from the lowest rate room as well. The “economy” room advertised a very skinny twin bed with an equally skinny pull-out trundle bed underneath. The rate did include a more than adequate continental breakfast, however.
Esbjerg was the city I went to school in during my exchange year, and the city where most of my classmates lived. I spent a lot of time in Esbjerg, and it was a trip to be back after so long.
We freshened up at the hotel and then walked around the pedestrian shopping street (Kongensgade) and main square a bit. We wanted to get something inexpensive for lunch, but there weren’t a lot of casual, affordable lunch options. We settled on dönerkebab sandwiches at Babylon Pizza on Skolegade. Skolegade street is where all the bars and nightlife are, and I remember going to Babylon Pizza for a late night slice or two back during my exchange year. I’d never been there in the light of day. The chicken dönerkebab I had was really good. It was huge, a bit too big for me to finish. Good value for an inexpensive lunch.
After lunch we walked around Esbjerg some more. The town square looked just as I remembered it.
We also walked up to my old school, which was a different school now. There wasn’t anyone there, exams were over and the school was empty. The door was unlocked though, so we walked in and peeked inside. It looked exactly the same.
Later that evening, we met up with some of my old classmates at the restaurant Dronning Louise in the town square. Dronning means queen in Danish, and Dronning Louise restaurant and bar has been around since before I was an exchange student. I remember many nights dancing until the wee hours in the upstairs bar with my classmates. I’d never eaten at the restaurant though–eating out in Denmark was too expensive for me back then.
It was really great to see some of my classmates again. We had a really nice time catching up. I wished I had more time in Esbjerg to spend with them other than just the one evening.
The menu was good, mostly upscale pub grub. Expensive, but not too outrageous. Paddy and I both ordered burgers. I had the grilled halloumi burger with portobello mushrooms, avocado, red onion, and pepper chutney. It was delicious, but HUGE. I only made it through half of my burger–I definitely wasn’t expecting the biggest burger ever to be served to me in Denmark.
It was a Wednesday night, so we didn’t make it a late one. Paddy and I had an early train to catch the next morning anyway. It was a really nice evening, the best weather we’d had so far during our trip.
Back to Copenhagen
The Cabinn had a nice continental breakfast, despite the small, cramped rooms. It was typical Scandinavian breakfast fare– breads, meats, cheeses, cucumbers, hard boiled eggs, yogurt, museli, etc.
The Cabinn location next to the Esbjerg train station was also a big bonus.
Once again, we ended up in the right seats in the wrong train car. The train cars were not labeled with the same car numbers as on the tickets when we boarded, and the digital car numbers weren’t changed until after we had settled in. So we had to get all our bags and move once again, which was super annoying. Be sure to double check your train car number.
We had booked two last nights in Copenhagen before flying home at the First Hotel Twentyseven near the Copenhagen Central Station. I realized as we walked the half mile to the hotel that “near” is a relative term when carrying luggage.
Our room wasn’t ready, but they were happy to store our luggage while we walked around. We were hungry, so we began a hunt for an affordable lunch in the area. This once again proved difficult. If you don’t want pizza, kebab, or McDonalds, you are pretty much going to pay high prices.
We circled around a few times, realizing that we were in the touristy area of Copenhagen. We finally settled on a place called Rio Bravo, which had a comical American “wild west” theme but served Danish food. Mostly, we just wanted to sit down and kill time and have a beer and some lunch. It was close to the hotel. Not cheap, but we were there, so we went in.
Paddy had a Caesar salad with chicken and I had a Danish fried fish dish with pumpernickel bread, and we each had a beer. I think we spent around $50. The food was alright. Not $50 alright, but alright.
Back at First Hotel Twentyseven, we waited until check in time exactly before our room was ready. The hotel definitely has a hipster theme going on.
Our room was small, but not too cramped with a nice bathroom. It included complimentary instant coffee, tea, and a few snacks. I think we spent about $175 a night, breakfast not included. The bed had an older, saggy mattress which was disappointing. Overall, we can’t recommend Airbnb enough. Hotels in Scandinavia are expensive and just not worth the price.
We spent a little while relaxing and then walked to the metro station to take the metro to visit my host sister Ny and her family for dinner at her house. It was great to meet her husband and beautiful daughters, and there was even a surprise visit from my host cousin Johan.
On the way back to the hotel from the metro station we walked by Mojo Blues Club and went in. A Danish woman and her band were performing classic American blues songs. It wasn’t what we were expecting to find in Copenhagen, but the band was really good. We wanted to stay longer but the cigarette smoke was too much. We found it odd that it is illegal to smoke in all bars in Denmark except this one (??). It’s too bad, it’s a great music spot.
On our last day in Denmark, I had grandiose plans of getting up early and taking the train to Kronborg Castle (AKA “Hamlet’s Castle) in Helsingør, as it was my favorite castle that I saw during my exchange year. I had also wanted to try and tour Rosenborg Castle as well in Copenhagen.
However, after non-stop going from place to place and visiting people, we really just needed a lazy day. We had a great time visiting everyone, but we kind of felt like we needed a vacation from our vacation. So we slept in late, and then went and had coffee and sandwiches at Kontra Coffee around the corner from our hotel. Their coffee was delicious and came with a little piece of chocolate to dip in. The sandwiches were also great and the price was reasonable.
We spent the rest of the afternoon resting and reading books and doing a lot of nothing.
That evening we had dinner plans with my friend Ann and her husband again at their house in the town of Ganløse, about an hour’s train ride northwest of Copenhagen.
We met Ann at the train station in Hillerød and she drove us by Fredericksborg Castle on the way home. The castle was closing and it began pouring rain, so we didn’t get a great look at it but it was really awesome. Fredericksborg Castle is a good day trip idea from Copenhagen if you have a few days in the city.
Ann introduced us to her kids and she and her husband Martin made a delicious home-cooked Danish dinner. We wished we could have stayed later to continue catching up with them, but we had a 6:00 AM flight back home the next morning so we couldn’t stay that late. It was a nice evening.
We had originally chosen First Hotel Twentyseven because it was close to the Copenhagen Central Station so that we could easily get to the airport when we left. After considering the half mile walk with luggage, the pouring rain, and leaving for the airport at 3:00 AM, we opted just to take a taxi to the airport from the hotel. It was expensive–about $50 USD but worth it to avoid the hassle of carrying luggage in the rain and trying to catch a train at 3:00 AM. Sometimes your convenience is worth it, and this was definitely one of those times.
My return to Denmark was the trip I had hoped it would be. I didn’t get to see everyone I wanted to see, and I had wanted to do a few more tourist things with Paddy, but overall it was a fantastic trip back.
If you are visiting Denmark for the first time, my biggest piece of advice for you is to get out of Copenhagen. Most tourists just stop off in Copenhagen and call it good. There is much more to Denmark than Copenhagen. It may be a tiny country, but it has some interesting things to offer.
Here is a list of suggested places to visit in Denmark outside of Copenhagen:
And finally, if my host family or Danish classmates are reading this, I want to say thank you. Thank you to my host family for taking a strange American girl into their home for a year and making her part of your family. Thank you for such a warm welcome “home.” And thank you to my classmates for accepting me for who I was, helping me learn Danish, and helping me navigate teenage Danish culture. Being an exchange student in your country grew my soul and helped define the person I wanted to be more than any other experience in my life. I went home humbled, empowered, confident, and hungry to see the world. I promise it won’t take another 20 years for me to make it back to Denmark again. Thank you.
A fun camping weekend and an easy relaxing day hike on the Sunrise side of Mt Rainier National Park. A perfect day hike if you are out of shape or short on time and want some great views of Mt Rainier.
Paddy and I have been to Mt Rainier National Park a few times, but only to the Sunrise Side once and that time we didn’t actually go to the visitor’s center. Every time we go to Mt Rainier National Park we are blown away by how beautiful it is. On this trip we camped outside of the park at Silver Springs Campground, and did a quick and easy trek on the Silver Forest hike from the Sunrise Visitor Center in the park.
The Sunrise side of Mt Rainier National Park is the northern side of the mountain, and is a little less visited then the popular Paradise visitor center. At 6,400 ft above sea level, it is the highest elevation point in the park to visit by vehicle. There are several great hiking trails that start at the Sunrise visitor center parking lot.
*Camping tip: Even though spring seems way too early to make summer camping plans, the recreation.gov website allows you to make camping reservations up to six months in advance, starting in January. Weekends in July and August fill up fast, so I like to get a reservation in for a good site (you get to pick your site out) around March. If your plans change and you have to cancel, you get a full refund minus the $10 reservation fee as long as you cancel at least two days before your arrival date.
The campground hosts have firewood for sale (cash only) or you can purchase it at the Greenwater General Store about 15 minutes away. This is the closest store with provisions, so if you find that you have forgotten something, stock up here.
We set up camp, sprayed ourselves with bug spray, and cooked hot dogs, beans, and corn for dinner with the campfire.
I set the alarm for 7:00, as it is best to get an early start when hiking at Mt Rainier on a summer weekend. We made coffee with our camp stove and french press, ate hard boiled eggs and granola for breakfast, and set out up the mountain.
Not far down on the 410 highway heading south from the campground is the Sunrise Park Road. The White River ranger station will collect your national park entrance fee of $25.00, good for one week. After passing the fee station, the visitor center is another 40 minutes up the mountain. It is a beautiful drive.
We arrived at the Sunrise Visitor Center at around 9:00 AM. There were lots of cars in the parking lot already, but still a lot of spaces left. The Visitor Center building wasn’t open yet, but a park ranger was standing outside and answering questions from the hikers. He provided lots of helpful info on trail conditions. Even though it was July, some of the higher elevation trails had too much snow still and weren’t suitable for hiking in certain areas.
Everyone there was gung-ho about going up the high elevation trails, but we opted for the easy-breezy Silver Forest hike. The Sunrise elevation is pretty high for us sea-level dwellers with desk jobs, and we prefer to do uphill hiking at lower elevations. The Silver Forest hike is fairly even the whole way. The trail starts from the left side of the parking lot facing the visitor center building. The trail is an out-and-back hike, so you have to hike to the end and then turn around and return back to where you started.
For such an easy trail, the Silver Forest hike offered amazing views of Mt. Rainier. If you’re not very in shape or are short on time, this hike offers big bang for your hiking buck (so to speak).
After a (too) short amount of time, we reached the end of the maintained trail (about a mile in). We weren’t ready to go back so we continued for a little ways on the not-so-maintained part of the trail, which was really more or less a ditch someone dug. It kept going, but was a bit difficult to walk in as it was deep and narrow. We stopped when we ran into some snow. We could have gone around, but decided to head back.
The way back had the best views, as you are facing Mt Rainier the entire time.
Overall, the trail was shorter than I would have preferred, but the views were excellent. If you are visiting Seattle and want to do a day trip to Rainier and don’t have time for a big hike, the Silver Forest hike is perfect for a quick dose of “Mt. Rainier-lite.” Your photos will look like you did some major hiking, and all your friends will be jealous.
When we arrived back at the parking lot we checked out the information displays at the visitor center, and then began our descent down the mountain. We left at a little before 11:00 AM, and rangers were already directing traffic into the overflow parking on the side of the road.
*Tip: If going to Mt Rainier on a Saturday or Sunday in July or August, GET THERE EARLY. If you are doing a day trip from Seattle, I’d recommend getting on the road around 7:00 AM at the latest to make sure you get a decent parking spot and get on your hike before the trails get crowded.
We stopped at a lookout a short ways down the mountain that provided views of some alpine lakes and Mt Adams in the distance.
At the bottom of Sunrise Park Rd, we passed a very long line of cars waiting at the entrance fee station. It looked like about a half hour wait just to enter the park. Again, GET THERE EARLY.
We spent the rest of the afternoon reading and relaxing at the camp site, and listening to the White River. Living in the city near the airport makes us really appreciate the sounds of nature whenever we are able to get away.
The Silver Forest hike wasn’t my favorite hike in Mt Rainier National Park, but it was a nice and easy scenic jaunt. If you are able to do a longer hike that is slightly more challenging at a lower elevation, I’d recommend the Naches Peak loop hike. It is also on the Sunrise side of the park and one of our favorites.
Stockholm, Sweden 2017: Exploring the old world charm of Gamla Stan and up-and-coming Södermalm, dinner at a viking restaurant, and the ABBA Museum
Paddy and I were heading to Denmark in 2017, my first time visiting the country since spending a year as a high school exchange student back in 1997-98. During my exchange year I visited Norway twice with my host family, but never made it to Sweden. (Okay technically we drove through Sweden once in the middle of the night, but that doesn’t count). Since it was easy to book our flight into Stockholm and out of Copenhagen, we spent the first four days of our Scandinavian adventure in Stockholm.
First, a note about Stockholm: Like the rest of Scandinavia, it’s EXPENSIVE. After a bit of research while planning this trip, I came to the conclusion that renting an Airbnb is hands-down the best way to go for lodging. I had a difficult time finding a hotel room in a good location with a private bathroom for under $200 USD per night. I was able to find us a one bedroom apartment in Södermalm (the southern, “hipster” neighborhood) in a great location near public transit for $150 a night. Not only did we get a full one-bedroom apartment all to ourselves, we had a full kitchen and were able to save a lot of money on breakfast and lunch through self-catering. If you are looking to do Stockholm on a budget, Airbnb is definitely the way to go.
We arrived in Stockholm in early evening after approximately 15 hours of travel from Seattle (10 hour Delta flight from Seattle to Amsterdam, and a two hour KLM flight from Amsterdam to Stockholm). We collected our luggage and after a fair amount of walking through the airport located the airport train station.
*Side note about Delta’s long-haul international flights: I haven’t always had the best experiences with Delta’s domestic flights within the US, but we were surprisingly pleased with the international flight. The flight attendants were friendly, we were fed a hot meal and two snacks, had a wide array of free movies to choose from on individual seat-back screens, and we were provided with alcoholic beverages free of charge. We were even given hot towels at the beginning and end of the flight.
The Stockholm Arlanda Airport train station (look for the Arlanda C signs in the airport) has three train options to choose from. There is the Arlanda Express, the high speed train between the airport and Stockholm Central Station downtown, the SJ train for long distance commutes outside of Stockholm, and the Pendeltåg commuter train which makes more stops throughout the city and south of the city.
Since we were going past the city center to the southern Södermalm neighborhood, the Pendeltåg commuter train was the one we wanted, according to Google Maps. (The Google Maps app has become my most valuable app while traveling, it is great at figuring out public transportation almost anywhere). There were automated machines for tickets on the Arlanda Express and the SJ trains, but we didn’t see one for the Pendeltåg. We were able to buy our tickets directly from a ticket seller in the train station and pay with our credit card. It was roughly $17 per person for the train tickets, including the airport transportation fee (120 SEK per person).
The Pendeltåg took 40 minutes to get to Stockholm Södra station (twice the time of the Arlanda Express to Stockholm Central) but it was an easy ride.
From Stockholm Södra station we used Google Maps to navigate to our Airbnb apartment on Högbergsgatan. It was a bit more of a walk than we anticipated, mostly because Google Maps took us through some sort of “short cut” through a couple parks and we got a bit confused. When we arrived at the apartment, our Airbnb host Marco was waiting for us with the key and made sure we were able to find everything we might need in the apartment.
After unpacking and washing up, we were starving. We headed out in search of sustenance.
We walked over to the main arterial street Gotgatan and found ourselves eventually in Medborgarplatsen, or “citizen square.” It was about 8:00 PM on a Saturday night, and there were several outdoor eateries and beer gardens full of people getting their evening started. We looked at several menus and decided on fish and chips from Bodanra By Melander.
Two relatively small portions of fish and chips and two beers ran us about $47.00 USD. More than we wanted to spend, but those are typical Swedish prices for you. The fish and chips were delicious, though, and came with a side of Danish curry remoulade.
It was a nice evening, but not super warm. There were carts of complimentary blankets out for diners to keep warm. Nice touch.
**Money saving tip: If you like to drink, bring booze with you.
One of the most expensive things that you will encounter in Sweden is alcohol. A beer at a bar will run you between $7-$10 each, a glass of wine $10-$12, and a cocktail $15-$20. Sweden imposes a high tax on alcohol, with the highest alcohol content incurring the highest tax (cocktails and hard liquor). Beers sold in the grocery stores are only allowed to be 3.5% alcohol. Beer with higher alcohol percentages and all other wines and spirits are sold only at Systembolaget state-run liquor stores. These stores are closed on Sundays and in the evenings.
Having read this before traveling, we brought box wine with us from home. According to the Swedish customs website, you are allowed to bring one liter of spirits or four liters of wine per person into the country. Box wine packs well in a suitcase and fits four bottles of wine per box. We like the Bota Box brand. It’s cheap, but decent quality.
After our $47 fish and chips and beer, we headed back to the apartment to have a couple glasses of our box wine before bed. We stopped at the grocery store near our apartment building and picked up some bread, cheese, and other items for breakfast in the morning. We found the Swedish grocery prices to be very reasonable, and not much different from in the US.
**Regarding tipping at bars and restaurants: It isn’t customary to tip in Stockholm, which helps ease the pain of the high prices a bit. It isn’t uncommon however to tip for exceptional service. If you do tip your server, the standard tip is 10%. We tipped our server 10% at the two nicer dinners we had at this trip, as the service was very good.
After making our own coffee and breakfast at the apartment, we were ready to go explore Gamla Stan.
Gamla Stan is the original old town of Stockholm, dating back to 1252. The old buildings are well-preserved and it is one of the biggest tourist attractions in the city. If you are looking for quaint little shops and restaurants and souvenirs, this is the place to find them.
Gamla Stan was only a half mile north of our apartment in Södermalm, so we were easily able to walk there. If you aren’t someone who is able to walk a lot, the T-Bana (Tunnelbana) subway train is a good option from most parts of the city. It can get pricey for single-use tickets, however at $5.00 USD per person per ride. The train is very easy to use, and you can buy tickets with your credit card from any of the electronic kiosks available when you enter the underground stations.
We wandered through the narrow medieval cobble-stone streets until we ended up on the north end of Gamla Stan in front of the Royal Palace.
The Royal Palace wasn’t too crowded, so we decided to check it out. If you are someone who is interested in European monarchies and history, this would probably be a good attraction for you. It was interesting, but not the highlight of our trip. There are several sections of the museum to explore, but we just toured the Royal Treasury and the Royal Apartments.
We started with the Royal Treasury as that is where you purchase tickets. It was interesting to see all the royal crowns, sceptres, and orbs of past royal family members.
We moved on to the Royal Chapel and Royal Apartments.
It was all very regal and somewhat interesting and worth a stop. However, if you are trying to fit a lot into a short amount of time in Stockholm and don’t have time for everything, I think this is one attraction that you can skip if you aren’t really interested in Royal family history.
When we had enough of the Royal Palace, we found an exit and ended up walking out into a front row view of the changing of the guards, which a large crowd of people had obviously been waiting a while to see. I’ve seen a few changing of guards in my day, and it’s not THAT exciting. It’s cool to see if you happen upon it, but it’s not something I would wait around for in a crowd.
We wandered around Gamla Stan a little more, stopping by the infamous Stortorget (big square) in the middle of Gamla Stan. It is the oldest town square in the city, and host to colorful and picturesque buildings. I read that in December Stortorget is host to a big Christmas market, which sounds like it would be fun to see if you are visiting at that time.
By this time it was late afternoon and our feet were getting a bit tired, so we walked back to our apartment in Södermalm for a rest.
That evening we had a dinner reservation at Aifur Krog and Bar Viking Restaurant in Gamla Stan. Aifur Krog and Bar ended up being one of the highlights of our trip. Aifur was a surprising example of touristy done right.
**Tip–definitely make a reservation here, it’s a popular place. I easily made a reservation through their website a week prior to our trip.
Aifur is set up to look like the inside of an old medieval viking tavern or ship. The tables are communal and the light is from candles. Sheep skins are draped across the benches at the tables and the silverware is modeled after old viking utensils. The staff dress in old viking attire and appeared to enjoy their jobs. The attention to detail throughout the restaurant was very impressive.
When you arrive, the host asks your names and where you are from, and then blows on a sheep horn and loudly announces you to the entire restaurant. Everyone claps.
We were seated next to a couple who didn’t seem to want to be social, but they left shortly after we arrived. Our next dining companions were a woman from California and her Mom (announced to the restaurant by our host as “Lydia and her Mom”). They were much friendlier.
We ordered mead, as it seemed like the right thing to do. The mead menu was extensive. I had a berry mead and Paddy had a spicy chili mead. The waitress let us sample the meads before we committed to a full glass, which was nice. The chili mead was really good. Not sure if they had chili peppers back in the viking days, but it was damn good.
Aifur’s menu was full of historical detail about each dish. I went with Varangian’s Roasted Dwarf Chicken, and Paddy had the Indulgence of the Raven Lord. Paddy chose his mostly on title alone, because he couldn’t not try something called “The Indulgence of the Raven Lord.” The Indulgence was a marinated flap steak, with juniper roasted pork belly, parsnip cake, sprouts, baby onions, and a red wine sauce.
The dishes were plenty hearty by themselves, we were glad that we hadn’t ordered appetizers.
Towards the end of our meal, the restaurant was looking more and more empty. We wondered for a moment if reservations had been necessary, but were assured that they were when our host blew the sheep horn and announced the arrival of “a bunch of Austrian bankers.” The restaurant was soon filled with Austrian bankers, ready to eat, drink, and make merry. We asked for our bill, as the waitstaff was quickly becoming overwhelmed with the new guests.
Aifur viking restaurant was a bigger highlight of our trip to Stockholm than we expected it to be. The attention to detail in everything from the decor to the well-researched menu to the attire of the waitstaff was phenomenal. If you’re going to Stockholm, try not to miss this place. Be sure to make an advance online reservation.
After dinner, we thought maybe we’d continue with the theme and duck into the bar at nearby Sjätte Tunnen medieval restaurant for a drink.
Sjätte Tunnen was a little campier than Aifur, but still looked like it might be fun. I ordered their rose hip mead special, which was good but a very tiny pour, not sure it was $8.00 USD worth. The bar portion of the restaurant was rather empty and isolated, good for a date or intimate conversation if that’s what you are looking for.
We would have loved to have some more drinks and explore more bars in the Gamla Stan area, but it was just too expensive. We brought box wine for this reason, so we went back to our apartment to relax.
**Money-saving tip: If you do bring your own booze but don’t want to drink in your room/apartment, bring a water bottle or thermos and take it to the park. It is not illegal to drink in parks in Sweden. Even cheaper–get some food at the grocery store and have a picnic for dinner.
Our second full day in Stockholm was my birthday, and the thing I wanted to do most was go to the ABBA Museum. I’m not a huge fan of ABBA, but I am all about unusual museums. I am also not at all opposed to getting on the dance floor when “Dancing Queen” comes on at a wedding reception. ABBA did write some catchy tunes.
Just about all the museums in Stockholm are conveniently located in one island location in the city called Djurgården. You can easily get to Djurgården by passenger ferry from the Slussen/Gamla Stan ferry terminal, tickets are just like the T-bana and are $5.00 USD per person each way. You may purchase tickets at the ticket window at the ferry terminal.
I had read that the ABBA Museum get’s pretty busy, and they only allow a certain amount of visitors into the museum at a time to make the experience enjoyable and not over-crowded. You can also buy your tickets in advance online for a slight discount.
We didn’t want to have a set schedule, so we just got up early and arrived shortly after the museum opened. The ABBA Museum was a short walk from the Djurgården ferry.
On the way to the museum, we witnessed a procession of policemen on horses. Not sure what this was about.
When we arrived, the ABBA Museum was pretty empty, and no one was in line. Tickets were a bit more than I expected at $30 USD per adult, but se la vie.
We walked down a spiral staircase into a brightly colored disco-tastic experience, but this was only the pre-ABBA museum area. The museum combines the main ABBA attraction with a Swedish music and pop exhibit, which you can view before and at the end of the ABBA experience.
We left the rainbow disco room through a black curtained door, and were immediately assaulted by a larger-than-life movie screen montage of ABBA music and performances. After that, we entered the main portion of the ABBA museum. There were very detailed exhibits on each performer’s history and background, what their recording studio and dressing rooms would have looked like, and all of their glorious (or horrendous?) costumes.
There were interactive exhibits as well where you could sing (and record and purchase) your karaoke ABBA track, or have a photo of your face imposed on each ABBA member’s face and dance around, your moves reflected back on a video screen (this part was a bit creepy). You could also go onstage and karaoke your favorite ABBA song with projections of ABBA dancing and performing on a stage along side you. If you are someone who is really into ABBA, you will probably have a great time.
The museum ended with more of the Swedish music exhibit, complete with videos of famous bands from the US, UK, and other countries performing at the amusement park next to the ABBA Museum (Tivoli Grönalund).
There are all sorts of fun, over-priced things to tempt you in the gift shop on your way out, we left with a Christmas ornament, magnet, and some ABBA Museum chapstick. We passed on the $25 coffee mugs and the “knit-your-own Agnetha hat” kit.
When we left, there was a line at the ABBA Museum that we were glad we avoided by getting there early.
There are a number of museums in Djurgården, all within walking distance from each other. There is only so much museum we can handle in one day, so we thought we’d check out the most popular of all the museums, the Vasa Museum and then call it good for the day. The Vasa Museum is an exhibit of the infamous Vasa ship that sank in Stockholm Harbor in 1628, and was dredged up and made into a museum 333 years later.
To our disappointment, we didn’t get to the Vasa Museum early enough. The tour buses had all arrived, and the line to get into the museum was almost a half mile long. We decided it wasn’t worth it.
In retrospect, it might have been a better idea to visit the Vasa Museum first right when it opened, and then the ABBA Museum afterward as the Vasa Museum was clearly the most popular attraction.
We made our way back to the ferry, fighting through the massive ticket crowds outside the Tivoli amusement park, and enjoyed a nearly-empty boat ride back to Gamla Stan while incoming ferries arrived overflowing with tourists. We were happy to escape.
We were pretty hungry when we arrived back, so we stopped at the nearby fried-herring food truck called Nystekt Strömming just a short walk from the ferry towards Södermalm in Slussen. For a very reasonable price, we enjoyed delicious fried herring burgers and sparkling waters. Also offered were fried or grilled herring plate lunches with mashed potatoes and pickles. This was probably the most affordable authentic Swedish food we encountered on our trip.
We spent the rest of the afternoon exploring some of the shops on Götgatan Street in Södermalm. My favorite was a shop called Flying Tiger that had a bunch of really random (but fun) inexpensive stuff.
For dinner that evening, we decided to splurge as it was my birthday and all. We had made a reservation at Pelikan, an upscale traditional Swedish restaurant in Södermalm that was featured on Anthony Bourdain’s show No Reservations.
Pelikan has been a restaurant in Stockholm since 1664, has moved twice and has been in it’s current location since 1931.
The service was excellent, as was the food. We started with the charcuterie plate and the Gubbröra, a sort of salad with eggs, fresh anchovies, parsley and dill served on sweet brown bread with an egg yolk to put on top. The charcuterie plate included prosciutto, reindeer salami, pickles, and two types of Swedish cheeses. The reindeer salami was our favorite thing on the charcuterie plate, hands down.
The Swedish aquavit menu was quite extensive. I’ve never tried aquavit before, so I asked the waitress what she would recommend. She brought us two different kinds, mine had “floral” flavors. It was served on ice and definitely tasted like flowers. Paddy had only tried an anise-based aquavit before, and he found it refreshing to taste a more herbaceous variety. We had no idea there were so many different kinds. From what I understand, aquavit is essentially a vodka distilled with herbs and other flavors. It is something you sip slowly and is often served at celebratory dinners or gatherings.
For our entrees Paddy tried the roasted reindeer with root vegetable terrine and lingonberry sauce, and I had the fish special with fresh herbs, bleak roe, and mushrooms with a light sauce (I am not sure exactly what fish it was, but it tasted a bit like trout). It was light and fragrant and delicious. Paddy really enjoyed his reindeer, which he said had a strong, rich flavor.
For dessert we shared the chocolate terrine, which was delicious. It wasn’t super sweet–almost kind of like a chocolate cheese. It’s hard to describe but was very good. The waitress even added a candle for my birthday.
Pelikan was the biggest meal splurge on our trip to Stockholm and Denmark, and it didn’t disappoint. If you are looking for upscale traditional Swedish cuisine in an historic beer hall location, this is your place.
Having spent a pretty penny on dinner, we opted not to go out for some drinks afterward, but to relax back at the apartment with our box wine.
Our last full day in Stockholm had the best weather. There were a number of things we could have done with our day: day trips to either Drottningholm Palace or the historic viking village of Sigtuna, a ferry ride in the Stockholm archipelago, or another attempt at the Vasa Museum. But we didn’t really feel like having a plan, or dealing with buses or ferries or trains. So we opted just to walk around and see a bit more of Gamla Stan and Södermalm.
We walked around Stockholm harbor in the sunshine, and then back through Gamla Stan for a little bit of final souvenir shopping.
After much walking in the sun, we decided to take a “fika” (Swedish coffee break) at Wayne’s Coffee in Södermalm. Paddy had a coffee and I had a mojito lemonade (lemonade with mint leaves) and a kanelbullar, which is pretty much the national pastry of Sweden. It is essentially a yeast-bread cinnamon bun, but without all the nasty frosting and extra sugar the American cinnamon buns come with. Instead, it is light and airy, and has a sprinkling of pearl sugar on top with a light egg wash glaze. It was a perfect little afternoon snack.
We spent some more time walking around Södermalm. Most of the interesting shops were on Götgatan.
For dinner that evening we decided that we couldn’t leave Sweden without trying a tunnbrödsrulle.
A tunnbrödsrulle (“thin bread roll” in Swedish) is a hot dog rolled up in thin flat bread with mashed potatoes, lettuce, onions, ketchup, mustard, and shrimp salad. It is typically something Swedes get at a kiosk on the way home from the bar in the wee hours of the morning. However, since we did a mega-splurge for dinner the night before, we thought this would be an inexpensive dinner option.
We ordered from the Maxi Grillen on Gotgatan near the Medborgarplatsen. Service was less than friendly, but food was served fast. The tunnbrödsrulle came with a fork.
Our verdict: Definitely order sans ketchup. The ketchup was a bit overly sweet. Also, I think it might be better with a higher quality shrimp salad. This just tasted like bay shrimp drowned in mayo and thousand island dressing. I didn’t make it all the way through mine, it was really rich and gave me a bit of a stomach ache. In any event, it was uniquely Swedish and we were glad to have tried it.
If you go to Stockholm and want to try a tunnbrödsrulle sober, I would recommend trying chef Magnus Nilsson’s tunnbrödsrulle at Teatern in Södermalm. Otherwise, the junky kiosk dogs might be tasty after many, many beers. If you do try Magnus Nilsson’s tunnbrödsrulle, please let us know how it was–we wanted to go there but didn’t have time.
After our tunnbrödsrulle adventure, we got on the T-Bana subway and headed north to the Tiki Room bar in the Vasastan neighborhood.
If you’ve read much of our blog, you may have noticed that we have a tiki bar fascination.
It was very early in the evening, and most of the bar patrons were upstairs enjoying the outdoor patio. The patio was nice, but we came for the tiki bar. We ordered some drinks downstairs in the tiki lounge area and chatted with the bartender.
Since we were in Stockholm, the drinks were pretty ridiculously expensive. At $15-$20 a drink, we could really only afford to try one each. The drinks were very good, however. Tiki drinks are often made a bit too sweet, but these were perfect. I had the Red Tide, which I really enjoyed (and wished I could have tried another one).
The bartender was super friendly, and after talking to us for awhile, he ended up only charging us for one drink (sweet!).
The Tiki Room was a pretty classic-style tiki bar, very nicely done with a lot of attention to detail. There was a private back room area that I assume you can reserve for parties.
We would have loved to explore some more bars in Stockholm, but the cocktails were just too pricey. The Vasastan neighborhood was lively with people enjoying dinner and drinks at various restaurants, but most of the shops had closed by 6:00 PM. We walked around a little before heading back to the T-Bana train.
Overall, we had a great four days in Stockholm. Gamla Stan was definitely a highlight, with it’s old buildings, cobbled streets and cute little alleyways. Stockholm isn’t the best place to visit on a budget, so if you don’t have a lot of money to spend you won’t be going out much. Nice dinners and nightlife are not something that should be on your agenda if you need to be frugal. There are many things to do and see during the day, however. If you visit during the summer, there are lots of parks and places to enjoy a picnic in the evenings and the sun doesn’t go down until after 10:00 PM.
If we were to return to Stockholm again, I would like to explore the Stockholm Archipelago and take a day trip to the ancient viking town of Sigtuna to look at the ancient viking rune stones.
Stay tuned for the rest of our Scandinavian adventure in Denmark…
We left Fort Collins, Colorado at 7:00 AM to begin our trip to Pagosa Springs, our first stop on a week-long road trip around Colorado and Utah. Pagosa Springs is located in the southern part of Colorado, which was about a 5 hour drive from Denver.
It was a long drive from Fort Collins, but it was a beautiful drive. As soon as we passed Denver, we began an ascent into the Rocky Mountains, heading south.
The 4th Street Diner and Bakery was a great place to stop for lunch. Tiny and eclectic, with mis-matched tables and chairs and a wood stove for cold winter days, it was homey and welcoming. Paddy had a burger with organic beef and I had a chicken quesadilla. There were a lot of tempting pies in the case at the counter, but we decided to pass and get back on the road.
We made a final stop at Wolf Creek Pass to get a photo at the view point there. The elevation was 10,856 ft, and it made me so light-headed that I stumbled a bit getting out of the car. It was a gorgeous view.
We made it to Pagosa Springs around 3:00 PM and checked into the Healing Waters Resort and Spa. It wasn’t really a resort, more of a budget hotel with a hot springs pool, steam room and sauna. It was clean and comfortable, and while I’m sure their pool was nice we were actually staying there because it was an affordable option next to the main hot springs.
The small town of Pagosa Springs is centered around the developed hot springs resort on the river, with several hot springs pools at various temperatures. They are open until 11:00 PM daily, so we planned on spending the evening soaking our troubles away.
We walked through the town and poked about in a few shops. We eventually made it up the main street to Riff Raff Brewing, and decided to relax and sample the local beer.
The beer at Riff Raff was tasty and diverse. I did a sampler with the English Pale, the El Duende Green Chili Ale, the Stepchild American Red, and the Plebian Porter. The El Duende was tasty but I expected a bit more green chili flavor. The Skallywag English Pale and the Plebian Porter were my two favorites. The Stepchild Red was a bit too hoppy for me, I’m not a huge fan of hoppy beers.
Pagosa Springs is at a fairly high elevation at just over 7,000 ft (pretty high-especially for us sea-level dwellers). Alcohol effects everyone a bit more at high elevations, and after the beer sampler I was quite buzzed. We stayed for dinner, and the food was excellent. Paddy tried the yak burger, which he really enjoyed. Riff Raff makes their own pickles, which were delicious.
After dinner, we were ready for the hot springs. It was $30 per person for admittance, which was a little expensive but included a towel and a locker. They have an adults-only terrace with drink service which was very tempting but would have been $23 extra dollars each just to be able to use it. We couldn’t justify that kind of price. I tried to bargain with the guy at the counter, it being a Tuesday evening and all, but no dice.
The hot springs had a large pool (mostly used by children and families), and a series of small pools at a range of different temperatures from 92 to 111 degrees Fahrenheit. We found that we were most comfortable between 90 to 100 degrees. I tried to go in the Paradise pool at 109 degrees, but it was so painfully hot that I didn’t get past ankle deep.
Our favorite pools were Boulder, Aspen, and Serendipity. Serendipity had a waterfall and a good overlook for the river and the rest of the resort. The waterfall was a good shoulder massage. The adults only terrace didn’t seem like such a big deal, as all the kids seemed to be in the big pool and not the regular hot spring tubs. We were glad we hadn’t shelled out an extra $46.00.
There was a Canteen in the center of the pool complex where you could buy drinks and snacks, including beer and wine. We only got one drink each, we figured that high elevation and hot springs and alcohol probably weren’t a great combo. Drinks weren’t too overpriced.
We stayed and soaked our sore muscles until the stars came out. We were able to find a quiet pool that wasn’t too hot with just a couple other people in it. Most of the kids were up at the big pool so we were able to enjoy the stars and the moon without much disruption.
We would recommend Pagosa Springs as an overnight stop on a road trip. I’m sure it is great in the winter as well. There isn’t a whole lot to do in the town itself, but Mesa Verde National Park (our next destination) is pretty close by. This would be a great town to use as a base for exploring Mesa Verde, which would take two days to fully explore if you want to hike to multiple cliff dwellings. When you come back in the evening, you can soak your sore hiking muscles in the hot springs.
Tulum, Mexico: Three days on the most beautiful stretch of beach we’ve seen in all our world travels.
This was our second trip to Tulum. Our first trip was back in 2009. We stayed in a little bungalow a the end of the Boca Paila beach road next to the Sian Ka’an Biosphere. There was only electricity from a generator after 5:00 PM, and our Argentinian host cooked delicious yet simple BBQ dinners in the evenings. The powdered-sugar beach was amazing, and we often had it all to ourselves. Far (but not too far) from the maddening tourist crowds and all-inclusive resorts of Cancun and Playa Del Carmen, Tulum felt like an undiscovered, sleepy paradise.
Needless to say, we’d been longing to go back. The two drawbacks to our first trip to Tulum were the time of year (September was WAY too hot for our taste, although we did enjoy the lack of crowds), and our bungalow at the end of the Boca Paila road was nice and remote, but if we needed to go to town we had to hire a taxi to take us the seven miles into town, which was expensive if we wanted to go to town frequently.
This trip, we went with a couple friends of ours during peak season in March, and stayed on the north end of the Boca Paila road closer to town. I had done a little research on the hotels along the beach road, and there were sections in the middle that were fairly rocky without a really nice sandy beach. It looked like the best beach stretches were on the north and south ends. (Tip–to see what kind of beach a hotel has, use the Google Maps satellite feature to see the coast from above).
We opted to stay at La Vita e Bella, which was a bit more money than we wanted to spend but looked like it had a great beach.
When we arrived at Hotel La Vita e Bella in Tulum at 12:30, we were told that our room wouldn’t be ready until 3:00 but that we could leave our bags at the front desk luggage storage until then. Our friends Heather and Stephen had arrived a couple days prior and Heather met us in the beach bar and we took a taxi into town (Tulum Pueblo) for lunch. Unfortunately, Stephen had made the mistake of drinking some tamarind water from a taco truck on Isla Holbox, and had been pretty sick for their first two days.
**Pro tip: stick to bottled drinks only.
The Tulum Pueblo is a few miles from the hotels along the Boca Paila beach road, and a taxi or car is necessary to get to and from. The hotels and restaurants in the pueblo are much less expensive than the ones on the beach. That being said, the beach is the best beach we’ve ever been to in all our travels, and the extra money to stay on the beach is worth it. The sand is a soft, powdered sugar texture with no rocks or coral in the water in many places, and the water is electric blue.
In the Tulum Pueblo, we had lunch at La Barracuda, a great little local seafood restaurant on the far end of the main drag. Lunch came with complimentary chips and a tiny cup of a brothy crab soup. We had fish, shrimp, and octopus tacos and they were all outstanding. Prices were excellent—if you are in town looking for food, this place is worth the trek down to the end of the main street.
When we arrived back to check into our room at La Vita e Bella, the girl working at the desk showed us to a very tiny bungalow near the public bathrooms with a view of the bushes in front of the restaurant, just steps from the front desk. Pretty much the shittiest mid-range bungalow they had.
We had booked a “junior suite,” which was described as being large with a large private deck. I went back and asked the front desk girl and she told me that the tiny bungalow was the same price as the junior suite (not sure what that was supposed to mean). She then said that she might have another room available if we would like to look at it. I said that we would.
We were then shown to a room that was exactly the description of what we booked, on the top floor of a four unit building. It had an ocean view, a large balcony with a hammock, and was very private. We opted to move.
We were a bit annoyed that we weren’t put in this room to begin with. Heather had been taking care of Stephen while he was sick the last two days, and wasn’t so impressed with the front desk service. The front desk staff seemed unwelcoming and indifferent, more content to play around on Facebook on the computer than assist guests. Heather did say that the restaurant staff was very helpful and accommodating, however.
We spent the afternoon relaxing at the beach and in the hammock on our deck. It was pretty windy and the snorkel tour we had booked at Akumal the next day was cancelled. I was still recovering from my cold and we were sort of relieved to spend the rest of our last two days relaxing before flying home.
For dinner, Heather, Paddy, and I went down the road a short ways and across the street to Kitchen Table, a restaurant that pops up every night with a wood fired stove, coolers, and a grill to serve fresh food for dinner. The only light is from candles and a few solar powered lights in the kitchen and bar. We had some appetizers and cocktails, and they were outstanding. We knew Stephen would want to come here (he was back at the room trying to keep down some rice and beans) so we made a reservation for dinner on our last night. Note: Kitchen Table is cash only.
**Tip: When eating at restaurants on the jungle side of the beach road, wear LOTS of bug spray with DEET. The mosquitos are particularly bad after dusk.
Since our snorkel tour was canceled due to strong winds, we decided to have a lazy day. Heather and Stephen (who was finally feeling better after his bout with tamarind tap water) had gone to Chichen Itza for the day with Eduardo from MyCancunTransportation.com. We had been to Chichen Itza on our previous visit, and we highly recommend it. We do recommend getting there right when they open in the morning, however as all the tour buses start showing up at about 10:30-11:00 AM. They said that Eduarado charged them about $200 USD for being their personal driver/tour guide for the day, and he was great. The drive to Chichen Itza from Tulum is about 2.5 hours each way, and they went at their own pace and made stops in Valladolid and at the Gran Cenote as well. Considering that a ticket on a tour bus is about $80-$115 per person, it was a great deal for them. They enthusiastically recommend Eduardo and said that he was a great guide.
Breakfast is complimentary at La Vita e Bella, and has a choice of a Mexican style breakfast, an American style breakfast, a “natural” style breakfast with yogurt, fruit, and granola, or a continental breakfast with fruit and croissants. We opted for the Mexican style breakfast, which was scrambled eggs with salsa, beans, tortillas, and rice.
We spent the day reading, relaxing, and walking on the beach.
That afternoon we went to the beach bar in front of the restaurant and sat down in some beach chairs. A staff member came by and asked us what our room number was. We told him 23, and were told that our beach chairs and palapa umbrella were further down away from the restaurant. (It would have been nice to be told that we had our own beach chairs, or anything about the way the beach restaurant/bar operated when we checked in…but that is the fabulous front desk service for you). We asked if we could sit in front of the restaurant as we wanted to order food and drinks and the waiter decided that it was okay that we sat there. I read the sign in front of the restaurant a little later and saw that they charge people 150 pesos to sit at the beach chair, intended for people who are visiting Tulum for the day and want a beach club to hang out at. There were a lot of beach chairs open, and for what they charge for the rooms there, we should be able to sit wherever the hell we want. But I digress…
We ordered some beers and pizzas for lunch, but we weren’t allowed to eat the pizza on the beach, and the restaurant service was separate from the beach service, so there was some confusion at the end when we asked for our bill for the two 7-Ups we drank on the beach and the two beers and two pizzas we ate in the restaurant. It was a little annoying.
That evening we met back up with Heather and Stephen and decided to check out the bars and restaurants further down the beach road. We were easily able to get a taxi upon walking out to the road, and found a little hub of restaurants, shops and bars about two miles down. We were a bit blown away by how developed the beach road had gotten. We remember it being just a gravel road with barely anything on it besides palm-shaded little driveways to little beach hotels back in 2009. Now it was paved for quite a ways and pretty built up. Paddy and I took a walk down the road a little ways while Heather and Stephen went to Mateo’s Mexican Grill for a drink.
We walked down to a rocky section of coast where some locals were fishing in the water. There was a group of seagulls and pelicans following them everywhere begging for fish.
One thing we noticed in this section of the Boca Paila road was an abundance of stand-alone ATMs, all dispensing US dollars. It was pretty perplexing—why not pesos? Are the shops and restaurants trying to cater to the average American tourists who find it too difficult to deal with pesos? Or is it because the peso has fallen recently and they want to accept the stronger dollar as currency to exchange for a better rate later? I tend to suspect the latter, since most of the shops and restaurants offer a poor exchange rate of 14 pesos to the dollar (vs the current rate of 18 pesos to the dollar if you withdraw pesos from a regular ATM).
When we arrived back to Mateo’s Mexican Grill, Heather and Stephen were just then getting the beers they ordered 15 minutes ago. The bar wasn’t that busy yet, so the slow service was a little odd. We ordered beers and were considering ordering food for dinner, but after our beers took 20 minutes and we began to get eaten alive by mosquitos, we decided just to ask for the check. It was a shame, because the ambiance at Mateo’s is pretty nice, despite the mosquitos.
Across the street and a bit north of Mateo’s is a little tapas restaurant called Mi Vida Tapas. Paddy and I love Spanish tapas, and it was on the beach side of the road so no mosquitos. We were seated in a little greenhouse type structure on the beach, which was very nicely decorated and lit by candlelight. The glass windows blocked the beach wind. We were the only people eating there and had the place to ourselves.
The food and service were phenomenal. I had the Pulpo y Garbanzos (octopus with mashed chickpeas, garlic, and olive oil), and the Atun Sashimi (seared ahi tuna with tamarind sauce and mashed potatoes). Everyone else had the Mini Brochetas (filet mignon bites), and the Tagliata Pequeña de Res (small beef tenderloin with polenta, parmesean, arugula, and truffle oil), and a few others I can’t remember. Everyone was very happy with what they ordered. For dessert I tried the Chocolate Salami, because I can’t see something called “chocolate salami” on a menu without finding out what the hell that is. It turned out to be a roll of chocolate ganache with little rice crispies in it, sliced to look like slices of salami. A bit comical, but delicious.
After dinner we flagged down a taxi back to our hotel and had a few drinks at the hotel bar before going to bed.
We wanted to spend our last day enjoying the gorgeous Tulum beach, and that we did. We woke early enough to catch the sunrise at 7:00 on the beach, then went back to bed for a while, and then had a lazy morning reading and relaxing.
In late morning, we spent about an hour and a half in Tulum Pueblo (the main part of town) shopping for souvenirs. There are lots of great shops to explore. Be sure to negotiate, the vendors will always give you a really high price at first. It helps to bargain the price down if you are buying several things from one store, and it also helps if you speak a little Spanish.
In the afternoon the wind died down considerably and we enjoyed a great time at the beach. The waves were still pretty big and a lot of fun to body surf in. Mostly, we just spent time getting knocked around by the waves, which is actually a pretty good workout. It was a good last day in Mexico.
We had our last dinner at Kitchen Table, and I think it was the best dinner we had on our whole trip. If you make it to Tulum, don’t miss Kitchen Table. I had the Deviled Avocado and the Pan Roasted Octopus with sweet potatoes and caramelized onions, which was the best octopus I’ve ever had. It even trumped the octopus I had the first night in Cancun, which was hard to top. Everything was outstanding and you can tell that the chefs at Kitchen Table really love what they do.
Our first trip to Tulum was a bit more rustic, romantic and remote. This time around we enjoyed spending a little more time checking out Tulum Pueblo and some of the restaurants on the Boca Paila beach road.
Tulum is a great home base for seeing Mayan ruins, snorkeling in the Cenotes (fresh water underground caves and rivers), and shopping for souvenirs. Our last trip we were a bit more active, seeing the Mayan ruins in Tulum and a day trip to Chichen Itza. This time around, we ended our Yucatan trip in Tulum and were happy to just relax and enjoy the beach before heading home.
We will definitely be back to Tulum again. We have yet to find a better beach with soft sand and electric blue water in all our world travels. Our next trip I think we may try to stay down at the end of the Boca Paila beach road again near the Sian Ka’an Biosphere. We liked the remoteness of it, and the rustic jungle/beach atmosphere. We weren’t super impressed with La Vita e Bella.
We would also like to explore the Cenotes in the area, and take a day tour in the Biosphere. But above all, we would come back to Tulum to relax and enjoy that magnificent beach.