My trip to Charlotte, North Carolina, April 2012: Daniel Stowe Botanical Gardens, The Latta Plantation, The Bechtler Museum of Modern Art, and great southern food
In April 2012 I was invited to participate as a voting delegate at the AFS National Volunteer Assembly in Charlotte, North Carolina. Most of the weekend was spent at the Courtyard Marriott but I was determined to make the most of a free trip so I took a night flight out of Seattle and arrived at 6:00 AM the day before.
I had done a little research of what I could see in the surrounding area beforehand, so I freshened up in the airport restroom and headed out of the city in a rental car.
The first stop was Belmont, NC. I stopped into a small diner in Belmont and had some eggs, biscuits, and grits served by a waitress who called me “honey.” It was early on a Thursday morning and my fellow dining companions all appeared to be old war vets meeting up for their morning breakfast social hour. The grits were fairly bland, but the breakfast bill came to a whopping $3.50. After breakfast, I got back in my rental car and drove to the Daniel Stowe Botanical Gardens.
It was 8:00 and the gardens didn’t open until 9:00, so I took a much needed power nap in my car in the parking lot. When they opened, I bought my ticket and had the place all to myself. It was a beautiful sunny morning and the gardens were lovely.
Just as I was leaving it started raining, so my timing couldn’t have been better.
The Latta Plantation is an historic cotton plantation owned by the Latta family in the 1800’s. It has been renovated and preserved and offers educational tours daily. The tour was interesting and very informative of plantation life in the 1800’s, including lives of plantation slaves and their working/living conditions.
After the plantation tour, I headed back to the airport to drop off the rental car and take the bus into downtown Charlotte.
The Courtyard Marriott was very nice and very centrally located. At this point I was very interested in a nap.
That evening, I was still alone until the next morning when my co-volunteers arrived. I freshened up and ventured out to see some of downtown Charlotte.
The thing I realized about Charlotte, was that most of the people in Charlotte live in the suburbs and commute to and from downtown for work. The city has been recently built up and many of the hotels, restaurants, and museums are fairly new. Charlotte is a major financial center in the United States, and home of the Bank of America and Wells Fargo headquarters. With so many of it’s jobs based in banks and so few people actually living downtown, this pretty much amounted to downtown being a cultural desert. Everything seemed shiny and new, with little history and little nightlife.
Another baffling thing about downtown Charlotte is it’s lack of convenience stores. I suppose with a lack of downtown apartments there isn’t much convenience store business to be had, but I was appalled at how much effort it took to find a bottle of wine near my hotel. (The hotel tried to sell me a bottle of Beringer white zinfandel for $12.00 in their gift shop….Normally a $4.99 bottom shelf buy anywhere else). I finally found some decently priced mid range wine for sale at the drug store down the street.
Having done my research and with tips from the Carolina AFS team, I had a dinner destination in mind and it did not disappoint. Halcyon is an upscale modern take on southern cuisine, and should definitely be on your travel checklist if you happen to be visiting Charlotte. Being alone, I sat at the bar and talked to the very friendly bartender as she worked. I had the duck breast served with sweet potato hush puppies and a sort of spring fruit and vegetable slaw (sorry, I can’t remember what was in the slaw, I just remember that it was fantastic).
The cocktail selection was mind-blowing, and I found myself deliberating between a squid ink martini served with a squid tentacle and a traditional mint julep. They were pricey, so I could only afford one. I went with the mint julep since I was in the south. I still wonder about that squid ink martini though…..I kind of wish I’d gone for both.
For desert, I had a chocolate pot d’ creme with mini doughnuts in raspberry sauce. It was heavenly.
The next morning, my co-volunteers arrived and we had one more day to be tourists before the NVA program got in full swing. I grabbed some breakfast from Bo Jangles Chicken and Biscuits around the corner and a latte from the hotel coffee shop and met up with my co-volunteers to explore a little of downtown.
Unless you’re a NASCAR fan, there’s not a whole lot to see in downtown Charlotte. I did really enjoy the sculpture garden we found off the main street across from the art museum, however. It is worth a visit.
For lunch, we were all salivating for some good southern soul food. We went to Mert’s Heart & Soul and it was fabulous. Fried chicken, shrimp and grits, red beans and rice, okra, collard greens, fried green tomatoes–they had it all and they did it right.
The rest of the weekend we were pretty much confined to the hotel with catering, but Saturday night we had a dinner celebration at the Levine Museum of the New South, which is definitely worth a visit. My big regret is that I thought I would have more time to tour the museum after dinner, but the program was so full that I only got to see part of it. If I ever end up back in Charlotte, it will be my main priority (along with dinner at Halcyon again).
I don’t know what company did the catering, but it was delicious. A full southern Carolina BBQ buffet:
Overall, I wouldn’t make Charlotte a destination city. There are lots of other great cities in the south with a lot more culture and history. If you are stuck there or passing through for one reason or another, however, there are some interesting things to see and some great food.
Our road trip around Nevada, 2011: Ely, The Extraterrestrial Highway, Las Vegas, Beatty, Death Valley, and Reno
We were on a budget in 2011 as we were still paying off our French Polynesia honeymoon, but decided to at least take a week-long vacation by doing a classic American road trip. We figured that Las Vegas was pretty inexpensive in the right places, and what is more classic Americana than road tripping through the desert? So we set off on our way to Vegas with some sightseeing in Nevada along the way.
Nevada really feels like its own country. It is such a huge cultural difference from the Pacific Northwest and many other places in the USA. I think if you really want a picture of quirky, random and sometimes over-the-top things that you can only find in the US, Nevada is a good place to start.
So in late April 2011, we took our tax return and ran off into the desert. There is something so freeing about just getting in your car and driving. Just taking off without the hassles of an airport, lines, mass transportation, etc. Just being able to GO and change your mind about where at any given point in time. We hadn’t been on a road trip together since our first trip ever together to the California Redwoods in 2003 and we were way overdue.
Click on any image below to view larger
Our first day we left rainy Seattle and head to our first stop, Baker City, OR. There wasn’t anything special about Baker City, other than it is about the 8 hour point with stops for lunch and bathroom breaks and that’s about as much as we wanted to do in one day.
While Washington is the “evergreen state,” many people are unaware of how much of the state is actually desert. Once past Cascade Mountains, there is very little greenery to be seen. The drive was very scenic and tumbleweeds could be seen going past as we got closer to the Oregon border.
It was a long day, and we decided to make it to Pendleton, OR before getting something to eat. We should have stopped for gas around Hermiston, but Paddy thought we’d make it. Soon after Hermiston our gas light came on. There weren’t any gas stations until Pendleton and I think we were coasting on fumes down the highway hill into town. We vowed to keep the gas tank as full as possible for the rest of the trip. Looking for a quick meal that wasn’t fast food, we found Cadillac Jack’s Saloon and Grill and had some burgers. We definitely got that “you folks ain’t from around here, are ye” look from some locals, but overall the service was good and the food was decent.
After that, we drove the last leg of our journey to Baker City and stayed at The Knight’s Inn, where we got a cheap room for around $40-$50. The price matched the room, with wood paneled walls and 1980’s flowery beadspreads, but overall it was very clean and comfortable. It also came with this lovely painting “Log Jam” by Walter Butts. No further comment.
The next day we got packed up and ate a big breakfast at the local diner Sumpter Junction. Classic American breakfast fare with nice crispy hashbrowns and a train that goes around the restaurant non-stop.
Our next destination was Ely, Nevada as it seemed to be a good halfway point to Vegas.
The drive to Ely was longer than the drive from Seattle to Baker City. I think we stopped for a quick fast food lunch around Twin Falls, ID, and after that we soon crossed the Nevada border on Highway 93. There was a whole lot of nothing on Highway 93, but it was a beautiful albeit a little eerie drive. We had a playlist full of Tom Petty, Johnny Cash, and Patsy Cline to keep us going.
At long last, we started seeing billboards for “Asian massage,” casinos, and “Soapy rub-downs” and knew we were getting close.
I had really wanted to get a room at the historic Hotel Nevada and Gambling Hall but there was a convention of some sort booking all the rooms that day so we settled for the La Quinta. The La Quinta in Ely was pretty new and very comfortable and included free breakfast.
It was the end of April, and Ely was cold. I think it was in the teens or twenties but bright and sunny. We warmed up in the hotel and I made use of the hotel’s indoor hot tub. After a little relaxing we went out in search of dinner. We consulted Yelp and took a drive up and down the main drag, and decided on Margarita’s Mexican Restaurant. It was pretty good.
The next morning we had the free breakfast at La Quinta and checked out. We took a quick tour of Ely and the Hotel Nevada before we got on the road. The Hotel Nevada was everything I had expected it to be. An old historic mining town hotel, full of statues, knick-knacks, slot machines, and cigarette smoke, it was a true piece of Americana.
We walked around the town, which was pretty quiet in the morning.
It’s 2011, but they still love Ronald Reagan.
We said goodbye to Ely, and got on the road. About two miles outside of Ely we passed a high security penitentiary with a gun tower, a sign telling us not to pick up hitchhikers, and a sign with an 800 number telling us to report people shooting from the highway. Because apparently in Nevada people hunting out their car windows along the highway is a regular occurrence.
Soon we were on highway 318, which was another lonely stretch of desert. Fortunately, it got a little warmer the further south we went. Our next destination: The Extraterrestrial Highway.
We stopped for gas in a tiny old mining town of Pioche, NV as there weren’t going to be many gas stations again for a long time. After a short ways, we reached the junction for highway 375, aka The Extraterrestrial Highway. The highway gets its name from being the highway next to Area 51, the most mysterious and secretive US Government test site. It’s been rumored to be a specialized weapons and experimental aircraft test site, and the high level of secrecy and security gives fodder to all kinds of theories of alien crash sites and cover ups. There were plenty of signs along the highway that warned us that if we went any further than a certain point into the area that we would be shot. We didn’t attempt any hiking.
Shortly after turning off onto highway 375, we saw a giant alien statue and a tin shed that appeared to be a gift shop that was closed. Still a great photo op.
We headed to the tiny town of Rachel, Nevada in the middle of highway 375. There is nothing in Rachel other than a tiny restaurant, giftshop, and hotel all rolled into one, The Little A’le’inn. (There is also no gas station, so fill up before you head out here). The hotel part appeared to be a collection of trailers. We saddled up to the bar for a beer and some lunch and talked to the lady who owned the place. I had the greasiest tuna melt I’ve ever had in my life served on a styrofoam plate, and the owner told us all about living in Rachel, Area 51, and aliens. After lunch, we purchased our obligatory alien souvenirs and bid the lady adieu.
We continued on our way to Vegas.
We arrived at The Orleans in Las Vegas around late afternoon, checked in, and relaxed for a bit. This was actually our second time in Vegas. We opted for The Orleans as our friend recommended it. It was a really good price for the quality, and though off the strip there was a convenient free shuttle every 15 minutes or so to the strip. Last time we had stayed at the Mirage in 2003, which was also really nice. It seems that prices in Vegas aren’t what they used to be though, and the strip these days is kind of expensive all-around.
That evening we had an underwhelming meal at the TGI Friday’s in the casino, just because we didn’t really feel like going anywhere that night. We played some games and had a few drinks and relaxed. We had our cooler with us and there was a convenience store near the hotel we could walk to, so we stocked up on beer and wine there to save a little money and used the ice from the ice machine to fill the cooler.
The next morning, our friends Stephen and Heather flew in from Seattle to join us for the Vegas portion of our trip. When they had had a little rest, we all took the shuttle to the strip and walked around a bit, and did some shopping in the Forum shops at Ceasar’s Palace. Vegas had great spring weather, warm enough to wear a tank top and shorts during the day. It was a nice change from frigid Ely. I was particularly fond of the Bettie Page store, with retro-style dresses and accessories. Since this trip, they’ve opened up a location in Seattle. I’ve been trying to keep myself away from it as I need to save money for other things….like travel.
In the afternoon I was hell-bent on seeing the mermaid show at the Silverton Casino, which is 6 miles from the strip and pretty out of the way. It’s more of a local spot, which our cab driver confirmed on the way there. We had some food and drinks in the Mermaid Lounge which had a nice atmosphere and a great view of the fish tank, but horrendous service. There was barely anyone there and we had to wait forever to get any service. I did really enjoy the jellyfish tank above the bar. The mermaid show happens in the fish tank several times throughout the day–consult website for times.
The mermaids put on a great show, even posing for pictures and interacting with the spellbound little girls pressed up against the fish tank.
After we had our fill of the mermaids, some food, and a few drinks, we caught a cab back to our hotel.
We gussied up a bit and caught another taxi to The Peppermill Restaurant and Fireside Lounge on the strip. The Peppermill has your standard diner fare, and seems to be a good spot for late night breakfast or to cure a hangover the morning after. With it’s flourescent pink lights, giant indoor fire place, and pink velvet furniture, it is everything over-the-top about Vegas that one could hope to find. We weren’t there for food, though, we were there for the cocktails in the Fireside Lounge. Particularly one cocktail–the infamous Scorpion Bowl. The Scorpion bowl is a fish-bowl sized drink with all kinds of booze and juice in it, along with your choice of 1-4 long straws to share the drink with.
After our scorpion bowls were dry and we had a slight buzz going, we decided just to head back to the Orleans where the drinks were cheaper and play some slots and hang out.
As we had a car with us this trip, we decided to head out of Vegas and do some sightseeing in Red Rock Canyon. If you don’t have a car or want to rent one while you are in Vegas, you can easily find tour groups to Red Rock Canyon online or while in Vegas.
We weren’t really outfitted for some serious hiking, so we drove around the scenic loop stopping at the view points and did a very easy walk in Lost Creek, which has views of cliffs with old petroglyphs on them.
We got to see some of the Last Vegas suburbs on the way to Red Rock Canyon, and it was row upon row of the same house. Strip malls and cookie cutter housing complexes. I can’t say Vegas really appeals to me as a place to live.
We got back to the hotel and spent some time relaxing at the Orleans pool. It was warm enough to lay out in the sun but not super hot. There was a bar at the pool that served frozen drinks that were very refreshing. Overall, the Orleans pool isn’t one of the best pools in Vegas, but it was nice enough. After cold rainy Seattle and freezing cold Ely, we were ready for some sunbathing and swimming pools.
That evening we walked around the strip a bit. Eventually we were hungry for dinner and felt like splurging on something a little nicer. We walked around and decided on Mon Ami Gabi in the Paris Las Vegas casino hotel. It was packed even at 9:00 PM but we got on the waiting list and were seated at 9:30 outside. It was a warm night and the restaurant has a nice view of the Bellagio fountain show across the strip. I don’t recall everything we had but I do remember a very nice duck leg confit and a side of garlic spinach that were very tasty. I think Paddy had steak frites. It was all very good and we would definitely go back.
When we left the restaurant, it was already 11:00 PM and we had a tour planned for the next morning, so we headed back to the Orleans for a few more cheaper drinks before calling it a night.
One of our main priorities in Vegas was visiting the Neon Boneyard. We had to make tour reservations in advance as they can only take a certain amount of people per day and you can only visit on a guided tour. The Boneyard was definitely a top highlight of our trip. It is a where all the neon signs of Vegas go to die, and an amazing walk through the ghosts of Vegas past. Our tour guide gave us an informative tour of all the old signs and Las Vegas history. I would highly recommend booking a tour here.
That afternoon I really really wanted to see an Elvis inpersonator (it’s just so classic Vegas). Unfortunately, Elvis inpersonators are not as prevalent as in days past but I managed to find one free show with Big Elvis at Bill’s Gamblin’ Hall and Saloon on the strip (I believe he has now moved his show to Harrah’s). We got to Bill’s and ordered some drinks, but unfortunately Big Elvis was out sick that night, so we got Chuck. Chuck looked much more like a Roy Orbison inpersonator but sang all Elvis songs. Honestly, the show would have been much better if he had just gone with a Roy Orbison routine. I was a little disappointed, but we still got a classic Vegas lounge act in and had fun.
After the show, we split off from Heather and Stephen and went to Jubilee at Bally’s, which is one of the most classic Vegas shows there is. Lots of showgirls, feathers, glitter, and synchronized dancing. It was a great show. We had purchased some of the cheaper tickets and were on the isle. Shortly after the show began, we noticed the usher picking people off the isle to go down to some open seats in the front. He hadn’t picked us, so Paddy went and asked him if there were any front seats open that we could move to, and he found some for us.
**Tip: If you need to book a cheaper seat, book an isle seat and ask the usher if it might be possible to move to open front seats if available. You might get lucky like we did.
After four nights in Las Vegas, we were ready to leave and get back on the road. Vegas is fun, but it’s definitely an “in small doses” kind of a destination. I wouldn’t recommend more than 4 nights. The slot machine clanging and cigarette smoke get to you after awhile.
The drive to Beatty was only about an hour and a half from Las Vegas. We got into town and were ready for some lunch. Beatty is a tiny town so we just picked a spot on the main drag, KC’s Outpost Saloon and Sandwich Shop. We had some sandwiches at the bar and talked to the owners, who were very friendly. After that we were ready to check into our room.
We had reserved a room for the night at The Atomic Inn. The Atomic Inn was originally built to accommodate defense contractor and military personnel working at Nellis Air Force Base and the Nevada Nuclear Test Site. The new owners went with the atomic idea and renovated the place with a 1950’s atomic theme, complete with fake atomic bombs sticking out of the cactus garden out front and framed 1950’s and 1960’s magazine ads and paintings in the room. The guy at the front desk was very laid back and friendly. We had booked a standard room for $50.00 a night but were upgraded to a deluxe room at no extra charge. Our room had a fridge, coffee maker, microwave and a comfortable queen bed. There was also a selection of 1950’s B movies at the front desk that we could check out if we wanted.
The only negative thing about the room is that the walls are very thin, and the next morning we were awakened early by some very loud Russians in the room next door. The fact that we could figure out that they were speaking Russian should be a testament to how thin the walls are. It wasn’t a huge deal though, and I don’t know that the owners could really do anything to fix it.
After checking in and getting settled, it was time to go see some of Death Valley National Park. Death Valley is huge, and I’d love to see more of it from the west side on a California road trip someday. As it was, we had only one afternoon to explore from Beatty so we only made a few stops.
First we visited Rhyolite Ghost Town. This is the ghost town of an old mining settlement that was established in 1906 and was abandoned in 1916. It is technically outside of the park on the Nevada side, about 10 minutes from Beatty. In addition to the remains of the town, there is also a really awesome sculpture garden out in the middle of the desert in Rhyolite that is definitely worth a visit. Especially appropriate are the statues of ghosts, the larger ghost sculpture is supposed to be “The Last Supper.” The one with the bicycle was my favorite.
Next, we drove into the park and headed to the visitor center. There is a gas station here for people who make poor planning decisions, at about $6.00 a gallon. I would suggest filling up before you come. There wasn’t a checkpoint at the border like there is in many national parks, just a pay kiosk where we could pull over and get a visitor pass. We drove 40 minutes into the valley before reaching the visitor center. We talked to the rangers, and decided that the salt flats were a good destination and that we wouldn’t have a lot of time left to see much else. We continued another 40 minutes into the park to reach the salt flats in Badwater Basin.
The salt flats in Badwater Basin are 282 feet BELOW sea level. Here we truly felt like we were in Death Valley. Nothing for miles but white salt and rock, and it was 120 degrees. We parked and ventured into the salt flats a ways with lots of water and sunscreen. We didn’t make it too far though before the heat made us turn around back to the parking lot. I had to pee, and I can report that the Badwater Basin salt flats outhouse is the hottest, smelliest outhouse I’ve ever been in. An unventilated pit toilet baking in 120 degree heat. It was a lovely experience.
After the salt flats, it was getting close to evening so we made the long drive back to Beatty to see what we could find for dinner.
Prior to going on this trip, we had watched the HBO reality series Cathouse, about the professional lives of the workers at the Moonlite BunnyRanch brothel near Carson City, Nevada, owned by Dennis Hof. We decided on getting some BBQ at the Sourdough Saloon, and walked in the front door of the saloon to see Dennis Hof and one of his bunnies waiting on some BBQ takeout. He was wearing a BunnyRanch shirt and his bunny was in a classy outfit of a hot pink leopard print string bikini top over large fake boobs with sweatpants. Beatty is about 5 hours from the BunnyRanch so I can only guess that they were on their way back from Vegas or something. It was an unexpected and entertaining surprise.
The BBQ at the Sourdough Saloon was good and so was the local color. After food and a few beers, we headed back to the room to relax and watch a movie.
After the loud Russians next door woke us up through the thin walls, we packed up and got ready to get back on the road. On our way out of town we stopped at the Stagecoach Hotel and Casino for a classic diner breakfast, with the ambiance of clanging slot machines and stale cigarette smoke. The hash browns were nice and crispy.
Our next destination: Reno.
Beatty to Reno was about a five hour drive. On the way we stopped for a photo op at the Clown Motel in Tonopah, Nevada (super creepy, but I would totally stay there had it fit into our trip plans). Next to it was an old pioneer graveyard….even creepier. We also drove by the 5th and final brothel sighted on our road trip, the Shady Lady Ranch. We were notified of its pending appearance on our journey by a hand-painted plywood sign letting us know we would reach it in one mile. We looked out for it and got a photo. It was literally a collection of small trailers in the middle of the desert. Ew.
I had made us a reservation at the most over-the-top casino hotel in Reno, the Peppermill. Yes, this is of relation to the Peppermill Las Vegas and also has a Fireside Lounge. It has an older wing (Peppermill Tower) and a newer wing (Tuscany Tower). We booked the cheesiest room they had, a Spa Suite in the Peppermill Tower. It was 1980’s chic, with a giant four-poster bed, a mini-bar, mirrors on the walls, a two-person jacuzzi tub in the bedroom area, and a steam shower in the bathroom. It was ridiculous, and like all classic casinos–not that expensive as they hope you’ll give them all your money downstairs gambling.
After a rest in our ridiculous room, we walked around the casino a bit and then caught a taxi downtown for dinner and drinks. (The Peppermill is a little far from downtown to walk, FYI). It was Cinco de Mayo, and a good friend of ours who grew up in Reno recommended Bertha Miranda’s. However, as it was Cinco de Mayo, the place was packed with no table available in site and a long wait. We were hungry, so we decided to venture into the main drag in search of quicker sustenance.
After walking around a little more, we decided we liked the small-town vibe of Reno vs. Las Vegas. We looked at our options for the next day and made a plan to go on a day trip to the old west town of Virginia City as we were staying another night in Reno. We caught a cab back to the Peppermill for some more drinks and slot machines.
The next morning we woke up in the most comfortable bed we’ve ever slept in in our entire lives. We also realized that this was our last full day of vacation before two long driving days home and then back to work. Our day trip to Virginia City seemed less enticing and we decided to spend the day being lazy at the casino. We slept in, ordered room service, and then spent some time at the pool. It was a little chillier than Vegas so we didn’t swim too much. It was a very nice pool on the newer Tuscany Tower side.
That evening we had some drinks in the Tuscany Tower and did a little light gaming.
There are a lot of restaurant options at the Peppermill, but we had to eat at Oceano. Because….well….look at it:
Jellyfish lights?!! Neon blue lighting as far as the eye can see? Where else have you seen a restaurant that looked like this? Exactly.
The food was sub-par, (obviously a seafood menu) but expecting good seafood at a mid-range casino restaurant in the desert is a tall order. It was worth it because of the jellyfish lights, which I totally want to install in a house I own someday.
Overall, the bang for your buck is big at the Peppermill in Reno. Even though it is a little far from downtown, there is a lot to see, do, and eat right there in the casino itself and a cab is not expensive into downtown. We still think about that amazingly comfortable cloud bed to this day. I think we’ll be back.
We packed up the next morning, left Nevada behind, and headed to Eugene to visit our good friend Curtis and his dog Larry. By this point, I was craving greenery and fresh vegetables like nobody’s business. As soon as we began seeing evergreen trees again in northern California, we began to feel back at home.
We pulled into Eugene exhausted after a grueling 8 hour drive with minimal stops. Curtis welcomed us with a comfy guest room and a dinner of fresh salmon he’d caught himself in the Columbia River, organic romaine salad grilled on the BBQ, some fresh bread, and an organic heirloom tomato sliced with salt. I was getting really sick of diner salads with iceberg lettuce and one tomato wedge in the desert, and it was the perfect meal and exactly what I’d been craving. We had a great evening catching up with Curtis over some drinks and getting to know Larry.
After a healthy breakfast of fresh strawberries and yogurt, we said goodbye to Curtis and Larry and started on the home stretch to Seattle.
Nevada was an interesting place and a great road trip. I think we’re kind of over Vegas but we’ll be back to Reno, Virginia City, and Lake Tahoe someday.
Our weekend in Ocean Shores, WA in February 2011: Wintry beaches, coastal drives on highway 109, and a fantastic Irish Pub
We were still paying off our honeymoon to Tahiti in February 2011, but I became desperate for a getaway. So I looked around and found a room in Ocean Shores, WA at the Guesthouse International Hotel for $79/night, including free breakfast. Our room had a distant ocean view, and was more or less adequate. It wasn’t quaint or endearing on any level, just a regular corporate chain hotel that you might find on the side of a freeway on a road trip. Our room did have a fridge, coffee maker, and a microwave which was nice. Two things were a turn-off, however:
1. The complimentary shampoo was a used bottle that was 25% full with the lid screwed back on and the label sealed back over the top. Tacky.
2. We were on a non-smoking floor, but for the first day our room filled with a strong odor of cigarette smoke through the bathroom fan. It was really unpleasant.
Click on any image below to view larger
Overall, the price was decent and sometimes you get what you pay for. I’d say the price matched the quality.
We had left Seattle in the morning and rolled into Ocean Shoresaround lunch time. We were ready for the obligatory fried fish basket, oysters, chowder, and the like. I’d already consulted Yelp for restaurant advice and chose Mike’s Seafood. It was small and busy, but the wait wasn’t very long. After some fantastic oyster shooters and fried captain’s platter, we were ready to go explore the town.
Above: I really wanted this gift shop to be a really cool bar or restaurant, but alas it was just a gift shop with your average mass-produced beach town souvenirs that you can buy in any other beach town anywhere in the United States. But it makes for a good photo op.
Most of the town and restaurants were about a mile from our hotel. During the summer, this wouldn’t be an issue and would be a pretty pleasant walk. In the winter, it was a little dark and cold at night to walk so we drove to go out to eat.
Ocean Shores has a run down arcade, some go-karts, and several little shops. It looked like a crusty old beach town that someone attempted to develop into a tourist spot and was probably really sucessful at it about 50 years ago. Now, it just seems like an aging, forgotten, half-ass version of Seaside, OR. I would imagine that it must be best to visit in the summer and overall it is a good family destination. If you are looking for some quaint boardwalk beach town family fun, however, I’d recommend Seaside, OR instead. It’s not that much further down the coast.
We went for a nice walk on the beach and then decided to settle in to rest and read a bit before dinner.
For dinner we consulted Yelp again and decided on Galway Bay Irish Pub and Restaurant and were pleasantly surprised. The atmosphere was nice and the food was excellent. Entrees come with a delicious fresh baked mini loaf of Irish soda bread and a salad. The prices were reasonable and the service was great.
The next day we had breakfast at the hotel. The eggs were powdered and it wasn’t a great breakfast, but it was free. I mixed some cream cheese and Tabasco in with the scrambled eggs and it made them taste decent. Paddy said the biscuits and sausage gravy was alright. There was also your standard hotel continental breakfast fare of cereals, bagels, toast, fruit, yogurt, coffee, and juices.
We then left Ocean Shores and took a drive up the coast on the highway 109 to Pacific Beach. It was a nice drive, but nothing like the beautiful 101 through Oregon. We stopped for lunch at The Seagate Restaurant and Lounge in Pacific Beach. It was a salty little dive on the bay. I had the clam chowder which the waitress said was homemade, but you couldn’t tell. It was really thick and average tasting.
We drove to the dead end of the highway 109 in Taholah, and stopped and got a few glimpses of the beach on the Quinault Indian Reservation. There were signs posted that it was reservation property and we weren’t allowed to trespass, so we didn’t stay. The beach views up here though were the best of the drive.
In the afternoon we arrived back in Ocean Shores and decided to go for some afternoon bloody marys at Mariah’s Restaurant in the Polynesian Resort. The best thing about Mariah’s is the ocean view. Otherwise, the hotel and restaurant are pretty outdated, with a boring overpriced menu and a 1980’s interior. It was a great place for some afternoon cocktails, however, and I would recommend it for that reason only. The bloody marys were very tasty.
For dinner that evening we decided that the Galway Bay Irish Pub was so good that we should just go there again. It seemed to be the best quality for the money and they had live music.
The next morning, we had the free breakfast in the hotel again and got on our way. On the highway back to Seattle we saw a giant roadside inflatable muscle man and had to stop for a picture. It made my day.
Overall, we probably won’t go back to Ocean Shores again. There wasn’t much character to the town and the beaches are much nicer further south.
Our Honeymoon in Tahiti 2010: Waterfalls and ancient ruins in Tahiti, a remote tiny island paradise and a vanilla plantation on Taha’a, and an overwater bungalow in Bora Bora
I spent a year in Hawaii in college, studying art and anthropology and learning about Pacific Island cultures. That’s where I first discovered Tahiti, and I was obsessed with going there someday and staying in one of those overwater bungalows. Once I saw how much they cost, I was sure I would never be able to live my dream.
Seven years later I got engaged to Paddy, and I decided that our honeymoon had to be Tahiti, there was no compromise about it. Tahiti is a place for honeymooners and if we had to spend the next two years paying it off, dammit–it would be worth it.
So we did. We registered at Honeyfund, a great website where you can turn your honeymoon into a wedding gift registry. Our friends and family were very generous and that helped a lot. The rest we split between three credit cards, as we had already spent all our money on the wedding. Now, I would never recommend going into debt over a vacation like we did, but it was the only way to have our dream honeymoon and we took a gamble. We were already used to scrimping and saving every penny all year for the wedding, not going out to eat, and not going on any weekend getaways. I figured we could do that again for another year or two. I was nervous about illness, job loss, or anything else that could screw up our fast pay-off plan. But we did it. We put every extra cent we had into paying that debt off for a year and a half and we did it. We don’t regret a thing.
Depending on how much time you have, you will need to narrow your island choices down to 2-3 islands. Most people just use the main island of Tahitias a stopover and don’t spend much time there as it doesn’t have the beautiful lagoons and overwater bungalows like Bora Bora and the other islands. Bora Bora is the most popular island, followed by Moorea. I think there is quite a bit to see in Tahiti, but if all you are interested in is lagoons and overwater bungalows, you may want to spend less time on Tahiti.
At bit farther from the Tahiti archipelago are the Tuamotus, a geologically older group of islands that are much more remote. On this trip we chose Tahiti, Taha’a, and Bora Bora. If we go back, I think we’ll spend some more time on the main island of Tahiti, and I would also love to visit Huahine, Rangiroa, and Tikehau. If we head back to Tahiti, it will be much more off the beaten path. If you are into diving, Rangiroa is a world class diving destination.
Map of French Polynesia:
Click on any image below to enlarge
All flights to Tahitileave from Los Angeles in the United States. The flight from LA is about 8.5 to 9 hours straight through. We flew out at night and arrived in Tahiti at 5:00 AM. We had arranged an early check in with our travel agent so that we could get to our room and rest right away. We stayed our first two nights at the Intercontinental Tahiti, which is located conveniently two miles from the airport. We exchanged cash at the currency exchange at the airport as I was told on tripadvisor that some debit cards don’t work at the ATMs. Our shuttle driver gave us a welcome lei and dropped us off at the resort. We got a welcome drink of juice, and were shown to our room, which was a “panoramic view” room. The sun wasn’t up yet, so all we could see from our deck were the glowing lights of the pool down below. We shut the blinds and crashed for the next couple hours.
We woke up a few hours later and decided to get up and make the breakfast buffet. Today was Sunday, which was the biggest breakfast buffet of the week. We could eat the regular buffet, or pay an additional surcharge to eat off the special buffet as well. We went ahead and did the surcharge. There were oysters, fruit, brie, meats, eggs, cheeses, pigs feet, head cheese, fried potatoes, and other items. One of my favorites was a doughnut shaped coconut bread which was made from coconut milk and coconut flour. It appeared that a lot of locals come to the breakfast buffet on Sundays and to spend the day at the pool. When the breakfast buffet was about to close, some local guys were piling a giant amount of oysters onto their plates to get as much as they could.
After breakfast we spent the day at the pools and exploring the resort. They had a big central pool, and a more relaxed sand-bottom infinity pool with a swim up bar. The drinks were very expensive, but we had to have one each at the swim up bar just because.
For lunch we ate some of our tuna and crackers and cookies that we brought from back home as a snack to tide us over for dinner. In the evening, we went down for a drink at the Tiki Bar by the pool, then headed over to Le Lotus restaurant for dinner.
Le Lotus was a fine dining restaurant in an overwater dining room right across from the building our room was in. The amuse bouche was some sort of seafood foam in a tiny cup. Not sure if we understood what we were eating, but it was good. I can’t remember what we had as a starter, but I remember having a swordfish dish with cuttlefish ink spaghetti. The prices were high, the portions were small, but the service was excellent and we were well aware of the high prices before we came. It was our first honeymoon dinner, and it was lovely.
The next morning we had booked a 4 wheel drive tour of Tahiti‘s interior. We ate at the breakfast buffet and were picked up by our tour guide early in the morning.
Tahiti is often associated with the lagoons and overwater bungalows of Bora Bora and other neighboring islands, but the main island of Tahiti is actually the youngest island in French Polynesia, and therefore has very little white sand lagoons and beaches. It is kind of like the Big Island of Hawaii, but with no active volcanoes. The Big Island has volcanic desert and white sand beaches on one side, and lush rainforest and black sand beaches on the other side. Tahiti has mostly undeveloped jungle interior and black sand and rocky beaches all around. Most visitors bypass Tahiti as a layover stop on the way to Bora Bora and Moorea, but I think Tahiti has a lot to offer and I would like to come back and see more. As it was, the Tahiti interior tour was very beautiful and reminiscent of what Hawaii may have been 100 years ago. Most of it is only accessible through four wheel drive vehicles.
There was one other couple with us from Australia, and our guide drove us around deep into the middle of Tahiti, showing us waterfalls, jungle, and rivers. A delicious chicken lunch was included at Relais de la Maroto hotel, the only hotel in the Tahiti interior and is only accessible by four wheel drive vehicles.
After lunch, we saw some ruins of an ancient Tahitian village in the Papenoo Valley, which is now used as a camp where kids go to be taught about their heritage and the lives of their ancestors. Our guide told us all about the local plants in the area and what the lives of his ancestors were like.
I took some less-drowsy Dramamine before our tour and it seemed to help. I only began getting a little queasy towards the end but it wasn’t too bad. If you suffer from motion sickness, definitely take something at least 30-60 minutes before this tour. It is very bumpy.
That evening we ordered pizza and a burger from the room service menu, which was the cheapest dining option at the resort.
Aside from the island of Moorea, the closest island in the Tahiti archipelago which has a ferry, the only way to get between the islands is to fly. We checked out of our hotel and headed back to the airport to fly to our next destination, the island of Taha’a.
After a very short flight to Taha’a’s neighboring island Raiatea (there is no airport on Taha’a), we were met at the airport by a boat from our next hotel, Hotel La Pirogue on a tiny motu off the island of Taha’a. (I wasn’t able to find the website for this place online anymore, so I hope they are still in business, because it was an amazing place).
After a scenic boat ride, we were dropped off on the tiny motu island at Hotel La Pirogue, and greeted by the French owner with flower leis and a welcome drink of our choice. We were shown to bungalow #1, the closest one to the bar/restaurant/reception building. It was adorned with hibiscus flowers and a split of French champagne in ice on the front porch overlooking the beach with a view to the main island of Taha’a. There was a mini fridge, an electric hot water kettle with some Nescafe and tea and cups, and a small TV that had a handful of channels all in French. We didn’t bother with the TV.
Video of property and bungalow:
One of our biggest expenses here was bottled water. The tap water is not drinkable and the water was around $4.00 a bottle. There were two bottles provided for us by housekeeping each day, but the rest we had to pay for. While this was expensive, the owners have to purchase them as well from the mainland. Other than that, we had paid for a continental breakfast and full dinner meal plan so most of our food was included.
After we settled in, Paddy read for awhile while I went exploring the motu.
There was a path through the palm trees past several houses that I assumed were where the owner and staff lived. It lead back to a rocky beach facing the ocean on the back of the small motu. After that I walked along the front beach line, passing one small cabin but the island was for the most part pretty deserted on the east side. The west side of the island past our hotel was all private property. It was very remote and peaceful.
As evening approached, we figured we should not let our champagne go to waste. We sat and watched the sunset.
Once the sun went down, we headed to the restaurant for dinner. The staff didn’t speak any English, so the wife/co-owner came over to help serve us. We appeared to be the only Americans, most of the other visitors were French or Italian. The husband/co-owner was our chef as well. At first the wife was a bit snooty with us, feeding the French stereotype–but after she saw that we were making every effort to decipher the menu with our Rick Steves French phrasebook/dictionary, she warmed up to us quite a bit.
The food at Hotel La Pirogue was some of the most amazing food we’ve ever had in our lives. Combining French cuisine with Polynesian cuisine turned out to be absolutely brilliant. While Tahiti is expensive, most of the food is worth the money in the right places. This was one of them. Having already added the price of dinner into our honeymoon package, it was nice to order whatever and not have to worry about price. Alcohol was not included though, so we ordered a carafe of the house wine each dinner, as that was the most economical option. Fruity cocktails and bottles of wine and of course Hinano beer were available as well.
Dinner each night included a starter, a main course, and a desert. It was always more than enough to eat, and we usually split a desert because we were too full to eat two of them.
The next day we woke up and went to breakfast at the same restaurant area. Breakfast was the same each morning, with a basket of baguettes, butter, jellies, ham slices, cheese, fruit, yogurt, and cereals as well as coffee, tea, and juice.
That day we didn’t do much. We just went swimming, read books, and were generally lazy. For lunch we splurged on a crab sandwich and french fries from the a la carte lunch menu in the bar. It was big enough to share and very good, although it was imitation crab. There are crabs all over the island, so the fact that the crab wasn’t real was a little odd.
The beach was somewhat free of coral, but there were many sharp rocks and shells and bits of coral so we wore water sandals when swimming. Also, there were many sea cucumbers littering the sea floor, which squished when stepped on and looked like big brown turds. We tried not to step on them as much as we could. Swimming was nice, with very little current and warm, clear water. We also explored more of the motu coastline farther up the beach from the resort. We found ourselves completely alone. It felt very much like being stranded on a desert island.
Dinner was excellent again.
Once again we waddled back over to our bungalow full and happy. We read books and spent some quality time with our gecko roommates.
The next day we booked a day tour on Taha’a through Hotel La Pirogue. We rode across the water to the main island with a few other French and Italian guests, and then were split apart by language. We were the only English speakers, so we got our own private guide for the day.
Our first stop was an organic vanilla plantation, La Vallee de la Vanille. Taha’a is known as the vanilla island, as 80% of the vanilla in French Polynesia is grown here. Most of the farms are greenhouse farms, but this organic plantation owned by Moeata Hioe and her husband Danish expat Brian Hansen is one of the few left that grows vanilla the old fashioned way. Moeata spoke perfect English and gave us a tour of her family’s plantation, which has been in her family three generations. She seemed clearly in charge of the operation, and it was here that I began to realize how much equality and respect women have in Tahitian culture. In fact, in traditional Tahitian culture women were seen as so important to the family that if a couple did not have any daughters, they would select one of their sons to be raised as a woman. These transgendered children were called Rae Raes. Today, Rae Rae is the name for male to female transgendered Tahitians, and gay, lesbian, and transgendered people are all generally accepted by Tahitian society.
Raising vanilla beans is tedious work, especially organically. The vanilla plant is a member of the orchid family. There are no bees to pollinate the flowers, so Moeata and her family have to get up at 3:00 AM to go around and pollinate each flower with a toothpick. If they don’t do this before sunrise, the beans will not grow. Full grown beans are harvested, dried, and then separated by size for bundling and shipment.
While we were talking to Moeata, her husband Brian came by and she introduced us. She said he was from Scandinavia so I asked which country. It turned out he was from Denmark, where I had spent a year as a foreign exchange student. I began speaking to him in Danish and he was very surprised to hear his native tongue out of an American in Tahiti. After feeling like the stupid Americans who don’t speak French, it was nice to be able to prove that I had some bilingual capabilities….even if Danish is kind of one of the world’s most useless languages to know. I didn’t expect to be able to practice my Danish in Tahiti. More proof of what a small world it really is.
We purchased some vanilla and vanilla products from Moeata’s family in her small open-air store to take home. After that, we moved on to the pearl farm.
Black pearls are Tahiti’s number one export. The reason being that black pearls are only found in one species of oyster that only lives in French Polynesia.
The black pearls are very expensive. The pricing depends on the size, shape, and luster. I wanted a pearl to take home, but could only afford one individual pearl from the mis-shapen pearl bowl for $20.00. I really like the mis-shapen pearls, they seem so much more unique and natural to me. I still have it, and am trying to decide if I should get a piece of jewelry made from it or not.
After the pearl farm, we continued on towards the harbor to set out on a snorkel tour. I got a few shots of the island along the way.
We made a quick stop at a small store to get water. Paddy and our guide went in together, and I stayed in the back of the truck. Our tour vehicle was just a small pick up truck with bench seats in it. As I waited alone, two Tahitian men approached me speaking French. I was wearing a halter top and my first instinct as in many countries was to assume they were hassling me and to not engage them. They realized I didn’t speak French and attempted a few words in English. I quickly realized that they were very interested in my colorful koi fish tattoo on the back of my shoulder. Tattooing is a big part of Polynesian culture, but it is all done in black ink, no color. As I am the palest person ever, color shows up very brightly on my skin and I wonder if they had seen a tattoo like that before. They asked me how long it took, and were very friendly. Then they both lifted up their shirts to show me all of their Tahitian tattoos, of which there were many. I am kicking myself to this day that I didn’t ask them if I could take a photo. I felt silly for feeling threatened by them. That is another thing I love about Tahiti. Never once did I feel leered at or hassled by men like I would in Mexico or many other countries. Men seem to respect women here, and skimpy tops and clothing isn’t seen as sexually inviting, but just a normal way of dress in the warm tropical weather. All of the Tahitian people we talked to throughout our trip were extremely friendly and welcoming.
We headed to a small port to get our guide’s boat to go snorkeling. When we arrived at the port, he made a couple phone calls and explained that his boat wasn’t fixed yet, they were still waiting on a part to be shipped that hadn’t arrived on time. He had called a friend with a boat to come help.
Very soon a man wearing a loincloth and a straw hat in a plywood boat arrived and we set off towards a motu.
On the way our guide played the ukulele and our driver sang along with him and blew his conch shell. We passed the fancy overwater bungalows of the Le Taha’a Resort, and arrived on a connecting part of the same motu that appeared to be the man’s property.
The property had many fruit trees, chickens, and small shacks. We borrowed some of his snorkel equipment that hung from the trees on the beach to snorkel in the coral garden. Our guide said the man who owned the property had been approached by the Le Taha’a resort many times with offers to buy his land, but he won’t sell. It became clear why Tahitians have faired so much better than the Hawaiians. The Hawaiians were pressured, duped, and lied to by the USA into selling their land. Once the money from the land sale was gone, they had nothing. Our friend in the loincloth seemed to understand this very well. Many native Hawaiians are now homeless, living in tent cities on beaches as low-income housing becomes more and more scarce. On his land he had plenty of area for farming, vegetables, and fruit trees, chickens, and all the fish he cold pull out of the ocean right in his backyard. His family probably worked or went to school on the main island during the day. Healthcare and schools are free for Tahitians and are funded by France. I hope he never sells his land, his life looks pretty great to me.
We were shown the “starting point” for the coral garden. It was so shallow that we had to find a path through the coral instead of swimming over it. We were told to be careful of the spiny sea urchins living under the coral, as their spines cause a painful sting. Paddy was particularly freaked out by this. It was hard to make sure we could find a spot to stand in the sand when we needed to adjust our masks or look for each other, and bumping an ankle against a sea urchin was always a possibility. Halfway through, we got stuck and had to figure out a way around and over some coral, which was a pretty big challenge. Finally, we made it through, and Paddy was relieved. It was very stressful for him but I had to admit it was the best snorkeling experience ever for me. The water was so clear and the sea life and fish very abundant.
On our last day on the Taha’a motu, we decided to make use of the hotel’s free kayaks and explore the lagoon. It ended up being much harder than we thought it would be, as we had to fight against a current. We paddled down the west side of the motu in hopes of finding some more deserted beaches but instead found a lot of private property with signs posted in Tahitian–“tapu.” We saw a pair of sting rays swimming along near us, but they quickly darted away when we came closer.
After muscling against the current back to our bungalow, we spent the rest of the day reading, relaxing, and finishing off the rest of our box wine while watching the sunset. Dinner was amazing again.
After breakfast we were given shell leis by the hotel owner (flower leis are given to welcome, shell leis are given to say goodbye) and put on our boat transfer to the Raiatea airport. After a very short flight, we arrived in Bora Bora. Unfortunately, we found ourselves to be amongst a huge sea of Japanese tourists on a tour group. I think that three countries compete for the title of Worlds Worst Tourists, and the Americans and the Japanese are neck and neck, followed by the Germans. Bora Bora is the most popular island, so I suppose it made sense that we’d be woken out of our remote relaxing island haze upon arrival by masses of pushing and shoving clueless Japanese tourists.
We found our transfer boat to the Intercontinental Le Moana Resort, and sped off, dropping people off at various motu resorts along the way. Finally we arrived at the tip of the main island of Bora Bora, at Matira Point and were escorted to reception. We were given cold wash cloths and a welcome juice drink and seated in the lobby. A woman made it through the Japanese mass confusion and gave us a tour, and then escorted us to our overwater bungalow. At long last, the overwater bungalow I’d dreamed about was about to be ours for five whole nights.
We had a king sized bed, a TV and DVD player, mini fridge, large bathtub, shower, closet, safe, living area with a coffee table that opened so that we could feed the fish below, and a two level deck with lounge chairs and a ladder into the lagoon. We also had a small gift basket including a split of champagne for our honeymoon. It was so amazing it didn’t even seem real. We settled in and went for a swim.
One thing that was slightly less than ideal about the Le Moana is that it is very windy on that side of Matira Point. It was warm wind, so it wasn’t a huge deal. The trashy paperback I was reading blew away on the last day–I set it open on the lounge chair and went inside for a moment and when I came back it was gone. I only had two pages left, too. I guess I’ll never know how that story ends. It seemed windiest the day we arrived. The public beach is in walking distance from the resort on the other side of Matira Point and there was no wind there, so if you need a break from all the wind, that’s a good place to go. There was barely anyone there and it is just as sandy and beautiful as the resort beach.
We decided on the Intercontinental Le Moana vs. other resorts with overwater bungalows because of it’s location attached to the main island as opposed to a small motu offshore. In addition to the resort restaurants all being insanely expensive, we wanted the option to eat at a variety of local restaurants and have access to a store to pick up beer, wine, and snacks. There was a store less than a mile down the road that sold baguettes, pate, meats, cheeses, fruits, beer, wine, and other items. We picked up some beer and wine and food for lunches there so we didn’t have to spend a ton of money at the resort. It was still expensive though–as mentioned earlier a six pack of Hinano tall beers is $18.00. We were able to find decent and relatively inexpensive French wine at the store though. We made lunches out of baguettes, cheeses, pate, and fruits along with the snacks we brought ourselves.
The day we arrived also happened to be Paddy’s birthday, and they were doing a seafood buffet and Tahitian dance show that night. The price was ridiculous at $100 per person, but we just decided to go for it. Paddy is pretty good at getting his money’s worth out of a good seafood buffet. The fish was very fresh and the dance show was great. The power went out for a little while (probably because of the strong wind that day), but the dancers made use of torches and drums and still put on a great show until the power came back on.
We spent the evening relaxing in our Bungalow watching season 2 of True Blood on DVD that we’d brought with us.
The next morning we went to the breakfast buffet, which was full of pushy Japanese tourists as expected. We returned to our bungalow to a disturbing amount of birds lined up in creepy little rows, only on the bungalow next to ours.
We spent the day visiting the public beach (Matira Beach) and enjoying the resort. We had an obligatory drink at the resort pool. It was a $18.00 cocktail and an $8.00 beer, so we just had one each.
After that, we spent the rest of the time snorkeling around our bungalow and relaxing. There wasn’t much coral in the lagoon to see, but the sudden drop off causing a dramatic color change from pale blue to dark blue clear water was very interesting to snorkel over. It felt a little like flying.
Our bungalow neighbors were a Japanese couple. They had all kinds of water camera gear, with little cutesy charms hanging off of it. They both wore long sleeve rash guards to protect from all sun exposure, and even though they had all kinds of cool tech gear to take photos and movies while snorkeling, they wouldn’t leave a five foot radius around their bungalow. As we were out snorkeling in the lagoon, I looked back at their bungalow and in the window of their bedroom were a row of about 10 stuffed animals all staring out at me. It was kind of creepy. They didn’t have any kids, and the woman had actually packed all those stuffed animals in her suitcase and then arranged them in their bungalow so that they could look out at the lagoon all day. There are some things about Japanese culture that I may never fully understand.
While we were snorkeling we had an hour long rainstorm which was kind of fun. It was weird to be in the water in pouring rain and be completely warm. It went away after a little bit and the sun came back out.
That evening for dinner we went to La Bounty restaurant, which was about a mile down the road from the resort and we could walk there easily. This ended up being our favorite meal on Bora Bora. It was all open air and it seemed to be popular with French expats. There were a lot of stray cats around that would wander in and out of the restaurant. We had a carafe of the house wine, and an appetizer of tuna tartare three ways: traditional French, Japanese style sashimi, and Tahitian style poisson cru. It was excellent. Poisson cru is kind of the Tahitian national dish. It consists of raw tuna, coconut milk, lime juice, carrots, cucumbers, and onions all mixed together. The lime juice par cooks the tuna. It’s eaten as a snack all times of the day, and is served from roulottes (food trucks) or local “snacks” late at night as well. For entrees Paddy had a steak dish with fois gras and I had a duck breast with fois gras.
After dinner we went back to the bungalow and watched movies we brought and enjoyed the complimentary honeymoon champagne.
The next morning we went on the quintessential Bora Bora tour: a shark and ray snorkel “safari.” We had this tour added into our honeymoon package, but you can always wait until you get there and book tours with the concierge as well.
We were picked up with several other tourists, including another couple on their honeymoon from the US. We got on a boat and drove around to some other motu resorts to pick up other guests. Then our guide took us out to the deep water of the lagoon, threw a bucket of fish parts in the water and told us to jump in. The wife of the American couple who was along with us was too scared to get in the water, which was a shame, because it was quite an amazing experience. The sharks were black tip reef sharks, and only about three feet long. There were a lot of them, but they were all interested in the fish parts the guide threw in the water and didn’t pay too much attention to us. There aren’t as many big sharks near Tahiti lagoons because the bigger sharks don’t make it into the shallow lagoons from the outer reefs, they tend to stay out in the deeper waters.
After snorkeling with sharks, we went around to another part of the island in the shallow lagoon where there were a couple other tour boats and a lot of very large sting rays. I asked the guide if they ever sting anyone, and he said they never do. I think you would have to try to grab one or threaten it in some way. Still, it was a little unnerving seeing their long tails with the sharp stinger spike on the end swishing by our legs while we stood in the lagoon. Paddy had a fine time with the sharks but decided to stay in the boat most of the time for this part. As for me, this was one of the main highlights of our whole honeymoon. The rays were used to the guides bringing them fish, and would come up and jump up on you like dogs begging for food. Sometimes five of them would gang up on one person, which happened to me once. It was a little scary but totally fine. I was surprised at how intelligent they seemed.
That night for dinner, we went to Bloody Mary’s. No trip to Bora Bora is complete without a dinner at Bloody Mary’s. We were given the option to add this dinner pre-paid into our trip package, and I’m glad we didn’t. The pre-paid package was twice as expensive as what we actually paid and didn’t even include alcohol. Bloody Mary’s is a couple miles from the Intercontinental, but if you make a reservation they send a complimentary taxi to come pick you up. We arrived a little earlier than our reservation and had a drink at the bar with another honeymooning couple from the US. Against one or two warnings on Tripadvisor, I ordered a bloody mary. It wasn’t bad. It wasn’t the best, but it really wasn’t bad. It was also the cheapest cocktail I ordered in all of Tahiti at only $8.00.
The outer walls of Bloody Mary’s are full of celebrities’ names who have eaten there. The drill is this: You goo up to a table full of fresh fish just caught that day sitting on ice, and tell the woman at the table which one you want. They then cook it up for you with some side dishes and serve you at your table.
Overall, we kind of loved and hated this place at the same time. It was overpriced, but the food was good. The atmosphere was lovely: romantic lighting, sand floors, and polynesian decor. The bathroom was awesome, I had to take some pictures. The sink was a stone fountain that you pulled a ring hanging from the ceiling to use the water. However, it was the touristy version of Polynesia and not the authentic version. We’d go back, but probably more to have some drinks at the bar than to eat. I would recommend going there once on your trip though, it’s worth the experience.
The Intercontinental offered a shuttle to the main town on Bora Bora of Vaitape. I think it was about $11 per person round trip, and runs once in the morning and once in the afternoon. We went in the morning and walked around the town, which is pretty small but very nice and amazingly clean. The main grocery store on the island is in Vaitape, and you’ll find the best prices here on food, beer, and snacks. There are also several shops to browse. You really don’t need much more than an hour here.
That afternoon we had scheduled a pricey but worthwhile tour with Bora Bora Photo Lagoon. Damien is a French expat who runs these tours in his “Love Boat,” all while taking professional photos of you on the excursion. He takes you around the entire island of Bora Bora, making a few stops for photos on a friend’s private motu, snorkeling, and finally drinking champagne out of a coconut in the lagoon. He tells you all about the island, and at the end loads all the photos (about 300-400 of them) onto a disc for you to take home. This half day tour costs about $400, which was very expensive but considering the private tour and professional photos of us on our honeymoon to keep forever, it was worth it. Some of the poses he asks you to do are pretty cheesy, but just go with it. He takes so many photos that you can be assured he will get those five fantastic ones that are frame worthy. Damien was a great tour guide and a genuinely nice guy. I would recommend his tour highly.
That night for dinner we decided to save some money and eat at the local “snack” right across from the Intercontinental Le Moana. We got some burgers (fish and beef) and fries for about a total of $25-$30. They were really good.
The next day was our last on Bora Bora. We spent the rest of the day enjoying the local beach and our bungalow. We had thought there wasn’t much snorkeling to be done around the bungalow as there wasn’t much coral. We had some extra crackers leftover from the snacks we had brought from home, and out of curiosity I crumbled one up and dropped it off the deck. I started a feeding frenzy. I grabbed a mask and snorkeled around the bungalow while Paddy crumbled more crackers to attract more fish. It ended up being pretty good snorkeling.
That afternoon we went back to the public beach (Matira Beach) and had some lunch at the small local Snack Matira. It was good and a really nice view of the beach.
For dinner we had made reservations at Kaina Hut, which had rave reviews on Tripadvisor. They are also far from the Intercontinental but offer a free pick up and drop off service with a dinner reservation. Maybe it was an “off” night, but this ended up being our least favorite dinner on Bora Bora. It was very expensive (expected), and the breadfruit gnocchi appetizer was alright. The atmosphere was nice, with sand floors and shells hanging from the ceiling. I had a seafood pot pie sort of dish, and Paddy had a steak. What ruined the meal for him was that he ordered it medium rare and it came well done. I wished he would have said something to the manager when it was served but he didn’t and it ended up ruining the whole meal. Many other people had a great dinner here but we wouldn’t go back.
The next morning we said goodbye to Bora Bora and flew back to Tahiti. I got some photos of the Bora Bora airport, which is located on a motu off the main island. It’s pretty hard to believe that you’re at the airport when you look around.
The flight to Tahiti had some pretty incredible views leaving Bora Bora as well:
We arrived back in Tahiti and went to stay one last night at the Intercontinental Tahiti again. We had booked their cheapest room, but were upgraded to a Panoramic view room on the ground floor, which was nice. We wanted to see some of Papeete (the capitol city) before we left, so we found the local bus stop across from the Intercontinental and took the bus into downtown Papeete, which was about a 15 minute ride.
We walked around and saw a bit of the market as it was closing, and poked around a few shops. We were hungry, so we found a cafe on the harbor and ordered up some poisson cru. It was the best poisson cru we had the whole trip. The resort poisson cru and the poisson cru at La Bounty didn’t even come close. Unfortunately, I don’t remember the name of the place we ate.
After our snack and a couple beers, we walked around a little more and waited for the Roulottes to arrive in the square near the cruise ship port. Roulottes are Tahitian food trucks, and every night at 6:00 PM they arrive at the harbor and set up some open air restaurants. There is a lot of pizza and Chinese food, and prices are very affordable. We weren’t super hungry after the poisson cru snack but ordered some soup and noodles at a Chinese roulotte anyway. It was great. If we’d had more time in Papeete we would definitely be eating here. The square was mostly filled with locals eating with their families.
After that we went back to the bus stop and waited. And waited. And waited some more. Finally a local told us that the bus stopped running at 6:00. He offered us a ride back to our hotel in the back of his truck, and he seemed really nice and genuine. We declined however, as you never know what someone’s intentions are with a tourist. We were able to flag a taxi and got back to the hotel. The Intercontinental bar was hopping with locals and a live local band. We went down and had a couple beers and watched the show, then went to bed to be ready for our early fight home the next day.
After two weeks, we were in love with French Polynesia but ready to go home. We were ready to go back to the world of affordable food and beer and not having to slather on the sunscreen all the time. We are hoping to return for our 10 year anniversary. If we go back we’d like to do a small pension/off the beaten path trip.
* Top islands on our list for our next trip to French Polynesia: More of Tahiti and Papeete, Huahine, Rangiroa, and Fakarava.
Our trip to the Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico in 2009: Snorkeling and sunbathing on Isla Mujeres, Mayan Ruins of Chichen Itza, and remote beaches in Tulum
In 2009 we were on a tight budget but were craving a tropical beach vacation. We had also never been to Mexico (other than Paddy’s quick visit to Tijuana back in 1989). So we chose the Yucatan Peninsula during the low season in September.
Going in the low season definitely had it’s pros and cons. The pros were the low prices and lack of crowds. The biggest con was the sweltering humidity that ended up giving Paddy a heat rash towards the end of our trip. I wouldn’t go back in September again, but it was still one of our favorite trips.
We arrived in Cancun in the morning after a night flight with a layover in Miami, on the day of Paddy’s 40th birthday. Our first destination was Isla Mujeres, a small island off the coast of Cancun. I had scheduled a shuttle with Best Day shuttles for $8.00 each to the Isla Mujeres ferry dock, and everything went as planned.
**Tip: People accept US dollars here as well as pesos. Bring some $1 bills with you so that you have some small bills to tip with when you arrive. Tipping in Mexico is a big part of the culture and will be expected. This began the second I got off the plane and went to the restroom–there was a lady handing out paper towels for tips. Tip your shuttle drivers, hotel maids, bartenders, and your restaurant servers. We always tip at least 20%.
After a 30 minute shuttle to the ferry, it wasn’t long before the next boat arrived. We purchased our tickets and got some cash from the ATM at the ferry terminal (the guidebook told us that sometimes the island ATMS occasionally run out of cash to dispense). A short ferry ride later, we walked off the pier to the town of Playa Norte and found our hotel.
Our hotel was Suites Los Arcos in the center of town. After reading Tripadvisor reviews about street noise, we had requested a room at the back of the hotel and they honored our request. Check in was easy, and the room was immaculately clean. It was a great deal for $60 a night, with a deck, air conditioning, a mini-fridge, coffee maker, and microwave.
Click on any image below to view larger
Above: Suites Los Arcos from the street
Below: Room interior and deck
**Note: Stock up on bottled water the second you arrive. Don’t ever drink the tap water and brush your teeth with bottled water. If venturing outside of a touristy area, don’t eat raw fruits and vegetables as they may not be treated to remove the bacteria that makes foreigners ill. Also avoid ice outside of tourist areas. You can always ask your server if the ice is purified.
After a shower and a nap, we headed out into the humidity to find some food and walk around. We had dinner at a little beach bar by the pier, then ended up having some celebratory birthday margaritas and shots at a little Tequila bar not far from our hotel. If you like tequila, I recommend Aja Toro Anejo. It’s a top shelf tequila that is very expensive in the US, but is reasonable in Mexico. It’s so smooth you can sip it.
We arranged a snorkel tour with a guy offering snorkel tours across the street from our hotel. We had to put $20 down and then pay $20 the next day, and he wrote us a voucher. We weren’t sure what to think, but his shop was right in front of our hotel and we figured at worst we would be out $20.
The next morning we had some huevos rancheros at the little cafe across from our hotel and met up with the snorkel tour, which was completely legit. They took us out in a boat with some other tourists down the coast of the island, and we snorkeled back along with the current.
**Tip: I bought a waterproof waist pouch online before this trip, for storing money and keys so I didn’t have to leave valuables in the empty boat with the guides. I’m sure they were trustworthy, but you can never be too careful. Also a good idea for going into the water when at the beach. You don’t want to leave your valuables on the shore.
One of our guides was feeding the fish tortillas, which is why there are so many of them in this video:
After seeing lots of colorful fish, we got back in the boat and I promptly got a bad bout of motion sickness while we waited for everyone to get in the boat. Fortunately I didn’t puke, but spent some time with my head between my knees when we arrived at the beach. We stopped at a beach on the southern part of the island for a delicious barbequed fish lunch before heading back.
After we arrived back to Playa Norte and took a rest in the air-conditioned oasis of our hotel room, we walked around the town a bit.
I was in love with the local cemetery. The colors, individual trinkets and offerings to each person’s resting place were so personal and endearing.
Below: Handcrafted “Catrina” dolls for sale in our hotel. I really wanted to buy one, but didn’t think it would survive the trip home.
I don’t remember what we had for dinner, but I do remember that we only spent about $15 each including drinks. I was nervous about consuming ice but whenever I asked our server if the ice was purified,(hielo purificado) it always was. We never got sick.
The next day was our last full day on Isla Mujeres and we weighed our options of what to do. We could either rent a golf cart (there are no cars on the island except the few owned by locals) for $40 and see the rest of the island, or we could spend the day at the gorgeous beach in the town. We opted for a beach day.
Most of the beach chairs were owned by some of the beach front hotels, but we found a row of them that were owned by the proprietor of a small restaurant on the beach. We approached the chairs and he came dashing over to explain the deal. We could sit in the chairs as long as we wanted, as long as we spent $11.00 over the course of the day. No problem at all.
Below: the view from the water facing the distant bar/restaurant that owns the beach chairs
Getting a chair and umbrella was imperative. The September sun was so scorching hot that even with SPF 50 sunscreen on we felt like we were going to burst into flames. When we weren’t in the water, we would move our chairs along with the shade and pull all our extremities into the shade like vampires.
We spent the late morning and early afternoon reading and swimming and taking in the beautiful powdered sugar beach and crystal blue water. It is truly one of the nicest beaches I’ve ever been to. The fact that it is in the town and in walking distance from everything is a huge plus as well.
The guy from the restaurant came around a few times in the morning to take orders. We weren’t hungry yet or ready for a beer and he didn’t pressure us. Around noon we asked for menus and ordered some fish tacos, nachos, beers, and margaritas. We each had a couple drinks over the afternoon, and as more people arrived we watched our poor waiter hoof it back and forth across blazing hot sand in the midday sun to fetch food and beverages for everyone. When we were ready to leave, we asked for the bill. All that –drinks, food, service, and use of beach chairs for a total of $25.00. You sure can’t get that in Hawaii. We made sure to leave a fat tip for our hard-working friend for his excellent service.
On the way back to our hotel that afternoon we ran into the snorkel tour guy from the day before. He asked us what we were doing tomorrow and we told him that we were headed to Tulum. He asked us how we were getting there and we told him that we were planning on catching a bus in Cancun. He said there was a resort just outside of Playa del Carmen that pays him a commission to send tourists there to check it out. We asked if it was a timeshare deal and were told that it wasn’t. He said that in exchange for visiting the resort and hearing their sales pitch, he could get us a free personal shuttle to Tulum. After some deliberation we agreed. He gave us another voucher and told us his associate would pick us up at the ferry terminal in Cancun.
After we got back into our hotel room, I decided to re-cap the situation. We were going to meet a dude in an unmarked van at the ferry, who was to take us to some resort just to “check it out,” and then drive us to Tulum. I became convinced that we would be mugged and dropped off in the middle of nowhere. Paddy didn’t think so. He said he had a good feeling and that the snorkel guy was trustworthy.
That night we found an Argentinian restaurant where Paddy had a perfectly cooked filet mignon for $15.00. Gotta love Mexico.
The next morning my apprehensions remained and I wrapped a credit card, my driver’s license, and a few pesos in a piece of a plastic bag and attached it to the top inside of my underwear band with the hotel sewing kit. That way I might still have something if my paranoia ended up being legit.
We met our dude in a white unmarked van who seemed to speak little to no English. My high school Spanish gets us around okay, but doesn’t do so well making conversation. So we drove for an hour in silence.
Finally we arrived at an immaculate mega-resort, and were “checked in” by a small kiosk in the parking lot that told us they would store our bags. We kept our small backpacks with our valuables with us and our driver left. Soon we met a very smooth talking man who took us to the breakfast buffet, and showed us around the resort and some of the empty “show rooms.” We politely shined him on and asked questions as if we were interested. After an hour the tour was over and we were led to a large room with tables full of salesmen and tourist couples. Yep, a timeshare trap. Well, at least it wasn’t being mugged and left out in the jungle.
We shined him on some more and let him know we were budget travelers and don’t take luxury vacations. He acted like he understood, then told us that he would get us set up to head out soon, he just had to have his manager come talk to us first. He left, and another guy showed up. This guy started getting really aggressive with the sales pitch. We stopped being polite and told him we were not interested and wanted to leave. He kept pursuing, telling us he could put the $3,000 down payment he was requesting on multiple credit cards for us if we wanted. We got irritated and he told us he would get us on our way. Then he took us to another table with another guy. The sales pitch went on. Finally I got really snippy with him and we were sent to get a voucher for our shuttle to Tulum. On the way out we shared a shuttle with a honeymooning couple who got suckered into the same deal. They were staying at a nearby resort and were promised a fifth of Cuervo for listening to the timeshare pitch. They were dropped off at their resort with their bottle of Cuervo, and then we continued another hour down the Yucatan Peninsula coast to Tulum. A waste of a day, but we didn’t have anything else planned anyway, and we got a free shuttle. We won’t be doing that again though.
We arrived in Tulum in late afternoon. Our beach bungalow at Tierras del Sol was far from the town at the end of a long road and our shuttle driver seemed lost. Fortunately my map showing our accommodation and my limited Spanish got us there. Once we arrived, the days’ trials and annoyances were forgotten. The beach was the most beautiful beach we’d ever seen, and our bungalow was perfect.
I would love to tell you the website for Tierras del Sol, but unfortunately it appears to be closed. There are a lot of beach bungalows and accommodations on the Boca Paila coastal road in Tulum, however and the beach is the same gorgeous beach. Consult Tripadvisor for reviews on other accommodations on the beach.
We were hungry and thirsty, and town was a long way away so we thought we’d head up the road a ways to see what there was. We found a tiny little panini shop that appeared to be closed. Just when we were about to leave, a younger European guy came out and offered to make us a sandwich. There wasn’t a menu, so we told him what we liked and he made us some paninis and gave us some ice cold Mexican beers with limes and a little saucer of kosher salt. He instructed us to rim the can with the lime and squeeze the juice in, and then sprinkle the salt on top, Mexican style. Whenever I think about the best beer I’ve ever had, none of the top-notch Northwest micro brews come to mind (and I do like me a good micro brew). It was this one, on a sweltering humid day in Tulum on the side of a dirt road, a cheap Mexican beer with a little lime and salt after a long day’s journey and obnoxious time-share pitches. I drink beer like that at home every summer now.
We went back to the bungalow and spent the rest of the afternoon/early evening at the beach. The sand was powder soft, just like at Isla Mujeres and there were no coral or rocks in the water at all. It was amazing. The best part though, was that we were the only people there.
The electricity was off in our bungalow between 5:00 AM and 5:00 PM, which is common for Tulum. Soon the sun went down and the lights came on, and we headed up to the little restaurant for dinner. Our host was from Argentina, and he was the cook and the server. There was no menu, he just told us what meat and fish he had got fresh that day and we told him what we wanted. We were brought three different lightly dressed salads, one with radishes, one with corn and peppers, and one with just lettuce which we dished up family-style. The main entrees were Argentinian BBQ vegetables and meat or fish, and all of it was outstanding. Beer, wine, and margaritas were available as well. A small surprise dessert was served at the end. The price ended up being very reasonable and we were told just to pay the night before we left.
The next morning we wanted to see the Mayan ruins of Tulum, so we got up early, had breakfast in the restaurant and asked our host to call us a taxi.
**Tip: Taxis aren’t metered, it is best to ask the price of the taxi (and your hotel host what price to expect) before you get in. Also, make sure to have plenty of small bills. Taxi drivers will often tell you they have no change, whether it’s true or not.
We arrived at the ruins around 10:00 and started a self-tour. The ruins were very interesting, but there was very little shade and even with Paddy’s hat and my sun parasol, we quickly began roasting in the hot sun. I literally had sweat pouring out of every pore in my face at a constant drip. There wasn’t any point in even wiping it off, it was just going to keep pouring out of my face non-stop.
The Tulum Ruins are definitely worth a visit. If we go back when it’s not so hot I’d like to spend more time there. The view of El Castillo on the cliff over the most brilliant blue water and white sand beach you will ever see was pretty amazing. When I planned this trip, I had thought we might go down to the beach below and spend some time, but as we were already sweltering, the thought of climbing back all the stairs in the midday sun was not very enticing. Especially when we had such a great beach back at Tierras del Sol. So we grabbed some water at the gift shop and went into town.
The town of Tulum is very nice, and if you choose to eat at restaurants there the prices are very cheap compared to the beach hotel restaurants. We walked around and looked at the shops and bought a couple tiny bottles of Aja Toro tequila for later that evening.
Still roasting to death, we headed to the main grocery store Super San Francisco to pick up some beverages and snacks to take back to our bungalow. The one large inconvenience of Tierras del Sol with it being so far from town was that there were no coolers in the room and no ice provided. (Drinking water was available to re-fill water bottles with for free in the restaurant area though). It was understandable that with no electricity during the day, a mini fridge was not a viable option to put in the bungalows. However, a cooler and some ice would have been awesome. (I believe the restaurant kitchen may have had a generator during the day).
Luckily, we found a styrofoam cooler and ice at the grocery store, and loaded up water, beers, and some bread, meat, and cheese for the morning as we had plans to get up at 5:00 am before the restaurant was open. The Super San Francisco is the local taxi dispatch as well, so walking out the door and right into one of many waiting taxis to take us and our cooler back to our bungalow was no problem.
We got back to our bungalow and spent the rest of the afternoon at the beach. Unfortunately, Paddy began to develop some small itchy bumps all over his chest that day, which we eventually realized was heat rash. We managed to enjoy the beach anyway, keeping up with our vampire routine of moving our beach loungers along with the shade of the palapa umbrella.
That evening we ate another amazing Argentinian BBQ of fresh fish and pork cooked by our host, and got to bed early.
One of our number one priorities while visiting the Yucatan Peninsula was seeing the Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza, one of the seven wonders of the world. It’s a popular tourist attraction, but I could only find tours from Cancun or Playa del Carmen. After much internet searching, I found Wayak Bus, a company offering shuttles and small bus transport all over southern Mexico for a low price. They market mostly to the younger backpacking, hostel-staying set. I booked a shuttle with them to pick us up at our bungalow in Tulum and take us the three hours to Chichen Itza, and then another shuttle to take us back later in the afternoon. I was a bit nervous as the site said no refunds or cancellations, but it seemed to be the best option. Total cost: $100 round trip for both of us, which for such a long trip was a great price. Full day tours on a bus packed with other tourists would have cost much more.
The gods must have been smiling on us for Chichen Itza, because it ended up being a perfect day. The shuttle that came to pick us up was a very nice Mexican couple that didn’t speak much English, but were more than happy to make conversation with the limited Spanish I knew. We were the only people on the shuttle, which was a small air conditioned van.
We showed up at Chichen Itza at 9:00 AM right when it opened. We tipped our drivers and they confirmed to meet the next Wayak shuttle in the parking lot at 3:00 PM. When we walked away from our shuttle, however, they didn’t go anywhere. We wondered if they had other people to meet at the same location, but there was no one around. We headed into the ruins and we had almost the entire ruins to ourselves. It was hot, but not unbearable yet. It was amazing.
How many other people have a photo of the Kukulkan Pyramid with no one in it?
At 11:30, we had seen all but one small part of the ruins, and only a few other people were in the ruins with us. We were getting hot and hungry, so we headed back to the main entrance area to get some lunch in the restaurant.
As we approached the main entrance, we were met by a gigantic crowd of people all entering at once. The tour buses had arrived. And now it was busy. We went into the air conditioned restaurant that had no one in it and had a quiet lunch by ourselves. When we came out, we stepped into sweltering humidity and massive crowds. We looked at the last part of the ruins, bought a couple souvenirs (the best prices on brightly painted ceramic sugar skulls and other mass-produced trinkets was actually here, of all places) and wondered what to do with two and a half more hours to kill in the heat. Paddy had a suspicion that our shuttle drivers were waiting the whole time in the parking lot and were the same ones who were taking us home. We decided to check.
We found our drivers relocated to a shady parking space, sitting and talking to another tour bus driver and fanning themselves in the heat. They had sat out there in that hot parking lot for who knows how long (maybe they left and went into a nearby town for awhile?) waiting for us for the last 4 hours. And they were planning on waiting two more. We couldn’t believe that they had been there all day just for us, and you can imagine their delight that we were ready to leave early.
On the way back, they pulled over in the Spanish colonial town of Valladolid so that we could take a quick photo of the Catedral de San Gervasio, which was very nice of them.
We learned that our drivers actually lived in Cancun, and had been up around 3:00 AM to drive two hours to Tulum to pick us up and would be driving two hours back after they dropped us off. We were glad we left early so they could get home–what a long day! We made sure to tip them well for all their trouble.
That evening, we decided to head down the road and see what other restaurants there were at the other nearby beach hotels. We walked down a ways and decided to try La Zebra. The place was packed with a wedding party but we were able to squeeze in near the bar. It was a beautiful property, but the food was way overpriced and pretentious. I don’t remember what we ate, but I do remember a tiny expensive side of guacamole with one chip standing artfully in the center of it like a sail on a boat. Seriously….ONE chip.
The next day was our last so we thought we’d try to see a little of the Sian Ka’an Biosphere next door. As we were on foot and it was hot, we didn’t really have any major objectives other than to check out the cenote near the entrance. Cenotes are large sinkholes that are the surface connection to large underwater lakes and are found all over the Yucatan. Many companies offer tours of swimming and snorkeling in the cenotes.
We signed in and paid a very small fee at the park station, then located the short trail to the small cenote.
We could see clear to the bottom, and it was very deep. The water was colder than the ocean, which was really refreshing. We didn’t stay long though. Maybe it was because we were there alone, but it was kind of….creepy. I think a larger cenote with people around on a snorkel tour would be a little bit more comfortable.
After that we had lunch at Casa Banana down the road and it was excellent. Very reasonable prices and great food.
We spent the rest of the afternoon enjoying the beach. As usual, there was only one other couple on the beach with us at any one given time. It was truly amazing to have such a big beautiful beach all to ourselves.
The last night we just decided to eat some fresh Argentinian BBQ again from our host. It was always excellent, and the price was right. We sat on the beach in the warm wind and watched the waves in the starlight, then fell asleep listening to our chirping gecko friends running around our bungalow.
The next morning our Best Day shuttle showed up on time and drove us back to the Cancun airport. It was an amazing trip and we can’t wait to go back and see more of the Yucatan, hopefully when it’s not so hot. Paddy’s heat rash had worsened, and by then he was ready to go back home. We’ve been to a few tropical locations since this trip and his rash never re-appeared, giving real testimony to how hot and humid the Yucatan is in September. I wouldn’t recommend that time of year unless you can really handle heat and humidity.
On our list for a second Yucatan Peninsula trip in the future: Isla Holbox, snorkeling with whale sharks, Celestun, more Mayan ruins, and exploring bigger cenotes. Stay tuned…
Olympic National Park 2009: Camping at Sol Duc, hiking Lover’s Lane, Sol Duc Falls, and a quick view stop at Hurricane Ridge
This was our second trip to the Olympic National Park. We’ve camped a few places, and this is our favorite campground so far. It will probably always be our favorite though, since we got engaged on this trip.
Sol Duc is one of the most popular campgrounds, and all of Olympic National Park‘s campgrounds are first come, first serve except for Kalaloch Campground, which takes reservations.
If you’re planning on coming in July or August, don’t show up on a Friday night expecting to find a good spot. Whenever we head here in the summer, we try to go on Thursday or by Friday morning. A ferry is involved, so it can be a bit of a trek. Allow plenty of time. From Seattle you can reach the Northern Peninsula by taking the Edmonds/Kingston Ferry. There are a few other ferry routes to the peninsula, but we find this one to be the most direct.
Sol Duc Campground has pit toilets, and a gift shop that sells firewood, ice, and other necessities. Make sure to stock up on food and other items before heading out here though, as it is a long drive from any town. Sol Duc also has a resort with small cabins for rent, a restaurant, and a developed pool fed by the natural hot springs. I’ve looked into renting one of the cabins there in the fall, but the price always seems unreasonable for what you get. I’d rather just camp in the summer.
Accessible from the campground is the trail to Sol Duc Falls, which is a popular tourist spot. From the falls, you can continue on a beautiful flat 6 mile hike called “Lover’s Lane” through the rainforest, which takes you back along the river to the resort and campground. The falls overlook bridge was packed, but when we continued on through the forest on the Lover’s Lane trail, we only saw one other couple the whole time. It was magical. I half expected to see elves and faeries.
On the way back to the ferry, we drove up to Hurricane Ridge near Port Angeles to check out the view from the visitor’s center. We’d like to go back and do some light hiking at some point.
Olympic National Park is one of our favorite national parks in the country by far. There is so much to see. We will be back soon for sure.
Our trip to Chicago in 2008: Heavy metal burgers at Kuma’s Corner, thrifting in Wicker Park, The Hancock Tower, Navy Pier, and sculptures at Millennium Park.
Chicago was a quick trip in May of 2008. The weather was great, but they don’t call it the windy city for nothing. Our flight was delayed for several hours due to high winds in Chicago.
If you’re going to Chicago, expect flight delays. And as a general rule, we try not to book flights with a layover in Chicago unless it’s the only option. Especially in the winter. But it’s a great city that is definitely worth any travel hassles.
Click on any photo below to enlarge
We were visiting a good friend of ours who had moved to Chicago to go to school and eventually become an art professor. We stayed with him in his apartment the first two nights, and then at the Red Roof Inn downtown the last two nights. At the time the Red Roof Inn seemed to be the best deal in town–we got a room for around $100 a night in the center of downtown, in walking distance to everything.
Our friend Al showed us around his neighborhood. Unfortunately, we didn’t take as many photos as we wished we did, and the trip was a long time ago and such a short trip that we don’t have a ton of things to share. But we’ll gloss over the highlights.
First of all, if you eat at one restaurant while you’re in Chicago, go to Kuma’s Corner. Kumas is what happens when you pair great and adventurous pub grub cooks with heavy metal enthusiasts. The result is hands-down the most mind-blowing burger experiences we’ve ever had.
Be prepared for a line, we had to wait for awhile. It’s worth it.
Paddy had the “Pantera,” a beast of a burger with homemade ranchero salsa, bacon, shredded monterrey jack, roasted poblano pepper, and tortilla strips on a pretzel bun. I had the “Iron Maiden” with a chicken breast instead of beef, which had chipotle mayo, cherry peppers, avacado, pepper jack cheese, lettuce, tomato, and onion on a pretzel bun. The pretzel bun is the part that pushes these burgers over the edge into amazingness.
If you’re really hungover and need something to mop up last night’s over-indulgence, you might try the “Slayer.” The Slayer is a beef patty on a big sloppy pile of chili, monterrey jack cheese, cherry peppers, andouille sausage, fries, carmelized onion, green onion, and “ANGER.”
Also at Kuma’s you will find a selection of local beers and local ingredients as the owners do their best to support local farmers and brewers in the area. They also donate to a “charity of the month” and encourage their customers to donate as well.
Another highlight of our trip was exploring the shops in Chicago’s hipster neighborhood of Wicker Park on N Milwaukee Avenue. I found a vintage Cyndi Lauper True Colors Tour T-shirt that I cherish to this day.
We had a great time with Al and his friends, and then we had to make time for some inevitable tourist activities.
We thought about going up in the Sears Tower, but after consulting our guidebook, it sounded like a long wait in line for an overrated view that might be just as great from the Hancock Tower. So we opted for that. We were glad we did. The views were spectacular, really giving you a sense of how massive the city of Chicago really is. Also, you can see the Sears Tower in the skyline view, which is a pretty central part of the Chicago skyline. If you’re in the Sears Tower, you can’t see it. We recommend the Hancock.
We also had a nice stroll on the waterfront park, where we randomly ran into one of my old college friends who happened to be visiting as well. It was a pretty crazy coincidence.
We stopped for lunch on Navy Pier at the famous Billy Goat Tavern made famous by the John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd SNL skit (“Cheezborger! cheezborger! No fries, cheeps!). It was an experience, but wildly overrated. My chicken burger was a bland chicken breast cooked on a grill and slapped onto a plain naked bun. I can’t remember if there was even cheese. All condiments were self serve. And don’t forget the chips in a bag. Minimal effort, minimal flavor.
Below: views of the waterfront from Navy Pier
The last big highlight of our trip was Millennium Park. We loved all the larger than life sculptures, specifically “the bean” aka “Cloud Gate” by British artist Anish Kapoor.
Lastly, we had to try out Chicago’s famous deep-dish pizza at Pizza Uno. It was pretty good, but felt more like a tourist trap than anything else. It was packed with tourists but we managed to squeeze in at the bar and avoid the wait for a table. The crust was good, but the sauce and toppings were a little on the bland side. We have a feeling that there is much better deep dish pizza in Chicago, and if we return, we’ll be looking for it.
Costa Rica was our first international trip together. Sarah, a good friend of mine from our hometown of Friday Harbor, WA had moved down to Costa Rica with her Costa Rican partner Julio and started their own eco-travel company, Boyero Tours.
We told them how much time we had, and what we were interested in and they planned our trip for us. We were excited to support their new company, which focuses on environmentally sustainable travel and supporting the local economy.
We traveled in September, which is the rainy season. Peak season is in the spring when the weather is nicest. Coming from rainy Seattle, rain was something we were used to but found the tropical rain to be a bit more convenient. It would be bright and sunny every morning while we went on tours, and then it would pour rain in the afternoon. If you go during the rainy season, it’s best if you’re an early riser and can get your sightseeing done in the mornings.
Click on any photo below to view larger
We flew from Seattle to San Jose on a night flight, with a layover in Miami. We arrived fairly exhausted, grateful that Sarah and Julio met us at the airport. Their rented house was on a coffee plantation not far from the airport. Growing on the property were bananas, coffee, guavas, and other fruits.
Sarah was about 4 months pregnant with their son Gabriel when we visited. We were very happy for them and glad we had a chance to visit them before they became busy parents. As it was, they were busy with their company but were able to take some time to show us around.
The next morning, we visited Zoo Ave, a zoo in Alajuela that donates a portion of the entrance fee to helping save and rehabilitate animals. We saw parrots, turtles, peacocks, tucans, monkeys, and many other plants and wildlife. The giant bamboo was quite impressive.
The next morning, we were to travel to La Fortuna by bus, where Sarah and Julio would meet up with us the next day.
This bus ride ended up being the low point of our trip. I was a bit nervous as there was no bathroom on the bus, as I seem to have the world’s smallest bladder. I avoided coffee that morning and drank minimal water in preparation for the 5 hour bus ride to La Fortuna. I am also plagued with motion sickness, but wasn’t very concerned about it as long as I got a window seat.
We got to the San Jose bus terminal early so we could make sure I got a window seat. We had no problem getting a seat next to a very large window that opened. We set off on our journey, stopping to pick up people in the towns along the way. The seats on the bus became full very quickly, but the bus still stopped to pick up as many passengers as would fit in the aisle.
** Note that it is dangerous to leave luggage in the upper luggage storage area above the seats on buses. We stored our hiking backpacks in the luggage compartment underneath the bus and held our small backpacks in our laps during the ride. Theft is very common on buses in Costa Rica, and you should be aware of your belongings at all times.
About three and a half hours into the bus ride, I began to feel queasy. I was maintaining a steady view out the window the whole time and was listening to my ipod, but eventually we realized that we were going around a very windy mountain road. The windy road went on for about an hour, and I tried to take a Dramamine tablet but it was too late. Eventually, I realized that losing my breakfast was inevitable. Fortunately, I had packed a thick plastic “just in case” bag in my backpack, and made use of it. Thankfully, no mess was made but it’s pretty embarrassing to yack into a plastic bag on a crowded bus. I made note to always carry a plastic bag in my backpack while traveling from then on.
Finally, we arrived in La Fortuna. We grabbed our luggage and walked to our nearby hotel, Hotel Monte Real. We stayed in one of the premium rooms, which I would recommend paying the extra money for. We had a very nice room with a balcony, mini fridge, coffee maker, and air conditioning. The hotel also had a pool and a computer in the lobby that we could use to check our email and bank accounts.
There are a range of options in La Fortuna, but this one is a great budget option with an ideal location in walking distance to the town and restaurants.
Another great thing about the Hotel Monte Real is it’s spectacular views of the Arenal Volcano, the main draw of La Fortuna.
After I had recovered from the motion sickness debacle, we were starving. We ventured into the town in search of sustenance and an adult beverage. Or two. Or three. Being the low season, the town was pretty empty. We looked around and saw very little activity at any of the open air restaurants except for the Lava Rocks Cafe. So we opted for that.
The decor was fun and the service was great. We shared an order of ceviche which was outstanding. After some good food, bloody marys, and margaritas, we headed back to the room to relax.
We had a morning of sleeping in and relaxing, which was the only relaxing morning on our whole trip. We took a dip in the pool and walked around town a little, waiting for Sarah and Julio to join us in the afternoon.
Sarah and Julio arrived in the afternoon and we went on a hike in the Arenal Volcano National Park. Julio is a tropical biologist and was able to tell us a lot about the park and various plants we encountered along the way.
After the hike, we all went to Eco Termales Hidalgo hot springs, which was a serious of pools at different temperatures heated by natural volcanic activity. We enjoyed relaxing in the natural pools with drinks from the bar. Lockers were available in the locker room to store our stuff while we soaked in the pools. There was about 45 minutes of pouring rain while we were in the pools which was kind of fun while soaking in the warm water. After our swim, we enjoyed a delicious typical Costa Rican family style dinner cooked by the Eco Termales kitchen.
On day 4 we woke early to a bright sunny morning and another majestic view of the Arenal Volcano from our hotel. After a quick breakfast of eggs, beans, and rice we were picked up by Canoa Aventura tours for a wildlife tour by boat at Caño Negro wildlife reserve. There was only one other couple on the tour with us as it was the low season. The guides were very accommodating and often took photos of the wildlife for us by putting our camera lenses up to their binoculars for a great close up.
On the way to Caño Negro we stopped off at a small shop for coffee and empanadas. We spotted some wild iguanas in the trees near the shop. Our guides also stopped along the way to point out a pineapple plantation (no, they don’t grow on trees) and caimans (a close relative of the alligator)
Caño Negro was one of the highlights of our trip. We were so excited to see monkeys and sloths and other rainforest animals in their natural habitat.
Above: Caiman. No, we weren’t that close.
Howler monkeys telling us to go away:
We were lucky to see a rare albino howler monkey riding on his mama’s back as she swung through the trees.
On the way back from the tour, the sun went away and the rain came pouring down. This ended up being a typical daily occurrence with great weather in the mornings and pouring rain for a few hours in the afternoons. We took the afternoon rainy periods to rest and relax before dinner.
For dinner we went to Sarah and Julio’s favorite restaurant in La Fortuna, La Choza del Laurel. The staff dresses in “traditional” costumes and they serve typical and international cuisine at reasonable prices.
After dinner Sarah and Julio drove us around to the side of the Arenal Volcano where the lava was coming out. We were able to see the hot lava spewing out of the top of the volcano from a distance. The picture below was the best I could get, but it gives you a idea. Kind of. It was pretty spectacular.
The next day, we woke to another bright sunny morning and went on an Arenal canopy zip-line tour. Zip-lining seems to be the trendy thing to do these days in Costa Rica, and we had to try it. When we arrived near the rainforest zip-line platforms, our tour guide parked and led us the rest of the way on horseback. I am not so experienced at horseback riding and this was the scariest part for me. Paddy was perfectly comfortable on a horse and galloped on ahead, leaving me and the guide to walk along behind. I think the guide thought I was going to be high-maintenance and chicken out when we got to the zip lines.
When we got to the zip-line platforms and hiked up to the top, Paddy’s vertigo set in and he went back down to the lower platforms to wait for us there. To the guide’s relief, I did all the zip lines with no chickening-out whatsoever. Paddy did the last few lower ones that weren’t giving him as bad of vertigo. Overall we both had a lot of fun. Not recommended for those with vertigo or fear of heights.
Here is a video our guide took with our camera that gives a pretty good idea of the zip-lining experience:
After our zip-line adventure, we checked out of the hotel and began the drive to Cahuita on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica. While September is the rainy season for most of Costa Rica, the Caribbean Coast is usually dry this time of year. While dry, it is extremely hot and humid. The drive took all afternoon and we arrived after dark at Bluespirit Bungalows. The bungalows were very cute, with palm roofs and bamboo furniture. There was a loft bed upstairs with mosquito netting, and a bathroom and small living area below. Outside were some chairs and a hammock. There were only three bungalows, and a house where the owner lived with his family.
That night we slept with a fan on and the mosquito net tucked around our mattress. It was hot enough to barely need a sheet to sleep with. While falling asleep we heard the pitter-patter and chirping of little geckos running around the roof and walls around us. At least that’s what we told ourselves that was as we tucked our mosquito net a little tighter around us.
The next morning, we went on a snorkel tour with the owner of Bluespirit in his boat, launched from the rocky beach on the property.
Short videos of our snorkel experience:
After the snorkel tour, we were dropped off on the main beach of Cahuita and took a walk through the jungle back to the town with a guide, who showed us animals, plants and insects along the way.
In the afternoon we had time to check out the town of Cahuita
That night for dinner went to Miss Edith’s and had some fantastic Caribbean food. Rice, steak, vegetables, and a spiny lobster tail in a spicy coconut sauce.
We had breakfast in town and then went on a tour of a Kèköldi Indigenous family’s farm and the rain forest surrounding them. We learned about various medicinal plants, their iguana farm, and their traditional way of life.
We couldn’t get enough of the Thanksgiving-style turkeys. They were so entertaining. Raised for food, but allowed to roam the property freely. They weren’t very shy. They made such funny gobbling noises and they shook all over and puffed their feathers when they gobbled. Their tail feathers would drag on the ground as they strutted pridefully about the compound.
After our introduction to the farm, we went on a hike through the rainforest to learn about plants used by the Kèköldi people for generations. We were told not to stray from the trail or touch anything unless we were told to, as there are poisonous plants and trees, as well as poisonous insects. The warning that stuck with us the most was that of the bullet ant. They are about the size of carpenter ants, and if they bite you, the pain is so severe that you may not be able to walk.
One of the first plants we were introduced to was the cacao tree, from which cocoa beans are harvested to make chocolate. Cacao is actually a fruit, and when opened each bean is covered in a fruity white covering. The fruit is eaten by putting each fruit-covered bean in your mouth and sucking the meat of the fruit from it. It tastes like a fruit, but with a cocoa butter aftertaste. Our guide says that cacao bean fruit was his “candy” when he was growing up.
Along the way we encountered one of the trees we were told not to touch–the spiky bark of the pochote tree.
After our tour through the rain forest, we were cooked a traditional lunch of chicken, breadfruit, and sweet potatoes served in banana leaves, which are used as plates and bowls.
After our tour, we spent a short amount of time at the beach in Puerto Viejo on the way back to Cahuita. We didn’t stay long because Julio was concerned about leaving their car parked as there was a lot of theft and break-ins in the area. The Caribbean coast of Costa Rica is a lot more dangerous than other parts of the country, especially in Puerto Limon. We really enjoyed Cahuita though and didn’t feel unsafe there.
On our last night we went to dinner by ourselves and then out to a local reggae bar for drinks. Unfortunately we can’t remember where we ate or what we ate. We do however remember the best piña coladas we’d ever had. No high fructose corn syrup here, just all natural juice and local rum.
Our last morning we got up early and spent the morning at the beach in Cahuita. Beautiful sandy beach without much coral and bathtub warm water.
Short video of the Cahuita beach:
In the afternoon we drove back to San Jose, and flew home the next morning. It was a great trip and we are so grateful to Sarah and Julio for their hospitality and planning. Check their tour company out at http://www.boyerotours.com
If we return to Costa Rica, we’d like to see some more of the Pacific coast and rainforest. Costa Rica is a diverse country, and there are many adventures to be had there.