The 24 Hour Layover in Iceland : Top 5

With the 24 hour layover in Reykjavik Iceland becoming more and more common, we’ve composed this list of our Top 5 things to do in Iceland during a 24 hour layover.  In descending order they are:

#5 – The Sun Voyager

The Sun Voyager near the Sæbraut road in Reykjavik is a unique art sculpture on the shores of the Greenland Sea and is one of the more popular stops in a city that has more art than you might expect.

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The Sun Voyager – Photo by Brian Wallace

#4 – Hallgrímskirkja Church

Hallgrímskirkja Church in Reykjavik is a great place in the city to get your bearings.  The church is seen easily from almost anywhere in Reykjavik and it is centrally located, sitting atop a large hill with a commanding view of the rest of the city.

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The view of Reykjavik from Hallgrímskirkja Church                                                                             Photo by Sharon Ang – Pixabay.com
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Hallgrímskirkja – Photo by Brian Wallace

#3 – Icelandic Street Food

Lunch at Icelandic Street Food was the best and cheapest meal we had in our 24 hours in Iceland.  My Dad and I had all you can eat soups and deserts for about $38 USD with a couple of drinks tacked on as well.  The atmosphere was a little quirky (which fits well with Reykjavik) and the people there were very friendly.

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Icelandic Street Food in Reykjavik- Photo by Brian Wallace
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The bill, not bad for Iceland – Photo by Brian Wallace

#2 – Driving the Backroads

Driving the backroads near Hafnarfjörður was a great highlight if for nothing else than it was totally unplanned.  We had an awkward amount of time in Reykjavik before our flight left for home from Keflavik so I took a quick look at the map and saw that we could take the back way to Keflavik from the town of Hafnarfjörður to kill some time.  Soon after turning off of the main highway, we saw in the distance what looked like drying racks that had some unknown “stuff” hanging from it.  The “stuff” turned out to be drying fish heads and the smell was nearly unbearable but it was the best worst smell ever. We were richly rewarded for venturing off the main road without a plan.  There was also beautiful scenery along the way to the airport but forever burned into my memory, as well as my nostrils, will be the fish head drying racks of Hafnarfjörður.

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Admittedly, I was glad these weren’t shark fins

#1 – The Blue Lagoon

The Blue Lagoon in Grindavik is everything you’ve imagined it to be.  So much has been written about it before so I will not try to spin new superlatives to describe it.  I spent the better part of 10 days in Europe with my Dad and can honestly say that the three hours or so we spent at the Blue Lagoon was the best part of the trip, especially for my Dad.  You can see by the photo below that my normally very reserved father was relaxed and truly enjoying himself and had found his happy place.  This Blue Lagoon is expensive but is so worth it, especially if you’re only in Iceland for a 24 hour layover.

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So if you’re flying to Europe through Reykjavik, consider a one day layover (or more), you will probably end up calling it the best stopover you’ve ever had.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Step Away From The Car… In Yellowstone

If you don’t get more than 100 feet from your car when you go to Yellowstone National Park (YNP) in Wyoming that would be a shame, but I will not judge you… however I would encourage you to hike your way to the front of the line.  In doing so, you’ll leave the vast majority of the parks visitors far behind.  YNP has some of the most incredible roadside attractions nature can offer: steaming geysers, large herds of bison, elk and deer, as well as apex predators like wolves and bears.  But all of this nature in one place has one big disadvantage: Disneyland-like crowds with no skip the line pass to make viewing it all easier.

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Bison or Buffalo?

My wife and I recently spent a few days in Yellowstone and roughly split our time equally between seeing large swaths of the park from, or very near to, our car with the other half of our trip walking into the woods to experience a much different Yellowstone than most people do.  From the car, there are the massive Yellowstone Falls in the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone as well as huge herds of bison that seem very comfortable weaving through the cars and people who dare to get too close.  Bears are often seen here from your car and even wolves show face for those who are either lucky, or patient, or both. There are also thermal features within close proximity to parking lots such as the famous Old Faithful Geyser and the incredible colors of the Grand Prismatic Spring.

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Lower Yellowstone Falls

If you get out of your car and venture into the woods, you may be rewarded with a much more intimate experience in one of America’s most popular national parks. Our first hike in the park was 4.8 miles round trip to Lone Star Geyser, which can erupt up to 45 feet into the sky. This geyser erupts every three hours so timing is everything, and we lucked out and arrived (with no planning mind you) only 10 minutes before the geyser went off.  The hike is uphill to the geyser but is not steep and follows an old road that has been closed to automobile traffic (bikes are allowed). A few minutes of waiting after reaching the end of the road, the geyser began to pick up steam (pun intended) and showed rumbling signs that an eruption would be coming soon.  The geyser erupted for about 18 minutes with water shooting up first, then a few minutes of steam and it was a wonderful reward for the relatively short 2.4 mile hike to get there.  We felt like our efforts to have hiked there were instantly rewarded as there were only about 10 other people there to witness this very cool display whereas Old Faithful can have as many as 2,000 people watching an eruption.  It was also refreshing to have an unobstructed view of the geyser with no signs or ropes in the way and the best part was that it truly felt like this is how we were meant to see it, au natural so to speak.  We worked for this experience and we were richly rewarded for our efforts.

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Lone Star Geyser

Our second hike was to see Fairy Falls which is accessed near the very busy Grand Prismatic Spring area.  Once you get past the large crowds of this popular spot, you’ll find a much smaller group of sightseers on the way to the falls.  Fairy Falls is a very tall (197 feet) cascade, one of the tallest in the park, but for us the true gem of this hike unexpectedly turned out to be Imperial Geyser.  This geyser bubbled and burped the entire time we were there and again there was hardly a soul there, this time only four other hikers.  If you make this an out and back, the distance is around six miles, but there are also options to add more distance by linking to other trails in the area, which we did to add another three miles or so.  While on one of these connector trails, we came across a lone male bison just off trail that really capped off what was a very unique hike. Seeing a big bison from your car can be intimidating so imagine seeing one out on the trail!  We stayed back a safe distance to take some photos and didn’t want to end up on the news like so many others recently who have gotten too close to a wild bison.

Not everyone can hike but if you can, do.  I’m not trying to diminish the experience for others who do like to see the park from the relative safety of their cars and only walk the boardwalks. We did our fair share of this type of sightseeing, just like everyone else and it was great.  However, wildlife encounters seem to have a more authentic feeling when you see them from the trail instead of the road. The power of a wild buffalo is more pronounced when you don’t have your car to save you.  Walking through forests that have grizzly bears heightens your awareness to your surroundings (carry bear spray) and that also adds a different dynamic to the experience.  Geysers and other natural features experienced miles from the nearest parking lot mean that you might have it all to yourself, without man-made barriers.

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Twilight on Yellowstone Lake

So, if you can get a hike or two in during your stay, do it and you’ll be glad you did. Enjoy a more secluded Yellowstone experience because most people will be at the lodge, in their car, or never far from it, and that means you can experience something rare in Yellowstone, solitude.

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Bison in Lamar Valley

 

 

 

Paris : Epic Fail

I had prepared for my visit to Paris for months. Because I had heard all of the rumors that Parisians were rude to those who didn’t at least make a modest attempt to speak their language, I had practiced French nearly everyday for months in an attempt to not be the typical American who could only speak English. I really cared about respecting the culture and figured learning a few phrases would show that I was not some pretentious American.  I also researched where to go if you were pressed for time, being that I only had about 9 hours in the city.  The whole reason to visit Paris was to take my dad on the most unique day trip possible within a few hours by train from Amsterdam.  The choices were between Cologne, Luxembourg, and Paris (since we had already planned a day trip to Bruges).  So I imagined that Paris would be the most unique of the bunch but as you can tell from the title, things didn’t go so well.

The first sign warning sign that this day might not go so well was the day before we were to arrive when I heard the news that a fire at the Norte Dame Cathedral had destroyed a large portion of the church.  This was to be our first stop on “Le Grand Tour”.  The second jolt came when we were standing in Centraal Station in Amsterdam as I let my dad know that the surprise day trip was to Paris.  Not so much as anything remotely resembling any excitement.  He said “Paris huh?”, to which I replied “yup”.  “Eiffel Tower huh?”, to which I replied “yup”.  This was going to be great fun!!!

Three and a half hours later, we arrived at the hustle and bustle of Gare du Nord in Paris.  We had just started getting used to Amsterdam and all of its unique personality and now felt dropped into another world, one where English is not as common as where we had started our day.  First things first, dad needed to use the toilet and in Paris that means you have to pay, about € 0.50.  This was to me an opportunity to get rid of some loose change but to my dad…this was an outrage.

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Gare du Nord

Next up was a lesson on the Paris Metro.  My dad and I had mutually decided that we would try to use public transport rather than take the easy way and take an Uber or a hop on hop off bus.  In hindsight, this was a big mistake.  We were told that the Metro stop closest to Notre Dame was closed due to the fire the previous day so we needed to get off one stop early, which would have been fine if we had taken the train in the right direction to begin with.  It took one stop to realize we were going the wrong way and we expected a mistake or two during our visit to Paris so hopped off and then hopped on the correct train.  When we exited the dark Metro line and came up to the bright light above, I had no idea which way to go and had to use the compass app on my phone to figure out where Notre Dame was.  But all we really needed to do was to follow the crowds of people trying to see the aftermath of the previous days fire.  It was pure madness!  There were people everywhere, police everywhere, barricades everywhere, TV crews everywhere!  We glimpsed the famous yet damaged cathedral only from a distance and decided to head down to the Seine for a walk along the famous river to see the famous glass pyramid outside of the Louvre instead.

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The better side on Norte Dame
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Along the Seine

Along the Seine, we noticed a police boat directing tourist boats to turn around.  The apparent reason for this is that they had divers in the water possibly searching for a body.  My Dad had worked for years on the Brooklyn Bridge as an iron worker and had seen this sight many times before so we were fairly certain why they were there.  Although curious, we decided that seeing a body pulled from the river was not a memory we wanted of Paris so we continued on our walk to the Louvre.  Seeing the glass pyramid was great to see but perhaps the best part was seeing all of the people trying to take a picture with their finger touching the point of the pyramid, much like tourists who pretend that they are holding up the Leaning Tower of Pisa.  What makes this fun to watch is to look at them pose for the picture from an angle that isn’t directly in line with the pyramid.  They look a bit like they’re having to act out the “I’m a little teapot” song.

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The Louvre

 

After leaving the Louvre,  it was on to an appointment with a guide at the Eiffel Tower.  This, I was really looking forward to.  The only thing that stood in our way was another ride on the Metro.  With some help from the ticket lady, we believed we had all the right information to get on the correct train, which we didn’t. This time, the train went the right way but instead of taking us the two stops to Champs du Mars and the Eiffel Tower, it went one stop and then turned right back around and deposited us back at the station we had just left.  I went back to the ticket lady and she scolded me because she had told me not to get on that train, but to take the second one.  She was right!  After receiving new instructions, we jumped onto the correct train this time and made it to our scheduled rendezvous (see I do speak French) with our Eiffel Tower guide and had barely ten minutes to spare.

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The Eiffel Tower is everything it’s advertised to be! It is strikingly beautiful and is unique to both the city and the world.  The problem is that everyone wants to go up this iconic tower and that is the only bad thing I have say about it.  The lines for the elevators are long even with a reservation and going all the way to the top was out of the question, since we were so pressed for time.  We had to get back to the train station for the last train back to Amsterdam, while having to fight the Paris rush hour to get there (or the Metro). This time there would be no more mistakes on the Metro, so Uber would battle traffic on our behalf and would take all of the drama with it away.  We made it back to Gare du Nord in plenty of time, enough even to get our first and only Parisian meal, Five Guys.  Admittedly, a Five Guys burger never tasted better!

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A few notes about Paris:

  1. My Dad described the city well when he said it was like New York City but where the people speak French.  It is a big city and has a chaotic feel to it, just like NYC.
  2. We were only there a few hours, you need a few days.
  3. Don’t try to see and do everything, there will never be enough time.
  4. Plant yourself in the most Parisian neighborhood you can find, friends tell me that Montmartre is that place.
  5. Riding the Metro was tough, I am sure you will do better.
  6. Walk wherever you can, cities are always best explored by foot and you really get a feel for Paris by walking.
  7. Learn at least a few words of French.  I worked on this for a couple of months, tried my limited vocabulary whenever the situation warranted, and had no negative interactions with any locals.  We have all heard the horror stories of how Americans can be treated in Paris and I witnessed none of it.  Be humble and attempt the language!

So it was an epic fail but maybe next time will be better!

 

A Walk in Bruges

Arriving at the train station in Bruges, you get no hint of what a storybook city you’re about to enter.  The station is small and is packed with day-trippers (including us) from all over the Low Countries and beyond. My father and I were visiting from Amsterdam and took three different trains that morning just to get here and we were eager to breathe some fresh air and stretch our legs.  Following the pack from the station, we began to get our first glimpses of a city that can best be described as stunning.  After just a few minutes of walking, narrow cobblestone streets lead towards the city center and the Grote Market (or Market Square) where shops, architecture, and history all combine to make what has to be one of Europe’s most charming small cities.

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Along the way to the city center are beautiful church towers that loom large over the low lying buildings and shops of this medieval city.  Every step you take into Bruges, the sweet smells of chocolate and Belgian waffles start to assault your senses, especially if you’re hungry after the long train ride and the walk that follows. More on waffles after lunch.

The Belfry of Bruges has to be considered the signature landmark of the city.  This tower was featured prominently in the movie “In Bruges” where Brendan Gleeson met his demise. I desperately wanted to climb the staircase that he did to get up to what has to be the best view in Bruges.  The line for the tower was long and it took over an hour before I was allowed to start the climb up the tower through the narrow spiral staircase.   It took me nearly six minutes of climbing 366 steps to reach the top and I was rewarded with a mind blowing view of the market, the city of Bruges, and the West Flanders region of Belgium.  While at the top, a chorus of bells rang and only added to an already incredible atmosphere.

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DA364FD1-5043-4793-BED0-6F5B7672CC7CAfter the climb up the tower it was time for lunch in the square. There are many options for al fresco dining, which I do whenever possible. We were able to sit outside while drinking a flight of Belgian beers and eating Flemish stew, all the while taking in the sights and sounds of this thoroughly enjoyable city.

After lunch, we toured the canals by boat, which was a very different experience than the canal tour we had done in Amsterdam just days before.  Bruges’ canals are more narrow and intimate, so touring them was more up close and personal.

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235BF0ED-6D55-4677-B6DD-649C889734F0Before heading back to the train, it was of utmost importance to us to have a Belgian waffle…in Belgium.  The signature Belgian dessert is available all over the city and I don’t believe that you could pick the wrong one here.  The waffles are made to order so they are fresh and you have a wide variety of toppings to choose from.  I had mine with whipped cream and caramel.  My dad had his with whipped cream, strawberries, and a drizzle of chocolate.  Pure heaven as you can see from the photo.

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Souvenir requests from home mostly consisted of chocolate and there are shops everywhere.  Although I personally don’t really care much for the taste of chocolate, the sweet smells were everywhere.

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My advice to someone traveling to Bruges, linger as long as you can!

A Few Words on Glamping

Last summer, our family decided to take a weekend glamping trip up in the mountains of Vail Colorado, in the spirit of trying something different.  Glamping is the combination of two words, glamorous and camping.  When you glamp, you stay in tents with soft beds that have high thread count linens, wood floors, heaters for the cold nights, and electricity to charge your cell phone.

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Glamping is camping for those who prefer the finer things of life but also enjoy getting close to nature.  I’ve always felt like camping, whether in a tent, an RV or pop-up camper is great as it places you right smack in the middle of nature where you can just wake up and you’re already there.  For those who enjoy the great outdoors, nothing beats waking up and stepping outside to an alpine vista, the smell of the salty ocean air, or the sounds of a rushing river.  Glamping can give you those experiences, without having to own a camper or loads of gear. For some, the thought of sleeping on the ground isn’t appealing and others don’t want to invest in a camper/RV or all of the gear needed to have a proper camping trip.  When you go glamping, everything you need is already there and all you have to do is show up and camp.

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Just like normal tent camping, where you camp (or glamp) does matter.  For our trip, even though we were in the Rocky Mountains near Vail Colorado, we were on a treeless plateau where there really wasn’t anything to do.  If we wanted to go out for the day to go to town or do any sightseeing, we had to hike down (and eventually back up) a steep and long hill that switchbacked all the way down it was so steep. You aren’t allowed to drive your car to the top so the only option was to walk or wait for an ATV to pick us up to finally make it to a parking lot where our car was.  For this particular experience, we were hoping to be able to stay at the camp without feeling like we needed to leave for anything. but being on a treeless plateau, with the sun beating down relentlessly on the camp with temperatures in the 90’s didn’t give us the feeling of it being ‘luxurious’ camping. It was nice at night as the temperatures dropped and the tents lit up and we all sat in our Adirondack chairs looking up at the clear night sky.

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In doing the research for this glamping site, the pictures gave the appearance of being shady and more private than it was. It also didn’t mention the long trek to and from your car to get up to the top of the plateau. So choose wisely when selecting a glamping trip and make sure that the location and activities fit your lifestyle.  Ask specific questions regarding amenities and what is or isn’t provided.

This particular glampground (sorry, I couldn’t resist) was tailored more towards a western theme with horseback riding, ranch style buildings, and cowboy meals.  We are more of the outdoor adventure types who like to bike, hike, and kayak and I’m sure there is a glamping experience more catered to what we like to do.

My wife and I are split about doing this again or not.  She would like to try it again but I can only say that I’d be willing to.  To be honest, I’d rather either camp in our own camper or stay in a nice hotel.

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At least the sunsets were amazing!

 

Tijuana : Searching for Tongue Tacos, Finding Trouble (Sort of)

I had read all of the US State Department warnings about Tijuana, Mexico and felt confident that if we stayed in certain areas and left before dark, we’d be fine.  My wife Kimberly and I like to do things just a little bit different and she had never been to this city. So on a trip to San Diego we thought that spending part of a day in Tijuana would make for an interesting day trip. Little did we know just how ‘interesting’ it would be!

We decided it would be best to leave our rental car in San Ysidro on the American side of the border and walk across to the Mexican side rather than deal with the traffic and challenges of driving in an unfamiliar foreign city.  I’m not even sure that taking the rental car into Mexico was permitted so we decided that a walk across the border was probably the smartest thing to do.  As soon as we exited Mexican customs, we passed soldiers armed with assault rifles, fingers on the triggers.  Ominous perhaps, but even (especially) in America we have heavily armed law enforcement present at border crossings and airports.

I had read about a place in the city called ‘Taco Alley’ that was reputed to have some of the best tacos in Tijuana and we wanted a taste for ourselves.  Anthony Bourdain had visited this collection of taco stands and raved about it and since it was close to lunchtime, we thought “why not?” So I used the navigation feature on my cell phone (first mistake) to help get us through the city to ‘Taco Alley’ without getting us lost or bumbling our way into a bad area.  When walking instead of driving, some cell phones have the navigation feature orient to the north rather than the direction of travel.  It took me an astonishingly long time to realize this and when I did, we were just outside of the Tijuana Brewery (somehow, I always end up at a brewery) and that was for once not my intended destination.  My phone has a feature to re-orient the map to the direction of travel and once I did that, we were able to start heading in the right direction.  So we crossed the street and just as we did a black four door sedan with very dark tinted windows pulled up right alongside of us. A man with an assault rifle jumped out of the front passenger side, just behind us.  The car sped off and we just kept walking, a mixture of part shock and part afraid to look behind us.  When we finally did, the guy with the assault rifle was gone!  Poof, just gone!  We have no idea where he went, if he was a soldier, a police officer, drug cartel, or a hunter (joke) but it rattled us. Maybe this is why we didn’t see any other Americans that day while we wandered all around the outer bounds of ‘touristy’ Tijuana?

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Boulevard Fundadores, where the man with the assault rifle jumped out of his car

Shockingly, after the incident with the gunman, we still made our way to ‘Taco Alley’ and I would say that we admittedly couldn’t be sure what had just happened.  Taco Alley was bustling with lots of lunchtime locals which gave us confidence that we had chosen wisely.  I had heard that something called lengua tacos were the best of the best so I ordered a couple.  My understanding was that a lengua taco was sort of like pot roast, which sounded amazing on a taco.  The meat was taken out of a drawer and quite honestly didn’t look too good but at this point there was no turning back.  They were so good!  It wasn’t until I returned home that I found out that lengua tacos are not pot roast tacos, they are tongue tacos!  I still to this day can’t believe that I ate a tongue taco, albeit unintentionally, but I’d do it again!  I now know that the meat that came out of the drawer was a giant tongue and that’s why it didn’t look like pot roast. Kimberly had the carnitas tacos and is still glad that she didn’t order what I did.

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Lots of color in TJ

After lunch, we slowly made our way back towards the tourist part of Tijuana near the border, stopping at restaurants along the way to have a beer or two while sitting outside at every opportunity. By far the best place we found to relax and have a drink was in the Plaza Santa Cecilia near the Tijuana Arch.  The area has a great vibe and has to be the most colorful area in the city.  It was the perfect place to unwind before going back across the border.

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The Tijuana Arch

Tijuana was definitely a unique experience although I would say that we never felt truly comfortable and safe.  Although the moment when the guy jumped out of the car with the rifle was unnerving, nothing bad actually happened to us while we were in the city and we now have a story to tell for years to come.  Maybe nothing bad happened to us because we were lucky, or maybe it just isn’t as bad as people told us it was. Either way, we left Tijuana unscathed, with stories to tell, and a new appreciation for how to use the navigation app on my phone.

 

 

Custer State Park, South Dakota

Most people who travel to the Black Hills of South Dakota are intending to visit Mount Rushmore and perhaps even the Crazy Horse Monument, while on their way somewhere else (Yellowstone National Park for example).  However, visiting Custer State Park (CSP) with its open prairies, dense forests, and large buffalo herd, can be the perfect complement to the more acclaimed (and crowded) tourist draws in the Black Hills.

Custer State Park is located in the Black Hills of southeastern South Dakota, several hours drive from any big city (like Chicago, Denver, or Kansas City).  While Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse are must sees on any outing in the Black Hills, they are each easily visited in just a couple of hours. If you’re staying in the area for more than one day and want something a little bit off of the main tourist trail, then Custer State Park can be the perfect chance to explore deeper and to get to know the area. For starters, the park is immense, with over 71,000 acres of rolling prairie and forested hills with lots of space to spread out, it is nearly six times larger than Mount Rushmore National Park.  CSP is probably best known for its large herd of roughly 1,500 free roaming buffalo but there are also many other animals that can be seen in the park like antelope, deer, goats, and even a herd of burros.  There are also miles of hiking trails, lodges, campgrounds, and lakes to explore.

The trailhead to South Dakota’s tallest peak, Harney Peak (or Black Elk Peak as it is now known), is located just within the park and the summit can be reached via a moderately difficult seven mile hike. The peak tops out at an elevation of 6,200 feet at the summit, making it the tallest mountain in South Dakota and the tallest in the United States east of the Rockies.  At the top, there is stone fire lookout tower, making it a unique summit to rest and take in the great views of the plains below.  If you know where to look, you can even see the backside of Mount Rushmore from up there.  Elsewhere in the park, there are also many miles of less strenuous hikes if this seven mile hike isn’t for you.

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Fire Lookout Tower, Harney Peak
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The backside of Mt. Rushmore in the distance, sightseeing helicopters above
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One of many hiking trails within the park
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Cathedral Spires

The thrill of seeing wild, free roaming buffalo is the closest thing to what it must have been like in the old west that we can experience, and there are so many of them that they often kick up huge dust clouds as they graze. If you’re lucky enough to be around the large herd, you can have the animals that seem as big as your car, completely surround you.  Buffalo are a truly magnificent animal and you can really appreciate that when they’re in close proximity and you can experience that here, without the crowds.  The buffalo photo above was taken on a dirt road with not another person within miles of us and we could literally touch it out of our car windows it was so close (we didn’t touch it by the way).

So if you’re planning a trip to the Black Hills or if you’re just passing through on your way somewhere else, think about staying an extra day and exploring Custer State Park, it’ll probably be the best part of your trip.

 

A Different City – Santa Fe, New Mexico

The capital city of New Mexico, Santa Fe is known as ‘The City Different’ and it truly is! It is higher (elevation 7,199 feet) and older than any capital city in the country (founded circa 1610). Even the way the slogan reads is different, like it’s out of order or something, or it has a European flair.  Other cities can claim to be be ‘different’ but Santa Fe is truly unique for many different reasons, as you might discover should you decide to visit for yourself.  I find that there are a many things that combine to perfect effect: art, food, culture, history, and architecture. So there really is something here for just about everyone.

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Photo by Kimberly Wallace 

So let’s look at the truly most unique aspect of life is Santa Fe, architecture.  There are a number of different styles of architecture in the city, but the most prominent is the Pueblo style with its earth colored adobe, flat roofs, exposed wooden beams, and kiva style fireplaces. From the second you arrive is Santa Fe and see these beautiful buildings, you know you’re somewhere different, almost like being transported back in time.  The unique buildings set the stage for what is truly a different city experience.  It isn’t just the older buildings that have this style, the Inn and Spa at Loretto (see image) is perhaps one of the finest examples of how the style of Old Santa Fe can still be achieved in a modern setting.

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The Inn and Spa at Loretto

Santa Fe is a very walkable city and most strolls usually begin in the historic central Plaza. The Plaza has been an integral part of the city since around the year 1610 and has changed very little since.  Today, you can shop for authentic Native American art and handicrafts directly from the artists that make it.  You can find great deals on silver, turquoise, pottery, and carvings. The artists are required by law to have identification to be permitted to sell “Native American” art so you can buy with confidence knowing you’re getting authentic wares.  As you continue to stroll throughout the town, you can’t help but notice the sweet smell of piñon pine smoke.  Piñon is the most common tree/wood in the area and it gives off a sweet aroma that smells like incense, only better.

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Santa Fe Plaza

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Santa Fe Plaza at Night 
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Even an alley looks beautiful 

All of that walking around is sure to work up an appetite, and you couldn’t find yourself in a better place to be hungry.  Our personal favorite is Tomasita’s (https://tomasitas.com) located in the Railyard District, a redevelopment site that has taken off in recent years with shops, breweries and even weekend farmers markets. Something unique and tasty at Tomasita’s is the roast beef burrito, which I have not seen on a menu anywhere outside of Santa Fe.  Another nice touch is the honey butter sopapillas that come with the meal, but it means that you’ll be tempted to eat dessert before you eat the main entree (I have always managed to eat my sopapilla first, burrito second). If you’re looking to eat before you start burning calories, try the Tecolote Cafe (www.tecolotecafe.com) a great breakfast stop, and be sure to get a homemade bread basket with your meal.

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Adobe Buildings

Santa Fe is not New York City, Chicago, or Los Angeles! Santa Fe is a place to go when you want to slow down a little, and want to experience new tastes, smells, cultures, and of course southwestern art and architecture.  It’s definitely the ‘City Different’.

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San Miguel Mission

Off the Path in County Sligo, Ireland

Most people will tell you that their favorite part of Ireland was Dublin, maybe Galway, or maybe even the Ring of Kerry (my mom liked the Dingle peninsula).  All are wonderful in their own right but for me, Sligo by far and away had the best blend of ‘authentic’ Ireland. The areas of Ireland that all of the tourists go have, in fairness, become that way with good reason.  Some are popular with tourists because of the pubs, others for castles, or maybe even the scenery.  County Sligo has all of that, but it truly lacks the large groups of tourists like many other parts of Ireland have.  I have nothing against tourists and I call myself one, but when you can visit beautiful places without the crowds, it makes for a more authentic experience.

The area is known as Yeats country for the famous Irish poet William Butler Yeats, who made the area famous with poems like ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’ and ‘Under Ben Bulben’.  Admittedly, I am not much into poetry but rather the scenery that inspires it, and there is plenty of inspirational scenery in County Sligo.

The primary landmark around the area is the large rock formation of Benbulben.  It looks similar to what a mesa looks like in the southwestern United States, only larger and greener than what you would find there.  Sheep graze its flanks with their colorful markings to distinguish one owners sheep from another’s like cattle of the western United States are branded for the same reason. Below the flanks of Benbulben are Tolkien-like forests that wouldn’t be out of place in The Shire.  You can hike to the summit of Ben Bulben, but instead I chose to walk in the forests at its flank.  Here the land was flat and the views of the mountain were stunning.

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Benbulben (Gortarowey) Looped Walk

Another popular spot is known as Knocknarea, a hill that is topped with a very large rock cairn believed to be the Irish legend Queen Maeve’s grave.  I started my hike in good weather and I was able to see the views of the bays of Ballysadare and Sligo, with the Irish Sea in the distance, before the Irish weather moved in.  On the way up, more sheep with their colorful markings were seen on the slopes of the hill and even up on the rock cairn at the top.  When I reached the top, an Irishman asked me if I had seen any sign of the Queen, with a mischievous gleam in his eye.

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Sheep grazing on Knocknarea, Ballysadare Bay in the background
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Queen Maeve’s Grave shrouded in Irish weather
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Sheep just walk all over the grave!

A drive around the beautiful Lough Gill will give you a glimpse of what inspired Yeats to write ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’.  The lake is lined with beautiful hardwood trees, castles, homes and parklands.  The lake is large but the one hour drive around its shores is well worth it.

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The shores of Lough Gill
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Parke’s Castle on Lough Gill

Sligo is also well known for its beaches with Strandhill and Streedagh being among the most scenic you’ll see anywhere.  Sligo’s beaches are easily accessible and a walk in the cool sand and fresh air is a great way to take in some of the scenery.

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My Mom strolling on Rosses Point Beach with Benbulben in the background

Lastly, Sligo is both a county and a big small town that has all of the conveniences of any proper destination.  There are banks, grocery stores, cafes, spas, and even a professional football (soccer) team, the Sligo Rovers.  So if you’re looking to get a little off of the tourist route but still want an authentic Irish experience, then head to Yeats Country in County Sligo and you won’t be disappointed. If you’re looking for more information about the hikes/walks in the area, Sligo Walks is an outstanding resource (https://sligowalks.ie).

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Sligo Rovers FC

Rocky Mountain National Park and Estes Park – The Four Seasons

Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) is the closest national park to my home in Colorado and I consider it my base park.  It takes me about an hour to get there and I’ve been there enough to know how different the seasons are in both RMNP as well as in its gateway city, Estes Park.  The seasons here are wildly different – from the extreme temperature swings to the number of visitors.  Here is my take on what each of the four seasons is like:

Summer

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Death and Renewal

Estes Park – In the summer, Estes Park is completely overrun with tourists.  Despite this, it shouldn’t stop you from visiting.  The weather is nearly perfect and is typically at least a few degrees cooler than the cities below on the plains, like Denver or Boulder. If you’re really looking for a cool down, you can cool off even more if you head high up into Rocky Mountian National Park.  The town itself is a typical tourist town but with a mountain/western twist.  There are the obligatory t-shirt, salt water taffy, chocolate, and ice cream shops that you would see in almost any national park gateway town. What makes Estes unique is the surrounding scenery, which wouldn’t be out of place in the Swiss Alps, with its huge snow-capped mountains and valleys.  What is lacking though, in a good way, are flashy resorts as in other Colorado mountain towns like Vail or Aspen.  Here, there are mostly small motels and cabins along with the place that Stephen King made famous, the Stanley Hotel.

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15 feet of snow and it’s summertime

RMNP – The throngs of tourists are here too, unfortunately.  However, all you need to do is to start a hike on almost any trail and you can lose 90% of them after only a mile or so from the trailhead.  Hiking in summertime at these elevations means being prepared by starting early to avoid afternoon thunderstorms. If you don’t consider yourself a hiker, consider a drive up Trail Ridge Road, a journey which can yield a somewhat unique activity, a summertime snowball fight or building a snowman. The highest point in the pass is 12,183 feet (over two miles high) and that leaves enough snow year round for winter games, even in mid summer. The wildlife also move up to higher elevations in summertime, seeking greener pastures.  Up at these higher altitudes, you might see large herds of elk and bighorn sheep in the alpine tundra, way above the height where trees grow.

Autumn

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The bugling elk

Estes Park – Surprisingly, Estes park can still be quite busy during the fall.  Some might think it has to do with fall colors but the area around Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park really doesn’t have an abundance of aspen trees. For most people, the primary reason they come up here in the fall is to hear and see elk during the ‘rut’ which is the mating season.  And why would you want to hear bugling elk during the mating season?  The reason is that their mating calls sound like a sort of ancient call that can be heard from far off. It is a difficult sound to explain and do it justice, but is a truly a breathtaking and mesmerizing experience to see and hear, and something that simply must be heard in person. This is the main reason people flock to Estes Park in the fall, the elk literally bugle as they’re walking on the golf course, through parking lots right in town, as well as on the grounds of the Stanley Hotel.

RMNP – As with in Estes Park, the reason to head into the national park at this time of year is to see and hear the elk.  Although being bumper to bumper with like minded people might not seem like something you want to do, you can still go into the park and hike into the woods where you might find yourself all alone on the trail in the middle of a large herd of bugling Rocky Mountain Elk.  Last October, my wife and I went on a hike, away from the main areas of the park, and started to hear bugling in the distance and were soon surrounded by around 100 elk on both sides of the trail without another human anywhere near us.  The park brochure cautions you against approaching wildlife, so by all means keep your distance. But if you happen upon a large herd while hiking the trails, excercise extreme caution and keep a safe distance.  I usually like to have a big tree nearby just in case.  The bulls are extremely aggressive during this time of year and they are big, averaging around 700 lbs, and strong enough to inflict great bodily harm if they decide you’re too close.

 

Winter

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Estes Park – If you’re  looking to experience a tourist town without the tourists, this is the time of year to come to Estes Park!  You will not have to fight for a table at your favorite restaurant, there will be no bumper to bumper traffic, there’s plenty of parking, and you can have the place virtually all to yourself.  Unlike other Colorado mountain towns that usually see a massive influx of people in the winter, Estes doesn’t have a ski resort (although it once did) to anchor its winter economy.  Because of this, Estes sees a very dramatic drop in visitation in the winter.  As an added bonus, a stay at the Stanley Hotel in winter can give just a sliver of what inspired Stephen King to write ‘The Shining’.

RMNP – The park is at its best, in terms of scenic beauty in the dead of winter.  The mountains are usually covered with snow, sometimes approaching 10 feet.  Winter activities include snowshoeing, cross country skiing, and wildlife viewing (although seeing animals inside the park during winter is less likely). Some areas, such as around Bear Lake, are still crowded but it can be much easier to find areas of the park where you’ll need your snowshoes to walk through the snow. It is simply one of the most beautiful winter scenes in all of Colorado.

Spring

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Always snow up in the highlands

Estes Park – This town still doesn’t really get going again until late spring. In most places, spring begins a steady warmup towards summertime but at this altitude and being in Colorado, Estes Park typically experiences its snowiest months of the year in the spring.  Traditionally, February, March, and April are Colorado’s months for heavy snow and blizzards.  Eventually however, the snows slowly give way to longer and warmer days and the area begins to thaw and creak to life.

RMNP – Spring in the park is the beginning of the big melt.  The east and west sides of the park are connected by Trail Ridge Road, but due to heavy winter snow, the road is impassable until the weather warms and crews can begin plowing the road. When the road finally opens, it becomes symbolic of winter’s deep freeze losing it’s grip on the park. The animals get to moving again and the large numbers of people begin to make their way back to the park that had been tranquil for several months.

In any season, the area is unique and beautiful. During the cold winter months, it is quiet and peaceful.  In the warmer months, it is energetic and bustling but no matter what season, it is worth a visit and will not disappoint.

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The less visited area of the park known as ‘Lumpy Ridge’