Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

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Thursday 13: The Dos and Don’ts of Planning a Trip to the Grand Canyon

May 31, 2012

A couple of months ago, we went to Arizona for the express purpose of visiting the Grand Canyon. Unlike most of my impeccably planned travels, this one was seriously lacking. Hopefully you can benefit from my mistakes by following these tips.

 

  1. When researching the local weather, don’t check weather temps for Phoenix.  Do be sure to look at Grand Canyon weather instead.  Even though I knew there was a 4-5 hour car trip between the two locations, it did not occur to me that I could look up Grand Canyon weather.  After all, I can drive four hours from home and only have temperature variances of a few degrees.  Imagine our surprise when we left 90 degree Phoenix and drove up to the Canyon, only to be greeted by a snow storm.  We now own tacky Grand Canyon souvenir sweatshirts as a result.
  2. Do plan way in advance and stay at one of the park lodges.  (They fill up early, so it’s essential to get reservations as far out in advance as possible.)   The only other hotels nearby are going to be ridiculously expensive ($200 a night for a substandard Holiday Inn Express) and lacking in amenities.  The park lodges are less expensive, provide shuttle service around the park, and have all different types of restaurants either on site or nearby.
  3. Don’t plan to be there more than a day or so.  You can see all of the majesty and nature that the Grand Canyon has to offer in one day.  You just don’t need more time than that, unless you’re planning to do some serious hiking or exploration.
  4. Don’t eat outside of the park.  The restaurants in the hotel area just south of the park are mediocre at best and ridiculously expensive.  If you must eat at a restaurant outside the park, I recommend Wendy’s or McDonalds (which will still be more expensive than they are elsewhere in the US).
  5. Do stay hydrated.  The Arizona air can leech every bit of moisture out of you, even if you aren’t sweating away in the sun.  Keep a refillable bottle of water with you and/or stop to buy beverages often.
  6. Don’t overdo picture-taking.  I have approximately 450 photos from the Grand Canyon.  Most of them fail to capture the vastness and beauty of it.  Many are barely distinguishable from the others.
  7. Do take pictures at sunset.  The lighting is better and the colors more vibrant.  You can even book a relatively inexpensive “Sunset Tour” that will take you to various lookout points by bus at the right time for awesome photos.  (This was one of the few things I did right!)
  8. Do utilize the park’s shuttle service.  It is fast, free, and if you’re lucky, you’ll get an entertaining driver who will share some tips about seeing the park.
  9. Do take time to look at more than just the canyon/rocks.  There are California condors, ravens, and mule deer throughout the park.    There is also a Tusayan Museum and Ruin that sheds light on the Native Americans who called that area their home.
  10. If you have school age children, do have them complete the Junior Ranger program.  It’s free and it will keep the kids from getting bored.
  11. If you’re hiking down into the canyon, don’t do it on a whim and don’t underestimate the distance or time you will travel.  There was a chilling poster in one of the visitor centers about an athletic young woman, age 24, who had run in the Boston Marathon, but died on a hike into the canyon.  Why?  She under-calculated the length of her hike, and didn’t carry enough water with her.
  12. Do check out the Desert View Watchtower.  It’s an amazing, beautiful building.
  13. If you do venture into to the money-sucking town south of the canyon, do see the IMAX movie about the canyon and its explorers.  You’ll be impressed with the one-armed Civil War veteran Major John Wesley Powell, who was responsible for mapping most of the canyon.
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Thursday 13: How NOT to Be a Victim of Pickpockets While Traveling Abroad

July 28, 2011

Well, here I am back from almost a week in London England.  I love England… I always have and I probably always will.  But for one day last week, my love affair with all things English nearly came to a screeching halt.  A pickpocket stole my wallet as I rode the subway back to our hotel.

Needless to say, I made some mistakes that led to this unfortunate loss.  But I also did some things right.  Here’s a list to help me remember how to keep this from happening again.

  1. Keep passports in the hotel room.  You won’t need them while you’re out and about, just at the airport.
  2. Only take one day’s worth of cash with you when you’re out.
  3. Write down your credit card company’s phone number to report lost/stolen cards.  (Visa has a toll free number from nearly every country as well.  List here.)  Keep that number in your hotel room (not, for heaven’s sake, in your wallet!)
  4. Have a backup credit card that you leave in the hotel room.  Trust me, once the stolen card is reported stolen, it will be easier to use another card than to navigate the procedures for getting a replacement card sent to you.  And while we’re on the subject, be sure to notify your credit card companies that you will be traveling out of the country before you leave so they won’t decline your charges as suspicious.
  5. Carry your cash in the front pockets of your pants.  No one can pickpocket those without it looking like a sexual assault.  🙂
  6. For ladies, use a handbag with a long strap and wear it diagonally across your torso.  This will prevent anyone from grabbing your purse and running away with it.
  7. If your bag zips, make sure that the zipper is in front where you can see it.  Never leave the opening of your purse behind you.
  8. Avoided crowded places where people will be bumping into you and it would not cause you to be alarmed.  (For instance, the subway at rush hour!)
  9. If signs are posted telling you that pickpockets operate in a certain area, take them seriously.  They aren’t posted there just to scare away the tourists.
  10. If you might forget to do #1 above, enroll in the State Department’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP).  (Actually, this is a good idea even if you don’t forget to do #1.)
  11. Be aware of where your wallet/money/bag is at all times.
  12. Pay attention to your instincts.  If someone’s appearance or actions strike you as even miuldly suspicious, put as much distance between them and you as you possibly can.
  13. Finally, assume that you will be pickpocketed rather than assuming you won’t be.  A little paranoia can be a good thing sometimes.  🙂

The ones I did right:  1, 6, 10, 11

The ones I did wrong, or not at all:  2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, 9, 12, 13

What it cost me:  $400, my drivers license, the airport parking lot ticket, and my credit card.  Not to mention all of the time spent calling Visa that could have been spent seeing the sights!

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Julie’s Cornish Adventure, Part 4: The Driving Experience

October 19, 2010

I could sum up the experience of driving around Cornwall with three little letters — OMG — but that wouldn’t make for good blogging, now would it?

So, first… OMG!  The countryside was beautiful, just stunning!  Rolling hills, breathtaking views of the sea, pastures dotted with cows and sheep, trees arching over the roadways to create a romantic little tunnel.  It was lovely!  Here’s an idea of what it was like:

On the other hand, OMG!  I have never seen such treacherous roads in my life.  At one point I commented (in all seriousness) that driving on those roads was like riding a roller coaster.

The smaller roads that connected the villages typically were flanked on both sides by 10-foot high stone walls overgrown with greenery.  We had no idea what we were driving past.  Could’ve been a house.  Could’ve been the sea.  Could’ve been a herd of cattle.

Whoever laid out these roads was apparently unfamiliar with the concept of  “the shortest distance between two points is a straight line,” because there were no straight lines.  The roads twisted and turned, rose up and went down.  You could never be sure what was around the next bend because, well, you couldn’t see that far.

Also, the roads were quite narrow.  I think that maybe two itty bitty smart cars could have passed each other without any difficulty, but for everyone else, it was almost like playing chicken.  Who’s backing up?   Who’s going forward?  Do you need to fold in your rear view mirrors before passing?  On our first full day of driving, we backed up to let another car pass us, and edged right up to the aforementioned 10-foot high wall.  When we started moving again, we heard a hissing sound every few seconds.  Apparently one of the stones in the wall had punctured our tire.  Fun.

Here’s a picture of a typical country road in Cornwall.

Even the major highways were a bit strenuous to drive on.  Instead of having exits like we do in the US, there is a “roundabout” (traffic circle) at every town.  For anyone who hasn’t driven in Washington DC before (and even those of us who have), traffic circles can be somewhat bewildering.  Particularly when in unfamiliar surroundings.    Add to that the frustration of having to slow down when you’ve just gotten up to a nice speed, and the roundabout came to be something we dreaded.

My wonderful husband did ALL of the driving for us while we were in Cornwall.  He had to get used to driving on the left side of the car, on the left side of  the road, and using his left hand to shift gears.  I have to give him props for that.  I would have been terrified.

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Julie’s Cornish Adventure, Part 3: Culture Shock

September 29, 2010

So…. you would think that going from one English-speaking country to another wouldn’t be much of an adjustment, wouldn’t you?  Well, I’m here to tell you that is not the case.  Even as knowledgeable as I am about British English (I highly recommend British English A to Zed by Norman Schur), there were a few things that I wasn’t prepared for:

  • They do not have Sprite.  Instead, they have lemonade.  When we asked if said lemonade was carbonated, the waitress looked at us, puzzled, before admitting that she didn’t know what that meant.  Dan and I searched for an appropriate, yet simple, synonym, and said, “fizzy,” nearly simultaneously.  That registered and the answer was yes, the “lemonade” is carbonated.
  • In England, they refer to public restrooms as toilets.  More than once, I found myself saying, “Excuse me, do you have a rest room?  Er, bathroom?  I mean, toilet?”  I dunno, “toilet” just seems so crass and ugly.  I much prefer operating under the guise of excusing myself to check my makeup.  If I say I’m going to the toilet… well, there is no gentle illusion, is there?
  • Driving on the wrong side of the road and driving on the wrong side of the car.  Needless to say, I will need to do another post about that part of our experience.  Suffice it to say that while it’s probably politically incorrect to say “wrong side” I will note that the Brits are definitely in the minority on this one.
  • Dinner is at mid-day (what we would call lunch) and the supper hour (what we would call dinner) doesn’t start until 7:00 pm.  We showed up at a restaurant in Penzance for our evening meal at 5:30 and had the place completely to ourselves.  (I actually kind of preferred it that way, as the chef/owner gave us lots of personal attention and all sorts of helpful tips on what to see.)
  • When we stopped to get a flat tire changed (our first of two), the mechanic greeted Dan as “my beauty” and continued to call him that while we were there.  I hope it was just a cultural thing.  Yikes.

These are just a few (admittedly trivial) ways in which we were challenged by traveling to a foreign country… but I wouldn’t change the experience for anything in the world.

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Julie’s Cornish Adventure, Part 2: Why We Went

September 4, 2010

Okay, many of my friends and family wanted to know… why Cornwall?  It seems like such a relatively unknown part of England, particularly when you look at its location on a map:

Cornwall is the red county, all the way down at the southern most tip of England.  So… why here?  Why not London or Bath or Stratford-upon-Avon or some other well known English site?

Well, it all started with the British television show “Doc Martin.”  I added it to our Netflix “watch instantly” queue a year or so ago and watched it by myself  on those evenings when Dan was playing Guild Wars.  I fell in love with the characters and the scenery, and eagerly looked for the next season on Netflix.  Season 2, however, was only available on disc, so when I watched it, Dan watched with me.  He soon became a fan of the show as well.

ASIDE:   Doc Martin is a charming show about a very skilled, intelligent surgeon from London who suddenly develops an irrational fear of blood.  One sight of blood and he goes into a panic attack — sweating, hyperventilating, vomiting.  As a result, he can no longer practice surgery, so he moves to a small Cornish village and becomes a general practitioner.  The only problem is that he has NO bedside manner and very little in the way of people skills.  He is a very serious man, and the people in the village couldn’t be more outgoing and laid back.

After caring for my dad during his illness last year and his subsequent death in December, I decided that I wanted/needed a vacation.  A really GOOD vacation.  I couldn’t think of any place I would rather go than Cornwall.

When we were deciding where to visit in Cornwall and what our lodging options were, Dan made the comment to me that if Port Isaac (the town where Doc Martin is filmed) was the inspiration for the trip, he thought we should spend  as much time there as possible.  I looked into what hotels were available there, and didn’t have a hard time selecting one:  The Old School Hotel.  It is an old school building (award-winning in its day) that is prominently featured in the Doc Martin series.  We booked a room and decided to call Port Isaac our home for the week we were in Cornwall.

Another major factor in deciding to go to Cornwall was the weather.  While summer here was week after week of 90+ degree weather with heat indices in excess of 110, the average temperature in Cornwall at that time is 65-75 degrees.  Plus, because it is a peninsula, there is nearly always a good breeze blowing through.

I seriously want to live in Cornwall when I’m older.  It was so beautiful!  Here are some pictures of Port Isaac:

Port Isaac - the view from our hotel

Dan & Sophia outside Doc Martin's office

Port Isaac - town & harbor

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Julie’s Cornish Adventure, Part 1: Traveling Light

August 19, 2010

A few weeks ago, we took a dream vacation to Cornwall England.  Cornwall is the southernmost point in the UK — a peninsula that juts out into the sea.  The weather there is usually sunny, never hot, and just about perfect in every way.  I can’t say enough about how beautiful it was there… words just don’t suffice.  However, I am going to blog about certain aspects of the trip and, from time to time, share some photos.

As is my tendency, I did a massive amount of research prior to actually taking this trip.  And because PBS is one of the six English-speaking channels we receive on our television, I went to the European travel expert, Rick Steves, for some pointers.

And everything was rolling along at a really nice pace until I stumbled across this page, which says in great big bold letters, “One bag.  That’s it.”

Excuse me?  Easy for Rick Steves to say.  He’s a man, after all.  I dashed off an email to Dan.  “Get this,” I said.  “Rick Steves says each traveler should limit themselves to one carry on bag and no checked baggage at all.”

Dan’s response was, “I can do it.  Could you?”

Sounded like a challenge to me, so I looked into what the carry on size restrictions were.   Then I looked for bags that got as close to the maximum allowed as possible.  (I’m not sacrificing any space I don’t have to!)  Then I did more research about what was allowed and prohibited so as to avoid any embarrassing security searches.

And finally, when it was time, I packed my bag.  seven tee shirts, seven pants, four pajamas, underwear, one pair of socks just in case my feet got cold, and makeup.  Plus all of my liquids/gels (shampoo, body wash, toothpaste, etc.) in TSA-approved containers.

We breezed through security without any problems. We boarded the plan and stowed our bags overhead.  And when we arrived in London, we took our bags, got off the plane, and (once we got our passports stamped) left the airport.  No worries about whether or not our luggage made it to our destination.  No worries about the contents of our luggage being searched or damage.  And best of all, no waiting at the baggage carousel for our luggage to make an appearance.

I am now convinced that this is the ONLY way to travel!  Thank you, Rick Steves!

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Thursday Thirteen: Cornwall Vacation

March 11, 2010

I’ve officially booked our lodgings for our summer vacation in Cornwall, England.  Here are some of the things we will do while we are there.

  1. Go to the Seal Sanctuary, because Sophia will be all about that.
  2. Visit the (admittedly tourist trap) Land’s End, the westernmost point of England.
  3. Wander the ruins of Tintagel Castle.
  4. Go to Goonhilly Downs, where there is both a wind farm and a satellite earth station.  Science stuff for Dan.  I just like saying Goonhilly.   😉
  5. Meander the narrow streets of Port Isaac, the town that inspired this vacation (as seen on the British television series “Doc Martin.”
  6. Visit the Eden Project.  It’s considered a must-see.
  7. Explore St. Michael’s Mount (hopefully crossing on foot at low tide).
  8. Cruise to the Isles of Scilly.
  9. Bodmin Moor and Dozmary Pool.
  10. Eat a Cornish pasty.
  11. Visit Cotehele House.
  12. Stroll along the Coast Path.
  13. … and drive on the left side of the road!