Category Archives: Travel

ATX + SATX

I started my trip to Texas in Austin, which was quirky and fun. I explored record stores, longhorn-inspired street art, old-fashioned candy stores, and an outdoor graffiti gallery. Even though I flew in and out of Austin, I spent most of my time in San Antonio.

HOPE Outdoor Gallery

Unbeknownst to me when I made my travel plans, my trip to San Antonio overlapped with the annual citywide party, Fiesta. There were colorful flag decorations, mariachi bands on the Riverwalk, and, best of all, the Battle of Flowers Parade. All of the multicolored floats shimmered in the bright sunlight and the women on the floats lifted up their long dresses to show off cowboy boots.

The Riverwalk was a lively waterfront district one story below the city’s street level. Restaurants lined the river, and river cruises whisked guests along the water. My favorite spot in the Riverwalk was Casa Rio, the original restaurant, open since 1946. I had absolutely delicious tacos and a prickly pear margarita. Given that I ate tacos for just about every meal in San Antonio, I can definitively say Casa Rio’s tacos were the best.

Prickly Pear Margarita

Toilet Seat Museum

When I began planning the geocaches I wanted to look for in Texas, I read about Barney Smith’s Toilet Seat Museum, arguably the strangest roadside attraction near San Antonio. Barney Smith is a 96-year-old retired master plumber and artist who crafts themed toilet seats. He has over 1300 seats, all numbered, ranging from a series of license plate seats to seats inspired by the Boy Scouts, sea shells, pop culture, and the Olympics. He even has a series to commemorate his birthdays and a series devoted to his late wife in honor of their anniversaries.

    

Barney is quite a character and he has a very sharp mind; he knows exactly where all the toilet seats are located in his museum (aka garage). He asks visitors to sign the toilet seats that apply to them. I signed the New York seat as well as the Geocaching seat. He even popped in a VCR tape to show me footage from his time as a guest on various talk shows. All in all, the visit to the Toilet Seat Museum was one of my favorite traveling experiences.

 

The House, Boozy Ice Cream and Brews

I saw this innovative shop on online, included in a list of best ice cream places in the US. They offer alcohol-infused flavors, as well as “kid-friendly” regular ice cream that they can pair with shots of alcohol. The flavors change regularly, but when I visited they had selections like Bourbon Vanilla, Thin Mint, and French Toast. I went with Salted Caramel with a half shot of Jim Beam Honey, and it was outstanding. The only downside is that they don’t offer samples, so when I ordered I just had to take a leap of faith.

USVI

The idea for traveling to the USVI originated with an online promotion from their tourism board. 2017 marks the centennial anniversary of “Transfer Day,” when Denmark sold the islands to the United States. Consequently, the tourism board is offering a $300 voucher, to be used toward ecotours, attractions, shopping, or taxis, to guests who stay three or more nights in the USVI during the centennial.

Stand-up paddle boarding at Magens Bay, which is regularly ranked as one of the world’s best beaches

I was able to use my voucher toward a night kayaking excursion at the Marriott Frenchman’s Reef. The kayaks had glass bottoms and LED lights so I could see right into the water beneath me and watch the tarpon swim past. The guides followed the group on stand-up paddleboards and shared a bit of USVI history and culture with us, as well as pointed out the species we were seeing. I didn’t have my expectations set too high, but I was amazed when we saw sea urchin, stingrays, flying fish, and even sea turtles.

Sunset at the Marriott Frenchman’s Reef

While wandering around Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas looking for breakfast, I stumbled upon Pasta Go Go. It was tucked away down an alley in the Royal Dane Mall, but it turned out to be a great find. It had a very European feel, a nice outdoor patio, quick service, and reasonable prices. I had a breakfast sandwich with sundried tomatoes, goat cheese, and pesto on grilled ciabatta that was so delicious, I had the same thing the following morning too.

Breakfast sandwich from Pasta Go Go

Even though I stayed on St. Thomas, I took the ferry one day over to St. John, which was relatively inexpensive at around $20 round trip. 75% of St. John is designated parkland for the Virgin Islands National Park, so I was able to stamp my NPS passport at the visitor’s center, and then hike the Lind Point and Caneel Hill Spur Trail. I ended up at Trunk Bay after hailing an open-air taxi on the side of the road, but the famous underwater snorkel trail there was closed because of a strong current advisory. I was disappointed, but now I have a reason to return to St. John.

Self-professed National Parks fanatic

Before taking the ferry back to St. Thomas, I had dinner at The Longboard, an airy restaurant with lots of surfing-inspired décor. The food was fantastic; I had a sushi wrap that was both aesthetically pleasing and delectable. I also really enjoyed the fact that their bathroom was wallpapered in surfing magazines.

If You’re Going to San Francisco…

My first stop in San Francisco was Alcatraz Island, home of the infamous former federal penitentiary. I knew that visiting Alcatraz was one of my top priorities in the City by the Bay, so I booked my ticket in advance online. When I arrived at the pier, the tour tickets were sold out for the next three days.

 

The boat ride to Alcatraz offered wonderful views of the city and the Golden Gate Bridge. Exploring the grounds was fascinating, especially wandering through the prison cellblocks. The best part, though, was the audio tour. It was filled with the eerie sound effects of clanking cell doors and the voices of both correctional officers and inmates describing their experiences at Alcatraz.

I tried out Airbnb again and stayed in a really neat Art Deco beach house located in the Outer Sunset district. The neighborhood was quiet and mellow, and I felt comfortable extensively exploring the streets alone. I wandered over to the 16th Avenue Tiled Steps, a mosaic staircase leading up to a park with panoramic views of the city.

16th Avenue Tiled Steps

I’m not sure most people would be entertained for 6+ hours in a science museum, but I was very happy spending time in the California Academy of Sciences. It has an interesting design; it combines a planetarium, an aquarium, and a natural science museum. Two of the coolest components were the living roof, filled with native plants, and the Osher Rainforest, a four-story dome with a spiral ramp upward through the rainforest’s layers.

The living roof

The Fisherman’s Wharf, though touristy, is a lot of fun. Pier 39 in particular is home to a large number of sunbathing sea lions. There are both chain restaurants and local eateries at the Wharf, and I enjoyed a sandwich at Boudin Bakery served on their renowned sourdough bread. The bakery even crafts loaves in the shapes of turtles, cable cars, and grapes. One of the Wharf’s stranger and lesser-known attractions is the Musee Mechanique, an antique penny arcade with working games. Most of the wooden machines cost between twenty-five to fifty cents. I got my palm read and listened to player pianos, all for less than $1.00.

Pier 39 sea lions

Musee Mechanique – getting my palm read

One of the most interesting aspects of San Francisco is its propensity for microclimates. Basically, different neighborhoods in San Fran could have vastly different temperatures, wind patterns, cloud cover, etc. owing mostly to its diverse geographic features in close proximity. On the morning I was set to go hiking in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, there were dark clouds rolling overhead, but by the time I got to the Sutro Baths across the city, the skies were a gorgeous shade of blue.

Ruins of the Sutro Baths

The Sutro Baths, built in 1896, was a natatorium comprised of a luxurious set of seven pools, each ranging in temperature by ten degrees from freezing to steaming hot. The baths burned down in 1966, but the ruins remain, and make for a fantastically adventurous hike.

The Land’s End Labyrinth, easily walkable from the Sutro Baths

I didn’t know about the Walt Disney Family Museum before booking my trip to San Francisco, but when I found it in lists of suggested things to do in the city, I knew I had to check it out. The museum primarily focuses on Walt Disney’s early family life and the inception of his animation studio. It was fascinating, and full of priceless artifacts, like 1930’s Mickey Mouse memorabilia. The museum focus wasn’t necessarily the theme parks, but there was a diorama of an early vision for Disneyland, which was the best diorama I’d ever seen.

It’s hard to even capture how amazing this diorama was.

I had dreamed about riding a bicycle across the Golden Gate Bridge, but I never really thought it would become my reality. But, I started researching some companies that rent bikes in San Francisco, and I found a great deal with Blazing Saddles Bike Rentals, so it started to seem possible. On my last day in the city, I picked up a bike in the Fisherman’s Wharf and traveled along the coast for a picturesque journey across the bridge. I took the ferry back from Sausalito to the Ferry Terminal, and it made for a perfect last experience in the city.

Keep Portland Weird

I was originally supposed to come home immediately following my trip to Seattle, but an impending snowstorm in New York left me stranded on the west coast. A trip across the US in a rental pickup truck seemed both impractical and taxing, so that was seemingly out of the question. Rather, I decided to drive three hours south to explore Portland, OR.

Portland Bucket List

1. Original Stash Plaque

This is another must-do for geocachers, as it marks the location of the first geocache, a five-gallon bucket placed by Dave Ulmer on May 3, 2000. It’s right on the shoulder of the road, so thankfully no hiking through the mud is required.

2. Powell’s City of Books

This enormous bookstore is home to about a million books, making it one of the world’s largest independent bookstores (and, arguably, one of the coolest). It has colored-coded rooms to organize by genre, and provides maps for customers.

Check out The Oregon Trail display on top of the shelves

3. Voodoo Doughnut

I had seen this trendy food place online before going to Portland, and several friends encouraged me to check it out as well. I went to the original location in downtown Portland, open 24 hours, and thankfully didn’t wait too long in line. I ordered their Voodoo Doll doughnut, a deliciously weird treat featuring a pretzel stake stabbed in the middle and a raspberry jelly filling.

4. OMSI

I love a good science museum, and the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry had a lot of fun, educational displays. I was able to take a tour of the USS Blueback Submarine and see the Art of the Brick exhibit, which features famous sculptures and paintings reimagined with LEGO bricks. The museum also offers laboratory experiments in their Paleontology, Chemistry, Life Science, and Watershed Labs.

Starry Night made with LEGO bricks

Chemistry Lab experiments

5. Salt & Straw

I can’t decide if like Salt & Straw in Portland or Molly Moon’s in Seattle better, but they are definitely the top two ice cream places I’ve ever visited. Salt & Straw had a line out the door, but it was certainly worth the wait. They have offbeat flavors like Strawberry Honey Balsamic with Black Pepper, Arbequina Olive Oil, and, my mom’s favorite, Pear and Blue Cheese.

Ice cream flight from Salt & Straw

Seattle

My main motivation for traveling to the rainy city of Seattle was geocaching. The geocaching headquarters is located in Fremont, an eccentric neighborhood known by its inhabitants as the “Center of the Universe.” Its numerous creative sculptures and artwork (a troll, a rocket ship, a statue of Vladimir Lenin, etc.) corroborate Fremont’s unofficial motto “De Libertas Quirkas,” or the “Freedom to be Peculiar.”

Geocaching HQ should be on any geocacher’s bucket list, as it has its own cache, special merchandise available for sale, a photo booth (making for an interesting log book), and lots of trackables items to trade and discover. There is also an HQ GeoTour, which highlights 9 unique caches all within walking distance of HQ, and it is highly enjoyable.

When I wasn’t geocaching, I also visited the famous Pike Place Market, one of the oldest farmers’ markets in the USA and home to the original Starbucks. The market boasts fresh fish, fruit, and flowers, as well as artisanal products like wooden cutting boards, homemade jewelry, and hand-dyed shirts. I absolutely loved visiting Beecher’s Handmade Cheese, where I could watch the cheesemaking process and sample some absolutely delectable cubes of cheese. I also enjoyed Pike Place Chowder so much that I had to go back for another meal later in the trip.

Tulip time at the Pike Place Market

Beecher’s cheese is life changing

Drinking chai tea from the original Starbucks

Down an alley near the marketplace is another strange attraction, the Gum Wall. Its name is quite literal, as it is simply a brick wall covered in discarded chewing gum. Disgusting? Maybe. Unique? Definitely.

Other Essential Stops in Seattle

1. Bill Spiedel’s Underground Tour

Underneath the streets of Seattle

The energetic tour guide kept me laughing the whole time and piqued my interest in strangely sordid Seattle history. Plus, the tour leads participants on a walking adventure under the city through dark corridors that used to be the street level sidewalks.

The purple tiles in historic Pioneer Square sidewalks are actually skylights for the underground walkways

2. Chihuly Garden and Glass

This was an absolute highlight of the trip. It was a beautifully curated collection, and exploring the boldly vibrant glasswork was a great way to escape the dreary weather outside.

  

3. Molly Moon’s Homemade Ice Cream

Inventive flavors, fresh waffle cones made in store, and excellent customer service. My two favorite flavors were Earl Grey and Honey Lavender.

Earl Grey ice cream

Traveling to the National Parks

In the final planning stages of my trip, I realized that the National Parks I planned on visiting, Olympic National Park and Mt. Rainier National Park, were still very much in the throes of winter. As such, they were only open Fri-Sun and required all vehicles to carry tire chains. I planned on visiting Olympic National Park first on Saturday for a ranger-lead snowshoe hike, and then heading to Mt. Rainier on Sunday.

Unfortunately, an avalanche on Hurricane Ridge Road left the mountainous area inaccessible and the snowshoe hike was cancelled, foiling my plans for Olympic NP. Instead, I was able to stop at the visitor’s center in Port Angeles and hike for a bit surrounded by trees coated in lushly green moss.

Luckily, Mt. Rainier more than made up for my disappointing experience in Olympic NP. We were able to get a fantastic view of Mt. Rainier, which apparently was hidden in fog for two weeks before we got there. According to the NPS, Mt. Rainier National Park, specifically the Paradise Visitor Center, is the snowiest place on Earth where snowfall is regularly recorded. When we were there, there was about 14 feet of snowpack on the ground.

This is what 14′ of snowpack looks like

To top it off, the night before visiting Mt. Rainier, I stayed in a tree house I found on Airbnb in Olympia, WA. Airbnb definitely offers more unique lodging than hotels, and I was so thrilled with the tree house. It was right above a little pond and I left the windows cracked so I could hear the frogs croaking.

Disneyland

I definitely don’t know Disneyland as well as Walt Disney World, given that I worked at WDW and visited the parks there more times than I could possibly count. However, I deeply appreciated visiting the original Disney Park earlier this year. There was something especially magical about being in the place that Walt Disney himself saw from inception to completion.

Disneyland v. Walt Disney World

The biggest difference in the two locations is the size. WDW is comprised of four theme parks (Magic Kingdom, EPCOT, Animal Kingdom, and Hollywood Studios) and is absolutely enormous in scale, comparable to the size of San Francisco. While Disneyland Resort does have two parks, Disneyland and Disney’s California Adventure, it is nowhere near as big as WDW. When I worked on the ferryboats at Magic Kingdom, we used to tell guests that the entirety of Disneyland could fit in Magic Kingdom’s parking lot.

WDW may have The Purple Wall, but Disneyland has a pretty great blue wall

There is something nice about Disneyland being smaller though, as it makes park hopping (visiting more than one Disney theme park in one day) much easier. It’s possible to walk from Disneyland to California Adventure and have plenty of time to explore both in one day. I wouldn’t say visiting all four WDW parks in one day is impossible (because I have done it), but it required planning, seriously limiting myself to only a few attractions in each location, and then hastily finding Disney transportation or driving to the next park.

Paradise Pier (Disney’s California Adventure) at dusk

With regards to transportation, Disneyland is far more accessible just by walking. We stayed at a hotel off the Disney property and found it very manageable to walk right from our hotel into the theme parks each day. On the other hand, at WDW, I would have to drive between parks or utilize the various transportation systems (watercraft, monorail, buses). There is a monorail at Disneyland, but it is an attraction, not a transportation system.

Riding the Disneyland monorail

While there are a lot of similar attractions on both coasts, Disneyland does have plenty of unique offerings, like the Indiana Jones Adventure and the Matterhorn Bobsleds, as well as different theme areas, like New Orleans Square in Disneyland and Cars Land in California Adventure. It has a certain nostalgic feel to it as well, as the park still uses paper entry tickets instead of WDW’s magic bands, and paper Fast Pass tickets.

My favorite WDW attraction, and it’s equally great at Disneyland

Disneyland Bucket List

1. Cars Land

Cars Land is the best at dusk when all the neon signs first illuminate

2. Hyperspace Mountain

3. Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage

4. Indiana Jones Adventure

5. It’s a Small World

I’m not really a big fan of this attraction at WDW, but it’s a lot better at Disneyland

… and if you are wondering why Matterhorn Bobsleds and Mickey’s Fun Wheel aren’t on here, it’s because they were closed when I was there so I’m sure they’re deserving, but I didn’t experience them myself

Can’t Miss Food/Drink Items

1. Hand Dipped Ice Cream Bar from Clarabelle’s in Disney’s California Adventure

I was undecided on my toppings so I went for the “full herd” aka all of them

2. Jungle Skewers from Bengal Barbeque in Adventureland, Disneyland

3. Beignets from New Orleans Square, Disneyland

Mickey shaped food always tastes better

4. Creamy Corn Chowder in a Sourdough Bread Bowl from French Market Restaurant, New Orleans Square, Disneyland

5. Matterhorn Macaroon from the Jolly Holiday Bakeshop on Main Street, Disneyland

Macaroon with its namesake attraction