Last Stop through Balkans: Dubrovnik

After learning about the recent history of Dubrovnik–including the city being partially destroyed in the 1990s and later renovated–I really wanted the opportunity to explore “The Pearl of the Adriatic”. Medieval fortress? Check. Chic shopping? Done. A famed spot only findable by its “Cold drinks…this way” signs? Count me in.

We visited Croatia in the fall of 2013 as a part of a Balkan road trip. Our journey took us through three countries, beginning with Albania. Beautiful in parts, one could tell that this poor nation was still reeling from Communist rule that ended in 1991. Our favorite parts were the southern coastline and the quaint village of Berat (where our “expensive” meal was $26 for the two of us). We next ventured into Montenegro, and the difference between it and Albania was shocking. We lunched in the coastal town of Kotor (a must-see!) prior to continuing our road trip with the most wonderful people from Australia.

By the time we reached our last stop of Croatia, we were all fast friends and continued to tour Dubrovnik together. There, we explored Old Town’s city walls, as well as the famous cliff bars. Home base for my boyfriend (now husband) and me was the Hilton Imperial Dubrovnik, which was adjacent to the gates of Old Town and had stunning views of the sea. It was a perfect meeting spot for our group to meet to walk into the walled city, where we strolled, had incredible meals of fresh fish, meandered on the actual wall, watched cliff divers, and soaked up the culture.

 

 

Nature Near Nevada

A dear friend who has visited me in Vegas multiple times is visiting this week, and I attempted the impossible: show her part of my beloved city that she has not yet experienced. She has already done many of my Las Vegas like a Local recommendations, including the Mob Museum, laughing our way through A Gentlemen’s Guide to Love and Murder at the Smith Center, and multiple activities on the Strip. We did take in Rock of Ages this weekend—which has recently moved to the Rio—and we nostalgically belted out ‘80s anthems at the top of our lungs…another must-see if you’re so inclined.

Alas, there is not much else that my friend Brandi hasn’t experienced in Las Vegas, even though I am constantly proclaiming each visit her “best trip ever.” With that in mind, I decided that it was time for a road trip: on to explore nature-y sites in neighboring Utah and Arizona. If you’re looking for a fast-paced (read: crazy) excursion to accompany any time in Vegas, then this is your itinerary.

Day One: Zion National Park and Horseshoe Bend

We started out around 9am from Vegas and drove approximately 2.5 hours on I15 to Zion National Park—and what an interesting drive it was! The road instantly started to climb when we crossed first into Arizona; then later in Utah, the topography became even more stunning. When we arrived in Springdale, Utah, we cruised through the quaint town, ignoring the many shuttle stops. After paying to enter the park and driving around mistakenly trying to find a spot, we turned around and parked in town and hopped a shuttle. The two shuttle lines were a very convenient to get around the park; we chose stop 5 to hit the Emerald Pools trail, and the online trail descriptions were most helpful in determining the right trail for two inexperienced hikers. We spent about 2 hours total in the park from start to finish, and while it is possible to spend—and enjoy!—so much more time in stunning Zion, we had to hit a very curvy mountain road to head to our next stop.

And that mountain road required some very active driving through canyons and a dark tunnel; approximately another 2.5 hours, and we made it into Page, Arizona, where we booked into the Best Western Plus. It was clean and adequate, plus had a nice hot breakfast. (Note: try to stay on top floor to avoid thunderous upstairs neighbors.) Not two girls to rest, we headed immediately to our next adventure: hiking about 20 minutes to see Horseshoe Bend. This is a magical place where the Colorado River has carved its way around a canyon—a spectacular view! Brandi and I caught the splendor and took photos before making the trek back to our car—mainly because we were worried that idiot tourists who were too close to the ledge would fall to an untimely death. Plus we were starved for dinner. Not much to feast on in Page though—the “Texas” BBQ place is most likely your best bet.

Day Two: Antelope Canyon and Valley of Fire

Our second day started off bright and early with the aforementioned hotel breakfast before checking out and making the 10 minute drive to the Lower Antelope Canyon. Our tour was operated by Dixie Ellis, and I highly recommend the photo tour. Picture this (pun intended): a quick walk in a small group, private canyon views, plenty of time to set up tripod and DSLR camera, and two hours of exquisite shooting in a place sacred to the Navajo. Pictures from another friend’s tour were the literal inspiration of this trip, and Antelope Canyon did not disappoint. Book the photo tour, bring your tripod, and plan to hit the canyons first thing in the morning. The Upper Canyon is famous for light beams, but we were more than happy with the imagery we collected. (One can tell the difference between the below tripod photos on the tour versus the others taken via iPhone.)

Page is a small community, but it was big enough to have a Sonic, which we hit before driving on the Glen Canyon Dam across Lake Powell (stunning and Hoover Dam-like!). Then, we hightailed it back to Nevada, crisscrossing across Arizona and Utah stateliness several times. It took us roughly 1 hour and 45 minutes to get to Hurricane, Utah for a quick break, then another similar time period before we pulled into the Battleborn State’s first state park: the Valley of Fire. One can understand why several movies (Star Trek, Total Recall) filmed their alien scenes here against the stunning red rock scenery. Nevada residents save $2 on entry at the information center, and a 6 mile one-way drive takes one through quite a bit of the park’s landmarks. It was too hot to hike at 113° F, yet it was a lovely drive and well-worth some incredible photos.

Another 45 minutes’ drive, and we were back to the City of Sin! Keep in mind that cell phone reception is often spotty at best in this part of the country. For this trip, I recommend exactly two tanks of gas, plenty of water and sunscreen, very comfortable clothes (and close-toed shoes…can’t convince myself to buy hiking shoes), a great camera with tripod, an excellent playlist, and an incredible friend with whom to enjoy the journey!

 

Travel Photo of the Month: November 2014

Image

This morning, I am inspired by the chilly morning sunshine in Las Vegas. As I set off to post November’s travel photo of the month (POTM), my thoughts went back to another lovely morning–albeit not so cold–in India. I was traveling between Delhi and Agra to see the famous Taj Mahal, and I couldn’t keep my eyes off of the scenery we were passing. Women were carrying water containers on their head, and men were gathered at local stands, presumably buying cigarettes or daily necessities. As my driver sped through village after village, the quiet scene captured in the POTM really made an impression upon me–the calm in the midst of a hectic morning.

I hope the serenity this 2012 photo offers you the same peace it does for me today. I wish all of my readers a wonderful week and a peaceful remainder of the year.

Morning Fog in India

Morning Fog in India

Des Moines: French for The Moines

For our second annual Mom/Daughter Eating/Drinking/Touring Extravaganza, my mother and I visited Iowa and Nebraska this weekend. Friends and acquaintances asked why we’d make a specific trip to visit what is known as the “flyover states,” yet I am glad we did–Des Moines is quite a cosmopolitan treasure to explore! We arrived on a Friday morning, and after some navigation of the downtown area’s easily explorable streets, we hit the gorgeous state capitol building.

Iowa was my 36th state capitol to visit, and it was well-worth the trip: a beautiful 23 karat gold dome, a collection of miniature inaugural gowns of Iowa’s first ladies, and an incredibly gorgeous law library. If I lived in Des Moines, I’d try to figure out a way to have my wedding in the library–from stunning spiral staircases to rows and rows of books, it’s no wonder that international dignitaries and politicos regularly visit.

We enjoyed bloody mary drinks and lunch at a local spot before heading back out for a visit to the Center Street Pedestrian Bridge and the Robert D. Ray Asian Gardens. Free to the public, this was a nice way to burn off lunch…another of which being some light shopping on Locust Street. My favorite store was RAYGUN, which sold wonderful Midwestern-themed graphic products, including wares with this week’s blog headline “Des Moines: French for The Moines” emblazoned across them.

We drove by the well-known Salisbury House and walked through the Pappajohn Sculpture Park–worth a stop. Our evening was spent relaxing at our hotel’s evening reception (a perk to staying at the Embassy Suites) before heading to a delish prix-fixe meal at Lucca, both ideally located on Locust Street, with a beautiful night view of the capitol. We were in town during Iowa’s Capitol City Pride Fest 2014, as well as during an evening concert on the river, so our night ended with a glorious fireworks display. With or without the pyrotechnics, we found Des Moines to be charming!

 

A Balkan Roadtrip through Albania

Albania and other parts of the former Yugoslav Republic were never on my list of places to visit, and yet this September, I found myself on a Balkan Roadtrip with my boyfriend Jacob and a busload of amazing Australians. We set off from Saranda after a chaotic ferry trip from Corfu, Greece, and immediately were shocked by the country’s transformation after the fall of Communism in 1991. Most of the information that our guide imparted about this part of Albanian history was news to me, and I do offer a caveat that the facts mentioned in this blog are based upon conversations with our guide, not heavy historical research.

Our three-day trip started in Southern Albania, where Jacob and I pulled out roughly $100 USD for spending money for both of us. On our first day, we were stunned by the gorgeous Southern Albanian coastline, where we had lunch–local beers and pasta for less than $7 USD–and marveled at the stellar blue waters. We stopped by a natural spring waterfall and a former Communist checkpoint over looking a large valley before ending up in Berat to spend the first evening.

Berat–known as the City of a Thousand Windows–was certainly the highlight of our trip. We began our adventures here by joining locals in their traditional evening stroll, known as the xhiro. Jacob and I might have been the only blonde couple enjoying a lovely dusk walk on the main promenade, but we greatly enjoyed this part of their culture. Our group stayed at what our guide called “the best hotel in town,” and the Hotel Mangalemi was a quaint treat. Some our our group enjoyed dinner at their darling outdoor restaurant, and it was a delicious (and inexpensive) traditional Albanian meal.

The next morning, we explored more of Berat, which seemed to have Moorish architectural influence. An early tour of Berat Castle, which overlooked the town from all directions, is a must…especially after learning about two early manuscripts of the Bible’s Book of Matthew found in a Byzantine church there. The history of this area was fascinating, and I recommend reading up on it prior to the journey, just because it is so rich.

We headed on after Berat to the capitol city of Tirana, which was not a charming as what we discovered in Southern Albania. Buildings there were stark, and one could tell that while Tirana has come a long way since 1991, it had a long way to go before it would become a major destination city in Europe. Our group made the most of it–and a surprise downpour which flooded the streets–by exploring the local nightlife scene at Radio.

The final day, we left dreary Tirana for the Montenegro border, and when we arrived in glamorous Kotor, many of us felt that we would have rather spent the previous night there, exploring the stunningly beautiful walled city, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Our trip ended in Dubrovnik, Croatia, where most of us on the tour spent a few days exploring on our own (which will be featured separately in a blog post soon). By the time our tour ended, Jacob and I had $20 left to tip our guide and new Aussie friends that we are looking forward to seeing again soon.

 

Songs for the Journey

As the weekend approaches, I am thinking about songs that make me want to hit the road on a  mini-break. Here are songs that would comprise my perfect vacay playlist:

Melodies for the Journey

Melodies for the Journey

  • Take You Higher – Goodwill & Hook N Sling
  • Atlas Hands – Benjamin Francis Leftwich
  • San Francisco – the Mowgli’s
  • Take a Picture – Filter
  • Go – Jonsi
  • Koop Island Blues – Ane Brun and Koop
  • One Night in Rio – Louie Austen
  • M79 – Vampire Weekend
  • Mountain Sound – Of Monsters and Men
  • I’m Shipping Up to Boston – Dropkick Murphys
  • I Want Her But I Don’t Want Her – Zahed Sultan
  • Beautiful Day – U2
  • One Night in Bangkok – Murray Head
  • Midnight City – M83

And then, the journey ends, and it’s time to return to regular life. These are my packing songs (and I won’t ever admit that sometimes I dance around my hotel room whilst loading up my suite-case!):

  • Lisztomania – Phoenix
  • Comin’ Home Baby – Mel Torme
  • American Girl – Tom Petty
  • Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough – Michael Jackson

Have a shantastic weekend!