Work brought me to Kansas City twice in the course of one month. Lucky for me, I have a good friend (we will call her AA) who lives in and loves KC. She provided me with helpful hints and suggestions about what to see and …
Tag: destination review
Lucky for us, we have both visited all fifty states and have become members of the all fifty states club. We both had a very strong start independently at checking off the states, but when we became friends, we made a couple trips to finish things up. This post is about our efforts to join the all fifty states club part 1. Go here to read part 2 and here to read part 3.
Deciding what counts to be able to check off a state on your list is a matter of personal preference. Some people run a marathon (crazy) or climb the highest mountain (my brother) or visit the state capitol building; the list goes on and on. It really is up to you to decide how you want to define it, although pretty much everyone agrees that a layover at an airport shouldn’t count.
For me, I decided that I had to have done something or seen something specific in that state to count it. The list is pretty random, but if you are looking for things to do so you can check off a new state, you might want to try some of them out.
Alabama: Unclaimed Baggage Store
Have you ever left something on an airplane and wondered what happened to it after you exited the plane, never to see it again? Well, all the forgotten books, headphones, and sweaters go to rest is a strange little store in northern Alabama called Unclaimed Baggage. We had a good time browsing through the shelves of random goods, but I couldn’t help feeling a little sad for all of the lost treasures and the people who looked all over for them, to no avail.
Alaska is one of my favorite states. I spent two glorious summers there avoiding real life before and after graduate school. It’s pretty hard to pick out just one experience there, but I would highly recommend taking a helicopter ride in the Denali National Park area. You’ll be able to see for miles and miles and get swept away by the white mountain peaks and blue water of the glacier pools.
Arizona: Route 66
This stretch of the iconic Route 66 is pretty rad–you’ll drive through the Painted Desert and Petrified Forest National Park. Depending on the time of day and weather, the Painted Desert might be all sorts of colors. When we drove through, the red in the sand contrasted fantastically with the bright blue sky. Petrified Forest National Park is chock full of pieces of, you guessed it, petrified wood. You want to make sure not to take any home as souvenirs though. The Park Headquarters gets pieces sent to them in the mail every day from people who have picked up a piece of wood and brought it home, only to have their life take a turn for the worse. It’s bad juju to steal a piece, and the only way to reverse the curse is to send it back to it’s rightful home.
Arkansas: the booming metropolis of…Pine Bluff?
When B and I were making a grand loop of the Southern States, we spent the night visiting my cousins in a suburb of Little Rock called Pine Bluff. We took a tour of the town and saw my cousin’s university. It wasn’t an earth-shattering visit to the state, but I did (re)learn an important travel lesson: after a few weeks of go, go, go, it is really nice to just stop and take it easy. And eating a home-cooked meal after all the restaurants and fast food places was amazing!
California: the Motherland
I have had a lot of experiences in California. I was born there. My parents and grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins, all pretty much live in California. I have put in a lot of time making the drive from B-town across Donner Summit and into the Sacramento Valley. But if I’m picking experiences that readers might be interested in, I would probably have to go with the Northern California coast. This water is pretty cold, so you might not want to go swimming. But man, is it pretty. There’s a street named after my family in the town of Mendocino which, if you visit, you might just recognize as the setting for the “Murder, She Wrote” television series. (Maine, my eye.)
Colorado: Musicfest at Steamboat Springs, CO
Imagine skiing all day and watching concerts all night. Now imagine doing that with about 40 bands and 6,000 (mainly) drunk Texans. It is a party. After two years of attending the craziness, B and I decided we couldn’t keep up with the shenanigans. (We had a REALLY good time those two years, though!)
Connecticut: Mystic Seaport
I had fond memories of watching “Mystic Pizza” when I was younger (although to be honest, I don’t remember the plot at all). So when I was in Connecticut, I decided to go to the town of Mystic. The Seaport is the largest maritime museum in the U.S. and there are lots of cool ships you can check out. Ironically, I didn’t eat pizza while I was in town.
B and I both needed to visit this tiny little (2nd smallest) state. We purposefully got train tickets in and out of Dover, but when we got there we didn’t actually see that much we wanted to do. We walked along a riverfront and explored a bustling food market. After a stop at a brewery, we loaded back up and headed out again.
Florida: Benvenido a Miami
On the way to Ecuador, B and I decided to stop for a few days in Miami (because why not?). Our shuttle dropped us off at the hotel on Miami South Beach around 2:00 a.m., but you wouldn’t have guessed it was that time by the number of people milling around, eating, drinking and looking all fancy. Talk about not fitting in! The next day we spent chilling on the white sand and swimming in the warm water (and picking up a Cubano for B). Funny thing: Miami felt just as foreign to us and Ecuador did, once we got there.
You know when you have an idea about something and when you get there, it just doesn’t live up to what you had imagined? Well, that did not happen when I visited Savannah. There is a main road that runs from downtown into a residential area with huge mansions, and when you walk down it the sun is blocked by gigantic moss-covered trees lining the street. I could practically see Kevin Spacey walking around in “The Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.” Actually, I’m pretty sure we saw the house where that was set.
Hawaii: Mustangs on the Coastline
Hawaii was the last of my 50 states I visited and I wanted to go out with a bang. So, B and I opted to splurge and we rented a Mustang convertible for our week on the Big Island. If that sounds too warm, I have three words for you: air-conditioned seats. We put down the roof, cranked up the ac on our bums and had a fantastic time feeling like ballers.
Idaho: Ah, home
One of my favorite things about my hometown is that the foothills border Boise. Outsiders might think they are ugly and brown. (To be fair, they are. Boise is in a desert, after all.) But when I look at them I see hiking and mountain biking and freedom from my cares, all about five minutes from downtown.
On the way to Eastern Europe, B, C and I stopped off in Chicago to visit some of our friends who had moved there to attend school. We had a great time and our hosts were so wonderful. We walked across the river that gets turned green in March, ate tapas at a hip restaurant, saw the “Adventures in Babysitting” building, and rode rented bikes along Lake Michigan. All in all, it was a great vacation on the way to a great vacation.
Indiana: New Harmony
When traveling anywhere with my dad, I’m sure to get off the beaten path and see things most people have never heard of. Such was the case in Indiana when we visited the town of New Harmony. This town was founded twice by two different groups of people trying to live communally in the 1800s. Neither worked.
Iowa: Corn fields, motels and humidity
Iowa was a tricky state to visit. I have crossed the U.S. multiple times driving, but somehow never managed to hit up the great state of Iowa. After a lot of driving and a lot of corn fields, I ended up staying the night at a retro motel in Spencer, Iowa. For dinner, I went to one of the few restaurants open and a man from Texas bought my dinner because he thought I was a movie star…playing it cool. Sure, this experience has more to do with the story and less to do with the state. But you know what? I’m not going to forget the time I spent in Iowa.
Kansas: Ft. Leavenworth Military Prison
If you’re wondering why a military prison stands out to me during my time in Kansas, you’ve probably never tried to drive across this state. It is Capital F flat and all you’ll see for hundreds of miles is soybean plants and corn stalks. So when we took a drive around the United States Disciplinary Barracks (aka ‘Leavenworth’) facility, it left an impression. This is the place that the keeps serious offenders who have been convicted in the military courts, and it was pretty intense to see it. We visited the small cemetery where interestingly, there are unmarked graves for 14 German POWs who were convicted of crimes while being POWs.
No, I wasn’t there for the Kentucky Derby. But I did visit Churchill Downs and was impressed by the size of the place. I went on a tour of the facility and could practically smell the money that was won and lost at this racetrack. Did you know that in 2017, $200 million was wagered at this place…during one race…that lasted two minutes? Crazy.
Well, when I started writing this post I planned on getting through all fifty states. Turns out I had a lot to say. Stay tuned to future posts to learn about the other states. This country is pretty great and has lots of amazing things to see and experience. Get out there, check off another state and get working on your own all fifty states club part 1 list.
When B, C and I spent a few weeks in Eastern Europe, we allotted several days for Estonia. We didn’t really know much about this little country, but we’d read that Tallinn was awesome and figured we’d be able to find things to keep us entertained. We were correct. I had read that biking through the countryside was a lovely way to spend your time, so we found a few recommendations in Rick Steves and made our way down to City Bikes. This post tells our story about that time we went biking in Estonia.
We walked into the shop and found two hunky men and a bunch of bikes. Since it was early May, the bike season hadn’t actually started yet. But after talking to one of the handsome fellas (Australian, I think), he disappeared into a backroom and came out with the bossman, Toomas (also a hunk) who decided he would take us on a tour–I think mainly so he could check out the route himself in anticipation of the upcoming season. Toomas described what the ‘tour’ would entail and after some convincing, B and C agreed to go along. (Have we mentioned the importance of good travel buddies?)
The adventure begins
The next morning, Toomas picked us up in a van loaded with four bikes. We headed out in the direction of Lahemaa National Park, where we would be riding that day. Toomas decided to jazz up our ride by showing us several Estonian landmarks and explaining a lot about this country. Our first stop was the Jagala Waterfall, the largest in the land. School children come here on field trips and I was (per the ushe) amazed at how few restrictions there are in places compared to the U.S. No way would there not be fences, signposts and handrails everywhere if that was in, say, Ohio. And you know what, the school kids survive their visiting the falls without the regulations. Go figure.
And so it begins
Our next stop was the beginning of the bike tour in a town called Palmse. Let me explain what that meant: Toomas pulled over, took our bikes off the van, handed us a bottle of water and a photocopied piece of paper that had a hand-drawn map on one side and useful phrases in Estonian on the other. Phrases such as, “Help me, I’m lost” and “Please call the police.” He pointed in the direction we should go and circled a town on the map and said he’d pick us up in four hours. C looked a little uncomfortable; it probably didn’t help that when she had texted her sister the night before about our day’s adventure, her sister’s response was not terribly encouraging…it ended with ‘it was nice knowing you.’
Lahemaa National Park
The day was just about perfect for a ride through an unknown land, a little misty but not raining. We were riding on a paved road, one of many in the national park. Lahemaa is in the center of the northern coast of Estonia and is about 300 square miles. Luckily, we were only biking a short portion of that (around 35 kms.) The majority of the landscape is forested with lots of trees like what we see in our mountains back home; there are also lots of areas of bogs, something we definitely do not have in Idaho. It took us a while to figure out when we were looking at a bog actually, but we got the hang of it eventually.
Our first stop of the tour was at the Sagadi Manor. This manor was built in the 1400s in the Baroque style by a German family. There are several buildings that comprise the manor, but we only toured the main house. I’ve read that this is one of the most visited manors in Estonia, but not all of us were that impressed…as we rode off B described it as creepy.
Swinging on a giant swing
Our next stop was in the town of Altoa. Town is pretty generous, actually. There were a few deserted buildings and a giant wood swing (the reason why we stopped). There was a sign that explained that swings like this were an important part of the countryside’s culture and people gather together and sing and swing on them during festivals and celebrations. The three of us easily could all fit on this thing. Side note: this swinging tradition has found itself in a new extreme sport in Estonia called kiiking. People in giant swing pump their way up and eventually swing over the top. Youtube it.
Russian red soup…just don’t
By this point in the journey we were a bit hungry so we stopped in a seaside town of Vosu for some lunch. This town is on the edge of the Baltic Sea and reminded me of an old summer resort in 50s America, kind of like on Dirty Dancing. Except without Johnny. B went with a seafood soup since we were so close to the ocean, and I went with a Russian soup, since we were so close to Russia. Hers turned out much better than mine…a strange red color with hot dog like pieces floating around.
We then took a stroll down to the Baltic Sea, the northernmost body of water I’ve ever been to. If the weather was warmer, this town would be quite nice. The beach was pretty and I could imagine lots of kids splashing around for the two weeks of the year that it was above 80 degrees. (Not really sure if this is true, but it seemed very cold!)
We can do it!
At this point we were getting pretty tired of biking, but our final destination was only a few kilometers away. Toomas caught up with us and offered to go get the van and bring it back to us, but our pride wouldn’t allow such a thing. We huffed and puffed our way to the van and climbed off our bikes for the last time. (Thankfully!)
And so it ended
Our ride back to Tallinn was interesting. Toomas pointed out the Tallinn TV tower, where, in 1991 a few Estonians stood up to the Soviets in a bid to protect the freedom of media. He also explained that the old, derelict-looking buildings we saw were communist-era housing complexes and talked about how there is a lot of tension with Estonian-Russian relations. Lots of Russians moved to Estonia during the communist era and they relate more with Russia, whereas the younger generation consider themselves Estonian first. Tip: if you can, get a local talking about the history and politics of the country you are visiting. You’ll learn a lot more than what you pick up in a book.
Once we arrived back at the City Bike office, Toomas disappeared inside for a while. We couldn’t figure out what he was doing, but eventually he came back out with gold medals (chocolate in gold wrappers) that we earned for completing our bike tour. All in all, our bike tour was a terrific way to see more of Estonia and Toomas and the City Bike operation was just delightful.
We didn’t know what was going to happen on this bike tour. It could have ended very badly (lost, rained on, broken bike, exhausted) but sometimes you just have to go for it while traveling. Biking in Estonia through the Lahemaa National Park ended up being my favorite thing we did in that country.
Iceland is h-o-t, people. A Jane reader asked us the other day about whether we had written anything on it as her friend was planning a trip there soon. (If you are like us, it seems like every other day you hear about someone you know visiting the land of ice and fire.) Well, yes, as a matter of fact, C wrote a terrific guest post a while back about the trip she and her family took to Iceland. But before C’s clan descended on the island, C, B, and I spent a long weekend in Iceland getting a taste for Reykjavik and its surroundings. Here is what we saw and did during our short sample of this delicious country.
Long Weekend in Iceland Itinerary
Friday, October 31
We purchased a package deal from Iceland Air that covered our flight, hotel and some excursions. We flew to Seattle and then on to Reykjavik, landing on the morning of the November 1. The flight wasn’t bad at all–around seven hours so we were able get some sleep.
Saturday, November 1
First up on our itinerary was a stop at the famous Blue Lagoon. This was a must see for B, as she does enjoy herself some geothermal activity. Part of our package was the Spa Comfort Experience, which meant we got admission to the lagoon, some algae for a facial, and a fancy drink. For those who haven’t heard of it, the Blue Lagoon is essentially a giant swimming pool full of hot water pumped from a nearby geothermal plant. It is full of rich minerals which give it a lovely milky blueish color. This was especially striking against the black lava fields that the lagoon is set smack dab in the middle of.
We did some research about visiting hot pots (hot pools) in Iceland and learned that it is quite the traditional experience and you should follow the rules, like washing completely before you enter. (I wussed out and kept the swimmer on in the communal shower.) None of us decided to get a massage on the floating table, but we very much enjoyed the soothing warm water which helped us ease out the kinks from the flight. It was a great way to begin our vacation. After a nice, relaxing soak, we were ready to take on Reykjavik.
Our hotel was on the edge of town, but luckily that didn’t mean much as Reykjavik is quite compact. We were able to check in and walk to the downtown area, which saved the expense of taking a cab back and forth. The word ‘Iceland’ is about the only thing that we could distinguish in the Icelandic language. It is a seriously foreign language and our rudimentary understanding of the romance languages was of no use to us. Fortunately, most people speak fluent English. It was quite striking to me that their English was so good; it was difficult to tell if people were native Icelanders as their accent was so minimal.
We had picked out a few destinations for the downtown area and spent the rest of the day checking some of them off.
This country has a few characteristics that result in beautiful hand-knit sweaters. 1. It is freezing most of the time, thus necessitating proper attire. 2. It can be dark a large part of the winter, so there is plenty of time to knit. 3. Icelandic sheep are the fluffiest and furriest sheep I’ve ever seen, hence an abundant supply of raw materials.
With all of these things going for it, we knew we were going to be purchasing a LOT of wool products and wanted to deposit most of our change in a store where adorable little old ladies hand knit sweaters, scarves and mittens. (I didn’t actually see an adorable little old lady knitting, but in my mind that’s what happens.) The prices at this store are also much more reasonable than other stores around town and I picked up my souvenir from the trip here, a beautiful long cardigan lopapeysa (sweater).
Next on the list of things to see was the KronKron store. B had found some KronKron shoes on the interwebs a few years before and really wanted to see them live and in person. This store sells a variety of clothes, but we were there to check out the shoes. If you visit their website and are remotely shoe-oriented, you will see why. These things are seriously works of art with unique designs and materials. Sadly, they were as expensive as works of art so we left empty handed.
Icelandic Phallological Museum
Next we visited the Icelandic Phallological Museum. Yep, it is just what is sounds like. Perhaps not the most obvious place for a group of ladies to visit, but it was interesting, if a little small. (Pause for jokes about how size really does matter.)
At this point in the day, we were getting a little jet lagged so we headed back to the hotel for a good night’s sleep.
Sunday, November 2
Our next day was spent again exploring downtown Reykjavik. Highlights included the following:
Kolportid Flea Market
This market was a rabbit warren of stalls selling all sorts of weird stuff. We ended up purchasing some black lava earrings, but if we were in need of old records, vintage suits, crappy plastic toys or any assortment of knitted items, this is the place to go.
The Harpa is a conference hall right on the edge of the water in downtown Reykjavik. You can’t miss it, it is a cube building made of glass that looks purple and blue. It is really quite pretty. You can spend a lot of money and get all dressed up and go to a fancy pants performance, but since we are cheap and not particularly cultured we opted for a light show. This light show sounded cooler than it actually was–we went into a square shaped room and they displayed scenes from Iceland on all of the walls and ceiling. There was one little bench in the middle of the room so we figured people just stand around and watch, but we opted to lay on the floor and take it easy.
That’s not a typo. That’s the name of the Icelandic Lutheran Cathedral that is the tallest structure in Iceland. It is a white, pointed building and has lovely views of the city and harbor if you climb to the top. I like Lutheran Cathedrals; they have such clean lines and are simple without feeling austere. The Hallgrímskirkja did not disappoint on this front. There is a giant statue out front dedicated to Leif Erikson, the first European to land in America, which, as Americans, we appreciated.
Northern Lights Tour
The second excursion included in our package was a tour to see the Northern Lights. This was supposed to be on a boat on the water, but it was crazy windy and the powers that be replaced a water experience with a bus. We weren’t complaining. Our bus picked us up and near as we can figure, took us to the middle of nowhere to remove all light pollution and give us the best chance of seeing the Northern Lights…that is, if the Northern Lights were active. They weren’t. After a few cups of hot chocolate and nothing but cloudy skies, we headed back to our hotel. Wohn, wohn, wohn.
Monday, November 3
The main activity for this day was our final excursion, the Golden Circle tour, a chartered bus ride that took us to several interesting spots away from the city.
Our first stop was a giant greenhouse where a very industrious family grows tomatoes (year round) for pretty much the whole island. We walked around the greenhouse and sampled some tomato soup. B was fascinated by the geothermal element, which provides both heat and light to the greenhouse. Iceland really knows how to harness its renewable energy.
Next we visited a gorgeous waterfall called Gulfoss. The Hvita river goes down a few little drops and then plunges twice, deep into a canyon below. The wind was ferocious at this stop and even though we were in our winter gear, it was still bone chilling.
This is the place where all other geysers get their name. It was a bit like Yellowstone National Park and Old Faithful; every so often a big plume of steam would get released from the Strokkur geyser and hot water gurgled out of smaller geysers all around the area.
The Pingvellir National Park is the place in Iceland where the two tectonic plates are pulling away from each other. It is a remarkably pretty area with dark lava, green moss and blue rivers. A few weeks ago, I was watching a documentary on the Vikings and learned that Leif’s dad, Erik, was kicked out of Iceland after the governmental gathering at Pingvellir. Cool.
After we returned to the city, our last stop of the day was the Perlan. This large structure on the outskirts of the city used to be hot water storage tanks for the city, but was converted into a meeting space/restaurant/shopping center/performance hall. Walking up to it, I was struck by how much it reminded me of R2-D2. You can go out on the observation level and see pretty much 360 degrees. The view was very nice, which made up for the lackluster food we had at the restaurant.
Tuesday, November 4
The next day, we packed up and got ready to head home. This meant stopping at a grocery store for one last container of Skyr, a yogurt that puts all other yogurt to shame, and buying many skeins of Icelandic wool, just to get rid of our extra Kronurs. Then we headed to the airport for our flight back to the U.S. and work the next morning.
During this quick trip to Iceland, we were able to get a good feel for Reykjavik, see some of the natural wonders that make this country so spectacular, and briefly experience the everyday happenings of the Icelanders. Iceland isn’t a cheap country. In fact, it is one of the most expensive we’ve been to, but our package tour helped a great deal. Flights from Seattle, lodging and the three adventures cost us about $1,000 each. Not cheap, but really not that bad for a fun getaway to a new country.
Iceland is an amazing country. Just look at C–less than a year after our long weekend, she had convinced her family to go visit for a much longer vacation. It is well worth the trip, even if it is just a quick weekend like what we did. A word of warning though: the secret is out. Tourism in the country has grown exponentially in the last few years. So much so that Iceland has decided to increase a tourist tax in an effort to get the industry back in hand. When you go, you should expect to see lots of other tourists. That being said, where there’s steam there is usually a geyser, so the tourism is justified.
After spending the month of February staying and playing Down Under, I have a pretty good idea of Australia travel costs. This post is a follow up to an earlier post about planning and saving for that month-long trip. I knew I wanted to follow up after …