Tag: where to go

Exploring Your Own Backyard

Exploring Your Own Backyard

How often do you go out exploring your own backyard? This past weekend, we headed to the mountains. Our goal: huckleberries. I am happy to report that we were successful and came home with a nice little haul. R had family visiting from another state. 

Jane Verses the Volcano

Jane Verses the Volcano

When S, B, and I visited Bali, we knew we wanted to see as much of the island as possible. One way to do this was through a sunrise hike, where we would experience a sunrise after making our way up the side of a 

North Dakota Via Train

North Dakota Via Train

North Dakota, train travel, window views, farm
North Dakota. The view from my train window.

One year ago today, I rolled through North Dakota. It was very exciting. Now normally, a trip to North Dakota is not necessarily worthy of any sort of celebration (no offense to the 750,000 people who live there). But this was no ordinary trip for me. You see, North Dakota was my last state. Once I crossed that state line, I could officially say I visited all 50 states.

Before heading out, I did a little research on the not-be-missed, hot spots of North Dakota. I think the locals must be very good at keeping their haunts under wraps because the internet yielded very few results. One clever commenter said that the best thing to see in North Dakota is the sign that says, “You are now leaving North Dakota.” With results like that, I struggled to make plans. Then it hit me: I could take the train.

North Dakota, train travel, window views, mist, dirt road
One of the many views from my train window.

A few years ago, I saw a good chunk of Canada via the rail line. I fell in love with train travel. Now the rail service here in the U.S. leaves little to be desired. But it is still a worthy way to see this country. For this particular voyage, I booked passage from Chicago to Seattle on Amtrak’s Empire Builder. I would have really liked to have booked a sleeper car, but it was just too damn expensive. So I booked a coach seat and hoped for the best.

Chicago Union Station, train travel, flag
Union Station in Chicago.

Chicago to Seattle

The train leaves Chicago once a day in the afternoon and arrives in Seattle 46 hours later. Since I arrived in the city with a couple of hours to spare, I tried to explore a bit. But my pack got a little heavy and I headed to the station to settle in and wait.

They were offering some sort of special for those who wanted to try out the new lounge. Since it was only $10, I decided to give it a whirl. It probably does not cost $10 anymore, but I can almost guarantee that it is still worth whatever the new price is. The lounge has comfy chairs, drinks, snacks and free Wi-Fi. But best of all, you get priority boarding on the train. Me and about 15 other folks got to bypass the line and have our pick of seats. I sat across from a nice guy named Matt who clued me into the extra leg room in the first row of each train car.

The seats are not plush. But they are way better than your standard coach seat on an airplane and recline quite a bit. If you are lucky, you’ll have two seats. The train left Chicago full. But probably half of those people got off somewhere before midnight, including my seat mate. So I was one of the lucky ones (Matt, not so much). With a bit of help from some earplugs and a little Tylenol PM, I got decent sleep on both nights of the trip.

North Dakota, train travel, window views, farm
The view from my train window the morning of July 4th.

Waking up in North Dakota

I woke up on July 4, 2015, just as the sun was rising over North Dakota. There was a fine mist covering the land and the light was muted. The view did not justify my level of excitement, but I could not stop smiling. When I planned this trip initially, it did not dawn on me until after it was booked that I would be celebrating Independence Day by visiting my final state. What a perfect way to celebrate!

Parade Stanley North Dakota 4th of July
4th of July parade preparation in Stanley, North Dakota.

I spent a good chunk of the day in the observation car watching the landscape pass by. It was more varied than I expected. It was also very, very rural (although I expected that). Some of the towns were quaint and I saw more than one 4th of July parade in the works. Others looked like ghost towns. We stopped at a couple of little towns so I was able to walk around and breathe in the air. But for the most part, I was just an observer. I never got bored and I never tired of looking out the window.

Minot, North Dakota train station
Number 50

I did not see any fireworks that night. But what I did see was so much better: a colorful sunset somewhere near Glacier National Park.

Glacier National Park sunset, train window views
Sunset near Glacier National Park…from my train window.

Train tips

Now here a couple of tips if you are thinking about taking a similar journey:

  • Pack food. The train provides two eating options. The first is a fast food/gas station sort of situation offering more snacks and microwave fare. The second is the dining car which actually has pretty good food, but can get expensive if you eat every meal there (like my friend Matt did). Plus, you have to wait until the sleeper car passengers have already eaten since they have first priority. I planned my “meals” pretty carefully and brought healthy snacks. But I also treated myself to two meals in the dining car.
  • Walk around. The beauty of train travel is that you get to move. Unlike a car or an airplane, there are no seat belts and you can get up and move anytime you want.
  • Drink lots of water. Sure, you will have to pee. But since you can get up and go to the bathroom anytime you want, it is not a big deal. Plus, it will remind you get up and walk around.
  • Do not leave valuables lying around. I felt perfectly comfortable leaving most of my stuff in my seat while I went to the bathroom or visited the observation car. But I always took my wallet and phone with me.
  • Talk to people. People are fascinating and hearing why others are on the train going to XYZ is one of the best parts of traveling the rails. It is pretty easy to meet people too. If you do any eating in the dining car, you are going to be sitting by strangers. You might as well talk to them.
  • Bring warm clothes. It does get a little cold at night, even in the middle of summer. I could have used an extra sweater.
  • Bring something to read or watch. During the day, I listened to music and stared out the window. But once it gets dark, there is nothing to see and if you are not ready to try and sleep, you are going to need something to do. Luckily, each seat on the train has an outlet so it is easy to keep your devices charged.
  • Be sure to brush. Your teeth that is. There are plenty of bathrooms on board and although grooming in them is not ideal, you can get relatively clean and feel refreshed. Just don’t forget your wipes!
Blue skies over Pike's Place
My voyage ended the second morning in Seattle. It was a beautiful day.


The US of A is big and vast and there is so much to explore. Taking the train is enjoyable way to see not only North Dakota, but many different pieces and parts of it. It helps to be prepared. If you are, you are in for a spectacular experience. Also, happy 4th of July!

A Modern-Day Icelandic Saga

A Modern-Day Icelandic Saga

This post about Iceland is written by our friend and fellow traveler, C. Enjoy! A year and a half ago, B, R and I went to Iceland for a long weekend. We spent a couple of days in Reykjavik and one day touring the Golden 

Affordable ski trip to Whistler, Canada: see how much a weekend getaway costs

Affordable ski trip to Whistler, Canada: see how much a weekend getaway costs

Janes often get asked, “How can you afford to go on so many trips?” Well, the answer is simple: you don’t spend a boatload of money on every trip. If you can’t afford to go big every time (man, wouldn’t be great?), go little a 

Jane Sees…The Big Island

Jane Sees…The Big Island

Waipi’o Valley Lookout
Waipi’o Valley Lookout

Hawaii is easy. I mean that in the nicest way possible. If you are looking for a tropical destination with minimal worries, then Hawaii is a worthy place to consider. You can plan adventures and island hop to your heart’s content, or you can simply stay at a nice resort and sit on the beach. To each her own. We recently traveled to both the Big Island and Oahu for about ten days. We visited in February and although Hawaii is nice anytime of the year, it is especially nice when your home state is covered in white. Most of our time was spent on the Big Island and let me tell you, it was time well spent. Below are some reasons why you should consider visiting the Big Island.

Southern cliffs on the Big Island, Hawaii
There is so much to see on the Big Island.

Why you should go to the Big Island

  • It is a great place to relax and unwind. Life is busy and most of us are always on the go. Even if you plan a lot of activities, you cannot help but slow down while you are visiting the Big Island. Life just moves slower (as does the traffic). Bumper stickers with sayings like: “Slow down brah, this ain’t the mainland,” are fairly common and pretty darn accurate.
  • For most of us, it will feel a bit like a foreign country. But it’s not. The water is safe to drink and you do not have to worry about a passport (provided you are a U.S. citizen). The street signs may be difficult to pronounce, but the traffic laws will be familiar. There will be new things to try on the menu (loco moco, anyone?), but it will be in English. Like I said, easy.
Palm trees on the Big Island, Hawaii
Look up!
  • The Big Island has less tourists and more room to roam. It will necessitate renting a car. But if you make the effort to drive around and see a good chunk of the island, you will not be disappointed.

Side note: Even if you are traveling on a budget, it is nice to splurge once in a while. Maybe you order that decadent dessert at that fancy restaurant or purchase a necklace that caught your eye—the one you never would pay that much for at home. On the Big Island, we opted to splurge on our rental car and got a convertible. Yes, it was the “tourist” thing to do. But hey, we were tourists! And driving around with the top down was amazing (except for the crazy hair). I highly recommend it.

Ford Mustang car rental in Hawaii
Sally, our ride.
  • Whatever you might have in mind when you picture Hawaii (e.g. pristine beaches, calm blue waters, towering palm trees, etc.), let me assure you, the Big Island is so much more. It has so many different landscapes and it feels like every 20 minutes or so you are driving through a new one. In a very short amount of time you can see rolling green hills, lava flows, pine tree forests, lush jungle and more.
  • It is safe. Sure, you need to exercise a little common sense, but for the most part, you will be able to wander around without overly worrying about pickpockets. In fact, we felt comfortable enough leaving the doors of our house and rental car unlocked.
  • Men will not harass you and/or stare at you. If you have traveled to places like Mexico and Morocco, you will understand what a nice change of pace this is. Because there are beautiful/scantily-clad women everywhere, it takes quite a bit to stand out from the crowd. I very much enjoyed the chance to wander around relatively unnoticed.

Now for the downside: Hawaii is not cheap. You are not necessarily going to break the bank vacationing here (unless you want to), but if you are used to paying pennies for fresh pineapple somewhere in Central America like R is, then you need to know right now that that is not the case in Hawaii. So prepare yourself.

Private waterfall in Hawaii
Horseback rides to private waterfalls are not cheap, but they are worth it.

What you should see/do on the Big Island

This was my second time visiting Hawaii and R’s first so I am not even going to pretend to be an expert on visiting the islands. Besides, there is plenty of information available on the internet and you can research to your heart’s content. What I will do is tell you a little about what we experienced on the Big Island and give a couple of recommendations. Of course, you are always welcome to contact us if you have specific questions.

  • Go to Island Lava Java in Kona and try the Kalaunu Beef Burger with the roasted garlic aioli sauce. If you can, do it while sitting outside, watching the sun set and listening to live local music. But if you cannot, I am pretty sure the burger will stand on its own.
Burger and fries--Hawaii style
The Kalaunu Beef Burger at Island Lava Java in Kona.
  • Visit the Visitor Information Station (VIS) on Maunakea…even if it is raining. It was pouring in Hilo when we began our trip up the mountain and it rained on us most of the way. But by the time you get to the VIS, you are above the cloud line and out of the rain. We did have a little fog at first, but that cleared out eventually. We did not do a summit tour so I cannot speak for that. But the set up at the VIS is very cool. I grew up in a place where the stars at night are pretty incredible and I still found this experience to be impressive as well as informative. I can only imagine how awesome this place would be if you lived in a big city and were not used to seeing the stars. Note: I recommend dressing warm. The elevation is high (9,200 feet above sea level) and once the sun goes down, you will feel it.
The Visitor Information Station (VIS) welcome sign on Maunakea.
The Visitor Information Station (VIS) on Maunakea.
  • Try the shaved iced with ice cream in the middle. It is weird and wonderful. We had some at Scandinavian Shaved Ice in Kona, but there are plenty of places all over the island where you can enjoy this treat. And trust me, it is a treat.
  • Go snorkeling—you are in Hawaii after all. I decided to bring my mask and snorkel from home but R was able to pick some up easily enough. We ended up snorkeling twice: once on the Kona side and once on the Hilo side. On the Kona side, we hiked down to the Captain Cook Monument (about two miles). A friend had highly recommended the snorkeling there and she was spot on with the recommendation. However, although the snorkeling was great, the hike back up was hot. Make sure you have enough water and sunblock. You could also opt to book with a charter boat or kayak company.
Captain Cook Monument, Hawaii
Snorkeling at the Captain Cook Monument.
Tropical Fish and Corral Reef
Looking for Nemo

On the Hilo side, we snorkeled at the Kapoho Tide Pools (officially named the Wai’opae Tidepools Marine Life Conservation District). The tide pools are easy enough to find. But then it was a little difficult to figure out just where to go in the tide pools—especially if you do not want to swim right beside someone else. We finally just decided to drop down into one of the pools (careful so as not to hurt any of the coral) and found ourselves immersed in an amazing underwater world. The snorkeling was equally good at both locations, but the tide pools are much easier to get to.

Kapoho Tide Pools
Snorkeling the Kapoho Tide Pools is a unique and fun experience.
  • Visit Volcanoes National Park. This one is kind of a no-brainer. If you are headed to the Big Island, make some time for the park. You’ll have to deal with a lot more tourists than you have anywhere else on the island, but it is worth it. Also, keep your eyes peeled for the glow from the volcano at night. We accidentally stumbled upon this little phenomenon one night while driving around. I also believe you can visit the park after dark to see it up close and personal.
  • Have breakfast at Ken’s Pancake House in Hilo. I was told Ken’s is a local institution and its busyness can attest to that. The omelet I ordered was massive! But the real winner was the passion-fruit syrup. Remember the word ‘lilikoi,’ It means passion fruit and should be ordered anytime it shows up on the menu.
Picture of Ken's menu, Hilo, Hawaii
An institution on the Big Island.

We did plenty of other stuff during our time on the Big Island (including a little horseback riding—if you dig this sort of thing, then I highly recommend you give it a try), but the list above highlights some of our favorite activities. There really is no end to the number of activities available to you. Or once again, you can choose to do nothing. That is the beauty of Hawaii.


Hawaii is an easy place to vacation. It may not be the cheapest destination, but you’ll get tropical without a lot of effort or stress. Just don’t forget your sunblock. Very few things ruin a trip faster than a nasty sunburn.