Barbecue Country

We had celebrated Stephanie’s birthday bash in two out of three planned cities, but I swear this last one was just as much, if not more, for me.  But, we’ll get back to that in a bit.

Music City, USA!  Aka… Nashville, TN.  Sounds perfect for me right?  But…what if I’m not a Country Music fan? It was clearly time to broaden my horizons.  Stephanie started me off with a trial by fire – a night in the Opryland hotel.

Wow, this place is huge. With just over 30 million rooms, it’s one of the largest hotels in the country. (Okay, 2888 rooms.)   It’s so big that the outdoor spaces are actually indoors, as the view from our balcony will show.

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After dropping our stuff, we went exploring.  There’s a canal in the central promenade area where you can actually take an indoor boat tour.  So we did.  Then we browsed around the shops.  If I was a country music fan, I would have been in heaven.

Stephanie had stayed in the Opryland Hotel eons before she met me, and she wanted to recreate the experience for me.  That experience included a Dancing Waters show.  We arrived at the right time, but after 30 minutes of waiting around, it was clear the waters would not be dancing.  There was no announcement, no apologetic hotel employee, nothing.  This wasn’t even the only incident like this.  Earlier in the afternoon we had decided to check out some of the live music happening all around the hotel.  Not being country fans, there was exactly one band we wanted to see.  We headed over to the restaurant on the schedule to find that it was closed – again with nothing to let us poor, hapless guests know.

Now, we aren’t the types to complain about things, but the lack of dancing-water-light show was a real disappointment to Stephanie, so we headed to the front desk, and found a manager.  She was very apologetic.  Even better than that, she refunded our parking fees, our gondola ride (18 bucks), and even my Moon Pie.  Extra Bonus: Despite what the manager had told us, subsequent Dancing Waters shows went off without a hitch, and we were still able to enjoy the experience!  The day was saved.

For dinner we went to the Jack Daniels restaurant on site.  We don’t usually post pictures of food, but this was fan-freakin’-tastic Southern cooking.  More importantly, Jack Daniels would factor heavily in to the future of our Nashville visit.  So feast your eyes on our feast (feastly). Man, I’m getting hungry.

One night was enough in the oh-so-points-expensive Opryland, so for the rest of our visit, we returned to our roots and went couch surfing.  Our host, Steve, was great, and pointed us to all sorts of things to see and do in Nashville.  He lived walking-distance from Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack – the original pioneer of Nashville Hot Chicken. What is hot chicken?  It’s basically friend chicken that’s been doused in hot sauce before its fried.  It was totally worth the 45 minute wait!

Some of the other Nashville highlights we enjoyed were the hip Five-Points district, where we had had some most delicious $5 slices of pizza, and Centennial Park.  Built in 1897 for Tennessee’s Centennial Exposition, the park contains a full-size replica of the Parthenon.  Inside is an art museum and a display of items from the Expo.  There’s also a nice lake to wander around, and fun swinging chairs that Stephanie loved.  We swung a LOT over our time in Nashville.

Remember when I said this part of our trip was perfect for meee?  After a few days in Nashville, the whole reason for our trip there was about to unfold.  We had timed our trip to coincide with the Annual Jack Daniel’s World Championship Invitational Barbecue.  We took a beautiful drive through rural Tennessee to Lynchburg – about 1.5 hours from Nashville.  Before getting our grill on, we toured the Jack Daniel’s distillery.  Now Stephanie and I aren’t big drinkers, and we never drink straight spirits, so it was even funnier that I had insisted on taking the version of the tour that included a flight of five different types of JD to sample.

The tour was really interesting.  Every drop of Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey is produced right there in Lynchburg.  Things we saw included making charcoal from sugar maple wood for “mellowing,”  the original natural spring that still provides all the water for the distilling process, and the famous oak barrels that are used for aging.

After touring the facility, we got to sample the product.  They gave us tiny cups with maybe a quarter shot in each one.  After finishing all the ones Stephanie didn’t like, I had a total of about a shot and a half.  This was enough to get my head pleasantly spinning.  (Did I mention what a lightweight I am?)  We did find that we liked the Tennessee Honey, so we set off to the requisite gift shop to buy some.  Ironically, Moore County where Lynchburg is located is a “dry” county, meaning that alcohol cannot legally be sold.  Somehow, Jack Daniel’s is allowed to sell you the bottle, so if some of their product happens to be inside it, well, that’s just fine with the authorities.

Good thing the Barbecue was just down the street, as I was in no shape to drive.  (Just Kidding.)  We learned that in order to blend in with the crowd in rural Tennessee, your clothing must fall into one of the following categories: Harley Davidson, mossy oak camouflage, or Alabama Crimson Tide.  All kidding aside, the barbecue was a lot of fun, and had been on my hit list for almost 20 years.  In order for a barbecue team to be invited to compete, they must win a state championship of at least 25 competitors.  This is an extremely prestigious event that featured over 100 grilling teams from all over the world.

At the Barbecue, we met up with Stephanie’s Aunt & Uncle.  Gail and Bob live in Huntsville, AL, which is about as close to Lynchburg as Nashville.    Even better, Stephanie’s Aunt Gail knew someone on one of the barbecue teams.  We went over to say hi after the judging was over, and were treated to some of the best Gol-Durned brisket I’ve ever had.  We found out later that their team came in 8th place.  Not too shabby!

Back in Nashville, I couldn’t escape it any longer.  It was time to go listen to some country music.  We headed to downtown Nashville and the Honky Tonk Highway.

This stretch of Lower Broadway is one country bar after another, and the bands there all work for tips, so there are no cover charges.  You’re free to wander in and out of different venues soaking up as much of Music City as you like.  Now, I feel about as at home in a country bar as I did in the principal’s office in elementary school, but I have to say, I had a really good time.  We saw some fun acts, and I found myself getting into it and wanting to stay longer than either of us thought we would.  We even came across a horn band comprised of kids called Pelican 212, featuring mini Blues Brothers as the front men who were R-O-C-K-I-N’ the street.  My favorite, though, was the last act we saw: a country/rockabilly crossover featuring a stand-up bass player.

VIDEO: Countrified G’nR
VIDEO: Pelican 212
VIDEO: Truck Drivin’ Man – Rockabilly Style

One day to go, so we went to Monell’s for lunch.  This place is similar to Mrs. Wilkes’ Boarding House in Savannah.  You are seated with whomever enters the restaurant at the same time as you, and you enjoy family-style dining as plate after plate of amazing Southern cooking is passed around the table.

After consuming my body weight in killer food, we worked it off at Shelby Bottoms park where we went for a long walk and a short nap before renting bikes and taking in the scenery.

Our last night in Nashville, and we couldn’t leave without seeing some more live music.  Our couch surfing host, Steve, is in about 30 bands (Okay, 6), and his glam band, Lipstick, was playing that night.  Before we got to see him play, though, we had to suffer through the God-Awful opening act.  Remember in back in high school the stoner/metal head guys who thought it would be cool to form a band?  Well this was them.  The first thing they did was proclaim that they played “HEAVY F–KIN’ METAL!”  Seriously, these guys were a caricature.  Here’s a pic to sum it all up:

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HEAVY F–KIN’ METAL!

Lipstick was pretty good, though.  It’s always fun to watch a band and go “Hey I know that guy on the bass!”  It was a good thing we were there, too.  One of the people they depended on to open their set was AWOL, so I got to fill in as mad-scientist dog, Dr. Woofenstein.

VIDEO: The awful metal band (spoiler alert: sucky cliche enclosed)
VIDEO: ME as Dr. Woofenstein
VIDEO: Lipstick

I *knew* I loved barbecue.  I had never even heard of the Opryland Hotel.  And I was pretty sure I hated country music.  But in the end, the 3rd city in Stephanie’s Birthday Tour turned out to be a huge hit!

A Birthday Bundle o’ Treats

It was September and we were happy just hanging out in our home in Cuenca, Ecuador.  But Fall was looming, and my only job was to pick out what I wanted to do for my birthday.  What a job!  So much fun, yet so overwhelming – there were so many choices!  I kept waiting, looking for last-minute travel deals, since that is one of the things I’m best at.  We considered a few different deals that came along, but in the end, I chose a partially familiar trip full of fun for both of us.

Four years ago, when we left our careers and traveled around the world, three months of that travel entailed a driving trip across the good ole’ USA.  Our first stop was Chicago – a city we love – to attend Chicago Seminars: a frequent traveler, points and mile collecting conference.  Well, this conference occurs every year, same time and place, and we hadn’t attended *any* points and miles conferences in the past four years.  With the way things had been going in 2016 in the points and miles world (poorly, if you aren’t aware), I figured it was time.  There’s less and less shared on the internet these days about points and miles collecting (because the more people who learn about and participate in a deal, the quicker the deal seems to get shut down), and meeting people in person is the way to go.

So our first stop was Chicago!  This time we flew from Ecuador.  We stayed downtown our first night, using points for what turned out to be a great hotel.  The Holiday Inn Chicago-Mart Plaza River North is situated right in the heart of things and literally sits on top of the Chicago Sun Times building.  We had space and windows and views out the wazoo!  Naturally I took about a billion photos before we even left our hotel room.

This is the outside of our hotel

Chicago Sun-times – the outside of our hotel

When we did leave, we walked up the street to an OfficeMax, where ironically, we took advantage of a deal to earn a bunch of points and miles!  But by that night we were acting like normal folks, getting together with our long-time friend Tamara who used to live and work with us in Philly, for an amazing pizza at famous Giordano’s.  I was in heaven.  I would like one of these pizzas every day for the rest of my life, please!

With Tamara at Giordano's

With Tamara at Giordano’s – Look at that PIZZA!!!

The next day we took the train out to the suburbs of O’hare and stayed in another nice hotel, this time the Sheraton Suites Chicago Elk Grove.  Our room was a beautiful suite with a living room, bedroom, bathroom, and bar area that make you want to just hang out inside the hotel all day.  Of course with a conference to attend, we had very little time to enjoy the hotel, but we did eat breakfast there each day, and I managed to get an early morning swim in one morning.

The Chicago Seminars Conference was awesome.  I won’t go into a lot of detail, since there are many other bloggers who have already done that, and have done a much better job than I could ever do.  Most of our readers aren’t looking for the nitty-gritty of points and miles collecting.  That said, we met a ton of great new people, as well as some new bloggers, and we reconnected with a couple of old faces from four years ago.  There were enough advanced sessions to keep me happy despite it being more of a beginner/intermediate level conference, and Elliott was only overwhelmed once or twice when we accidentally sent him to a too-advanced session.  And we came away with some great new tips, and great inspiration.  There were some individuals who make my craziness appear novice, and I loved getting the details of what they do and how they do it.  Mission accomplished!

The next leg of my birthday journey was also a familiar one.  We rented a car in Chicago this time, and drove once again from Chicago to Wisconsin Dells, just like in 2012.  This time it wasn’t a surprise, but we headed to the exact same destination – Chula Vista Resort.  Wisconsin is famous for its indoor water parks, and I’d had such a blast four years ago, I decided I wanted to play in a water park once again on my birthday.  Can you blame me?  As an October birthday kid, I never got to have birthday parties in a water park!

We stayed two nights and had a great time playing in the water park all day both days.  It has great water slides, tube rides for one and for two, and a huge bucket of water that slowly fills and eventually dumps right on you if you stand in the right place.  My favorite rides are the tubes that are at least partially in the dark, and where you have a chance of spinning around as you go down, but I really love them all!  When we needed a rest, there was always my other favorite, the Lazy River.

One unique thing about our stay this time was that we decided to participate in a sales pitch.  We were told it was not a timeshare, but rather a discount program, and in return for our two hours, we’d get a bunch of food vouchers.  Food?  We like food.  We were in.

Anyone who has ever listened to a timeshare presentation knows they love to go longer than the promised 1-2 hours, and our biggest concern was losing precious time in the water park.  But these guys had found a way to make us all happy.  Before the presentation officially began, our salesperson took us out to breakfast.  So while he did start the sales talk here and there during breakfast, we didn’t care since we were eating a delicious meal.  Afterwards he stayed within his time limit, and once his manager realized we weren’t buying, they couldn’t THROW us out of there fast enough.  We were happy to oblige, having enough food vouchers in our hands to buy our meals for the entire stay!

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Happy Birthday to ME!

On our last morning we woke up early and drove as the sun rose, back to Chicago.  All in all it was a great way to spend my birthday week.  Chicago, one of my favorite cities – good.  Pizza and friends – always good.  Points and miles?  Extra good.  Indoor water park and free food for two days – super good.  And somehow, there was still more to come!  But the last part was built in for the love of my life.

Alohomora, Hogwarts

Warning: If you’re not a Harry Potter nerd, some of this entry will not feel as magical to you (see what I did there?) as it might otherwise.   But you should read it anyway.

We had been to Universal Studios, Orlando several years ago soon after they opened the Wizarding World of Harry Potter (WWoHP), and we were amazed with how it felt like stepping into the movies.  Now, if you can believe it, it’s even better!  Universal has two parks in Orlando: the classic Universal Studios, and Islands of Adventure.  The “original” Harry Potter section is in Islands of Adventure, and recreates the village of Hogsmeade.  Now they’ve added Diagon Alley to Universal Studios, and if you have the multi-park pass, you can ride the Hogwarts Express (train) between the two.

But before we get to how bloody brilliant the whole WWoHP is, let’s introduce the other recurring characters in this week’s episode.  If you’ve been following our travels, you met my brother Erik when we went to Dubai together last year.  This time he joined us in Orlando with his girlfriend, Ryan, who may be an even bigger Harry Potter geek than me.

Okay, so Orlando.  Universal Studios is much smaller than Disney World, and so it’s possible to stay offsite, and walk to the front gate in about 20 minutes.  Even better, our offsite hotel was on a local, Orlando bus route from the airport.  So instead of $40 each to take a shuttle, two bucks on the bus took us right there. Yay budget travel!

Erik and Ryan wouldn’t be joining us for a couple of days, but we weren’t about to wait.  We woke up early and headed straight for Islands of Adventure.  You’re supposed to be able to get inside an hour early if you’re staying on site, and we found they don’t check tickets very thoroughly (if at all).  Just act like you belong, and they’ll wave you in with a theme-park-y smile.

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That’s why we’re here!

Hogsmeade was just as we remembered it; covered with permanent snow, and filled with magic.  The biggest attraction there is called Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, and your journey takes place inside Hogwarts castle.  The line is often over 75 minutes long.  We walked right on.  Five times!  It is seriously an awesome ride.

Then we decided that maybe we should check out some other stuff in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.  One of my favorite rides is the Harry Potter Dragon Challenge, where two suspended roller coasters (“inverted” to coaster aficionados) twist and wind through each other. This used to be called Dueling Dragons before this section of the park was transformed into the WWoHP.  Unfortunately, however, they have discontinued the best part: The two trains used to be weighed before dispatch, and were started at different times so they hit a pair of outside loops at the same moment.  It made you feel like you were going to collide until in the last minute, you spun up and over with your feet seemingly inches from the riders of the other train.  Even though there was never any real danger OR any accidents, the officials decided that if a shoe flew off someone’s foot at the wrong moment, it would be bad. For them. In a litigious sort of way.

The ride is still a blast, and there is so much to see and do in Hogsmeade that there’s no point crying over spilled pumpkin juice.  We visited Ollivander’s and watched a wand choose a wizard (read: kid selected out of the crowd). We wandered through Honeyduke’s sweet shop and tried not to buy everything.  Did I mention the Hogwart’s Forbidden Journey ride is one of the most amazing theme park attractions we’ve ever been on? (Five times in a row?!)

We visited many other lands in Islands of Adventure that day too.  We took Stephanie to Seuss Landing where we acted like kids, and shamelessly rode the Caro-Suess-el on strange Dr. Seuss characters.  We went to Marvel Comics Land, and rode Stephanie’s favorite coaster – The Incredible Hulk.  And we went on soaking water rides to cool off from the heat of the day.

The next day it rained.  Actually, it poured. It hammered.  It was like a Biblical, 40-days-and-40-nights style storm was on us.  So we decided to take a day off from the parks.  It was a difficult decision to make on Day 2 of our trip, but it was just as well because Stephanie had a plan to do something incredibly unlike her.  She wanted to watch all eight Harry Potter movies in the week we would be in Orlando.  We only had park passes for four days, but that’s still a tall undertaking.  (I’m pleased to report that we knocked out all eight of them in three days.)

Day three: the skies were clear, and we were ready.  Right about now, you may be asking yourself what about Erik and Ryan?  Where are they?  Well, this is the day that they met up with us.  If you thought Stephanie’s eight-movies-in-three-days plan was crazy, get a load of this:  Erik and Ryan were taking a 6:00 am flight from Philly, and were going to meet us in the parks by about 9:00.  Or so they told us.  We know all too well what travel is like, and headed off to Universal Studios to check out Diagon Alley.  We figured we’d catch up with them by noon or so.

If Hogsmeade was amazing, then Diagon Alley was Jaw-dropping, mind-blowingly incredible.  After entering from a non-descript street entrance, Diagon Alley unfolds in front of you looking exactly like the movie, complete with rakishly angled walls and glaring wizard colors. At the end of the street is Gringott’s – the wizarding bank, looking exactly like it does in the movies.  The dragon on top even breathes fire periodically. (We caught it on video.)  This building houses the only attraction in Diagon Alley – Escape From Gringott’s – a 4-D adventure/thrill ride that does not disappoint.

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Diagon Alley


We rode it a few times, but did not explore Diagon Alley in too much detail since Erik and Ryan were on their way.  Instead, we rode a few other Universal attractions, while we waited.  They obligingly gave us plenty of time by rolling up around 1:00pm.  But at last they were there, and the Harry Pottering could begin in earnest.

We checked out the Knight Bus, and chatted with Stan Shunpike (the conductor) and the shrunken head hanging from the rearview mirror. We browsed in Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes – the joke shop run by Ron Weasley’s older brothers Fred and George.  We had a seat on Sirius Black’s flying motorcycle, and found the entrance to Knockturn Alley – a dodgy place where you can find all kinds of Dark magic items at Borgin & Burkes.  We also had a butterbeer, and some of the best ice cream I’ve ever had at Florean Fortescue’s ice cream parlor.

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With Stan Shunpike at the Knight Bus

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Stephanie will love it here!

The next few days found us back in the parks, back in the rain (at times) and back in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. (Also watching more movies whenever we could fit them in!)

We went on several rides based on Universal movies including Men in Black, the Simpsons, and the very cheesy, yet irresistible E.T.  We even played in the world of Curious George.

We also went on the Mummy – an indoor roller coaster based on the movie starring Brendan Fraser.  Okay, I know I said the Dragon Challenge was my favorite ride at Universal, but THIS is really my favorite.  It’s got the right blend of campiness and thrills, and is too much fun not to ride over and over again.  (“Are you insane?!  Get out of here!  The Curse!  It’s real!!”)

As a dyed-in-the-wool Disney fan, I have to say that Universal Studios can really hold its own, and even excels over Disney in one important area: A four-day pass to Universal is cheaper than two days Disney World.  And before you could say “finite incantatum,” it seemed we were bidding Universal Studios (and Erik & Ryan) farewell, and went for one last good time in Orlando.

We originally met our friends Ben and Caitlin in Cuenca and got very close with them in the three months they lived there.  Now, having finished their South American travels, they live once again in Orlando.  We spent one night at their place catching up and enjoying each other’s company, and then it was time to return to Ecuador (with cricket flour protein bars as a souvenir from Ben).

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With Ben & Caitlin

Quickstop: Seattle…and our first Mileage Run

If Amtrak was going to drop us off in Seattle, we might as well spend a day or two, right?  We got back to our roots by couch surfing which we hadn’t done for a long time.  It felt really good to stay with a total stranger again.  If you’ve never tried it before, that probably sounds a little weird, but we like meeting new people and making new friends.  It’s also nice to be reminded that there are humans who are good to each other for no reason.

After getting to our couch surfing host and getting to know him, our first downtown stop had to be that classic Seattle institution – Cow Chip Cookies.  We sampled these cookies last time we were in Seattle, and couldn’t wait to come back for more.  They’re as delicious as they are pricey – a gooey, chocolatey splurge.

But this is a post about Seattle, not cookies, so let’s continue…

But this is a post about Seattle, not cookies, so let’s continue….Our host suggested we go to the top of the Columbia Tower, rather than the Space Needle.  We decided to go for it.  Once we got to the 40th floor though, we decided not to shell out the large ticket price.  There were huge windows everywhere, and glass doors in front of them, so we could see the city views from where we were!  After a covert snapshot or two, we returned to street-level and headed off to the Seattle Central Library Library.

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At least the brochure is free

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Looks impressive, even from the lobby

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Yup, that’s Seattle alright

The library is an architectural marvel, so we were excited to finally go inside.  My favorite feature was the “book spiral.”  Four of the upper floors have a continuous ramp that slowly spirals you through the Dewey Decimal System without ever having to take stairs or an elevator to another floor. We also loved the magazine archives which have issues from pretty much every magazine you’ve ever heard of (and a good deal of those you haven’t).  We had fun looking up birthday issues, and Stephani even found the very issue of Arizona Highways magazine that made her fall in love with  and almost move to Arizona many years ago (she’s moved on).

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Inside the library

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Looking down at the floor waaay below

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Stephanie’s birthday issue

Up next was the Seattle Underground Tour.  Here’s the short story: Seattle was originally built on marshy wetlands that had a tendency to flood.  After a devastating fire, the decision was made to rebuild Seattle a little higher (kind of like the underground tunnels in the Magic Kingdom) in order to avoid future flooding.  The original streets were shored up with concrete walls, and new streets were built overhead so that what was once the second floor of a building was now at street level.  This left a whole warren of underground tunnels which are full of all kinds of history – including the gravity-fed flush toilet which was new to Seattle, and invented by one Thomas Crapper.  (For real!)

That evening, we caught up with our friend, Josh.  We both used to work with him in Philly before he relocated to Seattle.  We spent the evening playing games and reliving old times.  And just like that, our time in Seattle was over.  All that was left now was a mileage run on our way home.

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What’s a mileage run? Well I’m glad you asked.  A mileage run is when you take a very cheap flight just to rack up the miles.  Usually this is done to achieve status with an airline.  This time, we had a different goal.  JetBlue was offering 75,000 points if you (a) had at least 50,000 points with Virgin Atlantic (the competition!), and (b) took any round trip flight with JetBlue. I have always wanted to take a mileage run flight before, but we never found one we could take that we deemed worthwhile.  Until now!

jetblue

We do too

Okay, stay with me… our ticket home from Seattle had a long layover in Oakland.  We used that time to take a 45 JetBlue minute flight to Long Beach, California and then another back to Oakland.  This cost us about 75 bucks, and earned us 75,000 JetBlue miles.  Each!  After that, it was just a matter of flying home to Philly and spending almost five whole days(!) trying to catch our breath before heading out on our next adventure.

Railroad Redux

That was fun, let’s do it again!

We had such a great time on our last overnight Amtrak trip that we couldn’t wait to do it again.  Again, we were taking one of Amtrak’s most scenic routes – the Coast Starlight from Los Angeles to Seattle.

Since we came directly from our return flight from Hawaii, we arrived at Union Station with several hours to go before our train.  We were just settling in for the wait when I decided to check at the Amtrak window to get our boarding passes printed out… just in case we needed them.  The Amtrak lady saw that we had sleeper accommodations booked, and said “Oh honey, you don’t need to be down here.  You’re first class.  There’s a lounge you can wait in.” Wow! First class. As a budget traveler, I must admit I liked how that sounded – mostly because lounges come with free Wi-Fi (for Stephanie) and food (for me).  We headed up to the lounge and relaxed with free Wi-Fi and food until it was time to board our train.

Our roomette was just as we remembered it, so we left our things there and went to check out the Parlour car.  Amtrak’s Coast Starlight is the only train in their system that features the Pacific Parlour Car.  It’s like the Sightseer Lounge Car, but for sleeper (read: First Class) passengers only. The Parlour features the same panoramic windows, but has more luxurious seating, unique food options, and Wi-Fi.  The car itself is a genuine railroad relic from the 50s, refurbished and styled in luxury. It wasn’t all wood-paneling-and-velvet, Victorian luxury, but there was enough brass and heavy drapery to let me pretend.  There’s even a small cinema on the lower level.

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A holdover from the golden age of Railroad travel

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The Pacific Parlour Car

We opted for lunch in the Parlour Car (Asian salad), and spent the morning enjoying the real reason we booked this journey – California’s gorgeous coastline.  The Coast Starlight hugs the Pacific coast from Santa Barbara to San Luis Obispo, and is one of their most sought-after routes.

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The Asian Salad was giant and delicious!

 

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Say goodbye to Hollywood – see the sign?

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Looking the other way

After San Luis Obispo, we turned inland, and the views grew more mountainous while I turned my attention to more serious pursuits.

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A farm in the desert with mountains behind

That evening we watched a beautiful sunset before Stephanie surprised me by saying we should go watch a movie in the on-board cinema.  (The movie was The Martian, and it was made more enjoyable by the fact that we were watching it on a speeding train.)

That night, our roomette was already turned down for us and set up for bed.  Again we squeezed into a lower-bunk meant for one person, and let the soothing swaying of the train put us to sleep.  We woke up to a chilly morning in Klamath Falls, Oregon, just in time to stretch our legs.

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Even the train is smiling

As the train made its way north, we passed duck ponds, glacial lakes, and some rural Pacific-Northwest living before arriving in Seattle that evening.

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Which one should I drive?

We’ve pretty much used up our Amtrak points, so it doesn’t look like we’ll be doing this again in the near future, but I keep nagging Stephanie to start racking them up again.  Yes, train travel is slower and can even be more expensive than air travel, but there is something relaxing and romantic about it, and we’d love to do it again someday.

Hawaii Wrap-up

So, where were we?  Oh yes… the Big Island of Hawaii.  By now, our lava photos and videos have had some time to cool, so we’ll fill you in on the rest of our time on the island.  Although, compared to live, flowing lava, well…what can compare?

Along with Ann, we took a Kayak through Kealakekua Bay to the Captain Cook Monument.  We had done this before but it was Ann’s first time, and it is always a lovely kayak trip.  This is a protected area, so unless we wanted to pay way too much for a permit, we were not allowed to actually land anywhere.  No problem.  The bay is protected, so all we had to do was let our kayaks float around by themselves while we snorkeled.

Considering how many people snorkel here, the reef is in really great condition with more fish than you ever knew you could see in one place. And while we’re talking about Hawaiian reef fish, let’s just settle a little debate right now.  The Hawaiian Black Triggerfish – also called Huma Huma ‘ele ‘ele – is a (mostly) black fish with w-h-i-t-e stripes.  These stripes are not blue, despite the clear, Hawaiian waters making them look as though they are.  I’m just sayin… (They are *so* blue – Stephanie.)

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He has spots, but the stripes are white

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Back in the saddle again

Next up was the Painted Church in Honaunau.  This church has hand painted frescoes on the inside depicting various scenes from the bible.  Personally, my favorites were the columns painted to look like palm trees.  Stephanie’s favorite was the big, beautiful golden-colored dog sleeping under the pews.  That was a first!

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Only in Hawaii

And of course, no visit to Kona would be complete without touring a coffee plantation – Greenwell Coffee Farms to be exact.  Kona coffee is only grown in a narrow section of the eastern coast of the Big Island where the rain and sun are (almost) always predictable and reliable.  We had an exuberant and informative guide show us around the plantation, as he explained the history and practices of the farm.  Since Greenwell doesn’t roast the beans themselves, they don’t put their name on it, but many places that offer Kona coffee use Greenwell’s beans. This might’ve been Barry’s favorite stop on the island.  After the tour, we spotted a cool iguana trying to hide in a tree right in front of where the car was parked.

In the evening we went out to dinner where the road on which we were staying ended at the sea.  Now, dinner out is not such a remarkable thing.  What is remarkable though is the Hawaiian sunset we enjoyed while we ate.

The next day, we drove north of Kona to visit Kaloko National Historic Park which features some fish ponds.   These manmade enclosures were created by the ancient Hawaiians to let the fish in, but only let the seawater out.  As we hiked along the sandy beach trail to the second fish pond, I spotted at least seven sea turtles swimming near the water’s edge, in each direction!  Too bad the clear water didn’t last all the way back to the swimming area.  At Honokohau harbor, we went snorkeling around the third fish pond in the murky water.  We couldn’t see much, but we did spot a couple of the obligatory sea turtles.  Stephanie swam way out into the deeper water and finally found some clarity and a bunch more fish.

The next morning we got up early and drove north again, this time all the way to Kohala.  The big draw in Kohala was riding inflatable kayaks through the old irrigation ditches.  These ditches were originally designed to bring water from the rainy mountaintops throughout the sugar cane plantations.  Now that the cane fields aren’t really in use anymore, the trenches make for a fun, leisurely ride through mountain forests and hand-carved tunnels.  The ditches were surrounded by leafy vegetation and picturesque waterfalls.  The tunnels, some of which were quite long with low ceilings, were our favorite parts.  The water on the wet shiny stone made it look as if they were coated in tiny jewels inside.

The company we went with is called Flumin’ Kohala, and our guides were great.  They were knowledgeable and very funny, filling us in on plenty of local Hawaiian jokes.  They admitted the ride through the ditches and tunnels was free before someone got the smart idea of selling it to us tourists.  And at one point our guide even grabbed us some guava right off the tree.  Mmm, mmm fresh!

After a quick lunch across the street from the King Kamehameha III statue, we visited Lakapahi State Park.  We took a self-guided tour of the ancient Hawaiian ruins there.  The site was on a hillside leading down to crystal blue water, and the hike was sweltering.  We grabbed our bathing suits before leaving and cooled off in the ocean.

That evening the four of us drove up Mauna Kea – the tallest mountain on the island – for an evening star program.  Wouldn’t you know it, that particular night featured low cloud cover which blocked the stars for hours?  We did get to see a great movie about Mauna Kea, which went into the animal and plant life on the volcano, as well as the conflicts that have arisen among scientists and local Hawaiians as they try to share the mountain for their differing interests.  By the time we could see the stars, it was very late and very cold, despite it being a relatively “warm” time of year.  We did get to look at a couple of planets through telescopes.  Personally, I never get tired of Saturn and its rings.

On our last full day we were pretty tired of heavy-duty activities, so we did something a little more low key.  We went to tour the Ocean Rider Seahorse Farm, which we had heard about from our niece, who learned about it from a friend in school back home!  These guys are dedicated to raising seahorses in captivity for sale to the pet trade.  This prevents them from being threatened in the wild, and apparently we were pretty clueless about exactly how threatening the sea horse trade has been to these innocent creatures of the sea.  As a bonus, we were able to “hold” a seahorse.  They curl their little tails around your fingers and just hang out there for a bit.  It’s really pretty cute, no matter how grown up you are.

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Good little seahorse

In the afternoon we did some snorkeling with Ann at a very local black-sand beach.  At first we swam way out deep along the side of the beach, and it turned out there wasn’t much reef there.  We did see a couple of unique new things, though.  When we swam back to the center of the beach and not so far out, we actually found a higher concentration of fish, and, guess what?  Sea turtles!!  It was a nice relaxing wrap-up to a nonstop month of Hawaiian activities.

On our very last day we watched the sun set from the Kona Airport before flying back to the Mainland.  Even the airport can be beautiful on Hawaii!

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Thanks for visiting. Come back to Hawaii soon!

Lava, Lava Everywhere!

Welcome to our adventure with red, hot lava.  We’ve got photos, we’ve got videos, we’ve got a story.  Stick with us through this post and we promise you won’t be disappointed!!


Stephanie: Ever since our first visit to the Big Island of Hawaii, it has been my goal to get us out to see flowing red lava up close. Just before we had left the Mainland, Elliott asked if the lava was accessible this time. Kilauea volcano has been erupting steadily since 1983, but often the flow is underground or inaccessible.

Elliott: “Do we really need our hiking boots? Can’t we just do our hikes in Tevas? If we’ll only need our boots if we are hiking to red hot lava, can’t we just check and see the status of the eruption before we leave Philly?”

Stephanie: I informed him that even if the lava wasn’t accessible today, that didn’t mean it wouldn’t be accessible in three weeks when we arrived on the Big Island. Things change very quickly there.

Just a few days after we arrived on Maui, we heard another tourist mention hiking to the lava. I checked with him to make sure he meant active, flowing lava. We had arrived in Hawaii on July 23rd, and the flow had become accessible to hiking on July 26th. I was beside myself!

Elliott: “Good thing we brought those hiking boots!”

We were determined to go see it. Now that we were back on the Big Island, it looked like we were finally going to get our chance. But first, a little background information is in order.

The National Park Service does not try to stop people from hiking to the lava. Instead, they advise that you be in shape, bring tons of water and a flashlight, etc…. Much better than the standard American Way of saying “Oh, you might stub your toe, so a 15 square mile area is closed to the public.” We did have a run-in with a Fear-Of-God salesman on our first day, though. This guy works for our vacation club, and does a talk on the activities available on the island. Usually, we don’t bother with this sort of thing, preferring to figure it out on our own, but they offered free breakfast, so what the heck.

Stephanie: This guy was a completely sleazy sales guy, the type who scares you so bad you have no other choice than to pay him to guide you safely to everything you want to see. I was ready to leave within about two minutes of listening to him.

Elliott: He started by telling us how terrifyingly dangerous it is to hike out to lava. You could get lost and wander the lava wastelands forever. You could crack through the surface and boil in a fiery lake of hot lava for eternity. (Can I get a Hallelujah, brothers and sisters?) Even driving on the island was a life-in-your-hands activity; you could get in a horrific car accident and spend the only vacation you may ever take in your life in a hospital. Fortunately, he had a solution to all this doom and gloom. He informed us that the BEST way to see the lava was to take a $500 helicopter tour, and get a real nice view from several hundred feet in the air. Oh, and none of that troublesome walking was necessary. His tours were designed to pick us lazy Americans up at our door, so we wouldn’t ruin our vacation by actually having to do something for ourselves. Why am I telling you all this? To show you how easy it ended up being to do this on our own.

Stephanie: Easy? Maybe. But it took a lot of planning and a lot of driving to do this as a day-trip from the west side of the island.

Elliott: Right. Ann, Stephanie and I opted to leave at 4:00 am. This would give us plenty of time to make the 2-hour drive from Kona to the end of Chain of Craters road–

Stephanie: Which you slept through, while Ann and I navigated in the dark fog and rain–

Elliott: to hike the four miles to the actual lava flow, and still beat the heat of the day. We also brought snacks, six liters of water and two liters of Gatorade to keep us hydrated. It turns out we were WAY over-prepared.

Stephanie: Over-prepared? Maybe. But it’s always better to be over-prepared than under-prepared. Besides, we didn’t know what type of terrain we’d be hiking these eight miles on – gravel road, or newish hardened lava? It makes a huge difference (1.5 vs 2.5 hours, each way) and it wasn’t clear from the information online.

Elliott: We did luck out in that respect. At the end of Chain of Craters Road in the national park, there is a 4-mile, emergency-access road. The lava happened to be flowing above-ground, right across this road and then into the ocean. This means that the bulk of our hike was on the gravel road with no chance whatsoever of getting lost. It also meant we could go faster since we wouldn’t be clambering over an unmarked lava field.

Four miles later, at the end of the gravel road, a rope had been strung across it to let us know that we weren’t supposed to go any further. We took it as a sign that we were headed the right way and ignored it.

Stephanie: I think it was there to discourage us from going further forward in that direction. The road had been consumed by lava at that point from some former eruption anyway. But it didn’t stop us from going right or left. First, we followed the rope about 100 yards to the right, over the lava, to the coast where we had a much more intimate view of the lava waterfalls that we had seen from the ship two weeks before. This was our first view of red lava (sans zoom lens), and it was amazing, but this was not what I was going for.

Elliott: Beautiful, but not good enough. The lava was underground, and only broke the surface when it got to the edge of the cliff. We wanted to get right up to it, but the clouds of steam mixed with sulfuric acid made us keep our distance. So we returned to the end of the rope and decided to head inland to find the flow. Ann left us to our own devices, as we started off following the heat shimmer.

Stephanie: This time, we really were clambering over fairly fresh, silvery-black lava. As we followed the heat, we would feel the ground to see if it was getting hot. As we got closer, I found the glow of fresh lava deep in a crevice, and showed it to Elliott. I could feel how close we were getting!

There were two other hikers nearby, and we started working as group to find the red stuff. We were all looking in different directions, stepping quickly now. We were investigating any place that had steam coming out of it, felt extra hot, or appeared to be lighter in silver than the other areas. It was tough because we’d be sure we were there, and we’d stare hard at the silver, waiting for red to poke through. When nothing happened, we’d carefully test the strength of the lava we were about to step on, realize it was hard lava, move on and start all over again. We had to find it, so we’d look for the next spot, and the next. And then we finally saw it. Red!

Elliott: The actual lava was less than a half mile from the end of the road, and is probably the most amazing natural phenomenon I have seen in my life. It would ooze from the ground like bright orange toothpaste, and immediately start to cool once it hit the air. As the lava cooled it turned a sparkly silver color which would eventually settle into the familiar black of the Hawaiian lava fields. We could stand about five feet from it and watch it flow while feeling the heat from the liquid rock. LIQUID ROCK! You really don’t think about what that means until you’re seeing it with your own eyes. This is rock at a temperature of 2200°!! When we would stand right next to it for a photo, it was like stepping into a blast furnace. If I wanted to keep my eyelashes and leg hair, I could only stand there for a few seconds. Take a look…

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Us and the lava

VIDEO: Filling the Crack

Stephanie: What he said. This is seriously the best experience we’ve ever had!!!!

It got better with time, too. It’s nerve-wracking because you know how dangerous it is, yet the lava keeps changing and making new shapes, forms, waves, and even lava “falls.” I didn’t want to leave. Elliott and the two other guys were ready to go before I was. But I insisted on staying, and I’m so glad we did. The lava flows kept getting bigger and better!

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Filling the crevice

VIDEO: Lava in the Crack (good one!)

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Oozing out

VIDEO: Best Oozing

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Fresh breakout

VIDEO: Big Dramatic Lava Flow (awesome!)

The other cool thing was that we stayed so long, that this entire triangular area got filled with the lava. Originally we were standing in it, having these other guys take photos and videos of us. 20 minutes later, we were taking photos and video of brand new lava that was now covering the areas we had been standing on! Amazing!

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Damn, that’s hot!

Elliott: Wow! That was seriously amazing. If you have a chance to get up close to flowing lava, take it. It’s like nothing you’ve ever seen.

Stephanie: Take it even if you have to hike five hours each way (which we didn’t). I don’t care – I would do it. It’s incredible. Just be prepared – it is exciting, exhilarating and yes, definitely dangerous. Use common sense though and you should be fine.

On our hike back, we helped coach lots of people on what they were about to encounter, how to prepare for it, and how to find it. We had fun betting on which people would make it all the way to the red stuff.

Elliott: On the drive back up Chain of Craters Road, we stopped with Ann at the Thurston Lava Tube. Lava tubes are like long caves formed when new lava flows beneath the surface, and hardens on the outside edges of the tube, allowing the red lava to flow out and create a lasting space. The Thurston Lava tube is a bit more tourist-y than some we’ve seen before (like the one on the Galapagos Islands), but worth a stop.

We rounded out our volcano-oriented day with a stop at the Jaggar Museum in Volcano National Park for a view of the Halem’uma’u crater of Kilauea. (I looked for information on Mick Jagger in the museum, but there was none. They need to rename that place.) There’s isn’t much to see at the crater. There is a lake of lava inside, but it is well below the surface, and cannot be seen except from the air.

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Halem’uma’u Crater

Stephanie: The crater is much better when viewed at night. While Elliott was still sleeping and we were approaching the area of Volcanoes National Park, I woke him up to show him the glow of the lava coming up from that crater, and reflecting on the clouds. It was really cool, and you see that same glow all night.

The Jagger Museum has a lot of great exhibits as well – definitely worth checking out to learn about the volcano and lava you’re viewing.

Elliott: After all the volcano-ing, I’d say the day was pretty full. We spent the rest of it driving back to the west side of the island, relaxing, soaking in the hot tub, and wondering how the rest of our time on the Big Island would ever measure up to being close enough to flowing red lava to dip our toes in. (Editor’s note: Dipping your toes into flowing lava is a very bad idea, and we are not liable if you actually do it.)