The Other Side of the Islands

We had just spent a fabulous week on Kulhudhuffushi getting to know the real Maldives when a dilemma set in.  Remember that overnight ferry ride that started our visit here?  It turns out that the ferry does not run every day between Kulhudhuffushi and the airport.  In order to make our flight, we would have to leave three days early, and basically wait at the airport for those three days.  The airport at Male is on its own little island. (Pretty much everything in the Maldives is on its own island.)

Stephanie being the Queen of Travel™ worked her magic and came up with a plan.  We were going to use some of our stash of SPG points (now Marriott) to stay for two nights at the Sheraton Maldives Full Moon Resort & Spa. We took the overnight ferry again, got to the airport early, and relaxed for a few hours in the airport lounge (Yay credit card benefits!) while we waited for our boat to the Sheraton.

Sheraton Full Moon Resort & Spa

Sheraton Maldives Full Moon Resort & Spa

As soon as we got there, it was as if we were in another world.  As the boat pulled in, the staff was lined up waving at the newcomers like something out of Fantasy Island.  They gave us complimentary drinks and cold towels while we waited to check in.

Then came the best part:  When she made the booking, Stephanie had mentioned that it was our anniversary.  While checking in the staff decided to see if they could find something nice for us.  Boy did they!  We were upgraded to a club-level over-water bungalow!!  This never happens, not even to platinum, super-elite, ultra-mega diamond members.  Our over-water bungalow (or OVB as it’s known in the travel biz) featured a tub with a panoramic view of the sea, a deck with a private plunge pool for two, and a ladder that descends right into the water for snorkeling.  There were only 20 of this room type in the entire resort, and one happened to be available for our two nights.  I don’t want to spoil it for when you stay here, but here are some photos…

We dropped off our bags and were taken via golf cart to the club lounge where they were serving breakfast.  Breakfast at the regular buffet was $30 per person, but the lounge had a smaller buffet and even eggs cooked to order.

We strolled back to our room to get settled in…

…and within minutes, there was a knock at the door.  The resort sent us an anniversary gift consisting of a cake, some little snacks and a bottle of champagne (as if the OVB wasn’t enough).  We were starting to feel like the rich and famous.

294 Free yummies from the resort

All this in the first few hours!  We then headed over to the lagoon and made use of the stand-up paddleboards.  Stephanie loves this sport.  After nearly an hour we switched it up for a kayak.

That afternoon, we headed down the ladder to visit the fish.  They were everywhere.

Every evening, they feed the reef sharks in the lagoon.  You can wade in ankle deep, and the sharks will swim around you snapping up bits of fish tossed in the water by the staff.  The sharks are so interested in the food, we followed the guide’s example and went barefoot in the water with them!


Video – feeding the sharks

The next day was basically the same thing:  more snorkeling, more paddleboarding, more shark-feeding.

We also managed to enjoy the hotel and celebrate our anniversary.  It turns out that someone’s forward-thinking husband managed to sneak an anniversary present into his luggage for the occasion.

On our last day, our flight wasn’t until 11:00pm.  That meant our boat to the airport was at 8:00pm.  The resort allowed us to stay and use the facilities (including the club room) the entire day, so we ended up getting three full days at the resort for the price of just two nights!  They gave us a late checkout of 12pm, but that wasn’t all.  Since we were in a room usually occupied by platinum, super-elite, ultra-mega diamond members, they gave us a whole new room for the afternoon!  It was much less impressive than our OVB, but it did have a nice porch swing.  We hung out at the pool that evening, and enjoyed the bottle of champagne that the resort had given us.

This was definitely one of the most luxurious places we’ve ever stayed.  At over $1200 per night, and almost impossible to obtain on points alone, I’m uncertain that another over-water bungalow is in our future.  Fortunately, the resort also provided us with gorgeous sunsets, and those are always free and available all over the world.

Maldives, Kulhudhuffushi, SPG, Marriott, Sheraton, Sheraton Maldives Full Moon Resort & Spa, over-water-bungalow, OVB, anniversary, stand-up paddleboard, SUP, lagoon, kayak, snorkel, plunge pool, sunset,

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More Maldives

We awoke to another beautiful day in the beautiful Maldives, and decided to do some beautiful snorkeling (beautifully).  Our host’s home was only a five minute walk from the rocky shore where an amazing reef was teeming with underwater life.  It was here that my dashing beard started causing my mask to leak.  I had about eight seconds of underwater time before I had to drain my mask.  Stephanie with her beautifully smooth face had a great time exploring, and saw her first manta ray in the wild.  She was unable to photograph it, but did get some good photos of interesting Maldivian sea life while I was busy wondering if gills would help me breathe any better.

We also went to visit a friend of Luveyza’s who was a prominent Maldivian blacksmith.  His shop was fascinating.  Much of the equipment (such as the furnace) was made by hand.  So resourceful!  We even got to take a turn hammering out a blade.  One of the cool things about countries that aren’t the U.S. is that you can often have experiences that our litigious homeland would otherwise prevent.  We watched the pros show us how it’s done from right next to them.  We were so close that at one point, a spark of hot metal went flying and landed on Stephanie’s bare toe.  Luckily, no real harm was done.

Another snorkel trip was on the horizon, so I was ready to do something about this pesky (albeit handsome) moustache.  The problem was that I hadn’t brought a razor with me.  Luveyza told me I could get a shave in a barber shop with an honest-to-goodness straight razor for about two bucks(!)  So off I went with my full entourage (Luveyza, Hajja, Eleena, Stephanie and Yentl) to get smoothed out.  I had always wanted to get a shave like this!

161 Freshly shorn

Frreshly shorn

Now…on to the snorkeling…

 

170 Power snorkeling

Power snorkeling

Luveyza and Hajja had no end of interesting stuff for us to do.  Up next was a boat trip to an uninhabited island.  Unlike our little sand bar, this island was big enough that it once had people living on it.  It became costly to get supplies out to them, so the government helped them relocate to more populated islands.  Once again, we chartered a boat.  This time, some friends and family came along, and we all made a day of it.

Once there, Stephanie, Yentl and I went exploring.  This time it took us about an hour to circumnavigate the island.  Meanwhile Luveyza and Hajja worked their magic and cooked up a delicious meal seemingly out of nowhere.  The deliciousness involved fish they had just caught from the ocean, and they showed us how to use banana leaves in lieu of plates!

Then it was time for more snorkeling.  (Are you sensing a theme here?)  We did see a giant clam and an octopus.  Unfortunately, octopuses are considered tasty by some, and our be-tentacled friend was soon skewered by one of our party to be cooked later.  All part of the Great Circle of Life, I guess.

205 Us with Luveyza, Eleena and Hajja

Us with Luveyza, Eleena and Hajja

At this point, I feel it is important to point out what amazing cooks Luveyza and Hajja are.  Almost every meal we had contained tuna or coconut or both.  Now, I’m not a huge coconut fan, and I rarely like tuna, but absolutely everything was so incredibly delicious that I couldn’t get enough.  I’m sure by watching me eat they could understand why we have an obesity problem in America.  Here are a few thousand words…

As our time was running out, we took more opportunities to simply walk around Kulhudhuffushi.  Those sandy streets and tropical plant life give off this relaxing vibe – like life will always be good.

We accidentally let slip to our hosts that our anniversary was only days away.  They surprised us on our last day with a fabulous meal, a homemade cake, gifts(!) and snacks for the road. One of the gifts was a knife I had admired at the blacksmith shop.  How cool!!

Most American tourists to the Maldives only see the glitzy, expensive resorts and never have an opportunity  to experience the culture and meet the people who live there.  This (as with many couch surfing experiences) turned out to be one of the more rewarding of our travel experiences.  I feel like I’ve made friends I will keep for life, and I can’t wait to come back and visit them and their country again!

218 Cominagetcha!

Cominagetcha!

Going Local in The Maldives

So where the heck are the Maldives?  That’s what everyone seemed to ask us when we said we were going.  The Maldives are a chain of over 1100 tropical islands (1190 to be exact) in the Indian Ocean near Sri Lanka.  I have been on a quest to visit some of the most remote islands in the world, and my challenge to Stephanie was to get us there affordably.  Last year, it was the Seychelles.  This year, the Maldives.  Before we could enjoy them, we had to get there and that meant a *lot* of travel even by our standards – three days of it, actually.  But when you find a mistake airfare, you jump on it. Our round trip cost us only $500 each instead of the usual $2,000 or so.

After busing it to NYC, we flew Aeroflot (Russia’s airline) to Moscow where we had a 10-hour layover.  Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to obtain a visa for a layover tour of Moscow.  (Yes, that’s a real thing!)  Fortunately, we had access to the many lounges in  Sheremetyevo Airport.  Unfortunately, there we were hit with one of the realities of international travel: The Wi-Fi was free, but you needed to receive a code by text message in order to access it.  Without a phone with an (astronomically priced) international roaming plan, we were stuck.  So we slept and snacked and slept and drank and slept and wrote blog entries while hoping no one at home would worry too much about our radio silence.

But wait!  The fun didn’t stop in Moscow.  After another 10-hour flight, we arrived in the Maldives only to be told by Immigration officials that we couldn’t come in.  They wanted us to provide our hotel booking information to them. We explained about couch surfing, and also that we didn’t know the actual address.  They explained to us that in order to stay with a local, that person needs to submit invitation paperwork at least 48 hours in advance.  Ummm… uh oh.  We had no idea and no phone that would work to contact our host!  Eventually, we were able to contact our host via Facebook, and she provided a phone number for them to call and verify everything.  After borrowing phones from customs officials, reaching our host, and listening to much arguing and yelling between our host and the customs officials, it appeared they were going to allow us to continue our journey.  Phew!!  Before they would let us in, however, they wanted proof from us that we had a return flight and enough money to support ourselves in their country.

Once we were granted entry to the Maldives, you would think it was a quick taxi ride to our host, right?  Wrong!  Remember those 1190 islands?  Well the airport is on Malé, but we were staying on the easy-to-pronounce island of Kulhudhuffushi – a mere 13-hour ferry ride away.  Oh sure, we could have flown over in about 20 minutes – for about $200 each.  Instead, we embraced local culture, and took the $26 overnight ferry.

Having no idea what to expect from the ferry, we arrived at Malé’s North Harbor about two hours early.  There was absolutely nowhere to wait, so they ushered us onto our ferry – Bahaadharu –  and to our assigned spaces – two nice, cushy mats in the middle of rows of other mats.  It was only 3:00 in the afternoon, but to us it was 5:00 am and we had been up most of the night.  After taking some photos of Stephanie on her “Kindergarten nap mat,” we unceremoniously crashed for two hours, woke up as the ferry filled with passengers just before sailing, and slept again once we got underway.  This ferry even served us a home-cooked meal of rice and chicken curry; perfectly spicy for my taste, which meant too hot for Stephanie.

 

In the morning, we were up by 5am, and climbed up onto the rooftop deck of the ferry to watch the sun rise. We were welcomed to our island of Kulhudhuffushi by two schools of leaping dolphins.  Bonus!

 

We were met at the dock by Luveyza – our couch surfing host.  She is a teacher and had to leave for school immediately, but she put us in a taxi for the ten minute ride to her home where her friend Hajja was waiting.

For this trip to the Maldives,  we were forsaking the expensive luxury resorts, and spending our time soaking up the local culture by living with some locals: Luveyza, her friend and amazing cook Hajja, and her sweet, intelligent, 12-year-old daughter, Eleena.

Luveyza and Eleena get a break from school at 9:30, so they come home for breakfast.  We were all able to eat together along with their other couch surfer, Yentl (from the Netherlands), before the two of them went back for their second school session.  School is over at 12:30, which meant that everyone was together for the afternoons.

Late that afternoon we went to a political rally.  The government has decided to build an airport on Kuhudhulffushi.  The residents of the island are not really pleased about this idea since it means destroying the island’s fragile mangrove ecosystem.  The President of the Maldives was coming to inaugurate the land reclamation project, and so we tagged along to see him.  This was a momentous occasion since in his 5-year term, the President had never yet visited Kulhuduffushi.

The heat, the jet lag and the soothing voice of the man speaking in Dhivehi all ganged up on Stephanie and me, and we ended up dozing off.  The worst part was that the president never actually stepped foot on the island.  He was out on the dredger that was filling in the mangroves with sand from the sea floor.  It was a bit of a disappointment to Luveyza.  Afterwards we took a walk through the ruined mangroves which was a bit of a disappointment to us too.  (Viva la environment!)

 

The next day we chartered a local fishing boat and paid a visit to a sandbank.  The fun started right away when we took one of those little flatbed-truck taxis to the boat.  As we rolled through the sand streets of Kulhudhuffushi, we remarked how this would simply never fly in the U.S.

 

There weren’t enough seats on the boat for everyone, so Luveyza set up an Adirondack chair, and rode like a queen to the sandbank.  The ride over the sparkling water was short, but we could have done it for hours.  This is why we travel and this is why we couch surf – for local experiences in amazing destinations.

 

This shoal of sand rising out of the water is devoid of plant life or people.  Basically, it was our own private little island.  The sandbank had a very steep leeward side (that’s away from the current for you landlubbers), so that you could literally jump off the sand and into the water.  After snapping some photos of Princess Stephanie of Sandbank Island, we went exploring.  Stephanie and I covered the entire perimeter of the sandbank which took almost eight minutes!!  Along the way, we met Princess Stephanie’s loyal subjects – the hermit crabs in their beautiful little shells.  We also met one insurrectionist crab who, when challenged with a piece of spiky coral, made several attack runs at my toes (much to Stephanie’s amusement).

66 Princess Stephanie with her royal consort

 

78 Island selfie

Island selfie

Video – the crab attack
(Note: My screams are not real – just there to add drama.  Honest!)
(Note #2: He really was very mean for teasing that poor crab! – Stephanie)

After our walk around the island, our amazing hosts invited us to join them in eating some freshly grilled hot dogs.  With our bellies full, we then all went on a group snorkeling adventure to a very shallow reef.

 

 

 

Then the boat came back to pick us up and take us to the inhabited island of Nolhivaranfaru. It was then that Stephanie threw caution to the wind and decided that while the others took the boat over, we should swim.  Swim!  Have you ever tried to swim between tropical islands?  It was brutal!  It was grueling!!  It took almost 15 minutes in perfectly calm, warm waters.  There was even a moment when I couldn’t see land!!*

*Um…because I had closed my eyes.

 

On Nolhivaranfaru, we met Luveyza’s little nephew who joined us at a café for Maldivian tea and appetizers.

 

121 Time to go

Time to go

 

You would think all this would make for a full vacation, but we were only about halfway through our time on Kulhudhiffushi.  There’s more to come.

So Cool in SoCal

So whaddaya do when you have both a free week at a hotel and free tickets to Disneyland – both of which will expire soon?  Why, you plan a trip to Southern California, of course!  Our promotional, 7-night stay at a Marriott Residence Inn was a perfect excuse to go spend Stephanie’s birthday kicking around Orange County.  The Residence Inn seemed perfect in every way except for one tiny detail – our mini-suite had a kitchenette, but no oven.  How was I going to bake a birthday cake for my wife with no oven??  (Read on for the answer.)

Day 1, and time for reliving another fun childhood experience with Stephanie: Knott’s Berry Farm (KBF going forward)!  Originally an actual berry farm, KBF has grown into quite an amusement park.  Some might say it lives in Disneyland’s shadow, but the locals know it makes a great alternative to the House of the Mouse.  I had been there a few times as a teenager living in Anaheim, and I was thrilled to take Stephanie.  She was thrilled to meet Snoopy in person.  (P.S.  Dear Knott’s, please bring back the Wacky Soap Box Racers.)

13 Welcome to a new park

Welcome to a new park

The next day we took a tour of Elliott’s Old Haunts™ in Anaheim.  We had done this once years ago, but that was before we started blogging, so now you, dear reader get to see the places of my youth including…

My Old House
(Imagine it with a giant plum tree in the front yard.)

My old house (sans plum tree)

My old house (sans plum tree)

My Old synagogue, where my father was the cantor.
(Spoiler Alert:  it’s now a church.  My how the times change!)

It looks the same, but the religion is different

It looks the same, but the religion is different

My Old High School – Loara High
(Yes, I went there at the same time as Gwen Stefani.  As far as you know, we’re long-time friends.)

My First Job
(It was Moe’s Burgers & Deli when I was there in the 80s.)

35 My first job (when it was Moe's burgers)

My first job (when it was Moe’s burgers)

Back at our hotel, it was time for me to get to birthday baking for Stephanie.  So…how do you bake a cake without an oven?  You use the gas grill, of course.  It worked wonderfully, and the hotel staff even gave us a bottle of wine with which to celebrate.

 

Happy digital birthday, baby!

Happy Birthday, baby! Make a digital wish before you blow out the candle…

We took a couple of days to do see some notable Southern California attractions.  First we went to the beach (Huntington, if you’re following us that closely).  The water was freezing but Stephanie was extra psyched to be able to swim on her October birthday.

Then we did something I had never done in all my years as a Southern California resident:  We attended a live taping of a TV show – The Price is Right.  It may have been a mistake wearing orange for Halloween.  It didn’t occur to us that the episode we were attending wouldn’t even air until after the New Year.  After a couple of hours in line, we had our TPIR name tags, and were interviewed in groups of 30 by the producers.  They spent all of 15 seconds with each of us, and we had a sense right away that we weren’t going to get called to “Come on Down.”  While we waited, we saw a side-splitting promotional video showing us what to expect and how to act (and how not to act).  Then we were ushered into the famous studio.  They collected our cameras and phones, so there are no photos.

The first thing we noticed is that the studio is much smaller than it looks on TV.  The second thing we noticed is that the crowd barely sat down, and did not stop shouting and cheering the entire time.  You can’t hear a thing that’s happening on stage!  When they call new contestants, they also display the name on large signs so that people can see if they’ve been called.  Our final assessment was that it was neat to see the studio, but not necessarily worth the long lines or the loud crowd to do it again.  (Note from the future: Luckily, Stephanie’s dad Barry taped the show, so we were eventually able to watch it with him and hear exactly what was going on!)

Off to the Price is Right

Off to the Price is Right

At last the day had come for the most important reason we were here!  We spent Stephanie’s actual birthday at Disney’s California Adventure (you figure out which of those two things is more important.  🙂 ) for which, as we told you about here,  we had free tickets.  Like Knott’s Berry Farm, DCA was all decked out for Halloween.  I don’t care how old we get or how kid-less we are.  Disney is always fun.  Period!

 

After a satisfyingly long day, we returned to our hotel where we celebrated Stephanie’s birthday with more of the famous grill-cake, and some presents that I had brought across the country with us.

Happy birthday, Stephanie

Happy birthday, Stephanie

Acadia

In the second half of 2017, we were on a roll with road trips – we had done our Eclipse Road Trip in August, and driven around half of North Dakota in early September.  Just a few weeks later, it was time for another road trip and another new state – Maine!  This would be the last state we needed to visit together in the Northeast.

Our destination in Maine was Acadia National Park.  I had been once before – the same year I met Elliott – and I was so happy to finally be able to take him there (or, as it was, let him take me there).  I remembered beautiful rocky coastlines, good hikes, and difficult bike rides.  I was not at all disappointed to be able to do it all again, and more!

01a Setup

The weekend we chose was specifically based on the Acadia Star Party, but the weather forecast leading up to our trip was very ominous, and we kept wavering on whether or not to go.  We booked our campground at the last minute, which meant we had to camp outside the park due to the park campgrounds being full.  No problem – we camped at Mount Desert Campground, just a ten minute drive outside the park, near some of the carriage trails and right on the water!  We took our time driving from our home outside Philly up to the park, stopping at the local Walmart to stock up on food and supplies.  We got to our campsite just in time to set up camp and cook some hot dogs for dinner.

Friday morning we drove to the Visitor Center, where we got our stamp for my National Park Passport book and talked to a park ranger about his recommendations for challenging hikes and bike rides.  At Acadia there are park shuttles to reduce the number of drivers on the road, and we figured we might as well join in the fight against emissions and crowds.  Once we had everything we needed from our car, we took the park loop shuttle to Gorge Path and hiked up to Cadillac Mountain via the North Ridge Trail.  At the top we met motorcyclists who are doing a six month tour of all the national parks and we talked for a while and even signed their motorcycle with their black Sharpie!  On the way down we stopped at the Hawk Watch and joined a ranger in looking for these beautiful predators.

We got back on the shuttle and took it to Sand Beach – but the water really was too cold for swimming, even for me!

21 Sand Beach (stop on shuttle route)

High viewpoint of Sand Beach from beginning of Great Head Trail

So back on the shuttle we went, napping here and there as we drove around the enormous park loop, finally getting off at Jordan Pond.  We took a long, leisurely walk around the pond and called it a day in regards to activity.

Back at our campsite, eating hot dogs for dinner again and s’mores for dessert, we noticed the sky clearing up a bit and we could see stars.  I hoped it would be at least as clear the next night for the star party!

Saturday morning we changed gears (no pun intended) and readied our bicycles.  The nice thing about our campground location was that it was very close to a slew of carriage roads.  I think of them as the biking roads, but in reality John D. Rockefeller paid for and directed the 57 miles of crushed stone roads for use by hikers, horses and horse-drawn carriages in addition to bicyclists.  No vehicles are allowed on these roads, and 45 miles of the roads are inside of Acadia National Park.  Get ready for some hills!  We rode from our campground to the gravel roads and then around three different loops, including Eagle Lake, which is even bigger than Jordan Pond.  What we didn’t count on was that the last half of the last loop included a hugely steep, long climb… and Elliott got a flat tire… and we didn’t have a bicycle pump!  Oops.  We did have a Co2 cartridge but we didn’t have the right mechanism to make it work (we were sort of a mess in regards to having the things we should for an emergency).  We walked until some other bicyclists took pity on us, and helped us out of our jam.  Unfortunately, by the time we got back to camp, our epic ride of over twenty mostly-gravel and often-hilly miles meant Elliott’s knee was in pretty bad shape.

That night we did go to the Star Party on top of Cadillac Mountain, and the sky was thankfully and blissfully clear.  Everything was so well-organized!  We got to the local high school, where the shuttle would pick us up, nice and early, and there were already tons of people there!  They had us line up in a snake-like fashion in the gymnasium and handed out red cellophane and rubber bands to cover flashlights and phones.  They even gave us Clif bars!  Each bus had a guide who talked about the festival and explained where everything would be at the top of the mountain.  We got to the top and were happy to find out it wasn’t nearly as cold as it had been the day before.  There were over 30 telescopes set up and we had our choice of cool things like Saturn, nebulae and star clusters. We went to a Constellation Talk and sat through it twice, learning about some new stars, how to locate constellations, and tips on using certain constellations to find others.

Sunday we gathered our nerves and climbed both the Precipice Trail and the Beehive Trails.  These two strenuous trails involve iron rungs and ladders on ledges of exposed cliffs; the Precipice Trail is considered dangerous enough that you are explicitly forbidden from descending the trail.  Elliott thought his fear of heights might thwart him, but was happily surprised it didn’t really slow us down at all, unlike some terrified-looking hikers we came upon.

We tied our strenuous hikes together by hiking some other tamer trails such as the South Ridge Trail, Pond Trail and Loop Trail.  Elliott played with dragonflies at the pond while I took a quick, freezing dip to cool off.

Monday we took it a bit easier initially sticking to hikes by the sea as we walked the Great Head Trail and  Ocean Path.  The views from these hikes are what I think of as classic Maine scenery, and make for beautiful backgrounds in many great photographs.

Ocean Path went on and on down the coastline.  At one point we just stopped and watch the enormous splashes at Thunder Hole, named for the noise the splashing water makes.

Later on, we hiked the Bubble Trail, which led us to two different enormous boulders that look like they are going to tumble off a cliff at any moment:

113 Precariously balanced

On Tuesday we finally tried to go bicycling again, but alas, it just wasn’t meant to be.  (We realized that after getting another flat tire and having our bicycle pump break, pushing through all of that only to realize Elliott’s knee was still not going to take to another hilly ride, and turning around.)  Instead, we rented a canoe for a half day and paddled through Somes Sound.  It was really peaceful, quiet and serene.  We spotted ducks and crabs and even lobstermen setting out their traps.

On our last full day, we took on the Parkman Mountain Hike – Maples Spring Trail to South Ridge to Hadlock.  It was mostly forested, the first half climbing slowly up a dry creek bed.  Eventually we climbed up out of the forest to a rocky flat foggy plateau.

On our way down, we caught the end of the  Rockefeller Bridge Talk where I was able to photograph one of Rockefeller’s classic bridges:

145 Hadlock Brook Trail

One of Rockefeller’s Bridges on Hadlock Brook Trail

For our last night, Elliott cooked ribs over the fire for dinner.  He also made foil packets of potatoes and onions that he threw right in the fire and they came out great!  We suddenly felt like we were glamping with our fine meal.  Later that night, we noticed it had clouded over, as we couldn’t see stars for the first time in days.

Thursday morning we woke up to the sound of light rain, but it had stopped by the time we had to break camp.  The rain that morning made me realize how lucky we had been with the weather considering the original forecast for our time there.  We said goodbye to our campsite home for the week while giving each other a super hug, and headed out.

Our drive home was even more leisurely than our drive there had been, and filled with beautiful scenery and fun little adventures.  We found an Acadia magnet at one place and some clothing at a thrift store.  We spent way too much time at a grocery store called Hannaford, where several employees helped figure out all the issues that kept arising as we tried to make our gift card purchases.  We spent lots of time going in and out of lots of antique places looking for an old-fashioned pie serving thing Elliott wants*.  We got lobster rolls in Rockport at a place called Claws, where we had a great view of the bay as we ate our sandwiches and amazing fries, and went to the Goodwill there too.  We even went back to the restaurant when we saw there was a lobster trap we could climb into.

Elliott learned several lessons on this trip:  he can hike more treacherous trails than he thought he could, he could become quite an impressive camp chef, dragonflies are very difficult to photograph in flight, and lobster is not really his thing.  At today’s market prices, maybe that last one isn’t so bad.

*Finally found it on amazon.

A Man Named Ted

At last we reached our goal (other than ice cream treats): Theodore Roosevelt National Park.  Teddy spent a lot of time in North Dakota, using his ranch there as a getaway to grieve the loss of both his wife and mother. (In the same house. Within 12 hours of each other!  Poor man.)   He fell in love with the wild ruggedness of North Dakota, and as we explored the park, we could see the appeal.  It’s divided into two units, North and South, and they are 69 miles apart, so we had our fun cut out for us.

139 we're here!

We’re Here!

On our first day, we entered the North Unit and started driving.  A few years earlier, we had visited Badlands National Park in South Dakota.  We were surprised on this trip to learn that North Dakota has badlands too.  The North Dakota badlands are geologically older than their southern brethren – about 2 million years older – and so there is much more growth than we would have expected.  What could we do but start hiking?  We watched the movie in the tiny Visitor Center, then drove the 14-mile scenic drive to its end at Oxbow Overlook and admired the beauty around us.  There, we hiked a short distance to Sperati Point, admiring all the wildflowers and grasses on the way.

Driving back toward the Visitor Center we stopped to hike  to the Prairie Dog Town (via Caprock Coulee to the Buckhorn Trail, for those of you following in our footsteps).  Prairie Dogs are actually a type of ground squirrel, and they live in interconnected underground burrows called towns.  On our way out, we encountered and almost ran into a lone bison.  I think he was just as surprised by us as we were by him.  Fortunately, he decided just to watch us, and not run us out of his turf.  But I had to hold Stephanie back from turning around and trying to pet him.

170 We're as surprised as you are

We’re as surprised as you are

Video: Prairie Dog Town – A busy place to be
Video: The Brave Little Prairie Dog

The next day, we entered the South Unit early in the morning and saw wild horses as we drove!  There was all sorts of hiking to be had.  We set off on the day-long Jones Creek Loop trail.  We came across some more prairie dog towns as we hiked.  We heard a coyote and saw a print but never actually saw him.  There were, of course, more bison to be seen, and there was more fabulous scenery.  In fact, that is basically the recurring theme of Theodore Roosevelt National Park: great hiking, beautiful scenery and interesting wildlife.

 

After our long hike, we drove the 36 mile scenic loop road in the South Unit.  Perhaps one of our favorite parts of TRNP was the bison jams.  This is where traffic comes to a standstill because the buffalo want to use the road.  Often we would turn off the engine and just sit and watch them.  At one point, we were doing just that when a leaf dropped off a tree and onto my hand which made me jump (and maybe scream a little).  That, in turn, startled the bison, and so two big ones took off because a guy in a car flinched.  Yes, we have it on video.  No, you can’t see it!*

Video: Morning bison jam
Video: Bison all around

On our third day, back in the North Unit, we revisited the Caprock Coulee Trail and found the first mile of it was a great nature trail.  This differs from a hiking trail in that there are signs explaining some of the stuff we’re seeing around us.  For example…

After the nature trail miles ended, the Caprock Coulee became more strenuous, but rewarding as it took us to the top of a grassy butte and along a ridge line.

While we were in the park, the Little Missouri River was running very low.  This came in handy that afternoon when we approached our planned hiking trail, only to find it was closed for maintenance.  We asked a park ranger for ideas, and he told us the river was so low that we could wade in it!  With the oppressive heat, it sounded like just what the doctor ordered.  We walked shin-deep down the river, cooling off old-timey style(!) and enjoying the scenery.

Once we were sufficiently cool, we went to our next site to see the cannonballs, more correctly called concretions. This is where minerals in layers of sediment harden into spheres before the rest of the sediment turns into rock. When the outer rock (usually sandstone) erodes, the concretions are exposed.  It was tons of fun to climb up and around these things!

And who knew there was a petrified forest in North Dakota?  On our last day, back in the South Unit,  a nice long hike along the Petrified Forest Loop took us to the remnants of trees that were millions of years old.  As if that wasn’t enough, we saw a herd of Pronghorn Antelope, and shared our lunch space with a couple of bison who were too busy looking majestic to pay us any attention.

One of the last things we did before leaving the park was a park-guided tour of Teddy’s original cabin.  It was neat to imagine him there, living and hunting and enjoying the beauty of everything we had just seen over the past several days.

404 Theodore Roosevelt's original cabin

Theodore Roosevelt’s original cabin

Our parting stop on our way out of North Dakota was Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site.  This was home to several villages of the Hidatsa Indians of the Northern Plains.  It was at one time a major local center for agriculture and trade.  There’s not much left, but there is a re-creation of an earth lodge – a dome-shaped hut made of earth and wood in which the Hidatsa lived and worked.

North Dakota turned out to offer so much more than we thought it would, including endless photo ops of nature being beautiful.  It reminded me all over again that any destination you can think of has something to offer, and *that* is why we want to go everywhere!

9999 185 Shadows on the badlands

*Or maybe you can!! – Stephanie

The Final Frontier

Okay, so it’s not the *final* frontier, but North Dakota was one of the harder-to-reach States we visited. Wait, wait! Don’t leave!! It was so much more fun and interesting than even we thought it would be. Stick around a bit.

So… let’s get the Big Question out of the way. The first thing people ask us is, “Why in the world would you go to North Dakota?” (BTW, they asked the same thing about Arkansas, and Hot Springs was awesome too. Stay ’til the end and we’ll prove it.)

First, the official answer:
Stephanie and I want to visit every state. North Dakota was one we termed “state locked” because we had visited every bordering state, and had no choice but to make a direct run there.

Now, the real answer:
For this we must travel back to Stephanie’s childhood. In New Brunswick, NJ, where she and her siblings went to Rutgers, is a little ice cream shop called Thomas Sweet with perhaps the best ice cream treat in the world. A Thomas Sweet Blend-In is to a Dairy Queen Blizzard what a BMW is to the beat up old Volkswagen I drove in my youth. To achieve this airy, creamy mix of ice cream and toppings/candy, they use a very particular mixer called a Whirla-Whip. These machines were prevalent in the 1950s, but have long since been out of business. (Even the ones Thomas Sweet uses are replicas.) The only known Whirla-Whips still in operation are at Dakota Drug in Stanley, North Dakota.

So off we went. We flew to Minot and drove to Stanley for a couple of nights. Stanley is a small town, so it was easy to find Dakota Drug and welcome ourselves to Stanley with an authentic Whirla-Whip. I thought the staff might be tickled that we traveled all the way from Philly, but we aren’t even the farthest-traveled clients they’ve had.  They’ve had people from as far away as Egypt come all the way to Stanley for a Whirla-Whip.  I had vanilla ice cream with Whoppers and oreos.  Stephanie dove right in and went for chocolate ice cream with whoppers and brownie cake batter.

06 First things first..

First things first!

10 Not one, but TWO Whirl-A-whip machines!

Not one, but TWO Whirl-A-whip machines!

We had the full following day to spend in Stanley, so we went to check out Flickertail Village Museum. This is a collection of buildings and artifacts from North Dakota’s pioneer days in the late 1800s/early 1900s. All the buildings and their contents are 100% authentic and from the local area. It really felt like traveling back in time as we checked out the train depot, the jail, the bank, the schoolhouse and several homes.

 

55 A pound of dry goods, please

A pound of dry goods, please

Feel free to use the above photo of the sled school bus as proof to any older generation that they didn’t really walk to school in the snow, uphill, both ways.

As we were exiting one of the preserved homes, we met a guy named Jerry who told us that the very house we had just visited used to belong to his grandparents, and he spent a lot of time there as a boy. He took us into the bedroom (off limits to visitors) and showed us portraits of his grandparents who emigrated from Norway, as did many residents of Stanley and the surrounding area. He also told us about his grandfather who ice skated until well into his 80s, and showed us his grandpa’s old skates hanging on the wall.

Jerry was so great; he even met up with us later to show us a civic site in Stanley.  The Sibyl Center was once a church, but is now a community and cultural center.  We ended up just hanging out and shooting the breeze with Jerry for a while.

When we finished up, we had no choice but to go back to Dakota Drug for another Whirla-whip. (Rumors abound that the following morning, we stopped in at 9:00am for a final shot of ice-creamy goodness, but I ain’t confirming nuthin!)

As we continued west, we stopped at Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site. This place was a critical stop where the frontier settlers would trade goods for furs with the local Indians (as they were called at the time).

Further into the heartland we reached the confluence of the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers. A brief stroll from the interpretive center took us to an overlook where we could see the joining of the rivers.  It’s kind of hard to see from the photo but this is where two rivers meet.

135 Confluence of the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers

Confluence of the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers

Well! With all the excitement of ice cream and old-timey living and proof of the decimation of America’s Bison population, I need a break from writing. Join us next time when we see cannonballs, meet the dogs of the prairie, and learn first-hand that the American Buffalo is still alive and well.

Oh, and as promised, here’s proof of how much fun Hot Springs, Arkansas was…

246 A day in the old-timey life

And a good time was had by all. (Featuring us and Stephanie’s dad and stepmom)