Seychelles Stunning Beaches Part III – La Digue

Welcome to La Digue!  This was the smallest of the three islands we visited.  It’s the third largest inhabited island in the Seychelles, but it’s still pretty small.  No cars!  Everyone gets around on bike or foot.  We loved it.  Here are the beaches on which we spent our time.

Village of La Passe on the east coast of the island – walking just outside of town at low tide.  This beach doesn’t even have a name that I could find, and it’s too shallow to swim, but the great views of Praslin are breath-taking.  One day we just sat on a log and ate our lunch while taking it all in.

View of Praslin from Village of La Passe

 

Grand Anse – A picturesque beach with huge waves and surrounded by large granite rocks.  Imagine long sweeping arcs of pristine white sand.  The big waves roll in from across the Indian Ocean and they are both wild and wonderful.  There are many warnings not to swim due to a strong undertow, but we were not the only ones in the water and in this (admittedly strong) swimmer’s opinion, the Seychellois are much more cautious about swimming than us Northeasterners!

 

From Grand Anse, you can take a leisurely hike to Petite Anse by walking across the rocks and following the footpath.  During the 15 minutes it took us, there was some beautiful scenery in the form of hidden pools, unlike what we saw on the beaches.

107b A hidden pool between Grand Anse and Petit Anse

A hidden pool between Grand Anse and Petit Anse

107a A hidden pool between Grand Anse and Petit Anse

How gorgeous is this?  Another hidden pool between Grand Anse and Petit Anse

 

Petite Anse – This is the Sister beach to Grand Anse.  It was raining when we got there but still beautiful enough that we decided to wait it out under one of the little palm frond shelters there.   Swimming here is also regarded as dangerous, but that didn’t bother us.  We stashed our things in a crevice between those famous granite rocks, and dove in.

110 We can (try to) keep out of the rain

We sat under one of these palm shelters to keep out of the rain

 

Anse Cocos – We continued on the path to get to this beach which is also accessible only on foot.  This beach is more sheltered; it benefits from a natural lagoon formed by granite rocks providing calm waters to swim in.  I believe it was low tide, however, and it looked… well… murky.

 

Anse Source D’Argent – This place is reputed to be the most photographed beach in the world, and it’s not hard to understand why once you see it.  It was my absolute FAVE of not only all the beaches we saw in the Seychelles, but in the world!!  It has soft white sand, clear turquoise water and huge granite boulders sculptured by the elements and time itself.   The very shallow waters are so sheltered by the reef that they actually felt HOT when we snorkeled.  I had to swim super far out to get to lukewarm, and finally somewhat cool water.

The one downside to this beach is that the only access is via L’Union Estate, which requires an entrance fee for non-residents.

ASA55 Low tide, Anse Source D'Argent

Low tide, Anse Source D’Argent

ASA70 Anse Source D'Argent

Anse Source D’Argent

ASA56 Uh oh, another beautiful Seychellois beach

Uh oh, another beautiful Seychellois beach

ASA69 Source D'Argent beach

Source D’Argent beach

Seychelles Stunning Beaches Part II – Praslin

Mahe was gorgeous, but the moment we arrived on Praslin via ferry, I knew I was going to like it even better.  It’s smaller and definitely easier to get around.  We hopped off the ferry, onto a bus, and 15 minutes later arrived at our guest house.  That afternoon we were on a beach!

Anse Volbert – Also known as the Côte d’Or (“Golden Coast”), this beach has sugary white sand, crystal clear water, great views and the occasional friendly dog.  It’s a popular beach on the island but 1½ miles long so it never felt crowded.  Best of all, it was within easy walking distance of our lodging!

P19 A boy and his dog

A boy and his dog.

Anse Lazio – It is frequently called ‘the best beach in the world’.  Even on a cloudy/rainy day, it was beautiful.  Its fame has led to great popularity though, so it can feel crowded compared to other beaches.

P82 Back on shore

P84 Anse Lazio, Seychelles

Grand Anse – We learned firsthand that this is more of a town on Praslin that has beach along it.  There were lots of fishing boats in the water here.

P184 Oh look - no one here

Oh look – no one here!

P183 Drying fish on Grand Anse

Drying fish on Grand Anse.

Anse Kerlan – It was difficult to find public access to this beach as there were several private chalets along its side, but once we found it, we had it to ourselves for hours.

P189 My beach baby

Postcard perfect beach – Anse Kerlan

P192 A whole driftwood tree

This is one of my favorite photos we took in the Seychelles

Anse Consolation – This was the most difficult beach for us to get to, as we had to transfer busses in Grand Anse.  What we didn’t know is that the buses take a several hour break during lunchtime, and we happened to need our transfer right about then.  No worries – it led to our first real hitchhiking adventure (if we don’t count the one inside Haleakala National Park).  And we’re alive to talk about it!

Seychelles Stunning Beaches Part I – Mahe

For our 12th wedding anniversary last November, we spent three weeks in the Seychelles.  When we talk about our trip to the Seychelles, most people’s first question is, “Where are the Seychelles?”  The Seychelles, officially known as the Republic of Seychelles or more commonly Seychelles, is its own country.  It consists of 115 islands that lie in the Indian Ocean, 932 miles east of Kenya, in Africa.  If you know where Madagascar is, head north and a little bit east, and you’ll find the Seychelles.

Since few people we know had any idea of where the Seychelles are, it wasn’t totally surprising that we didn’t run into many Americans while we were there.  Did I say “many”?  I meant “any.”  In fact, at the Visitor Bureau on one of the islands, the woman working there just could not believe we were Americans visiting “for fun”; she was convinced we must be in working for the US government in some shape or form and stationed in Dubai, which is a common stopover on the way to the Seychelles from the US.

So your next question might be, what made us think to go there?  It took several ingredients.  For starters, any remote island beach destination sounds pretty great to us.  More specifically though, it was due to the fact that as a boy, Elliott had a stamp collection, and in it he had a few stamps from the Seychelles.  They really stood out to him, and ever since then, he’d wanted to go.  There was also the fact that we knew Kate Middleton and Prince William had honeymooned there; and if it was good enough for royalty, we were thinking it was pretty special!  (For those of you who are interested in this type of thing, it turns out other celebrities have been drawn as well, such as George and Amal Clooney, and Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.)  All of this wasn’t quite enough though, for as you can imagine, remote islands that draw celebrities can be very expensive to reach.  Finally, after years of telling Elliott his dream might very well never happen, the missing ingredient came along – a super-discounted airfare.

The Seychelles are mostly known for their stunning beaches.  I normally like to be surprised, but I did peek at a few photos of beaches on the Seychelles before we went, and I was immediately super excited.  We’ve been fortunate enough to lie on many a-gorgeous beach, but these appeared top-notch in my opinion!  So what makes them more beautiful than a beach, on, say, St. Thomas?  The islands in the Seychelles are either granitic (made of granite) or coralline (made of coral).  We visited three of the granitic islands: Mahe, Praslin, and La Digue.  And since these islands are all made of granite, it’s not unusual for the beaches to be edged by enormous, pinkish granite boulders.  To me, they *are* the beauty.

As we traversed the islands we went from big to small.  We started on Mahe, where it sometimes took hours on the bus to get to a destination.  We then went to Praslin, where an hour bus ride gets you anywhere you want to go.  We ended on La Digue, where there are no private vehicles, the most-used form of transport is bicycle, and if you’re hardy, you can walk just about anywhere you want to go.  We spent most of our time in the Seychelles relaxing on her beaches, so now I’d like to simply share their splendor with you, our readers.  Since we have so many gorgeous photos, in today’s post we’ll just cover the beaches of Mahe and Praslin.  Take a look, and be sure to check out our next post, which will showcase beach photos for La Digue.  If you’re a beach and nature lover, perhaps you’ll want to add Seychelles to your own bucket list.

Bel Ombre – We walked to this beach on our first day on the Seychelles.  We didn’t have much time as it was already late afternoon, and it wasn’t a fabulous beach at all by Seychelles standards.  But we loved it, and I had a blast swimming, and Elliott loved all the bats that came at dusk.

Beau Vallon – Famous Beau Vallon Bay, on the northwest coast of the island, has the major hotels and restaurants on the island.  We whiled away the better part of a day here.

Sunset Beach – A gorgeous beach beyond Beau Vallon that we could walk to; ironically, we couldn’t see the sun set through the clouds!

Port Launay Marine National Park – Lovely, horseshoe shaped arc with white sand and calm waters, known for its protected status and excellent snorkeling.

Anse Major – We had to hike to this beach, but that’s what made it extra special.  As if the hike itself wasn’t rewarding enough… there was a secluded beach at the end!  And there was plenty of great snorkeling too.

M186 Lovin' life

Lovin’ life.

Takamaka Beach – Stunning, picturesque beach with beautiful golden sand and impressive palm trees, as well as the Takamaka trees that give the beach its name.

M233 Down at the end

Down at the end.

M234 My rock!

Elliott climbs his rock…

M237 A spiritual moment

and has a spiritual moment.

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.

05-complete-with-balcony

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:

125-heavy-f-kin-metal

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!

wd-23-happy-birthday-to-me

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.

04-thats-why-were-here

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.

18-diagon-alley

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.

26-with-stan-shunpike-at-the-knight-bus

With Stan Shunpike at the Knight Bus

50-stephanie-will-love-it-here

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!

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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.