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Foto Friday: A Last Minute Meetup

No matter the fact that we haven’t blogged in about 6 months, I felt compelled to contribute a little Foto Friday gem since I actually had something to post!

Two weekends ago Keith and I decided to drive down to visit my parents in Mississippi.  Dad had recently built a brand-new boat dock/house/over-the-water-structure and we thought that sounded like a perfect excuse to go visit.  As we were packing up to head South, Keith asked, “Hey….will Mary-Hall be home this weekend?”  I responded that I doubted it….it wasn’t a holiday and even though our parents still live only about 15 minutes apart, Mary-Hall lives about 3 hours from where we grew up.  Keith was undeterred by this logic and said I needed to text her.

My phone rang almost instantly.  She was driving to her parents’ house for the night last minute (and kid-free) and would love to stop by….proof that one should always always always get in touch even when it’s a long shot.  Grateful to have had even only a few minutes with this amazing girl.


So here we are….proof that yes, we’re still both alive and still very much friends.  🙂  Maybe one day life will slow down enough to resume regular blog-posting.  Or maybe we’ll at least be able to send you a photo every once in awhile.

Travel Guide: 6 Tips To Travel Like A Pro

Screen Shot 2014-02-14 at 5.12.00 PM

As you can tell by the fact that we have an entire post category devoted to it, Mary Hall and I both love to travel.  Alot.  Of course, there was the epic United Kingdom trip that we took together as teenagers, but we’ve both made our way around the world and the country individually on many occasions.  Since I currently work as a road manager and freelance musician, I’m on the road almost every weekend and even though my destinations aren’t always exotic, I’ve discovered that there is certainly an art to traveling no matter if you are going across town or across the world.  While I know that there are plenty of folks that travel way more than I do, I thought I’d bring you what wisdom I do have to you kind folks.  I hope to see you on the road.

1. Loyalty Isn’t Just For The Dogs. – The most important thing I can think of in travel is to choose a chain and stick with it.  It doesn’t so much matter which brand you choose, only that you choose one!  Most programs are created fairly equal, so pick whichever one is most convenient for you based on places you travel frequently.  Choose what program works for you, and then stick with it.  Besides earning points or miles for free travel, most programs have different tiers that provide different benefits such as free upgrades or waived luggage fees that you can qualify for based on your amount of travel, and if you travel alot, those perks can make an exhausting day a little bit better.

2. Join The Club: ALL of Them. – I know, you’re thinking, “but you just gave us this sermon on brand loyalty!”  I know, I did.  And I’m not being a hypocrite.  See here’s the deal.  Sometimes you can’t control every aspect of your travel.  Maybe your boss is in charge of booking rooms or your favorite airline doesn’t fly to the airport where that big meeting is.  But this doesn’t mean you have to miss out.  Not only are most loyalty programs free to join with no annual fee so you can join them all with no worries, but most programs have partnerships with other programs.  Simply log on to your online account and set your earning preference to earn what you want.  I have about 8 hotel loyalty memberships….I’ve chosen one as my “main” hotel chain and that account is set to earn hotel points.  All the other ones are set to earn airline miles on my “main” airline chain.  If I only stay at a specific type of hotel once a year, it would take forever to earn a free night.  But having a few extra airline miles on my favorite airline will go much further to earning a free ticket!

3. Be A Card-Carrying Promotion Hunter. – Another great way to earn free travel or perks for more comfortable travel is to get the credit card.  I have a major credit card (one Visa and one AmEx) for my favorite hotel brand and favorite airline.  Not only do I get bonus points on purchases made at those chains, but I get luggage and onboard discounts as well as enough bonus nights to almost have status right off the bat with my hotel card.  If credit cards aren’t your thing, that’s ok.  There are still lots of promotions out there that you can take advantage of that won’t affect your credit score.  Many programs will send out emails advertising promotions, and if you don’t want any more traffic flooding your inbox, then you can still take advantage of most of these by just logging on to your online account and checking the “promotions” tab.  Marriott for example has a particularly awesome promotion that they have been running 2 or 3 times a year called the “MegaBonus.”  Just register and then for every two nights you stay within a certain period of time, you get one free night.  Pretty awesome deal.

4. Attitude Is Everything: The Golden Rule Still Counts.  – If you’re a frequent traveler it’s not so much a question of IF something will go wrong, it’s more like WHEN.  Flights will be delayed, or cancelled.  You’ll get to the rental car place only to find out that they JUST gave away that SUV you’d reserved.  Your hotel room won’t be ready at check in, and when it is, you’ll quickly realize that someone smoked in the non-smoking room or that your towels aren’t exactly what you’d call clean.  But here’s the thing.  You’re not the first person this has happened to that day and you won’t be the last.  But you can be the NICEST.  Think about it.  If you are a customer service rep and you have a line of angry people with messed up travel plans, and in the middle of it all, up steps a kind, even-tempered person who treats you with respect and understanding, who are you most going to want to help?

Ashamedly, I’ve not always been kind in every single situation of travel-gone wrong, so I understand that sometimes its hard to keep it together.  But I’ve also noticed that the times I have been patient and kind, the folks behind the counter have, in turn, been nicer to me, and I’ve walked away having been helped, but also feeling like a decent human.  Winning, all around.

5. The Only Dumb Question Is One You Don’t Ask. –  Some situations are how they are, and you won’t be able to change them.  But sometimes, customer service reps are able to help you out in ways you wouldn’t have thought of if you didn’t ask.Just today, this particular rule proved itself again.  I’d paid for Early Bird boarding on Southwest for two people, roundtrip which totals $50….and is a fee that Southwest advertises as being “un-refundable” no matter the circumstances.  However, in between the time I purchased the early bird and the actual flight, both passengers earned “A-List” status on Southwest thus getting free-early bird.  So I called Southwest and asked about a refund even though I was aware of their advertised policy.  And you know what?  The customer service rep was super nice and told me that she couldn’t refund my $50, but she COULD send me a $50 Southwest voucher valid on any future Southwest travel and transferable to anyone I chose to use it on.

6. If At First You Don’t Succeed, Then Call, Call Again. – This one is one that I learned from watching my husband, and I’ve used it to my own advantage on a few occasions. For some reason, not all phone customer service reps will tell you the same thing.  I don’t know why this is, but I know it’s true.  So what do you do when the first customer service rep you get isn’t helpful or doesn’t tell you what you want to hear?  You politely thank them and you hang up.  And then you call back.  And you repeat this until you find someone who gives you then answer you want (or realize that your request is unreasonable….you be the judge.)  This usually works the best if you’re trying to change a flight or get a seat upgrade.  And rule #3 totally applies here too.  The nicer you are, the more likely you are to get what you want.

New Orleans With Kids

Happy Valentine’s Day (if that’s your thing).  If its not, well I hear ya and this post is totally not Valentine’s related.

Bethany posted about a trip to New Orleans once before. Its a fabulously unique destination, so I thought I’d add a few pointers here for making a kid-friendly visit.  New Orleans is a quick trip from where we live, so Mississippians tend to head down there with some regularity.  Although, I personally only go about once every three years or so.  There is something for everyone, depending on what kind of experience you want to have – history, architecture, gambling, 24/7 bars, jazz clubs, a dazzling variety of unbelievable restaurants.  And, if you are under 5 years old, there’s actually a fair variety for the preschool set as well.  Here is what we did, and what we wished we could’ve done, with our 3 year old.


1.  Book a hotel with a heated pool.

The train station dropped us off right down town.  Indoor pools are not very common down there, since its a generally warm climate, relatively speaking.  I had to do a good bit of scouring the internet to find at least a heated outdoor pool.  In Ransom’s mind, hotel = pool, end of story.  I used this website to determine pool information, and good ole Orbitz to find the best price.  Over night temperatures were in the low 60s and we adults fairly well froze in the pool.  It was heated but not to hot tub level.  Next time I think we’ll just go later in the year.

We stayed at the Bienville House, and I do recommend it.  Continental breakfast included, and the people are all very nice.


2. Ride the streetcar.

Ransom LOVED the streetcar.  We only got to ride it once unfortunately, from the train station to the hotel. There was some major disappointment about not getting to ride it back to the train station.  We tried but it was apparently running at least 35 minutes late, and we had a actual scheduled train to catch.  So we took a cab.  Moral – use the streetcar for leisure travel, not necessarily when you actually have to be somewhere at a certain time.  If we’d had more time, I think Ransom would have loved to just ride the trolley out to the end of the line, get off, and then ride it back again.


3. The Aquarium

This was our big planned excursion, and it was a hit with Ransom for sure.  We only had two hours and we assumed that we wouldn’t have time to see everything.  However, its actually not very big.  Two hours is plenty of time to see everything, and since we were going preschooler speed (which is pretty fast in places like museums and zoos), we could’ve easily been out in an hour.  We even made a return to the play boat section, of course.  The down side is, the ticket prices are steep – $60 for the three of us.  I kinda feel like something so expensive shouldn’t be viewable in two hours, know what I mean?  But it did make an impression on Ransom.  We’ve had lots of discussion about sharks and jelly fish ever since.


4. The Cafe du Monde

This place is a New Orleans classic, and its great for kids.  You sit outdoors and all they serve are beignets which are essentially powdered donuts.  (Really really good ones.)  Doesn’t get much better, does it?  My advice – skip the coffee.  Its disgusting!  Who would drink that?  Okay try it once just so you can learn for yourself how disgusting the mysterious ‘chicory’ ingredient is.  Gag.  Order chocolate milk instead.  Also, the wait line for the restaurant was a little bit long, so we went to the ‘To Go’ window.  There’s a nice park right next door.


That is basically all we packed into our 17 hours in New Orleans.  Our train was a whopping 5 hours late arriving in NOLA, so that kind of took a bite out of an already quick trip.  We did find two kid-friendly restaurants –  Daisy Duke’s Restaurant.  They serve breakfast 24/7 and some typical New Orleans fare (gumbo, po boys).  All was good but not life changing.  But hey, this was at 9 pm on Saturday night, right by our hotel, and not a bar.  So basically perfect for us.  And then we also ate at Arby’s.  ha.

Next time, we’ll plan a three-day weekend so that we have a little more flexibility.  A few more kid friendly options that are on my list for next time:

Swamp tour

These are probably overpriced and super touristy, but if there’s an airboat and/or an alligator involved, I know it would be a hit with our kiddo.  I saw these being offered from several ‘tourist information’ stands, as well as in the hotel lobby, visitors center, etc.

The Audubon Butterfly Garden and Insectarium

I’ve heard its good.  Kids love bugs. Its newer than the aquarium so it probably doesn’t have that “We built this in the 80s’ feel going on.

The City Park

We didn’t get to go here because their winter hours are kind of slim, but I’ve heard its awesome.  There is a small amusement park section, a storybook garden, a train garden, and a lot of huge live oak trees.  I bet you could get some fantastic instagrams of your kiddos riding the antique carousel, etc.  Seriously Ransom loves all rides, from the mall food court up, so I know he’d love this.  Definitely on our list for the next trip.  (And you can take the streetcar to get there.)

Taking that Train Ride

This weekend we finally took that train ride I’d had on my “To Do” list for a couple of years. We all had a great time, and I think we’ll definitely do it again sometime.  Its such an easy and relaxing experience – I highly recommend it.

IMG_2733The City of New Orleans train is actually a double-decker.

We are located near the Amtrak line that runs from Chicago to New Orleans – the song-inspiring ‘City of New Orleans’ line.  This train just runs once per day, in each direction, so obviously there’s not a lot of flexibility in the schedule.  But, the connection times between Jackson and New Orleans are pretty decent.

On arriving at the station, the general lack of regulation is a little disconcerting to most first-time rider adults.  Compared to say, air travel, its all just so relaxed.  We weren’t the only ones looking around going ‘uh am I doing this right?’ ‘Where is the TSA agent?’ Ha ha.  No one even checks your ID.  You can bring as much liquid as you want on there.  I saw a soft-sided cooler or two.  They sort of generally assign seats (when the train is busy) but you can sit pretty much wherever no one else is already sitting.  And you can move around as much as you want.

IMG_2649We’re working on Ransom’s photography skills here.

IMG_2659Sit three people in two seats if you like, no problem.

Besides all that, the seats are approximately 300% larger than an airplane seat.  They have electrical outlets everywhere, even in the restroom. (? for shaving I guess ?) The seats recline pretty far, and when not reclined, there’s plenty of room for a kid to play in the floor.

Want a change of scenery?  There’s a dining car, a snack bar, and our favorite, the observation car.  You can go straight from your seat up to that observation car and sit there for the entire trip.  Its sort of like a rolling lounge.  The more social groups from the train were found hanging out here, as well as some couples playing dominos.

IMG_2728Here we’re playing a rousing game of ‘Spot a green tractor’.

The snacks for sale are fairly pricey – in the range of $3 for a gatorade – so wise train passengers bring their own.  I even saw some bringing their own alcohol, although you may need to be discreet about consuming it in public.  The official rules say you can only drink your own alcohol in the sleeping cars.  Still, the lack of regulation is just so luxurious.

Ransom’s favorite part was reportedly, the doors between the cars.  Push that button and they open with a real ‘woosh’ so obviously a kid favorite.  He fabricated several excuses to move around on the train – potty breaks, snack breaks, etc – which was pretty amusing.  He would’ve gladly run up and down the train for the entire trip, but that’s actually not so fun for adults so we kept it to a minimum.

IMG_2731One more trip between cars

 The trip from Jackson to New Orleans is scheduled for about 4 hours, although we made it in closer to 3 each time.  By car the trip is more like 2.5 hours, so there is some delay.  I don’t think the trains go much faster than 40 or 50mph.  But they also don’t stop at red lights.

The only downside is, as with any mode of transportation I guess, there is a risk of delay.  Our train was actually nearly 5 hours late leaving on Saturday.  We were able to find that out first thing in the morning, so we didn’t have to sit at the station that entire time or anything.  But, it did throw a wrench in an already tight trip schedule.  In our case, the delay was at departure from Chicago, so it may have been weather related.  Obviously a train has to deal with hundreds of miles of weather conditions, so it may be wiser to travel by train in the summer.  And, I’ve also heard reports of mechanical delays that can take many hours to resolve.  Its not like there are extra trains nearby that can be used in case of a breakdown, especially mid-route.

On our return, the train left right on time from New Orleans and arrived back to Jackson about 45 minutes ahead of schedule.

IMG_2713   Big smiles at the station

So, if you live near an Amtrak line, you should definitely check your options for trips.  Its obviously great for kids, but it could also make for a pretty awesome ‘girls weekend’ or something like that.  Next time I’ll follow up with what we actually did in our approximately 20 hours in New Orleans.  Happy Monday folks!

Hipster Transportation

I absolutely adore my town.  Nashville has been making a bit of a splash lately as the next “it” city, even getting some attention from the Huffington Post and other media.  And I love that almost every single place on their list is somewhere that I either frequently dine or, well, frequent, or it’s at least within a few miles of my house.  Lots of good stuff here.

And Nashvillians don’t like to just go fun places, we like to go there in unusual ways.  When I first moved to town, it wasn’t unusual to get stuck in traffic behind a hipster on a giant bicycle.  Sometimes a gang of hipsters on large bicycles.  Something like this:

blg wheelman

And of course during the warmer months, lots of folks in our neighborhood zip around town on one of these.  I admit, I have lots of Vespa-envy.  Some day.


Also a favorite around town, the classic truck.  There’s one that parks in front of my house quite frequently and I’m often tempted to leave them a note asking if they are interested in selling.  I would LOVE to roll around town in a classic truck.  Think:


But never….never….in my life have I witnessed anything quite as unusual as this.  Well, not until last Wednesday anyway when I was driving down 10th Ave on my way from a friends house back to my house, and I passed the following:

Sorry the clip is so short, but yes….that was, infact, a man on a razor scooter being towed by a pair of huskies.  Maybe he’s training for the Iditarod?  Or maybe……maybe…..I honestly can’t come up with a second scenario.

Here’s to you, hipster on a scooter with huskies.  May your shirts always be plaid, your records indie, and your dogs mush.

What to Wear to Russia In the Winter

Fashion post alert! These are my favorite types of posts – where I play like I’m some kind of fashion expert when the exact opposite is true.  But, I can at least tell you what I saw.  Furthermore, there’s not a lot of information about this particular topic on the interwebs (because seriously who would choose January to visit Moscow?  Besides people who will have a newborn in April, I don’t know…)  Hopefully this post finds its way to the google searches of some other curious travelers like myself.  We managed just fine on our trip in mid-January, so here is my report on what to take and how to prepare.

So, there are two guiding principles.  First, you need to be prepared for COLD.  The temperatures are going to be low and moderately humid.  We caught the tail end of a warm snap, and temperatures for our trip ranged from about 10 to 30F – in other words, kind of like Mississippi during a polar vortex.  Moscow can be even colder than this, more like -10 to 10F, but I think my advice will hold up even in that case.

The second principle is this:  If you want to fit in with the Muscovite masses, you are going to need to be as ‘put together’ as you can possibly be while still dealing with the 10F weather.  Moscow ladies wouldn’t be caught dead without their hair fixed and makeup applied.  They regard American woman as sloppy dressers, and that may be true in comparison.  And frankly some of us may not care about that perception one bit (thumbs pointing at me anyway) when its 10F, but if ya want to fit in , stick to dark colors and sleek lines.


So, first you need a coat.  Far and away, the most common type of coat on a Russian woman in 2014 is:

  • Mid-thigh length
  • Slightly puffy but fitted and must have a cinched-in waist
  • Usually has a belt on that cinched waist
  • Dark color, either black or brown.  Some tan and red ones are out there as well.
  • Fur trim around the hood, either faux or real depending on how chic you really can afford to be

Something like this:


If you’re searching from the US, I’d start with a brand like Victoria’s Secret or even a department store brand like Michael Kors.  I actually bought a second hand coat off Ebay just for the trip, primarily due to the fact that my own coats can barely zip up these days.  BUT, its a great place to look.  Second hand coat prices are quite reasonable, and who want to spend a ton of money on something just for one trip, right?   Also watch the fill content on the puffer coats.  You want as much ‘down’ as possible.

My purchased coat was a department store model (Kenneth Cole I believe), nothing special.  65% down.  Probably originally cost $120 or so.  I purchased for half off on Ebay, with tags still attached. It was perfect for the trip and plenty warm. In other words, you don’t have to have a fancy coat made for the Arctic Circle to be comfortable there.

The key is layers.. Under the coat, I’d recommend a sweater and one other underlayer.  Here’s my uniform for the week.



I also bought a pair of snowboots for the trip, because I found some on Craigslist that I loved for a mere $40 – Sorel Caribous.  I can’t recommend these highly enough.  They are extremely warm.  And and AND, I wore them for 12+ hours a day for 6 days in a row, with lots of walking, and never got one blister.  Not even a foot ache.  Like, tennis-shoe level of comfort here.  That is sayin’ something for a pregnant lady and for literally never wearing them even once prior to the trip.  Seriously,  I couldn’t have been more impressed.

Also the liners are removable and washable.  Kicking myself for not owning a pair while I LIVED in COLORADO.  Hello.  (Also, spoiler alert, Bethany’s post for Friday is… more BOOTS!)


Now the downside: lumberjack style is out in Russia.  Sleek is in.  Most Sorels are highly lumberjack-ish, which I prefer with my sloppy American outlook on life.  These Caribous are BIG and bulky.  If you want to fit in with the Russians, look for some Sorels that are solid black without a bunch of contrasting hardware and whatnot.

Actually most of the Russian women wear boots that don’t look like snowboots per se.  Example:

bootsBut I bet their toes weren’t as toasty as mine were!  And finally, DO NOT do what I did.  Make sure whatever shoes you bring are actually comfortable before you leave the US of A.  Blistery feet in a foreign countries are no fun.  Not a risk you want  to take.


Go for either skinny dark denim or skinny black.  You want them tucked into your boots.  And for extra warmth, bring some leggings to wear under your pants.  That trick keeps the frigid air at bay pretty well.


You need all the usual winter stuff: scarf, hat, and gloves.  Simple knit hats are the most fashionable right now, often with a matching scarf.  For maximum warmth, pull your coat hood over your hat and then wrap your scarf on the outside of the coat.  Sarah and I conducted research into scarf positioning for maximum warmth and decided that outside is the way to go but makes for a more complicated assembly process.

For gloves, I bought a $25 pair at the local department store and they were just fine.  If you really want warmth, find some mittens.  If you want to operate your iphone camera, you need gloves with the little conductive fingertip.  Or just pull your gloves on and off 100 times per day like I did.

Moral of the story:  Ebay. Layers. Sleek.  Bethany II and I once swore off European winters entirely, but we were ready this time and that made all the difference.  The weather is doable, just be prepared.

From Russia With Love

{who saw that title coming?}

My third trimester Russian babymoon is over and done with, and I lived to tell the tale obviously. I have so much I could say about this, so I think I’ll break this post up into two parts. Today, I’ll show some highlights of the trip, and then next time I’ll cover what I did to prepare, what I packed, etc. Because trust me, “what to pack to Moscow in January” is remarkably undercovered here on the Internet. (Wonder why?)

We arrived in the afternoon on Monday at 3pm, after a remarkably smooth 9 hour flight. Monday turned out to be ‘Old New Years Eve’, a minor holiday in Russia. “New” New Years (Jan 1) is the biggest holiday in Russia, and that’s when Santa visits Russian children, rather than Christmas Eve. So this being effectively a minor version of New Years Eve, we found Russian Santa and his daughter in a holiday market set up in Red Square.  We busted up a bunch of kids to get this picture with Russian Santa and his daughter the Snow Girl (or something like that).

Santa and Daughter Frost

Santa and Daughter Frost, not your average mall santa costumes either

Tuesday we got up just in time to see the sunrise at approximately 10am. This side effect of Moscow’s latitude was not helpful for jet lag mitigation.  However, that was pretty much our schedule for the rest of our trip: staying up till midnight or 1am and then sleeping in till 9 or 10am. In some ways, this is just part of the life of Moscow, where life tends to happen a bit later in the day than we’re accustomed to over here in the US. And I never did kick that morning jet laggy feeling.

Late morning sunrise

Good morning sunshine! (Its 10am.)

We saw the biggest tourist stops – Red Square, the Kremlin, St Basil’s Cathedral. Being the dead of winter, the tourist lines were minimal, and English speaking tourists were no where to be found. Even being the capital, Moscow (probably all of Russia) really doesn’t cater to foreign tourism as an industry.  There’s only English signage at the most touristy of locations, and none on the street signs, etc. I gather that the Russian attitude towards tourism is along the lines of ‘Hey don’t be an idiot and figure it out.’  Luckily we had Sarah to act as tour guide and translator. I do regret not versing myself in Cyrillic a bit better before the trip.  FYI “Щ” makes the “sh” sound but I never did learn all the letters. 😦

Hello Mr Putin! (at the Kremlin)

Hello Putin! (at the Kremlin)

Shiny gold domes at one of the Kremlin churches

Shiny gold domes at one of the Kremlin churches

Iphone panorama

Iphone panorama

We ate a lot of unusual foods, but nothing too shocking. Lots of beets, potatoes, buckwheat, meat, tea, and lots of cookies / tortes / candies (thank goodness! I do prefer cultures that emphasize dessert… )

Tasting an herbal tea made from a special Russian berry

Tasting an herbal tea made from a special Russian berry

We rode our fair share of subway trains, and I was often forced by a stern looking babushka to take her seat. Let me tell you, that is an unusual experience – switching places with an old woman on a subway train due to pregnancy. And let me tell you, there was no arguing with them – pregnant women have to sit or else they’ll go in to labor right there on the spot or something.

Believe this was the first of several times an old lady vacated her seat for me

Believe this was the first of several times an old lady vacated her seat for me

Oh, and the subway stations were endlessly fascinating to me – many were built during the height of the Soviet era and not at all bashful about it. The decor usually focused on happy Soviet citizens doing happy Soviet things.

Soviet era artwork in the rear

Soviet era artwork in the rear

We wrapped up the trip with an evening of outdoor ice skating at this trippy skate park, complete with special effect lights frozen under the ice and a Nivea warming hut. This was the coldest night of the trip, but we were prepared. I’m not a good ice skater (blaming it on the baby bump) but it was a great way to wrap up the trip. Well, that and the fabulous Georgian restaurant we visited right after. More on that later!

Trying desperately not to fall and break my phone or anything else...

Trying desperately not to fall and break my phone or anything else…

In general, you would think that Moscow and western Russia would be fairly European, and they are a bit. BUT, at the same time, the Russian culture is really all their own. Everything is just a little bit different than you might think. They have a fascinating and complex history that’s fairly separate from the Roman / Anglo history I’m more familiar with. Its not the easiest place to live, and as a people they’ve been through a lot and continue to struggle through hard times in many ways. You can see it on their faces in the metro… and as they roll their eyes at you for taking up too much space… as they push their grocery carts through a foot of snow.

All in all it was a great trip, pregnancy, time change, snow, and all.  Of course its always good to land back in the good ole US of A.


A Mini travelogue of Costa Rica: Rincon de la Vieja

Today we continue our journey through Costa Rica with some highlights from my favorite part of our trip: the Rincón de la Vieja National Park, home to the volcano by the same name.  We went on the recommendation of a hotel employee at the Hilton when I told him we were looking for something with an adventure rating in between “bus-full-of-gringos” and “foolhardy-or-dangerous.”

We drove to the ranger station at the Las Pailas Sector instead of the Santa Maria sector because we’d heard that two hikes we were epecially interested in began there.  Thanks to Lonely Planet (by far our favorite travel-guide source), we were prepared for the $1.50 per-person (or 700 colones per person) “toll” to drive through the Hotel Hacienda Guachipelin property, as well as the $10 per person park entry fee.  Our first day, we chose the Mud Pot trail as it was the shorter trail and we’d gotten a bit of a late start.  But every step of the 3KM hike is packed with lots of bang-for-your-buck.  From sulpherous volcanic vents to bubbling mud pots, there’s a natural sideshow around every turn.  Not to mention that it was a great introduction to the gigantic Ceiba trees (we couldn’t stop taking photos of them! They were so amazing!), the blue morpho butterfly, and a few families of monkeys chattering far overhead as we walked.

Isn't my husband a hottie? Relaxing in the shade of a Ceiba tree.

Isn’t my husband a hottie? Relaxing in the shade of a Ceiba tree.

I loved these swinging bridges in the park!

I loved these swinging bridges in the park!

Checking out one of the fumeroles.

Checking out one of the fumeroles.

Although nothing can really compare to seeing it in person, here are a few video clips of the Fumerolas (volcanic vents) and the bubbling mud pots that I took on my iPhone.  Nothing compares to seeing it in person though!

Two days later we made the trek back up to the park for a second day of hiking…this time to the “Catarata La Cangre” waterfall.  This hike is 5.1 KM each way (about 6 miles round-trip) and again we were a little short on time so we did a bit of speed-hiking.  The scenery was just as stunning the second day as it had been the first….but totally different topography.  I could barely believe we were on the same mountain.    From jungle to tall grasses to a stand of giant plants that looked like it could have been the set of  “Honey I Shrunk the Gringos” the topography seemed to change every quarter of a mile.  It wasn’t a difficult hike, but we’d recommend taking all day to do it both so you can enjoy all the scenery and so you can take your time and not trip on any rocks or roots or other obstacles along the way.  Plus, once you get to the waterfall, you’ll want a few hours there to enjoy the scenery.  I’m thinking a picnic lunch would have been just the thing to have along.

Headed out!  Can't wait to go back and hike all the rest!

Headed out! Can’t wait to go back and hike all the rest!

Hiking through the land of giant plants!

Hiking through the land of giant plants!

Keith and I’d worn bathing suits under our hiking clothes and happily set our backpacks down and took a little dip (the rangers had told us that this particular waterfall was safe to swim in…but it’s always best to check with the park before taking a dip.  and even with this particular pool, due to a few big rocks underwater, I’d be careful where you decide to jump in.).  The water had a refreshing chill, but wasn’t cold once you were in.  And the falls…well……they were just spectacular.  For some reason it didn’t occur to me to take video there, but here are a few photos for your enjoyment.

Swimming in the falls!

Swimming in the falls!

Keith and I enjoying the waterfall

Keith and I enjoying the waterfall

Another side trip we made was to the Simbiosis Spa located on the road leading to the park.  Although we didn’t get any massages or other spa treatments, we paid the $10 a person entrance fee for the use of their facilities….and it just might have been the best $20 we spent the whole trip.  You start with 10 minutes in the dry sauna to open up your pores.  Then it’s off to the mud “bath”…stone columns of warm, volcanic mud.  Just a few feet away is a huge pit where the spa digs out the mud daily…you could see the bubbling liquid in the bottom of the pit.  Keith and I lathered up and then sat in lounge chairs in the sun for about 25 minutes until the mud dried.  Then it was off to the warm bath.  Although it’s fed by volcanic springs, it’s more like a warm bath…not hot springs.  Afterwards, our skin felt so smoother and clean.  And the photos, well, they really are worth a thousand words.

Applying the mud...

Applying the mud…

letting it dry....

letting it dry….

Then relaxing in the hot springs.

Then relaxing in the hot springs.

(Side note: the “crater hike” up to the volcano crater (8km long) was closed both days due to volcanic activity.  “It’s crazy up there” the park ranger said.  “There’s gas and smoke, ashes, burning things and flying mud.”  Guess we’ll have to go back to see that next time.)

A Mini Travelogue of Costa Rica: Part 1

Mary Hall and I are both kicking off 2014 with travel adventures.  While she’s headed to Moscow on her “babymoon” (and in her third trimester of pregnancy I might add), Keith and I went to Costa Rica to celebrate a different milestone…our 4th anniversary.  We first fell in love with Costa Rica in 2007 when we were still single and went on a cruise with friends.  One of the ports of call was Puerto Limon on the Caribbean side of the country and the six or so hours that we spent there zip-lining through the canopy, visiting a banana plantation and taking a river boat ride were some of our favorite parts of the entire cruise and we’ve been itching for the opportunity to explore the country further ever since then.

Top L to R: Me, Shack, Alexis and Keith all suited up for some adventure...and below...I let er rip...or zip...through the jungle canopy.

Top L to R: Me, Shack, Alexis and Keith all suited up for some adventure…and below…I let er rip…or zip…through the jungle canopy.  Spring 2007.

We cashed in some of Keith’s Hilton Honors points and booked a week at the Hilton Papagayo Costa Rica Resort & Spa…an all-inclusive resort in the Guancaste Region that makes up the Northwest corner of the country.  The resort had a cozy feel, with great views, an efficient shuttle service to help folks out with all the hills on the property.  If you choose to stay there, we’d recommend the Grill de Fuego by the Spa Pool both for lunch (fish tacos) and dinner (try the gnocci to start and end with the salmon)….and anytime you find yourself in need of a mango smoothie (which was often for me.)

The view from our hotel room porch.

The view from our hotel room porch.

Unfortunately our first day in country Keith wasn’t feeling very well so we kicked off our trip with a visit to the local Hopital Clinica Biblia just down the road by the “Do It Center” that boasted a cafe with fantastic vanilla iced coffees for $2 each.  We rented a car from Economy Rental car near the Liberia airport.  (we were pleased both with the new-ish Hyundai they gave us as well as their service and cost) and we were eager to do some exploring of the country on our own.  Now don’t get me wrong, Keith and I love a nice pool and a cushy lounge chair as much as the next person, but we’ve learned that it’s hard for us to sit still for very long.  Even with both of us sick (yes, I caught Keith’s cold-like-symptoms on Wednesday) we did more than our fair share of checking out our new favorite travel destination.  In fact, we saw so much of the country that I’m going to split this post into two posts: today we’ll hit the beach, and Friday, the mountains.

We were amazed by how large the beaches in Costa Rica are!  They are so deep and stretch on as far as the eye can see.  We walked along Playa Hermosa and Playa del Coco up near our resort with dark volcanic sands.  Then on the recommendation of a Hilton employee, we headed down south to the non-volcanic sand beaches.  Playa Flamingo was beautiful and virtually deserted except for a few locals enjoying a picnic, and a random cowboy who rode by with another horse in tow.


We also checked out a great little place for lunch at Playa Brasilita and then went for a stroll on Playa Conchal.  I loved all the little funky places that dotted the beach towns. This sign made me laugh and I loved the rickety bridge.


Then we made our way down to Playa Tamerindo, which we liked so much that we ended up going back again a few times.  Granted, it’s a little more “touristy” than some of the other beaches, but there were some fun shops and places to eat and we loved the whole vibe.  And by a “little more touristy” it’s still a far cry from the over-commercialized beaches in North America.  We had such an amazing time walking from one end of the beach to the other and swimming in the ocean.  I just could not get enough.  Here are some beach photos because, well….they are pretty.

image 1604707_10151996985828682_589225712_n 1514660_10151997053993682_249690731_n 1554572_10151996986863682_1888547152_n 1520767_10151997083873682_860717547_n 1512574_10151996989403682_1397866730_n1525739_10151996986178682_1288419476_n

The most beautiful view.

The most beautiful view.

And then the third night we were there, we had a magical magical night on the beach.  No, not that kind of magical.  We went to find sea turtles.  It was another case of a National-Park-For-The-Win.  For just $25 a person, we headed over to the Marino Las Baullas National Park (if you go, make sure you know which ranger station to go to.  We made an impressive 30-minute sprint across town and arrived just as the turtle presentation was beginning.)  We’d initially signed up to on a leatherback turtle watching adventure but after learning that our odds of sitting on the beach for hours and not seeing a darn thing were pretty high, we opted to switch to the “black sea turtle” watching tour.  After driving down some long and precarious dirt roads and hiking along some dark cliffs guided by Spanish-only speaking park rangers and cell-phone flashlights, we arrived at another beach just in time to watch a huge black sea turtle lay the last of her clutch of eggs. and start covering them over again.  Some other researchers were out patrolling the beach and moving the eggs to a protected area and it was pretty incredible to watch them measure the turtle as she began the careful process of covering over her “nest” by kicking the sand in…then patting it down carefully and repeating.  A truly stunning and beautiful thing to behold.  Photography wasn’t allowed, but I did get this great photo of us with a statue of a leatherback at the ranger station to remember our turtle watching night by.


And just in case you want to get your head around the geography of the country, here are some helpful maps below both of the region where we were, and the entire country.

Just to help you see where we were, here is map of the Guancaste region.

Screen Shot 2014-01-13 at 9.18.09 PM

and a map of the whole country.

Just Up and Go.

Have you ever heard of the “babymoon” concept? The idea is to take a ‘last hurrah’ style vacation in the last few weeks before the arrival of a new baby and the accompany slog through weeks of a reduced sleep schedule all around. Usually you go somewhere warm and relaxing, I suppose.

Today I am on a plane bound for my own babymoon of sorts. Except, the destination is Moscow – maybe not relaxing and certainly not warm but a ‘last hurrah’ adventure none the less.

I have a dear friend Sarah to visit there, and one of my other best friends is coming along as well. This best friend is also named Bethany, but not the Bethany of this blog. Should we call her Bethany II to keep them straight?

Bethany II and I have traveled internationally together twice before. Once, sophomore year of college, to London and Paris:

scan0034Very early and very cold on the Seine River in Paris, 2002

Then to western Germany in 2004. After Germany we swore off visiting Europe in the winter, forever. Yes the tourist lines are short or non existent, but we were frozen popsicles for both trips.

Germany73Still cold, somewhere in Germany

Oh well. I like to think we’re better prepared this time. Here I am this morning at my local airport with copious amounts of luggage.

20140112-124158.jpgBasically maxing out the available space in more ways than one

I’m not as prepared as it looks. 75% of that space is stuff Sarah ordered and I am just the mule. I did purchase a pair of used snowboots and a larger coat to fit over my belly. I also borrowed my grandpa’s fur hat for added authenticity. Pretty pumped about it too!

20140112-125408.jpgReady for the cold

Unfortunately August is having to sit this one out due to vacation time limitations. Appropriately, I took a pic of him with his employer’s advertisement at our airport this morning.

20140112-125750.jpgWorking for the man…

So there’s the cold, snow, and ice. Plus We’ll only be there for 5 days which isn’t long enough to see much. I’m not sure we’ll even adjust to the 10 hour time change. Being right on the cusp of my 3rd trimester, I probably can’t walk the miles and miles I would normally. Nor can I sample much vodka obviously. But sometimes you just have to up and go, right?


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