The Travel Tree

I love souvenirs.  I very easily can get suckered into those “I ❤ NY” t-shirts on the street and tacky little things that cost a fortune but don’t mean much, so a few years ago I decided to narrow my focus when it came to travel souvenirs or “merch” as Scube jokingly calls it.  As a result, instead of bringing back a $10 two inch Statue of Liberty or Leaning Tower of Pisa, I look for Christmas tree ornaments.  It’s my thing, and it drives Scube nuts, especially if we’re traveling somewhere in say, April.  But thus far, my success rate is at 100%, not without some required creativity.  Tip: Buy a magnet if no Christmas ornaments are available, loop a ribbon and with a glue gun, adhere the ribbon to the back of the magnet. Insta-ornament.

So as Scube and I put our tree up a few weeks ago, I was all excited to deck the halls with some new ornaments that we collected this year, from St. John, Capri, Ogunquit, Maine and Portland, Oregon.  What I love so much about these keepsakes, as with each ornament I dig out of the box, I’m taken momentarily back to that trip, a memory and moment in time that I can revisit each year on our “travel tree”.  Be it biking across the Golden Gate Bridge (and being scared out of my mind! It’s so narrow, there are so many people!), to gorging at a buffet at the Cosmopolitan in Vegas with the senior citizen crowd (jet lag had us up soooooo early, and who can say no to ice cream for breakfast?? Not this girl!), or meeting Sylvia, the third generation ceramic shop owner in Capri who thought she would study languages and travel the world before taking over for her Mother, and who now hopes her daughter will take over for her.  It’s all there, wrapped in paper towels and unearthed each year.

While our tree also has the requisite snowmen, Santas, and glittery balls,  our memories littered throughout seem to matter so much more.  And what started out as an almost silly way to avoid useless crap, it’s turned into something that I look forward to sharing with my own children and grandchildren someday.  The ornaments are a gateway to my memories, and hopefully our future spawn will think we’re pretty cool someday, when they’re not too busy being embarrassed by us.

What is your souvenir of choice?

Portland and the Great Outdoors

Renting a car and exploring outside of Portland is something I would recommend to anyone, in fact, I would encourage it. Oregon has so much to offer and there are many beautiful wonders within just a few hours of Portland that it’s a sin not to get outside and see it. Based on the time allowed and the weather constraints, we had one full day outside the city, and to be entirely cliché, it was magical.

We opted for the scenic drive to Mt. Hood from the city, clocking in at only 90 minutes each way, making this is a great day trip, weather permitting.   Getting out of the city was a breeze. We rented a car from Avis on 4th and NW Washington Street, and within 2 minutes of leaving the garage, we were on the highway headed to our destination.  Side note:  This was also the best non-airport Avis experience we have EVER had.

Start your scenic drive at Vista House, but mind the wind. This area of the Columbia River Gorge is a wind surfers paradise, and apparently the wind can be so strong that it takes the doors off of cars (?!?!). Upon hearing that bit of information and receiving the advice to park into the wind (whatever that meant) Scube and I were a wee bit concerned. Fortunately, the wind wasn’t nearly as strong as it apparently could be during our visit. Continue on route 30, which is Oregon’s Scenic Drive that runs parallel to the highway, until you hit the start of a corridor filled with waterfalls. From Latourell Falls, to Bridal Veil, to Multnomah and Horsetail Falls, you will not be disappointed. All of the falls were breathtaking, but Multnomah Falls is the most famous, with a restaurant, lodge, and visitor center. I highly recommend walking up to the bridge between the two falls, but I do not recommend the mile hike to the top of the entire falls system. The pay-off is not nearly as sweet as you’d like it to be. The tiny look out is off to the side of the falls and looking over the edge you really cannot see much. The hike took about 30 – 40 minutes to reach the top (layers upon layers of clothing was pulled off in the process) and as Scube said, “the view is better from below.” After trekking back down the mountain, we grabbed a quick snack and continued the beautiful tour of the area.

A really great stop along the way which I was not expecting is the Bonneville Dam and Lock System along the Columbia River. If you catch it when the time is right, you can watch the famous salmon runs as they return to spawn. The runs were just ending as we arrived, but we caught a rogue salmon or two making its way up stream. Additionally, on-site you get to see fish hatcheries, giving new meaning to the term raised vs. wild salmon.   It was a really cool experience.

After the DAM, our goal was to see Mt. Hood (a potentially active volcano!). Back east, while we do have mountains, none seem to closely resemble the mountains of the west. And I was so excited to see the snowcapped top against the back drop of fall colors, pines, and water. And it sure was snowcapped! Our drive turned from rainy fall colors to snow encrusted pines, with large snow plows with chains on their tires clearing the drive. While I’m not a nervous driver, it was unclear whether or not our Hyundai Sonata was up for the task of climbing this snowy mountain.

Based on the weather, we decided to visit Timberline Lodge, built during the Great Depression and appeared in the film The Shining as the outside of the hotel Jack Nicholson and his wife watch over during the winter months. The lodge was beautiful, with intricate woodwork and an atrium with fire places, sofas, and restaurants encircling the chimney. Our hot chocolates were 16 ounces of pure winter heaven, despite the early November date. It made me wish we were staying overnight, pretending to be snowed in and lounging by the fire with a good book. If only! Since the snow seemed pretty heavy we only stayed an hour as again, our car was not equipped for snowy mountain’s majesty, and headed back to Portland for some good food and a rainy drizzle.

 

Put a bird on it

“The dream of the 90s is alive in Portland.” – Portlandia.

As Scube and I sat in a neighborhood bar in the Nob Hill section of Portland, an eccentric British woman named Jenny asked us what made us come to Portland, and more importantly, how did we end up here, at Nobby Nobby Nobby? The latter, we needed a bathroom, the former, well, we had never been. And after a work trip to San Francisco, Portland was just a quick flight away, so why not?

What I had known of Portlandia going in was great food, an excessive liberal population, plenty of rain, and a diverse landscape. I was pumped, despite the awful weather report.   On our itinerary, the beautiful Multnomah Falls and scenic drive, as well as Mount Hood and the Timberline Lodge (our first snow of the season!!), and finally two full days exploring the city. And Scube and I don’t just explore, we attack (metaphorically speaking).

Upon arrival, we were greeted with some of the best city public transportation I have ever seen. While the city is incredibly accessible on foot (we did that too), the public transportation was so smooth and easy to use. A day pass on the Max and Street Car will run you $5, whereas a one-way fare is $2.50, and good for 2.5 hours after purchasing. At all stops, we found that many of the tickets come out pre-validated, making it incredibly efficient to hop on and hop off. And I loooooove efficiency. I used to be a consultant after all.

In the city, here is a quick rundown of the must-see sites:

  • Powell’s Book Store. Where brick and mortar bookstores have suffered in the age of Amazon, Powell’s is large, thriving, and a wonderful place to get lost and escape the cold drizzle.
  • The Rose Garden. Even in November, there were still a few luscious looking roses to be found, as well as an incredible view of the city.
  • The Brew Scene. Both coffee and beer, the city is littered with breweries (Deschutes, Bridgeport, to name a few) and artisan coffee shops.
  • Food carts, food carts, food carts! Portland has a thriving food cart scene taking up parking lots and emanating the most enticing of food smells.
  • The Art Museum. An architectural wonder filled with a collection of modern art to die for.
  • Lady Portland. She is NOT Poseidon as I had actually thought.
  • Farmer’s Markets. Literally one for every day.
  • The forest. I love when you can escape a city in the city itself. Lush growth, mile high ferns, and dozens of trails await just a short walk from the street car.
  • The shopping. From high end name brand store so small boho boutiques littered with birds, I could have shopped for days…if Scube would let me!
  • The Salt & Straw. Incredible ice cream, though depending on timing you may have a long wait. What I loved, this organic, farm to table ice cream shop wasn’t too uppity for sprinkles (THANK GOD).
  • Neon signage. Neon signs are everywhere and I ate them up. Right over the Burnside Bridge is the beautiful Portland Oregon neon sign greeting visitors in Old Town Portland, a stone’s throw from Voodoo Donuts.
  • Voodoo vs. Blue Star Donuts. After sampling both, Voodoo Donuts was the ultimate winner for me and Scube. Bigger, badder, cheaper. We went twice, and both times, thanks to our east coast jetlag aka early wake-up time, we avoided the lines. Keep in mind Voodoo Donuts is open 24 hours, so whenever the mood for a light sugary treat hits, Voodoo will be waiting. But be careful, that area is not the most savory in the city.
  • Rent a car and get outside the city (separate post to come)!
  • Go see where Tonya Harding trained!  Well this one might be just me, but as a figure skater growing up in the 80s and 90s, Tonya Harding was the tits, until of course she hired her ex-husband to take Nancy Kerrigan out with a tire iron.  But, you can see where Tonay Harding trained, in the mall in Portland near the Convention Center.  The must under served tourist attraction EVER, and the cherry on top of my Oregon visit.
     

Portland is a beautiful city with literally the nicest people I have ever met. I have never felt so welcomed by a city’s people than I did in Portland. But like any city, Portland is not without its faults and seedy neighborhoods. Be smart, ask where to go and not to go, and overall enjoy what the city has to offer, because it’s a lot. And remember, put a bird on it.

 

Vacation Blooper – Blue Grotto Snuggles

Being American, I love to hug, snuggle, cuddle, whatever.  But as one of my favorite movies so aptly puts it, “No hugging, dear. I’m British. We only show affection to dogs and horses”*, not all cultures are as huggy as well, me.  So why is this important?  Well, entering the Blue Grotto in Capri involves very close quarters potentially with strangers.

When the seas are gentle and the Blue Grotto is open, about 20 – 25 row boats are ready outside the grotto waiting to accept passengers from other boats or from those taking the stairs (like moi).  Since the physical entry to the grotto itself is fairly small, everyone, including the boatmen have to lay completely flat upon entry and then can pop back up once inside the glittering blue expanse.  Fast forward to me and Scube getting in a boat with an Austrian couple in their late 40s.

Knowing we had to lay down I said to the woman, “It’s okay, don’t worry about it, we’ll all be friends here after this experience!” with a huge grin on my face.  Her face however was ashen and horrified.  She flat out refused to lay on me.  She cowered in a small nook on the boat inches from my spread legs and cuddle ready arms and at the last moment tipped her head back to avoid injury.  Once inside the grotto, her no touching policy continued.  And I get it, not everyone wants to lay on a young, chesty American woman who’s bosom is ready to welcome anyone with open arms in these circumstances, but in the spirit of new experiences, would my breasts have killed her?  Or maybe they would have?  We will never know.

blue grotto

 

*The cult classic Amanda Bynes film What a Girl Wants featuring Colin Firth…swoon.

Bucket list: Surfing Lessons

Ever since I was a little girl, I have always wanted to surf.  My mom and I watched the movie Gidget and I was hooked.  She could surf, she could hang with the incredibly handsome boys, and she just made everything look so easy (minus her approach to snagging her crush).  So at 28, I still hadn’t tried surfing, and that was about to change.

The last leg of our honeymoon had us staying in Noosa Heads.  We follow the Starwood Hotels, what can I say?  Noosa, known for being the Hamptons of Australia, is also known for some of the best surfing spots in the country, so we had to sign up.  As part of our surfing lessons, we spent some time on shore learning the proper stance, how to jump on the board, and just get our muscle memory going.  Our group consisted of a few girls from New Zealand, and a young boy who took lessons a few times a week.  After some time on land, it was time to test our skills in the ocean.

The waves were about 4-6 feet high, and were so hard to navigate.  Half the battle with learning to surf is just actually getting out far enough.  Once we made it out, the instructor helped us get on board, push off and would scream “STAND!” when the time was right.  Stand I did not.  My husband on the other hand, stood up on his first try and gave everyone the peace sign as he rode on by.  I’m competitive, and I was pissed.

So after riding the surf in on my belly, I gathered the board and battled the current again in order to catch a wave, shoot the curl, hang 10, etc.  Again, I didn’t stand.  And again, I headed back into the sea, battling the waves, and the exhaustion that comes with it.  With each time I got closer and closer to standing and staying up, but each time I failed.  After what seemed like hours, the lesson was done, and I had not stood on my board.  I was disappointed, but more completely sore and exhausted.  And so was my husband.

The result: cocktails in the hot tub at the hotel.

At the next opportunity, I fully intend on trying surfing again, and at least this time I will know it’s not nearly as easy as Sandra Dee and the green screen made it seem.  At least I already have my Moon Doggie. 😉

gidget
I mean look at these men! Who wouldn’t want to learn to surf if this was at the end of every lesson??

Noosa Heads – Wait, where am I?

When planning our Australian honeymoon, we knew that Sydney was a must, and so was the Great Barrier Reef, after that, we had no plan.  After looking at our map of Starwoods in the area, we settled on Noosa Heads because of a recently revamped Sheraton.  Doing a little research, we learned that Noosa was their version of the Hamptons, with surfing, beautiful beaches, a national park, and close to Fraser Island.  Fraser Island?  We’ll get to that in a later post.

We arrived late in the evening at Noosa, and checked in.  We were upgraded to a duplex, pool facing suite, with a downstairs living room, patio, and powder room, and upstairs with a master bedroom, balcony, and huge bathroom.  Like a bathroom you only dream about when watching HGTV.  To put it bluntly, the hotel was stunning.  The next morning, we were excited to start exploring.

The concierge mentioned there was a beautiful hike in the National Park, in walking distance from the hotel.  In fact, everything was in walking distance of the hotel.  The main street was adorable, littered with boutique shops, al fresco style restaurants, and on the other side, a gorgeous beach with big waves.  With our sneakers on, we headed toward the hike.  The hike was up a large hill, half trail, half wooden stairs, overlooking the beach, beautiful mountains, and various swimming holes.  The views were incredible, and the hike was fairly easy.  Upon reaching the top, the trail continued down the other side of the hill into another stretch of beautiful beaches but we chose to head back due to a hunger and an overwhelming need to go swimming.  It was here that we discovered our favorite lunch spot, Zachary’s.  Their arugula, pear, and parm salad dressed in a thick balsamic covered in grilled chicken was large enough for two.  We became regulars overnight.  One Monday during lunch, I watched the Giants get their first win of the season against the Minnesota Vikings while eating lunch.  The time difference and sports never lost it’s initial luster for us.

After lunch we decided to rent paddle boards.  This was a unique experience.  After standing up and falling a few times, I paddled out a bit further to discover I was surrounded by hundreds of light blue jelly fish.  I didn’t even bother standing up again, despite a few Australians trying to coax me up and shouting words of encouragement.  They weren’t close enough to see the terror of jellies waiting for me if I fell. I think it’s time for a new paddle boarding experience though, no?

It was back to the beach for some relaxing, and it is a beautiful beach.  In fact, there are multiple beaches in Noosa Heads.  Along the Noosa River and by the Noosa Spit Recreation Reserve, there are beautiful beaches, heavy winds perfect for kite boarding, and a view that will blow your mind.  We explored all sections of Noosa, and spent many an afternoon lounging by and walking along the reserve, watching the people, the puppies, and the kite boarders.

Noosa has a lot to offer, there was no want for nightlife or restaurants, and in nearby Noosaville, there were also wonderful restaurants and bars to enjoy.  We loved iS Tapas Bar in Noosaville (unfortunately no website to link to).  The sangria was delicious and the food was just as tasty.  Everything was either in walking distance or a short drive away, and on week three, I was a pro behind the wheel.

Noosa was a great relaxing stretch of time, and for anyone heading to Australia, I would highly recommend it, especially the proximity to Fraser Island, a really cool and fun day trip, coming up on the blog next week.

noosa 5
Hanging out by the Noosa Spit
noosa 4
Looking out at the beach from the entry to the National Park
noosa 2
Toward the start of our hike, repping my BU Terriers
noosa 1
Admiring the view
noosa 3
Pups travel in style, Noosa Spit edition

Why I’m a Starwood Member

I started my first job almost one month to the day after graduating college.  I took a position with a large consulting firm and did not fully understand the quantity of travel involved.  One of the women I started with mentioned off-hand “Starwood properties are the best”, and after spending a lifetime of not traveling, I hadn’t even heard of Starwood.  But based on her advice, I signed up.

If you are not familiar, Starwood properties are comprised of the St. Regis, Le Meridien, Westin, Sheraton, W, Aloft, Four Points, Element, and a luxury collection, think the Chatwal in NYC.  I had heard of the Sheraton when I first signed up, but I guess at the time the big name to me was Marriott, talk about the power of word of mouth, no?

So become a Starwood member involved also signing up for the American Express SPG card, and taking what they call the platinum challenge.  If you spend 18 paid nights in a period of 90 days, you get platinum status.  Now you can only do this once, and for the past few years, I have enjoyed the perks of being platinum.

Now that you know why I signed up, here are the true benefits and main reason why I stick with Starwood.  As a new traveler, I was unaware of the benefits of points and their respective value, and Starwood properties have the greatest redemption values of any hotel chain.  One star point = 2.5 cents.  And while that doesn’t sound like a lot, in point value terms, it’s fabulous.  But you need to be sure to the do math.  Before we book on points, we do the math, if a hotel in say London is going for $600-$700 a night with a redemption value of 16,000 – 20,000/night, you are getting a great value.

While the points redemption is a fabulous perk, the hotels, and the staff are what keep me coming back.  I personally love the Westins, Sheratons, and Le Meridiens (I’ve never stayed in a St. Regis), and even the W hotels aren’t that bad.  But they don’t have any storage (think no dresser or drawers), so you can’t really unpack!  But it’s such a fun trendy line of hotels that sometimes it is totally worth the splurge.

Now I’ve written about the staff before, they hustle.  They work hard, and they are incredibly kind.  During my time as a consultant, the staff begin to know you and become a bit of an extended family.  But even traveling on vacation, I have always found the staff to work incredibly hard to ensure you have an incredibly stay.  I don’t think I have ever had an experience where I felt that the staff in a Starwood property wasn’t friendly, kind, and helpful.  While I’m sure you could say similar things about the other hotel chains out there, Starwood has had my loyalty for years, and between the value of their points, staff, and properties, I don’t see that loyalty changing anytime soon.

spg hotel
Platinum welcome gift, warm doughnuts, chocolate covered strawberries and pretzels. Life is good.

Cape Tribulation – Worth it?

During our honeymoon, we spent five nights in Port Douglas, Queensland, AUS.  Port Douglas acted as an incredible jumping off point.  How many places have the world’s oldest rainforest abutting a beach and the Great Barrier Reef?  Oh that’s right, none.

During our stay, we decided to take a day trip up to Cape Tribulation.  As Steve planned the entire honeymoon, I really had no idea what to expect, and I don’t think he did either.  To break up the drive, we chose to do numerous short hikes right off the main road.  Some of those hikes included the Dubuji Boardwalk, the Kulki Cape Tribulation Beach lookout, and the Beach walk in the Cow Bay area.  I personally loved these hikes, the trails were elevated boardwalks and the foliage of the rain forest was absolutely beautiful.  Additionally, these hikes were no more than hour at most, which made it a nice breather as we made our way north.

cape trib trees
The trees are like large fans in the Daintree
steve cape trib
At one the beaches near Cape Trib. Mangroves + the beach = ❤

One of the main reasons we decided to head up north was for an exotic fruit tasting*.  I am not, or rather, was not an adventurous eater.  And, as someone with oral allergy syndrome, I was a little nervous that my lips would blow-up to epic proportions.  The last thing I wanted was an allergy attack or to look like a botched plastic surgery patient, so I was definitely nervous.  But in the spirit of YOLO, we went for it.

exotic fruit tasting
Our exotic fruit selections for the day!

I don’t remember all the fruits that we ate, but they had funny names like Mangosteen, Bread Fruit, and Black Sapote.  Some of the fruits tasted like garlic, or were incredibly sour.  The owner of the exotic fruit farm led the tasting and it was interesting to think of fruit as not necessarily sweet, but more savory items.  I had zero allergy attacks, but unfortunately, my taste buds only appreciated a small few of the fruits sampled above.  But that’s okay, it was still a totally different and neat experience.

exotic fruit
This fruit is delicious but doesn’t travel well as it bruises incredibly easy, if only I remembered the name of it!

While we totally had a great time on this day, I would say that on our trip, this day was probably one of the least memorable.  Maybe because as you could tell from our photos the weather was overcast, but it seemed like a long way to go when we were already situated on a beautiful beach with closer access to the rain forest.  Additionally, at least from what we saw, there did not seem to be a lot going on in Cape Tribulation in terms of developments.  I don’t remember seeing a restaurant, just a small gas station/bodega where we purchased some postcards from.  And no, I’m not one of those people that will only travel to where hotels, restaurants, and lively neighborhoods are, but it seemed like we went pretty far when we could have enjoyed similar benefits nearby.  With that being said, I wouldn’t dissuade anyone from heading up there, as I’m sure with more time, there would be a lot to take advantage of in and around Cape Tribulation, including beaches and much longer rain forest hikes.  But, beware of jellies!

jelly stingers
Steve checks out a map, I photograph a sign I have never seen before. #terrifying

*They no longer operate the fruit tasting. 😦

Pic of the Week – St. John

We’ll call this pic of the week a big tease.  We are in the midst of posting on my Australian honeymoon so we will get to St. John in a little bit, but until then, enjoy the incredible beauty is that Trunk Bay.

st. john
Beautiful Trunk Bay, St. John, USVI. Is this place even real??