Mainland China and Special Guests

After treating ourselves for the holidays we wrapped up things in Hong Kong and headed for Mainland China for a two-week tour of sightseeing. We underwent the painful process of getting visas while we were in HK (something we would NOT recommend) and headed to Shanghai with no idea what to expect.

We had been looking forward to getting to China for quite some time. Not just because of the sights, but also because Nolan’s Mom & Aunt decided to come meet us!!! We were excited to see them and to get to see a new part of the world with familiar faces.

Full account of experience is below and don't forgot to check out our photos!


Shanghai

Before meeting Mom & Aunt Nancy, the two of us headed to Shanghai for a quick two nights. We were greeted with severely poor weather due to torrential rains and fog. We barely saw the iconic skyline one sees in all the pictures.

We realized pretty fast though that Shanghai seemed to be an international foodie destination. We knew we would be in China for two weeks so we covered a lot of cuisines to fill our tanks: Canadian-style deli, Chinese lunch, Italian dinner, etc, etc. We also explored the French quarter of the city in the freezing rain, but we did not last very long…

The sheer size of Shanghai was something we definitely could not even describe. Home to over 24mm people it is sprawling to say the least and impossible to cover in two days. We spent most our time in the Bund and enjoyed our first taste of China, but the next stops truly made the trip for us…

 

Beijing – The City

We headed to China’s capital next and linked up with Mom & Aunt Nancy in the airport. We were so pumped to see them! We have been living out of our backpacks for a long time now and there is nothing better than seeing familiar faces! We were so happy to be with a few members of our family and get to spend the next 10 days with them discovering China.

Our first morning we hired a guide to take us to see the major sights in Beijing. We started at Tiananmen, toured the Forbidden City, had a traditional Chinese lunch (lots of dumplings!), saw the Summer Palace, drove by the Olympic Village and wrapped things up with a traditional tea house. It was a long day, but it was awesome! Seeing Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City was absolutely wild. The size and extravagance of the complex amazed us. We also were able to tack on a Chinese acrobatic performance before a Peking Duck dinner. We definitely slept well that night….

The next day the ladies did some shopping in the crazy “malls” that sell everything from fake handbags to every kind of tchotchke you can think of. Nolan smartly skipped that one. We then had a driver take us out to Great Wall where we would spend the next two nights.

 

The Wall

Everyone has seen countless pictures of The Great Wall of China, but nothing can prepare you for seeing it in person for the first time. We saw it driving to our hotel as one of the major interstates cuts right through. It is truly breathtaking to see the snake-like wall winding in all directions across the mountain range.

The thing we realized right away, which pictures cannot do justice, was the steep inclines. This wall was not built on flat sections AT ALL. It almost was as if they chose the steepest grades to build the thing on and to think they did it thousands of years ago is truly shocking.

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We stayed at a hotel near the wall that actually had its own section! That is the other thing we hadn’t realized: The Great Wall is not one continuous structure, it is broken up into various sections. That being said, these sections span over 13,000 miles!!!

We spent a full day exploring various sections of the wall such as the Badaling section, which is the best preserved and most complete, and it was breathtaking. It also happened to be one of the coldest and windiest days we have experienced since leaving home, but after climbing the steep steps for awhile, you warmed right up! It is magnificent on a clear day to see just how far the wall goes. It truly is a marvel that is beyond words.

Perhaps the best part of our trip, was getting to go to the section near the hotel one evening before sunset. We had the whole thing to ourselves and got to take it all in alone as the sun went down. It was truly an amazing experience.

We have seen some amazing architectural marvels since we have left, but this one was on a whole other level simply due to where they chose to build it. How they constructed this massive wall on the steep grades of the mountains is beyond us. This has to be on everyone’s bucket list!

 

Xi’An


We decided to take a two-hour flight to the city of Xi’an after Beijing primarily because this is where the famous terracotta warriors are. We had heard a ton about them and seen many pictures. Furthermore, we had a few people say they were not to be missed while in China. All that being said, we were a little apprehensive given the travel day just to get there.

The terracotta warriors surround the tomb of China’s first Emperor, Qin Shi Huang. They were made of clay and were buried around his tomb in order to “protect” him in the afterlife. Farmers discovered the soldiers in 1974 while digging a well and the excavation began. So far they have uncovered over 8,000 soldiers in addition to hundreds of horses, chariots and cavalry.

On our full day touring we headed right for the complex where the warriors stand and immediately we realized this trip was well worth it! It is hard to describe the scene when you first arrive at the main chamber. There are literally thousands of replica soldiers standing at attention right in front of you. To think these were made just to protect a tomb is beyond words!

The crazy thing about the entire experience is realizing these soldiers sit in one section surrounding Qin Shi Huang’s tomb. Scientists are still not sure what else is out there! The other crazy part is that every single soldier has a unique face and features. Amazing!!!

We were all blown away at the experience and when you combine that with the Great Wall, China was a massive success!! We spent the rest of our day checking out Xi’an’s other sights including the ancient city, the Wild Goose Pagoda and the crazy Muslim Quarter with its hundreds of food and souvenir stalls.

We were not at all sure what to expect when we headed to mainland China. We had a lot of mixed feelings about traveling there between the tough visa process, the strict policies and the tons of Chinese tourists we have met on our travels (not saying American ones are much better). That being said, the country is so rich in history it was remarkable to see it all up close and we are certainly glad we went.

Yes, of course there were parts we did not like and at times the people could be tough to handle. However, that is no different from any other place we visited. Would we rush to go back? Probably not if we are being honest. But, again it was totally worth doing if just to see the Great Wall, the Forbidden City and the Terracotta Army. We are so glad we went and the fact that we got to experience it all with our Mom and Aunt was super special.

Off to Japan for a new adventure, can’t wait to speak next week!

Holidays in Asia

A shorter blog today to catch everyone up on our holidays. It seems like ages ago now, but we are reminded of our holiday experience often because it was pretty much the last time we were warm! Just take a look at our photos from Singapore, Bali and Hong Kong and you can see for yourself.

We are currently in Japan, where we are in the midst of a winter wonderland and prior to Japan we were in China, which was freezing!! Seems like a long time ago since we were basking in the sun, but that is exactly what we did during our Christmas “break.” Aside from getting sun we did a whole lot of nothing. It was terrific to relax, catch up on sleep and read.

This will be short and sweet and then we will update you on our time in China next week, which was wild!

 

Singapore

After spending a solid five days on the beach in Krabi, Thailand we headed further south to check out Singapore for a few nights. The airport there sets a very high standard for the overall city. Everything was new, impeccably clean and super efficient. We were pretty blown away even as we got off the plane. Yes, we know Singapore has some of the oddest and strictest rules on the planet, but they work!

We had an absolute blast in Singapore and it easily has become one of our favorite cities in the world. It is modern, international, oh and clean! Furthermore, English is one of the main languages so it was nice to finally be able to communicate with everyone without a problem.The city itself is architecturally gorgeous and the climate is subtropical so we enjoyed checking out the incredible botanical gardens and wildlife right in the middle of the city. Furthermore, the food scene is amazing and we enjoyed some amazing food and drink while we were there.

We loved the look and feel of the city and could easily see ourselves living there. We realized long ago that cities are cities, but Singapore is one we think is definitely worth visiting!

Singapore 

Singapore 


Bali

Since we were sad to be away from home for Christmas, we had one goal in mind: to splurge on a nice getaway vacation. We accomplished this goal when we spent a full week in Bali for Christmas. We stayed at two different locations: Candidasa Beach and Ubud. Both were very different, but gave us a chance to recharge the batteries once again.

Candidasa Beach is on the eastern coast of Bali. Anyone who has read the news probably heard about the volcano, Agung, that had just erupted before Christmas. Well as luck would have it, we found ourselves spending Christmas on a beach right under Agung. Luckily it was back to sleep while we were there.

We spent our time at Candidasa Beach doing absolutely nothing and enjoyed a Balinese version of a Christmas dinner. While it certainly didn't feel like Christmas in the traditional sense, the staff at our resort made every effort to make us feel at home by playing Christmas tunes and wearing Santa hats around!

After Candi Beach we went to Ubud, which is a more central destination in Bali’s rainforest. Once again we had amazing accommodations thanks to a friend who works with Alila Hotels and we enjoyed every second of our time there. Highlights for us were cycling through the rice fields, watching the monkeys attempt to steal our breakfast and a traditional evening of Balinese dance.

All in all, we had a blast visiting Bali. It was technically their rainy season, but we didn’t mind one bit. We got lots of sun, lots of rest and sadly said goodbye to the warmth for a long while…

 

Hong Kong

We spent our New Year’s in Hong Kong and our first two nights opted to stay in the Conrad Hotel on the 59th floor overlooking Victoria Harbor. Holy view, it was awesome! This was by design, as we decided to spend our time ringing in 2018 with room service, bath robes and an insane view of the HK fireworks from the comforts of our room.

NYE Fireworks in HK

NYE Fireworks in HK


We stayed in Soho for the first two nights of 2018 and did a lot of sightseeing. We got to the Peak, visited the bird market, ate dumplings at the Jumbo Floating Restaurant, rode the Star Ferry and watched the light show from Kowloon. We also were able to catch up with some friends, eat amazing dim sum and enjoy this awesome city.

Nolan had been a few times prior, but it was Kirby’s first. HK is definitely an incredible city and very friendly to expats. Once again, the convenience of getting from their world class airport into town is insane. It makes our US airports seem sad….

From HK it was off to see mainland China, which ended up being an entirely different experience altogether. More on that next week and once again Happy 2018!!

3x in Thailand

It has been awhile since we last posted a blog. We have been on the go and in places that were not so easy to access the internet (we are looking at you China). We are actually in Japan at the moment touring around this amazing country, which we will get to soon. For now, we wanted to share a bit from our time in Thailand. Makes sense since we left the country almost four weeks ago now! 

We actually entered and exited Thailand on three different occasions (hence the title). This was pretty poor design on our part, but nonetheless we got a taste of the different areas of the country which are vastly different from one another. Hope you enjoy the blog, our favorite photos and we will speak soon!
 

Bangkok

Bangkok, Thailand was where we started our Southeast Asia tour way back in early November, which seems like years ago now! It took us nearly 24 hours to travel there from NYC. Neither of us had ever been to this part of the world so we had no idea what to expect.

We landed in the afternoon after an extremely long travel day and decided to get settled into our hotel and stretch our legs a bit. We took a walk through the city and ventured down a few side alleys to explore and HOLY CULTURE SHOCK! The new sights, smells and tastes were something we were definitely not fully prepared for. Keep in mind, at this point we had primarily toured the West so we knew were in for a whole different experience about 5 minutes after leaving our hotel.

After a much needed night's rest, we decided we just needed to embrace our new environment and go all in. So we took on Bangkok as best we could experiencing the street food, the famous Khao San Road (where yes, we ate a scorpion), the boats, the tuk-tuk’s, the temples and everything in between. When you are a little travel-weary and/or are having second thoughts this is the only way to go!

Bangkok as a city is pretty hectic, though we realized this would be the rule not the exception in Southeast Asia’s largest cities. We learned fast to embrace the smells (the good and the bad), avoid the “hustle” (everyone tries to sell you something) and to just smile and nod at every weird thing you see…and there is a lot of weird.

It took a few days to fully settle in and get comfortable in our new surroundings, but we are sure glad we did. The journey we have had the last two months has been insane and we have Bangkok to thank for sending us on our way.

 

Chiang Mai

By the time we got to Chiang Mai, we were seasoned travel vets of Southeast Asia. We had already been through Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos. However, since we were a little wide-eyed when we toured around Bangkok we were eager to experience a different part of Thailand and dive in even further.

One of Thailand’s northern cities, Chiang Mai has a vastly different feel from Bangkok. It is pretty quiet, slower-paced and motorbikes actually stop for you when you cross the streets. Furthermore, there is a lot of countryside and mountainous regions that surround the city, which made this part of the world truly beautiful.

We spent our time seeing temples and eating a LOT of Thai food. The highlight though, was spending a full day out at an elephant sanctuary. We got picked up at our hotel and on the way to sanctuary learned all about elephant abuse and exploitation, which at times was hard to watch. The sanctuaries in Northern Thailand help to rehabilitate abused elephants and give them a chance at a second life, even though they will never be able to truly live in the wild again.

We had a blast spending time with the elephants. We got to feed them, hike through the jungle with them and at the end of the day go swimming them them. It was awesome! We learned that elephants eat a TON, are super friendly and are WAY stronger than we ever imagined, particularly in their trunks. But most importantly, we got to see how happy these animals were at the second chance they have been given. These creatures really do have a soul and we witnessed that first hand (just look at the pic of that female smiling at Kirby's hug below)! It was insanely rewarding for us and we would highly recommend a similar experience to anyone.

 

Krabi

Our last stop in Thailand was a good one as we got to spend five nights at one of Thailand’s most beautiful beaches in the south. We stayed in Krabi, which is right next to Phuket and within striking distance of some of Thailand’s most beautiful islands such as Hong Island, Ko Lanta and Ko Phi Phi.

When we arrived in Krabi we had just finished our 10-day whirlwind through Myanmar so we were ready for some rest and we sure got it! For about four days we did absolutely nothing. We sat by the pool, slept and caught up on reading. We also got to sample some new variations of Thai food, which we realized got a lot spicier as we travelled further south!

One of the funny parts about being here in late December was that everyone was pumping the Christmas tunes! Anywhere we went it seems like we were surrounded by the Christmas classics. It made us feel at home, but at the same time was a little strange gearing up for the holidays on a Thai beach...

For our big excursion day, we hired a boat to take us around the islands. Particularly, we spent time on Poda, Chicken and Hong Islands. It was beautiful! It reminded us a lot of a less-crowded Halong Bay with the giant limestone cliffs, but here we felt a lot more comfortable swimming (i.e., the water was clean)! We were able to enjoy the beaches we visited and even got some snorkeling in. Quite an amazing part of the world for sure.

Overall, we had a blast visiting Thailand. The cool part about this country is how different it is from top to bottom. It almost felt like we had visited three different countries! The people, the food and the landscapes were all different from one another. But overall, everyone could not have been nicer to us and made us feel welcome no matter where we were.

Until next time Thailand!

Myanmar

We have been out of touch the past few days for no other reason than the fact we were spending our Christmas in Bali! We chose to do absolutely nothing but lie by the beach, read and sleep. It has been incredible and was much needed after traveling like crazy through SE Asia for a month and a half. We just put together our blog from our time in Myanmar, as well as our photos. Enjoy!
 

We were torn…

Before we get into our time spent in Myanmar, we should take a moment to recognize the situation going on in the country right now. Just do a google news search for “Myanmar” and you can read all about it. We won’t get into specifics, but essentially there are widespread reports of ethnic cleansing by the Myanmar Army against the Rohingya people.

We were very torn on whether or not we should travel to a country that has let this happen, no matter what the circumstances are. Furthermore, we were conflcted as to whether we wanted to spend our dollars supporting a government who appears to not be addressing it. No doubt, it is a very touchy subject and we were very unsure of what to do.

At the end of the day and after a TON of research, we decided to go. We ultimately made that decision because we knew our dollars would have way more of an impact for the lives of those we met while traveling: taxi drivers, guides, restaurateurs, small business owners etc. Once we got on the ground we were certainly glad we made this decision. We never felt unsafe, or even close to anything dangerous, but it was always on our minds as we made our way through the country. Even after 10 days there, we still have no clearer picture on what is really going on in certain parts of Myanmar. We did notice though, that everyone on the ground seemed to help us go out of our way to NOT support the government all while saying the Western news outlets are “not accurate” in their reporting of the crisis...interesting.

Nonetheless, we made our own decision to travel there based purely on traveling to a beautiful country. It was not an easy one to make, but if anyone ever thinks about traveling there, do some research and decide for yourself. Not sure if there is a right or wrong answer and either way it is a tough situation. Here is a quick account of our time in the country (politics aside):
 

Mandalay

We started our journey with two nights in Mandalay, which is a city in pretty much smack in Myanmar’s center. We chose Mandalay first because: a) it is one of the main ports of entry into the country and b) because we knew we could drive from there to our next destination, Bagan. This was welcome so that we did not have to take a train, plain or boat (which is also possible).

We hired a driver for 3 days for $130! His name was “Win” and he picked us up at the airport and whisked us to our hotel, before recommending to us a place to have dinner (a local joint with Myanmar-style BBQ and beer and a LOT of looks from the other patrons). The next day he took us all around the city seeing a Buddhist Monastery, the Royal Palace, various temples and the top-spot in Mandalay: The U Bein bridge. This bridge is the largest teak wood bridge in the world and easily attracts the most visitors.

We walked the bridge mid-morning and would return for sunset, which was probably the best part of our time in Mandalay. We hired a rowboat to take us out on the water and experience the bridge as the sun was going down. Due to a lot of cloud cover we did not get to experience it in its full glory, though it was still fun to watch the sky change and watch all the different types of people using the bridge including monks, cyclists and tourists.

U Bein Bridge at sunset

U Bein Bridge at sunset

It was a quick stop by our standards, but two nights was about right to see and experience Mandalay.
 


Bagan

We woke up early, had coffee and then Win took us on the four-hour drive to Bagan, which was a bit harrowing (including driving through a river, in his sedan). We stopped along the way for lunch where Win gushed that we had to try “the best pizza in all of Myanmar." We did, it was good, but it was not pizza like we are used to. He also spent much of the drive describing how amazed we would be at all the temples in Bagan and boy was he right!

Win also spent a lot of time describing the political situation in Myanmar and where all the tax dollars went that were collected from tourists. Answer: no one really knows. We liked Win and appreciated his knowledge. We wished he could have stayed with us the entire time!

Once we got to Bagan we learned the best way to get around was by electric scooter. It was basically a moped without a gas engine. We ventured out on our first night just to check things out and found a temple that had stairs we could climb to get a view and we gasped. Hundreds upon hundreds of temples were scattered in front of us; words simply cannot describe it.

Bagan Temples

Bagan Temples

Bagan reminded us a lot of being in Africa. The landscape, climate and vegetation is similar, but instead of animals you see temples. Over our three days we operated like we would have on safari as well: getting up before sunrise, heading out to explore, returning for breakfast, napping through lunch and heading out again for sunset and nightfall. Of course the only issue with our specific Bagan adventure was that the weather was horrible! Rain and cloud cover prohibited any view of the sun whatsoever until (surprise surprise) our last morning.

The morning before we were to leave we got what we had seen in all the internet photos: an iconic sunrise over the vast fields of temples, golden skies and hot air balloons! Yes, one of the coolest things about Bagan is about 20 or so balloons take flight for sunrise and slowly glide over the complex. Seeing the mist rise over the temples and the beautiful morning sky littered with hot air balloons was incredible and something we will never forget. This experience alone made it into our top-10 as we reflected later.

Aside from the golden hours, just driving on the scooter through the open plains of temples is incredible. Oftentimes, we would come across a temple and be able to explore the hidden entrances, tunnels and corridors with no one else around! It really is a very cool place and makes the trip to Myanmar worth it if this were your only stop!

 

Inle Lake

From Bagan we took our first domestic flight to the Inle Lake area of Myanmar. Inle Lake is one of the largest lakes in Myanmar and is a totally different landscape and a way of life for all the locals that surround it. Floating villages, floating markets and fishing is the name of the game in this part of the country. In fact, our hotel was primarily on stilts suspended on a small section of the lake.

We used most of our days here to relax by the first pool we had seen in months and enjoy the local food. However, we spent one day with a guide who took us all around the lake on his long boat. We experienced a true local morning market, a few temples, various businesses including a silk business, a silver business and a tobacco business and the floating gardens. However, we realized these gardens are floating but cannot support the weight of humans, take our word for it…

However, the coolest part about the lake was getting to watch the local fisherman. The men use row boats and nets to do their job, but it is the way they work that is truly insane. The fisherman row their boats using a single leg, which frees their hands to work the nets. The best way to describe the action is to imagine a person performing ballet on water. The balance, strength and skill required truly make it an art form. Furthermore, watching them was the best display of the lifeblood this lake provides for those who live around it.

Inle Fisherman

Inle Fisherman

Between Bagan and Inle, we felt our decision to visit Myanmar was fully justified and the memories would stick with us for quite some time!

 

Yangon

We ended with one night in Yangon, one of Myanmar’s largest cities. To be honest, we thought we were spending two nights here but realized we messed up our departure flight date so instead got one night. It wasn’t the end of the world since we were smoked from the travel and were off to spend five nights on the Thai beaches…

Nonetheless, we spent our day visiting the main attraction in Yangon: The Shwedagon Pagoda. This giant gilded Pagoda is a major religious site in Myanmar and was insane to see. It was easily the largest Pagoda we had visited and we watched in awe as people from all over came to visit, pray and spend time at the site. The pagoda is so large that it graces Yangon’s skyline, particularly at night when it is lit up and can be seen for miles.

Shwedagon Pagoda

Shwedagon Pagoda

We also spent some time walking through Yangon’s night market and enjoying our final meal before heading out to southern Thailand.

 

All in all, Myanmar was incredible. The people were insanely friendly, the culture was so interesting, the food was amazing and the diversity between the different areas of the country is amazing. We sincerely hope that the political issues can be resolved and if atrocities against humanity is indeed occurring, those responsible are held as such. We also hope that the country is able to keep protecting the beauty and tranquility as tourists continue to flock to the country (particularly the Temples of Bagan).

We would highly recommend spending 10 days in Myanmar. This place is definitely guide-worthy and we will post one at some point. But in the meantime, please enjoy our photo gallery and Happy Holidays!!

Luang Prabang, Laos

We spent a short three nights in Luang Prabang, Laos. We had heard from some people it was a great town to visit and it has easily become one of our favorite places so far on our travels. The town itself is a Unesco World Heritage and to quote Wikipedia, "It was listed in 1995 for unique and 'remarkably' well preserved architectural, religious and cultural heritage, a blend of the rural and urban developments over several centuries, including the French Colonial influences during the 19th and 20th centuries." Read on and check out our gallery here.

Luang Prabang was a quick 50-minute flight from Hanoi, but it could not have been further away from the craziness of Vietnam. Situated right on the Mekong and Nam Khan Rivers, the town was calm, peaceful and for the first time since we arrived in SE Asia people actually stopped for us in crosswalks. Furthermore, you could immediately feel the kindness of the people and the rich heritage they cherish.

We will highlight our top three favorite parts about Luang Prabang and can definitely say we wish we had spent more time here. If anyone is in the region we would highly recommend visiting, it is well worth it!
 

# 1 – The Food

Laotian cuisine is delicious and the staple is sticky rice. In fact, a common meal for locals is to eat sticky rice with their hands and dip it in various sauces. We had sticky rice with just about everything we ate and we dove right in with our hands. We also learned that since most people eat with their hands, they are very hygenic and take great care in the cleanliness of their bodies and how their food is prepared  (again, a big change of pace).

Furthermore, as most of you know, we literally cannot survive without coffee. Laos had some of the best coffee we have sampled. They feature a slightly sweeter version of a cold brew that is espresso-based. It made us feel right at home and was the perfect way to start each day in the heat of Laos!
 

# 2 – The Waterfalls

We had heard a lot about Laos’ famous waterfalls in Luang Prabang: Kuang Si and Tad Se Falls. We had also done our research and seen a ton of gorgeous pictures of the falls. However, nothing could prepare us for experiencing them in person. The gorgeous teal blue water, the series of pools and the fact we could swim pretty much wherever we wanted. It was awesome!

We opted to do Kuang Si Falls and made a day of it because it was a bit far out of town. Furthermore, we had heard about the elephant riding park in Tad Se and we didn’t want to support it. Kuang Si was incredible and the main falls in the back towered at least 10 stories into the jungle canopy. It was beautiful and easily one of the most amazing falls we have ever seen.

Kuang Si Falls

Kuang Si Falls


 

# 3 – The Heritage

The Laotian people were so kind to us and welcomed us with open arms. We could also tell they are very proud of their culture and their town. We saw it everyday, but perhaps the most polarizing was the daily alms giving ritual. Every morning, hundreds of monks emerge from the various monasteries and walk the streets of Laung Prabang. The local residents line the streets and offer the monks their daily meals, which typically consist of sticky rice, fruits and vegetables.

We must take a moment to address the fact that this ritual has been around for centuries and is quite sacred. Yet, in this modern day a lot of tourists choose to be awful. We heard horror stories of people going to great efforts to shove cameras in the monks faces and just get in the way. Furthermore, many hotels offer "alms packages" so tourists can take part in the ritual themselves. This is entirely against the point as the ritual is supposed to be about giving one's time, preparing a meal yourself and making a sacrifice to give. 

We definitely did not want to be "those people" so opted to stay on a quiet side street and watch from a safe distance. Luckily there were no other tourists around and we got to observe a few villagers waiting patiently to give their rice to the monks who walked by. After the giving, the monks surround the locals and chanted a blessing. It was very cool to see and experience. We could see and feel how deeply the Laotian people cared for one another, visitors and their traditions. It just made us feel right at home! 

 

*BONUS*- THE NIGHT MARKET

Although we have seen quite a few night markets in SE Asia, the one in Luang Prabang was our favorite so far (or really just Kirby's favorite, since Nolan doesn't particularly enjoy shopping). Contrary to other night markets we have been to, the vendors in Luang Prabang were laid back and didn't pressure you to buy anything, allowing you to "window shop" without feeling like you would be hassled. And even though we only bought a few pairs of local clothing (fun colored pants!) due to space issues in our backpacks, Kirby said she would come back someday with a large empty suitcase to fill :) 

Luang Prabang Night Market

Luang Prabang Night Market

Again, a quick blog and a few photos truly cannot do Laung Prabang justice. One just needs to experience it to fully understand. Sadly, Laos was a quick stop for us when we planned this adventure. That was a mistake and we could easily see ourselves visiting again!

Vietnam

The second country on our SE Asia tour was Vietnam and we had quite an array of experiences! The country is so diverse, we really had no idea. Read on to find out how we fared:


Hoi An

Our first stop in Vietnam was the small coastal town of Hoi An. This place has become one of our favorite destinations thus far. The town was quiet, the people were friendly and walking through the old part of town at night was kind of magical. The streets are covered in colorful lanterns and in the river that ran through town, you would often see lanterns floating with the current. It was so pretty.

This was the perfect place to decompress after temple-hopping in Cambodia. Even though it pretty much poured the entire time we were there (in fact the river even overflowed into part of the town at one point), we loved this town. Perhaps it was the peace and quiet or perhaps it was because we were able to find an awesome wine bar that also had killer food. If you find yourself there check out this place: White Marble Wine Bar & Restaurant.

While the weather did not permit us to head to the beach, Hoi An is surrounded by some of Vietnam’s most beautiful beaches that stretch the coast between the town itself and Da Nang. As we would soon find out, the big cities in Vietnam are madness, so we would highly recommend Hoi An as a breath of fresh air while in the country!
 

Sapa

After Hoi An we flew to Hanoi and then took a 5+ hour bus ride to the tiny mountain town of Sapa. If you have ever seen a picture of sprawling hills covered in rice paddies, you are likely looking at a picture of Sapa. This place is still truly stuck in time. Yes the actual “city” of Sapa has some chain hotels nowadays, but to get to the actual villages further up the mountain requires quite a trek.

We were feeling adventurous, so rather than stay in a posh hotel in the town center, we decided to do a homestay with a local family in one of the villages. It was pretty wild. As luck would have it, the weather was freezing the entire time we were there (average temp around 40 degrees Fahrenheit) and was accompanied by a nice driving rain 90% of the time. Add in the fact that our homestay did not have heat, we had a long three nights up in the mountain. Nonetheless, we made the most of it exploring the endless hills of paddies, sampling the local fare and making friends with our host family.

According to the locals, the best time to visit Sapa is in late August when the rice shoots are fully grown and the weather is perfect. Just do a google image search of “Sapa” and you likely will find amazing pictures taken during this time. We on the other hand, got the opposite. However, we are glad we got to experience this part of the world as the locals do and it is a few days neither one of us will forget for a very long time. Though next time, we will shoot for late August…


Hanoi

After Sapa we headed into the capital city of Hanoi and talk about the other end of the spectrum! Hanoi is home to 7 million people and over 5 million motorbikes. We learned pretty fast that walking through town will test your nerves. There are basically no traffic rules, everyone has the right of way so crossing the street is a lesson in confidence and prayer. This also made us feel way less bad about missing Saigon, that is home to 8.5mm people and 7.5mm motorbikes!!!

The cool thing though, was that on our first night in Hanoi we caught the Sunday night market where the city closes off a lot of main streets and opens them to pedestrians who play live music, sing karaoke and even have dancing circles. It was a lot of fun! We also enjoyed a few local beers in Hanoi’s famous “beer corner.”

Aside from the level of craziness, the other downside about Hanoi is the pollution! We have never experienced pollution like that and the city is considered one of the most polluted in the world. It gave us memories of being in Yosemite with the wild fires, but this was worse because what was causing our throats to hurt was smog.

We are glad we got to experience the city, but two nights was plenty for us!


Halong Bay

This was probably the stop we were looking forward to the most as Halong Bay had been our bucket list for quite some time. The iconic bay features thousands of limestone “islands” that are scattered in all kinds of shapes and sizes throughout the turquoise bay. We opted to do a three day/ two night cruise in the bay, which was a splurge but was perhaps the best way to experience it.

Before we get to the good, let’s address the bad: the place is mad touristy. Due to government regulations, the area of the bay open to tourists has shrunk dramatically. Furthermore, there are hundreds of boat companies offering extremely similar tour itineraries. What this amounts to is a complete cluster of boats, pollution, and mobs of people. It was everything but relaxing, particularly because the companies shuttle you from one thing to the next so you can maximize your time (most folks only do a single night or a day trip). You also learn pretty fast that the regulations clearly do not cover people throwing things in the water, boat exhausts or any really any major safety precautions. Kind of sad to see, but there really is no other option if you want to see the bay while in Vietnam…

Now to the good: the place is beautiful. Once you remove yourself from the madness, the bay itself is stunning. The endless islands of limestone are quite a sight to see. Luckily for us, because we opted for the extra night we got to explore some less crowded areas of the bay and it was gorgeous. Furthermore, we were extremely surprised at how nice our accommodations were on the boat and the food was terrific! We met some nice friends on the boat, enjoyed cocktails on the deck at night and took in the various sights and experiences that the bay has to offer including kayaking, caving and sampling the local fare.

While we aren’t entirely sure we would do it again, we were so glad we got to lay eyes on this magical place. We heard rumors that the Vietnamese government may soon ban overnight cruises. We can only imagine what this would do if every tourist had to do a day-trip so we were glad we got to spend a few nights out there while we could. Yes it is touristy, yes it is a cluster, but the moments when you find some peace and quiet in front of those views make it all worth the trip….

 

We have to say, we were quite surprised by Vietnam. We had no idea that had such diverse landscapes and so many different activities to do. Furthermore, we had heard that some of the local people still had ill-feelings towards Americans from the war. We did not experience this at all! The people we met could not have been more gracious to us and they were some of the bests hosts we have encountered on all of our travels thus far. We loved spending nearly two weeks here and easily could have spent more.

Speak soon from our next destination, Laos!

First stop in SE Asia: Cambodia!

Ahh where to begin?! Well, we technically started our latest adventure in Thailand. We landed in SE Asia over two weeks ago and started by spending three nights in Bangkok to “get acclimated” and adjust to life on the other side of the world. We have been traveling now for nearly 9 months and SE Asia is on a whole other level!!

Our first 24-hours we were in complete culture shock. In fact, we weren’t sure how long we would last over here. However, we just decided to dive right in and we are sure glad we did. So far we have been to Bangkok (Thailand), Siem Reap (Cambodia), Hoi An, Sapa and Hanoi (Vietnam). But today, we our dedicating our post to our first real stop: Cambodia. Enjoy!
 

Cambodia

Cambodia was our first full country destination in Southeast Asia and it was truly incredible. If you follow our Instagram stories, you would have seen that we had quite the journey getting from Bangkok to Siem Reap. If not, the bullet points include a 9-hour bus ride, a broken bus, walking over the Cambodian border on foot, a new bus with bunk beds and eventually a tuk-tuk ride in the dark to our Airbnb in Siem Reap. Apparently, every single day is an adventure over here…

Siem Reap is a city located in the heart of Cambodia and is the home base for exploring the UNESCO World Heritage site that contains the world’s largest religious monument: Angkor Wat (some even consider it a Wonder of the World). This had been on our bucket list for some time and it did not disappoint! Over the next few days we would get our money’s worth exploring the temples, but more on that in a minute.

Before we get to the temples, we need to take a moment to discuss Siem Reap itself because it is like no other place we have ever been. The town was originally home to the Khmer Empire (5th-12th Century BC) and is now a major tourist destination due to it being the gateway to the Angkor Complex. In fact, it is said 50% of Cambodia's tourists come through Siem Reap every year.

Walking through town now makes you feel like you are in a third world country: endless mobs of mopeds, dirt roads, stray dogs and all kinds of strange sights and smells. However, pop into a nice looking coffee shop and you feel like you are on Fifth Avenue. The dichotomy is wild! Oddly enough, we never felt unsafe or remotely worried walking around. The people were incredible, the food was awesome and even though it’s a total cluster, we felt oddly comfortable. But yes, walking around we would often look at each other and wonder, “where the heck are we?!”

Siem Reap, Cambodia

Siem Reap, Cambodia

On our first morning we woke up at 4:30am and headed for Angkor Wat. We bought our tickets and headed to the site itself to catch the sunrise over the temple and…HOLY PEOPLE! If you have ever been to Angkor Wat for sunrise you know what we are talking about. Everyone is instructed to do this so at 5am there are hundreds upon hundreds of people vying for space to capture that nice sunrise shot.

People waiting for sunrise

People waiting for sunrise

Pro tip: if you want to see sunrise at Angkor Wat, buy your tickets the night before. This way, you can show up to the site itself right when it opens at 5am and get in early. Otherwise, you are looking at 5:30am best case and at this point it’s a lost cause to get front and center (we should know)…

We made the most of it and settled on the lesser-packed right pond and ended up with some different, yet beautiful shots of the light behind the temple. We then spent the next few hours walking through and around the temple itself, taking in the site. It was magnificent and was truly hard to imagine how something like that could have been almost a thousand years ago in the middle of the jungle.

Angkor Wat in the morning light

Angkor Wat in the morning light

Over the next few days we explored 12 of the temples within the giant complex and while we won’t cover them all, here were our top three:

1. Angkor Wat: just iconic, massive and awe inspiring. One of those things you see and read so much about that lived up to the hype when seeing it in person.

2. Banteay Srei: 10-century temple located some 45 minutes north of Siem Reap and yet worth the ride. The most preserved in the complex; it features insanely ornate carvings, statues and monuments.

3. Bayon: very near to Angkor Wat and features many tall monuments with carved faces. Very cool to see them up close and imagine what they looked like back in the day.

Aside from temple hopping, we took a day to explore the Kampong Phluk floating village and this was another experience in itself. To see how these people live their lives in the middle of the water with nothing around was truly remarkable. We watched as the villagers collected fish, traveled exclusively by boat and worked on their houses floating on the water. Incredibly eye-opening. 

The last night in Siem Reap we went to Pub Street, which was wild...from the people, to the smells, to the music...it was sensory overload!! But totally a necessary experience if you are ever in the area!

Pub Street craziness

Pub Street craziness

The other thing about Cambodia is all the “in between” sights. Getting from one place to another is a total adventure. We traveled primarily by tuk-tuk and often found ourselves heading down dirt roads, through tiny villages and were just in awe at all the sights. Furthermore, getting to see and experience how people live on a day-to-day basis in this part of the world was amazing. You forget that Cambodia is still very much a third world country and experiencing the everyday life truly makes you appreciate all we have back home.

A typical commute

A typical commute

The sights were amazing of course, but some of our favorite moments thus far have been in experiencing these amazing cultures in person. It is a wild place and like nothing we have encountered so far. We can only imagine what the next few weeks has in store for us so stay tuned!

Texas & "The South"

Feels like forever since we last posted! The final leg of our US Road Trip took us through our southern states and it was a blast! Without further ado, here is what we tackled:


Dallas, Texas

Texas was our gateway to the south and when we started driving in from Colorado we realized one thing: Texas is massive! The state itself is so large that in most cases driving from city to city will eat up most of your day. We decided to spend a quick night in Dallas to break up our drive, because driving all the way to Houston from Colorado would have taken forever!

When we pulled into Dallas we started to understand why they say, “everything is bigger in Texas.” The highways themselves can prove that fact. Tons of lanes, tons of overpasses and tons going on. It was quite a change from where we had come from! Just look at the pictures of the famous rest stop "Bucees" and you can see it's go big or go home in Texas:

Our last night camping in Colorado was cold and wet, so the second we arrived in Dallas we had a hot shower and then treated ourselves to a big Texas steak dinner, which was awesome!  We crashed, recharged and woke up early to explore a bit of the city and of course, grab some coffee.
 

Waco, Texas

Full disclosure: one of our guilty pleasures is HGTV and one of our favorite shows is “Fixer Upper” starring Chip & Joanna Gaines. The Gaines’ happen to be from Waco and so the opportunity to check it out on our way to Houston was not lost on us.

We drove an hour south and got our second coffee of the day in the middle of Waco and then headed out to the Magnolia Silos that the Gaines’ built. The Magnolia Silos feature a full-fledged home goods store, a bakery, various areas where you can hang out and play lawn games and a huge bank of food trucks. It was mobbed with tourists just like us, but we fought our way into the complex and enjoyed lunch at one of the trucks. It was amazing to see what this couple built for Waco. People had clearly come from all over to see the silos (we were among them). Very cool to see in person, but now we can totally get why the family no longer wants to be featured on TV…

Houston, Texas

From Waco we headed into Houston where we were once again greeted with the familiar 8-lane highways and giant overpasses. In Houston, we were staying with our very good friends Annie & Taylor who live in the Montrose part of the city. It was terrific: cute houses on quiet streets and tons of great bars and restaurants within walking distance. This is our idea of city living!

We spent the weekend catching up and getting to see various parts of Houston. Considering Hurricane Harvey had wreaked havoc on this city just weeks before, it was amazing to see how good the city looked. We definitely drove down some streets that got hit very hard, but the people were out rebuilding and keeping their heads up. It was good to see.

We really did love Houston and getting to spend time with great friends. The city is so diverse and has a lot to offer. We had some amazing meals, some amazing coffee (important) and enjoyed the ease of living. Perhaps it will make it on our list of places we could live…


Austin, Texas

After saying goodbye to Annie & Taylor, we backtracked and headed to Austin. The reason for the poor logistics was the fact that our favorite band (Wilco) was playing at the University of Texas on a Sunday night. Luckily, we had some friends who agreed to take us in for a few nights so we could see the show and explore some of Austin.

Our friends Jon & Nancy live in a gorgeous home in the Austin suburbs and were so nice to have us. Jon & Nolan worked together in NYC years ago and it is amazing how long some of those work friendships can last. Jon & Nancy now have a beautiful family and it was great to spend a few days with them.

We caught our concert on Sunday night and then on Monday morning got super lucky and caught the band on their way out of town while we were having coffee. Nolan was in heaven! He got to meet one of his guitar idols, Nels Cline, and watched the band all pile into their giant bus as it rolled off to the next show. Woohoo! We then spent the rest of the day exploring the various neighborhoods of Austin and can totally get why people love this town. It reminded us a bit of Portland, but was cleaner and so much more Texas.

On our second and final night Jon & Nancy took us to the "Salt Lick", a famous Austin BBQ place outside of the city. Holy meat! Just have a look at the fire pit and you will see what we were dealing with. Once again, everything is bigger in Texas. Awesome food, awesome people and was a great way to spend our last night in the Lonestar State.
 

New Orleans, Louisiana

From Austin we made the llllong drive across the state of Texas once again and eventually into Louisiana. We were on our way to see one of Nolan’s lifelong friends and his wife who live in New Orleans. Pike & Celie have a beautiful home out near Audubon Park and now have a family of their own. It is always terrific to see them!

We explored this amazing city for two days, checking out the French Quarter, strolling down Bourbon Street and getting to see all the places where Nolan had partied way too hard years ago at various bachelor parties and the 2012 Super Bowl weekend. Bourbon Street looks a lot different at noon on a Wednesday….We also checked off the boxes when it came to food & drink: a hurricane, a Po’ Boy and of course a burrito at Felipe’s Taquiera (where Pike works).

New Orleans is always a great visit, but the best part for us was getting to catch up with our great friends. We had an amazing dinner one night with Pike, Celie and her sisters Sibyl and Courtney. We even got to see Celie’s parents, which was a treat. True southern hospitality!

On our last morning, Nolan got a particularly awesome experience when Pike took him up in his plane. Our friend Pike has worked hard over the years to become a very proficient pilot and now even owns his own plane! The two got to spend the morning flying around New Orleans and seeing the city from above, which was awesome! Being in NOLA just reminded us how blessed we are to have such amazing friends scattered all around our awesome country.
 

Savannah, Georgia

From New Orleans we decided to make yet another long drive to Savannah, Georgia. We stayed three nights in a downtown hotel and absolutely fell in love with this city. Tons of gorgeous oak trees with Spanish moss hanging down from them, lots of town squares and so much character!

Over our three days we explored the various town squares, went to the Bonaventure Cemetery and took some photos inside Fosyth Park. We also had some awesome food, including some of the best fried chicken we have ever tasted at Sisters of the New South!

Between the trees, the southern architecture and the horse carriages, this town really does feel like it is stuck in time. You also get the sense that it may or may not be haunted. Whatever it was, we were into it! One of our favorites thus far…

 

Charleston, South Carolina

Charleston is easily another city where we can see ourselves someday. It has the similar character of Savannah with the added benefits of being a college town (College of Charleston) and having various beaches within a few minutes in the car.

We spent three nights here and stayed at the ever-convenient Francis Marion hotel, which sits right on King Street. If you have ever been to Charleston, you know King Street. It essentially runs right through town and is littered with amazing bars and restaurants and is usually the center of the action.

We explored Charleston proper and also took a day trip (20 minutes) out to the Isle of Palms and Sullivan’s. It is hard to believe you can live in a city and have a quick 20-minute drive to what look like untouched private beaches. We also caught up with a few of Nolan’s ex-work friends who live in town. Nolan’s friend Colin even picked us up in his golf cart to take us to dinner!!

Charleston is kind of like heaven on earth. For us, it checks a lot of boxes: great weather, great food, great people, on the water, beautiful beaches, can drive around on golf carts, etc, etc. It’s really hard not to fall in love with this town. It will get a hard look for us someday when we go to settle down…
 

Atlanta, Georgia

We wrapped up our tour of the south in Atlanta, Georgia. We stayed our first night with our friends Cam & Rebecca in the Virginia Highland part of the city. Cam and Nolan had worked together in NYC and they had since moved from the big apple to Atlanta. It was quite a change pulling up to their big house versus the last time we saw them in their Upper West Side apartment! Nonetheless, it was great catching up with them!

From there we headed to Buckhead to check into the swanky Ritz Carlton hotel for a weekend of wedding festivities for our friends Jon & Olivia. Luckily, our parents shipped us our adult clothes and Nolan treated himself to a haircut and beard trim, while Kirby enjoyed a day at the salon. It was necessary.
 

Jon and Olivia

Jon and Olivia

We had a blast spending the weekend in Atlanta in honor of Jon & Liv, but once the festivities ended we knew we were ready to get home. So, we headed straight back to Maryland from Atlanta, which ended up being a nearly 11 hour drive. It was worth it though to get back, into our own bed and prepare for the next leg of our journey.

Stay tuned!

 

 

Quick Trip Through Colorado

We followed the Colorado River essentially all the way from Moab into Denver. It was a beautiful drive that took us past all the major ski resorts in Colorado. The drive was especially cool because the trees were all changing colors and snow had begun up in the mountains. In multiple spots we had a colorful display of trees leading up to snow-capped peaks. It really was gorgeous.

Those trees!

Those trees!

We had originally wanted to spend a few nights in Rocky Mountain National Park. However, due to our slower schedule through some parts we were getting tight on time. We had promised some friends we would meet them in Houston, TX and had to get south for a wedding in Atlanta, GA. We still had a lot of ground to cover so sadly drove through Colorado rather quick.


Denver

Our first official stop was Denver, Colorado. Neither of us had ever actually set foot there other than the airport. The great news for us was that our good friend Laura Sealau had just moved into a beautiful new townhouse in Denver’s West Colfax neighborhood. She invited us to stay with her (and her cat Artie) for a few nights, which was incredible.

We are pretty sure by the time we arrived we had not showered in 10 days, but thankfully Laura was not home when we got there, so we were able to clean ourselves up before she arrived. Over the next few days we were able to catch up with Laura, drive around Denver and do a little catching up on emails, etc. Since Denver is an incredibly accessible city, it was easy to jump in the car and explore the different neighborhoods and the downtown area easily.

We loved the fact that Tacomas and Jeeps outnumbered BMW’s and Mercedes. We could tell immediately that this city is built for those who love the outdoors. We loved Denver immensely. Awesome restaurants, great people and so much to do! It will make the forever list for sure…
 

Sand Dunes

After a quick stay in Denver we headed south through Colorado Springs to Great Sand Dunes National Park. We used this as a stopping point before heading down into Texas. The park itself is 132.4 square miles and is known for its giant sand dunes that sit at the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Naturally, the day we arrived it was cold and pouring rain.

Cold, rain and lots of sand

Cold, rain and lots of sand

After we found a campsite we headed to the dunes in the Jeep and drove the primitive Medano Pass Road for awhile to get an up close and personal view. The sand dunes are enormous! On a normal day, you are able to hike the dunes and get a sprawling view of the park, however on this day it was not to be. The wind and rain would have made it pretty terrible, so we decided to just admire from the viewpoints.

Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado

Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado

We spent the night in the Jeep since the weather was not great for setting up camp and decided to get an early start on our way to Texas.

Sadly, we were only in Colorado for a total of three nights even though we essentially drove the entire state! However, since Denver is so easy to get to we know we will be back. With so many fun things to do and so many ski mountains in such a close proximity it is an awesome place to visit from the East Coast.

The Many Parks of Utah

There is simply not enough we can say about the state of Utah. It has easily become one of our favorite states in the US! Nolan has grown up skiing in Utah, but getting to explore the southern parts of the state revealed a whole new world. There is just so much diversity in the landscape, sights and activities that it has to be on anyone’s list if they want to properly explore the US. Here is the full rundown of our time there:


Zion National Park

Zion is simply incredible. We were quite discouraged when we first arrived though coming from the Grand Canyon. The main road of the park is not very long and because of this, it tends to get insanely crowded. Cars are not allowed up the main canyon in Zion (you need to take a park tram) so where we came in, the park was flooded with tourists trying to take pictures on the side of the road. Not our ideal scenario and we even thought of moving on, but after a quick call to our Zion-veteran friend Alec (an avid explorer in his own right…check him out on Instagram @troutvibe) he urged us to stick it out, get up early and do some hiking first thing in the am to beat the crowds. He was definitely right…

Due to the masses of people in the park there was no place to stay, but we were quickly introduced to one of the best kept secrets in Utah: BLM Land. BLM stands for “Bureau of Land Management” and this is public land that is maintained by the government. In Utah, it is mostly desert, however if you find BLM land, you are allowed to park and camp assuming you are at least 1/4 mile from any main road. We pushed our Jeep to the limits and ended up sleeping three nights on BLM land outside of Zion. The camping was quite different (no amenities, desert sand, no people, etc, etc), but we didn’t care since we were able to explore Zion and camp for free!

After a nice sandstorm on our first night, we woke up early and conquered the sobering Angel’s Landing Hike for sunrise. This hike is no joke and sadly a few people have fallen to their deaths on this hike. Once you get to the top, you are greeted with an insanely narrow ridge where you need to use chains to continue to the top. It’s a little scary, but as long as you are extremely careful it is totally worth it. The views from the top (particularly at sunrise) were incredible and gave us an expansive look at the main Zion Canyon.

On top of Angel's Landing

On top of Angel's Landing

On Day two, we conquered the famous “Narrows” hike and this is unlike anything we have ever done. There are a few ways to do this hike, but without a permit you need to do what’s called the “Bottom Up” hike. You essentially start at the end of Zion Canyon (the Temple of Sinawava), walk a mile and then get a nice 7-mile hike through the famous Narrows slot canyon. The catch here is that the hike takes place about 90% time in water (i.e., you hike through the Virgin River, basically the whole time). It is wild! Yes, we got very wet and yes the water was not exactly warm; however, getting to explore the canyons, basically alone, was quite an experience!

Hiking The Narrows

Hiking The Narrows

We could have easily spent a week in Zion, but knew we had plenty more to explore. If you could only do one Utah park, it is hard to argue against this one. Our only advice would be to get a camping spot nearby and MAKE SURE you do most of your exploring first thing in the morning before the crowds take over the park.
 

Bryce Canyon

Our next stop was Bryce Canyon and here, once again, campsites were hard to come by. We ended up spending a quick night in a national forest just outside the park and slept in the Jeep (Utah was starting to get down into the 20's at night). We woke up at 4am and headed into the park to catch the sunrise at the main Bryce Amphitheater.

When we arrived at Bryce Point two things became very apparent: #1 was that it was very dark and very cold at the lookout spot. #2 was that a nice fog was rolling in, slightly obstructing our view. Ugh. In any event, the sun eventually rose and started to light up the hundreds of hoodoos below. It was a pretty wild sight and reminded us of seeing the sunrise in The Badlands. Crazy rock structures of all different shapes and sizes were scattered below us and once again, it looked like we had landed on another planet. We then drove the main road to one end of the park and back, taking in the various sights from the lookout points.

Bryce Amphitheater Sunrise

Bryce Amphitheater Sunrise

It was a quick stop, but was definitely very cool to see. We headed into town and got some guidance from a coffee shop that we should drive the scenic I-12 on our way to Moab. This ended up being a great piece of advice because it was one of the coolest drives we have done ever, including driving right through yet another park: Capitol Reef.


I-12 & Capitol Reef

Taking I-12 through Utah is incredible. You drive winding roads through huge sandstone walls, insane death-like valleys and crazy deserts with huge rock formations coming seemingly out of nowhere. Once you join up with I-24 you drive smack through the middle of Capitol Reef National Park. While you could technically drive right through, we ultimately decided to head into the park for a few hours where you could actually drive narrow roads through the steep sandstone walls.

The main events were driving through Capitol Gorge, as well as seeing some authentic petroglyphs on the canyon walls. It was pretty wild. We are not sure you would need to spend more than a day in this park, but if driving through Utah you HAVE to take I-12 and I-24 just to see this park. Its another beautiful stop and great way to break up a drive.


Moab, Canyonlands & Arches

Due to our scenic detour we arrived quite late (what else is new) and could not find camping anywhere in Moab. In fact, even the BLM land between Canyonlands and Arches were all overrun with people. We would later find out there was a huge bike race taking place in Moab that attracted hundreds of mountain bikers on this particular weekend, hence the increase in visitors…

At nearly 9pm we found a tiny stretch of road that had just a few spots slightly resembling camping sites. We talked to some nice folks who had already set up camp and they assured us we were good to camp and we found yet another home for a few nights in the middle of nowhere in Utah.

Our first morning, we decided to check out Canyonlands for sunrise. We headed straight for the famous Mesa Arch to try and shoot some sunrise photos. When we arrived (about 45 minutes before sunrise) we were greeted with, what we like to call, "the paparazzi." These are fellow travel photographers who all ascend on the same spot to try and capture iconic photos. We are certainly not ones to judge, but we figured we would share what our experience is really like sometimes when we go to capture photos. There is really no explanation needed other than the two photos below:

The "Paparazzi"

The "Paparazzi"

One of our photos...

One of our photos...

Haha! Not our favorite situation to be in, but sometimes you just need to roll with it. After we enjoyed the sunrise and met some nice folks, we headed to and enjoyed the various Island in the Sky lookouts, which revealed the insane valleys below. It is truly hard to believe that terrain like this exists in our country!

The next morning, we drove over two hours to the complete other side of the park where “The Needles” are. We must have taken a wrong turn because instead of ending up close and personal with the hoodoos, we ended up at a lookout point. However, it was totally worth it. We were opposite the Island in the Sky but it offered us incredible views of the expansive network of gorges below.

Quite a view...

Quite a view...

We had lunch in the main town of Moab (which is awesome) and then spent our entire afternoon exploring Arches National Park. Our time in Arches sadly got cut a bit short because the park was doing major construction on the roads and restricted visiting hours. We wanted to get in there for some sunrises, sunsets and night photography, but were just not allowed.

Once we got inside though, we realized how awesome this park was! Yes seeing all the world famous arches were awesome, but so was the general terrain of the park itself. Crazy sandstone rock structures all around you, it was just beautiful.

We explored some of the popular arches including Skyline, Sand Dune, Delicate and the Double Arch. We also got incredible views of the Salt Valley and Petrified Dunes. This park quickly became one of our favorites and in general, the Moab area of Utah is an outdoorsman’s dream. There are tons of places to camp, two amazing national parks and more outdoor activities to enjoy than probably anywhere on the planet. With the amazing skiing in the north and the outdoor paradise in the south, it is hard not to fall in love with Utah. Furthermore, the crazy changing landscapes across the state make it truly one of a kind!

Skyline Arch

Skyline Arch

Castle Valley & Colorado

On our last morning, we grabbed breakfast in Moab and then drove along the Colorado River on I-128 to Castle Valley. Anyone who is a fan of Western movies or the popular show “Westworld” has seen this place before. The iconic rock structures make it an easy film location for all things western. It was very cool to see in person.

Castle Valley, UT

Castle Valley, UT

We followed the river pretty much all the way into Colorado, eventually driving past all the major ski mountains on our way to Denver, where we would spend the next few nights. We will try and do a quick write up of our time in Colorado later this week...have a good week!

California

Yosemite

We kicked off our tour of California by heading to Yosemite National Park. We were originally going to skip both Yosemite and Crater Lake due to wildfires, but since we got lucky in Crater Lake (check it out here) we were feeling invincible. Wildfires schmidlfires, we were going to check out one of our nation's most famous parks, despite recent news that the fires were taking over.

When we got near the park after a very long drive, our GPS decided to take us on a “short cut” that turned into a treacherous one hour drive in serious off road conditions. We essentially climbed a mountain in our car. This was our first real "off road" experience, but it was good preparation for things to come (we have since done a lot of it). When we reached the entrance, our car was covered in mud, but hey, that's what Jeeps are for right?! 

Yosemite ended up being PACKED and we were forced to camp on the opposite side of the park from most of the sights. This ended up being fine by us because the main valley ended up being blanketed in wild fire smoke pretty much the entire time we were there. We got up early on our first full day and attempted a sunrise shoot, but the views were nonexistent as the main valley was covered in smoke. Ugh...

The good news, is that later in the afternoon the winds shifted for us and gave us a few chances to get some amazing photographs and see the park in all its glory. The main valley of Yosemite is iconic and is probably one of the best views we have encountered since traveling. El Capitan, Half Dome, and waterfalls…that view has it all. Aside from taking in the views, we ventured to see the Giant Sequoias, which were insane.

El Capitan and Half Dome at sunrise (blanketed in smoke) vs. clear afternoon

El Capitan and Half Dome at sunrise (blanketed in smoke) vs. clear afternoon

After we toured the park, we returned to our campsite and realized that since the winds had shifted to give us insane views, the wild fire smoke was now sitting directly on our campsite. It was bad. We could barely see the other campers and were forced to sleep in these glorious conditions. We had our sights set on a long early morning hike on our second full day, but after sleeping in the smoke we weren’t feeling well, so bagged it. In fact, we cut our stay in Yosemite a night short due to the smoke and headed for the comforts of San Fran instead. 

Despite the poor conditions, we loved this park. It was very busy and it was unfortunate the fires had an effect on us, but we got a sense for why this is such a popular one. As said, the main view of Yosemite Valley is incredible and we can only imagine what it must look like when you hike up to elevations. We will have to come back and do some proper hiking and exploring at another time.
 


San Francisco

Since the two of us had been to San Fran before, we decided to do a quick stay with some friends in the city. In fact, our friend Wes (who met us in the Amalfi Coast earlier in the summer) lent us his bedroom for the night. He lives with some of our old friends from Baltimore so it was great to see them and catch up.

Furthermore, we got to see one of Nolan’s old roommates, Jake Honig, while we were in town. We haven’t seen Jake since our wedding so it was great to catch up with him as well! He also gave us some awesome recommendations for tackling the California coast on the way to LA…

On our way out, we backtracked and explored Muir Woods, the Golden Gate Bridge and then started our journey down the coast.

It was colder than we thought :(

It was colder than we thought :(

Cali Coast & Paso Robles

One of the top items on our US bucket list was driving the Pacific Coast Highway. We had seen and read so much about the winding roads, the cliffs and the Pacific Ocean itself that we had to check it out. Furthermore, we have driven some awesome coastlines so far on our journey including the Ireland and Amalfi Coasts. We wanted to see how one of the US’ would stack up.

Of course, the second we started our drive the fog rolled in and would stick with us all the way from San Fran to Monterey. Nonetheless, we stopped by the famous Mavericks Beach, had oysters in Half Moon Bay and eventually posted up for a few nights in Morro Bay. Unfortunately, we decided to skip Big Sur because the area experienced a terrible landslide and it closed down that portion of the 101.

While we hung out in Morro Bay, Jake (knowing we love wine) gave us a tip about Paso Robles so naturally we decided to spend a day out there tasting wine and exploring the region. It was awesome and we had no idea it was even there! In fact, we tasted probably one of the best Chardonnays we have ever had from Daou Vineyards (yes, we sent some home).

Halter Ranch in Paso Rables

Halter Ranch in Paso Rables

View from Daou Vineyards and Winery

View from Daou Vineyards and Winery

After Morro Bay we continued further down the coast, driving through Santa Barbara and eventually into LA where we of course got in stuck in hours of traffic on the way in...


Los Angeles

LA was another city we decided to do quickly. No specific reason why, we just were antsy to head back east and get into some amazing parks that were on our agenda. So, we decided to do only one night in LA, but we packed a lot in.

We stayed in an amazing Airbnb with some awesome folks near Venice Beach (if anyone is headed to LA we can highly recommend them). On our one and only night, we met Jake’s parents who live in LA for a meal right off of Rodeo Drive. It was terrific to see them and catch up and their hospitality was over the top!

The next day we got up early and used the bikes our hosts provided (yep they had bikes for us) and toured the Venice Beach area before jumping in the car and doing Hollywood prior to escaping the madness. It’s funny how we are starting to notice that all this time spent outside in a tent is making the cities harder and harder to enjoy. In any event, we loved seeing LA, but were glad it was a short visit.
 

Joshua Tree

Since we spent most of the day touring LA (and being stuck in traffic) we arrived in Joshua Tree around sunset, but it was magical. The landscape and trees look like they are straight out of a Dr. Seuss book and taking it in for sunset was incredible. 

Dr. Seuss Trees

Dr. Seuss Trees

Of course, due to our late arrival all the campsites were pretty much full...ruh roh. As the sun went down we decided to initiate Plan B: enjoy the stars in Joshua Tree and then bite the bullet and drive through the night to Grand Canyon. Yes, not the smartest plan, but for some reason we were jacked up and ready for the challenge.

We spent a few hours photographing the night sky in Joshua Tree (check out our California Gallery) and then hoofed it to Grand Canyon. We each took naps in the car and arrived about two hours before sunrise. Even though we were smoked, we were now in Arizona and about to enjoy some of the best days we have had since leaving home…but that story is for another post, maybe later this week?

All in all, we had a blast seeing the beautiful state of California. It is so big and so diverse. One minute you are in Yosemite seeing giant rock faces and trees and the next you are on the cliffs of the Pacific Coast watching whales and surfers. Furthermore, the people are so unique! Enjoy a coffee sitting outside at Menotti's Coffee Shop in Venice Beach and this point will be proven in seconds. We haven’t spent a ton of time on the west coast, but we loved it. Maybe not quite enough to live there, but loved it nonetheless. We were excited to start heading back east after LA, but are so glad we got a week on the Cali Coast…

"The Great PNW"

Seattle

Our journey through the Pacific Northwest began in Seattle where two of our good friends (Jason and Maura) took us in for a few days. As soon as we got there, the couple rolled out the red carpet for us and we were off to the races. Before we knew it, we had been to the Public Market, caught a fish, seen the original Starbucks and met some of their friends for a rooftop BBQ overlooking CenturyLink Stadium.

The next day we were treated to a boat ride on Lake Washington and an amazing dinner downtown. We were even able to link up with one of our good friends from Hopkins, Erin, who lives and works there now. The weekend was so amazing that Jason and Maura convinced us to stay an extra night to relax, catch up on Game of Thrones and of course have yet another amazing dinner downtown at their favorite Italian spot.

Neither of us had ever been to Seattle and we really enjoyed this city. They clearly love their coffee there, so it wasn’t hard for us to relate on that.

 

Olympic National Park

After leaving Seattle we decided to spend a night exploring Olympic National Park. Due to our extended stay in Seattle we lost a night, but we were still glad to get into the park and experience it. We decided to camp in the Hoh Rainforest, which is one of the largest temperate rainforests in the US and it was amazing! Tall trees for miles covered in deep green moss, it was like a scene from Avatar. We also were able to see Ruby Beach and arrived just as a fog was rolling in, so it made the whole experience surreal (and quite photo friendly).

The trip to Olympic also marked the first time we were able to get a glimpse of the Pacific Ocean since we left. We officially made it coast to coast!

 

Williamette Valley

There was absolutely no way we were going to drive down the coast and NOT stop to explore the wine regions of Oregon. Not only have the Willamette wines become some of our favorites over the years, but when we were in Burgundy it was all the French wanted to talk about! It seems everyone is very curious about what is going in Oregon, so we had to check it out.

We ended up staying right outside the town of Newberg on a farm and the second we arrived we knew we were in for a treat. Our new hosts, Sarah and Bubba were some of the nicest people we have met during our travels. Before we knew it, they had introduced us to half the town and made us feel like locals. They were so amazing they even allowed us to stay for an extra night free of charge. Faith in humanity restored!

Over our three days there, we explored various wineries including Beaux Freres (one of our favs), Soter and Domaine Drouhin. Bubba even brought us some wine from his place Nicolas Jay, which was awesome. We also took a day to explore Portland. 

It is funny how some of our most memorable experiences have everything to do with the people we have met. Yes, Willamette is a gorgeous part of the world and yes, wine was plentiful; however, the folks in Newberg took us in and we feel like we made some amazing friends. This made all the difference and we will certainly be back to visit!


Crater Lake

Despite hearing about raging wildfires around the Crater Lake area, we decided to take our chances and visit. We had just heard so many amazing things about this area that we had to give it a try. 

Crater Lake was formed over 7,500 years ago when a volcano named Mount Mazama collapsed. It created a giant crater and over the years has become the deepest lake in the United States. The cool thing is that the lake is entirely fed by rain and snowmelt! 

When we arrived to see this volcanic lake our fears came true. We could see the lake, but we watched as huge plumes of smoke descended upon it. Before we knew it, the lake had disappeared and the smoke from the fires had won. Could not see a thing. It was also crazy how quickly the smoke was able to engulf the lake as the winds changed. We camped for the night hoping we would get another shot in the morning for sunrise.

We got up early the next day and drove in the dark to the lake hoping we would get a chance to see it before we left. Luckily, the smoke had cleared and we experienced one of the most gorgeous sunrises we had ever seen. The colors from the sun reflecting off the deep blue hues of the lake were just incredible. Worth the risk and the visit for sure!

Crater Lake at sunrise

Crater Lake at sunrise

Housekeeping

Well, not surprisingly we are very behind. We are currently in Austin, TX and it has been quite a journey from Crater Lake to get here. We drove down the entire coast of California, through Arizona, Utah and Colorado and are now here. We have a lot to catch you up on! 

We apologize for the delay but now that we are (mostly) working our way through cities we should be able to get everything up to date. We can't wait to share our experiences and some incredible photos from places like Yosemite, Grand Canyon and the parks in Utah. 

Thanks again for following along and all of the support. Speak soon!
 

Wyoming: Devil's Tower, Jackson, the Tetons and Yellowstone

Devil’s Tower

After we left Mount Rushmore we headed north through Rapid City and onwards to Wyoming. Our first stop was to see Devil’s Tower. Devil’s Tower is 867 feet (base to summit) limestone rock structure that protrudes seemingly out of nowhere in Northeast Wyoming. As you get close you start to wonder where the heck it would be because all you see is rolling plains then all of a sudden...boom, there it is!

While the tower is impressive to see up close, it is almost more impressive to view it from a distance because you realize not only how tall it is but how it stands out against the rest of the landscape. After getting to experience The Badlands it was fun to see another rock structure in our backyard that seems like it belongs in a Sci-Fi movie.

 

Grand Teton National Park

Ahh where to begin?! So much to say, so hard to say it. Grand Teton National Park is incredible. When we travelled through Europe, Switzerland was one country that truly captivated us. The landscapes, the tranquility, the views were all just amazing. We never thought places like that existed, and certainly never thought our own country could compete! Yet, the Tetons proved to us that our country does contain some absolutely stunning landscapes. But before we get to that, let’s go to the beginning…

For those who didn’t see it, we will refer you to our Instagram post on the lengths we took to secure a campsite in Grand Teton National Park. After we finished in South Dakota we wanted to head to the Tetons, but we also realized the “Great American Eclipse” was in five days. Everything we read had noted what a nightmare it would be traveling around the path of totality and it just so happened that the Tetons were one of the most popular places in the country to try and view it. In fact, the park expected visitors to shatter records on eclipse day! We certainly didn’t mean to be in the mix, but since we were in town we figured we would try our luck.

After a ton of research, we knew landing a campsite would be a total shot in the dark, especially since all the park’s campsites were either totally booked or first come first served (meaning wait in line and hope for the best). But, after seeing Devil’s Tower, we decided to take that shot and drove through the night across the entire state of Wyoming and landed at Colter Bay Campground at 12:30am to wait in line for a camping site and there was already one car ahead of us.

After sleeping for a few hours in the car we woke up to find at least 40 cars and campers waiting for a campsite. Since we were second in line our gamble paid off and we got in to secure a site throughout the whole week, including the eclipse. We saw a ton of people get turned away and realized quickly how lucky we were! So we hunkered down and planned to see as much of the park as we could while we were there.

In the days leading up to the eclipse we explored the Jenny and Leigh Lake area hiking trails, the Colter Bay area via the Hermitage Point Hike and were even able to get into in downtown Jackson to check it out. In fact, we were able to meet up with some great friends who cooked us dinner one night in their place, which was a huge huge bonus for us!

The best part of our time here though was of course getting to see the eclipse. This experience was so special to us that we decided to dedicate an entire blog post to it. It was one of those moments we both knew we would remember for the rest of our lives. Not only that, but we got to experience it with Kirby’s Dad, who flew in to Denver to see it and decided to do his own drive through the night to meet us in the Tetons. It was awesome! Check out that post here:

All in all, the Tetons have been our favorite stop so far. The mountains are stunning and once you get in the backcountry, all the things to experience truly cannot be captured in pictures or words. Beauty surrounds you in this place. We know we will be back!

View from Jackson Lake at Colter Bay Campground

View from Jackson Lake at Colter Bay Campground

 

Yellowstone National Park

Literally right next door to Grand Teton is our country’s most storied park: Yellowstone. Obviously we have heard about Yellowstone our entire lives, so to get to actually see it in person was pretty cool. If we could describe Yellowstone in one word it would be: diverse. Within a few hours you can see deep pine forests, highly volatile thermal areas, colorful canyons and more wildlife than you knew our country even had. It’s pretty insane. We were only able to spend two full days in the park (which is definitely not enough), but we were able to get a sense of all the park has to offer. We broke our days up into two separate ideas: touristy and off-the-beaten-path.

On day one we attempted to check off the touristy stuff. We spent half a day experiencing Old Faithful and the surrounding geyser area (including the Morning Glory Pool) and then drove up to see the Grand Prismatic Spring. Let us tell you, maybe it was summer, maybe it was the eclipse but those two stops took a lot out of us. It was hot and there were people everywhere! Clearly we came during a peak time, which is not our favorite, but it was very cool to get to experience these iconic American treasures in the flesh. The park makes you realize it really is sitting on some highly active land!

On day two we explored the various mud pits, Yellowstone Lake, the park’s “Grand Canyon”, various incredible waterfalls, the great plains and the Mammoth Hot Springs. This was a long day, but it truly gave us a sense of the park’s vast and diverse landscapes. We could have easily spent a day just exploring the canyon! We even saw hordes of bison, deer and even a coyote on the drive. If there was ever a place in our country that resembled an African safari, it would be the plains of Yellowstone. It was very cool to see and experience.

We only had two days, but you could easily spend a week in this park and still not have enough time. This really is a park that every American should experience at least once in their lifetime.

Kittanning, Chicago and Manchester

KITTANNING, PENNSYLVANIA

Nestled along the east bank of the Allegheny River, about 44 miles northeast of Pittsburgh, is the charming old steel-mill town of Kittanning, PA, where Nolan’s godfather lives. We drove up from Deep Creek (about 2.5 hours) to spend a long weekend with him. This place is like a second home to Nolan as he and his family have been visiting since he was little. In fact, Nolan’s parents made the drive up from Baltimore to meet us, which was a great bonus!

We happened to be visiting during the Armstrong County’s Folk Festival, which was set up along the banks of the river and included hand-crafted artist market, musical entertainment, and festival food! The main event though, was getting to spend a few nights out on the river waterskiing. Although we both hadn’t skied in about 10 years, Nolan got up and looked like a pro, and Kirby got up on a slalom for the 2nd time EVER! It was a blast, but we definitely paid for it the next morning!

Overall, we had a wonderful visit. It was great to get to spend some time after camping with our family and friends, especially before heading west to essentially live out of our car! We already can’t wait to visit again next summer, hopefully in better shape!

CHICAGO, ILLINOIS

After a 7.5-hour drive from Kittanning, we arrived in Chicago and settled into our Airbnb, which was situated in the middle of the financial district, near Millennium Park. The first night we arrived, we were exhausted and so decided to check out a lovely wine store, Perman Wine Selections, grab some take-out, and binge watch the latest episodes of Game of Thrones. It made us feel like we were back at home!

On our one and only full day we accomplished quite a lot! During the day we did our own tour of the city (total of about 8.5 miles walking) starting at Bow Truss Coffee Roasters with some cold brew and then took a cab to one of Jeff Tweedy’s (Wilco lead singer) favorite brunch spots, Toast, located in Bucktown. From the classic city view at North Avenue Beach, to the iconic Chicago Theatre sign, to Cloud Gate (the bean) in Millennium Park, Calder’s Flamingo, and the Art Institute of Chicago…we loved it all!

In the evening, we got to meet up with our friend Hunter’s younger sister, Lindsay at an amazing rooftop bar near Millennium park called Cindy’s. While we got a lot of great dinner advice, we then decided to treat ourselves and had a fabulous Chinese dinner at Duck Duck Goat, owned by celebrity chef Stephanie Izard.

We look tired...up too late catching up on HBO!

We look tired...up too late catching up on HBO!

Overall, we loved Chicago. It feels like NYC, but is more laid back and the people are so friendly! While we cannot imagine what the wind off Lake Michigan feels like in Jan/Feb, during the summer the city is just awesome! It was a great stopping point before continuing on our way. We even found a killer Cold Brew from Metric Coffee we liked, so naturally on our way out we stocked our cooler to last us about a week :)

MANCHESTER, IOWA

We left the Windy City and headed about four hours west across Illinois and into Iowa and boy did we see some corn!! Fields upon fields upon never-ending fields of corn and a whole lot of giant wind turbines. It was pretty wild to see! We also got our first taste of a vicious afternoon Thunderstorm that rolled across the interstate.

Our ultimate destination in Iowa was a small town called Manchester, situated just above Cedar Rapids, IA. Here, we spent two nights with Kirby’s friend since middle school, Rachel Polito, who lives with her husband Josiah, and their two young daughters. It was once again awesome to see some familiar faces and catch up with old friends. We also got to experience what it is like living in SmallTown, USA. While it may not be for us, there is something about it that is charming, cozy and simpler. We have to say, it was refreshing!

 

We are likely to be a bit off the grid the next few days. We are in South Dakota exploring national and state parks before continuing west to Wyoming and beyond. Speak soon!

 

 

 

 

 

On the road again: Shenandoah, Luray and Deep Creek

First and foremost, it feels great to be back on the road! After we got home on July 11, we spent a week tidying up things at home and then retreated to the beach for some much needed R&R. It was great to be home and see everyone for a brief moment, including getting to celebrate Nolan’s brother's 30th Birthday.

Aside from catching up on things, we started to plan our American road trip. To start, we decided to stay closer to home just to make sure we could handle this whole camping & living out of our car thing. We planned on two nights in Shenandoah National Park and two in Deep Creek, Maryland. Before we took off, we spent a LOT of time at REI getting outfitted and even turned our car into a place where we could sleep if we wanted to. Check out the guide to that here

All in all, we are back at it and it feels terrific. We cannot wait to explore the US for the next 2-3 months!

Here we come 'Murica!!

Here we come 'Murica!!

Shenandoah National Park

We were quite anxious as we arrived at the gate to Shanendoah. We both had not been camping in probably 15 years and had no idea what to expect. After we got settled and found our way to the campground, we obviously had to stop at the store and stock up on some firewood. What’s a camping trip without a fire?! The first thing we realized when we arrived was that US park rangers look exactly as you would expect them to. The second thing is that bears are a real thing. We got a full rundown on what attracted the bears to our campsite, which was basically everything. Terrific.

We found our little plot and and got the camp set up, though it took some work. We had a lovely MRE (Meals Ready to Eat) dinner over a single burner and then tried to get some sleep. The first night was a little creepy getting used to sleeping outside. Probably the worst part were our camping neighbors. They were up late and certainly did NOT abide by the 10pm curfew. Oh well, once we finally fell asleep, we woke up 12 hours later. Guess we were tired…

The next day we did a 6.5 mile hike through part of the Apalachian Trail, explored Loft Mountain and had lunch at Doyles River Falls, which was awesome. Thankfully we did not encounter any black bear friends on our excursion. We also got some amazing views of the park itself and the takeaway was this: endless hills of forest. Literally. As far as you could see in any direction was sprawling deep forests covering mountains. It was beautiful!

Shenandoah Views (those black spots are gnats flying around...ugh)

Shenandoah Views (those black spots are gnats flying around...ugh)

Night two went smoother and we woke up early to head to Deep Creek and also stop at Luray Caverns on the way. After our first two nights- no bears, not too smelly and feeling fresh. Think we might be OK!!!



Luray Caverns & Deep Creek

On our way to Deep Creek, we stopped at Luray Caverns, which are the largest caverns on the East Coast and the fourth largest in the USA. They were discovered in 1878 by some explorers and while they are now a huge tourist attraction, once you get down there, they are breathtaking! The rock formations, many of which are still active, are crazy! We definitely are not the biggest fans of tours, but this one was worth it. If you are nearby, and have two hours to spare, do it!

After Luray, we kept heading north towards Deep Creek Lake, which took us through a portion of West Virginia and man was it rural! It actually looks a lot like Shenandoah with rolling hills of forest, but we were definitely glad we had a full tank of gas because there wasn’t much in the way of civilization.

Deep Creek itself is part of a state park in Western Maryland (our home state) and neither of us had ever been. Upon driving in, we realized it is definitely beautiful. A huge lake surrounded by cabins and forests. Since we were now pros at camping, we got our camp set up and a fire going in no time! We also splurged and did some hot dogs and s'mores over the fire…again #campinglife.

Total pros...

Total pros...

Our Deep Creek campsite was way more spread out and quiet. That also adds to a level of creepiness because at night you can hear things…but, after we settled down we slept great and conquered another 6 miles hike around the lake before ending up back near our campsite. We also were able to head down to the “beach” near our campsite and swim. It was a great way to end the day!

Tomorrow we are off to visit some family in Kittanning, PA for the weekend, where we will be spending time on the Allegheny River. This is where Nolan learned to waterski very young. While we both haven’t skied behind a boat in many years, I think we will have to give it a try once again!

France – Our Last European Stop

Well, technically we got into France weeks ago. When we left Spain we flew to Paris to pick up a car. Why? Because we learned the hard (read: expensive) way what happens when you rent a car in one European country and return it in another. Since we knew Paris would be the last stop, we picked up a car there and it was with us for the next 2.5 months and travelled all over France, Switzerland and Italy. So even though we broke France up a bit, here is what we experienced:

 

Bordeaux, France -

Our first stop after picking up the car in late May was Bordeaux (notice a wine theme yet?). We were excited to explore the wine growing regions of this world famous area and see if we could learn and taste some of the most expensive wines in the world. We quickly realized however, the French don’t exactly do things like the rest of the world. There is no “showing up” to vineyards to taste the wines. No, you have to be somebody important and set up reservations well in advance. We are not anybody and definitely did not set anything up, so we just figured being in town would be good enough.

Bordeaux grapes

Bordeaux grapes


Our first night we were exhausted from a long drive from Paris. We decided to go into the tiny town of Blaye and seek out a wine store. We found a cute spot that was serving tapas and started inquiring about some wines we could bring home. Zero English. Before we knew it, the owner summoned an older lady from down the street who spoke English to help us with a wine selection. She seemed quite knowledgeable so when we asked her what her background was she answered, “Well, I am a winemaker.” Boom! Kirby worked her magic and before we knew it we had a friend in Bordeaux! She recommended a few places to go and taste, some terrific wines to experiment with at home and before the end of the week gave us an extensive tour and lesson of her own Chateau (more on that in a bit).

Over our three days in Bordeaux we explored the amazing town of St. Emilion, the actual city of Bordeaux and explored the left bank where some of the world’s most sought after wines are made from producers such as Chateau Margaux, Latour and Mouton-Rothschild. The French Bordeaux classification system is something we took a lot of time to learn while we were there and we would describe it best in one word: complicated. Furthermore, a lot of the rules the French still live by are from Napoleon! Weird. Too much to get into here, but we thought when we had a few hours we would produce our version of a European Wine Guide. May be helpful for anyone going to check out these regions.

Anyways, we did tastings at Chateau de Ferrand near St. Emilion and Chateau Lamothe-Bergeron in Paulliac, but the most memorable experience was visiting our friend Florence at her house Chateau Cantinot. She gave us a tour of her winemaking facilities, let us taste her wines and even explained how she and her family came to be winemakers: Her husband Robert had been a broker and decided, no matter what, when he turned 50, he would fulfill a lifelong dream to become a winemaker. Amazing! Over the last 15 years they have learned trial-by-fire and now produce over 150K bottle per year! Quite an achievement and the wine was actually pretty darn good.

Our friends Florence and Robert at Chateau Continot

Our friends Florence and Robert at Chateau Continot

Even though we didn’t get to taste the big boys everybody talks about, experiences like Chateau Continot are what make trips like this awesome! Totally by chance but we got the best lesson about Bordeaux wines we ever could have by folks who live and breathe it everyday!

 

Provence (Stop #1)

Our next stop was to the Provence Region of France, which is in the south of the country and features many of France’s national parks, picturesque beaches, mountainous regions and of course the famous lavender fields. The latter is what we were after so we picked a spot smack in the middle of Luberon Natural Regional Park right next to a tiny town called Viens. We had an amazing Airbnb here that was situated at the top of a large hill overlooking fields and fields of green lavender. Wait green?!?! Yes, because we did ZERO research as to when the lavender actually blooms, we quickly realized we were about a month and a half too early. Whoops!

Green lavender...

Green lavender...

So over the course of the next three days we hiked, caught up on some sleep and explored as much of this area of the world as we could. One thing is for sure, the Provence region of France is beautiful and we cannot imagine what it must look like when all of those green fields turn to purple. We made a pact that if we could fit it in, we would return on our way back to Paris to try and catch a glimpse of this famous lavender.