A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: rachwells

Sedona, the Grand Canyon, and Phoenix

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A couple weeks ago, I spent a few days bouncing around 225 miles of Arizona, visiting three distinct areas: Sedona, the Grand Canyon, and Phoenix. I must admit, though these locales have been on my (long) travel wish list for quite some time, I'm not sure when I actually would have visited each of them if not for the fact that I have family who now lives in the state. I'm glad I have an excuse to keep coming back, and each time, I see more than I expect to find...and more places in the state to put on my (getting even longer) travel wish list. For now, here is an overview of my most recent time in Arizona:

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Shake It Out: Jeep Off-Roading in Sedona
Yep, I went off the deep end! Well, sort of. It's actually an optical illusion - a clever, perfectly safe photo-op on a sloping surface. The rest of the off-roading tour was no joke. Bump, shake, up, down, left, right...a full-on thrill ride. It was the funnest activity I've done in a long time. I was holding on for dear life, and smiling ear-to-ear having the time of my life. I came to Sedona looking for peace, and ironically, I found myself literally shaking off my worries and stress while bouncing around boulders in a moving vehicle.

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A Grand Canyon Express Tour
In the past four years, I passed through Flagstaff three times on separate long distance road trips and one other quickie weekend trip further south in the state. This time, I finally made it to the Grand Canyon! I took a guided Express tour from Sedona, which meant it took two hours each way and you get maybe a total of three hours at the Canyon in two different spots. But here's the thing: For me, it was a great way to do my first visit to this national (and internationally-renowned) landmark. I saw just enough to have the experience, including hiking a little bit along the Bright Angel trail, and getting ideas for what I would want to do if/when I come back someday for a longer visit.

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Desert Oasis in Phoenix
The morning I left Sedona, I shivered in my sweatshirt while waiting outside for my shuttle. Two hours later when I reached the Sky Harbor International Airport, I literally went into the bathroom and changed into shorts and a t-shirt...because it was around 100 degrees in Phoenix. Yes, it is very hot outside, and but during this trip, I got to see and experience some of the city's real gems. Some of my Phoenix favorite experiences included lunch at Taco Guild, photographing saguaros & cacti at the famous Desert Botanical Garden, and walking around the historic Coronado neighborhood. Also, one day while driving around the Phoenix outskirts for the fun of it, my sister and I happened upon Goldfield, a ghost town tourist attraction at the foothills of the Superstition Mountains.

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Where to next in the Wild West?
I'm sure I will come back to some of these areas again in the future. But while I was in Arizona this most recent time, a couple travel guides (separately) recommended additional destinations in the state, and thus, I have started to research and daydream about: Jerome (a ghost town nicknamed "the Wickedest Town in the West") and Antelope Canyon (an area near the Arizona/Utah state line which is supposed to be breathtakingly gorgeous).

Posted by rachwells 19:39 Comments (1)

Florida "Firsts": Gator Golf, NASA & Cocoa Beach

My friend Donna and I recently visited the Sunshine State, and in the midst of the trip, I realized that I was experiencing numerous 'first-time' endeavors. And isn't that one of the great benefits of travel, anyway? Expanding one's horizons with experiences that make for hilarious, endearing and memorable tales.

First...Trip to the state of Florida
As of this trip, I have now visited 21 out of the 50 states in the U.S. (While that doesn't sound like a lot - don't forget, I've been all over Texas and California which are two of the biggest states in the nation.) I'm always excited to visit new places, and I enjoyed my first visit to Florida. I know that this state, too, is a vast and varied terrain, which I look forward to exploring even more in the future. For now, enjoy reading about my six other "first" experiences in this great state:

First...Beach on the Atlantic Ocean coast
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That's right - as much as I've traveled all over the U.S., including many cities on the East Coast, I experienced my first Atlantic Ocean beach during this visit to Cocoa Beach. On Easter Sunday, we rented two lawn chairs and an umbrella which the staff kindly set up for us, and from there, we parked our selves on a spot of sand where we had a nice view of a surfing competition taking place that day. It struck me how incredibly windy it was near the water - like a torrential onslaught of whitecaps on the waves - but I guess that's what makes for a great surf. Someday, I want to learn how to get up on a board myself, but for this day, I happily reclined, watched the scenery and read my book. A couple times, I did brave the crisp 60s/low 70s blustery temperatures to submerge into the comforting, refreshing ocean water. (It was totally worth the 20 minutes of shivering and shaking wrapped in my towel on the lawn chair in the sunshine afterward.)

First Time...Eating Alligator
One night, I got dared to try eating a unique appetizer during dinner at a local seafood restaurant. The meat itself was a little bit rubbery and extra chewy, but the tangy dipping sauce that came with the fried alligator meat made it taste pretty good. In small doses, it's worth a try.

First Time...Holding an Alligator!
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After playing 36 holes of mini-golf at the Golf N Gator, we walked over to the nearby reptile cages where the staff let us hold a live creature. The look on my face says it all. The excitement, mixed with nerves and a little bit of guilt that I had eaten, well, something the prior night. If you're in the mood for some putt-putt, seeing some reptiles up close (including fenced off along the perimeter of your golf course)...and panning for jewels, it's good times at the Golf N Gator. This was probably my favorite idea and experience for an Easter activity, ever.

First...Mojito
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Wow, so many powerful flavors in one concoction. The minty taste and sinus-obliterating scent almost took my breath away in every delicious sip. While hanging out and talking with my travel buddy, I realized towards the end of the drink that the surrounding scenery started to look a little bit swirly...even while I was still sitting down. I hilariously realized that I was a little bit buzzed. Don't worry, I didn't get sick, I only had the one beverage, and I successfully walked back to our very close-by hotel room, in spite of the perceived "tilting".

First...Visit to NASA at Cape Canaveral
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What an amazing place. I had no idea until I saw it for myself how vast and comprehensive the Kennedy Space Center really is; this is where real science and innovation has and continues to take place. At the same time, the Visitor Complex is like a mini Disneyland (or should I say, Disney World, since this is Florida). It's not just your average tourist attraction or "museum" information displays that you're viewing here. You're looking at the actual spacesuits, the computing equipment, and even the shuttle itself. (Yep, you can see the Atlantis shuttle, which had been in use for 20 years.) Another cool feature of this place: There is a bus tour where you can drive past the launch sites. (In fact, side note, we missed by one day being in town for a scheduled launch!) I also loved learning more info about NASA's prep and plans for a manned mission to Mars in the next 15 - 20 years. If and when that happens, I'm scheduling a trip to see that epic launch!

First Time...Touching a Moon Rock
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Amidst the numerous cool displays in the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, it's easy walk past one particularly neat feature...the opportunity to literally touch something that did not originate on this planet. This one piece of solid matter had a very smooth, polished feeling to it - not at all what I would expect.

Posted by rachwells 17:19 Comments (1)

Snapshots of 2016 Travels

In 2016, I traveled more often than I could keep up with writing about it! In some cases, there were mere days between landing back home in Dallas, doing laundry, and then re-packing for the next adventure...It was awesome.

There's so much more that I saw and did during this amazing year of travel, but for now, here are some of the highlights of the fun times I had bouncing around the mid-Atlantic, the South, and the Southwest.

Quirky Adventures in Baltimore

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Sometimes when I travel, I know exactly what I'm excited to see. In the case of Baltimore, I experienced a gut feeling. I had no idea why I wanted to go, but I knew it would be amazing once I got there. When I hiked to the top of Federal Hill, the panoramic view of the touristy Inner Harbor filled my heart with happiness and took my breath away (literally, because it's kind of a steep walk to reach the peak).

After taking the time I needed to enjoy in the scenic view, I descended back to ground level and visited the nearby American Visionary Art Museum, which features a lot of work by self-taught artists who have used their talents as a way to work through personal struggles. Very inspiring and captivating pieces. I also enjoyed walking around Geppi's Entertainment Museum and photographing jellyfish at the famous National Aquarium. On a separate note, I ate some very delicious food while visiting Baltimore as well. The stuffed French Toast at Miss Shirley's is unbelievably good. City Cafe is a little bit pricy, but the lobster Mac & Cheese is so, so worth it. Personally, I don't think Baltimore gets enough attention as a tourist destination. You can see and do a lot in a weekend, but I would even love to go back again to explore more of the city more deeply.

A Haunted Birthday in Savannah, Georgia

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For my 31st birthday, I decided to go on some night-time ghost tours in this amazing coastal city. I know you're wondering, and here's the answer: Yes, I think I did capture a spooky image in one of these photos. Can you see it? Look closely at the top left corner of each photo (above), and see if you can view the hazy appearance of an older man and a young woman leaning against his shoulder.

With so very many different options for ghost tours in this city known for its haunted legends and history, I had a hard time narrowing down amongst the great choices. I ended up taking a couple of night-time neighborhood walking tours, and I explored the Sorrel Weed House, which runs its own tours of the inside of the house. By the end of my trip, I was a little bit freaked out (but in a good way), and also enjoyed the time I spent getting to know this lovely city in the daylight as well. (More on that another time, in another blog post, and hopefully another future visit.)

Weekend Oasis Getaway to Scottsdale, Arizona

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So here's a place that gets lots of sunshine, virtually no shade, and still kept me plenty warm at 85 degrees...in November! With a touristy Wild West twang, Scottsdale is the weekend 'party central' locale for the Phoenix area which features upscale fashion centers (this area is too self-consciously chic for the word "mall"), prissy spas, poolside retreats, and trendy patio eateries. I'm only affectionately teasing the town a little bit - I enjoyed Scottsdale, and it was a great spot for a true sense of the word vacation. Tucked away within the maze of souvenir shops of Old Town, there is a lovely park (near the civil center) which provided a scenic, relaxing hang out spot.

Posted by rachwells 14:41 Comments (1)

15 Epic California Adventures of 2015


View Southern & Central California - November & December 2015 on rachwells's travel map.

I know, I know - I am writing about a series of travel adventures that happened six months ago. Why did it take me so long to finally write and publish these words? Keep reading, and you will understand why.

Two trips. 16 days. 644 photos. 1,376 miles (back and forth) by car, by train, by bus, and sometimes on foot, passing through 11 counties, which resulted in at least 15 adventures. That's right - It's not really an exaggeration to say that I explored all over the place throughout Southern and Central California in November and December 2015, including with my sister/best friend/travel-partner-in-crime, Rebecca. Here it goes…

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Day 1 - Backpacking in L.A.
A few changes of clothes, a small bag of travel-size toiletries, an iPad & camera, and a book I purchased at the airport - I arrived in L.A. with everything I needed for the next week-and-a-half strapped to my back. It felt great to be home and away from home all at the same time. Simultaneously free & ready to go anywhere, while also feeling excited to be back in one of my favorite places. And in that moment, from my perfect perch in Barnsdall Park gazing out at the Hollywood Sign, the Griffith Observatory, and my beloved neighborhood hangout Los Feliz, I just felt happy and grateful to be there.

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Searching for an Abandoned Zoo in Griffith Park
This is exactly the type of thing I love to come across in my travels. When I found out that the structural remains of the Old L.A. Zoo is something you can actually visit within L.A.'s lovely, monstrously huge Griffith Park, I knew I had to go. So one morning after breakfast, I randomly decided to try to find it…on foot, without a map in hand. Not the smartest idea. I got lost on the eastern edge of the park, but hey, it was a nice, scenic detour.

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Red Carpet Sneak Peek in Hollywood
After browsing the Amoeba Music store, I walked to nearby Hollywood & Highland to get a cup of coffee and to window shop. From inside one of the stores, I looked out onto Hollywood Boulevard, and there I saw a carpet in the middle of the street…a red carpet. I tried inconspicuously to figure out what was going on, and more importantly, for whom. Upon closer look, I saw the crew dismantling the set up, so whatever the event was, it had already passed. Nonetheless, it was exciting to see the partitions and the flurry of activity up close.

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Culture and Art in Downtown L.A.
The last time I spent any time in Downtown L.A. (besides tons of train layovers in Union Station), I was in college doing research in the Garment District for a class project. This time, I was surprised by how much cool, fun stuff I came across in the city's core. First stop: The Last Bookstore, which is self-described as the biggest new & used books and record store in the state…it is quite massive and impressive. There's even a book tunnel/archway upstairs. After seeing lots of advertisement signs around town, I spontaneously decided to visit the brand new Broad museum, which features some incredible contemporary art…and massive lines to get inside; I lucked out as a walk-in, but I strongly recommend making a free advance reservation. At the (extremely crowded) Grand Central Market, I got a good cup of coffee, and I also passed a few other notable landmarks, including Angels Flight, the Bradbury Building and the L.A. Times office building.

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Diving into the (Chilly) Ocean in Santa Barbara
Still at a safe distance close to the shallow shore, I momentarily surrendered, allowing the salty waves to rock me back and forth. It was an amazing feeling to enjoy the crisp air and gregarious sunny skies of the lovely Santa Barbara coast. After a nice day at the beach, exploring the shops at nearby State Street, and eating a really good Brazilian brunch, my sister and I headed back towards L.A., saw a movie, ate dinner (barely awake at this point) and then crashed at her place in the Valley.

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Seeking Salvation near the Salton Sea
The very next day... My sister and I drove 200 miles southeast to see an art installation deep in the Southern California desert…almost to Mexico. You drive for miles and miles, and then Salvation Mountain is just there - like a mirage you can't believe really exists in such a remote location. The bright colors, the tunnels and secret passageways - it's quite cool, no matter your religious views. Until my sister reminded me, I had forgotten that Salvation Mountain makes a cameo in the movie Into The Wild. (Of course I re-watched the film when I got home.)

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Holiday Decor and Palm Trees near Miracle Mile
Located south of West Hollywood and east of Beverly Hills - when I visited this area a few years ago, I saw the La Brea Tar Pits and the Craft and Folk Art Museum (which I highly recommend). This time, I wandered around the ginormous L.A. County Museum of Art (also known as LACMA), which is instantly recognizable on Wilshire Blvd when you see the dense maze of old-timey street lamps outside of the front entrance. Also, I had a feeling that the nearby shopping center The Grove would have some pretty holiday decorations, which of course it did. Thus, I got treated to a nice mixture of art viewing, early dinner at the nearby Farmers Market, and window shopping.

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Full Circle - Barnsdall Park to Union Station
Back where I started...and also moving forward into the next phase of my journey. With a cup of hot coffee in hand, I lazily watched the remaining hints of daylight wane into the twinkling night skies of Hollywood. It was my last evening in L.A. for this particular trip, but I knew I would be back in only one month. It's a strange, magnetic pull - the relationship I have with Los Angeles. I always feel compelled to come back, and I love wandering around, within and to/from like a homely tourist. And round and round, the cycle continues. The next morning, like I've done so many times prior (and always immensely enjoy), I ventured to Union Station, where I boarded the train to lovely San Diego.

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Ghosts of Old Town
Do the shoes really shift positioning around the room? Did you hear an unexplained sound across the room, or feel an extra presence close by? A historic institution preserved in Old Town San Diego, the Whaley House is also the sight of alleged hauntings. Not just a private residence, the house also once served numerous town functions, including a court house and the first commercial theatre in San Diego. I loved viewing the 19th century home decor up close, and the friendly docents (dressed in period clothing) are very welcoming and approachable, happy to answer any questions.

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Green Line Trolley Tour of San Diego
After visiting the Whaley House, I walked around the rest of Old Town San Diego, including stopping for lunch at Casa Guadalajara (because guacamole enchiladas is always a given) and browsing the colorful shops at Bazaar del Mundo. Next stop, cappuccino and a piece of tiramisu in Little Italy. Lastly, I did a quick sprint along Seaport Village where I got to see the lovely shoreline, the ships, and the touristy shops. All of these sights easily accessible on one trolley line - it was awesome.

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Brunch in Pasadena - (Back in L.A., one month later)
Conundrum: What's the best way to spend a free day in L.A. when there's a chance of rain? Here's the solution I came up with: Old Town Pasadena. Accessible by Metro, filled with lots of shopping on Colorado Blvd, and walking distance to nearby museums, I knew I would keep entertained and have a convenient means of shelter from the elements. Though I love my usually fast-paced method of sightseeing, the inclement weather on this particular day provided a nice excuse to slow down and enjoy one of life's most amazing treasures: Brunch. Sitting at a modest table near the window, I slowly sipped my large coffee and savored every delicious bite of the Apple Walnut Cheese Omelet at Aux Delices, a wonderful French bakery/cafe.

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Road Trip 101: Driving up the Coast
With tunes, coffee and Christmas candy, my sister and I embarked on one of our ultimate "Adventure Day" excursions. Actually, this particular journey spanned two days on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day driving up the 101 Freeway and Pacific Coast Hwy (PCH) with the aim to reach Big Sur.

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Christmas Eve: Antique Shopping in Cambria
Halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, Cambria is a very cute little town near the Hearst Castle. The moody Central California coast dumped plenty of rain on us periodically throughout the afternoon, but the cloudy, damp, cool atmosphere added a strangely comforting feeling to the surroundings. After eating lunch at a nice restaurant (next to a much appreciated warm fireplace, by the way), we walked around the small shopping district, including one really huge antique store where we found some delightfully strange treasures. An awesome way to end the day, we checked into our hotel room (with a spot-on ocean view!) in the nearby town San Simeon (which is cheaper to stay, by the way). After walking across the street to spend some time at the beach, we returned to our hotel room, ate dinner and watched the looped TV re-runs of A Christmas Story.

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Cows and Seals near the Central California Coast
Just a few miles north of San Simeon, there is an outlook post where you can view the seals waddling along the shore. And if you turn your head 180 degrees…you see the cows grazing in the grass on the other side of the highway. Seals on one side of the road…and cows on the other. It's a funny visual.

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Christmas Morning in Big Sur
We reached Big Sur early in the morning before the crowds of other tourists swarmed. First stop, the Overlook Trail in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, which has a spectacular, cliffside panoramic view of the vibrant turquoise ocean and dramatic coastline. Also, I will never forget exchanging Christmas presents/stockings (items we picked up for each other at antique shops at previous points of our journey) in the parking lot at the nearby Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park and then walking around amongst the beautiful redwoods. We kept driving northward, debating where/when to turn around, and of course, realizing that we were only 120 miles from San Francisco. I was the party pooper who nixed the spontaneous idea of staying another night on the road so that we could spend time in the Bay Area (because I had a flight to catch from LAX back to Dallas). Instead, we drove all the way back to L.A. from Salinas and had Korean BBQ for dinner.

Posted by rachwells 19:20 Comments (2)

Burning Old Man Gloom in Santa Fe

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He stands 50 feet tall, his eyes glow in a creepy shade of green, he moans and flails his arms back & and forth, and every year, the city of Santa Fe burns him to the ground as the kick-off to a major festivity.

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Since I arrived in Santa Fe a few days ago, the whole town has been buzzing in excited anticipation of the 91st annual Burning of Zozobra, which is like New Year's Eve, meets Independence Day, with a Southwest flair. Whatever troubles you have, it all gets ceremoniously consumed by flames, literally, because attendees can add their divorce decrees, or other types of written records to be destroyed with Old Man Gloom.

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Along with 30,000 other people, I walked up to Fort Marcy Park last night for the big event. It was 55 degrees and raining (appropriately gloomy weather), but the audience, including myself, brought jackets and umbrellas to keep warm and dry. After some pre-show entertainment, the stadium lights went down and the audience shouted "Burn him! Burn him!".

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Holding an umbrella in my left hand and my camera in my right hand, I watched the giant puppet protest its impending fate, moving its limbs up and down, as lights, fireworks and fire danced around him. Then, he started glowing yellow from the head, and flames quickly spread across its body. It was quite stunning to see so much fire consume and so quickly change the shape of such a massive figure. As the last of Old Man Gloom dissipated, a spectacular display of fireworks enveloped the night sky as the audience cheered.

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It was one of the coolest events I ever attended, and the timing could not be more perfect. I know and appreciate that I have many blessings in my life, but that said, I've also gone through the most difficult times of my life seven years ago and again in the past two years. I know I'm a resilient person anyway, but now I also have a fun, positive memory to associate with the act of letting go of the past and moving forward in life. Sometimes ceremonies can provide a helpful pathway to healing, a means to put the gloom to rest. (Literally, I don't think I can stay stressed or upset for very long from now on when I remember the time I watched a giant puppet burn up.)

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If you are visiting Santa Fe in early September, the Burning of Zozobra is a must-do event. One tip: After the event ends, don't even try to leave immediately. There are only two narrow exit points from the field back towards the town center, and it is not worth getting in tight quarters with overly-anxious people just to get out a couple minutes earlier. Instead, find an open spot on the field, and enjoy the people watching. Seeing skater dudes slam dancing to Pharrell Williams' song "Happy" kept me plenty entertained. There's also carnival-like booths along the perimeters of the fence. When I finally walked back towards the Plaza with the tail end of the crowd, it also was amusing hearing various excited partyers shouting "Fiesta!", which illicited more drunken shouts and chants.

What a fun way to kick off my first full day of my current trip to Santa Fe! It's off to a great start!

Posted by rachwells 21:44 Comments (0)

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