Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Across the Pond

The Llangollen Canal, Ellesmere, England to Horseshoe Falls, Wales

There is nothing that I like more than a challenge.  When my husband told me he was getting tired of our usual vacation of sun, surf, and fun and wanted to do something "different", I set out on my quest to find the most different vacation I could.  While this type of vacation is apparently quite common in England, for these Americans it was a breath of fresh, clean air.

Riding a canal boat was a completely new thought and experience for us, but I didn't hesitate.  The boat itself looked easy to navigate and I'm not one to shy away from a new adventure.  The boat looked a bit like the American campers and RVs we were more familiar with, except they were on water.  There was a kitchen, two small (really small) bathrooms and place to sleep for all four of us.  I wasn't daunted a bit by not having a daily hot shower (every other day and luke-warm proved good enough) and it wasn't too hard to generate our own electricity and heat (you have to travel for four hours to get enough juice for the heat at night).  Plus, if other people have done it and lived through it, so can we.  Thus, we had booked our flight and headed for a skip across the pond.

We started out a couple of days ahead of time because we wanted to look around a bit before boarding the boat.  Because we had never been to the area before, I had no idea what I was doing and booked an inn a couple of hours farther away than I needed to.  I'm so glad of that mistake, though, because we had a great time driving down winding country roads during what has to be the most beautiful time of year in England--the spring and lambing season.  As an American, I've always wondered why lambs were  associated with the Easter season.  Now, I know.  Everywhere we looked there were daffodils and other flowers popping up and field after field of, I can't even begin to impress upon how many there were, honest-to-goodness lambs frolicking in the fields.  Not running or standing, but frolicking an jumping in pure joy.  I must have taken a thousand pictures and the sight of them was so hilarious.  While it did rain almost every day, it was a drizzle and the cool, damp air didn't bother us a bit.

It was quite a change from our typical tropical locations.  When people ask me about the most amazing place we've ever been or the most amazing thing we've ever done, I have to answer, "Wales and England in spring on a canal boat".  I loved every moment and have plans to go back next year on a different trail.  The trail we took was supposed to be the most scenic and I would have to agree.  Daily there were pinch-myself moments--moments where we saw things so beautiful I had to pinch myself to make sure it was real.  The old-fashioned canals intersect and weave throughout England and my goal is to see as many of them as I can. 

There's so much to see and do that you can't possibly take all of it on one trip, but we sure made a good trip.  Here are the highlights of our trip:

Things to See and Do and Eat:

There was so much to see and do everywhere we went.  We honestly hadn't planned a bit of it ahead of time since I didn't know exactly where our travels would take us.  Most, if not all of the places we visited had little or no advertising, certainly not like we do in the States so almost all of our trip was happy accidents and discoveries.  Of course, that always makes for the best vacations. 
  • On our first night in Wales, we stayed at the Cain Valley Inn at Llanfyllin, Wales.  The drive there was so beautiful and the area is known for its stunning scenic activities like Lake Vyrnwy, Powys Castle, and Llanrhaedr Waterfall.  The town itself is more like a little village with quaint and rustic pubs.  On the cold, rainy evening, relaxing in the pub downstairs while getting to know the locals was great fun, as was walking around and enjoying the sites.  Dinner was delicious and the ales were cold.  It was our first introduction to pints and I enjoyed the meeting.  Breakfast was a full spread--a full English breakfast in every sense of the word with beans, bacon (more like our version of country ham), fried tomatoes, and fried toast, which I'd never had before.  Delicious, every bite! 
  • After that, we had to backtrack to get to the boat dock location, but the gorgeous drive softened any irritation.  The boat leaves from the charming village of Ellesmere, England.  Ellesmere is known as the "Lake District of Shropshire" because of the charming mere, or lake, close to the town.  The mere is lovely and there are a lot of footpaths that run alongside the canal that makes for lovely afternoon walks.  There are shops and restaurants galore in this small village and you won't for a second think you're anywhere but England.  The thatched roofs of the cottages, tiny winding streets, and plethora of pubs make this a unique experience.  We found a fun shop called a "cat rescue" which is apparently like an American rummage shop with all proceeds to benefit a local cat shelter.  Wandering around the streets made for a pleasant end, and beginning, to our trip.  The best place to eat in town is definitely at the Black Lion Hotel.  It's an easy walk from the dock and the food was simply amazing.  If you're expecting pub food, you'll be disappointed.  While we did tarry a bit in the pub, we also went to the dining room for a full dinner. We had a delicious time gnoshing on Glamorgan sausages, Shropshire blue cheese, jacket potatoes filled with chili and beans and even saved room for "'sticky toffee", my new favorite dessert.
  • Our first night out wasn't very exciting--at least to read about.  It took us a bit to figure out how the boat worked and ran and we spent most of the afternoon trolling along the ancient towpaths, just in wonder about the surrounding farms.  There is absolutely no better way to see the "real" England than along these towpaths and canal channels.  We stopped for the night at the first real available sign of active civilization, in a tiny hamlet called Hindford, Oswestry, Shrophire at The Jack Mytton Inn.  The inn was so much fun--it was full of locals and travelers sitting around a roaring fire and enjoying some pints and laughs at the bar and pub.  We learned our table wouldn't be ready for two hours and while that might have caused consternation in the US, in England it was just enough time to get to know our fellow travelers.  We had an amazing time with several colorful characters, including the pub owner, chatting over our pints and trying to answer his riddles.  The food was nothing short of gourmet--no pub fare here!  The onion thyme soup was more like a thick warm chowder.  We also enjoyed fish and chips, steak and ale pie and the local sausages which was so finely ground it didn't even compare to a US version. The food was so amazing we also stopped here on our way back to town
  • Our first full day out brought us to the charming village of Chirk.  The dock master told us to make a point of stopping here and I'm so glad we did.  It didn't look like much from the water, but there was so much to see and do.  The walk to the town is very short and the view from the docking area so picturesque.  My favorite part was walking in the stores and buying things we can't in the US.  The florist had flowers she had just picked up in Manchester, which had just arrived from Holland and the butcher's had an amazing assortment of meat pies.  While you're there, make sure to stop in at the local church.  For a small donation, you can wander around and the inside is worthy of a museum.  We made sure to buy and try several.  We ate, more than once, at the Tea Rooms, located just downtown in an adorable thatched building.  There, you're served an entire bowl of American coffee to go with the full breakfast--a whole, roasted tomato; a sausage (more like our version of a brat); ham; crock of beans; sautéed mushrooms; hash browns; and black pudding.  They have pages and pages of tea choices including a hand-made "wedding coronation" tea specially created for the Duke and Duchess's 2011 wedding.  It was beautiful and delicious!  They also have high tea and afternoon tea, which consisted of tea with cram and scones with clotted cream and black currant jam.  And, of course, my new favorite--the sticky toffee pudding.  After that full breakfast, you'll have plenty of energy to walk the one mile to Chirk Castle.  The castle is over 700 years old and full of fascinating history.  It sits up on a hill and is in amazing shape.  The owner still lives in part of the castle and you get an amazing tour of the place.  We were lucky enough to be there when an art show was going on and it was really interesting how they incorporated parts of the castle into the art.  There are history re-enactors scattered around and they are happy to let you practice with the swords.  There are a lot of buildings to go through and it's easy to spend an entire day here.  If you happen to get hungry, make sure to try the tea room.  It's full of yummy drinks and sandwiches.  If you're looking for dinner, you'll be hard pressed to do better than The Hand Hotel.  There are a few others, but this inn and pub is located right downtown and the food was great.  We arrived on the night of a local Mason's meeting and had a great time sitting and chatting with them.  Most of them were local farmers and they regaled us with hilarious stories the whole time.  I had read before I went to England that residents were stand-offish.  Not a bit true--everyone we met was so friendly and so funny.  And, the food at The Hand Hotel was so good.  We had the mushroom, spinach and brie wellington and the fisherman's' pie.  Everything was so good and sitting by the fire in the cozy dining room was a perfect night.  If you're braver than me, you might want to try something more interesting on their menu, like the belly pork and braised pig's cheek with black pudding mash or the pigeon breast.  My companions stuck with the good old stand-by, fish and chips.
  • While we were at Chirk, we decided to take a break for the day and ride the train in to Chester.  The train depot is a short walk from the town and riding into Chester is worth a day off your trip.  Chester is a lovely and walkable city, and a very cheap day!  The town publishes a walkabout map and guide that you can pick up practically anywhere (stop at the Visitor Information Center for more information) and the town history is absolutely fascinating.  We saw churches from 900 AD, the oldest surviving shop front in Britain, various museums, a castle, a medieval gate and church, Roman gardens and the remnants of Roman Colonnades and amphitheaters, towers, clocks and more.  The whole thing is walkable within a day and there are plenty of restaurants and shops along the way.  We ate at Old Queen's Head, a tavern and pub centrally located, and had a delicious late lunch of cream of mushroom soup, a cheese and onion sandwich, bangers and mash is a Yorkshire pud with mushy peas, washed down with cold cider from the tap.  It's a great day and be sure not miss this experience.
  • The next part of our trip was jaw-dropping, mouth-watering, bucket-list worthy in every way.  The Pontcysyllte Aqueduct is a World Heritage Site and of the most beautiful and inspiring architectural feats I have ever seen.  On the canal, you'll be carried along the waters of the River Dee looking 120 down into the valley below for over 1000 feet.  Time just seems to slow down as you look into those beautiful British valleys beyond.  It has been called "the stream in the sky" and the view from below is just as awesome making this the most beautiful of all the canal routes in England, or so we were told.  After you cross it, be sure to stop on the other side and walk around for a big.  You'll get spectacular views of the Dee Valley and the Vale of Llangollen.  While there, be sure to stop at the Telford Inn.  The food is traditional pub fare and the fish and chips quite good, but the wait staff is the best part.  We were in stitches the whole night from their stories.  This is what gave us the true understanding of the beauty and fun of an English pub:  after venturing about in cold and drizzly weather, walking into a warm pub with a blazing fire and sharing stories and laughs with fellow life travelers.
  • The end of the tour into Wales was quite definitely the best.  The views were the most gorgeous; the walking paths winding and picturesque and the people walking along our boat so friendly; the limestone cliffs towering above us made me feel as if I were in another century.  Many people ask me the most beautiful place I've ever seen on my travels and this small speck of heaven is it.  Words truly cannot describe the majesty of Wales.  There was ample room at Llangollen Wharf to stay for an extended time, but we were told this is not true in the summer season, so be sure to make alternate plans if you're going during warm weather.  In the spring, we only had a few neighbors and loved spending the night in such a lovely and fun town.  There's so much to do in Llangollen.  Walking over the Bishop Trevor Bridge into the town is a short trip and the town itself has so much shopping, streets full of unique stores and restaurants.  There is plenty to do within walking distance including a Motor Museum, Plas Newydd, the Llangollen Railway and a horse-drawn carriage along the canal to Horseshoe Falls.  While you're in town, be sure to stop in at James Bailey's Delicatessen and try the Welsh Oggies (a pasty with lamb, carrots, potatoes, peas, onions, mint sauce and red currant jelly)--Wow!  We also tried the Naughty Poacher (because who doesn't love that name) which consisted of venison, rabbit and pheasant with black currant jelly made in a jug of port.  Naughty indeed.  We tried two restaurants, The Sun Trevor, a delightful pub with a jolly good breakfast and lunch and the Corn Mill, a restored 18th century mill with gourmet dining and million dollar views. 
  • The end of the line on the Llangollen canal trip is, in reality, just the half-way point.  If you didn't have time to try all these things on your first trip, try again on your way back. 

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Chattanooga Choo Choo

A Stop in the Past

"Pardon me boy, is that the Chattanooga Choo Choo?
Track twenty nine, boy you can gimme a shine
I can afford to board a Chattanooga Choo Choo
I've got my fare and just a trifle to spare

You leave the Pennsylvania station 'bout a quarter to four
Read a magazine and then you're in Baltimore
Dinner in the diner, nothing could be finer
Than to have your ham 'n' eggs in Carolina

When you hear the whistle blowin' eight to the bar
Then you know that Tennessee is not very far
Shovel all the coal in, gotta keep it rollin'
Woo, woo, Chattanooga, there you are

There's gonna be a certain party at the station
Satin and lace, I used to call funny face
She's gonna cry until I tell her that I'll never roam"
I'm sure everyone has heard snippets of that song from long ago.  If not, then surely everyone has head of the Chattanooga Choo Choo.  I thought the Choo Choo, like that song from long ago, was in the past, but the Chattanooga Choo is alive and well and roaring into the modern ages as a themed hotel in downtown Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Chattanooga is the perfect blend of old-world charm and modern amenities, with first-class museums, quaint restaurants, and everything else a visitor could want.  No matter the age or inclination, you're guaranteed to find it here.

Where To Stay:

  • I am sure there are plenty of nice hotels and beds and breakfasts in the area, and these are bound to be more luxurious than my recommendation.  But, really, what can compete with the Chattanooga Choo Choo?  The old railroad yard and rail cars have been turned into a unique hotel, the most interesting and delightful place I've ever rested my head.  It is listed in the prestigious Historic Hotels list, but the Victorian train cars and gorgeous grounds should enough to convince you to stay.  I have never slept aboard a train car before and didn't know what to expect, but the opulence truly blew me away.  We had one half of a train car all to ourselves, with a huge luxusious bed, a period quaint bathroom, and all the ambiance one would expect.  If I'd never left the room the entire trip, I would still have called this the best getaway ever.  The Terminal is still amazing to look at and don't pass up the chance to eat in the restaurant. Sitting in the Gardens Restaurant where yesterday's travelers rushed to catch a train, while staring at the legendary Chattanooga Choo Choo was "bucket list" worthy.  The terminal has been remade into a charming restaurant with cast-iron chairs and tables overlooking the tracks and that famous Engine 29 with 1930s music playing in the background.   I highly recommend a skillet--full of your choices of toppings and covered with eggs and cheese--as well as the pecan waffle.  For more information, see the Chattanooga Choo Choo website. 
Things to See and Do:
  • No visit to Chattanooga is complete without a trip up Lookout Mountain.  It's hard to decide how best to get to the top.  One form of transportation is the Incline Railway, "The World's Steepest Passenger Railway".  Grab your tickets at St. Elmo's Station and get ready for a hair-raising ride.   Unbelievably, the Railway has been in operation since 1895 and the gift shop has pictures to prove it, along with some fascinating historic pictures of the entire area.  The ride takes about 15 minutes and it about one mile long.  From the top, you can take a short walk to look at the million dollar homes in the area and a few short blocks away is Point Park, a National Park and site of the "Battle of the Clouds", an 1863 Civil War battle.  The Chickamauge and Chattanoog Military Park, also known as Point Park, does have an entry fee but it is well worth the price to walk those historic footsteps and to look over the entire valley below.  The adjacent museum will give visitors a great insight into why this area was so important and so famous.  For more information, visit Incline Railway Up Lookout Mountain.
  • While you're on the mountain, there's plenty to see.  Next up is geographic and botanical wonder, as stated on their brochure.  You've probably seen the signs--the red barns along endless Southern backways painted with "See Rock City".  Ever wondered where it was and what the big deal is?  Wonder no longer, your trip is finally at an end!  Rock City began as one avid gardener's backyard dream.  When her adoring husband entered into the mix, the backyard plan turned into an entire city made of rocks and plants with an overlook that scans seven states.  Rock City truly has to be seen to be believed.  Each meandering path will have you gasping with astonishment, no matter the season. For more information, see the website at Rock City.
  • No trip to the mountain is complete without looking underneath all that dirt.  Ruby Falls is another testament of love from an adoring husband to his wife.  When cave enthusiast Leo Lambert uncovered the amazing cave in the 1920s, he named it for his wife Ruby.  The "falls" is for the waterfall deep inside the cave.  I have been to dozens of caves (having written a book on caves), and can honestly say this one is my favorite.  The beauty, the history, the amazing tour, the location--it all combines for an amazing attraction.  For more information, see the website Ruby Falls.
  • It's a short trip from the top of the mountains to the bottom of the seas!  Next, be sure to travel to downtown Chattanooga.  Nestled right on the banks of the Tennessee River is the nicest aquarium I've ever been to, the Tennessee Aquarium.  That's saying a lot--I have been to aquariums all across the country and this one was amazing.  It's as much an art exhibit as it is a giant fish tank.  There are two different buildings to explore--the River Journey and the Ocean Journey.  I really expected to like the Ocean Journey better, sure that it would be full of wondrous things this Kentucky native could only marvel at.  Yet, the River Journey was the one that blew me away.  I saw animals and read about plant life I had no idea existed that was just as exotic as any sea creature could be.  The River Journey building is actually like  a river itself, winding through various ecosystems and creatures that were just dazzling. My favorite exhibit had to be the sea dragons, those tiny fragile seahorses that seem too delicate to be alive.  It felt a bit like I was in a fantasy, walking through and watching them swim and cavort.   With over 12,000 creatures to see, it took an entire afternoon to look at them all and we only left because the place was closing!  The aquarium also links to an IMAX 3D, so be sure to take advantage of the cheaper ticket price when visiting both.  For more information, visit Tennessee Aquarium.
Places To Eat:
  • No Southern food for this Kentucky girl!  Instead, we traveled to the Brewhaus Brew Pub, a German-American gastro pub with an extensive ale and beer menu.  The vibe was so fun and laid-back with a big indoor bar area and large outdoor patio area.  We started with the Kraut Balls-bratwurst, cheese and sauerkraut all fried to a golden perfection and served with strong ale mustard.  Next up was the Southern Style Obatzada--pimento cheese with sourdough and pickled beets.  Honestly, the food was so good and we were so full we could have stopped there and called it a fine meal.  But, I can't resist schnitzel and order it whenever and wherever I find it.  This was not a disappointment.  The Jager Schnitzer Weiner Art--a port schnitzel thin-fried and served with creamy mushroom gravy--was so good and was served with amazing German potato salad and a vinegar slaw.  Just as much care went into the preparation of the side dishes as the main dish and everything was finger-licking good.  For good measure, we had  dessert of a flame-grilled brat and a Laughing Skull beer.  Can't wait to return!  For more information, visit Brewhaus Beer Pub.
  • The Terminal Brewhouse in downtown Chattanooga is more than just an ordinary pub.  While they do have a healthy selection of brews and flights, their food is more in line with an eclectic gourmet restaurant.  The Brewhouse Pot Roast Nachos were so unique--comprised of succulent pot roast meat and onions, all smothered in queso.  The Fru Fru sandwich was also a delight--chicken and apple slices with Brie with a green bean casserole sidedish.  No greasy pub food here!  They also have some fun beer cocktails and the beer and Belgian mimosa was delicious.  For more information, visit the website at Terminal Brewhouse.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Capital Fun!

Indiana's First State Capitol

Corydon, Indiana doesn't get all the fame it deserves.  Most of it goes to Indianapolis, the upstart capitol located in the northern part of the state.  When people think of Corydon (if they do at all), they might say..."Wasn't that the first state capitol?" Yes, it was and if not for a little tomfoolery (well, who really knows why), the state capitol might be located in this sleepy little town in Southern Indiana. 

Regardless, the original capitol has so much to offer.  Think of Corydon as the country mouse and Indy as the city mouse.  A city mouse is exciting for a bit, but for real down-home Indiana flavor, nothing will beat a visit to the country!  Located just three hours from Indianapolis, Corydon is really part of the "Kentuckiana" area--a mix of Louisville, KY and the surrounding counties in southern Indiana.  It's a fairy short drive from anywhere in either state and definitely worth a trip.  If you have an entire day, be sure to drive using the Ohio River Scenic Byway --it's a gorgeous drive along the Ohio River during any season.  For more information on the Byway, visit the website Ohio River Scenic Byway.

Corydon has a lot to gloat about, besides being the original capitol.  It is the home to one of the oldest county fairs; there is the annual Halloween parade (another oldest in the nation); it's home to the only civil war battle in Indiana; and, I'm pretty sure it's the nation's capitol for popcorn production.  If it's not, it should be!  While Corydon seems a sleepy little town, there is plenty to do and one day won't begin to touch it.  Try a weekend, or two, and you just might scratch the surface of this little town gem.

While in Corydon, be sure to check out these places:


What To Do:

  • Start with a trip to where all this history began, the Indiana State Museum State Capitol. The 1800's limestone building is worth the ticket price and is beautifully restored inside.  If you come during the holiday season, you can get a picture taken with Santa right beside the old stone fireplace.  During Halloween season, the entire square opens up to a haunted history tour that is big on the 'wicked' history of some past Corydon residents, called Unsavory Past.  While walking around the square, be sure to check out some other notable historic buildings, like the Governor's Headquarters (named for William Hendricks, Indiana's second governor) and the First State Office Building, which is still being faithfully restored.  Check out the Indiana State Museum website for more information.
  • If you're a Civil War fan, you have to check out the small battlefield and museum, located about 1/2 mile out of town.  This little known battle is a source of pride for the residents and the battlefield has been undergoing renovations. The Battle of Corydon Civil War Museum is located at 203 North Capitol Avenue, Corydon, IN.  Call 812-736-0985 for more information or see their website at Battle of Corydon Memorial Park.
  • No trip to Corydon is complete without a tour of the caves.  Harrison County, Indiana, has one of the largest cave systems in the United States, next to that of Mammoth Caves in Kentucky.  Start your tour at the original, Squire Boone Caverns.  Squire, and his more famous brother Daniel, Boone discovered the cave in 1790.  Today, the property is home to a show cave, an historical village, and a zip line adventure.  For more information, visit Squire Boone Caverns.
  • Indiana's newest cavern just opened in the last part of 2013 but is already generating a lot of buzz.  Indiana Caverns is Indiana's longest show cave.  In addition to a walking tour, you can also take a boat tour and see recently discovered ice age bones.  For more information, visit Indiana Caverns.
  • If you're in the mood for some nightlife, Corydon can provide that, too!  Corydon Jamboree is a cross between The Grand Ole Opry and Hee Haw--a whole lot of country with a bit of redneck fun.  The Jamboree is open on Saturday nights with shows that are good for the whole family.  For more information and to see a show schedule, visit the Corydon Jamboree website.  If your tastes are a bit more theatrical, try the cutest little theater you'll ever share with about 40 strangers.  Hayswood Theater packs a whole lot of drama into that small space and even though the venue is tiny, the talent is not.  This is theater the way it should be--sitting close enough to the stage to see every expression on the actors' faces and being able to watch the piano player beating out the musical score.  Most nights, for intermission, there is popcorn or cookies.  Wonderful, home-town fun.  For more information and to see a show schedule, visit the Hayswood Theater website.
  • If art is more your thing, Corydon also has that!  Just downtown are three museums and working studios, within walking distance.  This first is the Artisan Center, located just one street over from the square.  The Artisan Center features local artists and has three galleries of work.  Most artwork is for sale and the main gallery has rotating artists and works.  For more information, see the Artisan Center website.  Zimmerman Art Glass is local legend in the Corydon area, a family affair that creates incredible works of blown glass in a small studio.  There are pieces to purchase, but patrons can also order unique works of art while watching glass-blowers at work.  Be sure to call 812-738-2206 for times and hours as this is a family studio.  If hands-on art is more your thing, be sure to visit White Cloud Window stained art studio.  At White Cloud, you can either shop the extensive gallery or you can schedule your own stained art studio time and create a masterpiece to match your personality. Visit the White Cloud website form ore information.
  • If you decide to visit in the growing season, there are plenty of family-owned farms in the area.  In the summer, a must-do is picking blueberries straight from the bush at Bryant's Blueberry Farms.  Be sure to get there early as the place gets absolutely packed.  And, be sure to check the Bryant's Blueberries website as they are closed some days due to ripening of the berries and picking shortages.  There is nothing more delicious than blueberry muffins or a pie you picked yourself.  Hot, but fun, work!  In the fall, many local farms offer corn mazes, pumpkin patches and "family" friendly activities.  One of my favorites is Deere Farm, located in nearby Lanesville.  Check their website for year-round activities and events at Deere Farm.
  • Harrison County is home to five different wineries! Each one is unique and a treat and you could spend a full day just taking a wine drive in the area.  All the wineries listed do complimentary tastings.  The winery with the prettiest drive is definitely Best Vineyards in Elizabeth, Indiana.  It's about 15 minutes outside of Corydon on winding country roads.  Best has a full range of wines, from dry to sweet and often has special weekend events with music. My favorites are the Mango (super sweet) and the Blue Moon (just right!). For more information, see their website at Best Vineyards.  After visiting Best, Turtle Run Winery is just a short drive away.  Turtle Run is unique because they don't add any sugar to their wines and that purity really shows.  Their labels are gorgeous and I haven't met a wine there I didn't just love.  Still, if I had to pick, my favorites are Red My Mind, Crossed My Mind, and Lost My Mind .  They often have special weekend events including music.  Turtle Run was also named Indiana Farm Winery of the Year for 2014.  For more information, visit their website at Turtle Run Winery.  From there, keep on traveling to quaint, nearby Georgetown, Indiana.  It's a short drive and worth it to stop at this still growing winery, Indian Creek Winery.  My favorites here are Lily White and Cardinal Red.  Indian Creek has a lovely outside sitting area and you can buy locally made artisan cheese for a nice afternoon snack.  For more information, visit Indian Creek Winery.  The newest winery on the block is Quibble Hill, located in nearby Depauw, Indiana.  They have a full range of wines and often host special events.  For more information, visit their website at Quibble Hill Winery.  From there, make a full circle back to Corydon and stop at Scout Mountain Winery.  Scout Mountain also offers a bed and breakfast (The Hideaway Bed and Breakfast) that is an entire farm house all to yourself! An absolute must try wine is the Apple Cherry--it is sinfully delicious and addictive.  They often have special weekend events that include music and often food options.  For more information, visit their website at Scout Mountain Wines.
Where to Eat:
  • It might be hard to believe a small Midwestern town could have authentic Italian, but that's the surprise of Alberto's on the Hill.  As soon as you walk in the door of the strip mall restaurant, it's like you're transported to some small eatery in New York--Frank Sinatra is crooning on the speakers, the bartender nods you to a table, and the dark ambiance and delicious smells complete the picture.  And, the food!  Wow!  So good!  I was fortunate enough to go with three other people and, because they know me well, they all let me nosh off their plates.  The chicken parmesan and eggplant parmesan were so delicious, but my entrée was the best of all--a lemon chicken fettuccini (the night's special).  Alberto's is located at 1237 Edsel Lane, Corydon, Indiana, 47112.  Phone number is (812)738-4900.
  • Corydon's newest restaurant is a welcome blessing--it's right on the square, within easy walking distance of all the quaint shops and the food is truly delightful.  It's hard to find really good barbeque outside of the south, but Big D's Smoking Butt BBQ is doing it right.   They have sandwiches and platters with your choice of pulled pork, brisket, chicken, smoked sausage and Memphis style rib dinners.  Sides include BBQ beans, brisket chili, mac and cheese, fresh cut fries, collards, cole slaw, corn pudding, and corn bread.  I am embarrassed to say I've had them all from stealing bites from friends' plates.  They're all equally delicious.  The bar has a nice selection of beer, too.  The only negative is the really small space--it's almost always packed.  Big D's is located at 101 Beaver St., Corydon, IN  47122.  Phone is (812)725-8900.
  • Corydon is just all wine.  You'll be happy to know they also have their very own brewery, complete with a delicious restaurant.  Point Blank Brewery.  This microbrewery has a healthy list of local, national, and even international brews.  You could probably go there every day for a year and not drink the same thing twice.  While that's a nice treat, the food is also up for the task.  A wood-fired oven churns out delicious and unique pizzas and the sandwiches are delicious.  My favorite item, however, is the Scotch eggs (hard to find elsewhere).  Actually, now that I think of it, every item I've tried there has been delicious.  They often have special events, like a monthly Beer 101 and weekly Trivia and game nights.  Point Blank is located at 105 Beaver Street, Corydon, IN.  Phone is 812-225-5141.  For more information, visit the website at Point Blank Brewery.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

North for Winter?

Why Go South for Winter?

Most people I know head south for winter break, lured by sunshine and tropical winds.  But, when you live in an area that hardly gets any snow, you have to look at vacations a little differently.  Snow was calling my name this year!  Snow and the promise of winter activities like sledding, skiing, and tubing.  With nowhere close to have that kind of fun, my family packed up and made the short trip to Mishicot, Wisconsin.

Why Mishicot?  You've probably never heard of it and before this vacation, neither had I!  Truthfully, we picked it because it was on the 'thumb' of Wisconsin, and my mother-in-law told me she had visited this place decades earlier and that it was great fun.  I needed no more encouragement than that.  And, of course, mothers are always right.  It was, indeed, great fun.

Things to See and Do:
  • Winter Fun.We went for outdoor winter fun and we found all we could use at Winter Park Recreation in Kewaunee County.  What was so great was that this wasn't a huge ski resort, but a mom and pop operation catering to locals.  It was a blast!  We didn't waste any time and went snow tubing the very first night we arrived. Snow tubing at night is one of the highlights of my life experiences.  I don't think I've ever had so much fun.  Flinging myself down a snowy hill on a tube with the stars twinkling above and glittering snow all around.  There were six runs and a hands-free tow rope that pulled me to the top over and over again--hours of fun for $6 a person.  Skiing the next day was just as much fun--no crowds, just snow.  Since this is a mom and pop location, you have to bring your own ski equipment but there is a small "lodge" available with snacks and hot chocolate.  It's only open on the weekends and there are future plans to build a little ice rink.  Too cute!  For more information, visit Kewaunne County Promotions & Recreation Department.
  • Think the Great Lakes is only good in the summer?  Think again.  Right on the edges of Lake Michigan is the Wisconsin Maritime Museum in downtown Manitowoc.  The museum is three floors of maritime history, in and around the Wisconsin area, focusing mainly on World War II.  The museum has plenty of kid's exhibits, an entire floor dedicated to the sea-faring way of life in Wisconsin, and plenty of interactive exhibits.  The best part, though, was the completely restored WWII submarine, the USS Cobia.  A themed tour guide will take you through the ship, section by section, explaining how the seaman lived and worked on the submarine.  Everything has been painstakingly restored, right down to the torpedoes and even the plates in the galley.  It was an amazing experience.  For more information, visit Wisconsin Maritime Museum at Manitowoc.
  • Ah, wine.   Doesn't every good vacation have a wine tasting or two? Or, possibly even three if it is a good vacation?  This one did.  I have to say that this wine tasting will go down in history as the greatest of all time.  Nearby Door County, Wisconsin, features a wine tour that will knock your socks off.  It was a trolley winery tour.  We were picked up at a local hotel and taken to three different wineries in the area where we wined, wined, wined.  My favorite winery was Parallel 44 Vineyard and Winery.  The wine was first rate and worth the whole drive to Wisconsin itself.  We bought a case and I am saving each one, savoring it drop by drop.  Another favorite was Simon Creek.  Most of their wine has names based on mobsters and Al Capone, as the area was a favorite with gangsters from Chicago.  The tasting room was beautiful and the wine good enough to rate another case!   At one, we were even treated to a horse drawn carriage ride in the snow through the cherry orchard.  This winery, the Orchard Country Winery and Market featured cherry wines, salsas and a delightful county store.  The company does all different kinds of tours from Halloween to Lighthouse and everything in between.  For more inforamtion, check out Door County Trolley.
Places to Eat:
  • What vacation is complete with a cozy pizza joint?  This is our number one job on vacation--find the best pizza in town, and it has to be a mom and pop place.  Mission accomplished!  Waverly Inn Pub and Pizzeria fit the bill perfectly.  Housed in an old, old hotel in nearby Two Rivers, Wisconsin, this pub had the finest pizza in the area. Trust me, we tried several.  Baked made to order with paper thin crust.  So delicious!  For more information, visit Waverly Inn Pub and Pizzeria.
  • While you're in the area, there is one place you have to stop.  It's right beside Waverly Inn Pub and Pizzeria, and it is a famous historical landmark concerning food--Historic Washington House in Two River, Wisconsin.  This 1850 hotel has been kept in sparkling vintage shape and houses a period ice cream parlor and upstairs museum.  This house is the original location of the very first ice cream sundae ever served in the US.  Invented by Ed Berner, it is served the same today--in sundae glasses with whipped topping, nuts and a cherry.  The most popular flavor is chocolate topping and it's easy to see why this invention is still around today.  For more information, call Historic Washington House at 920-793-2490.
  • Looking for a fun breakfast or lunch place right on the water?  Check out M&M Lunch.  This quaint diner is like something straight out of the 1950's with a revolving glass dessert case and a bar with swivel chairs.  They have daily specials on the menu board and everything we had was so good on such a cold blustery day:  homemade potato soup, cheese curds and fried mushrooms and a Double Bratwurst sandwich with the works, which is a brat, butterflied and fried, served on a bun with all the toppings.  Be honest, that description made your mouth water a little, didn't it?  For more information, visit M&M Lunch.
  • Another favorite lunch spot for us was Friar Tuck's.  This place was so funny!  From the outside, it looked like a regular square brick building.  From the inside, we felt as if we had been transported straight to England!  Brown wood beams, a long bar, and wenches serving sandwiches.  What's not to love?  Naturally, we had the cheese curds once again because it is Wisconsin and their cheese curds are not to be missed.  We also had cheese and crab chowder, chili and a Reuben.  Everything was so good--I felt as fat as Friar Tuck himself when we waddled out of there.  For more information, visit Friar Tuck's.
  • My favorite restaurant of all was the Harborside Restaurant in Manitowoc.  The outside is very plain but it is a little gem of a place.  Open the door and you are in a romantic little hideaway with the Rat Pack playing on the speakers and the best Italian food I've eaten in many years, maybe ever.  We started with the best calamari I have certainly ever eaten, followed by homemade bread and olive oil spread, a fabulous salad and a stuffed pecan chicken.  It is one of those places where each bite is more delectable than the last.  Truly amazing.  The food was only overshadowed by the cocktails.  There are so many varieties of martinis, from the classic to my favorite, the Pumpkin Martini, a dessert in itself.  For more information, visit the Facebook page of Harborside Restaurant.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Why Canada?

Collingwood, Ontario, Canada

When people started talking about their fall break plans, I was so excited to tell them about our upcoming trip to Canada.  Most of them asked this question:  Why Canada?  Almost everyone we knew were making that annual trek to Orlando, Florida and the famous mouse.  So, why in the world would anyone want to go north?  What could be so intriguing way up there?  What is there to do in Canada?

Oh, people, if you only knew!

Canada, during any time of year, is absolutely breath-taking. The drive alone is worthy of a visit--sweeping vistas of farms and forests, foaming and granite-filled beaches along those super lakes, majestic mountains--I could keep going but trying to pinpoint only ONE thing to love about Canada is almost impossible.  Located within 12 hours of Louisville, Kentucky, it is more accessible than Florida and has a much more beautiful drive.  Ontario is the closest to where we lived and is the most populous Canadian province.  It is widely-known for the winter skiing, but it is an amazing trip during anytime of the year.  This time, we visited in the fall and I don't think there could have been a better place to experience the fall foliage.  Yes, I did say experience it, not just SEE it.  Canada is all about the experience of being outside and enjoying nature, rather than driving by and taking pictures. 

I highly recommend taking the scenic route once you come out of Detroit.  Take the road less traveled and you will have memories to last you the rest of your life.  The Georgian Bay is along Lake Huron and will take you all the way to our location, Collingwood.  And, on the way back, go another scenic route and hit Niagara Falls.  It will only add about 3 hours to your trip and will be well worth it.  It is absolutely the best fall vacation we have ever experienced!  If you've never travelled internationally, start with Canada. You won't miss that mouse one bit.

Things to See and Do:

  • The Best View.   The best view is definitely to had at Scenic Caves.  Don't picture those underground caves here in the US.  These caves are all outside and are more like collapsed rock formations you can walk through.  They are no less beautiful and eerie than the US counterparts, though.  This is more of an adventure park than just a tourist attraction.  There are so many things to do here for the whole family--ziplining, hiking, and a suspension bridge that has the best views you will ever see.  Thunderbird Twin Zipline was absolutely amazing and gave 'thrilling' a whole new meaning.  To get to the tower, you had to climb to the top of the small mountain and then climb another two to three stories.  From there, it is a self-guided rush to the bottom, racing a partner the whole way.  The EcoAdventure Tour and Treetop Canopy Walk was my favorite activity on the whole vacation and something I had never done before.  Planks and boards are suspended in the forest at Scenic Caves among sixteen trees and you are harnessed in, walking the planks.  It was the best way to see that fall foliage up close and personal.  The end is a short zip-line to the bottom and the guides let you hang upside down, go backwards or both!  After that, it is a short ride to the bottom of the mountain once again.  For more information, visit Scenic Caves Nature Adventures.
  • The Top of the World. If the view from Scenic Caves didn't tickle your fancy, don't despair.  Blue Mountain has just what you are looking for.  Blue Mountain Resort is world-class, world-renowned resort for skiing and golf.  If neither of those things are your cup of tea, there is also putt-putt, a mountain coaster (a personally guided roller coaster down the mountain), and shopping in an Alpine village with dozens of shops and unique restaurants.  Still not hooked?  Then, buy a ticket for the Gondola to the top of the mountain and take a Segway tour!  Zipping through cross-country trails on a Segway is a whole new way to experience the fall leaves.  This tour is located at the top of the mountain and the view is stunning.  For more information, visit Blue Mountain Resort.
  • Wined and Dined.  There are two wineries in the area and both are worth a visit.  Both are very different in both taste and ambiance. Georgian Hills Vineyards is located down gorgeous, winding country roads.  We were fortunate to be there during the apple harvest and fruit-laden trees were down every road.  Farmer's markets, stands and local festivals made it a fun time to visit this winery.  They do have a tasting room and the drive takes you right past the vines used to make the wines.  For more information, visit Georgian Hills Vineyards.  A completely different experience, and in a completely different direction, is Coffin Ridge Winery.  Coffin Ridge is a boutique winery and one of the most unique I have ever been to. Their tasting room is beautiful and be sure to check out the bathroom while you're there, even if you don't need to go!  The deep red walls and black toilet makes you feel like you've landed in Hades' house.  While you're sitting in there, you can also watch an episode or two of The Addams Family!  This is no shtick winery, though.  They have delicious wines and the view off the back deck was the most beautiful of any winery we've ever visited.  (That's a lot, folks!)  For more information, visit Coffin Ridge Boutique Winery.
Places to Eat:
  • If wings are your thing, look no further than Beaver & Bulldog Sports Pub & Wingery.  They have over twenty varieties of wings from the mundane BBQ and Jasmine to the more exciting Exorcism and Suicide.  While you're there, try the side dish Canada is known for, the poutine.  It is french fries with cheese curds topped with hot gravy.  Incredible food and fun!  For more information, visit Beaver & Bulldog Sports Pub & Wingery.
  • A landmark of Collingwood is The Alphorn Restaurant, a Swiss restaurant popular with skiers and winter tourists.  The Alphorn is open all year, though, so don't wait to try it out.  The weinerschnitzel is absolutely amazing and they offer different variations from the traditional, like smothered in mushroom gravy or with melted Swiss cheese on top.  The portions are big enough for a giant, so be warned!  Another really interesting taste was the raclette, an appetizer than was melted cheese with potatoes, pickles and pickled onions.  Sounds crazy?  It is a new favorite of mine!  Everything we ordered was so good, from the noodles to the salad.  For more information, visit The Alphorn Restaurant.
  • Want the convenience and ambiance of an old-fashioned pub and the cuisine of a fine restaurant?  Look no further than The Dam Pub Gastro Pub and Whisky Bar in Thornbury.  The Dam Pub has over 675 different kinds of whisky.  Patrons can sample flights or single nips of anything on that vast menu.  If you don't know what to order, the wait staff is very knowledgeable and can point you to some unique and tasty selection.  The drinks aren't the only fun side of this place, though.  The meal are prepared by a chef and lend to the Scottish side.  From bangers and mash to shepherd's pie, you'll feel ready to take on any rainy or winter day.  We had the Half Pounder sandwich--one-half pound of pure meat!  Delicious and sinful!  All this while traditional Scottish music plays in the background and shelves of old books darken the walls.  Cozy, and perfect.  For more information, visit The Dam Pub.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Midwestern Fun

Columbus, Ohio

You don't always have to travel to exotic locales for a good time.  And, huge cities like Chicago can sometimes feel just too big to take in when you've only got a short time to travel.  Don't discount smaller cities like Columbus, Ohio.  Located in a very centralized location, this spot has all the fun of a bigger city with a small-town feel.  If you have a weekend to spend, look no further.  Columbus, the second largest city in Ohio, feels much smaller and it doesn't take long to get a feel for things.  Home to Ohio State University and the state's capital, Columbus also has some delicious eats, some great museums and some fantastic shopping. The skyline is beautiful and a meandering river walk downtown makes this a fun spot.  The outer suburbs have a lot to offer as well.  Did I say a weekend to see it all?  Now that I think about, a full month probably wouldn't be enough time to see all that Columbus has to offer!

Things to See and Do:

  • Franklin Park Conservatory:  No trip to Columbus is complete without stopping here.  This Columbus icon has been a hallmark of the city since 1895.  If you're thinking 'conservatory' means just a bunch of plants....you're right.  But, you couldn't be more wrong.  Franklin Park has a large collection of plants inside and beautiful gardens outside.  A visitor could spend an entire afternoon just wandering around looking at everything.  However, if you're the kind to stop and smell the roses, give yourself more than an afternoon.  Franklin Park also has a butterfly exhibit where you can stand and be surrounded by the light flutterings of wings, from butterflies found all around the world.  Truly, a unique experience!  Franklin Park is also home to the largest collection of Dale Chihuly art found in any conservatory in America.  If you're planning on staying for the day, make sure to eat lunch at the Garden Cafe.  The sandwiches and entrees feature fresh herbs and there can be no more beautiful surroundings.  For more information, visit Franklin Park Conservatory and Botanical Gardens.
  • Topiary Garden in Old Deaf School Park:  This garden feature has to be seen to be believed and is a treat for both garden-lovers and art-lovers.  The Old Deaf School Park is an oasis located downtown and is a perfect spot for an afternoon picnic or a stroll.  This 7-acre park is home to more than 220 trees and has a Topiary Garden modeled after the 1887 painting Sunday Afternoon on the Isle of La Grande Jatte by Georges Seurat.  Columbus native James Mason reinterpreted the painting in topiary and truly made the canvas turn into a 3D, 360-degree landscape miracle.  The twelve-foot tall figures all made of different varieties of yew and a bronze example of the painting is on display so you can visualize exactly what the landscaper was trying to portray.  For more information, visit Topiary Park
  • If you are a literary lover, then you'll know that Columbus was the home to author James Thurber and the James Thurber House is a must see.  Thurber House is on the outskirts of Ohio State University campus and is on the National Registry of Historic Places.  The house is a living museum and is kept much of the way it would have looked when Thurber was living there as a young boy.  The upstairs, though, has offices in some of the rooms and, rather than detract from the ambiance, seeing people working on literary activities in the bedrooms seemed too delightful to me.  I would imagine Thurber would have approved.  The tour is free is you guide yourself and $4 for a tour guide.  What makes the home so unique is its nightlife!  During the summer, the House hosts author nights where listeners can bring a lawn chair or a blanket and eat a catered dinner while listening to authors read from their works.  The House also hosts a resident author, who lives on the top floor.  The House is truly a living museum where children, aspiring writers and lovers of literature can flock and enjoy activities year round.  For more information, visit Thurber House.
  • Columbus practically drips with culture and fun.  One place that was full of both was the Columbus Museum of Art.  From my old favorites like Cezanne, Gaugin and Monet to modern photography that is just too difficult to describe, this museum has a little bit of everything.  When I went, there was a special exhibition of European puppetry.  While I would never have considered myself a puppet fan, I was entranced by the exhibition which was just as much an antique show as pieces of art.  There are revolving exhibits constantly.  And, the docents there are amazing.  They are so friendly and knowledgeable and in practically every room.  There are also interactive exhibits which were so fun and an entire children's area where art is being created and touched and talked about.  For more information, visit Columbus Museum of Art.
  • No trip to Columbus is complete without walking through the German part of the city, commonly known as German Village.  While the food is amazing, my favorite store was The Book Loft of German Village.  "Loft" makes it sound kind of small and quaint.  Think again!  The independent bookstore is located within several Civil War-era buildings that houses more than 30 rooms  of books, all with different themes.  For a book girl like me, it was pure heaven and definitely my idea of a great thing to do.  I spent hours in there, just wandering around looking at old and new books, many of which are hard to find anywhere else.  For more information, visit The Book Loft of German Village.

Places to Eat:

  • I try very hard to stay away from chain stores when I travel.  Mom and Pops make food way better than a chain where everything usually just tastes the same as another chain.  Sometimes, though, I make exceptions if the food is that good.  At Cantina Laredo, the food IS that good.  And, so is the atmosphere.  The restaurant is beautiful and conveniently located at Polaris Mall.  What really sets is apart is the wait staff.  The food servers are so friendly.  One even sat down at our table for about 15 minutes, telling us funny stories about living in Mexico and then moving to Columbus where his first job was to work a snow shovel.  My favorite part, besides the margaritas, was the guacamole which is prepared right at your table.  For more information, visit Cantina Laredo.
  • Schmidt's Restaurant and Banquet Haus has been around a long time--through 5 family generations and open since 1886.  With all that time on their hands, they weren't just out enjoying life.  Oh, no!  They were in the kitchen perfecting the art of German cuisine.  Located in German Village, this Columbus institution is a must do.  Everything we ate was amazing--the pretzel nuggets, the sauerkraut-bratwurst balls, the schnitzel, the strudel.  I could keep going on and on--but I won't because then you'll know how much I ate!  Embarrassing!  Plan enough time for a long walk around town after the meal.  You can't escape without putting on a pound or two.  But, it's so worth it.  For more information, visit Schmidt's Restaurant and Banquet Haus.
  • To continue the gastric tour, we next stopped at an Italian restaurant in nearby Worthingotn, Ohio, which had been strongly recommended by some friends.  Open since 1978, VillaNova is a truly authentic Italian meal.  The inside of the place is something to see--clocks and collections and assortments of stuff (no better word to describe it) line every inch of wall space.  As soon as the food comes out, though, you'll forget all about what's hanging on the wall and just concentrate on what's sitting at the table.  We were lucky enough to be there on the night the special was the 'Tour of Italy'.  We had fried cheese ravioli, lasagna, spaghetti, meatballs and the gnocchi.  It was so good, every last bite.  Is it wrong of me to say I feel a little sad because I couldn't try EVERYTHING on the menu?  This restaurant was worth the drive to Columbus alone.  For more information, visit VillaNova Ristorante Pizza Bar.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Should Be at The Top of Your Bucket List

Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco, Mexico

When I tell people our next vacation will be to some location in Mexico, they invariably ask, "Is it safe?"  I have to admit I have no idea where this strange idea that Mexico is full of crime and danger comes from.  Sure, I've heard stories of Mexican cartels, but I hazard a guess that strolling down any street in downtown Los Angeles or New York or New Orleans would be just as risky.  I have never once felt in danger.  Everywhere you look, there are police cars and police stationed in tourist areas with machine guns.  Me, I like having police with machine guns.  If you don't feel safe with that, nothing will make you feel safe!

Regardless, tourism ranks as the top (legal) money-producing enterprise in Mexico, so tourists are treated like royalty.  Jalisco is no exception.  Puerto Vallarta was one of the stops on the old TV show The Love Boat, for good reason.  It is beautiful and exotic and breath-taking.  A tropical paradise in a busy city would be the best way to describe it.  If that doesn't convince you, consider that Jalisco is the birthplace of tequila and it is the only place where tequila can be produced.  If neither of those things convince you to visit, then check out the rest of the blog and the the pictures.  You will soon see why this amazing destination needs to be at the top of any 'bucket list'.

Things to See and Do:
  • By Sea:  Snorkeling at Marietas Islands.  This chain of islands is about one hour away from Puerto Vallarta and the boat trip alone is worth it.  On the way, we saw scads of various sea birds, dolphins that practically jumped onto the deck of our boat, and an entire school of manta rays.  In the winter months, the area is well-known for whale watching and I have no doubt it would be quite an adventure.  We were fortunately there during jellyfish hatching time, and seeing these tiny pink and clear creatures surrounding the boat was a fantasy that Walt Disney could only dream about.  So beautiful!  However, the truly unbelievable sight was the secluded beach at Marietas.  To get to it, you have to snorkel through a water tube.  It was rough swimming and seemed to take forever, but once you get inside, the trip is well worth it.  The islands were once used by the Mexican government as target practice and the leftover damage is now a beach that is inside one of these craters, completely surrounded and only accessible by water.  There is also a small grotto inside that you can crawl to.  From there, we went to Los Arcos that had the best snorkeling we have ever done--and we have snorkeled in most of the Caribbean!  Jellyfish, octopus, 'Nemo' fish--the two hours felt like ten minutes.  We used the local company Vallarta Sol and were given breakfast, lunch, a snack and an open bar.  The staff were amazing and seemed to have a heart for conservation.  There are only a couple of touring companies even allowed to do this tour so plan far in advance.  For more information, visit Vallarta Sol.
  • By Land:  Four-wheeling the Sierra Madre Mountains.  The Sierra Madre Mountains is a group of mountains that extend far into Mexico.  An ATV tour is really the only way to see much of it as it would be inaccessible by regular car.  Tours in the area can be individually on an ATV or in a group with a dune buggy.  The tours last for hours and most of that time is spent traveling through rugged trails straight up into the mountains.  Our tour left from the middle of the city in Puerto Vallarta and we got to drive through back roads of the city and see what Puerto Vallarta is really like, not just the glittering touristy areas.  It was stark and beautiful and heart-breaking with poverty unlike anything we've seen anywhere else.  Our tour took us to a restaurant on top of a mountain with a layover that allowed us to eat some local fare, swim in the river and do a tequila tasting.  The guides were completely focused on our safety, our comfort and our fun. An amazing adventure!  For more information, visit Wild Treks Adventures.
  • By Air:  Ziplining the tropical forest.  The Sierra Madre Mountains is a tropical forest, not a tropical jungle but the foliage and fauna have to be seen to be believed.  The Canopy El Eden forest is home to the most intense, most extreme zip lining I've ever done.  Considering I've zip lined Fremont Street in Vegas and flung myself off the tallest zip line structure in America, that's quite a statement.  Canopy El Eden is the location where Arnold Schwarzenegger's movie Predator was filmed and you can walk in his footsteps and hike those same mountains.  There are over 12 lines that criss-cross the site and hiking up the mountain is very strenuous, but the ride down is completely worth it.  The guides seem to be more monkeys than men, zipping through the trees as if they were born to it and making it look so easy!  When you're finished, end the day at The Eden restaurant sampling authentic Mexican fare and diving into the Mislamoya River, with a convenient rope swing leaving right from the restaurant.  For more information, visit Canopy El Eden.
Places to Eat:
  • I'm going to cheat and recommend both a 'Thing To Do' and a 'Place To Eat' as one in the same.  While in Puerto Vallarta, you must take a trip to Las Caletas.  By day, it is a tropical paradise and private beach.  By night, it transforms into a Mayan fantasy called Rhythms of the Night.   You can only get to the location via a long boat ride but every minute is worth it.  As you pull up at the beach, you are greeted by costumed performers who lead you to the base of a temple/pyramid that is the scene for an incredible show.  The performance showcases traditional dance and music.  The costumes, the dancing--it was all so amazing that I felt like a kid on Christmas morning with my mouth hanging open.  The show ends right at dusk and you then wander down to the beach where tables are set up along the shore.  An authentic Mexican buffet awaits you with plenty of 'American' food for those who might be tired of salsa and guacamole.  There are as many courses as you want to eat and libations are poured liberally.  When you're finished, you are free to walk around the beach.  Each twist and turn of the trail is more amazing than the last and it seems but an instant until you hear the bells calling you back to the boat.  A once in a lifetime experience!  For more information, visit Vallarta Adventures.
  • The Best View in Town.  If you like seafood, you'll have to head inland at Puerto Vallarta.  The Happy Lobster (La Langosta Feliz) has some amazing fresh fish and the best view of the tropical forest you will find.  The entire restaurant is open air with no walls and sitting on the second floor feels just like you're eating in the treetops.  The food was so good and they had the biggest prawns I have ever seen in my life.  Everyone at the table got something different and it would be hard to say what was the best!  What made the place so much fun though is that it was away from the usual tourist streets.  It's on a little side street just outside of town and all the food was authentic.  Most of the people there were locals.  No website but to make reservations, call 322-223-13-09 .
  • Does recommending an Italian restaurant in Mexico seem odd to you?  Me, too, and yet........the youngsters rebelled at eating Mexican cuisine for every meal.  We decided to try La Terrazza di Roma for two other reasons:  #1--its location.  It is located in the Marina area right on the water.  Watching the yachts and boats while eating on a pier overlooking the water was just too much fun.  The open air pier had an air of romance about it.  We were there for breakfast but I can imagine at night, with candlelight, it would be quite lovely.  Reason #2--Well, the pier overlooking the water.  There are lots of restaurants on the Marina and we did try another one but I am a sucker for something fun.  This place was fun.  While we were there, some locals followed an alligator underneath the pier and I have some amazing photos of that.  Alligators under our seats?  Who knew they were even in Mexico?  Maybe they were crocodiles, I don't know.  And, the food? Quite good!  No website, but for reservations or for questions, call (322) 221-0560.