Alaska: The Last Frontier

Warning to Readers: This is a fairly long post about our 8-day cruise through Alaska, so I would recommend setting aside a full 20 minutes of time to read through this journey, only if you have the time to experience it with us…

Day 1: Embarkation

We started boarding Holland America’s ms. Zuiderdam ship around 11:30am on Saturday, September 20th from Vancouver’s Canada Place port. Check in took a bit as we had to wait in several different lines to get aboard. There were so many people guiding us from one location to another, and after we went through customs, it was a faster process. They were tantalizing us with the buffet as we waited in line. We did have our satisfying lunch around 2pm. It was Michael’s first cruise experience, so he had no expectations whatsoever.

Even though I had been a few different ones I knew this one was going to be a bit different. We both looked at the ongoing daily events that were printed up an delivered to our room each day called our ON Location guides, selecting different events to attend. Michael and I walked around the cruise ship to familiarize ourselves with the areas of interest for the week. We came across a nice observation deck on the 9th and 10th floors leading up to an outdoor basketball court.  It was a beautiful day out in Vancouver so we took advantage and walked around a bit outside the ship. We spent our first afternoon and evening reading up on the events we wanted to check out the next day, which was at sea all day.

We were assigned to the 7:45pm seating at the Vista Lounge where we were paired with two other people: John and Paul, brothers. Boy, were they fun to chat with at dinner! We were happy to have been assigned to table #42 for our nightly dinners with these two gentlemen.

 

Day 2: Spending at Sea

Michael really wanted to check out the art auction on board the ship that was taking place at the Art Gallery that afternoon, so we made it a point to attend, with no expectations whatsoever. We received a few raffle tickets and entered into the drawing to win a few different prizes. They served champagne, which was a nice touch. We got our very own number, 106, and were allowed to bid on art work. The team, Michael, Wendy, and Dylan, were all very enthusiastic individuals and gave us a presentation about art, including the different levels of collecting prior to the start of the auction.

We ended up really falling in love with a few of the works on board, and when they came up in auction could not resist getting them! They were beautifully detailed paintings of New York City in the wintertime. There was really some excitement that was built up when we bid on them, and we are very much looking forward to welcoming those pieces into our future house. They are going to look spectacular, and now we can say we have officially started our own art collection. These were my wedding gifts to Michael, since he already got me some gorgeous jewelry for our big day.

Our next stop was to scope out the Signature Shops on Level 3 (down the hall from the Art Gallery). We could not help but notice they were having a 35% off sale on all Citizen Eco-Drive watches! Michael’s birthday is coming up, and he had wanted a specific brown watch by Citizen. Sure enough they had only one in the case. I was either going to get him the watch or a fly-fishing guide at Yosemite for an entire day, but he really wanted the watch, so I got that for him.

Phew, after a full day of spending at sea, we were exhausted and ate dinner with our friends at table #42 who shared a lot about their lives and told lots of jokes. What a great way to end our night!

 

Day 3: Juneau, You Know

We docked at Juneau, Alaska’s capital on Monday, September 22nd. It was a very cold and rainy day, but Michael and I, prepped with our hiking pants and shoes, decided to make the 1 mile walk to the downtown area from where we docked, with our umbrella handy. We walked up a hill and down it to get to town where we checked out a few of the different stores and purchased our magnet, spending the majority of our time trying to find service to locate a nearby cache so we could place our mini Frisbee somewhere in Alaska. Immediately after heading into town, we noticed many small booths set up with people trying to get us to sign up for excursions outside of our cruise. They were really hooting and hollering at us! We resisted the temptation to do so because we were on a mission: to find Wi-Fi! We were successful in locating a place called the Lunch Box which served sandwiches and snacks and offered the internet access. We got the access code after picking up on mango-flavored licorice, and pre-loaded some maps of the area with the caches.

The first place we found was actually a pretty neat little area, on the boardwalk of the city. It pointed us to a statue of a dog, Patty-Ann. It was a neat little story about her and how she would predict the exact dock cruise ships in the past would dock at, even though she was born blind. Unfortunately we were unable to locate the mini cache at that location, so we decided to check out the town a bit, and then head to find the other one, which was literally next to the ship!

The town itself, we felt, was a bit rundown. It really might have been the weather that was dragging the place down, but it did not feel welcoming and vibrant because everywhere we turned there was a saloon, bar, or individuals on the street who were smoking cigarettes. There were certain places in town better than the others, but overall it wasn’t too pleasant. We walked back towards the ship, debating whether or not to take the tram up to see the scenery from the mountain, but the rain really started coming down hard. It was also really cloudy, so we figured we would not be able to see too much in the distance. We made the executive decision to simply turn back and have some lunch aboard the ship after our cache, which was successfully found.

Day 4: Skagway

We docked at 10am. Summer was winding down in Alaska and the days were getting a bit shorter. We were very fortunate to have extremely nice weather while we were in Skagway and took advantage of it by heading to town to inquire about the various hiking trails in town. The ranger at the Visitors Center was extremely helpful as she handed us three different maps with 5 different types of trails available in the area. We decided to do the more picturesque one because we wanted to get some neat shots of the area. She also had recommended for us to not go to some the areas higher up because it had been raining for the past two weeks or so, so it was quite muddy.

We had a great little hike and were happy to have brought our new tripod to test it out.

Afterwards we headed to the ship for a quick lunch before we decided to sign up for an excursion to see the sled dogs at their summer training camp! We were really excited to experience this because Alaska is known for its mushers racing its dogs in the snow. The summer season was winding down so there were only a few, but plenty of dogs training at the camp for us to see.

Our tour bus, covered in tiny paws, brought us up to Mushers Camp, which was about a half an hour ride outside town. Once we arrived, all 22 of us passengers boarded another truck, called a Unimog. It’s a heavy duty open-air truck! The reason we had to board this was due to the fact that we had to travel up the mountains to get to the dog-sledding location, and those were steep hills!

As soon as we drove up to the dogs, it was such an experience as they were all barking so loudly out of sheer excitement. We unloaded and were each assigned to 15 dogs that were all ready to run so fast! Michael and I were fortunate enough to get front row seats. The dogs that pulled us around were called sprint dogs, and most of the Alaskan sled dogs were not purebred Huskies. Because they all have to endure very strenuous miles, and also be quick on their feet, mushers and breeders have attempted to make them quicker over the years by mixing their breeds.

Here’s a glimpse of our pack pulling us through the woods:

After the one-mile sled ride, we had the chance to see some new pups playing around in their pen. There were so many little ones running around, and they were so excited to see more people! We even had a chance to hold some pups, and learn more about mushing and the different types of dog-sledding races are out there. Overall, we really enjoyed our excursion to see, experience, and play with the sled dogs at Musher’s Camp.

Day 5: Glacier Bay National Park

After a half day with the dogs the day before, it was nice to get a chance to really soak in the beauty of the mountains and glaciers as we were on board the ship. In the wee hours of the day, a few rangers boarded the ship and gave us an audio tour of the park. They gave us an in-depth explanation of the glaciers and also pointed out where there were eagles, mountain goats, and more wild-life wherever present and visible either with the naked eye or through binoculars.

Unfortunately, this was the day of the demise of our beloved first DSLR camera. We were using our tripod, and it was unusually windy out on the observation towards the stern of the ship. As we were posing for a picture, our camera slowly started falling over, and it hit the ground with a thump. We quickly assessed the situation, and it was broken.

We didn’t know what to do, but soon realized that we needed to act quickly. Michael and I went down to the shops to see if they sold any cameras. Then we went to the photo gallery area, but no luck. We resorted to using our cell phones for some photos and videos of the pretty scenery. It was actually a really good opportunity for us to simply experience the national park first-hand and not “through a lens”.

In the afternoon, we were a bit tired, so we decided to just lie down on the benches on the observation deck. Soon enough we were out cold, and before we knew it an hour had passed, and there were some beautiful blue glaciers right in front of us! We shot up from our comfy benches to catch a glimpse of them.

 

Day 6: Ketchikan

Our primary objective in town was to get a camera, or locate a shop where we could potentially trade in our camera, get it fixed, or purchase a new one. Once we got to town, our first stop was the Visitors Center, where we got some information about where we could get one. To our dismay, none of the stores in the downtown area carried professional DSLR or even digital cameras; they only carried disposable ones. However the lady at the counter recommended we head to Walmart, which was about 15 minutes out of town. She pointed us in the direction of the free Walmart shuttle (yes, I did actually say that). This town has a free round-trip shuttle to Walmart from the town’s discovery center. This was so awesome!

Once we made it to Walmart, our concern was that they would not have any high-end cameras. The store’s display cameras were all purely digital, mainly Canon PowerShot ones. We were looking for any Canon Eos Rebel cameras. Michael slowly went through the rows, and we came across only one, in the glass display! Yay, it was like the light at the end of the tunnel: jackpot! We found it. It came with a wide lens and the camera itself, but we were happy with it. It was a good deal, and it was exactly what we were looking for.

After our purchase, we went back on the shuttle back to the ship, and as we were on the shuttle we began to explore the equipment we just purchased. The battery was a bit different than our older model, so we had to go back to charge it.

Lunch was next on the agenda as we returned back to the ship to charge the battery. After lunch we walked down to Creek Street, which was about three blocks away from the dock. There was a huge sign in front where there was a neat boardwalk along the water’s edge. We saw salmon everywhere! They were all gathered and flooded the creek. We later realized there were about three to four seals all hanging out in that area searching for the right opportunity to strike for a nice meal in town.

We began our journey down the path, where we started to notice the strong scent of fish. There must have been hundreds of dead salmon that did not make the run on the side of the creek. As we walked further down the creek, we came across a fairly large waterfall where the salmon had to jump up to get to the top to spawn. Every four years they take this journey back to where they were born to spawn and then die.

It was such a sight to see! I mean these little or actually fairly large sockeye salmon were jumping above the water: several attempts were made by these salmon, and we were really amazed by the strength of these creatures paddling through the creek to make it up the falls!

Some kept hitting rocks, and we knew most of them couldn’t all make it. As we traveled further up the creek, we noticed thousands of salmon all gathered together. It was crazy how many actually ended up making it. At the same time there were also hundreds that might have been too tired and exhausted after the journey upwards that gave up.

There was this one section where we saw about 10-15 seagulls hanging out around there. They were only picking at the eyes of the dead salmon, and they left the dead salmon there to rot. We were surprised to see that they didn’t eat the entire fish.

It was definitely worth the trip out there with our new camera: We were happy to have it back, and went camera crazy!

 

Day 7: Last day at sea: Dancing with the Stars!

One of the days prior, I made Michael come with me to a Dancing with the Stars at Sea dance lesson (The Waltz). That was the only one we went to because they hosted three different sessions: The Cha Cha, The Waltz and The Jive. We were getting a bit nervous because we needed to learn to do our first dance, but we are horrible dancers. We figured we would just have some fun and learn a dance. To our surprise, I was actually selected as one of the best four dancers out there! I partnered up with a professional dancer, Vinny, and he was my partner for the dance. The audience ended up voting me and another contestant, Will, through to the final round, which was to take place the evening of the last day at sea.

I was required to show up to the tech rehearsal at 11:30am, to practice, and to be informed about the upcoming show. Shane ended up being my partner that evening. Michael was there to support me that morning, and shot a video of me so I could sort of learn it.

I have no dance coordination, but I tried my best to pull it altogether. I did not feel too nervous, but I was really excited, happy and energetic when it came time to the big show. I really thought I was going to place 6 of our 6, and I wasn’t too far off
but it was such a fun experience! I can officially say that I was on Dancing with the Stars, at Sea!

Day 8: Vancouver

We docked in Vancouver at 7am on Saturday, September 27th, and we were Lime 4, which was the group we were in to leave the ship. Our scheduled time was between 8:30am-8:50am. We just had enough time to grab a bite to eat on the 9th floor: Lido Restaurant, before our luggage tags were called.

It literally took us three hours to get out of Canada and cross the Washington border in the States, mainly because it took us about two hours of waiting in line to go through U.S. Customs. We had no idea why it took so long, but once we crossed in it literally took us less than five minutes of chatting with the Customs Officer before he let us through.

We were off to Bremerton, WA (across from Seattle, WA), to visit Michael’s grandmother for a few days.

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Idaho: The Splurge!

We have officially crossed into Pacific Time!

Michael arrived at our destination, Couer d’Alene, in Idaho on Monday, September 15th. After reading about this city, we decided to stay here for two nights at the Shiloh Inn & Suites. This city is known for its resort-like feel and known for its beauty.  This city’s culture, based on our readings, relates more to the northern Washington state culture than its own capital city which is more south, based on its close proximity to Spokane.

Our first stop was the Visitor’s Center (or the Chamber of Commerce) where we explored some of the things we could do in town. We decided to simply explore the downtown area on our own. We walked around the area and got some lunch.

We happened to park right outside a camera shop, and we were looking to purchase a new lens with more zoom for the remainder of our trip. Based on our initial pre-departure budget, we had included the purchase of new camera equipment to prepare ourselves. Unfortunately we did not purchase the lens. After our time at the Badlands and at Yellowstone National Park, we really regretted not investing in a good lens. So we decided to check out what Camera Corral had to offer.

Mike had initially showed us some of our options, which fit nicely on our camera. He showed us two lenses that were both used, but worked nicely for a decent price. He then showed us a few of the newer options that Canon had along with another brand, called Tamron, which only produces lenses. We were really impressed with the Image Stabilizer feature of the Tamron lens along with the quality of the shots it took. But we were still really indecisive on the lens: we knew we wanted one, but we didn’t know which one to go with. It was nice Mike let us try everything first before we made our final decision. We wanted a good tripod along with a camera bag to store our equipment, so we looked on those too!

Michael had gone to the truck twice: once to get our camera and once to get my laptop. We wanted to test the bags out to see which one would be best suitable for our future travel. At that point, Dan, the owner, began to help us with our purchases.  We must have spent a few hours in that little camera store playing and testing out all of the pieces we wanted to buy. Our final purchases definitely exceeded our budget of a measly $200 for a lens, as we spent close to $800! But, it was a good investment:) Take a look at what we got:

canon lens hoodtamron lens hood

All really neat items to say the least. Initially we got a cheap tripod, but after testing it out we realized that we needed to get a more heavy duty one, so we went to this MeFOTO compact one, which is also fairly lightweight and very easy to set up. It also comes with a carrying case and has a built-in level!

tripod casetripod leveltripod

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We began testing out our equipment almost immediately, and we were really pleased to discover the quality of shots. Now we were confident if we happen to see a grizzly bear or a moose in the distance when we go to Alaska or Yosemite National Park in California, we would be better prepared. We appreciated the help of Dan and his team’s insight into what types of camera equipment that was suitable for our needs. Maybe this is a step in the right direction for me: a possible freelancing photography career for me*wink wink*…way to kick-start this venture!

First photos with our nifty equipment:

Our next stops: brief stopover in Seattle for dinner…then off to Vancouver to catch our cruise to ALASKA!!! Just a quick reminder that we will be slowing down our online blog posts while we are cruising. They charge per minute for Wifi access…no thank you. We are turning off our devices and “unplugging” for a week. Look out for our next post about our Amazing Alaska Adventure towards the end of the month.

Montana

Michael and I crossed the Montana border while we were still in Yellowstone National Park, and upon exiting we came across a small town with a gas station so we filled up there before we made our way towards Missoula. We had booked a night at the Red Lion Inn & Suites through Hotwire, and we ended up getting a pretty good deal.

We had never heard of the Red Lion chain hotels, but it wasn’t too bad. Once we arrived, we parked our truck at the hotel parking lot and walked downtown to check out some stores and to grab some brunch. There was this one place, Shack Cafe, that really caught our eye as we were strolling the streets because there must have been 10 people waiting outside to get seated. Later we discovered this was the place to eat breakfast in Missoula! We eventually made our way back here and ate lunch after a long geocaching adventure.

Apparently people in Missoula, MT are really avid Geocachers…It was tough to find these little tiny caches in the city. Michael and I spent the majority of our time exploring the city by viewing these public art displays on the sides of these electric boxes at various intersections throughout the city.  It was really difficult because there would be a number of different cars swishing past you and stopping at red lights while we looked like mischievous individuals who were wandering in circles on the street corners looking for these little caches. Michael and I attempted to search for a total of three, but only found one successfully. Unfortunately, this cache was way too small to hide our mini Frisbee. It was the size of a bullet, literally! So we cut our losses and moved on to bigger and better things: lunch:)

Because there was a college in town, we decided to check out the campus of the University of Montana equipped with our tennis supplies after checking into our hotel and relaxing for a bit. It was a Sunday (9/14), so we knew it was unlikely there was a game going on. After walking around the campus a bit, we came across the entrance to the courts.  We did not have a chance to play tennis until Missoula, so we were happy to have found beautiful courts that were not occupied by many students. We secured a court and played for about 2 hours just before the sun set. The weather was slightly better, as it hit the upper 70’s. It was also really neat to see the mountains overlooking the campus with the big “M” cemented into the side of it. In the distance we saw groups of people making the hike up and back down. It looked like a perfect day to do that.

After tennis, we continued our search for a nearby cache to hide our mini Frisbee at a cache located just outside the downtown area of the city. We figured that it would be easier and more discrete to hide our trinket in these types of caches. Surely enough we were right! We found one on a bridge and it was the perfecting hiding place. We were really happy to have found a cache that was suitable for our needs, and we realized that we spent the majority of time in Montana finding the appropriate spot for our mini Frisbee…it was a challenge!

The next morning we had their included continental breakfast which included an assortment of hot and cold items: bacon, hash, eggs, breakfast burritos, muffins, sliced bread, bananas, apples, yogurt, boiled eggs, coffee, tea, juices, and a make-your-own Belgian waffle station with strawberries and whipped cream. We were pleasantly surprised at all these offerings. We fueled up before running a few errands in the morning, and continued our drive to Coeur d’Alene, Idaho!

Wyoming

Michael drove a few hours the evening of Wednesday, September 10th before it started snowing, yes, snowing!!! Essentially we were in three different states on 9/10 = North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming. We drove on highway 450, which was so desolate and scary. I had awoken from my nap to the snow coming down pretty hard. We finally came across a Rest Area in the town of Wright, WY, which was on the intersection of Highway 59 and 387. What a relief! We freshened up in the bathroom and used the projector to fall asleep to Captain America in the truck.

Throughout the night, we kept turning on the car for heat and I guess I had at some point opened the door because I was literally sweating. The next morning a gentleman pulled up to our truck and I was awake so he said there was a stuffed animal underneath the truck. I had just woken up and saw that my pillow pet was being handed it to me. At that point, I thanked him so much for his kind gesture. He said that he didn’t want us to leave it behind. That was definitely a nice impression of folks from WY.

That morning we made our journey through the mountainous region of the States, taking pictures of the beautiful scenery of the snow through Bighorn National Forest, and stopping at Cody, WY for the evening. We booked our night in Cody at the Best Western, which had coin-operated washers and dryers which we made use of. The small town of Cody was packed with resources and amenities we were hoping for on our way to Yellowstone National Park.

It took us about an hour to reach the East Entrance of the park we paid the $25 entrance fee which is good for that park and Grand Teton National Park for seven days.  We were given a park map with information about the wildlife we could spot as well as a park newsletter. All of the information warned us not to get too close to bison or other animals.

We spotted our first lone bison hanging out by the water on our drive in the park. He was huge! Throughout our time there, we must have seen more than 50 bison (buffalo). Most of the ones we had seen were on their own, and there were a handful of times they were all grazing as a herd.

Yellowstone National Park seemed so big, as we drove though it passing many tall pine trees covering the mountains. It was just a beautiful place to be in to take our time in absorbing the natural beauty of the lands. We drove past some geothermal vents with the scent of sulfur that lingered in the air. That was our first of many sightings of steam coming up from the ground. We past numerous hot spring areas and once we reached the Canyon Village, we decided to check their room vacancies for the evening because it seemed to be completely sold out online. To our surprise there was a cabin available that evening which was below our budget of $120 that evening. We were excited and checked into our room before heading out to check out Mammoth Hot Springs which was about 40 miles away. On our way there we saw a bison walking along the road (we must have been about 5 to 10 feet away from it). The hot springs were pretty cool to see too!

The next morning we made our trek to Old Faithful, and which was only supposed to take an hour (about 50 miles away). It ended up taking us about 3-4 hours to get there because we stopped at various sites, including the Midway Geyser Basin, where we saw an awesome mini geyser called Vixen, erupt right in front of us! It was so awesome. Along the way, we saw many recreational fly-fishermen who were fishing with their waders and in the middle of the water. Michael got really excited and wanted to test out his skills, but we needed to get to Old Faithful so he fished for about 20 minutes then we were on our way.

We got to the Visitors Center area, and it was about 3pm. We were starving so we got something to eat first, and then headed to the site. The next predicted eruption was scheduled to be at 4:52pm + or – 10 minutes. It appeared we had just missed it. We meandered through the visitors’ center, and got a few souvenirs. Then we sat on the wooden bench for just under an hour before the geyser gave us a few teasers before the water shot up in the air. It was an interesting sight to see but not nearly as powerful as we had thought. There must have been over 500 people sitting around Old Faithful to watch it, and we had waited an hour, just to say we had seen it.

As we were driving back we finally spotted some elk! It was a mother and its calf!  I had been hoping to see either elk or moose or both before leaving the park, and we were fortunate enough to see them. Because there were so many cars pulled over to the side, I hopped out and got a closer look because they were across the stream. Michael parked at the pullout, and he spotted a few fly-fishermen there. He could not resist fishing, as he pulled out his tackle gear and started to cast and attempt to catch some trout. I had been there for about 10-15 minutes taking pictures of the two animals interacting with each other, and moving downstream. I glanced over at Michael setting up his rod. They ended up going right past Michael and the other fishermen in the area (across the stream). Unfortunately, Michael and several of the fishermen were out of luck. They did not catch one fish, as they were all jumping out and everything. It was so frustrating. So we decided to take off before the sun fully set, leaving the park through the west entrance.

Our next stop: Missoula, Montana!

South Dakota

After staying for two nights in the small town of Medora, North Dakota, we made the 5-hour drive to Keystone, SD for a few hours. We focused our attention on getting to Mount Rushmore before the light ceremony which starts at 8pm, almost every day.  To our dismay, the weather was not really cooperating with us, as it was rainy and foggy. Nonetheless we made the trek through the Black Hills and made it to the Mount Rushmore National Monument, not knowing at all what to expect other than the $11 parking charge. We were very pleased to see a few small grey deer with antlers as we were driving up to the site. As we continued to drive up further, we noticed the large gate at the entrance to the area that reminded us somewhat of a border crossing. After speaking to the lady at the booth, we decided to get the pass, which was good until the end of the year.

 

Upon entrance to the park, we were surprised to find numerous cars already parked in the area. Immediately after getting out of the truck, we were struck by the brisk windy air that hit us from all different angles. We walked a bit further to find a pathway which was decorated with all the state flags and fun facts about them. Because we were so cold, we spotted a gift shop that was open and went inside to search for our South Dakota magnet.

Success! We found one that we liked, and I got myself a Mount Rushmore mug that was on clearance, score! I had brought one travel mug with us for coffee and needed one for tea because the taste and smell of coffee lingers a bit more than tea, so having another mug strictly for tea drinking was essential in my book.

Visibility was poor as the fog hindered our view of the monument. However, we realized there were patches of fog that were less in abundance and were grateful we could catch a few glimpses of the structure. Michael took some pictures of me and then I took some of him. Then we took the elevator down to the Lincoln Borglum Museum, which was the enclosed area leading to the exterior amphitheater area. Here we had a chance to read through the history behind the structure with a strong focus on the artist who had a vision to “carve” a significant piece of history. We watched a video and saw relics used for the construction of the structure. It really made us realize how much work went behind building this meaningfully everlasting monument.

Michael and I decided to check out the bookstore and then got ready to weather the cold in the outdoors amphitheater for the lighting ceremony. The female park ranger gave us some background information about the program about ten minutes before 8pm, and informed us the program was to be about 30 to 45 minutes in length. It kicked off with her giving us a formal introduction and extensive historical and patriotic information about the significance of the monument. The four presidents represented on the structure are George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln. They all represent different presidents with various backgrounds, coming from different regions in the U.S. and also from different points in history. She emphasized liberty and how each and every one of us should carry out this sense of spirit and understanding to all Americans as our forefathers did in the past in time of tumult. I found her speech to be one of such passion and filled with such knowledge. I was quite impressed with her ability to memorize a 10-15 minute speech that included her reciting various quotes from all four presidents as well as definitions from dictionaries and also from a movie, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” (1939).

Shortly after, we were presented with a movie that went through each of the four individual presidents in detail. Because it was so cold outside, the video (to us) seemed to really drag on. It was very interesting, but it was just so funny because as they started to introduce George Washington, we thought “uh
they’re only on Washington”. We were shivering, and we thought, Man! We should have been more prepared
as we saw many people who brought blankets, wore hats, gloves, scarves, and more.  I at least thought to wear my winter boots, and Michael did have on his waterproof hiking shoes, but it was rough out. During this entire time Michael kept looking over at me saying: “I am going to be so mad if we can’t even see it when they light it up”. I totally agreed. It felt like an eternity before they lit the structure, and before that the ranger called past and present military personnel to come on stage to help with the retiring of the American flag. We also sang the National Anthem with everyone. This program was packed with patriotism.

It was really touching to see all the heroes introduce themselves on stage, and throughout this process, we began to see the monument amidst the fog! It was a miracle and it was so powerful
definitely a special moment. At that point, we were all so proud to be given this opportunity in the States, founded on the belief of freedom for all.

 

We stayed to take some selfies, and really were considering staying at a hotel for the night because it was so cold. After searching around the area we decided to complete our cache for South Dakota. It took us two tries to find one in the middle of the night. But we did it! We were so happy to have completed it, and now we were off to Wyoming. In the next post, I will be going into detail about our frigid journey to and through the state of WY.

 

North Dakota

On our way from Minnesota to North Dakota, we were still recovering from a shopping high, so I convinced Michael to shop around for some more formal clothing for our upcoming Alaskan cruise, as there are two evening formal night dinners where we should be dressed appropriately. We did not bring very fancy clothing because we figured we did not really need them. But, after looking through the itinerary we decided it might be a good idea to prepare a few different sets of formal clothing. On our way to North Dakota, we went to a Kohls and shopped for a few hours. We found our outfits!

This next part of the post is written by Michael, as he has a strong passion for this national park we were both really fond of…

This next part is actually written by me because Christina made me write it. Our next location was Medora, ND. Our main purpose for visiting here was to go to Theodore Roosevelt National Park, “The Badlands”. We slept in the car for a night in a rest stop on our way over to Medora. The next morning we woke up early and drove over to TRNP. The park was $10 to get in and there was a 37mile loop trail that went around the south part of the park that we were going to venture out on.


As we entered the park we were instantly in awe about how beautiful the park was. The landscaping is very different from what we are used to in the North East. After driving for just a few minutes we came across our first Prairie Dog Town. There were hundreds of holes in the ground and prairie dogs everywhere. We quickly pulled over to the side of the road to check them out. As you would get close to them they would run and jump in their holes to hide. We spent a while looking at the prairie dogs and then continued on our drive.

It was about lunch time so we found a picnic area where we were able to pull over and have lunch. We had some leftovers in our cooler so we took out our burner, heated them up, and had a nice lunch.

One of the main reasons I wanted to visit this park was to see bison. Just after lunch we came across them. We saw a whole heard of bison off in a pasture. I decided I wanted to try and get close to them to get a good picture. Christina was a little nervous going up to them so she decided to hang back. I got pretty close to them and climbed up a hill so I could try and get some good photos. I noticed a couple of the bison stating to walk in our direction so I decided to hop of the hill and head back to the car.

We continued our drive around the park stopping along the way and taking some photos of the different sights. The park loop was supposed to take 90-120minutes to get around. It ended up taking us 4 hours with all of our stops and photos. We actually ended up taking almost 500 photos that day.

After we left the park we headed to into town and to check-in at our hotel. The Inn that we were staying at was actually behind a book store and we had to check in at the book store. The town where we stayed was very small. The whole town was about 8 blocks and had a very western vibe to it. After we checked in we decided to go and grab some food from the grocery store and get some dinner. Most of the places in the town were closed. a lot of shops were closed for the year and some just closed very early. We came across a nice pizza parlor that had old fashioned sodas and some pretty good pizza.

Today we ended up staying in the hotel for the day. We had a conference call with our wedding coordinator in the morning and Apple was having a live event releasing their new products which I wanted to watch int he afternoon. Every since the original iPhone I haven’t missed an Apple event so it was something that I really wanted to see.

Overall North Dakota was really fun and we got to see some very nice sights. Tomorrow we will be off to South Dakota and to Mount Rushmore.

Minnesota

After a five hour drive to Minneapolis on Saturday,  September 6th, Michael and I checked into our hotel, the Radisson Blu Downtown, which he had selected. We parked at a self-parking garage connected to the hotel, and it is typically $20 for overnight parking but since we were hotel guests it only cost us $6 per night. Upon arrival we noticed the stark differences between Milwaukee and Minneapolis. This particular city had a more grandeur feel to it as it reminded us of a smaller version of Manhattan. From what we noticed in the few hours we were there was there was the strong presence of these skywalks that connected twelve city blocks that ran through one building to another. They are essentially walkways that pedestrians can use instead of walking on the streets.

We made use of the available fitness center on the 17th floor of the hotel that had many cardio machines, free weights, and a few different strength machines. We were the only ones utilizing the gym so it was nice to have that space completely to ourselves. After the workout, we both got ready for an evening out.

Michael made reservations at the Butcher and the Boar for 9:30pm. We were both looking forward to indulging in some high quality food that evening. All the reviews on Yelp really talked this place up, and we wanted in on the excitement!  We started off with the sausage sampler which included three different ones. Michael really found two of the sausages to be very hot and spicy. But, I really enjoyed the bold tastes of the sausages. We both really took our time to enjoy the appetizer because we really did enjoy the dish, as the sausages were accompanied by various sauces and two slaws which helped to alleviate the heat and cleanse our palates.

I ordered the beef long rib, which was absolutely seasoned to perfection, with an accompanying slaw on the side. The slab of meat was literally the largest piece of beef and bone I had ever seen, as it was completely attached to the bone! Michael ordered the Berkshire pork spare ribs, and there were so much meat on those ribs. In addition, we ordered the skillet cornbread and the beer battered fries on the side. We both tried to tackle our meals, but it ended up that the food totally won the battle against us. We couldn’t even finish half of our dishes. The cornbread was so warm and delicious, and it was served with a maple butter with sea salt. We ended up spending a decent amount of time at the restaurant chatting away, and observing the amount of people the restaurant had employed. It was so cool that the floors were made out of pennies. Because we needed to digest a bit before ordering the dessert we felt as though we had so much to talk about even though we see each other 24/7. Our final dessert selection was the honey maple walnut cake for dessert. It was so delicious…definitely a great way to cap off the evening! It had a really nice milk ice on top of it to really balance out the sweetness of the cake.

The next morning we decided to place our mini Frisbee in a cache on a street a few blocks away from our hotel. It was really an easy find, and we were then off to check out the Mall of America which was 15 minutes away. It is located near the airport. We were not sure what to expect, but we were pleasantly surprised parking was free. We entered through Forever 21, and walked around to run a few errands: my running sneakers were falling apart as they had two small holes in them. The rubber was also peeling off the soles. Another item we needed to find was a magnet for our collection. Michael and I wanted to get some protein powder because we had run out too. However, upon entering we immediately got side-tracked by the Rainforest Cafe located inside the mall. Michael had never been to one before, so we decided to eat there. There were many fish tanks, gorillas, alligators, and thunderstorms that kept us busy. We thought that the food was  not all that great however. And, it was quite a challenge to find nutrition facts and a menu with calories online or on MyFitnessPal. So, we decided to only eat less than half of the meals we got, especially since we had a large dinner the night prior.

Just walking through the mall we immediately noticed that this place is really huge! The Lego Store was filled with large already-made lego structures and art, which were so cool to see! We went to a few different stores after eating brunch, and we found a pair of sneakers that suited me at DSW. That mall was humongous and had several roller coasters inside. There were two souvenir shops we randomly came across so we bought our magnet and a Nut Goodies, a chocolate covered peanut and nougat (Made in Minnesota) and we were off to GNC.

After our food and shopping frenzy in Minneapolis, we are off to Medora, North Dakota to visit the Badlands at Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

Leg 2 Endings and Leg 3 Beginnings

Leg 2 Endings

These past few weeks have been more relaxing than the first leg because we had completed a lot of the legwork of planning out the campsite and hotel reservations prior to the 2-week trip.  One downfall of planning beforehand was that we did feel quite restricted and confined to what we had already planned. So we were unable to change our plans if we enjoyed one city over another.

Because we also took a different vehicle this time around, we realized that there were other considerations. One positive change was the fact that we knew for sure that we definitely over-packed during the first leg (if the Honda Ridgeline was completely packed FULL and we were able to fit everything we needed into the MINI convertible). We were proud of the fact that we were more organized in a way.

One negative (for Michael) was he really felt claustrophobic in the MINI. I felt completely “at home” and did not even need my back pillow the entire trip. I really do enjoy driving my car long distances in excess of 3 hours, because it really suits me nicely. The bigger truck makes my lower back ache a lot more when I drive a hour or so. We returned my car to my parents’ and then packed Michael’s truck on Friday, August 29th. It took us about 4.5 hours or so to get to Swansea because it was the Friday before Labor Day weekend and traffic was difficult.

Upon arrival to Swansea, MA we were really able to spend some quality time with Michael’s parents as they took us out to dinner at Ichigo Ichie in East Providence, RI. It was really nice to catch up with them before we departed once again for the next leg of the trip.

On Saturday and Sunday we met up with our friends to get some wedding tasks completed because the next time we would be back in the New England area would be one week before our big day:)

Leg 3 Beginnings

Our main goal for the third leg of the trip is to make a lot more progress to visit each of the 50 states in time for our wedding. The portion of the trip starts in MA and ends with Alaska/Seattle, WA. This could potentially include doing some intensive driving straight through states we had already been to during the first and second legs of our journey. We just need to take a day to mentally prepare ourselves for what is to come. We also just ended up booking our cruise to Alaska, so we could better prepare and plan out our route across the country.

Wisconsin

On Wednesday, September 3rd, we left the New England area for Milwaukee, WI. We decided to gain some miles by driving and sleeping for a few hours at a rest stop before hitting our intended city. So we just put in Milkwaukee, WI as our destination in our GPS and let it take us there. We ended up spending a few hours at night in the Poconos area in Pennsylvania before continuing our drive around 7am.  During our trip we booked a hotel at the Hilton City Center in the downtown area.

Let me tell you it was not easy, but we did it. We thought, the end was so near! But, after driving for about 17 hours or so…we realized that our cell phones were behind one hour compared to the time we had been looking at on our watches. So the GPS listed an anticipated arrival time of 4:13pm to the city, and it was 3:55pm by the time we just passed through Chicago. Michael looks over to me as he is driving and says to me: “I really hope the GPS means that we should be getting to Milwaukee in fifteen minutes and not an hour from now”. Unfortunately, I did have to break the news to him that it was completely unrealistic for us to be so close to another city in a completely different state so close to Chicago, IL.

We pulled over to an “Oasis” (service center) and just got some gas and I took over driving the last hour to our hotel. Boy were we excited to check in and sleep on a comfy bed for two nights.

We got to the hotel around 6pm after gathering our belongings and checking in. Michael really just wanted to stay in that evening and order room service. So we decided to take advantage of the fitness center at our hotel for about an hour or so and ordered room service while we watched the Federer & Monfils evening match on ESPN. It was such an intense match. We were really happy to had stayed in because the food was so delicious! It was by far the best room service food I had eaten in a long time! I really vouch for the food and service at the Hilton in terms of room service. We received our food in less than 30 minutes. The House Soup (tomato with a basil cream) was so fresh and tasty! And, my cobb salad had so many items on it. I was so happy they gave us ice waters with lemon and an assortment of condiments. They even called us about a half hour after delivering the food to ask us how everything was going with the food and if we needed anything else. I had a hard time sleeping that evening because I think I had taken various naps throughout the day and didn’t get much sleep the night before. My sleep cycle was all messed up. To add to that, my brain was still adjusting to the one-hour time difference.

The next morning we slept in and left our hotel room by 11am to explore the city. We knew there were a few different events going on in the city which include Oktoberfest and Indian Summer Festival. In the AM we were still undecided on which event to attend, so we made our way to the Public Market which was located by Lake Michigan. It took us about 10-15 minutes of walking to get to the market. Michael and I ate lunch there at one of the local fresh food places called the Green Kitchen, which had freshly squeezed fruit/vegetable juices and sandwiches/salads. It was very delicious.

 

After lunch, Michael insisted we taste the Bienenstich which has custard and almonds. So we bought a quarter of a slice of it and decided to head to the park to eat it. It took us a little while to find the entrance after exiting the market, and along the way we discovered the site for the Indian Summer Festival. We had about a 15 minute conversation with a Crowd Controller named Richard who had been working all the events at the Summerfest location for over 35 years! It was so interesting to talk to someone who had been a Milwaukee native and loves what he does in operations with managing the crowds who attend these events. He spoke highly of the Indian Summer Festival, and we were impressed with what others had to say about the event.

We ended up walking along the pathway next to Lake Michigan, essentially on the opposite side of where we were a few months ago in Michigan. This gave us an opportunity to experience the lake that we loved on the dunes side a bit more on this side. It was a lot more calm and there were beautiful rocks that lined along the coast at Lakeshore State Park. For an urban area we felt as though the air was quite fresh and the architecture is quite low for a city. There were many restricted areas within the state park that had prairies and marshland where nature could run its course, which was neat to see in a city. It was getting a bit warm as we hung out on the benches at the Discovery Park, and we decided to head back to the hotel and relax for an hour or so before heading back to the Indian Summer Festival.

Before we headed back, I asked Michael to search for a cache nearby so we could place our mini Frisbee in the city. To our wonderful surprise we came across one right in the Discovery World park we were in! In no time we placed our Frisbee, played some unique outdoor “instruments” and were on our merry way to the hotel. Another reason we wanted to head back was because we wanted to purchase some school supplies. Why you ask? On Friday, September 5th from 4pm to 6pm there was free admission to the Indian Summer Festival with a “suggested” donation of school supplies. We initially did not notice the part at the end so we were just going to hang out around the park and walk around the city before it hit 4pm, but we decided it would be a nice gesture to get some stuff for the kids.

After relaxing a bit at the hotel, and also planning a bit for the next city we are to hit, we were in search of an office supply store. We found and OfficeMax about two blocks away from our hotel and on the way to Henry Maier Festival Park, where Indian Summer was held.

We had a great time walking along the path next to the lake, and we were bewildered to spot a gaggle of geese who felt the same way, as they were enjoying the walk too! At first we only spotted about five geese walking in a straight line, But, then…we saw so many more closer to the lake’s edge. This park displayed a unique sense of joining together of two different worlds: one of a primitive natural one filled with wildlife and the other with a modern look and feel of a city populated with humans.

The festival was neat because we had a chance to experience some of the food and also see some cultural performances. I found a hands-on arts and crafts tent where I spent the majority of my time. Michael was very patient with me because he is the knot expert! There were a variety of projects you can select but I chose to make a dream catcher. I thought it would be nice to experience making one, but I did not realize how much time it would take. I was actually pretty proud of my semi-finished product. I completed the inner weave (which was the most time-consuming portion of the project). I just need to add a few strings with beads and feathers to spruce it up a bit before I hang it up somewhere permanent. We walked around and checked out different vendors in the festival park afterwards. The theme this year at the festival was Horse Nation. So we saw various kinds of native horses there. One in particular caught our eye as it resembled a cow with its black and white spots.

We watched the Opening Ceremony and caught a bit of the drumming performance. It was so nice to see that all nations were represented at this festival through the drum performance, as it kicked off with a traditional African dance. Then we saw Brazilians performance a drum and dance, the Irish perform a step dance, the Arabs perform, the Koreans perform the drums in a seated positions, and a gentleman who was of German decent play the accordion, the Aztecs perform a standing drum ensemble and another Native American children school perform a chant. There was also a mix of American bands too! Everyone in the audience really embraced the performers’ unique cultures, and it seemed to really bring out the best in people.

Overall we thought the festival was a great opportunity for us to attend as it really showcased the cultures of the people here in the United States which is essentially a melting pot. The only event we were hoping to catch was the amateur boxing tournament, but they were running on an hour delay. So we decided to skip out and walk back to our hotel. It did start to drizzle a bit so we were glad we brought our own umbrella this time around. We knew there was a cold front coming in through the area so we were prepared.

The next morning we took the five hour drive to Minneapolis, MN for a Saturday night out in the city!

 

U.S. Open 2014

Michael and I are making it a tradition to attend a U.S. Open event annually. This year we decided to do something a bit different than two years prior by opting a day match starting at 11am at Louis Armstrong Stadium on Thursday, August 28th. Typically we would purchase evening session tickets at Arthur Ashe Stadium, which allowed us entry around 6pm for the 7pm start-time for the two singles matches (one for men’s and the other for women’s).

We thought, hey we should change it up a bit now that we had the free time to spend a whole week day at the open. That day was actually very hot with the sun beating down on us while we were sitting and watching the matches throughout the day.  We arrived to Corona Park in Flushing Meadows, Queens at 9am, and followed the other cars to the designated parking areas, guided by traffic officers and parking attendants. Parking ended up costing us $22 for the day, which we paid in cash. We received a small ticket to place on our dashboard and walked across a grassy area to catch the free shuttle to the entrance of the event.

We did not have to wait in line long at all, even though I did bring a bag with us (so we had to wait in the “with bags” line). As soon as we got into the area, we saw an American Express booth where reps were handing out radios as perks for every American Express cardholder to enjoy throughout our time at the Open. There were commentators throughout the duration of the two weeks that would highlight several matches and other news and fun tidbits about players and such. The park is so large the crowds are unable to watch two matches at once (not unless you move from one place to another), but those radios were helpful because we were able to follow along other matches throughout the park while we were watching other exciting ones.

Louis Armstrong Stadium is the smaller of the two  main stadiums, so we really enjoyed how much closer we were to the court and the players. Grandstand is the smallest of the stadiums (which is actually in the same building as Armstrong), but grounds pass ticket holders are able to watch matches at the Grandstand (so there is typically a longer wait to get into the main matches -as there are no reserved seating).

On Thursday, 8/28 there were a few headlining players at the stadium we were in that included Ana Ivanoic, Madison Keys, John Isner and Milos Raonic. Unfortunately there were a few upsets with the ladies that day, but both Isner and Raonic pulled through their early-round matches.

Throughout the day, we walked around the park and saw various matches. We also visited some of the sponsors, and even sampled Chia seed pudding snacks (which, in our opinions,  were really really nasty). Why, you ask? I mean I’ll try anything, and once I took the tiny spoonful of both the mango and strawberry flavored snacks I was really unsure about the consistency and texture of it. Michael immediately realized he needed something to eat so the taste didn’t linger too much in his mouth. We both ended up tossing our snacks and getting one small mango Italian ice. Boy, was that a nice feeling on our palates! (sooo cleansing).

We ended up sharing a burger and fries and some Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream (very unhealthy), but it was one of those “events” so we had a cheat day.

For dinner, my parents prepared traditional Chinese food dishes for us when we got home around 8:30pm that evening. We ended up skipping out on the last few sets of Raonic’s match in order to beat the traffic. There was another event going on that evening at Shea Stadium as the Mets were playing a game at 7:10pm so we left around that time.

Every year the U.S. Open is different because we never know who we are going to see, as it’s always a guessing game due to the tournament-style of the event. We learned that in the years to come the park will be undergoing some major construction to expand and update the stadiums (Arthur Ashe is getting a face-lift: a roof !) We can’t wait to see what’s in store in the years to come.