Brazil – Rio de Janeiro

We’re being jostled around in a little 6-seater prop plane – making our way from Angra dos Reis to Rio de Janeiro. The skies are gray and gloomy with heavy rain up ahead. The runway is in sight, but the pilot turns around and gives a thumbs down – the tower will not let us land and we must return to Angra. Then just as quickly he turns back around and gives us a thumbs up – the tower says ‘NOW’. We have 8 seconds to land – the pilot holds the steering mechanism as tight as he can, the wings are teetering heavily side to side. We drop hard onto the runway, the skies open up and the rain comes down in sheets. A van meets us right at the door to the plane and we get drenched in the 10-feet we have to walk from the plane to the van. “Welcome to Rio!” says our driver.

Landing strip in the bay off of Rio de Janeiro where we landed in the prop-plane we took from Angra dos Reis.

Rio de Janeiro. The name rolls off your tongue and evokes a sense of beauty. Fitting for a city that is undeniably one of the most beautiful in the world. The saying in Rio is – ‘God built Rio on the 8th day.’ As I said in my earlier Brazil posts, the country was never on my bucket list – but Rio has always held a bit of an interest, especially since the 2016 Rio Olympics when I witnessed one enticing iconic photo or video after another. How can one deny a pull to experience the marrying of white powder sandy beaches and tropical forests rising up out of the ocean encasing a culture known for a love of living life to the fullest.

One of the first visuals that stood out to me was the emptiness of beaches Monday through Friday. But on the weekends these beaches were transformed into a sea of humanity. The locals work hard during the week so they can play harder over the weekend. Arriving at the beaches by 9am and staying on well past midnight. Plied with local beverages – both alcoholic and non-alcoholic, and fresh seafood and fruits, by walking vendors – there is no need to leave. If you forgot your swimsuit – there are vendors selling swimsuits. If you forgot your sunscreen, or sarong, or hat – there are vendors to take care of you. None of the vendors are pushy – they are just there, walking up and down the beach in numbers so great you don’t have to wait long for the right one to come along.

Ipanema Beach, empty during the week except for the long line-up of orange garbage bins that people are very good at using to keep these beaches spotless.

Ipanema Beach on a Saturday – when a mass of humanity descends on the beaches for a day of fun in the sun.

If you forgot or lost your swimsuit – no problem walking vendors have you ‘covered’!

If you are hungry or thirsty but you don’t want to risk losing your prime beach spot, no problem – walking vendors will serve your every need.

Although we felt fairly safe on the beaches – Ipanema Beach is definitely more inclined to host the tourists, while Copacabana Beach was the locals haven. And no question as to what someone is talking about when they mention ‘wearing a thong’ – that has nothing to do with flip-flops for your feet. That is the ONLY kind of swimsuit bottom worn by the women – no matter what age or size of bum. I have never seen so many butts in all my life! And the speedo for men may have gone by the wayside in most regions of the world, but in Rio it is alive and doing quite well!

Speedos for the men – thongs for the women. My husband looks very nonplussed by all of it. Life is good while on the beaches of Ipanema and Copacabana.

Ironically, the poorer the citizen the higher up they live in Rio. The most financially depressed parts of the city, or favelas, are the ones that sit high up in the hills. I guess it’s the least they deserve – a good view even if they can’t afford a car, a nice home or to put much food on the table. The economy may be depressed, but the people certainly are not. They take an attitude that tomorrow is another day and it could be better so why worry about today. When basic needs are met and your every waking hour allows you to exist in such beauty no matter how much money is in your pocket, it is hard to argue their attitude.

High up in the city, the buildings show disrepair and a multitude of electrical wires looking like a fire hazard – but the monkeys love the easy access to their favorite trees.

The Olympics were held 6 months prior to our arrival in Rio de Janeiro, but by then most of the venues had already fallen into disrepair, the golf course hardly had a round played on it, and the influx of interest in the area had waned. But alas the locals carry on as they always have. Nothing much changed in getting ready for the Olympics and nothing much has changed since the Olympics. Life goes on as usual and they are fine with that.

There is no lack of culture or history to go along with some of the world’s most amazing natural vistas. Usually a city is renowned for one or the other – beauty or culture. Rio ticks off both those boxes – multiple times. When the word breathtaking was created, the creator must have been standing atop Sugarloaf Mountain looking across at the future pinnacle for  Christ the Redeemer.

Christ the Redeemer stands tall as a protector over all the people of Rio and the many visitors to this magical destination.

Sugarloaf Mountain rises up out of the harbor in Rio into the shape of a what was a sugar-loaf back in the 1600’s. Sugar cane was a major commodity in the area and it was transported in conical clay forms from Rio to other parts of the world. In 1912 the first set of cable cars was built to carry people up to the highest point of Sugarloaf Mountain. Today the glass cable cars can hold up to 65 people. You can take one cable car from the base of the mountain to the first hill-top, and then a second cable car all the way up to the top of Sugarloaf = 1200 feet elevation. Or you can hike up the first mountain and then take the second cable car from there. We did the latter and our guide said we were the first people in 5 years he had guided to choose to do so. It is a steep elevation and it was very hot and humid, but it was lush green, heavily shaded and we saw monkeys!

We saw several marmosets or monkeys – but were absolutely forbidden to feed them.

The iconic Sugarloaf Mountain rising up out of the harbor – with a tram going from the lower hilltop to the high peak.

The panoramic views from Sugarloaf Mountain are truly breathtaking!

Christ the Redeemer became the iconic visual of the Rio Olympics – day and night. It is eye-catching from afar and you can see it from miles and miles away. But the actual statue was less ornate than I thought it would be. Even so, what an awe-inspiring task when you look at how this was resurrected back in 1922-1931. The wing span of Christ’s arms (92 feet) is almost as long as he is tall (98 feet) – and stands on a 26-foot high granite pedestal. It is a monolithic piece weighing in at over 630 tons that sits atop a 2300-foot high peak. You take a railway tram up a very steep hillside and your only thought is – ‘I hope the brakes don’t give out!’ The statue is constructed mainly of iron and concrete, with an outer-shell of soapstone. The statue has been struck by lighting 3 times with minimal damage.

The rail cars that take you up the hillside to the base of Christ the Redeemer. I am sure this grade would not meet US standards.

Christ the Redeemer stands as a beacon of hope and peace on one of the highest points in Rio.

Other Rio cultural highlights and must sees: The Metropolitan Cathedral – a 264-foot high conical-shaped church with four floor to ceiling stain-glassed panels coming together at the top to create a cross; the Real Gabinete Portugues da Leitura is tucked among narrow side streets – but this library is a must see for its uniqueness and beauty; the Museum of Tomorrow sits on the edge of the harbor like a spaceship from another world; Korda‘s 3,000sm mural (15.5m high by 190m long) may have been created for the olympics, but it will stay on as an artistic masterpiece highlighting the cultures of each amazing continent in this world; the ‘Selaron Steps‘ were designed by the artist as a tribute to Brazil and it’s people, but you can find a tile from just about every spot in the world.

The conical-shaped Metropolitan Cathedral in the heart of Rio.

The interior of the Metropolitan Cathedral showcasing the stained glass floor to ceiling panels coming together at the peak into the shape of a cross.

The Royal Portuguese Library – a magical reading room and fitting for the area as Portuguese is the main language of Brazil.

The Museum of Tomorrow built for the Rio Olympics in 2016 – an innovative scientific look at sustainability and the start of revitalizing a once struggling waterfront.

World renowned mural artist Eduardo Korda was commissioned to create and paint a mural for the 2016 Olympics.

The ‘Selaron Steps’ created over 20 years by artist Jorge Selaron as a tribute to Brazil – anybody can now add a tile when they visit, making it a tribute to the world we live in.

Our days consisted of a morning run or walk on Ipanema Beach across the street from our Fasano Hotel, followed by a day of touring the area, then retreat to the rooftop pool for the refreshing local drink – Caipirinha, and finish with an amazing dinner touting local Brazilian flavors and style of cooking, like Churrascaria. While Brazil may not have been on my bucket list – it is on my list of places to return to. I still have 362 islands to see in Angra dos Reis; more beach time to enjoy in Rio; and inner country sanctums such as the Amazon and Iguazu Falls to experience.

Check out the Global Gallery with more pics from Brazil, specifically Sao Paulo, Angra dos Reis, and Rio de Janeiro.

Brazil – Angra dos Reis

Angra dos Reis – translated from Portuguese means ‘Creek of the Kings’. This state of Brazil was first discovered back in the early 1500’s by the Portuguese naval fleet. An archipelago of 365 islands, one for every day of the year, Angra is a favorite vacation spot for many in the region and even for the whole country. We came about it through Brazilian friends who have a place on the ‘Big Island’ (Ilha Grande).

Angra dos Reis – on the coast of Brazil between Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo.

A handful of the 365 islands of Angra dos Reis, Brazil.

Angra is a fairly remote area. From Sao Paulo, there is one windy road along the coast and another through the tropical hilly terrain, both of which take a good six plus hours to go the 240 miles. From Rio de Janeiro, there is one windy road, mostly along the coast, that takes three plus hours to go 90 miles. The best way to arrive is by plane, and as luck would have it our friends just happened to have their own plane – go figure! 🙂 My first small plane ride ever and I have to experience landing on a landing strip that starts at the tip of an ocean inlet and end at the base of a mountain, in the rain! Thank goodness I didn’t have a heart attack then and there or I would’ve missed the most magical next 3 days of my life.

Coming in for a landing to the landing strip at Angra dos Reis regional airport.

Besides tourism, the area is noted for fishing, agricultural products (bananas, coconuts, oranges, hearts of palm and sugar cane), steel export and transporting oil. Many residents on the island are in the service industry – the culture in Brazil in general is very service oriented. Our friends have paid staff in the house to look after any and all needs of the family: cook, nanny, clean, garden. They have a separate crew to man their 78-foot yacht. Our friends are humble and full of gratitude to their staff and the staff is like family – it is viewed as an employer/employee not a hierarchy.

The crew on our friends boat coming into the marina to pick us up from a day at one of the many islands of Angra dos Reis.

The attitude and attire are laid back in this very temperate climate where the high temps throughout the year range from 77 to 87, and the lows range from 62 to 77. Because they are on the beach or on the boat almost every day, our friends tend to live in swimsuits and flip-flops. The rainy season is from December through March (their summer) where they average 10 inches of rain a month. One of the nights we were there – I think they might have received their rain total for the month. It rained, and rained, and rained! I love a good rainstorm as much as a crystal clear day or a starry night!

View from the beach home we found ourselves lucky enough to be staying at while in Angra dos Reis.

A dark and eerie sky ready to open up and unload several inches of rain.

Upon arriving at our friend’s home, we were told to don our bathing suits – we were heading right out on the boat to go and check out one of their favorite islands known as ‘Dentist Island’ – apparently a century or so ago it was owned by a very prominent dentist in the area.  To me it was what beach dreams are made of – a deserted looking island right out of a movie scene. The boat was anchored offshore about 50 yards and we swam to the shore for a run up and down the beach and then swam back to the boat for our first caipirinha of the day, and a feast of fresh fruit, veggies and fish dishes.

A ‘life is good’ moment in Angra does Reis.

My husband and daughter both tried stand-up paddle boarding – one fared a bit better than the other, but I won’t say who, other than ‘nicely done sweetie!’ 🙂 Our hostess has it down so well she paddle boards all over the bay with her dog Louie sitting serenely at her feet. After another caipirhina or two, it was back to our friends amazing beach house. Our hostess designed it and utilized boulders from the area to create unique room settings.

My daughter getting the hand of stand-up paddle boarding in the quiet bay of Dentist Island.

Louie waiting to go paddle-boarding!

The next morning arrived bright with sunshine. After a breakfast of a tapioca crepes filled with eggs and ham, and more of the islands fresh fruit, it was off to hit the links for the older adults. A fun little course that winds it way through the foothills within a driver distance of the beach house. We saw a giant hamster, aka Capybaras, many of us saw on the Olympic coverage from Rio. Golfing in these tropical regions sure is humid and sweaty, but you do stay loose! Luckily we were brought cold beers and more fresh fruit at the turn to keep our hydration levels up.

Getting up close and personal on the golf course with a local capybara.

Not too many golf courses you have to hit over ancient ruins to get to the green.

After a quick freshen up back at the beach house it was off the magical island of Paraty – a town built back in the early 1800’s reminiscent of a European colorful hamlet. Buildings of white, trimmed with a multitude of different colors, veined with concave cobblestone streets so rain drains towards the ocean. The town is filled with boutique shops, bookstores, coffee shops, restaurants and ice cream shops. We bought some artifacts from Amazonian tribes at one of the stores. We had an ice cream cone for lunch, because our host asked us not to eat too much as he was having fresh lobster flown in and was cooking for us tonight – which meant he oversaw his cook grilling the lobster! 🙂 Twenty plus lobster tails for 5 of us – you do the math! Teamed with another caipirinha or two, and a couple of shared bottles of wine meant a deep sleep for all.

The colorful tourist boats in the Paraty Harbor, reading to take guests out on the water for a Paraty style party!

The colorfully trimmed white buildings of Paraty, with concave cobblestone streets.

Needless to say we slept in the next morning. But before our final boat trip back to the plane to take us to our next destination – Rio de Janeiro, we all took a nice long bike ride. The guys went one way and the gals took another way, back through the golf course where we just missed riding over a coral snake, along a beach to see a new Fasano resort in development, and past a few more of the docile capybaras.

My daughter and I on one last trek, on bikes, through the beauty that is Angra dos Reis.

A couple more Capybaras lounging by the river on the golf course we biked through.

My daughter and our extremely gracious hostess for our time spent at Angra dos Reis.

All in all a this was a trip unlike anything any of us had ever experienced – mainly because of the hospitality of our friends, but it is certainly a destination worth checking out for anybody. Albeit it a challenge to get there, everything is in place to create an unforgettable experience for any new comer to the area. Since we only experienced 3 of the 365 islands we will definitely be putting Angra dos Reis on our ‘return to’ travel list.

Stay tuned for Brazil Part 3: Rio de Janeiro and the Global Gallery from all three stops in Brazil.

 

 

 

 

Brazil – Sao Paulo

Brazil. Where does one start? The food. The people. The culture. The beauty – natural and manmade. Brazil was never on my bucket list, not even an honorable mention. When my husband began traveling there for business my interest became piqued to see a destination not on many people’s bucket list. That interest was further inspired by the recent 2016 Summer Olympic Games. (FYI: a VISA is needed for Americans to travel to Brazil.)

Brazil, South America.

Every year my daughter and I, whether together or not, travel to a unique location somewhere in this amazing world of ours. The opportunity to travel to Brazil with my husband on one of his business trips was too great an opportunity for us to pass up. He had already been to Brazil multiple times, knew the lay of the land and how to navigate a region not regarded as overly safe. The locals we know cautiously reminded us to be extra vigilant and monitored our travel itineraries to be sure we weren’t going into areas they would not recommend. But like any place else, be smart and be aware and you’ll be safe.

And I am happy to report we had a very safe trip – we did not have one instance of concern. No clutching our purses to our chest or looking over our shoulders. Which would’ve been a travesty as there was something to behold in every direction. I have now added Brazil to my bucket list because there is so much more to see and do – we did not even scratch the surface in the 10 days we were there. We were however, able to experience some areas probably better known to locals than to tourists in the regions we visited, thanks to the local connections we have.

Because our experiences were as vast at the country itself I will break the Brazil post up into three parts: 1) Sao Paulo; 2) Angra dos Reis; 3) Rio de Janeiro. The proximity of South America to North America actually makes it fairly easy, but long trip to Brazil – about a 9 hour flight from the US mainland. Most flights out of the US depart from Atlanta (Delta) or Dallas (American) and fly directly to Sao Paulo. We flew out of NYC – which is another direct flight option. All flights to Brazil are red-eyes, mainly into Sao Paulo, so the flight goes fast since you sleep through the bulk of it, waking in time for a quick breakfast before touch down on the runway. The time zone change is minimal compared to travel abroad to the east or west. Example – from Rio de Janeiro to the west coast of the U.S. is 4-5 hours depending on time of year.

Sao Paulo, Angra dos Reis, and Rio de Janeiro – along the southeast border of Brazil.

Part 1: Sao Paulo

The geographical spread of Sao Paulo  is so expansive I couldn’t fit the whole city into my pictures taken from the plane. It is an urban setting of 24 million people spread out over an area of 85 miles from edge to edge. Sao Paulo is the international business and cultural center of Brazil. People in Brazil tend to work in Sao Paulo and play in Rio. Portuguese is the language spoken in Brazil, but like most places in the world we had no problem getting around not being fluent in Portuguese – although we certainly picked up a lot of Portuguese phrases throughout our stay, and locals appreciated our efforts to reply back to them in Portuguese. And according to a friend who speaks Portuguese, the Portuguese spoken in Brazil has a more fluid lilt to it then what is spoken in Portugal, and is a little easer to pick up.

The city of Sao Paulo spreads out, and out, and out….

We stayed at the Fasano Hotel, a high-end boutique-style hotel chain. Once settled into our rooms, it didn’t take us long to indulge in the first cultural experience of Brazil – a drink called the ‘Caipirinha‘. Muddled limes with a touch of sugar and a generous pour-over of a Brazilian rum called cachaca, shaken and served in glass full of crushed ice. The locals drink this as much as the tourists – but beware, one is just right, two will land you on your arse. Even the locals don’t push it and if they are going to drink multiple Caipirinhas they will use vodka instead of the local rum. This local rum is made from raw pure cane sugar where other rums are generally made from processed sugar.

A Caipirinha – a Brazilian drink even the locals drink. Refreshing and very potent!

Food is also a forte of Sao Paulo – one restaurant has ranked as high as 9th in the world: Dom. We were lucky enough to get in by booking our reservations well in advance. The focus at Dom is on using Brazilian grown ingredients in Brazilian created dishes. A prix fixe gastronomical dining experience worth every high calorie laden bite. And if you like your beer cold – Brazil is the place for you. They house their beers in an extra cold fridge, serve it in mini pilsner glasses so you drink it before it gets warm, and keep the unfinished bottle in a table side ice bucket.

Beer served in miniature glasses to the beer in it doesn’t have a chance to get warm.

Keeping the beer ice-cold in an ice bucket table side.

After a long deep sleep to recover from Day 1 travel and heavy eats, it was time to stretch our legs and see some of the culture of Sao Paulo. Off to Ibirapuera Park, their version of Central Park, where we walked on heavily treed paths along waterways, while quenching our thirst with fresh coconut water. Coconut stands dot the pathways – the vendor cuts a hole in the coconut, adds fresh cold water that mixes with the coconut juice and you sip it with a long straw. As the heat of the day increased we took our interests inside to the Sao Paulo Museum of Art which houses pieces of work from locals on the first floor, to pieces from the world’s most well renowned artists of all time on the second floor. The Museum sits up off the ground – during the week this covered space serves as a shelter for the homeless. And twice a week they clear this space out and it becomes a flea market.

Beautiful heavily tree-lined pathways of Sao Paulo’s version of Central Park.

Multiple vendors sell fresh coconuts along what waterways in Iberpuera Park.

An installation of artists from Renoir to Picasso and classic artists in between, at the Sao Paulo Museum of Art. Each painting is placed on an individual stand to create an illusion of the artwork floating.

After cooling down we walked down to Sao Paulo’s version of Rodeo Drive for some much-needed shopping on Jardins’ Rua Oscar Freire. My daughter and I simply couldn’t leave Sao Paulo without purchasing some Brazilian styled vibrant clothing. After all that bopping around and shopping around it was time for another refreshment – no better option than our new favorite drink, a Caipirinha, at a cute local eatery right around the corner from out hotel.

After a short nap it was off to one of the most interesting restaurant settings I have ever experienced, at the Figueira Rubaiyat. The open air entrance is guarded by a ficus tree with a trunk diameter of over ten feet and branches jutting out under and through panels in the all clear glass ceiling. That evening we were treated to the most amazing rainstorm I have ever experienced. The area of Sao Paulo we were staying in is built on a very steep hill – our hotel and the restaurant were near the base of this hill. The rain came down so fast and furious there was a raging river racing down the street knee-deep – we couldn’t even make it back to our hotel a half block away. So we indulged in local fresh seafood and wine and waited the storm out.

Apparently this Ficus tree loves the tropical weather of Sao Paulo.

A tropical rainstorm hits Sao Paulo leaving us hostages in the Rubaiyat Restaurant.

Sao Paulo may not be the area to spend the bulk of your time in when visiting Brazil, but it does have enough to sufficiently fill a couple of days. Next it was off to another area the locals love to get away to called Angra dos Reis, an archepegio of 365 islands situated between Sao Paulo and Rio De Janeiro.

Enjoy two more Brazilian posts and check the Global Gallery for more pics of all our stops in Brazil!

Alaska Adventures – part 2

Below please enjoy the follow-up post by my guest blogger, and son, Mike Malecha. Continuing to see more of Anchorage and experience one of Alaska’s 664 named glaciers – Washington is the state with the next closest number of named glaciers at 186.

Enjoy Alaska Adventures – part 2 by Mike Malecha:

 

Wednesday
Wednesday began nice and early with a workout at Body Renew, the gym where Tara does some personal training. It was (almost) effortless to get up early and head to the gym already surrounded by light that made it feel like mid-day. A few hours of sleep somehow felt like an eternity in an Alaskan summer. What a great feeling to be back at the house having coffee by 8 with an energizing workout (and a long stretching session which my body needed after a few days of climbing and hiking) already in the books. With the rest of the morning to myself to catch up on some reading, I set out to grab a little breakfast at the local McDonalds (just to make sure it’s the same in Alaska as everywhere else;) – and it is!) and then spent the morning with my nose in a book and doing the tiny bit of work I reluctantly allowed myself to bring on the trip.

Once Ryan had finished up at work himself, we kept the activity and adventure theme going and hit the road for another hike. One of the ‘must-do’ items on my list was to see a  glacier, and that was the item of the day. Ryan and I drove about an hour south to a town called Whittier, a very small water-side community tucked into a gorgeous river-valley between the mountains. The drive also included a 2-mile stretch directly through Maynard Mountain via the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel! We set out on the Portage Pass Trail, up over a saddle between two peaks which took us to a glacier-viewing area. On the way up, we had a view of the pristine Portage Lake running through the valley behind us the whole way, and the sight only became more beautiful and expansive as we climbed upward.

Maynard Mountain with road/train tracks lead into the 2 plus mile Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel.

This way to glacier viewing!

I requested several stops along the way up, to turn around and embrace the scenery (and just maybe to catch an extra breath or two, but that was a very secondary reason ;). Once we made it over the saddle, the view of a hanging glacier, Portage Glacier, between the upper slopes of two mountains nearly stopped me in my tracks – truly one of the most awe-inspiring scenes I have ever witnessed. The pictures below can do the glacier more justice than my words can, and the pictures aren’t nearly enough. Truly something that must be seen first-hand to be appreciated. The magnitude of nature’s power became overwhelmingly apparent while in its presence. Witnessing the masterpiece created by such monumental forces, which over immense periods of time, came together to form this natural wonder was a humbling experience.

From the road – the destination of the Portage Glacier looks daunting.

Portage Glacier slowly melts into Portage Lake as viewed from the Portage Pass Trail.

And it was worth the effort!

Dinner that night was at Moose’s Tooth Pizzeria, a staple in Anchorage. Lines extend out the front door and fill the waiting area on a daily basis at dinner time, and for hours thereafter. We went at about 8:30 pm and still had to wait over a half an hour. Fortunately, the place brews a number of its own beers, so we patiently sat on the patio and each enjoyed our pick of their home-made Broken Tooth brews while waiting; my Raspberry Pale Ale was terrific. The pizza was every bit worth the wait – easily understandable why the place has become such a staple. Aside from the food quality, an ever-bustling family style atmosphere filled the place, not a person in the restaurant without a smile on their face. It’s the kind of place I’m sure has kids jumping up and down and shouting in joy when their parents agree to take them out for pizza.

Checking out the different brews at Broken Tooth Brewing while waiting to get in for pizza at Moose’s Tooth.

Big surprise, Ryan and I decided to do another hike on Thursday afternoon once he was off work, and today we wanted to focus on physical intensity more than the scenery. So, we set out on a two and a quarter-mile trek, pretty much directly upward from the base of Alyeska Ski Resort (about a half hour south of Anchorage) up to the resort’s winter lodge. Up until now, we hadn’t had to worry much about wildlife encounters, but as this outing took us through more raw wilderness, we were sure to equip ourselves with bear spray and Ryan’s firearm.

Our destination is the Alyeska ski lodge at the top of the hill.

Ran into a big snow-patch about halfway up the mountain! Forgot to bring our snowboards unfortunately!

As fortune would have it, about 10 minutes into the hike, a woman passed by on her way down saying there had been reported sightings of a mother black bear and 3 cubs not far up the trail. Rather than a quick discussion of whether we should go forward, Ryan simply said, “Well that’s Alaska for you, better get used to it!” and proceeded to take his gun out of his pack to keep it close at hand, and we continued right on up the hill – and I had my bear spray at the ready. I thought I would feel much more fearful in such a situation, but I knew we were properly prepared and the initial fear honestly faded quite quickly. We made sure to make a racket as we went to alert any nearby critters of our presence, which basically resulted in a non-stop clapping, singing and whistling fest most of the way up the mountain – not a noise level that was much out of the ordinary for the two of us.

We made it to the top without a sighting of any wildlife, only with a couple of spent pairs of legs. The hike was a real kicker, but the satisfaction upon reaching the top was of course worth every second. Another Alaskan mountain conquered! A nearly 360 degree view of the mountains, valleys, bowls and the ocean off in the distance was yet another breath-taking setting. The views may not have been the focal point of our day, but they delivered nonetheless.

Alyeska Ski Resort sits at the base of what is called a deep steep slope.

After 4 hikes and some mountain biking under my belt in my short time in Alaska, I could see exactly why even residents would never get sick of outdoor activities day in and day out. To make sure we completely gassed ourselves and earned what we planned to be a final day of total R&R tomorrow, we finished up with another rock climbing session. We accomplished our goal of over-exhaustion, and I managed to move up one level from V2 to V3!

Round 2 at the rock climbing wall!

As planned, our final day was devoted to rest, relaxation, and a little reality TV – had to take in an episode of “Alaskan Bush People” while we lazed on the couch for the first few hours of the day. The rest of the day didn’t get much more exciting than that, and mostly involved working ourselves up to actually getting off the couch, playing with Hank, and packing at the last-minute in my patented fashion. My sore muscles thanked me for asking very little of them all day. Ryan, Tara and I enjoyed a wonderfully fresh seafood dinner, an absolute must when in Alaska, at the Southside Bistro before they took me to the airport. A trip that was 3 years in the making had gone by, as expected, in a blink.

Dining at one of Ryan and Tara’s favorite seafood restaurants. Most vehicles are either SUV’s or trucks.

Finishing my trip with a little R&R, fun and games, with my two hostesses with the mostesses! Thanks Ryan and Tara for an amazing trip!

My trip to Alaska was, in many ways, exactly what I expected it to be: a week devoted to experiencing nature like I never had before, and to be blown away by the scenery I saw all along the way. But there was more to the week than just mountains and glaciers. The most interesting thing I took away from the trip was how unassuming it all was. There I was, closer to Russia’s east coast than I was to home or any of my other family in the lower 48, in a highly functioning, North American urban setting, and it just felt right – even surrounded by all the natural rugged beauty one associates with Alaska. And it should, because it is very apparent that Alaskans greatly appreciate the many unique qualities the state has to offer, and are willing to battle through the harsh winters and long nights to live in this amazing place. Coming back to experience those 23-hours of darkness has now moved up near the top of my bucket list!

Check out more fantastic pics from Alaska in the Global Gallery.

Alaska Adventures – part 1

In years past I have had ‘guest bloggers’ share an amazing trip they experienced. This was well received, so I’d like to continue that trend and add a post done by my son, Michael – sharing his personal insight and pictures while he explored the magnificent state of Alaska.

My first Alaskan Adventure, by Michael Malecha – July 1-8, 2017

I had hoped my descent into Anchorage, Alaska would yield a progression of stunning mountain views, but with a full cloud cover in effect, there wasn’t much to view from above. It must have been karma, as I was flying out of Canada (I presently live in Regina, Saskatchewan) and into the U.S. on Canada Day, July 1st. Ryan (my cousin) and Tara (Ryan’s finance’ and native Alaskan), my hosts for the week, shared their sympathies upon picking me up and admitted I had missed out on a great vantage point of this amazing state – but there was still hope for the flight out.

Ryan, Tara and Hank – my gracious hosts for my visit to Alaska.

Even so, I was fascinated by what scenery was still available to me. The clouds and mist gave the atmosphere an alluring and mysterious vibe, and that was fitting with the sudden awareness I had just touched down in one of the far corners of the map. However, Ryan and Tara were persistent in their claims that everything I was seeing and feeling would pale in comparison to the experience on a clear day; these claims I did not doubt to be true.

Naturally, as soon as we got back to their house and dropped off my bags, the first order of business was to hike to the top of a “popular” nearby trail, Flat Top Mountain –  which in Anchorage means you see other people while you are hiking. I had requested our itinerary for the week occur almost entirely outside or involve physical activity, and being the adventurous and active couple they are, Ryan and Tara were ready to hit the ground running. Or hiking, or mountain biking, or rock climbing. I was briefly introduced to Hank, their pitbull-bulldog-mix that I had been anxiously waiting far too long to meet, before the whole crew saddled up and made way for the trail.

On our way up to the top of Flat Top Mountain, where we spotted an opening of blue sky.

The view from atop Flat Top Mountain – Anchorage in the backdrop.

Just a few hours into my introduction to Alaska, I had conquered my first mountain, and as fortune would have it, the sun peeked out on the way up! The views I had been waiting for shattered my expectations, and the snow-capped mountains rising right up out of the ocean shore were a spectacular sight. I wasn’t worried about seeing a plethora of wildlife during the week, but we got off to a quick start anyway as we passed by a moose on the way down the mountain! I quickly felt the sense that such encounters would be even more common than I had experienced in other locales dominated by nature.

Snow-capped mountains serve as a backdrop to the ocean, as viewed from our trek up to Flat Top Mountain.

My first Alaskan moose sighting!

My first evening in Alaska was spent in the usual fashion when Ryan, Tara and I get together: hours of laughing, fun and games (drinking, board and otherwise). They say time flies when you are having fun, and although true, I would argue that time REALLY flies when the sun never goes down – a lesson I learned on my first day/night (not sure what to call it when it’s 11pm and you still don’t need the indoor lights on) in Alaska. Even though going into the trip I knew I was in for an inordinate amount of sunlight, that didn’t prepare me for how it felt when night just didn’t quite come.

Looking for an indoor activity as a result of the continued gloomy weather, Ryan and I spent the following afternoon at the Alaska Rock Gym. I can’t nearly keep up with Ryan, who draws oohs and aahs from onlookers on a regular basis. On the universal difficulty ranking system, he is capable of doing V9’s and V10’s or better, while for reference I wasn’t able to complete better than a V2, with a vastly longer reach and body than Ryan has; the increase in difficulty from one level to the next is not slight either. Rock climbing is a great full body workout that tests your physical strength, flexibility and mobility, as well as your mental strength – making it through a climb entails strategic planning beforehand and quick improvisation while on the wall. It is not any wonder it is a sport that Ryan has found a passion for! Planning ahead and critical thinking are regular tasks for Ryan as an engineer. On the way home we took a short drive down to the local mountain water fountain – and had to wait in line for a cool refreshing sip!

Ryan climbing up the rock wall in the Alaska Rock Gym in Anchorage.

Nothing like a cool refreshing sip from an actual mountain spring.

Waking up to another drizzly day, I spent Monday morning reading while Ryan went to the office to get a little work done. Although I had wanted to be outside and doing activities in the wilderness as much as possible, sitting on the deck with a book was wonderfully relaxing. To the same effect, I also spent some time thinking about exactly where I was on the globe and how remarkable it was to be so far removed from the usual aggregation of the human population – Alaska is the 3rd least populated state in the union. “Getting away” really had meaning here, and came with a slightly more satisfying feeling of detachment from the world one usually seeks while on vacation.

I went to visit Ryan at work in the afternoon, and met a few colleagues of his – including the very generous J.P. who allowed me to borrow his Fat Tire bike so I could ride some mountain trails with Ryan. The ride that followed initially looked like a little more than I had bargained for, but a few minutes in and I was feeling comfortable cruising through the trails at a moderate pace and riding off some small drops with confidence – although I left the actual jumps to Ryan! It was an exhilarating ride through the forest and hills nonetheless, and another great workout.

Riding Fat Tire bikes up the paved paths eventually into the heavily forested dirt trails.

Ryan, gingerly making his way by another big moose before hitting the steep trail full of jumps.

Ryan showing Mike how it’s done on the bumps and jumps of a mountain trail. Ryan used to ride professionally, but he eventually decided it was time for a more subdued career after multiple collar-bone breaks from over-the-handlebars crashes.

On our way back up the mountain toward our vehicle, we came across a Moose on the side of our path, casually grazing. He must have been something of a local celeb as Ryan had seen him around the trail before and others walking by commented the same. He clearly wasn’t bothered by riders and hikers strolling right next to him one after another. It was almost hard to be afraid of the huge animal seeing how docile he was around the traffic, but the rational part of my brain strongly reminded me otherwise. We cautiously strolled by and he paid us no more mind than the trees he was standing in.

People making their way past a moose that stands only feet off the trail.

Tuesday, which was the 4th of July, we spent a bit of time with Tara’s family at her aunt and uncle’s house, which took us about 45 minutes out of the city. We still wanted to get some activity in for the day, so we set out on another hike in that area. Driving into a mountain range toward the starting point of our hike, we were already consumed by the clouds before we began, and couldn’t see further than a lob wedge in any direction. The Gold Cord Lake Trail, which would take us past an abandoned mine site and a lake at the top, was our elected route. Not a long hike, but an enchanting one on this day. The fog resting on the surface of the lake made it feel like an empty and endless abyss; eerily still, yet so peaceful at the same time.

The remains of the abandoned mine site seemed straight out of a thriller movie. It was dead silent too, aside from the few remarks we whispered to each other, almost like we were afraid to disturb the silence. We may have disturbed it more than a little when Hank had eaten enough grass to throw it all back up, and we couldn’t contain our laughter. A few patches of snow still remained, so we decided to toss a couple of 4th of July snowballs (how often does one get to do that?) and make our way back down the trail. We were about 10 minutes from getting towed out of the parking lot on our way out, so thankfully we didn’t lollygag up by the lake or hike any further than we did! Might not have been the most relaxing place to spend the night.

Old abandoned mine on the Gold Cord Lake Trail on a very misty eerie morning.

Who’s up for a little snow ball fight on the 4th of July??

Now, the really odd-seeming part about the day was there was very little emphasis on 4th of July fireworks, which finally made sense when bedtime came for everyone who had work tomorrow and it still was as bright as mid-afternoon – not the most optimal backdrop for fireworks! Our day wasn’t any worse for it though, being away from the desk and with family was our only to-do list item.

Hank making sure you aren’t going anywhere. Check back soon for part 2 of Alaska Adventures.

Check back soon for part 2 of Alaska Adventures with an added photo gallery!

 

Oz is ‘oz-some’ but Kansas (and Missouri) ain’t bad either!

After an eye-popping, jaw-dropping, mind-blowing trek through Oz – Dorothy and Toto realize, “There’s no place like home!” After clicking her ruby red slippers (blinged out Mary Jane shoes), Dorothy, clutching Toto to her chest is transported back home to Kansas. A place that to most is a snoozy flat state full of wheat fields, tucked smack dab in the middle of the country and usually on the way to somewhere, not the destination. But as it turns out, Kansas has plenty to offer – especially in the burgeoning metropolitan area of Kansas City and its surrounding suburbs.

Kansas isn’t all wheat fields – this lush pond filled with lilypads is in Leawood, a southern suburb of KC.

My husband and I lived in Kansas some 30 years ago, and our daughter was born there almost 27 years ago. At the time we were told to keep our outings to the suburbs or to the famed Country Club Plaza just southwest of downtown area which at the time was not worth visiting and not particularly safe. Fast forward 30 years and downtown and its surrounding areas are the ‘in’ place. A resurgence of great restaurants (i.e. Michael Smith Restaurant, The Reiger, & Nara), boutique shops and event venues has lured many to make downtown KC their living quarters. From high rises with a modern cosmopolitan vibe to old warehouses transposed into industrial style living quarters, downtown is a great place to live if you don’t need/want the upkeep of a yard.

Old train yards and depots, like the Freight House, now house great restaurants – i.e. Lidia’s, Jack Stack BBQ, and Grunaur. Across the railroad tracks at Union Station, the currently running Mummy Exhibition and permanent Science City and Planetarium are must visits. The train station is an active station for Amtrak and an architectural beauty itself after being restored in the mid 1990’s. The station renovations included creating windows into the guts of the working train station – showing some of the engine rooms with their original equipment.

Beautiful renovated inside of Union Station in KC.

My beautiful nieces out front of the revitalized Union Station and the Planetarium.

A few months ago my husband and children went to see a museum just south of downtown Kansas City, on the Missouri side and raved about it. I did not rush to see the museum in my subsequent visits. It was always on my ‘To Visit’ list, but in my naivety I assumed it would be ‘nothing to write home about.’ I stand duly corrected – the Nelson-Atkins Museum rivals any museum I have visited in New York City, Paris, or London. Who woulda thunk?

Separated into three very distinct layouts, the museum has something to offer everyone. Upon arriving at the site, the main museum building sits atop a hill at the end of a long expanse of grass – a very grand entrance. Inside this main building is housed original works of art from Renoir to Monet, Caravaggio to Gaugin, Rembrandt to Van Gogh. Exhibits ranging from China to India, mummies to sculptures, architecture to decorative arts. The building itself is a neoclassical architecture work of art that serves as a perfect place to house the classics of the art world.

The lush green lawn leading up to the original building of the Nelson-Atkins Museum.

In 2007 the new addition Bloch (think H&R Bloch) Building was opened. This contemporary arm of the museum houses more modern works of art, like the present Jackson Pollock installation. It is rumored you can see chards of glass from wine glasses Pollock shattered on the canvas of some paintings during his days battling alcoholism. This new museum space is clean, open, and stretched out into a stadium style design that stair steps down the terrain of the landscape it sits on. Each section showcasing a different style of modern art: from Pollock to Warhol, contemporary diverse media to modern expressionism, and photographic exhibits rotated on a regular basis.

A large Jackson Pollock is a focal point to the newer modern arm of the museum.

Be sure to visit the museum during good weather – the outside sculpture exhibit is worth the walk around the beautiful grounds. Walk a maze that isn’t a maze, but a labyrinth – “…a place in which we lose ourselves to find ourselves…” says the director of Curatorial Affairs. Or dream of climbing the 56′ stainless steel leafless tree by Roxy Paine – who asks, “…the viewer to think about how nature and technology coexist.”

A 50′ x 50′ glass labyrinth at the Nelson-Atkins Museum in KC.

A stainless steel leafless tree sculpture by Roxy Paine.

Or stand tall against the 18′ high shuttlecocks that dot the museum grounds, imagining as the husband wife sculptor team that the museum is the badminton net and the expansive lawn is the playing field. It would take a being of epic proportions to bat these 5,500 pound shuttlecocks up and over the net (museum), but they are a sight to see.

A giant shuttlecock (one of three) sits on the front lawn of the Nelson-Adkins Museum.

A little southeast of the museum is the well-reknowned Country Club Plaza.  I have touched on this area in past posts, but it is always worth another mention. The best time of year to visit the Country Club Plaza is closer to the holidays, because the unique Spanish architecture of this whole shopping mecca is outlined in lights, so at night it becomes a work of art all its own. During the rest of the year, the quality of shopping and restaurants are worth the effort. Grab a Starbuck’s and take the beautiful walk up and down the 20 or so blocks of boutique shops and restaurants.

With fall right around the corner head south of the city into the Kansas countryside to Louisburg for a supply of apples, apple cider and pumpkins. This cider mill has been around since 1977 and grown into a local tradition to get your fall fix of smells and tastes, although the cider mill is open year round. Grab a large cup of hot cider and mosey down the road to the Overland Park Arboretum and take in all the vibrant fall colors of the trees, shrubs and flowers while walking the paths interwoven throughout the waterways and ponds on this beautiful track of land.

Louisburg Cider Mill is a great place to spend a fall afternoon.

All kinds of great buys inside the gift shop at the Louisburg Cider Mill: soups, ciders, candies, scented candles, fun kitchen wares.

Maybe Kansas/Missouri and the KC area aren’t necessarily bucket list destinations, but if you find yourself in the area you won’t grow bored with all this region has to offer.

Montana – parade, rodeo and hot springs

After our extended stay in Big Sky, Montana it was time to venture further east to find other hidden treasures in the state often labeled the ‘treasure state.’ Once a hot bed for mining of gold, silver and sapphires back in the mid-1800’s, this state’s other ‘treasures’ lay in the natural beauty of the landscape – from the towering Rocky Mountain ranges to the low-lying running waters of cool rivers to hot springs and all points in between. Montana is a true destination no matter what direction you travel in this massive state.

We headed northeast out of Big Sky to Bozeman, home of the Montana State University Bobcats. Population is around 40,000, but it has the feeling of a small town that never lost touch with its old west roots. The main street is filled with boutique shops, restaurants, galleries and a great one-off ice cream spot selling our favorite huckleberry ice cream out of the back of an old airstream rv.

Main Street in Bozeman gives this city of 40,000 a quaint small town feel with a western vibe.

Bozeman is also home to another great ski area, Bridger Bowl, where I first skied ‘out west’ back in 1970 – during some of the worst winter weather I have ever encountered (and that’s saying a lot having grown up in Minnesota). This was so long ago I still had wooden skis. On our first day out skiing I was coming down a run my brothers built a ski jump on. The snow was swirling so much I couldn’t see the jump until I was right on top of it. I miscued, tumbled off the side of the jump and came down cockeyed breaking my skis. My Dad marched me right into the ski shop at the base of the hill and bought me my first set of fiberglass skis. Talk about making lemonade out of lemons!

Once again I digress – back to the summer road trip through Montana. We continued our trek into the eastern prairies of lower Montana to the largest city of Billings (pop. 110,000), where my niece and her family live. This was 4th of July weekend, and two of the biggest traditions in this part of Montana this are the Red Lodge 4th of July Parade, followed by the Home of the Champions Rodeo.

We all got duded up in our cowboy hats and cowboy boots and headed to the little one-horse town of Red Lodge. Nothing cuter than watching a parade through the eyes of little ones. My great-niece was 2 and in her glory watching all the floats, beautiful horses, marching bands and of course running after the hordes of candy thrown to the streets. Red Lodge is also the site where Sundance Kid and the Wild Bunch botched a bank robbery back in 1897. Reminiscent of the botched bank robbery of Jesse James and the James Gang in 1876 in Northfield, Minnesota – the town where I grew up, and where they hold an annual 4-day Defeat of Jesse James Days to commemorate this foiled robbery attempt.

Getting all duded up in our cowboy hats and boots for the Red Lodge 4th of July parade.

Watching the Red Lodge 4th of July Parade through the eyes of little ones.

Foiled again – Sundance Kid and the Wild Bunch failed miserably in trying to rob a bank in Red Lodge, Montana back in 1897.

The rodeo was the real highlight of the day. After making our way up into the wooden stands that circled the rodeo arena we settled into watch the amazing acrobatics of man and beast: bull riding, saddle bronc riding, calf roping, and most entertaining was ‘mutton’ bustin’ where the youngsters try to ride a sheep. And of course and appearance by the infamous cowboy monkey ‘Whiplash‘ who rides his trusty steed Boogie, a Border Collie, and shows how to properly round-up a herd of sheep around the arena.

Bronco buck riding at the Home of Champions Rodeo over 4th of July weekend in Red Lodge, MT.

Bull riding at the Home of the Champions Rodeo during 4th of July weekend in Red Lodge, MT.

Whiplash, the Cowboy Monkey makes as appearance at the Red Lodge Rodeo.

The next day we ventured out for some much-needed R&R after a day spent in the hot, windy, dusty conditions of summertime in the west, to search out a couple of the highly acclaimed healing hot springs – of which there are apparently 61 in total throughout the state. On our way to the hot springs we consistently saw herds of upwards of 50 head of elk and/or antelope in several different spots. It had been a rainy spring and the prairies were lush green, which enticed these herds to come down out of the higher country to frolic and graze in these farmers crop lands and pastures.

One of multiple herds of Elk we came across on our drive from Billings to Red Lodge.

The re-mastered western town of Gardiner is where we gained access to one of the hot springs, but it is also the northern and only year round entrance to Yellowstone National Park. Our first stop was at Bear Creek Springs – an area left in its untouched natural state where the hot springs bubble up from underground and run into the parallel waters of the cold running Yellowstone River. The key is to find where these diverse waters intertwine creating the perfect bath water temp. If you veer too far right the waters will chill you to the bone and turn you blue. If you veer too far left you will get scalded by hotter than hot tub waters and turn red. They are called ‘hot springs’ for a reason. It was interesting to watch how many people had to test just how hot is hot. A lot of burned fingers and toes went home that day – but luckily none in our group.

The gateway to the north entrance of Yellowstone National Park in Gardiner, Montana.

Gardiner, Montana – a remastered old west town right down to the dirt roadway. Try and ignore the line-up of vehicles and imagine instead a line-up of horses.

Navigating the slippery river rocks that separate the cold running Yellowstone River from the hot springs bubbling from the underground.

A little further back up the road, working our way back towards Billings, there is a place that has harnessed the natural hot springs into an easily accessible pool setting – Chico Hot Springs. A great little resort and spa with a large pool that is easy for any age or ability to navigate. After a nice long soak in the healing waters of the natural hot springs we stayed on at the Chico Resort to eat at their highly acclaimed fine dining restaurant. Known for using local produce, we wined and dined on bison and trout and huckleberries and garden ingredients grown on the property.

The pool at Chico Hot Springs Spa and Resort filled with the hot waters that run from the nearby underwater springs.

For a state that is better known for its mountainous regions like Big Sky and Whitefish, and it’s stunning National Parks like Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks, there are plenty of hidden gems to search and add to your bucket list.

Check out more photos in the Montana – parade, rodeo & hot springs photo gallery in the Global Gallery link.