My Top 19 Travel Moments of 2019

View from Table Mountain, South Africa
View from Table Mountain, South Africa

This year has been one filled with incredible highs and some very low lows. Despite being out of commission for the first quarter of the year (Kyle recovering from surgery and me with a broken arm and head injury!), somehow we still managed to set foot on four continents this calendar year. (And I clocked more than 100 hours in the sky on 24 commercial flights!) We both celebrated our 30th birthdays this year and planned some epic trips to mark the occasions. Here are some of my favorite travel moments this year.

Ringing in the New Year in Sydney, Australia
This was serious bucket-list material: watching fireworks explode over Sydney Harbor, hours earlier than most of our friends and family would welcome 2019 on the other side of the world. It’s funny the optimism you have as the calendar changes from one year to the next. This was a tough year in our household, but we certainly managed to kick it off the right way!

SydNYE Party: Welcome 2019!

Flying to Hawaii on New Year’s Day
Even though we were leaving Oceania on January 1, the fun didn’t stop there. At the end of a month-long adventure, we spent five days in Hawaii, relaxing before it was time to go back to work. It was really interesting to experience the Sydney fireworks at midnight, go to sleep, fly to NZ then Hawaii, and arrive a mere 6 hours after Honolulu’s firework display. January 1 lasted 43 hours for us, consisting of plane rides, beach walks, and naps in the hotel lobby.

View of Diamond Head from our hotel balcony.

Discovering our favorite beach on Oʻahu
Kailua Beach is absolutely gorgeous! We spent lots of time walking in the waves, picnicking on the shore, and sleeping an afternoon away before our flight back to the mainland. We later found out that Kyle lived near here when his parents were stationed on Oʻahu.

Taking a helicopter ride over Oʻahu
I surprised Kyle with a helicopter flight over the island where he spent the first few years of his life. His dad worked on helicopters when he was in the Marines, so I thought it would be fitting to see this island from the air like he had so many times. Our private tour was filled with rainbows, scenes from Jurassic Park, and pineapples from the sky!

Celebrating my 30th birthday in my 30th country!!!
I broke my arm exactly 6 months prior to my 30th birthday. I was sure the trip I’d been dreaming about for years was not going to happen. I’d been “country collecting” to ensure I’d hit 30 countries at the perfect moment—and I knew exactly where I wanted to be: South Africa! (Fun fact: Africa was also continent #5 for us)! After months of uncertainty, we finally got the OK to book the trip. It was one of the best trips we’ve ever taken, and I’m so glad I got to welcome my next decade in such an incredible way. Special thanks to Lion World Travel for putting together such a spectacular experience!

Hangin’ with the African penguins at Boulders Beach
Confession: This was practically the sole reason I wanted to go to South Africa. I’d seen pictures of this penguin-filled beach for years, and I HAD to be part of it! I was so excited that our tour to the Cape of Good Hope and Boulders Beach fell on my birthday.

Tasting wine in Stellenbosch, South Africa
Living in wine country, I never have a great desire to go winery hopping on vacation, but visiting Cape Winelands in South Africa was a special experience. We even got to blend our own wine! (Finger Lakes wineries take note—this was SO cool!)   

Concocting the perfect blend. You then bottle it, label it, and take it home.

Seeing Cape Town from the sky
Sweepingly dramatic, the view from the Cape Town sky was one I had to see “in my eyeballs,” as Kyle and I often say. It was ridiculously awesome to see Table Mountain and the Cape of Good Hope from the air with our skillful lady pilot.

Scoring the absolute best guide for our safari
This was hands-down one of the biggest highlights of the year. I have been reading reviews and watching videos about Shamwari Private Game Reserve for years, and everyone raved about their fabulous safari experiences with their guide Headman. I knew it was highly unlikely that we’d be able to score a specific guide, but I figured there was no harm in asking. Even our agent at Lion World Travel said she didn’t think it would happen. Imagine our delight when we got to Bayethe Lodge and Headman was waiting to take us on our first game drive! Come to find out, he worked at Bayethe for many years, but was now at another property on the resort (of which there are seven), and they brought him over for the five days of our visit specifically to accommodate our request. And that was the start of an impeccable experience at Shamwari.

Spotting the Big 5—and then some!
With 19 years of guiding experience at Shamwari, Headman was the animal whisperer. When we looked for the only two cheetahs in the park, we found them. When we asked for baby elephants, poof—there they were! Kyle requested a caracal one evening, and it walked in front of our jeep not five minutes later. To say our first safari was amazing is a ridiculous understatement.

Finding lion cubs at sunset on our anniversary
By our last two game drives, we’d seen all the animals we could have hoped to see—and some multiple times. We decided to search for the elusive lion family. They’d disappeared several days before and none of the rangers had seen them. We spent three hours searching in the morning with no luck. It was our 7th wedding anniversary and we were really hoping the lion cubs would want to make an appearance that evening. After another hour or two of searching, a ranger radioed to everyone in the park that he had spotted them high on top of a hill. Headman hadn’t used that trail in five years, he said. Seeing little lion cubs play with their parents in the sunset light was such an amazing thing to witness.

Solo trip to SoCal
Each October seems to necessitate a trip somewhere in the U.S. I discovered that due to my injury earlier in the year, I hadn’t adequately planned all of my vacation time, and I had a few extra days to use. I decided to go visit my lovely friend Jes who had recently moved to Southern California. I had a few days to spend on my own before joining her for the weekend, so I rented a car and road tripped to locales around Los Angeles—and had a marvelous time soaking up the sun before embarking upon a New York State winter. I always love a good solo trip. Even though it can be scary to find yourself in a strange city completely dependent on yourself, you realize that you’re in charge of your own destiny. You can do whatever you want—go for a hike, read a book on a beach, sip an alcoholic beverage from a pineapple—your experience can be 100% what you want it to be.  

Falling in love with Malibu
I keep a mental list of all the places I want to live someday, and I quickly added this charming city to it. How I’d ever afford it is a different issue entirely, but a girl can dream.

Visiting Mount Palomar Observatory
I’ve given tours at The Corning Museum of Glass for 15 years, and I always love talking about the 200-inch disk, a telescope mirror that was cast in Corning in the 1930s—and was designed by my great-grandfather. The first casting failed and now resides at the Museum. The second made its way by train out to Mount Palomar Observatory in California where it was ground and polished into a mirror for 9 years, then was put into use and allowed people to see farther into space than ever before. Very cool to see the disk in operation on the opposite coast!

Spending a week in a cozy cabin in Finland
Kyle and I always talk about finding a cozy cabin where we can relax for a week and watch the snow fall. So that’s exactly what he picked for his 30th birthday trip—albeit about 10 months late. I mentioned this was a rough year. Kyle had surgery two days after he turned 30, so he was in no position to take the birthday trip he’d been dreaming about: a WWII road trip through France. So we tabled that idea and booked a stay at a place that had been on our radar for years: Kakslauttanen Arctic Resort in Lapland, Finland. It was time to see those elusive Northern Lights above the Arctic Circle!

A different kind of safari at the top of the world
But first, dog sledding! The husky farm next to Kakslauttanen is home to 200+ good, good doggos who were beyond thrilled to take a morning run through the snowy forests of Lapland. And they let us come along for the ride! Our team was filled with hilarious, long-tongued friends who got lots of pets and belly scratches for doing such a great job. Coincidentally, this was called a “husky safari” and I realized we’d completed safaris at the top and bottom of the world, in terms of longitude, in the same year!

Wandering through a snow globe
Perfectly pristine snow—I’ve never seen anything quite like it! The snow in Lapland is fluffy, and yet somehow dense, clinging to the landscape for months and months. It’s a dark time of year—no sunlight shines on this part of Finland for 6 weeks, but everything is enveloped in a deep shade of blue during “daylight.” We loved walking through this wonderland, filled with knee-deep snow and icicles on our eyelashes.

FINALLY SEEING THE NORTHERN LIGHTS!!!
It was high time for us to see this spectacular display that had eluded us on three previous trips (Alaska, Iceland, and Norway) over the past seven years. We decided that we needed to sit somewhere for a week and plan to do nothing but look at the sky. Surely then it would happen, right? Well, as our trip neared, the forecast showed completely cloudy skies over Finnish Lapland. (Did you know it’s cloudy in Lapland about 80% of the time in November? Yea, neither did I!) There was no sign of the lights for the first four nights, despite a perfectly clear sky one night. But the “aurora alarm” in our room had us bundled up and searching for the last three nights we were there. The first time, I asked the universe to show us just one little Northern Light. Ask, and you shall receive! One faint white beam cut across the sky—too subtle for my camera to capture. But the next night—one that called for complete cloud cover—our aurora alarm rang, and we ran outside to see the most spectacular, dazzling display. I think the word “phenomenal” was created just to have a way to describe the Northern Lights.

A new adventure for Christmas: Sydney
2019 was book-ended by this incredible city we fell in love with on the other side of the world. But not in the way you might be thinking. For some crazy reason still unknown to us, we got a third dog! We spent Christmas at home this year, welcoming Sydney Kailua to our furry family. She joins our other travel pups Sedona and Trevi.

Christmas morning 2019 with my loves.
From left to right: Sedona Page, Trevi Roosevelt, and Sydney Kailua (a sweet little blue merle sheltie).

Pacific Coastal Highways of California

Pacific Coastal Highway

This is part four in our Summer Road Trip series. We have already talked about road trippin’ Maine, Maui, and Florida.

Recommended Time: 7 to 10 days

Sand, sun, surf, and scenic drives: the stuff California dreams are made of. California’s coastal highways allow you to escape the bottle-necked freeways of the crowded cities, and live life in the slow lane. So, put the top down, feel the ocean breeze in your hair, and let the ribbons of highway take you on an adventure.

Although the Pacific Coast Highway only encompasses the stretch of road through Orange and Los Angeles counties, technicalities don’t seem to matter when you’re cruising down the California coast. Start your journey near the Oregon border with a visit to Redwood National & State Parks, home to the tallest trees on earth.

Photo: Wonderland

Continue down the coast and jut just a bit inland to the famed wine region of Napa and Sonoma counties. With more than 400 wineries to choose from, it’s an oenophile’s paradise, and a casual taster’s classroom. Scenic doesn’t even begin to describe the rolling hill and sundrenched vineyards found in the region. Each winery has its own flair and set of experiences—from a gondola ride to a hillside tasting room, to a tractor tour through the endless rows of grapes. Make time to take a bike ride to a few wineries, or even splurge on an early-morning hot air balloon ride over the vineyards.

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Next it’s on to San Francisco, driving into the city in the best way possible: over the iconic Golden Gate Bridge. Plan to spend a few days here, exploring the mystery of Alcatraz, the allure of Fisherman’s Wharf, and the serenity of Golden Gate Park. Be sure to take a hop-on, hop-off bus tour of the city by day for an easy way to see the highlights, and go back for more at night to see the city lights and hear stories about this beautiful city by the Bay. Make time for an unexpected highlight: the California Academy of Sciences, which is a natural history museum, rain forest, aquarium, and planetarium all in one. Soak up San Fran! It’s one of my favorite cities on earth!

Iconic Pier 39

Iconic Pier 39

Monterey comes next along the coast, with the popular Monterey Bay Aquarium, and the beautiful galleries in Carmel-by-the-Sea. Here begins the most scenic day of driving, as the two-lane highway winds lazily along the mountains of Big Sur, offering sprawling ocean views. There are plenty of scenic stops along the way from McWay Falls to Pfeiffer Beach. Get out, stretch your legs, and take in the stunning scenery—and share your pictures to Instagram to instantly get thousands of likes!

Photo: Howard Ignatius

Make a pit stop near San Simeon to explore Hearst Castle, a beautiful hilltop mansion that stands as a testament to wealth and ambition. William Randolph Hearst, a 20th-century newspaper tycoon, built the estate in 1919. It included a grandiose main building, three guesthouses, and 127 acres of gardens, pools, and fountains. Today, you can tour this National Historic Landmark.

Photo: Cocoabiscuit

For quintessential California beaches blended with fantastic red wine, stop in Santa Barbara next. Dubbed the American Riviera, the climate has been described as “Mediterranean.” Come for the weather and the views, but stay for the film and art festivals!

Photo: Damian Gadal

Next up is Malibu with its 27 miles of scenic beauty, and gated homes of celebrities living merely meters from the coastline. Take a look inside one of the most beautiful mansions—the Getty Villa, housing the very best artifacts of the ancient Greek and Roman worlds. This hilltop oasis takes you back in time, allowing you to not only see the art, but explore four gardens inspired by Roman models.

Photo: nicoleversetwo

End your trip down the California Pacific highways with visits to bustling Los Angeles and San Diego, if you so choose. From the big-screen fame and fortune of Hollywood to sparkling beaches of San Diego and its surrounding area, these two sprawling cities are about as eclectic as they come. Dedicate a few days of exploration to both.

Photo: peasap

What spots do you recommend on a Coastal California road trip?

Places

Redwood National & State Parks

Redwood National and State Parks, CA, United States

Napa & Sonoma Counties

Napa Valley, Napa County, CA, United States

San Francisco

San Francisco, CA, United States

Monterey

Monterey, CA, United States

Carmel-by-the-Sea

Carmel-by-the-Sea, CA, United States

San Simeon

San Simeon, CA, United States

Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara, CA, United States

Malibu

Malibu, CA, United States

Los Angeles

Los Angeles, CA, United States

San Diego

San Diego, CA, United States

Redwood National & State Parks

Redwood National and State Parks, CA, United States

Napa & Sonoma Counties

Napa Valley, Napa County, CA, United States

San Francisco

San Francisco, CA, United States

Monterey

Monterey, CA, United States

Carmel-by-the-Sea

Carmel-by-the-Sea, CA, United States

San Simeon

San Simeon, CA, United States

Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara, CA, United States

Malibu

Malibu, CA, United States

Los Angeles

Los Angeles, CA, United States

San Diego

San Diego, CA, United States

Photo Byte Friday: America

Feeling patriotic in San Francisco.
Feeling patriotic in San Francisco.

In honor of the Fourth of July, this week’s #FriFotos theme is America. Here are a few of my favorite patriotic symbols I’ve found in the Land of the Free.

The flag flies over Sedona's red rocks.

The flag flies over Sedona’s red rocks.

A totem eagle in Ketchikan, Alaska.

Kyle poses with an eagle totem in Ketchikan, Alaska.

Me and the Washington Monument in DC.

Me and the Washington Monument in DC.

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Lady Liberty

Lady Liberty

Freedom Tower

Freedom Tower

Photo Byte Friday: Entrances

Gateway to Napa Valley Wine Country.
Gateway to Napa Valley Wine Country.

This week’s FriFotos theme is “Entrances.” For me, that means passageways into something new and exciting, or catching a glimpse of beauty.

Outside a chalet in Lauterbrunnen, Switzerland.

The entrance to Chihuly Garden and Glass in Seattle, Washington.

A peek through the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, California.

A glimpse into a beautiful cave along the Na Pali Coast in Kauai, Hawaii.

Entrance into a garden at Middleton Place in Charleston, South Carolina.

A moment captured from the entrance to a vineyard in Finger Lakes Wine Country, New York.

And just for fun, I’m standing at the entrance to Google in Palo Alto, California!

The 14 Best Travel Moments of 2014

Rainbow over Costa Rica
Rainbow over Costa Rica

Each year, we like to look back on some of the highlights from our year of travels. Check out the post from 2013! We did a lot of traveling this year, going everywhere from Washington D.C. to New York City, Charleston to Orlando, Cancun to Costa Rica. We’ve decided to each pick our seven favorite travel experiences, and share them with you in no particular order.

Feel free to share your favorite travel experiences in the comments below!

Kim’s Top 7

Be Free, Little Turtles!

What fun it was to release several hundred baby sea turtles to the ocean one evening in Cancun. I got to hold three of them, feeling their flippers beat against my fingers as they squirmed to be set free. There is no flash photography allowed, as it could disorient them, but watching the tiny turtles slip and slide their way to the ocean in the dim light is something I won’t forget anytime soon.

Escape to Alcatraz

After a failed attempt to see Alcatraz last year due to the government shutdown, I was bound and determined to see the famed prison this year while I was at a conference in San Francisco. It was surreal to walk the hallways and see the cells that hardened criminals once inhabited. And what an eerie calmness passes over you when you go out to the courtyard area of the prison which overlooks the city, seemingly a world away.

Science, Stars, and Sharks… Oh, My!

Exploring the Nightlife of the California Academy of Sciences was a real highlight for me this year. What a fun place! With a rainforest, aquarium, natural history museum, and planetarium, this place has a little bit of everything. This adults-only event happens every Thursday night, and I just so happened to be there for Sharktober, which was awesome!

Christmastime in the City

As an Upstate New Yorker, I’ve long wanted to go to NYC to see the Rockefeller Christmas Tree and the beautiful seasonal window displays, and this year, we finally got to do it! The City is one that always hustles and bustles, but there’s something special—almost magical—about it on an evening in December, and I’m so glad I finally got to experience it, cup of hot cocoa in hand.

Home Away From Home

I’ve often heard that some people find their “home away from home” while on vacation, but it hadn’t happened to me before. That all changed in Costa Rica. The nine beautiful days we spent at the Beach Bungalows in Tamarindo were absolutely perfect—both in our surroundings and the company. Our hosts Trish and Claudio were the friendliest, most generous people we’ve had the pleasure to meet while traveling, and they made our time there an absolute joy. And, of course, we loved spending time with their beautiful dogs, Stella and Parker. What a paradise they have created in this seaside town!

Soaking in the Hot Springs

I have wanted to go to Costa Rica since high school, and one of the things at the top of my list was to soak in some natural hot springs. Tabacon Grand Spa Thermal Resort was certainly the place to do it, with the beautifully manicured grounds, and gloriously warm water cascading throughout the resort near Arenal Volcano. Whether you wanted to sit under a waterfall, or relax in a shallow pool, the options were limitless, and there seemed to be enough room for everyone to enjoy the water—something I had been worried about since it’s such a big attraction. It was a great way to spend an afternoon!

Christmas in Costa Rica

Kyle and I have been talking about spending Christmas at a beach for a long time, and this year, we finally did it! How amazing it was to spend the entire day splashing in the waves, and soaking in the sun. This year convinced me I’d trade a snowy Christmas for a sandy one any year!

Kyle’s Top 7

Visiting the Newseum in D.C.

Opened in 2008, the Newseum was created to educate people on the five freedoms provided by the First Amendment. Out front is a display of the front page of a newspaper from every state (and several countries) for that particular day. Aside from this very cool street-side display, the Newseum has some fantastic exhibits worth checking out. Highlights for me included sections of the Berlin Wall, a collection of historically significant headlines (e.g. outbreaks of war), a memorial to fallen journalists including a truck shot up in Sarajevo and a truly touching 9/11 memorial. Overall, I can’t think of a single exhibit that was lacking when compared to the rest – this is a must for anyone interested in some of the biggest moments in history for the last two centuries.

Whitewater Rafting in Costa Rica

I’ve been whitewater rafting a couple of times in the Pennsylvania Grand Canyon when I was a kid. The rapids are class II/III there, but are overall pretty easy to navigate. The opportunity to go again in Costa Rica was one of the things I was most excited for, and the Río Colorado just north of Liberia did not disappoint. We took a tour from our hotel in Tamarindo to reach the Cañón de la Vieja Adventure Lodge – about an hour drive. This tour featured several activities, which we’ll write about in the future, but the rafting was by far the best. There are a handful of calmer spots for you to catch your breath and overall, beginners will have no trouble tackling these rapids; however, there are a couple of thrilling drops to ratchet up the experience. You WILL get wet and it is awesome!

Wormsloe Historic Site

I wrote about this one recently, but let me sum it up for you. Wormsloe is a beautiful plantation built by one of the members of the party that founded Savannah, Georgia. Unlike other plantations in the south, this historic site doesn’t feature an extravagant mansion with large, well-groomed grounds. Instead, Wormsloe is more like a nice nature park centered on the long-abandoned ruins of one of the first homes in the area. It is known best for its gorgeous driveway, which is frequently photographed, but I really liked the tabby ruins themselves. This was my favorite part of Savannah.

Xcaret: The History of Mexico

Part of a group of attractions aimed at educating people on the history, traditions and ecology of Mexico, Xcaret is a park about an hour outside Cancun’s Hotel Zone that features a dinner show similar to Medieval Times – except that this one is infinitely better. The food is good, but the show is awesome, transporting you from ancient Maya to present day and highlighting much of the musical tradition of Mexico. Standout moments included a recreation of two ancient sports from the region: pok-ta-pok and pelota purépecha (similar to field hockey, but with FIRE). This was one of the handful of touristy things that we got to do in Cancun while we attended TBEX and it was a real joy to experience.

Visiting Charleston Plantations

More plantations… really? How many plantations can one person enjoy in a year? Yes – more plantations, but only because each plantation has its own feel. Magnolia Plantation & Gardens features the traditional southern plantation home surrounded by gardens that have been allowed to grow in a more uncontrolled fashion. This means it has a much more natural look and ensures you’ll see more wildlife – we saw alligators, turtles and a bald eagle here. Middleton Place on the other hand is beautiful in that aristocratic sense – its gardens are carefully manicured and beautifully kept. Overall, both are absolutely worth the visit.

The Rides in Disney

We had a rough time in Florida this year, but problems aside – Disney has world-class rides. I’m a big fan of Expedition Everest – I love everything about it from the set dressing to the rapid shifts in direction. Kim on the other hand – she’s all about Space Mountain.

Visiting Central Park for the first time

Despite having been to New York City a number of times, somehow neither of us had ever managed to make it over to Central Park. It’s kind of a weird oversight, I know. We visited in late spring and lucked out as the weather was perfect. As we walked around, Kim pointed out that this was the first time she’d ever really liked NYC. Until that moment, both of us had always seen NYC as a dirty, busy, necessary evil that we had to visit for work or to see a Broadway show. It took us walking around the oasis that is Central Park to understand that NYC doesn’t have to be about fighting your way through crowds and running all the time. Instead, you can enjoy lunch by the boat pond, watching as people of all ages sail their miniature boats. You can stroll about, just taking in the well-kept park as people walk their dogs or play pick-up games around you. Finish out your trip by riding the carousel at least once – it certainly isn’t the most amazing carousel of all time, but it just feels like something you have to do. Overall, walking through Central Park was a standout New York moment for both of us.

Cheers to many more adventures in 2015!

Escape TO Alcatraz… at long last!

It's time!
It's time!

Everyone who’s visited San Francisco knows that a visit to Alcatraz Island is a must-do. When I found out I would be visiting the city for a conference last year, Kyle decided he wanted to fly out after I finished with work, mainly so he could see the famed prison. We made all the arrangements, and planned lots of activities for an extended weekend in San Fran. Then the government shut down.

It was October 2013, and there had been a lot of talk in the news about the 80,000 government workers who were furloughed, and some 1.3 million more who had to report to work without knowing when they would next be paid. My little Upstate New York town had been relatively unscathed by the happenings in Washington, but spending a week in San Francisco opened my eyes to the effect the shutdown had on other parts of the country—more specifically, the tourism industry.

Probably very few visitors to the city realize how many attractions are on National Park land, all of which across the country was closed during the government shutdown—including Alcatraz. Even the Cliff House, a fantastic restaurant where we dined one night, was closed for more than a week and had to petition the government for permission to re-open, since it sits on Golden Gate National Park land.

There was also an unfortunate circumstance where I wanted to get a picture of the Golden Gate Bridge from a stop along the Big Bus route, but it was closed due to the shutdown. Someone told us we could walk down to the same spot, which we ended up doing, but then had to hike 5 miles uphill to Sausalito. Ugh. It was much easier to get to the same vantage point during my recent visit!

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So, at long last, I was able to visit the hauntingly beautiful prison set in solitude, 1.5 miles out in the frigid, supposedly shark-infested waters of San Francisco Bay. An added bonus was that it was Fleet Week in San Francisco, and I got to watch the Blue Angels dart in perfect synchronization back and forth across the sky as the ferry boat glided closer to the island. I kept sending pictures to Kyle who was some 2,000 miles away this year – already jealous he wasn’t getting to see Alcatraz, but now even more upset he was missing the air show.

Fleet Week: Watching the Blue Angels

Fleet Week: Watching the Blue Angels

First, I walked the seasonal Agave Trail to get a beautiful view of San Francisco, and to watch the planes before the fog rolled in. Then I made my way to the prison, set high on a hill. I started the self-guided audio tour, and found myself being thankful that the night tour that I had wanted to go on was sold out. That might have been a bit much for me to handle on my own! The tour is narrated by former correctional officers from Alcatraz—and prisoners who once served time on the rock. A unique, but eerie perspective, knowing these hardened criminals were one locked away in the cells you’re peering into.

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There were about 260 prisoners on Alcatraz at any given time, and 1,576 inmate numbers were issued – but some people served multiple sentences. You’d think if you’d spent time in the harshest prison in America, you would have learned your lesson the first time! The island functioned as a penitentiary for 29 years (1934-1963), and during that time there were 14 escape attempts. Throughout the tour, you’ll hear about the most famous attempt in June 1962, the subject of the movie Escape from Alcatraz. Over the course of a year, three men had assembled a raft out of raincoats and cement, dug holes in their cell walls with spoons, and fashioned dummy heads to leave in their beds. They scurried up the ventilation system onto the roof, managed to get over the prison fence, inflated the raft on the shore of the island, and disappeared into the night. Parts of the raft were found, but the men were neither seen nor heard from again.

The recorded tour takes about 45 minutes, and leads you through various parts of the jail, including the cafeteria, library, and administration wing. You’ll see lots of cells and even get to go in a few. Seeing some of the personal belongings of the inmates was interesting—there was one guy who taught people to paint and another, to crochet.

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D-Block was where the worst criminals—the likes of Al Capone—were “segregated.” The 42 cells, ironically are slightly bigger than the rest, and positioned directly across from a high window wall, with views of the San Francisco skyline. If you were lucky enough to get out of your cell to catch a glimpse, it was a harsh reminder of the world you weren’t allowed to be a part of—existing a mere 1.5 miles away from your world of steel bars and concrete.

A world away.

A world away.

It was an interesting experience, visiting this former jail by myself. The air was heavy; laden with the sadness and tragedy that took place here. It’s one of those places that makes you think, “If only walls could talk.” Imagine the stories they would have to tell!

Enjoying the “Nightlife” of the California Academy of Sciences

California Academy of Sciences at Night
California Academy of Sciences at Night

I had barely been in San Francisco 15 minutes before I was given my first recommendation for a place I had to visit. I like to ask locals about their favorite off-the-beaten-path things to do. I met a girl from San Francisco on the BART (public transportation) leaving the airport, and she told me I absolutely had to visit the California Academy of Sciences, preferably on a Thursday night if I could swing it.

I had actually never heard of this place before—it’s not one of the typical tourist traps—but once she told me a bit about it, I was intrigued. I love a good museum—I should; I work at one!—but this place is no ordinary museum. This place has a natural history museum complete with Tyrannosaurus Rex, an aquarium where you can find much more than Nemo, a four-story indoor rainforest, and the largest all-digital planetarium in the world. The museum’s tagline is, “Let the Wonder Begin.” And wow, do they have that right! This place is incredible.

Located in Golden Gate Park, The California Academy of Sciences sees a lot of people in a day. It’s a stop on the Big Bus hop-on, hop-off tour I did. Typically, the museum closes at 5 p.m., but every Thursday night, it takes on a whole new life—“Nightlife” to be exact.

I was quite familiar with the idea of an after-hours, 21+ party-style experience at a museum. The Corning Museum of Glass where I work does this during the off season with what we call 2300°. One Thursday a month (six times a year), we throw a big themed shindig, complete with live music, Finger Lakes wine and beer, and, of course, a few special glassblowing demos. So, needless to say, I was expecting great things from California Academy of Sciences’ Nightlife—especially when I heard the theme was “Sharktober!”

I have a love/hate relationship with the predators of the sea. I basically don’t go in the ocean for fear of losing a limb, but I can’t get enough of Shark Week! The evening’s schedule of events included a special planetarium show called “Lost Sharks,” where ocean experts and scientists took control of the “sky” to zoom in on areas of the world where they are out researching brand new shark species, many of which were featured on this year’s Alien Shark: Return to the Abyss” during Shark Week. Dr. David Ebert with the Pacific Shark Research Center told us all about his work in remote locations across the globe, and how he’s found so many new species of sharks, he’s started naming them for people. He even named a shark after his niece as a graduation gift! I found it ironic to be sitting in a planetarium talking about naming sharks for people, the same way you can name a star.

The Ocean Research Foundation conducted a lively game of shark trivia in the aquarium, shark-themed balloons were set up in the outdoor biergarten, and slightly sloshed adults were fashioning shark fin headdresses out of foam and plastic beads. And yes, I have photographic evidence to prove it!

There were tons of shark-themed drinks available (at an extra cost, of course), but considering admission is only $12 for Nightlife instead of the typical $34.95, I didn’t feel badly paying an extra $12 for a pretty drink.

In another area of the museum, a shark attack survivor gave a presentation about his ordeal. It always amazes me to hear their stories—especially when they say they aren’t hesitant to jump back in the ocean, and many of them are actively involved in organizations that work to protect sharks.

When I wasn’t having shark-themed fun, I took some time to explore the main exhibits of the museum. The four-story rainforest was extremely impressive—this soaring glass cylinder in the middle of the building. Each level featured trees and plants from different tropical locations, like Costa Rica, which I paid particular attention to because of our upcoming Christmas trip! Butterflies floated about the entire exhibit. There was something very calming about walking through it.

The aquarium had exhibits of sea life from all over the planet, but there was an exceptional exhibit on the creatures of the California Coast.

I also went back to the planetarium to catch a regular show that is run on any given day, called Dark Universe, which detailed two cosmic mysteries: dark matter and dark energy. I enjoyed it, since I’ve always been fascinated with planetariums, but there was something about being part of the first shark-themed experience that seemed much cooler. That was a live, special show. This was a narrated program, that while excellent, seemed much less intimate. I guess that’s a perk of attending a Nightlife event. I highly recommend seeing whatever the custom show for that week is—but the trick to seeing planetarium shows on these nights is to get there early and wait in line for passes. It’s a first-come, first-served basis, and there is no additional cost for the programs.

I also got to check out the roof, which is an exhibit in itself. They call it the “Living Roof,” this open-air observation terrace that gives you a bird’s eye view of the canopy of plants growing above the incredible displays below, which are lighted by skylights in the building’s domes that open and close throughout the day. This is one green building, both in color and the environmental sense. It really was very cool!

Even if you can’t make a Thursday evening event, make sure to add a stop at the California Academy of Sciences on your next visit to San Francisco. I can see how it would be a perfect way for families to spend the afternoon, and I know it would make a good date for couples—Kyle was pretty jealous of the pictures I kept sending him!

All that fun from a recommendation from someone I met on public transportation. Engage with locals if you get the chance. Ask them what they like to do. This museum is a relatively large attraction in San Francisco, but I probably wouldn’t have found out about it wandering around Fisherman’s Wharf. I can’t thank that girl enough, first, for telling me when to get off the train, and for pointing me in the direction of a true gem in a great city.

Places

California Academy of Sciences

California Academy of Sciences, Music Concourse Drive, San Francisco, CA, United States
415-379-8000

California Academy of Sciences

California Academy of Sciences, Music Concourse Drive, San Francisco, CA, United States
415-379-8000
https://www.calacademy.org/

Best Ways to Be a Tourist in San Francisco

Iconic Pier 39
Iconic Pier 39

Last week, I traveled to San Francisco to attend the eTourism Summit. It was my second time in this city, having visited last year for the same conference, and I was determined to soak up as much as I possibly could in my day and a half of free time, spread throughout the week. It didn’t take long for me to get my bearings again and start to really appreciate the beauty and uniqueness of this captivating city by the bay. Often when I have limited time, I go with what I know works: the most touristy things the town has to offer. Most are clichéd for sure, but clichés do exist for a reason. I hadn’t been in the city more than half an hour before beelining for Fisherman’s Wharf, arguably the most touristy part of town.

I basically took this afternoon to revisit all the things I loved from my San Francisco visit with Kyle last year. My first stop was lunch at Boudin Bakery, the oldest bakery in the city, famous for its sourdough bread bowls filled with clam chowder. I’ll admit it—I ate there twice during my stay! Amazing. A restaurant with ties to the city going back to 1849 still remains one of the most popular eateries in Fisherman’s Wharf.

Pier 39 is an absolute must-see for any San Francisco first-timer… or second-timer, or 34th timer. This is a giant area of shops and restaurants, but I go for the sea lions! Shortly after the earthquake of 1989 rocked San Francisco, sea lions began appearing on K-Dock of Pier 39. Why? No one really knows. They tried to get rid of these large, smelly, noisy creatures by first blaring loud horns in the middle of the night, hoping to scare them away. When that didn’t work, they got fire trucks to come spray them with hoses. If anything, it made those pesky water-loving creatures even more fond of “hauling out” on the pier. Today they’re a staple of the Pier 39 experience.

After saying “hello” to my sea lion pals, I boarded a hop-on, hop-off Big Bus tour for some sightseeing around San Francisco. I used this company last year, as they make it incredibly easy to get around the city, while giving you a bit of history. I opted to buy the same ticket I did last year: the $50 “Dynamite 48-Hour Ticket” which includes a trip to Sausalito (a $25 ticket by itself), a Panoramic Night Tour ($30 value), a 1-hour bike rental (with one hour purchase) and three walking tours. I knew there was no way I’d get to do it all, but I wanted to visit Sausalito, which was my favorite bit of the city last year.

While all buses have an audio tour, I’d suggest waiting for a live tour guide. I actually passed up the first bus so I could wait for the live tour; I firmly believe the best way to discover a city is to hear about it from a local. I always make it a point to ask them what their favorite off-the-beaten-path activity and/or restaurant is, and I’ve seen some really cool places because of it.

The first leg of the tour takes you through North Beach, San Fran’s Italian district, followed by a jaunt through the Financial District, Union Square, and the City Hall area. You then drive through Alamo Square, which has an optional stop for the Painted Ladies, followed by the Haight-Ashbury (aka. hippie district), before heading to Golden Gate Park and finally journeying across the Golden Gate Bridge, which is shrouded in fog much of the time. Check out a route map here.

Now, something you have to understand is the fact that October is basically summer in San Francisco. I’ve been there in October both times, and had fairly decent, albeit chilly, weather. This year, the bridge was covered in fog a lot of the time, but it did still manage to break through occasionally. Some times during the year, tourists could be in the city for weeks and never see the famed bridge. Mark Twain once (supposedly) said, “The coldest winter I ever saw was the summer I spent in San Francisco.” Someone once told me everyone who’s been to San Francisco has a San Francisco hoodie or jacket, and it’s probably true! I wore my San Francisco jacket with pride this year, after foolishly only packing summer clothes for my California trip last year.

Crossing the bridge on top of an open-air, double-decker bus is an experience. A cold one. It was so foggy we couldn’t see the bridge when we were on it. But miraculously, once we were on the other side, the entire bridge came into view. It was beautiful as ever.

Fun fact: Did you know the bridge was originally supposed to be painted yellow and black? It would have looked like a giant bumblebee! The color it is now was the primer that was put on before the bridge was to be painted. The architect saw how striking the color looked, and said that was how it needed to stay. International Orange has now been the iconic color for more than 75 years.

Once at Golden Gate Bridge North, a viewing point that allows you to see the bridge head-on, those going to Sausalito transfer over to a trolley that winds you down the hill to the picturesque little seaside town, where many of the city’s wealthiest residents reside. It’s filled with art galleries, restaurants, gourmet ice cream shops, and phenomenal views of San Francisco. Well worth a visit of you have a couple of extra hours.

The rest of the Big Bus tour takes you by the Palace of Fine Arts, Lombard Street (called the “Crookedest Street in the World,” but ironically not even the crookedest in the city!), and Chinatown before bringing you back to Fisherman’s Wharf.

I didn’t think I’d be able to take the night tour included in my ticket price, but I did manage to go the next night with a friend who was also attending the conference. There’s something magical about experiencing a big city at night. The route is slightly different, and it is no longer a hop-on, hop-off tour, but it does provide you with several photo ops, including a Golden Gate vista, and a trip to Treasure Island across the Bay Bridge for some great shots of the city lights. My favorite bit of this tour is the Financial District, a part of the city that comes alive with activity during the day as thousands of commuters pack in for work, but sleeps at night, leaving only the brilliant lights shining from tall, stunning architectural marvels. Pro tip for this nighttime tour: bring a jacket. And gloves, and a hat, and a scarf. Basically dress for a blizzard and you should be fine.

Then warm up with a cup of cocoa in Ghiradelli Square.

While I didn’t do it this year, one of the best touristy San Francisco activities is to ride the cable car! It’s an absolute must. They’ve been around since the 1870s, and are one of two U.S. National Landmarks that move (the other being streetcars in New Orleans). Pretty cool, huh? I suggest the Powell-Mason line from the Union Square area to Fisherman’s Wharf. It’s $5 one-way, and you’ll want to make it your first activity of the day since the lines get extremely long. Or hop right on one block up, but you’ll miss seeing the operators manually turn the cable car.

In coming posts, I’ll talk about my highly-anticipated visit to Alcatraz, a movie tour of San Francisco, and a really awesome nighttime visit to the California Academy of Sciences, one of my new favorite museums! Plus, I’ll give you a behind-the-scenes look at the Google Headquarters, which I was lucky enough to visit for a second time during my conference this year.

Places

Boudin Bakery

160 Jefferson St, San Francisco, CA 94133, United States
(415) 928-1849

Pier 39

PIER 39, San Francisco, CA, United States

Big Bus Tours San Francisco

99 Jefferson St, San Francisco, CA 94133, United States

Sausalito

Sausalito, CA, United States

Ghiradelli Square

Ghirardelli Square, San Francisco, CA, United States

Cable Car

Powell St. BART Station, Market Street, San Francisco, CA, United States

Boudin Bakery

160 Jefferson St, San Francisco, CA 94133, United States
(415) 928-1849
https://www.boudinbakery.com/

Pier 39

PIER 39, San Francisco, CA, United States
http://www.pier39.com/

Big Bus Tours San Francisco

99 Jefferson St, San Francisco, CA 94133, United States
http://eng.bigbustours.com/sanfrancisco/home.html

Ghiradelli Square

Ghirardelli Square, San Francisco, CA, United States
http://www.ghirardellisq.com/

Cable Car

Powell St. BART Station, Market Street, San Francisco, CA, United States
http://www.tripadvisor.com/Guide-g60713-i331-San_Francisco_California.html

Photo Bytes: Scenic San Francisco

The Golden Gate Bridge
The Golden Gate Bridge

Everyone has seen the iconic Golden Gate Bridge. Here are some of my favorite shots from my time exploring this popular city.

I visited San Francisco during the government shutdown in the fall of 2013. As a result, many of the popular attractions in San Francisco were closed, including Alcatraz. Here it sat, empty. Silent. Foreboding.

The ever-popular Pier 39.

One of my very favorite spots in the city: Ghirardelli Square.

The Painted Ladies.

The island of Saulsalito was one of my very favorite places in San Francisco.

I dined at the Cliff House Restaurant, located on the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. The landmark restaurant, built in 1863, was closed for a few weeks, due to the government shutdown, and had to petition the President to reopen.

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