Hiking · National Parks in US · Travel · Travel with tots · Vacations

Glimpses of Death Valley National Park

We have been trying to cross off one item that has been on our bucket list for quite sometime now – visit all national parks in California. So this past Spring break, we visited Death Valley National Park. With Death Valley crossed off the list, we are only one park short of visiting all national parks in the state. Death Valley NP is a very large park to cover in one trip, especially if you want to explore it in-depth and traveling with toddlers comes with its own perks, but we loved the landscape that the park has to offer. I have to admit, it was terribly hot (we went mid-April) and it is better to travel there when the temperatures are slightly lower. Nevertheless, here are glimpses from our Death Valley getaway with a list of places that are kid-friendly and easy to incorporate if you just have a couple of days to spend in the park. 

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Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes – My son loves playing in the sand, so our first stop was at Mesquite sand dunes. He carried his excavator truck and was quite excited just by the sheer amount of sand this place had! The place is huge so you can go out far or just stop close to the parking lot. We went in the morning, but considering the temperatures, it would be an awesome stop at night too considering the rave reviews for star-gazing.

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Yes, we licked the salt – Badwater Basin, Death Valley National Park

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Badwater Basin, don’t forget to lick the salt!!! – This stop is so worth covering on your first trip to the Badlands. An easy drive to the lowest point in North America (282 ft below sea level, to be precise), Badwater basin is miles and miles of white salt flats. It’s a vast ground for the kids to run around. We went there in the evening, just before sunset and the temperature was pleasant. The little research that we had done before the trip included suggestions from travelers to lick the salt at the basin and so we did :).

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On Mosaic Canyon trail

Mosaic Canyon – After spending time at the sand dunes, we headed to Mosaic Canyon since the canyons are only a couple of miles from the sand dunes. The rocks at Mosaic Canyon reminded us of Arches National Park, minus the arches of course, but the landscape does have similarities. We barely hiked the Mosaic trail, but we love to hike, and exposing our toddler to these places, even if it is for a short distance gives us hope for him to grow into liking and enjoying it as much as we do 🙂 The kiddos also picked up rocks from the trails to bring home. 

 

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Artists Drive – If you are a regular reader of my blog, it will come as no surprise that colors are an important element of me, so any trip we take, it is mandatory for us to stop all things “artistic”! That said, Artists Drive is a loop with wonderful landscape colors and can be done when the kids are sleeping, since you can just drive around in the car.

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Artist’s Drive, Death Valley National Park

Zabriskie Point – Our goal was to capture sunrise at Zabriskie considering it is very close to Furnace Creek. We made it just after sunrise, and after some persuasion managed to tag my son along the slopes for some early morning gorgeousness for the eyes!

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Zabriskie Point, Death Valley National Park
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Zabriskie Point, Death Valley National Park

Golden Canyon – Hot is the first word that comes to my mind when I think about Golden Canyon, but the hike to Golden Canyon is quite popular because the original Star Wars was filmed here. 

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Dante’s View – Most folks start their trip with a stop at Dante’s. We decided to end our’s with a stop there. Dante’s offers a grand view of the Badwater Basin, it’s the highest elevation within the park and views are quite stunning. 

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Dante’s View, Death Valley National Park

At the end of our Death Valley trip, I had about 20 lbs. of rocks that my son had gathered from the trip to bring back home for our rock garden 🙂 Death Valley’s spectacular landscape was definitely worth the trip even if it was very hot, we’ll certainly go back, but pick a better (read cooler) month for our next visit. 

Fun fact: If you are a Star Wars fanatic, this should make a great read and make you want to visit Death Valley 🙂

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Travel · Travel with tots

Whale Watching in the Monterey Bay

Whale watching is a typical bullet point in many travel bucket lists that you might come across. It never made it to my bucket list because amongst many of my pet peeves, watching people throw up, that too on a boat in the middle of an ocean (TMI, I know!!)  ranks very high on the list. I suffer from terrible motion sickness, so going on a boat in choppy waters in search of one of the largest mammals was not something I would have ever signed up for.

 

 

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I must have been out of mind when I signed up for 3 to 4 hours of sea sickness and bought tickets to go whale watching with my family. I have to be honest, when we were driving to the marina in Santa Cruz, I was not looking forward to the day! We chose Stagnaro Charters based on reviews of sightings in the past week and Yelp recommendations. We checked in an hour prior to departure and reported to the marina where the crew went over a few things, including signs of what to look for when spotting whales and what other sea life we were going to spot. I was not paying a lot of attention, only hoping for the sea sickness medicine I gulped down prior to boarding the boat to work.

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Soon we were on our way in to the Monterey Bay to spot a few humpbacks. About an hour into the trip, we heard our captain point us to whale spouts and we headed closer. The whales got pretty close to the boat.

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We were fortunate enough to watch them do side flips. The photographs are only 10% of what our eyes saw. It was a great family outing. My 3.5 year was very excited to spot the abundant jelly fishes. And quite happy to meet the humpback whale from his book “Tale of a Snail and the Whale” which is a story of a snail traveling across the ocean on the tail of a humpback whale. He throughly enjoyed and so did my mom & dad. I am happy that my dad was able to cross off an item on his bucket list 🙂

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A special shout out to the amazing crew of Stagnaro Charters, they genuinely try and make it an experience for everyone on the boat.

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After spending an hour or so around those whales, the boat headed closer to the beach where we were able to chase 3 whales almost parallel to our boat!Apart from spotting 10-15 humpbacks, we also spotted the usual – sea lions, sea otters, jelly fish, plenty of birds including an albatross. After the almost 4 hour round trip, we were back to the marina. Not a single person on the boat had thrown up!!! I was holding up relatively well too 🙂

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Not only was I able to cross off a non-bucket list travel adventure but we are pretty motivated to go back to Monterey Bay in the Spring to spot some Orcas! Fortunately, our whale watching experience did not equate to 3 hours of sea sickness. While I was able to get over the pet peeve of people throwing up on a boat, I now have a “new” pet peeve – The smell of the breath of a whale and I’ll leave it just at that!

 

Hiking · Restaurants · Travel · Travel with tots · Vacations

Portland Tales: Rose city, Bridgetown, Stumptown and much more!

We’ve been in California for more than a decade now and I don’t know what took us so long to make a trip to Portland. We visited the Rose city this September and throughly enjoyed our stay there. If you missed it, we made a day trip to Columbia River Gorge and Mt. Hood but spent the rest of our trip in the heart of Portland downtown. Here are 10 highlights from our trip – FROM a first time visitor, FOR a first time visitor!!!

1. Portland Saturday market – This was our first stop, even before we checked in to the hotel. Open on the weekend (Saturday and Sunday in spite of the name), Portland Saturday Market is the place to explore for art and food lovers. Not to mention, the fountains and the bridge over the river make it a kid friendly place. What not to miss: Trying out Elephant Ears 🙂

2. Willamette Jet boat Excursions – We opted for the 2 hour Scenic Tour which covered the history of Portland’s magnificent bridges, up close view of the Willamette Falls and a lot of splashing and jet boat cruising🙂. We were skeptical on how our tot was going to do on the tour – he was excited to sit in the boat, but a little afraid when it went fast, but after the first 2 water swirls, he was screaming “Go faster”. He had a blast and we loved the experience.

3. Powell’s Books – For a family that is fond of reading, this was a gem of a find. Especially on a rainy day or later in the evening post dinner when a lot of other places have closed. The place is open until 11 pm so you can head there after an early dinner. Our munchkin refused to get out of the “libary”. No, not a typo – that’s what he calls them.

4. Coffee, anyone? – For a city that loves its coffee, it wouldn’t be fair to list everything that’s out there, but here are a few prominent stops (Stumptown Coffee Roasters, Heart Coffee Roasters, Barista) that we made to see what puts this town at the top for coffee lovers.

5. Doughnuts to go with that coffee! – We almost decided to skip our much awaited stop at Voodo Doughnuts after evaluating the time we would have to stand in those looooooonnnggg lines. But come Tuesday afternoon – a rainy working weekday we were passing by the shop and decided to stop since it seemed a reasonable 30 minute wait. Although I do wish, we would have made a stop at BlueStar Donuts. I guess, there’s always a next time 🙂

6. A stop at a brewery –  Portland’s breweries are famous for their beers and don’t rule out a stop at a brewery just because you have kids. Portland has a few family friendly breweries. We visited Laurelwood Brewing and M had a good time.

7. Food scene in Portland – While we thoroughly enjoyed most of our meals there, picks for family friendly restaurants in Portland are: Slappy cakes – Make your own pancakes! It cannot get better for a kid who likes his pancakes. Yes, we waited an hour (made a quick stop at a nearby park) for our turn and my munchkin loved it. Yakuza – This was quite a find,  the place had great ambiance and we loved it because we haven’t been to a lot of family friendly Japanese restaurants that cater to kids as well as Yakuza does. Although, I am putting Mothers Bistro on here for readers, it was an ordinary experience for us!

8. International Rose Garden – Portland is home to the oldest continuously operated public rose test garden in the United States. While, this might not attract every tourist, it’s a great family friendly stop. My son loved running around and smelling the flowers, not to mention it was a perfect place to play peek-a-boo🙂

9. Pittock Mansion – This was not on our list, but turned out that the Portland’s Children’s Museum is closed on a Tuesday and we decided to add this to our list. The place offers good 360 degree views of Portland for photographers to capture. Being an art lover, I personally enjoyed viewing Rhoda’s artwork that’s displayed at the museum.

10. Pioneer Courthouse Square, shopping and more – We also got a chance to explore Pioneer Place and areas around on our last day in Portland. Coming from California, tax-free shopping is an added benefit while visiting PDX🙂

What we missed on our list – Meal at Screendoor (we waited quite a while after deciding to head out somewhere else), Spella Cafe, Portland Children’s Museum (note to families with kids: it’s closed on a Tuesday – so plan accordingly),  more time at Powell’s and many more coffee and food stops.

Travel Portland’s website has a plethora of information for a visitors and we were able to cover a lot of things in little time because of some great suggestions from a colleague who’s a Portland local. Overall, it was a wonderful trip and we had a blast. I hope we go back again soon🙂

Beaches · Hiking · Travel · Travel with tots · Vacations

Columbia River Gorge and Mt. Hood – Day trip from Portland

We spent a few days in gorgeous Portland this September and while there’s plenty to do in Portland for first timer visitors, we wanted to drive to the Gorge and explore surrounding areas. If you’ve been following the blog, you’ll know how excited my munchkin gets on spotting waterfalls, and there are plenty of those along the historic Columbia River scenic byway so he was pretty excited about heading out even though we woke him up early. We told him that after the waterfall hike, we’ll try and head to the Hood River beach for a lunch picnic and he was all excited for the drive and the long day ahead of us. We left from downtown Portland early in the morning – a quick spot to pick up coffee and we hit the gorge area before the crowds got in. Unfortunately, it was drizzling for the first hour or so of our trip, so we weren’t able to take advantage of the early start. It got much better as the day progressed and by the time we reached Mt. Hood, the weather was gorgeous too! Although its best to spend a day each at Mt. Hood, but if you are in a time crunch and are trying to fit in both in a day trip, here’s a recommended day itinerary.

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Mt. Hood from Timberland Lodge

Vista House at Crown PointOur first stop was at the Vista House observatory. It had amazing views of the Gorge even on a drizzling morning. I can imagine it being picture perfect on a bright sunny morning.

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Columbia River Gorge – Waterfalls HikesAfter leaving from the Vista House, we headed to Latourell Falls. Its a pretty short hike to the base of the falls and can be easily done with a toddler. Our next stop was Multonomah Falls, and finding parking there was a nightmare because they are the most famous falls along the loop being the second tallest in the US. If you are short on time, and don’t plan on hiking to the top of the falls, I would skip going up to the bridge and rather pick a hike to Wahcleella which is toddler friendly.

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Bridge of Gods, Cascade LocksBridge of Gods spans across the river connecting Oregon and Washington and we decided to drive on the steel truss instead of getting out since it had started drizzling again.

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Bonneville Lock and DamThis was an unplanned spot, but we found out there was an option of spotting fish through the fish ladder at the Bonneville Dam and N wanted to see some “fishies”. A pleasant stop to spot some fish :).

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Historic Columbia River Gorge HotelAnother unplanned stop was at the Historic River Gorge Hotel. This is a nice place to sit, sipping coffee and enjoying the spectacular views of the river.

Waterfront Park at Hood River – The best stop of our day trip: This was an absolute gem. Away from the crowds, more popular with the locals, the Waterfront Park has a nice sand beach with shallow waters for swimming. Hood River is THE place for windsurfing and kitesurfing in Oregon and Waterfront Park is THE place to watch the windsurfers and kitesurfers. Plenty of restaurants at walking distance from the park for lunch and some food trucks if you want to do a picnic lunch at the beach. There are breathtaking views of the gorge from this park. Ideally, you could easily spend an entire day here.

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Timberline Lodge at Mt. HoodAfter a late afternoon lunch, we headed to Mt. Hood. En route are plenty of orchards for apple picking, but our kiddo was napping so we decided to head directly to Timberline Lodge. If you are headed to Mt Hood post lunch, don’t forget to stop for some freshly baked goodies at one of the orchards/bakeries on your way. The route itself is quite scenic. After spending some time at the Timberline Lodge, we headed up the hiking trail. N was excited to climb the mountain. Although it was chilly, he had the energy to pace up the trail.

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Timberline Lodge has picturesque views of Mt. Hood and it was worth every bit of it. We headed back to downtown Portland after a wonderful day in the gorge and Mt. Hood! We did spend a lot more days in downtown Portland, but this day trip was a highlight of our mini vacation for my son – waterfalls, swimming at the beach, sand play, climbing mountains (well, for him that’s what it is even though it’s barely a mile or half of climbing :)). Can’t ask for more, right?

Beaches · Travel · Travel with tots · Vacations

Riviera Maya and Cancun diaries: Toddler calls it home!

Kids look forward to birthdays, and when its a week of celebration with sun, beach and sand, its’ likely they’ll never want the celebration to end. Last year for Thanksgiving, we planned a trip to Cancun to celebrate N’s second birthday. After our week long trip in the Mayan Riviera, when we were packing bags to head back, my toddler tells me ‘I like this home, I don’t want to go back to the other home! Can we stay here?’ I told him we will be back when he grows up a little, but it was a trip he talked about for a long time after coming back. And going back to day care after the vacation was not easy. I don’t remember him calling any other vacation spot that we’ve been to as ‘home’ so I have a feeling he had a blast!

We decided to stay in Riviera Maya over Cancun because of its proximity to few of the attractions we had planned for our trip. Here are highlights from our trip – things that we were able to do with a 2 year old in Mayan Riviera.

Private tour to Chichén Itzá, Valladolid and Ik Kil Cenote: We opted for the private tour to Chichen Itza over guided group tours, since its a 2 hour drive from the resort area and it definitely makes sense to go there early to avoid the crowds and pick your stops, especially when you have a toddler with you. This option also gives you a chance of stopping for tequila tasting that most guided tours don’t offer. Within Chichen Itza, we decided to stick to a route and missed out on going all the way to the Sacred Cenote, but were able to cover a lot of the ruins. The trails are stroller friendly and that was a huge help :). The town of Valladolid is vibrant and reminded us of the streets of Old San Juan in Puerto Rico! We did go to the Ik Kil Cenote but it was quite deep and decided against jumping in with our 2 year old. But if you are traveling without kids, its a great way to cool of the humidity. We saw several folks diving in!

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Dolphin Interaction: There are plenty of eco-parks in the area including Xel-Ha which offer activities for older kids, but we opted to visit the Dolphin discovery center at our resort for an interactive tour since its more suitable for younger kids. My son really enjoyed his encounter with Plata – the dolphin. He was hesitant at first but then did not want to come out of the water.

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Mayan Ruins of Tulum: A trip to the Mayan Riviera is not complete without a visit to the ruins in Tulum, so we opted for a half day group tour of Tulum since it was only 30 minutes from our resort. The beach at Tulum is one of the best! Though we didn’t carry a hiking carrier with us so were not able to explore the entire area within the allocated tour time! If there’s an option drive there instead of the tour so you can explore as well as spend quality time at the beach.

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Sand castles and serenity of white sand beaches: Nothing excites my 2.5 year old more than a sand pit, so the resort’s beach was a perfect way for us to relax at the beach while he immersed himself in the sand.

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Pool fun, especially if you have a water baby like mine :): I can see why staying at all inclusive resorts is a great idea after you have a baby.  With more than 5 pools with plenty of kiddie areas and water slides, we couldn’t get enough of pool fun! Seriously, if we had an extra day or 2 there, I would have opted to have him in the pool rather than going any place else because being in the pool brings out a mile wide smile on his face every single time he splashes in the pool!!!

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And much, much more: Carousels, shopping, eating, kids club, vibrant statues and Christmas decorations – These were all part of our trip but my memory fades! Looking at the pictures makes me feel very nostalgic 🙂

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What we saved for a later trip: We got great valuable input from the resort staff and they suggested saving XCaret, Xplor, snorkeling at Akumal and Coba ruins for a later trip since those are more suitable for slightly older kids, especially if you want to enjoy majority of the attractions.

I know the kiddo is not going to remember his second birthday blast except for the pictures and videos, but it was a good one! M and I will surely cherish it :).