National Parks Part 2 – The Hints Keep A Comin’

Okay, so you’ve decided to visit Yellowstone and the Tetons.  Now what?

Hint #1:  Jackson Hole and the Tetons
If you are flying in, it’s a good idea to spend your first night (or more) in Jackson Hole.  By the time you arrive and pick up your car, you will probably be tired.  Jackson Hole is great place to catch your breath, rest up and enjoy the scenery.  It is also much easier to get lodging, and because we were visiting outside of ski season, the hotel rates were quite reasonable.

So, what does Jackson Hole have to offer?  Museums, scenery, shopping, and great restaurants!  We particularly liked Gather, which was only a couple of blocks from our hotel.  The food was delicious, creatively presented and reasonably priced.  Chicken with pancakes and berries plus flourless chocolate cake were just two of our choices.

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chicken with pancakes

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flourless chocolate cake

If you have a sweet tooth (and as you can tell from the photo above, I do), then you will definitely want to stop at Moo.  In addition to great ice cream, they also offer truffle animals that are almost too good to eat.

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Did I mention shopping?  Every man needs at least one of these hanging in his closet.

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Nature lovers can’t miss with a hike in the Rockefeller Preserve.  Follow this linkfor trail maps, hours and rules for visiting.

Be forewarned.  To get there, you have to travel on some unpaved roads.   And some of the trails are a bit rocky, but the scenery is magnificent and oh so peaceful.

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We spent our first two nights in Teton Village,  then headed for Yellowstone early in the morning, stopping for breakfast in Jackson Hole.  If you follow my advice from my last post and stay in Jackson Hole at Springhill Suites, you would be able to enjoy a free breakfast (they start serving EARLY) and would get to Yellowstone even earlier than we did.  If, however, you choose to experience the Teton Village, check out the Mangy Moose for breakfast, and Osteria or Spur for lunch or dinner.

Hint #2 Take a Tour
Be sure to reserve your tours WELL in advance, especially if you are visiting during peak season!  If you visit Yellowstone during non-peak season, some activities might not be offered.  For example, none of the boating activities were available on Yellowstone Lake, but there was still more than enough to do.  The Event Plannerwill tell you what is available, when.

We booked two tours–the “Circle of Fire, and “Wake Up to Wildlife”.    The Circle of Fire tour lasted all day, and was a very good value at $86 per adult.   Every seat on this large tour bus is a good seat, with excellent views wherever you sit.

We paid $100 per adult for Wake Up to Wildlife.   We did NOT book in advance, so we ended up taking this tour on the day we were checking out of our hotel–not ideal, but it was all that was available.

The “historic” yellow buses used for Wake Up to Wildlife can only seat 13 people, ( three rows of 4, plus 1 beside the driver.)  The tour is supposed to start at 6:15 AM and last until around 11:30.

Both tours charge half price for children under the age of 11; both tours pick up and drop off at several park hotels, and for both tours, the bus driver is also your tour guide.  Both of ours were retirees who thoroughly enjoyed their jobs.  Their love for the park, its history, animals and lore was obvious.  While driving, they kept us entertained with stories, jokes and oh so much valuable information.

Hint #3 The Wildlife
You don’t need to take a tour to see wildlife.  It didn’t take long for us to encounter our first of MANY bison and elk.   These animals are very comfortable strutting their stuff along the roads, in the roads, pretty much where ever they want.  That does have an impact on travel time and traffic, so keep that in mind, relax and enjoy the show.

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The park literature does a great job reminding visitors that these are wild and potentially dangerous animals, so we kept a safe distance, but we DID observe others who got dangerously close.

We didn’t see any bears, and although we theoretically DID spot some wolves, an osprey, pronghorns, some mountain goats and a badger community,  most were way too distant to see without binoculars.

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Can you spot the mountain goat in this photo?  Neither could I, but I was TOLD there was one to the left of that snowy patch, near the bottom.

On the Wake Up to Wildlife tour, our guide supplied the scope, and some of “wolf watchers” we encountered along the way were kind enough to share their equipment with us.  But even with powerful scopes, I never was able to see the wolves.

Even with the very good zoom on my camera, this photo of badger butts was as good as I could get–so you can imagine what the deleted ones looked like!p1190766-e1529274095714.jpgI had better luck outside of our hotel in Mammoth Hot Springs, where several of these little guys were cavorting across the street.P1030127

My opinion, based on my ONE experience, was that we would have been better served to skip “Wake Up to Wildlife” and explore on our own.  (Others who have experienced the tour are encouraged to weigh in).  Here’s why: on our own, we could have stopped when we wanted, for as long as we wanted.  The bus was unable to stop  when animals were sighted along the way, so, for example,  we SAW many “red dogs” (the locals’ name for baby bison) during our tour, we weren’t able to stop and watch them, or get a good shot.

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photo taken from the yellow bus on Wake Up to Wildlife

Because of its size, the bus was limited to parking in specific areas.

On our own, we could have left when we wanted and returned when we chose.  Despite being in the lobby on time (at 6:15 AM!!!), the tour bus didn’t leave the parking lot till 6:40 AM.  If you think that made me grumpy, you’d be right.   Oh yeah, one more thing:  There is no coffee making paraphernalia at Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel, and nothing is open at 6:15.  You DO get a bottle of cranberry juice and a muffin, but that’s it until your return at around 11:30.  We knew that, so stocked up at the nearby General Store the day before.

There WERE positives:  The bus driver’s stories and his telescope for viewing animals.

Hint #4  Yellowstone is MUCH more than Old Faithful
I was completely blown away by the incredible geological features of this amazing park.  The Circle of Fire Tour takes you to the main highlights, such as Geyser Basin at West Thumb.   This area, bordering Yellowstone Lake is fascinating.  Check out the colors from the mineral deposits!P1190635

When the Park first opened, visitor were able to board a ferry in West Thumb that would take them across the lake to our hotel.  While we were there, no boats were sailing or chugging across the lake, probably because the ice wasn’t completely gone until May 21 (according to our guide).  Even though the ice was about 30 inches thick, it is hard to understand how the lake can remain frozen with all the smokin’ hot activity close by. Okay, I am going to TRY to insert a video of the boiling mud.  Hope it works.

We stopped at a couple of waterfalls as we made our way to Old Faithful, arriving at the complex with about an hour and a half before the geyser was expected to erupt, just enough time to get lunch, before the show.

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I decided to avoid the crowd, take a seat under the trees, and watch from the distance.

The only place where we encountered crowds during our tour was at Old Faithful.

If I had to choose a favorite spot, it would be very difficult, but I guess I’d choose the Fountain Paint Pots.   I just loved the stark landscape.

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The male bisons travel solo.  I’m wondering how he manages to saunter over this hot area?

I could keep going with photos from the Circle of Fire Tour, but you get the idea.  The geological features are jaw dropping!  And it is great to have the guide explain what is going on.

Hint #6 Getting hungry?
The choices pretty much boil down to amusement park quality food, fine dining or “do it yourself”  from purchases at the General Stores.  We tried all three and for us, it was easy to determine that fine dining was the way to go.  Because we are used to New Jersey and New York restaurant prices, the food did not seem all that expensive to us.
I would NOT recommend eating in the Yellowstone cafeteria!  The food resembles airplane food, except at least airplane food is not served and consumed in the midst of chaos.  To be fair, it WAS fast.  In retrospect, I wish we gone with the slower, but probably better, restaurant at Old Faithful Inn.

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The entryway of the Old Faithful Inn

If you want to have dinner at the Lake Hotel, (and I hope you do), you will need to make reservations well in advance.  I made reservations for both nights we stayed there, figuring we could cancel if we didn’t like the food.  We liked it so much, we ended up having all our meal there.

At Mammoth Hot Springs, you can’t make a reservation; it is first come, so beware if you see a bus loads of tourists pulling into the parking lot.

An unexpected bonus?  All of the waitstaff were knowledgeable about the park and were happy to share information with us.  Their tips led us to some wonderful spots we might not have found on our own.

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Our waiter told us where to go to catch the perfect sunset on the lake.  We had the place all to ourselves.

Tip #7 Don’t miss theTravertine Terraces at Mammoth Hot Springs
The view from the top of the terraces is pretty spectacular.

P1030110.jpgAlthough you CAN drive and there is a parking lot at the top,  it is so much more fun to walk up and down.  It is roughly the equivalent of  26 flights of stairs (according to my fitbit), but there is plenty to see along the way.  You can stop, gawk, and catch your breath.

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We celebrated our 43rd wedding anniversary at the Mural Room, Jackson Lake Lodge in the Tetons.  Where else could your butter be shaped like a moose?

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Although I could go on and on about the glories of Yellowstone, I think you just have to experience it for yourself.

Next adventure?  Iceland.  Hope you’ll come along!

California Dreamin’

I had started writing about Napa and Sonoma while visiting there in August.  I got distracted (which is not uncommon for me) and completely forgot about this post, leaving it to languish  in my drafts folder until now.

Since then, fire has destroyed parts of some of the areas we had visited.  Sadly, right now, southern California is also burning.

According to this Forbes article, the percentage of wineries damaged fortunately was low.  So, time to publish this lost post to remind everyone of the glories of California wine country.  Please visit, and bring your tourist dollars to an area that needs our support.  You’ll  have fun doing so–as we did last August.

My “lost post” follows:

It has become abundantly clear that our one and only offspring has become a Californian.  As with everything in life, there is an upside to having our son three time zones away.  We now have yet another reason to visit the greater San Francisco area.

So here’s the sad truth.  My memory is definitely NOT what It used to be.  I realized that I have been using my WordPress Posts as my memory bank, helping me to figure out where I was and when.  Unfortunately, I neglected to post about our past California winery trips–and was dismayed to discover that I couldn’t remember which ones we visited, and which ones were favorites, worthy of a return trip.  SO, this post is designed to correct that shortcoming.   If it is helpful to others that plan to visit wine country and the greater San Francisco area, so much the better.  It’s my way of giving back to all the generous bloggers and posters who offer travel tips, answer my questions on forums, share information on Trip Advisor.   Thank you!

Let’s start with the airport.  Whether you are renting a car, or taking mass transit, you will take the terminal’s elevator to the third floor, follow the signs for the skybridge and hop on the blue Sky Train.  That same train will take you to the BART and Caltrain, if you opt for that mode of transportation.  Last time, we took the BART.  As I vaguely recall, it was relatively easy to use the machines to buy tickets.  (Next time, I’ll pay attention and post about it.)  THIS time, we were heading to Santa Rosa, so we rented a car.  All of the rental car desks are at the same BART stop.

Note to self: Next time we rent a car, be sure to pre-register for the express option (or whatever the car company calls it).  We cooled our heels for about an hour waiting in line for our Budget rental.  Ah, the things you forget when you haven’t had an assistant arranging your business travel in almost six years!

For lodging, we did a mix of hotel and vacation rental.  In the past, I only used VRBO, and was very pleased with our selections.  This time, inspired by Janis over at Retirementally Challenged we decided to try AirBNB.  I had had the mistaken impression that with AirBNB you rented rooms in people’s houses.  In the past, the rentals I viewed had fewer photos than the rentals on VRBO.  As with most things in life, it is good to update your perceptions every now and then.  We were delighted with this beautiful little house in Santa Rosa.

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For about $300 a night, we had a “serene, centrally located 1500 square foot”  2 bedroom, 2 bath house in a nice neighborhood in Santa Rosa, within walking distance of a few restaurants, a good wine store (that sold killer chocolate truffles) and close enough to the county fair grounds that you could sit outside and listen to the evening concerts, if you were so inclined.  We LOVED it!

Santa Rosa has more than its fair share of great restaurants. Our first night, before our son joined us, we dined at John Ash & Co.IMG_4910

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Parkside Cafe

The setting was lovely, with lots of windows, overlooking gorgeous gardens.  The food and wine were good, but was it worth $250 for 2 appetizers, 2 entrees, one desert and one bottle of not expensive wine?  The answer is a resounding “NO”!  Good thing our son wasn’t with us.  We would have blown our entire travel budget on that meal alone.  Fortunately, much better values were awaiting us.

Both the Parkside Cafe and Two Spinsters offered wonderful breakfasts.  We thoroughly enjoyed our lunch at LoCoco’s Cucina Rustica in downtown Santa Rosa.  But MY very favorite meal was at Francis Ford Coppola’s restaurant, Rustica, in Geyersville. (The Californians sure do like the name “Rustica”, don’t they?)

I opted for the Menu Di Stagione, which was 4 courses with paired wines for $69 (plus tax and tip). What a feast!  I started with gazpacho, followed by caesar salad, then this delicious  rack of lamb, ending with chocolate mouse.

as you can see from the glasses, I was having a hard time keeping up with the wine pairings

According to the menu, each course was accompanied by 3 oz. wine pairings, but my perception was those were very generous 3 ounces.  The only mistake we made was doing a wine tasting BEFORE lunch.  To say I was happy by the time the chocolate mousse rolled around, would have been an understatement.

We had never spent $90 for a bottle of wine, and after tasting this expensive stuff, I’ve concluded we aren’t missing much.

It was fun seeing the movie memorabilia.  In addition to photos, posters and other props, you can get up close and personal with the godfather’s desk.  Well, not too close.  You aren’t allowed to sit in his chair and put your feet on the desk.  Don’t ask how I know that.

The winery grounds are absolutely beautiful.  If you want, you can make a day of it, by renting a cabana and hanging out by the pool.  If you plan on swimming, it might be an excellent idea to wait till later for the wine tasting.

This is definitely a winery I’d visit again.  I’d just skip the tasting and go directly to lunch or dinner.  Speaking of dinner, after our huge lunch, we were all satisfied with a snack that night.

Our other favorite winery was actually one we had visited before.  I recognized it as soon as we arrived there.  Beringers has a fantastic tour of its winery.

We took it years ago and greatly enjoyed the experience.  THIS time, we just went for the tasting.  What we learned:  If you are a member of their wine club, (our son is)  the “basic” wine tasting is free for up to four people. 

Sadly, this tasting proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that I am indeed a peasant.  Can I tell the difference between $70 and $170 bottles of Cabernet Sauvignon?  I cannot.  I can’t even tell the difference between their $48 bottle of wine and the $10 bottles we normally consume.

For our final evening, we switched from our airBNB to a hotel.  The River Terrace Inn, as the name suggests, is right on the river that runs through Napa.  It is ideally located–you can stroll along the path that hugs the river to the nearby CIA, where we feasted on a wonderful, and inexpensive dinner.  (That’s Culinary Institute of America, not the spy organization–although their food is probably delicious too.)

Yes, that big fork is made up of thousands of little forks!

Also nearby is Oxbow Public Market, site of the Kitchen Door Restaurant, which makes the most amazing mushroom soup on this planet.  That soup alone would justify a trip to Napa.

We didn’t make it to Mike’s favorite restaurant, the Rutherford Grill (in Rutherford, of course), but there’s always next time.  I hope there’s a next time (or a first time) in wine country for you too.

 

 

 

 

Small Town Love

Our family is like a little solar system.  At our center is our sun, my sister Sue, radiating warmth and love that sustains her six siblings, who, like planets, revolve around her.  Although she never had children of her own, she is a second mom (and now grand-mom) to satellite nieces, nephews, cousins’ and friends’ children.

Although four of the seven “kids”  have moved away, Sue, our sister Sandy and brother Tom have all  lived in the same area their entire lives, accumulating a glorious galaxy of friends.  (See how you think after being married to an astronomer for four decades?)

Recently, Tom’s daughter gave birth to premature twins.  Sadly, one died shortly after birth, but thanks to the wonderful medical team in Providence, his twin has grown from 1 pound 6 ounces to just under 4 pounds.

Modern medicine is truly amazing; it is also really, really expensive.  Even with insurance, the high deductible, coinsurance, and uncovered expenses all equate to huge bills, as any parent with a sick child can attest.  So, Sue decided to gather the troops to create a benefit dinner– “Pasta with a Purpose”.

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Just a small sample of the raffle items

Fortunately, Sue has a talent for choosing loyal and giving friends, that are just like her.  Sheila, an elementary school buddy, has worked in the restaurant business for years, and like our brother Tom, is an amazing chef.  Who expects benefit food to be good?  It was at THIS benefit, thanks to a team of cooks.

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But the real stroke of genius was making friends with Debbie, who like other elementary school teachers, is a force to be reckoned with.   Teachers know how to create something out of nothing, how to get the unruly to behave and how to keep calm in the midst of chaos, and how to make great displays.   Let’s hear it for the teachers!

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Within three weeks, family and friends had secured the Knights of Columbus hall,

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The “elves” worked hard to get this all set up and orgnized

gotten food and raffle donations,

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As the evening progressed, donations kept coming in– we were running out of space!

found a DJ,

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sold hundreds of tickets, enlisted student volunteers to serve food,

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These kids were “on it”, serving, clearing, and setting up for the next round of diners

and taken care of the hundreds of tiny details necessary to make the event a success.

And what a success it was!  All to help this little guy and his loving parents.

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With so much negativity and violence these days, it is heartening to see how people can come together to support each other in time of need.

Our family includes the normal mix of in-laws, out-laws, and sheep of all colors.  If you were to chart us — along economic, political, and religious lines, you’d find someone on just about any point in the spectrum.  But when it comes to things that really matter, that all gets put aside.  It is family and friends,  all the way.

So in addition to paying tribute to my amazing sister, Sue, this is a huge thank you to all you small town inhabitants with big hearts, who came out on November 5th to show the love for Haylie, Greg and Baby Spencer.  Forgive me for not mentioning or photographing all of you who did so much to make the day so special.   You know who you are, and so do we.

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Could this be the start of another lifelong friendship?