Land of the Midnight Sun

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The last frontier – Alaska!

When your husband works for Hawaiian airlines and you were born with gypsy blood in your veins, a last minute trip to Alaska is not out of the question.  Albeit the original plan was the San Juan islands or Mt. Hood but weather.com changed all that!  I may live on Maui but I like sunshine on vacation too!

A quick text to a friend who just happened to be at her home in Alaska was all it took to switch gears.

I must say that although I love to travel, I do not love navigating around and out of big airports. Anchorage, however, was a breeze – even at the peak of high season.  We walked through the cool airport tunnel to the rental car section, walked right up to the counter and before we knew it, we were heading north with nothing but open road.

First top was Wasilla and our adorable VRBO rental with the postcard view!

You don’t realize just how big Alaska is until you start driving around.  Just to get our bearings we drove down to Girdwood, had some lunch and a hard Root Beer, then took the Alyeska Gondola up to the top of the mountain.

Our first big day on the open road was our drive to North Pole, AK.  We were hoping to see a moose and/or bear on this journey and about 15 minutes into our drive, we happened upon our first of many for the day – right on the side of the road.  The wildlife highlight was in Denali National Park when we spotted this mama and baby on their way to – where else? – the Visitor Center!  We lost track of the number of moose we saw that day.  No bears but we did see two snowy owls and some really cute little bunnies.

There aren’t many pit stops on the way to North Pole that offer anything other than spectacular scenery so we pulled into the Grande Denali Lodge and enjoyed a glass of wine and appetizers at this amazing hilltop perch with a spectacular view!

Several years back we started a tradition of buying Christmas ornaments on vacation so when we decorate our tree each year, we reminisce about our travels. That and because our oldest child was appropriately named Holly (she absolutely loves all holidays – especially Christmas)  a trip to Santa’s house in North Pole was a must.  Strangely enough, North Pole, AK was about 15 degrees warmer and much sunnier than the other parts of the state we drove through.  Santa’s Village was about what I expected – very touristy, some nice things (I spent about $150) but I was a little disheartened when I got to the back corner of the store and saw that it was full of Halloween decorations.  Next door is where Santa keeps his reindeer and they didn’t look so good.  Maybe it was because it was summer and they were shedding in chunks but they didn’t look like they could pull a little red wagon, let alone Santa’s sleigh.

Originally we were going to stay the night in North Pole, but it stays so light out that it felt like mid-afternoon so we figured we’d head back toward Wasilla and see how far we got.  Under a fiery sunset that lasted a few hours, we made it all the way.

Next on our Alaska bucket list was to see an iceberg so, after our 23 hours of driving to the North Pole and back (with stops along the way), we headed out on what we thought was our last day in Alaska and drove northeast toward Matanuska Glacier.  This was well worth the trip and I will never forget my first glimpse of it from the highway.  Once down the twisty road (and just past two more moose) was a little gift shop where you are apparently supposed to pay to go beyond the flimsy PVC pipe “gate” but there were no signs and the “gate” opened when we got near it so we went through. There are no signs in there and no way to tell how far you should go but we turned a bend and saw a great view of it and snapped some photos.  On the way out, we made up for our “free” entry and bought a bunch of stuff in the gift shop.

Matanuska Glacier

So – back to that “my husband works for the airlines bit” – long story short – we got bumped and the next flight was 24 hours later so we went back through that really cool tunnel to the rental car counter, got another car and headed out not knowing where we were going to spend the “last” night.  Being 4th of July weekend, the nice places were booked and we didn’t want to stay in Anchorage so we headed south back down toward Girdwood where we spent an afternoon earlier in the week.  It was still early when we got there so I wanted to venture a bit farther so we kept heading south toward Portage when we found ourselves in a lane for the Whittier Tunnel – yes a lane – stopped in place by the red light.  Hmmm this was strange.  Lanes to enter a tunnel and red lights – what’s this all about?  So, we asked the guy in the booth (who you pay to enter the tunnel) and he explained that you can only enter the tunnel to go to the tiny town of Whittier every half hour.  This one-lane tunnel takes a solid 5 minutes (and I am highly claustrophobic) to navigate out to daylight on the other side, and it is shared with a train (I still don’t know how that works). So, we waited in line and proceeded ever so cautiously – with no idea what to expect on the other side.

Whittier turned out to be definitely not what we expected.

Whittier, AK

It is a tiny fishing town (everyone smells like fish) with just three hotels.  The first one we entered, we couldn’t find the front desk, so we went in the little store.  Nope.  Then we wandered around a bit more.  Still no front desk.  We went outside and up the fire escape on the next building that looked just like this one, and entered the bar (where everyone smelled like fish) – No front desk here either.  So, we jumped in the car and went to the hotel on the cute little street by the docks.  Ahh, this place looked nice, but alas, no vacancies.  They told us to go back to the bar for a room.  Okie dokie – off we went and yes, the sweet Asian lady pulled out her little flip pad and wrote us up a room for the night.  Complete with railroad track views.

I will say that dinner at a little restaurant on the dock was delicious – the best shrimp I’ve ever had!

We had a little time to kill waiting for the tunnel the next morning so we turned left (the only option) and discovered this great view of the Portage Glacier!  What a surprise!

Portage Glacier, AK

I cannot wait to go back to this amazing state!  Next trip – (after a meatball pizza at Moose’s Tooth in Anchorage) we’re heading to the Kenai Peninsula and will possibly take a flight to Barrow just for the hell of it!

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San Francisco, Muir Woods and Napa Valley

Who knew you could pack so much into three days!

Day 1 – Start out in the morning with a walk along the Pier, toss in a tour of Alcatraz (take the early tour if possible) and then nibble your way down the Embarcadero.

Day 2 – Cross the Golden Gate Bridge where you surprisingly go from city-to-nature without even blinking.  If you do this at night, watch out for coyote and deer in the road.  I recommend staying at the Mountain Home Inn just outside of Muir Woods and enjoy a sunrise breakfast on the deck to a backdrop of stunning views.

Day 3 – Drive a couple hours over into Napa Valley and tour a winery or two.  We chose Castello di Amorosa which is a beautiful replica castle complete with torture chamber.  Spend the night in Calistoga before heading back to SFO!

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Bandelier to Valles Caldera

New Mexico

Looking for a day hike that takes you back 10,000 years?  Weave your way up wooden ladders and along narrow, precarious staircases through the ancestral homeland of the nomadic hunter-gatherers high in the cliffs of what is now Bandelier National Monument. Read more

Bandelier National Monument

Cliff dwellings at Bandelier National Monument

 

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Heading off on vacation?

It’s worth checking out this short list of things you should pack but probably won’t:  

 

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Travel quote of the day

Tourists don’t know where they’ve been, travelers don’t know where they’re going.”   ― Paul Theroux

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Hanging around Maui

This is my favorite tree in the whole world, partly because it’s the perfect place to string a hammock over the water and just sway the day away as the waves lap the shore underneath.  It’s the kind of thing a travel magazine would write about – or even film.

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5 Free Apps to Keep You Out of Jail While Traveling

Here’s a link to five tips from Airfarewatchdog.com to help you stay out of jail while traveling.

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