My first trip to Northern California, Bay Area, was in 2010, for a work trip. While there, the group I was with ventured to San Francisco for a night. I have to admit that I wasn't a fan of the city and I think it's because we went late one night, struggled to find parking so I had to walk the hills in heels, I found marijuana in the restaurant bathroom, and we went to eat sushi which, at the time I wasn't a fan. Let me be clear, that now, sushi is a favorite food of mine! I digress... but because I didn't have an excellent first experience in San Francisco I'm now a believer that every city should get a second chance except maybe New York City, been there, done that (sorry, Mamaw I know it's your favorite city).
In the past five years I've discovered that I love Northern California! Therefore, I've compiled a list of my favorite "Nor Cal" towns, in no particular order and I'll tell you why I love each of them.
Sausalito: This community is the closest to the city, only about five miles outside of San Francisco. This little town has the best views of the city! It has largely protected spaces because of the Golden Gate National Recreation area. I loved driving through the neighborhoods and looking at all of the cool houses on the hillside. The city's central street, Bridgeway, runs right along the shoreline. Sausalito started out as a shipping and fishing hub but has now become very artistic and a picturesque residential community. I loved exploring the shops on the main street, drinking coffee overlooking the water, and getting to admire the city from a distance in a slower paced area.
Wine Country: I grouped Napa, Yountville, and Sonoma into one bullet point mainly because I couldn't pick just one town to highlight! I love them all for different reasons but the the main reason is the wine! Duh! After you get past the wine, each town offers a little something different.
The town of Napa is a bit more commercialized and the least expensive of the three places to stay. There are more chain hotels int he city which means better rates and more shuttle options. I love the night life of the downtown Napa area.
Yountville is a bit more "boujie." The hotels are very much boutique style and the town has multiple Michelin Star Restaurants. Yountville is extremely small so if you stay downtown then you'll be able to stroll to restaurants, art galleries, and wine tastings.
I would say Sonoma falls right in the middle of the Napa and Yountville feel. It's less populated than Napa but not quite as upscale as Yountville. It's a historic city and known for its art galleries and the colonial-era Sonoma Plaza. Sonoma also has great options for a spa day if you get tired of wine tasting.
You can't go wrong with any of these three small towns in wine country. If you decide to visit, maybe you could spend time in all three places during one trip but I'd recommend going back multiple times for the different experiences.
Stinson Beach: I've already done an entire post on Stinson Beach and why I love it. You can find that post here so I won't spend much time on this town. I believe it's one of Northern California's best kept secrets, it's located about 20 miles NW of San Francisco. You can hike in the Mt Tamalpais State Park, enjoy time by the water, or visit one of their cute, quaint cafes.
Bodega Bay: I've never actually stayed in Bodega Bay but I plan to someday! I have done two day trips here though and love this little town. Bodega Bay has the best views around off of Highway One. If you're ever in the area I'd recommend stopping at the Pelican Plaza Grocery & Deli to pick up items for a picnic. They make the best cold deli sandwiches, you can also grab a side (try the olive salad, if you like that), and a drink while there. After you've got your picnic ready to go you should venture down to the beach and enjoy!
Petaluma: Petaluma is another town that I've only day tripped to but I've been here twice and loved the atmosphere each time. The historic downtown area is one of a kind, you won't find the shops that are located here anywhere else! My personal favorite thing to do in Petaluma and the main reason for my visit each time is the Lagunitas Brewing Company. The brewery has an amazing outdoor space that can be covered when it's raining and heated when it's cold or on beautiful days you can enjoy the space just the same. They have excellent brew tours every day, great food on its menu, and you can even bring your dog! This is such a cool tap room and one of the main attractions for Petaluma.
With so many cool and quaint Northern California towns to choose from, I obviously haven't been to them all! I can't wait to get back out there and explore! Do you have a fave?!
I'm sure many of you at least know what Alcatraz Island is and where it is located. However, just in case you don't, it was a 1800s military fort located about 1.25 miles from San Francisco Bay where it served as a military prison. The most notorious role that it held was a federal prison, and the latest role was for the Native American occupation. For me, Alcatraz Island is somewhere I've always wanted to visit. I'm fascinated by real life crime stories, gangster history, and the very idea of this eerie federal prison. Thus, it was on my "must visit" list while in San Francisco earlier this year (2017). If you're going to visit Alcatraz Island, there are a few things you should know before you go: wear comfortable shoes, buy your tickets in advance, be sure to check the weather, and get to the marina early.
We chose to visit the island with Alcatraz Cruises. This was the most affordable and easiest route I found and it was nice because although you have a certain departure time from San Francisco you can come back on any ferry of your choice. I'd advise you to arrive at the marina at least an hour before your scheduled departure time; this way, you'll have time to park and walk to the marina, use the facilities before getting on the boat, and get a good place in line. We were picky about our seats because we wanted a good view but also wanted to be indoors for the ride over. We visited in early spring so it was a chilly outing. Because the island isn't surrounded by tall buildings, it's usually cooler than the city. My best advice is to be prepared with layers. On the day that I went, everyone in my group took light jackets and they were pleased to have them! I repeat, you'll want to wear a good pair of walking shoes! The island and prison are both a lot bigger than you'd think and the majority of it is uphill. Someone once said, "The coolest winter I ever spent was the summer I spent in San Francisco." This phrase is widely repeated because you really never know what the weather is going to be like there. Most people think Mark Twain said this quote when in fact, he did not. That's another story for another time but if you're interested you should look up the history behind this famous saying.
Today, the island is managed by the National Park Service as part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. If you visit today you'd get to see the abandoned prison, the oldest operating light house on the west coast, early signs of the military fort, and beautiful scenery. I was taken back by how pretty the view of San Francisco is from the island. If you're interested in more history on Alcatraz there are loads of great books and documents about the island. I've read Escape from Alcatraz and Alcatraz: A Definitive History of the Penitentiary Years. There have also been several Hollywood movies produced about the island. It's obviously most famous for the years as a federal penitentiary and that's what I was most interested in learning about during my time on the island. Given its high security and location of the prison the operators believed Alcatraz to be escape-proof. It housed some of America's most ruthless criminals such as Al Capone, Robert Franklin Stroud ("Birdman"), George "Machine Gun" Kelly, Mickey Cohen, and Alvin "Creepy" Karpis just to name a few. There were a total of 36 prisoners who made 14 known escape attempts. There is one escape though that is the most intricate escapes ever devised. Prisoners Frank Morris, John Anglin, and Clarence Anglin might have pulled off the only successful escape from Alcatraz. I say might because no one knows if they actually made it. They broke out of the main building via an unused utility corridor after making a tunnel from their cells. It's thought that they departed on an inflatable raft which had to have been highly improvised. No one knows if they ever made it to the other side alive. There are numerous theories and leads that have been pursued by the FBI. During your visit, you'll get to see the cell they escaped from and the hole they climbed through is truly unbelievable. It looks like a toddler couldn't fit through it. I've added some of my favorite photos from the day. If you ever get a chance to visit Alcatraz Island it is definitely worth your time! This is a tour that's good for all ages. Tell me, have you ever been there? What were some of your favorite or most surprising facts?
Stinson, California is a beach town just north of San Francisco. Andrew and I recently stayed there with friends for a weekend get-a-way. We stayed step away from the beach and really enjoyed ourselves. The town itself is very small and only offers a handful of things to do and places to eat but I think we found all of the best it has to offer!
Matt Davis Loop Trail: Hiking Muir Woods was on the top of my to-do list for our stay in the Stinson Beach area. Muir Woods is the world's most-visited redwood park. The day we planned on hiking it was raining so instead of driving to The Muir Woods Visitor Center we decided to hike a trail right off of the main highway in town. I didn't realize it until I got home and Googled the trail we hiked (Matt Davis Loop) that we were actually in Mt. Tamalpais State Park which is what surrounds Muir Woods. We saw plenty of redwoods, waterfalls, and lush forest. The loop is about seven miles in its entirety. It wasn't the best day for a hike so we walked far enough to get an excellent view and turned around to go back down. We did about a two mile hike. You can access this trail behind the Stinson Beach fire station.
Sand Dollar Cafe: Since 1921, this eatery has been a popular place with locals. The Sand Dollar Cafe is right off of the highway so you can't miss it! We ate there twice: once for a quick appetizer and drinks and the second time we went for dinner. The restaurant is family owned and Stinson beach's oldest establishment. You could tell the staff were a very tight knit group of people and they knew most folks by name as they walked in the door. When we went for appetizer and drinks (around four pm) I asked the bar tender if they had happy hour menu. He looked at me, smiled, and said, "Ma'am when you're the only bar in town, you don't do happy hour."
Parkside Cafe: On the side of the highway, closest to the ocean, is a string of small businesses that assemble The Parkside Cafe. The Snack Bar opened in 1949 and is best known for its burgers, smoothies, ice cream, and fries. I bet this place is hopping in the summer with beach goers! The Parkside Cafe Restaurant serves food all day long with a full menu. They have a quaint outdoor area with a fireplace, patio, and garden. We weren't able to enjoy this space as it was cold and rainy but let me tell you what we did enjoy: food and drinks! The food was amazing and overall, a very healthy menu. Because we did eat well and were happy, we found their motto of "eat well, be happy" to be very appropriate and right on target. We all ordered a morning coffee and enjoyed that very much until we saw the table next to us get orange juice. This wasn't your average looking orange juice, you could tell that it was fresh squeezed! Therefore, we all ordered and enjoyed the orange juice, some of us enjoyed it in a champagne glass (mimosa style), others enjoyed it with vodka, and my pregnant friend enjoyed the OJ just how it was! Parkside Cafe is an integral part of the community and available at all times to satisfy your hunger ad don't forget to order OJ.
Whether you visit Stinson for a day at the beach, go with a group of friends for a weekend stay, or go to explore, you are guaranteed a good time. The people in this quiet beach town were friendly, everyone smiled, and local businesses are thriving.
On Christmas Eve 2016, Andrew and I visited the Dry Tortugas National Park. We boarded the Yankee Freedom III Ferry in Key West to travel to Dry Tortugas. The National Park is made up of seven small islands but the main attraction is the historic Fort Jefferson, which was once used as a prison and blockade during the Civil War. I was surprised to find out it was a Union fort; because of its location I would have originally thought it was a Confederate fort. The Union used Fort Jefferson to block the Confederates from Southern shipping. It was also used as a prison for criminals and Union deserters during the war. The most famous prisoner was Dr. Samuel Mudd, who was imprisoned for his involvement in the assasination of President Abraham Lincoln. We were able to see the prison cell that Dr. Mudd was kept in. Though used briefly during both world wars, it has long since been closed. The actual island was discovered in 1513 and the fort was constructed in the 1800's. You can travel to the Dry Tortugas via the ferry, a charted or private boat, or a charted or private plane. If you can afford to take the plane out to the fort, that's what you should do! Doing so will allow you additional time to explore Dry Tortugas. We went by ferry and left the port at 8am and had to be back by 5pm so we only got to spend four hours on the island.
Here are some facts that I found really cool on Fort Jefferson: 16 million bricks were used, they had 420 heavy guns, 37 powder magazines, a moat, and casemates (gunrooms) form the backbone of the fort. Construction began on the fort in 1846, and although it was never officially finished, it remains one of the most historic places to visit in The Keys. When you travel to Dry Tortugas you have the option of going on a 40-60 minute guided tour led by one of their expert naturalists or you can download a self-guided tour and view it on your cellphone or other device. Andrew and I elected to do the self-guided tour so we could check out exactly what we wanted to see and spend more of our time doing other things on the island. If you're mainly going to see the fort then I'd recommend doing the guided tour. The fort was like nothing I've ever seen before, it was absolutley massive and took up almost the entire island. There was also a moat around the fort which was neat since the only moats I've ever seen are around sand castles!
Andrew and I were completley in awe of the fort and were so glad we got to see it but the main things we wanted to do were snorkel, fly fish (Andrew), and relax on the secluded beaches. The water is crystal clear so snorkeling is a must! We took our own gear but the Yankee Freedom III provided snorkel gear to anyone that needed it. It depends on the way the wind is blowing which side of the island you'll want to snorkel on but I was able to see three barracudas, a moon jellyfish, and lots of other fish. Andrew didn't catch anything this trip but he did have fun fly fishing. I think it's also worth the trip out to the Dry Tortugas just for the beach. The sand is soft and powdery and the beaches are pristine. The only peope that stay on the island are the park rangers and the campers so it feels very private and secluded.
We really enjoyed our trip to Dry Tortugas and want to visit again. My only regret is that we didn't have enough time on this trip. I hope you enjoy these photos! If you've got any questions about our Dry Tortugas excursion commend below.
I have officially been to Las Vegas, Nevada five times now and I have never left that place disappointed. There is something for everyone to do there and although most of the town thrives on gambling, you don't have to enjoy that to have a great time!
Recently, I went to Vegas for work but I was also able to squeeze several fun things out of the trip! Thankfully, my husband and some very close friends also work for the same company as I do so we get to hang and have a blast while we're still "at work." This will come as no surprise to anyone that knows me well but I had to visit the Bellagio Conservatory and Botanical Gardens two times on this trip. Once with my husband, Andrew and once with a friend who'd never seen "the gardens." I love a good excuse to go there! The best part about the gardens is that it changes at different times during the year, the display that's happening now (November 2016) is the Fall Harvest. I learned that a team of over 120 horticulturists take care of the gardens; man, that's a lot of people! While at the Bellagio you can't miss the spectacular fountain show! Vegas is all about catching your attention and the fountains definitely do that with their water show, lights, and music! If you've never caught one of the shows before, it's a must see. They go off every 15-30 minutes depending on the time of night. I've never actually stayed at the Bellagio before but it's one of my favorite hotels to visit... oh, and they have an amazing buffet!
For this particular trip, my group stayed at the MGM Grand hotel. The rooms were decently sized, the staff was friendly, the casino was fairly clean (as clean as a casino can be), and the pool was excellent! The downfall to staying there was the location, nothing is really "close" in Vegas but this hotel is too far to the end of the strip. I prefer to stay in the middle of the strip where I can be in the middle of all of the action! The MGM Grand is home to one of the many famous Cirque Du Soleil shows called Kà. Andrew and I went and saw this our first night in Las Vegas, we didn't account for the fact we had traveled and worked all day so by the time we sat down for the show we had been up 18 hours. We were exhausted but this show woke us up! It's an epic production about an entire empire. The stunts and sheer talent of the people that perform during Kà is amazing! The MGM Grand also has several other perks: Top Golf, which is right behind the hotel and a really fun experience, Hakkasan, the night club inside the hotel, and the pool area has a lazy river.
After all of our work events had come to a close for the week, it was time to play! Andrew and I laid at the pool with our friends, Eric and Rachel, and enjoyed a sun shinny day in November! It was even hot enough outside to make you want to get in the pool! After our pool time we got ready for dinner and had an amazing meal at Gordon Ramsay's Pub and Grill in Caesar's Palace. The food there was so good and it wasn't too terribly pricey. My friend Rachel and I shared the beer-braised short rib and it practically melted in our mouths. I'd highly recommend it! Once we were finished eating we had a show to catch! We went and saw Absinthe which is a show right outside of Caesar's Palace. It was one of the funnier and most awesome shows I've ever seen! I do want to say this, if you are easily offended, even in the slightest then this show is not for you. The show is an acro-cabaret variety show and there is truly not a bad seat in the house. This show caught me off guard a bit as I wasn't sure what to expect, it was actually recommended to me by a couple of different friends. The host pulls the audience in and is very entertaining. You really can't take your eyes off of the world-class acrobats, singers, comedians, and dancers!
On our last day in Las Vegas we decided to venture to Fremont Street which is a five-block entertainment district in historic downtown Las Vegas. One of the first things you see when you get there is the Heart Attack Grill. If you weigh over 300 lbs (they have a scale outside) you get to eat there for free. We didn't eat there as we didn't want to have a heart attack so we went to The Smashed Pig Gastropub instead, which was amazing! I had lettuce wraps (which were the best I'd ever eaten) and hand cut French fries. After we ate lunch we walked around to some of the main attractions on Fremont street which included the million dollars at Binion's, the shark tank and the golden nugget at Golden Nugget, Vegas Vic and Vegas Vickie, and several street performers. Let's talk about the street performers for a second... Some were better than others and some weren't even performing but merely standing there in outrageous outfits. Unfortunately, I can't un-see some of the things I saw on Fremont Street. It's worth the cab money to have this experience!
We spent five days in Las Vegas some for play and some for work but in conclusion, it was a trip for the books! When you come home from Las Vegas, always remember to wash all of your clothes, soak your feet in warm water, and use your humidifier. If you don't know why you should do all of these things, then you've never been to Las Vegas!
I don't think there is a better way to spend a weekend other than with good friends and a mini vacation which is exactly what Andrew and i did for the first weekend of October. Our friends, Eric and Rachel, are great and they make amazing hosts; this is our second time visiting them in six months. Madison, WI is only about 6 hours from Omaha so we're able to make the trip for the weekend and still have plenty of time for fun!
This trip, we basically ate our way through Madison. Eric cooked a phenomenal dish one night which consisted of homemade spaghetti and meatballs, yum! The photo below really doesn't do it justice.
Some of the standout food items of the weekend included: amazing sushi from Red, steel pan pizza from Lucille's, and fried cheese curds from The Great Dane. It's an obligation that you have to eat cheese curds while in Wisconsin, I ate them twice.
On Saturday we visited the Wollersheim Winery. We were able to tour their brand new distillery and do some spirit tasting (not my personal favorite). The distillery was really neat but the tour guide was almost overly informative. If you are a brandy drinker, they do have three different types you can try. I also tried licorice absinthe...not my best idea. Let's just say I used the "pour bucket" quite a bit. I wasn't trying to be rude but spirits aren't my thing. The winery itself is absolutely beautiful! It sits on the hillside across from the Wisconsin River about 20 minutes outside of Madison. The winery originally opened in the 1840's but since the 1970's it's been owned and operated by the Wollersheim family. It won "Small Winery of the Year" in 2015 from the San Diego International Wine Festival. We chose to take the wine tour which gave us a bit more background on the property history and a different view of the grounds. We were also permitted to go into the original wine cellar which was very neat! I was surprised that my favorite of their wines were both whites and I'm usually a red wine drinker. The Prairie Fume and the White Riesling both impressed me. The Wollersheim Winery was a fun day trip for us!
Sadly enough, our weekend had to come to an end and we hit the road back home. Thank goodness for audio books! Until next time Madison, Peace!
When most people think of Branson, Missouri I'm going to guess they think: Silver Dollar City, outlet malls, shows and more shows! However, if you are looking for something outside of the normal "Branson Box" start thinking about a visit to Adventure Ziplines of Branson where guests can sour high atop Branson getting a breathtaking view of the Ozark Mountains as well as the town! The attraction is located only three blocks off of the famous Highway 76 strip on 501 N Wildwood Drive.
I recently took a girls' trip to Branson and we were looking for something fun to do that was a little out of the ordinary. Adventure Ziplines "hit the nail on the head." We chose the earliest time possible since we were there in August and it was hot. I'd suggest choosing your tour time based on what time of the year it is. We arrived at the facility ten minutes early to sign a few waivers (standard procedure) and to go through the safety information. After the guides spend some time going over the rules, you load up into an ATV and ride to the first line which is meant for practice because it's very short and close to the ground. I've been ziplining several difference places and none of them had a practice line so I really appreciated this and so did my friend who had never done it before. After you practice, you climb lots of stairs to start your adventure. If you're out of shape, you might want to rethink if this experience is something you want to add to your "been there- done it" list. You will be doing some climbing and a brief bit of walking but for the most part, you're flying through the air. On the first few ziplines we all rode normally and got our bearings but by the end, we were going upside down, doing flips off the tower, and zooming in quick! This was such a fun experience for a girls' trip; I'd also recommend this for business groups, families, or even a date!
Adventure Ziplines of Branson really took care of us, made sure we were safe, and that we had fun! I'd love to visit next time I'm back in Branson!
Savannah is the oldest city in the state of Georgia and one of my favorite cities in the United States. While I was vacationing just an hour north of Savannah, a friend and I took a day trip into the city. Each year Savannah attracts millions of visitors to it's historic cobblestone streets and there are so many reasons why! We only had a few hours to spend in Savannah which means I had to choose wisely on how we spent our day.
If you've never been to Savannah before, let me clue you in on something: eating as much as you can is a must! This town boasts some of the best food I have ever tasted! I originally wanted to try a place called Mrs. Wilkes Dining Room which is only open for lunch Monday-Friday. Its southern style cooking and seating which means that you share a table with strangers and platters of food are placed on the table. The menu changes daily and it's a staple in downtown Savannah. I had heard so many good reviews about this restaurant so my friend, Erin, and I got there right after Mrs. Wilkes Dining Room opened and found the line was already out the door and almost down an entire block. I asked a lady at the front of the line how long she'd been waiting and she said at least one hour, which means she was there waiting well before the restaurant opened and she still hadn't been seated. I'm guessing the food is as good as everyone says; I wouldn't know as we didn't want to spend an hour or more waiting in line to eat. I didn't have a plan B on food but you really can't go wrong in Savannah so I did what anyone would do, I got out my phone and Googled! We ended up walking and eating at Clary's Cafe. Clary's Cafe is world famous; it serves breakfast all day but they also have a lunch menu as well. The food was stellar and the service was great as well. It had a very homey feel to it, I'd recommend this place to anyone and if you go, get the special of the day! After you've had your fill of southern cooking, you'll need dessert. You can't visit Savannah without getting a pecan praline. I'd recommend purchasing these treats at River Street Sweets. They make their candies right in front of you and give out samples! After you walk around on the downtown River Walk, you'll probably be tired, hot (depending on the time of year), and of course thirsty! Be sure to stop in Wet Willie's to grab a libation. You can enjoy people watching through their glass windows or you can leave with your drink and keep going. It is legal to drink alcohol on the streets in Savannah but it's illegal to "double fist" so make sure you have just one drink in your hand.
You'll find beautiful homes, parks, and churches in the historic district. Erin and I mainly walked around for a few hours just looking at the beautiful architecture of the city. We visited plenty of parks but my favorite and probably the most well-known is Forsyth which is the largest park in the historical district of Savannah. There were people in the park playing instruments and the fountain is magnificent. Both locals and tourists enjoy it's offerings. We also visited The Cathedral of St. John the Baptist and my oh my were we impressed! The church is free to enter and is absolutely breathtaking! I was most impressed with the stained glass art. This Cathedral should absolutely be on your Savannah agenda!
With only a few hours, we managed to pack quite a bit into our little day trip despite all of the walking and near heat exhaustion.
My mom and step-dad just recently built their dream home in Mountain View, Arkansas. When we visit it's like having a vacation at home, how awesome is that?! I've been going to Mt. View my entire life to camp or stay in a family member's cabin there so I've done just about everything possible in this small river town which is in the Ozark mountain range. It maintains a rich tradition of preserving folk music and is also known for the many outdoor recreation opportunities.
Our family had the best time floating down the North Sylamore Creek!
Andrew had a work conference in Orlando, Florida and of course, I tagged along! Fortunately, two of my friends were in town because their husbands were attending the same conference; therefore, we all got to spend time together. The three of us girls decided we wanted to go to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter which means we'd be going to Universal Studios- Islands of Adventure. Granted, I would have gone to Universal Studios alone but it was much more fun with friends!
I'm a huge Harry Potter fan; I've read all of the books and some of them I've read multiple times. I was so ecstatic to visit the theme park! Walking through The Wizarding World of Harry Potter was like being in the movies. We rode all of the rides, tasted Butterbeer (get the frozen kind), and walked in all of the shops. The architects that design those theme parks are truly artists. I couldn't believe how well they captured exactly how J.K. Rowling describes these places in the books! We took time to walk around and ride rides in the rest of the park but found ourselves starting and ending the day in Hogsmeade. It was a magical day, I would have paid the park entrance fee just to go into Harry Potter World.
My three favorite things about the day were:
We chose not to buy the park-to-park pass so we weren't able to ride the Hogwarts Express over to Diagon Alley. We did get a picture with the conductor and he never broke character once! The entire experience was magnificent and I'm so glad I was finally able to visit!
A southern girl trying to make my dreams come true. My husband and I love to travel and go on new adventures--We love Jesus and the blessings He provides!