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Adventuring in Beautiful Yosemite National Park

Given all the international travel we've done and every country that's still on our list, sometimes it's easy to forget the incredible places that can be found within the enormous and varied country we live in. Our National Park system is the envy of the rest of the world, and there may be no more impressive park than Yosemite. The massive park in Northern California has held intrigue for both of us for many years, so when my parents suggested a family trip to celebrate their 35th anniversary and my father's 65th birthday, we eagerly booked our second trip of the summer, only a few weeks after our grand Italy tour.

The park is as vast as it is beautiful, and while the valley floor is accessible by car, bringing you up close to the massive rock formations and waterfalls the park is famous for, the much more dramatic and impressive way to experience the park is by trekking throughout the endless hills, lakes, and meadows of the "high country". Our itinerary included a three-day backpacking adventure off Tioga Road in the northern part of the park through some lovely lakes and meadows surrounded by impressive granite peaks, so our first view of the park's iconic fixtures was from from afar, and I must say that viewing them from a few miles away and from different vantages gave a sense of the scale and beauty of the place that's a bit lost on the crowds just viewing the sights from their cars on the valley floor. The Park only gives out a limited number of backpacking permits, which means more planning for the visitor up front but we were rewarded with a prime camping spot on the shore of a lake that we had entirely to ourselves, with the exception of some marmots and many birds. The remainder of our trip was spent with family in a beautiful house just outside the park, taking day hikes, swimming, climbing up waterfalls, and relaxing with late afternoon gin and tonics.

Words can only do so much to explain this dramatic and singular piece of land, and pictures are only slightly better, but they're the best we can provide.

Trailhead Selfie

Trailhead Selfie

Marmot

Marmot

Half Dome and Yosemite Valley from Cloud's Rest

Half Dome and Yosemite Valley from Cloud's Rest

Us at Cloud's Rest Summit

Us at Cloud's Rest Summit

Sunset over Sunrise Lake #2

Sunset over Sunrise Lake #2

Long Meadow

Long Meadow

Cathedral Spire

Cathedral Spire

Family in front of Cathedral Spire

Family in front of Cathedral Spire

Tunnel View

Tunnel View

Megan and Jordan at Lower Yosemite Falls

Megan and Jordan at Lower Yosemite Falls

Climbers on El Capitan

Climbers on El Capitan

Half Dome Sunset from Sentinel Dome

Half Dome Sunset from Sentinel Dome

Old Tree!

Old Tree!

Lower Cathedral Lake

Lower Cathedral Lake

Prime Hammock Placement at Sunrise Lake #2

Prime Hammock Placement at Sunrise Lake #2

 

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Adorable Asheville

I can't rave enough about this awesome town at the base of the Smoky Mountains in the northwestern corner of North Carolina. It's been six months since we've been and I still smile when I think of our time there.

Play Every Day in West Asheville

We'd been wanting to check out Asheville for a long time, and finally decided to make the 7-hour trip for a long weekend over New Year's. We reserved a cute apartment (complete with a kitty and chickens in the yard) in the West Asheville neighborhood through airbnb, and off we were with a list of a few dozen (!) restaurants, breweries, and galleries to visit!

Christopher Mello's Public Garden in West Asheville

Asheville packs a lot in a small space, but we managed to eat, drink and explore to our heart's delight, and left plenty to do for our next visit (hopefully in warmer weather!). When we weren't eating delicious Spanish tapas made by a chef with El Bulli training or sampling Indian street food that reminded of us our   favorite snacks in New Dehli, we were tasting microbrews and contra-dancing with the locals.

Pan Y Tomate at Curate

To burn off those calories and check out the local art scene, we spent half a day exploring the River Arts District, which spans along the French Broad River in former industrial buildings and showcases dozens of artists' work, ranging from pottery to paintings to textiles.

A Girl and Her Gun (River Arts District)

River Arts District

While most people think of the Biltmore mansion when they hear of Asheville, we skipped it because of the hefty price tag. So we did the next best thing, and spent a couple hours at the Grove Park Inn, which hosts a huge gingerbread house competition around Christmas every year. Sunset drinks on their expansive patio weren't bad either!

Grove Park Inn

Are you somehow still not sold on canceling whatever plans you had this weekend and driving down to Asheville right away?! How about a giant used bookstore with a champagne bar and tons of nooks and crannies to spend your afternoon?!

Bubbly and Books at Battery Park Book Exchange & Champagne Bar

Asheville has a friendly, down-to-earth feel that has clearly cultivated a creative community of people who love where they live and want to share it with others. We felt welcome everywhere we went and by our fifth day there, I was wishing I was a local too!

Taking a Break in Christopher Mello's Garden

While we weren't able to explore the area's endless outdoor opportunities-- hiking and rafting to name a few-- we did end the trip with a dip in the natural hot springs in - wait for it- Hot Springs, North Carolina! There's nothing quite like renting your own private tub for an hour in a rustic setting and treating yourself to some mineral therapy to confirm the fact that this little corner of the Carolinas is where it's at!

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 Pro Tips:

Eat and Drink:

  • The Admiral - random, delicious, constantly changing menu in what looks to be an old dive bar-- there's a fireplace outside to keep you cosy on a cold winter night, and there's dancing after 11 pm on Fridays and Saturdays (this is hipster heaven)
  • Biscuit Heads  - biscuits the size of your heads, served with gravy of your choice, or help yourself to the delicious butter and jam buffet!
  • The Bull and Beggar - From the team behind The Admiral- we only had cocktails at this spot in the River Arts District by but wished we could have tasted the food!
  • Curate Tapas Bar - grab a seat at the bar and enjoy delicious tapas!
  • Cucina 24 - Italian, try the tasting menu
  • Chai Pani - Indian street food. Try the Bhel Puri!
  • Early Girl Eatery  - Southern/comfort food, go for breakfast
  • French Broad Chocolate Lounge - almost any kind of chocolate creation you can imagine, go after dinner for dessert!

Drink:

  • Ben's Tune Up -  small but good draft selection served with a side of Japanese food in beer-garden atmosphere
  • The Southern - ask for Connor at the bar
  • Wicked Weed - awesome brews and great food. Always crowded.
  • Wedge Brewing  - fun brewery in the River Arts District (but beware, there is no food except peanuts!)

Do:

A Look Back at 2013

2013: The year of the unwritten blog post.

I don't know where the year went, but here we are, in glorious 2014, and I realize, thinking back, that we actually kinda got around this past year. Nothing like 2011-2012, but hey, you can't always have the (travel) year of your life. I'm not complaining, but I do miss the days when blogging was our full time job.

This past year involved a lot of US travel, some of it afforded by unexpected furlough time off for me, as well as a big Switzerland/Italy trip for my mom's 70th birthday that took us to possibly my new favorite place in Europe. I meant to write about all these adventures, but alas, this recap will have to do!

We started 2013 off by celebrating the new year with best friends in New Mexico, where we stalked Breaking Bad sites and stuffed our faces with 'New Mex' food in Albuquerque and then tried to burn it off on the slopes skiing in Taos. We hope to be back in that part of the world this spring, when Yael and Curtis welcome their first baby girl!

The Sandia Mountains near Albuquerque, New Mexico

The Sandia Mountains near Albuquerque, New Mexico

February involved a trip to NYC to see Nick's uncle who was visiting from Israel, and then a local skiing weekend at Snowshoe in West Virginia with friends that turned out almost as much fresh powder as our Taos weekend. Not wanting to push our luck any further with two amazing skiing trips under our belts, I began to think about sun. March took me to Palm Springs for my dear friend Chris' bachelorette party, where we ate citrus fruits off the trees and pretended we were in Mad Men.

Backyard of our Midcentury Mod Rental at Dusk

Backyard of our Midcentury Mod Rental in Palm Springs at Dusk

April rolled around, and I had my mind set on making lemonade (a SCUBA diving trip) out of lemons (forced furlough days). And we all know... when I set my mind on a trip, it is going to happen, come hell or high water. I brought little more than a bathing suit, my PADI card and my mom, and spent a week diving off the world's second largest barrier reef in Roatán, off the Caribbean coast of Honduras. Added bonus: it matched my furlough budget perfectly and the diving was some of the best I've ever done.

Cayos Cocinos, Honduras' Bay Islands

Cayos Cocinos, Honduras' Bay Islands

In May we celebrated our second wedding anniversary with a laid back weekend at Deep Creek Lake, in western Maryland, and then got ready for our big vacation in June! I first went to Switzerland to see my uncle and cousins whom I had not seen in years, and then Nick and I spent an absolutely amazing 11 days in Sardinia (Italy) with my mom and cousin, followed by a date weekend in Rome. I've said it before, but really, make Sardinia your next European vacation.

The Stirling Family in Switzerland

The Stirling Family in Switzerland

Cala Fuili, Cala Gonone, Sardinia

Cala Fuili, Cala Gonone, Sardinia

We try not to make a habit out of letting more than a year go by without checking out a music festival, so July brought us and our music fiend friend Kelly to Newport, Rhode Island, for the Newport Folk Festival. While I am not a huge folk fan, I loved the laid back vibe of the weekend, the awesome setting on the water, biking around the area, and of course, all the fried delicious Rhode Island seafood at Flo's Clam Shack. Seeing Black Prairie, Beck, Bombino, and The Lumineers wasn't too shabby either. We'll be back for more, that's for sure.

Black Prairie

Black Prairie

Since we didn't make the annual family reunion in upstate New York over July 4th weekend, we packed up the car and left for a long weekend to join Nick's dad's family in Sylvan Beach (on Lake Oneida near Syracuse) in August. Gin and tonics, fire pits, sunset photos, beach croquet and an upstate New York culinary specialty called "salt potatoes" made for a fun and relaxing long weekend with the Violi clan.

Gotta Get That Sunset Photo, part 589

Gotta Get That Sunset Photo, part 589

September brought me to East Hampton, New York for another amazing bachelorette weekend full of lawn games, delicious food and tons of laughs to celebrate my college roommate Joyce. Joyce, if you're reading this, don't forget about my offer to housesit that gorgeous Long Island South Fork house of yours anytime!

This Yard Is Almost as Pretty as the Bachelorette

This Yard Is Almost as Pretty as the Bachelorette

I love east coast fall more than anything. But before we totally let go of summer, we spent the last weekend of September in Southern Maryland, a place that's special to us because we were married there in 2011, and also because Chesapeake Bay crabs, hello! We camped and canoed in Point Lookout State Park, which was a Confederate POW camp during the Civil War; 4000 of its 50,000 prisoners supposedly died there. Prisoner ghosts aside, it's a lovely and serene gem of a place at the southern tip of Maryland's Western Shore, and it's also one of the launches for the ferry to tiny Smith Island, an eroding island with a population of less than 300. There's not much to do here, other than eat soft shell crabs at one of two restaurants, grab a slice of the famous Smith Island Cake, and bike between the two towns. We rounded out the weekend with a wine tasting at Woodlawn Farm, where we got married and hadn't been since!

Smith Island

Smith Island

Woodlawn Farm

Woodlawn Farm

October brought an unexpected trip to Chicago for me. The government shut down had me at home way too much, trying to avoid the relentless rain and the constant news feed that only seemed to indicate I definitely had enough time to take a last minute trip somewhere before those goons on the Hill got their acts together. The Windy City has been on my list for a long time, and I was lucky enough to make it there just a few weeks before my friends Jeff, Aimee, and their 5-month old daughter moved away, so I had lovely hosts to boot.

Cloud Gate (The Bean)

Cloud Gate (The Bean)

October and November took us to NYC two times, first to spend time with our close friends and their baby girl, and then for my friend Joyce's wedding, which was a fantastic college reunion. Between those two, we squeezed in a trip to Austin to visit our friends Amy and Ben, eat tacos, hit up a music festival, and eat more tacos. We were successful on all fronts!

Manhattan Sunset for Joyce and Mike's Wedding

Manhattan Sunset for Joyce and Mike's Wedding

Tacos at Takoba

Tacos at Takoba (Austin)

Thanksgiving through Christmas is all about family, and we do it up right. Nick's family in Boston throws a superb Thanksgiving get together, and three weeks later we reunite again at his grandparents' house in Manhattan, this time complete with a white elephant gift exchange and plenty of rounds of Coffee Pot and Celebrity. No reunion tee-shirts, no drama, just straight up fun!

The Older Heller Generations & Their New Friend

The Older Heller Generations & Their New Friend

And that (phew!) brings us to the end of the year, which Nick and I spent in adorable Asheville, North Carolina. I cannot speak highly enough of this town and our time there; it deserves its own post. All in all, a wonderful end to an awesome year! Already pumped about where 2014 will bring us...

River Arts District, Asheville

River Arts District, Asheville

Celebrating Love in East Hampton

This fall has afforded me some great East Coast and Midwest travel (thanks, dysfunctional government, for those 16 days off!).

My first fall trip was to East Hampton, Long Island, where a group of extremely fun gals and one lucky guy spent a long weekend in September celebrating the upcoming nuptials of one of my dearest friends Joyce. Her house is set on the stunning north coast of the South Fork on Gardiners Bay, facing slightly west for perfect sunset viewing. I spent most of the weekend laying in the grass, lifting my head up slightly to stare out at the gorgeous bay, and brainstorming how I could best convince Joyce's family that they needed a full time live-in caretaker who happens to be me, and who could be available for immediate hire. Here are some of my favorite shots of the weekend. I'll let you all know when they finally get around to hiring me!

Adirondacks in the Back Yard

Salsa Window at La Fondita

Something about this scene makes me think of Dr Seuss

Sunset Over Gardiners Bay

This Back Yard Is a Dream

 

Sailboat in Gardiners Bay

Sunset Group Shot

 

The Beautiful Bride-to-Be!

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Palm Springs: Don Draper, Date Shakes, and Desert

Palm Springs, California. The place might make you think of Bob Hope surrounded by palm trees in a desert. Or you might think of white sand beaches-- isn't there a Palm Springs in Florida? (Yes, but I avoid Florida at all costs). It may seem like a curious destination for a group of 30 y.o.-ish ladies and one very handsome gentlemen go to celebrate the impending wedding of our favorite bachelorette, Christina. But we wanted somewhere warm, with some kind of body of water (a backyard pool will definitely do!), that wasn't too complicated to get to for a weekend trip, and would be relaxing. Florida was out (see above), flights to the Caribbean were too expensive, LA and San Diego wouldn't be relaxing enough, and Sedona would have been beautiful but we're more mid-century mod than crystals and vortexes (vorti? I don't need to know the answer to that).

Wind Farms Near Palm Springs

So we found ourselves in a rental car driving from LAX to Palm Springs (about 120 miles), where the scenery goes from smog, bumper-to-bumper traffic, and In-N-Out signs set high above the highway interchanges to wind farms and desolate mountain ranges (don't worry, we definitely stopped to eat Animal Style burgers well before 11 am). I'd been out to this area four times before for the Coachella Valley Music Festival, but I'd never actually been to Palm Springs on any of those trips. We had opted for a Don Draper-esque rental house over staying at the infamous Ace Hotel, and did not regret that decision one bit. The house was spacious, simply but elegantly furnished, and retained its 1950s kitchen with original stove (but luckily not original blender).

Backyard at Dusk

 

The backyard was the real highlight though: wide, with a pool that actually went deeper than 3 feet (us city folk don't usually get to dunk our heads in any of those rooftop condo 'pools'), and multiple citrus trees, providing us unlimited fresh grapefruit and orange juice for our jalapeno margaritas, as well as a few of the MOST DELICIOUS TANGERINES I HAVE EVER TASTED. When the sun began to set and the temperature dropped, there was a hot tub from which we had a perfect view of the San Jacinto Mountains that border Palm Springs to the west.

The Bride-To-Be Fetching Grapefruits

The town's population is an interesting mix. There are of course retirees (as in any area that's warm and sprinkled with citrus trees and golf courses), as well as a healthy older gay population that seems to flock there from LA on the weekends to enjoy some fresher air and quiet. The main drag, Palm Canyon Drive, is a mecca for mid-century mod aficionados and design geeks. If money was no object, I'd easily be able to furnish my entire house from a 5-block stretch of home stores. Palm Springs' good taste in home furnishings was confirmed when we happened to walk by a store selling my father's Solair Chair, a colorful plastic backyard piece that he and his business partner designed in Montreal in the early 70s. The chair is popular in the US and Canada, but I'd never actually seen it in a store (it's mostly sold in Quebec and New England), and coming across it left me with an overwhelming sense of pride and happiness.

Stumbling Across My Dad's Solair Chairs

Just an hour away is the otherworldly Joshua Tree National Park, with its classic desert landscape, including plenty of the eponymous trees, mountains, and crazy rock formations (and some amazing climbing opportunities). We did an easy 7 mile hike in the northern part of the park, which was a great way to see the varying landscape of this area.

Joshua Tree National Park Panorama

Chris and Amy with a Joshua Tree

Back to the reason we had flown across the country: to celebrate Chris' final weeks as a bachelorette, and celebrate we did! We consumed copious amounts of homemade guacamole by the pool, grabbed a grapefruit off the tree whenever we needed a snack, ate some delicious dinners, including some of the yummiest pizza I've ever had in the US, and plotted how we could stay in our beautiful backyard forever. Oh and did I mention the date milkshakes? Life changing. Palm Springs' nightlife isn't exactly going to surpass NYC's or LA's anytime soon, but we found a townie karaoke bar and a divey seafood spot where oyster shooters are the star on the menu-- and let's be honest, does anyone really need more than that? It's no surprise the town was filled with bachelorette parties; it's the perfect place to relax, enjoy the California sun, and pretend that it's totally natural to have a swimming pool and green lawn in the middle of a desert! We'll be back for those delicious tangerines, and it's not going to be pretty for that poor tree. Thank you Chris, for giving us an excellent excuse to experience Palm Springs!

Group Shot at Birba

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Pro Tips:

  • Get a date shake and one of the many fruit orchards, such as Hadley's
  • Eat the amazing pizza at Birba, and don't skip dessert!
  • Get oyster shooters and fish tacos at Shanghai Red's
  • Have brunch at King's Highway, next to the Ace Hotel
  • Palm Springs is about a 2.5 hour drive from LAX, which is often cheaper to fly into than PSP
  • Rental houses can be found on vrbo,com and many other sites, or stay at the Ace if you want a 24-hour hipster pool party (you can also buy a day pass to the pool there)