Surviving the Louvre: Getting to, Getting into, and Enjoying Your Visit

It’s no small task to visit the Louvre. Spoiler alert: this is not a leisurely stroll where you can really absorb what you’re reading. Why you ask? Unless one of your languages is French, you won’t be able to read any of the signs for the artwork. I don’t understand why other museums around the world can post signage in two or four languages, but for some reason the Louvre has decided not to do that.

It’s an optic overload. The museum is housed inside of palace and that’s evidenced by the frescoes on the ceiling, the ornate gold on the walls and around the windows, and the sheer size of it.

One of the first rooms of the Sully entrance
One of the first rooms of the Sully entrance
Adorned in gold
Adorned in gold
Ornate hall
Ornate hall

Artifacts, paintings, and priceless memoirs of early human existence cover over 600,000 square feet/ 60,000 square meters of space. Three hours of moseying around this grand palace and my tootsies were getting very sore. There are ample places to sit, so they got that right.

Getting to the Louvre

Nearly everyone and their mom arrives via the subway/ metro, which dumps you into an exit where you arrive to the Louvre and you’re in fact surrounded by shops. This is really surreal, at least for me, because I literally uttered WTF while looking at the Apple Store – Thankfully it provides wifi. It’s just under the big glass pyramid.

Inevitably, there will be a long line jutting through the centre near where the two pyramids meet. This is the line to get through security. Note that if you are buying your ticket at the louvre, you must go through security first and then purchase your ticket at one of the counters that say, color me surprised, tickets.

Getting into the Louvre

Ticket machines and tellers are on the perimeter once you go through security. If you get lost look for the information desk, then focus your eyes past that and there’s a ticket area on the other side. Kind of brilliant really. If you have an international bank card that does not require a signature, you can use the ticket machines. Otherwise, you have to queue for a teller. Took me about two minutes on a Sunday afternoon, so not bad.

I picked up my ticket (€15 as of August 2015) and headed to the information desk to pick up a complimentary map of the museum. I thought it would be reassuring to know where galleries are at, but in fact it made me realize that there’s no way I could possibly cover it all.

So, focus on what you like. Do you like looking at marble slabs of rock hard abs carved by Michelangelo? Or would you rather see paintings? Or are you more interested in the Egyptian, Greek or Roman artifacts? (There are rooms dedicated to each). Pin this down before you get started to increase your odds of having a good time.

Then go to those first. I prefer looking at paintings so I can marvel at the texture, color composition, and the expressions on the subjects’ faces rather than Venus de Milo.

Disclaimer: Be honest with yourself. No matter how famous something is…if you’re not interested in that form of art, don’t spend the time, the patience and the energy looking for it and taking a mediocre picture of it. To take a picture and post it of something without knowing who the artist is or the inspiration of the work is a flimsy thing to do.

You don’t have to enjoy or give attention to every type of art. 

Honestly, after about three hours I was “arted” out. And I like art.

I saved the Mona Lisa for the end of my trip becaus I knew once I bore the brunt of the crowds I would be done with the museum. Turns out I know myself pretty well. There is signage everywhere pointing you to the Mona Lisa. It’s on the first floor in, naturally, the halls of the Italian paintings. On very busy days you will see a queue to see the Mona Lisa.

Entrance to the Mona Lisa. On especially crowded days the line begins back here.
Entrance to the Mona Lisa. On especially crowded days the line begins back here.

In this case, a Sunday afternoon, I was lucky to have to battle an arc of people about twelve people deep. When I visited the Mona Lisa in 2007, pictures were prohibited. Anyone caught with a camera was escorted out of the gallery. Now pictures are allowed, but no flash is permitted. Great, you’re thinking, except now we live in a world of selfie sticks and people jousting one another to make room for them and their selfie sticks. Not to mention its August, so it’s hot, and people are sweating, and odds are if you visit from March to September it will be smelly. That’s not too pleasant. So there’s people being smelly and being shovey and making  room for their selfie sticks selfishly and I kind of just wanted to hit them with it instead of admire the Mona Lisa.

The arc of people crowding around the Mona Lisa.
The arc of people crowding around the Mona Lisa.
Mona Lisa, taken from the right.
Mona Lisa, taken from the right.

I took my little picture of her cheeky little grin and found my way out quickly as the museum closes at 6pm (9:45pm on Wednesday and Friday).

I thought going a little more toward closing time would mean less of a crowd. Maybe what I experienced was a dwindle compared to what the day saw earlier, but half an hour to closing the place was still packed with people swarming everywhere like the Louvre is a hive. I stayed right until closing time and took the first metro home.

Tips to enjoy your visit:

  • Bring water and something to fan yourself with. The museum map works in a pinch, but in August it’s almost stifling warm.
  • Identify the art you’re most interested in seeing and start there.
  • Connect to the Louvre wifi and download the Louvre app. Plug in headphones. Insta-tour.
  • Carry some snacks to munch on while you’re browsing, because it’s a good ten minute endeavor to get from wherever you are to an exit.

When to go for budget travelers:

  • 18-26 are free on Friday evening regardless of nationally
  • 18-25 from EU, Iceland, Norway and Liechtenstein are free always (bring ID)
  • Under 18 is always free (bring ID)
  • Regardless of age or nationality, first Sunday of the month from October to March is free

Have you been to the Louvre? Looking to travel to the Louvre? Wanting to score unbelievably cheap flights to your next destination- click here.

Cheers,

Mark and Melody

24 Hours In: Things We Learned in Brussels

Bruxelles, a heavily blended capital city, location of the European Central Bank, and port of entry to the rest of Europe. With exactly 24 hours to eat, drink, and experience, these observations sum up our feelings about Brussels:

  1. In August, it’s hot. People said it was unusual, but it was so hot we decided to go out and drink instead of stay in our flat with no AC.
  2. Incredibly weighty French influence which no one in the UK or Ireland prepared us for. Totally caught us off guard to be greeted with a Bonjour/ Bon Soir. We expected a Flemish dialogue, some Germanic influence perhaps, but it was predominantly French.
  3. Drinking age is 16. While American high school students tweet about a drivers license, kids in Brussels are legally ordering their first brew with their parents. This is a limited drinking license as hard liquor is still prohibited for under 18s.
  4. Many embassy guards for the U.S. Frequent a bar called Roosters, which has two lovely bartenders – one named Kelly and the other Anna. They are incredibly funny and knowledgable about the area and their beers are reasonably priced too!
  5. I had a romantic fantasy that living above shops near downtown would be, in the words of Gretchen Weiners, so fetch. Early in the morning I’d wake up and head to the place right beneath my flat, grab a coffee, and begin my beautiful breezy day. The flip side of that dream is that at night, there are a lot of loud drunk people crowding the entrance to your flat, and you have to sneak in between them and open the door. It feels so odd having tons of complete strangers know where you live…
  6. Hardly anyone accepts American credit/ debit cards, even with a chip. We had to convert to euros because our cards kept getting declined. Come into Brussels with some cash, or find an exchange place, but please don’t exchange currency at the bus station,or airport. It’s a total rip off. 
  7. If you want to drink and talk to tons of people from all corners of the world, ask for the Delirium bar. It’s a narrow street with a dozen entrances to bars dedicated to one type of alcohol. There’s a tequila bar. There’s a vodka bar where you order a liter of vodka. All of them sell beer, but if you really want to prove your worth to yourself and all the strangers around you, order a two liter chalice of beer. Take time to wander upstairs, downstairs, around. You’ll find plenty of interesting things to see.
  8. The food district of Brussels is made of narrow streets crowded by outdoor seating and hosts standing in the walkway. As your eyes wander over to the menu, you’re immediately approached by someone and asked if you want to sit. I found this really revolting as they give you no time really to look at the menu, so we kept shaking our heads no and walked out of the restaurant district to a quieter, less pressure cooker type atmosphere.
  9. If you’re staying at an AirBnB here, please ask your host what floor they are on. We stayed on the top floor which I thought was awesome until we arrived and had to climb EIGHT, count them, EIGHT flights of stairs up and down to enter or leave this apartment.
  10. Want to make this known that I asked for tap water at a restaurant, was advised they “don’t do tap.” I told her bring the cheapest water, she brought me €6 mineral water. Sigh. 

If you’re planning a trip to Brussels, know that it’s a small capital city, and two to three leisurely days can cover the main attractions. If you have any questions about where to go, what to see, or what type of food to eat, send us a message! 

Mark and Melody

Giant’s Causeway: Worth the trip?

A popular day trip. A UNESCO world heritage site. Should you drive or take a tour? Most of the day trip tours from Dublin were coaches, about 45 to 60 euros per person, which yielded two hours or less at the causeway. We figured that’s not enough time if we wanted to see everything. Do it once, do it right! 

So we decided to drive. Driving on the left is a. It of a learning curve but becomes pretty intuitive. We were worried when the GPS keeps lost service. Fun fact though, so long as you load your map before you lose service and don’t exit the map, you’ll have it navigating. The roads in Ireland are much wider than Scotland’s roads, thankfully, and the drive to Belfast was an easy journey. 

Please note:

  • Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom, which means
  • Speed limit changes from kilometers per hour to miles per hour. 
  • Prices are in pounds, not euros. 

Once north of Belfast (around Ballymena) the roads become much narrower and curvy. If you’re driving it, be kind to yourself and fill up your gas tank before you get to Northern Ireland. 

Be prepared for rain. It’s likely to come in five minute bursts so a raincoat with a hood is ideal. Hiking shoes are necessary as the land is quite wet and can be very slippery. 

We were more impressed by the hiking trails that the stones of the causeway. Yes, they are cool and hexagonal and it’s kind of fun to walk around them like stairs, but we would have been severely disappointed if that is all we had been able to do. To get the most out of the experience, you’ve gotta do a hike. 

We took the red trail, difficult, to the yellow trail challenging. Anyone in decent physical shape can do these hikes. If you can climb a couple flights of stairs, you can do these hikes. The best part of the hike is that it rained, because a beautiful rainbow formed from the cliffs over the ocean. It was absolutely surreal. The best part of being on the cliffs, overlooking the causeway and the ocean, was feeling so infinitely small. There is no greater reminde of how massive and powerful the ocean is when you’re looking down at its crashing waves. You know the water is freezing because you can feel the chill in the misting rain that’s coming down in bursts. It’s incredibly windy, so you know you’re pretty high up. We felt positively invigorated by the end of the hike. 

If you’re going to go, hear this to make the most of your trip:

  • To have more of the causeway to yourself, get there before noon or after 2pm to avoid the coaches full of people.
  • Want incredible scenery? Take the red or yellow trail. 
  • Bring a raincoat. 
  • Attempt to park at Giants causeway even if the parking lot is full. It’s much closer. If you don’t want to wait for a possibility, there is a parking area at the bottom of the hill that where you can park your car and take a shuttle. 
  • Wear shoes that are good in muddy terrain. 
  • Check out the gelato at the gift shop by the building where you pay the £9 entrance and parking fee. Super sweet woman runs the little place and she loves to chat. She also takes USD. 

Questions? Let us know! 

Choosing Your First AirBnB

AirBnB has been truly great to us and we can’t recommend them enough. Every type of lodging is available: tree houses, huts, beach cabanas, modern flats and castles! Search functions allow you to search for a private room, a shared space, or the entire home. The prices vary as much as the style, meaning there is definitely a listing for your taste.

For accuracy in prices and availability, put in the dates you’re looking to stay, even if they’re tentative because you may find a place you like that happens to have a flexible host. It’s no fun to get super attached to a listing only to find out it’s not available. 😦

Before booking, check the cancellation policy. Each listing has one: flexible, moderate or strict. Flexible means you can cancel no later than 24 hours before your intended stay for a full refund, which is best for more spontaneous bookings. Moderate means cancellation must be made five days (in host’s local time) before intended stay for a full refund.  If you’re planning to attend an event or you’re pretty sure you won’t change plans, this is an option. Strict is… Strict. No full refunds are offered for Strict cancellation policies.  Instead, a 50% refund will be given for cancellations made seven days or more before your intended stay.

We’ve found the hosts to be quite delightful and to ensure you get the most out of your stay without any misunderstanding, we always message the host before booking. We also crafted a template to familiarize you with the site and ensure you ask vital questions with a message like this:

Hello, My husband and I are traveling to London from September 23 to September 28- confirming you have these dates available. We are mainly looking forward to visiting Westminster Abbey, Tower of London, and Camden Market. We would like to prepare a couple small meals as well. We will be arriving from Heathrow at 7pm- would you be home at that time? What is the best tube route to your location? 

Thank you kindly. 

Most hosts respond within two hours as they are eager to confirm guests :). Generally, a more outgoing, interactive host will respond with a more detailed message. Ask for recommendations in their area. If you’ve any allergies, it’s good to note that so the host can accommodate. We had an instance where a review noted a pet but the host didn’t, so if pets are something you need to avoid, confirm before the booking. At a different stay, I was totally under the impression the host would be there, but he didn’t live in the area anymore; the house was a rental property. For a first time stay, you may want to ask if there will be other guests in the house.

For short stay travelers looking to maximize time, ask:

  • What do you find is the best way to get around?
  • Is Uber operating here?
  • What times do the trains/ buses run?
  • Additional charge on public transit during peak travel times?

For super savvy and aspiring long term travelers, ask:

  • How far is the nearest market and when does it close?
  • How far is the nearest pharmacy?
  • Do you have ample pots and pans, flatware and cooking tools?
  • Do you have a clothes washer if I bring my own detergent?

For families of four or more, we recommend:

  • Selecting “entire house” instead of one room as a search filter. More privacy, flexibility and importantly security.
  • Booking as soon as possible if you’re attending an event. AirBnB hosts will raise prices too, sometimes three months in advance.
  • Letting the host know the ages of your children, especially younger tots.
  • If you rented a car, ask where the car can be parked. 

Final note: Give a host with no reviews a chance. We did and had a lovely stay!

Have you had an experience at airbnb you’d like us to feature? Let us know! We would love to hear your travel adventures.

Mark and Melody

London on a Budget: Don’t Forget This! 

When looking to travel in a big city like London, it’s easy to be seduced into picking the lowest price for hotels/ lodging. We found out the hard way that the cheapest place actually ends up costing more…

Big Ben.

How? Because time is valuable too. 

Our 100+ day journey (no return ticket!) started with a week in London, so this is sage advice for long journey travelers and ambitious tourists who believe they can absorb London in a week.

It’s hard to find a way around London being pricey: bargain hotels start at $130 USD near the main attractions and hostels are mostly dorm style. AirBnB is typically the best way to get quality lodging at a deeply discounted rate. Unless you’re the worlds greatest hotel rewards points collector of course, in which case, don’t be afraid to share.

After looking into our options, we found a beautiful little place ‘just outside of London City Center’ for a modest $38 per night. That’s just $19 per person, per night. We had a nice little kitchen to cook in and a living room – excellent!

We flew ‘Into London’ (rolls eyes) and began working our way toward the house. Color me surprised to find that it would take us nearly an hour and a half via train and underground to get there.

Geograph-2430114-by-Malc-McDonald

Transit into London came at a steep cost of $77 via train on the express, taking about 45 minutes. Buy your ticket in advance and you might not get taken advantage of like we did. After another two transfers, we ended up on the train that would take us 45 minutes outside of London City Center ($4). We then walked / climbed the hill that brought us to the house we would call home for the next week.

Side note: This hill did not mess around. It puts San Francisco to shame. I’ve been on trail hikes less exerting than this. I felt like a winded mountaineer. What’s worse is these delightful little British kids are running all up and down this hill like it’s the easiest thing they’ve done all day. Ah.  Good ol days.

EVERY day we went into London to visit the Tower of London, or Tower Bridge, or the Beefeater Gin Distillery, or to visit a random park to have lunch, we were literally travelling uphill both ways. So that’s what my grandparents meant.


We took the bait for the cheapest place and paid a lot in time; over 18 hours was spent traveling to and from London city center which was $148 in fare over seven days for two people. The underground, overground and Thameslink train are surprisingly inexpensive, but we definitely could have used that 18 hours to spend another day at the Imperial War Museum, the National Gallery or the British Museum. 

Taking into account travel costs, the weighted cost of lodging became $415 – not taking into account our time (which of course everyone values differently). That brought the nightly rate to $59.29 or $29.65 per person.

We may have been able to find something that was more accessible and end up spending the same amount (or less), by opting for something a little higher in initial cost.

Pro-tips:

London’ is broken up into six zones. Zones one and two are where most of the popular attractions are. We were technically staying in London, but zone six, which was an hour away from the center. A trip to the Jewish Museum, a little further afield, was over 90 minutes away and back.

If you are staying at an airbnb (which we totally recommend) please ask them what zone they are in and what station they are near. Give us a shout if you need help deciphering the infamous London Underground map. 🙂

Think about how much time you want to spend getting to your points of interest each day, and always account for potential delays when you are further away. Remember – time is money!

Cheaper accommodation usually sacrifices: Convenience, Amenities, and/or Access to Transit. Even if you do not mind spending more time in transit, always take the everyday travel cost into account when making your decision.

AirBnB London

Consider a slightly more expensive accommodation to save yourself time or money overall. Looking back now, we could have spent $40-50 per night at a different AirBnB and found ourselves at a spot near London City Center, which would have saved us $65-135 – not to mention the time we spent and the stress incurred by the longer transit.


Whether you are on a mission to visit every country in the world as we are, or you’re just looking for a quick getaway to a world city, we hope that the information here might prove enlightening whilst you are planning.

Please send us a note of the travels you wish to embark on, and don’t be afraid to let the travel bug bite.

Mark & Melody

Your Survival Guide to Driving in Scotland

The scenery in Scotland is world class. Traveled to over a dozen countries and it’s truly some of the most majestic landscapes I have ever seen. Scotland deserves independent exploration, some time to get lost in the incredible greenness of the area. After some frustrating, laughable trial and error, we can give you this must know list to make driving in Scotland much easier. 

There are four types of roadway: M, A, B, and C. The M stands for motorway, and that’s your typical highway (ex, M6, M74). A is secondary road, a busy two or four lane road (ex, A735, A82). B and C are curvy, narrow, back country roads.

The speed limit on these roads are in MILES PER HOUR, not kilometers per hour:

M roads: 70 mph

A and B roads: 60, but sometimes required to slow to 40 or 30 mph

C roads: 30 mph

This was discovered when we were going 60kph (37 mph) on a motorway designed for 60mph. No wonder we were getting passed right and left! Speaking on passing…

Odds are if you’re visiting Scotland, you come from a country that drives on the right. Your highways have the slow lane on the right, entrance and exit ramps on the right, and the fast lane on the left, toward the middle of the highway. In the UK, people drive on the left. This means the slow lane is on the left, the entrance and exit ramps are on the left and the fast lane is to your right. If you need to pass someone, you will be moving left to right. 

Love roundabouts. Scotland uses roundabouts instead of stoplights, so your GPS will be prompting you to take exits off roundabouts with about the same frequency you stop at a light in your hometown. Some of them are quite large, while others are the size of an intersection in a suburb community. Enter roundabouts by turning LEFT. 

Signs approaching a dangerous curve or severe dip in the road will tell you to slow down but not tell you what speed to reduce to. Generally reducing speed by 5-10mph will yield a more comfortable turn. But if you’re in a sports car and you want to power slide or attempt to drift,  just maintain and you’ll get a good thrill.

Drive during the day only. In the summer, the sun doesn’t set until 10pm. Many of the A, B and C roads are without street lighting which can be very dangerous. 

Taking a car around Scotland has proven to be taxing on the body and mind, especially with a manual drive car. Nearly all rental cars in the UK are manual: automatic drive is about twice as much. However, the scenery is more than rewarding and more than worth it. 

Safe travels! 

Eating in Oslo is Outrageously Expensive

Eating Diagram

Oslo may no longer be the world’s most expensive city (it lost that rank in 2013), but it is still outrageously expensive. Unfortunately, for budget travelers looking to spend $50 USD or less, there is not a lot to do other than walk. Happy hour doesn’t exist here. Eating on the cheap doesn’t exist here. Thankfully the couple we are pet-sitting for left a fridge with some foodstuffs in it because otherwise we would DIE.

At an Irish pub, $120 was spent in Oslo on 2 Guinness, 2 ciders, a chicken club sandwich, Irish stew, and a whiskey.

We thought, no worries (actually Mark was like “WHAT!”), we’ll just eat from convenience stores and gas stations…

At a Shell gas station, $30 was spent on a Coke ($4), water bottle ($4), two Snickers bars, a muffin, and two hot dogs.

We learned that the city pretty much shuts down in July and it is cheaper to spend a month anywhere else in Europe than it is to stay in Oslo. We learned this after we walked around Oslo looking for cheap eats courtesy of Yelp, but two of the places we went to were closed.

We wound up… at a Norwegian version of Chipotle (one of two places open) where two burrito bowls cost $30.

We’ve finally given up on dining out, even as a treat, so we relegated to finding the grocery store. Only to discover…

Grocery stores close at noon on Saturday and are closed on Sunday.

When I said I wanted to lose weight, this is not what I had in mind.

What We’ve Learned After 3 Days in London

Our first stop on our 111 day journey around the world takes us to London. What a city. We had a lot of expectations, both of ourselves and of the city. Here’s what we’ve learned with a little bit of tough love from one of the world’s most cosmopolitan places, and see this link for how to do London on a Budget.

1) This is not a bargain town. With the USD-GBP exchange rate, we’re getting about 64 pounds for every $100 USD. Here’s a point of reference, all prices in pounds:

Cheap beer: 4
Nice beer: 6
175 ml glass of wine: 6-8
Appetizers (half the size of American apps so a bad substitute for dinner): 9-12
Cheap dinner: 13
Filling Dinner: 20-30

So you can see, a nice (non-budget) dinner for two could easily eat up your 64 pounds.
In other words, you’ve just spent $100 on one meal.
No tipping here. Please don’t do it. And no added-on tax. The price you see on the receipt is what you pay.

Picking up foodstuffs from supermarkets or grocery stores is key to saving money.

Cold/ Flu Medicine: 4 [please see note here about pharmacies in the UK]
Small bottle of water: 1
Large water: 2
Takeaway pasta from grocery store: 4 (or you can get lucky with a 3 for 3 deal at Sainsbury’s)
Box of tea: 2

NOTE: There are Panera Bread type places where you can purchase coffees, smoothies and bread items, but you will see two prices: a takeaway (to-go) and eat-in price. The eat-in prices are higher because of a VAT (value added tax) charge. Our suggestion? Get your items for takeaway and eat at one of the numerous parks and green spaces.

2) Please be extremely mindful of the amount of walking/ stair-climbing you do. It is very easy to wear out your body and thus make yourself sick. London is very walkable, but please please plan your visits to attractions in clusters and plan for no more than three attractions a day. It is not necessary to visit the Imperial War Museum and the National Gallery in the same day. They are on opposite sides of town and there is plenty in each “zone” to keep you busy for an entire day.

3) Buy an OysterCard the day you arrive (and think twice about the London Pass). They’re available at the airport, convenience stores, kiosks, and supermarkets. It gives you access to the tube (underground subway), the overground (above-ground subway), and the buses for very low prices. We took a bus during the tube strike: they’re great. Note: As of July 2015, the tube does not run 24 hours; in September 2015, 24 hour tube operations are scheduled to begin.

4) If you have an unlocked phone that can take a different SIM, we strongly suggest you seek out a LycaMobile SIM for 1 pound. The plan we purchased was 17 pounds and came with 2000 minutes, 5GB of data and unlimited text messages. This means we can load maps on Google with the route/ directions, put the phone on airplane mode to save battery/ data, and use the pre-loaded map. Genius. It works. It saves battery. We haven’t gotten lost.

Cheers.

xx

Snorkeling at John Pennekamp State Park – Know Before You Go!

As part of our ambitious desire to visit every state park, we thought a snorkeling adventure at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park would be an easy and fun addition to our list. We called the snorkeling crew down in Key Largo and made a reservation over the phone a day before. The next morning, we made the drive to Key Largo.

The park is easy to find with plenty of signs directing you. Like any other state park, it’s a $6 entrance fee to the park for a car with 2-8 people. With your receipt you’re given a map of the park and some history of the area.

After you park your vehicle you’ll see an education center with some wildlife and conservation information. A little further and you’ll see the area where you’ll check in, which is the gift shop and activities check-in desk together..

The conditions for the water are listed on a whiteboard when you go to check in which details the level of choppiness and visibility in the water.

They have mask, snorkel and fin rentals available in case you don’t bring your own, but I definitely suggest you find your closest WINGS store and pick up a set there. Buying a mask/ snorkel set at Pennekamp will cost a hefty $30.

Fortunately, the people at John Pennekamp don’t make you pay in advance. Unfortunately, we and two other people signed up for the snorkeling adventure and drove about two hours to get to the park. We got to the counter, big-eyed and bushy tailed, ready to snorkel to our hearts’ content when we were told…

The water is too choppy. We might not be running the tour today. If we do run the tour, you will need to be an experienced snorkeler and a strong swimmer.

FYI: I’m not the world’s strongest swimmer. Mark’s never snorkeled. The couple we were with had both snorkeled and swam, but they weren’t keen on bobbing about in choppy waters. We decided to have lunch and see how we felt about going. When we went back inside, we were told that the waters were still really choppy (the wind was gusting at about 15-20 miles per hour) and good visibility wasn’t guaranteed.

Translation: The current is kicking up a bunch of sand and you might not actually see shit.

With the tour being about $40-50 a person including the gear rental, we decided that going snorkeling on a super windy, super choppy day wouldn’t be the best idea for first-time snorkelers.

Alternative plan: We asked about the glass-bottom boat tour, but were told the choppy waters were churning up the sand and reducing visibility on the boats as well.

So, what’s a group to do in John Pennekamp if you’re not snorkeling/ glass-bottom-boating?

It turns out… not a whole lot.

There are three small beaches where you can put your towel down or post up some chairs, but the sand is packed hard and it’s really uncomfortable to lay on. There’s a few boardwalks, and there’s kayaking, but we went kayaking at Oleta River State Park the day before, so our upper bodies were sore.

We wound up leaving about an hour after lunch and headed to Crandon Park, near downtown Miami, for a classic cityscape photo shoot before driving home.

Pro-tip #1: Make a reservation a day before, then call before you leave and ask about “if the conditions are clear, the waters are smooth, and if we can see the statue.”

Pro-tip #2: Buy your own mask and snorkel, even at a drugstore. It’ll be cheaper and function just the same. And you can keep it.

Ciao!

3/161: Lover’s Key State Park

I’m pretty sure we’re list freaks.. We find a list of places  and decide to do it. (48 contiguous states? Check. Every country in the world? Wellll, that will take a little longer, but we’ll get there eventually…)  Thinking a little bit closer to home, we decided to go visit every state park in Florida. Good news! There’s 161 of them. 

Living in Miami wed never known there’s that much land to make state parks OUT of. Here we are, though, at #3: Lover’s Key State Park. It’s about two hours to drive across the state to Ft. Myers, and it’s well worth a visit. A $2 donation will get you in (honor’s system!). Park your car, no fees, no frills, just a really good beach.

IMG_0670

Let’s describe the sand. Oh, the sand is like baby powder. So gentle and fine and so beautiful you don’t mind it creeping in your shoes or between your toes. Even when it’s hot the sand remains cool. (This is not so on the East Coast, where the sand from the Atlantic Ocean will burn your toes right off!). OK. Enough about the sand. The water. Crystal clear. Even after a storm it’s clear. It’s got this turquoise almost island tint to it. It’s beautiful. Refreshing and clear. You can see every speck of baby powder sand.

Then there’s the things to look at. Seashells. Sand dollars. Sponges. Real live sponges. Coral. Crabs (not the bad kind, the scurrying across the sand kind). Most importantly, the beautiful lack of people. Though the parking is right off the main road, it really  feels like you have the place to yourself.

Close up of a sponge
Close up of a sponge
Sponges vary from a beige to orange to a bright red
Sponges vary from a beige to orange to a bright red
We wandered to the back of the park to have the sun right in front of us. No matter where you are on the Gulf Coast of Florida, you can’t go wrong with the sunset. This is a great place if you are the kind of person that likes long walks on the beach. Here’s our favorite sunset shots: Let us know which view you like more! 
 
To the west, a big orange ball sinks quickly into the Gulf.
To the west, a big orange ball sinks quickly into the Gulf.
To the east, cotton candy clouds  of pink, blue and purple cover the sky.
To the east, cotton candy clouds of pink, blue and purple cover the sky.

State Signs Tour: Part III – The West in a Weekend

The west has some undeniably beautiful landscape – from Colorado to California to Yellowstone National Park. As a duo coming from Florida we witness no seasons (unless you count VERY rainy and LESS rainy seasons) and no real topographic change. This is the foundation for the dash to drive the entire west in a weekend.

Remember that we are your corporate employed 9-5 day jobbers. We gave ourselves three days to drive through America’s largest states. We dropped ourselves into Denver at 11pm straight from Miami. Landing at a new airport always gives me such a rush (see blog post: #5: Depart, Land or Connect at 10 International Airports) and Denver was new to me. We walked straight to the rental car kiosk, picked up the car and drove straight through the night from Denver to the Four Corners Monument.

The timing couldn’t have been better. We pulled up the Four Corners Monument right as the sun was coming up. It’s a beautiful, humbling sight to see this giant orb of light awaken a desert where no concrete jungle resides for hundreds of miles.

FRIDAY:

Good Morning Colorado!
Good Morning Colorado!

At this point we had been up for more than 24 hours. After visiting the monument, we head to each of the states that make up the four corners and collect those signs like Mario collected gold coins on Super Nintendo.

The sign says it all

Apparently someone was not fond of the slogan, "Land of Enchantment."
Apparently someone was not fond of the slogan, “Land of Enchantment.”

BONUS: Navajo Nation!

A land of artists, it seems. We stopped in a grocery store in New Mexico and found that most other shoppers were speaking Navajo or other dialect.
A land of artists, it seems. We stopped in a grocery store in New Mexico and found that most other shoppers were speaking Navajo or other dialect.
Arizona's humble greeting, considering it houses one of the most iconic destinations in the US.
Arizona’s humble greeting, considering it houses one of the most iconic destinations in the US.

And last but not least, Utah!

Nearly a mile up, we made sure to drive across the state border so we can honestly say we drove in Utah.
Nearly a mile up, we made sure to drive across the state border so we can honestly say we drove in Utah.

We had a limited amount of daylight hours, so we wanted to be sure to get to the Grand Canyon before the sun set. It was an afternoon well spent, and Mark spent a considerable amount of time off the park trails.

Hint: You're not supposed to be over there! But we've never been the type to stick only to the trail.
Hint: You’re not supposed to be over there! But we’ve never been the type to stick only to the trail.

The sun began sinking into the horizon shortly after we left the Grand Canyon, bound for Nevada. It’s now Saturday evening, and we’ve been up for nearly 36 hours without shut eye. I’m starting to get tired – seems reasonable, right?
We make Nevada, and every time we cross a state line I get another surge of energy.

Arriving in Nevada atop the Hoover Dam
Arriving in Nevada atop the Hoover Dam

We decide to stop in Vegas.

Incredible sunset as we make our way to Nevada.
Captivating sunset greets us in Vegas

We grab In-n-Out (a must do, right?) and set up camp at Bellagio (more on that experience later). We decide to lay on the bed and give our bodies a well deserved stretch and…
That’s all I remember of Vegas.

SATURDAY:

We woke up and left Vegas at 11am. A quick 45 minute loop west welcomed us to San Bernandino, CA.

Good Morning California! Wish we could have stayed longer.
Good Morning California! Wish we could have stayed longer.

At this point we plugged in the GPS our destination for the night: Walla Walla, WA. What did the GPS say? Continue straight for 500 miles. US-93 is dubbed the Great Basin Highway and is the lonely two-lane road that gets people from Vegas to Idaho.

Cutting straight into the Rocky Mountains, the drive from California/ Nevada border to Idaho took about 10 hours to complete.
Cutting straight into the Rocky Mountains, the drive from California/ Nevada border to Idaho took about 10 hours to complete.

By the time we reach Idaho, it’s just about midnight. Mind you, we did this drive in September, when it’s still blistering hot in Miami, so I did not pack jackets or close-toed shoes or really anything to keep warm. But when I stepped out of the car to get a snapshot of Idaho at midnight, I surely wish I had packed differently.

Sometime around midnight, we reach the beautiful Glacier country of Idaho.
Sometime around midnight, we reach the beautiful Glacier country of Idaho.

We cut over to Oregon because there was no stopping now. We were armed with energy drinks and super unhealthy snacks. I lamented driving through Oregon at night ( and I’m sure most Oregonians would agree with this sentiment) as the countryside in the Pacific Northwest is some of the most beautiful (in my completely biased opinion). However, the goal was to collect state signs like gold coins in Super Mario, so that we did do:

We will return, I promise!
We will return, I promise!

Our intended destination was Walla Walla, but we’re overachievers and we drove the extra couple of hours to Spokane. This is where my energy exploded everywhere because I absolutely love Washington. It’s probably my favorite state. I’ll probably write an entire piece decided to Melody’s love of Washington state. For right now though, we’ll stick to just the state welcome sign.

SUNDAY:

OK, so maybe there's two things I love about this picture. Washington and that handsome man. OK, maybe three, because I do love sunrises too...
OK, so maybe there’s two things I love about this picture. Washington and that handsome man. OK, maybe three, because I do love sunrises too…

Mark also decided that a night picture of the Idaho wasn’t good enough, so he took a beautiful capture of the sun peeking through the Idaho sign at the Washington border.

This sign began a chapter of unbelievable glacier crafted scenery.
This sign began a chapter of unbelievable glacier crafted scenery.
Good Morning Idaho! Lovely mountain range you have here.
Good Morning Idaho! Lovely mountain range you have here.

Not an hour later do we cross into Montana. At this point we begin wondering how far it is to Glacier National Park.
… It was too far. We wanted to do Yellowstone slightly more.

Such a tiny little sign for such a large state!
Such a tiny little sign for such a large state! =)
Beautiful glacier cut mountains, beautiful water.
Beautiful glacier cut mountains, beautiful water.

When we arrived to Yellowstone, we had just a few hours to explore the park. This is easily a place to spend a week but we managed to see Old Faithful, which is incredibly timely, several mineral springs, bacteria pools, and a buffalo.

BONUS: Yellowstone National Park sign.
BONUS: Yellowstone National Park sign.

We did find a little gem of a waterfall, Lewis Falls, upon exiting the park (headed south toward Colorado).

Tucked away as you leave Yellowstone with paved trails that allow for a much closer viewing.
Tucked away as you leave Yellowstone with paved trails that allow for a much closer viewing.

It’s about 8 hours from Yellowstone National Park to Denver, CO where our flight was scheduled to depart the following night.

MONDAY:

We departed Yellowstone just as the sun was going down and drove through Wyoming. We collected our last sign, our last gold coin, at the Wyoming/ Colorado border.

Our final state, our final sign! Our state sign collection is complete!
Our final state, our final sign! Our state sign collection is complete!

MONDAY NIGHT: We took the redeye from Denver to Miami, arrived in Miami at 5am and were back to work by 8.

Our whirlwind trip can be summed up like this:

West Map

The Most Ridiculous Drive: State Road Sign Tour: Part II

AKA: State Road Signs: Part II

What was supposed to be a trip to Miami to Dallas and back turned into Miami to North Dakota.
I’m tired just thinking about running this trip again, but it is one of our craziest adventures to date.

The fourth of July holiday lent us a four day weekend. Considering we covered nearly 2,000 miles in less than 72 hours, we were excited to see what mess we could uncover with four whole days.

We took off early afternoon on Wednesday July 3rd. The trip leaving Miami to get up to Tallyho (Tallahassee area aka Seminole Nation) was relatively smooth. However, anyone that has driven any length of Interstate 10 knows it’s the most boring but difficult road to drive. It’s like driving on a cooked spaghetti noodle. There is no part of the road where you set cruise control and just coast. It’s treacherous. It was raining. And in Mark-like fashion, the wheel got turned over to me at 2am, but not without snapping these gems first.

If you'll notice, I'm still in dress pants that I wore to work. Fashion faux pas, I know.
If you’ll notice, I’m still in dress pants that I wore to work. Fashion faux pas, I know.
Before the galaxy camera and definitely before the Nikon. The humidity was getting to the poor Iphone camera. Welcome to Mississippi sometime around midnight.
Before the galaxy camera and definitely before the Nikon. The humidity was getting to the poor Iphone camera. Welcome to Mississippi sometime around midnight.

It was raining. It rained for awhile. We were dodging rain drops like they were bullets.

If you've ever wondered which hour is the longest of the night, it's the time between 3am and 4am. From about 3:30 on, all I was wishing for was the sun to rise. I needed a wake up call, mother nature style.
If you’ve ever wondered which hour is the longest of the night, it’s the time between 3am and 4am. From about 3:30 on, all I was wishing for was the sun to rise. I needed a wake up call, mother nature style.

Once the sun came up, I was anxious to get some shut eye. I wanted to doze, but we were so close to Arkansas! Once the Mark has slept, he becomes quite vibrant and alive. Everything outside the car becomes positively awesome. I’ve reclined my seat back, a shirt over my face to block out the sun I so desperately wished for, and I’m just about asleep when I hear..

OH MY GOD! Look at that! That is cool.
Moments pass. I think to myself, that was probably something neat to see. Not a minute later does Mark go, “Wow! Those are gorgeous!” OK. Now I can’t sleep. How can anyone sleep with that much enthusiasm balled up in the driver’s seat?

Looking spiffy and proud as we leave the bayou for Texas
Looking spiffy and proud as we leave the bayou for Texas

Coffee, I’m thinking. Anything. But now the sun is up, and honestly the fact that I was in the car in a different state made me so excited that sleeping now became impossible. The seat back gets propped up and we make our way through Texarkana. By the way, an interesting place. We spent about an hour trying to figure out whether it’s TexarCONa or TexarCANa. Goodness.

For the claim that everything is bigger here, the sign was a little underwhelming (Please see Rhode Island). I'm on the phone. And here's why...
For the claim that everything is bigger here, the sign was a little underwhelming (Please see Rhode Island). I’m on the phone. And here’s why…

It’s about this time where we begin to discuss driving to NORTH DAKOTA. It’s only another thousand miles or whatever, right? What’s the difference. We’d already driven that. I’m on the phone with Hertz trying to determine if it’s even remotely possible to drop the car off in a different state and fly home.

Improvising at its best.

Not a state sign notwithstanding, I was pleasantly surprised to pull up to this five star resort. Ahh, sleep at last. And a happy Melody. That's a winning combination.
Not a state sign notwithstanding, I was pleasantly surprised to pull up to this five star resort in Dallas. Ahh, sleep at last. And a happy Melody. That’s a winning combination.

Finally a nap. We go to explore Dallas. Where’s all the fireworks? Where’s the drunken debauchery? Nowhere to be found. Dear Dallas, your Independence Day festivities are lacking. Sincerely, ME. We wound up rubbing shoulders with some young Marine friends and some woman that was very interested in my man. Which made me very interested in her. Until I saw this gem.

Good ol' Johnny telling the world what he thinks about it.
Good ol’ Johnny telling the world what he thinks about it.

That’s about all I remember about Dallas.
The next thing I remember is leaving Dallas and heading up to the Dakotas. So close, but yet so far.

We're driving to Oklahoma and I, as a sunflower lover, went bug eyed for this little patch of tall and skinnies.
We’re driving to Oklahoma and I, as a sunflower lover, went bug eyed for this little patch of tall and skinnies.

We zigzagged across state lines which is pretty easy to do; there’s really only one interstate that takes you straight up the country.

The first sign we saw made completely out of stone.
The first sign we saw made completely out of stone.
Good afternoon Kansas!
Good afternoon Kansas!
Maybe we'll see you next time Joplin. It also took a lot longer to get through Missouri than I expected.
Maybe we’ll see you next time Joplin. It also took a lot longer to get through Missouri than I expected.
Endless cornfields and a cloudless sunset made for a beautiful setting.
Endless cornfields and a cloudless sunset made for a beautiful setting.

By the time we got to Iowa, it was time to eat. We were chugging along with the help of Monsters and an assortment of candy ranging from Twizzlers to sour gummy worms to chocolate . It was time to eat real food.

Interestingly enough, we got welcomed to Omaha before the state of Nebraska.

Good to meet you Omaha, but what state are we in?
Good to meet you Omaha, but what state are we in?
This sign was an act of Congress to get. We drove back to Iowa from Omaha and there was no Nebraska sign. The only option was to drive up to South Dakota and make a U-turn.
This sign was an act of Congress to get. We drove back to Iowa from Omaha and there was no Nebraska sign. The only option was to drive up to South Dakota and make a U-turn.

We’re getting into the wee hours of the morning again, so that means it’s my turn to drive.
The road from Nebraska to North Dakota is lonely. The speed limit is 75. There was construction. It was dark. The sky was truly a blanket of stars. Had I been camping, I would have loved it.

But I wasn’t camping. So I didn’t love it. It was in fact a very stressful drive. There were warning signs for all kinds of wildlife that may be bouncing around in the bushes. I feared every reflector post on the road was a pair of beady little deer eyes. From about 10pm to 4am, (Mark will disagree with this to no avail. He calls this an exaggeration) I carried the tremendous burden of transporting us safely to the Dakotas, waking him gently once we finally arrived.

It's well past midnight. Exhaustion is setting in.
It’s well past midnight. Exhaustion is setting in.

Finally we get to North Dakota. I’m gently awoken that we’ve arrived at the North Dakota sign. I sleepily open the passenger door and these MOSQUITOES THE SIZE OF SOFTBALLS get themselves knotted up in my hair. Rude awakening. What’s more is that we got a crap shot of the North Dakota sign. The iphone did the best it could.

Don't worry, we got a real one.
Don’t worry, we got a real one.
This is at the North Dakota / Minnesota state line. For some reason the Iphone had some kind of heart attack and went completely belly up in picture taking, but resumed completely normalcy upon entering Minnesota.
This is at the North Dakota / Minnesota state line. For some reason the Iphone had some kind of heart attack and went completely belly up in picture taking, but resumed completely normalcy upon entering Minnesota.
Crossing into Minnesota just as the sun peeked over the horizon.
Crossing into Minnesota just as the sun peeked over the horizon.
After stopping at the Mall of America for lunch (Awesome!), we wander into Wisconsin. Awesome cheese and a wicked cool welcome sign.
After stopping at the Mall of America for lunch (Awesome!), we wander into Wisconsin. Awesome cheese and a wicked cool welcome sign.
We have a couple of hours to hang out in Chicago, so we went to the top of Sears (Willis) Tower to take a look at the city. Beautiful sunset over Lake Michigan.
We have a couple of hours to hang out in Chicago, so we went to the top of Sears (Willis) Tower to take a look at the city. Beautiful view over Lake Michigan.

By the time we leave Chicago (after failing at obtaining Chicago pizza, that story soon to come), it’s nearing 9pm. We’ve decided at this point to drop the rental car off at the Louisville International Airport and fly back to Miami from there. There are five more states to go. Ready?

Sometime around midnight, we hit Indiana. A quick U-turn gives us a shot of Illinois.
Sometime around midnight, we hit Indiana. A quick U-turn gives us a shot of Illinois.
I appreciated the carving of the welcome sign into the overpass as well.
I appreciated the carving of the welcome sign into the overpass as well.

It’s well past midnight. We make Michigan.

In the state for a solid ten minutes.
In the state for a solid ten minutes.

It’s raining. We’re both exhausted. We need to sleep. We pull off on the side of the road to take a quick nap. A highway officer knocks on our window, tells us, You can’t sleep here, but there’s a rest stop a mile up the road. Mark drives us to the rest stop. We get some shut eye, and wake up with the sun and begin our drive again.

We make Ohio shortly before breakfast.

Shortest state visit to take - about 45 seconds total! A turnaround lane about 1/5 mile up let us get back on the road, headed south.
Shortest state visit to date – about 45 seconds total! A turnaround lane about 1/5 mile up let us get back on the road, headed south.
We make Louisville in amazing time, enough to explore Louisville's bridges and have a brew before the flight home.
We make Louisville in record time, enough to explore Louisville’s bridges.
Two peas in a pod, ready for a nap and a flight home.
Two peas in a pod, ready for a nap and a flight home.

Not bad for 96 hours, right?

Recreation of our route to the best I can recall.
Recreation of our route

#MarkandMelody

#65: Vizcaya Museum and Gardens, Miami Florida

Miami is a relatively young city, and I am an architecture and history buff. The older a building is, the more interesting it is to me. I’m pretty sure I would lose my mind in Rome, Istanbul or the countryside of England as all of those places have architecture dating back millenia.

I digress. We do the best we can where we are. Vizcaya Museum was built by Chicago magnate James Deering from 1914 to 1926. This was his “summer home.” Standards have certainly changed. Here are pictures of the grounds of his vacation house.

View from the Gardens facing the house. In the back wing was the informal dining room, multiple bedrooms with international motifs and decor, and an entertaining space.
View from the Gardens facing the house. In the back wing was the informal dining room, multiple bedrooms with international motifs and decor, and an entertaining space.

Fountain overlooking the gardens

Fountain over Vizcaya Gardens

The gardens are an intricate, geometric maze of foliage and flowers. Pools of water and fountains create an ambiance that is pleasing to all of the senses.
The gardens are an intricate, geometric maze of foliage and flowers. Pools of water and fountains create an ambiance that is pleasing to all of the senses.

This place is massive. It’s gorgeous (and sweltering – we are in subtropical climate). Thousands of weddings and quinceaneras take place here. It’s not uncommon to stumble onto an event photo shoot.

We just indulged on a Nikon D5200 as we will be going to Costa Rica in two weeks (stay tuned for those!) and found Vizcaya a perfect place to get familiar with the camera. Mark got his photography prowess on and managed to catch me in a few very scenic, romantic spots around the gardens.

Archways covered in vines are everywhere on the grounds, creating the romantic, vintage feel of a classic love story.
Archways covered in vines are everywhere on the grounds, creating the romantic, vintage feel of a classic love story.

James Deering was a refined man and wanted to make sure his guests were well aware. Letters to visitors managed to be preserved and are on display. Mr. Deering was indeed a refined man with exceptionally high expectations. His letter about the scotch is hilarious if you’ve a dry sense of humor.

Spanish and Italian influences from Renaissance era to the early 1800s are present, including some seemingly unrelated relics like a massive 14th century rug decorated with Muslim and Christian icons. The ceilings are intricately carved on nearly every ceiling and feature seahorses, boats, and other icons.

The back of the house presents an unobstructed view of Biscayne Bay.

Built completely out of stone overlooking Biscayne Bay, this Italian barge was an icon to Mr. Deering's guests.
Built completely out of stone overlooking Biscayne Bay, this Italian barge was an icon to Mr. Deering’s guests.

Statues are all over the place. I may have a bit of insensitivity regarding this. There are only so many statues I can admire before I start to well…you see.

Statues cover the gardens, walkways and the Vizcaya estate. After being deliciously inspired, I decided to give stone modeling a go. "A good ol American try" as Mark likes to say.
Statues cover the gardens, walkways and the Vizcaya estate. After being deliciously inspired, I decided to give stone modeling a go. 

The gardens are amazing. Very beautiful. Would be less so if it decided to rain, or actually get above 100 degrees. (Hint: August and September are not good times to visit South Florida; it is darn HOT).

I enjoyed being Mark’s photo subject. He enjoyed the new camera. All in all, a raving success.

Clamshell

Pretty sure that was made for me to sit in.

Thank you for stopping by! See you soon!

XO
XO

#MarkandMelody