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

Why Do You Travel? Reply back with yours!

Why would anybody pick this life?
Why would anybody try?
To move about, and run about
And roam from home to home

Why would anybody pick this life?
It heightens all the fears
It wears you out and breaks you down.
It reduces you to tears.

Why would anybody pick this life?
It’s not the path of ease; in fact.
You’ll find it’s just the opposite
But opposites attract

If we get to pick our chains
I hope that restlessness jails me
To a life that moves from plane to train
Destination: I’ve yet to see

If we get to pick our chains
May I be bound to road and sea
To a life that’s redefining
Predictability

If we get to pick our chains
I’ll take my second class billet
Over a plush corner office
And a two-week holiday.

😉

Ciao.

Bucket List in Progress: Every Country in the World

A VERY rough draft of our course in Europe, subject to change based on places we may fall in love with or where we house-sit (more on that in an upcoming post!)
Arriving into London

Starting with Europe!

We have finally decided to take the trip we have talked about for a long while.

To get away.

Explore.

While this has been a thought of ours for a while, it is only through a bit of luck, and a bit of misfortune that we are being given the opportunity. Until February, I was nose to the grindstone – 70+ hours a week devoted to a company. While I learned a great deal in the position that I was filling, there was just something missing. The freedom to travel!

At the end of February, I was laid off due to company cut-backs. While at first this was very upsetting – and certainly a huge shift in the way I lived my life – I am now relieved that it happened then instead of later.

For both Melody and I, few things are more exciting than travel – both planning and executing (see State Signs Tour: III, and III). With this newfound freedom we plan to live out, plan and execute a mutual goal to step foot on every country in the world, together – beginning with every country in Europe over the Summer.

While I do not regularly post on here, I encourage you to follow our Facebook Page for more regular announcements from myself and Melody. Once we get a little further into the planning stages, you can expect to see more regular posts both here and on our Facebook where you can follow our progress to see how we are doing with our goal.

Until then, stay well and don’t be afraid to let the travel bug bite you too!

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.

Hontoon Island State Park – Minutes from Orlando, Worlds Away

We’re a bit off-beat. We like off the beaten path adventures, off the tourist trail destinations, and off the major highway eats and treats. For New Years weekend, we decided to celebrate by camping in the wilderness, north of Orlando in Hontoon Island State Park.

The name by itself had me wondering an island exists in the middle of the state. Is it a hidden, lesser known version of Alcatraz? Is it the setting for a new series of horror novels? Is this Stephen King’s vacation residence?

Unfortunately (or fortunately), none of the above are true. I was delightfully surprised to find a hidden gem kind of place.

First of all, it’s only an island by about two hundred feet. That’s the span from the “mainland” to the “island”. This lovely little taxi (with room for only six!) schleps people to and from the parking lot (mainland) as needed from 8am to 5pm.

untitled-3

There is no charge to park. Wheelbarrows are provided to unload camping gear into while waiting for this taxi. Hontoon Island staff make it very easy to move things about. A complimentary van ride will take you and your stuff to your campsite. When you are packed up, simply give them a buzz and that same van will pick you and your things up. Bear in mind that even though the website says a 2 tent maximum per campsite it’s not really enforced so long as you don’t cause a ruckus.

Wildlife:

There are bears. Yes. Bears on an island. Deer. Armadillos. Lots of ‘Coons running around. Poisonous snakes. And the most aggressive mosquitoes I have ever experienced. You’ve got to douse yourself in bug spray if you are camping from November to February because the mosquitoes will eat you alive.

Facilities:

There are public (hot) showers and public bathrooms. There’s a coke machine also. One of my friends remarked that, because of this, we weren’t actually camping (though I beg to differ). Everything was well equipped. We had a first time camper with us and she had a great time; moreover, the campgrounds are family friendly. A lot of people bring kids over for a day trip and everyone seems to have a ball.

There’s a small general store with postcards, bug spray, sunscreen, toiletry items and some snacks all at fair prices. This is also where you buy firewood, fire-starters and Duralogs.

Each campsite is outfitted with a firepit and griddle to cook on. There are trash cans by the public washrooms (and that nefarious Coke machine), so at the end of the night (due to the bears and other animals) it’s best to walk the trash to the bear-proof trash bins.

Things to do:

Fish. You can catch an assortment of freshwater fish. If you’re a Florida resident, it’s worth the $20 to get a fishing license which is valid for a year.

DSC_0542-1

Hiking is another great option, recommended earlier in the day as the air seems to stagnate until you get close to the water. Cypress trees are abundant here, and when you see a group of them together, create a feeling within that this is not that place to be once the sun goes down.

DSC_0703

A lot of people canoe and kayak around this area. In fact, Blue Springs is an hour away by kayak (without wind) or two hours with the wind blowing against you. To travel from Hontoon to Blue Springs, you have to traverse the St. John’s River, which has a very fast moving northbound current.  Blue Springs is a bit south of Hontoon, so you will be rowing against the current to Blue Springs, and with the current coming back. Even though it’s a hell of an upper body workout, Blue Springs is worth the trip because of some amazing emerald waters and the chance to see the manatee’s winter home.

16102423877_e8ae734921_o

16287457482_49bde61c6c_o

Believe it or not, the water is truly that green. Remarkably, you can see down into the bubbling spring from the boardwalk. (Blue Springs is swimmable when it’s not busy being the manatee winter home from October to April).

Finally, it wouldn’t be a spectacular Florida destination without a riveting sunset. This was taken right as we arrived back from Blue Spring, without any photo editing or filters.

16262604406_4828908e7a_o

Cheers!

MarkandMelody

Late Night Inspiration Post

When I think about my life, I don’t see a big house. I see myself doing exactly what I’m doing now. Blogging sometime around midnight. Thinking about the last 7 years of international travel. My running shoes are still on. They’re damn comfortable. Where I live, I have a balcony and I have Mark, but instead of overlooking the intracoastal, I am in a studio overlooking Hong Kong, or house-sitting in Tuscany. Right now I’m drinking water, but elsewhere it’ll be tea. In Latin America, espresso. I may have dinner with a different group of people every night. Sometimes I will eat alone. Sometimes I will have to try the homemade wine, and I will likely overindulge. I’ll learn Zulu from little kids and take a timelapse of the Milky Way. I’ll be a staff photographer for Costa Rica Tourism and Mark will find those hidden gems he is so good at finding. This is what I must have. It’s an intense, non-traditional, unpredictable lifestyle. It’s not for everyone. It’s not meant to be understood. But there’s only one person that needs to, and I’m pretty sure he does

A Floridian Discovers the U.S.

I’m a native Floridian. Never lived anywhere else. This may be fueling my need to trade the beach for the mountains. I live a mile away from the beach and haven’t been there to go get a tan or swim in over two years. This probably sounds pretentious.

The Mr. and I have driven through the 48 contiguous states here in America, which has forced me to come to grips with the fact that I live in a sunny, winter-free bubble devoid of the work and pleasantries that come from living somewhere with actual life to it. The following is a series of moments from the road trips where I felt my true Floridian showed its bright, naive colors:

1) Driving through Wyoming in the middle of the night. A road construction sign blinked “Caution: Elk ahead.” I wondered to myself, What does an elk look like? This highway had a speed limit of 70, but I slowed to a crawl of 25. Just as I go to pass the sign, multiple giant deer-looking animals with huge antlers start traipsing across this lonely (read: pitch black) road. I pull over the side and give Mark a sideways glance that means, You’re driving.

2) Driving through South Dakota on another night mission and I see this sign:

deer

I spend the next two hours convinced that reflectors on the side of the road are beady little eyes belonging to an animal just waiting to jump out in front of the car. (Squirrels do this all the time in Florida; why would deer be any different?)

3) Losing my mind because there was snow in Georgia in February. February is basically summer, no? It was also hot in Georgia. Hotter than Jacksonville. Why in the world was there snow still on the ground?

IMG_1648

4) Traveling to Connecticut in April, excited to see the fresh green of spring and instead seeing dull, brown trees everywhere. Isn’t April spring? Where is all the foliage?

IMG_2050

5) Taking a picture of cracked dirt. A novelty. There is no dirt in Florida. It’s limestone. And coral. And some ground up seashells. Also, it rains almost every day in South Florida so why would there be any cracks like this? True Texas style.

2013-07-05 10.03.53

Bonus: In true Florida fashion, apparently my entire body is cold except for my toes. Because wearing close toed shoes isn’t a thing.

2013-07-06 05.47.11

Traveling to Costa Rica? Read This First (Updated for 2015)

Costa Rica is a haven for adventure lovers, thrill seekers, and romantics. When we visited earlier this month, we were burdened again and again by some information that, well meaning, is not entirely true. Here to debunk some of the most popular “advice” of Costa Rica.

MYTH 1: You can’t drive the country alone.

FACT: The country’s roads, though still largely created by boulders and rocks of many sizes, can be driven without hired help and you definitely don’t need a tour bus. A 2WD vehicle is not necessary if you are staying on paved roads.

Please note that the roads to Volcan Arenal (Arenal Volcano), La Fortuna (city, and La Fortuna Waterfall) and the surrounding hotels are largely unpaved. The road from La Fortuna to Monteverde is also unpaved (even if you take the ferry across the lake, much of your travel is going to be on unpaved road.

MYTH 2: It’s unsafe to drive at night because of thieves.

FACT: The danger lies in the complete inability to see axle-breaking potholes in the road at dark. No street lights line the unpaved roads. Seldom you will have a fence between the road and the cliff, but rarely. Please don’t drive once the sun completely sets.

MYTH 3: San Jose is like any other capital, easy to navigate.

FACT: Wrong on so many levels. San Jose is rife with very narrow roads and two-lane roads that abruptly become one-lane. We got lost (several times) even with the Costa Rican GPS.

MYTH 4: My iPhone GPS or Google GPS will navigate me through Costa Rica.

FACT: Yes, the Costa Rican GPS is expensive, but I promise you that you will use it and you will love it. The Costa Rican GPS alerts you of school zones, dangerous bridges (often one-way), and reduced speeds.

Google satellites are extremely dodgy in the mountains and the instructions are delayed by three to five seconds. This doesn’t sound like a lot on paper, but Costa Rica driving instructions involve a lot of “Turn right, then make a sharp left, then turn right again” in a second’s time. The lag from your standard GPS will prove frustrating at the very least.

MYTH 5: Rental car insurance is a waste and I should get only the minimal coverage.

FACT: The majority of domestic car insurance companies limit their liability on rentals abroad. Even if you call your insurance company and are advised otherwise, some information is bound to be omitted. We opted for the insurance that gave us ZERO liability; the agent literally said, “You can bring the car back in pieces, and no charge.” Yes, this almost tripled the cost of the rental car, but having that green light to be as rowdy on the rocky roads as we could be, well, was a treat.

MYTH 6: Sodas are the cheapest place to stop and get food.

FACT: Food prices in Costa Rica have tripled over the past three years. Formal restaurants will still be the bulk of eating expense, but the sodas we went to in the highlands cost us $6 for a heaping helping of chicken and rice.

Bonus:

If you want to drink Costa Rican beer on the cheap, head to the closest supermercado, or market, where you can still pick up beers for less than $1 each.

Why the TSA’s Recommendations are Ridiculous

We’re aware that, per TSA recommendations, we are supposed to arrive at an airport about a year before the plane takes off. Last I was told, it was two hours for a domestic flight and three hours for an international flight. This is nothing more than a nefarious plot to get innocent air travel patrons to pay obscene prices for food, drink, and entertainment pieces. If you arrived at the terminal five minutes before boarding, you would have no time to shop!

My theory regarding this silliness proved true when I received a text from my beloved stating his wallet was missing. He was driving a newly purchased car from New Jersey to Florida, and was driving somewhere around Maryland; he reaches for his wallet to find it’s not there.

Big problem. No plastic money. No driver license. Limited cash. He couldn’t stay in a hotel even if he wanted to, because hotels require ID now… It’s Saturday afternoon. Banks don’t open until Monday, and even then, have you ever tried to prove you’re you at a bank with no ID or any evidence of it?

Cue text to me. I’m headed to tutor another student; he has enough gas to travel another hour and a half.

Solution? I whip the quickest U-turn and head straight for the airport. No going home to pack. No changing clothes. No time to bring a charger. Nothing. Everything in my purse is what I could bring. As I’m waiting feverishly at a light, I’m using the hotels.com app to determine whether to fly out of Fort Lauderdale or Miami. The chosen flight was departing exactly one hour from the time I whipped the U-turn. I had about 25-30 minutes travel time to the airport. I couldn’t book a ticket online or over the phone; I had to take a shot with the Jetblue reservationist at the airport.

I’m pretty sure, in this afternoon, I clocked the fastest speed for a Toyota Corolla. I made it to the airport; the flight departed in 30 minutes, which means the gates closed in 20 minutes. I had to park. No time for economy parking – it’s a ten minute bus ride. Can’t risk it. $36/ a day parking? That will have to do. I park my car. I run to the Jetblue reservation desk. A woman calls me over; completely out of breath I say, “I need to be on the flight that’s leaving in 20 minutes.” She gives me a “Are you $% kidding me?” I say, “Can you do it or not?” She makes the reservation. I’m dancing around like a cat on a hot tin roof.

What is taking SO long?

Finally she hands me a ticket. She asks, “Do you know where you need to go?” Before I can answer, she says, “Make a left here.” And I say, “Then what?” And she says, “Then you run.”

And you know what? I ran like hell. Fort Lauderdale airport is not small. There’s a distance to traverse. My lungs were on fire. But it was the most movie-like scene I have ever been a part of. This was an exceptional moment. I’m running, I’m sweating, my lungs are burning. People are letting me skip them in the security line.

I get to the gate, completely winded, feeling victorious, like I had just crossed a finish line.

All of that running, and for what? Did I miss anything? I didn’t miss anything. The plane was boarding on time, but not one person felt compelled enough to form a line. No Mosaic members had boarded. No priority. No parents and children. Nobody.

With my spare minutes, I had enough time to go buy a $12 pack of Twizzlers and text my beloved that I was at the gate, ready to go.

Everyone boards. It was as if I had been there the entire 2-hour pre-board window of time. The only difference in my experience and everyone else’s is that I got a damn good cardio session from it.

#5: Depart, Connect or Land at 10 New International Airports

The Day Zero Project is a platform where people everywhere create a list of 101 things they would like to do in 1001 days. It’s just shy of three years and can be anything from learning a skill to completing an old goal or something like finishing the Krispy Kreme Challenge (eating a dozen Krispy Kreme donuts and then running a mile!)

One of the things on my list is the title and purpose of this blog: depart, connect or land at 10 international airports that I have never been to. As of today, 10/15/2014, I have been to the following:

Louisville: 07/07/2013
Denver: 09/02/2013
Baltimore: 09/22/2013
Houston Hobby: 01/31/2014
Austin: 01/31/2014
Nashville: 02/02/2014
Seattle: 05/21/2014
Chicago O’Hare: 09/06/2014

There is something very magical that happens at airports; I frequently get odd looks when I mention this to someone as, for the average Joe, an airport brings about a lot of stress: waiting in line after line, sitting in uncomfortable airport seats, paying $12 for a pack of Twizzlers, sick people everywhere, and the jostling and general annoyance when people begin to board the plane and insist on sitting in their designated seat even though it makes absolutely no difference where you sit. This is why I like Southwest’s style of “sit wherever the hell you want. We just have to get this plane in the air.”

I digress. A life of a person reads much like a chapter book. Some chapters are better than others, but an airport is a platform for a serendipitous moment, an exchange, an opportunity to meet someone who resides thousands of miles away from you but is a kindred spirit. It’s a platform where sharing the armrest and asking someone “Are you visiting or going home?” establishes a long-forgotten human connection. It’s almost liberating. The odds of seeing that person again are slim. Something is weighing heavily on your conscience, and here you are in a plane with infinite non-biased third party perspectives. Each story a person tells me is akin to ripping out a page from his or her book and handing it to me.

Here you are. I won’t see you again. Here’s where I am right now. Here’s what I’m thinking. What I’m worried about.

How beautiful that is. You’re now in that person’s book. A guest star. 5 minutes. 5 seconds.

So many things happen before you get to an airport. You pack. There’s feelings of enormous intensity both good and bad. Some people are leaving home; some people are in search of it. Some people are reuniting with their beloved. Some are running away. Some are pursuing an opportunity. Others are leaving one behind. Some are moving away. Some are moving back. Some are ending relationships. Others are trying to fix them.

All beautiful stories. All honest scripts of the human condition. Together in a stew that is an airport.

I wanted to depart, connect or land at 10 international airports for this reason. Seattle passengers were more outdoorsy, down to earth, and more liberal than the people in Miami. People in Austin were fun-loving, food-loving, beer-loving people. Nashville was rife with that famous southern hospitality and amazing sweet tea.

A follow up to this blog, Airport Moments, will be crafted shortly after I post this.

Maybe this makes sense. Maybe it’s poetic. Maybe it’s far out and I’m seeing a disaster area through rose colored glasses. I won’t deny any of these sentiments. But an airport is one of the places that excites me: a raw hive of half-written stories.

MM.

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

Getting the Best Experience at La Fortuna Waterfall

A trip to the mountains of Costa Rica is incomplete without a visit to La Fortuna Waterfall, and for good reason. It’s a beautiful sight. You can swim in front of it and get an awesome picture of yourself with the waterfall thundering behind you. The hiking trail is well traveled, though it’s much easier to walk down the hundreds of steps than it is to come back up. There’s landings at regular intervals to rest.

In front of La Fortuna. Difficult to get a shot of just the waterfall.
In front of La Fortuna. The lifeguard watched me closely to make sure I did not climb over too many rocks.

However, in the last few years tourism to Costa Rica has exploded. The well traveled tourist trail is getting even more, well, traveled. What once was a waterfall that one could spend uninterrupted hours at is now a lunch stop for tour companies operating in the Arenal region. This makes alone time with La Fortuna rather difficult. We arrived at 11am to find a few couples swimming at the base of the falls. In the next half hour, Desafio Tour Company and their group of 30-40 people arrived and tourists sprawled out over the rocks in front of the waterfall to eat lunch. Unless a person is sitting perfectly still, the long exposure shot of the waterfall (like the type we were trying to get, above) becomes completely distorted.

There’s a lifeguard of sorts at the entrance to the waterfall now. You used to be able to swim behind the waterfall (a sublime experience) but this lifeguard does not permit that. In fact, if you get too close to the waterfall you get a whistle blown and a hand waving you back to shore. It takes the “unadulterated nature factor” away.

Regardless, the waterfall is still worth a quick visit. Here’s how to get your best experience:

1) Make sure you are down to the falls before 10am. In order to do this, you’ll have to get your ticket to the waterfall by 9am (tickets are still $10 USD).

2) Carry a small backpack with drinking water, a light snack, flip flops/ water shoes, and a towel. 

3) Wear your bathing suit. There are no stalls to change in. 

4) Leave before the lunch crowd, which trickles in about 11:30am. (It pains me to say there’s a lunch crowd at a waterfall, but there is). 

#MarkandMelody

New US Customs Procedure for International Flights: 2014

The customs procedure when landing at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport has changed quite a bit. Our experience was unpleasant because five or six international flights landed at FLL at the same time. This increased a typical 5-10 minute wait at customs to over an hour.

There are two lines for customs: one for visitors to the USA and one for residents. So far, pretty standard. There are two rooms where lines form. The line for the visitors goes much faster but that’s likely because there are well, a lot less visitors than US citizens.

The most surprising advent in the customs procedure is the passport check is completely automated via a kiosk. The customs agents are of no help, but this is to be expected. The prompts on the kiosk are less than clear, also. To pass the kiosk, you must put your passport over a scanner. The machine scans the document page of your passport (document page has your name, picture, birthday, issue date, et al) and shows a picture of the scanned page to you. You verify the information and then…

You look directly into a camera on the kiosk and take a picture. If you do not look straight into the camera, the picture will not take. Once the kiosk takes a picture of you, a receipt prints out with your picture and the same information that’s on your passport plus your arriving flight information.

Once you get to the customs agent, the agent compares the photo you just took at the kiosk and the photo on your passport. I did not see anyone get pulled aside for discrepancies, but I imagine it’s a more…investigative look into why the two pictures do not match to the liking of the customs agent. The agent then finishes the routine questions: “What countries did you visit?” “Are you bringing any fruit, firearms, tobacco, etc?”, stamps your passport and you go to baggage claim to collect checked bags.

People were very confused by this entire process. I imagine once an agent or two comes in that actually assists first time international travelers with the kiosk, the procedure will go a lot smoother. People who travel frequently will find that this procedure more closely matches the customs process of say, China.

Have you traveled internationally and experienced a similar customs process? Or was yours completely different? We’d love to hear from you!

#MarkandMelody

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