Arizona

This Thanksgiving my family and I visited Arizona. We thought, “Where would be open on Thanksgiving? Ah, the Grand Canyon!” šŸ˜‰ We flew into Tucson, drove north to Sedona, then to the Grand Canyon, and back south to Phoenix.

In Tucson we stayed in a beautiful airbnb that was formerly a bakery! We visited Saguaro National Park (West), ate delicious vegan meals, and traveled to Kitt Peak National Observatory for a special guided telescope program! I highly recommend the program, called Dark Sky Discovery.

In Sedona we stayed in an airbnb casita at the foot of Sugarloaf Mountain. The vistas were beautiful; like nothing I’d seen before. We went on a trolley tour to Boynton Canyon, then visited the Airport vortex. ChocolaTree is a vegan restaurant and shop that has a beautiful outdoor patio oasis where you can enjoy your meal.

We got an early start at the Grand Canyon, arriving at about 8:30am. We partook of some guided programs including a fossil walk and a history tour. We walked along the rim trail in the perfect weather, and we didn’t have to push our way through any crowds! It was an ideal time for a visit. We were tired and ready to head out by about 4pm, so we caught an IMAX showing of “Grand Canyon” at the National Geographic museum in Tusayan, followed by Thanksgiving dinner and a margarita pitcher at a Mexican restaurant. If we’d had the opportunity to spread out our time in the park, I would have loved to see the sun set at the canyon. Next time!

Off to Phoenix! We had a delightful brunch at Coronado, then hopped across the street to the Heard Museum of American Indian art. This was one of my favorite parts of the trip, and a welcomed surprise! The artifacts, art, and exhibits were so engaging, I found myself soaking up every word on the placards. I could have easily spent another day exploring. The descriptions of tight-knit tribes made me nostalgic for a culture i’ve never known, where the well-being of the whole is valued over that of the individual. Humans have a need for a strong social support system, a sense of cultural identity and initiation, and deep roots within their extended family. While reading about many of the tribal cultures, I saw a reverence for family, tribe, and the Earth itself. What have Americans given up by breaking away from the whole and glorifying the detached individual?

Another wonderful surprise was Las Noches de las Luminarias at the Desert Botanical Garden. After a tasty vegan Chinese dinner atĀ Veggie Village, we arrived at the Gardens. The place is huge, and candle luminarias lit the pathways. There were different musical and performance acts along the walking loops, including Mexican folk dancers, jazzy Christmas bands, a handbell ensemble, an Indian storyteller and flute player, and an Irish Traveler band. There were drink bars set up where we sipped hot cider and Tuaca, and the crescent moon was shining on the cacti. It was a magical night!

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My First Business Trip!

What an exciting career-life event. I was lucky to journey toĀ Monterey, CA with a new coworker to attend a conference! We connected to MRY through PHX and set up in the conference hotel. The location of the hotel was great– walking distance to the beach, and (with good shoes) walking distance to downtown.

We were fortunate to have excellent conference hosts who planned great activities for the group. One evening we attended mass in San Carlos Cathedral, a 1794 colonial church and California’s oldest stone building. The church was preserved beautifully; there was a plexiglass window in the wall to view the protected original painted walls underneath. Afterward, my coworker and I walked into town for dinner at an English-style pub. The weather was perfect for June, maybe even a little chilly. Another night we had a wine tasting! The tasting building, on Cannery Row, had a wall of huge picture windows overlooking the bay. We saw dolphins, whales, and otters swimming below while we sipped local Syrahs, Pinots, and Cabernets.


My favorite part of Monterey was the amazing wildlife in the bay. I walked a few times on the Coast Guard pier near downtown, and each time I ventured out I was able to see amazing animals up close! Sea lions, cormorants, and mola mola (sunfish) were sunbathing among the Coast Guard boats (on the other side of a tall iron fence). Out in the bay I spotted otters, giant sea stars, a pod of dolphin, and even whales! I couldn’t believe it. Everywhere I looked was like a nature documentary.




As for food, there were a few vegan options. On the night of the wine tasting our smaller group went to a tiny French cafe, and the chef made me an incredible veggie plate. The olives were delicious, too! There is a vegan Mexican restaurant, El Cantaro, off Cannery Row. Vegan Mexican food is always a hit with me; I get bored quickly when I am stuck ordering veggie fajitas every time. Hula’s Island Grill reminded me of Portland, Oregon! It’s a Pacific-themed spot with a yummy vegan bowl and fun mixed drinks. They had cool vintage surfing footage on the TV behind the bar. In the downtown area, Revival Ice Cream had some vegan sorbet options; the strawberry kombucha was delicious (and weird).

Monterey was also strangely populated with stuffed animals. Especially on Cannery Row. Yes, I understand that the otters are a big draw to the city, and tourists want otter swag (there was a whole store devoted to selling exclusively otter items). But they also had every other kind of animal, including my favorite: Pusheen! I got a sweet little mermaid Pusheen to send to my friend’s new baby. I couldn’t leave without it.

tenor

Once the conference was over, I spent my last afternoon in town walking through the Naval Postgrad campus on the coastal pathway, then down to the beach– bundled against the cold wind, and animal-watching on the piers. Monterey is incredibly walkable, and I highly recommend visiting the scenic coastal trail! I stopped into a little marketplace for lunch and picked up a bag of Acme coffee. I love their slogan: Resist corporate coffee! This has been one of my favorite souvenir items, because whenever I make coffee at home I get to reminisce about Monterey, and plan my next visit.šŸ’•

Disney World

My family is from south Florida, and I was one of those kids who was lucky enough to visit Disney World. I returned as a high-schooler on a band trip; my flagline crew got to march in the parade down Main Street! It was so much fun to visit as an older child, especially because the new “Asia” wing of Animal Kingdom had just opened, with its awesome Mount Everest roller coaster. My high school friends and I had a great time wearing our mouse ears and exploring the park from a different height.

Let me tell you though, nothing is as good as Disney World with no kids, and after your 21st birthday! Epcot has some awesome drinks, especially during festivals. We enjoyed sake slushies in Japan, pink champagne drinks in France, and imported beers in Morocco and Norway. My high school friend and I visited in May, during the Flower and Garden festival. The draw of this event is the beautiful weather in the season, and character topiaries scattered over the park. I believe that Epcot was the only park to participate… I don’t recall seeing special concession items or topiaries elsewhere. We also were visiting just before our respective birthdays, so of course I milked the angle with a “Happy birthday” pin! šŸ˜€

I wanted some special headgear for the occasion. I knew I wanted to be festive and wear ears, but I also needed to keep the sun out of my eyes (I HATE having to squint in the sun). So, I used my fabric design degree to create my own flowery, sparkly mouse ears atop a seafoam green baseball cap. If anything screams “Aja,” it’s this hat. By the end of the trip, my hat was covered with beautiful pins collected across all four parks! But what about nighttime festive-ness? I went to Target and used their dollar-bin string of battery-powered lights to fashion some light-up ears, complete with sparkly green bow. šŸ™‚ I’m smiling just thinking about them! Both pairs of ears were a hit everywhere we went.

We were lucky enough to be able to stay in the park, at the Art of Animation hotel. It was such a convenience to grab the bus anywhere we wanted to go. Sometimes there was a bit of a wait, but it was worth it not to deal with parking. We did drive from Atlanta, which took about 7 hours.

Eating vegan in Disney World is surprisingly easy! I of course did a ton of research before we left, and I had a printed spreadsheet of veg-friendly food locations. This website was my best resource: https://vegandisneyworld.com/, always up-to-date and full of tips. I still crave those Mickey pretzels every now and then…

My favorite attractions are in Epcot; I love walking around there, and the Illuminations fireworks show tops my list. The Living with the Land ride is relaxing and fun, and Soarin’ got a world-wide update! I just realized on this visit that the Soarin’ announcer is the voice of Kronk in The Emperor’s New Groove (one of my absolute favorite Disney movies). ā¤ The Mexico pavilion is so beautiful inside, the ceiling is made to look like the night sky. I think my sister said someone died on Mission: SPACE, so we skipped that one and opted for the super-chill golf ball ride (Spaceship Earth šŸ™‚ ). Also, the line Frozen ride was unbelievable, and we couldn’t get FastPasses. Skip!

In Animal Kingdom we were EXTREMELY lucky (like, seriously I don’t know how we managed this) to score FastPasses to Everest on the morning of our visit. I think the line was like 3 hours long. To be honest, I would have loved standing in the that line though, it’s pretty much a museum of curated artifacts and informational displays on the history of the mountain. After listening to Jon Krakauer’s book Into Thin Air, I am fascinated by all things Everest. We ran through the empty FastPass lane, but I got to glimpse some super-cool authentic vintage outerwear, photos, and equipment from past expeditions. Pandora in AK wasn’t open yet when I went, but my sister just visited with her high school friend who works at WDW, and she said Pandora was beautiful and had many vegan goodies.

In Magic Kingdom, of course there’s Space Mountain! Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin is soooo fun. Each person gets a little laser gun and you shoot the evil aliens for points. Needless to say, we were getting competitive. When we went on Small World (bit of a snooze if we’re honest), there was a screen at the end that said, “Bye, Aja!” I was quite surprised and a little disturbed… how did it know my name!? And JUST mine, no one else’s name was displayed! It’s magic, I guess. I think they’re going to build a Tron ride in MK, which i’m totally stoked for.

At Hollywood Studios the Aerosmith roller coaster shut down (technical difficulties) right as we were walking up. We did get to go to the Star Wars ride, Indiana Jones show, and have a fun dinner at the Sci-Fi Dine-In Theater! Each table is inside a car, and you get to sip drinks out of glow-in-the-dark cups (yes, I still have mine), and watch clips from old sci-fi movies. Mulder would totally take Scully on a date there.

Ā 

 

Croatia: Motovun, Pula, Rovinj, Opatija, Plitviče, Split

After a lovely journey through Slovenia, our group traveled on to Croatia. We began withĀ a stay Hotel KaÅ”telĀ in the hilltop town of Motovun. From the town walls we could see out over the valley and enjoy an amazing sunset during dinner.

The following day we explored the Istrian peninsula. Here’s a map for reference:

ThisĀ area is known for its wine, olives, and aromatic herbs (lavender and rosemary). The local wine varieties include Malvazija andĀ MaraÅ”tinaĀ (white), and Teran (red).Ā If I had a farm in the region, i’d grow one or all of these plants!

We visited Pula for a brutally hot and sunny walking tour. Thankfully our guides were excellent, and worked hard to keep us all in the shade and well-hydrated. The amphitheater in Pula is the best preserved in the world; its walls are unbroken and form a ring with the (mostly) original stone. Apparently, people used to plunder the Roman sites for stone! Restoration was underway on some sections of the structure. Notably, James Joyce did a teaching stint in Pula! He hated the place (ā€œIstria is a long boring place wedged into the Adriatic, peopled by ignorant Slavs who wear red caps and colossal breechesā€), but the town gave him a statue anyway, right outside his favorite cafĆ©. šŸ™‚

Onward to Rovinj! It’s amazing how much land we covered on this trip. In Rovinj my sister and I enjoyed our first dip in the Adriatic! Crystal clear water and rocky coves– this was very different from the muddy and sandy beachesĀ of the Georgia coast. MuchĀ Malvazija was consumed.

The next day we traveled to Plitviče. Along the way we stopped for lunch and sorbet in Opatija, another riviera-feeling town.Ā Plitviče Lakes National Park is known for a chain of 16 naturally terraced limestone-bed lakes, joined by waterfalls. BoardwalksĀ and hiking trails wind through the park. TheĀ Lake Kozjak ferry links the upper and lower lakes. The lower lakesĀ are the site of 78m-high Veliki Slap (slap means waterfall šŸ˜‰ ). Ā I should also mention that the Brexit decision was made during our time here. It was a fascinating thing to witness the foreign currency monitors change before our eyes in the hotel lobby, especially since I had just left London the week before.

That night we stayed in the “big city” of Split. During this trip, the Euro finals were going on, and nationalism in Split was at an all-time high. Flag hats, shirts, towels, bandanas, etc were for sale everywhere. You didn’t need to watch the game, you could hear the crowds of people reacting to every on-field incident. Of course, I did watch some games, too!

Split is where the emperor Diocletian chose to build his retirement palace! The result today is a beautiful old town within its walls. We took a comprehensive walking tour of the town, and by accident, my mom and sister and I took an arduous tour of the city park, Å uma Marjan (we were just trying to find a nice, shady beach!!). Accidents like that are just part of exploring a new place. We eventually did find some niceĀ water, too. Even mom went for a swim.

 

 

Slovenia: Bled, Kobarid, Å martno, Dutovlje

We met our amazing guide Barbara in Ljubljana, and began our tour! We spent MondayĀ in the city, and the next day AleÅ”, our tour’s bus driver, picked us up and drove us to the resort town of Bled. The lake has a small island with a beautiful church perched on top. The church was under restorationĀ at the time of our visit, but we were still able to ring the church bell; you’re supposed to make a wish when you ring it. šŸ™‚

We ate at a “Mexican” restaurant while in Bled. According to Barbara,Ā Eastern Europeans love Mexican food (just like my sister). Sadly Europeans do not understand the concept of guacamole– It was consistentlyĀ disgusting/canned everywhere we tried to order it. Once in Bled, IĀ hadĀ a LaÅ”ko beer since we were out of Union territory. Apparently there is a fierce rivalry between the brews, even though they’re both owned by Heineken now.Ā šŸ’

We left Bled and started on our way through the Soča river valley to Kobarid. Along the drive we stopped at a Russian WWI memorial chapel. Putin isĀ planning a visit for later this month! I never was a world war scholar, but visiting this region exposes you to WWI history. This is the place Hemingway wrote about in Farewell to Arms. After a night in Kobarid, we visited the town’s WWI museum, which was absolutely fascinating thanks to our guide, the museum director. He had carefully curated and researched the exhibitions with incredible detail. You could tell he was passionate about the region’s history, and most of all with the people caught up in the war’s destructive path.

We loaded our luggage onto the bus, and we were off to Slovenia’s Karst region! This had to be one of my favorite places on the whole trip. There were beautiful olive groves and vineyards stretchingĀ across the landscape. We stopped briefly in the hill town ofĀ Å martno and I picked up some lovely handmade cosmetics and lavender sachets from Nona Luisa workshop. We drove on briefly through Italy (!) and then back intoĀ Dutovlje. We savoredĀ a beautifulĀ lunch at Boris Lisjak winery:Ā olives, bread, vegetable soup, roasted red peppers, local olive oil, and four kinds of amazing white and red wine! We even touredĀ the wine cellars with the vintner himself. What an incredible day!!

Ljubljana

After a very long delay at London-Stansted, my mom, sister, and I were finally off to Ljubljana!

Slovenia is immediately charming. The mountains and valleys, approachable people, lovely traditional-style houses, and perfect summer weather (not too hot, not too cold) make the country so welcoming! We moved in to our hotel, the Pri Mraku (“at dusk”) in the center of the old town. There was a pride event going on that weekend and ABBA was echoing through the stone streets– it was like heaven. ā¤ Unfortunately we missed the town’s production of Mamma Mia that was happening the week before.

Ljubljana is very walkable, with bars, restaurants, and shopping all in close range. The beautiful blueĀ Ljubljanica river runs through the middle, and is crossed by many bridges, the most famous beingĀ Tromostovje, the triple bridge. Ljubljana’s beer is Union;Ā It struck me as very Heineken-smelling (you know that distinct smell!Ā šŸ˜‰). Later our tour guide Barbara told us Union is now owned by Heineken. I wonder if they share hops… is that a thing!?

There aren’t many must-see attractions in the city, which is why I liked it. The whole place is easygoing. LjubljanaĀ seems like a very livable city, and (if I can one day imagine myself learning SlovenianšŸ˜³) I can very easily see myself living there. The Slovenian people struck me as progressive, friendly, and excellent masters of language. Almost everyone I met spoke at least three language including perfect English.

IĀ had a bit of anxiety about the language actually… not because no one could understand me, to the contrary– I had American princess guilt forĀ not knowing their language! It’s embarrassing for me to travel the world and expect people to understand myĀ language. With 4 meagre months of Russian under my belt I could decipher some of the more related slavic nouns, but everything else is completely indiscernible to me. After Barbara helped us master “please, thank you, good day, and good evening,” I relaxed a bit.

Everywhere we traveled the localsĀ seemed tickledĀ with our attempts at Slovenian, Croatian, and Bosnian. In contrast, i’d had similar feelings of language anxiety in France on my past trips, but the attitude of the people you’re trying to communicate with makes a big difference; the Eastern Europeans I encountered had more positive and gregarious energy when dealing with Americans!

Ljubjanski Grad “Ljubljana Castle” is a beautiful place to spend the afternoon. You can see all across the city, and across the whole country it would seem (Slovenia is smaller thanĀ New Hampshire)! There’s a lovely restaurant Na Gradu “within the castle” which served a delicious vegan dinner, complete with dessert: apple strudel sorbet!Ā šŸ˜ Ā A perfect welcome to the country. To get to the castle you can ride the funicular or hike (it’s not too strenuous).Ā The zmajski “dragon” is the symbol of Ljubljana; it’s featured onĀ the city’s flag and on the beautiful art nouveau Zmajski Most “bridge.” There are many legends about Jason and the argonauts and Ljubljana’s dragon;Ā you’ll hear them from tour guides all over the city.

My family and I also enjoyed a little boat cruise up and down the river. The city is really very small, and it’s amazing that just a couple miles upriver will bring you to the countryside! We even saw some wildlife from the boat.Ā 

 

London

My trip began here in my small town in New Hampshire. I never realized until I moved away to Savannah, GA how lucky I was to live near the world’s busiest airport: Hartsfield-Jackson International. When I was living in Atlanta I would hop on Marta and be at the gate within an hour for my nonstop Delta flight, but living in the middle of nowhere presents its own challenges, including 4Ā free car rides from friends, a bus, and 2Ā layovers. My outgoing layover was in London, and since I had never been to Britain before, I decided to add a mini 5-day vacation before my Rick Steves tour.

I was in London June 13-18, just one week before the Brexit decision. I stayed in an airbnbĀ betweenĀ the Pimlico and Victoria stations. I really enjoyed exploring the sights on the first day on my own. I just walked all around, soaking up the iconic landmarks like Big Ben, Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey, St Martin-in-the-Fields,Ā Buckingham Palace, the Millenium Bridge, and the Tower of London. The St Martin-in-the-Fields orchestra is a favorite on my local classical station WCRB, and visiting this church was high on my list! I even got to go to Bogorodytsye Dyevo, one of their free afternoon Great Sacred Music concerts celebratingĀ Russia Day.

I also used Happy CowĀ to find vegan meals, and London has so many! Some standouts wereĀ Itadaki-Zen,Ā Campbell’s Canal Cafe,Ā The Gate Restaurant, andĀ 222 Veggie Vegan. I also defeated jet lag by taking a suggestion from Sam Brown (remember her!?) to abstain from caffeine for two days before traveling, then directly inject espresso into your arm vein when you get off the plane. šŸ˜‰ Joking, but seriously I drank a lot of “soya double macchiatos” during my trip.

One of the things I liked the most about London is its free museums. I visited the Victoria & Albert (great Asian art collection), the Tate Britain, Tate Modern (you had to pay for the featured exhibits), National Gallery, and the British Museum. British Museum was…. well, I’ll let this article explain: The art world’s shame.

Once my mom and sister arrived, we had an awesome adventure day visiting all the Beatles sites we could! First stop was the Beatles Coffee Shop at the St John’s Wood station. I couldn’t help but have the Rolling Stones’ songĀ Play with FireĀ stuck in my head as we got off the train (conflict of interests, I know). We walked to that iconic crosswalk on Abbey Road and had so much fun dodging commuter traffic to take pictures and videos. Next we went to Baker Street to check out the home of Sherlock and Watson! Next door to 221B is another Beatles memorabilia store with mostly shirts and keychains. We then walked to the Marylebone station to recreate the opening scene of Hard Day’s Night where the boys are running from their rabid fans. Savvy Paul hides behind a newspaper.

London was a bit too grimy (loud and ugly construction projects wereĀ ubiquitous) and cold for me. While I love the myriad veg food choices, cultural diversity, and somewhat convenient public transportation, my head would be spinning if I chose to live there. Great for a visit, though! We’ll see how easy visting London will be once the divorce with EU is final in the comingĀ years.