Big Bend National Park, Texas

Big Bend National Park, Texas

More and more, gift giving in my family has turned from things to experiences. Personally, I love this trend, and for my birthday this year, Ryan surprised me with a trip to Big Bend National Park!

Big Bend is a national park along the Texas / Mexico border that spans over 800K acres. While my birthday is in July, we took off on our road trip to Big Bend in September so that the heat wouldn’t be in full force. We left after work on a Thursday evening and., after 7.5 hours of driving, podcasts, and yelling at our two dogs to behave in the back of my Jeep, we arrived at our AirBnB in Alpine, Texas at 1 AM.

Our dogs on our long road trip to Big Bend National Park

Our AirBnb was a traditional adobe looking building and was pet friendly, so it was almost perfect for our dogs. I say “almost’ because the fenced in back yard was missing about 6 feet of fence so we couldn’t let the pups romp around off-leash, but the inside was super cute.

Our AirBnB in Alpine, Texas

We chose to stay in Alpine to reduce the drive from Dallas to the Park and stay in a in a more populated area, but that meant some early mornings to get to Big Bend. Big Bend was about 80 miles, or an hour and ten minutes, from our AirBnb, so we only got about 5 hours of sleep after arriving in Alpine before waking up to head to our kayaking experience. We woke up around 6, walked the dogs, cooked some breakfast, and took off on the hour long drive to Terlingua to meet up with our guide.

We met at the one gas station in Terlingua and gas cost $3.15! To set expectations, gas was $2.11 when we left Dallas, was $2.83 in Alpine, and over $3 in Terlingua! We are so glad we listened to the warnings about filling up before we left to the park. The drive to the park was spectacular and went relatively quickly at 80+ MPH.

We grabbed some extra water and snacks from the gas station upon arrival and then met our guide, Erin, and the dad / daughter duo that were the other guests on our hike. We loaded into Erin’s van with all of the kayaks in the back. The drive from Terlingua into the park was about 20 minutes, and then it was an additional 40 minutes or so to get to the river entrance. Erin was full of fun facts about the park and it’s history, living in the small town of Terlingua, and her background from Tennessee. Her accent made the stories that much better.

Kayaking through Big Bend National Park, Texas

We were in awe of the views along the park and couldn’t believe the river close to the road was the boarder between us and Mexico. We finally pulled up to the parking lot and had to unload all of the kayaks and fill up our dry-bags for the trek. We even got these really sexy looking boots to wear through the mud. My boots were about 2 sizes too big so I was slipping and sliding all over the place! This made carrying the kayaks quite difficult but we eventually got to the Santa Elena Canyon entrance. We waded into the water and took off our boots to get into the kayak. The mud felt so good on my feet and was only about 1.5 feed deep, but there were some sections where you feel into quicksand like mud and it went up to your hip! It was so crazy.

Kayaking through Big Bend National Park, Texas

Once we were all in, we started our semi-relaxing ride. I say semi because we were able to paddle about 80% of the time and were stuck in mud and had to pull about 20% of the rest of the time. The Rio Grande river is damned up in El Paso and, unless El Paso releases some of the water, the Rio Grande river is very shallow in the Santa Elena Canyon. It was still an amazing experience in between the massive cliffs, especially since there were only 5 of us. It was so relaxing. Ryan couldn’t have done a better job planning this.

Pulling our kayak through Big Bend National Park, Texas

We make it about 2 miles up the river before stopping for lunch. I made some PB&Js and we enjoyed some Sun Chips while taking in the view. I found a nice-looking log and pulled it into the shade as my lunch chair. It was a truly great spot.

Kayaking through Big Bend National Park, Texas

Eventually, finished lunch and relaxed in the river for a little bit. The water temperature was absolutely perfect. We really lucked out. While the other duo on our trip power-paddled back to the exit, Ryan and I took our time to really enjoy the view and take it all in.

The most difficult part of the whole day was getting the kayaks back to the van. We were covered in mud, our boots were super slick, and there were rocks all over the place to push you off balance. We had quite the time trying to carry the heavy boats back but, eventually, made it. We got quite a workout in for the day! After loading up the van, we hit the road for the hour long, educational drive back to the gas station. It even rained a little and Erin joked that Big Bend judges rainfall by “drops per square foot” since they get so little.

We were pretty exhausted and didn’t dawdle in Terlingua once we arrived. It was back in the Jeep and off to the Airbnb. Our pups couldn’t be happier to see (and smell) us when we got back. We showered off all of the mud, took the pups for a walk, and relaxed a bit before finding a spot for dinner.

There is a pretty popular place in Fort Worth that we have both been to called Reata, and apparently, the original location is in Alpine! We went around 6:30, were starving, and ended up ordering waaaay too much food. We started with some delicious corn bread and biscuits, had crab stuffed, bacon-wrapped peppers, split a goat cheese salad, and then got two massive entrees. Ryan’s chicken fried steak should looked like two entire chickens, and my steak with enchiladas had two bread-plate sized pieces of steak, corn, beans, and enchiladas.

We were soooo stuffed and had to take the majority of the food back home. Since it was my birthday celebration, they even boxed up some apple pie and ice-cream for us, which we enjoyed cuddled up on the couch at the Airbnb before hitting the sheets for bed.

Day 2 – Big Bend Hike & Marfa, Texas

Our 1 year old dog, Dixie, was not a happy camper at night. She was barking in her kennel all night and we had a rough time sleeping. I had to get up at 3 AM to take her potty, which actually turned out OK because I looked up into the night sky and saw millions of stars. It was beautiful!

Combined with the 6 AM wake up to head to Big Bend for our hike, we were so tired. Thankfully, we grabbed a bunch of caffeine at the gas station which perked us up for the 2 hour drive to our hiking spot within the park. The drive was beautiful and we got to watch the sun rise over the mountain range in all of these amazing pastel colors. It made the drive much less boring. We even passed a Target along the way!

Target by Marfa, Texas

We arrived at our hike and were excited to start on the 4.8 mile journey up to the top. Originally, we were going to hike the Emory Peak Trail, a 12 mile rigorous hike that reminded us of the Tongariro Pass that we hiked in New Zealand. However, we opted to hike the Lost Mine Trail instead so that we could check out Marfa in the second half of the day.  We were not disappointed by Lost Mine in the slightest. The views were amazing there was some cloud coverage so we didn’t get too much sun. The temperature was perfect for hiking and there was even a cool breeze to cool us down. We got so lucky.

Hiking the Lost Mine Trail in Big Bend National Park, Texas

Even though Big Bend is technically a desert, the plant life is so diverse and beautiful. There are cacti of various types all over the place, flowers in different colors, grasses, and other weird looking plants that, when combined, made for a gorgeous looking landscape.

Hiking the Lost Mine Trail in Big Bend National Park, Texas

It took us about 1.5 hours to get to the ridge top. Again, you couldn’t beat the views. We spent some time at the top taking it all in. We even took a snack break and attempted rock climbing on a big boulder just to enjoy it further.

Hiking the Lost Mine Trail in Big Bend National Park, Texas

The dad and daughter from our kayaking journey the day before were also supposed to hike Emory Trail, but we ended up running into them on our hike down from the top! They said that they got to the Emory trailhead too late and the park rangers were cautioning people not to go since it was going to get too hot! I am glad we didn’t waste time driving over to that trail only to get rerouted to Lost Mine.

The hike was the perfect length and we were sore but feeling good once we got back to the Jeep. We ate our PB&Js on the 2.5 hour drive to Marfa. Marfa is a town of 1.8K or so in the middle of nowhere. Marfa has become well know among the art community for Chinati Foundation which is on 340 acres and is a permanent house of certain artists work. There is also a random Prada store (similar to the target) about 30 miles north of Marfa which is now an iconic image for Marfa. With all of the driving we did to and from Big Bend, we decided to skip the Prada installation and check out the gallaries in Mafa instead.

We started by going to the Chitani. When we got there, the two people at reception did not even look up to greet us. It was pretty strange and they told us that the only thing we could check out there was the outside cement block installation. We walked through what sounded like rattle snake infested grasses down to the art- which really just looked like a dumping ground for giant concrete blocks. We didn’t get it, but that’s OK. Every type of art is not always for everyone.

We then went to the Ballroom – another gallery. This one had this creepy exhibit of motion triggered things – like ladders with dog heads that had long wigs and the ladders moved closer to you when you walked towards them. It was very strange and, again, not my cup of tea. We went to Inde / Jacobs Gallery and had a great conversation with the owner. We actually liked the style of art at this Gallery. We kept walking, got some coffee, and checked out the Marfa Store. It was run buy this young guy from Minnesota who moved to Marfa with his boyfriend. We talked to him about transitioning to such a small town and he had some interesting perspectives.

 

We the checked out the town square and the shops / galleries within. There was one gallery with 3 massive Andy Warhol paintings! It was so crazy seeing such high caliber art in Marfa, Texas! We walked past a few places for sale and decided to check out the real-estate prices on Zillow. Holy cow it was expensive. The homes were comparable price-wise to Dallas, but some of the homes didn’t have city water or even AC! We were so shocked!

We took off back to the AirBnb to spend some time with the dogs. Ryan and I hung out in the hammock in the backyard for a bit before we decided to go find some food. We went into the town and settled on an Italian place called Guzzy’s. It was strangely decorated insides and reminded us of a night club. I got some ravioli with Alfredo and Ryan got some pizzas. The food was average but did the trick and we spent the remainder of the evening with the dogs before passing out around 9 PM.

Guzzy's in Alpine, Texas

Tokyo, Day 2

Tokyo, Day 2

This morning we had a game plan. We went to Tully’s for our now “regular” ham and egg sandwich and coffee before breaking off for our morning activities. Mom and Dad’s Christmas present from my sister and I was an Ikebana class experience to learn the art of Japanese flower arrangement. They took off for their 10 AM appointment and my sister, Ryan, and I set off to check out TeamLabs Boarderless, an interactive, immersive and modern, no idea how to describe it, exhibit.

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We hopped on the train for the 58 minute journey to the TeamLabs area by the ocean. We arrived with time to spare and just beat the line rush. As we got to the front, one of the workers told us we were at the wrong place! I had no idea there were more than one of these things in Tokyo! Apparently, I bought tickets for the TeamLabs Planet experience, not Boarderless, so it was back onto the train for another 20 minute ride to the correct location. Thank goodness the trains in Japan are so easy to navigate. We were at the new building in no time and had a short wait outside in a quickly moving line.

We entered a black room and watched a short intro video that told us to remove our shoes and hike up our pants to at least our knees. Wait….. what? My super tight skinny jeans were not going to budge more than 3 inches above my ankles and my sister and Ryan were looking at me quizzically and I had no answers for what we were about to experience.  With shoes off, we were instructed to move into a locker room to put our stuff up. I was not allowed in with my pants, so I got to wear these super sexy cut off sweat-shorts instead!

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Once we got the go-ahead for our pant situation, we started the journey into a black corridor with the softest velvet black walls and dim colorful lights to indicate our course. The first area we came across was an upward slope with water running down it from a waterfall at the top of the slope. It was so relaxing to walk up and the water looked beautiful with a blue light shining through it. At the top, we were given towels to dry our feet before entering the next room – a giant bean bag! When I say giant bean bag, I mean that then entire huge room was one massive bean bag and it felt like you were climbing through quicksand to get through. It was so unstabalizing and we kept pushing each other over since we were so off balance. It was hilarious and so comfortable! We need one of those rooms in our house!

The next room was my absolute favorite. It had what seemed like thousands of strings of lights with mirrors on the ceiling, walls, and floors. The lights changed colors and patterns and made all of these wonderful designs as we walked through the maze of a room. It was totally mesmerizing.

We continued on and encountered a slope that led us into knee high milky water. After turning a corner, we waded into this massive room of water with various light patterns materializing around us. There were giant coy fish, flowers, and all of these other wonderful patterns. It was so relaxing and felt so good!

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After another quick towel dry, we couldn’t wait to see what was next. We entered this room with massive, white balls! They had some helium in them so they floated around and the various neon lights made it look so cool! We pushed each other into them, bumped off of them, and explored the massive room for quite a while. Again – so weird and cool!

The last room in the experience was a giant dome that had a mirrored floor and a video of flowers moving all around it. It was kind of like a planetarium theater but, instead of planets, there were flowers of all shapes and sizes coming at you from all angles. We laid on the floor for a while to watch and relax. The walk to the exit was pretty disorienting and the angle to which the flowers were flying made it seem like the room was turning upside-down.

Sadly for us, that room led us to the exit but we were so pleasantly surprised by how different the entire experience was. A “must do” if you ever see a TeamLabs experience by you.

After TeamLabs, we set off to meet up with my parents at the Edo Museum. The plan was to grab lunch around there and then learn about Japan’s history at the museum but, unfortunately for us, the Edo is closed on Mondays so we had to adjust. We decided to grab some snacks and go check out the tech district of Akihabara instead. We hopped back on the train and rode for 20 minutes to the station. It dumped us out right into a mall and I kept getting side tracked because, well, shopping!!

We exited and immediately felt like we were in another world (like an Anime one!). There were cartoon signs crawling up the sides of the massive high rises on both sides of the road, tons of shops with tech gadgets, powerhouse brands like Sega taking up huge buildings, video games everywhere, shops with figurines, and lines and lines of surprise toy dispensers. Of course, Ryan had to try his luck with one.

Your tummies were rumbling so we found a Yaki Udon place to grab a bite. There were two vending machines on either side of the restaurant (shown below) to place your order and then we found a seat. We showed our tickets from the machines to the waitress and our food was on our table in under two minutes. Boy was it good! I got hot udon noodles with tempura.

After lunch, we ventured out to meet my parents. It took a little to find them and, while my mom went on a bathroom break, we sampled some Macha, strawberry, and pecan, chocolates for a chocolatier. Once we all regrouped, it was off to explore. It was hard to know where to go since most of the shops are on different levels within each building.

We decided to go into the Sega building and it was nuts. Like, I am trying to find different adjectives to describe this place but none can do it justice. There were 9 total floors of games. The first 3 floors were just toy-grabber machines. I tried my luck to get a giant Yoshi but it didn’t work out in my favor. The next two floors had video games of sorts, then there was a floor of music games like DDR. One of the games was like guitar hero but, instead of a guitar, you played a piano instead. One of the guys playing it was on the hardest level and had over 1,000 perfect moves! He was a total piano-hero savant! It was insane to see.

The last floor was the VR floor and had multiple areas for VR shooter games. There was even one where you rode a fake horse and killed bad guys as you rode through a valley (picture to the right above). It was weirdly funny to watch.

We made our way back out of the chaotic lights and sounds of this building. There were quite a few other buildings just like the one we were in. What a place! We browsed through a few figurine stores and souvenir shops before heading back to the station to go to the Ginza district. Ginza is known for its high end shopping. We just wanted to check it out and had no real plan. Ryan was not to keen on walking around the shops and was peeved we didn’t stay behind in Akihabara. I think there was some jet lag involved and we were not in the best mood. We walked some blocks but were all pretty tired after walking +20K steps or so already. We decided to head back to the hotel, rest, and regroup at our favorite rooftop bar at 6. It felt great to take a break for a bit.  We also decided we needed to make our full “game plan” the day prior so that we made sure to make the most of our days in Tokyo since today was a little all over the place.

After a few glasses of happy hour wine, Julia, Ryan and I took off to find dinner. Julia’s boyfriend spent some time in Tokyo a year prior and recommended a goyza place and a meat skewer place in Koenji, about a 25 minute journey from our hotel. We didn’t really know what to expect and Koenji was much less populated than Shinjuku. We walked down an street lined with thrift stores and then to another street with a few restaurants. Unfortunately, the gyoza place was closed, but the other restaurant was open! It was a Chinese place with 4 tables total. The chef was also our waiter and he recommended a few things.

We started with pan-seared soup dumplings which are filled with meat and soup broth. You put them on your spoon and cut a small hole in the top of the dumpling to slurp out the soup before eating the rest. Oh my goodness it was AMAZING. Literally the best thing I have eaten in Japan so far. Ryan got a sweet and sour chicken and Julia and I split Chinese shaved noodles with pork. So yum!

We were stuffed by the end of our dinner and the walk back to the hotel felt really good. I tell you, walking upwards of 12 miles a day is intense but at least you can enjoy all of the food guilt free!

Tokyo, Day 1

Tokyo, Day 1

Getting to Tokyo:

In 2015, we treated my dad to a trip to Peru for his 65th birthday. That trip was so amazing that my mom wanted to fast-forward her b-day trip to her 60th (typical mom!) and she wanted to go to Japan. After 7 months of researching and planning, our late March / early April cherry-blossom-season Japan trip was in full swing. My mom, dad, and sister flew in to Tokyo Friday night and Ryan and I arrived Saturday afternoon to start our two week journey.

After navigating the busy Tokyo Airport, grabbing our (very worth it) Rail Pass, hopping a few trains and walking through markets with our luggage, we arrived at the Shinjuku Granbell Hotel. Since there were 5 of us, my sister Julia was bouncing between staying with my parents and bunking with Ryan and I. The Shinjuku had this really cool loft suite so we started the trip off with a sleepover!

We unpacked and took a quick shower before hitting the streets to find some food. We ended up at a sushi train place with melt-in-your-mouth sushi! All 5 of us got our fill of so many types of seafood for only $50 total. It was a very impressive start to our culinary part of the trip.

After we filled up, we walked back through the crowded streets to our hotel for some much needed sleep.

Day 1:

Thank goodness for Melatonin. If you don’t know what that is, it is a natural sleep aid that tells your body when it is time for bed. When you are traveling and in a place with a totally different time zone, like Tokyo which is 14 hours ahead of Dallas, it helps you reset your body clock. My sister, Ryan, and I all had a gummy version of it before bed, slept like logs, and woke up ready for an 8 hour tour day!

We met my parents in the lobby of the Shinjuku Granbell hotel at 8:15 AM to grab breakfast before our tour guide arrived. It was only 40 degrees outside and it took one step out the door for me to start patrolling for a heavier jacket when we passes markets and shops. We walked about 5 minutes down to road to a more Americanized breakfast place for coffee called Tully’s. Ryan had half a ham and egg sandwich and pancakes to load up for the day and I had a coffee. This is going to sound really strange, but my sister and I both opted instead to go to 7-Eleven for breakfast. 7-Elevens in Japan look similar to those in the US but are much different. They have a wider variety of fresh food and are much cleaner / nicer. I had heard the rumors about them and read tons of info online so my sister and I decided to Japanese foods from there instead of the American place. I grabbed a pork version of the triangular shaped rice balls stuffed with meats, veggies, or fish, a steamed pork bun, and Korean rice ball. All three were really different but tasty! I don’t know how I feel yet about seaweed for breakfast though, according to our guide, traditional Japanese breakfasts consist of rice, veggies, fish, and always, always miso soup.

After our 7-Eleven stop, we went back to the hotel to chow down and wait for Misa, our 8 hour, private tour guide. She showed up right at 9:30 in a sun hat, fur-lined hooded jacket, and boots. Her face was bright and personality brighter, and we all hit it off with her immediately. She gave us an overview of the customized tour for the day and we headed off to tour gardens.

Our hotel was located in the middle of the Shinjuku district. While it is a modern, 4-star variety hotel, it is surrounded but all of these other themed hotels which were really interesting looking and strange. A lot of them had pictures of the various rooms in front of the hotels and private entrances. Misa told us that they were all “love” hotels that can be rented by the hour. Apparently, most of the houses in Tokyo are very small and people live in very close proximity with paper thin walls. To get privacy, most people in the city, from young lovers to parents, go to these “love hotels” and it is a widely accepted but secretive process. That conversation definitely brought a new perspective to our ideas of our neighborhood!

It was about a 20-minute walk to the garden and the sun was finally starting to poke out. For the sake of time, we decided to walk the Japanese portion of the garden only, about 1/3 of the full experience. There were some large and beautiful white flowering trees and the cheery blossoms were starting to bud as well!

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My mom was ecstatic when she saw her first blossom. After all, the blooming of the trees was the reason we booked our trip at the end of March! The cherry blossoms bloom from mid-March-May all over Tokyo and are so beautiful.

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After about 45 minutes of taking in the garden, we took off to our first temple. Along the way, Misa had us try these fried red bean and sweet potato fish snacks. They were so hot they burnt by tongue, but were delicious and so cute!

Misa reloaded our Suica cards and we hopped on the train. I have to say, public transit in Tokyo is so well signed and easy once you get the hang of it!

We walked to the Meiji Shrine entrance and bowed in respect. We saw a lot of girls dressed up in kimonos while we walked. Misa told us that the end of March was graduation season and that was the traditional dress for the graduation ceremony. It was super cool to see so many in their traditional garb and hear about the cultural traditions. We opted to grab some Sakura (cherry blossom) tea so we could rest for a few minutes and people-watch before heading into the temple.

The temple was huge and there were two wedding ceremonies going on while we were there. The bride’s white wedding kimonos were gorgeous and they wore these large round hats. Apparently, most kimonos are passed down from generation to generation and cost upwards of tens of thousands of dollars. There were also some 100-day old babies celebrating their first 100 days of living with their parents and grand parents. Again, the mothers and grandmothers were wearing family kimonos with their family crests embroidered on them. It was a treat to see the traditional wear and ceremonies of the people.

We walked up to the shrine and threw a lucky 5 yen into the entrance to make a wish for our futures. The word 5 in Japanese, “Go”, is also the word for destiny, so throwing 5 yen helps ensure your wish for your destiny.

Our stomaches were starting to rumble and we hopped back on the subway to go to a lake teppanyaki lunch. We arrived at this random building and I would never have found the restaurant, up this tiny elevator to the the 7th floor.

We sat around massive grill and Misa taught us how to make these seafood and pork grilled pancakes. We got a big bowl consisting of tons of veggies, egg, and meat with butter on top. We put the butter on the grill and then added the meat and seafood to cook first. Then, we stirred the egg and veggies together into a doughy mix and put that on the grill. Once the meat was semi-cooked, we put it on top of the cake and then flipped it around halfway through the cook. Once done, we added bbq sauce, Japanese mayo, and fish flakes. THE END RESULT WAS SO GOOD! Misa also made us veggies and noodles.

If you go to Japan, you must try teppanyaki out after a long day of walking.

It was such a treat to have Misa show us how to make lunch. She was such a great guide for our day. After we filed up, we took off through the market streets back to the subway to make our way to our next stop, the Ueno Park. The park was quite crowded and the blossoms were also starting to appear.

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This garden is massive and surrounded by museums. Misa told us that all of the museums and buildings over 5 stories in Tokyo are on rollers so that they can withstand earthquakes! Really inventive.

Then we headed to our last stop, the Asakusa Shrine. At the forefront of the Shrine was a gate with a massive lantern. There was a very long street with vendors lining it on both sides from the 1st massive lantern all the way to the 2nd that was right in front of the main building.

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We were getting a bit overwhelmed with all of the people so we took a side street the rest of the way down to the temple. We walked down the market and Misa bought us some various treats to try like sweet rice balls and savory rice cakes with sake.

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By this point, we had been walking for 7+ hours and we were all starting to get weary. By the main gate, there were these shaker cups with numbered sticks. We shook the cup and got a random numbers that indicated which box to open to select our fortune. The fortunes were these long pieces of paper and all of them were positive, except Ryan’s, so he had to tie his to this rack so his bad fortune would “blow away in the wind’. Poor Ryan!

We were already feeling pretty low energy, so we found a vending machine and grabbed some espresso. It came out piping hot from the machine and Misa explained that drinks with red prices are hot and blue prices are cold in the same machine! Such cool technology and such a good idea to have some caffeine which helped us get home.

Misa took us back to our hotel and we said our goodbyes. She was such an excellent guide for our day. We decided to take a 1.5 hour nap / recharge break and met back up at 7 PM to decide on plans for the next day. My parents wanted to go back to the “Robot Sushi” aka sushi conveyer belt place again, so Ryan and I broke off to try a Ramen place. What a good idea that was! It was delicious. We split a thick wavy noodle, pork belly Ramen with gyoza and fried chicken for like $12 total including drinks. It was so good and warmed us up on the cold evening.

After dinner, we decided to check out our hotels Sky Bar. We texted my family to meet us and sat at a table under the space heaters. The staff even gave us warm, fuzzy blankets so we could enjoy the view comfortably. We had a glass of wine and discussed our itinerary for the rest of our time in Tokyo before calling it an night.

Sydney, Day 5 & 6

Sydney, Day 5 & 6

Sydney Day 5:

We enjoyed a lovely breakfast at the Kirkton Park. They had some to-die for hash browns, fresh braked bread, and yummy fruit, not to mention freshly made marshmallows for the coffee. Also, the rose garden was right out back and the gardener brought in fresh cut roses and rosemary to decorate the kitchen and tables – it was enchanting!

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After we filled up, we took off on the 2.5 hour drive back to Sydney. We saw a few kangaroos on the way back but that was about as exciting as the drive got.

We parked back at the Adina Hotel and decided to walk down to Chinatown and explore. I have fond memories of getting Dim Sum (Yum Cha) with my family on previous trips and I wanted to show Ryan around. We ended up exploring the huge market with tons of booths jammed packed with random stuff. Thankfully for my wallet, I didn’t have any cash on me so I couldn’t buy anything.

We walked up the street further into the restaurant section of Chinatown and ended up at Noodle Company. It had great reviews and all of the noodles were made fresh. We ordered pork fried noodles, sweet and sour pork, and lamb and chive dumplings. Yum!

Obviously, we should have looked at the portion sizes before ordering! Usually an order of dumplings came with 6 total and we had 12! They were sooo good and we decided to box up the rest for enjoyment later.

We were stuffed so the walk back to the Adina was welcomed. Ryan went back up to the room and I took off to the grocery store to buy a few things for home. My mom always had the best BBQ sauce imported from Australia, so I bought two bottles of bbq sauce, my moms favorite gummy snakes, and my favorite Aussie candy – Violet Crumble. Violet Crumble is chocolate covered honeycomb and is sooo yummy! I like to freeze it and it just melts in your mouth afterward. I highly recommend!

Once I got back with the groceries, it was time to catch up on some blog posts. Ryan napped and we relaxed for a few hours before deciding to go out for a pre-dinner drink. My cousins and sister were meeting us at Muum Maam for some Thai food at 8, so a pre-drink was a good way to pass the time.

We ended up walking to Lil Darlin, which looked packed and had a great happy hour – cocktails for only $10. We walked in and I saw this crazy looking pink drink that, upon glancing at the menu, consisted of cotton candy and I had to get it. So glad I did!

 

We got so much entertainment and joy out of eating the cotton candy (fairy floss in Aussie lingo). I really wanted to try all of the other yummy drinks on the menu but it was time to meet everyone up. We sat at a communal table and enjoyed some tasty pork rinds while we waited on the remaining cousins to show up. Unfortunately, our cousin’s dog was acting up right before she was heading over and she had to take him to the vet. It was a bummer that we could not see her and her husband, but we are big “dog people” and totally get it.

Anyways, we had some super yummy crispy spring rolls and duck paper rolls to start with. Ryan and I decided to share the Panang curry but we got the heart breaking news that they ran out so we ended up with some tasty Pad Thai instead. Who knew that we would be eating so much Pad Thai this trip? But I am not complaining!

After dinner, we wound up walking to an ice cream place and enjoyed some delicious macadamia nut, white chocolate ice cream. Such a great way to end the night with my awesome Aussie family!

Sydney Day 6 –

Today was Royal National Park day. We walked down to the little organic grocer down the street for a quick and delicious breakfast of rocket, aioli, bacon, avocado, and scrambled egg wraps and flat white coffee, and then we were off in our rental car to the National Park. The weather was absolutely perfect for hiking with a cool breeze that made you forget the work of the hike.

The views from the hike were awesome and the water was sooo blue!

Apparently, there was a huge brush fire in January of 2018 which wiped out 60 hectors (148 acres) of brush along the coast. While it was sad to see all of the burnt toast looking trees, there was tons of promising new growth.

The trail led us to some amazing heights,

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And some sandy, relaxing lows. We ended up snacking on apples and enjoying our beach view for a while.

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We walked for a good 1.5 hours before needing to turn around and head back to the car. We had a 5 PM drop off for the rental and didn’t want to cut our beach time short so we hustled back. It was definitely a good workout and we were thankful for the hats, sun glasses, sunscreen, and water we brought (though I think Ryan and my sister were getting annoyed with my “mom” habit of reminding them to reapply frequently!).

There was a large beach was right next to the car park so we took a detour before heading out. My sister and I got our feet wet and had a good time reflecting on our time in Aussie as kids and now. It was so special to spend this time with her, especially in a country of our heritage.

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We walked back to the car and tried to de-sand our legs and feet before dirtying the rentals. Our GPS showed quite a bit of traffic on the way back, so we opted to stop at a food court for some of the best butter chicken curry with naan bread I have ever had. It was so good that I ate all of it before snapping a pic. Oops!

Thankfully for us, traffic cleared up when we got back on the road, so the drive back into Sydney was easy. Getting the rental car back, however, was not so easy. The driveway was not clearly, marked and we definitely drove up the wrong way to trying to get in! It took us even more time to go down all 7 levels to our car drop-off. We got dizzy driving around and around so much!

Finally, we made it successfully and walked back to the hotel for much needed showers. We still had some delicious herb feta cheese and Semillon wine from the Hunter Valley in the day prior and enjoyed that while packing the rest of the evening. Our flight home was bright and early the next day.

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The Hunter Valley – Day 2

The Hunter Valley – Day 2

WINE TOUR DAY! Today marked our full wine day experience with Two Fat Blokes wine tours. We had a delicious breakfast at the Kirkton Hotel (that was included), went and checked out the smelly pigs in their barn, and got picked up for our tour promptly at 9:30 AM. Our super energetic guide, Julie, told us to keep our eyes out for kangaroos as we set out to pick up additional guests. It was only about 10 minutes into our drive to the next stop that we saw a bunch of them in the bush! It was so awesome to see them hopping around in the wild.

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We picked up a total of 10 other people and were on our way to our first winery by 10 AM. Apparently we were a bit early so Julie took us to her “secret” kangaroo spot in a vineyard. We pulled up and there must have been about 100 of them all hanging out along the road! It was so cool to see – there were even some mums with their joeys!

After snapping a few pictures, we were back in the bus and off to Mistletoe Winery. The vineyard was very pretty and chockablock with beautiful sculptures in the yard and an art gallery inside.

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We all lined up at the bar and started our tasting. The lady leading that tasting told us to be aware that, if we drank all of the wine at all of the tastings we would be drinking 2-2.5 bottles of wine each! Not including the glass of wine included for lunch and 3 beers at the brewery stop at the end of the day! Geesh! I usually never waste wine but that knowledge made it easier to just taste some of the pours I didn’t prefer. (I am a light weight after all!)

Our second stop was the Two Fat Blokes wine and cheese shop to sample 9 cheeses with 9 wines! We were taken to this cute room in the back of the shop and had quite the spread.

We were told to have a bite of the cheese to get the full flavor, sip the wine, and then have another bite of the cheese to see how that flavor changes with the wines influence. It was pretty substantial! I love cheese and wine so I was in truly a happy place! There was this feta with chives that was so to-die-for we bought some to share with my sister back in Sydney.

After we ate all of our cheese, we relaxed in the winery grounds for 15 minutes before heading to the next place for lunch. I was glad some hearty food was coming our way because I needed something to soak up all of the yummy wine (as you may start to tell from the photos moving forward)!

Our next stop was the Audrey Wilkinson winery. Julie told us that the wine makers used Audrey’s old photo as the logo for the winery and on all of the bottles. A few years in, an older local man came into the winery and asked why they used a photo of Audry’s brother as the main logo for the winery! Apparently, the wine makers didn’t realize the mistake but already had brand recognition and all of their marketing materials with the brother and not Audrey. To fix the problem, the took the photo of Audry’s head and photo shopped it on his brothers body to keep similar imagery. How crazy, right?

We had lunch on the veranda of the winery. Lunch was included with the tour and I assumed it was going to be something like our fabulous lunch on our Tuscany wine tour, but I was a bit wrong. We brought the lunch in coolers from the Two Fat Blokes restaurant and it consisted of pretty average cold meats, salad, and pasta salad. I was slightly disappointed but the rest of the day was so amazing that it did not bug me too much.

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Lunch’s disappointment quickly evaporated as we went inside after we ate for yet another tasting! We started with a Semillon, a wine specific to the Hunter Valley that has strong notes of lemon and lime. The white wines at Audrey were a little to tart for my taste, so we did not buy any, but they were still decent. The best was the desert wine at the end. It was delicious and our host even gave me extra when I finished mine first and joked that I never got any to start with!

The view from the winery was beautiful and we had to snap a pic – even our guide Julie wanted to be included!

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After another quick ride on the bus, we arrived at winery number 4, Ivanhoe. It also had amazing views and we sat on the porch tasting about 7 wines. Our host at this winery was very lively and apparently worked at Disney for several years so he could travel the world to the various parks. What a great way to see the world!

Our last winery for the day was one of my favorites because it included the chocolate pairing! We had 4 chocolates to taste with 7 different wines and they were soooo yummy (at least that is how I fuzzily remember it at this point). Ryan and I bought two bottles of wine and a few of the white chocolate coconut truffles to share with my sister. One of the bottles we bought had a picture that was supposed to be Marylin Monroe but she didn’t look anything like her.  She didn’t even have her signature mole! We still bought it though since, apparently on trips, we randomly buy things related to Marilyn like we did in Santa Fe!

We were getting very chummy and silly with the rest of our tour group by this point and the photo bombing continued at a hilarious pace!

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One last bus ride later we arrived at Hunter Valley Beer Co. – a micro brewery that only serves the surrounding area. The beer was pretty good and I know this because I usually don’t like beer and I LIKED the beer at HVB. We played some Aussie beer trivia (which I quickly lost at) and then got a tour of the beer making process. It was a nice way to end our big day.

Julie did a fabulous job of getting all of us safely back to our accommodation. One guy even drunkenly ran out of the bus at our hotel to go pee in a bush. That took us all by surprise!

Ryan and I had a 6:30 reservation for dinner at the hotel restaurant because we definitely we re not driving anywhere at that point. It was a set menu and we were already pretty full, so we decided to cancel our reso and get a pizza from the bar instead. We played pool while waiting and I did not get one single ball in! Of course, that had nothing to do with my skill and everything to do with the wine… right?!

Our dinner was served at the bar and my award-winning food photography skills really captured my bbq pork pizza….

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It truly was delicious though! After we filled up and I gave up trying to win at pool games, we relaxed on the patio of our room with another glass of wine before zonking out.

Continue on this adventure…