North Carolina Adventures: Asheville

The week before Easter, my fiance and I took a trip to North Carolina to visit family and have some fun. Splitting our time between Asheville and Raleigh, we enjoyed an action-packed week of sight-seeing, delicious meals, hiking, and…mermaid princesses!

We flew from Alexandria to Atlanta, and from there to Asheville, spending our 3-hour layover exploring the Atlanta airport and dining at P.F. Chang’s. Nick and I enjoyed flying together–we talked, read the Sky magazine, and chowed down on Cheez-its, Biscoff cookies, and ginger ale. It was so fun and exciting to fly on an airplane (even though our first flight had lots of turbulence due to a huge storm coming through the southeast).IMG_4307

Nick’s aunt and uncle hosted us for our time in Asheville. Their beautiful home is located in Biltmore Forest, a dreamy neighborhood located on land that was previously part of the Biltmore Estate (the Vanderbilts had to sell this acreage when their fortune began to dwindle). This woodsy, hilly area is only a mile from the Biltmore Estate, and adjacent to the Blue Ridge Parkway. The blooming redbuds, dogwoods, and cherry blossom trees made me feel I was in a fairy-tale.

Our first morning, the four of us wandered to a segment of the Mountains-to-Sea trail accessible from their backyard for a 3-mile trail run/hike before exploring downtown. Nick’s aunt and uncle made excellent tour guides, pointing out the popular spots and telling us all about the history and culture of the city.

We visited the French Broad Chocolate Lounge, where I got an iced mocha and shared a brownie sundae with Nick. One thing I love about Asheville is that the local restaurants have environmentally-friendly practices, like using paper straws and biodegradable to-go cups, locally-sourced ingredients, and having recycle cans. Another thing I like is that you can bring your dog anywhere with you. Maybe we should move there…Nick and I both drive a Subaru–we’d fit right in!

We walked in and out of art galleries, local craft markets, and breweries. At one point we split up, us girls going dress shopping while the guys played pinball. We met up at 5 o’clock for Palm Sunday mass at St. Lawrence Basilica, followed by dinner at Strada Italian. Their ravioli dish is out-of-this-world!

We made our way to a hotel lounge where there was some live music, but soon left downtown to hit Highland Brewing for flights (a beer sample with four 2-oz cups in your choice of brews) and more live music. This is what you do in Asheville, the brewery capital of the U.S.

The next day was spent at the Biltmore mansion. But remember that storm I mentioned earlier? Part of it swept through North Carolina that day, making for a very rainy, cold, wet visit to the Estate. We saw the gardens first, then toured the house and conservatory when the rain hit. The theme of the tour was A Vanderbilt House Party, which immersed visitors in the daily life of the Vanderbilts and their workers–entertaining guests, preparing grand meals, enjoying the swimming pool, bowling alley, gardens, and views of the Blue Ridge Mountains. I felt as if I were in an episode of Downton Abbey.

The following day was designated for hiking and exploring the Pisgah National Forest south of Asheville. Riding along the Blue Ridge Parkway, our first stop was the Pisgah Inn, where we enjoyed a scenic overlook. It was a beautiful day, but at this elevation of 5,000 feet, the temperatures were in the 30’s and the wind was blowing. We layered up and drove to our next stop, the Mount Pisgah Trail.

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The chilly Pisgah Inn overlook.

This 3-mile round trip hike took us to the summit of Mount Pisgah, where a large news tower was hailing down icicles every time the wind blew. Our next hike was the Graveyard Fields Loop Trail, where we stopped to eat a picnic lunch on some boulders at the foot of a waterfall.

The next stop was Cradle of Forestry, a National Heritage Site which houses what was the first school of forestry in the country. George Vanderbilt recruited German forester Carl Schenck to come up  with sustainable practices for this forest land (which, at the time, was being logged at unsustainable rates). Schenck then founded the school, where forestry students spent long days in the classroom and the field, and roomed in abandoned houses left behind by settlers.

Our last stop in the forest was Looking Glass Falls, where we saw a double rainbow. Then we headed to the town of Brevard, known for its white squirrel population, for some urban hiking in the quaint downtown district. We saw some white squirrels, as well as a groundhog. Feeling satisfied with the day, we drove back for our final meal in Asheville: dinner and flights at the huge Sierra Nevada Brewery.

There are so many reasons to visit Asheville–the farm-to-table restaurants, breweries, the arts scene, endless hiking options, and the Biltmore. What used to be country is now a rapidly-growing hipster scene due to the influx of young people and new businesses. We had a wonderful three days there and will definitely be back.

Stay tuned for a post on Raleigh and princess mermaids!

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My Alaskan Adventure, Part 3: The Last Frontier

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Dawes Glacier

Upon crossing the state border, I fell in love with Alaska, mystified by the fact that most of the state is nothing but wilderness. We stopped in three small towns along the southeast Alaskan coast: Skagway, Juneau, and Ketchikan. Outside of these quaint towns, you won’t see cell phone towers, telephone lines, or any other indication of civilization. In fact, two of the three towns don’t even have roads leading in or out; all travel to the mainland must be by ship or plane.

Our first day spent in Alaska wasn’t at one of these ports-of-call, but in the Endicott Arm Fjord. That morning, Captain Mickey steered the ship to some fjords, or narrow inlets, leading to glaciers. The Tracey Arm Fjord had too much ice flow that day for it to be safe for travel, so the captain made the decision to go down the equally-scenic Endicott Arm.

The weather in Alaska is typically cold, rainy, and overcast (the forests there are actually rainforests). However, it was unusually sunny and clear on Glacier Day, making for some gorgeous photo opportunities. As we sailed further down the arm, we began to see ice chunks which had calved off of the Dawes Glacier. I noticed one that was brilliant blue, indicating it had recently calved off and had not been exposed to air very long.

As we turned into the final stretch of the arm, we could finally see Dawes Glacier—and many more icebergs. Seals floated by on flat hunks of ice, which they use to birth their young. The ship finally came to a halt right in front of the glacier, and stayed parked there for an hour as we all marveled at this tremendous natural phenomenon. We were lucky enough to witness some of the ice calving off, watching the big splash through our binoculars.

Sadly, the glaciers are receding at an incredible rate. This trip was truly a once-in-a-lifetime chance for me to see the Dawes and other glaciers, because in ten years they could be inaccessible, or at the very least, much less impressive. So if you have a desire to go to Alaska, don’t put it off.

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Equipped with robes and hot chocolate, we’re ready for some glacier-viewing!

I mentioned in my last post that the first day on the ship was my birthday. Upon entering our suite, I had found a birthday card with two warm, fuzzy Disney Cruise Line robes, a bottle of champagne, and a box of chocolates courtesy of our travel agent. These robes came in handy on Glacier Day; the temperature near a glacier is ten degrees colder than the already-cool Alaskan temperatures (in the 40s, if I had to guess). Cruise staff walked around the balconies with trays of hot chocolate to offer guests all afternoon.

The next morning we awoke in Skagway, Alaska. I could have spent a whole week in this town; it has hiking trails, a train that takes passengers deep into the mountains, and an interesting history from the gold rush era. With around 900 inhabitants (mostly seasonal), the town’s population tripled when our cruise ship docked.

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Welcome to Skagway!

Nick and I spent the morning on a six-mile round-trip trail with an 850-foot elevation gain called Icy Lake and Upper Ried Falls Trail. We crossed some neat footbridges, wandered through Spruce and Hemlock forests, and saw some glacial silt. The trail ends at a huge waterfall plunging down the mountainside. We had to practically shout to hear each other over the rushing falls.

After lunch, Nick, his dad, and I met up with our excursion group for some rock climbing and rappelling! Our guides drove us to a mountain, where we hiked up to a vertical rock wall; he gave us some rock-climbing shoes, secured us in harnesses, and let us try a couple climbs. It was terrifying.

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Adrenaline rush!

I’d never done this before—and may never do it again—but I’m glad I did it. This experience is a good microcosm for life. This wall looms before you, seemingly impossible to climb. But you must take it one hand and one foot at a time–stopping if you need to, and never looking down. Next thing you know, you’re at the top thinking “That wasn’t so bad.”

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Nick preparing to rappel down the cliff. My hero!

Rappelling is about overcoming fear. We hiked to the top of the cliff, and (only those brave enough) climbed over the ledge and lowered themselves to a 90 degree angle, proceeding to control their own descent down the 100-foot vertical rock. If anything went wrong, ambulances would be involved. Although some people got all strapped in only to chicken out upon looking over the edge, I went through with it. You have to overcome fear at some point, so why not here and now?

P1050067The next day’s excursion was in Juneau, Alaska’s capital city. The whole family did a whale-watching and science adventure. Our tour guide first took us on a nature walk to see the Mendenhall glacier. We then boarded a small boat to find some humpback whales. Along the way, we saw sea lions, bald eagles, a starfish, and seals.

To spot a humpback whale, you must look for the spray from its blowhole. Once you see the spray, you’ll spot the whale’s back surfacing. After surfacing several times, the whale will take one last breath and dive down to the bottom to feed—when they do this, you’ll see the tail fin pop up out the water. It was a dream come true to see these whales up-close, in-person. This was a major highlight of the trip.

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Our last port-of-call was Ketchikan, where Nick’s dad, Nick, and I did a canoe excursion in the Tongass Rainforest. The weather was overcast and cold in this, what is considered the rainiest city in the United States. The lake was dark due to tannins from the surrounding trees. Our group shouted at the top of our lungs to hear the echo bouncing off the mountains.

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Canoeing in the Tongass National Forest.

We canoed to a canopy area, where a local chef had cooked clam chowder and hot chocolate over a campfire. We also enjoyed some bread and local raspberry jam. After loading up on snacks, we did a nature walk in which the guide pointed out edible and non-edible plant species.

Alaska is beautiful, isolated, and unique. I saw lots of bald eagles, seals, and sea lions, and a few whales; other cruisers saw bears and mountain goats as well. I faced fear by descending a vertical rock wall, lived my dream of seeing a whale in the wild, and saw magnificent glaciers, waterfalls, and snow-capped mountains. I hope to return someday!

My Alaskan Adventure, Part 2: The Ship

P1040909The Disney Wonder is an amazing vessel, complete with four formal dining areas, two pools, four hot tubs, a waterslide, a theater, a movie theater, several lounges, and much more. At any given time, there are character meet-and-greets, Disney trivia, games, tours, and talks going on all over the ship. And always a dance party, where you can find Donald Duck and Minnie Mouse jamming out with a bunch of little kids (and that one adult…which, admittedly, was usually me).

Every morning the TV looped the “Good Morning Disney Wonder” show, which featured the cruise director and assistant cruise director discussing the day’s activities. It was a great way to plan your day and ensure you didn’t miss the best activities. We also used the Disney Cruise app, which sent us alerts when our shows, excursions, etc. were about to begin. I didn’t have much down time in the entire 8 days spent on that ship; there were so many fun things to do, I was constantly running from one activity, show, or meal to the next—boyfriend in tow.

The food. The four formal dining areas each had a unique theme: Tiana’s Place, Triton’s, Animator’s Palate, and Palo.

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Baked Alaska in Alaska. Note the Frog-themed silverware in Tiana’s Place.

Tiana’s Place, as you may have guessed, had a New Orleans feel. The menu had such things as shrimp and grits, boudin balls, jambalaya, and beignets. Of course I was skeptical of eating my home cuisine thousands of miles outside the state of Louisiana, but I was delightfully surprised. The best part of eating at Tiana’s, though, were the shows put on by Princess Tiana herself and the band the Cajun Crooners. The band played all throughout dinner, but when Tiana came out to join them with her trumpet-playing alligator friend Louis, the party really started. One night at Tiana’s was “Mardi Gras Night”, and the entire wait staff came out in a second line with Tiana and Louis. Then all the guests got up and made a second line.

Triton’s was less lively, but had a lovely mural of the little mermaid across the wall and an under-the-sea theme. This was where we enjoyed breakfast and lunch every day—always complete with soups, salads, appetizers, entrees, desserts, and drinks—and always all-you-can-eat. This is also where the ladies of our group took Nick’s nieces to the princess tea party, which I enjoyed as much as (if not more than) all the toddlers.

36222965_2369083696442939_5961845924643733504_oAnimator’s Palate was a black-and-white restaurant with Disney animations sketched all over the walls, paintbrush columns, and palate-shaped lights. The place became more colorful during the dinnertime shows, when clips from classic Disney movies played on the screens, the lights changed colors, and Fantasia Mickey made an appearance. It was so neat one night—we each had to create and draw our own character upon sitting down to dinner; somehow they scanned our creations and brought them to life on the screens during the show, dancing around in scenes from Snow White and Pinocchio.

Palo is the gourmet Italian, upscale, adults-only restaurant on the top deck of the ship. It’s all glass and all window seating, so the view enough is worth paying extra to dine here. Nick and I decided last minute to make a reservation for Sunday brunch. Of course, they were fully booked, but we got a call Sunday morning that they had a spot for us. We got all dressed up and met his parents there at our table for four. The brunch buffet was amazing, with tables full of beautifully-presented desserts, meats, cheeses, fruits, pastries, and (a special treat) Alaskan king crab legs. Back at our table, the waiter brought out at least one plate of everything from the menu. The amount of food we had was ridiculous, and it was all delicious.

The shows. There were three Broadway-style performances throughout the week: The Golden Mickeys, Frozen: A Musical Spectacular, and Enchanted Dreams. Frozen had ventriloquism, award-winning costume design, and some amazing special effects. The other shows featured musical numbers from the classic Disney movies like Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, and Lion King. I really can’t pick a favorite, they were all so good. The Golden Mickeys showed on formal night, so they rolled out the red carpet and had paparazzi snapping pictures as you walked from dinner into the theater. A lady in an elegant formal gown interviewed little kids Joan Rivers style before the show started. The whole thing was really fun and adorable.

The entertainment. There were some great comedy acts on the ship: the magic of Shawn Farquhar, two-time world magic champion; Michael Holly, a juggling comedian; John Charles, AKA the human jukebox, who can play any song you request on the guitar; and Ronn Lucas, one of the world’s top ventriloquists, who’s previously performed for U.S. presidents and the Queen of England. There was also a naturalist, retired from the Alaska Fish and Game Department, who gave several talks about Alaskan wildlife, glaciers, and bears; Nick and I especially enjoyed his talks.

This is really special—the musical producers of Frozen, Mr. and Mrs. Lopez, were on the ship *ahhh!!* and did a presentation in the theater on our last day at sea. This couple has won Grammys and Oscars, yet they seemed so down-to-earth when sharing their story. They played songs that were cut from the movie, which no one has heard before (except people from previous Disney cruises). They explained the creative process of making the movie, and how the story line changed along the way. To end the show, they asked these Asian twin baby girls to come up on stage and sing Let It Go. Adorned in Anna and Elsa dresses, they sang every single word of that song, joined by the audience. Cue the snow machine and confetti cannons when they hit the last refrain. It was the best!

The views. Although there was always something fun and exciting to do on the ship, I could’ve been just as happy sitting on the balcony the entire time. The ship cruised through passages along the southeast Alaska coast, so we never lost sight of the rocky, snow-capped mountains. Often, we’d see a huge waterfall running up and down a mountain’s side. I saw black fins emerge from the water that could’ve been orca whales or dolphins. Bald eagles were abundant near our ports-of-call. On glacier day, we saw impressive chunks of ice topped with families of seals.

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The scenery alone would have made for an amazing trip, and I always stopped to take it in during those few minutes of down time. More about actual Alaska in my next post!

My Alaskan Adventure, Part 1: Vancouver

On June 16th, I woke up at 4am to catch a flight out of my small hometown airport to Houston. It would be the beginning of my greatest adventure yet. Not only did I fly to a foreign country and sail to Alaska—I experienced the magic of a week on a Disney cruise ship.

My boyfriend’s family invited me on this trip over a year ago, and his mom made all the arrangements for our group of ten. Nick flew to Vancouver, British Columbia on a Friday. Since I had work, I flew in that Saturday (my first time ever flying alone). Just being at an airport was exciting. I love flying, and this was my first flight since studying abroad in Paris—seven years ago! Glued to my window, I watched the sun rise as I flew from Alexandria, Louisiana, to the big city of Houston.

From Houston I flew to Vancouver. The flight was probably four or five hours, but I didn’t notice because I was enamored by the experience of flying. In an effort to pack light, I left behind books, laptop, and any form of entertainment; instead, I looked out the window, drank coffee with my non-English speaking neighbors, and daydreamed. Losing two hours with the time zone change, we landed in Vancouver at 1pm—with plenty of daylight left to explore the city.

Canadian customs was intense, and before I could leave the airport I had to get some Canadian cash for the Skytrain. It took me a minute, but I figured out how to buy a train ticket and find my way downtown. After a few minutes of showcasing those distant snow-capped mountains, the Skytrain plunged underground, eventually delivering me to the Waterfront station. A kind stranger pointed me to my hotel—the Pan Pacific, a high-class place directly connected to the cruise ship terminal—and I was free in downtown Vancouver.

I called Nick from the hotel lobby; he was very proud that I found my way to a foreign country without getting lost. We met up with his parents in the concierge lounge, which overlooked the cruise ship dock, Stanley Park, and the downtown skyline. I immediately discovered the espresso machine. Nick and I left to explore for a bit before meeting back up with his parents, brother, and sister-in-law for a food tour of China Town.

Our food tour guide took us to four restaurants (and then ran to get take-out from a Chinese restaurant, because we were expecting Chinese food and he couldn’t let us down). The first stop was a vegan pizza place. The second was gluten-free fried chicken. The third was an assortment—french fries, Brussel sprouts, and cauliflower. The fourth…I don’t remember but I know it was good.

See, we were also served a different beverage at each place. The first, rose wine. The second, cider. The third, gin and tonic. By the fourth stop my head was spinning. Keep in mind I’d been up since 4am and my only meal was an egg sandwich from a Starbucks back in Houston. I’m also not a drinker. What a way to kick off vacation!

By 10 pm the sun was still shining bright, and we enjoyed our Chinese take-out from the hotel room. In the Pacific northwest, on the week of the summer solstice, there are 19 hours of daylight. Before going to sleep, you have to draw the curtains tight; otherwise, you’ll be up at 3am to close them.

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Holy Rosary Cathedral, Downtown Vancouver

The next morning we went to mass at the gorgeous Holy Rosary Cathedral downtown. We spent the morning walking to Stanley Park, a 1,000-acre peninsula with forests, gardens, wildlife, painter’s circle for artists to sell their work, totem poles, an aquarium, and more. We took a horse-drawn carriage ride tour of the park. Nick and I discovered how tasty salmonberries are. A bald eagle flew over our carriage. We learned about the history of Vancouver.

We walked back to town for some gelato before heading right back to Stanley Park to meet Nick’s adorable nieces at the aquarium. Vancouver has an impressive aquarium, complete with dolphins, sea lions, and otters. Nick and I joined the hundreds of other joggers and pedestrians and ran downtown to met everyone for dinner at a pub.

The next day was my birthday, and about the time I woke up, the Disney Wonder was pulling up to the dock. What a great way to start the day! The Pan Pacific breakfast buffet did not disappoint—and it had a great view of the Mickey ship. We took pictures in our matching shirts, which featured everyone’s favorite Disney character (mine was Elsa). After going through the cruise terminal security and waiting around for an hour, it was finally time to board the ship.

P1040793We entered the Disney Wonder in the atrium/lobby area, and were immediately escorted into Triton’s restaurant for lunch. You can feel the magic the moment you walk on the ship—Disney music constantly piping through the walls, characters walking around, amazing service and friendly faces wherever you turn. Everything on the ship was clean and beautiful. Our food was delicious and the wait staff was incredible.

36248266_2369057716445537_2201209557114421248_oAfter lunch and a mandatory safety assembly, the cruise kicked off with a sail-away deck dance party. Mickey, Goofy, Donald, and Minnie led the count-down to when the ship set sail. Confetti was blown. There was a sing-along, there was line dancing. We did the Macarena, the cupid shuffle, and the chicken dance. I ran from one side of the ship to the other taking pictures of the mountains going by. Little did I know, these paled in comparison to the ones we’d see in a couple days.

But more about that in part two!

To Michigan and back: Our 2,000-mile family road trip

This week my mom, my aunt and uncle, their three boys, and I took a very long road trip–driving from south Louisiana to Ann Arbor, Michigan (and back!) in the course of six days. My aunt and uncle’s daughter was taking her first set of vows to become a nun and we all wanted to drive up for the occasion. You see, taking vows is to a nun as getting married is to most girls. So this was a big deal.

We took two cars and caravan-ed, which proved to be difficult considering my mom and I are slow, cautious drivers–while my uncle, on the other hand, has a lead foot. With seven people in tow, we had to stop once every hour or so for someone to use the bathroom or get a snack (which extended our travel time a good bit). After two full days of only driving, eating, and sleeping, I was so happy to finally arrive in Ann Arbor.

Since we had come this far, we figured we might as well go a little further to see the Great Lakes. So the next day we took a day trip north to visit Lake Erie. The next morning we attended the vow-taking ceremony, followed by a reception at the convent. Once the reception ended, we hit the road again and headed back south. So basically, this was a week of nonstop driving.

Driving can be stressful, especially when you’re trying to caravan with someone who drives like Dale Earnhardt, Jr.. By the end of the first day on the road, I voiced that I could really use a cup of hot herbal tea. For some reason my 11-year-old cousin was quite tickled by the fact that I enjoy hot tea (which amused me). And so it became a running joke that everywhere we went, I had to find some hot tea. Multiple times throughout the trip, this child and his 18-year-old brother made me laugh so hard I was in tears. I had forgotten how hilarious boys this age are, since my brothers and I are grown and have lost that child-like silliness.

I was hoping that visiting the convent would be a guiding experience for me, as I’ve been struggling to figure out how I want to spend the rest of my life (single, married, military, religious, kids, no kids, etc.). Although I didn’t exactly have an epiphany while there, the visit 1.) confirmed that I don’t want to be a nun, 2.) gave me more respect for those who do chose religious life, and 3.) made me realize that material possessions and money are not that important.

See, these nuns own nothing but the clothes on their back; they never will own anything but that. The convent will provide their basic needs, but they cannot have any items or money in their name–everything belongs to the community of sisters. While it would be nice to not worry about money or be weighed down with material possessions, this lifestyle requires a lot of sacrifice. I’m not materialistic in the slightest, but I can’t imagine not having my dogs, cell phone, running shoes, or car (to name a few). And what would I do without access to hot tea?!

Our last night on the road, we stayed in the area around Nashville where all the country music stars and music producers live. The cheapest houses in this area are half a million dollars, while the country club is lined with mansions up to four stories high. What a culture shock to go from the convent–where everyone has taken a vow of poverty–to this town!

On our drive home we went to mass at Mother Angelica’s shrine, a beautiful church and grounds in north Alabama that is home to another set of nuns. As chance would have it, the priest talked about the importance of not hoarding material possessions, saying “It’s important to work hard to earn enough money to provide a comfortable and decent lifestyle for your family; but beyond that, do not want for more.” Jesus said to not hoard possessions; if you have more than one of something, give the extra to someone in need. If you have more money than you know what to do with, don’t buy unnecessary luxuries. Rather, give to charity.

I guess my spiritual lesson turned out to be this: no matter what life I choose for myself, I should live it for others. I should use my extra money to help others, rather than saving up for some giant house with 10 bedrooms when all I need is one. There’s no need to take a vow of poverty; just realize that you don’t need “things” in order to lead a happy life.

Sorry I went on a tangent there! These are my thoughts and reflections on the last week. I think I’ll go steep some hot tea now. 🙂