Getting Cold Feet at Coldfoot Camp


A green light is shining on the mountains.
Photo taken by Vanessa with her Samsung phone: Imagine what she could do with a real camera!

“Looky, looky!†An elderly Asian lady excitedly tugged on my coat sleeve and pointed to the sky. Above us, the aurora borealis gracefully danced across the heavens, putting on a show the likes of which I’d never seen before. Vanessa and I (and it seemed roughly half the population of Asia) were in Alaska—high above the Arctic Circle in the tiny settlement of Wiseman, AK, where we all gasped in wonder as the night sky took on a life of its own.

After traveling the Dalton Highway all day and part of the night—our journey made longer by a jack-knifed truck—we had arrived at Coldfoot Camp, population 10. When word came that the northern lights were expected to make an appearance, we decided to travel to the old mining town of Wiseman, about 14 miles further north—or an hour’s drive—to experience this natural phenomenon far away from any manmade lights. So we hopped in a van to drive to this thriving rural metropolis…population 14.

Vanessa: We’ve been traveling north for nine hours. How much north can be left in this state?

Terri: Maybe we’re going to watch the northern lights with polar bears.

Vanessa: That would be awesome. At least we’d be snuggly warm.

Cold doesn’t begin to describe the bone-chilling temperatures this far above the Arctic Circle. Though we desperately wanted to see the lights, it’s hard to summon up a lot of enthusiasm when it’s negative 40 degrees…and you’re just starting your journey at 11 p.m. We decked ourselves out in more layers than an onion (and would happily have added more if we could have wrestled the outerwear off the other tourists.) There is such a thing as coat lust.

A clock on the side of a building in winter.
It warmed up to -20 by morning! Photo by Vanessa

A Tiny Cabin, A Warm Fire and an Unusual Man

We were welcomed to a one-room cabin in the middle of nowhere by Jack, a man right out of central casting if you were looking for a weathered, charismatic Alaskan character. It did make me wonder what it is about traveling that makes people (or at least us) forget to ask those safety questions we do at home. Things like, “Why are we going to a cabin in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of the night, with strangers? And why are we eating and drinking the things that even stranger strangers hand us?â€

In this case, it was a good decision. (And trust me, often it’s not.) Inside that little cabin was a fireplace with a roaring fire, hot chocolate and cookies. And then there was Jack—who would (and should) be the mayor of Wiseman if there were enough people to hold an election. Jack embodies all that is interesting, unusual and quirky about rural Alaska. He lives in this tiny village, welcoming anyone and everyone who happens to visit. He knows everything that there is to know about the northern lights. And he patches his pants together with duct tape and rocks a pair of bunny boots.

A pair of white boots sitting on top of a table.
Bunny Boots, because you have to see them to understand!

About those Bunny Boots

For those new to the Bush, bunny boots are extreme cold vapor barrier boots, most often used by the U.S. military. And in Jack’s case, they were huge. This delighted the Asian contingent to no end, and Jack is now immortalized in hundreds of photos comparing tourists’ tiny boots with his massive footprint. Even if the lights hadn’t appeared, I’m not sure that our traveling companions would have minded since they were having the time of their lives in this cozy little outpost.

In addition to being fashion-forward, Jack also happens to be an expert photographer—especially of the northern lights. And he became Vanessa’s new BFF when he showed her how to set up a tripod and use her Samsung phone to capture the spectacle in the sky, something that she had not succeeded in doing up until this point.

There’s no way to truly describe what standing under the lights is like; we spent hours staring at the night sky, oohing and ahhing until we couldn’t stand the cold one more second. I knew it was time to leave when I stood so close to the outdoor fire that I burned my gloves right off.

Insider tip: make sure that you occasionally look down from the sky to check your surroundings, especially when standing near open flames.

A snowy mountain with buildings and trees in the background.
Coldfoot Camp in all its frozen glory. Photo by Terri

Who Stays at a Camp Named Coldfoot?

As the lights, and some of the other tourists, began to fade, we made our way back to Coldfoot Camp where we were overnighting before flying back to Fairbanks. One of three tiny settlements dotted along the northern end of the Dalton Highway, Coldfoot isn’t a place where people just pop in for a visit. If you’re heading up there, you have to be committed—or possibly running from the law.

The first people who thought it was a good idea to settle here obviously arrived in summer. When the harsh winter weather showed up, they got cold feet and headed south. Thus the name.

A close up of the side of a wooden pole
A not so subtle reminder that your toes could easily become icicles. Photo by Terri

Built by Truckers for Truckers

The toe-freezing cold may have scared off the first settlers, but it didn’t stop truck drivers. Coldfoot Camp is the northernmost truck stop in the world, and it is renowned for its commitment to those brave souls who travel the Dalton. It all started with Dick Mackey, whose claim to fame was the 1978 Iditarod win—the closest race ever. He literally won by a dog’s nose.

Mackey wanted to show his appreciation for the hard-working truckers keeping the Alaskan Pipeline project going, so he converted an old bus into a hot dog and hamburger stand in Coldfoot. The truckers appreciated it so much, they began dropping off their surplus supplies so that Mackey could build a permanent structure. It’s a place built by truckers for truckers, and there’s even a long table reserved strictly for these drivers—no tourists allowed.

A large wooden table with chairs around it.
Truckers only. No tourists. Photo by Terri

Vanessa and I greatly enjoyed dinner and drinks at the bar—not to mention hot showers and warm beds in the basic yet incredibly comfortable accommodations. In fact, she didn’t want to get up when I knocked at her door the next morning. Maybe she already knew what was coming.

The Flight Back—a Slightly Terrifying (and humiliating) Adventure

After a good night’s sleep in the oh-so-warm camp rooms, Vanessa and I joined the truckers for breakfast. Surprised that we had never been given a time for our flight back to Fairbanks, I went to look for answers.

Terri: Hi, we’re flying back to Fairbanks this morning. Do you know what time we need to leave for the airport?

Laughing Man: Not sure when the plane will get here. We’ll call you when it does.

Terri: Don’t we need to be at the airport a couple of hours early?

Laughing Man:  Not exactly.

Leaving our fate in his hands, we went to breakfast, which seemed like a reasonable thing to do at the time. But when we saw our tiny toy plane land on the icy runway (which clearly doubles as an open field—or possibly a lake) during warmer months, we were sorry we had eaten anything…ever.

A small airplane sitting on top of an airport runway.
An icy runway, a step stool & a toy plane. What could possibly go wrong? Photo by Terri

We walked out onto the runway, (yes, seriously), and waited for a few people to disembark and grab their luggage (no claim check here!) before getting on the plane. Before boarding, the seemingly nice pilot asked us our weight.

Terri: Well, that’s not polite.

Vanessa:  They need to know what you weigh to distribute the weight evenly on the plane. He’s trying to keep up alive.

Terri: What happens if we lie?

Vanessa:  We die.

Terri: That seems like pretty extreme punishment for shaving a few pounds off.

Shaking his head, he seated us on opposite sides of the toy plane. Then he flew us safely back to Fairbanks, along with a couple of other passengers. Vanessa took photos the whole way, so at least there would be a record of what happened when they found the wreckage among the jagged peaks.

In case I lied.

A view of the ocean from an airplane window.
Mountain peaks & a frozen Yukon River (a/k/a places not to land) Photo by Terri

If You Go:

Northern Alaska adventures typically start in Fairbanks, and for good reason. Fairbanks has a burgeoning art scene, diverse (& delicious) cuisine, a wealth of information about life in Alaska and hiking with reindeer. (More on that soon!) Check out some of the highlights at www.explorefairbanks.com.

When you’re ready for your arctic adventure, the good folks at Northern Alaska Tour Company will hook you up with a driver for a heart-pumping, fingernail biting trek up the Dalton Highway. They’ll also fly you back to Fairbanks after an exhilarating night of aurora chasing! www.northernalaska.com

Alaska’s Dalton Highway: We Survived—by Letting Someone Else Drive


“No, you are not going to drive.â€

These are the first words that Vanessa said to me after learning that we would be traveling Alaska’s famed Dalton Highway.

And she was right, I wasn’t driving. But this time, neither was she. Hell, even ice road truckers don’t want to drive what is not only one of the northernmost highways in the world but also one of the most dangerous—especially in winter when ice and snow make it even more treacherous.

We were leaving the driving to the professionals—in this case, Ken Anderson, a 17-time Iditarod competitor. Having ranked in the top four in a few of those races, Ken knows a thing or two about handling ice and snow. Of course, that was with dogs and we were heading out in a 15-passenger van. But training is training, right?

A woman standing in front of a sign that says " welcome to the dalton highway ".
And we’re off!

The Dalton Highway Explained

Starting in north-central Alaska near the town of Livengood, roughly 80 miles north of Fairbanks, the Dalton Highway winds along a 414-mile route heading north to the Arctic Ocean. Built in 1974 to help support the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, this highway brings an entirely new perspective to isolation.

There are only three permanent towns along the way: Coldfoot, Wiseman and Deadhorse. The biggest is Deadhorse—population 25. We were heading to the aptly named town of Coldfoot. And, there are no towns between Livengood and Coldfoot, so we were on our own if anything happened. As Ken said, “We’ll be traveling at our own risk.â€

The man is a master of understatement.

Knowing that Vanessa would need to keep a close eye on the road because she’s a control freak, I ceded the front seat to her. She sat quietly staring through the already-broken windshield, counting down the miles. Which passed oh, so very slowly.

A truck driving down the road in the snow.
Should we be worried about the crack in the windshield?

An excellent tour guide, Ken had plenty of anecdotes to share along with insights into the locals. “The further out from town you go, the crazier the people,†he told us happily. It wasn’t the most comforting thought, considering we might need some of those lunatics should we run into trouble.

He told us not to worry, though, because he had plenty of extra food and supplies should we get stranded along the way. This did add a bit of comfort, as I figured Vanessa’s silence was probably due to her thinking about who she would eat first if we couldn’t get help until the spring thaw.

Isolation and Abandonment—We Have a Theme!

While we’d been warned that there would be few people along the route, it didn’t strike home until we began following the Elliot Highway from Fairbanks to where it intersected with the Dalton Highway and saw our first sign.

Olnes, Population 1.

A sign in the snow that says " entering olmes city."
Why bother? Photo by Vanessa

Seriously, why even bother to put up a sign when there’s no one else there to read it?

Fifty miles up the road, Ken stopped so we could check out the former homestead of Joe and Nancy Carlson, who were locally famous for parenting five children and adopting another 19 or so. The Carlson family homesteaded in what was known as Joy, Alaska, and operated the Arctic Circle Trading Company. But don’t expect to see any signage acknowledging the Arctic Circle Trading Company—the main building is labeled the Wildwood General Store…which bothers no one but very literal writers.

And don’t expect to meet any of the Carlson family, either. They’re long gone. But for some reason, their possessions stayed behind. There’s a truck in the garage, furniture in the house, who knows…maybe even beer in the fridge. But not a soul in sight.

Vanessa: There’s something really strange about a family moving and leaving everything they own behind.

Terri: I’ve moved a time or 10 in my life, and I’ve taken along most of my possessions. Although I did leave an ex-husband behind once.

Vanessa: Making him the happiest man ever?

Terri: You know, you could get left behind, too.

A building with many clocks on the side of it.
Welcome to the Carlson’s homestead! Photo by Vanessa

And then…the Outhouse

As we wandered around taking in the intriguing sights, including an old auto repair shop mounted with license plates from all over the world, Ken mentioned that we could use the outhouse if we wanted. Considering that our one-way trip was scheduled to take nine hours with rest stops few and far between, we definitely felt the need.

I’ve never been a fan of outhouses and the suggestion of using one when the outside temperature was -33 was less than appealing. Not to mention having to remove copious layers of clothes just to do the deed. I’m pretty sure it was the fastest outhouse visit ever—and I can assure that there was no sitting down on the seat because neither of us wanted to explain how we got frostbite on our butts.

A wooden outhouse with snow on the ground.
Cute, right? Maybe?

Life as an Ice Road Trucker

Despite the danger that the Dalton Highway presents, approximately 250 truckers travel the road every day in winter. Portions of the road are concrete, others are gravel, and all of it is covered in ice and snow. Just to make things more interesting, it’s also only two lanes. So, it should come as no surprise that when there are accidents, you can be stuck waiting for hours for the road to clear.

As we were merrily rolling along, a call came over the radio warning us of a jackknifed truck ahead that was blocking the highway. Since there’s no alternate route, we rolled up to the scene like everyone else. Ken jumped out to lend a hand.

Since he left the radio on, I wanted to talk to the truckers, but Vanessa wouldn’t hand me the mouthpiece. She provided some lame excuse about them already being annoyed enough. Watching as everyone came together to put a massive chain on the wreck and yank it to the side of the road was pretty cool. It turns out when you’re stuck in the middle of nowhere, waiting for AAA is not an option.

A man standing on the side of a road near a truck.
Trouble ahead! Photo by Vanessa

Hot Food and Frozen Rivers

After making it past the wreck, we stopped at the Yukon Camp Truck Stop, a trailer-type building full of surprises. Though we expected “trucker†fare, instead we got incredibly delicious Asian food and all the convenience-type store amenities you’d expect—including, thank God, an indoor bathroom.

A bowl of food with meat, beans and rice.
Lunch at the Yukon Camp Truck Stop! Photo by Vanessa

Ken suggested we take a minute to run down to the Yukon River for photos.

Vanessa: We can stand on the Yukon River? It’s that frozen?

Ken: It’s -33 degrees. Everything is that frozen.

So of course, Vanessa and I scrambled down the snowy hillside to the edge of the mighty river. Never taking into consideration that -33 on land could mean -40 on a frozen river, we ran out to take the ultimate selfies. Vanessa ventured further than me because I couldn’t move. Not because I didn’t want to, but because I was frozen…literally. All the way from my toes to my eyelashes which were individually separated—each coated with ice.

A woman with blue eyes wearing a winter hat and scarf.
Frozen! Photo by Vanessa

After Vanessa snapped me off the river like a rogue icicle, we made it back to the toasty van to continue our journey north. (Admittedly, the van could have been 20 degrees—it still would have felt like a sauna.) Knowing that we would be stunned by the landscape to come, Ken couldn’t wait to share the next stop. In the deep winter, the twisted trees of the boreal forest are covered by feet of snow that hang off of every branch, creating characters right out of a Dr. Seuss book. Completely entranced, we spent a long time taking pictures, only stopping because the sun went down. Reminding us that we were in the middle of nowhere with miles more to go to reach the Arctic Circle and Coldfoot Camp—the next leg of an incredible journey.

A group of snow covered trees in the middle of a field.
Little Cindy Loo Who, where are you? Photo by Vanessa

If You Go…

The Northern Alaska Tour Company provided our above the Arctic Circle experience. They greatly impressed us with their ability to get travelers to such a remote destination so safely and efficiently. And they make it so much fun!

We signed up for the Arctic Circle Aurora Fly/Drive Northbound Adventure, which is one of a number of packages they offer. The package included an overnight stay at Coldfoot Camp and an incredible aurora viewing experience in the Native village of Wiseman (more on that coming up!)

For the return trip, we boarded a teeny tiny plane, and although we had to swallow our pride and share our weight for balanced seating, the views of the frozen landscape below were worth the minor embarrassment!

To learn more about all they have to offer, visit www.northernalaska.com.

For more information on all the really cool things to do in Fairbanks and beyond, visit www.explorefairbanks.com.

Driving in Europe: What You Need to Know (or basically, everything we didn’t)


Obviously, Vanessa and I are road trip fans—hence the name of our website. When we say every road is a story, we really mean it—especially when that road is Germany’s autobahn.

Before our trip, we both assumed that the autobahn was a single highway in Germany. Turns out, the autobahn is the entire highway system throughout the country. (Maybe we should have done some research?) Chances are, if you’re road-tripping through the country, you’ll get a chance to try out your super speedy driving skills. If your co-pilot lets you.

Terri: The autobahn! This is going to be fun!

Vanessa: No talking, no shouting, no making any noise whatsoever. I have to pay attention.

Terri: You might need my help.

Vanessa: To go up in flames?

I managed to stay quiet for the first five minutes but then had to share the advice I’d heard from a German driver who probably figured that it was the last time he’d see us. Until the funeral.

Terri: Stay in the right lane if you’re going to drive like an old person. Get in the middle lane if you’re going to drive like you normally do.  And then scoot on over to the fast lane as least once. Otherwise, you don’t get bragging rights.

I know Vanessa would have rolled her eyes at me, but she was intent on keeping them on the road. She handled the autobahn like a boss, including the fast lane. Which it turns out, is really, really fast. Like light-speed fast.

Vanessa: Dear god. That little dot of a car miles behind us got here in seconds!

Terri: I’ll remember that when it’s my turn to drive.

Vanessa: Not happening.

Terri: I don’t get to drive?

Vanessa: Not in this lifetime. Which would be considerably shortened when you started chatting and forgot you were in the fast lane. Like you do.

Terri:  That’s not fair.

Vanessa:  Fine. We’ll pull off the road and I’ll get out. Then you can drive. I’ll wait.

Needless to say, I did not get to drive the autobahn that day. It took a return trip to Germany without Vanessa for me to get my chance, and obviously I lived to talk about it. Not sure about the other drivers, but at least I’ve got bragging rights!

A red shoe on the ground in front of a castle.
What? You don’t run across Cinderella’s slipper on your road trips?

Beyond the Autobahn

The autobahn isn’t hard to navigate, you just have to remember which lane you belong in. The rest of the roads in Germany, however, were a bit more challenging. We figured this out while driving the Fairytale Route through the Black Forest, where the deep, dark forests and abundance of castles served as an inspiration for many of the beloved fairytales by the Brothers Grimm. Along the way, we visited the house of the Seven Dwarfs, slept in Sleeping Beauty’s castle and even kissed a prince. What we should have probably done was walk through the woods instead of drive—but we all know how that worked out for Hansel and Gretel.

Our first difficulty was the language barrier. Neither of us speaks a word of German—except “prost†because it’s absolutely necessary to know how to say cheers in every language. Considering most road signs were devoid of words, this wasn’t an issue; you just have to interpret the symbols, right?

We picked up the speed limit signs right away—it’s a number (duh). If you can’t figure that out, you should never leave the country…or the house. When a speed zone ended, a sign appeared with a slash through the number—sort of like a no smoking sign for drivers. The only problem was that the speed limit signs only appeared occasionally; turns out you’re expected to know the standard speed limits for country and city roads. We had no idea. Still don’t.

Managing to avoid tickets by keeping pace with other drivers worked fairly well for us, though we did get a ticket emailed to us—it was in German, so we’re still not sure of the offense. All was going well until we entered Heidelberg. I was chatting as usual when this appeared…

A street sign with arrows pointing in different directions.
Any idea what this means? Yea, neither do we.

Vanessa: What fresh hell is this?

Terri:  I think it means that there’s a circle somewhere, and lanes around it.

Vanessa: Great. So there’s a massive carousel in the middle of the road? WHAT AM I SUPPOSED TO DO?

Terri: Close your eyes and pick a lane.

I’m not sure if she actually closed her eyes, but she picked a lane with no oncoming traffic and somehow, we survived. While I realize that Germans are very good at math and science, is it really necessary to use geometric symbols on road signs? Why not use words?

Oh, that’s right. Some people don’t speak German.

A blue sign with yellow arrows on it
According to this sign, things are canceled. We just don’t know which things.

Following Bertha Benz

Because we’d so obviously mastered driving in the country, we decided that one of our road trip goals was to follow the Bertha Benz Memorial Route, which was the world’s first long-distance road trip. Married to the legendary Karl Benz, the automotive brain behind the world’s first patented automobile, Bertha was equally pioneering. Without informing her husband, in August 1888 she took her sons Richard, 14, and Eugen, 15, to drive the Patent Motorwagen No. 3 from Mannheim to visit her mother in Pforzheim—a distance of about 65 miles. Her goal was to show her brilliant husband the way to properly market his invention to the public.

Along the way, the intrepid Bertha solved a myriad of problems. When a fuel pipe became clogged, she remedied the problem with a hatpin. And when she needed to insulate a wire, her garter served as the tool of choice.

Inspired by this innovative woman, Vanessa and I set out to follow her journey. We failed. Not because we had no hatpins or garters on hand for car repairs, but because, once again, we were at a loss when it came to signage. We lost the route within minutes of sighting the first memorial marker, only to spot it randomly as we wound our way through the countryside; it was like a huge game of German Where’s Waldo?

When we tried to stop for photos, we couldn’t find legal parking—though we did find a number of what turned out to be one-way roads. While we were going the wrong way. Clearly, we were not in the same league as Bertha when it came to pioneering road trippers…which is pretty pathetic considering we actually had GPS, real fuel and smartphones. Maybe next time, we should take some brains.

A man and woman on a bicycle with two men.
Bertha Benz & Sons (Recreated photo: we didn’t actually meet her…in case you were wondering.)

If You Go:

I’m not sure we should advise anyone to drive in a foreign country, but we do it, so in good conscious, we have to give you a few tips before you follow in our wayward footsteps.

  1. KNOW BEFORE YOU GO! Look up the standard rules like speed limits and what the road signs actually mean before you leave home. The Internet is your friend.
  2. GPS is also your friend—but only if it speaks to you in English. Make sure you have it set to a language you can actually understand. Also be prepared to exit on a dime; our GPS marked distance by saying “Stay on this road a long time…†only to suddenly tell us to exit without any warning. Not easy to do when you’re flying on the autobahn, missy.
  3. Rental car companies may offer you a free upgrade to an SUV. Think twice, because there are some pretty tiny parking spots in parking garages throughout Europe. And gas is fairly expensive. There’s a reason everyone drives compact cars. Also make sure to specify if you need an automatic; a lot of cars are still standards.
  4. Don’t believe the time Google Maps says it will take you to get to a destination in Germany. Germans are much more comfortable driving at the speed of light on the autobahn than the inexperienced (aka us). We were late to every single place we went, and that was even driving at 120 mph. Seriously.
  5. Don’t be cheap. If a country offers a paid pass to drive on the interstate, suck it up and pay the fee. This from the woman who didn’t pay the fee in Switzerland and ended up lost in the dark alone for hours because my GPS didn’t understand why I couldn’t just get on the highway!
A blue sign on the side of a road.
Couldn’t help but giggle at this exit sign.

 

Let’s Talk Houseboating


 

Sometimes we take our stories on air for the world to hear. It works well for me since I LOVE to talk! Here’s a link to my recent appearance on Travel Planners Radio Network where I share my version of the tales from our mishap-filled adventures while houseboating in Pennsylvania. No doubt Vanessa will have her own version to share, too. But, I’m jumping in first!

 

 

A group of boats in the water at a dock.
Where it began…no one warned the good folks at Seven Points Marina!
A hot tub with a view of the mountains.
Hot tubs and Houseboats go together like Cheerios & Milk!
A woman in black shirt walking on trail near trees.
When you finally master tying the boat up to the trees, you can go for a hike!
A woman in blue jacket leaning on tree.
If you’re going to tie a houseboat to a tree, you need to show it some love!

Battling Big, Bad Zombies in Beloit, Wisconsin


Badgers are described as “ferocious fighters with an attitude that should not be bothered.†I mention this because Vanessa and I recently spent a few days in Wisconsin—the badger state. Coincidence? I think not. Although we are generally harmless—when left alone—there are times when our tendency to be ferocious fighters comes in handy. One such time was during our visit to Beloit.

A bar with many bottles of alcohol on the wall
Cocktails at truk’t – The only way to start a visit!

It All Began with Cocktails, of course!

The trip started off in excellent fashion with cocktails at truk’t—one of Beloit’s newest trendy and delicious hot spots. Our host and friend, Stacey, was eager to introduce us to truk’t’s margaritas, and who are we to argue when cocktails are involved? 

As we sat chatting about our planned itinerary for the next few days, Stacey mentioned a couple of changes.

Stacey:  Ladies, it looks like the weather isn’t going to be very cooperative this weekend so I thought I would suggest we replace one of the outdoor activities with a visit to our state-of-the-art indoor golf lab.

Vanessa:  That’s probably not the best idea. Terri and I are terrible at golf.  Like really, really terrible. Catastrophically, in fact.

Terri:  She’s right. We suck. We tried to play at Old Kinderhook in Missouri, and no one has seen or heard from the golf pro since.

Vanessa:  We broke him.

With a slightly concerned look, Stacey explained that although the Ironworks Golf Lab has an HD simulator that lets you choose from more than 80 golf courses from around the world, it’s also an entertainment center offering several other types of games.

When you think about it,  watching Vanessa and I attempt to play golf on any of the 80 plus courses  would make the Ironworks Golf Lab an entertainment center even without other attractions. But it would likely involve a considerable amount of cursing. Which, of course, would be totally inappropriate for this family-friendly venue.

Stacey: You can use the Visual Sports Simulators and choose between other games, including baseball, football, basketball, zombie dodgeball and many others.

Vanessa:  Wait. Stop. Right. There. Did you say ZOMBIE dodgeball?

Vanessa’s hands began to twitch. Hoping Stacey wouldn’t notice, I jumped in.

Terri:  Stacey, I think you’ve found our entertainment. Vanessa’s years of preparation in anticipation of the Zombie Apocalypse have brought her to this point. She may stink at golf, but she’s an Olympian hopeful at zombie dodgeball.

Vanessa (salivating):  I’ve actually never played, but I’m ready. Yes, I’m definitely ready.

Her hands were still twitching, and I could have sworn her fingernails were turning into claws…maybe badger claws?

A badger is standing in some grass looking at the camera.
The Infamous Badger (a/k/a Vanessa)

Prepping for Battle

After a good night’s sleep in the oh-so-chic Hotel Goodwin, we woke to a rainy day as expected. No worries though, because our first order of business was to get a massage at the WM Day Spa. Everyone needs a little deep tissue work before terrorizing zombies, right?

To fortify ourselves, we stopped into Lucy’s #7 Burger Bar for lunch. This delicious little spot has burgers stuffed with all kinds of cheese. I chose the Wisconsinite; a decadent burger stuffed with cheddar cheese and topped with beer cheese and brats. Vanessa chose the Mac & Cheese, which is exactly what it sounds like—a burger stuffed with mac & cheese. If that doesn’t get you badger-ready for battle, I don’t know what would.

Oblivious to the upcoming bloodshed, our server was adorable. Besides being friendly and attentive, she and the other servers wore outfits inspired by one of the most popular pin-up girls of WWII. Lucy Winslow was nicknamed #7 by her dad when she arrived in the family after her six older brothers. The Wisconsin farm-girl served in the USO as a nurse during the war and later became a starlet. Fun tributes to her, including a life-size mural, abound throughout the eatery.

A woman holding a plate of food in front of her face.
Just too cute! Our adorable server at Lucy’s #7 Burger Bar!

Time to Annihilate the Undead

With relaxed muscles and full tummies, we headed off to the Ironworks Golf Lab. This 8,000 sq. ft. entertainment center is housed in the renovated industrial site of the former Beloit Iron Works foundry. Murals within the Ironworks complex pay tribute to the workers who kept the business alive for more than 100 years.

We arrived at the golf lab and stopped to give our names at the desk, where the manager asked what games we wanted to play.

Terri: I’d love to try football, and maybe baseball.

Vanessa:  Zombies. We. Want. Zombies.

Obviously unnerved by her intensity, the manager led us straight back to the room and showed us how to activate the zombie dodgeball game. We never saw him again.

At that moment, the room-sized screen came to life, and the ever-so-creepy zombies determinedly marched their way toward us; slowly at first, and then faster. Grabbing the dodgeballs, we began throwing them at the screen. And I began screaming.

Terri:  Why don’t these suckers fall down when I hit them? They just keep coming and coming.

Vanessa (throwing balls madly): You have to hit them in the head! Have you never seen ANY zombie movies?

I kept screaming as the zombies crept toward me, faster and faster. Until I started knocking off one, then another…then another.

Terri (screaming):  DIE, ZOMBIES DIE!

Vanessa:  Jeez, Terri, are you ok? You seem a little…wound up. You know it’s just a game, right?

Terri (yelling):  I AM THE QUEEN OF THE ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE!

And that’s why we’ll probably never be invited back to Beloit.

A carnival ride with a clown statue in the middle of it.
Zombies: They just keep coming!!

If you go…

First, you have no choice but to go to the Ironworks Golf Lab to either work on your golf game or annihilate zombies like we did. (You know which one to choose, just do it.) www.ironworksgolflab.com

While you’re in Beloit, don’t skip a visit to Beloit College’s Logan Museum of Anthropology. Inside, more than 350,000 objects from more than 125 countries and 600 cultural groups are housed in a glass cube. On campus, you’ll also find Native American burial mounds—seriously, who knew? www.beloit.edu/logan

Also on campus, the Wright Museum of Art is home to more than 6,000 pieces of work from a range of cultures and art movements, including American Impressionism, German Expressionism and Japanese modern prints. www.beloit.edu/wright

You have to eat…

No matter where we go in this world, eating and drinking are part of the experience. We don’t care if it’s a lopsided part of the experience…we’re just doing what we need to do. (That’s our story and we’re sticking to it.)

truk’t – For tacos, whiskey, margaritas and much more, check out truk’t. Tell them we sent you but if they suddenly seem reluctant to serve you let them know you’ve only heard about us but never met us. Works every time.  www.trukttacos.com

Lucy’s #7 Burger Bar – I’ve already told you why you need to go here. Just do it! www.l7burgerbar.com

Clara Bo & Gatsby Wine Bar – OK, the food is delicious. But that’s not all. As soon as we walked into the door, we felt as if we’d wandered into the 1920’s. We’re old, but not that old. Nevertheless, we totally enjoyed the food, the opulent décor, the music…well, actually, everything. Do not miss this experience! www.clarabo.com

A woman drinking from a glass in front of a wall.
Martinis and more at Clara Bo’s! (Also known as ‘research’)

You have to sleep…

There was a theme throughout our time in Beloit: unexpected. It began (obviously) with the chance to throw dodgeballs at zombies, but it was a defining thread during our visit. Beloit offers an ingenious blend between the city’s tried and true traditions and modern luxury. Nowhere is this more evident than at the Hotel Goodwin. This impossibly chic boutique hotel is inspired by the 19th century Goodwin House. Each room is distinctive with eye-catching art, turntables and unique record collections. (Sadly, we’re old enough to know about turntables. If you’re not, ask your grandparents.)

A record player sitting on top of a rack.
Hey Kids! This is a turntable!

Don’t miss dinner at the hotel’s Velvet Buffalo Café where there are 120 bottles of wine to choose from. Seriously, they actually booked us in a hotel that offers 120 bottles of wine. What were they thinking?www.hotelgoodwin.com

 For more information visit www.visitbeloit.com.

 

How Cheese Curds Saved My Life: A Girls’ Getaway in Janesville, Wisconsin


Often in our travels, Vanessa and I seek out ways to connect with the local community. Sometimes it’s through cultural events, other times it’s in cooking classes (which is a story for another day) and once in a while, it’s through crafts. We tried glass blowing in the Black Forest region of Germany where the language barrier almost cost me my front teeth—yet another story. In Texas, we were given paint brushes along with copious amounts of wine—I’m sure you can imagine how that turned out. Most recently, we were given pieces of glass and a myriad of sharp tools.

Seriously. What were they thinking?

A woman with a big cheese hat on her head.
Cheesy maybe? I. Don’t. Care.

There’s Nothing Like a Girlfriends’ Getaway…with Cheese!

We were in Janesville, Wisconsin for a girlfriends’ getaway. Our visit started off splendidly when our host and now dearest friend, Susan, arrived at breakfast carrying two bags of cheese curds—the best food known to woman. This was Wisconsin after all…the largest cheese producing state in the country.

In exchange for the cheese curds, we happily agreed to pose for a photo in the Cheese Head hat. When in Rome, right? And let’s face it; we’ll do almost anything for cheese.

More cheese curds magically appeared when we stopped for lunch at the Whiskey Ranch in downtown Janesville. This time they were deep-fried. Be still my heart. Of course, we happily indulged despite the moans from our soon-to-be-clogged arteries.

A woman with her mouth open holding a fork.
The utterly ridiculous & delicious deep fried cheese curds at Whiskey Ranch!

On to Something Healthier…Just in Time!

We followed all of this deep-fried decadence with a visit to Bodacious Olive where—in an effort to save what non-fat cells we had left—owner Bekki Kennedy introduced us to the many health benefits of premium olive oils and vinegars. There wasn’t a cheese curd in sight. But we sampled from a variety of flavors in the beautifully appointed, boutique-style store and vowed to change our eating habits.

Ah, such good intentions.

A bar with many lights and a lot of bottles
Healthier Options at Bodacious Olive

You Might Need Bigger Clothes

Afterward, we went on a successful shopping spree. Not because we had to (cheese!) but because we wanted to. Always in favor of supporting small businesses, we were delighted to spend time perusing the aisles of Carousel Consignments, where Vanessa almost passed out from sheer joy. Every inch of this 4,000 sq. ft. shop on Janesville’s Main Street is filled with treasures. Literally stacked to the ceiling! From housewares to retro phones to record albums to decades of National Geographic magazines, if you’re looking for it, it’s probably here. Heck, if you lost it at some point in your life, we can now tell you where to find it.

A room filled with lots of shelves full of different types of items.
Need anything? I mean ANYTHING???

Nearby, Angie’s on Main provided even more treasures of the collectible variety mixed with newer items like scarves and jewelry—which, of course, I had to check out…and purchase. The industrial-chic Velvet & Tulle was another favorite. Located in a former butcher shop dating back more than 100 years, this charming boutique offers a unique selection of clothing and accessories in a wide range of sizes. We did a little credit card damage for sure, but that’s what girls’ trips are for, right?

A woman in a hat is standing next to clothes.
I wanted this hat. I should have bought it. I’m going back.

Shopping, Wine, Chocolate & a Spa: In Other Words, A Good Day!

We also stopped in at Raven’s Wish Gallery, where Vanessa picked up a turquoise squirrel bag for a friend. Because, of course, she knows people who love squirrels. These squirrel-lovers include a woman who feeds a three-legged creature named Captain Dan. I knew better than to even ask.

We rounded out the itinerary with a wine and chocolate tasting at North Leaf Winery where they make both the wine and chocolate in-house to create the perfect pairing. While imbibing, we even created our own wine stoppers and surprisingly, they turned out pretty well! (Craft machines…that’s us!)

We then soothed our tired muscles (you know, from digesting all those cheese curds) with wonderful massages at Bellasazi Salon & Spa. And finally, it was off to Glass Garden.

A woman holding a plate of food and wine.
In our happy place at Northleaf Winery!

Take Cover: The Shards are Flying

Our class in making art from glass was to begin at 7 p.m. Due to a GPS that insisted numerous times that we should drive across a closed road, we arrived at 7:05 to find everyone in place, glass pieces and sharp tools in hand. Not the most welcoming look.

Note to self: being fashionably late is only acceptable in New York.

Due to our late arrival, Vanessa and I wouldn’t be able to work side-by-side. We were sent to separate tables—I’m not sure that Vanessa thought of this as a punishment. She settled in on the other side of the room. I choose the table closest to the wine and cheese curds. I know my gifts…crafting isn’t one of them. Wine and cheese curds I can work like a pro.

The instructions, while clear to everyone else, were like a foreign language to me. There was something about glue and placing decorative items here and there. And there was something about clipping the glass. The one thing I took from it all was that we were to keep our pieces of glass in our work boxes while clipping. Otherwise, the tiny glass shards can fly out and possibly hit someone working nearby. (Are you beginning to understand why Vanessa sat across the room?)

Two bags of bucky badger snacks are sitting on a table.
It’s hard to be creative with cheese curds close by!

Making “Friends†with the Crafters

Having already disrupted class by arriving past start time, I made a mental note to be sure that I didn’t lift my glass and hurt anyone. I was there to mingle with the locals—not to injure them. The lady to my left, however, must have missed that little bit of instruction. Every time she clipped her glass, a shard would fly and hit me in the arm. After the third or fourth hit, I suggested that maybe she could consider clipping it a little lower in her box. She responded with more flying glass shards.

Concerned for my safety, I slipped away from the table to visit with Vanessa.

Terri: I don’t think the lady to my left likes me.

Vanessa:  Why? What did you do?

Terri:  I didn’t do anything! She keeps cutting her glass outside of her work box and the shards keep hitting me.

Vanessa:  I’m sure it was an accident.

Terri:  She’s hit me at least five times. No one has that many accidents.

Vanessa:  We have that many accidents before noon every day. Should I remind you about our painting class…or glass-blowing…or the time that you fell off a toilet…

Terri: Fine, we’ll call it an accident.

I rejoined my table and decided to make friends with the lady to my right since the woman on the left seemed intent on killing me. She was lovely. We chatted about her family and her travels. She inquired about my life in New York and even gave me tips to make my “artwork†better.  Most importantly, she clipped her glass without injuring me. So I shared my cheese curds with her.

A glass sculpture of a bunch of different colored strips.
Vanessa’s Masterpiece! Mine would have been better if I wasn’t dodging glass shards!

All’s Well That Ends Well

Seeing that I had made a new friend, the lady on the left stopped her glass clipping long enough to comment on my artwork.

Lady on Left:  You know, that doesn’t look like much right now, but after it’s fired in the kiln, I think you’ll have a nice piece of art to put in your New York apartment.

Terri:  Thank you. That’s kind of you to say.

And I handed her my last cheese curd. Now that’s Midwestern hospitality.

A colorful building with a rainbow sign on it.
Charming Downtown Janesville!

If You Go…

From charming downtown shops and eateries to a fabulous botanical garden, Janesville makes an ideal place for a girlfriend getaway. Here’s a list of the places we visited. All of these received our seal of approval—and that’s the highest honor any establishment could ask for, right?

Angie’s On Main is an eclectic gift and consignment shop occupying 12,000sq ft over three floors. You’ll find amazing handmade items, furniture, antiques, jewelry and more. Angie even sells artwork by local children—I love that! Located at 37 S. Main Street, Janesville, WI 53545

Carousel Consignments is THE place to go to find anything and everything! I’m not kidding. It’s 4,000 sq ft of housewares, collectibles and more. Or in Vanessa’s case: It’s heaven. Located at 31 S. Main Street, Janesville, WI 53545

Raven’s Wish Gallery & Studio features contemporary art from over 75 locally and nationally known artists while encouraging everyone to live an artful life! (Good advice.) It’s also THE place to find gifts for your squirrel loving friends—apparently. Located at 101 W. Milwaukee Street, Janesville, WI 53548

Velvet & Tulle is an absolutely charming boutique with a variety of stylish, fun pieces from clothing to accessories—all of it housed in a beautifully restored historic building. Located at 217 W. Milwaukee Street, Janesville, WI 53548

Bodacious Shops of Block 42 includes Bodacious Olive, Bodacious Brew and So Chopped under one industrial-chic roof. Located just steps from the Rock River in downtown Janesville, you’ll find healthy choices for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Settle in at Bodacious Brew with a cup of your favorite tea or coffee. Indulge in something other than cheese curds at So Chopped. Be sure to stop in Bodacious Olive for an incredible array of premium olive oils and vinegars along with kitchen gadgets. 119 N. Main Street, Janesville, WI 53545

Lark is an excellent choice for dinner while you’re in town. Focusing on seasonally driven, locally sourced dishes, we found the menu to be inventive and delicious—and that’s an excellent combination. You’re guaranteed to leave “happy as a lark!†60 S. Main Street, Janesville, WI 53545

Whiskey Ranch Bar & Grill is a classic. Taking bar food to a new level, you’re certain to find something to please your palette. And you simply MUST order the deep-fried cheese curds—there’s really no way around it. 24 N. Main Street, Janesville, WI 53545

Bellasazi Salon & Spa has been a part of the Janesville community for more than 20 years. A proper girlfriend getaway must include massages at this tranquil oasis. Besides, everyone needs a break from cheese curds if only for an hour or so. 1423 Plainfield Avenue, Janesville, WI 53545

Northleaf Winery for wine and chocolate—is there a better dessert? We think not. 232 S Janesville St, Milton, WI 53563

The Glass Garden is the place to go to test your crafting skills. I’m not saying it made either one of us a better artist, but we’re beyond help.  25 W. Milwaukee Street, Janesville, Wisconsin 53548

 

 

 

A Night On the Moon, Sort Of


When you’ve arrived in Fairbanks, Alaska in January and your host asks if you would like to spend the night at Borealis Basecamp, you say yes…even before you know what that means. And then you look it up and realize you’re not just heading to a destination, you’re heading straight into an experience—one that you’ll never forget.

Situated on 100 acres in the snowy boreal forest just 25 miles outside of Fairbanks, Borealis Basecamp feels as if it’s worlds away from civilization—in a good way. Guests stay in geodesic domes with expansive clear ceilings that provide unobstructed views of the night sky and if you’re lucky, the Northern Lights. And you can see all of this without ever leaving the comfort of your warm and cozy bed. Considering that the temperatures in the region can dip as low as -35 or more, the ‘not leaving the warm bed part’ of this equation is especially enticing. And we were lucky enough to snag a typically sold out dome—which pretty much looks like an igloo or a pod…or maybe an egg.

A group of snow covered cabins on top of a hill.
Borealis Basecamp a/k/a the Moon!

Capturing the Sights

As we headed out on the ice-covered Elliot Highway and climbed up the mountain—Vanessa’s teeth gritting the whole way and me just admiring the scenery—the snow clouds we’d been under all day began to clear. Our chances for seeing the aurora borealis were improving. YAY! Along with those vast blue skies came a spectacular sunset that warranted a stop for photos.

We were snapping pictures like mad when we arrived at the property, which resembles nothing so much as a compound on the moon with pods dotting the monochromatic, snow-covered landscape. We were greeted by Drew, the head of maintenance, who had an abundance of tips to help us capture the aurora by cell phone…well, some cell phones.

Drew:  Are you planning to take photos of the aurora?

Terri:  Absolutely!

Vanessa:  But we don’t have a clue how.

Drew:  What are you using?

Vanessa:  I’ve got a Samsung cell phone. A Galaxy 9.

Drew:  Excellent! I can show you a few tricks.

Terri:  I’m planning to use my cell phone, too. It’s an iPhone.

Drew:  You’re outta luck.

Turns out that iPhones can’t capture the aurora (thanks, Apple!) so I spent the next few minutes listening to Drew explain to Vanessa how to set up the Pro setting on her phone. Seeing as how Vanessa is COMPLETELY technologically challenged, I had my doubts. Yet, she eagerly listed to Drew’s advice, even following him into a dark bathroom to test out the settings. She was quite excited by whatever she was seeing in there, leading some other visitors in the lobby to look questioningly at the sounds coming from behind the closed door. Ah, the lengths we go to for our art.

A group of snow covered cabins on top of a hill.
Inside our cozy dome/igloo/egg

A Lesson in Toilet Technology

Photography lesson concluded, our lovely hostess Rachel led us to our dome. Inside we found wood floors, stylish furnishings and a cozy, warm atmosphere. If this is off-grid living, sign me up!

She showed us how to adjust the Toyo heater and then suggested that we follow her into the bathroom. We were starting to wonder if this was a thing here since this was the second shared bathroom request in less than an hour, but who are we to question the locals?

The three of us stood in the bathroom looking down at the closed toilet.

Rachel:  So I need to explain the toilet to you.

Terri (looking at Vanessa worriedly):  Um, okay. You know we’ve used a toilet before, right?

Rachel: This is a dry toilet. It’s environmentally friendly and very important when you’re living off-grid.

Then she opened the lid. We both stood there in amazement—our toilet was filled with aluminum foil. Then she flushed it.

Vanessa:  What the fresh hell? That looks like Jiffy Pop!

Rachel:  Well, it kinda does. But I wish you hadn’t said that out loud.

Terri (sighs):  No more Jiffy Pop in our future.

I realize that we’re starting to sound like toilet freaks at this point. But seriously, just watch the toilet flush video (yes, of course, we stood there and took one) and you’ll understand why it’s so fascinating.

Rachel:  Just one more thing. The foil lining is actually a cartridge, and there are about 12 in each set. When you see the line at the bottom of the toilet, call me, and I’ll come replace it for you. I’m here until about 2 a.m.

So now we’ve got a quandary. Have you ever tried to keep track of your flushes? Yeah, me neither. And I have to admit, it’s a little stressful. Even if you don’t have to go to the bathroom, you suddenly do when someone tells you that you have a limited number of chances…and leaves you wondering at 3 a.m. if you should spin that roulette wheel and use the bathroom, possibly leaving your roommate with no facilities, or hold it until you explode. The struggle is real.

Anyway, we finally pulled ourselves away from the toilet to go take photos of the lunar-like landscape, and then headed to the dining room for a delicious three-course, chef-prepared meal that included the choice of flat iron steak, Alaska sockeye salmon or Alaskan king crab as entrée options—no complaints here! Housed in a large yurt with floor-to-ceiling windows, the dining room was just as impressive as our dome/igloo/egg. There was also a lounge area with a fireplace and comfy sofas where guests could hang out and play games, read and use toilets that flushed without the benefit of Jiffy Pop linings.

A group of snow covered cabins on top of a hill.
Dining in the Yurt

Starry, Starry Night

That evening, we stretched out in our warm beds and looked up at the sky above us. The stars did not disappoint. The Big Dipper was center stage from our beds, and we watched numerous shooting stars in a sky that seemed to go on forever. We anxiously awaited the aurora borealis—and at one point, it started to rise.

Terri:  This view might even surpass the toilet.

Vanessa:  Unless you take into account that we may be eaten by a massive hawk because we’re sitting in an egg.

Terri: Hopefully, hawks don’t hunt at night.

Vanessa:  Or an alien might beam us up. We are sleeping in a pod.

Terri:  Please tell me that you’ll be asleep soon.

A view of the sky from underneath a plane.
Skyview from our Beds–waiting for nightfall!

The Elusive Aurora

The Northern Lights show up when they’re good and ready, so it’s common to ask for a wake-up call when they begin to show. We had just drifted off to sleep when my cellphone rang…you know the one that would do me absolutely no good when taking photos. #bitterpartyofone

Rachel: Hi, Terri! The aurora is starting!

Terri:  Excellent, thank you.

I hang up the phone and have no idea who that was or where I am. I mean, it’s not your typical hotel room since you open your eyes to look straight up into the sky.

Vanessa:  You look confused.

Terri:  Because I’m in an egg in Alaska. Waking up at 2 a.m. to see the sky change color. Because that makes perfect sense, right?

Vanessa:  Some people are just not morning people.

We watched, waited and eventually began to see a little bit of light rising above the horizon. Vanessa ran outside numerous times to try to get photos, only once making the mistake of going out in her long underwear without remembering to put on pants.

Alas, a brilliant aurora wasn’t in the stars for us that night. (See what I did there? ) However, we did spend a night sleeping under the stars, in a dome/igloo/egg-pod, possibly on the moon with a dry flush toilet that still had cartridges available for use. It really doesn’t get any better than that.

A group of snow covered cabins on top of a hill.
Off-grid & Loving It! Or as our friend, Sue said: “You’ve Hatched!”

If You Go:

Reserve early because the Borealis Basecamp has approximately 95 percent occupancy during aurora season from August 21st through April 21st.  In addition to viewing the night sky, other activities are available that include sled dog rides, snow machining and walking tours.

www.borealisbasecamp.net

Vanessa & Terri Taste Scotland…Literally


A man in a kilt and hat playing the bagpipes.

Somewhere in Scotland…

As bagpipe music pierced the air and young Scottish lasses swirled on stage, I was distracted by a somewhat more annoying, persistent sound.

Vanessa: Psst. PSST!

Terri (whispering): What?

Vanessa: What’s that on my plate?

Terri: Some sort of Scottish food. Taste it.

Vanessa: I don’t know what it is.

Terri: Just eat it!

Vanessa: Give me one good reason.

Terri: Because we’re on a Taste of Scotland tour, so you should taste things. Now please just put it in your mouth so I can hear the music.

Vanessa: Not until you identify it.

Terri: It’s haggis!

Vanessa: You mean sheep parts?

Terri: Pretty much. It’s like an American hot dog. With unidentifiable parts of unidentifiable farm animals. Except Scottish.

Vanessa: There’s a real future for you in menu writing.

A man in a kilt and a woman in a dress
Welcoming the haggis…but, why?

While perhaps not the most appetizing food, haggis has a big role in Scottish traditions. In fact, it sometimes even gets its own ceremony, as we learned at a true Scottish dinner, where this “delicacy†was escorted by a bagpiper in full regalia, accompanied by a kilted man with a thick accent who sang the praises of haggis in a very moving tribute that we completely couldn’t understand. But while tasting haggis is certainly an option on a CIE International Taste of Scotland Tour, it’s not a requirement. In fact, the only thing required of you on this type of tour is that you show up…and relax.

A boat is in the water near some trees.
Lovely Loch Ness

Let someone else do the work

Vanessa and I tend to be independent travelers. We’ve set out on our own in countries like Belize—where renting a car from a local in less than stellar condition (the car AND the local) landed us in the middle of a herd of goats. Tackling Germany with its mind-boggling road signs also comes to mind as one of our less than thought-out decisions. And, we’ve been known to book lodging in locales with frightening amenities…or lack thereof. But this time, we let someone else do the planning—and the driving—as part of the Taste of Scotland motorcoach tour with CIE International.

Although this is not our typical style of travel, choosing this trip turned out to be the best possible experience for our first foray into Scotland for many reasons. Not only did we get to experience the highlights of Scotland including Glasgow, the Scottish Highlands, St. Andrews, Loch Ness, Edinburgh and points in-between—but we got to do it while drinking whisky. And seeing really large, hairy cows.

A fountain in the middle of a park with buildings behind it.
Stunning architecture in Glasgow

No One has to Drive (or Die)

One of the best parts of touring on a motorcoach is that you don’t have to figure out how to drive in a foreign country. On the other side of the road. Or with someone who, according to Vanessa, might be easily distracted.

Terri: I can totally drive on the opposite side of the road. I did it in Ireland once…for about 15 minutes. And then there were sheep.

Vanessa: And I’m sure there are now less sheep in the world. You’re not driving. And since I’ll be sampling whisky, I’m not driving either.

Terri: And the sheep rejoice!

My husband, Greg, joined us for this adventure and has opposite-side-of-the-road driving experience…sort of. But that would mean I would be constantly navigating, and Vanessa would be clenching her teeth and holding on for dear life in the back seat.

Not to mention, we had whisky to drink.

A group of people holding glasses with alcohol in them.
You can’t do this & drive!

It Turns out we Actually Like Other People (Sometimes)

One of the highlights of a group tour is often the group itself. On board the motorcoach we were entertained by our lovely guide who shared not just the history of the places we visited, but also plenty of folklore—all with a delightful Scottish brogue. And there was music…melancholy songs about the ‘bonnie bonnie banks of Loch Lomond’ along with peppier bagpipe tunes.

One thing that impressed me was the age range of all of the people traveling with us. For some reason I expected to be surrounded by lots of retired couples in their 70s and 80s. I would have been fine with that, but it was cool to see a young lady in her 20s sharing the experience with her grandmother. We also hung out in the hotel bar one night (OK, every night) with a couple celebrating a 40th birthday. When I asked what made them choose this mode of travel, convenience was certainly part of it. But it was more than that. They said that they didn’t like to research a destination. They preferred to show up with in-depth experiences laid out before them. Now I totally get that.

Spending time in the company of such a diverse group of travelers really enhanced the experience for us. I’m sure they felt the same way about traveling with us…maybe.

A view of the mountains from across the valley.
The moody landscapes of the Scottish Highlands

A ‘Taste of’ Just Whets the Appetite

Vanessa and I are both of Scottish descent, so visiting our ancestral country was a dream come true. In fact, we were so overwhelmed with all the places to explore that we couldn’t decide what to do when. We wanted to see it all!

Typically, I would figure out a way to cram 4,572 experiences into a 5-day trip, which would give Vanessa a headache, and me the feeling that there was still something else I missed! Thankfully, the itinerary for the Taste of Scotland tour offered an excellent overview—and just made us hungrier to plan future visits to our homeland.

We began our tour in Glasgow, a city with a unique blend of old and new architecture and fabulous murals. It was a wee bit soggy for our drive alongside Loch Lomond, but it was beautiful even in the rain—and the weather actually worked quite well with the melancholy lyrics being piped through the motorcoach’s sound system. The rain subsided enough in the Scottish Highlands for us to get a few photos of the stunning landscape, and during the ride we continued to enjoy viewing the awe-inspiring vistas and tumbling waterfalls–while staying completely dry.

Later we boarded a boat and cruised Loch Ness, searching for everyone’s favorite sea serpent, Nessie. She, unfortunately, failed to make an appearance, but I’m quite certain she was lurking somewhere deep in the cold waters—probably just waiting for the loud, laughing tourists to go away.

A sign that is on the side of a road.
Blair Athol Distillery – A must sip destination

Did I mention whisky?

We stopped at Blair Athol Distillery in Pitlochry, where we toured the facility while breathing in as much of the whisky-laced air as possible. And we tasted their delicious 12-year-old single-malt whisky—one of the best things to come out of Scotland (besides us, of course.) You have to love a place where you not only get to enjoy a fine product but also get to spend an hour in such a bucolic, serene setting—there’s something absolutely charming about a distillery where instead of modern machinery, there are signs to remind you that the malt whisky lies sleeping while Mother Nature and Father Time do their work.

A sign that is hanging on the side of a building.
Shhh!

Let there be sun

On our sunniest day, we explored the golf mecca of St. Andrews, Scotland. It was better for everyone if we didn’t attempt to play (the one and only time we tried to learn, the golf instructor actually threatened to quit, but that’s another story). Instead, we wandered the cobbled streets of the town, past shops selling custom-made kilts and, of course, whisky. The ruins of St. Andrews Cathedral beckoned us to the top of the hill, where we wandered through a medieval cemetery to see breathtaking views of the North Sea; we followed the road back down toward the beach, walking along the edge of the sea past what was once St. Andrews castle.

A castle like building with two towers in the background.
Ruins of St. Andrews Cathedral

Our final destination was the historic city of Edinburgh, where we toured the stately castle towering above the city center. The afternoon included wandering the Royal Mile, where medieval houses still stand and roaming the ancient cemetery of the Parish of Saint Cuthbert where a watchtower was built to keep a lookout for grave robbers—an occupation I’ve never quite understood. It’s just so….gross.

Which brings us back to haggis. While in Edinburgh, we greatly enjoyed the Spirit of Scotland dinner, where despite that offering (no one lining up for seconds?) there were actually many other edible options, all served with a wonderful side of Scottish dancing and storytelling.

So yes, we’ve tasted Scotland and we’ll be back for more. Probably not more haggis, but definitely more Scotland.

A view of the city from above, with trees in the foreground.
View from Edinburgh Castle including the Dog Cemetery

If You Go…

CIE International offers tours in several destinations including Scotland, Ireland, Italy, Eastern Europe and Iceland. There are several themes too—from family tours to castles to whisky tasting. There are also self-drive options for those who are competent. Check out all the options at www.cietours.com.

 

Disclosure: We were the guests of CIE International for our tour but all opinions, shenanigans and whisky consumption are our own–we claim it all.

Putting the Jammed in Windjammer


When you receive an invitation to sail on a 100+-year-old sailboat along the mid-coast of Maine, you say yes. And you say it with enthusiasm. I mean, what could be better? Iconic lighthouses, lobster rolls, idyllic sailing conditions and adventure. Count me in.

When I e-mailed Vanessa with the idea, she was all in, too—minus the lobster rolls because she’s allergic and doesn’t want to die.

As plans developed, we learned that we would only be on board for one night at the end of their four-night adventure. Still good. We also learned that the ship has the capacity for 24 passengers…not a problem. And two bathrooms…um, what??? Screeching halt.

According to all reports, this is not a problem. Guests manage to work around the two-bathroom deal, despite the number of passengers on board. Now I can barely share a bathroom with my husband, but if they can do it, we can do it, right?

A lighthouse on the shore of a body of water.
Sail away…

So, off we go…

We arrived in Camden, Maine, in time for the annual Windjammer Festival—as did our ship. We watched with wonder as the captains of the J.&E. Riggin expertly navigated the majestic sailboat into Camden Harbor—Annie, who was in a small dinghy directing the non-motorized ship, and her husband, Jon, at the wheel. It was an impressive show and we couldn’t wait to climb aboard to meet our shipmates.

As we climbed the ladder, the first words we heard were “Get Out!†What? We froze. Had someone called ahead and warned them about our antics? Did they know that we’d already made a pit stop at the New Hampshire Liquor Outlet, aka the Booze Barn, a massive warehouse on I-95 that is filled with discount alcohol?

We soon realized that the source of this non-welcome was our friend and fellow travel writer, Deb, who had spent a week with us in Big Bend, Texas. So she actually knew enough about us to try to prevent us from getting on the ship. Turns out, she’d been onboard for the entire time with her husband, and had no idea the two journalists they’d been told were joining the trip would be us. It was quite the coincidence, and we were glad that she was kidding. (She was kidding, right?) Happily, we wouldn’t be tossed overboard BEFORE the ship even set sail.

A lighthouse on the shore of a body of water.
Seriously, so beautiful!

Windjammers united, a beautiful sight

The festival was a thing of beauty as windjammers from all over the region sailed into the harbor. We dined with our new shipmates on extraordinary cuisine prepared by Captain Annie, a renowned chef and author of the Sugar & Salt cookbook series, whose recipes have been featured on The Today Show and Throwdown with Bobby Flay. I still can’t figure out how she whips up such masterpieces—poached salmon with tri-pepper salsa or a piece of strawberry shortcake, anyone?—in a galley so small that it makes my New York City apartment kitchen seem spacious.

After dinner, we all sat on the grassy hill near the harbor for the annual talent show, featuring participants from each of the sailboats. Thankfully, no one asked us to perform. It was an altogether lovely evening until it was time for us to head to our cabin for the night.

A woman in white hat and blue jacket holding up a door.
Back it up…it’s the only way to get down to the cabin!

And the jam begins…

Terri: Wow, this is really tiny.

Vanessa: Yes, and we’re not.

Terri: And the top bunk is really close to the ceiling.

Vanessa: The word you’re looking for is claustrophobic.

Terri: It’ll be okay. We’ll be asleep.

Vanessa: Sure. For those precious moments between panic attacks.

Did I mention that the ship is over 100 years old and Vanessa has a serious fear of small, enclosed spaces? Apparently, people were much smaller then, because our…um, let’s call it cozy…cabin was obviously built with someone much tinier than us in mind. Like an elf. Or a Chihuahua.

There were two built-in bunks—one on the floor and one perpendicular, mounted on the wall above. The rest of the room was taken up by a tiny sink. Seriously. The REST of the room.

Terri: You have to sleep on the top bunk.

Vanessa: Why can’t you climb up there?

Terri: I’m old. I’m short. I’m going to get up to pee during the night. I’m going to fall on you when I get up.

Vanessa: So either way, I won’t make it through the night.

Terri: It’s settled then.

A room with two beds and a trash can.
This is the ENTIRE cabin!!

Rock-a-bye baby…not so much

The idea of gently rocking to sleep on a creaking sailboat is lovely, but that’s not exactly what happened. You see, I talk in my sleep—full sentences, from what I understand—and Vanessa snores. This means we can never both be asleep at the same time (and no one around us can get to sleep at all).

Terri: Are you awake?

Vanessa: I’m hyperventilating. Does that count?

Terri: I have to go to the bathroom.

Vanessa: Let me know if there’s more room there.

While I had hoped to avoid the bathroom (or “head†in ship speak), nature was calling. I just kept thinking about the math—24 guests, 2 bathrooms, 4 days. That’s 12 butts on every toilet seat, now including mine. And while the bathrooms were perfectly clean, they were also half the size of the cabin. And they contained a shower, which I guess you used while sitting on the seat? I never did figure it out.

Anyway, I squeezed myself out of the room, up the steep staircase, down the next staircase and into the head without any incident. I returned to find Vanessa still awake, counting the minutes until morning. Until she finally started snoring. Again.

We were told later that some people choose to take a sleeping bag and spend the night out on the deck under the stars instead of in the cabins…some good information to know if, like us, you consider a king bed to be slightly on the small side.

A table with many different types of food on it
Our delicious breakfast spread whipped up in the tiniest of kitchens!

Morning has broken…finally

Eventually we each managed to sleep and awoke to an absolutely perfect morning. The J.&E. Riggin is a true sailing vessel with no motor—all you hear is the sound of the rasping wood as it gently rocks its way through Penobscot Bay. The views, from the rocky shoreline to the endless blue horizon, to the millions of stars overhead at night, create a feeling that’s hard to describe—windjammer fans describe it as a transformation in all who climb aboard…and we saw it in our shipmates.

It was evident that those who had been on board for the week had bonded through their experiences. The camaraderie was contagious. Everyone joined in the daily tasks of hoisting the sails, maneuvering into the harbor and helping with clean-up after meals. The crew was more than willing to show anyone who wanted to learn how to work the ship, and most of the passengers jumped up at the slightest chance to participate.

Terri: We should help them hoist the sails.

Vanessa: Do we know how to hoist sails?

Terri: No, but we do a lot of things we’re bad at.

Vanessa: I’m too tired to hoist anything. Unless one of those sails doubles as a roll-out bed. Then I’m on it.

Terri: We’re writers. Maybe we should just observe.

Vanessa: My thoughts exactly.

So we watched as everyone cheerily worked. And we realized that the experience of spending those days onboard the J.&E. Riggin had given our shipmates priceless memories…as well as some serious hoisting muscles.

Our work is to share the story of the J.&E. Riggin with you. Because we’re givers.

A group of people standing on top of a sail boat.
Everyone pitches in to raise the sails…well, except us. We took photos.

If You Go

Originally built in 1929 by Charles Riggin, a fisherman who named the ship after his two sons, Jacob and Edward, the J.&E. Riggin began as an oyster schooner. Now a National Historic Landmark, the ship is owned by Captain Jon Finger and his wife, Chef/Captain Annie Mahle, who are absolutely lovely and obviously adore each other, which is good since they stay in those cabins for months.

Guests can choose from three-, four- or six-day windjammer cruises from June to October. For more information, visit www.mainewindjammer.com.

Insider Tip: Find a (really small) cabin mate who doesn’t talk in his/her sleep or snore. Otherwise, get your own room.

A Night on the Jaguar Preserve a/k/a The Toilet Incident



When your trip plans call for an overnight stay on a jaguar preserve, you assume that there’s an element of danger involved. Elusive and stealthy jaguars occupy over 150 square miles in the southern Belizean jungle in the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary and Jaguar Preserve. They share this space with wild boars, snakes and all manner of creatures I don’t want to know about or encounter.

There’s also the inherent risk of two women staying alone in a place where cell service is a distant memory and all other preserve visitors get the hell out before nightfall. But it wasn’t these things that ended up giving me the only injury from our Belize road trip adventure. It was the toilet.

Let’s back up, shall we?

We were about halfway through our 12-day Belize road trip adventure, having just left a tranquil beachfront villa in Hopkins Village where we had NOT succeeded in mastering the beats of Garifuna drumming despite our extremely patient instructor. But we had sipped on tropical libations and spent some time relaxing by the sea—we were happy and eager for the next adventure. #IgnoranceIsBliss

The jaguar preserve—the first of its kind in the world—had been recommended to me by a lovely Mayan chocolate maker who lived nearby. He assured me he would reserve us the best cabin in the preserve. He also recommended we bring food to cook since there are no stores—or anything else—for miles.

A stop at the local grocery store in Hopkins Village had yielded a box of mac and cheese and some chicken hot dogs (since we didn’t recognize the other meats). As we turned off the main highway onto the rocky dirt drive that led to the preserve, things changed. We entered Jurassic Park.

For what seemed like ages, we drove deeper into the thick jungle, passing jaguar crossing signs and NO OTHER PEOPLE. Had a Tyrannosaurus Rex chased a velociraptor across the road, it wouldn’t have fazed us. We were so certain that we wouldn’t get out alive that we recorded a video message to our families. We hoped that it would be found someday after our disappearance—possibly in the belly of the aforementioned jaguar. Or a pterodactyl. It could happen.

By the time we finally reached the end of the road, we saw a few groups of hikers returning from the jungle trails, and a couple of young guys who assured us they would be there all night should we need them for anything. A few minutes later, they put their headphones on and couldn’t hear us—despite the fact that we were a foot away from them.

We were escorted to our cabin—the “deluxe†cabin—in a clearing at the edge of the jungle. The workmen we passed on the way in shook their heads and laughed, no doubt already writing off the foolish white women who wanted to spend the night alone in the jungle with the third largest, and probably hungriest, cats in the world.

Vanessa: Terri, that is not a cabin. That is a shack. A hovel. A death trap.

Terri: It’s not that bad. Let me unlock the door.

Vanessa: Is that a padlock? A teeny padlock? Is that our protection against jaguars and whatever else wants to kill us out here?

Terri: It’s got to be better inside. It’s….OHMYGOD.

You know there’s a problem when I’m speechless. The door opened up onto a “cabin†with a high ceiling, lots of bunkbeds, and no mosquito netting. The good news is that the rafters are full of lizards, which, if they didn’t fall on us in the night, could help us in our losing battle to not be bitten to death.

Vanessa: This is the “deluxe†cabin?

Terri: It came recommended.

Vanessa: By the guy who just told us about the comfort of a Mayan bed—and then pointed to a hard wooden slab?

Terri: It can’t all be that bad. At least it has a bathroom. It’s…OHMYGOD.

Vanessa: It looks like someone died in here.

Terri: Do you think the body’s still here?

Vanessa: I think I’m going to kill you for this.

Terri: Well, at least he’ll have company.

Having about an hour of daylight left, and nowhere else to go, we set out on a little hike to clear our minds. Along the way I spotted the cutest little baby tapirs—three of them.

Terri: Look, Vanessa, it’s the three little pigs! Aren’t they adorable?

Vanessa:Stop! We need to get the hell out of here.

Terri (edging closer): I want to see if I can pet them.

Vanessa: You realize that those babies have a big mama who will impale us in ways that we do not want to be impaled, right?

Terri: It’ll be okay.

Vanessa: I used the word ‘impale,’ Terri.

Terri: So I’m vetoed.

After the abrupt end to our hike, we trudged back to the cabin, grabbed our dinner stuff and headed to the communal kitchen where we took advantage of the one dented, dirty pan on the stove to make the most disgusting meal ever created. EVER. I don’t know what part of the chicken ended up in those chicken dogs and I have no idea why the cheese sauce for the mac and cheese was brown, but it was a sure thing that we were going to die hungry.

We returned to the cabin to eat what we had left: a half-bag of potato chips, a piece or two of cheese, and a half bottle each of vodka and Jack Daniels. Semi-sated and more than a little tipsy, we decided it would be best to be inside the cabin when darkness took hold and the jungle came to life. Unfortunately, without mosquito netting, all sorts of other things came alive—and they weren’t going to let us sleep.

1 AM

Terri: Think there are Criminal Minds types back here?

Vanessa: It’s too hot. Murder takes energy. Besides, pretty much anything that could be worse than this…is already happening.

1:20 AM

Terri: I forgot to take my vitamins. But I’m not going to take them because I’m going to die anyway. I don’t understand why we’re staying here. We don’t have to do this. I have money.

Vanessa: Jaguars don’t take cash. Shut up and drink the rest of the bourbon.

2 AM

So then I began to share random facts about the Cockscomb Basin…

Vanessa: Are you just making shit up now?

Terri: No, if I were making shit up I’d make up an air conditioner.

3 AM

And then I met the toilet. It was a compost throne elevated to a height that required the use of a two-legged, clip-on stool to access it. What the hell kind of stool has only two legs? A bucket of peat moss waited patiently in the corner and a shower with about a foot of sludge completed the features of our top-of-the-line accommodations.

Terri: I’m not peeing in that toilet. I’ll pee in the bed first.

Vanessa: Suit yourself.

4 AM

But a girl can’t hold it forever and as the first light of day emerged, I really had to go. I climbed up on the rickety stool and positioned myself in the best hover position possible. And just as the stream began, the stool broke loose and I was going down, face first in the filthy floor next to the disgusting bucket holding the peat moss. I couldn’t stop peeing—as any woman knows, it’s impossible once you start. And I screamed. Loud enough to wake anyone for miles—except for our headphone-wearing “help.â€

Vanessa: WHAT THE HELL?

Terri: The damn stool broke and I fell into the floor and I’m covered with pee and I’m covered in blood and I don’t even know what else I’m covered in…

Vanessa: I’ll come in. Do I need to come in? Because you know I can’t unsee this, right?

I couldn’t bear to burden a friend with the frightful sight of my naked ass, blood running down my calf and me crying in a puddle of pee. So I gathered myself up, took off my shirt and cleaned off as best I could, and threw away everything I’d been wearing. And then I packed. In a hurry.

4:52 AM

Vanessa: Ter? It’s getting light. I think we should…

She didn’t have a chance to finish the sentence as I was already running for the car, jaguars be damned. As we headed for civilization, and hopefully hydrogen peroxide, Vanessa summed it up.

“We just spent the night in a jaguar preserve, and the only thing we weren’t afraid of was jaguars. That’s some kind of messed up.â€

I haven’t gotten to make our travel reservations since.

If You Go

Accommodations

We covered most of the country during our adventurous road trip through Belize, and we stayed in some lovely places along the way. And yes, we spent a night at the Jaguar Preserve which we suggest you visit during the daytime and lay your pretty little head down somewhere else for the night. You’ve been warned.

Gecko Bungalow

Ladyville, Belize

Phone: From USA 208 285 7000

From elsewhere: +501 634 8010

Email: lyons@geckobungalow.com

Cute, cute, cute! This two-bedroom bungalow just outside Belize City is an ideal place to start and end your time in Belize. Hosts Scott and Michelle Lyons will treat you like friends, show you around, suggest things to keep you entertained and become your BFFs in Belize. Oh, and Michelle greeted us at the airport with frozen libations…perhaps that’s why we immediately fell for the Gecko Bungalow?

Lebeha Beach Cabanas

Hopkins Village

Phone: +501 665 9305

Email: info@lebehacabanas.com

We chose to stay in the traditional part of Hopkins Village right on the beach in a lovely little cabana. Our host, Dorothy, was a pleasure to work with and offered detailed directions to the cabanas and tips on great local places to eat. The cabanas don’t have air-conditioning, but the ceiling fans work and you’re just steps from the beach. We also took a Garifuna drumming lesson during our stay. You should try it—you’ll probably be much better at it than we were.

Cotton Tree Lodge

Punta Gorda

Phone: From USA 212 529 8622

From elsewhere: +501 670 0557

One of our favorite eco-lodges in Belize, the Cotton Tree Lodge is located in the Toledo District in the southernmost region of the country. They’ll hook you up with fun experiences like cave swimming, cliff-jumping into waterfalls, horseback riding through the jungle…all kinds of things to get your adrenaline pumping. Their cabanas are located along a raised wooden walkway, and you’re surrounded by wildlife everywhere you look, including massive iguanas and howler monkeys. And yes, they have normal (eco-friendly) toilets.

And for potential wildlife and toilet encounters…

Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary & Jaguar Preserve

You should go, really. There are beautiful hiking trails, waterfalls and at least three little pigs. Maybe you’ll get lucky and spot a jaguar, but even if you don’t, the drive into the preserve will transport you to Jurassic Park and that is something everyone should experience…once.