Category Archives: Travel

Spain, Here We Come!

In less than a month, M and I embark for Spain. This is our first international trip together and M’s first business class experience. We’re both very excited to see all the traditional sights, but I’m also over-the-top excited about the hotels I booked.

Madrid

I booked our Madrid hotel first. I knew I wanted lodging close to the Prado art museum in the center of the city. With its five nights for the price of four policy and central location, SPG was an obvious choice. It came down to choosing between the Westin Palace (category 5) and the The Principle Madrid (category 5). The Westin was 12,000 points a night while the The Principle was 16,000 (despite both being category 5 hotels) and M preferred the Westin’s traditional decor. I booked six nights at the Westin for 60,000 SPG points.

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Granada

Next, I booked our single night in Granada. There is a dearth of points hotels in Granada so it came down to a choice between the Marriott’s AC Palacio De Santa Paula, Autograph Collection and non-points options. For 35,000 points, I splurged on the AC Palacio even though it’s a bit removed from the center of town. I’m even more excited about this decision now that I’ve achieved gold status with Marriott after completing a status challenge this fall. Turns out, there are some benefits to living out of three star hotels in suburban Pennsylvania. With gold status, we’ll get free breakfast and hopefully, a sweet upgrade.

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I’d love to get upgraded to this gorgeous suite.

Barcelona

Barcelona was my biggest dilemma. I was sitting on a nice pile of Hilton points, but the Hilton of my choice – the Alexandra Barcelona DoubleTree cost 50,000 points a night vs. 113 euros. That is not a great points per dollar value. In contrast, there are several good value Hiltons for 30,000 points a night, but they are farther from the center of town. Thus began the great debate of 2016:  Stay father away and save some of my points, fork over $600 for four nights at the DoubleTree, or bite the bullet and hand over 200,000 Hilton points. After much agonizing, I decided on the latter option. I love the idea of staying in the center of Barcelona and decided to save our money for other trip expenses. Plus, as a diamond Hilton member, hopefully we will score a nice upgrade. The DoubleTree boasts a couple of spacious suites that will make my day.

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Seville

Seville has no points hotels in the old quarter where we want to stay. Since we’re not traveling in peak season, there are many afforadable options. My major priority after location was space. While we’re not planning to spend a lot of time in our hotel, I hate walking into European hotel rooms that are essentially a box. Is it too much to ask for some space on either side of my bed? In the end, I settled on an apartment-style lodging that is affiliated with a nearby hotel. Apartamentos Murillo gives us 300+ square feet for two nights, and it’s a short stroll to the Royal Alcazar.
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Cordoba

Cordoba was the least stressful decision. We will only be there for one night, and there are only a handful of decent options in our price range within the city walls. For $70, I booked Eurostars Conquistador, a four star hotel next door to Mezquita.

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Being Social with Butterflies

We spent a lot of time with butterflies this summer. Butterflies are weird. I mean, they are bugs, after all. And I capital-H hate bugs. But there’s a difference between the bug on the wall of my apartment and bugs flitting about a garden, hovering over beautiful flowers while I hover over them with my camera in hand.

Our first butterfly visit was the garden at Fallingwater, Frank Lloyd Wright’s most famous house about an hour south of Pittsburgh. Sweltering in the August heat, I could not stop myself from snapping.

img_8931img_8982img_9122img_9140img_9035img_8906-2img_8915-2img_8988Our second garden was closer to home. After a weekend in Silver Spring, Maryland, we stopped by the Butterfly Garden at Brookside Gardens. Brookside Gardens is a beautiful area independent of the butterflies, but the butterfly garden was the icing on the proverbial cake. We even got to see some caterpillars before they transformed!

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Welcome to Pittsburgh!

After seven months of dating, M and I finally took a trip together. More accurately, I went to Pittsburgh for work and M tagged along. But we managed to squeeze in some tourist time – my first real tourist effort even though I’ve been to Pittsburgh a handful of times.

Here are some thoughts. Pittsburgh is hilly, folks! I’m going to have to get into some serious shape if we’re going to do more Pittsburgh exploring. Pittsburgh is also a growing, trending city. In the four years since I started working for a Pittsburgh-based company, I’ve watch the city change: Rising skyscrapers, new restaurants and hotels, hip neighborhoods flourishing in the place of hollowed-out factories. Just walking around with my camera in hand was entertaining enough for me.

My favorite building hands-down is the PPG Place – a multi-building complex that takes up six city blocks. The 19,750 pieces of glass offer stunning reflections of Pittsburgh, especially on a sunny day. 

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There’s plenty of old-fashioned architecture too.

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And opportunities for self-portraits abound.

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We set aside one evening to take the cable car up the Duquesne Incline to the top of Mount Washington. The cliffside neighborhood offers stunning views of Pittsburgh’s many bridges.

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Photo credits to M on this picture of the incline.

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The glorious view that meets you at the top.

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St. Mary’s on the Mount lit up as the sun dipped into the ground.

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I dragged my tripod out for this view. Totally worth it.

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Part 7: Into the Fiery Furnace

Part 1: Road to Arches
Part 2: Arches Galore
Part 3: Delicate Arch
Part 4: Hiking Dead Horse Point
Part 5: Canyons For As Far As The Eye Can See
Part 6: Waking Up At The Crack of Dawn To See Dawn

Five months before we even landed in Colorado, my sister and I booked two spots on the ranger-led Fiery Furnace hike in Arches National Park. While most of the hikes in the park are open to the public, Fiery Furnace is limited to a small group of people per day. According to the National Parks website, “The Fiery Furnace is a natural labyrinth of narrow passages between towering sandstone walls. To enter the Fiery Furnace, visitors must accompany a ranger-guided tour or obtain a hiking permit at the visitor center.”

The ranger-led hike is three hours long with many stops along the way to to talk about the geology and history of area. The website labels the hike “strenuous,” but I’m not exactly an Olympian and I was just fine. There are some tight spaces that involve a bit of scrambling, but those were my favorite parts!

The hike starts off with a scary sign and an introduction about the geology of the rock maze we’re about to enter. Confession: I spent more time taking pictures than listening…

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Our group took a break when we reached the cave below, featuring a natural arch. The guide talked about… something… Honestly, I was just taking pictures.

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I love the way the light peeks through the rocks.

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We took another rest stop at this natural water hole and the double arches below. Our guide told us about all the different types of bugs that live in the water. He warned us not to step or fall into the hole, lest we kill all of the bugs.

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We reach a particularly narrow stretch that involved some scrambling and creative maneuvering.

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My sister captured me at my most graceful.

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There were lizards everywhere.

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At the end of the hike, as we emerged from the furnace, we are treated to a beautiful array of red rocks.

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If you like guided hikes, Fiery Furnace is a must. If you get a little bored and prefer to roam on your own – like I – Fiery Furnace is still fun, and offers an exclusive peek into a different part of Arches National Park. Just remember: Book early. These tours get sold out! 

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Happy Birthday!

Crap, has it been a year already?

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Here’s the one nice part about getting older. It is the only way for things to change. For wounds to heal, for memories to fade, for new people and opportunities to present themselves. This year came along when I desperately needed something in my life to change. So I am happy to be older, happy to look back on the past year and remember all the amazing, new things.

I am happily in a new relationship with the wonderful M. Most importantly, my almost-four-year-old niece has given M her imprimatur of approval. I literally traveled around the world to Vietnam with one of my best friends and added two new national parks to my list (Arches and Canyonlands) with my sister. Finally, I have a bunch of exciting trips to look forward to, from Spain to Cleveland to a potential trip to Cuba (!!!!).

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Our first baseball game together. Cubs vs. Nats. Cubs win!

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Lisa and I laughing it up in Vietnam.

Life is far from perfect. There are stressful, difficult, blah-filled days. Like every human being, I worry about mundane things and big life things. There are things I should worry about, but stupidly push them to the space in my head where thoughts magically disappear. I struggle to remind myself that I can’t control everything and everyone (though the world would be a better place if I could). But….I am affirmatively happy. It is amazing how one person can change so much. I am thankful for that gift every single day. And I am looking forward to the many things M and I plan to share together. Especially the end of this oppressive heat wave. Until then, I am ensconced in my woman cave and have no intention of leaving.

Here’s to another year. And here’s to me.

 

 

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Part #6: Waking Up at the Crack of Dawn to See Dawn

Part 1: Road to Arches
Part 2: Arches Galore
Part 3: Delicate Arch
Part 4: Hiking Dead Horse Point
Part 5: Canyons For As Far As The Eye Can See

We were determined to see sunrise at least once on our Utah trip. Really, really determined.

So we set our alarms for 4 a.m. We snoozed once, cracked our eyes open, and groaned.

“Do you want to get up?” I mumbled.

“Whatever you want,” my sister mumbled back.

I contemplated closing my eyes and falling into an oh-so-tempting sleep. And then I thought of those magnificent pictures of Utah’s arches ablaze in the rising sun you see in every gift shop, and I said, “let’s go.”

Spoiler alert: My pictures do not look like the famous photos you see in National Geographic. Sigh. I think we misjudged exactly where the sun would be relative to the arches. That, and I’m not actually a professional photographer. But waking up at the crack of dawn is a good way to get pictures of Moab’s famous arches without a throng of tourists in the way.

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You can see the moon!

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In order to get a shot Turret Arch framed by the North Window, I had to do some tricky climbing to a spot behind the Windows. Probably not the smartest thing, but I survived in one piece.

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And of course, goofy, I’m-exhausted-and-can’t-be-held-responsible-for-my-actions pictures.

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Part #5: Canyons For As Far As the Eye Can See

Part 1: Road to Arches
Part 2: Arches Galore
Part 3: Delicate Arch
Part 4: Hiking Dead Horse Point

Canyonlands National Park is home to, well, canyons. It is much larger than Arches and much less populated. The park offers many hikes, mountain biking trails, and off-road routes. But we were dead tired after our hike around Dead Horse Point State Park, and all I really wanted to see was Mesa Arch. Mesa Arch is one of Utah’s famous arches, dressing the walls of many a Moab hotel (including our own).

You might be wondering, how many pictures can one person take of a single arch? Wonder no more. The answer is: A sh*t ton of pictures. That’s how many.

It’s a short quarter of a mile hike to the arch. Calling it a hike is a bit generous, but it is uphill. And then all of a sudden – bam – there it is. Miraculous and captivating. By mid-afternoon, the sky had turned a stormy grey/purple which made for a dramatic scene through the window of Mesa Arch.

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After Mesa Arch, we made a short stop at Grand View Point Overlook before heading back to our hotel. I’ve seen a lot of canyons in my travels, and sometimes, they blur one into the next. But Grand View Point Overlook offers a unique view of Canyonlands. We were exhausted, but it was definitely worth the drive.

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Part #4: Hiking Dead Horse Point

Part 1: Road to Arches
Part 2: Arches Galore
Part 3: Delicate Arch

On our second day in Moab, we headed west of Arches National Park to Dead Horse Point State Park and Canyonlands National Park. Dead Horse Point State Park is a hidden gem. It’s not one of the major national parks advertised in all the magazines, but it’s beautiful and feral, and we had it all to ourselves.

Once we entered the park, we got a map from the visitor center and settled on a five-mile loop around the park. The hiking is easy to moderate at an altitude of 5,900 feet, but little elevation change. The most difficult part of the hike is the constant maneuvering from cairn to cairn, with the occasional rock scramble. As we hiked, we were rewarded with vast and stunning views of the Colorado River as it winds its way through never-ending canyons.

Dead Horse Map

As we set out, the first thing we noticed was the electric blue water in the distance. It looks supernatural, almost like an alien colony. Sadly, it’s not that exciting. The blue water is a potash mine. Miners pump water into the ground, bringing potash ore to the surface in a potassium-filled brine. As the water evaporates,  salt crystals form. The water is dyed a bright blue to speed up the evaporation process, which takes about 300 days. Dark water absorbs more sunlight and facilitates evaporation.

That’s a lot of science when I really mean to say, the views were amazing. The electric blue water contrasted brilliantly with the deep red canyons and the occasionally stormy clouds.

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My love affair with Utah’s stark, half-dead trees continued. As did my sister’s teasing laughter.

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A little less than halfway through the hike, we reached Dead Horse Point – the point where the Colorado River curves around the canyon. The sweeping views are breathtaking. (As an aside, “breathtaking” describes pretty much every single sight on our Utah trip to the point of being utterly trite.)

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A picture of our faithful cairns. There’s a very good chance we would have hiked straight into the canyon without our trusty cairns guiding us. They were not always easy to spot!

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Dead Horse State Park is a short 37 minutes from Moab and on the way to Canyonlands National Park. If you’re looking for a strenuous calorie-burning hike, Dead Horse Point will fall short. But if you want to have a massive canyon to yourself while getting some moderate exercise, this park will hit the spot.

 

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Spain, Here We Come

Finally.

I finally have a big trip booked and placed on the calendar. With the crazy election cycle this year, I haven’t taken a big trip since Vietnam in November. There was a short jaunt to southern Utah over Memorial Day weekend, and a few weekend trips planned to various U.S. cities revolving around work. But you know that adrenalin pumping, saliva watering sensation when you book the flights for a big trip? I finally have that feeling.

I asked M where he’d like to go and he picked Spain. Being the art aficionado that he is, that makes perfect sense. He’s dying to spend hours (if not days) in the Prado in Madrid. We are both fascinated by religious history and can’t wait to hit up Toledo, Cordoba, Seville, and Granada. And I can’t wait to see the crazy modern Gaudi houses in Barcelona.

We will start in Barcelona, make an oddly shaped U down to Andalucia, and end in Madrid. The map below shows our basic itinerary with potential side trips included.

I booked an amazing business class flight from Washington, D.C. to Barcelona on American Airlines. It costs 115,000 miles (57,500 per person) and a mere 11 dollars. Even better, we fly out of DCA – only 10 minutes from my apartment. There are no direct flights to Spain from DC (who knew?), so we have a short stopover in JFK.

M has never flown in business class so I am over the moon about sharing this experience with him. That American has an amazing business class product will make this trip that much sweeter.

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Our flight home is less than ideal, but we were dealing with mileage constraints and limited award inventory since it’s Christmas week. I booked two economy seats on Lufthansa for 60,000 United miles and $142 via Frankfurt. Not the best flight, but pennies compared to what a ticket would cost.

And now comes the fun part – the planning. The hotels, the trains, the sights, the little off-the-beaten track stores and markets – I love the process of putting a trip together.

There are so many things we want to see and so many parts of Spain we had to leave off the list. We are not so young that we can hop from city to city every day, and we both like to travel at a more leisurely pace – getting to know the nooks and crannies of cities apart from the major tourist attractions. And so I crossed the Straits of Gibraltar and a ferry to Morocco off of our list, and M begrudgingly acknowledged that we probably won’t make it to Aragon. We will just have to come back a second time!

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Part 3: Delicate Arch

Part 1: Road to Arches
Part 2: Arches Galore

Delicate Arch is one of the most famous arches, if not the most famous, in Arches National Park. If you’re not hiker, or just plain lazy, you can catch a glimpse of this magnificent arch from below. Two short walks from the parking lot offer lower and upper viewpoints. But if you can muster the energy, skip the viewpoint, and huff and puff for three miles (round trip) to the base of Delicate Arch.

It is totally worth it.

The elevation gain is only 500 feet, but most of it is condensed into a short one mile. Bring plenty of water and just remember: There’s a beautiful arch at the end.

The hike starts out on a dirt path. As we walked past a log house, I thought, “this isn’t so hard.” I admired the exotic desert flowers and oddly shaped trees.

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After a half a mile, the trail peters out into steep slick rock. Sporadic cairns to guide the way, but we simply followed the stream of hikers in front of us.

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A small arch to tempt your appetite before you see the real thing.

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One minute, I’m hiking, and the next minute…… I’m standing in awe. Mouth open, eyes bulging, drool trickling. For this, I would hike 10 miles if I had to.

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In peak season, you’ll have to contend with a throng of other tourists taking photos under the arch, but people are pretty good about not hogging the spotlight. When my turn came, I eagerly inched my way underneath the gigantic miracle. Suddenly, it seemed overwhelmingly large. I felt like I was standing at the edge of the world. Maybe, because I was.

I am just a tiny spec in the pictures. You can barely see my goofy, triumphant grin. But rest assured, it is there.

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