2020 COVID RV Trip Out West

2020, the year of COVID. So much has changed at this point. Our vacation plans for 2020 certainly didn’t include renting a big ass RV and driving it across the country and back. But as COVID swooped in and crushed the cruise industry, canceled our cruise, and ruined the majority of dive destinations by way of limited inter-country travel, that’s exactly what happened.

Out west is amazing. I’ve seen parts of it on two previous motorcycle trips. Both times I’ve been in awe of the beauty and magnificence of it all. I lack the vocabulary to properly describe what’s out there. You just have to see it for yourself and photos simply do not do it justice. Claudine experienced this on our trips to Europe. You can describe the Alps, you can take photos of the Alps but until you’re there, breathing the air and looking up (or down) across them you just don’t “Get It”. That was the motivation for this trip. To share that awe with her and Matthew. Doing it by motorcycle was out of the question. We had talked about flying out, renting a car, and driving around but COVID made that problematic. While I understand travel isn’t horrible and there are hotel rooms are available, we wanted to be 100% self-sufficient. What better way to do that than with a big Class A RV that can support you self-contained for days at a time?

At this point, I will focus on our trip, how I planned it, where we visited, and share some stunning photos. I’ll put together another post on the RV we used for the job, how I came to that decision, where I found it, what worked, and what didn’t.

I had 11 workdays of vacation (two weeks and a day) to maximize. I picked up the RV on Friday, August 7th, drove it to our house where we packed it for an early departure on Saturday the 8th of August, traveling out west in a southern to northern loop (more on that later) returning home on Saturday the 22nd to unpack before returning the RV on Sunday the 23rd. 17 days, 16 nights with the RV and/or traveling provided us with the sampling of “Out West”.

Having done it twice on the motorcycle there were places I knew we wanted to see. Pikes Peak and Beartooth Pass speak to me so they were must-haves. Sadly the latter wouldn’t make it on the trip since we weren’t going to be close enough with a rental car at hand and I wasn’t sure I wanted to take a 36 foot RV over Beartooth. Not that it can’t be done, but it’s not my RV.

I had started to plan the trip north to south but realized that would put us in the Black Hills during the 2020 Sturgis Rally. I don’t have anything against Sturgis or my fellow bikers who choose to ride Harleys, but where masses like that are gathered, well, that’s just not for me. Plus the point of this trip was not to mingle with millions of people amid COVID. So I planned it backward (to me).

Our route looked like this.

I used a couple of very useful apps to plan. The first of which was RVParky.com and you can see the entire itinerary here including addresses for parks and where we stayed. RV Parky is particularly useful to call out places you can stay in an RV, even if that stay is a Walmart parking lot that permits overnight parking. Since we were in a self-contained Class A, we assumed we’d probably spend one or two nights on the cheap this way. Turns out we didn’t need too. As I was planning our trip, I made only one reservation and that was night number 1. The entire trip was tentative and subject to change based upon weather, or if we decided we just wanted to stay somewhere longer.

RVparky has both a website and an app (which really only loads the website). But it was extremely handy. The reviews were often dated, and links to websites for a lot of parks were bad. But you could generally find them without too much trouble.

The other application that I stumbled on thanks to brilliant google adwords targeted marketing. You know, when you start looking for cars or RV’s on the internet and then all you see on the internet are RV and Car ads. Yeah that. Was:

HarvestHosts.com

All it took to hook me was a 15% off coupon code. For $79 you’re a member and can request to park or stay overnight at any of their hosts. These are generally wineries, breweries, museums, or farms. The idea is that in exchange for letting you park there you’ll patronize their wares (wine/beer/farm). You’re supposed to be self-contained, no hookups, but we found that some did offer electric hookups for a fee.

On our first night (1 on the map), we stayed at Arcadian Moon Winery just east of Kansas City. We got there early enough to order pizza and a bottle of wine. We’re wine snobs and prefer big bold Cabs and Reds Blends. Most midwestern wineries focus on sweet wines which are not our thing. I bought a bottle of their darkest red and it was OK, but it wasn’t awesome (for our tastes). Their pizza was amazing though and I’d definitely go back or stop again if I was in the area.

Free parking (with purchase of wine and food), but we would have had to eat anyway. 🙂

Day two of the trip was the slog across Kansas to get to Colorado Springs. Driving through Kansas sucks, there’s no other way to say it, up long hills, epic winds, and just plain, flat, basically boring scenery. I’ve done this first hand on the motorcycle and expected the worst. We got lucky, the winds were kind, and outside of being hot enough to have to run the generator to keep the beast cool, it wasn’t bad at all.

As we arrived into Colorado Springs we began calling around to find a campground. I had anticipated staying at the base of Pikes Peak in the Pikes Peak RV Park but they didn’t have a spot. Using the power of RV Parky we stumbled upon Lone Duck Campground

The woman on the phone assured us she had room for our 40 foot RV (36 feet with 3+ feet of bicycles on the back). We made our reservation and started hunting for a rental car. We found that at the Airport so we swung by the Col Spring Airport picked up the rental and drove to Lone Duck.

Lone duck’s driveway was a little intimidating for me at first, and when we pulled in we noticed the following on their website. Something our reservation person failed to mention to us.

The owners were kind though, honored the reservation, and helped us slide into one of their few open spots at an angle. This is a small family campground, with a fishing lake, pool, as well as a restaurant (closed for COVID), and an arcade full of vintage machines. It was quiet with lots of activities and kids for Matthew. He made a few friends that day, one of which he still talks to almost daily.

We were clearly the largest “thing” there and we felt just a little out of place.

We’d be here for two nights (2,3 &4 on the map), spending the 3rd day of our trip visiting Pikes Peak and Garden of the Gods, then some simple campground rest/time.

After two nights in Colorado, we headed towards Moab, UT. We took the RV safe route up through Denver and across 70 until wildfires pushed us around a 4-hour detour north through Steamboat Springs around to Rifle, CO where we could hop back on I-70 (6,7&8 on the map). We headed towards Moab without a place to stay or a plan.

The smoke from the wildfires could be seen for hundreds of miles and was actually quite thick during some of the detour affecting visibility. In the photos below you can see the cloud of smoke and if you zoom in can see some of the fire raging on top of the butte.

We once again leveraged RVParky to find a pull-through RV spot with full hookups for our 4th night at Moab RV Park just north of town (9 on the map). Our goal was to get up early and drive through Arches and Canyonlands. The detour really hosed us and put us in the RV park in the dark after the office had closed. It was a great park though, very well maintained, and easy to maneuver in. We had an end spot and hooking up in the dark wasn’t that bad. In fact, Claudine drove us into Moab and parked the RV.

The next morning she got up and did her sunrise thing, and I broke the drone out for a little sunrise photography. We had a great breakfast and coffee then took off for Arches.

Arches, Oh My… What a beautiful place.

So much amazing scenery in a single park. It was mind-blowing. We spent about 4 hours driving through, taking photos, seeing the sights. Claudine and Matthew took a short hike up one of the easier trails. We’ll spend a lot more time here next time for sure.

Canyon Lands – The Northern Rim.

Our original plans had us getting into MOAB in the early afternoon. We were hopeful that we could check the Arches box upon arrival but the detour ruined that plan so we needed to squeeze them into a single day. We were already north of Arches/Moab so we focused the north rim of Canyon Lands; Island in the Sky and the Grand View.

At this time it was time to turn the trip north. (Point 12 on the map) Up through Provo, Salt Lake, etc. towards Tetons and Yellowstone. But not before spending the night at what would become one of my top 3 spots or stays (#12 on the map).

Once again, HarvestHosts.com for the Win! While planning the trip I didn’t really expect to stay at more than two harvest hosts, there just weren’t that many along our trip. The ones that did exist were in the first half and last half. But deep in the middle, near Hiawatha, UT, was this thing labeled a FARM/Ranch but we didn’t know what to expect. It was a bit out of the way but it was intriguing. When the detour messed up our plans heading towards Moab I showed it to Claudine and asked her what she thought. She liked it, and we were jonesing for a boon-docking experience with big skies and no other lights so we called the number and asked if we could spend the night there.

Leo, the owner of LZJ Ranch’s Hiawatha Hideout, said he had an opening. Harvest hosts need to be self-contained, if we wanted electricity we needed to book via the campground site in the link provided.(Essentially there’s a huge difference in the level of release/indemnity/coverage from the campground broker than there is from Harvest Hosts). So, we opted to just do Harvest Hosts self-contained camping.

On our way there the winds were out of this world, a crosswind sucked a window right out of the RV. One of the escape windows has a bracket that’s glued to the glass, it ripped the glass from the bracket. I knew there was a reason I had Claudine buy the double-sided Gorilla tape.

Upon arrival we were amazed. A little campground, out in the middle of nowhere, with a huge fire pit, picnic tables for two camp spots complete with fire rings. He allowed us to park there w/o hooking up to electric. I got the drone out and started flying while Loe tended to some chores; filling up the cistern, and feeding the horses. Claudine and Matthew went for a hike down the path and I sat and chatted with Leo for about an hour. He inquired as to our route and asked me what exactly I needed to see in Salt Lake. “Nothing ” I said, “It’s just on the way.” He said we were doing it wrong, we needed to take 191 all the way up to Tetons, through Vernal, UT, across the Red Fire Gorge Dam. So we did.

We had a great night looking at the stars, cooking over a camp fire that Matthew started with a flint and striker that he bought at a gas station. Never mind the fact that he got so excited he lost the flint into the fire. He’d never make it on Alone…

Up and at-em early we headed up 191 towards the Tetons as Leo suggested, with a single over-night at Pine Ridge to fill up on water and dump the poo at Rim Station (#14 on the map).

When we rented this RV, I was very skeptical about taking a 26,000lb gas-powered RV over any significant mountain ranges. Up 191 we topped two 10k passes, all without issue. You just have to drive it like you care. 25/30 MPH up the mountains at reasonable RPMs and low gear saving brakes down the mountains. It was so much better than I expected that I thought about making the trek over Beartooth pass. However, I made a commitment to the owner that I wouldn’t, so I didn’t. I would have taken my RV up and over, despite being cussed buy all the guys on Motorcycles 🙂 (I used to be that guy, so I have first-hand knowledge.)

The Bridger Teton Forest boon-docking night was certainly top 3 and might be #1 (#15 on the map). We had planned to boon-dock “around” Tetons but didn’t know where. Claudine did some research and was given a tip to try the Pacific Creek campground. This was just outside the park, in the Bridger Teton National forest. Up Pacific Creek road was a riding stable and a small loop with 9 camp spots. Nine!.

First-come, first-served, no reservations. You either got a spot or you didn’t. Once you were in a spot you filled out an envelope, dropped a check in the box, posted your stub, and stayed up to 5 days. It was 8 miles up a pretty rough 1.5 lane gravel road (40+ minutes in the RV) only for us to find no spot, as we circled around near the trailhead where there was additional parking with horse corals for the trailhead. That’s where we found spot #9 was completely vacant. The stub still had the days date, but clearly they were gone and had cleared out. Not a single chair, or a scrap of garbage, so we backed in and set up.

Matthew and I went for a hike first, then Claudine and Matthew took a hike along the river. We gilled amazing steaks and Claudine discovered that Caymus is the bomb-digity. What an amazing stay. On the way out we were passed by a camper, we flagged them over to let them know we had vacated #9. About 15 mins later they passed us going back down the hill and asked if we’d seen any bears. We hadn’t up to that point. They were told bear #3xx was active in this area and they had driven up to take a look. Not 5 minutes later we round a bend and there he is, having breakfast. We stopped the RV and watched him for about 10 minutes before he rambled off back into the woods.

Bridger Teton forest was point 14 on the map, but I have no idea what day we’re on at this point. Right about half way.

From Bridger Teton, we headed back out, finished our drive through Teton up towards Yellowstone. Our accommodations tonight would be a one night stop in West Yellowstone KOA after taking in the South and Western Yellowstone sites including Old Faithful.

Ahh Yellowstone

Pictures simply cannot do Yellowstone justice. Most of what we saw falls into that category. Try as you might, nothing can represent those breathtaking views. Literally Breathtaking. We spent time at a number of scenic stops, including skipping rocks in the river. Unfortunately, this entire trip would be the equivalent of a “Sampler”. I can easily see 3-4 days just in Yellowstone next time.

In typical; Traveling with Claudine fashion, we rolled into the Ol Faithful parking lot, walked to the geyser, waited maybe 7 minutes and watched it erupt. When I visited on the motorcycle I remember standing around for well over an hour, in mid-July heat in full moto-gear. It sucked. After the show we headed to the Yellowstone gift shop and loaded up on items for everyone in the family. I picked up a new Tilley hat so all was right with the world.

Our stay that evening was at the West Yellowstone KOA. This was our first KOA on the trip, but only the first of many. What a great, clean campground. It was about 85% full, but we secured a full hookup pull-through spot. We opted for their dinner and had some of their “Almost Famous Ribs”. Look, I know ribs, and well my expectations were pretty low, but the price was right and we didn’t have to cook. They were amazing! Matthew rode his bike, made friends, played basketball, and had a blast. He’s a campground kid for sure.

Not much beats a full hookup; water, electric, and full sewer. It’s not cheap though $108 just to park the beast. KOA’s are premium and for the most part, they deliver.

Today we’d circle back through Yellowstone, up north, see some waterfalls, exit the east, through Cody and up to Billings where we’d again camp at another KOA.

The Billings KOA was THE FIRST KOA. It didn’t have the best reviews, but for our needs it was great. Again, full hookups. Their restaurant/grill was closed as was the pool. Actually as I write this it wasn’t all that memorable. Wait, I remember now, overall the campground was fine. Matthew and I attempted to use the pool, it was nasty. Then we tried the hot-tub, or rather the lukewarm tub and it was worse than the pool. We actually had a fire pit we could use without setting the RV on fire so that was good (not the case in West Yellowstone). I’d give this place a C+ to a B-.

Claudine got up, walked to the river for her early morning first light and sunrise. Saw some deer and talked to some local fishermen on the river.

Up and at-em early to another Top 3 destination/overnight. Devils Tower. By way of Custer’s Last Stand near Hardin, MT.

Devil’s Tower, I don’t have the words. We drove up to the Tower, hiked the easy trail around it. Matthew played on the boulders, then he and I rode our bikes down the mountain from the tower towards the bottom (Downhill all the way if you didn’t catch that part). We snagged a spot in the Devil’s Tower KOA (again with full hookups), with a view of the tower for Sunset and arrived just before the show. It was amazing.

From Devils Tower we headed towards Rushmore and the Black Hills. Our initial strategy was to swing by the airport in Rapid City, SD and pick up a rental car for two days to explore the Black Hills. Instead, we discovered that some KOA’s rent cars, and so did the Rushmore/Palmer Gulch KOA. So we procured a full hook up spot and rental car from the KOA. This KOA is large, and very well maintained and managed. We actually got a great pull through spot, out of the main KOA pull-through parking-lot. As they guided us past all the big busses and diesel pushers and 45+ foot campers I was initially concerned. Once we parked though, I was very glad we weren’t with everyone else. We had a great spot, on a hill and didn’t have to star in our neighbors windows.

On day two we took the rental car to Rushmore before everyone else got there, circled around, and drove Needles Highway, then up to Deadwood for the afternoon. It was a great day.

From The Black Hills, we started the sad, 3 Day drive home. Our epic journey was coming to an end. We left Rushmore and headed northeast up to 90 towards the Badlands. Of course, we had to stop at Wall Drug on the way in. I’m sparing you photos of Wall Drug, if you’ve been to our Jungle Jim’s it’s about the same thing. We stopped, we ate, we shopped. People loath the signs advertising it for 100’s of miles, but honestly that adds to the charm of it. It is what it is and you know what? I’ll stop every time on my way through for FREE ICE WATER or a 5 cent cup of coffee.

From Wall we dropped into the north side of the Badlands and drove through the park stopping along the way for Matthew to climb and take in the views. The Badlands are Epic as well. Hard to follow up on the scenery we’ve already witnessed but it’s unique in its own ways.

The initial goal was to stay at the ONE campground in Interior South Dakota, just south of the Badlands, but we popped up Harvest Hosts, com again and started looking for something a little closer to home to make the next two days less than 600 mile days and that’s what we found it. #4 on my Top three stays list. (Stop #23 on the map)

So many great photo opportunities. Out near Wagner, SD is a little Brewery; Choteau Creek Brewing Company. Paul and Lisa, run a little bed and breakfast while Paul works on building his Micro-Brewery. We camped, we drank, we ate. Lisa made us a killer breakfast, and if you stop by do not miss an opportunity for one of her pizza’s.

Really, one of our favorite stops, after this it was all driving, driving and more driving. We did find another state park for our final stop. On the river at the Illiniwek Forest Preserve campground in Hampton, Illinois.

Just a basic campground, water and electric, first come first serve with a dump station. There’s a story here but you’ll have to buy me beer or bourbon to get it. One last night of cooking over an open fire, then 500 miles to home

So, in total, 4960 miles round trip, untold gallons of gasoline, 14 sunsets and sunrises, an infinite number of memories created, vivid images burned into my memory. A little exhausting, lots of driving, some stress here and there when it’s not your RV. Only two Oh S### moments, a few RV repairs, all basic, but simply one of the best vacations I’ve ever had.

Now that a week has passed, I’ve had time to think about the trip, the mechanics of it, what I’d do differently, and what would remain the same. Honestly, I wouldn’t change much. We had a lot to do and see in a finite amount of time. It certainly wasn’t ideal RV’ing, but given our constraints, it was awesome. I am thankful that the owner of the RV entrusted us with his baby for this epic journey. Asking someone to let you put 5,000 miles on their RV, even when you rent it is a tall ask. Mileage is what kills the value on them. You can find this RV on RVshare.com if he’s still renting it. I believe they are but I wouldn’t ask to take it out west.

I’m going to write up my RV specific experience thoughts in another post here, this one is long enough as it is. It’s breaking my web host with all the images.

Will we be RV owners in the future? Stay tuned.

Grand Cayman | Anniversary and Dive Trip, Sept 2018

A couple of things happened to make this possible.  Our wonderful daughter Maggie gave us a week of babysitting so that we could take a vacation without any kids, thank you Maggie. When the opportunity presented itself for us to rent the same condo in Seven Mile Beach Resort in Grand Cayman that we did in May of 2017 so we jumped on it.  The earliest we could book a vacation for me, at the time, was in September.

We also decided that if we’re going to spend the bucks to get there and dive, might as well maximize the opportunity and decided to extend  it a couple days, three to be exact.

We originally asked the condo folks for a special rate to extend because, well, honestly, we like to be frugal like that, and we also have a boat load of Marriott points so we could technically stay at the Marriott resort for free. Initially the resort said “No” and quoted us standard rates which were ridiculous.  Anyone in Cayman in the offseason (August-September-October) an paying list price is not doing their homework.

So we looked around.  The problem with the Marriott for us, was simply that it’s basically a standard hotel room, an when you’re diving, you have a lot of wet, sometimes stinky gear to deal with.  There’s no good place to store it at the Marriott and they don’t have their own dive company to take it off your hands.  We also like to have the opportunity to cook a bit and save some money when we can and you can’t do that when all you have is a Microwave. Well, I suppose you can, but we can’t.

Additionally we wanted to experience other parts of the island, not just Seven Mile, which can be busy like Gatlinburg only with a beach.  If you don’t know how busy that is, just know that it’s crazy busy.  It turns out, in the offseason, that’s not a problem.

After some research, we selected a condo on the north side in Old Man Bay.  Originally we rented On The Bay Unit #104 via Grand Cayman Villas & Condos.

As we did our pre-travel research we were a little bummed about the number of things that were down/closed for the off season.  Island population is certainly lower, it is hurricane season after all. A few of the dive companies we planned to dive with told us they would be down for maintenance and when I tried to get reservations at one of the all you can eat lobster nights and they were like, “Yeah, uh, no, we’re closed in September.”  But we soldiered on.

We eventually booked diving with EPIC divers for the 7 days we’d be staying on 7 Mile because of their stellar reputation on Trip Advisor. We figured we’d just snorkel, shore dive, or find someone on the North side when we got here.  We also planned to check out the Morritt’s resort and Ocean Frontiers as potential places to stay next time.

Unit #310 On The Bay @ Old Man Bay on the North Side –We had originally booked On The Bay Unit#104, upon arrival we were told there was a problem with that unit. It had recently been sold and some of the utilities weren’t turned back on.  Cayman Villas moved us to Unit #310 and we were very pleasantly surprised when we got there. On The Bay Unit #310 (Third floor ocean view) was an upgrade for us from unit 104, (ground floor, no view).  Kudos to Grand Cayman Villas for upgrading us.  The On The Bay condos are nice and spacious. The unit we stayed is was an owner occupied rental so it was extremely well appointed versus a condo that’s 100% rental and filled with the bare minimum. We essentially had the entire 12 unit complex to ourselves.  It really couldn’t have been any better.

Starfish Point –Did someone say starfish? What a great little corner of the earth. Named Starfish Point for a reason. We stopped out there on our first night to check out the sunset, then followed up with a poor attempt to snorkel there the next day.  Worth going for the starfish but it’s not a great place to snorkel despite what you may read. Super shallow to a 10 -15 foot deep sea grass area to a deep drop off.  Not a ton of life outside of some basic fish and the starfish of course.  We’re told you sometimes see turtles grazing there and the current was strong when we visited.

Over The Edge Restaurant – Great place on the north side for a relatively inexpensive meal. Inexpensive as far as Cayman goes. Good food, locally sourced fish, etc, with a bit of a french flair.  We stopped here for dinner the first night on the porch over the water.  Wonderful view.

Friday morning after snorkeling at Starfish point and stopping off to see Rum Point (not real sure what the attraction is there) we headed around the east end of the island to see what Ocean Frontiers had to offer and to inquire about diving with them on Saturday.

Ocean Frontiers –This dive resort is now on our list of places to stay in the future. Something about rolling out of bed and onto the dive boats really appeals to us. The facilities were super well organized and the room that they showed us was very clean with a good view.  Sad that the pool is located across the street in the other part of the complex but we’d manage.  We booked our first dive with them for Saturday morning, with a penciled in spot for Sunday if we could coordinate the move out of the north side and into 7 mile in a way that would work out.

The Brasserie –What can I say?  This is our go-to night out in Grand Cayman.  Their food is amazing as well as the atmosphere.  This is our second trip.  I made reservations for The Brasserie as soon as I knew we were coming.  We opted for the Chef’s selection.  A five course tasting menu that was out of this world.

We started with their Tuna Ceviche with plantain chips, followed by the Prince Edward Island Mussels, Swordfish, Steak, a sample of some magical cheese, and our desert sampler.  All of it was amazing@

Saturday morning we dove with Ocean Frontiers, and loved every minute of it. It’s a larger boat for sure, but there was PLENTY of space.  I liked having the room, and the service and attention to detail spoiled us.  Everyone had their own dunk tank next to their two tanks of gas. 3 Dive masters on the boat, two in the water with every dive.  We were fortunate, there weren’t any newbies, or anyone that required any attention.  Two stellar dives, enough to get us to book again for Sunday.

Dive logs were captured using my new dive watch/computer. The Garmin Decent MK1 (in addition to our normal computers/gauges). This little gem logs not only the dive particulars but my heart rate as well.  Additionally it logs the GPS location of your entry and exit.  SWEET.  (Click any of the links below for the details)

Dive 1: Eeny Meeny Miny Mo | Single-Gas Dive
Dive 2: Iron Shores Garden | Single-Gas Dive

Rum Point  –I don’t see the attraction to Rum Point, sure it might be quieter, there’s a Rum Point beach area with a bar or two, bar food, and a restaurant (which was closed except for dinner).  The beach there was small, and full of seaweed.  Clearly party central though if that’s what you’re looking for.  That’s to say to buy overpriced buckets of beer and play sand volleyball. No kidding, I paid $28 Cayman for two Mango Coladas and I don’t think there was any alcohol in them to speak of. Worst investment of the trip. We did however enjoy the hammocks for a bit, but that was only possible because it was essentially empty. I see no need to go back there. In all fairness, we didn’t get out to the western part of the beach, and if provided with the right opportunity to stay in one of the condos at Kai Bo, or that part of the island for a reasonable price we would consider it.

Sunday
Two more dives with Ocean Frontiers

Dive 3: Lost Valley | Single-Gas Dive
Dive 4: FantaSea Land | Single-Gas Dive

Again, exceptional service, and great overall dives. Same boat, completely different and equally great crew.

On the bay was kind enough to allow us a later than 11am check out so that we could dive on Sunday.  We were told by 7 mile we could check in after 4pm, maybe early but 4pm for sure.  After our dives we took a little pool time to wind down before packing up and moving to 7 Mile Beach Club and Resort.

Upon arrival (at 4:10) we noticed that the office closed at 4pm.  Fortunatly the manager lived in unit 1 and was able to accommodate our check in. That certainly didn’t jive with the “You can check in after 4pm for sure story we got the day before.  But no harm, no foul.

Seven Mile Beach Club – We really like 7 Mile beach club for it’s short, less than a block walk to the southern end of 7 mile beach just below the Marriotts portion of the beach. We also like the ability to walk to a number of restaurants including Coconut Joe’s across the street.  Our request for a ground floor unit was honored.  Similar to up north, the place was almost empty.  If you can get a ground floor unit, do it.  There’s no real view to speak of, and the ability to walk out your back door to the pool (vs a screened in balcony) is an added bonus.  However, this is our second visit and we’re 0-2 in the ability to use the pool.  It was broken the first time and being worked on.  It was up and running on Sunday when we got there, but closed on Monday to have a drain installed, so it was down the whole time. They did work out an arrangement for patrons to be able to use the pool at the facility next door (@ Comfort Suites), but it’s just not the same as right out your back door.  It’s this kind of thing that really turns me of to ever wanting to own a timeshare.

Epic Divers –After checking in and getting settled I sent an email to Epic Divers, whom we booked with, confirming our arrangements. I had stumbled upon a post/article about the owner having a party with Guy Harvey and read that they were winding down which had us a little concerned. They confirmed our pick up time and that all things were a go. Long story short, there are rules about how long an expatriate can live and work on the island (9 years to be exact in 2018). When that happens you have to be off island for 1 year before you can come back.  Both owners of EPIC aged out or rolled over within the same year. Had things been managed differently they could have kept it going but they never found a 3rd partner/wheel they trusted enough to do that.  I wish I had met them a year ago. EPIC is (or was) certainly the type of company and class of people I’d consider investing in.

EPIC more than lived up to their name and reputation.  For the most part Claudine and I had the boat to ourselves with Pete (one of the owners) and his parents (Shirley and Collin).  What a distinct pleasure it was to meet them and dive with them. We did pick up another couple divers Thursday, Friday and a full boat for their final run on Saturday.

I wish Pete and his family success in whatever it is they decide to do and plan to keep in touch.  Pete’s family lives in a part of the UK that I’ve never visited and I look forward to having them show us around one day.

The first two dives with EPIC were on the western 7 mile side. I enquired about diving the north wall as we were unable to get to the north side during our last visit. Turns out it’s a bit choppy in the summer as the weather comes from the north.

EPIC boat on the West Bay Dock:

Monday’s dives:
Dive 5: Knife | Single-Gas Dive
Dive 6: Ono Verde | Single-Gas Dive

Tuesday’s dives:
Dive 7: Big Tunnels | Single-Gas Dive – Drift
-= Followed by a move to the North Sound
Dive 8: Lemon Reef | Single-Gas Dive

Wednesday’s dives:
Dive 9: Leslie’s Curl | Single-Gas Dive
– Surface Interval at Stingray City Sandbar.

Dive 10: Ray’s Bedroom | Single-Gas Dive

We got to spend some time with “Hook” about a 5 foot reef shark, that once had a huge hook in his nose (note the scar) which was removed a while back.

We had originally planned to take Wednesday and Saturday off to shore dive, but because the service was so good, and the weather on the north wall was cooperating we elected to dive both Wednesday and Saturday as well in the end.

We also took our Sunset Snorkel trip off Cemetary beach this evening.  Good stuff.

Thursday’s dives:Dive 11: Main Street | Single-Gas Dive
Dive 12: Blue Pita | Single-Gas Dive

Shore Dive @ Macabuca
Dive 13: Macabuca | West Bay Single-Gas Dive

Friday’s dives:
Dive 14: 7 Fathoms | Single-Gas Dive
Dive 15: Sturgeons Domain | Single-Gas Dive

Shore Dive @ Sunset HouseDive 16: Sunset House | George Town Single-Gas Dive

Yes, we found the mermaid. This was the first time I needed to navigate to something. 320 degrees from our drop in point, then 310 from there to a wreck (which we didn’t swim too).

The way the mermaid is situated with her back to a larger coral formation, it’s easy to swim past on the way out and we did exactly that.  After consuming about 30% of our air we turned back, and found her on the swim back (heading 140 degrees). After the shore dive we cleaned up and had dinner on a patio all to ourselves.

Saturday’s dives:
Dive 17: Hammerhead Hill | Single-Gas Dive
Surface Interval at Stingray City Sandbar again
Dive 18: Monet’s Garden | Single-Gas Dive

At the end of the trip, these are all the dive sites we hit in 10 days, 8 of them diving.

There are supposed to be 365 dive sites between the 3 Cayman islands.  We have only scratched the surface, with 18 this trip and 11 the last trip, with the only duplicate so far being the shore dives at Macabuca. Daryll told us that the island decided on a marketing campaign “Cayman, dive a new site every day, 365 days a year”.  The put it all together and published it only to realize they didn’t have 365 sites.  They only had 359 or something, so a few of the dive sites are somewhat suspect, (or complete ass as he called them).  But there are 365 moorings today.

Some Stats from this trip:
10 Days on Island
18 Dives, 16 by boat, 2 by shore, plus some snorkeling
13 and a half hours under water during the dives
We put 410 miles on the rental car (that means we spent at a minimum of 11.5 hours in said rental car at an average of 35 MPH)

Video –Disclaimer: This is a quick chop down of over 40 hours of video captured during the trip.  I am not a professional videographer or video editor.  You may be about to spend time on the internet that you’ll never get back.

Video 1:  Photos, Sharks and Eels

Video 2: Fish and Stingrays

Scuba Trip #2 – Cozumel Palace [All Inclusive Style]

After getting certified in 2017 and doing our first Scuba trip in Grand Cayman we were ready to go again.  We added Nitrox/Enriched Air diver to our certifications last fall and looked forward to going to Cozumel with the couple that we went to Grand Cayman with.

They organized group trip to take advantage of a third room free deal at Cozumel Palace.  So after spreading the cost of the two rooms across 3 couples, our out of pocket was less than $2000.00

That included 7 nights of all inclusive goodness, meals and alcohol.  It also came with $1500 worth of resort credits, which we used primarily for scuba, and a couple’s massage and still left the resort with almost 300 credits for the next visit.

Our other out of pocket expenses were:

  • $450 each for the flights.
  • $350 for a baby sitter for Matthew while we did the morning dives (coverage from roughly 8am to 1-2pm each day).  We were initially told they had a kids program for Matthew to be in while we dove.  Turns out that wasn’t accurate. They do, sort of have a kids club, and Sonya who runs it was great, but it’s only available in the afternoons and you cannot leave the resort while your kids are in there.  Meaning you cannot leave your kid(s) there and go dive.  We were forced to hire a babysitter which they set up for us for $10/hour.  Mrs. Martha (the sitter) was amazing and worth every penny.
  • Tips for Scuba, spa, occasional exceptional service plus the required dive T-shirt.
  • We also rented a Jeep ($99) to run around the island including a visit to Chankanaab marine park (admission was free and provided by the resort), a little beach time looking for sea glass, visit to Coconuts for lunch and then downtown for some shopping.
  • $72 for parking at the Airport (economy)
  • The on-site dive shop/operation is run by Aqua Safari. We were able to use the resort credits for our morning two tank dives.  The out of pocket expenses you have to pay were $16 per person for taxes plus $2 per person for the daily marine park fees ($36 total).  They picked us up every morning at the dock on site.  We also had a $14 daily up-charge for Nitrox, optional, but it was completely worth it.
  • We also completely avoided the time-share/membership sales pitch. Though if you could get through it, you could score a free jeep rental, and/or other freebies.

Resort Review

Outside of cruise ships we had not previously stayed at an all-inclusive resort. Given the ‘value’ our expectation weren’t very high.

First, the resort is small, some might say ‘intimate’.  I think there are only 169 rooms? There are 3 onsite restaurants, which really means there is only one, but it’s divided up into 3 sections; the fancier higher-end, dress code required Italian restaurant, as well as a Mexican and Oriental themed restaurant.  There is an additional buffet outside, so I guess, technically 4 places to get some food as well as room service 24/7.

Drinks were also included, beer, wine, and mixed drinks.  The  liquor was weaker, so you needed to get two of what ever it is you wanted.  Seems that’s run of the mill for all-inclusives though.

The resort was nice, very clean overall.  The rooms were exactly like what is pictured on the web-site.  We had two double beds, an in-room Jacuzzi tub, nice sitting area, and balcony with hammock. Read that again, two double beds. Had it just been Claudine and I we’d been good.  Claudine drew the short straw and shared a bed with Matthew and didn’t sleep well the entire trip.  The rooms could have easily held two queen beds.  We wanted to get one of the loft rooms with a king and two doubles but they didn’t include those in the buy two get one free special that we were part of.

The outdoor pool area was clean and nice, again exactly as pictured, not a lot of marketing magic going on.

Note: there is no beach, but you are on the ocean.  There’s a great area for swimming and snorkeling and at times there is a life guard on duty.  They have snorkel gear on-site and paddle boards for kids 14 and older.  Matthew and I spent two long afternoons snorkeling.  Lots of good wild life to be seen in their little area.

Food quality: On a scale of 1 to 10, and I’d put Royal Caribbean meals about about an 8/9 on average.  I’d put the Cozumel Palace food in the 5-8 categories. Some stuff was pretty good.  Breakfast, with made to order omelettes was well above average.  Most other meal items were average to above average.  Nothing was really exceptional though.

Service: Service was spotty, when you got service it was good, but there were too many times when we had to go to the bar (while sitting at an outside table) to get a drink or get someone’s attention.  Same with food at the outside bistro.  Once you ordered food it got there fairly quickly, but you had to work to get it sometimes.

One of the couples did the $300 romantic dinner which included Surf/Turf Steak/Lobster which they said was excellent.

At the end of the day the value was still amazing.  Once we back out our scuba costs which we used credits for the bulk of it, it was a great deal and we’d gladly stay there again.  We know how to work the system now. We know when we need to be at dinner to not have to be on a wait list, and how to get someone’s attention.  Every one of the staff that we interacted with was great.  Martha the sitter took good care of Matthew and he eventually knew . just about everyone that worked there.

The Diving:  I would rate the actual dive staff a 10 out of 10.  They really took care of you on the boat.  From helping with your gear to the dive masters being super attentive.  The went out of their way to help Tammy who was 6 weeks from having a knee replaced.  From making her transition to and from the boat as easy as possible to getting her in and out of the boat after dives.

The boat itself was very clean and well maintained.  They provided towels, bottled water, and fruit between dives during the surface interval.

Some of the drift dives were a bit ‘exciting’, like hopping in the fast lane of the freeway with no way to get off.  We’ll eventually get used to it but some of the currents were pretty aggressive for our newbie dive status.

Palancar Caves, Palancar Reef, Paradise Reef, Chankanaab Reef were all amazing calm dives.

While we will look at other options on the island, we’d would definitely stay at Cozumel Palace again if the right opportunity were to present itself.

Our return to the 8th wonder of the world.

Almost 8 years ago to the day was our first trip to West Baden. Can’t believe it’s taken us 8 years to get back.

I really don’t want to ruin it, but the days after Thanksgiving, well the place is empty. We did the Saturday/Sunday/Monday thing and had the place to ourselves again. There probably weren’t a dozen other guests at the hotel on Sunday. What a great way to spend a long weekend.

This trip we didn’t spend any time at the casino.  Instead we ran around antiquing and checking out the French Lick Winery.

I did skip the massage this time and let Claudine use all of the spa credit for herself.

West Baden 11/27/2017

 

R.I.P. Monty

On Wednesday 9/20/2017, my little buddy of almost 17 years went over the rainbow to see Dorothy and Toto.

He’s been uncomfortable for a while, half blind, mostly deaf and his hind quarters have seriously deteriorated. He will be missed.

I scrounged a bunch of older photos of him.  He was a blast.

Special thanks to Mikes Mobile Vet for coming out and taking care of him and Matthew (who’s 9) who dug his grave so I wouldn’t have too.