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.

California Wine Country 2019

2019 marks 30 years Claudine and I have been married. To celebrate, we decided to take a couple of vacations this year. The first was a trip out to California wine country (Napa and Sonoma). We’ve visited both a few times but only as daily jaunts up from San Francisco. We also share our anniversary date with some friends (Vic and Kim) who visit wine country more often than we do so we booked a trip together letting Victor coordinate the lion’s share of the trip.

The following are the highlights of our trip along with some tips and suggestions should you find yourself out in wine country.

Historically we’ve stayed in San Francisco, San Jose, or some other part of the state, usually extending a business trip. Staying in wine country is the way to go. For this trip we opted for a luxury boutique hotel. The olea hotel to be precise. Vic found this hotel, and while it was pricey, it’s right in line for what it offers and have no buyers remorse from staying there. Future trips will likely be at a VRBO or something less hotel like, but I would absolutely stay at the olea again if the price and conditions were right.

The Olea Hotel

If you’re looking for a private boutique hotel with; gourmet breakfast, a good view, fabulous staff, great outdoor places to relax, wonderful pool and hot tub, on-site spa services, crazy comfy rooms with heated bathroom floors look no further.

The Olea was our home Monday – Thursday for our trip. Claudine and I actually came out to California two days earlier and spent those days in a nondescript Marriott in Walnut Creek. We stayed there on points because we thought we’d be bums and hangout by the pool. Turned out the hotel wasn’t all that great so we ventured out on Saturday to Mt. Diablo and the surrounding area and a trip up to Glass Beach in Ft. Bragg and some shopping in Mendocino on Sunday.

Downtown Walnut Creek was nice, lots of great restaurants including http://kaiwasushi.com/ for awesome “hole in the wall’ sushi. We also rolled the dice for an off-airport rental car through Sixt. While our experience was great; there was no line to get our car, and we returned it late at night on Friday. It turns out that’s usually not the case. Our car, a full size Chevy Tahoe was great, even though it was a Chevy.

Wine Country 101

If you’ve never been to wine country, or are new to wines and winemaking do take a tour or two. After that, all the stories are the same, the wine making process is the same and usually goes something like this:

Our winery was founded in the <late 1800’s, early 1900’s> we have always made wine here in some form or fashion. We survived prohibition by making wine for the Catholic church or for pharmaceutical use, or we turned into an orchard, and back into a vineyard after prohibition. In 1976 it was <our wine, or one of our closely related wines, vines, winemaker, father or grandfather of our winemaker> who was responsible for beating the french at their own game and putting California wines on the map. We still have those vines today, in a corner of our vineyard.

We <insert winery name> are focused on making world class <insert wine type>. Our micro climate here in (Napa/Sonoma) is the best for <insert one type of grape> because of our unique soil/sun/fog/coastal breeze/non-coastal breeze> and our <flat/hillside/north/south/east/west> facing vineyard is the best for <insert wine type>. We use only the finest barrels from a cooperage in the <USA/France/some other location> and only use <new/old/american/french> oak. We tightly control the char in the barrel better than anyone else and age the wine in our <warehouse/cave> and bottle it at exactly the right time every year. As you explore our wines through this tasting you’ll discover why we are the very best at what we do.

While a little tongue in cheek, it’s not far from the truth. There are, depending who you ask, between 400 wineries in Napa (600 if you include Sonoma) with tasting rooms and upwards of 2000 different wine producers in the region. Even google doesn’t have a solid count.

Over the course of our trip we visited (10) wineries for tastings or tours. Which is a lot over 4 days, as almost all involved a tour or considerable tasting time. 3 per day is a lot unless you’re going to taste and spit, or have a dedicated driver.

Day 1:
Clod Du Val
We didn’t have a scheduled tour or tasting. We dropped in and they were able to accommodate us for a tasting. Newly remodeled or added tasting room was fabulous as were the wines. We liked it enough to join their wine club. They do distribute some wines although the story is always “What you get here is not what we distribute”

Trefethen
We were set up with a tasting here by a co-worker. We opted to taste the red flight in their recently renovated barn tasting area. Trefethen is known for their Pinots and whites that we didn’t taste. Their reds weren’t our favorites but I did like the Dragon’s Tooth Blend quite a bit.

Dinner: Glen Ellen Star
This place was amazing, pricing was steep but amazing 5 Star food.

Day 2:
Del Dotto Cave Tour (Historic), the have 3 different locations and tasting options. We chose the cave experience with barrel tasting and it was excellent. They have a certain reputation but we enjoyed their wines and bought some. I also bought a checkable wine case for the trip back home from Del Dotto.

Favero
Fred Favero winery. Fred’s estate is also his home. Our friends met Fred back in 2009 and insisted we return on this visit. They weren’t wrong. Favero winery is perched atop a ridge that straddles the Sonoma and Napa borders. He makes 3 reds, an estate Sangiovese, a Monte Di Sassi, and an Estate Cabernet Sauvignon. He only produces around 500 cases a year and you must buy direct. His prices are very fair for the wine quality, in fact, he could charge 65% more just by labeling them Napa wines but he chooses not too. If presented with an opportunity, don’t miss a private tasting at Favero on his patio overlooking the valley.

Dinner: The Girl and Fig
Excellent food, great service.

Day 3:
B. Wise
B. Wise was a recommendation from Olea, in fact it’s one of the wineries that has an agreement with Olea and promotes a free tasting. The story is unique, there isn’t a winery visit, but there is a tasting room just north of Sonoma. We had the place to our self, they have some really powerful and unique reds. Highly recommend a tasting here. We bought a few bottles and will likely order more from B. Wise.

Kunde Mountain Top
We had pre-booked the Kunde mountain top tasting before we came out to California and we thought it was pre-paid. Had we realized it wasn’t pre-paid we would have cancelled it simply because it made getting to Repris on time a bit tough. The mountain top tasting was OK, not horrible, not great, just OK. You start in the main tasting house, board a shuttle to a perch at the top of the winery overlooking the winery for a handful of tastings, then ride the shuttle back down. Maybe 45 minutes at the top. It is a beautiful view, no question. The wines though were not to our liking. I did enjoy the reserve wine at the end. Same spiel as most, join our wine club for exclusive deals you can’t get in distribution. We didn’t join, nor did we purchase wine. Wade our tour guide was fine, a little too Mr. Rodgers like and they are living off the view and the fact that parts of Bottle Shock were filmed there.

Repris
Repris was a recommendation from Fred (Favero). He called Repris and set up the appointment for us. This was my second favorite private tour behind the time with spent at Favero. We beat feet from Kunde and got there just in the nick of time. It is also up on a mountain and takes time to get there. We arrived were greeted with a white wine for tasting, then another for our ride in a 4×4 side-by-side for a ride up to the top of the vineyard for a spectacular view. We stayed up top for a while getting the backstory for the winery then taken back to the caves for more tastings. We bought wine here, their reds were amazing as well. They too only sell direct.

Dinner: The Salt and Stone
Good food, great service. Likely our most forgettable meal though. Steaks were overpowered by the sauce or all would have been excellent. Mac-n-cheese with mushrooms and truffle oil was amazing.

Day 4:
Napa Wine Train:
This was a vacation check-box item. We’ve done it, we’ve checked the box, and that’s that. We are not group tour people. We don’t do cruise ship excursions we book on our own, direct and private (usually for less). So why in the world would we do a group train tour to take group wine tours and tastings? Because trains are cool that’s why. The wine train isn’t cheap initially, the Estate tour itself is about $375 per person, but when you break it down, 3 tastings at say $60 each is $180, the meal is a $75 meal, that gets you to $280, a driver for the day at $120 bucks is a deal. The train is nice, fairly cozy and thankfully for our tour only half full. I probably would have lost my mind if it was 100% at capacity as it was the tours seemed crowded.

The food was good, but not awesome. Portions were smaller than I expected and we got stuck with one winery that no one in our group would have chosen to visit. But again, box checked. I just wouldn’t do it again.

The wineries we visited from the train:
Domaine Chandon
Bubbles, nobody in our group cared for bubbles. I did enjoy a mixer and the grounds are spectacular. If you like bubbles, this is a no brainer stop for you.

Louis M. Martini
We entered this winery with low hopes. Their wines are average, and we think we’ve visited here before the renovation when the grounds were quite plain. The renovation is amazing, and the wines were surprisingly better than expected. I would visit here again, for a private tasting or tour, but not for a group tour.

Inglenook
Francis Ford Coppola makes Inglenook great again! We visited this estate many years ago and had, honestly a not great experience. The wines were good but the tasting server just didn’t want to be there that day. This time we took a broader tour, got the story of the winery from inception in the 1800’s to now. We even bought a bottle. Well worth the trip!

Dinner: Glen Ellen Inn (late evening dinner after the train)
This might have been my favorite meal, certainly right behind the Glen Ellen Star if not the favorite. Killer Cucumber Martini, and a great Salmon filet. The fact that I had just come from a couples massage at the Olea has nothing to do with my assessment 😉 don’t hesitate to eat here or the Glen Ellen Star.

Day 5:
We wrapped up our wine country time after breakfast at the Olea we checked out and headed south for a day in San Francisco with a mildly successful whale watching tour, dinner at Alioto’s, and a sunset cruise around the bay. The latter was my favorite. Awesome new boat in the Red/White fleet, all electric, very clean and quiet.

I loved every moment of this trip with good friends as phase 1 to celebrate our 30 years of marriage. I’ll post more photos later when I have time.

Family Cruise 2013

Claudine and I really enjoyed our cruise in 2011, and decided this year to take the whole family.  Everyone but Michael was able to go.  That’s right, Claudine and I and 4 kids, on a cruise.

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We started the process of looking for a cruise in November, we were hopeful that we could take advantage of the “Friends and Family” rate, since Claudine has a family member who works for Royal Caribbean, but it didn’t work out.

We got the Friends and Family rates for cruises in January and started looking at what was available, the problem is, everything is short notice.  When we got the list it was over the new years day holiday, and we couldn’t get in touch with the FAF coordinator until like 4 days later.   We called Royal Caribbean and there was limited availability to begin with.   It was going to be hard to book the rooms we wanted if we waited.  They worked with us and we booked it.

Flying 6 people was out of the question, even leveraging miles, so we elected to drive.  I originally planned on renting a van, but in the end we decided to just leave a day early and roll the dice with our mini-van.  It worked out well and saved us another bundle of cash.

The ship left from Ft Lauderdale, we left Friday the 11th around 1:30pm, and pretty much drove straight through to Melbourne, Florida where my parents are vacationing and watched the sunrise and had breakfast with them.  Then on to our first over-night in West Palm Beach about an hour from the terminal.   I wanted the extra day just in case.  It was roughly 1200 miles one way.

We had 6 people, and 3 rooms. We could have shoved all 4 kids in a single room but that would not have worked out well, I’m glad we booked it like we did. Claudine and I had a balcony and the kids had connecting interior rooms across the hallway.

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The Independence of the Seas is basically the same ship as the Freedom that we sailed on last time.  It’s physically the same but as we learned there were differences other than just the décor.  Maybe it was simply that we were overwhelmed or overly impressed the last time.  I certainly felt the cruise on the Freedom of the seas was all 5 stars.  On Independence it was a mix of 5 star items and 4 star items.   The entertainment for example, was head and shoulders above on the Freedom of the Seas.

This cruise was a 6 night cruise.  3 port days surrounded by cruising days.  We left on a Sunday and returned on a Saturday.  So basically 5 ‘days’ not in the port from which we left.

Our Itinerary was:

  • Sunday Afternoon: Board and depart
  • Monday: Cruising
  • Tuesday: Grand Cayman
  • Wednesday: Cozumel
  • Thursday: Costa Maya
  • Friday Cruising
  • Saturday (AM): Get off the boat.

We spent the first day showing the kids around, and getting oriented, letting them be awed and figure out what they wanted to do.   In all honesty, the first day was half a living hell.  Some of the kids were kinda grumpy, which made me second guess the whole thing. Matthew in particular was completely over stimulated and decided he’d ‘test’ his parents. But by the end of the evening, things had settled and everyone was having fun.  Matthew found his stride in the ‘Aquanauts’ program.  Which is like onboard day-care only a whole lot more fun.  He really enjoyed the activities, and the Royal Caribbean crew in the kids area were outstanding.

The first night was also the first of two formal nights.   Of which we learned that I had no-dress socks.   How’d that happen?  Of course there were none to be had on the ship.  The clothing store on the Freedom had dress socks, ties, lots of things like this.  Even the tailor who rented tuxedo’s didn’t have any.   Grrrr….   So if you ever wondered if you can shove size 10 feet into kids dress socks designed for kids size 13-2.  The answer is yes.  Not very comfortable, nor much fun but it can be, and has been done.

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Day 2, was our first port day.  With a stop in Grand Cayman.   We were supposed to stop there during our 2011 cruise but weather didn’t allow it so Claudine and I were really looking forward to it.    We were highly encouraged by friends to do the stingray encounter at stingray city.   We are cheap, so booking excursions through Royal Caribbean has never been our thing.   We considered it since we were taking the kids and that added security of making sure you’ll get back on the boat does have some value.   But none-the-less we chose not too.   At breakfast on day one we met another couple who said you must do the stingray encounter so we decided to make that a top priority.

We weren’t in Grand Cayman that long, we docked at 9am, and were to be back by 3pm.   We got off the ship, the girls hit up the jewelry stores for their free charms then Claudine did her magic, negotiating with the local tour company.  She secured our Stingray encounter for $25 per person, with Matthew being free.   They were advertising the tour for $45, which included transportation to and from the ship, 45 minutes with the stingrays and 45 minutes snorkeling.   The same tour if booked with the ship was well over $75 per person so that was a score.

We hopped in the van which drove us to the pier on the other side of the island.   There we hopped into a fishing boat probably designed to hold 30 people with 54 other people.  It was a tad crowded, but we weren’t going that far.   It was a 20 minute ride out to Stingray City which is a sandbar off the east coast of the island.  Our tour guide, David Evans had a pretty good story about his father and his uncle starting this whole stingray tourist thing and his father diving with Jacque Cousteau back in the day.   I couldn’t tell if it was BS, but do intend to look up what I can.   We arrived at the sandbar, and man, oh man.  Stingrays were everywhere, and huge ones, 4-5 foot stingrays.  Not those babies you get to pet at the Newport aquarium.   The water was crystal clear, and about 3 feet deep between waves.   Matthew was in the water in no-time.   Maria right behind him.  Molly, not so much, and Maggie had no intention of getting in the water.

David and his partner grabbed our group’s stingray.  They held it, tamed it if you will and then proceeded to make sure that every family had encounter time with the animal.  You could feed them if you wanted.  Matthew tried but got a little scared.

They feel like velvet, super smooth, and provided you don’t step on one and make it angry completely safe.

Certainly a highlight of our trip.

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After swimming with the rays, they moved us to an area called the Aquarium for snorkeling.  The water was equally clear and about 8-10 feet deep.   We didn’t have gear, and there wasn’t enough gear on the boat to go around.   Matthew and I grabbed life vests and got in the water but since he couldn’t see, nor touch bottom he lost interest quickly.  He was also very tired from the previous 45 minutes in the water.

Claudine, Maggie, Molly, and Maria stayed on the boat during the snorkeling.   All was fine until we started to leave.  One of the boats two engines wouldn’t start and we were already running late.   We putted our way back into the harbor, and the driver made the mad-dash back to the port.   We were told that the last tender would leave promptly at 3pm.   We got back to the port at 2:45 and the line for the tenders was already crazy long.    We got in it, and it quickly became clear that we weren’t the only ones late.   The line behind us continued to grow.   I bet the last person wasn’t onboard until well after 4:30.

The rest of the day was casual, playing putt-putt and just enjoying the cruise.

On Wednesday we had pre-booked a personal tour guide to Cozumel.   Claudine got the contact info for Gerry, from Cruise Critic and Travel advisor.  I highly recommend using him for your day in Cozumel.

We pre-booked him, and his van for 3 hours (minimum) but knew we’d have him for at least 5 hours.   He picked us up at the pier as promised and began telling us about thing things we could do/see on the Island.  Claudine and I have been to Cozumel before, both on our honeymoon and the cruise in 2011 where we rented the scooter of death and rode around the island.

The first thing we needed was something to drink, it was hot 90 degrees and humid.  Gerry took us to a small grocery store and secured for us, 6 large bottles of water and ice for a whopping $3.00.   He could have easily told us to buy drinks from a vendor at the pier but didn’t.  While Gerry was in the store he showed us a park to walk around in that contained an underground river.  One that’s used for scuba training.  Honestly the park was pretty hokey and full of fake animals.  But we did see some turtles, and Gerry pointed out an Iguana.  Matthew enjoyed it.

Our first stop on the Gerry tour was the KAOKAO Chocolate factory.  I personally expected a bigger factory type tour and was very pleasantly surprised. KAOKAO is a small private, family chocolatier.  Joshua spent 45 minutes in a very Discovery Channel like demonstration on the history of chocolate and the work required to get flavor from the beans.   We made our own Cocoa.  Everyone was entertained and the chocolate is delicious.  This is a must-do, if you have time in Cozumel.   You won’t be disappointed.   It’s not free, adults were $10 and kids were $5, Matthew of course was free.   We spent about $70 t0tal including the chocolate that we bought.   I would do this again in a minute, or at least stop and buy chocolate.

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After this tour Gerry offered up the Tequila factory tour, 4 wheelers, and the zip line.  I could see where this was going, every time we stopped we’d be shelling out another $100 for a family activity.   This isn’t quite what we had in mind.  We wanted a leisurely day, seeing stuff but really didn’t want to hit up $10 per person activities.  Gerry was cool with that and didn’t push anything, we started heading for the Tequila factory and passed the Zip line on the way.   After determining that the Tequila tour was just a dog and pony show put on by a manufacturer and that unlike the chocolate factory they didn’t actually make it there we decided to pass on that.  We asked him to circle back to the Zip line because the kids were excited about that opportunity. 

The Zip-line was at Ecoparque Cuzam, where you can do a number of things including the zip-line, horseback riding, drinking, ATV’s, swimming and paintball.   We were really only interested in the Zip-line.  We met the owner and negotiated a rate, and off we went.   The guys really took care of the kids, and it was fun and entertaining.   A little pricier than I planned on, but we had a blast.  I know the kids would do it again.

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Matthew on the Zip-line 2013_Cruise

 

From the zip-line we headed across the Island for lunch at Playa Bonita.  It was supposed to be better and more economical than Coconuts. It was good, great view, service was a little suspect. My food was excellent but the girls weren’t really happy. If we had it to do over again we would do Coconuts instead.  It was interesting to learn that there is no electricity on the east side of the island.  Everything, including the restaurants are run off generators, and that’s always been the case.

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After lunch we stopped at the beach for a little bit so the kids could climb on the rocks, Matthew could throw rocks, and the girls could look for beach garbage glass. 

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Gerry really took care of us.  We’ll certainly use him again.  If you’re ever headed to Cozumel look him up.  Email Eduardo: eduardoczm@gmail.com or call Gerry: (987) 869-0044 Please tell them the Disher Family referred you.

After all of that we were beat, and had Gerry drop us off at the pier.  I brought Matthew back on the ship and the girls did a little shopping.

Thursday, our final port day was a short one.   We docked in Costa Maya at 0700 and were leaving at 3pm.   I wasn’t comfortable taking the family on any Jungle tours.  It was questionable that we could rent anything that would hold 6 of us, and I wasn’t about to shell out big bucks for a 2 hour ride into the jungle on a non air-conditioned school bus to spend 20 minutes at the ruins turn around and come back.   Instead we opted for a beach day.  Claudine did her homework and got us reservations at Tropicante

The place is the perfect Caribbean beach dive.  Food and drinks were good, everything was reasonable, the beach was perfect.  Massages on the beach, 1 hour for $25, you can’t beat that.  No cover charge, our bill for the day with 3 “on the beach” massages was $160.00

We hung out, Matthew only left the ocean to eat.

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The place is run by an American (Steve) that moved there to open his spot 5 years ago.  Contact them and make reservations if you ever find yourself in Costa Maya.  He can also handle all your arrangements for scuba, snorkeling, ruin tours, you name it.   If we had more time we would  have used him for other adventures.

We were back on the boat by 2:30pm, again I took Matthew and Maggie and left Claudine and the other girls to shop.   It was the 2nd of the two formal nights, and I got to suffer in socks too small for the benefit of my family.  But mostly my wife who wanted more pictures.

Friday our final day on the cruise ship was spent recovering from the previous days activities.

We have really enjoyed the ‘Freedom’ class ships.   Our next cruise will be on either the Allure or the Oasis, we may then try a smaller ship but freely admit we’ve been spoiled by the larger ships.

Our final cruise day was non-eventful, it was hella-windy and chilly on deck.  So we didn’t get to swim but we found other things to do, like 72 holes of putt-putt with the girls.

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All of the photos can be found here: [on Picasaweb]

Cruising 2011

It had been a long time since Claudine and I had a good long vacation to just ourselves.  Sure we’ve taken a weekend here and there but not a real vacation.   We’ve been keeping an eye out for a deal and saving our vacation pennies since September.  We’ve been looking at all inclusive resorts and other destinations, but after doing the math we decided that we might as well take a cruise.

So, the stars lined up and we booked a Western Caribbean cruise with Royal Caribbean aboard the Freedom of the Seas just two weeks from departure.

Now, keeping things in perspective, the last time we took a cruise was 21 years ago.  A 5 day cruise on the Bermuda Star Lines SS Veracruz.   Now it was a ‘smaller’ ship back then, Carnival and other cruise lines had it beat, but we had a budget and it was still highly rated at the time.  It was an awesome experience.  Sailing to Playa Del Carmen and Cozumel Mexico.   Weighing in at a killer 10,000 Gross Tons.  The newer Freedom of the Seas weighing in at 160,000 gross tons, was going to be a completely different adventure (yeah 16 times larger).

If you read this blog, you know how I tend to write my reviews of things.  I call things how I see them.  At the end of the week we had a fabulous time, and we’ll do it again I’m sure.   If you’re looking for a cruise, thinking about a cruise, there are things you should know and avoid.

First and foremost, Royal Caribbean is first class.  I suggest you book directly with them.  We used a travel agent, and while she didn’t cost much, the value provided was basically non-existent.  The flights she booked were horrible choices, in both timing and accommodations.  Our flight into Orlando landed at 12:36, and the cut-off for the last Royal Caribbean shuttle was 12:30, which meant we had to make alternate accommodations.  Again, not the end of the world, we were originally told we’d have a limo/town car waiting to pick us up.   That turned into; call them when you get there, you shouldn’t have to wait for more than an hour for them to pick you up.   Well, we didn’t have an hour to wait so we found an alternate shuttle.   Not the end of the world but an inconvenience we should have not had to deal with using a travel agent.  After looking at the transfer debacle we did some flight searching and found much better options.   It was too late to change but they were there.

So bypass the agent, you don’t need one to book a cruise.

Pre-buying off ship excursions.   Don’t do it unless you really, really feel the need.   We were told from day one that certain things were ‘sold out’ and other things were ‘filling up so you better book them now’.    In Labadee Haiti, we were told the Zip line was almost 100% booked two weeks before and that the jet boats were already full.   Turns out we could have participated in either the day of had we chosen too.

The one thing we really didn’t like was the over-hyping of activities and the push to get you to sign up for things.  While I realize that some of these things do actually fill up, we honestly had our pick of just about anything we wanted to do.   Also, unless you have a compelling need to be hand-held and given deadlines or step by step instructions for your excursions, you can almost certainly do better doing it yourself.  Example: the excursion to the Duns River falls in Ocho Rios Jamaica was $80 per person, plus your $15 entrance into the falls ($95.00 each) and you’d be there with 60 or more other strangers being ushered up the falls.    We got a cab to the falls for $14 each, that included taking us there, picking us up, dropping us off in the shopping district, picking us up again and taking us to the pier.  Our cost for the same thing on our time was $29 per person.

Our story starts with an very early flight out of Dayton International Airport.  One of the best places to fly out of and into because it’s so small.   The security check point has one of the body scanners.  When they say take ‘everything’ out of your pockets, they mean everything.   I left cash in my front pocket, the scanner picked that up and earned me a shake down and a talking too.  Other than that it was a pretty plain airport security experience.

From Dayton we flew into Atlanta, with a 1 and a half hour lay over.   (Note to travel agents, there is no reason NOT to fly people from Cincy to Orlando ‘direct’.   No need to take a 2 hour flight and make it a 6-8 hour experience).

From Atlanta to Orlando, pretty routine.   We grabbed our Luggage, called our shuttle, had to wait about 20 minute, but got to the pier with an hour to spare.   We were on-board by 3pm.

Our first impression of the ship, or at least mine was “Holy Cow, this thing is big”.  We were parked in Port Canaveral, next to two Carnival cruise ships which were quite small in comparison.

I didn’t get a shot that showed them both together, but the size difference was significant.

Our room was in the bottom of the boat (Deck 2), which initially I wasn’t excited about.   We’d hoped for an upgrade, but the ship was full, and no such upgrade presented itself.   We had a rather large portal window and the close proximity to the elevators made it work out well.

All ship rooms are somewhat small, but we found ours to be very comfortable.   The online photo showed a couch in the room, but that turned out to be a chair.  With only two people it was very comfortable.  Four would have been too crowded.

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After getting settled, we waited for our luggage and took a tour of the ship.  Not a guided tour, just a walk around and get your bearings.  Where are the stairs, elevators, bathrooms, bars, and most importantly where is the Casino?

We also wandered up to the Spa to book our first massage.  We got roped into a Spa tour, which sucked.  It was each station, hocking their wares, from massages to facials and even Botox, if you wanted it.  Of course everyone claimed they filled up quickly so book your appointment NOW.  We really didn’t like the hard sell every time we turned around.  We did take advantage of a first day special that let us book our couples massage early and save a little money.   We booked our massage for Monday morning and then got out of the Spa as quickly as possible.

With all of that out of the way we waited for the mandatory lifeboat drill.   My cruise tip for you:  Don’t be early to the drill, we stood around on deck for nearly an hour waiting for it to get started.  Once you’re in your designated spot you aren’t permitted to leave until the drill is over and the Captain is happy.

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Continue reading “Cruising 2011”

Vermont / NH 2009 (Part 2)

Saturday was Pig-Out Day.

Lots of Beldin’s from everywhere.  Lots of people I hadn’t met or hadn’t seen in nearly 20 years.   I think only 1/2 of the family was there but I’m sure I’ll be corrected if that’s not right.

Pretty much just a hang out day, and eat.  Not much different than Disher/Thompson get together’s.

Again lots of photos here:

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Again, Matthew was a trooper and charmer (like his dad).   The party started winding down around 8pm and the folks that were left were gearing up for a late evening of cards (Hand and Foot).  It’s not my thing so Matthew and I went back to the hotel to give the family some time without chasing him, and so that I could decompress.  Lots of people wear me out.

When we pulled in, I smelled gear fluid again, something I noticed rather strongly during one of our stops on the way up to NH.

I looked under the excursion and the rear diff was weeping pretty badly.   I wasn’t happy about that but really wasn’t much I could do there.

Matthew and I headed back to the hotel to chill.  We kept things low key and he crashed around 10pm, I was not far behind.  I hopped on the internet and got caught up on the IBR drama and the final results.  (Yes, someday I hope to ride that rally)

The following morning (Sunday) was head home day.  Check out was at noon, I got up around 9:30 and check the Excursion.  There was a decent sized puddle under the rear diff.   Granted it’s a 2000 with close to 150k, but it has never left a drop of anything anywhere.

The night before I scoped out a couple options and figured worse case I buy some tools so I could top it off on the way home if need be.

I stopped at Pep Boys and explained my situation.  On the tail end of a family vacation with 1000 miles left to go, could they help me out?

They agreed to take a look.  30 minutes later they were suggesting about $400 worth of work and it would take 2 hours or more.  I didn’t have 2 hours.  It was now 10:30 and we needed to be out of the hotel at noon.  So I asked them to top it off and they agreed.   It really only took about 1/2 quart, perhaps just a bit less, and that was encouraging to me since it held 3 quarts.

I figured we’d get home just fine.

I returned to the hotel, packed up and we headed out.   We were going to stop back at Quechee to visit FAT Hat clothier.  Claudine generally treats herself to something from there on each trip.  I looked around but couldn’t stomach paying $185 for a soft shirt that I get from Early Winters/Sahalee for $65

Nothing was purchased, then we ran down Quechee village to the Cabot Cheese shop and loaded up the cooler with all kinds of cheesy goodness.

Matthew rode the vintage horse while the girls shopped.

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After a few hours of shopping we headed west through Woodstock. We finally grabbed some Wendy’s in Rutland after not finding a good place to stop.  Seemed a lot of stuff was closed and I don’t like stopping at little by the side of the road dinners if they don’t have cars in the parking lot.

The rest of the trip home was fairly uneventful.   Just lots of driving.

The fog got really bad just south of Columbus Ohio and that last 100 miles was killer at 4-5:30am.  But we’re home.

I’ll update this blog as I get more photos from the other kids cameras.