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“All-Inclusive” is a term that too often conjures images of never-ending cheap booze, buffet lines that lead off into the sunset, and hoards of drunk spring breakers. People think of Cancun, Jamaica, the Dominican Republic. Places often billed as “too dangerous” for young independent travelers, places that cater to the patent non-traveler.

Occidental Grand Papagayo

A View of the Occidental Grand Papagayo

As an independent traveler, I had always overlooked all-inclusive resorts in favor of private rentals, small hotels, scrimping and saving and always looking for the most unique accommodations for the least amount of money. I have quickly perused websites like Apple Vacations and whimsically thought about endless buffets and bar tabs, but my experience with Occidental was the first time I took the plunge.

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The Grounds at the Grand Papagayo

One of my oldest friends decided on a destination wedding, and an all-inclusive option in Costa Rica seemed like the easiest solution to the ever-growing complications of modern American weddings. The wedding itself at the Occidental Grand Papagayo was wonderfully simple: the resort took care of the setting and set up, a fitting display of tropical flowers and flowing whites and purples, an ample champagne toast, a marimba band and delicious buffet dinner near the pool. The guests enjoyed bottomless, tropically-colored drinks and excellent service during the reception and ceremony. The resort provided anything we could need for the festivities.

Ahhh, l'amore, Tico style!

The Carver-Bonomini Wedding

The hotel itself has a comfortable, open-air lobby on top of the hill above the bay that catches the ocean breezes as they drift inland. The views are stunning, and the grounds are immaculately kept. You can chill out with wildlife — iguanas, coatimundi, capuchin and howler monkeys — from anywhere on the property; we even heard reports from some in our party that they had some early morning visitors on their patios and porches. As many reviews indicate, however, the guest rooms are tired and need some updating. In the tropical heat and humidity, it can be hard to keep the mildew, soft woods and crumbling corners at bay. The Royal Club rooms are definitely nicer and provide better views of the surrounding bay, and with some of the extra perks, it’s definitely worth the extra money. But the dark bathrooms and peeling paint in the regular rooms are really only an issue if you plan to spend time in your room, and let’s be honest: why? There are patios on each room with comfortable Adirondack-style chairs, ample porch space at and around the bar and swimming pool, a beautiful, Pacific beach that’s as private as you can get in Costa Rica, and a whole slew of excursions you can take advantage of (try heading down to the beach to find Johnny D. for better deals and more personal service). With so much to do, there’s no need to spend time fretting about the little things that don’t work in your room.

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Sunset at the Beach at Grand Papagayo

This all-inclusive resort also manages to skirt the Playboy stereotype, providing a calmer, more adult atmosphere. You won’t find all-night ragers or rooms full of drunken college kids. You’re more likely to find a friendly, late-night water volleyball game than 20-somethings doing shots. There is a disco, but it’s generally quite quiet. Mostly, guests mull around the romantic lobby sipping on cocktails (slip the bartender an extra couple of bucks for better drinks), talking and playing board games.

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Dancing in the Lobby

Food at the buffets is fine; many who have stayed at all-inclusive resorts said that it was pretty on par with other hotels. Meals include ample fresh fruits — perfect for days spent outside in the sweltering heat and humidity — as well as gallo pinto, American favorites and fresh seafood. The make-your-own Bloody Marys at breakfast are worth getting up for. There are also two a la carte restuarants at the resort. L’Oriental is an Asian fusion eatery, where the dishes are extremely flavorful but not very spicy-hot. The Italian is right next door and offers typical Italian fare, a step up from the buffet. In both restaurants, the romantic ambiance in the small spaces is a nice change from the buffet and snack bar, and the service is relaxed but attentive. Many people complained about the slow pace, but we found it to be delightfully unhurried. Our drinks were quietly refilled without asking, and finished dishes were swept away immediately. The pauses between courses were, we found, the perfect times to digest, sip our wine and talk. One of the great criticisms of the resort, however, is that both restaurants require reservations — made day of — and guests can only reserve one dinner for every three or four nights stayed (though we did hear of people finagling an extra reservation).

Occidental Grand Papagayo

Iguana!

The entire resort is decidedly un-rushed, and laying around enjoying the pool or the beach or the sun or your tropical drink seems to be the order of every day. The staff is extremely friendly and concerned that you have a good time there, despite some of the resort’s other shortcomings. Throwing in a little bit of Spanish, whatever you know, helps a lot, and though some of the employees are not native Spanish speakers, some don’t speak any English at all. Some appliances, notably light fixtures and air conditioners, are old and worn and could probably use replacing, but the staff answers complaints as quickly and quietly as they can. They tend not to refill your mini-fridge, but you can always head to the bar and get some drinks to go (or order in-room dining if you’ve upgraded to the Royal Club).

Occidental Grand Papagayo

View of the Bay from one part of the Resort

If you’re looking for an uncomplicated, worry-free vacation, the Occidental Grand Papagayo — starting at $230 a night, all-inclusive — offers a great deal (check out other resorts in the area, which start at around $230 per person, per night). This might be the perfect place to get to know your friends, your partner, or yourself just a little better. Don’t expect dance parties or drama; leave the spring breakers at home. What you can find here is calmness, a retreat from loud noises and constant action, something a little slower than you’re used to.

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Cheeky Magpie-Jay

Oh, and watch out for the magpie-jays, who will happily relieve you of your nachos, mojitos, or bathing suit top, the cheeky devils.

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And the sun sets on our first day on the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica…

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Guanacaste Sunset

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Guanacaste Sunset

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Guanacaste Sunset

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Guanacaste Sunset

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Guanacaste Sunset

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Guanacaste Sunset

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Guanacaste Sunset

Is there anything more perfect than a sunset of tangerines and yellows, a fresh tropical drink and a relaxed, Tico-style meal on the beach?

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Lehman Caves - Great Basin National Park

The temperature in the cave is about 40 degrees warmer than the air above, and as the Ranger explains that we should bring jackets down with us, he looks out the frosted window into the blowing snow. “Ah, nevermind,” he says, shrugging.

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And so we go, through a door that looks more like a WWII bunker than the entrance to a cave, and we begin to descend…

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slip sliding down slick rock, wet with drops of water and the smoothness of overuse

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a quarter of a mile down, slipping through subterranean slot canyons and in between the tight squeezes of the center of the Earth

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hundreds of thousands of years of architecture spreads out before us and crumbles below into the abyss, colored by limestone-clouded waters and the idle hands of exploration

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and the drip drip drip of rivers of rock echo through the narrow alleys and the sinewy tendons of stone climb the walls of this urban underground of stalactite skyscrapers.

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Great Basin National Park, located in eastern Nevada near Route 50, is open all year round, with limited facilities in winter. Some tours of the Lehman Caves, actually one large limestone cavern first recorded by Absalom Lehman in 1885 and used as a playground ever since, are offered all year. Inquire at the visitor center for more information.

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Our Painted Lady was tucked between modern storefronts and the crumbling concrete blocks of Soviet-style tenements, a tenuous breath of Victorian charm at the edge of Japantown.

Day 328 / 11.24.11

Within walking distance of some of the best noodle houses in San Francisco and (if you’re willing to hoof it) of the best dim sum restaurants in Chinatown, our home away in The City for Thanksgiving sat at a prime location.

Our rental house in Nob Hill

A hop over Van Ness finds us in the city’s Tenderloin, a neighborhood of ill-repute. But it is always the gritty, rough parts of town that also give way to the unique bars and boutiques that attract an adventurous younger crowd: oyster houses and poetry readings and tap houses, and even a bar that carries the monicker Edinburgh Castle, home to tattooed hipsters and British cider and Belhaven on tap. Arguably less dodgy at night than it is during the day, the Tenderloin isn’t as scary as people think; if this is the worst San Francisco has to offer, all of us tourists can breath easier.

Made it!

Our hush-hush location is a result of diligent searching: we always like to stay in interesting places, and we usually prefer the privacy and freedom of self-catering accommodations to the stuffiness of hotels or the overly-familiar social experiment of B&Bs. To find the perfect spot for every vacation, we tend to head over to VRBO, Vacation Rentals By Owner. This great little site allows you t o search by location and keyword, so results can find places in Volcano, HI with a hot tub or a ski-in/out cabin in the Grand Tetons or a townhouse with an open kitchen and within walking distance of everything in San Francisco. While we have come across strange (even neurotic) property owners, each of the places we’ve rented through VRBO has been incredible and perfect. Our Painted Lady in San Francisco was no exception.

Our rental house in Nob Hill

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The many faces of Grand Teton National Park’s bison:

Buffalo Head (Nickel)
The Dramatic

Curious Baby
The Curious

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The Plentiful

Day 254 / 09.11.11 Moo.
The Don’t Come Any Closer

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The Other Face

Moo?
And the Other Bison

When we saw the little game trail meandering off the side of the road and into the pines, we just knew there was something to it.
Nameless Lake in The Winds

We pulled to the side of the road and jumped out, stepping into the woods to a place we had never been. After only a short jaunt, the trees opened up into this:

Day 205 / 07.24.11

With not another human being in sight, we played in the waters and ate cherries on the shore.

Nameless Lake in The Winds

The only signs that others had ever been here was an old campsite, abandoned long ago.

Nameless Lake in The Winds

After hiking around the lake, we continued on, venturing further into the mountains and up a small hill. The trees soon fell away and revealed the Winds’ hidden secrets: views like this one, only footsteps off of the road. Views that so few people take the time to find.

Wind River Mountains Panorama

You never know what you will see when you step off the road in the Wind River Mountains.

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At the Station

Gold was discovered in these hill in 1874, a legacy of the ill-fated Custer. The rush to get rich overtook the territory, turning what was supposed to be the last safe haven for the free-roaming tribes of the West into a White Man’s playground.

Inside the 1880 Train

The Homestake Mining Company built the first railroad in 1879, and from then on the Black Hills were a Cat’s Cradle of rail scars and the pockmarks of mines.

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The Burlington and Quincy Railroad built this path and its cars in 1880, and the rail has since brought a barrage of miners, investors and — now — bright eyed tourists to the wilderness between Hill City and Keystone, South Dakota.

Turning Around

Today, the 1880 Railroad rattles along the ties that bring together history and kitsch, the past and the ineffable present, Hill City — a town of wineries and roughnecks — and Keystone, the town that will always represent the arrogance of the American government as they carved faces of white leaders into land that was supposed to belong to Indians.

On the Rails

But the ride is quiet, lumbering, pleasant. It passes through fields and farms, idling by homesteaders and cabins that have seen better times in the last 100 years. There are followers — local train enthusiasts, our conductor assures — one man with a beard down to his navel on a Harley and a young ferroequinologist, a yuppy in an SUV. They race after us, SLRs in hand, sometimes meeting us at a crossing and at other times just missing us in a fog of whistles and steam and trailing gravel from the tracks. Just to see the train in action.

1880 Train B&W

We arrive in Keystone and find a quiet place to sit and drink, watching the costumed employees flounce around for the tourist groupies. We discovered early on that the walking tour of Historic Downtown Keystone would be more exciting if it were of the open, empty prairies of Wyoming, so we settle in and wait for our next train.

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Adopt the pace of nature… her secret is patience.

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… said Ralph Waldo Emerson.

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… unaware of the terrifying ferocity with which nature can consume all things patient and calm.

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Nature is ferocious and tenacious…

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… it takes what it wants without regret or retrospection…

Waterfalls

… all with an angel-sweet smile on her face.

Waterfalls

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The George S. Mickelson Trail, named after a prominent South Dakotan politician, runs the north-south length of the Black Hills, 109 miles from Deadwood to Edgemont.
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Established first as the Burlington Northern Railroad line that ran between towns and the many gold mines in the Black Hills, the rails were abandoned in 1983.

Railroad Crossing

A handful of outdoor enthusiasts jumped on the chance to make the scenic railroad into South Dakota’s very first Rails-to-Trails project. A packed gravel, largely level trail, it is popular with locals, and many use parts of it for snowmobiles during the long, South Dakota winters that make the narrow, curvaceous roads treacherously slippery with ice and snow.

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The pleasant trail passes through canyons of brilliant orange rock, abandoned and not-yet-abandoned gold mines, around rusty equipment and past ghost towns.

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We started the day at our campsite, Whistler Gulch, just south of Deadwood. Popular with bikers, it felt like a mini-Sturgis already. It’s an easy bike ride into town, and cheaper than a seedy motel, and our campsite was right across the street from a BLM mine, complete with dangerously enticing, abandoned mining equipment. And, importantly, mini-golf (which is apparently NOT putt-putt in South Dakota). Our goal that morning was the Mt. Moriah Cemetery. “Let’s just ride for a few minutes on that bike trail,” we said.

Ghost Town Storage

Two hours and 15 miles later, we had disappeared onto the trail, passing through-riders and those out for a leisurely morning, before the afternoon sun started to bake the air. We did a scenic Deadwood-Lead-Middle of Nowhere loop, taking us up and over cliffs and mines and into the heart of the Black Hills.

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The Mickelson Trail does pass through state park land, and they do ask that you pay a measly $3 for use of the well-maintained trail. There are 15 trailheads and maps along the way, and keep a look out for private property, “No Trespassing” signs and active mines (extremely dangerous!) along the trail. Most are clearly marked, complete with photographic histories of the area. If you’re interested in a longer bicycle event, check out the Mickelson Trail Trek, held in mid-September (in 2011: Sept. 16-18), which travels the length of the trail in just about the best time of year.

Over the Bighorn Mountains and just around the bend…
Day 174 / 06.23.11

… we begin our Black Hills Road Trip with a historical venture into Buffalo, Wyoming, home of the Occidental Hotel and Saloon.

Occidental Hotel

As True West’s “Best Hotel in the West” and one of the hotels that National Geographic Traveler loves to gush about, the 1880 Occidental has quite the seedy and wildly seedy reputation. It has been host to some of the most famous names of the Wild West: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid stopped by from time to time on their way to Hole in the Wall; Calamity Jane passed through while pursuing in vain the notorious Wild Bill Hickok; and Buffalo Bill Cody called the hotel home when passing through town. Even Teddy Roosevelt and Ernest Hemingway were rumored to tell wild stories of hunting, drinking and other adventures in the building’s romantic parlor.

The Occidental

As history slowly faded into the shadows of the Great Depression and the modernization of the late 20th Century, plans to demolish the building nearly became reality.

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But in 1997, saviors Dawn and John Wexo bought the dying hotel and embarked on a 10-year restoration project to return the Occidental to its former glory and reclaim the history of Buffalo, WY.

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Today, visitors can stay in the charming rooms that sit above the bar and restaurant, take in live bluegrass music (that happens every Thursday night!) in the Occidental Saloon, and share a romantic dinner among the Bordello tassels and tin ceilings of the building’s original vaults, a private getaway in the Wild West.

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