Monday, August 27, 2012

A Great Northern Minnesota Getaway

Devoted to maximizing our summer trips, we just got back from an extended weekend in northern Minnesota thanks to terrific hospitality from our wonderful families.

The tour initiated in Grand Rapids to visit Megan, Matt, and their German Shepherd Elsa in their new home. The company was our reason to visit, but we got a nice touch of the city's character at Brewed Awakenings, a local coffee shop focused on organic ingredients and bursting with small town charm. Spending only a short time in the city, talking with my sister, and going to a few shops showed me a community with immense pride in its artistic and friendly atmosphere.

We then trekked to Side Lake, where Anna's parents were our next gracious hosts at the wonderful Pine Beach Resort. Books, boat rides, and bonfires are regulars up there, but this time we had an added bonus of Dave and Anna putting on a water ski clinic.
Water Skiing Pine Beach Resort
The next day came and with it, a new drive up to Ely. Quick digression here, but driving up north with flush pines, lake views, and unoccupied roads is such a relief from the busy city traffic. Driving up north is a highlight that truly portrays the open road feeling.

We stopped short of Ely at the Soudan Underground Mine State Park, the state's oldest iron ore mine reopened as a tourist attraction. Those who are claustrophobic or quiver at the sight of bats might want to steer away. An original elevator shaft takes you half a mile underground. You ride iron ore carts and try (huge emphasis on try) to grasp what it was like working that far underground.

Soudan was considered the "Cadillac" of mines in terms of working conditions, but this gives you a better appreciation for what a miner's life was like. A humbling experience complete with historic insights into the region known as the iron range. Cool fact, one square foot of iron ore mined out of Soudan weighed about 325 pounds. Now imagine that early miners did not even have hard hats at times. Probably why the worker who cleared ceilings of loose rock took home the biggest paycheck!

We proceeded to Ely and stopped by the water, checked out the downtown shops, and ate a fantastic lunch at the Chocolate Moose. We were not there for the area's main attraction, the boundary waters, which is a pristine wilderness area for those who like to canoe, camp, and appreciate nature.
Burntside Lounge
Finally, for dinner we headed to Burntside Lodge, the oldest operating guest lodge in Ely and an entry on the National Register of Historic Places. Elegant yet rustic, the grounds and accommodations were well maintained but  still casual and reflective of the deep woods location. Great menu of food and an extensive drink list more common to trendy, downtown restaurants, this is the place to go.
We headed back to Side Lake to wrap up the weekend. The drive back was accommodated with one of the most vibrant sunsets I have ever seen.
Pine Beach Resort
We did a whirlwind tour of the area, but whether or not you are traveling as a family with small kids, a couple, or a group of friends, these are great locations to unwind, be outdoors, and enjoy an affordable and relaxing vacation. All of our stops have the ingredients of an excellent getaway. The state is a playground of natural sights and quaint small towns, and anytime you want to know more, just ask the stranger you pass. Minnesota nice may have originated here.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Dream trips for photography

National Geographic is a prime source of beautiful reflections of the world, so when one of their photojournalists is asked to provide their photography bucket list, you know it comes with credibility.

For some Friday enjoyment, here are "ten iconic images" featuring an array of naturally photogenic locations.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Leverage Shoulder Season to get More Bang for your Buck!

Even though summer is winding down, we are nearing one of my favorite travel times, the shoulder months of September and October, right before and after a lot of destination's peak season. With school back in session, temperatures cooling, and many people wiped out from a busy summer, mid September to late October can reward the savvy traveler with some distinct advantages.

The one that will resonate with most is that you will save money. Travelers will find multiplied options for places to stay, larger budgets for special excursions, and the ability to splurge on some fine dining. Airfare and hotels can be as much as half off (though this also requires efficient planning and research), and knowing the window of dates that make up shoulder season can significantly ease the planning process.

One of my favorite perks of shoulder season is avoiding the crowds. This can mean shorter lines at the amusement park, less shoulder rubbing in the metro, securing an elusive last minute reservation at a popular restaurant, or spending time chatting with locals as they are not scrambling to entertain the massive wave of tourists during peak season.

With that said, here are a few tips for booking the right trip.

Evaluate your priorities. Peak season is such for a reason. How about Napa Valley? Do you want to go during the peak harvest season or in shoulder months where you might chat at length with a local winery owner? Advantages to both depending on priority, but the cost will not even be close.  If your dream trip means paying the big bucks though, just do it and budget accordingly.

Be flexible. We planned last year to go to Spain in early May when the weather gets warm, instead, we went in mid March. Cost was about $1,000 less per person while staying at hotels we could not have afforded otherwise. Sure, our wardrobe was pants and a light jacket in the evenings, but it never rained and those savings have already paid for two other trips this year. Nothing we did in March differed from options available in May.

Do your research. It can be as simple as Googling "Where are the best places to travel in (fill in location) in September/October." Seems basic, but it can open up numerous new ideas. Check monthly averages for temp since fall may bring a larger swing from beginning to the end of the month (that can just mean a few more outfits to prepare for cooler nights, rain, etc.). Finally, look into hours and schedules of places you want to see. While prime attractions should still be available, there is a chance of some limited options.

Understanding shoulder season can be the difference in traveling or not, staying extra nights, or taking another full trip! There is an incredible array of places to go if you look in the right spots and have some flexibility. I might even help with the research part if you ask nicely :)

Note: shoulder season is not the cheap, cheap prices of low season. There is a reason rates are cut so drastically for some locations, and I would not necessarily recommend a lot of locations at low season.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Getting back to basics: US history 101

In preparation for an upcoming trip to Williamsburg, VA, I got The Official Guide to America's Historic Triangle, written by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. The book is an excellent introduction to the history of the area, which includes Jamestown, Colonial Williamsburg, and Yorktown. It is easy to read and beautifully illustrated with examples of historical paintings and high quality photography. The guide provides educated assistance for choosing what to do and venturing into surrounding areas. Overall, a sufficient entry into the basics of one of our country's most historically rich areas.

However, I read just enough to know that I don't know much and my recollection of high school history is long gone. So, after additional research, I have five more books coming from the library that I hope to devour in the next five weeks before our trip. Finishing two or three is more realistic, but excited to explore in greater depth the historic triangle and the circumstances that influenced our country's beginning. Anyone interested in discussing this part of history, I should be prepared in the next month.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Can't Get Enough of Shark Week? Go for a Swim with Them!

For those of you with Scuba certification, the Mall of America has an incredible diving experience that puts you alongside some fascinating underwater animals. You dive with a small group, and it is professionally coordinated by individuals with a very positive spirit. This is extremely helpful as you fully grasp the concept of sharing the water with 13 foot sand sharks!

The day involves two dives, the first in the fresh water tank where you can feed the sturgeon. They act like little puppies. Swimming circles around you as you provide them lunch and latching on to your arms like a vacuum clinging to the edge of a loose rug. 
Mall of America Scuba Diving
Feeding the fish, they were very friendly!
After slowly enjoying the first dive, you get a break before the real highlight, sinking into the bottom of a tank with multiple sand sharks, sawfish, and other random aquatic life. My favorite might have been the giant sea turtle that took a liking to my wife and even swatted her playfully in the head at one point. The picture below captures the scene just before attack! 
Sea Turtle
If you look to the right, the turtle is trailing right behind Anna!
The guides for the swim keep the sharks away from the group, so no worries that one might break into the circle and nudge you. I have read that sand sharks are docile, but I still don’t want those razor edge teeth anywhere near me! 
Shark at Mall of America
The view when they swam above us!
At the end, you have a few minutes to scan the bottom and collect shark teeth as souvenirs or just relax and revel in sharing the water with what I think are truly majestic creatures. Finally, while all of this is going on, you are in full view of and can look back at all the people walking through the tunnels under the water (how we got these pictures). Waving and seeing the looks of wonder on some of the small kid's faces was priceless. On a personal note, this day meant a lot to my wife and I as it was the first time our parents met, and they did so watching us swim with the ultimate predator! Such supportive parents!

Some accolades for the underwater aquarium include “The world’s best shark encounter” by Discovery’s and “the best shark exhibit on the planet” by Animal Planet.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Happy Belly - Solera

Welcome to Happy Belly! Happy Belly will be the main tag line for this blog's many upcoming food and restaurant related posts. Cooking is an art that can showcase a person's or culture's personality and has the capability of satisfying numerous senses at once. Simply put, a great meal can lead to a very happy belly, and as a result, food can be an essential part of great travel experiences.

I have received multiple comments that in all of our travel photos, my wife and I have the biggest smiles when there is a plate of food in front of us. The ironic thing for me is that growing up, I ate about 5 different foods and even then needed my mom to prepare some of them very specifically before I would consume. Now, barring some of the extreme reality TV show diets, I will try just about anything!

Happy Belly will focus on the best and most unique. I won't rate things as much as share my thoughts and explain what intrigued me. I tend to focus more on the positive, so unless something was particularly terrible, these will be places I recommend rather than analyzing restaurants on a scale and lining them up against each other.

So, after that buildup, here is quick commentary on Solera, a Spanish tapas restaurant in downtown Minneapolis. This initial post is more about segwaying (teaser) into a future write-up on Spanish cuisine, but the restaurant deserves some commendations.

Solera is a pleasant foray into the country's food style. Sampling multiple small plates is the way to eat in Spain. We went with the happy hour options, and it provides enough of a spread to create a meal of some delicious bites. We tried the cheese and croquetas del dia (of the day), incredible bacon wrapped dates, jamon iberico, grilled artichokes, and pickled cucumbers and onions. All had Spanish flare and were the closest to authentic I have had in MN. Check out the menu before going to see if you can make a meal (2+ tapas per person) within your price range, as it can get expensive if you have particular tastes and are looking for a bigger meal.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Beach Day

You will soon learn about me that I absolutely love the ocean! Relaxing with a book in the sand or snorkeling the beautiful waters is very close to perfect.

Check out the link below for some nice imagery for your Friday. Pick a number 1 - 10 and imagine yourself there. Any other spots you feel have a good case to be on the list?

Napili Beach
Swimming at Napili Beach in Maui

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

A start...

Creating a travel blog is always something I have wanted to do. Every new place you visit brings something unique in terms of people, history, beer, food, wine, architecture, music, art, etc, etc, etc. I absolutely love the entire process, from deciding where to go and planning, to the nostalgia afterwards reliving each moment through pictures.

I want to begin documenting all of this to further my own travel experiences, help others while planning trips of their own, and hopefully create something entertaining to read for others who feel the same way. Ultimately, traveling is about experiencing new things, so I will be focusing on local “staycation” ideas as well.

I am not sure yet how this blog will progress but would love for this to be an interactive site. I want to give advice, get advice, and make this a destination for others who are passionate about traveling. On the other hand, I want to make it readable for those who might not travel much and are looking for some tips to make the process less intimidating or more enjoyable. If anyone else tries something new or even decides to take a trip based on this, I would be happy with its purpose.

I am excited to work through the writing rust and break out of the bullet point corporate writing style that has been hammered into me the last several years and get more creative again. Though as I say that, here are some bullet points to end my first post!

Initial ideas for future posts
·         Profiles on places I have been
·         Basic travel advice, while on trips but also preparation
·         My favorites from around the world
·         Travel lists to generate fun discussion and ideas