Muir Woods National Monument

“And into the forest I go, to lose my mind and find my soul.”  John Muir

I like to think of the Golden Gate Bridge as the wardrobe in C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe,  so Muir Woods National Monument and all that lies north of San Francisco is obviously the magical land of Narnia!  It’s truly one of my favorite places in all the world, and there is SO much to explore.

A quick history lesson:  John Muir is the “father of the national parks.”  He lived in the 1800’s, and traveled all over the United States, studying nature and advocating for the preservation of land as national parks.  This is a MUCH abridged version of a super interesting dude, and I encourage you to read more about him, especially if conservation and nature are your jam.  How fitting that Muir Woods be named after such an important man!

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Muir Woods National Monument is just across the Golden Gate Bridge and to the west.  It’s only about a half hour drive from the GGB, and a worthwhile way to spend half or all of a day. The road into the woods is SUPER bendy, so if you’re prone to carsickness, I’ve found that opening a window to the chilly breeze makes a big difference.  But my goodness!  It’s a beautiful drive, and the air is just fresh and full of oxygen!

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You’ll want to arrive early, because the parking situation at Muir Woods is atrocious.  We normally time our arrival for 15 minutes before the park opens, and have always found a place to park.  If you wait to mid-morning, or even worse, afternoon, you’ll be walking a half mile to a mile before you even arrive at the entrance to Muir Woods.  And remember that fresh air?  Well, once the tour buses arrive, it’s not so fresh.  More of a “death by diesel” situation, where you want to take shallow breaths through the mouth as you cross the parking lot to the main entrance.

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Another reason to arrive early is because there is nothing so heavenly as wandering through the massive redwoods in the early morning quiet.  You’ll be able to hear the river in the background, and the wildlife is still out and about, getting ready for the day.  The way the sunlight streams through the trees, spotlighting small sections of the forest floor, as the mist is burning off is really beautiful.

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The main trail in Muir Woods takes you down along one side of the river, across and then back.  There are quite a few turn around points over the river, so you don’t need to commit to the whole circuit, but I highly recommend going back as far as you can.  Spend all the time you want to spend in this “cathedral of nature” before the crowds arrive, soaking in the magnificence of these incredible trees.  It’s like going to #church!

 

If you’re traveling with kids, they will LOVE exploring the hollow trunks and fallen trees.  There are lots of neat nooks and crannies for them to examine, and the size of the redwoods makes a huge impression on children.

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You’re probably wondering when I’m going to bring up the subject of food.  Well, right now would be the time!  About a month before we headed out to Muir Woods for the first time, I happened to be watching Food Network’s show “The Best Thing I Ever Ate,” and they had a segment with Tyler Florence.  He was visiting Muir Woods National Monument, and shared his love for the grilled cheese sandwich and tomato soup at the Muir Woods Trading Company.  I can attest to the fact that they are delicious and satisfying!  I also recommend the honey cornbread.  It’s.  So.  Good.

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After a bit of lunch, it’s always a good idea to go for a hike!  When deciding on a trail, you may want to talk to a ranger or park employee to get some input, or do a little research online.  There are quite a few trails off of the main path, but we have only explored two of them.  If you are looking for a GREAT hike, and have some time, I recommend the Canyon View Trail just off the path beside the Visitor Center/Trading Company.  There are several maps of Muir Woods, and here’s another.  The Canyon View Trail will take several hours if you go at a leisurely pace, but the payoff at the top is worth it!

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When you come up above the forest, and stand on the rock, you can see as far as the Bay. It’s really incredible.

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What I love about nature, and specifically Muir Woods, is that it levels and elevates man, stripping away all of the nasty ways we get tangled up in our “rightness.”  We are simply mankind, gazing upward together, feeling gratitude for a moment.  I find it impossible to hold on to defensiveness or judgement while walking among giants.  Being filled with awe leaves no room for scraping and clinging to what we think is “ours.”  I leave refreshed, with my heart wide open to the world beyond.

And also, I am pretty sure I saw Channing Tatum and (his wife at the time) Jenna Dewan on the main path in Muir Woods a couple of years ago, which is pretty much a celebrity endorsement of this post!  🙂  Happy hiking!

San Francisco, CA

“San Francisco itself is art, above all literary art.  Every block is a short story, every hill a novel.  Every home a poem, every dweller within immortal.”  

                                                                                                                   William Saroyan

I first visited San Francisco in 2011, and fell in love.   I’d never seen anything like it in terms of architecture and style.  It’s as quirky and colorful as you imagine it to be!  The drive into the city from the airport is a buffet for the eyes as everything is SO different from where I live.  The buildings, the shops and the people are a gorgeous feast that awaken my artistic thirst.  I drink it in happily, and fall in love all over again!

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Flights from Dallas typically arrive at SFO around 10AM, so we drive directly from the airport to have lunch.  Let me recommend The Blue Mermaid (in the Argonaut Hotel) for a great spot to dine.  They have a nice patio (with heaters if it’s chilly) and the service is top notch.  Blue Mermaid has an award winning crab chowder, and it is so delicious!  I order a bowl of it and a side of garlic/parmesan French fries every time-  it’s my standard order.  Oh my goodness.  So yummy!  The Argonaut Hotel is lovely, and if you eat at the Blue Mermaid, you are welcome to visit the hotel restroom to freshen up after a morning of travel.  The Blue Mermaid is right by Ghirardelli Square and Fisherman’s Wharf.  The area is REALLY touristy, but also a fun place to walk around.

Another really great place to walk around is China Town.  I’m sure there are several tours that include China Town, but since we ALWAYS rent a car, I can’t recommend one.  What’s really wonderful about China Town is that you leave just about everything “American” behind once you pass the boundary.  My husband is a Diet Coke drinker, and we could not find a single bottle in all of China Town!

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Exploring the shops and markets was such an adventure and we left with jade rings and figurines, origami Christmas ornaments, and neat gifts for the kids.  I highly recommend a stop in China Town!

Another really interesting place to visit is Fort Point.  Basically, it’s a fort built under the Golden Gate Bridge.  What I loved about this museum is that you can walk all around the fort- even up to the top where you see the underside of the bridge.  Just know that when the fog horn sounds, you’ll jump out of your skin!  It’s.  So.  Loud.

 

On the way to and from Fort Point you’ll pass Crissy Field, and on the Fort Point side of Crissy Field is a  Warming Hut and Cafe.  Not only will you find something lovely to nibble and sip, but they also sell unique gifts, books, and posters.  Definitely worth a stop.

Over the years we have visited Coit Tower, the Embarcadero, the Presidio, the Full House house and Lombard Street.  All are worth at least a drive-by depending on your level of interest.

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No lie.  Driving in San Francisco is a hair raising experience.  The city is so incredibly hilly, and there are times you feel as if you are driving straight up or straight down.  This is not the time to be driving a stick shift!

After wrapping up a glorious day in San Francisco, you’ll be primed and ready for a drive across the Golden Gate Bridge.  I definitely recommend making a stop to walk along the bridge, if you have a chance.  It’s quite an amazing experience, and you will feel a deep sense of awe at what man has built.  Even if it’s a foggy day, make time to stop.

Just past the bridge on the north side, is an exit that will take you up to a lookout point where you can see the bridge and the whole city on a clear day.  It’s definitely worth the time, if you go when there are not a million cars trying to get up there.  We’ve learned that mornings are best.

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Driving across the GGB going north is free, but be aware that if you re-enter the city via the GGB, you will have to pay a toll.  Always ask your rental car provider for their policy on tolls.

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Take your time exploring San Francisco, or pack it all into a half day-  either way the flavor of this city will soak into your heart and stay there forever.  There are lots of reports out there about the decline of this majestic city, and I can reluctantly agree that we have seen some of that over the last 8 years.  However, we’ve never experienced anything that frightened us or put us off to returning, so my best advice is to simply practice safety precautions as you would in any other unknown place.  So open your heart, explore the hidden streets and share in the experience of this amazing city!

 

 

 

Ireland Itinerary 2018

Day 1:  Arrive in Dublin and drive to Trim.  Stop at TESCO in Swords along the way, to pick up the things we need.

Day 2:  Explore Trim until lunch time, and then run by the grocery store as we leave to pick up picnic lunch items for Skellig Michael.  Drive to Rock of Cashel on the way to Kenmare in the afternoon, and check in to Virginia’s Guesthouse.

Day 3:  Get up early and drive out to meet the boat for a Skellig Michael boat tour.  Arrive back in Kenmare late afternoon and take a nap!  Overnight in Kenmare.

Day 4:  Explore the Ring of Kerry and eat Banoffee Pie!  Overnight in Kenmare.

Day 5:  Leave Kenmare in the morning and drive to Dingle. Check in to Sraide Eoin House  BnB.

Day 6:  Travel the Dingle Peninsula Loop from Rick Steve’s book after breakfast.  Head to AirBnB cottage outside of Gort. Do laundry.

Day 7:  Drive from Gort to Cliffs of Moher and explore the Burren and the many loughs (lakes) along the way.  Overnight at AirBnB cottage outside of Gort.

Day 8:  Leisurely make our way to Dublin, stopping along the way to explore and soak in the last bit of the Emerald Isle.

Day 9:  Early flight to Iceland, and then home to Dallas!

 

Trim, Ireland

Trim is a wonderful introduction to Ireland!  We made Trim our first stop in Ireland both times we traveled there.  It’s just about a 45 minute drive from Dublin, which makes it an easy choice after an all-night flight.

One of the things I love about Trim is that everything you need is a short walk away.  We stayed at the Highfield House BnB, and I can not recommend it enough.  The hosts are warm and friendly, the rooms are comfortable and clean, and breakfast is dee-lish!!  We booked the family room both times, and there was plenty of room for the four of us.

20170614_141851The house and grounds are impeccably cared for, and we just loved the quaint look and feel of the place.

IMG_20180703_172408133After settling in at Highfield House, we set off to explore the town!  One of the things we enjoyed both times we visited Trim, was feeding the donkeys across the street from Highfield House.  They are a noisy bunch, and will definitely bite, so watch your fingers!  (We picked up carrots at Tesco, on our way out to Trim, and recommend doing that if you plan on feeding the donkeys.)

IMG_20180703_162425831_HDR.jpgThe sidewalk in front of the donkeys will take you in to Trim, where there is a lovely path along the river, complete with castle, ruins and a beautiful foot bridge.

DSC_0109Interesting fact about Trim Castle;  it’s where parts of Braveheart were filmed.  The tour is inexpensive, and if you want to only wander around the lower levels, it’s even less or free.  Plan to spend 30 minutes to an hour on the lower part, exploring all the nooks and crannies.

 

As you leave Trim Castle, you will see a visitor center on the corner.  We stopped in to ask if there were any pubs or restaurants with live music, and the visitor center employee was really helpful.  Be sure to indicate whether or not you are traveling with children, as that may impact any recommendations.  Many pubs and restaurants allow children up to a certain time in the evening, but some allow them at all times.

With so much to do in Trim, it’s a great town to visit for an overnight or two.  We found the host at Highfield House very helpful in recommending a spot for dinner and lunch the next day.  You’ll want to enjoy breakfast there at the BnB, and I can absolutely tell you that the coffee at Highfield House did NOT disappoint this coffee snob!

Ireland Itinerary 2017

Day 1:  Arrive in Dublin, stop at TESCO to get toiletries, laundry detergent, etc., and then drive to Trim.

Day 2:  Explore Trim and then leave mid afternoon and drive to Derry, Northern Ireland.

Day 3:  Visit Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge, Dunluce Castle and Giant’s Causeway.  Drive to Kilcar (AirBnB for laundry).

Day 4:  Visit Slieve League Cliffs and then drive to Bunratty Castle for an evening of fun!

Day 5:  Drive to Kenmare and explore the village.  Meet family in Killarney for dinner.

Day 6:  Adventure tour to Skellig Michael.  Spend the night in Kenmare.

Day 7:  Drive to Dublin in late afternoon and check into hotel.  Flight leaves in the morning!

This trip was fast and furious, but we relished seeing so much of the island.  This itinerary could easily be adapted to a two or three week vacation.

 

Planning a trip to the Emerald Isle:

Ireland is a wonderful first European adventure!  It has lots to offer in terms of scenery and activities, and although we highly recommend it for a family holiday, it would be just as wonderful for single adults or couples.  Planning a trip to Ireland is not difficult, and with a little research and preparation it is easily half the cost of tour packages!

Our first trip to Ireland was in June of 2017, and it was also the first time I took charge of planning the itinerary on a family trip.  I started by talking to family members who had visited Ireland previously, but honestly, that didn’t help me at all.  I got confused by all the strange names, and even when I wrote them down, my spelling of Gaelic words made research a challenge!  A friend of mine suggested the Rick Steves guide to Ireland, so I went and picked up a copy.  I literally read the book cover to cover before I started planning our time in Ireland.  

Since we were only going to be in Ireland 7 days the first time, and I wasn’t sure that we would ever go back, I decided to take us in a counter-clockwise trip around the island.  We definitely would not be able to see everything we wanted to see, but it would give us a feel for all but the southeast corner of Ireland.  To be fair, I probably crammed more into those few days than I should have, because we spent about 3 hours a day on the road, on average.  Lots of driving.  But on the other hand, it was a marvelous adventure, so I don’t know if I would change anything, if I could go back and do it again.  

Our second trip to Ireland was even better, because we knew where we wanted to focus our time.  We were there for 10 days in July, 2018, and again, I was in charge of planning the itinerary.  This time, I took input from the family of places or activities they really wanted to see and do.  Our time was much more relaxed, and I didn’t have to spend quite so much time planning, as we returned to several BnB’s that we really liked the first time around. 

Here are some ideas for planning a trip to Ireland:

1.  Use Google flights to find inexpensive flights.  We use this site exclusively, and our tickets were less than $400 a piece in 2017, and less than $600 a piece in 2018.  We bought tickets both times in November before our trip.  To avoid adding extra costs of checked luggage, we each wore a small city backpack, and carried on a rolling carry-on.    

2.  Ireland requires rental car drivers to carry insurance.  We called our credit card company (which includes rental car insurance), and they provided a letter guaranteeing insurance for rental car coverage, which saved us a bundle while we were there.

3.  Rick Steves travel guides are worth their weight in gold.  Pick one up as a handy starting place.  

4.  Jet lag is a real and terrible thing.  Plan on staying close to Dublin your first night- especially if you have just endured an overnight flight from the States.  We chose Trim for both trips, because it is a lovely town with lots to see, but is less than an hour from Dublin.  It gave my husband a chance to get used to the “backwards” driving, without any crazy narrow roads.   

5.  Call your bank and let them know you will be traveling to Ireland.  Any debit/credit card purchases will be charged normally, but there is a conversion fee for withdrawing cash from an ATM.  We did not use the currency exchange in the airport, as they also charge a fee- and for us it was more cost effective to withdraw from an ATM.  I withdrew 500 euros at the beginning of the trip, so we would have cash on hand for those places that only deal in cash- and there are far more of them than in the States. 

6.  Laundry is an issue.  One thing that was a challenge for us, since we travel with just one small carry-on each, is washing clothes mid-trip.  Laundromats in Ireland are, in our experience, not self serve.  You do have the option of dropping off laundry and then picking it up the next day.  However, since I like to air dry quite a few of our items, I wasn’t comfortable using the drop and go method.  The only way to mitigate this was booking an AirBnB accommodation (be sure to message the host and check that they do in fact have both a washer and dryer!) with laundry services midway through our trip.  You’ll have to spend a few minutes figuring out the European style washer and dryer, but it’s a LIFE SAVER…and money saver, by not having to pay for checked bags or full service laundry.  

7.  Speaking of checked bags:  one thing to consider is that rental cars are quite a bit smaller than most US cars, and trunk space can be an issue.  We were able to fit our 4 small carry-on rolling bags, backpacks and a few other items in both cars that we rented, but there really was not a lot of leftover room.  

8.  Save space and effort in packing by planning to visit a grocery store the day you arrive.  We purchased laundry detergent, shampoo and conditioner, razors, toothpaste and toothbrushes, Kleenex, etc at Tesco, on our way from the airport to Trim.  Easy peasy.  

All in all, both of our trips to Ireland were simply amazing.  We absolutely loved the beautiful country side, quaint villages and friendly Irish people!

Here are the itineraries for both trips:

Ireland 2018

Ireland 2017