Incredible Ways To Spend Your Vacation in Puerto Rico (List-Style Highlights Published on Trips to Discover!)

I’ve been writing for Trips To Discover for a couple years now and just published some list-style highlights from my Puerto Rico trip. Here’s the link and intro!

http://www.tripstodiscover.com/incredible-ways-to-spend-your-vacation-in-puerto-rico/

Incredible Ways To Spend Your Vacation in Puerto Rico

By: Alyssa Ochs  
On 

Puerto Rico enjoys a very unique place in the world, since it’s a U.S. territory and a Caribbean island at the same time. On one hand, Puerto Ricans use U.S. money, no passport is needed for visitors from the mainland, and English is widely spoken. But on the other hand, the island has a laid-back vibe, beautiful beaches, and fascinating history that feels a world away.

For U.S.-based travelers, Puerto Rico is an accessible destination that offers wonderfully warm 80-degree year-around weather and affordable accommodations. Since the public transportation system here leaves a few things to be desired, the best way to get around is by renting a car to explore all parts of the island. It’s not too difficult to do that either, even if you only have a week to spend here, because it’s only about 100 miles long and 35 miles wide!

These are some of the most unbelievable places to visit in Puerto Rico, which are some of my own personal favorites.

People-Watch at La Plaza del Mercado in Santurce
More details to come about this awesome trip soon!

The Antithesis of Spring Break: October at Panama City Beach

Panama City Beach is known as one of the classic spring break destinations in America. But I’m 32, married, and college is all just sort of a blur. So I planned a PCB trip for October. And it was wonderful.

Now I’m pretty low-key when it comes to accommodations and tend to pick the cheapest option that doesn’t have the words “bed bugs” highlighted in it’s online reviews. A location right next to the ocean was key to the goal of this trip: spending as much time at the beach as humanly possible.

For a mere $39 per night, I booked a room at the Catalina Court Motel in nearby Laguna Beach through one of those vacation rental sites. It’s got a total 1950s vibe and looks slightly suspicious from the outside, but there were renovation efforts going on. It certainly wasn’t anything fancy, but it was literally right across the street from the beach, which was perfect. The room (#9) also had a kitchen with a fridge, dishes, microwave, and stove. Bonus!

P1050169I’ve been writing for a living and working from “wherever” for nearly three years now, and I’ve developed a knack for snapping into “work mode” at a moment’s notice. Sure, I have my unfocused days just like anyone else. But most of the time, I can get into the zone and essentially nothing can distract me.

But although I make up my own schedule, I am still a creature of habit and routine. My beach week routine went something like this:

  • Wake up at 7-something
  • Walk to the beach to do yoga
  • Eat breakfast
  • Work in the hotel room all morning
  • Lunch
  • Take my laptop out to the beach and work there for the early-mid afternoon
  • Pack up and do something active, like SUP, biking, or running
  • Shower off my nastiness
  • Have dinner on the beach and play some guitar as the sun sets OR depending on the mood of the day, go out for dinner, adult beverages, and beach town exploration

P1050164It was a schedule that suited me just fine and really solidified my belief that a beach town would be an awesome place to live for awhile. Pier 77 was my gateway to beauty, relaxation, and peace and quiet because it was October – and no one visits here this time of year!
P1050170Stand-up paddleboarding was my favorite new outdoor activity for 2015 because we invested in an inflatable SUP that’s totally portable and considerably more affordable than the traditional type. I’d totally recommend the one that I’m carrying here, which is available on Amazon and called the “Blue Wave Sports Stingray Inflatable Stand Up Paddleboard with Paddle and Hand Pump, 10-Feet.”

P1050175The beach was literally this empty in the mornings and evenings. However, afternoons saw a few more crowds of sunbathers and families on vacation. Temperatures were in the 70s and 80s, and somehow we avoided rain almost every day.
P1050195For the very first time in life, I practiced my guitar in the wide open outdoors. I just started taking lessons for the first time in the summer, so I’m clearly not stage-ready. But there was just something incredibly peaceful and exhilarating about strumming along to the ocean waves. Still a little crowd shy, I prefer audiences of stuffed monkey.
IMG_2883I’ve been pretty good about doing daily yoga in the morning at home, but yoga on the beach in the morning is 100% superior to any type of indoor class for me. A few paddleboarders in the distance, perhaps, but no rowdy college kids or screaming babies in sight to throw off my balance.
IMG_0359But of course, my restless spirit can only sit on a beach for so long before I start going nuts. One worthwhile little evening trip was to the Grayton Beer Company, one of the few breweries in the area.

P1050157The warehouse-style brewery is only open for a few hours in the early evening on Thursdays, the day we drove over to South Walton. But the most interesting aspect of this experience was the oyster shucking operation in the parking lot. We ordered some cheese-topped oysters and gumbo from the little husband-wife team working the tent outside and played a game of bags to entertain ourselves over samplers. Appropriately, the memorable brew that stands out to me was their Franklin County Oyster Stout.

To take advantage of a perfect-weather Saturday, we biked to Destin to check out the boardwalk area. I find it amusing that all these tiny Florida towns along the way are named after California towns: Laguna Beach, Santa Monica, Seaside, Miramar Beach. The ride to Destin involved some bike lanes, trails, sidewalks, and shared traffic lanes, but it really wasn’t too bad.
IMG_0347The Destin Boardwalk is a festive and nostalgic little area full of shops, restaurants, bars, and some miniature carnival rides. There’s a marina here with lots of boats and some kayakers paddling away too.
IMG_0341On our very last day in the Florida Panhandle, we planned a final active adventure: hiking the Panama City Beach Conservation Park.
IMG_0376We initially set out on the yellow trail, which is marked as either “4 or 6 miles.” We must have missed the turn-off for the 4-mile loop, and that’s right about when the mosquitoes started attacking in full force.
IMG_2886It’s pretty rare that I don’t recommend a trail/park for hiking, but this would be one of them. The scenery was kind of nice at first, but became tedious and monotonous after awhile. The trail was straight, flat, never-ending, and packed with blood-thirsty bugs. Finally seeing the parking lot at the end of this trek was a sight for sore eyes.
IMG_2890October was an awesome time to visit the Panama City Beach area because it wasn’t packed with spring breakers, families, or snowbirds. I’m a big fan of traveling to places in the off-season to have destinations a little more to myself and not have to share. I’m an only child, so of course I’ve never been very good at sharing.

Crowds have less of an appeal to me the more I travel and the older I get. Some travel bloggers go on and on about the meaningful and inspirational interactions they have with other people when they travel. I very rarely have this experience, yet I don’t feel that I’m missing out. A little idle chit chat doesn’t make or break a trip for me, and I’ve come to enjoy the silence and reflection of finding my own way. Working for myself, without the clamor of a boss and coworkers, has made me even more introspective and self-entertained on work/travel trips, and I honestly wouldn’t want it any other way.11218894_10156323520200495_5317829905237282151_n

Oh, and this is still my favorite office set-up of all time! Hopefully, many more beach work days lie ahead in my not-so-distant future.

Adventure Cycling Guest Post! How to Pull Off a Bike Overnight on a Budget

Just a quick share to kick off the weekend…

The Missoula-based Adventure Cycling Association published my guest post today about my first overnight bike experience and some budget-friendly tips!

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http://www.adventurecycling.org/resources/blog/how-to-pull-off-a-bike-overnight-on-a-budget/

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Check it out and mad props to ACA for featuring my ride!

How to Include Your Dog on Awesome Outdoor Adventures

Outdoorsy, adventurous dogs have been getting a ton of attention lately…not just from me, but from all of those crazy “Camping with Dogs” Instagramers too.

Roxy, the most chill dog EVER

Roxy, the most chill dog EVER

It makes a lot of sense though, given that approximately 70-80 million dogs are owned in the United States and about 37-47 percent of all households in the United States have a dog. And seriously, why even bother getting a dog if you’re going to leave him home alone or with a stranger every time you do something cool?

Sasha is super excited for Jeep rides...and at just a year old...everything else too.

Sasha is super excited for Jeep rides…and at just a year old…everything else too.

Check out my published blog written for a new startup called OutsideMyWay for tips on how to get your pup as ready and excited for the great outdoors as you are.

http://www.stories.outsidemyway.com/how-to-include-your-dog-on-awesome-outdoor-adventures

At 160-ish pounds, Zeiger couldn't more gentle.

At 160-ish pounds, Zeiger couldn’t more gentle.

Turning 32 on Sapelo Island

As the days of August ticked by, 32 seemed like a pretty insignificant number, so I was half-expecting a pretty insignificant 32nd birthday. My creative husband who knows me all-too-well had something entirely different in mind.

Three days before my birthday, I was handed a packing list and told to be ready to leave at 10 am the next morning. Leave for where?

I had no clue….it was a surprise adventure and I was more than okay with that. There really aren’t enough fun surprises in life, so I wasn’t going to ruin this one by asking too many questions.

We took turns driving and five hours later, we arrived at this.

20150821_152232A ferry boat in the middle of nowhere. Okay…

I knew we were along the Atlantic coast in southeastern Georgia, and I remembered that there were some islands off the coast. I’d heard of these surprisingly situated islands, but had never been to any of them. That was all about to change.

P1040582With my trusty chimp sidekick, Ginger “Dunkey” Bromeliad by my side, I boarded the ferry and settled in for a short ride to Sapelo Island. Sapelo is one of the most remote and uninhabited islands along the Georgia coast, and actually it’s a national estuarine research reserve owned by the Department of Natural Resources.

Sapelo’s history dates back 4,500 years, when Native Americans settled here, but it’s best known for Civil War and slavery times. When the Union army started attacking the Georgia coastline, slave owners bailed, leaving many of their slaves behind to fend for themselves.

Some slaves who left the island came back later in search of family members and ended up settling here. Almost all residents of Sapelo Island today are their descendants.

We stayed at a VRBO property called “Sapelo Island-Leave the World Behind,” and our host, Lucy, picked us up at the ferry. The drive from the ferry was a small taste of what was to come, with dirt road, potholes, forests, and an utter lack of civilization. The only real town here is Hog Hammock, which has an estimated population of about 40-50 people.

P1040751There are no hotels on the island, and no restaurants either. We rented an attic apartment above Lucy and Mike’s home, which was actually spacious enough to sleep six if you really squeezed in. 
P1040590It was a totally comfortable place to stay, surprisingly with functional WiFi and TV. There was even a little outdoor patio with a table and chairs upstairs that we could use.

P1040761To get around the island, our hosts loaned us “The Beast,” a clunky, nasty SUV that could somehow still manage to maneuver the Sapelo wilderness.

truck

After settling in and getting acquainted with the island on a map, our first order of business was….THE BEACH! After all, what’s an island trip without the beach?

There are two beaches on Sapelo Island….the north beach and the south beach. But technically, they’re both on the south part of the island since the whole northern part is DNR territory and off-limits to cars.

Never before in all my days have I witnessed a more secluded and surreal beach. This shot was taken on Sapelo’s south (main) beach, Nanny Goat Beach, right before a ridiculous storm hit. And for the record, there were only three other people on the entire beach before the skies turned all dark and crazy.

Sapelo

Every morning I spent on the island started with yoga…
P1040606…and then a beach walk to discover strange creatures that called this place home.
P1040617Plenty of time was spent in a rare state of relaxation on the beach…reading, writing, playing Frisbee, sketching, and drinking wine. Sapelo is the best place I’ve found that really takes me away from it all.

But there are some local “tourist attractions” that we checked out during our time here too. One of them is the Reynolds Mansion, which actually offers tours if you show up at the right day and time. We did not, but we did check out the grounds and eat a can of beans on the sidewalk.

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It’s named after big tobacco heir Richard Reynolds who purchased the property in the 1930s and started letting the University of Georgia use the facilities for marine research. In its heyday, the 1920s, the mansion was used to entertain rich and fancy guests in the automotive industry.

Lucy and Mike also let us use some rusty old pink beach cruisers that they had in the garage to explore the island on two wheels.

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We pedaled to the nearby African Baptist Church, which has a service once a month.

P1040645Although cars aren’t allowed on the north part of the island, bikes are. So we set off to see what the more remote areas of the island were like. Sapelo Island is about 10 miles long and 4 miles wide, which makes it larger than Bermuda!
P1040644All seemed to be going so well on this little self-guided bike tour….until we hit the massive puddles.
P1040648The night before, very shortly after that picture of me on the beach with the crazy sky was taken, a torrential downpour hit and made a big mess of Sapelo’s dirt roads.

After walking our bikes around entirely too many flooded sections of road, we had to give up on the northbound route and head south instead. Fortunately, there was plenty to see down there too.
P1040655Sapelo’s lighthouse was built in 1820 by Winslow Lewis and repaired extensively after the Civil War and also an 1898 hurricane.

But a trip to the island wouldn’t be complete without spending time at BOTH beaches, so after a much-needed shower, we headed to the north beach, Cabretta Island, to scope out the scene. 
P1040694Just when I thought Nanny Goat Beach was remote, I discovered Cabretta Island and my mind was blown. The “roads” to get here were questionable at best, and we passed through was an abandoned campground on the way. Camping here would have been amazing, but apparently it only takes reservations for large groups for staffing purposes, not parties of two.
P1040707Ahhh…another secluded beach afternoon before a storm. A gal could really get used to this.

But alas, I had two more islands to briefly check out before heading home and accepting the fact that I’m a 32-year-old human being. The next stop was St. Simons island, which is far more inhabited and touristy. Don’t get me wrong…it’s still really nice though, and I’d move there in an instant.

I kicked off my actual birthday day by stand-up paddleboarding in the Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of St. Simon’s Island.

20150824_090526We met up with a local guy to accompany us since it was only our second time SUP-ing and the last time was two years ago. Compared to the last time in Lake Michigan (Chicago), this time was a breeze! I didn’t fall…not even once…and I even pulled off a couple easy yoga moves on the board.

After an essential ice cream stop post-SUP, we only had a little bit of time to spend on Jekyll Island. This is a built-up island with lots of new hotels, restaurants, and shops….and also a sea turtle center. My favorite part about this particular place though was the driftwood beach.

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This beach is located on the north end of the island and is pretty much a tree graveyard. It’s a bit sad actually, because the north end of the island is slowly eroding away and leaving the trees like this. But for now, it’s a surreal, haunting, and beautiful place that’s unlike any other beach I’ve ever seen.

It was really hard leaving the islands and coming home, as you might expect. A true getaway, far away from technology, obligations, and responsibilities, was really what I needed and spending a four-day weekend here really cleared out a lot of mental clutter.

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For the longest time, I haven’t had a huge “draw” to a particular place where I could see myself plopping down for a while. Now all I can think about is living in a chill beach town…where my days start with yoga in the sand and end with sketching in the sunset.

I guess turning 32 wasn’t really so insignificant after all.

Alyssa in Amsterdam: A Brief Rundown of Awesome Things

I just spent three weeks in Europe and I haven’t written a damn thing about it. And it’s killing me.

Well, okay fine. That’s not entirely true. On my third day in Amsterdam, my husband (yup, I have a husband now) bought me a little paperback journal from the Van Gogh Museum.

Van Gogh Journal

At least every couple days, I jotted down travel notes about things that stuck out to me and random stuff I wanted to remember. However, none of it was anything fancy, and none it ever found its way to the interweb.

Documenting the trip has felt like a pretty overwhelming endeavor, to be honest. And my freelance writing day job is drowning me, which is by all means a wonderful thing when you’re self-employed, but doesn’t exactly make me motivated to saddle up for personal writing at the end of the day.

I’ve talked myself into and out writing Euro-posts a dozen times now, but for some reason, I stuck with it today. Perhaps it’s the surprisingly tasty Diesel Punk Stout that is helping the words flow from my fingertips, or the familiar return to normalcy that makes me crave another excursion.

Who knows; who cares. It’s happening today and I’m letting it.

But first a disclaimer: Travel writing for money has made me a bit jaded about the whole industry. I write things about places I’ve never been and will probably never go just to get paid. And the Internet is little more than a regurgitated mess of paraphrasing and repetition.

But I have to write something about my travels…SOMETHING! 

So today, I adhere to the KISS principle: Keep It Simple Stupid. I’m just going to share a few of my favorite things from Amsterdam and leave it at that. Amsterdam is my new favorite European city, and I want to remember the things that made me fall in love with it.

This won’t be any literary masterpiece, but it will get me back into the groove of journaling for love of the game – not the love of the bling.

So without further ado, and in no particular order…

ALYSSA IN AMSTERDAM: A BRIEF RUNDOWN OF AWESOME THINGS

An 8-Person Hostel Room

One bathroom for eight people is kind of ridiculous, but somehow we made it work. Our most interesting roommate was a guy who woke up with two face piercings he didn’t remember getting.

We later found out that he wasn’t a registered guest and had actually just convinced another roommate to let him shack up so he didn’t have to sleep in a park. Ahhh…hostel life.

Hostel

Creepy Bunny Statues

I’ve always enjoyed these types of city-relevant/creature-themed public art displays. I remember the pandas when I lived in DC and the cows in Chicago.

I had no idea at the time, but these creepy bunnies are part of Nijntje Art Parade ~ Celebrating 60 Years of Miffy. It’s a kids’ book from the 1950s that was popular in the Netherlands. The more you know…

bunny

Cheese Sample Heaven

And just when I thought Vermont was THE place to be for cheese samples…I was wrong. The Dutch make some damn good cheese, and they aren’t stingy about handing it out.

My favorites were the non-standard varieties, like pesto and cumin, and Gouda…lots of Gouda.

cheese

More Bikes than Cars

I’ve always heard about how big “bike culture” is in Amsterdam, but it didn’t sink in until I was there.

Trying to cross the street as a pedestrian surrounded by hundreds of cyclists coming from all directions was utterly terrifying. But a place that has more bikes than cars is definitely my style.

bikes

Flowers Freaking Everywhere

The Dutch like their tulips, and although we arrived a bit late for prime tulip season, there were still plenty of pretty flowers to ogle at.

I wanted to buy some tulip bulbs from a city market and ship them back home, but I guess that’s illegal. The shopkeeper I inquired with told me they’d get stuck at customs, so I had to abandon my dream of growing Amsterdam flowers in Atlanta.

Oh well, the heat down here would have probably killed ’em anyway.

flowers

Europe is cold. You’ll see this same dumb blue jacket in pretty much every photo I’m in.

A Weird Cat Museum

A museum about cats…nothing but cats. I’m not even that much of a cat person, but this was too random to pass up. Kattenkabinet: a small, very specific, and slightly overpriced museum that will have you scratching your head for hours.

cat museum

Stupidly Cute Canals

The canals here are just stupidly cute. End of story.

canal

Space Cakes

Space cakes are nothing short of magical. Again, end of story.

My recommendation is Easy Times on Prinsengracht.

space cake

Coffee Shops with Pinball

These exist. Yep.

Pinball

Hemp Education

The Hash Marihuana & Hemp Museum is actually really historical, educational, offers a handy audio guide, and is worth the € 9.

Pro: One of the exhibits featured gnomes
Con: No free samples

hemp museum

The Lovely World of Delft

Even though this blue and white Dutch stuff is totally a Chinese knockoff, it’s beautiful.

I bought a Delft pendant and flower vase. Now if only I had those Dutch tulips to stick in the vase!

Delft

Museum Overload

Like many European cities, Amsterdam has tons of museums. We hit up some of the big ones, like the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh Museum.

I’m certainly not one to argue with getting a little exhibition education during my travels. However, I came to realize that I have about a two-hour attention span per museum, and that I will get pretty museumed-out if I try to visit more than two in one day.

museum

Biking to the Almost-Countryside

One thing that this Eurotrip taught me is that I can only handle so much city life before I get cranky and crave some fresh air and solitude. One of my favorite days was the day we took a bike trip outside the city limits to the “almost countryside.”

The leisurely ride was complete quirky Dutch guide, international strangers, a windmill, and a farm with cows, a cheese production facility, a wooden shoe shop, and an touristy gift shop.

bike

Staying Up Late for Window Hos

A trip to Amsterdam really wouldn’t be complete without scoping out the legal prostitution scene. One thing that I learned though is that the ladies don’t make an appearance until well after 10 pm.

Despite the fact that it stayed daylight until about 10 pm in Amsterdam, staying awake that late was rough. Blame the 10+ miles of walking per day, or just blame being 31.

redlight

Brewery in a Windmill

Although our next stop, Brussels, proved to be the best beer destination in Europe by far, Amsterdam had some decent beer bars too.

The most iconic and memorable one was Brouwerij’t IJ, which was neatly positioned inside some sort of windmill. This was one of our last stops before catching a train to Brussels, where much more amazing beer was to be had.

breweryAnd that’s the best of the best…or at least the best of what’s coming to mind right now. Amsterdam was an amazing place that I could actually see myself living in for a year or so.

Who knows whether or not that’ll happen or not, but at least the city inspired me to start writing again. Cheers!

What’s So Weird About Portland? (An Unofficial Investigative Report)

While it may seem like I’ve been on a bit of a blog hiatus lately, I’ve actually been gobbling up a ton of new travel and outdoor material to fill up my little page in cyberspace. I recently traveled to Portland for the first time and was stoked to check it out this place that friends always said would be perfect for me.

We’ve all seen the “Keep Portland Weird” bumper stickers, and I was bound and determined to seek out the weirdest of the weird. But as I drove around the neighborhoods in all four quadrants, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the Chicago I was desperately trying to get away from.

Keep Portland Weird

Photo credit: Gwyn Fisher

According to the Keep Portland Weird website, this is what “keeping it weird” is all about:

Keep Portland Weird is about supporting local business in the Portland Oregon area. We want to support local business because they make Portland stand out from other cities and make it a more unique place to live. They do this by providing consumers a wide range of products that represent the different cultures that make up Portland.

Perhaps I had unrealistic expectations or watched a few too many episodes of Portlandia, but for whatever reason, I assumed that “weird” would slap me in the face the moment I arrived in town. Although I had to scratch a bit beneath the surface, I’m pleased to report that I did find the “weird.” And although that “weird” wasn’t all that foreign to me, I enjoyed it nonetheless.

Without further ado, these are a few of my favorite encounters in Portland.

Breweries

With 56 breweries inside the Portland city limits and 76 in the metro area, Portland has more breweries than any city in the world. This particular flight was enjoyed at Lucky Labrador Brew Hall.

breweryDogs

Speaking of Labradors, Portland is crazy dog friendly. I rarely came across an outdoor patio at a brewery or restaurant that wasn’t inhabited by a few pooches. I definitely see a dog like Abner (who I fostered earlier this year) in my future so dog-friendly places catch my eye these days.

Abner

BrewCycles

With 56 breweries to tour and taste in town, some obvious safety concerns come to mind. Pedal off some of those empty calories while getting from Point A to Z a little safer. Current BrewCycle stops are the Lucky Labrador, Lompoc Brewing, Bridgeport, Pints, and Old Town Brewing Company.

brewery busWant to earn beer money for biking? Head over to Hopworks Urban Brewery to ride a stationary bike outside the front door to earn $1 for every 15 minutes you bike. Apparently you can burn off one 250-calorie beer with 30 minutes of easy biking. Who knew?!

bike for beerFood Trucks

After living in Chicago for nearly six years, food trucks aren’t much of an anomaly, but I was determined to scope out the Portland food truck scene for myself. Unlike the Chicago trucks that drive around downtown to feed disgruntled 9-5 workers, the Portland food trucks congregate in clusters in the trendy neighborhoods. I snapped this shot while devouring some dumplings along Alberta Street.

food trucksRose Garden

My favorite flower of the moment is the hydrangea, but roses are okay too. Unlike the nearby Japanese Garden, the Washington Park International Rose Test Garden is totally free to explore on a whim. And despite getting stung by a bee on the way into the garden (no allergies!), this was a totally relaxing stroll full of color and hushed voices.

rose gardenOutdoorsy Stuff

Speaking (i.e. writing) about beautiful places Portland’s location near amazing outdoor stuff is what really gives it a leg up on ole’ Chicago.

Multnomah FallsKeep an eye out for future posts about hiking the Columbia River Gorge (Multnomah Falls pictured below) and around Mt. Hood (Salmon River Trail pictured below).

Salmon River Trail

 Music & Art

It wasn’t difficult to find fun things to do after the virtual workday came to a close. One night, I checked out a free local bluegrass concert at a restaurant, East Burn.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnother night, I watched an outdoor showing of a 1960s Pink Panther film at a French pastry shop. And on another night, I joined a pub trivia game…and didn’t come in last place! PDX Pipeline was the best resource I found for random things going on around town.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOne afternoon I joined a pottery painting session at Mimosa Studios, which was (believe it or not) running a traveling gnome promotion. Here’s how my little lady turned out:

Portland gnomeStreet-side Oddities

There were other weird things I encountered while roaming the streets all week, like the Lodekka Double Decker Dress Shop. Unfortunately, it was closed by the time I strolled by. Because honestly, what better response is there to “I love your dress!” than “Thanks, I got it in a bus!”

weird busAnd I passed by the occasional “oompah band” waiting for chiropractic care…

oompahBut as with any city, I suppose, Portland had its fair share of unpleasantries as well. Take for example, the impenetrable line at Voodoo Doughnuts…

Voodoo DoughnutsOr the surprising lack of designated bike lanes…

bike laneOr the scary wildfires on the outskirts…

wildfireTraffic was irritating, public transit had mind-numbing delays, and locals seem to be totally fine with waiting in line FOREVER for their food. Watch Portlandia’s “Brunch Village” to get a sense of what I’m talking about.

But despite those annoyances, Portland gets a gold star in my book. My friends may be right about it suiting me well because I sorta kinda miss it already…and I still have lots more in Portland to explore.

An 83-Mile Biking/Camping Adventure in Michigan

Up until a few weeks ago, the longest bicycle journey I’d competed was about 50 miles, which isn’t all that impressive. The idea of biking with camping gear and pitching a tent after a long ride always appealed to me, but the logistics and mileage intimidated me equally.

But the opportunity finally presented itself. And every journey begins a little bit easier with a dose of liquid courage.

Founders Brewery

My 83-mile biking/camping adventure began at Founders Brewery in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Sure, I’ve been to my fair share of breweries before, but this one impressed me nonetheless. Founders takes up an entire block of the street across from a train station, and both the indoor and the outdoor spaces are enormous. There were tons of servers floating around, with multiple servers working patrons’ tables.

founders

After a slight sandwich mix-up, I began feasting on my Stella Bleu, one many deli offerings. One sympathetic server even brought out a sample of porter to ease a nearby burning tongue. As typical, I ordered a beer flight to sample the local goods, including tiny pours of All Day IPA, Oatmeal Stout, Mosaic Promise, BA Sprite, and Curmudgeon. BA Sprite was my ultimate favorite – a pale ale aged in a bourbon barrel, buttery, but not overly rich.

menu

 But I didn’t linger because lots of pedaling was ahead of me.

White Pines State Park Trail

The journey began on White Pines State Park Trail, Michigan’s longest rail-trail – connecting five counties along 93.5 miles. Along this trail, you find open farmland, forests, swamps, and lots of little towns along the way.

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From the city streets of Grand Rapids, I picked the trail up in Walker, where it was paved, wide, and uncrowded. The trail is a mix of ballast and blacktop, so my hybrid tires did just fine for most of it – “most” being the key word. More to come on that later.

biking

After passing by Rockford Brewing Company, the trail becomes wooded, but fortunately not riddled with mosquitoes.

turtleKeep an eye out for crossing turtles!

KC’s Ice Cream

With about 20 miles left to go on the first 40-mile leg of this journey, a magical place appeared between the trees. So I plopped my bike along the trail and sifted through the wildflowers to investigate.

flowers

KC’s ice cream shop is located along Main Street in Cedar Springs. They have a ton of unique flavors for cheap prices, and honestly, I probably won’t have made it any further without the generous helping I enjoyed atop a sugar cone.

KCs

With the taste of cherry cheesecake still on my tongue, I didn’t exactly anticipate what would happen next. My nicely paved path came to an abrupt halt five miles later, leaving me with a mess of sand, gravel, and rocks to bike on. I longed for my old mountain bike, while slow, durable under such conditions.

My pace slowed, my right knee began to ache, and my bitching level increased dramatically. The town of Howard City provided a temporary path relief, which ended just as quickly as it came up.

Mecosta Campground – Morley, Michigan

Before hitting the four-hour mark, I arrived at the Mecosta Campground in Morley, Michigan, a tiny town with less than 500 people. Mecosta is awesome because it only charges $10/person if you arrive on a bike. Otherwise it’s $26 for a rustic site and $34 for a hookup site.

campThere’s just something “hardcore” about arriving at a faraway destination on two wheels. Site #24 looked as good as any, and despite the sizable ant population, the tent remained pleasantly bug-free.

bike camp

The campground had a decently-sized pool, but unfortunately no hot tub. That would have been quite lovely after 41.something miles. I took a quick dip, but was promptly joined by masses of screaming children. I abandoned my post and toweled off with a ringing in my ears.

poolNow here’s something you NEVER find at campgrounds…free mini golf! There were nine holes of mini golf located onsite, with free club and ball rentals. More campgrounds should really set this up!

Mecosta Campground was clean and easy to sleep in. It was unfortunate that there was only one bathroom for each gender onsite, however, the owners were in the process of building out a few more.

golf

Mecosta’s owner recommended checking out Moe-Z-Inn for dinner. This was a solid recommendation, within walking/biking distance of the campground and with really delicious food. I got the lobster lasagna and downed every last bite. There’s a nice patio out back along the river if you don’t mind sharing the space with mosquitoes.

There isn’t a whole lot else to do in Morley, but there is gas station convenience store if you need to pick up some snacks or a cigar. Expect to see bored teenagers loitering and riding around on motorized bikes on summer evenings.

restaurant

Satisfied with my brief stint in Morley, I hopped back on the trail the next morning to begin the return journey and complete this 83-mile adventure. The temperature was cooler and the sun was hiding, but rain was nowhere in sight.

As an alternative to 15-mile stretch of sand and gravel path, I opted to ride the first portion along the road for the way back. It was a two-lane road with a 55 MPH speed limit, but not too busy on a Sunday morning. That was definitely a good thing because there was essentially no shoulder, let alone a bike lane. Cars whizzed by, but were kind enough to move over the center line when passing.

sand lake

The wonderfully-paved trail that I initially took for granted picked back up in Sand Lake, another tiny town along the way. From here, the pace picked up and it was smooth sailing.

Rockford Brewing Company

For one final hurrah, I stopped at the Rockford Brewing Company, about ten miles away from the initial starting point at Founders. One tip: don’t park your bike along the outside patio because you’ll probably get yelled at like I did. There are bike racks on the other side of the trail.

You can get a sampler of Rockford’s five standard beers for $7 and additional samples are $2 each. Top picks were the Rogue River Brown, which wasn’t that unique but well done, and the Ain’t Jemima, a cleverly-named maple sap beer that’s sweet, but not sweet enough to rot your teeth out. The Rockford Country Ale is also pretty good and reminded me of Two Brother’s farmhouse ale.

Rockford

To refuel, I ordered a Stromboli with chips & salsa, but it appeared to have come pre-packaged from another eatery. Regardless, I was too starving to question its origin. The place has a great location along the trail, a chill vibe, and so-so service. A flyer informed me that they host live bands Thursday and Friday nights, but alas, the calendar and the stars did not align.

After the last leg of the journey, I arrived back at Founders Brewery to find Chief (my Jeep) safe and happily not towed. There are lots of other breweries in the downtown area of Grand Rapids to check out too if you’re still bent on soaking in a hot tub and willing to splurge for some well-deserved relaxation in a walking-distance hotel.

To date, this is my longest biking journey, and it showed me that I’m totally capable to doing more…after at least a week of cursing my bike and nursing my knee back to health, of course.

My mind wanders and becomes restless while I ride, but that’s good for me and I could probably use more of that kind of quiet time. The occasional ache and pain creeps up, but I’m still (relatively) young and healthy, so I need to take advantage of that while I can. And there are still lots of places to explore on two wheels.

^ In case you wondered, that’s what I look like riding a bike with camping gear. ^

Discovering New Orleans’s Outdoorsy Side on the Mississippi Levee Trail

New Orleans isn’t exactly known for its biking, and the Crescent City never manages to squeeze its way onto any bike-friendly cities lists. But as 2013 came to a close and 2014 was on the horizon, I found myself along the bayou with my  bike.

If you run a quick search for bike trails in the New Orleans area, you won’t exactly be overwhelmed with options. A few small parks came up in my search, but most notably, the New Orleans Levee-Top Trail – also known as the Mississippi Levee Trail and a small portion of the Mississippi River Trail.

It was just shy of 60-degrees on a breezy day in late December. I parked my Jeep for free in the parking lot for Audubon Park, right next to the New Orleans zoo. But to check out the trail, you need to head the opposite direction, ride under the gates, across the railroad tracks, and hang a right.

Trail closed? WTF?!

Trail closed? WTF?!

Shortly after doing so, this is the site you’ll see. Orange and white “road closed” barriers and ominously “danger” signs staring you in the face.Since summer 2013, the US Corps of Engineers have been working upriver from the Huey P. Long Bridge at Powerline Drive and the River Levee.

But never fear! You can still bike along this peaceful levee trail…you just have to do a little off-roading to get there.

Secret Trail Access Point

Secret Trail Access Point

One access road is downriver from the construction area at Brookhollow Esplanade, and another is less than a mile upriver at Imperial Woods. To get through the closed-off area, you can take a detour on River Road, which is about a mile along.

Or you can do what I did and ride in the grass, dirt, and gravel on the lower road-side of the trail. This is a ‘yes’ for mountain bikes, a ‘no’ for road bikes, and a ‘sorta-kinda-maybe’ for hybrids like mine. If it’s a weekday, you’ll probably encounter some construction traffic around Powerline Drive, but that drops away once you ride further along.

The drainage project construction will be ongoing until 2015, so in the meantime the New Orleans Bicycle Club posted this suggested detour map.

Horse Stables Along the Trail

Horse Stables Along the Trail

As you haul your bike the top of the trail, you’ll see a couple horse stables and lots of industrial buildings.

“There’s this huge mile-wide river next to us, that over the decades we’ve protected ourselves from—so any opportunity to get to the river is very important,” says Jennifer Ruley, a pedestrian and bicycle engineer who works as an advisor to the city of New Orleans. “It really helps us to connect to the geography and history of the city.”

Beware of Spontaneous Truck Crossings

Beware of Spontaneous Truck Crossings

The Levee Top Trail forms a vital link in the 3,000 mile-long Mississippi River Trail, which is an ongoing venture to establish pathways along the entire north-to-south length of the Mississippi River. As you ride, you’ll get behind-the-scenes access to the lesser-known sights of New Orleans: residential areas, commercial wharves, hospitals, shopping centers, golf courses, chemical plants, and parks. If you ride far enough, you’ll even go past the old Destrehan Plantation, which at 227 years old, is the oldest plantation home on the lower Mississippi River.

Many of the industrial areas that span the first six miles of the trail are still active today, so you’ll need to yield and watch for low-flying aircraft when signage prompts you to do so. While the detour path to reach the trail is a bit rocky and unpredictable, the actual trail is paved and in awesome condition.

Boats Along the Mighty Mississippi

Boats Along the Mighty Mississippi

Although the Mississippi isn’t the most attractive river in the world (unless you’re a weird fan of brown water), it’s definitely cool to watch the enormous ships and barges still operating under the city’s expansive bridge system. Rumor has it that there are future plans to build out the levee top trail between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, which is about 130 miles upriver. Whenever this is completed, it will be a great way to explore tiny Louisiana towns that rarely draw the partying tourist demographic.

For now, cyclists gravitate towards the Colonial Country Cub, which has some great views of the Mississippi River boat traffic. Go six miles further and you’ll reach Rivertown , which has a pier with benches along the river for a quick stop…and a restored museum and restaurant area in Kenner for a longer one.

When most people think of New Orleans, images of Mardi Gras, Bourbon Street, and enormous frozen daiquiris come to mind. Since this was my third visit to the city, I longed to see if New Orleans had a hidden outdoorsy side tucked away somewhere off the grid.

The Mississippi Levee trail is that place – a place where cyclists, joggers, and dog walkers can take a break from the craziness downtown and reconnect with nature and history. And after experiencing it for myself, I can see New Orleans for more than its sparkily masks and liberal open container laws.

Road Trip Poetry: Haikus and Limericks from the Northeastern U.S.

In an effort to keep the creative side of my brain active during long stretches of road, I decided to write a poem every day (or so) during my last road trip. Short stories take too much time, blog posts become tiresome after awhile, and my Facebook friends don’t care to read every thought going through my head.

To keep things simple, I settled on the haiku and the limerick for poem structures. Let me take you back to junior high creative writing class for just a moment. A Haiku revolves around that odd 5-7-5 syllable structure, juxtaposes two ideas, and throws in a seasonal reference. Limericks have a five-line AABBA rhyme scheme and tend to be on the ridiculous side.

Without schooling you any further, here is my collection of road trip poetry…categorized by city and state. (Reader hint: each paragraph is its own poem!)

Michigan City, Indiana

Jeep in the service bay
On the way to Maine today
Engine light cleared

There once was a gnome driving a Jeep
“The engine light’s on!” he exclaimed with a squeak
Mechanic found a hose was bent

Jeep in the auto hospital

Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Bare butts everywhere
Sketching by bikes in the sand
Monkeys on a beach

There once was a monkey from Toronto
I was traveling and he asked, “Hey, can I go?”
We biked through the sand
He said, “I’ll be damned!”
‘Cause that beach required no clothes!

Indian market
Beetle leaves and ice cream cup
Can’t find magic fruit

Toronto traffic
Reminds me too much of home
“Squeeze left,” a sign says

A girl was biking to Scarborough Bluffs
She rode a long way and had enough
Locked her bike to a tree
And scraped up her knee
Falling off the edge feels pretty tough

Montreal, Quebec, Canada

Campfire burning
Old guitar songs sung in French
Sun sets later now

Biking to Mount Royal
Quiet amidst the chaos
Brakes screech, tires swerve

Fine arts museum
Windy day in Montreal
Textured canvas paint

Grand Isle, Vermont

Citronella light
Illuminates ferry boats
Mosquito bites itch

Working along Lake Champlain

South Hero, Vermont

Roadside antique store
Crafts and creatures on the shelves
Windy twisty roads

There once was a man from South Hero
Where the population’s practically zero
He shopped for antiques
‘Til his bike started to squeak
And he skidded right off the pier. Oh no!

Vineyard concert night
Locals drink and dance along
Sun sets on the vines

There once was a band that played covers
The vineyard lawn full with blankets of lovers
The drummer drank too much wine
Ate some raw grapes off the vine
And was carried off stage by his brothers

Waterbury, Vermont

Vermont tasting day
Cider, cheese, chocolate, ice cream
Rain makes trees greener

Twin Mountain, New Hampshire

Tensions in the air
Tear drops fall like pouring rain
Let’s go get Thai food

Cold beans in a can
Styrofoam instant noodles
Sleeping bags are damp

Rainy campground day
Clothes swirl ’round the washer
Bad TV plays on

KOA pizza
Sketching by campfire light
Internet goes out

Toes dipped in the pool
Soothes itchy ankle bug bites
Dark clouds rolling in

Stir crazy working
Caught up and getting ahead
Rain motivation

Rainy day for monkeys

North Conway, New Hampshire 

There once was a climber from North Conway
He searched for good routes all day Monday
Finally set up some climbs
Mostly 5.8s and 5.9s
A bit scraped and sore, but he’s doing okay

Bar Harbor, Maine

Lobster between bread
Clam chowder and blueberry pie
Rainy day delight

There once was a moose from the state of Maine
He crossed where he wanted, which felt like a game
He ignored the road signs
Was ticketed for his crimes
‘Til he was put behind bars. What a shame!

Lighthouse on the cliff
Bell rings and red light flashes
“Click” goes the shutter

Calm breeze makes ripples
Water droplets splash my skin
Kayak on the lake

Firewood burning
Embers travel toward the sky
A hole in my shoe

Swollen drippy eye
Fishes take revenge on me
Shellfish allergy

Waves crash on the shore
Wind and flies test my balance
Yoga on the rocks

There once was a mosquito from the Harbor of Bar
I swatted him away, but he didn’t go very far
Felt him land on my skin
Sucking blood out again
Screw the tent – I’m sleeping in the car

Acadia National Park

There was an old hag at the campsite next door
Her dunkies would cry, and she’d scream some more
Tossed a burning log in the air
Bowed my head, said a prayer
Now all I hear are waves on the shore

Parade candy thrown
Lobster races to my gut
Fireworks so bright

Shift gears up the hill
Wipe the sweat, pedal faster
Cycling carriage trails

Gnomeless antique shop
Rusty junk out in the rain
Creepy man peers out

There once was a sand pail on Sand Beach
It used to make castles, now tangled in seaweed
Someone left it behind
Swept away by the tide
Rake and shovel too far out of reach

photo (3)

Portsmouth, Rhode Island

Chicago to Maine
Many stops along the way
Camping from a Jeep

THE END