Hall of Mosses Trail – Hoh Rain Forest – Olympic National Park, Washington

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You can see nearly every shade of green on theĀ  Hall of Mosses Trail in the Hoh Rain Forest in Washington’s Olympic National Park. The green mosses are so vibrant you can practically taste them.

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Every surface is covered with moss except the trail that winds through the forest. Even the streams have stringy mosses flowing through. All sorts of interesting things grow in this humid rain forest climate.

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Because of the nutrient-dense soil in this area, the trees do not need to grow long roots, but because of that, they are prone to falling over in a strong wind. Then, the fallen tree becomes part of the landscape and inevitably, covered in moss from tip to toe.

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Nothing escapes the clingy green moss-nster. Even the moss is covered in moss!

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The trails are well marked and easy to walk – you can circle the entire trail in about 20 minutes unless you are stopping for photos every few feet like I did, in which case you may need well over an hour.

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The forest has soft, eerie, other-worldly quality that I have not experienced anywhere else. I assume there are a few fairies living here – maybe you’ll be lucky enough to spot one!

Texas Road Trip – Austin to Houston

I think the best way between here and there isn’t always the fastest. Instead of flying, I often choose a train or car so I can watch the geography change and more easily see the sights on the way. You can fly from Austin to Houston in under an hour, or drive directly in two and a half, but if you have a couple hours to spare, you can make some stops on the way that are worth the extra time.

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First stop, about 45 minutes south of Austin on US-183 is Lockhart, nicknamed the BBQ Capital of Texas. If you aren’t into BBQ or waiting in long lines (I’m not a fan of either), just appreciate the historic architecture and keep on going.

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Drive about 20 minutes further to Luling, which is also known for its BBQ, but even more for watermelon! Every summer, they have a famous “Watermelon Thump” festival to celebrate my favorite melon with music, games and contests.

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All that watermelon eating must bring out the playful side of Luling’s residents, because the town is also known for its decorated oil well pump jacks. Many of the wells are still working, and the little duckies shown above bob forward and backward with the motion of the well. Pretty clever!

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At Luling, you make the turn toward Houston on I-10 and drive about 45 minutes until you reach the Schulenburg area. There are several beautifully painted churches here in the towns of High Hill, Dubina, Ammannsville and Praha. They were built by Czech and German settlers in the 1800s who made the effort to establish communities similar to the hometowns they left behind. The Praha, High Hill, and Dubina churches are the closest from the highway (each one about 10 minutes off the highway), so if you only have a little bit of time, choose one or two of these.

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You can take a tour of the painted churches with the Schulenburg Chamber of Commerce (reservation required) or just visit them on your own using this helpful map – each church is clickable and shows address information.

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From the Schulenburg area, you have just under a two hour drive remaining to Houston without much to see aside from the skies, which really do seem bigger in Texas so enjoy the ride!

Day Trip from Venice – Murano and Burano

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When Venice starts to fee a little congested, which is likely with the number of visitors the small island hosts every day, it might be time for a day trip to the nearby islands of Murano and Burano. The vaporetto (water bus) heads to Murano from the Fondamente Nove stop in Venice, making just one stop on the way at the cemetery island of San Michele. Since the vaporetto comes by every 20 minutes or so, you can hop off the boat to walk around the scenic cemetery island (Igor Stravinsky is buried here), then catch the next boat to Murano.

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Get off at the first stop in Murano (Colonna) and walk up the main street, Rio dei Vetral, along the canal. The street is lined with shops selling mainly glass souvenirs and charming restaurants. The slower pace here is Murano is such a nice break from the crowds of Venice.

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The opposite side of the canal from where the vaporetto drops people off is much less crowded, and one of the cafes or restaurants there would make a great spot for a lunch break or just to watch people and boats pass by. You can watch glass blowing demonstrations, visit the glass museum, or buy souvenirs to take home – there’s a little something for everyone here.

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Once you’ve followed the main canal to the other side of the island, take the 30-ish minute boat ride on to Burano. Many people visit only Murano since it’s closer to Venice, skipping the farther Burano island, but I think they are missing out on the best of the outer islands.

 

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Burano, also known for its lacework, is mainly known for its photogenic, brightly colored houses. As you can imagine, the house colors are carefully planned, and must be approved by the government because you wouldn’t want to see two blue houses next to each other, now would you?

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You could walk the entire island of Burano in about 20 minutes, but I spent hours here wandering off the main streets into residential areas that were deserted aside from me, a few locals, and their laundry hanging overhead. I live for these moments of solitude while traveling that allow me to really “feel” a place without any distractions.

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The 45 minute boat ride back to Venice is especially peaceful at sunset. You can easily explore both Murano and Burano in the greater part of a day, and get back to Venice for dinner and a late night walk through the crowded streets, while thinking of all the colorful sights you saw and wondering if your friends in Burano took their laundry down.

 

Insider Tip: There could be a long wait for the boat from Burano to Venice, so be prepared to wait up to an hour if you plan to head back to Venice toward the end of the day. You might consider a tour with a tour company that would take you to the islands – downsides are that these can be sales pitches for glass factories and you will be on a tight schedule with no wiggle room, but if you aren’t comfortable figuring out the vaporetto schedule or need to be back in Venice by a specific time, a tour could be a good option. If traveling in a group of 4+, a private water taxi might even be worth the cost to avoid potentially long waits.

I found Rick Steves’ Venice travel guide to be so useful, in particular about how to get to Murano and Burano. I would have been pretty lost without it, since most of the information I found online was so fragmented or confusing. I’m not normally a guide book carrying tourista, but as a testament to how useful this particular book was, I carried it everywhere in Venice!

 

5 Things To Do in Downtown LA

I have to admit, in my many visits to Los Angeles over the years, I consciously avoided the downtown area. I was too busy with beaches and Beverly Hills to detour into unknown territories. What a mistake! I’ve been missing out on all the deliciousness – in food, architecture, and overall vibe – that DTLA has to offer.

Here are 5 things to check out the next time you’re in LA – and don’t skip downtown like I did!

 

1. Eat (lunch and) dessert at Bottega Louie

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Bottega Louie has possibly best macaroons this side of the Atlantic. Laduree still has my heart, but I know I am easily swayed by the packaging, and macaroons just taste better in Paris, don’t they? If you aren’t a macaroon fan, not to worry – there are about 50 other masterfully crafted desserts for you to indulge in. Ask someone working there for their recommendation because apparently, they’ve been lucky enough to try them all. Best job ever?

Try to forget the macaroons for a second and let me describe to you The Scene that is Bottega Louie – it buzzes from every inch of its whitewashed interior. I enjoyed the fashion show of hip-ly dressed girls over my delicious salad with fresh fava beans and summer peas. The beautiful food and people deserve every one of the 10,500 photos it inspired people to post on its yelp page. It is noisy, though. With no attempt to reduce sound with materials or architecture, you get this din of voices and forks on plates. Shouting over it is tiring, so might as well just eat and absorb the scene.

 

2. Admire Art Deco buildings

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Thanks to a financial and building boom in Los Angeles in the 1920s and 1930s, the era of Art Deco style, the downtown area has some stunning examples of Art Deco architecture. You can take a guided walking tour with the LA Conservancy or just explore on your own on 5th and 6th between South Flower and South Broadway.

 

3. Wander down St. Vincent’s Court

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This odd little alley in the middle of the Jewelry District has a long, confusing history you can try to make sense of somewhere else, but today you can at least appreciate its kitchy Euro-mishmash of cafes and restaurants. If it feels a bit like a studio back lot, that’s because the city decided its charming tables spilling out over the alley were illegal which put an end to outdoor dining. It seems like it’s missing something, but the food looked good, and I couldn’t help but snap a bunch of pictures to try to capture its strange allure.

 

4. Spend some money at one of a kind boutiques

Los Angeles knows how to make you want to spend your money, even when you aren’t trying to. A couple stores worth checking out:

angelo:HOME has vintage and vintage-inspired home goods, furniture and gifts, as well as pieces from local designers. It’s one of those stores that makes you want to buy everything in it. One look at their Instagram feed an you’ll know what I mean.

I was drawn into KuKuly because of its packed-from-floor-to-ceiling colorful, South American fabrics. I couldn’t leave without a few bracelets and a pair of shorts made of fabric from Peru, designed and sewn in LA. Some of the items sell at high end LA boutiques like Planet Blue for much, much higher prices.

 

5. Happy Hour at The Perch

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Seemingly named for the way it perches above all of downtown LA for the best views, especially at sunset when the buildings glow with California sun, Perch is where all the cool kids hang out. The downstairs restaurant/patio serves lunch, dinner, weekend brunch, and happy hour, or you can take the stairs up to the rooftop bar. The decor is like your dignified but quirky Parisian grandmere’s living room.

After you admire the scenery and have some fancy drinks, can someone explain to me how having to take 2 elevators to get to the top makes you feel all special, instead of annoyed you had to take 2 elevators?

 

How to Drive on the Wrong Side of the Road

Driving on the “wrong” side of the road is disorienting and anxiety-provoking for anyone, no matter how confident of a driver they are. On a recent trip to Scotland, I wanted to experience parts of the country only accessible by car (or bus), and since I prefer more freedom than a group tour allows, I didn’t have much choice but to rent a car and drive myself around. Depending on where you are from, the “wrong” side of the road may be the left side or the right side, but either way, there are some things you can do to maximize the pleasure of driving in another country.

 

1. Learn the Basics

Wouldn’t it be nice if there were universal traffic signs and symbols? Unfortunately, there aren’t, so it is worth spending at least a few minutes learning the basic signs, symbols and markings in the country you will be driving in. You can’t assume symbols mean the same thing in another country as they do in your home country.

For example, a dashed white line in the U.S. divides two lanes of traffic going the same direction, while in the UK, it divides two lanes going in the OPPOSITE direction. Mistaking these could be disastrous.

Also, in the UK, you may see a flashing amber traffic light between a red light and a green light, which means that if there are no pedestrians in the crosswalk, you can go. It’s not dangerous to wait for the green, but it’s considerate to the drivers around you to know the rules and drive like a local as much as possible!

While driving in Scotland, I kept seeing a sign the read “Changed Priorities Ahead.” I couldn’t even fathom what this meant so I had to look it up – it turned out to be something about the right of way changing recently to alert drivers follow the new directions. This reminded me how different our signs can be from country to country. Just a little bit of online research before your trip can help you to know what to expect in terms of signs and symbols, so you have one fewer thing to worry about when driving in a new place.

Keep in mind different localities may have its own set of rules, as well. In New York City, you can’t turn right on red, while in California, you can.

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2. Let YouTube Be Your Driving Instructor

Whatever country you are traveling to, there are probably YouTube videos demonstrating basic driving scenarios that are unique to that country. I’m a visual learner, so I needed to see what driving on the left side of the road looked like before I felt comfortable trying it myself.

Watch lots of videos, especially if the country you are going to loves their roundabouts and you don’t have much experience with them. I watched so many videos about roundabouts before my trip to Scotland since I knew I’d be doing quite a bit of driving all over the country. Reading rules and instructions wouldn’t have helped – I needed to see real life examples of different types of roundabouts and realistic traffic scenarios. It is more confusing than you might thing, and in real life it happens very quickly because people are in a hurry, just like you are on your daily commute at home! I watched the videos (like this one) over and over until I felt comfortable that I understood the procedure, so I could be as safe and considerate of a driver as possible.

3. Splurge on the GPS in the Rental Car

Even if you have a smart phone with maps and the most powerful portable wifi, there are times when that rental car’s GPS system will save you. Like when I was driving in Scotland and the main route was shut down due to construction, and the GPS wouldn’t re-route us because it didn’t know that the road was closed, and the smart phone’s map wasn’t updating because we were in the middle of nowhere with no wifi service, but because the car’s GPS map was still visible, we were able to figure out an alternate route. Without the car’s GPS map, we probably would have backtracked about 30 miles to the last turn-off and hoped the GPS would re-route instead of saying “make a U-turn” to send us back toward the closed road, which would have been so frustrating.

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4. Book Your Rental Car Pick-Up and Drop-Off Points Strategically

First of all, don’t rent a car in a city that has ample public transportation or is walkable. You will save yourself (and all of the locals) a lot of headache, not to mention parking fees. When picking up a car to continue on your travels outside of the city, map out all of the rental car locations in the city and select the place that has easiest access to the highway with minimal driving in the city. Even if you have to take a longer bus/train/taxi ride to the rental location from your hotel, it is worth not having to drive through the center of town, especially if it’s your first time behind the wheel on the “wrong” side of the car!

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5. Ask the Rental Car Agent for Advice

Your rental car agent has probably heard every horror story about foreigners driving on their roads, so before I was handed the keys to my ride for the next week around the Scottish countryside, I asked the agent for any last minute tips for a first time driver on the left hand side of the road. In her sweet Scottish accent, she told me to just keep thinking “left” at any turn or roundabout, and also to try to follow the cars around me. Then, she told me I’d be just fine. With that final bit of encouragement, I set off through the green hills of Scotland chanting “left left left” (and my own addition of “watch out for sheep”).

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Driving can be the best way to experience parts of a country – to have the freedom to stop on a whim, explore without a schedule, and wander down side roads because something caught your eye. You will probably be surprised how driving on the wrong side of the road begins to feel natural within a few days, and when you return home, you may even have to stop to think about which side of the car to get into to drive!