Cuba – Go Before It All Changes

I just returned from a dream trip to Cuba and feel compelled to tell the world to go visit NOW before the things that make it so special change. Cuba’s unique political history has frozen it in time, and in so many ways, it is still stuck in the 1950s. For blocks on end, you can wander the streets of Havana and not see anything that would give away what year you are in. I can’t think of many places I’ve visited that gave me that same experience. As travel restrictions from the U.S. continue to lighten, tourism to Cuba has been increasing at lightning speed, so amenities for tourists are on the rise. Construction is going on everywhere in Havana, which on one hand is exciting, but also means, well, things are changing!  Also, with the potential of embargo restrictions letting up in the near future, so many of those beautiful old cars are going to be traded for 15 year old Hyundais, which are just not as charming to see winding their way through Old Havana. For me, it was the decay of the buildings and the old cars that made Cuba so special, and with the potential of these things changing soon, the time to visit Cuba is now.

If you are from a country that can visit Cuba legally, lucky you. If not, and you want to go legally, you’ll need to book a tour through a licensed tour provider. Some are listed here.

I will do another post in the future about my impressions of the people, culture and politics of Cuba, but for now how about some photos to encourage you to go ahead and plan that trip you know you’ve been wanting to take!

 

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Review of Navini Island Resort, Fiji

I did so much research online before my first trip to Fiji trying to wrap my mind around all of the options and their pluses/minuses. Since my stay was going to be so brief (only 3 days) as a stop-over on the way from San Diego to Sydney, I knew I wanted to stay somewhere near, if not on, the main island since my flight landed in Nadi on the main island of Viti Levu. I quickly ruled out a stay on the main island as its beaches were not what I had in mind for a paradise vacation, and focused my search on a smaller island not too far from the main island.

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My research led me to choose Navini Island Resort based on its small size (average 20 guests), easily accessible snorkeling (the entire island is surrounded by a coral reef), countless positive reviews on Tripadvisor (many saying they had stayed 20+ times, which is always a good sign), and relatively low cost for what you get. Nothing about the island was a disappointment, and I’ll never forget my days on that little piece of island paradise. Here is what you can expect if you decide to take my advice and stay at Navini for your next island vacation…

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When you land at Nadi airport, Henry will pick you up from the airport and drive you 20 minutes to the dock where you will board the Navini boat for the 30-minute ride to Navini Island. The entire island is surrounded by a coral reef, so if the tide is low and the boat can’t clear the reef, you will transfer to a small dinghy for the last 50 feet or so.

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As you get near the island, you will take off your shoes and socks in case your feet get wet when stepping from the dinghy to the dock – vacation officially begins when feet touch water! Several staff members will be waving and shouting “Bula!” from the dock to welcome you to the island. They will give you a tour of the island and walk you to your bure (cottage), and sometime later your bags will magically appear at your door.

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Every day, your room will be decorated with freshly picked hibiscus and frangipani (plumeria), but you probably won’t spend much time in your room because the hammock, beach lounger and ocean beckon.

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You will have 3 meals a day in the dining area with all of the other guests. During my stay, there were only about 12 guests each day, and full capacity is only 30, so you can get to know other guests at meal times or dine privately if you prefer. With over 30 staff members for our small group, we were well taken care of as you may imagine. Meals are customized to your preferences, and the staff easily accommodated my vegan diet, on several occasions surprising me with vegan ice cream or pancakes made specially for me!

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Your days will become a routine of lounging in the hammock between your bure and the ocean, chasing resident hermit crabs, napping in the beach lounge chairs under tiki umbrellas, scouring the shore for beautiful shells as they wash up at high tide, floating in the sparkling turquoise waters, and hunting for Nemo fish with your snorkel gear on. However you spend your days, there will be plenty, or nothing, to do – whichever you prefer.

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If you are worried about being bored on this 2.5-hectare pile of white sand, there is an abundance of water sports equipment available on the island (all included in the price) – paddleboards, kayaks, seacyles, hobie cats and a body board thingy with a window so you can “snorkel” without putting your face in the water. I tried them all! If you don’t know how to sail, one of the nice staff members will take you out for a lovely sail around the island on the hobie cat (tip: they will climb a tree and grab you a fresh coconut, too!).

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There is also a daily outing to a nearby village or reef for snorkeling, and a spirited game of beach volleyball at 4pm. After dinner, guests and staff congregate in the dining area to drink kava (a mildly sedative drink made from kava root) and play Vidi Vidi (a board game kind of like billiards played with small discs). Personally, I was so tired from chasing fishies with my snorkel fins on all day that I barely made it through dinner with eyes open.

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I learned so many things on my brief stay at Navini – I learned that hermit crabs come alive in the evenings, that you can swing yourself in a hammock if you lie across it diagonally and use your foot to push against the strap, that “paw paw” means papaya and Fiji’s are delicious, that “bula” means hello and “vinaka” means thank you in Fijian, that water really can look like turquoise even without an Instagram filter on it, and that Fiji has some of the warmest, kindest people on earth.

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Just a few practical tips: 1) if you check the weather for Nadi, Fiji before your trip, don’t fret that it shows rain every day – it rains in Nadi much more than it rains on Navini Island; 2) note any deals on the website for free transportation to and from the island and book your stay accordingly (stay 4 days, get 1 direction free; stay 7 days, get 2 directions free); 3) if you go snorkeling at the sand cay on one of the morning outings, ask the guy to drop you off at the edge of the reef so you don’t have to swim to it – when the tide is low, you are swimming dangerously close to the coral which can damage the coral and your knees (plus, it’s a long swim to the reef edge).

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(Photo by Steve Ford)

 

I hear it can rain on the island frequently, as in any tropical location, but during my stay, the only water drops were the tears from my eyes as I boarded the boat and waved goodbye to paradise. Vinaka, Navini, for the beautiful memories.

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The Best of Fremantle, Australia in One Day (Guest Post by Ines)

I couldn’t be more excited to share with you a guest post from this lovely blogger in Australia named Ines. She lives on the west coast of Australia in Perth and is sharing with us her tips on visiting the port city of Fremantle. Having just returned from a visit of just the east coast of Australia, I am so excited to visit the west coast someday, especially this cute little seaside town! You can also check out her gorgeous blog at Inesphere for more post on Australia and beyond.

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My first visit to Fremantle was back in 2011 during my trip to Western Australia. A few years later, I found myself living here and I’ve become a lot more familiar with how best to spend a day in Fremantle. Just 30 minutes from Perth’s city centre, Fremantle is one of the easiest cities in the world to explore. It’s rather easy to lose track of time while making your way through the Cappuccino Strip down to South Freo and back along the coast.  If a day is all you have, here are a few tips on how best to enjoy this buzzing port city.

 

Wander Around

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Before sitting down for a bite to eat or just after breakfast, explore the city through a self-guided walking trail. Start with the Capppuccino Strip and make your way around side streets down to the Esplanade Hotel and the Park where you can ride the Ferris Wheel for a bird’s eye view of the surrounding areas. From there, slowly make your way back to check out street art and murals and unique little shops. Visitors’ Centre in the heart of the city will have maps and often cafes will have copies of maps outlining shops and cafes.

Explore the Markets

esplanade hotelA must see when visiting Fremantle are the Markets open Friday through Sunday. Here you will find endless array of fruit, veg and food ranging from Spanish Paella to cupcakes and everything in between. It tends to get busy, so it’s best to visit early to avoid the crowds.

 

Visit the Hidden Cafes

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One of the best things about Fremantle is the eclectic mix of cafes and restaurants known for their unique style many having outdoor seating. Must try cafes include Yocal, Two Rubens, the Attic, Raw Kitchen, Chalkys and if you wander down to South Freo look out for Lenny the Ox, Di Bella Coffee Roasting House, and Ootong and Lincoln just to name a few. I have had many visits to  at each of these and can tell you they are gorgeous and serve delicious meals. Perhaps, have a breakfast at Yocal and a dairy and sugar free dessert at the Raw Kitchen.

 

Arvo at Little Creatures

little creaturesAfter exploring the shops, galleries and cafes, enjoy a relaxing afternoon at the Little Creatures Brewery. A chubby cupid with a bow is the symbol of this iconic Fremantle boutique brewery. They serve great drinks and food to match. It’s set on the waterfront and my go to place when having visitors.

 

Fishing Boat Harbour

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Just next door to Little Creatures is the Fishing Boat Harbour. Many come for fresh fish and chips, but I would recommend enjoying a cone of ice-cream while walking around the harbour snapping photos of big boats and then heading towards Bathers Beach and WA Maritime Museum.

 

Lounge on the Beach

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Outside the city centre, you will find gorgeous beaches and bike trails that lead to them. Two of my favorites are Port Beach and South Beach. In the summer, these are great places to cool off and unwind. For those with more time, taking a 30 min ferry from Fremantle to Rottnest Island is a must. The island is surrounded by beautiful beaches and shoreline ideal for diving and snorkeling.

Paris Guide: The Marais

The Marais (4th) district in Paris has changed a lot since I lived there 10 years ago, but it is still my favorite area of Paris. Known as the hipster hub, the gay neighborhood and the Jewish quarter, the Marais has so much to do and see that you could spend 4 months there (like I did) and still leave much to see.  I wanted to share with you some old haunts I still love, and a few new places I discovered on my latest trip.

 

Place des Vosges

20140307-IMG_9668This special place is the oldest planned square in Paris, and the model for countless other residential squares throughout Europe. Author of Les Miserables, Victor Hugo, lived at No. 6 in the square. The arcade is lined with fashionable cafes and restaurants, but I like to enjoy the square by sitting within the square on a bench, watching the most fashionable and hip of Parisians parade by.

 

 

 

 

L’as du Fallafel

lasdufallafelThere is so much hype surrounding this little falafel stand in the heart of the Jewish district, and there are many who say it is over-hyped, but as I see it, a constant line of people out the door (for decades!) can’t be completely wrong. Having stood many times in the line for a pita stuffed with falafel and other goodies, I can say first-hand that it is worth the wait, which, by the way, is shorter than it appears thanks to an efficient system of ordering and paying while you are in line. Once you get to the window, hand over your receipt and your made-to-order falafel sandwich is assembled swiftly. The crispy falafel, marinated eggplant, pickles and hummus pack a ton of flavor. You will probably want to eat it immediately while leaning up against a nearby wall like the locals do. Even with all of the fancy, gourmet restaurants in Paris, many remember this $5 sandwich as their best meal.

 

 

 

 

Mariage Freres

mariagefreresThough the company was opened by the Mariage brothers 160 years ago, the family had been in the tea business for centuries before opening an official shop, so let’s just say they know something about tea. Mariage Freres has 4 tearooms in Paris, with the original store located in the Marais. Over 600 types of tea are displayed apothecary-style in large metal tins in the salon decorated with vintage tea instruments and antique furniture. You can buy tea in the shop area and also sit for a delicious brunch of scones and tea. The tea menu is so massive it can be quite overwhelming, so rely on the expertise of your waiter for suggestions. The aromatic Marco Polo blend is a popular favorite, and one I have purchased many times.

 

 

 

 

L’artisan Parfumeur

lartisanNext door to Mariage Freres is a beautiful little perfume shop with unique scents inspired by nature. When I was living in the neighborhood 10 years ago, I’d always stop in to smell their famed Mure et Musc, a blend of blackberries and musk, of which I now finally own a bottle. I was also drawn to the romantic names of La Chasse aux Papillon (“chasing butterflies”), a beautiful white floral with tuberose and lime blossom, and Mechant Loup (“big bad wolf), a masculine scent of licorice and hazelnut. The most intriguing fragrance of their line, which I almost want to hold secret, is Safran Troublant, a milky saffron-rose-vanilla-sandalwood deliciousness that stops people on the street. Which reminds me, I need to restock.

 

 

Les Nereides

nereidesThis was a new find of mine. I had been following this jewelry company’s Instagram page for a while, after seeing a well known Parisian fashion blogger The Cherry Blossom Girl wear a ring from this company. Then, while walking through the Marais, on the way to Place des Vosges, to be exact, I happened upon their new boutique and spent nearly an hour admiring their romantic, playful jewelry. I had to buy a couple pieces of their Paris-inspired “Paris mon amour” collection so I’d remember that special day wandering through my old neighborhood reminiscing, while creating new memories.

 

 

Delitaly

20140307-IMG_9524Located on rue Rambuteau, Delitaly was my favorite restaurant when I lived in the Marais (though it had a different name back then and was half the size), and it is even more popular than ever now, a decade later. It’s the best Italian food I’ve had outside of Italy, and everyone recommends the tiramisu with gusto!

 

 

 

 

 

What are your favorite Marais spots?

Autumn in Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada

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On my first ever trip to Canada, I welcomed the beginning of autumn in Banff National Park. Banff and the other nearby national parks (Yoho, Kootenay, etc.) have so much beauty packed into a relatively small area. You can experience the most beautiful lakes, waterfalls, and mountains, and even spot some elk, mountain goats and deer if you are lucky (I was not so lucky).

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The best known of the Banff National Park sights is Lake Louise. Crowds flock to see the famous milky deep blue waters, making is one reason it was not my favorite. It was crowded even on that rainy day, so the best way to enjoy the lake is over lunch or coffee with a view at the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise!

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Emerald Lake (in Yoho National Park)  is the kind of place that makes you want to go back and stay a while. The lodge had a cozy, laid back feel, and the lake was a nice size – not too big, and not too small. Of all the beautiful lakes I saw, this one was unique with its namesake green color.

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In case you were wondering, the unique blue-green color of the lakes is caused by fine-grained rock particles (rock flour) carried into the lake from glaciers melting. Now for my favorite of all the glacial lakes – Moraine Lake. I would never tire of looking at this stunning natural sanctuary.

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Lake Minnewanka is so picturesque, especially with the autumn yellow of the Aspen trees against the blue waters. On a sunny day, the water is so glassy that the reflection is as bright and clear as the real deal.

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Once you’re lake-d out, you can head into the town of Banff for a meal, souvenir shopping, or buying up some of the great outdoor gear Canada has to offer. I had never seen such a variety of stylish, high quality outdoor clothing, and coming from the U.S., the prices were pretty good with a favorable exchange rate.

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Someday, I’d love to do a week long road trip from Calgary to Vancouver, stopping at all of the national parks on the way. Have you ever done a road trip through Canada?

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Breathtaking Snoqualmie Falls – A Jaunt from Seattle

Just 30 minutes outside of Seattle are the impressive Snoqualmie Falls. You might recognize the waterfall and lodge from the opening credits of the TV show Twin Peaks! If you were a fan of the show, as I was, I challenge you to visit without hearing the theme song in your head. The view from the upper observation decks, close to the main parking lot, is the same view as the one in the TV show.

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The upper observation deck is easily accessible from the parking area, and most people only see the falls from this platform. If you are up for a bit of a hike, you can walk the 1.2 miles round trip to the lower observation deck, seeing many shades of green, moss-covered trees and giant fallen tree trunks on the way down. The entrance to the trail is not well marked, but on the way back to the parking lot, if you keep to the left past a playground area, you will find the trail.

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Or, you could skip the hike and drive down to the lower parking lot, and from there, take the short walk to the lower observation deck. This part of the walk is the prettiest anyway, with the wooden walkway passing directly alongside the river before the view opens up to the falls.

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This is the view from the lower observation deck – definitely worth the drive or hike!

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A little tip – if you are planning to walk the distance between the upper and lower observation decks, skip the main parking lot that gets very crowded and drive straight down to the lower parking lot, then walk and back from there. The lower parking lot was nearly empty when I visited, while the upper main lot was full to the brim, with people circling looking for spots. I wish I had known there was a parking lot at the lower observation deck! Now you know, and can make the most of your visit to Snoqualmie Falls.

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

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You can see nearly every shade of green on the  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!

America’s Best Castle – Hearst Castle

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The U.S. may be a bit lacking in castles compared to other parts of the world, but Hearst Castle in San Simeon, California makes up a bit for the lack in quantity with its playful extravagance with dashes of California nature and Hollywood flavor.

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The vacation playground for William Randolph Hurst, the newspaper magnate, hosted many celebrities in its heyday in the 1920s and 1930s including Charlie Chaplin, Greta Garbo and Winston Churchill. Guests entertained themselves during the day with the multiple pools, gardens, and the largest privately owned zoo at the time.

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I’m not exactly sure how one chooses between the outdoor Neptune Pool surrounded by white marble statues and colonnades, or the indoor Roman Pool with floor to ceiling (and walls too) mosaic tiles in cobalt blue and sparkling gold – sparkling because it is real gold!

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In the evenings, Hearst threw lavish dinner parties, and sometimes legendary costume parties where everyone dressed in costumes borrowed from movie wardrobes. This man really knew how to really enjoy his money!

Some practical advice for your visit – I’d recommend starting with the Grand Rooms Tour, which takes you through the social (“party”) rooms of the largest house on the property. Try to be at the back of the tour group so you can catch a photo of the spaces without too many people in them, once people move along to the next room.

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After the tour, take some time to walk around the entire property and appreciate the gardens, statues, and palm tree-framed views of the Central Coast below.

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Perhaps pick out a guest house you would have chosen to stay in had you been lucky enough to be invited.

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I’d highly recommend the Upstairs Suites Tour, in addition to the Ground Rooms Tour, if you have time for it. In the past, if you took two tours, you had to take the bus back down the mountain and wait at the Visitor Center in between them, but now they let you wander freely around the grounds for as long as you’d like. Why not lounge around by the Neptune pool in the shade of the colonnade? I sure did!

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The Upstairs Rooms Tour takes you into Hearst’s bedrooms and his penthouse library, which was my favorite room of the entire castle. I really wanted to grab a rare book from the collection and plop down on a chair and read for hours, but instead they kicked us all out (nicely, of course).

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And then, you take the bus back down to reality and dream of a life with Roman pools, zoo animals and costume parties…

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Ghost Hunting in Bodie, CA

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If you can survive the long drive to the middle of nowhere, the nearly 9,000 foot elevation and the last 3 miles of the bumpiest, windy dirt road I’ve ever experienced (in a car with intact shocks anyway), you could be in for a treat of one of the best preserved ghost towns in the U.S. Bodie is located about an hour away from Yosemite and is definitely worth the detour.

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What once boomed as a gold rush town with an estimated 10,000 people in 1880, the long-abandoned Bodie now sits in a state of “arrested decay,” maintained by the California State Parks System.

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The park is more popular than you might imagine, given its remote location. With the park entry fee, you have the freedom to wander around the grounds of the park, and despite the many people visiting, you will find yourself in pockets of quiet where you feel like you have the entire place to yourself.

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The interiors of some of the buildings have also been preserved, and I could have spent hours peeking through windows at all of the furnishings, clothing, and household goods, imagining daily life in Bodie’s heyday.

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Bodie was known for its tumultuous, unpredictable weather creating harsh living conditions that many people living there escaped by spending their free time in one of 65 saloons in the town. Even during my two hour long visit, I experienced about three different seasons. At first overcast with ominous clouds, a layer of clouds then broke to offer the brightest blue skies and puffy white clouds, only to disappear again behind clouds even more ominous.

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Though I didn’t meet any ghosts on this trip, I am still on the hunt. Have you visited any ghosts towns? I have a few more on my list to visit someday!