Tag Archives: driving

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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A Walk Through Huntington Gardens – Pasadena, California

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Living in Southern California, I feel as though I have an endless list of places to visit nearby, or with a day or weekend trip away from my home in San Diego. I keep my travel wish list organized by continent, country, and region (does anyone else do this?). Despite countless trips to the LA area, The Huntington in Pasadena, CA had been on my wish list for so long and I finally had the opportunity to visit!

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It has a library with rare books and lovely museums, but the main draw is the 120 acres of botanical gardens. Walk with me first through the rose garden…and try not to smell each variety of rose like I did!

20140906-IMG_5304All of that rose sniffing had me a little woozy and in need of a rest. This spot will do nicely.

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The Japanese Garden has a bit of everything – moon bridge, tea house, koi pond, and even a bonsai courtyard! It seems to have been designed with inspiration and reflection in mind, with many nooks to sit and absorb the surroundings.

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This is the only zen rock garden I have seen outside of Japan. Walking through it took me right back to the famous Ryoan-ji in Kyoto. Especially during this epic drought we are experiencing in California at the moment, I have great appreciation for a garden that requires no water!

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In contrast to the Japanese Garden that invites reflection and intimacy, the Chinese Garden promotes community with its tea house overlooking the lake, and large, intricately decorated gazebos.

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There are so many other gardens to explore at The Huntington, including an Australian Garden, a Cactus Garden, and one of the largest Camellia gardens in North America. If you have been before, what was your favorite garden? I loved the Japanese garden the most, but felt I could have sat at the Chinese tea pavilion for hours!

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!

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!