A Travellerspoint blog


Heading South to Explore North Carolina

Visiting the (Actual) Cubs

sunny 25 °C

Sample Itinerary
- Day 1: Biltmore, sunset dinner in Asheville
- Day 2: Great Smoky Mountains hiking, dinner in Waynesville
 --> Clingmans Dome (loved these views): 1 mile starting from the parking area at the end of Clingmans Dome Road, fully paved, but extremely steep (well worth it for the views) – there are restrooms available, but no water
 --> Laurel Falls: 2.6 miles roundtrip starting between the Sugarlands Visitor Center and Elkmont Campground, very popular since you can swim at the base of the falls – no restrooms or water available aside from at the visitor center
 --> Cataract Falls: starts near the Sugarlands Visitor Center, mainly flat
- Day 3: Blue Ridge Parkway hiking, dinner in Marshall
 --> Craggy Gardens and Craggy Pinnacle (loved these views): Roughly 2 miles roundtrip and 1.4 miles roundtrip respectively, both are fairly steep, forested, and lead to beautiful views (watch out for roots, and bugs) – we parked in the picnic area and hiked up then returned to our car and drove to the Craggy Pinnacle designated parking lot. The Craggy Gardens visitor center and picnic center both have restrooms.
 --> Mt. Mitchell Summit: 1 mile roundtrip starting from the highest parking lot which takes you to the highest peak east of the Mississippi; it’s very steep but paved the whole way and there are porta potties and water fountains for public use
 --> Crabtree Falls (my favourite waterfalls): about 3 miles roundtrip; you can either go back the way you came, or take a different, slightly longer more scenic route back following the river; it starts off easy but becomes increasingly difficult with uneven paths and the need to hold on to a railing to find your footing on a crumbled staircase on the return; no facilities along the trail, but there is a campground about a mile from the parking lot, en route to the trailhead
- Day 4: Asheville (try Urban Trails self-guided tour), including the North Carolina (NC) Arboretum
Optional: Drive from Asheville to Chicago through North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois

Where to Stay
- Best Western Smoky Mountain Inn, Waynesville ($100 USD)
- Marshall House Inn (B&B), Marshall ($150 USD)
- Wingate by Wyndham Fletcher at Asheville Airport ($80 USD)

Where to Eat
- Asheville: Tupelo Honey Café, The Chocolate Fetish, Well-Bred Bakery and Café
- Marshall: Zuma Coffee, Star Diner
- Waynesville: Los Amigos Mexican Restaurant, Kanini’s Restaurant, Third Bay – Filling Station
- Louisville, Kentucky: Martin’s Bar-B-Que Joint

My Travel Diary
North Carolina clearly hasn’t had the same publicists as Florida or California because growing up it wasn’t really on people's radar where I lived. There was no Disneyworld or Disneyland to dream of, and I’d never heard of the Great Smoky Mountains – only Smoky the Bear! But over the last few years Asheville has increasingly been the topic of travel talk; I’ve heard a lot about it being an open-minded oasis full of delicious local fare and surrounded by incredible mountain ranges. So, when deciding where to go on a five-day July getaway, my partner and I agreed on North Carolina. Full disclosure: it helped that the plane ticket prices were about $125 USD each roundtrip.

Before traveling anywhere, I always make sure to check the forecast. Once I’ve arrived, I always remember that meteorologists are fallible human beings. We were expecting three straight days of rain, including thunderstorms, so we planned accordingly; however, we only got sporadic showers. Regardless, we planned to spend our first day at Biltmore Estate because we could have a few hours indoors exploring the largest private residence in the U.S. We approached the house from the Diana Fountain at the top of a hill, such that we saw it increasing in size in contrast to the fading mountains behind it. The home, with its French Renaissance style, covers roughly four acres with 35 bedrooms, 43 washrooms, a bowling alley, and library with its own secret passageways.


We spent roughly an hour and a half exploring the house, feeling more and more thankful by the minute that I’d never have the means to live in such a preposterously imposing house: there was a four-storey chandelier, a 90-foot room devoted entirely to tapestries (including one from the 1500s), and a 70 000-gallon indoor pool in the basement complete with underwater lighting at a time when many homes didn’t even have electricity yet. It’s well worth a visit not only to examine the architectural features (thanks to Richard Morris Hunt) and the landscape architecture (thanks to Frederick Law Olmsted), but also to reflect on the vast wealth disparity in the U.S. On the self-guided audio tour they made sure to emphasize that the estate was opened up to the public in the 1930s to try to increase tourism in the region and boost the local economy, while also being a major source of ongoing employment for locals.


Although you could spend multiple days exploring the grounds at Biltmore, we booked our tickets for just one day and reserved a 3pm entry to the house. We started off by walking through the outdoor Library and South Terraces, savouring the shade and soaking up the stunning views of the mountains. We also happened to overhear an engagement proposal, although we were both so groggy from our flight that it didn’t register at first. The woman kept looking down at her hand and making an astonished face, so it finally clicked and I bluntly asked: “Did you just get engaged?” She shyly said yes, huge smile creeping across her face. I gushed over her ring and wished them all the best in their life ahead and then gave them some privacy.


We strolled through the Shrub Garden, the Walled Garden, and the Rose Garden on our way to the Conservatory. I appreciated the diversity of plant life: from a bamboo forest to azalea gardens; and was incredibly impressed with the botanical model train display, fully functioning trains composed entirely of plant matter! We kept walking behind the conservatory, continuing on to the Bass Pond and Boat House with its own hidden waterfall – another prime proposal spot.


Completed in 1895, the property included thousands of acres so it’s no surprise that the Vanderbilt family ultimately decided to start a dairy farm, winery, and now also own multiple hotels in the Antler Hill Village area. We didn't have time to hike or bike the many acres, but we did drive by the sunflower field and take in the art displays along with the educational exhibits. There’s also the adjacent Biltmore Village, which has historic cottages full of restaurants, cafes, and event spaces. We stopped there to fuel up at the Well-Bred Bakery and Café.


We should have been more cognizant of our potential hanger when we packed for our hiking trips in Great Smoky Mountains National Park and along the Blue Ridge Parkway. We also hadn’t realized that it may be difficult to refuel, even with water, along the way. Driving to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, I also regretted not budgeting time to explore Cherokee – a town governed by the Cherokee Nation with a nice river, cute restaurants, and the Museum of the Cherokee Indian. Instead, we ventured on to the Oconaluftee Visitor Center to get hiking early. While there, I was able to purchase water from a vending machine and use their restroom, while also picking up two paper guides: one devoted to day hikes and a Great Smoky Mountains trail map. It was only $2 for 2 of them! I’d highly recommend coming in with paper maps and guides because the internet was unsurprisingly unreliable. From there we stopped at a few of the overlooks like Morton and Carlos Campbell before doing our first hike at the Clingman’s Dome (steep but stunning!).


I’d recommend wearing a hat, taking sunscreen, and going at your own pace – we saw a few people overheating on the way up, so it’s always important to stop when needed. We ended up spending roughly an hour there, really taking in the sights. We also had a strange delay in that we had to step in and distract some bees that were terrorizing a young girl whose mother was clearly also afraid and keeping her distance. Once the bees had buzzed off and the family had fled, we were able to continue on our way. Our eyes loved every twist and turnoff the drive (although my motion sickness definitely didn’t) and it’s clear why they’re called the Great Smoky Mountains given the clouds so stoically seated atop the summits. Our next stop was at the Newfound Gap where we learned more about the history of the national park, the region, and got to officially stand half in Tennessee and half in North Carolina.



We couldn’t find water anywhere and the washroom had signage indicating its water wasn’t potable, so we stopped at the Sugarlands Visitor Center where they had water fountains as well as vending machines, but no food unfortunately. So that my belly growls didn’t get confused with bear growls, we diverted into Gatlinburg and grabbed lunch from Five Guys - mainly because it was cheap and easy protein. Gatlinburg itself is a tourist trap, overpriced with far too many neon signs, and I’m glad we didn’t stay there. We quickly headed back to the hills to hike more. We rounded off our day by hiking Laurel Falls, which took us roughly 90 minutes – my partner actually climbed down into the pool at the bottom for a quick dip. We found out that we had bearly missed a cub who had been spotted on the path; probably for the best because I’m sure a mama bear wouldn’t be too welcoming to tourists like us. Before leaving the park, we decided to walk the Cataract Falls trail from the Sugarlands Visitor Center, quick and easy but really pretty. If we were to do it all again, I’m not sure that I’d hike Laurel Falls – I’d consider trying Chimney Tops Trail instead, which is also popular but likely has better vantage points.



In contrast, I’d love to revisit everything we did in the Blue Ridge Parkway. To begin with, we had the good fortune of seeing two bear cubs cross our path within about ten minutes of each other. We were in our car both times, otherwise I would have felt more like a not-so-happy meal and less like a happy observer. Fortunately, when we arrived at the Craggy Gardens Picnic Parking Lot no one was eating – bears or humans – so it was nice and quiet. We started our hike there so that we could get the ascent out of the way and have a breezier finish. The Craggy Gardens hike wasn’t overly challenging because the path was generally clear, but because it was steep at times, I took it slow. There was enough space to step to the side at times, but unfortunately, we still encountered some rude individuals. Maybe their attitude was a result of their hanger, we’ll never know. The hike itself was mainly through the forest without vantage points, but we did enjoy the rhododendrons and rock formations along the way. Once you arrive at the visitor center, the views are spectacular. Even more incredible are the views from the Craggy Pinnacle; however, I wouldn’t recommend walking to the trailhead from the visitor center – it’s much better to drive down the road, through the tunnel, and park in the Craggy Pinnacle hike parking lot.


The highest peak we reached was Mt. Mitchell. Although it’d be more impressive to say that we hiked the tallest mountain east of the Mississippi, the truth is that we drove as far as we could in our rental car before begrudgingly huffing and puffing our way up to the 6684 ft. summit. It was a short climb, but a very, very steep one – more so than Clingmans Dome, and that’s saying something!


A last-minute addition to our hiking agenda was Crabtree Falls. I hadn’t read about it in my research for the trip, but because I befriended a man on a motorcycle who recommended we visit Little Switzerland (long story) we changed our route and hiking plans. It turned out to be a blessing and a curse: Crabtree Falls were the most beautiful waterfalls on our trip by far, but Little Switzerland was about as authentic as Swiss Miss.


In booking our accommodation, I chose to stay only in small towns rather than in Asheville proper. After two nights in Waynesville, about half an hour west of Asheville, we moved half an hour north of Asheville to Marshall. Between the two, I preferred Waynesville. It helped that there were more restaurants, cafes, and impressive views of the mountains. As with most small towns, we had to work around limited hours of service, which were greatly exacerbated by a labour shortage due to Covid-19. We felt that more acutely in Marshall, which only had two restaurants open for dinner when we stayed. The views from our incredible B&B (cannot recommend it highly enough) were far more appealing to us than sitting on a busy patio so we ordered take-out. We made the right decision because another guest at the B&B performed a live concert for us while we dined at dusk on the vast veranda.


Surrounded by thriving small town life, we expected Asheville to be a more booming metropolis. In fact, it was bustling with tourists but had a fairly small, very walkable downtown. If you’re not in the mood to take a formal tour, then I highly recommend Asheville Urban Trail (https://www.exploreasheville.com/urban-trail/) because it outlines options for exploring Asheville with resources like a printable map, audio guide and even a scavenger hunt. I didn’t follow my own advice (typical teacher), so we ended up haphazardly wandering the town enjoying the architecture of the St. Lawrence Basilica and the Grove Arcade, chocolates at Chocolate Fetish, books at Malaprop Bookstore, vibe of Wall St. (couldn’t be more different to New York), and finally the Center for Craft on Broadway where we learned about women’s furniture and Asian-American artists (while basking in the glory of air conditioning).


The highlight of our time in Asheville was actually meeting some of the incredible artists in the River Arts District like Andrea Kulish who makes Ukrainian pysanky eggs and Nadine Charlsen who shares my fascination with trains. There was something inspiring about not only seeing the artists at work, but also being able to safely interact with them (and Nadine’s adorable dog) at a time when connection can be harder to come by due to the pandemic. Sadly, we weren’t able to meet some of the other incredible artists whose work spoke to me like Kris Morgan for their light-hearted faraway scenes from Paris, Portugal and many other locales; and Angela Alexander, with her colourful portraits of animal life.


Likely the safest social activity we engaged in was the socially-distant outdoor concert at the North Carolina Arboretum featuring Laura Thurston and Steve Newbrough. There was no additional cost for the live music, beyond the $16 entry fee to the arboretum. Sadly, we arrived too late to really hike the extensive grounds. But we had plenty of room to enjoy the acoustic guitar and unique vocals, and because the sound traveled so well, we were even able to walk through multiple gardens while still enjoying the sound. The Quilt Garden was an homage to the handiwork of the people in Appalachia, incorporating designs and bold colours into a patchwork garden. Nearby, a statue of the famous Frederick Law Olmsted stands approvingly.


By the time we left Asheville we felt like we’d packed as much as possible into a very short time; we were satiated, but also excited to return in a different season for new perspectives and to learn more about the regional cultures: Appalachian and Indigenous. It turned out that it would be harder than we thought to go home. We arrived at the airport in advance of our 7 am flight only to learn that our flight was departing from Gate A12, yet the airport only held gates 1-7. Once we solved the mystery of translating North Carolina gates into Midwestern ones, we safely boarded the flight. Soon after, there was a ruckus beside us because Allegiant had overbooked and multiple people were assigned to the exact same seat. Next step? Mechanical failure. So, as quickly as we had boarded, we were told to disembark. I was drugged by this point, partially to lessen my motion sickness and partially to help my newfound anxiety, so I barely understood what was happening. All I knew was that I had taken medication to help with movement and I was suddenly shockingly still and stranded. My partner had set off to find reliable internet and search for new flights, while I tried to decipher what the airport attendant’s announcements actually meant. She had, at first, indicated that the next flight wasn’t until Monday (this was Friday) and had then listed the nearest airports in case we could find (1) private transit there; and (2) flights from there back to the Midwest. She then changed course and clarified that there was a slight possibility that the mechanical failure could be resolved by a system reset, in which case we may be able to fly out within a few hours. Unwilling to wait, I started looking for rental cars. There were none. Given that my partner had work the next day, we didn’t have much room for failure so I proposed that we go back in person to the rental car agency we had just returned a car to and see if they’d take pity on us and let us re-rent our beloved Kia. It worked.


And thus began our unexpected thirteen-hour drive from Asheville to Chicago. Well, to be honest, our first stop was returning to our hotel for our complimentary continental breakfast. Fueled up (on multiple counts), we then set off. The mountain drives were stunning, including the Daniel Boone Forest. My favourite stops were: Berea, Kentucky which has a booming folk art culture including a visitor center right near the highway (buy the bourbon balls!) and Martin’s Bar-B-Que in Louisville, Kentucky (highly recommend the brisket tacos!). Driving through North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, Indiana and then Illinois was not how we planned to end our “relaxing” getaway, but it was worthwhile. I learned about Kentucky’s art and that for just $50 you can board a five-storey replica of Noah’s Ark. Personally, I’d rather spend the money on chocolate-covered bourbon, but to each their own. While driving through the region, we also saw plenty of ads for Jesus and guns (sometimes on the same billboard), but one really stood out: “gun control: buying one when you want two”. We couldn’t very well leave the South without at least a couple of stereotypes being reinforced, could we? On that note, I’ll mention too that we passed by Colonel Sander’s original Kentucky Fried Chicken Restaurant in North Corbin, Kentucky. It turns out that he was a real man, not just a cartoon conspiracy!


We traveled with ease through the region and really enjoyed the solid infrastructure, well-maintained roads, and friendly faces we encountered along the way. Even our unexpected thirteen-hour drive home ended up being a welcome opportunity to see more of the South – especially the bumpy landscape and delicious food!


Posted by madrugada 00:26 Archived in USA Tagged mountains churches art buildings animals chocolate rain architecture cities nature hiking vacation scenery summer rural usa tennessee forest beauty bbq eating cafes gatlinburg botanical_gardens kentucky blue_ridge_parkway american_history indiana arboretum north_carolina asheville marshall safe_travel waynesville scenic_road_trip coronavirus lush_greenery social_distance great_smoky_mountains illinoiswaterfalls Comments (0)

Weird, Wacky Wisconsin

semi-overcast 15 °C

Sample Itinerary (from Chicago)
- Day 1: Rockford (Illinois), Madison, Baraboo
- Day 2: Devil’s Lake, Wisconsin Dells, Baraboo
- Day 3: House on the Rock, Mt. Horeb, Madison
- Day 4: Madison, Milwaukee
Optional: Pewits Nest Gorge, Parfrey’s Glen, Cave of the Mounds, Lake Geneva, Mars Cheese Castle

Where to Stay
- Ringling House B&B in Baraboo ($115 USD)
- Hotel Indigo in Madison ($170 USD)

Where to Eat
- Baraboo: Tumbled Rock Brewery (perfect place to visit after hiking Devil’s Lake), Baraboo Burger Company (open late serving up tasty burgers and salads), Coffee Bean Connection (cute place with flavourful lattes, mochas, and bagels), Driftless Glen Distillery (fancier dining)
- Madison: Chocolate Shoppe, Madison Sourdough, Glass Nickel Pizza Company

My Travel Diary
As an “alien” – yes, that’s the actual term used – there’s still a lot that I don’t know, and am curious to learn about the U.S. Enter Wisconsin. One of my closest friends had told me that while living in Chicago I had to visit Wisconsin, especially the Devil’s Lake hiking area, House on the Rock, and Madison. His spouse had lived in Madison temporarily and the two of them had explored the area to the fullest extent possible, so I trusted their judgment. Due to scheduling conflicts, I had to delay the trip until April, 2021. As it happens, spring is an excellent time to visit Wisconsin. Leaving Chicago, my travel partner (i.e., real life partner) and I decided to stop at Rockford, Illinois to check out the arboretum and Anderson Japanese Gardens. I found the Japanese garden really well-manicured and very peaceful, particularly appreciating the waterfalls and traditional Japanese zigzag bridge. We spent so long at the Anderson Japanese Gardens that we never saw the nearby botanical gardens or arboretum.


The whole area was fairly residential, which made the search for Frank Lloyd Wright’s Laurent House a bit tricky. This house has the distinction of being the only Wright house designed for a client with a physical disability. Built in the 1950s, this house was referred to as Ken and Phyllis Laurent’s “little gem” although its grounds are surprisingly large. We parked on a side street and just wandered the exterior as it was officially closed and undergoing maintenance when we came; normally, it would cost $5 for students to enter and $25 for others. It may have been Wright, but we were probably wrong to just snoop around without paying – the consolation is that we never entered the building, or even the backyard. In a similarly creepy manner, we drove by Taliesin (also by Wright) but didn’t enter. It spans 800 acres, including the 37 000 square foot home, and is actually a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site. There are a number of tours available, including a two-hour highlights tour that is $65. Hopefully next time I’m in the area I’ll actually explore it in greater depth, not just do a drive-by.


On the theme of architecture, I would be remiss not to devote time to the House on the Rock. The question is: how do you begin to describe the strangest place you’ve ever visited (excluding a robot café in Japan, naturally)? Here goes. Once upon a time there was a man, a very strange man, named Alex Jordan. With the heart of a dreamer and the mind of an engineer, he bought land in the 1940s overlooking a valley and began building a home into the huge rocks that dotted the landscape. The house grew and by the 1960s he was charging admission to tourists who flocked to the site to see the stained glass, low ceilings, and music machines. As time passed, his interests expanded: he assembled the largest indoor carousel in the world, he built a 218-foot scenic overhang (which shakes with the wind), and he curated wings of his house devoted to topics as divergent as aviation, doll houses, and musical organs (for starters). Nowadays, it takes hours to tour the house in its entirety. We opted for the “ultimate experience” and spent four hours exploring all three sections. It was musty, I had to duck at times, I felt watched by all the dolls and strange animatronics, but I can safely say that I never saw terrifying twins. Or Jack Nicholson, for that matter. Although I wouldn’t even be surprised if someone told me he’d made a cameo at one of Alex Jordan’s wild 1960s parties.


Mt. Horeb, Baraboo, and Wisconsin Dells were also strange but combined they still wouldn’t even register on a scale measured against House on the Rock. To begin with, Baraboo is a circus city in every sense: from the Circus World Museum to all the businesses named after the Ringling brothers to the statues of elephants all over town. We spent two nights there, but in retrospect I would have rather stayed there one night and spent two nights in Madison instead. Briefly, our bright yellow B&B in Baraboo was actually built in 1901 by one of the famous Ringling brothers – hence the name, “Ringling House B&B”. I had been hoping for a tour of the home, but it never came. Regardless, it served as a good enough base for our regional exploring because it was well-located, clean, and fairly private. Surprisingly, our “modern” Indigo Hotel in Madison was actually a highly-renovated building from the early 1900s as well. Due to its former identity as a paint headquarters and manufacturing plant, the hotel has splashes of colour all over, which really added to its charm.


Baraboo also has its own charm, but unfortunately it was fairly deserted while we were there which meant that a number of the businesses and attractions were closed. For entertainment, we walked the Riverwalk and watched a local baseball game. It felt wholesome, yet incomplete – mainly because I had no hot dog or peanuts in hand. In fact, the restaurants in Baraboo closed really early, so we faced a quandary after becoming so invested in the baseball game that we missed closing time for almost all of the local eateries! We strolled restaurant to restaurant hoping that one would still be open. We entered one and promptly left after receiving an intimidating stare down from the server and other patrons; the next one we entered, Baraboo Burger Company, was a much more welcoming environment (with delicious results!). It was eerie walking around at night, but at least there were no Galena-styled sirens.


Mt. Horeb may have a few thousand less human residents than Baraboo, but it makes up for that with its outsized troll population. In fact, Mt. Horeb is known as “the troll capital of the world” and I took it upon myself to meet as many of the trolls as I could. I started by picking up my “trollway” map at the visitor center, heartily announcing myself with a vibrato “velkommen”. It turns out you don’t need to speak Norwegian to go troll hunting, which is helpful since in reality I don’t speak Norwegian. It turns out the area has had a strong Norwegian presence since the late 1800s, and Scandinavian culture has helped shape Wisconsin in ways that I hadn’t realized. Although I learned more than I’ll ever need to know about trolls, it was harder to find information about the Indigenous people who had lived there prior to the European settlers. Instead, I had to fall back on my old friend the internet. Search results told me that the area was part of the Ho-Chunk territory, which was “ceded” to the U.S. government over the course of a number of treaties signed in the early 19th century. So far wherever I’ve traveled in the U.S., I’ve seen little to no offerings for tourists (or locals) that incorporate or highlight the history and contemporary cultures of Indigenous people. It’s erasure and it’s disappointing, to say the least.



While looking for more information about Indigenous cultures around what’s now known as Wisconsin, I learned that “Today, the Ho-Chunk Nation is the largest employer in Sauk and Jackson counties” (https://wisconsinfirstnations.org/ho-chunk-nation/). Part of the Wisconsin Dells is in Sauk county, so that was a helpful fact to keep in mind while visiting. That being said, I stayed as short a time as possible because it felt like it was trying to be Niagara Falls trying to be Las Vegas: funnel cakes, old timey photo studios, overpriced wax museums and all. After a quick drive through town, we felt in need of the purifying power of nature so we hiked the Chapel Gorge Trail. It’s fine if you’re looking for a simple stroll in the woods, but if you’re craving more excitement then Devil’s Lake is the place for you.


We drove to the Devil’s Lake State Park fairly early by our standards, but nowhere near its opening time of 6 am. It was straightforward to pay the $16 admission fee, park, and then set off on our hike. The helpful attendant advised that we try the East Bluff Trail for the best views, as well as the chance to see Elephant Rock and Devil’s Doorway. Truthfully, Elephant Rock looked more like a giant brain to me; at least House on the Rock was clearly a house… on a rock.


In any case, I found the hike challenging. It’s steep at times, but the real issue was the fact that you’re walking on stone steps that are significantly spaced at times and I actually cut my knee trying to scramble from one to another. It’s officially labeled as “moderate”, but for me it was difficult, and I doubt it would be easy for anyone aside from maybe mountain goats.




On our way back to the car we followed the Tumbled Rock Path, which was a walk in the park (literally and figuratively). Tumbled Rock is a very easy and fairly quick walk whereas East Bluff Trail is far from accessible and would require at least two hours (at least).


The views are spectacular though – especially from the Devil’s Doorway. Looking down you’ll see the green trees jutting out from purple rocks above the turquoise lake and under the cerulean sky, and wonder how you could be so lucky as to stand surrounded by such beauty. And yes, I said purple rocks. It turns out that Devil’s Lake State Park is the most commonly visited park in Wisconsin partially because of its Baraboo Quartzite: pink and purple exposed rocks that date back 1.5 billion years. I may not be a geologist (or a dad), but I can officially say that this place rocks.



Now let’s talk Madison, the progressive gem of Wisconsin. Apart from it being a wonderful place to visit, I kept reflecting on how much I’d like to live there: from its multiple lakes (sunrise picnic at one, sunset picnic at another!) to its seemingly endless biking/walking trails (including an arboretum in the middle of the city with yet another lake inside of it!) coupled with its emphasis on respecting nature and humanity, I just felt so enamoured with everything I experienced. Maybe instead of just admiring the imposing Wisconsin State Capitol building from the outside, I should have been networking inside of it!


As Madison is the capital of Wisconsin, it’s inherently political. The writing was on the walls all over the city, so to speak: protest slogans and inspirational images like a collage from May 30, 2020. We didn’t see any protests while we were there, but there was plenty of proof that it’s a civically-active city. It gives me hope when I see people actively engaging in democratic processes, and even more so when they’re creating those processes themselves. Policy changes culture, and policy needs to be responsive to local culture too.



I’ll finish this blog post by focusing on my one true love: food. And the food all over Wisconsin, but especially in Madison, was phenomenal. We tried multiple restaurants, but our favourite had to be a pizza joint. It was so good that we ate Glass Nickel pizza at Olbrich Beach one day and then at Marshall Park the next (I highly recommend their chicken alfredo pizza!). Thankfully neither of us is lactose-intolerant, so we completed our first meal with tasty treats from Madison Chocolate Shoppe. Milkshake in hand, gloves on hand (it got chilly at night), we walked through the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus at sunset enjoying the reflections on the lake. Well, one of the many lakes.


Upon leaving Madison, we decided to make one more stop in Milwaukee so that my partner could visit a friend and I could eat more dairy. The Milwaukee Public Market was the perfect pit stop: you can find anything from spices to smoothies. Now that I’ve had a taste of Wisconsin, I’m definitely craving more – as cheesy as that may sound.


Posted by madrugada 20:19 Archived in USA Tagged lakes food architecture nature hiking elephants rocks university circus forests pizza geology arboretum weird picnics frank_lloyd_wright dairy illinois milwaukee madison wisconsin house_on_the_rock carousels baraboo rockford devil's_lake wisconsin_dells mt.horeb trolls wacky quartzite milwaukee_public_market laurent_house taliesin milkshakes japanese_gardens Comments (0)

Galena, Illinois: The Perfect Weekend Getaway from Chicago

Historically-significant, and contemporarily cool

snow -5 °C

Sample Itinerary (from Chicago)
- Day 1: Elgin’s Walton Island, Stockton murals, Galena
- Day 2: Explore Galena including the Galena River Trail, Ulysses S. Grant home, and Historic Galena; Chestnut Mountain Resort, and Casper Bluff
- Day 3: Thunder Bay Falls, Apple River Canyon State Park
Optional: drive over the Mississippi River to Dubuque, Iowa or over the border into Wisconsin

Where to Stay
- The Steamboat House B&B (roughly $220/night)

Where to Eat
- Green Street Tavern in the historic DeSoto House Hotel
- Treats from Elle & Becks and/or Chocolat‘ 229

My Travel Diary
Craving a quick trip outside of the city limits, I started researching the best weekend getaways within a three-hour drive of Chicago. Consistently seeing the same results, it was a no-brainer: it had to be Galena, Illinois. The town is named after a rare mineral that was mined there for hundreds of years by local Indigenous tribes before European-American colonizers settled in the area in the early 1800s. The population quickly exploded and by the 1860s it even served as the headquarters for Ulysses S. Grant’s presidential campaign – the DeSoto House has painstakingly preserved many mementos that are worth seeing. The Ulysses S. Grant Home State Historic Site is also a must-see if you're interested in learning more about the man and his family. Nowadays, Galena is decidedly less populated, but far more tourist-friendly. From our comfortable B&B to the incredible architecture and delicious food, it's an easy and enjoyable time.




We spent our time there shopping, admiring the architecture, eating, and wandering the river walk. People were generally friendly and we chatted with many locals (masked, and at a distance). At the time, the pandemic was still raging and vaccinations weren’t yet ubiquitous. Unfortunately, these are political times: from the pandemic to the recent election, and some people were hiding their faces but wearing their opinions on their sleeves. I entered one business and casually made small-talk while the woman working there rang up my purchases, asking how they’d been faring in light of the travel restrictions, mask restrictions, etc. She told me that they hadn’t had many issues with people refusing to wear masks or protesting in Galena. “That’s fantastic. Everything’s so political these days, but I think most people just want everyone to be healthy and happy” I naively responded. She then launched into an angry diatribe about why Biden was destroying the U.S. and her thoughts on the insurrection (among other things). So, I firmly told her that this conversation was over and I was leaving her store. When you travel, there’s always the good and the bad, but sometimes there’s also the ugly: in this case it was political polarization popping up seemingly out of nowhere.


Aside from that unpleasant encounter, everyone was respectful – not trying to proselytize or pressure in any way. Yes, I set a low bar. I particularly enjoyed chatting with the owner of Elle & Becks, and the woman working in Chocolat’ 229: friendly, laid-back, flowing conversations, exactly what I’d expect on a small-town getaway. What I didn’t expect was a nice evening stroll being blaringly interrupted by a siren straight out of the movie “The Purge”. My instinct? Powerwalk toward the nearest open restaurant as quickly as possible. My partner’s response? Abruptly stop and check his phone. Guess who’s still alive? Both of us, thankfully! It turns out that some small towns have volunteer fire departments, which summon their firefighters through the use of a painfully loud siren. And apparently said siren must be tested daily to ensure it’s still functional. It was. In comparison, our B&B was located just off the main drag, so it felt like a really calm retreat. We were the only guests staying there at the time, which magnified the sense of healthy isolation that I had craved. The breakfasts were delicious, the décor was still Christmas-oriented, and we spent a good amount of time just relaxing in the various rooms throughout the historic home. I even had the opportunity to play piano to my adoring fans. Well, my one and only fan – but he really enjoyed it!


We also made sure to take in the nearby sites like Chestnut Mountain Resort, which would be a good place to learn how to ski or snowboard. Sadly, I wasn’t interested in either, but I did appreciate the view!


We continued on to the local Thunder Bay Falls, which were very different from the Canadian version. This was an odd stop because you have to park by the road and then walk over to see them, yet it’s hard to get a nice view of them without the surrounding developments that have sprung up.


Casper Bluff, in contrast, was much more rural and a really peaceful place to walk and appreciate the wide-open skies. It’s also a perfect spot for birdwatchers, even the kind who might usually only watch the blue jays and cardinals on TV.


Farther from Galena is Apple River Canyon State Park, which is worth a visit. We didn’t hike so much as casually walk through the park for about an hour before deciding to move on to our next destination. The highlight for us was playing in the snow: it felt like our own little winter wonderland.


Finally, I’ll just mention some of our stops on the way to and from Galena. We really liked Walton Island Park in Elgin, just outside of Chicago. It was very slippery, but it also had a Narnia-esque vibe to it.


Stockton was a sweet little town full of pretty murals, well worth a stop.


And although we didn’t spend much time in Dubuque, we were glad to have crossed the bridge into Iowa just to see the power of the Mississippi and remember how far it travels across the U.S. Maybe in the future, our travels will take us further afield but for now we’re happy just enjoying the local terrain.

Posted by madrugada 22:01 Archived in USA Tagged food architecture local hiking history shopping murals dubuque mississippi_river riverfront roadtrip illinois political stockton galena elgin apple_river_canyon_state_park thunder_bay_falls casper_bluff polarization Comments (0)

Falling into Michigan

A (Safe) Pandemic Getaway

semi-overcast 15 °C

Sample Itinerary (from Chicago)
- Day 1: St. Joseph, Holland, viewpoint at Arcadia Overlook/Dunes, Frankfort
- Day 2: Sleeping Bear Dunes Park
- Day 3: Scenic drive: Point Betsie Lighthouse, Glen Haven, Glen Arbor (cherries), Leland/Fishtown, Suttons Bay, and Traverse City
- Day 4: Grand Rapids, South Bend

Where to Stay
- Chimney Corners Resort in Frankfort, MI (open May 1-October 31)

Where to Eat
- St. Joseph: Arriba! Taqueria and Kilwins St. Joseph for dessert
- Empire: Shipwreck Cafe
- Frankfort: Stormcloud Brewing Company
- Benzonia: Roadhouse Mexican Bar and Grill
- Glen Arbor: Cherry Republic/Public House, Leelanau Coffee Roasting Co., Art’s Tavern was recommended (but we didn’t actually eat there)
- Leland/Fishtown: Village Cheese Shanty

My Travel Diary
October 21-24, 2020

Having spent a couple of pandemic months in Chicago, I was feeling tired of looking at skyscrapers instead of trees and avoiding people like, well, the plague. In sum, I wanted a vacation in nature, without the noise of construction cranes and with the serenity of quasi-solitude. Fortunately, Chicago is a good base from which to take a road trip. One of the most beautiful regions to explore in the fall is Michigan, particularly its M-22 scenic highway drive. Even the drive to the scenic drive was fairly scenic! We had visited St. Joseph before and appreciated its tidy downtown area, perfectly walkable with a nice view of its beautiful central beach. Located just under two hours’ drive from Chicago, it’s a convenient daytrip, weekend getaway, or rest stop on a longer road trip. The first time we went we made the mistake of eating Mexican food at the “authentic” Azul Tequila restaurant. Frankly, the food wasn't good and the huge portion sizes didn't help. This time, we opted for Arriba! Taqueria and we were pleasantly surprised. The portions were more reasonable and the quality was superior – we opted to share multiple dishes, which seemed like a good idea until I wished it was all mine. Given that I have the appetite of a high school hockey player, I was still perfectly happy to indulge in some post-lunch dessert at Kilwin’s in the downtown core. It’s never too cold for a milkshake – you just may need to wear gloves to hold it, that’s all. St. Joseph is a very strollable town, including its gem: Silver Beach. Near the beach, you can also see the 1910 carousel, playgrounds, a pavilion, older lighthouses, and even a kids’ museum. If Silver Beach isn’t right for you, there are six other beaches nearby to explore. No shortage of sand in this area.


Our next stop on our northern route was Holland. Although it’s just a small town and not a small region of a small country, we managed to find a very big windmill. Windmill Island Gardens was our primary entertainment: from the authentically Dutch architecture to the pristine grounds. The high point was seeing De Zwaan windmill, originally constructed in 1884 in Vinkel, Noord Brabant, it fell into disrepair and was later erected in Holland, U.S.A. in the 1960s after years of negotiations and approvals from the Dutch government (windmills are protected there as national monuments). We were the only people on the grounds, so it almost felt like a post-apocalyptic amusement park – not too far from the truth, I suppose.


A more natural scenic site was the Arcadia Overlook, also known as Inspiration Point. It’s a short climb up the wooden stairs to a platform that gives you a good view of the lake and forests. I highly recommend visiting in the fall for all of the richness of the leaves’ colours, but I’m sure any time of year would be wonderful (just maybe not winter, unless you’re good at walking on icy stairs!). It’s the kind of spot that feels like it belongs on a guidebook for romantic getaway vantage points. A book I would happily write, as long as it came with perks like free massages and endless chocolate-dipped strawberries.


Our base for the trip was the versatile Chimney Corners Resort, which I chose for its excellent reviews and lack of proximity to people. Our little cabin had its own entrance, and we were able to come and go as we pleased without having to see or speak to anyone. Again, pandemic travel is a different beast. I’d recommend the Lakeview Cottages for their views, easy parking, privacy, and for the feeling that the lakefront beach is your front yard. Although we visited in the fall, we still took advantage of the beach for short strolls, and more drawn-out tetherball matches (which I always won). One note of caution: the internet wasn’t always reliable, which posed a challenge as I had meetings to attend. Fortunately, before there was internet there were phones – a fact we sometimes forget – so I was able to just use my cell phone instead of my laptop to conduct my “business”.


Near Chimney Corners Resort, we enjoyed visiting the little towns of Frankfort, Benzonia, Beulah, and Empire. We particularly enjoyed the Roadhouse Mexican Bar and Grill, and Shipwreck Café. The latter would be a great place to pick up a sandwich before hiking at Sleeping Bear Dunes Park. You purchase your pass for the park in Empire at the Philip A. Hart Visitor Center down the street – at the time it cost us $25, and the volunteers provided us with a map, a smaller handout, and incredibly helpful information about the hiking trails and local wildlife. Based on their advice, we chose to do two: the Dune Climb, and the Empire Bluffs Trail.

Dune Climb:

I found the Dune Climb more tiring, and because it started raining, we turned back before we made it all the way to the water views on the other side. Either way, once you get to the top you’ll see multiple lakes, forests, and sand dunes – endless sand dunes weren’t quite what I was expecting when I thought of the northern U.S., but I was happy to explore them!

Empire Bluffs Trail:

The Empire Bluffs Trail was well-maintained, but overall not super accessible, so I would be cautious if you have mobility devices and/or are experiencing a flare-up. That being said, age shouldn’t be a factor. We befriended a lovely couple in their 70s/80s who were visiting from Chicago. I would say “small world”, but it’s fairly unsurprising when Chicago is only a 5.5 hour drive away and Illinois isn’t exactly a hiking destination! As a note: along our hikes, I don’t remember seeing many spots to sit, and don’t recall having seen toilets or drinking fountains along the way either (only in the parking lot of the Dune Climb). You also have to watch out for ticks and poison ivy – check often! If you’re more adventurous you could try camping there, fishing/hunting, and even a snowy winter snowshoe or skiing trek!


A much more accessible outing is the scenic M-22 drive. To start off from Frankfort, you can stop at the Point Betsie Lighthouse, which was built in 1858. We paused there for a few minutes just to take it all in. I felt a lot of gratitude standing by that lighthouse looking out and imagining all the passing ships – mainly just pleased I wasn’t trapped on one of them, weak-kneed, queasy, and vomiting from sea sickness from the windy waves. Once that thought subsided, I was even more thankful to have the opportunity to explore this natural region with my partner during the pandemic: travel restrictions were rightfully in place, but this was a little piece of paradise that we could safely (legally) explore in relative peace and quiet.


We then hopped back in the car to continue on to Glen Haven and Glen Arbor: similar names, very different experiences. Glen Haven is a historic little town with an old cannery boathouse museum, historic blacksmith shop and so on, while Glen Arbor is a thriving contemporary town that’s also known as the cherry capital of Michigan (and arguably, the U.S.). We made the most of it by trying a few cherry products at the Cherry Public House/Cherry Republic, the biggest restaurant in town. Their tea was my favourite product, but my partner seemed to enjoy the ice cream – again, it’s never too cold for a good milkshake or ice cream! While wandering town, we came across the Glen Arbor Arts Center. It’s a gem. They cycle through different exhibits, but also have fun initiatives like the equivalent of a free library but for art: “take a piece, leave a piece”. They’re open Monday through Sunday, but hours differ so it’s worth looking into it in advance so you don’t miss out. Down the street, I couldn’t resist making a purchase at the Cottage Book Shop. With a façade that looks like an old-timey trading post, its interior is supremely welcoming and cozy.


Speaking of the olden days, our stop in Leland and Fishtown was an unexpected blast from the past. The town has great shopping and restaurants, but also serves as one of the last remaining commercial fishing towns in Michigan (and possibly the U.S.). Once we had grabbed some food from the Village Cheese Shanty (which I highly recommend), we wandered by the rising waters around the old wooden structures of Fishtown. Apparently, its heyday was the first three decades of the 1900s, but nowadays it’s still a pretty popular tourist destination. As I mentioned, there’s good shopping there so I’d recommend setting aside some time to explore the small artisanal shops.


We drove through Suttons Bay on our way to Traverse City, and if we had had more time we may have also stopped at Grand Traverse Lighthouse and Leelanau State Park. As it stood, we really wanted enough time to check out the city and especially the Grand Traverse Commons: an expansive commercial and residential area that was formerly a hospital and before that the Northern Michigan Asylum. It’s a great place to shop, eat, and travel back through time. I wish we’d arrived earlier so that we could have done the two-hour tour to find out more about Dr. Munson and his “beauty is therapy” approach to mental healthcare – the grounds are surrounded by forests, and patient rooms (now converted condos) were spacious and light. They have a variety of tours, so it’s worth considering whether one would meet your needs. For us, after grabbing a quick bite in the tunnels, we ventured to the downtown where I bought some lavender products from Harbor View Lavender Farm.


To end off our trip we had decided to visit Grand Rapids and South Bend. It turned out that when the time came neither of us were really interested in stopping to explore either city, so we basically paused at the Notre Dame campus, took some photos, and headed back toward Chicago. We spent our newfound time walking and eating our way through Pilsen: an historically Hispanic neighbourhood with vibrant street art, music, and delicious Mexican restaurants. This quiet, tree-lined Michigan getaway is a world apart from the raucous, concrete jungle of Chicago, yet I felt happier being back in Chicago knowing that nature was well within reach.

Posted by madrugada 19:15 Archived in USA Tagged lakes lighthouses leaves hiking beach fall autumn holland sand_dunes roadtrip empire michigan traverse_city pandemic frankfort leland fishtown st.joseph glen_haven glen_arbor Comments (0)

COVID-19: Emergency Return Home from International Travel

Returning to Canada during an International Emergency


The day after I arrived in Chicago, the US declared a national emergency due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Suffice it to say, my timing was terrible. I immediately started questioning whether to cut my trip short, or stay the full two and a half weeks. I erred on the side of caution and very quickly contacted my airline. Although it took a while to get through, they were very accommodating and actually changed my ticket with no additional fee. If you're uncertain about change/cancelation policies, call the airlines because many airlines are making exceptions due to this extreme situation e.g. Porter was offering free changes even on restrictive basic fares. If you have issues which you can't resolve through the airline or insurance, you can try the government's transport dispute resolution services: https://rppa-appr.ca/eng/file-air-travel-complaint.

I found it interesting that Illinois shut down restaurants and bars earlier than Ontario, but that the federal reaction in Canada was much swifter. It turned out that the Prime Minister's wife was diagnosed with the novel Coronavirus so maybe that contributed to the thorough response. In any case, Justin Trudeau held press conferences stating that Canadians abroad needed to come home immediately. There was a later announcement that borders were closing between the US and Canada for non-essential travel. And the policies are morphing rapidly - in fact, initially travellers returning home were just asked to stay home for 14 days and now they're legally required to do so. In any case, this is an awful time to be stranded abroad regardless of whether you're somewhere you'd like to be or not.

For anyone still abroad, you need to act now. And when you make it back, remember that you must self-isolate for 14 days. This is a legal obligation, not a casual demand. This means that you can't even leave your house or apartment for walks and certainly not for grocery store runs. In fact, there are multiple delivery services and even community organizations that are available to pick up groceries, medicine, etc. for people in self-isolation.

I also suggest signing up for the government's Canadians abroad registry (https://travel.gc.ca/travelling/registration) - in fact, this is a helpful thing to do before any trip, regardless of whether there's a global pandemic or not. I feel strongly about purchasing travel insurance for each trip too, whether it's the US or any other country, you'll find yourself in a nightmarish scenario if you aren't adequately prepared and supported.

"Eligible Canadians currently outside Canada and needing help to return home can contact the nearest Government of Canada office or Global Affairs Canada’s 24/7 Emergency Watch and Response Centre in Ottawa at +1 613-996-8885 (collect calls are accepted where available) or email [email protected]" And Trudeau has even announced loans of up to $5000, although I'm not sure whether that's only for travelers without insurance. He's also announced funding to support Canadians struggling financially during this crisis (see: https://www.canada.ca/en/department-finance/news/2020/03/introduces-canada-emergency-response-benefit-to-help-workers-and-businesses.html).

In terms of your travel journey, be aware that if you're symptomatic Trudeau had announced they won't let you in. That being said, it really disappointed me that when I left Midway Airport in Chicago on March 17 there were multiple passengers milling about the airport coughing freely (i.e. not into their elbows, or even their hands). So, I 100% suggest bringing hand sanitizer, a mask, bags to store dirty/clean items, bring contained snacks, and even gloves, if possible. When I arrived at Billy Bishop Airport in Toronto, I was happy that they were being more diligent - I was asked twice by officials whether I was symptomatic (thank goodness I wasn't!), and had to fill out an online declaration before they provided me with a handout loaded with information about who to call in case of emergency. In Ontario, you can do an online assessment (https://covid-19.ontario.ca/self-assessment/#q0) and if needed, call Public Health Ontario at 1-866-797-0000 or your doctor's office. Of course, if your symptoms are severe and you're having extreme shortness of breath, fever, and a persistent dry cough then you may need to consider going to an ER.

It's so important right now to wash your hands thoroughly, maintain distance, and as much as possible just stay home and stay safe. Although it's not a good time to travel, it's a great time to work on your bucket list. Be creative and immerse yourself while picturing your trip: for example, make a good Turkish meal, listen to some Turkish music, and plot your next trip to Turkey! Take care, and get home safely!

Posted by madrugada 20:33 Archived in USA Tagged toronto chicago canada pandemic united_states coronavirus covid emergency_travel return_to_canada reentry Comments (0)

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