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Wandering Western Canada

sunny 28 °C

Sample Itinerary (Vancouver and Vancouver Island)
- Day 1: Vancouver
- Day 2: Vancouver Island: Sidney, Island View Beach, Victoria (downtown and Cook St. Village/Beacon Hill Park)
- Day 3: Vancouver Island: Juan de Fuca Beach Trail (French Beach, China Beach, and Sombrio Beach)
- Day 4: Vancouver Island: Sooke Potholes, Victoria (Dallas Rd. circuit including Cadboro Bay)
- Day 5: Vancouver: Granville Island, picnic dinner at Kitsilano Beach
- Day 6: Vancouver: English Bay Beach, Stanley Park, Downtown dinner
- Day 7: Vancouver: Van Dusen Botanical Gardens and Queen Elizabeth Park, picnic dinner at Spanish Banks
- Day 8: Pacific Spirit Park and UBC campus
Optional: daytrip to Whistler or Squamish from Vancouver; visit other islands, e.g., Salt Spring or Quadra; travel further north up Vancouver Island to Cathedral Grove and Tofino/Ucluelet (surfing and storm-watching capital)

Where to Stay
- East Sooke, Vancouver Island: SookePoint Ocean Cottage Resort Rentals (~$400 CAD)
- Victoria, Vancouver Island: Helm’s Inn (~$150 CAD)
- Vancouver: Hotel or Airbnb in Gastown, Yaletown, or Kitsilano

Where to Eat
- Victoria, Vancouver Island: Rebar (vegetarian cuisine), Red Fish Blue Fish (seafood take-out), Pagliacci’s (upscale Italian), Blue Fox Café (brunch), Moka House Coffee in Cook St. Village (snacks and coffee), Little June in Fernwood (snacks and coffee), Fernwood Inn (casual pub fare), and the Empress Hotel for high tea
- Shirley, Vancouver Island: Stoked Wood Fired Pizzeria and Market (delicious pizza near French Beach)
- Vancouver: Arbutus Coffee (Kitsilano), Siegel’s Bagels on Granville Island (rosemary rocksalt with lox and cream cheese!), Petit Ami (great caffeinated drinks on Granville Island), Bella Gelateria (award-winning flavours located near Canada Place), Japadog (chain of gourmet Japanese hot dogs), Terra Breads (chain of tasty baked goods – especially the scones!), Aphrodite’s Organic Pie Shop (surprisingly tasty focaccia too!), Maria’s Taverna (affordable, delicious Greek food in Kitsilano)

Covid-19 Policies
- As a Canadian, I didn’t have to take a test or quarantine since I was flying from another Canadian province and am double vaccinated but I did have to pay $100 for a rapid viral antigen test to fly back into the U.S.
- As of August 9, 2021, fully-vaccinated U.S. citizens and permanent residents are able to fly into Canada as long as they’ve had a negative test within 72 hours of entering the country, and take one more test upon entry
- Be mindful of changing travel policies at both the federal and provincial level in Canada, and then your local pandemic travel policies too

My Travel Diary

Vancouver

There was a reflective feeling to this trip, partially because I was journeying to the past by visiting a city I had lived in years ago but mainly because I arrived in Vancouver, B.C. shortly after the discovery of hundreds of unmarked graves near former residential schools across Canada. There was nothing surprising about the announcement because it’s well known that a number of children died or were killed at these sites, but it was horrific nevertheless. There is so much work that Canada, the church, and individuals still need to do not only to address the past, but also to improve the present. There’s a lot of talk about “allyship” nowadays, but it misses the mark if we’re not looking at our own lives, workplaces, and social interactions to make positive changes. In Vancouver, this took the form of protests in front of the Vancouver Art Gallery to “Cancel Canada Day”, which also included placing hundreds of children’s shoes on the steps, and showcasing a plethora of signs encouraging people to take a moment of silence amid other concrete actions. It was a strange Canada Day all around because there were so many competing (and very visible, vocal) viewpoints: people wanting to celebrate Canada Day, others advocating for its cancelation, and others still fixated on rallying against Covid-19 vaccinations. We stayed publicly-apolitical in our celebrations because we wanted to maintain distance and chose to reflect amongst ourselves instead. I visited the protest in front of the Vancouver Art Gallery days later where any bystander could still feel the raw pain palpating through the air.

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Vancouver isn’t a large city, mainly because of its topographical constraints. For that reason, it’s easier to find a few neighbourhoods of interest and explore them in-depth. On this trip, I made Kitsilano my base, so I spent a good deal of time at Granville Island: trying to eat my food in between aggressive, coordinated seagull attacks. Obviously this is where Hitchcock found his inspiration for "The Birds".

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If you’re an old soul and fear that Kitsilano will be too loud and hip with its ironically named boutiques (looking at you, Spank) and Instagrammable bars, restaurants, and cafes, I can safely say you’ll be fine. Although it has a few bustling strips, its overall vibe is more like an island beach town. Ultimately, in most place, nobody notices you since they’re so caught up in their own worlds anyway. Mostly I appreciated Kitsilano’s proximity to beaches, which, I should admit, isn’t hard to accomplish anywhere in Vancouver. As a tourist in Vancouver, there’s almost no need to eat in a restaurant when you can just order take-out and sit on the beach instead. This lends itself well to a safer pandemic social outing too. So, wearing our uniform of bathing suits and flip flops we enjoyed sunset picnics at Kitsilano Beach and also nature’s even more stunning angles from Spanish Banks and Jericho Beach. A definite highlight was when my sister and I ventured out in low tide at Spanish Banks one morning. There was an illusion of so much exposed sand to the point where it felt like we’d be able to walk out to the tankers (we definitely couldn’t!).

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Any visit to Vancouver will likely include a trip to Stanley Park. Unwilling to buck the trend, my sister and I spent a few hours wandering the paths, admiring the Totem poles, and smelling the flowers. Although the views are beautiful in Stanley Park, I was more surprised by the biodiversity at Van Dusen Botanical Gardens and the sights at Queen Elizabeth Park. The Botanical Gardens were reasonably priced at just under $12 (CAD) each, and we spent two hours wandering through the grounds following the map and creating our own self-guided tour. The redwoods were a treasure, and a reminder of our responsibility to protect the planet in the face of human destruction, pollution, wildfires and deforestation. In fact, even flying into Vancouver, the air was hazy as a result of all of the smoke. I also happened to arrive at the tail-end of the worst heatwave they’ve ever experienced: hundreds of people died, and a town literally burned to the ground. Climate change is very real, and devastatingly efficient.

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Queen Elizabeth Park is just over 50 hectares and is actually the highest point in the city of Vancouver, so from the elegant Seasons in the Park restaurant you can take in the city skyline against the many mountains. It just so happened that while I was in Vancouver, a number of friends from across Canada were also visiting B.C. So, I was fortunate enough to have really fun group outings with friends. At Seasons, two friends from grad school and I reunited for the first time in about seven years: one visiting from the east coast, and the other living in Vancouver permanently. On another occasion, I met two friends from Toronto who both happened to be visiting this western paradise too. One brought his young son to our adventure outing, so we bore witness to the realness of a sugar high and its subsequent crash. Another friend has temporarily created an island escape for himself, so we also spent time lazily soaking up the sun with him. It was really rejuvenating seeing so many people from such disparate points in my life. It just so happened that I had arrived shortly after the pandemic policies had loosened, so I was legally able to enjoy the company of others. My cousin also hosted us in her beautiful backyard, so I got to hear about her kids’ pandemic education experiences and how she and her husband had been coping work-wise. As an epidemiologist, I suppose society finally understands the value in what she does! Had I visited a month before even these outdoor encounters may have been trickier, but as it stood, I had the chance to see familiar faces and also work on my own anxieties transitioning away from being a recluse hiding out under my mask like Zorro or the Phantom.

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Although visiting a university campus may not be a top priority for a tourist, I highly recommend visiting the University of British Columbia (UBC). On the way there, you pass through Pacific Spirit Regional Park where you can spend hours hiking the 750 hectares of forest. The smells and sounds of the cedars, maples, and other gentle giants were so reassuring. It felt like one of the calmest points on my trip. It helped that my sister and I were hiking with our mom’s best friend who is like a walking meditation app – she’s got the most peaceful presence, and reminded us to just take deep breaths while setting a tone that feels good for everyone. Afterwards, the three of us took the chance to explore the UBC campus with my sister playing tour guide. The most important features were likely the water fountains and washrooms since it was a hot day, and fortunately they were plentiful. The most scenic spot was definitely the rose garden. From right above the gardens, you can look out at the ocean and overlapping mountains. If I hadn’t injured my knee, we likely would have also climbed down the 500 steps to clothing-optional Wreck Beach on campus but alas we had to forgo the naked beachgoers and just head back to the crop tops of Kits instead.

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Throughout my time in Vancouver, I noticed a lot of charming community initiatives. The Arbutus Greenway in Kitsilano stands out: it provided a green walkway, full of community gardens, back to my accommodation from my frequent visits to Granville Island. Even the island felt like its own inclusive community with its friendly shop owners like at Granville Island Treasures. The more I enjoyed Vancouver the more I wondered why I’d ever left B.C. But a visit to Vancouver or Vancouver Island in June or July is very different than time spent there in October or November – I enjoyed the colourful landscape without the gray filter. There are countless other questions of fit (apart from probability of precipitation) when determining where to move, so for now a visitation will definitely suffice.

Vancouver Island

Driving to Vancouver Island was a first for me. Not that we literally drove on water (although I’m sure that’ll be viable in a few years thanks to Mr. Musk), but I don’t think I’ve ever boarded the ferry by car before. It definitely saved us time because we didn’t have to coordinate our public transit from Vancouver to Tsawwassen or from Schwarz Bay to Victoria (which takes hours, cumulatively). Although I haven’t really felt increased anxiety on buses, it has worsened on planes so I half-expected to feel a pounding heart on the ferry but to my delight that never happened. My sea legs were shaky at times, but my motion sickness never materialized either. It really helped that we were able to sit outside and observe spectacular scenery, and that the whole trip was only about an hour and a half.

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Arriving on the island, we stopped by Sidney to take in all of its book shops. Even if you’re not a Belle (i.e., a bookworm), you can still enjoy the views and dining options. Views were clearly better from Island View Beach though, which we walked along en route to Victoria. On a clear day, you have some incredible vistas, although I don’t think anything compares to the views from Victoria’s Dallas Rd.

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My priority every time I’ve been back to Victoria has been to retrace my past: eat at my favourite restaurant (Rebar), spot the peacocks in my favourite park (Beacon Hill), grab a drink at my favourite café (Moka House in Cook St. Village), and visit my old neighbourhoods. This time I donned my tourist guide cap so that my sister’s boyfriend could soak in more of the Victorian vibe. We wandered Fan Tan Alley, which is actually the narrowest street in Canada’s oldest Chinatown, so that they could get an idea of the invaluable impact that Chinese-Canadians have had on B.C.’s culture. We also strolled past the Empress Hotel, which is over 100 years old, a popular site for tourists to take photos, have high tea, or use the restrooms (the latter being especially important if you opt-in to tea time). I showed them the museums from the outside, but none of us were interested in entering buildings unnecessarily in spite of the island having low case counts.

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This was my first time visiting, let alone staying in, East Sooke, so it really felt like an adventure for all of us. The rustic location of our resort meant that we truly felt isolated from the world but wholly one with nature. It helped that our main source of entertainment was watching the ocean’s waves and finding new incredible vantage points for watching the sunset. On one sunset stroll, we interrupted a romantic embrace atop a hill, a.k.a., a new construction mound. As it happens, my sister had competed against one of the lovers in Ontario-wide sporting events years ago. We all cheerfully reminisced about the olden days when everyone knew someone on Degrassi and MuchMusic actually played music videos.

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We took in plenty of incredible views while hiking (or “walking” according to my sister’s boyfriend) around the west side of the island: from Sombrio to China to French Beach – listed in order of ease. We spent the most time at Sombrio Beach, which makes sense because it’s the most challenging to reach! My sister and her boyfriend took a quasi-hidden path to beautiful waterfalls in a cave, but I opted to relax on the beach instead. Along the way I met a nice German tourist who gave me toilet tips (avoid the outhouse by the waterfall path, if possible) – it still feels unnatural engaging in casual conversation, and I prefer it to be outdoors. I could never have imagined that meeting strangers would be nerve-wracking, but a full pandemic later here we are. On this trip, I actually ended up talking to a few people about newfound social anxieties. In a boutique shop, a salesperson and I commiserated about how hard it can be to get out of our heads. Closing time passed and we kept chatting. Maybe the key to vanquishing pandemic-induced anxieties is forgetting they exist.

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Overall, aside from more deforestation and newer developments (neither ideal), the areas of the island that were familiar to me in the past still felt recognizable to me now. There’s something comforting about stepping into your old grocery store and still seeing the same specialty items available, or walking through your favourite park and stopping at the cutest turtle pond to throw stones. No matter where you move, you can’t escape the past you’ve created. Not that I’d ever want to forget the beauty of B.C., even if the sun has set on that chapter of my life.

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Posted by madrugada 21:06 Archived in Canada Tagged waterfalls sunsets_and_sunrises beaches people food victoria ocean wildlife nature hiking restaurants ferries scenery summer paradise wilderness canada vancouver british_columbia vancouver_island protest forests roses cafes indigenous environment picnics granville_island safe_travel western_canada island_time scenic_road_trip sand_and_sea return_to_canada reentry social_distance east_sooke sooke u_b_c 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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)

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