Sunday, June 8, 2014

A Summer's Drive Along the River in Wisconsin - Wine, Pizza and Ice Cream!

Sometimes I forget that Wisconsin is just a short one-hour drive or so from my home, and it offers all sorts of interesting places to see and visit.

I met a friend at Elmaro Vineyard in Trempealeau, Wisconsin, this weekend. We ordered a wine tasting and tried several local wines, many of which were quite good. Then we sat out on the patio, which offered a lovely view of the vineyard and surrounding area.

Since we were near the Great River Road, and we heard there were some other vineyards nearby, we decided to drive north on the Great River Road along the Mississippi River, driving through some small towns along the way. The Great River Road Wine Trail offers information about many vineyards in the area.

We stopped briefly at a winery in Fountain City, Wisconsin. Then we followed signs for another vineyard, Danzinger Vineyards, located high in the hills near Alma, Wisconsin. After tasting a couple local wines, we took a look at the beautiful view from the vineyard.

                                                    View from Danzinger Vineyards

Nearby, I’d seen a sign for Buena Vista Park, which I had heard had beautiful panoramic views of the Mississippi River. We followed the signs and arrived at the park. And then we found the lookout over the river… It’s an amazing view! Stop by there and check it out if you get a chance.

Nelson, Wisconsin, was just a short drive away. We drove by the Nelson Cheese Factory, known in the area for its great ice cream and cheese.

Then we drove along some country roads outside of Nelson, heading towards the Stone Barn in Nelson. I’d read online the Stone Barn served fresh pizzas made in a wood-fired brick oven and that the pizzas were made using local ingredients. I wondered if anyone else knew about this place, as we drove further into the Wisconsin countryside, but there were many people there when we arrived!

After looking at all the options on the menu — and there were a lot of options! — we  chose a pizza topped with chorizo sausage, fresh cilantro and other toppings. I don’t know what I expected, but I didn’t expect this large of a pizza! The crust was thin and crisp, in the classic Italian style. The pizza was made to order, and it tasted fresh with excellent flavor.

We sat out on the patio, surrounded by walls made of stone that used to be part of the original stone barn.

I stopped inside to get a peek at the wood-fired stone oven. Something about pizza made in this oven just made it taste so good!

They also offered several types of ice cream, and we decided to try some ice cream for dessert. Yum! That topped the day off well!

After visiting several river towns in Wisconsin and coming across some interesting and unique places, it made me curious about what other places I may discover driving through other small towns in Minnesota, Wisconsin and other states. Has anyone else come across some “secret gems” in small towns you’ve driven through around the U.S. or world? What are some places that you remember?

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Cayman Islands Highlights

After visiting the Cayman Islands a little over a year ago, I highly recommend it, especially as a respite from the cold winters like we often have in Minnesota.

Grand Cayman offers so much for everyone, from beaches to snorkeling to helicopter rides over the beach to swimming with dolphins to visiting turtle farms.

If you have a week or so to visit Grand Cayman, consider these activities and attractions. I hope you enjoy the Cayman Islands as much as I did!

Helicopter Ride

This was on my bucket list. I was excited to get to go on a helicopter ride and check this one off my bucket list! Me and my friends paid for a short ride, about 45 minutes or so, over the ocean. But it was totally worth it.

The helicopter gently rose in the air, and it was so smooth I hardly realized we were so high in the air so quickly. The pilot guided the helicopter along Seven Mile Beach, and we looked down on hotels, the beach and, best of all, the ocean with clear waters, offering us views of coral and sea life from high up in the air. A little tour of Grand Cayman from the air was an awesome way to spend some time. Check out Cayman Islands Helicopters for helicopter ride options.


I had never been snorkeling, but I wanted to try it in Grand Cayman, as Grand Cayman is known for its snorkeling and scuba diving. Grand Cayman has many scuba diving operators and snorkeling operators to choose from. Some resorts even offer resort courses. If you go snorkeling, don’t miss Stingray City, where you can pet and feed stingrays.

I’d recommend Captain Marvin’s for snorkeling. The staff on our boat were very helpful to newbie snorkelers like me, pointing out and explaining the sea life to me and giving tips about how to use the snorkel tube and mask. It turned out to be a really fun experience! Here’s more about my snorkeling experience.

Night kayaking

Kayaking at night in a bioluminescent bay, with water that seemed to glow when we glided our paddles through the water, was awesome. Night kayaking in the bioluminescent bay is only offered certain nights, but it’s an experience not to be missed. We went kayaking with Cayman Kayaks. Read more about my experience kayaking in the bioluminescent bay.

Swim with the dolphins

I know this sounds a bit touristy. But, check out Dolphin Discovery. It’s well worth the money to go, especially if you’re a fan of dolphins, like me. Before this, I'd only see dolphins in Sea World or a couple times from boats in the ocean. 

At Dolphin Discovery, we interacted with the dolphins, pet the dolphins, swam with them and watched them do flips and jumps and tricks. What a fun experience! And we left with many memorable photos of our adventure.

Pet a turtle

At the Turtle Farm, you can see turtles of all sizes, from huge sea turtles to tiny turtles. You can even hold small turtles. If you go to Dolphin Discovery, ask about special discounts for the Turtle Farm.

Eat and drink by the ocean

For any island vacation, take the opportunity to eat at restaurants with views of the ocean. Try the fresh seafood. Have a specialty drink, like a refreshing fruit drink with a bit of the Cayman Tortuga rum in it.

One of the best restaurants I tried was Calypso Grill, which had an interesting d├ęcor, excellent service and fresh food. If you go, sit out on the patio along the water.

Sit in a hammock with a view of palm trees and the sea

Living in the northern United States, I don’t get to do this often. I thoroughly enjoyed lounging in a hammock with a book, with a view of the sea.

*Some photos courtesy of Marissa Fitzgibbons and Rachel Thomas.

Friday, January 3, 2014

The Day with the Elephants in India

Entering into the coldest weekend this winter, it seemed like a good time for me to look back to my trip in India and think of warmer days

One of the highlights of my trip to India was our elephant adventure. One of my friends had found an elephant sanctuary online, Elefun, near Jaipur, and we decided it would be fun to go there for the day to meet and ride elephants.

Our adventure included feeding the elephants, interacting with the elephants, painting the elephants, riding the elephants and washing the elephants. If you get the chance, pay for the option that includes all of this, and also pay a bit extra for the traditional Indian dinner.

We arrived at the building where the elephants waited for us. Two elephants were there -- huge, massive, gentle giants. Their ears flapped in the breeze and tails waved, shifting weight from one foot to the other. They looked happy and relaxed, and they enjoyed all the attention! When we pet their trunks, they would look at us with their big eyes and just look content.

The team working there gave us elephants, sugarcane and bread to give to the elephants. The elephants grabbed the bundles of sugarcane with their trunk and rolled it into their trunk, and then stuck it into their large mouths. We fed them bananas- putting them right in their mouths, which were big enough to hold several mushy bananas and some sugarcane. A bag of bread could be gobbled in a couple mouthfuls.

The team gave us several cups of paint with special brushes that we could use to paint designs on the elephants, which is commonly done in India. We could paint whatever we liked. I painted some flowers and vines on one elephant and one of my friends helped me. One of my friends drew a haunted house scene on the side of another elephant (we were there around Halloween).

The guides for the elephants showed us how they climbed up an elephant’s trunk to sit on top of it. The elephant started lifting its trunk as the man grabbed the elephants' ears, placed his foot on the trunk, and then walked up the trunk and sat on the elephant. 

Then the team wanted each of us to climb the elephant’s trunk to sit on top of it. One of my friends climbed right up. But then I tried, and kept falling and letting go of the elephants’ ears as the elephant moved her trunk, landing in the sand. So then I decided I’d rather climb on from the tall platform, which worked great.

Once we were all on the elephants, we rode around a neighborhood sitting bareback on the elephants. It was comfortable and smooth, and we just moved gently with the elephant as she shifted her weight as she moved along. Kids from the neighborhood ran out in the street and waved at us as we went along. Sitting bareback on the elephant wasn’t uncomfortable, and we felt safe, even though we were so high up, as the elephant moved slowly and gracefully.

Once we got back to the building, the staff led the elephants into large pools filled with water. We were prepared for this part and had worn our swimsuits. We followed the elephants in with brushes and helped the staff clean the elephants, washing off the paint.

The elephant I was washing liked playing in the water. She would stick her trunk in the water and then spray her back, along with spraying me and my friend, with the water. We got soaked! But it was fun.

Later the host brought us to his family’s home for an Indian dinner, which was included in the option we had picked for our elephant adventure. It was a cool experience to have traditional Indian food in a local Indian’s home, and to experience their kindness and hospitality.

It was an exciting day, and very fun! Except for some bouts of motion sickness on my part (a relatively normal part of my life when traveling), it was a memorable and exciting day with the elephants.

*Some photos courtesy of Jenny Anders and Marissa Fitzgibbons.