Author Archives: tvaldeegan

Exploring Sydney suburbs and fresh air in Freshwater

After a few days in the smoke-filled Blue Mountains, we headed to the coast to find some fresh air and explore the area around Sydney. We rented an apartment through Airbnb for six days that was just a couple of blocks from Freshwater Beach.

Freshwater Beach

After big hiking days, our first full day in Freshwater was a relaxing beach day. We also went to the grocery store, now that we had a kitchen, and stocked it for the week. The apartment also had a washer, so we did some laundry (a drying rack was provided for the front yard). The apartment had two bedrooms and a really cute front yard with a gate. The only flaw was a lack of air conditioning. We propped the back door open for circulation and found out that there was a friendly cat that would visit.

Following a relaxing beach day, we took the next day to explore Sydney, via a scenic route. We drove to Manly and then took the ferry into Sydney. We saw the main tourist sites and walked around the Rocks area. The ferry was a great idea because you can’t beat the view of coming in to see the the opera house and Harbour Bridge from the water.

Manly looked like a fun town so the next day, New Year’s Eve, we decided to walk there this time in the evening to find a place for dinner. It was busy but we found a place and then made our way to Manly Cove for the fireworks. We had some young Aussie boys who exuded their love of country by yelling for ScoMo (Prime Minister Scott Morrison) and singing the Australian national anthem.

We decided one more walk to Manly was in order and we ventured down the rocks next to Freshwater beach to find The Wormhole, a carved tunnel that connects Freswater to Manly. We then rented kayaks at the Manly Kayak Centre and went to Store Beach, a beautiful area that is only accessible by water. The kayaking was fairly easy and it was fun to look at the views on our trip. Afterwards, we worked up a big hunger and ended up at BenBry Burgers and devoured our dinner.  After a little souvenir shopping, we headed back to our apartment.

Freshwater served as a great home base to explore other places, and the town itself was walkable from our apartment. We wandered around the town, grabbed some wine and snacks and headed to the beach one more time before we moved on.

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A smoke-filled excursion to Australia’s Blue Mountains

When we arrived in Sydney and headed to the rental car counter, the woman checking us in asked where we were headed. When I said Katoomba, she looked shocked and said “Is it still open?” During the brushfires of 2019-20, the Blue Mountains were filled with smoke. Katoomba lay in between two major fires.

Map of Katoomba in between fires in late 2019.
Katoomba

Coming from California, we are sadly used to smoky conditions and dealing with unhealthy air quality. We brought our N-95 masks before we had ever heard of Covid and set up base camp at the Katoomba Town Centre Motel.

It was a bit of a tight squeeze for four but it included a kitchenette and dining table so it was perfect for our family. It was also in town and walkable to many locations.

We headed into town to find a place for brunch and ended up at the Katoomba Street Café. Everybody was happy with their meals and I learned that rocket is another word for arugula. We wandered the town a bit and then went to the lookout for Three Sisters. Although it was incredibly smoky, the views were still incredible and the walk onto the Three Sisters with many stairs was amazing.

The next day, we had planned to go to Scenic World but came across the Furber Steps. As we were checking them out and deciding what to do, a woman walking by warned us against it. Of course, that meant we were on our way and headed down. The walk was beautiful, like another world, with the cockatoos circling and squawking.

The Furber Steps feed into Scenic World, so we were able to walk around and take the train back up the mountain. We also went on the aerial tram, which was neat but the views were severely hindered by the wildfire smoke.

For dinner, we wandered into town again and chose the Old City Bank Bar and Brasserie at The Carrington. After a big meal and a big adventure, we all slept soundly.

After another good breakfast at Katoomba Town Centre Motel, we were ready for one more adventure before leaving the Blue Mountains. We headed to Wentworth Falls and hiked to an amazing lookout and some (cold) waterfalls.

I’d love to go back to the Blue Mountains again and explore further without the threat of wildfires. It truly is a beautiful place.

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LAX-SYD on Delta

I couldn’t believe that I was able to find a flight from San Jose (with a layover at LAX) on Delta for under 100,000 miles during the Christmas holiday, which is wild because as I look at it today for a holiday trip, it’s 220,000 to 600,000 miles per person.

But we did. And away we went.

Failing at my research prior to the trip, I found photos of the airline-provided travel kit online but it must have been the one for Comfort+, because the main cabin’s kits did not include toothpaste. On a 20+ hour flight, that was a big mistake! I did have gum but sure would’ve liked to have my toothbrush. The kit did have an eyeshade, earplugs and a cleaning wipe (pre-COVID).

Delta travel kit in Economy.

The welcome cocktail was a peach bellini. There were three choices for the main course, and I had the salad with grilled chicken. A fun surprise was dessert, when the Ben & Jerry’s ice cream came out.

While most people fell asleep during the long, overnight flight, there was a basket of sweet and salty snacks in between the main and Comfort+ sections, where flyers could take what they wanted if they became hungry. The flight did offer water several times in addition to the beverage cart, but I was happy to have my own water bottle with me (a must on every flight!) so I could drink whenever I needed it.

Excuse the blue hue from the Delta flight lighting.

About halfway through the flight, we were give a tomato and cheese bruschetta, which was wrapped in foil and tasted more like a Hot Pocket.

Near the end of the flight, everyone woke up and had an egg and cheese breakfast sandwich with fruit and yogurt, then it was time to get ready for landing and head off on an adventure!

Overall, I was satisfied with the quantity and timing of the meals and drink service. If I had more money or miles, upgrading to a roomier, more comfortable seat on a flight this long with be a no-brainer.

Welcome to Sydney airport.
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An extended leave of absence

Who knew the world would change so much before I got back to this site? My first excuse was that I started – and finished – my master’s degree. I had no room for personal writing. At the same time, my kids were getting older and much more active in sports and school activities.

And here we are in the midst of Covid-19. At the moment, I no longer have a 3+ hour daily commute. And now, both of my kids are licensed drivers. So I’m not sure how frequently I’ll be here but I plan to catch you up on some pre-Covid trips.

And after Covid, I can’t wait to get out there again.

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A trek back in time with Roaring Camp Railroad

Driving on Highway 17 from the Bay Area to Santa Cruz makes me feel like I’m in a real-life Disney Soarin’ experience – I just have to roll down the windows and it smells exactly like the trees when you are Soarin’.

Steam in the Redwoods

Steam in the Redwoods from Roaring Camp Railroad.

The roads twists and turns led us to Roaring Camp Railroad, a throwback attraction that is custom built for families, kids and those who like the easy way to see the sites.

The area is a just like a campground, full of wooden buildings and an old steam train that’s no longer in use. They had a spot for old-fashioned photos, a general store (complete with candy of course), a café and a large area for barbecues and picnics.

Boarding the train is similar to boarding a wagon ride. The carts are wide open with a bench on either side. We didn’t know ahead of time but the ride is furbaby friendly, too – a couple of the families had their dogs with them.

Santa at Roaring Camp

Santa at Roaring Camp.

Setting off, the train chugged around the curve and into the woods that surround the camp. Soon enough, we were dwarfed by trees that stretched to the sky and beyond. As we wound up Bear Mountain, we were told of some of the history of the area, about the trees and the tracks.

The kids entertained themselves by trying to find the tallest and widest trees and spent some time trying to find wildlife in the vistas.

A few parts of the journey were slow and the kids grew slightly restless when the train had to stop on switchbacks and recouple to make it up the steep inclines. However, all was rewarded when we arrived at our destination to find the big man himself, Santa Claus, waiti

The bridge to Roaring Camp Railroad

The bridge to Roaring Camp Railroad.

ng for us with hot cider. (At other points during the year, you can see other famous characters, including the Easter Bunny.) We stretched our legs, took some photos, walked through the line of decorated trees and then headed back to camp.

The grand finale came when we neared camp and the train had to let off its steam, creating an eerie mist through the trees.

Tips:

  • If you go, bring a jacket and maybe even a blanket for your legs when riding the train. The temperature in the trees is vastly different than nearby Santa Cruz or San Jose.
  • Have fun . When we went before the holidays, we brought our santa hats and had a ton of compliments.
  • Relax. It’s not a high stakes thrill ride or an amusement park, but it does get you in touch with nature and a view of our majestic country.
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Ferry day trip to Sausalito

Burrito, neato, mosquito –- My kids had fun trying to think of words that rhyme with Sausalito as we took the ferry from San Francisco to get a great view of the Golden Gate Bridge and explore the town.

The Golden Gate Bridge from the ferry to Sausalito

The Golden Gate Bridge from the ferry to Sausalito

We had to drop my husband off at the airport on the way to San Francisco, so I told the kids we’d make the noon ferry and eat in Sausalito or if we missed the ferry, we’d eat in the city and wait for the next one. We found a place to park, speed-walked a couple of blocks, bought our tickets and made it to the ferry with just a couple of minutes to spare!

Although it was December, the ferry ride wasn’t too cold and it was a pretty clear day. We had fabulous views of the Bay Bridge, Golden Gate, Alcatraz and Angel Island. The ride was about 20 minutes and we were deposited into the tourist heart of Sausalito.

Alcatraz

Alcatraz

The first order of business was to find lunch, and we ended up at Venice Gourmet, getting small pizzas for my mom and I and the kids. I’m glad my mom shared the garlic pizza with me so I didn’t feel self-conscious about talking to her the rest of the day.

After lunch, we needed a walk so we walked along the waterfront. A little boy pointed out to me “look at the crabs!” I looked closer and realized that the rocks with literally crawling with crabs of all sizes. We strolled along and watched the crabs retreat whenever we tried to get a closer look.

Crabs in Sausalito

Crabs in Sausalito

Being good tourists, we explored some of the stores. Of course, the toy store was the kids’ favorite and we bought them a couple of bouncy balls to keep them occupied. We also did some damage in the candy store, finding the old-fashioned types plus the newer popular candies, as well as many, many flavors of saltwater taffy.

We decided to venture to another part of town marked on the map and ended up in the more residential shopping area that had a few restaurants and other stores so we walked back to the main area.

The town was full of other shoppers as well as tons of bicyclists. A popular trip is to bike over the Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito and then take the ferry back to the city, or bike back for the more hardcore adventurers.

We stayed on foot for this trip but loved the vibe of the town as we explored. We’d definitely come back again to try other restaurants and just enjoy the lakeshore.

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Day trip to Monterey Bay Aquarium and 17 Mile Drive

What should we do on a rainy day with relatives in town? The forecast was rain in the morning and clearing up for the afternoon but with a house full of people, we had to find something to do. The nearby mall wasn’t an option because it was too busy that close to the holidays.

Jellyfish at the Monterey Bay Aquarium

Jellyfish at the Monterey Bay Aquarium

We hadn’t yet made the trek to Monterey so we decided to check out the aquarium we have been hearing so much about.

Apparently, quite a few other people had the same idea but during our visit, we never felt rushed or crowded. Parking was a little difficult to find due to the rain but we managed to find a spot a few blocks away.

We had fun watching the sea otters play and eat their breakfast. The sea otter enclosure is part inside, part outside so it’s more of a natural habitat for them. The aquarium had a large jellyfish exhibit so we were able to see all kinds of jellyfish – even very tiny ones in a tube that one of the employees had in his hand as we walked in.

turtle

Turtle at the Monterey Bay Aquarium

The kids liked the hands-on portion, although the stingrays were huddled in the farthest corner in their enclosure, where none of the visitors could touch them. The starfish and crabs were on display and my kids thought it was a pretty neat experience.

Around lunchtime when hunger struck, we decided to see if the rain had stopped and ventured out to Cannery Row in Monterey. There are plenty of restaurants and shops, so we spent some time wandering around after lunch. As we looked over the bay, we watched some sea otters playing in the shallow water – no admission needed!

Not quite ready to end our day but being done with window shopping and standing, we decided to check out nearby 17-Mile Drive, which winds through the golf courses of Pebble Beach. There’s an entry fee of $10 per vehicle, but you receive a map and guide of the area with admission.

The area is really quite beautiful – from crashing waves, rocky beaches to sand dunes, forests and golf course greens – it has something for everyone and keeps your eyes on the scenery to find out what’s coming next.

The kids of course liked the beach that was filled with barking seals and tons of birds – a wildlife beach resort at its best.

The drive was the perfect way to end a day of sightseeing and trying to capture the elusive sunset photo on a deserted stretch of beach.

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A fun diversion and family afternoon at the San Francisco Zoo

I’ve only been to a handful of zoos to make my comparison – Detroit, Toledo, Binder Park (Kalamazoo), Madison and San Diego – but the San Francisco Zoo is a well-laid-out, compact zoo that packs a lot of punch.

View of the Golden Gate Bridge from Land's End

View of the Golden Gate Bridge from Land’s End

I remember from my youth that walking around the Detroit Zoo could make your feet hurt and have you on the brink of exhaustion. But after a few hours in San Francisco, we were able to see everything we wanted to see have lunch and even have time for the kids to spend at the playscape area.

And speaking of lunch, I was expecting your typical hot dog, hamburger or nuggets selection but was pleased to find sushi, made-to-order salads and even a decent clam chowder at the zoo.

As for the animals, the baby ones are always fun to see, and the baby giraffe and gorilla were no exceptions. The gorilla, Kabibe, stole my daughter’s heart and even though she bought a stuffed zebra at the park, she named it Kabibe after the baby gorilla.

We had grandparents with us who wanted to see the Golden Gate Bridge, and it was an easy, short drive to Land’s End, where we stretched our legs, used the facilities and walked around a short path to a spectacular view of the bridge. It was a perfect viewing area and saved us time and headaches by avoided city and bridge traffic.

Baby giraffe at the San Francisco Zoo

Baby giraffe at the San Francisco Zoo

Parking was a little difficult to find at the zoo. The side road had a sign that all parking was full, and all of the spaces up and down the street were taken. I remembered seeing an entrance on Great Highway, so we drove back around there and it still had dozens of open spaces

Fun at the San Francisco Zoo

Fun at the San Francisco Zoo

We didn’t try it out on this trip, but you can buy a “key” at the zoo, which gives you information on each animal near the exhibit when you put your key in the slot. It looked perfect for younger kids to keep them engaged and also teach them at the same time.

We’ll definitely come back to this family-friendly attraction, and it’s a great place to bring out-of-town visitors, too.

*Post script: After I wrote this and a month or so after our visit, we found out in the news that Kabibe had been inadvertently killed during a zoo accident. My daughter and I are deeply saddened to hear this.

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Great times at California’s Great America

When we lived in Michigan, I never took our kids to Cedar Point. My son is afraid of heights and my daughter was too short to go on the rides that she wanted to try.

But just after a few weeks in San Jose, we found ourselves at California’s Great America with one of my son’s friends.

I asked my son “What will you do if he wants you to go on the big coasters?” and my son said, “I’ll close my eyes.” And that’s just what he did.

Linus and Sally at Great America

Linus and Sally at Great America

The boys are old enough that we let them explore the park an hour or so at a time and then meet back up with us to check in. Meanwhile, my daughter had both of her parents to herself to explore all of the rides. She’s a swing girl, and she loved the swings there. After watching the Tiki Twirl she decided to try it. Her and I screamed the whole time and she deemed it her favorite ride of the day.

Aerial view from Great America

Aerial view from Great America

We also had a fantastic aerial view of the park, Levi’s Stadium and Santa Clara on the Star Tower

After exploring the park, getting our fill of cotton candy and having lunch, we decided to head to the water park. My daughter is a big fan of wave pools so that’s where we landed for the rest of the afternoon. It also was a great place to dry our clothes in the sun, which were soaked after a few turns on the Loggers Run.

As babies, the nursery for my kids was decorated with baby Snoopy, so my daughter was thrilled to find the Peanuts merchandise at the park. We came home with a big stuffed Snoopy as well as photos with the characters that we found in the park.

The boys found their way to the arcade and won a line-skipping pass for one of the rides.

Snoopy at Great America

Snoopy at Great America

Because we were there on an early fall weekend just after school started, the crowds were low, parking was easy and the lines for rides weren’t too bad.

We may have been spoiled by the off-season day but we decided that it would be one of our go-to places next summer for waterpark and letting-off-steam fun.

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Never bored at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk

There’s a certain allure of roller coasters, a fair atmosphere and an ocean backdrop. OK, it may not be for everyone but when you hail from the Midwest, it’s certainly a novelty.

Waves in Santa Cruz

Jumping waves in Santa Cruz

After moving to San Jose, our first day trip was to Santa Cruz. I was able to get discount tickets ahead of time through Costco and we were on our way.

I’ve been told that the drive can be a bear during popular hours on weekends when everyone wants to head to the ocean, so we planned our day when the kids had a day off of school. The traffic was smooth sailing and there were very few cars in the parking lot when we arrived just before the boardwalk opened.

The draw of the ocean temporarily outweighed the thrill of the rides so we headed to the water first. Even though the water was cold, my kids jumped wave after wave after wave. After they tired out a bit, we checked out the arcade and used the tokens that came with our Boardwalk admission.

Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk

Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk

Then it was on to the rides. There are still a couple of them that my kids are weary of, but there are many more that they love or wanted to try. The gondola across the boardwalk was a great way to see what was available before we decided where to start.

Ferris Wheel Selfie

Ferris Wheel Selfie

My daughter says that her favorite was WipeOut where it looked like a regular circular fair ride underground. However, when it gets going, the lights go out, flashing lights come on and off and the room erupts with glee-filled screams.

My son enjoyed the log ride the most, and especially enjoyed hiding behind me on the way down so I would get wet and he wouldn’t.

On our way home, I was told that it was a must-do to get Marianne’s ice cream. It is heavenly ice cream and I’m glad to have found that it’s available near my house, too.

We had a great day at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, and we capped it off by checking out the ocean one more time, where some dolphins came by and wished us good evening.

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