Sunday, September 18, 2016

Napa Valley

Time: Sept 17, 2016
Place: Napa Valley (drive)
Company: Wife and daughter

Highlights: Our previous time at Napa was a disaster with absolutely none of the green views that Napa is really famous for. It was because we had been there in November and that's post-harvest season. So, we always wanted to see Napa for what it was worth. We were not that into wine-tasting, all we wanted was the views. So we planned for a half-day drive through Napa. 

We left home at about noon, and directly went to Aroma, an Indian restaurant. It was pretty good in both service and ambience. Then we continued north on 29. This road is pretty good actually. Last time we went up to Yountville but the actual winery starts after Yountville when the road becomes bi-directional. We stopped curb side at couple of wineries, took some nice snaps beside bunches of grapes and lanes of grape vines. We continued on until Saint Helena, took right to Silverado Trail and headed south back home. This road zig zags on top of the same wineries that we passed north and it has some nice eye-catching spots, although the road has a faster speed limit and it is not that easy to stop. Soon, we were back on 29 and on our way home. 

This trip to Napa was worthwhile and fulfilling. We felt like having completed unfinished business!

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Niagara & Ferndale

Time: Sept 1st – 5th 2016

Place: Niagara Falls, NY & Ferndale, MI

Company: Wife, Daughter, Brother, Sister-in-law

Highlights:

Prologue: This trip was originally meant for a visit to brother’s at Michigan. However, considering Niagara was a short drive away from Michigan, and also since Tontu hadn’t seen it, we planned the itinerary in such a way that we will spend a day at the Falls and rest at brother’s house. There were not too many variables to factor – the dates were pretty much finalized (Labor day weekend), there was no car to book and I wanted to use my points for the flight and stay (at Falls). So, the booking was not that big a deal.

Day 0: The flight was at 11:59 pm. So, packed the usual stuff, crossed out the check-list, left home at 8:30 pm, reached Travelodge at South SFO at 9:25 pm, parked the car, took the shuttle at 9:38 pm, and we were at the airport in 10 minutes. Had to request for seats to be together with a bunch of people but finally we were lucky to get it. Our first leg was to Chicago.

Day 1: One hour lay-over at Chicago, then a small jet to Buffalo. Reached at about 10 am, but had to wait till almost 12:30 for brother to pick us up. It was kept as a surprise to Tontu and she shrieked in joy seeing her aunt and uncle! We directly went to Howard Johnson (Closest to the Falls – that’s the name!), checked-in, relaxed and walked towards the Falls. On the way, we had a nice lunch at a Punjabi restaurant.

First stop was Maid of the Mist. Thankfully the long weekend crowd was yet to arrive, so we were spared with the long lines. And it was nice weather too. Tontu enjoyed the spraying of the Falls as the boat went close to the Falls. We also hiked close to the American Falls. Then we walked all the way to the Goat Island. Took in the lush scenery, sat on the lawn, had a light picnic and generally passed time.

Next adventure was Cave of the Winds. We adults enjoyed a lot but Tontu had enough of the water falling on her head! She barely could open her eyes! Surprisingly the water from the Falls was pretty warm. I hadn’t expected that. The ponchos are not really that useful. Our dress got wet anyways – and sun was setting too. So there was a chill in the air. By the time we came out, had some hot chocolate (not so great, by the way), it was already 7 pm. We wanted to watch the light show which starts at 8:30 pm. In order to kill time till then, my wife and I walked back to hotel, got the car and drove to the parking lot. Just as we walked back to the edge, the light show (if it can be called that) started.

It wasn’t all that impressive. It could have been made so, but all we saw was just constant lights glaring at the Falls. It wasn’t changing too quickly either. It didn’t seem like a show. It was just lights upon the Falls. After a while, we thought it better to call it quits. For less than 20 minutes of parking the car, we ended up paying $10 as parking fee! It would make sense to make the fee as time-based. Anyways, we stopped at the same Punjabi restaurant for dinner. It was delicious and we were ravenous! Totally worth the money. And then, that was it for the day.

Day 2: Took it easy. Nice fulfilling breakfast at HoJo. Left Niagara Falls at about 11 am, drove on I-90 for about 2-3 hrs and we planned to spend some time at Edgewater Park at Cleveland, just as a nice stopover for the kiddo. We were lucky that it happened to be an air-show day at Cleveland. So, many folks had come to this very park since it was free! Just as well for us! We parked the car and just then we were greeted to a spectacular air show by the US Navy. The sound boomed as the crafts dived and rose and made patterns and what-not. After munching ice cream, we went on our way. Stopped at a McD for fries and continued. Reached Ferndale at 8 pm. After a light dinner, retired for the night.

Day 3: Initially had planned for an outing like a zoo or temple (considering it was Ganesh Chaturthi). But then changed mind and made it as a chill-pill day. All day long stayed at home. Tontu enjoyed the company of her aunt and uncle. It was a perfect weather day to sit on the lawn, bask in the sunlight, play with sprinkler, etc. In the noon, saw a 1990 Kannada movie (Ananth Nag comedy) – maybe for the nth time! In the evening, went for a nice stroll on the downtown. One more round of sundae ice creams! And that’s it!

Day 4: Had Ganesh festival yummy feast. Packed, left home at noon, reached airport at 1:30 pm and passed time for about an hour. An emotional farewell. Especially Tontu since she didn’t want to go back home. An uneventful flight back home via Dallas. I guess this was the first time I was having a lay-over in Texas – a state that I was somehow always wanted to see or even stay. Anyways. No issues with baggage. Got the shuttle at the right time to car-park, drove back home, and reached safely at 10 pm. It was a ‘perfect-timing’ day all in all.

Epilogue:

1. This trip was important since it could possibly be our last trip to brother’s home in 
Ferndale, MI. If not, at least will surely be so for a long time. The last time we were here was in Jan 2012, right before I had an idea that I might leave East Coast permanently. And this time, it is right before I have an idea that I might leave West Coast permanently!

2. This trip was also very important since it was the recipient of award points redemption for both flights and hotels. The trip to Rio with American Airlines had given all three of us enough points to almost fly free one-way to BUF. And the many stays with Wyndham during past vacations provided us this stay at HoJo at an extremely reasonable price. But for this trip, I might have lost all these points considering the aforementioned idea.

3. In terms of counts – it was my fifth time at Niagara (Apr 2005, Sept 2005, Sept 2006, July 2009, Sept 2016) and fifth at Ferndale too (2005, 2006, 2009, 2012, 2016).

4. We created a record of sorts, with this trip (similar to the Rio trip). We were in three different states on the same day of three consecutive months (not including resident state):
  • July 5th 2016 – Alaska
  • August 5th 2016 – Colorado
  • September 5th 2016 – Michigan
5. Another interesting thing about this trip was that exactly 10 years ago, this very same Labor day, I took my parents to Buffalo airport in the act of showing them the great Falls. And bro had come to the airport to pick us all up. And now, 10 years later – exactly the same setting except that this time it was for my daughter. And she had the best time of all – got enough gifts and love from her uncle and aunt.

Footnote - This trip was for my daughter as well as for my brother and his wife, who have visited us almost every year since we arrived in US in 2011. An extremely pleasant and memorable trip of what could possibly be our last flight-based vacation in US….

Rocky Mountain

Time: Aug 5th-7th, 2016

Place: Rocky Mountain National Park, Pike’s Peak, Colorado Springs

Company: Wife and daughter

Highlights:

Preview: A visit to the Rockies was on my bucket list for a very long time. But kept pushing out thinking there is nothing much to see – or rather thought its similar to the Smoky Mountain. But it was always in the back of my mind to go there, especially because it is just a 2 hour non-stop flight from SFO. We were planning an East coast trip for Sept long weekend trip when we saw good deal for Rockies on first week of August and just booked the tickets. Rest of the planning followed suit…

Day 1: Left home at 3 am to reach SFO at 4 am. Just a 3 hr sleep overnight. Caught the 6:20 am Frontier flight to Denver, and reached destination at about 10 am. We didn’t have too much planned for that day, so took it easy. Spent some time at the airport taking pics, had brunch, took the shuttle to rental car and by the time we left rental agency, it was almost 12 pm.

Drove to Estes Park, which is like the Eastern gateway to Rocky Mountain. Tontu got sick just as we reached, and we presumed it was due to the motion sickness which is very common with her. It was her sickness #1. Then followed a series of navigational mistakes:

We saw boards for Rocky and blindly followed it. Unfortunately it was taking away from where we actually wanted to go, which was the Bear Lake. The board took us to Fall River Visitor Center. We were actually supposed to enter from Beaver Meadows Visitor Center. Mistake #1. So to avoid the winding road within the park boundary, drove all the way back to Estes Park downtown and re-enter. Mistake #2.

We had spotted a deer on our way up, so was trying to look at it on our way back when I missed a right turn. Mistake #3. Then the GPS took me to a wrong road. Mistake #4. Finally got to Estes Park downtown. It is vibrant and colorful. Reminded us of Gatlinburg in Smoky Mountain. I was so absorbed that I missed one more right turn. Mistake #5.

Finally found the right board for Rocky Mountain re-entry. But, GPS now showed left. So followed GPS assuming it knew a better, faster, shorter route. After about 2 miles, we hit a dead-end! Mistake #6. Left picture shows actual road traversed. Right picture shows the road that I should have taken!

Switched the GPS off and followed the new signboard all the way to Rocky Mountain entrance, which was via the Beaver Meadows. Directly headed to Glacier Gorge trailhead to hike the trail to Alberta Falls. On the way, we were fortunate to see 2 elks with huge antlers. Reached trailhead and then Tontu sickness #2.

The hike was moderately strenuous. It was almost a mile, and the little kiddo almost gave up, but we egged her on. Finally we reached the falls. It was spectacular and worth the hike. We started back and carried her most of the way back. Then Tontu sickness #3. She now seemed too dehydrated and devoid of energy. She slept off in the car.

We continued on to Bear Lake parking lot. The hike to the lake was very short. The lake was superb. It was formed millions of years ago from a melting ice chunk. The near-still lake reflected the surrounding mountains and the moving fog seemed unearthly and spectacular. Thankfully, Tontu woke up just at the right time to witness the natural beauty. We spent quite some time taking pictures and then we headed back to the hotel. Then Tontu sickness #4.

Then Mistake #6. Took a right instead of a left. Drove for quite some distance – almost 10 minutes when finally I realized I was going the wrong way. Got too tired with so many mistakes and sickness stops. Finally reached the hotel and ditched the initial plan of going out to an Indian restaurant for dinner. Ordered a dominos pizza and retired for the night. Once again, left picture shows actual road traversed. Right picture shows the road that I should have taken!

Day 2: Got up at 7 am. Quick refresh and breakfast. Had a long day planned ahead – to traverse through the Trail Ridge road and reach Colorado Springs by evening and to see one of the many attractions at that place. But unexpectedly, Tontu threw up three times successively within a very short period of time. She became too dehydrated and energy-less and sleepy, even after a full night’s sleep. Something didn’t seem right. Internet didn’t provide any nearby Urgent Cares either. So, we decide to push on and reach Colorado Springs as fast as we could but thankfully on the way to Trail Ridge itself, we found Estes Park Medical Center – which had both an Emergency Room and an Urgent Care. This was the first time we were visiting a doc on a vacation!

Formalities over, the doc finally met Tontu and did some basic check-up. We were relieved to know that it was nothing really serious. She was mildly dehydrated – and most likely the reason for throwing up so many times was lack of oxygen at this elevation - also known commonly as "Altitude Sickness". (Estes Park was at about 7500 ft. & Denver was about 5000 ft.). This is a common Her body needed adjusting and doctor advised us not to venture the Trail Ridge road – which would climb up to 12000 ft. Best advice was to take sips of water – which apparently happened to work miraculously.

We took some time deciding and finally thought we will stick to our original plan of going through the Trail Ridge road. Thankfully Tontu slept off, and off we started. It was 11:15 am finally when we left the Medical Center, and we were about 2 hours delayed in our plan. Our first stop was Many Parks Curve. Tontu was sleeping so I parked the car and went alone to take a look. After a quick panaromic look, headed up the road again.

Second stop was Rainbow curve. This offers superb scenery – and almost the entire uphill road from Estes Park. Thankfully even wifey was able to see from the car. We were now above cloud level and we could even see snow on mountain tops. We continued on. Next stop was Forest Canyon. Another scenic spot. This place is above tree line, and the curving road on the mountain is an awesome sight to see. While it is pure mountain meadow on the right, it is full forest on the left, with no view of the ground (hence the name forest canyon). And on the meadow were more wildlife animals peacefully grazing. Fantastic scenery. Especially the feeling of being inside the clouds.

Then the road goes through a ‘Rock Cut’. We passed through it and skipped the Tundra trailhead which has a 0.5 mile trail to Tundra. We ditched it, since we were keen on getting through the road & to a lower elevation as fast as possible due to Tontu’s status. Our next stop was Lava Cliffs where we saw a colorful blotch of snow like a glacier except that it was purple in color. This is the highest spot on the road where we stopped – 12135 ft. We then drove through the actual highest elevation on the road which was 12183 ft and reached Gore Range – another overlook point. Next up was Alpine Visitor Center but the parking lot was full and a ranger was asking us to drive through. We didn’t mind much since we were keen on getting down anyways. From here on, it was all downhill.

Next stop was at Medicine Bow Curve. This had lush greenery and we could see the elevation from which we were now descending. After quite some time, we reached the Milner Pass. It was drizzling at this time but we were lucky to get the parking spot right in front of the Continental Dividesignpost. This is an amazing geological position and felt nice to be there.Water on one side of this divide heads to Pacific Ocean and the other sideheads to the Atlantic. This is the second time we were on a Continental Divide, first time being on Glacier National Park. For the first time during the entire stretch of Trail Ridge road, Tontu woke up and agreed to come out of the car for a pose albeit. But after this, she was back to her normal self and didn’t seem to be any more dehydrated. She was done with her sickness episodes. Thank God!

We continued on downward. We saw more elks. Very soon we came to Kawuneeche Visitor Center. Tontu filled up the Junior Ranger activity book and met up with a Park Ranger who asked her a number of questions which she answered to the best of her abilities. At the end, she was asked to take an oath – which is funny actually, it goes something like I wont step on ants, etc.! -  and she got a "Junior Park Ranger" badge! She was so proud of it. We spent some more time at the center, watched the movie in the theatre and bought a magnet.

Our next stop was supposed to be the Adams Falls trailhead. But we missed a turn and we went straight to Grand Lake shore. It turned out, for once, to be a good mistake! Lake was truly grand and very beautiful, so we parked the car and Tontu ventured into the lake. The lake even had small waves. Very conveniently, there was an ice cream shop nearby and the whole setting was straight out of a postcard – mountains, lake, ice cream and children frolicking around. Had a very pleasant time – and it seemed a nice stop for Tontu especially who had a tough start to the day in the morning.

Having obtained the right directions to Adams Falls, we then proceeded thither. Tontu was in full form, and she enjoyed the short hike (0.3 miles), at the end of which was a gushing waterfalls. It was another splendid scenery and our last one on the Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) range. The trail went on a small loop bordering the stream (that would eventually go through the falls) and it was pleasant all through.

By the time we pushed off from Adams Falls, it was almost 5 pm. We spotted a deer near the trailhead and continued on to our next destination – Colorado Springs. It was a full 3 hour drive and the road crossed a mountain, went via many mountain passes and many scenic Colorado meadows. It bordered the RMNP all through. It even cut through Denver. 

On the way, we had rain and the rain caused a fantastic double rainbow. It was our second experience of a double rainbow (first one was in Maui, Hawaii). Although we were on a freeway (I-70), the road seemed to weave through many small towns (like Idaho Springs) and there were many twists and turns and crests and troughs. At a speed of 70 mph, that was one enjoyable drive.

Once we passed Denver and headed south, it was all meadows and lush scenery. Soon the road became a country road and by this time, it was raining really hard with thunder and lightning. It was an extremely long time since we had seen a lightning and it was the first time Tontu was seeing it. There seemed to be a flash flood warning in the state of Colorado and we were almost in the middle of it with roads being clogged with water. However, just as we reached our destination, the rain decreased – our destination being a restaurant (Little Nepal).

Food was ok-dokey but service was extremely slow – maybe because of the popularity. We packed up lunch for the next day too, considering we had a full packed schedule. We then headed to our hotel – Howard Johnson – to retire for the night. It was about 10 pm and we were all extremely tired.

Day 3: After a light breakfast at the hotel, we left at 8:45 to Manitou Cliff Dwellings. After 15 minutes, GPS said we had arrived but obviously we hadn’t, so we had to manually ask around and finally we got there just after 9. There isn’t nothing much to see – maybe an hour or hour and half at the most. Since we had a packed day, we kept it for an hour. Some interesting cliff dwellings indeed – hard to imagine how folks lived back then. It was pretty well constructed – complete with balcony, windows, etc. -  considering there was no usage of modern day tools. The pictures came out well – especially after we set our cameras to same settings as antelope canyon scenery. We went in and out of caves, climbed up, down the ladders, took pictures of one another and selfies, visited the museum and we were done.


Our main attraction was the Cog train up the Pike’s Peak and we had to be at the ticket counter by 10:10 am since we had booked round-trip tickets for the 10:40 am online days before. We barely reached the place, packed up our stuff, checked in, went to restroom, had few bites, when it was already time for us to board the train. We were conveniently placed one beside the other, and off we went. The conductor was quite knowledgeable and had answers for every questions raised – ranging from technicalities of the Cog train to the number of male deer on the mountain. She also infused some amount of light humor which helped with the 1.25 hr climb up. There were many tiny animals up near the top – the ones which are used to high altitude and cold climate. As we climbed, temperature got chillier and we all put on our jackets. If it was in 80s down bottom, up top it was in 30s! But it was sunny, so it was nice. There are only 2 cog rails in US – one for Mount Washington in New Hampshire (which I had scaled with my parents in 2006) and this was the other one – Pike’s Peak in Colorado (which I was scaling with my wife and daughter in 2016).

Soon enough, we were up on top of Pike’s Peak - . Apparently oxygen is only 66% here (at sea level it is 100%) – so it is natural for folks to feel altitude sea sickness. But thankfully, none of us faced effects of altitude sickness. Just to give a perspective, given below is the elevations I have reached previously that I believed were significant –
  • Mount Washington (2006) – 6,289’ (surprisingly this is an insignificant number comparatively!)
  • Haleakala (2014) – 10,023’
  • Yamunotri (2004) – 10,797’
  • Badrinath (2004) – 10,827’
  • Gangotri (2004) – 11,204’
  • Kedarnath (2004) – 11,657’
  • Trail Ridge Road (2016) – 12,183’
  • Pike’s Peak (2016) – 14,114’

We took pics all around the peak, a cloud cover came soon over the peak and we were all enveloped by it. We couldn’t spend too much time since we were given only about 20-25 minutes for ourselves before the train started downward. So we had to hurry up, walking around the visitor center, taking pictures of ourselves, of the scenery surrounding us when the clouds opened up, etc. But still, it was sufficient. We didn’t spend too much time at the visitor center.

The journey back down was uneventful. Even the conductor stopped talking – she was into answering questions mode now. I even dozed off for a bit unknowingly. Tontu slept the entire journey down - which was just more than an hour. Good for her. It was almost 2 pm when we finally reached down.


Our next stop was Garden of the Gods (where we also had our yester-night packed lunch). It was a short drive away. The visitor center was awesome and had lots of interesting information. The one that I liked best was a short video about Earth millions of years ago, the Pangaea supercontinent, and how the continents moved and how it is now. But we didn’t have a lot of time to spend at the visitor center. So we headed out to the so-called Garden which is not like a typical garden made of flowers. It is a garden of uniquely shaped massive rock formations, some of them even red in color – thanks to the oceans that carved them millions of years ago. The owner of this specific land liked it so much that he named it as truly the garden of the Gods, and also ensured it was always free for the public.

Our first stop was at North main parking lot where we took the Central Garden trail. It is a short 1 mile loop trail that goes amidst one of the tallest rock formations in the entire region. It is at times like a huge fort wall, and contains so many pores that it is a rock climber’s paradise! Sure enough, we could see many climbers at different altitudes on the rock formations. We quickly went through the trail and took many pictures at different angles of the various rock formations. It was at times drizzling but it never rained. We were done with it by about 3:45 pm.

We decided to head back to Denver to catch our flight but it seemed too early. So we made another short stop. This one was for Tontu – it was a shortish hump of a boulder. Not too big nor too small and it was fun for Tontu to climb. She needed little bit of support but not entirely – which made her feel as if she was climbing a huge mountain all by herself. There were times when she was scared too since she was losing balance and I was there to help her out of it. Finally she felt as if she had accomplished something great! Although it was just a 15-20 minute stop, this small trek was very refreshing and it generally felt good to have done it.

It was almost 4:30 when we finally left to airport. Out flight was at 9 pm and there was a nagging thought that we were wee bit early. Considering it was just less than 2 hr drive to airport from Colorado Springs, that would mean we would be at airport almost 2.5 hrs before our flight. So I drove easily, staying just below the speed limit and generally enjoyed the drive and scenic vistas. We still had one more place called Seven Falls planned to visit but we ditched it due to lack of time. It seemed a goodish place actually but we had too little time to see it. Considering some other things that we missed [Royal Gorge Bridge], maybe we should have stayed for one more day at Colorado Springs, but anyway, it was ok.

As it turned out, it was good that we left at 4:30. We encountered a massive traffic jam (thanks to an accident) en route to Denver, and got stuck for one complete hour with traffic hardly moving. By the time traffic started moving, it was already 6 pm, and we still had an hour’s journey left. So I drove really fast, and even reached 100 mph at one instant without even realizing I was going so fast! We saw one more accident soon after but thankfully the totaled cars (one of them belonging to an Indian family!) were already towed to the side of the road and traffic was moving already.

Anyways, by the time we filled the fuel and returned the car, it was already 7 pm, and we were right on time. We took the shuttle to the airport, checked in, got through security, took the airport shuttle and reached gate at about 8 pm. Then we realized that our flight was delayed by about 40 minutes. After 20 minutes, it was announced that it was further delayed by 40 minutes. By the time the flight finally departed, it was almost 10:30 pm. So, instead of reaching at 10:30 pm SFO time, we reached at midnight.

At the baggage carousel, another incident occurred. The bags never came! The carousel never moved! We waited and waited and waited, but nothing happened. And there was no one there – none from airport, none from airlines too. After 45 minutes, we passengers got fed up. Each of us started calling the Frontier help desk which sucks anyways since it is all automated. Somehow couple of us got through the call, and finally at 1 am, our bags came. Called the car parking shuttle for pick up, and finally got to our car at about 1:30 am. The ride home was smooth and uneventful, thankfully. We reached about 2:30 am and retired for the night. We were 2.5 hrs delayed – thanks to the airline and then the baggage department. I wrote a painful letter to Frontier Airlines depicting the sad state of affairs. [And for that, I was given some coupons! Now, where will that take us?! Wink, wink!!]

Overall, it was a very adventuresome trip. What with the visit to the urgent care due to Tontu’s dehydration episode, driving to 12k ft elevation despite her health, and topping it with 14k ascent the very next day! And then the traffic jam that caused anxiety on our way back to Denver airport, the delay in the flight, the delay at the baggage claim, etc. But the lasting memories will be that of the sub-alpine “Bear lake” which has a mirror-like reflection, the beautiful tundra of the alpine region of the Rockies and the many wildlife that we witnessed in the short 3-day span that we spent in Colorado.

Colorado is a beautiful state and easily one of our favorites!

Sunday, July 24, 2016

A Garden, A Beach, A Mountain

Time: July 24th, 2016

Place: Japanese Tea Garden, Stinson Beach, Mt Tamalpais

Company: Wife and Daughter

Highlights: Since almost 3 years we have been wanting to visit the Japanese Tea Garden but have been postponing for some reason or the other. Finally, considering it was a beautiful sunny day in SFO, we decided the time was just right for something that each of us wanted - Gouri (Japanese Tea Garden), Paavani (Beach), Harsha (Mountain Peak).

We left home (Pleasant Hill) at about 11 am and headed to San Francisco via Bay Bridge. Due to traffic, it was almost 1 pm by the time we got car parking and entered the Japanese Tea Garden. It was pretty pleasant and green all around. Not much of flowers but there were some Lily-pads and lotus flowers blossoming around many small streams and lakes. There were some nice tiny bridges made of stones and one specially curved ladder like bridge which was famous for photos. Pagodas and other Japanese art was strewn around the place. Soothing and nice - it was all over by 1 hour.

We headed out and had quick bite at a 'Meals on wheels' Indian food truck. Then we walked back to the car, which was almost a good mile away. Our initial plan was to go to the Mt Tam and then relax at the beach for the sunset but daughter was insistent that we go to beach next. So be it. We headed towards Stinson beach, which seemed to be the closest to Mt Tam. Alas, we were stuck in the traffic for a good one hour, and by the time it started moving, it was already 4 pm. We went through the Golden Gate Bridge and finally reached Stinson Beach at about 4:45 pm.

Much to our surprise, Stinson Beach was magnificent. Not all beaches in California is as good as this. This beach has extremely nice soft sand and one can spend hours on it, simply lying down. The waves are super awesome, especially because it is shallow for a long distance away. The ocean itself was very cold. So we satisfied ourselves by standing a few feet inside to get our ankles washed up by the waves and also we walked along the beach just at the place where the waves were losing steam. Felt nice and good - especially because the weather was just perfect. We were fortunate enough even to see a whale going past the swimmers and Paavani had a nice time building what she called the 'Rao Mountain'!

Meanwhile, we had all but decided to ditch the Mt Tam trip because the fuel gauge suddenly was showing just 2 gallons (what with all the hills that we had to climb to get to the beach) and the upward drive to mountain was surely going to consume all the fuel. The trip to Mt Diablo was fraught with similar scenario and we didn't want to risk one more mountain top driving with so much of anxiety. Even in this case, the nearest gas station was 15-20 miles away and even to get there, we had to go up (and down) some hills. Hence, considering the Mt Tam trip was off, we spent nice and relaxed time at the beach.

However, just as we left the beach and headed back home at 6:30 pm, we saw a road towards Tamalpais State Park, and on an impulse, we decided to take that road. Within a few minutes, the gauge dropped to 1.5 gallons. Still we continued on. After 4 miles, we saw the road to Mt Tam peak - 4 miles away. We decided that we will continue on until the gauge drops down to 1 gallon. Finally, when we were just a mile away from the peak, we decided to park the car on a pullout and walk the remaining distance, which shouldn't be 20-25 minutes away. The gauge was still showing 1.5 gallons - which was good because we had a good 15-20 miles for the next fuel stop.

We started walking at 7:20 pm and thought we will reach at about 7:45. However, the road kept climbing and climbing, and the peak seemed very far away - which is common in all mountain hiking. Thankfully, the wife and daughter were up for it, and we kept on walking. Soon enough, we reached the parking lot. However, there was still 0.3 miles with an elevation gain of 230 ft pending. It started off easily from the parking lot and then it became all rocky and gravelly. But daughter and wife enjoyed it a lot. It didn't take long for us to be at top. 

The peak was gratifying, the hike was well worth it, and we were extremely happy. With all the tension of the fuel, the sweat on the brow during drive without fuel all seemed worth it. The view on the top was super awesome. It shows rolling mountains and the cloud that gets condensed from the ocean near the city of SFO is practically happening right in front of our eyes. As the sun set, the orange rays shone super brilliantly and the sky slowly turned to pink and it was as if we were on an airplane. 


After taking pictures all around the peak, we started heading back. Just as we got to the car parking lot, the sun set and quickly the hills started getting enveloped with darkness. We still had a mile to walk/run to get to our car before the jungle came alive. Even so, when we were walking on the road, we suddenly stopped on our tracks - because a deer was intently watching us from a ravine, still as the mountain itself. Soon, its offspring joined it. There we were, in the middle of a jungle, all by ourselves, and two deers looking at us. No one else anywhere nearby! Quick pictures, and we started half running, half walking to the car. Paavani helped a lot by running too but I carried her the last few yards and finally, we were safe in our car. It was 9 pm.

I was pretty confident that we could reach the fuel stop - especially because it was mostly downward drive. Still, I drove most of the distance in neutral. The road was very winding and curvy for almost 30 minutes. Paavani slept off soon enough. It was about 9:30 pm when we finally got to a fuel stop. Fuel filled, we wanted fuel ourselves! We headed to a nearby Subway (first time after almost 2 years!) and had a Veggie Delite. Rest of the journey was uneventful but pretty fast! By the time we arrived home, it was 10:45 pm.

It was extremely tiring although it started very relaxing at the garden. The traffic jam itself was tiring, the beach was again relaxing. The fuel issue caused lot of anxiety but the East Peak of Mt Tam was gratifying. Just like the roads in Mill Valley, the day was full of up and down - and we were glad we had done all that we had planned to do. It just seemed the perfect day for everything - A Garden, A Beach and a Mountain!!

Sunday, July 17, 2016

8th Year Anniversary at Alaska!!

Time: July 3-7, 2016

Place: Alaska (Anchorage, Kenai, Denali, Fairbanks, Arctic Circle)

Company: Wife and Daughter

Highlights:

Preview: This trip was planned solely to overcome the slight repentance of our previous trip to Alaska and also to close some unfinished business! Visits to Arctic Circle, Glacier & Denali National Park were sorely missed since it was winter then, and hence Summer of 2016 was slated to check these items off our bucket list! It took about 2-3 weeks of research, planning and ticket-booking. What better way to celebrate the soon-to-be 8th year wedding anniversary other than at Arctic Circle, eh?!!

Day 0: Had planned for car parking off airport but when called up, found out that there was no self-park option available and only option was valet-park which costed about $100. So, changed plans last minute to take BART. Only risk was that return flight was scheduled to arrive at 10:45 pm and last train leaving SFO was at 11:45 pm. So, if there was a delay in that last leg of journey back home, then we would be stuck! Anyways, took the risk. Left home at noon, caught the 12:25 train, and reached SFO at 1:45 pm to take the 3:20 pm flight to Seattle. On-time. 1 hour lay-over. Next leg to Portland. Going back the way, huh! On-time. Finally, flight to Anchorage. On-time. Three flights with 2 lay-overs is way too much but it was cheaper. Reached ANC at 11 pm. Got rental car, drove to Anchorage Downtown hotel. At midnight, it was still bright! Room was super-cool and decorated royally. Paavani enjoyed it a lot, and declared it as her official Palace!

Day 1: After breakfast, we checked out from our hotel at 9 am and headed south to Portage Glacier along the road that hugged the beautiful Turnagain Arm. There was a cruise at 10:30 am which we had planned to be in. However, on the way, our little one got motion sickness and we had to stop over. We were 3 minutes late! Although it concerned us at that time (because we had a lot planned for that day), it didn’t impact us in anyway. We spent the next 1.5 hr lazily relaxing, looking at scenery which was magnificent. Snow-capped mountains, a glacial lake (Portage) and wonderful air that surrounded us. Also had a bit of snack – sorta early lunch.

Soon enough, we were on board the cruise to see the Portage Glacier. It was a short ride on the boat, and we were in front of the massive glacier. It was bluish at places (since it reflects blue color alone) and vast. We could hear the water gushing underneath the glacier although we could not see it. Finally, a dream of 2014 got fulfilled this day! When we missed to see glaciers in Alaska, we went to Glacier National Park in the hope of finding any glaciers there but it was not to be. This one seemed so easy to access and wonderful too. The cruise spent almost an hour in front of the glacier and we could take pictures in all angles until we were fulfilled.

Back from the cruise at 1 pm, we headed to Seward and Kenai National Park thereon to hike to Exit Glacier. We reached Exit Glacier at about 2:30 pm. There were multiple trails but we chose the 1-2 hr trail that took us to the edge of the Exit Glacier. We were even closer to this glacier than Portage. Here too it was bluish and we could see the water flowing underneath the glacier. The best part of this trail were the ‘Year boards’. Each board represented the year at which the glacier originally existed, and how it had receded. In the last 1 year, the glacier had receded almost a mile! We spent time until about 4 pm and headed back to Anchorage.

We encountered a road accident on the way back and were stuck for more than an hour due to a traffic jam. By the time we reached Anchorage it was almost 8 pm. Thankfully, Tontu slept all the way from Kenai to Anchorage – 3 full hours! It saved us from a few hundred “Are we there yet?”s! Went to Bombay Deluxe and ordered a take-out dinner since there was a huge queue (because it was one of the few restaurants opened on the July 4th Independence Day). Food was ok-dokey. Had a quick dinner and headed back to airport, returned the car, checked-in with Alaska Air for our 11 pm one-hour flight to Fairbanks. It was an uneventful flight except that it was completely sunny on a midnight!  

Upon reaching Fairbanks, we took one more rental car and drove to our Travelodge hotel. We retired at 1 am in the night (for the second consecutive night!) and it was still sunny outside. We wanted to experience this Midnight Sun and done! Apparently the Fairbanks folks can experience night not until mid-August!

Ok, to recap all that we did today: Saw Portage Glacier, Exit Glacier and the Midnight Sun at Fairbanks. Drove really fast (since we had to cover too many places and we were halted by the accident and the motion sickness incidents) and was extremely lucky not to have got caught by the hiding cops!

Day 2: We got up at about 8 am, had breakfast, and left to Denali National Park. There was a forecast of rain all day and hence we had no hopes of seeing Mt McKinley. Reached DNP at about 11 am, had quick lunch, and visited the Visitor Center to check what we can do. The Visitor Center itself was awesome. Spent about half hour there.

Unfortunately the Savage Road parking lot (up to which automobile was allowed) was closed out because of a bear-human interaction, however we were allowed to drive but return back without parking there. So, we continued on our way, inside the DNP. On the way, we saw a moose and its offspring. Took enough pictures of it and continued on. We guessed where Mt McKinley was, but could not see it clearly since it was a cloudy day (Luckily it didn’t rain the entire day! Thank God!!)

We drove all the way to Savage Trail, took a U-turn, and headed back. The serenity of the place was nice and pleasant. We headed back and came back to US-3 (George Parks Highway) after a quick pit stop at Visitor Center. Parked our car at the road-side and hiked a small trail called Parks Highway Bike Trail. We especially spent a long time on the bridge that crossed the Nenana River, taking a bunch of pics. The gushing force of the glacial river (from Nenana Glacier) was a sight to see. It reminded me of the many rivers in North India where snow-melted rivers flow down from Himalayas. It brought back memories from my 2004 trip to Badrinath, Kedarnath, Gangotri and Yamunotri.

After spending about an hour on the trail, we headed back to Fairbanks. It was a nice easy drive. We returned the car back in Fairbanks airport, took a cab back to the hotel and retired to bed early to be refreshed for the long day coming up.

Day 3: Up at 5 am, we had requested a cab at 5:45 am to drop us off at Northern Alaska Tour Company by 6. Checked-in for the tour, we were given instructions and off we headed 200 miles away to the Arctic Circle. The guide seemed very youngish but she was super cool, and gave us all a very homely feeling. She had lots of short interesting stories to share and her art of narration was very nice. She also had a very good knowledge of Alaska and its history.

And so began the day – with Alaskan history, of the quest for gold a century ago, how folks started settling in Fairbanks, and on the way we saw some machinery that was used for Gold mining a century ago, now defunct. Soon we entered Dalton Highway, the 400+ miles gravelly road, and she started using the radio unit, a commonality on this highway to communicate with nearby drivers. She even mentioned how truckers communicate to one another and what fun it is to listen in at times! At milepost 1, we all took some pics and continued on. We spotted a moose and she was too fast for folks to spot it, so people asked her to go back. Thankfully there was a side road where she could head back, and most folks spotted the moose. However, there was no side road now to head back towards Arctic Circle, and hence she had to drive quite some distance to get back on.

Our next stop was in the city of Joy. She narrated the story of Joy and how she came to stay in that place, which got named after her. There were too many mosquitoes every time we got down the bus (which was very comfortable by the way) and hence we had some bug repellants as well bug zappers. So each time we got on the bus, we used to zap at the pests. It is astounding why anyone would want to stay in such a desolate and god-forsaken wilderness, where it is too cold in winters and too many mosquitoes in summer! Anyways, it was nice to see Joy’s little shop and her children’s lemonade spot for truckers.

Off we went on and stopped next at a favorable spot for Trans-Alaska pipeline. We had done this last time we were here but this was a different spot. She had more news to share on this and it was all very interesting. She even put on a video about how the pipeline came into existence and it was very good.

Our next stop was at Yukon Camp, which was just past the Yukon river – the only bridge to cross the Yukon river in US. It was a nice information that the guide shared that no one can stop on the bridge, and if they do, the loud speakers will boom to shoo them away, because the pipeline goes right underneath the bridge and anyone stopping on the bridge is deemed a terrorist! Folks picked up lunch at Yukon camp but we had brought our own. It was a very brief stop and we continued on.

Our next stop was Finger Mountain. It is a small mountain shaped like a finger and there was also a short trail that goes up another small mountain to give a 360 degree view of the Arctic wilderness. After this, very soon, at about 1:45 pm we reached the Arctic Circle. 

The guide made a grandiose enterprise out of it, she put on a red carpet and even distributed cakes. We spent the next 20-25 mins taking pictures, and just to soak it in. There were some nice information boards indicating how Sun never sets beyond this point in Summer and how Sun never rises beyond this point in Winter.

At about 2 pm, we started heading back and our first stop was to experience the Arctic Tundra. We took a short hike on a cross road and entered what seemed to be normal vegetation. However, much to our surprise, the guide started pulling the vegetation out and, lo and behold, there was ice underneath! She made us all feel it and it was incredible! The whole place where we were standing was actually ice. Upon the ice was vegetation. The vegetation insulated the ice and kept it cold during summer and opened up only during winter. Our hands were all muddy but it was totally worth it.

Our next stop was again Yukon camp but this time it was for a lot longer time. We reached about 4:30 and by the time we left, it was almost 6 pm. We first went to the Visitor Center to get some memorabilia. Then folks grabbed their dinner and ate at the same place, complete with desserts. We had our own food but we shared the table with them. Then we shopped some more at the local shop selling T-shirts, jerseys, etc. Once that was done, we walked over to the Yukon river bank and threw some stones. It was all very pleasant. Even Paavani enjoyed it a lot.

That seemed pretty much it for the trip. There was one another video regarding Alaskan Native Indian life but it didn’t seem very interested for me, so I dozed off a little. Paavani too. We again had a pit-stop at the city of Joy, and we continued on. We were slightly ahead of the schedule (planned ETA was 10:30 pm and we were almost at the destination by 10 pm) when we encountered a road block due to an accident. However, it was not long before vehicles started moving past the fallen truck. So, we did make it early. Upon reaching, we were all given Certificates for surviving the Dalton Highway and to have made it across the Arctic Circle.

After bidding adieu to all fellow passengers, we took a cab back to our hotel. Then we just relaxed and waited for the midnight again to experience the midnight Sun, since it was the brightest evening (no clouds) that we were in Alaska. More pictures and then we retired.

Day 4: The only day for which no activity was planned. So got up real easy like at about 8:30 am. Quickly went out to grab some breakfast. Then started packing and getting ready. We requested for a late check-out and checked out at 12 noon. We had our cab ready for the airport. Checked into our Delta flight back to SFO via Seattle. It was on-time. Had our lunch at airport. The flight itself was uneventful, and we all watched a movie.

At Seattle, our flight was delayed. That would mean we could not take the BART back home. Anyways. We proceeded to have a real nice dinner at Qdoba. Absolutely loved it. It was our first real meal since 3 nights ago in Anchorage at Bombay Deluxe. Tontu played at the play area in the airport. She had done this same thing back in 2014 when we were heading back from Fairbanks. Our flight got delayed by further 1 hour – thanks to a runway issue in SFO. So instead of departing at 8:30 pm, it was now departing at 11 pm.
This leg of the journey, we slept all through and it was over 1 am when we reached SFO. Took our baggage and pondered our next step. It was 2.5 hrs for next BART train to depart. Considering it was too late to go in a taxi (and perhaps not safe), we decide to spend the 2.5 hrs at the airport itself trying to sleep.

Day 5 (unplanned!): Although uncomfortable, we spent the 2.5 hrs somehow. We then made to BART, it somehow seemed painstakingly far to get to the SFO shuttle itself, and we were right on time to get on to the BART. As soon as we got in, the train doors closed and we were on our way. Reached at 5:30 am and we hauled all our luggage back to our home – another painstaking 10 minutes but thanks to Paavani who woke up and started walking (otherwise it would have been very, very difficult!). Finally, we reached home at 6 am – it was 17 hrs since we left our hotel room!

Overview: Price was cheaper ($500 per head) compared to our previous winter trip ($600 per head), surprisingly so, considering it is school break now. The Arctic Circle tour was pretty expensive (~$219 per head) but it was pretty cool and interesting. The rental cars & hotels in Alaska during summer is extremely expensive. Nothing below $100 per day. All in all, it costed over $3000 for us (a family of 3) for 3 days of active sightseeing and 2 days of travel.

The trip was very hectic, since we had to cover Anchorage and surroundings on 1st day, Denali on 2nd day and Arctic Circle on 3rd day. We didn’t have much option on the 3rd day but we had a few on 2nd and quite a few for 1st. So we had to pick and choose on things to do. As a result, we completely veto-ed Matanuska Glacier as well as some nice scenic spots along the road from Anchorage to Fairbanks. The railroad in Alaska also seems scenic but it would need a lot of time and money. 

We were lucky to have no rain showers on any of the days, especially because that was how it was forecasted. But still it was cloudy and hence we were unable to see Mt Mckinley – the highest mountain peak in North America.

One another thought that was haunting me was that perhaps a longer visit during March-April or September –October could have sufficed covering all parts of Alaska (that we covered as part of 2 separate trips in 2014 Feb and 2016 July) as well as a chance for Aurora Borealis. But I guess this is how it was meant to be. So be it.

We enjoyed the beauty of Alaska in all its glory – in two different climatic conditions. Each season had something great to offer that the other season cannot. Main purpose of our visit in Feb 2014 was Aurora - Check. Main purpose of our visit in 2016 was Arctic Circle - Check.

And we were back home safe from another adventurous vacation. Thank God for that. And to top it all - I may not so easily gift my wife diamonds on our wedding anniversary but I cannot say 'No' to a once-in-a-life-time "dream" visit to Arctic Circle! ;-)

Happy 8th Anniversary to us!

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Birthday at Tahoe

Time: April 16, 2016
Place: Lake Tahoe
Company: Wife and Daughter
Highlights:

Prologue: The only snow experienced in the past winter was in Jan and kiddo didn’t enjoy it too much because of extreme temperature. So we thought we might as well visit Tahoe again since it still had snow and temperature was in 60s. It was my wife & my birthday celebration too, so double fun! We initially planned to make it as a day trip, but then thought it was too hectic for our birthday. So booked a hotel at 4 pm(check-in started at 3 pm!) for the night and started getting ready to go.

Day 0: Left home at about 7:30 pm in car on Friday. This helped avoiding all the traffic surrounding Sacramento. We took cake on our way to cut the next day. Munched some packed dinner on the way itself and took just one pit stop. After 3.5 hrs, we reached South Lake Tahoe. Room at Days Inn was pretty comfortable. But it was chilly!! Retired for the night.

Day 1: After a fairly decent breakfast, we cut the cake, sang the birthday songs to ourselves(!) & headed directly to Gondola at Heavenly, which was our only focus for this trip – since we had never been on it. It was not in action in Oct 2015 when we were here last, and we didn’t know about it when we visited in May 2012 and it didn’t even exist when I visited in 2006 (although I did experience Squaw Valley gondola).

It wasn’t too crowded, so got gondola tickets easily, and hopped on the cable car. It is extremely impressive. The angle at which it ascends is almost breath-taking. The hush of the forest underneath and the expansive view of the lake behind us suddenly makes the jaw drop. After about few minutes, we get to stop at Observation Deck from where we could see the Lake Tahoe in all its beauty. We had access to snow right at the deck, and kiddo started playing with snow. It was bright and sunny, and hence not at all cold. We allowed her to have as much fun as she wanted, and hence we ended up staying just at the deck for over an hour! Then we headed further up in the tram to arrive at a wide expanse of snow where all ski-lifts started for further up ski trails. But this place was sufficient for us.

With white blanket covering all around us, kiddo did a snowman, a snow angel, threw snow at us and we had a gala time altogether. Also had nice hot chocolate and munched some snacks. More snow, more fun time, lotsa pictures. At one point, we sat on patio chairs & just relaxed in the cool breeze. It was a beautiful day to be in the snow on this sunny day!

With that, we finally got down the gondola. It almost took 10 minutes! Then headed to Nikki’s Indian eatery and had sumptuous lunch buffet. Little shopping for some memorabilia and then at 6 pm we headed back home. After a brief stopover to visit a friend’s place at El Dorado Hills, we drove home uneventfully and reached at about 10:30 pm.

Epilogue: It is always great to celebrate birthdays differently, and this one was really special. Wife and I hadn’t done this grand ever before, and to top it off, daughter had fun in the snow too. Looking forward to Anniversary now!!

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Antelope Canyon

Time: March 29 – April 2, 2016
Place: Page (Antelope Canyon, Horseshoe Bend) & Las Vegas
Company: Wife and Daughter
Highlights:

Prologue: To visit Antelope Canyon was an year long dream (or maybe more). We forgot when we came to know about this place or how but looking at the pictures, we really felt like visiting it. The fact that we had traversed right through it in December 2012 gave us a huge dismay but the consoling thing was that the light rays in December would not have been that good anyways. So it was ok to visit those parts again. March end seemed like a good time to visit with not much crowd, not too cold and good enough sunlight. So we booked the flight tickets, the tour tickets, the hotel tickets, the car just about a month back and we were ready to go!

Day 0: Left home at about 4:30 pm in car to ParkSFO – long-term parking for SFO. With a coupon, it seemed reasonable. Reached airport at about 6 pm. Took the southwest to Las Vegas at 8:30 pm. All three of us flew free - with points. For the first time ever in life, flying for free!! Reached Vegas at 10 pm. Shuttle to rental car. Quite a long line to shuttle itself. Not a good designed airport, looks like. Sixt & Fox folks need to take double shuttle. Thank God, we had Budget. Got a new black Nissan Versa. Good enough. Drove to our Super 8 for the night, and retired.

Day 1: Extremely sumptuous breakfast. Very fulfilling. Left hotel at 9 and drove north towards to St George. Unlike in 2012, this time I was ready for the Virgin River Gorge – with its beautiful winding roads across the rocky valley. Took exit towards Zion National Park. At Hurricane (city), found a play area for kids, and rested for Tontu to play on swing for some time. Had little snack, debated whether to go to Zion or not (as per original plan) since drive-through costed $30. Decided yes, and continued on. Lost a turn, and had to drive back for about 5-10 minutes. Then headed towards to Zion. Just at the entrance, mother and daughter had some motion sickness issues that had to be taken care. Thankfully had a nice restroom nearby. Once done, we went to a Thai restaurant (Thai Sapa) – the same one which we had relished in 2012. Excellent service, and the waiter happened to be an ex-National Park Serviceman. So he gave us a rundown of some hikes including the Angel’s Landing. Now, although, our plan didn’t include any hike or trail on Zion (just a pass-through), we suddenly started thinking ‘why-not’ – at least on the way back. It would be hectic, as well as some plan changes, but still why-not.

Anyways, started driving uphill towards Zion’s exit on the other side and we were welcomed to some amazing cliff structures. The tunnel was amazing too. Last time, we had driven the other way at night and hence had missed all of this. Stopped at Checkerboard vista point for some snaps and continued on. We saw some mountain goats posing for us and then we were out of the Zion’s reddish roads. We had planned to go to Page via a lesser-known road called Johnson Canyon to admire Grand Staircase but we somehow missed the exit. When we finally found it, we were shocked to see that it was unpaved. We couldn’t risk to go on an unpaved road, checked with a local and even he said he had never been on it. So had to strike off one of our to-do things in our trip plan. Instead took the highway, and headed straight to Page.

During 2012, we had driven the other way back and hadn’t realized that the cliffs to our right were indeed Grand Staircase. But that knowledge helped us to scrutinize them further this time. It was quite grand indeed. Just near to Page, we found Wahweap Overlook. It was a nice vista point for Lake Powell view just before the Glen Canyon dam. Took some pics at the windy place and headed to our Super 8 hotel. Ordered a pizza from pizza hut, discussed a lot on what to do with Zion and Angel’s Landing, and finally decided to stick to originally planned itinerary. Although reached hotel at about 7 pm, ended up straining ourselves unnecessarily (researching) for about 2-3 hours. Instead could have rested.

Day 2: Once again a fantastic breakfast. This was all-inclusive continental. Thoroughly enjoyed. Today was the big day, and there was huge dependence on Sun and clouds. Thankfully, we were blessed with a near-clear sky with sun shining down on us. A short 10-minute ride took us to Ken’s tours of Lower Antelope Canyon. We had the 9:40 am tour booked. As the guide took us to the steep steps that led down the Earth’s level to the slot canyons, we positioned ourselves to be the last in the group. Flip side of this is that we cannot hear much of what the guide explains. But the best part of this is that we get to take lots and lots of pictures, since we would have almost 10-15 minutes before the next group catches up to us. As we descended, we got to see the natural carvings of flash flood water and it is surreal. Although we had seen many videos of this exact venue, it is only when we see with our naked eyes that we can truly appreciate the experience and the beauty. Paavani had great adventure with ladders and claustrophobic canyon walls. The guide was very patient with us and allowed us all to take as many pictures as we wanted. After we reveled in the picture-taking and walked for almost 1.5 hrs in the serpentine canyon route, we came to the end, which is actually the opening for the flash floods to enter. So we were walking all the time in the reverse order – from lower depths to earth level via a series of ladders. This coming out of the crack of the earth seemed so unearthly! And with that, we were done with Lower Antelope Canyon.

Our next tour of Upper Antelope Canyon was at noon but we had to report at 11 am. As per what we had researched, the site for Upper was right opposite Ken’s tours across the highway - Antelope Canyon Navajo Tours. So, just a minute’s drive and we were there. 

Tip#1: Upper charges $8 per person for Navajo permit whereas Lower charges $8 per family. But if you show Lower’s receipt to Upper, then the $8 per person is waived! But if you go to Upper first and then Lower, then you end up paying the $8 per person. So we got lucky booking Lower first. In fact, we had initially thought that Lower was without tours but a casual chat with a friend of mine who had visited informed that Lower was through tours only too, which resulted in research and subsequent booking.

Tip#2: Upper Canyon tour with Antelope Canyon Navajo Tours is nearer than anyone else because they are right at the entrance. Any other tour company is located somewhere in Page, and they have to go through this tour company property (add almost 15-20 minutes of drive one-way). 


After munching up some snacks and killing time till noon, it was soon time for us to depart. For Upper, we had to go on a bumpy 3 mile 10-minute truck ride to the mouth of the Upper Antelope Canyon. Unlike Lower, Upper is like a huge natural triangular Earth tent with a tiniest shadow of light filtering through the opening. Hence the rush for the lunch time, to see the Sun beams cast its glory to the canyon floors via the myriad shapes and canyon wall carvings. The guides here were expert in photography and suggested us all the right configuration to get the right pastel shades. I am no camera expert and without the guide’s excellent suggestion, the whole Upper Antelope Canyon album would have been a black and white mess! In fact the guide even helped most of us to keep the camera at unique angles to get the right shots – such as some US president faces, wolf face, a heart, sunrise, sunset, bird flying, etc. It was hard to get a family picture since there were too many people. And unlike Lower, in which we enter at one end and exit at the other, here we enter and exit at the same place. So we have to head back the way we came, thus leading to lot of traffic issues inside! 

Despite all this, Upper Antelope Canyon is beautiful too. Maybe it is because we went to Lower first, we liked it better but Upper is as good. There are no ladders, it is just plain walk and hence Tontu didn’t have that much fun. She was tired of all the canyon walls since it was almost 3 hours, and she wanted to head back. We were blessed with good sun beams in both Lower and Upper canyons, so we were pretty contented. It was worth travelling 2 hours in flight and driving almost a day to get to see this! Bumpy ride back and we were back to our car at about 1:30 pm.

Headed back to Lower Canyon visitor center to buy a magnet. On the way, stopped at roadside for a scenic photo. Kept my glasses on the car, and forgot clean about it, and drove away. Alas, by the time I realized (which was in a Mexican restaurant in Page) and went back to the spot, my glasses were broken, thanks to a car that has gone over it. Morose, returned back to hotel room, since we were pretty exhausted and there was nothing significant to do anyways. Took some rest and unfortunately, I had to attend a 5 pm office call which went on till 7 pm. So even though, we had plans of going to Marble Canyon and Vermilion Cliffs National Monument, we had to forgo it. With the happenings of the day, we were ok with it. Retired early.

Day 3: After another nice sumptuous breakfast, we checked out of the hotel and headed to Horseshoe Bend trailhead which is again a short ride from Page. Trail was less than 20 minutes and not strenuous. Soon, we were at the edge of the cliff overlooking at the Horseshoe Bend of the mighty Colorado river. It was indeed quite a scene. Thanks to the natural wonder, there is a huge overlook area, and hence even if the place is crowded, there is always a place to see. The cliff is about 1000 ft drop and hence one has to be extremely careful. We took about gazillion pictures from all possible angles with all possible permutations - individual, family, individual selfie, family selfie, just the bend, videos, etc. and spent almost an hour basking in the beauty. Then headed back to the car.

We again went to the same Mexican restaurant and had an early yet heavy lunch. Then we were on our way back to Vegas. But we felt we had quite a bit of time and hence took it easy. We went to Glen Canyon dam, went to the visitor center to search for another magnet (since we thought we lost the one which we had bought the previous day) but it was futile. Took some nice pics of the dam, and finally we were on our way. It was about 1 pm when we left Page finally.

All the way, we took pics of Grand Staircase as it paralleled our road. Excellent scenery all through. This time, we didn’t go through Zion & took the highway route. At Hurricane, we stopped at the same exact park where we had stopped on Day 1. Some snacks, some play in the park, fuel refill and back on our way. Once more through the Virgin River Gorge – same excellent landscape – and then dry desert miles together. We had decided on going to the Valley of Fire route, and hence took the appropriate exit. I was hoping it was a 30 minute diversion but it was not so. It was quite a long deviation indeed. After we left the highway, we drove almost 30 minutes just to get to the entrance of Valley of Fire. But once we entered, it seemed worth it. There are a bunch of rocks with cave-like holes in them and with the Sun setting, the park indeed seemed like on fire. It was orange-ish all around (especially more so with the sunglasses on), and mesmerizing indeed. We felt we should have come a bit earlier without having the Sun threatening to set on us. So we had to hurry around, especially to some of the shorter hikes. But to be fair, the park actually needs one whole day for itself, since most of the trails are pretty lengthy. So despite the setting sun, we felt we were on short change. But with whatever time we had, we saw whatever we could and took pics.

Finally, with no more stops, we headed straight to our same hotel in Vegas as on Day 0. This was a Super 8 vacation! After quickly freshening up, we headed to the Strip at about 8 pm. Parked our car at Bellagio, and showed Paavani the fountain. She enjoyed thoroughly. There were also a bunch of cartoon characters on the Strip and Paavani had a nice time talking to them all. Showed her the Eiffel Tower.  Then walked down to the New York New York to show her the Statue of Liberty. More pics. Then the tram to the iconic Vegas Pyramid. By then, she was way too exhausted and she slept. Carried her all the way back to Bellagio and headed back to the hotel to sleep. All the casinos which we wanted to show Paavani at night with lights, we were able to show and hence it was rather fulfilling.

Day 4: Was really exhausted and hence got up really late, at almost 9 am. After breakfast and getting ready, we finally left at 11 am. Considering we had a flight at 7:30 pm, that wasn’t such a good idea. We should have left the hotel early. Anyways. Read somewhere about a shark show in Mandalay Bay. So, got to the car parking in Mandalay Bay, walked through a series of passageways and finally when we got there, there was a big queue. So, ditched the plan, walked all the way back and took the car to Aria. From there, walked through Aria, to the Strip, through Paris resort, Strip again, Caesar’s, and then walked to Bellagio’s, took the mono rail back to Aria, since it was already 3 pm. Then drove to Circus Circus. There was some delay due to traffic & parking restrictions. Stopped over at McD’s for a quick bite of lunch & ice cream. Saw one amazing acrobatic aerobic show in Circus Circus, and headed back to car, ready to be off to airport.

There were a few more casinos we wanted to see & show to Tontu – like Wynn, Venetian, etc. but due to lack of time, we had to forego. So with a heavy heart, we left. Lost our way to rental car return, got back on track, returned car, took shuttle to airport, checked-in, security, and finally we got to the gate. After an uneventful journey in JetBlue – which we flew after almost 7 years! – we landed safely in SFO, took the shuttle to car parking, drove back home and reached at almost midnight. Thus ended the Antelope Canyon & Vegas trip…

Epilogue: The main objective of the trip was the Antelope Canyon, and we were extremely lucky to have got a clear and sunny day for most of both the canyons. There were certain other aspects of the trip which kinda pulled the mood down at times. Such as losing my glasses. And most importantly - not having seen any of the place in its entirety. There were small places in Page which we couldn’t see like Marble Canyon, Vermillion Cliffs, etc. There was Zion & Angel’s Landing which got us thinking and the thinking fell flat. There was Valley of Fire’s landscape which was so beautiful which we could not see enough because we hardly had time. And although we were short by a day in Vegas(!) - considering how much there is to see in each resort – we felt we should have done a good job planning the last day’s activities instead of being lackadaisical & leaving the hotel so late in the morning, which left us just with 5 hours. I guess the fact that we have been to Vegas many times before took us off guard...This is my fourth time already.

But the trip as a whole was safe and enriching. And I guess that’s just as good as anything anyone can ever ask for, right?. So, then this was the first big vacation for 2016. What’s next?!