A trip to Antelope Canyon

Antelope Canyon is probably the most photographed canyon in the world. Located in the Navajo Indian preservation, only guided tours are permitted.  We took a trip to Antelope Canyon Tours. The tour lasts about an hour, and it takes ~20 mins one-way drive to reach the canyon. There aren’t any hikes, just simple walks in the canyon. Everyone is crazy running around and taking photos, so, it does become a bit hard to enjoy in the mad rush. Even then,  if you are in the area, I would recommend booking a tour in advance to visit the canyon.

 

A vegetarian lunch at French Laundry

For the uninitiated, French Laundry is one of the best restaurants in the world. I got a chance to try the tasting menu. I had a vegetarian, or to be precise, a lacto-vegetarian (milk and cheese but not eggs) meal here.

The restaurant looks nondescript from the outside, and it is easy to miss it while driving.

French Laundry

French Laundry

It was an 8-10 course meal depending on how you count a course. Portion sizes were small but delicious. And there was a gap of about 15-20 mins before each serving, so, a total commitment of 3-4 hours for the full course.

Course 1

Course 1 begins

Crispy Chickpea Panisse (at least that’s what I remember)

Fennel Gastrique

Fennel Gastrique

Toasted Quinoa Tabbouleh

Course 2 – Toasted Quinoa Tabbouleh

 

Holland White Asparagus En Persillade

Course 3 – Holland White Asparagus En Persillade

Sacramento Delta Green Asparagus

Course 4 – Sacramento Delta Green Asparagus

Bread and Butter

Course 5 – Bread and Butter

Morel Mushroom Farci

Course 6 – Morel Mushroom Farci – did not taste like a mushroom at all but was still pretty delicious

Spring Vegetable Navarin

Course 7 – Spring Vegetable Navarin – I was starting to feel full by now

Bleu D'auvergne "French Blue cheese"

Course 8 – Bleu D’auvergne “French Blue cheese” – never tasted such cheese before

Meal ended with a mouthful of deserts

The meal ended with a mouthful of deserts

It would be a wrong question to ask whether the food was worth the time and money. The right question would be “Was the experience worth the time and money?”, I would say definitely. Being vegetarian, I was skeptical but was delighted beyond my expectations.

Escaping into Caribbean with Norwegian Escape Cruise

We took a Norwegian cruise in the western Caribbean. The cruise was seven-days long, three days onboard and four days at Falmouth (Jamaica), Georgetown (Cayman Islands), Costa Maya (Mexico), and Great Stirrup Cay (Bahamas). If you are a first time cruiser, read some of my tips for the first time cruisers.

Norwegian Escape Cruise ship

Norwegian Escape Cruise ship

Miami as seen from the ship

Miami as seen from the ship

Day 1 & 2 – at the sea

  1. The boarding is a bit of a mess. With 5000 passengers boarding and everyone required to assemble in the common area for the security briefing, it was a complete chaos for a few hours.
  2. We checked out the spa. It is well-maintained with sauna, sanatarium and an arctic room.
    Note: Unlike some other cruises like Carnival, spa access is not complementary to all cruise passengers.
  3. Sports and aqua section on the top deck is pretty good with a pool, jacuzzi, and some water rides. I had some good fun trying out their ropes adventure there. It was impressive enough that I tried it multiple times during the journey.

    Ropes - a must do adventure

    Ropes – a must do adventure

  4. Vegetarian food was good (not great) in the Asian section of the Garden Restaurant’s buffet and they do provide Indian roti on request too.

Day 3 – Falmouth, Jamaica

Falmouth

Falmouth

The cruise ship embarked in Jamaica. We took a tour of the Secret Falls and Dunn Falls in the Ocho Rios via Chukka for $70 per person. Their guide picked us from the Falmouth port and while driving gave us a good summary of the history of Jamaica, including various stops like the one where Columbus is believed to have first arrived. The drive to Secret Falls is about an hour.

Secret Falls/Blue Hole

Secret Falls/Blue Hole

Our second stop was Dunn Falls. We hiked right from the ocean back to the top of the falls. Overall, it takes about 4-5 hours to return to the cruise port.

Dunn River Falls

Dunn River Falls

I would highly recommend this activity to anyone heading to Falmouth for half a day. Back to the cruise ship, shows like live music and performances were going on. Our cruise director Tyler Gray was an amazing show host as his Facebook fan following demonstrates. We quickly learned to attend each and every show he is hosting.

Day 4 – Georgetown, Cayman Islands

Water near Cayman islands is shallow and therefore, the big ship anchors in the water at a distance, small boats, like the one shown, embark people to the port and back. Note: bid for good embarkation slots in advance.

Ships for moving passengers to Grand cayman

Ships for moving passengers to Grand Cayman

The island is green and beautiful.

Green cayman

Green Cayman

We took a three-stop snorkeling cruise by Captain Marvins for $50 per person. The three stops are the famous stingray city, the coral gardens, and the reef. The stingray experience was great but otherwise snorkeling in Caye Caulkar(Belize) was a superior experience.

Stingray city

Stingray city

Overall, this 3-hour activity was worth for us. But in case you have experienced a stingray tour before then I would recommend doing something else. The return to the ship was a complete torture as everyone headed back at the same time, the wait time to get onto the small boats was 1+ hour. Back to the ship, there were some great shows, including a great juggling performance by Scotty Cavanaugh.

Juggling

Juggling

Day 5 – Costa Maya, Mexico

Costa Maya

Costa Maya

Our next port of call was Costa Maya. The city or at least the port is extremely touristy. If you are planning to buy anything, be ready to bargain. We took a transportation + guided tour to Mayan ruins (Chacchoben) for $50 per person. The ruins are similar to but not as great asPlaza Del Sol near Mexico City. If you are in a big group, I would recommend taking a transportation-only taxi to the ruins and get a guide there at a much lower price. Or if you have seen similar ruins then skip this and head directly to the playa. A one-hour massage at the beach with beautiful views with right prices ($20) is the highlight of the beach.

Chacchoben

Chacchoben (Mayan ruins)

Mahahual, local name Costa Maya, is green wherever I looked at.

Mahahaul (Costa Maya)

Mahahual (Costa Maya)

Back on the ship, we attended a Cabaret at night. Many such events require reservations, so, don’t forget to book them in advance.

Cabaret on cruise

Cabaret on cruise

Day 6 – at the sea

Vast and endless sea

Vast and endless sea

More events continued on this sea day.

Deal or no deal game show

Deal or no deal game show

And more…

Comedy show

Comedy show

Day 7 – Great Stirrup Cay, Bahamas

Great Stirrup Cay is a private island of Norwegian. While the food and water are complimentary on the island, there are tons of complaints about everything else being overpriced. The complaints are not unfounded, here is a price list of activities.

Prices at Great Stirrup Cay

Prices at Great Stirrup Cay

Apart from that, there are still tons of small things to do on the island. One can go swimming, do carry swimming goggles to see fishes. Or one can play volleyball. As on the ship, vegetarian food was plenty and good (not great).

At night, back onto the cruise, more entertainment continued into the night.

Another game show

Another game show

And with this, our cruise came to an end.

Bye Bye

Bye Bye

Some tips for the first time cruisers

  1. How to book – Search and book via a travel agent like Expedia.com or cruisecompete.com. If you have to ask something then these travel agents usually provide way better customer service than the ones employed by the cruise company.
  2. Deck – The cruise floors are called decks. Larger the number, higher the deck. Most outdoor activities (including pool, spa, nightclubs) are usually located happen on the higher decks. The lower decks are usually about indoor activities and restaurants.
  3. Bidding – If your cruise line permits, always bid for a better room within your budget.
  4. Formal Dress – Carry at least one formal dress, it can turn out to be useful for some formal events on the cruise.
  5. Diet – Popular dietary restrictions like vegetarian or vegan are not hard for them to meet most of the time. But if you have a more special requirement (like halal diet or kosher), let the cruise ship know in advance.
  6. Meals – Usually all cruise ships have a buffet restaurant and multiple dine-in restaurants. Former is quick and contains prepared food. Latter is fancier but takes its own sweet time. The buffet restaurant is usually on the higher deck and is included as a part of the cruise. Some Dine-in restaurants (high brow term: “Speciality restaurants”) are complementary, some are not. An advance reservation is good to have (but not required) for the latter.
  7. Beverages – While the standard food is free on the ship. Standard addictions like Soda (soft-drinks), carbonated water, and alcohol (hard-drinks) are not free. If you really need them, buy them in advance, buy them onboard (expensive), buy and consume them whenever ship stops at a new destination or look for a promotional package which includes them for free.
  8. Water – Carry a few empty water bottles to refill or even better a hydration pack. A hydration pack is really useful for the day trips at the intermediate stops (fancily called, “port of call”).
  9. Shore Excursions – Shore Excursions at the port of call can be booked via cruise ship or on your own. The cruise ship ones are expensive but are a safer bet. If you are adventurous then book them on your own. If you are not, just go with the cruise bookings.
  10. Guest service – If you need something from the guest service, catch them early in the morning or late at night. Every other time, I have seen a queue. I wonder if they give out some raffle tickets but I digress.

Two days at Zion National Park

Day 1

We did Zion Narrows on the first day. The hike consists of walking in the flowing water, which is ankle to knee-deep. Therefore, getting wetsuits and water shoes is highly recommended. The views are marvelous, and since one has to return along the same route, one can decide how far one wants to go. Total hike length is 9.4 miles, starting at the visitor center.

Zion Narrows

Zion Narrows

Zion Narrows

Zion Narrows

Day 2

We did Angel’s Landing on the second day. It’s a short 5.4 mile with steep elevation gain at the end, which requires one to hold onto chains for climbing upwards. It is similar to Half Dome hike without the long, draining walk till the last dome. Those who fear heights should avoid this. For everyone else, it is an excellent and short fitness test combined with excellent views at the end.

 

References

  1. Hiking guide

Rim-2-Rimember: Day hiking through Grand Canyon

I did the 23.4 miles rim to rim day hike through Grand Canyon during last week of November (Thanksgiving weekend) 2017. Unlike most hikes like Mt. Whitney, the hard part (ascent) comes later and therefore it is easy to get trapped. Be very certain of your fitness level before you try this.

A view from the north rim

What to carry

  1. There are multiple water stops, some seasonal, some permanent, check the current situation at NPS website. The water supply comes from the Roaring Springs and it has high  Chlorine content.
  2. I carried ~3L of water and 1L of Gatorade. I think 2L of water is the absolute minimum to avoid the risk of dehydration. Also, get a hydration pack, so that, you are drinking more frequently and without stopping.
  3. Wear good trail hiking boots since many parts of the trail are really rough.
  4. Carry protein bars and trail mixes for the consumption.
  5. Cache the Grand Canyon maps in Google maps since there is no network connectivity inside the canyon.
  6. Carry a detailed list of the checkpoints you are going to encounter, along with the distance to track how well you are doing, a sample tracking sheet can be downloaded from Grand Canyon hiking time tracking sheet and my filled sheet can be seen under “My Journey” section in this blog post.

A view from the south rim

About the Journey

  1. The road AZ 67 to the North Rim closes on the first snowfall, therefore, check it’s current situation before leaving.
  2. The North Rim is less touristy, less accessible, and higher elevation than the south rim, therefore, start the hike on the north rim and end it on the south rim.
  3. There is exactly one trail to take on the North Rim, that’s North Kaibab trail. The total length of the trail is about 14 miles, and elevation change is about 5800 ft.
  4. There are two trails one can take to go up the South Rim, South Kaibab trail or Bright Angel Trail, Bright Angel trail is longer but has lower elevation gain and has one water stop (Indian garden), therefore, take the Bright Angel trail while going up the South Rim. The total length of this trail is about 9.4 miles and elevation change is about 4400 ft.
  5. On an average, it seems it takes anywhere between 12 to 15 hours to finish the hike.

My Journey

My journey tracking sheet

Download a copy of this sheet for your use here.

I started at 6:45 AM in the morning and it took me about 10 hours 45 minutes to finish the hike. This included 4-5 breaks of 5 minutes each along the way. Here are some photos of the major checkpoints along the way. The first of them is a short tunnel called Supai Tunnel.

Supai Tunnel

After Supai Tunnel, the next major milestone is Roaring Springs. The actual springs are a bit off the route, therefore, I would recommend not going there.

Roaring Springs

Manzanita Rest area was the first stop where I got potable water and being 5.4 miles away, this is the first major checkpoint on the way. And it’s a good time to evaluate how you are doing on time. If it has already taken you three hours or more to reach here, I would highly recommend turning back. Cottonwood campground is a little over a mile from here. From here on, the trail is next to the water stream.

Cottonwood Campground

Till Cottonwood, the descent is really steep. Beyond that, it becomes much more smooth and pleasant to walk. From here on, it becomes a long walk towards the Phantom Ranch.

One of the many bridges along the way

Another bridge

Eventually, I reached the Phantom Ranch, it’s a small town in the middle of the canyon. I refilled my hydration pack here. They do seem to serve food to day hikers.

Menu at Phantom Ranch

Bright Angel campground, a much smaller campground, is only 20 minutes away from here. Bright Angel campground is 14 miles from the start and is the lowest checkpoint of the hike. Here I encountered the board that I am finally crossing over to the South Rim.

Bright Angel Campground

Soon after this, I came across the Silver Bridge on Colorado river, which is used for crossing over to the south side of the canyon.

Silver Bridge

The temperature was climbing up now and I was sweating due to the strong sun. That’s when I came across more smarter travelers.

Mule tours

Next, I saw this really cool cave. Being alone, I decide not to take the risk but I am still unable to get this off of my head.

Mysterious cave in Grand Canyon

From here on the hike becomes a strenuous climb.

The trail I took

Seven-and-a-half hours into the journey, I reached Indian Garden. It’s an Oasis in the middle of the desert and is the last point to get potable water before the last leg of the journey. While Indian Garden is only 4.7 miles away from the Bright Angel trailhead, it is 3000 ft below that, so, I had to climb an average 12% gradient in the last leg of the journey.

Indian Garden

The next major stop is 3-mile Resthouse which is 3 miles from the Bright Angel trailhead. From here on, one encounters many day hikers who are coming down from the south rim for the shorter hikes.

3-mile resthouse

Eventually, I crawled to the final checkpoint 1.5-mile Resthouse.

1.5-mile Resthouse

Finally, a view from the top.

View of the canyon from the Bright Angel trailhead

References

  1. Rim to rim website
  2. NPS website

4 days in Mexico City and Valle De Bravo

Day 1

We started our journey with Templo Mayor, a 700 year old Aztec temple, and took a guided tour of it. The ticket to the temple costs $70 MXN per person and the guided tour in English was for $300 MXN. It takes about 3-4 hours to explore the archeological remains and the museum. I would recommend this museum over other archeological museums in the Mexico city since this one had descriptions written in English.

Templo Mayor

Templo Mayor

Then we headed to Zocalo square for the lunch. There are always some culture events going on there. I would highly recommend trying out mangos (with chile) and corn (again, with chile) in the open market. While Zocalo is well-known, the lesser known nearby university area is great for exploring the nightlife of the Mexico city (“ciudad de México”).

A grainy photo of the arts department at night

A grainy photo of the arts department at night

Day 2

We took an early morning bus to Teotihuacan. A $50 MXN bus runs pretty regularly from the North Bus Terminal (“Terminal de Autobuses del Norte”). It takes about an hour to reach Teotihuacan. It opens up at 8 AM. I would recommend arriving early to avoid traffic. Also, don’t go there on Sunday since it is free for Mexican residents then. I would recommend all the three pyramids – Pyramid of sun (“piramide del sol”) which is the third largest pyramid in the world, Pyramid of moon (“piramide de la Luna”), and the temple of Quetzalcoatl(“Templo de Quetzalcóatl”).

Sun Temple

Sun Temple

Moon Temple as seen from the Sun Temple

Moon Temple as seen from the Sun Temple

On return to the Mexico city, we decided to head to the Chapultepec castle, a 300-year old castle from the colonial era. While Teotihuacan is amazing, castle is not that great and can be skipped.

Day 3

We took an early morning bus from Poniente Bus terminal in Mexico City to Valle De Bravo, one can find the itinerary here. $167 MXN comfortable bus ride takes about 3 hours to the beautiful city of Valle De Bravo named after  mexican president and the hero of the battle with the US, Nicolas Bravo. The city is picturesque, sitting next to a lake, surrounded by beautiful lush-green mountains, cobblestone roads, and colonial era architecture.

Mirador La Pena

Mirador La Pena

A street in Valle De Bravo

A street in Valle De Bravo

We did a nice short and steep hike to Mirador La Pena (“Lookout point”) which gave majestic view of the city and the surroundings. The hike takes about 1-2 hours. Then we took an hour long boat cruise in the lake.

A view of the lake

A view of the lake

For rest of the day, the market and the cathedral area is a great area to hangout.

Day 4

We started the day with Cascadas Velo De Novia (“Bridal Veil Falls”). The falls are far from Valle De Bravo and a $20 MXN shared or $60 MXN private taxi will take you there. The hike is about 1-2 hours and is relatively flat compared to Mirador La Pena

Cascadas Velo De Novia

Cascadas Velo De Novia

We took a boat ride in the afternoon in the lake and in the evening, we took the Zina bus back to the Mexico city.

Things we did not do but might be good

  1. Free walking tour in the Mexico city
  2. National Museum of Anthropology – Templo Mayor museum was sufficient for us but in case you want to explore more museums
  3. Xochimilco
  4. National Parks outside Mexico city

Big Island (Hawaii) in 5 days

The Island of Hawai’i, popularly known as the Big Island is the biggest island in Hawai’i. Unlike other islands, this one is too big for driving around with mopeds. The island has two cities at the two corners, Kona and Hilo. If you are a coffee junkie, Kona indeed is the place where Kona coffee comes from.

Day 1

Flew into Kona late night and drove directly to Holo Holo Inn. It’s a beautiful rustic place to stay next to the Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park. The park had an active volcano till 2013. Now, only the dried magma is left. The petroglyphs are good but nothing worth spending too much time on.

Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park

Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park

There is an active volcano outside of public reach but one can go close enough to get a photo taken there. One has to wait till the evening for good photos, so, in the meanwhile, do drive through the chain of craters road.

Active volcano (that's how close they let you go to it)

Active volcano (that’s how close they let you go to it)

Day 2

I had an unsuccessful attempt at hiking the Mauna Kea Observatory, it was too windy and everyone else turned back the midway. It is possible to drive there but if it’s too windy that’s explicitly prohibited, as it was that day. From there, I headed to Kaumana caves, this was my first time doing a cave spelunking, so, couldn’t go too far but it is a great experience and I would highly recommend that.

Kaumana caves

Kaumana Caves

Akaka Falls State Park is nearby and is worth checking out, though can be skipped if you are short on time.

Alaska Falls State Park

Akaka Falls State Park

Day 3

I started with Waipi’o Valley. The distance is too far to walk down, and too steep to drive back with a 2WD. But Hawaiians are friendly, just ask for a lift and you will get to hitchhike. Do carry swimsuit down there, since it is beautiful to swim there. From there, I headed to the Botanical Garden, beautiful & mesmerizing but not very different from other botanical gardens. So, do it if you have not done any before. Kilauea Caverns of Fire is another cave worth checking out.

Botanical Garden

Botanical Garden

Day 4

I started the day with Honaunau bay, this has a historic park with some artifacts and a nice spot for snorkeling. Mauka meadows have a beautiful infinite-ish swimming pool where one is not allowed to swim but still great views of Kona. Highly recommended for its scenic beauty.  Followed this with Kealakekua Bay which has a mildly strenuous hike to Captain Cook monument. Then I stopped by Original Hawaii Chocolate Factory to see chocolate making, do make an advanced reservation for it. And a free bee tour at Big Island Bees was the highlight of the day. 

Day 5

I started the day with Coconut Island & Liliuokalani Gardens. And followed it with Hawaii maritime museum, which I would highly recommend if you are a geography lover. From there, drove along the south to reach South Point which is the southern most point of any US state.

A bakery near South Point

A bakery near South Point

 

Detroit in 2 days

Detroit used to symbolize the prowess of the Amercian manufacturing. Foreign delegates would drive or fly to Detroit just to see this iconic city. San Francisco Bay area (Silicon valley) was once called the Detroit of the west and at that time, it meant admiration. The city has a tumultuous racial history. It’s the only city in the US to be taken over by the Federal army thrice to control riots. Before my visit, I had read the book “Detroit: An American Autopsy“, it’s a bit long but gives a thorough understanding of this once iconic city.

The city neighborhood definitely looks in the state of somewhat despair, even though the suburbs like Dearborn, where Henry Ford was born, are in a much better shape.The motor city is spread out, so, don’t leave the airport without renting a car. Another thing which stands out is the sheer number of Arabs and the Arabic language as the second or the third language on the signboards.

Day 1

I started my trip with a visit to Grande Ballroom, as of Oct 2016, contrary to what Atlas Obscura says there is no way to enter inside.

Grande Ballroom

Grande Ballroom

From there I continued to Motown museum Hitsville, during the era of racial segregation, this museum used to provide an upward mobility opportunity to black artists. The tour is impressive, show up early in the morning or buy the ticket in advance. Without a prior reservation, I barely made it in.

Motown museum

Motown museum

From there, I headed to the Detroit museum.  That’s where I learned that the original name was “Ville De Troie” during French occupation and Britishers tranformed it to Detroit. In retrospect, that was a bad idea. The museum is good but some other museums like Ford museum are far better. I headed to the Camp Martius Park afterward. That in itself isn’t great but my plan was to do a Walking tour, which provided the missing narrative around the downtown buildings. And one does get access to some private buildings as a part of the tour. And while you are in this area, do check out the Giant Boxing arm of Joe Louis, it is controversial some think it symbolizes black violence.

Detroit from a high rise building

Detroit from a high rise building

I headed to Greektown for dinner which had the nightlife was atypical of an American city. I decided to take an early sleep for the next day instead.

Day 2

I started the day with The Heidelberg Project which is an artistic work from scrap. I wouldn’t recommend it unless you are staying nearby and even in that case, don’t spend more than 15 mins here.

Heidelberg Project

Heidelberg Project

I headed to Michigan Central Station next which again is a no-entry zone and I couldn’t figure out any way to get in. Even then it is still worth a visit, except, since this is located on the outskirts, I would recommend going to the Ford Piquette Plant first.

Michigan Central Station

Michigan Central Station

I next headed to the Ford Piquette Plant, which was the highlight of the trip. It was Ford’s first plant and has now been converted into a museum. The legendary Model T was first produced here.  I would highly recommend doing a guided tour here.

Ford Piquette Plant

Ford Piquette Plant

The room where Henry Ford designed Model T

The room where Henry Ford designed Model T

I spent about three hours here and headed immediately to the Ford Museum in Dearborn. That museum is much bigger and provides a general history of the automobile industry along with its impact on American culture in the form of drive-ins and motels. It also talks about the fall of large American cars to consumer preference for smaller and efficient Japanese ones. It has factory tours on the weekdays.

Ford Museum

Ford Museum

I finished the trip with a  Broadway show at Detroit Opera house.