Thursday, August 28, 2014

Every year I continue to be amazed that people actually visit my site and read the stuff I have to say! For some reason, this summer has demonstrated a remarkable shift in the volume of visitors, so apparently I've finally tapped into some highly demanded topics!  Seriously, who knew so many people were interested in Maryland sunflower fields? That or my photos are appearing more frequently in Google image searches.  Whatever the case, I remain deeply appreciative of your support and engagement, and I hope you're enjoying the photos and stories I have to share.  I also welcome your comments and suggestions because I'm always looking for new inspiration!

This upcoming year, well I'm just really excited about it!  I've got some great travel adventures planned to very special destinations - some new for me and some a "redo" of places I toured years ago when my photography skills were severely lacking.  I don't want to spoil the surprise of where I'm heading, but pay attention especially around late February or early March because I should have edited my photos by then from a trip that is going to hopefully blow your mind, visually!  And, of course, in addition to hopping on airplanes I have a laundry list of places I want to explore locally in and around Washington D.C. that I hope will be fun and entertaining.  Then there are the baking projects to do in between it all!

Looking back on the last 12 months, it's hard to pick some of my favorite posts because I'm really proud of some of the things I did and have very good memories of places I got to see.  I also just counted that I published 131 times in the last year, which has to be my personal best.  That's a post every 2.8 days - crazy!  I'm not promising I can keep that aggressive pace up this year.

Anyway, let's see if I can get the favorites list down to 5 things:

  • While in Belgium for the week, I enjoyed and wished I had more time in Ghent and encourage everyone to experience it with their own eyes.
  • It was a tough hike for me, and I still have the scars on my legs to prove it, but the reward of Zion's Subway was worth all the effort!
  • I really cannot describe the natural beauty of the Palouse region of Eastern Washington. Absolutely picture perfect!
  • These salted caramel peanut nougat chews are to die for!
  • My minion cookies were some of my favorites I've ever decorated.

Cheers everyone!  Don't forget to follow me on Facebook or Instagram!

Posted on Thursday, August 28, 2014 by Julie

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Thursday, August 21, 2014

While notorious for the celebrities that own properties in town and flock to the ski slopes in winter, Aspen is also a great getaway during the summer months.  There are plenty of outdoor activities, including the required ride on the gondola to the top of the mountain.  Then, of course, there's the shopping that resembles Rodeo Drive, with designer stores like Burberry, Valentino, Gucci, and the like.

I have been curious about Aspen for a while, but have not made the trek out there because it's more convenient to just ski in Summit County and not drive the extra two hours.  Without snowy driving conditions as a concern, though, there is no reason not to get out to Aspen for a change of Colorado scenery. The drive there is an adventure in and of itself, going over Independence Pass with its steep drop offs and hairpin turns that guide you to the lush forests of aspens just outside the town.

Only in Aspen for a very brief period of time, I made the most out of every minute and had plenty of time to see my first wild bear (just across the street from my hotel as I walked my dog at night), to stumble upon the first stage of the USA Pro Challenge cycling event, to eat some good food, and to watch the sun rise on the gorgeous Maroon Bells.

Getting up before sunrise on a clear day, you will not regret the lack of sleep when the sun starts to creep down from the peaks of the Maroon Bells.  Located just outside of town, take Maroon Creek Road to the end, and Maroon Lake is about 100 yards from the parking lot.  In the summertime, mid-June through Labor Day, from 9am to 5pm one can only access Maroon Lake by public bus (ticket purchase required).  But, since I know you're going to do exactly what I tell you to do, you should have no problem driving your car and finding parking at 6am in order to set up for sunrise.  At that early hour, I also was not subject to the $10 access fee because the gatehouse was closed.  While beautiful any time of year, I have seen fantastic photos of the Maroon Bells when they are at their most glorious - in autumn, highlighted by the bright golden yellow colors of the turning aspen tree leaves. Just something to consider, timing-wise!

Speaking of aspens, along the route to the Maroon Bells are some beautiful groves of aspens.  Make sure to stop and play around with various compositions and angles for your photographs.  After all, taking a photo of a group of aspen trees is a requirement when you visit Aspen!

When driving into Aspen, I was greeted with an electronic sign warning of road closures for a bike race.  I had no idea this was going on while I was in town, but it certainly explains why the hotel rate was high for off-season!  The event was actually the first of seven stages of a professional cycling race - the annual USA Pro Challenge.  While this race attracts some great riders, I learned that many of the elite cyclists opt to compete in the tour occurring concurrently in Spain, though I know of at least one Tour de France competitor in the Colorado field - not too shabby!  

Being more of a car racing fan myself, it was interesting to experience the similarities between car and bike racing from a spectator's perspective.  Right away, you're reminded why it is so much better to watch something on television and not in person.  Stage 1 was a three lap loop between Aspen and Snowmass, so we basically only saw the riders at the start, the end of laps 1 and 2, and then for the finish.  What I found interesting was the number of support vehicles outnumbered the actual competitors by a 2:1 ratio!  Those vehicles included tv cameras and photographers on motorcycles, race official vehicles, emergency support vehicles, and team equipment and repair vehicles.  I wasn't sure if I was at a cycling race or a car parade!

I was fortunate to be along the course next to other spectators who knew what they were watching, so they taught me some of the basics.  For the first two laps, there is a small breakaway group that is pushing really hard to generate a gap between that group and the larger "peloton" behind.  The disadvantage of being in the breakaway group is that riders are often without other teammates to support them, and with less opportunities to draft and conserve energy, they are more tired on the third leg when sprinting is most important.  One spectator nearby suggested that the breakaway group is basically a two-lap advertising billboard for the sponsors because they get a lot of the television coverage at the cost of pretty much being guaranteed of getting swallowed by the peloton near the end of the race.

Behind the breakaway group is the peloton, where you can see the teams working together to progress through the course while using aerodynamic strategies to manage energy levels.  In the third lap, this peloton picks up the pace to reduce the gap to the breakaway, then it's a sprint to the finish, especially after the last climbing section of the course.  I'm sure there's a very complex strategy to this sport, and maybe even agreements within the team on who does what or who gets to win (insert "shake and bake" reference from "Talladega Nights" movie), but it's definitely outside my circle of competence.  And I'm ok with that!  At the very least, I got some good photos of the race, and from the event expo I got some free packs of Jelly Bellys, a free t-shirt for winning cornhole, a free cowbell, and a free Marmot waterbottle.  All in all a great time in my book!

As for food in town, I have a few recommendations:

Ajax Tavern:  Located at the base of the Silver Queen Gondola, this restaurant has a great (pet-friendly) patio and scenic views of the mountain.

La Creperie du Village: Delicious and simple french cuisine with a dessert menu full of everyone's favorite crepes!  Also - a dog friendly patio, albeit a very small one.

Grateful Deli: This small sandwich shop on Main Street is a great place to grab a quick bite.

Posted on Thursday, August 21, 2014 by Julie

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Wednesday, August 20, 2014

I've been to Colorado a few times in recent years, but never really spent a good amount of time in Denver - what with the mountains shouting my name.  This past week, though, I was determined to learn more about Denver during this round of rocky mountain travel.

A great way to get around the city is by bike.  Denver is one of the many cities that has a bikeshare program, but I was fortunate that my hotel has its own free bike loaner program for guests.  By the way, if you have never stayed at a Kimpton property, you should try it!  Especially if you are traveling with a dog, as I often am.  There is no other hotel group that is as hassle free and welcoming to pet owners as Kimpton.  I love that I can walk through the lobby with my dog on a leash and never be accosted by the questioning glares of other patrons or staff.  In fact, more often than not, I end up running into other well behaved dogs in the guest areas.  In addition, the loyalty program at Kimptons is exceptional.  Then there's the daily wine happy hours...

Anyway, I digress....back to Denver.

When I think of Denver, I think of the outdoors.  It's kind of hard not to with the Rocky Mountains looming to the west.  Not surprisingly, the city has several large public parks.  On my bike tour, I headed out to City Park to wander around its 330 acres.  My main focus was finding the iconic Ferril Lake and boat pavilion.  The fountain in the center of the lake is the original 1908 Prismatic Electric Fountain, where the water is highlighted at night by multicolored lights - a very impressive sight 114 years ago, I imagine!

Denver's rich history extends beyond the park and into other historic neighborhoods.  Near the capitol building, you will find the home of the "unskinkable" Molly Brown - famous survivor of the Titanic, played by Kathy Bates in the movie.

Another historic home you can visit is the Byers-Evans home.  Built in 1883, this home was occupied by two of the city's most prominent families, and it has been restored to its original interior appearance.

In the LoDo, or lower downtown, neighborhood stands the old triangular shaped Brown Palace Hotel.  I was told that in January, its not uncommon to run into livestock in the hotel.  In fact, the National Western Stock Show's annual Grand Champion Steer is walked through the hotel then put on display in the lobby during afternoon tea.  I would love to see that!  From the Brown Palace, if you head up 17th street, you can't miss the gorgeous renovated Union Station.  Just recently opened after a massive overhaul, the new Union Station preserves history while providing the comfort of modern conveniences and dining establishments.  My Denver friend told me over drinks that the local news reported a story on the relics that were discovered by construction crews hidden in the original benches at the station, that are now on display in the station's public areas - train tickets, luggage tickets, Hollywood star cards, etc.  Some of these items were from before 1900!

I also spent some of my time in Denver wandering on Champa Street finding the homes that my Great Grandpa built with his relations for my family between 28th and 30th Street.  My Grandpa actually spent some of his first years in one of these homes.  How neat is it that you can see with your own eyes the results of the labor of your ancestors??

Denver isn't just about the historic sites, though.  It's also about the food and drink!  Here are some of my favorites:

Denver Beer Company - as I mentioned before, I was traveling with my pup.  This local brewpub not only has good beer but allows your furry companion to enjoy the happy hour atmosphere, both inside and out!  Food is limited to large soft pretzels, but there is often a food truck nearby.

Denver Biscuit Company - When there is a bacon topped cinnamon roll on the menu, it's a no-brainer!

Little Man Ice Cream - The line may be long at this LoHi establishment, but nothing is better than this creamy treat on a sunny afternoon.

Of course any summer trip to Denver must include a visit to or a concert at the Red Rocks Amphitheater.  While the parking is a little on the inconvenient side, especially for a sold out show, no other music venue surpasses the beauty of this place!  I was fortunate to be able to see a concert with three up and coming groups that have some interesting band names:  Deer Tick, The Devil Makes Three, and Trampled By Turtles.

 Finally, one of the great features of Denver is the accessibility of some very scenic day trips.  One of the most popular drives is the trip to Mt. Evans, a climb to over 14,000 feet that includes some sharp hairpin turns and some roads with steep edges and no guardrails.  A $10 park fee allows you to drive to the summit for some fantastic views of the front range.  The fee is waived for owners of an annual National Parks Pass, which I conveniently left in my wallet at home!

Two other great day trips, that can both be done on the same day if you prefer, are Golden and Georgetown.  Both of these towns are old mining towns that retain historic main streets and neighborhoods.

A bit on the longer side, this final day trip suggestion will take you out past Boulder, home of the University of Colorado, to Estes Park.  When you drive into Estes Park, it's hard not to notice the large white hotel up on the hill.  This hotel, The Stanley, was the inspiration Steven King used for his book, The Shining, and was later used for the filming of the tv series with the same name.  Estes Park is an entry point to the Rocky Mountain National Park and the start of Trail Ridge Road ($20 or free for annual parks pass holders - another reminder to bring my pass with me at all times!).  This 48 mile road was built in 1931 and ascends to over 12,000 feet as it winds its way west to Grand Lake.  From Grand Lake, you can make your way through Winter Park back to I-70, that will take you back to Denver.

But before you start your journey into the Rocky Mountain National Park and over the continental divide, perhaps you'd like to stop at Summit View Coffee for a nice Chicken Fried Latte?

Posted on Wednesday, August 20, 2014 by Julie

1 comment

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Formed in 1989 when they were just kids, traveling to bluegrass festivals, Nickel Creek is an acoustic bluegrass/folk/country band comprised of brother and sister Sean and Sara Watkins and Chris Thile. The families were introduced when Sean and Chris were taking mandolin lessons from the same teacher in Southern California.  The group started getting more attention with their albums in the first half of the 2000s, but decided to take a 6 1/2 year hiatus to focus on other projects.  Most notably, Chris Thile's fame grew as the lead singer and mandolin player for the popular Punch Brothers.

Their songs are both lyrical and instrumental, the latter being more of the foot stomping kind of bluegrass music crowds love.  I got to see them perform last night at Wolf Trap in Vienna, VA on an absolutely perfect no-humidity summer night.  I just loved how their instruments created these beautiful, dancing melodies, and their three-part harmonies were spot on.

Check out this video of a song off their most recent album, The Dotted Line, called "Destination":

Posted on Thursday, August 14, 2014 by Julie

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Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Sedona, Arizona is a popular destination for people looking for a serene, relaxing vacation with gorgeous views of the rich orange sandstone that dominates the southwest part of the United States. For those looking for a balance between relaxation and activities, there are plenty of hiking and biking opportunities as well as Sedona's convenient proximity to popular tourist destinations like the Grand Canyon.  It is also considered a very spiritual place, where several energy vortexes are located for spiritual renewal.

Not surprisingly, being that I'm a very unspiritual person, my decision to visit was purely for the photographic opportunities, as I'm not much into the mystical allure of the town.  Alas, after going through my photos, I wasn't super happy with them, even post-processing.  The lesson I learned is that to be successful in photography, you need to be patient and force yourself to really compose the photo and ensure your settings are accurate, then take more photos than you thing you need at various settings!  Anyone who knows me knows that patience is not one of my virtues, but in this case I think I can work on it.  Even with the photos not being 100% perfect, they still bring back good memories - which is really the ultimate purpose of a photograph, to capture a moment.

Some of the most prominent rock formations in the region include Courthouse Rock (above) and Bell Rock (below), which is also considered to be one of the energy vortexes.  I believe these photos were taken from the Chapel of the Holy Cross.

A great viewpoint to capture the colors and grandeur of these rocks is from the Airport Mesa.  There is a small parking lot part way up the hill, if you're lucky, otherwise you will have to drive to the top near the airport and hike down to set up for your sunset or sunrise shots.

In my opinion, one of the best ways to see the territory is getting off the pavement and into a 4x4.  Pink Jeep Tours dominates the off-road scene in Sedona, offering several tour itineraries depending on your desired destinations or sights.

Look closely at the next photo and see if you can spot the geological history of the sandstone, where for a certain period, a different type of rock settled (maybe limestone?) creating a jagged shelf before additional layers of sandstone formed, which were then topped with a thick layer of limestone.

While Cathedral Rock, Courthouse Rock, and Bell Rock dominate the guidebooks, my two favorite rock formations were the two elephants and...

Snoopy Rock!  With a little tiny Woodstock on his nose!  Can you see it?

Posted on Tuesday, August 12, 2014 by Julie


Wednesday, August 6, 2014

I know I've not been posting as frequently these past few weeks.  It's mostly because we have had some wonderful, abnormally non-humid weather here in Washington, D.C., and I have been taking advantage and enjoying outdoor summertime activities.  In addition, I kind of got myself into a little commitment that I will probably regret, that being entering myself into a marathon having never run more than half that distance before, so sadly summer hours are being wasted on training.  On top of all that, I was temporarily without my primary camera for about two weeks because of a recurring sensor issue that had to be addressed by the manufacturer.  But now it's back and ready to add to the click count!  So, refreshed with camera in hand, it's time to start writing more posts!  First up: what I was up to last weekend...admiring some amazing Lego builds at the Brickfair convention in Dulles, VA!

Look at some of the city scapes that people built, including a Waffle House (next to a Best Buy), an apparent medical emergency at a Starbucks or a caffeine run by the EMS team, an Embassy Suites hotel, and a scene from the TV show "Storage Wars."  Lego builders are very clever folk!

They were even showing the Lego Movie at the Lego drive-in theater.

And it was a special discount day at the ballpark for the Star Wars stormtroopers, cheering on "dem" Yankees.

I appreciated the details that went into the mechanics of a motorized steampunk blimp, with propellers that not only spun but could be rotated using a lever to simulate an ascent.  Obviously, it didn't fly.

Then, of course, there was the section dedicated to the teeny tiny micro cityscapes, in which my nephew has started to dabble.

And, finally, who could resist giving a hug to this life sized minion??!!

The convention is an annual 2-day event held one weekend in the summer.  I am assuming that the popularity of the Lego Movie this year was one of the causes behind the abnormally long waiting lines.  We waited about 80 minutes to get into the building because they were at capacity and only letting people in when others exited, and since the expo was so interesting, no one was leaving!  But, it was worth the wait, and I'm glad I got to experience it at least once.  It was also a great activity for kids, regardless of age or level of interest in the Lego displays, with a large brick building play area and, of course, a Lego bounce house.  My advice, if you live in the cities on the Brickfair tour, purchase your tickets in advance and arrive early.

Posted on Wednesday, August 06, 2014 by Julie

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