Impressions of a cruise virgin before the big night

November 3, 2013 Leave a comment

I have never been on a cruise but am about to change my lifelong status with a short 3-day cruise on Princess between Los Angeles and Ensenada.

Cruise’s have always felt like cheating. In my twenties I considered cruises as mediocre entertainment for the spoiled and bloated. Not sure my attitude has changed on that one, more likely its my own status. Paying $1,000 for a 3-day cruise would have been quite a sacrifice via other preferred destinations and experiences when I felt I had more discretionary time at my disposal.

I can sum up all my unfavorable perspective on cruises in the phrase “killing time”. I imagine crowded dining areas with people jockeying to fit that extra jumbo shrimp or slice of cheesecake on their plate. I imagine a fetid odor permeating all interior rooms. I imagine bored entertainers struggling to feign energy for a bored audience.

I’m capturing all this to reflect on how I’m transformed by my first cruise experience. See you on the other side…

Categories: Ensenada

Los Angeles to Palomar Mountain with stops in between

We had a great weekend trip away from Los Angeles this weekend.

The focal point was Doane Valley campground in Palomar Mountain state park. This provided easy access to visit scientific history making Palomar Observatory. We extended the return home by checking out Pechanga Casino and downtown Temecula.

Doane Valley campground has distinctive campsites embedded within old oaks and cedars. Built on a slope, stone work from California’s Conservation Corps in then 1930s provides a stairway up or down to your campsite.

The park offers many hiking trails with varying terrain and flora. Some trailheads are adjacent to the campsite. The campground is primarily populated by tent campers but there are a few spots to accommodate RVs without hookups.

Probably the biggest excitement of the camping trip was having a bobcat lurk past our campsite along a dry creek bed.

That bit of feline wildlife sighting wasn’t the only wonder Whether it was fauna of a woodpecker, scrappy jay birds, or a deer distracting us from her foal or the flora of 600+ year old cedars and oaks, forests of different make ups or the stars, this campground emphasize we were connecting with nature.

Speaking of stars, nearby is one of the most important spots to gaze at the heavens. The Hale Telescope at Palomar Observatory and its brethren smaller scopes have been responsible for major breakthroughs in physics including proving general relativity and characterising the first quasar.

Categories: Uncategorized Tags: ,

Galeria Namu – Take home museum quality Costa Rican art at fair trade prices and support the artists and artisans from Costa Rica’s original 8 tribes

March 13, 2013 Leave a comment

In my search for authentic art and handicrafts from Costa Rica I was quite impressed with my visit to Galeria Namu and my introduction to the owner of the store an ex-pat Irish woman named Aisling.

You must stop in Galeria Namu when you are in San Jose before you depart Costa Rica! Even if you don't buy anything, you will enjoy checking out the ornate Borucu masks and Wounnan carved tagua (from a single, large seed). It's a Fodor's Choice 5-Star location.

Though I hesitate to spoil the thrill of visiting the shop in person, you can browse some works online at

The gallery is a treasure trove of fair trade art and handicrafts collected by Aisling and her son from artists and artisans who belong to each of Costa Rica's original, indigenous peoples. Costa Rica recognizes 8 tribes who were present when the Spanish arrived and who are still represented in the country today: Chorotega, Maleku, Bribri, Cabécar, Ngobe-Buglé (Guyami), Borucu, Térraba, and Huetar. The shop also carries Wounnan baskets from Panama and Lenca pottery from Honduras.

The afternoon we stopped in Aisling was meeting with two members of the Borucu tribe who had brought a selection of ceremonial masks carved from balsa wood that had been used in this years Fiesta de los Diablos. Aisling had a documentary of the ceremony playing in the store to provide tourists information about the significance of the ceremony.

We purchased a decorative serving bowl hand-carved from surá wood found from the forest naturally fallen or reclaimed from disused fence posts or buildings. The piece is by folk artist Cristóbal Marroquin.

Galeria Namu is on 7th Avenue between 5th Street and 7th Street. There is a great stylish and modern place to grab a bite to eat and a beer nearby with a rooftop patio – Kalu it is on the corner of 7th street and 11th avenue.



Hotel Grano de Oro in San Jose

March 12, 2013 Leave a comment


Though Grano de Oro literally means Grain of Gold in English in Costa Rica this phrase honors the coffee bean which is vital to the Costa Rican economy.

The Hotel Grano de Oro is a labor of love by a Canadian family that turned a private mansion into a world class hotel. The mansion was built in 1910, but it did not get converted and open as a hotel on 1994. The hotel honors it's residential history with many period photographs throughout the public spaces.

Erin and I stayed in the Garden Suite which was the entertaining parlor originally. It is furnished in period antiques so you truly feel your spending the night in your “friend with old money”s parents' house. The suite has its own private patio garden and interestingly a foyer. Another perk is that it has double-wide spa jet tub so two people may comfortably bathe side by side.

The eponymous hotel restaurant is excellent. Erin and I dined under the stars in the courtyard and ordered a three course meal. Extensive and affordable wine list. Great selection of sipping rums. I tried Spanish Zacapa rum for the first time. It was a $20 sip but heavenly flavor.

The rooftop jacuzzis were disappointing and did not compare to those of The Convent in San Juan, Puerto Rico. They were basically the precast tubs you might find in your neighbors backyard. Don't get excited to hang out there.


Categories: Costa Rica

Tabacón Grand Spa Thermal Resort near Arenal

March 11, 2013 Leave a comment

We had Jen (owner of Hidden Canopy Treehouses) reserve a private driver to take us to Tabacón mainly because we felt we had too much luggage to manage the public Jeep-Boat-Jeep transfer. That ran $180 US.

Jen had told me over the phone when I was booking travel arrangements that her place was a world away from Tabacón and she was right. Jen's place is about intimacy and mountain top solitude for couples. Tabacón has 102 rooms, the standard rooms are very basic, and you have a mix of families and couples.

At Tabacón you're paying for access to the thermal springs and a view of Arenal Volcano. It was clear enough to see 75% of the time but the cone itself was covered in clouds so we missed that rare sighting.

The thermal springs will blow your mind! You don't have to stay at Tabacón to access the springs. You and locals can access the hot springs downstream from the resort for free. Or you can pay $60 for a day to access the resort thermal springs (and only $10 for children under 12). You could also book a treatment at the spa. If you stay at the resort then access is free and there are morning guests only hours. Plus you can go to the springs in your spa robe which appears to be the preferred dress among guests.

The hotel and thermals are a hill slope apart but there is a shuttle between the two to avoid the five minute walk up or down hill. The Los Tucanes restaurant on property is pleasant dining.

Secret Tip – For some reason nearly everyone congregates at the first set of waterfalls near the property entrance. However there are dozens of pools and falls along a lengthy path that leads to the adults only Shangri-La Gardens. There are plenty of places to have a private experience, though leave your clothes on or you're likely to be discovered by like minded explorers.



Categories: Costa Rica

Costa Rica – Ziplining with The Original Canopy Zipline Tour

March 11, 2013 Leave a comment

“Did you go ziplining?” is the first thing anyone asks upon hearing the words “Costa Rica”. For years, I've free associated Costa Rica directly to ziplining through a cloud forest. The combination of “zip” and “cloud forest” has always inspired images of a lush canopy among other worldly trees shrouded in mist, whizzing past families of playful monkey scampering in the tree tops, and oddly Lando Calrissian. Over the years, this recurring image has gone from fantasy to near mythic proportions, thus as I booked my trip I felt as if I was destined to meet the gods on Mt Olympus.



Myth is a more romantic version of reality. Yes, ziplining was fun, but my expectations were too high and misinformed. I thought people went ziplining to experience the biosphere of the canopy. Thus I always assumed a naturalist was guiding among the heights and lecturing at each platform to provide context and background on the unique biodiversity in the way my naturalist guide had walked me on the forest floor earlier that morning.

The experience is more focused on the activity of ziplining itself with the cloud forest as back drop. This is why many people choose SkyTrek over The Original Canopy – they want to go big and they want to go fast. It seems more “adventure” experience than “ecotourism”

The giant, hollow ficas trees are other worldly and The Original Canopy Tour lets you climb right up the center of a 60 meter tall tree (my estimate).

With those reflections as disclaimer, why don't you go on a ride yourself with this point of view video from my visit!

Here I am swinging in the Tarzan swing


Categories: Costa Rica Tags: ,

Monteverde and sighting of the rare resplendent quetzal

March 11, 2013 Leave a comment

I am not a birder. My birding experience is limited to watching The Big Year starring Jack Black, Steve Martin, and Owen Wilson. However my travel guide piqued my interest in the resplendent quetzal by saying seeing one is one of the top experiences to be had in Costa Rica.

Our host Jen at Hidden Canopy Treehouses arranged a guide for us to experience the cloud forest. She often works with Koky who was the guide who shared the first through his eyes. His eyes are well trained as he's lived in Monteverde his entire life and has been guiding people and continually learning more about ecology for 25 years.

Koky and Me spotting birds

The biggest advantage in hiring Koky was that he knew how to spot the birds. We would have seen 5% of what he showed us if we had been hiking by ourselves. He's able to spot the birds with his naked eye and then set up a telescope for you to get an up close look. He'll surprise you with the quality of a photo taken with your iPhone when its held next to the lens of a powerful telescope

Of course the context and background Koky provided on all the flora and fauna was useful. I could appreciate I was looking a hard to find bird or know the electronic sounding horn was the first appearance of the bell bird this season.

Tips to spotting the resplendent quetzal:

  • Hire Koky through Jen at Hidden Canopy Treehouses
  • Skip Monteverde and go to the Curi-Cancha preserve instead
  • Take the first left off the trail to find the giant and exposed avocado tree where the quetzal roost (they love avocados!)
  • Go “in season” the birds are only on the Pacific side of the continental divide part of the year. We spotted our birds in March

Here's an iPhone photo of one of the four male resplendent quetzals we saw.



Categories: Costa Rica

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