Christmas in Brooklyn? Fuhgetaboutit! #LoveThisCity #CBias

As part of a promotional bit I’m doing for Mastercard’s Priceless (a loyalty program offered exclusively for Mastercard holders), I made a trip into the city during a busy Sunday afternoon just before Christmas.  And by city I mean New York.  And by Sunday I mean last year (this is kind of an old post).

One of the secrets I’ve learned when visiting the city is to hit downtown on Sundays to avoid the crowds.  Downtown includes the financial district which is a veritable ghost town during the weekends, making me feel like I have the city all to myself.  It’s one of my favorite places to go then, particularly because I’m right near the waterfront, affording me gorgeous views of the Brooklyn Bridge and the East River.

It’s probably for these reasons that I always tend to gravitate towards going downtown instead of hitting up Times Square or Central Park.  There’s also another reason though.  How many of you have ever seen those gorgeous photos of the Manhattan skyline that includes all of downtown plus the Statue of Liberty?  Ever wonder what vantage point these photos were being taken from?  It should have been obvious to me, but for the longest time it never occurred to me that they were being taken from the Brooklyn side of the East River, until one day when I stumbled onto Brooklyn’s Promenade and saw it for myself.

Brooklyn Promenade and Fence
It only took me 30 years to find this place.

After downtown, this is probably the best place to go during the evenings.  My general routine is to either drive or take public transit to the financial district, then walk over the Brooklyn Bridge to visit the Promenade.  They are still renovating this area to convert it into a full fledged city park, but most of the grounds are accessible and includes one of my favorite ice cream haunts (The Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory), along with plenty of eateries to choose from (and of course, what else, Starbucks).  The famous Grimaldi’s is also right here if you’re in the need for some touristy trappy Brooklyn pizza, and finally the River Cafe, one of those places you only eat at if you’re looking to propose to someone (because the food is going to cost you almost as much as the diamond ring will).

If I’m here, I usually wait for the sun to go down and I’m eventually rewarded with the kind of Christmas lights you can enjoy all year long:

Manhattan Skyline
Very Christmas-y… #LoveThisCity

So how does Mastercard fit in?  They have an attractive loyalty program called Priceless that offers generous discounts (and sometimes freebies) for travel oriented cardholders, usually tailored for those visiting or frequenting major cities.  Though I usually check out the offers for New York, they also have intriguing offers in Chicago and Los Angeles as well (with more cities on the way, including international.)

Ice Cream is the new health food sign
YES

Some of the offers look pretty generous too, with my favorite being the cupcakes deal.  (Don’t hate.)  I’ve always liked these kind of discounts, and while they tend to be oriented towards business travelers, it’s still basically taking luxury items or services and price breaking them to make them more affordable for those of us in the lower upper middle class traveling on our dime.

Brooklyn Bridge and Lights at Night
The costs to dine at River Cafe here: $200+. The cost to enjoy the this view: PRICELESS

Thanks for reading.  Remember, if you ever visit New York and you want to see the best possible view of Manhattan’s skyline, the Brooklyn Promenade is where you need to be.

Disclosure:  I am a member of the Collective Bias®  Social Fabric® Community.  This shop has been compensated as part of a social shopper insights study for Collective Bias®  and MasterCard #CBias #SocialFabric #LoveThisCity

Happy Thanksgiving (and more photos from my road trip)

If there’s one thing I’ve been thankful for this year, it was my last road trip that took me from the wonders of the Grand Canyons, to my (hopefully) future dog in the mountains of Colorado.  I wrapped it up by staying in Dillon, and honestly I don’t think I could have found a better vantage point from which to enjoy the views of snow capped mountains right from my balcony than I did there.  Dillon is one of the skiing tourist traps west of Denver, but when you travel off-season it is surprisingly cheap and relatively uncrowded.  If you ever want to truly ensconce yourself in the mountains of Colorado for a quick getaway (but at a discount price), visit the Dillon, Silverthorne and Frisco region during off-season.  You won’t regret it.

Trekking through the Grand Canyons and Arizona

Finally got some free time to drop a few more pictures from my October road trip.  That GPS photo BTW was a screenshot of my iPhone while I was traveling to Sedona in Arizona.  Smooth sailing and then like a hundred switchbacks before I could finally get into town.  LOL

Sedona is an amazing place though, plus I managed to get some decent time in at the Canyons before an unholy abomination of humanity descended like locusts onto the place.  Right before the government shut it down, of course.  Once I left the Canyons I traveled through the Navajo Nation and stopped by the famous Four Corners (also owned by the Navajos).  I definitely recommend stopping by there, as the Navajos maintain a flea market of amazing arts and crafts that you can purchase as souvenirs.

A Day on Route 66 in Arizona

Finally taking a little trip down memory lane from last road trip by sifting through my digital photo scrapbook.  These are some of my favorites starting from Vegas and taking a dip down Route 66 to the ghost town of Oatman in Arizona.  I capped off this part of the trip by visiting the Route 66 Museum in Kingsman before moving on to the Grand Canyons.

Using the rock solid BRX travel bag – #BRXtravelgear

Note: This post is a followup of a compensated social shopper insights study I performed for Collective Bias. Originally published in 2011.

Because I was compensated for purchasing a BRX Expedition by Briggs and Riley, I used this rolling duffle bag for the trip rather than the Eagle Creek I purchased a while back.

Suitcase or Luggage in Denver
Standing tall in Denver…

I hate to say it, but the BRX was a pretty handy bag to carry around. It’s much lighter than the Eagle Creek, and the duffle handle makes it easy to carry up and down the stairs, as well as easily heft it on top of baggage stands and beds. I did use the Pack-It folders from Eagle Creek though so I could cram as much junk in there as I could, then it was off I went to the Rockies.

Suitcase on stairs
This is the before picture. The after picture shows me sliding down the stairs using my BRX as a sled. The hotel owners were not pleased.

Despite the fact that this is a bag designed to endure an African safari expedition, it was assuring to know that it could survive something even more grueling: tagging along with me.

I’ll give you an example of just how accident prone I can be: I’m in Telluride, Colorado, rolling my BRX, a bag of laundry, two winter coats, and two bottles of soda on top to my car after checking out, because I’m too lazy to make more than one trip, ya know? So I’m wheeling away in the parking garage when suddenly one of the bottles of soda drops like a brick, hits the pavement which smashes the cap, and suddenly there’s an EXPLOSION as the bottle fires off like a rocket across the garage in a spray of foam and liquid cola, until it hits one of the tires of a nearby car.

There is soda on EVERYTHING now: my shoes, my coats, my laundry and of course, my BRX bag as well. I scream like a little girl, look around for a few seconds, and then flee for the nearest elevator before anyone can see me, because of course, I was on the wrong level to begin with.

I was already checked out so the best I could do was pat myself down with some pocket tissues and sop up whatever soda was left, then tossed just about everything including my bag, still wet and damp from the soda rocket launch into the trunk. It was that kind of morning.

But… everything inside my bag was untouched and dry, even the bag itself dried quickly, plus there were no leftover stains either. I was impressed. That was nearly 2 liters of foaming cola it withstood too. African safaris, eat your heart out.

Thankfully the rest of my trip was uneventful where my luggage was concerned, but I was so pleased with the way things turned out that I may wind up leaving my Eagle Creek at home and using my BRX gear more often than not.

Suitcase or Luggage in Ouray
Neither soda nor mountainous rain will dampen my BRX gear.

A review of Box Canyon Lodge and the City of Ouray

While I’m busy road tripping around Colorado, I thought I’d re-post a review of Ouray and the Box Canyon Lodge that I originally wrote back in 2011.  The owners were gracious enough to offer me a complimentary stay at their hotel while I explored the area then, and while I didn’t have a chance to visit this year, but I’m hoping to return sooner or later, especially since I plan to visit nearby Durango more often.

Box Canyon Lodge
Oh my.

Ouray is billed as the Switzerland of America due to the similarities in terrain, enclosed on nearly all sides by steep mountains with only a narrow valley providing entrance and exit from the region. You are literally cocooned from the rest of the world here, and that’s just the way I (and I suspect many other visitors) like it.

City of Ouray and Mountains
I think I see a city in there somewhere…

Box Canyon Lodge is one of the few lodging establishments with a license to use the hot springs of Ouray, harnessing the mineral-rich water to fuel the hot tubs they offer to their guests. Passing up a chance to soak in the tubs here is like passing up a chance to sit on Mickey Mouse’s lap at Disney World. If you have a bucket list, add the hot tubs of Box Canyon Lodge to the list. Trust me.

Hot tubs in Ouray and Box Canyon Lodge
Natural hot tubs, yes we can.

My room was situated on the second floor with a generous view of the mountainside, large and clean with cute saloon doors that separates the bathroom from the rest. The Wi-Fi signal was perfect (thank you GOD), while electrical outlets were conveniently located near the dining table, allowing me to charge all my slim shady gadgets with ease. The furniture arrangement made it easy for me to relax by the window and enjoy the views while typing away on my MacBook and sipping on my delicious coffee from nearby Artisan Bakery. The Hilton could have never measured up here.

Rainbow in Ouray
A view of a rainbow from my hotel balcony.

The staff is also quite friendly and eager to please, quick to offer suggestions on what to do in Ouray while offering fun prizes to guests who can correctly figure out the water temperatures of the hotel’s hot tubs.

One of the entrances to the waterfalls of Ouray (Box Canyon Falls) is literally right next to the lodge too. It’s actually the exit path for the park, but you can freely walk in if you want. If you’re lazy like me though, you can still take the long way around to drive to the official entrance, then leave and immediately find yourself back at the lodge again. The hotel is pretty busy though, so be prepared to lose your parking space. I did find it encouraging that despite its busyness, the atmosphere was very quiet and serene, almost as if the mountains, like a stern librarian, had reduced us all to speaking in mere whispers so as not to disturb the sanctity of this holy place.

Waterfalls in Ouray
Serene waterfalls in Ouray

Ouray is also considered the jeep driving capital of the world, and there are no lack of places in town from which you can either rent a jeep or participate in a jeep tour to visit some of the more popular scenic areas surrounding Ouray, including Yankee Boy Basin, Black Bear Road, and the Alpine Loop. Do note that guard rails are considered luxuries here, so if you’re not keen on the prospect of cliffside driving on rocky terrain, well, there’s always ice climbing instead (another pastime Ouray is famously renowned for.)

Fortunately for those like me, (whose idea of extreme sports or activities is a hike in town to the nearest coffeehouse), Ouray offers plenty of options that allows us to keep both our feets planted firmly on the ground. Or in the water too, as in the water of Ouray’s hot springs park, so neatly kept and maintained that I thought it was actually a typically manmade town pool. Only the blackness of the steaming hot water gave away its natural origins.

Ouray is also the sight of the northern entrance to the famous Million Dollar Highway, reportedly named as such because of the precious metals once transported on a regular basis via this stretch between Ouray and Silverton. The road is well paved and not as harrowing as the cliffside driving of say, Alpine Loop, but it does make one wonder what the locals seem to have against using guard rails. Guard rails are our friends after all.

Million Dollar Highway
Don’t look down, don’t look down, don’t look down…

Still, I didn’t find it overly terrifying to drive on, even in the rain, and this is coming from somebody who has issues with heights. There were some moments where the road seems to disappear altogether, but they go by quickly, and more often than not I found myself driving on level ground rather than along a cliff. It’s worth it to drive slowly and pull into a turn off whenever you can so you can fully appreciate the scenery here. The views you will find of an endless valley of roads, mountains, wisping clouds and the breezing movements of Aspen trees absolutely demand it.

Million Dollar Highway and mountains near Ouray
Glorious valleys

Once conquering the Million Dollar Highway, you can spend some time in nearby Silverton to experience the Old Hundred Gold Mine Tours, or explore nearby ghost towns such as Animas Fork (provided you’re in a jeep or doing a jeep tour). Even Hillside Cemetery is worth a visit in Silverton, hosting some of the most intriguing inscriptions you may ever see on its gravestones.

North of Ouray and minutes away lies Ridgway, an equally small city hosting rodeos and other western themed activities for visitors to enjoy. While the stretch between Ouray and Ridgway is not as scenic as the Million Dollar Highway, returning south back to Ouray offered a panoramic view of the San Juan mountains that will stay with me for a long, long time.

If hiking and camping is your thing, Ouray boasts an impressive series of nearby trail systems (such as the Perimeter Trail), which tunnel through mountains, loop around canyons, cross over creeks and streams, and provides the earnest hiker with views of rock formations impressively spanning a full rainbow spectrum of vibrant colors. Campgrounds and RV parks are also well maintained and consistently receive rave reviews from visitors who crave the outdoors.

Deer feeding in Ouray
Nature’s lawn mowers

For dining, Ouray offers quite a few options, from Duckett’s Market if you need groceries (make sure to get there before six when they close) to the Bon Ton Restaurant, a local favorite that often requires reservations in advance, or the perhaps The Outlaw to enjoy tasty western steaks and friendly chats with its resident bartender. For breakfast, do stop by at either the Artisan Bakery for fresh pastries and coffee that even satisfies finicky coffee drinkers like me, or Mouse’s Chocolates for an array of handmade truffles, curiously flavored shakes, and scrap cookies made from the left over ingredients of the day. Like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get.

In spite of the numerous outdoor-centric activities Ouray offers, it’s easy to forget that sometimes we don’t come to do it all, but to get AWAY from it all. If ever a place offered that true getaway feeling, it would be Ouray.

But alas, after only three days a melancholy mood has set in, knowing I must take my leave in the morning and eventually make my way to Denver for the flight back home. Still, I will remember that there is another home in the mountains of Colorado, one that will always beckon for me to return and ever eager to embrace me in the warmth of its hot springs.

And its hot tubs.

Reflecting on last year’s road trip

In just a few short days I’ll be kicking off my autumn road trip, which made me reminisce a little bit on the trip I took last year.  I wanted to cover as much of the Northwest as possible then, along with a foray into Vancouver so I could visit the same locations that many of my favorite shows were filmed at (such as the X-Files, Fringe and Psych).  Here are some of my photo highlights from that trip:

Lamp Posts in Portland

I’m pretty surprised that some of my favorite snapshots were actually taken with my older iPhone 4s, not the more powerful camera I had on hand (the Canon s95).  I guess it’s true what they say, the best camera is the one you have with you.  Here I got an unexpected result with a quick nightshot after checking in at a nearby Baskin Robbins in Portland.  (Mmmmmmmmm… ice cream…)  Somehow the lighting effect on the lens did more to capture the mood of the city at night than anything I could have done with Photoshop.

Sweeping view of valley and Moot Hood

One of my coworkers loved this photo so much he now uses it as his wallpaper.  Even then, the picture simply doesn’t do the size of Mount Hood justice here.  To the naked eye it towers like a real life Mount Olympus that threatens to engulf the entire sky.  Possibly one of the best vantage points from which you can relax and enjoy the scenery.  (Jonsrud Viewpoint)

Mount Saint Helens Under Sun

I love this picture, because it exemplifies just how easy it was to access the still active volcano, Mount Saint Helens.  How easy you ask?  I took this picture from my CAR.  Honestly, you could almost reach out and touch it from this lookout.  Only time precluded me from spending all day here.

Mount Rainier in Sepia

Mount Rainier was an oddball as far as access goes.  I picked a road that should have led me as close to its peak point as possible without having to hike it out, yet there was no lookout to be found and very little spacing where you could park the car and take pictures.  I took this one and a few others for a few short minutes, then had to FLEE back to the car to ensure nobody wound up side swiping it by accident.

Vancouver Lookout Tower and Sun

After exploring Portland and the nearby volcanoes, I shot straight north to Vancouver, which turned out to be unexpectedly more hostile than I imagined.  I’m not sure why, but the city just seemed to give off unfriendly vibes the entire time I was there.  I noted with interest that one native who commented on a review article of the city described it as a “turd surrounded by flowers.”  LOL

Still, it had its moments, especially when you visit the Lookout Tower.  I have to admit it had supremely better views of the area than its counterpart the Space Needle, but then Vancouver is more deeply nestled into the mountains, so it has something of an unfair advantage here.

Vancouver Steam Clock with red building in backdrop

Vancouver also boasts one of the only remaining steam clocks in the world, which emits a near ear piercing chime every hour.  I found it endearing though, something about watching old tech at work that had a calming effect on me.

Hot Chocolate at Seattle's Best with Duck Tour Bus in background

Seattle was my last stop and Lord I was never so happy to be back in my own country.  The city welcomed me with open arms (and hot chocolates), almost as if it knew how oppressed I had felt staying in Vancouver.

Space Needle Restaurant Lamps and Windows

It may not offer the same spectacular views of Vancouver’s Lookout Tower, but the food was notably better at the Space Needle, as well as the atmosphere.  Moody, and yet serene.  I lucked into coming here during an early lunch hour, having the Needle virtually to myself without even needing to book a reservation.  The menu is also far cheaper during these hours too.  WINNING!

Original Starbucks with Accordion Player

The original Starbucks, and somehow despite the deficiencies of my iPhone 4s, this picture came out perfectly for me.  The earthly/coffee color tones, the accordion player squeezing out a somber melody I couldn’t quite place, the old fashioned businessman sitting at the window, it felt like I had walked into art in motion.  I don’t normally take pictures of people, and yet this spur of the moment shot quickly turned out to be among my top favorites from my trip.

Despite the grueling task of driving thousands of miles on my own, there’s something about the open road that has the ability to help me reconnect with the world in a meaningful way.  I look forward to doing it again this week, as I embark on another journey to destinations unknown.

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