Why You Need an Arizona Christmas Vacation in Phoenix: Lights in the Desert Part Two

If you live somewhere cold, and you’re feeling like you need some fresh air and sunshine, Phoenix, Arizona might be the destination for you. The capital of Arizona is no longer a characterless surburbia. There are museums the likes of which you will find no where else. It has a unique climate perfect for getting some winter vitamin D. There are tons of desert trails to explore. And Phoenix has a growing foodie scene. However, that is not what I want to talk to you about today, because Phoenix is also the annual home to some beautiful Christmas light events that make it the perfect spot for an Arizona Christmas vacation. For families, this is a great time to visit, and experience the wonder of the holiday season without the freezing temperatures and threat of blizzards.

Zoolights

Zoolights has basically become a yearly holiday tradition with family and friends. Who doesn’t love strolling around the Phoenix Zoo when it’s decked out in thousands of holiday plant and animal-shaped lights while sipping a cup of hot chocolate?

Zoolights lights up the night typically from the third week of November through the second week of January. If you can swing it, we recommend going on a weekday instead of weekend because the zoo can get PACKED (plus, parking can get kinda hairy on busier days). Plus, if you go on their value nights, admission is about five bucks less! Check their website for the value night dates and full admission info.

If you’re hoping to see animals during your Zoolights experience, it’s going to be pretty limited.  The animal enclosures are dark and most of them have turned in for the night. However, you CAN visit their Stingray Bay for a chance to pet some stingrays – basically my favorite thing (which was included in admission this year, although we didn’t go 🙁 ). Alternatively, maybe you can make a zoo day out of the trip and see the animals during the day and the lights in the evening.

The Phoenix Zoo is located in the heart of Papago Park, and also conveniently located next to our other holiday lights attraction, the Phoenix Desert Botanical Gardens.

Electric Desert and the Luminaries at the Desert Botanical Gardens

The Phoenix Desert Botanical Gardens is a must-see for any first time visitors. It is set in the beautiful Papago Park, and features desert plants from Arizona and around the world. Many have adapted so well to the desert that they have taken on exotic and beautiful forms. Even people with little interest in plants will enjoy seeing these unique little lifeforms. Strolling through the Botanical Gardens is enjoyable either way, particularly in the cool weather of the winter.

Arizona Christmas Vacation

Cacti in the night (c) ABR 2018

During the holiday season, the Phoenix Botanical Gardens plays host to a variety of events that cater to both local and visitor interests. During October, they celebrate the Day of the Dead with ofrenda installations designed by local artists (October 26, 2018 – November 7, 2018). And every Christmas they do a beautiful luminary display (Dec. 1 – 23 & 26 – 31, 2018). However, the Desert Botanical Gardens has also supported a variety of unique lights-in-the-night art events. A few years ago, they had a park-wide Chihuly installation that they lit up at night. This year they are hosting Electric Desert. This event melds music and light to create immersive experiences that accentuate and highlight the organic shapes of the garden plants.

Desert Botanical Gardens Logistics

Arizona Christmas Vacation

Electric Desert (c) ABR 2018

While Electric Desert is only here until May 2019 (October 12, 2018 – May 12, 2019), if you plan your Arizona Christmas Vacation for 2019, the Desert Botanical Gardens is worth a visit. I find that the Desert Botanical Gardens is great for adults spending the night out. It is has some class and tranquility that really sets it apart.

You can visit the Desert Botanical Gardens during the day (8a-4p) for $24.95, and the Electric Desert/Luminaries costs $34.95 – $39.95 for the night. I believe that you can also purchase a joint ticket, but I didn’t see this on the website. If you go for a joint ticket plan on spending at least 3 hours in the park. You might also want to enjoy the surprisingly amazing food at Gertrude’s, the park restaurant.

Arizona Christmas Vacation

Electric Desert (c) ABR 2018

CURRENT Hours For Las Noches de las Luminarias and Electric Desert
8 a.m. – 4 p.m.  (Daytime admission)
The Garden is open for Las Noches de las Luminarias and Electric Desert ticket holders from 5:30 p.m. until 9:30 p.m. nightly.

Christmas Lights: Christmas at the Princess

Arizona Christmas Vacation

Christmas at the Princess (c) Stephanie Snedeker 2018.

We would be remiss if we discussed any Arizona Christmas vacation (or staycation) without mentioning that Phoenix has many opportunities to enjoy traditional Christmas lights in the less than frigged air. My old family tradition was to drive through the neighborhoods with cultures of spectacular lights. For the sake of responsible travel, let’s leave those places for local families. Not to worry though! There are events throughout the city to enjoy so you will not be for want of Christmas lights.

Arizona Christmas vacation

Christmas at the Princess (c) Stephanie Snedeker 2018

One such event is Christmas at the Princess, where you can enjoy a mix of light draped trees and whimsical light animals, boats, Christmas characters and more. The Princess also does a variety of Christmas-themed activities that you can pay extra to enjoy, such as a skating rink, train rides, Build-a-Bear workshops and more. Probably not our cheapest option with all the add-ons. But you can keep your eyes open for Groupons to this event. (If you love these pictures of Christmas at the Princess, be sure to check out the rest of Stephanie’s photography on Instagram!)

If you have rented a car, another great option is to skip town and drive two hours north of Phoenix to Prescott. Some call this small town the Christmas capital of Arizona, and I think that the name is fitting. The downtown square of Prescott is decked with lights and Christmas decorations every year. There are a variety of great restaurants to enjoy along with the night of celebration and small-town charm. This event is free, but it has been getting more press. So I would suggest arriving earlier in the day so you can find a place to park. It is likely that you will need to pay to park as well, unless you decide to go the extra mile and reserve a hotel there for the night.

Arizona Christmas Vacation

Arizona Christmas Vacation

Holiday Lights Phoenix: Lights in the Desert Part One

I’ve never really thought of Phoenix as a good place for holiday experiences, but this year I have become very aware of the fact that this city comes alive with lights in the winter. Whether you are here right after the summer heat ebbs in October, or through the Christmas and New Years, there are fantastical events featuring art, sharing culture, and giving us moments to celebrate those who have left us and hopes for the future. If any of that sounds interesting, stay tuned for our guide to Holiday Lights Phoenix. 

The Lights Fest

The Lights Fest is a paper lantern lighting festival out in Florence, AZ (a town southeast of Phoenix). The festival usually takes place in the beginning of November, but be sure to double check their website because the date can move around due to availability of the festival grounds, weather, etc.

For about $25 per person (sign up for their mailing list to get early ticket access), you can take part in the unique experience of lighting your own paper lantern. Watching it float amidst hundreds of other lanterns against the dark night sky more than makes up for the longer trek out to the field.

The lanterns aren’t launched until the sun has set and the fire department give them the okay to let lanterns go, so be prepared to keep yourselves entertained (though they usually have live performances and music playing). It’s a good idea to bring chairs to sit on, and if the event is in the fall, blankets and warm clothing, too.  If you want to make a picnic out of it, you can bring your own food and drinks – just no alcohol. They also typically have food trucks on-site, but the lines are usually pretty long.

It’s a pretty laid-back event, so if you want to enjoy a relaxing afternoon/evening and enjoy a beautiful display of floating lanterns, this is a great little festival to attend.

Moonviewing Festival in the Japanese Friendship Garden

Holiday Lights Phoenix

The beautiful Japanese Friendship garden of Phoenix celebrates the coming of the Fall (and the break of the hellish summer heat) by holding a Moonviewing Festival (Otsukimi in Japanese). By nature, this is a Phoenix holiday lights experience, because the moon is involved, but the friendship garden also decorates the grounds with luminaries, paper lanterns, and soothingly illuminated Japanese art pieces. They also bring in food vendors, and open up their tea garden to visitors.

Holiday Lights Phoenix

You can enjoy delicious Japanese foods while listening to traditional, live music. Then head over to the teahouse to learn about the Japanese tea ceremony and traditional instruments. When you need some solitude, you can wander the grounds of the gardens. Be soothed by the rushing waterfall and lapping pond, while the sounds of the festival ebb and flow in the background. Of course, you have to also marvel at the majesty of the moon. You can attend this event for $25-$30 dollars beforehand or at the door respectively; this price does not include food. (Late October)

Scottsdale Canal Convergence  

Holiday Lights Phoenix

The Scottsdale Canal Convergence is a yearly event that brings together interactive art, educational and hand-on activities, and the beauty of Old Town Scottsdale. The best time to visit, particularly if you want to enjoy the art in its element, is after dark. Although the event opens in the late afternoon. Most of the installations are meant to dazzle your senses by melding light and sound into a totally unique experience that you can often also touch and feel.

Holiday Lights Phoenix

This year, I got to watch metal lotuses floating in the canal fire multi-colored flames into the air. I got to watch children laughing as they spun a massive, shifting rainbow of empty water bottles. I climbed into a glowing hamster wheel and rowed with my husband until the pictures lining the inside spun into an animated blur. There were giant pieces of lace floating over the water, glowing chalk paintings, and a crystal of endless fractal depths. There were also student art pieces to explore and marvel at. Every year has different art, so I can’t guarantee what you will find here. But I suspect this will continue to be a great place to visit as long as it continues. The best part about this Phoenix holiday lights event? It’s completely free! (Early-mid November).

Holiday Lights Phoenix

If you are in Phoenix for the winter and missed any of these events, there is no lack of other great winter attractions to visit. And come back in a couple weeks to learn about more opportunities to see beautiful lights in the city.

Anacapa Island: Gateway to the Channel Islands

Anacapa Island as a Gateway to the National Park

Anacapa Island

From wikimedia commons.

Anacapa Island is the first Channel Island that I ever visited, and it captured my heart and made me fall in love with the entire island chain. I first glimpsed Anacapa from Ventura, CA while I was on a trip with my family. At first, I wasn’t sure that the mountainous shadows on the horizon were real, a figment of my imagination, or some play of light off of the ocean. After a bit of investigation, I discovered that what I was seeing was very real. There were islands out there; the mystery was too much for me. I had to see them. So I booked a day trip with the Island Packers to Anacapa, the smallest of the islands.

As a young girl, I was enchanted by the treacherous looking steel ladder and stairs that led up the island’s cliffs from the bobbing boat. I loved that I could stand in the middle of the island and see the ocean in all directions. I loved hearing the birds arguing with one another as they nested and lived their busy lives. And there was nothing more picturesque than the lighthouse perched on the eastern end of the rocky crag in the sea. Since that day, I have always been called back to the Channel Islands. I have camped on Anacapa Island twice, camped on Santa Cruz twice and done a day trip to the Nature Conservancy side, spent a weekend on Santa Rosa, and volunteered with Channel Island Restoration on San Nicolas in order to give back to the islands I love.

Birding and Sunsets

Anacapa Island

From Wikimedia Commons.

Anacapa Island, much like Santa Cruz, is managed by both the National Park Service and the Nature Conservancy. Of the three smaller islands that make it up, only one is readily accessible to visitors. There you can spend the day enjoying views from out of this world, or camp among the birds.

For those who camp, they will be delighted by Anacapa’s Inspiration point, which is situated on the western end of the NPS island. Perched on a little bench, you can watch the sun set over the other two islands, and on a clear day, see Santa Cruz just beyond. Once you’ve been there and seen it yourself, I can tell you, it is something that you will never forget and no picture will ever do it justice. Nonetheless, there are many paintings and photos of this beautiful viewpoint to be found in shops all over Ventura.

Anacapa Island

Inspiration Point during the day from Wikimedia Commons.

Bird lovers will also find Anacapa Island to be a dream-come-true. Not only do rare sea birds nest on the island, but if you come during the right season, you can camp (very carefully) in the midst of breeding sea gulls. I can’t think of a cuter memory than waking up to gull chicks playing under the flap of my tent before returning to the nest for food. That being said, this island really belongs to the birds, and one memorable downside to Anacapa is the quite pungent smell that decades of bird-living has created.

Kayaking and the Underwater World

Anacapa Island

Garibaldi fish from Wikimedia Commons

While Anacapa island itself is quite small, particularly the part of it where you can camp and hike, there is a whole watery world to explore in relation to this beautiful place. If you are a snorkeler (I imagine that diving is difficult due the whole metal ladder situation, but feel free to correct me if I am wrong), you will be delighted by the otherworldly kelp forests that are easily accessible from the eastern island. There are tons of flashy, orange garibaldi and brilliant purple urchins under the waves.

Kayakers can also spend the day out on the water, exploring the sea caves (very carefully!) and checking out the small pebbly coves that you can find along the island here and there. Be sure to keep your eyes open for sea lions and birds out there. We found a couple gulls tangled in fishing wire once and helped the rangers set them free. We were also chased down the beach and back into our boat by a sea lion once. We landed on an empty cove, ate our lunch, and then this guy just decided we were on his turf. He came right up out of the ocean and barked us away from his little beach paradise. It was scary at the time, but pretty funny in retrospect.

Tips and Safety for Anacapa

Anacapa Island

Shared by Connar L’Ecuyer

Climbing up the ladder up the cliffs from the boat landing to the island is actually quite dangerous. In 2013, a very experienced NPS volunteer tragically fell to his death while boarding a boat. So, please be careful while coming and going.

Cliffs are dangerous and no picture is worth your life. Keep your distance.

There are almost no ways out of the water and onto the island outside of the boat landing. So, always be prepared with food, water, and safety equipment while snorkeling and kayaking.

Remember that you are only a visitor to Anacapa Island. Respect the animals that call this place home and keep your distance from them. If you run into some of the situations we did here’s what I would suggest. (1) A baby seagull comes close to your tent door; stay quiet and still and let the little guy leave in his own time. If you scare him, he might get lost and other sea gulls might not be so welcoming to the little beb. (2) A sea lion or seal gets out on the beach and approaches you. As long as you can do so safely, retreat and give them the space that they need.

Anacapa Island

From Wikimedia Commons

Overall, remember that your safety is always your responsibility. Be sure to check in with the rangers when you arrive. They will help you assess any other safety needs you may need to consider.

For transportation to the island see the Island Packers.

For permits and national park info, reference the NPS website.

To read more about all the wonderful adventures that you can have on the Channel Islands, check out our guide.

Santa Cruz Island Camping and Hiking Adventure

King of the Channel Islands National Park

santa cruz island camping

(c) ABR 2016

Santa Cruz is the largest of the Channel Islands, and it is one of the most accessible islands, with both day-trips and overnight trip options. There are miles and miles of trails open to visitors, making this bit of California the perfect destination for hikers looking for some quiet places to explore. The island is also home to some of the world’s most beautiful sea caves, which can be viewed by kayakers, and some lucky people will also get to check out the Painted Cave from an Island Packers boat (they sometimes stop there on the way back from Santa Rosa or San Miguel). In any case, Santa Cruz Island camping is the best way to enjoy the many things that the island has to offer.

Scorpion Anchorage

santa cruz island camping

(c) ABR 2011

Scorpion Anchorage is going to be your primary landing for Santa Cruz Island camping, kayaking, and hiking. This has the best access to the parts of the island that is open to National Park users, and thus it is the perfect spot for explorers that are looking to freely wander the trails of Santa Cruz.

When you land here, you will come upon a pebbly beach, and campers will need to lug their gear up the trail from the landing, past the beautiful, green roofed ranch homes that the NPS currently uses for its personnel. The campground is past here, tucked away in a calm canyon that is still lined by the massive eucalyptus trees that were brought to the island by ranchers. Unlike Santa Rosa, Santa Cruz is a much less windy place to camp, making this verdant camping place a serene location to relax and pitch your tent.

santa cruz island camping

(c) ABR 2011

From here, if you rent a kayak or bring your own, you can walk back out to the beach and explore the coast of the island. There are beautiful sea caves on Santa Cruz and some of them are accessible to sea kayakers. You should check with local rangers for details about this, and follow all safety precautions. Remember, your safety is your responsibility.

Santa Cruz Island camping will also allow visitors to spend more time on the trails and explore deeper into the interior of the island. Since Santa Cruz is so large, there are some varied landscapes that you are sure to find if you hike for long enough, but expect rolling hills and rounded mountains covered in grasslands similar to those found on the mainland nearby.

santa cruz island camping

(c) ABR 2011

Prisoner’s Harbor

santa cruz island camping

(c) ABR 2016

Prisoner’s Harbor is a small landing where you can access part of the Nature Conservancy’s claim to Santa Cruz when accompanied by a guide. This is one of the most special places for Santa Cruz Island hiking, and worth the trip for any fan of the Channel Islands.

There is a small wetland here that is close to the landing, and which is a great place for island fox and bird watching. From here, the trail into TNC’s land curls up a steep hill to the west and then starts a tiring but enchanting hiking in and out of several washes that run out from the island to the sea. Larger trees fill the areas where water funnels to the ocean, and the more dry-adapted giant coreopsis crown many of the hills. So, while you are huffing and puffing, you get a great sample of the island’s flora.

santa cruz island camping

(c) ABR 2011

The end of the trail leads out to a beautiful beach, where you can relax for a while, and gather your strength back for the trek back to Prisoner’s Harbor.

Tips for Visiting

santa cruz island camping

(c) ABR 2011

You will need to book a boat ride with Island Packers.

To learn about camping permits, be sure to read through the National Park Service’s info page.

And if you are curious about the other Channel Islands, look through our guide!

Camping on Santa Rosa Island

camping on santa rosa

(c) ABR 2017

Santa Rosa is the second largest of the Channel Islands, and it’s perched right between Santa Cruz and San Miguel. It’s pretty flat aside from a low-lying mountain range running down the island’s center, and has a resultantly dry climate. You can get vastly different levels of green, however, depending on what time of the year you visit. Don’t let that fool you though. This island is one of the most unique places in the world. Let me prove to you why you should go camping on Santa Rosa.

Why You Should Go

camping on santa rosa

(c) ABR 2017

(1) This island is home to a small Torrey Pines forest, which is actually almost all that’s left of an ancient forest that spanned southern California during the last ice age. The only other place that you can see Torrey Pines in the whole world is in Torrey Pines State Park near San Diego. So, if you wanted to envision yourself in ice age California, Santa Rosa is the place to do it.

(2) You want to see the most adorable foxes in the world? Santa Rosa has got them! The Channel Islands fox can be found on all six of the larger islands in the chain, but here’s the thing, each island has its own subspecies. So, really, the foxes on Santa Rosa can’t be seen anywhere else on the planet. More importantly, they are extremely adorable. (Just don’t feed them).

camping on santa rosa

(c) ABR 2017

(3) Santa Rosa has some stunning white sand beaches, and it’s the only place in the Channel Islands National Park where you can set up a tent on one. This makes camping on Santa Rosa pretty special (although there is a camp site as well).

(4) The views on this island are some of the best in the Channel Islands, and the landscape is extremely variable. From beaches, to oceanside cliffs, to verdant canyons carved through the sandstone, to rolling mountains, forests, and deserts. It’s all packed into a relatively small island. It’s the perfect place to explore.

What To Do (Day Hikes)

camping on santa rosa

Lobo Canyon (c) ABR 2017

(1) Hike out to the west to see the Torrey Pines and the sand spit Skunk Point (check the NPS page for beach closures- linked below in the Logistics section).

(2) Hike to Lobo Canyon and follow the canyon out to the sea for some beautiful views of the ocean.

camping on santa rosa

Lobo Canyon Trail (c) ABR 2017

(3) Hike to the interior of the island and consider trying for the summit of the island’s tallest mountain, Black Mountain.

All of these hikes are 5+ miles roundtrip, so be sure to bring plenty of water and food. Wear good shoes and be prepared for emergencies. Remember, you are responsible for your own safety and you should consult with rangers about the exact length of your planned hike and trail conditions.

Tips for a Good Time 

camping on santa rosa

These trees have been shaped by the relentless wind (c) ABR 2017

While camping on Santa Rosa is something that I would suggest for any outdoor-lover, there are a few things that you need to know about this place to keep safe and comfortable

(1) Santa Rosa is a very windy place. If you camp in the campground, you will see just how windy when you realize that the wooden lean-tos here are meant to give you enough protection so that you can actually pitch your tent and not risk it flying away. The wind will also be at you while you hike, so come prepared for this incessant element of the environment.

camping on santa rosa

(c) ABR 2017

(2) There are ticks on Santa Rosa. As far as I know, there has not been a report of Lyme disease there yet, but it’s a possibility. So, dress to avoid ticks when you hike (skin covered, especially around your ankles and legs for the long grass) and consider bug spray as well. When you get back to camp after the day, check yourself over for any ticks that might have hitched a ride.

How to Protect Her 

camping on santa rosa

(c) ABR 2017

Like all of the Channel Islands, Santa Rosa is a very special place but its unique environment is also vulnerable. There are a few things you can do to help protect this amazing place if you visit or go camping on Santa Rosa.

(1) Follow the Leave No Trace philosophy. Make sure that you pack all of your trash off the island. Stay on trails. And take nothing from the island (this is also illegal since Santa Rosa is part of the National Park).

camping on santa rosa

(c) ABR 2017

(2) Wash your hiking boots off before you leave home for your trip. Often times we carry little tiny seeds around with us on our boots, in the mud and dirt in the tread and when seeds get stuck in the mesh of your shoes. We don’t want to introduce any new plant species to Santa Rosa that might compete for resources with the native plants that live there.

(3) If you plan on swimming, consider buying an ocean-safe sunscreen that doesn’t have chemicals that are bad for ocean creatures.

Logistics

camping on santa rosa

(c) ABR 2017

To get to Santa Rosa, the Island Packers is your go-to for most of the Channel Islands. You can buy tickets online, and I would definitely suggest reading up on the season for the island here. Get your transportation tickets ahead of time! Here is the schedule for Santa Rosa: http://islandpackers.com/santa-rosa-island-2/

You will need to have a camping reservation and/or permit for your camping on Santa Rosa adventure. This National Park page will give you all of the details.

For more information on the Channel Islands, click here to read about all the great activities on this beautiful island chain.

camping on santa rosa

camping on santa rosa

Food Finds: Arizona Mead Company

Happy Monday! We’re here to help you kick off the week with another segment of Food Finds – leading you to tasty food and beverages one post at a time. And on this occasion, our tastebuds led us to the…

Arizona Mead Company 

Mead is an alcoholic beverage, that’s not quite a beer and not quite a wine, and made from fermented honey and water. You don’t see it very often on a restaurant menu and it might be pretty hard to find in your local grocery store, BUT don’t fret! Because right here in Chandler, Arizona, the Arizona Mead Company makes their very own craft mead.

They have a variety of different meads to choose from, and if you can’t make up your mind, try the flight – you get a sample of four. Check their website to see what they have on tap currently.

If you want to give mead a chance, you better put it down on your calendar because Arizona Mead Company has pretty exclusive hours: open Fridays 5-9 p.m. and Saturdays 3-9 p.m.

Their tap room is small, so if you’re worried about not fitting in (literally), you might want to visit earlier rather than later. Or if it is full, you could always take a bottle home with you instead!

And if you’re not sure WHERE the tap room is, just look out for this sign:

And this door:

That’s it for Food Finds! If you’re looking for other recommendations, check out our first Food Finds post here. Also, if you’re absolutely terrible at directions like me, there’s a handy map for the Arizona Mead Company below.

Thanks for visiting!

xo,
Katie

A Long Weekend in Luxembourg with Castles, Cities, and the Perfect Countryside

Luxembourg is one of the smallest countries in Europe, and it is sandwiched between Belgium, Germany, and France. As such, it is the perfect place to go to experience a unique culture that has arisen from a region packed with history. While you could easily spend a week or more here, enjoying the beautiful greenery and villages of the countryside, for high-energy travelers spending a long weekend in Luxembourg is perfect. You’ll have time for small town life, exploring Luxembourg City, and hiking one of the most beautiful trails in Europe. This Luxembourg itinerary will break down some of my favorite places in this lovely little nation that stole my heart when I visited.

Day One: Shopping, Eating, and Exploring in Luxembourg City

Luxembourg City is, unsurprisingly, the place to go to learn more about Luxembourg and experience lots of the wonderful things that the country has to offer. Overall, I’d say that this is one of the Europe’s less crowded cities, but you will still run into a good number of tourists here. If you want to avoid the crowds, Sunday tends to be the most quiet. Unfortunately, this is the case because lots of things are closed. So, if you want more options by the way of shopping and dining, it will be best to avoid Sunday. If not, however, lots of the major attractions are still open on Sunday, so it can be a very peaceful day to visit. Either way, Luxembourg City will be a highlight of your weekend in Luxembourg.

weekend in luxembourg

Looking down on the Old Quarter (c) ABR 2018

The National Museum of Luxembourg was our first stop after walking the town for an hour or two. It is free, and will give you a really nice overview of the country’s history. Since the museum is centrally located, this is a great place to spend the morning and then set off on foot for lunch.

weekend in luxembourg

Beautiful buildings in Luxembourg City (c) ABR 2018

From there, I would definitely suggest visiting the Bock casemates. This fortress has been built right into the cliffs that twist their way through the city. It has a long history of serving as both a military asset and a place of refuge for the people of Luxembourg. It is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. So if my endorsement isn’t enough to convince you to include this in your Luxembourg itinerary, hopefully that seal of approval will.

weekend in luxembourg

The casemates and the city (c) ABR 2018

After winding your way through the subterranean world of the city, spend the afternoon strolling through the narrow streets of the Old Quarter and enjoy the beauty of the city’s river.

Day Two: Enjoying the Countryside: Vianden Castle and Esch-sur-Sûre

weekend in luxembourg

Vianden Castle (c) ABR 2018

Vianden Castle is one of the most spectacular castles that I have ever had the opportunity to visit, and it was probably our favorite part of our weekend in Luxembourg. Vianden has been through many of the country’s struggles and did fall out of repair for a time. However, the people of Luxembourg rallied around this symbol of their nation to rebuild it. Modern day visitors will be delighted to explore a beautifully restored fortress. Perched up on a cliff, you will be blown away by the views of the surrounding town as you wander through the authentic furnishing of the past. There is also a wonderful, immersive museum on the castle grounds. So it’s not a stretch to say that you’d spend at least half a day exploring this landmark.

weekend in luxembourg

Vianden Village (c) ABR 2018

After the castle, be sure to check out Vianden town. It is picturesque and full of lovely little cafes to grab lunch. Next stop on the Luxembourg itinerary is Esch-sur-Sûre which is about a 40 minute drive away.

Esch-sur-Sûre

weekend in luxembourg

(c) ABR 2018

This little town also has its own castle, which is open to visitors. But this is much more of an iconic ruin than Vianden castle, so you can explore it at your leisure. You will need to hike up to the top of the hill to do so though. So be prepared for a bit of a huff. The view of the town from above is well worth the incline. The architecture of Luxembourg is stately and ironically European, but Esch-sur-Sûre is also characterized by the river that winds around the massive, rock outcropping that marks the center of the village.

Day Three: Nature as the Finale: The Mullerthal Trail

 

For me, as a hiker and outdoor adventurer, I love getting a sense of a country from its nature. So, after a few days of urban exploration, it’s a great place to end your trip. Luckily, Luxembourg is home to the absolutely breathtaking Mullerthal Trail. At 112 km long, you can make this trek into just about any kind of hike you’d like. You can take a short stroll through the verdant canyon to marvel at the sculpted rocks of the area. You can also spend the whole day on the trail.  The Mullerthal trail is also perfect for backpackers. For information on this, there is a detailed breakdown of the backpacking stages here.

weekend in luxembourg

Who doesn’t love these? (c) ABR 2018

For those of you looking for shorter hikes, I ended up using Road Trips Around the World’s detailed guide.

And if you enjoyed this itinerary, you might love our other, action-packed guides. And if you want to learn more about Luxembourg, be sure to read My Travel Affairs’ Interesting Facts About Luxembourg.

weekend in luxembourg

The Island of the Blue Dolphins: What’s The Big Deal About San Nicolas Island?

island of the blue dolphins

From Pixabay

I’ve been in love with the Channel Islands of California since I first read Scott O’Dell’s The Island of the Blue Dolphins as a little kid. The first time that I glimpsed them in person was on the horizon while on a family vacation. I was so fascinated in the shadows that came and went out on the ocean that I convinced my dad that we needed to see if there was a way to get to them, and a few days later we were on a day trip to Anacapa.

Since then, I have gone to camp on Catalina, snorkeled on Anacapa, kayaked on Santa Cruz, and hiked across Santa Rosa. But there are two Channel Islands that are off limits to visitors, San Nicolas and San Clemente. These are both owned by the Navy, and have active bases on them. So, going there as a casual camper or explorer is simply out of the question. Even so, I have been just as fascinated and in-love with these islands as the rest of the chain. This year I made a monumental effort to work as a short-term environmental contractor on San Nicolas so that I could finally experience this unique and amazing place.

But why drive for two days, volunteer three work days, and fly out into the middle of the ocean where no phones were allowed (for our group)? What’s so special about San Nicolas?

THE ISLAND OF THE BLUE DOLPHINS

island of the blue dolphins

Juana Maria from Wikimedia commons

The Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell is one of the first chapter books that I remember reading. More importantly, it is the first book that I ever read with a female, Native American protagonist. This story started to open my eyes to the realities of American expansion on Native people. I also had the chance to look up to a female hero, something, which was rare at the time, particularly among the stories that I enjoyed most.

O’Dell tells the tale of Juana Maria (we will never know her real name), a Nicoleño woman who was left alone on San Nicolas island for 18 years. While his book is historical fiction, the story itself is real. Juana Maria’s people, had been living on San Nicolas for hundreds of years (possibly more). In the 1800s, they found themselves at the center of a brutal conflict when the Russian-American Company fur company targeted their home for its thriving otter populations. At some point, the RAC hunters on the island decided that the local people had killed one of their men and in response they massacred the residents.

After this, Juana Maria’s people were removed from their home, although the reasons for this are not clear. The boat, however, left her behind. Again, no one is entirely sure why she wasn’t taken with the rest of her people. Some say that a strong storm drove the boat away from the island before she could get aboard. Others believe that she leapt from the boat because she thought her younger brother had been forgotten.

A Survivor, Strength Unmatched

island of the blue dolphins

Statue of Juana Maria from Wikimedia commons

Utterly alone, Juana Maria survived for nearly two decades on San Nicolas. She built herself a home, and expertly utilized all the resources of the island to stay alive. A few footprints on the beach sand, and food left out to dry eventually led to her being found. After that, she was brought to the mainland. Sadly, the rest of her people did not await her there. She died only seven weeks after being reunited with society.

Juana Maria’s story is one of horrible tragedy, but as a person, I consider her a hero. While I can’t say what her own people thought of women, I believe that Juana Maria shocked the Europeans and Americans with her strength, ingenuity, and iron will to survive. She did what none of those people thought that she could. I will always see her as one of the great figures of female survivors and outdoor experts.

It was amazing to walk in her footsteps (so to speak) and see the island that she once called home.

OTTERS IN THE SOUTH

island of the blue dolphins

From pixabay

Otters were once common across the long coast of California. Thousands of them made their homes along the beaches that are now so famously loved by the West-coast enthusiasts. They played an essential role in the ecosystem of the coast. In the 18th and 19th Century, however, hunters killed them in such extreme numbers that they were considered extinct in California by the 1900s.

Luckily, this was not the case, as a single small population remained after the hunting efforts were ended. All of the current otters that live in California now came from those few that managed to survive. From a conservation scientist’s perspective this makes California’s otters vulnerable. Those left don’t have much by way of genetic variation. When genetic variation is low, diseases and environmental changes are more dangerous for a species. For example, more variation means that there is a greater chance that more individuals will have a natural immunity or ability to recover from an otherwise fatal disease.

Welcome Back To San Nicolas

island of the blue dolphins

From Pixabay

In order to address this problem, US Fish and Wildlife decided that a second population of otters was needed. They chose San Nicolas Island for this purpose, and brought several otters there. They thought that the animals would be safe from any problems that arose in the north there. Unfortunately, everyone underestimated how far otters could travel. Most of the animals dropped off on San Nicolas actually swam home, across the open ocean and up the coast. Pretty amazing, if you ask me!

The project didn’t go as smoothly as wildlife managers were hoping, but there is a small population of otters on San Nicolas now. These little guys are some of the most  special animals that anyone can see in southern California. It’s only fitting that they can now make the Island of the Blue Dolphins their home once more.

My Journey to San Nicolas

Last week I posted about my trip amazing trip to San Nicolas and the great work that the Channel Island Restoration team does.

Visiting San Nicolas the Island of the Blue Dolphins

visiting san nicolas

Map of the island © Santa Barbara Botanic Garden

Visiting San Nicolas Island off of the coast of California is no easy feat. There’s really only one way, working for the Navy in some capacity. So, managing to get on a trip with Channel Islands Restoration, an organization that is contracted for environmental restoration on San Nicolas, was a huge opportunity. The following is my trip log for my journey out to the beautiful Island of the Blue Dolphins where I helped support CIR’s amazing work.

(Please note that NONE of the pictures in this post are mine. No photos of the island are allowed without permission from the Navy.  Channel Island Restoration contractors are not allowed to bring cameras of any kind. If you would like to see more of San Nicolas, please look through William T. Reid’s photography over at his blog Stormbruiser.com. He has gratuitously allowed me to include a couple of his photos here. He has some really amazing shots of San Nicolas Island and more!)

The Journey to San Nicolas

visiting san nicolas

Anacapa and Santa Cruz (c) filippo_jean on Flickr (marked for reuse)

Luckily, on the morning that I was flying out to the island, I managed to find the right meeting place. I was immediately greeted by a wonderful group of people. I really have to say, if you are interested in volunteering for the environment of the Channel Islands, I can’t sing the praises of Channel Islands Restoration enough. They are an amazing organization and I am really happy that I managed to get myself out to their trip.

After meeting up with the group, we made our way to the gateway to the base. From there, we drove to the little one-room airport terminal. I had no idea what to expect once we were there, but checking in was little different than when I had flown on the little plane to Vieques. Checking the weight of you and your bags.

A Special Flight

What was more complicated was the plane schedule itself, or rather… getting back and forth, because thick fog and heavy winds are common on San Nicolas. The planes flying out there can’t really deal with either. So, our group ended up waiting several hours in the terminal, along with everyone else on our flight and the one before ours, which had yet to leave.

When we did climb onto the plane, I was delighted to get a single seat next to the window. There were far too many clouds for me to see any of the Channel Islands on the journey. But I was happy to watch the wavering layer of water vapor float by as we got nearer and nearer to this forbidden island. I honestly never thought I would be visiting San Nicolas Island.

Welcome to the Island of the Blue Dolphins

visiting san nicolas

Channel Islands Fox from Wikipedia

As we landed, I got my first view of the desert island, and its characteristic flat mesa where little roads criss-crossed through the dry plant communities. Little buildings popped up here and there, boxy and defined by their utilitarian design. Once we landed, we pilled into a volunteer van and made our way to Nick Town. This is where all of the restaurants, barracks, and hotel rooms are. With a view of the ocean, I found this little Navy village to be inviting, if not vibrant and busy. I was also delighted to find out that the hotel there was extremely comfortable and even luxurious in comparison to many of the places that I stay.

Due to our delay at the airport, we took some time to hit up the little store in town. There I secured a gallon of drinking water and perused the sparsely stocked shelves for a souvenir. I settled on a wide, metal mug with the base logo on it.

Afterwards, we charged up for work by grabbing a cheap lunch at the cafeteria-esque Galley. Massive burritos were on offer and we all tucked in, enjoying the calories after our journey and hoping for it to carry us through the afternoon’s work.

Lending a Hand

visiting san nicolas

Coreopsis gigantea | by John Game (labeled for reuse)

Once we had finished, the lot of us headed out into the field. Channel Islands Restoration carries out work on several of California’s Channel Islands. They raise and plant native plants for a variety of projects seeking to bring the islands closer to their natural state. Many of the Channel Islands were used as ranches in the past, which caused and necessitated major environmental changes.

On this trip, our work was to go through an older planting area to weed out non-native plants (plants that were brought to the islands by American settlers, in this case) and check on temporary irrigation lines. The extra water is meant to give the native plants a foot up as they establish and have to compete with young non-native plants. In the end, it was hoped that this work would a have a two-fold positive impact. (1) It would create a stripe of native plants, and (2) it would stabilize the soil, which is particularly important in the often windy environment San Nicolas.

Learning More About the Plant Community

Luckily for me, it wasn’t back breaking work and we moved relatively fast. I also had the opportunity to work with one of the senior volunteers, who had been out to San Nicolas with Channel Islands Restoration many times before. She was a wonderful teacher, who patiently taught me each of the native plants and their non-native nemeses (which she lovingly referred to as “the bad guys”).

When we had finished for that day, our illustrious and kind volunteer coordinator (seriously, this guy was amazing; I think his job must be so difficult and he wears so many hats- scientist, restorationist, volunteer coordinator/trainer, and tour guide) pilled us all into the van and took us out to see some of the sights.

I wasn’t expecting to get to do this while visiting San Nicolas Island, so needless to say, I was delighted.

Sightseeing on San Nicolas

visiting san nicolas

Tranquility Beach (c) William T. Reid (Used with permission)

We took a road that cross the middle of the island and then curled around to the coast through forests of small trees called Giant Coreopsis. These eventually gave way to dunes and ice plants (non-native) as we came down from the central plateau of San Nicolas and moved towards the ocean. This area had previously been heavily impacted by ranching. At one point, there was hardly a plant left due to overgrazing. This caused the dunes to become wild, without any roots to slow them down.

Things are a bit better now. Without grazing pressure, plants (both native and non-native) have returned and stabilized many areas. Channel Islands Restoration and the Navy has been hard at work giving native plants a chance to come back. It has been a long journey and there is much further to go. But where ranch animals were dominating the landscape not too long ago, tiny Island Foxes now frolic in on an island which is slowly recovering its biodiversity.

San Nicolas is also a very important habitat for marine mammals such as elephant seals, sea lions, and even otters (it’s the only site in southern California that has a population of them after they were nearly hunted to extinction by fur traders). When they are out on the beach, people should keep their distance. These animals are very shy.

The Island Coast

visiting san nicolas

Beautiful San Nicolas Island (c) William T. Reid (Used with permission)

Tranquility Beach, our first stop on our little tour, is a popular place for marine mammals. When we visited, however, it was deserted. So, under the watchful eye of our volunteer coordinator, we wandered out onto the sand. The air and sea were calm as we combed through shells we couldn’t take home, marveling at how beautiful they all were. The only sign that there had been elephant seals all over the beach in earlier weeks were the scraps of their shed fur that they had left behind.

Once we were done there, we continued driving around the island, where we passed through the driest area. I almost felt at home as we navigated down a road surrounded by cholla. We stopped at a loading pier where we stepped out to silently watch the sea lions far down on the beach. They didn’t notice us as we kept quiet, and two young pups frolicked with one another in the surf. It was a beautiful sight.

We topped the night off with a hearty dinner of burgers, salads, sandwiches and cookies at the restaurant in Nick Town. I can’t say how much I appreciated the soft, cozy bed of the hotel room when I finally returned for the night. No computer or phone to distract me from sleeping.

Locking the Keys in the Car

visiting San Nicolas

NOT something that we saw; elephant seals use San Nicolas at some times of the year and no one is allowed to disturb them. From Pixabay.

I took my breakfast in my room the next day, and met with the team for an early morning start on our project. Skilled from the day before, we worked quickly and before lunch we had finished up everything we needed to in the field. So we returned to the nursery where Channel Island Restoration raises the plants that they use for their projects on San Nicolas. We cleaned, and prepped tools for the next project before gathering our things to catch our flight off of the island in the mid-afternoon.

I had a minor heart attack when the keys got locked in our van, along with most people’s luggage. I was really afraid that we would miss our flight, as the small planes did not wait for late comers. Luckily, our volunteer coordinator and the island transportation head had us covered with the spare key. We made it on time to the airport.

But… ten minutes after everyone got checked in, it was announced that we wouldn’t be going anywhere that night. There had been an accident on the runway on the mainland, and the clean up would take some time. We had to settle in for a surprise extra night. Such are the risks one runs when visiting San Nicolas Island and other remote places like it.

Some Things Are Meant to Be

visiting San Nicolas

Rock Crusher from islandpedia.com

With my 7-8 hr drive home between me and home, whenever I could get a plane, plus work piling up, I found this a little distressing. But once again, our coordinator came to the rescue. He got us set up at the hotel again, and then took us out to one of the most special places on San Nicolas. Rock Crusher.

There we got to walk among the strange stone structures on the coast, and marvel at the endless break off the island in the ocean. We were all tired, and when we settled down to take in all of the beauty around us, a tiny otter surfaced in the kelp.

It seemed like a sign. Even though we were all stressed out, and weren’t planning to spend an extra night on the island, we were meant to be there. For me, it was a moment of pure beauty in which I found myself bathing in gratitude for the opportunity to be there, in that special, secluded place. I was grateful to have been given the chance to help Channel Island Restoration in their amazing mission, and lucky to have been with such an amazing group of people.

More Information on San Nicolas Island

For amazing photography of San Nicolas (and more) be sure to look through William T. Reid’s Stormbruiser blog!

If you’d like to donate your time or money to the effort to repair the environment of the Channel Islands, please visit Channel Islands Restoration to learn more about all the cool projects that they are working on.

We also have a guide to the Channel Islands chain if you’d like to know more.

visiting san nicolas

visiting san nicolas

 

Food Finds: Reathrey Sekong and Novel Ice Cream

Hello again, travelers! Welcome to a new segment of Nightborn called Food Finds. We love checking out new places, supporting local businesses and of course, eating tasty treats, so we figured we share them with you, too. Today’s finds are dinner (or lunch) and dessert (or, as I’d like to call it, anytime food) at Reathrey Sekong and Novel Ice Cream.

Reathrey Sekong

Reathrey is a cozy Cambodian restaurant tucked into mid-town Phoenix. Inside you’ll find a smattering of tables and booths – a perfectly-sized space that, even when it’s full, doesn’t feel crowded. (If you have a larger party, you might want to call ahead to see what the dining situation is like. Take-out is an option, too.)

I’d never had Cambodian food before, but it wasn’t too unfamiliar, with some element of the dishes reminding me of a combination of Vietnamese and Thai food (which might make sense, considering that Cambodia is sandwiched between Vietnam and Thailand).

I’m definitely coming back for this ginger tofu stir-fry.

The menu isn’t large (nor does it need to be), but it has a variety of dishes. Between my companions and I, we got a beef skewer dish, steak and vegetables, catfish and a ginger tofu stir-fry. Re: the catfish, check with your server to see if it’s available to order. For you vegetarians out there, I think there’s a noodle dish you can request as a vegetarian meal, and my ginger stir-fry was originally a beef/chicken dish that I subbed with tofu. But, I’m not sure if the sauce is vegetarian, so you’ll want to ask about that too.

Did I mention that staff was very nice and accommodating? Well, I have now.

Next time I stop by, I think I’ll try to be more adventurous with my choices and get something different (although that ginger tofu was REALLY good).

Steak and veggie dish with a tasty sauce that had a surprising kick.

Novel Ice Cream

Novel is little ice cream shop on the fringes of downtown Phoenix in the historic Grand Avenue arts corridor. You’ll find it across from the Grand Ave. Pizza Company, nestled in the ThirdSpace plaza.

The shop itself is small, so if it’s busy, you might find yourself squeezing inside to order, but no worries, you’ll get your turn and there’s plenty of seating outside. The staff is friendly, passionate about their ice cream and encourages you to try the flavors – so, try!

Are you WAFFLE-ing about what flavor to choose? Good news – you can pick more than one!

They’re well-known for their doughnut and waffle ice cream sandwiches (yes, you read that right), but if you’re feeling like a simple scoop, they’ve got a cake, sugar or waffle cone with your name on it.

The doughnut is absolutely as good as it looks.

That about wraps up this installment of Food Finds. Come back soon for more! (Or keep reading if you’re trying to find the perfect chai in Phoenix.)

Eat Well,
Katie

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