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.

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.

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

The More Serious Side of Travel: Hiroshima Peace Memorial

When you look at Hiroshima today – bustling and beautiful – it’s hard to imagine the complete devastation of the atomic bomb drop just over 70 years ago. And I know that it’s not easy to visit places where you’re faced with the history of great tragedy, but if you’re traveling to Japan, think about stopping by the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum to better understand the effects of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and its people (and their resilience and strength as they worked to rebuild their city).

Each exhibit about the culmination of World War II, the dropping of the bomb and its aftermath are informative, but it’s also a very emotional experience. Perhaps the most sobering exhibits (at least for me) are the personal items and stories on display of victims of the bombing. I held it together pretty well until a docent told a group of us about a photo of people waiting in line for medical attention not too long after the bomb fell – how the photographer knew he had to document this but he stood for nearly 20 minutes mesmerized by the pain and horror of it all.

Tiny cranes on display, folded by Sadako Sasaki, a young girl exposed to radiation when the bomb fell when she was only a toddler. Years later when she was 12 years old, she was diagnosed with leukemia and passed away soon after.

 

A watch that stopped at 8:15 a.m., the time the bomb hit Hiroshima on August 6, 1945.

After we left the museum, we visited the Children’s Peace Monument – a tribute to Sadako and the thousands of other children who were victims of the bombing.

The monument is surrounded by glass boxes where visitors can leave their own folded cranes in a hopeful promise for better days and in remembrance.

My travel companions and I hung up our own cranes – a small labor of love that we had folded on the train ride over.

Behind the colorful cranes, you can step out onto a walking path and see the Genbaku or Atomic Bomb Dome across the way. It’s called this because it was the only structure still standing so close to the bomb’s hypocenter (where the atomic bomb hit).

I sat down on a bench and marveled at the juxtaposition and the significance of this defiant building sitting in the sun, next to a lazily flowing river. People rode bikes and chatted with each other animatedly as they walked by – life, like the water, ebbed on.

I’m looking forward to coming back to Hiroshima – a city with so much to offer. This time around, I didn’t get to visit Hiroshima Castle, try their version of okonomiyaki or take the short ferry ride to the neighboring small island of Miyajima (amongst many other great sites to see). I can’t wait until my next trip.

I didn’t get to ride their electric railway either, which is a travesty, because I love streetcars.

Be Good to Each Other,
Katie

The Forgotten Caribbean: Travel to Vieques

Last week we covered some history and attractions on the small island of Culebra, and this week I am going to sum up Nightborn Travel’s coverage of Puerto Rico with Culebra’s sister island, Vieques. This is the larger of the two Spanish Virgin Islands. It faces many of the same challenges that we talked about in regards to Culebra. This includes a history of military exploitation, and small local communities struggling against impending buy-out from expats and the larger tourism industry. At the same time, Vieques and Culebra are utterly unique. When you travel to Vieques you will have the opportunity to see beautiful low-land forests, free-range horses, and one of the best bio-luminescent bays in the world. There’s an almost endless list of things to see on this little island and it’s time that it was forgotten no more.

travel to vieques

EARLY HISTORY

Before the arrival of the Europeans, Vieques was home to indigenous peoples such as the Taino, who left archeological remains throughout Puerto Rico. Unfortunately, the Spanish colonizers went to war with the native people here and enslaved everyone left when they were done claiming the land for themselves. The Taino people currently live on through modern Puerto Ricans who still incorporate some of the traditions of Taino culture in the unique Puerto Rican way-of-life.

As with much of the Caribbean, and mainland Puerto Rico, sugar plantations were a major aspect of life on Vieques. This activity led to immigration onto the island as workers, investors, and slaves moved or were moved to take advantage of the small island’s fertile soils.

travel to vieques

The Fortin on Vieques (c) ABR 2018

RECENT HISTORY

In the 1940s, this changed when the US military purchased more than half of the island. This had large-scale negative impacts on the economy of the island. It put many local people out of work, and forced physical relocation for anyone that lived on the land that was now owned by the US government. The land purchased was utilized for the testing of weaponry, and much like Culebra, the island is still haunted by this legacy. Although this is something that you pick up more from talking to local people when you travel to Vieques, as there aren’t tanks laying around here.

This misuse and mistreatment of the island and its residents came to a tragic head when David Sanes was killed by military activity in 1999. This event led to ongoing protests that were spearheaded by local people but supported by activists from all over the world. By 2001, there was a presidential guarantee that the military would begin leaving in 2003, and on May 1, 2003, the process began.

travel to vieques

A map of military impacts on Vieques (c) ABR 2018

While the protests led to the ceasing of the US government’s activities on Vieques, the road to recovering the island has not been easy. Cancer rates on Vieques are high and many local people believe that this has to do with the tests that took place there. Furthermore, health services are not readily available on Vieques and what there was was all but destroyed by Hurricane Maria in 2017. Environmental and social recovery is still underway. Bu many Vieques natives have had to move away from their home due to lack of resources, jobs, and health care. This leaves the island vulnerable to a new kind of exploitation from the mass tourism industry.

GETTING THERE

As with Culebra, you can travel to Vieques via a ferry or a plane ride.

The most affordable way to get there is the ferry, which runs from Fajardo/Ceiba to Vieques multiple times a day and the fare is under $10. However, taking the ferry has its risks as the schedule is not 100% dependable and tickets can sell out. Check the Guide to Vieques for more information.

travel to vieques

Getting off of the tiny airplane on Vieques (c) ABR 2018

Personally, I traveled there with Vieques Air Link, which flew from San Juan to the island. These flights leave from the much smaller domestic airport in San Juan, and use very small planes, so if you are scared of 4-6 seat planes, you might opt for the ferry. If you have the extra cash for this mode though, the views from the plane are absolutely amazing and Air Link was on time for all of the flights I took with them. The only difficultly with this mode of transportation post-Maria was that the companies were a little hard to contact and we had some difficultly getting our tickets and confirming our seats. I would hope that this will consistently improve as things get repaired in Puerto Rico.

travel to vieques

View of San Juan from the tiny plane to Vieques (c) ABR 2018

WHERE TO STAY

There are lots of places to stay and different kinds of experiences, from AirBnb to hostels and luxury hotels. As always, my main suggestion would be to stay somewhere that’s smaller, and locally owned. You will even have some options in terms of whether or not you stay near the town centers or out in the more rural areas of the island when you travel to Vieques.

WHAT TO DO

Hiking

No, surprise, but my first suggestion would be to go hiking. There are tons of trails, but here are a couple that I enjoyed.

Cayo de Tierra: This short, little trail goes out onto a beautiful peninsula that is just right outside of town. Day Trips says that it is unusable since Hurricane Maria, but I had no trouble hiking it in April. You just need to follow the red markings along the trail.

travel to vieques

Looking through the forest and out to the land bridge (c) ABR 2018

Playa Negra is the black sand beach of Vieques. It takes a bit of hiking to get there, down through a small creek bed, but it is well worth the walk. Just expect your shoes to get wet and be prepared. I will also note that there is not a lot of parking at the trailhead, so please be sure that you move your vehicle out of the road when you head out.

travel to vieques

Playa Negra (c) ABR 2018

The Vieques National Wildlife Refuge is another hot spot for hiking, although when I visited, it was closed down after the hurricane. Hopefully it will be opened again soon.

Other Stuff to Do

Vieques is also home to one of the best bio bays in the world, although it has been badly impacted by Hurricane Maria and climate change. I would still suggest checking it out, as at worst you will get to go on a nice, guided night kayak on a beautiful bay. There is a nice list of companies to consider going out with here.

Fortin Conde de Mirasol is a great historic location on the island, which is a must-see for any travel to Vieques. It is both a great place to learn more about the story of the island, and it is home to an organization that supports local education. There is a great little museum here as well as a lovely gift shop.

travel to vieques

The Gran Ceiba (c) ABR 2018

Make sure that you stop by the absolutely beautiful Gran Ceiba tree. It is said to be about 300 years old. Just make sure that you don’t step on the roots! Keep your distance.

Finally, there are tons of tasty restaurants right on the beach in Esperanza. The village is a great place to stop by for a relaxing walk through the town. There is plenty of Caribbean fusion, Puerto Rican, and American food on offer, so there is something for everyone.

TIPS FOR THE ISLAND

(1) Use your travel to Vieques as a tool for supporting local people. You can do this by supporting locally owned hotels, restaurants and guides. You can also learn more about the culture and history of Vieques and share it with other people. The more the world knows about the struggles of this little island and the strength of its people, the better!

(2) There is still unexploded ordinance on Vieques, and although rare, sometimes people still find things while exploring. If you find anything that you can’t identify, do not touch or move it, just report it to the authorities.

travel to vieques

The closed National Wildlife Sanctuary (c) ABR 2018

(3) Vieques has a very high amount of murder, statistically speaking. For the most part, this is not something that visitors need to worry about. The residents of Vieques are kind people and the island overall has a small-town mentality. That being said, stay out of trouble and don’t go looking for drugs, etc. (not something I condone anywhere).

(4) When you drive on Vieques remember that this is a small island; there are often people and horses walking along the road (sometimes turtles even try to cross!). Embrace island life and drive slow and respectfully. If people want to pass you, just pull out of the way. Enjoy the scenery!

(5) Hiking, traveling and outdoor related sports can be dangerous. Be responsible and prepare for the trip. Study the area you are entering and plan accordingly. Dress for current and unexpected weather changes. Take plenty of water. Never go alone. Make an itinerary with your plan(s), route(s), destination(s) and expected return time. Give your itinerary to trusted family and/or friends. It is your responsibility to travel and explore responsibly and take care of your own safety. (Adapted from www.hikearizona.com).

The Forgotten Caribbean: Visiting Culebra

Culebra is the smaller of the two populated islands off of the eastern coast of Puerto Rico, and it is a world of its own. The island itself is low-lying, meaning that much of its surface is relatively dry when compared to the tropical paradise that is the Island of Enchantment, and even compared to the forests of its partner, Vieques. Even so, Culebra is home to some of the most beautiful beaches in the Caribbean, if not the world, and it has a tragic history that needs to be remembered. But is visiting Culebra worth it? Of course. It’s the perfect place for a weekend getaway or as part of an add-on to a trip to Puerto Rico.

COLONIAL HISTORY

Despite it small size, Culebra has a history that’s almost a perfect snap shot of all the complexity and struggles faced by the people of the Caribbean. Archeologists have found evidence of both Taino and Arawak peoples living on the island before the arrival of Europeans. By the 18th century, the native Caribbean people had either died in wars with invading Europeans, via slavery, or they had mixed with the new people moving into the Caribbean. Shortly after, Culebra had become a shelter for pirates.

visiting culebra

Coolest postal office ever with Caribbean flare (c) ABR 2018

The Spanish crown put a stop to this, due to the island’s proximity to its Caribbean jewel, and as of 1880 colonization efforts began on the island. In fact, there is still an old graveyard that has survived into modern times from those early days of European colonization (something you should totally include in your Culebra itinerary). Within a short period of time, the single village of Culebra had grown to five villages and the people that made the island home had a thriving agricultural society.

RECENT HISTORY

In 1901, the US military established a base on Culebra, and this had long-term negative impacts on the island’s people. The base’s construction forced the resettlement of many people and closed parts of the island of to its residents.

Local people protested this treatment and this eventually led to the US military leaving the island in 1975. However, there is still evidence of this period in the island’s history left scattered across the land, and which you will see when visiting Culebra. From rusting tanks on the beach to unexploded ordinance hidden in the sand and elsewhere, the memory of what the US did to Culebra will not disappear anytime soon.

visiting Culebra

Tank left on Flamenco Beach (c) ABR 2018

In 2017, Hurricane Maria hit the Caribbean with intense force; it decimated Puerto Rico and Culebra with it. Many people with family ties to the island have been forced to leave due to the damage from the hurricane, or from lack of jobs. At the same time, wealthy people from the US and Puerto Rico’s main island have started buying up land on Culebra, with plans to turn this small Caribbean world into their own luxury tourism experience, against the will of the local people.

Bringing community-based tourism in Culebra now might just help local people take back their control of their home and provide jobs for residents as well. So, your Culebra itinerary could actually make a bit of a difference if you do it right.

GETTING THERE

There are two main ways to get to Culebra, and both of them have some complications.

There is a ferry that runs from Fajardo to Culebra multiple times a day, and it is very affordable. However, during busy times of the year the ferry can fill up, with preference being given to residents, and the schedule is not always kept to the standards the Americans or Western Europeans are used to. So, this can be a frustrating experience, although I had no issues with it at all when I went. I would suggest getting to the ferry terminal early in order to insure that you can get tickets and bring a book along in case you need some extra entertainment for scheduling hiccups.

visiting culebra

Getting off of the ferry onto Culebra (c) ABR 2018

Several small airlines can also facilitate visiting Culebra. They fly from San Juan or Ceiba Airport. In April 2017, we found these companies very hard to contact and were unable to buy tickets for a flight. However, many travelers have had better luck with this mode of transport than the ferries in the past. We did fly Vieques Air Link to Vieques successfully, however, and they do fly to Culebra as well.

WHERE TO STAY

Not a giant hotel.

Ok seriously though. There are some big players that are interested in Culebra and local people are struggling to maintain control of their home. If you stay in one of the small, locally owned hotels in the main village, you can make a difference. Give your money to the local community and get a taste of day-to-day life in your Culebra itinerary.

WHAT TO DO

Flamenco Beach is considered one of the most beautiful beaches in the Caribbean, and even if you end up disagreeing, it is certainly one of the most unique beaches in the region. Visit to enjoy the beautiful water and coast, and see the reclaimed tanks left behind on the beach.

visiting culebra

Flamenco Beach (c) ABR 2018

Playa Tamarindo is another beautiful beach, which is known to be a nesting beach for turtles. Due to this, if you visit, please be careful and keep your distance from any turtles or nests that you might notice.

If you are a hiker, visiting Culebra is right up your alley, because there are several trails that you can explore, and most take you to a beautiful beach. Puerto Rico Day Trips has a detailed post about your options.

visiting culebra

Driving around on Culebra (c) ABR 2018

Culebra is the perfect place to go for a bike ride. It’s not a huge island, so you can see just about everything from the back of your bicycle. If this isn’t an option for you, not to worry. You can rent a jeep in town and take a lovely drive across the island.

Visit the Museum of Culebra and learn more about the history of this little island. The museum is sure to lend some more nuance to what you’ve already learned. The museum hours are a little bit limited, so you might want to call ahead before visiting. (787.617.8517)

visiting culebra

Colorful buildings in Culebra (c) ABR 2018

TIPS FOR THE ISLAND

(1) Do not pick up or handle anything unidentified on the beach or elsewhere.  Culebra was once used for military exercises and unexploded ordinances are still found around the island to this day. Sometimes, people get hurt by what they find. If you find anything questionable, please stay away and report it to authorities so that they can assess the situation.

(2) Many people take a ferry to Culebra for the day and bring all of their own food. Sadly, this means that the only money they spend in the community is on the ferry. You can do a lot of good for the people of Culebra by eating out while visiting the island. There is some really good food here, and the prices are reasonable. If you are a budget traveler, consider going grocery shopping once you are on the island.

visiting culebra

Some very tasty food on Culebra (c) ABR 2018

If you are looking for more to do in Puerto Rico be sure to take a look at our guide.

visiting culebra

visiting culebra

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