Tuesday, January 31, 2012

What to Where - Portland

Portland is a great city full of good food, friendly people, and unforgettable micro brews. It is also known for its precipitation and grey skies. Although the weather can be a downer for some, don't let it stop you from discovering hand-made letterpress shops, giant book stores, or vintage clothing boutiques. Grab a nice rain coat and comfortable shoes as you head out and find your personal favorites in this creative city.

Have you been to Portland? Any must-see recommendations?
(Photos: A Well Traveled Woman & Unknown)
Monday, January 30, 2012

Hot Air Balloons

Would you ride in a hot air balloon? I don't think I would be able to do it. The idea totally freaks me out. Seeing some of the amazing photography that comes from hot air ballooning stirs interest in me, but then I remember that I'm terrified of heights, so it probably isn't the best idea. Saying that, I never thought I would jump out of a plane and survive, but I did and I really enjoyed myself.

Would you ever go hot air ballooning? If you have, what was your experience? Any recommendations?
(Photo: Creative Fan)
Friday, January 27, 2012

Have an Adventurous Weekend!

What are your plans this weekend? Robbie and I are headed to the snow to join my family for the weekend. My parents decided to rent a condo in Incline Village, Tahoe, where the ski lift is right in the middle of the village. I haven't been snowboarding in almost a year, so I'm excited to hit the slopes. The weather is supposed to be nice and clear, but I'm secretly hoping we get a strong storm that dumps perfectly powered snow. I'll be sure to update you if anyone has broken any bones!

What are your plans this weekend? Any adventure in store for you?
(Photo: Heavenly Mountain)
Thursday, January 26, 2012

A Lovely Video

This video is so sweet, I couldn't help but smile the entire two minutes. I hope you enjoy!

(Found via A Well Traveled Woman)

p.s. If you know the story behind the project, I'd love to know!
Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Outdoor Lights

I love winter and I love the rain. Saying that, the one thing I miss most about summer is outdoor evening activities. Since the sun is out so much longer (which is a major bonus in itself), we can ride our bikes around the neighborhood after work, have dinner outside, and invite people over for bonfires and s'mores. 

To me, great outdoor space enhances each of these activities. One aspect of outdoor space that I will totally geek out over is lighting. Outdoor lighting creates a sense of comfort and warmth for me, especially in the summertime. It reminds me of warm weather, good food, and laughter. In all fairness to winter, Christmas lights in December stir these same kind of feelings. 

Since it seems as though winter won't really be making an appearance in California this year, I've already started thinking about my summer activities. I definitely want to spend more time in our backyard this year, so I want to make sure the lighting will be just right. I found these great options as I was poking around Pinterest and would love to take a couple of them on as DIY projects. I have a few months to prepare, but knowing me, I should start sooner rather than later!

Do you use outdoor lighting? Store bought or homemade? Do you have any recommendations for DIY lighting projects?
(Photos: one, two, three, & four; all found via Pinterest)
Tuesday, January 24, 2012

What to Where - London

London is a dynamic city with lots to see and do. Although this European city is an epicenter for culture and economics (all of which can make this royal city seem intimidating), don't let that stop you! Make a bold statement in a power suit, while taking on the busy streets of London.

(Cate, London)
Monday, January 23, 2012

Early to Bed, Early to Rise

I believe there are two kinds of people in the world: those that watch the sun come up and those that don't. I want to be the kind of person that is excited to watch a sunrise, but I'm not. I hate getting up that early, all I can think about is how I would rather be sleeping, and I usually don't feel well. While we were in Africa in 2008, we had the opportunity to watch the sun come up over the Indian Ocean each morning. Everyday people would set their alarms, wake up and watch the beauty of a new day begin. Each evening I had every intention of waking with my friends the next morning, but never actually got out of bed to head down to the beach. As people described the sunrise, I felt that I was missing something really fantastic. Then, half way through our trip, I realized I wasn't actually missing out because I was experiencing exactly what I wanted: sleep. I work much better in the evenings and really dislike having to wake before the sun. Some people have absolutely no issue getting up in the dark, but I do (especially on vacation, yuck!). I would much rather stay up late and sleep in and I'm fine being one of these people.

Are you an early riser? Do you enjoy watching the sunrise, or are you ok with skipping it? 
(Photo: Sunrise taken in Maui, HI in 2010. I was sleeping in the car :)
Friday, January 20, 2012

St. Kitts & St. Croix, EFCV - 2012

For the final two stops on our cruise, we hit the islands of St. Kitts and St. Croix.  Here is our experience with each...

St. Kitts
Robbie and I had originally planned on going sea kayaking and snorkeling while we were on St. Kitts. Unfortunately the day trip was cancelled because of low attendance. Once we found out, we didn't rush to make new plans, instead we decided to play it by ear. We ended up taking a bus to the southern most tip of the island and spent time relaxing in the warm sun.

One of the highlights of the day came on our way to the beach. Our driver explained that the island has the Atlantic Ocean on one side and the Caribbean Sea on the other. This was pretty common with the other islands (i.e. Barbados and Dominica), but he took us through a valley where we were able to view both bodies of water simultaneously. It was cool to see the difference in each side and to see where two bodies of water merged.

Our trip to the beach came with two chairs right along the shore. Naturally, Robbie and I choose the two set strategically beside an umbrella in order to avoid the risk of any major sunburns. Once we settled in, a beach attendant came by and threw a rusty nail into the post so that the umbrella would stay open and provide shade to lounge under.  We initially accepted, but soon discovered it cost $10 just to use it for the short time we were there. Being the scrooge I am, I said no. I wasn't going to pay 10 whole dollars for a rusty nail and the umbrella it held up! However, once the attendant walked away and the fear of sunburn settled on our minds, we were happy to pay up.

I really enjoyed our beach day because I was able to relax, read my book, and swim in warm water. It was a perfect day to enjoy my surroundings and enjoy my time with Robbie.

St. Croix
St. Croix is in the Virgin Islands, which is a U.S. territory. There was a bittersweet excitement when docking in St. Croix. We were excited for our snorkel trip, but sad that it was our last day of vacation. Realizing we would be on a plane the next morning, we made the most of the day we had left.

As soon as we found out we would be docking in St. Croix, we knew we wanted to snorkel Buck Island. Buck Island is a National Monument and wildlife preserve with a surrounding barrier reef. It takes about 30 minutes to get there by boat and there has been an underwater trail set-up throughout the reef. Snorkeling at Buck Island was one of the coolest snorkel experiences I have ever had. I saw coral I had never seen before (specifically Elk Horn coral), as well as loads of different fish species. Our guide even said there were Barracuda sightings, but we weren't fortunate enough to see them ourselves. Our guides did a great job of showing us around the reef, and helping individuals who were feeling uneasy in the water. I stayed in the water until the last possible moment so that I could enjoy warm water before heading back to a cold winter.

Once back at the ship, Robbie and I ate some lunch and decided to take the rest of the day easy. He ended up taking a nap for a couple of hours, I was able to finish up a large portion of my book, and we took in one final sunset as we sailed away.

What are your favorite ways to relax on vacation?
(Buck Island snorkel photo: www.GoToCroix.com)
Thursday, January 19, 2012

Dominica, EFCV - 2012

After we left Grenada, our next stop in the Caribbean was Dominica. Dominica is an extremely lush island with loads of rainfall and dense forests. The island is 90% volcanic, 10% limestone, so all of the beaches around the island are black sand. Since the island is so volcanic, there are hot springs releasing gas throughout the island. That is why locals say that when the hot springs stop, the island will be immediately evacuated because it means a volcanic eruption will occur. Robbie and I planned on going hiking and snorkeling, so that we could see as much of the island as possible. 

For the first part of our day, we went on a hike to Trafalgar Falls. Trafalgar is the site of two large falls, nicknamed the “Mama” and the “Papa”. They are between 180 and 200 feet tall and converge in rocky pools below. You can hike down to the pools, but people are discouraged from swimming right below the falls because the current is strong, but it is left up to the individual’s discretion. Being in such a lush environment was a fun change from the beach environments we had been in. Don’t get me wrong, I was lovin’ every single moment in that Caribbean Sea, it was just nice to be able to experience another aspect of these tropical islands.

After our hike was finished and the group gathered back on the bus, we headed for our snorkel site. We did a “shore launch”, which means that our group took off from the shore rather than a boat. The water was just as warm as in Barbados and there were so many new fish to see. Once everyone was situated in the water, our snorkel lead began taking us on an underwater tour. He showed us a 200 year old ship wreck, where the cannon was the only remaining part of the wooden ship! I had never really been guided through a snorkel tour, but I have to say I really enjoyed it. He was able to tell us some great information about our surroundings, information I would not have known otherwise.

The snorkel site is called Champagne and it was a little difficult to get to. There is no soft sand and we had to back into the water so that we wouldn’t fall. The area gets its name from the constant air bubbles escaping from rocks (it really looked like a glass of champagne). The escaping air is related to the hot springs I mentioned before and act as a warning sign for locals about volcanic activity. The bubbles act not only as a warning sign, but also as a natural water heater. Swimming through the water, there were parts of the site that reached 95 degrees! It was a sensation I have never felt before; it was as though we were snorkeling in a hot tub. During our underwater tour, our guide captured the air bubbles (and the water it was heating) in his snorkel tube. After he brought it to the surface, he would pour it in our hands and we were able to feel the heat of the volcanic gas.

An added bonus of the day: we were able to see a lot of the island on the drives between hiking and snorkeling. We went from the tropical rainforest down to the shores and back to the ship through the city center. We felt like we were able to experience the main highlights of Dominica. It was Robbie's favorite island and a close second for me!

Have you ever experienced anything like the Champagne snorkel site? Do you prefer black sand beaches to white sand beaches?
(Champagne snorkel photo credits: one two three)
Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Grenada, EFCV - 2012

Next stop on on the Ernst Family Christmas Vacation (EFCV): Grenada! Grenada was our second stop and the most southwest island that we docked at. It is a beautiful island with a good balance of lush, green vegetation and calm, white beaches. Grenada is known for its spice trade and plantations. If we had decided to go on an excursion, I would have voted for a plantation tour!

Instead of a guided tour, Robbie and I decided to explore the port ourselves. He spotted a tree at the top of a hill/mountain (the tiny tree on top of the mountain on the left) and decided that would be our challenge for the day. To give you some background, Robbie is an extremely flexible traveler. He does not require lots of attention and is generally willing to "go with the flow". It is his flexible and generous demeanor that urges me to be so agreeable when he expresses his desire to "conquer" a location (i.e. spot a landmark and travel there by foot). Today, that tree was our landmark and the road to get there would be conquered.

Before we headed straight to the mountain (as I lovingly referred to it), we explored Fort George. It is an active military outpost that overlooks the entire city and bay. Entrance into the fort is about two American dollars and grants you as much time as you'd like. We thought it was totally worth the two bucks, and would highly recommend it because there are some spectacular views. 

After we left the fort, we dove right into the marketplace where vendors were selling spices, vanilla, and marijuana. Ok, so the marijuana wasn't being sold by an official booth, but we were definitely offered the opportunity to buy some if we so chose. I picked up a container of spices for a friend and some vanilla for myself. I'm absolutely horrible at bartering, so I did my best to get everything over with as soon as possible. 

Once our souvenirs were purchased, we were ready to locate that tree. Robbie loves maps and acted as our navigator as we walked through unfamiliar neighborhoods. I loved being able to get a close-up view of local homes, even landscaping techniques (goats are used as lawnmowers on Grenada to help keep costs down). Saying that, the humidity was killing me and by the time I reached the top, I was more than happy to take a shady break.

Reaching the base of that tree provided us with enough satisfaction to get back to the ship. We had conquered that landmark and were ready to head back to the ship. 

Have you been to Grenada? Do you have the urge to "conquer" a landmark while traveling?
Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Barbados, EFCV - 2012

After we left Disney World, we embarked on a seven day cruise through the Caribbean. The water was clear and the weather was wonderfully warm. I have to say that I really do love the rain, but it was so nice to be warm, I mean really warm. We sailed with the Celebrity Cruise Line and stopped at five different islands; our first stop was Barbados.

Barbados is 21 miles long and 14 miles wide. It is said that there are 365 churches on the island, one for each day of the year. Interestingly, there are also said to be just as many rum shops and distilleries as there are churches. I found the relationship between church and alcohol fascinating because a person could go to church, then grab a drink at different places each day of the year without ever repeating.

Once our ship docked, Robbie and I headed out for our first excursion. We went snorkeling at a shipwreck site right off of the coast. The ship sank in 1908 and had an entire coral reef growing throughout the ruins. As we were getting ready to jump into the water, the guide told us that the water was a bit cool, but that "they do not refer to the water as cold, rather it is refreshing"! For a second there, I was a little disappointed. I was really looking forward to swimming in bath tempered water. Turns out, he was just a spoiled local who did understand what wonderful felt like. But Robbie and I, coming from the icy Pacific, definitely enjoyed the 85 degree water!

After the snorkel portion of the excursion was completed, we had the opportunity to spend time swimming near the shore and bobbing in the waves (which is an all time FAVORITE past time of mine in warm water). The water is clear blue and the sand was soft and white. I felt as though I was in a travel brochure; it was so beautiful.

After the beach time, we took a 4x4 ride across the island (i.e. we sat in the back of a pick-up truck). It was so fun. We went through different villages, through sugar cane fields, and to the Atlantic side of the island. Just about the time we reached the Atlantic shore our driver pulled onto a narrow, residential street, hopped out to talk with the owner, and let us know he was going to see if he could get us something "special". Next thing we know, a man walked out to the truck and placed two baby monkeys in my arms! I could NOT believe what was happening. The baby monkeys were so small and hugging each other. I looked up at Robbie (who was staring in amazement) and had to remind him to grab the camera to take a picture.

After the excitement with the baby monkeys, we took a break at a beach on the Atlantic shore. The water was a deeper blue and there were giant rocks that were being eroded by the waves. We spent a few minutes watching the waves and letting the warm breeze brush our cheeks. From there, we headed back to the ship to fatten up on the free lunch buffet.

Have you been to Barbados? What did you do while you were there?
Monday, January 16, 2012

Disney World, EFCV - Christmas 2011

This year, Robbie and I were completely indulgent and went on a two week vacation over the holidays. We lovingly called it the "Ernst Family Christmas Vacation" (EFCV). We left early Christmas morning (with Robbie's parents in tow) and spent our first week in Disney World, Orlando, FL. I had never been to Disney World, so I was unsure of what to expect. I realized as soon as we landed and boarded the Disney shuttle, that Disney nails it no matter where they are. The spirit of the people, the attention to detail, and the overall atmosphere is just as special 3,000 miles away.

There are four parks within the Disney property: The Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Animal Kingdom, and Hollywood Studies. Disney has an amazing transportation system between all of their parks and hotels, so we were able to get around hassle-free and at no additional cost. We used the monorail, water taxi, or shuttle to get to the different parks, all of which continued to run after the parks closed.

Magic Kingdom
The Magic Kingdom is most similar to Disneyland in Anaheim. The overall size is bigger, but it is full of similar lands, rides, and shows.  Even amongst the similarities, you can spot differences on the rides and in theme areas. For example, there is a New Orleans Square in Anaheim, but not in Orlando. Instead, Disney World has Liberty Square, with a replica Liberty Bell and the Hall of Presidents.

The Magic Kingdom was my favorite of all the parks. I'm not sure if it was because it is the most similar to one of my favorite places (Disneyland), but it was the one I wanted to go to every day. I enjoyed walking around, eating sweet treats (churros and ice cream were my top choices), and listening to the Christmas carols playing throughout the park (Disney leaves all of their Christmas directions up through the New Year, so it was nice to be able to enjoy them after a hectic holiday).

Walt Disney loved innovation and was inspired by technology. He wanted to create a place for cutting edge technology to be born and Epcot was a park designed to make his dream become a reality. There are rides and attractions dedicated to space travel, energy consumption, and vehicle test tracks. The trouble with creating an entire park in tribute to technology is that technology moves so quickly that it is nearly impossible to stay current. Disney seems to realize this problem and works around it. For instance, we rode an outdated river ride that finished by going through a state of the art farming facility. By combing the two, you don't have to completely tear down and rebuild the outdated version.

In addition to technology, Epcot is also home to the World Showcase. The World Showcase is a showcase of 11 countries and represents the culture and cuisine of each place. It was fun to see how Disney represented each place, including the United States and Canada.

Animal Kingdom
The Animal Kingdom is by far the largest park in all of Disney World. It sprawls out over hundreds of acres and seems to have something for every member of the family. A part of the reason why it is so large is because it has a wild animal park on its grounds. Guests are able to go on "safari" and see the various animals throughout the park. We saw lions, rhinos, elephants, crocodiles, giraffes, etc. I was surprised by how many animals we were able to see while out in our jeep.

I thought Disney did a great job with all of the details in the Animal Kingdom. The intentional thought that was put into each aspect of the park was apparent. Each detail was accounted for, including the flags hanging from shop to shop. There is also a tree of life that sits in the center of the park and has hundreds of animals carved into its roots and branches. It is a fake tree (or else it would be dead from all of the carvings) and can be seen from just about anywhere in the park. I loved the excitement of discovering all of the fine details.

Hollywood Studies
This is a park we just didn't get to spend enough time in. We mis-managed our week just a bit, and there was more we wanted see than we anticipated. The three major attractions we were able to enjoy were: Tower of Terror, Fantasmic!, and Osborne Family Lights.

The Tower of Terror is exhilarating and surprises me every time. We were able to talk my father-in-law into joining us, and its fun to see your parents get frightened. Robbie and I really enjoyed seeing the Osborne Family lights. It was incredible to walk through a street with so many Christmas lights. It was so Christmasy and fun! We were also able to see a showing of Fantasmic!, which is always so fun. I mean, who doesn't want to defeat a nightmare?!

Overall, Disney World was more than I could have imagined. Disney does such a great job of making guests feel as though they are in a magical place. I was able to jump right into feeling pampered and forget my work worries, personal deadlines, and the chaos of life, and that is the most important part of vacation!

Have you been to Disney World? If so, what was your favorite park?
Friday, January 13, 2012

Have a Fun Weekend

Robbie and I don't have major plans this weekend. We're hanging out with some friends tomorrow, possibly going out to dinner for my birthday (which was last Saturday), and sleeping in. Like I said, nothing major, but I like it that way. So, whether you're hanging with lots of people or watching a Battlestar Galatica marathon, I hope you enjoy our weekend!

What are your plans this weekend?
(Photo: My friend Tracy and I in the reflection of the Millennium Bean in Chicago)

P.S. Don't forget! I'll be posting about the Ernst Family Christmas Vacation starting Monday. See you next week!
Thursday, January 12, 2012

And the Winner Is...

On December 19th, Lara Ferroni posted a contest on her blog to win a spot in her upcoming Food Photography and Styling for Bloggers class. Lara is teaching the four week course alongside Ron Goldman, which will be conducted completely online. Her photography is beautifully crisp and has the ability to pull her audience into her stories. As soon as she announced the contest, I knew I wanted that spot.

The rules were simple, participants were entered into the contest by commenting on her post with, "I want to take this course". Plus, participants qualified for additional entries by telling others about the course through their personal blogs, Pinterest, Twitter, and Facebook (one per media outlet). Easy enough, right?

I entered the contest through each of the ways, with the exception of posting on my personal blog. I was hopeful with each entry, but didn't truly believe that I could win. It was that seed of doubt that took me by complete surprise when Lara announced the winner in a post on December 26th. I read through her post and this is what I saw:

And the Winner is…
 DECEMBER 26, 2011

I hope you all had a very merry holiday and a great week leading up to the New Year! Just stopping in briefly to announce the winner of the giveaway of our Food Photography & Styling for Bloggers class. Via random number generator, our winner is Stacy Ernst! 

could not believe my eyes! I was the winner! I won a seat in a great class with two amazing instructors. I am so excited about our lessons and assignments, I'll be sure to keep you all updated on my progress, as well as share some of my photos.

Have you ever won a contest? What did the prize include?
(All photos from LaraFerroni.com)
Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Making Hot Chocolate at Home

It is no secret that I love hot chocolate. It is such a treat and I would have no problem drinking a cup everyday during winter. Although drinking it everyday would be ideal, buying it at a coffee shop everyday is expensive! There are ways to cut down costs. For example, my friend Alison purchases the largest size available and then splits the contents between two containers and saves half for the next day. I have tried this method, but it doesn't seem to work well on my way into work.


Since Alison's suggestion isn't ideal for my commute, I have decided to make hot chocolate at home before I leave for work. Yesterday, I warmed milk in the microwave and then mixed a hot chocolate packet. To be honest, it wasn't very good. The milk tasted burnt and was luke warm by the time I got to the car. Today, I'm going to try warm milk and the hot chocolate sticks my mom gave me for Christmas. I realize hot chocolate packets and sticks may not glamourous, so I'm open to suggestions.

Do you have any fool-proof hot chocolate recipes? Any recommendations for cutting down hot chocolate costs?
(Photo taken by Sobrina from Quiet Like Horses)
Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Happy Birthday, Mom!

Thank you for your unending love and caring heart. You have supported me in all my endeavors and provided encouragement when I am feeling down. I love your "obligation" to your TV shows, and your unwavering loyalty to the Oakland Raiders. Thank you for all that you have given me in life, especially my smile.

(My sister, Julie, my mom, and myself. By the way, my mom's hair is not really purple, it was just a strange setting on her camera.)
Monday, January 9, 2012

I'm Back!

Robbie and I arrived safely home on Saturday evening and we are definitely glad to be back. We've enjoyed catching up with our roommates, playing with our pup, and I've missed blogging more than I thought I would. Saying that, I'm not sure I'm quite ready for our vacation to end. I already find myself missing the warm 85 degree Caribbean Sea, and the freedom of taking an afternoon nap (guilt free!) multiple days in a row.

Although I miss the forced relaxation that comes along with the lack of internet access, I'm excited for the new year. We have some great adventures ahead and I'm ready to take on new challenges. Each year provides an opportunity to grow through unexpected circumstances, so I've learned not to place all my eggs in one basket. This is a part of the reason I don't like to make New Year's resolutions. I want to grow through challenges as they come, rather than set my path before I know what's ahead.

Do you make New Year's resolutions? If so, what were some of the ones you made for this year? If not, what are your reasons not to? I'd love to know what you decide...
(Photo taken in Barbados)

P.S. I'm working on the Ernst Family Christmas Vacation wrap-up and will be posting it next week!
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