Sunday, October 9, 2011

The final Michigan trek

This September long weekend was particularly special for us marking the end of summer, probably our last one in Michigan. The very thought was little painful, so we decided to do the most awaited and long postponed upper peninsula trip: Mackinac Island, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Traverse City & Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

Day 1: Mackinac Island:
We started at noon from Ann Arbor and drove to Mackinaw city. A 15min ferry ride in the blue waters of Straits of Mackinac took us to the island with good views of Mackinac bridge. We checked into a hotel and rode our rented bikes on the 8-mile road around the island hiking the cliffs, stopping by the Arch rock and the shore, taking pictures. 

After a sating dinner, we walked under the night lights in the historic main street, checking out shops resisting the “Mackinac Fudge”, of course without tasting which the trip would be never complete! 
Day 2: Mackinac Island Carriage Tour and Pictured Rocks Boat Cruise:
The official shared carriage tour took us inside the island showing the Grand Hotel, cemeteries and other points of interest in the city and the state park in 3 segments. The horses were huge and did a great job while we enjoyed the cool breeze with quite funny narration from driver. We got down at Fort Mackinac and walked in the state harbor and around before taking the return ferry. The waters were very fierce rising above the ferry on either sides and soaked even the people on the deck. 
We crossed the Mackinac bridge and drove past Lake Michigan and small towns to Munising. We collected the info at the visitor center there and made it just in time to the Pictured Rocks Cruise in Lake Superior. The tour was almost for 3 hours from the Munising city pier to Spray falls with Grand island on left and pictured rocks on right. The shoreline was truly an interesting combination of beaches, falls and most importantly the towering sandstone cliffs in beautiful patterns painted in all colors. We dined at a Chinese-Thai restaurant nearby the pier and stayed the night at a motel in Christmas, a small town west of Munising.
Day 3: Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore:
We started the day with Munising falls, a waterfall in residential area and Sand point, a perfectly sandy beach, both a little unconventional. We then went to Miners Castle overlook and hiked to Miners falls. 
We drove on H58 further to Little Beaver Lake, Kingston lake and spent time at Twelvemile Beach. From Hurricane River, we hiked to Au Sable light house along the lakeshore which had shipwrecks that washed ashore(Au Sable is french for ‘with sand’ - named so for its close proximity to Grand Sable Dunes). 
We loved walking in the sinking loose sands across a steep bluff and the Log Slide overlook with magnificent view of the Grand Sable Dunes and Lake Superior. 
We hiked the Sable falls trail and Grand Sable Dunes Trail which begins with American Beech-Maple forest and then winds into open dunes. 
The Mackinac bridge was flashing in the lights as we drove back to Gaylord for the night.
Day 4: Traverse City and Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore:
In Traverse city, we visited beach park and harbor, had lunch in the lively downtown and drove towards Sleeping bear dunes. The Glen lake was surprisingly beautiful and definitely made us forget we were in Michigan, with its clear calm indigo waters, many piers and busy boating and kayaks. 
Glen Haven Historic village had a nice beach, dock, museum and a general store. From the Sleeping Bear point, we could see South and North Manitou islands, the two cubs that drown in Lake Michigan while the Mama bear fell asleep waiting for them(now the Sleeping Bear Dune)  according to Anishinaabek Indian Legend. The Dune climb was as painful to climb as was fun getting down. 
We felt the best was saved to the last at the Lake Michigan/Sleeping Bear Dune overlooks in Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive walking in the steep dune rised 450 feet above Lake Michigan. We stood in the cold breeze, watching the thick clouds and pouring rain coming to us and barely escaped from being wet. 
 The only thing we missed for the trip was the Labor day Mackinac bridge walk, to pay homage for the “Mighty Mac”-longest suspension bridge for years withstanding the harsh winds, waters and winters and stood as a symbol of pride to Michigan, to us all… The trip felt like visiting family and we hoped to be back again soon!!

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Love of Continents: Istanbul, Turkey

Note: This is the second guest post from my DH from his Europe tour, a tradeoff for not taking me along with a promise for this blog-post and lot of gifts. I hope you enjoy reading!!

Day 1: After an hour flight(Pegasus) from Sofia, we got down at S.Gocken(SAW) airport in Istanbul in the afternoon. Istanbul is the only city in the world that is situated on two continents(Europe and Asia, divided by Bosphorus Strait), and we spent most of the time on the European side(Byzantium/Constantinople). We checked in to a hotel in Sultanahmet which is the heart of historic old Istanbul and quickly set out for our first destination- Blue Mosque/ Sultan Ahmed Mosque. It was closed for the prayer so we visited Hagia Sophia, which was once a Church, later a mosque and now a museum depicting two different cultures (Ottoman and Byzantium)  under one great dome. Being the month of Ramadan, the streets were busy by evening with people, celebrations and food. 
Day 2: We started off at the Sultanahmet Archaeological park, a UNESCO world heritage site and this time were able to get into Blue mosque. 
We visited  Topkapi palace with great views both inside and out. Our next stop was the underground Basilica Cistern which once provided water to the Topkapi Palace, but is now limited to a few feet of water lining the bottom
 Evening we went around in Taksim square, an 8 storey mall and Hippodrome. But the real buzz started at night after 6pm for Iftar(a meal to break the fast), when families gather to eat, shop and enjoy the special performances.
 Day 3: We went to Dolmabahce Palace, a very grand and classy palace right on the European coastline of the Bosphorus strait. 
Then we toured Istanbul University. Evening, we took the sunset/night cruise on Bosphorus which was expensive but got to see the dazzling Istanbul along with dinner, drinks and belly danceJ (There are also official ferry tours for fraction of cost available for Bosphorus and Prince's islands).
 Day 4: Its nearing the end of the trip, so we went to Grand Bazaar for some souvenir shopping. We spent there quite some time before going to New Mosque, colorful spice market and walked across the Galata Bridge. The Galata tower offers nice views of the city and the Golden Horn
With so many mosques, palaces, architectural monuments and long history from different empires, this alpha world city has so much more to see and explore in itself, let alone Turkey. The beautiful peninsula, people, culture and not to forget the great food especially Turkish Tea leaves such a strong impression that anyone would want to come back, but its time to go home and before that…a rich dinner!!!

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Let’s go International – Visiting Bulgaria

(Bansko, Pirin National Park, Rila Monastery, Sofia)
Note: This is a guest post from my DH, a tradeoff for not taking me along with a promise for this blog-post and lot of gifts:) I hope you enjoy reading!!

A week of classes in Bansko, Bulgaria on a scholarship was a unique, not to miss opportunity for an International trip. Bansko is a town and ski resort in southwestern Bulgaria, located at the foot of the beautiful Pirin Mountains, about 3 hour drive from Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria. The Sofia airport was relatively small and currency exchange in the airport was indeed a bad idea. As part of the course, we toured industries in and around Bansko, which included Shumensko (Bulgarian beer company now owned by Carlsberg). We explored exotic restaurants with live native band and traditional Bulgarian costume. The houses(apartments) look alike, people speak no English and weren’t very enthusiastic about economy. All over, it felt like the country was stuck in communist era after the fall of soviet union. We also met Bankso mayor who was keen on developing skiing and tourism while the managers expressed interest in cheap labor and industry. 
Catching our own fish at a Restaurant, Bansko
Malnik, a town near Bansko
On the last day, we hiked in Pirin National Park, known for its wealth of flora and fauna. There were colored markings along the trails. The glorious alpine landscape and its beautiful glacial lakes, called “the crystal eyes of Pirin” make it  completely worth to be a World heritage national park.
 Next day we visited the popular Rila Monastery, another UNESCO world heritage site on the way back to Sofia. This big eastern Orthodox monastery has beautiful wall paintings and equally astounding natural surroundings and stands as an important symbol for culture, architecture and ancient history.
We spent the evening in Sofia touring around Sofia Center- Alexander Nevski Church, Banya-Bashi mosque, the Sofia Synagogue, Hagia Nedelja church, Central Department Store, Saint Sophia statue and stayed there for the night.
Inside a mosque
Next morning we went to a local farmers market and few other streets before taking the flight to Istanbul, Turkey!

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

On the Road again..Part 2

Road trips are always exciting keeping us on toes especially with no fixed plans and least expectations. Further continuing the journey…
 Day 4: Wyoming, South Dakota – A day of Surprises
We started the day early from Rawlins, WY to make it comfortably to the many places planned for the day. By afternoon, we were at Jewel Cave National Monument, ready to take the “Scenic tour”. We were very disappointed to learn the tours were all booked for the day and without which there’s no entry to the cave. (For all the people traveling in summer, beware of school holidays despite weekdays!) We proceeded to Wind Cave National Park and took a tour of Wind cave. It was quite different from laurel caverns in Virginia, not as pretty but sure was scary. 
Our next destination was the famous Mount Rushmore National Memorial, a masterpiece of Gutzon Borglum. Standing high in the Black Hills, this granite sculpture definitely succeeded in its purpose of attracting millions of visitors every year and making them feel proud and inspired from the four outstanding presidents of the United States:  George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt.
We stayed the night at Wall, a place closest to Badlands and that proved a great decision next day.
Day 5: South Dakota – A day of Luxury
It was about 5am when we somehow woke up despite a long day before. Making the most out of it, we decided to catch Sunrise in Badlands National park. In just 10min, we were at the park enjoying the cool breeze in “blue light” along with a mountain goat and its kid. The sun rose from between the hills, the peaks shone red in sunlight and within an hour, the sunrays drenched almost the entire park. We saw herds of mountain goat by the Sage Creek Rim Road and hundreds of birds singing to the glory of the sunrise. 
We went back to the hotel, took a short nap and returned to the park. We drove the Highway 240 Loop Road, stopping by the overlooks. It looked quite different from what we saw in the morning, still spectacular with wild pinnacles and buttes rise starkly out of the seemingly endless mixed grass prairie. There were prairie dogs, dear and also signs of Rattle snakes everywhere. 
The east end of the park was better especially the Fossil exhibit trail where the badlands had dominant patterns and shining white tall spires. The Ben Reifel Visitor Center had more exhibits and the Tipi Village located across from it was good to experience the Oglala Lakota Sioux culture. 
By noon, it was so hot and we were glad to finish the loop and get onto I90. We stopped by Lewis and Clark Interpretive center and Memorial Bridge at Chamberlain, dedicated for the two great explorers on one of the pioneer expeditions in American history.
We made an early halt for the day to spend the night at Sioux falls. We walked to the Falls Park and saw the illuminated waterfall in the night. The dinner at Minervas Restaurant in the downtown and Jacuzzi were such a treat after another tiring day and we slept like babies.
Day 6: Minnesota, Wisconsin – A day of Drive
The drive through Minnesota was beautiful - green farms  with white windmills and lakes! Had an awesome lunch at a cute Chinese restaurant in Albert Lea, which I consider as one of our best finds till date. We couldn’t visit the twin cities with time constraint and continued on I90 to Madison.
As we approached Wisconsin, the sight of great plains faded and contrary to our expectations, Madison was a big city. We went to Olbrich Botanical gardens, Lake Monona, roamed in downtown around Wisconsin state capitol and drove to Chicago. The city was dazzling and still bustling that late in the night and looked more beautiful from our hotel downtown.
Day 7: Illinois, Michigan – A day back home
Next morning, we started off at the Magnificent Mile along with the pouring tourists. The shopping was fun and John Hancock Observatory surely got the best sight of Chicago, its skyscrapers, lake and beaches.
Boat tour in the Chicago river and Lake Michigan gave us another great view of the city and the high rise buildings along with  Buckingham fountain, Grant park(The day of Lollapalooza at Grant Park) and Navy pier. 
We bummed around in Devon street, which reminded of streets of Hyderabad, India and made us feel nostalgic. With Haleem(a Ramadan specialty dish) and my all-time favorite Hyderabadi Biryani, we drove home, tired, sad and equally excited!!