Friday, May 28, 2010

RTW Itinerary -- soliciting feedback please!

As posted on BootsnAll & Lonely Planet's ThornTree:

Greg and I are starting our 6+ month RTW trip in just over 2 months! We have not booked anything but are ready to commit to specific dates/flights/tours as necessary. We will be flying standby on DL to SYD. Overall trip is still very flexible at this point. We are in the process of getting all vaccinations but have not started on visas.

A little history: I was an international flight attendant for Delta for 7 years so have traveled extensively for work & pleasure. I have already been on extended trips (1-2 weeks+ each) to Beijing, Seoul, Mumbai, Rajasthan, New Delhi & Agra, Istanbul, Italy and Spain but have agreed to revisit some of these areas due to my boyfriend's desire to see them. We are both easy-going, physically fit, generally healthy, non-picky eaters. We have already traveled together to Eastern Europe and many places in the U.S. so I have few doubts about our ability to cope with the inherent ups & downs of long-term travel.

Together we have narrowed down the countries/regions we're most interested in seeing. We've both saved up a lot of money as well as have separate reserves for "reentry" and basically are hoping to travel until the $$$ runs out or we wear out! We plan to stay with friends, couch surf, or stay in private rooms in hostels or budget motels but will splurge as needed (e.g. for safaris, when sick, for a unique experience). After this first 6 months, we are planning to rest at home in the U.S. for a week or two, then head out again to South America for a few more months.

All that being said, here's our itinerary with some of my key questions listed at the end:

Date Duration (days) Country - City/Sights
01AUG 2 in transit BNA-ATL-LAX-SYD
03AUG 4 Australia - Sydney
Fly to Darwin; train/rental car through Northern Territory/South Australia
07AUG 14 Australia - Kakadu NP, Uluru, Kangaroo Island, Melbourne
Fly to Auckland; fly to Rotorua
22AUG 14 New Zealand - self drive/rail tour (via Auckland; Rotorua, Wellington, Christchurch, Queenstown)
Fly to SE Asia
05SEP 14 Laos: Louang Prabang, Vientiane; Vietnam: Hanoi, Ha Long Bay, Mekong Delta; Cambodia: Phnom Penh, Angkor
Fly to Hong Kong
19SEP 5 China Hong Kong
24SEP 7 China Yangtze river cruise?
01OCT 5 China Beijing/Great Wall
Fly to Seoul
06OCT 5 Korea Seoul/DMZ
Fly to Tokyo
11OCT 4 Japan Tokyo
Train to Kyoto
15OCT 5 Japan Kyoto/Hiroshima
Fly to Delhi
20OCT 3 India - Delhi; Shatabdi Express train to Agra/Taj Mahal
23OCT 14 India - Varanasi? Kolkata?
Fly to Bangalore
06NOV 5 India - Kerala: Fort Cochin, backwaters by houseboat
Fly to Cape Town
11NOV 7 South Africa - Cape Town & vicinity; Blue Train? Kruger?
Fly to Dar es Salaam
18NOV 7 Tanzania - Dar es Salaam, Ngorongoro, Serengeti
25NOV 7 Kenya - Maasai Mara safari
Fly to Cairo
02DEC 10 Egypt - Cairo & Giza, Luxor, Nile River cruise, Abu Simbel
12DEC 5 Jordan - Amman, Jerash, Petra, Wadi Rum
17DEC 5 Israel - Jerusalem & historic/biblical sites
22DEC 8 Turkey - Istanbul ++
Fly to Italy
30DEC 20 Italy - 3 weeks by car/train
Fly to Spain
19JAN 7 Spain - Madrid & Barcelona
26JAN 7 Morocco - Marrakesh, Fes, Tangier, Rabat
02FEB in transit MAD-ATL-BNA

Key questions:

VISAS - Based on my research & previous experience, we need to get China, India, Vietnam, Cambodia, Kenya & Tanzania in advance. Trying to decide if it's worth the money to use a visa processing company (like Travisa) as they charge $50 per person, per country. Otherwise we have to mail our passports to each embassy and hope to get them back with the approved visa.

ITINERARY - I know this is pretty ambitious. Any suggestions for trimming down (ie, any places you would skip for some reason or another?) or maybe substituting in some way?

TRANSPORTATION - This is probably what I'm most concerned about -- the cost & logistics of all those flights! Still need to inquire about a RTW-type ticket but afraid to get pigeonholed by too many set dates. At the same time, don't want to spend days on rickety bus/boat/trains... Which tickets do you think are critical to buy in advance, whether due to limited availability/high tourist season or to keep costs down? Are there any particular transit experiences/routes on our itinerary that you highly recommend?

ORGANIZED TOURS - We feel that some places justify an organized tour, although I prefer the smallest group size possible. These include Uluru, Yangtze river cruise, Tanzania & Kenya safaris, and possibly all of Egypt, Jordan, Israel & Turkey. Any thoughts or recommendations?

Many thanks in advance to everyone who responds. I am treating this like a (most enjoyable) full time job until we depart so can reply quickly to anyone who needs further information.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

A week in Yellowstone & the Grand Tetons

I didn't have internet access during our week in the parks, so I blogged offline and am posting the entire trip journal here:


Wrapping up our first full day in Yellowstone NP. We’ve been graced with beautiful weather -- sunny, blue skies with a few clouds and only a few drops of rain this afternoon while driving back from the east side of the park.

We had to get up super early yesterday morning (3am) to be out the door at 3:30 and walk from our condo in The Pearl to the Old Town/Chinatown MAX station. We caught the first train @ 4:10 to the airport and were there by 4:45. Amazing how many people were checking in at that hour (lots of school groups it appeared). We didn’t need to check our backpacks and were on the other side of security by 5am. Since our flight wasn’t until 6:10, we had plenty of time to have a full breakfast at Rogue. It was soooooo tempting to order a beer, but I figured that wasn’t the best way to start a long day of flying & driving.

A couple of relatively short flights later, we arrived in Jackson, WY at noon. The airport was so small, I almost couldn’t see it from the air. But sooner than later we were in our rental car and heading toward Jackson to eat some lunch and stock up on groceries. Shortly after leaving the airport, we spotted bison grazing near the road. Our first wildlife sighting of the trip! Soon we were downtown and The Jackson Whole Grocer met our needs entirely so we ate a nice Greek chicken pita at the deli counter then shopped for breakfast & lunch supplies (instant oatmeal, peanut butter & jelly and some healthy snacks). We also stopped at the visitor center to pick up info for our two night stay at the end of our trip.

The drive up to Yellowstone National Park’s south entrance was beautiful. Great views of the Tetons and gorgeous scenery all around. It was so tempting to stop every few minutes, but, for the most part, we stayed on track because we wanted to get to the Old Faithful Inn with plenty of time to check in, freshen up, watch the famous geyser erupt, and be on time for our 6:45 dinner reservation. We did have more great wildlife sightings: a whole herd of elk crossing the road, a few bison grazing with a calf, and a moose foraging on the Snake River by the park entrance.

The Inn is a spectacular example of National Park lodging. The seven story open lobby is filled with natural light and the subtle “candle” lighting along the hallways contributes to the romantic feel. Greg & I opted to stay in basic/cheaper accommodations in the original west wing: a queen bed room on the 2nd floor with shared bath. The men’s & women’s restrooms are diagonally across the hall from us, and each have three toilets & three showers which is adequate for the number of guests in that section. With a little inquiry, we also discovered the two claw foot bathtubs tucked in a corner at the end of the corridor which are (as everything else) first come, first serve.

We did manage to see Old Faithful erupt just before dinner. It’s a bit unnatural to have all these benches lined up around the geyser to accommodate all the viewers, but I suppose it’s a necessity given the traffic that this area receives. Luckily for us, the crowds are still manageable as many of the park roads are just now opening for the season and there are much fewer visitors than in the peak summer months of July & August.

Our dinner in the traditional dining room was nice enough, although we opted for the prime rib buffet over the a la carte options. We took our time feasting on soup, then salad, then the entrée & sides. Of course, we also ordered beers, but at $4.25 for at most 12 oz, we stuck to just one each and vowed to check out the offerings at the general store.

Exhausted from our travel day, we took showers and spent the remainder of the evening mapping out the rest of our vacation to ensure we are allowing adequate time for any hiking or exploration that we want to do.

We decided to sleep as long as we could this first morning to give our bodies plenty of time to rest & adjust to the higher altitude (6200ft @ Old Faithful vs. 400 ft in Portland). Of course, sleeping in for us still amounted to getting up before 8am. We got ready and took an exploratory walk around the Old Faithful complex to check out all the dining options for our next few nights. We also inadvertently timed it right to catch a morning eruption. We came back to the inn to have our oatmeal for breakfast then packed our day bags and were in the car by 9:30. After a quick stop at the visitor center, we started driving east towards West Thumb with the intention of reaching our farthest point (Hayden Valley) and then backtracking to all the other sights as we worked our way back to Old Faithful.


Now sitting in the sunshine on the 2nd floor balcony of Old Faithful Inn. Just finished a 2 ½ hour 4 mile hike through the Upper Geyser Basin. We got up at 6:15, had some oatmeal, and hit the trail by 7:30. Beautiful clear blue skies and the steam really shows up in the early morning light. I’m sure it would be even more beautiful at dawn (5:45) but that’s awful early! There is an extensive network of boardwalks through the basin, and we thoroughly enjoyed our hike. We were also lucky to come across bison grazing near Riverside Geyser. We saw a couple of marmots (rock chucks), golden-mantled ground squirrels, and numerous birds. On our way back from Morning Glory pool, we spotted the bison again and basically watched him all the way back to the inn. We also got to see Grand and Daisy Geysers erupt.

Continuing from where I left off yesterday…

We first stopped at Lake Lodge, which was not yet open, but enjoyed the beautiful panorama from in front of the hotel. We then stopped in Fishing Bridge for a bathroom break as there are minimal facilities along the roads and most are still inaccessible due to remaining snow. We took a walk across the bridge looking for spawning trout, but did not spot any. We then continued on to Hayden Valley (our northernmost point for the day) where we stopped and ate our pbj lunch in the car enjoying the sunshine, the view and watching a few bison graze on the other side of the valley. Our next stop was Sulphur Cauldron which was impressively stinky! We had planned to hike the trail at Mud Volcano but it was closed due to bear activity, so we satisfied ourselves with a meander around the accessible parts of the area. Two park rangers came by while we were there and pointed out the very recent (past 24 hours) grizzly tracks made by a huge (400+lb) animal. We passed some bison lounging by the road which allowed for excellent close-ups although we decided not to get out of the car just in case. We stopped in Fishing Bridge again for a quick break then continued on to West Thumb to explore the geyser basin which is beautifully located alongside Yellowstone Lake. After a nice stroll along the boardwalk, reading our library copy of “Yellowstone Treasures” for explanations of the thermal features we were seeing, it was time to head back to the inn.

We stopped at the general store and bought a 6-pack of Grand Teton Brewing Amber for about $10, a much better value than the draft beers at the inn. We sipped a couple while copying our photos to our hard drives and doing some writing, then headed to the Old Faithful Lodge cafeteria for dinner. For just $21 we both had trout almandine, rice, mixed veggies and a roll. While the food was pretty basic, it served its purpose and was much cheaper than our $66 meal the night before. We headed back to our room to take showers, although this time we opted to try out the bathtub on the other side of the building. I’m sure we provided a good laugh for the people lounging in the common area above the lobby on the 2nd floor as we opted to walk back from the bath in just our hotel-provided bathrobes! After reviewing today’s itinerary, we turned in early (before 9pm).

Back to today…

Now it’s time for lunch. I’ll go back inside to fix our sandwiches and bring them out here to enjoy before we head out to tour Lower & Midway Geyser Basins and Fountain Paint Pots.


While we were eating lunch, both Beehive & Old Faithful Geysers erupted. Nice touch! When we were finished, we regrouped and hopped in the car for the relatively short (10 mile) drive to Fountain Paint Pots (our northernmost destination today). We had hoped to drive the Firehole Lake Loop but it was closed due to bear activity. At the Paint Pots, we saw some interesting thermal features and timed it right for the eruption of Clepsydra Geyser. I particularly enjoyed watching this one because you could clearly see the base of the geyser which was bright turquoise/green. We walked the full loop boardwalk trail, then drove a few miles south to Midway Geyser Basin. There were several bison grazing by the Firehole River. Soon after we arrived and crossed the bridge, the huge male bison decided he wanted to walk along the path to the other side of the bridge (upstream). There was a large family picnicking near the parking lot and right along the well-trodden bison path. Soon enough, there was a face-off and, of course, the bison won. It was pretty hilarious (but scary) to observe the family waiting until the absolute last minute to abandon their picnic table full of food. But the bison just sauntered by and had a few close encounters with other careless tourists before he made it to his destination. Midway Geyser Basin has the largest hot spring in the park, Grand Prismatic Spring. Very much worth the slight uphill walk to see it and the huge crater of Excelsior Geyser. After walking the full boardwalk loop, we returned to the car for the short drive to Biscuit Basin, which unfortunately was closed for trail maintenance. Our final stop was Black Sand Basin where we had a nice walk and saw Cliff Geyser erupting.

It was a nice afternoon tour and we’re already back at the inn after stopping at the general store to pick up a 6-pack of Madison River Brewing Company Copper John Scotch-Style Ale.

Didn’t have a chance to write yesterday as we had a lot of ground to cover. As I write this, I am sitting at the North Entrance Wash Tub in Gardiner, MT. Today is our designated laundry day (we packed enough to last four days and not have to wear dirty clothes). This afternoon turned out to be the perfect time to do laundry as it has been raining off & on since around noon.

Back to the night before last…

We drank a couple of beers on the balcony then walked over to the Snow Lodge’s Obsidian restaurant. We had a delicious dinner (wild boar tenderloin for me; bison steak for Greg) and then returned to our room, took baths (yes, we walked across the 2nd floor lounge area in our bathrobes again!) and relaxed for the rest of the evening.

I woke up at 6am on Monday and decided I wanted to go for another geyser walk before we left the Old Faithful area. I let Greg sleep for another 30 minutes but he eventually got up so he could walk with me. It turned out to be a great outing as I spotted a coyote coming out of the woods and we followed it along the river as it hunted for its breakfast. Once it caught it (an unlucky vole), it disappeared back into the woods and we finished our walk.

We decided to eat breakfast in the Old Faithful dining room, knowing we had a full day ahead of us and wanted to be fortified for our hiking. Of course, we ended up being disappointed with the buffet for the price we paid ($11.95 each plus tax & tip). We returned to our room and packed up all of our things so we could check out and start making our way up to Mammoth.

We took a few extra minutes to meander along Firehole Canyon Drive and stopped to take pictures at the waterfall. We also had our first “bison in the middle of the road” encounter as three of them were walking “against traffic” shortly after we turned left from Firehole Canyon Drive. We also saw a huge herd of bison just past Madison and stopped to take pictures of the frolicking calves. Our first official stop of the day was at Artists Paintpots. After having already seen some great examples of this type of thermal feature at Fountain Paint Pot, we were not overly impressed by this area, but still enjoyed our walk and the views from the top of the trail. We continued to Norris Geyser Basin where we spent a couple of hours hiking the Back Basin and Porcelain Basin trails. Normally we would have stopped for lunch about this time, but since we had eaten a large breakfast, we continued on to the Canyon area. We stopped at the visitor center and watched a film about the park, then headed down to South Rim Drive. There we ate lunch at Artist Point and enjoyed the beautiful view of the Lower Falls.

We then circled around to North Rim Drive where we hiked the very steep trail down to the brink of Lower Falls. The view looking down the falls into the canyon was worth the effort and I really was thankful for my daily workouts when it was time to hike back up. We finished our tour of the canyon at Inspiration Point then stopped by the visitor center one more time before heading back to Norris Junction and north to Mammoth Hot Springs.

We had been told that a grizzly was active in a field along the drive north, but we weren’t sure exactly where to look and didn’t want to stop every few minutes to spend time scanning with our binoculars. We did pull over once to have a look at some bison & elk grazing along the Gardner River.

We arrived at Mammoth to find numerous elk and a few bison grazing in the field directly across from the hotel. We checked in and settled into our room (another shared bath situation, again with the baths almost directly adjacent to our room). There is only one dinner option here at this time of year and that is the Dining Room. Thankfully they offer an extensive menu with a wide variety of options. Greg had the Huckleberry Brie Chicken Breast and I had the mushroom linguine and added some roasted chicken. Both of our dishes were tasty, although we did have to wait at least 20 minutes for our entrees to be served after placing the order. Exhausted from the long day of hiking & driving, we came back to our room, showered and spent some time reading (and drinking beer) before going to bed.

We got up this morning around 7:45 and ate our oatmeal breakfast in the Map Room of the hotel. We drove up to the Upper Terraces Area and spent some time walking along the boardwalks and driving the loop road before heading back down to the Lower Terraces where we did a more extensive walking tour of area. By then it was already after 11am, so we came back to the hotel and made our pbj sandwiches and ate lunch on the front patio of the hotel while watching the elk graze directly across the road from us and also keeping an eye on some dark storm clouds rolling in.

We were back in our room around noon and killed some time waiting for the rain/hail to pass. Not content to sit still for very long, as soon as it stopped raining we were back outside walking around the historic Fort Yellowstone buildings. We noticed more dark clouds heading our way, so we didn’t waste any time getting back to the room and loading up our laundry so we could make the drive to Gardiner before the storm hit. We stopped to take a couple of pictures at the 45th parallel and at the north entrance to the park with the famous stone arch. After a very quick driving tour of Gardiner (there are no red lights in this small frontier town), we located the laundromat and settled in while our clothes were washing & drying. The storm hit minutes later and it kept raining for the next few hours.

We had originally planned to have dinner in Gardiner but there were only a couple of bars open at 4:30pm so we came back to the hotel instead. We decided to skip the fast food options at the Terrace Grill and ate in the Dining Room again. Greg ordered the Mediterranean platter appetizer and I had the artichoke dip. Just for these simple dishes we had to wait over 15 minutes for our food to be served. While we were enjoying the appetizers, we also put in our order for bison sliders (off the small plates menu). After another 15 minutes, our entrées were served but they were wrong (bison meatballs with mashed potatoes instead of mini burgers). Our waitress was very apologetic and immediately placed the correct order but we had to wait another 15-20 minutes for it to arrive. She also came by and offered a complimentary amuse bouche while we waited, but that also didn’t arrive until she delivered our bison sliders. Still, we enjoyed our overly filling meal and ate the amuse bouche (herbed goat cheese with smoked trout) as our dessert.

We came back to our room and took our evening showers, then retired to write, review today’s photos and drink beer (me) & wine (Greg).


We got up this morning at 4:30 and were in the car by 5am. Our goal was to be in the Lamar Valley by sunrise (5:45). Of course there wasn’t a true sunrise today as it was still very overcast from yesterday’s storms. But maybe that was for the best, as we sure did see lots of wildlife!!!

It started with various bison & elk shortly after we left Mammoth. In fact, I had to be very careful driving in the dark to avoid any animals on the unlit roads. There was also some debris in the road (large rocks, sediment) from the hard rains. Our first great sighting was a bull moose standing about 10 feet off the road in a swampy area eating his breakfast. It was still almost completely dark at the time we saw him, so we had to use flash to take pictures from the car. Soon after, we began seeing small groups of pronghorn antelope. Just before 6am, I spotted a grizzly bear halfway up a hillside west of the Yellowstone Association/Lamar Valley Ranger Station. I quickly maneuvered the car off the road and jumped out with my binoculars. Then I noticed a white/grey wolf following the grizzly up the hill. Soon, we were surrounded by a chorus of wolves howling, although I could only see the one. It was an amazing sound! There was no one else around and the howls echoed throughout the valley. We watched the grizzly walk all the way to the top of the hill and along the ridgeline before he disappeared from sight.

Soon we came upon a large group of cars parked beside the road and everyone was up on a hillside with their fancy spotting scopes and powerful telephoto zoom cameras. Apparently several wolves were in the area earlier as well as a few grizzlies. There were large herds of bison, some with calves, throughout the valley. This time, they were watching one grizzly chasing a herd of bison. We joined in the observation, but from the road level, and observed when the bison stopped running and made a tight circle. The grizzly kept advancing, but suddenly the bison seemed to make a collective decision and started charging at the bear! Surprisingly, he didn’t hesitate to turn around and run the other way! After the bison were satisfied he would leave them alone, they reversed course and continued grazing their way west along the river. The grizzly kind of hung his head and started meandering in the same direction but well away from the herd.

We moved a bit further upriver (east) just beyond another large group of spotters. There we found a small group of bison on a gravelly bank next to the fast-flowing Soda Butte Creek. A mother was encouraging her baby (calf) to get up by making persistent, deep lowing sounds. A man with a radio pulled up next to us and told us that the bison had crossed the river a bit earlier and gotten in to trouble in the rushing current. The calf had been swept away and almost drowned. Thus it was recovering from shock and the struggle to survive when we found it lying by a downed tree. We stayed and watched the mother continue to prod her baby for about 30 minutes. Meanwhile, we were also scanning the area with our binoculars as several of the spotters said the wolves were still visible along the tree line. Unfortunately I never did see them. Finally, the baby struggled to its feet and followed its mother BACK TO THE EDGE OF THE RIVER!!! We could not figure out why the mother was going that way, when all she had to do was cross a couple of streams to the south to get to the open fields, like all the other bison were doing. Instead, she pretty much forced her calf back into the river, where they both promptly got caught in the strong current. It looked like it was going to be a replay of what happened earlier, but the calf managed to find its footing and got back out after a couple of minutes. The mother, who was also struggling in the water, came back to shore, but soon was encouraging the calf to get back in the water. She would make the lowing sound, then go back into the river, but the calf would have none of it. After a few more unsuccessful tries, she finally gave up and they started making their way south to the rest of the herd. Also entertaining was another young calf and its mother that were on the grassy strip just behind the gravel bank. This calf was full of energy and was running back & forth and jumping antic-ly around its mother.

We continued eastward a bit farther to where one of the groups we had been following, which were in three vans bearing the Teton Science School logo, had their spotting scopes out on a small hill by the parking lot but were eating breakfast by the vans. I walked up on the hill and looked for any wildlife. One of the guides spotted a couple of moose down by the water and I got to look in the spotting scope to see them up close. We were still hoping to see some wolves, but it was too cold/damp to stand outside any longer. Besides, we were also hungry, so we ate our pbj sandwiches in the car there.

It was 8am by then and we started working our way back to the west. Soon we came upon some bison “sparring” by the side of the road. There was a viewpoint across the street from them so I pulled over. It was a good decision, because soon the small group made their way across the road and starting scratching/rubbing themselves on the wooden guardrail next to our car. We got some great close-up photos of their antics.

Our next stop was Tower Fall, as the road to Canyon was open to only that point. We walked the short distance to the falls overlook but decided not to attempt the steep muddy trail to the river level. We also got hot coffee/chocolate at the general store before getting back in the car. As we made our way around the river gorge, we came upon a group of people watching a black bear forage on the hillside. We watched it for awhile, then continued down the road to the turnoff for Petrified Tree. Although not much to see, this was still interesting because it is the remains of a redwood almost identical to those growing in California today. Obviously the climate in Yellowstone was very different many years ago. After leaving the tree, we soon came upon a group of people watching another black bear. We stopped and watched it for awhile, too.

Our final stop was at Blacktail Plateau, where two grizzlies were eating a bison carcass. There were dozens of people along the steep roadside where there were very few places to pull off. I managed to maneuver the car into a ditch and off the road so Greg & I could walk to a spot just below the shoulder where we sat on a couple of rocks and observed the action. We could actually hear the bears tearing at the meat, which was partially submerged in a pond, and occasionally growling at each other. We sat and watched the grizzlies for at least 30 minutes until they decided they were full and ambled together up the hillside to have a rest.

From there it was a short drive back to Mammoth and by then it was time for lunch. We ate in the Dining Room again and encountered the same service problems as previously (extremely slow to take our order and deliver our food). We don’t complain; we just know to expect it to take twice as long as it should to eat our meal. This time the manager came by and offered us a free dessert. We did enjoy our sandwiches (Greg had the smoked salmon with a side of potato salad; I had the parmesan turkey with fries) and then had some refreshing mango sorbet to finish. We came back to our room and took a nap and now are planning to have dinner in Gardiner before going back to check on the carcass at Blacktail Plateau.


I didn’t have a chance to write yesterday so it’s time to play catch up…

We left Mammoth around 5pm and drove towards Gardiner, but stopped along the way to take pictures at the Montana/Wyoming border and to search for big horn sheep. We were successful on both counts and were in Gardiner before 6pm. We decided to eat at the Town Café because it looked like an authentic local place. We were right and had a quite tasty if calorie-laden meal of beef liver (me) & country-fried steak (Greg). They even had Moose Drool on tap! We finished our meal and back-tracked through Mammoth on the way to Blacktail Lakes. We arrived around 8:30 and there was still a decent crowd gathered. Sure enough, a sow, 2-year-old cub, and adult male were all there, but were already heading up the hill when we arrived. Still, we enjoyed watching them amble up the hillside as the sun set, particularly the drama as the cub appeared to be getting the cold shoulder from his mom as she courted her new suitor. After watching for 20+ minutes, we drove back to the hotel and called it a night.

On Thursday our primary objective was to complete the long drive from Mammoth back to Jackson Hole, a total of 150 miles, but with construction delays, wildlife & pit stops, and a lunch break, it took us the entire day. After eating our last oatmeal breakfast, we were on the road by 9:30. It was very overcast and rainy/snowy the better part of the drive through Yellowstone and the temp was hovering around 37F. We did get to see a black bear taking a nap not too far off the road, as well as the usual bison & elk. The weather cleared a bit when we reached the Tetons, and we stopped more often for photos at Jackson & Jenny Lakes. We also saw a moose at, of all places, Moose Junction. We arrived in Jackson Hole around 5pm and checked in at the Motel 6 on the south side of town. Soon enough we were back out the door and at the Snake River Brewery for some happy hour beers and some of the best wings we’ve had in a long time. We also got a baked pretzel just for the heck of it. We’re on vacation, right?!?! We ate dinner at Thai Me Up because we were both in the mood for light & spicy food and they brew their own beer. By 8pm we were back at the motel and getting ready for bed.

One small note; I did not sleep well Wednesday night because I felt the onset of a sinus infection (pain in my ears, head congestion). I made it through the day well enough by taking a decongestant I brought with me, but by Thursday night I was much worse. I had to sleep with my head propped up on a couple of pillows and had difficulty breathing throughout the night. But I was still up this morning around 8am and determined to enjoy our last full day of vacation.

We took our time getting ready and plotting out our course for today. First on the agenda was a stop at Kmart to get me some more effective sinus medication. Then on to breakfast at The Bunnery where we both had tasty & filling dishes (Gros Ventre Slide -- hash browns, 2 eggs, green chilies & cheddar cheese all piled into a miniature casserole dish and topped with sour cream & bean sprouts -- for me and a Swiss version for Greg). Since we were already near the town square and the weather was holding, we explored the area around the square on foot for awhile after breakfast. We even stopped in The Wort Hotel for a peek at the historic interior and Silver Dollar bar.

Our next stop was supposed to be Teton Village, but Greg realized we were so close to the Idaho border that he couldn’t resist having the opportunity to say he’d been to Idaho. So across the Teton Pass we went intending to stop at the first official town we came to (Victor). We had barely made it into Victor when I spotted the sign for Grand Teton Brewery. I turned onto the side road and sure enough, there it was. We entered the building through the brewery (very informally) and were greeted by Marks Lanham, who offered to give us some samples. They have a small pub area on the side of the building which is open for a few hours every evening. We got there around noon, but Marks was happy to give us samples of any beer we wanted to try so we hung out and chatted with him for about an hour and sampled pretty much every beer we hadn’t already tasted while we were in Yellowstone. Satisfied that he could now say he’d spent time in Idaho, Greg & I started back over the pass. I spotted a moose resting in some snow on a hillside not far out of Victor (in the Targhee National Forest). There was still snow on the mountains and we had even spotted some skiers on the way over.

Back in Wyoming, we headed toward Teton Village. As most of the snow at the ski resort has melted, there wasn’t much happening besides new construction on more condos. But we enjoyed ogling the fancy chalets in Upper Village. We continued into Grand Teton NP and took the unpaved road back to Moose. It was a peaceful 25mph drive through a heavily wooded area and we were very lucky to see a nest of snowy owls that a photographer had spotted just before we drove up. We stopped at the fancy new Craig Thomas Visitor Information Center in Moose then zigzagged back into the park to see the Chapel of the Transfiguration and Menor’s Ferry Historic District. While crossing the Snake River, we kept a close eye out for moose, as this is where we had seen one yesterday. Sure enough, there was a moose, but this time on the other side of the bridge near all the park service buildings. We followed him/her around for a little while, snapping lots of photos while it munched on any new green growth on trees, shrubs, etc. Then we got back on the main road to Jackson, where we also spotted pronghorn, elk, bison and even a coyote or fox in the vast landscape that is the National Elk Refuge.

Our last sightseeing stop of the day was the National Museum of Wildlife Art. Normally admission is $12 per person but as today was national museum day, it was free. We enjoyed looking at the wildlife paintings and sculptures and watching the better part of a short film about the elk mating season (fall) in Mammoth Hot Springs. On our way out, a couple of marmots and ground squirrels were keeping an eye on the premises (and us). The marmots have a distinctive high-pitched call that alerted us to their presence.

Back in Jackson, we managed to snag a parking space on the square and headed into the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar to sit on the saddle bar stools and drink (an expensive $4.50) bottled beer. I had spotted an ad in the local paper offering 2-for-1 dinner entrees in the steakhouse downstairs, so after enjoying our beers we headed down to the more formal dining room for something to eat. Greg ordered the 22 oz prime ribeye and I had the 18 oz buffalo ribeye. Both were delicious and obviously very filling. Yes, we ate the whole thing(s)!!! Already 7pm, it was time to head back to the motel and wind down for the evening.


Got up this morning around 8am. It snowed a bit last night so everything has a dusting of the white stuff. We went ahead and packed then headed into town for breakfast at E. Leaven. Both of us had omelets, then we walked the short block or so to the town square for Elkfest, an annual event to raise money for the National Elk Refuge featuring the world famous Jackson Hole Boy Scout Elk Antler Auction. We enjoyed looking at all the antlers & skulls and then sat on the bleachers for awhile to watch the auction. It started snowing again (34F) as we crisscrossed the square one last time before heading back to the motel to get our bags and check out.

We stopped at the visitor center to drop off our recyclables then got to the airport by noon. The bison herd was in the field across from the airport turnoff again. We turned in the keys to the rental car and checked in for our flight. As we got our i.d.’s checked at security, the TSA agent said “Don’t you recognize me?!” It was Leslie Jones, whom we met when we hiked Mt LeConte with the HUMC group exactly one year ago this weekend. She recently relocated out here after getting her TSA training. As Greg said, it really is a small world!

We are now sitting in the small terminal waiting area killing time before our 3:10pm flight to SLC. We then have a 4 hour layover before our flight to PDX.

Trip Summary

We really lucked out on the weather for this trip. It was mostly sunny with highs in the 50’s-60’s the entire time we were in Yellowstone NP with the exception of the last day & a half. The temps have dropped significantly since then and highs have only been in the low 40’s with rain & snow showers for the past couple of days.

I think this is an excellent time to visit the parks if you don’t mind the unpredictable weather. While we did encounter some bus tour groups in a few places, it’s obvious that we’re here during the shoulder season as we didn’t have to battle crowds to see the sights close up. This especially made a difference for the distance we covered (700 total miles in one week) and when we spotted wildlife from the road. I can only imagine the summertime traffic jams!

If you want to see all of the accessible parts of the park without rushing, a minimum of one week is necessary. I recommend a couple of days using the Old Faithful area as a base, a couple of days using Mammoth/Gardiner as a base, and a couple of days using Canyon as a base.

Based on my previous experience staying at Xanterra properties, I generally knew what to expect in terms of accommodations, food quality & service. Old Faithful Inn is definitely worth a visit and an overnight stay. We were fine in our basic room with shared/communal baths, although I‘ll know next time to request a room farther from the front entrance of the hotel to eliminate noise at all hours. There are certainly more luxurious accommodations both in the inn and at other properties nearby, but we didn’t see the need to pay twice as much for a room we would only be sleeping in. The dining room service was spotty and the food was only so-so considering the prices, but I partially attribute the service snafus due to the recent opening of the inn for the season and the lack of training/experience of the staff. In my opinion, the best meal we had during the first half of the trip was at the Obsidian Restaurant at Old Faithful Snow Lodge. Provisions are not cheap at the general stores, so if you have an opportunity to stock up before entering the park, that would be well advised.

The hotel at Mammoth Hot Springs had a more modern feel. Again we opted for a room with shared bath to cut down on unnecessary expenses. The food options were limited in this area to the Terrace Grill (fast food) during the afternoon and the Dining Room which was open for all meals and offered a wide variety of food at various price ranges. Service at the Dining Room was particularly inconsistent with long wait times for meals to be served at all times of day. If you don’t mind an extra 10-15 minute drive, I would save money and stay at one of the cheap motels in Gardiner, MT, just outside the park. Keep in mind the dining options/opening hours are limited there as well, but you could save money by shopping at the local grocery store. Plus gas was cheaper there by about $0.15 per gallon.

Jackson Hole is definitely worth a full 24 hours of exploration, more if you’re a shopper or like to browse the art galleries. At this time of year the ski slopes are closed and it’s a bit cold to go white water rafting on the Snake River. But there are plenty of restaurants/bars to try and the town has a quaint feel that is quite different from over-developed Gatlinburg, TN. Jackson Hole is also a good base for exploring Grand Teton NP. The few lodgings in the park are relatively expensive but you can cut costs significantly by staying in a budget motel in Jackson and driving a bit farther each day.

As with most places, the best time to see wildlife and take pictures is at dawn & dusk. The few days we decided to get up early or stay up late (sunrise was before 6am and sunset was almost 9pm) really paid off in terms of wildlife seen or overall light conditions at the thermal features or on the mountains.

Neither of us encountered significant problems from the high altitude (Jackson Hole is at 6200 ft and we ranged from there up to 8000 ft the entire week) although we both had slight headaches and generally felt achy/tired the first day or two. The key was to drink lots of water (we carried our Camelbak 750ml bottles with us everywhere), get plenty of rest and not overdo it on the alcohol. Despite wearing sunscreen on our faces every day (the only body part that was consistently exposed), we still got some sun and also noticed that our hands were mildly sunburned after a few days of exposure.

In general, the motto “Be prepared” works well here and in any remote location you may be traveling. Restroom facilities were spread out and many were the chemical toilet/latrine variety (no running water) and didn’t always have toilet paper or hand sanitizer. Also, because it is early in the season, many of the lodges, general stores and other facilities were still closed so there were few opportunities to get fresh water, food, or fuel.

The most annoying thing I encountered were people talking on their cell phones anywhere they had service, particularly in the Old Faithful area. That and the inconsiderate drivers who were either going too fast (speed limit throughout the park is 45mph max, often less) or did not pull all the way off the road when they stopped to look at wildlife.

The most stupid thing I saw was the group of tourists who were picnicking in the Midway Geyser Basin area and did not walk away when a bison approached them. They waited until the massive animal was within 15 feet before they moved out of the way. Park rules clearly state You must stay at least 100 yards (91 m) away from bears and wolves and at least 25 yards (23 m) away from all other large animals - bison, elk, bighorn sheep, deer, moose, and coyotes. I saw this behavior repeated even more often around elk (individual tourists walking up to within a few feet of the animals to get photographs).

One thing I think the park service should do is install better marked crosswalks in areas with heavy foot traffic. Mammoth was particularly lacking in this respect -- no signs, no rumble strips, and the white stripes on the road were barely visible.

My favorite experience was hearing the wolves howling all around us early in the morning in the Lamar Valley and, of course, seeing all the wildlife throughout the park(s). The bison herd turning on the grizzly was awesome as was watching & listening to two grizzlies fight over a carcass. Seeing the elk herd cross the road single file within hours after we arrived in Jackson was a great way to start the trip, and it just kept getting better. Finally, listening to the auctioneer at Elkfest this morning was pretty entertaining and a unique experience.

Here's the link to all of my vacation photos (700+) on Picasa. Or check out my Facebook page for more condensed albums.

Yellowstone & Grand Tetons 2010

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Very expensive Garfield bandaids

After making much progress on the trip research last week, I decided to make a few doctor's appointments to deal with some recurring issues.

For the past couple of years, I have had fairly constant pain/discomfort in both my right & left big toes. I have been getting regular pedicures to help shape my toenails but it turns out this is an inherited condition (the curving of the toenails into the sides of the toe) which I have no control over. I saw a podiatrist last year before I left NYC and she treated me for ingrown toenails by taking a scalpel and cutting out the nail along the sides of each toe. This was a painful procedure with no anesthetic but it did relieve the discomfort for a few months. Unfortunately, the toenails grew back in the same curved manner as before. With all the moving around that Greg & I have done over the past six months, I have not gone to another podiatrist until this past week, when I realized that the pain was getting to a level that I could no longer ignore. Of course, the doctor immediately said that I would need surgery to permanently remove the sides of both toenails. He would have done the procedure this week, but we are leaving for Yellowstone on Friday and I was not going to miss our vacation! So now I am scheduled to have the surgery on both toes on May 24th. I will be fairly immobile for a week or more but I am confident that Greg will be able to take care of all our basic necessities during that time. Plus, if I look on the bright side, I will be forced to stay home and read/do research for our RTW trip! And, by having this procedure done now, I am hoping to avoid any potential related problems while we are traveling and far away from specialized medical care.

My allergies have also been bothering me lately, but this is normal for this time of year and I have dealt with seasonal allergies my whole life. Over the counter drugs generally alleviate the symptoms enough to keep everything in check, but last week my left eyelid got red & puffy and irritated to the point I could no longer wear my contacts. I kept applying a warm compress but the eyelid remained very red & painful. I finally saw a doctor and she diagnosed an infection, most likely caused by the swelling of the glands due to allergies. So now I am administering prescription eye drops three times a day and am hoping that I can start wearing my contacts again by Friday (I find it much easier to look through binoculars with my contacts versus glasses -- important for all the wildlife spotting we plan to do in Yellowstone!).

Maybe you're wondering what all of this has to do with Garfield bandaids? Well, Greg & I started our first round of vaccines on Monday. After consulting with a travel medicine specialist, we have determined we need a total of nine different vaccines prior to our trip, not including the anti-malaria pills we will be taking during the trip. Those nine vaccines require a total of 14 injections at an average cost of $125 per dose plus a $50 office visit charge and $5 administration fee per shot. Thus the total cost of the vaccinations will be at least $1500. Note that neither of our health insurance policies (United Healthcare & Aetna) cover any portion of this. I got four shots on Monday (yellow fever, polio, typhoid, meningococcal) and Greg got five (same as mine plus Twinrix for Hepatitis A & B). Two shots in each arm (one intramuscular, one subcutaneous) and Greg also got one in his hip. I was given Garfield bandaids; Greg got blue Crayola crayons. Considering my bill was $445, I'd say those are some expensive bandaids!

Luckily we had already bought tickets to the sold out FredFest that night so all we had to do was catch the streetcar then a bus to the Hair of the Dog Brewery to spend the evening imbibing some strong beer. Which, for the most part, made us forget spending so much money and the achiness from our shots!
FredFest 2010

UPDATE 5/13: Greg & I sat down last night and mapped out our vaccine schedule for the next weeks/months. Using the numbers Pearl Health Center provided us, we also were able to more accurately calculate the total cost. If we both get all of the recommended vaccines (the ones we have already gotten as mentioned above plus rabies, Japanese encephalitis, and MMR plus malaria pills and "just in case" antibiotics to take with us) then we are looking at around $2400 PER PERSON!!! OUCH!!! I'm seriously considering not getting rabies ($660) & JE ($390) not just because of the cost but by evaluating our risk of infection. Or, more likely, I will get JE but not rabies. Must decide soon as we'll need to start those series of shots on May 24th...

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Planning for our Round-The-World Trip

Trip planning is in full swing now. I’m treating it like a full time job. Up at 6 or 7am, work out in the gym downstairs, eat breakfast, check the news online as well as updates on Facebook & Twitter, then work straight through until lunch. Thirty minute lunch break then back to work until at least 4pm, when Greg & I have our dinner debrief (he’s learning to cook so we plan our weekly meals out on Sunday, pick up all the necessary ingredients at the grocery, and then have “lessons” prior to actually cooking). I stay close to the kitchen to answer questions or help as needed, then we eat dinner and relax afterwards. I typically try not to do any trip research after dinner because it works my brain too hard and then I’m afraid I won’t sleep well. Of course, this schedule varies a bit if we plan an afternoon outing or if we have to work out later in the day because Greg has an early morning conference call. In general though, I’m trying to devote a minimum of six hours a day to sorting out the details of the trip.

I did a lot of preliminary research over the past few years because I originally thought I would be setting off on this trip around August, 2008. But my job situation changed and I wasn’t able to save up as much money as I wanted to by that date. So I kept working and minimized my expenses as much as possible while still trying to enjoy & fully experience life in New York City. Luckily (in one sense), my job was super demanding and required a lot of overtime work and thus I was able to stash more money relatively quickly. However this also meant that I had very little spare time to work on the trip planning. With a new tentative departure date of late 2009, I forged ahead one day at a time but was concerned about the lack of time I was devoting to the trip prep. Not to mention that I worked such long hours I didn’t have time to go to the gym to get in better physical shape for the trip.

It was in the middle of all that that Greg came into my life. Our relationship started very slowly and innocuously at first (yes, on Facebook!), but soon enough he was an integral part of my day-to-day existence. This despite the fact that he was living in Nashville, TN and I was in New York City. Some of our first conversations were about travel, much of them spent with him talking about wanting to spend more time in Europe & Hawaii and me talking about going to Africa & Southeast Asia (and generally around the world). It would take many months before we both considered it a possibility that we could do some variation of my RTW trip together.

So here we are, almost a year and a half later. Our relationship has been untraditional to say the least. Over the past year we have lived together (in some form or another) in New York City, Seattle, Honolulu, and Portland, OR. We have also vacationed in Hawaii & Eastern Europe and taken long weekend trips to the Smoky Mountains, Indiana, and more. While the title of this blog “Alethea’s Excellent Adventures” was meant to be about my RTW travels, the subject matter has so far been my “living experiments” with Greg (see links to archived posts). That will change soon enough, because we have officially set a departure date for our round-the-world trip. It is really only a few short months away which is why I have to focus my time & efforts on the planning & preparation. Greg is helping, too, of course. He just has less spare time because of his job.

Our first task was to individually make lists of all the places in the world we want to go (we actually did this several months ago). We have also been purchasing & testing the necessary clothing, footwear & gear (mostly for Greg as I have been traveling in this fashion for over a decade so I simply need to “update” a few things). We have both saved up the necessary funds and have moved them or are in the process of moving those earmarked funds into the appropriate accounts (with no to minimal ATM withdrawal charges or foreign transaction fees). We also have re-entry funds set aside to allow us to come back to the U.S., catch up with family & friends, move to wherever we want to live, and take our time finding jobs. We both have been devoting some time every day to reading travel blogs or other relevant literature. We have ensured that our passports are renewed/up-to-date. We started working out 6 days a week at the beginning of February, alternating cardio & strength training, and are both in better shape now than we’ve been in many years.

Now we are at the more detailed phase of trip planning. We have compared our destination lists and narrowed them down into what seems to be a workable 6 month itinerary by roughing out dates & durations for each location (with the option to add on another 2-3 months at the end if our finances are in good enough shape). We have checked seasonal weather averages & conditions as well as any dates that might coincide with national holidays or large festivals. We have calculated the costs & time required to obtain visas.

Our next steps are to firm up the itinerary and apply for visas; get a full physical (me only; Greg did this in January); meet with a travel medicine specialist and start getting any necessary vaccinations; and book any peak season tours or air travel (only if absolutely necessary -- I prefer to wing it and not be committed to definite dates). In the meantime we’ll continue to do research on specific destinations and make sure we’re not trying to see too much, too fast.

We’re also going on vacation in mid-May (less than 2 weeks away!) to Yellowstone National Park. Three nights each in Old Faithful & Mammoth and two nights in Jackson, WY. Greg & I have both had Yellowstone on our top ten list for quite some time. We’re going early in the season so we expect to see some snow and may have to deal with cooler temperatures and inclement weather, but we should get to see most of the park minus the huge summer crowds. This is also birthing season for much of the wildlife so we should see lots of baby animals. I’m definitely going to need a break from all this planning and am really looking forward to our vacation!