Tuesday, December 12, 2006


Submitted by RW

We arrived safely in Quito, Ecuador to begin our honeymoon. We did a bit of walking in Quito (9,200 ft. elevation) the first two days, then went for a bit of an acclimatization trek from the mountain village of Isinlivi to Chugchilan, to the high altitude village of Quilotoa (with a volcanic crater lake) at 13,000 ft. The villages are located in the Andes and are a mix of mestizo and indigenous (Quichua) peoples. Amazingly, even though the mountains are very steep, there are farm fields on every patch of land imaginable.

We hiked on a system of ancient trails that are still used by local people to bring produce to market and just to get around.Since the purpose of the first week was basically to acclimatize for our attempt on Cotopaxi, after our village to village hike we took the bus to the small town of El Chaupi to climb Iliniza Norte (peak) at 5,120 meters. We both had a bit of stomach bug for a day. We got some great views of the surrounding mountains in the morning while we were hiking up, and we also went through some beautiful paramo vegetation - basically high altitude boggy grasslands that have some super cool plants.

From there we traveled to a sort of retreat/resort called Tambopaxi in the Cotopaxi National Park, where we walked a bit and slept to rest from our Iliniza hike and gear up for Cotopaxi. Finally, our attempt! Our guide woke us up at 11:45 at night, we geared up, ate and departed for our assault on the world's highest active volcano Cotopaxi (5,897 m) at 1 a.m. We were lucky to have a beautiful, clear night with great views of the stars and Quito in the distance. Everyone had assured us that it was a "walk-up" mountain, and about as easy of a high peak you could ask for, although it does require crampons for glacier travel. Well, I'm here to tell you that 19,000+ feet ain't easy!!! Ever!!!

It was much steeper than we had anticipated, averaging over 45 degrees for the whole route and definitely approaching 80 degrees at some points! Nevertheless we arrived at the summit 6 hours later, in full sunshine and with amazing views of the surrounding terrain (considering we have had rain almost every day otherwise, we were very lucky with the weather). So at about 7 a.m. eastern time we stood the closest to the sun (apart from the noon hour, dead summer) as possible from earth! (accounting for the equatorial bulge and the peak being nearly on the equator). We both felt really good at the top - no headaches or nausea from the altitude - and were really glad we had spent the time to acclimatize well.

After Cotopaxi we spent a well-earned afternoon at the Papallacta hot springs north of Quito, soaking our aches away in the shadow of cloud forested mountains (no shortage of mountains down here!). The next day we wandered around the old town of Quito for a while. In the afternoon, we went to the Mitad del Mundo, a monument on the equator. Well, almost on the equator. It seems the equator has moved a bit and well, the measurements weren't quite correct, so the equator is actually quite a ways off, but still, the monument is there! We did manage to get to the real equator as well, where we happily played with our GPS unit until it produced all zeros. And yes, water really does spin the other direction in the southern hemisphere.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Residence Inn - Glendale, Arizona

What a fantastic hotel. This was my first stay in a Residence Inn. The one in Glendale is about 20-30 minutes from downtown Phoenix, but it's in a rapidly growing area with plenty of shopping and restaurants nearby.

I was very impressed with this facility. My room was spacious with a mini kitchen area that included a full-size refrigerator, dish washer, two burners, microwave, pots and pans and utensils along with a bar counter to serve as an eating area.

There was also a couch and a chair, giving plenty of space to relax and unwind. Free high-speed internet was also available.

My room featured a king-size bed and a whirlpool bath. The room also featured a programmable thermostat.

The hotel serves a complimentary breakfast with both hot and cold items. There was a good selection and it tasted very good. There were also appetizers available Monday-Thursday evenings.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Delta Airlines

More kudos to Delta Airlines. On a recent flight from Miami to Atlanta, there were TV screens at every seat. Every passenger had the opportunity to watch 24 channels of live TV, listen to a variety of music channels, play trivia games and more.

I was amazed that it wasn’t just an offering of a movie or two and some canned sitcoms. It was live TV, including several news channels, several sports channels, one major network and a variety of other channels such as the Cartoon Network, HGTV, TLC, History, etc.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Miami-Florida City-Key Largo

Kudos to Delta for still handing out snacks for free. A few weeks ago when I flew to Phoenix on Northwest, there were no more complimentary snacks. No more peanuts, pretzels, anything. They sold snack boxes for $2 and $5.

On this afternoon’s flight to Miami, Delta had five snack options available at no cost – Sun Chips, Granola Bars, crackers, peanuts and pretzels.

Car Rental

Renting a car at Miami’s airport is not nearly as convenient as Phoenix where a shuttle takes you to a central location for all agencies. At Miami, you hop on a bus for your specific car rental company that takes you offsite to their location. In the handful of times I’ve been to Miami in the past several years, there’s always been construction going on around the airport, and it can be very confusing getting out in the right direction.

I’ve heard from several people that it’s a lot easier to fly into the airport at Ft. Lauderdale. Even though it’s 30-40 minutes north of Miami, it can be quicker to get to your final destination because it’s smaller and renting a car is much less hassle.

Florida City

Florida City is the last stop on the Florida Turnpike before heading into the Keys. There are several hotels and restaurants here, including a Hampton Inn that is undergoing renovation. I love Hamptons for their free internet access, free breakfasts and typically very nice accommodations.

I’ve eaten at Gusto’s before. The lunch menu was fairly diverse and tasty, however I was not nearly impressed with their food at dinner.

Key Largo – The Fish House

One of the best spots to eat around here is about 30 miles south of Florida City in Key Largo. The Fish House and The Encore are at Mile Marker 102.4. The food is excellent. I’ve eaten at both and found the menu is slightly different. I prefer The Encore which is just south of the Fish House. It offers a piano lounge and an outdoor dining option as well – only drawback, no view of the ocean. Personally, I recommend the Grouper Oscar, a large filet of grouper topped with crab meat, asparagus and bĂ©arnaise sauce on a bed of rice. Also get a cup of the lobster bisque – outstanding.

The Encore was closed this evening, so a friend and I went to the Fish House. Tonight I had Grouper Baked & Stuffed. A large grouper stuffed with crab meat. It was also served with rice, beans, corn on the cob and cole slaw. Price with tip was about $30.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Sedona - Soldier's Pass Trail

A nice side trip from the Flagstaff area is Sedona. It’s about 45-minute drive and a drop in elevation of a couple thousand feet so be prepared for much warmer weather. The drive itself is very entertaining. For a good 10 minutes, you twist and turn your way down. Breathtaking views abound as you leave the mountain forests for Red Rock country.

On this trip, we opted for a relatively easy hike on a trail called Soldier’s Pass. Follow 89A to Soldier Pass Road on the right. Go 1.5 miles to Rim Shadows Drive, then right 0.2 miles (keep straight ahead where Rim Shadows branches left) to a gated entry road to trailhead parking on the left. There’s room for about 15 cars to park, and you must display a parking pass, which can be purchased at numerous locations around Sedona.

Not far from the trailhead, perhaps a ¼ mile, is Devil’s Kitchen, a 100-foot deep active sinkhole.

Unfortunately, we lost the trail here and ended up on a Jeep trail. Several tour operators give Jeep tours around the Sedona area. Not to worry, the trails intersected again at the “Seven Sacred Pools” a short while later. The pools are carved in the sloping red sandstone that cradles a small stream here. Although these pools are small, because they hold water even in dry periods, they are important to the birds and animals of the area.

This was a great place for the kids, 4 & 2, to climb around and burn off some energy. It also afforded some wonderful views and photo opportunities.

The Soldier’s Pass trail is very moderate. In fact, our four-year-old hiked the entire 2+ hours, while the two-year-old spent most of the time riding on my shoulders and then eventually napping while being carried in a backpack.

The trail continues to some arches. We made it about ¾ of the way there before deciding to turn back. Overall, the trail is a little more than 2 miles roundtrip. It also connects with a couple of other trails to make a nice loop of the area.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Historic Downtown Flagstaff

Historic Downtown Flagstaff is a 15-square block area of restaurants and shops on the north side of Route 66. The sidewalks are paved in brick, and there are dozens of restaurants, stores and boutiques (more than 150 according to one source). The selection of shops and restaurants is very diverse.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Lowell observatory

A crisp, cloudless night presented a perfect opportunity to visit Lowell Observatory - one of the western United States' first observatories and the location where Pluto was discovered in 1930.

Admission is $5 for adults.

I arrived just as a 30-minute presentation was starting in the lecture hall. The presenter did a good job of presenting the information with bits of humor that kept all ages engaged. The presentation was directly related to what we would be seeing in the sky on this particular evening.

Following the presentation, I headed onto the grounds to look through the telescopes. Several portable telescopes were set up with experts stationed at each to dispense information. The highlight of course was the 24" telescope housed in the dome. Tonight it was set up to view M15, a globular cluster in the constellation Pegasus. M15 is approximately 34,000 light years away and features 350,000 stars. The telescopes 330x magnification presented an incredible view.

Next I went back inside to the "Discover the Universe" exhibit hall. A wealth of information is presented, including several interactive exhibits perfect for kids.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Wupatki National Monument & Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument

The free breakfast at the Sleep Inn was a bit on the light side. Compared with other hotels I’ve stayed at, the selection was minimal – a couple cereals, donuts, biscuits and gravy.

After a morning rain, we headed to a neighborhood park and let the kids play for a while.

After lunch we drove about 45 minutes north of Flagstaff on Highway 89A to two National Monuments. Admission is $5 per adult.

The Wupatki National Monument features stops at five prehistoric pueblos. All five are short hikes on paved trails from parking areas. In addition to seeing the ruins and remains, the views of the San Francisco mountains in one direction and the Painted Desert in the other direction are astounding.

Wupatki is several thousand feet lower than Flagstaff and is about 10-20 degrees warmer.

A 35-mile road loops from Wupatki to Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument. We drove with eyes wide open at the beauty. The landscape seemed to continuously change from desert shrubs and flowers to grasslands to forest. On our hikes we came across several collared lizards, while we slowed our car to a stop when we spotted a coyote in the grass just off the road.

Sunset Crater Volcano, towering 2,000 feet above us, was formed in a series of eruptions 800-1,000 years ago. Lava rock is everywhere and the sides of the volcano and many other “hills” in the area are finely crushed black rock.

There are several trails to hike, although we opted against it since we were traveling with the kids and had already worn them out.
Our roundtrip from Flagstaff took between 3-4 hours.

Departing for a seven-day trip with the kids

October 5, 2006
Indianapolis to Flagstaff

Today we depart Indianapolis for a seven-day trip to Flagstaff, Arizona to attend a wedding. There could be some challenges as we travel cross country with our two children, both under four years of age, but we’re excited to get away as a family.

We’ve loaded up a backpack with books, some toys and a portable DVD player. We checked out three DVDs from our local library. Due to our kids’ young ages, we opted for shorter episodes of shows rather than long full-length movies. We also bought a couple of new activity books and new toys to introduce to them as they start getting bored. And we took plenty of snacks – crackers, raisins, granola bars.


One of the first things to do when flying – and perhaps often overlooked until the last minute – is parking. We made advance reservations with Park Ride & Fly. Located just past the regular “Economy” lot, they offer valet parking service and shuttle ride to the terminal at essentially the same price as the airport-controlled lots. Park Ride & Fly serves 45 airports in the United States. Harmony Travel can make an advance reservation for you the next time you fly.

The Flight

I took the opportunity to check us in online the day before we departed. We still had to go to the counter to check our bags, but it did save us some time since we were flying under two separate reservations (two free tickets via frequent flyer miles and two paid tickets).

Security went smoothly. One of the keys is to always check www.tsa.gov in the days before you fly to check on the status of prohibited items. Then take your time and don’t feel rushed going through the checkpoint even as the line grows behind you.

Our flights went great with very little fussing from the kids. Both flights featured a 3-3 seating configuration, so we were able to sit three in a row with the other person across the aisle. We opted to take one car seat on board for our youngest, who also happens to be the most rambunctious. Having him in a familiar setting – the car seat – kept him from moving around as much as he would have without it. He still needed to get out for a while, but everything went well.

We had just over an hour between our flights, and it proved to be the perfect amount of time, if not even a bit too little. By the time we deplaned, walked to our next gate and used the restroom, our second flight had already started boarding. Luckily, a fast food restaurant was right by the gate, which allowed us to by some food to take on board.

We were flying Northwest, which like several other airlines, has stopped serving any type of complimentary snack. Not even peanuts or pretzels are free anymore. Snacks were available for either $2 or $5.

Phoenix – Sky Harbor Airport

We landed in Phoenix on time at about 12:30. After getting our baggage we hopped on a shuttle bus to the rental car facility. About 18 months ago, the airport opened a large facility that houses all of the rental car companies. Free shuttles take passengers to and from the facility. Buses run quite frequently.

The drivers and other staff are tremendously helpful. We were loaded down with three checked bags, two car seats and three other bags. They did a great job of loading and unloading them for us. A free cart was available at the rental car facility to take our bags to the car.

Rental Car

Phoenix is one of the busiest airports in the U.S. and boasts some of the highest rental car figures in the world. Unfortunately, they also have some of the highest taxes on rental cars too, turning even the most basic rental into an expensive outlay.

Researching rental rates, we opted to go with a smaller company that is relatively new – E-Z Rental. The weekly rate for a minivan for us was about $100 less than any of the name brands.

After making the reservation, I even found a $10 coupon on their website which they gladly accepted at the counter.

Driving to Flagstaff

We spent the next 2+ hours on I-17 to Flagstaff. One of the amazing things about Arizona is how quickly the landscape can change. The desert of Phoenix quickly morphs into a land of mesas and then into mountains. Flagstaff is 7,000 feet above sea level.


We checked into the Sleep Inn on Woodlands Blvd., which had offered us the best group rate for the wedding party. Sleep Inn are part of the Choice Hotels group that includes Comfort Inns, Quality Inns and others. It’s a mid-level chain with fairly basic amenities, but the price was right.

Our room with two queens was clean and quiet. There were only three drawers which was not nearly enough to accommodate clothing for four people for six days. Note to parents with young kids – Sleep Inns feature showers only, no tubs.
The hotel featured a hot tub and pool on the first floor. The indoor pool was a plus. Several other hotels in the area had outdoor pools that didn’t see much use with the falling temperatures and periods of rain off and on.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Madison, IN - Clifty Falls State Park - Carrollton, KY

September 22-23, 2006
Madison, IN - Clifty Falls State Park - Carrollton, KY

I wanted to treat my wife to quick weekend getaway without the kids to wrap up a summer that saw me on the road frequently for business. We chose to visit Clifty Falls State Park in Madison, Indiana - about 2 hours from our home in Indianapolis.

We drove down on a Friday, and since it was after the peak season and a bit rainy, it seemed like we had the park to ourselves. We spent about three hours hiking on various trails. The park has 10 total - mostly rated moderately rugged or rugged, although most of the park's four waterfalls are fairly close to trail heads.

The hiking was very peaceful with the sound of rushing water often nearby. As for nature, we saw a large pileated woodpecker, a group of four wild turkeys, a 4-foot long rat snake and a rabbit - not to mention numerous squirrels eating walnuts. Along trail 5, which leads past Tunnel Falls, there is a 60-foot tunnel of rock that remains from a railroad abandoned in the 1850s. The tunnel is passable on foot with a flashlight. Lining Trail 5 was a very interesting flower, the Pale Touch Me Not, a yellow flower with three petals hanging by a thin stem.

After hiking, we headed to the park's Nature Center only to find that it's hours of operation are only from 12-4 on Wednesdays-Sundays. We took the trail from the center to the observation tower, affording us a view of the park, the Ohio River and the city of Madison.

We drove into Madison late in the afternoon. Seems like the town is home to at least a dozen antique shops. The main strip downtown features a 4-5 block historic shopping district. Several stores closed at 5, but some remained open until 6. The courthouse features a replica Statue of Liberty dedicated by a group of Boy Scouts as well as a memorial to the area's war heroes.

Ovo Cafe is located on Main Street in the heart of the shopping district. It's relatively small with only six to eight tables, and has a limited menu of 8-10 entrees, but the food was outstanding. We shared a portabella mushroom topped with tomato and mozzarella cheese as an appetizer. All entrees included a house or caesar salad and bread with an herb butter. I enjoyed Shrimp Scampi which featured a generous amount of jumbo shrimp on a bed of angel hair pasta in a white wine sauce. My wife had Capellini Mediterranean, a dish with artichokes, olives and tomatoes on angel hair pasta. The homemade desserts included a strawberry, chocolate chip cheesecake that we also shared. Everything was delicious. Cost was about $50.

After dinner we crossed the Ohio River and drove about 15 miles into Kentucky to a Hampton Inn in Carrollton. There are about a dozen Bed & Breakfasts and hotels in Madison, but all were either sold out or priced more than we were willing to spend for this weekend (an art festival was in town - more about that later).

The Hampton in Carrollton is right off I-71, which connects Louisville and Cincinnati. It was recently renovated and was very nice. As we checked in, I asked if they had a hot tub. We were hoping to soak after our day of hiking. The hotel does not, but it does offer a heated, indoor pool. No worry about the hot tub, when we got up to our room, it turned out to be one of five on the 60-room property with a jacuzzi tub - perfect to unwind in. The room also had a microwave, small refrigerator, free wireless internet access and full selection of cable TV channels.

On Saturday, we enjoyed the hotels free hot breakfast before departing for more sightseeing.

We stopped at the Butler Outlet Mall in Carrollton. It's small with only a half dozen stores, including Bon Worth, Dress Barn and Van Heusen.

Carrollton is also close to Kentucky's General Butler State Resort Park, which offers a variety of activities at the confluence of the Kentucky and Ohio Rivers.

We drove back to Madison where we spent several hours walking around the Chautauqua Festival of Art. The festival included 280 booths of artists, craftsmen, food and musical entertainment. It gave us a great opportunity to pick up a couple of early Christmas gifts.

Early in the afternoon, we headed back to Clifty Falls State Park. First stop, the Nature Center that we had missed the day before. As we pulled up, we were shocked to see a raccoon sitting on a large platform designed for bird watching. He was enjoying a leisurely meal of various seeds. The platform was visible from the nature center's tinted observation window, so we spent quite a while watching him eat. A number of birds also joined in the feast, landing on the window ledge right in front of us. We saw cardinals, nut hatches, tufted titmouse, chickadees and a gold finch. Of course, the center includes information about the wildlife, plant life and geology of the area.

It was raining nearly constantly on Saturday, which meant the park was again nearly empty. We decided to make one more run to Clifty Falls - the falls at the North Gate entrance and literally just a 2-minute hike from the trail head. The area had gotten 4-5 inches of rain over night and the difference was unbelievable. The volume of water flowing over the falls seemed like 10 times what had been flowing over the day before. What had been the sound of peaceful, flowing water on Friday was a thunderous waterfall on Saturday. Adding to the experience was seeing the fog rising off the water and moving up the sides of the cliff.