Saturday, April 8, 2017

Climb into the Mouth of the World's Largest Dinosaur


Spring is in the air here in central Alberta, so that means the fam-jam and I are slowly exiting hibernation mode and venturing out into the world. I've been clearing out my gardens, raking up old leaves, and have a mini-greenhouse in my basement filled with little green seedlings that will soon turn my brown flowerbeds into a vibrant sea of color. The kids have been learning to bike, bouncing in their inflatable bouncy castle, and jumping in 'muddy puddles' a la Peppa Pig. It has been a good few weeks.

On top of all the domestic activities, we also managed to do a little local tourism. We visited my parents at their farm near the town of Drumheller, and spent a day introducing the kids to some of Drumheller's famous dinosaurs. The kids enjoyed exploring the Royal Tyrell Museum (which I will write about shortly), but even more so, they loved climbing up the World's Largest Dinosaur.

Drumheller's World's Largest Dinosaur in all of its glory

What is this World's Largest Dinosaur, you ask? Located in Drumheller, Alberta, which is considered the "Dinosaur Capital of the World", this 86 foot tall Tyrannosaurus Rex is about 4.5 times taller than a real T-Rex. She stands towering over the Red Deer River, the Drumheller Aquaplex, and a free splash park (this is an extremely fun place in the summer).

Not only can you wander around the base of the dinosaur, marvelling at the size and span of her construction, but you can also climb to the top via several sets of stairs deep inside her belly. 106 stairs to be exact. They are divided into several flights, separated by flat landings that sometimes contain benches to rest on, so even though the climb is a little strenuous, it isn't impossible by any means. My three-year-old completed the stairs in record time, and I climbed them with a 30 pound toddler in my arms - a great workout!

The stairway going up inside the belly of the beast

Along the route up the stairs, the walls have been decorated with colourful murals of Jurassic forests, dinosaurs in various scenes, and even with replica fossils embedded in the plaster. There is a lot to see as you make your way to the top.

My daughter enjoying the colourful artwork inside the dinosaur

One word of wisdom I want to share with my readers is to bring a jacket or sweater with you if you are planning on climbing to the top. The temperature within the dinosaur distinctly shifted colder the higher we got, and at the top, there was a chilly wind to deal with. And this was on a day when it was so hot on the ground that the kids left their coats in the car. So that's my advice: take it or leave it!

The view from inside the dinosaur's mouth

Once you arrive at the top, there are a set of doors with sunlight filtering through the mottled glass. One last obstacle before the big reveal! Through the doors, you are met with a stunning view of the Red Deer River and Drumheller valley, sparkling sunlight, and a massive set of sharp Tyrannosaurus teeth. The website says there is room for 12 in the mouth of the dinosaur, but I would say 5 or 6 people would fit comfortably while still being able to see the view from all angles.

Another side note: if you are a little afraid of heights, just be aware that the dinosaur mouth does sway a little when there's even a slight breeze. The sway was barely perceptible when we visited, as there wasn't much wind that day, but my mom felt it and was a little nervous! All was well, but I wanted to put that out there for anyone feeling any trepidation about being 86 feet up in the air.

My little troupe and I atop the giant dinosaur

There were people already in the mouth of the dinosaur when we first arrived, so we waited patiently until they were done, then stepped forward for our chance to experience the mouth properly. We squished as far into the front as we could get, my kids excitedly trying to extradite the money people had left behind for wishes or donations.

My son really wanted all that shiny money!

About five minutes at the top was plenty for us. We came, we saw, we left. Back down the stairs, which should have been easier except that I had to carry the same 30 pound toddler again.

The only set of stairs my son climbed, and even then, Gamma had to help

At the bottom, we shopped a little in the gift shop as my kids suddenly had a newly-kindled obsession with dinosaurs thanks to our tourism that day. The Drumheller Tourist Information desk is also located in the gift shop, for anyone interested. Outside, the kids had a great time being 'toe-jam', squeezing themselves between the T-Rex's toes and climbing all over her feet and ankles. We were with Gamma (my mom), and so we also got some lovely family photos while posing on the dinosaur's feet.

Climbing the World's Largest Dinosaur's feet is free

There is a cost associated with climbing the giant dinosaur: $3 per person (which gives you a full day pass, if you care to climb the dinosaur multiple times), with kids 5 and under free. They have a family pass as well for $10. I am not 100% certain about summer hours, but I know when we visited this spring the dinosaur was closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays (we originally tried visiting on a Wednesday). All other days it was open from 10:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

A fun family adventure with Gamma!

Just visiting the dinosaur alone probably wouldn't make for the greatest excursion, but when you combine the World's Largest Dinosaur experience with all of the other adventures Drumheller has to offer, it becomes a great part of a fun-filled day. For more ideas on what to do in Drumheller, check out my post on the Dinosaur Trail and the Hoodoos and Suspension Bridge post.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Riding the Rails: A Guide to San Francisco's Cable Car System


Chances are, when you think of San Francisco, you either picture the iconic Golden Gate Bridge, or envision yourself hanging off the side of one of the historic cable cars. I had the chance to do both when I visited San Francisco last September with a group of friends for a 'ladies' trip, but in this post, I'll be regaling you with tales of the latter.

One of San Francisco's historic cable cars.

Riding the cable cars is easy. Getting on them, and getting a good seat at that, is a little trickier. My goal is to give you a guide on where to board the cable cars, how to navigate the lines, and some helpful tidbits to make your ride safe and enjoyable.

A Brief Note on Cable Cars

When I travel, I always like to learn a little of the history of the region I am exploring. This included the cable car system for me upon visiting San Francisco. One of the first things I learned about the cable car system sprung from a misconception that I had, one that a local corrected for me. I was calling the cable cars 'trolleys', and was politely informed that these machines do not have motors and cannot run independently, and therefore are not trolleys. Instead, they are pulled along by a cable embedded in the ground beneath the rails and essentially drug along the streets, hence the name 'cable car'.

THIS is a San Francisco trolley, not a cable car!

Meanwhile, real trolleys are powered by overhead wires via a trolley pole which conducts electricity to the vehicle. (That's why they are called trolleys, even though the real name is 'streetcar'.) So many terms! You don't have to memorize it all: just walk away from this post knowing San Francisco's historic transit system is comprised of cable cars, and while there are trolleys or streetcars found in town, you should try to avoid mixing the two up.

Turnarounds

Whenever I asked people for information on riding the cable cars, inevitably they'd bring up the term 'turnaround' and glaze over it like they expected me to know what the heck they were talking about. I did not. But I nodded anyway. Eventually I found out for myself what a cable car turnaround was, and trust me, it is pretty cool.

It is also slightly important to know what a turnaround is if you plan on mapping a route anywhere in San Francisco using the cable cars. Basically, the turnaround point is the end of the line for that particular cable car route. The way cable cars are designed is that each car is pulled along the track system using an underground cable - not a motor as explained above. Those massive cables are attached to a pulley system which must originate somewhere, and that somewhere is the end of the line where the turnaround station is. Cable cars do not move in reverse, so these turnaround stations are a necessity of cable car travel.

A cable car turnaround in all of its glory. Image via.

The turnarounds are shaped like giant lollipops, with the cable car track being the lollipop stick, and the turnaround station being the circle at the top. The circle is made of wood, and is the diameter of a cable car length. When the cable cars reach these endpoints, they come to a stop. The cable car operators jump out (and there are workers at the turnaround station as well that assist in this process) and grab handles attached to the sides of the turnaround. Together, these hard-working people manually spin the cable car around, using the rotating wooden circle to re-align the cable car on the tracks so it can go back from whence it came.

Because these stations are considered the 'beginning' of the line as well, this is also where you can expect to find the longest cues of hopeful riders. If you are not picky about where you'd like to sit on a cable car (interior or hanging off the side), then my advice is to catch the vehicle at one of its stops a few blocks down the line. Then you won't have to wait in a 45-minute line up.

Two Ways to Ride

We tried boarding the cable cars both ways. On our first ride, we took the advice of locals to jump aboard a few blocks away from the turnaround. As promised, we did not have to wait in line and simply walked right on the cable car easy as you please. However, all of the outer positions were taken, and we had been hoping to hang off of the side of the cable car in full tourist mode. Instead, we were cramped in the centre of a standing-room-only cable car, trying not to step on people's feet and inhaling each other's hair we were crushed so close. I did not particularly enjoy that cable car ride.

Squished and hot inside the cramped cable car.

The next time we rode the cable car, we stuck it out in the line-up at the Powell/Market turnaround, hoping that our position in line would grant us first choice in cable car seating. We totally lucked out and were able to dangle all six of us on one edge of the cable car. It was great fun and exactly what I'd been hoping for. Riding the cable car this way was still cramped, and I actually had to rest my purse on the lap of the passenger sitting beside me in the interior of the car, but the breeze provided fresh air and the views could not be beat.

Hanging from the side of a cable car was my San Francisco goal.

If you just want to get from point A to point B and the cable car is a practical and affordable method to do so, then I suggest boarding the cable car quickly and efficiently at a remote stop to save time on the line-ups. If you are in it for the experience and want to hang off the side of the cable car like a dog out a car window, then you probably would benefit from patiently standing in line at a turnaround station so you can try to be first to board.

The Lines

There are three lines that the cable cars run on: the Powell/Hyde line, the Powell/Mason line, and the California/Van Ness line. My friends and I experienced rides on both of the Powell lines, but never had a chance to ride the California line. Each line offers different views of the city, as well as obviously taking you to different locations around San Francisco.

Cruising through San Francisco via cable car is pretty fun.

The Powell/Hyde line - This was the first cable car we rode in San Francisco. It begins at a turnaround at Aquatic Park near Ghirardelli Square by Fisherman's Wharf, and goes all the way to the Powell/Market turnaround on Market street. This line takes you to several visitor attractions, including Lombard Street and Chinatown (well, one block from Chinatown but walking one block is pretty reasonable).

The Powell/Mason line - We also had the opportunity to ride on this cable car line. This particular line begins near Fisherman's Wharf as well, although on the other end of the street by North Beach, closer to Pier 39. It ends at the same Powell/Market turnaround. The Powell/Mason line and the Powell/Hyde line converge and split near the Nob Hill neighbourhood, so just make sure you are catching the correct cable car for your final destination.

The California/Van Ness line - I don't know anything about this line as I didn't ride on it, but I did the Googling for you and have reported back here. This is a short line running between Van Ness Street to the Embarcadero, right through the Financial District and going over the top of Nob Hill. I can't say much more as I have no personal experience with this line. If anyone reading this post has traveled along the California and has something neat to share, feel free to leave a comment below!

The Fares

At the time of our visit, in September of 2016, the cost to ride a cable car was an affordable $7.00 for a single trip, which is very decent considering you are not just getting transportation to your destination but also a memorable 'ride'. If you think you'll be using the cable cars several times in one day, you can purchase a day pass for $21.00. There are also 3-day and 7-day passes for $32.00 and $42.00 respectively for visitors who are addicted to the cable car experience.

Happy to be exploring San Francisco on a cable car!

We just bought our single-ride passes straight from the conductor while we were on board the cable car. You can also purchase them on your phone and have an electronic copy of your ticket saved on your device.

Rules and Regulations

There aren't many 'rules' per se when it comes to riding San Francisco's cable cars. However, for the love of everything you hold dear, don't lean over the side of the cable car. You might lose a purse, or worse, a limb on a passing vehicle, whether it is parked or not. That is not a joke. We had a couple of lovely drivers remind us gently of this rule, and one extremely gruff gentleman driver who took this rule very seriously and barked it at anyone who even remotely swayed over the invisible line.

A view of Alcatraz from the Powell/Hyde trolley.

But I get it. On the ride where we were fortunate enough to get a standing spot, hanging onto the side of the car a la the "Full House" TV intro, it was tight at times. The cable cars are wide, and sometimes people don't park properly on the streets. A few cars were only inches away from the edge of the cable car at certain spots in our trip, and I almost lost a butt cheek at one point. Several times we had to crush our bodies into the interior of the cable car, nearly sitting on the laps of the passengers inside. So don't lean over the side. Don't give high fives to passers-by. Don't let your bags or purses dangle carelessly, lest you lose that bag, or that purse, or an arm, or a bum. It is a real danger, people.

Helpful Tips

If you want to have a peaceful and less crowded trolley ride, may I suggest getting up at the crack of dawn and making yourself available to board a trolley at 6 a.m., when they first begin running for the day. Much more beyond that, and they really start to get packed.

Once the popular cable car lines start to get busy, line-ups can be ridiculously long, especially at the turnaround points where the lines start/stop. Give yourself plenty of time to explore the city if you plan on using a cable car for transportation, and really think about where you'd like to sit on the cable car to plan how you'll choose to board.

Cable cars can get crowded, so watch your personal effects closely. I am not saying pickpockets run amok on San Francisco's cable car system, but with busy spaces filled with known tourists, there is always the chance. Better safe than sorry!

Enjoy your ride! And please, if you have any other advice or helpful stories to add to this post, please ensure you leave a comment below.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

15 Movies That Inspire Itchy Feet, Part One


I am not a 'new nomad'. Despite loving to travel as much as I do, I don't really get to explore the globe as much as I'd truly like. Not even close. So I try to make do with the trips that I have, which I am EVER so grateful for, travel locally when I can, and keep myself otherwise occupied. Check out my blog post on what to do when you have itchy feet but can't travel to see what I'm talking about.

Last night I made a list of movies that I'd like to watch to keep me inspired and hopeful for future travel. The list of movies I've yet to fall in love with include Michael Cera's film "Crystal Fairy and the Magic Cactus", which is set in Chile and looks more than a little crazy, "Una Noche" which has been recommended to me by several people and is set in Cuba, and "Into the Wild" which I have been meaning to watch for years but have never seemed to get around to doing so. There are a few more on the list, but I'll save them for another post and another day.

I was also thinking about how much I appreciate it when fellow travel nuts recommend really good wanderlust-inspiring films. Since these people love to globe-hop as much as I do, I take their opinions very highly when it comes to movie suggestions.

So I'd like to give back a little with my own series on travel-inducing films to help cure your case of itchy feet. Some of them are quite popular movies and you will recognize them right away, but some of them are more obscure and random. Some you might not even consider a 'travel movie' at all, but I hope to help you reconsider and give them another shot!

The Bucket List


This movie has to be the first one mentioned in my first post ever on travel movies. This movie inspired my blog theme (along with a short story that I used when I taught Grade 8 about a man who milked snakes and memorized all of Beethoven's work).

This movie, featuring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman, is about two older men who meet in a hospital room while facing health challenges. With thoughts of their impending mortality setting in, they decide to cross off as many life goals as they can before they 'kick the bucket'. Luckily, Nicholson's character is stinking rich, so this is made quite possible for them. Travel destinations in this movie include Mount Everest, France, the Great Wall of China, and so much more.

I love this movie. The message is heartfelt, there is a lot of humour, the acting is great, and the travel destinations make me want to run to the airport, passport in hand. Top marks for this one!

The Painted Veil


This elegant movie is set mainly in a remote village in China, although it begins in England for a short amount of time. While the scenes in England are all fine and dandy, it is the Chinese landscape, dreamy, wild, and eerily beautiful, that makes you want to pack your suitcase.

The movie centers around an English couple: Walter, a middle-class doctor set on changing the world, and Kitty, an upper-class women who basically married Walter to escape her parents. Kitty doesn't have much regard for her new husband, and ends up being unfaithful to him. When Walter discovers her indiscretion, he angrily accepts a position as a village doctor in a distant village in rural China that is suffering from cholera. Kitty is forced to accompany him, otherwise Walter threatens to divorce her. From there, I will let you discover the rest.

I chose to include this movie because of the alluring style in which 1920s rural China is shown. The majestic karst peaks shrouded in mist, the bamboo rafts floating through the water, and the parasols painted with floral patterns and Chinese symbols - the movie looks like a dream, but a dream I'd love to visit!

Only You


Before I even knew the joys of travel, back in my junior high days, the movie "Only You" was already giving me wanderlust. Cheesy, romantic, a little melodramatic, but oh so fun, "Only You" is about a young woman named Faith (played by Marisa Tomei) who believes in fate, destiny, and Ouija boards. She is told at a very young age, by an all-knowing Ouija board, that her true love's name is Damon Bradley. Flash-forward about 15 years, and she is getting married, but not to a man named Damon Bradley. That is, until a phone call a week before her wedding from a man with that name flips her life upside down.

Faith hastily tracks this mystery man to Italy, where she and her bestie search high and low throughout the beautiful country in search of him. Venice, Rome and the breathtaking Italian countryside feature predominantly in this picture. If you want a glimpse into the beauty that is Italy, watch this movie.

Under the Tuscan Sun


I am absolutely sure this movie is on every person's 'travel movie' list, but I couldn't resist because it is also one of my favourite movies of all time. "Under the Tuscan Sun" begins in the U.S.A. with writer Francis, who very quickly in the film goes through a nasty divorce. Her best friends send her to Italy on a "Gay and Away" Italian tour to try and cheer her up. (Francis is not gay, her best friends are, but a free trip to Italy is a free trip to Italy.)

While on the tour, she sees an Italian villa for sale, and literally runs from the bus to check it out. She ends up buying the house and making Italy her permanent home. The rest of the film is about Francis learning to live in a foreign country, as a newly single woman, trying to just sort herself out. I love the cinematography, the beautiful landscape, and the glimpses into the culture of the village Francis finds herself in.

This movie is based on a book, which apparently is a pretty awesome cookbook, too. After watching the food Francis learns to prepare in the movie, I think I should try the cookbook for myself.

Letters to Juliet


Last movie about Italy for this post, I swear! I only mention this one because my neighbour and I watched it the other night for our movie night choice. The film itself really is quite horrible, in my personal opinion. I am not a big fan of the drippy, chick-flick stuff (despite my choices on this list so far, ha!) and this one is drippier than most. The end scene makes me shudder, it is really so cliche and ridiculous. BUT...

It is in fair Verona where we set our scene, and the accompanying Italian countryside. Vineyards, old farmhouses, rolling hills - you get the picture. The movie, physically, is gorgeous. The underlying plot isn't that bad either. Aspiring writer Sophie goes to Verona with her husband-to-be for a pre-honeymoon, which turns into a solid business trip for her chef boyfriend. Ignored and dismayed, Sophie finds herself at the home of Shakespeare's Juliet, where people write love letters to the fictional heroine and stick them to the wall beneath her balcony. Sophie notices someone collecting the letters and follows them, where she learns that a group of women, hired by the city of Verona, respond to the letters personally.

Sophie joins the ladies, because she apparently has nothing else to do in Verona, and ends up writing back to a letter that had been lost for 50 years inside a crack in the wall. The writer of the original letter, Claire, shows up in Verona almost instantly (the timeline for this movie still befuddles me), and along with Sophie and Claire's grandson, begins to track down her lost love.

I won't go on. The adventure takes them to many beautiful places, and that's what I liked best about the film. Watch this one with a grain of salt; use it for travel inspiration and not intellectual fodder.

A Far Off Place


Moving on to Africa. This movie is Reese Witherspoon's first movie ever, and I watched it while babysitting back in grade 7 or 8. If you've never heard of it, or watched it before, then you are welcome. I still love it today, and I think it still holds water after 20 or so years. I hope you love it, too.

Young Witherspoon plays Nonnie, the daughter of an American gamekeeper living in Africa. When her family gets slaughtered by poachers hoping to clear the way for easy business, Nonnie and her friend Harry (and I say friend loosely, since they hate each other) have to flee for their lives and escape across the unforgiving Kalahari desert. Led by Nonnie's local pal Sarel Bok, who basically keeps everyone alive single-handedly, they journey across the sand and escape poachers in helicopters to find freedom.

The desert is portrayed as deadly, yet beautiful. I certainly don't want to cross the Kalahari after watching this movie, but I could be inspired to participate in an overnight camel caravan excursion.

Wild


Let's stick to Reese for a while longer. "Wild" is based on the novel by Cheryl Strayed, an American woman whose life tail-spinned into depression and substance abuse after the death of her mother. As a result of Cheryl's behaviour while depressed, her marriage also crumbled and ended in divorce. A bit lost and unsure of where her life is headed, Cheryl decides to walk the Pacific Crest Trail despite knowing nothing about long-term hiking.

In spite of (or because of) a series of wrong moves and amateur mistakes, Cheryl grows more experienced and confident, meeting other hikers along the way, and enjoying the beauty that nature provides. She begins her quest in the Mojave Desert in Southern California, moving north through snow-filled mountains, finally ending at the Columbia River between Oregon and Washington.

On a scale of 1 to 10, my desire to hike the Pacific Coast Trail for months on end is about a 0. But the footage from this film is truly stunning. I would head out for a weekend hiking trip for sure!

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel


I have never been to India, and the busyness of the country intimidates me a little bit. But after watching "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel", I decided India sure looks like a vibrant, colourful and fantastic adventure... with the right guide. I am still not convinced I could explore it solo.

The movie focuses on a struggling hotel in India where a rag-tag group of retirees find themselves staying. The events in the film follow several storylines, each relating to the characters and how they find themselves interacting with the rich culture and people of the region. It a very heartwarming film, with a great deal of humour and cheek.

The biggest thing is that I love is the message inherent in the plot: no one is ever too old to travel and experience more to life. I also love the scenery and window into India's culture.

Inception


This selection is not technically considered a travel movie, unless you think traveling in your dreams counts. Which sometimes I think might have to do for me.

The plot of "Inception" is too complicated to explain here. And if you haven't seen it yet anyway, I am going to assume you live under a rock. But this movie is most definitely a globetrotter - it was filmed in England, France, Tokyo, Morocco, and (the main reason I included "Inception") Alberta, Canada. The scene with the snowy ski chase was filmed about two hours away from my home. I think that is pretty cool, and inspires me to continue traveling locally and extending my 'backyard bucket list'.

Amelie


Also on everyone's travel movie list: "Amelie". You don't even have to read the subtitles to appreciate the beauty that is "Amelie". The story centers around young Amelie, as we watch her grow from a quirky child into a semi-reclusive adult. She is sweet as pie, eclectic, romantic, and very lonely.

Throughout the tale, we learn about her little neighbourhood in Montmartre: the cafe she works in, her neighbours in her building and their stories, and the unusual but enchanting hobbies Amelie keeps, such as random acts of kindness (or revenge). And then, since it is Paris and l'amour and whatnot, there's the romantic storyline.

The Paris that is presented in "Amelie" is modern, but looks like Paris of 50 years ago due to the cinematography. This is because the director purposely made it so. "Amelie" was shot on location at Montmartre, but the crew diligently cleared the streets of garbage and debris, moved cars so the cobblestoned roads were visible, scrubbed away graffiti, and replaced mundane flyers and posters with colourful and vintage ones instead. The Paris of "Amelie" is the Paris of my dreams!

Midnight in Paris


And speaking of Paris, how about a movie that combines the modern world of Paris with the glitz and glamour of the 'ex-pat' society of Gertrude Stein and Scott F. Fitzgerald? Woody Allen directed this film, and say whatever you want about Allen, but he is excellent at choosing locations for his films. This movie is particularly charming, as it easily flips between modern Paris and Paris of the 1920s.

Owen Wilson and Rachel McAdams star in this film as a completely mismatched couple about to be married. While strolling the streets of Paris at night, contemplating the massive mistake he is about to make wife-wise, Wilson enters a strange vehicle headed to a party (because why not?) and when he emerges, finds himself in 1920s Paris wining and dining with the great writers of the time.

This whimsical time travel movie shows Paris in all of its glory. The modern couple sight-sees to places like Rodin's gardens, while 1920s Paris is all cafes, bars, and writer's salons. We even get a glimpse of the 1890s Moulin Rouge during the Belle Epoque. Time travel never looked so good!

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty


Since I have been to Iceland and know first-hand just how amazing and oddly beautiful the country is, I was able to really appreciate the scenery in "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty". The movie features Ben Stiller as Walter Mitty, who works at Life magazine but doesn't seem to have much a life of his own. A missing negative from one of the magazine's most coveted photographers has Walter hopping on a plane to track down the photographer and with him, the missing negative.

Walter ends up going on a life-altering trip. He flies to Greenland, jumps from a helicopter into the ocean, sails to Iceland, learns to longboard, flits about the Icelandic countryside (which is spectacular both in the film and in real life), and ends up on the other side of the globe climbing the Himalayas. Everything about this movie is enchanting: the scenery, the ridiculous chase to find the photographer, and the message about living your life to the fullest.

Lost in Translation


It is odd how "Lost in Translation" can make a busy, bustling, crowded city like Tokyo seem so isolated and lonely, but that is exactly what this movie did. Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson star as unlikely travel companions after meeting in the bar of their Tokyo hotel. The characters are in the city for different purposes, but both feel quite alone and unsure about their respective futures. This feeling of mutual despair is what initially brings them together and helps them to connect.

Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson seem an extremely odd mix for romantic tension, but they make it work. What makes the relationship believable is the crazy amount of fun they have exploring Tokyo. Having a blast in a foreign city the way they do would bring anyone together as friends.

Moana


This is my only cartoon entry for this post, but for good reason. If you haven't seen it yet, as it is relatively new, then go out and watch it! Right now. Read the rest of this post later. Disney has outdone itself with this feature: the plot is entertaining and energetic, the music super catchy, and the animation... well, it might be the most beautifully drawn cartoons I've ever seen. The colours are brilliant. The ocean is animated so vibrantly, there really aren't words to describe it.

Moana, the Polynesian daughter of a chief, longs to travel the sea but her father forbids her. However, her island is dying as a result of an ancient stone, the heart of Te Fiti, being stolen and lost in the ocean. Without the stone, the ancient goddess Te Fiti can no longer create or give life to the world. Moana is charged with the task of returning the 'heart of Te Fiti', with the help of the delusional demigod Maui.

The movie shows Moana and Maui sailing from island to island during their quest to restore the heart of Te Fiti. The ocean scenes are brilliant, particularly one with a ghostly sting ray sparkling in the water. Each island is colourful, floral, and full of life. After watching this film, I was definitely ready for a vacation to Bora Bora!

Couples Retreat


Speaking of tropical getaways, the comedy movie "Couples Retreat", while ridiculous and at times completely stupid, has some spectacular scenery to offer viewers. In this movie, characters Dave (Vince Vaughn) and Ronnie (Malin Akerman) are convinced by divorcing couple Jason (Jason Bateman) and Cynthia (Kristin Bell) to come with them and a two other couples to a "Couples Retreat" in French Polynesia.

As with any Vince Vaughn movie, missteps and miscommunications abound with entertaining results (to varying degrees). Throughout the film, however, the scenery tends to steal the show. The ocean huts the couples stay in are fantastic, with little glass windows on the floor designed to gaze at fish. While I would be more than happy to avoid the 6 a.m. couples therapy that is featured in the movie, the rest of the resort looked more than adequate!

There are so many more wonderful movies based on travel or set in lovely places, but I had to start somewhere. I'd like to do more posts on this topic, so I'd better get out the popcorn and get cracking! It is a tough job, but I know I can power through. If you have any recommendations for me, I'd gladly take them! Please leave your suggestions in the comments below. Happy watching, and hopefully, happy travels!

*All movie poster images for this post are from imdb.com.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

San Francisco's Gorgeous Palace of Fine Arts


San Francisco is full of structural and architectural marvels: the Golden Gate Bridge, the Transamerica Pyramid, and the old, stone walls of Alcatraz prison to name a few. I was aware of all of these interesting sights prior to visiting San Francisco last September. One that I happily discovered while researching the vibrant city was the majestic Palace of Fine Arts. I knew it had to become part of my itinerary - it was too beautiful to miss.

The Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco

The Palace of Fine Arts is located in the Marina district of San Francisco, very close to Presidio Park and the Golden Gate Bridge. It is extremely easy to find due to its convenient location and its sheer size; you can't help but notice it as you drive past on the 101 through the city. For those of you looking to find it with your GPS, the official address of the Palace of Fine Arts is 3601 Lyon Street and Marina Boulevard. There is also tons of available parking, and we didn't have any issues finding a nearby spot for the stylin' rental mom van we were driving.

My ladies and I getting ready to explore the Palace of Fine Arts (I am on the far right)

Originally built in 1915 for an art exhibition, the Palace of Fine Arts has undergone several transformations. It was rebuilt in 1965, and there aren't many original pieces from the first building left standing. In 2009 the structure was again renovated to resist earthquakes and seismic activity. Today the Palace of Fine Arts still hosts art shows and exhibits, but is mainly a popular tourist attraction and a favourite site for locals to take their wedding and graduation photos. When we visited there were at least two wedding shoots being held on the grounds.

The inside of the rotunda at the Palace of Fine Arts

The Palace of Fine Arts sprawls over 17 acres and includes the massive Romanesque rotunda, equipped with massive pillars and decorated with exquisite sculptures and statues (over 1500 statues are said to be found throughout the grounds).

One of the 'weepers' on top of the Corinthian columns

The rotunda is surrounded by a giant stone pergola, supported by Corinthian columns approximately 150 feet high. There is also a large lagoon where catfish drift lazily to the surface to eat bugs, and a lawn filled with twisting trees and floral gardens.

The Palace of Fine Arts and its beautiful lagoon

It is a very peaceful and beautiful space. We began by wandering through the pergola, weaving around the columns, necks craned to the sky. Atop each column are four maidens, called "weepers", carved into the stone. The figures are called "weepers" because they were designed to collect rainwater and redistribute it to planters that were built into the tops of the pergola. Nothing is actually planted in the planters, but that is why the maidens were nicknamed "weepers", as their rainwater 'tears' were meant to water and nourish plant life.

A peek of the rotunda through the pergola columns

Past the pergola, visitors encounter the main structure, the awe-inspiring rotunda which towers 165 feet into the sky. I felt very tiny and humbled inside the rotunda, but also very grateful that there are places like this that exist in the world.

Me feeling small outside of the rotunda
The ceiling of the rotunda

Thank goodness the city of San Francisco decided to preserve and rebuild the Palace of Fine Arts, instead of letting it fall to ruin or simply bulldozing it to the ground.

Trying to put the rotunda columns to scale

After we were done exploring the rotunda, we followed the shale pathway around the lagoon, enjoying the pretty gardens and various wildlife. There were tons of herons lounging in the water, catfish nibbling at the surface of the lagoon, and feathery pampas grasses looming over everything.

I love that tall, feathery pampas grass

We strolled the circumference of the lagoon, enjoying the warm sun and peaceful atmosphere. We climbed trees. We signed a petition against dog farming in China (there was a small but polite protest occurring on one section of the path). We spent the better part of a morning getting familiar with the Palace of Fine Arts and what it had to offer.

Six ladies climbing a tree at the Palace of Fine Arts

While there is nothing particularly exciting or thrilling about visiting the Palace of Fine Arts, I would still say it is worth a visit. The architecture is amazing, and the rest of the facility is serene and very pretty. Take a picnic. Enjoy the sun. You will be glad you did.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Explore Calgary's Spark Science Center and Calgary Tower


Last weekend, my husband and I had a fun weekend exploring Jasper National Park, away from home AND the kids. It was a bit of a break from the whirlwind of potty training, shape sorting, macaroni making, and everything that comes with two busy toddlers. However, even though I know they had fun with their beloved grandparents, I felt bad leaving them while we went out and had all of the adventures. (I know, you can't wait to take a break from your children, and then when you leave them, you miss them. There's just no pleasing mothers sometimes!)

This weekend, I decided it was the kids' turn to have some adventure. It also helped that I enjoyed myself immensely the whole time too. And their auntie got to tag along, so it was an exciting weekend for everyone!

My kids were due for an adventure, so off we went to Calgary for the night!

Last year, my husband won a gift basket from Big Brothers Big Sisters that featured a free night's stay at the Delta Bow Valley hotel in downtown Calgary. Our coupon for the hotel stay was set to expire at the end of February this year, and still we hadn't used it. So it seemed like a fantastic idea to take the kids into Calgary for our weekend trip, and stay for free at a nice hotel that was in a great central location to some of the things we wanted to see.

We began our exploits at the Telus Spark Science Centre, located just off of Deerfoot and Memorial in Calgary. This is a great place to take kids if you are in Calgary, simply because there is just SO MUCH to do and you can spend hours keeping the kids entertained and happy in one location. It isn't a cheap date ($19.95 for adults, $12.95 for kids 3 to 12, and $15.95 for teens 13 to 17), so I do recommend you plan to spend as long as humanly possible inside the science centre to make the most of your money.

Excited to be exploring the Spark Science Centre in Calgary.

However, it is entirely possible to spend the whole day at the Spark Centre if you so desire. My kids could even stay in just the one room the whole day, no problem. They love the Creative Kids Museum section, which features a giant jungle gym climbing area, a water play area, a bubble pipe organ, a reading nook, a glow-in-the-dark theatre, and tons of other little play spaces that dabble in air pressure, gravity, magnetism, light, and other science themed activities targeted for younger children.

Getting soaking wet in the water table play area.

We spent three hours in the Creative Kids Museum section this time around, and last time we visited it may have been longer. I was glad their auntie was with us, or I am certain I would have lost someone, as they were flitting about from activity to activity at a breakneck pace.

The beautiful bubble organ at the Creative Kids Museum.

There are other exhibits throughout the science centre. We danced up a storm in the electricity exhibit, where the kids' energy on the dance floor was 'converted' into battery power. The faster the kids danced and jumped, the faster they 'charged the battery' on the TV screen. It was a great workout for them, and I was like, "Yes! They'll be all tired now." But I was wrong. They have unflagging energy and it just isn't fair.

My son marvelling at the multitude of colors.

In the earth sciences room, we learned about light with beautiful jars of coloured water filtering the bright sunshine into a kaleidoscope of color. We learned about sound by experimenting with bird songs. And my daughter LOVED the hands-on erosion display they had set up, which allowed her to play with the sand and water and just get filthy. Good times.

So many pretty colors!

In addition to those rooms, there is a feature exhibit section (we didn't go into it this time around, but last time I had the pleasure of seeing the frightfully delightful "Bodies" exhibit). There is also a viewing dome, where you can watch planetarium videos, or movies about bugs to name a few examples. We also didn't do that this time around - I knew my kids would be too full of energy to sit and watch a movie, no matter how cool it might look on the ceiling of a giant dome.

After about four hours at the Telus Spark Science Centre, it was time to go check in to our hotel and move on to the next activity. We found the Delta Bow Valley hotel very easily, as it was only a four minute car ride down Memorial Drive into the downtown area. The kids LOVED the view from the 20th floor, and my daughter was very excited to stay in "The big city!" as she kept proclaiming.

The Calgary Tower from below.

We didn't loiter in the hotel room for very long, as daylight was burning and we didn't have too much time to waste. The plan was to take the kids up the Calgary Tower next - if they enjoyed the view from the 20th floor of the Delta, then they would go crazy over the view from the top of the tower.

Looking down, way down, from the Calgary Tower.

We arrived at the Calgary Tower base by 5:30 p.m., which was plenty of time since the Tower is open from 9:00 a.m. until 9:00 p.m. However, there was no one else waiting in line so we sailed right on up and purchased tickets to ride the elevator to the top.

Going up the elevator to the top of the Calgary Tower.

Tickets range from $18.00 for general admission (13-64 years of age) to $9.00 for kids 4 to 12. My babes were free, which was nice because beyond the viewing platform, there really isn't too much to see up top for kids. (There is the Sky 360 restaurant, which spins slowly around the circumference of the Calgary Tower and offers a 360 degree view of the city skyline, hence the name.)

Some cool old photos of the tower under construction.

Even though it was basically dinner time when we arrived at the Calgary Tower, we opted not to dine at Sky 360, mainly because it is quite pricy, and probably not the best place to take two hungry and very tired toddlers after a busy day of exploring.

My son and I sitting on the clear glass observation deck.

We did, however, enjoy about 30 minutes of fun play atop the Tower. My kids adored the viewing platform and were fearless, walking on the clear glass platform, laying on their stomachs, and even pretending to fall through the sky. I was able to walk on the platform myself, but I always get a touch of vertigo and am pretty happy to step back onto the opaque floor again.

A floating child on the Calgary Tower.

The kids had a good time wandering the perimeter of the tower, but there isn't much there beyond a small gift shop and a penny machine. With one more venture out onto the clear glass platform and some cuddles for their auntie while suspended in the sky, we headed out, in search of cheap and kid-friendly food.

My daughter had zero fear on that observation deck!

It was a wonderful day with my children and their aunt. I hope to do more little weekend trips with my kids now that they are old enough to appreciate a hotel adventure and some light sight-seeing. It is fun to see some classic local tourist sites through their eyes, so stay tuned for more!