CALIFORNIA’S SUPER BLOOM

Anza Borrego Desert State Park

In March, 2017,the wild flowers were lighting up the park in ways even the pictures can’t show.

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We went on a rocky, unpaved road, leaving a trail of dust behind us, going what looked like nowhere.  We left other flower gazers behind to see the occotillo in bloom.  Just as we thought we took the wrong road, we saw a beautiful field of blooming occotillo. Gorgeous!!!

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Carrizo Plain National Monument

Another long dirt road led to a fabulous field of sunflowers.

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Taking the Plunge with Whale Sharks ( A Three Day Mini-vacation)

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One day my daughter mentioned that her friend went to Mexico and swam with whale sharks.  That sounded so cool, so I did some research to find out what a whale shark was.  Were they really sharks, are they dangerous to humans, are they the size of whales? Yes, no and yes!  I discovered that one of the best places to see these magnificent animals is off the coast of Isla Mujeres, an island near Cancun.

Did You Know?

Between June and September the whale sharks come to feed on the  plankton rich waters between the Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico. Fishermen used to call whale sharks “dominoes” because of their dark bodies with white spots.  Whale sharks used to be killed for sport until conservationists convinced fishermen to take tourists out to swim with them instead of killing them.  And then a wonderful thing happened.  The local fishermen were making much more money protecting the whale sharks.

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Our Itinerary

Over a 3 day weekend in July, we decided to take a mini-vacation to Isla Mujeres!!!  We took an overnight flight from Los Angeles to Cancun, and arrived early Saturday morning.  The best way to get to Isla Mujeres from the airport is to take a cab to the Gran Puerto Cancun (Ultramar), two blocks from Puerto Juarez.  The express boats leave every half hour from 5:00 am until 9:00 pm, and then every hour until 11:30 pm.  From the pier, we took a catamaran to Isla Mujeres, which lasted approximately 20 minutes.  Isla Mujeres is a cute little fishing town, with many seafood restaurants, souvenir shops and boutique hotels.  The weather was very hot and humid, and we couldn’t wait to cool off  in the water.  The island is not that big and many tourists rent golf carts to get around. We decided to walk to our hotel as it was pretty close to the ferry terminal.  We were approached by a local tour operator who offered us a deal, a private charter that would take us all over the island, for $60 in cash.   We couldn’t pass that up!  We went snorkeling at El Farito (the Lighthouse reef) where we fed beautiful tropical fish.  Next we explored the MUSA (Underwater Museum of Art), the largest underwater museum on the planet.  These  underwater sculptures are designed to counteract climate change by creating an artificial coral reef.  The sunken Volkswagen was a very interesting site.  We visited a turtle farm which is a refuge for loggerhead, hawksbill and green turtles. It provides safe breeding grounds and protects eggs.  And we held a nurse shark!  What a wonderful way to spend our first day in Isla Mujeres.

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We got up early Sunday morning, day #2,  to begin our journey of a life time, swimming with whale sharks.  We  were hopeful while we walked to the Aqua Adventures Dive Shop, that today the whale sharks would be off the coast of Isla Mujeres.  They were there last summer, but it isn’t a sure thing as they go where the plankton is.  Over the years they have changed course many times.  We boarded a boat with 5 other tourists, and two guides.  The whale shark tours are heavily regulated by the Mexican government.  Only 11 people total can be on each boat, and only 4 of them can be in the water at one time.  We went out into the open ocean, about an hour from the coast, where the water was quite choppy.   The great news was that there were approximately 200 whale sharks in our vicinity that day!    When it was our time to swim with the whale sharks, our guide would yell “Lady, swim, swim, swim!”  We followed another guide who was in the water,  leading us to the closest whale shark.  And they were everywhere!  We were able to get so close to the sharks that we could touch them if we were allowed to!   Their beautiful, magnificent bodies were enormous, the size of a bus.  They would swim towards us, mouths open to catch the plankton, but we were not afraid.  Just when I thought one would hit me, it would glide effortlessly past me.  Their mouths were huge enough to swallow us up, but we were never in danger.   To admire such a beautiful creature face to face in the middle of the ocean makes one feel a personal connection to them, and a desire to save this species from extinction.  We were so in awe that the cares of this world melted away.  Today was magical, we were forever touched by the beauty of nature.

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Before I got back into the boat, a thought crossed my mind. I was floating in the open ocean!  Looking below the water left me with some questions.  You cannot help but wonder what is below you.  What is watching you? What if you were here all by yourself?  The deep blue abyss below us was a mystery and something to ponder.  Safely in the middle of the Pacific ocean, surrounded by creatures the size of a bus, an incredible feeling!

After our whale shark tour, we took the ferry back to Cancun.  A short cab ride to our hotel The Westin in the Hotel Zone left us the late afternoon to play in the surf, and the evening to get dressed up and have an incredible dinner.  We took a plane back to Los Angeles early the following morning, day #3.  Although we played hard with little sleep, we were amazingly rested, ready to join the work week.  Until our next mini-vacation!

Spending the Night Under the Sea

Although we like to relax on vacation, we are an adventurous sort and are always looking for interesting and exciting things to do.  We knew we anted to go somewhere warm, so we chose the Florida Keys.  December is the perfect time to visit the Keys, when the weather is a balmy 72 to 76 degrees, and there is a lot of sun.  We have both spent time in the Orlando area before, playing at Disney World, touring the Kennedy Space Center, and searching for alligators on a swamp tour.  In an effort to find something we haven’t done before, we decided to visit the Florida Keys and came across Jules Undersea Lodge.  We were imediately intrigued and had to experience it!

Did you Know?

Florida has the only underwater hotel in the world that you have to scuba dive to get to?  
What was previously a La Chalupa research laboratory, used to explore the continental shelf off the coast of Puerto Rico, now rests at the bottom of a mangrove lagoon. The research hub was filled with compressed air, which prevents water from flooding the rooms, and placed under the sea.  Bassically, it is a marine research lab converted into a hotel!

What is it like?

We arrived at the office where we were given a tour of the lagoon, and learned about the history of the lodge. After we were briefed on the logistics we donned our wetsuits and diving gear, and were sent off to the lagoon and scuba dived to the five by seven foot “moon pool” entrance in the floor of the lodge.  Our stuff came with us in an airtight case.  We surfaced into the wet room, where we left our gear and took a hot shower.  The wet room is the only room that the people in the lodge have video cameras in and put nder 24 hour surveillance.  We also had phones throughout the lodges as alternattive ways to communicate if there were ever an emergency.  The hotel is fairly small and consists of two bedrooms and a livingroom/kitchen area.  The hotel was equipped with all you needed–it even had wifi and room service!  And by room service, we mean someone  someone scuba diving us our favorite pizza.

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Picture: pizza scuba delivery

Our night consisted of cozying up in blankets and watching videos, observing the fish and diving cormorants through the port holes, and consuming tea/coffee and a multitude of snacks.  We were given extra tanks down below and had the option to night dive anytime we felt like it.  All we had to do was assemble our gear and go!  It was our first night dive, so it was very exciting!  We got up the next morning, ate a small breakfast and got ready to scuba out of the hotel.  It all felt so surreal, but was definitely an experience worth taking!  We highly recommend it!

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Picture: Living Quarters

If it is your first time visiting the Florida Keys, don’t forget to have some key lime pie and stone crab (their specialty!) and catch a beach sunset!

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Picture: Blonde Giraffe–favorite key lime pie spot

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Pic: The old railroad bridge at Bahia Honda State Park

Swimming with “Mermaids” in Florida

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An hour and a half from Orlando, Florida lies the sleepy town of Crystal River.  Tourists come here in the winter months to swim with the West Indian manatees, that come inland to escape the cold waters of the Gulf of Mexico.  Also called sea cows, they are large vegetarians , 9 to 10 feet long, and weigh approximately 1,000 pounds.  They are related to elephants, are slow moving, and very gentle. There are only 10,000 West Indian manatees left in the world, so Florida has made November Manatee Awareness Month. Tours are regulated to protect the manatees, and tourists can be fined if they do not obey the rules.

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Did You Know?

 

Some historians believe that manatees were what sailors thought were mermaids.  On his first journey to the Americas, Christopher Columbus wrote in his journal that he saw three mermaids, which rose out of the sea.  He went on to say that they were not so beautiful as their faces had some masculine traits.  Biographers contribute his mermaids to manatees.

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What is it like?

 

We decided to go see the manatees in late December, when both of us had some vacation time.   Because silt on the bottom of the river mixes with the water, it is hard to see the manatees as the day progresses.  So we booked an early morning tour with the company Birds Underwater Dive Company, and began our adventure.    We donned our wet suits, watched a video on the proper way to view the manatees, and boarded our boat.  The weather was cool, foggy, and dark outside.  Locals were kayaking, enjoying the wildlife around the river.  We watched cormorants dive and catch fish, and ate a fun breakfast of donuts and coffee before entering the water.  By the time we watched the sunrise, we were  ready to get in the water and look for manatees.  At first it was hard to spot any, but our guides were very good at pointing them out.  There were very few in the water that day,  but the ones that we did see were awesome.  One young, very friendly  manatee actually came to look at me, and we almost collided!   The face of this gentle creature was one of curiosity and playfulness.   As we were snorkeling, the water was quite cool and refreshing, and we noticed that freshwater was bubbling up from the bottom of the river, a very unusual sight.

 

 

Although there were only a few manatees during our tour, we were excited to see the few we did, getting so close that you could make eye contact with them.  They are large, magnificent creatures with a rich history.  Swimming with manatees is more fun than a Disney World ride, and worth a detour from Orlando.

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A Traveler’s Guide to Booking the Cheapest Flight

REALITY CHECK– More times than not, the one thing that keeps you from taking your dream vacation is the price of the flight.  Searching through a multitude of travel websites with continual fluctuating prices can be exhausting and overwhelming.  And not to mention, leave you thinking, “where do I begin” and “am I really getting the best deal”?  

unnamed-2.jpgHere are 5 secret tips that can save you both time & money, allowing you to take that dream vacation you’ve been wanting to take!

  1. Always put your browser mode incognito or private mode

 

Flight companies are able to track your flight searches by putting cookies onto your browser for each repeated flight search.  The more you search, the more cookies they put on, and the higher the prices go up.  Putting your browser in private or incognito mode, allows for your cookies to reset each time, so you are essentially searching for the “first time”.  We recommend closing and reopening a browser in incognito or private mode for each search to get the best deal!

2. Look into Budget Airlines

 

If you are adaptable and don’t mind doing away with perks (ie additional legroom, food/drink service, outlets), then don’t forget to check budget airlines!  They often offer significantly lower prices than competing major airlines. Just don’t forget to read the fine print before booking.  You may need to print out your ticket beforehand or there may have different weight/size requirements.  

TIPS:

 

3. Consider these sites that are designed to save you money

Skipped Lagged: When your layover is your final destination.

Skipped Lagged can save you up to 80% on your flight by generating a flight that is cheaper than your destination flight by simply having your destination as the layover instead of the final stop.  For instance, it may cost more for you to fly from New York to San Francisco instead of from New York to Seattle with a layover in San Francisco.  All you do is simply get off at your layover!

Air Treks: When you want to travel the world

Air Treks is a dream tool for anyone planning a multi-destination flight.  All you do is plug in destinations you wish to travel to and it will provide an estimated cost.

Airfordable: When you want to snag that plane ticket deal next summer but don’t want to pay it all upfront

Airfordable provides an easy way for you to snag that dream plane ticket without having to pay everything upfront.  All you do is find your ticket, pay a deposit, and create a payment plan to pay for your ticket by the time of your flight.  Once you pay it, Airfordable sends you your ticket.

Airfarewatchdog or Secret Flying: When you want to check for Error Fares

Whether it is accidentally omitting fuel surcharges, simply forgetting a zero, or miscalculating the rate of currency, mistake airfares are occasionally posted.  Sites like these are designed to find ‘error fares’ and potentially score you an amazing deal you hoped and prayed for.

4. Additional search engines to check out:

 

You are most likely acquainted with major travel search engines, like Travelocity, Expedia and Kayak.  While these sites can offer you great deals, we also recommend the following sites:

5. Follow alerts on Twitter/Facebook

 

Social media is a great way to stay abreast of the latest deals. Here are some recommended Twitter handles:

@TPG_Alerts         @JetBlueCheeps      @Hopper_Deals      @AirefareWatchdog

@Theflightdeal      @ExitFares       @FareCompareDeals