Travel: Guide to Ojai, CA

Ojai is a beautiful, quaint town tucked away in a valley between mountain and sea. We first discovered it a year ago and it has since become one of our favorite local get-away destinations. Only a three hour drive up the coast of California, this hidden gem is accessible and holds all that we love to do. Good food, beautiful shops, and plenty of hiking trails and outdoor activities. Boutique hotels hold the charm of a pioneer-town, with garden patios and ranch-vibe inns. Our favorite times to visit are sunny California winters or in the Spring. I would recommend avoiding the Summer months when bugs like to come and visit the valley floor and snakes litter the hiking trails. That’s just my personal preference! Regardless, Ojai deserves a travel guide. Here are some of our favorite eats and shops in downtown!


♦◊◊◊
Not worth the time.

♦♦◊◊
Good, but ordinary.

♦♦♦◊
Great. Worth a visit.

♦♦♦♦
Exceptional. A must-do experience.

$
Frugal friendly

$$
Reasonable

$$$
Pricey


Pinyon

♦♦♦♦
423 E Ojai Ave Ste 101,

Ojai, CA 93023
$$

Pinyon is a great spot to grab sandwiches and pizza! Even though it’s on the main street of downtown, it’s an easy spot to miss. I am here to tell you to make sure you don’t just drive by. They serve pastries and coffee for breakfast. For lunch they serve amazing hoagies. Mike and I split a lamb hoagie with confit for dipping.

The server behind the register was so excited to talk about how they sourced the meet. Pinyon partners with local farmers who raise sheep. The sheep help to keep grass levels down which reduces fires on the mountains of Ojai, which used to be way more frequent. We couldn’t help but feel like purchasing our sandwich helped protect the land! Pinyon also makes pizzas in a wood-fire oven. All their dough is made in-house and I just have to say the seeded hoagie bun was out of this world. We also got a pretzel on the side, which we used to lap up the left-over confit.

The Dutchess

♦♦♦♦
457 E Ojai Ave,

Ojai, CA 93023
$$

First and foremost, the first time we went to Ojai, we missed going to The Dutchess. But on our most recent trip, we found ourselves at their door all three days of our vacation. Our wedding party had a welcome ceremony there, and the bartenders were allegedly serving some of the best cocktails that night. Being pregnant, all I can attest to as far as drinks go was the merry composition of the guests. They also had the rehearsal dinner there and Mike’s grandmother could not stop talking about the chicken.

A Burmese-French inspired spot, delicious desserts such as passionfruit chiffon cakes, rye chocolate sables, and shortbread linzer cookies were served. Every morning thereafter, I begged to go back for breakfast. We wolfed down ham croissants, samosas, berry danishes, bagel sandwiches, cheese croissant twists, and scones. It’s good I don’t live there because my wallet would not be able to take it. As an avid baker, I would highly recommend this place! Next time, we will stop by for dinner.

Farmer and the Cook

♦♦♦♦
339 W El Roblar Dr,

Ojai, CA 93023
$$

Farmer and the Cook is further away from the main downtown road. It is, however, worth the drive. The farmer owns 12 acres of CCOF certified land producing organic foods. It’s part Mexican-cafe, part grocery store, and part pizza shop. They serve delicious smoothies and granola bowls. We also tried their vegetarian tacos and classic burrito. The day we went, we were with eight other friends who all enjoyed their food. It’s a great option for vegetarians! You can really tell the ingredients were fresh and in season.

Topa Topa Brewery

♦♦♦♦
345 E Ojai Ave A,

Ojai, CA 93023
$

We love Topa Topa Brewery. There’s a Santa Barbara location as well, one I am sure gaucho grads are familiar with. The Ojai location is in the heart of downtown. With an outdoor patio, it is perfect for sunny afternoons. A group of gals went with me and we spent a few hours away from the boys drinking good beer and chit-chatting away. Within the establishment is Little Sama, a delicious asian-inspired restaurant that serves food to-go from a tiny window. See my review on Little Sama below.

Revel Kombucha

♦♦♦♦
307 E Matilija St c,

Ojai, CA 93023
$

If beer isn’t your thing, then you may want to swing by Revel for some on-tap kombucha that’s sure to raise your spirits. They also serve fully organic acai bowls for the entire family. The colorful decor and foods really set the vibe here. A teenager’s dream hang-out spot, there are a few patio chairs outside however I recommend bringing your bowls to eat at the central garden not to far from the shop!

Little Sama

♦♦♦♦
345 E Ojai Ave A,

Ojai, CA 93023
$

This small establishment lies within the Topa Topa Brewery. We ordered our food to-go and ate at home, although you can also eat at the brewery itself. Southeast-asian fair pairs really well with Topa Topa’s extensive beer menu. All the dishes were tasty! Favorites included the signature chicken wings, lemongrass beef donburi bowls and seared tofu. We also enjoyed the Vietnamese noodle salad and Okonomiyaki tots. Perfect for a lazy night in after a full day of hiking!

Ojai Rotie

♦♦♦◊
469 E Ojai Ave,

Ojai, CA 93023
$

Delicious Lebanese-French rotisserie chicken is being served in this outdoor patio area under twinkling lights. Picnic style is the vibe, with the wooden picnic tables and family style packages. A picnic for four is purchasable, with options to get chicken in half or full sizes. Accompaniments include sides such as potatoes, carrots, cucumbers, and slaw. Sprinkled in the menu are dishes such as kafta, lebne, hummus and freshly grilled manouch. Plus, freshly baked sourdough line their shelves every day!

Papa Lennon’s

♦♦◊◊
515 W El Roblar Dr,

Ojai, CA 93023
$

We got take-out on a busy Friday night booked with wedding preparation and celebration. It was a local recommendation to try Papa Lennon’s pizza. They say it’s one of the best, but to be frank, it was mediocre. I’m alright with being called a pizza snob, but the take-out fell short of my expectations. The toppings were sparse and the dough was tough to chew. It did, however, save us on an extremely busy night. It’s just, for what you pay for, I think we could have gotten something better.

The Nest

♦♦♦♦
401 E Ojai Ave,

Ojai, CA 93023
$$

Delicious pub-fare, with an outdoor patio and late-night hours. We headed over here with a group of ten friends as they were closing. Their food was super tasty and so were the drinks. I tried the chicken wings and the vegetarian tacos. Our friends gorged on sandwiches and burgers. Everyone was happy with their orders. The Nest also has a small shop where they sell kitchen products, pet accessories, and fun trinkets. I love swinging by to peruse the shelves and have walked away on multiple occasions with a trinket or other. Definitely would return here!

Osteria Monte Grappa

♦♦♦◊
401 E Ojai Ave,

Ojai, CA 93023
$$$

We had a reservation for 12 at this Italian restaurant in the center of downtown. You can’t miss it as it’s a beautiful establishment facing the main street. The food was delicious! Pasta was amazing, as well as all appetizers and dessert. Organic and farm-based, this restaurant makes their doughs from scratch as well. The restaurant itself has a cozy interior, perfect for a cold winter soiree. What could be cozier than carbs and homemade pasta sauce?

Sanders and Sons

♦♦♦◊
334 E Ojai Ave,

Ojai, CA 93023
$

Sanders and Sons feature a rotating array of gelato flavors, which change seasonally based on Mr. Sanders’ whim and fancy. You’ll never know what you’ll find on the menu. We tried a delicious mimosa flavor before landing on the Guava Bella and the Chocolate Covered Strawberries. Pair with a number of cone options, including Blue Corn Tortilla, Orange Creamsicle, Birthday Cake or Matcha. It’s the perfect treat on a warm, sunny California day.

Ojai Ice Cream Company

♦♦♦◊
210 E Ojai Ave,

Ojai, CA 93023
$

Ojai Ice Cream Company is at the end of the downtown area cross from the park and post. They serve both traditional ice cream flavors as well as wilder scoops. Whereas Sanders & Sons house the hip teens and twenty-year olds, young kids and senior couples can be found at Ojai Ice Cream Company. Look, good old-fashioned ice cream may not be trendy, but it is classic. And honestly, there are enough unique flavors here to make it Instagrammable. If you’re debating between Sanders and this place, I say try this spot first. Walk across the street to the park, sit on a bench, and divulge before the ice cream melts.

Bart’s Books

♦♦◊◊
302 W Matilija St,

Ojai, CA 93023
$

A bookworm’s dream, and a minimalist’s nightmare. I had mixed feelings about this spot. It was endearing, walking amongst endless shelves lined with all sorts of books and novels. The sun lit up beautiful corners, though there weren’t any reading nooks to speak of. However, from an organizational standpoint, it was quite over-whelming. Sections were broadly categorized based on topics, but the range they offered was so wide and the books sometimes out of alphabetical order. It was nice to peruse, but not for long. There were dusty corners to avoid, and I much prefer perusing a small, independently-owned book shop with personal anecdotes written on index cards on a limited number of books.

Noted

♦♦♦♦
423 E Ojai Ave #102,

Ojai, CA 93023
$

A paper aficionado’s dream store. Noted has everything from yearly planners to task pads. Little notebooks for travel and Japanese stickers line the tables. Coloring books for children and cookbooks or adults line the walls. In the back of the store lies a wall full of greeting cards, which my sister-in-law had a blast perusing. There were even desk brushes and fancy pencils and pens. It’s hard not to find something that speaks to you.

Dekor

♦♦♦♦
105 S Montgomery St,

Ojai, CA 93023
$$$

I always stop in this store, despite the high price point. Quality home goods can be found here. Elite fragrances, body oils, and beauty products abound. I personally love buying the body oils and fragrances from Rowsie Vain. There are coffee table books and jewelry, as long as locally made mugs and linens. It isn’t for shallow pockets, though!

This travel guide to Ojai only skims the surface. Definitely there are other things to love, like the Biking Trail, the kid park in the middle of downtown, the weekly Farmer’s Market, and the summer concerts in their auditorium. Places to stay include Emerald Iguana Inn, Ojai Rancho Inn, or the Capri Hotel. You can also book the super glam Ojai Valley Inn, a must-stop for all golfers. If you want to glam, check out the Caravan Outpost too! Or do what we did with our group of 12 friends and rent an AirBNB. You can’t really go wrong.

Photo by Brandon DesJarlais on Unsplash

Staying at the Banning House Lodge in Catalina Island, California

Staying at the Banning House Lodge in Catalina Island, California is a mystery, as far as internet research goes. An archaic website was all I had as reference prior to our stay. Even the booking site reminded me of the 1990’s. It is such a shame. The Banning House has now become one of my favorite getaway spots. It is appropriately isolated. The beautiful home has a great view perched atop a hill. The vibe is truly relaxing and the history of the house really transported me to a place back in time – one without the rush of technology and progress. I thought I’d share everything one needs to know about staying at the Banning House. Just so the interwebs can have a taste of this great vacay spot.

History on the Banning House Lodge

The craftsman-style house was built by the Banning brothers in 1910, who owned Catalina Island since 1892. It was their summer home and they hosted soirees, dinner parties, and celebrations on their large property. It took two days to get to their summer home from Avalon. The Santa Catalina Island Company was created to attract visitors to their summer house.

In the early 1919 they sold the Island (and eventually the Santa Catalina Island Company) to William Wrigley Jr, known for Wrigley gum. Over the years, the Lodge served as the U.S. Coast Guard officer’s quarters during WWII, as a private girls camp in the late 1950’s, a hunting lodge, and as employee housing. Today, the Banning House is a twelve room bed and breakfast with a historic and warm feel and beautiful panoramic views of Two Harbors.

Getting to Banning House

The Banning House lies on the Northern end of Catalina Island. It is the only bookable stay, aside from campgrounds. To get to Banning House, one must take a boat ride to Two Harbors. The only straight shot from the coast of California is from the San Pedro Harbor. Other harbors go to Avalon on the south side of the island first, before landing on the north end. A direct boat ride takes a little over hours, while pitstops in Avalon turns it into two.

About Two Harbors

The northern part of the island is quite deserted. It’s a hiker’s paradise, with a third of the Trans-Catalina Trail starting and ending at Two Harbors in a loop. The coastline is dotted with isolated beaches, summer camps for kids, and a Boy Scouts campground. In the ‘town’ of Two Harbors, there is only one restaurant, which serves lunch and dinner. A gift shop, however, had all the foods one would need, including ice cream. There is also a rental company from which to rent kayaks, SUPs, and bikes. Summer weekends typically have live weekends and the boats from Avalon arrive at Two Harbors around 11am. My recommendation is to get your rentals as early as 9am when they open, to avoid the crowds. Then again, lunch time at the restaurant is quite fun as people dance to the live music.

What to Expect at the Stay

The Banning house sits atop a hill. A shuttle will be there to welcome you as you disembark from the boat. They will offer you and your bags a ride to the top. However, the walk isn’t far. Ten minutes is all it takes to get to the check-in door. Check-in is at 4pm and check-out is at 12 noon.

The kind staff will give you a tour of the house’s amenities upon arrival. A wrap-around porch gives scenic views of both harbors. Rickety rattan porch furniture immediately imbue the right mood. This is a place for relaxation. When we landed, current guests were just sitting on the porch looking at the view. There were no laptops or cell phones to be found. Limbs were strewn over the arms of rocking chairs, feet were propped up on glass tables. Most had coffee in hand, a father and son were playing a game of chess, and others were reading books.

There is a common indoor space which also has sweeping views of the two harbors on either side. Walking into it smells like walking into grandma’s house. Actually, it felt like stepping back in time. Bison and deer heads lined the walls, firewood sat next to the fireplace and an old cob-webbed piano sits in a corner. There is a sun-room, and shelves lined with puzzles and traditional boardgames. A few soft cover books with bent spines and yellowing pages can also be found. This isn’t a fancy place, but it’s nothing short of romantic.

The rooms are also of a similar tune. The beds are a bit on the lumpy side, the wardrobe doors creak as you open them, and the curtains remind me of lace doilies. There are two chairs by the window sill with a small foot stool. A mini fridge is found in the room, along with a full bathroom. The shower spews hot water with decent pressure. The simple appointments are really humbling. It reminds me of my youth, when times were simpler and a vacation really meant idleness.

Complimentary Meals

Perhaps one of our favorite parts about the stay are the complimentary meals. Every morning the Banning House hosts breakfast. Unlimited cereal, fruit, toast, muffins, yogurt, hard-boiled eggs, cheese and ham make up the full line-up. Three juices, coffee and tea are also served. I loved waking up whenever my body told me to and slowly making my way to the breakfast bar. We literally sat on the porch looking out onto the water eating our breakfast for an hour. Then we would bring a book to our table and spend another two hours reading, looking out, and occasionally talking about whatever entered our minds.

Every afternoon, there would be wine hour from 5-6pm. Each person got two (very full) glasses of wine. You could choose from two Reds or a White. There would also be crackers, cheese, cured meats and honey. After a long day of hiking, we really looked forward to these wine hours. Exhausted from being in the sun all afternoon, we would unwind during this hour, before walking into the town restaurant for dinner.

Why I like staying at the Banning House

The Banning House is a surreal place. I love it for it’s ability to isolate. I mean, it IS on a deserted piece of island! Sitting atop the hill, it gives a bird’s-eye view of the world below. I have a different perspective when I am in a higher up location, which may be why I love hiking mountain-scapes. Things just make more sense at high altitudes. I can see, think, and feel more clearly. Plus the sound of ocean waves, sea birds, and breezy winds can’t be beat.

I also love it for its historic charm. Nothing about the home is modern, which means nothing about it makes me yearn for progress. It really gets me to slow down – quite a difficult feat. Usually, our vacations are laden with places to see, things to do, and foods to eat. This was different. Since the island had very few facts online about what the stay was going to be like, I made zero plans. I thought perhaps we could hike every day, but after tiring ourselves out with a 14-mile trek on day one, we pivoted and lounged all of day two.

Unlike other vacations which are strewn with schedules and timelines, there was no stress associated with this vacation. We just did whatever we felt like at that moment. I felt like a different person altogether. It reminded me of when my parents used to vacation in the Philippines. They laid about on the beach, went nowhere, ate snacks and drank beer. Their idea of a vacation was to eat dried mangoes and to sleep. That same simplicity is associated with this place. Perhaps that’s why it’s so special to me.

Who would like this stay

I definitely recommend this stay for young busybodies needing a break from incessant demands of modern life. The elderly will appreciate this quiet space. Parents looking for respite will find it here. Even families would love this place. During our stay, there was a multi-generational family staying with two grandparents, two parents and two kids younger than 8 years old. They went on hikes and had mealtimes together. I saw another family with two kids younger than five. They loved to throw rocks at the beach and swim in the ocean. And I saw a family with two teens. The son played chess with his dad at breakfast, the daughter told her mom about what she read in her book. It truly is a special place.

You can book the Banning House here.

Play Pretend: Stress Free Travel

Summer season is just around the bend (can you believe it’s May?!?) and people are starting to pack their travel bags. After two years of disruption and uncertainty, we are slowly easing into travel again. Confining travel to the summer months could become the new norm, since winter is tainted with the edict of flu season. We, ourselves, did all of our international travels in the summer of last year, having met up with my sister in Iceland and Spain. Then we holed up during the winter months, exploring only our home state, California. In light of upcoming travels, I thought I would dedicate this month’s play pretend post to everything one needs for easy packing and stressfree travel.

Stress free travel is all about simplicity. Whether you are jet-setting abroad or flying to a neighboring state, for work or for play, the best thing you can do is pack less and with intention. My travel packing tips have helped others travel like a minimalist so I definitely recommend starting there.

Despite simplicity, there is an argument for adding items to your journey that make it better. The trick, in my opinion, is counting tidbits for self-care essential. Self-care can instill a sense of peace in the same way simplicity can. And peace is joyful. Joy is the natural antidote to stress and is a famous tranquilizer of the nervous system. Keep it simple, yes, but take aboard the micro-comforts. Here are my current favorites.

Stress Free Travel Essentials

  1. Set of beige packing cubes from Monos $90
  2. Travel Jewelry Case from Cuyana $98
  3. Laptop Backpack from Calpak $128
  4. Pocket Friendly Hand Sanitizer from Noshinku $9
  5. Favorite Travel Mug and Bottle from Kinto $32.50
  6. Destination Coffee Magazines from Drift $28
  7. Ginger Flight Aromatherapy from Aesop $33
  8. Hydrating Hand Balm from Aesop $31
  9. Sateen Eye Mask from Coyuchi $18
  10. Nutrient Mist from True Botanicals $24
  11. Portable Steamer from Steamery $130
  12. Clear Liquids Container from Truffle $45
  13. Cozy Cotton Marled Socks from Parachute $19
  14. Luggage tag shaped portable charging bank from Calpak $32

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How to See Puffins on the Latrabarg Cliffs in Iceland

Seeing puffins in Iceland is a must-do! When we went on our 14-day trip to Iceland, my sister insisted that join her at the Western-most coast for a puffin viewing. Even though it was a bit out of our way, it was well worth it! Seeing puffins in person was the coolest thing we did in Iceland. Once you lay eyes on these cute, tiny birds with their bright, orange-red round beaks and darling eyes you will be thankful you made time for this awesome experience. But finding out how to see them was a bit tough. Which is why I thought I would share where, when, and how to see puffins in Iceland.

Other Iceland Travel Posts:

Where to See Puffins in Iceland

There are many places to see puffins. Even from Iceland’s capital, Reykjavik, there are two small islands only a half-mile’s boat ride away, and ferry tours leave from the city. In the Southern region are the Westman Islands which house one-fifth of all the world’s puffins. This location houses most of the puffins in Iceland, but it is 6 miles out from the southern tip of Iceland. It requires either a ferry ride from Landejahofn or Seljalansfoss. Alternatively, you can take a domestic flight to Westman Islands from Reykjavik. Out east, they say the un-inhabitated Papey Island also houses puffins, but as our journey did not take us east, that was unfortunately out of the question for us.

The last location, Latrabarg cliffs, was the one we ended up going to. It was my sister who planned the entire thing, but I think she made a great call. We wanted to see puffins in their natural habitats on our own time. We wanted to see them up close, not on a boat but on the ground, like explorers looking into their world from ours. The experience was more ideal as very few tourists venture out to Latrabarg cliffs. We even had the cliffs to ourselves higher up the hike, where we spent a few hours hiking and searching for diving birds.

The Latrabarg cliffs provide a peaceful way to see puffins in Iceland. These dramatic drops stretch for 8-miles and fall steeply into the water 1,447 feet below. No wonder the birds like these cliffs, as they dive in and out of their little burrows. There is a mild rope that spans the cliffs, but it is at ankle length and will not stop anyone from falling to their doom. It was a subtle reminder of safety, but I appreciated that it still allowed us to get up close and personal to the puffins sitting on the cliff’s edge.

Be forewarned that the cliff’s edges are not always made of dense earth. Birds like to make burrows there which mean that the grass you’re about to step on may be hollowed out and could fall under your weight. It is best to get on your stomach, hands and knees and crawl to the cliff’s edge if you want to really take that up-close photograph or look. Better yet to have someone on solid ground holding on to your feet, or avoid the risk altogether. Plus, you wouldn’t want to crush these bird’s homes!

This is definitely not the safest place for young children who like to run wild. But it IS an intimate place for adults to view puffins, so long as you don’t get too close to the edge. I highly recommend making the trek, as this was the coolest experience we did while in Iceland!

How to Get to Latrabarg Cliffs

There are two ways to get to Latrabarg Cliffs from Reykjavik. The first is to make the drive from Reykjavik. You can start westward on Ring Road and turn on the 60, heading towards the Westfjords. The entire drive takes 6 hours one-way. Hardly anyone makes the trip west of Ring Road, which is a shame as I found it to be a gorgeous place. It is especially great for introverts because it feels like having the country all to yourself.

On the west you’ll find Snaefellsnes National Park, voted the most romantic winter get-away spot in Europe. We spent a few days there, hiking Anastarpi to Hellnar, another cliff teeming with birds. But in order to see puffins, you need to go further North. You can take the HWY 54 to get to Snaefellsnes. Go to the small fishing village called Stykkisholmur, and there are ferries that take visitors across the Westfjords. This will cut your time to Latrabarg as you don’t have to drive around the fjord.

Stykkisholmur

For those already staying at Snaefellsnes, Latrabarg can be considered a doable day trip to and from the national park. The ferries land somewhere around HWY 62, and it is another forty minute drive before reaching the destination. There is no cell service in the area, so definitely have a map with you, or at least the GPS saved on your phone.

Do note that getting there takes time, so reserving ample time for Latrabarg in your schedule is a MUST. It is not a simple day trip from Reykjavik and I would not recommend going all the way to Latrabarg to see puffins if that is all you wish to do. We were able to do it because we were already spending a few days in Snaefellsnes and planning to head north to see Hornstrandir Nature Reserve. A trip to Latrabarg definitely requires a day, even if you are already in the West fjords. If you need to, you can always stay at the Latrabarg Hotel.

When to See Puffins in Iceland

I loved watching these tiny birds jump off of the cliffs. And when they came back, their orange feet stick the landing in the cutest ways. They like to fly a circle around the cliffs edge, and you can usually trace the same puffin from them leaving the cliff to their return. Pretty cool!

The best time to see puffins are in the summer. They arrive in May and leave late August. We were there in the first two weeks of July. The puffins are most active in the evenings. Thanks to Iceland’s almost 24-hour sunlight, you can definitely plan to see them around midnight if you want to. Since we drove from Snaefellsnes National Park, we arrived closer to 10am. My sister was there a few hours before us. Thankfully, there were still plenty of puffins to see!

Fun Facts About Puffins

Now that you know exactly how to see puffins in Iceland, let’s get you excited about it!

There are four puffin species which are the Atlantic Puffin, the Tufted Puffin, the Horned Puffin and the Rhinoceros Auklet. Of all the species, the Atlantic Puffin is by far the cutest and the one that you will see in Iceland! Iceland hosts 60% of all Atlantic puffins, giving you plenty of opportunity to lay eyes on them (and maybe even take a selfie!).

Puffins spend most of their life at sea, but will make burrows and nest in the Spring and Summer seasons. They are excellent sea birds and use their wings to stroke water and catch fish. On top of that, they are also great flyers and can flap their wings up to 400 times in a minute. They fly as fast at 80 kilometers per hour.

Their beaks are actually grey in the winter, but blossom into a bright-orange color in the warmer months. Most likely, this is to attract a mate. They have cute orange feet that they stretch out in front of them while landing. And the pattern around their eyes really make them look sad and smiling at the same time. It’s quite adorable!

They are not intimidated by humans, but that does not mean they want contact. In fact, you should never try to touch a puffin. Doing so might transfer grease from your hands onto their feathers, which will greatly impede their flying and swimming abilities. Furthermore, it will alter their feather’s ability to deflect water while swimming. For these reasons, please be respectful of the birds and never touch or feed puffins.

If Iceland is not on your travel list, add it today. It is a gorgeous country, especially if you love the outdoors, nature, and good views. I would recommend visiting in the summer, although I heard that it holds a different kind of beauty in the winter months as well. We will certainly be back!

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Travel: City Guide to Phoenix Arizona

We had the pleasure of having my brother and his girlfriend as city guides on our recent travel to Phoenix, Arizona this past weekend. They live in Glendale, which is just a stone’s throw away. Our lovely weekend was spent visiting a mixture of their favorite spots and a few new ones, too. We were not disappointed with what the area had to offer. While it is fresh in my mind, here is a travel guide for a weekend getaway in Phoenix, Arizona.


♦◊◊◊
Not worth the time.

♦♦◊◊
Good, but ordinary.

♦♦♦◊
Great. Worth a visit.

♦♦♦♦
Exceptional. A must-do experience.

$
Frugal friendly

$$
Reasonable

$$$
Pricey


Fourtillfour Coffee

♦♦
7105 E 1st Ave, Scottsdale, AZ 85251
$

Fourtillfour Coffee is a car-themed coffee shop housed in a garage space in Scottsdale, Arizona. An industrial roll-up door welcomes guests into a tiny shop housing merchandise and toy cars. Meanwhile, the coffee beans are packaged in containers that mimic vintage gas tanks, and the merchandise also imbibes a retro Grease-like vibe. Every Saturday, they host car meet-ups with different themes, which I think is pretty cool. People were gathering under the trees on tables and benches in the front lawn. I love that dogs were welcome, and there was a homey feel to the space.

Unfortunately, the coffee itself was more traditional in taste. I believe the beans were blends and not single-origin, so the drip isn’t exactly something out of this world. However, I think the traditionality of the coffee matches the vintage vibe of the shop, and I don’t necessarily consider the coffee bad. So I rate it good, but ordinary in terms of coffee. Regardless, it is still a really cool meet-up and hang-out spot, and you’re sure to see a few awesome cars parked on the street!

The Herb Box

The Herb Box Chicken Sando
The Herb Box

♦♦♦
7051 E 5th Ave J, Scottsdale, AZ 85251
$$

We had brunch at The Herb Box in Scottsdale, Arizona. The expansive patio has plenty of shaded seating. The indoor space is quite large as well. Good quality ingredients make up a wide array of brunch fare. They allowed us to bring our outside coffee in, which was pretty nice. And the service was excellent. Other than that, it was just a regular brunch on a regular Saturday.

Snakes and Lattes

♦♦♦♦
20 W 6th St, Tempe, AZ 85281
$$

We love board-games! So it may be biased to say that we loved this space. That being said, any game nerd who is going to travel to Phoenix, Arizona needs to stop at this place. Snakes and Lattes offers a great selection of food, alcohol, coffee, and coffee-alcohol (another plus). Their selection of games is incredible as well! And they have a board-game guru standing by the games, walking around, and teaching people how to play. He was great! Not all board-game cafes have a guru but now I am thinking they should.

The service was amazing and the play time is unlimited. It only costs $6 per person to play. The indoor space is large and there’s also an outdoor patio if you want to get some sun. We stayed a total of 4 hours and my brother has been there multiple times with groups as small as four people and as big as fourteen. We ordered beers and cocktails. Pro-tip: Happy Hour is from 2-4pm!

The Yard

The Yard Ping Pong Table

♦♦♦♦
5640 N 7th St, Phoenix, AZ 85014
$

In order to kill time between board-games and dinner, we swung by The Yard to grab a few beers and play ping-pong and cornhole. It has been a while since I had that much fun! The Yard is a great place to watch sports games on their many TV screens while eating eclectic bar bites and drinking cocktails or beer. It is situated in a college town, and a majority of the patrons there were in their 20’s and 30’s. There is an open space where one can play shuffleboard, ping-pong, and cornhole. It just takes an ID to rent the supplies. But don’t forget to get a stamp on your wrist if you give up your ID, so that you can still order drinks as you play. We surely worked up an appetite before going to dinner.

Ramen Dozo

Ramen Dozo

♦♦♦
Suite #107, 3415 S McClintock Dr, Tempe, AZ 85282
$

‘Welcome to Ramen Dozo, where the ramen is good, the broth is traditional, and the service isn’t so great.’ That was the introduction our server gave, which wasn’t completely far from the truth. The Ramen was good, but the space wasn’t ambient and the service was a bit off-kilter. Still, I really liked our waiter. Not because we got into a long conversation about our new Bitcoin card, but because he was honest, had a sarcastic humor, and was really trying his best to serve us as quickly as possible. The poor guy looked like he was waiting all the tables in the restaurant!

However, the ramen was really good. I ordered my typical tonkotsu ramen and it came with decent pork portions. I also ordered a side of extra noodles but I think the serving was big enough that I didn’t really need to. In fact, I didn’t finish them which NEVER happens. Mike got the spicy miso ramen and really liked his ramen as well! The price was awesome, coming in at around $10 a bowl. We are used to California $15-$20 ramens, so I was super happy with this one. I gave it a frugal rating! Definitely worth a visit if you are in the area. They do close early, though, so plan to eat by 7pm.

Provisions Coffee

♦♦♦♦
4501 N 32nd St, Phoenix, AZ 85018
$$

Great space to match great 3rd wave coffee! This spot is actually serving coffee by day and cocktails and beer by night! They have two bars – one lined with espresso machines and the other lined with draft beer handles. They serve bread and pastry with your coffee, as well as house a number of great coffee merch items! In the evenings, they have a pizza menu to go with your beer. I really liked this coffee spot, and my brother already has plans to return for weekend study sessions! There is ample room in the air-conditioned indoors, as well as a patio with a number of tables and benches. And it seems the dogs love it, too! PS: If you live in OC, California like I do, Bad Coffee sells Provision coffee beans. So there isn’t necessarily a need to travel to Phoenix, Arizona to try them out.

Taco Chelo

♦♦♦♦
501 E Roosevelt St, Phoenix, AZ 85004
$

If anyone ever tells you there are no good taco places in Arizona, they’d be lying. To be honest, I wasn’t expecting much, coming from Southern California. But the tacos at Taco Chelo really blew me away. It was after hiking Piestewa Peak and Freedom Loop Trail, a 4.5 mile endeavor in Arizona sun that had me questioning our visit. The peak portion of the trail was amazing, but by the time we started the loop, I was very tired and exhausted. Nothing that tacos can’t fix! I would highly recommend going here. The serving is decent, as I got full after two tacos and splitting an order of chips. The others ate 3-4 tacos, which was quite impressive. The green salsa that came with the chips was so delicious, I added it to everything. And the service was fast! Exactly what we needed as we were starving post-hike.

CiBo Pizzeria

♦♦♦♦
603 N 5th Ave, Phoenix, AZ 85003
$$

They really did save the best for last, as this was my favorite spot for the entire weekend. The restaurant is actually a home with a large front yard lined by a white picket fence and covered by mature trees. String lights create the perfect ambience as we dined al fresco. A few musicians were stationed in the corner of the lawn singing and playing string instruments. The vibe was laid-back, family style, but also, romantic enough for young couples on their first date.

The wine selection was decent but the pizza was amazing! I finished an entire pizza by myself, which is a great sign. Sourdough bakers always say that a dough is made right when you can eat an entire loaf by yourself in one sitting. Same goes for pizza! I ordered the Diavola (Tomato sauce – mozzarella and spicy salame) and Mikey ordered the Dolce Vita (Burrata – spek – arugula and balsamic glaze). Don’t let the simple ingredients fool you. This is just how pizzas were meant to be. Next time we travel to Phoenix, Arizona, we will be back at this joint!

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Travel: Sights from Madrid

In August, we visited my sister who lives in El Centro of Madrid, Spain. We landed in a city suffering from 107 degree heat in the latter part of the summer season. Somehow, we survived all the walking. It was absolutely worth the sweat. We were only there one full day, as she also wanted to vacation away from home. These photographs are a handful of my favorites.

Of note are the croissants from Pum Pum Bakery, as well as the environment at Hola Coffee, who houses a fantastic collection of coffee magazines and coffee books. I actually wanted to spend all day in both spots! Not pictured is Hanso Cafe, another great spot to grab a matcha waffle, egg sandwiches, or coffee. And if I had another day, I would have nabbed a pastry at Mision Bakehouse, too!

I also recommend swinging by Mercado de San Miguel for a few bites, even though it’s a bit touristy. For a great dinner, I would recommend the Sky 44 Bar and Restaurant above the hotel Hostal Charlotte. Go to the rooftop bar before heading to the floor below for a nice dinner. The rooftop has sweeping views of the entire city, which is known for its red buildings. Don’t let the view deceive you! From above all you see is red brick but when you walk the streets, colorful alleys abound!

And if you wish to shop, the Cortes district all the way to Gran Via has a number of great stores to explore. My favorite discovery was a clothing brand called Oysho and a store dedicated to the most intricately shaped candy I have ever seen. As you are walking about, I would also recommend stopping at the empanada stores, trying the Patatas Bravas, Churros and Chocolate, and I suppose the Calamari Sandwiches were a thing, too (although we didn’t have the chance to try it). Plaza Mayor has a great number of outdoor patios where one can stop and order a beer and snacks, in case the walking gets to be a bit too much.

It was such a treat to be able to discover this city, even for a little while. I will definitely be back!

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Travel: An Overview of Snaefellnes National Park on the West Coast of Iceland

Snaefellsnes National Park is a beautiful, secluded area on the western coast of Iceland, only two and a half hours away from Reykjavik. It was voted one of the most romantic areas to get away in Iceland, and is the perfect place for both hiking in the summer and Northern light viewing in the winter. We stayed two days in this area and I absolutely fell in love. I wish we could have stayed an extra day in order to explore more of this region, but we were short on time in general. There are many things to see in this national park, and some of the most iconic images come from this area. The experience is unparalleled by other national parks we have visited, coupled with the seclusion and moody weather (even mid-summer!). Here, I will highlight a few sights but to be honest, none of these photographs do it justice and you really have to go for yourself to believe it.

Note: the sights are listed in order if you drive around the national park counter-clockwise, which is the direction that you approach it from Reykjavik (the south). The best way to get to the Snaefellsnes area (and all around Iceland) is by renting a car or campervan. We rented a car from Hertz which had the best deal at the time. Just a side note, there is plenty of gravel roads and F-roads in Iceland so you want to rent an F-road approved car if you want to reach the most remote of places. Also, we got car insurance for peace of mind since flying gravel is a common occurrence and we weren’t willing to risk car dents and broken windshields.

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Gerduberg Cliffs

A wall of columns make up this famous cliff.

These cliffs are encountered on the way to Snaefellsness National Park via a tiny road splitting from the main highway to the right. Parking wasn’t an issue as this place is usually deserted, allowing you to revel peacefully at its glory. Evenly spaced, dark grey basalt columns made from lava rock line the cliff walls and have baffled scientists for many years. It isn’t so much the fact that the columns extend for miles but rather, the fact that the evenness in width of each column makes it seem as if this natural beauty was carved by hand. The explanation comes from the way in which the lave rock must have cooled evenly. Small indentations in the grass show a path by which you can climb to the top of the cliffs to get a better view of the valley below.

Ytri Tunga Beach

This beach is comically famous in island as it is the only yellow sand beach present. To which Mike replied, “So like every beach in California?!” I suppose to an islander who is used to black sand beaches, this is a sight to be seen. It is still worth a visit as this is the stomping grounds for different breeds of seals. We visited during golden hour and the seals were playing in the water, bobbing their heads along as Mike and I climbed rocks to see them. Although we were originally unsure whether the “sameness” of this beach to one you would find in sunny San Diego is worth the drive, I was pleasantly surprised at how much we enjoyed our sunset there. We must have watched the seals for an hour, before heading off to dinner.

Budakirkja

Budakirkja set against the mountains in Snaefellsnes National Park.

This black church is similar to many churches in island, so if you’ve already seen one, there is no need to pull off the side of the road to see this one. However, it does mark the start of an eight-hour hiking trail that I wish I was able to do. It is hardly mentioned in the blogs online or in travel books, but it travels from Hotel Budhir to Hellnar. We did end up doing a portion of it, hiking from Anastarpi to Hellnar, but when we return to this region (which we surely will!), I would like to set aside the proper time to do the hike that starts from this church.

A bit of a ways at the beginning of the hidden trail. You can see the worn in grass which marks the path for the hike. All you need to do is walk away from the church towards the ocean.

Bjarnafoss

Such a beautiful waterfall. I can only imagine how much stronger it would be in the Spring.

This grand waterfall is so close to the road that you can see it on the road. The sign to the right of the road is small and easy to miss, but it is definitely turning back around for. There is a short hike that gets you closer to the falls, but not right up to the tippy top. Pro advice: a tiny picnic area hidden among the trees at the base of the waterfall makes this a great place to eat lunch.

The trail Mike is standing on leads to a hidden picnic table behind the trees.

Anastarpi

Bird-watching from the Cliff Viewpoint.

I’ve written about what can be found in Anastarpi in my previous post highlighting the hike from Anastarpi to Hellnar. This tiny town is a great place for bird-watching from the Cliff Viewpoint. It also has the famous Bdar Saga Statue that was built from rocks and towers over the town. You can climb the stone bridge and take a photograph that makes you look like you are high-up in the air, too. And I wrote in that post about the pizza we had for lunch, which I totally recommend. If you have a few days in the national park, I would really recommend hiking from here to Hellnar, as it is a short 1-hour trek and would break up the site-seeing quite nicely.

Bdar Saga Statue looking over the town.

Londrangar Viewpoint

Snaefellsnes is a bird-watcher’s paradise. There is no shortage of cliff areas to watch birds from.

There are many viewpoints along the highway running around Snaefellsness National Park. This one is just a few steps from the lot. It isn’t much different from the bird-watching that can be found in Anastarpi, but the rock formation was sure worth the two-minute detour.

Vatnshellir Cave

The entrance to the cave, although you must take a tour to see inside.

The Vatnshellir Cave is an 8,000 year old lava tube created during a nearby crater’s volcanic eruption. As the lava flowed down a hill onto the lava river, it cooled on the surface as the lava river continued to drain out, thus creating a roof-top over the existing cave. One company does tour guides for the cave and they are the only ones with a permit to enter. That means that you need to do a tour with a guide to see the cave. We decided not to join the tour as we had many other sites on our list. It doesn’t seemed to be booked in advance, which is good, as we saw cars pulling up and signing up for the next tour. You do need to wear proper gear which they provide (such as a helmet), and they ran 45-minute tours every hour at the price of 3500 ISK per adult.

Djupalonssandur Beach

The view of the beach from the top. If you look closely, you can see the ship-wreck remains – bright orange bits of rusting copper.

This beach was another area in which I sadly did not set aside enough time for. I was expecting nothing more than a black sand beach, but to my surprise, there were multiple hiking trails to take from the car park and this beach actually spans a large area. We did do one of the shorter hikes which took us down to the black rock beach, where the remains of a ship wreck can still be seen. To the right of the beach are steps that leads one to a small pool where previous settlers (mostly sea people) had to walk to to get access to drinkable water. There were two other hikes that I really wanted to see, each of which took 1-2 and 3-4 hours respectively. I will definitely be back here to explore! I think it would be best to set aside a half-day to see this beach at leisure.

The hike to the left of the beach took us to this secluded pool where sea travelers had to go to get drinking water.

Saxholar Crater

The Saxholar Crater is nothing but a huge hole in the ground that is viewable after climbing a surmountable number of steps. The cardio work was fun, don’t get me wrong, but the view was anti-climactic and honestly not worth the climb (unless you’ve never seen a crater before?). It is a five-minute detour from the road, if you just want to see it. But Iceland had so many other things to see!

Svortuloft Lighthouse

This was definitely not worth driving to as it required a 1 hour driving detour from the main road on a gravelly path (which meant a 2 hour detour total) just to see a lighthouse. There was, however, cool signs at the end that gave a bit of history about how the sea travelers who landed in this part of Iceland survived. Some of the old dwellings are still visible as mounds in the soil, and there is a scary looking well that you can look at. Mike was brave enough to walk into it, but it was too claustrophobic for me to even try. To be fair, we were coming to the end of our very long day of sight-seeing and I was getting cantankerous from the hunger pains signaling the need for dinner, and soon … so there’s that.

Mike bravely entering the under-ground well.

Kirkjufellsfoss

This waterfall and the background mountain reminds me of Mount Crumpit from Who-ville where The Grinch lived. It is so fairytale like that I wouldn’t believe it was a real place if I didn’t see it myself. The fall itself isn’t as grand as it seems from the photographs but the background can’t be beat on a clear day (luckily, it did clear up in the latter half of the afternoon). There is a lot on the side of the road and it is a minute’s walk from the car park to the fall itself. I had to open this entire post with this photograph, although here is another view of it without the mountain in the background from the base of the fall. Not as grand, right? It is one of the most famous sites for Google stock photos, and looks even prettier (or so it appears in other people’s pictures) with the Northern Lights in the background.

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