Travel: Day Hike from Muir Woods to Stinson Beach

The first weekend of March, we did the 10-mile hike from Muir Woods to Stinson Beach. It was a Friday and the woods was absolutely empty. You have to reserve a parking spot ahead of time and pay for two entrance fees into Muir Woods. The entrance fees were $15 per person and the parking lot fee was another $8.50. You can absolutely do 90% of this hike if you start at Stinson Beach, but just know that you cannot enter Muir Woods without a pass (or well, you risk being stopped and checked for a ticket). To be honest, no one stopped us on the day that we went, but then again, no one was there. It was magical. If you ask me if the fee was worth it, I would give a resounding 100% YES, but only because we literally had the park to ourselves. We arrived at the parking lot and stopped by the restrooms before heading into the woods. The first part of the hike is easy. I recommend taking a left turn at the first bridge and hiking above the woods to begin. You can hike the bottom half of the woods when you return.

If you take my suggestion to start hiking up after the first bridge, you would be up in the treetops walking above the quiet trails below. You’ll reach a dead end eventually, at which point you make a left to continue onto the trail. If you chose to stick to the forest floor, make a left at the fourth bridge and you will end up on the same spot.

The first half of the hike takes you steadily along a wide dirt path underneath the shade of magnificent Redwood trees. The trail is well-maintained and well demarcated. There are some steps, but nothing stressful on the way to Stinson. I must warn you that the way back is much more difficult, as you’d have to climb many consecutive steps returning from the beach. If you aren’t an avid hiker, perhaps doing a one-way trip and catching a lift back to the parking lot is best. We were just fine, but my thighs were a bit sore the next day. Then again, they weren’t sore enough to stop us from going on a 7-mile hike. Enjoy the shade of the trees, the silence underneath the canopies, the soft Earth underneath your boots, the smell of sap and the occasional breeze. Eventually, you will pop up on the hillside and if you’re lucky, it’ll be a charmingly sunny afternoon with blades of green grass lining the hills.

The views from the top of the mountainside are beautiful on a clear day. You can see the Golden Gate bridge, San Francisco, as well as Marin County. You’ll see mountaintops peeking over the ocean. I saw a couple, far out in the distance, hand-in-hand frolicking quite literally down the hillside. I must say, I felt the same way.

Eventually, you will re-enter the trees again, but the second half is different. Less moist, less coverage, more sunlight. Plus, this portion is all down-hill. Don’t let that deceive you though, as the rough part lies in the return journey. But for now, enjoy the branches and tree trunks. They’re kind of fun to look at whether they be stick straight or wavy.

Eventually, you’ll come to a clearing which is the first time you’ll see Stinson Beach. You are almost there! Perhaps another mile to go at this point.

You can hear the cars on a nearby road passing by. It made us turn around and Mike spotted two deer. The next series of photographs shows the two deer looking at us as we were looking at them. They ambled over for a second, until the sounds of other walkers shooed them away. See if you can spot their curious selves trying to discreetly peer at us from the bushes.

Of course, the deer wasn’t the only cool wildlife present. We saw hawks circling above us in search of bunny rabbits, or so I gander. A banana slug or two made me jump in surprise. A few colorful mushrooms popped out of the forest floor, and even a beautiful lone flower said hello on our walk home.

Once in a while, do look back. This is a photograph I snatched after realizing that behind me lay a bundle of rocks hidden in the hills. We finally arrived at Stinson Beach after 2.5 hours of walking. To be frank, we were going at a relaxed pace, stopping every so often to snap photographs and observe the wildlife. At Stinson, we ate at Parkside Cafe, which I would highly recommend. We walked to the beach and stepped into a few tiny shops before heading back.

On the way back, I would cross the 4th bridge back into Muir Woods and walk the wooden boardwalks within the park. If your legs have it in them, I would recommend some of the side paths to the east of the park. Please do take note, if you are trying to catch the gift shop, they close earlier than the park does and I would recommend getting back by 3pm to check out the souvenirs by the entrance. We were hoping to snag one for Mike’s mom’s birthday but we returned to the entrance a little after 4pm, which is right when the gift shop closed. You can always return to the eastern trails (which are fairly short) until the park closes (around 5pm).

Overall, this was one of our top five day hikes that we have ever done. There’s a lot to see and experience, and the terrain had a good mixture of everything. Now that we’ve walked Muir Woods though, I would skip the entrance fees and the parking fees next time and start on the trails elsewhere. I feel like everything in the park can be seen in one day. There are many other trailheads that have free parking and that land you in similar areas. Just make sure to arrive early enough to snag a parking spot along scenic highway!

If you liked this post, you may like the other hikes I’ve written about.

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Travel: Montana De Oro State Park and Baywood-Los Osos, California

In December, we took a mini vacation up the California coast and discovered the little town of Los Osos slightly north of SLO. Our main reason for staying here was to explore Montana De Oro State Park and Morro Bay. To my surprise, it offered so much more than I was expecting, but isn’t that always the case with surprises? I had a rejuvenating few days in the area and my only regret was leaving so soon. This is hardly a travel guide, but rather, a reminiscence of the quiet neighborhood in which I felt I belonged.

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We stayed at an AirBNB, which is our preferred way of traveling. If you’ve never tried it before, I invite you to try it and if you use this referral link, you can get up to $65 off your first booking. The place was at the end of a dirt road in the middle of farm land. As we drove up to it, a giant black dog slowly lumbered towards our car to greet us welcome. The room was above a garage and had a tiny electric fireplace which kept us warm during the cold nights. In the morning, we could see the sun rise over the hills on their deck, and made our coffee in the mini kitchen while watching condors land on the poles of electric lines. If I had to get away from city life, this would be where you would find me.

The pace of the tiny town is slow and kind. Restaurants opened late, and shops closed early. People liked to sit and talk and the most poppin’ place was a humble diner with plastic tables and chairs serving large biscuits with gravy and greasy eggs. Meanwhile, the best croissants we have ever had (and that’s saying a lot) came from Pagnol Bakery who doesn’t even have a website and is located on a residential street, wherein a home owner turned the downstairs floor into a bakery storefront. There was also a Japanese ramen place called Kuma situated in the middle of an overgrown courtyard, extremely empty which would signal to me of their quality but the ramen was delicious and you can get sake for $1.

Not far from the town is Montana de Oro State Park. We traversed both Valencia Peak and walked along the Bluff Trail. We collected rocks on Spooner’s Cove when the sun was setting, and walked the harbor near Morro Bay. A twenty minute drive away is a breeding ground for elephant seals and if you’ve never seen them before they are a site to behold. And just to the south east lies SLO, where you can hike multiple morros to view the central coastline from above. I’ve been wanting, for a very long time, to find a place like this. It reminded me of New Zealand and even though we can’t travel around the world during this time, I would gladly drive up the coast to revisit this place over and over again.

Travel Packing Tips from a Minimalist

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Minimalism is the practice of surrounding oneself with less stuff in order to decrease what otherwise would be distractions from a life well-lived. I have found this lifestyle especially useful when traveling.

When I travel, I want to be focused on learning about different cultures, immersing myself in history or nature, connecting myself to others, or simply collecting experiences and memories. I don’t want to be physically burdened by the weight of the things I carry. I wish not to be mentally exhausted from keeping track of my belongings when I move from place to place, which when traveling, I frequently do. Lastly, I don’t like the emotional toll of losing checked-in luggage, forgetting belongings at a hotel room, or ruining a sweater during one of my wild adventures. In order to make sure I soak in the joys my travels have to offer, I practice minimalism exuberantly while jet-setting around the globe.

Intentionality is key when packing one’s belongings for an upcoming trip. As long as both the purpose and the value of each item are well considered, one can not go wrong. However, while there are no rules to minimal packing, I do have a few guidelines that I personally follow, which might prove useful for those just starting to give this a try.

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10 Packing Tips from a Minimalist

1. Find the perfect suitcase. When it comes to suitcases, I have a few requirements. First, I prefer small suitcases. I travel with only a carry-on and personal item, no matter how far the destination or long the vacation. Not only do I like to keep my belongings with me at all times, avoiding baggage claim hassles and potential loss, I also like to bring only the few things I need. Second, I look for light luggage. I am petite and 5’1″ tall. Being able to easily lift my case into the overhead bin is important to me. Third, I look for suitcases with ease of use. I want the ability to roll in different directions and I prefer a handle that extends to multiple different heights. I used to struggle with my previous suitcase, which only had two wheels and a finicky handle. After I finally said goodbye to it, I whole-heartedly decided that ease of use was going to be one of my must-have requirements. Lastly, I like the suitcase to be durable, favoring hard-shell exterior over a soft exterior. I want something that protects my tech, such as laptops and cameras, which I usually bring along on my trips for my blog work.

My case is from InCase. I wrote about it here, once.

2. Practice capsule ward-robing. A capsule wardrobe is a collection of versatile clothing from which one can create many different outfits. Ideally, you want your capsule wardrobe to contain only your most beloved things, so that on any given day, you would be willing to wear anything. I think that travel time is the best time to practice capsule ward-robing. It is a stage in your life where you will be in a particular place for a certain time period, which makes it very easy to hone down your wardrobe. And hey, perhaps after all your adventures, you decide to keep your capsule wardrobe for your daily living.

3. Pick neutral colors. Hand-in-hand with selecting versatile pieces is purposefully choosing neutral colors to mix-and-match with. That doesn’t mean bring only black, white and tan clothes. Some of my favorite “color neutrals” are Terra Cotta, Olive Green, Navy Blue, and Beige. Together, these colors create a palette that looks as good together as they do apart.

4. Compartmentalize the suitcase. I am an organized minimalist. Meaning, I have no qualms about adding extra stuff for the sake of organization. As they say, minimalism isn’t about having the least amount of things possible. It’s about having the perfect amount. And these compressible packing cubes are perfect additions for neatniks such as myself.

5. Wear the bulkiest items on the plane. This is a trick that I constantly use. In order to make my suitcase as light as possible, I layer on my bulkiest items when I travel. I usually wear a sweater and a jacket on the plane, paired with my hiking boots and favorite leggings. It works out really well for me since I am always cold on the flight and I try not to use the provided blankets due to an aversion to the plastic packaging. My husband also does the same, since his hiking boots take up half of a carry-on and his clothing takes up twice as much space as mine. For outerwear that I choose to carry in a suitcase, I store them in a separate compartment, providing plenty of breathing room for my coats and jackets. The last thing I want is to have wrinkly outerwear, since that is the most presentable thing in my arsenal. I would rather sacrifice bringing a few items if it meant I didn’t have to stuff my bag to the brim.

Outerwear goes in a separate compartment.

6. Bring only two pairs of shoes. I will have one pair in my luggage and another on my feet. Usually, one shoe option will require socks and other does not. Since we are avid hikers, I usually pack a pair of hiking boots and a pair of slip-ons. Having both options allow me to travel comfortably no matter the weather. And the slip-ons double as slippers at the hotel.

7. Pack zero-waste, if possible. Traveling zero-waste can seem difficult, until you realize that you don’t need those disposable travel bottles. I bring a bar of soap, a shampoo bar, a bamboo toothbrush, Bite toothpaste, Cocofloss, and amber bottles galore. I try to avoid all sorts of disposable things, and it actually reduces the amount of things I take along.

8. Bring only one jewelry set which you wear onto the plane. I tend to choose simple jewelry that go with all my outfits. I go through seasons, but for the past year and a half, my go-to has been a pair of Gorjana mini studs and gemstone bracelet (both gifts from my sister-in-law), two Mejuri cuffs, and my wedding band. Since I am wearing all of my jewelry the entire trip, I don’t have to worry about packing it, ever. This gets rid of an additional jewelry case in my bag, as well as the hassle of keeping track of tiny belongings.

9. Take only a handful of underwear and socks. As rule of thumb, I never take more than a week’s worth. Even if I am traveling for three weeks! I simply hand-wash and hang-dry to cycle through them. Some AirBNBs even come equipped with washer and dryer, these days.

10. Make your personal item a backpack. Mine is this sturdy, leather pack from Nisolo, which holds my water bottle, a book, a notebook, an extra sweater, my Nutrient Mist, any important documents that I need to travel, as well as a pouch (yet another compartment!) that keeps my lip balm, hand-lotion, pens, and wallet together. There are many reasons why I like having a backpack. It can hold many things, is equally useful for sight-seeing as well as grocery shopping, is usable by both my husband and I, and is an ergonomic method of toting things around.

Of course, the best piece of advice when traveling is to enjoy the journey, searching for memories, not the destination. As long as you do that, I have no doubts you’re already on your minimalist way.

This post is sponsored by Monos Travel. I am absolutely in love with this company. They recently released compressible packing cubes for easier organizing when traveling. The cubes come in three colors (tan, black, or grey) and in two different pack sizes (one with four cubes for a carry-on luggage and another with six cubes for a check-in luggage). They sent me the six pack in Tan and the compression allows me to use all six to organize my carry-on. If these cubes aren’t your jive, Monos Travel is currently hosting a sale and TheDebtist readers can get 30% off all luggage with the code SUMMER30. This promotion ends on the 30th of September, 2020. Of course, my go-to Monos luggage choice is the carry-on in either Desert Taupe, Terrazzo, Terra Cotta, and Olive Green. I would also like to draw attention to their CleanPod UVC Wand Sterilizer, a worthy addition for all travelers, especially post-COVID-19 era.

If you really got value from this post, don’t forget to pin it on Pinterest for easy referencing in the future! Happy Travels!

Play Pretend: Last Weekend of Summer

This post may contain affiliate links. Please see my disclosure to learn more. 

Just daydreaming of a summer that’s back to normal, one where children don’t suffocate playing in masks and parents have back-to-school to look forward to; where salad lunches can be enjoyed indoors out of sweltering heat and where we could travel and roam carefree, where sharing watermelon at baby showers and blowing candles at birthday parties in the park weren’t causes for concern.

I visited my mom and sister today, both working for schools – one in California and the other in Europe – both ending their summers. I asked if my mother has dined out since COVID started, and she has not, foregoing her usual girl dates with fellow work colleagues. I asked my sister if she’s figured out the VISA thing yet what with the consulate being closed and all. She has not, despite having shipped all of her stuff to Spain for the upcoming school year.

Time flew in stillness. We blinked and the break is gone, but the virus remains. I wonder if this really is our new forever.

Hand-in-hand with my day-dreaming are the following few things that exude everything summer represented in my youth, as well as the things I miss dearly about my favorite season of the year.

  1. An inflatable swimming pool set up on backyard concrete and front-lawn grass.
  2. Swimwear that’s a bit retro, and a lot of sustainability.
  3. A pair of sunnies for brighter days.
  4. Striped beach towels for lounging on the strand.
  5. Insurance against sun damage.
  6. A beach umbrella to collect friends under.
  7. A fisherman’s hat, for gathering hair as well as seashells.

Travel: A Weekend in Boulder, Colorado

This post may contain affiliate links. Please see my disclosure to learn more.

Colorado never crossed my mind as a place to visit until my brother and roomie brought it up. Mike and I ended up going by ourselves due to a change in plans and instead of staying in Denver, we thought that being in Boulder was more in line with what we wanted to do – which was to be outdoors in nature and hike. Little did I know that Boulder was actually a hipster town with a hippie history that is very much in line with the values of a ChooseFIer. We were surprised to see everyone donning hiking boots, active shorts and sports bras. Most cars that drove past either had a dog sitting in the rear seat or a bike on the rooftop. Every hiking trail had kids, families, young folk, old folk, rock climbers, trail runners, and more. It was like outdoors was what people lived for, and I loved it. In California, I see most people dressed up as if they were going to the movie set every day. In Boulder, there was an understated style, one that said, “I just spent all morning rock-climbing and here I am in my gear picking up organic yogurt and fruit at Whole Foods.” Of course, within minutes, I was making plans to move here, in true style. We only had a weekend to spend in Boulder but I fell in love with this city, and am seriously good with upping life and living here for a while. Of course, I have yet to experience living in snow….

In the meantime, here’s a quick city travel guide.

PS: We spent $0 in flights and hotels for this trip. We travel hack our way around the world, and for this trip we spent Southwest points which we earned by opening Southwest credit cards and Marriott points which we earned via the Marriott Bonvoy card. Sign up to start traveling the world for free, or check out my post on how to budget for travel.


♦◊◊◊
Not worth the time.

♦♦◊◊
Good, but ordinary.

♦♦♦◊
Great. Worth a visit.

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

$
Frugal friendly

$$
Reasonable

$$$
Pricey


Stowaway Kitchen

♦♦♦♦
2528 Walnut St #104,
Denver, CO 80205
$$

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This place used an amazing ciabatta for their BLT sandwich. If that is my opening sentence, then I hope you know just how good it was. Mike also said that the Chicken Sando was much better than our local favorite in SoCal – which is saying something since we ordered from our local fried chicken joint every week during the start of COVID! The vibe was very hipster-modern, with large ferns and lively tendrils hanging past white-painted ledges, wooden tables spaced six feet apart on cement floors. It had both outdoor and indoor seating, and the service was fantastic! I do recommend.

Woods Quarry Loop

♦♦♦♦
LEVEL: EASY

This hike is a great introduction to Boulder. It starts off from a parking lot that meanders through a quick loop trail with signage introducing visitors to a few facts on the terrain found in this area. The path continues into a meadow clearing, with the rocky mountain-side as the backdrop. Butterflies flew around us as we hiked past flowers and green grass.

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Eventually, you will be led to the trailhead for Woods Quarry, which begins with a short incline that I would rate as “easy”. The top of the hike has a great view, but the best part is the collection of stone-stacked “chairs” that locals have created. Flat rocks warmed up by the summer sun serve as great rest points, wherein one can eat a sandwich while taking in the views.

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Stacking mini flat rocks.

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Stone “sofa”.

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The sky that day was very clear, although I must warn you to take note of any clouds rolling in. Lightning and thunder are common visitors in the afternoon, and many unsuspecting people get caught on top of a mountain exposed to storms.

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The Oak at Fourteenth

♦♦
1400 Pearl St.
Boulder, CO 80302
$$$

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The thing I want to say is that this is really pricey fare for (if I’m being honest?) mediocre food. Maybe it’s because we are Californians surrounded by a plethora of great food options. We ordered five items, and three were really good, but two of them I disliked. The three pictured here are our top choices. Unfortunately, the drink, was not as great to me. A little heavy on the alcohol, and they brought it over as a make-your-own-drink with the sparkling water on the side so that we could “dilute the alcohol to our liking”. Despite all this, they do have interesting menu items and when I looked across the table behind Mike’s head, I was very, VERY interested in the desert cake that our neighbors ordered – so much so that I actually regretted ordering fries! I was way too full to order dessert.

First and Second Flat Iron

♦♦♦
LEVEL: DIFFICULT

This hike was rated moderate, but I would actually classify parts of it as difficult. First, it starts at the Chataqua trailhead which has a steep incline. The road itself is paved but there is no relief from the sparkling sun. It beats down on you like a hammer, which makes the climb rough. We set out before 8am but still had to stop for water breaks multiple times. I would highly recommend starting out early.

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Once you switch from the Chataqua Trailhead to the First and Second Flat Irons Trail (an out-and-back trail, not to be confused with the loop), the ascent becomes rockier and rockier. You may not see it here, but this is actually the “path” to the top. Somewhere in that stone pile is a trail of flatter stones on which to step.

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This is the view from above. But if you think the scrambling is over, you would be wrong. I was not prepared to scramble up a rock face but that I did. In retrospect it wasn’t that bad, what with footholds in the giant boulders. I looked over my shoulder to watch other, more experienced climbers ascend via the flat faces of exposed rocks – definitely not something I would dare try. This photo shows the spot after the “bouldering” that we did.

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After this, there’s a series of switchbacks like a stairway to heaven leading you up to the very top part of the second flat iron. The lime stone around the rock is gorgeous. We leaned against them as we ate our snacks, with squirrels running around us trying to catch stray crumbs. By then, it was around 10am, and the sun was unbearably hot. We decided to head back after reaching the top, a one hour descent ahead of us. I do have to say that the return journey down Chataqua was very pleasant. Gorgeous views of the valleys below the entire trip down.

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Avery Brewing Co.

♦♦♦
4910 Nautilus Ct N.
Boulder, CO 80301
$$

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When you go to a brewery, you kind of know what to expect. Avery Brewing Co. did not disappoint. From their barbacoa nachos to their beer, I thoroughly enjoyed what they had to offer, especially after hiking up the flat irons. I must also say that their upside-down pineapple cake was the best thing I ate on this trip. The caramel-like sauce was made with their Quinntiki beer, which was fermented in rum barrels with pineapple, coconut, orange, and nutmeg. The waitress brought over the beer to sample, but the dessert was much better. The two beers that I ordered were the White Rascal and the Paws & Claws. The first was very refreshing and the second was the perfect hazy pale ale. Yum!

Sforno

♦♦♦♦
1308 Pearl St
Boulder, CO 80302
$$

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We were actually supposed to dine in at a hard-to-reserve farm-to-table restaurant the evening we went to Sforno, but our decision to cancel and get pasta at this little Italian spot was one that led to zero regrets. I recommend sitting inside the restaurant, which was renovated to look like a tiny nook in a tiny alley transported straight from Italy. I don’t know what was more endearing – the fake planters, the cobbled walls, or the string lights. The food was very good – pasta that you would imagine an Italian grandma would make, paired with a nice glass of wine. For dessert, we ordered the Creme Brulee. All that was missing was a violinist serenading our table. (Do they do that?)

West Mesa Loop Trail

♦♦♦♦
LEVEL: EASY

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This trail was perfect for a leisurely morning stroll! If I were to walk it again, I would recommend taking the path to the left to start. That way when you return downhill, you have wide-open views of the green grasses below. It begins with a mini bridge that crosses a babbling brook. If you took the path to the left, you will ascend in shade. On the return hike, the hill is exposed to the sun but that isn’t such a bad thing when you are traversing down-hill. I try not to let the rattlesnake that almost attacked me cloud my judgement. Just keep an eye out because it is the season, and I guess rattlesnakes are not very happy to see visitors tramping their terrain.

Dushanbe Teahouse

♦♦♦
1770 13th St
Boulder, CO 80302
$$

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They say that you must check out the Dushanbe Teahouse for it’s interesting interior but also, for it’s wide selection of teas. We don’t know much about tea but the waitress recommended we try one that smelled like butter popcorn – a white tea without any additions to it other than the tea leaves themselves. It was the most interesting drink I have ever had – a must! We also ordered food, and the pan-fried noodles with tofu was so good, but the samosas and the xiao buns were mediocre, which explains the triple-diamond rating. We ended with a gluten-free almond cake with figs and apricots, thereby a high note. I suddenly thought of moving to Britain to see what tea time was all about.

Basta

♦♦♦♦
3601 Arapahoe Ave
Boulder, CO 80303
$$

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Can I give this place five diamonds?! I mean, freshly milled dough is my jam. But this pizza was more than that. Perfectly thin but gummy, thick crust but soft. Charred in a brick fire oven (which they also had at Sforno by the way!), and topped with the most simplest basil, tomato sauce and mozzarella. It was heaven.

Boxcar Coffee Roasters

♦♦♦♦
1825 Pearl St B,
Boulder, CO 80302
$

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If I am being honest, the lack of coffee roaster options in Boulder would be the number one deterrent for moving there. I am so spoiled with California’s long line of roasteries competing to make the best pour-over. As a coffee fanatic (my husband has diagnosed me with a coffee addiction, which I think is extreme since I only drink one cup a day), I really value innovative third-wave roasters. It was something that I sorely missed in Boulder. The town’s only saving grace was Boxcar Coffee Roasters. We ordered two filter coffees to go and I must say, I was very pleased with their batch coffee! I think they would be the place to hit up if you are a fan of a good cup of Joe. We sipped on it on our car ride to Louisville heading towards Moxie…

Moxie

♦♦♦♦
641 Main St
Louisville, CO 80027
$$

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Of course, before we left, we had to search for a good bakery. We traveled to a little town in Louisville outside of Boulder just to pick up pastries on our last morning there. If you are a bread/dough/flour/grain lover, you may want to check them out. Great croissant, great vibe, great service. If we were staying longer, you know I would’ve ordered all the bread loaves.

 

Minimalist, Sustainable, and Frugal Suitcases with InCase.

This post may contain affiliate links. Please see my disclosure to learn more.

My carry-on gave out. It was bound to happen. After all the years we’ve been through, hopping from AirBNB to hotel, thrown into multiple airline bins, and staying with friends and loved ones, it was time for my carry-on to move on with its life. Unfortunate that it happened to be as we were heading to our Alaskan destination, already at the airport and too late to do anything about it. Probably its way of protesting against being selected at the TSA check, inspected for “Taboo” of all things. (The boardgame, I mean.) Afterwards, the handle refused to unlock, as if to say, “Enough!” I respected its resistance. It was gifted to me by my parents when I turned twenty-one, right before Mr. Debtist and I took our first trip as a couple to Hawaii of all places. Nine years of hard work should always be respected. But as kids these days say, the struggle was real. I tried sitting on it and wheeling myself around like the five-year-olds sitting on their dog-leashed suitcases. I tried carrying it but obviously did not pack light enough and I did not go far. Mostly, I broke my back pushing it down airport hallways in this weird half-lift yoga position.

Since then I’ve had to do without, borrowing my husband’s carry-on thereafter and trying the hiking backpack strategy, without any luck. So when we were lounging poolside with a few friends at Santa Rosa on one particular wedding weekend, a friend of mine made a recommendation to buy an Away suitcase. Seemingly a very popular brand these days, I had to look into it. But despite all its allure as the suitcase every millennial needs, it just wasn’t for me. The price range was out of reach, even though affordability was one of its selling points. Additionally, research into the company yielded no efforts to be sustainable. And it was too trendy and not minimalist enough. But her comment did lead me down a rabbit hole, and I happen to find a solution with InCase.

I’ve heard of InCase previously as a company dedicated to creating cases for Apple products. That was as far as I went, since tech isn’t exactly my forte. Maybe I saw an Iphone7 case years ago when I went to Best Buy last, who knows. However, I was not aware until recently that they also make luggage. They have some really nice options for different types of people, including techy, minimalist, frugal friends, and environmentally conscious consumers. Okay, so it isn’t posh and trendy like Away bags, but isn’t minimalism its own trend these days? Seeing Marie Kondo on the cover of magazines and Netflix make it seem like so.

Regardless, I’m in love and I’ve jotted a few thoughts of my new InCase luggage below.

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WELL-PRICED

While Away has disrupted the suitcase market for its accessibility, I would love to point out that I nabbed my InCase Novi 4 Wheel Travel Roller at $59.99 when a similar carry-on from Away costs $225! You can also get the larger check-in versions of the Novi luggage at $67.49 and $74.99 now! Compare that to $275 and $295 at Away, and I think it’s pretty obvious which choice the frugalist would go for. At least, which one this frugalist chose. Plus, it’s quite simple to order online. Since the San Franciscan based company is only a short way from SoCal, I was able to receive my suitcase within a few days. Talk about accessibility!

TECH-FRIENDLY

Techy geniuses out there will also have plenty to appreciate with this brand. In particular, there are suitcases that open to display all your tech gear in a TSA approved manner without removing your digital-ware. Multiple pockets allow for easy organizing of chords, chargers, and other gadgets. As a blogger and photo-enthusiast who is always carrying around her camera, I love that their suitcases are well designed for tech. I also like that their cases sport a built-in TSA approved lock, which gives me an added feeling of security for my carry-on.

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MINIMALIST STYLE

In contrast to Away’s multitude of color options, the InCase luggage sports only a few neutral  colors. For example, the carry on that I purchased only came in sleek black or asphalt grey. As a huge proponent of eliminating the paradox of choice, I appreciate that the color choices are minimal, which prevents overwhelm (or worse, the feeling that you need a suitcase in every color to match your mood). I am a true believer in limiting options, to save our brain power for more important, relevant, novel, and progressive thinking. Their medium check-in luggage has more color options and to rid myself of the noise, I refused to even consider it. I chose the small carry-on in asphalt grey and am very happy with its sleek look. If you are worried at all about scratching the hard shell, the case comes with a fabric protector that you can slip on once everything is packed and you’re past the TSA check (assuming you don’t open and close your luggage frequently). Then you can throw it into the overhead bin with ease of mind. However, in my most honest opinion, I don’t think I’d bother. That’s just one extra thing you’d have to do (another example of intentionally saving brain power), and I greatly enjoy the aesthetics of the asphalt grey. Lastly, I am not a big fan of brand labeling and would much prefer the understated tiny font on the suitcase over the bold printed branding on the fabric cover. That may just be my own personal protest.

Other details include removable wheels in case you’re living in a tiny home with a lone closet and wanting to store a carry on inside a bigger luggage to save space (which I do). The interior the luggage is very minimal. It unzips in the center, and there is a mesh cover for the top half of the suitcase so that clothes remain well organized and intact upon opening. The center divider is a ziplock bag perfect for laptop storage, thus making it very easy to remove or access. The divider also doubles as a separator for the bottom half of the case. There is also a tiny pouch big enough to hold the most basic necessities (such as toothbrush and toothpaste). Some may argue that the interior does not have enough pocket space, but a minimalist would disagree. If anything, time to practice those light-packing skills and welcome to the club. The suitcase also comes with a draw-string laundry bag, which I love since we usually bring carry-ons on our longest of trips so it comes useful when separating used from fresh clothes. My only gripe with the case is that there is only one handle at the top, when I think a second one on the side would help with loading onto an overhead bin. But since I always travel extremely light, lifting the thing can’t be too much of an issue.

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SUSTAINABLE OPTIONS

Also, this case in particular was made with (dare I say it?) plastic! And while there was a more sustainable option within the company,  price and minimalism outwon sustainability. But, I still felt comfortable with my purchase knowing that it contributes to a company that is making efforts to be sustainable and eco-friendly. Their Ecoya line has a carry-on called the EO Roller that is catching the attention of many frequent fliers. It was voted a top pick by Business Insider and it’s easy to see why.

Ecoya fabric is used for this case which is created through an eco-dyeing process that introduces coloration in the raw material stage instead of at the traditional yarn phase. This process reduces CO2 emissions and uses 89% less water than conventional yarn dyeing methods. It also results in a more colorfast fabric that stands up better to light, water and washing.

AND MORE

In terms of practicality, I love the four wheels. The case glides very easily and doesn’t get hung up when I do 360 degree turns. In fact, the wheels are one of my favorite features. Hubless, they make the case feel much lighter, and the double wheel gives it a great aesthetic, and added bonus to its exceptional function. The handle easily unlocks with a simple push button. The exterior is hard cover but extremely light. I feel quite relieved knowing that the laptop lies in the middle divider at the center of the bag, so even if the case gets dropped, it will be cushioned in between soft clothes. And quite honestly, I like that it looks good. The asphalt gray reflects natural sunlight and has a sheen to it. It matches every outfit and is unlikely to get dirty. I expect scratches and scuffs to be better hidden in the gray than in the black. Overall, I know that I will be traveling well with this case and could not be more happy with my purchase.

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Travel: The Hooker Valley Track, New Zealand

There are countless day hikes to choose from in New Zealand, especially in South Island. It was difficult to narrow down which ones we were going to do on such a short agenda, but I knew that The Hooker Valley track had to make our list of day walks this time around.

Located in the Canterbury region of New Zealand, the Hooker Valley track is an hour’s drive from Twizel or Tekapo, two perfect places to stay if you want to explore the Mt. Cook area. The track starts at a campground and makes its way past Mueller Lake and ends at Hooker Lake. The entire time, you have magnificent Mt. Cook as your backdrop.

The start of the track.

The track begins as a flat path through some shrubbery and trees. You will look back and see the valley floor, and when you look forward you will see Mt. Cook. There are three bridges to take you across wide glacial rivers. The first one crosses Mueller Lake, and is a fantastic sight to behold.

The first of three bridges.
Mueller Lake and what’s left of the glacial wall.
Me crossing the second bridge, which was my favorite.

The track is well maintained. I would say that even beginner hikers and young children can enjoy this track. A majority of it is either gravel or a wooden walkway with a wire mesh to improve footing in the colder, icier months. Most of the track is open, which makes for great views, but could get hot on a sunny day. Make sure to pack layers of clothing, as weather in this region can change very quickly.

Views from the third bridge.
A well-maintained track makes this hike doable for beginner hikers, the elderly, and children.
A man contemplating life.

If you are lucky like us, you will encounter Kea along the way. A special New Zealand dove, these Kea are known for their curiosity and smarts. They say that a Kea’s brain is as developed as a two year old human’s brain. These fun and flighty birds will come up to you real close, but be careful. They are mischievous, and love stealing personal belongings or trying to get inside your cars. You can’t help but love them though, what with their beautiful green color and bright red under-wings. Plus, they’ve got a beautiful bird song, to boot.

These guys are not shy!

At the very end of the track, you reach Hooker Lake. There are picnic tables for eating lunches, and an opportunity for you to walk right down to the water’s edge. Along the lake, you will see icebergs floating, even on a warm summer’s day. Mike made use of the quiet lake and skipped some rocks that he had been collecting on our trip.

Rock skipping on this serene lake. Can you spot the icebergs?
Quiet and calm at sunrise.

The best time to walk the track is very early in the morning. We headed out at 6 am, and were rewarded with the sun peaking out from behind the mountains. It was such a treat to be able to walk the track peacefully, what with just us two to enjoy most of the way. Be aware that especially during peak season (December to February), the track can get very busy as early as 8 am. For us, it isn’t as enjoyable with the crowds, so it was good that we set out so early.

Benefits of an Early Start
Postcard Photo

I think that this was one of the best day hikes that we’ve done in New Zealand. It had rewarding views without being too strenuous. There was animal encounters, as well as plenty of great scenic views. If you are staying in Twizel or Tekapo, this is definitely worth the drive! I would highly recommend this hike to anyone exploring the Mt. Cook area, and would love to return and do it again in the future.

Travel: City Guide to Portland, Oregon, Part Deux

Portland the first time around was so enamoring, that we decided to take back our dearest and share with them this awesome city. Unfortunately, that makes the creation of a sequel to the original city guide quite difficult, because no one wants to hear a long list of repeats. Although we did share with them our most favorite pit stops, we were also able to squeeze in a few fresh experiences, some of which surprisingly topped a few of our faves from our last visit. Overall, I enjoyed this trip much more than the previous, due to the cheerful company and the extensive amount of disconnecting from things that do not matter, and reconnecting with non-things that matter most.


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Not worth the time.

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Good, but ordinary.

♦♦♦◊
Great. Worth a visit.

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

$
Frugal friendly

$$
Reasonable

$$$
Pricey


Afuri

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923 SE 7TH AVE
PORTLAND, OR 97214
$$

In my opinion, Afuri was the best place we ate at on this trip, and that’s after revisiting places like Pokpok and Lardo. We had finished a day of hiking and were eager to retire. Ramen sounded like a good, quick way to stock up on carbs and fat. What we found when we walked into the restaurant in our dusty hiking gear was an industrial space that made this the most hip ramen joint I have ever been in. The decor should have been an indication of the ramen as well, but I have only tasted ramen within the limited confines of what California was serving and thus was not expecting the twist of the ramen I was about to consume. The menu seemed unassuming, with only four variations of hot ramen, and four variations of cold ramen. Half of the table got the Yuzu Shio, and the other half ordered the Tonkotsu Tantanmen. I preferred the Yuzu Shio, with it’s lemongrass-like taste due to the citrusy yuzu. It was extremely unique, unlike any ramen I have tasted before. And the noodles, too, tasted like freshly milled wheat spaghetti pasta, which ended up having the perfect texture to pair with the light, limey broth. Delicious! The boys liked the Tonkotsu Tantanmen, which included garlic ginger pork crumbles in a spicy sesame miso tare and pork broth. It seemed a bit too fatty to me, but hearing them slurp assured me that they did not agree. This was definitely my favorite meal of the trip.

Never Coffee

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♦♦♦♦
4243 SE BELMONT STREET
PORTLAND, OREGON
$

Last time we were in Portland, Mike and I couldn’t help but rave about Jory Coffee Co. This time around, Never Coffee took the prize. Whereas Jory was all about the purity of the coffee extracted from an optimized and calibrated pour, Never coffee is the farthest thing from pure coffee. They pride themselves in creating the magical spaces that only exist when opposites collide. It was like drinking unicorn dust out of a KeepCup. Every drink was espresso based, but there are five signature concoctions that require one’s exploration. I ordered the Hug, which tasted of spicy cacao, smoked chilies, and cinnamon. “It’s warm and holds you close. It makes you drop your guard. At the moment of bliss, it wakes you up with a bite, a kick, and enough fight to keep you coming back for more.” It’s got me saying “Amen”. Meanwhile, Mike was sipping on The Holy Grail, with tumeric, ginger and orange blossom water tastes topped with local cherry wood smoked honey, jacobson sea salt, and tellicherry pepper. Drinking Never coffee in the early morning inspires even the dullest to become poetic. It’s like creative juices, being shared via a latte mug. It’s got us re-thinking life. Next time, I will be back to taste the Midnight Oil – fennel seed, star anise, and black licorice awaits.

Cascade Brewery

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♦♦♦
939 SE BELMONT STREET
PORTLAND, OREGON
$

After a second day of hiking and epic ping pong battles, the family wanted to unwind at Cascade Brewery prior to dropping off my sister at the airport. In the two times that we have been to Portland, this is still the only brewery we have visited. We chose this place because of their selection of sour beers. I can guarantee you, they brought the sour. My favorites were the Honey Ginger Lime (Nitro) and the Vintage Cherry Bourbonic. Frankly though, a few of the sours were just way too sour to enjoy. Thank goodness tasters are only 2 oz portions, so there were no regrets.

Fifty Licks

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♦♦♦
 2021 SE CLINTON ST #101
PORTLAND, OR 97202
$

How many licks does it take to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop? I’m not quite sure, but I am certain it took only a few to devour Fifty Licks ice cream. After trying Salt & Straw, the fam wanted to get ice cream again but was interested in trying something different. Well, Fifty Licks specializes in different, and in a good way! I would say that Salt and Straw serves trendy ice cream flavors that are based off of more traditional ones and which evoke a sense of familiarity. Fifty licks, on the other hand, is entirely new. I sampled a good number of their flavors, all of which had me wanting more, and none of which reminded me of ice cream. The ones that piqued my interest the most were Thai Rice and French Toast. It literally had pieces of toast in the ice cream! Off course, I went with Hood Strawberry, which seems the most basic flavor upon reading, but there was something about it that was not Strawberry-ice-cream-esque at all. Unfortunately, if I had to choose between Salt & Straw and Fifty Licks, I would still choose Salt & Straw.

Screen Door

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2337 E BURNSIDE ST
PORTLAND, OR 97214
$$

Mike and I had many people recommend Screen Door. My sister, who also went on this trip with us, chose this breakfast joint as the number one place she wanted to eat at, so we decided to give it at try. Originally, Mike and I were hesitant, because the food looks very heavy, and we usually prefer fresh farm to table type stuff for our food (like Milk Glass Mrkt from our previous trip). The verdict: The food was ridiculously amazing, but veryyyy heavy. We thought it was delicious, but our bodies felt slow afterwards, a feeling that we do not like. Hence the three star rating. The pecan candied waffle and bacon though was soo good, but I made the mistake of eating ALL the whipped cream that went with it. If we were to return to Oregon and someone in the group wanted to visit this place, we would happily go, but Mike and I would not choose to return here if it was just the two of us. Consider it a preference for the type of food, rather than the food itself. If you love to eat and get full, then this may be the place for you!

Por Que No?

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3524 N MISSISSIPPI AVE
PORTLAND, OR 97227
$$

On the way to the airport, we decided to swing by this joint for some chips and tacos. I wanted to rate them higher, but coming from SoCal where there are taco joints aplenty, unfortunately, this only rates as mediocre. We did luck out at arriving right when happy hour started, which lasts from 3pm to Close on Tuesdays. And the one thing that they do have that I appreciate are five different house sauces to pour generously over your tacos and the like. But other  than that, the tacos were pretty standard.

Saddle Mountain Trail

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♦♦♦♦
$

This tops the charts when it comes to day hikes that we have done in Portland, OR. I would consider this a moderate trail, since my parents were able to do the majority of it. The last leg which was about 0.5 miles of steep climbing would be considered difficult. But the views are so worth it. This is an alpine trail that opens up to many views of the valley floor below. When you get close to the end, there is this amazing span of mountain ridges to walk out on to  get different vantage points. This may even be top 3 day hikes that we have been on, and trust me, we have been on plenty. Round trip, it took about 4.5 hours with plenty of breaks for the parents and while climbing at a slow pace. Walking sticks would definitely help older hikers, because of steep and gravelly hillsides. Also, they’ve placed wiring on the slopes to help with the footing, so I would recommend wearing hiking shoes, to prevent wires from snagging through your city sneakers. A must-do hike when you are in Portland! It IS an hour and a half drive away, but VERY worth it.