My wife, Angela, and I were blessed to visit a number of cities this past year, primarily on our two-week vacation out West. While I'm hoping to do this a bit more extensively in 2024, here are some of the places we went and things we saw in 2023 - complete with a few (hopefully) helpful travel tips:
- We started our three days in this beautiful city with a visit to Old Town. I love history, so to explore the beginnings of San Diego was a must-do on our visit. As you might expect, there is a significant "tourist trap" element there, but you really don't seem to mind. The shops and restaurants are all worth exploring, included winding your way through some of the alleys to otherwise hidden treasures.
TIP - Check out the graveyard. It is a self-guided walk through people and moments that helped create San Diego.
- Next up was the Harbor. It's one of the most beautiful places I've seen. The city, the ocean, and the airport all converging at one spot. Walking along the harbor front there are plenty of ship-oriented museums/tours to take. But the one that overshadows everything is the USS Midway. A must-see. And just across from it is a fun hidden gem - a tribute to legendary entertainer Bob Hope. Sit a while with the "sailors" who are there and listen to a bit of Hope's monologue.
TIP - Give yourself 4-6 hours to spend on the Midway. Go early and have lunch on the ship. Explore each deck, each plane...it is massive. And massively impressive.
- Intead of going to the San Diego Zoo proper, we went to the zoo's Safari Park just outside the city. Seeing everything from lions to tigers, elephants to giraffes, and much more in their natural habitat was quite the experience.
TIP - The tram through the African part of the park is free. But pay for the guided golf cart tour through the Asian portion of the park. It's the only way you can see those animals, and it's worth the investment.
- Finally, it was Petco Park for a Padres baseball game. The ballpark is beautiful, with the city skyline rising beyond the outfield fence. We were there on Mexican Heritage night, which added to the festive atmosphere. Tickets were reasonably priced where we sat (third deck). Food choices are plentiful, though not as many on the upper decks as on the main level. Sight lines were good. It was a fun night at the park.
TIP - Even in late June, it gets chilly in the evenings. We were not prepared for that. Take a jacket or light blanket to the game. And pay for the premium parking. It's worth it.
- Some of the other places we visited included Belmont Park, an amusement park beachside. Had a nice throwback feel to it, with some good places to eat there and nearby. And we also went to church on Saturday evening at Shadow Mountain Community Church in El Cajon, the church pastored by David Jeremiah. It was a blessing to hear him preach. And despite the size of the campus, it did not have that "mega-church" feel. The people were welcoming and warm, and the service was inspiring. It was also the 60th anniversary for Dr. Jeremiah and his wife, Donna, so we got cake!
Our first trip to the Grand Canyon was, in a phrase, awe-inspiring. Seeing God's handiwork on display for miles and miles is both humbling and jaw-dropping.
We stayed in Williams, AZ, which is roughly an hour from the park's south rim entrance. Williams is a cool little town right on old Route 66 which has stayed relevant because of its proximity to the Grand Canyon. In fact, the Grand Canyon railroad runs out of there, with packages that include the train ride into the park, a night's stay, and the train ride back.
Those were a bit more money than we wanted to pay. So we stayed in a classic old-style motor lodge. One of the locals told us to make sure we had dinner prior to 9 p.m., because around that time most places in town shut down. And he was correct. But Williams was a nice place to spend a couple of nights. Highly recommend.
For the Grand Canyon itself, you have to buy a park pass. But it's amazingly reasonably priced - $35 for a car of up to four people. And the pass is good for seven days. So you can go as often as you want for that period of time.
We went on a Monday. We were told the south rim was more "touristy," but after discovering the north rim would have been a four-hour drive we took our chances. And we were delighted.
We spent about 9 hours (and over 21,000 steps) at the park, going from place to place either by foot or bus, taking in every view we could. There were a lot of people there, but it didn't feel crowded. And our wait for a bus never lasted more than 10-15 minutes. The park does a good job of providing plenty of opportunites to refill a water bottle, and there are more than enough places to get snacks, meals and souvenirs. Plus, there are several lodging opportunities inside the park if you choose to stay there.
TIP - Get there early. And early in the week. Our Monday visit seemed to be a great day to be there. Take binoculars. We didn't, and I regret it. And be sure to wear plenty of sunscreen, and even a hat. You'll thank us later.
There's a lot of history in Amarillo, another Route 66 city. But we were there for one main reason. Well, two really. After some early car trouble on our trip we decided to rent a car for the seven-day swing to San Diego and the Grand Canyon, and the closest place to get one was the Amarillo airport.
But the main attraction was The Big Texan.
You've likely seen the restaurant on television. The home of the 72-ounce steak challenge. Eat the steak and all the fixings in an hour and the meal is free. There's two-level seating in the place, and no matter where you are you can see the stage area where thousands have taken on the challenge over the years. Sadly, no one attempted it while we were there (twice, in fact. Picking up and dropping off the rental). But the entire place, touristy as it is, is worth the time and effort.
TIP - Try the steak. It. Is. Phenomenal.
We also visited Cadillac Ranch, and spray-painted our names on one of the impaled vehicles. They were probably painted over by day's end, but it was fun. Also, it's free to visit. Just pull off along side the frontage road and pop in. You may encounter someone selling souvenirs at the gate, but there was no charge to go see the cars and do legal grafitti.
The two main attractions for us on this visit to KC were a Royals game and the Negro Leagues Museum.
We started at the museum in the morning.The same building downtown also houses the Jazz Museum, but we were baseball-focused this day.
The place is so well done. Bob Kendrick and his staff have gone through great pains to highlight in amazing detail the history of black baseball. From it's segregated beginnings, through the glory days of the Negro Leagues, to its ultimate demise a few years after Jackie Robinson broke MLB's color barrier in 1947.
The photos, the displays, the artifacts - it's another place where one could spend hours upon hours. If you're a baseball fan, it's a must visit.
TIP - Take your time. Take it in. There are so many hidden gems that it's hard to take them all in on one trip.
Up next was Kauffman Stadium, for an afternoon Royals-Indians game.
It's a shame that Kansas City is pushing for a new downtown ballpark, because Kauffman Stadium has held up well in its 50-year existence. Again, we bought a premium parking pass and ended up two rows from our gate. And once we got in on the main level, we were able to walk the full circle of the park to see everything it had to offer - up to and including a really fun area for kids. And, of course, there were the legendary fountains in the outfield. Great photo-op!
The food options were good, and the game proved to be exciting (an extra-inning KC win).
TIP - Prepare for the heat! It was 102 degrees the day we visited. And while we bought tickets two rows from the field, we ended up sitting in the second section in the shade. Thankfully no one was there to bother us, or ask us to move out of their seats. Lots of sunscreen, hats, and plenty of water!
Our primary reason for stopping here was to do the one thing we couldn't do when we visited during Covid in 2020 - ride to the top of the Gateway Arch.
The museum itsef is a great look at the history of the city of St. Louis. But we wanted to ride the arch this time. So we did. And 630 feet later, we were at the top overlooking the city and beyond. Stunning view.
TIP - Get your ride tickets online if possible. We didn't. But we were among the first people in line waiting for the gates to open and purchased tickets on site with no trouble. Enjoy the tram ride to the top, but take time in the museum itself. Great lesson on the history of the city.
My favorite city in the world. Been visiting since I was a kid.
We've stayed in just about every area possible, from downtown, to Northern Kentucky, to the Kings Island area. This time we stayed in Northern Kentucky near the airport - which, as we discovered, has a nice little park area outside the perimeter where you can sit and watch the planes take off and land.
Our primary reason for this visit was Reds baseball. Great American Ballpark is a beautiful facility, and now that The Banks area is finally open there are plenty of shops and restaurants outside the park.
Look for a much more detailed post coming in 2024, but needless to say no trip to Cincinnati is complete without plenty of Skyline Chili and a visit to the Montgomery Inn Boathouse.. Best ribs in the world.
TIP - Pay to park in one of the stadium garages. They generally open about four hours prior to first pitch, which gives you time to walk from GABP to downtown and visit Fountain Square. And, the Reds Hall of Fame and Museum is connected to GABP. Outside of Cooperstown, experts say its the greatest baseball museum anywhere.
NORTH TOPSAIL BEACH
Thanks to a lifelong friend who has a beach-front condo, we spent four days at this North Carolina spot in early October.
The great thing about North Topsail? It's pretty much all beach, and very little tourist trap. Literally, we walked out the front door of the condo, turned right, and were face to face with the Ocean.
There are plenty of rental properties there. But if you're looking for a Myrtle Beach-type experience, forget it. On the five mile stretch of road that makes up North Topsail Beach, there are only a couple of restaurants. To get to more touristy destinations, you're looking at a 15-30 minute drive.
All we wanted was beach and relaxation. And that's what we got.
Doesn't get much better.
This is just a capsule look at a few of the places we visted in 2023. Certainly we could have shared much more detail. And our plan in 2024 is to do just that. We are going to try and make the travel blog a regular thing. And when we do, we'll add pics!
I hope you enjoyed the beginning!