So today was the first of two sea days before we reach Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. I was a bit slow moving this morning and didn't wake up until 8:10 (typically I've been getting up around 6:30 or 7, kind of staying on East Coast time). Since I wanted to go to my watercolor painting class at 9 I told Jeremy to go ahead to breakfast without me while I got ready for the class. You pretty much can arrive anytime after 8:30 and there are already folks there setting up. Today's class you were supposed to use a photo of your choice to paint, I chose a photo I had taken in Cartagena, Columbia of one of the restored colonial homes that had a balcony covered with a red and green flowering plant, and it turned out pretty good if I do say so myself
Afterwards I came back to the room and met up with Jeremy and we chilled in the room for a bit and then headed up for a quick lunch at the poolside grill for burgers and fries. The seas had been a little rough so we headed back to the room and I took a nice two hour nap while Jeremy read. At 4:30 there was another cruise staff vs guests volleyball game so we headed up to the sports deck for that. Initially I had said I was just going to watch but after a game and a half of watching (and having one of the couples who were sitting out that game asking why I wasn't playing, and saying I needed to go "help the team" and play) I went back to the room and changed into more suitable clothes (a bathing suit, coverup and flip flops were not ideal for volleyball playing) and came back out and played for probably 45 minutes. We then headed back to the room and got cleaned up for dinner at 7 at one of the ships specialty restaurants, Qsine, with John and Karen.
After having a little bit of trouble finding the entrance to the restaurant (you can see it on deck 11 but there are no entrances on that deck, you have to go down to 10 and go up the midship staircase) we entered right behind John and Karen and were seated. The restaurant is decorated in black, orange and white, with mismatched black lacquer and white high backed cloth chairs and the food was amazing. You can order as many things as you like off of the menu (which is an iPad app) and they're all kind of mini-portions with one portion for each table. We had spring rolls (served in giant springs), sushi lollipops, build your own sliders, filet mignon, so much tasty food and capped off with a "chocolate tombstone" for dessert for me (super tasty chocolate mousse with a nutella crunch crust). I haven't been that full of food in a long time, but it was worth it.
So this evening proved just as fun as the day. Jeremy and I headed out for dinner a bit early so that we could stop at the martini ice bar on deck 4. Jeremy ordered a lime martini and I (unknowing what was in store) ordered the martini tasting. Jeremy got his drink first then the two bar tenders went to work setting up and mixing my drinks. They laid down napkins on the ice bar, then placed four cocktail glasses upside down of varying heights as well as a tall bottle of Stolichnaya vodka and balanced little tasting sized martini glasses on the top of each, along with one on the bar, for a total of six different flavors. Once that was set up the other bartender Ali came over with six cocktail shakers stacked on top of each other and he poured all six drinks at once, it was quite the spectacle and lots of folks oohed and aahed as he was pouring. The drinks were a classic martini with olives (honestly my least favorite, I prefer them dirty), an appletini (which was the first drink I had on my 21st birthday), a peartini, a raspberrytini with chambord (a favorite), a citrus martini (also very tasty), and a sunset martini (was tropical flavored with a splash of grenadine). Unfortunately we only had 15 minutes before we were supposed to be at dinner so I didn't really get to savor each drink (and ended up kind of doing the last sips as shots) but they were all very tasty and it was a fun "show bar" experience since they were twirling bottles and flipping cocktail shakers.
So we headed down to the Olympic restaurant which is where our invitation (that we finally received late the night before) instructed us to go. We were warmly welcomed by the maitre'd and the director of food and beverage for the ship and taken into the specialty wine room/cellar where a friendly sommelier served us a very tasty champagne with sliced strawberries and we waited for the other guests to arrive. Not long after Erin, the officer in charge of revenue on the ship and our host for the evening, arrived along with a friendly young couple from North Carolina, Derrick and Nicci, who both work in the anesthesiology unit at Duke hospital. Shortly after three folks arrived, a deaf couple from the Bay area and their interpreter who were celebrating their 30th wedding anniversary. After chatting and introductions we finished our champagne (after Jeremy made a quick shirt change, it was really hot in the cellar room) and were led into the ships galley.
Our table was situated right in front of the chef's office in between the dish washing area, the bread area and the appetizer stations. There were folks furiously working away the entire time we were in there, and 600 meals were served while we were down there and you would never have known. So we chatted away about what we all did for a living, traveling, and commenting on our surroundings including the head chef who was busily preparing our meals behind us at a temporary cooking station.
The first course was a choice between a warm goat cheese soufflé and a smoked salmon and peekitoe crab parfait layered with avocado, two kinds of salmon caviar, creme fraiche and petite greens. Jeremy and I each chose a different option so we could taste and split both. The parfait was very tasty but the goat cheese soufflé was the winner of that course, savory and fluffy with herbs and a strong goat cheese flavor, so good.
The second course options (again we got one of each) were a cioppino, a rustic San Francisco seafood stew with garlic, tomato and herb crostini, or insalata di arugula with fried bocconcini mozzarella, toasted pine nuts, crisp shallots, sundried tomato vinaigrette and balsamic syrup. The stew won this course, it had great tomato flavor as well as a deep seafood stock and it was Jeremy's favorite as well even though he doesn't generally like tomato based soups. We were served an intermezzo course of mango sorbet with a blackberry and chocolate curl to cleanse our palates then moved on to the main course.
We had the option of a Loup de Mer, grilled Mediterranean Sea bass, red pepper melange, crispy eggplant, balsamic syrup and sauce nicoise, or steak Diane. Jeremy and I both chose the steak and were not disappointed (per usual all of the steak we have had on the ship has been top notch, all sourced apparently from Colorado). The steak was perfectly cooked, with a flavorful wine sauce and served with mashed potatoes and vegetables artfully arranged on the plate.
The fourth course was a cheese course where we had a Brie, two smellier cheeses, and a firm mild cheddar along with pain de champagne and dried fruits. The Brie was probably my favorite of the cheeses, one of the soft smellier cheeses was a bit too smelly for my taste.
We finished with dessert, either a floating island with chocolate cream sauce or crepe ballon rouge with balsamic strawberries, vanilla ice cream and Chambourcin sauce.
Both Jeremy and I chose the crepe and were very pleased with our choice, the sauce had a bit of black pepper in it that went fantastically with the strawberries and smooth vanilla ice cream that filled the crepe.
The sommelier and servers kept our wine and water glasses full the whole time with some very tasty wines as well as flat (and then later upon Jeremy's request) sparking water.
After getting probably 15 minutes to chat with the chef (who said he normally does not get the chance to chat, so that was a nice treat) we ended a great dinner, the ladies were given single red roses, and we were escorted up the escalators to the main floor (we also were escorted up any time we needed to use the restroom). We decided to join Derrick and Nicci for a drink at the martini bar before heading to the room and that was quite fun. They are well aquainted with a lot of the bar tenders on the ship so it was like coming to a local bar with them. We chatted about our pets, cruising, and random other things while sipping a Bloody Mary martini (me) and an apple martini (Jeremy). We then walked with them to the casino as they had some "match money" to play and we watched them play their game of choice, roulette for a few minutes (until they ran out of the match money as they're "not gambling people", they came out $11 ahead though after a $20 investment, so not bad), and then parted ways to gratefully head to bed. What a great day.
We arrived on time in Miami after a layover in Newark and caught a cab to our hotel, the Hilton Miami Downtown. We were treated to an upgraded suite and discovered we had both a living area, with seating for 6 plus a dining room for 6 as well as a separate room with king size bed. We relaxed in the room for a bit then stopped by the Publix to buy two bottles of wine to bring with us on the ship (you are allowed two bottles per stateroom). We were happy to find Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc in the store and picked up two bottles to enjoy over the next two weeks.
After we returned we got cleaned up and headed to our dinner reservation at Michy's, Michelle Bernsteins restaurant in Miami. We had seen there was a tasting menu online and that's what we ordered when we arrived. We were offered three or four course options, with an optional wine pairing. Figuring that we were on vacation we decided to treat ourselves and get the four course with wine. We were surprised (and delighted) to discover each "course" consisted of three separate and distinct smaller dishes.
The next morning we found a fun greasy spoon diner called S&S for breakfast, then killed time in the room before checking out (and waiting 20 minutes for the down elevator). We got a cab from the hotel and were able to immediately get checked in to the cruise. The rooms were not available until 2pm so we relaxed on one of the upper decks, grabbed a light lunch, and then headed into our room to unpack and then do our "muster" drill. Afterwards we explored around the ship a bit, then got ready for dinner at 6. We learned you don't need to arrive early to dinner, as they don't open the doors until exactly 6pm (much to many folks' chagrin). Our table is right next to the door, a six top. Our tablemates are John (retired from Safeway) and Karen (a hygienist) from the Bay Area of California, who have been dating for two years after meeting on match.com. Our other tablemates are Ethel and her husband who are from New Mexico. We all chatted and seemed to get along well, John and Karen are quite into cooking and wine so we found quite a bit to talk about. After dinner we headed in to watch the theatre show, and after the show discovered we are only one of four newlywed couples on the ship (with one of the other couples appearing nearby us throughout the day, in line to check in, waiting for dinner, then sitting near us in the theatre). There is a newlywed/anniversary reception on the ship that I think we will go to to try and connect with some of the younger folks here on the cruise.
We've ordered room service breakfast tomorrow, so looking forward to that. They are offering some dance lessons tomorrow, we may also explore the fitness facilities, and I have a feeling Jeremy will be doing a lot of reading
For the past few months Jeremy and I have gotten together with three other couples to have "wine dinners." Each couple brings a course (appetizer, first course, main course or dessert) and a bottle (or two, or three) of a wine they think pairs well with their dish. So far we have had three dinners with Italian, Spanish, and most recently "comfort food" themes. Jeremy and I were in charge of dessert this go-round and figured, what is a more classic comfort food dessert than apple pie? I began venturing into from-scratch pie making this holiday season, starting with an apple pie for Thanksgiving and followed by a strawberry-rhubarb pie for Christmas Day dinner, so this was my third pie-making attempt, second apple.
Jeremy and I both looked around online and through our library of cookbooks in search of the "best" apple pie recipe. In the end the Allrecipes.com iPad app provided the winning base recipe, Apple Pie by Grandma Ople. The recipe has over 4,400 reviews and had a five out of five star rating, so I figured with that kind of crowd-sourced recommendation, it was probably a good place to start. We knew we wanted to use spices in the pie filling (the original recipe does not call for spices oddly enough) so that was the first "tweak." We had some real cinnamon that we brought back from the Caribbean two years ago so that was the star spice in our blend, along with nutmeg and allspice. If you have never had "real" cinnamon, you are in for a treat. Most "cinnamon" you buy in the grocery store is actually from the cassia plant, and has a much sharper and spicier flavor whereas cinnamon is a much warmer, rounder and richer flavor. (To learn more about cinnamon and cassia, and to buy either one, Spice House is a great resource.)
Our second tweak stemmed from the step in Grandma Ople's recipe that called for creating a syrup out of water, butter and sugar to use to pour over the apples once you had mounded them into the pie. From our earlier recipe readings, and using a bit of science from Alton Brown's Super Apple Pie recipe, I decided to first put 2/3 of the sugar in with the apples and let them drain over a bowl for about an hour and a half, then used that juice in place of the water for the syrup, reducing it down to really intensify the apple flavor. This way there is not as much liquid in the pie to make the crust soggy and you capture and concentrate the apple flavor. We also opted to pour the syrup in with the sliced apples and mix it together rather than just pouring it over the apples once they were in the pie pan.
The third tweak was to use a trio of apples rather than just one variety. Jeremy found an article on Serious Eats testing the best apples for apple pie so using their recommendations for the two best "pie apples" (selected for their flavor) Braeburn and Golden Delicious, along with the "traditional" Granny Smith (for structure and acidity) we had our star ingredients selected.
I had very good luck with the pie crust I made for my Christmas strawberry-rhubarb pie so I reused that recipe, the combination of butter and shortening is the key, you get the flavor and flakiness from the butter plus a tender crust from the shortening.
So without further ado:
- 2 Braeburn apples, peeled, cored and sliced into ¼" slices
- 2 Golden Delicious apples, peeled, cored and sliced into ¼" slices
- 3 Granny Smith apples, peeled, cored and sliced into ¼" slices
- ½ cup unsalted butter
- 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- ½ cup white sugar
- ½ cup packed brown sugar
- 1 tablespoon cinnamon (fresh ground if possible)
- 1 teaspoon allspice (fresh ground if possible)
- 1 teaspoon nutmeg (fresh ground if possible)
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees F and place your oven rack in its lowest position.
- Combine the brown and white sugar, reserving ⅓ cup.
- Mix the sugars in with the apples, place in a colander over a large bowl to collect juices, let sit for at least 1 hour.
- Make the pie crust and refrigerate for 1 hour.
- Once apples and pie crust are ready, melt the butter in a saucepan. Stir in flour to form a paste. Add apple juices and remaining sugar mixture and bring to a boil. Reduce temperature and let simmer for a few minutes and then remove from heat.
- Roll out your bottom and top pie crusts.
- Place the bottom crust in your pan and brush with egg-whites.
- Add the spices into the melted sugar mixture and mix in with the apples.
- Layer the apples in the pie pan so there is little space between the slices, continue with as many apple slices as you can fit, mounding in the center.
- Cover with top crust, seal edges, cut slits to vent, brush with egg-whites and dust with sugar.
- Bake 15 minutes in the preheated oven on the lowest rack of the oven.
- Move pie up to the middle rack of the oven and continue cooking until the apples are softened, approximately 45 minutes.
Our last day in San Francisco we started with a tour of the iconic Alcatraz Island. All of the travel websites say this is worth going to and it definitely is. Yes, it may be touristy but it's also really interesting and beautiful. I purchased our tickets online about a month prior (you have to as this is such a popular attraction) and secured the first morning ferry out so that we'd beat a bit of the crowds and still have a good portion of the day to do other stuff as well. There are night tours of Alcatraz as well which I've heard are really cool but, even a month in advance, these were sold out for the day we wanted to go.
So you take a 20 minute ferry ride out to the island, getting a nice view of the city on your way out, and then you dock at the main (and only) dock on Alcatraz Island. We were greeted by one of the park rangers who gave us some general information and were informed that there was a garden tourthat was being offered that
morning that would take you through some of the less-seen areas of the island as well as see a bit of "behind-the-scenes" stuff. Since this was a free tour it sounded like a great way to tour the island and learn more about its history before heading up to the main prison building.
After the garden tour concluded we were encouraged to take the Agave Trail to go back down to the ferry, as it went down past the bird sanctuary on the coast. So keeping that in mind we headed into the main building, picked up our audio tour headsets, and walked around with lots of other folks, hearing from previous inmates and guards, about life at Alcatraz.
After the audio tour we took the Agave Trail as recommended. It's a pretty walk down the island, lots of its namesake plant along the trail,
as well as great views of San Francisco across the Bay. It's scary imagining being imprisoned there, with the city and its "normal life" seemingly just out of reach. We had to wait a while to board the next ferry and were annoyed by the vast quantity of flies that apparently hatch at this time of year, but thankfully once we were on the ferry and moving they dissipated. As we were leaving the island we were treated to another air show practice, this time not just by the sleek Blue Angels jets but by the older planes as well. All my Fleet Week air show photos are on Flickr if you'd like to see more planes Also, the rest of my Alcatraz and San Francisco photos are also online.
Once we were back in the city we headed out towards San Jose, stopping at an amazing Chinese place in the Mission District (aptly names Mission Chinese Food) for a quick lunch. Jeremy had seen this place recommended in the New York Times and it was also well reviewed by the travel sites and Foursquare. So taking Foursquare tip recommendations we ordered the Salt Cod Fried Rice and the Cumin Lamb Belly. The rice was very good with just a hint of the fishy salt cod flavor, but the lamb was amazing, perfectly spiced pieces of lamb broiled so that the fat melted and caramelized along with the onions and few peppers in the dish, so good!
After this late light lunch we headed out to San Jose to meet up with a couple from Williamsburg who had moved out here a few months ago. We met at The Counter, a build-your-own burger place, and had a great time catching up. After dinner we took a stroll around the downtown area, trying to keep up with their two year old son, and then parted ways and drove the hour back to San Francisco. Since we leave very early tomorrow morning we are heading to bed early, back to the real world tomorrow!
It's been a great trip. It has been quire fun to see Jeremy and my parents interact (and get along well ) as well as see this side of the country that I've heard so much about. There are definitely lots of things I'd like to come back and see, more photos to take, more wines to taste, more great restaurants to find, and I'm looking forward to it
For our first full day in San Francisco we were greeted with a foggy and rainy morning. Initially the plan had been to ride the bus down to Pier 1 and the Ferry Building Marketplace but the rain swayed us towards the decision to drive down and park for the day. Thankfully the rain cleared up as the day progressed and we only got caught in one stray shower the rest of the day.
The Marketplace is definitely a foodie's dream, dozens of shops, all with some combination of gourmet, organic, free-range, handmade, natural products (all of them beautiful and/or tasty). Mom and I split a blueberry scone as a quick breakfast as we walked the length of the old ferry terminal then we went outside to see the famous tower and "Port of San Francisco" sign. As we were walking around outside we saw that we were right next to where you can take the ferry to Saulsalito. I had heard from a few folks that it was a fun place to go for lunch so we bought Clipper cards (reloadable mass transit fare cards, it was $5 cheaper to use that than to buy the fare with cash) for the 11:35am ferry and then wandered around the marketplace a bit more until the ferry departed.
Our fellow passengers on the trip to Saulsalito were almost exclusively other tourists, so most were crowded at the front or back of the boat taking photos of the passing coastline during the trip (some blatantly ignoring the "please don't stand on the seats" signs to take photos over the railing). We offloaded at the base of the main street and decided to find a spot for lunch courtesy of Yelp and Foursquare. The highest recommended place was a Thai restaurant at the end of the main road so we walked the few blocks and enjoyed some pretty tasty food at Thai Terrace. We split spring rolls and spicy fried tofu as appetizers, I had a nice green curry and Thai iced tea. After lunch we walked back to the ferry and headed back to the city.
We arrived back at Pier 1 and walked up the Embarcadero along the water up to the attractions around Fisherman's Wharf. Along the way we sampled some tasty chocolate at TCHO where we had just missed the 2pm tour, looked like it would be fun to do another time. We made a quick tour around the crazy tourist-iness that is Pier 39, saw the sea lions, and walked up around the old Del Monte Cannery and Ghiardelli Square. We stopped at historic Pier 45 which had a fun antique arcade that we walked around (and where I got my customary souvenir penny) and outside along the water we got to enjoy an impromptu Blue Angels airshow as they were practicing for their shows later this weekend for Fleet Week.
We decided to try out Bistro Boudin at the famous Boudin Bakery for dinner. Social media was divided on the quality of the restaurant, some said it was a tourist trap, others said the food was great, overall I think I would lean towards the first opinion. The sourdough bread was very good (as expected), my mom got to have one of their famous bread bowls with crab and corn chowder, Jeremy and I each had a pretty tasty local beer (Anchor Steam), but the main dishes were rather bland, and not worth what you paid. On the bright side, we did have a great view of Alcatraz and the water at sunset from our table.
After dinner we decided to go back to the Marketplace to acquire some desert before heading home. We hopped on the F electric street car all the way back to Pier 1 and went to Ciao Bella Gelato for dessert (mint chocolate chip, honey pecan, pistachio gelatos and lemon sorbet were enjoyed by the group, all good). We walked out to the back of the terminal to catch a view if the night skyline and lit bridges and "Port of San Francisco" sign and then headed back to the car.
Tomorrow, we get to explore Alcatraz and meet up with some Williamsburg friends for dinner in Palo Alto, with I'm sure some more stops in between.
After a quick bagel breakfast we set off for our first wine tasting of the day at Elizabeth Spencer Winery. The tasting room is situated in the old town post office and Marshall greeted us warmly and led us through a wonderful tasting of a Sauvignon Blanc, two chardonnays, a Pinot Noir and two Cabernet Sauvignons. Jeremy and I confirmed our previous belief that these are some crazy tasty wines and decided to join their wine club (which also allowed us to get a discount on a few bottles to take back with us). We asked for some recommendations for lunch and were told that Farmstead and Cook were two good options so we made reservations for dinner at Cook (after validating the selection on Yelp and Urbanspoon) and headed to Farmstead for an early lunch. We were also given two discount tasting coupons for a nearby winery that (we later found out) Marshall used to work at so that winery was added to the list of destinations for the day.
Lunch at Farmstead was delicious. I had a country ham-wrapped fig salad with arugula and goat cheese and Mom and I split a burger with fried egg, with a side of fried potatoes. I think the fig salad is one of the best dishes from the whole trip, everything was so fresh and just tasted like it "should." We noticed the tasting room next door (affiliated with the restaurant) had a Foursquare special for free tastings so we walked next door and tasted three wines and two olive oils at Long Meadow Ranch.
Our next stop was Cakebread Cellars and we were given the VIP treatment thanks to some connections with friends back in Williamsburg. We were given a personal tour, tasted probably a dozen great wines, and even tasted grapes off of the vines so we could contrast the same grape being grown in the California and European-style of growing and trellising grapes (they really do taste different!).
Our last wine tasting stop was at Steltzner Vineyards (where our wine server Marshall at Elizabeth Spencer had worked previously). The bartender there also worked in the kitchen of Bottega, which had been another restaurant we wanted to try, so he checked to see if there were any openings coming up, and unfortunately there were not, will just have to be a place to go next time.
Before dinner we wandered around downtown St. Helena, perused two of the many olive oil stores, checked out the real estate listing (very pricey, but hey, you could buy a vineyard!) and then headed to dinner at Cook at 5:30. To start, we split the calamari and mussels with tomato and sausage appetizers amongst the table. Jeremy had the fetuccini carbonara special, Dad had the short ribs (recommended by Foursquare), Mom had a whole trout, and I had the risotto special with seared tuna, red grapes, and a pistachio, fig and bacon tapenade (very different combination of flavors, but tasty). For dessert I tried their "mundae," chocolate and vanilla gelato with a balsamic reduction, gray sea salt, and extra virgin olive oil. Overall the flavors were good but the chilled olive oil was a bit odd, could've done without that but I guess we were in olive oil country.
After a rather harrowing drive back up the hill in the rain we made it back to the house and Jeremy and I decided to "rough it" a bit and sleep in the little garden cottage for the night. It's really cute and cosy inside. Tomorrow we head down to San Francisco, possibly stopping at a winery, and then definitely going down the Pacific Coast Highway to the city.
Photos from our winery tours and of the AirBnB house are in a Flickr set if you'd like to see more.
Our flight from Richmond left at 1:30 in the afternoon on Thursday so both Jeremy and I took off the whole day. We spent the morning running last minute errands before heading to the airport early to meet up with a friend who sold me her scooter (a Yamaha Vino) so we could exchange payment and the title. My parents were flying out of Dulles and it just happened to work out (no really, not planned) that our connecting flight to San Francisco was through Dulles on the same flight. We all were lucky enough to fly first class courtesy of miles and upgrades so we had a pretty relaxing cross-country flight. We landed in San Francisco (hello first time on the West coast!) around 7:30 PST, grabbed our bags from baggage claim and headed to a nearby Hilton for the night.
After our complementary hotel breakfast we set out towards the east and Yosemite National Park. Typically this is about a 4.5 hour drive but we stopped in Oakdale to pick up groceries for the next three days (breakfast, packable lunches and dinner) and to have lunch at a local deli called Ferrareses Deli that came highly recommended on both TripAdvisor and Yelp. I had a very tasty avocado BLT, Mom had the pesto chicken sandwich and Jeremy and Dad both had the French Dip, yum.
Most of the trip we just spent looking out at the scenery, as it changed from tan dry grass hillsides with wind farms, to seemingly endless groves of pecan trees, then finally to tall pine and cedar trees as we entered the national forest and ultimately Yosemite National Park.
We are staying in the only private residential section allowed in the park (courtesy of AirBnB, the Yosemite Sunset House), about an hour's drive (15 miles) from the main visitor's center in Yosemite Valley. We couldn't check in until 5pm so we decided to head to the visitor's center to pick up maps, standard souvenirs (I always buy photo magnets from places I visit, my mom always gets one of the 8x10 photo tour books), and to see if there was anything we wanted to make reservations for while we were in the park. The Ansel Adams gallery hosts 1.5 hour morning walks for free most mornings so we called and were able to reserve spots to take that tour in the morning. We are also talking about doing w horseback trail ride, hopefully we can fit that in, I haven't ridden a horse for probably 18 years but it would be fun to do again, so we will see.
On our way to the visitors center we passed by many of the park's most famous sites, Bridal Veil falls, El Capitan, Half Dome, it's amazing to see these in person, the views almost don't look real, the scale of everything is just awesome.
We arrived at our house around 5:30, lugged all our suitcases up the three flights of outside stairs to be greeted by a pine tree studded view of the mountains and the sunset on our big deck. The house is situated on a hillside, with three separate apartments, the bottom is not open to the public, then there is a one bedroom apartment on the second level (the folks staying there pulled in around 8pm tonight) and then the top level is a 2 bedroom, one bath place where we are staying. There is a big open living/dining/kitchen area with lots of windows looking out to the forest and facing west towards the setting sun (thus the name "Sunset House"). We bought the makings for chili and cornbread at the store so we got that going and then sat out on the deck, enjoying the cool mountain air and views. Dinner turned out quite tasty (even with some baking dish improvising for the corn bread). Now everyone is getting ready to turn in for the night (we are all still on East coast time, luckily this works in our favor when we need to be at the visitors center tomorrow before 8:30am and we have an hour and change drive to get there).
So tomorrow, photo walk and tips on how to take "nature photos," then I think a short day hike of some sort is in order. There's so much to see, and we have two full days to see it, but for now, as it feels like 11:35pm rather than 8:35, I think it's time to head to bed.