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Sequoia National Park

If you live in Southern California, a day trip (or a weekend trip) is a must-do to visit Sequoia National Park. Spread out wide across from King’s Canyon National park and conveniently 3 ½ to 4 hours from Los Angeles is Sequoia, featuring miles of hiking trails, streams, cascades, wild life, caves, and the most impressive trees you will ever see. When you arrive, plan to drive roughly 18 miles from the entrance (where you pay your drive-on fee of $30) to make it to the Giant Forest. (If you plan on visiting more than twice in a year, think about getting the season pass for $50. It pays for itself in two trips!) If you’re going to see anything in Sequoia, the Giant Forest is the most important. The Giant Forest Hike is only 0.8 miles in and out, but it can be harder going back as it is on an incline. You begin walking into the woods and find yourself surrounded by redwoods with the largest bases you have ever seen. These sequoia trees have stood tall for roughly 3,000 years. Their height is nowhere near as impressive as their width. Their bases are, as I laughingly described them, very “girthy.” At the center of the sequoias is the main attraction of this section of the park: The General Sherman Tree, the largest known living single stem tree on Earth, taking up 52,500 cubit feet in volume. It is estimated to weigh 4.189 million pounds, and it isn’t even hard to speculate why. When you see this tree, you will feel so humbled to exist on this earth.


The other trail I highly recommend in Sequoia is Moro Rock. Moro Rock is a dome-shaped granite formation that a trail has been cut into for climbing to the most amazingly scenic summit, overlooking the Great Western Divide and most of the park. While it’s a very high, very steep climb up stairs carved into the structure, it is worth enduring to see the top. At the top of the rock, there are railings around you in a flat, narrow walkway so that you can experience this majestic view, looking down into the greens and waters of the valley from high above the tops of the mountains. This view, and the beautiful rock path, make Moro Rock a must-see at Sequoia.


While I couldn’t do it all at once, I made sure to return to Sequoia to finish out the “must-sees” list.

On my list to tell you about at Sequoia  next time:  Crystal Cave and the Tokopah Valley trail to the Topokah Waterfall at Sequoia! Stay tuned!

The City of Puebla & The Great Pyramid of Cholula

Puebla is a very artistic, hip city slightly south of Mexico City. It is a fun, modern place to be. Though it is updated and gorgeously modern, the old side of town features antique Spanish architecture still entwined perfectly within the new.


Our hotel, the Puebla de Antano Hotel, was a beautiful, five-star, classy place. The Spanish architecture featured a glass ceiling falling gently over the beautiful artwork and newly-painted walls. When it rained, they called this ceiling a “waterfall” as liquid gently cascaded like a waterfall down it.


As you exited the hotel, the Puebla Cathedral was right in front of you with beautiful colored lights dancing off it at night. We walked into the plaza next to the Cathedral to find a little park filled with class, style, and tons of little cafes. Puebla was the only place we visited in Mexico that had pizza and pasta. It was nice to see the strong variety of food around on top of all the shops.

Just outside of Puebla was the Great Pyramid of Cholula! Cholula is marked in the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest pyramid to exist in the world. It is also marked as the largest monument constructed anywhere. What is left of the structure doesn’t seem like much now, but it’s because a large hill had formed over it after centuries had passed, and the Spanish built a cathedral on top of the hill. So it looks like a large cathedral on a hill, but you’d be surprised to find that the pyramid still exists beneath. Tunnels under the interior of the hill hide in a maze for you to play in. Tourists can visit parts of the tunnels within the hill, and it is absolutely worth it to do so.


Next to the towering hill, where the tunnels let out, are ruins of the outside city of the temple for you to see. This part of the structure has been excavated for tourists to enjoy. There are sacrificial altars, remains of statues, and the large steps to the base of the old structure- the only real part of the pyramid still to be seen. If you feel the need to hike up onto the hill to see the glorious church, I highly recommend that, as well. What an adventure we had in Puebla!


Guanajuato, a City in the Hills

Guanajuato is an intricate city built into the side of a great hill. It’s colorful, bright, and cultural with a massive theatre, classy little parks, and little shops and knick-knacks everywhere. The road system twists in and out of the hills in a way where you can tell they are in what used to be the canals of the city. The old bricks and stones of the canals tell a great story of what used to be.

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Must-sees within the city are the Teatro Juarez, towering over the masses with gorgeous statues and innate detail, El Callejon del Beso, featuring a dark love story, and the mummies of Guanajuato.


The mummies of Guanajuato go back to a cholera outbreak around Guanajuato during the 1830s. After some time, a burial tax was decided upon, and those families that could not pay the tax would have their ancestral bodies dug up. To the surprise of those pulling the bodies from the ground, the corpses had been naturally mummified due to the minerals in the area of Guanajuato. Rumors have it that people began bribing the workers to see the bodies, and, over time, the mummy museum was born. There have been monster movies made about these bodies based on the scared and terrifying looking faces on some of the mummies. Rumors came around that the bodies that didn’t have horrified faces were distorted to have them to bring in more tourists. There are babies, women, men, those who died tragically, and even a mummified fetus. It’s not for the weak of constitution, but it is something fantastic to see.


Guanajuato is a beautiful city built into the hills, and it is somewhere I highly recommend that you check out.


Grutas Tolantongo: A Hidden Paradise

For the outdoor-loving adventurers of the world, Grutas Tolantongo is a must see! It is the most mesmerizing place. Hidden in the side of a mountain and overlooking its mighty valley and river bed within it, is Grutas Tolantongo, a natural hot-springs resort and park. Grutas Tolantongo is hidden away in the mountains of Hidalgo, but it’s worth the trip out into the country side.

Tolantongo features two sections- one having Las Pozitas, pools, and zip lining and the other having the waterfall and natural hot spring-caverns within the waterfall. The river flows through both areas. To get from one area to another is a hike (slightly more than 2km), which is great for those ready for outdoor exercise and fun! However, a bus is there to take you back to the other side of the resort if you’d rather not walk. But if you’re down for the hike, the trails are vibrantly green and magical.

The Pozitas, the pools built into the side of the canyon, were what brought us to Tolantongo, but the waterfall and the natural pool within it are what stole the show when we got there. As you approach the waterfall, it’s heavy flow of water cascades down from one of the largest mountains you have ever seen. The closer you get to the bottom of the waterfall, the more you realize that tucked away under the falls is one giant pool. You continue forward where you can wander inside into the natural pool. The little hide-away has water cascading from the ceiling and a few other various places from above. You can sit under it and have the water massage your shoulders or just sit back and watch others enjoy it. From there, there are caverns to swim in to see the natural formations of the cave, if you are brave enough to swim through the dark waters without any light. A great adventure, it is!

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The river is naturally calm and lightly flowing with sections divided by rocks so you can enjoy your own little warm pool within the river.


And the Pozitas. They were beautiful. They were what brought us there, after all. Water cascades from one pool down into the next from the lightly flowing and trickling water above- each pool getting cooler as it flows down to the bottom pool. Those pools, standing in such a serene location overlooking the canyon, you have to see to believe. They are a great place to hide away and relax. There are many sets of them, but the ones half-way down the mountain were the best to experience. They were a hike down the trail, but it was well worth it for the exclusion.
Finally- if you are there, go zip-lining. It’s very affordable and very surreal to go flying above the canyon and river. Grutas Tolantongo is an amazing place for any world traveled to experience.

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Blarney Castle and Gardens

Let’s talk about Blarney Castle. The full name of the property is “Blarney Castle and Gardens,” and with quite a good reason. The gardens of Blarney are, perhaps, more charming than the castle, itself. But more to that in a second.

Blarney Castle is, perhaps, the most famous castle in Ireland. It was absolutely the most magical place I have visited thus far in my travels. Blarney transported me back hundreds of years ago to the 1500s, when the castle was flourishing. Entering the lands felt like wandering into a portal that transported you back in time.  

As we began our walk into the grounds of Blarney, we could see the castle off in the distance.


We approached the castle while following a path through a few trees, fields, and gardens. As we approached, the main castle keep and tower were standing strongly above us. What made Blarney Castle so special was, despite its age, the entire structure was, more-or-less, intact. The main floors/ceilings of the great hall had long since been gone, but the small passages and rooms to the sides of the main hall (such as the kitchen, battle areas, and more) were still completely together. We travelled through the kitchen, the little lady’s room, the banquet hall, the family room, and even passed the murder hole. (We got a good laugh out of a father trying to explain to his son what the murder hole was for. If you don’t know, it’s where they would dump hot oil onto intruders from above if they made it passed the front door). As we made our way around, we could see fireplaces up above us on the walls where a floor once stood that no longer existed. As we head around and up the twisted staircase for what seemed to go on for years, we found ourselves on a path to the top to find the Blarney Stone. Once you we reached the very top of the building, there was a walkway around the perimeter. At the center of the far wall was the Blarney Stone. To kiss the stone, you lay on the ground and lean back (much farther than you think you need to) upside-down while holding onto a rail. There was a man positioned there to help, as people used to kill themselves trying to kiss this infamous stone. Once we kissed the stone, we made our way down to the grounds.



The grounds at Blarney were just as magical as the castle, itself, if not more-so. As we walked out of the castle, the poison garden greeted us and showed us the poisoned plants of the area. We heard that it was used to teach the inhabitants of the castle what to and what not to touch around the area. From there, a path through the woods was laid out before us. First, we followed the trees to a pond that had a beautiful waterfall before us. This was the water gardens. Heading around the land back on top of the waterfall, we followed the path to the Witch’s stone and the Wishing Steps. The Witch’s cave told a story where a witch was imprisoned into a stone (which looks like a witch, so it’s easy to see how the story came to be). Legend has it that she is cursed into the stone but is free at night to wander, where she comes out and moves into a nearby cave (built under a tree and complete with an unexplained ancient chimney supposedly built by druids) to conduct her magic. The cave was positioned beautifully in the roots of his tree, and was cozy enough for one person to live. At the foot of all of this, the Wishing Steps stoop firmly built. Rumor has it, if you closed your eyes and focused on a wish, if you made it all the way down the steps with your eyes closed, the wish would come true. From there, we followed the wooden paths and found Druid Stones positioned in a perfect circle on the grounds. From there, we explored the dungeons of the castle. The dungeons were torturously small. To proceed to the back of the dungeons, you had to crawl on your hands and knees through darkness. It let out into a tiny back area with a very dark energy.


From there, we proceeded back towards the entrance of the land. For those wishing to visit Blarney, maps are offered online. The property is extremely large but well worth a full-day journey if you have that to offer it. There’s even a café and coffee shop attached to the property. It is well worth the adventure if you are willing to answer that call.


So… the time came. I decided, for the first time in my life, to go on a diet. Did I really need to diet? No. I’m not overweight. Actually, I’m healthy for my weight. However, I have always been extremely skinny, and I felt that dieting would make me feel healthier and put me back to my weight that I’ve always been, as I have gained a few pounds over the last few years. Was it the best idea? Maybe- it has helped get healthier. Did I enjoy it? No. Did it work? Yes, I am back at my ideal weight.

I have come to the conclusion, however, that a diet really isn’t for me. I love food too much to have it taken away. That’s one of my vices that I would like to keep in my life.

Did I learn anything? Absolutely! I learned that moderating what I eat (not dieting but watching myself and maybe not having Taco Bell at 11pm or cutting back on a Poptart a day) will do wonders for myself. I learned that drinking water throughout the day is really a solid idea. All of these things will keep me at my ideal weight now that I am back there. I learned that increasing my activity throughout the day and working out more (and maybe actually using the treadmill in my bedroom) really will fix the problem on its own and keep me eating what I love.

So here’s how the diet went- It’s a nutritional diet. It, effectively, cut out meat and most carbs while keeping me eating fruits and veggies. Occasionally, I could eat a little rice. On the first day, all I could eat was low-sugar fruits. I would eat one every couple of hours throughout the day. I was always weak and hungry! The second day was the same routine with veggies. That day was a little easier, but I was still feeling weak and having a lot of headaches. I would wake up feeling horribly ill, weak, and unpleasant for the first few days. On the third day, I could eat veggies and fruit. The fourth day featured veggie soup, primarily, throughout the day. Finally, on the fifth day, I could introduce a little rice into the diet. That helped me TREMENDOUSLY. Through the end of the sixth and seventh days, I ate fruits and veggies around the rice.

It’s funny because I LOVE fruits and veggies- but I learned that they can’t be the only thing I eat. Eating the carbs that I do help me function. I need carbs. Period. Also, I love Chai Tea Lattes too much to cut them out of my life, but, perhaps, going a week without them, I learned that I could drink them in moderation.

So that’s been my dieting experience. I would like to say that dieting sucks. However, it is a good thing, as well. It opened my eyes to a lot, and it will be an experience that I will always remember.

The Rock of Dunamase

I was inspired to visit the Rock of Dunamase (an amazingly beautiful castle laid in ruins along the Irish countryside) while watching Leap Year with Amy Adams, as it is featured in that movie. I know, it’s slightly lame, but the structure just looked so beautiful on the big screen. Despite some GPS issues, as the castle doesn’t have an address that leads you directly to it, we saw it in the distance- a beautiful spray of ruins up on a hill. At that point, it was easy to follow the roads in the general direction to make it there. We arrived at a small, beautiful old church at the base of the hill where we could find parking. From there, we walked up the massive hill around the winding path to the ruins.


Unlike any of the other castles that we visited, Dunamase was completely in ruins. While the base of a few towers and rooms were scattered around, there were chunks of the structure spread all around the tall hill, with some looking as if they were about to slide down to the ground below.  Despite its appearance in the movie Leap Year (which included a lot of CG), there was no second story anywhere. You could wind up the staircase that they supposedly walked through (which wasn’t exactly a staircase) to a ledge within the structure. It was actually a really fun and easy place to climb along the rocks.


This was the perfect location to be at sunset. The sun was rolling down into the grassy fields off in the distance, and the entire area seemed to glow a beautiful orange and yellow. It was the most magical sunset that I have ever seen. There was a window ledge in the base of the main building where you could sit and watch the sun fall behind the fields and over the church at the base of the hill. It was an ethereal experience.

Though not as mainstream or touristy as the rest of the Irish Castles, the Rock of Dunamase is most definitely a place to see.

He’s Here! The Phantom of the Opera! (The Opera Garnier)

The story of The Phantom of the Opera has always interested me since I was young. It originated from a book by Gaston Leroux, who supposedly swore on his deathbed that the story was true. People have spent their lives studying the Opera Garnier, where the story occurred, trying to prove the truth behind it. Regardless, it brings a lot of people out to the Opera Garnier each year. My husband and I were no exception.


During our trip to Paris, I made sure to schedule an after-hours tour of the Opera Garnier so we could experience the exceptional beauty of the building without hundreds of tourists circling around us. We arrived early, so we were able to sit outside of the great structure and listen to a street musician as we awaited our tour. The names and busts of many famous musicians sat up high on the building of the opera, carved out of stone, and gold statues decorated the roof. We arrived as the building was being closed for the day and made our way in through the downstairs entrance hall. We met our tour guide shortly after, and she took us around the building. We learned that Charles Garnier was not a known architect when he designed the Opera. In fact, he more-or-less accidentally won a contest that gave him the title to create the Opera. Because of this, he hid many of his personal signatures around the place so people would know without a doubt that the Palais was his design. The most famous and easy to spot is his own bust that he placed at the top of the ceiling in the grand foyer. His face is in the design on one end, and his wife’s is on the design opposite of his own. He made sure that the people who came would know his face.


As we made our way up the famous Grand Staircase, we were shown a step where the marble had been broken. It seemed to have been broken by some kind of impact. The rumors and stories that have been passed down about that step all revolve around someone falling through the roof and down onto the stairs. (The history and stories that came from this place, alone, were worth attending to tour for.)


Once we made our way into the auditorium, we were blown away by the beautiful red seats and the enormous (and also quite famous) chandelier that hung over our heads. Our guide was quick to point out which box was Box 5, the famous box of the Opera Ghost a.k.a. The Phantom. She began to explain the social traditions of going to the opera back in that time, and that was perhaps the most interesting thing that I learned on our trip. You see, back in the late 1800s and early 1900s, going to the opera was purely a social affair. You either owned a box or a seat, which meant that you attended almost every show, or you rented for the night. Seat owners went out for each performance dressed to the nines. You could go up the grand staircase so you could show off your new outfits to everyone. Those who rented a seat for the night were not important and had to go up the back stairwells, where they couldn’t be seen. As a fun gesture, the seats still have labels on them saying which was an owned seat and which was a rented seat, though that isn’t something that is done anymore.


The boxes were, of course, for the wealthy. And, funny enough, the best seats in the house were in the boxes right next to the stage. Though it was hard to see the stage from there (and impossible with some seats), everyone could see you! That was the point of coming out to the Opera! To be seen! And, if you didn’t feel like being seen, you had a partition you could pull up to hide yourself. There were lounge rooms for dinner behind each box, so sometimes you wouldn’t be out in your own box at all. And, to top it all off, everyone talked during the show. It was normal for everyone to come out and socialize, so silence wasn’t really a thing that happened during a performance. Very interesting.

Finally, she talked about how the ceiling was replaced above the chandelier, and it was easy to tell. The style of the art up there did not match the rest of the Opera in any way. She had grown accustomed to it. We weren’t so sure about it. It was a little too modern to fit with the style of the rest of the building.


We then moved to the Grand Foyer where she pointed out the golden busts of Charles Garnier and his wife that I mentioned before. This was the most beautiful room of the opera by far. The ceiling was painted exquisitely in gold colors, and there were many chandeliers draping down. There was a dark fireplace at the end of the hall, as well. It was gorgeous.


Upon leaving, I could understand very easily why the Opera Ghost would make such a place his home. If you haven’t read The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux, I highly recommend it. Even better- see the Andrew Lloyd Webber adaptation on Broadway. But, above all, if you get the chance to see the Opera Garnier in person, I highly recommend doing so! It is a magical place glowing with history.

The Rock of Cashel

The Rock of Cashel is an ancient castle found in the lower, middle land of Ireland in Tipperary. Damian and I had the honor of visiting there, and it seemed to transport us into an ancient, religious time. This large castle was once the seat of the King of Munster until 1101, when it was given to the church.

As you approach the castle from the parking area, it seems to tower above you for miles, as it sits up on a hill. (We noticed that most of the castles that we visited in Ireland were up on hills, overlooking the lands and towns that the castles used to watch over. It made perfect, logical sense.) The main body of The Rock of Cashel was still in one large structure, while there were minor ruins of buildings and gates that used to be a part of the castle’s empire scattered around it. The roof of the castle was no more, but the enormous walls surrounded us on every side as we entered into the main doorway into the building. One giant, open room seemed to be the bulk of this area, which had an amazing looking dome as a central area. This, along with a beautifully intact round tower seemed to be the only sections that had cover.


On one side of the castle, there was the remains of an old painting of Christ on the wall. They built a cover for it, since it had clearly been fading away due to the elements and the lack of a roof on the castle. There was a picture of what the painting used to look like on a plaque next to it, and you could still see parts of the painting and make out the details with some time and effort. The main chapel of this building was under renovations, so we didn’t get to see everything, unfortunately.

Perhaps the most special part of Cashel, however, was walking out through the backside of the building and out onto the grounds. As you stepped out into the graveyard (which took up the entire back grounds), you could see miles and miles of the purest, greenest rolling hills. A stone fence circled the property low enough so you could see the greenery for miles on one side and the little town of Cashel out on the other side. Little shops and pubs could be spotted on the tiny roads from up above where we were.


As we stood out in the grass, there were graves that were hundreds of years old, along with fresher graves, as well. Crosses, celtic crosses, and statues of the Virgin Mary decorated the yard, and everything was immensely peaceful. From the back, you could look up and get a good look at the structure of The Rock of Cashel. The giant building towering over us had celtic crosses, long, elaborate windows, and designs built from the stone it was made from. Though it was falling apart a bit and was currently being renovated, it’s beauty was definitely still visible.

Perhaps one of the most magical things was the birds that were swarming above us. The entire time we were there, birds flew overhead crowing and making “kah” sounds, as if speaking to each other. In a way, it almost sounded like they were all laughing.

This mystical place is a must-visit if you ever travel to Ireland. The excitement of the history and the calmness of the old holy energy was definitely an experience worth having.