Visiting Yosemite National Park, USA

I thought we’d go to Yosemite National Park today, because it’s a pretty incredible place. Like many Australians, we didn’t really know where to start in planning our visit to the park, and a lot of information we found online seemed to be more geared towards Americans, so here are some tips that I hope will help others make the most of their first visit to this gorgeous place.

HOW DO I GET THERE?
Drive. Well, fly to the general vicinity, then drive. If you fly into San Francisco, it’ll be about a 4 hour drive, around 5 hours from Los Angeles, or 7 hours from Las Vegas.

 

HOW LONG DO I NEED?
It’ll really depend on how much you want to do – for a bit of a taste, 3 days is a good amount; if you want to do some camping and serious hiking, give yourself a solid week.

WHERE SHOULD I BASE MYSELF?
You’ll need to consider the time and money trade off when you decide where to stay. The closer you are to the park, the more accommodatiom tends to cost. But if you go with something cheaper, it may add on quite a bit of driving time to and from the park each day.

We stayed in the Yosemite Valley at the Yosemite Westgate Lodge – it took us around an hour to get to El Capitan, had a restaurant and laundry on site, and very big, comfortable rooms. If you’d like to camp within the park, head to the National Park Service website for more information.

 

CAN I PARK MY CAR IN THE PARK?
Absolutely – car parking areas are all well signed, and they have a free, eco-friendly shuttle buses to scoot you around between major sights. It’s best to check for road closures and snow chain requirements in winter online before setting off, too.

DO I HAVE TO PAY TO ENTER?
Yes – you can buy a seven day pass from USD $30.00 per car from the entrance gates situated on all the roads into the park. Basically, plug “Yosemite National Park” into your GPS and prepare to hand over $30 when you get close to the park!

 

WHAT FACILITIES ARE AVAILABLE?
If you head to he Visitor Center in the middle of the Yosemite Valley, you’ll find park staff to answer your questions, as well as a pretty impressive general store (souvenirs and food and groceries), bathrooms, a café, camping grounds and shuttle buses. When you’re out and about, taking your long drives through the park, you will be able to find toilets periodically, but fair warning: they’re drop toilets…

WHAT SHOULD I SEE IF I ONLY HAVE A FEW DAYS?
If you have limited time, I’d recommemd the following…

Day 1: Drive to the Yosemite Valley Visitor Center and leave your car at one of the parking lots in the area. Between walking around and using the free shuttke, you’ll be able to see summits like the Half Dome, El Capitan, Eagle Peak and Sentinel Dome, walk along Tenaya Creek and the Merced River, maybe see some deer while you picnic at Mirror Lake, and check out the Yosemite Conservation Heritage Center.

Day 2: Get into your car, stock up on snacks, and drive the Tioga Pass Road all the way up to Tuolumne Meadow and back. Make sure you’re wearing comfortable shoes so you can hike around Olmsted Point, and pack a picnic lunch to eat on the shore of Tenaya Lake.

WHAT SHOULD I BRING?
• Sunscreen. Always. And actually use it!
• Sunglasses. When that sun hits white rock or reflects off the water, your eyes will thank you.
• Layers. Just because the day starts cold, doesn’t mean it won’t heat up. Light layers are your friends.
• Comfortable shoes you can walk all day on uneven terrain in.
• A backpack – you don’t need to be toting a handbag around here.
• A map. If you’re planning on hiking, you don’t want to rely on your phone – batteries die, signals are lost. If you intend on exploring, even a small map is a good idea.
• A water bottle and snacks. You can of course buy it all there, but it’s always much cheaper to BYO. Just remember to take all of your scraps with you, because bears.

UMMM… BEARS??!
Yeah, that’s a thing. All you really need to know is stick to the marked paths as much as possible, if there aren’t many other people around, make plenty of noise as you walk (they don’t like that), and when you’re done with your picnic, pick up any pieces of lettuce and ham that have dropped out of your sandwich, and dispose of all food waste in one of the many bear-proof bins you’ll find in the park.

Eat here: Hansen’s Sno-Bliz, New Orleans

Hansen’s Sno-Bliz
4801 Tchoupitoulas St, New Orleans
http://www.snobliz.com

If you find yourself in New Orleans, count yourself lucky. Because summer over there is snoball season, and the only place to get them from is Hansen’s. If you live over there, you already know about Hansen’s. If you don’t, keep reading – its much more than just dessert.

It’s a really simple concept for a hot day treat: shaved ice, drenched in flavoured syrup. Starts as a frozen dessert requiring a spoon, ends as a slushie. And they’ve been making their snoballs the exact same way since they started in 1939.

See, Ernest was an enterprising young machinist who created a machine to shave light, fluffy piles of ice. And his wife, Mary, was a whiz in the kitchen where she came up with the syrup recipes (which they still follow to make their syrups in-house to this day).

Now run by the third generation of the family, they open every year while the weather is hot. Walking into their store is like walking back in time to the most perfect cotton candy-pink museum you could imagine. It really is one of those places that make New Orleans what it is, especially these days when there aren’t many family businesses still around. We got lucky last year; with the city experiencing a particularly long summer, they were still open in late October, and we got stuck into this coconut pineapple snoball.

Around The World In 18 Museums

I’m a bit (a lot) of a history geek, and its International Museum Day tomorrow, so I thought I’d take a look at some of the best museums husband and I have seen on our travels. They’re an easily overlooked activity when you’re travelling because they have a reputation for being boring (probably because a lot of kids were dragged to them against their will at school), but there are soooo many different types of museums out there that are a hell of a lot more fun than what you did back in year 5!

Top left: Banff Park Museum -Top right: Chicago History Museum – Bottom left: Museum at Mondragon Palace in Ronda – Bottom right: Saga Museum in Reykjavík

1. Banff Park Museum, Banff, Canada
91 Banff Ave, Banff
https://www.pc.gc.ca/en/lhn-nhs/ab/banff/index
Cost: free
This museum looks at animals of all sorts native to the area (like elk, mountain goats, bears, wolves). It also has some gorgeous geological displays of stones and crystals and random curiosities donated by locals. And on the way out, for bonus points, there’s a beautiful library!

2. Chicago History Museum, Chicago, USA
1601 N Clark Street, Chicago
http://www.chicagohs.org/
Cost: USD$16.00 per person
This was like walking through a history book in the best possible way. I learned more than expected to about Chicago’s history, random things like how the city flag came to be, and about the incredible work of Vivian Maier, which I’m not obsessed with.

3. Museum at Mondragon Palace, Ronda, Spain
Plaza Mondragon, Ronda
http://www.museoderonda.es/
Cost: €3.00 per person
This old Moorish palace has been renovated and restored, and given new life as a natural history museum. A lot of the ceiling and tile details are original, and the garden (while small compared to some of the other palaces) is stunning.

4. Saga Museum, Reykjavík, Iceland
Grandagarður 2, Reykjavík
https://www.sagamuseum.is/
Cost: 2.200kr per person
This is like a history picture book come to life – with an audio guide to talk you through, you walk through the museum’s displays of figures (all crafted based on descriptions found in the Viking sagas and chronicles), demonstrating events from Iceland’s history.

Top left: Guinness Storehouse in Dublin – Top right: Mardi Gras World in New Orleans – Bottom left: DDR Museum in Berlin – Bottom right: Czech Beer Museum in Prague

5. Guinness Storehouse, Dublin, Ireland
St James’s Gate, Ushers, Dublin
https://www.guinness-storehouse.com/en
Cost: €17.50 per person
I’m not a beer drinker, and I still had a blast here! Yes, you get to go through a proper tasting session, and learn how to pour the perfect pint, and enjoy said pint in the rooftop bar with a killer view over Dublin, but it’s also a multi-level museum looking at everything from the beer creation process to it’s many marketing campaigns.

6. Mardi Gras World, New Orleans, USA
1380 Port of New Orleans Place
http://www.mardigrasworld.com/
Cost: USD$20.00 per person
You can read more about our visit to Mardi Gras World here, but basically it’s a tour through one of the warehouses the Kern family use to create the incredible parades floats. You’ll get to see the props and some floats, as well as getting a peek at some of the artists at work.

7. DDR Museum, Berlin, Germany
Karl-Liebknecht-Str. 1, Berlin
https://www.ddr-museum.de/en
Cost: €5.50 per person
This is an incredibly interactive museum, encouraging visitors to open cupboards, sit in cars, and listen to the sounds coming through the headphones. You’ll get a disconcerting taste of life in war-time East Germany, including being able to walk through a full “apartment” and rifling through the kitchen, bedrooms and lounge room.

8. Czech Beer Museum, Prague, Czech Republic
Husova 241/7, Prague
http://beermuseum.cz/
Cost: 280CZK per person
Again, not a beer drinker, so this was mostly for husband’s benefit, but turned out it was a really cool little museum! It covered the history of beer, had some crazy beer collections (bottles, labels, model trucks), and at the end of the tour, you received 4 beers to sample. Not little 30ml sips, but full glasses of beer. Enjoy!

Top left: MOMA in New York – Top right: Bier & Oktoberfest Museum in Munich – Bottom left: Castel Sant’Angelo in Rome – Bottom right: Totem Heritage Center in Ketchikan

9. Museum of Modern Art, New York City, USA
11 W 53rd St, New York, USA
https://www.moma.org/
Cost: USD$25.00 per person
It shouldn’t need much of an introduction – this is THE place to go for art in New York. The modern exhibits change regularly, but honestly, my favourite pieces were the classics like Monet’s Water Lilies and Van Gogh’s Starry Night – you see these in magazines and art textbooks at school, but in real life, they’re something else.

10. Bier & Oktoberfest Museum, Munich, Germany
Sterneckerstraße 2, Munich
http://www.bier-und-oktoberfestmuseum.de/en
Cost: €4.00 per person
This little museum lives in an old (when I say old, I mean from the 1300s) townhouse, accessible by a 500-year old wooden staircases, over a few floors. You’ll find an impressive collection of Oktoberfest paraphernalia (mugs, posters, etc), and can sit down to watch a short film about the history of Oktoberfest. Even as a non-beer lover, this was an awesome piece of history to see.

11. Castel Sant’Angelo, Rome, Italy
Lungotevere Castello, 50, Rome
http://castelsantangelo.beniculturali.it/
Cost: €14.00 per person
It took me three visits to Rome, but I finally got to Castel Sant’Angelo! It’s had a few lives, originally built as a mausoleum, and also serving as a fortress and castle before turning into a museum. The most stunning part of the museum are the paintings, Renaissance era frescoes, which have been preserved almost perfectly. Even if you’re not an art lover, they’re worth seeing. Speaking of worth seeing, make it all the way to the top and you’ll be rewarded with one hell of a view.

12. Totem Heritage Centre, Ketchikan, USA
601 Deermount Street, Ketchikan
https://www.ktn-ak.us/totem-heritage-center
Cost: USD$5.00
It’s not a huge museum, but the history it holds is massive. It holds some of the city’s most previous totem poles, as well as other native artifacts (think intricate hand-beaded purses and ornaments).

 

And, because this wasn’t our first (nor will it be our last!) adventure, here are a few more museums worth checking out that we’ve found on our travels…

– Holocaust Museum, Washington, D.C., USA
– The Egyptian Museum, Cairo, Egypt

Eat here: Cochon Butcher, New Orleans

Cochon Butcher
930 Tchoupitoulas St, New Orleans
https://cochonbutcher.com/

A tribute to Old World butcher and charcuterie shops, Cochon Butcher melds a distinctive Cajun accent to the art of curing meat.

With a menu description like that, as if we weren’t going to visit this place! We first saw it through the eyes of Anthony Bourdain, then read a ton of great reviews, and then heard more good stuff about it once we got to New Orleans.

Much like places in Melbourne (think Jimmy Grants, Huxtaburger), Cochon Butcher is the super successful, less formal offshoot from the more fancy Cochon, drawing in a solid hipster and young professional crowd. The menu is very pig-centric, in the best possible way, with everything crafted, cured and smoked in house.

We visited at lunch time and shared a Buckboard bacon melt with collards on white bread (bottom left) and a charcuterie plate (top left). Buckboard bacon melt was probably the best spin on a ham & cheese toastie I’ve ever had – that bacon was amazing.

The charcuterie plate was next level – for a mere USD$16.00, we got dry cured pork loin, country terrine, spicy fennel salami, chorizo, pork rillon, flat bread crackers and pickles. And every single thing on that board was magnificent.

They also have a mean cocktail menu, heaps of beer and wine options, and you can shop their flatware, aprons, sauces and pickles after you’re done eating. They’d have every right to be a little arrogant and pretentious, but the staff were cool and laid back without being complete tools. They made the atmosphere like that of a fun, young deli, but the food was clearly the product of experience. We’d go back to eat there again in a heartbeat. And now all I want for breakfast is a bacon sandwich.

Saxman Village, Ketchikan

How we ended up in the small town of Ketchikan, Alaska, literally 48 hours after the close of cruise ship season, is a story for another day. But being in such a small town at such a quiet time gave us the perfect opportunity to see it in peace and to meet quite a few locals on our way through. One of them recommended a visit to the Saxman Village, just out of the centre of town – we dutifully waited an hour for the one bus servicing Ketchikan and hitched a ride out to Saxman.

In tourist season, there are shuttles that head out there, and day tours – on arrival, you pay your entry fee, can follow someone around who can tell you about everything you’re seeing, and even get to watch some totem pole carving in action. We had missed tourist season, so we were on our own. The bus driver was kind enough to tell us when to get off and direct us to the correct street – luckily, because if not for her directions, there wasn’t much else to point us the right way. We walked up a pretty quiet and residential looking street, and found the totem poles guiding the way.

Without the option of a tour guide, we were glad to find a plaque outlining the background of Saxman:

Tlingit Indian Village, established 1894, is named for school teacher Samuel Saxman, one of three men lost Dec of 1886 while scouting for a new location for people of Tongass and Cape Fox Villages. Totems here, comprising world’s largest collection, including poles moved from Pennock, Tongass, and Village Islands, and from Old Cap Fox Village at Kirk Point. Many are poles restored under federal works project directed by the U.S. Forest Service beginning in 1939.

Husband and I both had an interest in the Native American totem poles before the visit; he adores the art work, and I love the stories and myths that go with them (I’d highly recommend Tlingit Myths and Texts, Recorded by John R. Swanton for a solid collection of these stories), so we were really stoked to be able to see them in person, and all alone. The colours are simple, just red, black and teal, but that’s all they need. And the reasons for carving the totems are as varied as recording a momentous event to shaming someone who had committed a crime. But they were all incredibly detailed and beautiful…

The clan house, the centre of the village, was magnificent. The façade is decorated with a tri-coloured beaver, the clan’s crest. Traditionally, the clan houses housed several families from that clan, and also doubled as a clan function centre, and in tourist season, it is opened to the public. We just got to enjoy it from the outside, which was pretty magnificent, anyway.

After spending a bit of time walking around and staring up at the enormous totem poles, it looked like it was about to start raining again. We made our way back to the bus stop and hoped it wouldn’t be another hour wait – as luck would have it, the bus saw us coming and waited for us so we’d have a ride back to town.