Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Villa Premiere, Puerto Vallarta

On our balcony at the hotel.

Last week, Sara and I spent the week sitting in the sun in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. We're both in the midst of life transitions and thought what better way to debrief and re-group than to sit around in a beautiful (and WARM) place in the middle of February?

We stayed in a small hotel right in town on the water called Villa Premiere. Overall it was a very nice place: clean, directly on the water, with excellent customer service but overall very odd clientele. Don't worry, I'll elaborate on those characters later.

View at dinner.
The hotel had both an all-inclusive and a European plan option. We opted for the European plan (i.e. mels and drinks not included) because we planned to do our dinnertime eating and drinking elsewhere. Which was an excellent choice both because the food at our place was mediocre (but passable and NOT buffet, thank goodness) and because Sara chose two fantastic dinner spots for us in town. The views from the hotel restaurant were excellent, however, as evidenced by the picture to the right.

The Villa Premiere's schtick is spa-style relaxation. On arrival, we were given glasses of champagne, 5 minute chair massages, a pillow menu (you know, where you pick the style/firmness of pillow you prefer) and choice of aromatherapy. While they "aromatherapized" our rooms we enjoyed the booze and massage. It was a very nice way to transition from the flight and the not-so-pretty drive through town into relaxation mode. They also had a spa whose services ended up being the highlight of the trip for both of us. Specifically, we indulged in an amazing 80 minute aromatherapy massage. In addition to only costing $70 which is crazy cheap, it was right on the beach. The sound of the waves, the feel of the sun and the breeze, and the wonderful experience that is a well executed massage. All senses were in overdrive except vision; it was so relaxing.

Massage location. AMAZING!

In addition to 1 day time and 2 night time restaurants, an indoor gym, and the spa, the grounds had 2 pools including a swim up bar. There were plenty of beach chairs as well as private cabanas. There was yoga every morning on the beach and various activities like cooking classes. We did yoga one morning and it was so wonderful. All the balance moves were that much harder on the uneven sand but it made it all the better of a workout:)

Chilling in the cabana once we'd had enough sun!

The staff went out of their way to help us. My two favorite touches were the towel animals (I'm a sucker for towel animals) and the fact that the doorman told us how much each taxi ride should cost so we wouldn't get ripped off by the drivers. I really appreciated that because I hate negotiating prices especially when I'm not sure how much things "should" cost.

All of the rooms face the ocean. In fact one really weird feature of most of the hotels on the water is that there are only windows on the water side of the buildings. The city side is just one slab of concrete. It looks super creepy. I understand why- the area of PV right outside the hotels is not very pretty, is quite loud, and the pollution is palpable, very much a developing country. By facing the water, all we (the tourists) hear is the waves crashing on the beach, we only see pretty sites and somehow the air seems perfectly clean. Kinda creepy looking, though.
View from the balcony.
Whale sighting from the balcony. Didn't get my camera out in time to show the tail.

Overall, I can recommend Villa Premiere if you are going to PV, as long as you are willing to be amused by some strange folks keeping you company around the pool (actually this was quite entertaining). However, I would not necessary recommend PV as a vacation destination. Don't get me wrong, Sara and I had a great time and the beach was absolutely beautiful. But there are places that are even more beautiful with more fun activities without some of the downsides and inconveniences of PV....like Hawai'i. But I think I understand why some folks (I think mostly middle aged folks) go to PV year after year. It is relatively cheap and for many this is their only "international" experience. But I personally prefer trips where there is a bit more to do. Again, not complaining- just assessing the pros and cons of the trip for future travel plans:) There's so much world to see!

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Daily Miles in Mexico..And an Unplanned Rant (oops!)

I really enjoy running elsewhere. Seeing new places, being in different climates, working up a sweat before a prolonged happy hour and dinner....so much more enjoyable than trying to squeeze in a workout in an otherwise overstuffed day which is what every day seems to be in Chicago. Too busy. Yes, this is partially a comparison of normal daily life and life on vacation, but for me in the midst of another ridiculously hard year, I'm getting weary of 60++ hour weeks. It shouldn't be hard to squeeze in a 10 minutes of exercise, let alone an hour which is what I really want to do.

There are many days when I get home from work and it's a race to eat, get work done, run, get to bed. The whole evening becomes a panicked rush. Some people may like to be that busy all the time; I don't. We've completely eliminated TV from our lives, we have few outside responsibilities besides work. But our (Adam's and my) work is TOO MUCH.

I know I just have to get through 4 more months. After that I can expect 4 two day weekends most months. I can start to work more of a 8-5 type schedule. Of course, I'll do some work at home- there is no way to be a professional in 2012 without doing some work at home, but maybe my grand-total hours of working including home work will be closer to 60 rather than 60 hours at the hospital plus whatever else I need to do at home.

Enough ranting, let's focus on some of the great parts of my daily runs in Mexico.

Sara and I both found sand running to be hard. Very hard. Finally, on the last day I tried barefoot sand running. SO MUCH EASIER. What was I doing wearing shoes that whole time??

Running on the sand was easier, more tactile, more relaxing, more free. (Don't get me wrong, I'll keep on wearing shoes here in the real world.) I ran right on the water's edge where the sand was more firm and the water intermittently washed up over my feet. By the time I turned around to run back, some of my path was already washed away by waves:

One morning, I was graced with a beautiful sunrise. Just incredible. So glad I always run with my camera when I'm on vacay.

Our first night, Sara and I saw this AMAZING sunset. Just stunning.

The last day of my trip I stayed at Sara's great pad in San Fran and did a hilly, hilly run. I swear my heart rate hit 200. SO HARD. I ran a 12:30 min mile, 3-4 minutes slower than my usual pace but not for lack of trying:)

But now I'm back in Chi-town. Did a treadmill run today (boo!), but a swim afterwards so overall that was good. My swimming has greatly improved. However, I've decided it's time to suck it up and find a new gym. The free in one in our basement just ain't going to cut it. One of the fun things Sara and I did in Mexico was yoga on the beach and I realized that I would benefit from more consistent yoga and other work-out classes. Maybe get back into spinning as well.

In addition to the mildest hint of a tan (come on- I have to preserve the skin for my older years!), I returned from Mexico with 3 goals:

1. Get into yoga.
2. Join a gym.
3. Secret (what- I don't have to share everything do I?)

It was a great trip and I'm thankful for a great friend to travel with and a great husband willing to support my girl-only trips:)

Coyotes 101

On my Animal Sightings in Yellowstone post, I made mention of coyote sightings. We were likely enough to see 5 coyotes (or maybe 3, then 2 of that same party later on) all very busy doing coyote stuff, playing, fighting and eating. Adam got some great shots of them. Here are some scenes:

Coyote staring us down.

Walking around. I love this photo- untouched snow
except for the lone coyote's footprints.

Close up, he's paying attention to us and his fellow coyote now with his ears back.

Then his friend joins him.
After playtime, they get ready to rumble. Look at his stance!

They rolled around fighting for a while. At first we didn't know if it was
play-fighting or serious fighting. But what we saw next showed that
they were fighting to see who would get to eat first.....
The victor is gnawing on an elk carcass. You can see the outline of this vertebrae in the snow. Through the binoculars
we had a very clear view. It was like the Discovery Chanel or Planet Earth but live!

We had a great time watching these guys for a while. You never know what cool animal behaviors you'll see between skis in Yellowstone!

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Gallatin River Lodge

Our last night in Montana was spent at the Gallatin River Lodge outside of Bozeman. We thought it would be nice to have one last day to relax before the long trip home. (the older I get the less tolerance I have for airports and plane rides).  Adam found this place on line and it is ranked as the best lodging in the Bozeman area by multiple sites. It is a luxury boutique hotel that specializes in fly fishing excursions during the summer. During the off season, the rates are one third what they are in the summer, which makes the place even more appealing.

In general, GRL reminded me a lot of the Bass Cottage Inn in Bar Harbor. Lots of attention to detail, personalized service, excellent gourmet food- the kind of place where you can have a great day by never leaving the hotel. Since GRL is just steps away from the Gallatin River, we did leave the lodge to take a quick hike around the 300 acre property. And of course we had to head downtown to the MacKenzie River Pizza Company for lunch. We were here waiting for a table a couple years ago when we learned that Garrett and Jill got engaged!

More about GRL for those who might be interested in staying there. All of the rooms in the lodge (only 12 in total) are beautifully appointed with a tasteful combination of "lodgey" items like moose towel racks and more modern decor. The huge windows give mountain views no matter which direction you look. Each room has a hot tub and a fireplace. There are multiple common areas, all very nice. Made to order breakfast is included in the room fee. The hotel restaurant is said to be the best restaurant in Bozeman and it was indeed lovely.

As I mentioned above, GRL is a fly fishing lodge during the summer. Keith- the breakfast maker, inn-keeper, concierge, all around amazing one man show- told us it is fun to watch these rough and tumble fishermen walk into this elegant lodge and adapt to the idea of using handmade soaps, shampoos, having an in-room massage and eating food they can't pronounce. He said they adapt very quickly:)

I highly recommend this place anytime you are in Bozeman but particulary during the off season- we were the only guests the first night so had full run of the place..which we took advantage of by going to sleep!

Animal Sightings in Yellowstone

This was my 5th trip to Yellowstone and the animals did not disappoint! As you may have gathered from reading or even just glancing at my blog site, I love bison. I think they are just the coolest animals around. They appear stoic, inactive and to many folks downright boring, but if they want to, they can really turn it on. For example, an adult bison can high jump 5-6 feet without  a running start. They can horizontally jump 15 feet. They can run up to 30 mph (maybe even faster), and they can stop on a DIME without slowing down. They have lots of other cool behaviors especially related to the rut and fighting for mates. They are very protective of their young- Adam and I once saw a group of 5 bison surround a baby bison to shepherd it across the Firehole River. 

We had the opportunity to see many of these behaviors up close and personal on the snow coach ride from Mammoth to Old Faithful. As I mentioned in the Snow Coach Adventures post, the majority of the roads in Yellowstone are closed in winter so we took a 4 hour snow coach ride to and from Old Faithful. Since the large mammals tend to use the road to save energy during transit, we had many chances to get very close all from the safety of our snow coach. Most excitingly, we were able to be smack dab in the middle of a bison stampede!

We saw hundreds of bison along the way (there are 3500 in the park), and one group of about 30 decided it was time to go for a run right as we drove by them. They seemed to be running just for the joy of it (which I like to believe),  though it's likely that one of them got spooked for no good reason and the others followed. Bison are known to run for miles and miles at a time in response to perceived or actual threats. They do this less often in the winter because they need to conserve energy but Yellowstone, like the Midwest, is having a very mild winter so the young males were full of energy jumping on and fighting with each other. And running like the dickens. It was so so cool. Interestingly, it was virtually soundless because they were running on snow. I can only imagine how loud such a run would be in the summer!

Off they go! Coming towards the snow coach.

Taken through the windshield. We're surrounded by running bison at this point.

The bison on the left was hauling it, moving so fast, directly at
the snowmobilers. He ended up jumping around them aggressively
but no one was harmed. (I guess our bison friend dislikes snowmobiles
in Yellowstone as much as we do- NOISE POLLUTION.)

In addition to the bison, we saw plenty of pronghorns (the best marathoning animals in the world- no other species can run faster over the 26.2 mile distance, but humans are faster at ultra distances), elk, coyotes and even a small red fox.

The red fox was astutely spotted by my dad, it's amazing that he was able to catch it. The fox found a nice nook, walked in a circle, sat down, yawned, and then sat down for a nap. Like a cat, really.

A final comment about Yellowstone animals in the winter. While Adam and I have always had great luck spotting animals (we've seen at least 5 wolves in 3 different sightings) the snow cover in winter really emphasizes how many and how active the animals in the park are. There are footprints everywhere! You can get a good sense of who travelled where and how long ago which is fun to see. We called sites of particular activity a "wild rumpus". Yes the rumpus usually involves no more than large mammals eating grass but hey that's all the excitement they want in the harsh winter!

If you want to see more animal pictures or more Yellowstone pics in general, click on the Yellowstone 2012 slideshow in the upper right hand corner of my blog homepage. Enjoy!

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Skiing Adventures in Yellowstone

My Dad, Adam and I are not the type who like to vacation sitting down. No sir, we skied every day of our trip except for the last which we officially dedicated to lounging:) Just in case my posts entice anyone to foray into the Winter Wonderland of Yellowstone, here are a few words about some of the skis we did.

Around Mammoth:

Upon arrival, we were quite travel weary (we got up at 3:30 am for our 6 am flight) but figured our options were nap, which would only make us more groggy, or ski! Thankfully, we skied! We did the short (1.5 mile) Upper Terrace Loop, which passed many beautiful thermal features.

Sisterbison....skiing with the herd
The next day we headed out for a ~ 5 mile ski along Tower Canyon. Last time Adam and I were here we had a really cool wolf experience. As we were skiing along looking at beautiful views, appreciating the silence, elated by our close bison encounter just a few minutes earlier (well, I was elated, Adam was likely just humoring me), we noticed the silence had been broken. By howling. Unmistakable wolf howling. We grabbed the binocs and looked around but didn't see a thing. A few minutes later, however, we turned a corner and the wolves were in sight!!

I, of course, ripped off my lobster mitts, threw down my poles, and got out my camera as I barreled over to the cliff's edge. Just in time I realized my wolf sighting would be short-lived if I didn't get it together and STOP before going over the cliff and I managed to slow myself down.

Here is a picture from this year:

Dad and I at Tower Canyon

We were in EXACTLY the same spot 3 years ago (albeit with more snow last time):

And we saw THIS:

The howling continued, and we stayed to watch. There ended up being three wolves in sight though we suspect the rest of the pack was around as well. They put on a show walking around and interacting. It was so great! We were sorry we weren't able to produce a repeat performance for my Dad, but alas, the wild is unpredictable!

Later that day, we headed over to Blacktail Plateau and did some more skiing. We were greeted with sweeping vistas and plenty of snow- you can barely even find Adam in the photo below.

Around Old Faithful:

Our longest ski was over 11 miles up to Fairy Falls. We didn't actually make it to the falls- figured they'd be frozen anyway, but it was a nice long ski with plenty of bison to see along the river. Here are some scenes:

The Firehole River with bison in the distance.

On Valentine's Day, Adam and I headed over to Black Sands Basin. The clouds parted exactly when we arrived in the basin which was wonderful because we were able to get shots like this:

Ridiculous, right? There are plenty more where that came from. I'll put up on a slide show on my blog home page in the next few days so check back!

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Snow Coach Adventures

Our snow coach with 'Mattracks' named after
the inventor's son, Matt.
In the winter the majority of the roads in the Yellowstone Park Interior are closed to cars. They are not plowed, rather they are intermittently "groomed". So the only vehicles that can get through are snow coaches and snowmobiles. Snow coaches are vehicles like cars, mini-buses and the like (see picture) that have either matttracks (like tank tires) or ski/sled thingees on the front so they can grip and steer in the snow. So to get anywhere in the park beyond Lamar Valley and Mammoth in the north, you must be on one of these vehicles. On our 3rd day in the park we traveled from Mammoth to Old Faithful via a 4 hour snow coach ride. In additional to getting to see the stunning beauty of Yellowstone in the winter, and hearing the commentary of the tour driver about the geology, biology and history of the park, we get up close and personal with the animals. Many of the larger animals use the groomed roads for easier transit. This was the case with the bison stampede we we a part of, my 2nd favorite park moment on this trip. Stay tuned for the upcoming Animal Sightings post for details of the stampede!

On our way South, we stopped at the Roaring Mountain which is a hill with numerous fumaroles, which are superheated steam vents. They are the hottest thermal features in the park with steam upwards of 200 degrees Fahrenheit! One of the neat things about Yellowstone is that it is constantly changing. New fumaroles pop up, geysers turn to hot springs and hot springs that were thought to not erupt (hence called springs, not geysers) suddenly shoot water hundreds of feet into the sky! We drove past a mountain that was unremarkable until 6 years ago when 5 fumaroles broke through and now it is a steamer. Crazy stuff.

Adam, Me and Dad in front of Roaring Mountain

Us again on the road back to Mammoth.

On our way back from Old Faithful to Mammoth, we saw more interesting sites and wildlife but we also had a completely unplanned adventure. When we were about 1 hour (15 miles) outside of Mammoth, getting tired, hungry and ready to be home, we got a call from the snow coach behind us. Their driver was asking our driver for a tow. What????

Us: the coach squarely in the middle of the road.
Them: the van mired in a snow drift.
Yes, indeed, the snow coach got too up close and personal with the snow and got stuck. Stuck! Lest you should think this is a common event IT IS NOT! The snow coaches are very safe- in fact our driver has never been stuck in over 10 years of driving in the winter. But, nonetheless, we are out "in the wild" so to speak so anything can happen. And clearly, we needed to go rescue them. We first tried to tow the coach out from behind, but when this failed our driver needed to find a safe place to turn around to make a second attempt from the front. This is where things got dicey.

The sun was going down and it was getting COLD! We mostly had our cold weather gear on (I guess my mom's admonishments that "you should always dress for the weather even if you're driving" turned out to be true) so it was tolerable but one older lady only had a thin fleece jacket, gloves and no hat! Immediately, people tried to give her a hat, scarf, their coat etc but she refused, I think because she didn't want to ruin her hair. Oh my.

Our driver had to drive many miles to get to the turn around so we were outside for a while. I started to worry because the stuck vehicle was not nearly big enough to hold all of us if we needed to get in for warmth. I figured Adam, Dad and I could walk/run back to Mammoth if we had to but all these other folks? Another good reason to stay fit. But we remained optimistic and entertained ourselves in the meantime. We even tried to be useful:

The team trying to pull the van out from the snow. If you look closely
you will see Dad, Adam and me in the middle.

Eventually our driver did return (boy was I happy to see those headlights) and the 2nd tow was successful. I think we scared away all the animals in a 10 mile radius with our whooping and hollering as we ran back onto our warm snow coach with our very capable driver;)