Temple of the Golden Pavillion in Kyoto, Japan

Explore this centuries-old monument and other execeptional highlights in the ancient city of Kyoto.

Visit with Animal Friends

Find places around the world where you can interact with animals in their natural habitats and contribute to the preservation of wildlife.

Tulip Festival

I had the pleasure of photographing the Tulip Festival in Skagit, Washington, what gorgeous colors!

West Coast Road Trip

Explore fantastic gems across California, Oregon and Washington.

Lavender Fields in Napa, California

Find out how to explore Napa's Wine country for the best scenery, picnics, wine and budget.

Voted #1 Best City Garden - Vancouver Chinese Garden

The Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Garden was recently used as a filming location for sci-fi hit tv show Falling Skies.
Located in Vancouver's Chinatown, minutes from the hustle and bustle of downtown, is an oasis that is the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Chinese Gardens. Local residents are lucky to have such a gem nearby. Classical chinese gardens in history have been a place for reflection and escape from the outside world, and this garden is no exception. 

Why Visit the Garden?
Named after the first President of the China Republic, the garden was built in 1986 by the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Garden Society, a non-profit group dedicated to enhancing our understanding between Chinese and Western culture. It is the first authentic garden in the Ming Dynasty style ever created outside of China. Every component of the garden was carefully selected from nature or hand built by artisans in China; 52 artisans brought all the pieces they needed over the 13 months it took them to create their masterpiece.

Not only has National Geographic named this the "Top City Garden" in the world, but it also earned a spot in the book Secret Journeys of a Lifetime: 500 of the World's Best Hidden Travel Gems. In 2013, the Canadian Garden Tourism Council awarded it the title of "Garden of the Year". As if that wasn't enough, a Huffington Post Reader Poll of Top 10 Gardens voted the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Chinese Gardens as number one, too. 

Have you ever been? What was your experience like? Let me know in the comment section below!

Helpful Tips and Discounts
This Chinese Garden has two parts, a free park and an admission-only garden. If you're on a tight budget, just visit the free park which is worth the visit. It is located just two blocks from the Millennium Gate and is within a short walking distance to most of Chinatown's historic landmarks. If you take the SkyTrain, use the exit "Stadium - Chinatown" and walk east on Keefer Street. 

Admission for adults is normally $14, with discounts for seniors and children. You can get in for half price if you show up in the last 30 minutes of the day -- 5:30 or 6:30pm depending on the season. Expedia offers a 2-for-1 admission deal when you purchase the Vancouver City Passport which is a great idea if you're visiting; it will get you 50% off at 70 museums, restaurants, theaters and sightseeing activities in the city. I used it and definitely saved on travel expenses.

The gardens host year-round exhibitions of both traditional and contemporary art, flower shows, yoga classes, and outdoor summer concerts with Jazz, Latin, Swing, Blues and Classical musicians. It's a great place to meet up with friends or take a visiting relative, so be sure to check their Calendar of Events before you visit.

Visit their website for more information: www.vancouverchinesegarden.com

Photos are © Suzette Barnett.

Road Trip Visit to the Spruce Goose

Douglas DC-3 Commercial Airliner that popularized air travel in the 1930s, still used today 
I planned an unusual stop on our west coast road trip... As we headed north on the I5 in Oregon state, just about an hour south of Portland we stopped to explore The Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum

Evergreen's mission is, "To inspire, promote and preserve aviation and space history, and honor the patriotic service of our veterans." The property covers multiple buildings filled with aircraft, exhibits and artifacts that are impeccably preserved and displayed. It's massive! They also have a digital 3D theater, cafes, a gift shop and even a water park for kids. The exhibits have been done to really help demonstrate the value of skills such as math, science, team work and determination, all the more reason to bring your kids (or just oversized kids like me!).  

At the center of the museum sits the original Spruce Goose, the largest airplane ever built. I was able to jump up and touch the bottom of it! They let us go inside the Spruce Goose and explore, definitely highlight of my visit. I learned so much from the videos and exhibits at Evergreen. Their efforts to restore these aircraft and tell the stories of what each specific one has been through was amazing and inspiring. I definitely recommend a visit if you're in the Portland area or passing through on a road trip!
Panorama of historic aircraft at the Evergreen Museum

Supermarine Spitfire like those used in the Battle of Britain
P-38 Lightning from WWII
I actually have a fantastic book by the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, which is probably the best book ever published on the subject: Flight: 100 Years of Aviation. It is filled with colorful images and stories of man's earliest adventures in flight. Check it out.

DC-3 commercial airliner - fits under a wing of the Spruce Goose!
P-40 Tomahawk - Flying Tiger 
A12/SR-71 Blackbird and D21 drone - fastest jet ever built
Nasa X-15 Rocketplane - it went mach 5 and touched the edge of space!
Apollo 11 Lander and moon suit

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Taste Manhattan Beach - Award Winning Breakfast

manhattan beach ocean view
This is the view I love in Manhattan Beach, California.

I adore Manhattan Beach. One of my other loves is breakfast / brunch. Seriously, what's not to love about sunshine and a brilliant spread of waffles, veggie omelets, blueberry or banana pancakes and fresh fruit?

Where am I going with this? Saturday morning breakfast in Manhattan Beach at Uncle Bill's Pancake House. Sit on the patio of this house built in 1908, soak up the ocean-air, sipping your OJ and have one of their pancake or waffle creations. TIP: weekends are typically packed here, so show up before 10am or after 1:30pm to avoid the crowd.

Recently at Uncle Bill's I tried something new. The menu said that the 'Mitch's Scramble' (green chile and cream cheese scramble) was award winning. Oh really...? Award winning you say...?

The Mitch's Scramble was really good! But the even better thing is that it's super easy to make, just three ingredients and you can have this Manhattan Beach award-winning breakfast in your own home. And I have. Several times recently, in fact... Here's how it goes:

  • Pour your whisked eggs into a skillet and toss in a couple heaping spoonfuls of canned mild green chiles. Mix it all up and keep it moving just as you would normally cook scrambled eggs.
  • Dish the scrambled eggs onto plate(s).
  • Add small squares of cream cheese (I use the low-fat Neufchatel cream cheese) over the eggs and gently stir into the scramble. The hot eggs will help melt the cream cheese.

easy egg scramble green chiles cream cheese
Those little green chiles add a tang that is so yummy when paired with the cream cheese!

Spanish Hacienda Luxury Hotel in La Jolla, California

Gardens La Estancia La Jolla Hotel

Spanish Hacienda style luxury hotel & spa, La Estancia La Jolla is nestled atop the coastline bluffs of La Jolla, California. I read about their gardens in several magazines so I had to check out the sprawling 10 acre property. I could try to describe the relaxing, colorful and quiet hotel grounds, but instead I'll show you.... (see below for discounts)

Patio La Estancia La Jolla Hotel
Palm trees La Estancia La Jolla Hotel
La Estancia La Jolla Hotel Grounds
La Estancia La Jolla Hotel Garden Seating
La Estancia La Jolla Hotel Room
La Estancia La Jolla Hotel yellow flowers
La Estancia La Jolla Hotel gardens

How to Get a Discounted Rate at La Estancia La Jolla

La Estancia Hotel offers discounts to San Diego residents, members of Costco, AAA, AARP, and UCSD Alumni. TIP: Try their 'Sunday is the new Saturday' special rate which is 40% off their best available rate (starts at $144). Always check their Seasonal Specials, for example now until August 28th get a premiere room for $199 per night plus $25 spa credit.

Best Sights and Activities in La Jolla 

La Jolla Cove: seals and sea lions, great sunset views and restaurants.
La Jolla Shores: mile long white sand beach great for mild surfing, kayaking and snorkeling.
Torrey Pines State Reserve: cliff-side state park which has hiking trails that lead to the ocean.
Gaslamp Quarter: San Diego's Downtown historical district with a huge variety of dining, entertainment and shopping.
San Diego Zoo Safari Park: 1,800 acre wildlife safari.
Balboa Park: a 1,200 acre park featuring gardens, museums, theaters and restaurants.
Torrey Pines Golf Course: cliff top golf location with incredible coastline views, site of the 2008 U.S. Open.

Discounts on Activities in San Diego

56% Off Whale Watching 3-Hour Tour in San Diego, $22
57% Off Paddle Board Rental and/or Paddle Boarding Lesson at Mission Beach, $22-$30
62% Off 90-minute Kayakers Sea Cave Tour at La Jolla Cove, $25
56% Off 2-hour Double Kayak, Paddle Board or Surf Board Rental, $20

500 Flavors of Ice Cream, Gelato and Sorbet in Vancouver

My time in Vancouver, BC recently led me to one of my favorite things: a massive ice cream shop! It's called La Casa Gelato and they experiment with flavors like you've never seen. They've been in business here for 32 years. With a whopping 518 flavors of ice cream, gelato, frozen yogurt and sorbet, they are serving 218 flavors at any given time. By all means, sample away! (And I did!)

Some of the most unusual ice cream flavors they serve are:
  • Curry
  • Chocolate Jack Daniels
  • Berry and Jalapeno
  • Curry
  • Pear Gorgonzola and Blue Cheese
  • Chocolate Basil
  • Peach Plum Jasmine
  • Lemon Tarragon Sorbet
  • Lavender
  • Fig and Almond
  • Aloe Vera
  • Cheddar and Apple
I will admit some of their unusual flavors are not to everyone's taste, and some are more successful than others... that's part of the fun of coming here. Trying new things! Some of my favorites were actually traditional flavors like pistachio, coffee and cookies n cream.

This shop has inspired me to try to make my own sorbet - Lemon Basil. I'll let you know how it goes!

La Casa Gelato is off the beaten path, but have no fear, it isn't far from Vancouver's Chinatown and the city bus #22 runs right in front of their shop. They are open 11am to 11pm, 7 days a week.
1033 Venables St, Vancouver, BC.

La Casa Gelato website

Photo above courtesy of Ian Parra.

Amazing Secret Jungle Hike in Honolulu, Hawaii

The beginning of the Manoa Falls Trail in Honolulu, Hawaii.
There is a fantastic hidden jungle hike on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, which you will love if you're a traveler who enjoys heading off the beaten path. The trail is hidden in a residential area called Manoa Valley just 20 minutes away from Waikiki Beach in Honolulu.

The Manoa Falls Trail will take you through dense jungle that is lush with a shady canopy, bamboo forest and huge trees that will make you feel like you are in a jurassic park movie (minus the dinosaurs). The movie Jurassic Park was actually filmed in this area! Just 1.6 miles up you'll see Manoa Falls, a beautiful 150 foot waterfall and pool (no swimming allowed). The trail has a slight incline and can be muddy, so dress accordingly and apply inspect repellent before you start out. Don't wear flip flops or sandals!

The entire hike is pretty easy and can be done in under an hour, so it's a really fantastic and easy way to experience a truly Hawaiian jungle hike even when you're on a beach vacation.

Path on the jungle hike. Photo by Daniel Ramirez.
Bamboo Forest on Manoa Falls Trail. Photo by Daniel Ramirez.
How to Get to Manoa Falls
  • Follow Kapahulu St out of Waikiki up to the H-1 Freeway
  • Take H-1 West towards the Airport
  • Take the Punahoe Exit
  • Follow Punahoe Road up towards the mountains
  • Punahoe Road turns into Manoa Road
  • Follow Manoa Road all the way up to the top.
There is a parking lot by the trail head which costs $5, though I would suggest parking in the residential streets below for free and walking the additional 1/4 mile. Look for the sign designating the Manoa Falls Trail (pictured below).

If you don't have a car, it's easy to get here by bus. Just take the #5 bus which stops on the residential streets just before the entrance.

Where to Stay When Visiting Waikiki
  • On my visit I had some not-so-great hotel experiences -- I had been avoiding the pricey beach-front options which did not turn out in my favor. I called Expedia who moved me to the Waikiki Beach Marriott for a fantastic deal. The open-air lobby was filled with fresh purple orchids! It's located across the street from Waikiki Beach, has a pool and five restaurants. $229/night + 20% off when booked on Expedia with a flight.
  • Hilton Hawaiian Village Waikiki Beach Resort is a beachfront 22-acre resort property. Complete with a spa, 20 dining venues and a swimming pool with water slides. $151/night + $30/day resort fee.
  • Hilton Waikiki Beach is just steps to the beach, newly renovated, has a swimming pool and the rooms offer both ocean and mountain views. $206/night.

 All photos above by Daniel Ramirez.

Kyoto's Golden Gem

Kinkakuji, Temple of the Golden Pavilion, is a Zen Temple in the ancient Japanese city of Kyoto whose top two floors are entirely covered in gold leaf. It is designated as a National Special Historic Site and is one of the Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto World Heritage Site.

The view was perhaps the most awe-inspiring sight on my visit to Kyoto. Beyond that is an education and immersion into one of the world's best examples of artistically creating a structure in harmony with the landscape. Kinkakuji is set in a traditional Japanese strolling garden and extends over a pond which provides beautiful reflections of the golden structure. Did I mention the koi fish? The rock gardens, bridges, ponds and vegetation are truly zen in every way.

Some say that the most stunning view of Kinkakuji is in the winter when it is covered in snow.... it snowed there one day after I left!

The gold used on the temple has a symbolic meaning; it was believed that the gold purified any negative thoughts and feelings towards death. I found that interesting, also knowing that the grounds were designed to illustrate harmony between heaven and earth.

Kinkakuji was built in 1393 as a retirement villa for Shogun Yoshimitsu Ashikaga. Through history it has burned down several times, most recently having been rebuilt in 1955. Due to the immense historic buildings in the ancient city of Kyoto, the city was spared much of the destruction of World War II.

Statues of the Shaka Buddha and Yoshimitsu are stored in the first floor. While it's not possible to enter the pavilion, you can view them from across the pond as the front windows of the first floor are usually kept open..... they were not open when I visited.

Check out the bird under the tree!
After you exit the temple area, you'll see Fudo Hall where people line up to ring the bells (to awaken the gods) and say a prayer. This small temple is home to a statue of Fudo Myoo, one of the Five Wisdom Kings and the protector of Buddhism. The statue is said to have been carved by one of Japan's most important religious figures in history.

There you will also find small wooden plaques which are somewhat of a landmark at Kyoto's shrines and temples. Called Ema in traditional Shinto language, they often have images of animals and wishes of success written on them. Prayers or wishes can be written on the plaques which are then left hanging at the shrine for the spirits or gods to receive them. Don't be shy, everyone is welcome to leave a wish.

Tips for Visiting the Temple of the Golden Pavilion:

The Golden Pavilion is open for visitors every single day of the year, from 9am to 5pm. Admission is 400 ¥. Kinkakuji can be accessed from Kyoto Station by City Bus number 101 or 205 in about 40 minutes and for 230 ¥. Alternatively, you could take the Karasuma Subway Line to Kitaoji Station (15 minutes, 260 ¥) and take a taxi (10 minutes, 1000-1200 ¥) or bus (10 minutes, 230 ¥, bus numbers 101, 102, 204 or 205) from there to Kinkakuji.

Here you can access what I found to be the most useful Kyoto travel guide

Where to Stay When Visiting Kyoto:

I recommend the Almont Hotel where I stayed, which is about 3 blocks from the Kyoto Station, the major hub for getting anywhere in the city and beyond. It was clean, comfortable and their location is great. I liked that they have traditional onsen (mineral pools), free wifi and a business center (all of which I made use of!). Book through Agoda (below) as I did for the best rate.