Tag: Animals

Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies: Gatlinburg, Tennessee

Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies: Gatlinburg, Tennessee

Feeding the (Sea) Monster:

My daughter has an obsession.  Well, several actually.  When she loves something, she tends to love it obsessively.  Such is the case with aquariums. I have no idea why she likes them so much.  For the most part, I find fish to be unattractive, uninteresting, and unappealing.

However, when planning our Thanksgiving trip, she requested that we choose a location that had an aquarium we could visit. It was her only request. Once we settled upon Pigeon Forge/Gatlinburg as our destination, I booked tickets for us to visit Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies.

Don’t let the name fool you

You may be thinking, like I did, that an aquarium run by Ripley’s probably has lots of plastic reproductions of fish, like the tallest man figure outside their “Believe It or Not” museums.  I thought that, at best, it would be kind of cheesy.  I knew it certainly wouldn’t be able to hold a candle to our semi-local favorite, the National Aquarium in Baltimore. Even my daughter, as excited as she was to be going to an aquarium, was skeptical when she heard it was a Ripley’s attraction.

Happily, we were wrong.  It is actually a very nice aquarium. So much so, in fact, that in this year’s USA Today Readers’ Choice Awards, it was named the best aquarium in the country.

Gatlinburg Aquarium Review - why Ripley's aquarium of the smokies is a must see
At Thanksgiving, when we visited, the aquarium is all decked out for Christmas.

Gatlinburg Aquarium Review

What follows is my review of Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies in Gatlinburg.  But before I get to my specific experience, I want to share some of the facts and figures about the aquarium.  For starters, it’s home to over 10,000 exotic sea creatures in 350 individual species. The population of Gatlinburg is 4200, so that means there are more fish in the aquarium than there are people living in the entire town of Gatlinburg! But what are fish without water? The Gatlinburg aquarium contains 1.4 million gallons of water

Once we entered the building and started walking through the exhibits, the first thing we saw was a curious ray who kept coming over to the glass. Still skeptical, I thought he was one of maybe three or four rays at the aquarium.  How wrong I was!  But I will tell you more about that later.  The next thing we saw was a tank of piranhas:

Piranha at Gatlinburg Aquarium Review by travelasmuch.com

He didn’t look anywhere near as menacing as I have always imagined them to be.

From there, we moved through the Ocean Realm, and found this scorpionfish that almost looked like he was made from lace. This fish is a master of camouflage. Its frilly appendages help it blend in with its surroundings. Their dorsal spines are venomous and can be painful if stepped on.

Scorpionfish at Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies. Read my Gatlinburg Aquarium review at travelasmuch.com

The Tunnel

At another point we got to go through a tunnel that went under/through the aquarium’s largest tank.  This was an absolute high point for my daughter because it was a first for us – not even the Baltimore aquarium has this! I have to admit it was pretty darn cool.

Gatlinburg Aquarium Review - Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies

When a Saw Nose Shark swam over us, we looked at each other and, in homage to a Doctor Who episode, shrieked, “Moisturize me!”

Yeah, we’re a geeky family.

Gatlinburg Aquarium review - Saw nose shark at Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies
The Saw Nose Shark, which looks a lot like Cassandra from Doctor Who.

The Penguins

There was an area called Penguin Playhouse. The African penguins there can be viewed inside the building or outside, below the water or above.  Very versatile!  My favorite feature was a tunnel that visitors could crawl through and pop up right in the middle of the penguin habitat:

Gatlinburg Aquarium Review - Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies - Penguin Playhouse

What a great way for little ones to burn off some energy and get an up-close look at the penguins! When I did it (you bet I did!), a penguin named Ricky stood right next to the observation tube. He looked like he was spilling the tea with the other penguin.

Gatlinburg Aquarium Review - Penguin Playhouse at Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies

The Highlight of the Aquarium (for me)

I was struggling to get a picture that showed just how big the giant Japanese crab actually was when my daughter came over and told me that there was a tank of cuttlefish nearby.  I immediately forgot about the crab and went over to see it.  You have no idea how fascinating I find these fish!

Gatlinburg Aquarium Review - Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies

That squiggly black line in the eye area is its pupil, and it is supposed to be shaped like that.  In addition to their W-shaped pupils, cuttlefish have a shell that you can’t see here because it’s on the inside of his body. They also have eight arms and two tentacles with teeth on them. It has three hearts that pump its blue-green blood.

But most fascinating to me is that small male cuttlefish who don’t stand a chance of fighting off a larger male for mating rights. A small male cuttlefish will actually disguise itself as a female in order to get close enough to the females to mate with them. They change their appearance by changing their body color, concealing their extra arms (males have eight, females only have six), even pretending to be holding an egg sack.

Cuttlefish, also called the chameleons of the sea, can change their color and the patterns of their skin to communicate – in as many as 75 different ways. The change in color is for camouflage and protection, of course, but it is also used to communicate with other cuttlefish.

Not only that, the color change can take place in just one second. And guess what else – cuttlefish secrete “ink” like an octopus would.  Not only that, sepia dye comes from cuttlefish ink!

Quite simply, cuttlefish are the coolest fish in the world!

Okay, so maybe my daughter isn’t the only person in the family who gets a little obsessed sometimes…

The Boat

The aquarium had a little boat ride that you could pay extra to go on.  It was called the Glass Bottom Boat Adventure, which is a bit of a misnomer because it wasn’t all that adventurous.

Gatlinburg aquarium review - Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies features a glass bottom boat ride that you can go on for a few extra dollars.

It’s a small-ish boat that has no engine. An aquarium employee pulls the boat around the shark lagoon by a rope system. It wasn’t as grand as it sounded, but it was pretty cool to look down on all the fish as they swam under us. In fact, the only time we saw the aquarium’s giant sea turtle was when he swam under the boat.

Everything Else … Or at Least Some of It

And of course the aquarium had jellyfish.  I don’t know what it is about these creatures – if I saw one at the beach I would run screaming out of the water, but in an aquarium I am just mesmerized.  Really, though, can you blame me?

Gatlinburg Aquarium review - jellyfish at Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies

The aquarium had a special exhibit on the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor which seemed really out of place.  But visitors who take the time to read the wall plaques in the exhibit will learn that Ripley was instrumental in spearheading the movement to create a Pearl Harbor memorial.

The last thing we did at the aquarium was to get up close and personal with the rays. They had a lot of them there, swooping and gliding through the water:

Gatlinburg aquarium review - there are so many rays at Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies. You can even feed them!

We were gazing at them when I heard an announcement that we could touch and feed the rays.  Well, we have fed a bear, a tiger, a zebra, and various other animals, so why not feed a ray, too? I went over to the young lady, gave her $3, and came back with a metal rod and three small fish.

One by one, we put a fish on the end of the rod and stuck it into the water.  A ray would come gliding by and grab the fish, pulling it off the rod, without so much as a pause.  It was a pretty cool experience, and I got to touch one of the rays as it swam by.  They’re a bit on the slimy side, and feel sort of like a hard boiled egg white.

All in all, the aquarium took us about three hours to go through at a leisurely pace, and we really enjoed it.  I highly recommend it.  If you’re in Gatlinburg, be sure to check out Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies. And say hi to the cuttlefish for me.  😉

Remember to follow me on Instagram to see more pictures from the aquarium that are not included in this post!

Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies is located at 88 River Road in Gatlinburg, Tennessee.  Telephone (888) 240-1358

Gatlinburg Aquarium Review - Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies
Delaware State Fair Review

Delaware State Fair Review

Small Wonder

Even though I live in Maryland, I’m only about 10 miles from the Delaware border.  And Delaware is such a small state, it’s possible to drive from one end (Delmar) to the other (Beaver Valley) in just a little over two hours. Delaware has only three counties, and for a long time, its tourism tagline was “Small Wonder.”

But don’t let its size fool you.  Delaware has a lot of really great events – NASCAR races in Dover, Punkin Chunkin in the fall, the Rehoboth Sea Witch Festival in October, and the Delaware State Fair in late July.

The Animals

delaware state fair review cows livestock

One of my favorite things to do when my kids were younger was to go to the fair and look at all the animals that were there to compete. Horses, pigs, cows, sheep, goats, rabbits, chickens… several barns full of animals, and we could get fairly close to them.  The fact that it didn’t cost anything to see them was a big plus too.

Another free animal attraction is a fantastic petting zoo.  It’s probably the best petting zoo I’ve ever seen, with a wide variety of animals that you can feed and touch and interact with. Unfortunately, we got there kind of late and a lot of the animals were tired/inactive/asleep.  We saw two giraffes (one, in a nod to the Madagascar movie, was named Melman), some zebras, a highland cow, llama, alpaca, goats, sheep, and kangaroos.  In past years I’ve seen a zebu, a talking macaw, and some hyperactive ring-tailed lemurs. If you’ve ever referred to someone as bouncing off the walls… well, those lemurs actually did bounce off the walls of their cage! Here’s a shot of the llamas:

delaware state fair review llama alpaca petting zoo.

Or are they alpacas?  Despite having been to Peru twice, I still can’t tell the difference.  In any case, the sign said llamas, so if that’s not correct, I can blame someone else.

The Games

delaware state fair review games
Because who wouldn’t want to win a poop emoji pillow?

What’s a fair without games?  My husband is a champion Whack-a-Mole player, and almost always wins a prize.  We didn’t play this time as we were on the motorcycle and would not have had any room to carry prizes home.

(An aside:  if you arrive at the fair on a motorcycle, you get to park waaaaaay up front, near the entrance gates!)

The Rides

delaware state fair review ferris wheel

I confess, I’m really not much of a ride person.  I have a severe tendency to get motion sickness and a serious fear of heights.  So that eliminates many of the rides.  One year I did go one a water flume ride, and that was really enjoyable.  And I’ve always like the Himalaya. I would say that there is a good assortment of rides at the fair – something for everyone, even wusses like me.

The food

delaware state fair review deep fried oreos

What would a fair be without fair food?  Sure, it costs a bundle and most of it is really unhealthy, but where else can you get a plate full of deep fried Oreos like the ones in the picture?  But the deep fried fun doesn’t stop there! Here are some of the other deep fried dishes you can get:

  • Candy bars (I’m partial to Milky Way)
  • Reeses cups
  • Peanut butter and jelly sandwich
  • Twinkies
  • Pepper Jack cheese
  • Bubble gum, and
  • Lemonade.

No, I don’t know how you deep fry lemonade, and I wasn’t brave enough to try it.

Other fair foods include my favorite local ice cream, alligator meat (Chester’s Gators and Taters), and a doughnut burger – a cheeseburger with toppings served on two Krispy Kreme doughnuts instead of a burger bun.  Because why not?

The Music

I’m not sure why, but the Delaware State Fair gets some pretty big name bands to hold concerts there. In 2007, we saw Brad Paisley there.  He had two opening acts – one was Kellie Pickler from American Idol and the other was this chick I’d never heard of named Taylor Swift.  (We opted to walk around the fair rather than see Taylor Swift since she was a nobody. My, how times change!)

No concert for us this year, so here’s a pic I took of Brad Paisley in 2007:

delaware state fair review brad paisley

The concert lineup usually includes at least two country music artists, a Christian artist, and a comedian. There’s also a monster truck show and/or demolition derby event each year as well.

So there you have it. If you’re within driving distance of Harrington Delaware towards the end of July, check out the Delaware State Fair.  It’s a great spot for summertime fun!

Delaware State Fair Review
Cusco Bus Tour & Ccochahuasi Animal Sanctuary

Cusco Bus Tour & Ccochahuasi Animal Sanctuary

On our first full day in Cusco, Peru, we went to the Plaza de Armas and decided to tour the Cathedral of Lima. We had no sooner stepped out into the sunshine than we were approached by a young man who wanted us to take a bus tour. We declined, but he continued to talk to us, mostly about Donald Trump (“Did you vote for him?”) and Rocky Balboa (“He’s the greatest fighter in the world!”).

Before long, he asked us about the bus tour again. He showed me a brochure and pointed out all of the places the bus would go. A few were ones that I wanted to see (Sacsaywaman, Cristo Blanco, Puca Pucara, etc.), and there was also an animal sanctuary. He told me that for most of the places, we would only be able to take a few photos from the open air seating on the top of the bus.  We would not be getting off of the bus and walking around at each site.

I was warming to the idea. Between the altitude and a persistently sore knee, the idea of sitting on a bus to see the sights sounded pretty good. Certainly better than walking around on uneven cobbled streets that went up and down the hills of Cusco.

I booked us on a tour for the next morning and paid roughly $10 per person. Although he didn’t say so, I knew Hubs thought that we had just handed over our money for a tour on a bus that would not actually show up.

Happily, he was wrong.

We boarded the bus the next morning and went up to the rooftop seating.  It took a few minutes for everyone to get settled, but once they did we took off and headed out of the historic section of Cusco. If the young man had neglected to mention that we would not be stopping at the historic/traditional sightseeing locations, I would be writing a much different post. The bus stopped on the side of the road so we could take pictures but that was all.  And since we would be seeing the most magnificent and famous Inca ruins in a couple of days, I didn’t feel a strong need to get out and explore other Inca ruins.

cusco bus tour sacsaywaman
A view of the Inca ruins at Sacsaywaman, as seen from the tour bus.

We traveled through the countryside around Cusco, which both my husband and I found enjoyable, especially after being in the city, which felt so over-crowded to us.  After driving a while, we stopped at the Ccochahuasi Animal Sanctuary and got off the bus for a tour.

The first animals we saw were vicuñas.  Our guide told us that they were probably the meanest animals at the sanctuary.  What a shame; they are so pretty!

peru travel CCOCHAHUASI ANIMAL SANCTUARY cusco vicuna

From there we saw an Andean Mountain Cat.  I thought we would be seeing some puma-like creature.  Imagine my surprise when said mountain cat looked very similar to my own spoiled tabby, and not much larger!

peru travel CCOCHAHUASI ANIMAL SANCTUARY cusco andean mountain cat

Because he reminded me so much of our cat,  I called, “kitty, kitty, kitty.” He responded with a pitiful high pitched sound that I can only describe as half of a meow.

Interestingly, the only evidence of this cat’s existence prior to 1998 was two photographs. In 1998, a man sighted and photographed one of the cats near the Chile-Peru border. The species is considered to be endangered.

From there we moved on to the Condors.  It is important to note that these birds are very special to Peruvians.  In fact, they are one of three animals revered by the Inca as holy.  In ancient times, the Condor represented the heavenly/spiritual realm for the Inca. The Puma represented the earthly/physical realm, and the serpent represented the underworld.

Andean condors are the largest flying bird in the world by combined measurement of weight and wingspan. Their wingspans can reach close to 11 feet across!  However, the condors we saw were just kind of sitting around, minding their business.  Not very impressive.

But then the guides told us to take a seat at the opposite end of the enclosure.  While we watched, they climbed up to where the condors were hanging out and shooed them.  The next thing we knew, the condors were flying straight for us.

peru travel CCOCHAHUASI ANIMAL SANCTUARY cusco condor in flight
One condor flying toward us (center) with three more waiting in the background).

It was amazing to see a condor in flight.  Even more so considering he flew right over our heads and landed on a stone column next to the area where we sat.  We were able to get pretty close to him afterward.

peru travel CCOCHAHUASI ANIMAL SANCTUARY cusco condor
Andean Condor. No zoom lens, no cropping.

The guides referred to the condor as “Number Four,” and said that it would not be much longer before they released him into the wild. There was also a llama, of course, and an alpaca.  The llama was especially interesting because it had blue eyes.

peru travel CCOCHAHUASI ANIMAL SANCTUARY cusco llama

Following this, we saw two monkeys – a spider monkey and a capuchin monkey.  They were having a lot of fun alternating between interacting with us and playing with each other.

From there we moved on to the non-animal part of the sanctuary, where we got to see a native woman weaving in the traditional manner.

peru travel CCOCHAHUASI ANIMAL SANCTUARY cusco traditional weaver

There was also an exhibit about dyes – the natural sources that Peruvians have been using for their textiles for years, and the colors they produce.  Our guide showed us a tiny little parasite that is found on cacti.  It’s a whitish-gray on the outside, but when you smush it, it produces a bright purple-red color used for dye.

The natural dyes used in Peruvian textiles.

After that, we had a few moments to mill around, use the restrooms, or visit the snack bar/gift shop.  There was no pressure to buy anything.  In fact, most of the shopping areas appeared to be unstaffed. We boarded the bus and headed off again, retracing our route until we stopped at Cristo Blanco.

Cristo Blanco is a white larger-than-life statue of Jesus that overlooks the city of Cusco from a nearby mountain top.  You can see it from the Plaza de Armas if you know where to look.

Cristo Blanco was a gift from Arabic Palestinians who sought refuge in Cusco after World War II. At 26 feet high, it is much smaller than the famous statue of Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro (125 feet).  But that does not make it any less impressive!

Also impressive were the views we had of the city of Cusco from where we stood.

cusco peru travel plaza de armas
Cusco as seen from Cristo Blanco. Can you see the Plaza de Armas?

All in all, I found the bus tour to be very enjoyable.  It gave us a chance to see more than just downtown Cusco, without walking all over creation.  The price, about $10 per person, seemed quite reasonable for a three hour tour.  If you need a break and want to get out of Cusco for a little while, I’d recommend looking into one of these tours.


60+ Washington DC Free Attractions

60+ Washington DC Free Attractions

Anyone who has been to Washington DC knows that it can be a pretty expensive city to visit.  Most studies rank it somewhere in the top ten list of the most expensive American cities. For someone who is making a non-DC salary and visiting the nation’s capital, the expense of everything can be daunting.

Fortunately, Washington DC free attractions are plentiful.  Here are over 60 places you can explore without paying for admission, listed by neighborhood:

The National Mall Area

Washington DC Free Attractions

  1. Abraham Lincoln Memorial
  2. World War II Memorial
  3. National Museum of American History
  4. National Air & Space Museum
  5. Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden – modern art
  6. National Museum of African Art
  7. National Museum of Natural History
  8. Smithsonian Castle
  9. Washington Monument – currently closed for elevator upgrade – check before you go
  10. National Archives
  11. National Gallery of Art
  12. Multiverse Light Sculpture between National Gallery East & West Buildings
  13. Freer Gallery – Asian art (closed until October 14, 2017)
  14. Sackler Gallery – Asian art
  15. Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial
  16. Korean War Veterans Memorial
  17. Vietnam War Veterans Memorial
  18. Thomas Jefferson Memorial
  19. Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial
  20. American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial
  21. US Holocaust Memorial Museum – free but requires timed tickets March through August
  22. National Museum of the American Indian
  23. National Museum of African American History & Culture
  24. Albert Einstein Memorial
  25. Bureau of Engraving & Printing (free, but reservations required through September 1)
  26. National Gallery of Art’s Sculpture Garden


Brookland Area

Washington DC free attractions in Brookland area

  1. Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception
  2. Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in America


Capitol Hill

Washington Dc free attractions capitol hill

  1. National Postal Museum
  2. Library of Congress
  3. US Capitol
  4. US Botanic Garden
  5. Folger Shakespeare Library
  6. Historic Congressional Cemetery


Capitol Riverfront

Washington DC Free attractions capitol riverfront

  1. Frederick Douglass National Historic Site
  2. National Museum of the US Navy
  3. Yards Park



Washington DC Free Attractions Anacostia

  1. Kenilworth Park & Aquatic Gardens
  2. Anacostia Community Museum


Upper Northwest

Washington DC Free Attractions Upper Northwest

  1. National Cathedral



Washington DC Free ATtractions Georgetown

  1. C&O Canal Paths
  2. Old Stone House (the oldest home in DC)
  3. Theodore Roosevelt Island
  4. Rock Creek Park


Penn Quarter/Chinatown

Washington DC Free Attractions Penn Quarter Chinatown

  1. National Portrait Gallery
  2. Smithsonian American Art Museum
  3. Lunder Conservation Center
  4. Ford’s Theatre National Historic Site
  5. Archives of American Art Gallery


Dupont Circle

Washington DC Free Attractions Dupont Circle

  1. Anderson House


Woodley Park

Washington DC Free Attractions Woodley Park

  1. National Zoo


Foggy Bottom

Washington DC free attractions Foggy Bottom

  1. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts (free tour)
  2. Millennium Stage at the Kennedy Center (free performances)



Washington DC Free Attractions Donwtown

  1. White House Visitor Center
  2. White House tour (request through Congressional representative at least 3 months in advance)
  3. Renwick Gallery – American contemporary art



Washington DC Free Attractions Shaw

  1. African American Civil War Memorial
  2. African American Civil War Museum


H Street NE

Washington DC Free Attractions H Street NE

  1. US National Arboretum
  2. National Bonsai & Penjing Museum – inside National Arboretum


Arlington, Virginia (technically not DC, but just across the river)


  1. US Air Force Memorial
  2. US Marine Corps Memorial (aka Statue of Iwo Jima)
  3. Arlington House, former home of Robert E Lee
  4. Arlington National Cemetery
  5. National 9/11 Pentagon Memorial


As you can see, there are plenty of Washington DC free must-see attractions… and a few that are a little off the beaten path.  With so many choices for things to see and do at no expense, Washington DC can be an affordable vacation destination after all.


The Enchanted Forest Reborn

The Enchanted Forest Reborn

I will never forget the times that my parents took me to The Enchanted Forest, an awesome fairy tale theme park near Baltimore. The park was full of amazing scenes from fairy tales and other stories brought to life. It was my Disney World.

Sadly, The Enchanted Forest closed in 1989. But thanks to some wonderful people with fond childhood memories and a lot of land, you and your children can kinda-sorta visit The Enchanted Forest today.

Clark’s Elioak Farm has lovingly restored many of the original items from The Enchanted Forest and put them on display for this generation of children to enjoy. The restoration continues on, so there are plenty of new attractions not covered in this post.

From the moment you arrive, the magic begins. Rapunzel leans out of her castle tower to greet you.

enchanted forest rapunzel
You can see such beloved characters as Mother Goose (which is also a toddler size sliding board):

enchanted forest Clarks Elioak Farm Mother Goose
Take a peek inside the Three Little Pigs house. You can’t see it in this photo, but there is a wolf-skin rug on the floor.

enchanted forest Clarks Elioak Farm 3 Little Pigs
Disney immortalized Sleeping Beauty in the film of the same name, but I find this version just as enchanting. Who wouldn’t want to sleep under a golden blanket?

enchanted forest Clarks Elioak Farm Sleeping Beauty.jpg

Rub a dub dub, three men in a tub:

enchanted forest Clarks Elioak Farm Three Men in a Tub

You can catch Goldilocks in the Three Bears’ house:

enchanted forest Clarks Elioak Farm Goldilocks

There was an old woman who lived in a shoe (another sliding board):

enchanted forest Clarks Elioak Farm Old Woman in Shoe.jpg

Hey diddle diddle, the cat & the fiddle, the dish ran away with the spoon.

enchanted forest Clarks Elioak Farm Hey Diddle Diddle.jpg

And finally, Jack & the Beanstalk:

enchanted forest Clarks Elioak Farm Jack and Beanstalk.jpg
These are just some of the attractions, and as mentioned above, the proprietors are adding more every year. The site also features farm animals that children can see up close, pony rides, and a pumpkin patch in the fall. If you have young children and are near Clark’s Elioak Farm, treat them to a day there… they will love it and so will you!

Clark’s Elioak Farm is located at 10500 Clarksville Pike, Ellicott City, MD 21042. Telephone 410-730-4049. Hours vary by day and season, so check the web site or call when planning your visit.

Top Ten Places to See in Wales

Top Ten Places to See in Wales

Why Wales?

I have wanted to go to Wales ever since I saw Hugh Grant’s movie The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill but Came Down a Mountain. In fact, the trip that I’ll be taking next month originally started out as an England & Wales combined trip. Unfortunately, time constraints prevented us from doing both, and Hubs was pretty adamant that he wanted to see Hadrian’s Wall.  So Wales is pretty high on the list of future vacations.

I did a lot of research about Wales back when I thought we would be able to do both. Here are the top ten things I can’t wait to see when I go to Wales.

1. Hay-on-Wye.  This tiny village (population 1600) is known as a book town. In fact, it’s the world’s largest second hand & antiquarian book center. You’ll find book stores on every corner and you’ll even see unmanned shelves of books with an honor system for customers. The largest of the “honesty shops” is a row of shelves lining the castle wall.  Castle + books = I could spend days there!

wales top ten hay on why castle bookshop

2. The Straining Tower at Lake Vyrnwy.  It looks much more romantic than it actually is. Its purpose is to filter or strain out material in the water with a fine metal mesh, before the water flows along the aqueduct to Liverpool. The tower rises 104 feet above water, and is topped with a pointed copper-clad roof with a light green patina.

wales top ten straining tower lake vyrnwy

3.  Llanfair­pwllgwyngyll­gogery­chwyrn­drobwll­llan­tysilio­gogo­goch.  The town with the longest name in Britain – 58 letters! (Oddly enough, it is not the longest name in the world, though; that honor belongs to a place in New Zealand.) The name, translated from Welsh, means “Saint Mary’s Church in a hollow of white hazel near the swirling whirlpool of the church of Saint Tysilio with a red cave.” I just want to go get our picture taken under the name sign and buy a souvenir tee shirt.

wales top ten longest town name

4. Castell Coch.  This Gothic Revival Castle was built in the late 19th century as a country residence.  It is often referred to as a fairy tale castle because of its round towers.  And while the exterior of the castle appears medieval, the interior is high Victorian.

wales top ten castell coch

5. The Doctor Who Experience.  You get to see what it’s like to be inside the TARDIS, for goodness’ sake.  What else could you want?

UPDATE:  The Doctor Who Experience is no longer open. 🙁

wales top ten Doctor Who Experience

6. Pontcysyllte Aqueduct.  You can ride a boat or walk across the aqueduct, which is the highest and longest in Great Britain.  It is 126 feet high and 336 yards long.  From what I’ve read, the views from there are outstanding.

wales top ten Pontcysyllte Aqueduct

7.  Tintern Abbey.  Thanks to Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 16th century, Abbey ruins are all over the British Isles.  I’ve seen photos of many different abbey ruins, and I think Tintern has one of the loveliest sites.

wales top ten Tintern Abbey

8. Pembrokeshire.  This area of Wales reminds me so much of Cornwall (my happy place). There are many beautiful beaches and small harbor towns.

wales top ten Pembrokeshire

9. Skomer Island.  It is the world’s largest puffin colony.  And, as if that weren’t enough, there are also stone circles and the remains of prehistoric houses.

wales top ten skomer puffin

10. Gladstone’s Library.  It’s a residential library, possibly the only one in the world. Bibliophiles like me can look at books all day, go to sleep when we can’t hold our eyes open any longer, then wake up and look at books again.  Yay!  As an added plus, the room rates are some of the cheapest I’ve seen in the UK.

wales top ten Gladstone's Libary

So, there you have it: my next European adventure, already planned.  I can’t wait to see these Wales top ten places in person!


Socotra Yemen: An Island Like No Other

Socotra Yemen: An Island Like No Other

Socotra, an island of 50,000 people measuring 82 x 31 miles, is in the Arabian Sea and is part of the country of Yemen.

Socotra Yemen in History

In 52 AD, a shipwreck brought Thomas the Apostle to Socotra. He constructed a church out of his ship’s wreckage and baptized many Socotrans. The population of the island remained Christian until the 1500s.

The Travels of Marco Polo, written in the 13th century, mentions Socotra, stating that “the inhabitants are baptized Christians and have an ‘archbishop'” who, it is further explained, “has nothing to do with the Pope in Rome, but is subject to an archbishop who lives at Baghdad.”

According to The Arabian Nights, Sinbad the Sailor visited the island on his fifth voyage. Unfortunately for him, a pair of huge birds of prey dropped boulders on his ship and destroyed it.


The island is one of the most isolated land forms on earth that did not result from volcanic eruptions. As a result, roughly one-third of the plant life on Socatra is unique to the island. That’s nearly 700 species of plants that are unique to Socotra. One of them is the Dragon’s Blood Tree:

Socotra Dragonblood Tree

Shaped like an umbrella, this tree has red sap called dragon’s blood because of its appearance.  The sap aided in dying fabrics, and today is used as paint and varnish.  The people who live on the island also use the tree sap for medicinal purposes such as general wound healing, as a coagulant, cure for diarrhea, for dysentery diseases, and for lowering fevers.

Another unique plant on Socotra is the cucumber tree:

socotra cucumber tree.jpg

In times of severe drought, islanders cut down these trees, pulp them and feed them to their livestock. Unfortunately, that means that there are some areas of the island almost completely devoid of the trees.


Socotra is just as unique in terms of its wildlife.  The island is home to at least seven unique bird species. In addition, nearly 90% of Socotran reptiles are only found there.  Because of these characteristics in its flora and fauna, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) named the island a world natural heritage site in July 2008.


The physical characteristics of the island are just as interesting as its plants and wildlife. There are several caves, with enormous stalagmites and stalactites.  This is Halah Cave:

halah Cave

The bright light near the center of the photo is from a man holding a flashlight.  That should give you an idea of how big the cave is.

And the beaches are just beautiful:

Socotra Coastline.jpg

So, if you’re looking for a getaway that’s a little unique and mostly unheard of, consider going to Socatra.  You will see things most people don’t even know about!

For more information about Socatra and how to travel there, visit the Socotra Information web site.

Bucket List: Seeing Polar Bears in Churchill Manitoba

Bucket List: Seeing Polar Bears in Churchill Manitoba

Polar Bears in Churchill Manitoba

I have loved polar bears since I took an elementary school field trip to the National Zoo. I thought they were just fascinating and utterly adorable.  Some years later, when they closed the polar bear exhibit, the zoo became significantly less enjoyable for me.

Oddly enough, a visit to the Baltimore Zoo re-kindled my love for polar bears and put this particular trip on my Bucket List.  The polar bear exhibit there showcased the town of Churchill in Manitoba, Canada (population 800).  Churchill sees an influx of polar bears (and tourists) every year between late October and early November. Churchill enjoys a reputation as the Polar Bear Capital of the World, among other things.

Polar Bears churchill manitoba canada
Photo via Flickr by Emma Bishop

The polar bears in Churchill Manitoba gather at nearby Cape Churchill waiting for ice to form on Hudson Bay. Once the ice is stable, they head out to spend the winter hunting seals. That’s when tourists are able to go out in a special vehicle called a tundra buggy. Polar bears can get close to the buggies (and, therefore, the tourists!) without jeopardizing anyone’s safety. They’re strong animals, but they aren’t strong enough to knock one of these over!

polar bear churchill manitoba tundra buggy
Photo of a tundra buggy via Flickr by Emma Bishop

As you can imagine, living in close proximity to such fearsome hunters means that certain precautions must be taken for safety.  For instance, on Halloween, children cannot wear all-white costumes (such as a ghost), and residents patrol every street. Many residents leave their cars unlocked in case someone needs emergency shelter from a polar bear.

Local authorities even have a “polar bear jail” to hold bears who persistently loiter in or close to town. Authorities release the detainees back into the wild when the bay freezes over.

polar bears in churchill manitoba
Photo of the Polar Bear Jail via Flickr by Emma Bishop.

A lot of the places in Churchill offering polar bear expeditions do a full package with lodging and everything else.  They run in the $5000 range, which I think is a bit steep.  And my Grand Canyon experience has made me leery of spending multiple days in locations that are not highly populated.

Thankfully, you can do a tundra buggy day trip in the fall polar bear season for less than $500 per person. That seems a tad more manageable.

Have you ever been on one of these polar bear sightings? I’d love to hear about it!


polar bears in churchill manitoba
There are few places outside of a zoo where you can get an up close look at polar bears. Churchill Manitoba is one of those places.


The National Zoo

The National Zoo

The National Zoo is a little panda-intensive.  And with good reason, as there are only four zoos in the United States where you can see pandas.  The National Zoo has four, including Bei Bei, who was just born in August of 2015.  My luck at being able to see the pandas over the years has been hit or miss. The last time I went, I was successful in getting one photo of the cuddly creatures:

National Zoo Panda

He was a little shy.  If you aren’t lucky enough to see the pandas in person, you can take advantage of the zoo’s Panda Cam which allows you to see them real time.

My favorites at the zoo (any zoo) are the big cats.  This was a particularly good trip for catching them alert.  Sometimes I haven’t been so lucky.  Here are the photos I snapped:National Zoo Cheetah

National Zoo Lion

National Zoo Tiger

I think we were there towards the end of the day — somewhere between 3 and 5 pm.  That seems to be a good time for catching the animals when they are alert as it’s probably getting closer to their feeding time.

Exhibits at the zoo include the following:

  • Giant Panda Habitat
  • Elephant Trail
  • Asia Trail
  • Lemur Island
  • Small Mammal House
  • Great Ape House
  • Think  Tank (education)
  • Gibbon Ridge
  • Cheetah Conservation Station
  • American Trail
  • Invertebrate Exhibit
  • Amazonia
  • Great Cats
  • Reptile Discovery Center
  • The Bird House
  • Kids’ Farm
  • American Bison Exhibit

Insider Tip:  If you take the Metro (Washington DC’s subway system), there are two stops you can use to get to the zoo.  The Woodley Park-Zoo stop (which most people use because of the name) is an uphill walk to the zoo.  The Cleveland Park stop is the same distance, but is a flat walk.  If you choose to drive to the zoo, there is limited parking available but there is a hefty charge (as of this writing, $22).

App It: The National Zoo has an app that includes interactive maps, schedules, animal information, and more.

The National Zoo is located at  3001 Connecticut Ave NW, Washington, DC 20008. Telephone  202-633-4888.  The zoo is open every day of the year except Christmas.  Hours vary by season, so call or check the website when planning your visit.


Oswalds Bear Ranch – Newberry MI

Oswalds Bear Ranch – Newberry MI

I really enjoyed our vacation to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The attractions pretty much equaled our time there. We didn’t sit around bored, but we didn’t have to do tourist triage on the things we wanted to see, either. It was a perfect fit.

One of the things we saw on the UP was Oswald’s Bear Ranch. I am fairly certain that it was the Oswalds who brought some of their bears to the Delaware State Fair one year. I remember being astonished as I watched the man playing with the bears. All parties involved were having a blast, and no one was getting hurt.

So when I read about the bear ranch in Newberry, I put it on our list of things to do. Oswald’s is the largest (bear only) Bear Ranch in the entire United States of America. They have 29 bears in 4 habitats, and most bears are rescue cases. Apparently people adopt bear cubs and then realize as the cubs grow into full sized bears that they cannot care for them. Shocking, I know.

The Oswalds take the bears in and give them a place where they can safely live among other bears, since in most cases they have never lived in the wild before.

Oswalds Bear Ranch 3.jpg

The bears are pretty friendly, although not overly so. It was possible to get close enough to take some photos, but they weren’t curious enough about us to come closer.

Oswalds Bear Ranch MI 2

The big highlight was when we got to feed and pet a baby bear cub. Here’s a shot of my daughter feeding him a snack (a mixture of Froot Loops and Puppy Chow).

feeding cub

How cool is that? It was a little disappointing, however, to discover that bears are not as soft and squishy as their stuffed animal counterparts. Baby Bear’s fur was actually kind of coarse and as for squishiness… well, I didn’t test that.  😉

Kids will love the opportunity to see these majestic animals up close and to learn more about them. This is a very family friendly attraction and I recommend that you check it out if you’re on the UP of Michigan!

Oswald’s Bear Ranch is located at 13814 County Rd 407 (H-37), Newberry, MI 49868. Telephone 906-293-3147. Open the Friday of Memorial Day Weekend through Sept. 30th each year. Hours are 9:30 am to 5:00 pm thru Labor Day. After Labor Day, the hours are from 9:30 am – 4:00 pm.