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Mon bon AMI: An 18th Anniversary on Anna Maria Island

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Nestled along the emerald coast of the Gulf of Mexico, Anna Maria Island is a mere whisp of land that’s barely a shell toss from Tampa. There are no sprawling resorts, no historic waterfront, and nothing anyone could call a “high rise.” It’s more bike paths, palm trees and brightly colored beach cottages. It’s like visiting the Florida from my childhood except that the thing I hated the most as a kid is the thing I love the most now: there’s not much to do.

Anna Maria is a narrow barrier island just off Sarasota that’s only seven miles long and less than 2 miles wide. Made up of three quaint beach communities: Anna Maria to the north, Holmes Beach in the middle and Bradenton Beach to the south, it’s loaded with old Florida charm.

It seemed like the perfect place for a quick anniversary getaway.

Before heading to AMI, we made an overnight pit stop in New Smyrna Beach on the east coast of FL to drop our friends off. The beach at New Smyrna was expansive, with rich dark sand littered with shells and not a soul in sight.

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Their home enjoys frontage on both the beach side and the river side, so we had the opportunity to do a short kayak trip up the Indian River.

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The best part of the day was when a small group of dolphins joined us for about 30 minutes. I have enjoyed dolphins from the boat in the Bahamas, but this was entirely different. Being at water level with them, and so close, with no competing sounds was phenomenal. You could hear their breath each time they came to the surface. Pure magic.

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We spent a night in New Smyrna and then made our way to the west coast of FL, landing in at the Sarasota-Bradenton airport just before lunch on a gloriously sunny Friday in April. The FBO staff pulled the rental car up to the plane just as we were parking, so it was a quick 5 minutes before we were on our way!

We were STARVING so we stopped en route to AMI at Cortez Village, just before crossing the bridge across the intracoastal waterway. There we found Tide Tables, an unassuming little restaurant at the marina rumored by good friend and fellow blogger TraceyG to have amazing fish tacos.

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We started off with some chilled shrimp while we waited.

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The wait was short, very short, and within minutes we each had a basket of gorgeous fish tacos, tangy slaw, and carrot salad.

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With our bellies filled, the sunshine on our faces, and a slight buzz from the cheap wine, we were feeling mighty fine.

It was still slightly before check-in time, so we made another stop on the way: the Anna Maria Oyster Bar at the Bradenton Beach Pier. Matt needed an oyster fix and we had an hour to kill.

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The oysters were plump and salty, but the real show stopper was the salted caramel vodka cake.

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Our trip had been planned at the last minute, so we didn’t have a lot of accommodations to choose from. Not planning to go anywhere for our anniversary, we had agreed to take our friends to FL and, since they were paying for the fuel, thought….why not make a weekend of it?

Despite the fact that pickings were slim when I was trying to find beachfront digs, I was delighted to find the ever-so-simple but incredibly adorable Love Shack.

I mean really, where better to spend an anniversary than the Love Shack?

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There were certainly nicer places to stay, but we wanted to be nestled right on the beach, where we could simply walk out the back door and have our toes in the sand. What the Love Shack lacked in “fancy” it made up for in location.

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I knew that Anna Maria was “old school” Florida, so it seemed fitting that they cottage reminded me of the places I used to stay with my parents when I was 9, with gently sloping cracked linoleum floors, brightly colored wood paneling, and old style tri-fold beach chairs.

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It was perfect.

Within minutes, we had dumped our bags and were sitting on bright turquoise Adirondack chairs sipping chilled rum punches and listening to the waves.

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After sufficient chill time on the beach, we cleaned up for dinner and went out our back door to enjoy the sunset with a glass of wine.

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AMI is the kind of beach town where everyone gathers for the sunset, treating it with reverence and awe, as though it isn’t something that happens every single day.

I loved it.

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It was just a couple of miles down the beach to Beach House, where we sipped cocktails at the edge of the water while we waited for a table.

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I had an amazing margarita but Matt….misordered. He ordered what was called a “dirty monkey” and expected something like this...all deliciously ice-creamy and milkshakey:

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What he got was more "black rotten banana that should have been thrown out yesterday:"

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He forced it upon me to confirm that it was indeed terrible and, with one sip, I knew how it got its name. It tasted like a monkey ate a banana and crapped it out.

Dinner, however, was decadent. We were so hungry by the time we sat down that we overordered and ended up with a feast of the house smoked fish dip, farmhouse salad, and the gulf scampi for me and the seafood capellini for Matt.

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Saturday morning I woke early and saw that Matt was sleeping like the dead. I let him be and wandered outside.

I love the beach in the morning, before it’s littered with bodies and screaming children. It’s quiet and peaceful, the world softly waking up around the ocean. The sand is scattered with tiny shells, the waves lap gently at the shore, and the day is full of promise.

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It was 10:00 before a groggy Matt wandered out onto the beach. Sleeping that late is very unusual for either of us so I knew he needed it and was thankful we had this glorious weekend to get our batteries recharged.

We set our cheap tri-fold beach chairs up in the sand, grabbed a morning mimosa, and watched the world go by.

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After a couple of hours of sunning and swimming, we were hungry, so we threw on some clothes and headed down the beach to Skinny’s Place, a hole-in-the-wall that serves up wide, juicy patties on toasted buns with plenty of toppings and an impressive variety of beer. They are also known for their colossal onion rings, fried to crispy perfection.

Skinny’s was funky, Old Florida at its best.

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The menu said to say “Mayo” or “No Mayo,” which made me wonder why, down here in the south, there would even be a choice. Nothing beats a burger slathered with a hearty helping of mayonnaise, preferably Duke’s or JFG.

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The burgers were everything they promised to be and left us ready to do some shopping and strolling around Anna Maria’s cute beachside town.

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Every place we stopped was bright, unique, and eclectic, but my favorite had to be Shiny Fish. I’m not sure what won me over the most….the swing outside, the incredible décor and selection of awesomeness inside, or the PAINT YOUR OWN SAND DOLLAR TABLE!

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I really wanted to paint a sand dollar, but Matt was getting over estrogenized and needed a shopping break.

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We ducked into The Donut Experiment, where you can order a soft, still warm cake donut topped with your choice of icing and your choice of topping.

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I went for the vanilla icing and candy sprinkles while Matt opted for caramel icing and sea salt.

That donut was like a gift from god.

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We walked over to the beach and thought about getting a drink at Sand Bar until we saw how long the wait was. I could swim to Puerto Rico and get my own bottle of rum before we would have a drink in that place, so we strolled around town a little more before heading back down the beach to our end of the island. Anna Maria was a perfect blend of quirky, cute, and funky, with just enough "WTF?" to keep it from being boring.

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We stopped in at a cute little beachside bar, the Kokonut Hut. It sat right on the sugar white sand and served up wicked little buckets of rum punch.

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After a bucket of rum punch, a frozen rum punch with a 151 floater, and a Pussers painkiller…there was nothing left to do but take a nap.

We woke up in time for sunset and enjoyed another beautiful evening on the beach behind the Love Shack.

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We had dinner reservations at Blue Marlin on Bridge Street, so we headed to the Drift-In Lounge’s outdoor tiki bar for a pre-dinner drink. The Drift-In was an incredibly cool little dive bar. Everyone seated around the bar appeared to be a local or a regular and they were cranking out my favorite 80s tunes over the ancient speakers. The tough, tattooed bartender made us a fantastic pina colada, which, side-by-side, looked a lot like boobs.

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Or maybe I had simply had one drink too many.

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We found the Blue Marlin practically across the street in an adorable little blue cottage with warm lights. This cozy little bistro cranks out some of the freshest seafood on the island.

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As we perused the menu, the waiter brought us….not bread…..edamame. Odd…but delicious.

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We had a delicious burrata salad, swimming in rich olive oil and basil and we both ended up ordering the shrimp and grits which, much to my delight, came served with an adorable little hushpuppy. Dessert was a decadent pecan pie with vanilla bean ice cream.

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After dinner, you can sip wine and listen to live music in their outdoor patio area, the Trap Yard….only 351 miles from Abaco!

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It was Sunday morning and the official “ANNIVERSARY.”

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We started the day with celebratory morning cocktails at the Coquina Beach Café. You can’t be a $3 mimosa with a view like this.

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Next to the café was the weekly Coquina Beach Market, filled with everything from original art and jewelry to fresh baked goods to home-made dog biscuits.

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We had worked up an appetite and stopped at Wicked Cantina on our way back to the Love Shack.

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It was $5 margarita day. For $5, I expect a pretty sub-par margarita. These were anything but sub-par…they were strong and freshly squeezed.

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Even though I don’t like avocadoes (literally one 3 foods on the whole planet I don’t like…), I was intrigued by the fried guacamole. Cover anything in dough and fry it and I’ll eat it.

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Matt ordered carnitas tacos with rice and charro beans.

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Matt’s tacos looked amazing, but I am a nacho fan. I LOVE NACHOS. You could say I have a ….

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These nachos were absolute perfection. The only ones I can remember having that I liked more were at a little divey beach bar on St. Croix on my honeymoon, but that memory might be clouded by the fact that 1) I was on my honeymoon where everything seemed sparkly and magical and 2) I had been drinking rum all day.

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After lunch, we headed back for some beach lounging, sun, and cold slices of watermelon.

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As the sun began to dip lower in the sky, we headed out for the official anniversary dinner.

First stop was at the Doctor’s Office, an adorable craft cocktail bar in….what else…an old doctor’s office.

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Dinner was beachside at the Beach Bistro. I chose it because it has a reputation for being the best restaurant on the island. I left knowing it is.

The location, right on the beach, was a show stopper in itself. However, as we stepped inside, the interior took my breath away. It was tiny and intimate, delicate and elegant, with white tablecloths and a single, red rose on each table.

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They wished us a Happy Anniversary and brought us each their standard complimentary cocktail – a refreshing blend of blueberry infused vodka with a splash of St. Germain and lime juice.

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Next came a complimentary “shot” of their “one helluva soup,” the bistro blue tomato made with Parrish plum tomatoes in sweet cream with Maytag blue cheese. This was paired with a chunk of homemade sea salt focaccia with olive tapenade, basil pesto, and smoked salmon.

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Salads came next. Matt ordered the caprese, a giant ball of fresh milk mozzarella surrounded by a rainbow of cherry tomatoes, drizzled with basil olive oil and balsamic. I couldn’t resist the black and blue Caesar, which was loaded with bacon and blue cheese.

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Dinner for Matt was the dinner special of seared jumbo scallops, while I ordered the famous bistro bouillabaisse – a savory broth filled with poached lobster tail, jumbo shrimp, fresh grouper, shellfish, and calamari and served with crusty herbed garlic toast and aioli. Apparently, my dish required a bib.

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When we were certain we couldn’t eat another bite, they brought out another complimentary dish – a scoop of ice cream rolled in some powdery deliciousness, served on top of a shot of Frangelico and topped with whipped cream and almonds.

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It had been a perfect meal in a perfect setting….but the hits kept coming. As we left, they handed us a box with one of their signature truffles, a bag of toffee popcorn, and a rose.

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Happy Anniversary to us!

(all that food did not stop me from ordering a slice of key lime pie to go…I’m still ME after all…)

It had been a sleepy, food-filled, fun-filled, sun-filled, relaxing weekend. The only thing that could make it any better was a piece of key lime pie for breakfast in the plane on the way home.

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Matt – I love being your co-pilot and can’t wait to see what adventures the next 18 years takes us on!

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What’s up next folks? Holy Life Preservers….we’re headed to the Bahamas to spend 12 days on a power catamaran going from Nassau to Georgetown Exuma!!!! Be sure to check back in June to see what happened!

Posted by vicki_h 10:11 Archived in USA Tagged beach florida sarasota bradenton anna_maria holmes_beach Comments (0)

Sunny With a Chance of Meatballs

A winter weekend in Key West

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Any trip that starts with a view of a colossal fuzzy flamingo riding shotgun in the plane has to be good.

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It was mid-January. The holidays were over. The fun was over. The eatfest and presents were over. It was just winter. Boring, cold, long soul sucking winter.

We have found that the best way to cure the winter blues is to simply fly away from them. A quick 4 hours from home, we were flying over turquoise water littered with emerald islands.

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It was time for a Key West Quickie!

We only had 3 days, so we didn’t waste a minute dumping our stuff at the lovely Air BNB rental we’d found above the South Pointe Gallery and heading straight for sunshine and libations at the Rum Bar, practically next door.

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We were sad to find that Bahama Bob had moved on to Papa’s Pilar Rum Factory on the other side of Old Town, but at least he was still there in spirit.

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It was a beautiful day to sip rum on a wide shady porch. One quickly turned to …..more than one..... and before we knew it, it was oyster happy hour!

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We had sunset sail reservations so we ducked into the White Tarpon, the closest oyster destination which proudly serves $1.00 oysters all day. Sure, you can get them cheaper during happy hour at other places, but we didn’t have time to wait. And “other places” don’t have the always amazing Key Lime Pie Martini.

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On our first trip to Key West many years ago, we booked a cheesy boozy cruise on the Fury Catamaran where we drank cheap champagne in plastic solo cups, danced to the live band, and watched a spectacular sunset.

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Despite the ultimate cheese factor, we loved it so much we repeated it on later trips and enjoyed it just as much.

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So, once again, we found ourselves getting in line for the sunset sail with the endless beverages and live band, Commotion on the Ocean.

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Unfortunately, there is such a thing as “too much of a good thing.” We found that the Fury Catamaran on a night when the weather has turned on you is simply a big boat that smells like deep fried wontons. Despite the lack of charm or sunset, we made the best of it and drank enough bottom shelf booze to make it seem amazing.

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Even if we were the only ones not huddled inside eating cheap egg rolls.

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Like the Fury Catamaran, Amigo’s following the sunset(less) sail is a tradition that has stuck.

What’s not to love about a place where you eat street corn, tater tots, and a giant bowl of nachos while staring out at the craziness of a Key West Saturday night?

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Saturday morning brought a sunrise that looked a lot like the sunset from the night before, but that didn’t stop me from taking a brisk early morning bike ride to the pier to watch the sun not come up.

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When I got back, Matt was up and about, so we headed downstairs to La Grignote for breakfast. How could we not? We could smell the freshly baked croissants from our balcony.

Set in a cute little conch house on the corner of Louisa and the quite end of Duval, the entrance to the artisan French bakery was filled with potted flowers and plants spilling over the railings with the maddening smell of freshly baked bread filling the air. We walked in and a bounty of baked goods and pastries waited for us behind a perfectly polished glass display counter. Chalkboard menus overhead boasted breakfast entrees like bacon Belgian waffles topped with whipped cream and a French Petit Dejeuner that came with coffee, toasted artisan bread with homemade jam and butter, and fresh Greek yogurt with berries, orange blossom honey, pistachio and homemade granola.

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We were seated at a warmly polished wooden table where Matt had the breakfast special which came with scrambled eggs, their own ground sausage mix, bacon, avocado, tomatoes, and a slice of their freshly baked bread.

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Unable to resist the pastry counter, I went for a croissant and baked egg cup with bacon. What is an egg cup, you ask? Why, it’s a little basket of puff pastry with béchamel sauce, crème fraîche and a cracked egg on top.

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Or a little cup of happiness, whichever description you prefer.

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The croissant was flaky, pillowy perfection slathered with real butter and jam.

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From there, we spent a leisurely morning enjoying the streets and shops of Key West.

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We spent the morning walking the still quiet streets of Key West, shopping, and enjoying all the things that make Key West unique.

Like this dog in goggles riding in a backpack that said “Spank Me.” .

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Or this house covered with teddy bears. Which was less charming than the dog in goggles riding in a backpack that said “Spank Me.”

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When I was a kid, I watched too much Twilight Zone and was certain my stuffed animals were going to come alive during the night and kill me while I was asleep. This house was like a giant nightmare. That doll alone was enough to make me sleep with both eyes open.

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We had afternoon brunch reservations at Hot Tin Roof and I couldn’t have been happier when I walked in and saw a personalized menu, all you can drink mimosa and bloody Mary bar, AND a huge wooden boat filled with BACON.

ALL THE BACON.

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The brunch at Hot Tin Roof is a thing of beauty. The menu is filled with delightful small plates and you can order as many as you like along with bottomless mimosas, until you explode, pass out, or simply give up in defeat.

While we perused the menu, they brought out chilled seafood and ceviche along with a bacon topped cinnamon roll as big as my head.

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They thought they were being clever bringing out that cinnamon roll to fill me up. Obviously, they had never seen me eat.

Asian noodle salad with wasabi seared tuna and sesame ginger dressing:

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Crab Louie deviled eggs with pickled veges:

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Fried chicken with a little jalepeno cheddar cornbread waffle and maple syrup:

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Coffee crusted beef medallion with angel’s potatoes and herbed butter:

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Oysters on the half shell:

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Corn flake crusted French toast with cinnamon syrup:

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A cute little sour cream pancake with banana rum sauce and praline pecans:

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Rum and brown sugar roasted banana with sweet mascarpone and toasted pecans:

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Oh yes, and mimosas….so many mimosas!

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After brunch, we headed over to the Hemingway Rum Company to see if we could find Bahama Bob.

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We did not find Bob, but we did find this oddly smiley dog.

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En route to our end of Duval, Matt was distracted by a “2 for 1 Mojito” sign, so we popped into Willy T’s for a mojito and a little live music on the patio.

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While our friends enjoyed some down time, I talked Matt into walking next door to the bar at La Te Da for their Sunday afternoon Tea Dance by assuring him that there would be a “mixed crowd.”

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I did not tell him he would be the heterosexual male providing the mix.

Men, women, old, young….it was a colorful crowd dancing to old favorites by the La Te Da pool. Lasting from 4:00 – 6:30, the Tea Dance was situated perfectly between boozy brunch and a proper Sunday night dinner.

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After a day filled with mimosas, mojitos, and too much champagne by the La Te Da pool…it was time for some FOOD.

I have heard Key West maven TraceyG talk up Abbondanza’s spaghetti with meatballs to a degree that led me to believe she had to be grossly exaggerating or was getting a % paid for each meatball sold. No meatball could be THAT GOOD. So, I finally had to try them myself.

Dear sweet heavenly sphere of awesome. That little meatball packed more soul and goodness into a square inch than anything that tiny has a right to. It was supernaturally good.

That meatball changed my life.

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We all slept in the next morning and decided on a late breakfast at Blue Heaven. Touristy or not, Matt can’t get enough of their banana bread and BLT Bennies. I just like their weirdness and mismatched garage sale coffee cups.

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I think my 3rd grade teacher had this cup.

Not a cup like it...THIS cup.

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We worked off all the bread and potatoes with long bike ride through Key West’s quiet streets, one of my favorite things to do.

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Matt was in need of another oyster fix, so we headed to Pepe’s for oyster happy hour. Pepe's happy hour is my favorite with the breezy patio, house squeezed margaritas, and their own homemade chunky cocktail sauce.

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Then it was on to Half Shell for some fish lips, beer steamed shrimp, and smoked fish dip.

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It definitely hadn’t been a trip for sunsets, but it didn’t stop us from continuing to try. This was the best we were going to get.

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We ended the night with key lime pie and giant glasses of milk.

When your night in Key West ends with a big glass of milk….it’s probably time to go home.

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We had planned to leave around noon, but a quick moving snow system thought otherwise. Matt roused us all up at 5:00 a.m. and gave us 30 minutes to get packed. All I could say was, “Thank goodness all we drank last night was milk.”

This is the face of someone roused out of bed at zero dark thirty to leave paradise:

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And this is the face of someone who just left paradise and found herself in the snow a few hours later:

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Until next time! And where is next time? Why, sunny Guana Cay, of course! Stay warm, friends!

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Posted by vicki_h 11:48 Archived in USA Tagged key_west florida_keys duval_street conch_republic Comments (6)

FALLing into St. Michaels, MD

Ahhhh…..fall. A season filled with crisp cool air, blue skies, and colorful leaves. As the calendar slowly slid into autumn, I decided there was no better way to enjoy the beautiful fall weather than to plan an escape. The “been there, done that” nature of previous fall trips to the nearby mountains begged that I try something new.

Inexplicably, I found myself drawn to the coast. I had a vision of foggy mornings on a creaking wooden dock, sipping hot cider from an oversized mug, wearing a chunky sweater and plotting a day filled with blue crabs and sailboats.

Not wanting to fly too far, I set my sights on St. Michael’s, Maryland, a small town on the state’s Eastern Shore with a population just a smidge over 1,000. Located right along the craggy coastline, this quaint waterfront destination seemed like an idyllic waterfront retreat.

I knew it would be easy to talk Matt into it. All I had to do was tell him part of the movie Wedding Crashers, one of his favorites, was filmed there.

“HOLY SHIRTS AND PANTS” we were headed to Maryland!

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“CRAB CAKES AND FOOTBALL! THAT’S WHAT MARYLAND DOES!”

As we taxied down the runway at the Easton, MD airport, I had visions of crab cakes dancing in my head. The “crab-zilla” to be precise.

Sugar Buns Bakery was conveniently located in the FBO at the Easton Airport and is home to the King Crab of sandwiches….the crab-zilla. It’s piled high with a giant crab cake, 6 legs of crispy bacon, a slab of heirloom tomato, and fried onion rings on 2 thick pieces of Texas toast and finished off with olive “eyes.”

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Nothing says, “Welcome to Maryland” like a crab cake bigger than your head.

We checked into our delightful Air BNB rental. Located right on the water with its own dock and several acres, it was exactly what we were looking for.

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We quickly settled into some large Adirondack chairs to do nothing more than watch the ducks swim by.

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Before it got too dark, we decided to take the pontoon boat that came with the house out for a sunset spin.

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Not wanting to venture too far from home that first night, I had found a local place just down the street that served an oyster buffet on Friday nights. To Matt, the words “all you can eat oysters” has the same impact that “Louis Vuitton is giving away free purses” would sound to the average woman.

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He practically ran there.

Oysters…meh. I dove into the crispy fried chicken and mac n’cheese.

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For dessert, we had to try the famous Smith Island Cake, apparently found all over St. Michaels, but this was our first. The State Dessert of Maryland, a true Smith Island Cake has 8 – 14 individually baked thin layers of cake with frosting between each layer and then slathered generously on the outside.

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The cake hails from Smith Island, a 400 year old fishing village with only about 250 residents. It was there that the cake was born. In the 1800’s, when the men of the village would go on the annual autumn oyster harvest, their wives would bake the cakes to send with them as a reminder of their families and communities waiting for them at home. They began to use fudge in the layers rather than frosting, as it kept longer when they were out at sea.

Traditionally yellow cake with fudge frosting, there are many variations. We tried the red velvet. It was 9 layers of delicious.
After Matt had eaten his fill of oysters, we stopped off at the Inn at Perry Cabin for a drink at Purser’s Pub. The Inn was the location where the wedding in Wedding Crashers was filmed. Just seeing the grounds made me wish I was dancing to the YMCA in a bad bridesmaid dress.

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“RULE #1: NEVER LEAVE A FELLOW CRASHER BEHIND.”

It was a beautiful misty morning on the water, and Matt really wanted to simply curl up by the fire with a good book, but we weren’t having any of that.

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It was time to head into St. Michaels and do some shopping!

St. Michaels was small and quaint. It’s main thoroughfare, Talbot Street, was lined with colonial buildings turned into adorable shops. It was the height of their “Fall into St. Michaels” festival, so the place was bursting at the seams with colorful leaves, hay bales, corn husks, pie contests, and pumpkin carving.

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We sampled artisan olive oils, we sniffed home-made goats milk soap, we sifted through dusty antiques and ate ice cream.

We had been told by locals that The Crab Claw was a “must do.” Touristy, yes, but still a “must do.” So we did it.

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It was a beautiful sunny day and we were seated right on the water with their amazing margaritas and a bucket of crabs served with a side dish of Old Bay.

Now, I thought we had some weird sides in the south: hominy, polk salad, grits, squirrel dumplings, pickled eggs….but Old Bay? Apparently, people in Maryland put Old Bay on everything. Crabs? Needs more Old Bay. Pasta? Maybe let’s add some Old Bay. You know what this cupcake needs? OLD BAY!

I had my Old Bay. I had my newspaper. I had my bib. I had my hammer. I was ready. Bring on the crabs.

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I’m going to be honest here.

I didn’t get it.

Crab legs are one thing – sure, there is some work involved, but you get a giant meaty slab as a result. Better yet….a crab cake! Let someone else do all the work and then just mash that yumminess up into a patty for you.

But whole crabs.

I didn’t get it.

Why did I want to eat food that came with an extensive paper diagram explaining how to eat it?

And required the use of a hammer?

Yes, the meat was delicious, but I nearly died of starvation in the 754 minutes it took to get the meat out of ONE CRAB. And when I did get the meat out, my hands were SO DIRTY. And the meat was SO TINY.

The work-to-reward ratio seemed a little off to me. I spent 10 minutes digging into a recently deceased crustacean, all sharp armor and prickly legs, to achieve a disappointing pile of sweet inner meat. I got a thimble full of wine when I worked for a double magnum.

And my hands were stinky.

Don't you northerners every say another word to me about grits. Are they confusing? Sure. Do they make you wonder why you should eat them? Of course. But at least with grits, you can just pick up a spoon and start eating. And they don’t make your hands dirty.

I figured out quickly that eating blue crabs was more about socialization and less about actual food consumption. Sitting in the autumn sunshine, watching the boats cruise by, and leisurely picking the meat from a blue crab would have been amazing if I hadn’t been starving.

Notes for next time: Get bigger crabs; eat something else first; enjoy the experience rather than looking for the reward.

Next time, blue crabs….I’ll be ready for you.

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After lunch, we made a stop at Lyon Distilling Company, a micro craft distillery specializing in rum and whiskey.

Not only was the place lovely to look at, the rums were quite amazing. We particularly liked the Rock & Rum. To get this delightful creation, they infused their signature white rum with orange botanicals, blended the distillate with a candied-orange caramel, and finished it with dark cherries. It tasted like a rum old-fashioned in a bottle.

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We followed rum sampling with wine sampling at St. Michaels winery, because nothing is better after eating a teaspoon full of crab meat than drinking a whole lot.

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We made it back to the house in time for a breathtaking sunset.

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Then it was off to Ava’s for pizza.

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We were joined for dinner that night by local friends that we had never actually met.

It’s not uncommon these days to have “friends” you know only through common interests on the interwebs or that you met via other friends through social media.

This can lead to some awkward meetings where you end up in the same place at the same time and decide you MUST get together only to find out you have nothing in common and are pretty sure they are stalkers. It also leads to some epic friendships. Some of our best friends are people we met “virtually.”

I was really nervous. What if they turned out to be weirdos?

We should not have been worried about them being weirdos.

What I failed to realize was that WE were the weirdos.

One of us broke a wine glass all over their feet within 5 minutes of meeting them (Matt), one of us fell face first out of their truck and landed sprawled like road kill on the street with ripped pants (me), and one of us spent most of dinner in the bathroom (who this was shall remain anonymous to preserve someone’s already shattered dignity).

Despite making a colossally horrific first impression, we hit it off.

I love it when “virtual friends” become “real friends.”

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“UM…BUT STARBOARD’S THIS WAY.”

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With another crisp fall day in our hands, we decided to drive to nearby Tilghman Island for a ride on a historic skipjack, the Rebecca T. Ruark.

Tilghman is a tiny speck of an island in the Choptank River in the Chesapeake Bay. Just 3 miles long and a mile wide, its location in the bay allowed fisherman to work the water year round since the 1830’s.

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Built in 1886, the Rebecca T. Ruark is the oldest surviving skipjack in the Chesapeake Bay fleet. Her captain, Wade Murphy, will take you out on her for a 2 hour no-frills tour filled with stories of the island, the bay, and the boat.

Rebecca has dredged, hauled, raced, sank, been raised, been repaired, restored, rebuilt, and rebuilt, and rebuilt again. She has many tales to tell.

As we climbed aboard, I wasn’t sure who was crustier, the boat or the captain. Both were salty, weather-worn, and absolutely wonderful. Cpt. Wade made it instantly clear that there “Warn’t no drinks or food on this trip” and if that was a problem, we should just head back to our cars and go on a fancy sail.

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Cpt. Wade’s face was a maze of hard earned lines. He had one squinty eye and a gruff voice. His hands were like leather, no doubt from years of hauling up oysters in the frigid bay. He told us right off that he couldn’t hear a thing, so we should listen more than we talked.

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And boy, did he talk. As we settled into cracked plastic deck chairs, he pulled out a stack of faded notebooks. Each one was filled with clippings and photos. He proceeded to tell us about his island, his life as a 3rd generation waterman, and about his boat. While he liked to pretend he was a crusty character, he had a smile in his eyes and he literally glowed as he told us his stories.

I couldn’t imagine a better way to spend $30 or 2 hours.

They just don’t make them like the Rebecca T. Ruark anymore. Or like Cpt. Wade.

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It had been a beautiful morning to be on the water and all that oyster talk had made us hungry. We made our way across the tiny island to Marker 5, a lovely waterfront restaurant with a breezy deck facing the water.

Mid-day cocktails were ordered along with BBQ nachos, beer shrimp (with OLD BAY!), and a rich bowl of Maryland crab soup.

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Before leaving, we made a quick tour of Tilghman Island and the Country Store.

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We got home in time to spend a lazy afternoon staring at the water and taking the boat out for a sunset cruise.

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Dinner was a Gina’s, a kitchy little Southwest restaurant in town. It exuded a wonderfully bohemian vibe complete with string lights, original artwork, handpainted signs on the tables, mismatched tableware, and a case filled with old books. So, it really didn’t surprise us when we realized there was no “meat” on the menu. No strictly vegetarian, there was plenty of fish and seafood which was perfectly fine with us.

The margaritas were spectacular and the crab nachos were gargantuan. The shrimp tacos were loaded with spinach, goat cheese, mango salsa, and chipotle mayo.

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We never missed the beef.

“MAKE ME A BICYCLE, CLOWN.”

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Our original plans for the day were to rent bicycles and ride to the Oxford ferry. However, once I Googled the route and figured out much of the ride was on a busy 2 lane highway with no bike lane, I quickly changed my mind.

Vicki + Bicycle + Traffic = Unavoidable Catastrophe.

Instead, we made a hearty breakfast and drove to the ferry.

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Sure, we could have driven to Oxford, but what was the fun in that? We still wanted to ride the ferry across.

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Oxford was everything a coastal Maryland town should be. It was all picket fences, red front doors, and American flags. Brick walkways were scattered with pumpkins and colorful leaves, and the streets took us through colonial houses and cute little shops.

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We were devastated to find that the Scottish Highland Creamery was already closed for the season. Okay, maybe the others were just slightly disappointed, but I was devastated.

Instead, we settled into the courtyard at the Robert Morris Inn. Built in 1710, it claims to be the oldest inn in America.

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After a lunch of more crab cakes and crisp rose, it was time to jump back on the ferry.

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We had an afternoon sunset sail scheduled on the Selina II. We got the sail, just not the sunset.

No matter, there was enough bubbly to make up for it.

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Captain Iris was a very accomplished sailor, despite the fact that she looked like the love child of Sigourney Weaver and Bethany Frankel.

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We ended the evening at the St. Michaels Crab & Steak House at the recommendation of Captain Iris. We had been crabcaked to death and needed some fried seafood.

Casual and cozy, with perfect coconut fried shrimp, it was just the thing to follow a non-sunset sail.

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“MA …THE MEATLOAF!”

It was time to head home, but not without some beef to offset all that crab.

The house-cut fries and thick cheeseburgers at Sugar Buns was a perfect send off.

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Especially when followed by a slab of Smith Island Cake.

Rule #64 – Always save room for cake.

Posted by vicki_h 12:51 Archived in USA Tagged fall coastal maryland chesapeake md st._michaels Comments (2)

Over the Mountains and Through the Woods: Part II

Back to Glacier National Park

WHAT DOESN’T KILL YOU MAKES YOU STRONGER. OKAY, SOMETIMES IT KILLS YOU.

We started the day with oversized omelets and stuffed French toast at the Whistestop Restaurant.

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Okay, I know what you are thinking. This trip has been really boring so far. French toast? Cute restaurants?

Where is the excitement? Where is the adventure? Where are the inevitable mishaps that lead to events like nearly crapping in a shopkeeper’s basket in the crowded streets of Oia, Greece or finding oneself trapped at the end of a long dead-end alley in the slums of Rome? Where is the catastrophic food poisoning on the way home from Honduras?

Apparently, I had saved it all up for one glorious disaster.

An epic fail.

And it was called the Firebrand Pass Trail.

On every trip, I like to do some hikes we’ve never done. The Siyeh Pass hike had been new, but that had been a day hike. I needed a new overnight trip to notch into my hiking belt.

I had settled on the Firebrand Pass hike, a 9 mile journey to a remote backcountry campground with some serious uphill and downhill to tackle along the way.

Our first hint that maybe I hadn’t done enough research was at the trailhead.

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Steve and Al pulled up to the railroad tracks in The Middle of Nowhere, MT and looked at us dubiously as we pulled our packs out of the vehicle and strapped them on.

The location was so unremarkable and poorly designated that we drove past it three times before we finally pulled over and decided this must be it.
“Are you SURE?” she asked. “This doesn’t look like a trail head. There aren’t any signs.”

Matt and I looked across the tracks at a rickety old fence with a paper sign on it and no sign of a trail.

“I’m sure,” I said, waving them off like this was all part of the plan, although I was sweating bullets on the inside. This looked like a place to get lost and poop yourself to death after becoming paralyzed from eating poisonous berries, not a place to hike into the backcountry toward an awesome night at an amazing campground.

“You guys go on and have fun, we’ll see you tomorrow,” I said with more confidence than I actually possessed.

Why had I picked this hike again?

Information on this hike had been hard to come by. It was located in a remote area, far from all of the other trails. It didn’t seem very popular. Yet I had read descriptions of “outstanding views,” “a hike to escape the crowds,” “lightly trafficked,” “a long way away from civilizations,” and “hiking in extraordinary isolated seclusion.”

I was drawn to the Firebrand Pass hike by its promise of beauty and solitude, the two things Matt and I crave most on a backcountry hike. Now I was starting to wonder if I had made a mistake and simply put us on a dirt trail in the middle of nowhere on the way toward nothing.

Because this hike was far outside the “typical” boundaries of the park for most visitors, it doesn’t get much traffic despite its epic scenery. It also requires a steep 2100 foot ascent to the pass, which can experience wind gusts up to 50 mph. Then there is the matter of a heavy pack required if one intends to make one’s way all the way to the lake to camp overnight.

But none of those are the real reason most visitors skip the hike beyond the pass to go all the way back to Ole Lake.

It’s the descent from Firebrand Pass to the lake that gets them. Apparently, not many people are interested in a steep, 2680 foot descent in just a couple of miles on a narrow ridge trail comprised completely of ankle deep, loose scree.

I knew this going in, but felt Matt and I were up to the challenge.

I really should have read the fine print.

The hike started off fine. The first few miles were very pleasant, passing through valleys, meadows, fields of late season wildflowers, and traversing aspen groves. A little way in, we found the sign so we knew we were headed the right way.

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The day was overcast, which kept the heat at bay, which was nice because most of the hike afforded very little shade.

As the trail started to ascend, we passed 2 of the only 3 people we would see on this hike. They were coming toward us, headed out, as they had only hiked as far as the pass early that morning and turned around.

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It was two 50-something women on a day hike and they stopped to ask us a strange favor.

Apparently, they had passed a very young woman, hiking alone, with no gear, no water, only a dirty jacket and a book in her hands. As Firebrand Pass is a long hike with no water sources, this struck them as odd. She handed them her phone and asked them to take her photo. As they passed her, they became increasingly worried about her lack of proper clothing and water.

We promised to watch for her if we passed her along our route. Surely she wasn’t headed all the way to the campground.

Odd.

Who hikes alone on a remote trail with no water and a book?

We continued on and at a little over 4 miles we reached the basin below Firebrand Pass. The views were stunning. We could see the route to the pass above and took a moment to enjoy the scenery before heading up.

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It was here that we encountered the young woman, about 18 years old by my best guess. She was out of shape and inappropriately dressed. She was indeed hiking alone with no pack, no food, and no water. She carried a filthy puffer jacket in one hand and a ratty paperback in the other.

WTH???

We had only a moment to make a tough decision. We still had a 1.5 mile steep climb to the pass in the August heat followed by about 4 miles of steep descent before reaching the lake. There were no water sources that we knew of before reaching the lake, so the only water we had were the 2 bottles that we had in our pack….bottles we had counted on having with us until we reached the lake. One was full and one wasn’t.

And there was this young woman, so ill prepared with absolutely no business being out here.

We gave her the full bottle.

I could only hope that God would reward me for my giving spirit by not letting me die of dehydration before finding more water.

I still wonder if she made it out okay and what her story was. In my dream, she met up with Mister Fabulous on her way out and he threw her dirty jacket aside, wrapped her in his billowy scarf, and they hiked off into the sunset, taking selfies and drinking my water.

We will never know.

It was time to make the long slog up to the pass.

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When we finally reached the top, we only paused for a second. The wind was so fierce it was hard to stand upright. All we could do was immediately start the hike down the other side.

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Which turned out to be absolutely HORRIFIC.

I don’t consider myself a wimp. I’m no sissy. I have slept in the snow with wet feet, hiked 7 miles down a rugged mountain face in flip flops because my heels were too blistered for boots, pushed a golf cart out of the sand with my bare hands because it was stuck and I was alone with my girlfriend who wasn’t any stronger than I was, and spent several days on a deserted island in nothing more than a glorified tent.

I can endure a certain amount of adversity.

That scree slope, however, was my undoing.

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First, it was crazy steep. That’s bad enough if you have firm ground beneath you, as opposed to loose gravel so deep it’s like walking in quicksand. Second, the trail was narrow and dropped off on one side. One misplaced step and you’d fall off the edge and plunge several hundred feet below. Third, a trail in loose scree is hard to see. There were countless animal trails that crisscrossed the mountain going every which way and, at times, I wasn’t even sure which trail was THE trial.

And it went on FOREVER.

And FOREVER.

It was like a small planet. A planet filled with nothing but loose, shifting rock. It was certain death.

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I WAS SCARED, PEOPLE? OKAY?

And then I fell.

Oh, dear sweet baby Jesus in a manger, I FELL.

My feet literally slid straight out from under me, like I was trying to walk down a slope of ice or snow, rather than gravel. I landed on my butt and slid for what felt like an eternity, but that was probably about 1.6 seconds in reality, and managed to grab onto a small branch to stop my descent.

I was so shaken up by this point that I took itty bitty baby steps the rest of the way down.

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By the time we reached the bottom, my legs were a quivering pile of overcooked spaghetti and my nerves were shot.

Certainly that had to be the worst of it, no?

No.

We started trudging through the woods.

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We trudged.

And we trudged.

It was supposed to be a mile to the lake but we walked well over a mile and still found ourselves deep in the woods.

It was getting late. I had jelly legs And I was pretty sure we were lost.

We stopped to pull out the map and, as best we could tell, we were still on the right trail, but it was much farther to the lake than the map showed.

We had no choice but to keep walking.

We walked.

And walked.

And walked.

We were seriously contemplating simply pitching our tent in the woods and turning around to go back the way we had come the next morning when the trees broke and I saw the lake.

And then the sign for the campground.

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I nearly cried.

I was so relieved. The day was over. We had a couple of hours of daylight left to enjoy the lake, have a nice camp dinner, and cozy into our tent for the night.

My sigh of relief might have been premature.

As we unloaded our backpacks onto the dirt, we realized one significant item was conspicuously missing.

I hadn’t packed the tent.

We literally stood there in silence and stared, as though we could force the tent to materialize before us. Just maybe, if I stared at that bag of beef jerky long enough, it would become a tent.

On every trip with me, there is at least one moment that earns Matt yet another gold star in his “He Didn’t Kill Her Yet” book.

As Matt simply shook his head in disbelief, I spoke up, “At least I packed the fly.” I shrugged. I was struggling to find something that would make this horrible situation less horrible.

See, there is the tent, your wonderful enclosed capsule of nylon that separates you from the “outside.” Then, there is the fly, a thick cover that spreads over the top and sides of the tent in inclement weather conditions.

Do not make the mistake of thinking the fly is in any way an actual tent. It is essentially a domed tarp.

I had also managed to bring the tent poles and stakes. Just not the ACTUAL TENT.

“Isn’t this the point of camping?” I asked, “Adventure?”

Matt ignored me as he stared at the tent poles, a bag of clothes pins, some rope and a tarp and tried to figure out how to make them into a proper shelter.

Our first attempt was an utter failure.

It stood for a few minutes before starting to deflate, like a sad little balloon, until it was nothing more than a pile of blue and yellow plastic on the ground.

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That’s when Matt figured out that there were loops inside the fly and hooks on the ends that would actually hold the tent poles. What he constructed was a giant shell with no floor that we tied down with rope.

It would have to do.

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While it allowed us to feel like we had shelter, the reality was that it would not keep us warm and that anything with 4 legs ….or eight….or NONE….could scamper, crawl, or slither inside during the night.

At least we were alone at the campground that night. It was a small victory that our calamity could remain a private shame.

The other positive was that the forecast didn’t call for rain.

Now THAT would be a calamity!

We spent the evening enjoying the solitude of the small lake, having a simple dinner, and drinking enough wine to ensure we wouldn’t even know we were sleeping in the open woods without a tent.

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Sure, to many this toilet simply screams, “Hell no,” but when you have just hiked for 10 hours without a bathroom break while consuming approximately 3 months’ worth of water, this is practically heaven. An actual TOILET in the woods is a miracle. It eliminates the problems of the butt hover or the half-squat, both of which are completely ineffective at avoiding getting pee into your pants which will be around your ankles unless you take the time to remove your boots and take your pants completely off, which you won’t BECAUSE YOU’RE ON A TRAIL IN THE WOODS. Even better, there is a spectacular view and actual toilet paper (provided you remembered to put it in your pocket).

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Granted, there is the lack of privacy to deal with. You never know who is going to be watching.

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And, thoughtful as it was, this toilet brush seemed quite pointless.

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Finally, the sun dipped behind the mountains, leaving behind a glowing sky that would quickly turn to pitch black.

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It was time to head to our “tent.”

We had barely placed our heads on our pillows when I heard something LARGE moving around in the woods, just feet away. Maybe it was just that deer. But what if it wasn’t???

We both shouted and flipped on our flashlights, only to hear whatever it was moving away in the darkness.

And that’s when the storm started.

Bolts of electricity from the sky immediately replaced bears in the dark as the scariest thing in Montana.

When referring to “things that pucker your butthole”, the fury of Zeus takes a big poop all over the lowly bear.

We could hear the wind blowing the trees above us harshly, as the thunder cracked and lightning bolted through the sky.

“Really??” I said to Matt, “After everything else today….THIS??? Really???”

“It will be fine,” Matt said, “As long as the wind doesn’t blow our tarp away.”

I immediately reminded him that we were far more likely to die by lightning strike than by being attacked by a bear.

According to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's website, YOU ARE NOT SAFE ANYWHERE OUTSIDE DURING A THUNDERSTORM. Being under a tarp on the dirt does not qualify as being inside.

We held onto the edges of our tarp and suffered through the night.

SPAM: THE OTHER WHITE RED PINK MEAT.

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Weary, we decamped and had a breakfast of cheese grits and Spam. Perhaps a breakfast made from a giant vat of whipped pig that has been pummeled and poured into an inorganic geometric shape seems unappetizing, and just a little creepy, but after our long night, being alive and eating Spam seemed amazing.

It had been, of course, a miserable way to spend the night, but when we had some time to dry out (and eat some mysteriously cubed meat), we couldn’t stop laughing.

The truth is, it’s not the pleasant nights we spend under the stars that we remember for years to come. Instead, we’ll reminisce about that time we almost died under a tarp in the woods during a thunderstorm. Sure, it’s miserable and hateful while it’s happening, but it’s legendary when it’s over. It’s the experience that sticks with you. Getting lost, getting cold, getting hungry, getting wet, getting scared, and coming out on top; that’s the stuff that makes life worth living.

That’s the stuff we’ll remember.

I’d like to say that, once the night was over, the worst had passed.

In the past 12 hours, I had feared death by falling off a mountain, death by random bear, and death by lightning.

But they were not the worst of it.

In reality, my most terrifying, life-threatening, wildlife event turned out to be the hike back up the scree slope to Firebrand Pass.

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I realized I shouldn’t have worried about bears and sleeping in the open during a thunderstorm. I should have been worried about that piece of pie I ate and trying to haul it along with a stuffed French toast belly and that extra glass of wine up a steep gravel slope. It wasn’t a bear encounter that was going to kill me.

No, I was going to die by sliding painfully down a mountain of gravel into a tree that was waiting 400 feet below me.

All because I ate that extra pancake.

I literally did a death march up the mountain, bent at a 90 degree angle, hands on my thighs, backpack parallel to the ground like a turtle shell, pausing every 90 seconds to gasp for breath, curse, and cry.

Periodically, I would simply stand and groan loudly, so much so that Matt said I sounded like an elephant giving birth. Matt ,naturally, was practically dancing up the mountain.

For the first stretch, I was cranky. By the middle, I was wretched. Before we reached the top, I wanted to punch Matt in the nose. I probably would have if I could have caught up to him.

The word “miserable” took on a whole new meaning for me. This was not the Firebrand Pass trail, it was the Mount Misery trail. The only reason I didn’t cry is because I couldn’t get enough oxygen.

I should have stayed at home, binge-watching the Real Housewives of Orange County in my sweat pants with my dogs.

I consumed more water on the way up that mountain than I have the rest of this calendar year. Sad, but true.

Somehow, by a combination of stubbornness, the grace of God, and guttural screaming, I made it to the top.

I would have stopped to revel in it, but couldn’t for fear of being blown back down by the 50 mph winds.

We made our way through the golden fields back toward the trailhead.

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Yes - even in the wilderness, Matt checks his cell phone.

He was probably sending a message to Steve and Al to bring the car fortified with alcohol and painkillers.

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I’m sure Steve and Al were surprised to see us climb out of the woods intact. After dropping us off, I am pretty sure they expected to come back to find us dismembered beside the tracks, everything stolen except our packet of Spam.

And you know you have great friends when they immediately open the back of the SUV to pull out cups, champagne, and OJ.

God bless ‘em.

Friends show up to give you a ride from the trailhead. Real friends show up with mimosas.

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They had no idea how much I needed it.

We made a short drive and stopped at Johnson’s KOA for a hearty lunch. The mile high huckleberry ice cream pie was amazing.

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As we started our drive back across the park, we noticed that, in just the few days we had been here, the smoke had grown so thick that if we hadn’t been many times before, we wouldn’t have known any of the magnificent peaks were even there.

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It was about that time that I received a phone call from the Lake McDonald Lodge to tell us that they were closing due to the fire.

Understand that they are only a few lodges in the park with limited rooms. We had booked almost a year in advance to even have rooms. Now, we had to find rooms for THAT NIGHT? Impossible.

As luck would have it, the Village Inn at Apgar had a cancellation.

For one room.

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While it wasn’t exactly the 2 deluxe queen cabins that we had reserved at Lake McDonald, it was the only room left in a 60 mile radius and we took it. Besides, it was a definite step up from the previous night.

We spent a beautiful, if slightly hazy, night on the shores of Lake McDonald at the Village Inn with a spectacular dinner at Belton Chalet.

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Steamed PEI mussels with verde chorizo broth, burrata and heirloom tomato salad, spicy bisque, rich porcini and ricotta mac and cheese with bacon, and bison meatloaf followed by a delightful little jar of banana pudding.

It was almost good enough to make us forget about the awkward sleeping arrangements.

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GONE FISHING

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We enjoyed the sunrise at Lake McDonald followed by a fat loaded breakfast at Eddie’s of Apgar.

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The guys really wanted to do some fly fishing, and we were all exhausted, so instead of hiking up a mountain, we did nothing more than hike the shores of the Flathead River.

It was a beautiful day to do a whole lot of nothing.

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Fishing was a hardship for Al and I, but we endured somehow.

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I am happy to report that no life threatening events occurred that day.

Our final night in the park was at Belton Chalet. I love the vintage rustic rooms. It’s like stepping back to a gentler, quieter time.

A time without tents and Spam.

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We cleaned up and made the long drive down a mostly dirt road through miles and miles of nothing to have dinner at the Northern Lights Saloon in Polebridge.

Polebridge is an electricity-free community cradled between the Continental Divide and Whitefish Mountain Range. It’s 27 miles from the entrance at West Glacier, with 13 of those miles on dirt road. Made up of a handful of houses, cabins, a hostel and a few small ranches along the North Fork Road, Polebridge is mostly made up of rustic locals and a scattering of hardy visitors. The hub of the area is the historic Polebridge Mercantile (the Merc) and the Northern Lights Saloon—both powered by generators. It’s a haven for hippies and random dogs, and isthe best place to find freshly baked pastries as big as your head.

I can’t come to GNP without making the long, arduous trip to Polebridge.

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You know that dream you have about living way out in the woods? You have that dream, right? Don’t we all have that dream?

Every time I drive out to Polebridge, the dream is alive. In it, I live in a cozy farmhouse where all of the furniture is made out of logs and planks that look like they were wrenched off the side of an old barn. I grow my own food and even MAKE PIE CRUST FROM SCRATCH. I wear flannel shirts and have a golden retriever. In it, I raise fat chickens and goats, even though my parents live on a farm and have that stuff and I know better because that shizz requires a lot of hard work and is full of perpetual animal poop. But in my dream, the animals are self-feeding and cleaning and simply look cuddly and give me eggs and cheese.

Polebridge can do that to you. You can see yourself getting “off the grid” and living in simplicity with a 3 legged dog and a wood burning stove, making your own clothing out of hemp and brewing beer on your back porch.

It’s deliciously authentic.

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Speaking of delicious, it was pizza night at the saloon.

Yes, please.

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And I’ll have a piece of pie with a blue eyed cat on the side.

A huckleberry bear claw to go? Why not?

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SHOPPING: FISHING FOR GIRLS, EXCEPT THAT WE ACTUALLY COME HOME WITH THINGS.

It was our day to leave the park, but it was good timing, as the Sprague Fire had grown in the past couple of days, covering much of the park in a thick haze and forcing several early closures.

We were heartbroken to hear that the historic Sperry Chalet, a hike-in only lodge high in the mountains above Lake McDonald that we had visited many times, had been lost to the fire the night before.

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The guys has a fishing trip planned and Al and I had a date with some shopping in Whitefish, so we fueled up at Montana Coffee Traders before going our separate ways.

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Whitefish is the quintessential mountain town, replete with rough-hewn logs, fur throws, and lots of plaid things. We managed to do some credit card damage before the guys called to be picked up.

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We grabbed lunch at Backslope Brewing before heading in for the afternoon to tackle the laborious task of taking an SUV full of dirty clothes and camping gear and trying to fit it into a few suitcases.

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It literally took all afternoon and involved an inordinate amount of swearing.

Finally finished, we rewarded our hard work with cocktails in the rustic bar of the Tamarack Lodge.

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Because this only whetted our appetite for small glasses filled with brown liquid, we made a trip to the Glacier Distilling Company before dinner. Glacier Distilling is a locally owned, small batch distillery where all of the spirits are hand crafted and hand bottled in their adorable red Whiskey Barn.

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Then it was time for dinner. I was super excited.

While I was planning our trip, I ran across an article titled, “The Most Romantic Restaurants in Every State.” Montana’s Whitefish Lake Restaurant was listed and we were staying only a short drive down the road.

Built in 1936, the 75 year old restaurant is considered by many to be the best in the Flathead Valley. Housed in an original tamarack log building with cathedral ceilings and fireplaces, it promised to be as romantic as it was delicious.

Not that we would ever know.

I Google Mapped us to the Lodge at Whitefish Lake, where we promptly entered the restaurant and provided the name for our reservation.

The hostess gave us an odd look, but showed us to a table immediately.

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The room was sleek and stylish and had a spectacular view of the lake, but it didn’t exude the historic atmosphere that I had expected. No matter, the menu looked amazing and the place smelled divine.

We dove enthusiastically into the duck nachos and ordered a bottle of red wine.

Everything was delicious. Maybe not quite as romantic as I expected, but the sunset view over the lake was a nice touch.

It was about halfway through my crispy fried quail over butternut squash and fingerling potatoes that I got the phone call.

From the Whitefish Lake Restaurant.

Asking me where I was.

“I’m here,” I said, stupidly.

“You’re where, exactly?” the gentleman on the phone asked.

“At the restaurant. At the Lodge. On Whitefish Lake.”

He sighed. “We aren’t on Whitefish Lake. You are at the Boathouse. No worries. It happens all the time.”

We were at the wrong restaurant.

Sometimes, even I am amazed at how stupid I am.

In my defense….who names their restaurant the Whitefish Lake Restaurant when there is only ONE restaurant on Whitefish Lake and YOU ARE NOT IT?????

Apparently, the Whitefish Lake Restaurant is not on Whitefish Lake, but is at the Whitefish Lake Golf Club, in which case it should have been named the Whitefish Golf Club Restaurant.

So close to eating at the most romantic restaurant, but….NO.

As we dove into the giant slab of huckleberry cheesecake, we felt we had made a good mistake.

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There was nothing left to do but catch a few hours of sleep before our 3:00 a.m. wake up call to head to the airport.

We were dusty and tired. We had blisters and back pain. I love the backcountry and leaving the wilderness, with all its untouched and pristine beauty, is hard every time. It’s a vacation that is intensely challenging at times and it isn’t always comfortable, but being alone with your thoughts, being alone with your spouse, and being one with the big wide world is indescribable. You solve all of the world’s problems on a dirt trail. You come out a new person. A better person.

The Sprague Fire that burned while we were there ended up burning about 18,000 acres of the park. As a lightning fire (SEE HOW DANGEROUS LIGHTNING IS????) I realize that it is simply part of nature’s cycle and it must happen, but it is still a devastating loss to someone that visits the park to see that natural beauty.

As much as we love it, we’ll probably look to new mountains for our future adventures. In addition to the ravaged landscape, the popularity of the park has exploded. When we first visited, annual visitation was about 1.6 million people. While that sounds like a lot, the park felt vast and empty when we were there. Now, with over 3.2 million visitors per year, it’s just too crowded for us.

I think we plan to step away for a while and let her heal. In the meantime, there are new mountains to climb, new trails to conquer, new tents to forget.

“And into the forest we’ll go, to lose our minds and find our souls.”

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Posted by vicki_h 06:59 Archived in USA Tagged hiking camping national_park montana glacier_national_park kalispell Comments (6)

Over the Mountains and Through the Woods: Part I

Back to Glacier National Park

When we are in the mountains of Montana, we forget to count the days. Nothing exists but the crunch of the trail beneath our boots, the fresh air that smells of pine and wildflowers, and the big blue sky that stretches endlessly above us. We forget about alarm clocks and schedules. We go to the mountains to fill our spirits with good things. We come home refreshed.

Going to Montana feels like going home. I can’t explain it, other than to say that I feel like I am my best self when I am there. I feel the most complete and at peace. As much as I love my island home in the Bahamas, my heart truly lives in the mountains of Montana.

In Montana, I feel wild and free.

It was time to go over the mountains and through the woods.

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ARE WE THERE YET?

A series of airline mishaps got us to GNP in the dark, rather than our original noon arrival time. We did nothing more than crash in our simple cabin at the Apgar Village Lodge when we arrived. It was not the day we had planned. We went to bed grumpy and frustrated, having missed out on a half day of our plans.

We did enjoy a beautiful evening at Lake McDonald, however. We just caught the dying rays of the sun. We spent the night in a simple cabin. Accommodations in the park are pretty basic, but we can't help but love them in all their terrible simplicity.

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When we woke up the next morning on the shores of Lake McDonald, all was forgiven.

This place had a magic that soothed the soul. As we gazed across the water at a spectacular sunrise, we simply felt blessed to be in this place.

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We had a quick breakfast in our cabin on our circa 1951 yellow formica table, sipping coffee from our brown diner mugs, and contemplated our day.

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Losing our leisurely entry day meant we had to hit the ground running. No lolling around looking at the scenery to get acclimated. We were hitting it hard with the demanding Siyeh Pass Loop hike. Not truly a loop, the hike would take us 11 miles, ending about a mile from where we began, requiring a shuttle ride back to where we started. In addition to the stunning views, we’d get to enjoy 2300 feet of elevation gain, one reason why this hike was considered one of the more strenuous hikes in the park.

We were worried that the nearby Sprague Fire, which had been sparked by lightning about 2 weeks before our arrival in the park, would create too much haze and smoke to enjoy the hike. The fire had already grown to 1500 acres. However, we were pleasantly surprised to find that there was very little smoke at all. It was a beautiful day for a hike!

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And what a hike it was. Considered one of the most scenic day hikes in the park, it didn’t disappoint. Despite the fact that it was labeled “strenuous,” it really didn’t seem that bad at all. A walk in the park, really.

The trail meandered along Siyeh Creek for a short distance before turning sharply into the forest.

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After a long series of moderately inclined switchbacks, we reached a flat area called “Preston Park,” a glacially carved valley filled with soft meadows and what remained of the season’s wildflowers. Each meadow became larger as we approached Siyeh Pass.

We were surrounded by giants. Matahpi Peak, Piegan Mountain, and Heavy Runner Mountain towered above us as we made our way through the sunny meadows.

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After several miles of meadow, we crossed Siyeh Creek. The views were outstanding.

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It was then that my least favorite part of any hike began, climbing to the pass. We had about 1.5 miles of steep climbing to reach Siyeh Pass.

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As we made our way up the endless switchbacks, I really didn’t think it was all that grueling, considering the descriptions of the hike I had read: “significantly challenging,” “really difficult hike,” “bring plenty of water and strong knees,” “very steep scree slope.” I could see the summit and it wasn’t that far away.

When I reached it, I realized why it didn’t seem that bad. It was a false summit. We had only just gotten started. From there, the trail rose steeply upward for what seemed an eternity.

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With every new switchback, I became more certain I should have just stayed at the motel for the day and watched daytime TV in my pajamas, eating vending machine chips.

Unfortunately, I was 5 miles from anywhere in either direction. Fueled by determination (and a strong desire for the Italian Hoagie wedged deeply in Matt's backpack), we powered up the mountain.

The views at the top were …..just…..magnificent.

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Unfortunately, what goes up must come down and I generally find going steeply downhill more painful than going up. Thankfully, we were distracted from the steep trek downward by big horn sheep scattered on either side of the trail and views to forever.

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When we finally got low enough to be out of the wind and were able to find a spot that wasn’t so steep we’d surely slide to our deaths if we stopped moving, we sat down for lunch.

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From this point, it was a long hike through Sunrift Gorge back to the Going to the Sun Road where we would shuttle back to the car and meet our friends as they finished up their Highline Trail hike. The high point of the afternoon was finding a pool of ice cold water we could soak our aching feet in.

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As we neared the bottom, we noticed the thickening haze from the wildfires. The afternoon winds had blown the smoke our way. Thankfully, we were “out of the woods” and headed to Many Glacier Hotel, where we could grab some showers, some dinner, and rest our weary feet.

Many Glacier is a beautiful historic property on the shore of Swiftcurrent Lake. One of my favorite moments on any trip to GNP is sitting on the expansive deck in an oversized Adirondack chair, a drink in my hand, reliving the best moments of the day as the sun sets behind Mount Grinnell.

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Sunset gazing was followed by dinner at the best steakhouse in northwest Montana. The Cattle Baron supper club looks like a total dive from the outside, complete with a parking lot full of pick-up trucks and more than its share of neon beer signs adorning the windows. Once you walk inside, you are transported, greeted by gleaming wood, white tablecloths, and candlelight. It’s filled with everything a fancy Montana steakhouse should have: giant wagon wheels, barstools made out of whiskey barrels, antler chandeliers, and Indian headdresses. What’s not to love?

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And the steaks? Prehistoric.

And so fresh you might drive past tomorrow night’s meal on the way home.

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GUESS WHO CAME TO DINNER?

It’s hard to beat waking up at Many Glacier Hotel, grabbing a cup of coffee, and watching the sun come up. Sure, the coffee isn’t very good and it’s terribly overpriced, but …that view.

Sunrise over Swiftcurrent Lake is majestic.

The sun crawls slowly over the edges of the mountains, first red, then gold, and the water is still as glass, turning every beautiful image into a double vision.

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Afterward, we headed a mile down the road to the Swiftcurrent Motel where we grabbed a hearty breakfast at Nell’s.

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This was also where Matt and I needed to pick up our backcountry pass. Oh yes. We were doing it again. We would be hiking into the backcountry and camping overnight.

So I got 3 pancakes instead of 2.

And I stuffed a few packets of jelly into my pocket.

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We did the Cracker Lake hike on our very first trip to Glacier National Park and I was awestruck by the turquoise lake hidden far back in a cirque of mountains. It has always remained my very favorite hike.

While we had returned to do the hike several more times on subsequent trips, we had never obtained a camping permit to spend the night there. This time, I had managed to secure an advanced reservation for one of the 3 coveted tent sites at Cracker Lake for the night.

This broke the 12 mile hike into 2 days. Only 6 miles of hiking in a day was practically leisurely compared to the Siyeh Pass hike, even though I would have a full pack on my back. Steve and Al would hike in with us, but would hike back out on their own while we set up camp to stay for the night. We’d rejoin them the next day back at the Many Glacier Hotel.

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The hike back to Cracker Lake started with a trek high around the edge of Cracker Flats. I always look for bears here. It just seems like a place they would be. If I was a bear, I’d definitely be down there.

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"No, I am not easily distracted...oooooo.....is that a bird?"

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The trail then entered the forest where it climbed endless switchbacks up and up and up for what literally seems like an eternity. Even though I had hiked this trail at least 5 times before, I didn’t remember it being this difficult. Oh yes, the backpack. There’s a really big difference between walking somewhere and walking somewhere with a bag the size of a small European country on your back.

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Around mile 5, the trail broke out of the forest into a canyon. We still couldn’t see the lake, and the trail wound around and around, over one hill after another, never actually getting to the lake. We were certain at each rise that we’d see the lake on the other side.

The anticipation was maddening.

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Just before mile 6, we reached the top of a hill and the lake came into view in all its cerulean splendor.

The color of the lake is the result of “glacial flour," fine rock particles from the glacier grinding on the mountains above” suspended in the water, reflecting the light.

It was simply breathtaking.

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We spread out on a warm rock for lunch, soaking in the sunshine like a bunch of lizards, and feeling too lazy to move.

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That’s when Mister Fabulous arrived.

In all my days of hiking in the backcountry, I have never seen anything like him.

A young man in hiking attire that was far too fancy to be practical strolled up to our spot and made it clear that we were exactly where he intended to be. He was alone and carried a billowy white scarf (what the???) and a camera with a selfie stick. Despite our obviously invasive presence, he proceeded to flutter around the meadow photographing himself with his scarf in a dramatic fashion, all while shooting daggers at us with his eyes because our hiking and becoming one with nature was apparently interfering with his Instagram photo shoot.

He was starring in his own movie, and we were bad extras.

I did my personal best to ensure a Cheez-It ended up in the background of every shot.

With lunch over and Mister Fabulous hallway back to the Many Glacier Hotel with his billowy white scarf, it was time for Steve and Alison to hit the trail back while Matt and I finished the last mile to the campground and set up camp for the night.

I was giddy. I had never gone past the overlook point on the trail. For all the times I had been to Cracker Lake, I had never actually been TO Cracker Lake.

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The trail took us to a hill overlooking the lake where we found 3 tent sites, each as spectacular as the other. We chose the one that seemed to offer the most privacy from the other two and set up camp.

I couldn’t believe the view from our tent.

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Sure, backcountry camping requires a long walk with a heavy pack, a lot of organized planning of gear, meals that are less spectacular than crap you ate in your college dorm room, and there is that whole “setting up camp” business before you can relax, but this view was exactly why we suffered through it.

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A backcountry campsite beats front country camping any day. My experience with front country camping was that the only thing “camplike” about it was the tent, but that it was mostly screaming children, the smell of burnt hot dogs and chili, and competing radios with Toby Keith trying to out sing Nascar.

Not this place.

This was pristine. This was perfect. The silence was complete and the air smelled of nothing more than fresh wildflowers.

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We spent the afternoon walking the shore of the lake, laying on the warm rocks and listening to the water trickle down from the mountains above, and simply taking off our shoes to walk barefoot in the water.

Oh, and chilling our wine in the ice cold water.

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Why wine? Because I don’t hike unless there is wine at the end of the trail. Backcountry camping is why wine comes in plastic pouches, people.

Dinner was cheese and crackers (i.e., pasteurized processed cheese food and Triscuits) followed by gourmet noodles (i.e., Ramen noodles with foil pouch chicken and veges), which we almost got to eat hard and raw because I forgot the matches. Thankfully, we were able to use the barter system (which is all you have when you are 6 miles from anything) to secure some matches from our tent neighbors in exchange for sunscreen, which they had forgotten, as evidenced by their bright red faces hiding inside their tent until the sun went down.

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We thought that being this far out in the wilderness would prevent unwanted dinner guests (like screaming children with hot dog sticks and pockets filled with half melted chocolate), but then this guy showed up.

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Within seconds, the other 4 campers (all young women) had moved to our tent and stood with me and Matt while we watched to see what the bear would do.

It was only then that I realized the benefit that having small children at a campground would offer. Sure, they seem to only have one volume – SCREAMING – and one speed – RUNNING - but they are also bite sized and typically covered in BBQ sauce and melted marshmallows. I’m no outdoor expert, but if I was a bear, that would certainly sound more delicious to me than a 47 year old pre-menopausal woman coated unapologetically in DEET.

As we watched, huddled together, the bear continued walking at a leisurely pace around the shore toward our side of the lake. I really didn’t want him to keep walking toward us only to be surprised when he discovered his path was covered with smelly humans who had just eaten dinner and probably had some leftover chicken on their pants, so I stood at our tent and yelled, “HEY BEAR!”

Seriously. That’s what they tell you to do in the backcountry camping orientation video you are required to watch when you pick up your permits. It tells you how to pee properly, how not to die of exposure, and what to do if you see a bear.

The answer to that third item, obviously, is to yell, “HEY BEAR!”

I can’t make this stuff up.

Anyway, it was my hope that by alerting him to our presence, he would run away.

Instead, the bear just stood there looking at me while I looked at him.

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He stared.

I stared.

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He walked a few more feet and stared.

I stared.

We did this until it got too dark to see him anymore.

Well….hell.

Rather than all 6 of us sitting together in our tent all night (which we seriously considered), everyone eventually made their way back to their own tent, zipped up tight, and hoped their tent didn’t simply look like an airy crepe filled with a delicious meat snack.

“Your odds of getting attacked by a bear are, like, 1 in 2 million,” Matt said as he dozed off to sleep. “Stop worrying, you’re more likely to get struck by lightning than get attacked by a bear, and do you know anyone who’s been struck by lightning? I didn’t think so. Go to sleep.”

I went to sleep, stars blazing above….imagining that every crackling twig or swish of grass was most certainly the bear on the hill above, catching a whiff of the pasteurized processed cheese product I had smeared on my sweat pants.

It doesn’t matter that the bear was probably miles away by this time, it is amazing the volume of irrational thoughts that the darkness of a backcountry campsite can generate. When you are sleeping in a tent in the wilderness of Montana, every unidentifiable night noise is clearly a bear coming to eat you in your sleep.

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WHEW. WE'RE OUT OF THE WOODS.

Bears or no, waking up at Cracker Lake was a magical experience. Although, the first thing I did was use the binoculars to make sure the bear was gone.

The light was soft and the air was still and quiet. A lone mountain goat stood sentry on a rock outcropping above us.

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We enjoyed hot coffee, loaded oatmeal, and crispy bacon before breaking camp and starting the long, and thankfully uneventful, hike back out.

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We made it back to the Many Glacier Hotel before lunch, met up with Steve and Alison, and drove back toward Babb. Our goal was to drive all the way to East Glacier, about 2.5 hours on the curvy Montana roads.

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We stopped en route at Two Sisters, a funky little place just outside of Many Glacier, near St. Mary. They make a mean burger and some amazing pie a la mode.

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From there, it was a long and lazy drive to East Glacier Village to the Glacier Park Lodge for the night with a real bed and a real shower.

Matt and I chose to stay in the adorable Gardener’s Cottage which was as cozy as it was cute. Set apart from the main lodge, it gave me a chance to clean and organize our camping gear and repack our backpacks for the following day’s overnight hike.

Because one miserable night sleeping with one eye open in the woods wondering if you will die before sunrise is simply not enough.

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We fortified ourselves with cocktails in the lodge bar before heading to our favorite East Glacier restaurant for dinner. Serranos is a quaint little dive that serves killer margaritas and delicious Mexican food.

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The platter of nachos was big enough to feed all four of us, but that didn’t stop me from making a valiant attempt to eat them by myself.

I failed.

That night, I was happy to sleep in a real bed with nothing to hear but the sound of a box fan that meant me no harm.

Want to know what else happens in Montana??? Stay tuned for Part II!

Posted by vicki_h 05:49 Archived in USA Tagged hiking camping national_park montana glacier_national_park kalispell Comments (0)

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