The Day Hike in Switzerland that Did Not Disappoint

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In true tourist fashion, my husband and I tried to cram as much as possible into our grand European expedition, topping off Milan, the Amalfi Coast, and Austria with a hot second in Switzerland. Alps! We wanted to be among the Swiss Alps! So we headed to the Bernese Highlands (Berner Oberland in German), a high-elevation area in west-central Switzerland near the city of Bern. Though we only had one full day to explore the area on foot and via cable car, that day did not disappoint! The area was ridiculously beautiful.

We stayed in Wengen, a car-free ski town, at the Hotel Bernerhof, which was nothing fancy but got the job done. Its vintage 1970's lodge feel somewhat made up for its teeny closet-turned-bathrooms. We soon realized that dining in the area was spendy! One night we enjoyed a delicious pasta dinner out on the town, and the next we made ramen noodles in our room.

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We started our day hike by walking from our hotel towards the center of Wengen, passing blooming window boxes and neat piles of firewood, all while admiring the imposing mountain landscape just beyond the town.

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Leaving Wengen we hiked down towards the valley in which the town of Lauterbrunnen is nestled. Several waterfalls make their way from the mountains to the valley, causing this view to be an impressive and famous one! J.R.R. Tolkien, author of The Lord of The Rings, visited the Lauterbrunnen Valley and modeled his fictional elvish village of Rivendell after it.

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We hiked upwards from Lauterbrunnen into the mountains, and at this point I began to feel a bit like Heidi.

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Soon our focus turned towards the mountains peeking through the trees. 

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After a few hours we arrived in the cheery town of Murren, which was hoppin' because this was the day of the Inferno Triathlon, a feat of athleticism I can't even conceive of, which has a height gain of 3.4 miles! Can you imagine?

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Having decided that this was a once-in-a-lifetime kind of experience, we took the pricey cable car from Murren to the Schilthorn, the highest mountain in the area and the location of Piz Gloria, a revolving restaurant which served as a filming location for the James Bond movie, On Her Majesty's Secret Service. We enjoyed our "007" cappuccino...

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...and the fantastic view! It had gotten a bit cloudy by this time, proving that no day this side of heaven is absolutely perfect, but we were still able to peer down into the valley below and to enjoy a bird's-eye look at the surrounding peaks. 

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The Inferno Triathlon I told you about was completed at the base of Piz Gloria, so we really enjoyed watching runners cross the finish line--when the restaurant had revolved to let us see that location, of course! The runners were spread out quite a ways from each other, to the point that I don't think most could see another person while they ran the final steep ascent. It was very moving to me to watch them because they arrived in our line of sight obviously spent. They ran slowly and looked down at the trail...until their family members came into view! Their faces broke into big smiles at the sight of their spouses, children, and friends, and the cheering of their people seemed to give them new energy to speed to the finish line with heads held high. They ended triumphantly and were met with big hugs from their proud people. The power of our people encouraging and supporting us cannot be overstated!

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We had some tomato soup (I know, very exciting.) and rode the cable car back down into Murren, where we took a train back to our home base of Wengen. What a celebration of natural beauty and the human spirit! Well done, Switzerland!

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Skip Right Into The Sound of Music!

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I grew up on The Sound of Music, sitting in front of my TV and singing along with Julie Andrews while I wondered what it would be like to live the life of a nun, to be sixteen-going-on-seventeen, and to flee over the mountains from the Nazis. Anyone else? My husband also watched this classic film as a child, so it was a no-brainer to add Panorama Tours' Original Sound of Music Tour in Salzburg, Austria, to our Europe itinerary.

Disclosure: This post may contain affiliate links, which means that I may receive a small commission if you make a purchase through one of the links I've provided here--at no additional cost to you. Please check out my disclosure policy for more info, and thanks for your support!

Our half-day tour began in central Salzburg. Our guide was very informative and entertaining (and actually looked a good deal like Maria! Coincidence?), and this was a singalong tour! We listened to the Rodgers and Hammerstein soundtrack and sang while we drove.

One of the first sites we drove by was Nonnberg Abbey, a working convent where the historical Maria was a nun and also married Captain von Trapp. We also drove by Frohnburg Palace, the yellow villa which served as the front of the Von Trapp family's home in the movie.

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Leopoldskron Palace was the filming location for the back of the Von Trapp residence. The boating scene and garden scenes took place here. Lovely view!

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Nearby at Hellbrunn Palace was the famous gazebo which was the rendezvous point for Leisl and Rolfe's night-time romantic meeting and the spot where Maria and Captain von Trapp shared their first kiss.

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We headed out of the city and towards the Lake District. At one point our bus driver continued to circle a roundabout until everyone on the bus was loudly yodeling! Here is the town of St. Gilgen and Lake Wolfgang, which can be seen in the opening shots of The Sound of Music.

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We spent some time in the quaint town of Mondsee...

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...where the wedding of Maria and Captain von Trapp was filmed at the Mondsee Abbey Church. It's grand exterior--with chevron detail added before chevron was chevron!--was not seen in the movie, but its ornate sanctuary provided the perfect backdrop for Maria's slow and reverent trip down the aisle in her long dress to the sound of organ music and nun's voices.

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We spent a little time sitting by Lake Mondsee eating a scrumptious apple struedel. 

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Then we headed back into Austria to the stately Mirabell Gardens. Pictured here are the famous "Do-Re-Mi" steps.

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We reenacted scenes from the movie to the best of our memory as we explored the gardens, and this concluded the official portion of our excellent guided tour.

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But we continued to explore on our own and identified another bridge on which the Von Trapp children frolicked in the film, and we also found the Residenz Square Horse Fountain, where Maria sang "I Have Confidence In Me."

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Feeling as though we'd stepped right into one of our favorite movies was simply the best, but we enjoyed some of Salzburg's other sites as well. We hiked up to Hohensalzburg Castle...

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...and enjoyed the view of the city below.

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We'd chosen to stay in the town of Grodig, nearby Salzburg, at the cutie Hotel Sallerhof. Aside from an unfortunate do-we-leave-the-windows-open-and-get-eaten-alive-by-mosquitoes-or-keep-them-closed-and-burn-up dilemma our first night there, we were happy with these lodgings and especially with breakfast! And providentially our second night at the Sallerhof, it rained!--no mosquitoes. 

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What a lovely little town! Isn't my husband the cutest sitting on that heart-shaped bench? (I'm not sure "cute" is what he's going for, but nonetheless...)

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I've got two words for you: wiener schnitzel. This is a thin, breaded, pan-fried veal cutlet served with lemon and parsley, famous in Austrian  cuisine. As in the case of my delicious dinner pictured here, pork is often substituted for veal. (Whew! Not so hot on the whole veal thing.)

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Our final day in Austria we decided to hike a section of the Untersberg, which separates Austria from Germany and served as the filming location for Maria to sing "The Hills Are Alive" and for the Von Trapp family to escape over the mountains "into Switzerland" in The Sound of Music. Little did we know as we set out that we'd see more of these "staircases" than we ever cared to on our three-hour journey to the top. The climb was taxing, and we saw few other people, lending an air of mystique to our adventure. 

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The view from the top was amazing! We were on a bit of a schedule, so we happily took the cable car back down to Grodig, where we grabbed our luggage, ran to catch a bus, hurried to find the next bus... But that's a story for another day!

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Hello, Ravello!

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The legendary Amalfi Coast consists of thirteen towns nestled in the seaside cliffs of southern Italy, giving  tourists endless options of itineraries through this breathtaking region. Greg and I were very happy with the three days we spent in the area several summers ago, having chosen to stay in the higher elevation and less tourist-oriented town of Ravello. From there we took a half-day hike to a monastery and the town of Minori, date night to lively Amalfi, and day trip to the breezy island of Capri. Hop on the back of my Vespa, and let's go!

 

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Rooming in Romantic Ravello

The small town of Ravello had charmed my husband on a business trip several years earlier, so he was excited to take me there.

 

We'd had quite the day's journey from Milan to the Amalfi Coast, including a train stop at a platform surrounded by trees and not a human in sight! We hiked with our luggage down into the town and then faced another challenge--to locate the bus that would take us down the coast. We finally noticed a tiny sign in front of the pottery shop advertising bus tickets (Because that makes sense, right?), and we were soon on our way. (See photo--would you have noticed that little sign?) Our first glimpse of the Mediterranean Sea dazzled me, but when we stopped in crowded Amalfi for a piece of pizza and another bus ticket, I admit that I was less than enchanted. The surroundings were beautiful, but the place was packed and unfortunately felt a bit like Oceans of Fun on Memorial Day. 

So when we stepped off the bus after our ascent to Ravello, I breathed a sigh of relief. People milled about and admired the gorgeous view of the coastline, but it felt slower-paced, more peaceful, and more authentically Italian.

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We'd debated staying in a number of hotels but had decided to go with a property we found on Airbnb, which was less expensive than many of our other options and ended up being simply delightful. It was a bit of a walk from the bus station and main part of town, but we didn't mind this and appreciated that the neighborhood was quiet at night. Check out the amazing view from our window!

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Several rooms shared this cozy patio overlooking the ocean, and our host served us pastries and the most wonderful cappuccinos for breakfast each morning.

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The most prominent feature of Ravello's town square is its cathedral, which held mass each evening as we walked by; one night we watched a Catholic parade while we ate at an open-air restaurant. This part of Italy is known for beautiful hand-painted pottery and lemons, and there's an abundance of both in Ravello, including these lemons as big as grapefruits!

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We visited the Giardini Caffe Calce several times because of its pleasant garden and delicious pizza--cheese for Greg, artichokes for me. Though we waited until 8:00pm to venture into a restaurant for dinner, we received some funny looks...because the rest of the town didn't begin their feasting until closer to 9:00pm! (Don't tell them we usually eat at 6:00pm!)

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The Mysterious Monastery in the Clouds

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At the suggestion of our host we decided to take a half-day hike to a location I'm calling "The Mysterious Monastery in the Clouds," so named because since we've returned from our trip, I haven't been able to track down any information on this place! It was once either a monastery or convent and is now simply an enigma. We could see this old structure from the entrance to our B&B, so we set out on our journey with a simple map and some lunch.

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On our way we gawked at local agriculture, including green beans, grapevines, and tomatoes drying in the sun.

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Once out of town we encountered no one on our hike until our descent into the town of Minori several hours later. Well, we did run into a fluffy, white stray dog trotting along the path, and we invited him to join us, but he was on a mission and couldn't be deterred.

We sat down to enjoy some lunch. No PB&J's for us--we'd stashed one of those mouthwatering pizzas in our backpack!

Revived, we continued on our way and arrived at our destination! We explored the area around the old monastery...

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...and admired the birds-eye view of the town of Minori and the billowy clouds that seemed almost within reach.

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We headed back into the woods and hiked down towards Minori, admiring the lovely greens all around us. Soon we were joined by a pack of pesky bees--not the sting-you-till-you-scream kind but rather the latch-onto-you-and-give-you-the-heebie-jeebies kind. We decided to try to run away from the bees, but they swarmed ferociously right along with us! I felt like I'd witnessed this scene in a cartoon.

The bees left us alone as we reentered civilization. Whew!

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I loved seeing the pretty mosaics and carved doors as we walked through Minori's streets with a nice view of the town of Amalfi and the sea.

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Here we are with Minori behind us, loving the sea breezes coming our way!

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I had to get my picture taken next to this wall of brilliant purple morning glories, but immediately after I'd been photographed, a black snake slithered out of the wall right where I was standing! Yikes! Time to move on down the road!

We stopped to admire Minori's basilica and eat some gelato while we watched locals drive by on their motorbikes. Then we began our climb up the many stairs towards Ravello.

 

 

 

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We peered into an interesting cemetery along the way and soon saw Ravello's famous umbrella tree ahead, assuring us we were almost home. We were exhausted after all those stairs when we finally reached our home base, but we'd had a wonderful adventure!

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Date Nights in Italy Eat Other Date Nights for Breakfast

One evening we took the bus to Amalfi for a date night! I'm happy to report that though the city was bustling, this was a pleasurable liveliness, not the overcrowded theme park feel of several days earlier. We walked around town, picked up some fruit, bread, and fresh mozzarella, and admired Amalfi's imposing cathedral.

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Our dinner of spaghetti with lemon garlic sauce, pappardelle with bolognese sauce, arugula salad with tomatoes, and crusty bread was truly fabulous. After dinner we walked out onto the dock to gaze at the twinkling city lights before heading back to the bus stop.

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The Beachy Island that Turned Out to Be Big

I simply couldn't pass up the opportunity to see the dreamy island of Capri, so we caught a ferry in Amalfi for the roughly two-hour ride to Capri, stopping along the way at several of the coastal towns to pick up more travelers. Look at that turquoise water!

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All of the towns along the Amalfi Coast seem to have expanded entirely upwards, especially Positano!

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When we arrived at Capri, we were greeted with brilliant colors, an awe-inspiring view of Capri's famous "three rocks," and hoards of people. Though I hate to admit it, I think I'd gotten caught up in a travel blogger's idyllic descriptions of the island's beauty and mystique and failed to focus on logistics! It was indeed gorgeous, but it was much bigger than I thought it would be, so it took a long time to get around. (I guess that's the power of the pen, and may we writers steward it well!)

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Nonetheless we enjoyed hiking across the island. The first public beach we investigated had about three beach towels occupying each square yard of beach, which is quite simply against my beachy religion!--one must have personal space at the beach. So we located a less-crowded "family" beach and floated in the water there for the rest of the afternoon with Mt. Vesuvius as our backdrop. All in all, it was a day well-spent and completed our Amalfi Coast experience.

 

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Meandering in Milan: Piazza del Duomo in Pictures

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I'm in a travel state of mind these days, reminiscing about a dreamy European adventure my husband and I took several years ago. Our journey began in Milan, Italy, where Greg was speaking at a conference held at the University of Milan. The university and our hotel were just a brief stroll away from the center of the city, Piazza del Duomo: "Cathedral Square." I entertained myself while Greg was conferencing largely by walking around this magnificent piazza and eating gelato. Join me on a brief pictorial jaunt, and make plans to meander through Milan yourself!

When you emerge from the Milan Metro at the duomo stop, you'll be met with the stately panoramic scene you see here--the cathedral in front of you, the monument of King Victor Immanuel II on horseback on your right, and the entrance to Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II on your left.

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The square's most impressive feature is, of course, Milan Cathedral, the largest church in Italy and the third largest in the world.

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The duomo's intricate Gothic details are impressive! 

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Saunter by the cathedral at night to get a different feel for this impressive structure.

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For a fee tourists can wander around the inside of the cathedral, which is impossibly grand with its huge pillars, marble floor, and beautiful stained glass windows.

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When you're satisfied with your exposure to the duomo, head into the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, Italy's oldest shopping mall.

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The galleria is vaulted in glass and hosts numerous upscale retailers...

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...and a variety of restaurants! My mouth is watering at the memory of this black olive and mushroom pizza, and I also immensely enjoyed the pesto gnocchi and salad with prosciutto and artichokes that Greg and I tried at a deli.

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Grab a cup of melt-in-your-mouth gelato to eat while you stroll. Gelaterias exist around every corner, with a variety of tempting flavors to sample. My favorite find was lemon basil...

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...while Greg insisted on chocolate every time. Piazza del Duomo and the galleria were full of tourists when we visited, so there was also no shortage of street entertainers, from spray paint artists to people performing interesting acrobatic feats, like these men.

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The streets surrounding Milan's piazza are home to numerous buildings and statues of historic and architectural importance. See if you can find yourself in front of the Church of San Fidele or the Statue of Leonardo da Vinci.

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Looking for a fun day trip from Milan? Check out my account of the charming town of Varenna here.

Let me know what you discover during your own Milan meandering!

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Pioneer Woman for a Day: 10 Things To Do at the Merc

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If you’re a fangirl of all things Pioneer Woman like I am, you simply must partake in the ultimate immersive Pioneer Woman experience, a trip to her mercantile in Pawhuska, Oklahoma. I journeyed there with one of my besties last spring and again with my mom and aunt this fall, and I’m already scheming for my next visit. Today I’m channeling my enthusiasm into this scavenger hunt-style list for you. To maximize your enjoyment of The Merc, I recommend the following ten things:

Disclosure: This post may contain affiliate links, which means that I may receive a small commission if you make a purchase through one of the links I've provided here--at no additional cost to you. Please check out my disclosure policy for more info, and thanks for your support!

 

1. Chat with some friendly Okies while you wait in line.

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No, that's not a friendly Okie; it's my bestie, Shannon. We arrived at The Merc after our two-hour jaunt from the Wichita, Kansas, area at about 10:30am on a Friday and hopped in line for lunch immediately, having heard tales of long waits. Our time in queue passed quickly, due mostly to the friendly Merc employee who chatted with us and entertained the crowd with her big personality. In our zeal to get this party started we'd neglected to dress warmly, so our new friend wasted no time in wrapping us both in a giant shawl and giving us gloves to wear while we stood in line. This set a tone of kind hospitality that was maintained throughout our day of interactions with Merc staff--how delightful! We ended up being seated for lunch at about 11:30am; I hear that an hour-long wait is average for a weekday, but weekends can get quite a bit busier.

Plan to wait in line, get cozy, and make some new friends of the Okie variety. You'll be glad you did!

 

2. Satisfy your stomach with Tex-Mex.

Enjoy breakfast, lunch, or dinner at The Merc, and if you're in a hurry, grab a tasty to-go meal from The Deli. The Merc's menu is extensive, and everything sounds delicious, but fortunately you've got some time in line to examine your options carefully before making a mouthwatering selection.

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You're in Oklahoma, so when in doubt choose Tex-Mex! I was extremely happy with both of these--chicken and beef enchiladas with cotija cheese and black beans and steak quesadillas with guacamole and pico de gallo. Yum!

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3. Pick up something fun for your kitchen.

Now that you've revived yourself with pico and guac, you're ready to get your shop on! The Mercantile feels like what I imagine a store of its kind might have felt like fifty years ago; it's bright and cheery and offers a colorful variety of dishes, kitchen tools, home decor, fashion accessories, books, and toys. You can purchase items from The Pioneer Woman line originally introduced in WalMart and unique things you'll only find here, all at a variety of price points.

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Though The Pioneer Woman brand has expanded to include all sorts of products, let's not forget that this all started with home cookin' and good eatin'. I bet you do a decent amount of those things in your life too, so why not pick up something that sprinkles the process with a little fun?

My favorite find at The Merc is these plates, which look like china but are actually tin, making for a low-maintenance take on a fancy family tradition.  (Win-win!) These are commemorative patterns used among English royalty, and the story of each is written on the back of the plate.

(Psst, you can find some Merc merch online as well!)

 

4. Elevate your cowgirl style game.

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If you're an aficionado of Tony Lamas, jewel-tone tops with floral embroidery, leather bags, and the like, you've probably noticed that Ree Drummond, Ms. Pioneer Woman herself, has her cowgirl style dialed in and on point. She's shared a bit of her style aesthetic with us at The Merc, which sells clothing, jewelry, and purses fit for a rodeo queen. This turquoise necklace, worn by Merc retail gals, is extra long and can therefore be styled a variety of ways. (And you know I couldn't pass up the green version!) 

Snag a PW accessory and channel your inner cowgirl.

 

5. Complete your library of Pioneer Woman books.

Many of us owe our fond feelings of familiarity with the Pioneer Woman to the fact that she's so often with us while we cook, providing us with delicious but simple recipes, showing us what the dish ought to look like along the way, and entertaining us with clever quips and gorgeous photos of ranch life. The pleasant mentorship I'm speaking of comes via cookbook, and you can find all of her cookbooks, children's books, and autobiography at The Merc. Purchase one, and she just might be around to autograph it for you! Here are my favorites from the PW book collection:

 

6. Sip the best darn iced coffee drink of your life.

When you're all shopped out, head around the corner or upstairs to one of two coffee bars for an Oklahoma-style caffeine boost. If your taste buds enjoy a bit of a kick, order yourself a Spicy Cowgirl, a delectable iced mocha with chile syrup and cayenne pepper. You'll be over the moon, I promise. (Ree has done us a favor and shared this recipe with The Food Network here!)

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7. Watch and wait for a glimpse of your girl, Ree.

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While you're sitting and sipping upstairs in the sunny bakery area, keep your eyes peeled!--Ree's office is also located upstairs, and she occasionally steps out to say hello to her adoring fans, sign autographs, and pose for pictures.

The stars aligned for Shannon and I to be seated in the bakery on one such occasion, and we loved getting to meet Ree! She was just as sweet, charming, and down-to-earth as she seems on TV.

 

8. Pretend you’re a Food Network star at the Lodge.

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When planning your visit to The Merc, you might want to check out this webpage to see if your visit coincides with a day on which visitors to The Merc can also tour The Lodge, which serves as the Drummond family's guest house and the production location for Ree's show on The Food Network. I've not yet had this distinctive pleasure, so I asked Shannon to send me a few of her pics and helpful hints. (She too returned for another visit to The Merc with her mom. Are you seeing a theme?) Lodge tours are free and can only be obtained the day of the tour at The Merc. Simply ask a Merc employee for a ticket and directions--you'll need them as The Lodge is a bit of a drive out of town and requires a several-mile jaunt down gravel roads. Shannon suggests heading to The Lodge earlier in the day to avoid crowds, as most people spend the majority of their day at The Merc and then head to The Lodge closer to closing time at 4:00pm.

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9. Grab a blueberry scone to-go.

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Before heading out to begin your trek to The Lodge, grab a blueberry scone or other culinary delight from The Bakery. Take it home to indulge in the next morning while you reminisce on your dreamy day. (And I won't judge you if you eat it on the way!)

 

10. Pose for an iconic PW Merc pic.

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Don't forget to ask your bestie or your mom or a friendly Okie to snap a photo of you in front of The Merc with the Mercantile sign visible in the background. This commemorates your trip and ensures that your Facebook friends can easily tell where you've been while they're scrolling through similarly-posed pics of people standing in front of Magnolia Market. (See, I've thought of everything for you!)

Above all else have a fantastic time! You deserve it!

 

I’d love to hear about your trip to The Pioneer Woman Mercantile! What would you add to my Merc to-do list?

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Gallivanting in Green: Ireland

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It wasn't the luck o' the Irish but rather the generosity of my parents that took my husband and I to the Emerald Isle this summer. The four of us wanted an adventure full of idyllic landscapes, mysterious castles, rousing pubs, and hearty feasts, so we put ourselves in the hands of Gate1 Travel's 9 Day Classic Ireland escorted tour. The country itself and the tour company with which we traveled exceeded our expectations! Join me as I reminisce about our experience.

We made our trip across the pond in mid-July, escaping the Midwest heat for Ireland's cooler temps. We'd decided that we'd rather brave the large crowds likely in peak tourist season than travel during a less popular but more cloudy time of year, and we were pleased with our choice. Gate1 and our fantastic tour guide made sure we didn't wait in many long lines, and the weather was pleasant with several days of bright sunshine!

Lest I paint too glamorous a picture of this voyage, I'll admit to you that I don't sleep well on planes and my luggage had decided to travel to Amsterdam instead of accompanying me to Ireland, so I was a bit cranky as we strolled around downtown Dublin those first few hours. Nevertheless, eating some Irish bacon at O'Neill's and meeting up with our tour group at our stately hotel lifted my spirits.

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The next morning, after tea, pastries, and sausage, we began our tour of Dublin, learning from our delightful Irish guide about the long-ago nobility who lived in the grand residences we passed. We stopped at St. Patrick's Cathedral...

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...and the library at Trinity College.

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In the afternoon we traveled west to Galway, a small town by the sea that gave us a glimpse into a slower-paced life in Ireland. We walked past docks where people were feeding seabirds and a field where local men played soccer as if oblivious to visitors wandering through their everyday life.

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Shops and pubs lined the downtown streets, and we enjoyed hearing a variety of music, watching a street entertainer, and settling into a cozy restaurant for what would become our signature Irish meal--stew, Shepherd's Pie, or some other iteration of meat and potatoes. 

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The sound of a flute playing an Irish hymn drifted through our hotel window that evening, and my day was complete when my suitcase and I were reunited--I know you were wondering. 

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Imagine how bright-eyed and bushy-tailed I felt the next morning wearing my very own clean clothes!

We traveled to the Connemara National Forest, making a brief stop to learn about the gorgeous green, pink, and black marble quarried from the region.

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We spent the majority of the day at Kylemore Abbey, an amazing estate that was owned by Mitchell Henry, an inspiring man whom my husband has written about here on his blog.

The abbey itself, which had electricity even in the late 1800's, was impressive...

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...as were the gardens, in which tropical fruit was grown...

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...and the Gothic Cathedral that Henry built for his wife.

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The next day--the sunniest we'd seen yet!--we visited the towering Cliffs of Moher, which reminded me of the iconic Cliffs of Insanity in the movie The Princess Bride. (I was glad to be already on top of these cliffs rather than hauled up via rope.) Seriously, how beautiful is this!

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The next few days we traveled through the Ring of Kerry, and though the cloudy weather, winding bus ride, and soothing brogue of our tour guide tried to lull me to sleep, I fought back with tasty cappuccinos and a particularly delicious Irish coffee. 

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We stayed several nights in the town of Killarney, where we enjoyed a jaunting car (pony and carriage) ride through a peaceful park.

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My favorite stop on our entire adventure was the Blarney Castle and Gardens. We climbed the steps to the top of the castle to kiss the Blarney Stone in hopes of acquiring the gift of gab. What an amusing experience! The Blarney "Stone" isn't actually a stone at all but rather part of the castle wall, and one must lay on one's back at an unseemly angle to kiss it. I'll spare you those photos.

 

While the famed Blarney Stone was humorous to me, the manicured lawns, grand estate, and curated gardens were no joke! This home made me feel like I was at Downtown Abbey or Pemberley, and I wanted very badly to enter this gate into the secret garden beyond!

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Maybe I enjoyed this leg of our journey so much because it seemed to bring to life so many of my favorite stories--it sparked my imagination, and I was, for a moment, Mary Crawley, Elizabeth Bennet, and Mary Lennox.

Perhaps the most magical spot of all was this floral pathway shaded by rose-draped pergolas. It took my breath away! Pictured here are my dad and husband, trying to figure out what's taking my mom and I so long!

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That afternoon we made our way to the town of Waterford, where we toured the Waterford Crystal factory and showroom.

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The next day--our final day of sightseeing--we spent several hours in the charming town of Kilkenny, whose castle I'd love to revisit for closer inspection and admiration. Doesn't it look like we're standing in front of a painted backdrop here? Nope, it's just that awesome!

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That evening we returned to Dublin for one last feast and some traditional Celtic entertainment, and the next day we began our trip home, vowing to travel with Gate1 again in the future, to return to some of these enchanting places, and to always remember our happy time together in peaceful Ireland.

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Oh Maya Goodness! Why Mexico Might Be Just What You Need

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It's December, which means we mid-westerners are feeling festive...and chilly. So when the fall farming season came to a close and my husband and I decided to pull the trigger on the last-minute beach vacay we'd been dreaming about, I knew we were on to something good--so good, in fact, that I'm here to humbly entreat you to take your own warm winter getaway. It will do wonders for your mood, your Vitamin D deficiency, and your soul. Let's talk details.

We decided to use the KISS method of vacation planning (Keep It Simple, Stupid), having had such a fabulous experience with the one-stop-shop booking we did for our trip to Ireland. For this trip we used Vacation Express and played around with several beach destinations before settling on Riviera Maya, Mexico. We picked this area because we realized it would give us the most bang for our buck in terms of playing in the ocean while taking advantage of our brief, four-night stay. And, well, we're addicted to Mexican food. Sorry, Jamaica. Through Vacation Express we reserved our flights, all-inclusive hotel, transfer to and from the airport, and a morning snorkeling excursion. 

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We flew out of Kansas rather early, made one connecting flight, and then landed in sunny Cancun in the early afternoon. We found our shuttle operator and began the hour-long drive south to the Riviera Maya region. I'd been to this area before, and I love to look out the window at the magnificent resort entrances along the way. We'd decided to stay at the Barcelo Maya Grand Resort because of its numerous amenities and lengthy 1.2 miles of beachfront. 

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When we arrived at the Barcelo Maya Beach Resort where we had a reservation, we were informed that we'd been given an upgrade to the Barcelo Maya Palace!--how exciting! As we drove away from the Beach Resort and towards the Palace, I felt like the master of the feast had said to us, "Friend, move up to a better place." (Luke 14:7-11) Ha!

We checked in and made our way to our room, which was very nice with lots of space, a balcony, comfy bed, and beautiful stone bathroom--I love my creature comforts on vacation!

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We couldn't wait to get into the ocean, so we headed there ASAP! The beach wasn't very crowded, and over the next few days we'd speculate that only 30% of the resort's lounge chairs were occupied at the busiest time of day. The beach was very clean, and the white sand was interrupted only occasionally by rocks or seaweed as our toes took us out to deeper water. The turquoise waves were gentle, and we were amused by several schools of fish circling us in the clear water. I was pleasantly surprised that the water was only a teensy bit cooler than I would have preferred.

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We warmed up and escaped into our books beneath rustling palm leaves, and thus began a routine which occupied most of our time on vacation--float in ocean, sunbathe on beach, visit pool bar, repeat.

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Our next favorite pastime on this aventura mexicana was eating! Like most all-inclusive resorts, each of the complex's five hotels offered several buffets and several a la carte restaurants. If you haven't experienced a giant buffet like this before, you simply must. There are tables and tables of made-to-order tacos, fajitas, fresh fruit, elaborate pastries, grilled veggies, guacamole, queso, and ice cream. These pork tacos were delicious!

At one meal I ordered a limonada and was brought a limeade instead of the lemonade I was expecting as limes are more abundant in Mexico than lemons--which was fortuitous because that limeade was heavenly, and thereafter I ordered one at every meal.

Breakfast was a delight as well. I impressed my husband by adding chilaquiles (Mexican version of lasagna) and refried beans to my plate of more traditional breakfast foods--bacon, eggs, and fruit--without batting an eye. We topped off each breakfast with pan dulce--sweet bread--and a frothy cappuccino. 

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For our fancier evening meals we ate at a Mexican, Italian, and Spanish restaurant on the resort complex. These were included as well but required advance reservation. We enjoyed the slower pace of these three-course meals. We were particularly pleased with the flavorful fajitas we ate at the Mexican restaurant, and the bacon-wrapped steak with blue cheese sauce we were served at the Spanish restaurant. (Does bacon and blue cheese say Spain to you?) We weren't too impressed with the pizza and calzone we tried at the Italian restaurant--perhaps it's a good rule of thumb to stick close to the national cuisine of the country you are visiting. You won't catch me complaining about that, at least not in Mexico!

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As we explored we noticed that each of the five hotels in the beautiful Barcelo complex had its own personality, and most of the buildings were connected with grand covered walkways surrounded by palm trees or gazing pools and fountains. One could stay at Barcelo for a week and not take advantage of all it has to offer--mini golf, a shopping mall, a spa, dance lessons, a traditional Mexican market, scuba lessons, and nightly live shows at several theaters. 

We made it to one of the evening shows and were amused to see a Michael Jackson impersonator singing "Beat It," figuring we'd happened upon a variety show-type of program. But the next number featured MJ as well, and we realized we were in for an entire night of him! I'm sure this would have been a pleasant surprise to some, but I was rather hoping for a mariachi band and a rousing rendition of "La Cucaracha."

 

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We lounged a bit at this swimming pool, one of many available. There were kiddie pools with giant slides and adults-only pools with swim-up bars, and none of them felt overcrowded. 

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We did take full advantage of the included water sports offered at our resort. We rented snorkeling equipment several days. I couldn't keep up with my husband's beginner's zeal and eventually abandoned him to his happy flipping and discovering, but we did see a rather large fish--the size of a hula hoop!--together before I headed back to the beach. We tried the funny-looking water trikes, which were essentially ocean paddle boats, and we decided that they were overrated--too much peddling for not enough forward movement! But I always love kayaking and particularly at the ocean, and this was no exception. We could see purple and green coral beneath us in the clear water, and I love the feel of the ocean swelling beneath my little boat.

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Perhaps the highlight of our trip was our morning snorkeling excursion through Alltournative. This would be an ideal adventure for someone staying in Cancun, as it took over an hour for our transfer to drive us and several people staying at other resorts to Puerto Morelos, where we were fitted with snorkel gear and given a light breakfast. Our enthusiastic guide, Juan, entertained us and gave us some snorkeling tips as we sailed a short ways out into the ocean with the twenty other people on our tour. We spent about 45 minutes snorkeling at two different sites at the Puerto Morelos Coral Reef, the second largest barrier reef in the world! 

The reef was truly amazing. We saw brain coral and fan coral and a variety of colorful fish. Towards the end of our time in the water we saw several large schools of fish swimming along as if through an invisible corridor. There's a whole underwater world out there of which I've experienced very little, but it is mysterious and gorgeous, and I want to see more of it!

In true Mexican tourism fashion a photographer accompanied us on our snorkeling trip, taking photos of each group of travelers on the beach, the boat, and even underwater! The price for these photos was outrageous, but they were quite fabulous...so we bought them...and tourisma Mexicana thrives. You're welcome, Mexico.

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In short our Mayan vacay was dreamy and just what we needed amid hard work and holiday stress. We're still firm believers that all-inclusive resorts and one-stop-shop booking are great ways to maximize relaxation in the vacation planning and execution process. 

I hope you start planning your next adventure. Be it Mexico or elsewhere, do your very best to enjoy this amazing world that we live in and to take a load off--it's hard work being a human, and you deserve it!

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The Tallgrass Prairie & Looking for Beauty

Several weeks ago the hubs and I took advantage of a breezy, warm Saturday to check out Kansas’ very own national preserve. We had a lovely time adventuring, and the writer in me couldn’t help but notice a prairie-style life lesson along the way. Read on to hear my uncharacteristically brief thoughts on the subject.

The Tallgrass Prairie is located in East Central Kansas along the Flint Hills National Scenic Byway, a lovely place for a drive if you’d like to see what the long-ago prairie looked like or if you need convincing that, yes, there are hills here. The Preserve covers over 10,000 acres and offers more than 40 miles of hiking trails for visitors, as well as bus tours of the Prairie and self-guided tours of the 1880’s Spring Hill Ranch.

Greg and I saw a variety of terrain during our six-mile loop.

We especially enjoyed getting up close and personal with the bison herd that lives at the Tallgrass Prairie.

Just kidding! We didn’t go near the bison, as we didn’t want a reenactment of what was portrayed on the caution sign. We did have to take our hike off the beaten path a bit as several large bison were grazing quite close to our desired route.

Shortly after we'd hiked beyond the buffalo pasture, something amazing happened--Greg spotted this little guy! This is noteworthy because neither of us had ever seen one of these--which we later identified as a Texas horned lizard--and also because, well, sometimes my husband doesn't see the milk in the fridge! Good eye, Babe!

We also saw some wildflowers here and there, purple and yellow blooms providing a striking contrast to their overwhelmingly earth-colored surroundings.

Ready to wrap it up with a life lesson? I’m a Kansas girl, so I think the prairie is beautiful, though I don’t mind admitting that its beauty is less obvious than, for instance, the ostentatious glamour of lush Hawaiian gardens or majestic Swiss peaks. I love traveling to these gorgeous locations, but I think it’s good for me to live my day-to-day life in the humble prairie. Why? Because the prairie teaches me to look for beauty in the here and now—to hunt for wildflowers amid otherwise barren landscapes and to notice unique surprises along my ordinary path. They are there! But I have to look for them.

How can you look for beauty in your here and now?

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Varenna, Italy

I’m daydreaming about Italy today, particularly the charming town of Varenna, located on the shore of Lake Como in northern Italy. If you’re enchanted by the thought of cobblestone streets, wistful accordion music, lush pink hydrangeas, and the fragrance of freshly baked bread, put Varenna on your list of must-see destinations.

Varenna is one of several tourist hotspots at Lake Como. At only about an hour by train, it is one of the more accessible lakeside towns from Milan, making it a perfect day-long escape from the big city. I accompanied my husband on a business trip to Milan in August, and we found ourselves in need of just such a getaway, so we headed to Varenna.

The short walk from the train station to the lakeshore showed Greg and I scenery that was decidedly Mediterranean, with old vine-covered villas and stately cypress trees. The lake itself was beautiful, and we could see several hillside towns across the water. We wandered along the lakeside path, noticing swans and fishing boats on our right and colorful houses built right on top of each other on our left.

We happened upon Villa Monastero, an ancient monastery-turned-residence and deliberated as to whether or not we should tour its gardens for five euros each. We decided to do it and were glad that we did! The gardens were breathtaking. For the next hour we meandered along trails of manicured shrubs and trees, admiring statues, giant aloe vera plants, and fuchsia petunias trailing from stone pots.

For lunch we located a restaurant with a cozy patio on the water’s edge. We watched the ferry travel between towns while we ate creamy gnocchi made with local cheese, nutty arugula salad, and crusty bread. Refreshed, we decided to hike to the nearby town of Vezio to see its castle. Though we walked for only half an hour on a nice, cobbled path, the climb was steep. The sky had darkened with an impending storm, and though we’d encountered other travelers in the town, we saw few other people now, adding a sense of adventure to this leg of our journey.

When we reached the castle grounds, we paid several euros to enter. From the courtyard we walked across a drawbridge to a tower. Inside the tower we climbed about five flights of rickety stairs and finally emerged to a landing, from which we enjoyed the most gorgeous view yet of the lake, Varenna, and the surrounding forested countryside. Greg remarked that he could feel the tower moving with the wind, and we had begun to hear thunder, so we relished the breeze for a moment and then began our descent.

We rested on a bench in tiny Vezio and listened to the sounds of normal life—women talking loudly, a dog barking—and this dreamy place seemed to me to be stuck in time. As we hiked back down to Varenna to catch a train back to Milan, I realized that I’d had my first real taste of Italy, and I was hooked.

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