August 30, 2014

Stuff I Like #3: Yoga

I love to eat, and I especially love sweets, so it's really important that I do something to burn off those calories and stay in shape! Of course I'd rather spend my money on food than a new wardrobe, so I have to at least try to get regular exercise. I have a lot of friends who are into running - and you can run anywhere! Running is free! But I hate running. Instead, I'm into yoga.

Attempting dancer pose in Florida

Practicing yoga is one of the best things I've ever done. I feel positive and energized when I'm at yoga classes, and it's so important to find a workout that's right for you. I think yoga works three things that are important to me: strength, flexibility, and balance. All you really need to practice is a yoga mat.

"Yoga" really refers to the physical, mental, and spiritual practices designed to transform the mind and body. "Hatha yoga" is the physical exercise form of yoga, but since it's become so popular in the West, it's colloquially referred to as simply "yoga." It's been around since before Christ and originates from India, with roots in Hinduism and Buddhism. For the queen who loves all things Asian, that's a big plus.

Tree pose in Roatan, Honduras

If you want to get into yoga, I recommend taking a few different classes at different studios to figure out what you like. Every studio is different, teaching different yoga styles and having instructors each with their own unique personalities and teaching methods. There's Bikram yoga, also known as hot yoga, which I'm terrified to try but a lot of people seem to enjoy. There's Iyengar, which emphasizes holding precise postures, often with the use of props. I personally just like a vinyasa flow style - changing from one posture to another, focusing on your breathing, and lots of sun salutations. Lucky for me, it's pretty much the most common style of yoga.

Sun salutation! via

I love looking for yoga studios when I have long layovers. I did it in Portland and Philadelphia, and it's so much better than going to the gym and lifting weights or whatever. Yoga builds muscle, tones the body, improves flexibility, and manages to relax and loosen you. There are many more benefits. It's miraculous! But even though I like it and find it fun, I don't practice enough. You can always practice at home, in between studio visits, something I desperately need to work on.

Yoga on Yamhill in Portland

My friend An introduced me to my favorite studio, Butterfly Yoga in Foster City (San Francisco Peninsula area). If you're in the area, I definitely recommend it! Pattie, the owner and main instructor, leads really engaging classes. She really knows her stuff, and we do different sequences in each class, which keeps it really challenging. Best of all, they have a new student special - 3 classes for $25. I love those kinds of deals!

Anyway, if you're looking for a new way to work out, I enthusiastically recommend yoga. I once took a friend to her first yoga class, and she was worried that she wasn't flexible enough. However, there was nothing to worry about. You'll surely experience benefits doing the postures as well as you can, and things like flexibility and balance will improve as you work on them. After the class, my friend said she didn't realize how much of yoga was about strength rather than flexibility. It's truly a great way to improve your overall wellness.

August 27, 2014

State #22: Durham, NC

Pho 9n9 will become a special place to me, just like Denver's Pho-natic, where I first got the idea to start this blog. My experience in North Carolina made me want to help Vietnamese restaurants become better, for Pho 9n9 is in desperate need of assistance.



FIRST IMPRESSIONS

Located in a predominately white business district in Durham, Pho 9n9 relies on office workers' lunch service to stay afloat. Every entree, from pho to vermicelli to rice dishes, costs at least $9. Additionally, they've had to raise prices recently due to general inflation. This family-owned business is barely breaking even, and some days end at a loss.


I went with a coworker who is also a fan of Vietnamese food. He described it as having a "fast food" atmosphere. With bright lighting and half the tables lined up cafeteria-style, that dining method may work well for the lunch crowd, but I thought it needed improvements to become more comfortable and welcoming. The decor was all over the place, with mismatched paintings on the walls, and the odd potted plant.

I had a good feeling at first, when I heard Vietnamese spoken right as we came in. That's the sound of authenticity, you know. However, the food was disappointing, despite how quickly it was served. I thought the spring rolls were remarkably tiny, and at 2 for $4, poorly priced. They had very thin slices of shrimp and pork, only enough for a taste. I felt cheated.

The pho was underwhelming. The broth was just decent, not particularly delicious, but solid. If you had a hankering for pho, it would do, but if you were looking for good pho, you'd go somewhere else. The noodles were in a clump at the bottom, which I've always hated, and the meat was cooked through - also a peeve of mine. At least the meat had good flavor, and there was a good portion considering that I ordered a small.


My friend and I both had pho, though, and there was only that one small dish of garnishes, so we had to ask for more. Though we'd ordered drinks right at the beginning, we had to ask for them and didn't get them until after the appetizers and the pho had arrived. Overall, it was a mediocre experience. Worst of all, I left hungry after having shared appetizers and eating the whole bowl of pho. Usually a small fills me up, but here, maybe I should have paid the extra dollar for large.

RECOMMENDATIONS

What can bring more customers in, and keep them coming back? Location is a key factor that Pho 9n9 might suffer, but almost everyone in the area has a car and can drive there with enough motivation. I'm also informed by a local that there's a large residential area just a mile away. Pho 9n9 needs to become a place that people will want to return to.

1. Improve the service. The cheapest way to improve the place immediately, but in reality not the easiest. Traditionally, Vietnamese restaurants have never been known for excellent service, but a struggling restaurant competing for business in a predominately white neighborhood may need to think about how much they can slide in that department. At Pho 9n9, I think a little retraining is in order. Our server didn't seem very put together. He was wearing a baseball cap, which didn't scream of professionalism, and forgot our drinks, even though there weren't many customers. Of course, I understand very well that people have off days, but I'm positive that 9n9 can improve its service.

2. Create a cohesive, welcoming atmosphere. Quite frankly, I find a disconnect between the fast food type atmosphere and the restaurant prices. If I'm paying upwards of $13 for an appetizer and entree, I should be sitting in a pleasant, comfortable environment, at least. The decor at Pho 9n9 needs some serious help. The paintings on the walls are a complete hodgepodge. On one wall, there's a painting of a man having a drink at a bar, and on the other side there are 3 different landscapes. Having a more cohesive look would certainly help. A small investment in some themed decor would make a difference, and it doesn't need to be expensive. Just look in local thrift shops, maybe. Or reach out to extended family or friends going to Vietnam - someone must be going, right?

Top: Pho 14 - Washington, D.C.
Left: Pacific Rim Cafe - Rapid City. Right: Pho-natic - Denver.

The decor doesn't need to be expensive or elaborate. Above are a few examples of simple decorating that really worked. Pottery, figurines, hats and the like can be arranged on shelving or directly on the walls for a sleek look. But if 9n9 can swing it, I think a different color of paint would brighten up the place. My vote is for light green.

Aside from the decor, something must be done about that "fast food" feel. If the bulk of the business is coming from lunch, it's time to focus on dinner. The lights should be dimmed, either completely or just for the evening. The cafeteria-style lines of tables are better broken up and separated, to create a feeling of intimacy for each party - something especially important at dinnertime.

3. Reallocate unused space, add a new element. The restaurant is really a decent size, but I have a feeling they don't fill up all of their tables. Perhaps some of the space can be allocated for a better purpose, one that will appeal to a different group of customers. For example, lounge-type seating where people can relax with a cup of coffee. If it's in a business district, why not push the Vietnamese coffee already on the menu? It's inexpensive, but the concept of individual coffee brewing right at your seat will be new to many. Vietnamese coffee is a perfect pick-me-up for office workers, too. The idea of a cafe may attract those unfamiliar with Vietnamese food, and they will probably try the food if they like the atmosphere.

4. Increase value for prices paid. If there's one thing Pho 9n9 will struggle with for the rest of its existence, it's probably this. I know the owner doesn't want to come down on the prices, but if that's the case, 9n9 has to bring its game in different ways. Looking at the pho, is that a bowl to be proud of? I'll juxtapose it below with some very good ones - Pho So 1's is one of my absolute favorites.

Clockwise from top left: Pho Y #1 - San Jose, Pho So 1 - Seattle,
and the lackluster Pho 9n9

While Pho 9n9's resources might be limited, they must be used in the most efficient ways possible. Are there any items on the menu that are rarely ordered? If so, remove them!

And those tiny spring rolls? I did tell the owner what I thought about them, and she said that they were competitive with the spring rolls at the other Vietnamese restaurants in the city. She didn't want to provide too big a serving, either, lest customers become full on appetizers alone. However, if Pho 9n9 wants to stay in business, they shouldn't just settle for what everyone else is doing, they need to be better. So I have two suggestions: either make the two spring rolls bigger, even just by adding more lettuce, or change the appetizer to a single roll. I think I'd rather pay $3 for one big roll, a la Phoenix's Rice Paper. But seriously, it has to be a good one.

These recommendations are written from a customer perspective. While I may not understand all the business and operating reasons for the way things currently are, I think it's obvious that the restaurant needs to implement changes to make more money. I'll be contacting the owner, and checking back in the future to see if any changes have been made, and what differences resulted.


Rating Breakdown:

Taste (8/14)
  • Broth flavor- 3/5
  • Noodle & meat quality- 3/5
  • Garnish selection- 1/2
  • Portion size- 1/2
Restaurant (11/16)
  • Service- 3/5
  • Cleanliness- 4/5
  • Atmosphere- 2/4
  • Speed of arrival- 2/2
Total: 19/30

Pho 9n9, 2945 S Miami Blvd, Durham, NC 27703
Website | Yelp

August 20, 2014

Realizing My Dream

Being a flight attendant is great, but it's never been my dream job. Certainly, there are excellent travel opportunities, but on a daily basis, you don't use much creativity. Since there are many factors I can't control, there's a lot I can't accomplish. Even by being the best flight attendant I can possibly be, I don't think I can make much of a difference. I've always felt that there was something more I could do to make an impact on the world. There's some higher calling for me - and it's not God, by the way. I'm definitely not joining a convent.

Recently I went to a Vietnamese restaurant in North Carolina. I thought it was mediocre, which is exactly what I was going to write, until I chatted with the owner. Hong told me a little about the shop's struggles - that they're having a hard time with increasing prices, that some days they end losing money, and that negative reviews hurt them. "We're both Vietnamese, so help me out," she said.

While I dream of an America where good Vietnamese food is readily available in every city, the reality is that not every Vietnamese restaurant can be successful. That's the nature of the industry, of course. Many restaurants struggle to stay afloat and eventually go out of business. New ones pop up just as quickly as failed ones fade away. Ethnic restaurants have additional difficulties, especially in predominately white areas. They have to appeal to certain bases and create demand. After leaving Hong's restaurant, I thought, how can I help Vietnamese restaurants all over America become more successful?

That's what I see myself doing. Instead of just visiting restaurants and writing reviews, I want to make recommendations that will lead to greater profit margins. I want more people to be interested in Vietnamese food and culture, and more people sitting at tables ordering new things. I'll become a restaurant consultant, specializing in Vietnamese restaurants.

The path will be long, I guess. I don't have training in accounting or management, but I do have two years of restaurant experience in two different establishments. I have a great customer service background, and a unique perspective from visiting over 40 different Vietnamese restaurants all over the country - and even some internationally - since the start of this blog in 2013. I've tasted a lot of food and seen many different operation methods, so with some study and experience, I'm sure I'll become a valuable asset.

I'm starting out by learning more about running a restaurant. After all, I can't tell people what to do without knowing a lot more about their jobs, right? As I learn, I'll observe more intensely when I dine in Vietnamese restaurants, and really pay attention to what's working and what's not. I'll make volunteer suggestions at first, which will hopefully increase business. I'll make some sort of portfolio of my work, and eventually charge for my amazing services. I'm sure it'll be years before that happens, but it'll be worth it.

I feel passionate about this, and I firmly believe I will be good at it. As they say, find a job you love, and you'll never work a day in your life. I think I've found my dream. Pho Queen Victoria, high profile blogger and restaurant consultant. It has a nice ring to it, don't you think?

August 16, 2014

Diving into Paradise in Roatan

After going to Florida for a family friend's wedding and then phoventuring in South Dakota, going on another vacation in July was the last thing on my mind. But when Melissa, my pho and photo-loving friend, asked me if I wanted to go to Belize with her over my next few days off, I said sure! Why not?


We ended up going to Roatan, Honduras though. It's funny how you can just change destinations on a whim when you're a flight attendant. No refunds to worry about, just a listing to change. Rain was predicted in Belize, but it wouldn't be as bad in Honduras, so we altered our plans to escape bad weather. It turned out to be a great decision - Roatan was gorgeous!


We stayed in West End, where most of the bars and restaurants are. While there's a nice patch of beach there, you can take a water taxi for $3 (per person) to the beautiful West Bay Beach. There's a variety of activities to do there, from parasailing to stand up paddleboarding (SUP). I'm pleased to say that I paddle boarded for the first time! Sure, I fell off once, but I think I got the hang of it. I want to take one of those SUP yoga classes - one day!


It seemed like everyone we met asked us if we were planning to dive. I had never been snorkeling in my entire life, let alone scuba diving! But after a lovely time at the beach on our first day, I was down to try something new. Dive shops can be found all over West End (all over Roatan, really), and it's a great place to get PADI certified for an affordable price! Melissa had been scuba diving before, but I had never been that adventurous.

We signed up for a "Discover Scuba Diving" excursion for just $100 - a little time in confined water to learn the basic skills, and then an open water dive to see a reef 40 ft underwater. Our hotel, the Splash Inn Dive Resort, had its own shop and the staff was pretty good. Honestly, I didn't like it at first, breathing in and out only through your mouth, trying to stay underwater. I kept floating up, and the whole thing felt weird and awkward at first. Humans aren't supposed to breathe underwater! We're not meant to stay down here! I thought, but once we got in the open water, I liked it much better. It's a whole different world down there, and I can be an explorer.


As promised, nightlife in West End was fun, even though we were there on slow weeknights. I'm sure weekends there are crazy! We had a blast at Monkey Island, enjoying $1 tacos and Roatan's signature cocktail, the Monkey Lala. It's a frozen drink made with vodka, Baileys, Kahlua, and coconut cream. Sweet and creamy with a kick? Heck yes.

Monkey Lalas!
Gorgeous view from The Lighthouse restaurant!

As an added bonus, we made friends! We met a group of Californians also on vacation and hit it off. First of all, I guess it pays to assume that two guys with really nice hair who are spending a lot of time together are a couple...because it makes a great conversation starter to find out that they're both straight. My apologies once again! But what a stroke of good fortune to meet people who are that chill and that fun. Inside and out, Chelsea was one of the cutest girls I've ever met! We had a blast going out that night for dinner and drinks. We did karaoke and sang Don't Stop Believin' (of course) and no pictures from the evening will be shared because I was drunk. Good drunk, of course!


But seriously, how cool is it to live life in the moment like that? To pick a destination on the spot and actually go there. To strike up a conversation with some random strangers and end up making new friends. Never having the desire to try scuba diving in 25 years but deciding to literally dive right into something new. It's amazing. I don't think life can always be like this, as I do have a compulsory need for structure, but over a few days off, on a vacation, smack dab in the middle of paradise, there are no rules. Okay, maybe there's one rule: don't get killed. Or pregnant.



August 10, 2014

Winchester Mystery House, San Jose

I had no idea this existed until my friend Stephen asked me if I wanted to take a day trip down and see it. A California Registered Historic Landmark, Winchester Mystery House is a grand mansion in San Jose that was constructed by Sarah Winchester starting in 1884 - construction that continued around the clock, every day until her death in 1922.


Sarah Winchester was a unique woman. In 1862, she married William Wirt Winchester of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, which made much of its money selling the Winchester rifle. She lost her daughter at only a few weeks old, sending her into a deep depression, and the couple never had another child. After William died of tuberculosis in 1881, Sarah was entitled to several million dollars in cash, and eventually gained just under 50% ownership in the Winchester company, securing her an income of $1,000 a day. In 2014, that would be over $20,000 a day! Can you imagine what you'd do with that money?


Sarah had a hard time dealing with the deaths of her loved ones, and believed that the family was cursed. She had an affinity for the supernatural, and supposedly a Boston medium told her that the Winchester family was cursed by the spirits of American Indians, Civil War soldiers, and others who had been killed by the Winchester rifle (known as "The Gun that Won the West"). The medium advised Mrs. Winchester to move west and build a house for herself and the spirits, and to continue construction in order to continue her life.

Sarah ended up moving to California's Santa Clara Valley and buying an unfinished farmhouse, on which she immediately began construction. She kept many workers, paying them twice the going rate, and construction commenced 24 hours a day until Sarah's death 38 years later. There were no blueprints or building inspectors, just Sarah's daily instructions to her foreman John Hansen. The result was a sprawling mansion with 160 rooms, doors that open to walls, staircases that lead to nowhere, and other strange features. It's theorized that Sarah had these nonsensical elements built to confuse spirits; though another theory is that having no architectural experience, these were simply mistakes.

The "Door to Nowhere"

Stephen and I did the Grand Estate Tour, which includes the mansion tour and the behind-the-scenes tour. It was fascinating, because the mansion looks beautiful and grand on the outside, but the interior is truly a mess, full of bad design. There are so many useless rooms, a staircase that descends seven steps and rises eleven, windows on the doors to each bathroom, and the Switchback Staircase, which has seven flights with 44 steps - each only 2 inches high. It's insane. Granted, there are some very impressive features too, such as an abundance of Tiffany stained glass windows, parquet floors, and the $9,000 grand ballroom, built at a time when a whole house could be constructed for under $1,000.


I'm glad we did the Mansion tour to really get a feel for the place, but the behind the scenes tour was much more interesting. While the house makes no sense, it has many advanced features for its time. It has three elevators (including an early Otis, one of the only ones installed in a personal residence!), gas lighting that could be turned on and off with a switch, a water conservation system in one of the conservatories, and a car wash with heated water! The tour even goes into the mansion's basement, where you have to wear hard hats. Hard hats are fun.

Stephen in the car wash.

Sarah Winchester, you were a strange woman, all 4'10" of you. You purchased a window designed by Tiffany himself that would emit a rainbow when sunlight shined on it, but you had it installed on a wall that doesn't get light. You were obsessed with the number 13 and used it everywhere you could. You spied on your employees and supposedly fired anyone who saw your face. You were strange, but you left a fascinating legacy.

A replica of the Winchester gravestone

All in all, I would recommend visiting Winchester Mystery House. It's so unique, and there's a lot of history there. The Grand Estate Tour is $40, and the whole thing is about 2.5 hours. Hopefully you'll get an engaging, knowledgeable tour guide to make things really fun! Plus if you're in San Jose, you can make a day of it and grab Vietnamese food afterward, like we did. I recommend Pho Lynn.

August 5, 2014

State #21: Rapid City, SD

I had 24 hours in Rapid City, where there are two Vietnamese restaurants. Like any phở enthusiast, of course I had to try both!


Right when I got off the plane, I met Curtis, a business traveler reminiscent of Ryan Gosling. With gentlemanly manners and a sleek look, when he asked me if I wanted to grab dinner, I said sure! I dragged him over to Saigon, a Vietnamese and Chinese restaurant. It's been around for 29 years, though they moved to their current location in 2000. Despite the fact that the owners are Vietnamese, the menu is dominated by all sorts of Chinese dishes typically eaten with rice. Traditional Vietnamese food is relegated to a corner of the menu, with Vietnamese style salad, vermicelli, noodle soups, and four choices of phở. All one size, phở tai (rare steak) and phở ga (chicken) are $9.99, and phở tom (shrimp) and phở tai bo vien (rare steak and beef meatballs) are $10.99. There are even Thai options, like pad Thai and Thai curry. I was just relieved that sushi wasn't on the menu too.

I kept it simple with phở tai, while Curtis ordered pad Thai and spring rolls. While we waited for our food, I surveyed the restaurant. It was not very big, with a cozy, family restaurant feel. It had a dark color scheme with Vietnamese decorations on the walls, and was quiet, with only a few couples dining.


When the phở came out, there were absolutely no garnishes whatsoever. When I asked about it, the server seemed confused. "You know, a plate with bean sprouts...basil..." I said.

"Bean sprouts are on the bottom," he said. "But let me see if I can find you some basil."

Oh...okay. (At least that spring roll looks tasty.)

While I must award points for excellent service (and our waters were constantly refilled, which I appreciated), I had to wonder what kind of Vietnamese restaurant this was. Surely this wasn't Northern style phở bac, in which no garnishes are given or needed. In that case, it's expected that the restaurant would explicitly state such, a la Turtle Tower.

Garnishes are important to me, but everything else was mostly mediocre too. The broth was just passable, and the meat was tough. However, the noodles were good, and I was happy with the portion size. The spring rolls were good, a healthy size with fresh ingredients, though the dipping sauce was a little watery. But the failed dish of the night was the pad Thai, which looked unappetizing, with thin rice noodles instead of the thicker fettuccine shaped ones you'd expect- but looks aside, Curtis did not enjoy it. I felt a little bad about taking him to Saigon, but we had a really fun time at Mount Rushmore afterward, so no harm done, right? (Thanks again for paying, Curtis!)

I will say it again though- the service here is excellent. Portion sizes are generous, so you feel better about the prices. I think they could benefit from shrinking their menu a bit (removing the Thai items is an idea) and focusing more on their best dishes.

Rating Breakdown (Saigon)

Taste (7/14)
  • Broth flavor- 2/5
  • Noodle & meat quality- 3/5
  • Garnish selection- 0/2
  • Portion size- 2/2
Restaurant (14/16)
  • Service- 5/5
  • Cleanliness- 5/5
  • Atmosphere- 3/4
  • Speed of arrival- 1/2
Total: 21/30


Since I finished my sightseeing a little early the second day, I had time to grab a late lunch/early dinner before heading to the airport. I visited Pacific Rim Cafe, still months new.


Simply based on appearances, my expectations were already higher. The decor here was lovely, with shades of red, blue, and brown, accented by brick and Vietnamese paintings, vessels, and figurines. It was simple, but elegant. Interestingly, this is really an American style cafe with Vietnamese specialties. Vietnamese appetizers and pho are available for order, alongside sandwiches - but I don't mean banh mi. I'm talking cuban, reuben, and roast beef. There's even a kids' menu with grilled cheese and PB&J.

I was relieved to see these sauces! A good sign.

The pho here is cheaper than at Saigon, with a small option for $7.95 and large for $9.95. I ordered the "Phở with rare beef," which came quickly. I was so happy to have garnishes! PRC, you're doing it right. (Though that isn't much basil...and the dish was brought shortly after the pho.)


My first impression was uh oh, this broth is very light in color, but it turned out to be more flavorful than I thought! It did have a light taste, but it wasn't bad at all. I wished the bowl was bigger though, because the broth came right to the top, leaving no room to add bean sprouts and mix it all up! Once I drank a little of the broth though, I was able to eat properly. The noodles were good, but the meat was a little strange. It had a stronger flavor and was a little tough, more like brisket than rare steak. The cut was slightly different than what I was used to, with the slight slickness of fat in some areas, when usually the rare steak for phở won't have any fat at all.

Overall, it was a satisfying bowl of phở, much better than what I had at Saigon the night before. While Saigon has been around much longer, they may need to reevaluate and step up their game to hold their own against this new competitor. The service at Saigon was better though; at PRC the one server was a little slow to get to me even though there were only two other parties. She seemed busy, but checked on the party of four near me a few times before checking on me. Maybe because I'm just one unimportant person? Who knows.

If I could do it over, I'd bring Curtis to Pacific Rim Cafe instead. It has such a nice atmosphere, and I think it'll do very well for years to come. Plus there was a special that day - 10% off! When I paid, I also got a fortune cookie, which read "All of your hard work will soon be paid off." Excellent. I hope that comes true soon!

Rating Breakdown (Pacific Rim Cafe)

Taste (9/14)
  • Broth flavor- 3/5
  • Noodle & meat quality- 4/5
  • Garnish selection- 1/2
  • Portion size- 1/2
Restaurant (15/16)
  • Service- 4/5
  • Cleanliness- 5/5
  • Atmosphere- 4/4
  • Speed of arrival- 2/2
Total: 24/30

Saigon - 221 East North Street, Rapid City, SD 57701 | Yelp
Pacific Rim Cafe - 1375 La Crosse Street, Ste 1, Rapid City, SD 57701 | Yelp

July 29, 2014

Mount Rushmore

If you asked me a year ago which state Mount Rushmore is in, I would have had to look it up before answering. South Dakota has always seemed like the middle of nowhere, but I feel that Americans can visualize Mount Rushmore pretty easily. It must be South Dakota's premier attraction by far, pulling in 3 million visitors annually. People come from all across the country and around the world to see this national monument, created by sculptor Gutzon Borglum.


The monument was carved over a span of 14 years (1927-1941), with the efforts of over 400 workers and several influential politicians. The grounds don't include much - after walking through the Avenue of Flags, you'll find yourself facing four of our nation's most esteemed presidents: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln.


Other than admiring the monument, you can visit the Lincoln Borglum Visitor Center for exhibits and a short film, experience ranger-led programs if available, or walk the half-mile Presidential Trail to get a closer look at the sculpture. I recommending coming just before the sun sets, so you can enjoy views of Mount Rushmore in the day and attend the evening lighting ceremony (late May-September).

image courtesy of C.J.

The lighting ceremony is pretty cool - about a half hour long, including a ranger talk, a 10 minute film that ended with us all singing the national anthem, and a flag ceremony in which US military and veterans are invited to participate. When the film ends, Mount Rushmore begins to illuminate.

image courtesy of C.J.
image courtesy of C.J.

All in all, visiting Mount Rushmore was a very cool, very patriotic experience. You'll definitely walk away with that "proud to be an American" kind of feeling. It's a perfect bucket list destination, and really quite amazing that it attracts so many people from other countries.


July 25, 2014

Driving in South Dakota

This month, I went to South Dakota to cross off another state and visit Mount Rushmore. Little did I know, South Dakota has much more to see, aside from those four presidents. There's an abundance of national parks and monuments, really beautiful places to see, and very cool camping sites, if that's what you're into.

With just 24 hours here, I had to be selective in what I did and saw. I flew into Rapid City and visited Mount Rushmore the first night, and the next morning, I drove about an hour over to Badlands National Park. For the first time in my life, I had to get a rental car to explore, and Hertz gave me this super cute little Fiat. Zooming around in it was such a blast!


The drive to Badlands was so much fun. The scenery was incredibly beautiful, with gentle rolling hills and grassy fields. I had to pull over on the side of the highway to snap a few pictures. But once I got to the park, the views became infinitely more amazing. It was such a beautiful day to enjoy nature! The geologic formations at Badlands are quite spectacular. I especially love the colors of the Yellow Mounds.


Next, I wanted to tour Wind Cave, one of the longest caves in the world. I heard it was well worth it, but I ended up getting lost and drove the poor Fiat on a bumpy dirt road for about 45 minutes before I gave up and turned around. However, because it's South Dakota, I at least got to see some nice views, including buffalo!


Even though I didn't get to explore a cave (Jewel Cave is the other popular one) at least I got to see something cool. Really, driving around beautiful, rural South Dakota was such a pleasant experience, especially being used to big cities. It was refreshing to just relax and take in views I'd never encountered.

Take a good look at where I'm standing...

It's really amazing how much the United States has to offer. Who would have thought I'd have so much fun in South Dakota?