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Travelblog Gone with the Wine Blog

Travelblog and lifestyleblog. Life under the Californian sun - Gone with the Wine. Trips, food and wine from all over the world. Solo and family adventures.

The Best and Worst of 2018

Paula Gaston

2018 has in many ways been a different kind of year for us. Our daily routines have gone from having a baby to having a toddler, and our kindergartener is now a 1st grader. So our schedules have changed drastically. This year we have experienced many nice events and trips, but we have also had some losses and we have had to say our goodbyes. There have also been some challenges we faced due to nature and changes in it. When it comes to traveling, we have been doing most of our trips by car this year. I wish I could say that it’s only because we wanted to decrease our carbon footprint, but in all honesty, I think it has just been easier for us to drive with the kids than fly. But the environmental factors of traveling have been plain to see this year more than ever, and hopefully more and more people will pay attention to that.

HIGHLIGHTS AND LOWS OF THE YEAR

The highlight of this year was hands down the long, hot summer in Finland. It had been a while since we visited there and this time we got to stay the whole summer. We were able to spend time with family and friends, and enjoy the nightless night. We ate Finnish foods and traveled around the country. It felt great to be back in “my hood”, and go places I had never even been. We even did a trip to Viborg, Russia with our friends.

Family time in beautiful Finland

Family time in beautiful Finland

Our latest highlight was our trip to Utah. It was a bitter sweet trip, since we had such a great time driving over there, but our reason to visit was rather sad. We visited Death Valley, Las Vegas, Hoover Dam and even the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. But we were there to spend some time with great gramma who had fallen ill. We are thankful that we got to see her one more time. This year we have had to say goodbyes to many friends and relatives, and even to our dog Holly. I have been very lucky in the past and I haven’t lost many people in my life, so this year felt a little hard to get through.

The trip came to us at a good time since California was devastated by the worst wildfires in its history. The San Francisco Bay Area was soon blanketed by smoke and we had to stay inside. The schools were closed and people were encouraged to wear masks. This picture of me with a mask makes me very sad. It was also part of a story a Finnish news paper made about the fires.

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THE MOST MEMORABLE PLACE AND THE ONE WE COULD HAVE LIVED WITHOUT

If I would have to choose the most memorable trip of 2018, aside from the trip to Finland; it would be the boat trip to the Channel Islands in California. We spent a day hiking around Anacapa Island which is uninhabited. The views were incredible and we spotted some plants that are endemic to the Channel Islands. On our boat ride to the island a big pod of dolphins followed us and we spotted a couple whales as well. That was an incredible day! I would definitely recommend a visit to the Channel Islands!

A place that we could have lived without is also here in California. During the holidays we visited the Los Angeles Zoo. Even though we love to see animals, the place was quite run down and the cages seemed way too small. I can’t imagine these animals enjoying their lives at this place. In the evening we returned to see the zoo’s holiday lights display which we enjoyed very much. I even wrote about it last week.

Anacapa Island

Anacapa Island

THE MOST AND LEAST READ POSTS OF THE YEAR

This year’s most read story was surprisingly about Micheal Jackson’s Neverland Ranch in California. We visited the area on our Christmas trip, but Neverland can only be seen from outside where people have written their farewells to Michael. The two other stories that also got a lot of readers were about hotels: one in San Francisco and the other in Carmel-by-the-Sea in California.

This is Michael Jackson's Neverland
A Night in a Luxury Hotel InterContinental Mark Hopkins San Francisco
Hofsas House Hotel - A True Gem of Carmel-by-the-Sea

The post that was least interesting

The San Francisco Bay Area Travel & Adventure Show

THE BEST AND WORST ACCOMMODATION

In 2018 we stayed in many cool places and it was actually quite difficult to decide which one was the “best”. For many years I have dreamed about staying the night at the Madonna Inn in San Louis Obispo, California. The Madonna Inn is decorated over the top, but at the same time luxurious. It is famous for its pink restaurant and the mens restroom which has a waterfall urinal. Check the photos from here. Another interesting but totally different kind of place we stayed at was the Radisson Blu Aleksanteri in Helsinki, Finland. We stayed in the Rock’n Rose Room, which had a pinball game in it. We also visited a luxury hotel in San Francisco called the InterContinental Mark Hopkins.

The most depressing hotel experience from this year must of been our visit to Scandic City Lappeenranta in Finland. It was over priced, low quality and our customer service experience was horrible. I wrote about it right after we left, since I was so upset. At least we really enjoyed visiting the city of Lappeenranta.

Our room in the Madonna Inn was called China Flower

Our room in the Madonna Inn was called China Flower

MOST AND LEAST LIKED INSTAGRAM PHOTO

This photo that we took this Christmas week in the San Bernardino Mountains quickly became my most liked Instagram photo of the year. We were just driving down from the mountains when we saw this beautiful sunset. We were there to visit the town of Crestline and Lake Arrowhead Village. As a Finn I am not used to seeing the mountains (since Finland doesn’t have any), and they always look amazing and very impressive to me.

The least liked photo was a picture from our Finland trip when we visited the Kuusisto Bishop’s Castle Ruins. I actually quite liked that photo myself, but oh well…

You can follow our adventures in Instagram @paulagaston

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The year 2018 wasn’t quite “smooth sailing” for us, but I’m sure we need these kind of times to appreciate the easier years. Now it is time to look forward and I will tell you about future plans little later. I want to wish everyone a Happy New Year 2019, and thank you for reading my blog! New adventures are waiting…

 

Greetings from Rovaniemi - Santa Claus Village in Finland

Paula Gaston

Last summer we visited both SantaPark and Santa Claus Village in Rovaniemi, Finland. This was not our first visit to Santa Claus Village; we have been there multiple times; during summer, winter, even at fall. Every time, seeing Santa is equally exciting. The best photos however, are hands down the ones from winter time when the snow covers the trees and buildings. So I decided to use the winter photos in this post for that reason. It makes me feel more Chirstmasy here in California too!

 
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A DATE WITH SANTA

The main thing in Santa’s Village is of course meeting Santa. The very best thing about visiting Rovaniemi in the summer time is that there are less people, and no lines to meet Santa Claus. Right before Christmas on the other hand, the line was TWO HOURS long! Meeting Santa in his office is free of charge, but they do sell a photo package after the encounter. On our first visit we did purchase the package. The photos were good quality and there were several of them with all of us or just Santa with our baby. The package also included some general photos of Santa’s Village and a video. Meeting Santa was rather pleasant. We didn’t feel rushed at all, even though the line behind us was long. So we did manage to give our Christmas list to Santa, and right before Christmas day!

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CROSSING THE ARCTIC CIRCLE AND PETTING REINDEER

Santa Claus Village is located right on top of the Arctic Circle at latitude 66°33′45.9″. So one can literally jump over the Arctic Circle line while visiting Santa. From the north of the line one can experience a phenomena called Polar night (kaamos in Finnish), when the sun doesn’t rise above the horizon at all. At the longest the Polar night lasts for 52 days, depending on what part of Lapland one is in. And what a shock it was when we drove further on to Lapland! I felt like I couldn’t get over my jet lag at all, I just wanted to sleep and sleep and sleep.

If visiting Finland during the summer, there is the opposite phenomena to Polar night. It is called Polar day, or Midnight Sun as we Finns like to call it. During that time the sun doesn’t go down at all. It is a very special time, and big celebrations occur around the country on the longest day of the year.

After crossing the Arctic Circle, one should head behind the buildings at Santa’s Village and go meet the reindeer. They are fairly calm and docile animals who often let people pet them. We even got to take a photo with one of them. While driving around Finnish Lapland, one can sometimes see hundreds of reindeer as they herd freely around the northern parts of Finland.

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SANTA CLAUS Village MAIN POST OFFICE AND SOUVENIR SHOPPING

The holiday season is fairly busy at Santa’s Village. The stores are full of people from all over the world and one can hear all kinds of different languages. One of the busiest places is also Santa’s Main Post Office where one can buy some post cards and mail them from the Arctic Circle. Santa has his own special stamps and a postmark. Some people even stamp their passports with this special Arctic Circle stamp. We also sent some post cards to our family in the USA. They think that Santa lives at the North Pole so we had to send some to prove to them that he really lives in Finland!

There are many, many souvenir stores in Santa Claus Village, and one very small grocery store with a very limited selection. I love all the Lappish things and always like to buy something to take home, but I have to say that if you visit anywhere else in Lapland or even in downtown Rovaniemi, you will find most of these same things way cheaper. Same goes with eating. The food in Santa Claus Village is very expensive and we weren’t super impressed with the quality.

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STAYING THE NIGHT in SANTA CLAUS HOLIDAY VILLAGE

In recent years Rovaniemi has gotten many new and nice hotels, and some accommodations a little more unique too. Last summer we did not stay the night there, but on our first visit we stayed the night in Santa Claus Holiday Village. It is located behind Santa’s Village, so not far at all. We were two families traveling together, so we booked two rooms. In each cottage there are two rooms which share the same main door but are in other ways separate. So it was perfect for us. Both families had their own rooms, but we could knock on each other’s door when we wanted to hang out. Each room had it’s own kitchenette and a sauna. As you know, we Finns love to warm up in our saunas before showering. We were desperately trying to see the Northern Lights, since my husband had never seen them. So we went out a few times before bedtime to look, but we were not in luck! He is starting to think they don’t exist!

The visit to Santa Claus Village is a great memory and particularly special for kids. Santa’s Village is actually very close to SantaPark, and I definitely recommend visiting them both. SantaPark is a little more pricey, but is worth it! You can read about our visit to SantaPark from here.

TIPS FOR VISITING SANTA CLAUS VILLAGE IN ROVANIEMI, FINLAND

  • Consider visiting off season since it is less crowded, cheaper and equally beautiful

  • Downtown Rovaniemi has many nice restaurants, shops and hotels.

  • The local delicacy is reindeer stew which is served with mashed potatoes and lingonberries. A local dessert special is oven baked warm cheese with cloudberries. There are many other foods to choose from, and many international chains as well. Vegetarian food is not difficult to find and gluten free food is served in almost any restaurant.

  • When visiting during the winter, bring warm clothing since the temperatures can vary anything form 0C to around -30C. Use layers under your outer clothes. Don’t forget your hat, scarf, gloves and warm socks inside the shoes, especially for kids! Many Finns use wool socks (villasukka) to keep their toes warm inside the shoes and they are sold in most stores. They also might have wool gloves (lapanen) on top of their gloves.

  • Be prepared for the darkness if you visit during the winter. The few hours of light during the day looks more like dusk.

  • If you want to experience the Midnight Sun, the best time for it is in June. Nightless night is celebrated on the third weekend of June.

  • When visiting during the summer, be prepared to meet the local air force: mosquitos!

  • The best time to see the fall colours is September and early October

 

Finding the Christmas Spirit at Rovaniemi SantaPark in Finland

Paula Gaston

The time has now come to move on to a more Christmassy topic in this blog. Last summer we visited Rovaniemi in Finland, and we went to see Santa Claus in SantaPark Arctic World. And it was quite an experience! In my opinion SantaPark is a small piece of America in Finland. It was well made, well designed and entertaining. The entrance fee was a little bit pricey, but it was worth it. And I would go again if I get a chance.

SantaPark is inside a cavern which was quarried into the bedrock, 50 metres underground. To get into the park, one must walk through a long walkway where different kinds of elf shadows are reflected on the walls and noises echo in the air. It was very exciting, if a little bit scary for the kids. But we did make it to the entrance and got our tickets. SantaPark was first opened in 1998, and it is open from June to the first week of August, and from November to the beginning of January. Even while visiting in the summer time, we found the Christmas feeling again quickly at the park. And in the chilly, dark cavern, we totally forgot that it was warm and sunny outside.

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CHRISTMAS MAGIC SHOW AND THE ELF SCHOOL

When purchasing the tickets one should definitely check the schedule for the day in order to know what is going on. We happened to arrive right when the elves were starting their Christmas Magic Show on the main stage, so we stayed and watched it first. The show was a lot of fun and very entertaining. these elves of SantaPark are quite the acrobats, I would say! When the show ended, they walked in front of the stage to greet and pose for photos with the kids.

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Right after the show ended there was an announcement that the Elf School was starting soon, so we headed there next. The Elf School was kind of cute, but pretty long. Even so, the kids seemed to enjoy it a lot. There were two elves who ran it; one spoke Finnish and the other English. The elves told us about their lives and duties, then we sang and at the end everyone got a diploma and an elf hat. I guess I graduated then, since I also got myself an Elf School diploma! Woohoo!

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DOUBLE TROUBLE on the MAGIC TRAIN

The only real ride in SantaPark is the Magic Train which takes people into a snowy forest to see its animals, and then on to the elf workshop. The ride is not very long and will work well for smaller kids. Since there were no lines to the train while we visited, we rode it twice. It actually reminded me of Disneyland rides which are always well made. I wish that real train trips would be this much fun!

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UNDERCROSSING OF THE ARCTIC CIRCLE AND MEETING THE ICE PRINCESS AND SANTA

SantaPark is said to be the only place in the world where instead of cross over the Arctic Circle, one can cross beneath it. One cool thing to do after that is to visit the Ice Princess in the Ice Gallery. Before going in, one can bundle up with a long white coat which is much needed. At least I was really chilly since I was dressed for the summer weather. The gallery is full of ice sculptures and there is also an ice bar. We didn’t stay very long, since it was so cold there, but we did talk a little bit with the Ice Princess and took a couple photos with her.

After that we went to meet the star of the park; Santa Claus. He was sitting in his office waiting for kids to come see him. Meeting Santa is always exciting, and the kids are able to tell him their wishes already during the summer. He promised he would come all the way to California to visit us! And of course we got our picture together with Santa. We did not purchase the photo package they were selling, but Santa Claus didn’t seem to mind that we took few pictures ourselves.

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The Ice Princess…

The Ice Princess…

Another princess that is about to turn into ice soon…

Another princess that is about to turn into ice soon…

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The last thing we did before leaving was a visit to the Elf’s Workshop. I loved it that they actually had this old fashioned arts and crafts corner where kids were able to make Christmas ornaments. It actually seemed to be the only place that was a little bit crowded there. We painted some elves and we nailed them on the wall of the workshop room. It was all part of the activity. We also got some elves to take home with us.

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This time we didn’t eat at SantaPark, but we did have some coffee and local pastries. While we adults were still sitting there and sipping our coffee, the kids ran upstairs to the Angry Birds Activity Park. Then it was time to say our goodbyes to the elves and start waiting for the return of Christmas. And here it is again, it came faster than we thought!

If you would like to read about Santa Claus Village in Rovaniemi, you can find the post from here.

 

Visiting Cedar Breaks National Monument in Utah

Paula Gaston

When we arrived to Cedar City, we had reached approximately the half way on our road trip. We were still going to spend Thanksgiving with our family in Utah, and then drive back to California through the Bonneville Salt Flats and through Nevada. It was now the travel day number five, and we had already driven over from California and visited Manzanar, Death Valley, Las Vegas and Hoover Dam. One reason why we went to all these places was that most of the national parks in Utah were already snowed in, and some of them were even closed. Otherwise we would have rather been in Utah for most of the trip. Now we were thinking about visiting either Zion or Cedar Breaks, and we chose Cedar Breaks since we had already been at Zion before. Also, we knew that Cedar Breaks was relatively small park and we could definitely do it in one day.

 
Frozen waterfall on the road to Cedar Breaks

Frozen waterfall on the road to Cedar Breaks

Cedar Breaks National Monument reminds me a lot of Bryce Canyon, which I think, is the most beautiful national park in the United States that I have ever seen. The amphitheatre of red rocks and hoodoos is just amazing! But Cedar Breaks is much smaller than its big brother Bryce, and one can easily drive through it while stopping at the overlooks in few hours. There are four overlook areas at the main road, and some hiking trails that start from them. At the summer time they are probably much fun but now they were all very icy. The monument is officially open only from June to end of October. So now the visitor center and the facilities were closed. But if the road is open, one can still drive over and see the beautiful rock formations. Updated information about the road conditions can be found from here, or one can check out the web cam to see the road by choosing a location to be Brian Head.

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I would recommend to drive around the Cedar Breaks since it doesn’t really take a lot longer than just turning around and driving back. While we visited, the ski resorts on the other side of the mountain were already open and there seemed to be more than one of them. During the winter there are many snowmobile trails and it’s probably a great place for snowshoeing too. During the summer time there is also a camping area that can be used by the guests. We stayed in Cedar City at Abbey Inn, and we really liked it! The hotel was quite average but there were many small things we loved. Super friendly staff, clean room, great breakfast and some little extra things like chocolate gifts, huge tea selection, separate make up towel in the bathroom and so fort. No wonder they had such a great reviews!

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I must say, that after living with the wild fire smoke in the San Francisco Bay Area and staying two days in a smokey casinos at Vegas, I fully enjoyed breathing the clean mountain air. We love being outside in the nature, and Cedar Break offered us a great setting to do just that!

 

A Night at Seven Wives Inn, Utah

Paula Gaston

Our road trip continued from Las Vegas via Hoover Dam to Utah. We had already driven 1440 kilometres (894 miles), and we still had a ways to go until our final destination in Utah. We had our fourth night ahead on this trip, and we had planned to stay in St. George which is in Southern Utah. Instead of a hotel, we had booked a room from a Bed & Breakfast called Seven Wives Inn. They had great reviews, and after Vegas we looked forward to staying in a place with a little more personality and quality. And we always love to explore different boutique hotels and other unique accommodations instead of chain hotels which all look the same. And the Seven Wives Inn really fulfilled our expectations.

 

As many of you probably know, Utah is known for the Mormons who practised polygamy before Utah became a state. Polygamy is marriage with multiple spouses, typically where a man can have multiple wives, but there have also been women marrying several men. Eventually, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or LDS Church as it is known, started getting into trouble when the government set some laws against polygamy. The church finally renounced it in 1890, but there are still some people practising polygamy in Utah and neighboring states. So now, you must be guessing where the name of our Inn came from?!

The Seven Wives Inn has a long history. There are two separate houses and a cottage for guests to use. We stayed at the main house, which was built by Edwin G. Woolley in 1873. He hid some polygamists in the attic of the house after polygamy was outlawed in 1882. At the time, the house had a hidden door leading to the attic. One person hiding there was an ancestor of the innkeeper; Benjamin F. Johnson, who really had seven wives And that is where the Inn gets its name. The house next to it is called the President’s House, since many president’s of the Mormon Church used to stay there. Today the Inn is owned by a very nice couple who moved over from California, and who run the place with a big heart.

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The rooms at the bed & breakfast have been named after the seven wives. We had originally booked a room called Jane from the attic, but we got a complimentary upgrade to a bigger room downstairs. We were told, that it would be more convenient with kids since the stairs up were quite narrow. That was very nice! The room we then got was called Lucinda, and it was also larger than Jane with a full size folding coach. The room price includes homemade breakfast, which is served daily in the dining room. In the evening we returned our breakfast sheet to the kitchen describing what we would like to eat, and we discovered that there was some coffee, tea and apple cider with homemade cookies for the guests.

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Seven Wives Inn was a great experience and I can truly recommend this place. It had a lovely and peaceful ambiance, and the hostess was glad to tell us about the house and its history. Even though the building is old, it is well taken care of. Everything is very rustic. The price is obviously a little higher than an average hotel, which probably rules out some customers, and at first we were not sure if they even take families with kids. They do direct the families to call them instead of booking online. Guests are welcome to walk around the surroundings of the Bed & Breakfast, and in the summer time, they also have a pool. While visiting, I suggest you check out all the rooms where the doors are open. Down stairs they had a little library room and a room called Sarah, which had a vintage car as a bath tub. Quite interesting!

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We continued our trip the next day rested and very happy! Our next stop was Cedar City, where we visited Cedar Breaks National Monument. More about that next time.