Category Archives: Travels

15 Highlights from Our Trip to Russia, Amsterdam and Germany

~ by Maria Benner

We just got back from a month-long trip around the world!  We flew East from Anchorage to Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy, on the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia.  Then we flew to Irkutsk.  If you’ve ever played Risk, these places probably sound familiar.  Next, we flew to Kaliningrad, then Amsterdam, and the final leg was from Frankfurt back to Anchorage.  In total we spent 29.5 hours in the air.  The reason we went on this epic journey was because my Mom always dreamed of seeing Lake Baikal, the largest fresh water lake in the world, and then we visited family.  So here are the 15 most memorable highlights of our trip.

1. Seeing the Pacific Ocean from the other side in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy.  The beach had black magnetic sand!

Black sand beach (the sand is magnetic) on the Pacific Ocean in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy.

Black sand beach (the sand is magnetic) on the Pacific Ocean in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy.

2. Eating delicious red caviar every day in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy.

Red caviar (salmon roe) in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy.

3. Seems like each town in Russia has at least one magnificent church.  They are beautiful!

Kazan Church in Irkutsk.

Kafedral'nyy Sobor Svyatoy Zhivonachal'noy Troitsy in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy.

Kafedral’nyy Sobor Svyatoy Zhivonachal’noy Troitsy in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy.

Monastery of the Holy Martyr Grand Duchess Elisaveta

Monastery of the Holy Martyr Grand Duchess Elisaveta.

4. The food in Russia is ridiculously delicious, and very affordable.  Meat, bread, potatoes, beets, cucumbers, dumplings, and of course borsch are the main staples of the Russian diet.  Look at these huge chebureki (kind of like Indian fry bread with different fillings like meat, or potatoes, jam, cheese, etc.)


5. Riding a train that was pulled by an old Soviet-era steam engine.  We rode this train along Lake Baikal just like in the good ol’ days.

Soviet-era steam engine.

Soviet-era steam engine.

6. Seeing the seals that live in Lake Baikal.  They are called Nerpa in Russian.

7. Learning about Shamanism, and visiting holy Shamanistic sights on Lake Baikal.  People tie ribbons to these posts while making a wish, and when these ribbons blow in the wind, the wishes get sent to the gods.

8. Seeing the beautiful clear, clean blue water of Lake Baikal.

Lake Baikal.

9. Riding around in Russian vans called “Uaziki” around Olkhon Island.  These vans have a lot of clearance, and can do some serious off-roading.

10. Swimming in Lake Baikal.  Sorry, no pictures.  There was a banya (Russian sauna) on the beach, so we reserved it for an hour, and got to warm up in the banya, and then dive into the icy cold waters of the lake.  We could only tolerate the cold water for 30 seconds max, before running back to the banya.

11. Russian parties, and shashliki (Shish kebab).  We went on an overnight trip to a former Soviet summer camp that had been remodeled into a resort, and our new Russian friends brought enough food for a month.  The pork was marinaded in mayonnaise and vinegar with onions, and it was delicious! 

12. Boat tour on the canals in Amsterdam.  In this photo you can see seven tunnels if you look closely.

Tunnels on a canal in Amsterdam

13. Driving on the Autobahn in Germany at 180kmh (112mph). I only got to drive that fast for about ten seconds before there was a speed limit zone, and after that there was a traffic jam.

14. Riding all over Germany on the amazing trains in first class.  When you buy a Eurail Pass, you automatically get first class.  I wish America had trains like this.First Class on a German train

15. Seeing the incredible painted ceiling at Asam Church Maria de Victoria in Ingolstadt, Germany.Asam Church Maria de Victoria Ingolstadt, Germany

There were many more tremendous moments on this trip, and I wrote down everything that happened every day in my journal.  We’re happy to be back home, but that was a trip we will never forget.  If you haven’t been to Russia, I highly recommend going.



Our Upcoming Trip to Russia and Germany

~ by Maria Benner

In 7 days, we’ll be boarding a flight on Yakutia Airlines to fly West across the Bering Sea from Anchorage to Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky on the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia.  The flight is only 4.5 hours, but the time difference is 20 hours.  We’ll spend a couple days there checking out volcanoes and hot springs, and then we’ll fly to Irkutsk, the closest large-ish city to Lake Baikal, the largest fresh water lake in the world.  We’re taking a multi-day tour to explore Lake Baikal, and its surroundings in famous Siberia.  After that we’re flying to Kaliningrad to visit my Aunt, and then traveling to Germany to visit more family.  From Germany we’re flying directly back to Anchorage, so essentially, we will have flown around the world by the end of this trip.  My Mom is the organizer of the whole trip, and we’re grateful that she’s letting Scott and I tag along.

During the trip Scott won’t be doing much painting, because he’s not bringing oil paint, since it takes a long time to dry, so we’re not going to release new beer paintings every Thirsty Thursday until we return.  He is planning on bringing a sketch book, and maybe some water colors.  Stay tuned to our Facebook and Instagram feeds to see pictures that we post along the way on this exciting journey.

And we’ll see what we can find out first hand about the whole Russia hacking America’s election business.

Cheers, or as the Russians say, “Za Zdorovie”!

Winter Trip to McCarthy | Good Idea, Bad Idea

~ by Maria Benner

Log Cabin in Alaska in winter

Did you watch the Animaniacs in the 1990s?  One of my favorite segments was Good Idea, Bad Idea.  On our recent trip to our cabin in McCarthy I kept recalling the comical cartoon as we stumbled through our winter adventure in a remote section of Alaska.

Good Idea: Driving over 300 miles to our cabin in McCarthy in a 4×4 Chevy truck. We had chains, a snow shovel, winter gear, and plenty of food and beer in case we got stuck.

Bad Idea: Not checking the weather report before departure.  Minutes after leaving our condo in Anchorage we were driving through a snow storm that lasted for half the drive.  Once we got to the McCarthy road we had sunny weather, and the first part of the road was not bad, but then the snow got deeper and we ended up getting stuck, and had to put on tire chains.  The drive was super slow after that point.

Good Idea: Buying a snow machine last fall so we could take all our stuff from the truck to the cabin quickly in the winter.  We parked it by our cabin up on blocks so it wouldn’t freeze to the ground, and covered it with a tarp.

Bad Idea: Buying a 1993 machine and neglecting to get it tuned up in Anchorage before bringing it to McCarthy.  In the winter we can’t drive all the way to the cabin, so we park about 3 miles away, and ski up to it.  Once we got there we uncovered the snow machine, dug it out, and tried starting it.  We were really close a couple times, but it just wouldn’t start.  So we had to ski back down to the truck, and haul everything that couldn’t freeze on sleds up to the cabin.  We arrived after midnight!  That was a really long day!  In the morning we got the snowmachine to start, and got the rest of our stuff up to the cabin with minimal effort!

Skiing up to the cabin with a few supplies.

snow machine snow mobile in Alaska

Scott hauling supplies with our snow machine across the frozen Kennicott River.

Good Idea: Picking a week to go to the cabin when we don’t have any major projects going on, or looming deadlines for about a week after our scheduled return date.

Bad Idea: Assuming that we can drive out of McCarthy on the scheduled day, and get back to Anchorage to complete projects before deadlines.  While we were in McCarthy there was a big snow storm that lasted for two days.  It was a gorgeous day, and we went for a long ski in the snow, but we were really nervous about how much snow was accumulating on the McCarthy Road, our only way out of McCarthy with our truck.  We have a big deadline at the end of the month, and if we got stuck in McCarthy for a few extra days, we would have missed out on a big opportunity.  The road only gets plowed when the airstrip in McCarthy has over 18″ of snow and a plow needs to get to the runway.

Snow storm in Alaska

Heavy snow storm.

Good Idea: Making a meal plan and bringing enough food for a week.  There are no stores or restaurants open in the winter in McCarthy.

Bad Idea: Forgetting to leave extra food at the cabin just in case we got stuck for a few extra days.  We followed our food plan, and ended up having a bit of extra food that could last for about two days, but we decided to stock the cabin with dried goods for future trips.

Good Idea: Going skiing on the glacier, visiting friends, and relaxing around the wood stove in the cabin.

Bad Idea: Planning to do a little bit of work during our week long vacation.  We brought our laptops and Scott packed his oil painting kit, and we did manage to work, but we were really tempted to play hooky the whole time.

glacier ice in Alaska glacier ice cave iceberg

Checking out an iceberg on the Kennicott Glacier.

Overall I have more fond memories of the trip, and am starting to forget all the inconveniences and challenges.  I can say we learned many lessons from our experience, and hopefully our future winter trips will go much more smoothly!

Our 5 Favorite Experiences in Oregon

~ by Maria Benner

We recently returned from a two-week trip to Washington, Oregon and Arizona.  In Washington and Arizona we visited family, but the reasons for going to Oregon were purely to have fun and to visit good friends from our college years.  Downhill skiing, long walks on the beach, visiting breweries, and eating donuts are all things that make us happy, so that’s what we did in Oregon.  Here are our 5 favorite experiences in the Beaver State.

5. Tillamook Cheese Factory. The last time we were in Tillamook more than 15 years ago, we forgot to bring our wallets to the cheese factory tour, so we couldn’t buy any ice cream at the end of the tour. I did not make the same mistake this time, and got to enjoy a delicious waffle cone with rocky road ice cream fresh from the factory. The new visitors center is under construction, but is scheduled to open sometime in 2018.

4. A donut shop on every corner in Portland.  We had been meaning to try a VooDoo donut for years, but didn’t want to stand in a long line. This time there was no line around 2pm. I ordered the Portland Cream (raised yeast shell filled with Bavarian cream topped with chocolate and two eyeballs, representing the vision of the great city of Portland), and Scott had a traditional cake donut.  Delicious!  Then we found out about the new donut place in town called Blue Star Donuts, so of course we had to test them as well. I ordered the Raspberry Rosemary Buttermilk cake donut, and got a bonus Blueberry Bourbon Basil donut for free, because the donuts were not very fresh that late in the afternoon.  I thought they were a bit dense, but Scott liked them more than his VooDoo donut.

Blue Star Donuts things to do in oregon

Blue Star Donuts

3. Craft Breweries. Oregon is a destination for world-class craft breweries that are creating avant-garde recipes, and reinventing the craft brew scene. We visited the new Pelican Brewing facility in Tillamook and Block 15 Brewing in Corvallis.  Block 15 really impressed us with its spot-on hazy IPAs and decadent imperial stouts. In Bend we went to Crux Fermentation Project, Boneyard Beer and Deschutes Brewing. We showed up to Crux during Sundown Hour when all beers are $1 off, and everyone watches the sunset while warming up around the fire pit, or playing lawn games. In Portland we sampled brews at Culmination Brewing, Cascade Brewing Barrel House, Great Notion Brewing, Fat Head’s Brewery, Back Pedal Brewing, and Hair of the Dog Brewing.  Scott painted live at Cascade (click here to read about that).  Every brewery had something unique to offer, and we couldn’t get enough of the fruity, hazy, hoppy IPAs and the barrel-aged sours.

Best breweries in Portland Great Notion Brewing

Tasters at Great Notion Brewing in Portland.

2. Skiing at Mt. Bachelor. We rented ski equipment, and hit the slopes of Mt. Bachelor for the fist time. The resort is only a half-hour drive from Bend. Unfortunately we didn’t have good luck on snow.  There wasn’t much of it, and the groomed runs were icy.  The Summit was closed, so we missed out on skiing a large percentage of the terrain.  The views were incredible though, and we had a great day outside in the sunshine.  We’ll have to come back when conditions are better.

Mt Bachelor ski area

View of Three Sisters from the top of Mt. Bachelor

1. Oregon Coast. We couldn’t go to Oregon without visiting the Oregon Coast, so we booked a hotel room with an ocean view in Rockaway Beach for one night.  We got really lucky on the weather, and enjoyed a five-mile walk on the beach during sunset.  The next day we experienced typical winter weather, but we left it behind as we drove over the mountain pass to Portland.

Oregon Coast sunset rockaway beach

Sunset on the Oregon Coast.

People ask us why we would ever want to leave beautiful Alaska.  Well, we try to only go to remarkable places, and Oregon is definitely one of them.


15 Highlights from Our Trip to Iceland, Russia and Germany

~ by Maria Benner

We just returned from an epic trip to Iceland, Russia and Germany.  The trip was my mom’s idea — she wanted to show us the real Russia.  On the way there, we had a layover in Iceland, so we decided to extend it for two days, and on the way back we extended our layover in Germany for a week.  In Iceland we stayed two nights in Reykjavik.  In Russia we flew into Moscow, took a train to a small village called Izmaylovo, then cruised from Moscow to St. Petersburg.  In Germany we flew into Frankfurt, and took the train to Bacharach, then went on a boat ride up the Rhein River to Koblenz, and took trains to Baden Baden, Munich, and Rothenburg.

So, here are 15 highlights from this month-long journey.

  1. The sights on the Golden Circle route in Iceland, which are Þingvellir National Park with a rift valley caused by the separation of 2 tectonic plates, the Geysir that shoots water 70 meters in the air, and the incredibly gorgeous Gullfoss Waterfalls.

2. Red Square in Moscow.  This was my third time visiting Red Square, and each time I can’t believe I’m standing there, because it’s such a famous and powerful place.  I was hoping Putin’s motorcade would drive out the Kremlin gates, but no luck.

3. Going on a hay ride on a little buggy in a small village called Izmaylovo in Russia with our new friend we called Uncle Bob.  We also cut birch branches for the banya.

Hay ride

4. Taking a real Russian banya, which is a Russian sauna heated by a big brick stove.  We made brooms out of birch branches and whacked each other with them.  Supposedly that’s good for blood circulation.

Russian Banya

5. Going for a walk in a pristine Russian pine forest.

Russian pine forest.

6. Once we got on the river cruise, our ship had to go through many locks, which are devices used for raising and lowering boats between stretches of water of different levels on river and canal waterways. Here’s a time-lapse video of the last lock we went through.

7. The Pogost in Kizhi, a church built without a single nail.  It has 30,000 wooden shingles on the onion domes.  The church was being restored, so this is the best picture I got of it, without showing the construction work.  Restoration should be complete in 2020.

The Pogost in Kizhi.


8. The Vodka Museum.

Vodka Museum in Russia.

9. St. Isaac’s Cathedral in St. Petersburg, which took 40 years to build.  Those green columns are solid malachite.

St. Isaac’s Cathedral in St. Petersburg.

10. Peterhof Palace, the Versailles of Russia.

Peterhof Palace

11.  Staying in a castle hostel in Bacharach Germany.  The castle was on top of a hill, and there were 400 steps up to our room.

Burg Stahleck Castle

12.  Seeing the Lorelei on the Rhein River, which is a rock headland.  Legends say that a maiden named the Lorelei lives on the rock and lures fishermen to their death with her song.  In high school we had to memorize a very long poem in German for Frau Fischer’s class, and everyone had to recite it in front of the whole class.


13. Bathing in the mineral waters of Roman baths called Friedrichsbad in Baden Baden.  The Romans were the first to construct bathing facilities there in order to benefit from the special water.  Men and women all bathe naked here.  Sorry, no pictures.

14. Drinking beer at the famous Hofbräuhaus in München.

15. Last, but not least, is the tour with the Night Watchman of Rothenburg.  This man came up with a genius idea to dress up as the night watchman from several centuries ago, and do a one-hour tour every night in English.

The Night Watchman of Rothenburg

This was definitely one of the best trips of my life!  Thank you Mom for making it happen!!!