Eating My Way Around the World- Memorable Foods I’ve Enjoyed While on Vacation

I would say I’ve always been at least a somewhat adventurous eater, although not to the crazy extreme as some people (like eating maggots or worms). When I was growing up, my mom would always tell me I would have to at least try everything that she was serving at dinner. One of my earliest memories is of me eating hot banana peppers with my grandpa when I was around three years old. When I was about 11 or 12 years old I tried frog’s legs and escargot while on vacation with my mom and I really thought I was a big time adventurer.

As an adult I’ve been fortunate enough to travel to 47 states in the United States, both ends of Canada, Mexico, several countries in Europe, all over the Caribbean, Peru and Chile in South America, and the North Island of New Zealand. Some places were definitely full of more memorable foods than others, for good and bad. There are some places that stand out more than others, just looking at the unique and memorable foods I ate there.

Just a sampling of some of the not only delicious but beautifully presented food and drinks in Peru

Peru was such a huge surprise to me that it’s such a foodie destination. Who knew it has so many amazing foods of gourmet quality but not that gourmet price tag? Certainly not me. Even on the trek to Machu Picchu, we had some amazing meals that were just cooked over a fire but were so full of flavor and everything tasted so fresh. Some of my favorite foods I ate in Peru were ceviche, Lomo Saltado (stir-fried beef), Aji de Gallina (creamy chicken), Causa Limeña (potato casserole), and Pollo a la Brasa (roasted chicken). I also enjoyed the Maracuyá Sour, which is made with passion fruit and is a delicious variation on the pisco sour.

In the Caribbean, I loved the jerk chicken and Jamaican Patties in Jamaica, all of the French foods and pastries on the French side of St. Martin, Conch salad in the Bahamas, and I loved Bahama Mamas (alcoholic drink) way too much (of course there’s a story that goes along with that but I won’t get into it here). Canada is well-known for their poutine, which may sound disgusting to some people, but I loved it. If you don’t know, poutine is french fries and cheese curds smothered in brown gravy. I also had the pleasure of eating Montreal-style smoked meat from Katz’s Deli, and it was every bit as good as the hype. In fact, Montreal is also a foodie destination, with amazing food on every corner.

Montreal-style smoked meat, Maple syrup, Canadian back bacon, Butter tart, Nanaimo Bar, Poutine. Photo credit Wikipedia

Before I even set foot there, I knew the food in Italy was going to be out of this world. I swear, even the street food was some of the best food I’ve ever eaten. Even though I tried, my Italian wasn’t that great, but I could just point to anything in a deli case and know I would get something delicious. Some of the best Ethiopian food I’ve ever had was in fact in Italy. I was in Rome, Venice, Florence, and Pompeii and in every city, the food was truly some of the best food I’ve had anywhere. Oh, and the house wine, which was also cheap, was amazing. There were some places where the bottled water cost more than the house wine! Some of the most memorable foods I had in Italy were pizza, so much pasta (tortellini, ravioli, lasagna, carbonara, tagliatelle, and more), breads, prosciutto, and all of the gelato I could possibly eat.

Navajo “fry bread” from Cameron Trading Post in Arizona

Looking at places I’ve been in the United States, I tried Indian Fry Bread (aka Navajo Tacos) for the first time in Arizona and it was so good I couldn’t wait to have more on subsequent visits to the southwest. Navajo Tacos are large discs of fried dough with taco toppings like ground beef with taco seasoning, beans, shredded cheese, sour cream, diced tomatoes, peppers, sliced black olives, and anything else you want really. Staying on the west coast and some memorable foods I had there, I had delicious fish tacos in San Diego, sourdough bread in San Francisco, and so much wonderful fresh, seafood in Seattle.

I probably never would have had Hawaiian shave ice if not for my daughter. She wanted to get some one day so I got one as well, and I was blown away. I expected to get what I thought would be a snow cone, but real shave (this is no typo, either, it’s shave, not shaved) ice is no snow cone. Shave ice is made by shaving a block of ice, versus the crushed ice you get with snow cones, and has syrups like Tiger’s Blood, Dragon’s Blood, and Bahama Mama. More importantly, you can (and should) get your shave ice with sweet cream over and ice cream under. That first shave ice I had was followed by several others on that trip. My only regret is that I didn’t discover it sooner, as this was my third trip to Hawaii, and you can only get real Hawaiian shave ice in Hawaii, unfortunately for my taste buds, but fortunately for my waist line. Also on my vacations in Hawaii, I discovered poi, kalua pig, poke, and malasadas. Now I want to go back. With so much good food and amazing views, you just can’t go wrong.

Hawaiian shave ice

Anyone else hungry right about now?

Let’s go to the Midwest in the United States. How about Chicago-style deep dish pizza or Chicago-style hot dogs? Yum to both! I’ve been to Chicago a few times and every single time I had to have both of these foods or I felt like my trip just wouldn’t have been complete. I was looking forward to eating Kansas City BBQ before my vacation to Kansas City, Missouri and it was every bit as good as I had hoped. Michigan is known for their Montmorency cherry, and I had some awesome cherry pie in Traverse City, Michigan.

I’ve spent the majority of my time on the east coast of the United States, since that’s where I grew up and have lived as an adult. Philadelphia has Philly Cheesesteaks of course, but you can also get great ones in other Pennsylvania cities like Pittsburgh, and the best buffalo wings are in the Northeast (meaning Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, northern West Virginia, Delaware). With hot wings, the quality of meat, spices, and overall flavor diminishes greatly when you get outside that area. I also had some amazing lobster rolls and seafood chowder in Maine and I can’t forget the New York-style bagels and pizza I had plus all of the great Asian foods I ate in New York City. Oh, and some of the best shrimp and grits I’ve had were in Charleston, South Carolina. In fact, I don’t remember ever NOT having a meal in Charleston that wasn’t only good but in fact great, which is a convoluted way of saying it’s a true foodie destination that lives up to the hype.

Some of the sweets in Charleston, South Carolina

There were other memorable foods that weren’t so great, like all of the sausages and schnitzel in Germany. I got to a point where I was so sick of those two foods comprising 99% of the menus everywhere I went. Seriously, there’s only so much schnitzel a person can eat before they’re sick of it, or maybe it’s just me. When I discovered the Italian food is actually really good in Germany, I was thrilled! Surprisingly, I found the food in Austria to be more varied than it was in Germany, and it was very good, although nothing in particular stands out but I do remember having some good desserts there.

What about you? What are some of the more memorable foods you’ve eaten while on vacation?

Happy travels!

Donna

Running Resolutions for 2021

Last year I only had one running resolution and that was to enjoy every moment of my final three half marathons of my quest to run a half marathon in all 50 states. The full version can be found here: Running Resolutions for 2020. As we all know, COVID-19 put an end to most races in 2020, certainly ones that were in late March or later.

My first half marathon of 2020 was supposed to be the Albuquerque Half Marathon in April, followed by a half marathon in Minnesota in June, and a half marathon in Iowa in September, completing all 50 states. I thought I was going to be able to still run the race in New Mexico since the race director postponed it until November. Of course no one could have predicted that the pandemic would still be going strong through the end of 2020.

With no scheduled races in sight for 2021, this year I’ve decided to make some running resolutions that aren’t related to my goal of running a half marathon in all 50 states. I’m confident I’ll be able to reach my goal when the time is right, but who knows when that will be. Sure, I could probably run three half marathons in 2021 but the question is can I run a half marathon in New Mexico, Minnesota, and Iowa in 2021? As much as I would love for that to happen, I’m not going to hold my breath waiting on that to happen, with all of the uncertainties of the pandemic continuing into 2021.

Since before the New Year, I’ve thought about what my goals for 2021 should be and I had a really hard time coming up with any. Then a few days ago while I was on a run, I finally came up with my first running resolution for 2021: to be more spontaneous when it comes to races. As you probably have figured out, I’ve been completely structured and organized when it comes to my previous half marathons, at least once I had the goal of one in every state.

Most of my half marathons were chosen and planned out several months if not years in advance (really). This year, I’d like to be completely spontaneous and if I see a race that seems interesting and I can feasibly run it, I want to do that. As you may or may not know, I’ve run relatively few local races because I was concentrating on my goal and didn’t want to overdo it with too much racing. Now, however, I can be more spontaneous and run more local races, assuming COVID restrictions are lifted and racing has resumed locally.

My second running resolution came to me when I was walking my dog. I’d like to incorporate more walking into this year. Walking is good cross-training and as I get older I know the importance of not “just” running. Currently, I do yoga once a week, strength train once a week, ride my bike when the weather is conducive, and this year I’ve started walking my dog most days, with a really long walk on Sundays. In 2020 I also hiked in the mountains quite a bit, and I’d love to continue to do that this year as well, but since I don’t live in the mountains I’m limited to when I travel to places with mountains.

That’s it- just two running resolutions for 2021. The second one will be easy for me, but the first one depends on the pandemic. With people already getting vaccinated, hope is on the horizon that things will get “better” and we can return to racing once again.

What about you? Did you make any running resolutions for 2021? Care to share any?

Happy running!

Donna

What Travel Taught Me in 2020

Once again, I’d like to continue my tradition of re-capping my travels for the year and note all of the things I learned while I was traveling. 2020 was unlike any year ever in travel for me obviously because of the Coronavirus pandemic. Before flights began to be cancelled and states and entire countries started enforcing closures, however, I was lucky enough to go on a vacation in February.

Even though I had been to several different parts of Florida from the northern panhandle down to the very southernmost point and other parts in between, I had never been to St. Petersburg before. I was really missing out, too, because I loved this area. A friend of mine recommended the area, citing powder white sandy beaches and crystal clear water. Skeptical, I thought I’d check it out for myself.

Sure enough, the beaches are all of that and then some. The beaches are clean, not overly crowded, and not overly touristy. Beyond the beaches, there are interesting museums, a plethora of restaurants, and so many incredible outdoor areas to spend time in nature. I was impressed. What I learned about this vacation is to always keep an open mind to places you’ve never been to, even if you’ve been to other cities nearby, and think you “know” an area because you just might be surprised by how little you really know. A Brief Overview of St. Petersburg, Florida- Where to Stay, What to Do, Where to Eat and More Things to Do in St. Petersburg, Florida.

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After that vacation, I was supposed to go to New Mexico in April to run a half marathon, my 48th state, in Albuquerque then do some hiking in Santa Fe. Thanks to COVID-19, I had to cancel that vacation. Then in June I was supposed to go to Minnesota to run another half marathon that was going to be my 49th state. That vacation was going to take place in St. Paul and then north of Duluth to spend some time in the little towns along the water. Again, that was cancelled due to the pandemic.

Vacation number four for 2020 was supposed to be a week in southern Spain followed by a week in southern Portugal in July. You guessed it, that vacation was also cancelled. At the time I naively thought the ban against Americans flying to Portugal would surely be lifted by August so I re-scheduled that vacation for August. The hotel in Spain cancelled my reservations and the airline in Spain cancelled the flight so I rearranged my plans to just spend time in Portugal and anxiously watched the news to check the international flight status every day. 

By now I had become a pro at cancelling flights, Airbnb reservations, and hotel reservations. Not that this was a good thing because it made me depressed to have to cancel all of my vacations, but fortunately the travel industry was flexible and generous with cancellations over the summer. Amidst all of the travel cancellations in the spring, I was able to take another short vacation, however.

For years I had heard about Greenville, South Carolina and had been intrigued. Since so many of my other vacations had been cancelled, I had plenty of vacation time saved up so I decided to plan an impromptu long weekend in Greenville over Memorial Day weekend. It turned out to be even better than I expected. There are art galleries everywhere, unique restaurants and shops, a huge waterfall in the middle of it all, and a scenic running/biking trail that goes for miles. What I learned from this vacation is when you keep hearing about a particular city, the universe is trying to tell you something- just go! You can find my post on Greenville here:  Long Weekend in Greenville, South Carolina- An Unexpected Surprise.

Of course I had to eventually cancel my August trip to Portugal since Americans weren’t allowed to enter the country (and still aren’t as of this writing). I have wanted to go to Portugal for years and that was a tough blow for that to be cancelled indefinitely. I hadn’t had a long vacation since February and I knew I desperately needed to get away. The highlight of my week being going to the grocery store was beyond old at this point. I realized flying wasn’t a great idea and frankly I was tired of having to cancel my airline tickets. I tried to find somewhere within a reasonable drive but I also wanted somewhere new. Although not exactly new, I decided going to Great Smoky Mountain National Park would be a good, safe option.

Although I had been to this part of Tennessee and North Carolina before (it’s right on the border between the two states), it had been several years since I’d been there. This vacation taught me that even though you’ve been to a place before doesn’t mean you’ll remember it when you go back. I had been to Gatlinburg and Great Smoky Mountain National Park not once but twice but there was so much about the park that I didn’t remember so it was like it was the first time for me. Hiking in Great Smoky Mountains National Park- Redux and Gatlinburg, Tennessee.

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This vacation in the mountains taught me it’s possible to have a great vacation even in the middle of a pandemic and still be safe. Since my daughter and I spent the vast majority of our time hiking in the mountains, we were able to socially distance ourselves easily. There were places in the town of Gatlinburg where we didn’t feel safe and we simply didn’t go there. I also learned that 1600 bears in the area is no exaggeration- we saw bears on multiple occasions but don’t let that stop you from going hiking in the mountains. Just be alert, make noise when you’re hiking, and if you do see a bear, don’t panic and most of all, don’t go screaming and running.

Not long after my vacation in the mountains, I had a beach trip that was planned many months prior to the pandemic. This was another vacation to a place, the Outer Banks of North Carolina, that I had been to many times but once again I learned there’s always something new to see or a new place to visit even if you’ve been there before. As I said in my post Fun in the Sun in the Outer Banks, North Carolina, the first time I went to the Outer Banks I was a teenager and I had been back a few times before this time as an adult.

We discovered some new restaurants that I hadn’t eaten at before, plus we went back to some of my old favorites. From this, I learned it’s nice to have a place that feels comfortable to you because you’ve been there so many times. As much as I enjoy discovering new places to travel to, it is nice to have a couple of places that I’ve returned to multiple times over the years, like the Outer Banks. That doesn’t mean it has to get stagnant or boring, though, because you can always mix in some new places along with the places you’ve been to before.

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Finally, what was supposed to have been my final pre-pandemic-planned vacation for 2020, a half marathon Labor Day weekend in Iowa, and this was also supposed to have been my 50th and final state in my quest to run a half marathon in all 50 states, was cancelled. So I was zero for three for races planned and races actually ran for 2020. This had never happened, not in all of my 20 years of running half marathons in different states. I had been able to run each and every one of the 49 half marathons in 47 states over the past 20 years and now suddenly I couldn’t run all three consecutive races in a single year and I wasn’t even injured.

It took some time to fully sink in, but eventually I realized How COVID-19 Changed My Attitude About Running a Half Marathon in All 50 States. Initially I was sad that I hadn’t been able to finish my running quest in 2020 as planned, but finally I came to accept it and move on. That doesn’t mean I no longer have this goal, but I’ve accepted that sometimes things are out of our hands and we can either get upset and fight it, or we can realize it’s just not the right time but when the time is right, it will happen. I’ve had to adopt that mindset for other things in my life during 2020 as well.

I thought about taking some more relatively local overnight vacations to my home state of North Carolina or venturing into Virginia or Georgia. When I went to Hilton Head Island, South Carolina a couple of years ago I had taken a day trip to Savannah, Georgia and really enjoyed that. I thought maybe I could go back to Savannah and spend a few days. But there was the issue of crossing state lines and all of the potential complications with that.

Then my daughter mentioned how she’d like to go hiking again after her Christmas break started. Hiking in December? There are some fabulous places to hike in the North Carolina mountains, west of where I live, but they also get quite a bit of snow there in December, and since I don’t regularly drive on snow-covered roads, I wasn’t comfortable doing that (we barely get any snow where I live). The weather in the mountains can be extremely unpredictable in the winter and I felt like that was the last thing I needed at the time so I nixed that idea.

With 2020 winding down, it’s been a crappy year in so many ways, including travel. However, I was able to go on one nice vacation to a place I had been wanting to go to and explore my home state a bit more, which is always a good thing. I chose to live in North Carolina way back in 1997 and 2020 taught me what a good decision that was because it really is a beautiful state with so much diversity between the beaches and mountains and everything in-between!

How was your year in travel? Were you able to travel locally?

Happy travels!

Donna

 

Running Highs and Lows of 2020

Every year I write a post to summarize my running for the year with all of the races I ran and the highs and lows for the year. I’m sure I don’t need to tell anyone how different this post is going to be from every other year I’ve written these. Yes, 2020 sucked when it came to races because of all of the cancellations, but it wasn’t all low points when it came to running for me.

As you may or may not know, I’m on a quest to run a half marathon in all 50 states and only have three states left, which I was supposed to run in 2020. My remaining states are New Mexico, Minnesota, and Iowa. All three half marathons were cancelled in 2020. No idea when they will be rescheduled or what will happen in 2021 with those races or quite honestly anything at all at this point.

So what did happen in 2020 when it came to my running? Well, as I said in my post Running Highs and Lows of 2019, last year was a stellar year for me with only highs and no lows. I continued on that high early this year when I was training for what I thought would be my half marathon in New Mexico in April. Then I hit my first low point for the year when the pandemic started and my race was postponed until November 2020. Little did I know back in April that this pandemic would still be in full force in November and registered runners would have the option to run the race virtually in November or (hopefully) run it in April 2021. I opted for the latter since the whole idea is for me to run a race in all 50 states.

For most of 2020 I averaged around 130 miles each month. May was my highest mileage month with 186 miles. May was also near-perfect running weather where I live and one of the most stressful months so far for the year (although little did I know June would be much, much worse). I kept running to clear my head, get outside to enjoy the weather, and keep healthy.

Even in June, when I was supposed to run my half marathon in Minnesota, I still thought that race might happen right up until about a week prior (yes, I know it seems crazy now). The race director for the half marathon in New Mexico had been excellent with his communication, letting us know the plans for the race so we could plan accordingly. However, the race director for the half marathon in Minnesota was terrible. The website was not updated and when I tried multiple ways of contacting him, he didn’t respond. Finally at the last minute I found out the race was postponed until September. I decided to not run that race at all, even if it did actually happen in September, which was doubtful. Not being able to run my second scheduled race for 2020 was another low point for me.

Still, I kept running, ever hopeful (naively) that I would still be able to run the half marathon in Iowa in September. The race director stated that the race would go on even with the pandemic; that they would figure out a way to put on the race safely. As you already know by now, this did not happen. Yet another running low for me.

Running on the Swamp Rabbit Trail in Greenville, South Carolina with my daughter was a high point!

Not to give you the impression I don’t or didn’t understand why all of these races were cancelled. I fully understand that obviously there could be no races when states had limits on the number of people who could be together, some as few as 10 people. No race director in their right mind would have wanted to have a race and risk spreading the virus throughout their city and state and have runners come in from out of town on top of that. Only when it was deemed safe to have bigger groups together did in-person races start resuming and even those were more common in some states than others.

In September the town where I live hosted a virtual 5k, with what I thought would include race swag, an online leaderboard, and prizes to the top finishers in each age group. On top of that, it was free. Normally not one for a virtual race, given all of the above listed, I entered and ended up running my fastest 5k yet, I Ran My Fastest 5k, but Does It Even Count?. I was the top female finisher for my age group but I was told by the race organizer that prizes weren’t going to be given out after all, and I could download my finisher certificate. Um, great! Thanks! This one was a high point for sure since I hadn’t even trained for this distance but was able to run 3.1 miles much faster than I ever had before, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed to not get an age group prize like I thought I was going to. Would I have pushed myself as hard as I did if I knew there wouldn’t be prizes? Nope. I’ll fully admit I need that carrot out there to really push myself.

When October hit, my mileage and motivation slipped but I continued running until I started having hip pain. It was something I had experienced before so I was confident I knew how to treat it. For starters I had to take at least a solid couple of weeks off of running and even long walks. This was a bit of a low point for me because October is one of the best months for running where I live. The weather is perfect and the autumn leaves are in full display. To not be able to run or even walk in that was tough.

I really love checking out all of the fall foliage when I run!

The time off and babying my hip paid off, though, because I was able to run again in mid-November and still enjoy that gorgeous fall weather. The first time I was able to run again without pain was definitely a high point. It felt great to be outside running again, even if it was a struggle because I had lost some fitness during that time off. When I worked my way back up to six miles for a long run, that also felt great.

December has been mostly spent getting my fitness back and watching my pace split times gradually drop. With no races in sight, I plan on maintaining my fitness throughout the winter and to keep running moderately. I’ll probably try to run around 6-8 miles for my long runs and run a few times during the week. With all of the holiday baking I’ve done lately, I also need to make sure I don’t add any holiday pounds!

Overall, 2020 has had plenty of running lows for me but also some running highs. I’m a pretty optimistic person and I like to try to find the positive in most things; running is no exception. Even though I wasn’t able to run any of my planned half marathons this year, I know I will eventually be able to run them. I’ve been able to keep running for most of the year and was only sidelined for a small portion of the year with my hip injury. For sure, running has helped with my mental health and dealing with the pandemic and that has been priceless.

What about you? How did your running go this year? Any running highs or lows you’d like to share?

Happy running!

Donna

So You Want to Visit Florida for the First Time- Here’s Where to Get Started

Many people have Florida on their list of places they want to visit but they don’t really  know where they want to go or what they want to do. I’m here to tell you there’s a lot more to Florida than Disney World. I will also give you a disclaimer that I do not live in Florida, nor have I ever, so while I’m not an expert on Florida, I have been there about a dozen times, all over the state so I at least know a bit on where to go and what to do.

The first time I went to Florida, I don’t even remember it at all. My mom has pictures of me in Florida when I was about two or three years old with these large white strips of bandages over one of my legs. I asked her what the bandages were for and she said, “You fell down.” Honestly, it looks like maybe an alligator tried to take my leg or something far worse than just falling down, but I never pressed her on the subject.

On subsequent trips to Florida as a child, we went to Pensacola a couple of times (which is where the photos of me with the bandaged leg were taken), Orlando to go to Disney World and SeaWorld, and Daytona Beach. When I was in college, I went to Port Canaveral, Miami, and Ft. Lauderdale. After college, I went back to some of the earlier mentioned places, plus down the keys, stopping for a week in Marathon and driving down to the tip of Florida to Key West. My brother lived in Naples for a while so I visited him one summer and explored the area around there including the absolutely stunning Sanibel Island. I later went back to Naples and I’ve been to Miami a few times. Most recently, I completed my circle of the state by exploring St. Petersburg and cities around there.

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Meeting Minnie Mouse

OK. So let’s get started with planning your first vacation to Florida. I’ll start with a popular choice- Orlando.

If you’ve never been to Florida but would like to go to Disney World, Universal Orlando, or one of the theme parks or attractions in the Orlando area, I’m not going to be much help here other than to refer you to someone else. There are websites entirely devoted to all things Disney; a good one is mousesavers. You can easily get lost in all of their information as it sends you deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole but it’s filled with useful information and tips. Two links on the mousesavers “links to useful Disney sites” that I also recommend checking out are Undercover Tourist and TouringPlans. Between these three sites alone, you will gain a wealth of knowledge and be better-informed for your trip to Orlando.

Next up- southern tip:  Miami and Key West. First, figure out what you want to do. Do you want to party at the famous Miami clubs and dance all night then just hang out at the beach during the day? I’ve been to Miami a few times, both before kids and after kids and it’s entirely possible to have just about any type of vacation you want there, whether it’s going to nightclubs, lounging at beaches, going shopping at high-end stores and eating at only the “best” restaurants, enjoying a more family-friendly vacation with your spouse and kids, or getting out in nature and exploring Everglades National Park.

There is a long list of hotels in Miami, ranging in price and amenities from high-end to budget and everything in-between. A splurge is the Loews Miami Beach Hotel but if you want to stay in more of a historical section of Miami, stay in the Whitelaw Hotel in the Art Deco District. I suggest staying in the South Beach part of Miami if you want more of a party scene. If you choose a hotel in South Beach near Citi Bike, Miami’s bike sharing program, you won’t have to worry about renting a car and paying astronomical parking fees. Just remember, Miami’s high season runs from December through March, so prices will be higher and places will be more crowded. Regarding restaurants in Miami, honestly, the hottest restaurants change all the time, so a good place to check is Eater Miami, which focuses solely on this. For a more family-friendly long weekend Miami vacation, check out my post “Welcome to Miami”- Long Weekend in Miami, Florida.

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Airboat tour through the Everglades in Florida

If you want to drive from Miami to Key West (which I highly recommend), it will take about four hours on the Overseas Highway. Honestly, that alone deserves an entire post on its own. I could write up a post on driving from Miami to Key West, with where to stop, stay, and eat, but I’ll simply refer you to a well-written article by Skyscanner:  Miami to Key West Drive. I concur 100% with their suggestions, especially the part that says, “we strongly suggest you spend at least a couple of days on the Keys, booking a nice hotel in Marathon.” Also visit the turtle rescue center; plus you should know the dolphin research center in that article isn’t in Marathon but nearby Grassy Key.

Beaches– Atlantic Ocean or Gulf of Mexico? This comes down to what you’re looking for in a beach area and personal preferences. The beaches on the Atlantic Ocean range from the quieter Fernandina Beach on Amelia Island in the far northeast corner of Florida and St. Augustine, to the rowdier crowds that come with Daytona Beach, to the more “refined” crowds at West Palm Beach, to Ft. Lauderdale which is known for the spring break crowds that visit every year, ultimately ending at Miami and then finally Key West.

While many of these beach areas have their charms and positive attributes, I prefer the beaches on the Gulf side. Starting in Pensacola in the northwestern side, or panhandle of Florida, you can find the powdery soft, white beaches found all along the Gulf coast of Florida. The water here tends to be a bit more clear and just prettier in my opinion. As I mentioned earlier, Sanibel Island is on the Gulf coast, as is one of my most recent discoveries, St. Petersburg. I wrote a few blog posts on St. Petersburg and the surrounding area, which you can find here:  A Brief Overview of St. Petersburg, Florida- Where to Stay, What to Do, Where to Eat and here More Things to Do in St. Petersburg, Florida.

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Anna Maria Island near St. Petersburg

Nature and Active Pursuits- Florida is so much more than just Disney World and beaches, however. As I mentioned in my posts on St. Petersburg, Florida is filled with places for people that like to be out in nature and have more active vacations. One place I’d really like to check out is Crystal River, about 1 1/2 to 2 hours by car from St. Petersburg, depending if you take the toll road or not. There you can not only see manatees but swim in the water with them (just don’t touch them), visit the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, kayak the Chassahowitzka River, and visit the Crystal River Archaeological State Park, with remains of an early Native American settlement.

Another place you may not hear much about in Florida is Ocala, in the central part of the state, due north of Orlando. This is where Ocala National Forest lies, with more than 600 lakes, rivers and springs, including three first-magnitude springs where visitors can swim, snorkel and dive in crystal-clear waters year round.

I think I’ve highlighted the more popular areas of Florida with something for everyone. Most of all, I hope I’ve shown that Florida is much more than just Disney World and Miami Beach.

Have you been to Florida and if so where? Have you been to Florida many times but only to go to Disney (I know this is a common thing many people do; there’s certainly nothing wrong with that if that’s what you enjoy)? Is there another area of Florida that you enjoyed visiting that I didn’t mention?

Happy travels!

Donna

The Importance of Strength Training for Runners- My Personal Test Results

If you think this will be just another post about someone telling you that you should do strength training, think again.

When I was in my 20’s I barely did any strength training (or stretching, cross-training, or pretty much anything else other than just running). When I ran my first half marathon, it wasn’t my legs that were the most sore after the race, although they were also sore. However, my arms and shoulders were so sore and tired I could barely lift them over my head for days after the race. That’s when I knew I needed to start some strength training.

I’ve been hitting the gym regularly for the past 20-something years. I feel like strength training has become even more important now that I’m in my 40’s. Depending on what source you believe, you can lose from 3-8% of your muscle mass per decade beginning in your 30’s. Obviously, that can quickly add up to a significant loss of muscle mass if you do nothing about it.

So many runners I’ve known over the years have told me they don’t do strength training because they feel like running is enough to maintain their muscles. The sad truth is, running by itself is not enough to stop muscle loss. In fact, when you’re in your 40’s it’s even more important to not only lift weights but to lift heavy weights. In order to stimulate muscle growth, you need to challenge and stimulate your muscles so they break down and repair bigger and stronger. If you can lift a certain weight with a specific body part more than 10 times easily, it’s not heavy enough. Try to aim for a weight you can lift 8-10 times at the most, and that’s a struggle.

person holding barbell
Photo by Victor Freitas on Pexels.com

A good rule of thumb is to perform two or three sets of about 10 repetitions or less, and remember to make sure you have good form. When in doubt, ask a knowledgeable friend to show you or just watch yourself in a mirror. Try to fit strength training into your schedule once or twice a week. You also don’t need to spend hours at a time lifting weights and in fact shouldn’t spend that long on strength training if your primary interest is running. I can cover my full body in thirty minutes, sometimes a bit less than that depending on how busy the gym is and if I have to wait for a set of weights or a machine.

There are many, many opinions on what exercises are “best” for runners, but they’re just that- opinions. No one has undeniable proof that doing x, y, and z when it comes to strength training will help you improve as a runner. Exercises that tend to pop up more than others when you read articles about strength training for runners specifically are squats, lunges, and core-related exercises.

That’s not to say you should necessarily focus on these exercises or even do them at all, to be honest. Everyone is different in what their bodies can handle and for some people it would be too much strain on their legs to do lunges and squats two or three days a week on top of running, especially if you’re training for a long-distance event like a marathon and even more so if it’s your first. In fact, I would say if you’re training for your first marathon or looking to get a Boston-qualifying time, I wouldn’t recommend starting a strength training routine because it will likely be too much for your body. Save the weights for after your big goal race or even better in the months before you start training for your goal race.

My theory when it comes to strength training is try to mix things up. Like I mentioned earlier, I like to do exercises that work my full body by the time I’m done. One day you could do some row-type exercises for your lower and mid-back and chest fly exercises, some planks, and maybe some shoulder presses, bicep curls, and tricep extensions with some leg work like squats. The next time do some lat or upper back exercises, some chest presses, superman (for core), bridge pose, lunges, and push-ups.

Another important point is to make sure you run first before you do strength training if running is your priority. Ideally, it’s recommended to allow 2-3 hours between running and strength training, but I don’t think that’s feasible for most people so just do whatever you can. Make sure you’re not doing strength training on harder running days like speed workouts. I always go to the gym on days when I have an easy, shorter run. I’ll run easy for anywhere from 30-40 minutes depending on where I am in my half marathon training plan then drive to the gym, which may take 30 minutes. I also never start out with leg exercises right after I’ve run, but save them for later in my workout to allow them as much of a break as possible.

If all of this seems way too complicated to you and you don’t even know where to get started, I suggest joining a gym that offers one-on-one sessions with personal trainers if you can afford it or are able to given the current situation. You might be surprised at how affordable this can be, if you shop around. If that’s just not an option for you (especially now during the pandemic), there are some great resources online. Ones that offer videos are the best, so you can actually see the exercise being performed properly. Some of the ones I like are:

Runner’s Blueprint

Women’s Health

Outside

There are of course many others, but these offer a pretty nice array of exercises that you can easily do at home. You just need to pick up some free weights, kettle bells if possible, and resistance bands and you’re all set! If you’re truly a brand-new beginner to all of this, you can just use body weight to start and work your way up from there once the exercises feel easy to you. There are also apps for strength training but I’ve never used any of them nor do I know anyone who has, so I really can’t speak about those.

One of the biggest factors in strength training is actually doing it. Just like you set a schedule for running, put it in your calendar when you’ll be working out and you’ll be more likely to do it. You may find you actually look forward to your time doing strength training; I know I do!

Now to get to the part about my personal results. My gym was closed for six months due to the pandemic. While I have some weights, an exercise ball, and some resistance bands at home, I’ll be the first to admit I slacked off, especially as time wore on. You might think it would be the opposite and after months of not working out I would be craving more of it, but no; I did less. The one thing I didn’t slack off is core work, which I feel is huge for runners.

Finally after my gym re-opened, I was at first a bit hesitant about going back, but my fears were quickly put to ease when I saw how empty the gym was and how everyone was wearing masks and wiping down the equipment after use. Also the bathrooms were closed and there was hand sanitizer everywhere. Still, I didn’t want to over-do it and not be able to move so I was relatively conservative with the weights.

Do you want to know what I found out? The only part of me that was even a little sore was my chest. Even after not hitting the weights pretty hard like I used to for six months I was just slightly sore. That along with the fact that my running hadn’t suffered any while I wasn’t doing strength training changed my opinion a bit about the “importance” of strength training for runners. It doesn’t change my mind about the importance of strength training for everyone to help prevent muscle loss due to aging, however.

Looking back at my running stats those six months when I wasn’t going to the gym for strength training, my times weren’t any slower, even when the heat of summer hit. Honestly, I’m a bit surprised by my findings because I always firmly believed strength training was helping me be a faster, stronger runner. Now I question that. Not that I’m going to stop going to the gym now that it’s open again because again, the whole muscle loss thing.

And before you begin to lecture me, I realize this is a study of one and for a relatively short period. Also, I was starting with a firmly established base, as far as strength training goes, before my break from it. I have no doubt if I would have taken even longer, say a year, from strength training, I would have seen the effects not just in my running but in daily life as well.

What about you- do you regularly do strength training? Do you cycle strength training months with marathon or half marathon season(s)? Or do you hate strength training and avoid it at all costs? Did you stop going to the gym for strength training because of the pandemic and if so have you been back lately?

Happy running!

Donna

Hotels vs. Airbnb- How That’s Changed For Me Over the Years

I remember when I was in college and drove to a friend’s wedding out of state. My husband at the time and I made reservations at a Ramada Inn, and it was not a very nice Ramada Inn. The carpet was musty, the beds were uncomfortable, the bedspreads and decorations in the room looked like they hadn’t been changed in 20 years, and the rooms had paper-thin walls.

Since then, I’ve stayed at other cheap hotels a handful of times but at one point in my life I thought to myself, you’re too old to be staying in cheap hotels. You have a good job and you can afford to stay in better accommodations. When my daughter was born, I started to consider the safety of the hotels as well since most cheap hotels are in “bad” or unsafe neighborhoods. Not that I jumped from staying in 2 star hotels to only 5 star hotels, but there was a noticeable improvement in where I was willing to stay.

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A Bed and Breakfast in San Diego that actually came up on an Airbnb search (so it’s not just the traditional places like homes and apartments).

As my daughter got older, my husband at the time and I began to see the benefits of staying in houses through Airbnb or other short-term rental properties. Instead of the three of us piling into a room with only two beds, a bathroom, and a mini-fridge and microwave if we were lucky, we could spread out and have multiple bedrooms, a full kitchen with everything we needed to whip up breakfast or any meal for that matter, a dining room, a family room or living room, usually a backyard, often more than one bathroom, free parking right in front of the house, and best of all it was quiet. So there were no slamming doors in the hallway, no ice machine noises, no kids running down the hallway at midnight, no adults coming in drunk and talking loudly on their way to their room, and on and on.

At first it was hard to break the hotel habit. Many houses rented out for short-term rental don’t have swimming pools and my daughter always loved to swim on vacation. We also missed not being able to walk down to the breakfast area of the hotel and pile on a plate full of breakfast foods, even if they were sometimes sub-par. My husband at the time also missed not having a workout room like many hotels have. But swimming pools, breakfast buffets, and workout rooms weren’t enough to keep us coming back to hotels, so we found ourselves staying at houses through Airbnb more and more.

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Hotel del Coronado in San Diego, which I did not stay in, but enjoyed the beautiful beach all around it.

I’ve found houses on Airbnb are often in the range of hotel prices. Over the years the selection of houses offered on Airbnb has also skyrocketed. Just a few years ago there weren’t nearly as many properties on Airbnb as there are today. That being said, some cities have made it illegal to rent a property through Airbnb in recent years and others have begun to crack down on foreign investors, making provisions only if the rental property is a primary residence in the city  plus other limitations. I’m not going to get into the impact Airbnb has had on neighborhoods and home values but that’s been a controversial topic for many areas around the world.

Still, I don’t automatically book a stay through Airbnb without comparing hotels in the area. For my recent vacation to the mountains in Tennessee (Hiking in Great Smoky Mountains National Park- Redux), my daughter and I stayed at a brand new hotel. There were a couple of factors involved here:  because of the pandemic and the drop in hotel stays on top of the fact that the hotel had literally just opened, the price per night was a bargain that I jumped on. There’s no way I could have stayed at an Airbnb house for the same price. I’m sure this time next year the hotel’s prices will be much more than what I paid because by then they will be an established hotel with reviews and (hopefully) by then if the pandemic still isn’t over, we (hopefully) will have moved on to our new “normal.”

My go-to site for checking out hotel prices is https://www.hotels.com/. When you stay 10 nights at a hotel, and it doesn’t have to be 10 consecutive nights at the same hotel, you get a free night worth the average of your last 10 hotel stays. There are also tiers depending on how many hotel stays you have in a year. When you reach silver status after 10 nights or more in a year, you’re eligible for special prices not available to the general public and special benefits like vouchers to use toward breakfast. If you book and stay 30 nights or more (which I’ve never done), you reach gold status, which looks like it comes with even more extras like room upgrades.

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Alyeska Resort and Hotel in Alaska was one of the more expensive hotels I’ve stayed in, but it included a ride to the top of the mountain in a tram and was a nice one night splurge.

I’ve had silver status with hotels.com for the past several years and I’ve always felt like it’s been a good choice for me. For example, in 2017, I redeemed four free nights, which of course saved me hundreds of dollars. If I redeem just one free night per year, I feel like it’s worth booking through the site. There’s no fee and the prices are almost always identical to or less than other hotel booking sites. In the rare occurrence where hotels.com has been more than another site, it’s only been a minimal amount like a couple of dollars.

My bottom line is to always compare my options. I don’t go crazy and check ten different places for hotel prices and property prices. Besides Airbnb for short-term rentals, there’s VRBO, HomeAway, HometoGo, and Booking, just to mention a few. This is on top of sites like Expedia and Tripadvisor. You could easily spend hours if you checked all of these sites and got sucked down that rabbit hole. There’s often overlap between many of these websites anyway, although there are sometimes listings on one website you won’t find anywhere else. Almost always, I’ll check on Airbnb, hotels.com, and sometimes booking.com and leave it at that unless I’m having trouble finding what I want for the price in my budget, then I’ll look around more.

What about you? Do you stay more at hotels or homes/apartments through Airbnb? Has your choice of travel accommodations changed over the years or stayed the same?

Happy travels!

Donna

Thoughts on Walking an Entire Half Marathon (13.1 Miles)

I recently did something I never would have if not for the pandemic- I ran the entire distance of a half marathon (13.1 miles). If you follow my blog, you probably know I have a goal of running a half marathon in all 50 states and was on schedule to run my final three states (New Mexico, Minnesota, and Iowa) this year. Then COVID-19 changed all of that and I wasn’t able to run a single race this year.

While I did run a virtual 5k,I Ran My Fastest 5k, but Does It Even Count? I just wasn’t into virtual races. I was supposed to run the Albuquerque Half Marathon in New Mexico in April but it was postponed until November, then it was outright canceled, with runners told we could (hopefully) run it in April 2021. My training for the race had been going so well that when Nuun announced a virtual Team Nuun Half Marathon that would be free and include swag to the first 1500 people to sign up, and it was going to be held on the exact same day that my New Mexico race was supposed to be, I jumped on the bandwagon.

Then completely out of the blue I started getting pains in my hip when I ran. I worked on it by foam rolling, stretching, and yoga but I just couldn’t quite find the spot that was the problem. After scheduling a massage and finding even that didn’t completely take care of the problem, I decided to take a break from running and even long walks for a week. Still, the pain was there and had gotten to the point where my hip hurt no matter what I was doing.

With the impending Team Nuun Half Marathon quickly approaching, I tentatively tried to run again. I decided to try for 3-4 miles and see how it went but every single step I took from beginning to end was painful, too painful to run through. Even though I was bummed about not being able to be a part of the “race,” I knew there was no way I could run 13.1 miles in just 3 days. I should also mention that Team Nuun is a group of mostly runners but also cyclists, triathletes, and hikers from all over the United States, who all have a love for being active outdoors and a love for Nuun hydration products. We have a pretty active private Facebook page where we can post our recent adventures, share our ups and downs, and participate in challenges and giveaways.

The day before the Team Nuun Half Marathon I decided I would walk the entire 13.1 miles. I knew I could walk for an hour without it making my hip worse because I had recently done that, and while I know it’s a big leap from an hour to over three hours, I figured I could just turn around and cut the walk short if I needed to. Typically I clock around a fifteen-minute mile when I’m walking, so when I did the math, adding in a bit for hills, I calculated it would take me around 3 hours and 20 minutes.

In case you’re wondering, my average half marathon finish time is around 2 hours. I’ve run several races under 2 hours and several over 2 hours, with my slowest finish being 2 hours, 35 minutes when I was severely anemic. I wasn’t entirely sure what it would be like to be out walking that far for over 3 hours. Sure, I’ve hiked for several hours at a time, many times, but this would be different. Instead of climbing up and down mountains and stopping to take breaks for water, take pictures, and have a snack or even lunch along the way, I would not be stopping for anything.

The morning of the Team Nuun Half Marathon was gorgeous albeit a bit on the warm side even for walking. I decided to wear a short-sleeve shirt with shorts and long compression socks. In my running vest, I put the usual two bottles (one is 12 ounces, the other is 10 ounces) with Nuun Endurance and instead of my usual Honey Stinger chews I brought a Honey Stinger waffle. Normally a waffle would be too difficult for me to eat while running but since I’d be walking it seemed doable.

I realized to maintain a 15 minute pace requires mental energy to focus on keeping at the quick pace. When I would let my mind wander I noticed my pace slowed a bit, so I’d have to try to stay on top of my pace, otherwise I’d be walking closer to a 17-minute mile. I also noticed my surroundings more than when I run. Even though I walked the same greenway I’ve run on what seems like a million times, there were little things I had never noticed before.

Somewhere between miles 9 and 10 my feet began to hurt, then around mile 10 my glutes began talking to me, then finally around mile 11 my quads began to speak up. My hip was surprisingly quiet, though, so I figured all was good and I continued pushing the pace, while still walking. With all of this going on, I also learned that the Nuun I had brought, while enough for 2 hours, it was not nearly enough for over 3 hours. It didn’t help that it was a sunny day around the low 70’s. My Honey Stinger waffle was enough, though, and I didn’t feel hungry or like I needed to eat more.

Finally, after 3 hours and 18 minutes, I was back at my house, after having walked 13.11 miles, with an average pace of 15:08/mile. I submitted my time to Team Nuun, knowing full and well that I would definitely be at the very bottom of the results. Still, I wanted to submit my time because even though it was by far the slowest “half marathon” I’ve ever run walked, it was still 13.1 miles that I completed on my own two feet, without stopping.

Another part of the reason why I wanted to do this is, as I mentioned earlier, I still have three states left to run a half marathon in. Should something happen to me in the weeks or days leading up to the races, it would be good to know not only if I could walk a half marathon but what it would be like to walk a half marathon, should I have to. I learned some things along the way by doing this, and now I know yes I could do that again, but I would need to bring more Nuun Endurance. Fortunately I remembered to fully charge my Aftershokz headphones and Garmin watch the night before, and they both were still going strong by the time I finished. This was also good for me to know for the future.

Have you ever walked the entire distance of a half marathon or marathon? What was your experience like?

Happy running!

Donna

Hiking Around the World- Some of My Favorite Places to Hike

I think growing up in the mountains of West Virginia sparked my love of hiking. I’ve hiked through numerous state parks in West Virginia from the southern tip to the northern tip and up through the panhandle, beginning when I was a kid and going through my college years. Since then, I’ve hiked all over the United States and developed a true love for our country’s national parks. I’ve also been fortunate enough to hike in the eastern parts as well as western parts of the Canadian mountains, the Alps in Europe, and even some places where most people don’t immediately think of hiking like Greece and the Caribbean. If there are trails that can safely be hiked through, I’ll find them!

Here, I’ll break down some of my favorite places to hike by country, beginning with the United States.

United States

Utah

Utah has so many wonderful national and state parks and although I haven’t been to all of them, I’ve loved the ones I have been to, including Bryce Canyon National Park, and Zion National Park. A tip is to go during the off-season like winter when it’s not only less crowded but perhaps even more beautiful with the snow against the red rocks and hoodoos.

Bryce Canyon National Park in the winter was absolutely stunning with the snow falling on the red rocks

Colorado

There are also many national and state parks in Colorado. Some of my favorite places to hike in Colorado include Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park and Boulder. Even though many people head to Colorado during the winter to ski, hiking in Colorado during the summer months is also becoming more and more common. Try going in the fall when the Aspen trees are changing colors to their gorgeous golden glow.

Rocky Mountain National Park during the summer

Maine

Maine has some great places to hike, including my favorites Acadia National Park and Camden Hills State Park, plus almost 20 other state parks. https://www.nps.gov/acad/index.htm. Boston Logan Airport is about a 4 1/2 hour drive from Acadia National Park if you drive it straight there, but there are so many fun places to stop along the way, I found that a better option for me. Some options of places to stop include Kennebunkport and the surrounding little towns, Portland (a foodie destination), Rockland and Camden, ultimately making your way to Mt. Desert, where Acadia National Park is.

Acadia National Park in Maine

Arizona

I’d be remiss to not mention Grand Canyon National Park. There are many options for hiking here including North Rim and South Rim day hikes plus extended hikes and rim-to-rim hikes. If you plan on hiking down into the canyon, it’s steep and gets extremely hot in the summer months so plan accordingly with plenty of water, snacks, sunscreen, and start early in the day so you have enough time to get back up the canyon. Actually, no matter what season, you should always do those things.

Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona

Montana

Glacier National Park is the most popular place for hiking in Montana but it’s by no means the only option. Other great options are in Flathead National Forest, Lewis and Clark National Forest, Bitterroot National Forest, Kootenai National Forest, Lolo National Forest, and Custer-Gallatin National Forest. https://www.nps.gov/glac/index.htm. If you have the time, you can also continue driving north from Glacier National Park to Banff National Park in Canada, combining the two places into one spectacular road trip. That’s what I did, and I thought the scenery just kept getting better the further north I went (and it was pretty great in Montana!). See my paragraph on Banff below under the section on Canada.

Gorgeous Glacier National Park in Montana

Hawaii

The northwestern coast of Kauai is absolutely filled with stunning places to hike including Waimea Canyon State Park, Puu Ka Pele Forest Preserve, Na Pali-Kona Forest Preserve, Na Pali Coast State Wilderness Park, and Nu’alolo Kai State Park. The Big Island has Waipi‘o Valley, Pu‘uhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park, and Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Here is my recent post on Kauai and information about hiking there.

Kauai is a hiker’s paradise!

South Dakota

South Dakota is a state that’s also filled with natural beauty and has many hiking options. Some of my favorite places to hike include Badlands National Park and Black Hills National Forest plus so much more that you can read here: Memorials, National and State Parks, and Wild West. The vast majority of hiking lies in the western part of the state so Rapid City is a good place to stay and you can do day-trips from here.

Badlands National Park in South Dakota is often said to resemble the surface of Mars because of the rock formations

Wyoming

Even though Wyoming is the least-populated state in the United States, it has some of the most wild beauty I’ve ever seen (perhaps that’s why there’s so much wild beauty, come to think of it). Of course there’s the ever-popular Yellowstone National Park with so many trail options you could never hike them all in a typical vacation plus there’s nearby Grand Teton National Park as well. I would devote as much time as possible in your itinerary for Yellowstone and choose one or two central areas you want to explore; don’t bother trying to see the entire park in a week because it’s just too enormous. Grand Teton National Park deserves at least a few days to really get out there and explore it, with five days being even better if you plan on spending time on the water. I highly recommend standup paddle boarding here, as it doesn’t get much better for scenery and SUP.

The iconic Oxbow Bend scenic area in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming

Countries Outside the United States

Austria

I was primarily in the Salzburg Region of Austria, not to be confused with the city of Salzburg, which is only a small portion of the region. Within the Salzburg Region, you can hike all of or part of the Pinzgauer Spaziergang route in the Zell am See-Kaprun region for great views of the area. The entire route takes most people 5-6 hours to hike. For something a little different and especially if you have kids, the Wild Animal Park Preserve in Kitzbuhel has around 200 animals with the Tyrolean Alps as your backdrop. St. Johann is the site of the beginning of the Eagle Walk, a 280 km trek broken into 24 stages. I also highly recommend hiking in Liechtensteinklamm, a gorge with waterfalls and a river.

Wild Animal Park Preserve in Kitzbuhel

Greece

Hiking may not be the first thing you think of when you think of Greece, but there are some fantastic options for hiking on the island of Crete. Lefka Ori, or the White Mountains has peaks over 6500 feet and is the most popular place to hike in Crete. There are also two gorges you can hike through, the popular Samariá Gorge and the much less frequented and more lush and forested Richtis Gorge. Although there are numerous organized tours through Samariá Gorge, you can easily hike it on your own. Just be prepared for a long day since it takes most people 5-7 hours to hike the entire trail. Richtis Gorge is close to the tiny village of Exo Mouliana (about a 15 minute drive from Sitia on eastern Crete). The trail goes through a canyon on an easy, well-marked path going past crumbling ruins, spectacular untouched forests, and several waterfalls before finishing at an often-deserted beach. See my post on Crete here: Planning to Visit Greece? Consider Going to Crete for Beautiful Beaches, Incredible Hiking, and Less Crowds.

Canyons like this are probably not what most people picture when they think of Greece

Canada

Banff National Park is in the Alberta Province of Canada, on the western side of the country with the Canadian Rockies running through it. This is a family-friendly park with options ranging from easy walks around a lake, ski lifts and gondolas if you want to skip the uphill (or downhill) trek, or strenuous and longer hikes. Healy Pass, Citadel Pass, and Harvey Pass are all long trails around 12-13 miles but they’re also some of the most scenic trails in the park. You can always hike a portion of the trails if you can’t or don’t want to devote an entire day to hiking each of them. Lake Minnewanka Lakeside Hike and Banff Bow River to Bow Falls to Banff Springs Hike are two family-friendly easy hikes with water views. Johnston Canyon and Ink Pots Hike is a popular trail that winds its way through the canyon, past two sets of waterfalls, before arriving at the Ink Pots, mineral springs that bubble up in a picturesque meadow. 

Banff National Park in Canada was even better than I expected!

New Zealand

I was only on the North Island of New Zealand, so I can only speak of my experience there, although I have no doubt there are also wonderful hiking trails on the South Island as well. The Tongariro Crossing in Tongariro National Park is the most popular day hike on the North Island and is around 12 miles long. I only hiked a portion of it since I didn’t have an entire day to devote to it. Along the way you can see famous landmarks such as Devil’s Staircase, the three Emerald Lakes, the Red Crater, Mount Tongariro, and Mount Ngauruhoe. Mount Maunganui Summit gives you big bang for your effort, with some amazing views of Tauranga and the beach below for a short but steep hike uphill. Cathedral Cove is one of the many picturesque spots on the island and an easy walk in the Coromandel Peninsula. Te Werahi Beach Track is at Cape Reinga, the northernmost point of New Zealand where you get great views of Te Werahi Beach, ultimately reaching the Cape Reinga Lighthouse. Near the town of Rotorua you can stroll through towering California Redwoods in the Whakarewarewa Forest, known locally as ‘The Redwoods.’

View from top of Mt. Maunganui

Peru

Of course Peru has Machu Picchu, the ancient Incan citadel high in the Andes Mountains, and there are several options for reaching the ruins. I chose to take the Lares Trek with https://www.alpacaexpeditions.com/ and the journey along the way to Machu Picchu is an experience I will never forget. It truly exceeded my expectations (and I had pretty high expectations going into it). Besides this trek, I also hiked Rainbow Mountain and even did a day-trip on my own to the ruins on the outskirts of Cusco. One thing I learned about Peru is believe the hype. Machu Picchu is one of the most-visited places in the world for a reason.

Lares Trek to Machu Picchu with Alpaca Expeditions- Day One

Lares Trek to Machu Picchu- Day Two

Lares Trek to Machu Picchu- Day Three

Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu in Peru

Cusco, Peru- Things to Do and Places to Eat Plus a Day-Trip to Famous Rainbow Mountain

Feeling like I’m on top of the world after this hike up Huayna Picchu in Machu Picchu

There are so many more places where I’ve been hiking and have been in awe of my surroundings but this is just the tip of the iceberg. What about you? What are some of your favorite places you’ve hiked?

Happy travels!

Donna

Review of Nathan Trail Mix 7 Liter Women’s Race Pack

For years I ran with a Nathan hydration waist belt and was pretty happy with it. I say that, but it was honestly more like a love/hate relationship. I loved having my favorite Nuun on my long runs plus a small area for my phone and Honey Stinger chews but I hated having to constantly push the belt down when it inevitably slid up my hips, further and further up my waist.

Finally, last October I took the plunge and bought a running vest, namely the Nathan Trail Mix 7 Liter Women’s Race Pack. From here on, I’m going to call it a running vest even though Nathan calls it a race pack. I had seen running vests primarily on marathoners and trail runners but also half marathoners and debated for a couple of years whether to buy one. Why the delay in buying one? Well, running vests are considerably pricier than running belts, about twice the price. Still, I thought since I could also take my vest hiking it would be dual-purpose and well worth it (plus no more struggling with it during runs).

I ran my fastest 5k ever wearing my Nathan running vest!

After looking at several other companies’ running vests online last fall, I thought I’d go to REI to try one on and see which I liked the best. I tried on an Osprey, Salomon, and this one by Nathan. I just liked how it fit better than the others plus it didn’t seem like more than I needed. The Trail Mix 7 Liter comes with a 2 liter hydration bladder, weighs just 7 ounces without the bladder and 11 ounces with it (empty of course). It’s also specifically designed for women, has multiple adjustable straps, three pockets in the front, and three zippered pockets in the back.

Another reason I bought my running vest at REI is their generous return policy. You can return anything within a year of purchase. I wasn’t sure how breathable and comfortable the vest would be for summer runs, so I wanted to make sure I had plenty of time to test the vest out, including for hot, humid runs.

So how did it hold up for those hot runs? Great! I thought for sure I’d have a hot, sweaty back and would be too uncomfortable to wear the vest during the summer months (which, let’s be honest, the heat kicks in during the spring here and doesn’t cool down that much until mid-October) but never once was it an issue. I also took my vest hiking every chance I had, including Hiking in Great Smoky Mountains National Park- Redux. The 2 liter hydration bladder is the perfect amount for me, and believe me, I drink a ton of water when I’m hiking.

When I go out for a long run, I don’t run with the hydration bladder, but I do run with a 500 mL flask in one front pocket, a 10 ounce flask in another front pocket (each has Nuun Endurance), and Honey Stinger chews in the third front pocket. In the back pockets, I have my phone and some emergency supplies should I ever need them (things like Bandaids, tissues, a mask during COVID, migraine pills, and things like that). There’s plenty of room in the back pockets, even with the full bladder. When I’m hiking and have the bladder (it’s full of only water), that goes in one back pocket and my emergency supplies go in the other back pockets.

So far you may have noticed there are only pros mentioned here. The only con I have is the adjustable straps don’t always stay put on long runs. Occasionally I have to grab them (usually both come loose at the same time) and tighten them again. This only takes a second, though, and is really a minor point. There’s probably a way to hook them to something once you tighten them, but I haven’t researched that because it’s such a minor thing.

The Nathan Trail Mix 7 Liter Women’s Race Pack comes in the pink color I have and a blue color that was out of stock when I bought mine. I just checked Nathan’s website and the blue is currently out of stock. They only have the men’s version on the REI site. That’s perhaps also a con I have about this vest: there apparently aren’t enough blue vests that they’re consistently out of stock. If anyone from Nathan (or even a competitor brand of running vests) just happens to be reading this, make more colors of running vests for women. Not all women exclusively like pink and purple.

Do any of you run with a hydration vest? Are you on the fence about buying one?

Happy running!

Donna