How a Free Cruise to the Bahamas Changed My Life

When I was in college I didn’t travel that often. My parents divorced when I was young and I was raised by a single mom who didn’t have the money to pay for me to go to college. I paid my own way through school with loans, jobs, scholarships, and financial aid. I barely even remember eating out that much in college, so I sure didn’t have money to travel more than maybe a few hours away for a road trip but even that didn’t happen that often.

Then when I was a junior in college, I received a card in the mail stating I may have won a prize. It listed several possibilities such as a TV, a check for $500, a VCR (this was the late 90’s), or a cruise to the Bahamas. All I had to do was go to some kind of informational meeting about a product that I don’t remember what it even was now. At the end of the meeting, they would draw a number and if it matched the number on our card, we would win the prize associated with the number. As you may have guessed by now, I won a cruise to the Bahamas.

I had never even been out of the country and I was a poor college student so I didn’t even care that it wasn’t even a “real” cruise but only a day cruise from Ft. Lauderdale, Florida on a small cruise ship to the Bahamas, where I was provided with a free hotel stay for 3 days/2 nights, and a day cruise back to Ft. Lauderdale. I had to pay a nominal amount for some fees and/or taxes but it was maybe $75, so I happily paid that and got ready for my first international trip.

white cruise ship
No, my “cruise” ship wasn’t nearly this big. Photo by Matthew Barra on

The cruise and hotel stay was for myself and a guest so my boyfriend and I drove to Ft. Lauderdale, Florida where the cruise ship was to depart during our summer break a few months after I won the prize. Neither of us had ever been out of the country and neither of us had a clue what we were doing. We didn’t plan a single thing but went along with the flow of things and figured it out when we got there. I still remember driving to Ft. Lauderdale because the air conditioning went out on his car literally the day before we left, so we had the windows down, getting blasted with hot air, while we drove along the interstate.

The day cruise was pretty uneventful really. We left Ft. Lauderdale sometime in the afternoon and were only on the water for a few hours, arriving that evening. The water was pretty rough when we got out in the open water. I remember walking to dinner on the ship and watching the ship being rocked from side to side. Fortunately I didn’t feel that sick and was just a little nauseous. We had dinner, which was nothing special, and not long after that the ship was docking in Freeport, Grand Bahama Island. There was a small casino on the ship and some sort of show was going on in another area but we didn’t gamble and we only watched a portion of the show.

If you’ve never been to Freeport in the Bahamas, it’s not a place I would recommend visiting now. When I was there in the 90’s it was sketchy as far as being safe and since then it’s gotten worse. The U.S. Department of State currently rates the criminal threat level for New Providence Island (Nassau) as critical with the criminal threat level for Grand Bahama Island rated as high. There are parts of the Bahamas that are safer than others, so just know that the many areas of the Bahamas are not all the same and do your research before you go.

There isn’t really that much to do in Freeport either. You can visit Port Lucaya, go to the beach, and if you have the money (unlike I did) you can go horseback riding, ziplining, go diving in Lucayan National Park, or you can go snorkeling, which I splurged on and spent the money for. The snorkeling trip I went on was an all-day excursion and we were given free access to all of the Bahama Mama alcoholic drinks we wanted. Yes, I was a college student, and yes I had way too many Bahama Mama’s that day, so many in fact that all I wanted to do was stay in my room that evening and try to sober up. The snorkeling was fun but definitely not the best I’ve seen now that I’ve been snorkeling many other places in the Caribbean and Hawaii.

My boyfriend paid for us to go to dinner at a nice seafood restaurant the second night we were there. We went out with two other couples we met on the “booze cruise” and had a good time. Honestly, other than snorkeling, going out to eat a couple of times and lounging at the beach during the day, we didn’t do that much. Again, we were poor college students who hadn’t planned a single thing ahead of time.

Despite barely even leaving the United States and going to a country that didn’t even require Americans to have a passport for entry back then, I feel like that trip is when I first caught the travel bug. Despite not planning anything to do on that trip before I went, not choosing where I was going to stay, where I was going to eat, or a single other travel-related thing other than the fact that my boyfriend and I had to drive to Ft. Lauderdale and back to West Virginia after the cruise, this was a pivotal moment in my life as a traveler.

After my free trip to the Bahamas, I began to pay attention to where other people were traveling. I still didn’t have money to travel anywhere substantial and knew I wouldn’t until I was completely through with college, which included graduate school to get my Master’s degree, but that didn’t stop me from dreaming and starting to build my bucket list of places where I eventually wanted to travel.

That free trip to the Bahamas was the vacation that opened my eyes to the rest of the world. Never would I have guessed that would happen when I went to that meeting to see if I won a TV but ended up winning a cruise to the Bahamas. It may sound a bit dramatic to hear me say that trip to the Bahamas changed my life, but I feel like it did in many ways. It made me realize the world is enormous and there’s so much out there that’s vastly different from the places where we live. There’s so much to see and do, if only we go and explore.

Is there one vacation that stands out to you as one that opened your eyes to travel?

Happy travels!





My Dream Half Marathon

Have you ever thought about what you would do if you were a race director? I started thinking about how I would design my dream half marathon if I could be the race director and also add in some things that probably would never happen in reality, but hey, it’s fun to just think “What if?” sometimes. I’ve experienced quite the variety of races over the years in states all over the United States ranging from big cities to small towns. Some of the races offered things that I thought were a great idea and other races were so poorly ran I thought surely no one on the team for the race could be a runner because no runner would ever do something like that in a race.

So how would I design a race if I was in charge of absolutely everything including location, weather, and had an unlimited budget and a surplus of volunteers to help me pull it off? Well, for starters I would offer a half marathon because that’s my favorite distance. We could have a marathon the day after the half in case anyone wanted to run both races and of course give the runners a total of three medals, one for each race ran and one for completing both races.

Some pretty nice views from a race start like this would be good. This was the Dogtown Half Marathon in Utah.

Packet pick-up would be at a school or other place big enough to have a variety of vendors giving out free samples. Nuun and Honey Stinger would both be there, letting people try their products. Zensah would be there selling their compression socks and other running gear that I love but at a discounted price for runners. If you’re running both the half marathon and full marathon you’d get an even bigger discount on anything you bought at the expo.

There would be a pasta dinner the day before the race with Kara Goucher speaking and offering a short (one hour) running clinic and motivational talk. This pasta dinner would be sponsored by the best Italian restaurant in the state and everyone would rave about how good the food was. Family members of the runners would be encouraged to attend both the pasta dinner and running clinic, which would be offered at an amazing low price thanks to the generosity of sponsors.

There would be many, many port-o-johns at the start of the race and there would be small bonfires attended by volunteers for safety to help keep the runners warm. Hot coffee and tea would also be at the race start. Bart Yasso would be at the race start and after saying some motivational and funny words, the runners would be off. Mr. Yasso would be staying for the duration of the race to call out each runner’s name as they crossed the finish line.

The course would start at the top of a canyon in the mountains (but only maybe up to 3,000 feet in elevation at the peak) and wind its way down through the canyon alongside a river. You could see a beautiful bridge in the distance as you ran. Traffic would be closed off for the race so runners wouldn’t have to worry about cars. You would also be able to watch the sun rise from the start of the race but it would be a cool, cloudy day for the rest of the race.

Water views like this along the course? Yes, please!

There would be homeowners out along the course cheering runners on, with adorable well-behaved dogs and cute kids holding funny posters, to help keep those smiles coming from runners along the course. Volunteer aid stations would have Nuun and water and Honey Stinger gels and chews. All along the course there would be a wide array of music being played, with local musicians playing classical music, guitarists playing rock music, drummers, a piano player, and more. The volunteer aid stations would all be told to come up with a fun theme and the team with the most votes by runners would win a small prize.

As the course wound its way through the canyon, traveling slightly downhill but not so much to trash your quads, you would pass some waterfalls and see a snow-capped mountain in the distance. There would be a couple of small (very small) hills just to mix things up a bit with your legs along the course. Every mile would be marked with a mile marker sign and include a countdown since the race started (you never know when you may have watch trouble or forget your watch for a race so this would be for those people). There would be pacers on the course who would be following their pace times phenomenally well and were chatty, funny individuals.

You would know when you were getting close to the finish because the last mile would be clearly marked, with a clear shot of the finish line. After entering a football stadium, you would run the last 50 yards of the race on the football field, where you would be handed a small football at the finish line, along with your medal (don’t even bother asking me about logistics of having both a clear shot of the finish line and entering a football stadium). As I mentioned earlier, Bart Yasso would call out each runner’s name as they were crossing the finish.

Bart Yasso at the finish of the Skinny Raven Half Marathon in Anchorage, Alaska

Beer from a local brewery, chocolate milk, ice cold water, smoothies, and Nuun would be all of your free beverage choices post-race. There would be pizza, soft pretzels, watermelon slices, bananas, a variety of soups, chocolate chip cookies, and Noosa yogurt at the finish for all runners. Musicians would be playing for the rest of the day at the park near the race finish. Kids could play at the playground while their parents hung out and chatted with other runners. A local swim facility, hotel, or YMCA or something like that within walking distance would offer free post-race showers to all runners.

Awards would be given out to the first three male and female finishers as well as first three finishers in 5-year increments of age groups. Cash would be awarded to the first three male and female finishers and trophies to everyone else. Photographers would be along the course and at the finish and runners would have the option to print out their own photos for free with the link sent out after the race.

Now your turn- what would your dream race look like? What things would you be sure to include? Do you like how I’ve designed my dream race? Remind me what I’ve left off!

Happy running!



How do you Decide Where to Travel?

I always have a long list of places where I want to travel, and it seems like my list is always getting longer instead of shorter. More times than not, I’ll listen to a podcast and they’ll discuss a place I hadn’t really considered going to before, but by the end, I’m convinced I must go there! Or I’ll read something online and see beautiful photos and add that place to my list. Sometimes a good deal on airfare will come up and I’ll snag the deal and make plans to go there even if it might not have been at the top of my list.

Often I wonder how other people choose where they travel to. Do they go to places near-by or do they go to Disney every year with their kids? Do they go to places where they always went as a kid and it’s just become a habit? Do their spouses or friends mostly choose where to go and they’re just along for the ride? Do they only have enough vacation time to visit family? Or is it something else?

Grand Cayman Island exceeded my expectations and was a perfect choice for a beach trip in November

At the beginning I said I have a long list of places where I want to travel, but that’s not really correct. Actually I have three lists for travel:  one includes states in the United States where I haven’t run a half marathon yet, the second includes places where my husband and I are considering to retire early, and the third includes places where I’d like to go and visit but not necessarily live there.

My first list is short and sweet and thankfully getting shorter. It includes Nebraska, New Mexico, Iowa, and Minnesota. I already have half marathons chosen for these states (although the race in Minnesota could change) and because I like to add on a vacation after the race to turn it into a racecation, I already know which city I’ll be going to in Nebraska (Omaha).  I have a pretty good idea about Minnesota, New Mexico, and Iowa, but those aren’t quite as firm as the other states yet. I’ll  be going to Albuquerque, New Mexico and possibly Santa Fe, probably St. Paul in Minnesota, and probably Cedar Rapids in Iowa. If you have suggestions for things to check out including restaurants in any of these areas, feel free to suggest them below.

After running in the Famous Potato Half Marathon in Boise, Idaho, we stayed in the area for a few days and hiked in gorgeous places like this!

My second list includes areas both in and out of the US that are places that my husband and I are checking out as places to retire. A big factor in choosing these areas are the weather, in addition to general location, safety and cost of living. I’ll admit I’m like Goldilocks in that I prefer to live somewhere that’s not too hot and not too cold when I retire. I also like proximity to beaches and mountains if possible and within a reasonable drive to an airport. Currently, this list includes places like southern Portugal and Spain, Ecuador, parts of Central America, as well as places in Oregon and Florida.

My husband and I would also consider living in one place for the winter months and driving (even if was a big distance but could be done in several days with breaks) to another place for the summer months. This potential dual-home idea includes places in the US and Europe. I feel like while I’ve been to the majority of the US, there are huge areas of Europe that I’ve never been to. If you have a suggestion for somewhere in Europe, Central, or South America that would check off the boxes I’ve listed here, let me know and I’ll add it to my list of places to check out. Spanish-speaking places are not a problem for us

Finally, my third list, the solely for fun list includes places like the Republic of Georgia, Slovenia, Croatia, Thailand, Vancouver, and on and on. This list is very long and seems to be growing longer all the time. The places on this list haven’t taken a priority because of the other two lists, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want to go there any less. I’ve been dying to go to the Republic of Georgia for several years.

The Canary Islands is a place we wanted to check out as a potential place to retire

Once I finish my quest to run a half marathon in all 50 states, my priority will be in choosing places on the list for potential retirement spots. Even though my husband and I plan to retire early, we still have about 11 years until that will happen. This gives us plenty of time to go to places we’re considering multiple times, during different times of the year and visiting different neighborhoods within the areas we’re considering. We have flexibility, though, because we have plenty of time, and I’ll be able to watch for airfare deals and choose according to them more than I currently do.

I know that my family and I don’t travel like most people do. Over the years we’ve been to many places that most people wouldn’t necessarily choose but yet we haven’t been to some of the more popular places. For example, we’ve been to New Zealand but not Australia. We’ve been to Austria but not France. We went to Chile but didn’t go to Patagonia. Yes, we travel a bit differently than most Americans but then again there has always been a reason why we’ve chosen to travel where we have, such as I got a deal on airfare or lodging. Or New Zealand looks freaking amazing and how could we NOT go there?!

Just one of many incredible views we saw in New Zealand

This brings me back to my original question:  How do you choose where you travel?

Happy travels!




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