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