Vina del Mar and Valparaiso, Chile

Other than our self-guided walking tour of Santiago, the only other thing we wanted to do during our short stay in the city was to go up Costanera Tower in Santiago, the tallest building in Latin America. However, because the fog was so bad that day the women at the desk selling tickets advised us not to go up because we wouldn’t be able to see the mountains, we decided to save our money and skip it.

We said adiós to Santiago and set off in our rental car for Viña del Mar. For the 2 1/2 hour drive we opted to skip the toll roads, and boy what an adventure that was! The roads were some of the most curvy, winding mountainous roads I’ve seen since driving around in Greece but they were all paved and in good condition. There was almost nothing in sight for miles and miles other than beautiful countryside. We also almost ran out of gas too but with fumes left in the tank we made it to a gas station in the nick of time.

I had reserved a condo through Airbnb and the place was even better than I expected. For much less than we would have paid for a comparable condo overlooking the beach back in the United States, we had four bedrooms, a full kitchen, dining room, living room, washer and dryer, swimming pool, huge balcony spanning the length of the condo, all in a safe, gated community. Check out the view from our balcony:

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When I was planning our vacation I was trying to decide whether we should stay in Valparaiso or Viña del Mar. I read that Valparaíso has more charm than its neighbor but Viña del Mar is safer and more of a beach getaway. After seeing Valparaíso I could see what people mean. Valparaíso has more of an edge to it that some people prefer, while Viña del Mar is full of high rises and shopping centers. That being  said, the view from our condo was stunning whether it was day or night (see above photo and last photo) and I felt completely safe at all times.

Before leaving our hotel in Santiago, we had been warned not to leave a single thing in our rental car while in Valparaiso or thieves would break the window to steal it. We took this to heart and didn’t leave anything in the car when we parked in Valparaíso. However, we walked and drove all over Viña del Mar, even after it was dark and never once did we feel like we were in an unsafe area.

One thing I do feel the need to mention is the huge amount of stray dogs in Chile. As an animal-lover, it’s heart-breaking. This sad-looking little dog followed us steadfastly one evening for a couple of miles, hoping to join our pack. We called her “Chile.” She ultimately left us just before we entered the gate to go up the funicular to our apartment.

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“Chile”

Of course one of the first things we wanted to do when we arrived in Viña del Mar was go to the beach. Although it was a bit chilly for lying on the sand in a bathing suit and the water was far too cold to swim in, it was perfect weather for walking along the beach, which we did on multiple occasions. There are a few restaurants along the beach but since it was off-season it was pretty quiet when we were there. We also took advantage of the workout equipment along the beach to have the best workout at the most scenic “gym” I’ve ever been to!

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The most fun I’ve ever had doing leg press!

Of course a must-do while in Valparaíso is to take a tour of the famous poet and Chilean diplomat Pablo Neruda’s former house, “La Sebastiana.” Neruda had three houses, one in Santiago, one in Isla Negra, and this one in Valparaíso. It seemed to me that La Sebastiana had the most character of the three houses, so we chose this one to tour. This was definitely one of the most unique homes I’ve ever been in, from the design to the furnishings and choice of decor. The bar area with the unique knick knacks and bathroom with the clear glass door by the bar particularly come to mind. It’s definitely a place you have to experience in-person to fully appreciate.

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Pablo Neruda’s former home
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View from inside Pablo Neruda’s former home

The website is here for La Sebastiana. Entrance fees are 7,000 Chilean pesos per person or about $10.50 US with discounts for Chilean students and Chilean adults over 60. The self-guided tour takes roughly an hour, includes an audio guide for each floor and is available in English, Italian, French, German, Portuguese, and Spanish.

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Some colorful houses in Valparaiso

We also visited Palacio Rioja, a beautiful historic home in Viña del Mar built in 1907 where you can take a self-guided tour for free. Palacio Rioja has been declared a National Monument and later a Museum of Decorative Arts. Guided tours can be arranged (although not in English) and more information can be found here. I highly recommend visiting here if you’re ever in the area.

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Palacio Rioja
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Inside Palacio Rioja

On subsequent days in Viña del Mar we walked along the beach, walked to nearby restaurants and shops and relaxed thoroughly. The sunsets here were spectacular and many evenings we would find ourselves just gazing out the window at the fading sun and lights from the cars and stores below. This is a place I could definitely see myself returning to. The people here are friendly, traffic isn’t bad, and there are plenty of shops and restaurants and other things to do in the area.

Alas, our time in Viña del Mar was coming to a close, and we packed up and headed off to the next part of our adventure in Chile- to a more remote section called Las Cabras in the O’Higgins Region. This would prove to be the most challenging portion of our vacation yet but we had no idea of that at the time!

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Long Weekend in Morristown, New Jersey

I recently ran a half marathon in Morristown, New Jersey and decided to check out the area for a few days before the race. Although I have been to New Jersey a few other times, I had never been to this particular part of the state. Morristown is about an hour to hour and a half from New York City, depending on traffic and it’s a very beautiful area full of huge houses, farmland, and trees and flowers everywhere.

We had a rental car that we picked up at Newark Airport, so we could explore the city easily. When we first arrived, we were looking for a restaurant for lunch but had wandered into a residential area and saw enormous homes with huge lawns that must have cost millions of dollars. There were rolling hills and beautiful gardens everywhere, which seemed fitting given the state nickname is “The Garden State.”

On our first day we pretty much just walked around and took in the sights and got our bearings. The following day we went to the Ellis Island Museum and Statue of Liberty, my first time to either. Between the drive to Liberty Station and back, taking the ferry, and touring the museum and statue, that was pretty much a full day for us. We returned to our hotel, Best Western Plus, which was great. They have large rooms with small kitchens, wine tastings Monday through Wednesday, a Caribbean-themed restaurant, and a good central location. We really enjoyed the made-to-order omelette station for breakfast in the mornings.

We decided to check out Fosterfields Living Historical Farm in Morris Township for something a little different. The 1920s farm sits on over 200 acres and includes the Gothic revival style home built in 1854, although it has been a working farm since 1760. Previous owners include Jonathan Ogden, followed by the grandson of Paul Revere, General Joseph Warren Revere, and later the Foster family. There are docents walking around the grounds dressed in period clothing and performing tasks similar to what would have been done when it was still a working farm.

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There are pigs, cows, sheep, horses, chickens, and turkeys, some of which may have babies there if you’re lucky like we were. My daughter and husband took part in weighing the piglets using a scale that would have been used by the Foster family. I don’t know how many of you have ever been around piglets but they are really loud when they squeal! There are also cow milking demonstations and you can help grind the corn and feed the chickens, churn butter, and collect eggs. This farm is great if you have young to tween age children because of all of the hands-on experiences.

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See the runt on the far right? That’s the one we weighed.

If you want to go inside the Willows, the Foster family home, you have to pay extra and take an hour-long tour. You can go inside the small cottage near the Willows, however, for no extra fee. There is a lovely flower garden in front of the cottage as well. Finally, there is a transportation exhibit full of antique automobiles.

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The Willows
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Cottage by the Willows

You can easily spend a couple of hours here. Admission is $6 for adults, $4 for kids ages 4-16, $2 for children 2 and 3. Children 2 and under are free. This is a fun way to spend some time with your family and let your kids see what farm life was like in the early 1900’s.

My half marathon was the following day so that took up the morning. We went to Swiss Chalet Bakery & Cafe for lunch and had some paninis followed by some dessert. My daughter got this adorable cupcake which was almost too cute to eat.

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Finally we drove back to the airport to begin our next adventure- our first time to South America, beginning in Santiago, Chile.

How many of you are like me and think New Jersey gets a bad rap?  The parts I’ve been to have been very nice. Sure, there are bad sections, but every state has some bad sections.

A Total Solar Eclipse is Coming- Plan Your Road Trip Now!

Something is going to happen in parts of the United States on August 21, 2017 that hasn’t happened since 1918. A total eclipse is going to occur when the moon passes between the Earth and the sun, resulting in a 170 mile arc of darkness from parts of Oregon to parts of South Carolina. For several minutes, the sky will be dark enough to see stars and the sun will be completely covered by the moon.

For something so rare, it’s a perfect occasion for a road-trip, like my family is planning. It seems many others are also planning on visiting these places at the center of totality, as places are filling up fast. You will be able to see a partial eclipse from many other points of the US, but if you want to be in the center of all of the excitement, here are some places where you can spend a long weekend and join in the fun.

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Here are the states and cities with the best viewing spots:  Oregon has several cities; Driggs, Mud Lake, Rexburg, and Stanley, Idaho; several cities in Wyoming; several cities in Nebraska; Highland, Troy, and Wathena, Kansas; several cities in Missouri; several places in Illinois; several cities in Kentucky; several cities that are close but not at the center in Tennessee; Dillard and Sky Valley in Georgia; Andrews in North Carolina; and many places in South Carolina. The full listing is on this extensive web page. Some cities are close to the edge of the path but you’ll see more if you drive 30-50 miles north or south. In this case, close won’t be good enough. You really have to be in the center of the path to see the total eclipse.

One of the best places to find exactly where the path will go is on Xavier Jubier’s 2017 Total Eclipse Interactive Google Map. This very detailed web page also has basic information describing the eclipse and why this one is so special. There are also viewing times listed, many maps, and information on how to prepare for the eclipse.

The highlight of the eclipse when the sun is completely blocked by the moon will be quick, so make sure you get to your spot early. For most cities, totality will only last around 2 or 3 minutes. The complete event going from one end of the United States to the other is only expected to last less than 15 minutes. It should be a once in a lifetime experience, however.

Don’t forget to get some eclipse glasses, but you don’t need to invest huge amounts of money for them. They shouldn’t cost more than a few dollars for a pair. Regular sunglasses or homemade eclipse glasses won’t protect your eyes, so definitely buy a pair made specifically for an eclipse.

The next eclipse of this magnitude in the United States isn’t predicted to occur until 2045, so don’t wait around for the next one to happen. Make your plans now while you still can!

 

 

Festival Tickets-Worth the Price?

I had debated whether or not to go to a festival relatively close to where I live for several years. Last year the festival celebrated its 37th year the weekend of July 4th.  It is a festival where the proceeds are used to protect the water, land, and wildlife of a river basin in North Carolina. So far so good, right?

Last year’s festival included over 65 performers on 4 stages, as well as food trucks, a craft show featuring 85 local artists, environmental educational booths, and paddling demos in the river. Even better, right? Then you see tickets are $18 ($23 at the gate) for a single day pass or $30 ($35 at the gate) for a two day pass.  Teen tickets are $11 in advance or at the gate. Children 12 and under are free.  For a family with one or older children, that could really add up. My question each year was is it really worth the price of admission?

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Although I had seen the festival advertised many years ago, I had never gone because of the great debate about price of the admission tickets.  This debate came to an end last summer when my family and I finally went. We did not pay for our tickets, however. We were actually volunteers at a booth with a group that is part of an educational program about the river for children. Volunteers for the festival are graciously offered free admission for the entire day on the day they volunteer. Our shift was from noon to 2:30 so we went a bit early to walk around before our shift, and after our shift we walked around to the areas we hadn’t seen yet.

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As volunteers at the booth by the river, we got to scoop small fish, guppies, salamanders, and whatever else we could find in the river and put in tanks for others to see. There were displays about local animals in the area and skulls of indigenous animals were available for viewing and touching. It was really a lot of fun and the 2 and a half hours flew by.

One of the musical groups that we listened to there was Crystal Bright and the Silver Hands. We really enjoyed their performance and if by chance you see the band in your area, I encourage you to check them out, or check out some of their music online. There were many other performers and activities at the festival including dancers, woodworking demonstrations, beekeeping demos and information, puppet parade, kids’ activities, and even a huge sand sculpture by an artist who sculpted a skink last year.

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So to go back to my original question, is the price of admission worth it? In my case, considering you can spend an entire day (or two days) here and you get entertainment all day included and the proceeds are to help support the conservation of this beautiful area, I’d say absolutely. Obviously in general, festival ticket prices vary widely depending on the venue, length of festival, what’s included, etc. and everyone’s budget is different. But I’d encourage you to sign up as a volunteer for a festival you’ve been on the fence about going to and see for yourself.  You have nothing to lose if you don’t like it and you’ll be glad you didn’t shell out any money for admission if it’s not a good one. If you do enjoy it, however, you will have helped out the folks at the festival, gotten free or reduced admission, and experienced a festival on top of it all.

We enjoyed the experience so much, we’re going back again this year as volunteers and we’ll hang out and enjoy the rest of the festival afterwards. In our case, the price of admission is a couple of hours of our time helping to educate families about the environment including local animals and playing in the river. To me, that’s a win-win for everyone.