10 Reasons to Skip the Cruise and Stay in Grand Cayman Island Instead

Caribbean cruises are hugely popular and many stop at Grand Cayman Island, which is a British Overseas Territory. However, many of these cruises arrive at Grand Cayman Island in the morning and depart in the afternoon. To really get a feel for the island, I suggest you stay at a hotel on the island and rent a car or take taxis to be able to see and do more. Here are some of the things you can do in one week:

  1. Beach hop! In addition to the famous Seven Mile Beach, there are so many more white-sand beaches. If you stay on the island for a week, you will have time to explore them all and decide for yourself which ones you like the best.
  2. Eat your way around the island. There are some diverse restaurants spread around the island, ranging from those offering Mexican food, Italian, Indian, Australian with a Caribbean twist, Caribbean, steakhouses, seafood, and gourmet restaurants.
  3. Explore the island’s newest nature attraction:  Caves at Cayman Crystal Caves, only recently opened to the public.
  4. Go shopping in one of the most beautiful open-air shopping areas I’ve ever seen at Camana Bay. In addition to a nice array of shops and restaurants, you’ll find the area nicely landscaped with plenty of trees, flowers, fountains, and seating areas.
  5. Try out all of the water sports. You can rent jet skis, kayaks, stand-up paddle boards,  go sailing, parasailing, snorkeling, scuba diving, or deep sea fishing. Many people from cruise ships will arrange a tour to go snorkeling at Sting Ray City but if you stay on the island, you can do much more than that, at your own leisure.
  6. Have your choice of where to stay. You can stay in a plush hotel like Westin, Marriott, Ritz-Carlton, or a bed-and-breakfast, a family-friendly resort, or condo.
  7. Take in some historical sites. Georgetown gets much more busy and crowded when cruise ships are in, but if you choose a day when no cruise ships are in town, you’ll be able to walk around and have a more enjoyable day. Elmslie Memorial Church, the National Museum, the Government Post Office, the Government Library, and the Town Hall are all historical sites in Georgetown. In Bodden Town, learn about the island’s history at Pedro St. James castle, a wonderfully restored 3-story house overlooking the water.
  8. Go to Hell. Hell is the name given to a large outcropping of sharp limestone rocks in the district of West Bay. Sure it’s touristy but it’s still fun. While in the area, visit the Hell Post Office where you can send a letter postmarked “Hell” and take some photos with devil-themed props from the nice people who live next door to the post office.
  9. Kayak through bioluminescent waters and experience the fairy-dust-like magic as you skim your hands or kayak paddle along the water. You can only do this on certain nights when there is no moon. You can also touch a jellyfish; my husband and daughter both did this. Our guide showed us how the jellies in this area don’t have that potent of stingers so you feel only slightly numb after touching them (or so I’m told since I didn’t touch one). Bonus- see dozens of sea stars at nearby Starfish Point during the day before you go kayaking at night.
  10. Experience a moon rising. We were lucky enough to be able to see this on our first night and it was truly magical. I know it doesn’t sound nearly as fascinating as it actually was, but the only way I can describe it is to say it’s sort of like a sunrise, only in reverse, so you see the moon slowly rise over the horizon until it’s high in the sky.
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Cayman Crystal Caves
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Starfish Point
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Camana Bay Shopping Center

I have a couple of more in-depth posts coming that cover some of the things to do I listed here, but this was meant to pique your interest.

Have any of you been to Grand Cayman Island? Did you stop as part of a cruise or did you stay on the island? Have you ever seen a moon rising?

Happy travels?

Donna

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Hiking, Bathing, and Admiring Holiday Lights in Hot Springs, Arkansas

Following my half marathon in Cotter, Arkansas, and the completion of state number 44 on my quest to run a half marathon in all 50 states (race report here), I decided the best place to spend the vacation portion of my racecation was in Hot Springs. Hot Springs is about a 3 1/2 hour drive from Cotter, a small town in northern Arkansas, and is about an hour from Little Rock.

Hot Springs is the number one tourist destination in Arkansas, with more than 6 million visitors per year. It’s evident the area caters to tourists, with the plethora of tourist shops, restaurants, and hotels, along with some of the more touristy things like a wax museum. One of the big draws for outdoor lovers is Hot Springs National Park.

Hot Springs National Park isn’t your typical park, since it’s located within and around the downtown area of the city of Hot Springs. The area was first protected in 1832 as Hot Springs Reservation but did not officially become a national park until 1921. The National Park Service has the perfect recommendations for how to spend your time at Hot Springs National Park here. Admission to the park is free.

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There are several options for hiking trails within the park, with some easy and others considered moderate. We ended up hiking most of the trails while we were there. If you don’t enjoy hiking or can’t hike, there is also a scenic drive through much of the park. I recommend either hiking or driving to the Mountain Tower, where you can go to the top for some great views of the area. You can either take an elevator up or go up stairs on the outside of the tower, for the same price, $8 for adults. There’s also a gift shop at the tower.

I highly recommend taking a traditional bath at Buckstaff Bathhouse, which we did, but with a bit of warning. Buckstaff Bathhouse doesn’t take reservations so you walk in, give them your last name and what services you want, pay, and go to sit and wait (upstairs for women, first floor for men) until an attendant calls your name. My last name is admittedly not the easiest to pronounce or spell, given the prevalence of how many people have trouble pronouncing and spelling it correctly. However, my daughter and I waited, and waited for our names to be called. A couple of times they called out names that no one else answered to. I later found out they had been calling our name even though never did they say anything remotely like our last name. Only after three other women that arrived after us were called back, did someone finally realize their mistake in skipping us. One attendant told me she had called our name repeatedly and asked why we didn’t answer. I told her we were sitting there the whole time and no one said anything that sounded like our name. Lesson learned- give them a very simple last name at the front desk, something that’s impossible to screw up.

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Despite having to wait much longer than we should have upon arrival, the bath treatment more than made up for it. To begin, you have a bath drawn in a private tub that’s very long, and I’m tall so it was fantastic to actually be able to stretch out completely, where you sit in the whirlpool mineral bath first. Next, I was taken to an area where an attendant put hot towels around my shoulders and lower back. After that, I went to a sitz bath, then to a wet sauna, and finished off with a needle shower. All of this cost just $33. You can add on extras like a massage, a loofah scrub, and a paraffin treatment for hands. I’ve seriously never felt more recovered after a half marathon than I did after the race in Cotter, and I completely believe it was due to the traditional bath at Buckstaff Bathhouse.

The final thing we did in Hot Springs that turned out to be one of the highlights of our time there was visiting Garvan Woodland Gardens. Normally, November wouldn’t be an ideal time to visit these gardens since not much is in bloom then but there is a lights display that is one of the best I’ve seen and well worth a visit. Holiday Lights is open November 17- December 31 and admission is $15 for adults and $5 for children. You walk around the 4 1/2 miles of land, with different areas decorated in different themes; you can also rent a golf cart for extra admission. Don’t forget to take a peek at the stunning Anthony Chapel which as my husband put it, “is made for weddings.”

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Lily pad scene, one of my favorites from Garvan Gardens
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Anthony Chapel at night

Some of our favorite restaurants in Hot Springs include:

Superior Bathhouse Brewery

Grateful Head Pizza Oven and Beer Garden

Bone’s Chophouse (a bit away from the touristy downtown area with phenomenal service and great food)

Cafe 1217 (“gourmet to go” dine in with great-tasting healthy options)

Hot Springs, Arkansas is a fun place to spend a long weekend or a few days. There are plenty of offerings to suit pretty much anyone, whether you want a girls’ weekend at the spa, hiking at the national park, or you’re a foodie and want some great food in a scenic spot. There’s also horse racing, an amusement park, Lake Catherine State Park, a science museum, and the Gangster Museum of America. I’m not exaggerating when I say every single person we talked to seemed genuinely nice and were happy to see us and talk to us. Even with all that Hot Springs has to offer, it’s an added bonus that the people are one of its greatest attributes.

Have any of you ever been to Hot Springs, Arkansas or do you plan on going someday? I know Arkansas isn’t on the radar of many people unless they live in states nearby, but it really is a beautiful area of our country with a lot to offer!

Happy travels!

Donna

 

Alaska Itinerary and Travel Tips

Of all of the 50 states in the United States, Alaska is consistently in the top 10 most-visited states. Although planning a vacation to Alaska can seem a bit challenging, it’s certainly not difficult to do on your own. Alaska is by far the largest state in the United States, at 663,300 square miles and many of the major cities are vast distances from each other. Further, much of Alaska is only accessible by water, making it even more challenging to visit, hence the popularity in Alaskan cruises. But what do you do if you or your traveling companions get motion sickness on boats and a cruise is not an option or you just don’t want to take a cruise? Of course, you dive in and start planning your own itinerary!

Some questions you may ask when planning a trip to Alaska:

How long should I spend in Alaska?

The longer, the better, given the enormous size of the state and the fact that only 20% of the state is accessible by roads. For most people, roughly ten days to two weeks is a good amount of time to spend on your first visit, to get a “taste” of Alaska. It’s best to focus on visiting a few areas rather than trying to cram in a dozen different areas and spending much of your time in transit from one place to another.

Getting to Alaska and Getting Around

Although there are many small airports in Alaska, major airports include ones in Anchorage, Fairbanks, and Juneau. Other communities with jet service in Alaska include Wrangell, Petersburg, Sitka, Glacier Bay/Gustavus, Yakutat, Cordova, Kodiak, Dutch Harbor, Adak, King Salmon, Dillingham, Bethel, Nome, Kotzebue, Barrow and Prudhoe Bay. As mentioned above, only 20% of Alaska is accessible by roads, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t consider driving an option. We picked up our rental car in Anchorage and were able to drive to all of the places we wanted to, without any problems, and we didn’t need a 4×4 vehicle either. This was during the summer, so if it’s winter, be prepared to drive on snowy roads. Taking the Alaska Railroad is also an option for getting between cities.

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When is the Best Time of Year to Visit Alaska?

In my opinion, there is no “best” time of year to visit anywhere and Alaska is no exception. Summer is the most popular time to visit Alaska, with mid-June to mid-August being peak season. If you prefer warmer weather and plan to do a lot of hiking, July through early August are your best bets but if you want to see the Northern Lights, the winter months when it’s the darkest are best. If you plan on going to Denali National Park, the park’s only roadway remains open through early September for bus tours although a 15-mile portion of the road is also open for private vehicles. Crowds are a bit thinner during the shoulder months of April to May and September.

Tips for Planning your Alaska Itinerary

If you plan on going during the busy summer months, book in advance whenever possible. Bus tours through Denali National Park sell out months in advance, as do campsites and accommodations in more popular areas of the state.

Because of the remoteness of the state, WiFi is non-existent in many rural areas. Cell phone service is also spotty at best in many places, even in some of the bigger cities. Download Google maps offline and drop pins on places where you want to go so you have access to areas where you don’t have coverage.

Pack for cool or cold weather even in the summer. I was a bit surprised to learn the average daytime highs in August are usually in the low-to mid-60’s Fahrenheit (16 to 19 degrees Celsius). This coupled with the fact that it rained many days made it feel pretty chilly, which brings me to my next tip.

Pack a poncho or lightweight rain jacket. August and September are the wettest months but rain is pretty common in July as well.

Consider hiking with others and/or buy bear spray. Bears are abundant in Alaska, as are moose. Many people may not realize moose are even more dangerous than bears in Alaska. Moose outnumber bears nearly three to one in Alaska, wounding around five to 10 people in the state annually. That’s more than grizzly bear and black bear attacks combined.

Remember that fresh fruits and vegetables cost more in Alaska than in the lower 48 states (as do many other things). As we were reminded with a sign in a grocery store in Alaska, those bananas have to travel a very long way to reach Alaska, which increases the cost. Alaska has a short growing season and primarily cool season vegetables such as beets, potatoes, broccoli, cabbage, carrots grow here, although some fruit trees have successfully been grown near the University of Alaska at Fairbanks. Tourism also increases prices so anywhere frequented heavily by cruise ships will have higher prices, especially in the direct vicinity around the port.

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Itinerary:  11 days/10 nights in Alaska

Stop 1:  Anchorage (3 nights)

Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport is the busiest airport in Alaska, with twice as many passengers in June, July and August as between October to April. This is likely the airport you will be flying into. For most people, it will be a long flight, and you will want to focus on checking into your hotel and resting for the first day and possibly part of the second day.

After you’ve rested up, venture out and do a bit of hiking or just driving around to take in the scenery. On our first full day in Anchorage, we saw a moose drinking water from a small lake just off a highway. This was our first moose sighting, despite having traveled previously to many other places in the US and Canada that are heavily populated by moose, so we were of course excited to stop and take some photos. As mentioned earlier, moose can be extremely dangerous, so make sure you don’t get close to the animals and give them a huge berth of space.

Chugach National Forest, which stretches for 6,908,540 acres in south central Alaska is easily accessible from Anchorage and there are many options for trails and hiking.

Mount Baldy is another hiking option and the trailhead parking lot is only about 30 minutes from downtown Anchorage.

Tony Knowles Coastal Trail is a scenic place to take a walk, go for a run, or take a spin on some rental bikes.

Turnagain Arm is just south of Anchorage and I recommend driving along here and stopping at some of the stops along the way such as McHugh Creek Recreation Area and Beluga Point Lookout.

Some of our favorite restaurants in Anchorage include Snow City Café, South Restaurant and Coffeehouse, and Wild Scoops.

You can find a full description of our time in Anchorage here.

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Stop 2:  Denali National Park (3 nights)

The drive from Anchorage to the surrounding areas of Denali National Park is a long one, taking approximately 5 hours, give or take, depending on traffic and road construction (which we ran into on our way back from Denali National Park). If you can’t get reservations to stay inside the park or don’t want to stay in the park, there are options in the nearby town of Healy or a bit further away, McKinley Park.

I found the options for accommodations in Healy to range from fairly expensive to super-expensive, with nothing other than campgrounds offering anything what I would call affordable. However, I wanted to be as close to the park entrance as possible, so I chose one of the more affordable of the expensive hotels, Cabins at Denali. We had a two-story room, with nothing but a bathroom and entryway on the bottom floor and a huge room upstairs with three beds, a sitting area with a couch and coffee table, dining room table and chairs, microwave, sink, and coffee maker.

You can only drive the first 15 miles into Denali National Park, so you will need to make reservations well in advance for one of the buses. There are many options, depending if you want to get off the bus and hike or just stay on the bus, and how far into the park you want to go.

On our first day in Healy, since we arrived in the evening, we just ventured out for dinner and relaxed for the evening. We took a bus tour for hikers on our second day and it was a full day indeed, since we chose the bus tour that went several hours into the backcountry of the park. For our third day, we hiked on the trails around the areas closer to the entrance of the park that are private vehicle-accessible and went to the sled dog tour.

You can find a full description of our time in Healy and Denali National Park here.

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Stop 3:  Seward (3 nights)

Even though the drive from Anchorage to Denali National Park is a long one, the drive from Denali National Park to Seward is even longer, since you actually drive past Anchorage to get to Seward. The drive took us around 6 1/2 hours, but we stopped to do a bit of hiking along the way and break up the drive.

The area that includes Seward is filled with glaciers, so we decided to stop and hike at one before we reached our Airbnb in Seward. Driving south from Anchorage on the Seward Highway, go to the end of the 5-mile Portage Spur Road. Byron Glacier trailhead is near Portage Lake. It’s a one-mile scenic walk to the glacier face along Byron Creek.

We also hiked to Exit Glacier in Kenai Fjords National Park (which has no entry fee). This is a popular glacier to visit and there will likely be crowds if you’re there during the summer. It’s an easy hike to get to the first viewing area for the glacier. There are actually two viewing areas, one a bit further away, for people that can’t or don’t want to hike the trail, and the one much closer to the glacier. If you want to walk on the glacier, you need to arrange a tour with a guide.

On our second day in Seward, we took a Kenai Fjords National Park tour with Kenai Fjords Tours, a 6 hour boat tour. Despite taking anti-motion sickness medication, my husband and daughter were still sick for the entire tour. However, I was perfectly fine and thoroughly enjoyed the tour. We saw many glaciers and animals like seals, whales, and puffins. Although this was a highlight of my time in Alaska, my husband and daughter would not say the same thing, so if you have problems with motion sickness, you should probably skip a boat tour here.

For our third day in Seward, we went to what became my daughter’s favorite part of our time in Alaska, Seavey’s Ididaride. Since it was summer, instead of being pulled by Alaskan huskies in a dogsled, we were pulled in a cart by the dogs. The dogs train year-round and you can visit here year-round and see these beautiful dogs that clearly love to run and also check out some of Mitch Seavey’s, (a former Iditarod winner), trophies and race-related gear. We also got to see and even hold some adorable Alaskan husky puppies, which was the icing on the cake for my husky-loving daughter.

Since we had a really nice house through Airbnb to stay at with a well-stocked kitchen in Seward, we stopped at a nearby grocery store on our first day so we could eat most of our meals in the house (plus it was better for our budget). We only went out to eat once, at Seward Brewing Company and really liked our food there.

You can find a full description of our time in Seward here.

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Stop 3:  Girdwood (1 night)

This is an optional stop you could even add on during your time in Anchorage, since it’s a bit under an hour from downtown Anchorage. Since we had a late evening flight back home, I thought it would be a good way to not have such a long drive from Seward to the airport (about 2/12-3 hours) and see a new area as well. It ended up being a good decision and I thoroughly enjoyed our time in Girdwood.

We stayed at the beautiful Alyeska Resort and were able to snag the Summer Tram Package deal where you get free tram tickets when you stay the night. Alyeska Resort is a 300-room year-round hotel with skiing in the winter and hiking and mountain biking the rest of the year. Normally we don’t stay at huge resorts like this, but every now and then I like to splurge, and since it was just one night, it didn’t break the bank.

We took the tram up to the top of the mountain above the resort and hiked around some trails there and were rewarded with some truly gorgeous views. You can hike up and down the mountain and skip the tram, but taking the tram was a good way to save our legs to be able to do more hiking around the top.

Besides taking the tram to the top from the Hotel Alyeska and hiking up there, we really wanted to hike Lower Winner Creek Trail. The trail begins behind the Hotel Alyeska. The first 3/4 mile is a wide, well-developed boardwalk. The next 1.5 miles are easy hiking along a firm dirt trail  through the Chugach National Forest. When you reach Winner Creek Gorge, you’re in for a special treat, the hand tram. The hand tram is just like it sounds, powered by hand, and if you’re lucky, you’ll have people waiting on both sides of the gorge who will happily pull the ropes to get you across the gorge (otherwise you will have to pull yourself across). I have a fear of heights but loved going across the hand tram and highly recommend it.

For restaurants, we liked Girdwood Brewing Company (there was a food truck when we were there with awesome Mexican food), Sitzmark, Alpine Diner & Bakery, and The Bake Shop.

You can find a full description of our time in Girdwood here.

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11-day Alaska Itinerary at-a-glance

Day 1:  Anchorage- flight arrival, hotel check-in, settle in

Day 2:  Anchorage- hiking and/or Tony Knowles Coastal Trail

Day 3:  Anchorage- check out Turnagain Arm

Day 4:  Healy- drive here from Anchorage

Day 5:  Denali National Park- bus tour of park

Day 6:  Denali National Park- hiking, dog-sled demonstrations

Day 7:  Seward- drive here from Healy, with option to stop at Byron Glacier along the way

Day 8:  Seward- Kenai Fjords National Park tour

Day 9:  Seward- Seavey’s Ididaride and hiking to Exit Glacier

Day 10:  Girdwood- drive here from Seward, hiking around Alyeska Resort

Day 11:  Girdwood- hiking Winner Creek Gorge, flight home

I feel like this itinerary hits some of the major highlights of Alaska, but I’m not an expert by any means; I just did a ton of research beforehand. During our time in Alaska, we felt like these places were definitely great choices and we didn’t feel like we were in the car for too much of our time there. That being said, I can’t stress enough if you are prone to motion sickness, skip the boat tours in Alaska. The water can be rough, sometimes with huge swells, and it’s just not enjoyable when you feel nauseous and sick.

Alaska is such a beautiful state with many options, even though it seems like the vast majority of people who go here do so on a cruise. I’d just like to point out you can still see different areas of the state and hike and see some of the natural beauty on your own, without a tour guide from a cruise ship. Even if you don’t like to hike, you can just go for scenic drives in many of the places I’ve mentioned, like Turnagain Arm for example. The drive from Anchorage to Seward is one of the most scenic areas I’ve ever been through.

Happy travels!

Donna

 

Planning a Trip to Machu Picchu in Peru

I’m planning a vacation for myself and my family to go to Machu Picchu next year. If you’ve never been, I can tell you it’s almost overwhelming (well, it really is overwhelming, not almost) how many choices and options there are. I’ve planned vacations for the last couple of decades and haven’t been phased at all by places like Chile (even the middle of nowhere Chile), New Zealand with all of its options, or Malta (a place most Americans have never even heard of). Peru, however, is proving to be a bit more difficult, shall we say, simply because of all of the options.

Just about the only place I know for sure we will be going to is Machu Picchu. From there, the choices are who to go with for our group tour, and from there, how do we want to get from Cusco to Machu Picchu. There are options to camp in tents for anywhere from a few nights to 10 days, hiking along the way. There are options to just take the train in and take a guided tour for a few hours. Then there are options for which trek to do, if you want to camp and hike with a guided tour. I can see why many people just take the train in and do the guided tour of Machu Picchu for the day; that would be the easiest way.

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Beautiful Machu Picchu in Peru

However, if you know me at all, you know I don’t take the easiest way, nor do I take the route most traveled (most of the time, although I have been to more popular places as well). I often go to places where people will ask me beforehand, “Why are you going there?” or “Where is that?” Although I’ve been to popular places like Rome and Miami (and of course no one ever asked why I was going there), I like to venture off the beaten path a bit. Hence, I’ve chosen to take the Lares Route instead of the most popular classic Inca Trail to get to Machu Picchu. As far as I can tell, the three most popular choices if you want to do some hiking are the Lares Route, the classic Inca Trail, and Salcantay Route. There is also a one-day Inca Trail, the strenuous Vilcabamba Traverse Route, the Lodge Trek, and the Chaski (or Cachicata) Trail.

What I like about the Lares Route is it’s not quite as crowded as the classic Inca Trail and the trek passes through small villages so you get to see some of the artisans and farmers in person. There are also hot springs (what’s not to like about that after a long day of hiking). There are a couple of options for the Lares route: 2 nights of camping in tents and two nights in hotels along the way to Machu Picchu or 2 nights in tents and 1 night in a hotel before reaching Machu Picchu. I didn’t want to get to Machu Picchu, only to be so tired from not sleeping well in a tent for the past 6 nights and not be able to fully enjoy the star of the show!

So now the major remaining question is what do we do with the rest of our time in Peru? We have a couple of weeks, plus or minus a few days to spend in Peru. I know we’ll fly into Lima and probably just spend a night there before flying to Cusco. I also know we should acclimatize to the elevation in Cusco for a few (I’m thinking three) days before beginning the Lares Route to Machu Picchu. Then what to do after that? Rainbow Mountain, or Vinicunca, looks pretty awesome, and by then we should be used to the elevation. That would add one day. I thought about going to Huacachina from Lima and spending a night there, but I’m not sure if it would be worth it. We’ve been to the amazing sand dunes in the Canary Islands, so it’s not like we’ve never seen a place like this before.

I’ve heard of other people tacking on the Galapagos Islands to Machu Picchu because of the somewhat near proximity (all things relative), but that’s not something I want to do. I’d rather focus on Peru on this trip and go to the Galapagos Islands at another time. My family and I love hiking, beaches, mountains, and historical sites. If you have any ideas for some things to do around Lima or Cusco, I’d love to hear them! Also, two of the three of us suffer from pretty bad motion sickness so while airplanes are usually fine (with medicine), boats aren’t a great idea for us.

Have you been to Machu Picchu? What was your experience like? Have you been to Peru but not Machu Picchu? Where did you go and what did you see? Please help me plan my vacation to Peru! All suggestions are greatly appreciated.

Happy travels!

Donna

 

5 of my Favorite National Parks in the United States

Of the current 60 national parks in the United States, I’ve been to 20 of them over the years. In 2017, there were a record 84 million visitors to national parks, with the majority of visitors going to Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee and North Carolina. 28 states plus the United States Virgin Islands and the American Samoa Territory have national parks, and California has the most, with 9 parks, just edging out Alaska’s 8 national parks.

Honestly, one of my favorite national parks isn’t the most-visited Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It’s my opinion that this park is the most visited simply because of its geography, which isn’t to say it’s not a nice park. The fact is it’s fairly easy for many people on the east coast and parts of the midwest to get to this park in Tennessee and North Carolina.

So what are some of my favorite national parks in the United States? I’ll limit it to my top five here in no certain order and explain why I love them so much, along with some descriptions of each park. The website for all of the US national parks is here.

  1.  Yosemite National Park is in the central Sierra Nevada of California. Some of the most famous features include granite formations like El Capitan and Half Dome, waterfalls such as Yosemite Falls and Bridalveil Fall, and giant sequoia trees.There are a ton of options for things to do in the park including bike rentals, mule and horseback riding, photography and art classes, stargazing programs, tours, rafting, and rock climbing classes. There are over 800 miles of trails so you can take short walks as well as longer hikes to waterfalls in Yosemite Valley, or walks among giant sequoias in the Mariposa, Tuolumne, or Merced Groves. There is a free shuttle bus system but if you prefer to drive, most locations with Yosemite Valley are easily accessible by car. Just know that during the busy summer months, the park gets extremely crowded and finding parking can be difficult. Another option is to take a tour bus to Glacier Point in the summer and fall to see views of Yosemite Valley and the high country. I personally love Yosemite National Park most because of the giant sequoias but I also love the waterfalls and the rock formations.
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One of many waterfalls at Yosemite National Park
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Half Dome at Yosemite National Park

2. Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is on the island of Hawaii and is one of the more unique national parks. Where else can you walk through an enormous lava tube? There are several day hikes, backcountry hikes, and ranger-led hikes as well as scenic drives. If you want to stay inside the park, your only option is Volcano House, which also operates Nāmakanipaio Campground, or there are several vacation rentals and bed and breakfasts in Volcano Village just outside the park. This park was recently closed from May 11, 2018 to September 22, 2018 due to volcanic activity that damaged roads, trails, waterlines, and buildings in the park. Some places are still partially opened, so if you’re going there in the near future, check the website first for closings.

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Deep inside a lava tube in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
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The flora and fauna at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park are so beautiful

3.  Bryce Canyon National Park is in southwestern Utah and its claim to fame is it has the largest collection of hoodoos (irregular rock columns) anywhere on Earth. There are a range of easy, moderate, and strenuous trails to hike with many of the shorter trails connected making it easy to combine trails. Ranger programs include geology talks, astronomy programs, full moon hikes and other hikes, and kids programs. During the summer horseback rides are available. You can camp in Bryce Canyon National Park, stay at Bryce Canyon Lodge or find lodging at one of the nearby cities. We visited this park during the winter and the only way to describe that experience is “magical.” It may sound cheesy but this isn’t a term I use often to describe places I visit. The sky was overcast when we got there and it snowed lightly off and on the entire day, blanketing the hoodoos in snow. There weren’t many other visitors there so it was quiet and so utterly peaceful. Normally I can’t stand cold weather and snow but hiking in Bryce Canyon National Park with the snow falling is one of my favorite memories of all time. You can find my post on Bryce Canyon National Park here.

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Snow blanketing Bryce Canyon National Park
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Some of the many hoodoos in Bryce Canyon National Park

4.  Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona has to be one of the best-known national parks. Even if people haven’t been here, many people have at least heard of it and know that it’s famous for its namesake canyon. The canyon running through Grand Canyon National Park is 277 river miles (446km) long, up to 18 miles (29km) wide, and a mile (1.6km) deep. Grand Canyon has two basic sections, the North Rim and South Rim. The South Rim is the most commonly visited of the two, and is open year-round. The North Rim closes for the winter months. Not surprisingly, the South Rim gets extremely crowded, even in the cooler months, and you need to make reservations for lodging in the park several months in advance. There are several lodges in the South Rim but only one lodge in the North Rim. You can also stay at the bottom of the canyon at Phantom Ranch, but reservations must be made via an online lottery 15 months in advance. There are trails, scenic drives, ranger programs as usual, but you can also take a mule trip or a river trip for something different. You can find my post on Grand Canyon National Park here.

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Wildlife in Grand Canyon National Park
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Grand Canyon National Park

5. Denali National Park in Alaska is special to me because of the wildlife and how the park manages to keep large parts of the park wild, meaning there are no trails in these areas and cars can’t drive on the road past a certain point. We took a transit bus that took us four hours into the park, then we hiked a couple of trails and took a return transit bus another four hours back out of the park, but there are options for shorter or longer bus rides or options if you don’t want to hike at all. The bus driver gave a great deal of history and information about the park and pulled over when anyone spotted animals so we could quietly observe them. Along the way, we saw grizzly bears, caribou, eagles and other birds, dall sheep, and marmots. There is camping available in the park but we chose to stay just outside the park entrance. Another unique feature of this park is the employment of sled dogs. Denali National Park is the only national park in the United States that has working sled dogs. You can watch them happily pulling a cart during the warmer months during a Ranger demonstration. During the winter, the dogs patrol the park with Rangers on sleds. You can find my post on Denali National Park here.

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One of the views from a hike in Denali National Park
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A brown bear (grizzly) and one of her cubs at Denali National Park

I realize I may have left off some of what may be other people’s favorite national parks, but as I said, I haven’t been to all of them, just about a third, although my plan is to visit more over the next several years. Which national park(s) is/are some of your favorites and what makes them special? Which national park that you haven’t been to yet are you dying to go to?

Happy travels!

Donna

 

 

 

Some of My Favorite Museums Around the World

I’m a science geek; always have been. As a kid, I always loved going to science museums, even though my parents didn’t really take me to that many. I remember being in awe at Epcot Center, which really is just a big science museum, much of it hands-on. As an adult, I’ve had the pleasure of raising a science-loving child, so I’ve taken her to many science museums all over the world in our travels. We haven’t just stopped at science museums, though. We also love art museums and history museums. I’d like to share a few of some of my favorite museums here.

The Field Museum in Chicago, Illinois has so many impressive displays you can spend all day here if you like science and natural history. I really enjoy the Griffin Halls of Evolving Planet, Meteorites, Hall of Birds, all of the dinosaur exhibits, the hall of gems, Plants of the World, and those are just some of my favorites! There are two restaurants, a seasonal outdoor grill, and a picnic area open to all museum visitors on the ground level near the Sea Mammals. There is also a gift shop, coat check, wheelchairs (free), strollers ($3), a private nursing room, and free wi-fi. You can also get discounted admission if you have a City Pass or Go Chicago Card. Another great museum in Chicago is the Museum of Science + Industry and I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least mention it. There are of course many other great museums in Chicago as well but these are two of my favorites.

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Field Museum in Chicago

Balboa Park is a museum-lover’s paradise, with 17 museums and cultural institutions in San Diego, California. I highly recommend the Explorer Pass if you plan on going to several museums in Balboa Park. A really cool and different museum within Balboa Park is The San Diego Museum of Man. Here you can see displays about monsters, our relationships with animals, the history of beer, take a California Tower tour, and learn the truth about cannibalism. Tickets to the Museum of Man are $13-$25 for adults or $10-$22, depending on whether or not you purchase just museum tickets or add on tickets to the cannibals exhibit or tower. I have a post on Balboa Park with more details that you can read here.

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Balboa Park

If you like museums, you can find plenty of them in New York City. Some of my favorites are the American Museum of Natural History, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum but there are nearly 100 museums in and around New York City, so there’s definitely something for everyone. The American Museum of Natural History has 45 museum halls, The Rose Center for Earth and Space, a giant-screen film, special exhibitions, and a space show. I recommend figuring out what you want to see before you go or you could get so overwhelmed you don’t know where to start. General Admission to The Metropolitan Museum of Art  includes exhibitions at The Met Fifth Avenue, The Met Breuer, and The Met Cloisters and are valid for three consecutive days. The Guggenheim Museum general admission is $25 for adults and $18 for students and seniors. For these museums plus many others and other places as well, you would save a ton of money on admission prices if you buy a City Pass if you plan on doing a lot of sightseeing and will be here for at least a few days.

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American Museum of Natural History

Washington, D.C. is filled with museums primarily because of the Smithsonian Institution, comprised of 17 museums, galleries, and a zoo. And even better- it’s all free. Some of my favorites include the National Air & Space Museum, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, and the Freer and Sackler Galleries. These museums and galleries are enormous, too so you could spend hours in just one of them. If you only have one day in D.C. the tough part will be deciding where to spend your time because there are so many choices. Washington, D.C. is also a great place for children and is extremely family-friendly. I don’t recommend driving around the city but the Metrorail system is easy to navigate and affordable.

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My daughter’s first visit to Washington, D.C.

For something a little different, on the North Island of New Zealand is the Waitangi Treaty Complex, part of the Waitangi National Trust Estate where events that led to the Treaty of Waitangi are presented. You can experience kapa haka, a live Maori cultural performance and Maori artifacts and weapons. If you follow a short trail outside the visitor center, you’ll come to a Maori war canoe. This huge canoe is named after the vessel in which Kupe, the Polynesian navigator, is said to have discovered New Zealand. The canoe was built in 1940 to commemorate the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi.

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Maori war canoe

Malta is a country that I fell in love with when I went a couple of years ago and part of that reason is how it’s absolutely steeped in rich history. That and its stunning beauty. For my family and me it was a no-brainer for us to get the Heritage Malta Pass which includes access to 22 sites and museums plus the Malta National Aquarium and the Citadel Visitor Center and is good for 30 days. Some of my favorite museums in Malta are in Valletta and include the Palace Staterooms, Palace Armory, and the National Museum of Archaeology. You can read more about these museums in Valletta here.

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Palace Staterooms in Malta

Of course I have to include Italy here because it is also filled with some impressive museums. I had the pleasure of visiting Rome, Florence, and Venice some time ago and loved not only the history of the area but also the art everywhere and of course the food. My favorite of the three cities we went to is Florence so I’ll start there. The Pitti Palace is absolutely enormous and houses several museums and galleries and the Boboli Gardens outside. The Uffizi Gallery is the oldest museum in modern Europe, dating to 1581, and yes, it is impressive and definitely worth going to. You can find Michelangelo’s David (along with many other prestigious work) at the Accademia Gallery in Florence. Probably some of the more famous museums near Rome are technically in another country, Vatican City. The Vatican Museums are an enormous collection (about 7 kilometers) of museums and galleries and include the hugely famous Sistine Chapel. I was surprised to find the Sistine Chapel was smaller than I expected, but there’s a definite aura of tranquility that surrounds the space. Finally, in Venice at the popular St. Mark’s Square you’ll find Doge’s Palace. The combined entrance ticket to the St. Mark’s Square Museums grants access to the Doge’s Palace, Museo Correr, Museo Archeologico Nazionale and Monumental Rooms of Biblioteca Marciana.

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Pitti Palace and Boboli Gardens

Honestly, that just touches the tip of the iceberg for me but I should probably leave it there although I could easily add more places.

What are some of your favorite museums in the United States or elsewhere? Have you been to any of the ones I listed here or would you like to go someday?

Happy travels!

Donna

 

 

The Truth About Traveling with Kids

We’ve all seen the photos on Instagram of the smiling, seemingly happy children fully engaged in an activity when the photo was taken, stunning landscape background all around. I’ve even got some of those photos, like the ones of my daughter with the Andes Mountains behind her in Chile, or the ones of her splashing and playing in the water of the beaches in Greece, or ones of her laughing it up in Hobbiton in New Zealand.

What you don’t know is that on the drive to Hobbiton, my daughter was complaining about having to go there and asking if she could just sit in the car instead of going to some “stupid” place where she wasn’t going to have fun anyway. Nor do you see my daughter complaining to me and my husband for over an hour straight about pretty much anything that had been bothering her that school year but not one thing in particular as we hiked around the stunningly beautiful natural park in Chile with the Andes Mountains all around us. She ended up loving Hobbiton and Chile by the way, in case you’re wondering how those turned out.

In fact, for probably any place in the world my daughter has been, from Hawaii to San Diego and Aruba to New Zealand and everywhere else including 42 states of the United States and the ten countries she’s been to, at one point or another, there has probably been crying, complaining, whining, and/or general unhappiness coming from her regardless of where we were. I’ve even said to her, “Look around you. It’s gorgeous here. Seriously, why are you complaining so much? Most kids would love to be here doing this!”

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Hobbiton in New Zealand

The fact remains, traveling can be hard on kids. Traveling disrupts kids’ sleeping schedules, despite my husband’s and my strict adherence to our daughter’s nap and sleep schedule. When anyone, child or adult, isn’t in their own bed, they don’t sleep as soundly. I fully understand this and try to take it into account when my daughter is being whiny and is in a bad mood while we’re traveling and give her the benefit of the doubt.

Traveling can also put you out of your comfort zone and for kids they may not be able to fully understand how this effects them. For example, if you don’t speak the language where you’re traveling, not only is everyone around you difficult to understand, you can’t read street signs or menus in restaurants, and you can’t even unwind by watching TV if the shows are all in another language. The food is likely different from what you’re used to and often meals are on a different schedule than back home, such as a much later dinner. I remember my daughter in tears in Munich, Germany when she had to eat yet another brat, until we discovered just how good the Italian food is in Munich, and from then on she had pizza and all was good.

Just the simple act of flying to another state or country can be exhausting for families with children. I still remember my daughter having a total meltdown when we were standing in a security line at an airport, although I couldn’t tell you which airport. What I do remember is one of the nicest TSA agents I’ve ever met motioning to me from afar and showing me that she was going to let my family and me through a quicker line. I breathed a sigh of relief in knowing that even a few less minutes of standing in line would mean I could get my daughter to our gate that much quicker. Inevitably, my daughter was either tired or hungry then.

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Mad in Maine? Look closely and you’ll see the arm crossed over her chest, the scowl on her face.

Lack of sleep and hunger are the two things I know without a doubt will make my daughter cranky. When I’m traveling, I always make sure I bring a variety of snacks with me in my carry-on and since she was old enough, I’d put snacks and gum in her carry-on as well. So I’m pretty well-prepared on the hunger-side of things, but covering the sleep-side gets much harder. If we have an early-morning flight to catch, I can try to have my daughter go to bed early, but if you try to go to sleep an hour or two before you normally, do, can you easily fall asleep, or do you just lie there for an hour or so? Maybe this isn’t such a good example if you’re sleep-deprived, as many people are, but if you already get enough sleep, it’s difficult to go to sleep early.

As I mentioned earlier, my husband and I have gone to great lengths to make sure our daughter stays on her routine when we’re away from home. Once when I was at Disneyland with my daughter by myself for one day and my husband was joining us for the second day, I remember standing in the long line to board the “Nemo” submarine, and my then-two-year-old was sound asleep lying on my chest, while I was holding her. Fortunately, she was able to get her nap in and wake up just in time to board the submarine, so it all worked out, but the second day, I remember taking her to an indoor building that was quiet where not a lot of people were coming inside, and letting my daughter take a nap with her head in my lap. After that, she was good to go for a few more hours after dinner and then back to the room in time for her bedtime.

Another thing many parents don’t mention is the early bedtimes. Surely my husband and I aren’t the only parents in the world who have returned to our room so that our daughter could still go to bed at a reasonable hour, at least within an hour of her bedtime. Yes, we skipped the late-night cocktails, certainly the bars and clubs, the late-night musicians, and even the late-night fireworks at places like Disney when our daughter’s bedtime was well before then. We could have arranged for a sitter to watch her but honestly, I just never felt safe having a stranger come into my hotel room or airbnb property at night to watch my daughter while my husband and I went back out. Our solution was to just grab a bottle of wine while we were out and bring it back to the room so he and I could relax and unwind after our daughter had gone to sleep.

My daughter has also lost countless articles of clothing, bathing suits, flip-flops, bathroom articles, and who only knows what else while traveling. Of course we only know about some of the more obvious things like that entire outfit we must have left behind because a nice woman from the hotel where we stayed in New Orleans called to see if we would like her to ship the clothes back home to us for example.

We’ve also had to buy new clothes while on vacation for our daughter, like that time when we were driving through the Alps in Austria and she got car sick and threw up all over the rental car and herself. We were too far from our room to go straight back for a change of clothes so we had to find a children’s clothing store and figure out what size to buy her since the sizes were all different from those in the United States. Once we were back at the resort later that day, my husband had to try to figure out how to ask for something to clean the car out with even though his German was terrible. Everything worked out in the end, but these aren’t things a lot of people (most likely no one) would post on their Instagram accounts.

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Sad in South Dakota. My husband captured this photo in beautiful Custer State Park.

Speaking of getting sick while on vacation, my daughter once threw up in an airplane bathroom and it was apparently so bad they ended up closing off that bathroom for the rest of the flight. When my daughter said she felt sick because of the turbulence during that flight, my husband went with her to accompany her to the bathroom. We’ve had several turbulent flights since then, including ones where she got sick in the little white bags provided in the airplane seat backs but never anything quite that bad has happened again on a flight.

So, in summary, over the years, we’ve dealt with tantrums, crying fits, and general meltdowns. We’ve lost many items, most of which we didn’t even know we lost. My husband and I have foregone late-night concerts, cocktails, and other late events while traveling. Finally, we’ve dealt with motion sickness and other sicknesses along the way (colds, etc.).

What is my point in all of this? To scare you away from ever bringing your children on vacation with you? In fact, the opposite. I would like to encourage everyone to bring their children with them on their travels, but to acknowledge that bad things will happen. Bad things happen all the time to families, whether we’re traveling or at home. There’s no reason to think that just because you’re traveling, nothing bad will happen, so I just implore everyone to be realistic and realize that not everything is going to be perfect. Your children will not always behave perfectly, they won’t always enjoy themselves, they will get sick at times, they will lose things, and you as a parent will miss out on some things if they weren’t with you.

All of that being said, I can’t imagine traveling without my daughter. I’ve had so many teachers tell me from pre-school all the way up to middle school how traveling has enriched her life. As is the case with life as a parent, you take the good with the bad, and travel is no different. If you know that going into it everything will not be perfect, you can roll with the punches, so to speak, more easily. I think just knowing that other parents are going through the same thing you are or once went through it also helps.

Do you all travel with your children or do you prefer to leave them at home? No judgement here if you don’t travel with them! I completely understand it’s expensive to bring children and much more complicated in many ways.

Tell me about your travels with your children or about traveling with your parents when you were a child. I’d love to hear some stories!

Happy travels!

Donna