My First Solo Vacation

Although I have traveled for work-related trips before without any family or friends several times, I had never truly traveled by myself for a vacation until I went to Des Moines, Iowa for a half marathon recently. I have heard several bloggers and podcasters say how much they enjoy solo travel and how everyone should try it at least once in their lives. After doing it myself this time, I have to say I truly did enjoy it.

Overall, there are many pros to traveling by yourself, which I’ll list some of here. Of course, everyone is different and I’m sure my perspective at this point in my life is unique to me. Still, some of what I’m about to say may inspire some of you to take your first solo trip or at least plant the seed. So here are some of the pros to traveling by yourself:

You can do whatever you want, when you want. As a mother, this one was pretty big for me. My daughter is now sixteen and for the past sixteen years, I’ve always had to consider my daughter’s wants and needs when on vacation. Yes, the easy way out would have been to have just left her at home with a close friend but I always felt like kids benefit from traveling the world so there was never a vacation that she didn’t go on with me.

When she was really young, I had to make sure she got her naps in and went to bed on time and when she was older I made sure I included her in the decision-making on what we did. This was the first time in sixteen years that I only thought about what I want to do and it was huge. I found myself skipping things I would have normally done (like going out for dessert just about every afternoon) and instead choosing things I know she wouldn’t have liked. Besides my daughter, there was also no husband’s wants to consider, which of course was also huge for me to not have to consider for once.

You can go to sleep whenever you want and wake up whenever you want. I realize this kind of goes under the first pro but it seems like to me it should get its own paragraph. Again, as a parent, this one is pretty big. Not having to consider anyone else in the room and being able to stay up as late as you want (and make as much noise as you want) and then wake up without anyone else waking you up is a big deal.

You really get to know yourself a bit better. When you’re by yourself 24/7 and are only in the company of strangers when you go out in public, you pretty quickly get into your own head. If you’re not already comfortable in your own skin, this could be pretty scary. Fortunately for me, during the pandemic, I read more self-help books than I had in my entire life because I went through a rough patch in my life. Because of that, I now see aspects of myself I couldn’t see before and know myself better than I ever have (I guess that’s one good thing to have come of the pandemic for me personally anyway).

You also get to know the place you’re staying better. Now this one surprised me. I’m not sure why but for the first time ever I felt like I learned my way around the area (Des Moines) almost immediately upon arrival. It could be the incredibly easy grid layout they had for the streets there, but I don’t think so. I’ve been to other Midwest cities and other cities that are laid out in a similar grid-style and I never felt like I figured my way around as quickly as I did in Des Moines. I think it was purely the fact that I had no one else to help me so I knew instinctively that I had better figure my way around quickly. Yes, of course I had Google Maps but I found myself turning it off after a couple of turns because I already knew where I was going.

Strangers will talk to you more when you’re by yourself. This could be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on who the stranger is. When I was in the Denver airport for a layover on my way to Des Moines, a woman sat next to me and started chatting away incessantly, something that would not have happened if I had been with someone else. She was obviously lonely and just wanted someone to talk to, but when she wouldn’t stop talking after what felt like a solid 30 minutes, I told her I needed to go to the restroom and slipped away. I’ve also noticed other strangers were more chatty with me at restaurants and other public places when I was by myself. Usually, this was a good thing.

Of course, the single biggest con that I can see with solo travel is you don’t have someone close to you to share special moments with. That stunning sunset, the unique sculpture, or the amazing dinner you had by yourself will just have to be enjoyed by you and you alone. The best you can do is snap a photo and send it to someone or make a video call but it will never be the same as if they were with you in-person. When I finished my half marathon in Des Moines, I made a video call to my daughter but of course that only lasted a few minutes and once I hung up I was still by myself.

Still, I agree that everyone should go on at least one solo vacation in their lives. I believe it’s good for the soul and who couldn’t use more of that?

Do you take solo vacations or do you always travel with friends or family? Are you curious about taking a vacation by yourself but never have? Tell me about your experience with solo travel.

Happy travels!

Donna

Just Two More States Left!

As I type this post, I only have two states left in my quest to run a half marathon in all 50 states, Iowa and New Mexico. Both races are close to each other so in less than a month, as long as all goes well, I will be finished with my quest. Honestly, it feels surreal to say that before the end of 2021 I will have run a half marathon in all 50 states.

It will have taken me almost exactly 21 years since my very first half marathon, the Battleship Half Marathon in Wilmington, North Carolina (Battleship Half Marathon and Gold Rush Half Marathon, North Carolina-My first half marathon (and third and fourth), on November 19, 2000 to finish this quest. Life is funny how things turn out. It was 44 degrees that day with a cold rain that later turned into snow. For the coast of North Carolina, it’s almost unheard of to see snow especially in November so it was definitely crazy and unexpected weather.

I knew that if I were to run the same race the following year it would almost definitely be better weather. That was my hook. I wanted to see just how I could do in a half marathon given better weather and of course better preparation that would inevitably come from another year of running. Had it been sunny and in the 50’s, who knows if I would have felt the drive to run that race again or any other half marathons for that matter.

When I ran the Battleship Half Marathon in 2001 it was sunny and 51 degrees and I shaved off almost 17 minutes from my finish time. At this point I had run several other races including the Kona Half Marathon in Hawaii (Kona Marathon and Half Marathon, Hawaii-2nd state). Not only was I hooked on running half marathons, I was hooked on traveling to half marathons although I didn’t have the goal of running one in every state at this point. Still to this day, I haven’t run a half marathon anywhere close enough to my home that I didn’t have to stay in a hotel the night before.

This was taken after my recent 14 mile training run

They say with children you should get them used to your lifestyle from the beginning so it becomes second nature to the child. For example, if you enjoy traveling and plan on bringing the child along with you, you should travel with the child from the start so they become accustomed to traveling and it’s just a “normal” part of their life.

I believe how you approach running and racing is a bit like that. If you start out running 5k’s near where you live and continue doing that over several years, it would be a much bigger barrier of entry to suddenly travel to a race. But if you’ve traveled to races very early in your racing history, it’s second nature to you and not traveling before a race would seem strange to you. At least that’s how I feel about racing.

The few local races I have run don’t stand out in my mind nearly as much as the ones I traveled to. Sure, I enjoyed the Color Run I ran with my daughter (Color Vibe 5k), a local 5k, but it did seem strange to sleep in my own bed the night before the race and drive back home after the race. Part of the difference could be that it was a 5k and you can’t fairly compare a 5k to a half marathon because of course it’s going to be a wholly different experience. Still, I have run a local 10-miler, almost as long as a half marathon and at this point in my life I have absolutely no desire to run a local half marathon and most likely never will run one.

For me, part of the draw to running a half marathon is the travel aspect and visiting a new area. I know for some people the mere idea of traveling to a race makes them so anxious they would never do that. Then again, I believe travel in general makes many people anxious and I understand that.

There are so many moving parts involved with traveling to a race including just getting to the city where the race is being held, whether it’s flying or driving, finding a hotel or other place to stay at least the night before the race if not afterwards as well, renting a car if you flew to the race, eating and finding suitable things to eat the night before the race so it doesn’t upset your stomach, getting to the race start, and on and on. I know for some people, the thought of planning all of these things is overwhelming and I believe this is why some people are drawn to the companies that have popped up that basically take care of everything for you if you’re traveling to a race so you just have to sign up and show up. A popular one is Vacationraces: https://vacationraces.com/.

Back to my half marathon in Iowa, state number 49. This race is full of firsts for me. It will be the first race where a family member won’t be going to a half marathon with me. This is also the first race where I won’t be traveling to other parts of the state once I get there. In fact, I’m not even going to rent a car but will be relying on the local transportation and ride shares. A friend of mine who lives in Iowa is also running the race so I won’t be totally by myself but for a majority of my time there I will be by myself so I’m calling it my first solo travel trip.

I’m not anxious at all about any of these first times. On the contrary, I’m very much looking forward to traveling by myself and seeing what solo travel is like. A travel podcaster I follow has said before that he thinks everyone should experience solo travel at least once in their life and I’ve heard other people say how much they enjoy traveling by themselves and the many positive things to come of it.

I will be sure to let you all know how the race goes and what I think of solo travel!

Happy travels!

Donna

My First Time Backpacking and Sleeping Under the Stars in Yosemite National Park, California- Days Two and Three

If you missed the first part of this series, you can catch up here: My First Time Backpacking and Sleeping Under the Stars in Yosemite National Park, California- Day One

On our second day at Yosemite, after a filling breakfast of oatmeal with added nuts, chia seeds, and dried apples, we all packed up our backpacks and rode in a van provided by Lasting Adventures about one and a half hours to get to May Lake. I had never heard of May Lake before but found it to be absolutely stunning with trees and mountains surrounding the crystal-clear water.

We only had a short one mile hike to our campsite from the trail head where the van dropped us off. This was a good opportunity for everyone to get more of a feel for hiking with our backpacks. We were told to periodically tighten or loosen straps and see what felt better. As we all found out, it takes some getting used to carrying 35+ pounds on your back (I never got a firm estimate from Bella or Savannah on how much weight we were carrying but it felt like at least 35 pounds to me if not a solid 40 pounds).

Not a bad place to sleep for the night and the views are pretty incredible

As soon as we reached our campsite, the first thing I did was take off my backpack. Then we all set up our sleeping areas, meaning we laid out the Tyvek sheet first then placed the sleeping mat on top, and our sleeping bag on top. We were told everything should be “tidy and neat.”

After a simple lunch of salami and bagels with a view of May Lake, a few of us went with Bella to hike up Mt. Hoffmann and the rest of our troop stayed back with Savannah at the campsite. We were told the hike to the top of Mt. Hoffmann is 6 miles round-trip and the view from the top was great. What I wasn’t aware of at the time is that the elevation of May Lake is 9270 feet and there’s a 2000 feet elevation gain to the peak of Mt. Hoffmann. Oh, and did I mention some of the steepest parts of the trail are covered in decomposed granite, which is notoriously slippery?

See a trail here? Neither did I. Good thing we had Bella to guide us up Mount Hoffmann!

The trail definitely had some incredible views of May Lake and the surrounding area and I was doing pretty well trudging along, trying to keep up with Bella and our fast and fearless girls until we reached the very last part to the summit of Mt. Hoffmann, where I looked down and saw a sheer drop on one side. My fear of heights got the best of me and I announced that I was good where I was; I didn’t want to continue any further up.

Bella found a safe spot for me and our troop’s other chaperone, who said she was happy where we were as well and she would stay with me. I wasn’t sure if she was just saying that to make me feel better but I welcomed the company either way. We watched as the brave girls from our troop continued up the vertigo-inducing steepest part of the trail to the peak with its views of Clouds Rest and Half Dome and took in the views until they joined us shortly later.

When we got back to our campsite, we all changed out of our hiking shoes and enjoyed the refreshingly cold water of May Lake. After the intense hike to Mt. Hoffmann, the water felt great on my tired legs and feet. I could see the girls enjoying the views of the lake and mountains all around us and one kept saying, “I can’t believe I’m actually here. It’s so beautiful.” Indeed, I thought.

After a dinner of ramen noodles fortified with mixed dried vegetables we all collected wood for a fire (May Lake was one of the few places in Yosemite where a campfire was allowed because of recent wild fires and extreme drought in California). Bella really had the fire going and it was just what I needed to take the chill off the air. Because we were so high in elevation, it was considerably cooler here than where we started in Yosemite Valley. We were treated with mugs of hot cider and played a rousing game of Balderdash before turning in for the night.

The many views of May Lake

Day 3 was slated for our longest hike yet, at just around 7 miles. There was a lot of downhill hiking but also plenty of uphill to round things out. With the heavy backpack it was intense and we were all glad when we made it to the campsite. Bella and Savannah told us we would have incredible views of Half Dome from here. They even joked (or perhaps they were serious) that since there was no toilet at this campsite, unlike the previous ones, we could have the best view around when squatting to do our business.

One little note on that subject. I had peed in the wild many times when hiking or camping but I had never been without a toilet when I had to poop, not even on my epic multi-day trek to Machu Picchu in Peru. Believe it or not, the group we were with in Peru even had portable toilets for us spoiled Americans. There would be no portable toilets here. Bella and Savannah briefed all of us on the proper way to poop in the wild, which I’ll share here.

First you need to gather your supplies: a trowel with a blade that’s six inches long, toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and a Ziplock bag to put your used toilet paper in. That’s it. The significance of the six inches for the trowel is that’s the Goldilocks spot for burying human excrement; too shallow and animals can and will dig it up, too deep and it’s not at the ideal depth in the soil for getting properly broken down and decomposed.

OK, so to poop in the wild, first find a spot approximately 200 feet from water sources and trails. Next, you dig a hole six inches deep with your trowel. Then you do your business, put the used toilet paper in your Ziplock bag, and use the hand sanitizer before covering the hole back with dirt using the trowel. The trowel should never touch anything but soil so it won’t need to be sanitized. That’s it! You just pooped in the wild!

Now back to day 3. As soon as we reached our campsite and set up camp, we went to a nearby creek where some of us just stuck our feet and legs in and others fully immersed themselves. As before, the water was quite chilly but refreshing especially after a challenging hike with a pack.

Our view for dinner on day 3- pretty nice, huh?

We had a delicious dinner of rice, soy curls and soy sauce. I had never had soy curls before but thought they were good enough to make a note to myself to look for them at the stores when I got back home. Also, if you haven’t caught on by now, almost everything we ate was dehydrated to save on space and weight. I learned on this trip that dehydrated food has come a long way since I had it many years ago, both in the taste and variety available now.

Bella and Savannah cooked our dinner at what they referred to as the “bluff,” with amazing views of Half Dome directly in front of us. We were hoping to see a bright pink sunset against the granite but it was too cloudy for that so we got a muted pink sky instead, still beautiful. Later, we were rewarded with a night sky full of stars and some shooting stars were thrown in for our added pleasure. Our entertaining guides captivated us with folklore stories about the constellations while we all sipped our hot cocoa.

Not to imply that our sunset wasn’t absolutely gorgeous because it was as you can see!

This was one of the chilliest nights we had experienced, with temperatures in the 40’s, but our sleeping bags kept us warm, and we slipped off to sleep to the sound of utter silence. A few of us were lucky enough to witness the Perseid meteor shower late that night.

To set the scene, this campsite was really deep in the wilds of Yosemite, with no other humans in sight. If I had been hiking in that area by myself without our guides I never would have even known it’s a designated campsite. Also, there was a bear in this area known to swipe bear cans and throw them over the cliff, knowing they would break open when they hit the bottom, spilling out their contents and providing dinner for the bear.

To be continued…

Rediscovering Abundance in Atlanta: Some of My Favorite Places in Atlanta, Georgia

Over the years Atlanta has been one of those cities that has a certain draw for me and I can’t stay away forever. Unlike most other cities I go to, once just wasn’t enough when it came to Atlanta. I first went to Atlanta when I was in college in the late 90’s and I’ve been back a few times since then. I almost moved there straight after graduate school and most likely would have if I would have gotten a job offer there.

Still, when I go back (as I recently did) I’m always amazed at how much the area has grown since my previous visit. I read a projection that they expect the population of Atlanta to grow to 8.6 million people by 2050 (it’s currently just over half a million). Traffic is insane and you’d be well-advised to take the MARTA public transportation system https://www.itsmarta.com/, primarily the train system although there are buses and streetcars as well. Besides, even if you don’t mind sitting in endless traffic, parking is expensive and hard to find especially in the popular Midtown and Downtown areas.

The MARTA trains are abundant, clean, and safe for the most part. Just learn which line your stop is on and if you need to transfer stations and know which direction you need to go. It’s easy to figure out but I’ve always found friendly and helpful people to ask if I was confused about something or forgot something.

Where to Stay

There is an abundance of hotels, Airbnbs, Bed and Breakfasts, and even an Alpaca Treehouse with llamas, alpacas, bunnies, and chickens (https://www.alpacatreehouse.com/alpaca-treehouse). The most convenient and safest place to stay is in the Midtown or Downtown area although I’ve also stayed just north of Atlanta and that was fine albeit not quite as convenient. Prices range from the super-expensive Four Seasons, Ritz-Carlton, Marriott Marquis, and St. Regis to the moderately-priced Doubletree by Hilton, Sonesta, Hotel Indigo, Radisson to the budget-friendly options like Econo Lodge, Days Inn, Motel 6 and so many more. Often the more expensive places to stay are located close to an array of shops and restaurants so the downside if you stay at a budget-friendly hotel you may have to drive or take public transportation for a bit longer than otherwise. Even more important than saving a few dollars, first and foremost make sure your hotel is in a safe area.

Favorite Places

Likewise, there is an abundance of things to do in Atlanta. Here are some of my favorites with a couple of others thrown in that are popular with other people but just aren’t my thing.

Atlanta Botanical Garden- I’ve been here a couple of times and on my most recent visit I discovered places that I hadn’t seen the first time. It’s funny because they even state on their website: “As the Garden evolves, it’s never the same place twice.” I can attest to that so even if you’ve been before, it’s worth going again. I love the “Garden Guide” feature that you can click, choosing specific things like Family Adventure, Flying Solo, Fresh Art and Music, and more, then click which garden (there’s another in Gainesville), how much time you have, and so forth. https://atlantabg.org/garden-guide/

This is definitely one of the best botanical gardens I’ve been to anywhere in the world and also one of the largest and most comprehensive. Tickets are on the pricey side, starting at $22.95 and up for adults but if you enjoy flowers and nature, I feel like it’s worth it. Most people spend a couple of hours here, especially if you don’t stop to have lunch or dinner at the cafe (which is good but also on the pricey side if you get table service).

Fernbank Museum– the tagline is “Where Science, Nature, and Fun Make History” and this is a perfect description of the museum. There are indoor exhibits such as Fantastic Forces, A Walk Through Time in Georgia, Curator’s Corner; outdoor exhibits such as WildWoods, Fernbank Forest, Rain Garden; and temporary as well as permanent special exhibits such as Sky High focusing on birds, Habitat where you can see sculptures and explore four different biomes. Plus you can watch a movie on a giant screen for a bit extra. As a scientist and nature- and history-lover, this place is just heaven to me and worth every penny for the $20 admission. https://fernbankmuseum.org/

The Fernbank Museum

Georgia Aquarium– this is the largest aquarium in the world, whether you’re measuring by number of fish or volume of water. I really like how their exhibits are laid out, for example take the Aquanaut Adventure: A Discovery Zone. This has 49 kid adventures, more than 15 species, and one rope bridge. Here you can learn about aquatic life in extreme environments. In other words, you don’t just walk by tanks filled with fish and other animals, you learn about the animals and gain an appreciation for aquatic animals and the research marine scientists do.

The Georgia Aquarium is heavily invested in research and conservation, a fact that I love. There are also several behind-the-scenes encounters you can pay extra for, which is great if you especially love, say, penguins, seals, or sea lions. Plus, there are many educational programs, both online and in-person, in addition to volunteer programs, programs for military and veterans, and even virtual yoga. Tickets for adults are $36.95 and includes access to all the Aquarium galleries, 4D Theater shows, general-seating Dolphin Presentation, Sea Lion Presentation and supports ocean conservation. https://www.georgiaaquarium.org/

Atlanta History Center– not only is there historical information on events that specifically took place in Atlanta, like the 1996 Olympics, but there are also displays on national events like the 19th Amendment, the American Civil War, and so much more. In my opinion, this is one of the best history centers in the United States and ranks up there with the Smithsonian museums as far as quality and quantity. The outside grounds are also worth checking out, with 33 acres of gardens, woodlands, and trails. You can also have lunch at the Swan Coach House on the grounds of the Swan Mansion and try some quintessential Southern fare like pimento cheese grit fritters, chicken salad tea sandwiches, mint juleps, and homemade pecan pie. https://www.atlantahistorycenter.com/visit

Stone Mountain Park- located in Stone Mountain, Georgia, about 30 minutes from Atlanta is Georgia’s most-visited attraction. Located on 3200 acres of land, you can find trails that range from short and easy to longer and more difficult. One of the toughest trails is also one of the most popular, the Walk Up Trail; even though it’s only a mile, it goes straight up the mountain, much of it on stone, with the steepest parts near the pinnacle. If you’re not able or just don’t want to hike that steep of a trail, you can take a cable car to the top (Summit Skyride) for a fee.

Cherokeee Trail is one of the longer trails, at 5 miles and it meanders along past water views and through the woods. You can also see a 100-year-old Grist Mill (although you can’t go inside) and the Quarry Exhibit to see how the park was made with photos and outdoor displays plus there are extra activities for children that require a ticket. If you plan to just hike around the park for the day, entry is free except for the parking fee. There are a few options for staying inside the park, ranging from a campground with over 400 sites, Stone Mountain Inn, and a Marriott hotel. The MARTA public transportation stops about 1/2 mile from the park’s West Gate or you can take an Uber from Atlanta if you don’t have a car. https://www.stonemountainpark.com/

The bottom right photo is the very last section of the Walk Up Trail, straight up a rock face!

World of Coca-Cola– as you might imagine this museum showcases all things about the Coca-Cola Company. I’ll admit, I’ve never been here, as I’ve never been a big fan of Coca-Cola or any soda for that matter, but I know it’s popular. There are artifacts, a bottling display, a tasting experience (that’s been altered for COVID safety), and more. Most people spend a couple of hours here. Tickets for adults are $18. https://www.worldofcoca-cola.com/plan-your-visit/

Zoo Atlanta- with over 1000 animal species and the only twin giant pandas in the United States, this is a nice way to spend a morning, especially if you have young children but even if you don’t. You can find the usual zoo offerings like behind-the-scenes encounters, giraffe feedings, train rides, and wildlife presentations. The zoo is also actively involved in research and conservation programs around the world. Tickets start at $26.99 for adults and $20.99 for children. https://zooatlanta.org/visit/

Money-saving Tip: If you plan on doing a few of these activities, you should consider buying an Atlanta CityPass. For $77 for adults and $63 for children you will get entry to 5 attractions including Georgia Aquarium, World of Coca-Cola, and Zoo Atlanta plus 2 more attractions that you can choose from Fernbank of Natural History, College Football Hall of Fame, and National Center for Civil and Human Rights. It could potentially save you 45% off ticket prices if you purchased them separately. You have nine consecutive days to use the pass beginning on the first day of use. https://www.citypass.com/atlanta

Favorite Foods and Restaurants

I would be remiss to not include some of my favorite restaurants in Atlanta. Again, there is an abundance of truly over-the-top restaurants scattered all around the Atlanta area. The ones I’m going to list here also rank high on lists like Yelp (because I know food choices can be subjective).

Let’s play “Find the item that doesn’t belong here”

South City Kitchen– Southern food at its best: shrimp and grits, fried green tomatoes, collard greens, Carolina trout are some of my favorites.

Local Expedition Wood Fired Grill– technically not in Atlanta but two locations on the outskirts, Sandy Springs and Alpharetta. Fresh, made-to-order at the counter with choice of protein, sides, rice or salad, or you can get wraps or salads. Great if you’re in a hurry but want something healthy.

Hattie B’s Hot Chicken– besides Atlanta, locations in Nashville, Memphis, Birmingham, and Las Vegas. I ate at one of the Nashville locations first and have since tried the Atlanta location. The chicken is tender and juicy and hot but not too much spice to be enjoyable.

Aviva by Kameel– Mediterranean food. Excellent shawarma, hummus, and falafel.

Atlanta Breakfast Club– need I say more?

Ice Cream Places- we seemed to get on an ice cream kick when we were in Minnesota prior to going to Atlanta recently. Some places we enjoyed include: Amorino Gelato (in Lenox Square), Morelli’s Gourmet Ice Cream (so creamy), and Frosty Caboose in a converted train caboose in nearby Chamblee (the green tea ice cream sundae with crystallized ginger and a fortune cookie on top is genius).

Atlanta is definitely a city where you can pop in for a long weekend or you could stay a week and there would still be plenty to do. Another thing of note is it does get hot and humid during the summer, as does the rest of the Southeast in the US. If you’re not used to sticky hot summer weather, the fall or spring would be more comfortable, or even the winter. The lows in the winter hovers around the mid-30’s and the highs are around the mid-50’s so it’s still not too cold to walk around outside.

Have you been to Atlanta, Georgia? If so, tell me about it- what did you do and what were some of your favorite things?

Happy travels!

Donna

Museums, Shopping, and More in Duluth, Minnesota

When I was planning my vacation to Minnesota of which a portion included some time in Duluth I knew I wanted to go hiking and I knew there were many options for that given all of the city and state parks (Duluth has an astounding 83 parks). See my post on hiking in and near Duluth: State and Local Parks Plus Daytrips From Duluth, Minnesota. However, I also knew I didn’t want to spend every day just hiking so I began to look into other things to do in the area. Typically I enjoy history, science, and art museums, art galleries, and local shops in an area where I’m traveling.

I found a plethora of these things in Duluth and had a hard time narrowing it down to ones my teenage daughter and I would have time to visit. My daughter asked if she could pick some of the museums we went to and I agreed. I thought she came up with some unique places. Here are some of my favorites.

The back of Glensheen Mansion

Glensheen Mansion

Glensheen mansion was built between 1905 and 1908 by Chester and Clara Congdon. The 27,000 square foot, 39-room mansion cost the Congdons $854,000 to build and was eventually donated to the University of Minnesota in 1979 and opened to the public for tours. The Congdons became known for opening up iron mining in the area and setting aside land for public use such as Congdon Park.

There are several options for tours including the self-guided Classic Tour, Full Mansion to see all 5 floors, Grounds Admission, and Kayak Tour. There are also some fun extras like scavenger hunts for children, a coffee bar and Johnson’s Bakery Donuts, Shark on the Lake where you can get ice cream from Love Creamery and beer or cocktails, and concerts on the pier in July and August. https://glensheen.org/

Some of my favorite parts of Glensheen Mansion

Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum

My daughter found this little gem. I was a bit hesitant about going to a museum primarily full of manuscripts but I was glad we went. The museum has an eclectic collection of original manuscripts and documents from a wide range of historical events including the original Bill of Rights, the first printing of the Ten Commandments from the 1455 Gutenberg Bible, and Richard Wagner’s “Wedding March.” There are 11 locations of Karpeles Manuscript Museums in the United States including the one in Duluth. It was founded in 1983 by real estate moguls David and Marsha Karpeles and includes permanent and temporary collections that travel from one site to another.

When we visited, the temporary collection was from Star Trek. My daughter and I are both Trekkies so we greatly enjoyed looking at original drawings from the show. The museum is housed in what was originally a First Church of Christ, Scientist and the building itself is like a piece of art. We spent about an hour looking at every single piece in the permanent and temporary collections and I also reminisced with the person working there about the collection of antique phones (remember bag phones, the original cell phones? I actually had one when I was in graduate school!). https://karpeles.com/index.php

Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum

Lake Superior Railroad Museum

Housed in the St. Louis County Depot, the Lake Superior Railroad Museum is a must-do if you’re a train buff or enjoy historical sites. There are dozens of trains, some of which you can walk through and other train-related historical memorabilia. You can also buy tickets here and take a narrated train ride from Duluth along the shores of Lake Superior into the woods. You will need to buy tickets for entry to the museum but don’t need to purchase them in advance. https://lsrm.org/

Duluth Art Institute

Also in the St. Louis County Depot is the Duluth Art Institute, with free entry. Although I found it to be on the small side, considering the price of admission, it’s worth going to. There was mainly modern art and textile art when I was there but I know the art is temporary in most of the galleries so the displays change regularly. There are also events like artist talks, book club, and Free FriDAI which is a growing collection of digital activities to help people engage with the exhibitions on view at the Duluth Art Institute, make art from home, and learn about art. https://www.duluthartinstitute.org/

Favorite Places to Eat

Most of the best places to eat are downtown and on Canal Park, or at least that’s what I was told. Some of my favorites include: Fitzer’s Brewhouse, Sir Benedict’s Tavern on the Lake, Black Woods Bar and Grill, Bellisio’s, and Va Bene. I had my first wild rice burger ever at Fitzer’s and it was really different but delicious. It had a bit of a crunch from the rice that just added to the flavor. Just a short drive away in Superior, Wisconsin is Thirsty Pagan Brewing, which I thought had great pizza and the TPB Bread appetizer (a 10-inch round of pizza dough; I had the Margherita with fresh garlic, tomatoes, basil, and mozzarella cheese) was amazing. You also have to get ice cream from Love Creamery.

Ice cream from Love Creamery and my wild rice burger from Fitzer’s

Unique Shopping

Canal Park has many unique shops like Two & Co (women’s clothing and jewelry), Duluth Kitchen Co., Frost River Trading (for some high-quality packs and bags made by hand in Duluth), Indigenous First: Art and Gift Shop, a few cool art galleries, and Legacy Glassworks where you can take a Glassblowing class (we watched someone taking a class and it was really fun to watch).

Fitzer’s actually is more than just a Brewhouse; there’s also an Inn there plus several shops in the building. In a similar vein, the Downtown Holiday Inn houses over 40 shops and restaurants in the bottom few floors and is the center of the Downtown skywalk system. If you like antiques, Father Time Antique Mall has over 75 antique shops and Old Town Antiques and Books has antique furniture and books.

I really enjoyed Duluth and found it much more diverse than I expected it to be, with a wide range of foods, shops, and unique museums. I would highly recommend going here for a few days and add some more on to go to the state parks in the north.

Have you been to Duluth, Minnesota? If so, what were some of your favorite places or things you saw?

Happy travels!

Donna

State and Local Parks Plus Daytrips From Duluth, Minnesota

When I was planning my first trip to Minnesota I knew I wanted to spend some time in the northern part of the state that is surrounded by Lake Superior. As I saw it, there were a couple of options: 1) Stay at a campground at one of the state parks in the northern part of the state or 2) Stay in Duluth and have the best of both worlds with easy access to the state parks plus be able to go to museums and do some shopping in the Duluth area. I chose the latter and was so glad I did in the end.

For many runners, Duluth is the site of the famous Grandma’s Marathon. I personally know some people who ran it and they all raved about not only the race course but the area in general and how beautiful it is. By the time I tried to register for the half marathon portion of Grandma’s Marathon this year, the race was full so that wasn’t an option for me. No problem, I would just spend some time in Duluth after my race in Lake City instead (Circle of Life Half Marathon, Lake City, Minnesota- 48th state).

First of all, I don’t claim to be an expert on Duluth or the state parks there or really anything Minnesota-related but I will give you a recount of my experience there. I stayed about four days in Duluth and hiked in state and local parks, went to some unique museums and a mansion, and ate some incredible meals. Oh, and had all.the.ice cream. What is it with Minnesota and ice cream shops? I tried on several occasions to find a bakery for some baked goods but was unable and ended up going to an ice cream shop instead because I found out there was no shortage of them. I wouldn’t have thought there would be SO many ice cream places in such a northern state but at least in my case, that seemed to be what I found.

Parks in and Around Duluth

There are some of the most beautiful parks I’ve ever seen in this area that you can easily do a day trip from Duluth to reach by car. I’ll start with the ones that are the closest and work my way out geographically.

Lester Park is within Duluth city limits and is bigger than it first seems when you pull into one of the parking lots. There’s an area just a short walk from a parking lot where we saw kids playing in the water, which would be a nice respite on a hot summer day. I later learned the names of the bodies of water we saw: Lester River and Amity Creek. There are also picnic tables and grills scattered around and several mountain bike trails in addition to over nine miles of trails. https://duluthmn.gov/parks/parks-listing/lester-park/

Congdon Park is also in Duluth and has a bit of a story behind it. If you go to Glensheen Mansion you will know the family that lived there was the Congdon family so if you’re like me you will wonder if there is a connection. Indeed there is. It seems Chester Congdon was building his estate, Glensheen Mansion in 1908 and discovered the city was using Tischer Creek that runs through what is now Congdon Park as an open sewer. Mr. Congdon gave Duluth the land and paid for the development of the park on the grounds they would stop using the creek that ran through his property as their sewer. Although Congdon Park is small, there are some small waterfalls that run along the trail and it’s really quite peaceful despite being so close to a neighborhood. https://duluthmn.gov/parks/parks-listing/congdon-park/

Although this is just two parks, Duluth has 83 (!) parks that includes dog parks, a disc golf park, Lester Park Golf Course (public), community parks, tennis courts, and a wide range of other parks and what they offer. I encourage you to check some out when you’re staying in or near Duluth. The city of Duluth has a wonderfully extensive webpage with their parks and a search engine you can use to search by amenities. https://duluthmn.gov/parks/parks-listing/

Jay Cooke State Park

Jay Cooke State Park is about 10 miles southwest of Duluth and is one of the most-visited state parks in Minnesota. Established in 1915 with a donation of land by the St. Louis Power Company, this park is over 9,000 acres and even has a gorge at one part of the park. There are cabins and campsites but swimming is not allowed because of the currents. Vehicle permits are required and can be purchased at the entrance.

Some of the best trails at Jay Cooke State Park include the following:

Silver Creek Trail, aka Hiking Club Trail, a 3.5-mile loop with some hills and bare rock. You will cross a swinging bridge, climb a short section of rock, and follow a grassy path through the trees. There are views of the St. Louis River and Silver Creek.

Carlton Trail Trip, a 5-mile loop that is steep with rugged terrain, bare rock, and packed dirt. Although this trail isn’t for everyone, it will give you great views of the St. Louis River and pass by an old cemetary and through a shaded forest.

CCC Trail, an easy 1.8-mile loop on grass that is mostly flat. Start behind the River Inn and stop at the benches near scenic points along the St. Louis River before heading into the forest. An alternative is to start from the kiosk at the back of the River Inn parking lot and work your way that way, saving the river views for the end of your hike.

Thomson Dam Trip, a 2 mile one-way, out-and-back trail with some hills and paved. Hike up the Forbay Trail and follow the Willard Munger State Trail west toward a trestle bridge. Explore the rocky river gorge in the area before heading back the way you came.

Gooseberry Falls State Park

Gooseberry Falls State Park is about 40 miles from Duluth and 13 miles from Two Harbors, the closest “city” of any size in this area. You’ll want to stop in Two Harbors for gas and food for the largest selection of both. Park at the Gooseberry Falls State Park visitor center and pick up a free map of the park that includes all of the trails. As they mention on the park map, if you only have an hour to spend here, walk the short distance from the visitor center to the Upper and Middle Falls or take the longer 1-mile Falls Loop Trail. As you might imagine, the waterfalls are the highlight of this park. Swimming is prohibited in the Upper Falls but I saw plenty of people swimming and cooling off in the Middle and Lower Falls.

Split Rock Lighthouse State Park

Split Rock Lighthouse State Park is about an hour from Duluth (48 miles) and just north of Gooseberry Falls State Park. The lighthouse was in service from 1910 to 1969 and is supposed to be one of the most visited and photographed lighthouses in the US. In the summer for a fee you can walk inside the lighthouse and go up the steps of the lighthouse and walk around the grounds with the Fog Signal Building, three keeper’s houses and the Visitor Center. There are some pretty extensive trail systems that go through this park including the Gitchi-Gami State Trail that you can take 8.5 miles to get near the Middle Falls waterfall and spot parts of the Upper and Lower Falls from Gooseberry State Park. There is also the Split Rock River Loop Trail that connects with the Superior Hiking Trail which stretches along the North Shore, from Duluth to Grand Portage.

Tettegouche State Park is about 60 miles from Duluth and takes a little over an hour to drive there. This was the most northern park we went to in Minnesota and it was my favorite of all of the parks we went to. The views reminded me of Maine especially at Acadia National Park with the sheer cliff faces overlooking the water with wonderful hues of green and blue from minerals. My favorite trail was the Shovel Point Trail and at only 1.2 miles out-and-back, that might not seem like it’s so difficult. However, there are 300 stairs on this trail, making me huff and puff going up, but the views were most definitely worth it, even before we reached the top. You can hike this from the visitor center with no permit required, as is the same with the Cascades Trail (ending at a waterfall) and the High Falls Trail. You can drive down to the trailhead parking lot for High Falls Trail and cut the length of the trail in half, from 3 miles to 1.5 miles, but you’ll also have to purchase a permit to park at the trailhead parking lot.

Tettegouche State Park

We didn’t do all of this hiking in one day but we did hike the last three state parks in one day (Tettegouche, Split Rock Lighthouse, and Gooseberry Falls) and while we were tired at the end of the day, it is completely doable if you’re already in good hiking shape. If you’re not much of a hiker, you could still visit all three of these parks in one day and just spend more time at the visitor centers and do some short hikes. As always at any park whether it’s a national or state park I’ve found the people working at the visitor center to be helpful and usually you can pick up a map of the area including the trails. This time was no exception to that!

One Brief Mention of Food– as I alluded to above, you’ll find the best selection of restaurants in the town of Two Harbors. We ate at Black Woods Bar and Grill, which I later found out also has restaurants in Duluth and Proctor, and greatly enjoyed our food there . There’s a nice outdoor patio area as well as indoor seating. We also happened upon a food truck around lunch time in Two Harbors and picked up some great grilled cheese and ham sandwiches (but fancier with brie and another cheese that I’m forgetting, apple slices, and gourmet bread) and made-to-order donut holes.

After all of this hiking, we were ready for some time doing other things, though, so in my next post, I’ll talk about what we did and saw then!

Have you been to Duluth or the upper part of the state that borders Lake Superior? If so, where did you go and what did you do?

Happy travels!

Donna


Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota in a Minute Plus a Meetup!

My vacation and first visit to Minnesota was supposed to happen in June of 2020 after running a half marathon for state number 49 of my quest to run a half marathon in all 50 states. Thanks to COVID, my remaining three half marathons in Iowa, Minnesota, and New Mexico got all changed and moved around. Instead of running a half marathon in St. Paul in June last year, I ended up running a half marathon this past June about an hour from Minneapolis and St. Paul in a small town called Lake City (you can read all about that here: Circle of Life Half Marathon, Lake City, Minnesota- 48th state).

Conservatory at Como Park

Because the race was an hour from the twin cities, I decided to just spend the day that I flew into MSP in that area then drive and stay in Lake City until right after the race then drive to Duluth to do some hiking there (which deserves a post of its own). I knew that a travel blogger who also has a podcast with her husband live in the Minneapolis area so I contacted her to see if we could meet up and she said they were available for lunch the day I would be flying in. Her website is The Travel Architect (https://thetravelarchitect.wordpress.com/).

She recommended a spot for lunch called Red Cow that had some delicious burgers and the four of us had a lovely lunch with plenty of travel talk and some science talk since her husband is a science teacher and my daughter just finished taking chemistry. It was great to finally meet in person after following her blog and their podcast for so long. They were both exactly as I expected, which is to say they were both fun and engaging and it was a nice way to start out my trip to the land of 10,000 lakes.

My meetup in Minnesota!

The original plan after lunch was for my daughter and me to go standup paddleboarding at Bde Maka Ska Park but when we got to the lake it felt too windy for that so we decided to just walk around the lake instead. It was a beautiful sunny day albeit breezy and there were some people on the water in small sailboats and kayaks but I noticed no one was braving the wind on a SUP.

After a quick break for ice cream at Bebe Zito Ice Cream (known for their unique flavors), we went to Como Park in St. Paul and it was even bigger than I expected. There is an area with kiddie rides and carnival games, both a mini golf and regular golf course, a lake, and Como Park Zoo and Conservatory. After getting tickets online (free but you still had to arrange in advance as they weren’t allowing walk-ins) for the Zoo and Conservatory, we spent the next hour or so wandering around the grounds. The gardens were some of the best I’ve seen and I especially enjoyed the Japanese Garden area.

More photos from Como Park, windy Bde Maka Ska Park, and the first of many ice creams in Minnesota!

By now it was starting to get into the early evening hours and I knew I had at least an hour drive ahead of me to get to Lake City for the next phase of our Minnesota vacation so that ended our time in Minneapolis and St. Paul. It was brief, hence the minute reference in my title but it was most definitely enjoyable.

Have you been to Minneapolis or St. Paul? If so, what did you do and what did you think? Have you ever had a meetup with someone you follow online?

Happy travels!

Donna

How to Avoid Falling Into the What If’s of Travel

There are so many things that can go wrong when I travel I’m sure if I stopped to think about them all, I’d never travel. My flight could get cancelled, my flight could get delayed and I’d miss a connecting flight, my airplane could crash, I could get mugged in the city where I’m traveling to, I could get sick or injured while on vacation, I could lose my passport/drivers license/money, a natural disaster like a hurricane/earthquake/tsunami could happen while I’m on vacation, and on and on. These are all non-COVID-related things, too. COVID-related things that could happen add another layer of complexity.

Some of the things I mentioned above have happened to me while on vacation or even before I went on vacation. Flights have been cancelled and delayed but I dealt with that and was still able to travel. I’ve gotten sick and others with me have gotten sick, although fortunately nothing too bad that some drugstore medicine and rest in the hotel room wouldn’t take care of. Major events have never happened to me while on vacation, however.

I think most of us fall into two types of people when it comes to travel: those that are willing to take the leap of faith that even when things go wrong on vacation, everything will work out in the end and those that are too afraid and unwilling to travel because of the unknowns and things that can go wrong. For this post I’m not talking about travel during the pandemic, because that changes things too much beyond the ordinary. I’m referring to non-pandemic-related travel.

I went to some remote parts of Chile and am so glad I did!

One of the best things you can do to put your mind at ease before you travel is do some research. As the Scout motto by Robert Baden-Powell states, “Be prepared,” you should be ready to act on any emergency so that you are never taken by surprise. This means not traveling to the Caribbean during peak hurricane season or if you do so, be willing to endure the consequences should a hurricane strike while you’re there. It could also mean not venturing to an area of a city known to be unsafe while you’re traveling or studying up on local customs for an area you’re traveling to, especially for international travel. You can also bring some supplies with you like anti-diarrheal pills, Bandaids, antibiotic cream, and others so you don’t have to make a drugstore run when you really don’t feel like it. Do your research to see if you need specific immunizations for the place where you’re traveling.

Another thing you can do to protect yourself is to buy travel insurance. There are many types ranging from insurance that covers major catastrophic events (like hurricanes) to ones that just provide basic health insurance to ones that cover your luggage should it get lost by the airline to complete total insurance that covers everything from cancelled airfare, hotel, rental car, and any other travel-related expenses. As you can imagine, the more that’s covered by the plan, the more money it will cost. You have to weigh the pros and cons of each plan and decide which one is a better fit for you. Some “high risk” activities are also not covered under some travel insurance plans, so if you plan on going skydiving for example, know that anything that should happen as a result likely won’t be covered under most plans unless you buy insurance specifically for that.

Hiking in this remote section of Austria was incredible!

Being prepared is only the first step, however. You can be the most prepared person ever but if you never decide to take the plunge and actually travel, what good is it? You have to make plans to travel and follow through.

If you’re the type of person that’s naturally cautious or hasn’t traveled that much, start out small and build your way up. To put it in runner’s terms, you wouldn’t go from running a couple of miles a couple of days a week to running a marathon; nor should you go from barely traveling to traveling to a remote place in another country.

I’ve traveled to many off-the-beaten-path places but I built up my comfort level over time. I didn’t go to Europe until I was 32 years old and even then it was to the popular cities of Venice, Florence, and Rome in Italy. Even though I absolutely loved Malta when I went there a few years ago, I wouldn’t have been ready to go to the remote sections there in my 30’s. I did a typical progression for my international vacations of going to places like Italy, the Caribbean, Canada, Mexico and progressing to Germany, Austria, Greece, New Zealand (a long flight but easy transition for Americans), and finally visiting countries that are “harder” for Americans like Chile, Malta, the Canary Islands, and Peru.

Hiking in the Canary Islands was otherworldly.

Just like most things in life, if you throw too much at yourself (or life throws it at you unexpectedly) at once, you become overwhelmed, either physically or mentally depending on what it is. But if you gradually see that you can in fact handle difficult things in life, you get better at adapting when difficult things are thrown your way. For example, I was concerned I wouldn’t be able to communicate efficiently to the Spanish-only-speaking people in Chile, especially in the remote sections I was going to, but when I got there and saw time after time that I could communicate well enough to the people and understand well enough what they were saying to me, I felt more and more comfortable. Not that it was easy and not to imply I’m a very good Spanish speaker, because my Spanish is really not that great, but the point is it was good enough and that’s all that mattered.

I think if you’re traveling to another country you should have a certain level of street smarts in order to stay safe. Unless you grow up in an inner city, most people don’t learn street smarts until they’re adults. For me, I began to become street smart in college. I was told where the “bad” neighborhoods of my college town were and not to go there alone at night. I learned to look over my shoulder when I was walking by myself and pay attention to my surroundings even during the day. I took self-defense classes and was taught self-defense moves by a military guy I was dating. When I visited Washington, D.C., I learned more of what not to do and as I traveled more and more, I picked up more street smarts. It’s a difficult thing to teach someone, however, and it’s really more of a skill set you just acquire over time, except for defense moves, which I recommend everyone learn.

In the end, all of what I’m saying is this: do your research to be as prepared as you possibly can be and gradually build up your confidence level by increasing your discomfort level little by little. If you do both of these things, you should find yourself more comfortable going to places that were previously too scary to you. Because really isn’t that the bottom line for questioning everything travel-related, the unknowns scare you? While there will always be unknowns before every vacation, if you can reassure yourself that things will usually work out in the end, that should put your mind at ease and allow you to experience the vacation of a lifetime.

Have you traveled to a place that you were initially nervous about going to? Do you like to travel to off-the-beaten-path places or to places where you feel comfortable?

Happy travels!

Donna

Peacocks, Dolphins, Manatees, and So Much More In and Around Clearwater, Florida

My one and only vacation out of my home state of North Carolina during 2020 was to the St. Petersburg area of Florida, which you can read about 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. If you didn’t read the posts and don’t want to, St. Petersburg is on the western part of Florida where the Gulf of Mexico is, hence cities here are often referred to as “on the Gulf side.” Last year I primarily stayed in St. Petersburg but I knew I would be back to explore more of the area because I loved it so much here.

When I was trying to figure out where to go for my daughter’s spring break in 2021, I considered Portland, Oregon and the coast of Oregon, different islands in the Caribbean, Savannah, Georgia, and some other places but ultimately I knew Florida was the best choice given the circumstances. I knew I could get a cheap, direct flight to Tampa, Florida with Delta, who I also knew was still blocking off middle seats. Finally, as I mentioned earlier, I also knew I wanted to go back to see some of the cities just north of St. Petersburg, including Clearwater and Tampa. For reference, here is a map of that part of Florida:

See where all of the blue marks are? Those are all places I labeled in my Google map that I used last year and this year. The big cluster includes Tampa, St. Petersburg, Clearwater, and Bradenton. Just north of the cluster is Crystal River.

So the plan for this year was to start off in the Clearwater area including Safety Harbor and stay a few nights, drive almost 2 hours north to Crystal River and spend one night and much of the next day, then drive south to Tampa and stay a few nights. Last year I had wanted to go to Clearwater and go to the beach there as well but there just wasn’t enough time. This year, I made it a priority and was glad I did.

Clearwater

I’ll start with Clearwater here. First I should note that there’s Clearwater the city and Clearwater Beach. Clearwater Beach is on a barrier island with soft, white powdery sand and packed with restaurants, hotels, and shops. The Clearwater Marine Aquarium, where they rehabilitate injured dolphins and sea turtles is on the barrier island as well. Clearwater the city spans the entire east-to-west portion of this part of Florida, so there is the intercoastal waterway that eventually becomes the Gulf of Mexico on the west side and Old Tampa Bay on the east side. In other words, you’re never far from water views in Clearwater.

Restaurants in Clearwater

One restaurant we loved in Clearwater is Shnookums BBQ, just on the edge of Clearwater bordering Belleair. Belleair is full of mansions overlooking the water and has a tiny unmarked park called Hallett Park. I got our BBQ to go and drove the short distance to Hallett Park, where we ate dinner overlooking the water and cityscape. It was an absolutely perfect evening. If you enjoy Vietnamese food, Pho Bowl Clearwater (in an unassuming strip mall) is some of the best Vietnamese I’ve ever had.

Parks in Clearwater

Now to the part about peacocks. One afternoon, we were walking around Kapok Park and decided to walk over to Moccasin Lake Nature Park, only to find out the nature park was closed on Mondays. However, in the neighborhood beside the nature park, I spotted several peacocks in front of someone’s house. The male was in full display mode showing his feathers off and slowly walking around while several females just lounged in the front yard. I had seen peacocks before but always in parks in Hawaii and never just in front of some random person’s house.

We later went back to Moccasin Lake Nature Park on a day they were open and saw the peacocks inside the park. One peacock was sitting on top of a fence, which is when I learned they must hop the fence to go back and forth between the park and neighborhood. There were many trails with beautiful big trees and lots of shade. We walked to a pond and saw several turtles in the water. There is also an indoor area where you can touch or hold the animals they have chosen specifically for this. On the day we were there, they had two different snakes and a snapping turtle. My daughter held both of the snakes and we both got a science lesson from the very chatty and friendly worker there.

Safety Harbor

The population of Clearwater is around 115,000, which isn’t a huge city by any means but by comparison, Safety Harbor with around 17,000 people is a much smaller, quieter town. We stayed in a hotel in Safety Harbor and it was great but if you want close and easy access to a beach, I recommend staying in Clearwater instead. What you do get in Safety Harbor is a cute little downtown area with some amazing restaurants and a few waterside parks.

Restaurants in Safety Harbor

If you’re a big coffee fan like my daughter is, you’ll love Cafe Vino Tinto, a coffee shop that serves breakfast and lunch. There is a small outdoor seating area and everything we had from breakfast burritos and biscuits to Thin Mint Lattes, Chai Tea Lattes, S’mores Lattes, and London Fogs were all delicious. The Sandwich on Main has amazing sandwiches, some made with homemade Portuguese bread. As a huge fan of real Hawaiian shave ice, imagine my excitement to discover a place that comes pretty close to what you usually can only find in Hawaii, Sno Beach. I had dragonfruit mojito and my daughter had rose shave ice, both with sweet cream over. Another restaurant that was excellent is Water Oak Grill, a seafood restaurant where my daughter had soft shell crab for the first time and loved it. My shrimp and grits were every bit as good as I’ve had in Charleston, SC, which is saying a lot because they set the bar there.

Parks in Safety Harbor

Safety Harbor may be a small town but it has several great parks, like Safety Harbor Waterfront Park, Philippe Park, Mullet Creek Park, and also not really a park but Safety Harbor Pier. Now for the part about dolphins. In the nearby town of Oldsmar is Mobbly Bayou Beach Park. We went here one morning after it had rained the night before, thinking we could possibly spend some time at the beach.

When we saw how tiny and soaked the sandy beach at Mobbly Bayou Beach Park was, we decided to just walk around. I heard a strange noise coming from the water so we went to get a closer look, just in time to see a dolphin jump out of the water. Then I saw more dolphins, all playing in the water, spinning and flipping around. In all, I counted four dolphins, which we watched with delight for several minutes before they retreated further away from us. There is a trail system at the park, so we walked around on the trails for about an hour before we headed back.

Day Trip to Tarpon Springs

Just a short 30 minute drive from Clearwater lies Tarpon Springs with its downtown listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Tarpon Springs is probably best known for its historic sponge docks and Greek influence. The city was first settled by Greek sponge divers in the early 1900’s.

My first impression was that the area was much bigger than I expected and immensely more touristy than I thought it would be. We went into Tarpon Springs Sea Sponge Factory and discovered all of the different sizes and shapes of sponges as well as soaps and other skin products. There were dozens of other shops selling sponges and soaps in addition to the usual kitschy touristy items. After a while they all seemed to blur together.

There is no shortage of Greek and Mediterranean restaurants but I knew I wanted to stop at Hella’s since it’s known to be one of the best in Tarpon Springs. It was super busy and like a mad house but I guess there’s a method to their madness because the pastries we got were crazy good. After sitting to enjoy our afternoon desserts, we decided we had had enough of Tarpon Springs and drove back to Clearwater.

A couple of things we did not do but I heard are worth checking out are: Tarpon Springs Aquarium and Animal Sanctuary, taking a cruise around the area, Safford House Museum (a restored Victorian mansion with tours), and St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church with stained glass and a Grecian marble altar.

Crystal River

The main reason to drive 2 hours to Crystal River was to swim with manatees but the area has some other fun activities that I’ll also go over later. Although Crystal River isn’t the only place in Florida to see manatees, it was the closest for us coming from Clearwater. Manatees are migratory animals and spend their winters from November through March in the warmer waters of Florida.

Our time in Florida was during the last week of March and first few days of April so I knew we would be at the tail-end of the migration, meaning we might not see a single manatee. I booked our snorkeling trip to swim with manatees through Bird’s Underwater (technically Famous Bird’s Underwater Manatee Dive Center) for the first trip of the day at 6:30 am, knowing we would be more likely to see manatees during the early morning hours rather than later in the day on either their 11 am or 2 pm tours. We had driven to Crystal River the day before and spent the night there so we would only be a 5 minute drive from the dive center.

We left with two groups of other people so there were 6 people on the pontoon boat plus our guide and captain besides us, but there was plenty of room for everyone to stay relatively distanced from one another. The boat ride was relatively short, which is a good thing because my daughter tends to get motion sickness, but she was fine the entire time.

Sadly, I forgot to bring my waterproof case for my camera, so here are some of the manatees we saw later at Homosassa Springs Wildlife Park (note, the manatees are not fenced-in even though you can see part of a fence)

We were warned by our guide on the boat ride out that visibility had been extremely poor the past four days and in reality we might not be able to see any manatees or if so the water might be cloudy and murky. Great. However, when we got to a spot where a manatee had been seen by another tour group, we all zipped up our wet suits (that we had put on prior to boarding the boat), pulled down our snorkel masks (my daughter and I had brought our own, which given COVID seemed like an even better purchase than I realized when I bought them before the pandemic), and gently eased into the water.

The water was crystal clear! We could all easily see the gentle giant as it glided along the bottom of the Three Sisters Springs, munching on sea grass and reinforcing its nickname “sea cow.” Honestly, I could have stayed in the water watching this manatee all day. It was extremely calming and relaxing. I was glad to have the wet suit because even though the water is a constant 72 degrees and may seem warm, I was chilly at times because I was gently gliding in the water, not swimming. We all watched a video on proper and improper treatment of manatees before boarding the boat and one of the things they covered was not to swim near a manatee because you could accidentally kick it. Instead of having snorkeling fins, we all crossed our feet at our ankles, bent our knees, and using a pool noodle, used our arms and hands to gently move around.

We also saw some fish but other than manatees there wasn’t much in this part of the water, which was fine with me. We ended up spending a total of three hours with Bird’s Underwater, including getting wet suits, watching the video, snorkeling, and going to and from the springs in the boat. I was more tired than I realized when I got back into the boat and was told we had to head back to the dive shop.

Parks in and around Crystal River

After we had gone back to the hotel, showered, gotten dressed and checked out, we went to Crystal River Archaeological State Park. At the park we saw remnants of a prehistoric ceremonial center, burial mounds, and remains from the area’s earliest settlement. Admission was just a few dollars (I think $3) that I left in an envelope at a stand in the parking lot. Crystal River Preserve State Park is right beside the archaeological park, but we didn’t go there.

Just about 20 minutes south of Crystal River in Homosassa is Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park. We picked up sandwiches from a grocery store and ate lunch in the park overlooking the crystal clear water, but there is a cafe onsite where you can buy sandwiches and other snacks and drinks. This park has several rescued animals such as flamingos, bald eagles, a 61-year-old hippo that we saw pooping in the water (much to the delight of the young boys near us), a black bear, foxes, alligators, and manatees.

The manatees at this park have free-range to swim in the spring or make their way to a river that feeds into Homosassa Bay and eventually to the Gulf of Mexico. There is also a rehabilitation center just for manatees if they are sick or injured. I’ve been to many different zoos, aquariums, and other places where they have rescued animals but this was one of the coolest.

After we left Homosassa Springs, I drove back down to Tampa which took about an hour and a half. I think I’ll end here and pick up on another post solely on Tampa, since it deserves a post of its’ own.

Have you been to Clearwater or this part of Florida? Have you swam with manatees? Ever wanted to? Please share!

Happy travels,

Donna

Travel to Charlotte, North Carolina

Charlotte, North Carolina is famous for a few different reasons: 1) it is home to the NASCAR Hall of Fame and a NASCAR track, 2) the U.S. National Whitewater Center is here, 3) it is a business hub especially for the banking industry, and 4) it is home to NFL’s Carolina Panthers and the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets. As I mentioned in my post, Travel to North Carolina- Some of My Favorite Places and Things to Do, Charlotte had an estimated 29.6 million visitors in 2018 and hit a record high of visitor spending in 2019. Geographically, Charlotte is on the border of North and South Carolina. Fun fact: at the amusement park Carowinds you can stand with one foot in North Carolina and one foot in South Carolina. With so much to do, let’s jump right to it!

Things to Do

As I mentioned above, Charlotte is home to two national sports teams, the football team the Carolina Panthers and the basketball team the Charlotte Hornets. I’ve never gone to see either team play but historically the Panthers have ranked one of the worst NFL teams in the league. Michael Jordan owns 97% of the equity of the Charlotte Hornets, which according to Forbes had a revenue $240 million during the 2018-19 season despite having three losing seasons in a row. Even with these losing track records, both teams still draw in the crowds during non-pandemic times. For Charlotte Panthers tickets: https://www.panthers.com/tickets/. For Charlotte Hornets tickets: https://www.ticketmaster.com/charlotte-hornets-tickets/artist/931493?awtrc=true&awtrc=true&c=blue_ext&gclid=EAIaIQobChMIvPjR-Zyu7wIVEvDACh1EDgtZEAAYASAAEgJBnfD_BwE&gclsrc=aw.ds

If you’re not into football or basketball, you can always watch a NASCAR race at Charlotte Motor Speedway. I have actually been to a NASCAR race but in Tennessee, not Charlotte. Still, I would think the experience is at least similar. One thing I will say is that NASCAR is LOUD so it’s a good idea to bring foam ear plugs or over-the-ear headphones to block out some of the noise. If you’re really into NASCAR, you can also visit the NASCAR Hall of Fame, which is located in the Charlotte Convention Center and comes complete with a simulator ride. https://www.charlottemotorspeedway.com/ https://www.nascarhall.com/

The US National Whitewater Center has so much more than just whitewater rafting. There’s also ice skating, ziplines, kayaking and SUP, climbing, ropes courses, and mountain biking. Plus, there’s an illuminated walking trail in the winter months, festivals, a whitewater film series, yoga, and River Jam. If all of that’s not enough, they also offer instruction and certification (like Wilderness Medicine and First Aid, Swiftwater Rescue, Whitewater Instruction and more), team development, and summer camp and field trips for kids. https://usnwc.org/

Hanging out with some of the characters from Great Wolf Lodge

For parents, Great Wolf Lodge is a mega water park also with MagiQuest and Build-A-Bear. Just make sure you bring your wallets stuffed with money because as you can imagine, it’s not cheap to go here, even if you “just” go to the water park. It is relatively easy to find discounts and special deals if you just look, which I highly encourage you to do. I know banks in the area routinely offer discounts during the spring and summer months. I’ve seen discounts on Groupon many times and I’m sure there are others. I found the food within the park to be so-so and expensive for what you get but there are some restaurants within walking distance or a short drive that give you more options. https://www.greatwolf.com/concord

Carowinds is a fun amusement park that I’ve been to many times, even before I moved to North Carolina. Roller coasters, thrill rides, kids’ rides, family rides, a water park, and live shows are all offered at Carowinds and all included in one admission ticket. Like any other amusement park of its calibre, the food for purchase at Carowinds is mediocre and relatively expensive for what you get. Coming for the first time ever (to my knowledge) is Grand Carnivale, in the spirit of Carnival with a Carnivale Street Experience, Spectacle of Color Parade, and Festive Food Options, https://www.carowinds.com/play/events/grand-carnivale. Unlike most Carnival events that take place in February and sometimes March, this one takes place July 17- August 1, 2021 (because of the weather, I’m sure and the pandemic most likely has something to do with pushing the date back as well).

“Driving” at Carowinds Amusement Park- my daughter could barely see over the steering wheel!

If you like botanical gardens like I do, you can visit the Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden. Set on 380 acres, the gardens are divided into sections including an orchid conservatory, canal garden, a dry piedmont prairie, a children’s garden, fountains, walking trails and more. One thing I really like is their “Museums For All” policy, that allows EBT card-holders to visit during daytime hours for just $1 per person for up to six family members (special events like the Chinese Lantern Festival not included). Some of the other museums in the area also offer discounted admission for EBT card-holders. This offers huge savings to people who otherwise might not be able to afford to go to these places. The campus of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte also has an impressive botanical garden with a two-story rainforest exhibit. https://www.dsbg.org/. https://gardens.uncc.edu/

Museums

I realize museums would normally fall under the heading of “Things to Do,” but there are so many museums in the Charlotte area, they deserve their own subset.

Carolinas Aviation Museum, located at the Charlotte Douglas International Airport is a nice one if you’re into aviation history. You can stroll the indoor hangar deck to inspect historic aircraft like an F-14 Super Tomcat and a DC-3 commercial airliner. The museum, a Smithsonian Affiliate, is currently closed for 2021 with plans for a grand re-opening in 2022. https://www.carolinasaviation.org/

For history buffs, you can visit the Levine Museum of the New South, which includes temporary and permanent exhibits on life in the Piedmont area of North Carolina after the Civil War, https://www.museumofthenewsouth.org/. You can also tour the Hezekiah Alexander Rock House, built in 1774, as part of the Charlotte Museum of History, https://charlottemuseum.org/.

Some hands-on fun at Discovery Place Science Museum

Discovery Place Museums includes four separate museums: Discovery Place Science, Discovery Place Nature, Discovery Place Kids- Huntersville, and Discovery Place Kids- Rockingham. The Huntersville location is about 20 minutes north of Charlotte and the Rockingham location is about an hour and a half east of Charlotte. Both the Science and Nature museums are in Charlotte proper, about 3.5 miles from one another. You do need to purchase tickets in advance separately for each museum. While the Science museum may seem a bit pricey at $19 for adults/$15 for children, I thought it was well-worth it because of the extensiveness and quality of exhibits. Discovery Place Nature museum admission is only $8 for adults or children and is a great deal considering what you get for that. https://www.discoveryplace.org/

I went to the Schiele Museum of Natural History in nearby Gastonia this past December for the first time and really enjoyed it. The Schiele Museum is divided into an indoor section and an outdoor section. Inside, you can find a planetarium (shows are a reasonable $5 extra on top of museum admission), North Carolina Hall of Natural History, Hall of North American Habitats, Hall of North American Wildlife, Henry Hall of the American Indian, Creepy Nature Exhibit, classrooms, a museum store, and more. Outside, you can walk around on the trails and visit The Farm, the Grist Mill, Catawba Indian Village, Stone Age Heritage Site, gazebos, a pond, and have lunch or a snack at a picnic table. Currently, you must purchase tickets in advance and tickets for indoor exhibits, the Farm, and the planetarium all have to be purchased separately. I found ticket prices to be extremely affordable. https://www.schielemuseum.org/

The Mint is an art museum with two locations, one in the heart of Charlotte, and part of the Levine Center for the Arts, a cultural campus that includes the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art, the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts and Culture, the Knight Theater, and the Duke Energy Center. Mint Museum Randolph is on Randolph Road in Charlotte in the original building of the US Mint. This was the first art museum of North Carolina, opened in 1936. https://mintmuseum.org/. Referenced above, the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art is just what you’d expect at a museum of modern art, to be honest, with a reasonable $9 admission fee, http://bechtler.org/. The Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts and Culture is kind of a mixture of part art museum, part history museum. There are also a range of talks and special events, https://www.ganttcenter.org/.

Where to Eat

Enat Ethiopian Restaurant

Ace No 3- burgers

Little Village Grill- Mediterranean and Greek

Poboy’s Low Country Seafood Market- fresh off-the-boat seafood that you can take home to cook yourself or have them cook it for you

The Eagle Food and Beer Hall- famous for their fried chicken and beer

Warmack- Asian; said to have the best pork gyoza in Charlotte

Breakfast Shout-Outs (because I love breakfast): Snooze Eatery (some of the best breakfasts I’ve had even though this is a chain restaurant and I’m normally not into chains), Community Matters Cafe, Toucan Louie’s West End, and Metro Diner.

Christmas Town USA

One final note about Charlotte is the proximity to McAdenville, North Carolina, also known as Christmas Town USA. This is a small town just west of Charlotte that I had the pleasure of visiting this past December. With all of the bad things that happened in 2020, I desperately needed something good in my life last Christmas. How can anyone other than the greatest Scrooge not have a good time in a place billed as Christmas Town USA?

Just a few houses from Christmas Town USA

Even a pandemic couldn’t put a stop to Christmas Town USA’s 2020 celebrations, going strong since 1956 (although some events like the yule log ceremony were cancelled in 2020). Every year from December 1- 26, the entire town is lit up in Christmas lights and decorations in a tasteful not tacky way. There is no admission fee, you simply drive into the town, park your car, and walk around and enjoy the views. We got some hot chocolate and pastries from Floyd & Blackie’s Bakery to enjoy while we walked around, which was like icing on the cake (no pun intended). I picked up take-out for dinner from Mayworth’s Public House in nearby Cramerton, and the food was really good. There are a couple of options for food right in McAdenville but many others are just a short drive away. I highly recommend going to Christmas Town USA if you’re in the Charlotte area in December: https://www.mcadenville-christmastown.com/.

Have you ever been to Charlotte, North Carolina? If so, what did you do there? I always love hearing about other people’s experiences in places I’ve been so please share!

Happy travels!

Donna

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