Long Weekend in Greenville, South Carolina- An Unexpected Surprise

Once things started opening back up during the COVID-19 crisis and it became clear that South Carolina was a safe choice to visit, I wanted to plan a road trip from North Carolina for a long weekend getaway. I’ve been to Charleston, South Carolina and all along the coast many times but I hadn’t been to many places inland. I had heard good things about Greenville so I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to do some exploring.

Greenville, South Carolina is on the northwestern corner of the state, about an hour from Asheville, North Carolina or 2 1/2 hours from Charlotte, North Carolina. It’s only the sixth- largest city in the state with almost 71,000 people, but there is plenty to do especially for a city of its size.

I knew we wanted to do as much hiking as possible, because that’s what we enjoy doing on vacation. On our first day, I knew we wouldn’t have much time for hiking, though, so a visit to Lake Conestee Nature Preserve was perfect. The Preserve is 400 acres on the Reedy River 6 miles south of downtown Greenville. There are both an evergreen forest and hardwood forest, wetlands, and wildlife from deer, raccoon, beaver, fox, river otter, and hundreds of bird species. Unfortunately, only paved trails were open due to the pandemic, but we were still able to spend a couple of hours walking around in the peaceful setting.

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Lake Conestee Nature Preserve

We arranged to spend the entire next day at Paris Mountain State Park, which is about 20 minutes from downtown Greenville. There is an admission fee for entry of $6 for adults and $3.50 for children. Tent or RV camp sites are available and there is a designated swimming area. However, we were there for the trails and there are 15 miles of hiking trails in the park.

We decided to hike the Sulphur Springs Trail first. It’s 3.6 miles and is labeled strenuous. There are several steep sections, deep ravines and running streams lined with mountain laurel and rhododendron. We saw a few waterfalls and came to a large dam. Since we like to pick up lunch at a grocery store and eat along the trails when we hike, this saved us time of not having to leave the park for lunch and re-enter, plus we had a nice view while we ate. Before the day was over, we also hiked several other trails including Lake Placid Trail, Mountain Creek Trail, and Turtle Trail. You can find all of the information on trails in the park here.

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Our third day was reserved for the Falls Park on the Reedy area. My daughter and I ran along the Swamp Rabbit Trail, an incredible greenway system consisting of 22 miles of paved trails along the Reedy River on a historic rail bed. We absolutely loved running here- there were trees and flowers everywhere and so many choices of directions to run (or biking is also a popular option). This was my unexpected surprise; I knew we would spend some time on the Swamp Rabbit Trail but I had no idea it’s as extensive as it is nor as absolutely beautiful as it is.

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The Swamp Rabbit Trail (just a tiny fraction of it)

After a 6 mile run on the Swamp Rabbit Trail, we met back up with my husband and the three of us went to breakfast at a unique and tasty place, Coffee Underground. With our bellies filled, we walked around Falls Park on the Reedy and explored around there. You can hear the rushing falls as you walk around the numerous gardens and over Liberty Bridge, a suspension bridge built as a work of art.

Shops and restaurants are all within walking distance of the falls. There are no shortage of art galleries and one of our favorites is Open Art Studios, where we bought a small painting. They have a diverse collection of art at affordable prices. In fact, we enjoyed the Falls Park on the Reedy area so much we decided to go back on our fourth and final day in Greenville. On that return trip, we came upon a small arboretum and more gardens we hadn’t seen before. We also had a filling breakfast at Maple Street Biscuit Company, which is near the falls.

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Falls Park on the Reedy

A final place I’d like to mention is The Commons, a 12,000 square-foot food hall with open dining, outdoor seating, and is right by the Swamp Rabbit Trail. For food, you can choose from Automatic Taco, Bake Room, The Community Tap, GB & D (Golden Brown & Delicioius), and Methodical Coffee. We picked up some freshly baked goods from Bake Room, some beers from The Community Tap, and a kombucha from GB & D and sat outside with our dogs and enjoyed the beautiful day. There are also a couple of shops, Carolina Triathlon for people who like to run, bike, and/or swim and Billiam, a custom-designed denim shop.

Greenville, South Carolina may not be a top vacation spot for many people but I found it to be even better than I expected. It’s a place I highly recommend spending a long weekend in if you’re ever in the general area and are up for a road trip. Greenville has so many different places to hike, bike, run, walk, eat, and shop, I feel it has something for everyone.

Have you been to Greenville, South Carolina? Never heard of it but are intrigued?

Happy travels!

Donna

 

 

 

It’s Time for a Road Trip (Pandemic Style)!

For some reason, I’ve never written about taking a road trip but now seems like the perfect opportunity. With so much uncertainty about flying, even domestically, more and more people will be taking road trips once they feel comfortable traveling again. Every state has begun to gradually re-open businesses and that varies from state-to-state so check the specifics on where you’re going ahead of time. What does that mean exactly, though, and how might it effect you if you take a road trip?

A big part of why some people enjoy traveling to new places is to eat out at restaurants, whether it’s because they’re highly rated or they have unique food that might not be available where you live. Some states have begun to re-open restaurants so that people can eat inside but at limited capacities, some states allow people to eat at outside tables only, while others are still only offering food for to-go orders. Check with specific restaurants to get the most up-to-date information.

Some hotels have remained open during the pandemic but at reduced capacity, to limit how many people are staying in the rooms and to spread them out. Others have closed their doors entirely and they may plan on re-opening later this summer or this fall. Again, check with the hotel directly to get the best information for you. Some Airbnb property owners are allowing a few days to a week between stays, to ensure the properties get deep cleans and there is time between physical contact of the cleaning crew and the people staying at the property.

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Not my car. This was a rental we picked up in Las Vegas for a road trip to Utah. In February. Not a great choice for driving around the mountains in the winter, but fortunately it worked out.

Most state parks have begun re-opening although camping may not be available yet, or at a reduced capacity. I read some state parks are only allowing residents of the state to camp overnight. Public restrooms may also not be open yet, which is something to consider if you plan on spending a full day at the park. Likewise, national parks have begun increasing access and services in a phased approach. Check the website for the specific park you want to visit for complete details.

While outdoor spaces have begun re-opening, indoor businesses like museums are still mostly closed, although some states are a bit more strict than others. I suspect more and more museums will begin to open over the summer, with limited capacity and most likely requiring all patrons to wear a mask and use hand sanitizer upon entry. Like with everything else, check the specific museum you want to visit well in advance so you are prepared when you get there. I also suspect there will be timed entries for tickets, as the days of long lines and dozens of people all bunched-up around the ticket office is something we won’t see for quite some time.

Not to sound like Debbie Downer, with all of the limitations and restrictions, though. On the contrary, I think at some point people are not only going to want to venture out of their homes more, they’re going to want to venture out of their home towns more. People will want to travel again and for most people, taking a road trip will be the path of least resistance. As long as you or no one traveling with you has any symptoms of COVID-19, I encourage you to take a road trip. Get out there and discover a park you’ve always wanted to go to, climb a mountain, take that cycling trip you’ve talked about doing, or just visit your friend that you’ve known for 20 years but haven’t made the time to visit for a while.

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Just because I thought it was a cute photo and was taken while we were on a road trip!

If you have dogs and will be taking them with you, I have a post on traveling with dogs by car, which you can find here:  Tips for Traveling with Dogs.

Do you have any road trips planned for this summer? If not, did I spark something in you to start planning a road trip? Tell me about it!

Happy travels!

Donna

 

 

Dreaming of Travel- If You Could Travel Anywhere, Where Would You Go?

Even before the pandemic and wasn’t able to travel, I would sometimes daydream about travel. Do any of you do that (perhaps more so now than before)? Something I was reading recently prompted me to think about the following questions. If you could travel to any state in the United States that you’ve never been to, where would it be? Let’s pretend we don’t have COVID-19 to worry about. Of course all expenses would be paid for and you’d have plenty of vacation time to take from work (plus all other logistics would be taken care of). On the flip side, if you could travel to any state in the United States that you’ve already been to, where would it be?

For me, I’ve been to 47 states in the US already so that leaves only 3 that I haven’t been to, so my options for states I haven’t been to are pretty slim. Still, I would choose New Mexico, which I have plans to go to in November. My other options are Iowa and Minnesota, by the way, and I am excited about going to them too (yes, even Iowa that doesn’t get much travel love). I really enjoy hiking in the mountains and New Mexico has plenty of great hiking plus I hear the food there is fantastic.

So now what state would I go to that I’ve already been to? That’s a really tough question for me. I absolutely love California and would happily go back there given any opportunity. I still haven’t been to Monterrey or Big Sur and am dying to go to that part of California. I would love to go back to Yosemite, Napa Valley, San Francisco, or San Diego as well. Oregon is another state that I loved and am dying to go back to spend some time in Portland and the coast. Or there’s Washington, where I’d love to go to some of the islands off the coast like Whidbey or Bainbridge Islands. I’ve been to San Juan Island in addition to Seattle and loved both of those parts of Washington. I’m also dying to go to Coeur d’Alene in Idaho. I was going to run a half marathon there until I found out how hilly it is and then I decided to run a race in Boise instead, and we spent some time there after the race. Oh, then there’s Utah with its many national parks. I’ve been to Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks but really want to go to Arches and Canyonlands National Parks. Do I have to pick just one state? Yes, I know, rules are rules.

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Big Sur- Photo by Kelsey Johnson on Pexels.com

OK. I pick Monterrey and Big Sur in California for my state to go back to that I’ve already been to. That was a tough one. California is one state that I’ve visited the most number of times (tied with Florida) and like I said, I’m always happy to return there. A few years back, my family and I spent three weeks in San Diego, checking out the area to see if it’s a place where my husband and I might want to retire to. If it wasn’t so expensive, the answer would be a resounding yes but we’re looking to cut back our expenses when we retire, not increase them, so I just couldn’t justify retiring there.

Now what about other countries? If you could go to one country that you’ve never been to, which would it be? For me, that’s also a pretty tough question. Since I first heard about the country of Georgia, I’ve wanted to go there. I’ve heard the mountains there are amazing, the food is delicious, and the people are some of the friendliest people you’ll ever meet. What’s not to like about that? Flights there aren’t the cheapest, as you might imagine, but if all expenses are paid for, then that doesn’t matter, right?

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Republic of Georgia

Georgia isn’t the only country I want to go to, as you might imagine. I also badly want to go to Slovenia, Croatia, Vancouver in Canada (although I’ve been to Canada a couple of times so that’s not a new country for me), Thailand, Panama, Ecuador, and Montenegro for starters. Portugal has always been high on my list of places I want to go to, and I may be able to go there this year if all of the stars align but like everything else right now, I’ll have to wait and see how things go. Back to my question, though, or more accurately, back to my answer for what country would I choose if I could go anywhere that I haven’t been? I have to say Georgia.

What about choosing a country to return to that I’ve been to before? Without any hesitation, my answer is New Zealand. It’s got to be the most biodiverse country that I’ve ever seen. You want beaches? You can choose from black, tan, or white sandy beaches. Want geothermal areas? They’ve got that. Glaciers? Check. Giant Redwood trees? Yep, that too. Mountains? Of course. Rainforests? You’ve got it. Swamp forests, Grasslands, multiple types of wetlands? Yes, yes, and yes. And all of the diversity I saw was just in the North Island of New Zealand! I’d really like to go back and visit the South Island. If someone else was paying my way there, I wouldn’t have to worry about forking out for that expensive flight either!

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The North Island, New Zealand

Now it’s your turn:

  1. What state would you go to that you’ve never been to and why?
  2. What state would you choose to return to?
  3. What country that you’ve never been to would you choose?
  4. What country would you choose to return to?

Happy travels!

Donna

 

What Does Travel Mean to You?

If you follow my blog and/or you know me that well, you know that one of my passions is to travel. Simply put, travel has become such a part of my life, I feel like it’s shaped my opinions of the world and influenced my personality as a whole. Since I was an undergraduate in college, I’ve delved deeper and deeper into travel, going to more off-the-beaten path places over the years, all the while becoming more comfortable each time I get outside my comfort zone when I travel.

Still, that begs the question- what does travel mean to me? If you ask a dozen people this question, they may respond with things like travel means building memories with their friends or family, or travel helps them build connections with local people, or travel helps them take a break from their busy lives to recharge their batteries. Perhaps some people would say travel means they get to try new activities or foods and others would say travel means they can discover a new place or language. Travel might mean others have the opportunity to experience a change of pace in life or others might better understand people around the world and their cultures. Finally, for other people, travel might give them something to look forward to and finally explore places they’ve only heard about or seen in photos.

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Traveling in Chile changed me more than I ever would have imagined

Travel is all of those things to me. Because travel has become such a part of my identity, I could never say travel means just one thing to me. When I look back on previous vacations, I think of our interactions with local people. I remember my husband never failing to start up a conversation with the multiple taxi drivers we had in Peru and more times than not learning about the drivers’ lives and hearing their perspectives on life. I remember trying to be the interpreter for the doctor in Costa Rica that only spoke Spanish and my husband who at the time spoke no Spanish, with the help of the nurse who spoke a tiny bit of English when my husband was stung by a sting ray and we were both badly scraped by coral after our kayak capsized in the ocean by our hotel. I remember running with a group of locals for a portion of the Covered Bridges Half Marathon in Vermont and laughing at their jokes and thinking what cool people they were. Big or small, my interactions and conversations with people around the world have influenced who I am today.

I remember the utter awe on my daughter’s face the first time she saw Sunset Cliffs in San Diego, the Grand Canyon, Waimea Canyon in Hawaii, the salt pans in Malta, Machu Picchu, the Rocky Mountains, our first moose in Alaska, plus so many other incredible places we’ve seen as a family. I remember the first time we had shave ice in Hawaii (with macadamia nut ice cream under and sweet cream over) and all of the other times we had shave ice in Hawaii after that because it was so amazing and how was it possible I had never had it before? I remember the first time we tried stand-up paddle boarding in Hawaii and subsequently going paddle boarding in Grand Teton National Park and then seeing dolphins when we went paddle boarding in Hilton Head Island, South Carolina. There are so many memories from travel, I could never capture even a fraction of them here.

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Taking in the view in Austria with my daughter

Without a doubt, travel has helped me better understand people around the world and their cultures. Travel has shown me that people around the world are more similar than they are different. We may speak different languages, dress and look differently, eat different foods, and have other cultural differences but we all want to interact with others on a meaningful level, be acknowledged for our thoughts, and have our basic needs met. I’ve found that there are more helpful people than harmful people but you do still need to use common sense and pay attention to your surroundings because I’m also not naive.

Perhaps the one aspect of travel that means the most to me is the ability to plan a vacation and look forward to it and then ultimately explore these places I had spent so much time looking at photos of and researching online. That’s also why not being able to travel for the foreseeable future has been so difficult for me. Not only has one vacation I had planned for April been cancelled but there lies a huge pot of uncertainty about the next two vacations I have planned for June and July.

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If the pandemic would have happened last year, I wouldn’t have gone to Peru!

I spent months planning where we were going to go first of all for these vacations, then choosing the cities within these places and our accommodations in each city, some activities and places to visit in each city, our flights, and even down to our rental cars. There are always so many pieces of the puzzle to come together, especially for an international vacation, and it takes time to plan everything. But don’t get me wrong because the planning that goes into travel is something I thoroughly enjoy.

Then there were the months of looking forward to going to these places. Now I’m left with feelings of denial. I kept telling myself in March we would still get to travel in April; it wasn’t going to be that bad. Of course it was even worse than anyone could have predicted back in early March when I was still hopeful. Still, I’m in denial about our vacations planned for June and July and I keep hoping beyond hope that the world will suddenly see these sweeping improvements in the number of cases of COVID-19 and we will still be able to travel after all.

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Sunset Cliffs in San Diego, California. It’s even more stunningly beautiful in person.

I feel like if I lose hope for our vacations in June and July that I’ll have nothing to look forward to, at least travel-related. Yes, I did reschedule my vacation from April to November so there is that but that’s a long way off. Still, I was REALLY looking forward to our vacations in June and July, so although I’m not normally the type of person who lives their life in denial, I’m completely and totally in denial for as long as I possibly can be. Honestly, I feel like for the moment, it’s one thing that’s helping to keep me from going a little crazy.

What about you- what does travel mean to you? How has not being able to travel effected you?

Happy travels (someday)!

Donna

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How Travel Has Helped Me Cope With the Coronavirus Pandemic

While I feel like I probably travel more than the average American, by no means would I consider myself an expert on travel (whatever that even means). However, I’ve chosen to travel to some off-the-beaten path destinations, at least for an American, and this has ultimately changed me forever as a person. I was thinking recently how travel has impacted how I’m dealing with Coronavirus, specifically not being able to travel or leave my house except to run or go grocery shopping but also all of the trickle-down effects of travel on my life.

By traveling to tiny towns in Chile, Costa Rica, Peru, Austria, Germany, and other places where the locals didn’t speak much if any English, travel has helped me become more resilient and to deal with issues that arise. Travel has also shown me that life often doesn’t turn out as we plan and we’ll be much happier if we learn to go with the flow. Instead of losing my temper or panicking when I got lost or couldn’t figure out something because of the language barrier, I would take a deep breath and try to figure it out. When my travel plans for April were cancelled because of the pandemic, sure I was sad my vacation wasn’t going to happen, but I knew it was better that way and eventually I will be able to travel safely.

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Although we missed a connecting flight to Malta, we eventually made it to this incredible country

I’ve learned to make the best of what I may find in a grocery store and figure out how to make meals for my family with what is on the shelves. One of my favorite things to do when I’m in a foreign country is to see what their grocery stores have to offer and how much things cost in stores. It’s always been an adventure and more times than not, I’ve ended up with some pretty delicious meals out of what I’ve found on the shelves. I may not have been able to fully read the labels, but that’s just added to the adventure. At least in the US, I can read the labels (unless the food is imported). I have been to countries where they routinely have had shortages of things like toilet paper, with the difference being due to hoarders in the US and more of a routine problem with supply in other countries.

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This market in Peru was HUGE and quite the experience to walk around

One of the things I love to do as a stress-reliever is run outside, whether I’m on vacation or at home. I can do it virtually anywhere, although there are places where I would not run for safety reasons. Another bonus is all I need are my running shoes and appropriate running clothes. I can run outside or on a treadmill if running outside is not an option (assuming there’s a treadmill I can use). If I can’t run, I can do body weight exercises like lunges, squats, core work, and push-ups. I can also make up my own yoga routine no matter where I am. Being able to exercise on my own while traveling and at home has been a huge asset to my well-being and overall health and something I’ve always been grateful to have in my life but perhaps even more so during this pandemic.

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Some of the stunning water views I got to enjoy while running in Hawaii

I’ve learned that family members need a break from each other every now and again. When you’re traveling with family members, you’re in close proximity to one another for days on end and even the best of us can get tired of all of that one-on-one time. This is one reason why I’m such a huge fan of staying at Airbnb properties, because if we’re staying in a house, we can stretch out a bit more, have a kitchen to cook some of our own meals or just snack if we’re hungry and have a place to store our food, and usually we have more than one bathroom (although certainly not always). We all like to have some time on our own to catch up with friends through various social media apps, listen to a podcast or music, or just read a book in a quiet room to decompress. Being stuck at home for weeks on end while the Coronavirus pandemic has been going on has reminded me what a good idea it is to give family members a break from one another.

I’m sure there are more things that travel has shown me to help deal with the Coronavirus pandemic, but these are the first things to come to my mind. Are there aspects of travel or other parts of your life that have helped you deal with the pandemic? If so, I’d love to hear about them.

Happy travels (someday),

Donna

 

 

More Things to Do in St. Petersburg, Florida

Previously, I wrote A Brief Overview of St. Petersburg, Florida- Where to Stay, What to Do, Where to Eat with some basics like where to stay and some of my favorite places to eat. In this post, I’m going to just talk about things to do since there are so many fun things to do in that area. I’ll start with outdoor activities since that’s my favorite. There are a crazy number of places in and around St. Petersburg to go walking, cycling, running, bird-watching, or just have a nice picnic lunch in nature. The town of Bradenton (a suburb of St. Petersburg) has a multitude of preserves so I’ll start there.

Preserves, Parks, and Trails in the Greater St. Petersburg Area

  • Robinson Preserve- 682 acres that is a mix of preserved mangrove, tidal marsh, and former agricultural lands that have been converted to coastal wetlands. The “Expansion” which has even more coastal wetlands and other habitats, a 2.5k rubberized pedestrian-only trail, additional kayak launches and trails, restrooms, picnic areas, and the Mosaic Center for Nature, Exploration, Science and Technology, or “NEST.”
  • Palma Sola Botanical Park- free. 10 acres. Yoga and other special events like Winter Nights Under the Lights the end of December. tropical plants, rare fruit trees, 3 tranquil lakes, a wealth of butterflies, screened pavilion and two gazebos.
  • Perico Preserve- trails, birdwatching, no dogs allowed.
  • Jiggs Landing Preserve- boat ramp, fishing, grills, open space, pavilion, playground, restrooms, trails
  • Neal Preserve- 20 foot tall observation tower, shell trails, and boardwalks that wind through the coastal environment (no bikes on trails; no dogs allowed).
  • Riverview Pointe- 11-acre site adjacent to the DeSoto National Memorial. Trails, fishing, wildlife viewing.
  • Ungarelli Preserve- trails, pavilion.

Nearby Anna Maria Island also has Leffis Key Preserve with scenic trails.

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Sunken Gardens

We visited Sunken Gardens in St. Petersburg and loved it! In addition to the botanical gardens with waterfalls, winding paths, and more than 50,000 tropical plants and flowers, there are pink flamingos and many other tropical birds. There are also special events throughout the year. Admission is a reasonable $12 for adults and $6 for children. We found a special buy one, get one free on Groupon, so it was an even better deal for us.

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Flamingos in Sunken Gardens

There are literally dozens of parks in the St. Petersburg area, some that are simply open spaces, while others have playgrounds, kayak/canoe launches, fishing, pavilions, soccer and baseball fields, tennis courts, swimming pools, splash pads, dog parks, grills, and so much more. You can check out this interactive map of parks and things to do in Manatee County.

Fort De Soto Park in Tierra Verde is on 1,136 acres made up of five interconnected islands (keys). In addition to the historic fort, there is over 7 miles of waterfront including almost 3 miles of white sandy beach, camping, seven miles of paved trail connecting North Beach, East Beach, the boat ramp and the camping area, two swim centers, 2 fishing piers, a 2.25 mile canoe trail, and short nature trails. There is a daily parking fee of $5.

Florida Botanical Gardens in Largo has 30 acres and over a dozen different gardens, aquatic habitats, artwork, a gift shop, annual events and programs, and best of all, it’s free. Also in Largo is the historical Heritage Village, set on 21 acres with 33 historical attractions including a variety of historic homes, general store, railroad depot, two schools, church, and more, and also all free.

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Stand up paddle boarding in Weedon Island Preserve

Weedon Island Preserve is an expansive 3,190-acre natural area located on Tampa Bay in St. Petersburg. There is a cultural and natural history center, guided tours and nature hikes, boardwalks and trails, and kayak/stand up paddle board rentals. Weedon Island Preserve is also a well-known birding and fishing site. Here’s the link to Sweetwater Kayaks, where we rented stand up paddle boards and paddled through the mangroves there. The guys working there are extremely nice and the launch site is literally steps from where you rent the boards or kayaks. There’s a link where you can check the tides, too since it can make a difference if you’re going through mangrove tunnels.

You can find more information on parks, gardens, beaches, and preserves for St. Petersburg, Largo, and Tierra Verde at the Pinellas County Website.

The Fred Marquis Pinellas Trail (most people just call it Pinellas Trail) is a linear trail currently extending from St. Petersburg to Tarpon Springs and is a multi-use trail that runners, cyclists, and walkers can enjoy. The trail was created along a portion of an abandoned railroad corridor, providing a unique, protected greenspace. My daughter and I ran on the trail a couple of times in different directions each time and absolutely loved it. It’s safe, scenic (cool mosaics, flowering shrubs and other landscape typical to the area) and pancake flat. Parts of it are shaded but other parts are not, so I suggest getting out early to beat the heat.

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Running on the Pinellas Trail

Museums and Galleries in St. Petersburg

Like the wide array of outdoor spaces available, there is no shortage of museums and galleries either. If I was short on time and had to choose just two or three, I would choose the Chihuly Collection, The Dali Museum, and Imagine Museum, but there are others that are fabulous as well, depending on your interests. Here are the major ones in St. Petersburg:

  • Chihuly Collection presented by the Morean Arts Center- glass art by world-renowned artist Dale Chihuly.
  • The Dali Museum- an impressive collection of works by Salvadore Dali and similar artists of his time.
  • Imagine Museum- a stunning collection of American Studio Glass, rotating exhibitions, and a growing collection of International Studio Glass.
  • The James Museum of Western & Wildlife Art- over 400 works of art inspired by the history of the American West.
  • Morean Arts Center- located in the Central Arts District with three other facilities in St. Petersburg.
  • Morean Glass Studio- watch glassblowing demonstrations and sign up for classes to make your own masterpiece.
  • Morean Center for Clay- watch local artisans at work and purchase some locally made pottery.
  • Museum of Fine Arts- over 20,000 works of art from ancient to contemporary.
  • Craftsman House- gallery with a collection of fine craft and artwork by American artists.
  • St. Petersburg Museum of History- featured displays include Schrader’s Little Cooperstown, the largest collection of autographed baseballs and the world’s first commercial airline flight.
  • Great Exploration Children’s Museum- designed for children ages 10 and under and filled with hands-on activities to stimulate learning through play and exploration.
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Some of the impressive artwork we saw at the Dali Museum and Imagine Museum

St. Petersburg does not seem overly touristy to me, although there are places that fit the bill for that, such as the cheesy miniature golf spots, cheap beach-themed shops (where you can buy an umbrella that probably won’t last a full day at the beach), and other similar places. You won’t find a plethora of chain restaurants, though of course there are some here, but there are also a decent number of locally-owned restaurants. You also won’t see row after row of towering chain hotels like you see at some beach areas.

If you’d like more information on the beaches in the St. Petersburg area or Anna Maria Island, check out my previous post, as mentioned in the beginning of this post.

Have you been to St. Petersburg, Florida? Anything I missed here that you enjoyed doing while you were there?

Happy travels!

Donna

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Brief Overview of St. Petersburg, Florida- Where to Stay, What to Do, Where to Eat

I feel like I’ve seen an awful lot of the state of Florida, from Pensacola in the far western edge to Tallahassee then over to Daytona Beach on the eastern part, down to Orlando, then south to West Palm Beach and further south to Ft. Lauderdale, Miami, the Everglades, and the keys all the way to Key West. I’ve also been to Naples and Ft. Meyers and those surrounding areas. Somehow I had never been to St. Petersburg before, though. I was truly missing a gem of the state!

Recently I went to St. Petersburg and also checked out areas around it including Anna Maria Island, Bradenton, and Gulfport. I absolutely loved the area and wondered how this had slipped under my radar before. While we were there we met with one of my husband’s friends he’s known since they were children who lives in Bradenton, so I also was able to get some input and the “insider’s scoop” from him.

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St. Pete’s Beach- one of many white sandy beaches!

There are soft powder-like white sandy beaches all along that area, some with sand dunes (which I find especially beautiful), great restaurants, friendly people, and tons of things to do ranging from water sports and botanical gardens to top-notch museums. Winter reigns supreme here. During the winter months you can expect highs usually in the mid- to upper-70’s and lows in the mid-50’s to mid-60’s. Best of all, it’s sunny most days with little rainfall. What’s not to like about that?

So what’s there to do in St. Petersburg? Well, if you like beaches, there are plenty of them. We visited several different beaches in the area and most of them were pretty wide to accommodate plenty of people. Some were more crowded than others, but they all had the same white, soft sand. Some of my favorite beaches were Pass-a-Grille Beach and Manatee Public Beach but St. Pete’s Beach and Treasure Island Beach are also nice, just a bit more crowded. Bean Point Beach on the tip of Anna Maria Island is beautiful as well, but smaller than some other beaches in the area.

There are also some fun, unique shops on Anna Maria Island, like Pineapple Junktion, Island Charms, the Island Cabana, plus more locally owned gift and clothing shops. Although it was closed when we were there, the Anna Maria Island Historical Society (a museum) looked really cool. You can see the remnants of the original Anna Maria City Jail, which had no windows, no doors, no bars, and no roof, meaning the people who stayed there were eaten alive by mosquitoes and suffered in the heat. According to the posted sign, no one “misbehaved” after spending one night in the jail. There’s also a historical home and some signs with interesting historical information. Just be aware that traffic can get pretty bad during the winter months if you’re going to Anna Maria Island during peak times.

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Anna Maria Island City Jail photo op!

There’s certainly no shortage of places to stay in all price ranges in the St. Petersburg area. Of course there’s Airbnb with hundreds of homes, apartments, and sometimes quirky places to stay like an Airstream travel trailer. There are also hotel chains, local hotels, plus bed & breakfasts in all price ranges. If you really want to splurge, you can stay at the TradeWinds Island Grand Resort. If you’re into massive resorts with activities, a kids’ club, water park, etc. and don’t mind paying for it, this is the place for you. Note, I did not stay here (I stayed in a house through Airbnb).

Likewise, there are so many great restaurants in the area, with prices to suit every budget. Some of our favorites were:

  • Alesia Restaurant- Vietnamese/French/Chinese (trust me, it works)
  • Snapper’s Sea Grill- seafood restaurant
  • Caddy’s St. Pete Beach- sandwiches, salads, burgers, etc. with a nice water view (although not oceanview but more on that in a second, and don’t let the exterior deter you; it’s nice inside)
  • 3 Daughters Brewing- plenty of beers on tap plus good food and fun outdoor seating area; there are tons of other breweries in the area as well
  • Cafe Soleil- a French bakery and deli serving breakfast, lunch, and delicious flaky pastries

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There are two main airports in the area, St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport and a little further away but still not that far and a bigger airport serving more cities, Tampa International Airport. Check prices into both airports and see which is best for you. Primarily Allegiant is the major airline in St. Pete-Clearwater Airport, but there are also flights through Sun Country Airlines and charter services to Gulfport-Biloxi, Mississippi plus Sunwing Airlines has a couple of flights to Canada. Tampa Airport has many more airlines serving them but is also harder to get into and out of since it’s more crowded.

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Some things to keep in mind:

Winter is the “peak” season here, meaning it’s more crowded and hotels and restaurants are a bit harder to get reservations for. Traffic is more congested. The weather here December through February is absolutely perfect, in my opinion, and still warm enough to go to the beach. Spring break is of course more crowded, so plan on that if you’re going in April. The summer months are hot and humid, but there is a nice ocean breeze to help a bit. Fall is also nice, once the temperatures drop in October.

Traffic tends to bottle-neck in certain areas that have only one way in and out, like Anna Maria Island and Fort DeSoto. Plan accordingly and allow for extra time.

“Water view” does not mean ocean view. It means you’ll have a view of a bay or other body of water but not the ocean. St. Petersburg is on the western side of Florida, with Tampa Bay on the east and the Gulf of Mexico on the west (technically there’s Pinellas County Aquatic Preserve and then the Gulf of Mexico).

Have you been to St. Petersburg, Florida? If so, what did you think of it? What did you do there?

Happy travels!

Donna

 

 

Which US Airlines Have the Least Legroom?

If you’re a relatively tall person like I am, at 5 feet 8 inches, legroom matters on an airplane. I’ve been on planes before where my knees are literally right against the person’s seat in front of me. If they decide to suddenly put their seat back, well, let me just say it’s not pleasant and for that reason, I almost never put my own seat back unless there’s a small child sitting directly behind me. Airplane courtesy aside, I know some people like to know what they’re getting into before they fly, especially if it’s going to be a long flight.

Of course when you’re comparing airlines, you should compare apples to apples. It’s not a fair comparison to look at economy seats with one airline and business or first class seats for another airline. Let’s focus here on economy class seats in the Main Cabin. The numbers shown refer to seat pitch, which is the distance from the back of your plane seat to the seat in front of you. To make things simpler, I’m going to refer to seat pitch and legroom interchangeably here.

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Photo by Sourav Mishra on Pexels.com

Most legroom in economy class:

  • JetBlue: 33-34 inches.
  • Alaska Airlines: 32 inches.
  • Southwest: 32 inches.
  • Hawaiian Airlines: 31-32 inches.
  • American/United/Delta: 31 inches.

JetBlue is an economy airline that shines compared to other economy airlines, with the most legroom of any US airline being just one of their many perks. If you are able to pay more, JetBlue offers passengers the ability to upgrade to “Even More Space” seating. In addition to providing an extra 6 inches in seat pitch, JetBlue’s “Even More Space” provides passengers with early boarding privileges, early access to overhead bins, and a fast track through security (only available in select cities). “Even more Space” pricing varies by route length. These seats can be purchased from JetBlue directly at the time of booking or at check-in. Pricing will be dependent on duration of flight.

Alaska and Southwest Airlines offer similar legroom on their airplanes. If you can manage to snag an exit row or bulkhead seat, you will be rewarded with even more legroom on a Southwest flight. However, since Southwest does not have pre-assigned seating and no upgrade options, unless you’re in the front of the line for the first boarding group, there’s no chance you’ll get those seats. You can choose bulkhead and exit row seats with Alaska Airlines, however, and upgrades are available, for a fee.

Hawaiian Airlines seats usually have 31-32 inches of legroom, but on the smaller Boeing 717s mostly used for inter-island service, travelers will get 30 inches of legroom. On the flip side, for longer flights coming from the mainland US, you can purchase “Extra Comfort” seats. These extra-cost seats are available on Hawaiian’s Airbus A330 and A321 flights and offer a seat pitch of 36-inches.

American Airlines seats tend to vary widely because they currently operate many different airplanes. In general though, most seats have 31-32 inches of legroom, with the majority closer to 31 inches. You can purchase a “Main Cabin Extra Fare,” which will give you 2-3 more inches of legroom, depending on the aircraft you’re flying.

United Airlines seats are pretty standard with 31 inches of legroom, with a couple of exceptions on some Airbuses and 737 aircrafts that have 30 inches and the 787-8 Dreamliner that offers 32 inches of legroom. For their “Economy Plus” option, you’ll be rewarded with an extra 3-4 inches of legroom.

Delta Airlines is similar to American in that the have a wide array of aircraft, with varying legroom. The average legroom is 30-32 inches, with 31 inches the most common. For your extra money with Delta Comfort+ seats, you get an extra couple of inches of legroom. If you’re able to pay for “Delta Premium Select” seats, you’ll get a comfy 38 inches of legroom in return.

Least legroom in economy class:

  • Allegiant Air:  30 inches.
  • Spirit:  28 inches.
  • Frontier:  28-31 inches.

Not surprisingly, Allegiant, Spirit, and Frontier are all budget carriers, and all offer their passengers the least legroom. As with the other airlines, however, you can purchase extra legroom with Allegiant’s Legroom+ and get an extra 4 inches. Legroom+ seats are in the first-row bulkhead section of the plane and exit rows over the wing. Another thing to note, none of the seats on Allegiant recline, which means no opportunity to bang the knees of the person sitting behind you. Also, Allegiant’s seat backs slope downward at an angle, so the seat in front of you isn’t even with your knees, shins, and feet. I recently flew with Allegiant Air and didn’t feel cramped at all.

It seems appropriate that the much-hated Spirit Airlines offers the least legroom of all airlines. You do have the opportunity to pay extra for “Big Front Seats” with a whopping 36 inches of legroom in the front of the plane. However, when you add up the cost of those seats in addition to the many, many other things you have to pay for with Spirit, you may see any savings you thought you’d have by flying with Spirit dwindle away.

Budget carrier Frontier seats do have a bit of a range in what you get, depending on the aircraft, but only a few of the older aircraft have the 31-inch pitch, and those are being phased out. Frontier’s newer aircraft have on average 28-29 inches of legroom. You can purchase “Stretch” seats which will get you a nice 36 inches of legroom and if you choose row 13 over the wing, you’ll be rewarded with a lucky 38 inches (something to remember if you’re flying with Frontier).

A bit all over the place in economy class:

Sun Country:  29-33 inches.

Minneapolis-based Sun Country is increasing the number of seats on its 737-800 aircraft, which will shrink the seat pitch to 29-30 inches, more aligned to its fellow budget airlines mentioned just above. Some of the aircraft will still have a 33-inch pitch, but they will also come with an additional fee. Depending on your route, it’s possible to have 31-32 inches of legroom but it seems inevitable that those aircraft will also eventually be retrofitted to the smaller seat pitch.

Do you even pay attention to seat pitch/legroom on airplanes or is it even an issue with you because you’re not tall enough for it to matter? Do you always choose an aisle seat and that’s good enough for you or do you prefer the bulkhead seats? Did you know about Frontier Airline’s mysterious extra pitch in row 13?

Happy travels!

Donna

 

How to Use Google Maps to Plan Your Next Vacation

I work with someone who I believe has a slight addiction to Google Maps. Often, after he and I discuss a place either he’s never been to or neither of us have been to, he’ll open up Google Maps and start “looking around” that place using the satellite view and street view options. If you’ve never done this, I encourage you to choose a place where you’ve never been and check it out. This can give you an idea of what a city, street, or neighborhood really look like. That’s just a fun aspect of Google Maps, but that’s not what I’m going to focus on here.

Beyond just being able to visualize a place and of course the main reason people use Google Maps for directions, you can also use Google Maps to help you plan a vacation. To begin with, open Google Maps and navigate to Menu (at the top left with 3 bars) then open “Your places.” There are four options:  labeled, saved, visited, and maps. Under maps, you can click on Create Map then start creating a new map. Type in a city, restaurant, hotel, or other place. If you see a place of interest on the general Google map for that area, you can click on it and then click on “Add to map.” You can add labels, add directions, add a marker, and calculate distances. You’ll also need to name your map. All changes are saved in Google Drive. If you already have a Google account, you should be good to go, otherwise you’ll need to set up a Google account to save everything. When you’re done, you can share your map with other people.

You can also create a map using the “Saved” option. This is a bit easier to navigate in some ways, in my opinion, so you may want to start with this option, especially if you have trouble with the “Create Map” option. For example, when I went to Wyoming, I saved a bunch of places that we would be traveling to there and sent my saved map to my husband. That map that I called “Wyoming” had 16 places on it, with everything from where we would be staying, the airport, places where I wanted to hike, hot springs, and packet pickup for the half marathon I ran there. I’ve created maps this way and shared them with my husband when we went to other places on vacation as well.

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Screenshot of some of my saved maps in Google Maps

I’ve already started a map using the Create Map option for our upcoming summer vacation to Spain and Portugal. Let me tell you, it’s already ridiculously full of places where I want to go plus the places we will be staying. I think there’s something like 40 places including beaches, restaurants, shops, historical sites, and other places of interest on there. When I’m done with it, just before our trip, I’ll share it with my husband so he has it too.

There’s also a feature some of you may not be aware of that you may either love or hate. If you click on “Visited,” you can see everywhere Google Maps has record of you going to. Obviously you have to have had your phone turned on and you need to be logged into Google in order for the places to be recorded. I checked and mine goes back about one year. I’ve had my Google account for longer than that so I’m not sure if it’s just a default to just keep data for a year or what. Some people may not like the idea of being “tracked” by Google, but this can actually be a good thing. Say you’re trying to remember the name of that cute little cafe by the water you ate at on vacation three weeks ago. By using this feature, you may be able to figure that out. What may also surprise you (it surprised me), if you also use Google photos, any photos you’ve saved to Google photos will show up in your timeline for those days.

Have you ever used Google Maps to plan a vacation or create a map before a vacation? What’s your experience been like?

Happy travels!

Donna

 

 

Travel in my 20’s, 30’s, and 40’s. What’s Changed and What Hasn’t?

When I was in college in my 20’s, I feel like I barely traveled anywhere. I won a free trip to the Bahamas, which you can read about here:  How a Free Cruise to the Bahamas Changed My Life. Like I said in the post, I feel like that trip to the Bahamas opened up my eyes to the world and whet my appetite for travel. Nonetheless, I was a poor college student through my mid-20’s and I just didn’t have the money to travel nor did I have the time when I was in graduate school.

Other than the free trip to the Bahamas in my 20’s, I went to Ocean City, Maryland for a beach trip for a couple of days one summer, I drove to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania a few times to go out with friends, went to New Jersey for a weekend with friends, and some other random places like that when I was in college. These were all low-cost, low-frills, short trips of 2 or 3 days at the most.

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A fun trip to see a friend in New York City in my 20’s

When I finished graduate school and started working, I branched out a little more and went to places like Jamaica, Mexico, and Harbour Island in the Bahamas (a far cry from Freeport in that it’s about a thousand times nicer plus it’s perfectly safe). I also went to Hawaii, and Napa Valley and Yosemite National Park in California, and some other places in the United States like Charleston, South Carolina, a city that’s still one of my absolute favorite places in the world.

Still, I don’t feel like I traveled that extensively until I was in my 30’s. My boyfriend and I went to Costa Rica and this was such an eye-opening vacation for me. So many of the people we came to contact with only spoke Spanish or very limited English. This was before the travel boom happened in Costa Rica, before it was more common to travel to the country, so things were a bit more rough and rugged. Still, we were at a nice resort where all of our meals were provided and we didn’t have to worry about figuring anything out on our own so we were a bit sheltered in that sense.

After Costa Rica came vacations to Miami (I had been to Miami in my 20’s as well), Ft. Lauderdale and Everglades National Park, a few places in California including San Francisco, Long Beach, Los Angeles, and Napa Valley; my wedding in St. Kitts and honeymoon in Nevis and St. Martin; Philadelphia; several cities in Italy; Phoenix, Sedona, and Grand Canyon in Arizona; and Colorado. Then we slowed down a bit when I was pregnant through the first year or so after my daughter was born and just traveled to places a couple of hours away by car.

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Napa Valley when I was in my 30’s

When my daughter was not quite a year and a half things picked back up for us travel-wise, and we flew to Naples, Florida, then shortly after that to Vermont, and a few months after that to Hawaii. This was when I was well into my quest to run a half marathon in every state and was running about four races a year, one in each season basically. We also went to other places during my 30’s like Disney World in Florida, Disney Land in California, Key West, Marathon (Florida), Miami, Aruba, Banff and parts of Alberta, Canada on the west and Niagara Falls and parts of Ontario, Canada on the east.

Not only did the amount we traveled increase in my 30’s, the variety of places we went to also started to increase. Because of running a half marathon in all 50 states, we went to many places in the United States that we never would have otherwise. More often than not, we ended up falling in love with the area but regardless we were always glad we went because of the experience. We also began to stay in nicer accommodations in my 30’s, going from the cheaper places that my husband and I might have stayed in before our daughter was born, to nicer places in safer neighborhoods after she was born.

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Hobbiton in New Zealand

My 40’s are when I feel like I became more of an educated traveler. After planning my family’s vacation that began in Munich, Germany and had stops all over tiny little towns in Austria like Werfen, Bad Gastein, and Fusch without any trouble at all, I felt more comfortable planning our vacations in other countries. In addition to the states we were going to for half marathons, we began going to a different country about once a year (sometimes two a year) in my 40’s.

I’m still in my 40’s and in addition to the countries I listed already, we’ve gone to Greece, New Zealand, back to Canada to go to Montreal, Chile, Malta, the Canary Islands, Grand Cayman Island, and Peru. Although New Zealand, Montreal, and Grand Cayman Island were all very easy to communicate with others there and easy to get around, the other places were more difficult. However, by branching out more and more, I felt like it kept getting easier to get out of my comfort zone.

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One of my favorite places in the world- the salt pans in Malta

Our two weeks in Chile was especially a time when we were pushed out of our comfort zone, since we came upon numerous people who didn’t speak any English at all and we had no cell coverage or even Wi-Fi at times. There was no guide to help us, no one to tell us what to do or where to go. In other words, we had to figure it out on our own, and of course we did. The people were extremely patient with us and helpful and kind. I think this vacation in particular showed me that I am resilient and most people in the world are helpful and nice although there are bad people everywhere of course.

Peru showed me that the world is so much more than checking off boxes to see the “Wonders of the World,” like Machu Picchu. Not that I went there solely to check off a box, but what I mean is the experience of the trek leading up to seeing Machu Picchu was actually more special to me than the “grand finale” of seeing the ruins. As special as Machu Picchu was, it was the icing on the cake after the trek. This was the first time I ever took a several-day-long hike so it was my first time experiencing something like that.

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Machu Picchu in Peru

My 40’s is also when I started staying at properties through Airbnb. By now, I’ve stayed at Airbnb properties throughout the United States and around the world. More often than not, I’ve had exceptional stays, but there were one or two that were a disappointment. One place reeked of cigarette smoke but we stayed there anyway and I didn’t say a word about it. I re-read Airbnb reviews while we were there to see if I had missed something and sure enough, someone had complained of cigarette smoke. However, the owner rebutted by saying no one had ever smoked in the house and the person basically was too sensitive and didn’t know what they were talking about. If you’re reading reviews and come across something like that, you can either believe the person who wrote it or you can believe the owner. My lesson learned was to believe the person who wrote the review in a case like this so now I pay more attention to the reviews and don’t just skim the top couple before I make reservations.

One advantage to staying in a property through Airbnb is you have a kitchen so you can cook some of the meals and not have to eat out all the time. Not only does this save money, it also saves time of sitting in restaurants waiting for your food to come and then for the check to come. If you don’t feel like cooking, there’s always the option of picking up something from a grocery store deli. We’ve had some delicious meals this way and they’re quick, easy, and cheaper than eating out.

Now I’m looking forward to visiting some more countries, some of which my husband and I are considering retiring early to, like Spain and Portugal. I’d also like to check out some countries in Central America and maybe Ecuador as potential retirement spots. Also high on my list for places where I want to visit but not live are some places in Eastern Europe like Slovenia, Croatia, and Montenegro. I’d also like to finally visit some countries in Asia. Who knows if I’ll be able to go to all of these places while I’m still in my 40’s; most likely not all of them but definitely some of them.

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Croatia- eventually I will get here!

One thing that’s changed over the years for me is the amount of travel has gradually increased. We currently take about five to six weeks of vacation each year. That’s not going to change from now until I retire since that’s the maximum I can take with my job (yes, I’m extremely fortunate in that sense). The diversity of places we go to has also changed over the years. We seek out some of the more off-the-beaten path areas even in more popular areas we go to.

What hasn’t changed is my love for travel. No, I take that back. My love for travel has changed over the years because it’s continued to increase. When I was in my 20’s, I feel like travel was something I wouldn’t even give much thought to. In my 30’s, travel began to feel like it was becoming a part of me, and now in my 40’s, I can’t imagine not being able to travel because it’s such a huge part of what I do and what I enjoy. So I can’t think of anything that hasn’t changed with me when it comes to travel from my 20’s to present day in my 40’s. I guess it’s true what they say that travel truly does change your life.

“Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But that’s okay. The journey changes you; it should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart, and on your body. You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind.” – Anthony Bourdain

How has travel changed for you over the years? Or should I ask, how has travel changed you? That’s probably a topic for another day!

Happy travels!

Donna