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

Costs Involved in Running a Half Marathon in All 50 States

By the time I had the goal of running a half marathon in all 50 states I had already run several half marathons in different states. I didn’t officially begin my journey way back in 2000 when I ran my first half marathon on the coast of North Carolina thinking I would run a half marathon in all 50 states. Only after running in Hawaii, a couple more half marathons in North Carolina, and in a handful of other states did my goal begin to form.

Never once did money or specifically how much money it would take to run a half marathon in all 50 states cross my mind. I have always placed a high priority on travel in my life and I looked at this goal as part of my travel plans. It was always my plan to spend as much time as I could or felt like was warranted for each state I ran a race in. For example, I didn’t spend as much time in Indiana as I did in South Dakota. My race for Indiana was in the small town of Evansville and while I could have driven to Louisville, Kentucky and spent a few days there after my race, I chose not to. However, when I ran in Spearfish Canyon, South Dakota, I spent a week in the area going to some of the state and national parks in the Black Hills National Forest.

Beautiful Spearfish Canyon in South Dakota

Obviously I spent more money in some states than others, largely based on how much time I spent in each state. My two biggest expenses for running a half marathon in all 50 states have been airfare and lodging. Of the 50 half marathons in 48 states I’ve run, I’ve driven to about 10 half marathons in less than 10 states. The majority of races have been ones I’ve flown to.

The airfare I’ve spent has varied wildly from less than $200/ticket to upwards of $800/ticket. Until recently, my husband and daughter also accompanied me to every race so that means three airline tickets had to be purchased. I’ve gotten more travel savvy over the years so when possible I’ve used airline miles for some of these flights. For example, for my half marathon in Boise, Idaho, I used 20,000 miles per person and only spent $11.20 each, for a grand total of $33.60 for airfare to Idaho; not bad considering we flew from North Carolina.

Likewise, the money I’ve spent on accommodations for races has varied hugely. Obviously I spent considerably less for places where I only spent a long weekend versus a week or more. Never have I spent thousands of dollars for a place to sleep, whether it’s been for races or just a “regular” vacation, however. This isn’t to say I’ll stay at a Motel 6 in a seedy neighborhood but by this point in my life I’m able to find a place that’s moderately-priced just by doing a little homework and comparison shopping.

Taken after the Star Valley Half Marathon in Wyoming. I LOVED this race!

As I’ve mentioned before, I really like the website https://www.hotels.com/. While they’re owned by Expedia (as I see on my credit card statements but otherwise probably wouldn’t know this), Hotels has a loyalty program. If you stay 10 nights in a calendar year you get a free reward night. This includes multi-night stays at the same hotel. I know for some other hotel rewards programs, they count each hotel stay individually, regardless of the number of nights you stay each time. With Hotels if you stay 5 nights at one of their hotels, 3 nights at another, and 2 nights at another in the same year, you’ll receive a reward night valued at the average of how much you spent over the course of that year per night.

Expedia also has a loyalty program that ranges from blue to silver to gold. Blue members receive 10% off stays (this is the same for Hotels members), Silver members (7 nights or more in a year) receive blue rewards plus perks like spa access and free breakfast (same with Hotels Silver members), and Gold members (15 or more nights) receive silver and blue rewards plus free room upgrades and 30% more points (similar with Hotels Gold members). The difference with Expedia is you don’t receive a free hotel night like you do with Hotels, hence Hotels is the clear winner in my opinion.

I don’t just search for hotel rooms, though, I also comparison shop at Airbnb and similar sites like Vrbo. Sometimes having a full kitchen and the ability to cook your own meals and of course the willingness to do so can save hundreds of dollars versus eating out at restaurants for every meal. Even though the price for a home or apartment rental may be slightly more than a hotel room, if you factor in the savings of not eating out as much, the difference can be worth it. If you’re staying in a big city where parking is a premium and have a rental car or your own car, not having to pay for parking at the hotel can also add up. Bottom line- look at various sites for accommodations and factor in food and parking if relevant before you make those reservations.

This brings me to the expense of food when traveling to half marathons. This will depend on the person and your personal eating likes and dislikes. Some people eat differently when they’re on vacation than when they’re home, too. If you like to go out for steak dinners at expensive restaurants when you’re on vacation that will add up a lot quicker than someone who is happy finding a local grocery store and whipping up dinner in their Airbnb or even picking up a rotisserie chicken and sides from the deli at a grocery store, with no cooking involved. If you’re spending a week at a place after a race and are eating out for three meals a day you’ll spend considerably more than someone who is eating a light breakfast in their room, going out for lunch at local cafes, and only eating at restaurants some of the time for dinner.

Finishing the White River Marathon for Kenya Half Marathon in tiny Cotter, Arkansas

The final expense for running a race in all 50 states is the race entry fee. Although I haven’t tracked it, I don’t believe I’ve spent more than $80 or $90 for a half marathon entry fee. The average entry fee that I’ve personally spent per race has probably been around $65. This has gone up in the last decade, I believe largely due to the swag that’s offered at races. Those hoodies, mugs, sunglasses, and other goodies you get at races aren’t free and the cost for these things are included in the race fee. When I ran my first several half marathons, the only thing I received was a race shirt, not even a medal and of course my entry fees were also much lower than now.

Disney races are also notoriously expensive, with a runner easily spending over $100 just for the entry fee, not even including other extras like a pre-race pasta dinner and commemorative pins. Likewise, races in big cities like New York and Chicago typically cost more than races in smaller cities. Finally, races that are put on by groups like Rock ‘n Roll cost more than races put on by local race directors in smaller towns.

So just how much have I spent on all of the half marathons I’ve run? I haven’t added it all up because I couldn’t even if I wanted to since I don’t have any idea how much I spent on my airfare or any other expenses for my half marathons 20 years ago in Hawaii, Pennsylvania, Arizona and all of the others. Only recently did I start keeping track of how much I spend on travel, which coincided when I started paying attention to things like airline miles and hotel rewards.

Still, it doesn’t really matter how much I’ve spent because the memories I’ve gained have been priceless and I don’t regret a single penny I’ve spent. Not even for the crappy race just outside of Atlanta, Run the Reagan Half Marathon, Georgia-14th state because I had fun in Atlanta after the race and that made it worth it.

After the Skinny Raven Half Marathon in Anchorage, Alaska

This brings me to the point of only spending time in a place for the sole purpose of running a race there, with no real time spent either before or after a race in the area. I realize some people choose to do this, whether for financial reasons or for lack of adequate vacation time, but for me, I never wanted to do that. A huge part of this whole journey for me has been to get to see places in the United States I probably wouldn’t have otherwise traveled to. I don’t feel like you can do that in a day or two.

I realize even spending a week or ten days in a state almost never is enough to really see all that they have to offer. I’ve often felt like I barely scratched the surface when I’ve traveled to a state for a half marathon. When I ran the half marathon in Anchorage, Alaska (Skinny Raven Half Marathon, Anchorage, Alaska-43rd state) and spent some time there after the race, I still felt like I could have spent a month there and only see a tiny part of Alaska simply because it’s such an enormous state and on top of that there aren’t roads to some areas. I’ve done what I could, though, given my amount of time off and money I was willing and able to spend.

With only two states left to go on my journey (Iowa and New Mexico), I’ve spent some time recently looking back on all of the states I’ve been to so far. There were some half marathons that flat out sucked and I would never recommend but there have also been half marathons that I was in sheer awe of the beauty of the area (Running a Half Marathon or Marathon in All 50 United States? Here are the Races in States that I Recommend). Some of the races I ran have been discontinued and no longer exist and some are still going strong.

The Marshall University Half Marathon in West Virginia was a fun one!

I feel like every person’s journey to run a race in all 50 states whether it’s a half marathon, marathon, 5k, or anything else will be unique to each person. Some people prefer races in big cities over small towns, others prefer races with lots of swag while some have no interest in another race shirt or anything else other than running that race, and finally some people choose a race because the timing of it fits in with their personal schedule.

Ultimately each person who has the goal to run a race in all 50 states has to decide for themselves how much money but also how much time they’re willing and able to spend. If someone has the means to drive to more states than I have, that will cut costs considerably, especially if they have a camper or something they can not only drive to the race but also sleep in. I believe anyone can achieve their goal of running a race in all 50 states as long as you make it a priority and have at least a rough idea of when and where you’re going to run, taking into account races sometimes get cancelled so you need to have several back-up plans for each state and be flexible.

Do you have a goal to run a race in all 50 states? If so, tell me about your journey so far. Any questions about my journey or anything I failed to mention here?

Happy running!

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

Peachtree Road Race in Atlanta- My First 10k in 19 Years!

When I saw that in-person races were going to happen for 2021, I began to register for half marathons in my remaining three states from my quest to run a half in all 50 states. On a whim and in the spirit of being more spontaneous, as part of my Running Resolutions for 2021, I decided to enter the lottery for the Peachtree Road Race in Atlanta, Georgia. Much to my surprise and delight, not only did I get in the race but my teenage daughter also got in.

The Peachtree Road Race first began in 1970 and has grown to the largest 10k in the world. It was cancelled for the first time ever in 2020 because of COVID-19. The Atlanta Track Club helps put on the race and they decided to divide the race into two days for 2021, with half of the runners on July 3 and the other half including elite runners on July 4. When the lottery was open for applicants, I could choose which day I wanted to run as my first choice and which day was my second choice. Thinking I might have a better chance of getting in if I chose July 3, that was my plan, and apparently it worked.

I received what seemed like a dozen emails with race logistics such as how to get to the expo, course maps, links to the MARTA light rail system, COVID-19 information, and more. Going into the race, I felt extremely prepared and comfortable thanks to all of the information I had in advance. Although I had been to Atlanta a few times before, I still would have felt prepared going into the race because of the excellent communication from the race staff.

The Expo

The Expo was held June 26 and 27 and July 1 and 2 at the Georgia World Congress Center Exhibit Hall C2 in Atlanta starting in the morning and going to the afternoon each day. You had to register for a time slot in advance online. Since I was driving in from North Carolina on July 2, I chose the 2-3 pm time that day and decided to take the MARTA from my hotel. This all turned out to be wise decisions because I ran into traffic getting into Atlanta and by the time I got to the Expo, it was 2:45. I could have driven to the Expo but parking was $20 or $17 if you paid in advance through the race website and I knew traffic in that part of Atlanta would be a nightmare, especially on a holiday weekend. For those of you that may be interested, the closest MARTA stop to Hall C of the GWCC is Vine City, not the Dome-GWCC-Philips Arena-CNN Station, as one might think.

When I arrived at the Expo, I first picked up my race bib as well as my daughter’s race bib, then someone checked both of our vaccination cards and put a sticker of an orange on both of our bibs (signifying we were vaccinated, which came into play on race day), and finally I walked around to see what else was being offered. There were shirts from previous Peachtree Road Races being sold for $5 as well as shirts for the 2021 race at a higher price, Mizuno was selling shoes, the airline Delta was there (they were a sponsor), representatives from the Atlanta Track Club were there, there was a stand set up to sell reloadable Breeze cards for the MARTA and answer questions about that, and there were people walking around answering questions about the race in general. I was surprised there wasn’t a single sample being given out, but I believe that was because of COVID.

Race Day

Runners were asked to submit proof of a recent 5k or 10k in order to be placed in an earlier wave and coinciding earlier start time. Since I hadn’t run an official 5k or 10k in nearly 20 years, I submitted a time from a virtual 5k from Strava that I ran last summer and a time for my daughter from a cross country race she ran last fall. Much to my surprise, both were accepted and she was put in Wave B, while I was put in Wave C (as you probably surmise, it started with Wave A and ran through the alphabet, going to I on July 3 and L on July 4). That meant she had a start time of 6:30 and mine was 6:40. Perfect.

We decided to head to the MARTA station near our hotel at 6:00, which gave us plenty of time to get to the Lenox station, even with a transfer from the red line to the gold line. The weather at 6:30 was fantastic especially given it was in a city sometimes affectionately called “Hotlanta,” with temperatures in the low to mid 60’s and relatively low humidity. When we got close to the start corrals, there was a barrier set up with volunteers checking for the sticker of an orange on bibs. Since we had them on ours, we were allowed to go straight to the start waves but unvaccinated people had to go the other direction to get screened, which I believe meant temperature checks and the usual COVID-related questions.

Each wave was separated by 10 minutes to help with social distancing and we were told to spread out within our wave. The race course was along Peachtree Road, starting at Phipps Plaza and going to Piedmont Park. All roads were closed to traffic for the race, a feat I can’t imagine in a city of that size.

There were five water stations and several places on the course where there was music of some sort. A priest from a local church was throwing holy water on runners who wanted it at one point and I saw a couple of places where people were giving out water or other things like cut-up watermelon and handing it out to runners. Because of COVID, the water at the water stations was in single-use plastic bottles, meaning you had to unscrew the top to open it, something I didn’t really want to do so I skipped water on the course.

There is a hill that’s nicknamed “Cardiac Hill,” and I was aware of it going into the race but I wasn’t aware there would also be a couple of other hills on the course. Normally hills aren’t my strong spot but I was able to power through every hill in this race, which I was proud of, especially when I saw so many other runners walking up the hills. Maybe my hilly half marathon in Minnesota the week before helped.

I should also say I felt really good going into this race, even though it was only my second 10k ever with my first 10k in 2002 and a finish time of 56:49. For this race, my split times were 8:36, 8:02, 7:42, 8:41 (uphill), 8:39 (uphill), 8:14 (partial hill), and my final 0.2 was at 7:40 so I had a good kick left in me at the end. My final time was 52:27 (an average 8:27 pace), which put me at 3441 out of 24,228 overall, 771 out of 11,417 females, and 67 out of 1240 in my age group. I couldn’t have been happier.

My daughter had been struggling with a niggling Achilles problem she’s had for a couple of years so she had to slow down a bit during the race and I actually passed her towards the end, which made it easier to get together at the finish. There were a couple of family meeting places set up at the finish that we had agreed to meet at had I not caught up with her on the course. We received cotton/polyester blend t-shirts that were bundled up with a Clif Nut Butter Bar and a Publix Apple Fruit Squeeze inside. There was also water, Gatorade, and Coca Cola products. You had the option of purchasing a medal in advance, which I chose not to do but had a bit of FOMO when I saw someone with one.

The one thing I really wished they had at the finish was chairs and I heard other runners saying the same thing. There was plenty of grass since we were at a park but it was all wet with dew so we found an asphalt path and sat there until we felt like heading out for the long walk to the MARTA station (there was one close by but because of the race finish, it was closed so we had to walk what felt like 20 minutes but I didn’t time it so I can’t be sure to get to the next-closest station). Before we left though, we stopped by the medical station to get some ice for my daughter, which a volunteer taped to her calf and that helped relieve some of the pain.

Final Thoughts

Would I recommend this race? Absolutely, without hesitation. I loved the race and loved to be a part of the largest 10k in the world. It was well-organized from pre-race to post-race, had amazing volunteers everywhere, and had a fun vibe. When I was running this race, I had so much fun the miles flew by. It felt good to run fast and to run with a crowd again and I realized how much I had missed in-person racing.

Even though I had just run the Circle of Life Half Marathon, Lake City, Minnesota- 48th state literally one week before this race, the one in Minnesota couldn’t have been more different from this race. That race had less than 100 people running the half marathon, while this one had over 24,000 runners spread over two days (I believe there were around 11,000 on July 3 when I ran it). I ran the vast majority of the race in Minnesota by myself, with farmland for scenery and the occasional aid station with a few volunteers handing out water. The Peachtree was full of people everywhere going through a big city, although the crowd thinned out pretty quickly after the first mile so I had plenty of room to run, hundreds of volunteers, multiple aid stations, music on the course, and a definite party vibe. This isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy the half marathon but it was nothing like this race.

Here is a link to the race website: https://www.atlantatrackclub.org/peachtree

Have you run the Peachtree Road Race? If so, what was your experience like? Do you want to run it but haven’t been able to get in the lottery?

Happy running!

Donna

Circle of Life Half Marathon, Lake City, Minnesota- 48th state

This is part of a series of posts from my quest to run a half marathon in all 50 states. Minnesota was my 48th state.

Never would I have thought I would be running a half marathon in tiny little Lake City, Minnesota, but my life has often taken unexpected twists and turns so really I shouldn’t be too surprised. I was supposed to run the Tiki Run in St. Paul, Minnesota for my Minnesota race in 2020 but of course that was cancelled because of the pandemic. In fact, the race director’s response time to messages and emails last year was so poor (he never responded) that I decided even if the race was held this year I would not run it.

When I saw things start to open back up including in-person races in the spring of this year and I was fully vaccinated, I started looking for half marathons in Minnesota and Iowa to run. I knew my race registration from the half marathon in New Mexico would roll into the November 2021 race so I didn’t have to bother finding a race for that state. Iowa was easy, with the race director for the Des Moines Marathon and Half Marathon basically stating the race would be held in-person come hell or high water, so I immediately signed up for that, leaving Minnesota.

My search for a half marathon in Minnesota was further complicated by the fact that my teenage daughter wanted to run it with me but didn’t want to miss school for it. That meant I needed to find an in-person half marathon in Minnesota between mid-June and the end of July (we already had a trip planned in August just before she goes back to school). That didn’t leave many options, and given the fact that the pandemic still wasn’t 100% over and some races were at limited capacity or going the virtual route, that left barely any races. To further limit my choices, I knew how hot it gets in Minnesota in July, so I had my fingers crossed I could find a race in the last two weeks of June.

As luck would have it, I found the Circle of Life Half Marathon in Lake City, about an hour from Minneapolis. Knowing absolutely nothing about the race course, the town or surrounding area, or really anything other than the race director assured me it would be an in-person race, I signed up myself and my daughter and began making travel plans.

I found a good flight deal using travel credits I had from cancelled flights in 2020 and flew into St. Paul/Minneapolis a few days before the race, giving me plenty of wiggle room before the race, should anything happen with the flights (everything went smoothly). We checked out the National Eagle Center in nearby Wabasha, https://www.nationaleaglecenter.org/, walked around the very few shops in the towns of Wabasha and Lake City, and just took it easy until the race Saturday morning.

It turns out Lake City is the birthplace of water skiing, and there is a huge festival every June that includes concerts, an arts and crafts fair, a water ski show, a car show, a parade, and more. Most of the events began on Friday evening and ran through the weekend but I had planned on checking out immediately after the race on Saturday so we missed all of that. Oh well. We were there for a half marathon anyway, right. On to that.

Packet pickup was quick and easy at the same place as the race start/finish: Underwood Park in Lake City. I picked up a cotton t-shirt, bib with a chip embedded in it, and a plastic bag with a granola bar, water bottle, some coupons, a local booklet, and some other odds and ends, most of which went in the trash or recycling.

I always like to drive the race course the evening before a race and this one was no exception, only this time I was a bit early. I happened to see someone putting up small signs by the road near packet pickup and noticed he was putting up mile markers. Great! I thought! But it wasn’t so great because he was going pretty slowly, driving to each mile, getting out of his truck, grabbing the mile marker sign and hammering it into the ground, sometimes also adding direction arrows as well. I quickly felt like a stalker, which I pretty much was. I tried to follow behind him with some distance but a few times I would catch up sooner than I thought I would and not have anywhere to “hide” the car so I would just sit off the side of the road until he moved on. My daughter had a good time laughing at the situation and we made a sort of game out of it. Who knows if the guy saw me and if he did what on earth did he think about a woman and her teenage daughter following behind him for 13’ish miles.

It was good and bad that I saw the course before the race start. The good was I knew fully what I was in for, the bad was I knew fully what I was in for. Part of the course was on a gravel road, which I detest running on, and even worse, some of it went uphill. There’s not much worse than running uphill on a gravel road. Further, there was a steep hill near the finish, which I’ve always felt is cruel and unusual punishment by a race director.

Even though the weather forecast had called for a downpour around 7 am, which was race start time, by the time I checked that morning, it had gotten downgraded to showers starting around 9 or 10 am. It was overcast and around 73 degrees, but no humidity, which my North Carolina self is used to, so it didn’t feel bad at all. We all lined up at the start and promptly were on our way.

My first mile was faster than I knew I should be going but I thought I would go by feel and most likely slow down on the gravel and hills, so I went with it (8:38). I still felt good for the next few miles (8:56, 8:48, 8:34) but then around mile 5.5 the paved road ended and was a gravel road. We had run by some homes in the first couple of miles but quickly were out in the country with not much other than farm land to distract us.

I felt like I couldn’t get my footing on the gravel and at times felt like I was almost running in place. Still, I was surprised I didn’t slow down too much (9:13, 9:08, 9:13). By the time we got back on paved roads, my quads were so tired from working so much harder on the gravel road, I knew I’d have to push mentally to keep anywhere near a 9-minute mile. We got a break and actually got to run down a short hill and I gained a tiny bit of time (8:54).

Water views! Paved roads!

I struggled through the next mile (9:29) and I started to feel beat up, only to get another break with another short down hill (9:02). For the last 3.1 miles, I kept repeating to myself over and over, it’s only a 5k, I can run a 5k in my sleep, it’s only 2 more miles, it’s only 1.5 miles, it’s only a mile, I can crawl a mile. Those miles were tough ( 9:32, 9:48, 9:31) and were only made tougher with a steep hill we had to run up around mile 12. I was genuinely elated when I could finally see the finish line in sight.

My Garmin and Strava clocked me at 13.13 miles in 1:59:58, but the official time according to my chip was 2:00:00. There was bottled water, Gatorade, oranges, bananas, and huge cookies at the finish, along with medals for finishers, all 18 women and 25 men who ran it, by far the smallest half marathon I’ve ever run. I heard someone say at packet pickup how more people were running it this year than normally. There were no age group awards, no big party afterwards, everyone just got in their cars and went on their way after they cooled down and chatted with their friends. I was just happy to cross Minnesota off my list. It was definitely one of the hardest half marathons I’ve run, but the people I talked to before and after the race were also some of the nicest and friendliest people I’ve met at a race.

Finisher medals!

Date of my half marathon was June 26, 2021.

https://runsignup.com/Race/MN/LakeCity/CircleofLifeRun

https://lakecity.org/news-events/waterski-days/

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

My Favorite and Least Favorite Races

So far, I’ve run 49 half marathons in 47 states, one full marathon, and a few other random races including 5k’s, 10k’s, and a 10-miler. Since most of these races were half marathons in different states, I have a wide range of races to choose from when deciding which ones I liked best and least. It’s funny because when I hear other people asked, “What was your favorite race?” they usually stammer around and say things like they could never choose just one.

For me, the choice is clear, however, especially for my favorite race. Sure, that’s not to say I didn’t highly enjoy some other races or truly dislike other races, but there are two obvious choices for me. I’ll start with my favorite race ever: the Spearfish Canyon Half Marathon in South Dakota.

Never would I have imagined that a half marathon in a tiny town in South Dakota would end up being my favorite half marathon at this point in my life, but there was just so much to love about this race.

I’ll start with the beginning as all things should, which in this case is packet pickup. I consider myself a pretty efficient person and I can appreciate when other people are also efficient, as was the race director with packet pickup for this race. I simply drove up to the designated site, told the one person sitting out front my name, and was handed a race shirt and bib. Simple and efficient.

The start of the Spearfish Canyon Half Marathon

The race started promptly at 7 am at the top of the beautiful Spearfish Canyon in Savoy in the northernmost section of South Dakota’s Black Hills National Forest and finished at the bottom in Spearfish City Park. The course is net downhill with the start at around 5,000 feet above sea level and the finish around 1,300 feet. This didn’t feel so steep to me that my quads were aching but it did allow me to finish in my fastest time for a half marathon up to that point in my life.

Because the race is on quiet roads through the canyon, there were very few spectators and aid stations were on the light side, but still sufficient. For some people that thrive on crowds during a race they may find this a negative but for me I found the peace and quiet a definite positive for the race. As I was running I kept saying to myself how lucky I was to be able to run down the canyon and what a gift it was to do that. I can’t say I’ve thought that during many other races.

As of this writing the 2021 Spearfish Canyon will take place in-person on July 10, with a virtual option as well. https://www.nhcasa.com/canyonrun/ You can also read my race report here: Spearfish Canyon Half Marathon, South Dakota- 34th state.

Now for my least favorite race. This wasn’t quite as easy to choose as my favorite but ultimately I have to choose the race that I described in my race report as a “death march through the desert,” the Laughlin Half Marathon in Nevada. I really hated just about everything about this race and only sheer will-power kept me going to the finish line.

The year that I ran the Laughlin Half Marathon, the race started at 8 am, which was entirely too late in the day considering it’s in the desert and quickly gets blazing hot (it’s since then been pushed to 7 am). It was already hot and steamy at the beginning of the race and being in the desert, there were no trees for shade, and not a cloud in the sky. The entire course was on packed dirt with loose gravel, making it difficult for me to get my footing. The course was out-and-back along a part of the Colorado River but pretty much all I could focus on was the stifling heat and loose gravel so I didn’t find it very scenic.

Crappy photo from a crappy race, the Laughlin Half Marathon

Even the post-race parts of this half marathon were disappointing. There were only bananas, oranges, and bagels in addition to water. The medals were just average at best and the shirts were white cotton t-shirts with the race logo. Based on the current website, changes have been made since I ran the race, but even so this is not a race I would ever recommend to anyone.

According to the website, https://runlaughlin.com/# the race director is attempting to hold a race December 4, 2021 but this is dependent on COVID numbers and state regulations. If you’re a true masochist, check it out! Honestly, the December date might help with the heat (I ran it in March). You can read my full race report here: Laughlin Half Marathon, Nevada-11th state.

What about you- what are your least favorite and favorite races so far? Have you run either of these races?

Happy running!

Donna