Digging a Little Deeper Into Asheville, NC

Asheville, North Carolina is a city I’ve chosen to return to many times over the years. The only other city I can think of that I’ve chosen to return to more than a couple of times is Charleston, South Carolina. I first went to Asheville when I was in graduate school in Tennessee and I fell in love with it then. For those of you not acquainted with Asheville, it’s in the mountains of western North Carolina. By car, it’s about 2 hours from Charlotte, NC or Knoxville, TN in the other direction and about 1 hour from Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

I’ve been to the Biltmore House in Asheville many times and had a season pass at one point. Although the Biltmore is lovely all four seasons, Christmas is my favorite, with spring in a close second. The first overnight vacation I took my daughter on was to Asheville, and we toured the Biltmore when she was about two months old. I’ve also hiked all over in and around Asheville. But I’m not going to talk about the Biltmore House or hiking here. I’ve already done that and you can read my posts here: Christmas at Biltmore Estate and Exploring Asheville, North Carolina and Camping in Asheville, North Carolina.

I’m going to talk a bit about other things to do in Asheville because Asheville is so much more than just the Biltmore House and hiking/camping. Asheville is full of things to do and is a foodie town that can hold its own to other foodie towns like Charleston, SC. Too many people just get stuck in the Biltmore or hiking rut and don’t venture off to the plethora of other offerings Asheville has, myself included, until recently. So here we go digging a bit deeper.

Things to Do

Even though I’m a huge fan of botanical gardens, I only recently discovered the botanical garden in Asheville. It backs up to the University of North Carolina at Asheville campus so it’s easy to find. More importantly, it’s a quiet and peaceful place to walk around for 30 to 60 minutes, depending on whether you get in the water or not. Reed Creek flows through the gardens and provides a relaxing place to cool off in the summer or just to stop and enjoy the sounds and views. There is no admission fee and dogs are not permitted. https://ashevillebotanicalgardens.org

On a similar note but much bigger than the botanical gardens is the North Carolina Arboretum with gardens, a bonsai exhibit, hiking and biking trails, and views for miles on a clear day. There is no admission fee but there is a parking fee that some might consider a bit hefty ($16/vehicle). There are discounts offered for some affiliations and on the first Tuesday of the month so check the website for more information. https://www.ncarboretum.org

The Grove Arcade isn’t really an arcade at all but one of the most stunning indoor shopping malls I’ve ever seen. Originally opened in 1929 as America’s first indoor shopping mall, the Grove Arcade is a mix of stores and restaurants. Even if you don’t care for shopping, if you love ornate architecture, you might want to pop in to admire the building. There are even apartments for rent here and for just $2850/month you can have your own 2 bedroom apartment with 1478 square ft (yes, of course I realize that’s outrageous but I never said Asheville was cheap). Check out the website for a directory https://grovearcade.com

A friend of mine that had recently been to Asheville and knew I was planning a trip there asked if I had been to the Antique Tobacco Barn and I said I hadn’t so I thought I’d check it out. If you enjoy browsing through antiques, this is a huge place (almost 80,000 square ft) full of all kinds of antiques so big you can easily get turned around. There are something like 75 antique dealers, each with their own area within the space. Since I saw it was dog-friendly, I brought my dog and I’ve never seen her so happy when there weren’t treats involved. I guess she loved all of the smells from everything and her tail didn’t stop wagging the entire time we were there. https://www.atbarn.com

The River Arts District has working studios and galleries from many different kinds of artists and forms of medium including painting, glass, metal, jewelry, and more. If you’re lucky enough to be there on the the second Saturday of the month, there are gallery walks, workshops, wine tastings, demonstrations, and music. There’s even a trolley to help take you around the mile-long district, known as RAD. Check out more information plus the many events and classes on the website https://www.riverartsdistrict.com

For even more artistry, visit the Southern Highland Craft Guild. There are four locations where you can buy some of this fine handmade art by members of the group, with three in Asheville and one in Blowing Rock, North Carolina. The 75th Craft Fair of the Southern Highlands was in July and October of this year. To purchase tickets or for more information see the website https://www.southernhighlandguild.org/galleries/

If you have children or just love animals, there’s the Western North Carolina Nature Center, essentially a zoo, full of animals that live or have lived in the Southern Appalachian Mountains. Or so they say, but there are red pandas that currently only live in Central Asia (WNC Nature Center says that the climate where red pandas live is nearly identical to that of Asheville). But I digress. It’s a pretty typical zoo, in my opinion, with extras like behind the scenes tours, nature play areas, but with an additional area you don’t normally see at zoos- a gem and fossil mining area. My daughter loved doing this when she was younger. For an additional fee, you buy a bag of stones that they call mining roughage and put it through the sluice to see what you find. https://wildwnc.org/plan-your-visit/

One place I’ve never visited but I know is popular is the Asheville Pinball Museum. For $15 you can play 35 pinball machines and 35 classic video games for “as long as you like.” I wonder if that last part has ever been tested by someone who is really good at pinball or video games and they’ve had to kick them out after playing for hours. https://ashevillepinball.com

Another place I’ve never been that is surprising even to me because I normally love places like this is the Asheville Museum of Science. Originally opened in 1960 in another location with the name Burnham S. Colburn Memorial Museum, the museum was moved and renamed a couple more times before its current location and name in 2016. They seem to have many hands-on exhibits that delve into astronomy, geology, weather, climate, ecology, and paleontology. Admission is a simple $10 for everyone over 3. https://ashevillescience.org

If you enjoy live music, there are many options in Asheville. One of the best sources is this calendar https://livemusicasheville.com/calendar-live-music-in-asheville/ or this one that has more than just live music (like links for food and drink, things to do, etc.) https://www.exploreasheville.com/iconic-asheville/music/live-music-events-calendar/

Food and Drink

Like I mentioned in the beginning, Asheville is a foodie city and has been for quite some time. Over the years, the food scene has just exploded as has the number of breweries. Depending on the source, I’ve seen estimates anywhere from 20 to 30 breweries in Asheville. Considering there are currently around 96,000 people living in Asheville, that’s a ton of breweries for a town of this size. Some of the more popular breweries include Highland Brewing, Burial Beer Co, Bhramari Brewing Co, Archetype Brewing, Hi-Wire, New Belgium Brewing Co, and Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. I recently discovered White Labs Brewing Co and loved not only the beer but the pizza that was made with fermented dough, essentially sourdough. Sierra Nevada has some of the best food I’ve ever had at a brewery.

Some breweries including Sierra Nevada give tours as well

I don’t know how restaurants in Asheville stay in business given the stiff competition. You can find anything from food trucks to fancy dine-in restaurants and everything in between at all price points. It may seem surprising that a Caribbean restaurant, Nine Mile, is one of the highest rated restaurants given the location but probably not so surprising that there are a multitude of places specializing in pizza (pizza goes so well with beer). Some other highly rated restaurants include Cúrate, French Broad Chocolate Lounge, White Duck Taco, Tupelo Honey, Jargon, Rhubarb, All Souls Pizza, Buxton Hall, and Biscuit Head. I’ve been to many of these restaurants and will say the hype is real. I also discovered and really liked Gypsy Queen Market and Deli, a Lebanese restaurant when I was there last time.

Asheville is also a big coffee city with many local coffee shops including the touristy but still good Double D’s Coffee and Desserts where they sell coffee, tea, and desserts out of a bright red double-decker bus surrounded by a patio. You can find a whole list of some of the best coffee shops in Asheville here: https://www.exploreasheville.com/blog/post/fan-faves-ashevilles-best-coffee-shops/

Dog City USA

Asheville promotes itself as Dog City USA and tries hard to support that title. It’s one of the most dog-friendly places I’ve been and dogs are welcome at many breweries, restaurants (with outdoor seating) and stores. One restaurant, Twisted Laurel even has a doggie menu with protein, veggie, and dessert options. The Aloft Hotel in Downtown Asheville is so dog-friendly there’s no extra charge for dogs and there are usually rescue dogs available to adopt. Plus, there are many other pet-friendly hotels in Asheville at all price ranges.

The first official dog welcome center in the US is inside The Dog Door Behavior Center and Outfitter in Downtown Asheville across from the Grove Arcade. They have indoor and outdoor seating, a doggy potty area, water fountains, free goody bags, doggie ice cream, and info on their top 100 dog-friendly attractions, restaurants, and things to do. You can also buy treats, bandanas, toys, and other goodies for your dog in the store.

Best Time of Year To Go

Asheville definitely has all four seasons, with snow in the winter, spring flowers in the spring, hot but not excessively so summers, and autumn leaves in the fall. Summers are the busiest time of year and most packed with families. Spring and fall are probably the best overall in terms of weather and crowds but the spring can be fairly rainy and chilly, especially in March. January is the coldest month and can get quite chilly by North Carolina standards, although the lows don’t typically dip below the 20’s.

The best time of year to visit really depends on what you plan to do. If you want to go hiking, you can do that year-round but bring weather-appropriate clothes and good sturdy hiking shoes or boots. There are bears so be aware of that and make sure you make noise periodically when you’re hiking so that you don’t startle a bear. Spring is when bears have their cubs so that’s the time of year to be especially cautious. I would recommend spending three full days in Asheville or four if you plan on driving to other cities like Boone or Blowing Rock (which I recommend) or going to Mt. Mitchell, the highest peak east of the Mississippi.

Have you been to Asheville before? If so, what did you do? Are there any places you really enjoyed and recommend?

Happy travels!

Donna

Most Overrated Tourist Attractions

I saw an article by Fodor’s Travel about the most overrated tourist attractions in the world and it made me pause. For the article, see https://www.fodors.com/news/news/the-most-overrated-tourist-attractions-in-2022. For a quick summary, there were places mentioned ranging from The Grand Canyon, The FRIENDS Experience New York, cities like Los Angeles, Las Vegas, but apparently the most popular places listed were Disney World and Disneyland. The reasons listed shouldn’t surprise anyone who’s been to Disney- too crowded and too expensive. Rounding out the poll’s top 5 most overrated tourist attractions were The Leaning Tower of Pisa, The Eiffel Tower, Times Square, and The Louvre.

I’ve never been to The Leaning Tower of Pisa, The Eiffel Tower, or The Louvre so I can’t comment on my personal feelings about those places but I have been to Disneyland and Disney World, The Grand Canyon, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and Times Square. I agree that Disney is hugely expensive and crowded so I can see where people would rank those places as overrated. There wasn’t a reason or reasons listed why people thought Times Square was overrated but I can also understand how it could be a letdown for people expecting some sort of magical experience or inflated expectations.

I started thinking about what I would list as the top 5 most overrated places I’ve traveled to. Travel can be a subjective subject so I understand that places I may have hated or just generally disliked are places that other people love. Likewise, I’ve been to places that I loved that others have hated. For example, I’ve heard people say The Grand Canyon National Park is nothing but a big hole in the ground with a bunch of rocks and trees around. I thought the Grand Canyon was an amazingly beautiful part of our country and loved hiking there. Not everyone likes being out in nature, though.

Does this look like just a big hole in the ground? Not to me!

Probably my number one place that I would list as overrated is Las Vegas, Nevada. I’m not a gambler and both times I went there I didn’t gamble even once, not even to play the slot machines. I really could care less about gambling. The first time I went to Las Vegas I was in nearby Laughlin, Nevada for a half marathon and thought I should see what all the fuss was about in Vegas. Needless to say, I was not impressed. Sure, the enormous themed casino hotels (The Venetian, Paris, Bellagio, etc.) are cool but I wouldn’t go there just for the hotels. I’m also not a big drinker or partier so you could see where Las Vegas would not be a great choice for a person like me.

Las Vegas Strip at night

The second time I was in Las Vegas was when I was running a half marathon outside St. George, Utah and it was cheaper to fly into Las Vegas and drive from there. Since we landed in the evening I thought we should at least walk through some of the hotel lobbies and watch the fountain displays with our teenage daughter to show her the sights. Would I ever purposely go back? Maybe to watch a Cirque du Soleil show but that’s the only reason (I’m a big fan of their shows).

Next on my list of overrated tourist spots is Gatlinburg, Tennessee (not including Great Smoky Mountains National Park). Like Las Vegas, I’ve been here twice, once as a teenager with a friend of mine and her family and more recently to go hiking in the park with my daughter last summer. On my more recent visit, we skipped all of the super-touristy places like Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum, Guinness World Records Museum, and the Salt and Pepper Museum. I didn’t hate it here and there were some shops and restaurants I enjoyed but it’s definitely not a place I would go out of my way to go to. See my post: Gatlinburg, Tennessee “Myrtle Beach in the Sky”

Main strip of Gatlinburg, Tennessee

If you read my post on Gatlinburg, Tennessee, it may come to no surprise that next on my list here is Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Like Gatlinburg and Las Vegas, this is a place I’ve been to more than once, the first time as a child and later as an adult. This is also a place I personally know many people go to every summer with their friends and/or families and love it here. I find it crowded with people and traffic and touristy shops and restaurants full of fried seafood (which I don’t like). The water is murky and there is often trash littered around the hotels and beach areas. I would hands-down rather go a little further south to Charleston, South Carolina, which in my opinion is about 1000 times better in every way imaginable than Myrtle Beach.

Next on my list is a place I’ve only been to once: Los Angeles, California. I went here during my trip to Long Beach, California, when I ran a marathon and explored the area afterwards. Personally, I found the Hollywood Walk of Fame to be a complete waste of time (it’s exactly what you think it will be, a bunch of famous people’s names on gold stars on the sidewalk) and the tour of celebrity homes was also a waste. What I remember from that tour is driving around in a van, going by a bunch of huge fences and shrubbery while the host talked about the celebrity who lived in each of the homes we couldn’t even see. Maybe I just chose a bad tour or maybe they’re better now since that was several years ago. Sunset Strip, the Hollywood Sign, and every single other thing I saw or went past was entirely a waste of time to me.

The final place on my list of overrated places is a city I was surprised I didn’t like it as much as I did and I found it disappointing overall- Athens, Greece. For all of the details, you can read my post: I’m Sorry but I Just Didn’t Love Athens. In short, I found it to be hot, crowded, and dirty and many of the ruins were in such a poor state you could barely even see anything there. That being said, it might be more pleasant during the spring or fall when it’s not so crowded or hot. It’s also a place despite the fact I found it overrated, I would still recommend everyone go there just once to experience it for themselves.

Recognize this ruin? Me niether but I know it was in Athens

In fact, I don’t want to imply that I think no one should go to any of these overrated places. Like I said earlier, I know many people who go to some of these places year after year and love them. Also, with the exception of Myrtle Beach and Gatlinburg, these are unique places that I encourage everyone to see for themselves for the experience. There truly is no other place (at least not that I’ve been to or heard of) like Las Vegas, Los Angeles, or Athens, each of which has unique qualities that some people are drawn to.

What about you? Do you love any of the places I listed as overrated? Do you have your own list of overrated places that you’ve been to?

Happy travels!

Donna

Day Trips From San Jose, Costa Rica- Poas Volcano, Waterfalls, Hot Springs, Manuel Antonio National Park, Sloths, and Monkeys!

As I mentioned in my previous post (Why You Should Spend Time in San Jose, Costa Rica), this wasn’t my first visit to Costa Rica. I didn’t say it before but I had previously been to the Guanacaste region in northern Costa Rica, many years ago, and I stayed at an all-inclusive resort and just took a day trip to go zip-lining and visit mud pools, plus take a cycling tour of the area for a couple of hours one afternoon. This time when I went back to Costa Rica, I wanted to do things differently and stay in the Central Valley region where the capital city of San Jose is and take some day tours from there.

We decided to take three days for all-day tours and spend the rest of the time in downtown San Jose. This gave us a nice mix of museums and shopping in the city along with outdoor pursuits. Plus, it limited our days in the car, since a “short” drive to an excursion was a little over an hour away, one way. First, I should give a shout-out to the tour company I chose, Sol Tropical Tours https://soltropical.com.The resort where I was staying has a close relationship with this tour company, although not exclusively so anyone can book tours with Sol Tropical.

It turned out that when I was in Costa Rica, my daughter and I were the only ones at our small resort (only 10 units) that chose to do the tours that week so we literally had our own private tours, for the price of group tours. Score! Our guide, Christian, was so friendly and knowledgable about Costa Rican history, culture, and animals and we gained so much information we never would have if we were on our own. By the second tour, it felt like we were old friends and he was showing us around his beautiful country. We would pull up to a restaurant after he had called in our orders in advance and since he knew everyone in the place, they all made us feel extremely welcome and like a part of the family. Normally I don’t take tours when I travel but this time I was a firm believer in the value of a good tour guide.

Day Trip Number One- Sloths and Hot Springs

Our first day trip was to the Arenal Region. Because it was the rainy season and there had been recent mudslides and bridges getting swept away, Christian had to take an alternate route to the region. This reinforced the fact that it was a wise decision for me not to rent a car and just go it on my own. We stopped in the town of Sarchi for some souvenir shopping and breakfast on our own. Then it was off to a quick view of Arenal Volcano, although because of the mudslides and other reasons, we couldn’t get very close.

A SLOTH!!! It was so cool seeing them moving around in the trees.

There was an optional Sloth Tour in La Fortuna, which I was like, of course we want to take the sloth tour! Who wouldn’t? Christian had an expert eye for spotting all of the sloths and thanks to his telescope we were able to see them clearly up in the trees. Sure, I had seen sloths before in zoos and the like but this was immensely better seeing them in nature. He also showed us many different birds, trees, and flowers along the way.

For the grand finale, as if seeing sloths and a volcano wasn’t good enough, we went to what are often called the best hot springs in Costa Rica but I would say the best hot springs I’ve ever been to anywhere, Baldi Hot Springs. This is a 5-star resort with over 20 natural hot spring pools, several swim-up bars, two restaurants, accommodations, and of course changing rooms, showers, and lockers. We were allowed to stay there for three hours before dinner, and they were the most relaxing three hours I spent in Costa Rica.

We had access to all of the hot springs, including the VIP ones at the very top near the hotel rooms, and we went to every one of them, some twice. Christian had left us to enjoy the hot springs on our own and told us where to go for dinner, also on our own (but everything was included in the tour price). Dinner was a buffet full of traditional Costa Rican dishes like rice and beans, plantains, and fish but so much more as well, a wide array of desserts, and even a chocolate fondue fountain with things like marshmallows, strawberries, and graham crackers to dip in it. With full bellies and soothed muscles, we met Christian by the towel return area for our drive back to the resort.

Baldi Hot Springs

Day Trip Number Two- Poas Volcano and La Paz Waterfall Gardens

My daughter has an interest in volcanoes and even wants to be a volcanologist and work with volcanoes when she’s an adult (she’s 16 now). When I told her we could visit a volcano up-close, she was excited and of course she wanted to do that day trip. On this day, we went to Poas Volcano National Park, with the largest active volcano in Costa Rica and 8885 feet above sea level.

The crater of the volcano is over a mile across and 1050 ft.deep. Since the crater is in a continuous eruption with its sulfuric gases, visitors are only advised to stay 20 minutes at a time, to limit respiratory distress. We also were given hard hats to wear, in the event of flying rocks and debris from a sudden eruption. Christian pointed out indentations in the walkway up to the viewing spot where large rocks had landed in previous eruptions. He also showed us specific plants growing there and told us what animals live there (mostly birds, coyotes, rabbits, and marmots). There is a lake in the crater with a lovely light turquoise color, and with a pH of zero, it is one of the most acidic lakes in the world. Since it is at a high elevation, it’s much colder here than San Jose so it was nice to get a cup of hot cocoa at the cafe there to warm up afterwards.

It was a foggy, rainy morning at Poas Volcano so it was difficult to get a good photo of the lake. Like most places, photos don’t do it justice and it was much better in person!

Afterwards, we had a short drive to La Paz Waterfall Gardens. This is an easy walking trail (but with many steps) in a tropical rain forest. Christian pointed out birds and took us to the individual sections. There was a butterfly observatory, more hummingbirds than I’ve seen in one small area in the Hummingbird Garden, an Aviary exhibit, Serpentarium, Jungle Cats, and the Frog Exhibit. We had a nice lunch and once again filled up on the buffet with everything from chicken, fish, pastas, pizza, beef, the usual rice and beans, vegetables and salad, a multitude of desserts, and hot coffee and tea.

After lunch, we took the 2 mile path with the waterfalls, all 5 of them. One waterfall was so high and the water was so powerful you could feel the spray from pretty far away. I later learned La Paz is the most visited privately-owned ecological attraction in Costa Rica with the most famous waterfalls in Costa Rica, and the largest animal sanctuary in Costa Rica with over 100 species of animals. You can even stay at the park. https://waterfallgardens.com/la_paz_waterfall_gardens/

La Paz Waterfall Gardens

Day Trip Number Three- Manuel Antonio National Park

As we were approaching the town of Quepos, the scenery suddenly changed. This seemed like a town over-run with tourists and there was a restaurant and small hotels or rooms for rent everywhere I looked. Street vendors were selling everything you could think of and it seemed like way too many people piled into this small town. Men were aggressively trying to get us to park in their parking area and sell us day tours. Fortunately Christian, our guide, knew the best spot to park and not overpay. When I asked him how a tourist would know the difference between a legitimate parking lot and an overpriced one, he said simply, “They wouldn’t.” Hmmm. Another reason I was glad we had a reputable tour guide with us.

Christian had to buy our entrance tickets to the park in advance online, as is stated on the park website, https://www.sinac.go.cr/EN-US/ac/acopac/pnma/Pages/default.aspx. Entrance fees are $16 for foreigners. No food is allowed in the park but beverages are. The reason for that is the monkeys.

This little white-faced monkey was adorable

Let me just say a word about the monkeys. There are white-faced monkeys, titi monkeys, and howler monkeys in the park. The white-faced monkeys are aggressive (but not in a harmful or scary way) and used to people. When we were walking on the boardwalk to enter the park, a woman was blocking the path of a white-faced monkey and it very comically pushed her aside so it could get past her (she was fine and it didn’t bite her or hurt her in any way; we all laughed). I loved watching the monkeys, especially the white-faced ones since they were running around on the ground in addition to being in the trees so they were easier to see. We also spotted the other monkeys while we were there but they were in the trees and didn’t come down around people.

There are also two-and three-fingered sloths (both of which we saw, and one even was a mama with a baby!!!), coati, raccoons, birds, caymen, and iguanas in the park. There are three species of mangroves, the main beach (Manuel Antonio Beach), Gemelas Beach, Espedilla Sur Beach (with strong waves so be careful), and trails. Plus, there are changing rooms and showers (no soap or shampoo allowed) and drinking water.

We were content to stay at Manuel Antonio Beach the entire time we were at the park and my daughter and I happily jumped the waves (not too high, not too wimpy) for just about the entire time we were at the beach. Christian had gone off for a run to let us have free time on our own and not hover over us but I had his What’s App contact info just in case plus he checked in on us periodically. The day we were there the beach wasn’t overly crowded but was big enough to allow people to spread out and relax under the shade. Even though it was rainy season, the sun shone all day and it was a gorgeous day for the beach.

When we left the park, Christian took us to a small restaurant nearby where he once again knew the people working there and they all treated us like rock stars. We had a table waiting on us and as soon as we were seated, we were given tasty fruit drinks to help cool us off. I have to say a word about the fruit in Costa Rica. It’s some of the freshest I’ve had anywhere, including places like Hawaii. My daughter swears she can never eat pineapple anywhere else than Costa Rica now.

That’s it for our day trips! They were all unique and if I had to pick just one, it would be extremely difficult. The hot springs were amazing but so was Manuel Antonio National Park, as was Poas Volcano and La Paz Waterfall Garden. Christian from Sol Tropical Tours was one of the best tour guides I’ve ever had and he helped us experience true Pura Vida of Costa Rica.

Have you been to Costa Rica? If so, where did you go and what did you do? Any advice about when I go back to the Guanacaste region (where I went many years ago)?

Happy travels!

Donna

Why You Should Spend Time in San Jose, Costa Rica

Many people fly into the capital city of Costa Rica, San Jose, only to quickly leave and go to another city or cities for their vacation, and they don’t bother checking out things to do in San Jose. I recently went to Costa Rica for the second time and I purposefully chose to stay in San Jose (technically it was a suburb only 5 minutes from downtown San Jose) so that I would be centrally located for day trips in the Central Valley region of Costa Rica. This decision turned out to be even better than I thought it would be.

Here’s a paragraph taken from the Frommer’s travel website that sums up San Jose well: “Although most tourists enter Costa Rica through the international airport just outside this city, few travelers take the time to soak in San José’s gritty charm. Costa Rica’s bustling capital and population center is not a bad place to hang out for a few days, or to get things done that can’t be done elsewhere, but it isn’t a major tourist destination. Still, that lack of tourism makes the city feel uniquely Tico. And because San José is the country’s biggest urban center, it has varied and active restaurant and nightlife scenes, museums and galleries worth visiting, and a steady stream of theater, concerts, and other cultural events that you won’t find elsewhere in the country.” I agree completely.

What’s there to do in San Jose?

Well, if you like museums, there are plenty of good ones including the Museo de Arte Costarricense (Museum of Costa Rican Art). The art museum is in La Sabana Park at San Jose’s first international airport facilities, and the building itself is a work of art. You can find contemporary and modern art in many different forms and as you would expect the museum houses the most complete collection of Costa Rican art in the world. Upstairs includes a room with bas-relief walls, visuals of the pre-Columbian natives and an impressive mural by French artist Louis Feron. Outside is a sculpture garden with art by Costa Rican sculptures. Very little information is in English but that wasn’t a problem for me, given the nature of the material.

Museum of Costa Rican Art

The Museo Nacional de Costa Rica (National Museum) is in the Plaza de la Democracia and includes a wide array of historical and archaeological samples with pre-Columbian art and artifacts, musical instruments, recreated tombs, pottery, and pieces in jade and gold. There are also dioramas with recreated interiors, furniture, and paintings. There is even a butterfly garden with over a dozen different species. Much of the information is in English. Check the website for prices and other info: https://www.museocostarica.go.cr

One of my favorite museums in San Jose is the Museos del Banco Central de Costa Rica (Pre-Columbian Gold Museum). I was told by a tour guide that this museum was one of his favorites in San Jose and after visiting I could see why. Not only are there 1600 gold pieces dating back to 500 B.C., there are many cultural displays about the indigenous people in Costa Rica, which I found interesting. There were also many ancient maps and information about Spanish and other conquerors over the years in Costa Rica and Central America. Much of the information is in Spanish and English so it’s easy to understand the displays. https://museosdelbancocentral.org/eng/exhibiciones/

Pre-Columbian Gold Museum

Another popular museum is the Museo de Jade Marco Fidel Tristán (Jade Museum). It may surprise you that during pre-Columbian times in Central America and Mexico jade was more valuable than gold. This museum is massive, with 5 floors and over 7,000 pieces so make sure you allow a couple of hours to fully explore everything. All of the text on the walls is also in English. http://Museo de Jade Marco Fidel Tristán (Jade Museum)

One museum that was one of my favorites but is often over-looked is the Museo de Ciencias Naturales La Salle (La Salle Science and Nature Museum). This museum is also in Parque La Sabana, so it’s easy to combine it with a visit to the Museo de Arte Costarricense. At first glance you might think it’s for children because there are dinosaur bones when you first walk in, but this museum is most definitely for adults as well. I was in awe at the huge number of items on display here. There are taxidermic animals and birds from Costa Rica and beyond, animal skeletons, sea shells, minerals, preserved specimens in jars (including a two-headed pig!) and an enormous collection of butterflies. According to the pamphlet I picked up at the entrance, “this is one of the most complete museums in Iberoamerica with more than 70,000 items on permanent exhibit.” There is an incredible amount of specimens on shelves plus dioramas full of taxidermic animals grouped together by category, like birds or mammals. It was utterly fascinating to me. Like the art museum, there is very little in English here but since it’s such a visual museum, it’s not necessary to be fluent in Spanish to understand what you’re looking at. https://www.museolasalle.ed.cr

I saved the best for last, in my opinion. Teatro Nacional (National Theater) is a must-see place in the Plaza de la Cultura. It took 7 years of construction but the theater opened in 1897 using taxes on coffee (their most popular export at the time). The theater still houses plays, concerts, dances, and operas. They offer a one-hour tour in English every hour (but that varied when I was there, so check in advance) and it is well worth it, even if you don’t normally take tours. The tours are led by artists who perform at the theater and include some areas normally off-limits like the Men’s and Women’s (separate) Smoking Rooms. Plus, you learn information about the theater you wouldn’t otherwise know. Finally, there is one of the most beautiful cafes in San Jose in the theater where you can enjoy a cup of their delicious Costa Rican coffee. http://www.teatronacional.go.cr

Teatro Nacional

Shopping

The Municipal Crafts Market is a fun place to stroll around for 30-60 minutes and browse the local goods. This is the perfect place to pick up a souvenir and you can find a wide array of hand-made goods, along with clothing and leather products (wallets, purses, etc.). The people selling their goods are more than willing to haggle, even if you don’t normally engage in this. I don’t haggle but when I went to purchase a Christmas ornament, the woman automatically lowered the price, without me even asking. https://mercadomunicipaldeartesanias.negocio.site/

In the same vein as the Municipal Crafts Market, there’s San Jose Central Market. This is more geared towards locals rather than tourists because it has more “everyday” products like herbs, meats, fish, fruits, vegetables, desserts, and also some crafts and souvenirs. There were also some small restaurants called “sodas,” which doesn’t refer to the drink but it means they have local food on the menu and mostly locals eat there. In other words, sodas in Costa Rica have delicious, authentic and inexpensive food.

Being a big city (with around 1.5 million people), San Jose has all of the shops you would expect but some were eye-openers to me. There were stores that I would call “Dollar Stores” back in the United States that were utterly fascinating to walk through. Things seemed to be randomly arranged on the shelves with umbrellas next to makeup next to small religious statues, then there was some candy, next to men’s socks. We made it a point to check them out after we experienced our first store and just see all of the crazy offerings and laugh at how they were grouped together.

I found prices to be all over the place at the clothing stores and other stores we went in. Some things would be much lower than here in the US, like the cute t-shirt my daughter found for $4, but other things like a name-brand shampoo I could get for $20 a bottle was $60 a bottle in San Jose. Groceries were mostly cheaper than in the US, with some exceptions, and restaurants were always cheaper unless they were obviously geared toward tourists, which is always the case no matter where you are in the world.

Such cool architecture! Even their post office is beautiful!

Driving in San Jose

I did not rent a car the entire time I was in Costa Rica and every single day I was glad I didn’t. The traffic in San Jose is busy, the drivers are aggressive, and drivers often don’t stop at stop signs. Parking didn’t seem easy to come by in San Jose, either. On the other hand, taxis and Ubers were plentiful. Uber is a funny thing in Costa Rica. Technically it’s illegal but you’ll have no problem finding half a dozen drivers to pick you up, at least in and around San Jose. If you have problems in other areas, it’s probably because you’re in a remote area and you can’t get a good signal for Uber.

The Uber app works exactly like it does in the US. Once you request a driver, you’ll be connected to one and given their car make and model and license plate. Since it’s illegal, it’s best if you don’t make it so obvious by sitting only in the back seat if you’re traveling with others but honestly, my daughter and I rode in at least three Ubers before a driver suggested I ride in the front (so it wasn’t so obvious he was breaking the law to take me back to my resort). Never once did I feel unsafe or that it was a potential problem. I only took one taxi (when I couldn’t get a Wi-Fi signal) because I was warned by a local they’re more expensive than Uber and the drivers sometimes “forget” to start the meter when you get in the car. The one time I took a taxi, he did start the meter but the price was definitely more than any of my other Uber rides for the same distance.

Have you been to San Jose or Costa Rica before? If not, are you surprised at all of the museums in San Jose? Do you like museums or not so much?

Happy travels!

Donna

A Couple of HUGE (and Costly) Travel Learning Experiences For Me

During my week in the Algarve in Portugal, two things happened to me that had never happened to me EVER while traveling. I consider myself a pretty savvy traveler, at least for an American, having been to several islands in the Caribbean, Canada, Mexico, New Zealand, parts of Europe, and South America. However, two things happened that ended up throwing me for a loop and I want to pass along what I learned as a result so that hopefully none of you make the same mistakes I did.

I have a Garmin GPS-enabled watch that I wear all the time. It usually resets itself to the current time when I travel but in the past it may have taken it a day or so to reset itself. While I was in Portugal, I noticed it suddenly reset itself after several days, on the Friday evening we were there. Since it had taken my watch a while to catch up before I didn’t think much of it. Around the same time I noticed my Samsung phone had also reset itself to the same time as my watch.

Sunset during dinner on our last night (nope even that didn’t trigger anything at the time even though we normally don’t eat that late)

Of course I assumed both my watch and phone had reset to the current time in Portugal, which was 5 hours ahead of EST, where I live. I assumed incorrectly, because as you will later see, both my watch and phone had actually reset 4 hours ahead, not 5 hours. So when I looked at my watch or phone and thought it was 6 am, it was actually 7 am. There was no reason for me to check that both devices had reset to the correct current time and there were no clocks in the Airbnb to check. I didn’t do a Google search to see current time in Portugal and check that it was the same as my watch and phone.

This wasn’t a problem until it was time to fly back to the United States on Saturday morning. I thought we were arriving at the Faro airport two hours before our flight, which should have been enough time since we weren’t checking bags and I had printed out our tickets at the Airbnb the night before. Plus, I knew Faro airport wasn’t huge like some other international airports.

At the airport, I checked the board to see what gate our flight to Lisbon was leaving out of and thought it was strange it said final boarding. I remember thinking to myself, “That’s strange they’re doing final boarding so early” but I still didn’t think much of it. We arrived at our gate and I saw a line of people getting ready to board a plane, thinking of course that was the line to board our plane, but I was wrong again. This line was full of people going to Berlin, as the chatty girl in line in front of my daughter mentioned and when I actually looked up and saw a Ryanair sign, my heart sank. Then I saw the final blow, a clock that read 7:00.

Frantically, I looked at my watch and phone and said, “But it can’t be 7:00! It’s only 6:00!” My daughter, who has nightmares about missing flights, despite the fact that it’s only happened a handful of times out of the dozens of flights we’ve had, usually due to weather delays and missed connections, started crying uncontrollably and she started to panic. Of course that didn’t help me. Nor did the fact that not a single soul was around to help me sort this out.

I went back to the ticketing area (thank goodness we never check bags and still had ours with us) and tried to find someone from TAP Portugal Airlines. There was no one. Finally someone in an information booth told me to wait until an hour before the next TAP Portugal flight, and someone from the airline would be at the airport then. Since it was a little after 7 am, that meant someone should be there to help me in a little less than two hours. I knew there was a flight from Faro to Lisbon with TAP Portugal at 10 am so I felt confident as long as there were seats left they could get us on that flight.

So we waited and I bought us some pastries from a kiosk and some bottled water since European airports don’t typically have water fill stations for water bottles. Finally someone from TAP Portugal showed up and I kindly explained that we had missed our 7 am flight to Lisbon and asked if we could please be put on the 10 am flight. She looked at me with disdain and repeated, “Missed your flight?” to which I replied, “Yes, we missed our flight. We had car troubles,” thinking she might be more sympathetic to that rather than saying my watch and phone hadn’t reset properly and had only reset 4 hours ahead rather than the entire 5 hours, which was actually the truth but I realized how crazy it sounded.

She then informed me rather brusquely that indeed there were seats available on the 10 am flight and I could purchase them for 2800 Euro. I was shocked and blurted out “Excuse me? I need to pay for these seats even though I already paid for the seats from the 7 am flight? And is that per seat or for two seats?” She said it was for two seats and yes, that was correct. I was dumbfounded. Previously we had missed a flight going to the Canary Islands with Iberia Airlines and we had been put on the next flight without having to buy new tickets so I didn’t think it was just a difference between US airlines and European airlines. I hadn’t bought the cheapest seats available with TAP Portugal, either. She suggested I do a search online and compare my options with different airlines to see if I could find another option. In other words, I was on my own.

My mind felt like it was spinning a million miles a minute. Not only did I have to search for flights from Faro to the United States that same day but our flight back to North Carolina was at 9:15 pm out of Newark so we needed to get to Newark before 9:15 that evening. Thank goodness I had good wifi at the airport.

I finally found an acceptable flight with British Airways from Faro to London, London to Newark that was leaving in about an hour and a half, which I thought should give us plenty of time to get through security again and to the gate. It also didn’t cost me nearly as much as the 2800 Euro I would have had to have paid with TAP Portugal (this would have been on top of what I had already paid for our tickets from Newark to Portugal). Because of COVID, I also had to download all kinds of extra information like our negative tests and certifications that we were healthy.

We did indeed make it to the gate on time and boarded the flight on time. The flight from London just barely missed getting us into Newark in time for the flight home; we missed it by less than 30 minutes. Fortunately, the nice person from United that I called from the BA airplane when we were waiting to deplane was happy to put us on the next flight from Newark, in about an hour later, at no charge.

Typical buildings and cobbled streets in the Algarve; this was in the city of Portimão.

The next day after we got home I called TAP Portugal, thinking surely they would give me a travel voucher if nothing else. I was curtly told that was not their policy and since I missed the flight, there was nothing they could do for me. I hung up the phone shocked. Believe me, I will try everything in my power to never fly TAP Portugal again but if I have to for some reason (because I would like to go back to Portugal) I will make sure I’m at the airport three hours in advance, not two, and more importantly, I will do a Google search asking what time it is in my current city every single time I travel across time zones.

Have you ever heard of a GPS-enabled watch or phone only partially adjusting when someone travels across time zones? Has this ever happened to you? A friend of mine suggested maybe since I didn’t have cell phone coverage in Portugal, my phone only partially reset but that doesn’t explain my watch. And why they both reset 4 hours ahead instead of 5 hours ahead is a mystery to me.

If you missed my other posts on Portugal, you can find them here: A Week in the Algarve- Southern Portugal- Outdoor Adventures, Faro, Sagres and Lagos, Portugal, First Impressions of Every Day Life in the Algarve (Southern Portugal) from an American Point of View

Happy travels!

Donna

First Impressions of Every Day Life in the Algarve (Southern Portugal) from an American Point of View

For so many years I had wanted to go to southern Portugal and just when I was finally going to go the pandemic started and international borders were closed. After another almost two-year wait, I was able to go to the Algarve region. Was it worth the wait? Absolutely 100%. Was it what I expected? In some ways yes, in other ways, not at all. I’ll go over some basic things I experienced, like driving, the food, and the people, and my thoughts on each.

Driving in Southern Portugal

People in Portugal drive on the right side of the road so that was easy for me as an American. I can’t speak about driving in Lisbon, Porto, or any other part of Portugal since I only drove after I picked up my rental car in Faro. The highways are well-marked and well-maintained. There aren’t many stop lights but there are roundabouts instead, which I mostly loved as I saw how there was only traffic backed-up at the places where the stop lights were. I did have to get an international drivers license for my trip but that was taken care of with a stop for passport photos followed by a stop to my local AAA for the small booklet. The downside is the license is only good for one year, which means the next time I go to Portugal I’ll have to get another one.

When you get into the main part of town, especially in small towns, driving can be a bit nail-biting. The roads in town are of course very old and were built way before the existence of today’s large vehicles. I was glad to have my compact car and even with that was nervous I’d scrape the sides of the vehicle next to me when I encountered another car. Fortunately the drivers that I encountered seemed willing to let others merge and seemed courteous for the most part. The only times I encountered any kind of car-related hostility was parking-related. As you’re probably aware, gas prices in Portugal (and Europe as a whole) are outrageous so be prepared for that. You should also acquaint yourself with European signs before your trip as well.

Do you need a car in the Algarve? If I would have only wanted to stay in my little corner of the Algarve where my Airbnb was in Ferragudo, I could have skipped the rental car entirely. However, I knew I wanted to explore the southern coast, which meant I would absolutely need a rental car. My only advice about renting a car is pay attention to the charges on your rental agreement. I’m currently disputing a charge with my credit card company about a toll fee that should have been credited back to me by the rental company but they neglected to do so, despite the fact I never drove on a toll road.

The Food in the Algarve

If you enjoy fresh seafood with loads of fruits and vegetables, this is the place for you. I’m not sure if we had seafood every day we were there but it must have been close. I had been told I should try the grilled squid, which I normally don’t enjoy in the US, and it was delicious, as were the grilled sardines, which are gargantuan compared to the nasty tinned sardines in the US. Even my teenage daughter devoured her sardines, which should tell you how good they were.

Portugal is also famous for their little pastries called pastel de nata or pastel de Belem. These are little egg custard tarts sometimes dusted with cinnamon. We had these for breakfast several times and once for an afternoon snack during a long walk. They were so tasty my daughter wants to learn how to make them!

So much fish here! Not a single meal wasn’t at least very good and most were excellent!

Some of my favorite restaurants in the Algarve include: Haven in Vilamoura, an expensive city with golf courses, expats, and a harbor filled with yachts. Side bar- there’s also an archaeological site in Vilamoura, Cerro da Vila but it was temporarily closed so we couldn’t visit. Another restaurant I loved was the fantastic O Molhe, in Ferragudo, with fresh seafood, servers fluent in at least 5 different languages (I heard them speak French, English, Portuguese, Spanish, and German), and some of the best views in the Algarve. I also enjoyed some wonderful Vietnamese food at Sen Tonkin in Ferragudo. Finding Asian restaurants is a rare find in the Algarve so it was a nice change. Another favorite was in Sagres called Three Little Birds. This is a large restaurant with a comfortable outdoor seating area in addition to many indoor tables.

Shopping in the Algarve

I was surprised to see so many Lidl grocery stores, the German-based company, but I guess I shouldn’t have been since apparently there are 11,000 Lidls in Europe. There were also several French-owned grocery stores called Intermarche, as well as the German-owned store Aldi. I always like checking out selection and prices at grocery stores when I travel and I found the selection and prices to be reasonable with some things priced lower than I would pay in North Carolina but other things were about the same. I didn’t go to a Continente grocery store, which has the most grocery stores in the Algarve so I don’t know how the prices are there but I suspect they aren’t much different from the others.

I know I seem to be contradicting myself a bit here because I’ve said before I prefer to shop locally when I’m traveling abroad and the grocery stores I’m talking about here are all chains. Further, I also shopped at a Decathlon, not once but twice when I was in the Algarve. Decathlon is a French sporting goods store with almost 1700 stores worldwide but none are in the US (there used to be one in San Francisco but it closed recently, citing the pandemic).

One rainy day I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to finally get to go to a Decathlon store in person. I have bought several things from Decathlon online, and I was so impressed with the products I wrote a post about some of my purchases (Review of Decathlon Running Apparel or Why Running Tights Should Not Cost $158). If you’re not familiar with Decathlon, they sell everything from gear for running, hiking, cycling, swimming, surfing, camping, and well, you get the idea, for extremely affordable prices. My daughter was excited to see short-sleeve running shirts for 5 Euro, pullovers for 10 Euro, and I was excited to see a backpack for 15 Euro, all of which I bought, along with a box of cereal bars for something like 3 Euro (for 12 bars). When we were in another town just strolling around and happened-upon another Decathlon, of course we had to pop in. It was a much smaller “boutique-size” store right on a beach, with mainly bathing suits and a small selection of other sporting goods. It wasn’t nearly as exciting as the main store we had visited a few days prior and we didn’t buy anything at this store.

Of course there are also the touristy beach shops selling things like t-shirts, magnets, photo holders, and other souvenirs. There were two things I didn’t buy that I wanted to: an adorable ceramic honey pot decorated with typical blue and white Algarve designs and a small zippered bag. I didn’t buy the honey pot because I don’t check bags when I travel and I knew I’d never eat all of the honey before we flew back home plus you can’t fly with honey in a carry-on and I didn’t buy the bag because I wasn’t sure I’d actually use it for anything useful. The one thing I did buy was a keychain. I buy an ornament for our Christmas tree when I travel to a new place but I didn’t like any of the ornaments we saw in the Algarve so I bought a cute key chain instead (I’ve done this before and by now have several keychains that I put on the Christmas tree from places we’ve traveled to over the years).

The People

I realize I may be getting into a controversial subject here but my first impression of the people was not what I expected. Every other person in the US that I’ve talked to that’s been to Portugal has raved about how beautiful the country is, how amazing the food is, and how friendly and nice the people are. My experience was not like that when it came to the people I encountered.

Not that I expected the people to gush compliments and be the most friendly people I had ever met but I didn’t expect them to be rude and ignore me at times. Not only was I yelled at by an elderly Portuguese man who thought I was taking his parking spot (I was just trying to turn around) when I was in Lagos, there were other people there who yelled at me for parking in an inappropriate spot (temporarily, since I quickly moved the car when I figured out why they were yelling at me). If any of those people would have just talked to me instead of yelling at me, it would have been an entirely different experience for me.

Then there was the time when my daughter and I went to a restaurant for lunch and we were blatantly ignored by three different people who worked there. They saw us standing by the entrance then looked the other way and carried on with their business. At best, all of the people we encountered were civil but in a cool and distant way, if that makes sense. In other words, they were merely doing their job and were not chatty or in no way tried to get to know us or basically had any real interest in us.

Since I didn’t take any photos of the people there, here’s one of my lovely daughter wearing her new shirt from Decathlon!

One thing I don’t think I mentioned that is a big reason I wanted to go to the Algarve was to see if it could be a potential retirement place for me. Some of the boxes were checked, like good food, reasonable prices, great weather and scenery but the one box that I don’t feel like I could check off was friendly people. I will go back to southern Portugal and give it another chance but honestly, I’m not sure I’d want to live in a place where the people aren’t that friendly. Maybe I just had a bad first impression and on that account but I’m willing to give it another chance. I’ve since talked to other people who have said they’ve heard the people are more friendly in Lisbon and Porto than in Southern Portugal. Who knows if that’s true in general but since I would want to live in the south because of the warmer weather, even if it were true, it wouldn’t help me.

Have you been to Portugal? If so, where did you go and what was your experience like?

Happy travels!

Donna

Faro, Sagres and Lagos, Portugal

First a little geography lesson for anyone who has never been to the southern part of Portugal known as the Algarve. Lagos and Sagres are both on the western end of the Algarve, with Sagres on the very tip of southwestern Portugal. I had read that the further west you go in the Algarve, the less populated it is and I found that to be true. There also wasn’t as much to do as far as shopping and restaurants on the far western part. Faro is about an hour and a half drive east of Lagos and is where the Faro Airport is. All three cities are unique in their own right, each offering something worth checking out. I’ll break down the three cities one-by-one here.

Sagres

One of the major attractions in Sagres is the Sagres Fortress. This is part of the Sudoeste Alentejano e Costa Vicentina Natural Park and includes a lighthouse (Farol de Sagres, where “farol” means lighthouse in Portuguese) and A Voz do Mar, which I’ll explain in a minute. There is a very large parking area where you’ll park and walk to the entrance of the fort and pay 3.50 Euro. Although you enter in an enclosed area, the vast majority of the fort is outside.

One of the amazing views from the Sagres Fortress

The views from the fort are amazing and there are markers along the walkway describing the fort and the flora and fauna in Portuguese, Spanish, and English. A Voz do Mar (“Voice of the Sea”) is a circular labyrinth that was originally going to be a temporary exhibit but was later made permanent. It was designed by the famous architect Pancho Guedes and is one of those places you just have to visit to understand but suffice to say when I was there, I exclaimed, “Whoa! That is so cool!” In short, it has just the right acoustics with its design to capture some of the sounds of the surrounding ocean. There’s also a tiny little church you can walk through on the grounds. Apparently one fortress and lighthouse wasn’t enough to the people in Sagres because there’s also the Lighthouse of Cabo de São Vicente and Fort of Santo António de Belixe, both about a 10-minute drive from Farol de Sagres and Sagres Fortress.

I had a hard time finding much to do in Sagres other than visiting the forts. There were plenty of surfing shops and several bars but not a whole lot else. The restaurants seemed to be clustered together in the same area; one we liked was Three Little Birds, a large restaurant with an outdoor seating area in a garden-like setting. The service was slow but they were also pretty much at max capacity and the food was excellent.

Can you tell it was windy at the fort?

Lagos

Driving toward the east from Sagres, Lagos is only about a half hour drive from Sagres and has much more to do, including one of my favorite walks, the Fisherman’s Trail (Trilho dos Pescadores) with Ponta da Piedade, which I wrote about on my previous post on Portugal (A Week in the Algarve- Southern Portugal- Outdoor Adventures). There are also streets that you can wander around on and get lost and discover some cute little shops, stopping to eat when you get hungry. Plus there are also some historical sites, including a Roman bridge, a fort complex, Forte da Ponta da Bandeira, and a castle.

I did have a hard time finding a parking spot in the center of town in Lagos but part of the problem may have been because it was Easter weekend. There was a street festival going on so there were probably more people than usual out that day. I got yelled at in Portuguese by an elderly gentleman who thought I was taking his parking spot in front of a church. I was on a tiny one-way road that suddenly ended and I was trying to turn around when he came over to my car and started pecking on the driver’s window. It was obvious what he was saying even though I didn’t understand a word he was saying. I tried to use my hands and arms to gesture and let him know I wasn’t parked but was turning around (which I would have been able to do sooner had he not approached my car) and finally I was able to get out of his obviously important (to him) parking spot. After much driving around, I lucked upon a tiny park with just one parking spot left and I happily took it.

The water along the Fisherman’s Trail was so pretty!

Faro

Compared to Lagos and Sagres, Faro is a bustling city, with a population of around 41,000. The Faro Airport serves the Algarve and is well-situated geographically, although it is a bit closer to Spain than the far tip of Sagres. On the day we went to the nature park, Parque Natural da Ria Formosa, we also stopped at Faro since they’re a short drive from one another.

While in Faro, we went to the Municipal Museum of Faro, a former convent, where we walked around for maybe an hour. Admission was 2 Euro per person but is free on Sundays until 2:30 pm (check their website to be sure that’s still the case before you go, (https://www.cm-faro.pt/pt/menu/215/museu-municipal-de-faro.aspx). I also wanted to go to Faro Municipal Market. I’ve always enjoyed checking out local shopping areas when I go to other countries and this one did not disappoint. There were plenty of local vendors selling fresh fruits, vegetables, meats and fish, chocolates and pastries, and flowers plus some restaurants and cafes and a large grocery store on the bottom level.

We got some pastries and sat outside to enjoy the nice weather while we ate. When we got to the rental car, I noticed a parking ticket on the windshield. It had a link to a website so later that evening I went online and saw I had inadvertently parked in a time-limited spot and had to pay something like 4 Euro, which I did right then before I forgot. Honestly, for the amount of time we had been parked there, 4 Euro seemed like a fair deal and it was quick and easy to take care of.

Photos from the Faro Municipal Museum and nearby

Despite getting yelled at by the elderly Portuguese man in Lagos and getting a parking ticket in Faro, I enjoyed these cities plus Sagres. Driving around Lagos wasn’t my favorite, with so many little one-way narrow roads and many parking signs saying parking was for residents only (which I fully understand and am not saying they shouldn’t offer this for their residents), but finding shops with parking spaces was difficult. Ultimately, when I did find a parking spot I found it was easier to just walk around and find shops and restaurants on my own rather than try to drive directly to them like I would in the US.

I know the Algarve is mainly known for its beaches (and for good reason) but I wanted to bring attention to these three cities as well. After all, not everyone just lounges at the beach all day. It’s good to have other options too.

Have you been to any of these cities or anywhere else in the Algarve? Do you want to go to Southern Portugal but haven’t made it there yet?

Happy travels!

Donna

A Week in the Algarve- Southern Portugal- Outdoor Adventures

Stop me if you’ve heard this story before: In 2020, I was supposed to take a big vacation and then all of a sudden this thing called Covid-19 hit, causing worldwide shutdowns. I know I’m not the only person who had to cancel plans when the pandemic started. I’m also not the only person who thought, “Surely this will be over in a couple of months and I can just postpone my trip until then.”

I was supposed to go to southern Spain and southern Portugal for a week each in June of 2020. When borders were closed I pushed back those plans a couple of months to August, only to finally cancel indefinitely. Once vaccinations and treatments were available and borders were starting to open again in 2021, I made plans to go to just Portugal (so no Spain this time) for a week during my daughter’s spring break in 2022.

I’m not going to go into detail here about all of the COVID testing requirements and regulations since I already wrote about that here: International Travel as an American During COVID Isn’t Easy but needless to say it was stressful. It turns out the stress didn’t stop there. When we arrived in Lisbon we were told there was too much fog that morning to fly safely into Faro. The airline, TAP Portugal was going to bus us all to Faro, or we could rent cars ourselves if we chose to do so (on our own dime). The ironic part is the fog lifted fairly quickly and we could have easily flown to Faro and we would have gotten there sooner, even with waiting a few hours. We were told it would be about a three hour bus ride.

After much standing around in the Lisbon airport for hours and being told time after time, “We’re still working on getting the buses here,” we finally boarded the buses (we all fit in two buses after many people left and rented vehicles on their own) and began the drive to Faro airport. Of course there was a lot of complaining by passengers in the meantime but I was just happy to get to Faro that same day. They could have easily told us we would have to wait until the next day to fly out.

I should mention never once did anyone from the airline (TAP Portugal) tell us we were entitled to any form of compensation or even a free lunch for our troubles, despite many people angrily demanding something in return. I know when it’s a weather-related delay airlines can pretty much do what they want. Since our flight from New York was an overnight one, I was exhausted by now and slept on the bus most of the way. The few times I did look out the window there didn’t seem to be much to see anyway other than normal highway sights.

Our temporary home in Portugal was perfect!

FINALLY in Faro (that should have been the title of my post), I picked up the rental car and about an hour later we arrived in Ferragudo at the Airbnb, a beautiful townhouse with several balconies including a rooftop balcony with bouganvillea spilling over the front of the property. Ferragudo turned out to be the perfect area to stay because it was a fairly central location in the Algarve, only an hour from the southwestern tip of Portugal and an hour from the southern border with Spain.

Things to Do- Hiking

Since the water was still chilly (I saw surfers wearing wet suits and children in the water but that was it) the plan was to spend most of our time hiking and generally checking out all that we could in a week without spending a ton of time in the car. We were very close to two incredible trails, The Seven Hanging Valleys Trail (Percurso dos Sete Vales Suspensos) and Trail of the Headlands (Caminho dos Promontórios).

The Seven Hanging Valleys Trail has been voted the best trail in Europe and I can see why. It’s around 12 kilometers (about 7.5 miles) and stretches from Praia da Marinha to Praia do Vale de Centeanes (Praia means “beach” in Portuguese). The trail is one-way so either you have a car pick you up at the end or you turn around and go back the way you came. Along the way you go past one of the most famous beaches in Portugal, Praia de Benagil. The trail was a little difficult to follow at times so pay attention when you come to businesses, since one part of the trail goes right through a restaurant at one point, and bring water, snacks, and sunscreen. There are some restaurants along the way but if you’re there during the winter they may not be open.

Hiking along the coast was one of my favorite things to do- it was so beautiful!

The Trail of the Headlands is about 6 kilometers and you can park at Praia do Molhe in Ferragudo to begin. There’s a wonderful restaurant by this beach that we ate dinner at on both our first and last days and I highly recommend it (the restaurant is called O Molhe). The trail is another out-and-back trail where you’ll see the rugged limestone cliffs with the azure blue water below but it was notably less busy when we were there than when we hiked the Seven Hanging Valleys Trail. Although many of the beaches along this trail are inaccessible, you can reach Praia do Pintadinho and Praia dos Caneiros.

A bit further west near Lagos is the Fisherman’s Trail (Trilho dos Pescadores). This 11-kilometer trail goes from Luz Beach to the train station in Lagos and like the other trails in the Algarve discussed here, has views of limestone cliffs with the blue water below. You’ll go past a famous area called Ponte da Piedade with its rock formations, caves, and grottos. There was once a Roman temple, a Moorish temple, a Christian hermitage, a fortification to protect Torrinha’s fishing tackle, and even a lighthouse here.

Beaches

As I mentioned earlier, the word beach in Portuguese is “Praia.” Honestly, I could never say here, “These are the best beaches in the Algarve” because 1) I’m certainly no expert on this and 2) That’s a pretty subjective matter. I will say this, two of the more popular beaches, Praia do Carvalho and Praia da Marinha get crowded. We managed to find a tiny beach one day, Praia da Afurada, that was near where we were staying in Ferragudo and not a single other person was there the entire time we were there, reading on the beach. It’s hard to go wrong with the over 100 beaches in the Algarve.

Ria Formosa Nature Park

The Ria Formosa Nature Park is near the town of Olhão. I suggest you stop in town first to get cash if you don’t have any since the nature park has an entry fee and they don’t accept credit cards. There’s also no food or drinks for sale in the park. We were there just before lunch so I found a small restaurant that turned out to be interesting. I asked for a menu and the person working there pointed to a small chalkboard with three things written on it: carne de porco, frango, and peixe (pork, chicken, and fish). Good thing my daughter and I are adventurous eaters! I chose the chicken for both of us and we received steaming plates of tender chicken with a creamy yellow sauce and fried potatoes on the side. It was delicious and tasted a bit like yellow curry but I honestly have no idea what it was and we didn’t get sick later.

Flamingos but not pink. Not sure what the birds in the trees were (upper right).

The Nature Park has a small parking lot where you park and pay for entry then it’s all self-guided trails. I didn’t find the trails especially well-marked and got turned around a few times, despite having a map given to me at the entrance. It’s full of a bunch of loops that go around one another so while it’s virtually impossible to get completely lost and not find your way back, you may end up like we did going in circles the wrong way a few times. We saw some flamingos and many other birds that I have no idea what they were since I’m not familiar with Portuguese birds but no other animals. We went past some salt pans but they were disappointingly not picturesque, unfortunately. It’s a nice place to walk around for a couple of hours, especially if you’re a nature-lover, and this doesn’t seem like a place that gets overly-crowded.

I’m going to end my post on southern Portugal here since it seems like a nice place to end. I’ll pick up with a post on some of the restaurants, shopping, and other things we enjoyed and some other things that happened to us (not all good) on our Portuguese adventure!

Have you been to Southern Portugal? If so, where did you go? Happy travels!

Donna

Alphabet Adventures: Travels Around the World From A to Z

During the beginning of the pandemic there was a challenge on Twitter called #AlphabetAdventures where you list every place you’ve been going through the alphabet from A to Z. A blogger I follow, The Travel Architect, posted her own Alphabet Adventures: https://wordpress.com/read/feeds/88998444/posts/3400505571 and it seemed like a fun challenge for me but I never got around to posting until now. Better late than never I guess! Finally without further ado, join me on my Alphabet Adventure!

A is for Austria

Austria’s slogan should be “Land of waterfalls.” The main reason I wanted to go to Austria was because of a photo I saw of the Bad Gastein Waterfall that goes right through the historical spa town of Bad Gastein. Not only did I see that waterfall but I learned if you plan your trip in the spring you can see dozens of waterfalls in Austria.

Bad Gastein Waterfall in Austria

B is for Boise, Idaho

I ran a half marathon in Boise and loved exploring the city while I was there. There’s great hiking, mountain biking, museums, parks, a zoo and aquarium, a nice botanical garden, and really good food.

Beautiful Boise

C is for Charleston, South Carolina

Charleston is one of my favorite places in the world and I’ve been here many times over the years. The food is some of the best I’ve had anywhere, the beaches are some of the most beautiful, there’s history and cool architecture galore, and so much more.

Powder-soft white sandy beaches near Charleston

D is for Duck, North Carolina

The letter d was surprisingly difficult for me until I remembered the first place we took our daughter for a beach trip when she was a baby, Duck, North Carolina. Duck is part of the quieter northern part of the Outer Banks. It’s perfect for a long weekend or if you just want to get away from the crowds.

Playing in the sand with my daughter in Duck

E is for Evansville, Indiana

For many years the half marathon I ran in Evansville, Indiana was one of my favorites (until it was replaced by others). I had never heard of Evansville before I planned the trip here but the festival going on the weekend of the race sounded fun, and it was. For those curious, Evansville is about 2 hours from Louisville, KY or Nashville, TN, and about 3 hours from St. Louis, MO or Indianapolis, IN so it’s a reasonable drive to many bigger cities.

Evansville has a nice zoo and botanical garden, children’s museum, Museum of Arts, History, and Science with a planetarium, and prehistoric Native American mounds

F is for Fort Lauderdale, Florida

Fort Lauderdale is a beach town on the southern part of Florida less than an hour’s drive from Miami. I first went here when I was in college and won a day cruise from Ft. Lauderdale to and from the Bahamas, where I spent a few days in a hotel on the island and got my first taste of international travel.

Ft. Lauderdale Beach. Photo by Lance Asper

G is for Greece

I chose to skip the cruise ship when I went to Greece and instead flew into Athens, where I spent a couple of days exploring the ruins and indulging in the food before flying to the island of Crete. Crete is full of mountains perfect for hiking, some of the most beautiful beaches in the world, some cool ruins and historical sites, plus some of the best food anywhere.

One of many beaches in Crete with crystal-clear water

H is for Honolulu, Hawaii

Don’t ask me why but for years I resisted going to Honolulu, Hawaii when I was planning vacations to Hawaii (I’ve been a few times), despite the fact that a co-worker kept raving about it after she and her husband went several times. I think I had in my head that it would be a big city full of high-rises and tourists and not worth going to. Finally, I decided to just go and see for myself. Let me just say, although there are high-rises and tourists there, it is most definitely worth going to and you can pretty quickly and easily escape the crowds and find quieter, more secluded spots on the island.

Diamond Head, one of the best places to go for a view of Oahu

I is for Italy

Italy was one of the first European countries I went to, back when I was young, naive, and knew barely anything about traveling. It was relatively easy to get around even speaking a minimal amount of butchered Italian and the food alone was worth the flight. The ruins were a bonus!

The Arno River in Florence, Italy

J is for Jamaica

Jamaica was only the second island in the Caribbean I ever visited, after the Bahamas so I was still very much young and naive when it came to travel planning. I stayed at my resort in Ocho Rios the entire week except to go to the famous Dunn’s River Falls waterfall for a day trip and a snorkeling trip.

Dunn’s River Falls. Photo from Pixabay

K is for Kentucky

I went to Louisville, Kentucky a couple of times; the first time I went with a friend of mine and her family to see the Kentucky Derby when I was in grade school and the second time I ran a half marathon there for my seventh state. My second visit there was far less interesting than the first time when I went for the horse race.

Kentucky Derby photo by Bence Szemerey from Pexels

L is for Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, Spain

Even though I haven’t been to mainland Spain, I’ve been to the Spanish islands of Tenerife (see the letter “T” below) and Gran Canaria, including the city of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria. Las Palmas de Gran Canaria is the capital city of Gran Canaria and has a huge Carnival parade, many museums, beautiful beaches, and near-perfect weather year-round.

One of my favorite beach photos ever is this one from Gran Canaria

M is for Malta

If you’ve heard me go on and on about Malta, you’ll know it’s simply because I fell in love with the island when I went there. Even though many Europeans vacation in Malta or at least know others that do, most Americans haven’t even heard of the tiny country and have no idea where it is (off the coast of Sicily, very close to the North African coast). Malta is one of those places I tell everyone, just go. You won’t regret it.

Yep, of course I had to put this photo of the Gozo Salt Pans here

N is for New Zealand

If someone told me I could go anywhere in the world and be teleported there instantly and asked where would I choose, I wouldn’t hesitate. I would choose the South Island of New Zealand. I went to the North Island and would love, love, love to go to the South Island. New Zealand is a place that when you show others photos from your trip, they later start planning their own trip there; it’s just that amazing. And, yes, I would fly there again even though it’s one of the longest flights I’ve been on, but it’s without a doubt worth it.

Hobbiton in New Zealand was one of many highlights

O is for Omaha, Nebraska

I had heard so many negative things about Nebraska I was surprised how much I liked Omaha when I went there recently. Maybe it’s an outlier of the rest of Nebraska but I found Omaha full of historical sites and museums, unique shops, and really good food.

Omaha in the Fall is quite beautiful with all of the autumn colors

P is for Peru

My trek to Machu Picchu was one of many once-in-a-lifetime things I did while I was in Peru. In addition to the multi-day trek that ended in Machu Picchu, I climbed up famous Rainbow Mountain, spent a few days exploring Cusco, and saw a quite different side of Peru when I flew to Arequipa and spent a few days there. Peru is truly an incredible country, oh and don’t get me started on the food!

Machu Picchu in Peru

Q is for Queens, New York

I don’t typically choose the most popular half marathons for the ones I run so it’s fitting that I chose to run the Allstate New York 13.1 Half Marathon, a smaller race that was only around for a couple of years. Since we stayed in the Queens borough, we got to explore more of that area than I had previously when I stayed in Manhattan. There’s really quite a few things to see such as Flushing Meadows Corona Park and the Arthur Ashe Tennis Stadium, New York Hall of Science, Queens Museum, Queens Botanical Garden, and a small zoo.

After my half marathon through Queens

R is for Rapid City, South Dakota

After not caring for North Dakota, I wasn’t so sure about South Dakota, but I learned just because two states border each other means absolutely nothing. These two states couldn’t be much more different IMO. Rapid City is a good landing spot for day trips in the area, like Badlands National Park, Crazy Horse Memorial, Mount Rushmore, Custer State Park, and more outdoor places like this.

Badlands Naional Park near Rapid City, South Dakota (OK, I know, it’s technically not a photo of Rapid City but this place was so cool!)

S is for St. Kitts and Nevis

I’m a huge fan of the Caribbean islands and would like to eventually visit all or most of them. St. Kitts and Nevis are volcanic islands in the West Indies that are safe, beautiful, and depending on what you’re going for either laid-back and relaxing or full of activities. I highly recommend both islands, although Nevis is tiny with less activities than St. Kitts.

No, it’s not Hawaii but definitely resembles it with the ocean color and black volcanic rocks

T is for Tenerife, Spain

The island of Tenerife is part of Spain’s Canary Islands, off the coast of northwestern Africa, the second of the Canary Islands I visited (see Gran Canaria above). I found Tenerife to be a bit more touristy than Gran Canaria but also cleaner and the roads and infrastructure in general in better condition. Given the choice, I’d choose Tenerife but happily would visit either island again!

Hiking Mount Teide, the highest point on Spanish soil

U is for Utah

Being a national parks lover, I knew I’d love Utah before I ever stepped foot in the state. I wanted to cram in more national parks on my vacation but managed to fit in Bryce Canyon and Zion Canyon National Parks, along with the Grand Canyon and Antelope Canyon in Arizona on a fairly recent visit to Utah. I would love to go back and visit some more national parks in Utah.

Bryce Canyon in the winter was simply magical

V is for Vermont

Vermont was my first experience with the New England states and it set the bar high. I loved Vermont, from the vibrant green trees everywhere to the small farms with fresh maple syrup and homemade cheese to the friendly easy-going people. Vermont left me longing to see if the other New England states were nearly as phenomenal as Vermont (I’ll just leave that one hanging).

One of many covered bridges in Vermont that I saw

W is for Washington, D.C.

Washington, D.C. was my first “real” big city experience growing up. I grew up in a small town in West Virginia, about a 5 hour drive from Washington, D.C. and first visited here as a child with my mom. I remember being astounded by so many things like the huge monuments seemingly everywhere, the plethora of restaurants and shops, and all. the. traffic. The traffic has unfortunately continued to get worse over the years but I still like visiting. Thank goodness for public transportation!

My daughter’s first trip to Washington, D.C. She loved all of the museums (as do I!).

X is for Xcaret Park, Mexico

Thanks to the fact that the Mayans liked to name many places starting with the letter x, this place immediately sprung to mind. Xcaret Park is in Playa del Carmen near Cancun. I took a day trip here many years ago.

Xcaret Photo from Pixabay

Y is for Yellowstone National Park

As a huge national parks lover, I was over the top excited to visit Yellowstone National Park, the oldest national park in the United States. Even though I only saw a small portion of the park because it’s so enormous, I still was able to see Old Faithful, Grand Prismatic Spring, Upper Geyser Basin, Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, bison, and so much more. I would love to go back and see parts of the park I didn’t have time for.

Yellowstone National Park is one of the most naturally colorful parks I’ve been to!

Z is for Zion National Park

Zion National Park in Utah is known for the Narrows, where you walk through water in a slot canyon, and Angel’s Landing, which is known to be so narrow at times you have a steep drop-off on either side of you and mere inches across from side to side to walk on. I did neither of these while I was there. Well, I went through part of the Narrows but did not have proper wading pants so I didn’t continue through and to be honest, I didn’t feel comfortable taking my daughter on Angel’s Landing even though I know she would have insisted she was able and competent enough to handle it, but my mom’s heart just couldn’t handle the stress so I skipped it. Still, even without those two famous trails, Zion is a beautiful park with red rocks, waterfalls, Emerald Pools, and a hanging garden and is one of the best national parks I’ve been to.

Zion National Park in Utah

Were you surprised by any place I chose? I have to admit, I had a hard time deciding between some places but others were easy. I challenge you to do your own A to Z alphabet adventure. It’s a ton of fun but does take some time to put it all together!

Happy travels!

Donna

Book Review: “Take More Vacations. How to Search Better, Book Cheaper, and Travel the World” by Scott Keyes, Founder of Cheap Flights

I’ve been an email subscriber to Scott’s Cheap Flights for a while and when I saw he had a book out, I checked right away if my local library had a copy, and I was happy to see they did. If you aren’t familiar with the website, you just sign up for their newsletter and choose which plan you prefer. https://scottscheapflights.com/

The plans are limited, domestic, and elite. Limited plans are free, domestic plans cost $49/year, and elite plans are $199/year. Limited members get all of the international economy class deals each month from up to 5 airports. Premium members get best economy deals from up to 10 airports, including domestic deals, Weekend Getaways, and Mistake Fares from your home airport.
‍Elite members get all the benefits of Premium in first, business, or premium economy class. Elite members can also receive Mistake Fares from any US airport and get deals from unlimited airports in the US.

Scott Keyes book is a fairly quick and easy read with great tips and information for new travelers or people who aren’t aware of all of the tricks available online for saving money on airfare. I’m not new to finding airfare deals but still found the book useful for me with some things I had forgotten and some new information as well. The book is 275 pages including the Conclusion, Acknowledgements, Notes, and Index.

For those not familiar with Scott’s background story, he found a nonstop business class ticket from New York City to Milan, Italy, which would normally cost $850 for $130 in 2013. He began finding other phenomenal deals like this over the years and family, friends, and co-workers began asking him to help them find deals on airfare. One thing lead to another and Scott Keyes eventually started the website which today has over 2 million subscribers.

The book is divided into chapters including reasons why everyone should take vacation time, how cheap flights can lead to happier trips, smarter ways to search for flights including being flexible when searching, some history on airline pricing, flight-booking myths, overtourism, and ways to maximize your vacation. I felt like the chapters flowed smoothly and the layout made sense. It was interesting to read how airfare is determined now compared to how it used to be determined.

Since the book was published in 2021, it also includes information about COVID-19. For example, in the myth-busting chapter, he addresses the myth that flights are only cheap because of Coronavirus. He counters this with the fact that many factors that drive airfare down such as jet fuel being cheaper now predated the pandemic and many things like more efficient airplanes will just continue to get better and in turn airfare will continue to drop. He gives the example that in 1948 a TWA flight from New York City to Rome cost $848 roundtrip, which is the equivalent of more than $9000 in today’s dollars; that same flight today can be found as low as $248 roundtrip.

I was surprised to read that according to some studies on travel, people will get more enjoyment from anticipating a vacation than being on the trip itself. When you plan a trip well in advance you actually spread out your happiness and enjoyment longer and gain more than if you take a last-minute trip. You also tend to have better memories of a vacation if you schedule the best for last. I noticed a long time ago when I would ask my young daughter what her favorite part of the vacation was, she would inevitably just name the last thing we did on vacation, even if it was something small like getting ice cream on a trip to an amazing place like Hawaii. Now I completely understand why she would do that.

There are countless little tips and tricks in the book for every kind of traveler. One of my favorites is the Greek Islands Trick where you want to go to a place like Santorini in Greece from New York City but airfare is around $1500. Meanwhile, flights to Athens are much cheaper (historically as low as $300); when you’re that close to Santorini, flights from Athens to Santorini are less than $50 roundtrip. You easily save over $1000 just by flying into a different city than you want to end up and tack on a short flight from there. How much time you spend in Athens is up to you.

I actually did the Greek Islands Trick when I went to Crete, Greece several years ago. Flights were much cheaper to Athens than Crete so I just flew into Athens and spent a couple of nights there before flying to Crete. There were also ferries from Athens to Crete that were cheap options but they weren’t as fast as the flights and the priority for me then was time over money, plus it wasn’t even a huge difference between the flight and ferry. Of course the Greek Islands Trick can work on any destination and not just Greece.

There’s also a discussion on the differences between airline miles and credit card points. Scott explains how miles and points each work, the differences between each, and when you should use cash, points, or miles. There are also instances when you can combine cash and miles with some airlines. If you know the conversions and calculations to make for each, it’s easy to figure out if one is a better deal than another.

No matter what your level of travel may be, I recommend reading this book and getting on the email list, especially if you fly internationally at least some of the time. If you only fly domestically, you can still gain some knowledge but all of the deals on Scott’s Cheap Flights are international economy airfare with the Limited Plan. The Premium plan includes domestic in addition to international economy flights so if you don’t mind paying for this plan, you could potentially save much more than the price of the plan in a year.

Have you read this book? Do you get emails from Scott’s Cheap Flights and if so have you ever gotten a great deal that you booked? Have you used the Greek Island Trick to fly somewhere?

Happy travels!

Donna

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