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

Stunning Santa Fe, New Mexico

For my first trip to New Mexico, even though the first part of my time was spent in Albuquerque (Quirky Albuquerque, New Mexico), my time in that city was primarily for a half marathon (The Albuquerque Half Marathon, Albuquerque, New Mexico-50th state). As much as I enjoyed Albuquerque, I’m not sure I would have chosen to go there otherwise, but Santa Fe, on the other hand, was always slated as my highlight to New Mexico. I literally went straight from the race to my hotel for a quick shower and finished packing my bags, (all of which I did in about 20 minutes), before I hopped in the rental car for the one hour scenic drive to Santa Fe. When I was driving past all of the Native Indian Reservations, I kept thinking to myself how much it reminded me of parts of Colorado and Arizona mixed together, not surprising given their geography.

Albuquerque was a good introduction for me to the higher elevation of Santa Fe, since the former is at about 5300 feet and the latter is at about 7200 feet. Santa Fe is a quaint town nestled in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and it has a definite artsy feel. New Mexico’s capital city isn’t the largest city by population in the state but there is plenty to do year-round. Here were some of my favorite things to do and places to eat in the Santa Fe area.

Quintessential Santa Fe

Things to Do

Museum Hill has four museums all in the same area so you can walk from one building to another. The Museum of Spanish Colonial Art has almost 4,000 pieces of Hispanic New Mexico art. The Museum of Indian Arts and Culture gives more of the story behind the American Indian people in the Southwest and includes prehistoric through contemporary art. The Museum of International Folk Art has 130,000 pieces of folk art from all over the world. There are dolls and unique displays, some of which are enormous with elaborate detail. I enjoyed this museum much more than I thought I would. Finally, the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian has historical Native American art through contemporary art and includes the Case Trading Post, which sells jewelry, art, ceramics, and textiles. Check the website for hours and tickets: https://www.museumhill.net/

I loved the Museum of International Folk Art so much!

Right beside Museum Hill is the Santa Fe Botanical Garden. This is definitely one of the smallest botanical gardens I’ve been to and it’s entirely outside with no conservatory but I still enjoyed it. There were some unique sculptures and it was nice to just casually stroll around the grounds and not feel rushed to take it all in, which you can easily do in an hour or less. https://santafebotanicalgarden.org/

Even though I had heard of Meow Wolf’s House of Eternal Return, an immersive art experience, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go. It seemed a bit “out there” to me and I wasn’t sure it would live up to the hype. After going, I have to say I absolutely loved this place! It was bizarre and creative and just made me laugh at times. Although it’s completely hands-on where you have to touch things, crawl through tight spaces, open cabinets and drawers, climb into the dryer, and play the dinosaur rib cage to get the most out of your time there, there were multiple bottles of hand sanitizer in every single room and masks were required. If you’re claustrophobic or don’t like/aren’t able to go through small areas or climb ladders you likely won’t enjoy it as much but many things are completely optional and have multiple entries and exits. I would love to go to the one in Denver now and see how the two places compare (there’s also one in Las Vegas but I have no plans to go back there). https://meowwolf.com/visit/santa-fe

Photos definitely don’t do Meow Wolf justice

One thing I skipped just because I don’t care for her art work is visit the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum but I know it’s hugely popular. She was known primarily for modern art work, of which I’m generally not a fan and the $18 admission ticket seemed a bit steep for someone who probably wouldn’t even enjoy the art. Since art is subjective, there are obviously many people who appreciate her art. You can also visit her two former homes in northern New Mexico, Ghost Ranch and Abiquiu Home and Studio. https://www.okeeffemuseum.org/

If you want to go shopping, which I highly recommend, Old Town is a fun place to walk around and pop into the local stores. There are several art galleries, jewelry shops, and stores selling fetishes, which as I mentioned in my post on Albuquerque are made by the Zuni pueblo people. They carve small animals from stone, wood, antlers, glass, or shells and these animals are sacred, each with symbolic meanings. I didn’t buy a fetish in Albuqueque because none of them “spoke” to me, and neither did any speak to me in Santa Fe. I was looking for something to commemorate my running a half marathon in all 50 states, with New Mexico as my last state, but I’m not even sure what kind of animal would represent that.

Jackalope Mercado is a shop that was recommended to me by a friend who knows someone who used to live in Santa Fe. It’s a large store with an outdoor area as well as indoor items, with mostly pottery and home decor but also a wide selection of souvenir-type items. I was told the Santa Fe Farmer’s Market is a good place for local foods and handmade items but when I went, it was a bust. There were only a handful of vendors and I didn’t buy anything. It’s probably much busier in the summer months than the late fall when I was there.

Places to Hike

Santa Fe is a hiker’s paradise, with a multitude of places to hike for all abilities, with trails ranging from easy to difficult. Originally I thought I’d visit Valles Caldera National Preserve and Bandelier National Monument, which are about an hour drive from Santa Fe. However, after seeing all of the trails that are much closer, I decided to just stay in the Santa Fe area.

I had so much fun hiking in Santa Fe!

Some of my favorite trails were in the Dale Ball Trails, with 22 miles of trails. Right beside these trails is the Randall Davey Audubon Center & Sanctuary with hiking trails, guided bird walks and tours of the Randall Davey Home. These areas are in the eastern part of Santa Fe.

Directly south of Dale Ball Trails you can find a cluster of trailheads; one of my favorites was the Atalaya Upper Trail. You can park at the St. John’s College parking lot (free) and find the Atalaya and Dorothy Stewart Trailheads from this parking lot. Conveniently enough, St. John’s College is right by Museum Hill.

Northern Santa Fe has the La Tierra Trails including Calabasas Trailhead and La Cuchara Trailhead. One day I hiked seven miles along the Rio Grande River (which was dry when I was there) and it was beautiful with the Cottonwood trees all around and their golden yellow leaves that rustled in the wind like paper. I was able to hike at least portions of all of these trails in about five days. Their close proximity to each other makes it easy to go from one trail area to another without losing much driving time in between. https://www.alltrails.com/parks/us/new-mexico/santa-fe-national-forest

Places to Eat

As good as the food was in Albuquerque, Santa Fe raised the bar another level. There wasn’t one place where I ate that wasn’t at least very good and most were outstanding. Some of my favorite places included:

Two sister restaurants La Choza and The Shed for excellent New Mexican dishes https://www.lachozasf.com/ and https://sfshed.com/

Some of the best Ethiopian food I’ve had in my life and one of the best meals I had on this entire trip at Jambo Cafe https://jambocafe.net/

Very good ramen at this small restaurant also with great service, Mampuku Ramen http://places.singleplatform.com/mampuku-ramen/menu

Good pizza if you start to tire of New Mexican food and want something different at Back Road Pizza https://www.backroadpizza.com/

For desert, if you haven’t tried Mexican ice pops, this is a good place. I will warn you all of the toppings and endless options can add up, so be mindful of what you’re ordering. Also, this is a chain and is not only in several places in New Mexico, but also Colorado, Arizona, California, and Florida. https://www.thepaletabar.com/

I’m a huge tea-lover so I highly recommend The Teahouse Santa Fe if you also love tea. They have an enormous selection of teas to drink in the restaurant as well as tea you can buy and take with you. The food is also very good and the setting is quaint with both an indoor seating area as well as a nice patio. https://teahousesantafe.com/

It’s a good thing I hiked so much with all of the good food in Santa Fe!

I really loved Santa Fe and highly recommend going there if you haven’t been. With all of the hiking trails, shopping, museums, and great food, there’s something for everyone no matter what your interests. It is a bit on the pricey side (but not as much as what you’d spend in a large city like New York City or Los Angeles) so you might want to factor the costs in when planning a trip there, especially for accommodations.

Have you been to Santa Fe? If so, what were some of your favorite places or things you did there?

Happy travels!

Donna

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The many views of May Lake

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To be continued…

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hiking in this remote section of Austria was incredible!

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

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

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

Hiking in the Canary Islands was otherworldly.

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

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

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

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

Happy travels!

Donna

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

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

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

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

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

Clearwater

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

Restaurants in Clearwater

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

Parks in Clearwater

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

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

Safety Harbor

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

Restaurants in Safety Harbor

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

Parks in Safety Harbor

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

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

Day Trip to Tarpon Springs

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

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

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

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

Crystal River

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Parks in and around Crystal River

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

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

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

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

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

Happy travels,

Donna

Travel to Charlotte, North Carolina

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

Things to Do

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

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

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

Hanging out with some of the characters from Great Wolf Lodge

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

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

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

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

Museums

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

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

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

Some hands-on fun at Discovery Place Science Museum

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

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

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

Where to Eat

Enat Ethiopian Restaurant

Ace No 3- burgers

Little Village Grill- Mediterranean and Greek

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

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

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

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

Christmas Town USA

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

Just a few houses from Christmas Town USA

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

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

Happy travels!

Donna

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