While I feel like I probably travel more than the average American, by no means would I consider myself an expert on travel (whatever that even means). However, I’ve chosen to travel to some off-the-beaten path destinations, at least for an American, and this has ultimately changed me forever as a person. I was thinking recently how travel has impacted how I’m dealing with Coronavirus, specifically not being able to travel or leave my house except to run or go grocery shopping but also all of the trickle-down effects of travel on my life.
By traveling to tiny towns in Chile, Costa Rica, Peru, Austria, Germany, and other places where the locals didn’t speak much if any English, travel has helped me become more resilient and to deal with issues that arise. Travel has also shown me that life often doesn’t turn out as we plan and we’ll be much happier if we learn to go with the flow. Instead of losing my temper or panicking when I got lost or couldn’t figure out something because of the language barrier, I would take a deep breath and try to figure it out. When my travel plans for April were cancelled because of the pandemic, sure I was sad my vacation wasn’t going to happen, but I knew it was better that way and eventually I will be able to travel safely.
I’ve learned to make the best of what I may find in a grocery store and figure out how to make meals for my family with what is on the shelves. One of my favorite things to do when I’m in a foreign country is to see what their grocery stores have to offer and how much things cost in stores. It’s always been an adventure and more times than not, I’ve ended up with some pretty delicious meals out of what I’ve found on the shelves. I may not have been able to fully read the labels, but that’s just added to the adventure. At least in the US, I can read the labels (unless the food is imported). I have been to countries where they routinely have had shortages of things like toilet paper, with the difference being due to hoarders in the US and more of a routine problem with supply in other countries.
One of the things I love to do as a stress-reliever is run outside, whether I’m on vacation or at home. I can do it virtually anywhere, although there are places where I would not run for safety reasons. Another bonus is all I need are my running shoes and appropriate running clothes. I can run outside or on a treadmill if running outside is not an option (assuming there’s a treadmill I can use). If I can’t run, I can do body weight exercises like lunges, squats, core work, and push-ups. I can also make up my own yoga routine no matter where I am. Being able to exercise on my own while traveling and at home has been a huge asset to my well-being and overall health and something I’ve always been grateful to have in my life but perhaps even more so during this pandemic.
I’ve learned that family members need a break from each other every now and again. When you’re traveling with family members, you’re in close proximity to one another for days on end and even the best of us can get tired of all of that one-on-one time. This is one reason why I’m such a huge fan of staying at Airbnb properties, because if we’re staying in a house, we can stretch out a bit more, have a kitchen to cook some of our own meals or just snack if we’re hungry and have a place to store our food, and usually we have more than one bathroom (although certainly not always). We all like to have some time on our own to catch up with friends through various social media apps, listen to a podcast or music, or just read a book in a quiet room to decompress. Being stuck at home for weeks on end while the Coronavirus pandemic has been going on has reminded me what a good idea it is to give family members a break from one another.
I’m sure there are more things that travel has shown me to help deal with the Coronavirus pandemic, but these are the first things to come to my mind. Are there aspects of travel or other parts of your life that have helped you deal with the pandemic? If so, I’d love to hear about them.
Previously, I wrote A Brief Overview of St. Petersburg, Florida- Where to Stay, What to Do, Where to Eat with some basics like where to stay and some of my favorite places to eat. In this post, I’m going to just talk about things to do since there are so many fun things to do in that area. I’ll start with outdoor activities since that’s my favorite. There are a crazy number of places in and around St. Petersburg to go walking, cycling, running, bird-watching, or just have a nice picnic lunch in nature. The town of Bradenton (a suburb of St. Petersburg) has a multitude of preserves so I’ll start there.
Preserves, Parks, and Trails in the Greater St. Petersburg Area
Robinson Preserve- 682 acres that is a mix of preserved mangrove, tidal marsh, and former agricultural lands that have been converted to coastal wetlands. The “Expansion” which has even more coastal wetlands and other habitats, a 2.5k rubberized pedestrian-only trail, additional kayak launches and trails, restrooms, picnic areas, and the Mosaic Center for Nature, Exploration, Science and Technology, or “NEST.”
Palma Sola Botanical Park- free. 10 acres. Yoga and other special events like Winter Nights Under the Lights the end of December. tropical plants, rare fruit trees, 3 tranquil lakes, a wealth of butterflies, screened pavilion and two gazebos.
Perico Preserve- trails, birdwatching, no dogs allowed.
Neal Preserve- 20 foot tall observation tower, shell trails, and boardwalks that wind through the coastal environment (no bikes on trails; no dogs allowed).
Riverview Pointe- 11-acre site adjacent to the DeSoto National Memorial. Trails, fishing, wildlife viewing.
Ungarelli Preserve- trails, pavilion.
Nearby Anna Maria Island also has Leffis Key Preserve with scenic trails.
We visited Sunken Gardens in St. Petersburg and loved it! In addition to the botanical gardens with waterfalls, winding paths, and more than 50,000 tropical plants and flowers, there are pink flamingos and many other tropical birds. There are also special events throughout the year. Admission is a reasonable $12 for adults and $6 for children. We found a special buy one, get one free on Groupon, so it was an even better deal for us.
There are literally dozens of parks in the St. Petersburg area, some that are simply open spaces, while others have playgrounds, kayak/canoe launches, fishing, pavilions, soccer and baseball fields, tennis courts, swimming pools, splash pads, dog parks, grills, and so much more. You can check out this interactive map of parks and things to do in Manatee County.
Fort De Soto Park in Tierra Verde is on 1,136 acres made up of five interconnected islands (keys). In addition to the historic fort, there is over 7 miles of waterfront including almost 3 miles of white sandy beach, camping, seven miles of paved trail connecting North Beach, East Beach, the boat ramp and the camping area, two swim centers, 2 fishing piers, a 2.25 mile canoe trail, and short nature trails. There is a daily parking fee of $5.
Florida Botanical Gardens in Largo has 30 acres and over a dozen different gardens, aquatic habitats, artwork, a gift shop, annual events and programs, and best of all, it’s free. Also in Largo is the historical Heritage Village, set on 21 acres with 33 historical attractions including a variety of historic homes, general store, railroad depot, two schools, church, and more, and also all free.
Weedon Island Preserve is an expansive 3,190-acre natural area located on Tampa Bay in St. Petersburg. There is a cultural and natural history center, guided tours and nature hikes, boardwalks and trails, and kayak/stand up paddle board rentals. Weedon Island Preserve is also a well-known birding and fishing site. Here’s the link to Sweetwater Kayaks, where we rented stand up paddle boards and paddled through the mangroves there. The guys working there are extremely nice and the launch site is literally steps from where you rent the boards or kayaks. There’s a link where you can check the tides, too since it can make a difference if you’re going through mangrove tunnels.
You can find more information on parks, gardens, beaches, and preserves for St. Petersburg, Largo, and Tierra Verde at the Pinellas County Website.
The Fred Marquis Pinellas Trail (most people just call it Pinellas Trail) is a linear trail currently extending from St. Petersburg to Tarpon Springs and is a multi-use trail that runners, cyclists, and walkers can enjoy. The trail was created along a portion of an abandoned railroad corridor, providing a unique, protected greenspace. My daughter and I ran on the trail a couple of times in different directions each time and absolutely loved it. It’s safe, scenic (cool mosaics, flowering shrubs and other landscape typical to the area) and pancake flat. Parts of it are shaded but other parts are not, so I suggest getting out early to beat the heat.
Museums and Galleries in St. Petersburg
Like the wide array of outdoor spaces available, there is no shortage of museums and galleries either. If I was short on time and had to choose just two or three, I would choose the Chihuly Collection, The Dali Museum, and Imagine Museum, but there are others that are fabulous as well, depending on your interests. Here are the major ones in St. Petersburg:
Chihuly Collection presented by the Morean Arts Center- glass art by world-renowned artist Dale Chihuly.
The Dali Museum- an impressive collection of works by Salvadore Dali and similar artists of his time.
Imagine Museum- a stunning collection of American Studio Glass, rotating exhibitions, and a growing collection of International Studio Glass.
The James Museum of Western & Wildlife Art- over 400 works of art inspired by the history of the American West.
Morean Arts Center- located in the Central Arts District with three other facilities in St. Petersburg.
Morean Glass Studio- watch glassblowing demonstrations and sign up for classes to make your own masterpiece.
Morean Center for Clay- watch local artisans at work and purchase some locally made pottery.
Museum of Fine Arts- over 20,000 works of art from ancient to contemporary.
Craftsman House- gallery with a collection of fine craft and artwork by American artists.
St. Petersburg Museum of History- featured displays include Schrader’s Little Cooperstown, the largest collection of autographed baseballs and the world’s first commercial airline flight.
Great Exploration Children’s Museum- designed for children ages 10 and under and filled with hands-on activities to stimulate learning through play and exploration.
St. Petersburg does not seem overly touristy to me, although there are places that fit the bill for that, such as the cheesy miniature golf spots, cheap beach-themed shops (where you can buy an umbrella that probably won’t last a full day at the beach), and other similar places. You won’t find a plethora of chain restaurants, though of course there are some here, but there are also a decent number of locally-owned restaurants. You also won’t see row after row of towering chain hotels like you see at some beach areas.
If you’d like more information on the beaches in the St. Petersburg area or Anna Maria Island, check out my previous post, as mentioned in the beginning of this post.
Have you been to St. Petersburg, Florida? Anything I missed here that you enjoyed doing while you were there?
I feel like I’ve seen an awful lot of the state of Florida, from Pensacola in the far western edge to Tallahassee then over to Daytona Beach on the eastern part, down to Orlando, then south to West Palm Beach and further south to Ft. Lauderdale, Miami, the Everglades, and the keys all the way to Key West. I’ve also been to Naples and Ft. Meyers and those surrounding areas. Somehow I had never been to St. Petersburg before, though. I was truly missing a gem of the state!
Recently I went to St. Petersburg and also checked out areas around it including Anna Maria Island, Bradenton, and Gulfport. I absolutely loved the area and wondered how this had slipped under my radar before. While we were there we met with one of my husband’s friends he’s known since they were children who lives in Bradenton, so I also was able to get some input and the “insider’s scoop” from him.
There are soft powder-like white sandy beaches all along that area, some with sand dunes (which I find especially beautiful), great restaurants, friendly people, and tons of things to do ranging from water sports and botanical gardens to top-notch museums. Winter reigns supreme here. During the winter months you can expect highs usually in the mid- to upper-70’s and lows in the mid-50’s to mid-60’s. Best of all, it’s sunny most days with little rainfall. What’s not to like about that?
So what’s there to do in St. Petersburg? Well, if you like beaches, there are plenty of them. We visited several different beaches in the area and most of them were pretty wide to accommodate plenty of people. Some were more crowded than others, but they all had the same white, soft sand. Some of my favorite beaches were Pass-a-Grille Beach and Manatee Public Beach but St. Pete’s Beach and Treasure Island Beach are also nice, just a bit more crowded. Bean Point Beach on the tip of Anna Maria Island is beautiful as well, but smaller than some other beaches in the area.
There are also some fun, unique shops on Anna Maria Island, like Pineapple Junktion, Island Charms, the Island Cabana, plus more locally owned gift and clothing shops. Although it was closed when we were there, the Anna Maria Island Historical Society (a museum) looked really cool. You can see the remnants of the original Anna Maria City Jail, which had no windows, no doors, no bars, and no roof, meaning the people who stayed there were eaten alive by mosquitoes and suffered in the heat. According to the posted sign, no one “misbehaved” after spending one night in the jail. There’s also a historical home and some signs with interesting historical information. Just be aware that traffic can get pretty bad during the winter months if you’re going to Anna Maria Island during peak times.
There’s certainly no shortage of places to stay in all price ranges in the St. Petersburg area. Of course there’s Airbnb with hundreds of homes, apartments, and sometimes quirky places to stay like an Airstream travel trailer. There are also hotel chains, local hotels, plus bed & breakfasts in all price ranges. If you really want to splurge, you can stay at the TradeWinds Island Grand Resort. If you’re into massive resorts with activities, a kids’ club, water park, etc. and don’t mind paying for it, this is the place for you. Note, I did not stay here (I stayed in a house through Airbnb).
Likewise, there are so many great restaurants in the area, with prices to suit every budget. Some of our favorites were:
Alesia Restaurant- Vietnamese/French/Chinese (trust me, it works)
Snapper’s Sea Grill- seafood restaurant
Caddy’s St. Pete Beach- sandwiches, salads, burgers, etc. with a nice water view (although not oceanview but more on that in a second, and don’t let the exterior deter you; it’s nice inside)
3 Daughters Brewing- plenty of beers on tap plus good food and fun outdoor seating area; there are tons of other breweries in the area as well
Cafe Soleil- a French bakery and deli serving breakfast, lunch, and delicious flaky pastries
There are two main airports in the area, St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport and a little further away but still not that far and a bigger airport serving more cities, Tampa International Airport. Check prices into both airports and see which is best for you. Primarily Allegiant is the major airline in St. Pete-Clearwater Airport, but there are also flights through Sun Country Airlines and charter services to Gulfport-Biloxi, Mississippi plus Sunwing Airlines has a couple of flights to Canada. Tampa Airport has many more airlines serving them but is also harder to get into and out of since it’s more crowded.
Some things to keep in mind:
Winter is the “peak” season here, meaning it’s more crowded and hotels and restaurants are a bit harder to get reservations for. Traffic is more congested. The weather here December through February is absolutely perfect, in my opinion, and still warm enough to go to the beach. Spring break is of course more crowded, so plan on that if you’re going in April. The summer months are hot and humid, but there is a nice ocean breeze to help a bit. Fall is also nice, once the temperatures drop in October.
Traffic tends to bottle-neck in certain areas that have only one way in and out, like Anna Maria Island and Fort DeSoto. Plan accordingly and allow for extra time.
“Water view” does not mean ocean view. It means you’ll have a view of a bay or other body of water but not the ocean. St. Petersburg is on the western side of Florida, with Tampa Bay on the east and the Gulf of Mexico on the west (technically there’s Pinellas County Aquatic Preserve and then the Gulf of Mexico).
Have you been to St. Petersburg, Florida? If so, what did you think of it? What did you do there?
If you’re a relatively tall person like I am, at 5 feet 8 inches, legroom matters on an airplane. I’ve been on planes before where my knees are literally right against the person’s seat in front of me. If they decide to suddenly put their seat back, well, let me just say it’s not pleasant and for that reason, I almost never put my own seat back unless there’s a small child sitting directly behind me. Airplane courtesy aside, I know some people like to know what they’re getting into before they fly, especially if it’s going to be a long flight.
Of course when you’re comparing airlines, you should compare apples to apples. It’s not a fair comparison to look at economy seats with one airline and business or first class seats for another airline. Let’s focus here on economy class seats in the Main Cabin. The numbers shown refer to seat pitch, which is the distance from the back of your plane seat to the seat in front of you. To make things simpler, I’m going to refer to seat pitch and legroom interchangeably here.
Most legroom in economy class:
JetBlue: 33-34 inches.
Alaska Airlines: 32 inches.
Southwest: 32 inches.
Hawaiian Airlines: 31-32 inches.
American/United/Delta: 31 inches.
JetBlue is an economy airline that shines compared to other economy airlines, with the most legroom of any US airline being just one of their many perks. If you are able to pay more, JetBlue offers passengers the ability to upgrade to “Even More Space” seating. In addition to providing an extra 6 inches in seat pitch, JetBlue’s “Even More Space” provides passengers with early boarding privileges, early access to overhead bins, and a fast track through security (only available in select cities). “Even more Space” pricing varies by route length. These seats can be purchased from JetBlue directly at the time of booking or at check-in. Pricing will be dependent on duration of flight.
Alaska and Southwest Airlines offer similar legroom on their airplanes. If you can manage to snag an exit row or bulkhead seat, you will be rewarded with even more legroom on a Southwest flight. However, since Southwest does not have pre-assigned seating and no upgrade options, unless you’re in the front of the line for the first boarding group, there’s no chance you’ll get those seats. You can choose bulkhead and exit row seats with Alaska Airlines, however, and upgrades are available, for a fee.
Hawaiian Airlines seats usually have 31-32 inches of legroom, but on the smaller Boeing 717s mostly used for inter-island service, travelers will get 30 inches of legroom. On the flip side, for longer flights coming from the mainland US, you can purchase “Extra Comfort” seats. These extra-cost seats are available on Hawaiian’s Airbus A330 and A321 flights and offer a seat pitch of 36-inches.
American Airlines seats tend to vary widely because they currently operate many different airplanes. In general though, most seats have 31-32 inches of legroom, with the majority closer to 31 inches. You can purchase a “Main Cabin Extra Fare,” which will give you 2-3 more inches of legroom, depending on the aircraft you’re flying.
United Airlines seats are pretty standard with 31 inches of legroom, with a couple of exceptions on some Airbuses and 737 aircrafts that have 30 inches and the 787-8 Dreamliner that offers 32 inches of legroom. For their “Economy Plus” option, you’ll be rewarded with an extra 3-4 inches of legroom.
Delta Airlines is similar to American in that the have a wide array of aircraft, with varying legroom. The average legroom is 30-32 inches, with 31 inches the most common. For your extra money with Delta Comfort+ seats, you get an extra couple of inches of legroom. If you’re able to pay for “Delta Premium Select” seats, you’ll get a comfy 38 inches of legroom in return.
Least legroom in economy class:
Allegiant Air: 30 inches.
Spirit: 28 inches.
Frontier: 28-31 inches.
Not surprisingly, Allegiant, Spirit, and Frontier are all budget carriers, and all offer their passengers the least legroom. As with the other airlines, however, you can purchase extra legroom with Allegiant’s Legroom+ and get an extra 4 inches. Legroom+ seats are in the first-row bulkhead section of the plane and exit rows over the wing. Another thing to note, none of the seats on Allegiant recline, which means no opportunity to bang the knees of the person sitting behind you. Also, Allegiant’s seat backs slope downward at an angle, so the seat in front of you isn’t even with your knees, shins, and feet. I recently flew with Allegiant Air and didn’t feel cramped at all.
It seems appropriate that the much-hated Spirit Airlines offers the least legroom of all airlines. You do have the opportunity to pay extra for “Big Front Seats” with a whopping 36 inches of legroom in the front of the plane. However, when you add up the cost of those seats in addition to the many, many other things you have to pay for with Spirit, you may see any savings you thought you’d have by flying with Spirit dwindle away.
Budget carrier Frontier seats do have a bit of a range in what you get, depending on the aircraft, but only a few of the older aircraft have the 31-inch pitch, and those are being phased out. Frontier’s newer aircraft have on average 28-29 inches of legroom. You can purchase “Stretch” seats which will get you a nice 36 inches of legroom and if you choose row 13 over the wing, you’ll be rewarded with a lucky 38 inches (something to remember if you’re flying with Frontier).
A bit all over the place in economy class:
Sun Country: 29-33 inches.
Minneapolis-based Sun Country is increasing the number of seats on its 737-800 aircraft, which will shrink the seat pitch to 29-30 inches, more aligned to its fellow budget airlines mentioned just above. Some of the aircraft will still have a 33-inch pitch, but they will also come with an additional fee. Depending on your route, it’s possible to have 31-32 inches of legroom but it seems inevitable that those aircraft will also eventually be retrofitted to the smaller seat pitch.
Do you even pay attention to seat pitch/legroom on airplanes or is it even an issue with you because you’re not tall enough for it to matter? Do you always choose an aisle seat and that’s good enough for you or do you prefer the bulkhead seats? Did you know about Frontier Airline’s mysterious extra pitch in row 13?
I work with someone who I believe has a slight addiction to Google Maps. Often, after he and I discuss a place either he’s never been to or neither of us have been to, he’ll open up Google Maps and start “looking around” that place using the satellite view and street view options. If you’ve never done this, I encourage you to choose a place where you’ve never been and check it out. This can give you an idea of what a city, street, or neighborhood really look like. That’s just a fun aspect of Google Maps, but that’s not what I’m going to focus on here.
Beyond just being able to visualize a place and of course the main reason people use Google Maps for directions, you can also use Google Maps to help you plan a vacation. To begin with, open Google Maps and navigate to Menu (at the top left with 3 bars) then open “Your places.” There are four options: labeled, saved, visited, and maps. Under maps, you can click on Create Map then start creating a new map. Type in a city, restaurant, hotel, or other place. If you see a place of interest on the general Google map for that area, you can click on it and then click on “Add to map.” You can add labels, add directions, add a marker, and calculate distances. You’ll also need to name your map. All changes are saved in Google Drive. If you already have a Google account, you should be good to go, otherwise you’ll need to set up a Google account to save everything. When you’re done, you can share your map with other people.
You can also create a map using the “Saved” option. This is a bit easier to navigate in some ways, in my opinion, so you may want to start with this option, especially if you have trouble with the “Create Map” option. For example, when I went to Wyoming, I saved a bunch of places that we would be traveling to there and sent my saved map to my husband. That map that I called “Wyoming” had 16 places on it, with everything from where we would be staying, the airport, places where I wanted to hike, hot springs, and packet pickup for the half marathon I ran there. I’ve created maps this way and shared them with my husband when we went to other places on vacation as well.
I’ve already started a map using the Create Map option for our upcoming summer vacation to Spain and Portugal. Let me tell you, it’s already ridiculously full of places where I want to go plus the places we will be staying. I think there’s something like 40 places including beaches, restaurants, shops, historical sites, and other places of interest on there. When I’m done with it, just before our trip, I’ll share it with my husband so he has it too.
There’s also a feature some of you may not be aware of that you may either love or hate. If you click on “Visited,” you can see everywhere Google Maps has record of you going to. Obviously you have to have had your phone turned on and you need to be logged into Google in order for the places to be recorded. I checked and mine goes back about one year. I’ve had my Google account for longer than that so I’m not sure if it’s just a default to just keep data for a year or what. Some people may not like the idea of being “tracked” by Google, but this can actually be a good thing. Say you’re trying to remember the name of that cute little cafe by the water you ate at on vacation three weeks ago. By using this feature, you may be able to figure that out. What may also surprise you (it surprised me), if you also use Google photos, any photos you’ve saved to Google photos will show up in your timeline for those days.
Have you ever used Google Maps to plan a vacation or create a map before a vacation? What’s your experience been like?
When I was in college in my 20’s, I feel like I barely traveled anywhere. I won a free trip to the Bahamas, which you can read about here: How a Free Cruise to the Bahamas Changed My Life. Like I said in the post, I feel like that trip to the Bahamas opened up my eyes to the world and whet my appetite for travel. Nonetheless, I was a poor college student through my mid-20’s and I just didn’t have the money to travel nor did I have the time when I was in graduate school.
Other than the free trip to the Bahamas in my 20’s, I went to Ocean City, Maryland for a beach trip for a couple of days one summer, I drove to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania a few times to go out with friends, went to New Jersey for a weekend with friends, and some other random places like that when I was in college. These were all low-cost, low-frills, short trips of 2 or 3 days at the most.
When I finished graduate school and started working, I branched out a little more and went to places like Jamaica, Mexico, and Harbour Island in the Bahamas (a far cry from Freeport in that it’s about a thousand times nicer plus it’s perfectly safe). I also went to Hawaii, and Napa Valley and Yosemite National Park in California, and some other places in the United States like Charleston, South Carolina, a city that’s still one of my absolute favorite places in the world.
Still, I don’t feel like I traveled that extensively until I was in my 30’s. My boyfriend and I went to Costa Rica and this was such an eye-opening vacation for me. So many of the people we came to contact with only spoke Spanish or very limited English. This was before the travel boom happened in Costa Rica, before it was more common to travel to the country, so things were a bit more rough and rugged. Still, we were at a nice resort where all of our meals were provided and we didn’t have to worry about figuring anything out on our own so we were a bit sheltered in that sense.
After Costa Rica came vacations to Miami (I had been to Miami in my 20’s as well), Ft. Lauderdale and Everglades National Park, a few places in California including San Francisco, Long Beach, Los Angeles, and Napa Valley; my wedding in St. Kitts and honeymoon in Nevis and St. Martin; Philadelphia; several cities in Italy; Phoenix, Sedona, and Grand Canyon in Arizona; and Colorado. Then we slowed down a bit when I was pregnant through the first year or so after my daughter was born and just traveled to places a couple of hours away by car.
When my daughter was not quite a year and a half things picked back up for us travel-wise, and we flew to Naples, Florida, then shortly after that to Vermont, and a few months after that to Hawaii. This was when I was well into my quest to run a half marathon in every state and was running about four races a year, one in each season basically. We also went to other places during my 30’s like Disney World in Florida, Disney Land in California, Key West, Marathon (Florida), Miami, Aruba, Banff and parts of Alberta, Canada on the west and Niagara Falls and parts of Ontario, Canada on the east.
Not only did the amount we traveled increase in my 30’s, the variety of places we went to also started to increase. Because of running a half marathon in all 50 states, we went to many places in the United States that we never would have otherwise. More often than not, we ended up falling in love with the area but regardless we were always glad we went because of the experience. We also began to stay in nicer accommodations in my 30’s, going from the cheaper places that my husband and I might have stayed in before our daughter was born, to nicer places in safer neighborhoods after she was born.
My 40’s are when I feel like I became more of an educated traveler. After planning my family’s vacation that began in Munich, Germany and had stops all over tiny little towns in Austria like Werfen, Bad Gastein, and Fusch without any trouble at all, I felt more comfortable planning our vacations in other countries. In addition to the states we were going to for half marathons, we began going to a different country about once a year (sometimes two a year) in my 40’s.
I’m still in my 40’s and in addition to the countries I listed already, we’ve gone to Greece, New Zealand, back to Canada to go to Montreal, Chile, Malta, the Canary Islands, Grand Cayman Island, and Peru. Although New Zealand, Montreal, and Grand Cayman Island were all very easy to communicate with others there and easy to get around, the other places were more difficult. However, by branching out more and more, I felt like it kept getting easier to get out of my comfort zone.
Our two weeks in Chile was especially a time when we were pushed out of our comfort zone, since we came upon numerous people who didn’t speak any English at all and we had no cell coverage or even Wi-Fi at times. There was no guide to help us, no one to tell us what to do or where to go. In other words, we had to figure it out on our own, and of course we did. The people were extremely patient with us and helpful and kind. I think this vacation in particular showed me that I am resilient and most people in the world are helpful and nice although there are bad people everywhere of course.
Peru showed me that the world is so much more than checking off boxes to see the “Wonders of the World,” like Machu Picchu. Not that I went there solely to check off a box, but what I mean is the experience of the trek leading up to seeing Machu Picchu was actually more special to me than the “grand finale” of seeing the ruins. As special as Machu Picchu was, it was the icing on the cake after the trek. This was the first time I ever took a several-day-long hike so it was my first time experiencing something like that.
My 40’s is also when I started staying at properties through Airbnb. By now, I’ve stayed at Airbnb properties throughout the United States and around the world. More often than not, I’ve had exceptional stays, but there were one or two that were a disappointment. One place reeked of cigarette smoke but we stayed there anyway and I didn’t say a word about it. I re-read Airbnb reviews while we were there to see if I had missed something and sure enough, someone had complained of cigarette smoke. However, the owner rebutted by saying no one had ever smoked in the house and the person basically was too sensitive and didn’t know what they were talking about. If you’re reading reviews and come across something like that, you can either believe the person who wrote it or you can believe the owner. My lesson learned was to believe the person who wrote the review in a case like this so now I pay more attention to the reviews and don’t just skim the top couple before I make reservations.
One advantage to staying in a property through Airbnb is you have a kitchen so you can cook some of the meals and not have to eat out all the time. Not only does this save money, it also saves time of sitting in restaurants waiting for your food to come and then for the check to come. If you don’t feel like cooking, there’s always the option of picking up something from a grocery store deli. We’ve had some delicious meals this way and they’re quick, easy, and cheaper than eating out.
Now I’m looking forward to visiting some more countries, some of which my husband and I are considering retiring early to, like Spain and Portugal. I’d also like to check out some countries in Central America and maybe Ecuador as potential retirement spots. Also high on my list for places where I want to visit but not live are some places in Eastern Europe like Slovenia, Croatia, and Montenegro. I’d also like to finally visit some countries in Asia. Who knows if I’ll be able to go to all of these places while I’m still in my 40’s; most likely not all of them but definitely some of them.
One thing that’s changed over the years for me is the amount of travel has gradually increased. We currently take about five to six weeks of vacation each year. That’s not going to change from now until I retire since that’s the maximum I can take with my job (yes, I’m extremely fortunate in that sense). The diversity of places we go to has also changed over the years. We seek out some of the more off-the-beaten path areas even in more popular areas we go to.
What hasn’t changed is my love for travel. No, I take that back. My love for travel has changed over the years because it’s continued to increase. When I was in my 20’s, I feel like travel was something I wouldn’t even give much thought to. In my 30’s, travel began to feel like it was becoming a part of me, and now in my 40’s, I can’t imagine not being able to travel because it’s such a huge part of what I do and what I enjoy. So I can’t think of anything that hasn’t changed with me when it comes to travel from my 20’s to present day in my 40’s. I guess it’s true what they say that travel truly does change your life.
“Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But that’s okay. The journey changes you; it should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart, and on your body. You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind.” – Anthony Bourdain
How has travel changed for you over the years? Or should I ask, how has travel changed you? That’s probably a topic for another day!
In the United States, there are several budget airlines: Allegiant, Frontier, Spirit, Sun Country, JetBlue, and Southwest Airlines. I’ve flown with and/or have purchased tickets with all of these airlines except Spirit and Sun Country Airlines. I’ve found out the hard way there are some things to keep in mind before you hit the button to purchase tickets with budget airlines.
We’ll break it down by airlines, beginning with Frontier Airlines. Frontier Airlines often has sales for flights, sometimes cheaper than it would take you to drive to a place, especially if it would take you several hours to drive there and you’re going by yourself. However, you do have to pay for every little thing, which can and does add up. If you want to sit with someone else or you want a specific seat (like an aisle), you have to pay extra for that in advance, otherwise you will be assigned a seat for free upon check-in. You also have to pay extra for carry-on and checked bags. To save money, it’s cheapest to pay for bags online, more expensive if you pay at the ticket counter, and even more expensive if you pay at the gate. The size restrictions are strict, so be sure to measure all of your bags to make sure they are within the limits.
With Frontier Airlines, you also have the option of bundling to save money. You can purchase “The Works,” which includes a carry-on bag, checked bag, seat selection, priority boarding, flight flexibility, and 100% refundable ticket. “The Perks” includes all of that except flight flexibility and 100% refundable ticket. You can also save money by joining the Discount Den for $59.99/year. For that you will get access to exclusive low fares, free flights for a child age 14 and under with every adult on valid Kids Fly Free flights, and Frontier miles for every purchase. One final thing to note is you are often limited by the available days to fly. For example, if you need to fly on specific dates, Frontier may not be an option for you. I’ve also found that you may see a really cheap flight on the outbound flight but then the returning flight is much more expensive, negating the potential savings over other airlines.
Allegiant Airlines is a smaller airline with not nearly as many flight options as far as destinations. Similar to Frontier, you will pay extra if you want to choose your seat in advance, otherwise a seat will be assigned to you at check-in. You also pay extra for checked and carry-on luggage and there are strict weight and size limitations. However, you can buy a bundle when you purchase your ticket (not later, though) to save money if you know you would like to choose your seat in advance and save on baggage fees. You will also save money if you print your boarding pass at home or have it on your phone; if an agent prints it for you at the airport, there’s a $5 fee. You also have to pay for any drinks or snacks onboard.
JetBlue is my favorite of the discount airlines. With JetBlue flights, you get more legroom than other airlines in coach, free snacks and non-alcoholic drinks, free wi-fi, movies and TV shows, plus you’re allowed one personal item and one carry-on item at no extra charge. There are several options, depending on your specific wants/needs for a flight: Blue Basic, Blue, Blue Plus, Blue Extra, and Mint (for some coast-to-coast and some flights to the Caribbean).
Only Blue Plus and Mint fares include checked bags. As you might imagine, you get only the very basics with Blue Basic, plus no changes are allowed and you board last. Both Blue and Blue Plus allow changes or cancellations for a fee, but changes and cancellations are allowed for free with Blue Extra and Mint. You board first with Blue Extra and Mint while both Blue and Blue Plus are with general boarding. You also get special discounts and reductions or deductions of fees with JetBlue’s membership program, Mosaic. You can qualify for TrueBlue Mosaic by earning 15,000 base flight points within a calendar year or by flying 30 segments plus 12,000 base flight points within a calendar year. Base flight points are the 1-3 points per dollar spent that you earn on the base fare of JetBlue-operated flights. Blue Basic fares earn 1 point on the base fare and Blue, Blue Plus, Blue Extra and Mint fares earn 3 points on the base fare.
I’ll admit that I’m not a huge Southwest Airlines fan, but I also haven’t flown with them in a while now and I know they’ve made some changes in their policies since then. Two nice perks for everyone that flies with Southwest is there are no bag fees even for up to two checked bags and no change fees if you change your reservation. You can pay an extra fee (from $15 one-way per passenger, which really adds up if you don’t have direct flights and are flying with your family and thus have multiple tickets) to give you automatic check-in, a better boarding position (but not necessarily an A boarding position) and earlier access to overhead bins.
The main reason why I don’t like Southwest is the fact that you don’t have the option to choose a seat until you board the plane. Southwest’s boarding has been called a “cattle call,” because the people are like a bunch of cattle being round-up. When you check-in for your flight, you’re assigned boarding group A, B, or C and a boarding position from 1-60. Those in boarding group A have first-dibs on seats and those in C are the last to board. Even though you’re not supposed to, I’ve seen people trying to hold seats for other people who are boarding later than they are. If you’re traveling with family members that you like and actually want to sit beside, you have to be in group A to even have much of a chance at that, especially if you’re a family of four or more and even then there are no guarantees. I’d rather just have the option to purchase a seat in advance.
Although I’ve never flown with Spirit Airlines, I hear they have a pretty bad reputation especially for delayed and cancelled flights. Spirit Airlines has a similar program to the Discount Den from Frontier Airlines, which Spirit calls the $9 Fare Club, with a fee of $59.95 per person per year and similar discounts like those with Frontier but not actually $9 flights. At the time of purchasing tickets, you have the option to “Book it,” and you’ll be assigned a seat and can only bring on a personal item. You have the choice to pay for a seat, bags, and other options separately. Alternatively, you can “Bundle It,” which includes a seat that you choose up to and including the exit row, a personal item, carry-on bag, one checked bag plus 10 lbs. extra, early boarding, one-time ability to modify your flight, and 2X flight miles. For an example, when I was playing around with booking a one-way short flight, I was given the option to bundle it for $68.99 per person per way, which they said was a savings of up to $174 per person. Spirit Airlines also has a frequent flier plan, Free Spirit.
Sun Country is based out of Minneapolis–Saint Paul International Airport but they also have flights out of Madison, Wisconsin; Portland, Oregon; St. Louis, Missouri; Mankato, Minnesota; and Duluth, Minnesota. Baggage fees are similar to the rest of the airlines mentioned here, with only a small personal item that fits under your seat included. You have three options for your seat: 1) Standard, which includes a USB port and free entertainment streamed to your personal device for most flights, 2) Better, which includes that in standard plus an extra 2 inches of legroom, and 3) Best, which includes that in standard plus an extra 4 inches of legroom, 150% more recline, preferred boarding (zone 2), and one alcoholic beverage.
When I played around on the Sun Country website, I was forced to put in traveler information including an email address and phone number (of course I made up phony ones) before I could even see flight information. Immediately, the fees began. A carry-on bag was $30 and a checked bag was $30 for the first bag then $40 for the second and third. If you want priority boarding in zone 1, that’s an extra $5. Seats ranged from $33-$39 in the front of the plane to $15-21 in the zone behind the first one to $24 for the emergency exit row and $9 for the seats at the back of the plane. I chose a standard seat for $15 and $30 for a checked bag so my extras were as much as the price of the ticket when I started out. For comparison, a similar flight on Delta that included seat selection and a carry-on bag cost a few dollars less.
One last thing to add is these budget airlines often run sales a month or two in advance. If you’re like me and purchase your airline tickets farther out in advance (say four months out) you may end up paying more than if you would have waited. An example is I purchased tickets through Allegiant Airlines only to get an email a couple of months later with much lower prices than what I paid for the same destination. I changed my reservation and re-booked the same route but instead of getting my credit card refunded, I was given an online voucher to use on a future Allegiant flight, good for one year from my date of original purchase. In other words, unless I book another flight through Allegiant within a few months (which I wasn’t planning on doing), I’ll never actually see that refunded money. Lesson learned here is I should have waited to purchase my tickets until I saw a sale, as is common with Allegiant (and Frontier and most of the other budget airlines).
So do you really save money by flying with a budget airline? The answer is, maybe. The bottom line is you should check around with different airlines before you make your reservations. Just because an airline is a low-cost airline doesn’t mean that’s the best choice for you. If you don’t care where you sit, bring your own snacks and water bottle on a plane, don’t have to fly on specific dates, and only fly with a small backpack, you could likely save some money with one of these budget airlines. However, you really need to put in all of the information and look at all of your options first.
Have you flown with any of these budget airlines? What was your experience like?
I love national parks, whether they’re in the United States or elsewhere. However, for the purpose of this post, I’ll focus solely on national parks in the United States, specifically ones that I’ve been to during the winter months. There are several advantages to traveling to national parks during the winter versus during the summer, including they are less crowded during the winter and prices for flights and hotels are often lower during the winter than during the summer.
I’ll begin with Everglades National Park in Florida. Last December, I visited a friend of mine who lives in Miami and she took my family and I here. She often takes friends who come to visit her to Everglades National Park and she told me it’s much more pleasant to come during the “cooler” months than during the summer, not that it cools off that much in the winter, but when you live there, it’s winter to you and you notice the drop in temperature. We didn’t see any mosquitoes or other bugs, but she told me when she was with a visiting friend earlier that year in the summer, they were nearly eaten alive by bugs at Everglades National Park.
We took an airboat tour through Everglades National Park, which I had done before on a previous vacation to the area several years prior. You’ll mostly see some alligators and many different types of birds as you zip around the wetlands. There are also manatees, the Florida panther, and turtles in the area that you may see if you’re lucky (well, probably not a panther because they’re so elusive).
I also visited some national parks in Utah during February one year including Bryce Canyon National Park and Zion National Park. Both parks are located in the southwestern part of Utah, about an hour or so from each other by car. When I think of Bryce Canyon, I think of watching the falling snow on the hoodoos and red rocks while we were walking around the serenely quiet park, with almost no one else there but the three of us. There’s a winter festival scheduled from February 16-18 in 2020 that includes cross-country ski tours, photography clinics, ranger-led snowshoe excursions under the full moon, and guided fat bike rides. There are two ski resorts nearby, Brian Head Resort and Eagle Point. We stayed at Ruby’s Inn, which is the closest lodging to the park entrance, and they even have an ice-skating rink across the street during the winter.
Zion National Park is bigger and more people go there annually than Bryce Canyon National Park, so chances are you won’t be the only ones hiking there even in the winter but the crowds will be thinner than during the summer. Zion National Park is known for its slot canyon, Zion Narrows, which you can wade through given the right conditions (I did not do this). Winding through the main section of the park is Zion Canyon Scenic Drive. The Virgin River flows to the Emerald Pools, which have waterfalls and a hanging garden. Another famous part of Zion National Park is Angel’s Landing trail, known for its sheer drops on either side of the narrow trail. We stayed at Cable Mountain Lodge, which you can literally walk to the park from, and the rooms are spacious, clean, comfortable, and quiet.
It’s possible to combine Bryce Canyon, Zion, and the Grand Canyon National Park all in one vacation, like I did (plus we had a couple of other stops as well). Grand Canyon National Park as you might imagine is one of the most visited national parks, so going there in the winter is a great idea. If you can go during the week as opposed to on a weekend in the winter, not only will there be less people to contend with, you’ll have an easier chance scoring a place to stay within the park. Seeing snow on the Grand Canyon is something I will always remember. I’ve been there twice during the winter months and both times it was beautiful and peaceful.
Although not a national park, San Antonio Missions National Historical Park is a great place to visit in the winter. In the 18th century, dozens of Spanish missions were constructed across southern Texas. Four of the best preserved are in San Antonio, and can be visited as part of the national historical park. The 12 mile route near the San Antonio River is connected by the Mission Trail and links The Alamo with Mission Espada.
Honestly, there isn’t a bad time of year to visit Hawaii, so visiting during the winter months can only be good. Not only would you get a break from your current winter weather, the crowds will be (a bit) thinner if you go after New Year’s Day and your airfare will be (a bit) lower than if you go in July or August. The temperature doesn’t change that much from one month to the next, but it will be a few degrees cooler in January than August. For example, the average temperature in Kona on the Big Island is 81 degrees in January and 87 degrees in August.
I’ve been to Hawaii three times, once in the fall (October), once in the summer (August), and once in the winter (February). All three times, I was swimming in the ocean, snorkeling, hiking, and loving life. I know my airfare was considerably more when I flew there in August and the lowest when I flew in February. I didn’t notice the crowds being any less in one month than another, however. The first time I went to Hawaii, I visited Haleakalā National Park in Maui and Volcanos National Park in Hawaii (the Big Island), but I wasn’t a blogger then so I don’t have a post on either of those parks but I can say they are both worth spending at least a day at. I’ve been to Volcanos National Park twice and would love to visit it again someday (plus go back to Haleakalā). I went to the islands of Kauai and Oahu on my most recent visit, neither of which have national parks, but still plenty of incredible hiking, including the Nā Pali Coast State Wilderness Park in Kauai and Diamond Head State Park in Oahu.
What national parks do you like even better in the winter months? Have you been to any of these parks in the winter and/or other times of year? Any national parks in other countries that you loved during the winter?
I’d like to continue my tradition of re-capping my travels for the year and note all of the things I learned while I was traveling. As great as my travels were in 2018, I think they were topped in 2019. It was a truly wonderful year for travel for me, for which I am so grateful to have experienced. My family and I visited so many incredible places in just one year and it was a wild ride! Let’s begin! Grab a coffee or glass of wine first, because this one is going to take a while.
In February, we visited two islands in Hawaii, Kauai and Oahu. I had been to Kauai before but I still learned some things there. I learned how drastically different vacations to the same place can be given a person’s circumstances. When my family and I last went to Kauai, my daughter was not quite two years old. Our days were spent lazing around the pool and beaches with our daughter and my in-laws. My husband and I went hiking a couple of times while our daughter stayed back in the room with my in-laws.
Fast-forward to this year, where it was my husband and I along with our 13-year-old daughter and it was quite a different experience for all of us. We went zip-lining, snorkeling, and the three of us went hiking several times together. This was a much more active vacation and I saw a different side of Kauai than the previous one I saw 11 years ago. I also discovered shave ice for the first time, thanks for my daughter asking for it. Holy crap is that stuff good! I thought it would just be regular snow cones before I bit into it, but it was nothing like that. We learned to ask for our shave ice with sweet cream over and macadamia nut ice cream under. So, so good! My post on Kauai is here.
I also learned a few things on the island of Oahu. Previously, I hadn’t wanted to go to Oahu because I had heard how crowded Waikiki and Honolulu are. When I pictured Oahu, all I could see was the big city of Honolulu and crowded beaches of Waikiki. A co-worker of mine has been to Oahu several times and has always raved about it, so I decided to give it a try. Yes, Oahu has some definite crowded places, like Diamond Head State Monument and of course Honolulu is crowded, but Oahu is so much more than those places. By the way, I recommend still going to Diamond Head State Monument despite the crowds because you get some tremendous views of the area from the top.
We stayed on the east side of Oahu on a bay and it was absolutely perfect. Not only was it not crowded like other parts of Oahu, it was close enough that we could drive to most places within a reasonable drive. This was a valuable thing to learn about Oahu: you don’t have to stay in the crowded parts of the island. I also learned how to standup paddle board for the first time at the gorgeous Airbnb property where we stayed in Oahu. I learned I’m actually pretty good at SUP and since that vacation I have had so much fun paddle boarding at other places on our travels like Hilton Head Island and Wyoming but also back home on a lake near where I live. It’s become one of my favorite activities along with running, cycling, and hiking. You can find all of the details about my time in Oahu here.
In May, we took a short vacation to Delaware. This was my first time visiting Delaware and I wasn’t sure what to expect. I had been to states all around Delaware but honestly didn’t know much about Delaware. We were in the Rehoboth Beach area and I learned that it is so much cheaper to visit this area in May than during the summer months, plus it’s much less crowded. Although it wasn’t warm enough to get in the ocean, it was nice enough to walk along the beaches and also walk the trails at Cape Henlopen State Park. I learned there are several great restaurants and shopping in this area. Lewes, the first town in the first state in the United States, has some unique shops and restaurants as well.
While I was in Delaware, I also discovered a float tank a.k.a. sensory deprivation tank, which I used for the first time ever, and you can read all about here. I learned that I absolutely loved how I felt afterwards and it wasn’t nearly as claustrophobic or strange as I thought it might be. While I was in Delaware, I told myself I would look for float tanks when I travel again because even though there’s a place with float tanks sort of close to where I live, it wouldn’t be convenient for me to go there, but I haven’t followed through with that. I really need to get better about that because I felt like my recovery time from my half marathon in Delaware was quicker and I just felt great all over afterwards.
Later in May, I went to Peru and had one of the best vacations of my life. Our vacation started in Lima, where we flew into and took a taxi from the airport to a hotel for the night and spent a few hours walking around until we had to head back to the hotel for our quick flight to Cusco. That all worked out well, but I learned that one’s experiences in Lima (and really any city) can vary vastly depending on one single person- your taxi driver. So we flew from Lima to Cusco then Cusco to Arequipa and back to Lima (over a couple of week’s time). On our return to Lima the second time, our plan was to take a taxi from the airport to the Miraflores section, which is where we spent the night upon arrival in Peru, and by the way I had read this was the “best” and “safest” part of Lima. Our plan was to spend a few hours in this area having dinner and walking around the shops and neighborhood before we took another taxi back to the airport and fly back home. However, our taxi driver was a dishonest man and told us several lies during that drive to Miraflores. Long story short (you can read the full story here), the taxi driver tried to mislead us into paying him more money than what we had agreed to before getting into his cab (yep, no meters here) and at one point I was starting to fear for my life and wonder if we were going to have to jump out of the car before he kidnapped us.
Fortunately, the rest of Peru was amazing. I learned some things when we were in Cusco, the first of which is that when everyone says to allow a few days for your body to acclimatize to the higher altitude, you really need to listen and do that. I had planned on just taking it easy for our first 2 or 3 days in Cusco and didn’t plan anything for us to do those days. This turned out to be perfect for us and by the third day we were feeling so good we decided to go for a hike to the ruins of Sacsayhuaman and the nearby Statue of Christ. Cusco is a city where you can easily just hang out and take in the sights and not overly exert yourself. That being said, I learned Cusco is crazy hilly and if you stay up at the top of the hill like we did, you’ll get out of breath just walking up the hill and going up all of those what feel like a million steps! It’s definitely easier to stay at the bottom of the hill, where the main square is, but it’s also more crowded and noisier down there. Pick which you’d rather have, peace and quiet or easier physically.
Another thing I learned in Cusco is taking a day trip to Rainbow Mountain is worth it and although it’s not quite a picture-perfect as some of the photos online, it’s still a colorful, unique area. This is a place where it pays to have acclimatized to the altitude first before coming here since the peak is at 17,060 feet. I also learned it’s a good idea to pay the extra admission to the adjacent Red Valley, which is every bit as beautiful as Rainbow Mountain but not as crowded.
More things I learned about Cusco: the heating systems aren’t like what we’re used to in the United States. The hotels and hostels may claim to have heated rooms, but I read online hotel reviews over and over about how the rooms were cold, especially at night, and we experienced this ourselves as well. We did at least have hot water, so that was extra nice. Also, there are a crazy amount of not just good but GREAT restaurants in Cusco. Before going there, I didn’t know Peru is such a foodie country, but at least in Lima, Cusco, and Arequipa, we came upon so many restaurants with not only some of the best-tasting food but also such beautiful presentations of the food! A final thing I discovered on our last day in Cusco was Avenida el Sol, a part of Cusco that I absolutely loved and wished I had known about sooner. It was full of cute shops, restaurants, and hotels and seemed like a place I would have liked to have stayed in. My post on Cusco is here.
From Cusco, we took a trek with Alpaca Expeditions and some of their incredible staff along with a family of four from Connecticut, where we camped in tents and ultimately ended up at Machu Picchu on the fourth day. Along the way, we met with and talked to some local families and school children, went to a local market, got to walk around the Salinas salt ponds, soaked in the Lares Hot Springs, saw alpacas and llamas up-close, and saw some of the most amazing scenery I’ve ever seen in my life. This trek really emphasized to me that sometimes the journey is more important than the destination. OK, maybe not “more important,” but certainly as important in this case. You can read about my Lares Trek to Machu Picchu here: Day One, Day Two and Day Three.
That’s not to imply that Machu Picchu wasn’t every bit as wonderful and awe-inspiring as you might think it is if you’ve never been, because it was every bit that and more. I learned that Machu Picchu is pretty much exactly what I had in my head as to what it would look like. What I was surprised by is Huayna Picchu, the mountain that towers behind the ruins of Machu Picchu. We had decided to pay a little extra to climb up Huayna Picchu, and I was terrified going into it, to be perfectly honest. I had read that some of the stairs are crumbling and parts of it aren’t safe to climb, which is perhaps true. What I learned first hand, however, is there are cables to hold onto for some parts of the climb, which makes it a bit easier, BUT these cables stop just where you really need them in my opinion, at the very last part of the climb. I had to channel my inner strength for this part of the climb in particular to help overcome my intense fear of heights, and I learned that some of the stuff I had learned about overcoming fears really does work, like focusing on the task at hand. Let me tell you, I focused on climbing those steps up Huayna Picchu like nothing I’ve ever focused on before and I was able to get to the top without breaking down or just giving up (which has happened before to me when hiking in the mountains). I was so proud of myself and going back down seemed like a piece of cake after going through what I did to reach the top. My post on Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu is here.
When we went to Arequipa after we left Cusco, I learned an important lesson. If you have a limited amount of time in a place and have your heart set on doing a specific trek or visiting a specific place, make reservations in advance. I thought it would be best to wait to make reservations for Colca Canyon, the big reason why many people visit Arequipa in the first place, until we got there, but due to multiple reasons, we were unable to visit Colca Canyon. Of course I was disappointed, but we found plenty of other things to do in Arequipa and it ended up being even better than I thought it could have been. Still, I wish I had pre-booked the overnight trek to Colca Canyon. You can read all about Arequipa here.
Some final thoughts on Peru in general: traffic in Peru is some of the most insane I’ve ever seen anywhere. Don’t even think about renting a car here. I wouldn’t recommend renting a motorbike or scooter either because the traffic is so crazy. Dress in layers as the temperatures can and do vary throughout the day. Learn some Spanish before you go and I mean learn as much as you possibly can because many people don’t speak English at all and you may not have cellular coverage or Wi-fi to use Google translate.
In July, we went to Wyoming, starting in Thayne where I ran a half marathon and moved on to Jackson for a few days and eventually to Yellowstone National Park, where we spent several days. One thing I learned is that the Jackson Hole area is worth spending more than just a couple of days or especially just a day trip from Yellowstone like some people do. Grand Teton National Park is NOT part of Yellowstone National Park but in fact a separate entity and should be treated as such. I learned you really should take at least 3-4 days to enjoy Grand Teton National Park, and 4-5 would be even better if you like to hike. I also learned that it’s worth renting a paddle board to do stand up paddle boarding on String Lake and Jenny Lake in the park for the day if you’re into SUP like me. My post on Grand Teton National Park is here and water activities (including rafting down the river, which I highly recommend) here.
I learned there’s no possible way to see all of Yellowstone National Park if you’re only going to be there a week or less, so you might as well not even try. It’s an enormous park so the best way to see it is to choose a part of the park for a day and focus your time there, then choose another part of the park and spend a day there, and so on, otherwise you’ll spend half of your day driving from one part to the next. I learned Yellowstone gets crowded during the summer months so it’s best to get an early start in the morning to see the geysers, hot springs, pools, and canyon. It’s also best to make reservations for a hotel within the park as early in advance as you possibly can, because the rooms fill up months out. I also learned it’s possible to get away from the crowds, just by going on some of the trails that are a bit farther from the most popular areas like Old Faithful and Grand Prismatic. I have two posts on Yellowstone, one on general info and learning your way around and another with more specific tips.
In August, I visited Hilton Head Island in South Carolina, which was a return visit for me but I still learned some things. As I mentioned with Hawaii how it was a return visit but we had very different experiences because our daughter was so young the first time, Hilton Head Island was the same for us. The first time we went, our daughter was young, so we mostly hung out at the beaches, did some shopping, and went to the lighthouse. However, this time when we went, we rented bikes and rode them all over the island, my daughter and I ran, my husband and I rented stand up paddle boards, and we still visited the white sand beaches of course. I learned that Hilton Head Island is another place where you can have anything from a relaxing, laid-back vacation to a more active vacation, depending on your current lifestyle and choices. You can read about my family’s adventures in Hilton Head Island here.
Our final vacation of the year was in a place I had heard good things about from a couple of people I know but it’s far from what I’d call a popular vacation spot, Omaha, Nebraska. I chose to run the Hot Cider Hustle Half Marathon in Omaha for my half marathon in Nebraska, which was in October. This turned out to be a fantastic time of year to visit the area because of the autumn leaves and it was still warm enough (most of the time anyway) to comfortably walk around and visit the cute shopping/restaurant area called Old Market. I learned Omaha, Nebraska has a surprisingly large number of good restaurants and unique shops, along with some fun museums and a great botanical garden. We especially liked the Durham Museum, the Joselyn Art Museum, and Lauritzen Gardens, which you can read all about plus much more here. I learned that Nebraska may be listed as a “flyover” state, and while I can only speak from my experience in Omaha, it’s a place I would definitely return to, given the opportunity.
So, this has been my longest blog post yet, but it was undoubtedly one of the most action-packed travel years for me to date. Honestly, 2020 will pale in comparison, but I know every year can’t be like this one. Besides, it’s not like a contest where we have to go to “bigger” and “better” destinations to top the previous ones. We just happened to have a year crammed full of some amazing destinations. As I stated earlier, I’m so grateful to have been able to go to these places with my husband and daughter. I feel like I learned so much from our travels in 2019 and that is truly priceless.
Where did you travel to this year? What were some of your favorite places? Tell me about them!
I was recently talking to a friend about traveling and she asked me, “You’ve traveled pretty extensively. What’s something that’s happened that caused you to feel out of your comfort zone?” I immediately thought of my two weeks in Chile a couple of years ago. There were times where my family and I were the only English-speaking people around and there were several days where we had no cell phone coverage or even Wi-Fi when the Wi-Fi went down for the whole town for a few days. We had to rely solely on our knowledge of Spanish and hope for the best.
My friend asked me if we ever felt unsafe or scared in Chile and I replied, “Never. Not a single time.” While I felt out of my comfort zone and even a bit frustrated at times, I never feared for my life or anything remotely like that. I always knew deep down that everything would be fine in the end, and it was. That’s largely in part to the extreme kindness of strangers in Chile. We literally had people hand us their cell phones in restaurants and walk away from our table while we used their phones to pull up Google maps or look up other information after we explained to them (in our shaky Spanish) that we couldn’t use our cell phones.
All of this of course leads to many stories to tell others later. Despite posting several things about Chile, there are many stories I never told, until now. Now I’d like to share some of the stories that happened to my family and I while we were in Chile and I hope you enjoy them.
To give a little background, we were in three separate areas of Chile, beginning in Santiago for a couple of days, then to Valparaiso for four days, and to Punta Verde in the O’Higgins region for a week. I feel like our adventures got more and more intense as our vacation went on. There weren’t many stories to tell from our time in Santiago that I can recall. We stayed in a super-nice 5-star hotel that my daughter still talks about, which if it was in the United States would have cost more money than we likely would have paid. We took our own walking tour of the city based on blogs and other information I had read about Santiago. Not much unusual happened, though. Probably our biggest adventure was driving from our hotel to get out of the city. The traffic was some of the worst we had encountered anywhere, but my husband handled it like a pro and got us out of the city (and the rental car) unscathed!
When we drove from Santiago to Valparaiso, there were two options to get there, one was a toll road and one was not. I decided we should take the “more scenic” non-toll road. It turns out they were doing major construction on part of that road, parts of which were not paved, and all of that slowed us down considerably. Then my husband noticed how low the gas in the tank was. We thought we were going to run out of gas on this deserted road where we hadn’t passed another car let alone seen a gas station in a very long time. We had no cell phone coverage and besides who on earth would we even call? Fortunately we came to the end of the construction, got back on “regular” paved highway roads near civilization, and came to a gas station just as we rolled in on fumes and breathed a huge sigh of relief.
Valparaiso is a beautiful coastal town in Chile and our Airbnb there was HUGE with three big bedrooms and a large living room all with balconies overlooking the ocean below. There was a slight issue with the heat, which I had to talk to the host about over the Airbnb messaging site, but once we got that figured out, it was all good. I didn’t realize prior to going to Chile that most apartment buildings and houses there don’t have central heating because it’s too expensive. Our apartment building was heated by hot water than ran through the walls and floor boards. Once the Airbnb host told us how to turn the hot water pipes for heating on, we were able to stay comfortably warm there.
One very sad story about Valparaiso and the other parts of Chile that we were in is due to the huge epidemic of stray dogs everywhere. One day while we were walking around Valparaiso, a friendly black dog started following us. She followed us a long time, turning when we turned, stopping when we stopped, and so forth, until we ultimately reached the gate for the funicular (if you don’t know, a funicular is sort of like an outdoor elevator that goes up the side of a cliff or mountainside usually) to the apartment building where we were staying and we had to say goodbye to her. We named her “Chile.” Shortly after we got back from our vacation in Chile, we adopted a black dog whose foster mom had named “Millie.” This puppy did not in any way resemble a “Millie” to me but I didn’t want to drastically change her name because she was already answering to Millie. We named her Chile (although not pronounced like native Chileans pronounce their country, “Chee-lay” but more like the pepper, “Chil-ee” so it would still sound similar enough to her former name so as to not confuse her).
After Valparaiso, we drove to Punta Verde in the O’Higgins region. Our adventure began on the very first day there, as soon as we drove up to the resort. The guard at the gate spoke no English at all and our broken Spanish wasn’t enough to communicate to him that we were staying there. We were in what I’ve read called “The Lake” region because of Lago Rapel (Rapel Lake), which apparently is quite packed with visitors during the warm months. Since we were there during the shoulder season and it was a bit cooler, literally no other guests were staying at this resort when we pulled up. The guard seemed to be completely baffled as to why this English-speaking family was trying to get onto the resort this time of year.
Eventually, the guard called a friend of his who knew someone who spoke some English. The English-speaking person’s name was Claudia, and this guard’s friend brought Claudia to our rescue, who communicated to the guard that we would be staying at the resort for a week, and thus needed a key to our apartment and to be allowed entry into and out of the resort while we would be staying there. Claudia showed us around the apartment, which was a large three bedroom unit with a full kitchen, dining room, living room, two bathrooms, and sunroom. She told us to make ourselves at home and gave us her phone number if we needed anything (even though we had no cell phone coverage there so we would have to have a local call her if we needed to talk to her). Claudia told us no one else in town spoke English so we would pretty much be on our own as far as communicating with others.
I should note here that I had several years of Spanish in high school and college and I’ve brushed up on my Spanish several times before visiting a Spanish-speaking country including this trip to Chile. My husband has been teaching himself Spanish for the past several years and our daughter has had Spanish in school since she was in preschool. At the time of our visit to Chile, between the three of us, our knowledge of Spanish was usually enough to get by even when the person spoke no English. I learned many years ago that less is better when you’re trying to communicate in another language so I would try to keep my questions or answers brief and to the point. Usually the person was able to figure out what we were trying to say and/or we were able to figure out what they were trying to say, although there were exceptions like the guard at the gate of our resort in the O’Higgins region. Still, we are by no means what I would call fluent in Spanish.
We had so many adventures in the O’Higgins region that I’m sure I’ll forget some of them. One funny story happened when we went to the Rio los Cipreses Nacional Reserva, a national park. We hadn’t seen another person hiking all day and were surprised when my daughter said she saw other people hiking on the trail we were on. As we got closer to the people, she realized it wasn’t human legs she was seeing but cow legs. It wasn’t people in front of us, but rather a couple of cows. What we thought were hoof prints from horses on other trails earlier that day that we also thought must have been carrying riders on these supposed horses turned out to be hoof prints from cows that were grazing randomly in the park. Several times we had gotten turned around on the trails and had decided to follow the hoof prints since surely it was horse prints so surely it must have been part of the trail and the way we should go. We were of course very wrong since we had instead been following cows wandering around aimlessly. Somehow we figured out where to go on the trails and didn’t end up getting too far off trail to get truly lost.
I’m going to back up a bit, though. Just getting to the Rio los Cipreses Nacional Reserva was an adventure. My husband had downloaded Google maps of the area when we had Wi-Fi so we would have it offline and he thought it would be a relatively easy drive to the park from our resort. That is until we had to take a traffic detour. Somehow, my husband still figured out how to get us there just using his awesome sense of direction and by studying his offline map. Driving to other places in the O’Higgins region was often an adventure as well. Once we came upon what looked like a big wooden gate to a personal property that was closed but our GPS was telling us that was the way we needed to go. There were a couple of men standing outside the gate. When we asked if we could go through, they opened the gate and let us in, no questions asked. Once we were on the other side, we quickly realized this was not the right way to go, and drove back the way we came and my husband had to study the downloaded map once again to figure it out on his own.
There was also the small local market in Punta Verde that we discovered sold warm, freshly made rolls every evening. We stood in line with the other locals to get some fresh baked bread and other food to make for dinner. There weren’t that many restaurants in town and the one at our resort was hugely over-priced so we only ate there once or twice. Even after our vacation and we had returned home we still talked about that fresh bread we used to pick up for dinner every evening during our last week in Chile. I remember the first time we went to that market, everyone turned around to look at us when we spoke in English to each other. We still got stares and people turning around to look at us when we spoke English on subsequent visits, but we didn’t think anything of it. Presumably not many people go there that speak English, and certainly not during the off-season. They weren’t doing that to be unfriendly or rude but they were undoubtedly surprised to hear us speaking in a language none of them knew.
As I said, there weren’t that many restaurants in town. One evening we went to what was supposed to be a restaurant and that turned into an adventure. We pulled up to what looked like an average-looking house in the area and wondered if we were in the right place, but there was a sign outside with the name of the “restaurant” so we went in. Immediately I noticed how cold it was in this house. They must not have had heat or perhaps it was turned down to save energy but I really didn’t want to eat dinner in my coat. A man greeted us and was very friendly and obviously happy to have some dinner guests, so we thought we’d at least see what they had to offer. We asked to see a menu and were told they had chicken, chicken and rice, and chicken another way that I’m now forgetting but our choices were chicken, chicken, or chicken; no menu necessary for that. What I can only assume was the man’s wife popped her head out of the kitchen, getting ready to cook us our dinner. I told my husband I didn’t feel comfortable eating at these people’s house/restaurant and we should go but I didn’t want to seem rude. My husband told him we had changed our minds and would be leaving and the disappointment on the man’s face was palpable. Who knows, maybe that would have been a fabulous chicken dinner, but the microbiologist in me just wasn’t willing to risk getting Salmonella or Campylobacter, not that you’re always safe in a true restaurant, but still.
Similar to Valparaiso, there were stray dogs all over the place in the O’Higgins region and it was heartbreaking to me as a huge animal-lover. When we left the resort to drive back to the airport in Santiago, we had some leftover food from the refrigerator that we had brought with us in the car but not for us to eat. I brought the food to give to stray dogs that we would inevitably see along the way to the airport. When I would spot a stray dog along the side of the road ahead of us, I’d tell my husband to pull over, quickly leave some of the food for the dog, and we would drive on. We did this the entire drive back to Santiago, which was about 2 hours. I was able to stretch out the leftovers and gave the last little bit of food to a dog I saw when we were nearing the rental car place by the airport.
That pretty much ended our adventures in Chile. If you’d like to read the full posts about my time there, you can find them here: