What Travel Taught Me in 2018

I always like to re-cap my year in travels by noting all of the things I learned while I was traveling. Let’s jump right into it! My first vacation in 2018 was to the Canary Islands, (a group of Spanish islands off the coast of west Africa), beginning with Carnival in Las Palmas, Gran Canaria, Canary Islands. Other than going to Carnival, I saw and did many things in Gran Canaria and Tenerife. I did a lot of hiking in Gran Canaria and Tenerife, went to a science museum, historical sites, and winery, natural parks and botanical gardens, and went to many beaches.

My first travel lesson I learned for 2018 came from going to Carnival. Either choose your accommodations very far in advance (several months to a year) so you can find a place within walking distance from the parade route or if you have a rental car like I did, park your car in a place where you won’t be blocked off by the parade route when you want to leave.

The second most important thing I learned in the Canary Islands is having a rental car is by far better than taking the bus to get around the islands. Driving in the Canary Islands is pretty easy for the most part. I found locals to be courteous drivers and not overly-aggressive. One of the worst parts about driving in the Canary Islands is how narrow some of the side roads are. I recommend getting a small rental car. Overall, the roads in Tenerife seem to be a bit wider than in Gran Canaria in general.

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Carnival in Gran Canaria, Canary Islands

A third thing I learned in the Canary Islands relates to going from one island to another. Choices for inter-island hopping include taking a ferry or flying. When I checked into prices and options for going from Gran Canaria to Tenerife, the prices weren’t hugely different to fly versus take a ferry. We enjoyed the ferry to the San Juan Islands in Washington in the US and from Gozo to Malta so much that we decided to take the ferry to Tenerife. This was a mistake. The water was so rough both my daughter and husband were sick the entire time so they didn’t even enjoy it. Honestly, there isn’t much to look at either other than the water. Next time I would fly for sure.

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One of my favorite photos from the Canary Islands

A few months after going to the Canary Islands, I spent some time at one of my favorite theme parks, Busch Gardens in Williamsburg, Virginia. In 2017, I had gone to Colonial Williamsburg and spent very little time there, so this year I decided to get Spring Bounce Tickets, which include admission to both Busch Gardens and Colonial Williamsburg. My family and I spent four nights in Williamsburg and we were able to get our fill of the rides and shows at Busch Gardens plus see what we wanted to at Colonial Williamsburg. My lesson here was that Spring Bounce tickets are perfect for a few reasons:  1) It’s not quite as hot and humid as it will be if you wait until later in the summer to go, 2) You have up to a week to use your tickets, 3) You’ll save money by purchasing tickets this way.

Almost straight after going to Williamsburg, Virginia, I flew to Idaho for a racecation. Famous Idaho Potato Half Marathon in Boise was state number 42 for me. After the race, we had a great time hiking all around the Boise area and discovered just how beautiful Idaho is (you can read about our adventures in Boise here). I learned Idaho has to be one of the most under-rated states in the United States in my opinion, especially by east coasters, many of whom don’t even know for sure where Idaho is and all they relate it to is potatoes. It is one of the most beautiful states I’ve been to, and is full of outdoor activities year-round.

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Beautiful Boise, Idaho!

A couple of weeks after returning home from Idaho, I went to Charleston, South Carolina, one of my favorite cities in the United States. I’ve written about Charleston before and it’s one of the few places that I’m happy to return to time after time. Even after having visited Charleston many times, I learned that there’s always something new to experience in Charleston. On my last visit, I went on a walking tour and went to a raptor center.

In August, I went to Alaska for another racecation, beginning in Anchorage, where I ran the Skinny Raven Half Marathon, my 43rd state. My family and I decided to skip the ever-popular Alaskan cruise and instead rented a car and drove from Anchorage to Denali National Park to Seward and finally to Girdwood. I was immensely grateful we didn’t go on an Alaskan cruise because my husband and daughter were sick the entire time on the 6 hour cruise we took through Kenai Fjords National Park near Seward. I learned that boats in general are not a good idea for our family, and we’ve decided not to go on boat tours or ferries again (my husband and daughter have a history of getting sick on some boats in the past, although not every boat they’ve been on). Another thing I learned while in Alaska is that things are extremely expensive here. I was astounded at how much some things cost at grocery stores (I understand they have to travel a long way so it adds to the cost) and tours and ticket prices were expensive pretty much everywhere we went.

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Grizzlies in Denali National Park, Alaska

An incredibly early arrival of cold weather happened to coincide with my next racecation in Arkansas in November. Normally the weather should have been much warmer but unseasonably cold air made its way through and it looked like we were going to have some cold, rainy days. On top of the cold weather that I hadn’t acclimatized to, I had been dealing with anemia and my hemoglobin was extremely low so my expectations weren’t much for the White River Half Marathon, state number 44.

It turns out the White River Half Marathon was on a blazing fast course so I surprised myself with a sub-2 hour finish. It was freezing cold (31 degrees at the start) but I could deal with that. My full race report can be found here. After the race, we drove 3 1/2 hours to Hot Springs to spend a few days. I learned that mineral water from hot springs works miracles on tired muscles after you’ve just run a race the previous day. Seriously, I’ve never felt better after a half marathon than I did after this one. If I could, I would run half marathons in all of the remaining states in places near hot springs. Sadly, I don’t think Iowa, Delaware, New Mexico, Minnesota, or Nebraska has hot springs but Wyoming does.

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Hiking in Hot Springs National Park, Arkansas

Hot Springs, Arkansas is a pretty touristy area but we enjoyed ourselves and especially liked hiking at Hot Springs National Park, seeing the lights display at Garvan Woodland Gardens, and soaking in the thermal baths the best. You can read my full blog post on Hot Springs here. Everyone we talked to seemed like genuinely nice, friendly people. The autumn leaves were a bit past their peak, but the trees were still colorful and it was a beautiful time to visit.

After a brief time back home, we were off once again after Thanksgiving, this time to Grand Cayman Island. I hadn’t been to the Caribbean since my honeymoon, 14 years prior, so I was well over-due for a visit. We aren’t cruise-type people (see references above to my family and boats in the Canary Islands and Alaska) so we spent a week at a resort on the quiet east side of the island and drove all over the island in a rental car.

The first thing I learned is don’t let the rental car agents intimidate you into buying extra rental car insurance. When we picked up our rental car at Hertz, we were told the roads were narrow, drivers were aggressive, and if we were to get in an accident, it would basically be a horrible mess to take care of without the extra insurance purchased through them. In fact, what we found was the roads are in great condition, the drivers are not anymore aggressive than anywhere else (meaning some people can be aggressive at times but in general they were fine), and we never had any issues with driving, albeit driving on the left side of the road takes a bit more brain effort if you’re American.

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Aptly named Starfish Point in Grand Cayman Island

On our first night in Grand Cayman Island, I learned if a local gives you a recommendation for something to see or do or a restaurant to go to, listen to them. Many years ago when my husband and I were in Hawaii, a local told us to be sure to watch the moonrise, and we blew them off and never saw it. However, when we were at dinner on our first night in Cayman, the server told us to be sure to stay to watch the moonrise, and we almost didn’t, but it wasn’t going to be much longer so we decided to stay. If you’ve never had the pleasure of watching a moonrise, let me try to describe it. It’s sort of like watching a sunrise but better. You see the moon slowly rising in the horizon until it’s high in the sky. It’s much more exciting than what I’m describing too. Several people around us were making comments like, “Wow! That’s so cool!” and “I’ve never seen anything like that before!” We were never disappointed when we followed the advise of locals on this vacation and have definitely learned our lesson.

Finally, I learned that I absolutely love Grand Cayman Island. Seven Mile Beach has the softest, powder-white sand I’ve ever seen and all around the island, the water is so clear you can see fish swimming around you without a snorkel mask. The island may be small (though not as small as neighboring Little Cayman and Cayman Brac islands) but it’s filled with natural beauty. The Crystal Caves are definitely worth checking out, as is the Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Garden (be sure to get the extra ticket to see the endangered blue iguanas, not to be confused with the endemic and pest-like green iguanas). There’s also the fairy-dust-like bioluminescent waters in the Rum Point area, the sand bar with stingrays known as “Sting Ray City,” and nearby coral reef garden where you can snorkel, Starfish Point which is filled with starfish (sea stars technically), and the many other beaches where you may see some turtles if you’re lucky. Just about the only downside to Grand Cayman Island is it’s pretty expensive, although our airfare was cheap from the east coast, so it did balance out that way.

I feel very fortunate to have visited the Canary Islands, Williamsburg, Virginia; Boise, Idaho; Charleston, South Carolina; Alaska; Arkansas; and Grand Cayman Island this year. Using airline miles, credit card points, and watching for good deals on airfare, I saved a ton of money. I was reminded I need to check airports at cities within a few hours of my home every single time I check airfare prices. When I did this for Grand Cayman Island, I saved almost $300 per ticket, which for three people is close to $900, definitely worth the extra hassle of driving from another city. I realize some people have to do this any time they fly and I’m fortunate enough to have an international airport close to my home, but still it’s worth checking other airports if it’s going to save several hundred dollars or even a couple hundred dollars.

What about you guys? What did you learn from your travels in 2018?

Happy travels!

Donna

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Hiking, Bathing, and Admiring Holiday Lights in Hot Springs, Arkansas

Following my half marathon in Cotter, Arkansas, and the completion of state number 44 on my quest to run a half marathon in all 50 states (race report here), I decided the best place to spend the vacation portion of my racecation was in Hot Springs. Hot Springs is about a 3 1/2 hour drive from Cotter, a small town in northern Arkansas, and is about an hour from Little Rock.

Hot Springs is the number one tourist destination in Arkansas, with more than 6 million visitors per year. It’s evident the area caters to tourists, with the plethora of tourist shops, restaurants, and hotels, along with some of the more touristy things like a wax museum. One of the big draws for outdoor lovers is Hot Springs National Park.

Hot Springs National Park isn’t your typical park, since it’s located within and around the downtown area of the city of Hot Springs. The area was first protected in 1832 as Hot Springs Reservation but did not officially become a national park until 1921. The National Park Service has the perfect recommendations for how to spend your time at Hot Springs National Park here. Admission to the park is free.

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There are several options for hiking trails within the park, with some easy and others considered moderate. We ended up hiking most of the trails while we were there. If you don’t enjoy hiking or can’t hike, there is also a scenic drive through much of the park. I recommend either hiking or driving to the Mountain Tower, where you can go to the top for some great views of the area. You can either take an elevator up or go up stairs on the outside of the tower, for the same price, $8 for adults. There’s also a gift shop at the tower.

I highly recommend taking a traditional bath at Buckstaff Bathhouse, which we did, but with a bit of warning. Buckstaff Bathhouse doesn’t take reservations so you walk in, give them your last name and what services you want, pay, and go to sit and wait (upstairs for women, first floor for men) until an attendant calls your name. My last name is admittedly not the easiest to pronounce or spell, given the prevalence of how many people have trouble pronouncing and spelling it correctly. However, my daughter and I waited, and waited for our names to be called. A couple of times they called out names that no one else answered to. I later found out they had been calling our name even though never did they say anything remotely like our last name. Only after three other women that arrived after us were called back, did someone finally realize their mistake in skipping us. One attendant told me she had called our name repeatedly and asked why we didn’t answer. I told her we were sitting there the whole time and no one said anything that sounded like our name. Lesson learned- give them a very simple last name at the front desk, something that’s impossible to screw up.

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Despite having to wait much longer than we should have upon arrival, the bath treatment more than made up for it. To begin, you have a bath drawn in a private tub that’s very long, and I’m tall so it was fantastic to actually be able to stretch out completely, where you sit in the whirlpool mineral bath first. Next, I was taken to an area where an attendant put hot towels around my shoulders and lower back. After that, I went to a sitz bath, then to a wet sauna, and finished off with a needle shower. All of this cost just $33. You can add on extras like a massage, a loofah scrub, and a paraffin treatment for hands. I’ve seriously never felt more recovered after a half marathon than I did after the race in Cotter, and I completely believe it was due to the traditional bath at Buckstaff Bathhouse.

The final thing we did in Hot Springs that turned out to be one of the highlights of our time there was visiting Garvan Woodland Gardens. Normally, November wouldn’t be an ideal time to visit these gardens since not much is in bloom then but there is a lights display that is one of the best I’ve seen and well worth a visit. Holiday Lights is open November 17- December 31 and admission is $15 for adults and $5 for children. You walk around the 4 1/2 miles of land, with different areas decorated in different themes; you can also rent a golf cart for extra admission. Don’t forget to take a peek at the stunning Anthony Chapel which as my husband put it, “is made for weddings.”

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Lily pad scene, one of my favorites from Garvan Gardens
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Anthony Chapel at night

Some of our favorite restaurants in Hot Springs include:

Superior Bathhouse Brewery

Grateful Head Pizza Oven and Beer Garden

Bone’s Chophouse (a bit away from the touristy downtown area with phenomenal service and great food)

Cafe 1217 (“gourmet to go” dine in with great-tasting healthy options)

Hot Springs, Arkansas is a fun place to spend a long weekend or a few days. There are plenty of offerings to suit pretty much anyone, whether you want a girls’ weekend at the spa, hiking at the national park, or you’re a foodie and want some great food in a scenic spot. There’s also horse racing, an amusement park, Lake Catherine State Park, a science museum, and the Gangster Museum of America. I’m not exaggerating when I say every single person we talked to seemed genuinely nice and were happy to see us and talk to us. Even with all that Hot Springs has to offer, it’s an added bonus that the people are one of its greatest attributes.

Have any of you ever been to Hot Springs, Arkansas or do you plan on going someday? I know Arkansas isn’t on the radar of many people unless they live in states nearby, but it really is a beautiful area of our country with a lot to offer!

Happy travels!

Donna

 

White River Half Marathon, Cotter, Arkansas-44th state

This is part of a series of posts from my quest to run a half marathon in all 50 states. Arkansas was my 44th state.

If you want to run a marathon, half marathon, or 5k on a blazing fast course, run one of the the White River races in Cotter, Arkansas. Seriously, this group of races is well-organized, has great volunteers, has technical long sleeve shirts for all runners, huge medals for all runners, and medals for age group winners in addition to the fast courses.

Packet pickup was quick and easy the evening before the race at Cotter Schools, and there was also the option of packet pickup the morning of the race. I got my shirt, bib, and chip shoe tags (I hadn’t seen those in quite a few years) and was out in less than 10 minutes. Shirts and some other things were being sold there but honestly I just wanted to get to dinner so I didn’t spend any time looking around. There was a pre-race pasta dinner but I wanted to try some local barbecue instead.

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Race morning, November 17, was even chillier than I was hoping, at 31 degrees. Someone mentioned how it was 70 degrees at the start of last year’s race, so I was thankful it wasn’t that warm (but I think 70 at the start is unusual). Racers for the 5k, half marathon, and marathon all started together at 7 am but fortunately the course never felt crowded, even at the beginning.

Here’s part of why this course is so fast. The first mile was downhill, and the course leveled out after that. We turned around at about mile 7.5 so we didn’t have to go back up the hill from the first mile. The course was on quiet, country roads and while the course was open to traffic, the handful of drivers we did see were courteous and gave runners a wide berth when passing. We got a couple of glimpses of the White River but mostly we saw fields and rural homes. There was a field with a couple of horses watching us at one point too.

Tailwind, water, and Gu gels were offered on the course. The volunteers at the aid stations were friendly and did a good job but there was almost no crowd support on the course, as would be expected for a small race in a rural area.

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The medals for the 5k, half marathon, and marathon are all personalized to each distance

If you follow my blog, you may recall that I recently found out I’m anemic. Just a couple of weeks before this race, my hemoglobin was 6 (normal for women my age is 12-15). Despite that, I still managed to finish in 1:57:31, 4th in my age group, 61 overall out of 287. I haven’t run a half marathon this fast since 2015. Needless to say, given my poor health, I was thrilled with my result. Unfortunately I forgot to hit save on my Garmin at the finish so I have no idea what my split times were. I also made a point of not checking my watch during this race because I just wanted to run more by feel.

As I mentioned earlier, the race medals at the finish were huge and pretty cool-looking. There were also space blankets, which was a nice touch given how cool it was that morning. There was chocolate milk, water, donuts, bagels, bananas at the finish line, and then there was even more food at Cotter School.

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The finish!

My daughter ran the 5k and came in 2nd in her age group, so my husband and daughter went to get her age group medal at the school, where the awards ceremonies were. There were sausage biscuits, bananas, lemonade, Gatorade, coffee, hot chocolate, chili, and a variety of soups when they went at 9:00 for the 5k awards. I showered and changed after the half and went to the school around 10:00 and then they had pizza instead of sausage biscuits but everything else was the same.

To be a small race, this is one of the best I’ve been to. While the course wasn’t one of the most scenic I’ve ever run on, it wasn’t bad and it was definitely one of the fastest courses I’ve raced on. The volunteers were great and the food afterwards was good and plenty of it. There was also a shoe recycling area and it looked like quite a few old running shoes were collected. If you’re looking to cross Arkansas off your list, I highly recommend this race!

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Just a portion of the shoes collected at the race

www.whiterivermarathon.com

Do any of you have plans to run a race in Arkansas or have you already? If so, which one do you want to run or have you run? Do you like races in small towns along back country roads or do you prefer racing in bigger cities with big productions like the Rock n’ Roll series for example?

Happy running!

Donna