Viewing the Total Eclipse from Charleston, South Carolina

As luck would have it, my family and I were able to plan our annual beach trip to Charleston, South Carolina so that it would coincide perfectly during the solar eclipse on August 21, 2017. We arrived in Charleston on Saturday afternoon, and naively went to Market Street to get milkshakes from Kaminsky’s. Somehow, we managed to not only score a close parking spot but it even had 55 minutes left on the meter. That never happens on a weekend in Charleston by Market Street, and for it to happen on one of, if not THE biggest weekend of the century for the area, is just unheard of.

Back to those milkshakes, briefly. We got a Cookies n’ Cream, Reece’s Peanut Butter Cup, and a Butterfinger milkshake and these were seriously the best milkshakes we had possibly ever had. I can’t speak of the rest of the food at Kaminsky’s but definitely go for the milkshakes. They had a display case of cakes and pies that also looked delicious.

We walked around downtown Charleston for a bit, browsing in some of the shops before making our way back to our car, then we vowed to not go back into downtown Charleston until after the eclipse, Monday evening at the earliest. We stayed in an Airbnb townhouse in Mt. Pleasant. Let me just say how much I enjoy staying in Mt. Pleasant. If you’re planning on going to both downtown Charleston and the beaches, Mt. Pleasant is the perfect place to stay because it’s right in the middle between both, so you never really have a long drive to either place.

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My daughter watching the partial eclipse

Since Charleston was in the southern tip of the path of the eclipse, the partial eclipse didn’t occur until around 1:15’ish. Wearing our stylish eclipse glasses, we were able to see the moon start to cover the sun even though it was extremely cloudy. Like a miracle, you could look at the sun with your glasses, and there was the sun shining bright, getting slowly smaller and smaller as the moon moved in front of it. Eventually the sun was a small orange sliver, then eventually total darkness and totality began- the real fun!

While a partial eclipse was pretty cool to witness, totality was truly amazing! I tried to take some photos during totality but of course pictures could never do it justice. This is something that is an experience, and viewing it on a screen or anything else other than in person just is not the same. It would be like watching a show about the Grand Canyon versus going there and hiking through it and seeing it in person. It’s just not the same.

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Our spot for viewing the eclipse overlooked the water

When totality was happening, there were outcries of joy around us, clapping, and lots of exclamations from others. We were watching from a park by the water in Mt. Pleasant. Dogs and small children were running around, clueless to what was going on around them. There was definitely a vibe of something indescribable, like we all knew what we were experiencing was a once in a lifetime occurrence for most people, and we all appreciated that we were able to be a part of it.

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I’m sure now that it’s over, some people will say things like, “It wasn’t that great,” or it wasn’t what they expected. It was surely hyped-up by the media and for some people it wouldn’t be able to live up to the hype. For me, though, it’s something I know I’ll always remember experiencing and I feel lucky to have been a part of it.

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Did any of you guys get to experience totality? What did you think of the eclipse?

My Top 5 Favorite Places Outside the United States and Why I Love Them

Similar to my list of top 10 favorite places in the United States and Why I Love Them, I decided to write up a list of my favorite places outside the United States. Since I’ve traveled more extensively inside the US than outside, I limited it to my top 5 international places, only I felt the need for an honorable mention since I couldn’t limit it to just 5 places. I wanted to choose one city for each pick, but was unable to in most cases, so I limited the choices to a region or small area. I hope you enjoy my list! It was a lot of fun to make the list and reminisce about places I’ve been to over the years.

Honorable Mention:  Rethymno, Crete, Greece. As I’ve said many times on my blog, when my family and I travel, we often veer off the beaten path a bit. We don’t always go where the crowds go. So when we went to Greece, while we did go to the popular destination of Athens, we skipped the tourist-flooded islands of Santorini and Mykonos and opted for Crete instead. We may eventually go to some of the aforementioned islands, but we’re in no rush. Crete was absolutely everything we love in a vacation spot- there were beautiful hiking areas and some of the most stunning beaches I’ve ever seen. I especially enjoyed the Venetian harbor and fortress in Rethymno. Within driving distance are ruins (such as Knossos), caves, gorges, and many quaint small villages to keep you busy and in awe. My favorite beach on Crete is Elafonisi, with its pink sand and clear water, but there are many other beautiful beaches in Crete as well.

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Number 5:  St. Kitts and Nevis. These tiny islands in the Caribbean are only about 65 and 36 square miles each, respectively. My husband and I got married on the island of St. Kitts and took a ferry to Nevis for our honeymoon. We stayed at Nisbet Plantation Beach Club on Nevis and it is still to this day one of the nicest places I have ever stayed. It is the Caribbean’s only historic plantation on the beach. The service at Nisbet Plantation is unparalleled, the food top-notch, and the accommodations amazing. While there isn’t a ton to do on the island, it’s the perfect place to get away from it all and just relax and be pampered. St. Kitts has a bit more to do on the island than Nevis, and there are many options for outdoor enthusiasts. The day before our wedding, my fiancé and I climbed up to the top of one of the volcanic peaks on St. Kitts, even though our tour guide thought we were crazy given the timing. Other than our wedding, it was the highlight of our trip to St. Kitts so I was very glad we did it. St. Kitts and Nevis are both the perfect places to go if you enjoy outdoor activities and water sports.

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I loved the black volcanic rocks in St. Kitts
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One of many beautiful views in St. Kitts

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Number 4:  St. Johann im Pongau district, Austria. Two places are of mention here: Bad Gastein and Werfen. When I read an article about Austria and saw a photo of Bad Gasteiner Wasserfall (waterfall) I immediately wanted to go. You could say the whole reason I went to Austria at all was because of that photo of a waterfall and the travel article written about the area.

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I finally got to take my own photo of Gasteiner Wasserfall!

We went to Austria in the spring and there were more waterfalls here than anywhere else I have ever been. Bad Gastein is a spa town in the district of St. Johann im Pongau, in the Hohe Tauern mountain range, in the state of Salzburg. Other than the city of Salzburg, this area is full of tiny towns great for hiking and exploring. I found the people here very friendly, the food good, and the scenery outstanding. Werfen is famous for the Eisriesenwelt Ice Cave, one of the highlights of our vacation in Austria. Cameras aren’t allowed inside the cave, but here are a couple of photos from their website.

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Also in Werfen is the Burg Hohenwerfen, a castle that’s over 900 years old. There are extensive weaponry displays and an impressive falconry flight display. The castle is surrounded by the Salzachtal Valley so it’s beautiful just to walk the grounds.

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Number 3:  Banff, Canada. A few years ago we went to Missoula, Montana where I ran a half marathon and we followed up the race with a visit to Glacier National Park, which I thought was pretty amazing, but then we went to Banff, Canada and the scenery just kept getting better the further north we went. As majestic as the Rocky Mountains are in the United States, I think the Canadian Rocky Mountains are even more so. The glacier-fed waters in the area are such a beautiful hue of greenish-blue and the mountains are some of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. Banff National Park, about 70 miles west of Calgary, is the oldest national park in Canada. I found the town of Banff to be pretty touristy but it is full of restaurants, shops, museums, and art galleries so you can find plenty to do here when you’re not hiking. There are many, many tours including glacier tours, boat tours, and general sightseeing tours if that interests you. We took a boat tour on Lake Minnewanka, the only lake in Banff National Park open to public motorized boating, and it was definitely a highlight of our time there.

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Number 2:  Florence, Italy. Since I wanted to limit my choices to one city whenever possible, this one was tough to choose just one city we went to in Italy. I loved Rome almost as much as Florence, but in the end I’d have to say Florence may have the edge, but just slightly. I was surprised I loved Florence as much as I did, honestly. Before I went to Italy, I expected Venice or Rome to be my favorites (we also went to Naples and Pompeii), but Florence won my heart. I think it must have been the art that did it. While I was in Florence, I felt like I was immersed in art. You could go to just an ordinary little shop and there would be the most beautiful mosaic, or at a small cafe and find gorgeous statues or paintings just kind of tucked away, obviously not for ostentatious display but just part of the cafe. There are of course the famous museums such as Uffizi Gallery, Accademia Gallery, and the small but still stunning Museo Nazionale del Bargello. Then there are the many beautiful piazzas, cathedrals, and other archeological sites. All of these places are so out of this world beautiful just one place alone would make for an incredible visit to the city, but the fact that there are so many stunningly beautiful places in one city make it almost surreal. With some of the best food and wine in the world on top of the artwork everywhere, what more could you ask for?

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Number 1:  Whitianga, New Zealand. This one was also a tough one. I knew somewhere in New Zealand would be my top choice, but to limit it to just one place was really difficult. The North Island of New Zealand is so diverse with its Redwood Forests, sandy beaches, geysers, wine country, and rolling hills. I loved touring Hobbiton and found the countryside there beautiful. Seeing the glow worms of Waitomo Caves was incredible. Walking around the geysers and thermal mud pools at Wai-O-Tapu in Rotorua was like being on another planet. Walking through the redwoods forest was so quiet and serene. But our boat ride through the sea caves in Whitianga was something impossible to ever top. The water was such a gorgeous color of blue-green and being able to go inside some of the caves was so much fun. I felt like I had a smile plastered across my face from beginning to end of the tour. This is a place that has seriously ruined other boat tours for me because nothing will ever be able to compare. Besides the boat tour here, the beaches are also some of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. Whitianga also has wineries, a fun museum, and hiking trails, all things I love. I almost didn’t include this area as part of our North Island tour because I didn’t think we’d have time. I’m so glad that didn’t happen because we would have missed the best part!

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Being in this small boat made it easy to go in the caves and explore

Has anyone else been to these places? Does anyone want to go now?

My Top 10 Favorite Places in the United States and Why I Love Them

I thought it would be fun to compile a list of my favorite places I’ve been to. At first I wasn’t going to separate out places in the United States from international places, but then I thought there’s no way I could limit them to just ten places. Most of my travels within the United States have been planned with the goal of running a half marathon in all 50 states.  So far I’ve been to 43 states and have ran a half marathon in 40 states.

So here goes, my choice for number 10:  Glacier National Park in Montana. My family and I went here after my half marathon in Missoula. I thought Missoula was beautiful but GNP was even more beautiful.  We hiked many trails and especially loved hiking trails around Lake McDonald. I also enjoyed just driving along the Going-to-the-Sun Road.

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Number 9:  Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. This was another place where my family and I went after I ran a half marathon, only this time in Boulder, undoubtedly one of the hardest races I’ve ever ran because of the high elevation. We drove to RMNP from Boulder and were blown away by the mountains and scenery. Boulder is at the base of the really big mountains such as those in RMNP. Even though we went there in June, there was still quite a bit of snow on the ground at the highest elevations. The park’s tallest mountain, Long’s Peak is stunning with an elevation of 14,259. Similar to the Going-to-the-Sun Road in Montana, the drive along Trail Ridge Road is beautiful.

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Number 8:  Badlands National Park in South Dakota (notice a trend here?). We went here after one of my favorite half marathons, in Spearfish, SD. On this trip we also went to Mount Rushmore but I found the Badlands to be much more beautiful. I absolutely loved the different colored rock formations, the Buttes, and spires. We spotted some big horn sheep, bison, and tons of prairie dogs.

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Number 7: San Juan Islands in Washington. I absolutely loved Seattle, but I loved the San Juan Islands, and the ferry ride there even more than Seattle. We went to Friday Harbour and stayed in a cabin overlooking a beautiful field where deer liked to graze in the mornings and at dusk. I ran a half marathon here, which turned out to be a pretty small but scenic race. We toured a lavender farm and spent a lot of time in the retail section smelling all of the lavender-infused products and tasting the tea. My daughter wanted to buy one of everything.  The lavender tea was delicious. We also went whale-watching just off the coast and saw a bunch of orcas and dolphins. My daughter even got to steer the boat during our tour! Hiking in Lime Kiln State Park was also a highlight of our time on the island.

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Number 6:  Charleston, South Carolina. I wrote a couple of posts about Charleston last summer, so it should be no surprise to see it on my list here. I love so much about this city from the beaches to the architecture to the food. I could go on and on about the food alone. I’ve never had a bad meal here, ever. I’ve been going to Charleston for vacations many times over the years and it just seems to get better every time. There’s so much history here if you’re a history buff you’ll love all of the museums and walking tours. I find Charleston to be the quintessential southern city full of charm, friendly people, and some of the best food you’ll ever eat.

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Number 5:  Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah (can you tell I’m a big fan of national parks?). We went here earlier this year in late winter and I found it to be truly magical. I don’t use that word lightly either. Also, I hate winter. I moved south to get away from the cold weather as an adult. However, the snow on the hoodoos was beautiful and I had so much fun hiking the trails at Bryce Canyon while it was snowing. It snowed off and on but was never a blizzard or anything crazy. The light snowfall just added to the experience and made it even more special. Even though I loved Zion National Park, I loved Bryce Canyon even more, which surprised me, honestly. Plan your next vacation there with the help of my previous posts and this website.

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Number 4:  Acadia National Park in Maine. Before I went to Maine, I had heard great things about the state and hoped that it would live up to the hype. Maine did not disappoint. It was every bit as beautiful as I imagined and the food was every bit as good as you hear it is. We dined on fresh lobster and other fresh fish dishes including clam chowder and had some incredible meals on our trip to Maine. A highlight of the trip was hiking in Acadia National Park and I was glad we had allotted a few days here. We also discovered popovers at Jordan Pond House and that was a real treat. And yes, I also ran a half marathon here.

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Number 3:  Kona, Hawaii. I first went to Hawaii many years ago and ran a half marathon in Kona, which turned out to be my second state for half marathons, even though I didn’t have the goal then of one in every state. I just thought it would be fun (it was) and cool to run along a portion of the same course as the Ironman triathlon. Kona is what I think of when I think of Hawaii:  black sandy beaches, volcanos, palm trees, and incredible snorkeling. Not surprisingly I loved Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. It was like nowhere else in the world and walking through the Thurston Lava Tube was very cool. When I later went back to Kona many years after that first trip, it was every bit as great as I remembered. I’ve since then wanted to go back again but haven’t made it (yet!).

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Number 2:  San Francisco, California. I left my heart in San Francisco. Just kidding. I think that famous song does strike a chord with many people, however. San Francisco is such a fun and vibrant city it’s no surprise it’s become the most expensive city to live in the United States. Where there’s demand, prices will go up accordingly. While I have no desire to live in San Francisco, I love to visit there. In fact, when I was planning my family’s trip to New Zealand, I was happy to include a day-long layover in San Francisco both before and after our flights to New Zealand. I’m always looking for an excuse to go back. Why do I love San Francisco? Well, it’s hard to describe, honestly. There’s so much to do here and the area is beautiful especially around the water. I just love the Golden Gate Bridge and had a blast on the multiple boat tours I took that went around and under the bridge. I love the crazy hilly streets and architecture. The food is great, even the super-touristy chowder in a sourdough bread bowl. Speaking of touristy, I even love the wharf area despite how crowded it can get.

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Number 1:  San Diego, California. If you’ve been following my blog for a while, you’ll remember how many posts I wrote about San Diego. In fact, some of you were probably sick of hearing me go on about the city. It’s absolutely stunning, though. You hear about places being called “breathtaking” all the time and I feel that term is completely over-used but I will say San Diego was honestly breathtaking to me. When I first saw Sunset Cliffs, I was speechless, took a second to get my breath, then looked at my daughter (who also had the same reaction), and just said, “Wow!” It was one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. There’s also so much to do in San Diego, from hiking, to the touristy but still interesting Old Town, the world famous zoo, many museums, parks, and shopping. There are several places where you can get some fantastic tacos and Liberty Public Market has some delicious local fresh food and other unique things for sale. Coronado Beach with its golden-flecked sand and the iconic Hotel del Coronado is my favorite beach in the area. I could go on and on about San Diego. I guess I left my heart in San Diego.

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What are some of your favorite places in the United States? Does anyone else love these places as much as I do?

Day Trip to Pichilemu, Chile

Pichilemu is on the western coast of Chile, about a 3 hour drive from Santiago, in the O’Higgins Region. We decided to take a day trip here from Las Cabras, just under a 2 hour drive. The drive here is scenic so the time goes by quickly.

In addition to beaches, this area is famous for Central Cultural Agustín Ross. This historic area created by diplomat Agustín Ross Edwards dates back to the late 1800’s and includes a park, former casino,hotel, and restaurant. The park overlooks the beach “Playa Principal” and is a nice place to sit on a bench to take a break.

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Bosque Municipal is a forest right across the road from Agustín Park and has many palm and pine trees along with other varieties of trees. It is a nice respite from the heat and is a quiet place to enjoy nature for a walk.

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Other beaches in the area include Playa Las Terraza, Playa Hermosa, Playa Las Caletilla, and Playa Infiernillo. La Puntilla, the tip of Playa Las Terraza, is considered one of the best spots in Pichilemu for surfing. Punta de Lobos beach is an even more popular surfing area and is considered the surfing capital of Chile. The waves here are between 1 to 9 meters high, and are best between September to May.

There are numerous surf schools, many of which look like shacks put together solely with plywood and a piece of metal for the roof. You can also kitesurf, windsurf, and bodyguard. Fishing is a staple trade in this area and you’ll see many fishing boats and fresh fish stalls.

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You can find many restaurants, cafes, and kiosks selling everything from ice cream to empanadas to plastic shovels and pails for the beach. We also passed a few hostels in town. Cabañas seem to be plentiful in the area as well so it appears there would be no shortage of places to stay for a vacation here.

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This is definitely a beach town so unless you’re here during the summer months of December, January, or February, you’re going to find a sleepy town. Still, it’s a fun day-trip even in the off-season. However, during the summer, you’ll have more options like bike and kayak rentals, hiking, and camping tours, and other outdoor activities.

Since we were here in late May during the off season, it was quiet and some of the kiosks were closed. However, we still found plenty that were open and had no problem finding a stand selling hot and fresh empanadas, which we hungrily devoured. Later in the day we bought bread and ham to make sandwiches and dessert from a bakery. We enjoyed our food while sitting on a small cliff over-looking the ocean. It was a nice way to end our day in Pichilemu. After all, a beautiful beach is still a beautiful beach no matter what time of year it is.

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Off-the-Beaten Path Things to Do in Del Mar, California

Del Mar is a small town in San Diego County most famous for its horse track and fairgrounds. Just south of Del Mar and north of La Jolla lies Torrey Pines State Park, with one of the most beautiful beaches in the area.  Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve has several trails with mostly short distances but many gorgeous views. We went on several trails before finally taking the Beach Trail, which not surprisingly leads to the beach at the bottom. If you make it to the beach at low tide, you can check out Flat Rock just south of the bottom of Beach Trail, just be sure you get off the rock and back to the beach before high tide.

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Going to the horse races and fairgrounds for events in Del Mar and hiking in Torrey Pines are popular things to do in the Del Mar and La Jolla areas, but if you’re looking for something a little different, I have some suggestions.  For starters, go to Torrey Pines Gliderport.  This is a city-owned private-use glider airport in La Jolla, just a short drive from Del Mar. It is on the cliffs above the clothing-optional Black’s Beach and affords exceptional ocean views and of La Jolla. People have been launching sailplanes, paragliders, and hang gliders here since 1930. The Gliderport also offers paragliding and hang gliding lessons and tandem flights.  Torrey Pines Gliderport

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I suggest going to the Gliderport even if you have no intention of doing a tandem paraglide. This place is beautiful to just walk around and admire the view. When we first arrived at Torrey Pines Gliderport, there was no one gliding off the cliff. However, after walking around for a bit and going down to the beach and back, we saw three people who were suiting up to launch their paragliders. There was a small group of others watching as well, some of whom knew the jumpers but many did not. It was fun just to watch them prepare their suits and check and re-check all of the lines. Finally, the first one started running then jumped off the cliff and was gone just like that.

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To get even further off the beaten path, check out Free Flight Exotic Bird Sanctuary in Del Mar. The mission of Free Flight is “to maintain a sanctuary that shelters, nurtures and re-socializes parrots, while educating the public to inspire a lasting concern for the well being of exotic birds.” What that really means is you get to handle birds one-on-one such as parrots, cockatoos, and macaws and be a part of helping these animals socialize and interact with people.

After paying the admission of $7 for adults and $3 for children, you disinfect your hands and are given instructions on how to handle the birds. You are not only allowed but are encouraged to handle the birds and interact with them. This is no zoo where the birds are locked up in cages. With a couple of exceptions, if a bird is in a cage, it is only because hawks are in the area and they don’t want the smaller birds to become dinner for a hawk. You can open a cage and let out a bird then put it back in the cage when you’re ready to move on.

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We loved the concept of this place and the idea of helping to socialize these beautiful birds. No one in my family has ever had a bird or had much interaction with a bird so this was all new to us. We learned a lot about birds from the people working and volunteering there and our interactions with the birds themselves. We loved how much personality many of the birds had and how unique they all were. One bird, “Peanut” was a real talker and once when she was singing and talking, a bird beside her started dancing, then another bird joined in and was also dancing. It was hilarious!

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We spent an hour and a half at Free Flight but I would plan on staying at least 30 minutes if you intend on interacting with the birds at all. You can also purchase food to feed the birds or fish for a small fee (but you don’t have to; there’s no pressure from anyone there). Oh, there are also Koi fish in a pond near the entrance.

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Coronado, California- a Relaxing Beach Get-Away near San Diego

One thing comes to mind when I think of Coronado:  beaches. The beaches in Coronado are spectacular and among the best in the San Diego area, and some even say in the world. Coronado Central Beach runs along Ocean Boulevard and is flanked by beautiful mansions. The sand is powder white where it is dry but closer to the water it gets darker and has flecks of gold from tiny pieces of mica that sparkle. This is what they mean when people talk about the golden beaches of southern California.

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Coronado Central Beach is one of the widest beaches I’ve ever been to

Coronado has several nice beaches to choose from other than the larger aforementioned Coronado Central Beach, based on your preference and needs. North Beach is dog-friendly and is mostly visited by locals. Glorietta Bay Beach is family-friendly with its playground, restrooms, grassy area, and small sandy beach. Silver Strand State Beach has a Bayside beach, picnic areas, and access to Loews Coronado Beach Resort. Ferry Landing Marketplace has a pier, grassy area, and small beach with views of downtown San Diego.

Where to Stay

Coronado is an island across San Diego Bay in San Diego, California with a famous hotel, Hotel del Coronado and its iconic red roofs have been photographed many times. It is a beachfront resort with a spa and many dining options. Since it opened in 1888 the rich and famous from Thomas Edison to US presidents and a long list of actors have stayed here. An ocean view room with one king bed in mid-November is $787 per night plus $28 daily resort fee plus $37 to $47 per night for self or valet parking, respectively.

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Hotel del Coronado
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Unique Dragon Tree at Hotel del Coronado

“The Del” as it is affectionately known is a place well beyond my family’s budget. Instead we chose to stay at the much less expensive Cherokee Lodge Inn. Here, rooms in mid-November range from $145- $185 per night with free off-street parking, free wi-fi, and free vouchers for breakfast at Panera Bread, only one block away.  To help with minimalist packing, (see my post Never Check a Bag with an Airline Again) they offer free laundry in a common access area. Finally, Cherokee Lodge Inn is just 2 1/2 blocks from the beach and is an easy walk.

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Cherokee Lodge Inn

What to Do

There are many shops and restaurants along Orange Avenue, including Coronado Brewing Company, Leroy’s Kitchen + Lounge, and Bay Books. For the best ice cream in town, head over to Moo Time Creamery, also on Orange Avenue.  Lamb’s Players Theater and Coronado Theater are good places to see a concert or live show. During the summer months Spreckels Park is a fun place to enjoy free concerts and enjoy a picnic with your family.

There isn’t a lot of nightlife in Coronado; it’s more of a place to relax and unwind. After running my 40th half marathon in my 38th state, Silver Strand Half Marathon, California-38th state, Coronado was the perfect place to just hang out and spend time with my family. We went to the beach every day and did some leisurely shopping and went for walks enjoying the beautiful scenery. It was perfect before we began our adventure in San Diego.

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Imperial Beach pier

For more information on Coronado, see the city’s website Coronado.

Directions: Take I-5 South to the San Diego-Coronado Bay Bridge exit (California Highway 75). Cross the bay and drop down onto Coronado Island. The first stoplight is Orange Avenue. Turn right to the Ferry Landing or turn left to the central business district, the beach and the Hotel del Coronado.

Planning a Trip to San Diego? How to Choose Where to Go

According to this Wikipedia page, there are 85 neighborhoods and communities in San Diego.  That’s a lot to try to sort through if you’re planning a vacation to San Diego and don’t know where to start.  At least for me, it was a bit overwhelming at first.

The Basics

Most first-timers usually plan on going to the usual spots:  Downtown San Diego (Centre City), Old Town, Pacific Beach, Balboa Park, possibly La Jolla, Ocean Beach, and Mission Valley depending on how much time you have.  I’m certainly not saying to just go to these places.  They just seem to be the more common places for first-timers to San Diego.  Here’s a brief description of each of these areas.

Downtown San Diego 

This area includes 7 districts, the most popular ones with tourists are Gaslamp Quarter, Horton Plaza, and Little Italy.  The 16 1/2 blocks of Gaslamp Quarter mostly contain night clubs, shops, and restaurants.  94 historic buildings, built mostly around 1870, in Gaslamp Quarter put it on the National Register of Historic Places and make it San Diego Historic Landmark #127.  Many events and festivals are held here.  Horton Plaza is a small city park that is also a historical landmark, designated by the city of San Diego in 1971.  Little Italy is full of (not surprisingly) Italian restaurants, Italian shops, art galleries, and apartments. There are many events and festivals throughout the year in Little Italy.

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US Grant Hotel behind fountain in Horton Plaza Park
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Davis House, the oldest house in “New San Diego”

Old Town

Old Town is the oldest settled area in San Diego and is the site of the first European settlement in present-day California.  It contains Old Town San Diego State Historic Park and Presidio Park, both of which are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  Old Town is also huge, with 230 acres of land.  There are many restaurants, shops, art galleries, and historic buildings and sites.  Old Town State Historic Park is free to tour the buildings which include 5 original adobes, San Diego’s first newspaper office, a schoolhouse, a blacksmith shop, and many others.

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Old Town

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Pacific Beach

Pacific Beach runs from Mission Bay to La Jolla and has a very long boardwalk (3 miles) that goes along the beach into Mission Beach, ending at Mission Bay.  You’ll usually find PB pretty crowded with people shopping, rollerblading, cycling, and walking.  This area is also a popular spot for nightclubs and bars.  I found it interesting that Eddie Vedder, the musician most famous as the lead singer for Pearl Jam is originally from Pacific Beach.

 Ocean Beach

This is an interesting area in San Diego.  It is home to the longest concrete pier in the West, Ocean Beach Municipal Pier, coming in at 1,971 feet (why they chose that distance is beyond me).  You won’t find many chain stores here because the residents have led several protests of chain companies through the years.  You will find many bars and a thriving nightlife scene here however.  Fun fact:  Ocean Beach and Point Loma are home to a large population of feral parrots that are mostly active at sunrise and sunset.

Balboa Park

In 1835, 1,400 acres of land in San Diego were set aside for the public’s recreational purposes, making it one of the oldest places in the United States dedicated to public recreational usage.  Balboa Park has an incredibly detailed history, much of which you can read on the Wikipedia page here if you’re interested.  In my opinion, Balboa Park is beautiful and I enjoyed just walking around here taking in the scenery.  In addition to several museums, there are 10 gardens, multiple theaters, the San Diego Zoo, the Naval Medical Center San Diego, playgrounds, walking trails, and an enormous sports complex with a golf course, baseball and softball fields, tennis courts, swimming pool and more. You could spend weeks at Balboa Park and still not see and do everything, it’s that enormous and that complex.

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Balboa Park

La Jolla

This community in the northern part of San Diego is perhaps best known for its beautiful views and beaches.  Surrounded on three sides by ocean bluffs and beaches, people aren’t the only ones to have taken up residence in La Jolla.  Hundreds of seals have made Children’s Pool Beach and Seal Rock their home, making the area a popular tourist hangout.  La Jolla is an expensive resort area full of art museums, high-end shopping, and some of the most expensive homes in the country, with a median home price of close to $2 million.  The Torrey Pines Golf Course, Torrey Pines State Reserve with some great hiking, and the famous Black’s Beach (a nude beach) are also in La Jolla.  Finally, La Jolla is also home to University of California, San Diego and numerous scientific research facilities.

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Seals at Children’s Pool Beach
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La Jolla

Mission Valley

One of the most historical places in San Diego, Mission Valley was the first Spanish settlement in California, in 1769.  Today Mission Valley uses its prime location in the middle of San Diego for the placement of apartments, hotels, and retail shops.  Although the Presidio of San Diego and Mission of San Diego de Alcalá were established in 1769 in present day Old Town, the Mission was moved in 1774 to its present location in Mission Valley.  The general boundaries of Mission Valley are Interstates 5 and 15, making for easy access to other parts of San Diego.  The green line of the public trolley system also runs through Mission Valley and the main hub for buses is at the Fashion Valley Transit Center and Mall.

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San Diego Presidio Site

Of course these are just some of the most-visited areas in San Diego for first-time vacationers.  Depending on your situation, you may choose to go to other areas.  You may only have time to visit one or two areas.  I know someone who went to San Diego for a work conference and only saw the Gaslamp Quarter downtown.  She greatly missed out on other areas of San Diego obviously, but her conference was downtown and she only had time for that brief glimpse of San Diego.

What if you only have time to see one or two areas of San Diego?

I personally would recommend going to Balboa Park, La Jolla, and Point Loma.  OK.  That’s three areas.  It’s really hard to limit it less than that.  If I was hard-pressed to choose just one place I think I would say go to Point Loma.  The views from Sunset Cliffs in Point Loma and Cabrillo National Monument are stunning.  That’s what I think of when I think of San Diego- ocean bluffs with views like nowhere else in the world.

For those of you that live in San Diego or have been there before, where would you recommend?

 

 

Top 5 Things to Do in Charleston, SC with Kids without Spending a Ton of Money

Charleston, South Carolina seemingly has something to offer everyone.  If you want a romantic escape, there are plenty of bed & breakfasts to stay at and cobblestoned streets to take a horse-drawn carriage ride with your significant other.  If you want a fun girls weekend getaway, there are plenty of options for that with cool bars and unique shops.  For the golfer, there are 19 championship courses in the area.  For the history buff, this city is steeped in history and there are historical tours and museums all over.  Finally, if you’re just looking for a fun place to visit with your family, there are loads of options for families.  Options for families is what I will delve into here.

Charleston is definitely not an inexpensive city, at least on the surface.  The accommodations are expensive, the restaurants are also on the pricey side, and you feel like you’ve won some kind of prize if you’re lucky enough to find a free parking spot or a meter with some time left on it. However, there are ways to visit Charleston and not blow a ton of money (Charming Charleston- How to visit without breaking the bank). If you’re visiting with kids, there are numerous free or inexpensive ways to have fun and keep everyone happy and entertained.

1. The beaches near Charleston, Isle of Palms and Sullivan’s Island are completely free and open to the public.  Another option for a beach near Charleston is Folly Beach.  Although I did not visit Folly Beach when I was in Charleston in August so I can’t speak of that beach personally, Isle of Palms and Sullivan’s Island are both clean and well-maintained. Lifeguards are on duty mostly during the peak summer months of May through part of September.  Check out more info at Charleston County Park & Recreation Commission.  A word of warning about the waves, as they can be quite rough.  We found the water to be considerably calmer at an inlet we were able to walk to at Sullivan’s Island going through neighborhoods to the far end of the beach.  One of my daughter’s favorite things to do at beaches is to “jump the waves” with her father, so the waves were not a problem for us but I know they might be for younger children.

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Jumping waves
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The beach is a great place to fly a kite!

2. Another completely free thing that most kids love to do is play in the fountains.  There are two fountains by Waterfront Park that are great for kids to splash in and have fun.  This is especially great on a hot day.  Palm trees surround the area so parents can sit and watch their kids playing.  After toweling off the kids there are several ice cream shops within walking distance of the fountains, if you so desire.  That could also be an option for a post-dinner treat.

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What kid doesn’t love to play in a huge fountain like this one?

3. If your kids are budding history buffs, there are plenty of museums to choose from.  One option is the Old Exchange Building & Provost Dungeon.  My daughter enjoyed being able to handle replicas of historical money thanks to a volunteer on site who gave us a bit of information about each piece.  She also got to sign a replica of The Declaration of Independence. We all thoroughly enjoyed our guided tour of the dungeon and learned quite a bit about the area.  If you have younger kids (around 4-6), the Children’s Museum of the Lowcountry might be a better fit for your family.

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Signing the Declaration of Independence
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Learning about historical currency

4. Fort Sumter and Fort Moultrie are great options for families as well.  Although Fort Sumter does not charge a fee for entrance to the national monument, it is only accessible by boat and there is a fee for that.  Fort Moultrie is accessible by car at 1214 Middle Street, Sullivan’s Island and you can buy a family pass that covers up to 4 adults for $5, with free admission for children 15 and younger.  See more information here National Parks Service.

5. While it might seem more like a splurge for many families, the South Carolina Aquarium is a nice way to spend a day or several hours. Tickets are $24.95 for adults and $17.95 for children 3-12. The aquarium is open daily from 9 am- 4 pm (building closes at 5:00) and you could easily spend all day here, which makes it a bit more affordable considering it’s a day’s worth of entertainment. With more than 5,000 animals and exhibits like the touch tank (my daughter’s favorite) and the two-story 385,000 gallon Great Ocean tank there is plenty to see and do.  The Zucker Family Sea Turtle Recovery is set to open May 2017 and promises to  be an exciting new addition.  SC Aquarium

If your family is anything like mine, we find our beach vacations a time to unwind, relax, and just enjoy each other’s company.  We don’t plan a ton of activities like we do for other vacations.  Charleston, South Carolina is a perfect place for families to relax and reconnect while taking in the beautiful scenery.

 

 

 

Charming Charleston- How to visit without breaking the bank

If I had to describe Charleston, South Carolina in one word it would be charming.  The city is full of charm from its architecture to its restaurants and even more importantly its people.  With a population of only around 130,000 encompassing roughly 110 square miles, this city packs a punch with personality.  However, all of this charm does not come cheap. Charleston is a relatively expensive city to visit, especially for a city of its size.

First a bit of history. Founded in 1670 by English colonists, Charleston has some history under its belt by American standards anyway.  Charleston had grown to a wealthy city by the mid-eighteenth century and prospered because of the sale of rice, cotton, and indigo. Everything came to a halt in April of 1861 when there was an attack on Fort Sumter by Confederate soldiers in Charleston Harbor, thus triggering the Civil War.  Charleston took some time to recover and rebuild after the war finally ended in 1865.  However, some say it was this slow recovery that gave Charleston its current architectural charm.  Rather than rebuild new buildings, Charleston opted to repair and as a result many historical buildings still exist today.

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The USS Yorktown is at Patriot’s Point Naval and Maritime Museum

Historical Charleston is lined with cobblestone streets and there are rows of pastel antebellum houses.  You can take a horse-drawn carriage ride through the elegant French Quarter and Battery district and hear some stories about the area by your (hopefully) entertaining guide.  The Battery promenade and Waterfront Park are lovely areas to take a post-dinner walk. Options abound for walking tours of the city from ghost tours to historical walking tours to culinary and pub tours.  If you would rather take your tours on the water there are numerous boat tours as well. Of course you could also just take your own self-guided tours and stroll along the area and take in the scenery as my family and I did.  That doesn’t cost a penny!

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If it’s shopping that interests you, take some time to meander through the stalls of the City Market and browse the local wares.  You can find jewelry, hand-woven baskets galore, various kinds of art, snacks and local foods, and handmade clothing for starters with the option of going to the day market or night market.  There are of course numerous vintage and antique shops throughout Charleston in addition to unique boutiques with men’s, women’s, and children’s clothing. You don’t even have to spend a dime; just browsing at all of the local unique finds can be fun!

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You would be hard-pressed to find a restaurant in Charleston that has sub-par food. I have yet to have eaten at a restaurant that was bad, although I’m sure it’s possible.  When we were there this past August, we started our culinary adventure at Spero and we were not disappointed.  When my 10-year-old daughter asked if she could have her sandwich without the homemade sauerkraut that came with it, the chef came to our table and asked her if she would just give it a try and if she didn’t like it, she could send it back and he would happily make her another sandwich without kraut “lickety split.”  She agreed and ended up loving her sandwich, whereas before she absolutely detested sauerkraut, even when we were in Germany and had it there.  My husband and I loved our sandwiches as well.

Other restaurants that were every bit as fabulous were Poogan’s Smokehouse, Butcher & Bee, and Brown Dog Deli, just to name a few.  But I think my favorite was brunch at High Cotton.  This is where I experienced the best shrimp and grits I have had in a very long time.  The first time I ever had shrimp and grits was on my first trip to Charleston many years ago and that memory still remains vivid.  A meal at any of the aforementioned places is not exactly cheap but they may just be some of the best meals you’ve ever experienced. One way to save a bit of money is to eat breakfast at your hotel or B & B, pack a picnic lunch, and just eat out for dinner.  Even better may be to just eat out for lunch and if you have a kitchen in your hotel room, cook dinner in your room.  You can pick up some freshly caught seafood and have a delicious, quick, and easy meal for much less than eating out.

Where to stay in Charleston?  If you want to stay in the historical district, it will cost you.  Most hotels are around $300/night and up during the summer months before taxes and fees.  Bed and breakfasts abound and you can usually find one a bit under $200/night but this isn’t an option for families unless you rent multiple rooms as most only have one bed in the room.  Another, more affordable option is to stay in Mt. Pleasant.  Mt. Pleasant is a wonderful choice to stay especially if you plan on spending time at the beaches since it is about 15 minutes from historic Charleston, Sullivan’s Island, or Isle of Palms, with both of the latter having nice beaches. There are numerous options for hotels in Mt. Pleasant, many of which are much more affordable than those in historic Charleston.

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Ravenel Bridge connects Mt. Pleasant and Charleston

The beaches near Charleston include Isle of Palms and Sullivan’s Island.  Isle of Palms has more than 6 miles of beach and many restaurants, bars, and souvenir shops.  There are public restrooms and public parking (pay lots).  The feel is much more touristy at Isle of Palms than at Sullivan’s Island and on weekends it is much more crowded than Sullivan’s Island. Sullivan’s Island has no public restrooms, very few restaurants (all are on Middle Street), no hotels or high-rise condos, and less options for parking.  However, in exchange, the beach at Sullivan’s Island is much less crowded and more peaceful.  Soft, beige powdery sand is at both beaches and wild dunes add to the beauty.  Other than possibly paying for parking, going to these beaches is totally free so you can spend all day here, pack a picnic lunch, and hardly spend any money.

Kiawah Island is a barrier island 15 miles south of Charleston and was ranked one of the Top 10 Beaches by Forbes in 2013.  It is primarily a gated beach and golf community but Beachwalker County Park is open to the public and although quite expensive, a very nice place to stay is The Sanctuary at Kiawah Island Resort.  One of the first half-marathons I ran was in Kiawah Island.  If you’re a runner, I highly recommend this for a fast marathon or half-marathon. Rates for condos are deeply discounted the weekend of the race making it much more affordable.  See my post Kiawah Island Marathon and Half Marathon, South Carolina-4th state.

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How to get to Charleston, South Carolina if you’re not lucky enough to be within driving distance?  Charleston International Airport is a joint civil-military airport 12 miles from downtown Charleston.  Once here, a rental car is recommended, as public transportation exists but is not nearly as comprehensive as in bigger cities.  However, it would be possible to rely on CARTA, the bus system, and DASH trolleys in the downtown area, if you supplemented with taxis and Uber.

Once you visit Charleston, you too may fall in love with the city’s charm and be left with a longing to return that stays with you after you’ve returned home again.