I grew up in land-locked West Virginia and while it’s a beautiful state full of mountains, as an adult I’ve found I much prefer ocean and beach settings. If I can have mountains to hike in with views of the ocean, then that’s just about perfect to me. I’ve spent my fair share of time at beaches since I started traveling as an adult. In fact, the first international vacation I went on was to the Bahamas when I was in college.
Given the fact that I’m completely over winter and ready to move on to warmer, sunnier weather, I thought it might be fun to share some of my favorite beach spots and of course include photos. We’ll take a little photo journey around the world, in no particular order, although I may have to divulge some of my favorites at the end.
I alluded at the beginning to listing some of my favorites but it’s funny because photos are really art, which taken as a whole are not only subjective to the eye of the beholder but also the context. For example, a person’s travel experiences are influenced by things such as who they’re with, what stage in life they’re at, how they were treated by the locals and other travelers, and even the weather. I may look at a photo and it brings back happy memories while someone else may see the same photo and just see the landscape and/or people in the photo without any context of what was going on when the photo was taken.
So what are my favorite photos here? I’m not going to take the easy way out and say I could never choose because they’re all my favorites. I really like the stormy photo taken at the beach in Tenerife, Spain because I love how I was able to capture that moment just before a huge storm blew in. I also love the photo of the beach in Malta because of the different hues of blue in the water and the rocky protrusion, so I’ll narrow it down to those two photos for my favorites here.
What about you guys- do you like black sandy beaches, powder-white, or the more traditional tan/beige the best? Rocky beaches or sandy beaches? What are some of your favorite 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
Other than our self-guided walking tour of Santiago, the only other thing we wanted to do during our short stay in the city was to go up Costanera Tower in Santiago, the tallest building in Latin America. However, because the fog was so bad that day the women at the desk selling tickets advised us not to go up because we wouldn’t be able to see the mountains, we decided to save our money and skip it.
We said adiós to Santiago and set off in our rental car for Viña del Mar. For the 2 1/2 hour drive we opted to skip the toll roads, and boy what an adventure that was! The roads were some of the most curvy, winding mountainous roads I’ve seen since driving around in Greece but they were all paved and in good condition. There was almost nothing in sight for miles and miles other than beautiful countryside. We also almost ran out of gas too but with fumes left in the tank we made it to a gas station in the nick of time.
I had reserved a condo through Airbnb and the place was even better than I expected. For much less than we would have paid for a comparable condo overlooking the beach back in the United States, we had four bedrooms, a full kitchen, dining room, living room, washer and dryer, swimming pool, huge balcony spanning the length of the condo, all in a safe, gated community. Check out the view from our balcony:
When I was planning our vacation I was trying to decide whether we should stay in Valparaiso or Viña del Mar. I read that Valparaíso has more charm than its neighbor but Viña del Mar is safer and more of a beach getaway. After seeing Valparaíso I could see what people mean. Valparaíso has more of an edge to it that some people prefer, while Viña del Mar is full of high rises and shopping centers. That being said, the view from our condo was stunning whether it was day or night (see above photo and last photo) and I felt completely safe at all times.
Before leaving our hotel in Santiago, we had been warned not to leave a single thing in our rental car while in Valparaiso or thieves would break the window to steal it. We took this to heart and didn’t leave anything in the car when we parked in Valparaíso. However, we walked and drove all over Viña del Mar, even after it was dark and never once did we feel like we were in an unsafe area.
One thing I do feel the need to mention is the huge amount of stray dogs in Chile. As an animal-lover, it’s heart-breaking. This sad-looking little dog followed us steadfastly one evening for a couple of miles, hoping to join our pack. We called her “Chile.” She ultimately left us just before we entered the gate to go up the funicular to our apartment.
Of course one of the first things we wanted to do when we arrived in Viña del Mar was go to the beach. Although it was a bit chilly for lying on the sand in a bathing suit and the water was far too cold to swim in, it was perfect weather for walking along the beach, which we did on multiple occasions. There are a few restaurants along the beach but since it was off-season it was pretty quiet when we were there. We also took advantage of the workout equipment along the beach to have the best workout at the most scenic “gym” I’ve ever been to!
Of course a must-do while in Valparaíso is to take a tour of the famous poet and Chilean diplomat Pablo Neruda’s former house, “La Sebastiana.” Neruda had three houses, one in Santiago, one in Isla Negra, and this one in Valparaíso. It seemed to me that La Sebastiana had the most character of the three houses, so we chose this one to tour. This was definitely one of the most unique homes I’ve ever been in, from the design to the furnishings and choice of decor. The bar area with the unique knick knacks and bathroom with the clear glass door by the bar particularly come to mind. It’s definitely a place you have to experience in-person to fully appreciate.
The website is here for La Sebastiana. Entrance fees are 7,000 Chilean pesos per person or about $10.50 US with discounts for Chilean students and Chilean adults over 60. The self-guided tour takes roughly an hour, includes an audio guide for each floor and is available in English, Italian, French, German, Portuguese, and Spanish.
We also visited Palacio Rioja, a beautiful historic home in Viña del Mar built in 1907 where you can take a self-guided tour for free. Palacio Rioja has been declared a National Monument and later a Museum of Decorative Arts. Guided tours can be arranged (although not in English) and more information can be found here. I highly recommend visiting here if you’re ever in the area.
On subsequent days in Viña del Mar we walked along the beach, walked to nearby restaurants and shops and relaxed thoroughly. The sunsets here were spectacular and many evenings we would find ourselves just gazing out the window at the fading sun and lights from the cars and stores below. This is a place I could definitely see myself returning to. The people here are friendly, traffic isn’t bad, and there are plenty of shops and restaurants and other things to do in the area.
Alas, our time in Viña del Mar was coming to a close, and we packed up and headed off to the next part of our adventure in Chile- to a more remote section called Las Cabras in the O’Higgins Region. This would prove to be the most challenging portion of our vacation yet but we had no idea of that at the time!