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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Busch Gardens Williamsburg- “World’s Most Beautiful Theme Park”

I’ve been to Busch Gardens amusement park in Williamsburg, Virginia several times over the years and Busch Gardens in Tampa, Florida once. Obviously I’m a big fan of Busch Gardens, but the claim of “World’s Most Beautiful Theme Park” is the park’s, not mine. By no means have I visited enough theme parks around the world to say it’s the most beautiful in the world, but I can say it is beautiful and I love visiting there. I even wrote a post last year 5 reasons Busch Gardens Williamsburg has something for everyone if you want to check that out.

Last year, we only had one full day to spend at Busch Gardens and quite frankly, it wasn’t enough. We felt rushed to cram everything we could into one day and it wasn’t nearly as enjoyable as it could have been. This year, we decided to spend four nights in Williamsburg and divide our time between Colonial Williamsburg and Busch Gardens and that amount of time for both places was perfect. We had the Spring Bounce ticket but there’s also a Summer Bounce ticket and other multi-park tickets.

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Griffon roller coaster- you dangle at the top of the hill for a few seconds before the big drop. Wait for it!

The park is divided into sections with different country names:  England, Scotland, Ireland, France, New France, Germany, Italy, in addition to Oktoberfest and Festa Italia. Each country section has flags overhead and decorations that you would expect to see in that particular country. The entire park  is beautifully landscaped and well-laid out so that it’s pretty easy to figure your way around. There are also numerous shaded areas to help cool you off on a hot day.

So what’s so special about Busch Gardens Williamsburg you ask? I think it goes beyond the landscaping and decorations. The people working here are super-friendly and helpful from the tram drivers to the restaurant workers to the people checking that you’re properly buckled in at the rides. Also, the performers at the shows are extremely talented and excellent entertainers. But I think it goes beyond all that. We are talking about an amusement park after all.

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This kids’ area is awesome with the climbing structures and it’s pretty cute too!

The rides are pretty spectacular in my opinion. If you’re a roller coaster fan, there are some great ones here ranging from the wooden roller coaster Invadr to Tempesto with inversions 154 feet in the air to Verbolten that lulls you into thinking it’s much calmer than it really is and has some surprises in store for you to the classic Loch Ness Monster that opened in 1978 and is full of loops, twists, and turns. In all, there are seven roller coasters. My daughter, who has a tougher stomach than I do and will ride any and all roller coasters (she’s 12 by the way), says her favorite roller coasters are Verbolten, Tempesto, Alpengeist with a climb of 195 feet and six inversions at speeds up to 67 miles per hour, and Griffon that has a 205-foot drop 90 degrees straight down at 75 miles per hour.

There are also three water rides, a carousel, a train with stops in Scotland, New France and Festa Italia, a river cruise, skyride that goes over the park, bumper cars, teacups, battering ram, Da Vinci’s Cradle, swings, a drop tower, and an extensive kids area. The newest attraction is Battle for Eire virtual reality ride. Surprisingly, my daughter, the roller coaster queen, rode all of the roller coasters multiple times and felt a little queasy at times but nothing a little walking around didn’t take care of, but after she rode Battle for Eire, she was much sicker than after any of the other rides, so this one may not be for the weak-stomached (I chose to skip this one because I know from experience VR rides make me sick).

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One of the beautiful wolves from Howl to Coexist

Finally, the shows at Busch Gardens Williamsburg have always exceeded my expectations. This time we watched Howl to Coexist, a presentation with the Busch Gardens’ wolves, barn owl, rats and a Harris’s hawk. The Howl to Coexist trainers were able to be educational in an entertaining way, and I really enjoyed the show. We also watched Celtic Fyre, a live Irish dance show. The singers, dancers, and musicians were all phenomenal and could have easily performed on Broadway. The theater for Celtic Fyre is air-conditioned, so it’s a great way to escape from the heat for a bit on a hot day.

I’ve also seen the shows Mix it Up!, Oktoberzest, and More…Pet Shenanigans over the years and have thoroughly enjoyed them all. There is also a British rock show in England, Britmania, but it wasn’t open when I was there. Finally, there are two shows geared towards young children that I have not seen or maybe I did when I was younger but I don’t remember them. One great thing about the shows is they give your stomach a bit of a break from all of the jarring from the rides and it’s a good way to give your feet a break from all of the walking as well.

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Entering Ireland. There are bridges with trees everywhere like this in the park.

Tips for Busch Gardens Williamsburg:

  1. Plan on spending more than one day at the park and buy a multi-day pass. Two full days at Busch Gardens would be sufficient, but three days is even better so you won’t feel so rushed.
  2. Look for deals on tickets. Beyond the website, check with local credit unions or your work place for discounts.
  3. The crowds will be smaller if you come before Memorial Day or after Labor Day or during the week if you can only come during the summer.
  4. Arrive at the park as soon as they open. Not only are crowds smaller, it’s also the coolest time of the day.
  5. Realize it will be hot at Busch Gardens during the summer months. In this part of Virginia it’s quite hot and humid during the summer. Bring sunscreen. Water bottles are allowed in the park but they’re supposed to only be filled with water.
  6. Backpacks are allowed in the park but not allowed on just about every single ride. Either have someone not riding that can watch your bag or rent a locker. You can rent by the hour or for the day.
  7. Wear comfortable shoes because you’ll be doing a lot of walking. Leave the flip-flops at home.
  8. You can rent strollers at the park and there’s even a kennel for your dog.
  9. If you want to save money, bring a cooler with lunch items. Although you can’t bring the cooler into the park, there are picnic tables in some of the parking lots. We also saw a big group of people tailgating with food from a catering company in one area of a parking lot.
  10. Check park hours before you buy your tickets and check the weather before you go.

The website for Busch Gardens Williamsburg can be found here.

Have any of you been to Busch Gardens Williamsburg? If so, what do you think of it?What are some of your favorite theme or amusement parks?

Happy travels!

Donna

 

 

 

5 reasons Busch Gardens Williamsburg has something for everyone

When I was a kid, my brother rode the Big Bad Wolf and Loch Ness Monster while I just watched, too scared to go with him. We were at Busch Gardens Williamsburg, Virginia but at this point in my life, I was too scared to ride roller coasters.  A few years after that, I discovered the adrenaline rush from riding roller coasters.  Recently, I wanted to go back as an adult to ride the coasters and let my daughter who had never been there experience the amusement park.  Unfortunately Big Bad Wolf, a suspended roller coaster that was in service since 1984 was closed permanently in 2009.  I love suspended coasters so I missed the boat on that one, but there are plenty of other roller coasters at BGW, which brings me to reason number 1 why Busch Gardens Williamsburg has something for everyone:  there are some great roller coasters here.

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Griffon Roller Coaster

Busch Gardens’ newest coaster Tempesto is a launch coaster with speeds up to 63 mph and a complete inversion 154 feet in the air.  Alpengeist is an inversion roller coaster that climbs to 195 feet and riders are hurtled through six inversions at speeds up to 67 mph.  Apollo’s Chariot has a drop of 210 feet and reaches a maximum speed of 73 mph.  Griffon has a 205-foot, 90-degree, 75 mph free fall.  Verboten® is a somewhat tamer roller coaster than the previously mentioned ones.  It is an indoor/outdoor ride with an 88-foot plunge toward the river.  A long-time favorite of the Busch Gardens coasters is Loch Ness Monster®.  This coaster has two loops and stretches 13 stories tall before racing down a 114-foot drop, with speeds as fast as 60 miles per hour.  Loch Ness is what I think of when I think of Busch Gardens Williamsburg.  The fact that is has been in operation since 1978 shows why it’s one of the most popular rides in the park.  It is a classic.

Reason number 2:  Busch Gardens Williamsburg is a beautiful amusement park.  It is divided into sections with different European countries as themes.  These sections are Germany and Octoberfest, France and New France, Ireland, Scotland, England, Italy, and Festa Italia, and  Jack Hanna’s Wild Reserve.  Each section has corresponding scenery, rides, attractions, and restaurants.  It is nice to just walk around the park and take in all of the details and the scenery.  If you don’t like riding amusement park rides, you can easily fill your day with shopping, dining, sightseeing, and people-watching.

When you need a break from riding rides, you can always take in a show, which is reason number 3:  the shows are good with high-quality actors, singers, and dancers.  There are 8 family-friendly shows spread out all throughout the day so watching at least one or two shouldn’t be too difficult for most people.  All For One™ premiered July 1 and is about the Musketeers.  Mix it Up! includes a team of chef musicians in Italy’s il Teatro di San Marco.  Celtic Fyre is a popular show featuring Irish song and dance.  London Rocks™ is a musical journey that explores the roots of rock-n-roll and in a 25-minute live action and multi-media rock show.  Roll Out The Barrel includes live musicians, singers and dancers, and incorporates some acrobatics in this musical about a contest in a German village.  Sunny Days Celebration is a sing- and dance-along for younger children and their families featuring  Elmo, Abby Cadabby, Grover, Cookie Monster and Zoe.  I really wanted to see The Secret Life of Predators but there just wasn’t enough time.  This is a live-animal show featuring some of North America’s top predators.  One of my favorite shows is More…Pet Shenanigans.  I love the fact that the animal trainers at the park wanted to incorporate rescued and shelter animals in a show.  The park also supports animal shelters with a program called Happy Tails in which they offer two free single-day tickets to the park to those who adopt a dog or cat from participating shelters.

BGW also offers several special events throughout the year, which is reason number 4: there are five festivals or special events throughout the year.  The Food & Wine Festival is late May through late June.  For the weekend of July 4th, there is the Fireworks Spectacular.  Similar to Octoberfest is the Beer Festival, Bier Fest in September.  The month leading up to Halloween includes Howl-O-Scream.  During the holiday season beginning around Thanksgiving there is Christmas Town.

Often we think of amusement parks as a place to go for fast roller coasters and other rides, but Busch Gardens Williamsburg has many rides, shows, and attractions for younger children, making this park truly family-friendly, my reason number 5.  They call it “KIDsiderate” and while they offer play areas like Land of the Dragons® and the Sesame Street® Forest of Fun™ there are also an abundance of strollers, changing tables, nursing rooms, and of course kid-friendly food offerings.  BGW also takes safety seriously and offer height-check stations to make sure your child is tall enough to ride certain rides.

Although I didn’t even mention any of the other rides, there are many that are a lot of fun and definitely worth checking out!  Some of my family’s favorites include Escape from Pompeii, Le Scoot, Roman Rapids, and Aeronaut Skyride.  Although I’ve never done it, the Rhine River Cruise looks like fun.  Hmmmm, maybe next time!

Logistics:  check the website for up-to-date pricing but generally, a one-day ticket for an adult costs $80 online and $70 for children ages 3-9.  Buying tickets online generally saves you money and time (you don’t have to wait in line to buy tickets when you arrive at the park).  You can also add animal tours, dining plans, and wine tastings online for additional fees.

GPS Driving Directions

Busch Gardens
One Busch Gardens Blvd.
Williamsburg, VA 23185

Busch Gardens is located in Williamsburg, VA at Exit 243A on I-64. Alternative local routes include US Route 60, and State Routes 143 and 199. Major nearby cities include Virginia Beach (55 miles), Richmond (55 miles) and Washington, DC (150 miles).
Flying? Three airports are situated within a 45-minute drive of Busch Gardens.

ORF – Norfolk International Airport
RIC – Richmond International Airport
PHF – Newport News-Williamsburg International Airport

Taking a train?
The Williamsburg Amtrak Train Station is just 10 minutes from Busch Gardens. For more information about routes and schedules, visit Amtrak’s website.