Travel Ideas for Animal-Loving Families

My family and I are huge animal-lovers. We have two rescue dogs that only travel with us on road trips (see my post Tips for Traveling with Dogs) so we love interacting with animals of all types when we travel to fill that void of missing our dogs. Over the years we’ve had many different encounters with animals. When our daughter was very young we would sometimes visit zoos when we traveled but that seemed to get less and less. Now we prefer to visit places that are rescue centers or see animals in their natural habitat when possible.

Our interactions with animals during our travels have run the gamut, with some places more positive experiences than others. My list of top places includes mostly dogs, exotic birds, bears, moose, butterflies, sting rays, and iguanas. I’d like to share some of the places that stand out more than others here.

When I was planning our trip to Utah, a co-worker who has been to Utah a few times recommended a place called Best Friends Animal Sanctuary. I looked it up and it did indeed look like a place my family and I would be interested in visiting. Not only did we visit there, but we had lunch upon arrival, stayed in one of the cottages on-site, toured the facilities with a guide, volunteered with some puppies (PUPPIES!), and even got to have a sleepover with one of the puppies in our cottage. It was even better than I could have imagined. I highly recommend staying here if you’re in southern Utah. You can read my full post on Best Friends here:  Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, “Save Them All!”.

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Walking a puppy at Best Friends Animal Sanctuary

San Diego, California is one of my favorite places in the world. Not only is it beautiful but it’s absolutely full of things to do. When we were there a few years ago, we stopped to visit a bird rescue just outside San Diego called Free Flight Exotic Bird Sanctuary. This is a place my daughter and I still talk about because it was such a unique experience for us. We had been to animal shows before where birds perform silly tricks and such, but we’d never been allowed to touch and interact with exotic birds before. One of our most memorable interactions here was with a bird called “Peanut,” who serenaded us and made us laugh. You can read my blog post on Free Flight Exotic Bird Sanctuary here:  Off-the-Beaten Path Things to Do in Del Mar, California.

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Some of the birds from Free Flight Exotic Bird Sanctuary

Many people visit Alaska to see bears, moose, puffins, and many other animals. When we visited Alaska, we definitely saw our share of many different types of animals. One of my favorite places to see animals was at Denali National Park. We went on a bus tour (an on-and-off bus where you could get off and hike then catch another bus to get back out of the park) one day and saw tons of bears, many different kinds of birds, caribou, and dall sheep. You can read about Denali National Park here:  Denali National Park in Alaska. Another animal encounter we had while in Alaska that turned out to be my daughter’s absolute favorite is when we went to Seavey’s Sled-Dogs in Seward, Alaska. What’s not to love about getting to hold adorable Alaskan Husky puppies? Going on a sled-ride pulled by some eager dogs around the grounds was a ton of fun as well!

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One of the puppies from Seavey’s Sled Dogs

Ostriches and butterflies probably aren’t the first things you think of when you think of Aruba. Many people visit Aruba for the powdery white sandy beaches and while they certainly didn’t disappoint, we also discovered a couple of places for animal-lovers. Simply known as The Butterfly Farm, this is one of my favorite butterfly farms I’ve been to anywhere. There are hundreds of butterflies here from around the world as well as caterpillars. A guided tour is included in the entrance fee, and the guide will show you how to safely handle butterflies when they inevitably land on you. We also visited the Aruba Ostrich Farm and loved it here. In addition to the tour of the ostriches (which you can feed and even go on a short but wild ride if you’re little and lucky enough like our young daughter was), you can eat lunch here, and view their African art pieces. There’s also a souvenir art shop full of local art work.

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My daughter feeding ostriches at the Aruba Ostrich Farm

Charleston, South Carolina is another one of my favorite places to visit, and I’ve been there many times over the years. On a recent visit, I discovered The Center for Birds of Prey, which is just outside Charleston in a city called Awendaw. Here, we took a guided tour and saw many different types of birds, watched a flight demonstration, and saw newly-hatched baby owls. Many people think of historical sites, gourmet food, and beaches when they think of Charleston, but The Center for Birds of Prey is also a great place to visit if you’re in the area and are an animal-lover.

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One of the beautiful birds at the Center for Birds of Prey

The next place I’m going to mention is definitely touristy, but a lot of fun nonetheless. As they say, some things are popular for a reason. When we were recently in Grand Cayman Island in the Caribbean, we went snorkeling with a tour group that took us to Stingray City. Here, we were able to touch these gorgeous creatures as they glided past us on the shallow sandbar. Our guides offered to let people hold or even kiss a sting ray (it was said to bring you good luck), but I was content to just gently touch them as they swam past me. We also thoroughly enjoyed seeing the endangered Blue Cayman Iguana on our guided tour of Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park. While you can’t touch the iguanas on the tour (they bite), you get to see them up-close on the behind the scenes tour of the breeding and recovery program. You can read my blog post on stingrays (and more) here:  Grand Cayman Island- Beautiful Beaches, Bioluminescent Water, Stingrays, and More and my post on the botanical garden (and more) here:  Exploring Grand Cayman Island on Foot-Crystal Caves, Botanical Gardens, Hiking a Trail, a Historical Site, and Hell.

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A Cayman Blue Iguana at Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park in Grand Cayman Island

The final place on my list where my family and I interacted with animals is Hawaii. Over the years, I’ve been fortunate enough to visit the islands of Oahu, Maui, Kauai, and Hawaii (a.k.a. The Big Island) multiple times and I’ve seen many different kinds of animals like huge turtles both in the water and on beaches on the Big Island, peacocks in Kauai, and whales off the coast of Maui. However, one of my favorite animal experiences was when we visited the Kauai Humane Society and took one of the shelter dogs on a field trip. At the Kauai Humane Society, you get to choose a dog from their best-behaved dogs and take them for a walk or wherever else you’d like for the day after paying a donation and getting some items for the day. The dog we chose, Priscilla, was extremely well-behaved in the car and on her leash. Taking Priscilla on a field trip that day was one of the highlights of my vacation in Hawaii and given all of the amazing things we saw and did in Hawaii, that’s really saying something! You can read about my vacation in Kauai here:  Rediscovering Kauai, Hawaii and Some of My Favorite Things.

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Sweet little Priscilla from the Kauai Humane Society

Are you an animal-lover? Do you try to incorporate visits to animal rescue centers or otherwise interact with animals when you go on vacation? What are some of your favorite places to visit animals?

Happy travels!

Donna

 

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Beach Photos From Around the World

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.

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I even got married at the beach! St. Kitts in the Caribbean to be exact
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Agaete at dusk in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria
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Sunset Cliffs in San Diego, California, one of my favorite places in the world
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Don’t you just love her enthusiasm? Taken in Naples, Florida
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Nearly deserted black sandy beach at Mount Maunganui in New Zealand
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Coronado Beach in the San Diego, California area during the winter
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Crete, Greece- the water was so clear and beautiful
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Black sand rocky beach in Tenerife, Spain just before a storm blew in
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One of my favorite beaches in Malta
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Black sand, rocky beach in Hawaii
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Powdery soft white sand dune in Charleston, South Carolina
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Quintessential Aruba photo
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World-famous Seven Mile Beach in Grand Cayman Island with the softest sand I’ve ever felt

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?

Happy travels!

Donna

 

5 of my Favorite National Parks in the United States

Of the current 60 national parks in the United States, I’ve been to 20 of them over the years. In 2017, there were a record 84 million visitors to national parks, with the majority of visitors going to Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee and North Carolina. 28 states plus the United States Virgin Islands and the American Samoa Territory have national parks, and California has the most, with 9 parks, just edging out Alaska’s 8 national parks.

Honestly, one of my favorite national parks isn’t the most-visited Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It’s my opinion that this park is the most visited simply because of its geography, which isn’t to say it’s not a nice park. The fact is it’s fairly easy for many people on the east coast and parts of the midwest to get to this park in Tennessee and North Carolina.

So what are some of my favorite national parks in the United States? I’ll limit it to my top five here in no certain order and explain why I love them so much, along with some descriptions of each park. The website for all of the US national parks is here.

  1.  Yosemite National Park is in the central Sierra Nevada of California. Some of the most famous features include granite formations like El Capitan and Half Dome, waterfalls such as Yosemite Falls and Bridalveil Fall, and giant sequoia trees.There are a ton of options for things to do in the park including bike rentals, mule and horseback riding, photography and art classes, stargazing programs, tours, rafting, and rock climbing classes. There are over 800 miles of trails so you can take short walks as well as longer hikes to waterfalls in Yosemite Valley, or walks among giant sequoias in the Mariposa, Tuolumne, or Merced Groves. There is a free shuttle bus system but if you prefer to drive, most locations with Yosemite Valley are easily accessible by car. Just know that during the busy summer months, the park gets extremely crowded and finding parking can be difficult. Another option is to take a tour bus to Glacier Point in the summer and fall to see views of Yosemite Valley and the high country. I personally love Yosemite National Park most because of the giant sequoias but I also love the waterfalls and the rock formations.
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One of many waterfalls at Yosemite National Park
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Half Dome at Yosemite National Park

2. Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is on the island of Hawaii and is one of the more unique national parks. Where else can you walk through an enormous lava tube? There are several day hikes, backcountry hikes, and ranger-led hikes as well as scenic drives. If you want to stay inside the park, your only option is Volcano House, which also operates Nāmakanipaio Campground, or there are several vacation rentals and bed and breakfasts in Volcano Village just outside the park. This park was recently closed from May 11, 2018 to September 22, 2018 due to volcanic activity that damaged roads, trails, waterlines, and buildings in the park. Some places are still partially opened, so if you’re going there in the near future, check the website first for closings.

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Deep inside a lava tube in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
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The flora and fauna at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park are so beautiful

3.  Bryce Canyon National Park is in southwestern Utah and its claim to fame is it has the largest collection of hoodoos (irregular rock columns) anywhere on Earth. There are a range of easy, moderate, and strenuous trails to hike with many of the shorter trails connected making it easy to combine trails. Ranger programs include geology talks, astronomy programs, full moon hikes and other hikes, and kids programs. During the summer horseback rides are available. You can camp in Bryce Canyon National Park, stay at Bryce Canyon Lodge or find lodging at one of the nearby cities. We visited this park during the winter and the only way to describe that experience is “magical.” It may sound cheesy but this isn’t a term I use often to describe places I visit. The sky was overcast when we got there and it snowed lightly off and on the entire day, blanketing the hoodoos in snow. There weren’t many other visitors there so it was quiet and so utterly peaceful. Normally I can’t stand cold weather and snow but hiking in Bryce Canyon National Park with the snow falling is one of my favorite memories of all time. You can find my post on Bryce Canyon National Park here.

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Snow blanketing Bryce Canyon National Park
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Some of the many hoodoos in Bryce Canyon National Park

4.  Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona has to be one of the best-known national parks. Even if people haven’t been here, many people have at least heard of it and know that it’s famous for its namesake canyon. The canyon running through Grand Canyon National Park is 277 river miles (446km) long, up to 18 miles (29km) wide, and a mile (1.6km) deep. Grand Canyon has two basic sections, the North Rim and South Rim. The South Rim is the most commonly visited of the two, and is open year-round. The North Rim closes for the winter months. Not surprisingly, the South Rim gets extremely crowded, even in the cooler months, and you need to make reservations for lodging in the park several months in advance. There are several lodges in the South Rim but only one lodge in the North Rim. You can also stay at the bottom of the canyon at Phantom Ranch, but reservations must be made via an online lottery 15 months in advance. There are trails, scenic drives, ranger programs as usual, but you can also take a mule trip or a river trip for something different. You can find my post on Grand Canyon National Park here.

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Wildlife in Grand Canyon National Park
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Grand Canyon National Park

5. Denali National Park in Alaska is special to me because of the wildlife and how the park manages to keep large parts of the park wild, meaning there are no trails in these areas and cars can’t drive on the road past a certain point. We took a transit bus that took us four hours into the park, then we hiked a couple of trails and took a return transit bus another four hours back out of the park, but there are options for shorter or longer bus rides or options if you don’t want to hike at all. The bus driver gave a great deal of history and information about the park and pulled over when anyone spotted animals so we could quietly observe them. Along the way, we saw grizzly bears, caribou, eagles and other birds, dall sheep, and marmots. There is camping available in the park but we chose to stay just outside the park entrance. Another unique feature of this park is the employment of sled dogs. Denali National Park is the only national park in the United States that has working sled dogs. You can watch them happily pulling a cart during the warmer months during a Ranger demonstration. During the winter, the dogs patrol the park with Rangers on sleds. You can find my post on Denali National Park here.

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One of the views from a hike in Denali National Park
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A brown bear (grizzly) and one of her cubs at Denali National Park

I realize I may have left off some of what may be other people’s favorite national parks, but as I said, I haven’t been to all of them, just about a third, although my plan is to visit more over the next several years. Which national park(s) is/are some of your favorites and what makes them special? Which national park that you haven’t been to yet are you dying to go to?

Happy travels!

Donna

 

 

 

Itinerary Ideas for First-Timers to the United States- West Coast

This is part three of my compilation of itineraries for first-timers coming to the United States. You can find part one here, Itinerary Ideas for First-Timers to the United States- East Coast and part two here, Itinerary Ideas for First-Timers to the United States- Midwest. As a bit of background, I consider myself a pretty well-traveled American who has been to all but 8 of the states in the US, in addition to travel outside the US.

I have to add that I absolutely love the west coast in general, which includes California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Nevada, Hawaii, and Alaska. I should also say that this is probably one of the more difficult itineraries of the east coast, midwest, and west coast itineraries to put together, just because the choices of amazing places to go to are over the top, but I’ll try my best to not list a crazy number of places.

1) For the city-lover and partier:  Start in Los Angeles, California where you can spend a few days taking in the sun and sight-seeing. Los Angeles is filled with museums, amusement parks, tours, and cultural centers like Getty Center, LACMA and Walt Disney Hall. There’s also the Space Shuttle Endeavour and Dinosaur Hall. You can also take a touristy Hollywood tour if you want to get a glimpse of some homes of the rich and famous and see the Hollywood Walk of Fame (I won’t input my own opinion here but leave it at that).

Your next stop will be Las Vegas, Nevada, a place where I feel like everyone should go just for the experience. Las Vegas is like no other place in the United States and even if you’re not a gambler, it’s entertaining just to take in all of the sights. You can take a shuttle from Los Angeles for about $100 and roughly 6 hours of your time, you can fly in about 3 hours 20 minutes, or you can drive in about 4 1/2 hours. For me, a couple of nights in Las Vegas is plenty but if you’re into gambling, partying, and/or going to the myriad of shows, you might want to stay longer.

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Las Vegas at night

You could also go to one of my favorite places in the United States, San Diego, California. From Los Angeles, you can drive in about 2 hours or take a bus in about the same time if you don’t drive or can’t rent a car. San Diego is full of so many things to do you could spend a month here and not run out of things to do, but I recommend spending at least 5 or 6 days if possible. You could even skip Los Angeles entirely and fly directly into San Diego instead, but it seems like a lot of people have L.A. on their bucket list, and if so, check it off by all means but don’t miss San Diego and Las Vegas.

2) For a desert experience, first choice:  Arizona. Fly into Phoenix, Arizona and hang out in this fun city for a couple of days before heading to Sedona, Arizona. You can take a shuttle or bus which will take about 3 hours or drive to Sedona in about 2 hours. I recommend renting a car if at all possible, because it will allow you to add on more sights, like Flagstaff, Arizona, which is about 50 minutes from Sedona by car. You can spend a day in Flagstaff or just stop along the way if you’d rather drive on through to the Grand Canyon National Park, which is about 1 1/2 hours from Flagstaff. The first time I went to the Grand Canyon, I only allotted one night with two days here and it wasn’t nearly enough. The next time I went, I allotted two nights with three full days and it was better but three nights would have been about perfect for my family.

Desert experience, with national parks:  Utah/Arizona/Nevada. By no means am I ranking Utah behind Arizona here; I’m just listing choices. They are both amazing places and both highly recommended, with neither place being more recommended than the other. For Utah, you have some options. You can do like I did last year and fly into Las Vegas (Nevada) then drive to southern Utah to explore that area starting in Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon National Park, Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, Antelope Canyon (Arizona), Glen Canyon National Recreational Area (Arizona), Grand Canyon National Park (Arizona), and back to Las Vegas to fly back home. It’s a nice loop where you get to see a variety of national parks but you’re not spending your whole time on the road. I’d love to go back to Utah to explore some of the parks I didn’t get to see like Arches, Canyonlands, and Capitol Reef National Parks. For that trip, I’d fly into Salt Lake City airport and drive from there.

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Antelope Canyon was even better than I expected

3) To see mountains, first choice:  Colorado. Fly into Denver and spend a day or two here before going to one of the ski areas, like Vail, Breckenridge, or Aspen. The first two places are a bit closer to Denver but Aspen can be reached by car in about 4 hours or 5 hours by shuttle. If you’re coming here to ski during the winter you should probably just take the shuttle so you don’t have to worry about driving on snowy or icy roads unless you’re used to those conditions. Colorado is also beautiful during the summer months as well, though, and I actually prefer going there during the warmer months to go hiking since I don’t ski (I have been during the winter a couple of times, though and it is beautiful). Another area I love in Colorado is Boulder, which is only about 45 minutes by car or shuttle from Denver. You can take a day trip to Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park from Boulder or spend a couple of days at Rocky Mountain National Park. Ft. Collins would be another fun day trip from Boulder, which is about an hour from Boulder. I haven’t had the opportunity to explore the southern parts of Colorado but I hear Colorado Springs is a great place, as well as Great Sand Dunes National Park.

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Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado

Mountains, second choice:  Montana and Wyoming. Fly into Bozeman, Montana if you want to explore the southern part of the state. If you’re headed to Yellowstone National Park, it’s about a 2 hour drive from Bozeman Airport and a bit further south to Grand Teton National Park. If you want to explore the northern part of Montana, fly into Missoula and spend a day or two here. It’s about an hour drive to Seely Lake from Missoula and another hour and 20 minutes to Flathead Lake. From Flathead Lake, it’s about another hour north to Glacier National Park. If you want to go further north into Canada, I highly recommend driving another 4 1/2 hours to reach Banff. This area is filled with natural beauty such as Banff National Park, Kootenay National Park, Yoho National Park, just to name a few places.

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Glacier National Park in Montana

4) San Francisco, wine country, and nature:  fly into San Francisco, California and spend 2-3 days here. San Francisco is one of my favorite cities in California and it’s filled with fun things to do, from the touristy Fisherman’s Wharf to tours around Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz. You can also take day trips to Yosemite National Park, Muir Woods National Monument, Redwood National Park, and Sausalito.

Napa Valley is only about an hour’s drive from San Francisco. You can either drive here yourself and spend a couple of nights or take one of many shuttles from San Francisco. There are also numerous wine tours in Napa Valley; follow this link for detailed information. You can also tour the Sonoma County including Santa Rosa, the largest city in the county. No matter what you choose, I recommend one of the tours rather than driving yourself so you can actually taste some wine and not have to worry about drinking and driving.

5) Alaska– although I’ve not yet been to Alaska, I’m going next month! I’m not going the ever-popular cruise route but rather am doing my own itinerary, starting in Anchorage and going to some national parks and making a loop around that part of Alaska. The state of Alaska is enormous, though, so I do see the draw behind cruises in that you could see several parts of the state in one week. I’ll have some posts on Alaska in the upcoming months.

6) Hawaii- you really can’t go wrong with Hawaii as far as choosing which island(s) to visit nor what time of year you go because the weather is great year-round and of the islands I’ve been to both times I’ve been to Hawaii, they’ve all been absolutely stunning. So far, I’ve been to ‘the big island’, which is called Hawaii, Maui, and Kauai. I hope to go back in the next year but we’ll see! If you can manage to go to a couple of islands spread out over a couple of weeks, that’s ideal but don’t try to cram in two or more islands in only a week.

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All of the Hawaiian islands are beautiful!

There’s also Oregon and Washington that both have a ton of beautiful places, but I think I should end here otherwise this post will be entirely too long! As I said earlier, I love the west coast!

Those are my top west-coast destinations for first-timers to the United States. What places have I missed? Any others that you would recommend?

Happy travels!

Donna

 

 

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?

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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Knott’s Berry Farm, an Amusement Park in California

On a recent vacation to San Diego, we decided to include an amusement park in our plans. In the greater Los Angeles area, about a one and a half to three hour drive from San Diego are the following amusement parks:  Universal Studios Hollywood, Pacific Park, Disney California Adventure Park,  Knott’s Berry Farm, Six Flags Magic Mountain, Adventure City, and Disneyland. There’s also LEGOLAND California in Carlsbad and SeaWorld in San Diego. With so many to choose from, how do you choose just one?

It really depends what you’re interested in. My daughter is a huge roller coaster fan so I was looking primarily at roller coasters in making my decision. It was a tough decision between Knott’s Berry Farm and Six Flags Magic Mountain. Knott’s Berry Farm is only about an hour and a half from San Diego but Six Flags Magic Mountain is about 3 hours from San Diego, so I chose Knott’s Berry Farm largely on proximity. However, Knott’s Berry Farm has eight “aggressive thrill” rides, so I knew it would be a good choice for our family.

Roller Coasters

There are ten roller coasters at Knott’s Berry Farm, six of which are rated “5, Aggressive Thrill,” with 5 being the highest and the other four are rated “4, High Thrill.”  To me, one of the most crazy was Montezooma’s Revenge, which goes from from 0 to 55 mph in just 3 seconds, travels through a giant, seven-story loop — once forward, then again backwards.

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Montezooma’s Revenge
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Sierra Sidewinder takes you backwards up the first hill

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Xcelerator’s top speed is 82 mph, which you hit in only 2.3 seconds!

Experiences

There are many different kinds of things to do including Pan For Gold, the Blacksmith Shop, the Old Schoolhouse, Snoopy/Peanuts Gang Meet & Greet, Western Trails Museum and more. Plus, there are several live entertainment shows throughout the day including Camp Snoopy Theater and Frontier Feats of Wonder! Stunt Show.  I personally love the Snoopy/Peanuts theme throughout the park. Some other aspects of the park reminded me a little of Silver Dollar City, an amusement with a “wild west” kind of feel in Branson, Missouri.

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I love the Snoopy theme at the park!
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Stagecoach ride anyone?  You don’t see these at most amusement parks!

Thrill Rides

If roller coasters aren’t enough for you thrill junkies, there are two more rides that are considered “aggressive thrill rides.” Supreme Scream rockets riders straight up to a record-breaking 252 feet in midair, before blasting them straight down in three seconds at gravity-defying speeds topping 50 mph and after experiencing three seconds of total weightlessness. You bounce halfway back up the ride’s structure before returning to the launch pad. La Revolucion swings you 64 feet in the air (over 6 stories high) to 120 degrees in both directions, while spinning you continuously at up to 9 RPMs. Between the inward-facing inverted seating and the combination of the swinging arm and rotating gondola only people with iron stomachs can ride this one!

Children’s Area

The Children’s Area is a generous 6-acres full of more than 30 rides and attractions. One of my favorites is Woodstock’s Airmail, a child-sized version of the park’s Supreme Scream (mentioned in previous paragraph).  Obviously, Woodstock’s Airmail is much tamer than Supreme Scream, and it’s cute to watch.

Other Rides

Voyage to the Iron Reef is a 4-D interactive ride where you shoot at creatures with your “freeze ray” and it’s a fun ride for the whole family. There are also two water rides, Timber Mountain Log Ride and Bigfoot Rapids, a whitewater river raft ride.  Also a family-friendly ride, Calico Railroad departs daily from Ghost Town Station for a round-trip tour of the park.

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The Christmas decorations were nice and not overly done.

With all of these options, it’s hard to fit everything you want to see and do in one day.  We arrived at the park shortly after they opened and stayed until they closed and still didn’t do many things.  I was surprised at just how much there is at this park.  You could easily stretch it out to two days and not be so rushed and you would definitely be able to see and do everything that way. We only had one day and had to prioritize what we wanted to do.

Bottom line, would I recommend going here?  Absolutely.

Admission Tip:  buy your ticket online 3 or more days in advance online and save $31 per ticket off the front gate price of $75.  Adult tickets are $44 if purchased three or more days in advance and $49 if purchased 2 or less days in advance online.  Single day tickets for children ages 3-11 or adults 62 or older are $42 if purchased online, saving you $3 over the gate price.

Knott’s Berry Farm