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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Some of My Favorite Dog-Friendly Restaurants in Williamsburg, Virginia

I don’t really think of myself as a foodie but I can appreciate a good meal. One of the reasons I love visiting Charleston, South Carolina so much is the staggering number of excellent restaurants in the area. I don’t know if I’ve ever truly had a bad meal there in all of my many years of visiting Charleston. Charleston is well-known as a foodie town. I’ve also visited Williamsburg, Virginia many times but for some reason I didn’t really think of the area as a foodie place, that is until I recently went there.

My family and I visited Williamsburg in May and spent four nights there. Over the span of that time, pretty much every meal was outstanding. We had brought our two dogs with us and wanted to get them out of the hotel room as much as possible, so we were limited to dog-friendly restaurants with outdoor seating areas. Still, for each and every meal, we walked away feeling like it was one of the best meals we’d had in a while.

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Libby and Chile with my daughter before we went to Virginia

Here are some of my recommendations for restaurants in Williamsburg, Virginia, all of which are dog-friendly:

  1. Aromas Specialty Coffee & Gourmet Bakery. Aromas actually has three locations in Virginia:  Williamsburg, Newport News, and Swem Library. This wasn’t our first time eating at Aromas; last year we went there and the food was just as good as this time. We’ve been for breakfast, brunch, and lunch and each time the food was excellent. This time I had a chicken salad sandwich on a freshly baked croissant, my husband had a huge and very filling Cobb salad, and our daughter had a peanut butter and banana sandwich on a bagel; we all throughly enjoyed our meals. They have tables outside in the front where you can sit with your dog, or just sit outside if the weather is nice. Many people sit outside to enjoy a cup of coffee or a baked good and people watch. Aromas serves breakfast, brunch, lunch, and dinner and has a kids’ menu and even fondue and nachos in the evening.
  2. The Hounds Tale. Only open for dinner. My daughter said they should have named it The Hounds Tail (get it?). My husband and I both got the Wagyu Beef burger and it was delicious, as were the fries, which were perfectly cooked and seasoned. Our daughter got the house-made cavatelli pasta, which was also very good. The server brought us out popcorn in a dog bowl before our meals came, which our pups also enjoyed with the inevitable pieces that fell to the ground. There are only a few pub-style tables in the front the restaurant, so if you’re going to eat outside, you may want to come early to beat the crowds, especially during the busier times of year.
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The Hounds Tale
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Burger from Hound’s Tale

3. Berret’s Seafood Restaurant and Taphouse Grill. Open for lunch and dinner. Actually two separate places, we ate at the outdoor Taphouse Grill, which is open April through October. The Taphouse Grill is more casual than the historic Berret’s Seafood Restaurant across Duke of Gloucester Street. The menu features seafood, chicken and beef, highlighting Virginia specialties such as oysters, crab, and fresh produce. I had the crab cakes and they were just as good as ones I’ve had in Charleston, which is saying something. Live music is featured Tuesday through Sunday (weather permitting). Every Thursday is Flight Night. A different brewery, winery, distillery or cidery is featured each Thursday with 4 unique selections. The service was top-notch and our server even brought out a water bowl full of fresh water for our dogs.

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Crab cakes, polenta, and asparagus from Taphouse Grill

4. The Cheese Shop.Way more than just cheese, The Cheese Shop has made-to-order sandwiches, packaged sides (my husband had pickled brussels sprouts but there was also potato salad, macaroni salad, and a few others), potato chips, sodas and beer, a plethora of cheeses as you would expect, and even a wine shop in the cellar. This is one cool place. I loved just walking around looking at all of the unique foods for sale in the store and if I would have had more time, I would have liked to check out the wine downstairs. There are many tables with umbrellas in a shady spot in front of The Cheese Shop, so once you go inside and get your food, you can enjoy your food outside if you have pups with you. If you’d rather eat inside, there are also tables inside. Everything we ordered tasted very fresh with high-quality ingredients.

5. The Virginia Beer Company.  I drove by here on my way to pick up something at the grocery store one evening to take back to the hotel room and decided to check it out for dinner the next evening. Although they don’t serve food at the Virginia Beer Company, food trucks are here for dinner during the week and lunch and dinner on weekends. Check the schedule on the web page ahead of time. When we went, Capt’n Crabby food truck was there and we got the Korean BBQ chicken sandwich, Ahi Tuna Bowl, and a fresh mozzarella cheese and tomato sandwich with fresh basil. My daughter didn’t care for her cheese and tomato sandwich, but my husband and I were really happy with our choices. Our beers were also very good and there is a good selection of year-round, seasonal, and experimental IPA’s on tap.  There are picnic tables to sit at, a fire pit, corn hole, and board games so it’s a good place to hang out with friends and/or family. There is also an indoor seating area for those not bringing dogs or just want to sit inside.

I love that we were able to find so many dog-friendly restaurants in Williamsburg with truly excellent food. This is definitely a dog-friendly town so if you’re ever in the area and are fortunate enough to bring your dog(s) with you, by all means, do so!

Do you all ever travel with your dog? What are some of the most dog-friendly cities you’ve been to?

Happy travels!

Donna

Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia with Spring Bounce Tickets

Last year my family and I went to Williamsburg, Virginia with the main purpose to go to Busch Gardens. We were going to have a few hours to kill the morning after we went to the amusement park, so I thought we could go to Colonial Williamsburg and see what we could see without purchasing an admission ticket. Long story short, there isn’t a whole lot you can see without a ticket other than walking around the roads and going into some of the shops selling things. You can read more about our experience at Colonial Williamsburg without a ticket here if you’d like.

This year, we decided to allot more time in Williamsburg so we would have plenty of time to take in the sights. I made reservations for 4 nights and bought Spring Bounce tickets, which allow you to go to both Colonial Williamsburg and Busch Gardens for a week. There are also Summer Bounce tickets, single day tickets, and many combination tickets where you can combine Water Country USA, Historic Jamestowne, Jamestown Settlement, American Revolution Museum at Yorktown, and Yorktown Battlefield. The website for tickets is here.

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Governor’s Palace Gardens

With general admission tickets, we were able to tour the Governor’s Palace and Gardens, and pretty much any of the other homes and most areas that were open while we were there.  For example, the Governor’s Palace was only open from 4-5 pm so we needed to be there during those hours. I remember touring the Governor’s Palace when I was a child with my brother and mother and the gardens still looked exactly as I remembered them. The people working at the Palace, as well as all of Colonial Williamsburg, are extremely knowledgeable and thoroughly answered any questions we had as well as telling us about the sites.

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Governor’s Palace from the gardens

Some things do cost extra even with general admission tickets, such as firing a flintlock musket, which is an additional $76. My daughter was dying to go to the Ax Range where she could throw axes, something she had wanted to do ever since seeing it on one of her favorite TV shows, “Property Brothers.” We bought tickets for her and my husband for $10 each and went to the Ax Range. After being given a safety demonstration and instructions on how to properly throw an ax, my daughter and husband’s fun began. They were allowed to throw for about 15 or 20 minutes, which was plenty of time really. Both my husband and daughter managed to land some of the axes in the target as well. My daughter said later that this was a highlight of her time at Colonial Williamsburg.

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Ax throwing!

My husband and I also toured the extensive Art Museums, which have a wide array of galleries including portraits, furniture, Folk Art, silver objects such as tea sets and much more. You can easily spend a couple of hours here if you enjoy art museums. Although admission was included in our general admission tickets, you can buy day passes to the art museums for $11.99. When we went, the art museums also had a hands-on activity for children, where you could make a toy like ones on display in the toy section of the museum. Adjacent to the Art Museums is what’s left of the Mental Hospital that used to be on the grounds before it was moved to another area outside Colonial Williamsburg. It’s pretty much just a hallway now but has some displays of objects historically used to treat mental illness and some of the appalling accommodations mental patients used to have to endure.

This year, since we had more time to spend in Colonial Williamsburg, we went in more of the shops and buildings than we did last year. Two of our favorites were the printing press and book bindery buildings. We chatted for quite a while with the people working in both of these rooms. In addition to being shown how the printing press works and how books were historically bound, we talked to an art apprentice who showed us some of his pencil and ink drawings. He showed us some of the tools he uses and discussed the differences in these tools. Clearly the people working at Colonial Williamsburg are passionate about their trades and love discussing all of the techniques involved.

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One of many shops- this one sells toys!

With the Spring Bounce tickets, we were able to go between Colonial Williamsburg and Busch Gardens any time we wanted, which was great. Originally, I had thought we would spend the first full day at Busch Gardens, then the next full day at Colonial Williamsburg, then back to Busch Gardens, and finally spend a few hours in the morning at Colonial Williamsburg before we drove back home. Instead, we ended up not spending the first full day at Busch Gardens so we went to Colonial Williamsburg and toured the Governor’s Palace and watched the Fife and Drum corps evening march. We continued to divide up our days between both Colonial Williamsburg and Busch Gardens, and that seemed like a better way to spend our days.

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Fife and Drum Corps

Planning tips for Colonial Williamsburg:

1. There are many, many other activities you can do for additional fees, as well. You can take a carriage ride, participate in a local court session, take several guided tours, take an ox wagon ride, watch a play, go to an organ recital, and go on ghost walks. Depending on what you choose to add on, a visit to Colonial Williamsburg can be quite expensive, however, so plan accordingly.

2. Williamsburg, Virginia gets hot and humid during the summer months so if you can manage a visit during the spring or fall, the weather should be more pleasant. While we were there in mid-May, the high for the day hit 95 degrees one day, so even in May it can get extremely hot here.

3. If you have a week to spend in the area, visit Yorktown and Jamestown also, which are a short drive from Williamsburg. Busch Gardens and Colonial Williamsburg are about 15-20 minutes from each other. In my opinion, three full days for Busch Gardens and Colonial Williamsburg (bouncing between the two places on all three days) is the perfect amount of time to spend if you’re only going to these two places. If you plan on going to Water Country USA in addition to Busch Gardens and Colonial Williamsburg, I would plan on spending four full days total in the area.

4. You will be doing a ton of walking no matter where you go in the area so wear comfortable shoes.

5. You can stay at one of the hotels within Colonial Williamsburg, or at a hotel in Williamsburg, but don’t feel like you have to stay within the colonial grounds. The hotel where we stayed was less than a five minute drive from the colonial area, and there were numerous hotels that were also this close.

6. A car is essential for getting around Williamsburg and the surrounding area so if you’re flying to the area, get a rental car. Busch Gardens is approximately 55 miles from Richmond and 150 miles from Washington D.C. Although you could fly into Washington, D.C. and drive from there, most people fly into Norfolk, Richmond or Newport-News-Williamsburg International Airport.

Have any of you been to Colonial Williamsburg? If so, tell me about your experience and if not, would you like to go? Any history buffs out there?

Happy travels!

Donna

 

 

 

Colonial Williamsburg without a ticket

Recently I was going to be in Williamsburg, Virginia with my family primarily to go to Busch Gardens (see my post 5 reasons Busch Gardens Williamsburg has something for everyone) but we were going to have about a half day leftover before we would have to go home, so I thought we could go to Colonial Williamsburg.  An adult ticket online is $25.99 for a “sampler ticket” that includes a visit to 2 trade shops, the shuttle, the public gaol, and a visit to one family home.  A single-day adult ticket for $40.99 will get you all of the aforementioned plus more city sites, trade shops, family homes and gardens, live reenactments in the streets, Governor’s Palace and Capitol Building access, admission to two art museums, and 10% discount on tours and evening programs.  Considering we would only have a few hours in the area I didn’t see spending over $100 for that, so I decided we would not buy tickets at all and see what we could see.

After a delicious breakfast at Aroma’s Specialty Coffees, Bakery, and Cafe we walked around the main street of Colonial Williamsburg, Duke of Gloucester Street.  I knew that some of the homes here are private residences and offices and if there is a British flag flying, that means it’s open to the public.  We kept our eyes open for the British flag and went in several shops such as The William Pitt Shop that sells children’s colonial clothing, hats, toys, games, and books.  We also browsed in Prentis Store that sells unique items handmade by skilled tradespeople using 18th-century tools and techniques.  We found that if a store or building had people standing outside in period clothing that looked like they were guarding the place, that meant you had to have a ticket to enter so after one or two instances like that, we quickly learned to just by-pass those places entirely.  I had read online that the Raleigh Tavern Bakery cranks out hot, fresh-from-the-oven gingerbread cookies every morning so we stopped there to pick up some and quickly devoured them.

Although we just got a little taste of Colonial Williamsburg, given that we only had a few hours to spend I was glad we didn’t spend the money for tickets and just did our own thing on our own pace.  I think if we would have bought tickets we would have felt obligated to cram as much in as we could, which would have just been a bad idea.  We never would have been able to see and do as much as is offered here and we would have just been exhausted.

There is very little you can see and do without a ticket, so if you plan on spending more than a few hours here, you should definitely buy a ticket and plan on spending at least a couple of days here. Bottom line is pretty much all you can do without a ticket is look at the buildings from the outside and browse in the shops and eat at the restaurants.  Would I go back and spend a couple of days to do Colonial Williamsburg properly?  I would and if you’re also a history buff, I recommend it for you and your family.

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