Hotels vs. Airbnb- How That’s Changed For Me Over the Years

I remember when I was in college and drove to a friend’s wedding out of state. My husband at the time and I made reservations at a Ramada Inn, and it was not a very nice Ramada Inn. The carpet was musty, the beds were uncomfortable, the bedspreads and decorations in the room looked like they hadn’t been changed in 20 years, and the rooms had paper-thin walls.

Since then, I’ve stayed at other cheap hotels a handful of times but at one point in my life I thought to myself, you’re too old to be staying in cheap hotels. You have a good job and you can afford to stay in better accommodations. When my daughter was born, I started to consider the safety of the hotels as well since most cheap hotels are in “bad” or unsafe neighborhoods. Not that I jumped from staying in 2 star hotels to only 5 star hotels, but there was a noticeable improvement in where I was willing to stay.

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A Bed and Breakfast in San Diego that actually came up on an Airbnb search (so it’s not just the traditional places like homes and apartments).

As my daughter got older, my husband at the time and I began to see the benefits of staying in houses through Airbnb or other short-term rental properties. Instead of the three of us piling into a room with only two beds, a bathroom, and a mini-fridge and microwave if we were lucky, we could spread out and have multiple bedrooms, a full kitchen with everything we needed to whip up breakfast or any meal for that matter, a dining room, a family room or living room, usually a backyard, often more than one bathroom, free parking right in front of the house, and best of all it was quiet. So there were no slamming doors in the hallway, no ice machine noises, no kids running down the hallway at midnight, no adults coming in drunk and talking loudly on their way to their room, and on and on.

At first it was hard to break the hotel habit. Many houses rented out for short-term rental don’t have swimming pools and my daughter always loved to swim on vacation. We also missed not being able to walk down to the breakfast area of the hotel and pile on a plate full of breakfast foods, even if they were sometimes sub-par. My husband at the time also missed not having a workout room like many hotels have. But swimming pools, breakfast buffets, and workout rooms weren’t enough to keep us coming back to hotels, so we found ourselves staying at houses through Airbnb more and more.

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Hotel del Coronado in San Diego, which I did not stay in, but enjoyed the beautiful beach all around it.

I’ve found houses on Airbnb are often in the range of hotel prices. Over the years the selection of houses offered on Airbnb has also skyrocketed. Just a few years ago there weren’t nearly as many properties on Airbnb as there are today. That being said, some cities have made it illegal to rent a property through Airbnb in recent years and others have begun to crack down on foreign investors, making provisions only if the rental property is a primary residence in the city  plus other limitations. I’m not going to get into the impact Airbnb has had on neighborhoods and home values but that’s been a controversial topic for many areas around the world.

Still, I don’t automatically book a stay through Airbnb without comparing hotels in the area. For my recent vacation to the mountains in Tennessee (Hiking in Great Smoky Mountains National Park- Redux), my daughter and I stayed at a brand new hotel. There were a couple of factors involved here:  because of the pandemic and the drop in hotel stays on top of the fact that the hotel had literally just opened, the price per night was a bargain that I jumped on. There’s no way I could have stayed at an Airbnb house for the same price. I’m sure this time next year the hotel’s prices will be much more than what I paid because by then they will be an established hotel with reviews and (hopefully) by then if the pandemic still isn’t over, we (hopefully) will have moved on to our new “normal.”

My go-to site for checking out hotel prices is https://www.hotels.com/. When you stay 10 nights at a hotel, and it doesn’t have to be 10 consecutive nights at the same hotel, you get a free night worth the average of your last 10 hotel stays. There are also tiers depending on how many hotel stays you have in a year. When you reach silver status after 10 nights or more in a year, you’re eligible for special prices not available to the general public and special benefits like vouchers to use toward breakfast. If you book and stay 30 nights or more (which I’ve never done), you reach gold status, which looks like it comes with even more extras like room upgrades.

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Alyeska Resort and Hotel in Alaska was one of the more expensive hotels I’ve stayed in, but it included a ride to the top of the mountain in a tram and was a nice one night splurge.

I’ve had silver status with hotels.com for the past several years and I’ve always felt like it’s been a good choice for me. For example, in 2017, I redeemed four free nights, which of course saved me hundreds of dollars. If I redeem just one free night per year, I feel like it’s worth booking through the site. There’s no fee and the prices are almost always identical to or less than other hotel booking sites. In the rare occurrence where hotels.com has been more than another site, it’s only been a minimal amount like a couple of dollars.

My bottom line is to always compare my options. I don’t go crazy and check ten different places for hotel prices and property prices. Besides Airbnb for short-term rentals, there’s VRBO, HomeAway, HometoGo, and Booking, just to mention a few. This is on top of sites like Expedia and Tripadvisor. You could easily spend hours if you checked all of these sites and got sucked down that rabbit hole. There’s often overlap between many of these websites anyway, although there are sometimes listings on one website you won’t find anywhere else. Almost always, I’ll check on Airbnb, hotels.com, and sometimes booking.com and leave it at that unless I’m having trouble finding what I want for the price in my budget, then I’ll look around more.

What about you? Do you stay more at hotels or homes/apartments through Airbnb? Has your choice of travel accommodations changed over the years or stayed the same?

Happy travels!

Donna

Gatlinburg, Tennessee “Myrtle Beach in the Sky”

If you’ve been to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina you’ll understand the reference. For those of you who haven’t been to Myrtle Beach, the best way I can describe it is touristy and crowded. An estimated 14 million people visit Myrtle Beach every year (compared to around 12 million people for Gatlinburg). As for the “in the sky” reference, the elevation of Gatlinburg is 1,289 feet, while that for Myrtle Beach is a mere 26 feet.

Although Myrtle Beach is a year-round destination, the majority of tourists visit during the summer months to go to the beaches, play golf (including miniature golf), go shopping at the outlets and other often cheesy beach-themed shops, go to the aquarium, and eat at some of what seems like hundreds of restaurants, most of which are either chains or serve fried seafood. If you can’t tell, I’m not a huge fan of Myrtle Beach. Traffic is horrendous and there are much better places I’d rather go to in South Carolina. However, obviously plenty of people like going there, so to each his own.

So back to Gatlinburg. Yes, it’s crowded just like Myrtle Beach. We were there during the pandemic and even then there were mobs of people everywhere; most were wearing a mask but not all. There are places to play mini golf and a few 18-hole golf courses a bit further from all of the chaos. There are also a crazy amount of attractions all piled-up on top of each other in such a small area. For example, there’s not one but two places you can go up ski lifts to take in the view, Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies, Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum, Guinness World Records Museum, Gatlinburg Space Needle, Hollywood Star Cars Museum, a Dukes of Hazzard store and museum, an indoor waterpark, a winery, a moonshine distillery, the Salt and Pepper Shaker Museum, just for starters. That’s not even including all of the t-shirt and gift shops, candy shops, restaurants, and hotels.

I like what Wikipedia says about Gatlinburg:  “Downtown Gatlinburg may come as somewhat of a shock for those on their way to a nature getaway in the national park – from the Space Needle to the amusement rides, the town hasn’t necessarily chosen to embrace its “nature” side. That said, there is plenty of lodging, restaurants, and other amenities to make this town a useful base for exploring the park.” True enough, to get to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, you almost always have to go through downtown Gatlinburg first. Traffic during the day and evening is so bad you could probably walk faster than you could drive. Then there’s the issue of parking- expensive and not much of it.

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The Parkway in downtown Gatlinburg

So with all of these options of attractions and things to do in Gatlinburg, guess what we chose to do while we were there? Absolutely not one single thing that I mentioned here other than go to restaurants and a little bit of shopping. Most of the attractions seemed too tacky and just not how I would choose to spend my time. When I was younger I visited some wax museums and Ripley’s museums but I don’t care to spend my money or time at any of them now. No offense to anyone that enjoys this kind of museum or attraction. If you’re a huge car fan and love movies, then the Hollywood Star Cars Museum would probably be a lot of fun for you. That’s just not my cup of tea. Besides, we spent all day hiking in Great Smoky Mountains National Park (you can read my post about that here), so that just left time for dinner and whatever time we had left after that before heading back to our hotel.

I probably would have gone to Anakeesta had the pandemic not been going on. This is an outdoor play area as much for adults and it is for children. You choose whether you take a chair lift or enclosed gondola to the top of the mountain. Once you reach the top, there’s an observation tower, a treetop skywalk, ziplines, a mountain coaster, gem mining, and shops and restaurants. However, although they were scanning people’s temperatures upon check-in at the base, they weren’t cleaning the chair lifts or gondolas after every group, and I didn’t feel comfortable with that, so we skipped it.

You may be thinking I really don’t like Gatlinburg, but honestly this wasn’t my first time here, although it was my daughter’s first visit. I feel like it’s one of those places that everyone should experience once in their lives, like Las Vegas or New Orleans. It’s difficult to explain places like this to someone who has never been there, other than you really just have to go and see for yourself. I do have some positive things to say about Gatlinburg, like the restaurants and shops we enjoyed.

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This was at a restaurant where our server told us there was a bear in the parking lot just across the street, apparently a regular occurrence!

Some locally-owned restaurants that we really enjoyed include:

Tom & Earl’s Back Alley Grill, a casual pub-type setting with salads, wraps, sandwiches, and burgers. We thought the food was very good and affordable.

Mama’s Chicken Kitchen, a restaurant that shares space with J.O.E. and POP’s Sub Shoppe and specializes in fried chicken. This is especially good when you’ve spent an entire day hiking and burned what feels like a million calories because this isn’t healthy food by any stretch.

Gatlinburg Brewing Company, a brewery with a limited menu (so they don’t have the huge range of items on the menu you typically find at a brewery). They specialize in pizzas and have pre-selected ones or you can create your own. Good selection of beer as well.

Sonador– a Mexican restaurant with a huge menu. Our food was quick, very good, and reasonably priced. They have your typical American-Mexican menu offerings but there are some items you may not normally see at a Mexican restaurant. My daughter had a burrito with grilled chicken, pineapple, onions, and mushrooms and said it was one of the best burritos she’s ever eaten.

There are numerous chain restaurants here, so if that’s your thing, you’ll be happy. There also seem to be plenty of pancake restaurants. If you’re looking for healthy food options, you’ll have to look a bit harder because much of the food here is fried, as is tradition for the area, but it is possible to find salads, healthy sandwiches, and other healthy or at least healthy-ish meals.

Some shopping areas and shops we liked include:

Village Shoppes- there are 27 shops here including an art gallery. Some shops are touristy but others are worth going to. I was told the Donut Friar is good but we didn’t go since we had already had dessert when we were there.

Great Smoky Arts and Crafts Community– numerous artists and artisans selling paintings, baskets, woven products, metal works, and so much more. This isn’t the kind of shopping area where you can walk from shop to shop; you have to drive around because they’re so spread out.

Mortons Antiques and Coins– one of the better selections of antiques I’ve seen. My daughter loves antique tea sets, so she drags me into an antique shop at every opportunity.

Have you been to Gatlinburg? If so, what did you think of it and what did you do when you were there?

Happy travels!

Donna

Long Weekend in Greenville, South Carolina- An Unexpected Surprise

Once things started opening back up during the COVID-19 crisis and it became clear that South Carolina was a safe choice to visit, I wanted to plan a road trip from North Carolina for a long weekend getaway. I’ve been to Charleston, South Carolina and all along the coast many times but I hadn’t been to many places inland. I had heard good things about Greenville so I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to do some exploring.

Greenville, South Carolina is on the northwestern corner of the state, about an hour from Asheville, North Carolina or 2 1/2 hours from Charlotte, North Carolina. It’s only the sixth- largest city in the state with almost 71,000 people, but there is plenty to do especially for a city of its size.

I knew we wanted to do as much hiking as possible, because that’s what we enjoy doing on vacation. On our first day, I knew we wouldn’t have much time for hiking, though, so a visit to Lake Conestee Nature Preserve was perfect. The Preserve is 400 acres on the Reedy River 6 miles south of downtown Greenville. There are both an evergreen forest and hardwood forest, wetlands, and wildlife from deer, raccoon, beaver, fox, river otter, and hundreds of bird species. Unfortunately, only paved trails were open due to the pandemic, but we were still able to spend a couple of hours walking around in the peaceful setting.

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Lake Conestee Nature Preserve

We arranged to spend the entire next day at Paris Mountain State Park, which is about 20 minutes from downtown Greenville. There is an admission fee for entry of $6 for adults and $3.50 for children. Tent or RV camp sites are available and there is a designated swimming area. However, we were there for the trails and there are 15 miles of hiking trails in the park.

We decided to hike the Sulphur Springs Trail first. It’s 3.6 miles and is labeled strenuous. There are several steep sections, deep ravines and running streams lined with mountain laurel and rhododendron. We saw a few waterfalls and came to a large dam. Since we like to pick up lunch at a grocery store and eat along the trails when we hike, this saved us time of not having to leave the park for lunch and re-enter, plus we had a nice view while we ate. Before the day was over, we also hiked several other trails including Lake Placid Trail, Mountain Creek Trail, and Turtle Trail. You can find all of the information on trails in the park here.

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Our third day was reserved for the Falls Park on the Reedy area. My daughter and I ran along the Swamp Rabbit Trail, an incredible greenway system consisting of 22 miles of paved trails along the Reedy River on a historic rail bed. We absolutely loved running here- there were trees and flowers everywhere and so many choices of directions to run (or biking is also a popular option). This was my unexpected surprise; I knew we would spend some time on the Swamp Rabbit Trail but I had no idea it’s as extensive as it is nor as absolutely beautiful as it is.

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The Swamp Rabbit Trail (just a tiny fraction of it)

After a 6 mile run on the Swamp Rabbit Trail, we met back up with my husband and the three of us went to breakfast at a unique and tasty place, Coffee Underground. With our bellies filled, we walked around Falls Park on the Reedy and explored around there. You can hear the rushing falls as you walk around the numerous gardens and over Liberty Bridge, a suspension bridge built as a work of art.

Shops and restaurants are all within walking distance of the falls. There are no shortage of art galleries and one of our favorites is Open Art Studios, where we bought a small painting. They have a diverse collection of art at affordable prices. In fact, we enjoyed the Falls Park on the Reedy area so much we decided to go back on our fourth and final day in Greenville. On that return trip, we came upon a small arboretum and more gardens we hadn’t seen before. We also had a filling breakfast at Maple Street Biscuit Company, which is near the falls.

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Falls Park on the Reedy

A final place I’d like to mention is The Commons, a 12,000 square-foot food hall with open dining, outdoor seating, and is right by the Swamp Rabbit Trail. For food, you can choose from Automatic Taco, Bake Room, The Community Tap, GB & D (Golden Brown & Delicioius), and Methodical Coffee. We picked up some freshly baked goods from Bake Room, some beers from The Community Tap, and a kombucha from GB & D and sat outside with our dogs and enjoyed the beautiful day. There are also a couple of shops, Carolina Triathlon for people who like to run, bike, and/or swim and Billiam, a custom-designed denim shop.

Greenville, South Carolina may not be a top vacation spot for many people but I found it to be even better than I expected. It’s a place I highly recommend spending a long weekend in if you’re ever in the general area and are up for a road trip. Greenville has so many different places to hike, bike, run, walk, eat, and shop, I feel it has something for everyone.

Have you been to Greenville, South Carolina? Never heard of it but are intrigued?

Happy travels!

Donna

 

 

 

How Travel Has Helped Me Cope With the Coronavirus Pandemic

While I feel like I probably travel more than the average American, by no means would I consider myself an expert on travel (whatever that even means). However, I’ve chosen to travel to some off-the-beaten path destinations, at least for an American, and this has ultimately changed me forever as a person. I was thinking recently how travel has impacted how I’m dealing with Coronavirus, specifically not being able to travel or leave my house except to run or go grocery shopping but also all of the trickle-down effects of travel on my life.

By traveling to tiny towns in Chile, Costa Rica, Peru, Austria, Germany, and other places where the locals didn’t speak much if any English, travel has helped me become more resilient and to deal with issues that arise. Travel has also shown me that life often doesn’t turn out as we plan and we’ll be much happier if we learn to go with the flow. Instead of losing my temper or panicking when I got lost or couldn’t figure out something because of the language barrier, I would take a deep breath and try to figure it out. When my travel plans for April were cancelled because of the pandemic, sure I was sad my vacation wasn’t going to happen, but I knew it was better that way and eventually I will be able to travel safely.

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Although we missed a connecting flight to Malta, we eventually made it to this incredible country

I’ve learned to make the best of what I may find in a grocery store and figure out how to make meals for my family with what is on the shelves. One of my favorite things to do when I’m in a foreign country is to see what their grocery stores have to offer and how much things cost in stores. It’s always been an adventure and more times than not, I’ve ended up with some pretty delicious meals out of what I’ve found on the shelves. I may not have been able to fully read the labels, but that’s just added to the adventure. At least in the US, I can read the labels (unless the food is imported). I have been to countries where they routinely have had shortages of things like toilet paper, with the difference being due to hoarders in the US and more of a routine problem with supply in other countries.

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This market in Peru was HUGE and quite the experience to walk around

One of the things I love to do as a stress-reliever is run outside, whether I’m on vacation or at home. I can do it virtually anywhere, although there are places where I would not run for safety reasons. Another bonus is all I need are my running shoes and appropriate running clothes. I can run outside or on a treadmill if running outside is not an option (assuming there’s a treadmill I can use). If I can’t run, I can do body weight exercises like lunges, squats, core work, and push-ups. I can also make up my own yoga routine no matter where I am. Being able to exercise on my own while traveling and at home has been a huge asset to my well-being and overall health and something I’ve always been grateful to have in my life but perhaps even more so during this pandemic.

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Some of the stunning water views I got to enjoy while running in Hawaii

I’ve learned that family members need a break from each other every now and again. When you’re traveling with family members, you’re in close proximity to one another for days on end and even the best of us can get tired of all of that one-on-one time. This is one reason why I’m such a huge fan of staying at Airbnb properties, because if we’re staying in a house, we can stretch out a bit more, have a kitchen to cook some of our own meals or just snack if we’re hungry and have a place to store our food, and usually we have more than one bathroom (although certainly not always). We all like to have some time on our own to catch up with friends through various social media apps, listen to a podcast or music, or just read a book in a quiet room to decompress. Being stuck at home for weeks on end while the Coronavirus pandemic has been going on has reminded me what a good idea it is to give family members a break from one another.

I’m sure there are more things that travel has shown me to help deal with the Coronavirus pandemic, but these are the first things to come to my mind. Are there aspects of travel or other parts of your life that have helped you deal with the pandemic? If so, I’d love to hear about them.

Happy travels (someday),

Donna

 

 

Travel in my 20’s, 30’s, and 40’s. What’s Changed and What Hasn’t?

When I was in college in my 20’s, I feel like I barely traveled anywhere. I won a free trip to the Bahamas, which you can read about here:  How a Free Cruise to the Bahamas Changed My Life. Like I said in the post, I feel like that trip to the Bahamas opened up my eyes to the world and whet my appetite for travel. Nonetheless, I was a poor college student through my mid-20’s and I just didn’t have the money to travel nor did I have the time when I was in graduate school.

Other than the free trip to the Bahamas in my 20’s, I went to Ocean City, Maryland for a beach trip for a couple of days one summer, I drove to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania a few times to go out with friends, went to New Jersey for a weekend with friends, and some other random places like that when I was in college. These were all low-cost, low-frills, short trips of 2 or 3 days at the most.

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A fun trip to see a friend in New York City in my 20’s

When I finished graduate school and started working, I branched out a little more and went to places like Jamaica, Mexico, and Harbour Island in the Bahamas (a far cry from Freeport in that it’s about a thousand times nicer plus it’s perfectly safe). I also went to Hawaii, and Napa Valley and Yosemite National Park in California, and some other places in the United States like Charleston, South Carolina, a city that’s still one of my absolute favorite places in the world.

Still, I don’t feel like I traveled that extensively until I was in my 30’s. My boyfriend and I went to Costa Rica and this was such an eye-opening vacation for me. So many of the people we came to contact with only spoke Spanish or very limited English. This was before the travel boom happened in Costa Rica, before it was more common to travel to the country, so things were a bit more rough and rugged. Still, we were at a nice resort where all of our meals were provided and we didn’t have to worry about figuring anything out on our own so we were a bit sheltered in that sense.

After Costa Rica came vacations to Miami (I had been to Miami in my 20’s as well), Ft. Lauderdale and Everglades National Park, a few places in California including San Francisco, Long Beach, Los Angeles, and Napa Valley; my wedding in St. Kitts and honeymoon in Nevis and St. Martin; Philadelphia; several cities in Italy; Phoenix, Sedona, and Grand Canyon in Arizona; and Colorado. Then we slowed down a bit when I was pregnant through the first year or so after my daughter was born and just traveled to places a couple of hours away by car.

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Napa Valley when I was in my 30’s

When my daughter was not quite a year and a half things picked back up for us travel-wise, and we flew to Naples, Florida, then shortly after that to Vermont, and a few months after that to Hawaii. This was when I was well into my quest to run a half marathon in every state and was running about four races a year, one in each season basically. We also went to other places during my 30’s like Disney World in Florida, Disney Land in California, Key West, Marathon (Florida), Miami, Aruba, Banff and parts of Alberta, Canada on the west and Niagara Falls and parts of Ontario, Canada on the east.

Not only did the amount we traveled increase in my 30’s, the variety of places we went to also started to increase. Because of running a half marathon in all 50 states, we went to many places in the United States that we never would have otherwise. More often than not, we ended up falling in love with the area but regardless we were always glad we went because of the experience. We also began to stay in nicer accommodations in my 30’s, going from the cheaper places that my husband and I might have stayed in before our daughter was born, to nicer places in safer neighborhoods after she was born.

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Hobbiton in New Zealand

My 40’s are when I feel like I became more of an educated traveler. After planning my family’s vacation that began in Munich, Germany and had stops all over tiny little towns in Austria like Werfen, Bad Gastein, and Fusch without any trouble at all, I felt more comfortable planning our vacations in other countries. In addition to the states we were going to for half marathons, we began going to a different country about once a year (sometimes two a year) in my 40’s.

I’m still in my 40’s and in addition to the countries I listed already, we’ve gone to Greece, New Zealand, back to Canada to go to Montreal, Chile, Malta, the Canary Islands, Grand Cayman Island, and Peru. Although New Zealand, Montreal, and Grand Cayman Island were all very easy to communicate with others there and easy to get around, the other places were more difficult. However, by branching out more and more, I felt like it kept getting easier to get out of my comfort zone.

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One of my favorite places in the world- the salt pans in Malta

Our two weeks in Chile was especially a time when we were pushed out of our comfort zone, since we came upon numerous people who didn’t speak any English at all and we had no cell coverage or even Wi-Fi at times. There was no guide to help us, no one to tell us what to do or where to go. In other words, we had to figure it out on our own, and of course we did. The people were extremely patient with us and helpful and kind. I think this vacation in particular showed me that I am resilient and most people in the world are helpful and nice although there are bad people everywhere of course.

Peru showed me that the world is so much more than checking off boxes to see the “Wonders of the World,” like Machu Picchu. Not that I went there solely to check off a box, but what I mean is the experience of the trek leading up to seeing Machu Picchu was actually more special to me than the “grand finale” of seeing the ruins. As special as Machu Picchu was, it was the icing on the cake after the trek. This was the first time I ever took a several-day-long hike so it was my first time experiencing something like that.

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Machu Picchu in Peru

My 40’s is also when I started staying at properties through Airbnb. By now, I’ve stayed at Airbnb properties throughout the United States and around the world. More often than not, I’ve had exceptional stays, but there were one or two that were a disappointment. One place reeked of cigarette smoke but we stayed there anyway and I didn’t say a word about it. I re-read Airbnb reviews while we were there to see if I had missed something and sure enough, someone had complained of cigarette smoke. However, the owner rebutted by saying no one had ever smoked in the house and the person basically was too sensitive and didn’t know what they were talking about. If you’re reading reviews and come across something like that, you can either believe the person who wrote it or you can believe the owner. My lesson learned was to believe the person who wrote the review in a case like this so now I pay more attention to the reviews and don’t just skim the top couple before I make reservations.

One advantage to staying in a property through Airbnb is you have a kitchen so you can cook some of the meals and not have to eat out all the time. Not only does this save money, it also saves time of sitting in restaurants waiting for your food to come and then for the check to come. If you don’t feel like cooking, there’s always the option of picking up something from a grocery store deli. We’ve had some delicious meals this way and they’re quick, easy, and cheaper than eating out.

Now I’m looking forward to visiting some more countries, some of which my husband and I are considering retiring early to, like Spain and Portugal. I’d also like to check out some countries in Central America and maybe Ecuador as potential retirement spots. Also high on my list for places where I want to visit but not live are some places in Eastern Europe like Slovenia, Croatia, and Montenegro. I’d also like to finally visit some countries in Asia. Who knows if I’ll be able to go to all of these places while I’m still in my 40’s; most likely not all of them but definitely some of them.

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Croatia- eventually I will get here!

One thing that’s changed over the years for me is the amount of travel has gradually increased. We currently take about five to six weeks of vacation each year. That’s not going to change from now until I retire since that’s the maximum I can take with my job (yes, I’m extremely fortunate in that sense). The diversity of places we go to has also changed over the years. We seek out some of the more off-the-beaten path areas even in more popular areas we go to.

What hasn’t changed is my love for travel. No, I take that back. My love for travel has changed over the years because it’s continued to increase. When I was in my 20’s, I feel like travel was something I wouldn’t even give much thought to. In my 30’s, travel began to feel like it was becoming a part of me, and now in my 40’s, I can’t imagine not being able to travel because it’s such a huge part of what I do and what I enjoy. So I can’t think of anything that hasn’t changed with me when it comes to travel from my 20’s to present day in my 40’s. I guess it’s true what they say that travel truly does change your life.

“Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But that’s okay. The journey changes you; it should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart, and on your body. You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind.” – Anthony Bourdain

How has travel changed for you over the years? Or should I ask, how has travel changed you? That’s probably a topic for another day!

Happy travels!

Donna

 

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

 

Alaska Itinerary and Travel Tips

Of all of the 50 states in the United States, Alaska is consistently in the top 10 most-visited states. Although planning a vacation to Alaska can seem a bit challenging, it’s certainly not difficult to do on your own. Alaska is by far the largest state in the United States, at 663,300 square miles and many of the major cities are vast distances from each other. Further, much of Alaska is only accessible by water, making it even more challenging to visit, hence the popularity in Alaskan cruises. But what do you do if you or your traveling companions get motion sickness on boats and a cruise is not an option or you just don’t want to take a cruise? Of course, you dive in and start planning your own itinerary!

Some questions you may ask when planning a trip to Alaska:

How long should I spend in Alaska?

The longer, the better, given the enormous size of the state and the fact that only 20% of the state is accessible by roads. For most people, roughly ten days to two weeks is a good amount of time to spend on your first visit, to get a “taste” of Alaska. It’s best to focus on visiting a few areas rather than trying to cram in a dozen different areas and spending much of your time in transit from one place to another.

Getting to Alaska and Getting Around

Although there are many small airports in Alaska, major airports include ones in Anchorage, Fairbanks, and Juneau. Other communities with jet service in Alaska include Wrangell, Petersburg, Sitka, Glacier Bay/Gustavus, Yakutat, Cordova, Kodiak, Dutch Harbor, Adak, King Salmon, Dillingham, Bethel, Nome, Kotzebue, Barrow and Prudhoe Bay. As mentioned above, only 20% of Alaska is accessible by roads, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t consider driving an option. We picked up our rental car in Anchorage and were able to drive to all of the places we wanted to, without any problems, and we didn’t need a 4×4 vehicle either. This was during the summer, so if it’s winter, be prepared to drive on snowy roads. Taking the Alaska Railroad is also an option for getting between cities.

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When is the Best Time of Year to Visit Alaska?

In my opinion, there is no “best” time of year to visit anywhere and Alaska is no exception. Summer is the most popular time to visit Alaska, with mid-June to mid-August being peak season. If you prefer warmer weather and plan to do a lot of hiking, July through early August are your best bets but if you want to see the Northern Lights, the winter months when it’s the darkest are best. If you plan on going to Denali National Park, the park’s only roadway remains open through early September for bus tours although a 15-mile portion of the road is also open for private vehicles. Crowds are a bit thinner during the shoulder months of April to May and September.

Tips for Planning your Alaska Itinerary

If you plan on going during the busy summer months, book in advance whenever possible. Bus tours through Denali National Park sell out months in advance, as do campsites and accommodations in more popular areas of the state.

Because of the remoteness of the state, WiFi is non-existent in many rural areas. Cell phone service is also spotty at best in many places, even in some of the bigger cities. Download Google maps offline and drop pins on places where you want to go so you have access to areas where you don’t have coverage.

Pack for cool or cold weather even in the summer. I was a bit surprised to learn the average daytime highs in August are usually in the low-to mid-60’s Fahrenheit (16 to 19 degrees Celsius). This coupled with the fact that it rained many days made it feel pretty chilly, which brings me to my next tip.

Pack a poncho or lightweight rain jacket. August and September are the wettest months but rain is pretty common in July as well.

Consider hiking with others and/or buy bear spray. Bears are abundant in Alaska, as are moose. Many people may not realize moose are even more dangerous than bears in Alaska. Moose outnumber bears nearly three to one in Alaska, wounding around five to 10 people in the state annually. That’s more than grizzly bear and black bear attacks combined.

Remember that fresh fruits and vegetables cost more in Alaska than in the lower 48 states (as do many other things). As we were reminded with a sign in a grocery store in Alaska, those bananas have to travel a very long way to reach Alaska, which increases the cost. Alaska has a short growing season and primarily cool season vegetables such as beets, potatoes, broccoli, cabbage, carrots grow here, although some fruit trees have successfully been grown near the University of Alaska at Fairbanks. Tourism also increases prices so anywhere frequented heavily by cruise ships will have higher prices, especially in the direct vicinity around the port.

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Itinerary:  11 days/10 nights in Alaska

Stop 1:  Anchorage (3 nights)

Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport is the busiest airport in Alaska, with twice as many passengers in June, July and August as between October to April. This is likely the airport you will be flying into. For most people, it will be a long flight, and you will want to focus on checking into your hotel and resting for the first day and possibly part of the second day.

After you’ve rested up, venture out and do a bit of hiking or just driving around to take in the scenery. On our first full day in Anchorage, we saw a moose drinking water from a small lake just off a highway. This was our first moose sighting, despite having traveled previously to many other places in the US and Canada that are heavily populated by moose, so we were of course excited to stop and take some photos. As mentioned earlier, moose can be extremely dangerous, so make sure you don’t get close to the animals and give them a huge berth of space.

Chugach National Forest, which stretches for 6,908,540 acres in south central Alaska is easily accessible from Anchorage and there are many options for trails and hiking.

Mount Baldy is another hiking option and the trailhead parking lot is only about 30 minutes from downtown Anchorage.

Tony Knowles Coastal Trail is a scenic place to take a walk, go for a run, or take a spin on some rental bikes.

Turnagain Arm is just south of Anchorage and I recommend driving along here and stopping at some of the stops along the way such as McHugh Creek Recreation Area and Beluga Point Lookout.

Some of our favorite restaurants in Anchorage include Snow City Café, South Restaurant and Coffeehouse, and Wild Scoops.

You can find a full description of our time in Anchorage here.

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Stop 2:  Denali National Park (3 nights)

The drive from Anchorage to the surrounding areas of Denali National Park is a long one, taking approximately 5 hours, give or take, depending on traffic and road construction (which we ran into on our way back from Denali National Park). If you can’t get reservations to stay inside the park or don’t want to stay in the park, there are options in the nearby town of Healy or a bit further away, McKinley Park.

I found the options for accommodations in Healy to range from fairly expensive to super-expensive, with nothing other than campgrounds offering anything what I would call affordable. However, I wanted to be as close to the park entrance as possible, so I chose one of the more affordable of the expensive hotels, Cabins at Denali. We had a two-story room, with nothing but a bathroom and entryway on the bottom floor and a huge room upstairs with three beds, a sitting area with a couch and coffee table, dining room table and chairs, microwave, sink, and coffee maker.

You can only drive the first 15 miles into Denali National Park, so you will need to make reservations well in advance for one of the buses. There are many options, depending if you want to get off the bus and hike or just stay on the bus, and how far into the park you want to go.

On our first day in Healy, since we arrived in the evening, we just ventured out for dinner and relaxed for the evening. We took a bus tour for hikers on our second day and it was a full day indeed, since we chose the bus tour that went several hours into the backcountry of the park. For our third day, we hiked on the trails around the areas closer to the entrance of the park that are private vehicle-accessible and went to the sled dog tour.

You can find a full description of our time in Healy and Denali National Park here.

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Stop 3:  Seward (3 nights)

Even though the drive from Anchorage to Denali National Park is a long one, the drive from Denali National Park to Seward is even longer, since you actually drive past Anchorage to get to Seward. The drive took us around 6 1/2 hours, but we stopped to do a bit of hiking along the way and break up the drive.

The area that includes Seward is filled with glaciers, so we decided to stop and hike at one before we reached our Airbnb in Seward. Driving south from Anchorage on the Seward Highway, go to the end of the 5-mile Portage Spur Road. Byron Glacier trailhead is near Portage Lake. It’s a one-mile scenic walk to the glacier face along Byron Creek.

We also hiked to Exit Glacier in Kenai Fjords National Park (which has no entry fee). This is a popular glacier to visit and there will likely be crowds if you’re there during the summer. It’s an easy hike to get to the first viewing area for the glacier. There are actually two viewing areas, one a bit further away, for people that can’t or don’t want to hike the trail, and the one much closer to the glacier. If you want to walk on the glacier, you need to arrange a tour with a guide.

On our second day in Seward, we took a Kenai Fjords National Park tour with Kenai Fjords Tours, a 6 hour boat tour. Despite taking anti-motion sickness medication, my husband and daughter were still sick for the entire tour. However, I was perfectly fine and thoroughly enjoyed the tour. We saw many glaciers and animals like seals, whales, and puffins. Although this was a highlight of my time in Alaska, my husband and daughter would not say the same thing, so if you have problems with motion sickness, you should probably skip a boat tour here.

For our third day in Seward, we went to what became my daughter’s favorite part of our time in Alaska, Seavey’s Ididaride. Since it was summer, instead of being pulled by Alaskan huskies in a dogsled, we were pulled in a cart by the dogs. The dogs train year-round and you can visit here year-round and see these beautiful dogs that clearly love to run and also check out some of Mitch Seavey’s, (a former Iditarod winner), trophies and race-related gear. We also got to see and even hold some adorable Alaskan husky puppies, which was the icing on the cake for my husky-loving daughter.

Since we had a really nice house through Airbnb to stay at with a well-stocked kitchen in Seward, we stopped at a nearby grocery store on our first day so we could eat most of our meals in the house (plus it was better for our budget). We only went out to eat once, at Seward Brewing Company and really liked our food there.

You can find a full description of our time in Seward here.

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Stop 3:  Girdwood (1 night)

This is an optional stop you could even add on during your time in Anchorage, since it’s a bit under an hour from downtown Anchorage. Since we had a late evening flight back home, I thought it would be a good way to not have such a long drive from Seward to the airport (about 2/12-3 hours) and see a new area as well. It ended up being a good decision and I thoroughly enjoyed our time in Girdwood.

We stayed at the beautiful Alyeska Resort and were able to snag the Summer Tram Package deal where you get free tram tickets when you stay the night. Alyeska Resort is a 300-room year-round hotel with skiing in the winter and hiking and mountain biking the rest of the year. Normally we don’t stay at huge resorts like this, but every now and then I like to splurge, and since it was just one night, it didn’t break the bank.

We took the tram up to the top of the mountain above the resort and hiked around some trails there and were rewarded with some truly gorgeous views. You can hike up and down the mountain and skip the tram, but taking the tram was a good way to save our legs to be able to do more hiking around the top.

Besides taking the tram to the top from the Hotel Alyeska and hiking up there, we really wanted to hike Lower Winner Creek Trail. The trail begins behind the Hotel Alyeska. The first 3/4 mile is a wide, well-developed boardwalk. The next 1.5 miles are easy hiking along a firm dirt trail  through the Chugach National Forest. When you reach Winner Creek Gorge, you’re in for a special treat, the hand tram. The hand tram is just like it sounds, powered by hand, and if you’re lucky, you’ll have people waiting on both sides of the gorge who will happily pull the ropes to get you across the gorge (otherwise you will have to pull yourself across). I have a fear of heights but loved going across the hand tram and highly recommend it.

For restaurants, we liked Girdwood Brewing Company (there was a food truck when we were there with awesome Mexican food), Sitzmark, Alpine Diner & Bakery, and The Bake Shop.

You can find a full description of our time in Girdwood here.

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11-day Alaska Itinerary at-a-glance

Day 1:  Anchorage- flight arrival, hotel check-in, settle in

Day 2:  Anchorage- hiking and/or Tony Knowles Coastal Trail

Day 3:  Anchorage- check out Turnagain Arm

Day 4:  Healy- drive here from Anchorage

Day 5:  Denali National Park- bus tour of park

Day 6:  Denali National Park- hiking, dog-sled demonstrations

Day 7:  Seward- drive here from Healy, with option to stop at Byron Glacier along the way

Day 8:  Seward- Kenai Fjords National Park tour

Day 9:  Seward- Seavey’s Ididaride and hiking to Exit Glacier

Day 10:  Girdwood- drive here from Seward, hiking around Alyeska Resort

Day 11:  Girdwood- hiking Winner Creek Gorge, flight home

I feel like this itinerary hits some of the major highlights of Alaska, but I’m not an expert by any means; I just did a ton of research beforehand. During our time in Alaska, we felt like these places were definitely great choices and we didn’t feel like we were in the car for too much of our time there. That being said, I can’t stress enough if you are prone to motion sickness, skip the boat tours in Alaska. The water can be rough, sometimes with huge swells, and it’s just not enjoyable when you feel nauseous and sick.

Alaska is such a beautiful state with many options, even though it seems like the vast majority of people who go here do so on a cruise. I’d just like to point out you can still see different areas of the state and hike and see some of the natural beauty on your own, without a tour guide from a cruise ship. Even if you don’t like to hike, you can just go for scenic drives in many of the places I’ve mentioned, like Turnagain Arm for example. The drive from Anchorage to Seward is one of the most scenic areas I’ve ever been through.

Happy travels!

Donna

 

Some of My Favorite Museums Around the World

I’m a science geek; always have been. As a kid, I always loved going to science museums, even though my parents didn’t really take me to that many. I remember being in awe at Epcot Center, which really is just a big science museum, much of it hands-on. As an adult, I’ve had the pleasure of raising a science-loving child, so I’ve taken her to many science museums all over the world in our travels. We haven’t just stopped at science museums, though. We also love art museums and history museums. I’d like to share a few of some of my favorite museums here.

The Field Museum in Chicago, Illinois has so many impressive displays you can spend all day here if you like science and natural history. I really enjoy the Griffin Halls of Evolving Planet, Meteorites, Hall of Birds, all of the dinosaur exhibits, the hall of gems, Plants of the World, and those are just some of my favorites! There are two restaurants, a seasonal outdoor grill, and a picnic area open to all museum visitors on the ground level near the Sea Mammals. There is also a gift shop, coat check, wheelchairs (free), strollers ($3), a private nursing room, and free wi-fi. You can also get discounted admission if you have a City Pass or Go Chicago Card. Another great museum in Chicago is the Museum of Science + Industry and I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least mention it. There are of course many other great museums in Chicago as well but these are two of my favorites.

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Field Museum in Chicago

Balboa Park is a museum-lover’s paradise, with 17 museums and cultural institutions in San Diego, California. I highly recommend the Explorer Pass if you plan on going to several museums in Balboa Park. A really cool and different museum within Balboa Park is The San Diego Museum of Man. Here you can see displays about monsters, our relationships with animals, the history of beer, take a California Tower tour, and learn the truth about cannibalism. Tickets to the Museum of Man are $13-$25 for adults or $10-$22, depending on whether or not you purchase just museum tickets or add on tickets to the cannibals exhibit or tower. I have a post on Balboa Park with more details that you can read here.

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Balboa Park

If you like museums, you can find plenty of them in New York City. Some of my favorites are the American Museum of Natural History, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum but there are nearly 100 museums in and around New York City, so there’s definitely something for everyone. The American Museum of Natural History has 45 museum halls, The Rose Center for Earth and Space, a giant-screen film, special exhibitions, and a space show. I recommend figuring out what you want to see before you go or you could get so overwhelmed you don’t know where to start. General Admission to The Metropolitan Museum of Art  includes exhibitions at The Met Fifth Avenue, The Met Breuer, and The Met Cloisters and are valid for three consecutive days. The Guggenheim Museum general admission is $25 for adults and $18 for students and seniors. For these museums plus many others and other places as well, you would save a ton of money on admission prices if you buy a City Pass if you plan on doing a lot of sightseeing and will be here for at least a few days.

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American Museum of Natural History

Washington, D.C. is filled with museums primarily because of the Smithsonian Institution, comprised of 17 museums, galleries, and a zoo. And even better- it’s all free. Some of my favorites include the National Air & Space Museum, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, and the Freer and Sackler Galleries. These museums and galleries are enormous, too so you could spend hours in just one of them. If you only have one day in D.C. the tough part will be deciding where to spend your time because there are so many choices. Washington, D.C. is also a great place for children and is extremely family-friendly. I don’t recommend driving around the city but the Metrorail system is easy to navigate and affordable.

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My daughter’s first visit to Washington, D.C.

For something a little different, on the North Island of New Zealand is the Waitangi Treaty Complex, part of the Waitangi National Trust Estate where events that led to the Treaty of Waitangi are presented. You can experience kapa haka, a live Maori cultural performance and Maori artifacts and weapons. If you follow a short trail outside the visitor center, you’ll come to a Maori war canoe. This huge canoe is named after the vessel in which Kupe, the Polynesian navigator, is said to have discovered New Zealand. The canoe was built in 1940 to commemorate the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi.

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Maori war canoe

Malta is a country that I fell in love with when I went a couple of years ago and part of that reason is how it’s absolutely steeped in rich history. That and its stunning beauty. For my family and me it was a no-brainer for us to get the Heritage Malta Pass which includes access to 22 sites and museums plus the Malta National Aquarium and the Citadel Visitor Center and is good for 30 days. Some of my favorite museums in Malta are in Valletta and include the Palace Staterooms, Palace Armory, and the National Museum of Archaeology. You can read more about these museums in Valletta here.

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Palace Staterooms in Malta

Of course I have to include Italy here because it is also filled with some impressive museums. I had the pleasure of visiting Rome, Florence, and Venice some time ago and loved not only the history of the area but also the art everywhere and of course the food. My favorite of the three cities we went to is Florence so I’ll start there. The Pitti Palace is absolutely enormous and houses several museums and galleries and the Boboli Gardens outside. The Uffizi Gallery is the oldest museum in modern Europe, dating to 1581, and yes, it is impressive and definitely worth going to. You can find Michelangelo’s David (along with many other prestigious work) at the Accademia Gallery in Florence. Probably some of the more famous museums near Rome are technically in another country, Vatican City. The Vatican Museums are an enormous collection (about 7 kilometers) of museums and galleries and include the hugely famous Sistine Chapel. I was surprised to find the Sistine Chapel was smaller than I expected, but there’s a definite aura of tranquility that surrounds the space. Finally, in Venice at the popular St. Mark’s Square you’ll find Doge’s Palace. The combined entrance ticket to the St. Mark’s Square Museums grants access to the Doge’s Palace, Museo Correr, Museo Archeologico Nazionale and Monumental Rooms of Biblioteca Marciana.

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Pitti Palace and Boboli Gardens

Honestly, that just touches the tip of the iceberg for me but I should probably leave it there although I could easily add more places.

What are some of your favorite museums in the United States or elsewhere? Have you been to any of the ones I listed here or would you like to go someday?

Happy travels!

Donna

 

 

The Truth About Traveling with Kids

We’ve all seen the photos on Instagram of the smiling, seemingly happy children fully engaged in an activity when the photo was taken, stunning landscape background all around. I’ve even got some of those photos, like the ones of my daughter with the Andes Mountains behind her in Chile, or the ones of her splashing and playing in the water of the beaches in Greece, or ones of her laughing it up in Hobbiton in New Zealand.

What you don’t know is that on the drive to Hobbiton, my daughter was complaining about having to go there and asking if she could just sit in the car instead of going to some “stupid” place where she wasn’t going to have fun anyway. Nor do you see my daughter complaining to me and my husband for over an hour straight about pretty much anything that had been bothering her that school year but not one thing in particular as we hiked around the stunningly beautiful natural park in Chile with the Andes Mountains all around us. She ended up loving Hobbiton and Chile by the way, in case you’re wondering how those turned out.

In fact, for probably any place in the world my daughter has been, from Hawaii to San Diego and Aruba to New Zealand and everywhere else including 42 states of the United States and the ten countries she’s been to, at one point or another, there has probably been crying, complaining, whining, and/or general unhappiness coming from her regardless of where we were. I’ve even said to her, “Look around you. It’s gorgeous here. Seriously, why are you complaining so much? Most kids would love to be here doing this!”

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Hobbiton in New Zealand

The fact remains, traveling can be hard on kids. Traveling disrupts kids’ sleeping schedules, despite my husband’s and my strict adherence to our daughter’s nap and sleep schedule. When anyone, child or adult, isn’t in their own bed, they don’t sleep as soundly. I fully understand this and try to take it into account when my daughter is being whiny and is in a bad mood while we’re traveling and give her the benefit of the doubt.

Traveling can also put you out of your comfort zone and for kids they may not be able to fully understand how this effects them. For example, if you don’t speak the language where you’re traveling, not only is everyone around you difficult to understand, you can’t read street signs or menus in restaurants, and you can’t even unwind by watching TV if the shows are all in another language. The food is likely different from what you’re used to and often meals are on a different schedule than back home, such as a much later dinner. I remember my daughter in tears in Munich, Germany when she had to eat yet another brat, until we discovered just how good the Italian food is in Munich, and from then on she had pizza and all was good.

Just the simple act of flying to another state or country can be exhausting for families with children. I still remember my daughter having a total meltdown when we were standing in a security line at an airport, although I couldn’t tell you which airport. What I do remember is one of the nicest TSA agents I’ve ever met motioning to me from afar and showing me that she was going to let my family and me through a quicker line. I breathed a sigh of relief in knowing that even a few less minutes of standing in line would mean I could get my daughter to our gate that much quicker. Inevitably, my daughter was either tired or hungry then.

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Mad in Maine? Look closely and you’ll see the arm crossed over her chest, the scowl on her face.

Lack of sleep and hunger are the two things I know without a doubt will make my daughter cranky. When I’m traveling, I always make sure I bring a variety of snacks with me in my carry-on and since she was old enough, I’d put snacks and gum in her carry-on as well. So I’m pretty well-prepared on the hunger-side of things, but covering the sleep-side gets much harder. If we have an early-morning flight to catch, I can try to have my daughter go to bed early, but if you try to go to sleep an hour or two before you normally, do, can you easily fall asleep, or do you just lie there for an hour or so? Maybe this isn’t such a good example if you’re sleep-deprived, as many people are, but if you already get enough sleep, it’s difficult to go to sleep early.

As I mentioned earlier, my husband and I have gone to great lengths to make sure our daughter stays on her routine when we’re away from home. Once when I was at Disneyland with my daughter by myself for one day and my husband was joining us for the second day, I remember standing in the long line to board the “Nemo” submarine, and my then-two-year-old was sound asleep lying on my chest, while I was holding her. Fortunately, she was able to get her nap in and wake up just in time to board the submarine, so it all worked out, but the second day, I remember taking her to an indoor building that was quiet where not a lot of people were coming inside, and letting my daughter take a nap with her head in my lap. After that, she was good to go for a few more hours after dinner and then back to the room in time for her bedtime.

Another thing many parents don’t mention is the early bedtimes. Surely my husband and I aren’t the only parents in the world who have returned to our room so that our daughter could still go to bed at a reasonable hour, at least within an hour of her bedtime. Yes, we skipped the late-night cocktails, certainly the bars and clubs, the late-night musicians, and even the late-night fireworks at places like Disney when our daughter’s bedtime was well before then. We could have arranged for a sitter to watch her but honestly, I just never felt safe having a stranger come into my hotel room or airbnb property at night to watch my daughter while my husband and I went back out. Our solution was to just grab a bottle of wine while we were out and bring it back to the room so he and I could relax and unwind after our daughter had gone to sleep.

My daughter has also lost countless articles of clothing, bathing suits, flip-flops, bathroom articles, and who only knows what else while traveling. Of course we only know about some of the more obvious things like that entire outfit we must have left behind because a nice woman from the hotel where we stayed in New Orleans called to see if we would like her to ship the clothes back home to us for example.

We’ve also had to buy new clothes while on vacation for our daughter, like that time when we were driving through the Alps in Austria and she got car sick and threw up all over the rental car and herself. We were too far from our room to go straight back for a change of clothes so we had to find a children’s clothing store and figure out what size to buy her since the sizes were all different from those in the United States. Once we were back at the resort later that day, my husband had to try to figure out how to ask for something to clean the car out with even though his German was terrible. Everything worked out in the end, but these aren’t things a lot of people (most likely no one) would post on their Instagram accounts.

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Sad in South Dakota. My husband captured this photo in beautiful Custer State Park.

Speaking of getting sick while on vacation, my daughter once threw up in an airplane bathroom and it was apparently so bad they ended up closing off that bathroom for the rest of the flight. When my daughter said she felt sick because of the turbulence during that flight, my husband went with her to accompany her to the bathroom. We’ve had several turbulent flights since then, including ones where she got sick in the little white bags provided in the airplane seat backs but never anything quite that bad has happened again on a flight.

So, in summary, over the years, we’ve dealt with tantrums, crying fits, and general meltdowns. We’ve lost many items, most of which we didn’t even know we lost. My husband and I have foregone late-night concerts, cocktails, and other late events while traveling. Finally, we’ve dealt with motion sickness and other sicknesses along the way (colds, etc.).

What is my point in all of this? To scare you away from ever bringing your children on vacation with you? In fact, the opposite. I would like to encourage everyone to bring their children with them on their travels, but to acknowledge that bad things will happen. Bad things happen all the time to families, whether we’re traveling or at home. There’s no reason to think that just because you’re traveling, nothing bad will happen, so I just implore everyone to be realistic and realize that not everything is going to be perfect. Your children will not always behave perfectly, they won’t always enjoy themselves, they will get sick at times, they will lose things, and you as a parent will miss out on some things if they weren’t with you.

All of that being said, I can’t imagine traveling without my daughter. I’ve had so many teachers tell me from pre-school all the way up to middle school how traveling has enriched her life. As is the case with life as a parent, you take the good with the bad, and travel is no different. If you know that going into it everything will not be perfect, you can roll with the punches, so to speak, more easily. I think just knowing that other parents are going through the same thing you are or once went through it also helps.

Do you all travel with your children or do you prefer to leave them at home? No judgement here if you don’t travel with them! I completely understand it’s expensive to bring children and much more complicated in many ways.

Tell me about your travels with your children or about traveling with your parents when you were a child. I’d love to hear some stories!

Happy travels!

Donna

 

 

Denali National Park in Alaska

Although it would mean riding in a car for around 4 1/2 hours right after running a half marathon in Anchorage (Skinny Raven Half Marathon), I knew I couldn’t go to Alaska and not go to Denali National Park. Sure, I could have added another day to Anchorage and left the day after the race, but we only had so much time to spend in Alaska and I preferred to spend that time in Denali instead since we had already spent three nights in Anchorage.

Denali National Park is a whopping 6 million acres, most of it natural and untouched by humans. Don’t expect to see even a quarter of the park when you go. There is one road that goes through the park and you can only take a private vehicle as far as mile 15 (the park entrance is the beginning of the mile markers, so Mile Post 15 or MP15 is as far as you can drive yourself into the park).

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Grizzly bears (a.k.a. brown bears) in Denali!

When you go to Denali National Park, you have some options as to how to spend your time in the park. You can camp in either a tent or RV, and there are six campgrounds, from mile 0.25 (Riley Campground, the only campground open year-round) to mile 85. If you stay at a campground beyond mile 14, you will need to take a camper bus to get there, with the exception of Teklanika River Campground at mile 29, which allows RV’s as well as tents. You can find information on camping at Denali here.

Since you can only take a private vehicle as far as mile 15, if you want to do some hiking beyond that in the park, you have to take a transit bus. Transit buses run from the Wilderness Access Center with the first stop at mile 53, Toklat River, which takes about 3 hours, 15 minutes each way or you can go as far as mile 92 to Kantishna (it will take 6 hours in and 6 hours out from here). We decided to go a bit more in the middle to mile 66 to Eielson Visitor Center, which takes 4 hours in and 4 hours out. More information on transit buses can be found here. In short, transit buses give you the flexibility to get on and off pretty much anywhere you want. There are bathroom breaks and our transit bus driver gave us some great narrative along the way and stopped for animal sightings any time someone from the bus saw something. Don’t believe what the website says about transit buses not being narrated, because ours were (both in and out, although the first driver was much more talkative than the second) and we were told most transit drivers do narrate along the way.

Although we wanted to do some hiking in the backcountry, we knew with such a long bus ride back (4 hours) we should keep it fairly short. At Eielson Visitor Center, there are two options for hiking, the Alpine Trail and the Tundra Loop Trail. Our transit bus driver told us we should only go on the Alpine Trail if we had bear spray but we should be fine without bear spray on the Tundra Loop Trail (but to still be aware of bears since they’re always a possibility in the park), so guess which trail we chose- yes, the Tundra Loop it was! The Tundra Loop Trail is around a third of a mile through alpine country. A spur trail adds an additional quarter of a mile, one-way, off the Tundra Loop. After hiking that, we waited at the visitor center for another bus and made our way back to the park entrance.

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View from the Tundra Loop Trail

Your third option for spending time in the park if you want to go beyond mile 15 is to take a bus tour where you stay on the bus the entire time other than to take bathroom breaks and short stops. There are three bus tours, the Denali Natural History Tour (4.5 to 5 hours round-trip), the Tundra Wilderness Tour (7-8 hours round-trip), and the Kantishna Experience (11-12 hours round-trip). Some walking is involved on bus tours, but you don’t have the option to hike on your own.

The final option for spending time in Denali National Park is to explore the first 15 miles of the park on your own. There aren’t many trails in the park considering how large it is, but many of the trails are near the front part of the park, rather than the backcountry part, which is left natural. On our second day at Denali, we hiked the Horseshoe Lake Trail, Taiga Trail, Spruce Forest Trail, Morino Trail, and Rock Creek Trail. Information about all of these trails and more can be found here. We found a perfect balance to all of this hiking by sandwiching our hiking with a stop at the sled dog kennel and watching a demonstration after doing a few trails, then doing a few more trails after going to the sled dog kennels.

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Views from the Tundra Loop Trail

A note about the sled dog kennels. Denali National Park is the only national park in the US that has sled dogs. The sled dogs originally patrolled the park for poachers but continued the tradition once the rangers found the sled dogs were more reliable than snowmobiles. The kennels are open to visitors year-round. After a brief talk about the dogs and the history of the sled dogs by a ranger, we got to see the dogs in action as they pulled the ranger around on the cart used during the summer, then we took our own self-guided tour around the facilities. It’s obvious these dogs are true working dogs and they love what they do; they got so excited when they knew they were going to get to run. We were there for about an hour to hour and a half total.

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Denali sled dogs in action!

We spent three nights in Denali, with 2 full days at the park, and found that to be a perfect amount for us. The transit bus turned out to be my favorite part of our entire time in Alaska. We got to see many brown bears, caribou, eagles and other birds, dall sheep, and marmots in the park. The bear sightings were all from the safety of the bus, so my fears of coming upon a bear while hiking were unfounded.

Have any of you been to Denali National Park? What did you do there? Would you like to go if you haven’t been?

Happy travels!

Donna