I recently heard an ad for a marathon and half marathon in Miami in February. They said something about how great it would be to run in beautiful Miami in February to get a break from winter weather and I started thinking about that. I’ve run several half marathons in the winter months including Kiawah Island Half Marathon (South Carolina) in December, Naples Daily News Half Marathon (Florida) in January, Run the Reagan (Georgia) in February, Ole Man River (Louisiana) in December, Dogtown Half Marathon (Utah) in February, and several half marathons in early to mid-March, on the verge of spring but still technically winter.
While I’ll agree that it was definitely nice to have a break from cold weather when I was in Florida, I still had to go back home obviously so it was just a few days of warmer weather. None of the other states were noticeably warmer than my home state of North Carolina, even though Georgia, South Carolina, and Louisiana are all south of where I live so one might expect it to be warmer (I did). I remember it being chilly and rainy in Louisiana and Georgia and very windy and cool in South Carolina. When I finished all three of those races, I was ready to just go back to my hotel room to take a hot shower and warm up. That being said, Kiawah Island Marathon and Half Marathon is a great race and I still recommend it.
So does that just leave Florida if you want to run a marathon or half marathon in the winter and have a greater chance of warm, sunny weather? First off remember, Florida is a big state and the weather varies considerably from the northern part to the southern part. I was in Naples, in the southern part of the state and the weather was nice enough that we still went to the beach in January. If we would have been in say, Jacksonville, it’s not nearly as warm there as it is in Naples in January but still may be warmer than where you live. Besides southern Florida, you would also have warm weather in the winter in southern Texas, southern California, Hawaii, Las Vegas, and Arizona. All of that being said, if you live in a state in the northeast or another state where it snows a lot and is bitter cold during the winter, it would seem considerably warmer if you ran a race in a state like North Carolina or Georgia. It’s all relative.
However, that’s not necessarily as great as it sounds, especially if you live in a far northern state. Let’s say you live in Michigan and it starts snowing in October, like it normally does there, and by November you’ve acclimated to the cold weather. If you were training for a marathon in Florida in January or February but lived in Michigan, that would mean you would have to run through some pretty rough weather, only to show up in sunny southern Florida, where it may be upwards of 75 degrees for the high on race day. You would not be anywhere near acclimated to that kind of temperature and it would probably feel like you were running in an inferno.
There are also the holidays to consider. If you’re running a half marathon or marathon in February, that means you need to get your training runs in for the weeks surrounding Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s. I’ve done that and it’s not something that was easy to do. Everyone is already busy around the holidays, with the extra shopping, gift wrapping, parties, putting up decorations, extra cooking and/or baking, visiting family members, and all of the other extra things that happen that time of year. When you have to run for 12 miles on Saturday, you’re probably not going to feel like driving 4 hours to see Grandma after that, plus you’ll likely have to figure out where to run and how to squeeze in another run while you’re at Grandma’s house for the weekend.
It’s not all bad, though. It is pretty nice to get a break from cold, dreary winter weather, even if it is just for a few days or a bit more if you’re lucky enough to spend some time there after the race. Sure, you do have to go back home to crappy weather, but you may appreciate the warm weather a bit more while you’re there and have maybe a bit more fun because of it. Plus, it gives you something to look forward to when you’re outside training in the cold, drab winter weather. If you live somewhere that you just love cold weather and snow, you probably wouldn’t enjoy a “break” from the cold weather and all of this would be lost upon you, so I don’t recommend a winter race for you in one of the states I mentioned in the winter.
I think as long as you come prepared and know what you’re getting into before you sign up for a winter race somewhere that it will be considerably warmer than where you live, it will be fine. In fact, it could turn out to be something you absolutely love and end up doing it year after year. My theory is always, “You’ll never know until you try!”
Have you run a race in a southern state in the winter? If so, what was your experience like? Do you want to run a winter race in a southern state?
I love national parks, whether they’re in the United States or elsewhere. However, for the purpose of this post, I’ll focus solely on national parks in the United States, specifically ones that I’ve been to during the winter months. There are several advantages to traveling to national parks during the winter versus during the summer, including they are less crowded during the winter and prices for flights and hotels are often lower during the winter than during the summer.
I’ll begin with Everglades National Park in Florida. Last December, I visited a friend of mine who lives in Miami and she took my family and I here. She often takes friends who come to visit her to Everglades National Park and she told me it’s much more pleasant to come during the “cooler” months than during the summer, not that it cools off that much in the winter, but when you live there, it’s winter to you and you notice the drop in temperature. We didn’t see any mosquitoes or other bugs, but she told me when she was with a visiting friend earlier that year in the summer, they were nearly eaten alive by bugs at Everglades National Park.
We took an airboat tour through Everglades National Park, which I had done before on a previous vacation to the area several years prior. You’ll mostly see some alligators and many different types of birds as you zip around the wetlands. There are also manatees, the Florida panther, and turtles in the area that you may see if you’re lucky (well, probably not a panther because they’re so elusive).
I also visited some national parks in Utah during February one year including Bryce Canyon National Park and Zion National Park. Both parks are located in the southwestern part of Utah, about an hour or so from each other by car. When I think of Bryce Canyon, I think of watching the falling snow on the hoodoos and red rocks while we were walking around the serenely quiet park, with almost no one else there but the three of us. There’s a winter festival scheduled from February 16-18 in 2020 that includes cross-country ski tours, photography clinics, ranger-led snowshoe excursions under the full moon, and guided fat bike rides. There are two ski resorts nearby, Brian Head Resort and Eagle Point. We stayed at Ruby’s Inn, which is the closest lodging to the park entrance, and they even have an ice-skating rink across the street during the winter.
Zion National Park is bigger and more people go there annually than Bryce Canyon National Park, so chances are you won’t be the only ones hiking there even in the winter but the crowds will be thinner than during the summer. Zion National Park is known for its slot canyon, Zion Narrows, which you can wade through given the right conditions (I did not do this). Winding through the main section of the park is Zion Canyon Scenic Drive. The Virgin River flows to the Emerald Pools, which have waterfalls and a hanging garden. Another famous part of Zion National Park is Angel’s Landing trail, known for its sheer drops on either side of the narrow trail. We stayed at Cable Mountain Lodge, which you can literally walk to the park from, and the rooms are spacious, clean, comfortable, and quiet.
It’s possible to combine Bryce Canyon, Zion, and the Grand Canyon National Park all in one vacation, like I did (plus we had a couple of other stops as well). Grand Canyon National Park as you might imagine is one of the most visited national parks, so going there in the winter is a great idea. If you can go during the week as opposed to on a weekend in the winter, not only will there be less people to contend with, you’ll have an easier chance scoring a place to stay within the park. Seeing snow on the Grand Canyon is something I will always remember. I’ve been there twice during the winter months and both times it was beautiful and peaceful.
Although not a national park, San Antonio Missions National Historical Park is a great place to visit in the winter. In the 18th century, dozens of Spanish missions were constructed across southern Texas. Four of the best preserved are in San Antonio, and can be visited as part of the national historical park. The 12 mile route near the San Antonio River is connected by the Mission Trail and links The Alamo with Mission Espada.
Honestly, there isn’t a bad time of year to visit Hawaii, so visiting during the winter months can only be good. Not only would you get a break from your current winter weather, the crowds will be (a bit) thinner if you go after New Year’s Day and your airfare will be (a bit) lower than if you go in July or August. The temperature doesn’t change that much from one month to the next, but it will be a few degrees cooler in January than August. For example, the average temperature in Kona on the Big Island is 81 degrees in January and 87 degrees in August.
I’ve been to Hawaii three times, once in the fall (October), once in the summer (August), and once in the winter (February). All three times, I was swimming in the ocean, snorkeling, hiking, and loving life. I know my airfare was considerably more when I flew there in August and the lowest when I flew in February. I didn’t notice the crowds being any less in one month than another, however. The first time I went to Hawaii, I visited Haleakalā National Park in Maui and Volcanos National Park in Hawaii (the Big Island), but I wasn’t a blogger then so I don’t have a post on either of those parks but I can say they are both worth spending at least a day at. I’ve been to Volcanos National Park twice and would love to visit it again someday (plus go back to Haleakalā). I went to the islands of Kauai and Oahu on my most recent visit, neither of which have national parks, but still plenty of incredible hiking, including the Nā Pali Coast State Wilderness Park in Kauai and Diamond Head State Park in Oahu.
What national parks do you like even better in the winter months? Have you been to any of these parks in the winter and/or other times of year? Any national parks in other countries that you loved during the winter?
I’d like to continue my tradition of re-capping my travels for the year and note all of the things I learned while I was traveling. As great as my travels were in 2018, I think they were topped in 2019. It was a truly wonderful year for travel for me, for which I am so grateful to have experienced. My family and I visited so many incredible places in just one year and it was a wild ride! Let’s begin! Grab a coffee or glass of wine first, because this one is going to take a while.
In February, we visited two islands in Hawaii, Kauai and Oahu. I had been to Kauai before but I still learned some things there. I learned how drastically different vacations to the same place can be given a person’s circumstances. When my family and I last went to Kauai, my daughter was not quite two years old. Our days were spent lazing around the pool and beaches with our daughter and my in-laws. My husband and I went hiking a couple of times while our daughter stayed back in the room with my in-laws.
Fast-forward to this year, where it was my husband and I along with our 13-year-old daughter and it was quite a different experience for all of us. We went zip-lining, snorkeling, and the three of us went hiking several times together. This was a much more active vacation and I saw a different side of Kauai than the previous one I saw 11 years ago. I also discovered shave ice for the first time, thanks for my daughter asking for it. Holy crap is that stuff good! I thought it would just be regular snow cones before I bit into it, but it was nothing like that. We learned to ask for our shave ice with sweet cream over and macadamia nut ice cream under. So, so good! My post on Kauai is here.
I also learned a few things on the island of Oahu. Previously, I hadn’t wanted to go to Oahu because I had heard how crowded Waikiki and Honolulu are. When I pictured Oahu, all I could see was the big city of Honolulu and crowded beaches of Waikiki. A co-worker of mine has been to Oahu several times and has always raved about it, so I decided to give it a try. Yes, Oahu has some definite crowded places, like Diamond Head State Monument and of course Honolulu is crowded, but Oahu is so much more than those places. By the way, I recommend still going to Diamond Head State Monument despite the crowds because you get some tremendous views of the area from the top.
We stayed on the east side of Oahu on a bay and it was absolutely perfect. Not only was it not crowded like other parts of Oahu, it was close enough that we could drive to most places within a reasonable drive. This was a valuable thing to learn about Oahu: you don’t have to stay in the crowded parts of the island. I also learned how to standup paddle board for the first time at the gorgeous Airbnb property where we stayed in Oahu. I learned I’m actually pretty good at SUP and since that vacation I have had so much fun paddle boarding at other places on our travels like Hilton Head Island and Wyoming but also back home on a lake near where I live. It’s become one of my favorite activities along with running, cycling, and hiking. You can find all of the details about my time in Oahu here.
In May, we took a short vacation to Delaware. This was my first time visiting Delaware and I wasn’t sure what to expect. I had been to states all around Delaware but honestly didn’t know much about Delaware. We were in the Rehoboth Beach area and I learned that it is so much cheaper to visit this area in May than during the summer months, plus it’s much less crowded. Although it wasn’t warm enough to get in the ocean, it was nice enough to walk along the beaches and also walk the trails at Cape Henlopen State Park. I learned there are several great restaurants and shopping in this area. Lewes, the first town in the first state in the United States, has some unique shops and restaurants as well.
While I was in Delaware, I also discovered a float tank a.k.a. sensory deprivation tank, which I used for the first time ever, and you can read all about here. I learned that I absolutely loved how I felt afterwards and it wasn’t nearly as claustrophobic or strange as I thought it might be. While I was in Delaware, I told myself I would look for float tanks when I travel again because even though there’s a place with float tanks sort of close to where I live, it wouldn’t be convenient for me to go there, but I haven’t followed through with that. I really need to get better about that because I felt like my recovery time from my half marathon in Delaware was quicker and I just felt great all over afterwards.
Later in May, I went to Peru and had one of the best vacations of my life. Our vacation started in Lima, where we flew into and took a taxi from the airport to a hotel for the night and spent a few hours walking around until we had to head back to the hotel for our quick flight to Cusco. That all worked out well, but I learned that one’s experiences in Lima (and really any city) can vary vastly depending on one single person- your taxi driver. So we flew from Lima to Cusco then Cusco to Arequipa and back to Lima (over a couple of week’s time). On our return to Lima the second time, our plan was to take a taxi from the airport to the Miraflores section, which is where we spent the night upon arrival in Peru, and by the way I had read this was the “best” and “safest” part of Lima. Our plan was to spend a few hours in this area having dinner and walking around the shops and neighborhood before we took another taxi back to the airport and fly back home. However, our taxi driver was a dishonest man and told us several lies during that drive to Miraflores. Long story short (you can read the full story here), the taxi driver tried to mislead us into paying him more money than what we had agreed to before getting into his cab (yep, no meters here) and at one point I was starting to fear for my life and wonder if we were going to have to jump out of the car before he kidnapped us.
Fortunately, the rest of Peru was amazing. I learned some things when we were in Cusco, the first of which is that when everyone says to allow a few days for your body to acclimatize to the higher altitude, you really need to listen and do that. I had planned on just taking it easy for our first 2 or 3 days in Cusco and didn’t plan anything for us to do those days. This turned out to be perfect for us and by the third day we were feeling so good we decided to go for a hike to the ruins of Sacsayhuaman and the nearby Statue of Christ. Cusco is a city where you can easily just hang out and take in the sights and not overly exert yourself. That being said, I learned Cusco is crazy hilly and if you stay up at the top of the hill like we did, you’ll get out of breath just walking up the hill and going up all of those what feel like a million steps! It’s definitely easier to stay at the bottom of the hill, where the main square is, but it’s also more crowded and noisier down there. Pick which you’d rather have, peace and quiet or easier physically.
Another thing I learned in Cusco is taking a day trip to Rainbow Mountain is worth it and although it’s not quite a picture-perfect as some of the photos online, it’s still a colorful, unique area. This is a place where it pays to have acclimatized to the altitude first before coming here since the peak is at 17,060 feet. I also learned it’s a good idea to pay the extra admission to the adjacent Red Valley, which is every bit as beautiful as Rainbow Mountain but not as crowded.
More things I learned about Cusco: the heating systems aren’t like what we’re used to in the United States. The hotels and hostels may claim to have heated rooms, but I read online hotel reviews over and over about how the rooms were cold, especially at night, and we experienced this ourselves as well. We did at least have hot water, so that was extra nice. Also, there are a crazy amount of not just good but GREAT restaurants in Cusco. Before going there, I didn’t know Peru is such a foodie country, but at least in Lima, Cusco, and Arequipa, we came upon so many restaurants with not only some of the best-tasting food but also such beautiful presentations of the food! A final thing I discovered on our last day in Cusco was Avenida el Sol, a part of Cusco that I absolutely loved and wished I had known about sooner. It was full of cute shops, restaurants, and hotels and seemed like a place I would have liked to have stayed in. My post on Cusco is here.
From Cusco, we took a trek with Alpaca Expeditions and some of their incredible staff along with a family of four from Connecticut, where we camped in tents and ultimately ended up at Machu Picchu on the fourth day. Along the way, we met with and talked to some local families and school children, went to a local market, got to walk around the Salinas salt ponds, soaked in the Lares Hot Springs, saw alpacas and llamas up-close, and saw some of the most amazing scenery I’ve ever seen in my life. This trek really emphasized to me that sometimes the journey is more important than the destination. OK, maybe not “more important,” but certainly as important in this case. You can read about my Lares Trek to Machu Picchu here: Day One, Day Two and Day Three.
That’s not to imply that Machu Picchu wasn’t every bit as wonderful and awe-inspiring as you might think it is if you’ve never been, because it was every bit that and more. I learned that Machu Picchu is pretty much exactly what I had in my head as to what it would look like. What I was surprised by is Huayna Picchu, the mountain that towers behind the ruins of Machu Picchu. We had decided to pay a little extra to climb up Huayna Picchu, and I was terrified going into it, to be perfectly honest. I had read that some of the stairs are crumbling and parts of it aren’t safe to climb, which is perhaps true. What I learned first hand, however, is there are cables to hold onto for some parts of the climb, which makes it a bit easier, BUT these cables stop just where you really need them in my opinion, at the very last part of the climb. I had to channel my inner strength for this part of the climb in particular to help overcome my intense fear of heights, and I learned that some of the stuff I had learned about overcoming fears really does work, like focusing on the task at hand. Let me tell you, I focused on climbing those steps up Huayna Picchu like nothing I’ve ever focused on before and I was able to get to the top without breaking down or just giving up (which has happened before to me when hiking in the mountains). I was so proud of myself and going back down seemed like a piece of cake after going through what I did to reach the top. My post on Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu is here.
When we went to Arequipa after we left Cusco, I learned an important lesson. If you have a limited amount of time in a place and have your heart set on doing a specific trek or visiting a specific place, make reservations in advance. I thought it would be best to wait to make reservations for Colca Canyon, the big reason why many people visit Arequipa in the first place, until we got there, but due to multiple reasons, we were unable to visit Colca Canyon. Of course I was disappointed, but we found plenty of other things to do in Arequipa and it ended up being even better than I thought it could have been. Still, I wish I had pre-booked the overnight trek to Colca Canyon. You can read all about Arequipa here.
Some final thoughts on Peru in general: traffic in Peru is some of the most insane I’ve ever seen anywhere. Don’t even think about renting a car here. I wouldn’t recommend renting a motorbike or scooter either because the traffic is so crazy. Dress in layers as the temperatures can and do vary throughout the day. Learn some Spanish before you go and I mean learn as much as you possibly can because many people don’t speak English at all and you may not have cellular coverage or Wi-fi to use Google translate.
In July, we went to Wyoming, starting in Thayne where I ran a half marathon and moved on to Jackson for a few days and eventually to Yellowstone National Park, where we spent several days. One thing I learned is that the Jackson Hole area is worth spending more than just a couple of days or especially just a day trip from Yellowstone like some people do. Grand Teton National Park is NOT part of Yellowstone National Park but in fact a separate entity and should be treated as such. I learned you really should take at least 3-4 days to enjoy Grand Teton National Park, and 4-5 would be even better if you like to hike. I also learned that it’s worth renting a paddle board to do stand up paddle boarding on String Lake and Jenny Lake in the park for the day if you’re into SUP like me. My post on Grand Teton National Park is here and water activities (including rafting down the river, which I highly recommend) here.
I learned there’s no possible way to see all of Yellowstone National Park if you’re only going to be there a week or less, so you might as well not even try. It’s an enormous park so the best way to see it is to choose a part of the park for a day and focus your time there, then choose another part of the park and spend a day there, and so on, otherwise you’ll spend half of your day driving from one part to the next. I learned Yellowstone gets crowded during the summer months so it’s best to get an early start in the morning to see the geysers, hot springs, pools, and canyon. It’s also best to make reservations for a hotel within the park as early in advance as you possibly can, because the rooms fill up months out. I also learned it’s possible to get away from the crowds, just by going on some of the trails that are a bit farther from the most popular areas like Old Faithful and Grand Prismatic. I have two posts on Yellowstone, one on general info and learning your way around and another with more specific tips.
In August, I visited Hilton Head Island in South Carolina, which was a return visit for me but I still learned some things. As I mentioned with Hawaii how it was a return visit but we had very different experiences because our daughter was so young the first time, Hilton Head Island was the same for us. The first time we went, our daughter was young, so we mostly hung out at the beaches, did some shopping, and went to the lighthouse. However, this time when we went, we rented bikes and rode them all over the island, my daughter and I ran, my husband and I rented stand up paddle boards, and we still visited the white sand beaches of course. I learned that Hilton Head Island is another place where you can have anything from a relaxing, laid-back vacation to a more active vacation, depending on your current lifestyle and choices. You can read about my family’s adventures in Hilton Head Island here.
Our final vacation of the year was in a place I had heard good things about from a couple of people I know but it’s far from what I’d call a popular vacation spot, Omaha, Nebraska. I chose to run the Hot Cider Hustle Half Marathon in Omaha for my half marathon in Nebraska, which was in October. This turned out to be a fantastic time of year to visit the area because of the autumn leaves and it was still warm enough (most of the time anyway) to comfortably walk around and visit the cute shopping/restaurant area called Old Market. I learned Omaha, Nebraska has a surprisingly large number of good restaurants and unique shops, along with some fun museums and a great botanical garden. We especially liked the Durham Museum, the Joselyn Art Museum, and Lauritzen Gardens, which you can read all about plus much more here. I learned that Nebraska may be listed as a “flyover” state, and while I can only speak from my experience in Omaha, it’s a place I would definitely return to, given the opportunity.
So, this has been my longest blog post yet, but it was undoubtedly one of the most action-packed travel years for me to date. Honestly, 2020 will pale in comparison, but I know every year can’t be like this one. Besides, it’s not like a contest where we have to go to “bigger” and “better” destinations to top the previous ones. We just happened to have a year crammed full of some amazing destinations. As I stated earlier, I’m so grateful to have been able to go to these places with my husband and daughter. I feel like I learned so much from our travels in 2019 and that is truly priceless.
Where did you travel to this year? What were some of your favorite places? Tell me about them!
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!”.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
So far, I’ve been to four Hawaiian islands on three separate occasions: Maui once, Hawaii (a.k.a. the Big Island) twice, Kauai twice, and Oahu once. I’m by far no expert on Hawaiian islands but I would like to share my experiences for people who have never been to Hawaii because I have gotten some questions. Hawaii is a popular bucket-list place for many people, so when they go, they want to make sure they’re going to be happy with their decision.
First and foremost, the most important question is which island should you go to? There are six islands that tourists can visit. In addition to the ones I listed above, there’s also Lanai and Molokai. Lanai is mostly (97% as of 2012) owned by former Oracle CEO Larry Ellison, who wants to keep the island remote and luxurious. There are a couple of hotels, a few golf courses, and no traffic lights. People come here for rest and relaxation. Molokai, is almost the antithesis of Lanai, with no five-star luxury hotels. Half the population is of native Hawaiian heritage. This destination is ideal for adventure seekers, history buffs and those who want to experience old Hawaii, pre-1959.
Maui is the second-most visited island, and is best known for its beaches. You can drive the super-curvy Road to Hana, to see the rain-soaked side of the island. Another popular activity is to watch the sunrise from the Haleakala National Park. You can go with a group and cycle down the volcano or just drive there on your own and skip the bicycle tour if you have a rental car. Many people honeymoon in Maui and there’s even a phrase that you were “Mauied” if you got married in Maui. There’s no shortage of things to do, but Maui tends to get a bit touristy especially in Lahaina and Kaanapali Beach.
Oahu is the most-visited island and home to the state capital Honolulu. This island is best for couples, families and groups of friends seeking culture, entertainment and great food. There is a huge range of things to do from active pursuits like hiking, snorkeling at Hanauma Bay, or taking tours of historical sites like Pearl Harbor and the Iolani Palace. Don’t think your only option is to stay at crowded Waikiki Beach, as there are many options on other parts of the island that aren’t so over-run with tourists.
Kauai is known as the Garden Isle, and is perfect for those that enjoy getting out in nature. Hawaii’s best hiking trails can be found on Kauai, such as the famous 11-mile Kalalau Trail along the Na Pali Coast. There are many other parks around Waimea Canyon, called the Grand Canyon of the Pacific, where you can find trails of varying lengths and difficulty. Poipu in the south shore is fantastic for snorkeling and swimming year-round.
Hawaii Island is also called the Big Island and is larger than all of the other islands combined. The world’s most active volcano, Kilauea, is here, as well as 11 of the world’s 13 climate zones. The Big Island is ideal for people who love hiking, families of all sizes and ages, and those that want to explore all that this beautiful island has to offer (in other words, everyone!). Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is a place you definitely want to visit as well as Waipio Valley. You’ll find black sand beaches and probably spot some turtles here.
I suggest combining a couple of islands for a vacation that’s longer than a week. If you can only stay up to seven days, just choose one island and see and do all that you can in that time. If you have ten days or more, you can comfortably see two islands. I personally like to spend a week on one island and five days on another island. With flight times, you’re looking at basically two weeks. For ten days, I would divide up the time equally as five days on one island and five days on the other, assuming it’s your first time to Hawaii.
Flights between islands are cheap and often but do still take up a chunk of your time, between getting to the airport early, going through security, flight time, and getting back out of the airport and to wherever your destination is for your second island. Most inter-island flights go through Oahu, too, so you may have a short layover en-route to your destination island. There are only two inter-island passenger ferries in Hawaii. The Molokai Ferry departs twice daily from Lahaina, Maui, to the nearby island of Molokai, and takes about 90 minutes. The Maui-Lanai Expeditions Ferry departs five times a day from Lahaina, reaching Manele Bay on Lanai in 45 minutes.
That about covers the basics for Hawaiian islands. If you have any other questions or comments, I’d love to hear them! Share your Hawaiian experiences with me and others here as well!
If you follow my blog, you probably know I’m running a half marathon in all 50 states and am up to 46 half marathons in 44 states. Hawaii was actually the second state I ran a race in, Kona Marathon and Half Marathon, Hawaii-2nd state, so no, I didn’t run a half marathon in Hawaii this time. I have now run on four different Hawaiian islands, though, and I thoroughly enjoyed running on every one of them.
I often run when I’m on vacation, especially if I’m training for a race. Since I have a half marathon coming up in May and am thus in training mode, I knew I would be running while on vacation in Hawaii the end of February and first part of March. Sometimes I’ll look online beforehand to try to figure out the best running route but since I knew I’d be in Kauai for a week, I decided to just see what my choices were when I got there. I should have known better.
The first day I ran in Kauai things didn’t go so well. I just started off from my hotel and started running along a walking trail between the hotel and beach but ended up hitting dead-end after dead-end and ultimately ended up running along a busy 2-lane road on the way back to my hotel. I looked up Google maps to find a running trail and found one less than a mile from where I was staying (near Kapaa). This was the Ke Ala Hele Makalae multiuse trail and it turned out to be absolutely perfect.
Ke Ala Hele Makalae is Hawaiian for “The Path that Goes by the Coast,” and it hugs the eastern shoreline for about 7 miles in two segments that will eventually be connected and the path will ultimately go for 17 miles when completed. This is an asphalt/concrete rail-trail that partially follows a former railroad line once used to haul the island’s sugarcane. One section connects Lydgate Park to Wailua Beach Park, and the rest links Kapa’a to Ahihi Point. There is a 2-mile gap between the two segments (between Wailua Beach Park and Kapa’a), which you can bridge via road although the road is busy and the shoulder is narrow.
I ended up running the Ke Ala Hele Makalae trail on four mornings while I was in Kauai and I have to say after the first day, I looked forward to running there on later days. I’ve always loved running along a coastline where I have views of the ocean as well as rocky formations and sandy beaches and this trail had all that and more (like feral cats and chickens!). It was a bit crowded at times but not enough to bother or hinder me in any way. There isn’t any shade either so be sure to wear sunscreen and a hat and bring some hydration with you.
Logistics: for the southern segment, parking and restrooms are available at the north end of Lydgate Park off Nalu Road. For the northern segment, parking and restrooms are available at Waipouli Beach Park at the Lihi Boat Ramp on Kaloloku Road, as well as at Kapaa Beach Park at the end of Niu Street.
After spending a week running in Kauai it was time to fly to Oahu. I have to admit, I was a bit sad to lose my beautiful running route in Kauai but I looked forward to finding one just as good in Oahu. However, history repeated itself and my first run in Oahu didn’t go very well. I tried multiple ways to find a good running path near my Airbnb before I was supposed to run but despite all that, I once again ended up running along a busy 2-lane road. This time at least there were mountains all around to admire and keep me distracted. Still, I knew there had to be a better place to run.
I went back to my room and tried researching running trails in Oahu but all I could come up with were places near Waikiki or Honolulu. Since my plan all along was to spend as little time in Waikiki as possible, that wasn’t going to work. I needed to find a place to run either on the east side or northern part of the island. I didn’t want to have to drive 45 minutes each way just to reach a good running path either.
Finally after much debate and attempts at researching trails suitable for running online, I stumbled upon the North Shore Bike Trail, which is about 2.6 miles long. I added this to Waimea Bay Beach Park and made it work although there were parts in-between where I ran along the road. The bike trail is shaded in parts and has views of beautiful Pupukea Beach and Shark’s Cove. My daughter and I ran here and we rarely saw other people on the trail so it certainly wasn’t crowded and I can’t imagine it ever really being crowded.
After doing more research, I found the Kawai Nui Hiking Trail that’s on the southeastern side of Oahu but read that it can get muddy and since it had been raining a lot recently I didn’t attempt it, but that’s another option. Close to Pearl Harbor is the Neal S. Blaisdell Park that has biking and running paths. Just be aware that there are many homeless people in the area so you wouldn’t want to run there by yourself or when it’s not daylight. I personally didn’t feel unsafe during the day, but I wasn’t by myself and it was during the day.
Although I enjoyed running in Hawaii, I know it’s not for everyone. To some people, it would be too hot but I seem to do better in warmer temperatures than most people (and worse in colder temperatures). Also, not everyone would want to run while on vacation, but I truly enjoy running and look forward to it rather than dread it. Besides, the scenery certainly helped get me motivated to get out the door!
How about you guys- do you think you’d like running in Hawaii or do you tend to not run while on vacation? Would it be too hot for you to run comfortably? If you do run on vacation, how do you find your running routes?
Many months ago when my husband and I were discussing where we wanted to go during our daughter’s school break the end of February/first part of March, Hawaii came up. As much as I’m dying to go to Portugal, I want to wait until the weather is more ideal than it would be the end of February. Hawaii, on the other hand, has perfect weather year-round. The last time we were in Hawaii, which was the second time for each of us, we went to Kauai and the big island and these had become our collective favorite islands. I think it was assumed we would return to the big island and Kauai this time as well.
At the time of our trip planning, the big island was having its most recent massive volcanic eruption. Sections of the island were closed and the air quality was poor. I knew of course things wouldn’t always be like that but I had no idea how long the lingering effects would go on. For example, would Volcanoes National Park or parts of it be closed when we wanted to go there? How long would the poor air quality linger? Not really wanting to take a chance and perhaps being overly-cautious, I suggested maybe we should skip the big island but go to another island instead, along with Kauai. Perhaps we should go to Oahu; after all, Oahu is the most-visited of the Hawaiian islands.
Although he didn’t say as much, I could tell my husband was highly doubtful of my suggestion to go to Oahu. He had been to Oahu many years ago with his mother and sister and had been less than impressed. He tells stories of having to step over body after body on Waikiki Beach and only having barely enough room to put his towel down. Pretty much all he remembers doing on that vacation is going to Waikiki Beach multiple days, driving to the North Shore for the day, and taking a day trip to the big island.
Nonetheless, I began researching Oahu and talking to some co-workers who I knew had been to Oahu several times. I decided we would go to Kauai for a week and Oahu for four days. However, I was adamant that we wouldn’t stay in the Waikiki or Honolulu areas. When I found this gem of a place on Airbnb, I was sold. Since it’s actually part of Paradise Bay Resort, you get resort amenities (more on that later) and free breakfast through Airbnb. We would be staying on the east side of Oahu in a bay, close enough to drive to plenty of good places to hike and pretty much anywhere else on the island we wanted but far enough from the massive crowds to enjoy some peace and quiet.
Flying into Oahu, I immediately noticed the colors of the water seemed somehow prettier than the other islands. The turquoise was more vivid and there was more variation in colors. Then I saw the sprawl of Honolulu and all of the buildings, homes, and hotels crammed together and I was glad I had found the resort in Kaneohe Bay. After we landed and collected our rental car, we drove to the Crazy Shirts outlet and got some lunch nearby. Then we went up to the top of the Diamond Head State Monument and the fun really started.
Diamond Head State Monument is undoubtedly one of the most crowded places I’ve ever been to but absolutely worth it for the views. From the trailhead to the summit of Diamond Head Crater is 0.8 miles one way with 560 feet increase in elevation from the crater floor. There are hundreds of stairs and you go through a couple of tunnels. If you don’t like crowds or small spaces, I wouldn’t advise going here. However, if you don’t mind pushing your way through hordes of people (sometimes you literally have to do this), you’ll be rewarded with amazing views like this:
For the rest of our time in Oahu, we mostly spent our time hiking but we also went to the Polynesian Cultural Center (PCC). One thing we discovered about the PCC is that you don’t in fact have to buy a ticket to walk around the grounds if you get there after 6 pm. General admission ticket prices (which are the cheapest offered) are $64.95 for adults and this includes a visitor’s center tour, self-guided tour through six different themed areas (like New Zealand), hands-on activities, a canoe ride, a brief movie, and a canoe show. However, if you’re content to walk through the themed areas on your own for a couple of hours in the evening, you can do so for free. There are also options that you can add on things like a luau, reserved seating, an evening show, and on and on with the most-inclusive package priced at $242.95.
Another non-hiking activity we did in Oahu was visit the Byodo-In Temple in Valley of the Temples Memorial Park. The Byodo-In Temple is a non-practicing Buddhist temple often used for weddings, funerals, and cremation services. I found the temple and grounds to be beautiful and peaceful. There is also a small gift shop on-site.
Some of our favorite hiking spots were Waimea Valley and Ahupuaʻa ʻO Kahana State Park. Waimea Valley also has a botanical garden with thousands of different types of plants from around the world and a waterfall that you can swim in. This valley has historically been home to kings, chiefs, and high priests. You can see many archaeological sites throughout the valley. Admission for visiting adults is $16.95 and you can arrange for complimentary tours and activities depending on the day and time (check the website).
Ahupuaʻa ʻO Kahana State Park was established to nurture and foster native Hawaiian cultural traditions and the cultural landscape of rural windward Oʻahu. Established as a “living park”, there are thirty-one families living in the ahupuaʻa of Kahana. These families assist with interpretive programs that share the Hawaiian values and lifestyle. There are two hiking trails available to the public, Kapa’ele’ele Ko’a and Keaniani Lookout Trail is a one mile long loop trail that begins at the Orientation Center and takes about one hour. The trail passes two cultural sites and offers stunning views of Kahana Bay. Nakoa Trail is named for the koa trees found along this 2.5 mile loop trail through a tropical rain forest. The loop hike takes about 2 hours. The total length of the hike is 5 miles from the Orientation Center.
My family and I are all about trails with views, so we chose the Kapa’ele’ele Ko’a and Keaniani Lookout Trail. As per our former experience with hiking trails in Hawaii, this one was extremely muddy and slippery in parts. The trail wasn’t too difficult other than navigating through the mud until we reached one of the viewpoints of the bay. At this point, the trail became what I would call pretty dangerous, with sharp drop-offs on both sides of a thin walkway. My husband went up that section to take some photos but I chose to stay behind until he came back and we went back the way we came. Also, if you go on this trail, wear bug-spray because we didn’t and got eaten alive by mosquitoes.
The final thing we did in Oahu that was a ton of fun was to go standup paddleboarding for the first time. Remember that awesome Airbnb we stayed at- well, Paradise Bay Resort offers free standup paddleboarding and kayaking lessons once a day on certain days. After a quick lesson of what to do (it’s pretty simple, honestly) we began paddleboarding around the small body of water (I guess you’d call it an inlet) directly behind the resort. Once I felt confident on my knees, I stood and pretty quickly felt like I had the hang of it. However, the winds were really strong that day and every time I tried to go out into the bay, the wind would push me backwards. Finally, I decided to just stay in the inlet. There were mangroves and I could still see into the bay so it was still scenic.
On our final day in Oahu, we tried to go to the Nu’uanu Pali Lookout but unfortunately the Pali Highway was closed when we were there. All was not lost, though. We made our way to Leonard’s Bakery to try some famous malasadas, which are Portuguese donuts without the hole. For the three of us, we ordered two each with Li Hing, cinnamon sugar, and original coating but when I opened the box in the car, I discovered they had given us several extras. We also got some of the custard-filled ones and extra ones of the others as well- bonus!
We decided to walk along the harbor area of Honolulu before heading to the airport and it was a nice way to end our time in Oahu. I know I for one was very glad I decided to take a chance and come to Oahu and I feel pretty sure my family would agree! Since we’re not really ones to go where the crowds are (with some exceptions like Diamond Head in this case) but we prefer to go a bit off the beaten path, the windward side was perfect for us.
Have you been to Oahu? Did you stay in popular Waikiki or somewhere else? Tell me about your experience in Hawaii.
I’ve been to the Hawaiian island of Kauai twice; the first time my daughter was almost 2 years old and more recently with my teenage daughter. I feel like the island remained pretty much unchanged in those eleven years with the exception of more traffic and people on the island. However, my experiences both times were vastly different.
The first time I went to Kauai I went with my husband and his parents (and as I mentioned our daughter) and I felt like I was just kind of along for the ride. My mother-in-law had been to Kauai before and pretty much set our itinerary for Kauai and also our time on the big island, which we combined for our 12-day vacation. At the time, I had no problems letting someone else plan what I did on vacation and I don’t remember really even looking up things to do.
We went to the pool at the resort, went to some beaches, a luau, my husband and I hiked in Waimea Canyon while my in-laws watched our daughter, and one day we drove up the coast to see Princeville and the surrounding area. Honestly, I don’t remember much from that vacation other than what I just typed here. Don’t get me wrong. I had a fantastic time but looking back I feel like it was all kind of a blur of beaches and swimming pools with the luau and Waimea Canyon mixed in.
Flash-forward to my more recent vacation to Kauai and there are quite a few differences. This time the three of us hiked in Waimea Canyon State Park, hiked part of Sleeping Giant Trail, and Maha’ulepu Heritage Trail with a sweet dog we took on a field trip from the Kauai Humane Society. We snorkeled on our own and swam through schools of fish, saw a spiny lobster, crab, and colorful fish of all shapes and sizes. We crawled through a small opening to get to Makauwahi Cave. We went ziplining and even flew through the air superman style on some of the lines (some of us went upside-down on some of the lines). My daughter and I also ran together several days and were rewarded with ocean views, volcanic rock formations, and sandy beaches along the way. Oh, and we also went to a luau complete with delicious local foods, musicians, several different Polynesian dances, and a fire show.
We’re an active family when we’re at home so it’s not surprising that our vacations are also active. That’s a good thing too, with all of the shave ice we ate! This was the first time I had ever tried Hawaiian shave ice. I always just thought it was like a snow cone. Oh how wrong I was! There is a difference in the quality of shave ice, as I found out. The best kinds are hand-formed with macadamia nut ice cream or vanilla ice cream on the bottom, with two or three flavors that evenly saturate the shave ice from top to bottom and sweet cream poured on top. The ice cream on bottom and cream on top sometimes cost extra (depends on the place) but they’re absolutely worth it.
Here are some of my favorite things in Kauai:
Koloa Zipline Tours– 8 lines, some of which you can go head-first superman style, tandem, upside down, or traditional. Tour lasts about 3.5 hours and you get a snack and water on the tour. Our guides were laid-back but safety-conscious so I felt like everything was completely safe and secure. The last line is the longest, at about 0.5 mile, with views of the reservoir, farmland with cattle, and of course trees below.
Makauwahi Cave Reserve– free guided tours or go on your own. Although you do have to enter through a small opening, there are carpets on the ground and it’s very short, so you’re through it before you know it. You can view the caves from above, but can’t really get good views inside the cave from that vantage. If you get lost trying to find the entrance, just walk down to where a river meets the ocean and you should find it shortly after that.
Maha’ulepu Heritage Trail– close to the Makauwahi Cave, this trail runs along the southern part of the island with views of limestone formations, cliffs, and ocean. The area has sharp, jagged rocks everywhere so it’s not a trail where you want to be wearing flip-flops. Bring sunscreen and water as there’s no shade and the sun is relentless. When we were there, signs were posted that the water at Maha’ulepu Beach was contaminated with bacteria and therefore unsafe to enter. All that being said, this place is truly beautiful and worth seeing.
Kauai Humane Society– field trips for well-behaved dogs can be arranged simply by showing up at the shelter, choosing a dog, doing a brief meet-and-greet with the dog, paying the $25 suggested donation (or more if you’re inclined), filling out a form, and taking the dog out along with some supplies in a backpack. Our dog, Priscilla, was truly one of the best-behaved dogs I’ve ever been around. She wasn’t afraid of anything and happily walked along the Maha’ulepu Trail and Beach with us. I hope sweet little Priscilla has found a home by now because she deserves it. One note if you do this, get there promptly at 11 am. The first day we went, we got there around 12:30 and there were no dogs left, so we went back the following day at 11 am and had no problems getting a dog. I was told they usually have around 8 or 10 dogs per day that can go on field trips so often all of the dogs go out and are taken well before 1 pm.
Waimea Canyon State Park and Area– called the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific” this park is enormous and is adjacent to Koke’e State Park, Na Pali Coast State Wilderness Park, and a few Reserve Areas. What all that means is there are plenty of trails in this area. This time the 22 mile Kalalau Trail (my husband and I hiked part of it the previous time we were there) was closed so our daughter chose our trail to hike, the Awa’awapuhi Trail, which is in Koke’e State Park. The Awa’awapuhi Trail is a downhill hike 3.25 miles each way. When we were there it was extremely slick and muddy and we were glad to be wearing our Merrell hiking shoes. If we were really smart, we would have brought a change of shoes for when we got to our car. The trail isn’t terribly scenic until you reach the end but the ultimately the views are great and worth the hike.
Beachesfor snorkeling-Lawa’i Beach and Poipu Beach Park. Conditions for snorkeling change throughout the year so check with locals to see what their recommendations are for snorkeling. Also, we found the best beaches for snorkeling are not good for swimming and vice versa. The coral shelf often extends close to the water’s edge so you need to watch your footing carefully. We went in with bare feet and got some cuts and scrapes on our feet and legs but nothing major. Water shoes would have been a better idea. We also didn’t have fins but just the mask and snorkel and that was fine for us because we’re strong swimmers but we saw plenty of other people with fins.
JoJo’s Shave Ice- I especially liked the Colada Special and Locals South Shore. My daughter said the Rainbow was one of her favorites. The 28-oz serving is huge and can easily be shared (or you can keep it all for yourself!). We also liked Uncle’s Shave Ice but theirs wasn’t hand-shaven and I read some spotty reviews. No matter where you get your shave ice, just be sure you get the sweet cream “over” and ice cream “under.” It really makes a big difference.
Have you been to Kauai before? What are some of your favorite things in Kauai? Have you revisited a place many years later and had vastly different experiences?
I grew up in land-locked West Virginia and while it’s a beautiful state full of mountains, as an adult I’ve found I much prefer ocean and beach settings. If I can have mountains to hike in with views of the ocean, then that’s just about perfect to me. I’ve spent my fair share of time at beaches since I started traveling as an adult. In fact, the first international vacation I went on was to the Bahamas when I was in college.
Given the fact that I’m completely over winter and ready to move on to warmer, sunnier weather, I thought it might be fun to share some of my favorite beach spots and of course include photos. We’ll take a little photo journey around the world, in no particular order, although I may have to divulge some of my favorites at the end.
I alluded at the beginning to listing some of my favorites but it’s funny because photos are really art, which taken as a whole are not only subjective to the eye of the beholder but also the context. For example, a person’s travel experiences are influenced by things such as who they’re with, what stage in life they’re at, how they were treated by the locals and other travelers, and even the weather. I may look at a photo and it brings back happy memories while someone else may see the same photo and just see the landscape and/or people in the photo without any context of what was going on when the photo was taken.
So what are my favorite photos here? I’m not going to take the easy way out and say I could never choose because they’re all my favorites. I really like the stormy photo taken at the beach in Tenerife, Spain because I love how I was able to capture that moment just before a huge storm blew in. I also love the photo of the beach in Malta because of the different hues of blue in the water and the rocky protrusion, so I’ll narrow it down to those two photos for my favorites here.
What about you guys- do you like black sandy beaches, powder-white, or the more traditional tan/beige the best? Rocky beaches or sandy beaches? What are some of your favorite beaches?
I have to add that I absolutely love the west coast in general, which includes California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Nevada, Hawaii, and Alaska. I should also say that this is probably one of the more difficult itineraries of the east coast, midwest, and west coast itineraries to put together, just because the choices of amazing places to go to are over the top, but I’ll try my best to not list a crazy number of places.
1) For the city-lover and partier: Start in Los Angeles,California where you can spend a few days taking in the sun and sight-seeing. Los Angeles is filled with museums, amusement parks, tours, and cultural centers like Getty Center, LACMA and Walt Disney Hall. There’s also the Space Shuttle Endeavour and Dinosaur Hall. You can also take a touristy Hollywood tour if you want to get a glimpse of some homes of the rich and famous and see the Hollywood Walk of Fame (I won’t input my own opinion here but leave it at that).
Your next stop will be Las Vegas, Nevada, a place where I feel like everyone should go just for the experience. Las Vegas is like no other place in the United States and even if you’re not a gambler, it’s entertaining just to take in all of the sights. You can take a shuttle from Los Angeles for about $100 and roughly 6 hours of your time, you can fly in about 3 hours 20 minutes, or you can drive in about 4 1/2 hours. For me, a couple of nights in Las Vegas is plenty but if you’re into gambling, partying, and/or going to the myriad of shows, you might want to stay longer.
You could also go to one of my favorite places in the United States, San Diego, California. From Los Angeles, you can drive in about 2 hours or take a bus in about the same time if you don’t drive or can’t rent a car. San Diego is full of so many things to do you could spend a month here and not run out of things to do, but I recommend spending at least 5 or 6 days if possible. You could even skip Los Angeles entirely and fly directly into San Diego instead, but it seems like a lot of people have L.A. on their bucket list, and if so, check it off by all means but don’t miss San Diego and Las Vegas.
2) For a desert experience, first choice:Arizona. Fly into Phoenix, Arizona and hang out in this fun city for a couple of days before heading to Sedona, Arizona. You can take a shuttle or bus which will take about 3 hours or drive to Sedona in about 2 hours. I recommend renting a car if at all possible, because it will allow you to add on more sights, like Flagstaff, Arizona, which is about 50 minutes from Sedona by car. You can spend a day in Flagstaff or just stop along the way if you’d rather drive on through to the Grand Canyon National Park, which is about 1 1/2 hours from Flagstaff. The first time I went to the Grand Canyon, I only allotted one night with two days here and it wasn’t nearly enough. The next time I went, I allotted two nights with three full days and it was better but three nights would have been about perfect for my family.
Desert experience, with national parks: Utah/Arizona/Nevada. By no means am I ranking Utah behind Arizona here; I’m just listing choices. They are both amazing places and both highly recommended, with neither place being more recommended than the other. For Utah, you have some options. You can do like I did last year and fly into Las Vegas (Nevada) then drive to southern Utah to explore that area starting in Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon National Park, Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, Antelope Canyon (Arizona), Glen Canyon National Recreational Area (Arizona), Grand Canyon National Park (Arizona), and back to Las Vegas to fly back home. It’s a nice loop where you get to see a variety of national parks but you’re not spending your whole time on the road. I’d love to go back to Utah to explore some of the parks I didn’t get to see like Arches, Canyonlands, and Capitol Reef National Parks. For that trip, I’d fly into Salt Lake City airport and drive from there.
3) To see mountains, first choice: Colorado. Fly into Denver and spend a day or two here before going to one of the ski areas, like Vail, Breckenridge, or Aspen. The first two places are a bit closer to Denver but Aspen can be reached by car in about 4 hours or 5 hours by shuttle. If you’re coming here to ski during the winter you should probably just take the shuttle so you don’t have to worry about driving on snowy or icy roads unless you’re used to those conditions. Colorado is also beautiful during the summer months as well, though, and I actually prefer going there during the warmer months to go hiking since I don’t ski (I have been during the winter a couple of times, though and it is beautiful). Another area I love in Colorado is Boulder, which is only about 45 minutes by car or shuttle from Denver. You can take a day trip to Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park from Boulder or spend a couple of days at Rocky Mountain National Park. Ft. Collins would be another fun day trip from Boulder, which is about an hour from Boulder. I haven’t had the opportunity to explore the southern parts of Colorado but I hear Colorado Springs is a great place, as well as Great Sand Dunes National Park.
Mountains, second choice: Montana and Wyoming. Fly into Bozeman, Montana if you want to explore the southern part of the state. If you’re headed to Yellowstone National Park, it’s about a 2 hour drive from Bozeman Airport and a bit further south to Grand Teton National Park. If you want to explore the northern part of Montana, fly into Missoula and spend a day or two here. It’s about an hour drive to Seely Lake from Missoula and another hour and 20 minutes to Flathead Lake. From Flathead Lake, it’s about another hour north to Glacier National Park. If you want to go further north into Canada, I highly recommend driving another 4 1/2 hours to reach Banff. This area is filled with natural beauty such as Banff National Park, Kootenay National Park, Yoho National Park, just to name a few places.
4) San Francisco, wine country, and nature: fly into San Francisco, California and spend 2-3 days here. San Francisco is one of my favorite cities in California and it’s filled with fun things to do, from the touristy Fisherman’s Wharf to tours around Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz. You can also take day trips to Yosemite National Park, Muir Woods National Monument, Redwood National Park, and Sausalito.
Napa Valley is only about an hour’s drive from San Francisco. You can either drive here yourself and spend a couple of nights or take one of many shuttles from San Francisco. There are also numerous wine tours in Napa Valley; follow this link for detailed information. You can also tour the Sonoma County including Santa Rosa, the largest city in the county. No matter what you choose, I recommend one of the tours rather than driving yourself so you can actually taste some wine and not have to worry about drinking and driving.
5) Alaska– although I’ve not yet been to Alaska, I’m going next month! I’m not going the ever-popular cruise route but rather am doing my own itinerary, starting in Anchorage and going to some national parks and making a loop around that part of Alaska. The state of Alaska is enormous, though, so I do see the draw behind cruises in that you could see several parts of the state in one week. I’ll have some posts on Alaska in the upcoming months.
6) Hawaii- you really can’t go wrong with Hawaii as far as choosing which island(s) to visit nor what time of year you go because the weather is great year-round and of the islands I’ve been to both times I’ve been to Hawaii, they’ve all been absolutely stunning. So far, I’ve been to ‘the big island’, which is called Hawaii, Maui, and Kauai. I hope to go back in the next year but we’ll see! If you can manage to go to a couple of islands spread out over a couple of weeks, that’s ideal but don’t try to cram in two or more islands in only a week.
There’s also Oregon and Washington that both have a ton of beautiful places, but I think I should end here otherwise this post will be entirely too long! As I said earlier, I love the west coast!
Those are my top west-coast destinations for first-timers to the United States. What places have I missed? Any others that you would recommend?