Christmas at Biltmore Estate and Exploring Asheville, North Carolina

George Vanderbilt, whose family made its fortune in the railroad industry, chose Asheville, North Carolina for his “little mountain escape” summer home that lies along the French Broad River and called it Biltmore Estate. Built in the late 1800’s, it is the largest privately owned house in the United States, although in 1956 it ceased to be a family residence and continued to be operated as a historic house museum. The estate has 178,926 square feet (16,622.8 m2of floor space and 135,280 square feet (12,568 m2) of living area. The home was opened to the public in March 1930 at the request of the City of Asheville, and today brings in an estimated 1.4 million visitors per year.

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The library, one of my favorite rooms in the Biltmore Estate

You can tour the Biltmore Estate’s four floors and basement which includes 250 rooms (though not all are open to the public) including 35 bedrooms for family and guests, 43 bathrooms, 65 fireplaces, three kitchens and 19th-century novelties such as electric elevators, forced-air heating, centrally controlled clocks, fire alarms, and a call-bell system. There is even a swimming pool, gymnasium filled with what was then state-of-the-art fitness equipment, and a bowling alley in the basement.

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Winter Garden, another of my favorites

The grounds are definitely worth touring and include many different gardens, fountains and statues, a bowling green, an outdoor tea room, a terrace, conservatory, Bass Pond, restaurants, gift shops, and Antler Hill Village and Winery. There are many options for tours whether of the house or on the grounds from self-guided tours to rooftop tours to private tours and many others in-between. There are even winery tours and a motor coach tour where you learn about the history of the land, structures, and former residents while you tour areas not open to the general public.

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The Conservatory, which apparently is a fancy name for a greenhouse

I’ve been to the Biltmore Estate several times over the years, and have seen the house during all four seasons. I have to say Christmas at the Biltmore Estate is my favorite of any other time of year, although spring is a close second. I’m a big fan of Christmas decorations and the ones at the Biltmore Estate are every much as beautiful as you might imagine. Every room has at least one tree elaborately decorated and the lower parts of the house smell of gingerbread because of the enormous gingerbread house on display in one of the kitchens in the basement.

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Yes, it does get crowded at the estate during the weeks around Christmas and New Year’s, so be sure to get reservations for entry far in advance. The house doesn’t feel too crowded for the most part (there are a couple of places where people tend to bottleneck) thanks to the timed entries during the holidays. Don’t worry if the Candlelight Evening tickets are sold out and you’re left with tickets during the day because you’ll still enjoy the lights inside the house even if it’s daylight out. If you plan on eating at one of the restaurants on-site, you’ll want to get reservations in advance as well.

If you’d like to stay at one of the hotels on the grounds, you have three options:  The Village Hotel, The Inn, and The Cottage, with each place going up in amenities and price. There are also plenty of nearby hotels and houses through Airbnb. If you follow this link, you’ll get a discount through Airbnb:  Airbnb discount link.

Asheville Regional Airport has daily flights to Atlanta, Charlotte, Washington, D.C., and Chicago and seasonal service to many other cities including New York, Denver, and some cities in Florida. If you fly into Asheville, you can either rent a car or take an uber, although if you plan on going to the Blue Ridge Parkway or other areas to hike, you’ll want a rental car.

Asheville has plenty of other things to see and do besides the Biltmore Estate, especially if you like outdoor activities. As I mentioned above, the Blue Ridge Parkway is a short drive away, as is a plethora of hiking and camping options. There are so many options it would be crazy to list them all, but I’ll throw out a few I’ve personally been to, all of which are an hour or less from Asheville:  Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Pigsah National Forest, Black Mountain, Chimney Rock State Park, Dupont State Forest, and if you venture a bit further (about 2 hours from Asheville) there’s a cluster of great places to check out that includes Linville Falls, Blowing Rock, Grandfather Mountain, and Boone.

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Hiking with Libby and Chile near Asheville

If you’re a foodie, Asheville won’t disappoint you on that end either. Again, the options are endless for great places to eat, with places for every budget. For a splurge, try one of the restaurants at the Biltmore Estate like Deerpark Restaurant or Biltmore Estate Dining Room. Curate is a popular spot for tapas and Biscuit Head came highly recommended to us by someone who lives in Asheville but the line was crazy long out the door and we weren’t willing to brave the cold weather for it. We loved White Duck Taco Shop for their huge selection of tacos and Early Girl Eatery for great breakfast offerings.

My favorite restaurant of all has to be Sierra Nevada Taproom, which is near the Asheville Airport and yes this place deserves a paragraph entirely to itself. All I have to say is this place is like no other brewery I’ve ever been to (and I love breweries). The food at breweries is usually pretty good, but the food at Sierra Nevada is so crazy over-the-top good it makes me hungry just thinking about it. It gets super-crowded, so get here early for lunch (or dinner but they seem to be less crowded for lunch) and if you’re lucky you won’t have to wait for a table. They also have tours but we didn’t take a tour because of the timing of things, but I’d love to go back and take a tour. They also have a great outdoors area with games and fire pits, plus they have special events like dinners and concerts. Make this a must-do place if you’re ever in Asheville and like breweries and/or incredible food. Just know it isn’t cheap, but it’s so worth it.

Finally, here are a few other options for spending some time in Asheville. The River Arts District is great if you like art (Asheville is filled with fantastic artists), WNC Farmers Market is open daily year-round, Grove Arcade is a beautifully designed place to do some shopping and dining, and if you’re into antiques, check out the Antique Tobacco Barn.

I also have a post on Asheville when I went camping there one summer, which you can read here. This post is focused more on outdoor pursuits such as hiking, camping, and waterfalls in the area.

Final tips: Purchase your tickets for Biltmore Estate at least seven days in advance to save up to $10 on each daytime admission. If you’re going during the holiday season, purchase your ticket at least a couple of weeks in advance, and even longer out would be better if you have a specific day and time in mind. Christmas at Biltmore runs from early November through the first week of January, with the house being open 365 days a year. Reservations are required during high volume days, which you can find on their website.

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Have any of you been to the Biltmore Estate and/or Asheville? Is it on your list of places you’d like to go to?

Happy travels!

Donna

 

 

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Lessons Learned by an American in the Canary Islands

My family and I recently went to the Canary Islands for the first time. Even though I tried to do my research before we went, there were still some things that happened after we got there and I learned as we went along. I’d like to pass along some of these things that I learned in hopes of making things a bit easier for other first-timers to the Canary Islands.

Learn Spanish before you go to the Canary Islands. Don’t expect everyone to speak English. While some people know some English in the Canary Islands, in my experience, I came to assume that most people would in fact not speak English and I would need to speak Spanish. Never once was this an issue, however, and while my Spanish is ok, I’m by no means fluent. All that being said, there are a fair amount of ex-pats from the UK that live and work in the Canary Islands.

Carnival in the Canary Islands is a lot of fun and I highly recommend going during this time if you can. We watched a Carnival parade in Gran Canaria and it was everything I had hoped it would be. This was actually one of the items on my bucket list and I was glad to be able to experience it. Just learn from my mistake and either choose your accommodations very far in advance (several months to a year) so you can find a place within walking distance from the parade route or if you have a rental car like we did, park your car in a place where you won’t be blocked off by the parade route when you want to leave.

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One of many floats from one of many Carnival parades

Although the water is perfectly safe to drink in the Canary Islands, it does not taste that great so most people buy bottled water. One resort I stayed at even went so far as to say the water isn’t safe for brushing your teeth with, which is not true. You do get used to the taste over time, too, or at least I found it wasn’t quite as bad by the end of my two-week vacation.

Parking in Las Palmas on Gran Canaria can be difficult to find and free parking pretty much doesn’t exist but it’s not completely impossible. Although not free but pretty cheap, if you can find a turquoise-marked parking spot, take it. You will need to enter your car’s license plate number in the kiosk and put the receipt on your dashboard. There are also parking garages throughout Gran Canaria, especially the busier areas like Las Palmas. The same can be said for Tenerife, although we found parking to be a bit easier in general on this island than Gran Canaria.

Having a rental car is by far better than taking the bus to get around the islands. Driving in the Canary Islands is pretty easy for the most part. We found locals to be courteous drivers and not overly-aggressive. One of the worst parts about driving in the Canary Islands is how narrow some of the side roads are. I recommend getting a small rental car. Overall, the roads in Tenerife seem to be a bit wider than in Gran Canaria in general.

Playa del Ingles in Gran Canaria is an extremely touristy area. I personally don’t care for touristy areas, especially when it’s a natural setting like a beach, park, or other area like Niagara Falls but obviously some people like this kind of thing because touristy areas always seem to be over-run with people. I just don’t like all the mini-golf, kitschy shops, restaurants with mediocre at best food, and rows of hotels. If you can get past all that, this beach is a nice enough beach. However, it is clothing-optional so if that bothers you, it might be best to skip it. There are also touristy areas in the southern part of Tenerife as well but they didn’t seem so over-the-top as Playa del Ingles.

The sand dunes of Maspalomas that are behind Playa del Ingles are pretty cool, however, and are totally worth a trip to the area. We had so much fun playing on the dunes and even sliding down the hills of sand. Just be aware that you need to pay 50 cents to use the restrooms here and facilities are limited. In fact, we found several other beach areas on the islands where you had to pay 50 cents to use the restrooms.

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Maspalomas sand dunes. This place is enormous!

In addition to all of the beautiful and varied beaches in the Canary Islands, the options for hiking are also numerous and varied. We hiked through more canyons than I can remember and had so many experiences where we hiked to the top of a mountain and were rewarded with a gorgeous view. In addition to hiking up steep trails of mountainsides, we also had some wonderful strolls around small, quaint towns where we were also rewarded with seaside or mountain views. Plus, there are several botanical gardens around the islands that you can walk around, most of which are free.

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Hiking in Teide National Park

There is no central air conditioning and heat in the Canary Islands. In the cooler months people use small space heaters and blankets to keep warm at night. In the warmer months, people use fans and open windows. Because the islands are off the northwestern coast of Africa, the weather is pretty mild here year-round. It does help if you dress appropriately too and bring a jacket for the cooler months.

Gran Canaria and Tenerife are both extremely varied in topography and general vibe in different parts of the islands (i.e., North vs. South) so if you just stay at your resort in one little sliver of the island, you won’t get a real feel for the island as a whole. Likewise if you just go to one island you’ll miss out on what other islands have to offer. I feel like I missed out by only visiting two islands but that seemed reasonable for a two-week vacation. Next time I’d like to visit another island. I really liked Tenerife quite a bit better than Gran Canaria and would go back to Tenerife, but probably not Gran Canaria.

Choices for inter-island hopping include taking a ferry or flying. When I checked into prices and options for going from Gran Canaria to Tenerife, the prices weren’t hugely different to fly versus take a ferry. We enjoyed the ferry to the San Juan Islands in Washington in the US and from Gozo to Malta so much that we decided to take the ferry to Tenerife. This was a mistake. The water was so rough both my daughter and husband were sick the entire time so they didn’t even enjoy it. Honestly, there isn’t much to look at either other than the water. Next time I would fly for sure.

Having a mobile WiFi or MiFi is a valuable tool to have when traveling abroad, and the Canary Islands are no exception. I first used a MiFi when I went to Malta last year and had such a great experience with it, I decided to rent one for the Canary Islands. I did have a bit more trouble finding a company with coverage in the Canary Islands, but I eventually chose California-based Vision Global WiFi, and we never had any problems  getting a signal with the one exception of once in Teide National Park. My husband anticipated this and downloaded the area from Google maps onto his phone so we could still drive around without getting lost. In addition to using Google Maps for everywhere we drove, we also used the MiFi several times to translate Spanish words or phrases or look up other information while we were away from our room.

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The MiFi is about the size of an adult hand so it’s easy to take with you.

If you do nothing else in Tenerife, go to Teide National Park . It was my favorite thing to do in Tenerife and it’s free too. If the weather had been better, we would have spent more than one day here and also taken the cable car up, but it was just too windy and rainy during the days we could have gone there. We did finally get to go hiking in the park, on our last full day in Tenerife, and loved every minute of it. Another piece of advice regarding Teide National Park is to stay until dusk. We had dinner at Mariposa, a restaurant close to the park that I thought was going to be touristy with mediocre food but it was actually really good. When we were driving out of the park, we got some cool shots of the sky and moon. Also, all of the cyclists we saw earlier when driving around the park were all gone, along with the majority of cars as well so driving out of the park was a breeze.

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Teide National Park at dusk with the moon

The Canary Islands are beautiful and remind me in many ways of Hawaii but they are unique in many other ways (it’s much cheaper here than Hawaii for starters). I would happily go back and explore another Canary Island, Lanzarote, which I hear is a hotspot for athletes. Who knows, maybe I’ll run a half marathon here one day Lanzarote Marathon and Half Marathon.

Have any of you been to the Canary Islands? What was your experience like? If you haven’t been, is is on your list now?

Happy travels!

Donna

 

Hiking in Tenerife, Canary Islands- Teide National Park and An Alternative to Barranco Infierno

I’ll save the best for last here and begin with Barranco Infierno. A popular hiking trail in Tenerife is Barranco Infierno (Hell’s Canyon in English), 350 meters above sea level, and open every day from 8:00 am to 2:30 pm, weather permitting. Only 300 visitors a day are allowed entry to preserve the flora and fauna of the area. Entrance to the trail costs 8 euro per person. What can you do if you get there like we did only to be told the area was closed due to weather?

My husband thought we would have to just go back to the car and try something else since we couldn’t hike in Barranco del Infierno but then I noticed a small sign to the left of the ticket area and I walked over that way to check it out. There was a sign noting an alternative hike that was 6 km so we decided to take it. Even better, it was free!

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This trail is moderately difficult as it has virtually no shade and goes up and up. It took us about 2 hours to hike to the top, including taking some rest breaks, and 1 hour to hike back down, with no stops. Along the way, we saw many different types of plants and these tiny lizards that would dart in and out of the rocks. The trail is very well-marked and easy to follow the path to the top.

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Look for this sign to the left of Barranco Infierno for alternative trails

The views kept getting better along the way and we kept stopping to take photos. When we reached the top, we all agreed the view was one of the best we had ever seen and the hike was well worth it. There were also several people paragliding in the area and we watched them soar over the ocean and canyon.

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View from the top 

While we were in Tenerife, the weather took a turn for the worst and heavy rains with strong winds moved in for a couple of days. Knowing that Teide National Park would be colder and windier because of the elevation of the park, I didn’t want to go on a day with 100% chance of rain. Fortunately on our last full day in Tenerife, the weather was sunny with no rain in sight so we left our hotel room early with plans to spend the entire day at the park.

Teide National Park is the largest of the Canary Islands’s four national parks with its crown jewel Mount Teide, the highest point in Spain at 12,198 feet (3,718 meters). Weather-permitting, you can take a cable car up to Mount Teide but you need a permit to hike to the summit. Mount Teide is still considered an active volcano, with the last eruption in 1909. There are 37 trails in the park so you can spend many days hiking here but camping is not allowed in any nature reserves or national parks in Tenerife.

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One thing to keep in mind that I knew ahead of time but still didn’t prepare adequately for was just how much colder and windier it is in Teide National Park than in the rest of Tenerife. We ended up stopping at a small town about 20 or 30 minutes outside the park to buy gloves for my daughter and me, a winter hat for my husband, and a fleece pullover for me. When you go to the park, be better prepared than I was and wear a pullover (or even a winter coat if you’re going in the heart of winter), gloves, and a hat even if it’s supposed to be sunny and warm at your resort that day. Dressing in layers is a great idea because you can adjust accordingly throughout the day.

There is a cafe in the park with a wide array of foods like pizza, sandwiches, salads, and snacks along with hot and cold drinks. We had talked about picking up lunch from a market on the way and eating it at the park but that somehow never happened so we ended up eating lunch at the cafe. As you might expect, the food at the cafe is average and over-priced, on-par with other cafes at national parks we’ve been to. There is also a bathroom in the cafe but you have to pay 50 cents per person to use it.

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Snow-capped Mount Teide

Beyond dressing warmly and in layers, my one big piece of advice is to stay until the sun goes down before you leave the park. There are a few advantages to this:  1) the cyclists that you will encounter entering the park will have already have left so you don’t have to contend with them on the road leaving, 2) many other people will have already left so you don’t have as many cars to negotiate the roads with, and 3) the park is beautiful at dusk.

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Hiking at Teide National Park was our last full day in Tenerife, as I mentioned earlier, and we couldn’t have ended our vacation on a better note! Teide National Park was definitely a highlight of our vacation in the Canary Islands and if you’re planning a vacation to this area, it’s a must-do! Even if you don’t enjoy hiking, you can drive around the park and take some photos at pull-outs along the way. Because it’s such a large park, you can easily spend an entire day here (it would take several days to hike more than a few of the 37 trails). I’ll have to add Teide National Park to my list of some of my favorite national parks I’ve been to around the world.

What are some of your favorite national parks?

Happy travels!

Donna

 

Marshall University Half Marathon, West Virginia- 41st state

This is part of a series of posts from my quest to run a half marathon in all 50 states. West Virginia was my 41st state.

I grew up in West Virginia and went on to get my bachelor’s degree at West Virginia University, so I spent the first 22 years of my life in the state. Surprised that I waited all the way until my 41st state to run a half marathon here? If you knew just how hilly mountainous the state is, you’d understand. The entire state lies within the Appalachian Mountains, which means you’re hard-pressed to find an area with enough flat sections to run a half marathon that’s not super-hilly. In my opinion, a half marathon is hard enough without having to run up and down a mountain along the way.

For years I also put off running a half marathon in Colorado because of the elevation. That race was every bit as difficult as I thought it would be, but I did it when I ran the Boulder Rez Half Marathon. After that, I thought I’d be more ready to tackle a half marathon in West Virginia. As I mentioned, I was looking for something fairly flat, at least by West Virginia standards. I also wanted something fairly easy to get to, that I could drive to within a reasonable time. In my mind, that pretty much left something in either Charleston or Huntington, since both cities run along rivers and are relatively flat.

Enter the Marshall University Marathon and Half Marathon. Marshall University is in Huntington, a small town of about 45,000 people, in the southern part of the state near Ohio and Kentucky. There is a small airport here, but you’d probably be better off flying into Charleston, the capital, about an hour away, and driving a rental car to Huntington.

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A beautiful sunrise over Marshall University stadium

2017 was the 14th year for the marathon, so I thought it should be well-organized and most likely a good match for me. The only wild card was the weather. I remember trick-or-treating in my hometown in West Virginia wearing a heavy winter coat many Halloweens as a kid, and seeing snow in October wasn’t unusual. Since moving to North Carolina many years ago, I’ve become a weather wimp, especially when it comes to cold weather. The week of the race, the weather prediction changed from a chance of thunderstorms the morning of the race to rain the day before, to no rain on Sunday, and back to 61% chance of rain at 8:00 a.m. during the race. So I had no idea what the weather was going to be like during the race.

Packet pickup was offered both Friday and Saturday (no race-day pickup) and was easy and efficient. Half marathoners received a short-sleeve technical shirt and marathoners got that in addition to an Asics jacket (half marathoners could purchase a jacket). People running the 5k got a cotton short-sleeve shirt. There wasn’t really much else in the packet other than a map of Marshall University and written instructions for the race. There was a WV magazine, which I flipped through, but that’s all there was and I was glad really. I always think it’s a waste to get a bunch of junk no one wants anyway in your packet.

Despite the not-so-great weather predictions for the race, what happened in reality was near-perfect racing weather (for me, anyway; probably a bit warm for most other people). The low Saturday night was 57 F, which is 17 degrees warmer than it was this time last year in Huntington. Although it was overcast and looked like it could rain any second, it stayed completely dry the entire morning. Hurray! So I ran the course with temperatures in the low 60’s and overcast.

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Marathoners and half marathoners all start together but the crowd thins out after the first mile

The course was extremely flat by West Virginia standards. When I tried to look at course information on the website, I was unable to get a real feel for the elevation and how many hills there were on the course. When we tried to drive the course the day before the race, we were unable to because of all of the one-way streets and the fact that the course veered onto running/walking paths a few times. In the course description it said there was only one small hill and I was so happy I could have cried when I saw it was indeed a small hill, by anyone’s standards, and there were no more hills on the rest of the course. A flat half marathon in West Virginia is almost unheard of, but somehow I managed to find it.

Volunteers along the course were great and there were plenty of aid stations with water and Gatorade and port-a-johns. There were spurts where there were people cheering on runners and I thought crowd support was pretty good given the race is in a pretty small town. The best parts of the course were where it ran along the river and on the running/walking path in Ritter Park. With the trees in full peak time for autumn foliage, it was beautiful seeing all of the bright red, orange, and yellow leaves everywhere.

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My daughter getting handed a football to run the final portion of the 5k with

The finish in the football stadium was awesome. There were volunteers handing out footballs near the end, so you could finish running with a football if you wanted, which I did of course. The footballs were ours to keep too. It’s definitely one of the more unique things I’ve received from a race. The medals were on the small side, but they were individualized for each race, the marathon, half marathon, and 5k. Food at the finish was hot dogs, hamburgers, potato chips, chocolate milk, cookies, bananas, and water. I was nauseous prior to and during the first hour of the race, so all I felt like eating after the race was a banana and I drank some chocolate milk.

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The pacer here (in green) kept me on-track for the last couple of miles!

I did have a mishap the morning of the race. When I was filling one of my water bottles with Nuun, I noticed I seemed to be spilling some of it, then I noticed there was a gash in my bottle. I grabbed the bottle and salvaged what I could by pouring it into my full-size water bottle I had been using for the weekend (and it was empty, fortunately). I decided I would just chug that immediately before the race started then hand the empty bottle off to my husband and run with just one small bottle of Nuun instead of my usual two small bottles. Although there was water and Gatorade on the course, I prefer to run with my own Nuun for races. However, I didn’t even finish the bottle of Nuun I was running with, so it turned out fine in the end. I still have no idea how my bottle got such a large cut in it, though. Fortunately these Nathan bottles are easy to find and replace.

Overall, I loved this race. It helped me remember why I run half marathons and I truly enjoyed myself during this one. At the last two races I ran, in New Jersey and  Utah, I really struggled during those races and didn’t really enjoy them because they felt more like a slog to the finish. I was so glad I chose this race for my one in West Virginia and would highly recommend it to anyone looking for a fun and well-organized marathon or half marathon in West Virginia. I later heard raving reviews from other runners about the full marathon as well, in case any of you are wondering.

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My chip time was 2:00:55 (my A goal was 2:05, so I was thrilled with 2:00), and I finished 11th of 66 in my age group. I was the 93rd female out of 577. On a side note, my daughter ran the 5k and finished second in her age group, which is fantastic considering she was in the 19 and under group and she’s only 12! #proudmama

Marshall University Marathon, Half Marathon, and 5k

What’s one of the most unique things you’ve gotten at a race?

Happy running!

Donna

 

 

My Top 5 Favorite Places Outside the United States and Why I Love Them

Similar to my list of top 10 favorite places in the United States and Why I Love Them, I decided to write up a list of my favorite places outside the United States. Since I’ve traveled more extensively inside the US than outside, I limited it to my top 5 international places, only I felt the need for an honorable mention since I couldn’t limit it to just 5 places. I wanted to choose one city for each pick, but was unable to in most cases, so I limited the choices to a region or small area. I hope you enjoy my list! It was a lot of fun to make the list and reminisce about places I’ve been to over the years.

Honorable Mention:  Rethymno, Crete, Greece. As I’ve said many times on my blog, when my family and I travel, we often veer off the beaten path a bit. We don’t always go where the crowds go. So when we went to Greece, while we did go to the popular destination of Athens, we skipped the tourist-flooded islands of Santorini and Mykonos and opted for Crete instead. We may eventually go to some of the aforementioned islands, but we’re in no rush. Crete was absolutely everything we love in a vacation spot- there were beautiful hiking areas and some of the most stunning beaches I’ve ever seen. I especially enjoyed the Venetian harbor and fortress in Rethymno. Within driving distance are ruins (such as Knossos), caves, gorges, and many quaint small villages to keep you busy and in awe. My favorite beach on Crete is Elafonisi, with its pink sand and clear water, but there are many other beautiful beaches in Crete as well.

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Number 5:  St. Kitts and Nevis. These tiny islands in the Caribbean are only about 65 and 36 square miles each, respectively. My husband and I got married on the island of St. Kitts and took a ferry to Nevis for our honeymoon. We stayed at Nisbet Plantation Beach Club on Nevis and it is still to this day one of the nicest places I have ever stayed. It is the Caribbean’s only historic plantation on the beach. The service at Nisbet Plantation is unparalleled, the food top-notch, and the accommodations amazing. While there isn’t a ton to do on the island, it’s the perfect place to get away from it all and just relax and be pampered. St. Kitts has a bit more to do on the island than Nevis, and there are many options for outdoor enthusiasts. The day before our wedding, my fiancé and I climbed up to the top of one of the volcanic peaks on St. Kitts, even though our tour guide thought we were crazy given the timing. Other than our wedding, it was the highlight of our trip to St. Kitts so I was very glad we did it. St. Kitts and Nevis are both the perfect places to go if you enjoy outdoor activities and water sports.

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I loved the black volcanic rocks in St. Kitts
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One of many beautiful views in St. Kitts

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Number 4:  St. Johann im Pongau district, Austria. Two places are of mention here: Bad Gastein and Werfen. When I read an article about Austria and saw a photo of Bad Gasteiner Wasserfall (waterfall) I immediately wanted to go. You could say the whole reason I went to Austria at all was because of that photo of a waterfall and the travel article written about the area.

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I finally got to take my own photo of Gasteiner Wasserfall!

We went to Austria in the spring and there were more waterfalls here than anywhere else I have ever been. Bad Gastein is a spa town in the district of St. Johann im Pongau, in the Hohe Tauern mountain range, in the state of Salzburg. Other than the city of Salzburg, this area is full of tiny towns great for hiking and exploring. I found the people here very friendly, the food good, and the scenery outstanding. Werfen is famous for the Eisriesenwelt Ice Cave, one of the highlights of our vacation in Austria. Cameras aren’t allowed inside the cave, but here are a couple of photos from their website.

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Also in Werfen is the Burg Hohenwerfen, a castle that’s over 900 years old. There are extensive weaponry displays and an impressive falconry flight display. The castle is surrounded by the Salzachtal Valley so it’s beautiful just to walk the grounds.

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Number 3:  Banff, Canada. A few years ago we went to Missoula, Montana where I ran a half marathon and we followed up the race with a visit to Glacier National Park, which I thought was pretty amazing, but then we went to Banff, Canada and the scenery just kept getting better the further north we went. As majestic as the Rocky Mountains are in the United States, I think the Canadian Rocky Mountains are even more so. The glacier-fed waters in the area are such a beautiful hue of greenish-blue and the mountains are some of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. Banff National Park, about 70 miles west of Calgary, is the oldest national park in Canada. I found the town of Banff to be pretty touristy but it is full of restaurants, shops, museums, and art galleries so you can find plenty to do here when you’re not hiking. There are many, many tours including glacier tours, boat tours, and general sightseeing tours if that interests you. We took a boat tour on Lake Minnewanka, the only lake in Banff National Park open to public motorized boating, and it was definitely a highlight of our time there.

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Number 2:  Florence, Italy. Since I wanted to limit my choices to one city whenever possible, this one was tough to choose just one city we went to in Italy. I loved Rome almost as much as Florence, but in the end I’d have to say Florence may have the edge, but just slightly. I was surprised I loved Florence as much as I did, honestly. Before I went to Italy, I expected Venice or Rome to be my favorites (we also went to Naples and Pompeii), but Florence won my heart. I think it must have been the art that did it. While I was in Florence, I felt like I was immersed in art. You could go to just an ordinary little shop and there would be the most beautiful mosaic, or at a small cafe and find gorgeous statues or paintings just kind of tucked away, obviously not for ostentatious display but just part of the cafe. There are of course the famous museums such as Uffizi Gallery, Accademia Gallery, and the small but still stunning Museo Nazionale del Bargello. Then there are the many beautiful piazzas, cathedrals, and other archeological sites. All of these places are so out of this world beautiful just one place alone would make for an incredible visit to the city, but the fact that there are so many stunningly beautiful places in one city make it almost surreal. With some of the best food and wine in the world on top of the artwork everywhere, what more could you ask for?

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Number 1:  Whitianga, New Zealand. This one was also a tough one. I knew somewhere in New Zealand would be my top choice, but to limit it to just one place was really difficult. The North Island of New Zealand is so diverse with its Redwood Forests, sandy beaches, geysers, wine country, and rolling hills. I loved touring Hobbiton and found the countryside there beautiful. Seeing the glow worms of Waitomo Caves was incredible. Walking around the geysers and thermal mud pools at Wai-O-Tapu in Rotorua was like being on another planet. Walking through the redwoods forest was so quiet and serene. But our boat ride through the sea caves in Whitianga was something impossible to ever top. The water was such a gorgeous color of blue-green and being able to go inside some of the caves was so much fun. I felt like I had a smile plastered across my face from beginning to end of the tour. This is a place that has seriously ruined other boat tours for me because nothing will ever be able to compare. Besides the boat tour here, the beaches are also some of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. Whitianga also has wineries, a fun museum, and hiking trails, all things I love. I almost didn’t include this area as part of our North Island tour because I didn’t think we’d have time. I’m so glad that didn’t happen because we would have missed the best part!

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Being in this small boat made it easy to go in the caves and explore

Has anyone else been to these places? Does anyone want to go now?

Boulder Rez Half Marathon, Colorado- 37th state

This is part of a series of posts from my quest to run a half marathon in all 50 states. Colorado was my 37th state.

I don’t know anyone from a lower elevation who would set out to run a race in Colorado with the intention of setting a PR (personal record).  Running at a higher elevation decreases the amount of oxygen that gets to muscles.  Low atmospheric pressure makes the blood less oxygen-rich as it goes to the muscles.  Quite simply, your heart has to work harder and it is more difficult just to get your breath at a higher elevation.  After much debate and consideration I signed up for the Boulder Rez half marathon.

I researched elevations of cities in Colorado with half marathons (some of them are no joke!) and with an elevation of 5,430 feet Boulder is one of the lower ones.  I ran the Spearfish Canyon Half Marathon, South Dakota- 34th state, which is about 5,000 feet above sea level, so I thought I would be alright.  I wasn’t considering the fact that Spearfish Canyon was a downhill course and Boulder Rez is not; apparently that made a huge difference.

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Packet pickup was the usual only my bag included some unique things like a book- “Oola. Find Balance in an Unbalanced World.”  I still haven’t read it but I will eventually. I also received a full box of cereal and two small sample sized boxes of cereal (Mighty Flakes, made from beans) among the other usual free samples and coupons.  The shirt was a nice technical short-sleeve fitted gender-specific-sized.

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The course itself was not what I expected.  The info I read said, “This amazing run course around the Boulder Reservoir is astonishing and remains mostly on dirt roads and trails! The course is flat with only 200 feet of elevation gain, and will take you across the Boulder Reservoir and around some beautiful views of the Rocky Mountains.”  I guess when you’re at a higher elevation, 200 feet of elevation gain feels more like 500 feet.  Or maybe it was just me.

Boulder is about a 45 minute drive from the Denver International Airport.  After the race, my family and I did quite a bit of hiking in the Boulder area Colorado in June- Hiking in Boulder.  We also drove to Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park Colorado in June- Estes Park and RMNP and spent a full day there.  Estes Park is about an hour drive from Boulder and Rocky Mountain National Park is only about 15 minutes from Estes Park.

From my post-race notes:  “This  was one of my toughest halfs to date.  I felt tired after running only 2 miles.  I also felt nauseous around mile 5 or 6 which I can only attribute to the altitude and had to really focus just to keep it together.  The course was 2 laps around the Boulder Reservoir.  When I signed up for the race and saw it was around the reservoir I thought it would be relatively flat but I was wrong.  I would say the course was full of rolling hills. They weren’t that steep or long but were definitely hills.  That combined with the heat and elevation made for one challenging course for me.  It was around 60 degrees at the 7:15 a.m. start and quickly heated up so that it was in the 70’s within the hour. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky and only a slight breeze. The views of the mountains and the water along the course were amazing and definitely helped to keep me motivated.  There was no crowd support except at the start/finish area.  There were plenty of volunteers and water stations along the course however.  Food at the finish included bagels, hard boiled eggs, oranges, cereal bars, yogurt, and beer.  The medals were huge and the shirts were form-fitting women’s or men’s sizes.  We also got a free race photo download.  My finish time was one of my slowest of recent races but this was one race I was just thrilled to finish, 2:13:17.”

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Boulder Rez Half Marathon, 10K, and 5K

Missoula Marathon, Montana-22nd state

This is part of a series of posts from my quest to run a half marathon in all 50 states. Montana was my 22nd state.

Ah, Missoula, Montana.  I have fond memories of you.  The Missoula Marathon and Half Marathon is in July, which means while much of the US is sweltering, it is quite comfortable here.  I have to admit, I broke a cardinal rule of running races here.  I had only brought shorts (no pants) with me for this race but a cold front suddenly came in and they were predicting temps in the low 40’s the morning of the race, so I found a local running store and bought the last pair of running capris they had in stock, which a kind sales lady dug out from the back store room.  The race was the next day so I had never worn these before let alone run in them, but it was either that or freeze my buns off.  Everyone tells you to never wear anything you’ve never ran in at least once during a race, and I had always followed this to the letter. However, buying those capris turned out to be a good decision and I was glad I had the extra coverage to help keep me warm.

From this race forward, I always make sure I pack running pants, shorts, capris, short sleeved tops, and long sleeved tops for every race, no matter where because as I learned here, the weather can be very unpredictable.  I know some of you may be thinking, “40 degrees is actually quite nice for a race,” but where I live, we don’t see temperatures that low until winter is nearing or in full force; certainly not in July.  I just wasn’t used to running in temperatures that low.

The Missoula Half Marathon of 2011 was one of my favorites for the scenery, the people, and the course.  This race does have a 6 am start so if you’re not an early morning person, that could be an issue.  I think it helps with the temperatures, though.  At the start it’s usually around mid 50’s (although as I said for me it was only in the low 40’s) and up to the high 70’s around noon.  The course is very scenic and fairly flat, taking you though the countryside, along a river, and finishing in downtown Missoula.

There are a couple of bonuses including with this race.  The renowned Olympian runner Jeff Galloway began a partnership with Run Wild Missoula in January 2011 to promote the Missoula Marathon and Half Marathon.  Every year since then he has given numerous talks, hikes, and even a 3 hour running school the weekend of the Missoula Marathon.  Another bonus is you get a free race day victory stand photo (printed out for you) at the Sunday Expo at the Caras Park Pavilion as well as a link after the race to download an on-course photo free of charge.

After the race, my family and I went to Glacier National Park and from there to Banff National Park in Canada. I highly recommend both parks, in addition to Missoula. The mountains and lakes are absolutely stunning and these are some of the most beautiful places I have ever seen.  This race is a nice opportunity to make it into a racecation.

From my post-race notes:

“Ran past a river, past rural areas, and finished downtown.  Course was great- mostly flat, some downhill, and a small uphill.  Weather was upper 40’s at start, but I warmed up after first couple of miles.  Sunny, almost no wind.  Aid stations were plenty.  Got a nice medal, technical shirt, and a photo printed out at the finish.  Plenty of food and drink at finish. Was still struggling with speed while training for race due to recent anemia Oklahoma-21st state but was happy with finish time.  Was a great race overall and one of my favorites.  My finish time was 2:16:53.”

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Missoula Marathon