Hiking, Bathing, and Admiring Holiday Lights in Hot Springs, Arkansas

Following my half marathon in Cotter, Arkansas, and the completion of state number 44 on my quest to run a half marathon in all 50 states (race report here), I decided the best place to spend the vacation portion of my racecation was in Hot Springs. Hot Springs is about a 3 1/2 hour drive from Cotter, a small town in northern Arkansas, and is about an hour from Little Rock.

Hot Springs is the number one tourist destination in Arkansas, with more than 6 million visitors per year. It’s evident the area caters to tourists, with the plethora of tourist shops, restaurants, and hotels, along with some of the more touristy things like a wax museum. One of the big draws for outdoor lovers is Hot Springs National Park.

Hot Springs National Park isn’t your typical park, since it’s located within and around the downtown area of the city of Hot Springs. The area was first protected in 1832 as Hot Springs Reservation but did not officially become a national park until 1921. The National Park Service has the perfect recommendations for how to spend your time at Hot Springs National Park here. Admission to the park is free.

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There are several options for hiking trails within the park, with some easy and others considered moderate. We ended up hiking most of the trails while we were there. If you don’t enjoy hiking or can’t hike, there is also a scenic drive through much of the park. I recommend either hiking or driving to the Mountain Tower, where you can go to the top for some great views of the area. You can either take an elevator up or go up stairs on the outside of the tower, for the same price, $8 for adults. There’s also a gift shop at the tower.

I highly recommend taking a traditional bath at Buckstaff Bathhouse, which we did, but with a bit of warning. Buckstaff Bathhouse doesn’t take reservations so you walk in, give them your last name and what services you want, pay, and go to sit and wait (upstairs for women, first floor for men) until an attendant calls your name. My last name is admittedly not the easiest to pronounce or spell, given the prevalence of how many people have trouble pronouncing and spelling it correctly. However, my daughter and I waited, and waited for our names to be called. A couple of times they called out names that no one else answered to. I later found out they had been calling our name even though never did they say anything remotely like our last name. Only after three other women that arrived after us were called back, did someone finally realize their mistake in skipping us. One attendant told me she had called our name repeatedly and asked why we didn’t answer. I told her we were sitting there the whole time and no one said anything that sounded like our name. Lesson learned- give them a very simple last name at the front desk, something that’s impossible to screw up.

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Despite having to wait much longer than we should have upon arrival, the bath treatment more than made up for it. To begin, you have a bath drawn in a private tub that’s very long, and I’m tall so it was fantastic to actually be able to stretch out completely, where you sit in the whirlpool mineral bath first. Next, I was taken to an area where an attendant put hot towels around my shoulders and lower back. After that, I went to a sitz bath, then to a wet sauna, and finished off with a needle shower. All of this cost just $33. You can add on extras like a massage, a loofah scrub, and a paraffin treatment for hands. I’ve seriously never felt more recovered after a half marathon than I did after the race in Cotter, and I completely believe it was due to the traditional bath at Buckstaff Bathhouse.

The final thing we did in Hot Springs that turned out to be one of the highlights of our time there was visiting Garvan Woodland Gardens. Normally, November wouldn’t be an ideal time to visit these gardens since not much is in bloom then but there is a lights display that is one of the best I’ve seen and well worth a visit. Holiday Lights is open November 17- December 31 and admission is $15 for adults and $5 for children. You walk around the 4 1/2 miles of land, with different areas decorated in different themes; you can also rent a golf cart for extra admission. Don’t forget to take a peek at the stunning Anthony Chapel which as my husband put it, “is made for weddings.”

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Lily pad scene, one of my favorites from Garvan Gardens
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Anthony Chapel at night

Some of our favorite restaurants in Hot Springs include:

Superior Bathhouse Brewery

Grateful Head Pizza Oven and Beer Garden

Bone’s Chophouse (a bit away from the touristy downtown area with phenomenal service and great food)

Cafe 1217 (“gourmet to go” dine in with great-tasting healthy options)

Hot Springs, Arkansas is a fun place to spend a long weekend or a few days. There are plenty of offerings to suit pretty much anyone, whether you want a girls’ weekend at the spa, hiking at the national park, or you’re a foodie and want some great food in a scenic spot. There’s also horse racing, an amusement park, Lake Catherine State Park, a science museum, and the Gangster Museum of America. I’m not exaggerating when I say every single person we talked to seemed genuinely nice and were happy to see us and talk to us. Even with all that Hot Springs has to offer, it’s an added bonus that the people are one of its greatest attributes.

Have any of you ever been to Hot Springs, Arkansas or do you plan on going someday? I know Arkansas isn’t on the radar of many people unless they live in states nearby, but it really is a beautiful area of our country with a lot to offer!

Happy travels!

Donna

 

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5 of my Favorite National Parks in the United States

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Wildlife in Grand Canyon National Park
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Grand Canyon National Park

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

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

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

Happy travels!

Donna

 

 

 

Itinerary Ideas for First-Timers to the United States- Midwest

This is part two of my compilation of itineraries for first-timers coming to the United States. You can find part one here, Itinerary Ideas for First-Timers to the United States- East Coast. As a bit of background, I consider myself a pretty well-traveled American who has been to all but 8 of the states in the US, in addition to travel outside the US. Many of the states I have not been to yet are in the midwest part of the US, but I’ll do my best to present what I think are the “best” choices here. In case you’re not sure, the Midwest states are Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, North Dakota, South Dakota, Missouri, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, and Minnesota.

Here are some of my recommendations for a week-long itinerary in the United States, midwest only. If you have more than a week, add on days to either or both destination, according to your interests.

1). For city-lovers and foodies:  Chicago, Illinois. Chicago is such a fun city with something for everyone. There are great museums including two of my favorites, the Field Museum and Adler Planetarium and Astronomy Museum, Skydeck, The Art Institute of Chicago, Millenium Park, and many tours including boat tours. Chicago is famous for their insanely huge pizzas and “Chicago style” hot dogs, both of which you have to try when you visit, but there are also many other fantastic restaurants in the city. I don’t personally recommend going to Chicago during the winter months, which are known to get quite frigid. Public transportation and walking are the best ways to get around Chicago, as is the case in most big cities in the United States.

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Field Museum in Chicago- I love this place!

If you want to tack on another 2 or 3 days, take a rental car out of the city and drive up to Lake Geneva or Milwaukee, both in Wisconsin, and both are about 1 1/2 hour’s drive from Chicago. I’ve been to both places during the summer months and was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed Milwaukee (I also enjoyed Lake Geneva of course). Fifty miles southeast of Chicago lies Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore and the adjacent Indiana Dunes State Park where you’ll find woodlands, wetlands and some sand dunes rising 200 feet high along 15 miles of beaches on Lake Michigan’s southern shores.

2). For the nature-lover:  South Dakota. Choose Rapid City, South Dakota as your home base and take day trips from here. Thirty miles from Rapid City is Mount Rushmore National Memorial in Keystone. Once you’ve had your fill of walking around the memorial and toured the Lincoln Borglum Museum, drive 15 miles for your next stop, Crazy Horse Memorial. Crazy Horse is the world’s largest in-progress sculpture carving, as well as the longest ongoing, having begun in 1948. When the sculpture is complete it will not only feature the Oglala Lakota warrior known as Crazy Horse but also his horse and will be 27 feet taller than Mount Rushmore.

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Mount Rushmore

For your next day trip, drive an hour south to visit Jewel Cave National Monument and Wind Cave National Park. If you go to Jewel Cave first and end with Wind Cave, the drive back to Rapid City is more direct. I highly recommend making reservations for a tour online ahead of time at both places or you may get there only to be disappointed the tour you really wanted to do is booked for the day. Although Jewel Cave is the third-longest cave on Earth, you definitely want to go to both caves because they are very different experiences.

Custer State Park, about 45 minutes south of Rapid City, is the largest state park in South Dakota. The park is full of approximately 1,300 bison, bighorn sheep, burros, prairie dogs, and mule deer. Drive the scenic Wildlife Loop Road through the park but also get out and explore the park’s trails. On your way back to Rapid City, take Needles Highway (SD-87). This National Scenic Byway is gorgeous and you’ll see the famous Needles Eye Tunnel. Stop and look around at the panoramic views, and then find the trailhead for the Cathedral Spires Trail. It’s only 1.6 miles long but offers some incredible views.

About an hour from Rapid City is one of my favorite places in South Dakota, Badlands National Park. This national park is 244,000 acres and has one of the most unique landscapes I’ve seen. In addition to buffalo, pronghorn antelope, mule deer, prairie dogs and numerous birds that you’ll see in the park, fossil hunting is allowed as long as you leave everything where you found it, and there are of course many trails you can explore.

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Badlands National Park

If you want to see a Wild West town, Deadwood is a fun place and is about an hour’s drive from Rapid City. You can go to the Black Hills Mining Museum, Adams Museum to learn about the history of the Black Hills, tour the Broken Boot Gold Mine, and go to the 1876 Dinner Theater. You can also find a casino, breweries and wineries, and many types of tours.

3). For a relaxing vacation on the water:  Traverse City, Michigan. Although you’re going to fly into Detroit, Michigan, you’re going to pick up a rental car and drive north up to Traverse City, about 4 hours away. You can of course fly to Traverse City but it will be much cheaper to fly directly into Detroit. If you take a bus or combination of bus and train, it will take more than double the transport time so by all means rent a car if at all possible. Traverse City is a lovely area on the shores of Lake Michigan’s Grand Traverse Bay full of wineries, many recreational areas and trails, and quaint shops and restaurants. The National Cherry Festival is held in early July and is full of all things cherry-related. Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is only about 40 minutes away and is a beautiful area and a fun and unique way to spend the day.

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Sleeping Bear Dunes

You could spend 3 or 4 days in Traverse City before driving north about 2 1/2 hours to Mackinac Island to spend the rest of your time. Interstate I-75 brings you to the ferry docks of both Mackinaw City and St. Ignace. Access to Mackinac Island can be made from both of these cities. Mackinac Island is serviced from both of these cities by two ferry companies: Shepler’s Ferry and Star Line Ferry. You can bike around the island, explore Fort Mackinac and Fort Holmes, take a boat tour, rent a kayak, play golf, or just relax and take in the scenery. Both Traverse City and Mackinac Island are laid-back, relaxing places with beautiful water views.

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

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

 

10 Things Travel Taught Me in 2017

In 2017 my travels took me to Las Vegas,Washington, Utah, where I ran a half marathonZion National ParkBryce Canyon National ParkAntelope CanyonBest Friends Animal Sanctuary in February, and Grand Canyon National Park in March. That’s a lot right there, so what did I learn in the first few months of 2017 from these places?

1). I learned I love visiting national parks even in the winter months (and I don’t like cold weather and snow). Bryce Canyon has a special feeling when you’re admiring partially snow-covered hoodoos and you’re surrounded by utter stillness and beauty.

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Snow-dusted Bryce Canyon

2). It’s possible and fun even to have a short stay in Las Vegas  with children and not spend much money. We had fun just wandering around, going through the massive casino hotels, taking in the views.

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Vegas, baby!

3). Volunteering when you’re on vacation rocks! One of the highlights of our time in Utah was our time at Best Friends Animal Sanctuary. I’d love to do more things like this in the future.

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Hiking with our little overnight buddy at Best Friends

After some time at home, we were back out on our next travel adventure, beginning with New Jersey in May. I ran the Superhero Half Marathon  in Morristown, and I finally got to visit the Statue of Liberty in person. From New Jersey we were off to our first visit to South America, beginning in Santiago, Chile. After spending the night in Santiago, we spent a few days in Vina del Mar, which we fell in love with, and spent a week in the Las Cabras Region of Chile. This final place in Chile is where I learned so much about myself in relation to travel.

4). Sometimes it’s good to get out of your comfort zone. Not being fluent in Spanish, not having wi-fi (mostly for maps and things to do), and not knowing the area well will force you to interact more with local people and figure things out on your own. I found I was more resilient than I thought I was.

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Chile in all of its splendor!

5). I learned so much during my time in Chile, I made a list of 15 lessons I learned there. Probably the biggest thing I learned was to learn as much Spanish as possible before visiting the country. Don’t expect others to speak English, especially in more remote and smaller towns. This is a lesson for many other non-English-speaking countries as well.

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I loved hiking on this trail in Chile

6). I also learned Chileans are some of the warmest, friendliest, most helpful people I’ve encountered on my travels. We were blessed with the kindness of strangers on several occasions in Chile.

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Our little fox friend in Chile

In August, my family and I headed back to one of my favorite cities, Charleston, South Carolina. We were fortunate enough to experience the total eclipse and that was definitely the highlight of our time there. Even though we were only there for five days, I learned something.

7). Sometimes your family will get on your nerves when you’re traveling. My daughter hadn’t been sleeping well for many days before we even went on this vacation. That on top of not sleeping well because she was in a strange bed in a strange house resulted in one cranky eleven-year-old. She whined, complained, and I lost my cool on more than one occasion. I didn’t let it ruin my vacation, however. I know there will be days like this, even on vacation, when everything’s not all rosy.

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Morris Island near Charleston

In November, we had a little mini-vacation in Huntington, West Virginia when I ran the Marshall University Half Marathon. While we were only here for the weekend, I did manage to learn something.

8). Weekend or long-weekend getaways are a great way to explore small towns. You don’t always have to go away for a week or more and you don’t always have to go to exotic places to have fun. My family and I had more weekend getaways last year than this year and I had forgotten how nice they can be.

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Huntington, West Virginia

For our final vacation of 2017, we headed first to Malta then to Miami. I was very much looking forward to going to Malta since visiting the Gozo Salt Pans was on my bucket list. Malta exceeded my expectations as far as natural beauty of the islands (Malta is an archipelago of three islands), food, and just about every thing we saw and did. I have a series of posts about our time in Malta and there is one thing I learned during that vacation.

9). Mobile WiFi or MiFi can be a relatively inexpensive (roughly $10/day) but truly invaluable way to find your way around and stay connected when traveling internationally, especially if you’re driving a rental car. I have a post coming on this, so stay tuned!

Our time in Miami was spent a bit differently than many people would choose to vacation there since we were there to visit a dear friend of mine who lives there. We didn’t go to a single club or party at South Beach like many people would. Instead my friend took care of all of the planning for us and graciously took us to some of her favorite restaurants, on a tour of the Everglades, and to South Beach for the day to enjoy the ocean, play in the sand, soak in the sun, and thoroughly relax and enjoy ourselves. This brings me to the final thing I learned about travel this year.

10). Sometimes it’s nice to let someone else do all of the planning for you and just sit back and relax. You don’t always have to try to cram in a dozen “must-do” restaurants or things to do.

What about you all? Where has travel taken you in 2017 and what have you learned from it?

Happy travels!

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?

My Top 10 Favorite Places in the United States and Why I Love Them

I thought it would be fun to compile a list of my favorite places I’ve been to. At first I wasn’t going to separate out places in the United States from international places, but then I thought there’s no way I could limit them to just ten places. Most of my travels within the United States have been planned with the goal of running a half marathon in all 50 states.  So far I’ve been to 43 states and have ran a half marathon in 40 states.

So here goes, my choice for number 10:  Glacier National Park in Montana. My family and I went here after my half marathon in Missoula. I thought Missoula was beautiful but GNP was even more beautiful.  We hiked many trails and especially loved hiking trails around Lake McDonald. I also enjoyed just driving along the Going-to-the-Sun Road.

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Number 9:  Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. This was another place where my family and I went after I ran a half marathon, only this time in Boulder, undoubtedly one of the hardest races I’ve ever ran because of the high elevation. We drove to RMNP from Boulder and were blown away by the mountains and scenery. Boulder is at the base of the really big mountains such as those in RMNP. Even though we went there in June, there was still quite a bit of snow on the ground at the highest elevations. The park’s tallest mountain, Long’s Peak is stunning with an elevation of 14,259. Similar to the Going-to-the-Sun Road in Montana, the drive along Trail Ridge Road is beautiful.

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Number 8:  Badlands National Park in South Dakota (notice a trend here?). We went here after one of my favorite half marathons, in Spearfish, SD. On this trip we also went to Mount Rushmore but I found the Badlands to be much more beautiful. I absolutely loved the different colored rock formations, the Buttes, and spires. We spotted some big horn sheep, bison, and tons of prairie dogs.

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Number 7: San Juan Islands in Washington. I absolutely loved Seattle, but I loved the San Juan Islands, and the ferry ride there even more than Seattle. We went to Friday Harbour and stayed in a cabin overlooking a beautiful field where deer liked to graze in the mornings and at dusk. I ran a half marathon here, which turned out to be a pretty small but scenic race. We toured a lavender farm and spent a lot of time in the retail section smelling all of the lavender-infused products and tasting the tea. My daughter wanted to buy one of everything.  The lavender tea was delicious. We also went whale-watching just off the coast and saw a bunch of orcas and dolphins. My daughter even got to steer the boat during our tour! Hiking in Lime Kiln State Park was also a highlight of our time on the island.

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Number 6:  Charleston, South Carolina. I wrote a couple of posts about Charleston last summer, so it should be no surprise to see it on my list here. I love so much about this city from the beaches to the architecture to the food. I could go on and on about the food alone. I’ve never had a bad meal here, ever. I’ve been going to Charleston for vacations many times over the years and it just seems to get better every time. There’s so much history here if you’re a history buff you’ll love all of the museums and walking tours. I find Charleston to be the quintessential southern city full of charm, friendly people, and some of the best food you’ll ever eat.

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Number 5:  Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah (can you tell I’m a big fan of national parks?). We went here earlier this year in late winter and I found it to be truly magical. I don’t use that word lightly either. Also, I hate winter. I moved south to get away from the cold weather as an adult. However, the snow on the hoodoos was beautiful and I had so much fun hiking the trails at Bryce Canyon while it was snowing. It snowed off and on but was never a blizzard or anything crazy. The light snowfall just added to the experience and made it even more special. Even though I loved Zion National Park, I loved Bryce Canyon even more, which surprised me, honestly. Plan your next vacation there with the help of my previous posts and this website.

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Number 4:  Acadia National Park in Maine. Before I went to Maine, I had heard great things about the state and hoped that it would live up to the hype. Maine did not disappoint. It was every bit as beautiful as I imagined and the food was every bit as good as you hear it is. We dined on fresh lobster and other fresh fish dishes including clam chowder and had some incredible meals on our trip to Maine. A highlight of the trip was hiking in Acadia National Park and I was glad we had allotted a few days here. We also discovered popovers at Jordan Pond House and that was a real treat. And yes, I also ran a half marathon here.

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Number 3:  Kona, Hawaii. I first went to Hawaii many years ago and ran a half marathon in Kona, which turned out to be my second state for half marathons, even though I didn’t have the goal then of one in every state. I just thought it would be fun (it was) and cool to run along a portion of the same course as the Ironman triathlon. Kona is what I think of when I think of Hawaii:  black sandy beaches, volcanos, palm trees, and incredible snorkeling. Not surprisingly I loved Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. It was like nowhere else in the world and walking through the Thurston Lava Tube was very cool. When I later went back to Kona many years after that first trip, it was every bit as great as I remembered. I’ve since then wanted to go back again but haven’t made it (yet!).

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Number 2:  San Francisco, California. I left my heart in San Francisco. Just kidding. I think that famous song does strike a chord with many people, however. San Francisco is such a fun and vibrant city it’s no surprise it’s become the most expensive city to live in the United States. Where there’s demand, prices will go up accordingly. While I have no desire to live in San Francisco, I love to visit there. In fact, when I was planning my family’s trip to New Zealand, I was happy to include a day-long layover in San Francisco both before and after our flights to New Zealand. I’m always looking for an excuse to go back. Why do I love San Francisco? Well, it’s hard to describe, honestly. There’s so much to do here and the area is beautiful especially around the water. I just love the Golden Gate Bridge and had a blast on the multiple boat tours I took that went around and under the bridge. I love the crazy hilly streets and architecture. The food is great, even the super-touristy chowder in a sourdough bread bowl. Speaking of touristy, I even love the wharf area despite how crowded it can get.

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Number 1:  San Diego, California. If you’ve been following my blog for a while, you’ll remember how many posts I wrote about San Diego. In fact, some of you were probably sick of hearing me go on about the city. It’s absolutely stunning, though. You hear about places being called “breathtaking” all the time and I feel that term is completely over-used but I will say San Diego was honestly breathtaking to me. When I first saw Sunset Cliffs, I was speechless, took a second to get my breath, then looked at my daughter (who also had the same reaction), and just said, “Wow!” It was one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. There’s also so much to do in San Diego, from hiking, to the touristy but still interesting Old Town, the world famous zoo, many museums, parks, and shopping. There are several places where you can get some fantastic tacos and Liberty Public Market has some delicious local fresh food and other unique things for sale. Coronado Beach with its golden-flecked sand and the iconic Hotel del Coronado is my favorite beach in the area. I could go on and on about San Diego. I guess I left my heart in San Diego.

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What are some of your favorite places in the United States? Does anyone else love these places as much as I do?