I grew up in land-locked West Virginia and while it’s a beautiful state full of mountains, as an adult I’ve found I much prefer ocean and beach settings. If I can have mountains to hike in with views of the ocean, then that’s just about perfect to me. I’ve spent my fair share of time at beaches since I started traveling as an adult. In fact, the first international vacation I went on was to the Bahamas when I was in college.
Given the fact that I’m completely over winter and ready to move on to warmer, sunnier weather, I thought it might be fun to share some of my favorite beach spots and of course include photos. We’ll take a little photo journey around the world, in no particular order, although I may have to divulge some of my favorites at the end.
I alluded at the beginning to listing some of my favorites but it’s funny because photos are really art, which taken as a whole are not only subjective to the eye of the beholder but also the context. For example, a person’s travel experiences are influenced by things such as who they’re with, what stage in life they’re at, how they were treated by the locals and other travelers, and even the weather. I may look at a photo and it brings back happy memories while someone else may see the same photo and just see the landscape and/or people in the photo without any context of what was going on when the photo was taken.
So what are my favorite photos here? I’m not going to take the easy way out and say I could never choose because they’re all my favorites. I really like the stormy photo taken at the beach in Tenerife, Spain because I love how I was able to capture that moment just before a huge storm blew in. I also love the photo of the beach in Malta because of the different hues of blue in the water and the rocky protrusion, so I’ll narrow it down to those two photos for my favorites here.
What about you guys- do you like black sandy beaches, powder-white, or the more traditional tan/beige the best? Rocky beaches or sandy beaches? What are some of your favorite beaches?
I’m a science geek; always have been. As a kid, I always loved going to science museums, even though my parents didn’t really take me to that many. I remember being in awe at Epcot Center, which really is just a big science museum, much of it hands-on. As an adult, I’ve had the pleasure of raising a science-loving child, so I’ve taken her to many science museums all over the world in our travels. We haven’t just stopped at science museums, though. We also love art museums and history museums. I’d like to share a few of some of my favorite museums here.
The Field Museum in Chicago, Illinois has so many impressive displays you can spend all day here if you like science and natural history. I really enjoy the Griffin Halls of Evolving Planet, Meteorites, Hall of Birds, all of the dinosaur exhibits, the hall of gems, Plants of the World, and those are just some of my favorites! There are two restaurants, a seasonal outdoor grill, and a picnic area open to all museum visitors on the ground level near the Sea Mammals. There is also a gift shop, coat check, wheelchairs (free), strollers ($3), a private nursing room, and free wi-fi. You can also get discounted admission if you have a City Pass or Go Chicago Card. Another great museum in Chicago is the Museum of Science + Industry and I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least mention it. There are of course many other great museums in Chicago as well but these are two of my favorites.
Balboa Park is a museum-lover’s paradise, with 17 museums and cultural institutions in San Diego, California. I highly recommend the Explorer Pass if you plan on going to several museums in Balboa Park. A really cool and different museum within Balboa Park is The San Diego Museum of Man. Here you can see displays about monsters, our relationships with animals, the history of beer, take a California Tower tour, and learn the truth about cannibalism. Tickets to the Museum of Man are $13-$25 for adults or $10-$22, depending on whether or not you purchase just museum tickets or add on tickets to the cannibals exhibit or tower. I have a post on Balboa Park with more details that you can read here.
If you like museums, you can find plenty of them in New York City. Some of my favorites are the American Museum of Natural History, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum but there are nearly 100 museums in and around New York City, so there’s definitely something for everyone. The American Museum of Natural History has 45 museum halls, The Rose Center for Earth and Space, a giant-screen film, special exhibitions, and a space show. I recommend figuring out what you want to see before you go or you could get so overwhelmed you don’t know where to start. General Admission to The Metropolitan Museum of Art includes exhibitions at The Met Fifth Avenue, The Met Breuer, and The Met Cloisters and are valid for three consecutive days. The Guggenheim Museum general admission is $25 for adults and $18 for students and seniors. For these museums plus many others and other places as well, you would save a ton of money on admission prices if you buy a City Pass if you plan on doing a lot of sightseeing and will be here for at least a few days.
Washington, D.C. is filled with museums primarily because of the Smithsonian Institution, comprised of 17 museums, galleries, and a zoo. And even better- it’s all free. Some of my favorites include the National Air & Space Museum, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, and the Freer and Sackler Galleries. These museums and galleries are enormous, too so you could spend hours in just one of them. If you only have one day in D.C. the tough part will be deciding where to spend your time because there are so many choices. Washington, D.C. is also a great place for children and is extremely family-friendly. I don’t recommend driving around the city but the Metrorail system is easy to navigate and affordable.
For something a little different, on the North Island of New Zealand is the Waitangi Treaty Complex, part of the Waitangi National Trust Estate where events that led to the Treaty of Waitangi are presented. You can experience kapa haka, a live Maori cultural performance and Maori artifacts and weapons. If you follow a short trail outside the visitor center, you’ll come to a Maori war canoe. This huge canoe is named after the vessel in which Kupe, the Polynesian navigator, is said to have discovered New Zealand. The canoe was built in 1940 to commemorate the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi.
Malta is a country that I fell in love with when I went a couple of years ago and part of that reason is how it’s absolutely steeped in rich history. That and its stunning beauty. For my family and me it was a no-brainer for us to get the Heritage Malta Pass which includes access to 22 sites and museums plus the Malta National Aquarium and the Citadel Visitor Center and is good for 30 days. Some of my favorite museums in Malta are in Valletta and include the Palace Staterooms, Palace Armory, and the National Museum of Archaeology. You can read more about these museums in Valletta here.
Of course I have to include Italy here because it is also filled with some impressive museums. I had the pleasure of visiting Rome, Florence, and Venice some time ago and loved not only the history of the area but also the art everywhere and of course the food. My favorite of the three cities we went to is Florence so I’ll start there. The Pitti Palace is absolutely enormous and houses several museums and galleries and the Boboli Gardens outside. The Uffizi Gallery is the oldest museum in modern Europe, dating to 1581, and yes, it is impressive and definitely worth going to. You can find Michelangelo’s David (along with many other prestigious work) at the Accademia Gallery in Florence. Probably some of the more famous museums near Rome are technically in another country, Vatican City. The Vatican Museums are an enormous collection (about 7 kilometers) of museums and galleries and include the hugely famous Sistine Chapel. I was surprised to find the Sistine Chapel was smaller than I expected, but there’s a definite aura of tranquility that surrounds the space. Finally, in Venice at the popular St. Mark’s Square you’ll find Doge’s Palace. The combined entrance ticket to the St. Mark’s Square Museums grants access to the Doge’s Palace, Museo Correr, Museo Archeologico Nazionale and Monumental Rooms of Biblioteca Marciana.
Honestly, that just touches the tip of the iceberg for me but I should probably leave it there although I could easily add more places.
What are some of your favorite museums in the United States or elsewhere? Have you been to any of the ones I listed here or would you like to go someday?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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!
Has anyone else been to these places? Does anyone want to go now?
When I was planning our family vacation to New Zealand, several people asked me, “Why New Zealand?” or “Why aren’t you going to Australia?” I would laugh and say, “Why NOT go to New Zealand? It looks amazing,” or “Sure, I’ll go to Australia another time, but not this time.” After much deliberation, I decided to limit our time to one island, the North Island. We would have a little over two weeks and I didn’t want to be too rushed or spend half our time driving or flying, trying to cram everything in. I took the mentality that we wouldn’t be able to see it all in one trip and that was fine.
I should note that I did all of the planning by myself, from choosing the airlines and flights to where to go and what to do and where to stay. Regarding the hotels, I compared the hotel website prices to those on hotels.com and hotels.com was always cheaper, plus after you stay 10 nights, you earn a free night’s stay.
I’ve summarized our vacation below and given some tips and highlights. After my daughter’s teacher saw photos from our vacation, she was inspired to go there and went this month. I hope our vacation to New Zealand inspires more people to visit.
Since we were flying from the east coast of the United States I decided to break up the flights by stopping over in San Francisco for the day on the way there and back home. This was a fantastic decision, one that I’ll get to the details about later. Flight time from San Francisco to Auckland, New Zealand is about 13 hours nonstop but since Auckland is 19 hours ahead of San Francisco, you lose a day flying there and gain it back on the return. All that being said, the flight really didn’t seem that long. My husband, daughter, and I filled our time watching movies, playing games, reading, and sleeping. We flew with Air New Zealand, which I had researched and felt was the best airline for us comparing such things as seats, food, reliability, and general comfort based on what I could find online.
The plan was to do a bit of hopping around for our first week, spending one night in a city then driving on to another place, doing a loop around much of but not all of the island, then spending the next week in one city and doing some short day-trips from there but limiting our driving that week. We went in late March, which means it was fall in New Zealand. The weather was absolutely perfect for hiking and going to the beach, both of which we did a lot of.
First stop: Auckland
We arrived in Auckland around 6:00 in the morning. Since it was too early to check into our room, we picked up our car from the rental agency Apex Rentals and drove to Mount Eden. There is no admission fee and it’s high enough from the top to give you great views of the city (see photo below). The inactive volcanic crater is really cool to see as well.
We also spent a few hours at the Auckland Museum. It was good to get some history about the people and culture on our first day in New Zealand. We saw many carvings and historical treasures of the Maori and learned many things. Abaco on Jervois was a nice but not overly expensive hotel with everything our family needed. Our room felt more like an apartment than a hotel to me, which is a good thing.
Next up: Tongariro National Park
The next day, we drove to Ohakune with the intention of hiking in Tongariro National Park. You could literally spend days hiking here. We chose some trails and saw what we could in a day but we didn’t over-do it. There are three major mountains in this area: Mt Tongariro, Mt Ngauruhoe (Mt Doom in the Lord of the Rings filiming locations) and Mt Ruapehu.
We spent our second night in Ohakune and stayed at the LKNZ Lodge. This was by far the least impressive of the places we stayed in, as far as our lodging and accommodations. LKNZ is more like a hostel and while our family had our own room, the room was outdated and simple. I had my doubts when I made reservations, but the hotel choices in this area were limited and the ratings for LKNZ were all very good. It was fine for one night but I wouldn’t have wanted to have stayed there any longer. If we had the gear, camping in this area would have been great.
Rotorua and Redwoods Forest
For our third day, we drove to Rotorua, which is a geothermal city known for bubbling mud pools, shooting geysers and natural hot springs, as well as Maori culture. My family and I went to Te Puia, where we saw the famous Pohutu geyser that erupts up to 20 times a day, in addition to many mud pools, hot springs, and the National Carving School and National Weaving School.
We spent the night at the Arista of Rotorua. Our room at this place was enormous! It was two floors, with the top floor being a huge bedroom with four beds. There was also a bed on the first floor, so we could have hosted another family or two on the top floor alone. We also had a jacuzzi tub on the outside patio.
The next morning, we went to the Redwoods Whakarewarewa Forest and hiked there for a few hours. The Redwoods here rival those in California as far as sheer size and beauty. This is a place that is often called “magical,” and it truly is.
National Carving School
Hobbiton and Mount Maunganui
After leaving the Redwoods Forest, we drove to the Hobbiton Movie set in Matamata. This was the setting for The Shire from ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and the ‘Hobbit’ movies. On the guided tour, we walked around much of the 12 acre site and were given many details about the filming of the movie. Although most of the doors to the Hobbit homes were shut, we were allowed a glimpse inside one of the Hobbit homes, which was a lot of fun and for the finale we were given a pint of ale at the Green Dragon Inn and allowed to hang out for a bit here.
Even though all of the interior scenes from the Green Dragon Inn and Bar in the films were shot in studios in Wellington, that same interior was recreated at the Hobbiton Movie Set. You can sit in a comfy chair by the fire and enjoy a snack or tasty beverage and take in all of the details around you. This was a highlight of our time in New Zealand.
After the tour, we drove to Mount Maunganui in the Bay of Plenty and spent our fourth night at the Blue Haven Motel. This was also the day of my wedding anniversary. It was quite the anniversary gift to ourselves, getting to spend our time in such a breathtakingly beautiful place. Mount Maunganui is a quiet place on the coast with a calm and relaxing vibe. We hiked to the top of the mountain and were rewarded with amazing views.
I almost didn’t include the Coromandel Peninsula in our itinerary but when I researched the area, I thought this was a must-see area. First we went on a tour of a Glowworm Cave and while the cave itself was impressive, the best part was at the end of the tour when our eyes had adjusted to the dark and all of the glowworms came into view and it was eerily quiet around us.
After leaving the Glowworm Cave, we went on a boat tour that remains a highlight of all of my vacations before and since. There are several companies that offer “Hole in the Rock” boat tours, but I chose one of the smaller outfits that used small boats that could be easily maneuvered in the caves. I was all smiles from beginning to end of that boat tour. The scenery was spectacular and the commentary was fun and informative. We were in Whitianga for our fifth night and stayed at Beachside Resort. This was a very modern, clean, and updated resort only a short walk to the beach.
Final Destination: Paihia
For the remainder of our time in New Zealand, we were in the Paihia region and stayed at Club Paihia. Paihia is called “the Jewel of the Bay of Plenty.” From here, we drove to Kerikeri and went to a few wineries, all of which were run by laid-back, friendly people, we took a ferry to Opua and spent the day there, we went on many hikes in the area, and we checked out the world famous Hundertwasser toilets in Kawakawa.
A must-see area is the Waitangi National Trust estate. This is New Zealand’s most historic site as the ‘Birthplace of the Nation’ and is where the Treaty of Waitangi was signed on the 6th of February 1840. Waitangi is a 506 hectare (1000 acre) reserve where Maori and the British Crown signed New Zealand’s famous Treaty of Waitangi. Here you can also see Ngatokimatawhaorua, the 35 metre long war canoe (waka) that is one of the largest ceremonial war canoes in the world with a hull carved from two massive kauri trees. It is launched each year for the ceremonial commemoration of the signing of the Treaty.
Layover in San Francisco
Sadly, our time was ending in New Zealand and we had to fly back home. As I mentioned earlier, we decided to spend the day in San Francisco to break up flight times. My family and I had stopped checking luggage with airlines years before this vacation, so the question arose, what do we do with our luggage for the day in San Francisco? We didn’t want to lug around our backpacks and carry-on bags around the city and most if not all airports no longer have lockers to store luggage in. Luckily, San Francisco airport has a company where you can leave your luggage with them and pick it up just before your flight. That went very smoothly and we were off to explore the city.
On our way to New Zealand, we did the typical touristy thing and went to Fisherman’s Wharf. My husband and I had been there before but we wanted to take our daughter, knowing she would enjoy it. She loved having soup from a sourdough bread bowl and watching the seals. We wanted to tour Alcatraz but the tours where you actually go inside the prison were booked well in advance, so we settled for the boat tour around the island, which was still plenty of fun.
On our way back from New Zealand, we checked our bags with the same company as before at the airport, and walked to CuriOdyssey, a science and wildlife center for kids that I suspect is often over-looked by tourists, but we found to be the perfect way to spend our time in between flights. I always like to introduce our daughter to culture and history in areas that we visit, and CuriOdyssey has exhibits designed to give children and their families history and information about the Bay area animals and their habitats. There are also fun hands-on science exhibits.
I can’t wait to go back to New Zealand and visit the South Island!