Posted in Budget Tips, International Travel, Photos

Malta: A Destination for Backpackers, History Lovers, Cruisers, and Sun Worshippers.

Overlooking the bay off Comino Island

I’ve been to Malta twice now– once on a budget trip with friends, and the second time on a luxury cruise with my grandfather. Both experiences were incredible, although sipping champagne in a fancy bathrobe on my balcony while overlooking Valletta was definitely a once-in-a-lifetime moment I’ll never forget. (Thanks, Pop!)

Just a regular day for me.

Malta is an up-and-coming travel destination, but for now, it’s not overrun by tourists. Unlike many hot Europe destinations, there are a lot of the things to see and do that don’t require a ticket! For the ones that do, they’re unlikely to sell out before you show up (looking at you, Sistine Chapel).

On my first visit, we stayed in Sliema, which is on the modern side of things in relation to the rest of the island. Sliema sits across the bay from the picturesque Valletta. Rentals and restaurants are cheaper here, and you get the added bonus of looking at the city throughout your stay. Our Airbnb was just a quick walk away from where the ferry leaves for Valletta, and around the block from a line of shops and restaurants. The ferry to Valletta goes all day and is very affordable, however you will want to arrive early to make sure you get a good seat (or any seat, if you are visiting during the late spring-summer).

Very important pro-tip: This is going to sound weird to some, but the one thing I wish I knew about visiting Malta was how aggressive the mosquitos are. Seriously, bring bug spray and pray. I won’t even tell you the total amount I had by the time I left the first time I visited. (My travel companions can tell you the number because I updated them every time I got a new one. I’m a delight, really.) The good news is that the local pharmacies in town all sell bug spray at a reasonable (for Europe) price.

Getting artsy on the cliffs on the south side of the island. This was taken near the Dingli Cliffs.

The Republic of Malta has been inhabited since at least 5900 BC. Due to its strategic location in the middle of the Mediterranean, the country has been occupied or conquered several times over the course of its existence. From the Phoenicians in 1000BC, to the Arabs during the Middle Ages, all the way through to becoming a British colony in the 1800s and key air base in World War II (just to name a few), this tiny island has played a key role throughout history.

You can see all of the different layers of history as you travel around the island (and its sister island, Gozo). It’s there in the street signs, the building style, the food, and the people. I know it’s cliché to say there’s something for everyone, but hear me out. There is LITERALLY something for everyone. The island is small but mighty, with enough sites and experiences to keep any tourist happy. Just don’t be scared to try the rabbit!

Below, I’ve outlined a (very) brief list of top things to do while visiting Malta. It was hard to narrow it down, so there is much more than what you see here. But this is a great jumping off point! I’d easily be able to fill an entire book with info on Malta’s historically significant sites, hiking trails, museums, and diving spots.

Ġgantija Temples

Malta is home to three UNESCO World Heritage Sites, including temples such as Ggantija, a Neolithic compound located on Gozo Island (just north of the mainland of Malta). Built in 3600 B.C., the Ggantija Temples were named so because the locals believed the enormous temples were built by giants. Over thousands of years, the temples have stayed fairly well-preserved (although adventuring Brits in the late 1800s were less than gentle with their excavation). The museum onsite houses many of the artifacts discovered during countless excavations. The museum also offers great info on the temple’s (re)discovery. Make sure to take time to check it out if you find yourself here!

Bonus: There are 5 other temple sites in Malta that are included under the UNESCO umbrella (Ħaġar Qim, Mnajdra, Tarxien, Ta’ Ħaġrat, and Skorba), some dating back further than Stonehenge and the Great Pyramid. Each of these temples offer a truly incredible site. The ingenuity and craftsmanship of these prehistoric people are fully on display, and careful study of each of these sites have given us amazing insight into how the ancient people lived, worked, and ate.

Mollie leads, and sometimes I follow.


Bonus-bonus: Not interested in visiting a temple but still want a taste of history? Keep an eye out while hiking- there are Bronze-Age dolmans hidden amongst the cliff sides.

Bonus-bonus-bonus: (Can you tell I’m struggling to leave stuff out? It’s all spectacular.) Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum (located on the main island of Malta) is an underground, three-story complex filled with chambers and passageways and almost impeccably preserved. The structure was built around 3000 B.C., and is only open to a minimal amount of visitors per day (this is one of the few excursions that will require you to book in advance). Visiting this structure is my #1 reason to go back to Malta for a 3rd time. It’s Malta’s 2nd UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Mdina (or Medina for the non-locals)

Sansa Stark, eat your heart out.


Although there are obvious signs of ancient inhabitants scattered around the Maltese countryside, the cities themselves are also a testament to the island’s long history. Mdina, or the Silent City, was Malta’s capital for thousands of years (before being replaced by Valletta). It was founded by the Phoenicians in the 8th century BC, before being turned over to the Romans. Quick to change hands, Mdina fell under the Byzantine rule until the Middle Ages. After enjoying a brief jaunt in the Dark Ages, Malta came under the rule of the Hospitallers in the mid 1500s. It was during this transition that Valletta replaced Mdina as capital de Malta. All of the changes and new owners resulted in a city filled with different architecture and traditions.

I never thought I’d be that person, but look at this door! I have a million pictures of doors.


One of Mdina’s many charms is just how small it is. It is only a quick walk through the winding and narrow streets to reach either end of this ancient metropolis. For any loyal Game of Throners out there, the outer walls may look familiar. Mdina’s walls were used in Season 1 of Game of Thrones as a setting for King’s Landing. But don’t worry- you won’t find any heads on a pike lining the fortifications. Although production eventually moved entirely to Dubrovnik for the remaining seasons, it’s easy to see why Mdina worked so well.

The city is full of hidden doorknobs, inner courtyards, and capers dangling from walls. There is a maze of catacombs just outside the city, which you can also visit during a day trip to Mdina. Nods to the Order of St. John, who were responsible for the more Baroque architectural elements, can also be spotted while wandering the city.

A gentleman and a scholar, and a suit of armor (Looking good, Pop!)


Mdina itself, although built on a hill, is relatively flat. For the older traveller (or if you’re traveling with someone who might not take to hills very well), it’s the perfect place to experience the sweeping history of Malta in a tiny little microcosm. Plus, depending on when you go there, you might stumble upon a festival complete with medieval jousting and falconers.

You can easily access Mdina by a 30 minute bus ride from Valletta. Tickets run about €1-2, and the buses leave every 10 minutes. You can also rent a car and drive around the island, but remember, these streets are from medieval days, so the driving is tight. Also, parking might be tricky, as there are a limited number of cars allowed within the city walls, and yours won’t be one of them, so spots nearby fill up quick. Uber and Lyft are not available on the island. Taxis can be called, or you can download the app Bolt to request a ride.

Valletta

Very proud to say I didn’t trip down steps once this trip.

Obviously if you’re visiting Malta, you’re inevitably going to end up in its capital city. UNESCO describes Valletta as one of the most concentrated historical sites in the world. The entire city is considered a World Heritage Site (ding ding! #3!). Since the Hospitallers were also responsible for the building of it, the architecture echoes much of Mdina.

In 1566, the Grand Master of the Order of Saint John, Jean de Valette, commissioned the building of a fortified city to deepen the Order’s ties to Malta and protect its people from further invaders. He personally laid down the first stone to celebrate his victory after a four month siege by the Ottomans. Outgunned, outmanned, outnumbered, and out-planned (now you have that song stuck in your head, sorry!), the Order of Saint John miraculously held the island, and in battle after battle they pushed the Ottomans back into the sea, now red with their blood. (I’m rushing the history here because I know this article is bursting at the seams with it, but seriously, how cool is that story?) Although Jean de Valette didn’t live to see his city fully completed, he remains there to this day, buried in St. John’s Co-Cathedral along with several other Grand Masters (but we will act like that is not creepy).

Pro tip: The ferry from Sliema arrives at the lower dock of Valletta. If you travel with someone who isn’t a complete sadist, there is a lift you can take to the upper levels of Valletta, so you don’t have to walk up the enormous hills to get up there. I was not so lucky.

St. John’s Co-Cathedral

Much of Maltese culture centers on religion, and churches are plentiful in Valletta, as well as across all of Malta.

St. John’s is a good a place as any to start when visiting, and inside is a bonus for any art lover- a massive, spectacular Caravaggio that takes up basically an entire wall. The Beheading of St. John the Baptist is the artist’s largest work, and the only one he actually signed. The room it is displayed in is lined with other gorgeous pieces, but for obvious reasons, Caravaggio’s masterpiece is the standout. That’s not to say the rest of the Co-Cathedral isn’t just as incredible. Even the marble tombstones where prominent knights are buried are intricately carved.

Entrance to the Co-Cathedral costs €10, but a lot of the other churches around the city are free to visit.

An entire wall worth of beheading.

(Bonus- the Cathedral is the centerpiece of a lively square with restaurants, music, and plenty of gelato shops. One of my favorite moments during my first trip here was simply sitting on the steps enjoying an enormous chocolate gelato cone and people watching.)

Upper Barraka Gardens

The Baroque garden of your dreams

The Upper Barraka Gardens are high up in the hills towering over the lower end of Valletta, but the view is worth the sore calves. You can see the entire harbor from the walls of the garden, plus if you get there in time to get a good view, you’ll be able to watch the cannons go off at noon and 4pm. This tradition harkens back to the time when these cannons would welcome returning naval vessels, but now it’s purely ceremonial, and a lot of fun. Another bonus point? It is also free!

World War II history buffs should head down into the Lascaris War Rooms after watching the ceremony. These rooms were the site of the fighter control rooms where wartime operations against the Germans were planned.

Tick tick boom

Museums
Malta’s contributions to World War II were integral to British operations, and visiting the National War Museum is another great way to learn about how this island helped win the war. The museum is housed in Fort St. Elmo, built in the 1500s by the Order of St. John, but the museum itself specializes in WWII memorabilia.

The National Museum of Archaeology also focuses on Malta’s unique history, albeit much earlier than WWII. It’s filled with statues and artifacts from antiquity, and its prehistoric collection is unmatched. One of the most amazing things about this collection is the scope of what it holds. From Neolithic artifacts, to an Egyptian pendant, to beautifully preserved Roman statues, the museum spans most of human history.

Admission to this museum can be grouped with admission to other museums or historical sites around the country. Prices depend on when you go and what you see. Check out updated prices here.

The Blue Lagoon

WOWZA. Literally that’s the word that comes to mind when I think about visiting the Blue Lagoon.

Located on Comino Island, this lagoon offers impossibly blue water (hence the name, duh!), gorgeous views, and a chill party scene. Boats to the island leave every day from Sliema’s docks. You can book online through major tour sites or simply have dinner in Sliema and approach one of the many ticket counters lining the waterfront to book for the next day.

We took a boat that looked like a pirate ship there, because apparently my group watched Pirates of the Caribbean one too many times. The large tour boats are about an hour ride, and not great for people who get sea sick (a.k.a. me). I will admit, though, that the destination is worth any sickness.

Once your boat docks in the Blue Lagoon, you step foot onto the banks and are greeted with stalls selling alcoholic drinks in pineapples and a scene straight out of a movie. Depending on your boat and how long you have here, you can spend the entire day hiking around the rocky outcroppings or swimming in the turquoise waters (just a warning- the ocean can be very chilly, especially in early summer). Stalls offer drinks, souvenirs, and food– though most tour boats will offer unlimited drinks and lunch as part of your ticket price. We paid €25 each for our boat ride, all-you-can-drink-and-puke drinks, lunch with snacks, and a beautiful cruise along the shores of Malta.

If you indulge in one thing while visiting Malta, let this be it. Just be sure to bring your Dramamine.

Pro Tip: If you walk up to the sellers instead of booking online, you can usually get a lower price. This also gives you the option to look at each boat, as the boats vary drastically without much difference in price. Our ticket was the same cost as the packed ferries we saw go by, and we had less people, a better boat, and more time on the island.


Food and Drink

The food in Malta has been heavily influenced by its long history of conquest, and popular dishes hint at Greek, Italian, and Arabic cuisine. Try the rabbit (I’m saying this again to convince you), indulge in the pasta, and don’t forget to grab a pastizzi from the local bakery on your morning walk! Maltese wines, although less recognized around the world, are certainly worth a sip or two (or a bottle or two, who are we kidding), and the island boasts 2 indigenous grape varieties.

The island is littered with olive trees, and the olive oil I bought from a small stand along the waterfront in Marsakloxx was the best I’ve ever tasted. I was so sad to use the last of it. If you want to bring home a souvenir, a bottle of olive oil is the perfect choice!

Honorable Mention:

Gozo

The Cliffs of Despair! (Just kidding, these are the sea cliffs surrounding Gozo).

It would be a mistake to visit Malta and not explore Gozo. When you’re checking out the Ġgantija Temples, be sure to stick around and tour the rest of the island. The streets are impeccably kept and the houses are beautiful. The island is home to a lot of natural wonders as well, including Fungus Rock and some really cool salt flats.

Popeyes Village
This is a weird one. In the late 1980s, Robin Williams filmed the live-action Popeye movie on Malta, complete with a very detailed set. When the movie was done, the set remained, and was turned into an amusement part of sorts for families and Robin Williams enthusiasts to visit.

Blue Grotto
Malta is bursting at the seams with geological formations, and the Blue Grotto is a great one to visit. Make sure to check the weather- on the day we went, the waters were too choppy and they had halted boat tours.

Marsaxlokk offers colorful fishing boats and tiny town feels.

Marsaxlokk
If you’ve been researching Malta, you’ve probably seen pictures of a harbor filled with colorful fishing boats. That’s Marsaxlokk, a small fishing village a short trip away from Valletta where you can dine on the freshest seafood around, shop at the stalls set up on street, and people watch to your hearts content. This is where I bought my olive oil, plus a really pretty pair of earrings. Treat yo’self!

Diving
There are several unique places to dive on Malta for the underwater enthusiast including WWII shipwrecks, reefs, caves, and the Blue Hole in Gozo, an upright tube-like underwater structure formed by thousands of years of water and wind erosion.

Sliema

Fine, I didn’t fall on the steps of Valetta, but I left this waterfront with a sore butt.

Since we weren’t in Malta for an extended period of time, we never really got to explore all the cool stuff that Sliema had to offer (too busy trying not to lose my lunch on a pirate ship, unfortunately) but there are plenty of historically significant and exciting things to see in this modern city. The promenade is full of great restaurants, ice cream shops, ancient towers, and Roman baths.

Getting around:

Public Transportation: We always love taking public transportation when visiting a new place, but ran into an interesting problem. The bus just…stopped. They kicked us all off, and told us to wait an hour for the next one. This ended up being a blessing- we just walked along the island instead, but something to be aware of when visiting! It certainly threw us off for a minute.

You can buy different levels of access cards, including a 1, 7, and 12-day Journey card for access to public transportation. They’re available all over the island at different info points. We had no trouble finding a booth to purchase ours. Remember- Malta is part of the EU, so bring your euros!

Traveling by car: You could rent a car here, but the roads are reallllllllly tiny. So tiny that I feared for my life while on a tour bus. You’re better off taking public transportation or hiring cars and leaving the driving to the pros. As we mentioned earlier, Uber and Lyft aren’t available in the country (as of 2022), but taxis can be called. You can also download the app, Bolt, to request rides.

Have you visited Malta? Leave a comment below with more tips, and any location we might have missed!

Posted in North American Travel

How to Access Free Hiking in Arenal, Costa Rica

Costa Rica– the land of volcanoes, lush rainforests, and endless entry fees to private “reserves”. If you have ever visited this beautiful country, you probably experienced the entry-fee fatigue that many outdoor enthusiasts start to feel a few days into their stay.

We are currently spending three weeks in the beautiful Monteverde region, and have already begun to dread that constant nickel and diming that happens when trying to access any hiking trails. For those of you who have not yet visited this country, here’s a heads up– all reserves and parks cost at least $10 per a person to access, with many as high as $25. This doesn’t seem bad (especially when compared to the high rates of the US National Parks), but after five or six days of paying every time you want to walk around a jungle, it becomes rather exhausting.

The trails are worth the entry fee, but it does quickly add up.

Last weekend, we decided to mix things up and head to the Arenal region for three days. Already dreading the high fees to famous areas such as Mystic Bridges and Arenal National Park, I decided to do some digging into options for free hiking. 

The Arenal Volcano on a rare clear day. Photo credit: wikipedia.com (because we never got such a clear day)

Spoiler Alert: There is NO free hiking in Arenal. Sorry for baiting and switching you!

However, there are options to combine your lodging with unlimited access to a preserve, allowing for you to enjoy nature at your leisure. 

Enter: Arenal Observatory Lodge and Preserve 

It’s fancy and adventure-friendly. Something this budget traveler loves! Photo credit: arenalobservatorylodge.com

The Arenal Observatory and Lodge is the only hotel inside of Arenal Volcano National Park. Situated at the base of the Arenal Volcano, guests who stay at the lodge have access to over 900-acres of land, which spans from secondary forests to primary rainforest. Two rivers and a frog pond also add a variety of wildlife and diversity to this property. 

Just look at all that hiking! Hint: the map is definitely not to scale.

A standard room at the lodge averages around $120-160 a night. Options are also available for multiple-room villas, in case you are traveling with a group. When compared to budget hotels in Fortuna (the nearest town to the Arenal Volcano), these rooms are quite a bit more expensive. For reference, a 3-star hotel in the town will run about $60 a night, and Airbnb options are even less. 

However, once you start adding up the expense of visiting the park and other reserves, the price of this lodge versus a cheaper hotel in town starts to even out. For example, entrance to Mystic Bridges Reserve is $27 per person, with reservations required. For two people, that is $54 just to access one reserve, one time. 

But the difference in price doesn’t stop there. If you are visiting this area for multiple days, chances are high that you will be hiking everyday. Entrance to Arenal Volcano National Park is $15 per person, and the various shorter waterfall hikes around town average around $10-$15 per person per a visit. 

Beyond the high entrance fees, all of these reserves close by 4pm. If you want to night hike (which you should, because this is when most of the wildlife comes out to play), then expect to pay an additional $45-80 per person for a guided night hike. By the time you have spent three days in Arenal, you could easily spend an additional $200 just to access the hiking areas. 

By opting to pay more up front by staying at the Arenal Observatory and Lodge, you have access to free hiking whenever you want. This includes any night hiking you may want to do around the property on your own (just be sure to bring multiple flashlights). The property also offers a free, guided morning hike where you can tour the frog pond and surrounding area with an expert wildlife spotter for an hour each morning. We enjoyed hiking the trails at our own pace, and revisiting some of our favorite spots. Because we weren’t paying an entrance fee, we didn’t have the pressure to “see it all” in one day. Another perk? Because this area is off the beaten path, we had all the trails to ourselves. No waiting for that perfect selfie pic at the waterfall!

Standard selfie moment at the Dante Waterfall at Arenal Observatory Lodge.

Worried you might miss out on cool scenery or wildlife by not visiting the other reserves? Don’t be! The Arenal Lodge property hosts four different waterfalls, two accessible rivers, a perimeter trail with views of the volcano, multiple hanging bridges, an observatory tower, a bird-viewing balcony with views of Lake Arenal, and beautiful gardens throughout the property. There is also a free visitor center and museum on site, so you can learn more about the ecological diversity and volcanic activity of the area. The lodge also has a pool, hot tub, and full-service spa (for #treatyoself days). There is also restaurant on location. Oh, and breakfast is included. 

While staying on the property, we spotted a troop of spider monkeys, toucans, parrots, eyelash vipers, red-eyed tree frogs, other snakes I don’t know the name of, hummingbirds, motmots, a baby tarantula, and an anteater (ok, we actually didn’t see the anteater because we were napping, but our hotel neighbor said it was right outside our window). 

This mom and baby were hanging out just past the reception area on the hanging bridge. Photo credit: @nlarghi

I know I’m starting to sound like a marketing campaign, so let’s consider some downsides to staying at this lodge. The first concern (and the biggest for budget-minded adventurers) is that Arenal Observatory is remote in a good and bad way. It is over 30 minutes from La Fortuna, with part of the road still dirt and full of potholes. Our 2×4 sedan was able to make the journey just fine, but it doesn’t make it easy to pop into town for a quick lunch or dinner. There are no fridges or microwaves in the standard hotel rooms, so that leaves the only option for food the lodge restaurant.  

View from the restaurant. While is is pricey, it does have great views.

Food here is delicious, but the average plate is about $15 and the meal portions are just average (meaning you might walk away still hungry if you just order an entree). In comparison, a meal in town can be as low as $6, or lower depending on where you eat. If you’re only staying a few days, this isn’t a deal breaker, but it is something to keep in mind for longer stays or for individuals who would like options when it comes to eating. We went into town to buy supplies for sandwiches so we could have our own picnics during the day, but still opted for the lodge’s restaurant at night. 

This also means you are at least 30 minutes to the other attractions in the La Fortuna area, including white water rafting, zip lining, bars/clubs, and water tours of the lake. While the lodge does have horseback riding available, for those with serious FOMO, the extra distance might be too inconvenient.

A sloth we spotted on the Bogarin Trail, down in La Fortuna. While there are sloths on the property, they may be harder to spot. Photo credit: @nlarghi

Another point to consider is using this property to access Cerro Chato (the other volcano in this area which many people will hike). Many hiking guides will still state that there is an access trail on this property, but this trail was closed permanently a few years ago. This is true for the entire area of Cerro Chato, but some some hiking sites may not have updated information. Access to this area might open in the future, so it’s smart to check with the hotel if this is on your bucket list.

There is a beautiful waterfall that you can enjoy at the trailhead. Photo credit @nlarghi

The standard rooms at Arenal Observatory Lodge do not have air conditioning. While this lodge is situated at a higher elevation than the town, it can still get hot here. The rooms come with screens, high ceilings, and a very powerful ceiling fan, but for those of us who are used to climate-controlled rooms, this should be a consideration. I loved sleeping with the sounds of the jungle around me, but the humidity did get sticky at night. 

As added incentive, this is the view. We were staying in room 19 to get this view. The wifi was also great throughout the property for remote working.

If you don’t want to stay at the lodge, you can pay a daily entrance fee to hike the grounds ($8 as of 2021). This still makes it quite a bit cheaper than the surrounding reserves, and you can easily spend an entire day here and still not see everything. 

If you do find yourself here and would like more information on all the trails, check out our upcoming article on “Top Places to Spot Wildlife in Arenal”.

While the cost of hiking in Costa Rica is a major downside, this country is incredibly beautiful and still a very affordable destination. It is easy to focus on the individual prices of lodging when booking, but a little research and planning can make this country even more enjoyable. 

All that land. Free to access. It’s beautiful. View from the observatory tower.

We loved Arenal Observatory Lodge simply because it allowed us to enjoy nature at our own pace, whenever we wanted. The staff, grounds, and rooms were all incredibly fantastic, and I’m already planning my return trip there (where I’ll probably opt for one of those amazing villas). 

Follow-up Tip: Be sure to check out similar lodges and preserves in your other Costa Rican destinations!

Posted in North American Travel

How to Have a Romantic and Affordable Weekend in Key West

“Affordable” is not a word that’s usually associated with the Florida star of drunken nights and steamy days (prepare for an endless amount of romance puns in this one). I debated calling this weekend “affordable”, because, compared to my other adventures, this was definitely not on the cheaper end.

One of the most expensive parts of visiting Key West is the steep cost of accommodations. Even during the off-season, a weekend in a hotel within walking distance of Duval Street will run about $300-500 a night. But if you’re willing to accept that most of your expenses will come from where you sleep (or at least rest between bar hopping), then the rest of the weekend can be easy on your wallet without skimping on the romance or experience.

Cheers to going big for the weekend!

So, join me, your self-appointed Romance Connoisseur, on my top tips for How To Have a Romantic and Affordable Weekend in Key West, Florida.

Tip 1: Drive

Nothing says romance more than driving past palm trees and blue water with the windows down, especially when you get to hear that motor purr at 45 mph (the top speed on the US 1 from Key Largo to Key West).

Two lanes, the whole way. Photo credit: hoctcars.com

I currently live in Fort Myers, so driving to Key West is usually the easiest option for me. However, even if you’re visiting from the Great North, flying into Miami or Fort Lauderdale and renting a car is still your best bet. The Florida Keys are scattered with small airports, including a commercial airport located in Key West. While this may seem convenient, a quick Google Flights search shows that not only is Key West airport typically very expensive to fly into, it is also coupled with multiple layovers and connections. (If you’re located near a major airport hub for Frontier, Spirit, or JetBlue, you have much better prices and connections. These airlines provide multiple nonstop services to Key West at a reasonable rate, but are very limited.)

Nonstop flight options for a random weekend in November.

Opting to drive Highway 1 through the Keys comes with additional bonuses. As mentioned above, accommodation in Key West is extremely pricey, regardless of the season. If you’re looking to book an extended weekend with that special someone (or yourself! #treatyoself), renting a car gives you the option of staying in the Upper Keys for some of your stay. While they aren’t cheap, the Upper Keys offer a wider area of hotels, Airbnbs, and campgrounds, bringing costs down to as low at $100 a night, depending on where you stay. The Upper Keys are also less crowded than Key West, granting you a bit more serenity and privacy if you want to take a dip into the ocean with your lady lover under a full moon (just don’t watch Jaws before this trip).

Bahia Honda is a great stop to spend a half a day enjoying the “beach”. Heads up, if you’re looking for the typical white sand beaches, these don’t exist in the Keys. Photo credit: Nicholas Larghi Photography

The Upper Keys also provide some great stops for sightseeing along the way that shouldn’t be skipped over. Some of my favorites include:

  • Keys Chocolate and Ice Cream on Key Largo- Best stop for key lime pie on a stick, ice cream, and gourmet sweets. If you go at night, you get the added bonus of enjoying their delicacies under a patio of twinkle lights, and what says romance more than twinkle lights? Nothing.
Aw, sweet diabetes.
  • The History of Diving Museum on Islamorada- Okay, so this one may not get you a lot of romance points, but history can be sexy, right? Regardless, this is a great stop for any dive, ocean, or history enthusiasts, and is also a great option to escape the rain. Tickets are $15 a person, but you can easily spend a couple hours here.
Gotta love that 60’s vibe. Photo credit: divingmuseum.org
  • Bahia Honda State Park on Big Pine Key- You can think me later when this stop pays off in your favor (insert winky face). This park is definitely a major reason for driving. Located just under a hour from Key West, this park provides one of the best beaches in the Keys, as well as a great place for snorkeling, boat tours, paddle boarding, and kayaking. The old railroad bridge at the park also offers one of the highest vantage points in this area, so you can get sweeping views of the ocean as a backdrop for the cute couple photo that will be your phone’s background for the next 7-10 months. You can also reserve a campsite here if you want to see the bridge under the Milky Way. Nothing says “eternal love” like 10,000 no-see-ums and 10 billion stars.
Insert cheesy romance line here. Photo credit: Nicholas Larghi Photography
  • Florida Keys Cafe on Big Pine Key- If you’re driving into Key West in the morning, this is a definite stop to grab a much needed coffee and delicious breakfast. Not only is the food divine, but this family-owned and operated restaurant is also very affordable (under $15 a plate, which is affordable in this territory). It’s not much to look at on the outside, but the inside is full of charm, sweet servers, and the nice aroma of salty fishermen. No one is feeling very loving when they’re hangry, so be sure to stop in here, pack in some grub, and continue on to the Southern Capitol of Debauchery.
Beauty is on the inside for this one.

Tip 2: Opt for the Nice Hotel

Now that you’ve made it to your destination, picking out the perfect place to call home for the weekend is going to impact the rest of this lovecation. Hotels in Key West are pricey (if I haven’t said this enough), but if you’re smart in your selection, then the cost will be worth the experience. Hotels are the most expensive close to Duval Street; however, if you’re banking on getting your plus one hammered with frozen cocktails, it works in you favor to stay within walking distance of the bars and attractions. Anything over half a mile from Sloppy Joe’s, and you’re officially too far to stumble your way home.

The Old Town Manor. This used to be a doctor’s residence and office. If you stay inside the house, it is supposedly haunted. I did not stay in the house.

We stayed at the Old Town Manor, just around the corner from the main road. At $400 a night, this hotel was one of the most expensive I’ve ever stayed in, but it was more than worth the price (and still on the cheaper end of Key West accommodations). This B&B offered everything required for a weekend of romance, and relaxation. A converted residence from 1886, we had the option to stay inside the main house or in the converted carriage house outside (we chose the carriage house). Because we weren’t right on Duval, we were able to enjoy the party scene, but retreat to the quiet serenity of our own garden. Breakfast included a buffet of salmon, homemade jams, fruits, and a variety of bagels and freshly-pressed orange juice (with the added bonus of baby chicks running around). We stayed in the Jarcada Room, and we had our own patio overlooking the beautiful gardens and breakfast area. The house was also available if we wanted to pop in for some refreshing fruit-infused water, chat with the incredibly helpful staff, or escape the heat in the charming parlor or on the front porch. If you’re trying to convince your significant other that you need a trip here pronto, I will provide some extra photos to seal the deal.

Tip 3: Find Free Activities for the Day Time

Because you might be experiencing sticker shock over the price of your hotel, spend the day enjoying the town without opting for the expensive excursions. Key West has a lot of offer to the hardy traveler who isn’t afraid to brave the heat and put some miles on their shoes. The neighborhoods spanning out from Duval Street are filled with colorful, historic homes and Spanish-moss draped avenues. You can easily spend a lazy morning strolling down the sidewalks and just taking in the sights.

Just don’t check Zillow. It will make you feel poor.

If you’re more of a destination person, check out the West Martello Tower and Garden. This Civil-War era fort turned botanical garden is free to the public (open 9:30am-5:00pm, 7 days a week).

Not featured: the hoards of chickens running around. Photo credit: Nicholas Larghi Photography

Ferns, trees, flowers, butterflies, chickens, and beautiful views of the ocean make this a great place to spend an hour or two. Most of the paths are shady, so it is also a good place to escape Florida’s oppressive heat. Pack your sunhat, sunscreen, and skip the cute shoes for something more comfortable as this spot is about a 30 minute walk from Duval Street. However, it brings you closer to the Southernmost Point of the US marker, so you can knock off two things on your “must-see” list.

Just a small sample of all the beautiful flowers to see here. Photo credit: Nicholas Larghi Photography

From here, you can make the short 10-minute walk to the Southernmost Point of the US. This marker is a fan-favorite for all visitors, and your trip wouldn’t be complete without a quick selfie. Try to get here early, as a line does form for pictures and the heat can be rather dreadful. There’s a great little grocery story just across the street where you can pick up some key lime pie on a stick or a cold drink to make up for the long jaunt.

This is not a diet-friendly destination.

At the end of the day, head over to Mallory Square for the daily sunset celebration, courtesy of the more colorful residents of Key West. An hour or so before sunset, this square starts to fill up with visitors, exhibitionists, and the occasional chicken. This is one of the better places on the island to catch the sunset over the ocean, and there’s plenty of places to grab a delicious cocktail to sip on while you wait. (While a lot of people watch the sunset right at Mallory Square, if you walk Harbour Place Condos, you can get a better view and a bit more privacy).

I like pretty views next to boats I can’t afford.

The real attraction though comes from the assortment of freelance performers who put on free shows around the square. You can catch everything from an old guy walking a tightrope to a kid spinning fire– it just depends on the day. Be sure to bring some cash to show your appreciation for your favorite performers.

Be careful. You might be volun-told to join the show.

Tip 4: Splurge on Food and Drinks

If you’re in Key West, chances are very high that you’re here to have a drink or two. Since you’ve opted for a hotel with breakfast and skipped the expensive tours, you have a bit more room in your budget to splurge on some yummy drinks and food. Restaurants can get pricey here, so it helps to do a bit of research if you want to be more strategic in your approach. One of our favorites was Garbo’s Grill at Hank’s Bar. This low-key, outdoor bar offers free, live music and an affordable happy hour ($5 beer in Key West, anyone?).

Nothing like beer in a plastic cup to get the romance flowing.

The best part of this place though is the food truck behind the bar, named Garbo’s Grill. They feature a variety of bar food, including fish tacos, beef tacos, hamburgers, hotdogs, and poke bowls. However, the true winner of the show (and the reason we kept coming back to it the entire weekend) is the Korean Bulgogi Burrito. Unless you’re a monster, you love Korean Bulgogi as much as the rest of the world, and this place does not disappoint. Food costs $10-$15 a plate, which is much cheaper than many of the sit-down restaurants in the area.

Marry me, sweet burrito from heaven.

Spend your evening checking out the colorful and unique bars that fill Duval Street. Like everything else here, drinks aren’t cheap in Key West (most cocktails will cost around $10-$15, depending on how fancy you are), but you’re here for the experience. To save some money, check with your hotel to see if they have coupon cards for some of the bars. We were able to snag a couple Buy One, Get One coupons for some places, which saved us about $10 for each order.

Nighttime, when Duval comes alive. Just remember to hydrate.

Tip 5: Opt for the Off-Season

Key West shines when the rest of the country is buried under ten feet of snow. December through April is peak tourist season for this tiny town, meaning prices for hotels skyrocket and everything gets a bit too crowded for comfort. Remember, there is only one road leading down to the keys, and it can quickly turn into a traffic nightmare on a busy Friday evening.

Starting in May, the tourists start to disappear, as temperatures in the rest of the country start to rise and those poor, pale Northerners get to peak out their front doors and see the sun for the first time in months. While it is hotter and way more humid in the summer, hotels get to be a bit more reasonable and you won’t feel like you’re fighting crowds everywhere you go.

If you are visiting during the summer months, be sure to pack clothes that breathe easily, a good sun hat, and lots of sunscreen. It is also smart to do most of your exploring in the early morning and late afternoon, spending the hottest part of the day by the pool of that adorable hotel you opted for.

I come, I insta, I leave.

Final Thoughts

Key West is definitely one of America’s more unique destinations, but it is also definitely not for everyone. I’m spinning this to be a weekend for couples, because this really isn’t the best destination for kids. Girls weekend, Lonely Boys Days Out, and romantic escapades are all great fits for this colorful destination, but Key West lacks the beaches and kid-friendly attractions that are typical in the rest of Southern Florida. Not to mention the hoards of drunken debauchery that descends upon this town once the sun goes down…

The face of drunken debauchery.

While it doesn’t fit the tune of our normal, budget-friendly destinations, Key West can still be done on a rather affordable budget. It is a great destination for a long weekend with your amore of the hour (or life, whatever floats your boat). Just be smart in your planning, be willing to cough up a bit more for a nice hotel, and most of all, get drunk, make-out in public, and have a great time.

Happy trails, everyone!

Posted in International Travel

Budapest: Christmas Markets and Beyond

When envisioning a winter escape to Europe, images of chalet fantasies on the slopes of the Alps or night skies full of the northern lights cover countless guide books. These are beautiful winter destinations, but for a specific span of time, at the very crest of winter, the rest of the continent is putting on a spectacular show, shining like a beacon during the long European nights. One of the brightest gems shining in that winter darkness is Budapest–a contender for the best place we visited (in winter and overall, really) during our whirlwind adventure through Europe’s Christmas celebrations.

Can I move here, please?

Budapest wears its history like a cloak around proud shoulders, and the heart of the city will charm you so thoroughly that you’ll fall in love with the tatters even more than the glistening post-war additions. The crumbling facades are a testament to a long and rich history, and tell the story of Budapest’s past inhabitants almost like a living museum.

We hopped on a cheap flight from Belgium and landed in Budapest in early December ($12 with checked bags! Thanks, RyanAir!). At this point, we had already enjoyed Christmas markets throughout Scotland, Belgium and Estonia, but we were not prepared for just how fantastic Budapest’s market scene truly is. One thing that’s important to remember: the Christmas markets are open air markets, so dress warmly because you’ll want to be out there at night, when the lights are glittering in the Christmas trees and the beer and gluhwein flow freely.  As is true for most of the larger cities, Budapest plays host to a variety of markets (each unique in their own way), and we were lucky enough to visit them all.

Below, I’ve given a quick overview of the main Christmas Market in Budapest:

Pyramids of fun at the Christmas market!

Vörösmarty Square Market is the largest and longest-running market location, opening in November and closing January 1st (in a pre-Covid world- who knows what the schedule will be this year, but we’ll try to update this once we know for sure!). The market stalls on the outer ring sell homemade items, both traditional and modern, from local artists. The inner section is made up of food stalls, the scent of which permeates the surrounding area, making your mouth water the second you get close to the square. We ended up saving a lot of money by just grabbing dinner from the stalls most nights.

St. Stephen’s Basilica Market is a bit smaller than the market at Vörösmarty Square, but it’s where you can really get a feel for a lot of Hungarian Christmas traditions. There’s an ice skating rink, entertainment every night (both traditional and modern), and a glorious light show on the Basilica’s facade. 

Fashion Street (Deák Ferenc) also hosts a smaller scattering of market stalls and Christmas tree installations. While it’s definitely not on the scale of the Basilica or Vorosmarty Square markets, the Fashion Street market is one that you’ll wander into by accident- it serves as a great pathway between the two bigger markets. 

Christmas markets around every corner!

There are lots of other markets scattered throughout the city. You could spend an entire day walking around Budapest finding little pocket markets, each one unique. Plus, with different performers and surprises scheduled each night, no two visits to the same market will be similar.

There are a ton of other things to see and do in Budapest besides stuffing your face at the Christmas markets. The tourist attractions vary from towering churches, underground caves and museums, all hugging the Danube River, which is, as promised in the song, gorgeously blue. Just remember to dress warmly if you’re traveling in winter!

Top Sights in Budapest (regardless of the season):

The Chain Bridge: The city is actually split in two by the river, with Buda on one side and Pest on the other. They are joined by bridges stretching across the water, the most famous of which is the Chain Bridge. It was the first bridge to connect Buda and Pest. Originally built in 1849, it was bombed during World War II and rebuilt/reopened exactly a hundred years later. There are now a handful of bridges crossing the Danube, but the Chain Bridge was the first, and was a key factor in uniting Buda and Pest and allowing the Hungarian capital to grow into what it is today. 

One day, I’ll be rich enough to afford my own guard lions.

Fisherman’s Bastion: Located in the Buda Castle district, the Fisherman’s Bastion offers up some of the best views of the city. Opened to the public in 1905, the Bastion was originally built as an extra line of defense for Buda Castle, and the fisherman’s guild from the village below were charged with this responsibility (hence the name!). Entrance is free, there’s a little cafe where you can stop and eat, and the building looks like  a fairytale. 

Half fort, half fairytale.

Buda Castle: Be sure when visiting Buda Castle to ride the funicular – a strange, outdoor elevator that chugs along vertically to the hilltop. It’s a 10-minute (ish) trip, but worth every second. After your ride, step out into the Buda Castle Quarter. Head into the castle to enjoy the History Museum, Hungarian National Gallery, and even an underground Labyrinth (plus tons more to see and do- check out all the ticketing and tour info here).  

Up, up, and away!

Matthias Church: Just past Fisherman’s Bastion, within the complex of Buda Castle, you will find Matthias Church. As a lover of history, this site was heaven. Originally believed to be built in 1015, rebuilt after a Mongol invasion in the 1200s, and then repurposed, reconstructed, or added to over the following centuries, the church’s walls have held some of the most important moments in Hungarian history. The church now serves as not just a place of worship, but an art museum and concert venue as well. 

Széchenyi Thermal Baths: Since the Romans settled in Budapest, thermal baths have been a favorite pastime of the city residents. Scattered across the city are lots of options for taking a dip, but the most popular is without a doubt the Széchenyi Thermal Baths, a huge complex housed in a Neo-Baroque palace. Spend some time relaxing in the warm waters, or take advantage of their other services like mud baths and medicinal massages. Check out the prices and book a visit here– a perfect activity for winter travel!

Photo courtesy of Széchenyi Thermal Baths

Holocaust Memorial Center: The permanent exhibition in the Center is one of the most profound and educational I have ever encountered. The modern ascetic of the exhibit stands in stark contrast to the actual contents of it, which displays pictures, informational texts, and original documents detailing the rise of Nazism in Budapest and the harrowing experience of the city’s Jewish and Roma population. The museum doesn’t flinch away from the role Budapest’s own citizens played, and I found it to be a brave, unrelenting mirror into the human condition. I would urge anyone to visit this place and learn about this part of history this way- it was honestly the standout experience of this trip. 

Shoes on the Danube: If museums aren’t your thing, but you still want to find a way to learn about and honor those whose lives were taken during WWII, make your way along the promenade on the Pest side of the Danube where you’ll find this permanent art installation. It won’t have the same effect as visiting the museum, but the sight of men’s, women’s, and children’s shoes abandoned on the river bank will certainly leave its mark. 

Wrap-Up, and Final Travel Tips:

What to Eat: I don’t think any meal was ever so satisfying as the chicken paprikash I chowed down on during our first meal in chilly Budapest. Although we mainly ate our meals from the vendors at the Christmas markets, we did luck into 2 fantastic lunches. Our first meal was at a tiny restaurant on the Pest side called Patkos, where besides the chicken paprikash, we ate steak tartare and a beef stew. 

The second lunch was a little more swanky, but not more expensive! We ducked into a hotel restaurant on the Buda side (St. George Restaurant), and enjoyed a lunch special and a bottle of wine that we are still talking about years later- I’ve included it in the pics below in case you want to hunt down a bottle. Plus, check out the chairs we got to sit in while dining like queens!

Tour Tips: We bought a ticket for the Hop On/Hop Off bus here. We don’t usually use these tourist transports, since they can get pricey, but in the middle of winter it was nice to be able to hop on a bus instead of walking. It also came with free tickets for their boat tour, and we took advantage by going at night and seeing the city all lit up from the Danube. 

When you take the tour bus, climbing up to the Liberty Statue isn’t so bad! Just don’t let your travel buddy bully you into climbing down.


Where to Stay: There are lots of beautiful, boutique hotels to stay while here. We stayed in an apartment rented out by Budapest Holidays Residence. They manage various locations throughout the city and were cheap and easy to use ($125 total for 3 nights!). However, when we got stranded in Budapest an extra night (damn you, Paris protests!), we did splurge on a hotel room with breakfast. Even at the last minute, it was easy to find somewhere to stay.

Have a location or tip that I missed? Drop a comment below to share your expertise so we can all get out there and explore! As always, thank you for every like, share, and comment!

Posted in International Travel

GUEST POST: A Trip to Kyoto by Zachary DeJesus

If you had a million dollars to go anywhere in the world, where would you go? When travel restrictions are lifted, what is the first country you want to go to? Out of all the countries you have visited, which is your favorite? These are just some of the questions my friends and family have asked me since I started traveling. For me, the answer is always the same, Japan, and more specifically, Kyoto

Kyoto is often overlooked by other tourists for Japan’s capital city, Tokyo. Tokyo is a metropolis that has much more to offer in terms of world class nightlife, restaurants, and shopping than Kyoto. All of those are, oddly enough, the exact reason I chose not to go. That’s not to say I will never go to Tokyo, I simply wanted to go to the traditional Japan that I saw in movies, explored in video games, and read about in books. I wanted to explore shrines, gawk at pagodas, and wander through centuries old alleyways while eating onigiri from a brand new 711. Kyoto is that Japan.

I had the opportunity to take my first solo trip, without knowing a lick of Japanese, on Christmas Day in 2017. The flight was a grueling 17 hours from New York to San Fran, and then finally to Osaka. The JR Haruka Express, which roughly costs $25, leaves from the airport, and gets you to the heart of Kyoto in just over an hour. Accommodation in Kyoto is relatively cheap, with hostels ranging from $10 to $30 a night for a dorm or capsule, or you can opt for a traditional Ryokan if it fits your budget. Shortly after my arrival I gulped down a beer at the hostel bar, ate a fried chicken sandwich, and crawled into my pod in a room with 35 other people for a well-deserved slumber. The next five days were jam packed with visiting sites and adventuring through the city. These were my favorites:

Fushimi Inari-Taisha (Google pin here): The famed Shinto shrine of nearly a thousand torii gates dedicated to the god of agriculture and prosperity. It is open 24 hours a day, is completely free, and is a five-minute walk from the train station of the same name. I recommend getting there as early as possible to avoid crowds. I was jet-lagged and fortunate enough to get there at five in the morning and had the shrine to myself. I was followed up the foggy mountain by a cat who managed to bob and weave gracefully through the looming shadows of the gates, while a group of crows continuously cawed in the distance. It was truly an eerie experience. By the time I was coming down about two hours later crowds were already starting to roll in.

Kinkaku-ji (Google pin here): Otherwise known as The Golden Pavilion, Kinkaku-ji is a world heritage site and an absolute treasure. The actual pavilion has burned down and been rebuilt several times since the 1400’s. The gardens and surrounding areas are truly serene and worth the $4 entry fee, even though the actual building is closed off to the public. Take your time to really soak in the relaxing atmosphere here, and before you leave the premises stop in at the Visitor’s Tea House for a traditional tea ceremony. Matcha isn’t particularly my cup of tea, but the experience was worth it. 

Gion/Higashiyama (Google pin here): Gion is the old entertainment district of Kyoto and home to the Geisha. If you’re lucky enough, you may be able to spot one walking through the area, but it is quite rare. I would recommend learning the subtle differences between Geisha (Geiko in Kyoto) and Maiko, who are their apprentices, if you are planning on ‘Geisha Hunting’. This area of Kyoto is also home to Kiyomizu-dera, a gigantic Buddhist temple that sits on top of the mountain overlooking the entire city, as well as the Yasaka Pagoda, and Ginkaku-ji, or the Silver Pavilion. Whereas Fushimi Inari and Kinkaku-ji were among my favorite sites, Gion and Higashiyama were my favorite neighborhoods to explore. Pop into the shops, try black sesame ice cream, eat udon, and get lost here- you won’t regret it.

Arashiyama (Google pin here): If you’re reading this, then you’ve probably seen the pictures of this infamous place somewhere on social media– the ones of the bamboo forests shooting up towards the heavens with people in traditional Japanese garb. I would love to know how those people got those photos, because this place is absolutely packed. Aside from the crowds, the park is truly remarkable and worth a visit. There are also several shrines and temples in and around the park that offer seclusion if the swarms of people looking for the perfect shot are making you anxious. Aside from the bamboo forest you can stroll over the bridge that crosses the Oi River, and hike up to the Iwatayama Monkey Park, where you can purchase food to feed the monkeys that inhabit the area. They can be quite aggressive when it comes to food, so be on your toes!

Osaka (Google pin here): Okay, so it isn’t Kyoto, but if you’re going to Kyoto, you’re most likely flying into and out of Osaka, so why not get a little bit of city life in for the day? You can catch the Shinkansen Bullet Train at the Central Station and be in Osaka in just 12 minutes! This is typically an hour bus ride, or about 45 minutes via the JR line. During the day I walked the grounds of Osaka Castle and walked around the pre-war district of Shinsekai, which up until recently was one of Japan’s most dangerous neighborhoods. Although this trip was mostly low budget for me, I decided to splurge on a Kobe Beef dinner at a high-end restaurant. Unfortunately for me, the restaurant was fully booked. Thankfully, the host was more than kind enough to walk me to another restaurant that dished out melt-in-your-mouth steaks with beautiful marbling. I decided to walk dinner off with a stroll through Dotonbori, which is the theater and entertainment district that lines the canal. I would compare Dotonbori at night with the likes of Times Square, if Times Square had a canal flowing directly through it. Both sides of the canal were lined with vendors selling trinkets, and easy grab-and-go food like Okonomiyaki and Takoyaki, which are Japanese savory pancakes and fried octopus balls, respectively. Every now and again a boat cruise would pass by with tourists looking up and snapping selfies with the backdrop of the Glico man, an Osakan icon. I finished the night off devouring pork gyoza on the Shinkansen back to Kyoto. It was indeed a perfect day trip.

In hindsight, I wish I had more time to explore Osaka, and the truth of the matter is, I did. I had set aside two full days to explore the city, but I loved Kyoto so much that I cancelled my plans and opted to explore Osaka in less than 12 hours, and immerse myself in the beautifully historic city that is Kyoto.

So where will you find me when the dust of this pandemic has finally settled? Japan- more specifically, Kyoto.

Posted in North American Travel

Sea Cliffs and Sunsets: A Drive along Highway 101 on the Oregon Coast

Last year, a friend and I hit the road for a great adventure across America’s West.  For 6 weeks, we cruised through mountains, camped in a temperate rainforest (and froze our baby toes off), basked in hot springs, and drooled over towering redwoods. 

We spent most of our trip along the classic Highway 101, the coastal road that hugs the water along the Pacific Ocean from Washington to California.  The road is beautiful in all three states, but the drive along the Oregon Coast is truly spectacular.  

There is so much to stop and see on this route, and one could easily spend months pulling into small towns and meandering along sea cliffs.

Hello, great adventure.

Below, I’ve listed out my top “Must-Sees” along Oregon’s Highway 101. The list starts with the northernmost stop and continues south. Remember, driving times are estimates and 101 is a two-lane, curvy-road for most of its length. Traffic does happen and should be planned for.

Astoria, Oregon (Google pin here)

Astoria is the first town you hit when crossing the Columbia River from Washington into Oregon. It is a bit dated, and much of the river is consumed by large barges that carry cargo up the river. However, Astoria is a great place to begin your journey along the 101 as you get to experience crossing the Columbia on the Astoria-Megler Bridge.

Try not to drive off as you gawk around you. Photo credit: road-trip-usa.com

This truss bridge is the longest of its kind in the United States, and offers spanning panoramas of the Columbia River basin. Eagles, hawks, and ospreys are common sightings as they dart above the bridge, and the height of the bridge grants you spanning views of Oregon’s hills that you won’t gain elsewhere on this journey.

If stopping in Astoria, check out the Astoria waterfront trolley, which takes passengers along a 3-mile route through the historical port-city. We weren’t able to jump aboard due to Covid-related closures, but it looked super cute from the road, and very instagrammable.

If you don’t think this is cute, there is no hope for you. Photo credit: nworegontransit.org

Cannon Beach, Oregon (Google pin here) (40 minutes south of Astoria)

This town wasn’t on our agenda when we first headed out. We were suppose to spend a few days in Seaside, Oregon, just 20 minutes north of Cannon Beach. Every blog I read spoke about how amazing Seaside was, and I almost booked an Airbnb, sight-unseen, to stay here.

I am beyond glad that we took the risk and went through the town first. Seaside is cute, in a 1950’s, carnivalesque, where-is-the-line-between-corny-and-quaint kind of way. But it is incredibly busy, packed full of arcades and outdated motels, and it misses the mark on the quintessential coziness that images of the Oregon Coast represent. We drove in, had a look around, and then immediately headed back out for hopes of something different.

Instagram lied to me. It wasn’t this cute. Photo credit: seasideconvention.com

My tip? Skip Seaside and its cheesy attractions and head straight for Cannon Beach. This town represents everything that a visitor to the coast is looking for.

No crowds+Iconic rocks=happy traveler!

Situated between Ecola State Park and Hug Point Recreation Area, Cannon Beach is surrounded by dramatic sea cliffs, towering pines, and beautiful hiking trails. The town has a spanning beach with tide pools and towering sea rocks (such as Haystack Rock and The Needles). These rocks are the nesting sites of dozens of sea birds, including the Tufted Puffin. (Fun Fact: This is the most accessible spot in the Northwest to view these adorable birds.) If that isn’t reason enough to visit, then you are all a lost cause, but here’s an additional bonus. For my 90’s kids out there, this is also the filming sight to the much beloved classic, “The Goonies“. If you don’t know what movie I’m talking about, leave now, watch it, and come back. You can thank me later for expanding your cinematic education.

Just be sure to pack a real jacket so you don’t have to walk the cold beach wrapped in a blanket…#travelhacks

The downtown of Cannon Beach is comprised of quaint, northwestern seaside architecture. Think grey shingles on everything, and you’ve got a good picture. There are family-owned seafood restaurants, cozy bookshops, eclectic hippie stores, and perfect little cafes to grab that much needed coffee to ward of the ocean breeze. Cannon Beach is also a haven for fancy people with too much money, so you also get the random shop of luxury clothes and overpriced rain jackets (ogle at some windows and then go grab yourself a gelato).

It is sickening to think people actually get to live here. Photo credit: starfishluxuryrentals.com

We opted to rent an apartment in town and stayed for a couple days. It rains often in the Pacific Northwest, so this gave us the best chance of a few sunny days to enjoy the outdoors. Cannon Beach is a great place to spend hours walking the shoreline, grabbing a delicious calm chowder, hiking in the nearby state parks, and spending an evening on the beach with a fire while watching the sun dipped below the Pacific Ocean.

Rockaway Beach, Oregon (Google pin here) 40 minutes south of Cannon Beach, Oregon

Rockaway Beach is a town the hit its heyday a couple decades ago. The town is cute, but many of the condos are outdated and Cannon Beach still wins in a “perfect, Oregon town” race. However, Rockaway is a great stop along Highway 101 to stop and stretch your legs.

Diamond Beach is a beautiful beach for a morning stroll with a coffee, offering spanning views of the ocean with a sea arch in the distance. Rockaway Big Tree Trail is a great, family-friendly boardwalk offering a nice break from the road as you walk amongst massive ferns and towering trees. This is a great stop to get out and get some air, before continuing along your way.

Aw, one of the three days a year this coast is sunny. Photo credit; thrillist.com

Cape Lookout State Park (Google pin here) 40 minutes south of Rockaway Beach, Oregon

This is a great stop for those looking for a more strenuous hike– check out Cape Lookout, South Trail for a great 6-mile trail down the cliffs and to a remote beach. There is a campground here for those looking to experience camping on the beach, and the pin above links to a spectacular overlook, where you might catch sight of whales in the summertime. The campground offers tent sites, RV sites, as well as yurts and deluxe cabins, so this could be a perfect overnight stop to spend a night with the stars and surf.

“Camping”-Oregon Style. Photo credit: stateparks.oregon.gov

However, this is also just a great route for those looking for a beautiful drive and scenic overlooks. South of Rockaway Beach, Highway 101 stays inland for awhile. If you have time, put in this state park into your maps so you can stick to smaller county roads that stay along the coast. After the state park, you can connect back with 101 south of Pacific City.

Depoe Bay, Oregon (Google pin here) 1 hour and 10 minutes south of Cape Lookout State Park

This was by far one of my favorite stops along the entire stretch of Oregon’s 101. The town of Depoe Bay sits on the precipice of a cliff, with adorable shops situated along the main road and sweeping views of the ocean. Sea lions and seals are frequent visitors on the rocks below, and there are countless seafood restaurants and novelty stores that can easily fill up an afternoon.

Not pictured: the very strong wind. Bring a jacket.

The town is famous for its tiny, 6-acre harbor hemmed in by the cliffs and houses. It is claimed to be the smallest navigable harbor in the world, and visitors can walk along the bridge above this picturesque harbor to get a first-hand account of just how adorably small it is. You can also spot seals sunbathing on the rocks around the harbor. (I would share my picture of the seals…but they look like very blurry logs instead of adorable sea creatures. Enjoy this harbor shot instead.)

My one complaint? Not one boat named “Jenny”.

My favorite part about this town? We visited in the summer, and were able to hop aboard a whale watching tour with Tradewinds Charter. For just $25 each, we got an hour-ride out of the bay, along the coast, and got up and personal with some beautiful gray whales (Gray whales migrate along this path December-February as well as March-May, but some stick around all summer).

I promise, that’s a whale. I was just terrible at photography on this day, so this is the best I got.

Compared to the prices of whale watching tours up in Washington (sometimes running as over $100 a head), this felt like a steal, and we got to see the Oregon Coast from the water– which is a must for any visitor! Our boat had about 15 guests with 3 crewmen, and we were able to move about freely throughout the ride.

The boat ride is worth the $25, even if you’re not there during whale season.

If you’re prone to seasickness, you may want to sit this part out, or stock up on dramamine. The Pacific Ocean doesn’t like to play the smooth and calm game.

Seal Rock State Recreational Site (Google pin here) 35 minutes south of Depoe Bay, Oregon

View from the parking area. In case you don’t want to walk. (Looking at you, Dad.)

We stumbled upon this stop just driving along the coast, and it was a great place to get out and take a nice walk along the beach. Seal Rock is known for its towering rock formations just off the beach, and the coastal area is full of tide pools to check out as you walk along the sand (check tide tables here, and plan to go during low tide). The walk from the parking are to the beach is steep, so those unsteady on their feet may want to jump on the back of a trusty family member. There is also an overlook area here that you can easily access from the parking area without doing the great descent. Sea lions and seals frequent this area, so keep a sharp eye out for these lovable creatures.

If you get there at super low tide, you can walk right up to the basalt rock formations!

Pro Tip: The town of Seal Rock is also a great overnight destination for travelers looking for a quaint, coastal town. While my favorite is Cannon Beach, I can’t deny that this town was definitely adorable and I could easily spend days here. A quick perusal on Airbnb also revealed some great options for houses and apartment. We stayed just down the road in Yachats at Deane’s Oceanfront Lodge. While the rooms are small, this is a beautiful, privately-owned coastal motel that just screams American road trip. I was here with a friend, but this is a great romantic stop (you can thank me later).

The town of Yachats. Also a great place to stay for a few days!

Neptune State Scenic Viewpoint (Google pin here) 20 minutes south of Seal Rock Recreational Site

Just south of the infamous Thor’s Well, is a little pullout on 101 overlooking the ocean. We stopped here for photos (and to wipe sea spray off of the windshield), but found a small hiking trail leading down from the overlook to the rocks below. I mention this stop because these rocks contained the best tide pools by far that we saw on all of the Oregon Coast. The best part? They also had no one else around (unlike Thor’s Well).

Not a place you want to go barefoot.

Sea-stars, sea anemones, hermit crabs, and fish fill this area, with the occasional seal popping up just beyond the surf to say hello. We showed up just as low tide was turning, so we enjoyed about an hour of adventuring along the rocks and peering into the underwater world before the rising water forced us to turn back. This adventure requires sturdy shoes, solid feet, and the acceptance that you will probably slip on seaweed, but if you’re up for it, give it a go! Just be careful where you step, as this is a fragile ecosystem. Stick to dry rock without any barnacles so you’re not damaging the creatures we all love.

This was before I got access to a fancy, underwater camera…

Heceta Head Lighthouse (Google pin here) 15 minutes south of Neptune Viewpoint

Ok, honest moment. We actually didn’t stop here (thank you, bad weather), but we did see it from the road–so that kinda counts. This list wouldn’t be complete without a picturesque light house, so here you go. Heceta Lighthouse has an easy overlook just south of the turn, and it offers panoramic views up the coast with the charming light house front and center. This is also a bed and breakfast, so if you’re feeling fancy, check it out!

How it’s suppose to look when you’re not drowning in rain. Photo credit reluctantly goes to my sister, Sarah Reed…who got to see it in the sunshine.

The famous Sea Lion Caves (pin here) are a few minutes south of here, so if you haven’t had a chance to see a sea lion yet, pull off here, pay the $14 to get in, and bask in the glory that is flubber and fur.

My sister stopped here and got to see the caves…without sea lions. They leave the caves in early Spring to have their babies, but you can see them sunbathing outside. (See below)
#nextlifegoals.

Port Orford to Brookings Drive (1 hour route) 2 hours from Heceta Head Lighthouse

Okay, so if you’re looking at a map, you might have some questions. I skipped a lot between the last stop and Port Orford. Most notably, Coos Bay and Dunes City– both featured in most travel guides for this area. However, in my quest to stay honest, I did not find the southern portion of Oregon’s 101 as picturesque as the northern portion. Many of the towns (especially Coos Bay) felt run-down and outdated, missing the quaint shops and welcoming aura that perforates villages along the northern stretch. We stopped in many areas along the way, but didn’t find anything to beat what we had already seen, until we hit the stretch of road between Port Orford and Brookings, the final hour of 101 in Oregon…

This portion of the road can arguably be the most stunning and jaw-dropping of the entire route. While northern Oregon wins in cute towns, this stretch wins in twisting curves, dropping cliffs, and spanning views of pine trees, redwoods, and roaring waves. I included this as a route rather than a stop, because I feel like this entire area is a stop, and should be treated with leisure. To break up the drive, you can stop for a hike at Cape Sebastian Trail, a 6-mile (roundtrip) hike through the trees down to the beach. This trail is steep, so it may not be for everyone in the family (like the one who chose to wear flip flops today).

Yes. It really does look like this. I was just too busy gawking to remember to take a photo, so photo credit goes to: tripsavvy.com

I adored this portion of the drive, and believe it deserves much more than the hour it takes to just drive it without stopping. So plan to pack a lunch, wear some sturdy shoes, and enjoy your final stretch of Oregon’s 101– with one hell of a finale.

Even Mr. Crab says this route is amazing.

Wrap-Up

As you can see, there is so much to take in along Oregon’s 101. These are just a few of the hundreds of stops you can make along the route, and the scenery never gets old. Since this is a road-trip, it is also very affordable (especially if you opt for camping at the numerous state parks along the way!). Food can get pricey (as most of it is seafood, yum!), so stop in a few grocery stores along the way so you can plan for affordable picnics.

The best part? Most of the attractions along Oregon’s 101 are completely free! Parking and beach access is free along the route (unless you’re accessing a State Park), and hiking is always free.

Have you visited the Oregon Coast before? Drop a comment below of your favorite part of this amazing drive!

Posted in Budget Tips

Hipcamp– The Airbnb Option for Tents, RVs, Glampers, and more!

Since Covid, there has been a dramatic increase in outdoor recreation. From people rushing to buy their first RV to retailers selling out of tents, America (and the world) is on a quest to rediscover the Great Outdoors.

And I love it! I really do. Camping is a great way to save money on hotels and Airbnbs when traveling and seeing the world. What do I not like about 2021 camping?

The crowds.

Has there always been this many people in the world? I don’t think so. Photo: packyourtent.com

This past year, I’ve encountered the issue that everyone has decided to take up camping as their new favorite weekend adventure. State park campgrounds are booked months in advance, national park campgrounds are booked within seconds of availability, and even the remote Chickees Huts in the middle of the Florida swamp have become the hottest item for weekend warriors.

Why don’t I have my own picture here? Overpopulation. Reluctant Photo credit: thedyrt.com

My favorite adventure has become everyone’s favorite adventure, and it makes sense. Most countries continue to have their borders closed, people are still timid about Covid, and outdoor recreation just screams “social distancing-friendly”.

And it’s not just me. Campers, Rv’ers, and outdoor enthusiasts all throughout the United States are reporting fully-booked campgrounds and no availability. My family recently did an RV trip across the west, and struggled to find campgrounds that were available or affordable— spending over $100 a night for certain sites.

What my family does when I’m working…

None of this is surprising. RV sales went up 43% from 2019 to 2020. 10 million Americans camped for the first time in 2020. (Welcome to the party, new recruits!)

However, the world of camping has not quite caught-up. Getting permits for a new campground is a long and slow process, so demand is outpacing the supply (and that drives up prices). For us outdoor-lovers, this is a sad fate for our favorite pastime. Campgrounds are at capacity, and there is no sign of this slowing down as we head into the peak of 2021 travel.

The solution? Hipcamp. My favorite app of 2021.

My favorite place to find myself.

For those of us new to Hipcamp, this is booking service similar to Airbnb. However, instead of booking rooms or houses, you can book RV spots, tent spots, cabins, glamping options, or even the random treehouse. It is designed as a perfect solution to the lack of campgrounds problem.

That’s doesn’t look like a KOA….

So how does it work? When I say Hipcamp is like Airbnb, I mean it is just like Airbnb. By visiting the homepage (or the app), you can select the area where you want to camp. Put in your dates and number of guests, and you are given an interactive map with a list of options.

Instead of booking a traditional campground, you are booking sites owned by individuals. Sometimes, it can be a full-service RV pad in the woods behind someone’s house or other times, it can be a 1-acre lot of land near a national park perfect for boondocking or primitive camping.

Only like 3% of them are creepy, I promise.

Just like Airbnb, prices range depending on the location, dates, and services. To give you a picture of how awesome this site can be, I put in dates for July 12-14 near Yosemite National Park.

Reservable campsites in Yosemite have been booked for months, however Hipcamp offers great alternative to last-minute planners. 30 minutes outside of Yosemite was an RV site with water and electric going for $40 a night. Seeing that the average campsite in an established campground now ranges around $50 a night, this is a great deal for families scrambling to secure a spot for that brand-new Class A motorhome. This is just an example of several sites available within an hour of the park’s entrance.

It’s a good day when dad comes through and you don’t have to camp in a Wal-Mart parking lot.

If you’re lacking inspiration, you can also cruise available camping options located within certain criteria–such as, pet friendly, lake stays, beach stays, top locations, and instagrammable glamping tents (okay, so I made up that last one).

Fido can come, too!

Why am I pushing this site so hard? Because it saved my butt a few weeks ago when I really wanted to visit Rainbow River State Park, but the campgrounds were fully book and I wasn’t willing to shell out $300 a night for an Airbnb.

Instead of nixing our weekend, we were able to secure a great, primitive campsite just down the road from the park’s entrance. Our site was the bare minimum of Hipcamp stays– just an empty, wooded lot off a county road surrounded by pines and oak trees. For $10 a night, we had a quiet place in the woods to pitch our tent, have a fire, and enjoy the peaceful sounds of Florida’s summer around us.

Also a good place for a cult ceremony. Photo credit: Nicholas Patrick Photography

Hipcamp follows a similar system to Airbnb where you “request” to book a location, and the host approves you. We got instant booking for our site, had great communication with the land owner on the messaging platform, and were able to find our site (relatively) easily, save a lot of money on a hotel stay, and do what we enjoy most– being out in nature.

Best way to wake up is to a view of no one else around.

While I would love to see this site expand even further in the future (host-led trips or experiences?), Hipcamp provides a great solution to our 2021 camping woes. Even if you’re not a hardcore tenter or own an RV, this site has great options for glamping and cabin stays. If you happen to own land and want to make an easy dollar, Hipcamp also is a great option for landowners to easily rent out spaces for us lonely travelers.

And I promise, Hipcamp didn’t have to pay me for raving about how great it is. I’m just a Type-A person who loves knowing I have a place to pitch my tent at the end of a long day of adventuring.

Happy trails, everyone!

Bonus Round: Other great resources for campers/rv’ers/outdoor adventurers

TheDyrt– great site for finding campsites, cabins, rv sites, and boondock locations

FreeRoam– boondock-focused, this is a great app for scoring that free camp spot!

AllTrails– Hiking site (and app) with detailed trails and reviews. Perfect for finding things to do after you find a place to park your camper.

Forest Maps– A comprehensive app with detailed national forest areas. For those new to camping, it is free to camp on national forest lands (maximum 14 night stay).

Posted in North American Travel

Kanab-The Cheaper (and Less Crowded) Alternative to Moab

Everyone loves Moab, Utah. Jeepers flock there as if it was their Mecca. Hippies gather to bathe nude under rock arches and sneak a puff from that joint they purchased in Colorado. Through all the bustle, families try to squeeze their toddlers through the mesh of people for a quick picture at the same rock everyone else is staring at. Smile, kids– before that fat guy gets in the frame! (We’ve all heard it.)

Yeah, I’ll pass. Photo credit: wsj.com

Moab is cool. It has Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park right on its outskirts. The town is a great mesh of the 60’s meets Mormon (looking at you, limited liquor stores), and there is no doubt that outdoor adventure is limitless here.

But with the popularity comes the crowds, and with the crowds come the prices. There are ways to do Moab cheaply (future article idea?), but I’m not a believer in people-packing our national parks. RV sites are hard to find, Airbnbs book up quickly, and a night in a shady hotel is still going to cost you over $100. So while Moab is cool, there are always great alternatives to help disperse crowds and still get everyone out and enjoying the desert.

Cue Kanab, Utah. Utah’s redheaded stepchild of recreation towns.

Aw, look how cute it is. Photo credit: laestanciakanab.com

Located just north of the Arizona border and about 3 hours east of Las Vegas, Kanab is not the easiest town to get to (neither is Moab, but people still find a way). However, it offers many of the same outdoor activities enjoyed in Moab, but with much fewer people. While the town isn’t as charming as Moab (you won’t find endless rock shops and palm readings here), for those of us looking for a great base camp for exploring red rocks and canyons, Kanab cannot be beat.

Below, I’ve listed out my Top 5 Things to Do in Kanab, Utah.

See? No crowds. Much better.

1. A Hike Through Buckskin Gulch from Wire Pass (Google pin here) 1 hour from Kanab

You’ve probably seen countless pictures of Arizona and Utah’s famed slot canyons. Antelope Canyon and Zion’s Narrows are top dogs in this arena. However, the last place you want to be negotiating crowds is in a slender, 3-foot wide rock slot where booties and faces will definitely touch.

A good place to get friendly with some strangers.

Buckskin Gulch is a great day hike for adventurers looking to experience a slot canyon, but at their own pace and in solitude. This 5.6 mile out-and-back trail offers a great sampling of red rock vistas, slot hiking, and open canyon. This is part of the Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, one of the rarest geological sites in the world.

Vermillion: a brilliant, red pigment made from mercury sulfide. Makes sense now? Photo credit: thrillist.com

You can access this trail by heading east on highway 89, and turning south on a tiny dirt road called House Rock Valley Road. This turn is easy to miss, but if you make it to the Toadstool Hoodoo Trailhead, you’ve gone a few miles too far. Cell signal is limited in this area, so it is best to download Google maps before leaving Kanab, and bring a back-up GPS. This is always good to have on any hike anyways. Check out some options here.

The road is a rough few miles down to the parking lot, but our Subaru Outback handled it well. Check the weather to see if any rain is in the forecast, because this is not a trail or a road you want to be on in the rain (slot canyons can fill up quickly in a flash flood, even if it is not raining directly above you. Stop at the BLM Ranger Station before heading out to get a full weather forecast).

Subaru approved. Photo credit: tripadvisor.com

Buckskin Gulch goes on for over 15 miles, but I like the shorter option from Wire Pass Trailhead to keep the rest of my day open for more trails. Bring cash to the parking lot as there is a $6 per person permit required for day-hiking in this area. You will fill out a pay envelop at the self-service stand (bring a pen too, just in case). This parking lot is also used for hikers visiting the elusive Wave, a famous area with very limited permits. If you’re interested in trying to snag one of these permits to fit in this hike as well, directions for the permit lottery can be found here.

Overlooking Buckskin Gulch. From here, you slide/drop in.

Because this is a technical trail, it is important to review the trail details fully before going. I subscribe to AllTrails, so I have use of the maps and trail directions offline. Click here to access trail details for Buckskin Gulch from Wire Pass. (Pro tip: There is a drop into this canyon at the beginning. This may not be suitable for small children, elderly hikers, or people who cling to rock faces when they see heights).

2. A Drive to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon (Google pin here) 1 hour and 40 minutes from Kanab

America’s favorite ditch– The Grand Canyon. Chances are this beauty is on your bucket list. Most visitors experience the Grand Canyon from the more popular South Rim. However, this area can easily get overrun with tourists and tour buses, creating hours-long waits at the entrance, packed trails, and no camping availability.

No crowds. Clear air. Win-win.

The North Rim offers the same spectacular views– minus the crowds. The only catch? The North Rim is 1000 feet higher than the South Rim, so the winters make it inaccessible. The road to the North Rim is not maintained past Jacob’s Lake in the winter, so the visitor center and services (such as restaurants and lodging) are only available May 15-October 15. If you’re visiting Kanab in the summer or early-Fall, you can take an entire day exploring this area or staying overnight at one of the campgrounds or cabins. Rim trail hikes and hikes into the woods leave from the main parking lot as well as numerous lots scattered along the rim (Check out this blog for a great list of North Rim day hikes). Just note, a day hike down to the Colorado River is not possible from the North Rim. The hike down to the bottom is 28 miles long, with a 6,800 feet elevation drop (and gain for the way back). This is recommended for experienced hikers only.

Just ignore the inner voice saying “jump”.

Being higher, the views (in my humble opinion) are even better. The higher elevation also means this rim stays much cooler than its hot sister in the south (averages stay in about the low 70s for highs as oppose to the upper 80s). So if you’re a friend of cooler days and crips nights, you’ll be right at home here. The road to the North Rim is also prettier than the drive to the South Rim. Highway 89A winds through Kaibab National Forest all the way to the rim, and you are rewarded with spanning vistas of the Grand Staircase Escalante on your way back. Without the crowds, you can take a moment of solitude to truly appreciate the canyon, and get views that few visitors ever get to see.

That’s a nice ditch.

Pro tip: If you’re visiting Kanab in the winter, you can still access the North Rim after the official close date on October 15. While there are no services (or entrance fee), the road stays open until the snow makes it impassible. Check here for road conditions. We visited in late-November, and the road was dry and accessible. Just invest in a pair of clamp-ons and trekking poles in case the trails are icy. Also be sure to pack a warm parka, gloves, and suitable layers as the wind can drop the temperature dramatically.

3. Get Sandy at Coral Pink Sand Dunes (Google pin here) 30 minutes from Kanab

If you’ve ever felt like tapping into your inner Lawrence of Arabia (cue epic music), you don’t need to voyage to the Middle East to do so. Just northwest of Kanab lies Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park, an oasis of shifting red sand dunes cast in the shadows of Moquith Mountains. Here, you can sit upon a giant sand mound and stare moodily up into the sky, Luke Skywalker-style. Or roll down the hill to recreate the “As You Wish” scene in The Princess Bride (okay, I’ll stop with the movie references now…but I actually did do this).

“Everybody was Kung Fu Fighting…”

Whatever floats your sand dune boat, you can find it at this state park. There is an $8 per vehicle entrance fee as you enter through the main park entrance. If you want to avoid the fee, you can also park at one of the many pull-offs on Coral Pink Sand Dunes Road and walk on one of the numerous trails leading to the sand dunes outside of the park.

“Honey, where’s the car?”- A Tragedy

Inside the park, you can rent stand-up sand boards (real thing), sand sleds (also, surprisingly real), and ATVs to fully explore the park. Nothing says family time like sending your 8-year old flying down a 100-foot sand mountain on a rental board. Rentals are through the park and more information on bookings can be found here. You can even book a rappelling adventure to satisfy those “fun ways to kill me” urges.

See? I told you it was a real thing. Photo credit: backcountrycow.com

If you’re going towards the end of the day, be sure to bring a compass or a GPS. Sand Dunes can be incredibly disorienting, and once it gets dark, it becomes difficult to find your way back to the parking lot. Trails are built into the sand, so they’re easy to follow in the day, but easy to miss at night. If you’re visiting in winter, don’t let the cold scare you off. The site of white snow against red sand is beyond beautiful, and you’ll have the entire place to yourself. Just be sure to layer up and pack a towel to knock off any wet sand when you get back to the car.

At this point, you either embrace the cold, wet sand or die.

Bonus round: On your way back to Kanab from the Sand Dunes, you’ll also pass the Sand Caves. Traveling southbound, you will see them on the left side of highway 89 just past the Moqui Cave attraction. You will park on the west side of the road (Google pin here), then cross the road towards the slab of red rock just north of the caves (don’t go towards the caves, there is no way up). You’ll see other trails from adventurers before you, and you can follow them up as you walk along the edge to the caves’ entrance. This is not a trail for those scared of heights. For those staying behind, there is a beautiful waterfall right by the parking area. Sit there and reflect on how you don’t have the urge to plummet your body down a cliff.

4. Check out the hoodoos at Bryce Canyon National Park (Google pin here) 1 hour and 30 minutes from Kanab

Forget Arches or Canyonlands, Bryce Canyon goes down in my books as one of the most beautiful parks in the NPS. At the top of the Grand Staircase Escalante, Bryce Canyon is composed of narrow, pinnacles of red rocks known as “hoodoos”. If you’re a lover of western movies, this is a place to live out your John Wayne dreams. It costs $35 per a vehicle to enter the park (unless you have an annual national park pass), and the park is open 24/7 throughout the year. This makes is a great place to go stargazing at night as well. Milky Way over the canyon? Yes, please!

Good place to hide a body.

You can easily make the hike down into the bottom of canyon on a day trip to Bryce. One of my favorites is the Navajo Loop and Queen’s Garden Trail. This is a quick 2.9 mile hike down into the bottom of the canyon where you can get up close and personal with the hoodoos. Another one of my other favorites is Peekaboo Loop Trail (5.2 miles). If you’re not looking to stress those calf muscles to hike down, Sunset Point to Sunrise Point is a great rim trail that has moderate elevation gain and amazing vistas. Pro tip: If you’re going October-April, pack a pair of clamp-ons and trekking poles in case the trails are icy. Once you start sliding, you don’t stop until you hit bottom.

You will also get covered in mud during this season. Just embrace it as a new fashion statement.

If you just aren’t a hiker at all, the park also runs mule/horseback rides down into the canyon. I did this as a kid and it remains as one of my favorite national park memories to this day! (It’s always fun when your sister’s mule walks right on the edge.) Information of horseback riding can be found here.

The drive there is also beautiful. So if it’s too cold or hot, enjoy climate control and go for a ride.

5. Take a ride through Zion National Park (Google pin here) 1 hour from Kanab

I know what you’re thinking. Zion National Park is not an unknown as far as national parks go. In fact, it is one of the most visited national parks in the United States. Again, I’m not for people-packing our parks, but I recognize that Zion is something special and we all want to see it. Entrance to the park is $35 per vehicle, and the eastern side along highway 9 is always open.

So, maybe it is worth the hype.

One of the largest dilemmas people face when trying to visit Zion is the fact that Springdale, the town just outside the park, has extremely limited housing and restaurants. Even in the off-seasons, you’re still going to need reservations and there will most likely be a few traffic jams.

Yeah…no. Photo credit: nps.gov

By opting to stay in Kanab, you can still easily access the park in a day trip, but you’re not battling the hoard of tourist for a hotel or dinner table. You also get to drive into the park from the east, which provides sweeping views of the surrounding canyons as well as less-visited hiking trails. Most tourists flock to the central canyon of the park (where you have to catch a shuttle to access the interior), but very few explore the eastern edge. Here, the views are just as impressive, you can access trailheads with your own vehicle, and you’re not waiting for the one instagram-girl to stop taking selfies so you can appreciate the view. Here is a great rundown of some trails found on the east side of the park.

Put on your Spotify and enjoy this drive. Photo credit: Utah.com

The drive along highway 9 towards Springdale ranks as one of the most spectacular drives I have experienced in the United States. The road is a corkscrew of twists and turns around giant, granite boulders and jutting slabs of rock. If you keep your eyes to the sky, you may even catch a glimpse of a rare California Condor (they have been seen nesting in the cliffs of Zion for the past few years).

They may be ugly, but they’re ugly-cool. Photo credit: Nicholas Patrick Photography

If you do decide to go into the inner canyon of the park, you will need to drive to the Zion Canyon Visitor Center, park your car, and catch the free shuttle that goes into the park. If you’re planning this trek in the summer, plan to get here extra early to beat the crowds and the long line to get on the shuttle. Shuttle information can be found here.

Wrap-Up

Any adventure out west is always guaranteed to be full of great hiking, spectacular night skies, and cherished memories. From seeing the Grand Canyon to hiding amongst the hoodoos, Kanab offers every adventurer the opportunity to get out there an explore!

While I focused mainly on attractions outside of the town, Kanab also offers a lot for those spending the night. The Iron Horse Restaurant and Saloon is a great place to enjoy a hearty meal after a long day of hiking — complete with endless western-decor. Peekaboo Canyon Wood Fired Kitchen offers a great selection of pizzas and beer, with the added bonus of free hiking guides inside by the bathroom. You can drink a beer by the fire while planning your next day’s adventures.

The BLM Visitor Center in town is also a great starting point if you’re looking to get more information on the area, check out the weather reports, or need a permit for hiking or camping.

Beyond that, Kanab offers everything else a traveler requires: ample Airbnbs, affordable grocery stores, gas stations, clothing stores, tourist shops, and liquor stores. (Just remember, Utah liquor stores have limited hours and they’re the only ones that can sell anything over 3.5%. Grab what you need before 7pm or Sunday, and you’re good to go.)

Have a hike or a spot you love? Comment below to share you expertise! Happy trails!

Posted in For the Foodies, Restaurant Recommendations

Restaurant Recommendation: Rainbow River’s Swampy’s Bar and Grille

Location: Dunnellon, Florida

Google Pin: Swampy’s Bar and Grille

Menu: Swampy’s Bar and Grille

My mouth is watering just remembering that Bloody Mary.

Rainbow River is a great destination in central Florida for lovers of nature and clear water. A lazy day tubing or boating down the river is a perfect way to spend a Saturday, especially if you catch a glimpse of an otter playing on the banks. If you’re here looking for more information about spending a day on the river, click here for my Rainbow River article.

If you’re here thinking about your stomach, look no further! One of the biggest hurdles of floating Rainbow River can be the very strict rules about plastic waste and alcohol. No alcohol or one-use plastics are allowed on the water, meaning your beer cooler and those zip-locked PB&Js have to stay in the car. This rule in in place to conserve the river, but it makes sipping on a margarita while enjoying some Florida sunshine very difficult.

Enter Swampy’s. Located at the end of the tubing route (hour 4 if you are tubing from KP hole), Swampy’s is on the left of the river just before the tube ramp where the shuttle takes tubers back to their launch point. You can tie up your boats/kayaks/giant swans/tubes at the seawall (bring your own rope), and walk right up to the restaurant.

What makes Swampy’s great? It is easy to access from the river, has lots of seating (indoor, bar, and outdoor picnic tables), and it is very reasonably priced (average $10-$15 per plate). The food was delicious, Cajun-style, and had all the staples of Florida: gator bites, fish tacos, and delicious wraps for us unadventurous food people.

I had the Who Dat wrap- filled with blackened chicken, andouille sausage, beans, rice, cheese, onions, and cilantro. It was perfect after a day on the river, hearty and delicious. My boyfriend had the Gator wrap, which also featured blackened meat (this time gator, of course). Both are served with your choice of sides (although you have to shell out an extra $1.40 for sweet potato fries).

What makes Swampy’s really great? The Bloody Mary. Making Bloody Marys is a fine art, and good ones are hard to find. This is by far the best Bloody Mary I have blissfully chugged in all of Florida. There is nothing better than spending a couple hours on the river and then pulling up here to indulge in some good ol’ tomato juice and vodka.

There is a full-service bar available at this restaurant, and every cocktail looked delectable as it passed my seat. We did also try the margaritas but thought they were a bit too sweet to enjoy.

Pro tip: We went on a Saturday around noon, so the place was packed (45+ minute wait). But we were able to grab a seat at the bar instead, order drinks and food, and had a great time watching tubers float by. If you are kid-free, check out the bar as an option to avoid the wait and have great service.

This restaurant has a great river-vibe, good food, and excellent drinks. There are other places to eat in Dunnellon, but I will definitely be stopping in at Swampy’s on my next float down the Rainbow.

Two very happy (and slightly tipsy) river rats.
Posted in North American Travel

Hawaii on a Budget: 5-Day Road Trip Around the Big Island of Hawaii

Hawaii. I could write 10,000 words on how much I love this state. From Maui’s Road to Hana to the spectacular cliffs of Kauai, Hawaii is a magical destination. It is also one of the most expensive places to visit in the United States (that’s what you get for being in the middle of the ocean).

Because of the high price tag, many travelers never make it to the islands. They see the price of the fancy resorts and luaus, hug their bank accounts, and decide this is another great year to visit the in-laws (family first…unless it’s Hawaii.)

Life goals. Bye responsibilities.

However, Hawaii doesn’t have to break the bank for you to bask in some beautiful waterfalls and dip your toes in crystal waters. Hawaii has seven main islands- most travelers visit Oahu (the island with Honolulu and Pearl Harbor) or Maui (picture golf courses and fancy resorts). Those are the big dogs of tourism, which also means they are the most crowded and most expensive. If you’re looking for adventure that won’t make you have major credit card hangover once you return, the Big Island is the destination for you. This island also offers more as far as eco-diversity and outdoor adventure!

Look at all that eco-diversity!

We chose to fly into Kona and rent a car to explore the island for a week. While a car rental may seem expensive (especially in the age of Covid), it is the best way to see the island without having to follow a bus schedule or depend on taxis (Uber is not always available). We rented through Budget, but all the car rentals are just a short shuttle ride from the airport, so pick the agency with the best price.

This itinerary covers 5 days on the island, but you could squeeze it into 3 if you have less time. However, keep in mind that the driving estimates are estimates, so you may have to skip a few items to fit a shorter schedule. (The Big Island is big. It is 95 miles from the northern tip to the southern tip and 80 miles across with the average speed being around 45 mph).

I have an obsession with Google Pins.

We started and ended at Kona International Airport. If you are flying into Hilo, you could still follow this plan, just in reverse. (Hint: If you are going in reverse, be sure to check the times on some of the attractions because you will be arriving later in the day).

The driving times are actual times on the road and do not include time spent on stops or possible traffic. Use them as a rough estimate as you plan your adventure. If you’re into history or local legends, download the Shaka app to listen to stories about the sights along the way!

Day 1: Kona (1 hour of driving total)

We flew into Kona International Airport around midday and picked up our rental car from Budget. You can catch the car rental shuttle just outside the arrival gate for all rental agencies.

Kona is on the west side of the Big Island, which is also the dry side. You are surrounded by lava flows cast in the shadow of the Hualālai and Mauna Loa volcanoes. This is the side of sunshine, beaches, and lava rock.

Lava, lava, lava. Photo from: gohawaii.com

From the airport, we headed north about 10 minutes to Kekaha Kai State Park. This is a great place to say hello Hawaii! The park features lava flows, a beautiful beach, bathrooms, coastal hiking trails, and a hike to the summit of Pu’u Ku’ili, a 342-foot high cinder cone which offers great views along the coast (bring water!) The turn can be hard to spot on the highway, so be sure to have it in your Google Maps before you leave the rental lot (Here’s a pin to put into your navigation).

The Kekaha Kai State Park road is part road, part lava flow. It makes for a fun driving experience, but take it slow to avoid bottoming out in one of the many ditches. Once you arrive, prepare for one of the most beautiful beaches on the Big Island complete with lava rock that dips into the ocean, great snorkeling, and beautiful walks along the coast. If you have a keen eye, you may even catch a glimpse of a sea turtle amongst the surf in Mahaiula Bay. If you have time, take the coast walk to Makalawena Beach. It’s 2 miles from the parking lot (4 miles roundtrip), but the reward is a beach that can’t be reached by the road, and it is wonderfully seclusive and serene. Be careful if swimming, as rip currents are always a risk.

Picture you here. It’s a nice thought, right?

After leaving the park, we headed south towards the town of Kona (15 minute drive). Warning, Kona does have tight roads, so just drive slowly and be patient when it comes to parking. We went to the downtown area on Alii Drive for some sunset viewing, dinner, and shopping. Hulihe’e Palace is located within walking distance of the restaurant area. You can tour the palace Tuesday-Saturday for $10.

We spent the evening in Kona and had an amazing Hawaiian dinner at Jackie Rey’s Ohana Grill. Kona is a great place to catch the sunset, so be sure to be downtown for the golden hour to celebrate in the final rays of a beautiful day on Hawaii.

If your mouth isn’t watering, you’re doing life wrong.

Day 2: Kona to Pololū Valley Lookout to Kona (3 hours of driving total)

Starting from our hotel in Kona, we headed back north along highway 19 for Day 2 of our Big Island Adventure. Passing the state park we visited the day before, we continued north to Kiholo Bay. This is another beautiful coastal area featuring black sand and rocks. We didn’t have time, but if you’re here later in the day, plan to take a swim into The Queen’s Bay, a flooded lava tube located a short walk away from the small parking lot.

Kiholo Bay. Photo credit: bigislandguide.com

From there, we continued north to Pu’ukohola Heiau National Historic Site. Entrance to the park is free and open from 7:30am-5pm. (While entrance is free, I recommend buying a National Park Annual Pass before leaving the mainland. The $80 fee will pay for itself by the end of the trip and you’ll have free entrance to all NPS sites for the rest of the year!). We spent about an hour walking among structures left from Hawaii’s original inhabitants. There isn’t much as far as a visitor center, but for $2 you can sign up for a guided tour or try your best to go off the details on the map they give you (I had a history teacher with me, so I cheated). We also chose to pack a picnic and have lunch on one of the many picnic tables over-looking the Pacific Ocean (Pro Tip: Picnics save money and time when road-tripping!)

I could live here.

From the historic park, we continued north on Highway 270 along the coast towards Māhukona Beach Park. This portion of the drive is breathtaking as the road rises up along the highlands and gives spectacular views of the ocean. Have your passengers keep an eye on the water as this is one of the best places on the island to catch sight of humpback whales in the winter/spring season (we were there in March). Look for a spray of water above the waves or even watch the whale-watching helicopters buzz over. Just try not to crash when you start squealing with excitement at your sighting (not from experience at all….)

Imagine this….only like a little dot on the horizon.

You can stop at the beach park, but we continued onwards to the town of Hawi. This is also a great option for lunch if you’re not a picnic person, as the town is small but adorable with cute little cafes and stores. This is also one of the few places to get gas along this route, so if you’re running low, better fill up. After stopping at a few tourist shops in Hawi, we finished up our northern route at the main attraction of the day, Pololū Valley Lookout. The route between the town and lookout features breathtaking views of waterfalls and cliffs, so take your time and enjoy!

(Insert Jurassic Park Theme Song)

This lookout provides one of the best views on the entire island. Parked at the north edge of the island, you can stand at the view point and see down the eastern coast. With the jungle-covered hills and dropping seaside cliffs, it is a sight that challenges even the most spectacular views on Kauai and Maui. (Read more about the geological significance of this area here.)

If you get here early (or even plan to spend the night in this area), do the hike into the Pololu Valley. It’s only a mile to the black sand beach at the bottom, but that’s a mile with a 350 ft elevation change (think stairs. Lots of stairs). Be careful if you plan on swimming here. The beach is known of dangerous jellies and large waves (this is the windward side of the island, after all).

After enjoying the sights, we headed back towards Kona, taking highway 250 (Known as the “Kohala Mountain Rd”) toward Waimea. This is a beautiful route to take in the afternoon. You’ll be passing Mauna Kea on the left (don’t worry, you’ll get a closer view later on in the trip).

The area of Waimea looks more like a picture out of a western than a Hawaiian island (it’s also a white guy’s cattle ranch…so it makes sense). If you happen to get there when the clouds are rolling through, prepare to feel like you’re on another planet. This is truly one of the best drives on the island.

“Son, one day this will all be yours,” a white guy said to a white guy. Photo credit: parkerranch.com

You can stop in Waimea for dinner (steak, anyone?). We chose to continue on, staying along Route 190 for the entire way back to Kona. This meant we didn’t have to backtrack on 19, and we enjoyed a beautiful sunset from the highland road. We finished up the day with another dinner in the town of Kona before heading to bed.

Day 3: Kona to Hilo (4-5 hours of driving total)

You could easily spend a few more days around Kona, but our time schedule didn’t allow for it. The next morning we woke up bright and early to drive the Coastal Highway 11 from Kona to Pahoa (where we had an AirBnB booked for the week). If you are driving the coastal route from Kona to Hilo, plan to spend the entire day along the route. There’s so much to see and do that you may even want to consider stopping halfway (as we did), and continuing on or going back to places the next day. I’ve listed today’s itineraries into separate stops so you can pick and choose which one catch your interest.

Stop 1: Kahalu’u Beach Park (Google Map Pin here)

This stop is just south of Kona, so we hit it very early in the morning. Typically, this beach is a great place to snorkel and a great spot to see sea turtles. However, we were there too early to snorkel (and I’m vain enough not to want salty hair all day). We stopped for about 20 minutes to walk around the park, look at some tide pools, and play in the black sand.

Great place for sea turtle sightings! Photo credit: Expedia.com

Stop 2: Captain Cook Town

20 minutes south of Kona is the town of Captain Cook. Situated in the heart of coffee country, the town has a fantastic view of the ocean. Things start getting greener on the drive here as we leave behind lava fields in exchange for giant ferns, dropping sea cliffs, and twisting roads. We only spent a few minutes in this town, because we had a deadline to meet our Airbnb host. However, if you have more time, stop by and visit the Kona Coffee Living History Farm (open 10am-2pm, so plan accordingly). If you have even more time, spend an hour walking the 4-mile Captain Cook Monument Trail for some great ocean views and coffee field vistas.

There’s always time for a coffee break. Photo credit: konahistorical.org

Stop 3: St. Benedict Catholic Church (Google Map Pin here)

This was a random stop we made on our way to Pu’uhonua O Hōnaunau National Historical Park, and it was worth it! Tucked into the hillside overlooking the ocean, this painted church is the perfect stop to stop and reflect on the beauty around you (or you know, repent for sins. I’m not religious but pretty buildings are pretty buildings).

My mother would’ve been more successful at getting me to church if my church looked like this.

This tiny church has been around since 1899, and the paintings are still vibrant and colorful. Around the church is a gorgeous garden featuring flowers and plants local to the island (ok, there might be a few invasives in there). It’s free to enter the church, but you can donate at the unmanned booth in the front. Or you can purchase a souvenir, placing your money into the donation box (be sure to bring cash!)

Stop 4: Pu’uhonua O Hōnaunau National Historical Park (Google Map Pin here)

This was the second historical stop we made on our trip, and it was by far my favorite. More established, with an actual visitor center, Pu’uhonua O Hōnaunau National Historical Park is a great place to learn more about the native Hawaiian culture and history. Estimated to be over 450 years old, this ceremonial site features remnants of a great wall, reconstructed buildings, and cultural demonstrations. Open from 8:15am to sunset, the entrance fee is $20 per a vehicle (or free if you have that Annual Park Pass I mentioned before.)

Ok, I want to go back now.

We spent a couple hours here, but you could spend all day. Just outside the park is Honaunau Bay, which has some of the best snorkeling on the island. Based on the amount of colorful fish I saw in the water, I believe it! It is also worth it to walk out onto the lava rocks around the park. The waves crashing over the black rocks are stunning. You also get the extra perk of seeing some cool tidal pools (just leave the fancy shoes at home. You’re going to want sturdy sandals or tennis shoes for this outing).

Stop 5: Manuka State Wayside (Google Map Pin here)

This is the longest portion of the drive so far on this trip, so I like to break things up a bit. This small park offers a great place to have a picnic or stretch your legs. Nestled on the side of Mauna Loa, this roadside park has picnic tables, a two-mile walking trail, and beautiful flora to admire. We didn’t stop due to Covid restrictions, but check it out and tell me how it is! (I’m always looking for a reason to go back). If you’re interested in lava tubes, Kula Kai Caverns is right down the road. You have to pay to tour these ancient caves, so I prefer to do my lava-tube exploring in the national park.

Great place to stretch your legs. Just don’t fall (no one looks good in a cast in a bikini). Photo credit: onlyinyour

Stop 6: Punalu’u Bake Shop (Google Map Pin here)

I’m hungry just writing this, so chances are you will be starving by the time you get here (we definitely were!). Located in the town of Naalehu is one of the greatest gems on the island, Punalu’u Bake Shop. If you’re on a diet then consider this your cheat day, and it is worth it. Pop in and grab yourself a chunk of their famous Hawaiian sweet bread (or several loaves…). They also have sweet Malasadas that pair perfectly with that afternoon coffee. I had the apple-filled one, and I still dream about it.

Happy, sugar-covered faces all around.

Stop 7: Volcanoes National Park

Forcing away a sugar coma, we continued 30 minutes down the road towards Volcanoes National Park. The park is open 24/7 and it costs $30 per a car to enter (unless you bought that annual pass. See? It’s mostly paid for itself already). At the time of writing, the visitor center was under limited hours for Covid, so be sure to check the site linked above for hours when you visit.

Because it was later in the day, we only planned on a short stop here. I recommend giving this park at least 2 days in your itinerary, as there is so much to see here and the park is huge. If you only have a day, here are the highlights we hit in about 2 hours:

  • Start at the Kilauea Visitor Center: This is the main visitor center of the park and a great place to get oriented. You’re going to want to pack a jacket for this part of the day, as Volcano, Hawaii is 3,700 feet in elevation and it gets chilly in the evenings (if you spend the night here or camp, definitely pack some warm clothes).
  • Walk from the visitor center to the Sulphur Banks and Steam Vents. You can also drive there to save time. Plan for about 30 minutes to walk through this area, admiring an active volcano scene and sweeping vistas into the Kīlauea crater (an active volcano!).
  • Drive down Crater Rim Drive to the Kilauea Overlook for another great viewpoint.
  • Turn around and head past the visitor center to Thurston Lava Tubes. There is limited parking at the tubes so park here and walk the 10 minute trail to the lava tubes (you’ll be rewarded with some great views along the way). Plan to spend about an hour exploring this amazing geological feature. Be warned there are stairs and some dark spots, so talk with a ranger at the visitor center if you have concerns.
Now just put on your astronaut suit and you’re set for a lunar photo op!

From here, we left the park for the day, with plans on coming back the next day. You can chose to stay in the park, stay in Volcano (the town), or continue on to Hilo or Pahoa and circle back. Our AirBnB was in Pahoa, so we were only about an hour away. (Check out the link if you want an awesome place to stay!) We finished up our long day of sightseeing by picking up groceries in Pahoa’s center, making dinner at our AirBnB to save money, and wrapped up the day by drinking wine on our gorgeous porch overlooking the ocean.

You can also book camping cabins in the park. A great way to experience camping without bringing a lot of gear. Book here.

Day 4: Volcanoes National Park (at least 2 hours of driving in the park)

We went back for more the next day, and I definitely recommend planning to spend a full day in the park. Beyond the stops mentioned above, some of my other favorite things to do in the park include:

  • Kīlauea Iki Trail: 4 mile trail that goes down into the crater (stair warning)
  • Devastation Trail: .5 mile stroller-friendly trail that goes through site of 1959 eruption
  • Chain of Craters Road: 19-mile park road that goes past numerous craters before ending at the ocean. Plan on spending a couple hours for all the stops and photo ops available. Check at the visitor center for any road closures. (Full list of stops can be found here.)
  • Puʻuloa Petroglyphs: largest petroglyph field on Hawaii (over 23,000 petroglyphs!)
  • Hōlei Sea Arch: The end of the road at the ocean (it used to go further, but then lava covered it). Take a minute to admire the arch, breathe in the ocean air, then head back the way you came.
Great place for history, geology, and nature junkies!

Day 5: Hilo to Kona (4 hours of driving with side trips)

Hilo is on the wet side of the island, so it’s the polar opposite of where we started in this journey (pack a rain jacket and bug spray for this day). Instead of lava fields, you are rewarded with lush rainforests that make you feel like you’ve traveled back into the Jurassic period (original idea, I know). The drive back to Kona is an hour and a half, so you can have a full day exploring this side of the island.

We started our day with a stroll through Hilo’s Farmers Market (open 7 days a week from 6am-3pm. “Big Market Days” are Wednesday and Saturday). The market is a great place to pick up custom-made Hawaiian jewelry or blankets, sample some locally-grown fruit, or grab more of that delicious Hawaiian bread you keep thinking about. Check here for more information on the market. As you munch on the yummy things you bought, spend some time walking around downtown (located right by the market). There are plenty of quirky shops and cozy cafes to dip into should it start to rain.

Grab some fresh fruit for snacks for today’s adventures. Photo credit: hawaiitribune-herald.com

Next, we grabbed our hiking shoes and headed to Akaka Falls State Park. This .4 mile loop leads to a 442-foot waterfall, and you can instantly cause instagram-jealously with the endless photo ops here. (Parking is limited, so get there early or be prepared to walk up the road).

One of the most stunning falls on the island. Photo credit: gohawaii.com

From the falls, we continued up the windward side of the island toward Laupahoehoe Point. It’s only 30 Google Map minutes from Akaka Falls, but we spent over an hour on the drive there. The road is one of the prettiest in all of Hawaii, and hugs the coastline the entire way. Once you get to the sharp turn down to Laupahoehoe, you are rewarded with vistas spanning the entire Hilo coast. At the bottom of the road is a beautiful beach park with picnic tables, old trees, surging waves, and lava rocks (this is not a beach for swimming). We had a nice picnic here and enjoyed the sound of crashing waves on the rocks. There is also a memorial here for 1941 tsunami that struck this coast, destroying a school that was here. Looking up at the towering cliffs, it’s a chilling reminder of nature’s power.

A great spot to stop for lunch. Photo credit: bigislandguide.com

After getting our daily dose of morbid, we headed back towards Hilo to the Hawaii Tropical Bioreserve and Garden. At $25 a person, this is an expensive stop, but a must-do for any orchid-lovers out there. Even if you don’t want to stop at the garden, take the turn off of 19 onto Old Mamalahowa Highway. This narrow, winding road goes through beautiful lush forest and over crystal rivers. Stop at the small bridge for a great photo op along the route.

From here, we went back into the heart of Hilo to Wailuku River State Park. This 80-foot waterfall park is easily accessible for everyone, and the waterfalls are right by the parking lot. From here, you can continue onto the Boiling Pots and Pe’epe’e Falls. Due to Covid, these sights were closed when we visited (so, go check them out and send me some pictures!)

This is definitely a day full of great memories and awesome photo ops!

After finishing up in Hilo, we headed back towards Kona on highway 200. If you have extra time and an itch for adventure, check out Kaumana Caves on your way out of town. If you have sturdy shoes and a flashlight, you can descend into these massive lava tubes and explore away (no admission fee into this state park).

Along highway 200 towards Hilo, we drove between Hawaii’s main landmarks, Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa. If you have extra time, plan to do this drive in the early evening so you can drive up to the Mauna Kea Observatory and catch a truly spectacular view of the night sky (this is one of the darkest and clearest observation points in the world!). The Visitor Information Center offers astronomy talks, stargazing tours, and science-nerd galore. Be on the lookout for the endangered Nene bird on your way up Mauna Kea, as they can usually be spotted along the road or in the surrounding fields.

Observatory at the top of Mauna Kea. Insert Close Encounters Theme Music. Photo credit: smithsonianmag.com

Wrap-Up

While this itinerary does hit some highlights of the Big Island, there is always more to see. I like to focus on outdoor activities and sightseeing on my adventures, but there is something for everyone on the Big Island.

If you’re a major beach goer, you could end this itinerary with a day of sun-soaking at Hapuna Beach State Park. If you enjoy shore diving, Beach 69 is a great location to grab a tank and dive under the waves. All of these adventures are fun, memorable, and affordable. If you have more time in Kona and a bit of extra cash, opt for a whale watching tour to get a closer sight of these beautiful mammals.

Hapuna Beach is one of the few beaches on the island with “white” sand. It also has some cute beachside restaurants, canoe rentals, and offers some cool snorkel spots. Turtles are also frequent visitors here. Parking is free, and if it looks crowded, just walk down the beach to find your own secluded area.

Hawaii has a reputation for being incredibly expensive, saved for those special honeymoons or retirement trips only. But it doesn’t have to be that way. By being flexible in your island-selection, willing to opt for outdoor adventures over shopping (perk, outdoor stuff is usually free), and skipping the restaurants for picnics and airbnb-cooked meals, you can enjoy a beautiful location without counting every dollar going out.

Same, girl. Same.

Have a location or a tip I missed? Drop a comment below about what you love about Hawaii’s Big Island! Like, share, and spread the love so we can all get out there and explore. Aloha!