HONEYMOONIN’ THROUGH NEW ZEALAND

When my (now) husband and I got engaged last spring, we immediately started planning for an epic honeymoon – even before we sorted out the details of our wedding! New Zealand seemed like a perfect choice – neither of us had been before and it offered the ideal combination of luxury and adventure that we were both looking for in a honeymoon locale. Plus, as we were married at the end of March, New Zealand would be entering autumn – our favorite season.

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Getting There

As destinations go, New Zealand isn’t necessarily close, but this makes it perfect for a longer trip like a honeymoon. However, flying from the West Coast of the US is actually easier than you might think. From LAX, Air New Zealand has daily direct flights to Auckland – New Zealand’s largest city (about an 11.5-12 hour flight). And from Auckland, it is very easy to connect to all other cities in the country on shorter domestic flights. Since we first spent 5 days enjoying the beaches of Fiji at Kokomo Private Island, our flight to New Zealand was only about 2.5 hours from Nadi – the main international airport in Fiji. Air New Zealand also offers direct flights from the US out of Hawaii, San Francisco, Houston and now, Chicago.

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Planning Your Trip 

New Zealand is comprised of two main islands – North and South. Despite being a relatively small country – less than 5 million people and about the landmass of Colorado – there are so many different areas worth exploring. I definitely recommend visiting about 3 different areas for a 10 day trip – and likely by the last day you’ll be planning for your return trip to explore the rest of this amazing country. For our honeymoon, we chose to visit the Christchurch / Canterbury area and Queenstown on the South Island and the Wairarapa Valley on the North Island.

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Getting Around

New Zealand is a driver-friendly country and many people choose to explore it that way. There is even a ferry service between the two main landmasses that makes it easy to travel between them without flying. However, with a shorter itinerary, I do recommend maximizing your time in each place by flying short hops on Air New Zealand. Flights are only about an hour or so depending where you are traveling between. The airport environment is also much more relaxed than most of the US – no need to arrive at the terminal hours and hours prior to your domestic flights.

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First Stop: Christchurch

Our first stop in New Zealand was Christchurch where we stayed at the incredible Otahuna Lodge, just 25 minutes outside the city center. This Relais & Chateaux property was once New Zealand’s largest private residence, built by Sir Heaton Rhodes in 1895. A stunning Victorian mansion with just 7 rooms and exquisite cuisine, guests truly feel transported back in time.

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On our first full day in Christchurch, we had absolutely perfect weather. So after a delicious breakfast of freshly baked breads and homemade yogurt, we set off on a bike ride through the countryside to enjoy the scenery and stretch our legs from the long travel the day before. That afternoon, we enjoyed a picnic lunch in the garden and a cooking class in the Otahuna kitchen before settling in to a delicious 5-course meal (with local NZ wine pairings!) in the dining room.

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The next day, we set off on a full day adventure with Canterbury Guiding Co. We took the Tranzalpine Railway across the Canterbury Plain and up into the Southern Alps. In Arthur’s Pass National Park, we disembarked the train and met our guide for some hiking and exploration. The weather was really crazy this day – pouring rain one minute, then sunny and rainbows the next! But we made the most of it. And as we drove back to Christchurch, we stopped at Castle Hill Rock – a filming site for Lord of the Rings and Chronicles of Narnia – for another hike and photo op.

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Second Stop: Queenstown

Reluctantly, we bid farewell to Otahuna and flew to Queenstown. Our good luck with the weather followed us and we had a beautiful few days in this city. Queenstown is truly a jewel of New Zealand. While a smaller city, it is known as the adventure capital of New Zealand and full of fun activities. Our home base in Queenstown was Azur Lodge – a gorgeous boutique property with only 9 villas set atop a hillside just 5 minutes’ drive from the center of town. While I loved the design and decor at this property, it was the jaw-dropping views that really stole the show.

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What to do in Queenstown:

  • Onsen hot pools – An instagram moment if I’ve ever seen one! This day spa offers private hot tubs overlooking the Shotover River Canyon IMG_2425
  • Shotover Jet – As I said Queenstown is the adventure capital of New Zealand, this is a must do for an adrenaline rush. For about 25 minutes, you’ll be driven through a narrow canyon – dodging rocks and spinning 360s.
  • Skyline Luge – Everyone told us to do the luge in Queenstown. My initial impression was that it would be a bit corny, but we went for it anyways and I could not have been more wrong. Get ready for a real life game of Mario Kart – this is pure fun!IMG_2622
  • Milford Sound Tour – Milford Sound is a stunning fjord in Fjordland National Park in the Southwestern portion of the South Island. You can drive there from Queenstown, but it takes hours so most folks will plan a half day or full day trip by helicopter or fixed wing aircraft. We chose the latter as it is about half the price, but I’d recommend the helicopter for anyone that has issues with motion sickness or a fear of flying and/or heights (I hear the helicopter is smoother)! After a scenic flight over the mountains, you’ll arrive in Milford Sound for a cruise through the fjord – admiring the many waterfalls – before your return flight to Queenstown via a different route. IMG_2545IMG_2520DSC02538DSC02559
  • Better by Bike – This is an amazing way to get out of the city and explore the countryside! Better by Bike will pick you up at your hotel in Queenstown and drive you 30 minutes to Arrowtown and the lake district. From there, they will suit you up with a mountain bike or e-bike (definitely recommend the e-bike!) and a trail map and send you on your way. We spent a beautiful morning biking along the river, crossing bridges, watching bungy jumpers and stopping along the way for tastings at a cheesery and local wineries! IMG_2586IMG_2598IMG_2607

Where to Eat in Queenstown:

  • Rata – Modern New Zealand cuisine; Upscale for a nice dinner, or go for a late lunch as we did and enjoy the pre-set menu at a lower price point IMG_2407
  • White & Wong’s – Eats meets West cuisine inspired by street food from Southeast Asia
  • Botswana Butchery – Upscale dining with a broad selection of high quality meats
  • Madame Woo – Inspired by Malaysian hawker food IMG_2640
  • Mrs. Ferg Gelateria – While all the tourists are lined up at Fergberger next door, stop in for some delicious gelato IMG_2643
  • Azur Delivery – Not an actual restaurant, but one of my favorite things about our hotel in Queenstown. While the property serves breakfast, afternoon tea and evening cocktails + amuses bouches, there is no onsite restaurant for dinner. Instead, they offer you take-out menus from the many restaurants in town and will pick up whatever you like and set it up in your room. This is the best view in town! And you can wear your pajamas. 15A10100-53C8-4A9D-B4D7-B02597FBD149

Last Stop: Wairarapa Valley

For our last stop in New Zealand, we flew up to Wellington and then drove two hours into the Wairarapa Valley where we spent three nights at the beautiful Wharekauhau Country Estate – another Relais & Chateau property, but with a totally different flavor. This estate began in the 1840s as a sheep station and remains a working sheep farm to this day. Guests can stay in one of 16 different cottage suites spread across the property and experience rural New Zealand life – where sheep outnumber humans 7 to 1.

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Our first full day at Wharekauhau, we took a guided wine tour of the Martinborough region – famous for its Pinot Noirs. The wineries are centrally located around the town of Martinborough so it’s easy to visit a few for tastings. On our last full day in New Zealand, we enjoyed the hotel’s famous farm tour – learning about sheep shearing, sheep dogs and sheep herding, and meeting the resident eels – before trying our hand at archery in true LOTR style.

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New Zealand was an incredible honeymoon destination and combined perfectly with Fiji for a blend of relaxation and adventure. I cannot wait to go back and explore more of this gorgeous country.

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CHASING AUTUMN IN LAKE TAHOE

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Lake Tahoe is the largest alpine lake in North America. Spanning the border between Northern California and Nevada, it’s perimeter is 72 miles and it holds 39 trillion gallons of fresh water. Known for its crystal clear visibility, visitors to the lake can see 70 feet or more into the blue depths.

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The Lake Tahoe area was first developed as a summer retreat for wealthy San Franciscans. Today, it maintains its status as a summer weekend destination, but is equally popular in the winter as tourists flock to the many neighboring ski mountains. What many people don’t realize though is that Lake Tahoe is a year-round destination and that fall is an equally beautiful and active time to visit the region. Fondly coined “local summer” and “secret season,” autumn offers up perfect hiking weather without the crowds.

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GETTING THERE

The most convenient airport is Reno-Tahoe International, which is a quick flight on Southwest from San Diego, but not always as easily accessible from other major cities. The drive from Reno to Lake Tahoe is just about 40-60 minutes depending on the area you’re going to. Visitors can also fly into San Francisco International Airport which is about a 3.5 hour drive.

WHERE TO STAY

Ritz Carlton Lake Tahoe is located on the North side of the lake, in the mountain town of Truckee offering slope-side access to Northstar, one of the area’s top ski resorts. With 170 guest rooms suites, as well as several residences, the hotel is ideal for families, offering several onsite restaurants, an outdoor pool and hot tub (both heated year-round), games and an extensive kids club. Couples will also enjoy the resort’s spa and adult-only pool and hot tub. All ages will love the daily “Marshmology” lesson on the history of S’mores, taught fireside by Dr. Graham (complete with samples and home made marshmallows!).

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Virtuoso Perks: As a Virtuoso property, guests that book this hotel through a Virtuoso travel advisor (such as Atlas + Valise) will receive a complimentary daily breakfast credit for two, $100 food & beverage credit, complimentary room upgrade based upon availability (we were upgraded to a suite and it was everything!!), early check-in and late check-out based upon availability, and a welcome amenity (check out all the treats delivered to our suite upon arrival!).

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Edgewood Tahoe is a newly opened resort just outside the town of South Lake Tahoe. The hotel was completed last year to accompany the famed Edgewood Golf Course which borders the resort. Set a few miles away from the South Lake Tahoe gambling scene, guests enjoy an idyllic setting directly on Lake Tahoe. Aside from the stunning design and state-of-the-art spa, my favorite part of this resort is the lakeside infinity pool and the triple sized hot-tub (also both heated and open year-round). Guests are offered a variety of dining options so there’s no real need to leave the hotel, but if you wish to check out one of the hot spots in town, Edgewood will take you there in a complimentary shuttle.

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Advisor Booking Perks: As a premier property, guests that book this hotel through a Travel Edge advisor (such as Atlas + Valise) will receive complimentary daily breakfast credit for two, $75 food & beverage credit, complimentary room upgrade based upon availability, and a welcome amenity (hello free bottle of champagne and birthday cupcakes!)

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WHAT TO DO

In the winter, the mountains are king and in the summer, the lake reigns supreme, but in the fall you can get the best of both worlds!

  • Most Beautiful Drive – The perimeter of Lake Tahoe is commonly known as the “Most Beautiful Drive.” With several picturesque locations to stop for photo ops or hikes along the way, you can easily spend a full day meandering around the lake. DSC02083
  • Hiking – There are tons and tons of hiking trails in and around Lake Tahoe. A few of our favorites were:
    • Spur View Trail & Picnic Rock – 3.4 miles roundtrip, on the North side of the lake closer to the Ritz; the top offers a beautiful view of the lake; we even saw a coyote! DSC02039DSC02045
    • Stateline Lookout Trail – A quick up and back, this trail gives you a panoramic view of the lake and a few signs at the top share information on the history of the lake’s development; also on the North side of the lake. DSC02055
    • Castle Rock – 4 miles roundtrip, easily accessed from South Lake Tahoe; a beautiful forest hike with lake views at the turning point. DSC02211
    • Emerald Bay – This was easily my favorite area of Lake Tahoe. Located on the South Western part of the lake, there are tons of hikes throughout this State Park: 
      • Lower Eagle Falls Trail – If you park at the Vikingsholm parking area in Emerald Bay State Park, you can take a 1-mile paved trail down to the shoreline, exploring the area of Vikingsholm, a historic home which dates to 1929. From the house, you can take a quick hike to the Lower Eagle falls. DSC02229DSC02240
      • Rubicon Trail – After lots of trails with panoramic vistas, I really appreciated that this hike followed the shoreline and offered a close-up view of the turquoise waters. The trail is quite long, but it’s easy enough to do just a portion of it. DSC02222DSC02242
    • Cave Rock Hike – Less than a mile, this is an easy hike to tack on to your drive around the lake. 
  • Thunderbird Lodge – Built in the 1930s by a San Francisco millionaire, George Whittell, Jr., Thunderbird Lodge is a real treat! I recommend buying tickets online in advance as our tour was sold out. Tours last about 2 hours and are guided throughout the property by volunteer docents. While the house itself isn’t massive, the unique architecture, underground passageways, boathouse, grotto, and secret doorways are entirely charming and the views of the lake are breathtaking. IMG_0822DSC02142DSC02119
  • Kayaking – While it’s easy enough to rent your own kayak at several beaches around the lake, I recommend a guided tour with Clearly Tahoe. If you’re staying at Edgewood, they’ll pick you up dockside at the resort and take you on a 2 hour cruise of the shoreline in a clear bottom kayak so you can truly experience the clearness of Lake Tahoe’s water!DCIM100GOPROGOPR0012.JPGDCIM100GOPROGOPR0014.JPG
  • Wine Tasting Boat Cruise – Tahoe Tastings offers a twice daily (midday and sunset) wine-tasting cruise through Emerald Bay. The 2 hour cruise accommodates about 10-15 people and guests are treated to tastes of 8 different wines, all local to Northern California. Once you’ve completed your tasting, you can also order wines by the glass. This was a thoroughly enjoyable way to enjoy a day on the lake and I cannot recommend it enough! IMG_0865
  • Mini Golf – To mix things up a little, what’s more fun than a good game of putt-putt? We stopped at Magic Carpet Golf on the way back from our wine tasting cruise and had a ball.
  • Spa – This vacation was all about some R&R and so I hit up the spa at both the Ritz Carlton and Edgewood. Both lived up to expectations with private, serene relaxation areas and top-notch services. IMG_0583

WHERE TO EAT

  • Chef’s Counter at Manzanita – If you’re staying at the Ritz, why not treat yourself to the Chef’s Counter at the Ritz’s in-house restaurant Manzanita? The Chef made this experience truly amazing for us. Another perk of the “shoulder season” we were the only couple enjoying this unique dining experience with front row seats to all the kitchen action and one-of-a-kind off-menu dishes created for and presented to us by each of the cooks in the kitchen. Top it off with a wine pairing and this is a win-win. IMG_0548IMG_0552
  • The Bistro at Edgewood—The food was delicious, the setting was beautiful and you don’t have to leave the hotel.
  • Izabella Ristorante – Perfect for a casual night out in South Lake Tahoe. We were craving some good Italian food and this place fit the bill. It’s definitely a local favorite though so come early!
  • Edgewood Restaurant – I always save a fancy dinner for the last night of a trip and Edgewood Restaurant is the perfect way to cap off a vacation in Tahoe. Book for sunset time so you can enjoy the rainbow of colors over the lake as you dine on delicious California cuisine. IMG_0880
  • Social House – Behind a fridge door in this casual deli restaurant is a hidden speakeasy, serving up delectable cocktails for the perfect night cap.
  • Sprouts Cafe – An ideal stop for a quick and healthy lunch between hikes. Great for sandwiches, but don’t miss the nachos!

Interested in booking a trip to Lake Tahoe? Contact us today and we’ll handle the rest!

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ADVENTURES IN ICELAND: SPRING EDITION

I rang in 2017 in Iceland, watching the Northern lights dance vibrantly over the frozen terrain. With just about six hours of sunlight a day, winter in Iceland is dark, cold and windy, but also eerily beautiful. While many choose to visit at that time of year to see the Aurora, the spring and summer offer a completely unique experience – with green landscapes, rushing waterfalls, and a never-setting sun.

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Reykjavik and Its Environs

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Where to Stay – The Icelandair Hotel Reykjavik Marina is conveniently located at the Reykjavik waterfront, just a short walk from the Old Town city center. The rooms are small, yet comfortable, with touches of Icelanders’ cheeky humor. The property also includes a restaurant with an extensive breakfast buffet, a quaint cafe / bar for a morning cup of coffee or an afternoon cocktail, and a private cinema for a night in!

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Where to Eat – While expensive, the food in Iceland is excellent – using high quality, local ingredients and employing innovative culinary techniques. Lamb and cod frequent the menu, along with lobster soup, salmon, skyr (an Icelandic yogurt), fresh blueberries, and (surprisingly) hot dogs. Guide books also make mention of Icelandic delicacies such as cured whale and shark, however we had a harder time finding these than anticipated.

  • Food Cellar – In Old Town Reykjavik, Food Cellar’s ambiance is unparalleled, with subterranean rooms, live piano music and amazing craft cocktails. They also serve warm pretzels with ginger lemon cream cheese before dinner – just don’t eat too many and spoil your appetite! LRG_DSC01726
  • Kol Restaurant – We saved this for our final meal of the trip and went for the tasting menu – every bite was sublime! Make reservations in advance as it’s extremely popular and on the smaller side. They also have really interesting cocktails, some of which light on fire.IMG_9724
  • Salt Kitchen & Bar – Perfect for a more casual dinner near the hotel. IMG_9293
  • Pylsuhusid – Located at the center of Old Town, this hot dog house is a great spot for a quick lunch and a milkshake. LRG_DSC01727

What to See

  • Hallgrimskirja – The church sits perched atop a hill and is one of the main attractions to see in Reykjavik. You can buy tickets to ascend to the top of the spire for aerial views of the city. LRG_DSC01699LRG_DSC01707
  • Harpa – Harpa concert hall opened in 2011, showcasing an innovative architectural design. It stands out as a major landmark in the city and is worth a quick tour.LRG_DSC01725
  • The Sun Voyager – Designed by artist Jón Gunnar Árnason, the Sun Voyager sculpture pays homage to Iceland’s discovery by the Vikings.IMG_9215
  • Whales of Iceland – If you need a rainy day activity, this exhibition featuring life-sized replicas of the dozens of whale species that call Iceland home is extremely informative. IMG_9224

Excursions – Reyjkavik makes a great home base, especially for a shorter stay in Iceland. Many tour operators offer half day and full day excursions into the countryside with pick-up from your hotel.

  • The Blue Lagoon – The Blue Lagoon is a year-round destination with an average temperature of 100 degrees. As I mentioned in my winter post, it’s definitely a touristy activity, but still worth spending a couple of hours in the warm waters. I definitely recommend the Premium ticket for a more VIP experience and to avoid some crowds. This time I also enjoyed the in-water massage and thoroughly enjoyed it! Located closer to the airport at Keflavik, many visitors choose to stop by the Lagoon upon arrival or prior to departure.IMG_9201
  • Inside the Volcano – This half-day excursion offers the very unique opportunity to descend inside a dormant volcano. About 45 minutes outside the city, the tour begins with a 2-mile hike through lava fields. Groups then take turns descending into the volcano via elevator and spend about 30 minutes exploring the extraordinary geography within. Following a warm bowl of lamb soup, you return back the way you came. LRG_DSC01759IMG_9294

The Golden Circle

The Golden Circle is a popular route with departure from Reykjavik that takes you through the nearby countryside to see some of the area’s most unique geological features. I drove this route on my prior visit, and it was really interesting to see the juxtaposition of the main sites at two very different times of year!

On this trip, we also opted to snorkel through the frigid water at Silfra Fissure – the exact location in Thingvellir National Park where the tectonic plates are separating. This was a truly unique experience! Apparently you can also do this year-round, although I’m glad we didn’t do it in the winter, because it was freezing enough in the spring!

 

The Road North

From the Golden Circle, instead of returning to Reykjavik, we began our trek North and spent one night at Hotel Glymur along the way. The hotel is really in the middle of nowhere but has beautiful water views of an inlet. And while the loft-style rooms are a little unconventional, the restaurant more than makes up for it with gourmet food and an extensive homemade breakfast. IMG_9315

The next stop on our trip was the town of Husafell, where we spent one night at Hotel Husafell, one of the National Geographic Unique Lodges of the World.  Renowned for its sustainable and Scandinavian-style design, the hotel is a modern oasis in the Icelandic countryside.

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The main attraction in Husafell is Into the Glacier, a tour through a man-made cavern/tunnel within a massive glacier. You can either take a special bus to the site, or travel via snowmobile for added excitement and adventure. As an extension of the tour, you can also visit a nearby lava tube for a guided walking tour. While a little touristy in nature, the juxtaposition of the ice and lava formations is very uniquely Iceland.

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From Husafell, we continued our journey North on part of the Ring Road, stopping along the way at The Settlement Center in Borgarnes where we learned about the origins of Iceland, and at Glanni Waterfall for some show-stopping scenery.

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A couple of hours later, we arrived at our destination – Saudarkrokur and Hotel Tindastoll – the oldest hotel in Iceland. While Saudarkrokur is a tiny old fishing village with just 2 restaurants, we spent a night here due to its proximity to Drangey Island – my favorite excursion of our whole trip. From Hotel Tindastoll, we drove 20 minutes North to the end of the road at Reyki harbor and met our guides, a father-son team who had agreed to start their season a day early to accommodate our schedule. The tour began with a 25-minute boat ride to Dragney Island, which serves as a rookery for thousands of seabirds, including puffins! Once docked, we hiked up the steep trail to the top of the island (with the help of a rope!) where we continued our hike, learning about the history of the site and the many bird species that call it home. This was another truly unique Icelandic experience. The puffins were nesting and flew so fast it was hard to get a great picture of them but we still saw a lot of them, along with guillemots, gannets, kittiwakes, seagulls and ravens.

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Akureyri and Its Environs 

Akureyri is Iceland’s second largest city and located at the very Northern part of the island. This is a great home base for your Northern adventures around Iceland and where we headed following our stay at Hotel Tindastoll.

Where to StayIcelandair Hotel Akureyri is centrally located, and comfortably appointed. The rooms are bigger here than in Reykjavik and even the standard rooms feature small seating areas. IMG_9446IMG_9447

Where to Eat – Though the city is smaller than Reykjavik, there are still a number of fantastic restaurants to choose from. And if you’re getting a little tired of Icelandic food at this point (as we were) then the Asian/Icelandic fusion cuisine you’ll find is an unexpected, yet welcome, change.

  • Rub23 – Their extensive sushi menu is a great way to still eat local, fresh fish but prepared in a different way. And don’t miss dessert!IMG_9561
  • Strikid – Located along the waterfront, the view from the dining room (and from the patio during warmer weather) is lovely.

What to Do:

  • Explore the Town – Akureyri has some cute shops and cafes along the main street. You can also walk further afield along the edge of the Botanical Garden to the Old Town, which was the original city center. Plaques highlight historic buildings and explain their former use. IMG_9562
  • Whale Watching in Husavik – Husavik is just an hour’s drive from Akureyri and is the whale watching capital of Iceland. Several operators run tours in the town but we chose to go with Gentle Giants. The boat was small enough to get up close and personal with the whales yet not so small that I had any concern. They also provided dry gear in case of inclement weather. Humpbacks and minke whales are the two most common species to see in this area. You’ll likely see some puffin and arctic terns as well. This tour was my second favorite excursion – we saw DOZENS of whales and it was spectacular.LRG_DSC01937LRG_DSC01951LRG_DSC01979LRG_DSC01971IMG_9663IMG_9734LRG_DSC01938
  • Diamond Circle & Lake Myvatn – While the South of Iceland has the “Golden Circle”, the North is known for its “Diamond Circle,” which centers around the Lake Myvatn region. While you can do a full day tour from Akureyri, it’s also nice to stay in the Lake Myvatn region to minimize driving. Fosshotel Myvatn is a brand new property with stunning views of the lake shore and delightful copper accents incorporated in its interior design. IMG_9668IMG_9664IMG_9716Following the Diamond Circle there are a couple key stops along the way:
    • Godafoss – Another massive waterfall that seemingly appears out of nowhere. LRG_DSC01996
    • Skutustadagigar – These moon-like craters are a unique geological formation caused by steam explosions, found only one other place on Earth. LRG_DSC02003LRG_DSC02008
    • Dimmuborgir National Park – These lava formations are also unique in the world. Several hiking trails offer the opportunity to stretch your legs. And a small cafe provides a welcome break of warm soup and “geysir bread” – a local delicacy, this rye bread is baked in a pot underground near a hot spring. LRG_DSC02021
    • Hverfjall Crater – A massive ash crater you can climb to the top of. There’s not much to look at inside the crater except for a big hole, but gaining elevation offers unparalleled views of the surrounding landscape. LRG_DSC02025
    • Grjotagja Cave – This magical geothermal grotto is actually on private property, but was made famous as a filming location for Game of Thrones. LRG_DSC02027

**Pro Tip: If you follow a similar itinerary, driving North from Reykjavik to Akureyri and don’t want to drive back south, you can take a quick flight from Akureyri down to Reykjavik’s domestic airport before your international departure from Keflavik**

Overall this trip to Iceland was more extensive and allowed me to view more of the country’s otherworldly geological formations, seasonal wildlife (including whales, puffins and other seabirds), and dive a bit deeper into Iceland’s culture, history and cuisine. I would recommend a trip to Iceland at either time of year and would be hard pressed to choose just one, so I’m glad to have experienced both. One thing that I noticed again on this trip is how expensive the country is. While the flights from the US are fairly affordable, be prepared to spend more on the remainder of your vacation.

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WYOMING WINTER WONDERLAND: JACKSON HOLE

Nestled in Northwestern Wyoming, just a stone’s throw from the Idaho border, Jackson Hole is a postcard-perfect setting. Surrounded by jagged peaks and threaded with rushing rivers, the valley is rich with flora and fauna, while the town itself is still small enough to epitomize our vision of the American West.

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The unique name was coined by trappers and early settlers who had the sensation of entering a “hole” as they descended into the valley from the neighboring Teton Mountain Range in the west and the Gros Ventre Mountain Range in the east. A paradise for outdoorsy types, Jackson Hole is home to world-class skiing, snowshoeing, and snowmobiling in the winter, as well as top-notch white water rafting, fly fishing and hiking in the summer.

Getting There

Jackson Hole has its own airport just 20 minutes from the center of town. Though touted as the busiest commercial airport in the state of Wyoming, that’s not to say it’s large. However, United does offer direct flights from both Newark and San Francisco once per day during peak season. There are also several connection options through Salt Lake City Airport and Denver Airport.

Now that I live in Southern California, we flew Delta on a quick hour and a half flight from San Diego to Salt Lake City where we then hopped on our next flight to Jackson that only took 31 minutes! The Salt Lake City airport is small enough to make connections a breeze. And any stress from travel will immediately dissipate when you land at Jackson Hole Airport and are greeted by locals with complimentary mimosas and granola bars as you wait for your luggage.

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Where to Stay

There are two main areas to stay in Jackson Hole: (1) Teton Village which is situated at the base of the primary ski mountain and (2) Jackson town center, which is located about 20 minutes’ drive from Teton Village. It’s relatively easy to travel between the two even if you don’t rent a car, as the town offers free shuttle service. I discovered that many of the hotels offer their own shuttles as well. Teton Village is just steps from the slopes and has a handful of hotels and restaurants, while the town of Jackson is further to the main ski mountain but offers a wider variety of lodging and dining options… so where you choose to stay is really based on personal preference.

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The first time I visited Jackson Hole (albeit 10 years ago) we stayed at the Alpenhof Lodge, a cozy, chalet-style hotel in Teton Village. This time I was eager to stay in the town of Jackson, and came across Hotel Jackson. Touted as a luxury boutique property, the hotel features: 55 rooms with in-room fireplaces, a rooftop hot tub to soothe your muscles post-skiing, a fitness center, restaurant, and a stunning library. As mentioned above, they also offer complimentary shuttle service to the base of the ski mountain, as well as cookies and tea each day around 4:30-5 pm. Beyond the amenities of the hotel and the comfort of our room, the location was absolutely perfect – just steps from the main town square and less than 5 minutes’ walking distance to everywhere we wanted to eat.

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I was also lucky enough to extend my stay in Jackson Hole for a work trip where I had the opportunity to stay at Amangani – the ultimate luxury property, operating by Aman Resorts. Amangani doesn’t really fit into the two location camps I mentioned above, but instead is located off on its own, perched atop a hillside with stunning views of the surrounding valley and mountains. With just 40 suites (all with terraces overlooking that incredible view), the property is incredibly intimate. While the whole experience at Amangani is stunning, the perfectly heated pool and hot tub on the terrace is really the showstopper.

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What to Do

  • SkiingJackson Hole Mountain Resort is one of the more challenging ski mountains in the United States. With dozens of un-groomed trails and a steep vertical grade, this mountain is no joke. For those looking to ski at the resort, you can purchase passes in advance to avoid ticket lines on the day of. And for those renting gear, I would also highly recommend Door2Door Ski Rental, which can also be reserved in advance and will be delivered straight to your hotel room upon arrival. IMG_8694
  • Heli-SkiingHigh Mountain Heli Skiing is the only heli-ski operator in town and, while they will pick you up in Jackson, their base of operations is actually about 30 minutes away in nearby Victor, Idaho. Heli-skiing is weather dependent and a much more expensive ski option, however the conditions are like nothing you have ever experienced at a standard ski resort. With untouched powder up to your knees, you will glide down backcountry slopes with your guide, winding through evergreen trees, and meeting the helicopter slope-side to take multiple runs through the pristine wilderness. This is definitely a bucket-worthy experience if you can stomach the price tag and are up to the challenge. But get ready for your legs to seriously burn! IMG_8706 2IMG_8680IMG_8697
  • SnowshoeingThe Hole Hiking Experience offers guided hikes in the summer, and guided snowshoeing in the winter. This was my first time snowshoeing but it is basically assisted walking and easy for anyone to try. They offer 2-hour, half day and full day excursions based on your preference. We opted for the full day and that meant that we had a private guide take us snowshoeing through nearby Grand Teton National Park. While the day was fairly overcast making it difficult to appreciate the beauty of the mountains, we were treated to warm weather and some sun/snow showers that made us feel like we were walking through a snow globe. IMG_8738IMG_8739
  • Snowmobiling – On my first visit to Jackson Hole, I did a full-day snowmobiling tour of Yellowstone National Park, which is about an hour’s drive from town. Though this is a longer excursion, it was incredibly worth it and probably one of the most memorable days I’ve spent with my family. This year, as part of my work trip, we took part in a shorter snowmobiling excursion. IMG_8837
  • National Parks – As mentioned above, Grand Teton National Park is only 5-10 minutes’ from the town of Jackson and Yellowstone National Park is just an hour or so north. While both parks are beautiful to visit in the summer, they are equally as enjoyable in the winter where you can enjoy snowmobiling, snowshoeing and spot plenty of wildlife.  LRG_DSC01644
  • National Elk Refuge – Another unique aspect of Jackson Hole is that it’s home to the National Elk Refuge which was founded in 1912 in order to help preserve the area’s elk population. In the summertime, elk disperse into the nearby forests, mountains and national parks, but in the wintertime with colder temperatures and snow blanketing the ground, the elk congregate at lower elevations in search of food. The National Elk Refuge welcomes thousands of elk during the winter months, protecting them from predators and starvation by providing a safe area and supplemental feedings. Guests to Jackson Hole can visit the Elk Refuge on a sled or wagon to learn more about these animals. The elk also shed their antlers every year on the refuge which are then collected and used to create the iconic arches in Jackson town square.IMG_8707

Where to Eat & Drink

Earlier this winter we took a ski trip to Breckenridge, CO and while the food was hearty and satisfying after a long day skiing, it was about what you’d expect from a mountain town. Jackson Hole, however, really blew us away with the diversity of restaurants, the quality of the ingredients and the creativity of the chefs.

  • Snake River Grill – A Jackson Hole staple, this is one of the finer dining establishments in town. A local gave us a tip to order the steak tartar pizza and she did not steer us wrong! IMG_8708
  • King Sushi – You wouldn’t think to order sushi in a mountain town, but this tiny spot seriously impressed with the quality of its fish and innovative dishes.
  • The Bunnery – If you’re staying at the Hotel Jackson and walk out the back door, The Bunnery is just across the way – a perfect spot for very quick, yet delicious breakfast.IMG_8713IMG_8710
  • Lotus Cafe – Capitalizing on recent trends in Wellness, the Lotus Cafe offers plenty of healthy options (both vegan and non) in an absolutely stunning space. IMG_8735IMG_8732
  • Bin 22 – Part wine bar, part wine store, this is a great place for a cold glass of wine and some fresh mozzarella. They also have great happy hour deals – perfect for après ski.
  • Piste Mountain Bistro – I love an on-mountain sit-down lunch. There’s no better ski break then kicking off your boots and sitting down to a gourmet meal. This restaurant at the top of The Bridger Gondola offers just that. Don’t miss the cheddar biscuits with honey butter. IMG_8716
  • The Kitchen – Another trendy restaurant in town with interesting decor and a modern spin on traditional American fare. The scallops entrée I ordered was one of the best meals I’ve ever eaten.  And who could pass up a skillet chocolate chip cookie topped with vanilla ice cream? IMG_8807
  • Snake River Brewery – Another great après ski spot, especially if you’re into local beer. You can order a tasting flight (pictured) to try multiple brews. IMG_8720
  • Million Dollar Cowboy Bar – Just off the town square this iconic bar has been around since the 1930s. The barstools are made out of saddles and the bar is full of Western paraphernalia including old cattle brands embedded in the bar top and local taxidermy. Hidden beneath the main bar is a newly opened speakeasy steakhouse serving up some really delicious food. IMG_8717
  • Yippy I-O Candy Company – Your childhood dreams will come true at this traditional candy store filled with barrels and buckets of almost every candy you can think of.

Wildlife

As with elk, big horn sheep and moose also congregate at lower elevations in the winter months making it easier to spot these amazing animals!

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We absolutely loved every aspect of visiting Jackson Hole – from the welcoming locals, to the diversity of activities, the town offers something for everyone and we can’t wait to visit again in the warmer months!

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HIKING THROUGH UTAH’S NATIONAL PARKS

Utah is home to five of the country’s 59 national parks: Arches, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, Zion and Bryce Canyon. While all of the parks showcase Utah’s famous red rocks and offer miles of hiking trails, each one has unique geological features and areas to explore. It is possible to do the full circuit in one trip or you can split them in two: Zion and Bryce (also easy to add on the Grand Canyon as these parks are both in Southern Utah) and Arches, Canyonlands and Capitol Reef. For this trip we chose to do the latter route, round trip from Salt Lake City.

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CAPITOL REEF NATIONAL PARK

Capitol Reef National Park is located about a 3.5 hours’ drive south from Salt Lake City and is the least visited of all of Utah’s parks. Originally called “Wayne Wonderland” (after its location in Wayne County), the name was changed in 1937 when the area was designated a National Monument. The dome-like rock structures in the park are said to be reminiscent of the Capitol Building in Washington D.C., while the park’s key geological feature – the Waterpocket Fold – is evocative of a coral reef, hence the unique name.

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Officially established as a National Park in 1971, Capitol Reef encompasses 241,904 acres of canyons, towers, domes, and arches. The Fremont River running through a portion of the park also made the area particularly hospitable for early settlement. Evidence of Native Americans can be seen in the petroglyphs etched into rocks, while early Mormon settlers left behind bountiful fruit orchards that are still in use today.

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Where to Stay

Located just one mile from the main park entrance, Capitol Reef Resort offers a variety of lodging options, from traditional rooms and cabins, to converted Conestoga wagons and teepees. We chose to stay in a teepee for the novelty factor and it was definitely a fun, once-in-a-lifetime experience, albeit a bit chilly at night. The teepees offer all of the luxuries of a regular hotel room, with King-sized beds and flat screen TVs, as well as private bathrooms nearby.

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They are also centered around a campfire with Adirondack chairs, perfect for watching the sunset or stargazing at night. Further resort amenities include a swimming pool, hot tub, dining room, horseback riding excursions and llama adventures.

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Exploring the Park

I always recommend stopping at the Visitor’s Center for additional information prior to starting your day. The rangers can provide hiking suggestions and notify you of any road or trail closures. The Visitor’s Center also typically has small educational exhibits about the key features and historical development of that particular park. For this trip, I also downloaded the REI National Parks Guide App, which was extremely helpful for researching recommended hikes. Here are a few of the highlights from our full day at Capitol Reef:

  • Cassidy Arch – Named after Butch Cassidy who was rumored to have hid out in the nearby canyons, the Cassidy Arch trail is a strenuous 3.4 mile out-and-back leading to a spectacular arch. This was the only arch we visited during our trip that you are actually allowed to walk across, and we even saw a group rappelling down through it. DSC01236DSC01254
  • Hickman Natural Bridge – This 2 mile, moderate out-and-back trail also heads to a natural arch and is very popular. LRG_DSC01258
  • Fruita orchards – As mentioned above, the small town of Fruita located near the Visitor’s Center was settled by Mormons in the late 1800’s. The pioneer community planted about two dozen orchards which are still bountiful today. Visitors to the park are welcome to visit any of the orchards and pick fruit (for free to eat in the park or for a small price to take home). DSC01264
  • Petroglyphs – Driving back towards the Visitor’s Center from Hickman Bridge, there is a small boardwalk area where you can view several Native American petroglyphs carved along the Fremont River.
  • Gifford Homestead – The Gifford House dates to 1908 and currently operates as a small museum and gift shop. Don’t miss the homemade pies and ice cream – perfect for a mid-afternoon snack after a long day of hiking. IMG_7414
  • Scenic Drive – If you’re limited on time or your feet hurt after miles of hiking, the Scenic Drive is an easy way to see much of the park’s impressive geology from the comfort of your car, with scenic viewpoints along the way. IMG_7416
  • Goosenecks Overlook – Less than half a mile round-trip, the Goosenecks trail leads to a scenic overlook of Sulphur Creek Canyon. DSC01267

Where to Eat

The Pioneer Kitchen at Capitol Reef Resort offers affordable comfort food for an easy dinner option. For more of a night out, venture 10 minutes down the road into the nearby “town” of Torrey and grab a table at Cafe Diablo, well known for its exotic meats and Southwestern fusion cuisine.

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MOAB

Moab, Utah is one of the primary adventure centers of the Southwest. A mecca for mountain-bikers and off-roaders alike, the town is also home base for visitors to Arches and Canyonlands National Parks. From Capitol Reef, it’s about a 2.5 hour drive to Moab. If you have time along the way, its worth stopping at Goblin Valley State Park, although it was raining the day we made the trip so we skipped this.

Where to Stay

As a huge fan of glamping (glamorous camping), which I feel offers the perfect blend of nature and luxury, I’ve been very anxious to stay at one of the Under Canvas properties that have popped up in the past few years. While the brand now has a portfolio of 6 camps (all located in close proximity to major National Parks), Under Canvas Moab is one of the original sites. The location is ideal – a 5 minute drive to the entrance of Arches and a 30 minute drive to Canyonlands. The property offers several accommodation options, from the most basic “Safari” tent to the “Deluxe” tents or Suites with adjacent tipis (great for families).

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The Safari tent is the most affordable option and includes a King-sized bed, a dresser, table and chairs, side tables with solar-powered lanterns, and a wood-burning stove to keep you warm on chilly nights. Those staying in the Safari tents share a “communal bathhouse” – basically a nearby trailer with individual bathroom stalls that include a shower, toilet and sink. While the bathroom is by no means luxurious, it does provide hot showers and flushing toilets. The Deluxe or Suite tents offer en-suite camp-style bathrooms if your prefer a more private option.

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The camp offers breakfast and lunch food for purchase that can be ordered in advance. For dinner, there are grills and picnic areas where you can cook on your own or, alternatively, you can drive 10 minutes into Moab and check out the dining options there. Every night the camp staff lights the campfire and sets out chocolate, marshmallows, and graham crackers so you can enjoy some fire-roasted s’mores before bed.

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For a more luxurious option, the nearby Sorrel River Ranch is set in a picturesque clearing along the Colorado River. Guests enjoy studio or suite-style cabins, beautifully-decorated in warm woods and Southwestern textiles. In the morning, you can wake up to the sunrise from your private porch swing, then enjoy a plethora of activities, including a pool, spa, tennis, petting zoo, and lawn games, before relaxing river-side with a glass of wine. We opted for 4 nights of glamping with a splurge at the end at Sorrel River.

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Adventures Around Town

Aside from visiting the National Parks, numerous adventure operators, like the Moab Adventure Center, offer a variety of activities and excursions.

  • Hot Air Ballooning – Every morning at sunrise, Canyonlands Ballooning soars above the canyons and red rocks of Moab. As the only operator in town, you’ll have the sky to yourself with a bird’s eye view of the area’s unique topography. LRG_DSC01294LRG_DSC01301LRG_DSC01313IMG_7509
  • Rafting on the Colorado River – This section of the river is a bit more relaxed than the portion through the Grand Canyon, but the Class 1, 2 and 3 rapids are still a blast and the position on the water offers a unique perspective on the breathtaking scenery.IMG_7627PM
  • Hiking Corona Arch – There are other hiking options around Moab located outside of the national parks and one of the most popular trails is the 3 mile out-and-back to Corona Arch and Bowtie Arch. This is a fun trail with ladders and ropes and the arch at the end is massive and stunning. IMG_7505LRG_DSC01279
  • Wine Tasting at Castle Creek Winery – An award-winning winery just minutes from Moab; visit the tasting room for $1 tastings (of up to three wines).

Where to Eat

Breakfast:

  • Love Muffin Cafe – Open every day from 6:30 am – 1 pm, this is perfect for a quick breakfast before setting off on an adventure. The breakfast sandwiches, burritos and vegan muffins are all to die for.
  • Jailhouse Cafe – Another great breakfast spot, the cafe is located in the original town courthouse (hence the name). Try the ginger pancakes with apple butter.

Lunch:

  • Moab Brewery – The food is decent but the bigger draw is the microbrews, all of which are made locally and have fun names like Porcupine Pilsner. The Dead Horse Ale is a fan favorite.
  • Quesadilla Mobilla – Despite being a food truck, the mobilla has a permanent location in town with tables out front to enjoy your quesadilla (or take it back to camp for a casual dinner).  IMG_7622

Dinner:

  • Desert Bistro – A more upscale option for dinner, the menu encompasses the adventurous spirit of Moab with a fun approach to traditional items, like “Crab Muffins,” a play on crab cakes.
  • The River Grill – Located at the Sorrel River Ranch, the chefs here take a farm-to-table approach, featuring fruits and vegetables from the Ranch gardens. IMG_7744

CANYONLANDS NATIONAL PARK

Canyonlands is a bit unique in that it is split into three separate districts: Island in the Sky, The Maze, and The Needles, and unfortunately, it’s not easy to travel from one section to the next. From Moab, the most accessible is Island in the Sky and thus this is the most visited district. Established as a National Park in 1964, Canyonlands encompasses 337,598 acres.

Exploring Island in the Sky

The longer hikes here were less enticing, so we opted for a bunch of shorter hikes instead. Each one had something unique to offer, whether in trail features or rock formation.

  • Upheaval Dome – If you hike to both scenic overlooks, the trail is just under 2 miles roundtrip. The main feature of the trail is an enormous crater with rocks pushed up in the center. This geological anomaly has puzzled scientists and two possible theories of formation are presented. LRG_DSC01338
  • Aztec Butte – This was my favorite hike in Canyonlands. At 2 miles round trip, it’s relatively strenuous with some serious rock scrambles. But hikers are rewarded with spectacular views from atop the mesa and close-ups of ancient Native American granaries. LRG_DSC01328LRG_DSC01331
  • Whale Rock – A moderate 1-mile roundtrip hike up Whale Rock, which is said to look like a beached whale, but is really a rounded sandstone fin. LRG_DSC01343
  • Grand View Point – An easy 2-mile out-and-back trail with stunning panoramic views along the cliff edge. LRG_DSC01351
  • Mesa Arch – A must-see for all Canyonlands visitors, this 0.5-mile loop to Mesa Arch is particularly popular at sunrise. LRG_DSC01373

ARCHES NATIONAL PARK

Arches National Park is definitely the most popular of the three mentioned here and there can be lines to enter the park during peak hours. Established as a National Monument in 1929 and later re-designated a National Park in 1971, the 76,679 acre park is home to over 2,000 natural arches! The geology of the area is a result of layers of sandstone deposited atop an underground salt bed. The variation in the durability of sediment combined with the arid climate has created a rock wonderland where arches, fins, and monoliths abound.

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Exploring Arches

  • Delicate Arch – This 3 mile out-and-back is one of the most famous hikes in Arches as it leads to the iconic Delicate Arch, featured on the Utah license plate. The trail passes Wolfe Ranch (an old homestead) and some Native American petroglyphs before climbing to the 60-foot spectacle. Just before reaching the end of the trail, scramble up to Frame Arch for a picture-perfect shot of Delicate Arch.LRG_DSC01397
  • Devil’s Garden Full Lollipop – The Devil’s Garden full lollipop heads out to Landscape Arch then loops around with offshoot stops to several other arches, before returning back along the Main Trail (creating a lollipop shape). If you do the full hike with every side-trail, it’s about 8-9 miles and takes you to: Tunnel Arch, Pine Tree Arch, Partition Arch, Navajo Arch, Wall Arch, Double O Arch, Dark Angel, and Private Arch. This is a moderately strenuous but incredibly fun trail. LRG_DSC01417IMG_7729LRG_DSC01420IMG_0129
  • Skyline Arch – A quick 0.4 mile, easy roundtrip hike to Skyline Arch. You can scramble up the rock into the arch for a closer look.
  • Sand Dune Arch + Broken Arch Loop – From the parking lot, you take a short detour between fins to a secluded sandy area where you can view Sand Dune Arch. Continuing along the trail, you’ll come to Broken Arch and Tapestry Arch before looping back to the trailhead. DSC01489
  • The Windows – This easy 1 mile roundtrip trail (or slightly longer if you take the “Primitive Trail” on the return) takes you to North Window, South Window and Turret Arch.  LRG_DSC01407
  • Double Arch – From The Windows parking lot, this 0.5 mile roundtrip trail takes you to a double arch. IMG_0107
  • Balanced Rock – A short 0.3 mile roundtrip “trail” gives you an up close view of Balanced Rock.  DSC01458

SALT LAKE CITY

From Moab, it’s about a 4 hour drive back to Salt Lake City for the return flight. Given the distance, we spent one night in Salt Lake City and flew out the next day. While we didn’t have a ton of time in Salt Lake, it’s a nice city and definitely worth exploring. We stayed at the Kimpton Hotel Monaco downtown and spent the afternoon walking around downtown and checking out the impressive Temple Square, home to the Mormon Church.

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WHEN TO VISIT

While these National Parks are open year-round, the best times to visit are April – October, with the summer months being the most popular (yet hottest). Late spring and early fall are ideal for cooler temperatures and fewer crowds.

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TIPS

  • Buy good hiking shoes – Many of the trails feature scrambles over slick rock. Wearing hiking shoes with a good grip is key.
  • Bring lots of water – Most of the time, water is only available at the park entrances. The heat and dry weather, combined with strenuous hiking make it essential to bring adequate amounts of water with you for the day.
  • Pack snacks – There are no cafes within the parks either, so be sure to pack fruit, nuts, and bars to snack on between hikes.
  • Buy the Annual Park Pass – Available at any Visitor Center, the annual pass costs $80 and allows for unlimited visits to any of the 59 National Parks, plus the other National Monuments and landmarks operated by the Park Service. If you’re visiting a couple of parks on a trip such as this, its well worth it to buy the annual pass.

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WINTER ADVENTURE IN ICELAND

Iceland has been at the top of everyone’s must-see list for the past couple of years, and for good reason. The country is relatively easy to get to (only a 5 hour flight from the eastern US) and offers jaw-dropping scenery with plenty of opportunity for outdoor adventure. While Iceland is a prime destination year-round, I chose to visit in the wintertime with hopes of seeing the Aurora Borealis.

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Getting There

Icelandair offers non-stop flights from New York to Keflavik, the international airport serving Iceland’s capital, Reykjavik. I definitely recommend renting a car during your trip. Orange Car Rental is a great local option offering 4WD vehicles with snow-studded tires (perfect for winter). Their office is 5 minutes from the airport terminal, so a representative will pick you up at baggage claim upon arrival.

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Where to Stay

Many people choose to stay in Reykjavik and book several day trips to the country with various tour operators. This is definitely an easy way to coordinate your visit, especially for a shorter trip. However the city of Reykjavik is relatively small and the list of “must-see” attractions, for the most part, falls outside the city limits. If you can swing it, I definitely recommend staying at one of the hotels in the countryside.

Hotel Grimsborgir is ideally located an hour east of Reykjavik along the Golden Circle route and is absolutely delightful. Since I took this trip with my father, we were able to book a small two-bedroom apartment which was perfect – we each had our own bedroom, as well as a shared bathroom, kitchenette, dining and sitting area. For larger families, the hotel offers 4-bedroom apartments as well. Hotel Grimsborgir also has an on-site restaurant, where they serve a daily breakfast buffet (included in the room rate) as well as a full buffet dinner. We chose to eat in the restaurant every night, not only for convenience, but also because the food was delicious. Last but not least, the entire staff was incredibly helpful and friendly.

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At the end of our trip, we did spend one night in Reykjavik at the Radisson Blu Saga Hotel. However I wouldn’t recommend staying here. The property is dated (and I suspect we were in one of the older rooms) and located about 15 minutes’ walk from the city center. The Radisson Blu 1919 Hotel is situated centrally in the downtown area and probably a better option.

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What to Do

  1. Ride Icelandic horses at Laxnes Horse Farm – Just outside of Reykjavik, Laxnes Horse Farm is a family-run operation with over 100 Icelandic horses, a unique breed with five different gaits. The farm offers daily riding tours at 10 am and 2 pm. Riding time is about 2 hours and suitable for all levels – from beginners to more advanced riders. Unfortunately for us, it was pouring rain during our visit so we were soaked and frozen. But I imagine this would be an excellent activity in more temperate weather. img_5692
  2. Drive the Golden Circle – While many companies offer day trips from Reykjavik to explore the Golden Circle, it’s easy enough to drive the route yourself and visit the stops along the way. Since we were staying in the countryside, we broke up the route a bit and visited different stops on different days. The main attractions along the circle include:
    • Crater Kerid – A volcanic crater lake dsc00974
    • Faxi Waterfall dsc00987
    • Geysir Geothermal Area – Stokkur Geysir spouts every 5-7 minutes dsc00993
    • Gulfoss Waterfall – The most famous waterfall in Iceland dsc00999
    • Thingvellir National Park – Founding site of the Icelandic parliament in 930 AD as well as the meeting point for the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. dsc01037
  3. Hike in Thorsmork National Park – Thorsmork is a small national park in the south of Iceland, home to lakes, rivers, valleys, mountains and several volcanoes, including the Eyjafjallajokull volcano which erupted in 2010 and famously shut down airports all over Europe with its ash cloud. Given the terrain, you definitely need to book a tour in order to visit Thorsmork. We selected Midgard Adventure, which operates a full-day superjeep tour in the park. From the Midgard base, we were driven to the Thorsmork in a superjeep (with massive wheels allowing us to cross rivers and drive on rocky terrain), stopping along the way to visit the Seljalandsfoss waterfall. Inside the park, we explored the Eyjafjallajökull volcano flood scene, had a hot lunch at the Volcano Huts, and took several small hikes in the winter wonderland. We were lucky to have beautiful weather that day and even luckier to spot a black Arctic fox! On the return trip, our guide drove us down to the black sand beach on the southern coast, where we had stunning views of Heimaey Island at sunset. img_5785img_5786img_5788dsc00913
  4. Snowmobile on a GlacierArctic Adventures offers half-day snowmobile excursions on the Langjokull Glacier with pick-up from Gulfoss. Total snowmobile time is only about an hour, but the guides and equipment are all top-notch. And zipping around a glacier on a snowmobile was an awesome and exhilarating experience. img_5878img_5799
  5. Hunt for the Aurora Borealis – Several operators offer nighttime expeditions in search of the Northern Lights. However, if you’re staying in the countryside, as we were, a tour is probably unnecessary. Light pollution is already at a minimum, so you may be lucky enough to spot the lights just outside your hotel room. On New Year’s Eve night we had clear skies and an INCREDIBLE show. dsc01014dsc01010
  6. Take a dip in the Blue Lagoon – The Blue Lagoon is definitely a tourist attraction, but it’s still worth doing. Conveniently located just 20 minutes from the Keflavik airport, most travelers visit immediately upon arrival or just before their flight home. It’s necessary to book tickets in advance as times do fill up. I recommend the premium ticket, which includes a robe, towel, sandals, a complimentary beverage at the swim-up bar, and two mud masks – silica and algae. After your swim, you can shower off in the locker rooms and enjoy a fine dining meal at Lava Restaurant on premises. There is also a cafe for a lighter fare option. img_5925img_5927

Visiting Iceland in the winter was amazing and seeing the aurora borealis in action was absolutely a dream come true. Given the close proximity of Iceland, and the ease of exploring the country in a few days, I definitely recommend planning a trip there soon! However, a few things to note before you go:

  • When visiting in the winter, daylight is limited. When we were there in late December, the sunrise was at 11:15 am and sunset around 3:30 pm – however the sunrise and sunset were quite long, so it was really light from around 10am – 5 pm. Plenty of time for daily activities! But, when you’re alarm goes off at 8 am and its pitch black outside, its tough for your internal clock to get the message.
  • Another note on weather… Iceland has limited tree coverage and as a result, can be extremely windy. Keep this in mind when looking at the temperature forecast. Thirty degrees feels much much colder in 20 mile an hour winds!
  • Despite the cheap flights offered by Icelandair and WOW Air, Iceland in general is expensive. Hotels and food are definitely on the pricey side (and I live in NYC!), plus many activities (snowmobiling, Thorsmork, etc.) require that you book tours, which are also quite expensive, especially for a larger family.

Now I’ll be working on planning my trip back to Iceland in the summer to see the “Midnight Sun”!

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LAND OF THE INCA: EXPLORING PERU WITH NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC EXPEDITIONS

Over Thanksgiving week, my family and I decided to forego the American traditions of turkey and stuffing and took off on a trip around Peru with National Geographic Expeditions (in partnership with Lindblad Expeditions). The trip we took is called Peru: Land of the Inca: 8 days exploring ancient Incan settlements throughout the mountains and valleys of the Peruvian Andes, topped off with a two-day visit to Machu Picchu.

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Machu Picchu has been at the top of my travel to do list for so long, I was ecstatic to visit this historic site. Note that this trip does not include the rigorous 4-day hike along the Inca trail, but does offer plenty of opportunity for physical activity, as well as a diverse itinerary covering Peruvian history and tradition – plus a lot of delicious food and luxurious accommodations!

Day 1: Arriving in Peru

Our first day was spent traveling to Lima, Peru from New York. LATAM Airlines operates a daily direct flight to/from NYC’s JFK airport and Lima, however both flights are overnight. On the way to Peru, we opted for a day flight, so we flew American Airlines from JFK to Miami, and then from Miami to Peru. It made for quite a long travel day! We arrived in Lima around 9 pm where we were met by a National Geographic representative, who escorted us across the street to the Wyndham Costa del Sol Airport Hotel (for a quick night’s sleep before our flight to Cusco in the morning).

Day 2: Flight to Cusco / Sacred Valley

After meeting the rest of the group (19 of us in total) and a quick briefing in the hotel by our Tour Manager, Rocio, we were back at the Lima airport for our quick hour-long flight to Cusco.

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Flying over the Peruvian Andes on our way to Cusco

Cusco actually has the highest altitude (11,100 feet) of any of the places we were set to visit on the trip, so in order to acclimatize, we immediately headed out of Cusco and drove down into the Sacred Valley (~9,000 feet in altitude). In Cusco, we were also met by our guide, Katherina who immediately began sharing her abundant knowledge of Peru and the Incas.

Our first stop in the Sacred Valley was the archaeological site of Moray. Famished after a morning of traveling, we stopped for lunch at a beautiful restaurant near the site called El Parador de Moray. We enjoyed a delicious buffet lunch in this gorgeous setting and I had my first sip of coca tea – an herbal tea made from the coca leaf which is supposed to help prevent altitude sickness.

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El Parador de Moray – our first lunch stop
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Some fresh coca tea to fight off altitude sickness

After lunch, we spent a little time admiring the agricultural terraces at the site of Moray, which date to 1400 AD and were believed to be used by the Incas to experiment with planting certain crops at varying altitudes and with different soil mixtures.

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The Incan agricultural terraces at Moray date to 1400 AD

In the afternoon, we drove further into the Sacred Valley and stopped in the town of Urubamba where we would be spending two nights. Kati first took us on a tour of a local food market and then to the pottery studio of Pablo Seminario, a renowned Peruvian pottery artist who has modernized ancient Peruvian pottery techniques.

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Local vendors sell fresh fruits and vegetables at the market in Urubamba
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An artist at work at Pablo Seminario’s studio

In the evening, we checked into Hotel Sol y Luna, a Relais & Chateaux property in Urubamba. Each guest room is actually an individual “casita” nestled among a beautiful blooming garden buzzing with hummingbirds. We spent the evening at the hotel and enjoyed a delicious dinner at the property’s upscale restaurant Killa Wasi – where we had our first taste of guinea pig, alpaca, and trout ceviche – all traditional Peruvian dishes.

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Our casitas at Hotel Sol y Luna
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Picture-perfect pool at Hotel Sol y Luna
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Fresh trout ceviche with Tiger’s Milk, sweet potato puree and corn nuts – at Killa Wasi

Day 3: Sacred Valley

The first item on the agenda for Day 3 was a lecture from Peter Frost, an archaeologist, independent scholar and National Geographic grantee who has studied Incan sites in Peru for over 30 years. This was truly one of the highlights of the trip and one of the major benefits of traveling on a National Geographic tour – it was as if instead of watching educational programming on the National Geographic channel, we had stepped into the television and were living it ourselves. Peter shared his opinions on Incan architecture – how they cut perfect stones and moved massive weight over long distances – as well as Incan tradition and research on new Inca sites that he has uncovered in the valley. Following the lecture, Peter accompanied us to the nearby Inca site of Ollantaytambo, where we saw the massive stones in person.

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The archaeological site of Ollantaytambo
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Temple of the Sun at Ollantaytambo

After walking around the site for about 2 hours, we headed off to lunch at Hacienda Huayoccari, a 17th century estate that has been in the same family for generations. We explored the family’s private museum while sipping on our very first Pisco sour – a traditional Peruvian cocktail made with Pisco, lime juice, egg white, and bitters. Following lunch, we also had the chance to explore the beautiful garden on the estate.

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Lunch views at Hacienda Huayoccari

Before heading back to our hotel, we drove down to the ranch part of the estate to see a few cultural demonstrations: first, of the Peruvian Paso horse (which takes a prancing step); second, of the Peruvian “Marinera” dance; and third, a weaving demonstration by a women’s non-profit group that specializes in creating traditional Peruvian textiles using Inca techniques.

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The Peruvian Paso horse
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The Marinera dance in action

For dinner that evening, we enjoyed a more casual meal at the Wayra Ranch at Hotel Sol y Luna, accompanied by a 20-minute theatrical performance about the Incan gods.

Day 4: Machu Picchu

Today we were up early and all very excited for our trip to Machu Picchu!! We drove back to the town of Ollantaytambo, where we boarded the Peru Rail train to the small town of Aguas Calientes (~1 hour 45 minutes). From the town, we boarded a shuttle up the steep mountain to Machu Picchu!

Most visitors to the site, stay in the town of Aguas Calientes and need to take the shuttle up and back to explore Machu Picchu, however we were lucky enough to spend the night at the Belmond Sanctuary Lodge, located just outside the gates of the park. After checking in, we entered the park to explore. Given that it was earlier in the day, the park was quite crowded, however I was still immediately overcome by the fact that I was standing in this magical place that I had dreamed of for so long. After a quick for lunch at the hotel to avoid the heat of the day, we returned to Machu Picchu later that afternoon for another two hours of exploring. The latter part of the day was much less crowded, less buggy and more enjoyable. [Pro Tip: Machu Picchu was the only place we were attacked by mosquitos and gnats, so cover yourself in bug spray and wear long layers].

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Taking in the magic of Machu Picchu
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Llamas roam freely around the site
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Machu Picchu
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The site is perched precariously on the mountaintop
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Two llamas headed home after a long day’s work

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That evening, we enjoyed a complimentary Pisco sour class and tasting at the Belmond, before indulging in a well-earned meal at the Tampu Restaurant in the hotel.

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Learning to make Pisco sours at the Tampu Bar
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The finished product
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Grilled alpaca for dinner at Tampu Restaurant

Day 5: Machu Picchu / Cusco

Happy Thanksgiving! I was up at the crack of dawn this day to enjoy as much of Machu Picchu as possible. The park opened at 6 am and I wanted to enjoy a morning exploring the site on my own with limited crowds and early light. To be honest, the shuttle buses were already running at ten of 6, so by 6 am there was a line at the entrance! However, it moved quickly, and once inside, I was able to enjoy the peace of the early morning sun with clear blue skies.

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First light at Machu Picchu
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On a clear day, we could see all the surrounding mountains

At 7 am, we rejoined the group for a hike to the Sun Gate – Inti Punku. For hikers trekking the Inca trail all the way into Machu Picchu, the Sun Gate is their last checkpoint and first glimpse of their destination. However, the Sun Gate also makes a perfect half-day hike from Machu Picchu. It’s about 3 miles roundtrip and though steep in parts, the view from the top is well worth it.

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The view of Machu Picchu from the Sun Gate
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Zoomed out view from the Sun Gate
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We ran into a llama crossing on our way back down from the Sun Gate

Alas, the time came to say farewell to Machu Picchu and we headed back down via shuttle bus to the town of Aguas Calientes for a quick lunch at Cafe Inkaterra at the Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel, before boarding the Peru Rail back to Ollanta station. From Ollanta, we re-boarded our bus and drove two hours through scenic valleys to Cusco.

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Children in traditional Peruvian dress at a market we stopped at en route to Cusco

After a long afternoon of traveling, we finally arrived in Cusco and checked into the Belmond Hotel Monasterio, a former monastery that has been converted into a hotel right in the historic center of Cusco. And that night we enjoyed a fabulous (Thanksgiving) dinner at El Tupay restaurant in the hotel, accompanied by two brilliant opera singers.

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Belmond Hotel Monasterio

Day 6: Cusco

As I mentioned in the beginning, Cusco was the highest altitude of the trip and we definitely all felt it. The hotel offers oxygenated rooms for those who need it, or a complimentary 15 minutes using an oxygen tank.

In the morning, we had a full tour of Cusco, including:

  • Coricancha: the most important central temple of the Inca empire. The site was later converted to a church following the Spanish invasion however visitors can still see remnants of the Incan site.
  • Sacsayhuaman: a former Incan temple, and later citadel, located just outside of Cusco to the north.
  • Awana Kancha: home to domesticated Peruvian llama and alpaca (which you can feed and pet) as well as wild Peruvian vicuna. The site includes an extensive gift shop where you can shop textiles dyed and woven from the wool of these animals.
  • Cusco Cathedral: an extremely impressive piece of architecture set at the center of Cusco, the Cusco Cathedral was built by the Spanish in the mid-1600s, however key aspects of Incan tradition and religion are clearly reflected in the design and decor of the church.
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Coricancha, later converted to the Convent of Santo Domingo
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A gateway at Sacsayhuaman
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Getting up close and personal with the llamas and alpacas at Awana Kancha
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The central square of Cusco

After lunch, we had some free time to explore Cusco which we spent shopping for souvenirs and enjoying a cocktail/snack in the courtyard of the Hotel Monasterio.

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Cocktail time at Hotel Monasterio

In the evening, we were free to enjoy dinner anywhere in town. Given the high altitude, we weren’t so hungry, but went out for a tapas-style meal at Limo, where we shared a bunch of small plates. Everything was delicious!

Day 7: Lima

Today was an early wake-up call (4:45 am!) for our flight back to Lima and the last full day of our tour. We arrived in Lima around 9 am and boarded a new bus with our Lima guide, Carla. Our first stop in Lima was the Larco Herrera Museum, a privately-owned museum featuring pre-Columbian art from all over Peru. It was here that we had the opportunity to learn more about the Pre-Incan cultures that dominated the country before the Incan empire took over.

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Facade of the Larco Herrero Museum in Lima
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Stunning gardens at the Larco Herrera Museum

Venturing into the heart of downtown Lima, we had some time to view the central square of the city, before enjoying our final group lunch at a 500-year old Spanish mansion, Casa de Aliaga. We enjoyed some passed hors d’oeuvres and pisco sours while we toured the historic home and were entertained by Kike Pinto, a musician specializing in indigenous instruments of ancient Peru. And for lunch, we enjoyed a delectable final feast all together in the opulent dining room.

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Central Square of Lima
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Kike Pinto performing at Casa Aliaga

After lunch and our tour of Lima, we headed to the beautiful Miraflores neighborhood set along the Pacific ocean where we checked into our final hotel, the Belmond Miraflores Park. This might just be my favorite hotel room of all time.

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Heaven in bed form at the Belmond Miraflores Park
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My luxurious bathroom
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I guess I can handle this view

For our final evening of the trip, we had a free dinner. I had booked reservations months in advance at Astrid y Gaston, ranked the #30 best restaurant in the world. Located inside a 300-year old hacienda in the San Isidro district, Astrid y Gaston features innovative presentations of modern Peruvian cuisine. We enjoyed a fabulous final meal there as a family and recounted our favorite memories from the past week.

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Day 8: Return to New York

Our wake-up call today was even earlier than the day before – 3:45 am! – in order to catch our 7:45 am flight from Lima to Miami and then on to New York. Unfortunately when we awoke at that ungodly hour, we were informed that our flight to Miami was delayed for 12 hours due to mechanical problems. Since this then totally messed up our connection, we were able to switch all of us to the LATAM direct flight that evening. This then gave us a whole day to relax at the Belmond Miraflores Park hotel – enjoying the rooftop pool, the spa, and catching up on some emails in the beautiful lobby library. Finally, much later that evening, we were off to the airport and back to NYC.

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Library in the lobby of the Belmond Miraflores Park
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Lobby bar in the Belmond Miraflores Park

Overall, the trip was absolutely incredible. Except for our flight hiccup on the very last day, the itinerary ran incredibly smoothly and we packed a whole bunch of history, culture and fun into our week in Peru. The National Geographic / Lindblad staff were fabulous and I would definitely travel on one of their trips in the future! We are eyeing the Galapagos Islands for 2017.

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ON SAFARI IN TANZANIA

I had always dreamt of traveling on an African safari, of watching animals that I had only ever seen in a zoo exhibit, in their true and natural habitat. A few years ago, I was fortunate enough to do just that on a Tanzanian adventure with Thomson Safaris. And it was every bit as magical as I had imagined!

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About Thomson Safaris

Planning a trip to Africa can be a bit overwhelming – there are so many different countries to visit, and within each country, dozens of safari operators. I had heard about Thomson Safaris from a friend of a friend who had recently come back from a trip with them and was raving about the experience. After some research, I was sold as well.

Thomson is a smaller, family-run company that has been operating safaris throughout Tanzania for over 35 years. Rather than expand their operations throughout the continent (as many companies do), they have chosen to specialize in Tanzania, and as a result, they have built a world-class team of top quality guides and staff who know the country inside and out.

The Itinerary

My family and I chose Thomson’s Ultimate Safari, which runs 15 days (including travel time).

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Map of Tanzania with hand drawn safari route (from Safari Journal)

After arriving at Kilimanjaro International Airport, we were picked up by our guides and driven to the Rivertrees Country Inn in nearby Arusha for our first night in Africa. The next morning, after an introduction from our guides and a meet & greet with our group (Thomson runs small group tours of about 10 people with 2 guides, although private tours are also available), we set off on safari!

After Arusha, we made 5 different stops on our safari – spending two nights at each camp in the following three areas:

1. Tarangire National Park – Located southeast of Arusha, Tarangire National Park, which covers 1,600 square miles, is the sixth largest park in Tanzania. And, if you are excited about seeing elephants on safari in Africa, this is the place to be. We saw so, so many elephants!

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2. Ngorongo Crater – Once an active volcano, the Ngorongo Crater was created millions of years ago when the volcano cone collapsed. The crater today is 12 miles wide, 2,000 feet deep and holds the superlative for highest concentration of wildlife on the planet. Though a bit more crowded with tourists, the crater is definitely worth a visit on any trip to Tanzania.

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3. Serengeti National Park – At 9,000 square miles, Serengeti National Park is one of the largest wildlife sanctuaries in the world. It also abuts the Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya and animals regular cross between both parks. As you can see from the map above, Thomson has three camps (“nyumbas”) in the Serengeti area – Central, Northern and Eastern – so we spent a total of 6 days/nights exploring this majestic savanna.

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Accommodations

In Tarangire and Serengeti National Parks, we stayed in Thomson Safari “nyumbas” – basically glamping tents. The structures are temporary or semi-permanent (depending on the camp) and have canvas walls, yet they also offer plush bedding, eco-friendly solar powered lighting and an en-suite bathroom with hot “bucket” showers and sustainable pump-flush toilets. It’s as close to modern luxury as you can get while still sleeping under the stars in the African bush. Even if you’re not a camper, I promise you will be comfortable!

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Inside my nyumba

And with a chef on hand at each camp, you will not go hungry. In fact, the food was absolutely excellent and our whole group was always astonished at how the staff prepared such delicious meals without a permanent kitchen!

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Sunset at the Central Serengeti camp

At the Ngorongo Crater, we stayed at Gibb’s Farm, a five-star sustainable hotel situated on the grounds of a coffee plantation. Although I enjoyed the nyumbas immensely, it was quite a treat to stay at Gibb’s which has consistently been ranked one of the top hotels in all of Africa.

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My room at Gibb’s Farm

And Not to be Missed…

Although wildlife viewing is the primary focus of any safari, Thomson also offers several unique opportunities to learn about the history and culture of Africa:

1. Visiting the Maasai people. In the Eastern Serengeti we had the chance to visit a traditional Maasai boma and to speak with the Maasasi about their way of life as a semi-nomadic people. We also were able to visit a women’s entrepreneurial collective where we purchased souvenirs directly from the artisans themselves.

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2. Hot Air Balloon Ride. The early wake-up call is well worth it for the spectacular sunrise, views of African wildlife from the air, and traditional English breakfast served post-flight under an acacia tree.

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3. Olduvai Gorge. A deep ravine in the Great Rift Valley nearby Ngorongo Crater, Olduvai Gorge was made famous in the 1930s for the discovery of early hominid fossils by Drs. Louis and Mary Leakey. The site visit includes a brief lecture and a tour of the museum chronicling the numerous fossils discovered at the gorge and their contribution to our understanding of human evolution.

I loved every second of my trip to Tanzania with Thomson Safaris and cannot wait to return!

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US NATIONAL PARKS: CENTENNIAL CELEBRATION

This past month was the 100th Anniversary of the US National Park Service, which was created in August 1916 through the National Park Service Organic Act. The NPS now manages 59 separate parks throughout the United States, encompassing 84.4 million acres!

When I was a kid, my parents made a point to take my brother and I to a new National Park once a year (when possible), so I have many wonderful memories hiking through these beautiful wilderness preserves. To this day, my “bucket list” includes every single US National Park I haven’t had the chance to explore yet. To celebrate the Centennial (a little bit late), I wanted to share some of my favorite National Park trips:

  1. Glacier National Park (Montana) – While I’m not ranking this list per se, I have the fondest memories of visiting Glacier. The massive mountains, bright blue sky, crystal clear lakes, and pristine glaciers set a spectacular backdrop for a week of hiking and exploring with my family. Definitely don’t miss a drive along the Going-to-the-Sun Road and the 10-mile roundtrip hike (it’s worth it!) to Iceberg Lake
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    Glacier National Park, Montana [Photo Credit: Kerry Bollerman]
  2. Olympic National Park & Mount Rainier National Park (Washington) – This was our very first National Park trip and I still treasure the amazing photo of my brother and I in front of Mount Rainier, the tallest mountain in the Cascade Range. Both parks are an easy trip from Seattle. If you have extra time, I also recommend a visit to the Mt. Saint Helens National Volcanic Monument, where the 1980 volcanic eruption took place.
  3. Yellowstone National Park (Wyoming) – While the majority of visitors to Yellowstone arrive in the summer months, I highly recommend visiting in the winter. A few years ago, I was skiing in Jackson Hole over Christmas and we decided to take a day trip to Yellowstone to go snowmobiling. It was an incredible day that I’ll never forget. Not only did we get to zip through the pristine winter wilderness with nary another soul around, but we also saw plenty of bison, thermal pools, and even a pack of wolves far off in the distance. 
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    Stopped by bison, while snowmobiling in Yellowstone [Photo Credit: Daphne Hagan]
  4. Grand Canyon National Park (Arizona), Zion National Park and Bryce National Park (Utah) – The Grand Canyon is indeed grand and an amazing natural wonder to see. On the South Rim, El Tovar is one of the top National Park lodges you’ll find and well positioned for a perfect sunrise viewing over the canyon. But, don’t skip exploring the less popular North Rim, which is much greener and still offers amazing hikes and magnificent vistas (with fewer crowds). A trip to the Grand Canyon can also easily be combined with two Utah parks – Zion and Bryce Canyon. My two favorite hikes in Zion National Park are The Narrows, where you actually hike through water (great for a hot day) and Angel’s Landing, a strenuous 5 mile hike that leads you to the precipice of a cliff for an awesome view. And while Bryce is much smaller than the Grand Canyon, the hoodoos are such a unique geographical phenomenon that it’s well worth the hour plus drive from Zion.
  5. Volcanoes National Park (Hawaii) – A must-see if you’re visiting the Big Island of Hawaii. A full day trip to Volcanoes National Park includes great hiking through rainforests and along the lava fields. But for a true volcanic experience, you can stay in the park past nightfall, when the lava in the caldera emits a bright orange glow and the night sky dazzles with The Milky Way. Unfortunately my camera didn’t do it justice!
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    Volcanoes National Park at night [Photo Credit: Daphne Hagan]
  6. Denali National Park (Alaska) – A cruise along the Inside Passage is a great way to see Alaskan wildlife, glaciers and coastal towns inaccessible by land, but if you have some time to head inland, Denali National Park is just spectacular. When I visited Alaska a few years ago, we didn’t quite have enough time to head into the park on foot, but from our base at the Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge, just south of the park, we booked an aerial tour. The eagle’s eye view of the park from our tiny plane really put the grandness and jaw-dropping beauty of Alaska into perspective. We even flew directly over Denali, the highest peak in North America reaching 20,310 feet at its summit.
  7. Great Smoky Mountains National Park (North Carolina / Tennessee) – Surprisingly, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited National Park, boasting 10 million visitors annually, almost twice that of the park in the #2 spot (Grand Canyon). A perfect time to visit is in the fall, when the leaves are changing and you can hike amid brilliant autumn colors. In 2001, the National Park Service, reintroduced elk into the park which had been absent since the 1800s due to over-hunting and habitat loss. Now the elk are thriving in the Smokies and are relatively easy to spot in the meadows early in the morning or in the evening. (While I have only visited the NC portion of the park, a dream of mine is to return and stay at Blackberry Farm, a luxurious, yet rustic Relais & Chateaux property just 15 miles from the park’s border in Tennessee). 

  8. Rocky Mountain National Park (Colorado) – Only an hour and a half from Denver, Rocky Mountain National Park is one of the easiest parks to visit! I wrote more about my visit to Rocky Mountain in my Denver post. I definitely recommend a stay at the Stanley Hotel in nearby Estes Park, Colorado (where the Shining was filmed).

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    Rocky Mountain National Park

There are so many more National Parks on my list, but the top parks I am dying to visit are:

  1. Yosemite National Park & Joshua Tree National Park (California)
  2. Isle Royale National Park (Michigan)
  3. Katmai National Park (Alaska)
  4. Arches National Park (Utah)
  5. Badlands National Park (South Dakota)

What are your favorite National Parks?

 

SUMMER ESCAPE TO PORTUGAL

One of Europe’s most underrated destinations, Portugal is becoming increasingly popular with tourists looking for an easy and affordable summer escape. While Lisbon is a thriving cultural center, Portugal also offers plenty of options for relaxation, from lush wineries in the north to pristine beaches in the south. I recently spent a week with a good friend of mine exploring and enjoying this beautiful country.

First Stop: Porto

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View of the Cais de Gaia

Porto (or Oporto) is the second largest city in Lisbon, situated in the northern part of the country. Famous for its port wine production, Porto is also the gateway to the Duoro Valley, a world heritage site.

From New York, we were able to fly directly from Newark to Porto on TAP Portugal Airline. While in the city for two days, we stayed at the Premium Porto Downtown, which was a lovely and affordable boutique hotel well situated for exploring the city.

Our favorite moments in Porto:

Day Trip: Duoro Valley

While the city was just beautiful, the absolute highlight of the trip was the full day tour we took to the Duoro Valley. 

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The town of Pinhao in the Duoro Valley

About an hour and a half drive from downtown Porto is the town of Pinhao in the heart of the Duoro Valley. Our tour included lunch in town with traditional Portuguese fare, tasting at two different wine estates (1 with regular Duoro wine and 1 focused on port wine), and a river cruise on a traditional Portuguese riverboat. Not only was the scenery stunning, but we also learned a ton about Portuguese culture, history and wine from our very knowledgeable guide.

Next Stop: Lisbon

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Panorama of Lisbon perched at the Castelo de Sao Jorge

Just a three-hour train ride from Porto, sits Lisbon, Portugal’s capital and cultural center. The city is extremely reminiscent of San Francisco, from its hilly streets, to its cable cars, to the 25th of April Bridge, which mirrors the Golden Gate.

Where to Stay

In Lisbon, we stayed at the Memmo Alfama, a boutique hotel located in the heart of Alfama, Lisbon’s historic district. The accommodations were comfortable and modern, the free breakfast was fresh and delicious, and the rooftop dipping pool was the perfect break on a hot summer afternoon.

Lisbon Highlights:

  • Castelo de Sao Jorge – A Moorish castle set on a hilltop in Alfama; panoramic city views
  • Rua Augusta – Lisbon’s main pedestrian street with plentiful shops & cafes
  • Praca do Comercio – Waterfront square; served as the port of entry to the city
  • Minibar – Our best meal in Portugal! Make reservations in advance and order the tasting menu.
  • Park Bar – a rooftop bar on the top of a Parking Garage in Bairro Alto
  • Belem Tower – a 16th century fortress in Belem
  • Monument of the Discoveries – a stunning monument which pays homage to Portugal’s rich exploratory history
  • Pasteis de Belem – home of the original custard tart! You will find these mini custard tarts all over Portugal, but the original version at this Belem bakery is hands down the best. Worth the wait, they are served warm with cinnamon and powdered sugar.

Day Trip: Sintra

While there is plenty to see in Lisbon, a day trip to Sintra and Cascais is well worth it. Sintra is an adorable little hillside town about 30 minutes from Lisbon, home to the Pena Palace, King Ferdinand II’s summer home, which offers daily tours.

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Pena National Palace in Sintra

And Cascais, only about 15-20 minutes from Lisbon, is a popular seaside getaway for Lisbon residents.

Last Stop: The Algarve

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Private beach at the Vilalara Thalassa Resort

For the last stop on our Portuguese tour, we rented a car and drove 2.5 hours from Lisbon to The Algarve, Portugal’s beach region. We checked into the Vilalara Thalassa Resort, a 5-star luxury resort in the heart of the Algarve region. While we enjoyed exploring the Algarve region including a drive to The End of the World, swimming at Praia dona Ana in Lagos, and enjoying the nightlife in Albufeira, the best part of our three days here was relaxing at our resort! We spent plenty of time enjoying the private beach and buffet breakfasts. And not to be missed, is a small boat tour along the coastline to explore the Algarve’s famous caves and azure waters.