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The First 6 Months of 2020

An open letter to the first 6 months of 2020 and a reminder of where we started and where we are now. With Coronavirus and Civil Rights protests, this year has tested us in more ways than we thought possible.

Dear 2020, 

We are halfway into you, and what a year you have been. You’ve hit us with a global pandemic, a major recession, civil unrest, and constant protests. This year hasn’t all been bad, but it is a year that has already etched itself into the minds of so many. The stories that people will tell will be passed on for generations and the lessons we have learned will hopefully continue to make us a better global society. If ever there was a time for Mother Nature and the power of the people to take control, this was the year. 

January started with a seemingly distant health threat, that no one could have imagined the consequences or magnitude it would have on us, not just as Americans, but the World. Month by month, the Coronavirus, aka Covid-19, seeped into our lives and forced us into a new normal. It is now the end of June and it appears that we still do not have control of Covid’s first wave as the number of cases continues to rise due to the fast reopening of many States – perhaps we never did. 

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**As of June 28 7:20pm

By March, Coronavirus took over the World. At first travel was limited for anyone going to or from China, and then eventually like a domino effect, there was no travel period. Any and all flights for the near future were cancelled and rebooked for a later date or given a travel voucher. Northern Italy was the epicenter for Europe. In the States, New York City was being hit the hardest; cases skyrocketed due to the city’s density of people. First, it was travel that was taken away from us, followed by the closing of just about every business, school, park, restaurant, and bar. From state to state, the rules were at times contrasting, but the main message everyone understood was to take this seriously. Stay home, social distance, and wash your hands. 

Our lives came to a screeching halt the weekend before St. Patrick’s Day, as the invisible threat of Covid was finally in our backyard and finally feeling real. The number of cases in the States, especially Florida, were rising quickly. It was finally here, and now it was our turn to see how well we dealt with this invisible monster. We isolated ourselves from everything and found our new normal as the months rolled along. 

The new normal was different for everyone – businesses transitioned to working from home and students learned remotely as schools were closed for the remainder of the school year. The role of parents extended past normal parenting responsibilities to include being the teacher at home along with completing regular work tasks. People were tired, frustrated, and anxious of the unknown future.  But we adapted. Not everyone was lucky enough to work remotely. For many, their jobs were known as “essential” which made them more exposed to the virus, but many millions were laid-off or furloughed as businesses were stuck in limbo. No work meant no money coming in, which just added to the stress.

With life on hold for everyone, Mother Nature began healing herself from the way we humans have treated her. The waterways in Venice returned to their aqua blue hue as dolphins were seen playing among the canals; animals boldly wandered empty cities and parks around the world from Japan to Kruger National Park; and smog lifted due to the lack of vehicles on the road to reveal blue skies in India along with monuments once hidden behind thick smog. Without humans going about their normal lives, Nature could finally breathe again.

Before and after of a monument in India as smog has lifted

Oh and there’s also a possible wave of Murder Hornets in the Pacific North West, which could have drastic consequences on our own bee population and in turn our environment. The verdict is still out on their scale of damage thus far, however.

Size comparison of the Murder Hornet (top) and the Western honeybee (bottom)

There are several positives that Coronavirus has brought on us. People as a whole have learned to slow down. We have spent more time talking with loved ones. We have reconnected with friends near and far. We have learned the art of baking bread and experimented with new recipes. We have picked up and even finished books that once laid on shelves forgotten and unread. We have been more creative when it comes to being social – Thank you, Zoom. We have even remembered what it was like to spend time outdoors riding bikes. Although Covid has altered the lives of so many, it has also brought families closer. 

Overall, I’d have to say the shutdown due to Covid has not been terrible, but it definitely weighs on you. Besides the lack of social freedom, there’s a constant worry. Do I feel sick? Have I lost my sense of taste or smell? Do I have shortness of breath? Make sure to not breathe for 5 seconds as I pass this person. Am I 6 feet apart from this person? Why isn’t this person going around me or wearing a mask? This person just coughed, do they have Covid? The questions and worry never fade. And probably never will until there’s a vaccine. 

Set of Different Types of Masks
Different masks we can wear while in public

Our lives had been turned upside down and our movements restricted like nothing we could ever imagine. Yes, it wasn’t all bad, but no one knew how much social distancing due to Coronavirus would affect society as a whole. 

Fast forward to Memorial Day weekend. Some States, including Florida, who have not seen the type of Covid numbers NYC had seen, reopened in phases as beaches, restaurants, and small businesses welcomed patrons back. The hope was to spur the economy to prevent an even worse recession; but at what cost? The risk of contracting Covid was and still is real. It had not disappeared, yet people acted as if it had. And that was the scary part. 

People have been stuck inside for 2 months, if not more at this point. I understand the frustration and people feeling stir crazy. I understand small businesses wanting to reopen to ensure their livelihood is not lost. I also understand people continue to have bills and rent to pay, yet have not had a paycheck. Life has just gotten more complicated. There’s a virus, millions of people have lost their jobs, everyone is stuck indoors, and there appears to be no light at the end of the tunnel. Sounds bad, right? Well, all this only acted as fuel for what’s next. 

George Floyd. Protests. Black Lives Matter. 

Meet the artists behind the Black Lives Matter artwork on ...

For 4 weeks there have been national, and even global, protests over the killing of George Floyd by 4 police officers in Minneapolis. For 4 weeks, we have seen people of all color, race, gender, age, religion, socio-economic background, take to the streets to fight for the civil rights that were fought for back in the 1960s. Like any movement, there were some riots and looting, but that was overshadowed by the enormous peaceful crowds that gathered to stand up, and often kneel, for what is right and just. The compounding of social distancing and the loss of jobs due to Covid did not help the situation, but only made people more impassioned to gather together in solidarity despite the virus. It was like a trifecta. 

The 4 weeks since the killing, the protests have yet to let up. Thousands continue to pour into the streets, peacefully protest calling for change in policing, and even call out to “defund the police.” The name sounds misleading, but it’s just meant to spread the funds that police are granted to social organizations in cities to help with certain matters that go beyond the role of the police. It is evident that true movement and change is happening. Many cities across the country painted 20 foot wide “BLACK LIVES MATTER” across streets, laws are being discussed and instituted, and talks at the local level are already taking place to ensure policing practices are changed. It will continue to take years to get to where we should be, but we must start somewhere.  

The killing of George Floyd opened the eyes of many to see the injustice and prejudice that people of color (POC) have had to undergo for centuries. Corrupt and prejudiced actions of those in power, whether local, state, or federal, should not be tolerated and should be held accountable. Covid made our lives slow down, and these protests made people, especially white people, truly listen to stories of POC and what they have had to live with since birth. This movement united us and sparked the desire for true equality for all. 

With LGBT ruling, Supreme Court hands liberals a surprise victory ...
Supreme Court favorable vote on LGBT rights

Amidst the protests, there was some good news to come out of Washington. First, the Supreme Court ruled in a 6-3 vote that gay and transgender individuals cannot be discriminated against, especially in the work place. Secondly, in a 5-4 vote they declared DACA is constitutional and those brought here at a young age would not be deported. This is the year 2020, and we still do not all agree that everyone in this country is equal no matter who they love, their race, or even their gender. Two wins down, now onto the next one! 

Don't count on the Senate to save Dreamers from SCOTUS - POLITICO
Supreme Court Favorable vote on DACA


This brings us to the present day and half of 2020 still ahead of us. The fears of Covid are still high, if not rising exponentially, protests will remain a constant I believe for more weeks to come, Murder Hornets may return, and in November we vote for president and hopefully true change with real leadership. I don’t know which half of the year will be more monumental, but one can only hope for brighter days ahead. 

2020, you have tested us in various ways, but we will continue to be resilient. Your first 6 months have been filled with Covid and protests, so I can’t wait to see what you throw at us these last 6 months. 

For now, countries remain closed off to Americans, so that just means it is time to explore our own country and give back to local communities and businesses. So to kick off the start of the second half of the year and the July Fourth holiday, Justin and I will be getting away from it all and taking a week road trip to the Great Smoky Mountains to camp, hike, and explore new surroundings. 

Will write to you again in December!

Featured

The Magic of Budapest

Budapest was everything I envisioned and more. No matter the time of day or which part of the city you wander to, you’ll be amazed with Budapest and it will have you coming back for more!

Oh, Budapest! You were everything I envisioned and so much more! 

 

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Chain Bridge and Buda Palace at night

I had wanted to visit Budapest for the past 2 years, but the stars didn’t align to make it possible until this year. I can officially report that I finally made it happen and it was everything and so much more than I could have ever imagined. 

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Looking out over the Parliament from Fisherman’s Bastion at sunrise

Here is a city that stands in the shadows of Paris, Rome, London and Berlin as  one of Europe’s most underrated cities. But it may not stay that way for long – it is easy to see why more people are being attracted to this magical city on the Danube. This is a MUST on anyone’s bucket list, as you will leave Budapest wanting to come back for more! You’ll know what I mean when you get there.

Budapest is two different cities divided by the Danube: Buda and Pest. In 1840, the Chain Bridge was built to connect the two cities which made it the largest in Hungary. Today, the city is alive and thriving. Whether you watch the sun rise over the Parliament from Fisherman’s Bastion (highly recommended!), wander the streets to take in the sights, sounds and smells, spend an afternoon at the thermal baths, or watch the sunset on the banks of the Danube as the white lights of the city turn on, there is something for everyone in this city. 

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Sunrise on the Chain Bridge

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An afternoon at the Széchenyi Thermal Bath

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Sunset on the Danube – Shoes on the Danube and Fisherman’s Bastion

A typical vacation for me is usually busy and on the go because I want to see as much of a place I visit within the limited time I have. However, Budapest made me want to slow down and be more in the moment. That’s really the best way to experience it.  This city has a lot to offer, yet retains a quaint and underestimated feeling of exploration. Could I have seen the entire city in two days? Yes, but I had planned on spending three days there to really immerse myself in it more. Exploring a new city at a slower pace and taking your time can really make you appreciate things more.  And Budapest didn’t disappoint.

This is an easy city to explore by foot.  I tackled a different part of the city each day and sometimes visited the same area twice, walking up to 14 miles most days and enjoying every step of it. Slowing down and being more present helped me soak up the city’s energy; something I think most of us forget to do while exploring new places. I took in my surroundings while wandering, never fearing of getting lost. I fell in love with the countless alleyways brightened by string of lights hanging wall to wall and lined with restaurants, bars, and unique cafes. Even the hole-in-the-wall cafes or bars somehow are arranged to make it feel cozy and welcoming. I was in my happy place discovering this beautiful city on foot. 

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Walking from the Pest side to Buda side of the city

As I walked down the various streets, whether to the thermal bath or to the central market, I observed a city that was mixed with the old and new, tattered yet well groomed. While appreciating the beautiful architecture that dates back to the 17th century, I sensed Hungary’s tragic and sometimes violent history they had endured. The restoration of older buildings were evidence of Budapest’s story of revival and rebirth. The city is continuing to develop, which means it will only continue to get better. 

Hungarians and tourists alike gather in the city center’s green space to take in their surroundings while enjoying food, gelato, or a cold beverage during a hot summer day. I too grabbed a freshly made margarita pizza while sitting on the lawn reading and watching all the various groups of friends play cards, dip their feet in the pool, or just talk with one another and even with strangers. The city center gives off tantalizing energy that is intoxicating. I couldn’t help but feel content watching the sun’s light blanket the city with different shades of colors, as I observed humanity enjoying the simple things in life. 

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Green space pool by day

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Green space pool by night

It is hard to say what part of Budapest was my favorite. Every bit of it was an adventure of discovery. If I had to suggest one thing that a visitor must do, it would be to experience sunrise from Fisherman’s Bastion. Sunrise comes early, especially in the summer, but it is well worth a 4am wake up call to see the sky turning pink and orange to blue as the sun slowly rises above the beautiful Parliament building. I had the beautiful space nearly all to myself, and what a memorable experience it was to capture images of the sun rising over the city. As I gazed out to the Pest side of the Danube, there was a slight haze over the city as the sun continued to rise. The sun grew larger with every minute, and the bubble of pure exhilaration that I was experiencing in that moment nearly popped from all the joy I was feeling.

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Enjoying the beautiful sunrise from Fisherman’s Bastion

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Parliament from Fisherman’s Bastion

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Parliament from the Danube

Enjoying sunrise and wandering the streets without a care in the world are the reasons why travel brings me so much happiness. It feeds my soul. It fills me with pure joy. I cherish the memories I create during my travels and I can’t imagine a life without experiencing other countries with unique landscapes, customs, and cultures.

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Exuding happiness from watching the sunrise

I encourage you to visit Budapest to experience for yourself just how magical it is. Enjoy a coffee at one of the many adorable cafes and walk along the Danube to see the lights of the city turn on at night and you’ll feel the energy of this city. I fell in love with Budapest.  For me it no longer sits in the shadow of other popular European destinations. I’m sure you’ll feel that way too, and come back again.

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Shoes on the Danube at sunset

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Why Everyone Should Hike Bright Angel Trail

The Grand Canyon is a must do Natural Wonder of the World. There are so many things to see and trails to hike. I strongly believe, no matter your skill level or the length of time you have available to hike, you should make Bright Angel Trail a must do hike. It will change you in ways you did not expect.

If you live in the United States, you are lucky to have 58 National Parks available to visit without leaving the country. Without a doubt, the Grand Canyon, one of the 7 Natural Wonders of the World, should be on everyone’s bucket list. It will leave you speechless. It will leave you in awe. And it will be a moment in your life that you will never forget. I’ve been three times in my 32 years on this wondrous Earth, and have remembered every single time so vividly. 

There are four areas of the National Park one can visit: the North, South, East, and West Rim – each with its own spectacular viewpoints, activities, and hiking spots. 

rim map
Map of the 4 different rims

Glass Skywalk
Glass Skywalk

West

The West Rim is where the Glass Skywalk juts out 70 feet over the canyon and is the second most visited rim, due to its proximity to Las Vegas. This part of the canyon is part of the Hualapai Indian Tribal Lands, which means it is actually not part of the National Park. 

East

The East Rim has become more popular due to Horseshoe Bend. This part of the canyon is technically 7 miles before the Grand Canyon, but provides views of the canyon rim with the Colorado River directly in the background. Horseshoe Bend is definitely worth a small detour if you have the time.

Horseshoe Bend
Horseshoe Bend

North

Look out point on the North Rim
Look out point on the North Rim

The North Rim is perfect for those looking for a quieter and calmer atmosphere as it receives much fewer visitors. There are only three major viewpoints that show the width of the canyon rather than the depth and only a sliver of the Colorado River can be seen by walking through Angel’s Window, a natural archway in the rocks.

South

The South Rim is the most popular rim due to its vast, expansive views. This rim is where the first tourists came to visit the park back in the 1850s, which is why it has been built up with large visitor centers, lodging, and family-oriented activities. There are about two dozen major viewpoints that allow visitors to peer down into the Colorado River. 

Sunset at the South Rim
Sunset at the South Rim

I’ve been lucky enough to experience the Grand Canyon in different ways. For a quick glimpse, a short four hour road trip from Las Vegas just to peer at the vastness of the Canyon’s West Rim is well worth the trip. But the canyon deserves much more of our time. 

In 2009, I stepped into a raft along the East Rim and spent seven days rafting down the Colorado River rapids, jumping into the river from various cliffs, and sleeping on cots looking up at the night sky with the Milky Way peering back at me in its full splendor. This is a trip I will never forget; but even then I knew I was still missing a crucial adventure from this natural wonder. I needed to hike into the canyon. Ten years after my river trip, I did just that. 

The South Rim of the Grand Canyon offers many trails to explore and choosing one can be overwhelming. I contemplated doing a trail that was not frequently ventured in order to be more “one with nature.” I had read about the popular Bright Angel Trail on the South Rim. that provides rest stops with bathrooms and water stations making it one of the most frequently trekked. I strongly considered the trail, despite the possible crowd of people and because of its accessibility to other trails. As fate would have it, I found a cabin in the village at the Bright Angel Lodge, steps away from the ever popular trail head and the rim of the canyon. While getting settled at the cabin and taking in the constant changing colors of my surroundings, I knew I was not going anywhere else to hike. I determined that at sunrise I was hiking Bright Angel Trail. 

Sunrise came early, at 5:10 A.M., and I had already situated myself along the rim of the canyon with my camera in hand, ready to capture the beauty of the day’s first light touching the red rocks from the rim down to the canyon below. The sun rose slowly above the canyon and highlighted the beginning of the trail I was about to hike. At 5:45 A.M., I took my first steps onto the famous Bright Angel Trail. I was filled with energy and excitement, despite the early hour, and eager to see where the trail would lead.

Sunrise with Plateau Point in the distance
Sunrise with Plateau Point in the distance

Gazing into the South Rim Canyon at sunrise
Gazing into the South Rim Canyon at sunrise

One of the biggest advantages of an early start is the fact that not many people begin their day so early. The canyon itself was slow at waking up: the air had a slight chill, the sun was gently rising. The steep decline zigzagged through the many rocky switchbacks and the towering rocks above provided me with shade. I was well aware that shade would be a high commodity in the hours ahead of me, so I welcomed the moment. Up to this point, the canyon rocks above me changed in size, color, and formation at every turn. The sheer size of them did not even seem real or possible. The canyon’s immensity made me feel as tiny as an ant. 

The start of the journey down Bright Angel
The start of the journey down Bright Angel

The further along the trail I got, the more I found myself turning around to see just how far I had traveled, and how deep into the canyon I had reached; it is an elevation change of 3,000 feet after all. With every new switchback the views grew increasingly more majestic. I encountered a rest stop with bathrooms and water stations nearly every 1.5 miles down the trail and the first campground was around mile 4.5. At this point, the iron-rich rocks changed from rusty reds to light browns; the vegetation expanded to include pink and yellow blooming cacti; acacia trees filled the air with a honeysuckle-like perfume; and the sound of a trickling stream welcomed me to a natural oasis filled with life that has hardly been touched by man. This haven, known as the Indian Gardens, stood in dark contrast to the vast desert surrounding this area. 

 

 

At the south side of the Indian Gardens, a fork in the road indicated to either head to Plateau Point, that offers views of the river below, or continue on Bright Angel Trail towards the river which can connect you to a multitude of different trails including a connection to the North Rim. No matter the choice, the majesty of the Canyon will never waver. Since I had spent 7 days floating on the river 10 years earlier, I thought gazing at the Colorado River from above would complete my Grand Canyon experience. After pushing an extra 1.5 miles to Plateau Point from Indian Gardens, the expansive panorama of the North Rim across the way and the aqua blue Colorado River raging 1,000 feet below was an image that will forever be ingrained in my memory. 

By making it to Plateau Point and after a six mile trek under the sun, I felt exhilarated, strong, and full of life. I had made it to the point that I set out to accomplish. I had made it to a viewpoint that most people will never get to see. From this spot, I felt so miniscule and insignificant as the canyon from both the South and North Rims engulfed me, and the busyness of daily life seemed to be forgotten. There was no thought of the responsibilities I had back home, or even back at the top of the rim. Any concern or worry dissipated into the expansive contours of the canyon, and I was left with just the feeling of happiness in that moment. I was my best self, as I think everyone is when they push themselves to accomplish something filled with mental and physical challenges. It is a feeling we all need to hang onto and not forget. Granted, this feeling of pure contentment and strength quickly depletes as you realize there is a 3,000 foot elevation gain still ahead of you, but that happiness and strength comes back once atop of the canyon looking back down to where you had just come from. 

The immensity of the Grand Canyon with the North Rim on the other side
The immensity of the Grand Canyon with the North Rim on the other side

Plateau Point and Colorado River
Plateau Point and Colorado River

Hiking back to the top of the South Rim, I wanted to remember every step I had taken. I frequently turned to look back at the path I had just left behind. Leaving the plateau and now back on the switchbacks, the greatness of this trail began to hit me, and I realized it was there the entire time. I had spent the better part of a day on the Bright Angel Trail, but it wasn’t until I was nearly back at the top that I really noticed the vast beauty of it. The way back to the top, also put the strength and determination I had into perspective, as I now realized the many people I encountered on the switchbacks had no intention of making it past the 3 mile or even the 1.5 mile rest area. The 8 hour, 12.2 mile round trip trek on Bright Angel Trail to Plateau Point was worth every bead of sweat and every foot step. The trail is dynamic and peaceful and reminds you of what is important – living in the moment and cherishing the experience.

Switchbacks of Bright Angel Trail
Switchbacks of Bright Angel Trail

View of Bright Angel Trail
View of Bright Angel Trail

My challenge to you, dear reader, is that you travel to the Grand Canyon. Whether you hike the 12.2 miles to Plateau Point, head to the river, or turn back somewhere in between, may you feel that complete bliss that comes with hiking Bright Angel Trail. I am willing to bet that the magic of the Canyon will change you and leave you with an everlasting memory that will never fade. 

Bright Angel Trail from Above
Bright Angel Trail from Above. Can you see the trail leading to Plateau Point?

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The Perfect 3 Day Weekend in Asheville

Asheville should be high on your list. From the unique beers and dishes to hiking and rafting, there is something for everyone is this quaint little town tucked away in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

The United States is filled with exquisitely fun small towns which can be explored over a long weekend. Asheville, North Carolina, is one of those towns that can provide you with fun-packed few days. I had heard so much about this town tucked away in the Blue Ridge Mountains, so I had to experience for myself what all the hype was about. 

Pisgah National Forest
Over looking Pisgah National Forest

Asheville is filled with unique eateries, wildly tantalizing breweries, artisan shops decorating the riverside and embellishing historic buildings, and numerous trails to hike for any difficulty level. I definitely sensed the workings of a strong and united community as I walked along the streets. Historic buildings have been revitalized, a strong push to go green in every way possible is pervasive, and restaurants and bars alike utilize the resources of the local farmers as much as possible. If the mountains and sense of community doesn’t do it for you, there’s always the Biltmore mansion, which is the largest property estate in the country. 

It doesn’t take long to see why this town attracts so many people far and wide.

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Reflections at Hooker Falls

My partner, Justin, and I spent 3 amazing days exploring Asheville and its surrounding area. We loved every part of it, under rain or sun. In sharing how we spent our 3 days here, I hope to inspire your inner adventure and provide you with ideas of what to do and what to eat and drink while there.

How to get around

I highly recommend you rent a car to get around Asheville. Even my Airbnb host suggested it! You’ll want the freedom of your car to take you in and around the town. It’s the best way to visit the Blue Ridge Mountains at your own pace, to get to the Biltmore, and even visit the Omni Park Grove Inn. There is plenty of parking everywhere in Asheville. If you’re flying into Asheville Regional Airport, this will be the easiest place to reserve a car rental. However, there are tons of spots in West and East Asheville to rent a car if you prefer. 

Where we stayed 

We decided to stay in an Airbnb in West Asheville. It was the perfect spot to get to the mountains and downtown. New to Airbnb? Here’s $40 off your first rental!

There are plenty of hotels and even BnBs you can find yourself in. We just found the Airbnb more affordable.

Not to Miss Breweries

One World Brewing – 10 Patton Ave #002 

This was our first brewery experience and it set a high bar. The beers were unique and nothing like we had ever had before – welcome to Asheville! What made this bar even more unique was the location. It’s nearly hidden down an alley and down some stairs in the basement of a building. 

Catawba Brewing – 32 Banks Ave

Such a great atmosphere here. This is very family friendly bar, so much so, there was a wedding party going on. Definitely one of my faves!

Green Man Brewery – 27 Buxton Ave

Twin Leaf Brewery – 144 Coxe Ave

Twin Leaf has an open and airy environment that is family and dog friendly. We took refuge here during a passing rain shower and it was the perfect space. There are some bar games to play and the beer line goes quickly so you’ll always be topped off.

The Funktorium – 147 Coxe Ave

An extension of Wicked Weed except this has a large space in the back with the perfect set up for live music. They have great upscale bar food, but the beer was subpar compared to what we were trying at other bars. The music is what makes this place a MUST!

Hi-Wire Brewing – 197 Hilliard Ave

Day 1 

Depending on when you arrive, heading straight for the mountains is definitely an option. Luckily, Justin and I arrived just after 7am and headed straight to Bryson City to get our adventure blood pumping. He had done some white river rafting in this area as a young child, so this was a MUST on our list. I highly recommend renting a raft from the Nantahla Outdoor Center (NOC). They will take such good care of you and provide ALL the clothing you will need, from water shoes to wet suits and even dry outer-shell jackets. We didn’t know what to expect, so we tried our best to pack what we needed, but ended up not using any of it as their equipment was top notch. The trip down the Nantahla River is an 8-mile journey which takes about 3 hours to raft down. This will be the most memorable 3 hours of your entire trip and there will be pictures at the very end to prove it. There are plenty of quiet moments to take in the natural beauty of the Blue Ridge Mountains, but also moments the rapids will bounce you up and down in your raft in preparation for the final rapid. Be sure to smile as you make your way through the last rapid as the NOC has a photographer positioned to capture the last moments of your journey. If you fall in, as we did, it makes the pictures even better in my opinion. Have no fear! 🙂

Once back in Asheville, a much deserved dinner was waiting for us. There are a variety of eating establishments to choose from. Price ranges vary, but you can expect local farmto table dishes nearly everywhere. We tried White Labs Kitchen & Tap, but weren’t entirely impressed, to be honest. If you’re looking for something quick and easy, it’s a good spot with decent pizza, but we found the service to be quite slow. A block over there is Wicked Weed Brewing Pub which is usually packed with people and popular for their food and beer. 

If you have any last minute energy on Day 1, try to check out at least 1 or 2 breweries to get a taste of what your weekend will be like. 

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Our first brewery stop – One World Brewing

Day 2 

I’m all about the sun rises when on vacation and luckily, my travel buddy went along with my crazy ideas 🙂 We got an early start, around 6am, and headed into Dupont State Forest, about an hour south of Asheville, to find a trail loop with 3 different trails – High Falls, Triple Falls, and Hooker Falls. The hike was easy and relaxing and the perfect start to the day. As the first light of the day began to appear beneath the trees, it also poured light onto the waterfalls in front of us. From one fall to the next, the scenery continued to impress us. The falls of High Falls and Triple Falls, have areas you can walk down to get a closer look of the water. Triple Falls you can even stand atop the rocks of the second fall and take in everything around you. There is something about waterfalls that is so magical no matter the time of year. 

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First glimpse of High Falls

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A top of Triple Falls

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Hooker Falls

After such an early hike, we were looking forward to a hearty breakfast. Back in Asheville, we tried Green Sage Cafe and loved it! They offer all sorts of teas and coffees to taste, along with bowls, biscuits, and all you could want for a nice breakfast needed to recharge your batteries. If you haven’t had enough, check out Old Europe Pastries next door to get a little snack as you explore the streets of downtown Asheville. 

As we walked Asheville’s streets, we admired the unique stores filled with work from local artists, and historic buildings transformed into new-age space for businesses and artisans alike. Don’t forget to check out the River Arts District either. Here you’ll find even more artisans working as a community to restore the old buildings along the river into a colorful walking destination filled with murals. 

If you’re looking for a nice dinner somewhere try Bouchon or Cúrate. You’ll want to make reservations ahead of time, but a small nibble at the bar can’t hurt if you didn’t plan ahead. With all the breweries in town, brewery hopping is a must! I’ve never tasted more interesting and funky beer than in Asheville. Most of the bartenders are more than willing to explain the brewing process and the use of Brett yeast which is prevalently used throughout Asheville’s craft beer culture. They say you either like the funky taste of the Brett yeast or you don’t. I hope you enjoy it.  Definitely try to make it to Funktorium during your brewery tour. Not only is there delicious food, but they have a great live music stage that brings in talented musicians for you to enjoy. You can’t go wrong with the number of breweries. Check out my list above to see our favorite spots!

Day 3 

Last day meant another hike! But I warn you…before you head on this next hike, be sure to eat a hearty breakfast. Make your way to Biscuit Head. You won’t regret it. The biscuits are flaky, warm, and nearly the size of a person’s head! In addition to the mouthwatering biscuits, there are fresh house made jams and butters to awaken your taste buds. Because this is such a popular spot, be sure to get here early as there was a line around the building (no joke!) as we were leaving.

With breakfast in our bellies, we headed into Pisgah National Forest and landed upon Craggy Gardens. The visitor center at the top allows you to choose from a stationary activity of looking out onto the rolling hills or challenges you to a 7 mile round trip hike (there are shorter hikes as well). We didn’t know what to expect, but decided for a little challenge and headed for the 7 mile trek ending at Douglas Falls. If you’re lucky enough to reach Douglas Falls with no one else around, you’ll find yourself in the middle of the forest listening to the incredible sounds of nature: dripping waterfalls and the wind whipping among the trees. This hike is quite strenuous due to its length and uneven path, but well worth the effort as it makes you appreciate the beauty and simplicity of nature, which, in my opinion, we all need to do more often.

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Made it to Douglas Falls

As we made our way back on the Blue Ridge Parkway, we thought it would be the perfect time to make a detour before heading back to Asheville; so we headed to check out the famous Omni Grove Park Inn. At the Inn’s grand hall, you can have a bite to eat while gazing at the spectacular view of the Blue Ridge Mountains in front of you, or you can treat yourself to a nice spa, if you wish.  The Inn is rich with history and has attracted many distinguished guests from presidents to authors and was pivotal military headquarter during during WWII. We didn’t spend too much time here, as we chose to continue exploring; however, it is still well worth a pass through. We also skipped the Biltmore, as there were other things higher on our priority list.

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A pit stop on the Blue Ridge Highway to take in the views

For dinner that day, we headed to West Asheville’s The Whale. This establishment won’t disappoint and may have been the best meal we had the entire trip. It’s a cozy spot that shares space with a brewery so you can enjoy an amazing meal and continue testing out new beers. 

Our time in Asheville flew by, but this adorable town was just what we were looking for. We went in mid-October to admire the foliage color change, but I imagine this town is a great destination no matter the time of year. You’ll head home having tried all sorts of different beers and unique dishes, but you will also feel recharged and refreshed after hiking and rafting through beautiful nature.

Asheville remains a top destination to visit in 2020 and for good reason. The beauty of its nature and the feeling of community within town is palpable. Enjoy! 

Hiking Gibraltar’s Rock

Take a pit stop on your journey through Andalucia and check out Gibraltar. Here’s all you need to know about hiking Gibraltar’s Rock and the kind of views you’ll see!

Andalucia is sprawling with whitewashed villages and rolling hills, but it also allows you to visit a territory of England at the same time…The Rock of Gibraltar. You get to visit 2 countries in one day or even 3 if you head to Tangier, but that’s a story for a different blog. Even if Gibraltar is not on your radar, you’ll want to take a pit stop here simply to soak up the differences in the architecture, language, currency, and even the scenery as you venture up the rock. The views from this tiny southernmost country of Europe will NOT disappoint!

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View of the Rock as you cross the tarmac

Allot yourself at least 4 hours to spend hiking Gibraltar’s rock. If you are pressed for time or not the hiking type, there are taxis and cars for hire that will take you on a tour of the rock instead.

First of all, park outside of Gibraltar. You must drive across the tarmac of the airport, which means depending on the number of flights that are set to land or take-off upon your arrival, driving in can sometimes take longer than anticipated. At times this can take up to 3 hours to get through, so walking across the border is the simpler option. Where to park on the Spanish side is easily marked as you approach the border and you will pay for parking upon leaving. Once you pass the border and go through the easy customs office, you will walk across the runway and have a panoramic view of the Rock ahead of you. As disappointing as it is, you will not get a shiny new stamp in your passport, so prepare yourself.

There are 2 different ways to get up the Rock: enter from Jews’ Gate at the southern end or from Casemates Square. I decided to go up from Casemates Square and visit the Moorish Castle first and end at Jews’ Gate. Once you reach the first guard tower, you will need to pay either £5 for just the walking portion or £17 to gain access to the castle, the WWI caves, the Skywalk, and the highest point of the Rock at O’Hara’s Battery. The extra £12 is worth it just for the spectacular view at the top!

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Gibraltar border crossing

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View from Moorish Castle down on the tarmac and Algeciras

There are multiple different paths you can take depending on the type of hiker you are; nature lover, history buff, thrill seeker, and monkey trailer. Most paths overlap, but all

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Click the image to be taken to the Gibraltar site

end (or begin) at the same spot. As you continue to climb, the views of Gibraltar itself and Algeciras across the bay continue to get more breathtaking. Eventually you will make it to the Monkey’s Den, which is everyone’s favorite aspect of the Rock. These brazen monkeys are Europe’s only free roaming primates, but don’t be fooled by their stoic and nonchalant manner, as it’s all an act! At the top of the Charles V wall you will see the majority of the monkeys lounging around waiting for that rookie hiker to put down their bag (yes…that was me!) and pounce. Good luck getting your bag back! You want to document the moment you have views of the highest point, the astonishingly blue Strait of Gibraltar, views of Morocco, and the monkeys, but whatever you do, keep your belongings with you at all times. Those monkeys are not afraid to jump on you, hitch a ride on one the taxi tours, or even nose through your bag, because yes, they know how to open zippers and be more curious than you’d like.

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Stairs up the Charles V wall

On a clear day it feels as if you could touch Morocco because of how close it is. This vantage point really shows why Gibraltar is such a key territory of Europe and its trade. If the site of Morocco is too much of a tease and you are urged to touch upon the African continent and add a 3rd country to your Spanish trip, you can find day trips from Gibraltar, Algeciras, or even Tarifa.

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Can you see Morocco in the distance?

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View of Gibraltar from above with Morocco in the distance.

Overall, the hike is exhilarating, expansive, and leaves you in awe; just be prepared to walk up A LOT of stairs and get thrown in the wind a bit. If anything, after the hike you’ll be ready for a good fish and chips meal on Main Street before heading onto your next destination.

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Come hang with this little guy and take in the views!

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5 Top Things to Do in Ronda, Spain

Andalucia will provide you with an intimate setting of Spain that is rich in history and vast in its beauty. Ronda and its surrounding towns are definite musts if you visit this part of Spain.

Ronda is about a 1 hour and 30-minute drive from Malaga. My first impressions of the countryside were centered around the number of wind turbines across the landscape, but also the bright green and yellow hues that seemed to be painted across the rolling hills. Upon arriving in Ronda, you will see a number of streets lined with perfectly umbrella-like trimmed orange trees with the occasional bright fuchsia and purple bougainvillea tree mixed between. Nearly all the streets are winding, narrow, and cobblestoned. Carrera Espinel is a walking-only street filled with shopping and eateries that will lead you straight into the Plaza de Toros de Ronda, the largest bullring in Spain.

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Walking only street

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Blooms everywhere

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Orange trees lining the streets

Where to Eat

You will find many places to eat while walking along Carrera Espinel. Just a few blocks off of the walking street, you’ll find great local favorites along Calle Comandante Salvador Carrasco. I tried Bar San Francisco, an excellent choice. Around the Puente Nuevo there are plenty of outside seating areas that provide a great view of the bridge. I highly recommend Le Chuguita, known by tourists and locals alike for its 0.80 Euro tapas plates. It opens at 8:30pm and is packed by 8:45pm.

Where to Park

The streets are lined with cars on one side or the other. You can find street parking, but keep in mind if the curb is painted yellow that is a paid spot. Look for non-painted curbs if you go the street parking route. There are a number of paid hourly parking garages within the city just outside the main walking street or there’s a free overnight lot on Calle Comandante Salvador Carrasco across from Bar San Francisco, which I highly suggest is the best option.  Good luck!

Where to Stay

I stayed in a great Airbnb here in the middle of the city just 2 blocks from the walking street that had a balcony that overlooked the whitewashed walls around me. A plus to this spot was having a grocery store and markets right in front so I could grab a snack to hold me over till dinner time since most places close at 4pm. New to Airbnb? Here’s $40 off your first rental!

There are plenty of hotels around the bullring and bridge that allow for great views.

1. Puente Nuevo

The main reason people flock to this little country village is because of its memorable bridge. Puente Nuevo connects both old and new parts of the town and is steeped in history regarding its construction. There are multiple viewpoints one can choose in order to discover the various angles of the bridge. From the bullring, one can choose to walk along the gorge until whitewashed buildings across the way can be viewed; this will allow your eyes to land upon the monumental bridge. As you get closer one can appreciate the level of detail that went into the construction. In the center arch of the bridge, there is a single wooden door with a tiny terrace on either side which used to be a jail and depending on the crime, people were thrown to their deaths out of the door down to the gorge. Unfortunately, you cannot get any closer to the bridge other than walking over it. On the other side of the bridge, there is a garden you can walk through that has views of the bridge, more of the gorge, and views of the lush green countryside on the outskirts of Ronda. No matter the time of day one gazes at the bridge and the surrounding whitewashed buildings, it is a spectacular sight – a mesmerizing sight – from colors of stark white to orange and brown brick to reds and golds.

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Every angle is mesmerizing

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Watching the sun go down

2. Hike

While exploring Ronda and looking down from the imposing bridge, I knew I wanted to explore further. If you get a map from the tourism office, the hiking route is not clearly indicated. I’ll attempt to provide you with a clearer path…Walking across the Puente Nuevo into the old town, follow the road until you appear to be leaving the town and come across some stone stairs. At the bottom of the stairs, you will turn right and continue along the twisting road until you reach the point where it turns into a dirt path. There is a way to drive down, as cars are parked at the bottom, but what’s the fun in that?! There are a couple different points where you can stop to soak in the scenery all around you. Note: the path all the way to the end is not for the faint of heart but is completely worth it. If you are willing to crawl under fallen tree limbs, walk along a foot-wide path, and jump over a large enough hole, then you will enjoy some views that not everyone gets the opportunity to see. After surpassing the break in the path, you will walk through various ruins where people appear to once have lived.

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The gap in the path I had to jump over, but what was on the other side was worth it!

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The final point at the base of Puente Nuevo

 

3. Bullring

Ronda’s bullring is not the oldest in Spain, but it is the largest and first one that was completely constructed by stone, rather than stone and brick. The inaugural event occurred in 1785. Today it is preserved for history and is still utilized as a horse-riding school. Following the walking tour, you will come across a horse arena which is as elegant inside as the bullring itself. You will witness the corrals where the bulls were kept and prepped for their big debut in the ring along with bullfighting outfits from some of the most famous fighters that graced the ring. Once inside the ring, take time to absorb the enormity of the structure as the dark yellow dirt blends in with the pillars and seating as if to make it one continuous arena. Stand in the center and envision what it must have been like for the spectators to file in and find a seat among the 2 tiers for the day’s events.

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Outside the bullring

To see the bullring in its entirety, head to the hotel across the street and head up to the rooftop bar. Grab a local wine or beer to peer into the arena and take in the surrounding vistas at the same time. At sunset, this is the perfect spot to spend an hour or two as you watch the colors all around you become a kaleidoscope of patterns.

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View of the bullring from the hotel while sipping on some wine from Ronda

4. Walking Along the Moor

Take advantage of the beauty of the countryside, with the rolling mountain tops of the Sierra Nevada, the rows of olive trees, lush green farm lands, and the bright pinks and purples of the flowers along the path way. You will find benches and lookout points all throughout the walk where you can sit to soak up the Spanish sun perhaps while enjoying some churros and chocolate. The pathway will take you straight to the Puente Nuevo. It’ll be hard to get lost.

5. Day trips

Although Ronda is much smaller than I had anticipated, I am still glad I stayed there 2 nights. It is a great spot to use as a base if you end up taking day trips to the surrounding villages. The two I highly recommend are Setenil and Zahara.

Setenil de Las Bodegas

A town like no other, Setenil is one that is hard to forget…or even fathom how it was possible to create. It is a town built practically into the mountain cliffs. No matter how the natural rock formations are, people somehow adapted the constructed homes to the shape of the cliffs. Along the main street there are plenty of cafes and restaurants to sip a café con leche and take in the wondrous creation. The awe does not stop there though… get lost among the many alleys and see how narrow the buildings are and enjoy the illusion of the rock cliffs crashing down any day.

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Buildings and homes built right into the rocks

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Setenil, the town built into the mountainside

Zahara

This tiny town is one of the few on one of the largest lakes in the area. I first imagined the lake to be dark brown in color, but as soon as I turned the corner, I was amazed at the aqua blue color instead. So amazed, in fact, that I stopped the car in the middle of the stretch of road and got out to take pictures with the town in the background. The town is as cute and tiny as a button though. Upon walking up the flower potted, steep, and winding street you enter the main square where you encounter people gathered under orange trees enjoying their tapas or coffee. No matter where you glance, views of the lake are not far. The best view though is from the castle at the top of the mountain. You really get a feeling of how big and blue the lake really is.

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The main square

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Although Ronda is tiny, the history, location, and views are like no other. I was so glad I discovered this little corner of the world and it turned out to be one of my favorite parts of this Andalucía road trip.

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My view from my Airbnb

Buen Viaje!

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Off the Beaten Path in Panama

Panama has much more than a bustling capital city. Get off the grid and head to the beach and enjoy the natural beauty Panama has to offer from the beach to the rainforest in a volcanic crater.

The first impression of Panama City, Panama, as you fly into Tocumen International Airport Panama is a sprawling metropolis with high rise buildings of all shapes and designs. If you plan on driving while visiting, make sure you are bold and patient. Bold because at times there seems to be very few rules of the road, and patient because of the massive amount of cars you will see at any given time. Don’t be surprised if it takes you nearly an hour just to get out of the city.

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Lounging cat in Casco Viejo

There are a few must dos while in the city such as watching a ship go through the Panama Canal or wandering the historic streets of Casco Viejo; but if you’re like me, being bombarded by cars and hoards of people is not really the vacation I seek…so get out of the city and head to the beach.

I recommend steering your way towards the district of San Carlos. Here you will get the perfect combination of beach and rainforest.

Panama to Coronado

Coronado is one of the larger towns in San Carlos situated on the edge of the Pacific Ocean. The town itself has drastically grown and changed over the years, for the better, and has a wide range of shops and grocery stores to fill your needs and pantry. Parts of Coronado, such as the hotel and BnB listed below are all within a gated community that is bustling in its own right. There are many houses, turned BnB or Airbnb, that you can select while you enjoy the sights and experience a truly relaxing vacation.

Within Coronado, you’ll even find a hot spot restaurant called Luna Rossa. It has a huge rancho, an outside covered area where one can enjoy a meal with a pleasant breeze during the hot months. If air conditioning is more your thing, then enjoy the inside area. Regardless of seating area, you will be served delicious authentic Italian dishes. You can’t go wrong with anything your taste buds are in the mood for that day. One of my favorites is the Tiramisu – the true Italian tasting dessert like you have never tasted before.

How to get around

Despite the heavy traffic in the city, renting a car will be your easiest way to get around, especially while in the rural areas of the country. If you’re the adventurous type, feel free to try the local buses or cabs.

Where to stay

Coronado Luxury Club & Suites

Into the resort and golf life? This is the place for you. Located on the water and slightly off the beaten path you won’t be disappointed with the various room views and amenities this hotel has to offer.

El Litoral

Looking for a more personal touch? Check out this super cute BnB where the owners will make you feel right at home. If you’re in need of some relaxation, they even have meditation and yoga classes that they offer in their outdoor space next to the pool.

Or are you looking for something a little more private or quiet? You can find plenty of beach condos on Airbnb. My personal favorite is Rio Mar. It is especially beautiful with its 4 unique pools and beachfront where one can watch surfers, boogie boarders, or small groups of people enjoying the waves in the morning and afternoon as the tide ebbs and flows. Don’t forget to walk on the sparkling black and white sand beach at low tide where frequently you are the only one around. New to Airbnb? Here’s $40 off your first rental!

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This could be YOU in the pool at Rio Mar!

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Sunset at Rio Mar

What to do

Drive an hour up the mountain to the town of El Valle. This town is situated on the floor of a large volcano crater. There is so much to see and do here that you can stay a couple days or make a day trip out of it. You can experience the cloud forest along with the exotic flora and fauna that call this mountain home.

To see the exotic butterflies of the mountain, head to the Butterfly Haven where you will get to chance to learn about the various types and see them in action as you walk among them in the garden. If you’re lucky enough, they may even land on you! This is also a good time to use the “slow-mo” feature on your phone 🙂

 

If you want to take to the canopy and fly through the trees, check out ziplining. Canopy Adventure is a great guided hike that takes you up into the forest as you zipline across Chorro.

El Macho Waterfall is the largest in the area at least 100 feet above the forest floor. If zip lining across this wondrous natural beauty isn’t your thing, feel free to hike to the falls to see its beauty instead.

Need a little skin care TLC? Venture to the hot springs and mud baths to cover your body with volcanic healing clay that is said to be extremely beneficial for your skin. Once the clay is dried and rinsed off, enjoy a nice hot spring in the one of the tubs. This is a small area, but for $4 it’s a great experience.

 

No trip to El Valle is complete without wandering the stalls of the artisans and food market. This is a great spot in the center of the town that is not to be missed as you know whatever you may purchase supports the locals and their craft.

From the beautiful cool canopy of El Valle, head to the water to bask in the warm waters of the Pacific. Depending on your budget check out Vista Mar Marina to pick a water activity or for a budget friendly option, go in search of a fisherman at the Rio Hato

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Swimming with our fisherman guide in the grotto

Market to see who may be willing to bring you aboard his boat and show you around the coast of Playa Farallón for a good deal. Personally, this gives you a much more personal experience. The best part of being off the coast of Playa Farallón is some of the history that you get to experience. You’ll see one of Noriega’s abandoned beach houses that has been overgrown with vegetation due to the fact that no one wants to take it over due to possible “bad juju”. Not far off the coast is Isla Farallón which is surrounded by teal blue colored water and filled with great snorkeling opportunities. The water was so inviting that I didn’t even wait for the fisherman to stop the boat fully, that I jumped right in. The island is filled with grottos; but be careful, as the waves can be somewhat strong the closer you get to the island. Also, watch your feet! There are tons of sea urchins that make the grotto their home, so don’t be surprised if you accidentally step on one.

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The true local experience that created lasting memories

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Isla Farallón

From the beach to the rainforest there is so much to discover, so take your time to explore the beauty of this off the beaten path landscape. Often the most unexpected places leave a lasting memory.

Walking to the beach in Rio Mar
Walking to the beach in Rio Mar

 

 

My First Solo Trip

I’ve traveled since the time I was a baby, but now I was ready to do my first solo trip. I bought a ticket, grabbed a bike, and traveled for 3 days across France to experience a trip that would open my eyes to new discoveries of myself and what I was capable of.

Over the years, I’ve been to so many places, mainly with family then with organized group trips. I didn’t feel ready to tackle being in a new country or city on my own…until not too long ago.

I was lucky to find a great roundtrip ticket to Paris during peak summer season with Scott’s Cheap Flights that I couldn’t pass up. Discovering Paris the November before, I knew I wanted to get out of the city to discover a new part of France. After much research, I landed on Alsace; but honestly, I don’t think I could have gone wrong with anywhere.

Next was the hard choice of what to do and how to get around. You can only get so far each day on foot and I didn’t want to be tied down to a train schedule too much. So I settled on a bike! I found Detours in France that helped me set up my trip. I highly recommend to anyone interested in this type of exploring. The company is entirely self-paced and sets everything up for you prior to arrival, including my 4 nights in hotels and 2 dinners. This allowed me flexibility to wander different little towns along the way and go at my own pace. Now, most people I told about my upcoming solo biking trip seemed to be in disbelief that I would even consider something like that. Ok, maybe it’s not the first travel idea a majority of people have, but I was excited to take on this new adventure and make my own memories.

My Bike Tour: Highlights from Strasbourg to Colmar

First stop: Strasbourg. I had seen so much of this unique city in pictures and it was the sole reason I decided to come to Alsace region and bike for 3 days.

I knew as soon as I walked off the train in Strasbourg, I was going to love this little corner of the World. The cobblestone streets, the flowers, and all the colors of the buildings made me feel as if time had stopped. I walked from La Petite France to the cathedral in the city center at least 2-3 times to really soak up every angle of the city. Just my tripod and me.

I was filled with so much excitement. With each step I took, I was more confident and more carefree. I learned to stop and take in my surroundings, take as many pictures as I could, and have fun with it even though I was on my own. I learned to laugh at myself, especially when I was trying to the get the perfect picture at the perfect angle with my tripod as people passed by probably questioning why I was sitting on the ground next to a bridge or laying on a ledge. There’s something about being in a different city other than your own and feeling as if you can do anything out of the ordinary. There should be no regrets. Get out of your comfort zone and make memories you want to share with others and memories you want cherish for a lifetime.

All 3 days of my bike trip were very different from one another; but the scenery, colors, and excitement never wavered. I passed swans enjoying their morning bath, an amazing amount of corn, wheat, and hay fields and adorable little towns along the way. No matter if I made a wrong turn, (which happened frequently), I was filled with so much joy and confidence. I’m sure I added at least an extra hour or 2 to my journey each day with the number of stops I made to take pictures, but that’s what I was there for. I wanted to learn and absorb as much as I could.

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Hay fields at every turn

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Sunflower field. Best sighting of the entire trip!

Obernai was filled with history and castles…and by far the best meal of the trip! This town was so prosperous back in the 1500s that it had 2 fortifications around the city, 20 towers, and 4 tower gates. I was lucky enough to stay at Hôtel Le Gouverneur with a bedroom overlooking the mote on the wall of the old fortification. The town itself has so much charm from the buildings to the people. If you walk around long enough, you’ll notice the buildings start to change colors and have a more alluring feel to them as sunset get closer.

This trip was the epitome of adventure. Besides the fact that I was on my own, I allowed myself to wander and say yes to things even if it would take me off the suggested path. The best diversion I had was a nearly 2 hour round trip hike to the top of a mountain to explore and take pictures of the remains of an abandoned chateau that I could see from the road. I was determined to see it no matter how long it took me. I wanted to see the view of the countryside and vineyards from that perspective – plus it was a welcomed break from pedaling. I didn’t have a map of where to go, so I was hoping I was following the correctly painted signs up to the top. At times the images would change slightly, but I just trusted that my feet were heading in the right direction. And they were, because when I made it to the top, the abandoned stone structure was so impressive. Walking over the draw bridge into the roofless chateau I felt like a little girl creating my own castle fairytale. There were windows on the 2nd story I knew I wanted to look out of, but there was no other way of getting there except to free climb the wall. And that’s just what I did. I found little grips and holes in the stone for my hands and feet and up I went. This detour was not planned or expected, but it will remain as a major highlight of the entire journey.

From Obernai to Ribeauville the colors of the buildings just seemed to get brighter and the flowers decorating the many fountains became more beautiful.

Despite how tired and sore my legs were, I still had one more stop on my grand solo adventure and I was ready to get to Colmar to walk around La Petite Venise. I was lucky enough to also be able to catch the quarter finals of the World Cup where France advanced and eventually won the Cup in the end. The streets will filled with people and there were so many flags everywhere you went. It wasn’t very hard to figure out where to watch the game, since as I turned a single street corner I found the hoards of people grouped around bars and red, white, and blue smoke bombs going off everywhere. From the overly excited atmosphere of people to the gorgeous building facades, the experience of watching a championship soccer match in Europe was one of a kind.

La Petite Venise and the streets surrounding it were magnificent. If one could construct a gingerbread village of all sorts of colors and shapes, I imagine it would look exactly like this. La Petite Venise was a lot smaller than I had anticipated, but there was still a lot to take in such as the smells and sights of the covered market hall right off the river. It was filled with all the things you want to take home for dinner. I grabbed some cheese, a fresh baguette, and grabbed a bottle of wine for myself, found a little spot next to a fountain to eat and watched children play and the locals hang outside their windows while watching the tourists down below. I was lucky enough to not only see Colmar at dusk, but also in the early morning when there was no one around. I had all the streets to myself to play and wander. I found streets that I hadn’t discovered the day before and may have been even more fantasifull. I imagined the locals starting their day by singing “Bonjour” from “Beauty and the Beast” and dancing on those cobblestone streets.

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Canals and color at every corner

Loving all the color of the buildings
Loving all the color of the buildings

Entering Le Petite Venice
Entering Le Petite Venice

I wouldn’t change anything from my first solo trip as I made the most of each day and made my own memories that will last for a lifetime. I learned a lot about not just the towns I biked through, but about myself and what I am capable of doing. There’s no looking back now, only forward to my next big adventure!

The 7 Best Things to do in Paris

Paris is a huge city with so many things to see and do. From the must sees to hidden gems, here is list of things to add to your list while in the City of Lights.

Has there ever been a city that you always dreamed of visiting, but hadn’t had the chance yet? Silly as it may sound, Paris was that city for me. Before I knew it, within a year, I had visited the City of Lights (although I prefer City of Love) 3 times and at very different times of the year! Each time I got a different glimpse of the city and became more comfortable with exploring the city’s corners.

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I could stare at you forever!

Here are 7 things to do in Paris that any tourist, whether it’s their first or 5th visit, shouldn’t miss!

Walk along the Seine

You must take a stroll along the River Seine to experience Paris from what I think is the heart of the city, as well as to see a majority of its iconic landmarks. You can walk from the Eiffel Tower to the Louvre or even Notre Dame. Paris is bigger than you think, so be sure to wear comfortable footwear! If you don’t feel like walking, there are plenty of options, as Paris has a great ride share system. Try to download the app Lime before you get to Paris so if you see an e-bike or e-scooter randomly lying around, feel free to pick it up and ride around the city for as long as you’d like. I went for about 9 km on an e-scooter and it was such a fun way to get from one end of the city to the next. Enjoy a ride along the Seine and stop at the various bars that line the river to recharge and act like a local.

Picnic on the Champ de Mars

For as long as I can remember, grabbing a baguette, some cheese, and a bottle of wine and finding a nice spot on the green lawn of Champ de Mars, has always been on my bucket list. Staring up in amazement at the Eiffel Tower never gets old for me, and I’m sure picnicking in front of her won’t either. So find a boulangerie, buy something delicious to snack on and a drink, and spend an hour people watching and relaxing in the best place in Paris.

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Bucket list item checked off!

Climb to the top of the Eiffel Tower

The next best thing after a picnic in front of the Eiffel Tower is actually being on top of the Eiffel Tower. You can purchase tickets ahead of time, but it’s not necessary. I would highly recommend walking up as far as you can go rather than taking the elevator. You can only go so far up the stairs before having to the take the elevator to the 3rd platform. So, if you aren’t afraid of heights, walking up roughly 700 stairs gazing at the metal that holds up this massive structure is mind blowing. Once you get to the top it will have been worth it, as you’ll be able to have a panoramic view of the great expansion of the city which is absolutely beautiful.

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View from the top of Eiffel Tower

Climb to the top of Arc de Triomphe

The Arc de Triomphe is also very impressive. It is hard not to stare at the craziness of the traffic in the roundabout all the way to the architecture of the Arc. The grandeur of the structure is even more impressive the closer you get. It may not be obvious, but it is possible to climb the 284 steps to the top and be in the center of the roundabout’s star. From the top you can peer down at the many avenues including Champs-Élysées and have a great view of the Eiffel Tower. No matter where you stand in Paris, the magic of Paris is never too far!

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Visit the Museums

There are so many different types of museums to choose from in this city. From the classic artists to the modern styles there is something for everyone. Of course, no trip to Paris is complete without visiting the Louvre. If you’re only there to see the Mona Lisa, then grab a map and follow the signs, but don’t forget to let yourself be curious about the other rooms in this massive palace. From the Louvre, it’s an easy walk over the Ponte des Arts to visit Musée d’Orsay. The building itself used to be the old train station, so take a moment to gaze up at the enormous clock that adorns the front of the building. Musée d’Orsay is one of the largest museums in Europe and holds the largest collection of impressionist and post-impressionist artists. So be sure not to leave it off your list!

img_2540Other museums to check out:
Grand Palais which has a multitude of various exhibitions throughout the year and Petite Palais which is the museum of Fine Arts.
Workshop of Lights is the most unique exhibit I’ve ever been to. Submerge yourself inside of the paintings as you sit, watch, and listen as artwork moves across the walls from floor to ceiling. This is a MUST!
Louis Vuitton Foundation is nestled in the largest park of Paris, Bois de Boulogne. Its glass structure is very unique just as the art found inside. There is also an intimate concert hall, so check out the list of concerts that may be performing while you’re there.

Stroll through Montmartre

Every section of Paris has something unique about it. I find Montmartre to be one that is charming and artistic. Everywhere you look you will find an adorable shop filled with local artists and local designers. This area makes for some great souvenirs, especially along the main drag in front of Sacre Coeur. My favorite aspect of this area was the block next to Sacre Coeur where a number of local artists set up their easels and just paint away. Each one has their own unique style from either classic art to textured looks that give the canvas another dimension.

img_4077Travel tip: visit this area during the off season as there is wall to wall people in the summer and not as enjoyable strolling around the market and streets.

Go on a Hunt for Rue Crémieux

This hidden gem is in the 12th arrondissement and will be the most colorful street you’ll visit in Paris. On Rue Crémieux you will find brightly colored home fronts that are sure to put a smile on anyone’s day. It’s not a very long street, but the rainbow of colors is what makes it so unique. From pink, to green, to purple, you’ll find every color under the rainbow. Since this is still a hidden gem, there aren’t too many tourists who venture this way, which is probably good for the locals who actually live here.

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There is so much to see and do in Paris that you can’t go wrong no matter what corner you visit. Paris is all about getting lost. You won’t go a day without finding new streets that will fill your curiosity, that will coax you into eating buttery croissants, and gazing at the beauty of the Eiffel Tower at any given moment.

Bon Voyage!

The Magic of Thailand in 10 days

Thailand is on everyone’s bucket list. Whether in Bangkok or Phuket, here are some of the must do activities while spending at least 10 days in this beautiful country.

When you think of Thailand, you most likely think of pristine white beaches with clear blue waters, delicious food, and elephants…and that’s exactly what you will get!

Thailand had been on my travel wish list for some time and I finally managed to get there on a cultural yoga retreat. In 2017 I joined a yoga studio and got to know one of the instructors, Michelle Ruiz, really well. We both shared a love for travel and lucky for me, she had decided to organize a 10 day retreat to Thailand. She was eager to share one of her favorite spots of the world with her yoga tribe.

I think the most daunting thing about traveling to Asia is the length of flight time just to get there, but once you’re there it is all worth it.

Use Bangkok as a Pit Stop!

Bangkok is a great starting point to get your body adjusted to the new time change and to stretch your legs for a couple days. It’s a bustling city with skyscrapers and mega malls, but don’t be fooled with all the big city vibes as you can still visit the many temples Bangkok has to offer.

Hotel

I stayed at the ultra-lux Marriott Sukhumvit hotel in the heart of the city. The hotel is beautiful and in a great location, has a pool overlooking the city, and a breakfast buffet that is delectable with a variety of local fruits and daily juices to jump start your morning. There is a metro stop in walking distance, amazing massage parlors right around the corner (and basically everywhere you turn), and great shopping near by.

Spa

If you’re looking to stretch out your muscles from the long journey, then walk no further than 200 meters from the hotel to Asia Herb. You will experience a top notch Thai massage with essential oils of your preference and for any length of time you desire. A true reinvigorating experience.

The Sights

There are many temples or Wats all over the city. The easiest way to see them is probably by booking a packaged tour, like our small group did. The tour lasted for at approximately 6 hours of the day, but included lunch in Chinatown. If you don’t like the idea of being tied down to a schedule for 6 hours, then a group tour isn’t for you. I have included 3 must see temples to visit in case you decide to venture on your own.

Wat Arun – This wat is one of Bangkok’s most well known landmarks and can be easily accessed by a boat or ferry. It is situated on the west bank of the Chao Phraya River which means it catches the sun’s first rays in the morning which reflects off the pearly white facade of the temple. While walking around the wat, you will see meticulously painted porcelain that adorns the spires with all sorts of figures and designs.

Wat Pho – Also known as Temple of the Reclining Buddha, this wat has the largest collection of buddha images and statues. If you’re into yoga don’t be afraid to document your skills alongside any statues! You will also find the Reclining Buddha, which is nearly 151 ft long (46 m) and the largest there is in Thailand. Once you come around its 14 ft long feet, you’ll notice 108 bronze bowls lining the wall on your way out. It is believed that anyone who drops 1 coin in each bowl will receive good fortune.

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Largest Buddha in Thailand

Grand Palace – Not too far from Wat Pho, you can visit the Grand Palace known for housing the Emerald Buddha. The Temple of the Emerald Buddha is regarded as the most sacred Buddhist Temple in Thailand. You may envision this Buddha to be impressive and somewhat of a large structure, but it is roughly 2 ft tall and carved from a single jade stone. An interesting tradition is that the King of Thailand changes the Emerald Buddha’s robes three times a year, depending on the season – summer, winter, and rainy seasons.

Erawan Shrine – This shrine is right in the heart of Bangkok and directly off of a busy intersection near a shopping area. Despite its hectic location, there are countless people who come to worship at the shrine and hope that their prayers will be answered. Don’t hesitate to buy a ring of flowers to lay at the base of the shrine and ask for a wish to come true! There are also traditional Thai dancers who people pay a little extra for, in order to hope their prayer will be answered. What do you have to lose?! Delve into the culture and enjoy the journey…

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Octave Lounge & Bar – If you want a view of the city at sunset go to the Octave Bar. You will get a 360 degree panoramic view of the city and its hustling streets. As the sun sets and the lights of the city turn on, enjoy a beverage or a bite to eat while being on top of the city. Lucky for me, it was conveniently situated at the top of the Marriott Sukhumvit Hotel, so I didn’t have far to go.

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View of Bangkok from the Octave Lounge

After a couple of days taking in the sights and sounds of Bangkok, you’ll be ready for a more relaxing scene. What better place to relax than at the beach! So head south to Phuket for more culture and even more beauty.

Take me to the Beach!

Getting there

There are direct in country flights from Bangkok to Phuket. The flight is about an hour long and will cost you under $100 roundtrip. If your hotel doesn’t provide transportation from the airport once you land, I would try to arrange something before you get there. If not, you won’t be stranded as there are people willing to pick up an extra ride. Just be aware, taxi services in Phuket can be pricey!

Where to stay

This really depends on the type of vacation you are looking for. If you are looking to be in the middle of it all with activities and parties day and night then Patong Beach is the area for you. If you are looking to stay on the beach, but have the more relaxing vibes surround you, then the boutique hotels around Cape Panwa is the spot to be.

I stayed at My Beach Resort and had a view of Big Buddha, a private pool, and an amazing sunset overlooking the bay for 5 whole days. The staff was so hospitable and had an array of wonderful food for breakfast and dinner. There was nothing better than watching the sky turn into a kaleidoscope of pinks, oranges, and purples while staring up at Big Buddha from his mountain top while sitting on the beach or poolside.

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Private pool off of My Beach Hotel room

Spa Treatments

You don’t have to go far to search for a great quality massage. Within a 5 minute walk from the hotel there are multiple spas to choose from. My favorite was Chill Spa which was family operated. Staying in Phuket for a few days you can try a new massage every day. Go for a 90 minute full body massage one day, then the next do an hour long foot massage. No matter what you choose, the only thing you’ll regret is not being able to do the massages back home as often. Besides feeling absolutely amazing, the Thai family running the spa were the happiest and friendliest people. While getting a foot massage a couple of the ladies began talking to me and we tried to carry on a conversation for a good 30 minutes with lots of hand gestures and smiles. After our friendly conversation, they decided to make me some tea and offered me some fresh lychee (which are my favorite) and mango to snack on, all while still getting pampered. I felt like I was a part of their family by the time I left.

What to see and do

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Wat Chalong – The first thing you notice about Wat Chalong is how vibrant the reds andgolds are. As you enter the main temple building where 3 buddha statues sit, the first thing you notice is how gold they are. The tradition is to add to the plethora of gold leaves covering the statues, while respectfully visiting the temple. It is said, that while you place a gold leaf on the buddha and make a wish, your wish will come true. If it comes true, you must come back to the temple to set off firecrackers as a way to say thank you to Buddha. It is very common to hear multiple firecrackers going off while there, so it must be true!

img_3786Big Buddha – Sitting at roughly 147 feet tall, Big Buddha offers panoramic views and sweeping vistas of the island. As you get closer to the statue, you marvel at its grandiosity and peacefulness at the top. The statue is layered with beautiful white jade marble that sparkles in the sun. While walking around you will hear birds chirping and the sounds of thousands of thin gold leaves acting as wind chimes as the wind passes through them. Each gold leaf is left by a visitor who writes a message on the leaf in hopes that the good spirit of the Buddhists who live in the temple and the winds will bring peace and gratitude.

Elephant Sanctuary – If you have ever wanted to play with elephants for a day in their (somewhat) natural habitat then this is the place for you! You can decide to do a morning or afternoon visit, but I feel a morning visit is the best time to go as they are nice and hungry after their night’s slumber. The nice thing is that the sanctuary will arrange a pick-up time for you from your hotel so all you have to worry about is remembering your camera and bathing suit.

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Elephant greeting as you arrive

As soon as you arrive, you are bound to run into a couple elephants greeting you at the entrance and just begging you to feed them. Don’t be afraid to hop in there and pick up a sugar cane that is on the ground to offer them. You may even get a nice elephant trunk kiss at the same time! Watching them maneuver their trunks to pick things up and search for things on the ground is mesmerizing. After a brief introduction and setting of rules, visitors are asked to bring buckets of bananas, corn, and watermelon up to where the gentle giants are waiting patiently. Take advantage of their gentleness and give them hugs and kisses as much as they will let you. If you’re lucky enough, you may even be able to play with a baby elephant who is still learning his rank and being quite mischievous.

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Up close and personal during feeding time

After feed time, it is mud bath time! The mud is thick, squishy, and somewhat slimy, but if you don’t get in there, then the Thai workers will playfully force you in by plastering mud all over your back when you’re not looking! Once you get over the unusual feeling of being covered in mud, rubbing it all over the elephants’ tough leathery skin is so much fun. But the fun doesn’t stop with the mud, because it has to come off; so off to the watering hole we all go. This doesn’t only allow you the opportunity to get slightly cleaner, but you get to be in the water while the elephants roll and swim in pure joy. You get the opportunity to be at their eye level and to the point where you could practically lay on their back. Just be aware of their feet under the muddy waters. Someone did get stepped on by an elephant foot and did a little damage to a toe…but what a great story for when you get home!?

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Giving the ellies a nice mud bath

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Cleaning off the mud in the swimming hole

The entire experience of spending time with these gorgeous creatures gives you a glimpse into how smart and gentle they really are. If you are an animal lover this will be an experience you will never forget.

Old Phuket Town – Another area rich in history is Old Phuket Town where you will see a European, specifically Portuguese, influence in the architecture throughout the streets. History tells of Europeans who were invited to the area, as it used to be an old tin-mining country. Most of the buildings now have been transformed into shops, restaurants, and hotels/hostels so there is plenty to see while walking the streets. You can’t go wrong with any Thai dish, but don’t forget to eat as much sticky rice with mango as possible!

Phi Phi Islands – Last but not least, you can’t visit Phuket without spending at least 1 day (try to do 2-3 if possible) island hopping around the Phi Phi Islands. It’ll take about an hour to get to your first stop, so find a good spot on the boat and just gaze at the towering limestone mountains that seem to sprout from the water all around you. You will have multiple stops throughout your day to include snorkeling, Maya Bay, where The Beach was filmed, Monkey Island, some caves where Vikings left their mark, and more. My personal favorite spot was snorkeling among the colorful ocean fish and creatures, and walking along the white powdery beaches. Spend as much time snorkeling and don’t be afraid to wander from the boat…you never know what you may come across. Underwater you will see vibrant schools of fish, and coral of all colors; and if you’re lucky maybe you’ll even spot some clown fish or Nemos as one of the guides shouted out! The water is the clearest of blues and aqua greens I have ever seen. Pair the emerald waters with the pearly white beach and you have an image of a beach from your dreams. At each stop, be sure to take the time to really soak up your surroundings and the beauty of nature. It’s not everyday you get to wade in water and lie on beaches that are as incredibly beautiful as these.

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Soaking up the sun and salt of Phi Phi Islands

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Aqua blue water everywhere you look

The hospitality of the Thai people, the rich culture, and the natural beauty of Thailand is the reason for this country to be a top travel destination. I was lucky to end my trip to Thailand with a yoga session overlooking the majestic bay from the My Beach Resort, and it is one vinyasa I will not soon forget. Michelle Ruiz, our travel and yogi guide, offered a deep stretch and a mindfulness yoga practice in a lounge that had glass doors fully open to the outside elements and fresh breeze coming through. In the distance, a rain cloud was slowly approaching and the temperature quickly dropped a few degrees. Then just like that…it began pouring. Despite the gentle rain, my warrior poses stayed strong. It wasn’t until the end of our yoga session, while in savasana, that I was fully drenched. The raindrops soaked my entire body and while in my state of gratitude I took this as a sign that Thailand was thanking me for the visit and asking me to return soon.

Savansana

Kob-khun ka – Thank you!

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