7 Great things about Rochester, NY

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Before my son started graduate school at the University of Rochester, I had never visited the city. Now, it almost feels like my second home (well, at least in the late spring/summer/fall; Miami, where my daughter lives, is my winter/early spring second home – aren’t I a lucky woman to have so many climates from which to choose?). I just spent a week in Rochester helping my son unpack in his new house, and thought I’d write a post on the things I love about this city in western NY.

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Autumn – beyond anything else, I love fall in western New York! The reds, oranges and yellows of the trees are amazing and there are SO many spectacular places to hike not far from Rochester (Letchworth State Park is about an hour away if you want a truly beautiful hike through a gorge with several waterfalls). Orchards for apple picking abound in the area – we enjoy tasting “new to us” varieties and making apple pie with our loot!

The Genesee Riverway Trail – a 24 mile paved trail that runs from the Erie Canal on the south side of Rochester up through downtown, ending at Lake Ontario. The trail runs right by the campus of UR, so we’ve walked the trail from there up to High Falls just north of downtown Rochester. This trail connects to the Erie Canal Heritage Trail just south of campus, in Genesee Valley Park.

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Erie Canal Heritage Trail  Part of the 365 mile long Erie Canalway Trail, the Heritage Trail is itself 86 miles long. One of my absolute favorite things to do in Rochester is to rent a bike from Towpath Bike in Pittsford and ride along the canal. It’s a scenic, mostly level ride, and absolutely spectacular in the fall!

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Pittsford Farms Dairy – Pittsford itself is an adorable town, particularly Schoen Place along the canal where Towpath Bike is located. But Pittsford Farms Dairy deserves a special mention – it’s a dairy, bakery, ice cream parlor and retail store, all in one. The ice cream is to die for, and they carry all kinds of baked goods and dairy products, as well as locally made jams, sauces, etc. We try to stop by every time I visit (alas, during my most recent visit we were so focused on unpacking that we didn’t make an ice cream run – next time!)

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The Rochester Lilac Festival – For 120 years (it started in 1898!!), Rochester has celebrated the arrival of spring with a free festival in Highland Park, where thousands of lilacs bloom. Highland Park is beautiful all year, but during the festival there are concerts, art shows, booths selling hand-crafted soaps, lotions, and other wares, as well as 5K and 10K runs and many other special events, drawing over 500,000 visitors each year. Last year, I was able to run about 4 miles of the 10K, so my goal is to make it back in a year or two and run the entire 6.2! This year, it runs from May 11-20, so if you’re in the area, I highly recommend you stop by!

Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra – My husband introduced me to the joys of the symphony when we were in college. Now, it’s fun to watch our son enjoying the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra! Luckily for us, the RPO had a concert while we were in town last week, so all three of us were able to attend A Night of Symphonic Rock. The orchestra played classic rock and tunes from Broadway musicals such as Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar, then a classic rock cover band played the second half of the show. RPO has tons of special events, including movie nights – the orchestra will play the soundtrack as they show Ghostbusters and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets later this year, among others! And as a bonus, they sell student tickets at a steep discount – some shows cost as little as $15 if you are a college student!

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Electrical box art  – this may seem like a small thing, but I love how the city of Rochester has turned the street corner electrical boxes into art! Each one is painted differently, but it’s a simple way to beautify a utilitarian item. My Scooby tried really hard to blend in with this one!

So there’s my completely random collection of things I love about Rochester…I’m sure there are tons of other things I haven’t discovered yet! If you’ve been, what are some of your favorite places or events???

48 Hours in Austin, Texas

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As they say in Texas, “Howdy”! This edition of Wednesday Wanderings is all about Austin, Texas! My nephew got married there recently, and my mother-in-law asked me to fly in a few days early and play “Tour Guide Barbie” for her and a friend.  They wanted to visit some tourist sights in Austin, and left it completely up to me to plan the itinerary.

Austin has so many amazing activities, it was really hard to narrow down my list, but I tried to think of what my mother-in-law and Sister Fran would enjoy the most. I also threw in a few things I wasn’t sure they would like, but which to me are quintessential Austin experiences (food trucks, tacos and street art). Luckily for me, they enjoyed every adventure I threw their way!

Here’s what we ended up doing…

Austin Ducks – I wanted to start with a Duck tour to give Mom and Sister Fran a good overview of the city, and see if they were intrigued by anything special that I could then add into the itinerary. We got distracted by Shipley Donuts on our drive down from Dallas, so missed the tour time I had targeted for Thursday afternoon. Rearranging on the fly, we decided to tour the Texas State Capitol instead, and made a reservation for the Duck tour on Friday morning. Duck tours use amphibious vehicles left over from World War II; we drove through historic old Austin, down Sixth Street, past the Texas State Capitol building, then splashed down into Lake Austin for a different view of the city. Our driver was hilarious, told tons of cheesy jokes, and even played some 50’s music during the tour (Mom was jamming to “Splish Splash” as we splashed down into the lake) and we had a great time. Some of those waterfront houses along Lake Austin are SPIFFY!!!

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Texas State Capitol – We did a couple of laps around the Capitol before finding the parking garage, so we saw it from several different angles as we approached (it used to be the tallest building in Austin, but is now surrounded by skyscrapers). Once we parked, we walked a block over to the Capitol and waited about ten minutes to join the free 30-minute guided tour (they do have a self-guided tour pamphlet if you don’t want to do a Guided Tour, but our guide pointed out a few things I missed on my own, so I recommend the guided version).

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I particularly enjoyed the chandeliers in the Senate and House chambers (the lightbulbs spell out TEXAS) and the 130 year old elaborate door hinges. In the floor of the Rotunda, there is a huge mosaic depicting the seals of the six flags under which Texas has flown, which is beautiful. Portraits of every Texas governor hang in the Rotunda (each time a new governor is elected, they shuffle EVERY PORTRAIT to keep them in chronological order with the newly elected Governor’s portrait in the right spot!

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After the tour, we walked over to the Capitol Visitors Center, which has a gift shop and exhibits about the history of the Capitol, the XIT Ranch (Texas ingenuity at work…instead of paying for the Capitol building themselves, the Texas state government sold thousands of acres in West Texas to a group of businessmen from Chicago and used that money to build the Capitol), and a little bit of Texas history. Sister Fran was excited to see a small exhibit about O. Henry, as she is a big fan of his writing. We wandered the Capitol grounds, which are open to the public as a free city park, and enjoyed watching some big black birds put on a mating show for the females hanging about.

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For dinner that night, I took Sister Fran and Mom to a food truck area on Burnet Road, where several food trucks are parked, so they’d have lots of choices. It was their first time experiencing food trucks, and I wasn’t sure they’d enjoy the food truck scene, but they both LOVED the adventure! We ordered from three different food trucks and shared everything so we could taste a variety of foods. For dessert, we ate doughnuts from Gourdough’s -they were HUGE and so good! We tried the Dirty Berry and the Son of a Peach – both were delicious and we rolled back to our car when finished.

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Friday morning, we started with the Duck tour, then stood in a long line at Torchy’s Tacos for lunch. Torchy’s is a local chain which started as a food truck, and they have TONS of different kinds of tacos. The owner experimented a lot when he first opened, and whenever he heard a customer say “Those are da** good tacos”, he would add that experiment to the menu! Torchy’s now has locations in Texas, Colorado and Oklahoma, so if you get the chance, do go enjoy!

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After lunch, we headed to the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum. There is an IMAX theater, an interactive film about the early days of Texas and tons of exhibits. My favorites were “The Texas Cowboy in Hollywood”, the clips of musicians who have played at Austin City Limits (from the beginning all the way to current times), and the replica of the facade of the Alamo after the famous 1836 battle. A particularly evocative touch were the artifacts embedded into the floor in front of the facade in the exact spots in which the originals were found after the battle in March 1836. They also have the original statue from the Capitol Dome.

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After the museum closed, we made a beeline to the HOPE Outdoor Art Gallery. It’s the only paint park of its kind in the entire USA, which over the last seven years has become a popular space for Street Artists and Muralists to showcase their large scale art. Unbeknownst to me, Sister Fran is a big fan of street art, so she took loads of photos! We were lucky to see several artists at work while we were there and had fun picking out our favorites from the layers of art.

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**If you want to see the HOPE Outdoor Gallery in it’s original location at 11th and Baylor Streets, visit before June 2018, when it will be demolished. The gallery moves at the end of 2018 to a new location at Carson Creek Ranch, 30 minutes east of the city, where it will occupy a six acre site and offer art classes.**

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Once we‘d had our fill of street art, we ran by the airport to grab some other family members, then headed to Hopdoddy Burger Bar for dinner, where we had amazing burgers and were impressed by the servers’ ability to layer multiple plates upon their arms and wind through the crowd without spilling! (If you’re getting the impression that we mostly ate our way through Austin, you’d be absolutely correct – the food there is SO GOOD!)

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That’s how we spent our 48 hours in Austin – we had a blast! Mom and Sister Fran kept saying they felt like they were on vacation…I reminded them that they WERE on vacation. Personally, I am still waiting to see the world’s largest urban bat colony at Congress Avenue Bridge. It wasn’t the right time of year for the bats, so I’ll just have to go back – my brother and my godson both live in Austin so I have plenty of reasons to visit!

What are your favorite things to do in Austin?? I’ll add them to my list for my next visit!

  

24 hours in Macon, Georgia

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Spring has sprung in the South! April is one of my favorite months in the South; the spring-flowering trees are blooming and gorgeous flowers are everywhere, plus it’s generally sunny and warm while not yet hot. Last week I was feeling antsy and wanted to explore somewhere new. I read online that Macon has over 300,000 Yoshino cherry trees (more than Washington DC, the article said), so I took a spur of the moment trip and went chasing cherry blossoms!

I only had two days free, so chose to do a quick one nighter. It was a six hour drive each way, so I ended up with a little less than 24 hours in Macon. Driving on the back roads in Georgia led me through some quaint small towns, and it was peak azalea season, so it was a gorgeous drive.

**lesson learned: in the future, if I just go for one night, I’m going to keep my destination to somewhere within a four hour drive or less…I am not someone who loves getting up super early up, so I like a full day for sightseeing rather than having to leave by mid-afternoon to get home at a decent hour.**

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Beautiful cherry trees in historic downtown Macon!

Despite not having enough time (I’ll just have to go back with my husband for a weekend at some point), I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to this charming southern city. I arrived in the early evening, and after checking in at my hotel, asked the front desk staff to recommend a local restaurant for dinner. They suggested either The Rookery or H&H Restaurant, depending on whether I wanted a burger or soul food. A burger and milkshake sounded delicious, so I chose The Rookery and requested an outside table so I could absorb the late evening sun and warm weather (it’s been an exceptionally late spring this year and we haven’t had many days warm enough to eat outside yet). Downtown Macon is a delight; it’s a compact, walkable area with pedestrian-friendly streets, some of which have small urban parks (with cherry trees!) stretching down the middle between the traffic lanes. Street musicians were playing, which added to the ambiance as I sat enjoying my “Georgia Peach” milkshake.  I ordered the Walden Greenback Burger, which was marked as one of their specialties, and it did not disappoint; the fried green tomato, bacon and goat cheese were superbly yummy. The fries were delicious and my server  kindly brought me a side of ranch for dipping (one thing I learned while living in Texas – in the South EVERYTHING can be dipped in ranch dressing)!!

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The water in this fountain was pink for the Cherry Blossom festival!

After dinner, I walked around downtown for a few minutes, then headed back to the hotel, where the front desk staff had a copy of the Macon Visitor’s Guide waiting for me. They also suggested Amerson River Park for a morning run. I spent a little time organizing my itinerary for the next day then went to bed, with my alarm set for 8 AM, fully intending to get up and run.

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 The Ocmulgee River at Amerson River Park

Part of the fun of going away by myself is that I can choose how to spend my time and whether to keep to whatever schedule I have put together. Upon waking, I realized that my body did not need a run, rather it needed some yoga to work out the kinks from being in the car the day before. So I did a yoga video in the room then headed to Amerson River Park to look around, hoping I’d find some cherry trees. While there were no cherry trees, I did find a peaceful, stunning area with lots of walking paths, stone pavilions, and the Ocmulgee river. I played around with the timer on my iPhone camera (my first time using it…my photography skills definitely need work), and then just walked for a bit.

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First time using the timer on my iPhone camera!

My next stop was the Ingleside area – the hotel staff had recommended this area for some shopping and the beautiful homes and gardens, so I headed there on my way back towards downtown (my hotel was a few miles outside of town along I-75). Ingleside is an area with smaller shops, which makes for a pleasant ramble, and there are indeed some beautiful gardens…I saw cherry trees, redbuds, and LOTS of azaleas! I drove around aimlessly for a bit, just enjoying the spring blooms, stopping in at one store to buy a cherry blossom wreath for my front door.

As I headed downtown, I drove through a neighborhood with some historic mansions, and pulled over to take some photos. As I turned back toward my car, I chanced upon a life-size Tardis! I went to get a closer look and realized that the Tardis was a Little Free Library – my kids and husband are huge Dr. Who fans, and we all love to read, so I snapped a pic and immediately sent it off to my family!

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I want one!

My plan for the rest of the day was to visit Hay House, stop in at St Joseph’s Catholic church, and take a bike ride on the Ocmulgee Heritage Trail along the Ocmulgee river. Alas, it was not to be…my timing was off just enough that I missed the 1 PM tour at Hay House, and I had to choose between doing the 2 PM tour or my planned bike ride along the river. So I headed to St Joseph’s, which was supposed to be open to visitors daily between 8:30-4, but all the doors were locked up tight (I’m guessing that the church was being prepped for Holy Thursday services that evening). I took some photos of the outside and then stopped for a quick bite at Spud Dog’s, a hot dog and baked potato place in the downtown historic district of Macon. Spud Dog’s is the quintessential small town kind of place where everyone who comes in is greeted by name with a warm smile and a brief chat before any ordering is done. After eating, I meandered over to Spring Street Landing, where my research indicated a Zagster bike share station was located. However, when I arrived, not a single bike was at the station! I’m not quite sure why they were all gone; only three other cars were in the parking lot, so it didn’t seem like they would all be out, but there certainly weren’t any bikes available! This was strike three for the day, so I decided to cut my losses and head home, with a quick stop at Ocmulgee National Monument on my way out.The mounds were built hundreds of years ago by the Mississippian Native Americans, and were built by hand, one bucket of dirt at a time. Erected on top of the mounds were temples and other important buildings, as well as the homes of the highest-ranking individuals in the village (chieftains and shamans, usually).

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The empty bike sharing station – strike three!

Did I enjoy my trip? Absolutely! Will I go back again? Absolutely! However, I was a bit disappointed in the cherry trees. From the article I read stating there were more cherry trees than DC, I was expecting some sort of park or riverside esplanade with a large number of trees all in one place (similar to the Tidal Basin). I never found that kind of grouping, but still enjoyed the blooms I saw around the city!

**which, in all honesty, I could have done in Winston Salem without the six hour drive – we have tons of beautiful cherry trees as well! I was really looking for the Washington DC type of experience, which it was not**

Macon does have a big Cherry Blossom Festival every March, so it’d be fun to go back sometime during the Festival and see what I missed. I’m definitely going to go back with my husband at some point…there’s so much I didn’t get to see (the Allman Brothers Museum, the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame, the Tubman Museum, not to mention Hay House and St. Joseph’s).

Well that’s it for today’s Wednesday Wanderings! Have you ever been to Macon? What else did I miss? I hope you’re enjoying some pretty spring weather wherever you are, and as always, thank you for reading!!

My Travel Bucket List

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Pantheon in Rome – Photo by Evan Qu on Unsplash

Hello! I don’t know if everyone has a travel bucket list, but I definitely do. It seems the more I travel, the longer my list gets…does this happen to anyone else?  I meet other travelers, and they tell me about cool places they’ve visited, and wham, another place goes on my list! 

I thought I’d share mine today…I’d love to hear about yours as well!

Watch snow fall through the oculus in the Pantheon in Rome – This one comes straight from the book Four Seasons in Rome, a travel memoir written by Anthony Doerr. As it only snows in Rome about once every four years, this one will be tricky to accomplish – I’d have to basically watch the weather forecast and then grab a last minute flight! Starting to save my pennies now…as it snowed in Rome last month, I should have a few years to save up. **Alas, I was woefully unprepared last month to take a last minute trip – you can bet I won’t miss that chance next time!**

Ride bikes along the Danube in Austria with my daughter – I did this trip two years ago, with two girlfriends, and I’m super excited to return and share the adventure with my daughter!  I took lots of notes about the towns I liked and didn’t like, so the second ride should be even better logistically, and I love spending one on one time with my girl.

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Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon in Iceland

Drive Iceland’s Ring Road with my husband and two sons – My daughter and I went to Iceland a few years ago, and I kept thinking how much my husband and sons would like it! I would love to go back with my men and explore even more of Iceland by driving the Ring Road all the way around the country.

Rent an apartment in Paris by myself for two weeks – I love Paris, I’ve been to Paris a few times, and want to go by myself next year. I want to explore at my own pace, on my own schedule, and sit in a cafe and read for six hours without worrying that my companion is bored. 

Take a summer road trip entirely planned around library book sales – my family and I are total book lovers.  We can spend days in used book stores. Last summer we were visiting our oldest son in Upstate New York and found a library used book sale. We happily spent a couple of hours browsing and went home with two boxes full of books. At some point on the drive home, we said “Wouldn’t it be fun to plan an entire road trip and just go from one library sale to another?” So one of these years, the Debrecht Family Library Book Sale Road Trip will happen – though I’m afraid we would have to rent a moving truck to haul our purchases home!

Explore Slovenia – It’s been on my list for years, but I haven’t made it yet! I keep seeing photos which make me long to go explore – I don’t think 2018 will be the year, but who knows!

Visit a Southern Living Idea House – every year, Southern Living magazine features their idea house. These houses always look so beautiful, and I’d love to actually visit one at some point. Maybe this year, since I live in the South right now?

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See all those people? That’s what I want to avoid! Photo by Melissa on Unsplash

Hike an uncrowded section of the Great Wall of China – I’ve never been to Asia, but would love at some point to hike the wall where there are not ten million tourists all walking at the same time…surely, with thousands of miles of wall, I should be able to accomplish this, right?? There’s even one section lit up at night for a night hike!

Spend Christmas in Europe – I’d love to travel with my family to Europe for Christmas one year – wander the Christmas markets, enjoy ice skating and holiday decorations, and experience how other countries celebrate the holiday. I don’t have a particular destination in mind and would be happy to let my family choose! **Hubby, if you’re reading this, I think Christmas of 2019 would be perfect!**

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Delicate Arch in Arches National Park, Utah – Photo by Ganapathy Kumar on Unsplash

Visit the six states I haven’t seen – Courtesy of my 20 moves and love of travel, I’ve visited 44 of the 50 United States. I’m only missing Alaska, North Dakota, Montana, Idaho, Utah, and Vermont (I know, Vermont’s the outlier here – somehow, despite the fact we lived in Connecticut for five years, we never made it to Vermont). At some point, I’ll make it to these six and will be able to say I’ve seen all 50 of our beautiful states! I still remember the huge argument I had with a Texan when I was in college…he said that Texas had the most interesting history of any state, and I argued that each state had its own unique story and that they were all fascinating. Can’t wait to explore the last six and learn their stories!

What places and experiences are on your travel bucket list??? Maybe I’ll add a few more to mine….

As always, thanks so much for reading and have a great weekend!

 

48 Hours in New York City

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Happy Wednesday! Spring has sprung in North Carolina…the daffodils and Tulip Poplars are blooming! I’m planning to explore some botanical gardens over the next few weeks, so watch for garden posts coming soon.

For this week’s edition of Wednesday Wanderings, I’m sharing details of our recent trip to New York City to see Hamilton.  New York City is a place I love to visit; every time I spend time in the city, I find new adventures and hidden spots. This trip was just a couple of days…a quick birthday getaway! 

Lodging:  We stayed at the Hilton Garden Inn Times Square, on 8th Avenue between West 48th and West 49th.  While I don’t usually like to stay in the Times Square area (it’s way too crowded most of the year), the location was brilliant for this visit. The hotel is diagonally across the street from the 50th Street subway stop (C and E lines) so it was super easy to get from La Guardia airport to our hotel by public transport (full blog post on how to do this coming soon), and since we went to several shows, it was a super quick walk to all of the theaters! Eighth Avenue, while just one block away from the craziness of Times Square, is much quieter, and we heard very little street noise at night. As a bonus, I used my Hilton Honors points so it was completely free! Read this post to find out more about how I choose hotels in NYC.

Ate: Restaurants in New York run the gamut from $3 pizza slices to $200 dinners; if you are on a tight budget, you can eat just as easily as if you have no spending limit. We usually choose to spend our money on experiences rather than food (although a great meal can absolutely be an experience), so on a day to day basis we tend to eat on the cheaper side. We had breakfast the first day at the Times Square Diner and Grill right across from the hotel. The food was very good diner fare, and they currently have a deal with the Hilton for a 10% discount for hotel guests. The next day, we had breakfast at the Blue Dog Kitchen Bar. A nice step up from the diner, and the food was delicious. It’s a small place, so I highly recommend reservations!

Our two dinners were at Serafina and Hurley’s Saloon. Serafina is an Italian restaurant with several locations around Manhattan; they have an extensive menu and delicious wood-fired thin crust pizza. The location near us was in the Time Hotel on West 49th Street…we started with the bruschetta, which was oh so yummy, then ordered the “pizza for the table” – a big square pizza.  It was very good, but if you have your heart set on the super thin crust, order the individual pizza as the pizza for the table had a thicker crust.

Hurley’s Saloon is a historic pub on West 48th Street that was established in 1892.  It’s a beautiful, atmospheric dark wood place with a huge bar, three floors, a beer garden, and rooftop dining when the weather is nice. We ate in a private booth in the Library Room and really enjoyed our meal. They also have a prix-fixe pre-theater meal for anyone heading to the theater afterward. I’d love to go back in nice weather and enjoy the beer garden!

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I love NYC in the snow – but it was NOT beer garden weather!

Saw: Our first night, we went to the TKTS booth and got last minute tickets to Avenue Q, which is a hilarious, slightly raunchy show using puppets (NOT appropriate for kids)! We are a theater family – our daughter has a degree in Theater Arts (she is a Stage Manager) so she educated us about technical aspects of the show that added to our enjoyment. 

**TKTS booth tips – TKTS has a website as well as an app – both list the current day’s ticket availability. You can also look and see which shows have been at the booth recently. If you want to see a play rather than a musical, there is a dedicated “Play only” line which moves more quickly. Tickets tend to be more plentiful on weekdays, although many shows are dark (no shows) on Monday**

The next day was my birthday; I found a BOGOF deal for the Downton Abbey exhibit, so my daughter and I headed there after breakfast, while the boys went to the Natural History Museum. The exhibit was awesome…entire rooms from the set have been brought over from England along with costumes, etc. I loved it as I had seen the entire series; if you haven’t seen the show, however, there are TONS of spoilers as each character has a section with their storyline summarized. If you’ve already seen the show and are a fan, go see the exhibit (it’s in NYC through April 2); if you haven’t yet but want to watch without knowing what’s going to happen, don’t go!

Hamilton, of course was the highlight of the trip! I bought our tickets way back last spring when a new block of tickets went on sale, so we waited ten months for our show date.  I listened to the soundtrack endlessly prior to our trip, which really added to my enjoyment of the show. I LOVED the show and would gladly see it over and over again, but my husband was a little surprised by the lack of dialogue. Most of the dialogue is singing; if you’ve heard the soundtrack, you’ve heard all but a few lines of the show. We made a beeline to the stage door after the show and met Michael Luwoye, aka Alexander Hamilton. If you want to get on the email list, click here and submit your email at the bottom of the page to join the revolution! For tips on other ways to get Hamilton tickets, read this article.

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Meeting Michael Luwoye at the stage door!

We also visited the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue. They currently have an evocative exhibit about the 60’s which is quite interesting! The exhibit runs through the beginning of September.

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Guess who was a benefactor of the New York Public Library – Alexander Hamilton!

Shopping: The ONLY shopping we did this trip was a quick stop at Book-Off on East 49th Street – we love used bookstores and grabbed a few books from the $1 section to supplement our trip reading. It’s a very well organized store with a large selection of DVD’s and games as well as books.

So that was our quick 48 hours in Manhattan – what are your favorite things to do in New York City??? 

The Best Travel Gift I Ever Received

 

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**For those of you who don’t know, I am a voracious reader.  Reading, traveling, and sitting on my front porch (usually with a good book and coffee) are three of my absolute favorite activities. I used to be one of those travelers carrying several books in my luggage…until my husband bought me a Kindle! BEST. GIFT. EVER!**

According to Ambassador International, March 2-8 is “Read an E-book week”. In honor of the mighty E-book, here are my five favorite things about E-books and a list of some of the best E-books I’ve read lately. I do love a good print book as well, but there are definitely some advantages to an E-reader, especially for traveling.

You can load hundreds of books onto an E-reader, and save room and weight in your luggage. Seriously, this is one of the best things about my Kindle – I no longer lug several books per trip – I load up my Kindle and away I go!

The battery lasts a very long time! With the WIFI off, my fully charged Kindle can last up to two weeks before it needs charging. That means one less cord to pack if my trip is ten days or less.

My Kindle case has a built in light, which is great for reading in bed (or on the plane) without having to turn on an overhead light and bother those around me. I love that my kindle doesn’t have a backlit screen, as those tend to make it harder for me to fall asleep, and I often read at night.

You can adjust the size of the print.  Now that I need reading glasses, this is so helpful…I can adjust the size of the print if I don’t have my reading glasses with me and continue reading.

I can buy new books as I go, and download them when I’m connected to the WIFI in my hotel or at the local coffee shop.

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I could spend hundreds of dollars a year on books…and sometimes do! However, I’ve been trying to utilize more free and low-cost methods lately – here are some of the best ways I get ebooks without spending tons of money.

The best FREE way to read e-books is to utilize your public library! My library doesn’t always have the book I want, but when they do, I can check it out from my library and download it right to my kindle.  I’ve been using this service more and more lately…you gotta love public libraries!!

When I see an e-book I’m interested in, I add it to my shopping list on Amazon.  Amazon puts Kindle books on sale all the time, so I periodically run through my list and see if the prices have dropped.

Another great source of sale books is Modern Mrs. Darcy – Anne curates the selection of daily Kindle book sales and sends her best picks out in a daily newsletter. I’ve bought many a book (usually for $2-3) from her recommendations. If you’re a fellow book lover, check out her blog – I’ve been participating in her annual reading challenges for three years now and love them!

With my Amazon prime membership, I get one free e-book each month, plus access to the Amazon Prime Reading Library. I can borrow up to ten books at a time and keep them as long as I like. I also currently subscribe to Kindle Unlimited, but I’m not sure I’m going to continue this subscription – it’s only $9.99 per month, but I don’t think I read enough Kindle Unlimited books to justify the cost.  My goal for March is to finish the books I currently have downloaded from Kindle Unlimited and then cancel my subscription. I have a HUGE backlog of books on my TBR (To Be Read) pile, so I want to get caught up rather than continuing to pay for a service I’m not fully utilizing.

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What I’ve read lately…

The Stargazer’s Sister by Carrie Brown – The story of a woman who was an excellent astronomer but was overlooked because she was a woman.

Radio Girls by Sarah-Jane Stratford – A fascinating novel about the early days of the BBC and the women who worked there.

Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue – Great novel about one immigrant’s experience in America – an Oprah’s Book Club pick.

Rules of Civility by Amor Towles – One of the best books I’ve read in the last five years – I’m on the waitlist at my library for his “A Gentleman in Moscow”.

The Dollhouse by Fiona Davis – A fantastic look at New York City in the 1950’s and the women who lived at the Barbizon Hotel for Women.

What have you read lately? I’d love some recommendations!

**This post was not sponsored by Amazon – I just happen to have a Kindle so I wrote about my experience.  I do not get any commissions if you click on my links**

8 Topics to discuss before traveling with friends

amigas on trail

The Amigas on the trail!

Happy Sunday everyone! I’m writing this from my happy place – my swinging chair on my front porch, with my dog keeping me company.  I LOVE my front porch – it’s my favorite place for morning coffee, meditation, afternoon tea with friends, watching the rain, or just to curl up with a good book. My husband and I sometimes eat dinner out here as well!

Two years ago, I cycled 240 miles through Austria along the Danube River with two friends. We are currently training for our next trip (biking through the Czech Republic in the fall) and this got me thinking about topics we discussed ahead of time that helped make our travel smoother. So here’s our list, in hopes that it might help someone else have a better trip! My assumption here is that you value the friends you will be traveling with and want to nurture those friendships…if not, maybe ask yourself why you’d want to travel with them in the first place!

How to share expenses – If you only talk about one thing before booking a trip with friends, talk about finances.  Are you a budget traveler or do you like to stay in luxury accommodations? Are you on a super tight budget while others in the group have a bit more to spend? Money issues can cause a lot of friction if you don’t hammer out details ahead of time! For our trip, we agreed we were good with mid-level lodging except for one night of the trip when we upgraded to a hotel with a spa (after six straight days of biking, that massage felt really good)! And at our first meal, we realized we hadn’t talked about how to share food expenses. We decided that since we all eat about equally, we would put money into a communal pot from which we would pay for all meals and sightseeing. We put in 100 euros at a time, and when the pot was empty we added more. At the end of the trip, we split what was left. This system worked well for us but if you have a group where people have different budget levels, (or if one person doesn’t drink and others have three drinks every night) it might work better to have everyone pay individually. There are also all kinds of apps now which allow you to track expenses throughout the trip and the app calculates who owes what at the end of the trip. The key here is to talk about it before you leave!

**We did set rules for alcohol consumption – our rules were 1. No more than two drinks from the communal pot at dinner and 2. If someone started ordering six drinks at dinner, the other two were supposed to slap some sense into the person over-imbibing!**

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Coffee in Cesky Krumlov – paid for with our communal dining fund

Temperature preference – another important topic if you will be sharing hotel rooms.  Elizabeth and I like to have it cold when we sleep – Jenn likes it warm. Knowing this ahead of time, and knowing that we would be sharing two out of three nights, Jenn brought sweats to sleep in, and Elizabeth and I packed the lightest possible sleep clothes, so we could set the room to a mid-cool temperature.

Each traveler’s need for alone time – You might need time by yourself every day; Sue might be looking forward to spending every minute with you. If you address this need beforehand, Sue won’t be hurt when you want to retreat with a good book after dinner. My friends and I each require alone time in order to function well, so we booked one twin room and one single room for our trip, and rotated roommates each night. We each got a night by ourselves every third day and shared with a different person on the other two – this kept it fun (like sleepovers!) yet gave us our valuable solitude. At the end of our trip, we spent four nights in Vienna, and reserved a three bedroom apartment for those nights. After ten days of traveling together, it was heavenly to have our own bedrooms for the last few days! We recognized that we needed to be proactive on this issue, so agreed to speak up if we wanted to be by ourselves – it does no one any good to hold back and then get resentful or cranky! We ended up with a comfortable flow during the days as well…sometimes two of us would chat on the bikes while the other rode a little ahead or behind, just enjoying the scenery and the peacefulness of the river.

on the danube bike trail

Sometimes we all rode quietly and just enjoyed the peace on the trail

Travel styles – Do you like to get up early and fill every minute with activity, or do you like a slower pace? Are you imagining short, quick meals or leisurely lunches? Do you like to shop or are you all about the museums? How do you feel about seeing ten churches in one day? This is another area where conflicting styles can cause tension. We knew sleep and fuel were important since we were biking six-seven hours each day, so we planned for adequate sleep and a full breakfast each morning, with a break for a sit-down lunch. The three of us enjoy wandering through shops together but also had a few “must see”  attractions we scheduled into our plans. Another important agreement was to stop for bathroom breaks, photos or snacks any time one of us wanted, no matter what. On the rare occasions when we could have felt resentful (I stopped us once not 30 seconds after we had started back up from a 20 minute snack break because I saw some rock “people” on the side of the road and wanted to take a photo) we just reminded ourselves of our agreement and it helped us reset our patience. We also saw some fun details that we might have missed if we hadn’t stopped! And it became a running joke that no matter what, we’d have to stop twice within our first 15 minutes of biking each day – once for me to adjust layers (I was experiencing major hot flashes during this trip) and once for a restroom stop (we drank a LOT of coffee and water before setting out each day so we could wake up and stay hydrated).

rock people

Rock “People” on the side of the trail

Sleep needs – some people can thrive on 6 hours of sleep a night; others need a full 8-9 to be good company. Let your traveling companions know that you want to be in bed by 11, or if you can’t function before 8 am. If you are one who needs more sleep *totally raising my hand here* bring what you need to make that sleep possible! My sleep kit includes an eye shade, ear plugs and melatonin. All three of us like to read before bed, so we brought kindles, which let us read without having to have an overhead lamp on.  Also consider snoring in this category – if you snore and Sue’s a light sleeper, this can cause very disrupted sleep for Sue. It might be well worth the money to get separate rooms in that case!

**Seriously people…sleep is so important when traveling, anything you need to ensure a good night’s sleep is worth every penny.**

Transportation – How do you plan to get to your destination, and around town once you arrive? Will you be walking, using public transportation or do you want to Uber/taxi everywhere? What about getting to and from the airport? Talking about this will avoid that last minute surprise when you come out wearing good walking shoes and your friend shows up in four inch stilettos and wants to take a cab. This can also fall under the financial discussion, as transportation costs can quickly add up for those on a limited budget.

Packing – Are you a diehard light packer and refuse to check a bag? Does Sue like to bring ten pairs of shoes and a huge suitcase? Are you going to be frustrated waiting at the luggage carousel or while Sue takes an extra ten minutes to haul her heavy suitcase up the stairs in the subway? Will you be resentful if you pack lightly only to have Sue ask if she can put her souvenirs in your suitcase “since you have extra room”? Will you have any group items to bring (we had bike repair equipment, but your group might have a tent and air mattresses if camping)? If so, divvy up the common gear so each person carries a little and the load is shared. Discuss luggage expectations and set the rule that everyone carries their own stuff.

shopping haul

One day’s shopping haul – our luggage got heavier as the trip progressed!

And last but not least – how will you handle unexpected problems or issues that arise? Safety falls into this category – we agreed that we would stay together after dark when wandering outside of our hotel. A group of singles might discuss what to do if one of the group wants to stay out all night after meeting someone. We also agreed that if an unexpected problem arose that could be solved with a little bit of money, we would “throw some money at it and make it go away” – this agreement was very handy when we couldn’t find a laundromat for five straight days and had to pay 55 euros for our hotel to do an overnight load of laundry. After two days of biking in day old bike shorts, it was well worth that money to wake up and put on fresh clothes!

Have you ever traveled with a group of friends? What types of things do you wish you had talked about in advance, or were glad you did talk about?

Five things to consider when choosing a hotel in New York City

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NYC skyline – photo courtesy of pixabay

Happy Wednesday all! Today’s post describes how I choose a hotel when I go to New York City.  A couple of weeks ago, we took a quick trip to NYC to see Hamilton for my birthday. After the tickets were purchased, I had to decide where to stay, and thought you all might like a peek into my thought process.

These are the five main points I consider when choosing a hotel (there are THOUSANDS of hotels in NYC – I am by no means a NYC expert, but have had fairly good luck using these parameters so am hoping you’ll find them helpful).

Our planned activities and how long we will be in the city – First, I plot our planned activities on Google maps. This gives me a sense of whether we will mainly be in one part of the city or traveling around to lots of different areas. If I’m in New York City for a longer stay, my activities tend to be more spread out. This time, we only went for two nights and had tickets for Hamilton and the Downton Abbey exhibit, so our activities were concentrated in the Theater District and Midtown West areas of Manhattan. (click here for a map and explanation of Manhattan neighborhoods) 

Better NYC plans photo

My plotted activities – the stars are places we planned on visiting and our hotel

Weather – I consider the season in which we will be traveling – I LOVE being outside and walking around Manhattan, especially in the spring and fall, so will sometimes choose a hotel farther away from our planned sights or in my favorite neighborhoods so I can walk more. In January, however, NYC is cold and the tall buildings create wind tunnels, so it feels even colder. Our daughter from Florida joined us on this trip and she gets cold very quickly, so I decided to stay as close as possible to the theatre so we wouldn’t have to walk more than a few blocks at a time in the cold weather.

Stage door Hamilton

Meeting Michael Luwoye (aka Alexander Hamilton) at the stage door with my Florida girl!

Transportation – How do I want to get around? Am I planning on taking the subway or walking? (I don’t often take cabs in NYC, but if you plan on taking lots of cabs then you can get a cab from any hotel but longer cab rides will of course cost more). For trips when my activities are more spread out, I’ll plan on taking the subway and will try to find a hotel with good subway connections for my planned activities (attraction websites helpfully tell you which are the closest subway stops – for a subway map of Manhattan, click here). Since this was a super short trip, I decided I just wanted to quickly walk to the theaters rather than spend a lot of time on the subway.

Expense – How much can I afford? There are a wide range of prices in NYC, so this is a big consideration. (January is an EXCELLENT time to get rock bottom hotel prices as long as you don’t mind the cold – after the holidays are over, prices drop super low for hotels and the city is much less crowded). I try to find mid-level hotels and generally pay below $125 per night in January – in spring and fall these same hotels run around $200-350 and in December they can be as much as $500-700 per night! Hotel prices in NYC are very dependent upon the season, so if price is a big consideration, go in January! (I’ve also had excellent luck finding reasonable rates in July, I guess because of the hot muggy weather this is also a cheap time to visit.) I’m a Hilton Honors member, so was specifically looking for a Hilton Hotel this trip so I could use my points to help keep costs down (just to be completely transparent, this is not a sponsored post).

Crowd Tolerance – Some folks love to be right in the hustle and bustle, but I prefer quieter areas. I abhor crowds, and refuse to stay in the Times Square area (7th Ave and Broadway between W. 42nd and W. 50th Streets) as it is crazy crowded! My favorite areas in which to stay are Chelsea and the West Village, but Midtown East is also a less crowded area in which to stay and is still close to places like Rockefeller Center, MOMA, St Patricks Cathedral, and Times Square. 

Times Square crowds

Times Square crowds – photo courtesy of Pixabay

So where did we stay for our January trip?

Taking into account our short trip, our planned activities, the cold weather and our plan to just walk to our activities, I decided to bite the bullet and stay in the Theater District/Times Square area so we’d be close, despite my low crowd tolerance. However, I was pleasantly surprised – I found the Hilton Garden Inn Times Square on 8th Avenue, between West 48th and West 49th Streets. It was my first stay at this hotel and being one avenue removed from Times Square worked out perfectly; there were far fewer crowds, yet it was super close to the theaters. We heard very little city noise at night and there was a great little diner right across the street for breakfast (or other meals) which delivers to the hotel if you prefer to eat in your room. As a bonus, it was across the street from the subway, which we used to travel into Manhattan from La Guardia airport. I used Hilton points for our stay, but the prices were right around $110-120 per night for a room with two double beds on our dates. A huge plus for me was the fact that the room temperatures were easy to adjust – some hotels in NYC are in older buildings with whole-building heating, so even if the heat is completely turned off in the individual room, the room is still HOT due to the older heating systems (I’m looking at you, Hilton New York Fashion District – I love you in spring, summer and fall, but don’t think I’ll stay here in the winter ever again). 

I hope you’ve enjoyed this glimpse into my hotel-finding process for New York City! Thanks so much for reading! Do you have any tips for finding hotels in Manhattan??

**Want to join the email list to be notified when a new block of tickets go on sale for Hamilton NY? Click here  – there’s a spot to submit your email at the bottom of the home page**