Lessons learned from my first (and tenth) trip to Europe, part 1

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My daughter and her boyfriend went to Barcelona this week, and were surprised to find that their AirBnB rental had no air-conditioning. Even though they live in Miami and are used to the heat, they still had a hard time sleeping at night without the comfort of A/C or even a fan. That got me started thinking about surprises I’ve encountered and lessons I’ve learned while traveling. On my first trip to Europe, for example, I was flabbergasted to find that our bed and breakfast in England’s Lake District did not supply washcloths! When we asked for one, we were told that in Europe a washcloth is considered a personal item. Who knew?? I certainly hadn’t seen that information in any of the dozen guidebooks I had combed through before our trip. For me, discovering the differences between cultures and countries is part of the fun of traveling. Some of the lessons I’ve learned, however, have been about myself and what I need to make a trip enjoyable. And while I’m certainly getting better at it, I still learn something new on every trip! So without further ado, here is a random list of lessons I’ve learned during my years of travel; which has become such a long list that I’m going to split it into multiple parts. Check back over the next couple of weeks for the rest of the list…

An adapter and a voltage converter are NOT the same thing – A plug adapter only makes it possible to plug your electronic device into the wall socket; a voltage converter adapts the current from 110 (which the USA uses) to 220 (which Europe uses). Luckily, most phones, tablets and laptops are dual voltage these days, so if you’re only bringing these types of electronic items, chances are you won’t need to bring a voltage converter. If you are traveling with a single voltage electronic item, you will need BOTH a voltage converter and an adapter.

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Don’t bother bringing a single voltage blow dryer or curling wand/straightener – I read this advice online, but didn’t heed it, and learned firsthand how accurate it was when I fried my curling iron in London, even with a voltage converter. **how many of you are out there raising your hands right now in “fry the hair appliances” sisterhood?**  I have since invested in a dual voltage curling wand, one of my best travel-related purchases. I never bring a blow dryer from home, however, as most hotels supply them these days.  When I stay at a place without a blow dryer, I let my hair air dry and then just use the curling wand to fix any funky spots. I know many women just let their hair do whatever it wants while traveling, but my hair has just enough wave to get all frizzy and funky without a little help, and I do like to look pretty in my travel photos!

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Logistics are stressful – This, I think, is one of the major reasons people sign up for guided tours. Navigating your way around a country when you don’t speak the language is harder than I anticipated. I once spent a day on my own in Germany where ALL of my plans went awry due to the difficulties of figuring out logistics in a foreign language.  That day deserves its very own blog post, which is coming soon, but remember to allot extra time and patience when trying to figure out train schedules, subways, airports, ticket machines,etc. I never schedule any fixed activities on a day when I’m transitioning from one location to another anymore, as I’ve missed a few due to transportation delays. When all else fails, it is worth every minute you stand in line to get help from a real person!

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Do whatever it takes to get enough sleep – I am constantly reading statements like “you can sleep when you get home – you’re in Europe so make the most of every moment”.  I learned the hard way that this rule does NOT apply to me! If I don’t get the sleep I need, neither I nor my companions will enjoy the trip; just ask my husband! We once spent our last 24 hours in Germany not speaking to each other because we were so exhausted we had hit the wall and got in a huge fight over 5 euros. I cannot rise at dawn and spend an entire day sightseeing; I need to get a solid eight hours of sleep to be pleasant company and enjoy myself. I may see fewer sights each day, but I thoroughly enjoy the ones I do see. If you know you can’t function well without sleep, do whatever it takes to get the sleep you need, whether that means taking a 20 minute power nap on a metal folding chair in Westminster Abbey or going to an air-conditioned movie midday so you can rest (and nap, if you’re like me)! A well-rested you will enjoy the trip way more than an exhausted, cranky you!

Don’t pre-book too many activities – On my first trip to Europe, I had our entire itinerary planned out ahead of time. I laugh now when I look back, because we actually only saw about half what I had planned. Again, logistics came into play; it took longer to get from place to place on the tube than I had anticipated, and we were tired from navigating the city and being on our feet all day, so often didn’t have the energy for the night time activities on my schedule. On our last night in London, I had booked tickets to see The Gypsy Kings in concert at Hampstead Heath. The tube in London was not air conditioned, and we were tired and hot when we arrived back at our hotel after a full day of sightseeing. With only a 30 minute window to freshen up and change before getting back on the (non-airconditioned) tube for the 90 minute journey out to Hampstead Heath, we ended up staying in and having a picnic dinner on our bed, losing the money we spent on the tickets. Now, I choose carefully when pre-booking activities.  Some attractions, like the Vatican Museum or the Anne Frank House, are absolutely worth booking online ahead of time, as they have super long lines all the time. But I try not to book a night activity unless we’ve got a light day of sightseeing and can plan some rest time during the day

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This is just the beginning…I’ve got enough material for at least two more posts! How about you? What lessons have you learned through travel?  Do you have great stories from a time when something went wrong?? Leave a note in the comments section and I’ll include your tips in my next post!

A day out in the Venetian Lagoon: Burano and Torcello

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My youngest spent his first semester in college studying abroad in Rome; I, of course, leapt at the chance to visit him (I did miss him desperately, but ITALY).  We decided to split our time between Venice and Rome, so that we could experience the Acqua Alta, or “high water”, which causes floods in Venice twice a year.  I’m so glad we went in November; yes, it was on the colder side, but we didn’t have to worry about the heat and crowds that I’ve heard make Venice fairly miserable in the summer, and the floods were quite fun to experience. Venice has an ambience like no other city I’ve ever seen, and one of my absolute favorite things to do was wander the back streets away from the tourist areas. I saw a suggestion online to spend one day exploring the islands of the Venetian lagoon, so we added that into our itinerary, and had a lovely day out!

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Hotel Campiello, our lodging, was in the Castello sestiere (neighborhood) on Calle del Vin, a quiet back street opening onto a tiny square (or campiello) with an ancient well in the center.  Despite being only a five minute walk from Piazza San Marco, it was supremely quiet and included a yummy breakfast (if you arrive on the weekend, ask for the cappuccinos at breakfast – we were not offered one until Monday, so apparently the weekend server didn’t know/want to make them). I booked the Deluxe Double so we’d have room for our son, and as a bonus we got a private rooftop terrace and an amazing spa shower! Located just a hundred yards from the San Zaccaria vaporetto stop, we could have easily taken the vaporetto around the city to catch the ferry out into the lagoon, but decided to walk so that we could explore back streets and pop in to the Libreria Acqua Alta along the way.

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We set out after breakfast, and a few wrong turns later found ourselves at the bookstore, where we spent a happy hour rummaging through the treasure trove of old and new books, old maps, post cards, magazines, etc., piled not just in gondolas but also on chairs, the back patio, and the street in front of the store.

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We found the world’s tiniest math book (about 1 inch by 1 inch), which of course had to come home with us as a stocking stuffer for our oldest, who loves math.

** Does anyone else give weird and quirky things in Christmas stockings? Or is it just me?? I once gave my son a tiny little buddha statue because when he was a baby and always smiling, we called him “the Happy Buddha”**

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With our purchases in hand, we continued on to the Fondamenta Nove vaporetto stop, where we jumped on Line 12 to Burano. From there, we transferred to Line 9, which runs back and forth between Burano and Torcello.

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The island of Murano, with its glass factories, is closest to Venice, but I was intrigued by the island of Torcello, where the original Venetians first settled back in the 5th century as they fled from the Germanic invasion of Altino after the fall of the Roman Empire. The Basilica di Santa Maria Assunta was built in the 7th century and is the oldest church in Venice. An intricate Byzantine mosaic covers the entire back wall of the cathedral; as I studied the astounding artistry I felt a yearning to attend “mosaic school”and learn this ancient craft. We did not climb the campanile (bell tower) but for a small fee you can get beautiful views out over the lagoon

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Right next door is the small, round Chiesa di Santa Fosca, a lovely, simple, unadorned Byzantine-style church from the 11th century. If you go, take a few minutes and soak in the peaceful atmosphere of Santa Fosca, the tranquility is calming and the church is beautiful in its simplicity.

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There is only one path from the ferry landing to the Basilica di Santa Assunta, so it’s impossible to get lost. There are a limited number of restaurants on the island (I’ve read there are only 10 permanent residents); the restaurant that looked most promising had a sign out front with a cardboard stork and what we assumed was an announcement that the family was enjoying a new baby boy, so we ended up grabbing a coffee and a sandwich at an outdoor cafe before heading back to the ferry for Burano.

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Pictures of Burano are all over Instagram these days due to the colorful houses, brightly painted so that returning fishermen could distinguish the houses in the fog that often blankets the lagoon.

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Most famous for its lace, we also enjoyed hearing the history of Venetian masks made on the island. I had often wondered about the long nose of the doctor’s mask, and the mask artist we met explained the long nose was designed to keep the doctor’s face from getting too close to the plague victims he examined.

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**Doctor’s mask photo courtesy of maxpixel.com**

We did a little shopping but didn’t have a lot of time on Burano, so mostly enjoyed wandering this beautiful island before taking the last ferry back to Venice.

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I love spending relaxed days just exploring and getting lost in a new place…where are your favorite places to wander? As always, thanks for reading!

 

Best Summer Activities in Winston Salem

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Happy June!  School is out in Winston Salem, which means it’s officially summer! We don’t have any big plans for a summer vacation yet, so I’m going to make sure I take full advantage of everything on offer right here at home this summer. If you’re looking for ideas,  here is a short list of some of my favorite summertime activities in Winston Salem…

bailey parkSpending time at Bailey ParkBailey Park holds myriad summer activities in the Innovation Quarter. Whether it’s the Innovation and Cinema outdoor movie series, Sunset Salutations yoga in the park, Food Trucks at lunchtime or Ice Cream Tuesdays, there is always something fun happening in Bailey Park!

salem bikingRiding a Zagster Bike along the Greenways – I’m currently training for my next bike trip (through the Czech Republic in September) so I can often be found riding on one of the greenways around town. My two favorite locations to rent a Zagster bike are Bailey Park (jump on the Long Branch Trail from here – it connects up to the Salem Creek Greenway) or the Gateway YWCA (access the Salem Creek Greenway directly here). Both trails connect up to the Salem Lake Trail for a 20 mile roundtrip ride. 

IMG_8554Minor League baseball with the Winston Salem Dash – Minor League baseball is awesome… it’s family-friendly, you can get up close and personal with the players (some of whom may be the stars of tomorrow), fireworks happen on Friday nights, and kids can run the bases after the games. But the Dash takes it a step further with additional activities such as Pups in the Park, when your pooch can join you for the game, and Yoga in the Outfield, where a special ticket buys you a yoga class in the outfield before the game, a soda or a beer, and a lawn ticket for the game. Yoga, beer and baseball all for one low price – how can you go wrong???

Summer Music Series – Winston Salem has some awesome musicians, partly due to the fact that the UNC School of the Arts is located here (the ONLY publicly funded arts conservatory in the nation – think Juilliard but at in-state tuition levels – it’s part of the UNC system). During the summer, we have lots of opportunities to hear great music. Whether it’s Downtown Jazz at Corpening Plaza, Summer on Liberty with the entire intersection shut down for live music and dancing, or the Summer Parks series with concerts in local parks, there are tons of options for free outdoor concerts!

IMG_4014Movies under the Stars – This is probably my all time favorite summer activity…I love seeing a movie outdoors on a breezy summer evening, and am so grateful that Winston Salem offers lots of options! Bailey Park has an Innovation and Cinema series, Reynolda House has Movies on the Lawn, and Winston Square Park (pictured at top) is the setting for Sunset Flicks (I haven’t seen a schedule yet for this year, so am keeping my fingers crossed that it reappears). The neighboring town of Lewisville also has a series at Shallowford Square.

scooby sup salem lakeStand Up Paddleboarding at Salem lakeSalem Lake has just undergone a massive improvement…the city built a new boat house, playground, restrooms and a Zagster bikeshare station. A seven mile trail circles the lake for walkers, runners, bikers and equestrians. Pier and boat fishing is allowed and they also offer canoe rentals. Small boats, canoes, kayaks and SUP boards can be used on the lake as well. I love getting out on the lake for an hour or so on a nice summer evening. I’m even training my dog to SUP with me! He doesn’t try to chase the ducks and geese, but keeps falling in as he tries to eat the bubbles in the water from my paddle 🙂 The Salem Lake website is woefully out of date, so I highly recommend you call the marina for up to date info!

Taking a tour or SUP class with Triad ECO Adventures – Full disclosure here…I am a Segway Glide Guide for this company (although this post is not sponsored and I am in no way being compensated for this post).  However, I truly believe that our Segway tours, Electric bike tours and Stand Up Paddleboard lessons add fun options to Winston Salem.  You can even book a Glide and Dine event for a group – we’ll do the first half of the Segway tour on the way to lunch or dinner, let your group eat, then do the second half of the tour after your meal. If it’s your first time on a Segway, read this post for some tips!

western NC mountainsHiking in the Western NC Mountains – Okay, so this isn’t actually in Winston Salem. But when the summer heat starts getting to me (any of you who know me can attest to the fact that I am NOT a fan of hot weather!) it’s an easy hop skip and a jump to the mountains, where it is usually about ten degrees cooler. There are hundreds of hikes and I love to take my dog and explore!

Tips from a Seasoned Segway Tour Guide

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Summer, to me, means Segway season!  As a Segway tour guide in Winston Salem (I’ve been a Glide Guide at Triad ECO Adventures for almost four years now), Memorial Day marks the start of our busy season; kids are out of school, families are on vacation, and we have lots of visitors coming through our doors looking for a fun way to experience the city.  I’ve probably trained over five hundred people to ride a Segway through the years, and today, I thought I’d share some tips for those of you who may be taking a Segway tour somewhere soon!

I first rode a Segway at Epcot, in Disney World, many many moons ago. It was a tour around the World Showcase on a girls’ weekend with my family. We had a blast, and I remember my mom behind me, yelling out “excuse me” and “my bad” as she tried to navigate around (or bumped into) people, lamp posts, etc. ** Yes, she did yell “my bad” to a lamp post!**  My second tour was in Munich, Germany, where I was lucky enough to get a solo tour on a cold, rainy November day. Segways are a great way to explore a new place; you can cover more ground than a walking tour, and it’s actually easy to ride one – but the key is to relax! Here are my best tips, gleaned from hundreds of tours.

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Remember how you felt when you were learning to ride a bike? How the first time your dad (or whoever taught you to ride a bike) let go, you wobbled for a second, and then all of a sudden you were smoothly riding away? That’s how you’re going to feel the first time you ride a Segway…you’ll feel a little wobbly for the first few minutes, but don’t let that deter you…it becomes intuitive after just a bit!

Flat, supportive sneakers are the best shoes to wear when riding a Segway. Your feet will get tired; you’re standing for the entire tour plus your feet will be gripping the platform for balance, both of which cause foot fatigue. Supportive shoes help prevent foot fatigue. Flat shoes are key to your weight being correctly balanced on the Segway platform. Heels, even an inch high, can throw off your balance and make it harder to ride. Closed toe shoes also protect your feet and toes from getting bumped as you step on and off the Segway. Every summer we have gliders show up in flip flops and sandals, not realizing they won’t be able to ride with that footwear; both Segway manufacturer guidelines and our insurance require gliders to wear flat, closed toe shoes. We actually keep a bucket of extra shoes and socks for just this situation, but if you’re traveling and think there’s a chance you might want to book a Segway tour, go ahead and throw a pair of sneakers in your bag!

Posture is everything! You are the brakes and the gas on a Segway; to speed up, you simply lean forward toward your toes. To slow yourself down, you lean back on your heels (think “toes to go, heels to slow”). But the key here is to keep your body straight and LEAN FROM YOUR ANKLES. When you bend from the waist, your weight doesn’t evenly shift forward or backward on the platform. You want to keep your body straight, like those ski jumpers you see in the Olympics, and think about leaning forward from the ankles. Another visual is to imagine a string coming out of the top of your head, pulling your body into a straight line, and then hinge at the ankles. If you imagine pushing your hips toward the steer stick, that helps to keep your posture upright when you are leaning forward.

Keep your movements smooth and steady. A Segway reacts to our body movements a thousand times a second; it’s reacting to the tiniest of movements, most of which we are not even aware of making. If your movements are jerky, so will be the Segway’s; if you are smooth and steady, you’ll have a smoother ride. It’s our instinctive reaction to jerk our body when we bobble on a Segway, so trying to fight against that is hard, especially for a new glider, but if you can relax while gliding, it makes it way easier!

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**Above: NOT an ideal place to Segway for the first time – cobblestones, traffic and road construction!**

It helps to glide the first time in a private group with friends who are experienced, and to do your tour in a less crowded city (and somewhere relatively flat – I wouldn’t recommend, for example, taking your first Segway tour in San Francisco). When I biked across Austria in 2016 with two girlfriends, we took a day trip to Bratislava from Vienna, and decided to do a Segway tour on the spur of the moment. I actually love to take Segway tours when I’m traveling – it’s always fun to see how other tour companies operate, and as I previously mentioned, it’s a GREAT way to see a new place. Our friend was gliding for the very first time, and she was a little nervous, so we tucked her between the two of us who are Glide Guides. She felt more secure and was able to relax a bit. She crushed it, even up the VERY steep, cobblestoned hill to the castle!

If you’re going on a cruise and planning a Segway shore excursion, it’s helpful to book a lesson from a local tour operator before you go, as I’ve heard reports that many shore excursions provide minimal training. (Europe as well – in Bratislava, our “training” consisted of a demonstration of how to step on and then being told to push our hips toward the steer stick – we asked for a few minutes to let our friend practice before we set out, but most groups didn’t get that!) Some tour operators will have a shorter “mini-glide” or “learn to ride” option, which is not a narrated tour, just a lesson and a little glide time – we had two sisters come in and do a mini-glide with us before they went on a cruise, and they sent us a lovely photo with a thank you note. They enjoyed their shore excursion more because they already knew how to ride!

Who should NOT ride a Segway? For safety reasons, people who suffer from vertigo or any other condition (or take medication) that affects their balance should stay off, as should women who are pregnant. Anyone who cannot stand for the duration of the tour should not glide; although when purchasing a Segway for personal use, you can buy an adaptive seat. Segway manufacturer guidelines say gliders must be 14 or older; some tour operators have smaller Segways for kids between 10-13, but call ahead to ask if you want to bring anyone younger than 14! Finally, we get calls every St Patrick’s Day asking if we do Segway Pub Crawls, but believe it or not, in the USA you can get a DUI on a Segway. So anyone who has been drinking or is under the influence of any drug should avoid gliding.

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**I have heard reports, however, that some islands in the Caribbean provide cup holders and a mid-tour stop at a bar – if any of you want to Segway in the Caribbean with me, I’m totally down for that!**

Where are your favorite places to glide? I’d love to hear about your experiences! And as always, thanks so much for reading!

P.S. This post is not sponsored in any way…I just mention Triad ECO Adventures because that is where I’m a Glide Guide 🙂

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.

Erie canal heritage Trail

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**