7 Fun Things To Do in Albuquerque, New Mexico

As one of the oldest cities in the United States, Albuquerque boasts a unique multicultural history and heritage. There’s a fun mix of Native American, Hispanic and Latino cultures blending together, to create a hip and vibrant city. For visitors, there is nature, history, architecture and good food. The city has also grown over the past few years to expand its culinary focus. Want another reason to visit – how about 310 days of sunshine? No matter what your interest is, you can find a lot of fun things to do in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Here are just my top seven…

Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta
Dawn patrol at 49th Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta

Be Part of Balloon History

The number one reason to go to Albuquerque in October is to see the fun and adventure brought by hundreds of hot air balloons flying in the desert sky. This year the theme of the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta was – Time Flies. And indeed, time does fly by when you are having fun! I woke up at 4am each morning to go to the Balloon Fiesta Park to watch these enchanting balloons. They surfaced with hot air, glowed in the dark, and the lights synchronized at dawn. There were hot air balloon flying competitions among pilots from around the world. Food vendors, merchandise and spectators filled up the 78-acre grassed field (the size of 56 football fields), making it the biggest balloon festival in the world.

Make sure to book your tickets in advance for the 50th Balloon Fiesta in 2022. Over a million people are expected to attend over the nine-day celebration next year.

In case you are interested in fun ballooning historical facts – the first gathering to watch a flying machine was in France in the year 1783. The spectators were the King and Queen of Versailles, along with a crowd of 40,000 people. The passengers were a duck, a rooster and a lamb. The first human passengers went up some 3,000 feet in the first manned, untethered balloon flight ever recorded on November 21, 1783.

Still afraid of flying in a hot air balloon?

things to do in ABQ
Burque Brunch at Electric Playhouse

Interact With Your Food and Surroundings

Take a fun trip through Albuquerque with an immersive dining experience at Electric Playhouse. This very unique chef-driven event includes a delicious 4-course brunch, accompanied by 360-degree changing landscapes from around New Mexico. The constantly changing scenery and movement responses engrossing the interactive tabletop projections make you feel like a kid again. You can do a champagne toast with a background of flying hot air balloons and wave away a kaleidoscope of artists colors across your chile relleno crostini. How fun is that?

After your Burque Brunch (available until Dec 31, 2021), check out the projection-based digital gameplay arena where the building itself responds to your movement and the content changes constantly. The 24,000 square foot facility has space for you to run, jump, move, test your agility, and explore. 

watch sunset in Albuquerque
Sunset from Sandia Peak Tramway

Watch The Sunset From The Top of a Mountain

If you enjoy nature, make sure to ride the Sandia Peak Tramway to the 10,378-foot crest of the Sandia Mountains. During the 15 minute ascension, you can see miles of Sandia Mountains, surrounding fir and aspen forests, hiking trails, wildlife, and the city unfold below you. On the peak, there is a panoramic viewing area, ski slopes, and a casual and fine dining bar and restaurant. Grab a cleverly named cocktail at restaurant TEN 3 (Tram Car, Lady and the Tram, Sandia Pink) and enjoy the views through the floor-to-ceiling glass windows. Time your visit so you can see the sunset from the tram. The mountains appear more white in the shade and glow red in the sun, so the scene is always changing.

Make sure to bring warm clothing as the top of the mountain can be 20-30 degrees cooler and windier than in Albuquerque.

watch live native american dances
White Mountain Apache Crown Dancers at Indian Pueblo Cultural Center

Learn About Native American Culture

The Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque is one of the best places to learn about the 19 pueblos of New Mexico. The museum offers a broad understanding of the ancient traditions of the Native American tribes in the area up until the current time. There are murals, pottery, and paintings by local artists. There are also fun and interactive experiences, including active narrations, artist demos, cultural dances, lecture series, and indigenous dinners. The cultural dance programs are typically coordinated by Zuni, Hopi, Acoma and Laguna pueblos. I got to see the White Mountain Apache Crown Dancers, who blessed the audience through vibrant prayer, song and dance in the courtyard on Indigenous People’s Day.

One of my best meals in Albuquerque was at the cultural center’s onsite restaurant – the Indian Pueblo Kitchen. The traditional New Mexican fare is cooked using ingredients sourced from the pueblos. My favorites were Jemez enchilada with housemate red and green chiles, Tewa Tacos with Native American fry bread, and warm pumpkin Pueblo oven pie (very different from your traditional pies). The Indian Pueblo Kitchen also host cooking classes and tasting menus, so make sure to check their calendar before your visit.

stroll around old town
Old Town Albuquerque

Stroll Around an Old Spanish Town

All travelers visiting Albuquerque have a must stop in ABQ Old Town. Shop for jewelry, t-shirts, and souvenirs at the 300-year-old historic pedestrian-friendly streets with adobe facades. There is always live music, weekend markets, and food vendors at the main square, and in front of San Felipe church. You can spend an entire day exploring art and culture at one of the museums in Old Town, such as the Albuquerque Museum of Art and History and the New Mexico Museum of Natural History & Science. In June, attend the famed Festival Flamenco Internacional de Albuquerque to experience traditional Spanish flamenco dance performances.

The new and renovated Plaza Don Luis (PDLABQ) is home to several thoughtful locally owned retailers and art galleries. Hydrate at the wine-tasting rooms at Ruidoso-based Noisy Water Winery, Sheehan Winery, and Outpost Brewery and Taproom.

eat Albuquerque
Green chili donuts at Sawmill Market

Taste The Local Fare

Sawmill Market is one of the best places in Albuquerque to taste affordable and good quality food from upcoming chefs and entrepreneurs. Housed in a former lumber warehouse, there are 20+ restaurants serving a variety of food. From freshly baked green chili donuts to homemade pasta and lobster Po’boy, you will be surprised by the diverse flavors at the market.

One of my favorite places to eat at in Albuquerque is Los Poblanos historic inn and organic farm. Known for their lavender products, they also have an organic garden, farm-to-table restaurant, and a beautiful kitchen shop.

P.S. Everything I ate at Los Poblanos was excellent!

dining in New Mexico
Lunch at Campo restaurant at Los Poblanos

If you like salsa, nachos, live music and a festive ambiance, you will have a lot of fun at the iconic El Pinto New Mexican restaurant. You may recognize their salsa bottles in your neighborhood grocery store. This is where they make and bottle their famous chipotle salsa, Hatch roasted hot green, and sun dried red chile sauces.

The nachos at El Pinto were rated #1 in America by The Wall Street Journal, and I can vouch for them!

lodging in Albuquerque
Hotel Chaco Lobby

Stay at an Architectural Marvel

If you are looking for a unique place to stay in Albuquerque, book a room at Hotel Chaco. The architectural elements are inspired by Chaco Canyon (one of the most historic sites for Native Americans). Even if you don’t stay there, go take a look at the lobby and entrance of the hotel. There is also a great collection of contemporary Native American New Mexican art on display. The rooms are warm, expansive and have large balconies. The pale stone masonry facade and wooden accents set the tone for a welcoming stay in New Mexico. 

You Don’t Want To Miss This Fireflies Festival in South Carolina

Growing up in India, I was fascinated by fireflies wandering around my backyard on warm summer nights. Over time though, I have seen fewer and fewer fireflies, not just back home, but even in the U.S. Many of my friends agree that they don’t get to see as many fireflies now that they used to. Increased light pollution, use of pesticides, and even mosquito repellants, have decreased firefly populations in urban areas.

But the good news is that there is an amazing firefly festival in South Carolina, where you can see thousands of fireflies at one place.

There are over 2,000 species of fireflies found in the world, but only three species of synchronous flashing fireflies are in North America. Every year, Congaree National Park is home to thousands of synchronous fireflies for approximately two weeks between mid-May and mid-June. During this time visitors can experience an awe-inspiring and rare display of synchronous flashing. 

Congaree national park South Carolina
Boardwalk at Congaree National Park. Photo by Sucheta Rawal.

Congaree National Park

Congaree National Park is located near the state capital of Columbia in central South Carolina. It has one of the highest temperate deciduous forest canopies remaining in the world, boasting old growth bottomless forests that are ideal habitats for fireflies. You can hike the many trails and boardwalks in the park, canoe or kayak on the Congaree river, and even camp overnight. The UNESCO biosphere reserve is an important bird area and one of the best places in the world to see fireflies.

photo of fireflies
Fireflies through a camera lens. Photo by Fred Huang/ Flickr.

Why do Firefly Synchronize?

Firefly flashing is a sophisticated form of animal communication, especially when there is a higher concentration of fireflies gathered in an area. During mating season, the male firefly hover two to four feet higher than the females, sending information such as sex and species to other fireflies. Female fireflies typically view male displays from a stationary location and respond with their own species-specific flash pattern. The exchange of light displays between male and female fireflies, called a photic dialog, occurs between two fireflies, but sometimes more than one male can court the same female. This photic dialog continues until male and female meet and ultimately mate.

Flashing typically begins shortly after sunset and lasts for approximately one hour before the display dissipates. Smaller displays can also be viewed shortly before dawn.

Fireflies at night
Fireflies soon after sunset. Photo credit: National Park Services.

Planning Your Visit To The Firefly Festival

In previous years, approximately 2,000 people visited Congaree National Park every night to see the rare firefly synchronization. But since the 2020 pandemic, the park is allowing only limited viewing through a lottery program. This also helps protect critical firefly habitats and provides a safe and enjoyable experience to visitors.

Only 25 vehicles, plus a few researchers and campers are allowed inside the park during the firefly festival. The night I visited, there were no more than a handful of people on the trails and boardwalks, which made it very special. I could hear the stillness of the night and see the fireflies up close, without having to rub elbows with other viewers. I could even hear the owls!

Since the firefly synchronization takes place only for 10 days in a year, it is hard to plan your visit too far in advance. If you book a camping site inside Congaree National Park between mid-May and early June, you have a good chance of seeing the fireflies. Check back on the Congaree National Park’s website about the next lottery announcement and firefly festival dates. Often times, Columbia Food and Wine festival takes place around the same time, so plan to spend some extra time in the city.

Fireflies festival
Fireflies at night. Photo by: Vic McCord, National Park Services

How To Take Photos of Fireflies

Taking photos of tiny flashlights that blink for 1-2 seconds in the dark, can be especially tricky. Point and shoot cameras won’t even come close. I used my iPhone on tripod and set it to long exposure. Nothing! My video recording did display the lights, but it wasn’t very good quality. You really have to know what you are looking at to get context.

If you have a DSLR or a manually adjustable camera, you may be able to take some photos by following these photography tips. Note that the park may not allow photography, unless you have prior permission. The light emitted from the phone screen (not just flash) can be disorienting to the fireflies.

The best thing, though, is to enjoy the magical moment with your own eyes!

Columbia South Carolina
Walk along Congaree River in Columbia.

Things To Do Columbia

Congaree National Park is located about 30 minutes from Columbia, so unless you are planning on camping in the park, book a hotel room at The Graduate or Hotel Trundle in town. There are lot of fun things to do in Soda City, including the newly opened Reconstruction Trail, The Columbia Museum of Art, Soda City market, historic homes and gardens, the state house, and much more.

New Experiences in Savannah, Georgia

Savannah is a charming historic town on the coast of Georgia. Though it’s located only 4 hours drive from Atlanta, many big city dwellers have never been there. In the recent years, Savannah has attracted lots of students, retirees, investors and entrepreneurs. As a result, there are more restored buildings, trendy hotels, and chef driven restaurants popping up around the city. If you have not visited Savannah recently, here are a few noteworthy experiences that you don’t want to miss.

hotel experience
The J.W. Marriott Savannah stands in place of an old power plant by the Savannah river

Tour The J.W. Marriott Savannah Plant Riverside District

Until a couple of years ago, the famous pedestrian River Street was also home to an ugly abandoned structure jutting out from its skyline. Once an iconic power plant in Georgia, the Plant Riverside District is now the hippest place to be. The J.W. Marriott hotel is not just a centrally located hotel overlooking the river, it is an architectural marvel, museum and art gallery – all rolled into one! The expansive lobby boasts a life-size, chrome-dipped dinosaur, original fossils, and a dizzying display of crystals. Colorful painted glass ceilings against exposed brick walls, local art and modern decor – all make the J.W. in Savannah one of the most unique hotels worth visiting.

Many tour guides will take you through the hotel lobby and explain the history of the restored building. You can also walk around on your own, or better, stay overnight and have a “night at the museum” type of experience!

shopping experience
Shop for unique art and gifts at The Paris Market

Shop on Boroughton Street

Savannah is a quintessential shopping town especially for those who like to find unique gifts, foods and household items. The bustling Boroughton Street is dotted with shops, cafes and restaurants, especially on the weekends. The Paris Market & Brocante is a beautiful European style market and cafe where you can purchase everything from French perfumes and delicate linens, to chic dining tables and sofa chairs. It is also a good place to grab a latte and experience a favorite European pastime – people watching. You will find out why Architectural Digest named The Paris Market “The Most Beautiful Coffee Shop in Georgia.”

To experience Georgia grown food and drinks, head to The Salt Table. This locally owned shop sources products from Georgia-based farmers and boutique producers, allowing them to reach consumers beyond farmers markets. Shop for flavored salts, sugars and seasonings, grits, pecans, blueberry syrup, peach preserves, Georgia olive oil and wine, and much more!

Savannah honey tasting experience
Taste different kinds of honeys at Capital Bee Co.

Savannah is also home to the award-winning Savannah Bee Company. There are few locations around the city where you can taste their honey, honey wine and other products. Another local husband-wife duo run an enterprising fun gift store called Capital Bee Co. The owner – Thomas, is passionate about his bee hives. He actually travels with them around the country! He will offer you samples of his newest honey infusions and fingerpicking sauces.

Take a Tasty Food Tour

Most visitors who come to Savannah already know they are going to experience great southern comfort food. Perhaps they have seen Paula Deen’s cooking show on The Food Network, or heard about Zuzi’s (voted the Best Sandwich Shop in Savannah by People’s Magazine), or the 100+ year old Leopold’s Ice Cream (named one of the best ice cream parlors in the world). Savannah is a great city food foodies, but unless you plan to spend a month here, you can’t possibly taste all the goodies around.

Savannah Taste Experience
Where can you get the best fish and chips in Savannah? Find out on a food tour!

With a Savannah Taste Experience food tour, you can skip the lines and taste some of the must-try dishes in the historic downtown. The guided 3-hour long walking tour takes you to some of the most iconic eateries and tells you the stories behind them. You get to meet the owners, learn insider secrets and taste menu features.

architecture walking tour Savannah
Jonathan Stalcup orients guests to Savannah’s historic homes and buildings.

Learn About The Architecture

Sure you can walk around Historic Downtown Savannah and meander through its 22 squares and old homes. But knowing that you are looking at a building that predate The Unites States, or standing at a location where the movie Forest Gump was filmed, makes the walk a bit more interesting. Savannah College of Art and Design graduate in architecture and author of two books, Jonathan Stalcup offers 90-minute tours that take you on a walking journey through Georgian, Federal, Regency, Greek Revival, Italianate, Gothic and Art Deco periods through the city – yes you can see a little bit of everything in Savannah. It is a real treat to experience all kinds of architectures on this brief walking tour.

The Grey yurt Savannah
Reserve a private yurt for a different dining experience.

Eat At a Yurt Village

After walking and shopping through the city, grab a seat in a private yurt at one of the most acclaimed restaurants in the country – The Grey. This hip restaurant sits at what use to be a Greyhound Bus Terminal. Food is upscale southern using only the finest local ingredients.

Sucheta at The Grey
Perfect way to end the week is by having Sunday lunch at The Grey.

To ensure the health and safety of their guests, The Grey partnered with American Express to create a Mongolian style yurt village. Each yurt has a backdrop of a colorful quote (mine was from Prince) and spacious seating for four guests. Reservations are available all-day, though menu changes daily. Lunch is decadent, as they bring out an assortment of tea sandwiches, fresh baked pastries (my favorite was the cardamom French cruller), and your choice of tea. My lunch was chilled shrimp cocktail, and a whole fried flounder with collard greens and southern grits. This may be your first time experiencing high tea in a yurt and its definitely worth it!

9 National Parks To Visit in 2021 (Pictures and Tips)

Here are some of the best national parks in the USA that I visited during the pandemic. I have included some tips on how best to avoid crowds, be safe and have a memorable experience.

One good thing that came out of 2020 was a desire to get outdoors, and having all the time in the world to do so. Once all my travels got cancelled, I started doing road trips and discovering some of the most beautiful national parks in the USA that I never had the time to go to before. National Parks are often packed with families and international visitors through the summer, so the idea of waiting in long lines at parking lots and restrooms dissuaded me from going to some of these places. But in 2020, crowds were thinner as most facilities remained closed. Some of the parks limited the number of vehicles coming in. They suspended tour groups and shuttle buses. Others reduced capacity at campgrounds and hotels. So all of this made visiting national parks even more enjoyable past year.

Having a strategy for visiting the park definitely came in handy. With the pandemic still looming, I had to account for carrying food, water, PPE equipment, maintaining social distancing, and planning restroom breaks.

Here are the National Parks I visited and some of the insider tips I can offer from my firsthand experience. Following these will make your trip safer and more pleasurable.

Most of the parks are open year-round, but you must check for wildfires, snowy weather and road closures daily, as mountain weather changes very often.

elks
Elk sighting at Rocky Mountain National Park.

Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

Fly in to Denver, Colorado and drive to Rocky Mountain National Park (about 90 minutes). It is best to start your journey at Grand Lake in the west of the park, and end at Estes Park on the east. Grand Lake is a lot less crowded and has a few Swiss style chalets located along the magnificent blue waters.

When you enter Rocky Mountain National Park through Grand Lake, you will see wooded forests, lush meadows, wildlife and rivers. The trails here will be less crowded too, so I highly recommend doing your hiking and picnicking in this area. Continue along the 49 miles long Trail Ridge Road, which is the highest continues paved road in the United States, reaching an elevation of 12,183 feet. Cross the Continental Divide at Milner Pass, see glaciers, mountain peaks and snowfields, grasslands covered with elk and much more.

Note that driving Trail Ridge Road is not for the faint hearted. The roads are narrow, with high elevations, and no barriers. Get a stable car or SUV and keep your eyes on the road. Also, the road closes at the higher elevations from mid October until Memorial weekend.

Loop around Bear Lake for an easy hike with this view.

Toward the east entrance of the park, you will see glacier lakes that are very popular. If you plan to walk the trails around Bear Lake, do so in the late afternoon. If you are lucky, you may even spot double rainbows like I did!

Exit the park at Estes Park, which is a bustling mountain town with motels, cabins, restaurants and souvenir shops. There is a wide variety of cuisines in this small town but it’s best to make reservations in advance. Stay at Tiny Town Cabins at Trout Haven Resorts for a typical Colorado cabin experience. The small but functional 19 individual cabins are located alongside the Big Thompson River, just minutes away from Rocky Mountain National Park.

Yellowstone National Park
Sulphur springs in blue, gold, white and black colors can be seen all over Yellowstone.

Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming

Yellowstone was the first national park in the U.S. and perhaps the first national park in the world. The park spans an area of 3,468.4 sq miles comprising lakes, canyons, rivers, and mountain ranges. Yellowstone Lake is one of the largest high-elevation lakes in North America. It is centered over the Yellowstone Caldera, the largest super volcano on the continent. There are numerous recreational opportunities, including hiking, camping, boating, fishing, and sightseeing. Lava flows and geothermal pools are spread across the mountains and forests at Yellowstone. So you have to be very careful when hiking and should always stay on marked trails.

Yellowstone is quite large spanning into Wyoming, Montana and Idaho. You can access it from either of these states, but the nearest big airport is Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Here you can take a break for couple of days to visit Grand Tetons National Park, Teton Village’s ski lifts, and then continue on to Yellowstone (1.5 hours). Downtown Jackson Hole is also really hip, filled with gourmet restaurants, art galleries and jewelry stores.

I highly recommend staying at least a couple of nights inside Yellowstone, so you don’t spend a lot of time driving in and out everyday. The lodges inside are more expensive though, without many frills, and are sold out months in advance. However, you are paying for the great location and will have the park all to yourself in the late evening and early morning, when most of the visitors have left.

Grand Prismatic Spring
The natural colors at Grand Prismatic Spring look surreal.

If you take the Loop Road starting in the South, you won’t get lost and most of the attractions will fall along this road. Account for a full day to see West Thumb golden hot spring, the Continental Divide over Craig Pass, famous Old Faithful geyser, colorful Grand Prismatic Spring, and Artist Paint Pods. You will need to do some walking/ light hiking to get to some of these up close, but they also have handicap accesses.

Mammoth Hot Spring Terrace
Visit Mammoth at sunrise for a mystical experience.

The next day, go to Hayden Valley for wildlife spotting, Sulphur Caldron and Yellowstone Lake. If the weather cooperates, take a boat ride or enjoy some of the water sports on the lake. On the third day, head north to see valleys along Gibbon River and raggedy rocks at Sheepeater Cliff. The Mammoth Hotel is a good place to stay near Mammoth Hot Spring Terraces. Access the Terraces early in the morning when the sun reflects on the foggy white, gold and black rocks.

Note there is no cell reception inside the park (even at the hotels), and road closures are quite frequent (due to accidents, fires, wildlife, repairs, etc) with no alternate route options. Check the notice board at your hotel reception and at all the visitors centers, gas stations and gift shops thought the day to get latest updates.

Grand Tetons National Park
Hike to the Hidden Falls inside Grand Tetons National Park for a great view.

Grand Tetons National Park, Wyoming

Grand Teton National Park is only 10 miles (16 km) south of Yellowstone National Park, connected by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Memorial Parkway. Along with surrounding national forests, the protected areas constitute the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, one of the world’s largest intact mid-latitude temperate ecosystems.

Grand Teton National Park is named for Grand Teton, the tallest mountain in the Teton Range. The park includes the major peaks of the 40-mile-long (64 km) Teton Range, numerous lakes, including 15-mile-long (24 km) Jackson Lake, as well as the upper main stem of the Snake River.

Grand Tetons
The Grand Tetons tower over Jackson Hole & surrounding areas.

Stay at Jackson Hole, a year-round destination for outdoor adventures, from hiking, biking and rafting in the summer, to skiing in the winter. The Fireside Cabins provide easy access to Grand Teton, where you can spot glaciers, rivers, wildflowers and bisons! The best way to explore Grand Teton National Park is via their well networked paved biking trails. But if that’s not your thing, drive the Moose-Wilson road (partially gravel) that links Moose, Wyoming (the southern entrance) to Teton Village. This road is great for viewing wildlife, stopping at outlooks and going for long or short hikes. One of the must ones is at Jenny Lake. Here, you need to take the water ferry to cross the lake and do a loop back.

Glacier National Park
Hairpin turns, narrow roads & tunnels in Glacier.

Glacier National Park, Montana

With over 700 miles of trails, Glacier National Park is a hiker’s paradise for adventurous visitors seeking wilderness and solitude. Getting to Glacier requires flying into the small airport of Kalispell, MT and driving a short distance to the park. Stay in the town of Whitefish, where you can explore the downtown with lots of coffee shops, bars, and a lake.

Timing is everything when going to Glacier. The famous Going-to-the-Sun Road is only open from June – September. This is when you will find hikers from Canada (northern part of Glacier), U.S., and all over the world flocking to the park. However, I went to Glacier in the first week of October, after the season was over. Luckily, the temperature was around 70F, Fall colors in full bloom, and the crowds had left.

St Mary's Lake Glacier
Take a break at St Mary’s Lake near Rising Sun.

Enter the park at West Glacier early in the morning and see the mist rising above Lake McDonald. The 50-mile Going To The Sun Road loop takes you through narrow passes, mountain overlooks, rising glaciers and alpine villages. Again, this is no easy drive with hair bending turns, so rent an all wheel drive.

Exit the park at Rising Sun, on the western side of the park. However, this was closed due to COVID-19, so I had to turn around and do the loop again. Thats not necessarily a bad thing, as you get to see the Going To The Sun Road from another perspective. The afternoon is a good time to get some hikes in too. Make sure to explore the less visited western side of the park, where the gorgeous Bowman Lake is located. On your way back, grab fresh and warm huckleberry bear claws at Polebridge Mercantile and Bakery, located inside the park.

Drive in Zion
If you’re lucky, drive your own car in Zion National Park.

Zion National Park, Utah

Zion National Park is located in southern Utah near the city of Springdale. I drove from Moab to the east entrance of Zion, and exited at the south entrance in Springdale. From here I drove to the town of St George (1 hour), where I stayed at Red Mountain Resort. The resort is located away from the touristy areas, and offers guided tours to Zion as well as other parks in southwest Utah. From there, I flew out of Las Vegas (2 hrs). You can also fly to Salt Lake City and drive to Zion.

Zion National Park
Perfect fall sunset at Zion National Park

Now, Zion National Park is one of the most visited parks in the whole country. So you can imagine how hard it is to navigate and enjoy driving through its narrow roads. During peak times, you will be required to leave your car (if you can find a spot) in the parking lot, and ride the free shuttle to your hiking trails. But if you go between November – March, like I did, you can breeze through the park in your own vehicle. Remember Zion is beautiful year-round, but some of the trails are closed depending on weather conditions.

You definitely don’t want to miss the sunset over the towering red mountains and the Virgin River.

Congaree National Park
The 2 mile boardwalk is an easy walk in nature.

Congaree National Park, SC

Congaree National Park near Columbia, SC is not as well known, but worth a visit. It preserves the largest old-growth floodplain forest forming one of the highest temperate deciduous forest canopies remaining in the world. You can walk on paved paths and boardwalks surrounded by swamps, oaks, national and state champion trees. Some of it looks like scenes from Lord of the Rings!

Large animals possibly seen in the park include bobcats, deer, feral pigs, feral dogs, coyotes, armadillos, turkeys, and otters. Its waters contain interesting creatures like amphibians, turtles, snakes, and many types of fish, including bowfin, alligator gar, and catfish.

There is over 20 miles of backcountry hiking trails, canoe tours, canoeing, kayaking, fishing, birding, nature study and talks. You can visit Congaree in a day, or spend a few if you want to do all the activities.

view of Arches National Park
Red, white and blue at Arches National Park.

Arches National Park, Utah

Moab is the adventure capital of southern Utah, with access to hiking, rafting, canyoning and more. Moab is a city in eastern Utah. It’s a gateway to massive red rock formations in Arches National Park, mesas and buttes at Canyonlands National Park, Native American rock art, and dinosaur tracks at sites like Bull Canyon Overlook and Copper Ridge. The town itself has tons of cafes, restaurants, shops and a motels. Stay at Moab Springs Ranch, a locally-owned, eco friendly resort with individual cabins and townhouses that are well equipped with kitchen and parking spaces. There is a walking trail, biking trail, hammocks and relaxing garden on site so you can relax with a backdrop of red rocks and cottonwood trees.

Delicate Arch
Delicate Arch is the most famous arch in the park, but requires a vigorous hike to get to.

Bordered by the Colorado River in the southeast, Arches has over 2,000 natural sandstone arches. Start your day early at sunrise at Arches National Park, so you have the entire day to explore and watch the rock colors change with the sun. Sunrise and sunrise give the best photo opps. The park itself is not too big if you drive through the loop road, though you will do injustice if you didn’t get out of your car. Many of the arches can be seen from the road, but offer a better view with a short hike.

There are no restaurants or stores inside the park, but it is only minutes away from downtown Moab, so you can pack food for the day or return to the city for dinner.

canyonlands
The vast expanse of Canyonlands with no other being in sight.

Canyonlands National Park, Utah

Also a few minutes drive from Moab, Canyonlands National Park is the largest national park in Utah and requires 2-3 days to explore, especially if you plan to do any backcountry or overnight hiking. However, if you only have one day, plan to drive the paved Island in the Sky road atop a massive 1500 foot mesa. Here you can stop at different pullouts to see panoramic overlooks, dramatic desert landscape carved by the Colorado River, towering rock pinnacles known as the Needles, the remote canyons of the Maze and the Native American rock paintings in Horseshoe Canyon. There are many hiking trails too, so combine some physical exercise with driving time.

The bookstore and gift shop inside Canyonlands offers some sodas and packaged foods only, so plan to bring your picnic basket and lots of water from Moab. Also, it is much colder and windier at higher altitudes inside the park, so make sure to bring additional warm layers.

Virgin Islands National Park
Relax at secluded beaches in the US Virgin Islands.

Virgin Islands National Park, USVI

Virgin Islands National Park is more than just beautiful beaches. Here you can hike to plantation ruins to learn about a time when sugar dominated the island, visit the ancient petroglyphs carved by the Taino Indians, and snorkel the coral reefs to discover hidden marine life.  The park covers 60% of St John, 9 sq mi of adjacent ocean, and nearly all of Hassel Island, just off the Charlotte Amalie, Saint Thomas harbor.

You can fly in to St Thomas or St John islands and spend a few days exploring the beaches, towns and beautiful waters. St Thomas is much bigger and well connected to major airports, while St John is more pristine. You can combine your trip and move between the islands by passenger and vehicle ferry, so you can take your rental car with you too.

The best way to explore St John many pristine white sand beaches and hiking trails that make up US Virgin Islands National Park is by car. There are taxis, open air jeeps and shuttle tours, however, having your own vehicle allows you to stop wherever you want and safely distance. Note, most facilities are still closed at St John, not because of COVID, but they never fully recovered from hurricanes Irma and and Maria in 2017.

beach at St Johns USVI national park
Discover some of the best natural sites at St Johns.

Virgin Islands Eco Tour is a local company that offers kayaking, snorkeling, hiking and boat tours around the National Park. Start at Cruz Bay and spend a half or full day with a knowledgeable guide to learn about marine life, geology and flora of the islands.

Typically, entrance to each national park ranges between $20-50/ day. Save money by purchasing America The Beautiful annual pass. For only $80, you can visit over 80 national parks and over 2,000 Federal recreation sites across the USA.

Active Getaway in Utah’s Red Mountains

Many of us are pursuing more nature, activity and adventure during our travels. This year, most of my travels have revolved around visiting America’s National Parks. And while doing so, I discovered Red Mountain Resort catering to those looking for an active getaway. Nestled in Southwestern Utah’s red rock bluffs, Red Mountain Resort is a one-of-a-kind active destination retreat, inspiring guests to pursue health, wellness, balance and joy. 

active getaway in St George Utah
Enjoy desert sunsets in St George. Photo by Red Mountain Resort Photography.

Getting There

In November, I planned a one-week road trip across Southern Utah’s parks. I flew into Salt Lake City, drove to Moab for 3 nights, where I visited Arches and Canyonlands. Another 5 hours of scenic drive took me to Red Mountain Resort in St. George. On my way back, I drove 2 hours to Las Vegas, where I boarded my flight back home.

You can also fly directly to St. George Municipal Airport or Las Vegas McCarran International Airport, and take a shuttle or taxi to the resort.

The Setting

Red Mountain Resort is in the suburbs of St George, a small town in southwest Utah. I only spent a few hours visiting St George’s town square, the Mormon temple, antique stores and cafes. You can sign up for a guided walking tour through the resort, or just drive around yourself.

The resort itself is surrounded by jaw dropping scenery. There are volcanic rocks right in your backyard, which backs up to Snow Canyon State Park. You can see red rocks, black lava remains, desert like vegetation, and snow covered mountains – all right outside your room!

Utah's stunning scenery
Watch the beautiful scenery at Red Mountain Resort

The Resort

Original site of a wellness research center, you will find some original dome structured buildings at Red Mountain Resort that are now used as a spa and offices. You can get a massage, body wrap, or simply gaze out the large windows lounging in the spa’s relaxation room.

spa at red mountain resort
Relax at Sagestone Spa & Salon

There are 3 swimming pools, jacuzzis and a fitness center. Here you can take dozens of classes such as yoga, stretching, dance, and more – all included in your stay. There are also expert health and fitness consultants at the fitness center, so make sure to book an appointment.

stay active swimming pool
Cool off in one of the pools

I stayed at one of the 82 Desert Oasis Rooms which was spacious and comfortable. The bathrooms were huge, with tiled floors and rain showers. There was a private patio overlooking the pool, and lots of natural sunlight coming in.

The resort gives each guest a welcome gift – a notebook, backpack and water bottle – to take on your outdoor adventures. So, you are not really encouraged to spend much time in your room.

Eat healthy at Red Mountain Utah
Scrumptious dinner of tofu tacos

Healthy Eating

The Canyon Breeze restaurant on sites serves 3 meals a day. They usually offer breakfast and lunch buffets, but due to COVID-19, there’s only seated and to-go meals.

Though the food is not limited to vegetarian or plant based exclusively, the idea is to eat fresh and control portion size. Every dish is less than 500 calories, incorporating health conscious cooking techniques, and packed with texture and flavor. For example, my breakfast of healthy pancakes had 3 bite size discs served with a homemade prickly pear syrup and lots of berries. For dinner, we were always served a vegetable soup and house salad, followed by an entree (shrimp and grits, vegetable tacos), and a small dessert. There is a strong emphasis on wholesome meals that satisfy your palate and keep you nourished.

If you like to drink a glass of wine with dinner, that is feasible too. The restaurant had a decent collection of wines by the bottle that you can order during your stay for an extra charge.

And if you’re vegan, kosher or have any specific dietary needs, the chef can accommodate you too.

active getaway while hiking
Hiking in the Red Rocks

Fitness and Adventure

Those who want to stay active, get into shape, and explore Utah’s national parks would find the biggest draw to Red Mountain Resort. There are lots of classes and guided hikes, which makes it very easy for solo travelers. You don’t have to worry about driving to the parks, finding a parking spot, looking up a trail, or getting lost!

There are different types of hikes that are offered every day, ascending from beginner (Explorer), intermediate (Challenge) and Morning Walks. These go into Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon National Park, Snow Canyon State Park, and other spots located within a short driving distance. I consulted with the concierge about the hikes, got detailed maps, and did a lot of the hikes on my own.

Each day, I started with a healthy take out breakfast from Canyon Breeze restaurant, followed by a solo interpretation walk around the labyrinth. Then I ventured into a class or two before a scrumptious outdoor lunch, and explored more of the surrounding trails through the afternoon. Here were some of my favorite hikes…

hiking at snow canyon utah
Take a sunset hike in Snow Canyon State Park

Snow Canyon State Park

You can walk from the resort to Snow Canyon State Park, bike or drive there. The park itself is only 20 miles from north to south, but has interesting landscapes. Jenny’s Canyon Trail takes you into slot canyon, while Johnson Canyon Trail offers the chance to see wildlife and is good for all skill levels.

active adventure Red Mountain
Discovering ancient rock art makes the hike even more interesting

Anasazi Ridge Petroglyphs 

This 2-hour trail explores the Anasazi culture where you can see 1000-year old farmstead ruins and petroglyph drawings, along with inspiring panoramic views.

activities in Zion national park Utah
Zion National Park is spectacular anytime of the year

Zion National Park

Utah’s first national park has massive sandstone cliffs, narrow slot canyons, and flowing Virgin River. There are dozens of hiking trails inside Zion National Park that can keep you active for days, so make sure to plan your route ahead of time. Also note that it is mandatory to park your car and take a shuttle inside the park during peak hours.

Kayenta Art Village
Stroll through a live art garden in Southern Utah

Kayenta Art Village

The Red Mountain Resort also organizes trips to nearby Kayenta Art Village (located less than 10 mins away). This artist colony showcases a number of studios, cafes and shops, as well as a collaborative outdoor art installation. Walking through the desert gardens on a sunny afternoon is quite mediative.

All-Inclusive

Unlike other all-inclusive destinations, Red Mountain Resort caters to fitness oriented travelers, who don’t travel to just lay by the pool. Also, it is perfect for singles. You can go by yourself and make friends at the Community Table at dinner, or during one of the group activities.

Still, the resort offers all the amenities of an all-inclusive. All vacations include accommodations, daily guided hikes, bike rentals, three healthy meals daily, fitness classes,  healthy life classes and events, personal discovery activities, and WiFi.

Walking at Red Mountain Resort
Reflective trail and labyrinth at Red Mountain Resort

It’s About You!

Red Mountains Resort feels like the perfect place to get away from the stressful life we often lead, and escape to a quieter place. Here you can invest in yourself – clear your head, feed your body, and work on your health. Simply watch the reflection of the sunrise and sunset on the rocks, as they magically change from red to orange hues. You will feel the energy around you. Plus, the Southwest temperatures make southern Utah an ideal year round destination to pursue outdoor activities.

The Top 10 Most Walkable Cities in The World

I have always been a proponent of exploring cities by walking. By taking guided walking tours with locals, you get to see many of the hidden sights, hear about the cities’ secrets, and learn about the non-touristy places to eat at.

When was the last time you walked around a new place without a map, GPS or smart phone? Walking alone can also be therapeutic. Not having a plan or being in a rush to get to your next destination, means that you can take the time to be in the moment. It allows you to observe your surroundings more keenly, and exercises your brain muscles too.

Now, that we are looking to travel safely again, get more exercise, and save money, walking is the most practical way to explore. But where in the world do you start?

According to a recent study published by Luggage Hero, here are the top 10 most walkable cities in the world. These are scored based on 5 different walkability markers – climate, air quality and CO2 emissions, safety, walking trails, nature and parks, as well as hours of sunshine. 

most walkable cities in the world
Ranking of most walkable cities by Luggage Hero.

Vienna, Austria

Vienna topped the charts as the most pedestrian-friendly capital city, making it the ideal city break location to explore solely on foot. Walking in Vienna meant you could stroll through history without a fuss. At every corner, you can find a cafe where as a matter of factly Mozart wrote a legendary piece of music or Kent got inspired to paint his masterpiece! Take breaks at one of the hundreds of cafes around Vienna where you are likely to find the Viennese simply sitting with coffee and pastries for hours.

Another way to discover the history and culture of Vienna is with my charming friend, Ina Hauer. I met Ina on a trip to Senegal and The Gambia, and her perfect English, world knowledge and witty humor, sparked an instant friendship. No matter what your interests, make sure to check out Lila Tilla’s Tours when you visit Vienna.

no 2 walkable city in the world Lisbon
Lisbon is rated as no 2 most walkable city in the world.

Lisbon, Portugal

The capital of Portugal ranked the second-highest in walking infrastructure. Make sure to bring some good walking shoes to trek the steep cobblestone streets around town. I only spent a day in Lisbon, a stop on my 2-weeks long Royal Caribbean Mediterranean Cruise, but I walked that entire day!

walking in New York City central park
Discover fall colors at Central Park in New York City.

New York City, USA

Tall skyscraper, busy streets, neon lights – those are the first impressions of New York City. But a spontaneous walk around the quieter neighborhoods of SoHo, Lower East Side or Central Park, and you will see why New York City is rated one of the top walking cities in the world.

Why not tour the city with a native New Yorker? My friend and colleague, Bruce Northam is a travel journalist, award-winning author, and a New York City resident, who offers walking tours to the public. You will be delighted by his storytelling skills and will surely get to learn about the city.

Tokyo, Japan

You may not think of the biggest city in the world to be ideal for walking, but like New York, Tokyo too has lots of green spaces, as well as quirky neighborhoods. Out of the 28 cities included in the study, Tokyo had the highest number of nature and parks, at 652. Tokyo also scored highly for city safety.

Temple at Niko Japan
Walking tours in Japan are popular among locals and tourists.

One of my favorite memories of Japan was on a 10-day walking tour across smaller Japan’s towns with Walk Japan. Each day we would start with an authentic Japanese breakfast, walk through villages and mountains, and in the evening, returning to our cozy family-run ryokans for a omakase feast. I learned so much about the Japanese culture and got to see the Japanese countryside, often overlooked by tourists.

Walking in China Town London
Feels like Beijing in China Town London.

Beijing, China

Now, I haven’t been to mainland China. But I can only imagine the colorful and bustling streets, dotted with street food vendors to high-end fashion boutiques. In Hong Kong, the street signs and subway stations were all marked in Chinese letters making it hard to navigate. Still, if your objective is to wander aimlessly, this would be an easy place to get lost! Just watch for street peddlers and con artists, and leave big cameras and expensive jewelry at home.

people walking in Seoul
Make sure to walk through traditional residential neighborhoods in Seoul.

Seoul, South Korea

Seoul is actually a very safe city where I traveled solo, mainly on foot. There are numerous markets, historic sights, Buddhist temples, and palaces that you can see by simply walking through the city. Seoul is quite hilly and gets bitter cold in the winter, so make sure to dress in layers. Of course, every good walk deserves a stop at a Korean bakery!

You can also hire a volunteer guide to take you around Seoul, as well as other cities in Korea. Read more about it below…

Madrid, Spain

My last international trip was to Spain, just before the world shut down due to COVID-19. I love the relaxed energy, Bohemian vibe and strong culture of Madrid. You can see people enjoy good food and wine at artistic buildings and courtyards throughout the day and night.

Churros after a walk in Madrid
Reward yourself with fresh churros and chocolate after a nice walk in Madrid.

One of my favorite walks takes you through the heart of the city. Start in Plaza Mayor, to Plaza de la Armenia, Puerto de Toledo, Retiro Park, and end at Mercado San Miguel for wine and tapas. If your heart still desires, stop at Chocolateria San Gines for my favorite churros con chocolate in the world!

walking in Prague
Prague is one of the most romantic cities in the world.

Prague, Czech Republic

With historic castles, bridges, gardens, rivers, and museums, Prague is the quintessential European city where one can walk for hours and days without getting bored. The survey revealed Prague as the third safest city for walking, which makes sense given the city never really sleeps. See the most important sights of Prague Old Town, admire the Baroque architecture, and stroll through some of the most romantic bridges in the world.

Hop on FreeWalkingTours.com to find a walking tour near you. I have taken several of their free tours, which offer an inexpensive way to learn about the city, meet locals, as well as other travelers. It also helps the guides (usually college students and stay at home moms) gain side income. Often, groups sizes are from 1-15, though I have often had a private tour. At the end, you simply pay whatever you feel the tour was worth to you.

where to walk in London
The diverse neighborhoods of London makes it one of the most interesting cities to walk.

London, U.K.

Though you may think of the best ways to travel in London would be in a black cab or the Tube (underground railway), the survey landed London in the top most walkable cities in the world. There are 277 nature and parks dotted across the city.

I find London to be fascinating during any season, as there is architecture, culture, food and lots of history around each bend. On my last trip to London, I took a few walking tours with London Food Lovers in SOHO, and with Eating Europe in East End where we sampled the best bread and butter pudding, fried fish and chips with homemade peas, and British hard cider at old-fashioned neighborhood pubs.

Paris at night
You can’t skip this view when walking through Paris at night.

Paris, France

Movies and books based in Paris have helped further its image as the dreamy city that offers perfect Instagram moments. The new comedy “Emily in Paris” also confirms that even heartbreaks, souvenir store fashions, and dog poop look fancier in Paris!

There are good and great neighborhoods in Paris to walk, and I believe you should explore them all – from the Louvre to the Arc de Triomphe, Latin Quarter and the Luxembourg gardens, and most definitely along the Seine, and the Eiffel tower at night. Grab a baguette, stop at one of the park benches to people watch, practice your French, and keep exploring!

Four Boutique Hotels in Colorado For All Seasons

If you are looking forward to seeing spectacular Fall colors, engaging in winter sports, or planning a family summer vacation, Colorado is an all seasons destination. This beautiful state is filled with mountains, valleys, rivers and plain fields that will do good for your body and soul. And after a great day of hiking, biking, rafting, skiing or snowshoeing, return to a funky, yet sustainable boutique hotel. Full of character, art and history, these charming stays will keep your interest, without sacrificing comfort and quality.

Maven hotel Denver Colorado
Create and collaborate at the Maven Hotel lobby.

Maven Hotel, Denver

The Maven is not just a cool hotel in downtown Denver, it’s a place to connect with entrepreneurs and creatives. The vibrant micro district called the Dairy Block, has flower shops, coffee roasters, independent boutiques, a food court and wine bars. It’s an easy walk to nearby Denver attractions, including Coors Field, Union Station and popular neighborhoods LoDo, LoHi, and RiNo Art Districts.

Dairy Block Denver
Explore the vibrant Dairy Block in downtown Denver.

When you step inside the hotel lobby, you can see why this place attracts art lovers and trend setters. Standing in the location of what use to be Windsor Dairy (thus the name of “Dairy Block”), is now a modern, industrious and expansive lobby where people gather for business and pleasure. The rooms have a contemporary loft-style feel with high floor to ceiling glass windows, large comfortable couches and retro accessories. The Maven is a modern and fun place to stay during your visit to Denver. It also makes a good starting point for your adventures around the state of Colorado.

Surf hotel Buena Vista
Stay at a French-style chateau overlooking the river in Buena Vista.

Surf Hotel, Buena Vista

Travel 88 miles southwest of Denver for a change of scenery. Buena Vista is a charming little town that outdoor enthusiasts, young families, and small businesses call home. More than just good views, Buena Vista offers a perfect family vacation for nature, adventure and art lovers in the Colorado Rockies. From kayaking to hiking, snowshoeing to mountain biking, each season yields a fresh crop of trails and terrain to explore in the heart of the Rocky Mountains.

Directly overlooking the rushing waves of the Buena Vista Whitewater Park, is the Surf Hotel and Surf Chateau. You may feel like you are at a French countryside at The Surf Chateau’s cottages. Hear the sound of the river, smell the lavender flowers, and hang out with your four legged friends in the courtyard. Also, check out the common areas at the main hotel and discover cozy fireplaces, music posters and distinctive art.

Buena Vista main square art
Enjoy your morning coffee at the outdoor living room in Buena Vista.

The Surf Hotel overlooks The LAWN, in the center of South Main Town Square of Buena Vista. This charming green patch is dotted with colorful art, and ideal for concerts, festivals and cocktail parties.

Walk around to explore the coffee shops, bars and many walking trails – all within a couple of minutes from the Surf Hotel. Make sure to dine at the hotel’s restaurant – Wesley and Rose, where they serve a fine selection of wines and the best Basque Burnt Cheesecake!

Palace hotel Salida
Discover 100-year old history at The Palace Hotel in Salida.

The Palace Hotel, Salida

A stay at The Palace Hotel in downtown Salida will transport you to the time of train traveling salespeople passing through Colorado’s continental divide. Established in 1909, this premier historic boutique hotel is filled with stories, art and history. Just ask the receptionist at the original front desk (a converted teller’s cage from a local bank) to show you around. You will be awed by the Tintype black and wine photos, autographed pictures of the “Bloomer Girls” (a midwestern all-women’s baseball team), and an actual bullet lodged within the front desk.

The environmentally sustainable family-owned Palace Hotel looks a lot fancier than it did 100 years ago. Open Victorian style staircases, enclosed with Texas pine balustrades, high ceilings, and antique furniture, dutifully take you to a vintage chic meets modern era. Each room bears its own history based on who stayed there.

Salida wall art
Practice social distancing and wear a face covering when visiting Colorado.

Once you venture out of your suite, Historic Downtown Salida and Arkansas River, are within footsteps. Check out local shops selling outdoor apparel, casual dining establishments, and outfitters offering biking, rafting and fly-fishing tours.

Marble distillery inn Carbondale
Stay at at the world’s first sustainable distillery inn.

Marble Distillery Inn, Carbondale

Ever considered staying at a working whiskey distillery? You can get cocktails delivered right to your room at the family-run Marble Distillery Inn! The 5 ultra modern rooms are outfitted with comfortable beds, gas fireplaces, huge walk-in showers, and a relaxing balcony overlooking downtown Carbondale.

Marble Distilling CO Colorado
Grab a cocktail at the Marble Distilling CO bar in Aspen and Carbondale.

While staying at The Distillery Inn, learn about the distilling process at the Marble Distilling CO, the first zero waste distillery in the world! Spirits are made using 9.5% calcite Yule marble filtered water, locally sourced grains, and American-made equipment. A first-of-its-kind water energy thermal system helps the distillery produce enough energy to heat and cool its building as well as the Inn. Sign up for a tasting of Marble’s handcrafted whiskey and vodka, before settling down with your sustainable signature cocktail on the deck.

The Distillery Inn made a significant investment and installed ultraviolet germicidal irradiation in their air ducts, which is one of the most promising decontamination methods for COVID-19. They also have contactless check-in, where they send you an email with instructions to enter to the property and go straight to your room.

Zen garden Carbondale
The zen garden at True Nature Healing Arts is an urban oasis in Carbondale

The city of Carbondale is named one of USA’s best towns, by National Geographic and Outside Magazine, and a Colorado Creative District – one of only 21 in the state. Grab authentic tacos, sushi or burgers at one of the restaurants within walking distance. Take a stroll through the zen gardens and get a massage treatment at True Nature Healing Arts, located couple of blocks from the Inn.

Socially Distanced Food and Wine in Columbia

Large gatherings have seem to become a thing of the past. Most conferences, festivals, events and weddings are now cancelled, as the pandemic looms. It was surprising then, to discover that the city of Columbia, South Carolina held a socially distanced Food and Wine Festival in August 2020.

“We decided to host the festival despite COVID for two reasons,” says Chase Heatherly, one of the organizers. “First, Columbia Food and Wine Festival operates with the primary goal of recognizing and supporting the local food and beverage talent in the Columbia, SC region. In the time of COVID where restaurants and hospitality partners are struggling more than ever, we felt that if it could be done safely, we needed to recognize our local talent and connect them to potential patrons who can support them during this difficult time. Unlike most food festivals, participating chefs were reimbursed for their food costs so participating in the events were not a financial burden for them. Secondly, CFWF is only in its third year of operation (founded in 2018). Given the infancy of the brand, we felt that it was important to host some level of programming under the festival brand even if it was not the initial schedule and offerings we planned pre-COVID,” he adds.

Clearly, businesses in the south are drastically impacted because of the lockdown, and are facing economic difficulties. The restaurant industry, in particular, has received very little relief (if you do own a restaurant and would like to find out about additional support you may be entitled to, you could take a look at this RRV loan guide to see if you’re eligible for this extra finance). So, to be able to support the community, while have a fun evening out, sounded like a good idea.

checkpoint
Temperature screening check point at the streets leading to festival grounds.

Gathering in Summer 2020

There were two main events during the Columbia Food and Wine Festival. First, was a socially distant dinner held on the grounds of two of Historic Columbia’s properties. Normally, each of the event venues could accommodate approx. 400 guests, but they were reduced in capacity to less than half. Also, the organization took several safety precautions. There was a temperature check point on the street and PPE handed out to each guest. Everyone had to wear a mask until seated at the table. Even though the event was held outdoors, people kept distance and obliged to face covering mandates.

A second registration table for each zone had color coded stickers you could pick. Red meant ‘keep distant’, yellow ‘be cautious’ and green signified ‘serve me as usual.’ These were cues for other guests and servers to keep the acceptable distance from you.

Hampton Preston mansion and gardens
The gardens at Hampton-Preston.

The Grand Dinner

I sat at the Hampton-Preston Mansion and Gardens, a beautiful historic home with three acres of well appointed gardens filled with native and exotic plantings. I strolled through the pathways and enjoyed the warm evening sun in the garden, before settling down for dinner.

A cocktail station dedicated to each zone offered a house drink, especially prepared by local mixologists.

Tables were 6+ feet apart, and each tables had no more than 6 seats, so you need not interact with fellow diners. There was a pre-set four-course dinner. When purchasing tickets to the festival, you could pick which of the four zones you wanted to sit in, based on the menu preference. We started with a refreshing Caprese tower prepared by Chef Nelson De Hoyas of Halls Chophouse; followed by a delicious seafood Cioppino by as seen on Masterchef, Daniela Savone. The third course included a charred octopus over ricotta gnocchi by Chef Josh Rogerson from Saluda’s. Finally, we had a ricotta cream filled cannoli by Brian Glynn of Village Idiot Pizza for dessert. Overall, the food was “ok” in terms of quality and taste. Given the hot and humid climate of Columbia, the cannoli cookie was soggy, and featured table wines served warm. Still, it was nice to be outside in the garden and be part of a “normal event.”

sunday brunch
Salmon and corn ceviche for brunch appetizer.

Sunday Brunch

The next morning, I return to the same venue for a second event as part of the Columbia Food and Wine Festival. Sunday brunch was a lot less crowded and my husband and I had an entire table to ourselves. There was a simple mimosa, Columbia craft beers, and a house cocktail for drinks. Mixologist Andy Haddock from Terra restaurant (a must for dinner) created Blood and Sand, a lively cocktail with Oban 14 single malt, Cherry Herring, Punt e Mas vermouth and orange.

A three-course brunch included salmon appetizer, pork sandwich and a flaky Latin style camembert and honey pastry. Chefs Javier Uriate (formerly of Hendrix), David Grillo from Cantina 76, and Charley Scruggs from Terra, did their best in putting forward unique dishes, but you really need to visit their restaurants to enjoy their best cooking!

Columbia food and wine festival
Husband and me at Columbia Food and Wine Festival dinner.

In Conclusion

I felt CFWF made a great effort in putting together this event despite the circumstances. Many people still don’t feel comfortable leaving their homes, let alone attending a large gathering. I felt completely safe at the event, knowing all the precautions they had taken.

The participating chefs were grateful to the guests for attending, and reinforced how they had been impacted by the pandemic. To be able to cook and serve people, made them feel normal again. They encouraged us to dine in or take out from their restaurants.

The chefs came from different background which explains the variation in the dishes served. Columbia has a rich southern food tradition with staples like pimento, BBQ, grits, crawfish and seafood boils. I would have liked to see more southern and Lowcountry inspired dishes in the menus. Nevertheless, you should make it a point to taste these dishes when you visit Columbia, aka Soda City!

Soda city market
Saturday morning at Soda City Market.

More Flavors

If you missed the festival, or plan to attend next year, make sure to check out other things to do and eat in Columbia. You can truly see the melting pot of cultures at the weekly Soda City Market, a street event held every Saturday morning. Here you can shop for fresh produce, olive oil, cheese and baked goods, as well as try flavors from all over the world. Local vendors serve Brazilian cassava bread, Thai curries, Spanish paella, Mexican corn, Belgian waffles, Jamaican patties, and Louisiana grits, to name a few.

Market on Main is a vibrant gourmet food market in downtown Columbia, where you can grab coffee, ice cream and lunch. Check out the City Market Development for other sit down dining establishments. Finally, hit a few pimento cheese spots (my favorite was Di Prato’s pimento cheese sandwich). Columbia has claim to one of the oldest recorded pimento cheese recipes, first written in a fundraising cookbook in 1912!

Mann-Simons site
The Mann-Simons Site was home to the same entrepreneurial African American family for nearly 130 years.

Southern History

Columbia has several sites that offer an authentic portrayal of this Southern city’s past – including slavery, the Civil War, progress during the reconstruction era, Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Movement.

A walking tour is a great way to orient yourself and discover the many historic buildings around downtown Columbia. Stroll the peaceful walking paths of the South Carolina State House and visit the African-American History Monument. Historic Columbia offers historic home tours where you can enter the Woodrow Wilson Family Home (The Museum of Reconstruction) and the enterprising African-American women owned Mann-Simons Site, among others.

Columbia museum of art
Black is Beautiful exhibit at The Columbia Museum of Art.

The Columbia Museum of Art recently went through a major, multiphase renovation to offer a more inclusive collection. The current blockbuster exhibit – Black Is Beautiful, features the photography of Kwame Brathwaite. Here you can see photos of the Grandassa models (that promoted African-inspired fashion and black nationalist beauty principles) taken in Harlem in the 1960s.

Outdoor Adventures

Besides great food and American history, there are also spectacular natural sites in Columbia. Rent a kayak or boat from Better Boating on Lake Murray, located only 30 minutes outside the city. You will see many lake houses around the shoreline, passing through Dreher Island State Park.

Congaree national park
Walk along the boardwalk to see interesting landscapes at Congaree National Park.

Congaree National Park has the largest intact expanse of old growth bottomland hardwood forest remaining in the southeastern United States. Explore the wilderness, canopy of champion trees, and marshlands walking along the wooded boardwalk or one of the trails. You can spend as little as an hour, to an entire day hiking, fishing or canoeing at the 26,000-acre Congaree National Park.

Hotel Trundle downtown Columbia
Trendy lobby of Hotel Trundle in downtown Columbia.

Southern Hospitality

To experience true southern hospitality with a sustainable twist, stay at Hotel Trundle located in the heart of the Main Street District. This eclectic, 20s-era Art Deco style boutique hotel is filled with local art and photos in a lofty environment. The historic building was restored to support the community and the city. Not only will you enjoy spacious room and the tastefully decorated common areas, but you will also be within walking distance to most attractions in downtown Columbia.

Sustainable Glamping – Luxury Cabins Near Jackson Hole

If you want a luxurious and sustainable experience on your Midwest wilderness vacation, head to Jackson Hole. With the recent travel restrictions, it seems that everyone is returning toward a 60’s style travel format. Before, families use to do more road trips, visit the national parks, spend time outdoors, set up camps and rented cabins.

Now, I’m not much of a camper and I have never stayed in a camper van or RV either. I do like hiking, biking, kayaking, rafting, and being out in nature though. So, I opt for glamping – which is a hybrid between camping, a hotel suite, and a luxury cabin rental.

fireside resort
Fireside Resort is secluded in the woods, yet minutes away from Jackson Hole.

Luxurious Alternative to Camping

Recently, I stayed at a beautiful, comfortable and modern cabin near Jackson Hole, Wyoming. From the outside, my stand alone building looked like a rustic wood cabin. But inside, it was a sleek loft/ tiny home, equipped with a king size Tempur-Pedic bed, living area with fireplace and television, as well as a walk in bathroom with a spacious shower. There was even a kitchenette with stainless steel dishwasher, refrigerator, microwave, sink and a coffee maker.

Comfortable and Cozy

The layout of the cabin looks like the inside of a million dollar motorhome, where everything is well thought of. Hardwood floors, local art, craftsman style door knobs, elegant rugs – no architectural details are ignored.

wedge cabin
I stayed at the Wedge Cabin at Fireside Resort.

A private deck with picnic table and outdoor grill was perfect to roast marshmallows on a chilly star studded night. But mostly, I sat outside the cabin in the morning, drinking my first cup of coffee and breathing fresh clean mountain air. Fireside Resort felt like a boutique hotel in the atmosphere of a wooded campground. In fact, there is an RV campground at the back of the 25 cabins.

Jackson Hole square
There’s lots to do in downtown Jackson Hole.

Location, Location, Location!

Choices for accommodations near Jackson Hole include everything from boutique hotels to budget motels. In the summer, Jackson Hole downtown is bustling with people, markets, bars and restaurants. Additionally, most of the chain motels are located along the main roads. In winters, skiers and snowboarders prefer to stay at the chalet style hotels near the chairlifts at Teton Village.

Teton Village
Chalet style accommodations at Teton Village.

If you want to get a little bit away from the crowds and still be close to major attractions, Fireside Resort in Wilson, Wyoming is ideal. The resort is nestled in the Teton wilderness, and is less than 10 minutes drive from the ski slopes at Teton Village and 30 minutes from Jackson Hole airport.

Sustainable Stay

With sustainable built, LEED-certified cabins, Fireside Resort is one of only two such places to stay in Jackson Hole. The cabins are designed by Jackson Hole based – Wheelhaus, with a motto of “Living LARGE with Less.” For instance, they use less building materials, less square footage, less waste, high quality craftsmanship and materials, to build tiny homes and modular homes. Blending rustic and modern, Wheelhaus designs combine both the durability and quality craftsmanship of a log cabin with a modern focus on energy efficiency, innovative design, progressive space management, and top of the line building materials.

Interior of Fireside cabin
Fully functional and modern cabin.

Pet Friendly

Dogs are welcome at the Fireside Resort’s cabins and RV park. Therefore, be sure to inform the reception upon check in and pay a $35/per day per pet non refundable pet fee.

Outdoor Activities Near Jackson Hole

Winter Sports

The biggest reason to visit Jackson Hole is the beautiful landscapes, outdoor spaces and activities. Jackson Hole Mountain Resort offers 133 (named) trails and 12 lifts across more than 2,500 acres for skiing and snowboarding. Well-groomed Nordic skiing, cross-country skiing, and snowshoeing trails are also available and ideal for skiers of all levels. Additional slopes include Grand Targhee Resort and Snow King Mountain.

Grand Teton National Park
1800’s church at Grand Teton National Park.

Summer Fun

There is something for everyone in the family for outdoor fun during summer time in the Jackson Hole area. Golf, bike, hike, fish, horseback ride, whitewater raft – the possibilities during summer are endless.

Grand Tetons
Grand Tetons overlook the entire city of Jackson Hole.

Grand Tetons

Near Fireside Resort, are some of the most beautiful national parks in the USA. Grand Teton rises more than 7,000 feet (2,100 m) above Jackson Hole. The Grand Teton National Park has numerous lakes, including 15-mile-long (24 km) Jackson Lake as well as streams of varying length and the upper main stem of the Snake River. Some of the rocks in the park are the oldest found in any American national park and have been dated at nearly 2.7 billion years.

Bisons in Jackson Hole
Bisons roam around the surrounding areas.

You can easily spend a day or two hiking, and biking through The Grand Teton National Park near Jackson Hole. One of the best drives is the Moose-Wilson road, where you can see glaciers, wildflowers, lakes, wildlife and old scenic churches. Also, make sure to take a water shuttle on stunning Lake Jenny, and a short hike to see Hidden Falls.

Yellowstone national park
Grand prismatic at Yellowstone National Park.

Yellowstone National Park

Grand Teton National Park is only 10 miles (16 km) south of Yellowstone National Park, the oldest national park in the US. It is also easily accessible from Jackson Hole.

Travel tip: Have a printed guide and map handy, as there won’t be WiFi inside most national parks.

Allow for at least two days to explore Yellowstone National Park, or longer if you plan to hike, fish, kayak or horseback ride. Mostly in Wyoming, the park spreads into parts of Montana and Idaho too. Yellowstone features dramatic canyons, alpine rivers, lush forests, hot springs and gushing geysers, including its most famous, Old Faithful. It’s also home to hundreds of animal species, including bears, wolves, bison, elk and antelope.

Grand Teton National Park
Hidden Falls in Grand Teton National Park
Watch the Yellowstone National Park series on Amazon Video.

Traveling to Wyoming Responsibly

Because of the pandemic, wildfires and increment weather, exercise precautions while traveling to Wyoming. Adventure responsibly and enjoy the wide open spaces by frequent hand washing, wearing face covering and keeping social distancing.

Travel Wyoming safely
Follow the TravelWyoming safety guidelines.

Many restaurants in Jackson Hole and the surrounding parks are not open for dine-in, while others require advance reservations. At Fireside Resort, face covering is required to enter the reception area and housekeeping is offered for a fee. There’s also a hot tub on site, but it is closed due to COVID-19.

Where To Travel Sustainably in St Thomas USVI

The United States Virgin Islands (USVI) comprise of 3 main islands – St Thomas, St John and St Croix. I traveled to St Thomas and St John in July 2020 for an extended weekend getaway. The islands are hit hard from the pandemic, and from its economic impact. Many of the businesses I spoke to said that they survived the two hurricanes in 2017, but this is far worse worse than that, because there’s no end in sight. With no cruise ships coming to the island, and extended lockdowns, the heavily tourism depended locals, have absolutely no income, and sometimes not even enough to eat.

Whenever you travel to St Thomas in the future, choose your accommodations and activities to ensure that your tourism dollars go toward supporting the local economy. Here are some businesses that I saw doing a great job in sustaining tourism in USVI.

St Thomas airport
Fly into Cyril E. King Airport, St Thomas USVI

Visiting St Thomas in Summer 2020

Flying into St Thomas USVI is easy, with lots of commercial flights operating daily. The tiny airport is packed, though everyone is required to wear a mask. Car rentals from the airport are often sold out, so make sure to reserve in advance. Driving in St Thomas is on the left hand side (like in U.K.), while the cars are equipped with left side steering wheels (such as those in the US).

At home in the tropics B&B St Thomas
Location of my B&B in downtown St Thomas.

Much of St Thomas was closed when I traveled there, and streets in downtown were practically empty. High end retail stories that are usually bustling with tourists purchasing watches, jewelry and souvenirs, were boarded up and opened for limited hours on the weekends. Restaurants were open for dine-in, but with limited capacity, and served meals in disposable containers only.

In my opinion, this was a great time to travel to St Thomas, as it was quiet and peaceful. Not having crowds of tourists walking down the cobblestone streets, or facing lines of cars on the narrow curvy roads around the island, make it a little easier to explore at leisure.

view of St Thomas harbor
View from At Home in The Tropics B&B

Staying at a Family-Run B&B

One of the highlights of my trip were my accommodations – At Home in The Tropics. This 4-bedroom family-owned B&B is located in quiet neighborhood in downtown St Thomas, called Charlotte Amelie. Being in the center of the historic district, the home was once part of the Danish Governor’s mansion grounds. It overlooks the beautiful downtown and harbor. Right next door are the famous 99 Steps, the Three Queens Memorial, Blackbeards Castle. It’s also a short walking distance to shops and restaurants.

99 steps St Thomas landmark
The 99 Steps were originally built by the Danes to solve the problem of getting around the Charlotte Amalie’s hilly terrain.

Decorated in Caribbean style, each of the 4 bedrooms have their own entrance, a patio and private bath. From the window, you can see colorful flowers, the blue waters of the Caribbean Sea, boats in the harbor, and the green hills beyond. It’s the perfect place to relax and chill!

The innkeepers serve a scrumptious homemade breakfast outdoors by the swimming pool. The menu changes daily. Jessica makes gluten-free banana pancakes, passion fruit, mango and coconut tart (using fruits from her garden), curried eggs Benedict with avocado, and local organic coffee. Her friendly husband, Mark, takes care of maintenance and the garden. The couple lives on the premise with their son and two dogs, and are always available to make recommendations for dining and sightseeing. They have even set up a QR code so guests need not touch maps or brochures.

St Thomas B&B
Innkeepers Mark & Jessica quit their jobs and moved from New Jersey to St Thomas.

Mark and Jessica are creating a sustainable lifestyle in St Thomas. They use solar panels to generate power, filter rain water, and grow herbs and vegetables on a vertical garden. Because the B&B is well spaced out and has capacity for up to 8 guests, you never feel crowded or run into other people.

Eat at My Brothers Bakery

If you want to taste some of the best rum cake on the island, head over to My Brother’s Workshop’s Café and Bakery in downtown Charlotte Amelie. My Brother’s Workshop (MBW) is a nonprofit organization that provides mentoring, counseling, job training, education, and job placement to at-risk young men and women on the island. Chef and pro boxer Julius Jackson, author of the cookbook ‘My Modern Caribbean Kitchen’ and a well known celebrity on St Thomas, manages the organization. 

Chef Julius Jackson
Chef & pro boxer Julius Jackson dining with us in St Thomas!

In the past few months of shutdown, MBW has cooked, served and delivered over 37,000 free meals to the vulnerable populations on St. Thomas, St. John and St. Croix. MBW offers a grab-and-go take-out window offering pastries, sandwiches and daily Caribbean specials. By eating at MBW, you will taste some local delicacies, encourage the youth, and help sustain the economy.

Read my interview with Chef Jackson here
starfish in Caribbean
Discover sea creatures on a ecotour in St Thomas.

Explore with an Ecotour

On your next trip to USVI, discover the natural wonders of the island with a full day of hiking, kayaking and snorkeling with Virgin Islands Eco Tour. Kayak through the narrow waterways of mangrove trees, hike the deserted island of Cas Cay, and explore volcanic cliffs and a rare geological blowhole. Snorkel around a coral-fringed mangrove nursery in clear, protected waters.

soldier crabs
Lunch with soldier grabs organized by USVI Ecotour.

During the trip, you’ll also get a picnic lunch which you can enjoy surrounded by millions of soldier crabs. It is amazing to see them walking around your feet, looking for crumbs!

St Thomas guided ecotour
Hike along the cliffs and blow hole with a guide.

Take a Day Trip to St John

St John is the smallest of the USVI, and many businesses still not reopened since the devastating hurricanes of 2017. The best way to explore St John is by car. Take your rental car on the ferry (departure is every 2 hours) from St Thomas to St John. Travel time is only 20 minutes.

Cruz Bay is the main downtown area in St John’s where you will find restaurants and shops. Head over to Mongoose Junction, an outdoor mall built like a Danish plantation. Here you can pick up lunch, ice cream, coffee or shop for souvenirs.

St Johns beach trip
Drive around to find a secluded beach in St John.

Next, walk along the white sand beaches, swim in the turquoise waters at Trunk Bay, and hike the Reef Bay Trail and Petroglyphs. Grab dinner at St John’s before traveling back on a ferry to St Thomas. You can also chose to stay overnight at one of the boutique hotels overlooking the bay.

USVI Covid-19 response
Check travel restrictions to USVI.

Plan Your Trip to USVI

St Thomas had reopened for travel in June 2020. Though on August 13, the Governor of the USVI announced that the territory was reverting back to “Stay at Home” orders. Check the USVI Department of Tourism’s website for latest updates before booking your sustainable travel to the island.