The quintessential town of Vail in Colorado is best known for its award-winning slopes and luxurious ski resorts. Located at an elevation of 8,150 feet, at the base of Vail Mountain, Vail is set within the beautiful surroundings of the White River National Forest. Home to the expansive Vail Ski Resort, Vail is one of the world’s favorite spots for winter sports such as skiing, snowshoeing and snowboarding. But there are plenty of things to do in Vail year-round. In the summer, you can golfing, hiking and attend cultural festivals. In the Fall, watch the vibrant yellow and orange leaves change colors on the Aspen trees. And in the Spring, enjoy rafting, fishing, horseback riding and the great outdoors. Whether you are looking to hit the trails or to simply enjoy the charm of the German-style village, there are plenty of fun things to do for non skiers.
1. Learn The History of Snow Sports in Vail
If you have an hour or two to spare, take a self guided history tour of Vail. Fun fact: The city was incorporated only in 1966. Start at the Colorado Snowsports Museum at Vail Village, where you can learn about ski fashion and snowboarding history. They also offer one-hour guided tours that point you to important sites around the village.
Vail’s public art collection includes over 60 works ranging from sculptures, murals, playground components to site-integrated art. You can take an organized art walk by printing a map of the Town of Vail’s public art collection online. Or pick one up at the Vail Village and Lionshead Welcome Centers. The map will guide you through 36 works of art in Vail Village and Lionshead, as well as beyond the town center.
2. Stroll Through The Highest Alpine Gardens in Colorado
If you are a nature lover, take a stroll through Betty Ford Alpine Gardens, the highest elevation botanical garden in the U.S. It is also the only dog friendly botanical garden in Colorado. Based entirely for the conservation of alpine plants, you can see themed displays about fragile mountain environments from all over the world. The gardens are open from dawn to dusk, and don’t require an entry fee (donations are suggested). As most of Vail is pedestrian friendly, you can easily walk (with your dog) or bike from Lionshead or Vail Village to the garden.
3. Shop at an Eclectic Market
One of the best things to do in Vail is visit Vail Farmers’ Market & Art Show. It is one of Colorado’s largest farmers’ markets held on Sunday from 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. along Meadow Drive in Vail Village. Filled with over 125 artists selling handmade crafts, soaps, salts and candles, farmers with their fresh fruits, vegetables, honey and oils, you will have plenty to see and shop for. Also, make sure to try a warm apple strudel, salmon roll, and plenty of German and Mexican food!
4. Hike with a Llama Near Vail
Picture real life llamas on the back of a pick up truck, waiting for you in front of your hotel lobby! Vail-based tour operator, Paragon Guides, offers half day personalized hikes where you walk with a llama through the mountains and forests outside the city. No, you will not ride a llama, but they do carry your backpacks and lunch. They are pack animals after all!
The guide will tell you everything you ever wanted to know about llamas. They are curious, gentle and intelligent, yet like cats, they act on their own terms. There may be some pulling and feeding the llama, as well as walking and hiking through the slopes. And halfway through your hike, there is a picnic lunch served overlooking some of the most spectacular scenery in Colorado.
Llama treks can be tailored for families with kids, or a multi-day backcountry adventure with stay at mountain huts.
5. Spend the Day at a Ranch
If you are looking for an authentic ranch experience, head to 4 Eagle Ranch in Wolcott, about a 25 minute drive from Vail. With a scenic backdrop of mountains and horses, all ages can enjoy a number of activities at the ranch. You can go zip lining, horseback riding, take a 4×4 jeep or ATV tour. You can also learn to use a Cowboy lasso or just enjoy the vast expanse on a wagon ride.
On the first Thursday, the ranch offers a Western dance with DJ, food, and line dance instructions. And in the winter, there are traditional sleigh rides pulled by a team of Percheron Draft Horses. At the end of your action packed day in Vail, grab dinner, sit by a bonfire, roast marshmallows and star gaze.
6. Get a View From The Top
If you don’t ski but are curious to know what the view is like from the top, take a scenic gondola ride to the top of Vail Mountain. The Eagle Bahn Gondola runs out of Lionshead and Vail Village. Once on top at Gondola One, you can explore a myriad of activities, casual dining and great views, of course! Vail Mountain’s Epic Discovery includes fun family-friendly attractions such as the Forest Flyer Mountain Coaster, Eagle’s Nest Tubing Hill, Marmot Mini Kid’s Tubing Hill, kids zipline, bungee trampoline, Paramount Peak Climbing Wall, Gore Creek Mini Golf and more. You can take the gondola ride both ways or come back down using one of the hiking and biking trails.
7. Eat and Drink Your Way Through Vail
Though Vail is a small resort town with only 4,700 people, it attracts some of the best culinary talents from across the world. You will find a large selection of restaurants ranging from casual to mountain fine dining (no white tablecloths here), and cuisines such as German, Thai, Italian, and new American.
At Lionshead, have breakfast or lunch at the Tavern on the Square at The Arrabelle Hotel for great views overlooking the chair lifts. Or for something more casual and hearty, order German pancakes at a tucked away spot called The Little Diner. At Alpenrose in Vail Village, try the giant portions of beer, pretzels, pies, cakes and really good German food in an authentic setting. Also, you cannot miss Sweet Basil, one of the most acclaimed restaurants in the city, known for their locally-sourced fare and global flavors. Maria Busato, sous chef at Sweet Basil, received the 2020 Colorado Chef of the Year award from the Colorado Restaurant Association. Chef Person Shields at the Grand Hyatt Vail also creates innovative dishes using farm fresh produce.
8. Get a Shoulder Tune Up
You probably would never think of (or want to) visit a hospital during your vacation, but The Steadmad Philippon Research Institute in Vail is a popular medical tourism destination on its own. The nonprofit is globally renowned for research into the causes, prevention and treatment of orthopedic disorders. They have treated celebrities, sports champions and armed service professionals. The relaxing spa-like environment and top surgical care makes Vail an ideal location to restore and heal muscles and joints after injuries.
If you want to amp up your golf game, enroll for an hour or more in the Golf Sports Medicine Program. Here you can use the new Biomotion Lab to test your swing. Using a golf simulator and golf instruction with world-class data collection, your trainer will show you body motion analysis and injury rehabilitation techniques. Similarly, you can also learn how to better run, play baseball and ice hockey to avoid future injuries.
9. Attend a Yappy Hour
Traveling with pets? From June through Labor Day, take your four-legged best friend to the Gore Creek Terrace of Grand Hyatt Vail. Grab a beer for yourself, while they (the friendly dogs) enjoy live music, browser dog beer, dog treats and toys. 20% of the drink proceeds are donated to a local shelter, Eagle Valley Humane Society. Sometimes, the shelter bris adoptable dogs to the Happy Hour.
After a fun social afternoon, head for a walk to the Gore Creek Recreational path located directly behind the hotel. There are also two dog parks near the hotel – Stephens Park and Big Horn Park. And in case, you plan to stay overnight at the Grand Hyatt Vail, they provide dog beds, treats and an in-room dining doggy menu.
It was just about this time last year, when I was making my travel bucket list. One of the things that I wanted to do was see the northern lights. Sure, I had seen them once in passing before, while staying at a sheep farm in Greenland. I also traveled to Lapland, Finland and stayed at the famous glass igloo resort. But it snowed the entire time I was there and I couldn’t see any northern lights. So, this time I decided to plan a trip to Alaska, which is one of the best places in the world to see Aurora Borealis aka the northern lights.
Where in Alaska?
The city of Fairbanks is one of the best places to see the northern lights. You can fly directly into Fairbanks International Airport (most flights come from Seattle) and start your adventure right away. There are nice hotels, restaurants, museums, and a quaint downtown, where you can shop for souvenirs, fishing gear and sportswear. If you time it properly, you can even see the annual World Ice Art Championships or the Iditarod iron dog mushing race. Both attract participants and spectators from around the world.
If you want to double your chances to see a northern lights spectacle, head further north to Chena Hot Springs, or the villages of Barrow, Nome, Anaktuvuk Pass, Bettles, and Fort Yukon. Bear in mind, driving can be difficult in the vast and remote wilderness. There are often icy roads, moose crossings, no cellphone reception, and scarce facilities along the highways. You may not see another car or human for miles or hours!
Best Places To Stay
There are many motels and hotels in Fairbanks. Spend a couple of days at Pike’s Waterfront Lodge located on the banks of the Chena River, and a mile away from Fairbanks International Airport. They offer free airport transfers, family-style breakfast and a small sauna. There’s also a great chef driven restaurant – Pike’s Landing, right next door. The lodge is somewhat rustic, but that sets the tone for an adventure trip. The rooms are comfortable and have balconies overlooking the river and fireplaces to keep you cozy. The main reason to stay here vs. in downtown is of course, the northern lights. You can visit the aurora conservatory on site, sit by the fire pit under the stars, and opt to receive a Northern Lights Wake-Up Call. This means the front desk will call your room to let you know when the lights are out.
Chena Hot Springs Resort is a must during your northern lights visit to Alaska. Set on 440 acres, the wilderness resort offers comfortable accommodation and lots of on-site activities.
Most popularly known for its healing hot springs, Chena has all-natural mineral-rich indoor pool and outdoor lake, reaching temperatures of 106F. Now, it may be a daunting idea to get in a bathing suit when its freezing outside, but once you get into the springs, you feel instantly relaxed. Your eyelashes may have icicles on them, but thats a different story.
There is an ice museum with ice rooms and sculptures, and ice chapel. Get married here, or just drink an apple martini out of an ice glass! The geothermal power plant and greenhouse on the property are also worth visiting, as you get to see how your food is grown sustainability in a remote location. This is where most of the food that is served in the resort’s restaurant comes from. Other fun outdoor winter activities while at Chena are dog mushing (make sure to stop by the kennels to see Alaskan Husky), snow machining, ice skating, snowshoeing, and cross country skiing.
Of course, the main reason to visit Chena Hot Springs during winter is to see the northern lights. And you may see them from your bedroom window. But each night, the resort offers a guided tour, where you ride on military grade SUSV snow trucks up to the top of Charlie Dome. On the top of the mountain, there is zero light pollution and pin drop silence. You will feel like you are in a winter wonderland, with nothing but snow as far as your eyes can see. And hopefully, a star studded sky filled with colorful Auroras as well. Don’t worry, you won’t be outside in negative temperatures. There is a yurt with space heaters, hot chocolate and Ramen noodles set up by Chena.
Seeing the northern lights at Chena was the highlight of my trip. I watched the most unbelievable display of green, red, orange and purple hues covering the entire sky. The display started as soon as we got to the top of the mountain and lasted the entire night.
What Else To Do, Besides The Lights?
It is worth spending a day to explore downtown Fairbanks. There are many historic buildings dating back to gold rush days, a vibrant contemporary art scene, an array of delicious eating and drinking establishments, museums, shops, a cultural and visitors center and, in the center of town, iconic Golden Heart Plaza. Make sure to keep an eye out for painted steam vents, murals, sculptures, and other unexpected public artworks around town.
There are a number of distilleries and breweries, all of which have free tours and tastings. Don’t forget to try the Alaskan potato vodka! Also, there are over 40 Thai restaurants in the area that cook spicy dishes using Alaskan seafood, such as red king crab, Alaskan snow crab, wild caught halibut, and Copper River sockeye salmon.
The University of Alaska Museum of the North is a great place to orient yourself to the landscapes, wildlife and culture of northern Alaska. They also have exhibits and movies about the northern lights, so you can learn the science behind them.
Alaska seems like an odd location to see antique cars, but the Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum is pretty cool. This small museum has perfectly-restored early 20th-century luxury cars, 85 American vehicles from early race cars and elegant classics. Almost all these rolling antiques are driven during summer, to ensure they are still operable.
The World Ice Art Championships is an ice sculpting contest in Fairbanks produced on by Ice Alaska, a non-profit corporation started in 1989. The contest is the largest of its kind in the world and attended by more than 100 sculptors from 30 countries every year. Plan to spend at least an hour or two walking around life-size and larger, handmade, ice sculptures. The artists themselves are often hanging out around their pieces, so feel free to ask them about their incredible work.
If you haven’t tried your hands on ice fishing, Fairbanks is a great place to do that! Rod is a local fisherman who takes groups on ice fishing tours lasting from a few hours to a few days. You drive straight on to the frozen river, and dig a hole through four feet of clear ice to lower your reels. The best part is that the entire expedition takes place inside a warm and sheltered mobile log cabin, so you are not out in the cold. Also, if you happen to catch some salmon, arctic char or rainbow trout, your guide will happily cook it for you or ship it back home.
Another unique experience near Fairbanks is walking with the reindeers. Running Reindeer is a family-run reindeer ranch where you can get up close to these cute Arctic creatures. Jane started the ranch when she purchased one reindeer for her daughter as a pet. Over the years, she has rescued and cared for hundreds of animals. Now, they roam free in her backyard which is a boreal forest. On the guided tour, you can learn about reindeers, hike around the property and even pose for a photo.
The Arctic Circle
You may think you are pretty up north when you are in Fairbanks, and you are, but not quite inside the Arctic! Fairbanks is about 200 miles south of the Arctic Circle, so you need to either drive or fly to say that you have been to the Arctic. Northern Alaska Tour Company offers an easy 1-hour small plane flight that can take you from Fairbanks to the Arctic Circle tour, and bring you back by road or air. The aerial tour offers great views of the mountains, Yukon river, remote villages, and even some wildlife. While in the Arctic, you also get a guided tour of Coldfoot. It is a very small and scenic town nestled in the Brooks Mountain Range. Here you can get up close to see the famous Alaska pipeline, and talk to locals about living in the Arctic.
The Aurora Pointe Activity Center is a great place to not only watch, but also learn about the northern lights. Located just a few minutes outside the city, the secluded location offers more space to see the aurora borealis, while enjoying the luxurious of a modern lodge. Alaska-native Kory Eberhard tells you all about northern lights activity, forecasting, photography and their own personal experiences. There are also live cameras, drinks and snacks, so you can stay up all night!
Tips For Seeing The Northern Lights
The northern lights/ auroras are a natural phenomena. There is no guarantee that you will get to see this magical light show and with your desired intensity. But the chances of seeing them are very high when you spend three or more days near Fairbanks. The most important thing is that you have to be OUTSIDE and AWAKE late at night to be able to see the northern lights. Sometimes the lights don’t appear till midnight, and other times they intensify through the night. Plan to stay up all night if you want to see a good show! There are many meteorological forecasts that try to track and predict the northern lights. I found like most weather forecasts, they are not always 100% accurate.
Secondly, temperature in Alaska during this time can range from low of -25F at night to +15F during the day. So, it is very important to dress appropriately. I was honestly scared of traveling to Alaska in the dead of winter. But because I dressed carefully in lots of layers, I never felt uncomfortable. Generally speaking, you need at least 2-3 layers of pants, sweaters, hats, gloves/ mittens, and socks – I am not kidding! You may also consider carrying lots of hand and toe warmers for when you are doing your winter sports. Prepare to spend a lot of time outdoors, especially at night when you are waiting for the lights to appear.
Night sky photography can be tricky, specially when it’s below freezing outside. My point-and-shoot Canon captured only black skies, though my iPhone 11 did the trick. Make sure to bring a tripod for stability, a clicker so you don’t have to keep touching the screen, and battery packs because the cold drains the phone battery very quickly.
When To Go?
The northern lights are visible from October to April in northern Alaska. However, their visibility is better in the colder winter months when the sun’s rays fall around the poles. After tons of research, I also found that the lights are super vibrant during spring equinox (mid March). During the equinox, the earth’s axis aligns at the best angle for the magnetic field to receive the sun’s particles. Also, it is towards the end of winter, so temperatures are not as bone chilling, and the sun sets between 5-6pm.
Want to travel to Alaska with me? Reach out to info at goeatgive dot com, and allow me to curate your once-in-a-lifetime adventure to see the northern lights!
Last year, I spent a lot of time in New Mexico. From watching the stars at White Sands National Park, hiking in the ancient ruins of Chaco Canyon, visiting Native American Pueblos near Gallup, attending the largest balloon festival in the world in Albuquerque, to soaking in the healing waters of Ojo Santa Fe and staying at the newly renovated Bishops Lodge, I experienced a lot of what The Land of Enchantment has to offer. After traveling to almost the entire United States, New Mexico remains one of my favorite states. I feel it has a magical air about it, perhaps attributing to the ancient lands, spirits and cultures. Each time I visit New Mexico, I feel relaxed, amazed, and rejuvenated. So it is obvious that New Mexico should be the place for you to reset in 2022.
Yes, there are ski slopes, mountains for hiking and biking, hot air balloon rides, water rafting and more. But New Mexico is also an ideal respite for wellness and zen seekers. With deep roots in Native American traditions, some of the most beautiful natural terrain found in North America, and renowned healing practices across the state, you can find plenty of unique health and wellness experiences in New Mexico.
The natural, mineral-rich water from the hot springs has long been considered sacred by tribes of New Mexico. Their relaxing and rejuvenating abilities melt stress away and recharge the mind and body. This location is located right along the Rio Grande, providing the perfect ambiance and beautiful views.
This center offers a wide range of activities, from morning meditations to weekend retreats, all with the common goal of spiritual growth. They are based on a monastic system that has evolved over centuries in India, China, and Japan, offering you an authentic, meaningful experience with experts.
New Mexico is unique for many reasons, one of them being the dark skies. It is like seeing a portal to heaven. New Mexico has better star gazing than almost any other state. The site protects over 33,000 acres of gorgeous rugged canyon and mesa country, and was home to Ancestral Pueblo people hundreds of years ago.
Ojo Spa Resorts has two locations in New Mexico, Ojo Santa Fe in the heart of Santa Fe and Ojo Caliente, 20 minutes north of Taos. Both locations offer you an extensive spa menu, featuring wraps, facials, massages, hair therapies, and more. The resorts offer all-day access to communal pools or the option of a private soaking session. Soaking is an ancient ritual that, to this day, continues to be a revered healing practice. Every pool flows with pure mineral water straight from their hot springs and naturally rich in iron, lithia, arsenic, and soda.
You will get the chance to tap into the adventurous spirit of New Mexico while also experiencing the healing properties of yoga. This 3 day retreat features healthy, fresh meals prepared by the guides, daily riverside yoga sessions, running through the Rio Chama rapids, and exploring the nearby canyons.
Cleanse the body with a rejuvenating juice cleanse from this all natural, zero waste juice that can be delivered to the main cities in New Mexico, and even shipped to neighboring states. They offer all sorts of cold pressed juices, along with the popular adaptogenic juice shots, featuring ones for immunity, allergies, and endurance.
This high desert glamping experience is the perfect space for reconnection with nature and friends this year. KitFox opened in 2021 just 20 minutes outside of Santa Fe, and offers you a remote location with breathtaking sunrises and sunsets. You can partake in a range of activities or can choose to stay in the tent and take in the natural landscape around them.
Sound bath healing is what some would describe as an “internal massage”, as this workshop works to relieve stress and recalibrate your entire being through the power of sound. It begins with guided meditation and essential oils, followed by sound waves of the crystal singing bowls by a professional. Beyond workshops, they also host retreats and events all throughout the year in their yurt.
In the high desert mountain town of Taos over 3 acres of nature, Blue Sky Retreat and Bed & Breakfast is the perfect place for a wellness retreat. They offer a 5-day yoga retreat in which you can choose to experiential learning sessions to fully immersive yogic lifestyle. Beyond the teachings, they serve delicious healthy meals and personal attention from professionals to maximize the experience.
Los Poblanos is a beautiful property located on 25 acres of lavender fields, surrounded by cottonwood trees and lush gardens. Debuting in 2021, the property’s spa features treatments that incorporate botanicals and their own lavender products. These directly connect you with the regenerative farming practices while providing a true sense of relaxation. Additionally, you can participate in a Winter Wellness Retreat in February which is designed to enlighten four areas: physical, mental, social and personal growth. It is led by experts from numerous professions, all teaching their ways to incorporate wellness into your daily life.
Native Roots is an Ancestral Folk and Herbal Medicine Collective & School in Taos created to honor the elders and to hold space for traditional medicine. Learn from experienced mentors that work to help you learn how to incorporate ancient practices into your wellness routine. From reaching sobriety, to coping with grief, to art therapy, to astrology readings and more, Native Roots will help you transform your life for the better.
Located an hour outside of both Santa Fe and Albuquerque, Jemez Springs is a popular tourist destination known for its natural mineral hot springs. This charming town offers a large variety of hot springs, some are located on public land and accessible with a hike surrounded by nature, some are day spas offering treatments and massages.
Located in Santa Fe, The Inn at the Five Graces is a luxury hotel and spa with earthy, traditional adobe and stone exterior. The Tibetan-inspired spa matches this theme with rich colors and detailed tiles throughout the rejuvenating facilities and amenities. They incorporate herbal compresses, Himalayan salt stones, aromatic towels steeped in Santa Fe herbs and flowers in their treatments to really go the extra mile in comfort.
Bishops’s Lodge is a newly renovated hotel located less than 4 miles from Santa Fe, on 317 secluded acres bordering the Santa Fe National Forest. Furnished by talented local artisans from Santa Fe, the hotel features quality restaurants, a stable, a pool, a trout stream, and a healing arts studio. They offer a series of movement and meditation rituals, as well as an extensive spa treatment list. One of the featured treatments include the Antara CBD massage, which begins with a dry brushing to stimulate the lymphatic system. It is followed by a full body CBD massage with a soothing oil, warming CBD balm applications, and intentional turquoise stone placement.
Through the University of New Mexico, learn from a series of four courses all focused on Curanderismo from basic principles of healing properties of plants, to the global and cultural influences of traditional healing. Gain knowledge of the history of traditional medicine and healing practices around the world, as well as how it is used today. These courses are free and accessible online through Coursera for all to enjoy.
Lie back in a room lined with Himalayan pink salt crystals to promote respiratory, mental, and skin health. Surrounded by gentle soothing music and relaxing atmosphere, leave the cares of the world behind as you breathe in the natural disinfectant. A local favorite, this location has won awards for its effective alternative healing practices.
The best restaurants from around the U.S. you need to go to right now.
This year, I had the opportunity to travel all around the United States, and to Mexico and the Caribbean. As always, one of my main goals while traveling, is to sample the local food, and review the best places to eat. So, here I am sharing with you some of my best meals that I ate in 2021.
Now, there were a LOT of wonderful meals to choose from, so this was a tough pick. I want to recognize all the amazing chefs, restauranteurs and kitchen staff that are trying to make it in the business during this tough pandemic year. Across the country, I heard the same story again and again. Labor shortage, supply chain issues, low inventory, higher prices, and struggling establishments. Still, these five restaurants managed to create the most memorable dining experiences that I would cherish forever. And I hope you get to check them out for yourself too.
Their winter village outdoor yurt made a nice alternate to indoor dining, allowing for safe distant dining (each yurt seated one party). These were decorated with colorful quotes by famous Black artists. The Sunday brunch included a high tea with tea sandwiches, fresh baked pastries (my favorite was the cardamom French cruller), champagne and tea, each served in beautiful floral ceramics. All that followed by 3-course lunch options. I had chilled shrimp cocktail and whole fried flounder with collard greens and southern grits. Menu changes daily.
Tip: Make sure to reserve your table at The Grey months in advance, as they tend to sell out.
Ardovino’s Desert Crossing, New Mexico
This may be one of the most unusual locations for a fine dining restaurant. Once I crossed over the border from El Paso, Texas into the sleepy small town of Sunland Park in New Mexico, there was Ardovino’s Desert Crossing. Overlooking the Mexico border, the historic estate has been in the same Italian family since 1949. It has been an inn, restaurant, gambling parlor, event venue, farm, and more. On Saturdays, there’s a Farmers Market selling organic and pesticide-free produce, beef, pork, lamb and goat, fresh-baked breads and salsas fair trade coffee, and fresh-squeezed juices. During the day, they have food literacy, cooking demos, kid’s activities and gardening tips. You can eat outside under the shade of pecan trees and feel the warm desert breeze.
And for dinner, there is made-from-scratch Italian meatballs, risotto, pizza, pasta, and juicy steaks, made with locally sourced and organically grown ingredients. The menu changes weekly, but every dish is delectable. The 40-day dry aged ribeye got applauds from even a non meat eater like me.
Insider Tip: Stay the night at a refurbished vintage trailer at Ardovino’s Roadside Inn’s 35-acre resort for the ultimate glamping experience.
Located at the luxurious Montage Palmetto Bluff, South Carolina, Octagon is known for its contemporary Carolina cuisine. Chef de Cuisine Daniel Vesey created a 11-course “Taste of the South” menu, and director of beverage Robert L. Smith carefully paired wines and beers to match. Some highlights from the menu included: May River oysters with green apple sorbet, hot honey glazed quail pops, shrimp and grits, deconstructed Lowcountry boil, and melt-in-your mouth chicken and dumplings.
The dessert was a white chocolate mousse covered with black truffle (and made to look like one), with layers of caramel and blackberry. Earthy, sweet and savory – it was like nothing I have ever tasted before. Live music by Alan Price in the background also made it a memorable evening.
I don’t typically consider Bourbon Street area of New Orleans to be the city’s epicurean center. Sure, its great for a daiquiri, a slice of pizza, and a bustling nightlife. But for a good meal, I would advise walking a few blocks away to a nice chef-driven restaurant. On Thanksgiving day, though, I had a feast at the Red Fish Grill in the French Quarter.
Serving Thanksgiving lunch buffet, the very casual and friendly restaurant offered one of the most delectable seafood spreads I have ever had – almost 35 dishes to choose from! There was a chill bar with fresh oysters on the half shell, peeled shrimp with housemate cocktail sauce, and tuna ceviche served in mini ice cream cones. For entrees, there were stations serving whole turkey, carved ham, redfish and grits, a variety of salads, and all the fixings. And the desserts were aptly placed in a separate room (they needed their own special display). New Orleans bread pudding, pumpkin cheesecake, chocolate cake, and lemon tarts, were all worth being thankful for!
Other notable mentions in New Orleans: Asian-fusion tapas at Mister Mao and Chef Nina Compton Compere Lapin.
Garden Room, Atlanta
II found this bar/ restaurant to be the most fun atmosphere to celebrate with friends or family. The Garden Room is located at the St. Regis Hotel in Buckhead neighborhood of Atlanta. The ambiance is colorful and cherrie, with a greenhouse-like enclosure adorned with twinkling lights and floral-themed art. And the fun food and drink selections also go with the enchanted garden theme. My husband and I had a delectable spread of The Fruits of the Sea (chilled seafood tower), with New England oysters, king crab and Maine lobster, paired with a bottle of Veuve Clicquot champagne. We also ordered sharable small plates, and went back at another time for their black truffle pillows with wild mushrooms.
For dessert, the forbidden green apple mousse is a must! There’s also has a great selection of caviar and cocktails, so its definitely worth visiting for a special occasion.
Tip: Reserve a table at The Garden Room at least 3 months in advance, but if you show up early, you can also get a seat at the bar.
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…
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?
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 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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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, 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.
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.
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, 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.
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, 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.
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.
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.
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, 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.
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.
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 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, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!