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.

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.

Here’s How We Pickle Around the World

Coming from a family of at-home gardeners, we have always planted a summer garden. Typically, we grow herbs and vegetables such as basil, sage, tomatoes, and of course, cucumbers. 

Every summer, we plant cucumbers so we can make our family’s favorite – refrigerator pickles. Never heard of refrigerator pickles before? Essentially, they are homemade bread and butter pickles, but more delicious!

As we once again got ready to make this favorite summer treat once again, I started thinking about all the other types of pickling techniques throughout the world. Be inspired to make your own pickles with these ideas…

Keep a handy herb garden to make your pickles

How We Got Pickling

Did you know that pickling started over 4,000 years ago? Preserving food in vinegar or oils is one of the oldest methods of food storage in the world. Pickling got its start when the ancient civilization of Mesopotamia soaked cucumbers in acidic brine to keep them fresh. 

Now, countries all over the world have different methods and varieties of products that they use to make their favorite “pickle” recipe.

India: Mango Achar

Cucumbers are native to the Indian Sub Continental Region, and the Tigris Valley is where historians claim pickling first got its start. Today, people in India use a variety of fruits and vegetables, which they brine in oil instead of vinegar.  

One of the most commonly found at every meal in India is a sweet and spicy mango pickle. To make Mango Achar, use fresh unripe green mangoes, mustard paste, mustard oil, red chili pepper, and other spices. 

You can buy kosher dill pickles at WholeFoods or order them online

United States: Dill Pickles

The word “pickle” actually has Dutch or German origin. So it is not surprising that the American staple – dill pickle – did not originate from the United States at all. The concept of a dill pickle was brought over during the wave of immigration in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Before that, the Jewish population in many Eastern European countries still fermented cucumbers to add flavor to their otherwise simple winter meals.

The key to making a dill pickle lies in both the quality of spices and in the duration of time that the pickles are allowed to ferment. Dill pickles are an easy snack to make at home and pair well with sandwiches. 

Korea: Kimchi

Like in many countries around the world, the tradition of Korean kimchi started as a result of harsh winters that did not make for a good growing season. What started as a simple dish of cabbage soaked and fermented in salt, has over time changed and adapted under the introduction of influences from other cultures over time. 

Today, kimchi is typically made with Chinese cabbage or vegetables mixed with the key ingredient of gochugar (Korean chili pepper).

Pair your kimchi pickle with Korean pancakes and kimchi fried rice

Sweden: Pickled Herring

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Fish on a Friday the saying goes, so after three days in the pickle i plate my soused herring, here with compressed cucumber, beetroot, fennel fronds, fennel mayonnaise, capers and some wee white radish flowers picked by @tablejamesmcneish – really enjoyed getting my Scandi head on for this, great fish as ever from @welchfishmongers – will come back to this, flavours are all there though so happy enough with this. Have a great Friday folks, stay safe. Keep your gatherings small, we’ve come this far don’t fuck it up 🙏 #pickledherring #chefbarrybryson #pickling #fishonafriday #plating #scaniinspired #scottishfood #wildherbs #pickyourown #learning #developmentplate #newthoughts #keeponcooking #myleithkitchen #chefinscotland #privatechef #illbringtherestauranttoyou #staysmall #dontfuckitup #personalchefedinburgh @foodinedinburgh @thestaffcanteen @findingfantasticfood thanks for the shopping company @danielpioro

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The tradition of pickling herring began in the medieval period in Sweden. As a water-locked country, herring were found in abundance and was an easy product to export outside of Sweden. However, in order to keep the product fresh so that it could reach further distances, they began to pickle the fish. It was also a good way to have sustenance during the long and cold Swedish winters. 

Today, many Scandinavian communities pickle herring simply in vinegar. You can also add vegetables such as onions, dill and allspice to add a little more flavor. Swedish meals often consist of tapas like cold dishes, called smörgåsbord, where you will find these herring pickles along with smoked salmon, caviar, cheese and bread.

Germany: Sauerkraut

Sauerkraut is one of those foods that you think of as distinctly German. Surprisingly, sauerkraut originated on the other side of the globe – in China! During the construction of the Great Wall of China, workers typically ate rice and cabbage in the summer time. In the winter, though, they added wine to the mixture, which resulted in fermentation. 

Today, German chefs have traded wine for salt. You can make this delicious side dish simply by adding salt to finely chopped cabbage. Then, allow the mixture to sit until the acid in the cabbage, creates a sour flavor that is distinctive of sauerkraut.

~By Jordan Dunn, Marketing and Communications Intern at Go Eat Give. Jordan is a Public Relations and Communications Marketing Major at Siena College in Upstate NY. She has a passion for writing, traveling, and advocacy. Follow her on Facebook and Blog for more about her personal travel stories.

Cuba – What has changed?

On July 20, 2015, the Cuban embassy in Washington DC was reestablished after 50+ years. Meanwhile, US intersection opened in Havana, Cuba on the same day. I happened to witness this historic moment with some Cuban artists at their studio in Havana. Their reaction to the events was overwhelming! They were singing, clapping and in tears to see the Cuban flag being hoisted on US soil once again. The general feeling I got was that they were overjoyed to be finally accepted as a legitimate country by their neighbor, especially when most Cubans have relatives living in the US. Watch this video of people’s reactions. US embassy in Havana

I spoke to many locals to understand how they think Cuba will change as a result of lifting of the embargo and when American businesses were allowed to come to Cuba. There were mixed reactions. For most people, it was a welcoming change from being isolated and they were excited to get more access to resources. Because of limited trade, there is not much to buy in Cuba. Cars are recycled for decades, clothes are handed down through generations, and food is rationed. I have only seen one place that would resemble a tiny shopping mall, as we know it here. Even the artists I met said they cannot buy materials to make their little souvenirs – clay statues, cloth dolls, silver jewelry.

Tourism will thrive of course, and everyone from bartenders and servers, to taxi drivers and shopkeepers will make more money.  Already, over 2 million tourists have visited Cuba in the first half of this year. The guides tell me they have not had a slow season so far, while in the past, traffic declined in the summer months due to the heat. Increased tourism has come with its perils – more traffic and pollution. Walking along the Malecon, I saw cigarette buts and garbage dotting the entire pathway.

malecon havana

The Cuban infrastructure is not yet setup to support an influx of visitors. There are limited number of hotels, many of which are in need of renovation. Power cuts are frequent. Service needs improvement. One change I did notice was the lower cost of internet – $2/hour as oppose to $8/hour when I first visited two years ago. There is also a hotspot in Vedado for locals to access wifi now. Most people I met had an account on Facebook.

An older gentleman did not seem very thrilled with the prospect of Cubans being exposed to American culture. He said he wouldn’t want to see any drugs, prostitution and fast food coming into Cuba as a result of open relations. Note that currently there is almost no crime in Cuba. It is very safe to walk around alone even in the night, although this time I saw more beggars and street peddlers. The Cuban population is already seeing an increase in heart disease, obesity and HIV. If you go to a Cafeteria (where the locals eat), you will find mostly pizza, burgers, ham and cheese on the menu. He feared that increasing the access to packaged foods would only create more health issues.

cuban cafeteria

An owner of a private restaurant known as Paladar was super excited for he can travel to the US more easily. He said that didn’t bother to apply for a visa before because the process could take 2-4 years. Now with the embassy opening, it would be much faster. It would also be good for business, although he notices increased competition as many more restaurants have opened up in Havana within the past few months.

line outside US embassy in Havana

One of the doormen at a popular restaurant in Havana said personally the changes won’t affect him so much. He is a psychotherapist and makes the average living of a doctor i.e. $50/ month. He is passionate about his profession but can’t make ends meet for his family of four, so works illegally as a doorman at night. (Legally, doctors in Cuba cannot work a second job as they should be in top mental and physical condition). He wasn’t hopeful that doctors would make anymore in the near future, and he wasn’t open to the idea of switching his career to wait on tables (currently, artists and waiters earn the most income).

I would have to say that Cuba is definitely changing. The old classic American cars from the 1950’s still exist, but new imported cars and hop-on-hop-off buses are slowly replacing them. Streets are begging to fill with cafes, restaurants and souvenir shops are tourists from all over the world are flocking to get a last glimpse of time capsuled Havana.

hop on bus in Havana

Bread, not cake

In spring of 2000, I was enrolled in a Leadership and Group Dynamic course while pursuing my Bachelors degree at Georgia State University. On the last day of class, we were asked to bring a dish each so we can have a potluck party and celebrate the end of the course. It was also a diversity exercise so we were encouraged to bring a dish that represented our own culture or ethnicity.

I prepared bite size tandoori chicken nuggets. Others brought sushi, noodles, macaroni, etc. One American girl brought a dry nutty cake in a loaf pan. It was delicious so I asked her what it was. (Growing up in India, I had never come across anything like it). She said it was “banana nut bread” and I was a bit confused.  I exclaimed to her that it tastes like cake, looks like cake, so how is it bread? Well, I am sure she had never been asked that question before so her response was “Well, it’s just called banana nut bread.”

Whatever you want to name it, I like to have my banana nut bread for breakfast, coffee time, snack, and dessert! I have also gotten my mom and hubby hooked on it (especially the one I bake). I have tried different recipe, made my different people and restaurants. Some are too dry, others don’t have enough crunch. After my banana nut bread tasting escapades, I decided to create my own recipe that would perfect everything that they all are lacking (wink). Believe me; I have people who can testify!

It is pretty easy to make provided that you have the right measurements.  I also like to make it a little healthier by using olive oil instead of canola oil or butter. The cereal helps it from getting soggy and also adds a nice crunch.

Banana Nut Bread

  •  1 ¼ cups all purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • ½ teaspoon cinnamon
  • Sprinkle of salt
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • ½ cup olive oil
  • 3 medium ripe bananas
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 cup Post banana nut crunch cereal
  • ¾ cup coarsely chopped walnuts

Preheat oven to 350F. Prepare a 9×5 loaf pan coated with baking spray. Lightly toast walnuts in toaster oven for 2-3 minutes at 300F. In a kitchen stand mixer, beat the sugar, eggs and oil on high till combined. Reduce to medium speed, and then add flour, baking soda, cinnamon, salt and vanilla. Once the mixture is creamy, break the bananas with your hand and blend into the batter. Finally, add the cereal and walnuts and gently fold with a rubber spatula. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake in oven for one hour or until toothpick comes out clean.

Serve warm or at room temprature. Add chocolate chips into the batter to make it more fun. Serve with vanilla ice cream and butterscotch sauce to make it a restaurant quality dessert.

If you try this recipe, I want to hear from you…

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