Category Archives: exploring

Ireland and why you should throw away that guidebook

The guidebook – the all-encompassing bible for travel enthusiasts – is what has united travelers across the world in their search for adventure. Even though we travel to see new places and gain new experiences, we often find that our own experience mirrors many other travelers’ experiences.

This comes as no surprise with the plethora of guidebooks out there (Lonely Planet, Fodor’s, Frommer’s, and Rick Steves, to name a few), which means everyone ends up traveling the same roads, eating at the same restaurants, frequenting the same bars, and staying in the same hostels.

Our reliance on these guidebooks has contributed to a fundamental shift in the way we travel. Gone are the days where we fly by the seat of our pants. Instead of being open to the unexpected and the endless amount of possibilities at our fingertips, we’ve become what Hemingway calls “over-itinerized”, in which our main goal in travel is to mark off everything on the “Highlights” checklist. Thus, we spend our time running from one place to the next without fully experiencing the moment or our surroundings.

There is nothing more obvious than burying your nose in a guidebook and following the tourist trail to show that you are, in fact, a tourist. And, there is nothing I despise more than looking like a tourist (even if I am one).

So I’ve thrown away the checklist because when it comes to exploring new places, I’ve found that less is more. It’s far more interesting to get to know the history of the town and talk with the people who live there than it is to figure out the most popular bar to go to or the best party hostel to stay at. These are the things that are important to me and it has always made my experiences more enriching.

So, I encourage you to stop treating your guidebook like the bible. Instead, devote your time to the one or two things you find most interesting about the country you are traveling to. In France, I would spend my time in the Loire Valley sampling their world-famous Valençay and Crottin de Chevignol cheeses and pairing them with local wines. For my friend who has a love of art, he might be content to stay in Paris and casually explore the Louvre over a full week so he can explore all of its treasures.

In Italy, I would savor the best pizza and pasta and pastries in the country. I would ask the locals what their recommendations are and that is where I would go, not even caring as I watched my waist line grow. For my parents who are wine lovers, they’d spend their time in Tuscany in a perpetual state of tipsy-ness.

In Spain, I would learn the Flamenco and eat tapas, then take a siesta and eat more tapas. My adventurous friend would run with the bulls and another who is deeply religious would hike the El Camino Santiago from beginning to end.

In Ireland, I would revel in Irish music and eat Irish food and drink Guinness and sit by the sea and explore the Irish countryside. And, when I actually went there this past month, this is all I did. I spent hours in pubs listening to Irish jam sessions. I ate beef and Guinness stew and bangers and mash and seafood chowder and Irish soda bread. I stayed in a cottage by the sea and collected sea shells. I hiked 14 miles through the country side and climbed the Connemara Mountains where I got to see the formation of a rainbow from start to finish.

I missed a lot. In particular all the popular and famous tourist attractions that every other traveler I met was going to or had already been there. I missed the Blarney Stone, New Grange, Dingle, the Burren, Cork, the Wicklow Mountains – pretty much everything the guidebook said I should do. And you know what? I had the best trip ever. I may not be able to relate to many other people’s experiences of Ireland but I did experience a part of the country that many of them didn’t, which I think is pretty unique and cool.

My point here is that you should do what interests you. And, if you stumble upon something that is completely different from what you set out to find or do, be willing to change it up. Because when you finally throw away that guidebook and itinerary, you will undoubtedly have a more authentic and rich experience.

The family I stayed with for a few days had a dog, Winnie. I took her to the beach. We played fetch and collected sea shells.

The family I stayed with for a few days had a dog, Winnie. I took her to the beach. We played fetch and collected sea shells.

Hiking through the Connemara Mountains.

Hiking through the Connemara Mountains.

Connemara Mountains.

Connemara Mountains.

Some more Connemara Mountains!

Some more Connemara Mountains!

Did I mention I met the star of Deadliest Catch? We hung out for a few days. He's crazy and fun.

Did I mention I met the star of Deadliest Catch? We hung out for a few days. He’s crazy and fun.

Captaining a fishing boat, "The Happy Hooker".

Captaining a fishing boat, “The Happy Hooker”.

There is a wall in Galway where you write a note to the sea. This one was my favorite.

There is a wall in Galway where you write a note to the sea. This one was my favorite.

Galway Bay.

Galway Bay.

Okay, so I did do one touristy thing. Many of you may recognize this as the entrance to the Dark Hedges in Game of Thrones.

Okay, so I did do one touristy thing. Many of you may recognize this as the entrance to the Dark Hedges in Game of Thrones.

Antrim Coast.

Antrim Coast.

Antrim Coast.

Antrim Coast.

On my 14 mile hike I came across a rock that had "Worm Hole" spray painted on it. I followed the red arrows and came to this perfectly carved hole in the middle of the cliffs along the sea. So cool!

On my 14 mile hike I came across a rock that had “Worm Hole” spray painted on it. I followed the red arrows and came to this perfectly carved hole in the middle of the cliffs along the sea. So cool!

Keith and I.

Keith and I.

 

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Filed under exploring, guidebooks, hiking, photos, travel

Sauk County: the Wisconsin river valley

There’s something about driving through the Wisconsin countryside that tugs at my Missouri roots and summer days spent on the family farm.  Between the rolling hills, lush green foliage, water, bluffs, and scenic overlooks this state is beyond picturesque, with the drive from Madison west to Spring Green hovering near the top of my favorite scenic drives list.

I was headed to the lower Wisconsin river valley to camp and visit my friend M who lives in that part of the state. Windows rolled down and wind whipping through my hair, I was belting out the words to TLC’s “don’t go chasing waterfalls” when I realized I’d been here for a year now. A YEAR. It’s strange because that part of my life seems so far out of reach but at the same time like it all happened just yesterday. Time sure does fly. But I digress.

M grew up on a cheese factory farm about 10 minutes outside Spring Green so we took a drive over that way so he could show me where he grew up. Though they weren’t making cheese that day, I at least got my very own personal tour and sampled some of the best sharp cheddar cheese I’ve ever had. Along the inside walls are pictures of the farm dating back to when his grandfather first bought it some 40 years ago. The tanks below were on the farm and they still stand there today so I just had to get a picture with them.

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After the cheese factory we went on a hike to St. Ann’s shrine – a sweet hilltop stone chapel dedicated to the mother of Mary. M and I both grew up Catholic so it had special significance for us. When we got there we took off on foot through the cemetery and past the stations of the cross lining a steep trail that went through the woods. There are only a few pews on the inside but sitting there you could feel a strong sense of spiritual presence in the room.

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Though I love all these hidden gems, there was one super touristy thing I wanted to do in Spring Green, which was visit the House on the Rock. It is just that – a house on a rock. It’s one of the main attractions in Wisconsin and something I wanted to mark off my bucket list for my county-by-county project. Lucky for me, M had left over tickets from last year so while he went to work for a few hours I wandered my way over to the scenic overlook off Hwy 23 and to section III of the site.

From the scenic overlook you can see the Infinity Room of the house (I would totally pee my pants being up there) and you can’t help but marvel at the architectural genius of Alex Jordan. I think maybe because I didn’t go into the house itself I was confused about what section III was actually about but nonetheless seeing the largest indoor carousel and perusing the collection of old, albeit sometimes creepy, artifacts was pretty cool. I only made it through section III but since tickets are good a year from the date of purchase I have plenty of time to head back and check out the other sections.

View of the infinity room from the scenic overlook off Hwy 23.

View of the infinity room from the scenic overlook off Hwy 23.

Nevermind the creepy figurines on the carousel.

Nevermind the creepy figurines on the carousel.

Another hidden gem M took me to is a diner tucked back in the foothills on a small air landing strip. Here you can enjoy breakfast and watch hangar planes fly in and out. It’s the kind of place where no one is in a rush (it took us two hours to even get our food) but with the extra time we could sit back, drink our coffee, and enjoy the conversation and views.

M was a fabulous tour guide!

M was a fabulous tour guide!

A restaurant named restaurant.

A restaurant named restaurant.

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A lot of the activities I got to do were things I would have never even known about if it weren’t for M, which is part of why I love having locals play tour guides wherever I go. One thing I do see as I’m writing this post and looking at the pictures is that I am finally moving forward with my life. It makes my heart full to see happiness in my eyes instead of emptiness and for once in a very long while I know that I’m not pretending to feel that way for the sake of those I am around. Thanks, M, for a great weekend!

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Filed under camping, County project, exploring, friends, happiness, hiking, outdoors, travel

What Makes Us Vulnerable As Women Also Empowers Us: Why Every Woman Should Travel Solo At Least Once In Their Lives

I am always surprised at the number of people who are ready to convince me that as a woman I can’t, or shouldn’t, travel alone. They make comments like: “Aren’t you scared?” and “You know you could get robbed or raped.” and the all too familiar, “Why would you even want to travel alone?”

There are even times where I’ve felt like people pity me. Like traveling solo is somehow synonymous with not having any friends or family who want to tag along. But the reality is that travel preferences, money, and vacation time often get in the way of making schedules work between two or more people. If I always stayed at home waiting for a travel partner I would miss out on a lot of fun.

The irony is that I rarely hear similar statements when a man decides they want to travel solo. Instead, you hear comments like “That’s awesome!” and “You’re going to have a blast!” To be fair, there is a vulnerability that women traveling alone face that most men do not, but this shouldn’t prevent you from hopping on a plane or getting in your car to explore somewhere new. It just means you need to be more alert and make smart travel decisions.

For example, don’t travel to an area whose current political climate is extremely volatile, is unfriendly to tourists, and/or is occupied by radicalists hell bent on beheading people. As much as you may want to go there, right now is not the time.

Also, don’t walk alone at night and be sure to dress modestly and appropriate to the culture, because if you wear a tank top and shorts in a community where every local woman is wearing pants and a long sleeve shirt, you will most definitely invite unwanted attention from both sexes.

The point here is that if you travel smart and take proper safety precautions, the very things that can make you vulnerable as a woman can also empower you. And while traveling solo as a female can seem like a daunting task, it is one of the most liberating experiences you will ever have.

For starters, you are less intimidating as a woman traveling alone than a man traveling alone, which means other fellow travelers and locals are more likely to approach you and help out.

People will invite you into their home for a meal. You’ll receive tips on what is worth checking out and what isn’t. When you have no idea how to get where you need to go someone will approach you, walk you to the bus stop and tell the bus driver to let you know when to get off. When you’re trying to book an excursion and the tourist operator says, “Two people minimum,” the other traveler standing across the room will ask if s/he can join you.

And, despite your preconceptions about solo travel, you’re never truly alone if you don’t want to be. Companionship will come in many different forms along the way. For me it was the group of school age boys who invited me to play soccer with them as I sat watching on the sidelines; the tiny Guatemalan man who asked if he could practice English with me every afternoon in Antigua’s Central Park; the Aussie in New Orleans who took me bar hopping on Bourbon Street; the indigenous woman in El Salvador who invited me into her home for a traditional meal.

Part of the process of discovering where you are is reveling in the people who reside there. It is one of the greatest joys of traveling. Because women are more approachable your experiences will be more intimate and enriching than you ever imagined or even anticipated.

Many people believe the greatest challenge of solo travel is that you are alone. But what many find to be the greatest challenge I actually find to be the most freeing. When no one is there and your day is wide open it means you can’t defer to the preferences of the person you’re with. You have to make your own choices and that can be a transformational experience as you gain insight into aspects of your personality and those activities you enjoy. I love the idea of waking up in a totally new place and asking myself,”What do I want to do today?”

Keep in mind that being adventurous and brave and courageous enough to embark on your own solo travel journey doesn’t mean you have to backpack through a foreign country like I did. Maybe to you it means checking out a national or state park nearby, or eating at a restaurant alone, or, like my grandma, going camping for the first time at age 70. Wherever you want to go, go. Whatever you want to do, do it. Don’t let being scared of doing all that alone keep you from following your dream of experiencing your surroundings.

The trip may not always be glamorous but when you get past the excruciating heat, poison ivy, broken down buses, frustration at not being able to speak the language, and having a bad case of giardia you will be left with the reassurance that you can stand on your own two feet.

Solo travel is humbling in that way: it makes you wonder what else you can do alone.

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NOLA: the city that stole my heart

I had a trip booked to Cambodia and Vietnam in January but after being hospitalized in December I ended up having to cancel it. Since most of my savings went to moving and securing an apartment (and the fact I couldn’t take vacation for six months after starting my new job) I hadn’t been anywhere since June 2014, when I traveled to Nicaragua. My vagabond feet have been restless ever since then as I usually take a trip abroad at least once a year and smaller ones throughout the states every two to three months.

Considering where I was at just three months ago and the emotional roller coaster I’ve been through over the last couple of years, it’s incredible the recovery I’ve made in such a short time. I’ve put all my effort into taking care of myself these last few months so I figured it was time to let loose, have some fun, and explore somewhere new. New Orleans just happened to be my pick only because I found a last-minute ticket for $200 dollars (sweet deal!). In the end, I’m so glad I went because it’s a charming, lively city – one that quickly stole my heart.

At the suggestion of my friend M who used to live in NOLA I rented a bike for the four days I was there. It’s a fairly flat city and given my hostel was a 25 minute walk to pretty much everywhere it made getting around so much easier. Compared to other tourists I felt like I saw a lot more of the city instead of being confined to the French Quarter or Bourbon Street. I also got a shit ton of exercise.

One thing I’ve noticed over the last five years I’ve been staying at hostels is there are infinitely more people from Australia than there used to be. Of the seven of us who ventured out to Bourbon Street on my first night there, five were Aussies. In general, they’re wild and crazy and they certainly know how to show you a good time. I love them for that, especially since I’m shy when first meeting people.

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That night I was also able to cross off on my to-do list eating beignets at the famous Cafe du Monde. Three-quarters powdered sugar and one-quarter dough, I’ve now had them sober and I’ve had them drunk. They are definitely better when drinking.

Perhaps one of the most beautiful neighborhoods I saw in NOLA was the Garden District, known for its architecture and historic 19th century homes. Most of the homes are enclosed by wrought-iron fences and many of them were draped in Mardi Gras beads. I found it amusing that such a wealthy neighborhood would add a touch of flare to their plantation style homes. It made me like them more. I would snatch one of these homes up in a heartbeat, if only I had millions of dollars.

PicMonkey Collage

I also spent part of a day doing a self-guided tour of the Lafayette Cemeteries. The St. Louis Cemetery is more widely known but my goal for this trip outside of food and entertainment was to do mostly free stuff. Lafayette was a viable alternative to St. Louis since it didn’t require you to pay entrance and guide fees.

Most interesting to me were the tombs that carried multiple family members dating all the way back to the early 1800’s (as shown in the photo above). What I found so touching was that family still visited their ancestors’ graves. I couldn’t even tell you where my great grandparents or great great grandparents are buried. In the tomb above, the flowers were fresh and I found the statue of Mary oddly comforting. At another tomb I stumbled across, a World War I medal was draped across the steps along with a picture. Seriously cool.

Days two and three were spent exploring the French Quarter and riding the ferry to Algiers Point. Algiers Point provides the best view of the NOLA skyline and you could spend an entire day in the French Quarter and still not see everything. The St. Louis Cathedral and Jackson Square are the focal point of the quarter and it pretty much reminded me of a castle in a fairy tale. I’d also recommend checking out the French Market, not so much for the stalls of cheap souvenirs but for the interesting food they serve there. Gators on a stick? Weird but kind of intriguing!

PicMonkey Collage2And I can’t forget the food! By far the best meal I had was at a dive bar in the Marigny called Mimi’s. C (who I met at the hostel) and I were skeptical when we first walked in but the atmosphere upstairs was pleasantly surprising. Mimi’s has the best late night tapas menu around. We started with one tapa and a few hours later had practically made it through the entire menu. Few tourists know of this spot but it’s popular among the locals and came highly recommended from M. Plus, you can actually hear each other talk. Other great restaurants I recommend are Surrey’s Cafe and Juice Bar for breakfast, Deanie’s for seafood, and Coop’s for some authentic Cajun food.

Perhaps my favorite part of NOLA though is the abundance of live Jazz music, especially in the French Quarter during the day and on Frenchman Street at night. I had a conversation with a local about this very subject and he told me about a local parade that happens every week from March to June. It’s not publicized and many tourists are unaware of its existence. C met me where the parade started and we walked along the route with hundreds of others who were playing music and dancing in the streets. Here is a short clip of the parade and another one of a jazz band we came across on Frenchman Street one evening.

It’s fair to say NOLA quickly became one of my favorite US cities. Pictures don’t do it justice but I do know I’ll be going back there someday soon.

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Filed under adventure, Algiers Point, biking, Bourbon Street, Cafe du Monde, exploring, Food, Frenchman Street, fun, Garden District, music, New Orleans, travel

Five ways to rediscover your city

Over the last week I’ve been talking with a friend about his desire to travel and how between school, homework, working, pets, household chores, and visiting with friends and family, life can easily get away from us. He mentioned how he was envious of my ability to travel somewhere new almost every month, his point being that most people our age live on a fairly tight budget.

I get asked this question all the time: “How are you able to afford to travel?” But what most people don’t realize is that travel is something I am not only extremely passionate about but also something I value above all other material things. Thus, travel is one of my top priorities in my personal life. I don’t spend money on anything else, except those bills I am obligated to pay. That’s how I manage to travel. Plus, the miles I rack up often mean I can get a regular priced plane ticket for a cheaper price.

But what got me thinking about our conversation is that people misconstrue being adventurous with having to travel internationally or to another city. Remember when I talked about my county by county project? I had just moved to Madison and all of my savings went to securing a moving company and first and last month’s rent. My vagabond feet were itching to explore but I couldn’t afford to go anywhere outside the state. So, I decided to get a little personal with the town I now call home. After all, this is where I am and there is a simple, quiet joy in reveling in that.

In light of my conversation with this friend I decided to put together five ways you too can rediscover your city. Hopefully it inspires you to be a little adventurous even while staying put.

  1. Go off the beaten path and try new eateries, bars, and nightclubs.

Most of us have our typical go to spots for where we eat and drink and hang out. It’s easy to get comfortable with the familiar but there are some pretty awesome hole in the wall restaurants, if only you look for them. And, if you live in a small town and have already been everywhere, hop in your car and drive to the next town over. Any place within an hour’s drive is, in my opinion, still exploring locally.

A resource you can look to for guidance is what many city magazines have started doing. For example, where I live, there is a Best of Madison magazine that comes out every year, highlighting the top eateries, bars, and nightclubs broken down by category. This is a good starting place, but you can even check out Yelp for some suggestions.

Since moving to Madison, I’ve been on the hunt for the best burger and cheese shop. My best bet was talking to locals and getting their recommendations of places to check out. I ended up stumbling across two places that weren’t in any guide book. I found the juiciest burger, piled high with bacon and blue cheese crumbles, inside a dive bar that was tucked in the middle of the woods just two miles from my apartment building. None of my friends have heard of it but it’s a spot locals in my neighborhood frequent on the regular. And, as far as finding the best cheese shop, there is a little dairy farm about an hour outside my town that makes their own cheese. Free samples and wine to pair with it – double score!

  1. Pay attention to the details.

Wander a random neighborhood or new part of town and be sure to change it up during the week. Exploring downtown today? Check out an ethnic community tomorrow. Don’t have the kind of diversity? There has to be an Amish community somewhere near you. Don’t forget to take your camera either. It’s amazing how much more you see when you actually take the time to look at your surroundings. You may even find some interesting things – alley ways with bold and colorful murals, a new park with some interesting sculptures, or a view of the sunset or skyline so breathtaking you can’t help but appreciate the peace it brings.

  1. Don’t be afraid to be a tourist.

You spend four years (or a lifetime) in one place and all of a sudden you realize you haven’t seen the main attractions of your town. Visit a local museum (many college campuses have them and are open to the public for free) or a national park nearby. Learn about your area’s history and how the city came to be.

I come from a smaller town so I understand there aren’t always a lot of big attractions in your backyard but there are smaller, even free, attractions nearby. In my hometown, everyone talked about “The Big Tree” – an oak tree that has sat on the outskirts of town for over a 100 years. It sits on the edge of a dirt road and no other vegetation is nearby. I had never been there despite living my entire life in the area so one day I drove out, took some pictures, wrote my name in chalk on the plank wood nearby, and read. It was glorious.

I now live in Madison, WI and everyone talks about Picnic Point – a walking path that leads to a peninsula and gives amazing views of the city skyline. I went there with a friend, we sat in a tree like Forrest and Jenny, then skipped some rocks across the water. It was a chill activity that let us see a new side of our city.

Being adventurous doesn’t mean you have to travel to a new state or even internationally. It just means trying something new that  you’ve never done. It brings an element of freshness and vitality to your life and makes for some beautiful memories.

  1. Revel in nature.

Live near a lake? Go ice skating in the winter or paddle boarding in the summer. Live in a mountainous town or a city with bike trails? Go off the beaten track and head out on your mountain or road bike. You never know, you may even stumble across a creek or river you can dip your feet in. How far are you from the beach? If it’s within a couple hour’s drive, you’re still doing the local thing. Spend the day sunbathing and building sand castles. And, depending on the season, you can get your hands dirty picking pumpkins, apples, cherries, and blueberries from nearby farms. As the poet Matthew Henry said, “When the world burdens you, find peace in nature.”

  1. Volunteer for a day (or two or three).

There are heaps of opportunities to volunteer in your community. Help pick up trash and clear brush off the trail, serve meals at a homeless shelter, run a 5k for a charity or cause, help build a home with Habitat for Humanity, plant a garden for a local children’s school, package food at a local food bank. There is no shortage of opportunities available to you, especially with a week’s time on your hands. Volunteering isn’t just something nice that you do, it actually makes an impact on your community.

One day, a group of friends and I decided to volunteer at the local food bank making Thanksgiving meal packages to be delivered. From our efforts, the Food Bank was able to deliver the boxes earlier than anticipated and we helped provide a Thanksgiving meal to over 900 families.

I can also attest to the fact that volunteering is a way to enrich your spirit. Having bipolar II disorder, it aids in the recovery process, particularly in building self-confidence about having a purpose and giving meaning to my community and to the world. I think that lesson can be applied to anyone.

There are a lot of things you can do in your own backyard that doesn’t break the bank. So if you’re thinking about spending money you don’t have on a trip to the beach or somewhere abroad, think of the endless abilities waiting at your feet, right where you are. A little staycation may even give you a new appreciation for your city and all it has to offer.

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Filed under adventure, County project, exploring, travel