travel

Firefall at Yosemite National Park

firefall

My visits to national parks have been few and far between—my first trip to the Grand Canyon was just a few months ago!—so it was no surprise that I’d never heard of “firefall,” at Yosemite National Park, before today.

For about one week each February, the sunset over Horsetail Fall creates an amazing illusion: It makes it seem like the water is on fire. And each year, hundreds of photogs trek to the park for a chance to capture this “firefall.” Some of the images out there are astounding—it really looks like red-hot lava, and not mere water, is flowing over the cliff!

Have you ever witnessed firefall in person? Or seen anything like it? (Yet another reason to add Yosemite to my list of must-visit places!)

(Photo byВ Jim Wilson via The New York Times)

 

Happy V-Day (from the West Coast)!

I’d have to say that this is one of my best V-Days ever—and it has everything to do with being out of NYC and away from the cold. I’m in L.A. for a few (crazy-packed!) days for work and the weather here is just gorgeous. It really doesn’t take much more than warm weather and sunshine to make me happy!

Hope you’ve had a warm, wonderful holiday, however you’re celebrating!

palm trees

los angeles

(How funny is the photo below? It’s faux New York at Universal Studios Hollywood. I was so amused when I saw that!)

faux NYC

Holland’s Tulip Fields

This morning, while I was shivering on my way to work, I counted how many months of cold we have left. I was feeling a little blue when I realized that warm weather is still a ways off, but my day brightened after I stumbled uponВ Normann Szkop‘s photos of Holland’s tulip fields, via Weather.com. (Which, coincidentally, is predicting lots of snow for theВ weekend. Yay. You know how much I love being cooped up in my apartment!)

If you’re also in need of a cheery dose of spring, take a look at Szkop’s gorgeous photos below and on his Flickr page. I can’t even imagine how brilliant those colors must look in person!

tulip field

tulip field

tulip field

(Photos viaВ Normann Szkop’s Flickr set)

Spirit Airlines’ Baggage Fees: Yet Another Reason to Avoid Flying with Them

spirit airlines

No, thanks.

While I generally avoid rants—and negative posts, in general—I feel like I have to say something about my recent experience on Spirit Air.

I’m all for budget carriers—they’re great for giving travelers more options and keeping fares competitive. But for some reason, on Spirit, more than on any other budget carrier, you really feel like you’re flying with a bare bones operation:В They cram so many seats into each plane, that there’s virtually no legroom. They don’t offer free drinks or snacks. Flights are notoriously late. And they always overbook.

All that makes for a not-too-comfy experience. But if you’re in a pinch and they’re the cheapest carrier, flying with them is doable. That’s what I convinced myself when I was searching for a last-minute, cheap flight to Miami. Spirit’s round-trip fare, of about $375, was cheaper than anything else I was finding, and was just below the maximum I was willing to spend ($400). So I selected my flights, letting my excitement about going away override my misgivings about flying Spirit.

That’s when things got dicey. I was directed to a screen I had to read multiple times: It asked me how many carry-on bags I wanted to pay for. Yes, that’s correct. CARRY-ON BAGS. And it’s no small fee. If you’re not a member of their $9 Fare Club, a single carry-on costs $35 each way. $70 in total. Which would have made my cheap flight not so inexpensive.

I was shocked; nothing on their site mentioned that a carry-on would cost so much—or that I’d have to pay for one, at all. I thought I was mistaken. It was late and I’d been at my computer for hours. I went ahead and paid for my flight without the extra $70 for a carry-on. Or dropping another $20 to select my seats.

The next day, I still couldn’t believe it, so I did some research. And found that, yes, Spirit does charge for carry-ons—calling it an “Optional Fee”—and their policy is even harsher than I thought. If you don’t pay the fee online and later decide to pay at check-in, then it jumps to $50. Even worse: If you’re boarding and they deem your bag larger than a personal item (the only thing you can bring, sans fee), they’ll charge you $100.

I was so annoyed, that I opted not to pay the fee. I packed my weekend bag with three sun dresses, a bathing suit, two pairs of sandals and a few toiletries. At the airport, I put my purse inside, as well, so they couldn’t say that was my personal item and that I’d have to pay $100 for the weekend bag. Luckily, I didn’t have to. But I saw many people pulled off the boarding line and charged $100 for the bags they tried to carry on.

My beef with carry-on fee? 1) It’s not optional for most people in most situations. I managed to avoid it this time, because I was going to a warm destination for just a few days and didn’t need much clothing—and, as a 5’0″ woman, my summer clothing is tiny. But that’s not feasible for most people. 2) It’s not a small fee, and therefore should be mentioned when you’re browsing for flights. My flight, without the carry-on fee, was $375. If I had to pay $70 for a carry-on, my fare would have been nearly 20% more. That’s a lot!

Were you aware of Spirit’s policy? What would you have done?

Trip Envy!: Guatemala

Lake Atitlan
After my 25th birthday trip to Costa Rica, Mal and I decided that each year, we’d visit another Central American country until we’d seen them all. For a few years, we did that, following up CR with Nicaragua, then Panama. (We also dipped down to Bolivia, on another occasion.)

Then, last summer, I broke our pact. I booked my solo trip to Guatemala, even thoughВ it killed me to do so.В But I was desperate to take a Spanish-learning trip and fixated on going to PLQ—despite the fact that a long vacation was out of the question for Mal, who’d just started a new job. I went and had an amazing time, though wished she was there, too!

So I was thrilled when Mal and Peter decided to take their own trip to Guatemala. They’re going to Xela, as well, but also spending a few days at Lago de Atitlan, Central America’s deepest lake. I really wanted to spend time there, but only saw in passing. (And snapped the photo above.) I’m looking forward to hearing all about their time in the country (look for an upcoming guest post)—and curious about how it compares to mine.

…and then we can figure out which Central American country we’ll hit next! (I’m thinking El Salvador…)

Buen viaje, Mal and Peter!! вќ¤

Last Year’s Birthday Trip: One Week in Panama

A few years ago, on the cusp of my 25th birthday, I decided that I would celebrate by going away for a week. At the time, I was constantly stressed about work. It was so bad that I didn’t think I could enjoy my milestone birthday unless I was far away from email and cell phone reception. So Mal and I spent a week in Costa Rica. We hiked around Arenal Volcano, Tenorio National Park and Monteverde Cloud Forest, then rang in my actual birthday in the surf town of Montezuma. We had such a great time that I decided I needed to take a birthday vacation every year.

For my 26th, I went to Cartagena, Colombia. For my 28th, Negril, Jamaica with my family. And last year, for my 29th, Mal and I spent a week in Panama.

I’m not going on a big trip this year; I didn’t want to dive into my new job, then take a chunk of time off. (Also why I didn’t go away for my 27th.) But since I never posted pics from last year’s vacation, I figured now would be a good time to look back at the highlights of what I was doing on this week, exactly one year ago.

Panama City

panama city

Mal and I started our trip in Panama City. It’s a big metropolis with an impressive skyline, but, due to time, we didn’t explore it much. The first thing we did was take a cab out of the city to Soberania National Park, just 30 minutes away.

Soberania is a popular place for birders; more than 525 species live in the park, and Pipeline Road is the most popular trail for glimpsing them. (Funny story: At the time, my Spanish was way worse, and I told one of the rangers I wanted to see the “aviones” on Pipeline Road. “Aviones” means airplanes—“aves” is the word for “birds”—which explained the confusion that ensued!)

Mal and I spent an hour on Pipeline Road. It proved to be a great place to see wildlife. Despite our hopeless animal-spotting skills, we were able to see many different birds and animals—including a family of peccaries that ran by us—without a guide or other people to point them out.

Pipeline Road, Soberania National Park

Pipeline Road, Soberania National Park

From there, we went to the Panama Canal. To be honest, neither Mal nor I were jumping out of our seats to do this, but we figured we couldn’t visit the country without seeing the canal. (Before and after we went, that was the first thing anyone asked us!) That morning, we’d called ahead to see when the tall ships would be coming through, and timed our visit accordingly.

Miraflores Visiting Center

Miraflores Visiting Center

Apparently, so did everyone else. The visitor’s center and viewing deck at the Miraflores Locks were packed. Packed! For some reason, I didn’t think that many people would be there, but it seemed like all of Panama was. We could barely find a place to stand.

Miraflores Locks viewing platform

Miraflores Locks viewing platform

Despite my initial indifference about the canal, I was fascinated when I actually learned how it works: AВ system of locks (basically water elevators for boats) lifts ships from sea level to the level of Gatun Lake, in the middle of the country, and then back down to sea level, allowing them to go from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and vice versa.В The canal opened in 1914, and more than a million ships have passed through.

It was actually really cool to see the locks open…

Miraflores Locks

…and watch the ships come through. (And especially fun to see the crew members waving at us gawkers.)

Miraflores Locks, Panama Canal

Panama Canal

Another view of a ship coming through the locks

After that, we headed to Casco Viejo, the historic part of the city.

Catedral Metropolitana

Catedral Metropolitana

Mal and I walked up and down the pretty streets….

Iglesia Santo Domingo

Iglesia Santo Domingo

…until we ended up at Plaza Francia, which leads to a waterfront promenade.

Plaza De Francia

Plaza De Francia

Panama City

A view from the promenade. (I also got the shot of the skyline from another section of the promenade.)

After walking the promenade, we were pretty tired so we headed back to our hotel for some pre-dinner R&R! (We stayed at the Four Points Sheraton, which was fine, but nothing special.) That night, we had dinner at Market, a really good steakhouse that would have been right at home in Miami.

Market

Market

Bocas del Toro

The next morning, we hopped a quick flight to Bocas del Toro, an archipelago of islands off the northeastern coast—and home to some of the country’s prettiest beaches. В The main island, Isla Colon, is tiny (just 24 square miles) andВ a popular destination for surfers—Mal and I were practically the only people without surfboards on our flight! Accordingly,В its main hub, Bocas Town, has a super-chill vibe during the day but turns into party central at night.

Bocas Town

Bocas Town

Luckily, you can escape all that by taking a water taxi (i.e. weathered little speed boat) to one of the smaller islands.

Water taxi dock

Water taxi dock

Mal on the water taxi

Mal on the water taxi

I wanted to spend a few nights at La Loma, a jungle lodge and chocolate farm, on Isla Bastimentos, but they only had one night open. So we spent our first night on Isla Carenero, at Careening Cay, an American expat-run complex of pastel-colored cabins (some over the water) at very reasonable prices.

Careening Cay

Careening Cay

After checking in, we took a bumpy water taxi to Red Frog Beach on Isla Bastimentos….

Red Frog Beach

…and spent a few glorious hours in the sun. We didn’t go swimming, though. Riptides are notoriously bad in Bocas and we could actually see them sweeping out to sea all day. But the clean sand and green surroundings more than made up for it!

Red Frog Beach

Red Frog Beach

The next day, we went to Cayos Zapatillas, two tiny islands off the eastern tip of Bastimentos. They’re a bit far (about 45 minutes from Bocas Town) but lots of people make the trip for the gorgeous beaches. As a result, water taxi operators vie for the tourist dollars—and can be a little sketchy. Once Mal and I were on the boat, we found out that they had basically told all the passengers different prices and times that we’d return—which led to bickering, until a price and return time were agreed upon by everyone.

Nevertheless, I was glad we went! The beaches were exactly how I like them—-clean, white sand with clear water on one side, wild vegetation on the other. Well worth the trip, even on an overcast day!

Cayo Zapatilla

Cayo Zapatilla

Later that afternoon, we checked out of Careening Cay, and Henry, the owner of La Loma, picked us up—by boat, of course—and took us to his amazing place on another part of Bastimentos. And that’s where my favorite part of the trip began.

La Loma is my idea of paradise. Or, I should say, eco-paradise, since Henry and his wife, Margaret, implement a slew of sustainable practices, such as utilizing solar energy, reclaimed wood and collected rainwater, and cooking with ingredients like organic chocolate from their farm and veggies from their gardens.В I’ve yet to stay in a place that’s more one with nature.

To get there, you ride through thickets of mangroves until you reach a small dock.В From there, you follow a walkway cut through the vegetation until you reach the wooden main building where there’s a kitchen and table for communal meals. Refreshingly, it has so few walls that you feel like you’re still in the jungle.

The bar/kitchen at La Loma

The bar/kitchen at La Loma

Getting to your “rancho” (i.e. cabin) is literally a hike; the 8-minute uphill hike was the most exercise Mal and I got all week! The trek is worth the effort, though. Each “rancho” is, like the main building, constructed from wood and virtually wall-less. And the views? Amazing.

"Inside" a La Loma rancho

“Inside” a La Loma rancho

Hammocks in the rancho

Hammocks in the rancho

La Loma

The view from our cabin at La Loma

What most amazed me was that Henry and Margaret conceived and built La Loma, themselves, years ago. I have no idea how they just gazed up at a jungly hillside and envisioned a place like that.

They are, besides being pretty genius, also two of the loveliest people I’ve ever met. They host the nightly communal dinners and create an atmosphere so homey, that I felt like I was eating amongst old friends. (Our companions actually included honeymooners who’d just gotten married in Bocas, and two late-middle aged couples, including one who returned to La Loma every year.) The food, was also, hands down, the best we had on the trip.

Lunch at La Loma

Lunch at La Loma

I was glad I could at least wake up and spend the morning of my birthday at La Loma, but sad when we had to depart in early afternoon. Mal and I took a water taxi to Almirante and headed to Boquete, a pretty mountain town that’s big with American ex-pats.

Boquete

Here’s where the trip went downhill. A taxi from Almirante to Boquete would have cost $120. We decided to save money by taking the bus. Big mistake. The bus—or, should I say, “bus”—was really a tiny van with seats the size of the ones you’d find on a preschool cheese bus. But with tons of people packed onto each seat. And the trip lasted 5 horrendous hours through windy roads.В (On my birthday, too! Looking back, I’m not sure why we didn’t pay for the cab!)

I started feeling sick on the bus and tried to convince myself I was carsick. But by the time I got off, I knew I’d caught a bad cold. Mal and I had planned to go hiking around Boquete, but for the next two days, I could do little more than lounge around our room at the Haven Spa. (We opted to stay there because there weren’t many other vacancies when we booked our hotel. On the upside, a serene atmosphere turned out to be just what I needed those last few days! Their massages were great, too, even though I desperately wanted to keep blowing my nose during mine.)

Haven Spa

Haven Spa

The best meal we had in Boquete was at The Rock, a cozy, classy restaurant outside of town. Its menu options are similar to what you’d find at nice places in the U.S.; accordingly, The Rock is super-popular with Boquete’s many ex-pats.

After Boquete, we spent one more night in Panama City before heading back to the U.S. Our last meal was at Rene CafeВ in Casco Viejo. They’re know for their inventive take on Panamanian cuisine, but neither Mal nor I were wowed. I was—and still am—dreaming of having a dinner of local fish and veggies at La Loma and then retreating to my bed in the treetops.

Have you been to Panama? What were the highlights for you?

(And don’t worry—even though I’m not going on a big vacation, I do have something small but very fun planned for my 30th. I have to go somewhere! ;))

A Long Weekend in South Beach

south beach

Three days in South Beach was exactly what I needed before starting my new job. (Don’t get me wrong—I’m thrilled about it, but definitely needed some R&R, especially after the holidays!) I’d been to Miami once before, about a year and a half ago, for Mal’s bachelorette party. While that wasn’t exactly a wild and crazy time, this trip was even more chill—I’m sure I was in bed before the rest of South Beach was going out for the night!

Some highlights/favorites:

EATS

Yardbird

yardbird

butter lettuce and mango salad

On our first day, we ate lunch atВ Yardbird, a hopping, Southern food restaurant with hip decor, run by formerВ Top ChefВ contestant Jeff McInnis. I wanted to eat everything on theВ menuВ (which included deviled eggs, pulled pork and shrimp n’grits) but opted for the butter lettuce and mango salad topped with local swordfish. I also had a few bites of the signature fried chicken and biscuit—and can vouch for both being amazing.

Ola

ola

My mom’s birthday was on Thursday (happy bday, Meme <3!), so to celebrate, we went toВ Ola, a Latin American restaurant that happened to be inВ my hotel. (More about that below.) It was the perfect place for a special dinner—the food and service were superb. The corn empanadas were probably the best I’ve ever had, and the hamachi ceviche was delicious. And the deconstructed key lime pie? Just the right balance of sweet and tart.

Joe’s Stone Crab

jumbo stone crab claws

I left a day earlier than my parents, so they wanted to send me off with a good meal—and I couldn’t have been happier with their restaurant selection. We went to lunch atВ Joe’s Stone Crab, a perpetually crowded, wonderfully old school institution where waiters still wear jackets and bow ties. Stone crabs are in season from October through mid-May and we were in luck: A batch of jumbo crabs had come in that morning. I’m used to eating littleВ Maryland blue crabs, so I was shocked at how large and meaty these guys were. (I’m still dreaming of those claws!)

Other South Beach Eats I’d recommend (from this and the last trip):
Puerto Sagua:В Classic (and cheap!) Cuban food in a casual, diner-likeВ atmosphere. (Perfect for the morning after a night out!)
Dilido Beach Club:В Delicious cocktails and eats—plus impeccable service—at the Ritz-Carlton’s oceanfront bar; great for lunch when you don’t want to stray far from the beach.
BLT Steak:В True to its name, meat is the main event, but the gigantic Gruyere popovers, alone, are worth the trip.
Spris:В Al fresco Lincoln Road spot that serves thin-crust pizzas.
Sushi Samba:В I’ve never been to the NYC restaurant, but I really enjoyed my late-night rolls and cocktails at this outpost, also on Lincoln Road—plus, the people-watching was fantastic, at that hour!

SIGHTSВ 

The Beach

south beach

Obviously. When I’ve left behind freezing, cold NYC for a few precious days in the sun, there are not many things I’d rather do than lie onВ the beach.В And luckily, South Beach, itself, is really nice. The sand is soft and well-kept.В On sunny days, the water is calm and brilliant blue—I find it hard to believe it’s the same Atlantic we have up north! I spent most of every day chillaxin’ in a lounge chair, soaking in the warm weather and listening to the sound of the surf.

Lincoln Road

2013-01-03 10.19.55

2013-01-02 14.01.51

It’s hard to go to South Beach and not end up onВ Lincoln Road, at some point. I love the idea of a pedestrian mall and wish more cities would adapt it; it’s a luxury to walk past shops, outdoor dining, public art and palm trees without the noise and chaos of cars. Lincoln Road isВ quintessentiallyВ Miami and nice anytime of day: in the morning, when you want to take a quiet stroll; in the late afternoon, when you want to shop after a day at the beach; or at night, when the restaurants and lounges fill up!

ACCOMMODATIONS

sanctuary south beach
South Beach has a ton of amazing hotels but, in my experience, it’s not easy to find deals. I booked this trip at the very last minute (just two days before) and it took me about four hours to find a good hotel in my price range, which was around $200/night. (Since I wasn’t splitting the cost with anyone.) I ended up at the Sanctuary, a small, quiet all-suite hotel one block removed from the fancy beachfront properties. The service was friendly—though not particularly polished—and the place had a bit of a motel-vibe, since all the rooms face into a courtyard. Still, I had beach and pool access via its sister hotel, the Shelborne, and my suite was very clean and spacious.

betsy hotel

My parents, on the other hand, stayed at the Betsy, a swank boutique hotel with a retro vibe and gorgeous rooftop. Rooms are small, but have lots of sweet extras, like Frette linens and Malin + Goetz products. (I had a little hotel envy over that!)

loews miami

For Mal’s bachelorette, we stayed at the Loews, which I’d highly recommend. It’s pricey, yet more affordable than many of its beachfront neighbors—and the service was on par or with what you’d get at a W or Ritz.

Have you been to South Beach recently? What are your favorite restaurants and hotels? (I’d love to know for my next trip!)

(Sanctuary photo via SanctuarySoBe.com, Loews photo via their Facebook page; the Betsy photo via TheBetsyHotel.com)