vacation

Gorbea Natural Park, Basque Country, Spain

Gorbea Natural Park was one big reason we stayed at Hotel Ellauri. In our desire to detox from city life, we wanted easy access to nature, and Ellauri sits near the edge of the park.

On our second day in Spain, we went hiking in Gorbea. Kepa and Randa, Ellauri’s innkeepers, were very knowledgable about the trails. They gave us several options, ranging in length from two to eight hours. We weren’t quite feeling an all-day hike, so we chose a nearby trail that would take an hour and a half to ascend, and an hour to descend.

After breakfast, we went to Zeanuri’s tiny store for fruit, bread and cheese. That afternoon, we drove through the tiny town of Areatza and up a narrow, winding road to the trailhead. We parked in the Pagomakurre area, then started the Arraba-Kargaleku trek.

Hiking in Gorbea Natural Park | nycexpeditionist.com

It was the perfect day for hiking—sunny, yet cool.

Hiking in Gorbea Natural Park | nycexpeditionist.com

The gravelly path made for pretty easy walking; the ascent wasn’t very steep.

Gorbea Natural Park | nycexpeditionist.com

Along the way, we passed a few other hikers, most who were on their way down. That was one nice thing about the trail—there was never a point when we were hiking alongside or behind anyone.

Gorbea Natural Park, Basque Country, Spain | nycexpeditionist.com

About 20 minutes into the hike, we came across a herd of grazing goats. Each one had a bell tied to his neck. The collective sound was a mellifluous symphony.

Goats at Gorbea Natural Park, Basque Country, Spain | nycexpeditionist.com

Shortly after, we came across some cows. They, too, had bells around their necks, though of a different size from the goats. They created their own melody.

Cow at Gorbea Natural Park, Basque Country, Spain | nycexpeditionist.com

Cows grazing at Gorbea Natural Park, Basque Country, Spain | nycexpeditionist.com

Farther along the way, horses grazed. Of course, they had their own bells.

Horse at Gorbea Natural Park, Basque Country, Spain | nycexpeditionist.com

Horses at Gorbea Natural Park, Basque Country, Spain | nycexpeditionist.com

I’d never hiked a trail with so many animals—and such musical ones! The sounds of the different bells, plus the green landscape, were incredibly soothing and relaxing.

After about an hour and a half of hiking, we reached what appeared to be the summit of our trail.

Gorbea Natural Park, Basque Country, Spain | nycexpeditionist.com

We stopped for a snack…

M & P at Gorbea Natural Park, Basque Country, Spain | nycexpeditionist.com

…and just enjoyed the view.

Gorbea Natural Park, Basque Country, Spain | nycexpeditionist.com

Gorbea Natural Park, Basque Country, Spain | nycexpeditionist.com

As we ate, we realized that hikers were coming over the ridge. It was possible to go from summit to summit. We asked how far to the next one; it would take about an hour and a half.

We debated whether to continue on. Peter was game, but Mal and I weren’t sure we were up for walking another 4+ hours. (There and back, plus returning to our car.)

So we took a few more photos…

M&P, Gorbea Natural Park, Basque Country, Spain | nycexpeditionist.com

H&M, Gorbea Natural Park, Basque Country, Spain | nycexpeditionist.com

…before hiking back down.

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Fall Vacation, Booked: Northern Spain

Errezil view by Oskar Calero on Fivehundredpx

I couldn’t be happier. Over the past few weeks, my family and I have been discussing possible destinations for a fall trip. This weekend, we decided on a place and booked flights: We’re headed to northern Spain at the end of September!

None of us have been there before. (I’ve actually never visited Spain!) To be honest, I didn’t know much about the area until I started researching. But the more I read, the more excited I became. It seems that northeast Spain has pretty beaches, amazing mountains, picturesque vineyards and quaint towns.

We’re still figuring out how we’ll break down our 11 days there, but here’s the rough itinerary we’re considering: We’ll spend the first few days outside Bilbao, exploring the area and neighboring Asturias. From there, we’ll drive to La Rioja, and enjoy some time among the vineyards. Then, we’ll head north, into the French Pyrenees. We’ll finish up with a few days in and around San Sebastian. (Perhaps including Errezil, the place in the photo above.)

Though it’s going to be my first time in Spain, I’m okay with bypassing Madrid and Barcelona. I’d love to spend time exploring both places, but I really need a break from hectic city life. I’m very much looking forward to more low-key enjoyment—and lots of gorgeous scenery.

Have you been to northern Spain or southern France? If so, I’d love to hear your recommendations!

(Image by Oskar Calero via 500px on Pinterest)

My Favorite Quiet Beaches

On Saturday, I went to Rockaway to get my beach time for the week. As much as I love being by the ocean, I’ll admit that I was feeling a little weary of crowds.

Most NYC-area beaches—Rockaway, Jones, Robert Moses, Long Beach, Coney Island—are pretty packed on the weekends. And for good reason! Everyone wants to get away, even if only for a few hours.

I do love seeing so many people escaping the city and enjoying the sand and surf. But the overall experience isn’t all that relaxing. You’re surrounded by others—and their conversations and music—at all times. While there, it’s hard to feel calm and peaceful when you can barely hear the waves over all the din.

I’ve been lucky to travel to beaches that have been both beautiful and deserted. This weekend, I was thinking about them and wishing I could transport myself back to:

Water Cay, Eleuthera, Bahamas

Last year, Mal, Peter, and two friends and I rented a house on Eleuthera. We stayed in a sparsely populated part of the island, and our house was set on a gorgeous, private beach:

Cotton Bay, Eleuthera

Each day we got to enjoy the soft sand and blue waters without seeing a soul.

Our rental also gave us access to the owner’s boat and a captain who could take us out. Of course, we had to take advantage of that! Our captain, Sidney, took us to Water Cay, a tiny island off Eleuthera’s Caribbean coast. It was absolutely deserted, with calm, clear water and fine white sand.

Water Cay, Eleuthera

It was easily one of the most spectacular beaches I’ve seen in my life.

 

Big Corn Island, Nicaragua

Mal and I went to Big Corn Island in August 2009. The island, and its sister, Little Corn, are located about 40-miles off the coast of Nicaragua, in the Caribbean. They’re known for being remote and relatively undiscovered by tourists. At the time, that certainly proved true.

We flew to the island on a tiny prop plane, and as we descended, I could barely spot any signs of life. Big Corn looked deserted. And once we got out of the plane, we saw that it basically was.

To be honest, I felt a bit uneasy at just how isolated the island felt. There had been a spate of armed robberies against travelers on the islands, right before we arrived. The first night, our hotel was a ghost town—just two or three other rooms were occupied. And the phones and internet were down. The sun set at 6 p.m. and plunged the island into pitch darkness.

But during the daytime, I was able to forget my misgivings a little, thanks to this amazing beach we had to ourselves:

Big Corn Island, Nicaragua

In case you’re wondering, I felt much safer on Big Corn, as the days passed. A small documentary film crew arrived at our hotel from the mainland, as did a few more Nicaraguan travelers. Mal and I had a great time chatting with them—it was just enough people to make the hotel feel less like a horror-movie-waiting-to-happen, but not nearly enough to make the place feel crowded. And the island was just so wild and beautiful, it was impossible not to feel affection for it.

 

Long Beach Island, NJ

New Jersey?! Yes, that’s correct! We rented a house on LBI in early June, before summer season really started—which meant that every day, the beaches looked like this:

setting up on the beach

Sure, LBI doesn’t have fine white sand and crystal-clear water. But it was still a nice, deserted beach that we had all to ourselves for days. I’m so nostalgic for that!

What’s your favorite quiet beach?

A Week on Long Beach Island

In early June, a group of friends and I rented a house on Long Beach Island.

True to its name, Long Beach Island is a lengthy, skinny barrier island off the coast of mainland New Jersey. The ocean is on one side, the bay on the other.

LBI, as it’s lovingly referred to, is a favorite summer escape for those of us who grew up in or around NYC. It’s just two hours, by car, from the city. When I was a kid, I lived for our annual vacation there: long days at the beach, riding my favorite carousel horse at the little amusement park, eating pancakes at Uncle Will’s, a breakfast place. I was excited to return to the island as an adult.

Our rental was in Surf City, a block from the bay, three from the beach.

vacation rental

It had five nice bedrooms…

DSC_0483

…plus an outdoor hot tub, grill, beach cruisers, kayaks and tiki bar!

tiki bar

Many previous renters raved about the tiki bar in their reviews. To be honest, I was wondering what the big deal was. But once we settled in, the appeal was clear. The tiki bar was the perfect place to hang out, any time of day…

peter and mal

DSC_0130

karen

…especially when cool beers or frozen drinks were involved.

pina colada

Since it was early June, it was still off-season. Many shops and restaurants were closed, or only open Friday through Sunday.

I didn’t mind, though. Because that meant the beaches were dead.

walkway to beach

When you’re accustomed to packed NYC beaches, it’s a luxury to have a stretch of sand all to yourself.

setting up on the beach

Some days were a bit cool and cloudy for sunbathing. That’s when everyone broke out the paddleball and frisbee.

frisbee 2

frisbee 4

I didn’t partake in the games, in case you were wondering—I have zero hand-eye coordination!

I was jealous of the people who owned beachfront homes. How nice it must be to hear the sound of waves from your bedroom.

beachfront homes 1

One day…

beachfront homes 2

LBI is 18-miles long. One cloudy day, Evan and I drove to the southern tip. A year and a half ago, Hurricane Sandy hit the island hard. Surf City, the neighborhood where we stayed, looked like it escaped pretty unscathed. But we drove by areas that were still rebuilding. Any house that was under construction, whether a new or existing structure, was being built several feet into the air, on pilings.

Holgate, a community on the south end, was still recovering. We passed many homes that looked abandoned on their pilings, with the beach washed out and their wiring dangling below.

Evan and I drove until Long Beach Boulevard ended, then got out and walked onto the beach.

southern part of lbi

We couldn’t go to the very tip of the island, due to rare nesting birds. So Evan hunted for seashells.

On the way back to the house, we stopped for clam chowder. (The soup is so popular on LBI that the island hosts an annual Chowderfest!) I thought this looked like a ton of soup, but we gobbled it up, bread bowl and all, in minutes.

clam chowder in bread bowl

Our group mostly cooked at home. Each couple took a night and prepared a meal for everyone else. I’m lucky to have friends who are good cooks! Every dinner was so delicious that I didn’t snap a picture of a single one. Sometimes being in the moment with good eats and good friends trumps documenting every second.

Of the restaurants we did try, Mud City Crab House was, by far, my favorite.

mud city crab house

The seafood joint is actually located off the island, in Manahawkin, but was so awesome that we ate there twice. Their snow crab legs were amazing—and reasonably priced.

snow crab

I was also thrilled that they served blue crabs—my absolute summer favorite! I ordered those for dinner when we returned on another night.

We had to check out of our house on Saturday morning. Before we left the island, we stopped by Uncle Will’s, my favorite breakfast spot from when I was a kid.

uncle will's

The place was just as cute as I remembered, with pig-themed paintings on the wall. The ceramic Uncle Wills still held court over the restaurant, and were seated at tables where little kids were dining.

uncle wills

No joke—I was tempted to ask for Will to sit at my table! Just like when I was a kid.

The pancakes were also great.

uncle wills pancakes

Since we got back, my family and I have been talking about saving up and pooling our funds to buy a beach house, in a few years. That’s the thing about NYC. It’s great to be able to find anything you need, any hour of the day. But the fast pace and crowds also make you crave more of this, especially in the summer:

lbi beach

A Private Island in Georgia

Maybe because it’s freezing in NYC and winter seems endless—but I’ve been finding my mind wandering to warmer places.

Everyone I know seems to have winter escapes on the brain, as well. Yesterday, a friend sent me this link—and I was immediately intrigued!

She and her fiance had stumbled across Private Islands of Georgia via HGTV.

When I think of private islands, I envision poshy enclaves way out in the South Pacific or Indian Ocean. (i.e. places I’d love to visit but are just a tad out of reach, monetarily, at the moment!)

But these islands look way more accessible.

And affordable.

And perfect for a long weekend with a big group of friends.

These snapshots of Eagle Island sold me:

eagle island aerial

eagle island lodge

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The flat, watery landscape is so different from NYC. I find it gorgeous, yet mysteriously romantic. And the lodge looks like the perfect mix of rustic and modern.

One other huge selling point: You can catch blue crabs there! My fave!

Who’s up for a trip to Georgia?

(Photos via Private Islands of Georgia)

A Quick Trip to the Iguazu Falls

It’s cold and snowy in NYC and I’m seriously missing the warm days of summer.

…or at least any day when the temperature topped 90 degrees.

The last place I was in, that fit that criteria, was Iguazu, Argentina, in early November. After several days in Buenos Aires, I headed there before returning to the States.

The Iguazu Falls are a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and one of the 7 New Wonders of the World. They’re located in northwestern Argentina, along the border it shares with Brazil. In fact, the falls belong to both countries, as part of National Parks Iguazu (Argentina) and Iguacu (Brazil). Some people view the falls from both sides. Due to time constraints—and not wanting to pay an additional reciprocity fee for Brazil—I only went to the Argentine side of the park.

In and around the town of Iguazu, Argentina, there are a wide range of accommodations: hostels, generic western-style hotels, rustic-lite places. I opted for the latter.

Yvy Hotel de Selva had just opened in September. It’s a ways off the main road, in the same woodsy area as similar nature-minded lodgings. Yvy is comprised of a lodge-like, airy reception/restaurant building…

hotel yvy

…and several wooden cabins equipped with all the creature comforts: AC, hot water, king beds.

hotel yvy room

I arrived on a late afternoon flight from BA. After checking in, I spent a few hours lounging by the pool, then ate dinner in the restaurant. The place was quiet—just me and a few other diners—and my fish and veggies were pretty tasty.

On the way back to my cabin, I realized I’d forgotten one important thing: I’m afraid to be alone in woodsy areas! The trail was, admittedly, well-lit, but I still booked it back to my cabin, locked myself in and turned on all the lights. I went to bed soon after, in hopes that morning would come quickly.

It did, and the day was sunny and warm. I ate breakfast from Yvy’s generous, complimentary spread, then cabbed into the town of Iguazu to use an ATM. (The people at my front desk warned me that the ATM at the park is usually out of service.) I wasn’t thrilled to make the detour, but was glad to see what downtown Iguazu looked like. To be honest, I wasn’t impressed. There were some generic touristy shops and restaurants—nothing picturesque or noteworthy. To get to the park from there, I hopped on a coach at the main bus stop.

I haven’t been to many national parks, but I’ve yet to visit one, in the U.S. or abroad, that’s easier to navigate than Iguazu. There are only a few trails and they’re all paved or platformed and very clearly marked. You definitely don’t need a guide unless you’re looking to learn about the falls in detail.

From the park entrance, I walked to the Green Trail…

green trail sign

…which led me to take either the Upper or Lower Trail.

trail sign

I opted to start with the Lower.

lower trail 1

Since it was pretty early, around 10 a.m., I had parts of the trail to myself.

lower trail 2

I walked along the metal paths, admiring the greenery, until I caught my first glimpse of the falls in the distance.

first view of falls

As I walked closer, I passed smaller falls along the trail.

small falls

After a short walk, I came to a spot where I could see the full falls—and was astounded.

iguazu falls 1

Never before had I seen so many in one place.

While gaping at the view, I noticed speed boats zipping through the river, ferrying tourists right up to the cascading water. During my cab ride to Iguazu, the driver kept urging me to take a boat ride and tried to hand me a pamphlet about it. At the time, I’d politely declined, thinking that I wouldn’t be caught dead doing something so touristy. But after seeing it in person, I had a change of heart.

iguazu falls 2

I walked right up to the Iguazu Jungle stand on the Lower Trail—conveniently located so people like me can buy tickets for the boat on a whim, after seeing them in action. The guy behind the counter fielded a few of my questions. (No, your stuff won’t get wet—we’ll give you a dry bag. Yes, it’s safe—the boat is the size of a bus. You won’t capsize and drown.) Then he gave me my ticket (AR$180) and pointed me down to the dock. I placed my stuff in a dry bag, put on a life vest and climbed on board.

iguazu jungle boat 1

The boat makes two trips to the falls.

iguazu jungle boat 2

On the first, they stay far enough away so you can take photos.

iguazu falls 3

On the second, they tell you to put your cameras away—because you get drenched! Within a few seconds of speeding towards the falls, I was completely soaked.

iguazu falls 4

Luckily, it was sunny and hot, so I didn’t mind walking the rest of the Lower Trail in saturated clothing. The end had some of the best views.

iguazu falls 5

iguazu falls  6

I went to the Upper Trail, afterwards.

upper trail sign

By that time, it was noon, and the park was crowded—wall-to-wall people on the walkway crowded. Admittedly, I wanted to finish the trail as soon as possible.

Some of the aerial views from the Upper Trail were pretty spectacular—when I could actually get through the crowds to see them!

view from the upper trail 1

view from the upper trail 2

I thought it was especially cool to look down upon this viewing platform on the Lower Trail.

viewing platform

I’d saved Iguazu’s most iconic fall for last: La Garganta del Diablo. (Translation: the Devil’s Throat.) To get there, I hopped the little train that takes visitors to the trail.

iguazu train

Once we arrived, I took an empanada snack break near the train station. I wouldn’t be able to escape people completely, but at least I wouldn’t have to walk along the trail with the hordes of other people who’d just disembarked from the same train. A few minutes later, I embarked on the trail.

garganta del diablo sign

The water beneath the walkway is so calm that you’d never guess there was a massive waterfall nearby.

walkway to garganta del diablo 1

After a few minutes, an Argentinean flag came into view—along with mist billowing in the air.

walkway to garganta del diablo 2

La Garganta del Diablo was like nothing I’d ever seen before. The sheer volume and power of the water astounded me. I couldn’t see—or even fathom—how far the bottom of the falls were.

garganta del diablo

Brazil, just across the way, seemed so close, yet far. Maybe one day I’ll see the falls from that side.

garganta del diablo 2

garganta del diablo 3

After admiring the falls from every angle, I walked back to the train station and rode the train to the stop near the exit. While waiting for a bus back to my hotel, I was struck by how exhausted I was. Walking around a park all day, in 90 degree heat, among crowds, had finally caught up to me. Luckily, the bus ride wasn’t too long, and the driver dropped me at the side of the road, near my hotel. I walked along the path, for about 15 minutes, before finally reaching it. I immediately changed into my bathing suit, went to the pool—and feel asleep for an hour.

hotel yvy pool
That evening, I was too tired to go into town, so I ate dinner at the hotel restaurant, again. I had a steak and Malbec—a fitting meal for my last night in Argentina.

Where Are You Going in 2014?

cape town

Maybe it’s because I closed 2013 with two trips, or because I’ve been so crazy with life, recently. But I have absolutely no idea where I’ll be going, this year.

It’s kind of funny to be in this place: completely replenished with vacation days, and clueless as to how I’ll spend them.

Not that I’m lacking in inspiration! Since the start of the new year, I’ve been perusing all the travel porn “Where to Travel in 2014” round-ups everyone’s been putting out. The NY Times released an especially gorgeous one, last week. It included several places I’ve considered over the past few years: Ecuador, Uruguay, Scotland. As well as others that have long been on my hit list—Cambodia, Vietnam, Cape Town (in the photo above)—but I’ve yet to visit, due to lack of vacation time.

It’s a big world out there, and there are so many options. Where are you headed, this year?

(Cape Town photo via NY Times)