Warwick Castle

A Day Trip out of London to the Warwick Castle

One of my favorite things to do when I travel is to get out of the big city and take a day trip somewhere in the countryside. As much as I love all the culture, art, museums, restaurants, tourist attractions and shopping there is to do in a city, after a few days I crave some fresh air and peace away from all the crowds and stimulation. It was no different with our recent trip to London. We had planned on four full days in London and knew that we would be able to cover all the things we wanted to do in three, meaning we would have time to do a side trip.

There are many options for day trips outside of London and it all depends on how much you want to spend and what you want to do. The most popular day trip is to Bath, the Windsor Castle and Stonehenge yet this trip can take over ten to twelve long hours to complete and the most economical way to do it is via tour bus. We wanted to do something a little different so instead we opted to hire a private driver for the day. We had used the same driver for our transportation from the airport to central London and Mr. Singh proved to be a fantastic guide.

Normally I am a huge planner however for this trip we decided to wing it. That was probably our first mistake because careful research would have told us that the Windsor Castle – home to the Queen and 900 years of history – was closed on the day we were hoping to visit. It is the most popular castle to see given it is the oldest and largest occupied castle in the world and only an hour and a half drive outside of London. We didn’t realize it was closed until the morning of our day trip so we had to come up with a Plan B immediately. I knew that the girls would love to see a castle over Stonehenge so we decided on the Warwick Castle located about two and a half hours northwest of London. It was going to be a long day but hopefully worth it.

We left at nine am from our perfectly located apartment at the Citadines Trafalgar Square with our driver Mr. Dil Singh in a six passenger SUV. Dil was born in India but has been living in London for years and was a real treat. I sat up front as I like to always talk with the locals to learn as much as I possibly can about where I’m visiting. I told Dil that although we have been enjoying London it was a bit too touristy at this time of year and he wistfully replied “London is like a four bedroom house with 15 people living in it“. I laughed and agreed with his assessment of trying to fight the crowds of people walking the streets of Central London. It was going to be nice to get away from it all for the day.

Getting there 

We took M40 due north passing the rolling green hills of the countryside, talking away.  About an hour into the drive, my niece noticed with concern that the speedometer read 100. Silly me told her not to worry and that we were going 100 kilometers per hour not miles per hour which converts into approximately 62 mph, our standard speed limit on most US Highways. I then launched into a speech on how Europe and most of the world go by km/h and how we are different in that regard. It took our driver Dil three attempts to correct my mistake because I thought he was joking. After all these years I honestly had no idea that England does indeed use miles per hour! When it finally got through my head that we were truly going 100 mph we told him to slow down. He was just going with the flow of traffic but for us, it felt a bit nerve-wracking because we never drive that fast in the US even on huge open highways in the middle of South Dakota. We continued our drive in the slow lane being passed by everyone but at least we felt more relaxed. Poor Dil was mortified that he upset us which we assured him that he did not. It is just one of those cultural differences that comes with traveling (not to mention driving on the other side of the road!).

We arrived at the Warwick Castle just before lunch and it unfortunately began to rain. The skies were dark and gloomy yet it gave the entire place a rather mystical feel like you’d imagine when visiting a medieval castle in the English countryside. Based on the website, I wasn’t sure what to expect with the castle. I had imagined it would be like some over-the-top Disney-like place but it actually ended up being pretty darn cool and a great first castle for the girls to see. Best of all, it wasn’t mobbed with tourists like most of the other attractions we’d seen.

The Warwick Castle was built by William the Conqueror in 1068 on the grounds of a burg (hilltop settlement) dating back to 914. Located in Warwick at the bend of the River Avon, in 2001 the castle was named one of Britain’s “Top 10 Historic Houses and Monuments” by the British Tourist Authority. Its long, fascinating history of well over a thousand years is what brings many tourists to its grounds and you can easily spend an entire day exploring the castle and taking in some of their shows, activities  and attractions.  For us, we only had three hours which was enough to see most of the grounds, visit the Great Hall exhibits and take in some of the Birds of Prey show. We had also purchased tickets to the Castle Dungeon Tour which includes creepy encounters with live actors and special effects but unfortunately our show was unexpectedly canceled. Ironically, a tourist had fainted during the horror show and paramedics had to be called. Maybe it was a little too scary?

The Castle Grounds

The entrance to the Warwick Castle is located at The Stables Courtyard where there is a small restaurant and cafe, gift shop and ticket office. Once you purchase your tickets, you follow the gravel roads that surround the great walls, battlements, towers and turrets of the castle. It is quite majestic! There is a fun maze for the kids surrounding the castle grounds as well as a beautiful park and historic Mill and Engine House all outside the walls and Central Courtyard. If you want to make a day or even a night out of your visit, you can attend some of the shows during the day or evening, and even spend a night at the Tower Suites, Knights Village Lodges or try Medieval Glamping. There is plenty to do and keep you busy.

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The Great Hall

My favorite part of the castle was the Great Hall and State Rooms. It is the only furnished part of the castle and is loaded with history on all the past inhabitants who lived in the castle over the years. There are even wax replicas of some of the most famous residents and at first glance they look eerily real. I could have spent a lot of time inside this part of the castle but the girls were constantly on the go and had more fun running around the maze than reading all the plaques about history.

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The Mill and Engine House

Behind the castle right next to the river lies the Mill and Engine House which is interesting to visit and affords a gorgeous view of the river and the castle’s 64 acres of lush, rolling landscape and gardens. If it wasn’t raining, it would have been lovely to spend time viewing the gardens.

By 1:30 pm, we were all famished and the dining options at the Castle were disappointing. We decided to drive a bit further to Stratford-Upon-Avon, known as “Shakespearetown” since it is the birthplace of William Shakespeare. We arrived around 2 o’clock on a Sunday which happened to be Father’s Day so the town was bustling with activity. We settled on a lovely Italian restaurant for lunch and only had a few minutes to run over and peak at Shakespeare’s birthplace and family home. We regretted not having more time because Stratford-Upon-Avon is a lovely, charming town that we just happened to fall upon. Next time as I always like to say!

We arrived back in London a little past six exhausted from such a long day of travel but a bit refreshed. The country air had done us well! It was a quick shower, off to dinner and bed way too late as usual. But of course it was all very worth showing the girls their very first castle.

If you go:

Stay: Rent a studio or roomy two bedroom apartment at the Citadines Trafalgar Square. The location could not be more perfect as you are within walking distance to all the main attractions and tons of shopping and dining options. This is the second time I’ve stayed at this hotel and if I go back, I will stay there again. Tip: Ask for an apartment on a lower level if you are going in the summer as the air-conditioning isn’t great and these rooms are generally cooler.

You can also stay at one of the available lodging near the castle if you truly want to take it all in. I personally think the glamping option would be a blast.

See: The Warwick Castle is an excellent option for children. Plan on a minimum of 2 1/2 – 3 hours to visit the castle however there are plenty of other activities you can do if you want to make a day out of it. The Castle offers birds of prey shows, a dungeon show, and much more. Plus it has a lovely park behind the castle for a picnic if the weather is nice. If you book your tickets in advance online, you can save 30% which is huge as the castle tour is not cheap.

Learn: To learn more about the castle and view all the different attractions, visit www.warwick-castle.com

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Highlights of Our Three-Week Family Trip to Europe

I will never forget the one-page article I read decades ago in Newsweek by a prominent female journalist about the importance of transgenerational travel and how it changed her life. I was in my late 20s at the time, living and working in Chicago and had just returned from skiing in the French Alps with my parents. I was soon to be married and start a family of my own yet I could not let go of the love and joy I felt traveling with my parents as an adult. The article talked about how the writer had traveled the world with her mother well into her mother’s 80s and how that time together journeying around the world were some of their most sacred, special times ever together as mother and child. It struck a chord with my soul for I too had always traveled with my parents and they were the ones who introduced me to travel at a young age and gave me my wanderlust soul.

Decades and trips later, I have continued to travel with my parents to such far-reaching places as the Himalayas of Nepal, the Andes of South America, the perched villages of Provence and the European cities of Prague, Paris and London adding my sister into the mix. These times together have been some of the most sacred memories of my life and without question our shared love of travel meant that at some point we would have to introduce our own children to exploring the world.

The idea of a transgenerational trip to Europe launched a few years back when my mom, sister and I did a trip to London, Paris and the south of France. We knew that we wanted to do a girl’s trip once again with my mom yet include our daughters. We just needed to wait until they reached the age where they could handle all the walking and traveling. With my daughter Sophia at the age of 11 and my niece Hanna turning 13, this summer was the prefect time to do a three-generational trip to Europe and it was planned.

As the time for our departure approached, there was a last minute change of plans. My husband had planned on flying over to Europe with our son Max to meet up with us at the end of the girl’s trip yet he injured his back and couldn’t go. Since the trip was already planned and mostly paid for, we changed plans and had my father fly over to Europe with Max and take my husband’s place. We would be doing another transgenerational trip, this time with my dad, my son and daughter, throughout Germany and Austria. Despite the disappointment that Paul couldn’t go on the trip, there was a silver lining. My dad was able to come and get to spend 13 days with his grandkids exploring the Austrian Alps.

All in all, it was an absolutely amazing trip with lots of silly travel mishaps, magnificent moments and fun stories along the way. It will take me quite some time to put the entire journey into words but I’m excited to start sharing our trip with this first post on some of the main highlights. I hope you enjoy!

Our route: First a flight from Minneapolis to JFK then London. Four days in London with a day trip to Warwick. Next the Eurostar to Lille, the TGV to Paris and then a flight to Munich where we met my dad and Max and picked up our car. The rest a driving tour through Germany and Austria.

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My Epic Family Travel Guide to Costa Rica

Last Spring, we did our first big family adventure trip to Costa Rica and it was one of our best family trips ever. Trying to figure out the best place to bring two kids, ages 10 and 12, was a bit of a challenge but after researching Costa Rica I knew it would be the perfect place for an unforgettable family adventure and I was right.

Since our trip, many friends of mine have been asking for advice on how to plan the perfect Costa Rica trip so I decided to put together a Family Travel Guide and am hoping this will become a new series of mine as I begin to bring my children out into the world. There is so much I want them to see and explore!

A family shot at Arenal Volcano.

Why Chose Costa Rica?

Costa Rica continues to be one of the hottest destinations in Central America for nature loving and thrill-seeking tourists. Not only is this small country one of the safest in Central America, Costa Rica’s well-developed tourism industry affords numerous options for all different kinds of travelers: Eco, Adventure, Luxury, Beach, Solo and Family. Furthermore, Costa Rica’s insane biodiversity makes it a place where nature enthusiasts can see some of the most unique species of flora and fauna on the planet, a lot of which is endemic to the country. To put it simply, Costa Rica offers the perfect combination of awe-inspiring beauty, nature, beaches, rainforests, volcanoes, culture and adventure for people with all sorts of interests. It is an amazing place!

Where to go with older kids in Costa Rica:

Costa Rica is home to tons of beautiful beaches and resorts along the Guanacaste coastline which is ideal for families especially with younger children. You can make it really easy by staying in an all-inclusive resort offering children clubs, childcare and as many activities as your heart desires. Plus most of the resorts are just a hop, skip and a jump from Liberia International Airport making it a very easy beach and sun vacation. However, our two kids, ages 10 and 12, are not into laying around the beach and swimming all day. Nor are we!

Instead, we wanted to give them a more cultural view of this amazing place and seek adventure as well. We didn’t want to stay in just one location and preferred to move around a bit to give them a real feel of the different parts of the country. That was the hardest part with the planning as we didn’t want to move too much as that would be stressful for everyone. With nine days, we decided on three unique places staying three days each per place and allowing travel time: Manuel Antonio, Arenal and Rio Celeste. We felt these three destinations would each have something a little different and unique to explore and we were right.

Getting around:

Costa Rica is home to two international airports, centrally located San Jose and Liberia in the north which is only an hour drive from the beaches of Guanacaste. Unfortunately we made the mistake of purchasing our tickets based on price and chose Liberia which would have been fine if we stayed in Guanacaste. Little did we know, it was going to be a long haul (about four and a half hours driving time without stops) down to Manual Antonio where we began our trip.

Flying internally in Costa Rica is easy but not cheap and it is on small planes which I try to avoid. Initially we were going to rent a car for the entire trip but decided to break it up by using a driver for part of it and minimizing the stress. We hired Morpho Vans for a few of the long legs of our trip and it ended up being fantastic. We loved kicking back and having a local driver who could tell us all about Costa Rica and do the driving for us. One word of caution: Be sure to rent a car with all-wheel drive so you can handle some of the bumpy gravel roads and water crossing in some areas. Also, get a GPS!

An overview of our route:

We landed in Liberia at 11 am and had to make it all the way down to Manuel Antonio that day (from A to B). It was a long day but we made it just in time for sunset. We spent two full days in Quepos/Manuel Antonio, then drove back up to Arenal/La Fortuna with Morpho Vans, rented a car and spent two days at Arenal. We dropped off the car in La Fortuna, and had Morpho Vans pick us up to bring us to Rio Celeste where we spent the next two days before returning back to Liberia to catch our flight home.

All in all, our trip gave us an amazing overview of the country and each place offered unique things to see and do. We did not visit the beach area of Guanacaste or the Osa Peninsula. You could easily add on one of these destinations if you have another 2-3 days to spare.

Our route

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You can see the Grand Canyon off in the distance

A Weekend Skiing the Arizona Snowbowl

“You can ski in Arizona?” asked a friend confused. “How on earth can you ski in a desert”? Until a few years ago, I would have also been equally in disbelief that it is actually possible to not only ski but ski real mountains in the state of Arizona. Little did I know, the college town of Flagstaff, Arizona, located about two and a half hours north of Phoenix, is home to the Arizona Snowbowl, Arizona’s best skiing.

As an avid skier, I confess to believing that there was no way that the Arizona Snowbowl could possibly compare to the skiing in Colorado, New Mexico, Montana or Utah, all places I’ve skied over the years. Yet after a long weekend skiing the Arizona Snowbowl with my father and two children, I realized that the skiing is actually pretty darn good and worth the trip. If you live in Phoenix and want a taste of the snow and mountains, then even better!

Flagstaff, Arizona

The Arizona Snowbowl is located in Flagstaff, Arizona about 2 1/2 hours north of Phoenix. Photo courtesy of Google Maps.

With an average of over 240 inches of annual snowfall and normally beautiful sunny blue skies, the Arizona Snowbowl has the longest ski season in Arizona as well as the largest beginner terrain in the Southwest. It is a great place to go with kids as there are plenty of nice long cruiser runs, a good ski school and it is very family-friendly. For those who want more challenge, you can take the Agassiz lift up to the top at 11,500 feet and climb up to the Upper Bowl where there are plenty of double black diamonds to take your breathe away. For moderate skiers, there are some nice blues and blacks where you can fly down at breakneck speed and feel the thrill of spring skiing in February. Best of all, are the incredible views on top where you can see the Grand Canyon off in the distance.

Flagstaff, Arizona

View of the sunrise over the mountains from our hotel in Flagstaff, Arizona

So why on earth did we travel from Minneapolis to Phoenix to ski in Flagstaff, Arizona over President’s Day Weekend? Simple. My parents live in Tucson and Flagstaff offered the perfect meeting place for us to do a three-generational ski weekend. We had tried Utah, New Mexico and Colorado before so we decided why not try something entirely new. Plus it is free to ski for those over 70 so my dad was pleased to ski for free.

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El Matador State Park, Malibu, California

A Beautiful Morning at El Matador Beach in Malibu

“The best way to pay for a lovely moment is to enjoy it.” – Richard Bach

After spending three glorious days in San Diego, it was time for us to head up the coast and check out LA. I haven’t been to LA in years and thought it would be good place for our children to experience. Unfortunately our timing couldn’t have been worse as it was New Year’s Eve weekend meaning everyone was off enjoying all the sights and beaches. Traffic was horrendous, the crowds at Santa Monica Pier and Beach were insane and even our excursion to the stunning Griffith Observatory ended up being stressful due to the swarming crowds and congestion.

After the relaxing, serendipitous past few days watching sunsets and playing on the wide open beaches in San Diego, LA felt like a madhouse for the kids. They were both cranky and miserable, seeming to take after their mother in not liking crowds. Everything we did ended up being filled with complaints and irritation but I guess I couldn’t blame my children. As a LA rookie, I had no idea that traffic could be so bad and that the city was so spread out. It took hours to cut across and there was nothing worse than sitting in wall to wall traffic when one of the kids was hungry, grouchy or had to use the bathroom.

It took two days to realize that we would need to come up with a better system for navigating the city and also find a little bit of peace and solitude for me and the kids. That meant finding a beautiful, relatively uncrowded area where we could relax but did not take hours to reach. At first, I thought I was dreaming that we could truly find such a place but after a little research on Google maps, I realized that our hotel in Agoura Hills was not far from several amazing State Parks. In fact, the Robert H. Meyer Memorial State Beach in northern Malibu was only about a twenty-five minute drive away without traffic. We were in luck!

The next morning we had breakfast at the hotel and set off early to explore El Matador Beach, one of three separate but distinct beaches that make up the Robert H. Meyer Memorial State Beach. Our drive took us through the winding, lush valley which ended at Pacific Highway 1 along the coast.

We arrived at the small parking lot atop the bluffs of El Matador State Park a little past ten o’clock and gratefully got one of the handful of parking spots in the tiny lot. At first sight, I knew we were in for a very special morning. The sky was a brilliant blue, the sun was warm and bright and best of all, the tide was rolling in. Soon it would be low tide and we would get the added bonus of seeing El Matador’s tide pools!

El Matador State Park, Malibu, California

What a place for a picnic!

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Torrey Pines State Reserve, California

Why I’ll Always Love Torrey Pines

“When you leave a beautiful place, you carry it with you wherever you go”.-  Alexandra Stoddard

There are some places in the world that seem to cast a spell on you, and always drive you back. For me, one of those places is Torrey Pines State Reserve in San Diego. Every time we visit San Diego, I feel an incessant pull towards visiting the park on the first night we arrive so I can watch the sunset across the beach. I am never disappointed and I am always mesmerized by the sheer beauty of this magical place.

Located along the rocky coast of the Pacific Ocean between La Jolla and Del Mar, the 2,000- acre Torrey Pines Reserve affords one of the wildest stretches of land along the Southern California coast. Named after the nation’s rare pine tree, the Pinus torreyana, this beautiful wilderness area offers several hikes affording spectacular panoramic views of the ocean and craggy cliffs leading down to a vast, unspoiled beach. It has been a favorite of mine ever since we first visited San Diego for Spring Break in 2015.

Since I am somewhat of a fanatic about sunset, we always try to plan our visits to Torrey Pines at least two hours before sunset so we can first do a hike in the park and then play on the beach before watching the sunset unfold. There are two places you can park your car depending on how long of a hike you want to take. If you want the shorter option (which is great with kids), you can drive your car all the way up to the top of the bluffs and park near the visitor center. The only downside is that someone has to hike back up to get the car at sunset. If you want a longer hike, you can park your car at the beachside parking lot or even out on the street for free. From the beachfront, you can walk up the long, winding road to the top of the bluffs and then hike down to the beach.

This time we unfortunately arrived a little too late to do the hike and only had time to play on the beach. I forgot that the sun sets very early in the winter and the park closes at sunset (which tends to be a little after 5 pm in December).  However, as soon as I saw the sky my disappointment disappeared. We were in for a special treat. The clouds, the sun and the light beams aligned. We could have had fog or no sunset at all. How lucky we were to have such good luck!

As the kids walked along the beach, playing in the water I snapped away at the changing light. Soon I realized my daughter was the perfect subject to capture the serenity of the place. Where earth meets sky, waves strike land and the smell of salt water satiates your soul.

Torrey Pines State Reserve, California

Torrey Pines State Reserve, California

Torrey Pines State Reserve, California

I watched my daughter walk along the shore and was engulfed in this moment of time and beauty. At eleven, she is still a girl but it won’t be long until she become a young lady. If only I could bottle up her innocence!

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Duck, Outer Banks

What to Do Off-Peak in the Outer Banks

The Outer Banks, a 130 mile stretch of barrier islands off the coast of North Carolina is perhaps best known for its endless beaches and luxurious vacation homes for rent for those craving a beach vacation in the heat of the summer. However, there are many other amazing things to do in the Outer Banks when you visit off peak and best of all, the hordes of crowds have long gone home.

My husband and I took our two children to the Outer Banks in the middle of October and it was a magical time to visit. First of all, I hate crowds so having stretches of beach all to ourselves was delightful. Second, I am not a person who likes to lay in the sun. If I’m on a beach, I need to be doing something active and it is just too darn hot in the summer to be very active. If we had visited in the high season of summer, we would have had an entirely different experience and perspective of the Outer Banks. October in the Outer Banks was magnificent!

We stayed in the quaint, less developed seaside town of Duck. After much research, we found a wonderful home to rent that was less than a five-minute walk to both the beach for sunrise and the Sound for sunset. Duck is more upscale than the other popular hyper-developed towns of Nags Head and Kill Devil Hills which were developed long before Duck. Those towns felt like row after row of enormous vacation rental beach homes looking out at ugly strip malls and lacking character and charm. The only advantages I saw in staying there is you have close access to the beach and also many of the restaurants in Duck shut down for the season in October. We found ourselves doing at least a thirty minute drive to dinner each night but staying in Duck was worth it given its unique charm and character.

Duck, Outer Banks

Where else would you find an oversized red Adirondack Chair with a beautiful sunset like this all to yourself? Duck, Outer Banks

If you go off-season, here are some of the highlights of wonderful activities you can do.

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Coastal Kayak Tours, Alligator River Wildlife Refuge, NC

An Afternoon Kayaking in Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge

We arrived at our arranged meeting point promptly before 3 at the Walgreens parking lot in Kill Devil Hills, a sprawling seaside town in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. A tall young man, barefoot and dressed in a t-shirt and shorts, greeted us with a smile and introduced himself as Brett, our tour guide from Coastal Kayak Tours.

Brett would be taking our family of four to kayak in the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, an area of over 152,000 acres of protected and preserved wetland habitat that is home to black bears, red wolves, snakes, birds, and American alligators. He advised our group to use the facilities and buy any water at Walgreens before we headed out in the 12-passenger van to the refuge. It would be around a 35 minute drive over two bridges and an island, to reach the refuge and once there we would only have access to a Porta Potty.

Grinning ear to ear as he told us to climb inside the van, I could tell that Brett was going to be an excellent guide. Originally from Ohio, this was Brett’s first summer spent working as an adventure tour guide in the Outer Banks with Coastal Kayak Tours. The Alligator River Tour was one of his favorites and the weather was perfect for a late fall day. Bright blue sky, no wind and temperatures in the 80s. We couldn’t have asked for a more picture perfect day.

As we headed east towards Roanoke Island, Brett told us a bit about the history of the area as well as the wildlife refuge. Unbeknownst to me, the first group of English settlers arrived on Roanoke Island in 1587, three decades before the Pilgrims arrived in Jamestown, VA and Plymouth, MA. The mysterious, unexplained disappearance of these settlers gave the name “The Lost Colony” to this area which later became called Manteo. I was amazed to have never known this important historical fact.

As we continued east along Highway 64 past Manteo and onto the mainland, the windows were rolled down and the music on. I watched the beautiful landscape out the passenger seat of the van, the place I always prefer to sit so I can get the scoop on my surroundings from the driver.

The Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge is located on the eastern shore of North Carolina. It is bordered on the west by the Alligator River and the Intracoastal Waterway, which is crossed by the 2.8 mile Lindsay C. Warren bridge; on the north by Albemarle Sound; on the east by Croatan and Pamlico Sounds; and on the south by Long Shoal River and corporate farmland. Map used with permission from VisitOB.com.

Nestled by the Alligator River in the west and the Intracoastal Waterway in east of North Carolina, lies the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge was established in 1984 to protect the unique wetland habitat that runs roughly 28 miles from north-south and 15 miles from east-west along North Carolina’s Coastal Plain. There are many diverse types of habitats in the refuge however the most dominant habitat is known as “pocosin”, a name given by the Algonquin Indians meaning “swamp on a hill”.

In addition to pocosin habitats, there are also pine and cypress-gum forests, fresh and brackish water marches, swamps, bogs, rivers and lakes as well as farmland. The refuge is home to the densest population of black bears in the eastern United States and also has the world’s only population of red wolves. If we were lucky, perhaps we would see some wildlife.

We arrived at a long gravel road that brought us to the entrance of the refuge. A few bumpy minutes later, we pulled alongside one of the many creeks in the refuge and unloaded the kayaks. We had both single and double kayaks, and all in all our group of nine were on six. I had my son with me and my husband brought my daughter. I figured I’d sit up front so I could take lots of pictures and let my son do the arm work when I needed a break (silly me, I forgot he is only 12 yet he already towers over me in height).

Slowly, we drifted into the dark murky waters of the creek and paddled out to a larger, open waters of Mill Tail Creek which feeds into the Alligator River. All I could hear was the splashing as our paddles hit the water and the cry of the birds.

Coastal Kayak Tours, Alligator River Wildlife Refuge, NC

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Mitchell Lake, Ely MN

The Glow of Autumn in Northern Minnesota

The magical glow of autumn colors in Northern Minnesota is one of the most beautiful displays of color I have ever seen. Given the fact that we have over 12,000 lakes to choose from in the state, there are plenty of beautiful places to see Minnesota’s fall colors. One of my favorite places to go is about a five-hour drive north of Minneapolis to Ely, one of the launching off points to the Boundary Waters Wilderness and Canoe Area (BWWCA) that borders Canada.

The BWWCA is one of the largest federally protected wilderness areas in the United States with an area of 1.1 million acres of untouched lakes, streams and forests, and is also one of the most pristine wilderness areas I have ever visited. If you are lucky, you may see a bear, wolf or even a moose in the wild and you will always hear the melodic song of the loon, Minnesota’s state bird.

Fall is one of the best times to visit Ely as the light graces the changing colors of the leaves and the deep blue sky is vibrant and pure. The fresh scent of the air or even the smoke of a campfire fills me with warmth and happiness. There is no place I’d rather be than outside hiking in the wilderness taking in the beauty of the changing leaves.

Unfortunately this fall we did not make it up north and instead opted for a visit out east to North Carolina and Virginia. Although we had a fantastic trip with gorgeous weather, we missed the peak colors this year (the leaves peaked about two weeks later than normal given our warm September). It is still beautiful here in Minneapolis yet I am sad to have missed our annual trip up north this fall. To ensure we make it back next fall, we have already reserved our accommodations. In the meantime, I will settle with remembering these lovely photos from our trip last October to Ely.

Ely, Minnesota

Ely, Minnesota

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Grand Portage State Park, Minnesota

Exploring the Beauty of Minnesota’s Grand Portage State Park 

“Keep close to Nature’s heart… and break clear away, once in awhile, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean. John Muir

Growing up, I was surrounded by nature. Our home in the suburbs of Minneapolis was on a wooded one acre lot, and we lived only a block away from one of the largest lakes in the Twin Cities. I spent my childhood playing in the woods, riding my bike around the lake or chasing my siblings in the large grassy marshland across the street. In the fall, the biggest chore was raking the thousands of red, orange, and sunflower yellow fallen leaves off our yard and never-ending driveway. In the winter we played in the snow, building giant snow forts at the top of our driveway where all the snow piled up from the plow. I was always outside no matter what the weather, and I strongly believe that my childhood instilled my great love today for nature and being outdoors.

My husband and I have also tried to instill a passion and curiosity of nature in our children. We love to spend time as a family outdoors exploring. Lucky for us, Minnesota is home to well over 15,000 lakes and has over 70 State Parks, 25 State Trails, The Boundary Waters Canoe and Wilderness Area, and tons of regional and urban parks. Those seeking nature are not far from it, even in the city. Just outside my door is the Chain of Lakes, a collection of four urban lakes that are all connected by running, walking and bike paths. They are accessible year-round and even plowed in the winter so I can run through the coldest days of January. I’ve seen bald eagles, wild turkey, deer, egrets, great blue herons, owls, loons, migratory birds and ducks, fox, possums and muskrats all within the confines of the city. It is a pretty remarkable place however it is still a city.

When we want to escape for a weekend, we head north. There are tons of options however we prefer to go to the North Shore of Lake Superior. I have been going “up north”  (as we Minnesotans call it) with my family before I could walk and I’ve continued this tradition with my own family as well.

Over the years we have visited tons of parks along the North Shore however we had never made it as far as Grand Portage State Park on the northeast border of Minnesota. I had heard that the park is quite spectacular and is home to Minnesota’s highest waterfall. During a recent visit to the North Shore, we decided to check out the park and see for ourselves what we were missing. We were not the least bit disappointed. It was stunning.

Grand Portage State Park is located roughly 36 miles north of Grand Marais next to the U.S./Canadian border. It is a stunning drive along Highway 61 affording sweeping views of Lake Superior and the rugged coastline. We couldn’t have asked for a more perfect day. The sky was baby blue and filled with powder-puff clouds. The sun was radiant and the wind coming over Lake Superior was gentle and calm.

After we passed Grand Marais, we made a brief stop at the Susie Islands Overlook. The overlook is perched 400 feet above Lake Superior where you can see the Susie Islands, an archipelago of thirteen islands off the North Shore in Lake Superior. The closest island, Susie Island, is located about a half mile off shore.

The Susie Islands Overlook

The Susie Islands Overlook, Minnesota

The Susie Islands Overlook, Minnesota

A view of the Susie Islands

The Susie Islands Overlook, MinnesotaSusie Island was named after the daughter of the Falconer family who had lived on the island and mined copper ore in the early 1900’s. Today, Susie Island is protected under The Nature Conservancy and is home to the Francis Lee Jaques Memorial Preserve. I bet it is a beautiful place given its rugged remoteness.

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Northernair Lodge, Ely Minnesota

The Sunset Skies of Ely, Minnesota

“Go not abroad for happiness. For see! It is a flower that blossoms by thy door”. – Minot J. Savage

We just returned from a week’s summer vacation “up north” in Minnesota near the Canadian border. We began our trip in Ely, a small town that is known as one of the jumping off points for one of the largest federally protected wilderness areas in the United States, the 1.1 million acre Boundary Waters Canoe Wilderness Area (BWCWA). The BWCWA is one of the most pristine wilderness areas I have ever visited and its extraordinary beauty and tranquility is unequal to any place I’ve been except the far reaches of Patagonia. Its 1,000 untouched lakes and streams, and 1,500 miles of canoe routes are like no other place on earth.

It was our third visit to Ely at the tiny Northernair Lodge that sits upon Mitchell Lake. As always, our stay was a peaceful, beautiful break away from the stress of everyday life. After a day of hiking around the different wilderness trails, we would grill dinner and then watch the sunset. Every night was magical. Here are a few of my favorites.

Northernair Lodge, Ely Minnesota

“Happiness, not in another place but this place…not for another hour, but this hour”. – Walt Whitman

Northernair Lodge, Ely Minnesota

Northernair Lodge, Ely Minnesota

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Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge, Costa Rica

An Afternoon Birdwatching at the Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge

“Every ending is a beginning. We just don’t know it at the time.” -Mitch Albom

For our very last day in Costa Rica, we decided to take a full day tour to the Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge, a remote wetland known for its incredible wildlife, located about 12 miles south of Los Chiles and near the Nicaraguan border. We arranged for our guide, wildlife specialist Odir Rojas to pick us up at our hotel early in the morning to avoid the high heat and humidity of the afternoon. We also knew that the kids would rather spend the day at the pool instead of doing another long tour so this was our compromise.

Our two-hour drive to the refuge took us north through beautiful lush Costa Rican countryside, passing through tiny farming pueblos (“villages”) and along many gravel roads. Apparently most tours that leave from La Fortuna don’t go all the way into the reserve but only on the edge. Since we were staying in Rio Celeste and had our own private tour, we were able to go all the way in. It was definitely worth the effort!

Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge, Costa Rica

Heading out to the Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge, passing through beautiful farmland.

The Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge is wetlands area consisting of a vast network of marshes and streams that drain into the Lago Caño Negro during the wet season. Given its unique ecosystem, the reserve is world renown for its excellent bird-watching especially the many species of migratory birds that seek sanctuary in this magical place. It is very remote and there are no public facilities at refuge, only a small family owned farm where we met our boat driver for the tour and were able to use the toilet.

I confess to being a bit surprised by the lack of development at the reserve but by this point nothing should have surprised me. It is rural, local tourism at its finest and thankfully there has been little adverse impact to this fragile ecosystem caused by tourism. The refuge remains hard to reach, off the beaten path and undeveloped. It is a true treasure.

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Odir parked the Four-Wheel Drive in the shade under a tree. We were the only ones there. A young Tico walked up to greet us and we followed him a few steps to the river to board our boat.  We had the entire boat to ourselves so we were able to move around and get pretty close to observe wildlife. Our driver was very good at spotting birds from a distance and would cut the engine so we could quietly glide in without disturbing them. 

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