The 14 Best Travel Moments of 2014

Rainbow over Costa Rica
Rainbow over Costa Rica

Each year, we like to look back on some of the highlights from our year of travels. Check out the post from 2013! We did a lot of traveling this year, going everywhere from Washington D.C. to New York City, Charleston to Orlando, Cancun to Costa Rica. We’ve decided to each pick our seven favorite travel experiences, and share them with you in no particular order.

Feel free to share your favorite travel experiences in the comments below!

Kim’s Top 7

Be Free, Little Turtles!

What fun it was to release several hundred baby sea turtles to the ocean one evening in Cancun. I got to hold three of them, feeling their flippers beat against my fingers as they squirmed to be set free. There is no flash photography allowed, as it could disorient them, but watching the tiny turtles slip and slide their way to the ocean in the dim light is something I won’t forget anytime soon.

Escape to Alcatraz

After a failed attempt to see Alcatraz last year due to the government shutdown, I was bound and determined to see the famed prison this year while I was at a conference in San Francisco. It was surreal to walk the hallways and see the cells that hardened criminals once inhabited. And what an eerie calmness passes over you when you go out to the courtyard area of the prison which overlooks the city, seemingly a world away.

Science, Stars, and Sharks… Oh, My!

Exploring the Nightlife of the California Academy of Sciences was a real highlight for me this year. What a fun place! With a rainforest, aquarium, natural history museum, and planetarium, this place has a little bit of everything. This adults-only event happens every Thursday night, and I just so happened to be there for Sharktober, which was awesome!

Christmastime in the City

As an Upstate New Yorker, I’ve long wanted to go to NYC to see the Rockefeller Christmas Tree and the beautiful seasonal window displays, and this year, we finally got to do it! The City is one that always hustles and bustles, but there’s something special—almost magical—about it on an evening in December, and I’m so glad I finally got to experience it, cup of hot cocoa in hand.

Home Away From Home

I’ve often heard that some people find their “home away from home” while on vacation, but it hadn’t happened to me before. That all changed in Costa Rica. The nine beautiful days we spent at the Beach Bungalows in Tamarindo were absolutely perfect—both in our surroundings and the company. Our hosts Trish and Claudio were the friendliest, most generous people we’ve had the pleasure to meet while traveling, and they made our time there an absolute joy. And, of course, we loved spending time with their beautiful dogs, Stella and Parker. What a paradise they have created in this seaside town!

Soaking in the Hot Springs

I have wanted to go to Costa Rica since high school, and one of the things at the top of my list was to soak in some natural hot springs. Tabacon Grand Spa Thermal Resort was certainly the place to do it, with the beautifully manicured grounds, and gloriously warm water cascading throughout the resort near Arenal Volcano. Whether you wanted to sit under a waterfall, or relax in a shallow pool, the options were limitless, and there seemed to be enough room for everyone to enjoy the water—something I had been worried about since it’s such a big attraction. It was a great way to spend an afternoon!

Christmas in Costa Rica

Kyle and I have been talking about spending Christmas at a beach for a long time, and this year, we finally did it! How amazing it was to spend the entire day splashing in the waves, and soaking in the sun. This year convinced me I’d trade a snowy Christmas for a sandy one any year!

Kyle’s Top 7

Visiting the Newseum in D.C.

Opened in 2008, the Newseum was created to educate people on the five freedoms provided by the First Amendment. Out front is a display of the front page of a newspaper from every state (and several countries) for that particular day. Aside from this very cool street-side display, the Newseum has some fantastic exhibits worth checking out. Highlights for me included sections of the Berlin Wall, a collection of historically significant headlines (e.g. outbreaks of war), a memorial to fallen journalists including a truck shot up in Sarajevo and a truly touching 9/11 memorial. Overall, I can’t think of a single exhibit that was lacking when compared to the rest – this is a must for anyone interested in some of the biggest moments in history for the last two centuries.

Whitewater Rafting in Costa Rica

I’ve been whitewater rafting a couple of times in the Pennsylvania Grand Canyon when I was a kid. The rapids are class II/III there, but are overall pretty easy to navigate. The opportunity to go again in Costa Rica was one of the things I was most excited for, and the Río Colorado just north of Liberia did not disappoint. We took a tour from our hotel in Tamarindo to reach the Cañón de la Vieja Adventure Lodge – about an hour drive. This tour featured several activities, which we’ll write about in the future, but the rafting was by far the best. There are a handful of calmer spots for you to catch your breath and overall, beginners will have no trouble tackling these rapids; however, there are a couple of thrilling drops to ratchet up the experience. You WILL get wet and it is awesome!

Wormsloe Historic Site

I wrote about this one recently, but let me sum it up for you. Wormsloe is a beautiful plantation built by one of the members of the party that founded Savannah, Georgia. Unlike other plantations in the south, this historic site doesn’t feature an extravagant mansion with large, well-groomed grounds. Instead, Wormsloe is more like a nice nature park centered on the long-abandoned ruins of one of the first homes in the area. It is known best for its gorgeous driveway, which is frequently photographed, but I really liked the tabby ruins themselves. This was my favorite part of Savannah.

Xcaret: The History of Mexico

Part of a group of attractions aimed at educating people on the history, traditions and ecology of Mexico, Xcaret is a park about an hour outside Cancun’s Hotel Zone that features a dinner show similar to Medieval Times – except that this one is infinitely better. The food is good, but the show is awesome, transporting you from ancient Maya to present day and highlighting much of the musical tradition of Mexico. Standout moments included a recreation of two ancient sports from the region: pok-ta-pok and pelota purépecha (similar to field hockey, but with FIRE). This was one of the handful of touristy things that we got to do in Cancun while we attended TBEX and it was a real joy to experience.

Visiting Charleston Plantations

More plantations… really? How many plantations can one person enjoy in a year? Yes – more plantations, but only because each plantation has its own feel. Magnolia Plantation & Gardens features the traditional southern plantation home surrounded by gardens that have been allowed to grow in a more uncontrolled fashion. This means it has a much more natural look and ensures you’ll see more wildlife – we saw alligators, turtles and a bald eagle here. Middleton Place on the other hand is beautiful in that aristocratic sense – its gardens are carefully manicured and beautifully kept. Overall, both are absolutely worth the visit.

The Rides in Disney

We had a rough time in Florida this year, but problems aside – Disney has world-class rides. I’m a big fan of Expedition Everest – I love everything about it from the set dressing to the rapid shifts in direction. Kim on the other hand – she’s all about Space Mountain.

Visiting Central Park for the first time

Despite having been to New York City a number of times, somehow neither of us had ever managed to make it over to Central Park. It’s kind of a weird oversight, I know. We visited in late spring and lucked out as the weather was perfect. As we walked around, Kim pointed out that this was the first time she’d ever really liked NYC. Until that moment, both of us had always seen NYC as a dirty, busy, necessary evil that we had to visit for work or to see a Broadway show. It took us walking around the oasis that is Central Park to understand that NYC doesn’t have to be about fighting your way through crowds and running all the time. Instead, you can enjoy lunch by the boat pond, watching as people of all ages sail their miniature boats. You can stroll about, just taking in the well-kept park as people walk their dogs or play pick-up games around you. Finish out your trip by riding the carousel at least once – it certainly isn’t the most amazing carousel of all time, but it just feels like something you have to do. Overall, walking through Central Park was a standout New York moment for both of us.

Cheers to many more adventures in 2015!

The Florida Off-Season: The Good, The Bad, and The Downright Ugly

Sanibel Island
Sanibel Island

Kyle and I love to travel during the “off-season.” We’ve visited some great places—and snagged some pretty impressive deals—during regional quiet times. We went to Alaska at the very end of their tourist season, and not only was the cruise deeply discounted, but everything was on sale in all the ports, as the shops would be closing for months. We always love going to Maine in late October, where we can enjoy light crowds, cheap beachfront hotel rooms, and the last dregs of fall foliage. Yes, off-season travel has always been pretty appealing to us. But last week, we learned a very important lesson. Sometimes it’s called “off-season” for a reason. Why we chose to go to Florida at the end of August now baffles me! We’d been to the same area in July several years ago and while it was hot, I don’t remember anything particularly bad about that trip—in fact, I remember it as one of the best trips we’ve taken. Check out my blog on our adventures on Sanibel Island, including the awesome time we had on the Sanibel Thriller dolphin speedboat tour.

Well, there were no speedboats for us this time! That’s actually the sole reason I wanted to go back to Sanibel – to take that tour and get lots of awesome footage with our GoPro. Sad, but true! We found out they are closed until October. As are many, MANY of the other attractions and even restaurants in the area. Likely, all Floridians are migrating north where cooler temperatures prevail. I find it rather laughable now that all summer I’ve been complaining that it just doesn’t feel like summer. 60s and rain does not a July day make. I got more summer in the six days we spent in Florida than I need in an entire decade! I have come to the conclusion that in August, Florida sits directly on the surface of the sun! Each day we were there, temperatures were in the high 90s with humidity hovering around 100%. When you walked outside in the morning, it was hard to catch your breath. And it rained violently every afternoon just to stabilize the atmosphere. So, now that we’ve established the fact that our long-awaited first trip after saving for nearly a year for our round-the-world trip wasn’t at all what we expected it would be, I’ve rounded up a few things to share—the good, the bad, and the downright ugly—from last week’s visit to Walt Disney World and Sanibel Island.

Walt Disney World

The Good

Disney’s Space Mountain! O.K. can we just talk about this awesome ride?! I’ve gotten somewhat addicted to roller coasters from the handful of trips we’ve taken to Hershey Park in Pa. over the last few years, and I was pretty disappointed that Disney didn’t have more adrenaline-pumping attractions. But O.M.G. I loved this ride—all three times I went on it! There’s something about barreling through total darkness that’s exhilarating.

The Bad

Disney hath Frozen over! So, I like Frozen as much as the next person (alright, probably way less, actually), but WOW! Everywhere you looked, dozens of little girls dressed up as Elsa congregated in the streets… in lines for rides… in shops that sold Frozen merchandise. Disney’s Hollywood Studios converted into a Nordic winter wonderland around mid-morning, blowing “snow” in the air, and throwing a Frozen parade. To top it all off, each night before the Magic Kingdom firework display, there’s a projection show on Cinderella’s Castle, which is actually pretty cool. The last couple minutes, however, are dedicated to Idina Menzel, belting the lyrics to “Let It Go” (you’re welcome!) – and the whole park erupts in applause and sings in unison. I’ve got nothing against the movie or Idina—I absolutely adore her in Wicked—but, holy goodness! Enough is enough! Let’s pay a little attention to some of our favorite WAY underrepresented movies like Aladdin and The Lion King. I wanted to see Simba! (If you couldn’t tell, that one was a bit tongue-in-cheek!)

The Ugly

Hurry up and wait. We chose to stay at one of Disney’s many resorts (we chose All-Star Sports) just because of the convenience—or so we thought. Disney has buses that run to the various parks on a 15-20-minute circuit. I kid you not, we waited no less than 45 minutes for each and every bus, either from our hotel to a park, or from a park to another park. On a 97-degree afternoon, we were leaving Hollywood Studios to go to Animal Kingdom and waited for what must have been close to an hour in the blazing sun. We had already seen several people pass out in the park. I couldn’t breathe, I was so hot – I just sat down on a bench and started to cry. It was horrible! They really need to work out their bus situation. People can’t be wasting hours of their precious little vacation time waiting for the buses to show up. Kyle went to Disney five years ago, and said he didn’t remember anything like that – but this time was very bad!

Another fee—seriously!? Allow me to complain for a second about the ridiculous way Disney sets up their dinner reservations. We didn’t buy a meal plan, so we were paying for all our food as we went along. I get that for a place that sees literally tens of thousands of visitors a day, the eateries need to have reservation systems. But seriously, what is up with this 24-hour cancellation policy and $10 per person charge if you don’t show up or cancel within that window?! You can’t tell me you’re not going to recoup that money and then some! There was one particular meal where we didn’t have a reservation, and waited in line forever to see if a table was available. It was a buffet, and I wanted to scope out the food before agreeing to pay $37/pp for dinner, so the girl told me I could put my name in and then take a “tour” of the dining room. She took my info, and I asked her if I just let her know that we don’t want to eat there if I didn’t like the look of the food. She said I’d just made a reservation and would have to pay the $10/pp fee. I think not! I told her to cancel it, and she had to put a note in that I was “sick” so we didn’t get charged. To me, that’s a very off-putting policy and certainly doesn’t make me want to spend any more money there.

But hey, I found Nemo!

Sanibel Island

The Good

Good Times and Seashells. We went to Ft. Myers Beach (roughly 20 minutes from Sanibel) one of the mornings of our trip. We’d been there to parasail and Jet Ski with dolphins several years ago. This time we did a shelling cruise with Good Time Charters. It was a leisurely 3-hour boat trip in the early-ish morning before it got too hot. On the way to a small island, we spotted dolphins and manatees playing in the sound. Once on the island that’s only accessible by boat, we found lots of shells that hadn’t been picked up by morning beach-goes, like the beaches of Sanibel. I collected all kinds of conch shells—and Kyle picked up a nice bee sting! Poor guy! It was overall a fun day, though.

The Bad

So, do you not want tourists?! This trip to Sanibel Island was markedly different than our last. Apparently EVERYTHING closes at the end of August and re-opens in October. We did get to go to our favorite restaurant, Mad Hatter, for our anniversary (August 31), but they appeared to be closed for the rest of our stay. Many restaurants shut their doors on September 1, so it was extremely hard to find food. We had ice cream one night, and pizza delivered another. One evening, we tried to go to a restaurant, and once seated we decided we just wanted dessert, and the waitress told us we’d have to go sit at the bar for that (and there were only 3 of the 50-some tables occupied). Another day, we went somewhere for breakfast and they kicked us out of the restaurant for arriving too early, even though their doors were wide open. I’m sorry… I just have a problem spending money where I can clearly tell I’m more of a burden than a customer they’re happy to see. This is their down time, and they relish it. They didn’t need or want us there. Just another reason we won’t be returning during Sanibel’s off-season!

The Ugly

Don’t always trust the GPS lady. I know—she gets really angry when you defy her. But she does NOT always know best. This is a very good lesson to apply to any trip, really. We choose to fly into Orlando and drive 3.5 hours to Sanibel Island (since it was roughly half the price to fly there, and I had never been to Disney). I foolishly figured we’d be driving interstates—the map appeared to be a straight shot. Well, the GPS lady picked the shortest route which happened to go through all these little podunk towns, where speed limits change from 60 to 40 to 30 to 50 to 30 to 60 at whim, with no indication whatsoever. I got pulled over for the first time in my entire life—and on our anniversary, no less! The cop took a massive amount of pity on me and dropped my speeding ticket (23mph over!) to a ticket for failing to obey a sign – WHERE WAS IT!? Needless to say, we ignored the incessant demands of the GPS lady on the way back to Orlando and took the slightly longer route where you could go 70 the entire way without hesitation. Seriously, if you’re unfamiliar with the area, really look at the GPS route before embarking on your journey.

Until next time, Sanibel!

Places

Walt Disney World

Walt Disney World Resort, Lake Buena Vista, FL, United States
(407) 939-5277

Sanibel Inn

Sanibel Inn, East Gulf Drive, Sanibel, FL, United States
239-472-5170

Mad Hatter

The Mad Hatter, Sanibel Captiva Road, Sanibel, FL, United States
239.472.0033

Good Time Charters

4765 Estero Boulevard, Fort Myers Beach, FL, United States
(239) 218-8014

Walt Disney World

Walt Disney World Resort, Lake Buena Vista, FL, United States
(407) 939-5277
https://disneyworld.disney.go.com/

Sanibel Inn

Sanibel Inn, East Gulf Drive, Sanibel, FL, United States
239-472-5170
http://www.theinnsofsanibel.com/sanibelinn/

Mad Hatter

The Mad Hatter, Sanibel Captiva Road, Sanibel, FL, United States
239.472.0033
http://www.madhatterrestaurant.com/

Good Time Charters

4765 Estero Boulevard, Fort Myers Beach, FL, United States
(239) 218-8014
http://goodtimecharter.com/
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