Banff, Alberta (Canada) in the winter:

Things to do in Banff in winter:

Banff is an adorable ski town. One main road with lodges and restaurants all within walking distance of each other with winter adventures just around the corner. Sweet mom and pop everything stores and restaurants all super well kept with friendly shopkeepers and wait staff. Be prepared to watch and talk a lot of hockey in the winter. When you hear “Are you going to have the game on tonight?” they are talking hockey – not football. 😉 

I flew into Calgary, Alberta and drove 1 1/2 hours west to the beautiful village of Banff. The highway between the 2 areas is mostly flat and very well maintained. While approaching Canmore (the cute town before Banff) the mountains are just stunningly laid out ahead of the highway. Ask for an AWD rental car if you have any reservations about driving in winter. There is also a shuttle service that runs between the two locations. 

Day 1: Lake Louise Hiking and Ice Skating

Lake Louise is an absolute must – a magical experience. I have to admit that until I got to Banff – I thought that Lake Louise was right in town. Actually Lake Louise is about a 45 minute drive from downtown Banff but gorgeous the entire way with tall pine trees layered in snow and snow covered Canadian Rockies (especially Castle Mountain) which are absolutely stunning. This is also a mostly flat and easy drive with cleared roads if it isn’t currently snowing. Lake Louise is one of those turquoise blue lakes, in the warmer season, that you see in all the photos. (Other turquoise blue lakes at Banff National Park: Peyto Lake, Bow Lake, Lake Minnewanka, Moraine Lake)

To get to Lake Louise – navigate to the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise (a world-famous luxury resort hotel built in 1890) which is the impressive landmark hotel of the area that sits alongside the beautiful, frozen Lake Louise. Parking is free in the winter.

Hiking:

We hiked the flat yet picturesque trail #4 next to the frozen lake which is surrounded by thousands of ginormous snow covered pine trees outlining the lake in splendor. A beautiful and magical sight to behold! Hike out (on trail 4) to the massive frozen waterfall. There was a woman ice climbing her way to the top while we were there. Terrifying even to watch, actually. The trail continues into the forest past that point or turn around and walk back on the frozen lake. 

Ice Skating:

The Fairmont rents good quality ice skates near the lobby of the hotel. The skating is right on Lake Louise in an area that is checked frequently for the integrity of the ice, so I had no reservations about safety. It is probably the most scenic place to ice skate in the world.

There are a few restaurants at the Fairmont and even a very cool outdoor ice bar. Note that the food options are expensive at the Fairmont, but the reviews are that all is delicious and there’s always that fantastic view.

Other options are sleigh rides pulled by horses, cross country skiing on the lake and snowshoeing. All can be purchased at the Fairmont.

Food options in Banff

The restaurants in the town of Banff are located mostly on and around Banff Avenue and Wolf Street. It’s a cozy little area with loads of restaurants and paid parking. Banff seems to have a restaurant for most every type of cuisine. Remember that Banff is a well-laid out ski town. A hotel that’s walkable to this restaurant area is ideal and most of them are close by. I stayed at the Royal Canadian which was a lovely hotel (worth it to get the fireplace in the room) within walking distance to the center of town. The hotel also had a hot tub, steam room and small indoor pool. 

The restaurants that were reasonable (for a remote ski resort) with delicious food and great service were Pacini (Italian food with an all-you-can-eat-bread bar – toast your own bread and choose from a variety of breads and spreads), Bear Street Tavern was a cozy nook with seriously good pizza and sandwiches plus a bar area that was like a sports bar. There are so many restaurants and breakfast cafes in this area that there’s really no need to plan out your destination ahead of time – just take a walk and see what strikes your fancy. Unless it’s the busy season – then make reservations ahead.

Day 2: Cross Country (Nordic) Skiing and Hot Springs 

Cross country ski rental was very reasonable at Snow Tips and included skis, boots and poles plus some advice on locations to ski. We headed to Tunnel Mountain Campground , right outside of downtown Banff, which is great for beginners with mild ascents and descents and gorgeous mountains surrounding the quiet and peaceful area. It had just enough of a slope to be exciting without getting out of control. The campground has about 1 1/2 miles of groomed tracks (albeit it’s back and forth down roads covered in snow, but it’s really a lovely area) for beginners and those who have classic skied a few times.

After working up a sweat an option is to head over to the Banff Upper Hot Springs.* The water is a toasty (ok, super hot) 104 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s like really hot! It’s good on the muscles and relaxing for a bit. However, please do not expect to be outdoors in a secluded, quiet and rock covered little oasis, like I expected. *The Upper Hot Springs are an outdoor chlorinated, crowded pool with lifeguards. Honestly, it wasn’t really for me. 🙁

Northern Lights at Banff

Hopefully you are lucky enough to be in Banff when the Northern Lights appear. They did make an appearance the night before we arrived, so close. Get the app: Aurora (it’s purple) and it will give the probability and location of the Northern Lights near Banff (or anywhere, for that matter).

Banff Winter Itinerary

Helpful links to book your travel here

Christmas Markets near Frankfurt, Germany

Christmas Markets in the Frankfurt Area of Germany

The lovely, small and historic villages of Germany put out the most magical Christmas markets with twinkling lights, mom and pop homemade goods, popular Glühwein (warm, mulled wine in collectible mugs) stands, carousels, nativities all on cobblestone streets surrounded by beautiful cathedrals. What can be more festive than that?

These Christkindl markets are a beautiful way for the senses to soak in all the wonders of Christmas – carols, lights, and the smells of gingerbread and spices. The markets below are in Frankfurt and also just a short train ride away – easy to do it all in 3 days for a quick trip adventure.

Day 1: Arrive at Frankfurt Airport. Transport to your hotel (taxis are waiting outside – make sure they take credit cards and always ask for an estimated fare) or use the train system (get the DB Navigator app which will display times/transfers and payment options). Drop off luggage at your hotel and be on your way to the Christmas markets in Frankfurt!

Christmas Markets in Frankfurt, Germany

Römerberg/Paulplatz Christmas Market

The largest Christmas market in Frankfurt is nicely spread out in the Römerberg/Paulplatz area of the city with architecture remaining from the 15th century and under the Frankfurt Cathedral that can be climbed to the top – 320 steps with nice view of the city. The Christmas market is very well done with many “restaurants” (nothing is really indoor, but some have covered eating areas with heaters), 100s of stalls selling all kinds of homemade goodies including wooden wares, spices, and local delicacies. Also important – nice restrooms. However, this was the busiest Christmas market I visited so, while it held its charm and authenticity, there were quite a lot of people trying to enjoy the same things.

Day 2: Take the train from Frankfurt (~ 1.5 hours) or drive (~30 minutes) to Mainz, Germany

Mainz, Germany Christmas Market

Mainz Christmas Market in Markt is not too large but full of everything you need for a magical market. I found the best part to be the cozy wooden huts with a table inside to enjoy Glühwein and Germany pastries. There are also about 100 stalls with all the wonders of the season. The Markt square is in the shadow of a large 1000+ year old Mainz Cathedral.

Day 3: Take the train from Frankfurt (~2 hours) to Heidelberg, Germany. Hire a taxi (plenty are waiting outside the train station) and head to Marktplatz. From Marktplatz Christmas market it’s an easy 5 minute walk to the next quaint Christmas market at Universitätsplatz.

Heidelberg, Germany Christmas Market

The Heidelberg Christmas markets are located along Heidelberg’s “Hauptstrasse” (Main Street) which is one of Europe’s oldest, and most popular streets to shop. It is a lovely pedestrian-only walkway with restaurants, bars, cafes and shops all along it. The Christmas markets of Marktplatz and Universitätsplatz are located on this main street. It’s just a sweet 5 minute stroll between the two Christmas markets as the castle glows way above this very charming atmosphere.

Itinerary for trip to Frankfurt Area German Christmas markets

For places to stay check out VRBO, Hotels.com, Booking.com, or Travelocity.com.

Helpful links to book your travel here

Vancouver, BC Area (Victoria and Whistler)

3-Day Itinerary – Hike, Eat and Absorb the Beauty

How to prep for safe hiking with bears in the Vancouver/Victoria/Whistler area

Check out the Vancouver, BC area for beauty and adventure! There is such diversity in this coastal, seaport area from a lively, cosmopolitan, clean Vancouver that’s super bike and pedestrian friendly to beautiful forests and shimmering seas surrounding the land on Vancouver Island (including Victoria) and Whistler. I found friendly faces in every sector.

Things to do on Vancouver Island and Victoria

Rent a car at Vancouver airport and drive about 40 minutes to the Tsawwassen terminal to take the “BC Ferry” over to Vancouver Island/Victoria (Swartz Bay). Note that the ferries usually run at the top of the hour. If you happen to arrive an hour early for the ferry (like we did!) then you can eat and shop (from sushi to sweaters) right at the terminal. The ferry is a beautiful 90 minute journey mingling through many small forested islands. There is a nice coffee bar and restaurant on the ferry. Look for Orcas! (I spotted one spouting!)

Interestingly, Highway 17 connects Vancouver to Vancouver Island. The ferry route is “the highway” between Vancouver and Vancouver Island and then Highway 17 continues on! On Vancouver Island every single thing must be brought by boat or seaplane, so I expected a tiny and quaint area and a small town of Victoria. Nope! Every store, restaurant, supplier, automotive, building, etc. that you could imagine is there. Even Toys R Us and Bed, Bath and Beyond stores in 2022!

We stayed in the adorable James Bay section of Victoria which is a small peninsula on the coastal side of the city of Victoria. Our sweet hotel, James Bay Inn (Hotels.com), is a 100+ year old sweet inn with a lovely pub and restaurant underneath. Plus it’s a nice walk from there to Floyd’s Diner (fantastic and friendly staff) with standard to funky delicious breakfasts. Also walkable to the parliament building (Victoria is the capitol of British Columbia), seaport, shoreline and seaplane port. So many locals riding bikes and walking their way through this lovely small city. Fisherman’s Wharf is a sweet area with colorful houseboats that are actually shops and restaurants and also residences right on the Victoria harbor.

The Highlands area of Vancouver Island is hilly and tree covered with little towns sprinkled in between. The hike for the day was in the Highlands at Jocelyn Hill. A 5.5 mile hike through a gorgeous canopy of trees with views of the Finlayson Arm (the body of water) along the way. Bear spray* is a must as some bears have been spotted here. Use the All Trails app on “navigate” to follow the trail easier as some signs are missing. There is cell service throughout the hike. Hiking poles may be needed for a few all dirt steep downhills.  

*Bear spray cannot be taken on planes as it’s kind of like mace. I purchased mine at Canadian Tire which is a sporting goods store and seems to be everywhere in the Vancouver/Victoria area.

Things to do in Whistler

The drive from Vancouver to Whistler is absolutely beautiful on the Sea to Sky Highway. It’s right along peaceful waterways (Howe Sound and Squamish River) for the entire ride – up and down mountains and beautiful cliffs flanked by tall pine trees. I drove it in the fall; although, I imagine it’s quite treacherous when there’s any precipitation on the roads with all the twists and turns; and therefore, snow tires are required from October 1 to March 31. There is also a bus that travels the same route.

It takes about 2 hours to drive from Vancouver to Whistler. Whistler is ginormous – much larger than I realized. There are 2 villages connected by a path and a 10 minute walk (or shuttle). There is an upper village which is kind of small, as far as amenities go, and the Whistler (central) Village, which is huge and has a lot of everything. There’s upscale shopping, souvenir shops, condos, restaurants, pubs, etc. We ate at the delicious Mongolie Grill for a super healthy and delicious dinner!

The juvenile bear who was roaming the village of Whistler at 8pm!

Drinks were on the patio at Gibbons at the foot of the ski slopes where we saw a juvenile black bear saunter by at around 8pm looking for food. Crazy! Waitstaff were banging on tables, chairs and signs trying to get the bear out of there. The bear actually even climbed 1/2 way up the outdoor stairs to a patio restaurant before he changed his mind!

I’d recommend staying in central Whistler Village. It seems that every single accommodation is beautiful and well-kept. 

Hiking in Squamish, British Columbia

Stawamus Chief Trail

Squamish is an adorable town between Vancouver and Whistler. It is about 45 minutes south of Whistler, so we stopped, off the Sea to Sky Highway, on the way back to Vancouver for a hike. Breakfast/Lunch was great at Lil Chef Bistro which is tucked right off of the Sea to Sky Highway. 

Hiking was right in Squamish – a meca for climbers! The famous hike is Stawamus “Chief Trail.” This hike consists of about 2 miles of steep, uphill hiking over stone steps, boulders and even man made stairs all in a very large pine treed forest. Precariously located boulders abound – you know, the ones that are on the edge and just thinking about tumbling down while you’re underneath them (but they’ve probably been like that for 100 years)! 🙂

The Chief Trail is definitely a popular one, so worries about bears were lessened, but I was prepared nonetheless. It was a challenging but beautiful trek in the vast, dense Stawamus Chief Provincial Park forest with 2 sets of stairs and 2 sets of chains to assist with hoisting over the boulders near the top. Once at the top of the first peak there’s a peaceful view of Howe Sound and surrounding mountains.

Bear Preparation for Day Hikers

After my large momma bear/bear cub encounter in Montana, I’m NOW prepared for a bear encounter. I carry:

  • Bear bell (A bell that hangs off my backpack – used so the bear is not startled and/or hears the sound and moves out. It has a magnet that stops it from ringing when not needed.)
  • Bear spray (Note that you cannot take bear spray on a plane. It’s basically mace that shoots really far, so purchase it at your destination and give it away to another hiker if you don’t use it.)
  • Smell proof bags (I carry my snacks in here and apple cores, pits from fruit, etc. after eating.)
  • Satellite communicator/GPS system (When I encountered the Montana bear there was no cell service at all in that national park. No one knew where we were, and there was no one on the trail at all. I worried that if we had encountered the bear on the way out of the out-and-back trail (fortunately, we were still going “in” when we saw the bears) then we would have difficulty finding another route back to the car. This satellite GPS would have solved that issue.)
  • And I know what to do in the future (DON’T RUN – my mistake) – National Park Service has some good info on encountering bears

Helpful links to book your travel here

Kandersteg, Montreux & Zürich, Switzerland Travel (summer and fall)

How I love Switzerland! Everything is beautiful, picturesque and stunning whether in the cities (Zürich or Montreux) or in the Alps (Kandersteg). There’s a feeling of welcoming here as well. I am consistently impressed with how pristine things are in the villages and cities. Here’s how to visit these beautiful areas and still be budget-conscious.

Day 1: Take the 2-hour train from Zürich Airport (“Flughafen”) to Kandersteg.

How to easily take the train everywhere in Switzerland

Things to do in Kandersteg

The sweet Alpine village of Kandersteg doesn’t seem to have changed in hundreds of years. There’s only one main quaint road (“innere dorfstrasse” meaning “inner village street”) with flowers blooming on each dark wooded chalet. All is quiet and calm in the village – it feels as though all the townsfolk must be out picking flowers, tending to the sheep or wading in the babbling brooks. It is a location set for outdoor adventures in the summer or shoulder seasons with hiking trails, biking and climbing throughout the spectacular mountains and lakes.

Everything, including hotels, are walkable in Kandersteg. Drop off the luggage at your hotel and be on your merry way hiking up to the gondola. Just pick up a hiking map at every hotel’s front desk. The paved sidewalk with a gondola sign is right in the middle of the town and hard to miss. Either take this Oeschinensee gondola lift (~$20 each way) up to the top or hike your way up. It’s mostly paved and very steep. At the upper gondola mountain station there is Restaurant Bergstubli and several little booth options for ice cream, etc. Hike your way to the shimmering and teal Lake Oeschinen (mostly a wide paved path) about 20 minutes away. This gorgeous lake is fed by the glacial Hotels.comstreams. There are options to rent a kayak here. To continue hiking – choose a hike from your map and continue on.

Day 1 continued: I stayed in the quaint Hotel Alpina from Hotels.com which was Swiss through and through with a warm welcoming and warm atmosphere to the old-fashioned keys of the small but clean and functional room. A traditional Swiss breakfast was included.

In Kandersteg the lunch at Hotel Alpenblick was a wonderful traditional Swiss dish – rösti. To me it seemed like very delicious potato hash browns (which I always struggle to make well). I also enjoyed their local beer – Feldschlösschen.

Dinner in Kandersteg was on patio of Chalet Hotel Adler- delicious pizza and great service! There was a good variety in their menu from pizza to steak to fish to pasta.

Simple instructions on how to take the train everywhere in Switzerland

Day 2: Hop on a train and head to Montreux. How to easily take the train everywhere in Switzerland.

Things to do in Montreux, Switzerland

Montreux is a clean, safe and small city that sits on the eastern shore of glistening Lake Geneva. Although it is in Switzerland, I found most everything from the language to the food to be French. As it happens, Lake Geneva is 1/2 Swiss and 1/2 French with the country borders being only a 25 minute drive away.

Explore the French Swiss village of Montreux. Take a walk on the beautiful flower-lined promenade along the sparkling waterfront. Note that the weather changes constantly so be prepared for light rain to cool overcast to sun! All in 30 minutes! (My trip was in September.) Visit Queen: The Studio Experience (free) located in the casino. My trip here was for the annual Freddie Mercury Celebration Days, a weekend long celebration of Freddie and Queen, which included outdoor concerts, parties, dances, etc. with fans from all over the world. Don’t forget to visit the Freddie Mercury statue on the Riverfront. (Freddie loved the serenity of Montreux and stayed there often. Queen also owned a small recording studio there which is now free to visit inside the casino.)

Eating in Montreux:

Breakfast in Montreux was perfect at Zurcher with French pastries, quiche and fancy sandwiches on crusty French bread and, of course, coffee (café Americano) with an option to sit outdoors. Lunch at Lucky Chinese with very big portions and fresh vegetables with an option sit outside on the patio with overhead coverings. 

Day 3: The CGN Riviera cruise is a beautiful, leisurely trip on the peaceful Lake Geneva between the forested mountains that surround this gentle lake. The cruise leaves right from the Montreux lakeside promenade. One side of Lake Geneva is Switzerland and the other is France. There are many options – the cruise that I took had the option to disembark at either Vevey or Lausanne. Vevey is a smaller, more quaint village while Lausanne had more action and is more of a city. Check out the lakeside walk, Olympic Museum or Lausanne Cathedral. Hopping on the train to return to Montreux – I was pleasantly surprised by the beautiful vineyards on terraced farms right out of the train window during this trip!

Day 4: Hop on a train and head to Zürich. How to easily take the train everywhere in Switzerland

Things to do in Zürich, Switzerland:

Discover downtown Zurich!

(Travel Tip: Take the train to the Zürich Airport [Flughafen] and take the airport shuttle to your hotel to drop off your bags. I always stay at the Holiday Inn Express in Ruemlang on Hotels.com. It’s a short walk to the Ruemlang train station – simply take the train to Zürich HB.) I

It’s a lovely and safe walk in the historic district, Altstadt, as you head toward the Limmat riverfront. If fondue at a restaurant on the cobblestone streets of Zürich is on your bucket list (as was mine) then walk 8 minutes to Swiss Chuchi restaurant for a delightful, delicious and reasonably priced fondue. This area boasts many high end boutiques (bring your large Francs), quaint shops, hotels and loads of restaurants with outdoor and indoor seating. Don’t forget to go down the cobblestone alleyways for more shops and restaurants.

How to easily travel throughout Switzerland on the train

It’s so easy to get around the entire country of Switzerland on their super efficient train system. Here’s step by step instructions:

  • Upload the SBB app
  • Add info as a guest or make an account (to stow credit card number)
  • In Timetable, type in origination and destination
  • Tap on the option to purchase ticket (no need to buy it at the kiosk)
  • A conductor will come through, while on the train, to check the ticket while the train travels
  • To change trains en route, consult the app for the platform to disembark and the one where the next train will depart. Note the change time – it’s often 5-10 minutes. It’s usually via a tunnel underground.
  • Note that the conductors usually stand outside the train doors, so signal them if you’re running to catch that train at departure time, if needed.

I don’t get the Swiss pass as I’m usually on a quick trip – 4 days or so. (Note that the train station at the Zürich Airport – “Zürich Flughafen” – is right across the street from the terminal and is easily walkable with great signage and also has an indoor mall with food options before you head down to the tracks.)

For places to stay check out VRBO, Hotels.com, Booking.com, or Travelocity.com.

Helpful links to book your travel here

New Jersey Shore (Lavallette Area)

New Jersey shore points

Why I Love the New Jersey Shore

If you were raised in New Jersey (as I was) then the Jersey Shore is gold. It’s the ultimate vacation spot. The place to go yearly, or more, with familiar and local spots (that are also locally owned) – bakeries, ice cream shops, surf shops, delis, beach stores, boardwalk rides and arcades. It’s all there for the taking and welcomes you back. I love this place so much, but I’m not sure if I love it because it’s got everything with such beach charm (walkable mom and pops everywhere) or because I grew up going there every summer. Probably both.

“Down the Shore” is how you would indicate that you were going to the beach/boardwalk area if you live in the northeast where the NJ Shore is your closest beach.

There are about 130 miles of shoreline in New Jersey. The particular area of the shore that I love is the Barnegat Peninsula; although, almost no one calls it that. See below.

The Barrier Island (or Barnegat Peninsula) *

*Note that most people just refer to it by the name of the community**, and each community is small (maybe 2-8 streets).

**Includes: Chadwick Beach, Ocean Beach, Normandy Beach, Lavallette, Ortley Beach and Seaside Heights

This seaside barrier island is perfect for those who love both the beauty of the ocean and the peacefulness of the bay, since you can easily walk from the ocean to the bay from almost any house on this “island.” When the main north/south road, Route 35, splits (just below Mantoloking) is where my heart lies. Here houses have traditionally been small “bungalows” where families jammed in for summer vacations from North Jersey and the surrounding areas. After “Superstorm Sandy” in 2012, many of the homes were destroyed by flooding and many of the communities allowed larger homes to take their place. Most homeowners tore down their home or raised it, but there are still some bungalows to be found. Homes are jammed together down streets that connect the ocean to the bay and people are out and active – walking, riding bikes, flying kites, or on kayaks, surfboards or boats.

Where to Stay at the Jersey Shore

I love to stay in a home with the bay in the backyard (“on the lagoon”) so even mornings and evenings can be spent in the presence of water. Days are spent on the beach or in the many lagoons on rafts, paddle boards, kayaks or boats. Or crabbing right off the dock! Nights are spent at the Seaside Heights boardwalk, playing mini golf or out for ice cream!

Boat rentals at Aqua Rentz.

Many of the homes are rented through the community’s local real estate agency. Many do things the old fashioned way with paper contracts, checks and cash even. I do not recommend renting a house in Seaside Heights or Seaside Park even though the rentals are typically less expensive here – the atmosphere there changes throughout the day/night.

Local rental agencies:

Ocean Beach rentals: Ocean Beach Sales and Rentals

Chadwick Beach rentals: Chadwick Beach Real Estate

Lavallette and Ortley Beach rentals: Lavallette Vacation Rentals or Premier Rental Listings

Ortley Beach rentals: Shore Summer Rentals

Other options: VRBO

Beach badges – beach badges are required to enjoy most NJ beaches. The badges are usually about $35 per week or $12 per day. Purchase the badges (typically cash only) when entering the beach.

My list of favorite beaches, in order, are: Ocean Beach, Chadwick Beach, Ortley Beach, Lavallette, Normandy Beach and Seaside Heights.

Below are some of my favorite spots:

Colonial Bakery – there are 2 Colonial bakeries and my favorite is the smaller one in Ocean Beach (3091 Route 35N). When you walk through the door, in the morning, you will be overwhelmed by the fantastic aroma of freshly baked deliciousness. Wonderful cannolis, cream puffs, eclairs and many Italian treats.

Lasolas Market/Deli – This is the epitome of the little Italian market with a beautiful, mouthwatering array of prepared Italian foods, the best cold and hot sub sandwiches, delicious entrees and much more including Italian bakery delights and even anything you’d need to cook Italian at your house. (One day I bought the chicken parmesan, stuffed artichokes, eggplant parmesan, and broccoli rabe.)

Ocean Hut Surf Shop outdoor sign on Route 35

Ocean Hut Surf Shop – This surf shop is my absolute favorite shop at the shore. They have very nice casual clothing and accessories and they even have their own brand of surfboards – cream – with very cool matching apparel. The same owner since 1975!

Seaside Heights Boardwalk – I hope you have not watched Jersey shore. Seaside is so much more than those kids and their drama (sorry, NJS fans). The Seaside Heights/Park Boardwalk is a 2-mile long family friendly* boardwalk that’s action-packed from lively arcades (Lucky Leos and Casino Pier are my favorites) that include classics (skee ball!) and tons of games! There’s a large pier (Casino Pier) with loads of rides for everyone from “kiddie” to “thrill” rides. As you walk down the boards, there are games calling your name – frog bog, darts, water gun competitions, balloon busts and candy wheels. There are also wonderful delicious foods like Kohl’s ice cream, Midway’s Italian sandwiches (sausage, peppers and onions!), 3 Brothers pizza (gigantic slices), and funnel cakes!

*Now to end this paragraph on the Seaside Boardwalk – you’ll want to go during the day to the boardwalk (and not on the beach because it’s packed with people and a little crazy sometimes) and only stay until 9:00pm or so. Fireworks start at 9:00pm on Wednesday night – that’s a good time then leave soon afterward. After that the family atmosphere seems to diminish.

The Crab’s Claw – The best restaurant to go for crabs, clams, oysters, shrimp, flounder, etc. with a lovely and fun atmosphere and just a block from the beach.

Sunny Hunny By the Sea Pancake House – a beach tradition for delicious breakfasts, especially the pancakes

B&B – B&B in Lavallette has the best sidewalk sales on the weekends. It’s where I bought my swimsuits each summer plus they have the cutest beachwear and gifts.

Outside of Ben Franklin on Route 35 in Lavallette, NJ

Ben Franklin 5&10 Store – If you’ve forgotten anything needed for the beach then you can find it here at reasonable prices. I’ve been going to Ben Franklin for many years for kites to fly on the beach at sunset!

Z Line – Z Line has very reasonable shirts, sweatshirts, souvenirs and even hermit crabs (which we have unfortunately purchased various times throughout the years :] )

**Note that many of the local restaurant establishments only take cash!

What I Love about the New Jersey Shore

  • Rolling down the windows over the bridge on Bridge Avenue, as you arrive at the shore, to smell the delightful salt air
  • The cool breeze right when ascending the sand dunes at the beach
  • Sand that’s perfect for building sand castles
  • People walking or biking around in bathing suits with beach chairs strapped to their back
  • Walking to the little ice cream shops and waiting in the long but fast moving lines.
  • American flags waving in the wind
  • Walking to local pizzerias, delis and sub shops
  • The local bakeries!
  • Families carrying blow up boats to the bay beach
  • Flying kites at dusk in the summer breeze
  • Houses crowded together – not a spot of land wasted

How to Get to the NJ Shore from the Newark Airport

From Newark (EWR) Airport terminals – take the AirTrain to the last stop. Follow signs to NJ Transit and NJ Coastal Line (NJCL). Get NJ Transit app and pay for the ticket to Bayhead (most likely you’ll have to change trains in Long Branch). At the Bay Head station take an Uber or a taxi to your rental property.

Helpful links to book your travel here

Bozeman/Big Sky, Montana (summer)

Things to do near Bozeman/Big Sky, Montana (summer)

Lush green mountains with snow capped peaks leading down to fast running rivers and emerald colored valleys with long grasses flowing in the wind. Montana! So much beauty in one place filling up all the senses! Wildlife is abound – deer, peacocks, sheep, and even bears (more about that later). The rolling hillsides and babbling brooks are also scattered throughout this very alive landscape.

Everything around this area of Montana seemed to be very well maintained from the state roads to the interstates (surprisingly as their winters are rough) as well as the towns in between. I usually enjoy the backroads; however, even the highways had stunning views. I found the roadways to be mostly flat throughout most of the areas that I traveled.

Accommodations near Bozeman

Although it is probably easier to find a place to stay in downtown Bozeman, I highly recommend staying at a VRBO outside of town to get more of a feel for the Montana lifestyle. I stayed with an extraordinarily amazing couple who maintain their own road, build their own barns, fell their own trees, make and cook their own food, and many etceteras. They have a yurt on their property to stay in during your visit.

Downtown Bozeman and Downtown Livingston

Downtown Bozeman

Downtown Bozeman is much larger than I expected it to be with upscale shops, restaurants, pubs and art galleries all within walking distance. I loved the Western Cafe for breakfast – it was a traditional old school diner with mouth watering breakfasts saloon style. MacKenzie River Pizza Company had delicious pizzas and lots of options (including gluten free crust).

Downtown Livingston

Downtown Livingston is a small town with eclectic, locally owned shops and funky restaurants. I loved Pinky’s for breakfast (quick service, good food and friendly staff) and Neptune’s for dinner with a funky vibe, rooftop bar and large, spacious restaurant. The menu is diverse with sushi and American options. Locals recommended Faye’s Cafe for breakfast (limited hours and closed on Friday) and Murray Hotel Bar.

Hiking near Bozeman

So many options for hiking — long, short, easy, difficult. Remember that you are at a bit of an altitude (5,000-7,200 feet high) so you may be breathing a bit heavier at times. If you’d like to go the non-planning (of the hike) route then take a spectacular scenic drive between Bozeman and Big Sky on US191 through the Gallatin National Forest and there are many signs for hiking right off of that road. Just stop, get out and hike from that trailhead. Note that once you enter the National Forest there is no cell phone service.

Hyaline Creek Trail – I chose this trail as it was moderately challenging with a good distance and pretty waterfalls. However, not sure I really recommend it. The signage at the trailhead is confusing. Turns out you should go toward Grotto Falls if you’d like to see waterfalls and not follow the creek trail sign from the trailhead. Going the other way (creek trail sign) we only saw one very small waterfall (albeit, pretty) and at 3.1 miles into the trail (by the reservoir) we startled a very large mother bear and her cub. Fortunately, she did not come after my son and I, but it was a terrifying experience. I learned that if you hike in Montana that you should carry bear spray (you have to purchase it locally – it can’t fly on a plane) and put a bear bell on your backpack as not to startle the bear. Also, you should make yourself look large while talking, facing the bear, and backing away to make the bear realize that you’re human and not threatening. We did none of those things. You are NOT supposed to turn and run, but let me tell you something, when every cell in your body tells you to run, you run. (Maybe role play it before you go out there – idk – just a weird thought.)

Ousel Falls Park Trail – We actually chose this trail as we had to “face our fears” after encountering the mother bear and cub on the Hyaline Creek Trail the day before. Although, this waterfall was just beautiful and the trees were giant and abundant, this trail was very popular with people. And the trail was gravel but practically paved. So, I would recommend it only if you have just a short time and would like to see a pretty waterfall and then go to the next activity which, for us, was whitewater rafting. This trail is less than 30 minutes from Montana Whitewater Rafting.

Lava Lake Trail – this trail was highly recommended by locals. Moderate 6-mile hike.

Whitewater Rafting near Bozeman

Montana Whitewater is closer to Big Sky than to Bozeman; however, if you’re coming from Bozeman the ride is so beautiful that it is well worth the trip. There were 3 rafting options to choose from at the time of our trip – more challenging, less challenging and least challenging. Note that water levels change often so the rafting levels do too. If you’d like to whitewater raft at a place that is all about safety then Montana Whitewater Rafting is the place for you – they provide the helmets, life vest, jacket, full wetsuit and booties. Also, they have many other adventures to add to your experience like zip lining, fly fishing, horseback riding, kayaking, etc.

Tubing near Bozeman

Madison River Tubing – I did not tube as I chose to whitewater raft instead. However, this tubing place came recommended by locals, so I thought I’d throw it in if tubing is more your speed.

Hot Springs near Bozeman

After a long day of hiking, the Bozeman area has 2 hot springs to enjoy to ease your sore muscles. Note that the hot springs are captured in more of a swimming pool (with both spring water and added water) to make it more comfortable to soak in. (I think I was expecting a Romanesque bathhouse which it was not.) We went to the hot springs in Chico. The springs were a soothing 99-100+ degrees. There is also the Bozeman Hot Springs.

Helpful links to book your travel here

Gruene, Texas

Gruene is a splendid, charming, rustic-yet-upscale Historic District (of New Braunfels) in the Texas Hill Country – less than an hour south of Austin. There’s a lot to do in Gruene (pronounced: “green”) for a long weekend or a couple of days: entertainment, shopping, antiquing, wine tasting and active options for all ages in this pleasant district that is very well-kept and surrounded by large, beautiful trees and rivers.

I was in Gruene in May and the weather was right for all the outdoor activities plus hanging out in town, and it wasn’t too crowded. Fall and winter are also usually pleasant in Gruene – typically highs are in the 60s (winter).

Downtown Gruene:

Downtown Gruene is walkable from one establishment to another with many upscale boutiques, outdoorsy-type shops, wine tastings along with cute, tasty restaurants and bars sprinkled throughout this historic district. Bonus: to-go drinks are allowed in most of the shops. Gruene was established in the 1800s by German immigrants and some of those remnants remain and have been re-vitalized in the downtown.

Live Music in Gruene:

Live Americana and blues music happens every night at the historic and oldest music hall in Texas (1878!) – Gruene Hall – right in downtown Gruene. It’s super cool and Texas-y with wooden floors, wooden long picnic tables near the stage and an overflow area outside, under the trees, with tables as well. Dancing is encouraged in and out! It’s really a fun place to experience and to discover new, old and popular musicians. Note that not much has changed at the hall since it opened in the 1800s including any type of climate control (read: no air conditioning), so keep that in mind and dress accordingly and bring your cash as that’s all that Gruene Hall accepts.

Outdoor Activities in Gruene:

Tubing in Gruene:

Tubing is a wonderful way to spend the afternoon gliding down the cool, mostly tame Guadalupe River where the Bald Cypress trees with their expansive root system majestically frame the clear river. Many options are available depending on the river you choose (Comal vs. Guadalupe) and the length of the trip. I chose the Rockin’ R River Rides tubing company which has well-maintained tubes (open and closed bottom), professional employees, timely and clean vans for the transport back. The tubing company sells beer, canned drinks, pre-made sandwiches and snacks to purchase before your trip at reasonable prices. Bring your own cooler (and rent a tube for the cooler) – and you can make it through the sets of rapids (fun and not dangerous) with your drinks intact if you keep the cooler tube close to you.

Cave Near Gruene:

Natural Bridge Caverns are a spectacular U.S. Natural National landmark and only a short 25 minute drive outside Gruene. There is an extensive 2-mile cave with many open rooms, underground river, various beautiful stalagmites, stalactites, curtains, etc. I learned quite a bit during the Discovery Tour which was about an hour and 1/2 long. There are other types of tours available including the adventure tour where you’ll need gear for more of a “caving” experience. The entire area is beautiful! On the property there’s also a ropes courses with zip lines. Also the Natural Bridge Wildlife Ranch, a wildlife safari drive-through tour, is right next door.

Fly Fishing on the Guadalupe is also an option for trout, bass, carp, etc. Check out Gruene Outfitters for equipment, guides, and locations.

The Grist Mill Restaurant is another must-do. It sits high above the Guadalupe River and has outdoor (tiered patio) and indoor seating (in an 1878 cotton gin) with delicious meals at reasonable prices and a Texas-y flair. Expect to wait some time if it’s high season – perhaps go at odd hours (between lunch and dinner rush) to reduce your wait time.

The Gruene River Grill is another good option for an American menu and was highly recommended to me by a 29-year local resident (so “loved by locals”).

Cantina del Rio is a fun, funky and colorful Mexican restaurant with a tree-covered outdoor space as well as an indoor dining room. Great food and good prices and burgers for those who aren’t Mexican foodies.

The Gruene Mansion Inn has been “gently resisting change” since its opening in 1872. Each cottage has its own porch and patio with unique Victorian style rooms dating back to the Gilded Age. Some cottages have a view of the river far below. I loved the Pantry which has a simple and tasty breakfast menu and a nice, peaceful outdoor space to eat it under the mansion’s back covered patio area.