Archives

How about a “Staycation”?

There really is something to be said about the joy of finding rest and relaxation in your own little neck of the woods and partaking in a  vacation in your own area…a “Staycation”, as it has been called in recent years.  Frequently budget demands require this, but there is much to be discovered when you change your view from that of a local to that of a tourist. Opening your eyes to new possibilities can be very rejuvenating even for close, local delights.

What a Welcoming Welcome sign!

A recent move to Wisconsin, has brought this to my mind and made me realize there is so much to discover just within a days drive of our new home. I recently drove back to Iowa to visit my Mother. When crossing the border back to Wisconsin,  seeing this welcoming sign brought to me not only a welcoming home, but also memories of dozens of trips to Wisconsin when we were Illinois residents. Seeing this sign makes me want to shout “VACATION TIME! ” But now that Wisconsin is my home, I feel like I am perpetually on vacation. **Sigh** Life is Good.  My apologies to the working people out there that only get 2 weeks vacation a year, but I feel blessed to have 52 weeks. Even though I am still working as a writer, it does not feel like work. I enjoy it so very much. ( I Digress) So back to the Staycation concept.

If you are visiting locally, you probably already know the interesting places in your area and your favorite restaurants, but for extra pointers I would recommend a visit to the local Chamber of Commerce or Visitors Center.  You can visit either online or the building itself.  I personally think it is great to go and “collect” brochures and also talk to the staff there about highlights of the area. Depending on the area, many Visitor Centers are organized by what type of activities you are pursuing: hiking, biking, shopping, trying a new restaurant, local museums, etc….. There probably is a whole lot more to do than most folks realize. For example, in my own little neck of the woods, I really did not expect to find a terrific vineyard. Wisconsin is a Dairy state after all, but vineyards are found in many areas. Even in these northern climates, some of the most terrific “cold crop” grapes produce fantastic wine! If you happen to be traveling in Wisconsin, check out the Wisconsin Winery Association at: www.wiswine.org to find a local vineyard.

Besides the obvious advantage of saving money on a Staycation, there are additional numerous advantages about the simplicity of a Staycation. If you don’t have to deal with airline travel you don’t have the hassles of cancelled flights, overbooked flights, crowded seating and adjustment to time changes. Granted, flights are great for quick travel that would take so much longer by car, but it is nice sometimes to do without the hassles of flying. When you travel locally, another perk is having the luxury of sleeping in the comfort of your very own bed. You don’t have to worry and wonder what the hotel will be like.

I love to travel, both near and far, yet there is alot to be said about the joy and simplicity of a Staycation.; defiantly worth a try.  Share with me here your Staycation adventures. And then…..Put your traveling shoes on. JES

Summer travel season begins! Minimize Travel costs using Internet travel planning.

Travel planning on the Internet: it really is not as confusing and intimidating as it might initially seem.  After planning and executing a few trips, it is amazing how adept one can become. travel planTravel Planning for that fantastic trip sometimes requires some “practice makes perfect”, but there are a few caveats that help make the learning curve a little less painful and more economical. In planning several trips, both airline travel and by car, I found out through trial and error several tips to improve travel planning. Internet travel is not limited to searching for airplane tickets, some of my best car trips were planned with the help of internet searches. Nevertheless, my first venture with using the Internet for travel planning is probably where everyone starts: getting the best deal on airline tickets.  There are so many sites out there to chose from, but here are a few guidelines to assist you in getting the best deal:

Airlines:

  1. Try to fly in the middle of the week and include a weekend stay, this should help reduce your rate.
  2. Bear in mind that when you do multiple searches for the same flight information, search engines DO remember and sometimes flights will increase in price if they know that’s what you are looking for. Erase your cookies/search histories and start fresh for an “unbiased” search.
  3.  It may be inconvenient, but it is almost always cheaper NOT getting a direct flight.  Usually you are routed through one of the hubs, but it can shave quite a bit off the price of each ticket.

Lodging/Hotels:

  1. When booking directly with a hotel, many chains have their own “reward” programs.  If you choose to use an internet search engine like hotels.com or expedia.com.com , they also have reward programs but remember that you can’t “double dip”.  I made the mistake once of booking a Best Western hotel on hotels.com and could not use my Best Western rewards points because of how it was booked.  We were very happy with the hotel, I was just frustrated with the rewards system.  So make sure you know before booking, which “rewards” program you wish to pursue.  Personally, since I do a fair amount of traveling, I like the hotels.com system of getting your 10th night free. That’s a good deal and it’s a reward you can really use.
  2.  Don’t get stuck in a rut by only staying at certain types of hotels, try a Bed & Breakfast with a local flair for something unique to the area.  A really fun way to find interesting places is to do a Google Earth search on the area you will be visiting.  My husband & I found a fantastic ranch/resort just outside Yellowstone using this method.
    Yellowstone-2012 230

    Main lodge @ Shoshone Lodge & Ranch~Wyoming

    The Shoshone Lodge & Ranch in Cody Wyoming: www.shoshonelodge.com is a beautiful place right near Yellowstone National Park that surprisingly enough does not show up in several internet searches. My husband found it by simply hovering the cursor around the east side of Yellowstone. We were glad we found it then the rest came easy: their web-site has everything laid out nicely.  So never underestimate the power of just “poking around” on the internet, you will be amazed at what you will find.

  3. Do take the time to read other reviews of hotels, for example Trip Advisor, but bear in mind some people are more picky than others.  Sometimes you can almost tell when reading the review which are legitimate complaints and which are from folks who really “got up on the wrong side of the bed”.
  4. Bear in mind that some search engines, including Priceline.com get great prices for you with their “name your own price” program but you have to give your credit card in advance of the search and the exact hotel is not revealed until after you are booked.  This is great if you can be flexible, but I am uncomfortable with making a committment in advance when I don’t know exactly what I will be getting.

Car travel:

  1. When planning a lengthy car trip, start first by determining how many miles you wish to log each day. Then from there you can get a pretty good idea where you will end up and where to book a hotel or campsite. A wonderful aid for determining mileage and drive times is:www.calculator.net/mileage-calculator.  You can enter the starting destination and your next stop and not only do you get a recommended route, you get total miles and estimated drive time.  This is fantastic for mapping out a car trip and you can estimate how many miles you want to travel per day, and in turn where we want to end up looking for lodging.  If traveling during peak periods and at a popular destination, it’s probably better…and alot less stressful to have a reservation.
  2. Once again, I highly recommend Trip Advisor for not only lodging recommendations, but also restaurants, coffee shops and even the best places for a scrumptious ice cream cone. Sometimes if you’re visiting an area that you are unfamiliar with, it is good to get some insights from others who have been there and get the “low down”…for better or worse.

Planning and negotiating the ins and outs of a trip with the help of the internet can help in so many ways.  Not only do you save money by shopping around for the best deal, once your trip is planned you can sit back, relax and enjoy the ride. Put your Traveling shoes on. JES

Put Your Traveling Shoes On

Why do I end every post with :”Put your traveling shoes on.  JES” ? Well, the last part is easy,  JES  are my initials: Julie Etta Smith. The  Put your traveling shoes on goes a little further than just a request for some sturdy footwear. It is always a good idea to wear comfortable shoes, a trek on a wooded trail would not be too easy with spiky sandals.hiking shoes Yet, I am using that phrase as more of a metaphor for preparing yourself, both mentally and physically, when starting out on a trip.  When you start to plan a trip, I like to encourage people to go beyond the usual hotel reservations, airline tickets and road map plan.   When you complete those first, it’s best to take it a step further and find out more about where you will be visiting.  What about the local history? Is there a favorite local cuisine? Are there products exclusive to that area of the country~ in my case: a fantastic wine, perhaps? Always good to be on the look-out for a memorable souvenir. It is so incredible to read articles and see photographs of an amazing feature or place and then view it with your own eyes. I remember seeing photos of the “freak of nature” prismatic springs at Yellowstone National Park and thinking to myself they must be photo-shopped. Nothing could look that strange. Yet, seeing the rainbow colors with my own eyes made it that much more spectacular. It is good to get some background on the local history and lore of an area.

On the same trip we made to Yellowstone I was in the back seat reading a local publication with a feature about a HUGE mansion that was being built in the late 1970’s.

Yellowstone-2012 188

Smith Mansion~on the road to Cody, Wyoming

The man building the Pagoda-inspired design was tragically killed when he fell from the highest floor.  Locals say that it is still haunted and sits atop the hill untouched since his death. AND to add a little more intrigue to this story, it is referred to as the Smith Mansion. I know Smith is a common name, but nevertheless this story just keeps getting better.   Do you have goose bumps yet? Well, as I was describing this story to my family, I looked up and there it was…just a short distance from the side of the road. “OH, MY GOD……THAT’S IT!”  I shrieked to my family as they wondered the cause of my alarm. Now that was creepy: just when I was reading about that local story it appeared before us. Other than a story of unique coincidence, if I had not read up on the local history we never would have known the story behind that interesting Pagoda on the hill.

It is truly amazing the things you can learn before a trip that will really make your trip more memorable. So take a trip to the library, peruse the internet, talk to friends and family that have been there and be sure to enjoy the ride. Put your traveling shoes on. JES

 

State Parks: Not to be overlooked!

LaSalle Canyon, Starved Rock State Park

Depending on where you live in this great Nation of ours, you may or may not be relatively close to one of our beautiful National Parks. Fear not, the State parks hold many wonderful treasures that frequently mirror the beauty and splendor of their “big Brother” National Parks. Sometimes state parks are overlooked as a travel destination, but not only are they more readily accessible they frequently deliver a fantastic travel experience and if you are within your own state…a sense of civic pride surfaces enjoying what wonders are found in your very own Homeland. It’s amazing to think that in the United States, there are over 7,000 state parks. In my home state alone, Illinois, there are sixty. Now that’s quite a few parks to choose from.When travel planning, keep in mind the fantastic sites and adventures that can be found in all of our State Parks. Frequently, travelers head to a National Park and forget the beauty that can be found in a nearby State park in the same vicinity.

According to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, the most visited state park in Illinois is Starved Rock State Park in the central area of the state near Utica. With its varied terrain, hiking trails and sandstone bluffs, no wonder it is the most visited state park in Illinois. My husband and I visited and were amazed at all the natural beauty to be found. The park is also located along the Illinois River, and has several high bluffs with fantastic views of the river and the surrounding woodlands. The park is home to at least six seasonal waterfalls (best viewed in the melting thaws of springtime) and several scenic canyons. Most of the canyons are easily accessible, although some are quite steep. It is so interesting to hike through the wooded areas and have the opportunity to see up close the layers and layers of rock and the cool formations. Here is a picture of one of the deeper canyons: LaSalle. For purposes of navigating your way around, they have named all the major canyons and maps can be found at the visitors center. If you want to make it longer than a day trip to the area, they do have a historic lodge on the premises and lodging in nearby Peru. The park was established in 1911 and the beautiful Lodge was built, in part, by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the 1930’s. For more information on the Park, and also reservations on the Lodge, you can check out the web site at: www.starvedrockstatepark.org

It is interesting that the oldest state park in the country is often viewed as a “national” treasure. Niagra Falls State Park in New York was established in 1885 and is a popular destination averaging over 28 million tourists annually. Niagra Falls are made up of three sets of waterfalls that are on the border between Canada and the United States. The Falls can be viewed by both the American and Canadian sides and each side offers a different perspective.

NY trip,2014 031

 

The combined Falls form the highest flow rate of any waterfall in the world. In addition to tourism, the falls provide an abundant source of hydro-electric power for the area.
A fun way of finding a park near you is exploring a really fun web-site called: America’s State Parks. They have lots of information on all the parks including historical, activities available, lodging and local events. One of the most nifty aspects of the site is a map of the U.S. showing how many state parks are in each state. Just hover the cursor over each state to get a count. California has a whopping 278 state parks, and much fewer are found in the state of North Dakota: only 15. You can check out this site at: www.americastateparks.org

When travel planning, keep in mind the fantastic sites and adventures that can be found in all of our State Parks. Frequently, travelers head to a National Park and forget the beauty that can be found in a nearby State park in the same vicinity.
When traveling to Alaska, many of course view Denali National Park~ a must see when there. Yet, when I was recently there, we spent an afternoon hiking in Chugach State Park: a 500,000 acre park near Anchorage.

Alaska-2015 346 This park is home to Flattop Mountain, with an elevation of 3,510 feet, it provides beautiful views of the city of Anchorage, Denali, Mount Foraker and Mount Spurr. Since Flattop Mountain is very accessible from Anchorage, it is the most climbed mountain in the state. We did not make it quite to the summit…but climbed to one of the higher plateaus for a fantastic view!
So, next time you plan a trip, even a short weekend get-away, seek out the adventures in your very own state~ ~ what treasures are held in your State Parks?  Put your traveling shoes on. JES

Start @ the Visitor’s Center!

When traveling to popular attractions, to make the most of your trip, it only makes sense to start at the Visitors Center. Obviously, it is a great place to start to get your bearings about what you want to see, brochures and if at a National or State Park-trail maps to help you navigate your way. Several people, however, begrudge the whole idea of even stepping foot in the building.
I remember several family vacations when my sons moaned about having to “make Mom happy” and go to the visitors center.

Grand Teton N.P 052

“Are we done yet?”

Here they are at the Grand Tetons Visitors Center looking tickled pink to be there-they wanted to get out on the trail ASAP. “Take the picture Mom and let’s go!” That particular center is filled with beautiful statues, paintings and of course a bounty of information about the natural history of the area. It’s a great place to start your trip….but I would venture to say that a Visitor’s Center is so much more than brochures and maps-it can itself be a destination of great interest. This occurred to me recently when I took my Mom to Union Station in Chicago. I decided that since I was in the city, anyway I would take the time to go the Visitors Center and update my collections of brochures and guides, that were at least a decade old. A little research ahead of time revealed 3 different visitors centers in the downtown area. Since I was on foot, I wanted one within walking distance to the train. I chose the Chicago Cultural Center: only 1 mile from Union Station.

Chicago visit-6,2015 002 - Copy

 

An easy walk and some good exercise for me. The decision was made. When I arrived I was amazed at the grandeur and stoic elegance of the building. When I found out the background of the building, its amazing that it was originally built as Chicago’s first public library in 1897. The detail and craftsmanship with mosaics, polished glass and marble makes it stand out as a real gem of architecture in the city. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is also a protected Chicago landmark. Here is a look at the beauty of the front entrance. Another Visitors Center, showing an alternative style in contrast to the ornate architecture of the Chicago Cultural Center is the Anchorage, Alaska Visitors Center. Located in the heart of downtown Anchorage, it is easy to spot by the grass growing on the roof and the log-cabin construction in the midst of city buildings and businesses. Reflecting the pioneer spirit and the beauty of the great outdoors it also depicts a quaint image of the “Last Frontier” that Alaska is usually associated with.Alaska-2015 005

It not only provides the usual brochures and travel tips…but is a great photo op of a unique visitors center that could ONLY be found in Alaska! So when you are starting out on a trip, and collecting your brochures, be sure to spend a little time at the visitor’s center. You never know what new things or sights you will most assuredly take in. The Visitor’s Center….a great place to start.  Put your traveling shoes on. JES

 

Seek out your Passport!

Seek out and obtain your Passport.  Your Passport to the National Parks, that is.  Is has some of the same concepts as a traditional Passport, you get it stamped at your various destinations, but it is a whole lot easier to obtain and contains more information for you than just where you have been.  I have visited many National Parks, but just recently obtained my passport at America’s largest National Park: Wrangell St. Elias in Alaska.  Now I just have to “catch up” with all the Park’s I visited in the past and fill in the dates.  It is fun to cruise through the Passport, finding the places you have seen and remembering the visit. It is also a great partner for assisting in planning your next trip.

The Passport to Your National Parks program started in 1986, to help travelers in the U.S. gain a broader understanding and appreciation of the treasures of America’s National Parks.  It serves as a great souvenir to take with you on every trip to “log in” and have your book stamped with the cancellations of the specific park you visited. More than just a souvenir, it has a terrific overview of all the parks and includes maps, color photos and background information on the Parks. The Passport book is divided into 9 geographic travel regions making travel planning and finding specific parks much easier. You can purchase the Passport at just about every National Park, but if you are itching to get a copy right away, you may find it at www.eParks.com

The very informative Program consists of the Passport book, companion books, stamps and the park cancellations. Cancellations for your book are free of charge and are usually available at a park’s Visitor’s Center. Some people may have the misconception that the “stamps” are affiliated with the Postal Service, as commemorative stamps.  This is not the case, they are more akin to large stickers that highlight various features of each given Park: that fit into the Regional stamp sections of the Passport.
Whether you have visited 1 or striving to visit all 58 National Parks, it is beneficial and enjoyable to learn about and participate in the National Parks Passport Program.  In addition to providing information about and the locations of each of the Parks, it is good to know that proceeds from the sale of Passports and stamps are donated to the National Park Service.  Enjoy the beauty of our National treasure’s and…..have Passport, will travel……  Put your traveling shoes on. JES