My First Train Trip – The Amtrak Pacific Surfliner from LA to San Diego

It has always been a little dream of mine to take a trip on a train.  I had always pictured doing it somewhere majestic like Europe, but I certainly wasn’t upset to experience my first bit of train travel along the rugged Pacific Coastline between Los Angeles and San Diego.

I had to travel to LA for a course related to my job, and I had originally planned to spend an additional 4 days in LA to hang out with my uncle who lives there.  However, a last minute change of plans had me looking for other ways to spend these 4 days.  Staying in LA was way too expensive…and there actually wasn’t much else in LA that I really wanted to see after spending a week in Santa Monica.  I hopped on the Amtrak website and learned that there was a train called the Pacific Surfliner that runs between Los Angeles and San Diego.  I was easily able to change my return flights to Canada to depart from San Diego instead of LA…so I booked my one-way, business-class ticket on the Pacific Surfliner for early on a Saturday morning.

On the day of my journey, I took an LA City Bus from Santa Monica to Union Station in Los Angeles, which was actually pretty easy and comfortable.  Santa Monica’s Big Blue Bus website was actually very easy to navigate, and my Rapid 10 Bus was right on time.  The ride to union station took just under an hour, and the adventure began.  Here’s what I learned…

1. Train Stations are pretty cool

Union Station in LA

Union Station in LA

Saying this may classify me as an absolute nerd, or maybe just somebody who clearly hasn’t spent a lot of time at train stations, but I was amazed at how beautiful Union Station Los Angeles was.  It was just turning to daylight when I arrived, so I wasn’t able to get any phenomenal pictures of the entrance and foyer, but I was definitely impressed.  There are lots of waiting areas, although they were very full on a Saturday morning, and there were also several  food vendors (Starbucks, Wetzel’s Pretzels, etc).  Since I had booked business class (fancy) I was actually taken to a private Amtrak Business Lounge.  Which brings me to my next point…

2. Business Class Rocks

I’ve never been one to spend extra money on special treatment, but in this case, I couldn’t help myself.  A one-way ticket in coach was $46.00, and a Business Class ticket was $65.00.  The main difference that sold me on Business Class was guaranteed seating, whereas in Coach, you aren’t guaranteed a seat at all, and sometimes during busy times passengers cannot get a seat at all.  Since it was a 3 hour journey to San Diego, I spent the extra $19 and upgraded.  And it was well worth it.  I got to spend the two hours waiting at the train station at the Amtrak Business Class Lounge, which was quiet, completely empty when I was there, and full of snacks, coffee, tea, water, and soft drinks that you’re welcome to take with you on your journey.  They had nice little desks and tables set up so I could get some work done, and i was extremely grateful for this after passing by the crowded waiting areas in the main foyer of the station.  The lovely man at the desk in the lounge called for a cart to take me and my bag to the train when it was time to board, and although I never mind walking, this was actually quite nice.

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Amtrak Business Lounge

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Work Stations in the Business Lounge

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Always Working…

When it came time to board, all passengers who are not in a wheelchair or otherwise unable were asked to sit on the second floor.  This was also fine with me, because I had my heart set on a beautiful ocean view.  Tip: Choose a seat on the right-hand side of the train when you’re facing forward (facing the locomotive) as this will be the side that the ocean is on.  My bag was small enough that it was able to be stored in the luggage area of the car, but if you’re carrying lots of big bags, they’ll likely have them stored under the train.

The Pacific Surfliner Train

The Pacific Surfliner Train

The business class car was big and roomy, the chairs were comfortable, and there were snacks and drinks available free of charge.  Each row of two seats has an electric outlet near the window so you can charge your devices while you ride, and the complementary wifi was fantastic.  I was able to maintain a connection for the entire ride, although by the time we got to the coast, I wasn’t paying much attention to my phone or computer.

Lots of Room

Lots of Room

Inside the Business Class Car

Inside the Business Class Car

3. The interior of Southern California is nothing spectacular…

The first part of the ride will take you through the guts of LA and Anaheim, which are nothing special to look at out the train window.  I found myself wondering a few times, “when does the view get pretty like it is in all the pictures!?”  Well.  Let me tell you, it does get beautiful eventually, although the majority of the ride is through cities and towns.

4. …but the coast will take your breath away

By the time we hit the coast, the ride became incredible.  Within two minutes of being by the ocean, there were dolphins jumping right outside my window.  It was early in the morning and the skies were a bit hazy, but I certainly didn’t mind.  You will pass beaches, rugged coastline, surfers, and campers.  Sit back, relax, and enjoy the spectacular view.

The View along the Coast

The View along the Coast

Spectacular

Spectacular

5. I had everything I needed, and more

Amtrak staff were all very helpful when I asked my silly “train virgin” questions like where to put my bags and what to do with my ticket.  The car had a small restroom, similar to one that you would find on an airplane, lots of snacks and drinks, electrical outlets, free wifi, and plenty of lovely humans to chat with throughout the journey.  Every stop is announced, and the stops are quick and efficient.  The Santa Fe Depot in San Diego is the final stop for the Pacific Surfliner, so if this is where your final destination is, you’ll have a bit more time to get off the train.

All in all, my experience aboard the Amtrak Pacific Surfliner was a fantastic one from start to finish.  Even when I had to call customer care a week before my journey to change my train, I was amazed at the friendliness of the staff and the level of customer care.  My number one piece of advice would be to spring for a Business Class seat if you can afford to.  I don’t know what it was like in Coach, and I kind of wish I did just so I could compare the two, but my experience in the Fancy Pants Section was just so awesome that I think I would always do it this way.

Santa Fe Depot in San Diego

Santa Fe Depot in San Diego

Thank you, Amtrak, for making my first train experience such a pleasant one!  I will be back!

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San Diego – Where To Eat

This article is part two of my San Diego post.  In my last post, I talked about my favourite things to do in San Diego.  Now, I want to share what I really did for 4 days in SD…Eat.  And eat.  And eat and eat.  You’ll notice that 4 out of 5 of my favourite restaurants were in Little Italy.  Yes, I’m a little biased.  I also never made it to Old Town to enjoy the authentic Mexican fare that they are famous for in San Diego.  Next time!  (And there will definitely be a next time.)

1. Bencotto

Bencotto was recommended to me by countless members of staff at Hotel Vyvant, so I figured I would go there for dinner on the Monday that I was in San Diego.  Monday was Canadian Thanksgiving and my family back home was enjoying an amazing turkey dinner, so to ease my broken heart, I decided to drown my sorrows in homemade pasta and red wine.  Bencotto hand crafts their pasta fresh daily, and you can definitely taste the difference and the quality.  This is a perfect place for an intimate dinner date…the ambience is incredibly romantic.  If I’m being honest, I did feel slightly awkward sitting alone at my little table for two with a flickering candle, a glass of Malbec, and a giant bowl of carbo-heaven, but it was absolutely worth it.  Highly recommended.

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Dinner at Bencotto

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Dinner at Bencotto

2. Napizza

This meal will go down as one of my favourites in San Diego, simply because of how damn happy I was while eating it.  It was my first night in San Diego, and I had spent the day wandering around Little Italy and the Mercato, a few different art shops, and the harbour.  I had a permanent smile plastered to my face and I was prancing around the streets so freely and happily that I may have looked like I was on drugs.  I didn’t care.  Napizza was just adorable.  I walked in and ordered 2 slices of pepperoni pizza, a caesar salad, and a glass of red wine (served in a little mason jar) and then sat out on the sidewalk patio and people-watched for over an hour.  Everything was delicious, and the staff were lovely.  This would be the most comfortable and relaxing solo dinner I’d have during my 4 days in San Diego.

Dinner for One on the Napizza Patio

Dinner for One on the Napizza Patio

3. Buon Appetito

I had dinner at Buon Appetito on my last night in San Diego solely because I had sampled a few of their pastas at the FESTA street market the day before.  I absolutely had to get my hands on that Ravioli again before I left.  I was not disappointed.  The restaurant was really busy when I got there, so I was sat at the bar, which didn’t bother me at all.  I got to enjoy my wine and my pasta while chatting to a very friendly bartender and a lovely woman from Colorado.  Seriously, go to Buon Appetito and order the ravioli.  I dream about that stuff at night.

Ravioli at Buon Appetito

Ravioli at Buon Appetito

4. Pappalecco

Another spot recommended to me by the fine folks at Hotel Vyvant, Pappalecco is a place where dreams are made.  Honestly.  I went to Pappalecco 3 times during my time in San Diego.  And I had the same thing every time – the Marocchino.  At Pappalecco, they make it with their own espresso, steamed milk, cocoa powder, and, wait for it…NUTELLA.  The only thing more disappointing than the fact that it took me 23 years to discover this glorious concoction is that it took me 23 years to discover that I actually do in fact like (love) Nutella.  (PS. I’m holding the folks at Pappalecco personally responsible for the fact that I demolished an entire jar of Nutella within a week of returning to Canada.)  Aside from the Maroccino, Pappalecco offers countless authentic italian baked goods (amazing), a variety of flavours of Gelato (delicious) and an incredibly inviting environment.  I spent 3 hours reading there one afternoon.  If you’re stopping by in the morning, this place will be lined up out the door.  It’s worth the wait.  I promise.

Gelato at Pappalecco

Gelato at Pappalecco

Nutella Masterpiece

Nutella Masterpiece

5. El Pescador

I went on the hunt for El Pescador during my day in La Jolla after reading phenomenal reviews on UrbanSpoon.  It’s a bit of a walk from the action of La Jolla Cove, but you’ll see why when you get there.  El Pescador is a fresh fish market that doubles as a restaurant.  I arrived around 11 AM, and by noon the place was absolutely packed.  You can get anything from chowder to fish burgers to fresh grilled fish to fish tacos.  And if you have the ability to cook, you can always take home something for dinner, too!

El Pescador San Diego

El Pescador San Diego

The Fish Tacos at El Pescador

The Fish Tacos at El Pescador

 

Have you been to San Diego?  What were some of your favourite places to eat?

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November 2014 Adventure Spotlight with Karen – Mountain Villa, Morocco

This post is part of an ongoing monthly column called “Adventure Spotlight”.  If you’re interested in writing for ATA, click here.

Karen’s blog piqued my interest the second I saw it.  Karen is a girl who got tired of the corporate grind and decided to quit her job and travel the world solo.  Her stories and photos are inspiring and her journey thus far has been incredible, and I must say that this particular Adventure Spotlight has been the most unique one I’ve been lucky enough to feature so far.  You can follow Karen’s adventures on WordPress and Instagram.

The Writer: 

To put it simply, I’m just another travel-loving girl.  A couple years ago I took a trip to Italy with my parents that changed everything.  It opened up my world, renewed my sense of adventure and left me feeling more at home than, well, my actual home.  I was hooked.  Within a week and a half of being back in the States, I booked a trip to return to Italy in just three months!  This time, it was all solo.

Since then, all my trips have been that way.  My current trip marks the fourth and this time I’m going around the world!  I quit my corporate job in June and I left Miami with whatever I could fit in my backpack on July 3rd.  My blog, iwalkwithpurpose.wordpress.com, is where I write about what I’ve been doing and experiencing as I go along.  I plan on having more detailed write ups about locations later.

Currently I’ve found my way to Morocco and have been living the “local” life for about two months now, rather than country-hopping like I usually do.  This chapter will be coming to a close soon.  Then I will be going forward to Spain, Athens, the Philippines, Malaysia, Australia, Fiji, and Hawaii.

Where: 

Mountain Villa, somewhere in Morocco.  (Near Tamanar)

Why:

I started the first leg of my round-the-world trip in Morocco. I explored from Marrakech down to Taghazout during the month of July.  After leaving and exploring Europe for a month, I decided I wanted to come back.  I got in touch with the local friends I made here and we decided to travel around the coast in September.  So I booked my flight to return and we found ourselves here.

The Villa

The Villa

I dubbed this location the “Mountain Villa” because to be honest, I don’t know if this location has a name.  We loaded up our bags and boards in a sweet purple VW van and took off going up along the coast.  All I know is that it was near the small village of Tamanar, somewhere between Imsouane and Tafadna.  A friend had a place there, so that became our base.  We turned a 4 to 5 day stay into two weeks!

Top 5 Experiences: 

1. Fishing Village
We spent a fair amount of our time at the fishing huts with our new friend, Da’ Hmad.  He’s a local to the area and a friend of the villa caretaker.  He so graciously drove us down there whenever we wanted, which was great because we didn’t have a car and it was too far to get there by walking.

He had his own fishing hut that he let us use so we were comfortable.  It offered a place to sit, some fishing poles, a propane tank for making tea or food, condiments, and shelter from the hot Moroccan sun.

Inside the Hut

Inside the Hut

Every arrival would begin with traditional Berber mint tea and cookies.  I think about half of the days were spent just drinking tea!    We explored the landscape, surfed, played in the ocean spray, and enjoyed fresh seafood (fish and octopus) given to us by the local fisherman.  It nice to see such a simple life.  They have just what they need and nothing more.  They seemed to be free of the urge to to live a life of excess.

Picture 3 - Walk Down

Picture 4 - Ocean Spray

DCIM100GOPRO

2. No running water

Sometimes I think mishaps like this are what we live for as travelers.  After our first day at the house, we awoke to no running water.  I had fun laughing at myself upon realizing how helpless I became.  “What!?  No water!?!?  Ummmm, ok, shoot.  What do we do?  I’m supposed to flush the toilet HOW!?”

It wasn’t too shocking for me as I’ve been in that situation before as a kid while visit the Philippines.  But, it was different as an adult as it made me realize how much more difficult life is without clean running water and how much of it we waste.  It was our reality for two weeks but people live like this every day.  We had to ration it and conserve it.  It was humbling and a reminder to always be grateful for what you have.  These little lessons, reminders, and experiences are all part of traveling.  As much as I love the excitement and carefree wandering, the simple and grounding experiences are just as important and memorable.

3. From the mountain to the beach

We decided to take a break from the fishing village and adventure off to a somewhat secluded surf beach.  We checked the surf reports for the best day with the best conditions and made our way.  Last time my friend said they borrowed a donkey.  But as it was the weekly souk day, we were on our own.  A one hour hike later took us from the mountain to the beach.  Don’t fear taking a random trail.  It will probably take you to somewhere cool.

Landscape View

Landscape View

We had a long stretch of all to ourselves.  Some villagers were down there as well but for the most part we had our own section.  It was a great beach with clean water, nice soft sand, and good shade from the cliffs and rocks.  There has to be tons of beaches just like this along the coast: hidden and relatively untouched.  You just need some adventure in you to go find them!

We got some good surf in, played in the water, took some photos, and had a surfboard picnic.  After spending all day there we were wiped out and dreading the hike back up.  We were both so tired.  Then to our surprise, we see Da’ Hmad!  We spotted him in the distance, sitting on some rock.  He happily loaded us up in his little vehicle, and toted us back to our house after we watched the pink sunset.

Surfboard Cliffs

Surfboard Cliffs

Surfboard Picnic

Surfboard Picnic

Sunset

Sunset

4. Da’ Hmad

This guy is a Legend.  He really is the best of the best and I’ve never met someone like him.  In places where everyone is trying to get something from you (I’m a tourist, ripping us off is a national sport in the main areas), he wanted nothing.  We were strangers but he treated us like we were his own kids. His family.  He toted us around to the fishing village, drove us into Tamanar (the closest town) when we needed to purchase food at the market, gave us food, let us use his hut, made us copious amounts of tea, and never asked or expected anything.  We tried to give him money for gas or pay for food.  We offered whatever we could just to give something back.  All efforts were futile.  He’s even visited us in the current town we are staying at and brought us fresh argan cooking oil made by his sister.  He’s probably come to visit us at least five times!

Da' Hamd and Me

Da’ Hmad and Me

I will never forget riding in the back of the vehicle, listening to his berbere music, and watching the tassels in the car sway back and forth as we twisted around the windy mountain roads.  It’s people like this you could only dream of meeting.  We need more people like him and I wish for everyone to come across a “Da’ Hmad” some day.

Berbere Car

Berbere Car

5. Road Trip

There’s nothing like loading up that purple VW van and knowing you’re going to hit the road with it.  When we decided we needed to get back to civilization, we had our friend pick us up and we road tripped it back down the coast.  We stopped at numerous view points, gawked at the goats climbing up the trees, had lunch and got a surf in at Imsouane, and made it back around nightfall.  I’m not quite sure what it is about riding in a car with your friends down the coast, but you can never go wrong!

Our VW Van

Our VW Van

Goats

Goats in Trees

Imsouane

Imsouane

It was quite hard to leave.  Not only because a place is so beautiful and you have met great people, but because you’re never completely sure you will be able to make your way there again.

Something I wish I’d Known:

Morocco is a place that will eat you alive if you let it.  Don’t let that put you off though, it’s part of the fun actually.  One of the ways to bond and laugh with your fellow travellers is by sharing stories of how bad you got ripped off your first few days before you got your bearings.  It’s a good, light-hearted laugh about the mishaps that everyone experiences during their first time here.

Morocco can be a bit rough around the edges and sometimes things never seem to work all.  It’s best to take it easy and get into “Moroccan time”.  It’s kind of like being on “island time”, but with loads of mint tea and being surrounded by chaos.

Best Piece of Advice:

Morocco is an eclectic country with a variety of places to explore.  Find “off the beaten track” areas like a mountain village such as the one I visited.  It will show you the true locals, the way of life, and the authentic food of Morocco.

Get your hands on a vehicle and road trip it down the coast! I think this is the best way to explore Morocco.  The bigger touristy cities like Marrakech, Fes, Casablanca, etc. can put you off because the locals can be pretty rude and aggressive.  I suggest making friends with locals (the ones not trying to make money off of you) and experience the country with them.  The surf towns along the coast are way more laid back and chilled compared to the cities.

If you have any questions about traveling Morocco and want to know what it’s like or what to expect, feel free to contact me at iwwpurpose@gmail.com!  I’m a solo-female traveler and can give you advice on that (in Morocco or in general), round-the-world travel, or saving for round-the-world travel if anyone has been thinking about it.  I’ve spent most of my time in the coastal towns of Tamraght and Taghazout, and would be happy to chat about these locations if anyone is thinking of visiting :-)

Cheers and Happy Traveling!

Karen

Thank you so much for sharing with us, Karen.  I can’t wait to see what the rest of your journey has in store!

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San Diego – Things To Do

As previously stated in my review of Hotel Vyvant – I wound up in San Diego by accident.  I have never had less of a plan in my entire life than when I stepped off the Pacific Surfliner train at the Santa Fe depot in San Diego…a city I had never really had much interest in visiting – probably because I knew absolutely nothing about it.  But this incredible city surprised me beyond my wildest expectations and has become my favourite American city that I have visited so far.

I have compiled a small list of my personal favourite attractions in San Diego from my short 4 days in the city.  There was so much that I didn’t have time to explore, so this is in no way the “be all end all” list of San Diego must-sees, but I just wanted to offer up a few different options other than the typical attractions like SeaWorld and the San Diego Zoo.  (I didn’t visit either.)

Taking in the beauty of Balboa Park

Taking in the beauty of Balboa Park

1. Coronado

Often referred to as “Coronado Island”, Coronado is actually a small beach community on a peninsula, but tourists generally access it by ferry, and the whole place boasts a definite island feel.  Ferries are run by Flagship Tours between the downtown harbour and Coronado, and also the San Diego Convention Center and Coronado.  A round trip will cost $8.50 per person and it takes about 15 minutes one way.  Coronado itself is a great place for a beach day, a scenic lunch at one of the many restaurants, a stroll through the cute little (however very touristy) shops, or water sports such as paddle boarding or kayaking.  I went to Coronado on a chilly Sunday morning so I only spent about an hour there, but I can see how this place would be wonderful on a hot summer afternoon.

The Ferry to Coronado

The Ferry to Coronado

Obligatory Selfie on the Ferry to Coronado

Obligatory Selfie on the Ferry to Coronado

The Streets of Coronado - fairly empty on a Sunday morning

The Streets of Coronado – fairly empty on a Sunday morning

Downtown San Diego from Coronado

Downtown San Diego from Coronado

2. Little Italy & Saturday Mercato

My absolute favourite part of San Diego is Little Italy.  It consists of authentic Italian restaurants and cafes, many adorable shops, and a quaint European feel that makes you want to grab a scoop of gelato and sit on a bench watching the world go by.  Every Saturday, Little Italy hosts the Mercato from 8am to 2pm, which is a large farmer’s market featuring anything from fresh fruits and veggies to baked goods to handicrafts.  It is definitely worth checking out while in San Diego.

Little Italy Mercato

Little Italy Mercato

Little Italy Mercato

Little Italy Mercato

Little Italy Mercato

Little Italy Mercato

3. The Gaslamp Quarter

I only spent a brief afternoon in the Gaslamp Quarter, but I can definitely see how this area is a mecca for brand-name shopping, bar-hopping, and tons of ‘big-city-feel’ action.  There are often different events occurring in the area, so do some research ahead of time.  I accidentally found myself in the middle of a classic car show on a Sunday afternoon which was a pleasant surprise.

Gaslamp Quarter

Gaslamp Quarter

Part of the Classic Car Show I came across

Part of the Classic Car Show I came across

4. The San Diego Natural History Museum

A stunning museum dedicated to anthropology, The NAT is comprised of 5 floors and several different exhibits, including permanent ones and features, such as The Discovery of King Tut, my main reason for visiting.  The museum is also home to a giant movie theatre which features up to three educational documentary-style films per day, played multiple times.  It is definitely a fun and educational way to spend a few hours, and would be suitable for people of all ages.

The San Diego Natural History Museum

The San Diego Natural History Museum

The Skulls Exhibit at The San Diego Natural History Museum

The Skulls Exhibit at The San Diego Natural History Museum

A Replica of King Tut's Mummy at The San Diego Natural History Museum

A Replica of King Tut’s Mummy at The San Diego Natural History Museum

A Replica of King Tut's Gold Mask at The San Diego Natural History Museum

A Replica of King Tut’s Gold Mask at The San Diego Natural History Museum

The Theatre at The San Diego Natural History Museum

The Theatre at The San Diego Natural History Museum

5. Balboa Park

Balboa Park is a stunning urban park sprawling 1,200 acres that is home to countless museums, green spaces, historical buildings, botanical gardens, several theatres, recreational facilities, and the San Diego Zoo.  The park contains many architectural landmarks relating to the history of the Panama-California Exposition and the California Pacific International Exhibition.  It is a truly beautiful piece of San Diego, and of history itself, that will make you feel as if you have stepped into another world.

Crossing the Cabrillo Bridge into Balboa Park

Crossing the Cabrillo Bridge into Balboa Park

Balboa Park - adventuretoanywhere.com

Balboa Park

Japanese Friendship Garden in Balboa Park

Japanese Friendship Garden in Balboa Park

Balboa Park

Balboa Park

Balboa Park

Balboa Park

Casa Del Prado Theater - Balboa Park

Casa Del Prado Theater – Balboa Park

6. La Jolla

La Jolla (pronounced La Hoya – learn from my mistakes!) is technically a part of San Diego, but it truly does feel like its own little town.  I took a bus from downtown San Diego, which was only a short walk from Hotel Vyvant, The bus took me right to the heart of La Jolla, which is charming, rugged, relaxed and sophisticated all in one beautiful little package.  The bus that serves La Jolla is the number 30, and the timetable can be found here.  The morning that I went was quite overcast, so I spent some time at La Jolla Cove watching the swimmers, the waves, and the (extremely smelly) sea lions laying on the rocks.  Once it warmed up a bit, I took a stroll through the streets and the shops of La Jolla, and then ended up at an amazing seafood market called El Pescador for lunch.  If the weather is hot, La Jolla would be a perfect day-at-the-beach destination.  But even on an overcast cool day there was a lot to do.

La Jolla Cove

La Jolla Cove

Sea Lions

Sea Lions

The Sea Caves at La Jolla Cove

The Sea Caves at La Jolla Cove

The Streets of La Jolla

The Streets of La Jolla

Have you been to San Diego?  What were some of your favourite things that you did while you were there?

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Hotel Vyvant, San Diego, California

*The following opinions are completely my own, and I was not perked or paid in any way by Hotel Vyvant to write this article.*

I wound up in San Diego completely by accident.

I had previously spent a week in the LA and Santa Monica area for work, and had opted to extend my trip by a few days to spend some extra time with a relative who lives near LA.  However, when that fell through last-minute, I wasn’t sure what to do with my extra time.  I found the Amtrak website and saw that there was a train called the Pacific Surfliner that went from Los Angeles down the coast all the way to San Diego.  I had always wanted to take a trip on a train, and I had never been to San Diego before, so I booked my one-way ticket for early on Saturday morning.

From the second I stepped off of my train until the moment my plane home left the tarmac, I had a ridiculous smile plastered across my face.  San Diego was the most incredible American city I have ever visited.  I have never fallen so instantly, passionately, head-over-heels in love with a place in my life.  And staying at Hotel Vyvant had everything to do with that impression.

I can confidently say that Hotel Vyvant is the single most charming and hospitable place that I have ever stayed throughout my travels (and I have stayed in a lot of places).  This place was hard to track down – it was listed under the “other” section of Expedia, and the stellar reviews piqued my interest.  I ended up booking directly through the hotel’s website, and was impressed right from the beginning, after receiving a friendly confirmation email.  It was evident that Hotel Vyvant took an enormous amount of pride in their establishment.  I replied to the email explaining that I was a travel blogger who was traveling solo to San Diego for the first time, and I asked for any recommendations of attractions in the area that shouldn’t be missed.  They replied warmly with tons of information – I couldn’t wait to stay at Hotel Vyvant.

I arrived shortly after noon on a Saturday – check in wasn’t until 4 but they had my room ready for me, which was a nice surprise.  I was met by Bekah – who I believe is the general manager – and was shown around the property.  I couldn’t stop smiling.  This was the cutest little place I had ever been.  The hotel itself is located in a restored 1910 historical building, and is tastefully decorated with gorgeous vintage furniture, luxurious, comfortable beds and linens, all the modern amenities a person could ask for and more.  The hotel features 23 rooms in total, which range from queen bed rooms with shared bathrooms to “urban flat” suites with two bedrooms, two bathrooms, and a kitchen.

Hotel Vyvant Lobby

Hotel Vyvant Lobby

One of the Hallways

One of the Hallways

View of the terrace from the second floor

View of the terrace from the second floor

I was shown to my room, which was the “economy” style one bedroom with a shared bathroom, and honestly, in the 4 nights I spent at Hotel Vyvant, there was never a time that I needed the bathroom and wasn’t able to access it.  Sharing was no issue at all.  The room came equipped with a fluffy queen bed, a flatscreen TV, a sink, safe, and a full closet.  It provided more than enough space for one person traveling alone, and would suit a couple just fine as well as long as they were comfortable with a shared bathroom.

Economy One Bedroom

Economy One Bedroom

Sink area in Bedroom

Sink area in Bedroom

Shared Bathroom

Shared Bathroom

The highlights of Hotel Vyvant, for me, were the location, the offering of a complimentary breakfast and a complimentary happy hour on weekends, and the phenomenal staff – all of which helped to created an overall feeling of hospitality.  I felt as if I were staying with friends in their home.  The hotel is located in the quaint district of Little Italy, which I truly never wanted to leave.  It is a short walk to many conveniences such as shopping, ample restaurants and a 7-11 store.  Walk a bit further and you can easily make your way downtown, to the Gaslamp Quarter, to the harbour, or to stunning Balboa Park.  (More to come on all of those fabulous places in an upcoming article!)

Unwinding on the terrace

Unwinding on the terrace

Every morning, a complimentary breakfast was served in the lobby, consisting of fresh pastries and baked goods from a local bakery called Bread and Cie, greek yogurt, Safari Crunch granola, fruit such as apples, oranges and bananas, fresh brewed Dark Horse coffee, orange juice, and an assortment of teas.  On Friday and Saturday evenings, the hotel offers a complimentary “Happy Hour” on their charming outdoor terrace, which gives the guests a chance to socialize with one another while sampling local beer and wine and enjoying light appetizers.

Breakfast at Hotel Vyvant

Breakfast at Hotel Vyvant

Happy Hour

Happy Hour

Beer & Wine Selection at Happy Hour

Beer & Wine Selection at Happy Hour

Truly the most wonderful part about staying at Hotel Vyvant, though, was being taken care of by the spectacular staff.  Everybody I met was amazing.  I’d like to extend a special thank you to Bekah, Ashley, Connor and Taylor for making me feel so welcome and providing me with so much information about what to do in the area.  Everybody seemed so happy and pleasant and sincere.  I felt like I was chatting with old friends every day.

Taken from the terrace

Taken from the terrace

Thank you again, Hotel Vyvant, for such a comfortable stay.  I will recommend this property without hesitation to absolutely anyone traveling to the San Diego area, and I plan to return myself in the next year or so with my boyfriend.

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October 2014 Adventure Spotlight with Rachel from bettylivin.com – Waterton Lakes National Park, AB

This post is part of an ongoing monthly column called “Adventure Spotlight”.  If you’re interested in writing for ATA, click here.

Rachel and I found each other’s blogs by fluke, but were we ever glad that we did.  It turns out that we have a ton in common!  Her blog is focused on things like hiking and fitness.  She has spent many years in Waterton National Park, and although I have also been to Waterton for a few days this past summer, I wanted her to delve a little deeper into this magnificent park.  You can check out Rachel’s blog at bettylivin.com.

The Writer:

My name is Rachel and I’m a 29 year old communications specialist Monday through Friday and an adventurer on the weekends. I was born and raised in Fort McMurray, Alberta which is where I developed my love of the outdoors and snow. My family moved to Seattle when I was in high school and I stayed for 10 years before moving back to Alberta, this time to the sunnier and warmer south.

Rachel from Betty LIVIN

Rachel from Betty LIVIN

My adventures are pretty close to home because I’ve never had much extra money for travelling so I get my avdentures in wherever I am. The exceptions are my trips to Hawaii. My mom is from there and I still have family there. I even lived in Hawaii for a short period of my life so if I have extra money for travel, you’d better believe I’m hitting Hawaii.

My blog, Betty LIVIN is all about finding adventure as much as you can, whether it’s squeezing in workouts and sports during the work week or hitting the mountains on the weekend. My motto is “Life isn’t worth living without adventure”. A lot of people ask me where the name Betty comes from and that comes from three places:

-My Jeep Wrangler I was driving when I started the blog was named Betty

=A Betty is a term for a girl who surfs or snowboards and is morphing into a term for an outdoorsy girl

-Betty from the Archie comics was my ultimate role model growing up

Where:

Waterton Lakes National Park in Alberta, Canada is my ultimate getaway. It’s gorgeous, not overly crowded and close to home!

Waterton Lakes National Park

Waterton Lakes National Park

Why:

When I first moved from Seattle, I moved to Waterton to work at a hotel there for a year. I was sick of the crowds and noise and hustle that comes with city living and I went to this teeny mountain town that has maybe 40 permanent, year round residents. I loved it though and in the short year I worked there developed a deep love for this park.

Top 5 Experiences:

1. Getting married here in the middle of a snow storm
I always wanted a winter wedding so when my now husband proposed I knew it had to be in Waterton in the winter. I wanted snow and gorgeous mountains in the background. However, a freak snow storm rolled in and prevented half the guests from attending and the low cloud cover hid all the mountains! So for my mountain wedding, I have maybe two pictures with an actual mountain in the background from a brief break in the snow.
But I wouldn’t have had it any other way, people still talk about my fairy tale snowy wedding and it gives me another reason to love Waterton so much.  You can see photos here.

Rachel's Winter Wedding

Rachel’s Winter Wedding

2. Climbing to the Peak of Mt. Vimy 
This still has to be the most epic hike I’ve done in the park to date. My cousins and I rode our bikes to the base of the mountain (about 3 miles) and hiked up. The signs SAY it’s 4 miles up, but we were all cross country runners and know what 3.1 miles feels like and this was way longer. During the last mile scramble up the shale I kept having to stop and rest. But like all hikes, when we got to the top, it was absolutely gorgeous and I love pointing to the mountain across the lake when I’m in the town and telling people how I made it to the peak.  Read more here.

Mt. Vimy

Mt. Vimy

3. Crypt Lake Hike
This is one of Canada’s top rated hikes for a good reason! No other hike makes you feel like a maverick hiker better than this one. You have to take a shuttle (or kayak) across the lake from the town site to the trail head. Guide books say that this hike is about 8.7 km each way and takes about 6 hours round trip. It took my cousin and I a total of 6 hours and 15 minutes to complete it and we ran down for 20 minutes so I would suggest you schedule at least 7 hours for it.
The climb itself is moderate but it’s a long distance. The best part is when you are almost to the lake and you have to walk through the small cave and then walk along the rock ledge hanging on to an iron cable.  Most people who visit the park make the time to do this hike because it is such an incredible experience.  Read more here.

Crypt Lake Hike

Crypt Lake Hike

4. Playing in Red Rock Canyon
I loved water parks as a kid and Red Rock is nature’s water park. It’s about a 20 minute drive from Waterton town site up the Red Rock Parkway. There is a parking lot and bathrooms and everything because it’s such a popular spot. Most people like to walk along the trail on top of the canyon and look down but the adventurous ones like to climb into the canyon to play.

Red Rock Canyon

Red Rock Canyon

I like to walk along the canyon and climb on the sides, walk through the water or slide down the natural water slide (it’s just a little guy, nothing huge). There has been a lot of flooding these past two summers and I watched how nature balances itself out. Last year a June flood caused a ton of grey shale and rock to come down from the mountains and it covered the entire canyon floor so it wasn’t red rock canyon, it was grey rock canyon. Then just a month later, another flood washed all the shale away to reveal the canyon floor again. I could go on for hours about how amazing this spot is.

5. Cross country skiing date
Finally, my last favourite experience is from when my husband and I were first dating and we went cross country skiing to Cameron Lake. My husband is not an outdoorsy guy but he was trying to impress me and we had a blast. He hasn’t gone with me since! Ha ha! So I treasure that date and I always enjoy cross country skiing in the winter. One of the hotels rents them for $15 for the day and Parks maintains tracks to the lake. If you don’t want to be on tracks, there are a couple side trails you can ski on which are more difficult but a ton of fun.

Cross Country Ski Date

Cross Country Ski Date

Something I wish I’d Known: 

I wish I had known this place existed and that they hired like crazy in the summer! Waterton is mainly a summer destination with only two hotels and one restaurant open through the winter. Students come from all over the country, U.S. and even internationally to work here for the summer and spend their spare time hiking and being outdoors. If I had known about this place, that’s what I would have done through university. Both my brothers have also done a summer in Waterton.

Best Piece of Advice:

I would say to research the hikes you want to do ahead of time. I always look up elevation gain and distance before going on a new hike to make sure I’m prepared with enough water, snacks or meal if it’s long enough. There is a “hikers café” in town that I have worked at called Pearls Café and they have guide books and staff who are knowledgeable about all the hikes in the park.

Thank you so much for sharing, Rachel!

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Merrell Women’s Siren Sport Gore-Tex Trail Shoes

*As always, the following opinions are 100% my own, and I was not perked or paid in any way by Merrell.*

What It Is:

Merrell Women’s Siren Sport Gore-Tex Trail Shoes – a medium-weight, waterproof, heavy-duty multi-sport shoe for hiking, biking, walking, running and adventure.

My Merrell Siren Sports…nice and dirty, the way I like them

My Merrell Siren Sports…nice and dirty, the way I like them

When I Used It:

Throughout all of my travels in Asia, including hiking up Mount Batur in Bali, hanging out with rescued elephants at the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, exploring Koh Lanta in Thailand, and walking the streets of Narita, Japan.

During all of my light day hikes and adventures in Canada during the Spring and Summer of 2014 – including Dinosaur Provincial Park, Lake Agnes and The Glacier Skywalk.

My Merrell Siren Sports exploring the temples of Ubud, Bali

My Merrell Siren Sports exploring the temples of Ubud, Bali

What I Love: 

They are lightweight and compact for packing

They have decent tread when compared to a high-performance hiking boot

They are water resistant – Gore-Tex lining keeps feet comfortable and dry

Vibram Sole

They are super comfortable – required almost no break-in time

They are tough and durable…they still look fantastic even after all I have put them through

Nearly 1,000 feet above ground on the Glacier Skywalk in Jasper, AB

Nearly 1,000 feet above ground on the Glacier Skywalk in Jasper, AB

What I Don’t Love: 

The only thing about these shoes that I don’t love is that they don’t have any ankle support – but that is when you would turn to a full-support hiking boot.  I wore a different, full-support Merrell boot during my backpacking trip through Waterton this summer.

At the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai

At the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai

Where To Get It:

I purchased mine at Bass Pro, but they can also be purchased online at merrell.com, as well as at a variety of other outdoor retailers.

At the summit of Mount Batur at Sunrise

At the summit of Mount Batur at Sunrise

What It Costs:

Approximately $160.00.  Worth every penny.

Hiking near Elbow Falls, AB

Hiking near Elbow Falls, AB

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5 Inspirational Reads for Soul-Searching

5 Inspirational Reads for Soul-Searching - adventuretoanywhere.com

Since writing my last post on books I have read, Travel-Related Reads for Twenty-Somethings, I have been busy doing a lot of reading related to spiritual growth and transformation.  I wanted to share a few of my favourites with you.  I would recommend picking up one (or all) of them for your next adventure, or even just to have at home.

1. “Fear” by Thich Nhat Hanh

This book came into my life in an interesting way.  When I was staying in Chiang Mai, I found a book by Thich Nhat Hanh in a book exchange in the lobby of our accommodation.  It was just a little pocket book, so I took it with me, and Thich Nhat Hanh’s wisdom inspired me and changed me in ways that I can’t even put into words.  When I returned home, I decided that “Fear” would be the next book of his that I would read.  It is beautifully written, easy to read, and full of wisdom for difficult times.  Recommended for anyone who is feeling anxious, afraid, out-of-control, or overwhelmed by tragedy in their life.

book-fear

2. “Tiny Buddha’s Guide to Loving Yourself” by Lori Deschene

Tiny Buddha is an incredible blog-style community of inspiring people who are dedicated to sharing their stories related to change, life, love, relationships and spiritual transformation.  I have been following Tiny Buddha for a few years now, and I was ecstatic to see a hand-picked selection of stories available in a book.  A super easy and enjoyable read, Tiny Buddha’s Guide to Loving Yourself provides short, essay-style contributions from dozens of people just like you directly related to their life experiences and how they learned to love themselves.  Recommended for light-hearted, relatable reading when you need a bit of a boost.

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3. “Letting Go of the Person you Used to Be” by Lama Surya Das

Lama Surya Das is an american-born spiritual leader who follows the Tibetan Buddhist tradition.  This book is a healthy combination of his personal stories, practical meditation techniques, and essential wisdom for dealing with change.  Recommended for anyone who feels stuck in their past or anyone who feels trapped or limited by things out of their control.

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4. “The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari” by Robin Sharma

I found this book in a thrift shop, and decided to buy it simply because I had heard so many wonderful things about it.  I brought it with me on my backpacking trip to Waterton this summer, and I was able to finish it in only two days.  A truly captivating story about a big-shot New York City litigator who abandons his practice after suffering a major heart attack to undergo a spiritual transformation in the Himalayas.  This story will change you.  Recommended for anyone considering a lifestyle shift, feeling unfulfilled or empty, or someone looking for inspiration in everyday life.

MonkWhoSoldHisFerrari

5. “Buddhist Boot Camp” by Timber Hawkeye

This book is among my favourites, if not my absolute favourite book related to spirituality.  Timber Hawkeye, a long-time student of world religion, wrote this book to inspire and empower people by taking the sometimes complicated teachings of the Buddha, and writing them in simple, easy-to-read, and understandable short segments that can be read in any order.  The author has spent several years living and studying in both a Buddhist Temple and a Zen Monastery.  He writes with honesty, clarity, integrity and transparency.  I would recommend this book to absolutely every single person I meet.  It doesn’t matter if you’re a Buddhist, a Christian, or an Atheist…if you believe in kindness and compassion among humans, this book will speak to you, and it will teach you so much.

16283548Have you read any of the above mentioned books?  What did you think?  Which other books have you found helpful in your soul-searching journey?

 

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Lake Agnes Tea House, AB

Last week, I visited a place that I hadn’t been for almost 6 years – the Lake Agnes Tea House.  I went with Sean’s sister, Courtney, and Mother Nature provided us with an absolutely perfect late summer day complete with warm temperatures and cloudless blue skies.  So cloudless, in fact, that it made taking decent photos difficult!  But we weren’t complaining.

Lake Louise - adventuretoanywhere.com

Lake Louise

The last time I visited the Tea House was at the end of a week-long trek through Yoho National Park when I was 17 years old.  It was hilarious because we had been backpacking for 7 days and hadn’t seen any shape or form of personal hygiene at all.  We showed up in our gaiters, hardcore hiking boots, and mud-soaked clothes – while many people do this hike from Lake Louise in their jeans.

Lake Louise 2008

Slightly Overdressed at Lake Louise in 2008

But this time, we were clean, dry, and dressed for the occasion.  The hike begins at the Chateau Lake Louise parking lot.  We hit the trail shortly after noon, and it was absolutely packed.  If you’re new to solo hiking and are looking for a trail where you won’t feel isolated, this one is for you.  There were tons of people young and old hiking up to the Tea House.  On the Lake Agnes Tea House website, it suggests that the hike should take between 1-2 hours one way (3.5 km).  Courtney and I did it in just under an hour going at a fairly decent pace.  Be advised that there are two Tea Houses in the area – the Lake Agnes Tea House and the Plain of Six Glaciers Tea House.  Pay attention to the signs to ensure that you’re on the right track.  Detailed directions can be found here.

The Lake Agnes Tea House Hike - adventuretoanywhere.com

The Trail to the Tea House

We were lucky enough to reach the Tea House right before the masses of other people we passed on the trail arrived.  It was busy when we got there, but we were able to get a table right away.  The Tea House is only open from June – mid October, and it is busy pretty much every day, especially during the summer months and on weekends.  Expect to wait a while for a table.  You can spend time taking in the beautiful views of Lake Agnes while you wait.

Lake Agnes - adventuretoanywhere.com

Lake Agnes

Clark's Nutcracker at Lake Agnes - adventuretoanywhere.com

A Clark’s Nutcracker perches near the Lake

Lake Agnes Tea House - adventuretoanywhere.com

Lake Agnes Tea House

Lunch at the Tea House was delicious and authentic.  All of their ingredients are either flown in by Helicopter a few times per season or hiked up daily by their staff, and most goods are prepared right in the Tea House’s kitchen.  We ordered a large pot of Masala Chai, two cups of soup with bread, an apple crumble and a chocolate chip cookie, and our lunch came to just over $40.00.  It was well worth the price, though, for the experience alone.  And everything was delicious!  The soup of the day changes, but if you’re up at the Tea House while they’re serving a curried green lentil soup, I absolutely recommend it.

Inside the Lake Agnes Tea House - adventuretoanywhere.com

Courtney at our table

Lake Agnes Tea House Menu - adventuretoanywhere.com

Lake Agnes Tea House Menu – Changes Daily

The Patio

The Patio

Lunch

Lunch

There are two additional hike extensions that you can choose to take from the Tea House – Big Beehive, and Little Beehive.  I hiked Little Beehive a few years ago and it was absolutely beautiful.  However, by the time Courtney and I were full of delicacies from the Tea House, we were ready to head back down.

The view from the top of Little Beehive - 2008

The view from the top of Little Beehive – 2008

Our Group at the top of Little Beehive - 2008

Our Group at the top of Little Beehive – 2008

It took us less than an hour to descend back to the Lake Louise parking lot.  We moved a bit slower on the way down, as we were stopping to take photos.  Once you’re off the trail, there is an opportunity to explore the area around stunning, world-famous Lake Louise.  Indoor washrooms are also available here.  There are outhouses up at the Tea House.

The Waterfall just below the Tea House

The Waterfall just below the Tea House

The view of Lake Louise from the Trail

The view of Lake Louise from the Trail

Courtney and I in front of Lake Louise

Courtney and I in front of Lake Louise

The hike to the Lake Agnes Tea House is suitable for any able-bodied person, and I would highly recommend it to anyone staying in the Calgary / Banff / Lake Louise areas.  It truly is a beautiful and unique experience in the Canadian Rockies.

Have you been to the Lake Agnes Tea House?  What was your experience like?

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Varadero, Cuba – S-Trip Grad Trip Review

The following is a review of my experience with S-Trip’s Varadero, Cuba Graduation Trip.  Even though this trip was over 5 years ago now, I remember it like it was yesterday.

My "Welcome Gift" from one of the staff..he climbed to the top of a tree and cut this down!

My “Welcome Gift” from one of the staff..he climbed to the top of a tree and cut this down!

Where I Went: Varadero, Cuba, on a Grad Trip with S-Trip

When I Went: June of 2009

Where we stayed: Sol Sirenas Coral, Varadero

Who I Traveled With: A group of 50+ 17 year olds on a high school graduation trip

Part of Our Group on a Party Bus

Part of Our Group on a Party Bus

What was the Travel Process like?

We were traveling from Kelowna, BC, so we had to overnight in Toronto on our way to Cuba.  This was all set up by S-Trip and included in the price of the trip.  Everything went very smoothly, all transportation was taken care of – including flights and transport to the resort from the airport.

Waiting to get on the bus to the resort

Waiting to get on the bus to the resort

What did you do during the trip?

We spent our days relaxing on the beach or in the pool at the swim-up bar.  There were a few days that we participated in excursions (see below).  At night, we either went to the nightlife activities included in the trip, such as the Pirate Cave night club, which was epic, or, if there weren’t any planned outings, we just partied at the disco at the resort.  One night we even took the party down to the beach with some drinks and Cohiba cigars and had an awesome time.

One of the pools

One of the pools

Did you feel safe?

I felt safe almost all the time.  This may have been partly due to my naiveté as a 17 year old Canadian girl, but there really wasn’t a whole lot to worry about.  The only place I felt slightly uneasy was in Havana because of all the chaos of the city and the armed guards on every corner.  Stick close to your group, use the buddy system and know your surroundings and you will be fine.

Havana

Havana

Did you have lots of freedom?

Yes.  The S-Trip staff didn’t really mind what we did, as long as they knew where we were and that we were safe.  They’re mainly there to ensure your safety but they’re also a lot of fun.

Maybe they gave us a little too much freedom…?  Just kidding.

Maybe they gave us a little too much freedom…? Just kidding.

Were you well taken care of?

Yes. Without being overbearing, the S-Trip staff were awesome at taking care of us while we partied, making sure that we made it home safe, and ensuring that we were having a great time.  A few of our group members (including myself) got quite sick, and they were well prepared and equipped to make sure that we were taken care of.

The Tight and Bright Party at The Pirate Cave

The Tight and Bright Party at The Pirate Cave

Was the resort nice?

The resort was an average all-inclusive resort.  The rooms had everything you needed but weren’t over-the-top, the grounds were well maintained and beautiful, and the pools were clean and common areas comfortable.  The best part about this resort is the beach.  It had the most incredible white sand and was lots of fun to party on at night.

Resort Lobby

Resort Lobby

Which excursions do you recommend?

We loved the Havana tour (included in the price of the trip) – which took us to many famous landmarks, markets, and the Cohiba Cigar Factory.  We also did the catamaran trip to Cayo Blanco, which is no longer offered through S-Trip (at least I couldn’t find it on the website), but if you have the opportunity to go, do it.  It’s so beautiful.  Just be wary of laying on the front of the catamaran while sailing – the combination of the motion, the heat, and the hangover created a few unhappy campers on our trip.

Cayo Blanco

Cayo Blanco

What do you wish you had known?

Cuba is not famous for its’ food.  We didn’t have any fantastic meals in Cuba, even outside of the resort.  Go for the experience, not the food.  Also, we went at the end of June, which means that there is an almost-daily dumping of rain in the afternoon.  It could be a perfect, crystal-clear and cloudless day, and then, within a matter of 5 minutes, these ominous black clouds would roll in and absolutely pour rain for about a solid hour, and then they clear out just as fast as they came in.  It was crazy.

Ominous Storm Clouds

Ominous Storm Clouds

Any other tips?

If you haven’t witnessed any first-hand displays of poverty before, be prepared to see some pretty heartbreaking stuff in Cuba.  For the most part, the resort is free of this, but as you venture into Havana, you will see just how poor some of these people truly are.  Bringing a few small gifts for the children in Havana is a good idea.  However – be prepared to be ambushed by groups of screaming children if you do have any treats!

The Beautiful Beaches

The Beautiful Beaches

I would recommend S-Trip to anyone looking for a fun trip and a great party.  If you have any further questions at all, feel free to give me a shout at admin@adventuretoanywhere.com.

Happy Adventuring!

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