When Tennessee became the destination for our vacation with Brandon's family, I really didn't know what to expect. He and I had suggested it because of a deal we had for a few condos for us to stay in, and we thought, "Why not?" None of us had been there before and we all loved the outdoors.
During our week-long stay, we experienced a little bit of everything, but here I'm recapping what stood out to me as the best tips to share if you're thinking about visiting Gatlinburg and/or Great Smoky Mountains NP!
Avoid the Crowds + Disconnect
Wow. Gatlinburg is B U S Y. I don't think any of us expected the Disney-eque nature of this town, or how many signs and attractions would be in our faces non-stop. While we did make a few trips in (shout out to Mellow Mushroom), I think we all felt relieved to return to our condos about 25 minutes away in Sevierville on the top of a hill with literally no service, wifi, anything. That in itself also sounds nerve-wracking, but it actually helped us to communicate in different ways (as in, face-to-face) and step away from the outside world in order to focus only on family for a week. And it helped us to have a nice balance of rowdy and relaxed environments throughout the week. If you're planning to be in the general area with a purpose of visiting the national park, I highly recommend staying outside of Gatlinburg.
Get Out on the Water
We decided to spend a day out on Douglas Lake and rented a pontoon boat and water tube. The 8 of us spent time tubing, sunbathing, fishing, and enjoying the beauty of the lake together! It was also a great way to stay cool in the summertime! I have to give a shout out to H2O Sports because our day got cut short due to a thunderstorm, and they allowed us to finish out our rental the following day. If you're feeling lost amongst the tourist traps or are looking for something to do outside of the national park, getting out on the lake is a great option!
Go to Clingmans Dome
Clingmans Dome is the highest point in GSMNP and the highest point in Tennessee! This was my favorite part of what we had the chance to experience in terms of the national park. We were lucky enough to have a clear June day and could see for miles!
You can reach the parking lot by driving through the park, and it's a 0.5-mile trek to the observation area. Though steep, the trail is totally doable and you can take your time! The observation tower allows you to experience a 360-degree view of the Great Smoky Mountains.
Overall, we had a nice time in Tennessee. I've since traveled to Memphis for work, but I'd like to explore other cities like Nashville and Knoxville. Our family trip, though with some unexpected twists and turns, turned out to be a great way to connect and disconnect and experience an incredible part of the natural landscape of our country.
The Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo (SLO), California is ICONIC. Why? Because it's colorful and gaudy and quirky and everything you'd want in a unique and fun place to stay. We stopped for the night on our Pacific Coast Highway road trip > read more about that here, but read on for more about the Madonna!
About the Madonna Inn
What we know now as the Madonna Inn began in 1958 with just 12 guest rooms. Over the years, the Inn went from 12 to 110 rooms and became a multi-purpose resort. Each and every room at the Madonna is unique - that's 110 completely different rooms! I'm talking color schemes, wallpaper, furniture, etc.
We stayed in the Marquerite, which is classified as a King economy room. According to the Madonna Inn, "The colorful blooms of the marguerite daisy are symbolic of innocence and joy." The bold yellow and blue complimentary colors made for a fun and whimsical experience, and the best part is that if we are able to return to the Madonna one day, we can stay in a completely different room inspired by different elements of the world around us.
More about the history of the Inn can be found on their website.
How to Enjoy Your Stay at the Madonna Inn in SLO
Relax at the Pool or Spa - The definition of treat-yo-self, Madonna Inn style!
Have Dinner at Alex Madonna’s Gold Rush Steak House - Being vegan, our options were a little limited here, but we made it work just to be in this pink paradise! Pink chairs, pink booths, pink tables, pink napkins - you get the idea. We enjoyed live music and each tasted a glass of one of the Madonna Inn private label wines!
Enjoy drinks at the Silver Bar Cocktail Lounge - After dinner you can stop by the bar here for a drink and to admire the hand-carved wood archways, and maybe people-watch a little bit too!
Make Your Own Photo Shoot - Did someone say, teal and pink basketball and tennis courts?! Yes, girl. They're real, they're at the Madonna, and I'm not actually sure if they're really used for basketball or tennis. But they're so fun for a quick photo shoot.
The Madonna Inn also has a variety of shops to explore, plus a famous bakery!
So there you have it! If you're planning a Highway 1 road trip with a stop in SLO, you've gotta stay at the Madonna Inn! Brace yourself for bright colors, including LOTS of pink, and an eclectic style not found at your average hotel.
One of the things at the very top of our California bucket list was a road trip down the Pacific Coast Highway, also known as PCH or Highway 1. This highway runs the length of California on the western side, towering above the Pacific Ocean and connecting various beaches and towns along the way. With one of the only long stretches of days that Brandon had off in January, we took to the coast to experience everything it had to offer.
Check out my first YouTube video recapping this trip, shot on my iPhone: (no judgement, still learning!)
Day 1: Connecting to Highway 1, exploring Big Sur, and walking on purple sand
Oakland > Carmel > Big Sur > San Simeon > San Luis Obispo
The first step in any PCH road trip is actually getting onto Highway 1. We opted to connect in the town of Carmel, also known as Carmel-by-the-Sea. IT. WAS. CUTE. Somehow balancing both upscale and down-to-earth vibes, Carmel was so pleasant to experience. We walked around a farmer's market and grabbed a coffee to go, catching just a glimpse of the water in order to continue on with our drive. Carmel is a popular day trip from San Francisco and we look forward to returning again for more of its gorgeous charm.
One of the most iconic sights on Highway 1 is the Bixby Creek Bridge in Big Sur, south of Carmel. The Bixby Creek Bridge is a favorite photography spot for anyone traveling on the Pacific Coast Highway, and rightly so! You can capture both the bridge and the waves crashing on the cliffs and beach below. We decided to stop here to eat our packed lunch and take in the views. Maybe it's the way you get a preview of the incredible drive you're about to have, or maybe it's the concept of a man-made creation connecting pieces of nature and giving us a path to see more. Whatever makes it so special, I would drive just to see it again! It's something you just can't miss.
Next on our list was Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, and specifically, Pfeiffer Beach. I'm not sure that we would have actually found the turn for the beach had we not stopped at the park ranger station first. A random right turn off of Highway 1 will lead you down a curved road to the beach area. Luckily we had cash on us to enter - it was around $10 or $12 to access the beach parking lot. From there it was a short walk to the beach and before we knew it, we were traipsing around on the most lovely and subtly purple-hued sand. I really loved watching the waves crash against the rocks and feeling the sun shining down on us and all of the other friendly beachgoers.
Another quick detour in this state park is McWay Falls, a gorgeous waterfall spilling into the ocean. There is a short path that you can take to a viewpoint - some of it was closed for construction when we visited, but we still got the perfect view. There is also a longer hike that you can take if you want to see the waterfall at a different angle.
Our final stop on day 1 was the elephant seal vista point in San Simeon. I hadn't seen an elephant seal in real life up until this point, and I had to of seen over 100 seals in about 1 minute. There were adults and pups all just hanging out on the sand - some louder than others. It was really something!
We ended the night at the Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo (SLO), a super unique hotel that has a different bold, colorful theme for each room - literally 110 completely different rooms!
There were about a million other things that we could have stopped to see, but we felt satisfied with a day well spent on the California coast.
Day 2: Dune Buggy-ing on Pismo Beach, being surrounded by butterflies, a random Danish town, and Santa Barbara
San Luis Obispo > Pismo Beach > Solvang > Santa Barbara > Ventura
While reading up on things to do off of Highway 1, I learned that Pismo Beach is one of the only California beaches on which driving is permissible. So, I knew what I had to do - reserve a dune buggy! Brandon and I wanted to do a dune buggy tour in Moab like I had done last year, but everything was booked when we visited. So this was our chance, and on a beach no less! We almost had the entire beach and dunes to ourselves, and it was a really fun experience (even though we got stuck a few times). The company we chose was Sun Buggy, but there are quite a few others.
Also in Pismo Beach is the Monarch Butterfly Grove. Every year, thousands of monarch butterflies come here for the winter, from October through February. We visited in late January and it was absolutely amazing. From far away, it just looked like a bunch of big trees. But as we got closer, we saw a few butterflies around us (and you have to watch out for them on the ground, too!), and once we were at the base of the trees, we could look up to see hundreds of butterflies flying around and/or chilling on branches and leaves. In a few key spots there were small telescopes fixed on certain points that you could look through to see them more closely. They were stunning, but I would be remiss if I didn't mention how endangered they are, too. According to the National Wildlife Federation, "The monarch population has declined by approximately 90 percent since the 1990s." Monarchs are facing habitat loss and the effects of climate change. Sanctuaries like the grove in Pismo Beach are wonderful, but it's important to care for monarchs not just for an hour, but always. You can help by planting native milkweed (what monarchs need to eat and live), donating to supporting programs, limiting your personal impact on the environment, and raising awareness about the monarchs. I had so wished I had my "Monarch Mama" tee from Educated Earthling with me to wear here!
After spending some time with the butterflies, we drove to the city of Solvang. Situated in the Santa Ynez Valley, Solvang is something out of a storybook. Founded by immigrants from Denmark in 1911, Solvang is brimming with Danish bakeries, cute shops, and wine tasting rooms. The architecture is so distinct and different from anything else on the California coast! It's worth it to make a quick stop and briefly transport yourself to Europe.
Next, we headed to Santa Barbara for lunch and sightseeing. We ate at Green Table (vegan + amazing!) then walked around State Street and the Paseo Nuevo shopping area. There were street performers and just about every kind of store you could wish for. Before leaving Santa Barbara, we visited the Chromatic Gate, a colorful art installation near the beach. That golden hour glow!
Our evening ended in Ventura, California. We stayed at Waypoint Ventura (booked on Hotels.com!), which is a really fun collection of vintage airstreams, and grabbed dinner and drinks at VenTiki downtown.
Day 3: SoCal - Exploring the LA area beach towns
Ventura > Malibu > Santa Monica > Venice Beach
As guests at Waypoint Ventura, we had access to bicycles to rent for free in the morning before we continued with our drive. We took a ride to the Ventura promenade, which was bustling with morning walkers, cleanup volunteers, surfers, and beachgoers.
After our bike ride, we continued down PCH, passing through Malibu. We noted several signs thanking the firefighters who worked tirelessly to put out fires in the area, and we could still see burnt trees, plants, and grass in the front yards of homes that we passed during our drive. I always thought of Malibu as such a glamorous destination - and it still was - but we also saw the reality of what residents there had gone through just a few months prior.
Not far from Malibu was our next destination of the day: Santa Monica. We parked in a garage near the Third Street Promenade, a busy shopping area. All these shopping areas and we didn't buy a thing! #minimalism :) We walked the promenade and to the Santa Monica Pier. This iconic destination was jam-packed with people and we didn't feel the need to stay long. Our favorite part was the carousel, built in the 1920's and on the oldest part of the pier.
Another interesting and less-frequented attraction off of the pier is the Camera Obscura Art Lab. Here you can step inside the body of a camera - really! You enter into a completely dark room and the mechanisms of mirror and light project images from outside onto a large disc in the middle, which you can adjust to see different angles and scenes. It's free to enter and an interesting and unique experience. Plus you feel like you are secretly spying on everyone outside.
Our final stop of the day was Venice Beach. We booked an Airbnb not far from the boardwalk and walked to the beach for sunset. It was magical! Colors of pink, purple, and blue danced in the sky and I wiggled my toes in the cold sand. We had been driving for the other sunsets of the trip so it was nice to just relax and take it all in.
We had dinner at Café Gratitude and I was *shook* by the sweet sweet concept of this vegan restaurant. Each menu item is named with an adjective and when you order, you can start with, "I am..." and then state your selected choice. For example, "I am Magical" would be how to order the black bean burger. Our waiter was helpful and kind and after taking our orders, left us with a question to discuss: "What are you creating with your life?" Wow. Feels!
Day 4: The *other* Venice canals + LA
Venice > Los Angeles
Before leaving Venice, I wanted to check two things off of our list: the Venice sign (classic) and the Venice canals. It's funny how your perspective of a place changes once you actually visit. I imagined Venice to be so chic based on all the photos I had seen of the sign, but in reality it's quite your average beach boardwalk. That said, there were still some lovely areas, and what actually surprised me most was how lovely the canals were - which isn't always what you think of when you think of the Venice in California. If I ever return, I will definitely want to stay in a home along the water in the canal area. It was like we had traveled to a completely different town in a matter of minutes. Quiet and charming, versus the row of shops offering neon screen-printed clothing and/or weed paraphernalia on the boardwalk. All in all though, Venice was v nice - c'mon, you know I had to.
Next up was big, bad Los Angeles, the final destination of our Pacific Coast Highway road trip. If we had more time, we would have kept going all the way to San Diego, but we will save that for another trip someday. In LA, we started by visiting the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, or LACMA, to see the Urban Light exhibit outside of the museum. Urban Light was created by Chris Burden in 2008 and consists of 202 restored street lamps from throughout the LA area. I was thrilled to get to see this in person!
Afterwards, it was time for lunch and we had *thee* most ideal place: Vegan Sunday, a weekly market featuring 100% vegan food trucks and vendors. We had been blessed, y'all. We ate so many yummy, cruelty-free things and it was energizing to be surrounded by so many other people living the same lifestyle and sharing similar values.
One outfit change later (bc I was hot and sweaty and done looking cute) and we sought out to explore downtown LA. We stopped at the Bradbury Building (where JT filmed the "Say Something" video), The Last Bookstore (a huge collection of books and fun displays), and the Angels Flight Railway (the world's shortest railway). We closed the night with happy hour drinks and sunset views at Perch and dinner at a totally random vegan sushi restaurant.
We stayed in Koreatown at The Line, which is a boutique hotel that we couldn't/wouldn't normally afford, but found an incredible deal on HotelTonight. I'm a big fan of Hotels.com, but HotelTonight hooked us up with the best deal!
My one regret of our evening in LA is that we didn't have a chance to make it to the Griffith Observatory. As much as I wanted my very own La La Land moment, there just wasn't enough time to get there and have a chance to see it all at night. Next time!
Day 5: Warner Brothers Studio tour, Hollywood views, and returning back to NorCal
Our final to-do in LA was a studio tour, and we chose the Warner Brothers tour bc 1. Friends and 2. Harry Potter. We didn't care to see the walk of fame or the touristy spots in Hollywood, but we did want to learn more about movie-making magic! We booked spots on the 10:30 AM tour but ended up squeezing in on an earlier one. The tour is a combination of riding around in a golf cart (we got first row with our guide *just in case* we saw any celebrities. Spoiler: we didn't.) plus walking around different sets and backlots.
We learned about and saw the differences between a façade set (just the outside and not a real, full building) and the full building sets that are furnished for indoor and outdoor use. We saw the locations of so many iconic scenes in film and television and it truly is amazing what a little editing can do. Not to mention full-out games that filmmakers play with us viewers, like the way a small group of extras can look like a giant crowd just by entering and exiting a building and changing clothes in between.
Our tour guide took us to the sound stages and explained how they worked - it was pilot season so most were in use at the time. We had the chance to see costumes from films like Harry Potter, Fantastic Beasts, Crazy Rich Asians, and A Star is Born up close. It's so interesting to see how low quality some of the pieces seemed in real life (though they had gone through a lot while filming) versus how they look on film. And last but not least, one of my favorite parts - getting to sit on the Central Perk set from Friends and grab a coffee. V authentic.
After our studio tour, we made a quick visit to Griffith Park. Griffith Observatory was closed for the day, but we still made a stop just to see it from the outside and check out the views of Los Angeles and of the Hollywood sign. 'Twas a lovely sight and a great way to end our time in LA.
Then it was back home to Northern California! We had driven down the coast, taking our time throughout our road trip, but it's much faster to take highway 5 in the middle of the state, so we drove on that highway to get home faster. This trip was such an exciting and spontaneous adventure and it's been one of our most favorite things that we've done so far while living in California. Hopefully my reflection has given you ideas about how to plan your own Highway 1 / PCH road trip!
During our time living in California, we're hoping to see and do as much as possible. And we sure did close out April with a bang! Brandon and I had the opportunity to take a 4-day road trip through Northern California and Southern Oregon in a JUCY campervan, visiting 3 US National Parks and exploring countless incredible landscapes. While it was an ambitious trip, it was 100% worth it. Read on for the deets!
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Renting a JUCY Campervan in the US
JUCY began in New Zealand and Australia and has expanded to the United States and Canada. You can pick up / drop off a JUCY campervan in Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and San Francisco (really, San Leandro near the Oakland airport).
JUCY vans are unique in that they are fully equipped for a camping adventure, complete with a full-size bed and kitchen setup. And yet, it's all packed into a Dodge Caravan, so it's still easy to maneuver and has decent gas mileage. Each JUCY van also comes with a separate battery to keep the refrigerator running (really!) and offers additional 12v DC accessory and USB ports for charging your devices without using up the car battery.
Other fun features include blinds for the car windows to provide privacy if you're sleeping inside the vehicle, and of course, the "penthouse" AKA the bed on top of the car. If you're thinking about renting a JUCY USA van, go for the "Trailblazer" model which has the penthouse. It was too cold for us to sleep in the penthouse for our first two nights, but we did sleep there on the third night. It's also helpful to have the penthouse if you're traveling with more people, as a group of 4 can enjoy a JUCY adventure together. There are a few different types of models depending on the van that you are assigned - we had the "push up" model, so all we had to do was open the latches and push up on the edges and voilà - our penthouse tent appeared!
Tips for Renting a JUCY Campervan in the US
While renting a JUCY van is a super unique and exciting way to travel, it does come at a price. There are many additional charges and add-ons to be aware of before booking. Which leads me to my tips for renting a JUCY van in the US:
Our JUCY USA Route: Northern California and Southern Oregon, and 3 US National Parks in 3 Days
When it came to planning our driving route and trip itinerary, we got a little too ambitious. So, there were things that we had to adjust and be flexible with, in order to keep our arrival times at the campgrounds on schedule. And this was mostly because we are terrible at waking up early. Below I'm sharing what we actually did fit in each day, which was still amazing! We were also limited on time, only having 4 days to do this trip, so there is so much that we had to skip but will hopefully get to see someday.
Day 1: Driving the Pacific Coast Highway in Northern California
San Leandro > Mendocino > Eureka > Trinidad
While we had already experienced the PCH going south towards LA, this time we had a chance to drive north on Highway 1. Starting in San Leandro where we picked up our JUCY, we made our way to the town of Mendocino. It was quiet, quaint, and sweet. We grabbed lunch at Good Life Cafe & Bakery. On the way to Mendocino, we also stopped at the Philo Apple Farm. It's a quick detour on highway 128 and there are only a few signs when you get close to it, but it was such a charming farm with a self-service store showcasing their handmade products. We picked up an apple juice and strawberry jam.
After lunch in Mendocino, we drove to Eureka, California. We really wanted to explore more, but unfortunately had to make our stop a short one due to timing and it taking a little longer than expected to get our JUCY out on the road that morning. It wasn't all bad though - we had incredible views all along the coast, stopping for photos and to admire our surroundings. The Pacific Coast is just so powerful and beautiful, and we felt lucky to experience it again.
Our final stop for the day was the Agate Campground at Patrick's Point State Park in Trinidad, California. Patrick's Point is part of the Redwood National and State Parks and our campsite was secluded in the forest yet just a short walk from a stunning view of the coastline (photo above!). We had arrived just before sundown, so we fixed a quick dinner of Beyond Meat burgers and set up our JUCY van for the night.
Day 2: Visiting Redwood National and State Parks, plus Oregon!
Trinidad > Redwood NP > Klamath River Overlook > Brookings > Bandon > Idleyld Park
After an oatmeal + fruit breakfast at our campsite, we packed up and headed towards the Redwood National Park Thomas H. Kuchel Visitor Center. I always love entering a visitor center for the informational displays, friendly and knowledgable staff, and quirky gift shops. There we were advised to continue on to the Prairie Creek Visitor Center and to do the Big Tree Hike. And that we did!
Starting just outside of the Prairie Creek Visitor Center, the Big Tree Hike takes you through a variety of redwoods both big and bigger until you reach the biggest one, aptly named "Big Tree." There is a parking lot and short pathway to Big Tree if you don't feel like hiking, but we really enjoyed the 2.2-mile roundtrip hike to get better acquainted with the redwoods. Big Tree itself is 286 feet tall, 23.7 feet in diameter, and is estimated to be over 1,500 years old.
After our hike, we drove to the Klamath River Overlook to have lunch (avocado and chickpea sammies!) and enjoy the view. Next, we headed up into Oregon, first stopping in Brookings at the Natural Bridges Viewpoint in the Samuel H. Boardman State Scenic Corridor. The Oregon coast was just as beautiful as in California, though we noticed that the highway had more of a diverse route, not sticking as close to the actual coast as its southern section did.
Continuing up the Oregon coast, we made our way to the town of Bandon, which was really on my list for the sheer similarity to my husband's name, so I could take photos of him next to every sign we saw. We arrived in the early evening on a Sunday, so much of the town was closed, but we had a chance to enjoy a drink at the Bandon Brewing Company and walk around the sweet Old Town.
A few hours later and we had finally arrived at our campsite for the night at Umpqua's Last Resort in Idleyld Park, Oregon. The campground is found in the middle of the Umpqua National Forest and along the North Umpqua River. The drive was absolutely lovely and we enjoyed a campfire in the evening, roasting (vegan) s'mores and gazing at the stars. No cell service = no problem.
Day 3: Exploring Oregon: Toketee Falls and Crater Lake National Park
Idleyld > Toketee Falls > Crater Lake NP > Weed > Lakehead, CA
Just 15 minutes down the road from Umpqua's Last Resort is Toketee Falls, a beautiful waterfall accessible via a short 0.4-mile hike to a suspended platform for the ultimate waterfall viewing. Some visitors hike all the way to the bottom of the falls, but we settled for the trail view in the interest of time.
One thing on our list that we had to skip was the Umpqua Hot Springs just down the road from Toketee Falls. The hot springs are a popular attraction, but in the winter the road leading up to the springs is closed, leaving visitors with the option of parking at the gate and walking 2 miles to reach the springs. With limited time, we couldn't fit in the 2-mile hike, spring time, and 2-mile hike back. But, maybe next time!
After Toketee Falls we set our sights on Crater Lake National Park. The only NP in Oregon, Crater Lake does not disappoint - even in the winter! Due to the insane amount of snow, we had to enter through the Southern entrance and could only get to Rim Village, as other roads and activities were still closed. The views were absolutely incredible and I still can't stop thinking about it. Crater Lake is the deepest lake in the United States and the 9th deepest in the world. It's fed by rain and snow only, and is thought to be one of the clearest and cleanest lakes in the world. That blue. That snow. That island. It was all so gorgeous, and we're so thankful that we were able to see it. Definitely a highlight of the trip for both of us!
After Crater Lake (and a quick lunch in the car), we drove back into California. Some of the drive was boring, but just until we came upon the most beautiful views of snow-covered Mount Shasta in the distance. After a pit stop in Weed (tiny lil town with a big touristy store for people who need an "I <3 WEED" shirt), we arrived at our final campground, Antlers RV Park & Campground in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest near Lakehead, California. We were two of about 5 people in the campground and had a sweet secluded campsite overlooking Shasta Lake. Because we had to arrive early to register before the office closed, we had time to set up our hammock, relax in the sunshine, and crack open a beer (for me, a fancy canned rosé). For dinner, we ate vegan hot dogs with sauerkraut and roasted a few more s'mores.
Day 4: Lassen Volcanic National Park and returning our JUCY van
Lakehead > Lassen Volcanic NP > San Leandro
Waking up along Shasta Lake felt like a camping paradise. It was a beautiful morning and we enjoyed another quick oatmeal + fruit breakfast before packing everything up to make our trek back home to return our beloved JUCY van, but not before stopping at Lassen Volcanic National Park.
As expected, most of Lassen was closed for the winter season. In fact, all of the visitor centers were closed on the day we visited, too. So, while short and sweet, we did enjoy a 10-mile drive through the park from the Loomis Museum Visitor Center to the Devastated Area. We could observe the volcanic structures and rock covering the land around the trees, broken up by Manzanita Lake. If we have the chance to visit again, we'll go in the summertime when we can see the hydrothermal areas.
Next it was a hustle to get our JUCY van back to the San Leandro facility on time, as our car had been parked there while we were renting the van and we needed it back before they closed! Another thing to be aware of is the late return fees - which was really anytime after 11 am so we were bound to have to pay it, and we knew in advance. Fees and all, it was a totally worthwhile experience and we had so much fun! It made me fonder of camping and #vanlife and I hope to do a similar trip again in the future.
So there you have it! Our jam-packed 4-day JUCY USA campervan itinerary in Northern California and Southern Oregon. Have you rented a JUCY van before? Tell me about it! Have more questions about our experience? Ask away.
PS - Check out a video recap of our trip below!
Santa Fe - truly a place that had been on my bucket list after hearing songs from the Newsies and RENT. And for my birthday this year I thought, yeah, sunny Santa Fe would be...nice. So we packed our things and made the road trip from Denver to Santa Fe, New Mexico. Here I'm rounding up my favorite things that we enjoyed during our weekend trip, and I already can't wait to go back!
Where to stay
For our getaway in Santa Fe, we went the Airbnb route. There are countless places to stay that are all comfortable, convenient, and well accommodated, but for my birthday this year I wanted a unique experience and something kind of remote. So we went with Suzanne's vintage airstream. It was the sweetest, most stylish "glamping" experience I've ever had - thoughtfully decorated and just so dang cute! At night you could see what seemed like a million stars, and in the morning we enjoyed a peaceful breakfast outside.
Where to eat
We had the chance to sample a few of the must-go places while in Santa Fe, and all while sticking to our vegan diet! Below are the eats you can't miss:
What to do
Santa Fe has so much in store for you between shopping, food & drink, ART, music, culture, nature, and architecture. These are just a few of the things we got to do during our weekend in Santa Fe:
And there you have it! A quick roundup of all that Santa Fe had to offer us for my birthday weekend. I can definitely say that I'd like to go back someday. Known as being the oldest capital city in the country, Santa Fe is low key yet has so much to offer! There are several museums that I would like to make time for during another trip.
Every time I look at my silver rings from the railyard market I think of how nice sunny Santa Fe was as I celebrated another trip around the sun.
Let's be honest - Boston is hella expensive. And that's okay if you live there and make hella income. But for a visitor, it can be kind of daunting. Though I only visited Boston for a weekend getaway while living in Baltimore, I was able to experience the city and not break the bank. Here are my tips for visiting Boston on a budget!
See Fenway Park without actually going to a Boston Red Sox game
Hey, if you like baseball, by all means go to a Red Sox game while visiting Boston! But for me, I wanted to get the general sense of Boston sports pride/Fenway Park without actually paying for a seat at a game. I did this in two ways:
Take a Duck Tour to see Boston by land and by "sea"
Being from Pittsburgh, I'm very familiar with a duck tour because they're happening all the time! But if you haven't taken one before or are looking for a unique way to see Boston, a duck tour is the way to go! You start by boarding the boat/bus on land and driving through the central area of Boston, receiving commentary from your tour guide along the way. You then arrive at a special access point in which you plunge into the Charles River for a guided cruise. This combination of perspectives is a great way to get a bang for your buck in Boston and learn a little history, too! (Extra tip: Boston Duck Tours has great military/veterans discounts as well as a discount for tours before 10 am)
Organize your trip into neighborhoods
Boston has so much to see and do, it can feel (and honestly is) impossible to see it all during one trip. I recommend being strategic with what you want to do and organizing your activities into the neighborhoods that they're in. This can help you save time and money in transportation costs from one area to another. For example, we wanted to check out the famous Mike's Pastry shop, so we decided to get dinner on the same street beforehand. If we had time before that, I could have visited the Paul Revere House, also nearby. You can also plan out your days based on walking from one destination to another, within reason. We walked a ton, and that helped to save on Uber/Lyft costs.
Take advantage of the free stuff
Like most major cities, there's a lot to see and do in Boston that's totally free! (And there's a website dedicated to this: Boston on a Budget) We walked along the Freedom Trail and checked out some of the historical sites, wandered through the Faneuil Hall Marketplace and Quincy Market, and walked along the Boston Harbor waterfront. Certain museums will have free days as well, which is always good to look out for!
Save up hotel rewards points to use for your Boston stay
I am a big fan of Hotels.com, and I'm not being paid to say that. I love that when you book 10 eligible nights in rewards, you get 1 night free that averages what you spent on the 10. I loved even more that I was able to use a free night for our stay at The Verb Hotel in Boston. This hotel is so unique and fun! The theme is rock 'n' roll music and I instantly appreciated the thoughtfulness that went into the design and the details, and not just in the lobby area decked out in memorabilia and guitars, but in every corner of the hotel. Your room key is an "access pass" on a lanyard, making you feel like a real VIP. There's a record player in each room, and you can select records from the lobby to take to your room to play. Not to mention other nostalgic treats like a typewriter, old time alarm clock, and color-blocked window panes. There was a play-on-words at every turn that had me lol-ing the entire stay (for ex: the "Rock and (Extra) Roll" toilet paper bag) and sassy sayings in the stairwells and hallways like, "If the music is too loud you're too old." We had such a fun time staying here and the fact that we got a night for **free** was extra sweet. 10/10 would recommend!
All in all, I had a great time in Boston and probably saw/did 0.0001% of the things to do in this vibrant and historic city. I feel so strongly that money shouldn't stand in the way of travel, and that there is always a way to experience a new place affordably - even Boston. I hope my mini list of tips may help you, and I'd love to hear yours, too! Leave 'em in the comments below.
Baltimore is known for its busy Inner Harbor, die-hard Ravens fans, and historical landmarks. But its proximity to other destinations was one of the things we enjoyed most while living in Charm City last year. While I haven't yet gotten around to writing about our favorite parts of B-more, here I'm sharing the quick and easy day trips we loved most.
Probably an easy guess, D.C. is a classic day trip from Baltimore. We visited the nation's capital a few times on day-long adventures and if you avoid rush-hour driving times, you won't have any problem at all. One of the most interesting things we did while day-tripping to D.C. was visiting the National Arboretum. An arboretum is a botanical garden devoted to trees - if you know Spanish, it's easy to remember that árbol means tree! The National Arboretum is managed by the United States Department of Agriculture and includes a pretty expansive collection of different types of tree gardens. We enjoyed walking through the bonsai area and making our way to the National Capitol Columns. These columns used to be a part of the capitol and went in to storage for almost 30 years after newer columns were installed. In 1984 they were moved to the National Arboretum to become a monument. So, while these columns seem kind of random in the middle of nature, they're quite precious. While they now support nothing, perhaps they represent everything that our country was founded upon and has since forgotten. It's definitely worth a visit if you're in D.C. or just visiting for the day!
Less than an hour from Baltimore is the sweet town of Frederick, Maryland. We started our day by visiting Glory Doughnuts to fuel up (100% plant-based, bless up!) before swiftly making our way to Linganore Winecellars for a wine tasting. The town of Frederick is full of sweet shops and gorgeous old buildings. We didn't spend time shopping or history-hunting, but instead opted for a self-created brewery tour of some of Frederick's best - including Red Shedman, Flying Dog, and ATTABOY. We visited in the fall and drove through beautiful landscapes of cornstalks and roaming fields in between destinations - it was such a lovely place and I wish we had been able to explore more! I bet it's lovely in the summertime, too.
One benefit to being in Baltimore for us personally was the proximity to Harrisburg and York, PA where some of our best friends lived at the time. We got to experience our home state's capital city, even if just for a day. I was surprised at how quiet and peaceful it was in the capitol district - then again, I suppose people mainly work there but don't really live there. We visited on a Friday and had a chance to walk around to work up an appetite before dining at Sammy's Italian Restaurant. This is a popular spot in the city and it was delicious! After dinner, we spent some time at Millworks Brewery, which is really more than a brewery. They have art studios and shops, games and an outdoor terrace, plus food. It gave us a great impression of what Harrisburg has to offer in art, culture, and brews.
So while we didn't stay long in each day trip destination, driving just an hour or two away from Baltimore afforded us the opportunity to see major cities and charming towns with such a variety of experiences in between. If you're based in Baltimore or just visiting for a while, consider D.C., Frederick, or Harrisburg for your next day trip adventure.
Travel nursing is a career and a lifestyle that is becoming increasingly popular among 20-somethings with a nursing degree. Essentially, it involves working with a recruiter at a medical staffing agency and signing contracts that typically last at least 13 weeks for a given hospital in the U.S. This option is available to nurses with a variety of concentrations and specialties, and there are contract openings in virtually every state. My husband Brandon became a travel nurse after our Heritage Honeymoon and we have been living the travel nurse lifestyle ever since.
While there are plenty of articles, blogs, and accounts from travel nurses themselves, I thought I may fill a void by sharing my perspective as the partner of a travel nurse - why I love it and why it can sometimes be challenging. If your partner is thinking about how to be become a travel nurse and you're thinking, how do I become a travel nurse's [boyfriend, girlfriend, husband, wife, etc.]?, I hope my perspective will help!
Step 1: Have States in Mind, but be Open to Travel Anywhere
The very first question to answer when becoming a travel nurse is, where am I going to go? Brandon had literally no preference, but we talked about Raleigh initially since we had family there. Then we had friends who would be in Denver so Denver became our goal. But like most things in life, it didn't go as planned. There were no jobs available in any of the cities that we had considered. And another big thing to keep in mind is that you have to have a nursing license in the state you want to practice in. So choosing a destination also meant that Brandon would need to get a new nursing license before his start date. Not to mention the wedding and honeymoon we had in between.
If you are interested in pursuing travel nursing and have a specific destination in mind, you can get your license for that state, but be warned that you may not get to use it right away. It seems to be all about timing and luck and who you have looking out for you (see Step 2). What ended up being the best opportunity for us was just a 4 hour drive from home: Baltimore, Maryland. At first we honestly felt a little bummed out. We were embarking on this brand new adventure and if I had to put a sound to the feeling, it'd certainly be, "whomp, whomp." But looking back, it was a blessing in disguise. We had to be thankful that Brandon was able to get an assignment and get his license in time (literally just in time). And while I had been used to working from home in the evenings for quite some time, I was embarking on my own personal adventure of working from home full-time and having this new digital nomad lifestyle to accompany my husband's new travel nursing career. Baltimore gave us the opportunity to ease our way into it. I got to see Brandon learn the ropes of travel nursing, adapt to a totally new work environment, and build upon his already sharp skills. We went home to see family for Thanksgiving. And we had the chance to confirm that this is really what we want to do.
So I think that it's good to set goals of where you want to be, but don't limit yourself. Embrace the opportunity to travel and live anywhere, and all of the lessons and blessings it will bring you.
Step 2: Get a Squad of People Working for You
The most crucial part of the travel nursing process is getting the gig, which means having a team of recruiters from different agencies working for you to get you the very best assignment at the very best compensation. I think it's a mistake to put all of your eggs in one basket with one agency and one recruiter. It's important in anything of this nature to actively compare and incite a little competition. But that doesn't mean it's easy, either. Brandon had to go through so many applications, forms, tests, and procedures to onboard with each agency. I felt bad that I couldn't help him with any of those things, but we both knew that it was in the best interest of both of us to have an entire network of connections to find the best opportunity.
And wouldn't you know it, while he was all set with the Baltimore contract with one agency, he was able to secure his next contract in Denver with a different organization before we even stepped foot in Maryland. I don't think that's the way it will always happen, but it certainly wouldn't have happened if he didn't work with several different recruiters and organizations. That said, I'd highly recommend this approach for how to find the best travel nursing assignments. And even after you secure your assignment, there are a lot of other details to iron out - taking the provided housing or finding your own (we've found our own), thinking about how you're going to get there, and packing and preparing (on to Step 3). As a partner, the best thing you can do throughout this process is to be supportive, encouraging, and enthusiastic about the opportunities ahead.
Step 3: Be Prepared to Leave Everything Behind
Remember, being a travel nurse amounts to one word: Temporary. But it's on purpose! You don't need to take all of your belongings with you for a quick 13 weeks. This was the part of the travel nurse journey that I found to be most cathartic: living with less.
When it comes to packing, it's so important to be intentional and minimalistic. While your travel nurse partner may wear a pajama-like uniform, that doesn't mean you get to bring/pack more for the journey. Work together to decide what's necessary and what isn't. For Brandon and I, we decided to pursue housing in Airbnbs, so everywhere we lived has had everything we've needed. All of the personal items we bring can fit in our car, and that my friends is liberating.
The new lifestyle you are embracing as the partner of soon-to-be travel nurse will be so rewarding in so many ways. You'll see and do new things, experience new ways of life, and lean on each other in ways you maybe haven't had to before. But don't forget that this is your story too - your work is still important and you can still pursue your own goals, too. Find a balance of celebrating each other and your triumphs. Know that you are doing something wild and wonderful and while it may not last forever, it will be pretty amazing while it does.
Las Vegas is a self-proclaimed adult playground. But that doesn't mean that it's all fun and (table) games. A trip to Las Vegas can include time spent in nature, meaningful and historical value, and quirky and cute surprises, too. Having gone to Vegas 3 times while under the age of 21 (family vacations, Sin City style), my recent trip back was a breath of new experiences and adventures. I had the chance to show Brandon what Vegas was all about, and discover new things for myself at the same time. If having reservations is holding you back from making them, take a look at my roundup of unique and interesting things to do in Las Vegas:
Explore the Downtown Container Park
A collection of shops, restaurants, and entertainment, the Downtown Container Park near Fremont Street gives old shipping containers a new purpose - with style. We made our way into the park because we were in search of vegan food in Las Vegas and found Simply Pure on the map. Wandering into the Downtown Container Park, we passed a friendly grasshopper and other odds and ends of art. Once we had a chance to get in and look around, we stopped to admire the colorful containers stacked three stories high. Simply Pure was easy to find, a 100% plant-based restaurant that's small, but mighty. While waiting for our food to be ready we perused through some of the other shops and restaurants. The Container Park is also a great place to people-watch, as we did while we ate outside. One of my favorite parts about this area was the green, where parents watched from comfy lounge chairs as their children played with soft blocks and other outdoor games. There was a stage for live music and it was just so lovely. That family feel was really nice to experience, and if I lived in Las Vegas I'd be going to the Downtown Container Park allllll the time.
Go to Seven Magic Mountains
Okay, so you have to have a car to get here, but it's so worth it! Seven Magic Mountains is an art installation created by Swiss artist Ugo Rondinone in the middle of the desert right outside Las Vegas. There are - you guessed it - seven magical towers of colorful rocks stacked high into the sky. While there isn't much depth to the installation, it's an Instagrammer's paradise just waiting to be realized. It's fun, happy, and a nice opportunity to meet people too. You're more than likely accidentally in someone's picture, or taking it. But the opportunity to marvel at this massive artwork against the barren land around it is really a special thing. If you're thinking about visiting, act quick! The installation will be up for the rest of 2018, but there's no definite timeline past that (as of now). It's worth the 30-min drive to take in this manmade piece against our earth's natural backdrop, with no sign of Las Vegas and its flashy signs in sight.
Hang out at The Park
Take a Drive (or Hike) Through Valley of Fire State Park
When Brandon and I visited Las Vegas, we had exactly 1 full day during our trip and that was the day we rented a car to do all the things. What was actually last on our list for the day was Valley of Fire State Park, but it did not disappoint. This was the first state park in the state of Nevada and its incredible red rock formations are unique and gaze-worthy. There's a lot to see and do in the park, so you could spend your whole day there. We had about 3 hours and made the absolute most of it, so it's also doable in a half day! The highlights: petroglyphs, amazing views, and no cell service. You can drive from end to end of the park and make your stops in between, opting for short photo-ops or longer hikes. Either way, you'll be in awe of what our earth has been, and still is today.
If you want our crazy packed itinerary for the day, here goes:
1. Seven Magic Mountains (totally, 100% free)
2. Hoover Dam (parking fee)
3. Lunch in Henderson, NV (weird, but cool)
4. Drive through Lake Mead National Recreational Area (heads up, it'll cost ya, but it's worth it)
5. Valley of Fire State Park (also has a small fee)
6. Back to Las Vegas (priceless)
Visit the Neon Museum Las Vegas
Last but not least, one of the unique things to do in Las Vegas that I was looking most forward to was our visit to the Neon Museum Las Vegas. It's a collection of the old and forgotten neon signs that used to light up the strip, creating a cornucopia of history and Las Vegas culture. You have to sign up for a tour in order to see the display, but along the way you have the chance to learn about the signs and the stories behind them. Like the Moulin Rouge hotel marquee, which was designed by the same artist who made the famous "Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas" sign, but has an unparalleled significance. The Moulin Rouge was the first non-segregated hotel in Las Vegas, making a strong mark on history and the city itself. When the sign came in pieces to the Neon Museum, it fit best as, "in love." The Neon Museum is a must-visit destination on a trip to Las Vegas for its history, preservation, and photo-worthy set-ups. Bonus: You can go back and tour the museum at night for a totally different experience!
If you have the chance to visit Las Vegas, I encourage you to invest your money in unique and meaningful experiences, which are not hard to find. There's more to this slice of the state than what you've known it as before, and it's worth it to dig a little deeper.
In my senior year of college at Robert Morris University, I landed a dream job working for an ad agency in downtown Pittsburgh, PA. After graduation, my then-boyfriend, now-husband and I moved to Shadyside, a trendy and youthful yet historic neighborhood just outside of the city. It was too pricey to pay to park downtown, so I took the bus. But this was nothing new - I had taken the bus from Moon Township to Pittsburgh for my internship in the fall.
But it was new, because all of a sudden it wasn't just white, middle-aged, grumpy people on the bus with me (sorry not sorry, Moon). Instead it was standing room only during the morning rush, between people off to their jobs and students off to class at any one of the universities near downtown Pittsburgh. It was an entirely new sensory experience - from the sounds of kids crying to big kids crying (aka students/adults complaining), to the tactile roughness of worn-down seats, to the smell of that guy over there eating his dinner on the way home. And fun fact about me: I suffer from motion sickness in a BIG way. So you wouldn't catch me reading or writing or working on my commute. Instead, I used it as an opportunity to take it all in - those interesting sensory experiences and all. I spent my time thinking, reflecting, and meeting the people I'm telling you stories about today.
The Man with his Son
You know how sometimes you feel like you know someone from social media, without even having met them in real life? This story is kind of like that, but it is real life. What I mean is, I saw the same man with his son every week day for almost three years. But he doesn't know me. And I don't know him. And yet maybe I do.
At first I began to notice the man with his son on my commute home in the evenings. They got on the bus somewhere around my sister's university, Carlow, and his son was, well, so loud, and so curious. I usually sat in the first row of seats near the front of the bus, after the handicap accessible section, and they would sit in the accessible seats as long as no one needed that area - which meant that I always had the perfect profile view of them.
Typically they'd exchange words about what color the bus was, the numbers of the bus, and occasionally the son would even have an applesauce snack. They were sweet and the father was kind and patient and together they had this sort of innocent and adorable character to them. And even if I wasn't looking, I would know that they had boarded the bus when I heard the son's child voice asking questions about literally everything around him.
As I continued to ride the bus and get into more of a strict schedule (albeit I was still late for work almost every day), I realized that I was seeing the father in the morning too, getting on at the stop where he usually gets the bus in the evening. He was alone, hurried, sometimes a little sweaty, and many times even running to catch the bus. I'll never know for sure, but my assumption is that his son goes to school/daycare at Carlow, and the man drops his son off there in the morning, boards the bus to head downtown, and then comes back to pick his son up in the evening to head home to the "mommy" they talked about. And I kind of liked that. Sure, I felt bad for the father having to hustle each morning and I related deeply to the struggle of getting to work on time, but I thought it was so nice that this was his role, and that he spent that time with his son each day. In the evenings he was always pleasant, never angry or seemingly worn out after the day, never letting whatever happened at work interfere with the time spent with his wide-eyed mini. I think he must be a great father.
We never exchanged any words together, but over three years I almost felt like I watched his son grow. I hope he stays curious.
The Lotion Lady
While I never spoke a word to the man and his son, you wouldn't believe how many other people I talked to on the bus - not ever really solicited conversation, but even more refreshing. One winter evening on my commute home, I took off my gloves and took out a mini lotion to heal my very dry hands. It was my favorite smell - the True Blue Shea Cashmere & Silk hand cream from Bath & Body Works. The woman next to me, who up until that point hadn't made a sound, commented about how nice it smelled. I asked if she wanted to use it too, and she did. Looking back, maybe that was "weird," but the way she initiated conversation made me feel like maybe she just wanted to talk. Maybe she just needed to connect with someone. Hey, if my lotion was all it took, I didn't mind. We chatted for the rest of the ride until her stop. We discussed some deep issues too - all because of some lotion. It may seem silly to you, but it was such a random and meaningful human interaction for me and I'll never forget it.
The Homeless Germophobe
Often while on the bus, I had to stand for part or most of the ride. I took a busy route at busy times. One afternoon ride home I had the chance to get a seat, and noticed a man in the front of the bus wearing stained, worn clothes and carrying lots of things. He was standing and had some of this things in that flat part at the front of the bus where you're not technically supposed to put things but everyone always does. His hair was varying shades of grey and kind of all over the place. But he didn't seem elderly - I'd guess he was maybe 55 tops. Judging by the way he looked - emphasis on judging - I gathered that he may be homeless or without a permanent home.
I glanced up at the man again during the ride and noticed something that I found curious - he was holding on to the silver bar above him for stability, but not with his bare hand. He was holding a page of a newspaper in between his hand and the bar. And it wasn't like he was reading the paper. I thought perhaps he was concerned about the germs on the bar, which I personally tried to avoid thinking about as much as possible. I found this entire situation to be so interesting - a man that may very well be living in unsanitary conditions, dressing in unsanitary clothing, is seemingly concerned about the germs on the bus. It's an oxymoron of sorts but what I loved about this experience was that it taught me to refrain from being judgmental about the people I shared transportation with. Why did I assume that he was homeless? What does it mean to "look homeless?" I reflected on what society has taught me and checked myself. He may or may not have been homeless, but it didn't matter. We shared the same concern and I was reminded of universal human behavior. About germs nonetheless, but seeing his unwavering grasp on the paper barrier has always stuck with me. I wish I would have had the chance to meet him and to be able to know his story, and maybe laugh together about our shared perspective about the germs on the bus.
The Brazilian Businessman
My last story is actually about my first memorable bus experience from my time living in Pittsburgh. At the time, I was no longer new to my job, but gaining increased responsibility as supervisor after supervisor left the organization (was it something I said?). Just like any other day, I boarded the bus to return back home and I sat next to a tall man in a suit. Somehow, in some way that I don't even remember, we began to chat. I learned that he was fairly new to Pittsburgh, having recently become the leader of a team at a large local corporation in the city. He and his girlfriend had an apartment in my neighborhood AND also in the Sewickley neighborhood on the opposite side of the city, but farther away and not as conveniently accessible by public transportation. Safe to say I could tell that he was important.
And I couldn't help but notice his accent. He was Brazilian, and so was his girlfriend. He showed me a photo of her and talked of her so fondly, it made me smile to speak to a man with such respect and love for his partner. I shared about Brandon as well and that was about all we got to that day before we both departed at the very same stop, crossed the street together, and he entered the apartment building on the corner while I walked down the street.
Every few days we would see each other again and sit together to catch up on how things were going, share travel stories and life goals, and also share in mutual woes of our working worlds. Meanwhile, he got downtown hours before I did and probably had a corner office too. Our lives couldn't even compare, but he was so humble. Over the course of a few months we became sort of strange friends, from totally different worlds but sharing about 40 minutes together each day. He gave me advice and encouragement and reminded me to act like the powerful young woman I was. The bus rides home weren't so bad having a kind and wise human to talk to.
Then one day I realized I hadn't seen him in a week or two. And that week or two became a month or two and then a year or two. I never knew his last name and we never exchanged information, so we'll probably never meet again. But when I meet or encounter someone who is in a higher up position in their company or who makes a lot of money, I hope that they'll be like him. Genuine, kind, encouraging. I hope that he and his girlfriend got married and settled into the house they always wanted. And I hope he feels fulfilled in his career and in life. I have the same hope for you, too.
If you made it this far, thank you for sticking around to read all of my stories. Taking public transportation in Pittsburgh, while annoying and uncomfortable at times, was one of the best things I ever did. Through my experiences like these and others, I had the opportunity to witness human behaviors, feel shared experiences, and make connections with total strangers. I was reminded that people are people, and we're all sort of all over the place. The bus was where we prepared ourselves for the day ahead, or decompressed from the day that was. I saw moments of weakness and moments of strength. My perceptions were challenged and I had new opportunities for clarity every day. And most of all, I learned that truth and hope can be found in the most unexpected situations.
When was the last time you took the bus?