It’s that time of year again. Time to celebrate my anniversary with my hubby! We get to travel out of the country and stay in hotels for most of our trips so I always try to plan something “different” to celebrate this with him. It was going to be difficult to compete with last year’s anniversary trip to Havasupai . This year I decided on Joshua Tree. Joshua Tree is located in Southern California and is where the Mojave and Colorado deserts meet. The desert setting is gorgeous! Joshua Tree is well known for camping, music festivals, and getting in touch with one’s “real” self. For this trip, I wanted to sit back and relax and enjoy the pretty scenery. I wanted to hole up…have a staycation! I always plan our trips with my husband’s opinion in mind. I know what he likes and doesn’t. For the most part though, my husband goes with the flow of whatever I choose. His mama didn’t raise no fool!
I turned to VRBO and Airbnb to look for the perfect place and stumbled upon Joshua Tree Oasis. It looked perfect by the photos. It was a bit higher than I wanted to spend, but we weren’t going to be going out and spending any money on wining and dining. We were going to hole up and cook at home. Taking that into consideration, it definitely penciled out and we were able to splurge a bit on the accommodations. This has turned out to be my favorite VRBO/Airbnb yet. I loved it so much, I wrote a blog on it!
Joshua Tree was about a 10 hour drive from our house. We stocked up on very gourmet goods to cook our meals, including all the ingredients to make some amazing cocktails. We also picked up a ton of wood for the outdoor fire pit on the property. It felt like we were going camping. We pulled up to our private gate and entered the property. It was so much more than I expected! The house was decorated to the nines, we had views from every room, the kitchen was well stocked, we had a bumping sound system that went through the entire property, and the best part was there was not another soul in site. We literally had this huge slice of earth all to ourselves (except for the coyotes who kept photobombing me). We had complete privacy for the next five days. It was perfect for an anniversary trip! This place was a two bed/two bath with an in law unit with another bed/bath. We loved it to enjoy as a couple, but you could fit a large family or three couples perfectly.
The first morning we woke up with bacon jalapeño bloody mary’s in hand and jumped right in the hot tub (bathing suits optional!). We spent the day doing all there was to do on the property. Hot tub, cowboy tub (which was very refreshing), horse shoes, more eating and drinking, bbqing, napping, repeat, and finished the night off with a gourmet meal and a campfire.
This property is also located about five minutes from the Joshua Tree National Park entrance. The second day we explored the park, saw all the sites there were to see, scouted our favorite campground for the next trip, and hiked the day away. Cholla Cactus Garden and Skull Rock were fun and perfect photo ops. The park is huge and there is so much to explore!
There isn’t much to the actual “town” of Joshua Tree. This property is just a short five minute drive down the hill to the town but there really isn’t much to see. We did stumble on a fun saloon called Joshua Tree Saloon (of all unique names). It was super fun! They had live music, karaoke, pool, darts, and a beer garden. Being the incredibly brilliant young lady that I am, I wore the highest heels I own to enjoy this beer garden. Always trying to look my cutest for my man! Well, I then returned home to my desert property only to walk through a cactus garden in those five inch heels. Low and behold, I ate it hard and took a fall straight into a cactus (hands first). No matter how much I enjoyed that beer garden, it couldn’t numb me enough for the pain of diving hands first into a cactus. That ish hurt! My husband had to sit me down and pull out the needles, one by one. I may have shed a tear or two. Maybe. I actually had needles deep in my hand for over a month after this trip. Very wise advise to share with you guys…don’t wear your high heels to enjoy a beer garden and follow it up with a walk through a cactus garden. Cactus 1, Jessica 0. I still love the desert though!
Belize is located in Central America. It is a tiny country on the western edge of the Caribbean Sea. Belize is located below Mexico, east of Guatemala, and north of Honduras. Half of Belize is covered by dense jungle. Belize also has many coral reefs, cayes, and islands in the Caribbean Sea. Most of these form the Belize Barrier Reef, the longest in the Western Hemisphere.
When I first began planning my trip to Belize, I read that most first timers break up their trip between the jungle and the beach. I’m very glad I listened to these reviews! Fast forward through an 8 hour plane ride and a 2 hour drive into the jungle and I landed in the middle of the Belize rainforest in a city called Belmopan. I chose Sleeping Giant Rainforest Lodge to call home for this leg of the trip. It was a larger lodge in comparison to others in the area with 25 rooms and casitas, pool, bar, and a restaurant where you eat every meal.
I’m typically a beach baby and was nervous about spending time in the remote jungle. Would it be boring? It was a bit of an adjustment upon arrival….no TV, no internet, and no phone in the room. I’ve never been on a trip where I was forced to completely disconnect. I gulped down my rum welcome cocktail and went to unpack. Now what? That first night I explored the grounds, ate ridiculously amazing food, and closed down the lodge bar. The next four days were filled with adventure, mind blowing food and cocktails (all made fresh), and forced restful recharge.
My activities included a hike through the thick jungle, a bike ride to the orange orchards, paddle boarding on the river, relaxing by the pool, a massage on the river, and a full day of adventure exploring the famous ATM Cave of Belize. ATM stands for Actun Tunichil Muknal. The ATM Cave was the top rated tour to do for adventure and it did not disappoint. I hired a private guide for this tour which I highly recommend. If you can’t swing private, definitely ask how many people will be on the tour with you and go with a smaller group. I saw large tours with 10 people going through in a line. They just weren’t getting that much attention from their guide. If you are 10th in the line, how can you learn anything from your guide who is leading? Plus, I had very heightened nerves on this tour. Being the 10th person in line of a tour would have been terrifying (for me). Our guide led us through 6 miles of adventure. We crossed the river (neck deep) six times, hiked, and explored the ATM Cave which you have to swim into. Once in, you climb and swim your way through two miles of total darkness with only a headlamp for sight. I literally had a minor panic attack going on for about three hours. But just like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, the only way out was through. It was pretty amazing learning about the Mayan people and what this cave meant to them. We came across many artifacts and skeletons that were human sacrifices to the gods. Our guide was Gonzo from River Rat Expeditions. He was so knowledgeable and actually spends about three months per year living in these Belize caves doing research. He took his time educating and calming my nerves all the way through. Once out of the cave, I was on an adrenaline high. I was so proud I finished but I’m in no rush to do it again. Ha ha.
For beginning my adventure in the jungle with the question of “will I be bored here?”, I actually began to freak out by day three that I wouldn’t fit in all there was to see. I fell in love with the jungle! I’m usually pretty attached to my phone and staying in touch with my family. For this leg, I had to forget about all of that and it was all about exploring and recharging.
Once my stay at the jungle lodge had come to an end, I was ready to put my toes in the sand and have more than one dining option. Five days in the jungle was perfecto but now it was on to the beach for another nine days. I decided on Ambergris Caye. It is the largest Caye (island) of Belize. From the jungle, it was a 2 hour drive to the ferry station and a 1.5 hour boat ride to Ambergris Caye. I chose Captain Morgan’s Retreat as my hotel on Ambergris Caye for the sole reason that they had true beach huts in the sand for much cheaper than your average hotel room. However, we were still part of a huge resort with all the amenities including the only Casino on the island.
OOOOHHHEEEMMMGGGEEE!!! Opening my porch door and stepping into the sand was truly paradise. When I arrived I was warned how bad the bugs were from another guest. He told me to soak myself in bug spray every day. After four days of literally getting eaten alive, I accidentally forgot my bug spray and didn’t get any bites. I ditched the spray and never had a problem again. Thanks for that sweet advice bro!
The coolest thing about Ambergris Caye is that there are very few cars and the mode of transportation is by golf cart equipped with off road tires. Oh hells ya! Look out for me! I drove that golf cart up and down and back and forth. We mostly only ate breakfast at our resort and spent the rest of the days beach and bar hopping our way around. Ambergris Caye is so lively! Whether you are eating pizza or the abundant fresh sea food they have to offer, it was always a party. Live music was everywhere. My favorite drive was a 40 minute golf cart ride to Secret Beach. It was a bumpy adventure through the center of the island to a beautiful beach with food and music. A must see (or drive) while on Ambergris Caye.
Belize is famous for it’s ocean life. I’m sadly too big of a wimp to dive but the snorkeling was the best I have ever seen with my own eyes. Belize has the second largest coral reef system in the world, with Australia’s Great Barrier Reef being the largest. If you like diving and snorkeling this is truly a wonderland, or wonderwater I guess. Our captain took us to Hol Chan Marine Reserve . As soon as you get in the water there are a gazillion fish around you. I saw huge spotted eagle rays, eels, large puffer fish, endless schools, oh ya….and sharks! Our second stop that our captain took us to was Shark Ray Alley where he chummed for sharks to come right up to the boat. My crazy husband jumped into the water to swim with them. I volunteered to be his photographer from inside the boat. 😉 The day was perfect. I wish I had spent more time exploring the reef of Belize because (not to be lame) it was magical.
Well after exploring every nook and cranny of Ambergris Caye, pigging out at all the fresh seafood restaurants, bar hopping to every bar, and hearing every live band on the island, I jumped on the ferry to explore the sister island of Ambergris Caye….Caye Caulker. It’s a 30 minute hop to this tiny island that has a super laid back vibe. There were a lot of backpackers and simple people who love to party. If you bring more than a bathing suit, cover up, and flip flops to this island, you have over packed. You walk everywhere on Caye Caulker and I spent most of the day at a place called the Split. A hurricane split this island in half and they turned it into the largest place to party with a picture perfect setting. They have a bar there called the Lazy Lizard that has everything from hot bodies to grannies with fanny packs twerking and taking shots. I took the last ferry ride home to Ambergris Caye which was a very fun ride home at night. I wished I packed a backpack and stayed overnight. One more day would have been fun to run back into the friends I made there in such a short time.
One last day on Ambergris Caye to stuff my face with fresh seafood, drink too many fresh squeezed margaritas (the ice was safe and I didn’t get sick once), and listen to one last performance of live reggae music (my favorite). The people of Belize are so incredibly friendly and I always felt safe day and night. Belize was a great trip and mixing in the jungle with the beach was a twist I enjoyed more than I realized I would. I also brought home five dread locks! Lol.
So, let’s start from the very beginning…straight-up from scratch. Probably the most common question that I am asked is how I plan my trips on my own. Where do I start? Well it usually involves me staring at the computer scratching my head with a glass (ok a bottle) of vino in hand. And little by little my trips take form. I will write multiple blogs from this 30 day trip to Italy but for this blog, I’m going start with how to plan it. I did all of this planning on my own and felt so overwhelmed when I started. This is a blog on how my Italy trip came to life.
I rarely take big trips in the summer. I always get my big break right after Christmas. I’m running out of new places on my Bucket List to explore in a bikini at Christmas, so this year I opted for a summer vacation. I chose Italy. I didn’t know where the heck to start as I really had never vacationed there. I went about 20 years ago but I just drove across the boarder and ate lunch. Doesn’t count. As always, I was on a budget for this trip and I knew one month in Italy isn’t cheap. Hotels were out! I went VRBO and Airbnb all the way through and kept my budget at $200 per night. If you haven’t traveled through these two sites, you are missing out. Click on this link to join for free and get a credit for your first reservation: Airbnb They are awesome!
I was traveling with my husband and two children (ages 8 and 3). I knew it would be nice (and less expensive) for us to have a kitchen and cook at our rental vs. being in a hotel and having to order room service for every meal. When I’m vacationing, I’m usually planning my next trip so the more I save from one trip is more I bank for the next. Also, hotels in Italy don’t work like they do in the USA. In the states you can get a “double” room and have two double/queen beds. It is easy to stay with two small children in one room with that bed setup. In Italy, a “double” room means two twin beds. If you have four people, you need to upgrade to a suite and I quickly found that my budget of $200 per night in the areas I wanted was simply not going to fly. VRBO and Airbnb was the answer for me!
Step 1: Plan your route. When you think of Italy, what do YOU want to see? Me personally… Venice, Rome, and Positano were at the top of my list. Then I thought, I’m going to fly all that way and when will I get to Italy again? Maybe I can do one extra week and see more? I decided on 30 days to explore but you can do this in three weeks if you are ambitious or just choose a few places and go for two weeks. There is SO much to see in Italy. So much history that you feel guilty sleeping in. You have to go, go, go, so you don’t miss a thing. I booked a longer trip to really work in relaxing too. I wanted one day to explore for every one day of relaxing.
When traveling through Italy it is best to go top to bottom or bottom to top.
I decided to go top to bottom because I knew this would be a busy trip and I wanted to finish it off on the beach relaxing on the Amalfi Coast.
Step 2: Once you have an idea of your route, you have to check flights to make sure they will work with your itinerary. At the time of my planning, AirBerlin was the cheapest ticket from San Francisco to Italy. They were actually $500 cheaper per ticket which is a lot when traveling with four people. I later found we paid the price for that cheap ticket but we will get into that later. AirBerlin flew into Milan (top of map) and they flew out of Naples (bottom of the map). The flight out of Naples only went on one day per week so I had to plan for that. Once I figured out what my flights were I broke the trip apart leg by leg. I decided on this route:
Lake Como: 5 nights/ Venice: 4 nights/ Florence: 5 nights/ Cinque Terre: 6 nights/ Rome: 4 nights/ Amalfi Coast: 6 nights. One month in Italy!!
Step 3: Find the VRBO/Airbnb to stay at sticking to my budget of $200 per night. This was the fun part to me. How did I choose which places to stay at? I read review after review on the the VRBO/Airbnb sites….like hundreds of reviews. I hate the reviews that say “it was a nice place…I highly recommend!”. Ok well thanks for those riveting details but you didn’t say crap about the property. I want to know things. How far to restaurants and bars? Do you need a car? How does “this” area compare to “that” area? I want details people! If I can’t find exact answers to my questions through the reviews on VRBO/Airbnb, I usually Google the exact question I have with the word “Tripadvisor” after the question. If I’m between two areas to stay, I will Google “Positano vs Amalfi, which is better? Tripadvisor” Most of the answers to my questions come right up on Tripadvisor which is where I read hundreds more reviews. Tripadvisor, Oh How I love Thee! None of my trips would come to life with out the reviews on this site.
Step 4: Plan transportation. I did not want to rent a car in Italy. Many people do and give reviews about their days explored with the freedom of their own schedule in their own car. Not for me. First off, the roads are pretty wicked in Italy. I consider myself to be a very bad driver on the safe roads in California. We are talking about a girl that totaled her car 3 times during her 16th year of life! Oopsie! So, driving on these winding roads that seem like they have one lane, honking as you approach a sharp turn to warn oncoming traffic that you can’t see. Hmmm, yes I don’t think this blog would have ever come to life because I probably would have died attempting to drive these roads. Another reason? When I travel, I tend to eat and drink my way through for most of my entertainment. I wanted the freedom to indulge in lots of great food accompanied but lots of great vino.
I chose all accommodations to be in the heart of the action in each destination so that I could walk everywhere or take a cheap cab ride. To get through the country we rode the Trentitalia train. One month of traveling through Italy on this train cost me less than the cabs to/from the airport. The train system is so easy, so affordable, so comfortable, so reliable, and such a nice way to travel! You get to see the country as you travel through which was just lovely. Each ride was only about two hours with the exception of one four hour train ride. Tip: Get to the station early to buy some snacks and wine. More important tip: Have all the electronics charged for the littles so that you can enjoy those snacks and wine while riding in style.
I sprung for three long and pricey cab rides (transfers). One from the Milan airport to our first property in Lake Como. After flying for 13 hours with two small children, we just wanted to get there. The train from Milan to Lake Como isn’t as convenient as the other legs as the train we needed only left every three hours. Just didn’t want to hassle with that after a long flight. The second transfer was taking us to our last leg of the trip, Naples to Positano. When heading south to the Amalfi Coast, the train won’t take you any further than Naples which is about an hour from Positano/Amalfi (see map). We got off the train in Naples and took a private transfer (cab) to Positano. Not very cheap at $130 Euro but it beat getting off the train and walking to the nearest bus stop which was reported to be incredibly crowded. You may have to stand the entire hour plus ride on the bus and deal with pick pocketers. It was so worth the private transfer! Last high priced ride was Positano to the Naples airport. This flight left once per week, so we could not have anything go wrong and risk missing the flight. We also had to leave at 4:30am so the transfer allowed us to sleep the entire ride to the airport. And that’s a wrap on transportation! It was right around $700 for four people to travel through Italy for 30 days. You certainly can’t rent a car for that.
Step 5: Plan to pack. Please someone tell me how in the heck I am supposed to pack light traveling to Italy with a toddler and 8 year old for one month? There are things you need when traveling with kids…car seat, stroller, toys, electronics, etc. I have to share with you the biggest find for packing light if you have a toddler. It is Care’s Fly Safe safety restraint system. Cares Kids Fly Safe Airplane Safety Harness. This gem is FDA approved and buckles your toddler into the airplane seat just like a car seat except it’s a just a belt. Not only does it keep your little one safe but it also keeps them from running all over the plane all while packing up into a small little carrying bag that fits in your purse.
I then purchased an airplane stroller that is specific to traveling and folding up small for planes and trains. I bought it off my Facebook for $10! Tip: I made $2,700 selling things out of my garage on Facebook that went directly to paying for this trip. I also allowed my kids to pack a scooter each. With as much walking as we planned to do in each location, I knew they would get so worn out and our days would be shortened to exhausted kids. Instead of walking everywhere, they scooted the days away and we were able to explore as much as we wanted.
Lastly, I got three pieces of luggage that were the largest we could go without going overweight and incurring fees on the airline. There is soooo much debate online about how big of a bag is too big of a bag to travel through Europe with. It’s really a simple answer…you can pack as large of a bag that YOU can handle. There is no one to help you up the many many stairs in between changing trains. There is no one to help you load your bag onto the train. No one to help you load the bag on ferries or cabs. And if you plan on walking after getting off the train vs. taking a cab, you will be the one lugging that bag through town. You get the point. Luckily, I married a man with big muscles. My bag was a big one and I got to pack as many bikinis as I wanted. I don’t recommend this for everyone but it worked ok for us.
This brings me to my final plug of the trip. Remember that great deal I got on my airline tickets that was $500 cheaper per ticket than all the other airlines? Well, you get what you pay for. The airline ended up loosing our son’s bag on the way there. Thank goodness it wasn’t mine! Ha ha. I can’t tell you how crazy it was to see how long the lost luggage line was at the airport in Milan. It took us about 30 mins to get through the process of reporting our lost bag and we were 2nd in line. Can you imagine how long it took the 20th person in line to get through this process? What a terrible way to kick off your trip! We were very hopeful that our bag would arrive any day on our trip but in fact…it never came. My kids went all the way through a 30 day trip in Italy with nothing but the clothes on their back. This lost bag also had all of our liquids, including all of my beauty products. Of course we bought things along the way but it was such a pain in the butt! I later heard that this is actually a common problem when traveling to Europe (explains the super long lost luggage line) and in actuality, your bag is just sitting in the airport waiting to be delivered. Due to under staffing, there is just no one attending to these lost bags. In fact, no one even answers the phone in that area of the airport. Trust me I called a million times. Horrible! How will I make sure that this never happens again?? GPS in my luggage…DUH!
OMG, what a genius idea! You never loose track of your bag and you know where it is at all times, even if the airline claims that it is lost. I will never travel without one again! My kids bag was found and delivered to us two days after we arrived home in California…32 days after it was lost.
Loosing the bag was devastating at first but in the end we had so many laughs about my son going all the way through Italy with one pair of underwear and them wearing the same outfits in all our family photos.
The Grand Canyon was always something I heard about growing up. One of the Seven Natural Wonders Of The World? OK, you have my attention! This beautiful place at the bottom of the Grand Canyon kept popping up on my Facebook feed. …It was an Indian Reservation that you hike down to and camp right on the water with the most gorgeous waterfalls you have ever seen. It looked like a cartoon almost. Ok, so again it had my attention. It was called the Havasupai Indian Reservation. I called the reservation line and got no luck. After researching, I found that it is one of the most desired places in the USA to see. Wanderlust at its best! I did more research and found that if I ever wanted to secure a reservation in the peak season, it was going to take a ton of tenacity. Once the phone lines opened up, I gave it my all for 4 days. A busy signal for 4 days straight can make you go kinda nuts. Everyone told me to give up. “I’m not giving 4 days of my life to something with nothing to show for it” said Me. I actually kept trekking for 7 more days, calling 8 hours per day, every day. I clocked over 4,100 calls getting a busy signal (yes, I tracked it). You ever felt like a stalker? I stalked the hell out of that phone number….and guess what?? After 11 days someone answered.
“OMG. Hello, I have been calling for 11 days (tear) and would like to make a reservation”
“Sorry, we are full and all booked up for the summer months.”
I won’t go into the embarrassing things I said to secure this reservation but the point is that I got it. Never take no for an answer! When it’s important to you, make it happen…..write that down.
To get to the bottom is about 11 miles down. You need to carry everything in. Your tent, your sleeping bag, your food, your wine (which is not allowed and I never break the rules), clothes, etc, etc, etc…you get the point. I was going into the Canyon for four days. I consider myself to be in great shape however I found this hike to be much more pleasant by throwing my 65 pound pack on a horse which met me down at the campground. I think it’s awesome how hard core people are to carry those huge packs on their backs for miles and miles. But quite honestly, it was 90 degrees out and I had much more fun climbing rocks and taking selfies while being pretty much weightless. To each their own!
Once, I reached the Havasupai Reservation it was completely surreal. This village at the bottom of the Canyon was a little city. School, post office, church, store….everything you need. It’s considered America’s most remote Indian Reservation. My camp was another 2 miles past the reservation where there aren’t many Indians and the grounds along the creek are filled with campers feeling like they won the lotto. I picked up my pack from the stables and set up camp right on the water.
I spent the next two days hiking to the most majestic waterfalls I have ever seen. Sounds so cheesy but it’s true. The water is the most beautiful color of turquoise. Every day I had to filter my water right out of the creek and make my dehydrated meals, which were surprisingly delicious. I also indulged in the yummiest Frybread. It is an Indian specialty and there was a little stand selling this at the campground. Mmm mmm good!
The most beautiful falls of all were Havasu Falls. Photos of these falls is what really ignited my desire to get here. It was just as beautiful as the photos! No filter needed.
There are other beautiful falls and hikes to see while you are down there. I did Mooney Falls on Day 2 and also hiked further into the Canyon. I wish I had more time to see everything. One more day would have been perfect. If I am lucky enough to visit again, I will plan on five days total down there.
If you want your pack on a horse on the way out, you need to wake up while it’s still dark to pack up and have your pack to the stables at 6am. This, in my opinion, was much more important than having a horse carry your pack on the way down. The way out is 13 miles straight up from the campgrounds…no thank you to that 65 pound pack! So many people we met at camp were actually thinking they would take the helicopter out because they had no idea how they would be able to hike out. People wait in that helicopter line all day long in hopes to get flown out and the line is so long that some people have to wait until the next day to try again.
I dropped my pack at the stables and power walked my way out passing all these people who looked like they might die from heat exhaustion. It was so freaking hot! September in the Canyon is no joke. And these people carrying those huge packs…so core!
Reaching the top of the Canyon was one of the most exhilarating feelings I have ever felt. I hiked 39 miles on this journey. Another trip that tweaked me a little as a person. I grow just a little bit from every adventure.
Hotel I stayed at before hike: Grand Canyon Caverns Inn. This place is in Peach Springs on Route 66. It is as close as you can get for lodging prior to starting the hike to Havasupai. Bonus, it has the largest dry cavern in the United States. Going down into the cavern on a tour was interesting…and scary. You can actually rent the space and sleep down there. It is super cool!!
Route: I flew into Las Vegas, rented a car, checked out Hoover Dam, and cruised Route 66 to Peach Springs. After hiking Havasupai, I drove an hour towards Las Vegas and stayed in Kingman. I soaked in the hot tub, ate an entire medium pizza to myself, and watched movies before catching a flight out in the morning. Las Vegas to Oakland.
Recommend this trip to: EVERYONE!! Well, I take that back. No young kids. You have to be in good shape to hike this trip. But if you’re not in the best shape, you can just take the helicopter. You can also scrap all the do it yourself work and headache of securing your own reservation and join a tour. I opted to do this on my own because I like the freedom to hike at my own pace and wanted my camp to be my own little space. I don’t mean to sound antisocial because I love meeting new people, especially when I camp. But I love my own area too. To each their own! The tours hike down together, camp together, and eat together. It’s all inclusive so they cook you gourmet meals which is pretty cool. The price ticket is much higher for a tour but some prefer being in a group in adventurous situations and from the reviews it is also a great way to go. Either way, find a way to make it here sometime in your life. It will change you…I promise.