Posts Tagged With: travel

Adventures in Alaska – Our One Week Alaskan Road Trip!

Alaska seems to be a top Bucket List item. Since going to our northernmost state, I’ve had a constant stream of people saying it’s one of their must-travel spots. And with good reason! I can echo the sentiment that Alaska is a sight to behold.

What’s great is, despite its impressive size, you can see a lot in one week. We hiked glaciers, kayaked past icebergs, and hiked 11 miles to visit a frozen lake. Oh – and did I mention the sun never set? Not even once?

~2am out the window of our Airbnb

Alaska is one of those places where every day provides the opportunity for a once-in-a-lifetime adventure and I’d love to share the moments!

Planning and Choosing Alaska

Marjorie and I chose to go to Alaska over the summer solstice – which I highly, highly recommend. To be honest, it wasn’t a conscious decision. Marjorie’s goal of running a race in every U.S. state meant we had to plan around one of their races and we chose the Mayor’s Marathon Race (we did the 5k, we’re not that crazy). It ended up being a great time to visit. The lack of sunset meant planning the long drives of the road trip was easy – no worrying about driving in the dark and watching for moose. It also provides a daily reminder of just how different life up there can be.

Because of our race and the timing we had, we ended up bracketing our race day with travel. This made some of our options limited since we knew we would fly into Anchorage, be tourists, drive back to Anchorage for the race, then have a couple more tourist days, before going back to Anchorage to fly out. Most people won’t want to do this trajectory since it’s a lot of out and back, but it worked splendid for us.

In doing this, we had to make an important decision – to Denali or not to Denali? You’ll find when you research Alaska it’s almost always the first item mentioned outside of Anchorage. But we struggled with the logistics. The main activity is a very long bus tour in the hope of seeing some wildlife and maybe Denali peak (apparently that’s a slim chance). We just couldn’t stomach that kind of tour so we actually chose to skip Denali. It was a bold move but one we are confident was the right choice for us. So – what did we do instead?

Day One: Travel!

Depending on where you are coming from, it’s almost certainly a long flight to Alaska. We landed in Anchorage at the eye-watering time of 11pm after a 6 hour direct flight from Chicago. It’s an easy flight, but a long one, and given the three hour difference we were dead on our feet. And yet – it was still light outside! The lack of sunset does wonders for that second wind and we managed to get our car and head to our hotel (nothing special, we opted for the familiar and stayed at the Four Points Sheraton. No complaints and a great option if you are looking for a chain hotel in Anchorage).

Day Two: Glacier Hiking

We wasted no time on our Alaskan Adventure dawdling. The next morning we were up and out early, stopping only at the Fred Meyer’s to stock up on snacks and Starbucks for a caffeine hit. Unsurprisingly, given Anchorage has fewer than 300,000 people, there were not a lot of options especially before 8am so we went with the familiar and hit the road.

Matanuska Glacier

About 2-2.5 hours east of Anchorage you’ll find the Matanuska Glacier – it’s a ridiculously easy drive with a very well maintained road that doesn’t even have fearsome switchbacks. We signed up to do the Ice Fall Trek with Mica Guides and it was perfect for us. Our guide Kendall was kind and authentically passionate about the glacier.

The tour completely exceeded our expectations – every time I thought we were turning to go back we were instead heading down another crevasse or exploring another section of the glacier. You spend a ton of time in your crampons and are truly hiking on ice for over half of your tour. It was a great workout but not exhausting or treacherous.

The views are out of this world – maybe other people know this but my own glacier knowledge being slim to none I had no idea I would see the vibrant blue of the truly cold and dense ice – or the deceptively black ice just an inch blow the silty sludge. It was cold and a bit rainy and four hours of a truly glorious adventure.

Blessedly, at the Mica Guides stop there is an adorable little hut that serves decent coffee and ice cream (that sounds sooo good but sadly we didn’t get to partake in). Even if you aren’t doing a tour (though you absolutely should) if you are headed to Valdez it’s a great stopping point.

After we changed into dry clothes and caffeinated, we hopped back in the car for the remaining 4 hours of our drive to Valdez. While long, the drive truly didn’t feel cumbersome. The whole way you’re gazing out at miles of untouched forest or watching the approaching picturesque mountains. The last hour-ish in particular is amazing as you wind through the valley between mountains with huge and amazing waterfalls cascading right next to you.

waterfall next to the highway – nbd

Truthfully, Valdez is tiny and not the largest tourist hub so there are not a lot of accommodation options. We did stay with an Airbnb which served the purpose. It was clean, convenient, and had a hot shower but wasn’t otherwise a spot that would call for glowing reviews.

Day 3: Glacier Kayaking

Marjorie and I figured – when in Alaska, do all the glaciers. So, not even a day after we got off the Matanuska Glacier, we found ourselves decked out in very attractive rain gear and on a boat headed to another one of Alaska’s famous Glaciers – Columbia. We did this trip with Pangaea Adventures and definitely recommend them. Great crew.

This was the only day on our week long journey where it didn’t rain and we were so glad for it. We couldn’t have asked for better weather – mid 60s and clear sunny skies greeted us for the entire boat right out to the glacier and ice fields. It’s not a short ride – 2/2.5 hours – but it’s epic. I stood almost the entire way at the back of the boat, watching and enjoying the scenery.

The mountains were amazing and we always stayed close so the water was calm. Getting closer and closer to the glacier was so much fun as we started to go through the ice fields – huge chunks of iceberg just chilling next to your boat was something to behold.

And that was before our excursion even started! We pulled up on a remote little beach, got a few kayaking instructions, and then were off.

We were able to paddle around the ice, occasionally picking up pieces and chew them. It was trippy how you could eat fresh untouched glacier water, even though it had been floating in salt water. Every ten minutes or so you’d hear the glacier calve, sometimes seeing the billowing aftermath of snow as it avalanched down.

After an hour or so we stopped to eat our packed lunch and then back into the boats for more kayaking. It was a challenging but not strenuous adventure – it’s a lot of time kayaking but the water was calm and beautiful so it made for easy rowing.

The whole ride home to Valdez I gazed out at the water, the glacier, and the mountains. All I could think about was how amazing and unique it was to be there.

Day 4: Road Trip back to Anchorage

Having hit everything we wanted to (and really everything there is in that petite little town) we left early and made our way back to Anchorage. A six hour road trip, that you previously drove, is typically daunting but I’m not joking when I say it really didn’t feel long at all.

Despite driving in quite a bit of rain, it was still an easy and beautiful drive. A minor moose sighting and a lot of time to chat, sure, but we still pulled over at a few different areas to get amazing pictures.

If you are taking this trek, it’s well worth pulling off in Palmer. We got lucky because of our timing to find an adorable little outdoor market/fair near the train station. We were able to wander and found a truly delightful little bookstore, Fireside Books. It was the only bookstore of note on our entire trip (and we went to literally all the ones we could find in ALL our locations!). It had a great selection and an author signing out front too (I’ll add the book once I read it and can recommend it!) .

We got into Anchorage early enough to check in and then lay around, waiting for a break in the weather. It eventually did lighten enough for us to have dinner at 49th State Brewing and their rooftop. It’s a highly rated spot and well worth it – the place is huge with plenty of outdoor seating. The menu is perhaps too big and therefore all the food is good but not great. Still, the beer options were solid and it was a great spot to sit.

Anchorage itself, though, doesn’t have a lot to offer. Marjorie phrased it well – it’s a city with an identity crisis. There’s a block that feels hipster/up-and-coming, next to a block of random and halfhearted businesses, next to a block that has a significant homeless population. Any downtown/walking area is approximately 2 or 3 block square and that’s being generous. Still, there are some key establishments that we did enjoy, but otherwise it’s not a city worth spending significant time in.

Day 5: 5k and Drive to Seward

Our 5k started, to our irritation being morning people, at 11am. We spent the morning dozing and watching TV in our hotel room, desperately hoping the driving rain would peter out in time for our race. It did not.

Still, the 5k was well designed and took us on a lovely little path. Mostly flat too! But by the end our feet were soaked and I was reminded of how I don’t mind a 20-30 minute jog but something about the 5k is a mild form of torture.

Our late check out (thanks to Marjorie’s Marriott status, holllllla) gave us time to shower before we had to move on. We had a late breakfast/lunch at Snow City Cafe and then got on the road to Seward.

Now that is a delightful little drive. Just over two hours you hug coast the whole way. Easy and beautiful with a bunch of pull overs. Alaska is funny that way – it’s literally always beautiful and so it got to the point where we’d see another “scenic overlook” spot and purposefully pass it up. How many more amazing panoramas did we need, really?

A very keenly placed sign worked vey well and we were able to stop and buy fudge at a little hamlet called, no joke, Moose Pass. If you are going to Seward, do not hesitate to stop there. The owners were hilarious in that small town way and their fudge was legit.

Google maps made it easy for us to find our best accommodations yet – a true yurt run by Sourdough Sue (fun fact, a “sourdough” is someone whose been in Alaska for 30+ years. She does not make bread… much to my disappointment). That was the only thing that lessened our stay, however. The yurt was amazing. It was the definition of glamping and I loved it so much. She even turned on our oil-burning stove for us because we were not going to even try to touch that thing. Indoor plumbing, a cute little porch, and the beds were comfy. Highly, highly recommend a stay here.

Day 6: Hiking to Lost Lake

We woke up to a downpour which, I had to admit, sounded SO COOL on our yurt roof. It did not, however, bode well for our pre-paid trip with Exit Glacier Tours to hike to the Lost Lake. Given all the glacier experiences we already had, we decided to have a more authentic hike while in Seward and we really enjoyed this getaway. It’s clearly one of the lesser booked trips and we almost had a private tour as we were only joined by one other woman from Colorado. Janice, our guide, was more like an Airbnb host just giving us a tour of her favorite running trail. It was fun and we didn’t see anyone until about mile 8 of our 11 mile in-and-out adventure.

This hike was the perfect difficultly level. It’s a great distance – just at that peak of being “oh my god are we done yet?” and it has a good elevation increase but nothing too steep all at once. Trekking poles were super helpful, both as things got challenging (there were a few massive snow piles we had to climb too – even that late in June) and also just as something to hold.

The top of the mountain is legit out of The Sound of Music and for the last half of our hike I was humming Edelweiss.

The whole time our guide warned us we might have to turn back sooner if the snow was going to get too deep. But we pushed on and finally made it to the Lost Lake lookout. We watched as her face fell, a look of realization and horror crossing it.

“It’s frozen! I’m so sorry!”

Because, of course, if it had been such a chilly spring so far that the snow was still an obstacle, it wasn’t surprising the lake would still be covered in snow – and not the bright, shining blue that usually drew people in. She looked so worried that we would be disappointed but I was personally ecstatic. I love the idea that we got to see something that most people didn’t. It felt pretty badass to say we hiked as much as we did in the snow to see the Lost Lake still frozen over.

The frozen Lost Lake

By the time we made it by the rain had started again (we managed to avoid the worst of the weather while hiking, thank goodness) so we enjoyed the sound of the rain in our yurt until we headed into Seward for some takeout and spent the rest of the night chilling.

Day 7: Driving back to Anchorage and heading home

The fun, or not fun, thing about Alaska, depending on your perspective, is that it seems they arrange the majority of their flights to leave and arrive very late in the day. Is this just a seasonal thing due to the lack of sunset? I don’t know. But, for good or evil, our flight out of Anchorage wasn’t until 11pm on Monday night. So we had plenty of time for more tourism before heading home.

The day finally opened up clear and we were able to explore Seward properly on Monday morning. Unfortunately most of the cute shops of the downtown area were closed (although this one, aptly named Alaska Shop, was open and was actually exceptional for souvenirs – and I don’t usually buy souvenirs). But we took a walk down by the harbor. It’s an amazing walk and well worth it for the views.

We timed our departure so we could arrive at Whittier and experience North America’s longest tunnel. It was $13 and worth it if only because the whole experience was trippy and thoroughly quirky. It takes approximately 7 minutes to drive through the single-lane tunnel and it’s simultaneously a total normal experience and one where you can’t help contemplating how much oxygen you need to live and what would happen if an earthquake happened, like, rightthissecond.

We made it through to the admittedly halfhearted little alcove of Whittier. It’s a bizarre place where everyone lives in one dorm-like building and there is one half-street with seafood restaurants. That being said, the one where we ate was quite tasty (Swiftwater Seafood Cafe – no website, but you can’t miss it) and the view was gorgeous. It was a fun little stop on our way back to Anchorage.

When we made it back to the city we went to a use bookstore that was so disappointing I won’t even name it and then waited for a very long time for a table at a ridiculously busy pizza place, Moose’s Tooth. Given that we had literally hours to kill before our flight we didn’t mind the wait and I’m so glad we weren’t scared off. We had a cauliflower crush pizza that literally blew my mind. I forced Marjorie to stop eating it because I was convinced it was gluten, called the waitress back, and watched her (very-well deserved) smug expression as she assured us that it was, in fact, cauliflower and that we weren’t the only people to be tricked. It was the best pizza I think I’ve ever had and ultimately a solid send off for Alaska.

Overall

Our trip to Alaska was a quick one with a lot of driving but we really enjoyed the entire endeavor. Valdez and Seward are amazing towns that gave a great perspective of small town life in Alaska. They were both charming and well worth the time to visit. The tours were all phenomenal and ones we would highly recommend. Anchorage, of course, was an easy jumping off point but not one to spend any more time in than necessary. Even though less than a week isn’t usually worth it for a 6 hour flight we felt like we were able to see and do so much in that time.

Food and Ice Cream

Anchorage

  • 49th State Brewing – great option for dinner with good beer and plenty of outdoor seating (rooftop with a view, yes please!) Located in the only part of Anchorage we found that might be called cute and/or walkable.
  • Snow City Cafe – this place definitely gets busy but we were able to get takeout and eat at one of their outdoor seats as the skies cleared. Good food and super adorable interior (so maybe rainbows!). Great lattes too.
  • Moose’s Tooth Pub & Pizzeria – this pizza 100% blew my mind. It was exceptionally good. Go there FOR SURE while you are in Anchorage.
  • WooHoo! Ice Cream – Cute little spot with some unique flavors. In a strip mall with other very literally named businesses. It gave me a chuckle.

Valdez

  • The Potato – we went were both nights because the food was excellent and they have cute outdoor seating. Highly recommend. If you are gluten free they’ll just replace your wrap or bun with a bed or fries. YES PLEASE.
  • Northern Treats – even though this is soft serve, it’s quite good. It’s also, literally, the only ice cream in Valdez so, you know, can’t be too picky. But still, it’s worth it and it’s adorable.
  • Latte Dah Espresso – seriously, what is not to love about this place? The name (I mean come ON), the artwork, the cute seating décor …and the drinks! Great specialty latte options. I was sold.

Seward

  • 13 Ravens Coffee & Books – coffee was decent and the location adorable, but don’t expect to actually get a book…
  • The Lone Chicharron Taqueria – surprisingly excellent tacos, we really considered eating there twice.
  • Red’s Burgers – really great reviews and a very long wait for what ended up being pretty normal burgers. Not disappointing necessarily, just not quite as the level I expected given all the rave reviews. Super cute establishment though in the bus!
  • Sweet Darlings – truly excellent gelato!
  • Moose Drop-In Trading Post (just outside of Seward) – for fudge!

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Coffee In Chicago: The Ultimate Curated List of Best and Unique Coffee Shops

Has anyone else started new traditions in the midst of this pandemic? Our family sure did. In an effort to get two feral children out of the house + help keep small coffee shops afloat during shutdown and shelter + feed our burgeoning caffeine addiction we started our own self tour of the city and coffee shops all over.

And it’s been so much fun! The lack of traffic makes getting downtown a breeze, giving us the chance to explore and see so many neighborhoods we never would have bothered trying to visit. I mean, who would drive and sit in traffic for 45+ minutes just for a new coffee shop? But now we are hooked and, since we’re a family of early risers, we still find ourselves checking out and exploring new spots.

So – our exploration is YOUR gain! I wanted to curate this extensive list of coffee shops that we’ve visited – I’ve clustered them by neighborhood-ish. This is thoroughly unscientific. It’s all my personal preferences but to give you an idea, here’s what brings a coffee shop to the top of the list:

  • Good coffee!
    • My husband always gets a black coffee so he provides his thoughts on that staple coffee
    • I am a latte/froo-froo coffee gal so I LOVE finding a place with fun and unique specialty lattes to try
  • Snacky/snacks
    • The pandemic has also brought rise to “Donut Saturday” in our house (blog post to come there, too!) and so a coffee shop with tasty snacks/food is also a plus
  • The Cute Factor
    • Give me a cute coffee shop – kitschy, sophisticated, whatever – and I’m sold. I’ll also get you a list of coffee shops that are great for indoor/outdoor workspace too, once I can properly test that (hard to say when we couldn’t sit indoor for, you know, over a year)
  • Kindness
    • We’ve all been there – the coffee shop that is waaaay too cool to be serving you. That doesn’t do it for me. I want the friendly neighborhood barista, I want the helpful rep who can walk me through what’s in their indiscriminately named latte and I’ll come back for the service.

You can use the map – interactive! – right here!

And now! My Favorites:

Elevate Coffee (Boystown)
I’m low-key obsessed with this place. One, because I love boystown and being anywhere in that area. Two because the service is spectacular, and three because their coffee was soooo good. They have the best rose latte ever – it’s Rose Marzipan and has real rose petals and I was awkward-love-moaning while drinking it. If that isn’t a review, then I don’t know what is.

Two Hearted Queen (Boystown)
Absurdly kind staff with very tasty drinks and do NOT pass up on ordering the scones. They are incredible. They have another location in Roscoe Village too that I’ll try to hit up some day.

Brew Brew Coffee + Tea (Avondale/Logan Square)
They have tasty and fun specialty lattes along with some pastries, bagels, and tortas. We tried the mushroom and “sunrise” torta and both were exceptionally good (if soooo messy). Outdoor seating and even a couple spots inside right now. Park is right nearby too which was fun and nice.

Four Letter Word (Logan Square)
Hard to tell the atmosphere as they did the walk-up window but coffee was good and the premise was cute so I’m all for a return visit.

necessary & sufficient coffee (Logan Square)
Okay, I really enjoyed this cute little place. Fun lattes, and I tried their mushroom breakfast sandwich and holy COW was it tasty. Window walk up so not sure on seating I plan a repeat visit.

Sip of Hope (Logan Square)
Love what this place stands for! We visited in the hardcore lockdown time so there wasn’t much to see but the place looked cute and the coffee was good. With 100% of their profits going toward mental health & suicide prevention how can you not want to buy something?

Botanical Cafe (North Center)
Look, I’ll be honest. I don’t really remember the coffee. It must have been at least fine – but really, this place wins for being the cutest cafe of all time. It’s also a plant store! I mean COME ON. I was dying a little and loving all of it. Must see.

Spoken Cafe (West Ravenswood)
I loved this adorable little spot – right under the train tracks which made it fun and they had such a lovely put together outdoor seating area with beautiful flowers. Not to mention the coffee and breakfast sandwiches were totally on point. Great find.

Cafe Urbano (Irving Park)
Good coffee, good sammies, cute little flatiron style building location. I’ll take it.

Coffee Lab + Roasters (Lakeview)
They have some amazing creative lattes and I want to try them all. Great coffee, good vibes, and donuts on the weekends (hollllla)

Doppio Coffee House (Lakeview)
Nice place with good drinks and donuts. Strong lakeview vibes but I can dig it. It’s nice to experience nice things, you know? I can be classy.

11 Degrees North (Lakeview East)
Here’s the thing, they had good coffee. Sure. But that’s not why I will be back. I’ll be back for those arepas man! Yummmmmm! Super cute, super nice staff. Definitely worth a stop.

Hero Coffee Bar (Lakeview)
I’ll be honest, I wasn’t suuuper impressed coffee-wise with Hero. But they have a few locations and I did get something floral (I forget if I got rose or lavender) but those can be tricky. So I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt. Especially because they had a selection of bagel sandwiches that were quite yummy in my tummy so I won’t fight anyone who wants to take me back.

Goddess and the Baker (Loop)
Seriously – what’s not to love about this place? It’s adorable with the most impressive display case with rainbow cakes and truly exceptional decorated cookies. And THEN they have great coffee and breakfast/lunch sandwiches? Sign me up. They tend to get super busy and aren’t nearly large enough for the crowds but if you can snag an outdoor seat it’s super fun as it’s right beneath the train.

Kapej Coffee (Old Town)
This snug little place pops up out of nowhere on a pretty residential street. It’s long and narrow and would be so much fun to snuggle into on an autumn or winter day with a crackling fire and – just, lovely. The staff was friendly and kind and they have a nice selection of various lattes and options. Been here twice and it feels like a place you’ve discovered.

Sip + Savor (Hyde Park)
There are (I think) a few Sip + Savors around Chicago but we’ve only been to the Hyde Park location. Solid coffee and I love the spread of unique lattes and mochas. Snack selection is sparse but there’s lots of indoor space and an absolutely gorgeous park across the street with a great playground so major bonus for an outdoor place to enjoy your brew.

AndySunflower Cafe (Beverly)
This place is so cute and the two women behind the counter (99% sure one was the owner) were exceptionally kind and helpful in explaining the menu to me. Excellent brews!

Big Shoulders (Gold Coast)
Super cute inside and looked like they have cushy seating in non-pandemic times. It looks exactly like a “coffee shop.” They legitimately toasted a marshmallow for me when I got the marshmallow latte soooo they obviously are in my heart forever now. They have a couple other locations but I’ve only been to this one on State Street.

Wormhole Coffee (Wicker Park)
It’s hard to be more hipster than Wormhole – but that’s why we love it, isn’t it? Smack dab in the midst of Wicker Park you’re right near Jeni’s (oh, heck yes) and they are serving up great coffee with a smidge of an outdoor space. If you can grab a spot, you can watch the riff-raff slide past and love every moment of it. Or at least I do.

Bru Coffee (Wicker Park)
Just a littel further down Milwaukee Ave you can find Bru Coffee which has three things going for it – solid coffee selections, a spot right next to Myopic Books (be still, my heart), and a selection of to-die-for crepes. Seriously… what’s not to love? The crepes took a while when we were but holy cow were they worth watching for.

Caffe Streets (Wicker Park)
Look, I’ll be honest, it was a little hard to judge this place in the midst of the pandemic. They had the whole window service thing going on and were ulllltra hipster so options were pretty limited. But the drinks were good and I appreciate solid COVID plan so they were worth the stop.

Atmos Coffee Shop (Bucktown)
Solid stop for quality coffee! Cute and friendly. I particularly enjoyed my Almond Bar Latte- delish.

Sawada Coffee (Fulton Market)
I’ll be honest here – Sawada Coffee didn’t do it for it. You’ll see they come up on just about every Chicago blog and I get it. They are clearly in-the-know when it comes to coffee and they mix a ton of their stuff with matcha – which, you know, cool but not really my flavor profile. They have donuts on Saturday at least and a few other selections so I feel good about that. But this is one of those places where it’s not just hipster, it’s the kind of place where if you are not hipster (which… guys, you’ll be shocked, this 30+ year old mom of two doesn’t quite fit the hipster vibe) you get side eye. And don’t you dare expect a smile, or even significant eye contact. This place is too cool for that.. but the coffee is solid. So there ya go.

Heritage Bikes and Coffee (West Loop)
Gah, loved this place. They have a few locations but have only hit up this one so far. Fun lattes, good pastries, and a handful of other knick-knacks. Sufficiently quirky to give me happy vibes.

Groundswell Coffee Roasters (West Loop)
This place has the perfect “my local coffeeshop” vibe. Friendly staff on a perky little section of Madison street that just begs to be strolled down. They had some donuts, some good coffee selection, who wouldn’t want to stop in?

Metric Coffee (West Loop-ish)
Okay – this place is kind of hilarious. You get here and it’s all industrial and you totally have that vibe where you wonder if you put the warehouse or something in your GPS. Don’t fear, it’s real, you can walk in and order your very sophisticated coffee. But – FUN FIND – they had this amaaaaazing selection of ridiculously fancy donuts that I bought too many of (oops?). Not sure if that’s just a weekend thing or not but I’m willing to, you know, fight for the cause, and go a couple more times to confirm for you. No need to thank me. It’s a service.

Dark Matter
Mothership (Ukrainian Village)
— Osmium (Boystown)
— Electric Mud Coffee Bar (Wicker Park)

Dark Matter has a few different locations and I’ve had the opportunity to frequent a few of them. They, honestly, are all about the same. Same menu, same vibe (uuuuultra hipster!). Their coffee is DELICIOUS and they have a few specialty options that are the bomb diggity. Not really any seating available, this is a get your coffee fix because it’s amazing and head out the do’ kind of place. Worth it and usually they have a selection of Do-Rite donuts available so, can’t fault that.

Places to pass on:


Look, I’m not trying to be mean, but there are a couple of places that just missed the mark and are worth saying – yeah, just skip them.
– Printers Row Coffee Co. (Lincoln Park) – just fine, but not great.
– Maison Parisienne (Lakeview East) – I went here because of the promise of pastries and they were decent but crazy $$ and the coffee was just okay to almost bad…
– Ritual Coffeehouse (Irving Park) – just fine
– GroundUp (West Loop) – coffee was not great and despite it smelling amaaaazing in there, the food was just okay.
– La Colombe (Randolph/West Loop) – yeah, yeah it’s a chain and it shows. Nothing to brag about.
– Oromo Cafe (Ravenswood) – accidentally went there twice and both time where ho-hum. Their specialty lattes sound delicious but both times I went their was sooo much debris in the bottom I had to ditch the last 1/4 of my cup. Disappointing.
– MeLatte Coffee (Logan Square) – so this place is ADORABLE but the coffee was only so-so and unfortunately the empanadas, a huge draw for me, were not great. I don’t be stopping by again.

Oak Park

Okay so I live in a suburb just west of the city, so you can bet that I’ve been to our local stops. I wanted to pull these aside for special props. If you can get out here (it’s actually super easy to do so by car or green/blue line) I highly recommend doing so since we have some great brews:

Kribi Coffee (Forest Park)
Kribi is AMAZING. They have delicious coffee and one of the best chai tea lattes I’ve had. They offer specialty lattes and are always updating them for the season. Gelato and a little pastry selection, breakfast sandwiches and avocado toast, it’s easy to get a light meal. Donuts on the weekend from Do-Rite and lots of indoor and outdoor seating. One of my favorite coffee shops of all time. Also they have amazing staff, I always feel so welcomed (plus a frequent visit punch card, yes please!)

Wise Cup
Such a cute place with really tasty coffee (and samosas and amazing chutney!!). A few other pastries but nothing worth chatting about. They have outdoor seating on Lake Street which, if a little noisy, is a fun and hopping spot in Oak Park.

Sugar Fixe
More bakery than coffee shop, they still make a mean cup (I am a little obsessed with their caramel-vanilla). This is the place to go if you are looking for some legit pastries and light snacks with your coffee. Amazing scones, croissants, and very classy desserts. Their indoor is really limited but their outdoor seating, while also limited, is adorable and on my favorite street, Marion, just off the main drag. Perfect spot to sit and enjoy life for a while.

Brewpoint Coffee
With another location in Elmhurst, this is a fairly established brand in Chicagoland and I’m sooo happy to have a spot here in Oak Park. They have super creative specialty lattes and other drinks and aren’t afraid of floral vibes (lavender, rose, etc – my faaaaav). Cute spot with indoor and outdoor seating. Well worth a stop.

Addis Cafe
Addis makes great coffee and has their own homemade chai (helllllo). They also have the best waffles you’ll ever have. Period. Indoor seating is really cute and while their outdoor seating is on a busy road and might not be there post-pandemic since it’s in the parking spots, there are a few options.

Whirlwind Coffee Company
New in town but already making strides! This place donates 100% of net profits to charity (holla) and their coffee is no joke. Great brews and while they don’t have froo-froo options on the menu they aren’t without flavors so it’s well worth the exploration. They are still ramping up so it was a little bare-bones but they have a side space outdoors that’s lovely. Great spot to stop.

Mulata Kitchen + Coffee
Admittedly the name of this coffee shop is very controversial so I have two minds of this place, but they do serve a good cup of coffee and they have truly amazing empanadas.

BOOKMARK THIS PAGE, FOLX! We are still exploring the city and I’ll be updating as I go! I would love to hear from you about any place not on this list that is worth a visit!

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Travels in Utah – A Literary, Pandemic-Friendly, Adventure

If I could give just one piece of advice to a happy life, it would be this. Find yourself a travel buddy. Someone who is willing to plan a trip with you a year in advance.

I happen to have two – and it’s glorious.

Before this crazy thing called a pandemic started, Zoe and I were sitting in Texas and decided our next adventure would be beautiful. Outdoorsy. Full of hikes and lots and lots of time to sit, talk, and write. Little did we know in planning this trip it would be the perfect (the only?) safe trip to take during a global pandemic.

I’ll admit, it was still strange to get on a plane in early November, double masked and wearing glasses, wondering if we were being stupid by not cancelling this pre-booked trip. But, with me in Chicago and Zoe in Los Angeles, we actually figured going to the remote towns in Utah would probably incur less daily exposure. So we kept on and, with careful masking, hand washing, and distance, I am happy to say we emerged from the endeavor without spreading the virus to ourselves or others.

And it was SUCH a wonderful adventure. Utah, folks, while often overlooked, is well worth the time and energy. We spent a single night in Salt Lake City and were able to see a good portion of the sights before hopping in our rental car and making the drive to Moab. Our goal – Arches National Park and a lot of writing.

All in all – mission accomplished.

Exploring Salt Lake City

We landed early in SLC and got our rental car from Rugged Rental, via the Qeeq app. This was new to me and felt maybe a little sketch, but I found the service to be excellent with Rugged and the process flawless. Give it a try if you aren’t married to one of the big rental companies. Rugged isn’t based at the airport so it’s a little annoying needing to take a shuttle, but it was quick, easy, and cheaper.

You’ll be shocked to learn our first stop was a bookstore and café for lunch. We highly recommend checking out Oasis Café and the Golden Braid Books for books. Both are adorable and the food at Oasis was excellent – try the toasted brie sandwich. So simple. So heavenly.

Toasted Brie Sandwich from Oasis Cafe

By the recommendation of just about every blog or travel guide you see, we made our way down to Temple Square to walk around and see the sites. As someone who, admittedly, knows nothing about the Church of Latter Day Saints that wasn’t taught in the musical Book of Mormon, I found myself amazed, and somewhat bewildered, by the sights. There was beauty in the structures, but Salt Lake City is just so new – and it showed. The gaudy, built in the 80s, office building for the church was both an eyesore and yet somehow endearing. Like – bless their hearts, they were so enthusiastic they didn’t even think about the aesthetics.

The entire area around Temple Square was pretty, but eerily quiet. We weren’t sure what to make of it. It was a nice day in November – mid ’70s – but perhaps a little windy and cloudy. Sure, there’s a pandemic on, but regardless we were basically the only people around aside from the overly friendly guides in their skirts and always walking 2 by 2. The spider-like structure over a main road that had oddly Germany in the 1930s tones didn’t help much either.

I’m being judge-y. Salt Lake City is a cute, quiet little place with some lovely parks. We bopped around and found some cute street art too!

By the time we had walked around the Temple Square area, we decided it was time for another book store and made it over to Weller Bookworks. This place was lovely with a large selection, used and new. Definitely a good stop.

Dinner for us that night took us to the East Liberty Tap House which had a nice patio space with firepits. We both opted for the lamb sloppy joes which, while odd in theory, were magic in my mouth. We then walked down the street and found the grand opening of Pie Fight and snagged pumpkin cheesecake hand pies for dessert. They were excellent and the new business has such a cute walk-up window.

Our airbnb for the night was just blocks from the capitol, which is such a beautiful area. Our place was above a garage and so adorable it was worthy of a squeal. Highly recommend.

Salt Lake City is so well planned – the beauty of the foresight for what it would be is not to be dismissed. Sure, it’s rigid planning with excessively wide roads made those of us from lesser planned cities feel a little uncomfortable. To me, other than the couple hipster neighborhood we found, Salt Lake City felt a little too prescriptive – very clean, very structured. A little Big Brother feeling. It was interesting and new but I wouldn’t spend more than a day or two there.

Utah Road Trip – Salt Lake City to Moab

We took the long way to Moab since we had plenty of time between check out at 10am and check in at 3pm. So we went slightly out of our way by first heading to Park City and getting a coffee at Atticus Coffee + Tea. This place was adorable and busy. Lots of kitschy items and while, yes, there were some books but to call it a book shop was a stretch. Still, fun drink options so well worth the stop.

We walked the long length of the road and immediately wished it were later than 9am since many of the shops weren’t open. But there was lots of potential with other restaurants, galleries, book shops, etc. The boutiques looked classy and not repetitive. I’d love to go back there and explore Park City again.

I’ll never forget that it was here, after a nice stroll down the role, that we learned Biden/Harris won the 2020 election. Glorious, glorious morning.

We made our second road trip pit stop in Provo and visited Pioneer Book. Despite its lovely size, I have to say I found this book shop disappointing. It felt dated and they didn’t seem to do a good job with the inventory on the shelved – there were 10 copies of the same Danielle Steel book shelved next to another 10 copies of another Danielle Steel book, for example. I mean, books are books so it was nice, but definitely not my favorite book store.

We stopped at Peace on Earth for coffee and lunch. The coffee was amazing, but our grilled cheeses were pretty terrible. So – opt for drinks and skip the food.

Provo was our last stop until we got to Moab, whose size and variety of stores genuinely surprised us. This town is way more bustling than we guessed – it was certainly more alive than Salt Lake City! There are tons of food options though we found getting delivery to be absurdly challenging.

Side note – on our way back to Salt Lake City from Moab we stopped in this tiny town, Helper, for coffee at a place called Happiness Within. It was a nice little stop, coffee was decent, and the whole place felt kitschy. Worth pulling off the road for if you need to stretch your legs.

Highlights of Moab

We stayed at this airbnb, which was picked exclusively because there is an indoor rock climbing wall in the master bedroom and the second bedroom has a 3-story bunk bed. It was wild and also perfect. Highly recommend.

There are quite a few options for coffee in Moab but our favorite was definitely Doughbird. Good coffee (and while we didn’t taste any, the doughnuts looked amazing) but even better the staff was wonderful. So friendly! We went back to that exact reason.

Mural on the side of Doughbird

We made most of our food during our stay, but we did end up getting take out from Arches Thai and Fiesta Mexicana and both were very tasty.

The best highlight of Moab though, was their bookstore, Back of Beyond Books. High praise for this place. Usually book stores in these little towns barely qualify to be called a book store but this place was legit.

Old and new books, lots of title relevant to the area, but even though the selection of fiction was small it was not limited. Someone is on top of it and had so many brand new books, really cognizant of what is going on in literature, amazing editions. Honestly, I was so impressed. Do NOT skip this place if you are in Moab!

The Hikes: Arches National Park and Canyonlands

Let’s start with the whole reason we were in Utah.

Arches National Park.

Its beauty truly knows no bounds.

The drive alone was magnificent but the hikes were also lovely. We’ll admit that even in November it was pretty busy. We heard that was likely a pandemic situation and that the weekend we were there, especially since the weather was okay to kind-of gross, typically would have been a lot quieter. Still, we and the other hikers were great with masking.

Windows

Aches National Park is well laid out with almost all the hikes being quite short. A lot of the sights are barely off the road which meant we were able to see Balanced Rock, Double Arch, Windows, all in quite succession. We took the most possible trail to Delicate Arch which we highly recommend. It was just far and challenging enough to finally feel like a real hike and the end sight of Delicate Arch was so worth it.

Double Arch

Honestly, we were able to see the vast majority of what we wanted to see of Arches in about 4-5 hours total. We missed a couple of spots and hoped to come back but the weather stopped us. It’s say you need no more than 2 days at Arches but it is sooo worth the stop.

Delicate Arch

Our last full day took us to Canyonlands to get a little variety and, we hoped, to try and catch better weather. We were wrong and ended up driving and hiking through some pretty significant snowfall. We had hoped to do a different trail, maybe more than one at Canyonlands, but the snow changed those plans. Instead we just went the short distance to Mesa Arch which was lovely and super eerie to see with the total storm clouds.

Mesa Arch

We probably missed some of the sights because of the weather but I can definitely say the views from the drive through Arches far exceeded Canyonlands. It’s an easy stop though if you find you’ve “finished” Arches and still have time on your hands.

Five Days in Utah – and we still want more

Ultimately, any place is going to be amazing when the purpose is to get together with an old friend and just be. But Utah was all we hoped it would be. Even with less-than-ideal weather we were really able to enjoy the outdoors and the amazing scenery. It’s a location well worth exploring and one that book lovers can snag some great finds too.

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Independent Bookstores in and around Chicago – A (Pandemic-Friendly!) Guide

You know how sometimes we don’t explore our own backyards? It occurred to me not long ago that I’ve written a number of literary explorations around the country and have NEVER highlighted Chicago. Despite the pandemic I rectified that and managed to visit a lot of bookstores, especially over the summer when things were a bit more cheerful.

Support the community and take your own tour of Chicago via books with my guide of the best independent and local bookstores below!

The Looking Glass – 823 S Oak Park Ave, Oak Park, IL

I love this little used bookstore. They have an eclectic mix of books and the shop is relatively small. But they have the BEST gifts! From blind books to journals to unique cards and knick-knacks – if you have a literary friend you are bound to find something cute for them here.

Roscoe Books – 2142 W. Roscoe Street, Chicago

You know those bookstores that just get you? They have the vibe, the beauty, and, even better, the inventory of books that makes you salivate? Roscoe Books is my happy place. They have so many great, new titles and lots of contemporary romance. Cute set up with the perfect mixture of lots of titles and room to stand. Win/win.

Volumes Bookcafe – 1474 N Milwaukee Ave, Chicago

SO cute. I unfortunately went during a pandemic so I didn’t get to try the café part of the book café, but I know I would love it. This place is set up so perfectly with a great little selection of stories and what looked like an excellent place to sit and relax with a hot beverage. I can’t wait to check it out in full force in the future.

Pro Tip – there is a sister location, Volumes Bookstore on Michigan Ave!

Bookends & Beginnings – 1712 Sherman Ave, Evanston

Oooh man – guys, this place is so worth the trek up to Evanston. You’re in the heart of Northwestern but you disappear somewhere else entirely for this store. It’s tucked away in an alley (SO adorable) and it’s so much bigger than it looks. Crazy good selection and has that tilty, old school book store feel. Love.

Myopic Books, 1564 N Milwaukee Ave, Chicago

Myopic is an establishment in Chicago. It’s your classic DGAF kind of used bookstore. Plenty of worn edges, musty corners, and books no one has touched in years. I also have a particular fondness for bookstores with stairs. This place has bizarre and wonderful half-levels that make you feel like an explorer.

Fun tip – it’s only a stones throw away from Volumes Bookcafe and Jeni’s Ice Cream… so you really never need to leave this block of the city. Ever. Just move in.

The Book Table – 1045 Lake Street, Oak Park

Back to my stomping grounds in Oak Park, this is a great new book store. It’s generously sized (they recently expanded!) so you know you can go in and get what you need. Tons of helpful staff and tips on what to choose next.

Madison Street Books, 1127 W Madison St, Chicago

This is such a lovely spot! This poor bookshop has a grand opening just two days before the pandemic March shelter-in-place hit so they could use some love – and do they deserve it! The staff is friendly and the kids section is adorable. I highly recommend!

Semicolon – 515 N. Halsted Street, Chicago

Black woman owned – so that right there makes it a winner. It’s not really open for in-store browsing because pandemic but they do lots of community support and it’s a fantastic stop. Definitely hit this one up!

The Armadillo’s Pillow – 6753 N Sheridan Rd, Chicago

Mad props for an amazing name. This place is soooo quirky. Used booked, piles everywhere, plenty of space to get lost. What more to do need? Oh, yeah, an entire afternoon to dawdle.

Unabridged Bookstore – 3251 N Broadway, Chicago

Love this place. It’s a great space and has some amazing travel and LGBTQ+ sections. Excellent selection (all new) with up to date trends. Plenty of room to linger.

Sandmeyer’s Bookstore – 714 S Dearborn St, Chicago

This is a lovely little spot to hit up if you are exploring downtown Chicago – just a few short blocks away from Willis Tower. With bright, wide shelves and all new books it’s a great spot to find some of the “top hits”. Add a star for the creakiest floors ever (and I mean that in the BEST way possible).

Open Books – 651 W. Lake Street, Chicago
(there are other locations in the city too!)

This book store is packed with books and yet the tall ceilings make it feel open (ha) and lovely. Great initiatives and events happen here too. It’s an easy place to get lost in.

Centuries & Sleuths –  7419 Madison St, Forest Park

Who doesn’t love a good themed bookstore?! Mysteries and histories are the game here and while the store itself doesn’t have a ton of browsing potential, they have a fun table of blind books and the staff will help you with anything you could desire. Madison Street in Forest Park is a delightful area to walk around (check out Twisted Cookie or The Brown Cow for some sweet treats)!

Book Bin – 1151 Church St Northbrook, IL

This is a fun little stop off! Great selection with some good gifts (I found a great puzzle of the Chicago skyline!) Super friendly and perfect for a visit if you’re in in those NW suburbs.

Barbara’s Books – 2651 Navy Boulevard, Glenview

Perhaps a little sterile (though that’s not a bad thing in a pandemic) this place has lots of room to breathe. Plenty of new hits and a nice getaway in this outdoor mall area. Other locations around the city.

I’m still working my way through Chicagoland and have lots to explore so check back for more! Let me know where I should go next!

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The Most Unique (and Best) Airbnbs in the World

I take the question of “where should we stay?” very seriously when I travel. I don’t stop at a Hilton. Like food, where you stay tells the story of a place and I make it my mission to stay in a place where I want to take a picture before I mess up the sheets. Here is my list of the most amazing and unique places I’ve stayed.

A Treehouse in Plymouth, Massachusetts

That’s right. A giant, friggin’ treehouse. SQUEE. It was roomy and so unique! Beautiful grounds, luxury inside, with a compostable toilet in the tree house and rustic outdoor shower that made it feel like real tree house living. Highly recommend!

A prison cell in Ljubljana, Slovenia

This has literally been my go-to “fun fact” about myself since 2009. Because no one believes me when I say “I’ve spent two nights in a Slovenian jail.” Not technically AirBnB but still thoroughly amaaaazing.

Hammocks Galore in Galapagos

The White House in Puerto Ayora was a delight. Tiny rooms but plenty of hammock space and such a great location. I mean, I pretty much just love the Galapagos so you probably can’t go wrong anywhere but this, THIS place is a great start.

Cloud Forest Views in Mindo, Ecuador

Las Terrazas de Dana are AMAZING. Filled with tropical plants, beautiful views, unfortgettable hikes, and food we just couldn’t get enough of. Go to Mindo because it’s beautiful, but REALLY go to Mindo because this place is to die for.

Balcony Dreams in Sinaia, Romania

Sinaia is a sleepy little ski town famous for the Peles Castle. While not the most famous castle in Romania, it’s a beautiful and wonderful little spot. The Vila Camelia was a wonderful true Bed and Breakfast with a delicious spread, gorgeous house, and I scored a beautiful top floor room with balcony that looked at the most beautiful mountain view!

The Sweetest Spot in Topanga, California

She isn’t kidding when she calls this the sweetest spot. Fluffy white blankets, comfy beds, a beautiful view – everything right down to the coffee cups are absolutely adorable. Such an amazing getaway spot – just don’t let the drive up the Canyon road intimidate you!

Dar with Beautiful Rooftop in Fez

This was such a magical place – finding it was a treasure hunt and walking inside was a breath of fresh air. It’s been a few years so I don’t know if the same staff is there but I STILL remember how delicious the chicken tagine was that we had from the cook.

The Fortress in Vermont

Okay – full disclosure – I haven’t actually stayed here. But it’s run by good friends of mine and it is on my “must go” list… and it looks AMAZING. I have no qualms promising epic views and hospitality.

Keep checking back for updates! Also – I would LOVE to hear about your favorite spots!!

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My Book-Ish Tour (In and Around) Boston

In the Summer of 2019 my husband and I took off for New England for a week. He had a Pinball Expo to attend to promote the newest game for his company which meant I had a few days to frolic around the area. That, of course, meant that I scouted out all the literary things I could find in the area and woo-boy I found some amazing things!

Boston

First off, we spent a day in Boston. We stayed in a nice little airbnb in the North End of Boston. It’s a very Italian area, super walkable and pretty centrally located. We didn’t have a lot of time in the city but racked up the miles by trotting around the area and following the Freedom Trail which is, very conveniently, marked on the sidewalks.

I’ll be honest, while I did enjoy Boston, after spending so much time traveling elsewhere – and especially a lot of time in Europe – I wasn’t overly impressed with the history. My favorite tidbits of Boston weren’t really part of the Freedom Trail. The Boston Public Library was nice to pop into with a beautiful study room (any library with long tables and green lamps wins me over)

We also kind of stumbled across two memorials that I didn’t read anything about in my copious Boston Tour Book research that felt very powerful to me. The first we found was the Iraq-Afghanistan Memorial which had hanging dog tags. It was a beautiful and moving way to capture the numbers.

The second was the Holocaust Memorial which was easily the most moving I have ever seen. The tall glass columns were filled with steam and name after name after name. Being able to step into the grating and be immersed in the sensation was… emotional. Don’t miss this if you make it to Boston.

Holocaust memorial

Cape Cod/Plymouth

After Boston we spent a couple days exploring Cape Cod and stayed in what can only be described as one of the coolest places I’ve EVER slept – an EPIC tree house in Plymouth. It was both luxurious and rustic and since it wasn’t quite on Cape Cod proper we didn’t have a crazy amount of traffic to deal with either. Honestly – I could have stayed there a week. The local spots were adorable and the tree house was a dream.

From there, we went up to Sturbridge for the pinball expo and HERE is where it start to get bookish. I waved good-bye and popped into a number of drool-worthy places for the literary inclined.

Concord, Massachusetts

It was a blisteringly hot day when I made my way to Concord, but I didn’t let it stop me. I parked downtown and walked down to the Minute Man National Park which was a lovely place to stroll through and read a little history. The town is famous for Henry David Thoreau, Louis May Alcott, Nathaniel Hawthorne (who wrote “the shot heard round the world”), and Ralph Waldo Emerson.

After walking the park, I found a couple websites that directed me to the cemetery where I could creep on/pay my respects to these literary heroes. It was a nice detour walk back into town.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

I popped into a number of shops in the adorable little town proper but my absolute favorite was Nesting. I don’t usually go bananas about little shops (honestly, I get intimidated by almost any place that isn’t a coffee shop or book store) but I felt comfortable in the twists and turns of this adorable beige and tan beauty. Definitely check it out if you are there – LOTS of cards and journals.

Before leaving town I knew I needed to find my way to Walden. It was mysteriously closed in the morning so I waited in a gigantic line. The parking lots were huge and the place was packed – which, for me, was a bit tongue in cheek given why it was famous. I almost turned around, worried the magic would be gone, but decided I would make good on my entry fee and found a path that circled the lake.

Walden Pond

While it certainly wasn’t the peaceful wilderness that Thoreau experienced, it is a truly gorgeous lake and I’m glad I stopped. The walk around the lake was pleasant but you could easily bring your swim suit and spend an afternoon – just be prepared to share the space if it’s a nice day.

The park did a great job highlighting where Thoreau was and there were a few literary gawkers there like me and not just sunbathers.

Hartford, Connecticut

I’ve always had a soft spot for Mark Twain and couldn’t pass up the opportunity to see his home in Hartford. The drive from Sturbridge was an easy one and I got to check off another state from my to-do list as well.

I got into Hartford early and planned to pop into a coffee shop for some writing and reading. I went to Blue State Coffee as they promised to donate 2% to democratic initiatives. The brew was tasty but, I’ll be honest, the downtown area where I needed to park and walk was not pleasant. I was nervous to leave my rental car where I did at 9am and Blue State overall had a cold atmosphere. I had hoped to walk around downtown Hartford but ended up getting my coffee, writing a journal entry, and heading to the house.

The Mark Twain House was a delight and well worth the drive to Hartford. The tour was expertly done. The information about Twain was super interesting but, even more, the house itself was awesome and fascinating. Very beautiful and unique with a top-notch gift shop.

I didn’t get the chance to visit the Harriet Beecher Stowe house and center as I ran out of time but it’s literally on the same grounds, which is super neat. I did pop into the gift shop which was full of feminist loveliness.

All in all

I had a lovely time bopping around the area and finding book-ish things to do. I can’t report on any really great coffee shops unfortunately (I went to a few but didn’t LOVE any of them). I also wish I could have gone up to Salem or a few other key historical spots. But if you’re in the area, I highly recommend the places I’ve highlighted here!

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The BEST Ice Cream in La Fortuna, Costa Rica

Headed to La Fortuna? Never fear – we tested out just about every ice cream option in town and can recommend our absolute favorites here:

ONE: The Guy in the Square

So good. So authentic.

Ok, so, to be fair, this isn’t “ice cream”. It’s shaved ice with condensed milk and your flavors -we got raspberry and coconut and I just about went to heaven. Stir it up, drink it up, all walk walking around the square. What’s it called? I’ve heard all kinds but we just ended up calling it a “Copa”.

TWO: Kiwi Caffee Gelato

Slightly off the beaten path but not far (considering you can easily walk every single block of this town in a single afternoon), it’s not the first ice cream spot you likely found but it’s definitely one to get to. It’s full service, cute, and had some legit flavors! Unique and very friendly.

THREE: Unnamed? Near Pollo Fortuneno

Ok – I’ve googled, I even have a picture of the place (not very good, but it’s there) and I still have no idea what it’s called. Honestly, even when we walked in there was almost left because there was no one at the counter… but then someone from chicken place like… hopped the counter and served us. It was strange, but the gelato was excellent and the seating adorable. So – worth it!

FOUR: Pops

If you’re in Costa Rica – you’ve seen a Pops. They’re everywhere! While not the most creative ice cream I’ve ever had, they are a solid option and were the ones open latest in town when we were there – so that’s always a plus.

FIVE: Gelatoland

Definitely our least favorite option. Don’t get me wrong, the product wasn’t bad, but the rum raisin was definitely skimping on the raisins, the flavors were only mildly creative, and they had a very string NO SAMPLE policy (excuuuuuse me?). Good in a pinch but I better be able to have a taste before I buy, I’m just saying

San Jose – Honorable Mention – Helados de Sorbetera

So, if you’re headed to La Fortuna then you will likely find yourself in San Jose at some point. If so, you need to find Helados de Sorbetera. Super authentic counter service that was packed to the gills and uniquely wonderful!

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G Adventures Costa Rica Kayak Adventure – My Review

In January 2020, Marjorie and I threw money at a tour company called G Adventures and jetted off to Costa Rica. It was somewhat of an experiment after our Bucket List Galapagos Adventure. We both knew nothing could top Galapagos – but could this come close? And would we find value is someone doing all the planning for us (instead of the intense heavy lifted we did ourselves for Ecuador)?

TL; DR – 3/5 stars overall. Enjoyed our time, would not do a tour again.

First you might be wondering – what the heck is this? G Adventures is a one stop shop – you pay, you fly, you follow the leader. Check it out here.

Our trusty little ride

Day 0: Car Rental and Quepos

Okay so we couldn’t resist a little self planning. We arrived one day early, met in the airport, and then we were off like a rocket. We decided to test the waters with a car rental. (This was a BIG DEAL for two city women who very rarely drive and don’t own cars)

We chose Adobe Car Rental after reading a fantastic review from My Tan Feet. My Tan Feet were SO helpful in the booking and understanding-what’s-next process – I highly recommend you use them as your jumping off point if you plan on renting a car in Costa Rica. Additionally, Adobe Car Rental was top notch. Excellent customer service (English/Spanish) and the worker came to the car with me, checked it, helped me adjust everything, etc. Top notch service I’ve never received with any other car rental company.

We jumped right on the highway and took the 3-ish hour drive down the coast to our ultimate destination – Quepos. For anyone squeamish about driving abroad – this stretch of road was pristine. Yes, some people liked to pass aggressively but there was nothing nerve wracking about it in the least.

Quepos is a cute little spot and we arrived in the midst of a political rally -which sounds ominous but was actually more of a street fest that was really fun to walk around in. We grabbed some ice cream at Pops (a chain that is everywhere in Costa Rica. Not bad but not drool-worthy. Think Chocolate Shoppe or Cold Stone, maybe?) and enjoyed the boardwalk.

View from the room

We stayed at Las Cascadas in a room up in the canopy. It had an amazing view but no screens (sigh) so we had to stay huddled away since it was dark and giant bugs were not invited to our sleepover. Also the trek up to the room was at least a 50 degree angle, it was intense. Overall, the space was cute but the room and restaurant felt something to be desired. I wouldn’t recommend this place but suggest another!

Day 1: Quepos and San Jose

The following day we heavily debated – do we go to Manuel Antonio or the Spice Farm? We decided a lot of nature was in our future and, even though I’m sure Manuel Antonio is amazing – we skipped it in favor of Villa Vanilla. And, look for anyone who has been in Central or South America, we found this to be a real treat. We’ve see cocoa, we’ve seen coffee, but this to me was truly unique. It’s a very small operation with a jungle of variety of plants. It was educational, beautiful, unhurried, and delicious. I highly recommend this tour.

Instead of trying to shove too much into one day, we hopped back in the car and made it to San Jose for our orientation. Looking back – and with some knowledge, I would have done this totally differently. Our hotel in San Jose was nothing to brag about (El Sesteo). Some rooms didn’t have air conditioning, some did, but all were depressing. The courtyard was cute but it was definitely not a place I would have chosen on my own. Location was fine, but not great either… and here begins the reason why tours are just not my thing. I hate feeling like the money I put into the tour wasn’t used the way I would have used it. That might not be fair, but it’s true.

We had orientation which, honestly, for anyone with an iota of previous travel experience, was unnecessary. We met our guide, Gabriel, who was a lovely human being, but otherwise the information was general and not something that needed walking through. We learned that night that immediately in the morning we were boarding a public bus for about 4 hours to get to La Fortuna.

Here’s where I would have done it differently – since we already had the car, Marjorie and I should have just driven up to La Fortuna and spent the night there. There was NO reason for us to have a night in San Jose at all if we were already going to have a car. We could have skipped the public bus and had that much time in comfort and in La Fortuna.

Day 2: La Fortuna

We started our day on the bus which, if I’m honest, was actually way nicer than anticipated – but still, a long bus ride! (Also at every bus station in Costa Rice you’ll find a chain bakery that is SUPER tasty! Musmanni – check it out!)

When we arrived in La Fortuna we had lunch at the Rainforest Cafe (no, not that one) which was tasty and a place we went back to for breakfast. We decided to try and squeeze in an excursion (and save a little money) and instead explored a little of the town. La Fortuna is tiny with only a few streets around the main square. It’s very cute but it’s really just a jumping off point for all the various activities. And it was going to be home for three nights. On one hand, it’s nice to not move around a lot, but on the other, the hotel was (again) something to be desired. We stayed in Hotel Las Colinas and our room in particular was so small it was literally impossible to unpack (it was our beds and ONE tiny table – no dresser or closet) which defeated the purpose of spending a few nights, in my opinion. Now – it had a few positives with being in an incredible location to walk around and having an amazing view. But the room seriously sucked.

View from the patio of Las Colinas

We did get an amazing ice cream on square and has a really great meal at Yellow Bark – so it’s not like it was a total loss of a day.

Day 3: La Fortuna and our First Group Excursion

I’ll admit, coming onto day three I was getting pretty salty. Two lackluster hotels, a bus ride, and basically nothing happening yet? I was feeling antsy and wondering where my money went.

Kayaking on Lake Arenal

But then – this! Our first kayak excursion! It was led by Desafio and I loved this. They took us over to Lake Arenal where we split the group into two – one group kayaked out to the peninsula while the other group did SUP (Stand up paddle board) and then we switched. During our break in the middle of the lake we had fruit and beer to enjoy.

This was my first time doing SUP and I was practically giddy I loved it so much. It was a beautiful and amazing spot to the activity and I highly recommend it. One thing to note – you do NOT need to be on this G Adventures tour for this! This is a tour hosted by Desafio and you can buy it one-off if you are in La Fortuna on your own.

After lunch, we went on a hike to get a better view of the Arenal volcano. This was organized through our guide and G Adventures, but it was, again, a tour hosted by Desafio that you can do without being part of a larger group. It was a nice little outing – definitely more “walk” than “hike” but did give some good opportunities to see wild life and pictures of the volcano with some informational tidbits.

Lastly, our group decided to partake in what our guide, Gabriel, called a more “rustic” hot springs experience. This, my friends, was the most unique and hysterical activity we encountered in our G Adventures trip. We stopped by a little market, bought some beer, and then Gabriel led us down some super sketchy steps into was was clearly just a dam run off or something super podunk. I almost lost my suit in a particularly aggressive portion but eventually the group of us set up shop in the back, Gabriel pulled out some candles, and it was downright relaxing and silly. We never would have found it on our own without Gabriel and it was definitely a perk to the trip. If you are in La Fortuna on your own and you ask around, you could find it, but I wouldn’t recommend doing it by yourself.

At the ridiculous hot springs!

Day 4: La Fortuna

Our last full day in La Fortuna was unscheduled so we opted to try the boat tour up in Cano Negro. And there was a bit of the problem with the whole “other people plan for you” type of vacation – we weren’t sure what we were signing up for. We thought there was some kind of hiking element… or some kind of really unique situation. It was pretty much just a long, slow boat ride where you almost saw some wildlife. All in all, not our favorite use of our time (though it was lovely… just not quite active enough for us). It did include lunch, but our lunch stop was very awkwardly on someone’s farm property and there was no place to take advantage of the “outdoor commode” without showing your butt to the world.

We spent our final evening in La Fortuna enjoying the weather, walking, and doing a little shopping. It was lovely, but definitely time to go. Dinner at Lava Lounge which was tasty, but expensive.

Day 5: Sarapiqui and the 2nd Kayak Adventure

Welcome to Summer Camp!

Seriously – this was the point in our tour that you have to either laugh or cry. I think I did a little of both. We left La Fortuna in a lovely little private van and made our way to Sarapiqui. My jaw dropped when we pulled into Cinco Ceibas. The painted bus was adorable, the main lodge was fun and campy, but the fact that they housed NINE WOMEN in one of these cabins (with 3 bedrooms… 4 if you count the one that was just curtained off from the kitchen) and one bathroom was, to me, not okay. And don’t get me started on the food (the first included meals ALL TRIP). (Spoiler: the food sucked).

Look -let me back up here. I am not a finnicky traveler. I don’t get grossed out. I understand limitations. I was HOT about this though. I did not pay for shared accommodations. I paid a very decent price for this trip – it wasn’t supposed to be shoe string and, lemme tell ya, this is shoe string accommodation.

Ok – but if I was able to put aside my frustrations and absorb the good – let’s be honest we NEVER would have found this place on our own. And it really was like summer camp – we were the only people there and ate cafeteria style. It was kind of adorable.

We got there early enough to do our kayaking trip in the afternoon and that was a blast. It was a level 1 rapids – basically, a river with a slight current – which made the kayaking trip a LOT of fun. We dumped ourselves but it was a solid workout and an amazing trip. For people who don’t like adrenaline it was the perfect level up from a lazy river and a truly unique experience.

Outside of the kayak trip though there was NOTHING to do there (they didn’t even have board games in stock) so we chilled out in the main lodge (the only spot with mediocre wifi) until it was late enough to go to bed.

Day 6: Tortuguero

We bid a not unwelcome good-bye to summer camp and made the long-ish trek to Tortuguero. Now, this was a truly lovely place. Only accessible by boat I imagine a lot of solo traveler skip it but I definitely recommend finding your way there. It took a lot of travel but we eventually made it to the Baula Lodge – easily our nicest accommodations on the trip. While no luxury establishment they had cute little rooms in pretty colors, a nice pool, and fun places to hang out near the water.

At the Baula Lodge

We took a walk around the little town which was adorable (and honestly larger than I thought)! It’s all water taxis and cuteness around here and I could have spent more time but decided to enjoy the lodge instead.

Day 7: Tortuguero and Kayak Trip #3

We decided to have a packed day and started off with a morning hike to a beautiful look out. We had enough people join us that we had our guide come but it was something you easily could do on your own. It was a lovely little hike with some good stairs at the end.

Then it was straight to our third kayak trip which was delightful. It was a good three hours down the canals. Wide and beautiful at times and super narrow little hidey-holes in others. It was so much fun – we got really close to caymans and limbo’d under fallen trees. A truly wonderful and fun experience.

After a well earned lunch we then went back to the Tortuguero side of the river and took a nice long walk. This was led by our guide and we walked through the jungle, looking for wildlife, and then walked back on the beach side. It was relaxing and energizing and I got all the walking in the surf a gal could want.

Day 8: Back to San Jose

We took out time enjoying some coffee in the morning before heading back to the mainland. The boat trip back certainly seemed to take longer than the way there but eventually we made our way back to San Jose (and my faaavorite hotel. Sigh).

We took a little walking tour downtown, really racking up our steps (and wandering through some fairly sketchy areas) but finding some cute little tidbits in town. I’ll admit, what you read about San Jose in the guide books is pretty accurate. There are a few interesting spots but for the most part it’s not a very desirable city to wander. Half a day was plenty of time to feel like we got what we wanted out of it.

Dinner was a Restaurant Machu Picchu – tasty with HUGE blended drinks (alcoholic and non-alcoholic).

Day 9: Home

And that was it! There was nothing in the morning at all, just shipping us off to our destination. We walked a few blocks (again, so sketchy around our hotel) but found this adorable place (Hotel Grano de Oro) that had an excellent breakfast. It was a breath of fresh air before getting on our flights home.

All in All

We had a lovely time in Costa Rica. It’s a beautiful country with lots of fun activities. Taking out trip through G Adventures gave us things we could have – and would have – easily found ourselves but also a few extras. The kayak trips – the whole point of the tour was chose – were all exceptional and truly different. We might not have ever done one of them and definitely wouldn’t have done all three – so that was a huge perk. But the let down with the hotels and food was a big one. And – we did the math – but this trip more or less cost the same as Galapagos and Ecuador (well known for being expensive). That was definitely a let down as we figured we’d save a little this way but there were SO many added fees. I feel like ultimately we enjoyed ourselves despite the tour, not because of it, and Costa Rica just held enough positive attractive to keep us positive overall.

Overview Costa Rica Recommendations:

Car:
Adobe Car Rental – 5/5 – highly recommend
Hotel:
Las Cascadas (Quepos) – 3/5 – okay but there’s better nearby
El Sesteo (San Jose) – 2/5 – cute courtyard is about the only kind thing I can say.
Hotel Las Colinas (La Fortuna) – 3/5 – if location is your game this is fine, for anything else try another
Cinco Ceibas (Sarapiqui) – 2/5 – I can’t even….
Baula Lodge (Tortuguero) – 4/5 – I’d be curious about other establishments, but this is a solid spot.
Food:
Musmanni (bakery, various locations) – 5/5
Los Guarumos (near Jaco) – 4/5 – huge and cute
Soda La Hormiga (La Fortuna) – 5/5 – so cute, so good, so authentic! We ate here twice!
My Coffee (La Fortuna) – 3/5 – fine, but Rainforest Cafe was better.
Yellow Bark (La Fortuna) – 4.5/5 – excellent burgers!
Nanku (La Fortuna) 4/5 – tasty but pricey
Rainforest Cafe (La Fortuna) – 5/5 – tasty and cute
Lava Lounge (La Fortuna) – 3/5 – good but really quite expensive
Restaurante Machu Picchu – 4/5 – decent dinner spot
Hotel Grano de Oro (Breakfast, San Jose) – 5/5 yummy and so nice!
Ice Cream:
y’all, I have a whole POST for ice cream

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