Luray Caverns, Virginia

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The first time I ever went into an actual under-the-ground cave, I was about nine years old and living overseas with my family. I was absolutely fascinated by the inner workings of our earth.  Stalactites and stalagmites? Yes, please! So, when passing by Luray Caverns in Virginia while on a road trip recently, I took the opportunity to head below ground.

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I first visited Luray Caverns when I was a child.  I remember being awed by the large underground rooms and the strange, damp smell that was everywhere.  On my most recent descent into the caverns, everything came right back to me – it’s so cool to revisit a place you haven’t been to in such a long time!

The tour guides are extremely knowledgeable and even have lots of great little puns and jokes to keep you plenty entertained while below the Earth’s surface. Luray Caverns have a few stand-out features including an underground musical instrument, “Pluto’s Ghost,” “fried eggs,” an underground lake, and a host of other unique cavern attractions.

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There is just something almost magical about being below the ground and seeing the beauty that is inside the Earth. We work so hard to make gorgeous buildings and landscapes, but Earth does a pretty good job of that all on its own.

There are a host of other attractions at the caverns, too, including lots for kids and families. Upon ascending to the “outside world,” I was able to catch a picture of the mountains before the lower clouds rolled in. It’s a beautiful sight!

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If you ever find yourself near Luray, Virginia, definitely take the time to see the caverns, there! It’s a sight worth seeing!!

sarahheart

Bok Tower Gardens

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Bok Tower glimmers in the central Florida sunlight and is visible from every direction for miles and miles. It sits atop Iron Mountain, one of the highest geographical points in Florida peninsula.  The tower was designed and constructed in the 1920’s.  Edward Bok imagined a beautiful landscape for people to enjoy and commissioned famed architect Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. (the Biltmore Estate, the White House, Jefferson Memorial). Today, the grounds surrounding the awe-inspiring tower are home to magnificent gardens with winding paths and walking trails that lend themselves to the enjoyment of the outdoors.  The tower is also a “hot spot” for various birds and wildlife. The area itself, being one of a few that remained above water when Florida was long ago below sea level, hosts a variety of unique plant and animal species.

I went in the late afternoon and was lucky to find very few people.  There is a wonderful cafe at the visitor center that I really enjoy, so I grabbed myself a yummy tropical salad and a grapefruit beer and soaked up some sun before beginning my walk through the gardens.  Much of the grounds have been re-landscaped in the past year. There are new walkways, gardens, open areas, and even a shuttle to take you straight to the tower. I headed down the main path and began my adventure to the tower!

As I wandered through the paths, I stopped by the “Window By The Pond” – a cabin structure that features a large window overlooking a pond where you can sit and observe wildlife and marine life.  Unfortunately, there wasn’t much to see when I went, but it was very evident that the pond area had been redone to look even nicer than before.  If there’s one thing that’s true about Bok Tower Gardens, it’s how beautiful it all is! From there I made my way to the Pinewood Estate, a stunningly gorgeous property that is open to self-guided tours.  Though I didn’t do the tour on this particular day, I did it previously over the holidays when the estate was decorated and it was truly picture-perfect.  It’s a Mediterranean-style building and is surrounded by a beautiful sloping lawn, citrus trees, gardens, and a pond.  It’s one of my favorite spots at Bok Tower and is a perfect place to bring a picnic lunch!

After the estate, I headed toward the tower itself. The tower raises up 205 feet into the air, perched atop one of the highest points in Florida to begin with. There are eight levels within the neo-Gothic tower with just as much to see both inside and out (though the inside is only opened on rare occasions for exclusive members).  The tower features colorful tiles, a brass door, hand-wrought gates, a “moat,” and a sun dial depicting the zodiac.  Large koi fish live in the water surrounding the tower.  I hung around for a bit watching them and feeding them (fish food is available on sight) and just really enjoyed the views.  There is also a fantastic view overlooking the “flatlands” of Florida from the tower.  There were a couple people having photos taken here – it’s so picturesque!  The tower houses a carillon, a large structure of at least 23 bells.  Live performances are given throughout the day in certain parts of the year, or else visitors can listen to the recordings that play periodically from the tower.

On the way out, I meandered through some more of the gardens and even spotted a notable palm tree – one that was planted by President Calvin Coolidge in 1929.  The property really is full of little historic gems like this one.  I really just love exploring the grounds and finding little new things each time – it’s part of the fun!

Bok Tower is certainly one of central Florida’s most notable landmarks, but is often overlooked as people tend to visit the theme parks and larger attractions.  If it’s quiet and beauty you’re after, though, Bok Tower is what you want! Spend the day, relax, and enjoy the incredible views 🙂

 

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Pizza, Beer, and The Gowanus Canal

This past Saturday I hopped a train over to Brooklyn and had the most wonderful evening.  My boyfriend and I were celebrating (belatedly) his birthday.  Being the foodie he is, he decided we should try out famed Lucali, a small pizza place at Henry and Carroll Streets. It was the beginning of a fantastic time!

It’s apparently rather difficult to get a seat at Lucali if you don’t go super early and are prepared to wait a couple hours, so we arrived before they opened to put our names on the list. Thankfully, there just happened to be a cancellation for the first seating at 6pm! Otherwise, we would have had to wait another two hours to be seated at 8pm. We were very glad it worked out for us! From our seats, we were afforded excellent views of the small kitchen area where all the pizzas and calzones are coal-fired.

We ordered a pizza with garlic and basil and then half mushrooms. It was decadent.  The crust was thin, the cheese was aplenty, the basil and garlic provided a perfect pairing of lingering flavor, and the grease ran true (as is with all good New York pizzas). I was sad to finish my last slice and certainly sad to leave the restaurant.  If you’re looking for a simply delicious slice, Lucali is absolutely worthwhile.

After pizza, we decided to hit up a bar for drinks before getting dessert.  We ended up at Givers and Takers on the other side of the Gowanus Canal (everyone’s favorite city waterway!) at 3rd and Carroll.  It was around 7pm when we arrived so it was technically still pretty early for a bar.  The atmosphere inside was warm and pleasant.  We had mostly sour beers for awhile and enjoyed watching as the crowd filled in as the night went on.  It’s definitely a neat little place and even has a small outdoor patio area out back.

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With darkness truly settling over the city as the night went on, and now with stomachs full of good pizza and good beer, it was time for dessert – ice cream at Ample Hills.  At Nevins and Union Street, this Ample Hills location has their classic and seasonal flavors available at the counter and a neat rooftop deck to head up to enjoy your ice cream and take in the view. Since it was nighttime, the rooftop deck provided some nice lit-up skyline views.  It’s easy to imagine going up there on a hot summer day and enjoying a cool cone (which I definitely want to do!).  I ordered the Peppermint Patty ice cream and the Night At The Movies limited-edition flavor (for the Tribeca Film Festival) in a sugar cone.  It was uh-mazing.  Ample Hills ice cream never disappoints.  I also picked up a slice of their Ooey Gooey Butter Cake (which they put into their ice cream and is my favorite flavor of theirs) because it’s seriously THAT good 🙂

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The walk back to the train after wrapping up at Ample Hills meant crossing back over the Gowanus for the second time that evening. Legend has it that anything that enters the waters of the Gowanus never comes out the same… or even necessarily alive.  And anything that manages to crawl out of it should pretty much be shot and torched (there are stories of all sorts of odd creatures originating there…).  The pizza, beer, and ice cream was certainly worth the “risk” of crossing the waterway. It was a fantastic evening in Brooklyn and I’m already looking forward to revisiting these places!

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How I Find Cheap Flights!

When I traveled as a child, other people like my parents booked my flights for me since our trips were often family ones.  When I began exploring taking trips on my own as I got older, I noticed that the way one goes about booking flights changed drastically since the time of my childhood.  Now, you no longer need to directly contact an airline or speak with a travel agent – there are plenty of websites and apps that easily and conveniently find cheap airfare for you.  We live in the age of technology, after all! And this makes finding low-cost flights super simple.

At first, I started off using regular discount flight sites like CheapOAir and even Kayak/Orbitz/etc. This normally did the job, but as I began to travel more and more, I wanted to find a way to get even cheaper flights – and I knew there had to be a way.

A relative of mine who flies constantly around the world introduced to me the concept of fuel-dumping airfare costs – that is, the “error” airfares where airlines only charge basically the tax and not the cost of fuel (which makes up a lot of your ticket cost).  There are ways to “game the system” to get these kinds of tickets (for sometimes as low as $1 to $10) but there’s a lot of “studying” to do and chance involved.  I usually have set dates to travel on, so this type of low-cost airfare just wasn’t going to work for me.

As I began to look more and more into cheap airfare sites and methods, I was introduced to the website and app called Skyscanner.  Let me tell you – this site is fantastic.  You can go through their website directly or download their app.  You can search for specific airports, dates, and times, or you can even do a cool “everywhere” search that shows you the cheapest flights going anywhere out of a given airport, which is pretty awesome if you have a free weekend or given time and are looking to just go travel for cheap! I book most of my flights using Skyscanner now.  I love the setup of their website and their app (easy to use and super helpful!) and I generally do find the lowest costs that way.  Hello cheap flying!

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Another app I was recently introduced to is Jetradar.  It was on my most recent trip, actually, that the girl sitting next to me and I struck up a conversation.  We talked about our frequent travels and she explained she used Jetradar to find her cheap flights.  I immediately downloaded it when I landed.  The app itself has a neat animation for when it’s searching airfares (a cute airplane that travels along the route you’re searching) and it is pretty easy to use.  I’ve had luck finding even cheaper airfares with Jetradar than I have with Skyscanner, so it’s definitely something I would recommend checking out!

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Ultimately, it comes down to trial and error – of testing out different sites and comparing them.  Many sites/apps claim they do the comparing for you, but the reality is that no one site or app checks every single airline or airfare database, so “shopping around” on a couple different sites or apps is definitely recommended.  Skyscanner and Jetradar are currently my two favorites!

(TLDR – Skyscanner and Jetradar are great apps to find super low airfares! I normally check both to compare 🙂 )

Happy travels!

sarahheart

I Actually Enjoy The Airport

Every few weeks I find myself at the airport.  I spend quite a bit of time there between driving, parking, checking in, going through security, and wandering around the terminal. I am someone who prefers to be early to the airport.  Sometimes, two hours just isn’t early enough, in my experience.  There have been many times where I’ve cut it super close to boarding time even though I arrived at the airport a full two hours early (long security lines with only one metal detector working are the epitome of evil). So, I’ve gotten in the habit of giving myself as much time as possible just to be on the safe side and also so that I’m not rushed.  If I’m traveling, I want to be relaxed!

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The predicament in airport arrival time is finding the balance in not being too rushed that you’re running to the gate but also not being so early that you’re left just waiting in the terminal for hours for your flight.  Because security lines, traffic, and random airport inconveniences are rather unpredictable, striking that balance is sometimes difficult.  For this reason, I tend to err on the side of caution for the sake of peace of mind.  I’d much rather have an hour (or two or three!) of downtime at the airport than running through the terminal trying to board in time.

Since I like to arrive early and leave myself sufficient time, I’ve come to realize that I quite enjoy exploring airports.  The extra time allows me to check out different terminals and areas, explore food and dining options, locate prime seating for eating and people-watching (some airports have some really awesome “hidden” places like verandas and indoor balconies!), and just get some walking and exercising in before having to sit in a cramped seat for an extended period of time.

One of my favorite sources of entertainment at the airport is planespotting.  This involves wandering the various gates and terminals to find the best location for watching the planes take off and land. Sometimes there are some really great places right in the airport that afford fantastic views of the runway!  (You can even hop online and search for planespotting locations at whatever airport you’re at – there are lots of forums about them!). I love getting a snack and settling down for awhile to watch the planes (especially when you manage to spot a really unique or rarer one!).  One my last airport planespotting adventure, I saw a vintage Continental Airlines paint job on one of the planes that pulled up to the gate I was near – it was quite a treat to see something like that!

I also really enjoy just generally exploring airports when I have time to kill.  Sometimes I end up walking a couple or few miles (depending on my time and the size of the airport).  It’s pretty neat seeing how the different terminals and gates vary and watching the people arrive from different destinations. This also provides an ideal way to explore food and dining options.  Sometimes I am surprised by how great the food options are at a terminal other than my own, so I like to seek out my choices if I have the time. It’s also fun just to browse through the different shops – sometimes they have really cool things!

Overall, I like to find ways to enjoy my time even if I happen to be stuck in a place like the airport, where most people are focused simply on trudging to their gate.  There are always cool things to find and places to explore! I’ve even seen people take advantage of their airport time by doing yoga in empty boarding areas, hanging up hammocks in secluded areas to sleep, and playing “games” on the moving walkways (of which there are countless internet videos of, haha).

Remember, if you ever find yourself at the airport super early, or stuck there for an awkward amount of time on a layover, take advantage of what it has to offer, even in unexpected ways!

sarahheart