Last June, I packed two suitcases, put my truck on a boat, and got on a plane to Puerto Rico to start a new job. I landed in San Juan knowing four people. Since then, I have been working to make this place my home, to jump at any opportunity of meeting people, exploring, or being outside.
“24” – the temperature gauge on the rearview mirror stated the obvious – it was frigid out. We pulled the Tahoe into a hotel parking lot just after one in the morning and scrambled around the luggage. Between snowboards, firewood and camping gear, sleeping space was slim. A snowplow circled the lot, spreading salt in preparation for the incoming snowstorm. We inflated our mats, covered the windows, and climbed into our sleeping bags. Our mats, with not enough room, laid one, half way on top of the other - Joel’s, partially on the wheel well. My freezing cold face relentlessly reminded me of how this was rather unfavorable sleeping conditions for someone fighting a cold, like myself. I nudged Joel, “Uhm, honey, this probably wasn’t our best idea.”
“ It’s the dead of winter!” the snarky hotel concierge replied after Joel innocently asked what we should see while in Jim-Thorpe. We looked at each other, chuckled and walked away. Poor lady must hate winter. I guess not everyone was as excited as we that, just hours before, a winter storm had dumped on this little Pennsylvania town. Snow was still falling outside, giving a winter wonderland feel to an already snowglobe-esk town. The Poconos, never particularly high on my desirable destinations list, gave quite an impressive show. In our 72 hours there, we explored Pennslyvania wilderness and rambled through some rather corky towns all tucked amongst the mountains and surrounding area – and, the “dead of winter” made them all the more lovely.
After a long drive, tons of tolls – make sure to travel with quarters and single bills if you go – and a night of pretty unfavorable car camping conditions, we woke up just outside of the Poconos to freshly fallen snow. We grabbed breakfast from a Wawa gas station (arguably the best part of road tripping anywhere on the East Coast North of the Mason-Dixon line) and headed to Jim-Thorpe for day one in the Poconos.
Jim-Thorpe is a must see town of Pennsylvania (though, your hotel concierge may try to tell you otherwise). The streets of downtown, amongst other aspects, have helped coin the city’s nickname, “Little Switzerland.” Tall buildings with Switzerland-esk architecture, each painted a different color, are home to local shops, restaurants, inns and a few townhouses. They line the streets, squeezed against one another, leaving only enough room for the seldom alleyway. Brushed white with snow, every part of the town made it feel as if I had fallen into a classic Christmas movie.
Exhausted from lack of sleep the night before, we did a few touristy things in the town and then crashed at the Jim-Thorpe Inn. Staying at the Inn, one of the “Swiss” buildings on the main street, was a highlight of visiting this little town. I honestly wouldn’t suggest planning to stay in Jim-Thorpe for more than a day or two (maybe in the summer season?). It’s the kind of town that is completely worth seeing but doesn’t take long to see.
The train ride through the mountains is a tourist favorite. It was a gorgeous ride with the freshly fallen snow – plus it was a low energy activity - ideal since we were both half asleep.
Day two, we were rested and ready to explore some of Pennsylvanian's wilderness – more the reason we had come. From downtown Jim-Thorpe, miles of trail weave along the river following the railway (a better option if you don’t want to buy train tickets). For a more remote experience of the Lehigh Gorge, just outside the town of Jim-Thorpe, a State Game Land parking area serves as a trailhead for a network of hikes. However, with plans to mountain hop, we stuck with a shorter trial that led to, what we had read, was the best areal view of the Lehigh Gorge.
Delaware Water Gap
From the Gorge, we headed to the Delaware Water Gap – another popular wilderness area in the region. The Appalachian Trail runs through parts of the Delaware Water Gap Recreation Area and we had read of promising waterfalls and rocky climbs. Unfortunately, a good bit of the park’s road system was shut down due to winter conditions. We didn’t see all that we had hoped, but we saw enough to know the park would definitely be worth a return visit.
After a full day of snowy hikes, we crashed in a slightly sketchy hotel – you know, the kind with low popcorn ceilings, dimly lit hallways, and paint chipping off the brown metal doors – close to downtown Stroudsburg. We were happy to find a more lively town, in comparison to Jim-Thorpe, with a few promising local business. Downtown Stroudsburg is even home to a surprisingly impressive local coffee shop - Cafe Duet.
Snowboarding in the Poconos
Our last day in the Poconos was New Years Eve. Joel had made pretty grand plans for us to ring in the New Year slope side. If you are looking to snowboard while in Pennsylvania (which if you luck out with fresh snow like we did, you totally should!) there is a handful of options when it comes to best ski resorts in the Pocons. For us, a New Years celebration was of high importance. So, Bear Creek Mountain Resort was our pick – being that they have the best rating for nightlife. If you are a budgeted traveler, like us, buying lift tickets for night ski is a great economic option. The resort set off fireworks. We danced and watched the ball drop with the strange, eclectic group all ski resorts seem to attract and snowboarded until 1 am. A perfect way to bid farewell to 2016 and a grand finale to our 72 hours in the Poconos.
A Few Other Favorite Finds Along The Way :
“And there it happened… it didn’t hit me at Abol Bridge, or when I wrote my last register entry, or when we ate the last supper at the Birches, or even the moments shared with the Katahdin letters beneath my cold, pruned palms- when I held my lips to that wooden sign and thanked it…It happened when I was in the back seat of my friend Hannah’s car. I was staring out the window with tears running down my face. Knowing that the mountain was getting smaller and smaller behind me. I was trying not to breathe too loudly, to save myself from needing/trying to explain this feeling to her…or that being in a fast moving vehicle, in general, made me feel uneasy. Leaving Millinocket, Maine was the most confusing, conflicting, and rawest emotion I had experienced on trail yet. I wasn’t ready to say goodbye. Seeing my friends leave with their real families or seeing them get on planes to go back to their real homes was really hard… it all happened so fast. There I was sitting in the car, my hair in knots, in clothing that I had been wearing for months- “clean” but dirt and salt stained, dirt deep in my nails, with skin above my knees, so brown and tight from the sun, and I was “going home.” And that’s when it happened, driving away from the mountains was the first time I have ever felt genuine homesickness. I felt a pit in my stomach, a mourning, a true heartbreak…That night I took the longest bath I had ever taken in my life, where I sat and stared at my reflection in the faucet, periodically draining the cold water and replacing it with hot.”
I wrote that paragraph on September 17th on my one month anniversary of completing the AT. I was not planning on sharing it publicly, though with reflecting on the year, and the impact that thru-hiking has had on my life - it feels wonderful to share it and read it again. It feels even better to say that even though most would read that paragraph as a sad story and probably the beginning of “post-trail depression”, to me, it’s a love story and I am so thankful to have loved something so strong.
First off, I would like to thank the beautiful and inspirational duo, Grace and Joel for sharing my Appalachian Trail journey with such a supportive community of adventurers! With how gloomy and concerning the world may seem at times, it’s refreshing to have a network of people following their dreams and spreading the love. Secondly, I am going to do my best to regularly share my progress with the next grand adventure with you all...What is the next grand adventure, Isabelle? Well...thank you for asking...
A Southbound thru-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail!!!
(with an estimated start date of mid June-early July- Weather permitting/snow fall)
What?! How long even IS that?
2,650 wampin’ miles (that’s 450 miles longer than the AT).
Which states does is go through?
California, Oregon, and Washington. Trail runs from Mexican border in Campo, California through Manning Provincial Park, British Columbia. (Yes, a passport is required)
What are some of the biggest challenges?
Definitely quite a few! *Some* may say more challenges than the AT, I say different: Water scarcity is a big one; it is not uncommon for hikers to camel up enough water at one source or cache to suffice for an entire day...forcing the hiker to average a huge mile day just to get to the next source while meeting maximum weight and carrying capacity in pack. So the Desert is a thing not so common on the East Coast-intense heat and sun exposure is a big concern, often hikers carry sun umbrellas to help with this. Towns are significantly far (some more than an hour away in worst case scenario) from trail heads making food resupply and resources difficult to access, additionally making hitching more challenging as well. Because I am going southbound, a big concern of mine is snowfall... I will be taking crampons and an ice axe. During my free time, I can most likely be found looking up youtube videos on how to do a self arrest and, separately and equally important, prevent hypothermia.
Yes, but like the AT, meeting people along the trail is part of what makes it so magical! Hiking with a small group during a difficult/questionable section is extremely common. You are a part of community and everyone looks out for one another.
Why Southbound and not Northbound?
I was a “NOBO” for the AT and it was a great experience. The majority of people go North and even the guidebook for the PCT is written only for those going North. Going South is a new challenge for me. I like the idea of going against the current. Also, I have a dream job finishing up in early June, so the timing is ideal for the Sobo weather window. Lastly, hiking does cost money unfortunately, so the more time work equals more time hiking.
Last question/answer for now:
I’m simply not done with thru-hiking. Like those who go to a temple to meditate, I am called to the mountains to practice- the end goal is to apply your practice to all settings and walks of life. For me, the hard part was never the hiking. In fact, I found the best version of myself when I hiked the AT; I felt a light within me radiate so bright where my only function was to love and accept the present moment fully. Transitioning back to the old world was the important challenge, especially once leaving behind a lifestyle seemingly so simple and good. My goal for this thru-hike is to simply enjoy it for the treasure it is. I used to be critical of those who hiked just because the trail was there, because I thought, and still do think, of it as a sacred thing, but there is a beauty and honesty to those people. There is no reason not to do exactly what makes you happy. What makes me happy is to have a direction, a purpose, and to be self-dependent. What makes me happy is that I am proudest of myself when I am out there. What makes me happy is to be accepted into a community of people who are united, diverse, and inspired. What makes me happy is that thru-hiking allows me to appreciate this worlds natural beauty and I feel connected with the Earth’s elements as if they are my brothers and sisters. What makes me happy is that my body thrives when I ask it to walk, not once did I experience a Rheumatoid Arthritis flare up on trail and I was able to feel the natural communication between my body and my mind. Do I believe this can be done off the trail? Yes. But the opportunity is presenting itself to keep walking and my heart says YES. And I am so excited!
Keep Seekin’ muh brothers and sisters!
How to Have the Best Family Vacation
The best family vacation isn’t always about where you go, but what you do with your time. That’s the sweet simplicity of family vacation. It’s not as much about the packing list, the prime location or the activities planned. The most important element to family vacation is the people.
Joel and I love family vacation. Often when we travel, it’s just the two of us. So, spending time around the people we love is always a gift. I'm rather positive that no matter where we were, the week would have been great. Just for the sake of getting together, slowing down, enjoying each other’s company and embracing a beautiful place. Which is exactly what last week looked like for us. We drove down the coast of our very own state of North Carolina and bunked up in a beach house for a week of family meals, poolside chills and dips in the sea. It really was one of those “all you need is love” kinda weeks.
The early birds woke up every morning, had our coffee, worked out, made breakfast and sat around talking. A few hours later, the sleepy crew would roll out of bed and stomp up the stairs to the third floor kitchen. Then we would all sit around for a second round of breakfast.
We enjoyed the slow days with no agenda - where you can sleep in as late as you want or get up early with the sun. Early mornings were my personal favorite. This might surprise those who know me well. But there was something about family vacation that made waking up seem easier. Plus, the more hours you're awake the longer your vacation lasts right? But to me, it was a meaningful time full of beauty and simple moments. Everything around you seems to be brushed in the golden light of the morning sun and wrapped with the cool breeze of the young day.
A since of peace encompasses the hours to follow because the only thing required is spending time with each other. It doesn't matter what is done as long as its done together. Maybe you making a meal, perhaps you partake in group activities, or even just sit outdoors. It truly doesn't matter. Its all good. Its all perfect. Its all just sweet time spent together.
Its The Simple Things, DOne Together.
I always love to get outside in the morning. Even a city's downtown could seem remote in the early hours. The hustle and bustle has a slow start as the world begins waking up. People are still tucked away in their homes and it presents time to just focus on the present moment. Here are a few of my favorite activities from the early hours of our days spend at Ocean Isle.
Yoga On The Beach
We found a local yoga studio that offered a beach sunrise yoga class. All the early birds in the family signed up and went together. [It was Joel's first time practicing yoga with an instructor!] The instructor did a great job working with all the different levels of experience. She talked through each move and offered variations for each position. We enjoyed the fun out of the box family activity. Yoga is a part of several of our family member's daily routine. But, getting to share the experience and do some in a beautiful setting is what made it memory material. Joel has mixed feelings about it. But, i caught him later that day trying out one of the stretches he learned. Sooo...Im going to take the leap and say he loved it.
Bike Ride At Low Tide
Renting bikes was one of the best parts of our time in Ocean Isle. With a rather inexpensive rental fee, we got a few to keep at the house for the week. And, it created an effortless option for quality time. You just grab a group and set off anywhere. No destination required; the journey is good enough. We had an extra special treat as the tides aligned perfectly with our trip. Dead low was early in the morning and as the waves retreated out into the depths, they left behind packed sand ideal for biking. Taking advantage of such a gift, we explored the island following along the water's edge.
Explore The Local Shops
Some people love shopping together. And that's fine - whatever draws you together. I'm not a huge shopper but, I don't mind perusing, especially if its through local businesses. Throw in a local coffee shop stop and Joel and I are both in! We were excited to discover that Ocean Isle had a rather impressive local Coffee shop - at least for a small beach town. They had both good coffee and Acai bowls! What!? My dream coffee shop. The owner and employees were warm, friendly and knew a thing or two about what they were making. Big thumbs up from us to Drift Coffee.
Once morning hours passed, our days were filled with lots of soccer, swimming, and chill-axing. Even a few outdoor showers, wildflowers, sibling doggie piles, afternoon thunderstorms and beautiful sunsets. We loved loved loved Ocean Isle. But what really filled our hearts was a week of uninterrupted time with our family. It's so easy to let miles fall between us as we venture out into life. But coming together is a all the more rich; getting to share hobbies, exchange stories, and create memories.
Thanks To These Two Pots of Gold For Getting Us All Together
If you're headed to the beach here's My packing List - So you have one less thing to think about!
Beach Trip Packing List
- Swim Suits
- Beach Cover Ups
- Work Out/Yoga Clothes
- Comfy/Fancy/ And everyday outfits
- Easy Healthy Beach Snacks
- Spring Suit/Rashguard/ Or SPF shirt
- Water Toys (Surfboard, body board, or even just a big inflatable)
- Beach Bag or Cooler
- Coffee Gear!
Until Next Time My Dear Friends,
My husband (Joel) and I have collectively done a handful of overnight backpacking expeditions. But “overnight” has been the extent of our time frame. So, for Joel’s birthday this May, we decided to take on a trip we’d been dreaming about – a three day hike through the Linville Gorge Wilderness.
We will both tell you it was the most challenging, yet rewarding thing we’ve done in quite a while. And mind you, we just finished living and traveling aboard a 27’ sailboat. The challenges brought on by our tiny ship were more of the mentally exerting type. The Linville Gorge was three days of both physical and mental trials. Yet, the view from the mountain peak (quite literally) was well worth the burning muscles, tired shoulders and sweaty brows it took to climb to the top.
Joel is a planner. He’s a detail guy and the king of research. Leave it to him to find the good info, the best gear and the hardest route. He joined a few forums, did some studying and bought a guidebook. We sat down to pour over our map a few days before we planned to begin the hike. I’m truly convinced he enjoys finding the hardest route. The full Linville Gorge Hiking Circuit is comprised of 16,605 ft of elevation change and 33.93 miles. We compromised a little, discussed time constraints, and chose a modified version of the Linville Gorge Circuit. I had an inkling our untrained bodies would have trouble completing the entire trek in a three day period. We would both later be thankful for Joel’s willingness to make changes to our route.
Backpacks stocked, we parked at our trailhead and eagerly walked into the wilderness. The path was well-beaten and clear signs marked the trail. Joel, looking down at his guidebook, regretfully informed me we’d already started off on the wrong trail. We returned to where our car sat and, following the words of our book, walked to the middle of the gravel parking lot and took a sharp right into the forest. What little trail there was, had been covered by the lush green of spring. Our hike plans for much of day one and day two routed us on trails unrecognized by the National Park Service. I could already tell my highly allergic skin would be thankful for the shield of my hiking pants as we marched through poison ivy.
Halfway through the first day, we met the Linville River by its side. This would be the first of many views we would see of her rushing water. After a quick rest and a handful of almonds, we followed the river to meet our next trail.
For the rugged adventurer type, the Linville Gorge is a Gold Mine. It’s described as the Grand Canyon of the East. And its loop is said to be the most difficult route east of the Rockies. If you’re up for the challenge, the Gorge will win your heart as it pushes you, wears you out and then rewards you with beauty. Those who have walked its soil before have left behind many scattered campsites. Each with their small fire pit assembled from rocks found nearby. The best sites come with an incredible view and level ground to sleep on. Weekend hikers must apply for a required permit through National Park Service. However, if you go on a weekday (like we did) not only will you not need a permit but you might just have the whole place to yourself. For all three days we spent in the Linville Gorge Wilderness, we only saw one other couple and their dogs. It was a refreshing seclusion to find ourselves alone amongst the soaring mountains, rushing river and all the many wild things.
We filtered spring water as it trickled out from the mountain. Slowly our chlorine filled city water was replaced with the refreshing, pure water of the Linville Mountains. In the next few days, before complete our loop, we would scale several mountains, crawl up and down 70 degree inclines, cross the rushing river, get lost, follow our compass, bathe in the river, sleep by its edge, realize we over packed, be awestruck by faultless views and tango with a few copperhead snakes. Our three days in the Gorge were refreshing and beautiful. Each day after breakfast and coffee, we packed up our site and walked until dinnertime. Every night, we made it to our campsite exhausted yet accomplished set up camp, made dinner, sat by the fire, hung our food from the bears and fell into bed before sundown.
In the most extreme and exhausting moments of our hike, we dreamed of our return to the parking lot where our car sat waiting. But, in our three-day trek we fell in love with the challenge and adventure that accompanies backpacking in the Gorge. Out in the silence of wilderness, you begin to hear a new orchestra. The stomp of your hiking boots, the beating of your own heart, the rivers waters, wind sweeping through the mountain, the drip of a mountain spring; the harmony of nature. Your mind, always rushing to keep up with the demands of society, begins to slow and focus on the present moment. Just as you are refreshed with peace, you become tuned in to your physical state of exhaustion. You’ve pushed your body all day carrying your means for survival on your back. But, there is a clear goal to reach that day. And, your options are clear as well. You either press on or give up. There’s no room for procrastination in the wilderness, only growth. You tell yourself you can keep going, keep climbing and every step you take you grow – stronger, wiser and confident.
SO, if you’ve been dreaming about a trip that scares you, that you feel is out of your league – DO IT. Take it from a Newbie in the world of backpacking; you can do it and you should do it. Do your research, be prepared, and then go let the wilderness challenge you, grow you, and restore you all the same.
Our Take on Cuba; Best things to do, places to see, and ways to tour Cuba.
Sailing to Cuba has been a difficult feat for American sailors for quite a while. A country so close has been practically inaccessible for over forty years. Recently, the possibility of sailing to Cuba has become a buzzing topic amongst American sailors and, we couldn’t help but latch onto the idea. The little we knew about Cuba was centered on their banded cigars and our old school American cars. So, we couldn’t resist the opportunity to get to know the country through our own eyes.
The morning after one of my best friend’s wedding, Joel and I loaded up our 1993 Nissan Hard Body and drove the seven-hour trek to Charleston, South Carolina. We stopped just long enough to join Asheton and Nina, two of the four friends we would join for the journey, in their suburban. Together we kept rolling through the night to Marathon, Florida.
By daybreak we were loading up the boat, Asheton’s 44’ Reliance, and were prepping to leave the next morning. Our weather window was closing and the crossing would have to be made within the next 24 hours. Otherwise, we would risk being caught in heavy thunderstorms and winds that could cause the waves of the Gulf Stream to stand up to potentially treacherous heights.
The night before our departure, our captain, Asheton, took the dinghy into shore to grab Pat and Kristen after their flight landed. The crew was all aboard. We each crawled into our designated berth and fell asleep knowing that, the next night, sleep would be scares out at sea.
We had a beautiful sail. With a few currents and some wind working in our favor, we managed to average 7knts through the night. By sunrise the following morning, the haze of Cuba stretched across the horizon.
Asheton hailed the Cuban Coast Guard as we rigged lines to tie off to the Customs dock. After a quick boat search by a tiny energetic cocker spaniel puppy, they deemed us worth of entry and let us into Cuba.
Cuba, the land and its people, are more incredible than we imagined. For young travelers, like ourselves, Cuba is an affordable country to gallivant through. Though the food is all relatively similar from restaurant to restaurant, you can eat well for only a few dollars a day. Taxies can be inexpensive, as well, if you bargain for the right one and lodging is just the same. Cuba has a network of “bed and breakfast” styled homes called casa particulars. They average around $25 dollars a night and are safe and easy to find. If you find a good one, your host might even cook you up a tasty home style Cuban meal. During our time in Cuba, the home cooked meals were by far the most delicious.
Getting to know the locals is my advice for traveling anywhere, but especially if visiting Cuba. And, I’m not just saying this for the sake of good food. The people in Cuba will captured your heart. They are kind, intelligent and resourceful. Through the friendships we formed, we learned what to do and see in Cuba and we heard their side of the story.
In the mountains of Vinales, we rode horses up a dirt path to a coffee farm. One of the workers spoke better English than any of us could speak Spanish. So, we got to know him as we walked around the small farm. Like many others before him, our new friend was intrigued to learn we had come from America. His reaction, though, stood out to me. He said to us, “There have never been hard feelings for Americans. It’s only politics. We, the people, are happy you are here.” This sweet coffee farmer had spoken words that reflected the many open arms we would receive during our time Cuba. This heartfelt human moment reminded us that our greatest power is the ability to spread peace and give love.
The culture of Cuba
Cuba has been described as a culture frozen in time. But, what we experienced is much more complex. Yes, Cuba has our old 50’s classic American cars kept in pristine condition. But people walk around with IPhones, drive new cars imported from other countries, and partake in other 21st century antics. At the same time, you can drive down a highway surrounded by 50’s model cars as a horse and buggy crosses the street. Cuba is more of a time-warped land than a country frozen in time.
The land; rich in culture, history and beauty; will continuously surprise you.
The Best Way to Experience Cuba.
Cuba is a relatively large country. You could travel around for a month and still have more to see. If you are planning a trip with limited days (ours was 10) my advice would be to avoid booking the same lodging. There are several particularly beautiful parts of Cuba that are both unique and spread rather far apart. Having to return each day to a home base hotel could eat up a lot of your time. Some of the best regions of cube include the culturally extravagant city of Havana, the incredible mountains of Vinales, the many different tropical beaches, the gorgeous streets of Trinidad, and the coffee region of the Sierra Maestra Mountains; just to list a few.
Research and decide which regions interest you the most. Then, plan to stay a few days in each spot.
From the Hemingway Marina, the six of us jumped in a taxi and headed to the famous Havana, the city Jimmy Buffet speaks so highly about. Pulling off to the side, our driver let us out downtown. We handed him a few Cucs (one form of Cuban currency) and turned to greet the vibrant city streets. A mixture of tourists, street vendors and neighborhood locals crowded the cobblestone streets. For the most part, we could safely roam any part of Cuba. Of course, it helped being a group of six with three men.
Every inch of Havana was photogenic. You can’t help but look upward as you walk through rows of crumbling Spanish architecture, bright with Caribbean colors. Clothes were strung out on rooftops to blow in the breeze as we stood, staring and soaking in the culture.
We had been told that you shouldn’t leave Cuba without a visit to Vinales. So we searched around for the cheapest taxi that would carry all six of us and our luggage up the mountain. Asheton found one to fit the bill and the next morning, at 9:30, we loaded up and headed for the hills. An hour later, a gnarly pothole had us on the side of the road fixing a dangling exhaust. A few hammock straps were sacrificed and ever so carefully we made it to Vinales.
We were welcomed by breath taking mountains. The formations came as a complete surprise. Rather then rolling together, they jetted up out of the earth with a combination of jagged rock faces and lush greenery.
Our next weather window, which would allow for a comfortable sail home, was still several days away. So, with a few days to kill, we decided to explore all that Vinales had to offer. A taxi driver took us into the National Forest and dropped us off to go caving. He waited at the bottom of the mountain for us to return, eager to show us all of Vinales. He drove us to a local organic farm that served dinner and joined us for dinner. At ten cucs a person, we had more food then we could eat. Paired with the most magnificent view. I would say it’s worth going to Vinales if not only for this organic farm-sourced restaurant.
Xiomara, our Vinales host, hooked us up with some horses. We rode through the mountains and toured around several local farms. The people were wonderful and the views spectacular. Vinales, along with the rest of Cuba, captured our hearts.
Sadly, with in a few years, the culture of Cuba could be drastically different. Locals already talk of Walmarts, Publix and other American corporations who have purchased land in Cuba. Now is the time to go to Cuba and experience its unique culture before anything changes.
Here are my quick tips for touring Cuba:
1. Don’t drink the Water – No worries; most locals will tell you this and almost every restaurant serves bottled water.
2. Research and book Casa particulars in several destinations rather then one hotel in a central location.
3. Bring your own TP wherever you go. It’s a special treat if a public restroom provides toilet paper. So, don’t be caught off guard.
4. Get to know the locals! – Your experience won’t be the same without them.
5. Ask to see a menu before sitting down at a restaurant – you can get the same food for a drastically different price depending on where you wonder.
6. Bring your camera to Havana – you’ll regret it if you don’t.
7. Go Now!
Much Love & Viva Cuba
Boot Key is a funny place. It’s a destination for many cruisers. We had heard stories of a packed anchorage with 250 mooring balls and 50 boats sitting around on a waiting list. Some fellow cruiser friends had described it to us as “an adult summer camp.” When they used the word adult I think they meant above the age 60 and most likely retired. Because, that indeed would be a good description of Boot Key Harbor. A day in Boot Key starts with the 9am cruiser net on vhf channel 68. Where, if you tuned in, you could hear who was new, who was leaving, who was selling something, some corny riddles, and a little touch of drama. Some rather good entertainment for your morning cup of joe. Post cruiser net, the harbor always has some sort of activity or group cookout going on. Though the adult summer camp community wasn’t exactly our scene, I can see how Boot Key earned its place as a cruiser's destination.
etting to Boot Key was one of our longer days of travel. We took the outside and it was beautiful, but long and rather rolley. Arriving at sunset, we couldn’t quite muster up the energy to search the crowded harbor not knowing if we’d find a spot to anchor. So, with a calm night we anchored on the ocean by the seven mile bridge.
he next morning, we headed into the harbor. Crowded, as we expected. We went up a little creek (sister creek) and anchored along with several other boats in the mangroves. The creek is rather narrow, yet still maintains a lot of boat traffic. So, to keep your boat from swinging into the channel, everyone ties off to the mangroves. Doing so was a bit of an art project (as Joel called it). But, with help from a neighbor, we pulled it off. We actually didn’t mind not having a mooring ball. When the wind was blowing enough to keep the horrid no-see ums away, Sisters Creek was great. It was a short dinghy ride to the beach and a little longer one to town.
e spent most of our time at the little beach. On warm days, we brought our shampoo and showered off in the beaches outdoor showers (living on a sailboat really teaches you the luxury of real showers). Together we swam, read, did a little snorkeling and relaxed.
few days in we met new friends, Nina and Asheton. We had noticed them fishing the day before. They were our age (younger then 50) and on a dinghy. A rare sighting in the cruiser world. We got talking to Asheton thanks to one of our neighbors whos boat had pushed up into the mangroves and caught all of our attention. We were excited to meet like aged and like-minded sailors. They invited us over for dinner on their boat and we quickly became good friends. Nina and Asheton had been in Boot Key for a while and tipped us off on what was good. One of which was a Cuban restaurant where Joel and I later had some Cuban coffee and the best fish sandwich.
We were in Boot Key long enough to get some snail mail sent to the post office. Our address these days is “General Delivery at such and such, FL.” I like it. Though it makes getting mail a bit of a struggle, there's a since of freedom that comes along with not having a mailing address.
We even checked out a beautiful boat for sale that was on the list of “must sees” we had made from hanging out with Asheton and Nina. I guess we are always in the market for a great deal and a new adventure.
We stayed in Boot Key for about a week. Then, as the first of the month rolled in, we rolled out to the Big Pine Key to meet Otis(my dad). He had been to Big Pine Key many a time to fish and camp. With winter really setting in back in Virginia, he couldn’t stand not being in the Keys and knowing we were here. So, we (rather easily) talked him into joining us for a week.
It couldn't have been a more perfect week for Otis to make his way on down to Big Pine Key Fishing Lodge (where he camps). The wind calmed down, the water cleared up and we had the best week of weather yet.
Our “fish camp” week started with a beautiful sail from Boot Key to Big Pine Key.
here was no acknowledged anchorage within dinghy distance to my dad’s campground. But, with a week of calm winds we figured it’d be fine to make up our own. We pushed the envelope a little getting into a rather shallow anchorage (we would later get stuck trying to leave close to low tide). But, we were excited to throw the anchor down in crystal clear water and head over to fish camp to see my dad.
We started the week off with some pizza at The No Name Pub. A classic Key’s restaurant; a cute local eatery with a hint of weird. Thousands of dollar bills hang from every inch of the No Name Pub’s interior. Each signed by someone from here or there who has paid a visit to the restaurant. Tucked back in the residential community of Big Pine Key, the No Name Pub has become a must stop for not only Otis but almost every visitor. I’d have to say, if you find yourself on Big Pine Key, it’s indeed worth checking out.
Speaking of a hint of weird. It doesn’t take too much time in the Keys to realize everyone and everything is a little odd down here. And, it seems the further you go the stranger things get. I decide that the tamer the wildlife seems, the wilder the human’s life must be. Because, the wildlife here is indeed tame. The Key Deer walk up to you like dogs. Joel and my dad weren’t too thrilled about the key deer joining us for dinner. But, I loved it. Nina and Asheton ventured down to Big Pine Key one day and Nina and I spent most of our time hanging with the deer.
We did take a break from our quality time with the key deer to do a little exploring while Nina and Asheton were visiting. Together we all explored a few nature trails. We walked along the rocky shore out to the Island's point. There, we checked out a Cuban boat that had allegedly washed ashore. There are several of these boats in the keys. Scrapped together with car engines, floating materials and any odds and ends they managed to acquire. Knowing the ocean and specifically the moods of the Gulf Stream, it's a humbling experience to see what these people escaped on. Even more humbling to think of the life conditions that made such a voyage worth the risk.
The Cuba boat wasn't the only discovery. Nina found herself a lovely all-natural hat. Then, the boys caught a few fish and a little nurse shark.
The rest of our week was full of fishing. My dad is the definition of a Fisherman. He raised three girls (you know he’s happy to finally have son in laws). Yet, each one of us knows how to tie a fisherman’s knot, spin a spinner, jig a jig, cast a fly rod, catch a fish and even clean it. So, with him in town, you know we had an action packed week of fishing.
ith such clear water, Joel and I did a lot of diving. We dove for lobster, we dove just for fun, and then later in the week we dove to get Otis’s fishing gear after he flipped his kayak (yicks! never a dull moment with Otis).
Then, we ended the week right with a fish fry and a beautiful sunset. Big thanks to my dad for joining us on our adventure. We loved having you come down!
Until Next Time,
A review of the upper keys and the Gigantic Nautical Flea Market.
It was a rough day leaving Miami. The wind was whipping across the Biscayne Bay and gray rainy clouds were marching across the sky. Navigating the day before had been slightly stressful and I wasn’t looking forward to another day of chaos. Wanting neither to stay nor leave, I sat at the helm with a slight pout face as Joel pulled up the anchor. Though the conditions looked rough, the wind was in our favor. In the sailing world, as long as the winds in your favor and there's no hurricane, you otta go for it.
Indeed, the wind was in our favor and our little boat speed across the bay headed for the first of the Florida Keys. As we crossed the first gap between where the peninsula ends and the Islands begin, the wind freely swept off the ocean and pushed our boat along with even more vigor. Our boat was heeled over more then she’d ever been. And we were having a ball. I guess with all the excitement, I decided I needed a front row seat. So I crawled over to the windward side of the boat (the side now high in the air as we are heeled over). Hanging on to the life lines, I dangled my legs over the edge of the boat. As our hull interrupted the waves in their steady march across the ocean, the warm water would crash over the edge and soak me. Smiling ear to ear, I remember telling Joel this was the best day we’ve had sailing. That day, I think I really fell in love with sailing. Too think I didn’t even want to leave our anchorage.
The Florida Keys are sectioned off into the “Upper” keys, “Middle” keys and the “Lower” keys. Most people identify the keys as Key West, Marathon, and maybe Islamorada. But, actually there is a ridiculous amount of separate islands down here each with their own name. My favorite of them all is “little duck key” (only for the name).
Our first night anchored in the upper keys, we dropped the hook with only one other lonely boat floating near by. Other then our neighboring sailor, there was little in sight but salt water and mangroves. The morning time brought a few scattered thunderstorms. With no hurry, we threw some buckets out to catch the falling fresh water and sat in the cabin to wait out the storms.
Our days of long sun up to sun down traveling were behind us. We had finally arrived in the Keys and each day we only had to travel as far or as little as we wanted. So after the storms passed, we sailed a few miles down to the next key. I looked on google earth and found the closes spot with the clearest water and marked it as our destination of the day.
After adventuring around our google earth destination, we pulled the anchor and scooted on closer to shore for the night. The morning storm had given us just enough fresh water for a little “boat” shower. Which felt extra refreshing as the wind died out with the setting sun and we were left with a very humid little home.
The next morning, we woke to some wet floors. On a boat, it seems your daily challenge will either wake you or meet you by your bedside. We leaned over the bed and opened the bilge. Indeed, it was full of water with no sign of the bilge pump kicking in anytime soon. What a lousy crewmember. It had one job, too keep us from sinking, and it just up and quit on us. With no manual bilge pump on board (oops), Joel got creative and used our wash-down station pump and some extra water lines to empty out the bilge. After a little trouble shooting, we discovered the bilge pump had not failed us but the float switch was down for the count. A relatively easy fix.
With our daily challenge down and our fingers crossed there wouldn’t be another, we went our to see what the day had in store. The water was crystal clear so we jumped in for a little swim and then motored over to an anchorage where we could go ashore.
After exploring the town (and Joel somehow talking me into us buying a new pair of nicer dive goggles) we headed back out to our little home floating on the far end of the harbor. Joel climbed the mast for a little excitement, and then we called it a day.
ur next stop would be an island hop to Islamorada. We had a beautiful blue sky, clear water day of sailing. Our colorful rainbow spinnaker was itching for some air, so we got it out and hoisted it up. It was quite an enjoyable little sail. We even saw batman go by in his boatmobile.
slamorada was a fun little stop. I was surprised to find that many of the keys have no public beach access. But, we did pretend to be guests at a few resorts so we could walk along the ocean’s edge.
ucked away from all the tourist traps on the main road, we found a couple cute local eats. One of which was Badboy Burritto , a restaurant after my own heart. Delicious burritos and fish tacos filled with locally sourced grub. They even grow their own herbs. We were highly impressed by this little foodtruck style food joint. Joel and I split a burrito and I scarfed down a kale and pineapple smoothie which satisfied the much needed veggie nourishment my body was craving.
We stayed in Islamorada for a few days. One day, we were enjoying warm weather and clear water swimming. I reckon we hadn’t encountered any daily challenge so it seemed we had to create one for ourselves. We decided to raise our rainbow spinnaker as a swing. Something I’d heard of through one of my sailing tale books and we had been egger to try for ourselves. Already out in the water and not wanting to sit down and do our research, we wrongly decided to do things the hard way. We figured we’d make it up as we went and if it didn’t work we’d just pull it in and try again. WRONG. We spun the boat around so that the anchor would be holding us stern into the wind. And, Joel tied a rope a few times back and forth between the two clews of the sail as a swing seat. With another rope hanging down for (what we thought would be) easy retrieval.
Joel was the first to try it. We let the spinnaker swing loose and Joel grabbed the swing. He flew into the air. But, we had tied the corners too close together and the wind was gusting above 15knts (which we later read was a no no for spinnaker swing weather). So, as he flew up, the sail caught so much wind that it whipped up, ripping out of Joel’s grasp. Thus began our challenge for the day. Getting the large rainbow colored sail down as it flapped like a flag 30 feet in the sky. A few boats stopped to watch us as the sail played monkey in the middle. Us being the monkey. A coast guard boat even motored slowly by. Joel tried desperately to pull it in as I let out the halyard. But the spinnaker just took the extra line and Joels weight and heeled our boat over sideways, throwing our belongings all over the cabin and dragging our anchor a good 100 yards. Chaos. Soon I was in the dinghy driving with Joel standing ready to grab the spinnaker. After many failed attempts (and Joel getting thrown out of the dinghy twice) the sail finally dipped down at the right timing and we both grabbed it. Having it finally in my hands I pulled it in to the dinghy as fast as my arms would move while Joel twisted it trying to lower the surface area. We had it, but I still had to get the dinghy to the boat or the sail would fill again. The only problem was I had pulled the sail in so fast and hard that I had wrapped myself in it and couldn’t see to navigate. And of course, I was headed in the wrong direction. Joel yelled, “Towards the boat!” I gassed the engine and turned hard. As the dinghy did a 360 at full throttle, I simultaneously ripped at the sail that I was now engulfed in trying to free myself incase the wind caught it and ripped it out of the boat. Somehow in the midst of this, I caught a glimpse of my surroundings and pointed us toward the boat. We got it. We pulled it in and sat breathing heavily, not wanting to move, both feeling like we just wrestled a monster. With such an exhausting task completed, we said to heck with dinner, made brownies and watched a few episodes of 30 rock.
I guess you could say we learned the hard way of how not to fly a spinnaker swing. Luckily, we ended our time in Islamarada on a good note. We happened to be there during the famous “Gigantic Nautical Flea Market”. So, we rented bikes for a day and checked out the flea market.
Our time in Islamarado came to an end with a morning bike ride to the sunrise, a delicious chia latte and returning our bikes