Eat, Wander, Love: Our journey through Cinque Terre and Florence

When I look back on our Italian vacation, Cinque Terre and Florence are two highlights that bring back fond memories. A vast contrast from our time in Rome, we experienced a slower pace even amongst the crowds of tourists. Maybe it was the fact that I could sit quietly on the streets without a vendor in my face or the amazing food we enjoyed in both places. Overall, I know that if we ever return to Italy, Cinque Terre and Florence will definitely be on the list.

Riley enjoying a red sunset over Ponte Vecchio

Cinque Terre

I’ve learned that a sign I had a great time is when I barely have any photos. I can easily get caught up in the moment and forget to take my camera out. Cinque Terre was a definite “living in the moment” experience. It’s hard to put into words the magnitude of how amazing this place is so my advice to everyone is, you need to experience it for yourself.

I booked our accommodations in Cinque Terre at the last minute and was unable to find a hotel or Airbnb close to the water. Initially, I was concerned when I looked at Google maps because our spot looked incredibly far from the main towns. Turns out, my procrastination was a blessing in disguise. Located in the Cinque Terre National Park, in the middle of the mountains, the bed and breakfast I booked was a small farmhouse with beautiful views. The cold mountain air and the sound of silence was a familiar feeling of home, and for the first time during our trip, I felt comforted by my surroundings.

After a night of quiet and restful sleep, we found ourselves waking up later than expected and forgoing our plans of hiking through the five towns of Cinque Terre. Luckily, it started raining and we were told that the trails are closed when it rains. Despite not being able to hike, there was so much to see and eat within the five towns that we kept busy the entire time. We purchased an all-day train ticket, hopped around each town, ate seafood, and drank cappuccinos. I walked around with my head looking up the entire time. It’s honestly such a pretty place. I kept mentioning to Clayton that it felt like we were walking around a movie set or Disneyland because the buildings looked surreal. Next trip, I’d like to visit when the weather is warmer. The water looked crystal clear in some parts, I can only imagine how amazing it would be to swim in it!

Calamari at La Scogliera in Manarola
Seafood pasta at La Barcaccia in Monterosso
My way?! It was meant to be, I loved Cinque Terre!

Florence

Prior to writing my post on Rome, I came across discussion boards where people hated Florence and loved Rome. I read through these posts of self-described “Rome girls” and realized it must be a personality difference because I LOVED Florence.

The significant difference between Florence and Rome? For me, it was the obvious cleaner streets and the lack of vendors constantly in my face. Those “skip the line” tours that are so aggressively advertised in Rome are non-existent that I was able to sit on the steps in the middle of the Uffizi Palace and read my Florence guidebook without anyone approaching me. It was also refreshing to see the people of Florence take care of their city.  The amount of garbage in the streets was significantly less, almost non-existent, compared to the streets of Rome. I saw a man who was literally vacuuming the streets! The locals were also much nicer and it was easier to find spots that wouldn’t charge you an arm and a leg for a bottle of water.

In addition to the better ambiance, the restaurants and coffee shops were incredible. It was hard not to find a spot for a delicious meal, a good cappuccino, incredible desserts, or even an IPA American style beer.

Here are some of my favorite spots in Florence:

Venchi: I am well aware that this is a chain, but I was first introduced to Venchi in Florence and I truly miss it. Grab a gelato then buy some souvenirs! We purchased a bottle of the Cuba Rum which is a delicious dessert liqueur and a few pieces of chocolate. I was obsessed with the Chocaviar which is a super dark chocolate and the chocolates with pistachios in it.

Caffe Gilli: I LOVED the cappuccinos at Gilli’s! It was so creamy and made to perfection. I went here twice in one day! Just be aware sitting here is really expensive,  I believe about 7 euros per seat so just stand at the cafe and enjoy.

Ditti Artigianale: Another great cafe with a delicious cappuccino. I don’t remember how much it was to sit, but we sat so it must have been cheap. This place had a young/hipster vibe and service was very friendly. Riley also ordered a tiramisu and loved it!

Osterio Santo Spirito: Great food, friendly service and a really awesome outside seating area. It’s a pretty popular place and quite small, so I suggest making a reservation.

Fishing Lab Alle Murate: The fish and chips were delicious, and they have a take-out option which is great when you’re on the go! It’s really nice inside, plus they had an American IPA which was delicious and made me miss good beer at home.

Caffe Liberta Firenze: Cappuccinos were decent, but what really stood out were the pastries! They were so good!

Gelateria De’Medici: The best gelato we had on our entire trip. Many say that it is the best gelato in Florence. They had some really cool, exotic flavors and it wasn’t expensive!

Dragon Fruit, Chocolate Rum, Rum

 

Cinque Terre and Florence were exactly what I imagined when I pictured our time in Italy. Historical sites, friendly people, amazing food, and lots of coffee and wine! If you’re looking for a great time and plan on eating your way through Italy, I recommend starting in Florence and Cinque Terre. Come hungry and enjoy!

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KOFA

“Do not follow where the path may lead. Go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

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Off-roading to Skull Rock

 We left the bustling area of Joshua Tree and headed east towards Arizona where we decided to spend time in a state that we love and used to call home. When we lived in Phoenix, our many trips west to California had us driving past Quartzsite without any thought as to what this area of the desert had to offer. Before our nomadic streak, we would pass this little town and think of it as a place with many rock shops, clean restrooms and some fast food. Turns out, Quartzsite is a gem (pun intended!) and it gave us one of the most memorable stops of our trip.

 KOFA National Wildlife Refuge is located between Quartszite and Yuma, and camping in this area is primitive and free. The refuge was created to protect bighorn sheep and covers over 600,000 acres of the Sonoran Desert. Kofa comes from King of Arizona, the name of a goldmine that used to be active in the area. This area of public land is filled with rugged rock formations, fascinating hikes, endless opportunities for off-roading, and wildlife sightings that left us in awe during our stay.

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Cholla “jumping cactus” got all of us as we hiked by!
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A coyote’s dinner?

 When we arrived in Quartzsite and headed towards KOFA, I noticed most travelers were camped closest to I-10. We drove out about 18 miles south to our campsite near the Palm Canyon Trail. Our area was empty compared to the hundreds of RVs we saw near the interstate. I wondered if people knew they could camp this way? Or did the inconvenience of the road turn them away? As usual, the road less traveled always leads to the best destinations.

 We set up camp not far from the trail to Queen Palm Canyon. It was midday when we arrived. The blazing desert sun right over us as we unpacked and stared down at the cars who quickly drove past us and blew dust in our direction. We didn’t have any neighbors camped nearby, but the dirt road we parked on had frequent visitors who would drive up to the trailhead and quickly turn around.

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View from our campsite.

 By the time we prepared dinner, the influx of visitors had disappeared. The rising rock formations that stood over us glowed a deep red as the sun began to set. I looked at the valley in front of us, at all the tall cacti casting long shadows along the desert sky. Once again, it was that feeling of freedom, that incredible feeling of being small. We were graced with a vibrant sunset then the winter night sky gave us a clear view of the bright moon and stars.

The entire week we were there, we’d start a fire just after dinner. As the coyotes began to howl, we’d spot Venus in the distance and laugh at how we watched the moon and the stars glide past Queen Palm Canyon. As insane as it sounds, every night we danced with Venus. We’d focus on one part of the canyon and move along with the planet. We’d laugh then look silently, and I’d quietly reflect on how amazing this time was with nature and with my family.

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Getting the cholla out of Jack’s paw!
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Home is where you park it!

Our hike up the Palm Canyon Trail:

 A short walk from our campsite was the trailhead to the Palm Canyon Trail. This trail is very short, only about a half mile. The reviews on TripAdvisor are a bit misleading citing the trail as somewhat difficult. It’s a bit rocky and I can see it being a fall hazard for certain people, but for the average person, it’s literally a small uphill walk to view the palm trees in the canyon.

What’s cool about this hike? These palm trees are native to Arizona. Apparently, the theory is certain animals had eaten the fruit of these trees and brought their droppings into this canyon which in turn planted palm trees.

Once we saw the palm trees, it was an interesting sight, but definitely not enough of a hike for us. We decided to continue on, ultimately bouldering up the mountain until we could no longer safely climb up. We did our best to follow the cairns placed by other hikers, but we eventually hit a dead end. We finally stopped and turned around realizing that every inch of effort in that climb was totally worth it. We had the whole place to ourselves and the view was stunning.

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Our week at KOFA was one of the most spectacular sights we saw on the road. I still dream about our beautiful campsite and the feelings of peace I had during our stay. My advice is, take the road less traveled and stray away from the rest of the visitors. KOFA has so much to offer even though it may not be evident at first sight.  I promise you won’t reget blazing your own trail.

Hawaii on a budget

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Here’s a story for the budget conscious traveler. I wanted to share this because I am also very budget conscious… or as some call it, cheap!

To most people, traveling is a very big expense. Sometimes when I daydream about traveling to a faraway place, I’ll goggle it and come across sites with information from travelers who have gone to that location. In the beginning of 2013, I was itching to go to Hawaii, but after some research it felt like an unreachable dream. According to folks on the internet, a Hawaiian vacation for 3 would cost several thousand dollars, and that was money that we definitely did not have.

In February of 2013, I was stressed out and cold. I know most people think it never gets cold in Arizona, but it does. And the cold is bitter and dry. For 5 years, every winter my knuckles would bleed from the dry air. On this day in February, I was driving home from a stressful visit with a client. The dried blood on my cracked knuckles held onto the steering wheel when it suddenly started to snow… in central Phoenix. As cool and exciting as the sight was, I was once again reminded that I was cold and miserable. I was in serious need of a warm getaway before I became a full blown negative Nancy. I decided that we were going to Hawaii and I was going to figure out a way to do it.

Through yet another google search, I found airfare to Honolulu for $600 to $800 RT per person. There was no way in hell I was going to pay that, so I headed to my trusted and favorite site: Hotwire. For past vacations, I had used Hotwire to book 5 star hotels at a cheap rate. I always trusted booking a hotel based on location and ratings, without knowing the name. I’ve never been disappointed using that process and the awareness of how much money I save is always very fulfilling for me. I perused through Hotwire when a notification popped up. If I chose to book a flight without having the information on what time the flight was leaving or what airlines I was taking, I could book a RT flight to Honolulu for $275 per person. The only information provided was the departure and return date. I confirmed the dates with Clayton which happened to coincide with his spring break. I couldn’t pass up the deal so without talking to my manager ahead of time (the flight was 10 days out), I booked the flights. After booking, I got the flight details. We were on Delta and had a connecting flight in LAX. Our layover was approximately 1 hour and the day of the flight, we had no problems!

3 roundtrip tickers from Phoenix to Honolulu including taxes= $825

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Next up was our accommodations. To stretch our dollar even further, I looked into renting out condos for our stay through several sites. Unfortunately, since we were booking so last minute, there was no availability anywhere. I also looked into campgrounds and once again, no availability. We had no choice but to settle for booking a hotel. I used Hotwire to book one 3 star hotel the night we arrived. It had terrible reviews, but it was the cheapest available at just under $100. For the next 5 days, I booked a 2 star hotel close to the beach which ended up being amazing compared to the 3 star from the previous night. The 2 star came out to $120/night.

6 nights in a hotel by Waikiki Beach= $700

When we found out that our hotel stay would be almost as expensive as airfare for 3 people, we realized our budget would be tight. We ate out a total of 6 times. Once at a food truck, twice at the International Market, once at a cafeteria style place right outside the beach and twice at a restaurant for dinner. 4 out of the 6 times, Clayton and I shared a plate. For the other meals, we went to the grocery store and got essentials. Having a kitchen in our hotel room helped with storing and cooking food. Our breakfast typically consisted of cereal and before we’d leave the hotel for an outing, I’d stuff my bag with snacks.

Here is the breakdown of what we spent during our trip:

Car rental for 2 days= $40

Parking for 2 nights= $20/night

Dole Pineapple Plantation= $40 spent

Pearl Harbor= $40 spent

Food and Gas= About $350

Total: Just under $2000

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Of course, there are downsides to watching your money very closely during a vacation. The main objective of a vacation is to let loose and not worry about those type of things, but we really didn’t have an option. Before we left for Hawaii everybody told us “you have to go to a luau!!” Well turns out luau’s cost around $100 per person and I couldn’t justify spending that much money on food and entertainment for a night. Another downside was the lack of alcohol. Drinks are expensive and once again, it was not worth it. Also, we had to be careful about what we spent at touristy spots. For example, at Pearl Harbor, we skipped several things because there was a separate admission fee. Overall, we spent most of our time at the beach and honestly, I wouldn’t have had it any other way!

Moral of the story: I love Hotwire and a Hawaiian vacation doesn’t have to cost several thousand dollars. If you’re willing make small sacrifices, you can save a couple dollars!

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