The Best Wildlife Watching Experiences in Alaska

I’ve had some of the most amazing wildlife experiences imaginable while visiting Alaska. After my recent trip, I had to share! Getting up close to bears was truly life changing, but over the last few years, I’ve had the priviledge of seeing many animals in this state that most people never see beyond a screen or a magazine.

If you’re looking for an adventure that brings some of the best wildlife watching experiences in Alaska, you can’t go wrong with any of these.

Brown Bears: Lake Clark National Park

Seeing bears in the wild has been on my list for many years. I’ve had glimpses of them on several occasions, including a bear cub that peered into the floor-to-ceiling windows of the Flagstaff House restaurant in Boulder, Colorado, apparently curious about what the diners had to eat. But being out in the wilderness surrounded by bears was an entirely different experience. When I booked a tour with Scenic Bear Viewing in Homer, Alaska I had no idea just how close I would get.

After months of anticipation, I climbed into the co-pilot seat of a bush plane with Martin, the pilot/guide/owner – that was a thrill in itself. Flying over Homer, Kachemak and Bristol bays, towering mountains, jewel-like alpine lakes, and wild rivers was surreal. We landed on the beach just outside of Lake Clark National Park, known for its large population of Alaska brown bears – grizzly bears, but different in that they live on the coast with access to marine-based food like clams, salmon, and other fish.

Thanks to Martin’s eagle eyes, bears were immediately spotted. He explained that the bears have bad eyesight, relying on smell, and when a group of three or more people huddle together, they think it’s one large creature and won’t attack. There have been no attacks in the over 30 years the bears have been visited. Despite that knowledge, my heart was pounding as we stood on the grass edging the beach. A female bear began to walk in our direction, passing only a few feet away. She acted as if we weren’t even there and continued sauntering down to the sand for a feast.

In the hours that followed, we watched two young adult males have fun roughhousing in between clamming, as well as little romance between young male and female bears.

There was a lot of drama that unfolded right in front of us, bringing numerous opportunities for fantastic photos. But just being there, in the moment, surrounded by nearly a dozen bears while getting a glimpse of their daily lives in the wild is something that made me feel like one of the luckiest people on Earth. And I’m still giddy about it. Thanks, Martin!

You can see more photos and videos posted by Scenic Bear Viewing on Instagram, including one that recently went viral with Martin calmly scaring a charging bear off with a growl.

Bald Eagles, Puffins, Sea Otters, Seals & Orcas: Homer

I have to confess, I fell in love with Homer. Surrounded by mountains and water, with a long list of wildlife, not to mention the halibut, it’s one of the world’s most magical places. In addition to the bear-viewing tours that depart from Homer, there are many ways to encounter all sorts of animals. On my trip, I saw countless bald eagles and puffins, seals, and sea otters. A pod of orcas passed right by the window of my apartment rental.

I joined a wildlife boat tour with Coldwater Alaska. It was pouring rain that day with little visibility but right after hopping on the vessel, the rain stopped and the skies cleared. While we didn’t see any whales on that trip, there probably hundreds of sea otters floating around and the close-up views of bald eagles made for fabulous photo ops.

The highlight was Gull Island where over 20,000 birds nest on the cliff faces. It was a rather chaotic scene, puffins were buzzing around while the sounds of thousands of screaming kittiwakes and countless other birds could be heard, and smelled. Suddenly, a bald eagle appeared and it seems every one of those birds took off like lightening, with the huge bird searching for a feast, a moment that was most unforgettable.

Bears, Moose, Dall Sheep, & Caribou: Denali National Park

Denali National Park & Preserve covers 6.1 million areas. While it’s focused around Mount Denali, the tallest mountain in North America at 20,310 feet, it’s best known for its wildlife. That includes the “big five,” moose, caribou, bears, Dall sheep, and wolves. Covering such a large region, it’s not always easy to see them all, but I managed four out of five. The wolf remains elusive.

The best way to see Denali’s wildife safely is the park’s Tundra Wilderness Tour. It brings visitors deep into the park with a a certified driver-naturalist. During the rougly 5.5-hour tour we were surrounded by majestic snow-capped mountains and alpine tundra, in addition to seeing a ton of animals. We were a bit too far for photos, but were treated to a sighting of a mother bear and her three cubs, lots of Dall sheep on the craggy peaks, a caribou herd, and a lone moose.

Humpback Whales, Bears, Mountain Goats, Moose & Bald Eagles: Glacier Bay National Park/Juneau

Glacier Bay National Park can only be reached by boat or plane. By staying at Glacier Bay Lodge, the only lodging within its boundaries, a shuttle will be provided from the airport in the tiny town of Gustavus. The park may best be known for its tidewater glaciers that can be visited on the Glacier Bay Boat Tour, but along the way, there’s a wealth of wildlife to watch for. On my trip, not only did I get to watch and hear an iceberg calf, but the animal sightings were numerous. That includes humpback whales, sea lions, and sea otters in the water while bald eagles flew overhead. Along the shore, coastal brown bears roamed, a moose munched on tree leaves and mountain goats skillfully climbed the rocky cliffsides.

As most people reach Glacier Bay via Juneau, this is a two-in-one. You’ll want to spend time in Juneau as it’s one of the best places to see humpback whales – go on a tour with a local by booking with Jayleen’s Alaska. There are countless bald eagles nearly every where you look, so they’re impossible to miss. At Eagle’s Beach, about 30 minutes from downtown, you can get a close look as they feast on salmon.

Beautiful Destinations You Need to Put On Your Ireland Itinerary

With its lush, vibrant green hills crossed with stone fences, soaring cliffs that touch down to idyllic beaches edged by a cobalt sea, grand castles, charming villages and friendly people, Ireland is one of the world’s top travel destinations.

One of the first things to consider when planning a trip to the Emerald Isle is where to go, and it can be almost overwhelming unless you have a lifetime to enjoy it. There are plenty of famous places to consider that nearly everyone knows about by now, like the Cliffs of Moher and the Dingle Peninsula, but what about beautiful destinations in Ireland that aren’t on everyone else’s itinerary?

Achill Island

Located just off the northwest coast in County Mayo, Achill Island is linked to the mainland by bridge, renowned for its spectacular landscapes that include towering mountains and countless nearly untouched beaches. You might have caught a glimpse in the Academy Award-nominated film “The Banshees of Inisherin” as it served as a filming location, with Colm’s cottage at Keem Bay. One of the best ways to explore the island is to drive around it, with the 25-mile Atlantic Drive often named among Europe’s best road trips.

Sally Gap

Most people head straight to Glendalough in Wicklow National Park, missing one of the most stunning areas, Sally Gap. It’s tucked between the granite walls of high mountains with a swathe of purple mountain heather, waterfalls, and ancient woodlands. The sapphire waters of Guinness Lake (officially Lough Tay) and a white sandy beach were used as a prominent film setting in the History Channel series “Vikings.” Those who want to get out and explore can hike from Lough Tay to Lough Dan, although you’ll get quite a scenic panorama along Sally Gap Drive that starts from the village of Roundwood and leads to the Lough Tay Viewing Point.

Inisheer Island

Inisheer, officially Inis Oírr, is the smallest of the three Aran Islands off the Galway coast, easily reached by ferry from Rossaveel. The two-square-mile island may be small, but it’s jam-packed with breathtaking landscapes and boasts multiple attractions yet crowds are rarely seen, other than the day trippers that arrive by ferry. Spend the night and you can enjoy its enchanting atmosphere all to yourself. After disembarking the ferry, you’ll see a beach that looks like it should be in the Caribbean where the “resident” dolphin Sandy is often seen. A picturesque walk among the maze of stone walls will bring you to everything from a famous shipwreck to a lighthouse while the moss-covered ruins of the early 15th-century O’Brien’s Castle can be reached with a short stroll from the ferry dock overlooking the sea.

Slieve League Cliffs

The Cliffs of Moher are one of Ireland’s top attractions with countless tourists here on any given day, yet the Slieve League Cliffs are some of Europe’s highest sea cliffs and offer magnificent views that can be enjoyed with few others around. Located along the northwest coast in Donegal, a nearly sheer 2,000-foot drop separates the highest point from the sea. On a clear daym you’ll be able to see the Ben Bulben Mountains in Sligo and Leitrim.

Brittas Bay

While most people head to the west coast for beaches, the east coast is home to one of Ireland’s most impressive beaches. Brittas Bay in Wicklow boasts over three miles of white sands and dunes located alongside turquoise water that’s ideal for swimming during the warmer months. It’s a great place to watch for wildlife with the dunes offering rich habitats that draw lots of birds along with red foxes, rabbits, and badgers. Watch for the bright pink orchids that grow among the dunes.


Portmagee is a short detour from the Ring of Kerry along the southwest coast with a tiny population and brightly painted homes and buildings clustered along the waterfront. A wide range of attractions can be enjoyed from here, from boat tours to Skellig Michael with its well-preserved 6th-century monastic settlements to a chocolate factory and millions of years old tetrapod tracks on Valentia Island, linked by bridge. Spend the night to enjoy fantastic live music with a perfectly poured Guinness at the Bridge Bar.


Adare is often named among the prettiest villages in all of Ireland with a main street that’s lined with thatched cottages dating back to the 1820s, many of which now house restaurants, boutiques, and arts and crafts shops. It’s a perfect stop for lunch between the Kerry coast and Galway with the Blue Door Restaurant particularly renowned, but you can simply stretch your legs to take advantage of the many photo ops.

Go Beyond Cabo: Top Spots to Discover in Baja California Sur, Mexico

Cabo San Lucas is one of the most popular vacation destinations in Mexico. When picturing Baja, nearly everyone envisions this city at the peninsula’s southernmost tip, but there is much more to the state of Baja California Sur than tourist resorts and a party scene.

With many enticing spots to discover in the southern part of the Baja California Peninsula, one of the safest regions in Mexico, instead of planning your next trip to Cabo and spending all your time at a resort, rent a car and enjoy some fun exploring.

Todos Santos

Located along the west side of the peninsula, the colonial town of Todos Santos has become one of the most popular places to visit (and for expats to live) in the state. It’s only about an hour’s drive from Cabo San Lucas offering a lush oasis with lots of palm and fruit trees while a long, stretch of powdery golden sands is just minutes from downtown.

A Pueblo Magico, or “magic town,” for its importance as a cultural landmark, it offers a quirky mix of artists, surfers, New Age spiritualists, and fishermen. Explore a thriving art scene with many galleries and street murals along with a foodie haven. Between December and March, it’s a whale watcher’s haven with gray whales that come so close to shore you can look them in the eye while humpbacks breach in the distance.

Los Barilles

Located on the east side of the peninsula, about an hour’s drive from San Jose del Cabo Airport, Los Barilles is located on a white sandy beach and is renowned for kitesurfing, windsurfing, and fishing. Snorkeling, swimming, horseback riding, and ATV tours are all popular too. While the small, charming town itself is no longer a hidden gem, there are a wealth of fantastic eateries and fun shops to explore.

La Paz

Located about two hours north of Cabo San Lucas, La Paz is the capital of Baja California Sur. It’s a sprawling city, but hang out around the malecon (waterfront promenade) and you’ll enjoy more of a small town atmosphere. On one side, you can watch the fishing boats and peer down into the bay to view all sorts of colorful fish. One the other, there are many cafes, bars, restaurants, and shops to explore. You’ll see sculptures dotted throughout, most of which have a sea theme.

La Paz, which translates to “the peace,” offers 340 days of sunshine a year for enjoying a wide range of outdoor adventures. Discover white sandy beaches edged by water that looks and feels like a big natural swimming pool, including famous Playa Balandra, often named as the most beautiful beach in Mexico. There are many excursions available from here, including boat tours that offer swimming with whale sharks and trips to Espiritu Santo Island, a UNESCO-listed nature reserve, to snorkel with sea lions.


Loreto is a small town along the Sea of Cortez in the Sierra de la Giganta Mountains, about a 4 1/2-hour drive from La Paz. It was the original capital of the Province of the Californias with lots of history to discover as well as being an ideal destination for nature lovers. Enjoy its authentic Mexican feel with several impressive colonial buildings in town, including the 17th-century Misión de Nuestra Señora de Loreto. There are lots of art galleries and shops to explore, and fantastic eateries with outdoor patios where live music is often hosted, while the malecon offers spectacular views of the bay and pelicans hoping to catch a feast when the fishing boats return.

Loreto Bay is arguably the crown jewel, a natural reserve that provides the opportunity to marvel at blue whales, fin whales, humpback whales, orcas, and large pods of dolphins. Mobula rays roam the waters too and sometimes massive schools of them put on an incredible show as they leap out of the turquoise bay.

Find out more about Loreto in my article on Trips To Discover here.

5 Ways to Beat Jet Lag You Probably Haven’t Tried

Jet lag can be the worst. It can take a few days or sometimes even longer to get over it, which means far too much time spent dealing with brain fog and fatigue when you’re trying to make the most of your trip. With countless trips crossing multiple time zones behind me, I’ve realized there’s no one perfect way to avoid it completely, but it can be minimized significantly by following these tips.

Ease Into It with a Stopover

If you’re flying from the west coast of the U.S. to Europe, for example, try to squeeze in a stopover in a city on the east coast which can help you gradually adjust to the time zone in your ultimate destination. While you’ll have to pay for another overnight accommodation, you might might up for that with cheaper airfare by choosing the right stop. Do a little research to find out which cities make the most sense, meaning they offer direct flights to where you want to go, like Washington, D.C. to Dublin, Ireland or Boston, Massachusetts to Rekyjavik, Iceland.

Gradually Change Your Sleeping Schedule

When flying east, start going to bed earlier and waking up earlier a week or two before your departure (do the opposite if you’re flying west). This can work wonders for some, myself included, but not for everyone. Those who find it too difficult to make the change should skip this tip as you don’t want to mess with your sleep schedule so much that you don’t get enough rest and feel more exahusted when you arrive to your destination. And that brings us to the next important tip…

Leave Well-Rested 

If you leave well-rested, the jet lag won’t be as bad and you’ll be better able to handle the inevitable stress of traveling.

Try to Sleep on an Overnight Flight

Most long-haul flights are overnight, so if you can get some sleep, jet lag will be eased significantly. It can be easier said than done, but it’s worth attempting the full bag of tricks. That means wearing comfortable clothing, bringing an eye mask, ear plugs, and neck pillow. Do a little quiet deep breathing or even listen to a guided meditation to help relax. Avoid alcohol and go for a cup of herbal tea instead. On that note, staying hydrated is another key to beating jet lag, so you’ll want to drink water as often as possible before and during the flight when you’re not trying to sleep (herbal tea counts as it’s caffeine-free).

Many people swear by melatonin, while others find Tylenol PM or a prescription sleep medication to work best. Keep in mind that if you take a sleep aid that will knock you out for eight hours, the flight should be of a duration that’s at least that long.

After Arrival

Once you reach your destination, resist the temptation to take a nap as it will only make things worse in the long-run. Instead, spend time outdoors. Staying as active as possible and soaking up some sunshine is a great way to stay awake long enough until a reasonable bedtime hour. If you can do that, odds are you’ll wake up the next day feeling refreshed and ready to go.

Traveling is Worth the Investment: 7 Ways Travel Can Change Your Life

Travel isn’t just about the fun and excitement of discovering new places,
although that’s certainly part of it. The money you spend is an investment in
yourself as travel provides many benefits, mentally and physically. It can even
help you grow as a person.

I can’t remember a time when I haven’t wanted to travel, with a strong curiosity
about new and different places. Fortunately, that passion has been scientifically
shown to enhance well-being in many ways, and it’s generally much cheaper than
paying a therapist and comes without the side effects of pharmaceuticals.

How can travel help you improve your well-being?

Boosts Self-Confidence

One of the natural by-products of traveling is greater self-confidence.
Anytime you put yourself into unknown territory, it helps build more
confidence, creating an internal shift with every new experience. Each time you
do something new or take a risk, even if it’s small, like driving on the
opposite side of the road while navigating unfamiliar streets, it provides the
opportunity to boost self-confidence.

Develop Better Problem Solving Skills

When traveling, especially in a foreign country, you’re bound to run into
problems you wouldn’t encounter at home, from different traffic signs to trying
to communicate in a different language. That helps you to develop better
problem-solving skills as the brain builds new connections with every new
experience – even new sounds, tastes, and smells. It can improve your ability
to “think out of the box,” as one study revealed. Research
by INSEAD and Kellogg School of Management professor Adam Galinsky focused on
individuals living abroad and suggested that it boosted creativity resulting in
better solutions to problems.

Emotional Strength 

If you’re lugging a heavy suitcase around, it will probably make you
physically stronger, but traveling doesn’t just mean bigger muscles, it builds
emotional strength. When faced with all sorts of unfamiliar situations and new
people, it teaches you to be more patient, flexible, and emotionally strong.
There are nearly always some inevitable bumps out on the road that can’t be
controlled, whether it’s traffic, flight delays, or an unexpected storm. When
you’re forced to surrender control by being in a situation where things don’t
always go as planned, no longer will you see small issues as major tragedies.
You’ll be better able to deal with the bigger problems and uncertainties in

Appreciate More

As the saying goes, you never seem to appreciate what you have until it’s
gone. That means leaving things behind, from your comfortable bed to your
friends, family, and the comforts of your usual life like enjoying coffee at
your favorite cafe but it’s only going to help you develop a greater
appreciation for them. Once you’re home, you’re likely to feel more grateful
for what you have.

A Greater Desire to Explore

Once you travel, it sparks an even greater desire to explore the world and
the many different people and cultures in it. The more you discover and learn
about the world around you, the more it expands your mind while bringing joy to
your spirit.

Changing Your Perspective or Confirming Your Beliefs 

Many people have a certain perspective on given cultures or views on life
that develop while they’re growing up, based on what is heard or seen by those
around them. By traveling somewhere new, your perspective will most likely
change, or it could confirm what you already believe, which helps you to
understand yourself better. Either way, it’s an opportunity for growth.


Pack Smarter: Tips for Traveling Lighter

I was one of the many travelers who didn’t think I could get by without packing a huge suitcase that usually hit the scale right at 50 pounds or just a fraction below. After a stay in an Irish castle where I had to carry that weight straight up multiple flights of narrow winding stairs, I knew it was time to make a change. Once I finally figured out how to pack smarter, traveling became infinitely easier. Now, all I need is a carry-on and a small backpack, even for trips as long as a month.

Bringing a massive suitcase or multiple bags creates stress and most travelers who do this bring way more than what they really need. How many times have you returned from a trip, unpacked and realized you didn’t use half of what you brought?

Traveling lightly can be a challenge at first, but it will get easier over time, especially if you follow these tips for packing smarter.

Go Minimalist 

You don’t need an outfit for every day of your trip. Pack clothing that you can wear several times and add various piece that make each outfit look different. The fewer shoes you pack the better as they’re usually the heaviest and bulkiest items. If possible, book a vacation rental apartment or home for at least part of your stay that includes a washer and dryer. When that’s not an option, there may be a drop-off laundry service or laundromat you can use. Either way it will make it much easier to pack light.

Use a Backpack as Your ‘Personal’ Item

Most airlines allow passengers to bring a personal item like a purse. Take advantage of this and bring a small to medium sized backpack. You can still bring a purse but you’ll want to pack it inside of that or in your carry-on. Look for something that has a zip-up pocket in front to use for your passort and other items that you’ll need easy access to. I use mine to carry my laptop, snacks, travel-sized toiletries, and a camera with a zoom lens when I’ll be visiting destinations with lots of wildlife.

Pack Smarter

The key to making a carry-on work instead of bringing that big suitcase is to pack smarter. That means rolling clothing rather than folding, which saves a significant amount of space. Tuck socks and underwear inside of your shoes. Packing cubes can be helpful too as you’ll be able to keep items organized and bring more of them too. You might bing an extra empty one for dirty clothes so that they aren’t mixed with clean ones.

Toiletries are often the biggest issue, but if you aren’t picky about them, just buy smaller sized items when you get to your destination. You can also purchase empty containers that hold 3.4 ounces or less (which pass current TSA rules although that may finally change in 2024). Fill those up with your favorite shampoo, conditioner, and other items, then place them into a Ziploc bag. Be sure to check out the amenities you’ll have at your hotel, rental or other type of accommodation before you leave. For example, most include hairdryers so there’s no need to duplicate an item you’ll have there.

Rent Larger Gear At Your Destination

If you need a car seat, stroller, skis, or any kind of larger sports equipment, you may be able to rent it once you get there. It’s much easier than lugging it through the airports. Do a little research before you go to see if your destination has what you need available for rent and reserve in advance if possible.

Avoid Packing Bulky, Heavy Items

Try not to bring too many heavy, bulky items or at least pack them smarter. Sweaters, sweatshirts and the like are perfect for compression packing tubes. If you need a heavy coat, wear it while walking onto the plane. The same goes with boots.

Keep in mind that there are probably thinner items that can keep you warm without taking up precious space. Thin and breathable merino wool as a base layer works wonders. While most travelers are aware by now, it’s worth mentioning that packing an e-reader is much better than bringing multiple books.

Tips for Traveling Solo

There are many reasons to love solo travel. It brings the freedom to do what you want when you want, for an exciting and liberating experience. It’s a great way to boost confidence and relieve stress, perhaps after a major life change. You won’t have to worry about accommodating anyone else’s needs and it often brings more opportunities to meet new people too. 

An increasing number of people are discovering the joys of solo travel. If you belong to any type of travel group, it’s something you might have noticed. It’s not something only young people do, in fact, it’s a growing trend among older women. Still, when traveling alone for the first time, it’s natural to feel a bit nervous.

Just before my first big solo trip, my anxiety was through the roof. But over time, I’ve learned that there are many ways to increase the odds of having an enjoyable experience.

Pick the Right Destination Keeping Safety in Mind

It’s always important to do some research about the safety of the destination you’re planning to visit, but when it comes to solo travel, especially the first time, choosing a place that ranks high on safety is key. Without the safety net of having a travel companion, you might start envisioning all sorts of possible scary scenarios. A wise pick will help you to to feel more comfortable about your trip from the start. 

If you aren’t sure where you want to go, start Googling rankings of the world’s safest countries to visit alone. The Global Peace Index is a great place to start – for example, the ranking for 2022 lists the top five most peaceful countries, based on factors like violent crime and terrorism impact as Iceland, New Zealand, Ireland, Denmark, and Austria. While researching accommodation options, do some research to find out which areas are best avoided, if any. Many destinations will have at least one group on Facebook dedicated to traveling there with locals happy to provide advice. TripAdvisor is another great source.

travel therapy by the sea
Inisheer Island, Ireland

Learn at Least a Few Phrases of the Local Language and Now How to Use Google Translate

Traveling to a country where you don’t speak the language can make solo travel more daunting. A first-time solo trip will be easier if you go somewhere where they speak your language. Otherwise, you’ll want to learn a few helpful phrases first. It can make a big difference, especially when you don’t have someone else there with you. Simple things like hello, please, thank you, excuse me, etc. go a long way. It also shows locals that you’re generally interested in their culture, opening up doors to new friendships too. As the basics of a language won’t get you out of every situation, knowing how to use Google translate can be a lifesaver. If you’ve never used it, take time to practice before you go.

kayaking in Baja California Sur
kayaking in Baja Califonia Sur through Airbnb Experiences

Connect with Someone Before You Go and Seek Out Connections While You’re There

For those not used to traveling alone, loneliness can be one of the most challenging aspects. Before you go, try connecting with a local through travel forums or a group Facebook page. If that doesn’t work out, sign up for an Airbnb experience. It’s a great way to take part in a unique activity that will allow you to get to know the place and its people, often providing the opportunity to meet other travelers.

Once you’ve reached your destination, you might use a site like Meetup to find local activities and events to join that will allow you to meet others. Just about every city across the globe offers a long list of opportunities. 

Believe in Yourself

Traveling solo can bring some challenges but the rewards that can include everything from greater confidence and enhanced well-being to a changed perspective on life make it well worth it. Believing in yourself, knowing many others have done it and you can too, will help ease those doubts allowing you to experience one of the greatest pleasures in life.

Enchanting Irish Castles You Can Spend the Night In

Ireland is famous for its castles, with everything from ancient, crumbling ruins to luxurious castle hotels. If you’ve ever dreamed of staying in a castle, the Emerald Isle is one of the best places to do it. There are a wide range of options when it comes to Irish castle stays, including some that are relatively affordable and others that are truly honeymoon worthy, providing the chance to live like a king and queen.

I’ve stayed at all three of these highy recommended castles in Ireland, with Dromoland the most luxurious, Abbeyglen a mid-range option, and Ross, the most unique.

Dromoland Castle Hotel, Newmarket-on-Fergus, County Clare

Dromoland is known as the “hotel of dreams.” Dating back to the 5th century, it opened its doors as a hotel in 1963. The castle is the ancestral home of one of the few families of true Irish royalty, direct descendants of Brian Boru, High King of Ireland from 1002 to 1014. It remained in ancestral ownership of the King until 1962, when American industrialist Mr. Bernard McDonough purchased the estate and began renovations.

Today, it offers luxurious accommodations that are popular with honeymooners and others seeking an upscale castle experience. The façade and towers, added in the 1830s, are reminiscent of knights and dragoons, while rooms feature lavish touches throughout. There are a variety of onsite dining options, as well as a golf course, spa, award-winning falconry school and activities like horse riding, fishing, clay shooting and archery. 

Abbeyglen Castle Hotel, Clifden, County Galway

While Dromoland is truly unforgettable, one of my favorite Irish castle stays is Abbeyglen Castle Hotel in Clifden. Tucked among the forested hills of Connemara with a backdrop of the stunning Twelve Ben Mountain Range, it offers affordable luxury.

 Your stay begins with a welcome champagne reception that includes a fun history lesson on the castle and a little trivia competition. The best rooms have four-poster beds, fireplaces and Jacuzzis.  While the town of Clifden hosts many fabulous pubs and restaurants, you won’t want to miss the chance to dine at the castle’s own award-winning eatery with a menu featuring local seafood and Connemara lamb. The piano bar promises a fun evening of music afterward.

Ross Castle,  County Meath

Ross Castle offers a very authentic medieval castle experience. This isn’t the same castle that’s in County Killarney. It sits on the shores of Lough Sheelin in County Meath, about 60 miles northwest of Dublin. A stay in one of the tower rooms of this castle built in 1563 is sure to be something you’ll never forget, though it may not be ideal for doing much sleeping. Ranked on Lonely Planet’s Top 10 list of the world’s “lesser-known haunted places,” guests have been known to hear voices when everyone seems to be asleep, or the sound of doors shutting on their own. Some have even felt the presence of a spirit at the edge of their bed while trying to get some shuteye. 

I stayed here, alone, in the top tower room on the night before Halloween back in 2013. When the heavy door opened on its own, I decided to leave the lights on and didn’t sleep much at all, but it was certainly something I’ll never forget. The castle has changed hands since and it’s said have been spruced up quite a bit. It can be booked for exclusive use with a minimum two-night stay. A variety of more affordable options are available on-site, including the adjacent Castle Cottage.

There are many other castle hotels to consider, including:

Kinnity Castle, Birr, County Offaly

Clontarf Castle, Dublin

Ashford Castle, Cong, County Mayo

Lough Eske Castle, Donegal

Waterford Castle Hotel, Waterford

A Trip to the Amazon: It’s More Doable Than You Think

Have you ever dreamed of an adventure into the Amazon Rainforest? While it might seem far too costly for most to afford, this trip of a lifetime is probably more affordable than you think. Sani Lodge one of the best values for a trip to the Ecuadoran Amazon with packages that include almost everything.

Getting there

My Amazon trip began by flying into Quito’s international airport followed by a flight to Coca Airport in the Amazon. Upon arrival, our small group guide, Victor, led us into taxis that would bring the five of us (myself, a couple from Australia, and two friends from the UK) to a motorized canoe on the Napo River, a tributary of the Amazon River that rises in on the flanks of the east Andean volcanoes in Ecuador.

It was a journey into the unknown. None of us really knew what to expect, other than what we’d seen on TV and film anyway. 

After about 2.5 hours, we landed at the dock, marked by a Sani Lodge sign. From here, it was a 10-minute trek down a tree-lined wooden boardwalk where monkeys looked down at us from the trees. At the end of the boardwalk, another canoe awaited providing a gentle, non-motorized float along the still water while colorful birds floated about. Was there a python lurking along the banks? A caiman below the surface ready to lunge out? No, nothing of the sort.

Despite the fears of one of the other guests, no python or snake of any ever fell out of the trees onto our heads. In fact, we never saw them at all. Further helping to ease any anxiety, our guide Victor said not one of their guests have ever been injured in the three decades the lodge has been open.

The lodge

Upon our arrival, we were greeted by a delicious passion fruit and rum drink, and the resident caiman named Lucy who likes to lounge in the water beneath the lodge deck. An injury rendered her unable to to hunt and feed on her own, so the staff takes care of her and guests enjoy close-up views and great photo-ops.

Accommodation is in simple but comfortable cabins with private bathrooms that include showers.

Single, double, family, and mini-suite cabins are available, all with private bathrooms, showers, and beds that include mosquito netting

The Sani Lodge Restaurant was a big hit with all the guests. The chefs prepare a mix of local and international fare with all ingredients grown and purchased locally, supporting neighboring farmers and the community. Snacks, prepared fresh daily, are provided for excursions. The bar offers seating that overlooks the lagoon where you can mingle with fellow visitors, lodge staff, and guides while sipping a refreshing cocktail, wine, or cold beer.

The activities

After settling in, the fun began almost immediately. We headed out for a night hike, flashlights in hand, to see what creatures were lurking about after dark: two tarantulas, a massive frog, and bats.

An early wake-up call followed with breakfast served at 5:30 a.m. A quintessential morning in the Amazon, it was worth it – as Victor paddled the canoe and us passengers relaxed, we watched a wealth of bird life. Stinky turkeys, parrots, parakeets, herons and other birds of all sorts could be seen soaring overhead and perched on branches. 

Activities revolve around Amazon wildlife and native culture, including:

  • Canoe trips
  • Jungle hikes
  • A visit to the macaw salt licks and butterfly farm
  • A look at Kichwa life in the tribal community center

Our excursion took us to the Sani Lodge observation tower, a 100-foot-tall tower built next to a massive Kapok tree. From the top, one can look through the canopy of the rainforest and view some of the amazing Amazon biodiversity. Toucans and countless macaws were seen and we heard the sounds of many animals with the loud calls of the red howler monkeys standing out the most.

Much of our time was spent walking the trails while learning about the various plants and trees, like the Dragon’s blood tree which has a rich, red sap known for its healing properties. It’s been scientifically found to heal wounds, cuts, scrapes, insect bites, bacterial, viral and fungal infections of the skin, rashes, herpes,  skin cancer, and much more, although the natives knew that centuries before it was ever proven. We got to sample “lemon ants.” Victor broke off a branch and popped them out – the ants naturally taste like sour lemons and are jam-packed with antioxidants. Not bad, but definitely not something I’ll ever have a craving for.

The Tribal Community Center

Getting to know the indigenous Kichwa people was a highlight. We took a tour of the grounds and a school with another guide who demonstrated eating a live grub by popping one of the creatures head first into his mouth. None of us took him up on the offer to try one for ourselves.

A traditional meal, cooked by the hard-working Sani women, who also make coffee and all sorts of handmade crafts (available for sale), was enjoyed by all. It included a sample of famous chicha, a chew-and-spit fermented alcoholic drink. Afterward, we did a little fun face painting and took part in blowgun practice, both of which brought plenty of laughs.

Saying goodbye

The only downside was having to leave. Departure was quite a bit different than our arrival with those big smiles now turned to quiet contemplation. ​Our time at Sani Lodge wasn’t nearly long enough and I still dream of returning again someday.

If you have any questions about my experience that might help you plan your own trip to the Amazon, feel free to reach out! Sani Lodge can be booked directly here.

Tips For Your First International Trip

Your first trip abroad can be both exciting and a bit overwhelming. There’s so much to know if you want things to go smoothly. International travel requires some extensive planning and will be best enjoyed by adventurous spirits who are willing to go with the flow and adapt to unfamiliar conditions.

While some bumps are to be expected, especially on a first-time trip overseas, too many can make for a stressful experience that might make you wander why you didn’t travel closer to home.

By following these international travel tips you can minimize those bumps and before you know it, you’ll be a pro.

Check your passport

First things first. If you’re going to travel internationally, you need to have a passport. But even if you’ve got one in hand, there are some important things to be aware of well before your departure date. While the U.S. will allow you to use your passport up to the date on the inside cover, many countries will deny entry if it expires in less than three or six months from the date you plan to depart. They don’t want you to end up stuck there on an expired passport.

You’ll also need a blank page available for every country you visit – if you’re running low or you run out completely you can’t simply add pages, you’ll have to pay for a renewal. Double check yours and renew if necessary.

The U.S. State Department provides information on the entry requirements for every country, making it easy to check before you start making your plans.

Get a credit card with no foreign transaction fees

If you don’t have already have a credit card that doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees, be sure to get one in time for your departure date. Many banks will charge you a 1 to 3% foreign transaction fee when you use their cards overseas. Even if you’re earning miles, the cost tends to negate the value. A quick Google search will turn up a number of cards that waive those fees, such as Chase Sapphire Preferred, Bank of America Travel Rewards and Capital One Venture Rewards.

Notify your credit card companies and banks that you’ll be traveling

These days, you don’t have to notify many credit card companies that you’ll be traveling internationally, but not all. Be sure to check with yours before you go or you could end up getting transactions declined due to suspicious activity. You’ll want to do the same with your bank so that you can use your debit card overseas as well.

Obtaining Foreign Currency

While there was a time when it was necessary to get traveler’s checks or exchange currency before leaving the country, that’s no longer the case. Traveler’s checks are a thing of the past and the best way to get foreign currency is from the ATM once you arrive. That said, airport ATMs can come with pricey fees, so if you’ll need some cash right away, you might want to ask your bank if you can obtain a small amount to avoid the stress of finding an ATM. While there are still some countries where cash is king, like Mexico, in most destinations you’ll find that you use very little – perhaps on tips and small purchases.

Once you’re settled into your destination, use your debit card to obtain the cash you need from an ATM. If you want to save on the fees (which are typically much less than what you’d pay at a currency exchange office), consider opening an account at a bank that doesn’t charge them and even refunds ATM fees like Charles Schwab.

Take photos of all important documents

Take photos of your important documents, including your passport, driver’s license, visa (if the country you’re visiting requires one), and your travel insurance. Email copies to yourself and keep them on your phone and/or laptop so that you can always access them should the originals get lost.

Electronic devices

You’ll probably want your camera, memory card, necessary chargers and perhaps other electronic devices too. When you’re traveling overseas, you’re also likely to need a power adaptor in order to keep all of those electronics charged. Unless you’re visiting a destination that has the same outlet configuration as your home country, you’ll need an adapter.

Adapter plugs do not convert electricity, they simply allow your device’s plug to fit into the foreign outlet. Fortunately, they’re cheap and easy to find at online and brick-and-mortar stores. Most airports have stores that carry them too.

Contact your cell phone carrier

The majority of major cell phone carriers offer international roaming plans. Some even provide unlimited global roaming which can really be helpful, as you can use your phone for GPS, and of course, access all of its other features too. Contact your carrier to find out what’s available to you, and be sure to inquire about all possible fees that could be incurred.

If the plan your cell phone carrier is too pricey and your phone is unlocked, you can purchase a SIM card once you get to your destination. Another option is to use your phone only when connected to Wi-Fi. WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and the like make it easy to stay in touch with family and friends back home and con’t cost a thing.

How to Pack

Proper packing can make traveling a whole lot easier as lugging around heavy bags will literally drag you down. Some destinations have cobbled streets and lots of steep steps that can make it even more difficult. Research the weather of the area you’re visiting beforehand, and try to choose garments you can layer so that you’ll be prepared for temperature variations. Don’t bring items you’ve never worn –pack things you already know you feel comfortable in.

Make the most out of the space you have by rolling your clothes instead of folding them. Tuck undergarments and socks into shoes or hats. Don’t forget to leave a little extra room for those souvenirs you’re going to want to bring back either. If it’s an option, consider booking an Airbnb rental (or similar) that has a washer and dryer for at least part of your stay and you’ll need even less.