destinations, travel tips

Happy Half Birthday to Me!

Today I am exactly 282 months old, or 23.5 years. No, I’m not one of those self-centered people who try to make up as many occasions as possibly to celebrate my existence, but I’ve always used this day as a time of reflection. I’ve only had 6 months of experience being 23 years old, yet in just 6 months I will have a new age to experience! So let’s take a look at what has happened since my birthday, and then plan what to do with the rest of the year!

Going on a bike ride around Columbus, Ohio happened to bring me to the World's Largest Gavel!
Going on a bike ride around Columbus, Ohio happened to bring me to the World’s Largest Gavel!

My 23rd year started on May 10th, 2014. I wanted to celebrate my birthday by taking a trip, because my favorite birthdays have been while I was traveling. I celebrated my 8th, 13th, 18th, and 22nd birthday in Disney World. No, my parents didn’t take me to Disney World just to celebrate my annual milestone; my birthday just happens to be the best time of year to go! But there was no way I would be able to get to Disney World this year, so I looked more locally. At the time, I lived about an hour away from Columbus, but I had never actually spend much time there. So I decided to book a weekend at The Wayfaring Buckeye (reviewing this hostel helped me rediscover my travel writing passion), throw my bicycle in the back of my Explorer, and head toward the city. I may have spent my birthday alone, but it didn’t even matter because I got to go to a topiary garden, a humongous bookshop, a record-breaking gavel, a fun science museum, two street fairs, and Buffalo Wild Wings, accessing all this on just two wheels! I even went to the Capitol Building and art museum the next day, and of course I set aside some time to call my family and just kick back.

At the science museum, I got to ride a self-balancing unicycle that was two stories high!
At the science museum, I got to ride a self-balancing unicycle that was two stories high!

I had been working at a retreat center as an outdoor school instructor. Sadly, the school year was just about ending, which meant the job was transitioning. I had the opportunity to help build a new website, and unfortunately I was also given the task of being a lifeguard. Since my summer work was looking somewhat bleak, I started making plans for my days off to “escape” in the world of travel, which also included filling up the remaining weekends in May with even more travel!

Harding Memorial Tomb
Me at the Harding Memorial.

The next weekend I had to go to Marion, Ohio, which I had never been to before. I looked up things I could do while in that town, and was surprised to discover that President Warren G. Harding had lived there, and now he and his wife were buried there! I decided my first stop in Marion would be to visit the cemetery he was buried in. The Harding Memorial looked like something that should only be found in a place like Washington, D.C. But since it was in Central Ohio, it had the bonus of not being crowded with tourists! After finding a geocache near the cemetery, I eventually made it to the event that brought me to Marion in the first place. Secret Keeper Girl had invited me to cover their event so I could feature it in Girlz 4 Christ Magazine. Since it was a mother-daughter event for tween girls, it was a little awkward for me to go by myself. I’m neither a tween nor a mother! But it actually was a great program with some fun games, a message that everyone could take to heart, and a pre-show concert from Copperlily.

Copperlily performing on the Secret Keeper Girl tour.
Copperlily performing on the Secret Keeper Girl tour.

The next week was Memorial Day weekend, and coincidentally, that was the only weekend where I didn’t have any plans. But my work was having a camp out that staff could attend for free, so I turned the back of my Explorer into a bed (while somehow also fitting my bicycle back there) and enjoyed a few nights away from home.

My typical camp set-up included my car (with all my clothes and bedding in the back), my bicycle, and hopefully a provided table to read and eat at!
My typical camp set-up included my car (with all my clothes and bedding in the back), my bicycle, and hopefully a provided table to read and eat at!

Because I had so much fun camping in my car that weekend, the next weekend involved car camping as well! I was invited to a review stay at Turkey Hollow Campground near Millersburg, Ohio AKA Amish Country. I spent two nights there picnicking, sleeping where I could see the stars, walking some paths, and using the camp paddle boat on the pond. During the day, I experienced as much of the Amish life I could in Holmes County by feeding the exotic animals at The Farm at Walnut Creek, touring the schoolhouse, barn, and cyclorama at the Behalt museum, and of course enjoying the authentic shops and foods!

Zebras were one of the several animals I got to pet and feed at The Farm at Walnut Creek. Another highlight was when a giraffe tried to eat my hair!
Zebras were one of the several animals I got to pet and feed at The Farm at Walnut Creek. Another highlight was when a giraffe tried to eat my hair!

My weekend trip to Holmes County ended on June 1st, and sadly that was the first and last trip of June. I remember spending that month working, going to church, and reading. But that also gave me more time to plan a trip to Niagara Falls, which I had wanted to do for a long time! Since Niagara Falls isn’t too far away from Ohio, it would be cheap trip to get there, and I decided to make it even cheaper by taking the Greyhound bus for the first time. Since I had never taken the bus before, I wasn’t sure if the bus station had a parking lot. I decided to drive up to Mansfield to see for myself in early July. And of course, I decided to make a trip out of it!

Doing time in one of the nearly 1000 cells.
Doing time in one of the nearly 1000 cells.

After discovering that there was no parking at all and I would have to arrange for someone to drop me off, I headed over to the Mansfield Reformatory. The outside looks like a castle, and the inside looks like an abandoned prison, which is what it actually is. It has also been a set for a couple of movies and is supposedly a haunted locale. I also spent this day trip visiting a natural park and a natural food store.

Cave of the Winds Trip on the US side of Niagara Falls
Cave of the Winds Trip on the US side of Niagara Falls

The next weekend I headed off to Niagara Falls! I thought this would be my one big trip of the year (fortunately that was proven wrong!) and I enjoyed a weekend of hiking, eating, sightseeing, and visiting Canada for the first time! This trip also really helped me make a name as a travel writer. Starting the eve of my 23rd birthday, I had been comped a couple nights at accommodations for being a writer and reviewer. But this entire 9-day trip only required me to pay for one night of lodging, plus I got a few other perks! But of course, the best part was finally seeing the Niagara Falls in person.

Enjoying the view from the Canada side of Niagara Falls
Enjoying the view from the Canada side of Niagara Falls

A few weeks after returning to my normal life, I got the opportunity to switch my role from tourist to tour guide! My sister had just come back from living in Mexico, and she wanted to explore Ohio before settling back in Oregon. I showed her a few of my favorite places, like Amish Country, President Harding’s tomb, and President Hayes’ birthplace, and she even encouraged me to try out a few new things, like the Columbus Zoo. The few days she spent in Ohio were memorable, not only because they were jam-packed with fun, but also because I decided that I also needed to move back to Oregon after being gone for three years. After all, the main reason I liked working in Ohio was just because of all the trips I could take on my days off!

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Walking through a cute little park next to one of the several cheese factories in Holmes County.

After spending a couple weeks trying to pack what I could and sell what I couldn’t, I finally left Ohio. It was actually miraculous to see everything that occurred in those few short weeks, such as the way my car was sold, the connection to donate my beautiful bed, and the numerous gift exchanges that occurred. I then embarked on my second-ever Greyhound trip, this time for eight days. Although I tried to line up travel writing jobs along the way, it was a holiday weekend and I had a pretty tight schedule, so I couldn’t get anything comped. Yet still, I only ended up paying for one night of lodging (thanks to relatives, former workplaces, overnight bus trips, and one night in a bus station followed by convincing the hostel to let me check in early for free). Besides driving and sightseeing through ten states, I made overnight stops in Chicago, Omaha/Fremont, and Denver. So much happened on this part-moving-expedition, part-road-trip, that you’ll just have to read all five blogs I wrote about it (here, here, here, here, and here) to see what I did!

I don't play favorites when it comes to travel, but a definite highlight was stepping out on the Willis Tower Skydeck's transparent ledge on the 103rd floor!
I don’t play favorites when it comes to travel, but a definite highlight was stepping out on the Willis Tower Skydeck’s transparent ledge on the 103rd floor!

I have spent all my time since then within Oregon boundaries. I got a few nanny and babysitting jobs right off the bat, but while I continued to search for a more regular job, I took a few Oregonian excursions. This included going to the Bigfoot Trap, spending the night in Ashland, and touring the Oregon Vortex, among a few other day trips.

Due to the height change in the Oregon Vortex, my mom and I could finally see eye to eye!
Due to the height change in the Oregon Vortex, my mom and I could finally see eye to eye!

As I mentioned, in addition to my writing work, I started to in-home childcare since moving to Oregon, which now includes a regular part-time nanny gig. A few weeks ago, I was also hired at Harry and David World headquarters to help with the Christmas rush. Not too long after that, I was also hired as a housemother at the Magdalene Home, which is an organization that provides housing and resources to teen mothers and their children. Over the past week, I have been training for this position, and I’m really looking forward to it! My training ended today, just in time for my new training at Harry and David to start tomorrow! I’m actually surprised that working four different jobs is going this smoothly. In fact, the only downside is this means I have early starts every day for a couple of weeks, which will then probably switch to a crazy combination of late nights and early mornings.

So there you have it: just about everything I’ve done over the past six months! So what do the next six months have in store? Obviously there’s work, with the goal to save up enough money so I can enjoy a backpacking trip to Europe, and possibly other destinations! I will also be going forth as one of the few remaining editors of Christian girl magazines, since most of our competition has gone out of business. In response to this, there are plans to expand and improve Girlz 4 Christ, and I am planning to apply for it to become an official non-profit organization! So far I’m not aware of any trips coming up in the next six months, but I’m sure they will happen in early 2015, and I’m ready to take advantage of any opportunities made available to me! Other than that, I don’t really know what will happen for the rest of my 23rd year, but I’m excited to find out. I’ll give you an update on this six months from now- hopefully while celebrating a 24th birthday excursion!

#ThrowbackThursday, Bucket List

Travel I Can Cross Off My Bucket List

Yesterday, I posted my current Travel Bucket List. However, while I’m looking forward to hopefully accomplishing all those things in the future, I think it’s important to also look back on previous accomplishments. While I don’t plan every single trip around my goals, once I have a trip planned, I try to take advantage of any opportunities available to apply that trip to working towards a goal. I often accomplish several goals in one trip, which is why you’ll see that I have often done several goals at the same time. Here are some things that are no longer on my bucket list, because I actually did them!

1. Go to Chicago. (September 2014)

2. Eat pizza in Chicago. (September 2014)

3. Go up the Willis Tower and stand on the Skydeck. (September 2014- Okay, I’m done with the Chicago goals!)

On the Willis Tower Skydeck...before eating pizza...in Chicago.
On the Willis Tower Skydeck…before eating pizza…in Chicago.

4. Live away from the Pacific states. (August 2011)

5. Visit Amish Country. (October 2013 in Holmes County, plus two other trips within the following year)

6. Go to the Creation Museum. (March 2014)

Hanging out in the ark room of the Creation Musuem
Hanging out in the ark room of the Creation Musuem

7. Vacation in Hawaii. (April 2001, Oahu)

8. Go to Walt Disney World. (May 1999, plus three more times, all in May during my birthday!)

9. Bike around a major city. (May 2014, Columbus)

Going on a bike ride around Columbus, Ohio happened to bring me to the World's Largest Gavel!
Going on a bike ride around Columbus, Ohio happened to bring me to the World’s Largest Gavel!

10. Be in two places at once a la A Walk to Remember. (March 2013, Nebraska/Iowa, also internationally in July 2014 at New York/Ontario)

11. Visit a different country. (December 2005, Mexico; July 2007 in Peru was the first time I stayed the night inside the country)

12. Visit a different continent. (July 2007 and August 2009, Peru, South America)

Playing with kids at the Posada de Amor orphanage in Cieneguilla, Peru
Playing with kids at the Posada de Amor orphanage in Cieneguilla, Peru

13. Visit Canada. (July 2014, Niagara Falls)

14. Go on a mission trip. (July 2007, Posada de Amor in Peru, plus several other trips after)

15. Go to Seattle. (March 2004 was my first trip)

16. Go to Nashville. (September/October 2012)

In front of the Tennessee Capitol Building in Nashville
In front of the Tennessee Capitol Building in Nashville

17. Go to Niagara Falls. (July 2014)

18. Take an overnight train trip. (December 2011, from Nebraska to Oregon)

19. Go on a cruise. (December 2005, California and Baja)

20. Support overseas orphans. (Not including Latin American mission trips, I’ve sponsored Nelly in Zambia since 2013.)

Nelly, the teenager I sponsor through Every Orphan’s Hope

21. Fly first class. (January 2013, from Denver to Omaha)

22. See Mount Rushmore. (August 2011)

Mount Rushmore in South Dakota
Mount Rushmore in South Dakota

23. Be in the nation’s Capitol. (June 2007 in Washington DC, also in Peru’s capitol of Lima in July 2007 and August 2009)

24. Go to New York, New York. (June 2007)

TIESS3 209
On a class trip to the East Coast

25. See historic Philadelphia. (June 2007)

26. Travel out-of-state without my parents. (March 2003 to Washington, and many, many, many trips since!)

27. Travel by myself. (This one’s ambiguous: in 2001 I flew by myself but was picked up by family at my destination, in August 2011 I moved to Nebraska for an internship, in September 2012 I went to Tennessee for two weeks but one week was spent with a friend, in August 2013 I took a solo road trip to get to Ohio for my new job… if none of the previous count to you has having traveled by myself, then I definitely took several trips over the past year that would certainly count!)

In the airport at the beginning of my move to Nebraska
In the airport at the beginning of my move to Nebraska

28. Drive more than an hour. (First time was February 2013 from Twin City area in Minnesota to somewhere in Iowa)

29. Drive the entire way on a road trip. (First time was August 2013 from Fremont, NE to Marengo, OH)

30. See a Great Lake. (First saw Lake Erie November 2013, within the next several months also saw Ontario and Michigan)

Walking alongside Lake Michigan in Chicago
Walking alongside Lake Michigan in Chicago

31. See the Atlantic Ocean. (June 2007)

32. Go to Colorado, but not just inside an airport. (October 2011, Estes Park, visited twice later on)

33. Buy a car (August 2012, bought a y2k red Ford Explorer, sadly sold August 2014)

My SUV Dora (named so because she was an Explorer)
My SUV Dora (named so because she was an Explorer)

34. Go to Yellowstone National Park to watch Old Faithful, see large wild animals, and stand on the Continental Divide. (July-ish 2002?)

35. Take a tethered balloon ride. (July 2010)

36. Sleep (inside a car) in a Walmart parking lot. (September 2013)

37. See Multnomah Falls. (September 2014)

Multnomah Falls
Multnomah Falls in Northern Oregon

38. Go on an extended whitewater rafting trip. (May 2011, Rogue River)

39. Take a trip with only carry-on luggage. (September/October 2011, Tennessee, and nearly every trip ever since!)

40. Ride the Greyhound. (July 2014, and again in August/September 2014)

Good Ol' Greyhound
Good Ol’ Greyhound

41. Go waterskiing/wakeboarding. (July 2004 was my first waterski attempt, July 2006 proved more successful and was also my wakeboard introduction)

42. Sleep all night in a hammock. (July 2012, at the top of a 60-foot tower overlooking the Platte River)

43. Stay in a hostel. (September 2012, Music City Hostel in Nashville; hostels are now my favorite accommodation!)

44. Attend a Christian music festival. (September 2011, Lifelight South Dakota)

Among over 10,000 fans at a Lifelight concert
Among over 10,000 fans at a Lifelight concert

45. See The Phantom of the Opera on Broadway. (June 2007)

46. Visit the three main countries that make up North America. (Started at birth in the U.S., ended in Canada July 2014)

47. Hike from base to summit of a mountain. (The tallest so far was Harney Peak in South Dakota August 2011, but was preceded by Mount Humbug and both Table Rocks in Oregon)

This building is at the very top of Harney's Peak and it was a strenuous four-mile journey to get there
This building is at the very top of Harney’s Peak and it was a strenuous four-mile journey to get there

48. Ride a roller coaster that goes upside-down. (May 2003, Disney’s Rock n Roller Coaster, and of course with visits to more “adventurous” theme parks like Six Flags Marine World, Knott’s Berry Farm, and Adventureland, I’ve been on dozens more)

49. Be invited to a movie screening before it comes to theaters. (July 2011 for Courageous; I’ve also gone to Grace Unplugged, Moms’ Night Out, and When the Game Stands Tall)

50. Become a travel writer (started professionally writing November 2008!)

So there you have it: my top 50 travel accomplishments! I’m looking forward to adding more to this list!

souvenir, Travel Journal Tuesdays, writing

Travel Journal Tuesday

A little over five years ago, my grandmother gave me a travel journal. I had previously kept some sort of documentation for some of my travels. During my first mission trip to Peru, I had brought along one of those cheap spiral-bound school notebooks where I wrote about my thoughts, feelings, and activities of each day. I don’t know where that journal is anymore. When I started my first job by the Pacific Coast, I was diligent to journal for each of my thirty-three days of employment. Again, it was a not-so-special spiral-bound journal. I don’t know where that journal is anymore, either. When my tenth-grade class flew to the East Coast, our tour company provided everyone with a colorful booklet with blank lines and writing prompts. I normally would have loved to use something like this, but since we had to turn it in to be graded, I may have been a little snarky and short in what I wrote. I don’t think I even finished filling out that journal, and its possible that it was destroyed after my teacher read it. I really don’t know where that journal is anymore! Even as far back as elementary school, I recall that my second-grade teacher gave us her handmade journals so we could write and draw about our adventures during school holidays, plus anytime we were taken out of school for a vacation (such as my first trip to Disney World). I’m sure my mom has those memories stored somewhere, but I don’t know where that journal is anymore!

Travel Journal Cover

But when I received this beautiful travel journal, I knew right away that this would be superior to all previous travel journals. I initially used it to record my experience on my 2009 mission trip to Peru. Since then, I’ve taken it along to recount my days on my 2010 Northwest choir tour, my mission trip to Mexico, my backpacker vacation to Tennessee, my international trip to Niagara Falls, and my bus ride across the country. And I know exactly where this journal is. It’s the centerpiece of one of my travel-themed shelves!

Travel Memento Shelf

I don’t write in my journal for every trip I take. For weekend trips and other trips where I try to cram too much in too few days, I believe its a better use of my time to go out and experience as much as I can instead of taking a break to write about it. I also haven’t kept a journal for any trips that are primarily focused on working, such as camp conferences I’ve attended. I don’t think it would be interesting to read my journal years later about how I sat in meetings for most of the day. I memorialized these sorts of trips in different ways, such as photography, videos, or blogging. (If you visit The Rivercrester, you can read about almost everything I did while living in Nebraska, from the cool trips that I took to the times I was stuck at camp and only wishing that I could travel!) I don’t really have a criteria for which trips are worthy of my travel journal, but it’s treated like a near-sacred relic, so I use it for the trips that I feel are the most important.

This journal has a great layout, including a bookmark, a secure band, and a pocket inside the back cover to hold small mementos. Each page has plenty of room to write, plus an extra box to emphasize my highlight of the day. I also really like that each page has both a travel quote and a travel-themed Bible verse. It’s almost like having a mini-devotional each day of travel. I can usually fit everything worth mentioning about one day on one of these pages, but on some of the more mundane days (like all-day transit or staying at someone’s house), I can fit two days on one page. There have even been days that were so full of events and emotions, it was a challenge to fit everything even on two pages!

Travel Journal Entry Page

I had never really considered whether or not my journal was suitable for sharing. It wasn’t until a few months ago when I was journaling in the commons area of a Canadian hostel. A Japanese guy sat down next to me, and attempted to make conversation as a way for him to learn English. When he noticed the book on my lap, he asked if it was a diary. Then, he asked to read it! I handed it to him, and maybe it was because I was pretty sure he wouldn’t understand most of the content, but I felt okay with letting him look at it.

After thinking about that ever since starting this website, I decided that I am comfortable sharing the contents of my diary with the internet-connected world. I may change names to protect the innocent or remove pieces that don’t make sense outside the context of my own mind, but I’m willing to be real and unfiltered. So starting next Tuesday, I will have a “Travel Journal Tuesday” where I will post a journal entry every week until I run out. Even though my journal’s only halfway filled right now, I have enough entries to last until at least next summer! Enjoy!

Do you keep a journal for any reason? How do you remember your travels?

backpack, destinations

Backpacking Across Europe

I don’t know when this dream started. Maybe it was sometime in the 60s when hippies fresh out of college wanted to explore the world on a shoestring. But I’m not concerned too deeply about that. I’m wondering when that dream became my dream.

I have a lot of dreams. I want to have a family, become a full-time freelance writer and media specialist, and adopt several kiddos. I also have an entire bucket list specifically for travel goals. The one I’m currently working on is the dream of backpacking across Europe.

Childhood Years

My sister (age five) and I (age nine) in Oahu. Yes, I went to Hawaii with a broken arm. But back then, they had waterproof casts.

My family traveled a bit when I was growing up. Other than a Mexican cruise, all our trips were domestic: Disney World, Hawaii, Yellowstone… you get the picture. I loved every single trip, but I always wanted to travel internationally, particularly Europe. After all, where else can you see the Eiffel Tower, the Colosseum, Big Ben, and a ton of other notable and historic structures? Okay, maybe in Las Vegas, but Europe is the real deal.

Gaining Independence

Dressing up while working in Bandon, Oregon.

I started taking out-of-state trips without my family when I was twelve years old. Mostly this was with my church, such as our X-treme Praise choir tours around the Northwest. Even on the first trip of this sort, I was brainstorming ways we could somehow take our tour through Europe! At age sixteen, I went on a school trip to the other end of the country as we touring DC, Philadelphia, and New York. Later that summer, I finally went intercontinental- a mission trip to Peru! From then until I started college, I spent my summers living by and exploring the Pacific Coast. I went back to Peru when I was eighteen, and one year later, I took a different mission trip to Mexico. At age twenty, I left my Oregon home and set out for the Midwest.

Becoming a Backpacker

Pointing out where I was on a giant map that I found while backpacking across the city.

It wasn’t until I was in college that I learned about hostels, au pairs, and all kinds of low-key travel. I was anxious to use these new found resources, but things kept on getting in the way. It all turned out for the better, as moving what is normally thought of as flyover country provided tons of opportunities. Just three days after moving to Nebraska, I went on a work-funded trip to Mount Rushmore! Work sponsored several other trips, which added several new states to my list of places I’ve been.

A year later, I took a trip that would set the pace for all subsequent trips. I spent two weeks in Tennessee with just carry-on luggage, my own two feet, and a $0-$50 daily budget. It was my first time staying in a hostel, and I’ve stayed in many since. Even with trips that aren’t officially “cheapskate” trips, I’ve incorporated minimalist packing and being budget savvy.

The Realization

One word to describe my Niagara Falls experience? Exciting!

This past summer, I finally crossed borders by myself. Okay, it was only to Canada, and it was only a couple miles from the US border at Niagara Falls. I had recently transitioned from being a general devotional writer to being more of a travel writer. I had already taken a couple partially-sponsored weekend trips for writing purposes, but this was my first big break. Even though I had to work for some comped attractions and lodging, I still had plenty of free time to enjoy this vacation.

I stayed on both sides of the border, but while in Canada, I was sitting at a lookout point, admiring all three of the Niagara Falls, and started thinking. Suddenly, I got what I feel was a God-nudge. You are ready to go to Europe. Really? Yes, this was practically a lifelong dream, but I had pushed it out of my mind the last few years as I was doing extensive domestic travel. This was an exciting realization!

The Preparation

I decided to leave Ohio right before going on this final trip to Amish Country, so I decided to make the best of it!
I decided to leave Ohio right before going on this final trip to Amish Country, so I decided to make the best of it!

As soon as I returned from Niagara Falls, I immediately began planning a European backpacking trip. I picked up the AAA Travel Guides, started a Pinterest board, subscribed to a dozen travel blogs, and re-prioritized my spending and saving habits. But there was one thing that still felt wrong, though I couldn’t pinpoint it. I was about to celebrate my first anniversary of living in Ohio, when I quit my job! I quit for personal reasons, but suddenly, my travel goals seemed to become clearer. I would spend a year back at home while saving up and planning for this overseas excursion.

This is the end of this blog post, but it’s not the end of this story. I am still in the early planning stages of an international excursion, and I’ll be sure to post my updates and ideas here. It will be interesting to see how this long-term dream finally comes to fruition!

 

culture, resources, travel tips, voluntourism

Should You Become a Voluntourist?

Most of my travels are not simply vacations. On the contrary, I like to use my travel experience as a way to give back to the communities I visit. It all started with a mission trip to Cieneguilla, Peru, back in 2007.

Volunteer in Posada de Amor Peru Orphanage
My friend Erika and I with our little Peruvian friend Melissa.

My high school youth group went to the Posada de Amor orphanage and their neighboring Eliel Christian School. We did construction and painting projects, taught English, and spent quality time with the children. I had such a great experience, I returned two years later.

Playing games with the Rayitos group at Posada.

In 2010, I heard about another church that owned a mission in Carmen Serdan, Mexico. They offered trips for people to help out with the handicapped orphans they care for. I went along, and although we didn’t see even one touristy thing, I had a great time!

The orphans at the Mexico mission were all ages, such as 41-year-old Lupe.

Even though I haven’t gone on another “mission trip” since then, I have incorporated volunteering into elements of my travels. Ever since I was old enough to help, I’ve loved volunteering at camps offered by the Girl Scouts and churches, like this time at Camp Tadmor near Lebanon, Oregon.

Tadmor 031
Some of the nine girls in the yurt I was in charge of.

When I went to Nashville in 2012, I realized that was the headquarters of a nonprofit magazine that I write for. Before going, I e-mailed the editor asking if we could meet. She responded, saying I was coming during important planning days for the magazine, and I was invited to help with this. I was glad to help out!

2012-09-20 20.57.39
In the building where we worked on Devozine.

This past summer in Niagara Falls, I learned about a ministry called the Magdalene Project, which helps homeless people, prostitutes, and low-income families. I called up the director and asked how I could help. After asking me about my skills and passions, she offered to let me help chaperone a trip with their kids’ club.

Niagara Falls 2014 507
Daisy and I touring Fort Niagara.

After all this volunteering in my travels (the buzzword for this is “voluntourism”), you’d think I would encourage everyone to go out and try to volunteer on all their travels, right? Well, sort of. I’ve learned a lot since my first trip to Peru, and I’m now more selective about how I voluntour.

Before I volunteer afar, I volunteer near home. I taught a local youth group a game where they got to slap peanut butter bread on me!
Before I volunteer afar, I volunteer near home. I taught a local youth group a game where they got to slap peanut butter bread on me!

I think the most important rule is this: if you wouldn’t volunteer at home, you shouldn’t volunteer while you travel. Hapless volunteering is a terrible way to try to make your trip meaningful. If you want to volunteer while you travel, find a local charity to work with before your trip. This will help you gain experience and make sure you’re cut out for the job. Don’t want to help near your home? I hate to break this to you, but this indicates that you shouldn’t volunteer afar either. If you want to help your destination’s community, you can still make a difference by purchasing from family-owned shops, staying at local accommodations, or sending donations to worthy causes. You must be dedicated to give your time.

Comparing heights with little Angela and her tutora. This is one of the local women who are hired to care for the orphans, thus forming a long-lasting and mutually effective relationship.
Comparing heights with little Angela and her tutora. This is one of the local women who are hired to care for the orphans, thus forming a long-lasting and mutually effective relationship.

I’ve also learned that just because an opportunity exists doesn’t mean I should go for it. In fact, this can potentially hurt their community! For example, our Peru trip leader told us that two of our tasks were to play with kids and do construction. The problem was, I never picked up a power tool before! I should have at least learned the basics before going. Better yet, the money spent on my plane ticket could pay local experienced construction workers to do the work. Then, instead of just helping the orphanage and school, we could help local impoverished workers as well!

Now, while I’m no construction expert, I do know how to play with kids. But was that beneficial? The kids did have fun playing with us, but I know it hurt everyone emotionally when we left. Volunteering long-term, or at least keeping in touch through letters and frequent visits, would be a less harmful way to form relationships.

Looking back, I think the one thing we did that was of real value was teach English. This is a sought-after skill in business, thus breaking the cycle of poverty. Since we were the only native English speakers in that area, we were best suited in this department.

The kids in this program were told I was just helping for one day to prevent attachment. I was able to utilize my childcare and health skills in the pool and at the park. (The kids also got the treat of sharing my waterproof camera in the pool!)
The kids in this program were told I was helping for just one day. I was able to utilize my childcare and health skills in the pool and at the park. (The kids also loved sharing my waterproof camera in the pool!)

Contrast this to my recent voluntourism experiences. Before I went to Niagara Falls, I talked with the ministry director and offered to help in any way needed. (I also worded it so she wouldn’t feel obligated to place me if it was a hassle to get me involved.) She did what all charity leaders should do: asked questions! She wanted to know about my past volunteer experience, profession, church involvement, and even my hobbies! With that information, she could find the role where I would be most effective, which happened to be chaperoning a field trip.

Same thing goes with my experience in Nashville. If I hadn’t spent several years writing for Devozine, I would have been more of a burden than a blessing. In addition, I didn’t waste money by making special volunteer trips. I’d already planned extended travel in these places, so I was able to maximize my buying power by staying in locally-owned small hostels, buying from local businesses, and spending time learning about the actual culture and needs of the area.

Are you still interested in voluntouring? If you’ve read this far, I assume you are. The above wasn’t meant to scare people from voluntouring (because it CAN be a meaningful and helpful endeavor), but rather to just get people thinking about how they voluntour. I could continue to provide information on other things to think about, such as your ability and availability, safety limitations, legal requirements, and how to find worthy organizations to voluntour with, but all this information could fill a book! Instead, I’ll refer you to someone who already wrote a book! I learned a lot from Kirsty Henderson, a worldwide traveler who has volunteered in several countries. She wrote The Underground Guide to International Volunteering: For experiences that go beyond beaches and the backpacker trail. The eight chapters are filled with essential information, such as why you should (or should not!) pay a fee to volunteer, different types of volunteering, and a guide with a country-by-country breakdown of organizations you can help and what they provide their volunteers. I used this to discover a few opportunities that I’m looking forward to being a part of!

I would like to thank Kirsty Henderson for providing me with a digital copy of The Underground Guide to International Volunteering: For experiences that go beyond beaches and the backpacker trail. And no, she didn’t pay me to say nice things about it- I just really like her book!

Accommodations, culture, destinations

24 Hours in Ashland

This weekend, I spent the night in the lovable, quirky city of Ashland, Oregon. It’s part college town, part hippie town, part art town, part outdoor town, and part I-don’t-even-know town.

My first stop was the Ashland Commons, which was nice enough to let me stay in a private room overnight. It was a very interesting hostel.The hostel was an apartment complex, so each apartment unit has two to three rooms and at least one private bathroom, along with a kitchen and living area. Unlike many hostels that display blank walls, each room is beautifully decorated.

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After a quick stop at the Ashland Food Co-op to get some natural snacks, I headed over to Lithia Park. It had been raining all day, but it finally let up as I arrived at the park. The 93-acre park typically has some nice nature trails, but because everything was still so soggy, I stayed on the paved path. I walked past playgrounds, tennis courts, a stage, a stream, and fountains. The highlight was spotting some deer in the woods by the tennis courts. As I walked closer, I realized there were five deer, and two of them were babies! The adult does kept their distance, but the babies stayed put even as I walked five feet from them!

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The low of the park was the water that Lithia Park was named after. The park entrance features a fountain display of Lithia water and even a drinking fountain with the same water. This mineral water is supposed to be healthy, but even health nuts would stay away from this stuff if they smelled it first. Ew!

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It started raining again, so I decided to end my stroll through the park and visit some of the local downtown shops. I loved the outdoor shop, with sales on all kinds of tents, backpacks, sleeping bags, and anything else needed for outdoor adventure. I’m sure they get a lot of business since the Pacific Crest Trail is only a few miles away. Another good business for the area was a costume shop, since the Oregon Shakespeare Festival is just a block away. The costume shop was really busy when I went, probably because Halloween is right around the corner. Although I walked away from all the stores empty-handed, I had to at least try on the fox onesie!

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After window shopping, I crossed the street to Martoni’s where I had their signature macaroni and cheese. I then walked back to my car through the Shakespeare theater area, and spent a lovely night at Ashland Commons. It was so relaxing, I stayed there for half the next morning! After a visit to Ashland Christian Fellowship, I headed back home, just as the Oregon liquid sunshine started plopping onto the windshield!

Note: This post was made possible in part by Ashland Commons, which offered me a free night’s stay. I would have loved it just as much even at full price! 

resources, travel tips, writing

I Now Write Travel Guides!

24 hours ago, I never expected I’d write travel guides. But here I am, 24 hours later, and I have two guides published!

Just last night I found out about a website called Buggl. It is a resource to look up all kinds of travel guides. You can search by location or by type of activity. Each guide varies in price (depending on how much the author charges), but they all include an online version and a downloadable, printable PDF book.

I decided right away that I wanted to create a travel guide of my own, so I signed up. While some of the features were kind of annoying to work with, overall it was fairly easy to put together a guidebook. With a late night last night, I finally finished this:

A Non-Mushy Week in Niagara Falls

Because I have the freedom to write about anywhere I want from whatever perspective I want, I decided it might be fun to write a book about how you can visit Niagara Falls, the ultimate honeymoon destination, when you don’t want any romantic ideas whatsoever. Of course, I think this guide would still be useful to couples who wanted to visit, but because I went solo on this trip, I wanted to let others know that they can enjoy this place by themselves, too! Furthermore, I wanted people to know that Niagara Falls is so much more than an afternoon stop! This guide explains in detail how you can enjoy seven action-packed days! In it, I give little-known secrets, information on how to prepare for this excursion, and more. I wrote all the words and took all the background pictures featured in this guide! Click here to download A Non-Mushy Week in Niagara Falls for only $1.25!

After publishing this book, I tried to get some sleep, but I woke up early this morning because my mind was buzzing with ideas. I immediately wrote down a few ideas I had for other guidebooks, and after I got ready for the day I sat down and wrote another one!

A Weekend at the Creation Museum Travel Guide

I was inspired to write this one because I visited the Creation Museum last March, and was surprised to learn that while all tickets are valid for two days, many people only spend a couple hours there! That’s not nearly enough time to experience all that the Creation Museum has to offer! Based on my experience, I made this guide to better utilize the two-day ticket and enjoy a whole weekend in and around the Creation Museum. This includes where to stay, where to eat, and what to do after-hours. Click here to download A Weekend at the Creation Museum for only 99 cents!

If these two guides go over well, I plan to write many more. If you are interested in visiting Niagara Falls and/or the Creation Museum, I truly believe that these books will be a helpful resource to you! If you are interested in some other place, let me know. If I’ve been there, I’ll create a guidebook customized for you!

Thanks for reading, both my Buggl travel guides and right here on my blog. Let me know what you think!

Accommodations, saving money, travel tips

9 Ways to Pay (Almost) Nothing for Accommodations

We all know there’s no such thing as a free ride, but is there such a thing as a free bed? For most travelers, accommodations is their number one trip expense, but it certainly doesn’t have to be that way. You just have to follow this one simple rule: Never stay in a hotel! Hotels provide little more than a bed and a bathroom, and they do nothing in adding a cultural or community aspect to your trip. Instead, try out one of these accommodation options- and save a bunch of money while you’re at it!

1. Friends and Relatives: This is the easiest and cheapest option. All you have to do is figure out who you know that lives near your destination, and call them up. If they’re available, this is a great option because it offers so much more than just a place to sleep. Every time I’ve stayed with someone I know, they’ve offered me a ride, a meal, or even a city tour. Of course, everything depends on whether or not you know someone at your destination and if they’re available, and depending on how well you know them, you may feel as if you’re imposing on them. But this can be a great way to catch up with an old friend, and if you bring a gift from your hometown, it can serve as a unique cultural exchange.

Hostel Dorm Beds in Chicago
My hostel dorm bed at HI-Chicago

2. Hostels: If you’ve read any of my other posts,  you probably already know that I’m a big fan of hostels. This is ideal for the solo traveler, but even couples, families, and groups can save by staying in a hostel. Depending on location, they can range anywhere from $15-45 per person per night, but they’re always a fraction of the cost of a nearby hotel room. In addition, hostels typically provide a guest kitchen, breakfast, WiFi, a commons area, and some degree of concierge service. The cheapest option is to get a bed in a large dorm (which can be co-ed or gender-specific), but if you prefer, many hostels offer private bedrooms and family suites. To save even more, book through Hostelz.com.

Deborah's Guesthouse Bank in Kentucky
I stayed at “The Bank” Guesthouse in Northern Kentucky, where you can sleep inside an old vault!

3. Guesthouses: If you’re traveling as a family or other large group, this may be your least expensive option. At sites like airbnb.com or vrbo.com, you can book anything from a spare bedroom to an entire house directly through the owner. It’s hard to say what to expect from a guesthouse, because each one is so unique. You have to speak with the owner about what to expect, but one of the reasons that guesthouses are becoming increasingly popular is because they often offer all the comforts of home. Because guesthouses are so diverse, you can choose one that fits your needs and lifestyle best, from a downtown high-rise to a country cottage.

Click here to get $40 off an AirBnB stay PLUS $15 off an AirBnB experience!

Camp Rivercrest
Not only have I camped here, I lived here for two years!

4. Camping: If the goal from your vacation is to get away from it all, staying at a camp will definitely help! Campgrounds are always a low-cost option, and there are many primitive campgrounds that you can stay at for just a few dollars per night or even for free. It is true that the initial start-up costs for camping can be a bit pricey. You’ll need a sleeping bag, food, fire starters, and either a tent or a camper. However, some people convert their van or SUV to sleep in. Others will go to campgrounds where they can rent cabins, yurts, or other lodging, though this can up the price quite a bit. The best part is, once everything is set up, camping can be a vacation in and of itself.

couch
Although no one ever contacted me through Couchsurfing, several visitors slept on my old couch.

5. Couchsurfing: Couchsurfing is an online organization where people can offer travelers a place to spend the night. Although it could be sketchy and awkward to stay at a stranger’s house, you can get background checks and references, and it’s completely free. I’ll admit, while I’ve heard many positive experiences from others who’ve traveled this way, I don’t think it’s for me. But I do have a Couchsurfing account and I even used it once. I found the owner of a hostel who, instead of offering his couch, offered a free hostel bed for one night. By contacting him through Couchsurfing, I got my first night at a hostel for free!

Church with Long, Confusing Name
I’ve spent the night at several churches. This one in South Dakota was not one of them, but I thought it was funny that their name was so long, they needed two signs!

6. Convents and Churches: These nonprofit faith organizations are not typically thought of as accommodations, but some of them definitely are! Some convents and monasteries, especially in Italy and other European countries, help support their ministry by offering low-cost lodging to travelers. I didn’t know about this until recently, but I plan to try this out if I go to Rome! In any country, if you call ahead of time, you may find a church that can offer you a place to sleep, even if it’s on the floor of their fellowship hall (though some clergy may even offer up their homes!). Churches are more likely to open their doors to you overnight if you are traveling as a group and are of the same faith.

Volunteer in Posada de Amor Peru Orphanage
Volunteering at an orphanage in Cieneguilla, Peru, called Posada de Amor

7. Volunteer: I love volunteering while traveling because it gives me a more realistic understanding of what the area is like and gives me the opportunity to “give back” to the community for allowing me to visit. Some organizations will even provide their volunteers with freebies, such as meals, transportation, and, in some situations, lodging! You can search for causes you care about near your destination, or you can download Kirsty Henderson’s e-book, The Underground Guide to International Volunteering: For experiences that go beyond beaches and the backpacker trail. I’m in the middle of reading this book now, so stay tuned when I give you an update on what I think about it!

Overnight Greyhound Bus
Taking a rest stop in Wyoming, right before I spent the night on this bus.

8. Take an Overnight Trip: Whether you travel by plane, train, or bus, be aware that you can also use these services overnight. It’s not the most comfortable way to sleep, and you’ll likely be woken up in the middle of the night, but at least it’s something! After all, riding the bus during the day costs pretty much the same as riding the bus at night, but at least you won’t have to pay for an accommodation that night. Airlines often even give discounts if you choose a “red-eye” flight! In my opinion, trains are the best way to sleep on transportation. In some countries, it’s required to pay a little extra for a sleeper car, but in other countries (such as the United States), you can choose to pay a lot extra for a sleeper car, or you can just pay for a standard train seat and sleep right there! (Trains tend to have more leg room, better-reclining seats, footrests, and quiet hours, so it’s almost, kind of like sleeping in a bed. If you’re driving, you can still apply this principle by either having one person drive while the other sleeps and switch off, or by parking in a large parking lot (such as Walmart) and sleeping there. (But know that not all Walmarts condone this and may even ask you to leave!)

Columbus Greyhound Bus Station
Resting up at the Columbus, Ohio Greyhound bus station

9. Sleep at the Station: This is more of a plan B, but it will do in a pinch. If you’re leaving the next morning, the airport, bus, or train station will probably let you spend the night, as long as they operate 24 hours. If you’ve just arrived at your destination, you can sometimes stay at the station as well. The major problem with this is keeping your things safe. Some train and bus stations offer lockers for small pieces of luggage. I’ve seen some overnighters use small padlocks to secure all the bag’s zippers, and then use a bike lock to attach their luggage to themselves. Of course, you shouldn’t expect to get much, if any, sleep. Some people are also concerned about personal safety. This probably won’t be an issue if you travel with others, but even if you travel by yourself, you should be fine if you stay within sight of a security guard or employee and just try to blend in.

Travel can be pricey, but hopefully, these inexpensive accommodation suggestions, along with all the other resources at this blog, will help your trips to become affordable and attainable!

Accommodations, day trip, destinations, moving, saving money, tour, travel tips

Across America By Bus: Chicago

This is part two of the “Across America By Bus” series. Click here to read part one, “Greyhound Perks and Pitfalls”.

I have wanted to visit Chicago since I was eight years old. Granted, I wanted to go to Chicago back then because that’s where the Veggie Tales headquarters were. Veggie Tales moved out-of-state several years ago, and most of the attractions I went to didn’t even exist when I was eight, but finally getting the chance to visit Chicago felt like a childhood dream come true. I made sure to make it the first stop of my trip across America.

The first place I visited in Chicago was, of course, the Chicago Greyhound Station. It was probably the nicest bus station I went through on my entire trip, but it still wasn’t anything too special. The next place I visited was the inside of a taxi cab. I was only staying a mile away, and normally I would walk that distance, but because I had several pieces of luggage, it was worth paying the seven dollars for a cab. Besides, riding a taxi through a big city is part of the experience! I wasn’t allowed to call a cab or ride the subway when I went to NYC in high school, and it always felt like I was missing an aspect of the city because of it. The third place in Chicago I visited was the hostel.

Chicago Hostel

Hostelling International Chicago is conveniently located downtown, within walking distance of everything I wanted to visit. It was the only HI-brand hostel I’ve ever stayed at, and by far the largest! This hostel was quite a bit more expensive than any other hostel I’ve visited, plus I had to pay a few more dollars because I wasn’t a Hostelling International member, but it was still a great deal when you consider that any other accommodation within several miles would be at least three times the price. I checked in and went up to my dorm for a tiny bit of shut-eye before I woke up with the excitement of wanting to seize the day. Since I usually travel slowly, cramming Chicago into just one full day was a challenge, but I think I made the best of it.

As I was heading down to the first floor of the hostel, I noticed a sign that said the hostel sold discount tickets for the Willis Tower Skydeck. That was on my agenda, and I’m always up for saving money, so I picked up a ticket from the front desk before heading out.

Chicago Willis Tower

Just a few blocks away was the Willis Tower, although many people still know it as the Sears Tower. It was the tallest building in America up until this year when the new World Trade Center was built. Unfortunately, when I got to the Skydeck entrance, employees were announcing to the crowd that there was a broken elevator and to come back later. I mentally rearranged my itinerary and headed towards what I thought was Lake Michigan.

Chicago Feet Statue

After walking for many, many blocks, I thought I should have been at the lake, but I wasn’t. I finally pulled out my GPS and discovered that I had been walking parallel to the lake the entire time! I turned and began heading the right way. It actually turned out for the better, because I hadn’t planned to go to the Magic Mile, but because I took this route I ended up at the very end of it. A race was going on that day, so I walked by the finish line and visited several of the vendors before continuing on by Lake Michigan.

Lake Michigan Chicago Harbor

I had flown over Lake Michigan before, but this was my first time seeing it up-close. For awhile, I enjoyed walking on the path by the harbor, with a few stops at interesting points like the Buckingham Fountain. Eventually, I made it to my intended destination: the Navy Pier.

Chicago Buckingham Fountain

Before leaving on this trip, I had asked for travel tips from people who had been to Chicago. The Navy Pier was a common recommendation. I enjoyed walking out above the lake, and going through the shops and art features, but I’m still not really sure why so many people told me to go here. I found a pizza shop on the pier where I ate lunch, and on the way out, I saw a Crave Bar truck where I grabbed my dessert. I then headed on to Millennium Park.

Chicago Navy Pier

Millennium Park is interesting in that is was created to celebrate y2k, but it wasn’t opened until several years later. I first found myself in a beautiful outdoor theater, but I was looking for the famous Cloudgate “Bean”. Something reflective across the theater caught the corner of my eye, and sure enough, it was The Bean! It was fun walking around and underneath The Bean for a fun house effect. My favorite part was trying to find myself in the reflection among the hundreds of other visitors!

Chicago Bean

After getting dizzy from the optical illusions of The Bean, I continued through the park’s art, including the Crown Fountain. I then turned back to downtown towards the tallest building I could find. I was going to see if the Willis Tower Skydeck had opened yet.

Chicago 2014 090

When I got there, the staff was still saying that it was closed. I went up to one employee and asked her if it would be open at any point in time that day.

“Nope, come back tomorrow.”

Knowing I wouldn’t have time since my bus left the next morning, I asked if there was any way I could get a refund. She scrunched her face up. “Refund?” I nodded. “Oh, you have a ticket? If you have a ticket, you can go inside!” I pulled out my ticket and went through the doors.

Because the staff hadn’t communicated very well that only ONE elevator wasn’t working, and that people could still come if they had bought a ticket elsewhere, there wasn’t much of a line at all. The trip started by going down to a basement floor, getting a security check, and then watching a video about the history of the tower. I then crammed with several other people on an elevator that went to the 99th floor. It felt really different on this floor. I don’t know if it was just in my head, but I’m convinced that I could feel the building sway! I then got onto another elevator to the 103rd floor, also known as the Skydeck.  It’s the highest the public can get in any building in the United States.

Chicago View from Skydeck

I enjoyed going around the building and looking through the panoramic windows. I was able to locate almost everywhere I went earlier that day. But the highlight of Chicago was definitely “The Ledge”. These are four glass rooms that stick out of the Skydeck, so you can see everything straight below you! Waiting in line allowed me to get the guts to walk out, but as soon as I stepped out, I felt like I was going to fall! I posed for a few pictures, and then stepped back onto solid, opaque ground! It was such a rush, I decided to go out on all four ledges. It never got any easier!

Chicago Skydeck Ledge

After coming back down to Earth, I walked around the Willis Tower and was amazed at how far up I’d gone. Because I was operating all day on only a few hours of sleep, I went back to the hostel to relax for a bit. I realized that I needed to find a Chicago pizza restaurant to eat dinner at, because the pizza I got at the pier wasn’t very good at all. After I had recovered enough, I asked the front desk for pizza recommendations, and I was sent to Lou Malnati’s. I didn’t realize until I got there, but this the most popular place for Chicago pizza! I had to wait outside for 45 minutes with a buzzer, but trust me, it was worth the wait! I ordered a personal pizza of their best deep dish, “The Lou”. I had always heard that traditional Chicago pizza had sausage, but this was vegetarian and featured a divine combination of spinach, mushrooms, tomatoes and three cheeses.

Chicago Lou Malnati

After finishing off with a cookie pizza dessert, I spent the rest of the evening exploring all that the hostel had to offer. After a somewhat restful night’s sleep, I woke up, enjoyed a full breakfast, got ready, and took a taxi back to the Greyhound Station, where I boarded the bus to my next destination!

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A big thank-you goes out to Hostelz.com! I found out about the HI-Chicago Hostel through this site, and there you can find thousands more!

backpack, destinations, tour

U.S. vs Canada: Who Has the Better Niagara Falls?

As much as I’ve traveled across the United States, I never seemed to make it to Canada. I had been to New York, but never set foot out of the Big Apple while there. This summer, I took an eight-day trip to Niagara Falls. This means I had the opportunity to see the other side of New York State, as well as finally enter Canada. And since I visited both sides of this international city, people often ask me “Which side is better?”

Now, when it comes to travel, I don’t play favorites. I sometimes say that because I’m not a mother, my trips are like my children, therefore it would be wrong to choose a favorite. And really, I enjoyed both countries very much, but for different reasons. Here are a few highlights from each side:

Transportation:

US: You can take a trolley around Niagara Falls State Park, which is a lot of fun and very inexpensive. Unfortunately, public transportation around the rest of the city isn’t so great.

CA: While there’s nothing fun like a trolley, you can buy a WeGo pass and ride any bus with the WeGo logo. It goes anywhere in town that a tourist would want to visit.

Sights:

US: You can get up-close and personal with the falls. There are spots where you can be about five feet away from the top of the falls. (Naturally there’s railing to keep you a safe distance.)

CA: There’s only one waterfall that spans from the US to Canada, but because you’re not so close, Canada is the best place for viewing the falls and taking scenic pictures.

Attractions:

US: My favorite attraction was Cave of the Winds, where you can walk a deck at the base of Bridal Veil falls and get drenched. Other attractions include the Gorge Discovery Center, Aquarium of Niagara, and the Observation Tower, all of which are packaged in the Discovery Pass. The most famous attraction is the Maid of the Mist boat tour.

CA: My favorite attraction was Journey Behind the Falls, where you literally walk in an underground tunnel where you can see the underside of Horseshoe Falls. Another attraction included on the Adventure Pass is an amazing theater experience called Niagara’s Fury. Canada has an identical tour to Maid of the Mist, but it is called the Hornblower Niagara Cruise.

Down the River:

US: The Gorge Trail system offers miles of paths along the Niagara all the way to Lewiston. I experienced it as a combination of hiking and biking, using a bike I rented from Gorge View. This takes you through three state parks, Niagara Falls (of course), Whirlpool (which is the best place to view the large Niagara whirlpool), and Devil’s Hole (aptly named because of the hundreds of torturous steps, but has a great view of the power plant). If you drive, you can go to Fort Niagara, which is a historic base where the Niagara drains into Lake Ontario.

CA: While you could walk downriver by foot on the sidewalks, the WeGo buses can take you all the way to Queenston Heights, with hop-on-hop-off stops at interesting places such as gift shops, aviaries, and a large floral clock by the power plant. The White Water Walk takes you on a long deck as close to the Whirlpool Rapids as is legal (there is also an Aerocar that takes passengers above the Whirlpool for an outrageous extra fee). This side also has a beautiful site where the Niagara connects with the Great Lake, and you can get there by paying an extra fee for a special WeGo bus.

City Life: 

US: This is the side where you’ll experience the most nature. Wooded forests, walkable islands, and dirt paths are hard to find on the other side of the Niagara. It also seems to be the quieter town, if you go a few blocks away from the park, there are only houses, restaurants, hotels, and one casino. If you’ve never had Indian food before, this is the place to try it. Authentic Indian restaurants are practically on every corner.

CA: This side has a lot more tourist flair. Clifton Hills is a Disney-Vegas mashup filled with quirky museums, flashy tourist traps, and casinos. There are elegant (AKA expensive!) restaurants that beautifully frame views of the falls, most notably the Seattle Space Needle’s twin, Skylon Tower. While the nature aspect is lacking, more tourists mean more shops and services are offered here.

Hostels:

US: I stayed at Gorge View Hostel, which is the closest hostel to Niagara Falls. My favorite aspects were that is was across the street from the aquarium, the bedrooms were spacious and comfortable, and the owner let guests go on the roof to watch fireworks.

CA: I stayed at Niagara Backpackers Hostel in the bed-and-breakfast community, so everything was pretty upscale and historic-looking. I enjoyed this family-run accommodation, and the free breakfast was delicious!

Names and Number of Falls:

US: There are three waterfalls: American, Bridal Veil, and Horseshoe. The American Falls span between mainland New York and Luna Island. From Luna Island to Goat Island is Bridal Veil Falls. Then from Goat Island (still part of New York) to Canada is the Horseshoe Falls.

CA: There are two waterfalls. The American Falls is the collective name for the waterfalls on the US side. Of course the largest waterfall is still a horseshoe, but it is referred to here as the CANADIAN Horseshoe Falls! I just found it funny that each side has different interpretations of what the falls are!

As long as you have a passport, I encourage you to visit both sides of Niagara Falls to get the full experience. After all, perhaps the best part of Niagara Falls is walking across the Rainbow Bridge, where you have one foot in each country! 

Note: This post was made possible in part by two hostels on opposite sides of the Niagara! Gorge View in the States, and Backpacker’s Hostel in Canada.