5 Places You Must See on Your San Diego Vacation

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In beautiful mid-October, I traded in my ankle booties for sandals (definitely do not call them flip flops) and headed to the West Coast for the first time. And though I’m not rushing to give up my East Coast home, I definitely loved the California weather and scenery. Here are (IMHO) five places you simply must see when you Go San Diego!

1. Coronado

The beautiful, tiny island is where we spent most of our time. Over the glittering bridge from the mainland sits the charming hub of culture and charm that is Coronado. You must rent a bike and take one of the paths for a spin and get a real look at the Crown City. We rode for hours and were stoked to see the unique housing stock. Coronado looks like 100 people from 100 different cities moved there… and took their houses with them. We saw Malibu bungalows next to Victorian manors and super modern structures. And did I mention everything is within a block of the ocean (and a golf course, and a yacht club if we’re being honest)?

While you’re there you absolutely have to see the Hotel del Coronado. This massive work of architecture is one of the oldest hotels on the West Coast. Nestled on a private beach, The Del brings you back to days of Hollywood splendor, when the likes of Dean Martin and Sophia Loren could be seen lounging by the pool. Just a peek inside at the ole’ lift is worth the drive. Thankfully we got to see a lot more than that since this was the site of Jake’s beautiful cousin Colleen and her now husband James’ garden ceremony and bubbling brunch reception. (We all know I LOVE brunch.)

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We stayed at the Marriott Coronado Island Resort and wow. If you can’t stay there, take a walk on the boardwalk and just eat breakfast there. You’ll likely be joined by local birds who stop by for a taste of your jam. Best part of this place? The hammocks with ocean breezes. I could have stayed forever.

2. La Jolla

I know you remember that name from your middle school days of Hollister Co. sweatshirts. Everyone talks about La Jolla (pronounced la-hoy-ya), and for good reason. The town of major Hispanic influence is worth a stop. There is an awesome shop to rent gear for snorkeling and surfing. It was too cold for us to go in without wetsuits but the waves made the trip worthwhile for Jake.

Side note: There is nothing like a pier off a California beach. I felt like I was inside the dramatic scene where they jump in “Aquamarine.”

Take time to stop at Galaxy Taco when you’re done your day of adventures. The owner brings in fresh blue corn every day from Mexico for the homemade street tacos’ base. Yum!

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3. Seaport Village

A few minutes Uber outside downtown is the Seaport Village, home to artisanal and souvenir shops for all of your touristy needs. Be sure to stop for a cupcake at Frost Me! They don’t have a huge selection of flavors but the Nutella centers are so rich you won’t care.

Definitely stop into Hot Licks, the most expansive hot sauce shop I’ve ever seen. The husband and wife team carries a lot of authentic Mexican sauces, as well as their own line.

Funny story: A friend asked the owner of the shop to let him try the hottest sauce he had. The man gave him a toothpick with a speck of sauce out of a bottle in the back ie. danger zone of the case. One lick and I was racing off to Starbucks to buy him two kiddie cartons of milk. His mouth went numb and he sounded like a little kid with his tongue stuck to a frozen telephone pole. (And yes, I have video proof.)

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4. Balboa Park

San Diego is a fairly new city and that means it had a little more sophisticated urban planning than say, Philly. Needless to say, all the cultural centers are together in an area outside downtown called Balboa Park.

From Japanese tranquility gardens to vintage car museums, there is something for everyone at Balboa. In fact, you could spend a whole weekend there alone. My favorite part of Balboa Park deserves its own number though. The one, the only…

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5. San Diego Zoo

One of the premier zoos in the world, San Diego is more of an experience. I don’t think we got through more than half of the exhibits in the day we spent there but we had a really good time. You’re admitted with a fancy, collectible ticket and board a double decker tour bus that takes you around the whole zoo.

This zoo has EVERYTHING. Sculptures, great food, an IMAX theatre, and the most amazing habitats I’ve ever seen. The animals can be viewed from so many angles and their enclosures are so open, natural and big that I can’t imagine they even know people are watching.

This post can’t even begin to scratch the surface of the amazing trip we had. From the awesome food at Harbor Breakfast where we sat at the counter with locals (and their pooches) to the mall at Westfield Horton Plaza that looks like it popped out of a Dreamworks film. To the chic Burger King with an outdoor patio and me finally buying my very own Rainbows!

The best part of the trip really was getting to spend time with amazing family and celebrating a brand new marriage. It was the trip of a lifetime and really gave me the itch to order new luggage and keep on track with Mint so I can go out and travel more.

Are you from San Diego? What awesome places didn’t make my list? Tell me in the comments below. 

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Vacations under $500: Knoebels in Elysburg, PA

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This weekend I went on a girls getaway with my high school friends. What a blast from the past it was to spend time together again, reminiscing and reconnecting.

At the persuasion of a friend who vacationed there as a child, and being Philly rats, we decided to head up the PA Turnpike and explore the beautiful hills of Elysburg, PA and its shining gem, Knoebels.

I remember being a kid and my dad talking about the amusement park where “every ride’s a dollar”. Compared to the price gouging at the Jersey Shore, that price was downright foreign. We never did make the 2.5 hour trek from the city up to Elysburg so I jumped at the chance to go as an adult.

Elysburg is nestled in the hills of upstate PA, settled around the major attraction, Knoebels. Knoebels is the self-declared “largest free-admission amusement park” in the country, and perhaps one of the oldest. This charming village feels like a less doctored up version of Busch Gardens, which I actually preferred. For families, this struck me as the spot to plan a memorable, affordable vacation.

Keep on reading for my 8 reasons why Knoebels makes for a great spot for families of all kinds (including your family of friends):

  1. Knoebels has no admission fee! You can buy a ride band or books of tickets, like a carnival. So grandma can totally come along for the memories and avoid paying just to get in. All are welcome to use the luncheon pavilions, watch the live entertainment, and take photos at the historic sites.
  2. The rides are super affordable! They may not all be a dollar a ride anymore but they average less than $2 per attraction. If you have a group, do the math and figure out if you’ll need more than $150 in tickets. You can buy them all together and receive up to 15% off! There are always special deals happening too, like 90 cent Sundays and $12 Fridays so plan your trip around the online calendar.
  3. There are over 2 dozen eateries in the park! From novelties like candy floss and apple cider slushies to pizza, grilled chicken sandwiches and walking tacos, there is something to suit every palette. Even the food was affordable with a generous burger averaging $3.75 and a large pizza at $12.
  4. If eating at the park isn’t for you (saving money, picky eaters, food allergies), that’s ok too! You can bring in a cooler and use the covered lunch pavilions just the same. Since there is no admission fee, there’s no place to check in and no rules on carrying in water, food, or lactation products.
  5. There’s way more than just rides! Live music, magicians, shops, story time and a pool round out this vacation spot. Best yet, the live entertainment is always free and a pool pass can be purchased for less than $10. There are even two free museums on the premises.
  6. Knoebels has a lot of cool, old-fashioned rides. There were so many unique, war-era coasters and attractions. The intensity level is lower than Great Adventure and was more on par with Disney so even scaredy cats like myself could get in on the fun.
  7. Knoebels offers free parking! They also have a tram car that comes around the huge lot to get you right up to the park without having to walk (also free).
  8. You can stay here too! Tent out, rent a cottage or stay in a cabin- it’s up to you! But all accommodations are connected to or within a ten minute shuttle ride of the park (and yes, the shuttle is also free).

So now that I have you all, “Oh my gosh, we need to plan a trip here. How much does this fabulous place cost?!” here is the price breakdown for a four person trip for a weekend (2 days, one night):

Driving

  •  250 miles round trip
  • $20 in gas and tolls

Tickets

  • Average of $1.75 per ride
  • Average 15 rides completed in 2 day period
  • $105 in tickets

Food

  • Pack simple breakfast food, snacks and water
  • Lunch: Adult meals average $9, kids average $7
  • Dinner: Pizza, $12
  • Snack: Ice cream, $4 per cone
  • Total: $92

Accommodations

  • Tent site with water, electric and shared bathhouse: $48 per night
  • Cabin for 6 with water, electric and shared bathhouse: $140 per night
  • Cabin for 6 with water, electric, private bath and kitchenette: $235 per night

Leave money for souvenirs at the gift shop and to take home some fresh fudge or caramel corn and you can make this trip happen for about $450 for a family of 4 (in the highest priced cabin)!

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Happy Glamping,

BGB

PS: Is Knoebels your family vay-kay of choice? Tell me your favorite Knoebels memory in the comments below.

Royal Caribbean “Anthem of the Seas”

I recently returned from this summer’s vacation to the stunning island of Bermuda via RCCL’s Anthem of the Seas. This post has been weeks in the making so I hope you enjoy and can better decide if a cruise vacation is right for you!

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Anthem is the second largest cruise ship in the world and one of the most luxurious. This floating city includes nearly a dozen restaurants and bars, a grande theatre, casino, skydiving simulation tube, and even a full indoor sports arena for roller skating, bumper cars and a circus school. The huge deck has multiple pools and jacuzzis, along with an indoor solarium, a natatorium which is always available despite the weather. Here I will answer your FAQs on cruising and the Anthem experience.

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What did you do all day while at sea?

Most activities onboard are included in your set price so we took advantage of all the ship has to offer including:

  • Ripcord by iFly skydiving simulation tube
  • Surfing wave pool
  • North Star observation vessel which raises passengers 300 ft above top deck for 360 degree views of the Atlantic
  • Outdoor jacuzzi and pools and indoor solarium
  • Full spa for massages, hair, nails and makeup
  • Indoor sports center with elevated track, arcade/Xbox lounge and multipurpose space
  • Social events like jewelry classes, art auctions and wine tastings

What is the food like?

The ship has many restaurants. No main dining room is offered as the ship offers a dynamic dining program. The Windjammer marketplace is a station style buffet open nearly 24/7. Along with regular self-serve buffet options, there are made-to-order stations. There, a chef could make you a customized quesadilla, stir-fry, panini or omelette. There were also themed stations on different days. One day featured an Italian speciality station of meats and cheeses, another a chocolate fountain with all the fixings (yum!).

Along with the Windjammer is a pizza parlour and two cafes, along with the dinner specific restaurants. No main dining room is offered as the ship offers a dynamic dining program.This means all guests have four complimentary restaurants to choose from each evening. Each restaurant has its own unique theme, decor and menu:

  • Silk: Features dishes from various Asian countries
    • Favorite dishes: Pulled pork tacos, mochi (a scoop of fruit ice cream inside a gummy shell)
  • American Icon: Traditional fare
    • Favorite dishes: Sirloin burger, mahi mahi
  • Chic: Modern fare alla a NYC lounge
    • I can’t say I had a favorite here 😦
  • Grande: French
    • Favorite dishes: filet mignon, lobster tails, nougat pastry, escargot (if you’re adventurous)
    • Special note: Grande is the only semi-formal restaurant of those mentioned. Men need to bring a suit jacket and women cocktail attire for this restaurant only.

At night, check out various venues for parties and live music:

  • Music Hall has live cover bands in the evening and a DJ for the younger crowd after midnight
  • Bolero’s tequila bar offers the sounds of salsa
  • The 270 Room’s RED nightclub experience includes live action performances by the ship’s entertainers along with Latin music and special effects for the crowd to join in on
  • Music Hall’s silent party was the coolest event of the trip! Every party goer receives a pair of headphones playing two different DJs’ music so you can listen to different musical styles but still dance as one.
  • Poolside movies include new releases and favorites
  • There are currently three shows on rotation:
    • We Will Rock You, a high energy broadway show inspired by the music of Queen
    • The Gift, a short whimsical musical piece with special effects
    • Spectra’s Cabaret, featuring singing and dancing acts by RCCL’s incredibly talented entertainers

Overall, this ship has more to do than you can imagine. The service was top-notch and the staff were truly diverse. So what are my tips now that I’m officially a cruiser?

  1. Return your towels! You are charged for towels you borrow by the pool and don’t return.
  2. Buy a WOW band. These can be purchased at any time and work as an alternative to your SeaPass. That means this little Armstrong-style bracelet can be your room key, your ID and your payment for food and drinks. It’s super convenient not to need a wallet in the pool or nightclub.
  3. Travel locally. We were able to board our ship an hour away from home in NJ. From the moment we stepped onboard there was champagne flowing. The party started an hour away from home and continued for 8 full days. We wouldn’t have had that experience if we had to fly to Florida, Texas, etc. so if a cruise line leaves from within driving distance of your home SERIOUSLY consider it.
  4. Mind when you book. We booked on Black Friday and were able to earn extra perks such as free wifi and onboard credit.
  5. Make friends with your crew. On our ship, there were less than 50 people between the ages of 18 and 28. But almost the entire crew was our age! They were our closest comrades and showed us places on the island we never would have experienced otherwise.

But if there is one tip you have to know it is this one: plan, plan, plan. Reserve your restaurants, activities and excursions in advance! These open up online 90 days before sailing so get on and get the itinerary you want. You don’t want to be that person stuck on standby at the wave pool hoping someone cancels.

If you do, I promise you’ll have the time of your life! Comment with questions or to share your RCCL experience.

Happy cruisin’,

BGB

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Vacations under $500: Atlanta, GA

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Travelers and wanderlusters alike, if you have not seen Georgia, you need to. Now. Go book your flight, I’m serious.

I had the pleasure of spending the last week in Atlanta. What a beautiful city! Somewhere in my frequent treks up and back the east coast, I missed out on Georgia and its charm. (Next stop, Savannah.)

But seriously, to give my northeasters a scope. The city is the same size as Philly with a third of the population. No trash, few smokers, highly diverse.  I really enjoyed my time there. The city is very hilly. It reminded me of a baby San Fran. It was not uncommon to walk into a building off the street and be greeted by nothing but a lobby. The actual attractions were often up a flight of stairs.

The midtown area where I stayed is filled with little boutiquey tapas places and cocktail bars. Let’s take a moment to appreciate the awesome bar scene. There are bars and lounges on every corner and each hotel has at least two. These are not like schickler bars either. These are modern and fresh.

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Gladys Knight’s Chicken and Waffles

Speaking of hotels, I stayed at the Atlanta Marriott Marquis and though the hotel was beautiful, I would not stay there again. The hotel is driven toward business and conference shindigs and that was exactly why I stayed. (I was attending the National PR Students Society of America Conference that was happening right in the hotel.) The Marquis is truly dazzling and yes, it’s the one where “Mockingjay” was filmed. The elevators zoomed up and down to my 34th floor room so fast my ears popped.

One of the coolest attractions in the city (besides the gigantic, tourist-ridden ferris wheel that I didn’t do because I don’t do ferris wheels) is the World of Coca-Cola. The drink was created right in the ATL and the city is plastered with its love for it. Coke and Chick-fil-A. Any takers?

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The factory is a self-guided museum and costs less than $20. It has little theatres to watch old TV spots, some neat artifacts from around the world, and best of all- the tasting room! This giant space has soda dispensers from each continent where Coke products are sold. My favorites were the South African sodas/juices. Yes they were carbonated but they tasted like all kinds of fruity things mixed with candy and rainbows.

I am Italian so I had to try the one and only soda from Italy which happened to be the best selling soda in Europe, called Beverly. For anyone unaware, this is actually a pretty cute play-on words because “beve” is Italian for “drink”. I tried it knowing nothing of its lore as the most heinous drink made by Coke and possibly, the world round. And I tasted it…and I liked it. I wouldn’t drink it with my pizza but when a staff member told me it was meant as a palate cleanser, I totally understood. (Just as an addition, if you like the Beverly, don’t tell people. They will look at you like you’re crazy.)

Because I was a conference attendee I did not have time to visit the other attractions of Atlanta but I heard great things about the Georgia Aquarium (the largest in the US) and the Civil Rights Museum. All of these attractions are conveniently located in Pemberton Place, a small stone plaza.

Expert Tip Time!

Do: Buy an Atlanta CityPass. You can get a ride on the giant ferris wheel, plus receive admissions to World of Coke, the aquarium and the Civil Rights Museum for around $80. It’s $40 for the aquarium alone so this is a huge savings.

Do: Make this a long weekend trip. Even if you go to all the sites and try the local spots, three days will probably be plenty.

Do: Bring your bathing suit! It’s freezing up north but it’s 70 degrees in Georgia and all the hotels have indoor/outdoor pools.

Do: Visit the most fabulous mall EVER. The Lenox Square Mall has Gucci next to Fendi next to Prada next to Ferragamo next to Herrera. Need I say more?

The display cars are Masis. And I saw Fetty Wap in Louis Vuitton.

Take MARTA (public transit) and it will drop you off right outside.

IMG_5344Check out my Mistura Timepiece for the fabulous watch I bought while there! These are handmade and can only be found in two shops nationwide- Dallas and Atlanta. Each takes a whopping 85 hours to create and is made from genuine teak wood and leather.

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Average Cost

Hotel: $175 per night for 4 nights divided by 4 people per room at a high-end hotel

Food: $20 for a mid-range dinner

Drink: $10 for a mixed drink, $30 for a bottle of low-grade wine

Flight: $160

 

Next time…

Next visit to the ATL (and I will be back), I will stay in a cheaper hotel for 3 nights instead. I could probably do the trip for $400 that way.

Could all my Atlanters comment below with the best local spots we must try? Let me know if you plan to make this trip and need more tips, kids.

 

Happy travels,

Bi

 

Vacations under $500: Montreal, Canada

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My next journey is in the works and it is to *drumroll please*…Montreal! In reality, I would love to go France this year but neither my budget nor my schedule will allow it until next summer. Montreal is much closer to home, takes less travel time, and costs a lot less so it is the next best option.

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Montreal is a large French-speaking colony in southeastern Canada, less than two hours from the US border. With its culture and tiny streets, it feels like Europe. Being close to home has its perks: English speakers aplenty, similar currency rates, and a short flight.

As far as attractions go, the city has enough to keep someone as active as myself busy for a solid three to four days. I am not one to sleep-in during vacations in cities as culturally rich as Montreal- naps are for the Bahamas.

National Geographic had some great recommendations for free or low cost activities:

  • Musee de Lachine: outdoor sculpture museum along the canal
  • City Hall
  • Notre Dame Basilica: free if you go to a service
  • Musee de la Banque de Montreal: the city’s oldest bank which is now a museum
  • Parc du Mont Royal (which offers bus and hiking tours to the Belvedere observatory lookout spot) & the historic Smith House
  • McGill University’s Redpath National History Museum
  • Parc Maisonneuve area: Botanical Gardens, Insectarium, Olympic Stadium, Science Center (fees apply)
  • Marche Jean-Talon & Atwater: open air farmers’ markets

Continuing into food, I hear I must try poutine, basically fries with cheese and gravy on them. Also, local beer, honey, and smoked meat sandwiches. And surprise- bagels?! I will live to see and eat these Montrealian bagels. For around $50 you can even take a food tour of the Plateau neighborhood which is apparently the hipster center of the city.

There is also great shopping to be had down various main streets and there is a huge underground mall. You know you are in a cold, snowy climate when it was more economical to build an entire mall underground than to clear and salt the roads for the season.

The Old Port area also has culture to be explored, including small BYOBs, tiny boutiques, and the Grevin Wax Museum. Add that in with the downtown area’s jumping club scene and I see the recipe for an awesome long weekend.

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Cost

*passport not included

$50 in bus/cab/uber fare

+ $270 flight (nonstop from NYC)

+ $66 AirBNB (3 nights)

+ $50 food tour

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That brings us to a grand total of $436! Make sure to consider money for food and souvenirs. I tend to be on the low end of that because my favorite souvenirs are memories, pictures, and postcards. Plus, I enjoy buying at local markets and cooking.

When it comes to flights, I fly nonstop whenever possible. It’s more comfortable and generally takes less time. When booking flights, I try to leave early and arrive early and do the opposite on the way back, flying home late in the day. This allows the most time in the city. (Stay tuned for a packing tutorial and never pay to check a bag again.)

As far as AirBNB, I like having a home instead of a hotel. You get a lot more for your money and the guides are generally more than happy to help with directions, suggestions, and sometimes even family dinners or rides to the airport (score!) For my own reassurance, I choose to travel with friends, rent an entire apartment (not a room), and I only go with “Superhosts” (preferred hosts, screened through AirBNB) whenever possible.

If anyone has been to the land of the Maples or is a current ‘Trealiar, please comment below with suggestions!

Au revoir,

BGB

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