Visiting Nicaragua

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Nicaragua—sun, sand, and…well to be honest, we weren't sure what to expect from the Central American country nestled between Costa Rica and Honduras. The five-hour flight from DC > Miami > Managua (Nicaragua’s capital city) was a breeze. Customs requires a $10 cash payment, and with that we were in! At the time, Adam's sister, Allison, was living in Granada and we were excited to visit her and explore what has undoubtedly become one of our favorite countries we've visited to date. We're already wanting to go back.

Check out this fun video of our trip and details about some of our favorite spots in Granada and San Juan below. 

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Obviously, safety is always top of mind when we're traveling. Despite what we had heard, we felt safe in Nicaragua the entire time. The people were incredibly warm and welcoming, and despite the high level of poverty there was a true sense of community and pride. 

Granada is beautiful with its colonial architecture and bright colors. We loved wandering the streets and shops while trying to stay cool. We visited in late January, Nicaragua's dry season, just before the oppressive summer heat arrives. Although even this Florida girl found the humid and hot air unrelenting—but nothing a few cold Toñas couldn't fix.

Our first day in Granada started with a visit to the Iglesia de la Merced, a historic cathedral in the center of town. For a few cordobas the winding climb to the top of the bell tower provides a panoramic view of the city. 

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To me, the city felt very cosmopolitan, with a surprising amount of unique restaurants, museums, and galleries—many of which seemed to be influenced by the large expat community. After a few hours of exploring and wondering along Calle la Calzada, the heart of the city, Granada already felt familiar. We ate lunch at the most adorable restaurant, run by a Canadian couple, and I tried to dust off my rusty Spanish conversation skills. Afterwards we stopped for a local treat: fresh coconut at a roadside stand. 

SAN JUAN

After donuts and coffee at Allison's favorite spot, we drove two hours south to San Juan del Sur. The Nicaraguan countryside is incredibly gorgeous with its mountain, volcano, and lake views—I had trouble putting my camera down. We headed straight to the pool at HulaKai Hotel, which I had been looking forward to staying at for months. This secluded jungle paradise is such a special place with incredible views overlooking the surf break at Playa Maderas. The folks at HulaKai describe it as boutique hotel celebrating down to earth hospitality and a barefoot luxury lifestyle. The hotel offers a variety of rooms styles, simple by American standards, but beautifully appointed and surrounded by commual outdoor terrace space with hammocks and ocean views. I never wanted to leave.

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One of our favorite experiences was dinner our first night in San Juan. HulaKai hotel guests and neighbors from near and far gather together for a family style dinner several times a week to enjoy a freshly prepared, all you can eat meal. The menu is determined daily, with all ingredients locally sourced. It was such a fun experience to meet and talk with folks from all corners of world—some celebrating a special occasion, others visiting for the 2nd and 3rd time, any many for the first. 

 Photo/HulaKai Hotel

Photo/HulaKai Hotel

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HulaKai is not just a place you go to sip piña coladas on the beach, although we did that of course. You come here to unplug, reconnect, and catch your breath. We started each day with chocolate chip banana pancakes and yoga, with a view that did not disappoint. 

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Up next was a bucket list item for us all—learning to surf! The front desk at HulaKai set us up with a local for a private lesson. We grabbed our boards, rash guard, and headed to the beach for surfing 101. As a former cheerleader/dancer, I like to think of myself as having above average balance. Lets just say my "above average balance" was no match for the Pacific Ocean. 

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“We are all equal before a wave.”
— Laird Hamilton
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Our instructor, Juan Carlos, runs a small surf shop at the bottom of the hill just before the beach at Playa Maderas. He was fantastic and gave us a quick lesson on the sand before helping us all catch our first wave. It's hard, but so much fun, and addictive, always wanting to do better than the ride before. After A LOT of falls, we all managed to get up and had a ton of fun. We celebrated our surfing debut with more Toñas and tacos on the beach.

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A vacation for me isn't complete without meeting an animal (or two, or three). San Juan did not disappoint, with adorable monkeys high in the treetops and the cutest community cats who call the hotels and shops home. 

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We headed to town one night and I was surprised to see what a bustling beach town it was. Tons of adorable shops, restaurants, and breweries. Definitely has a spring break vibe and were you go to have some fun. 

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On our way out of town, we visited Christ of the Mercy, which sits high above San Juan del Sur and offers stunning views of the bay.

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Back in Granada, we stopped for lunch at Espressionista, a French-inspired cafe that had been on my list to visit. The decor and desserts were perfect. 

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Tio Antonios’ Hammocks was another one of our favorite places. In addition to the most incredible hammocks, the owner is committed to employing and empowering people with disabilities, particularly the deaf community. It’s absolutely worth stopping in to visit and take a tour of their workshop, although be warned, you’ll have a hard time not bringing something home with you. We opted for the most adorable pet hammock. 

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Soy Nica is another must visit shop while in Granada. Their handbag designs are simple, but colorful, and incredibly well made. I wanted everything.

After some shopping we checked into Tribal Hotel, and oh my goodness. This boutique hotel, with just 7 rooms and a gorgeous courtyard pool, is a true oasis in the center of the city. The service, design, and attention to detail were top notch. I’ve truly never felt so content, and at peace in a space and absolutely will be coming back. 

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That evening we made the trek to Masaya Volcano, one of Nicaragua’s active volcanos. There was already a long line of cars waiting to get into the national park, but seeing the red hot lava was certainly worth the wait—and a first for Adam and I. 

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We wrapped up the week with a visit to the famous Masaya Market and day trip to Catarina to take in the gorgeous views of Laguna de Apoyo. At 200 meters deep, the Laguna fills a massive crater from an extinct volcano—so cool. 

My big win of the day was finding the perfect sandals, which I was able to have fit to size for less than $25 at Masaya Market, incredible. 

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Our last full day in Nicaragua we took a boat tour around the isletas, hundreds of volcanic formed islands in Lake Nicaragua. We stopped for lunch on one of the islands and enjoyed the beautiful views and weather (and the monkies that call the islands home).

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Before heading to the airport we enjoyed a perfect morning at Tribal, with a multi-course breakfast and a final dip in the pool. 

Happy Groundhog Day

A long standing bucket list item, my friend Kate and I vowed we were finally going to make the four hour trek from Washington, DC to Punxsutawney, Pa. to see Phil's forecast with 10,000 of our closest friends. To-date it is the most bizarre, but fun, 16-hour trip I've had yet.

Travel Tip: Plan Early!

Compulsive over planner could be my middle name. So naturally, I started planning for our 2016 Groundhog Day adventure in October 2015. I thought, four months, plenty of time—WRONG. Apparently Groundhog Day is a very big deal in Punxsutawney and every hotel within 20 miles (which is like ten total) was booked. Our closest option was a hotel 30 minutes south in Indiana, Pa. There were a few cute bed and breakfast options in Punxsutawney, but many are booked a year in advance, so make those reservation early.

8 Hours Round Trip

Kate and I opted to instead drive overnight, leaving DC at 10 p.m., wait for Phil's prognostication at 7:30 a.m. and then head the 200 miles south to DC the same day. It's a loonngg drive, and some of the back roads we took were straight out of a horror movie. But we made it—ready to celebrate in the weather capital of the world!

Parking is available at the Wal-Mart on Route 119 south of Punxsutawney. From there we hopped on a bus ($5/per person) and made our way to Gobbler's Knob.

22 Degrees and Ready to Party

Gobbler's Knob opens at 3:00 a.m. and when we got there at 3:30 it was packed! It's definitely a party atmosphere and I was surprised at the amount of people there from far and wide, many dressed in their craziest Phil-themed attire. Clearly it's a popular bucket list item. We headed straight for the hot chocolate stand and then the bonfire to warm up.

Just before sunrise there were fireworks that we thought reviled any we'd seen on 4th of July. It was almost time for Phil!

Celebrating an Early Spring with Punsutawney

Fa-la-la-llama Hike

Adam and I went on quite a few adventures last year, but for me, our llama trek in Shenandoah Valley tops them all. Donna and Tim, of Twin Creeks Llamas, along with our new friends Santiago, Pete and Coffee Bean, treated us to an incredible three hour hike on their farm, located 90 minutes west of Washington, D.C. Check out the video of our full adventure above.

After arriving Saturday morning, we spent about an hour getting to know the llamas, learning how to halter and lead them, and asking a ton of questions (read their great FAQ here). It was the weekend of Thanksgiving, so it was just Adam and I, but Donna and Tim were sweet enough take us on what they call a "Llama Lite Picnic Hike" on their beautiful property.  

 Photo // Twin Creeks Llamas

Photo // Twin Creeks Llamas

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LLAMA LITE HIKE

The Llama Lite picnic hike ($55/per person) is a condensed version of the regular 4-hour trek through Shenandoah's Blue Ridge Mountains. The picnic hike includes 1 1/4 miles of groomed trails that meander through the woods and follow the banks of their two streams. It also includes the standard "trail gourmet" lunch, which was right up there with one of mine and Adam's favorite meals to date. The llamas carry everything for you and Donna and Tim put out a truly delicious spread for us, including Donna's famed pumpkin soup.

All-in-all, Llama Lite is a great option if you're not up for the full hike or are short on time—but Adam and I are certainly looking forward to coming back in the fall to tackle the Overlook Trail ($75/per person).

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 Photo // Twin Creeks Llamas

Photo // Twin Creeks Llamas

SLEIGH BELLS JINGLIN'

It was the first hike of the holiday season, so Donna decked the boys in sleigh bells for our hike. They were adorable, as were their kisses—which you could get if you were quick and had some yummy grain as a treat.

(Party) Pete, as he's affectionately called, was my buddy for the hike. Pete is jet black, curious, and was definitely one of my favorites. In fact, Donna and Tim explained that oftentimes llama personalities are compared to that of cats, curious and aloof. But like cats, they each had very unique personalities and it was so much fun getting to know them over the course of our hike.

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12 Hours in Knoxville

NEXT UP, KNOXVILLE

We stopped in Knoxville on our way to Asheville and boy let me tell you was I surprised. It is truly a hidden gem nestled at the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains, with a ton of charm and Southern hospitality. I'm already wanting to go back. 

MARKET SQUARE

We rolled into town about 7 p.m. and made a beeline for Market Square, host to an eclectic mix of restaurants, shopping, and live music with a small-town flare. Established in 1854 as a market place for regional farmers, the pedestrian mall holds true to its roots with a weekly seasonal farmer's market (and food trucks!).

We had a hard time squeezing in all we wanted to see and do in the short time we were there but some of our favorites included:

  • Stock & Barrel – Burgers and bourbon and s'mores shakes to die for.
  • Preservation Pub - Great roof top and live music! (although be prepared to leave smelling like an ashtray).
  • Scruffy City Hall - Owned by the same folks that run Preservation Pub, $5 cover gets you into both.
  • Tupelo Honey - Southern soul cooking that comes highly recommended. They also have locations in Asheville and Arlington, VA.

And we didn't have a chance to try The Tomato Head and The Crown & Goose but they both looked fun and came highly recommended.

AU REVOIR KNOXVILLE

On our way out of town we stopped at The French Market Creperie. The French Market offers both sweet and savory French crepes and the best fresh squeezed orange juice I've had in awhile. We did a bit more walking around before hitting the road to the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, NC (more on that coming soon).

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Next Time

Hotel St. Oliver is definitely on my list of places to stay for my next trip to Knoxville. Just steps from Market Square, the 1876 building was renovated and re-envisioned into an adorable boutique hotel. We stayed at the Knoxville Downtown Hilton, which was lovely, pet friendly and just a few blocks from Market Square.

We also heard great things about Sequoyah Hills and would have loved to explore the 87-acre park along the Tennessee River if we had another day there. Next time!

Music City Love + A Night in Knoxville

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SITE SEEING IN MUSIC CITY

We made the nine hour drive from Washington, DC to Nashville for the start of our 1,500 mile road trip through Tennessee and North Carolina. Our first stop, celebrating the wedding of our sweet friends from college. Their destination wedding was the perfect backdrop for exploring all that Music City has to offer. Neither Adam or I had been, although it has been at the top of our travel bucket-list for some time—and it certainly didn't disappoint.

NASHVILLE LOVE

We so enjoyed celebrating with our college friends, Alexa and Chris, on their special day. With its open-air chapel, crystal chandeliers, and antique church pews, their ceremony and reception at Mint Springs Farm, just south of Nashville, was pure southern elegance.

GOOD EATS + DRINKS

Country music is alive and well in Nashville, as are the herds of bachelorettes and birthday parties at every turn. Nashville is certainly the place to come for a good time and is well known for its storied music history, but I was most surprised to find a capitol city with a thriving food scene and eclectic vibe.

Pinewood Social

My favorite place by far was the trendy Pinewood Social that came highly recommended. This restaurant, meets adult playground, is a funky, fun space with delicious food. Beyond the dining room and bar is a six-lane bowling alley, bocce court, coffee bar and outdoor pool. We were there for Saturday brunch and I honestly could have ordered everything on the menu. We opted to share the pork belly egg sandwich and chicken and biscuits—so good!

More Favorites

MUSIC MUST SEES

From the Country Music Hall of Fame to historic RCA Studio B, Nashville is packed with music must sees. We tried to hit the high notes on our quick 1-day tour.

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NEXT UP, KNOXVILLE

We stopped in Knoxville on our way to Asheville and boy let me tell you was I surprised. It is truly a hidden gem nestled at the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains, with a ton of charm and Southern hospitality. I'm already wanting to go back. 

MARKET SQUARE

We rolled into town about 7 p.m. and made a beeline for Market Square, host to an eclectic mix of restaurants, shopping, and live music with a small-town flare. Established in 1854 as a market place for regional farmers, the pedestrian mall holds true to its roots with a weekly seasonal farmer's market (and food trucks!).

We had a hard time squeezing in all we wanted to see and do in the short time we were there but some of our favorites included:

  • Stock & Barrel – Burgers and bourbon and s'mores shakes to die for.
  • Preservation Pub - Great roof top and live music! (although be prepared to leave smelling like an ashtray).
  • Scruffy City Hall - Owned by the same folks that run Preservation Pub, $5 cover gets you into both.
  • Tupelo Honey - Southern soul cooking that comes highly recommended. They also have locations in Asheville and Arlington, VA.

And we didn't have a chance to try The Tomato Head and The Crown & Goose but they both looked fun and came highly recommended.

AU REVOIR KNOXVILLE

On our way out of town we stopped at The French Market Creperie. The French Market offers both sweet and savory French crepes and the best fresh squeezed orange juice I've had in awhile. We did a bit more walking around before hitting the road to the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, NC (more on that coming soon).

Next Time

Hotel St. Oliver is definitely on my list of places to stay for my next trip to Knoxville. Just steps from Market Square, the 1876 building was renovated and re-envisioned into an adorable boutique hotel. We stayed at the Knoxville Downtown Hilton, which was lovely, pet friendly and just a few blocks from Market Square.

We also heard great things about Sequoyah Hills and would have loved to explore the 87-acre park along the Tennessee River if we had another day there. Next time!