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10 Incredible Road Trip Routes Across America

There’s nothing quite like the great American road trip. National Geographic compiled its own list of 50 Ultimate Road Trips around the world, and of those included, 39 are actually situated in this country, from Alaska’s Seward Highway to Maui’s Back Road to Hana to the Cherohala Skyway in the Great Smoky Mountains.

A sprawling network of interstate highways, bumpy back roads, and everything between makes it easy to craft the perfect road trip for your particular interests and timetable. And then there are the tried-and-true routes, those must-sees for road trip aficionados. Here’s a look at ten of my all-time favorite road trips across America.

Champlain Valley. Photo © Stephanie Murton/123rf.
The Vermont Cheese Trail passes through the scenic pastures of Champlain Valley. Photo © Stephanie Murton/123rf.

1. Vermont’s Cheese Trail

Ever since my first visit to Burlington, I’ve been an ardent fan of Vermont’s sharp cheddar and artisanal cheeses. If you’re a passionate cheese fan, too, you’ll appreciate this 280-mile loop (via I-89, Route 100, and Route 7) from Plymouth Notch, the birthplace of President Calvin Coolidge, to the scenic pastures of the Champlain Valley.

2. The East Coast’s Journey Through Hallowed Ground

The East Coast offers a number of amazing sights for history buffs, including the 175-mile route known by preservationists as the Journey Through Hallowed Ground. Commencing in Charlottesville, Virginia, and continuing toward Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, you’ll encounter such presidential landmarks as Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, James Monroe’s Ash-Lawn Highland, and James Madison’s Montpelier, not to mention Gettysburg National Military Park.

Map of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania
Gettysburg, Pennsylvania

3. Overseas Highway in the Florida Keys

There’s nothing quite like the 113-mile drive through the Florida Keys, via the aptly named Overseas Highway (U.S. 1). Along this picturesque route–a series of bridges and land-based stretches–you’ll encounter several unique islands and attractions, including the state parks and dolphin facilities of Key Largo, the spas and diving museum of Islamorada, Bahia Honda State Park in the Lower Keys, and a plethora of bars, eateries, art galleries, and museums in Key West, the country’s Southernmost City.

View of the Flagler Railway and Bridge at Bahia Honda State Park. Photo © Fiona Deaton/123rf.
View of the Flagler Railway and Bridge at Bahia Honda State Park. Photo © Fiona Deaton/123rf.

4. Louisiana’s Creole Country

You might be surprised to learn that northern Louisiana is as much worth a look as is southern counterpart. Starting in Natchitoches, you can take a 70-mile loop known as the Cane River Road, or the Cane River National Heritage Area, where you’ll spy moss-draped live oak trees, small riverfront communities, and several plantations, including Oaklawn, Cherokee, Beaufort, Oakland, Melrose, and Magnolia.

5. The Hill Country of Texas

Interstate 10 isn’t the most thrilling route to take through western Texas, but the state’s famed Hill Country is another thing altogether. Defined by wooded canyons, spring-fed rivers, and rolling terrain, this pastoral, offbeat region is one of the loveliest areas in the Lone Star State. Starting in San Antonio, this scenic loop will take you through small towns like the German-settled Fredericksburg and curious landscapes like the Enchanted Rock State Natural Area.

Travel map of The Hill Country, Texas
The Hill Country

6. The Southwest’s Four Corners

This is a strikingly beautiful region of the American Southwest, so named because the corners of four states–Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah–converge here. Beginning in Flagstaff, Arizona, this 525-mile route (via I-40, U.S. 191, etc.) will take you through such wonders as Petrified Forest National Park, Monument Valley, Mesa Verde National Park, and the ski resort town of Telluride, Colorado.

7. Pacific Coast Highway

Indeed one of the most scenic routes in the country–and one of the most accessible–is the Pacific Coast Highway, known regionally as the PCH. The 522-mile stretch between Dana Point and San Francisco is particularly beautiful, offering access to numerous beaches and state parks, several sun-loving towns (such as Santa Monica, Santa Barbara, and Monterey), and various historic sites, including the San Juan Capistrano Mission and Hearst Castle. It’s easy to break the highway down into more manageable chunks, such as five days exploring Oregon’s Pacific Coast or two weeks on the California coast.

A two-lane road along Washington's Olympic Peninsula.
The remote Olympic Peninsula features thick rain forest, a wild coast, and gritty towns. Photo © welcomia/123rf.

8. Washington’s Olympic Peninsula

Situated just west of Seattle, marked by snow-capped mountains and old-growth forests, and protected, at least in part, as Olympic National Park, this majestic peninsula is still one of the most untamed regions left in America. Starting in Seattle, follow the 330-mile loop (via Hwy. 101 and Hwy. 12) to explore quiet towns and gorgeous destinations, such as Port Angeles, Lake Crescent, and the Hoh Rain Forest.

Maps - Washington 10e - Olympic Peninsula and Coast
Travel map of the Olympic Peninsula and the Coast of Washington

9. The Black Hills of South Dakota

For a history buff and outdoor enthusiast like me, the southwestern corner of South Dakota offers a surprising number of Wild West towns, historic landmarks, and dramatic landscapes. On a circuitous, 350-mile route that mainly follows I-90 and Highway 16, you’ll find places like Badlands National Park, the Mount Rushmore National Monument, and the once-legendary town of Deadwood.

10. Michigan’s Shipwreck Coast

It’s easy to be enamored by the windswept beaches, massive forests, and multicolored cliffs of the Upper Peninsula. By following a series of small routes along unforgiving Lake Superior (where hundreds of ships have met their end), you’ll encounter several worthy attractions from Marquette to Whitefish Point, including the Marquette Maritime Museum, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Tahquamenon Falls State Park, and the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum.

Which road trip route would you add to this list? One of the 29 others suggested by National Geographic–or another route altogether?

10 Incredible Road Trip Routes Across America

A Southern Girl’s Wintertime Adventure in Yellowstone

Laura bundled up and ready to ride on a snowmobile.
Laura snowmobiles for the first time at Yellowstone. Photo © Donnie Sexton.

Ever since my first post on this blog – “Greetings from an American Nomad!” – which I wrote on July 1, 2009, I’ve relished the opportunity to share my passion for travel and my love of this multifaceted country with you, my fellow travelers. Along the way, I’ve offered my own travel tips and experiences as well as the advice of other travel experts, plus a few relevant product and book reviews, too, and no matter what I wrote, I always hoped that it would help someone, at least in some small way.

That said, I’m feeling a bit nostalgic today. After all, this will mark my last post as Moon’s American Nomad, and I’ve long been wondering what my final words should be. So, after racking my brains for the past week, I’ve finally decided to highlight one of my new favorite destinations in America.

Of course, it wasn’t easy to choose just one place in this amazing country. If you’ve read any of my previous posts, then you know that I’ve traveled quite a lot around America, and some of my favorite locales include New Orleans, Michigan, and the Florida Keys – the subjects of three of my Moon travel guides.

Back in January, though, I was fortunate enough to be invited on a press trip to Yellowstone National Park – and even though my husband, Dan, who just happens to be my favorite traveling companion, wasn’t able to join me on the trip, it was truly a memorable excursion into a fascinating winter wonderland, especially for a Southern girl like me whose only exposure to cold weather has been limited to her college years in Chicago and a few brief visits to the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah.

As I wrote on one of my other blogs, Laura’s Simple Pleasures, it would require several posts to describe all that I saw, did, and ate while away from home for a week. So, I thought that it might be more interesting to note some of the “firsts” that happened to me during that memorable excursion. After all, it was the first time that I’d ever seen Montana or Wyoming – much less Yellowstone – in my life. It also marked my first roadside encounter with a wild bison and my first long-distance view of a snoozing wolf pack (both of which occurred in Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley), the first time that I ever strapped on a pair of snowshoes and attempted to hike uphill in them (not a bad way to experience the Mammoth Hot Springs Terraces), and the first time that I ever floated between a freezing-cold river and scalding hot springs (in the Boiling River, to be exact). Along the way, I also experienced my first ride in a snowcoach (the only way to traverse most of Yellowstone National Park in the winter months) and witnessed, for the first time, a bellowing river otter get sucked beneath the icy surface of a near-frozen river (not the most pleasant of memories, true, but certainly fodder for conversations with my fellow writers during the rest of the trip). In addition, I got the chance to make my very first snow angel (not far from some wild bison on a geyser plateau) and snagged my first look at Old Faithful blowing her top (a particularly beautiful sight in the winter, when the billowing steam makes this stately, ever-punctual geyser seem even taller and more grand).

While the entire trip was spectacular, I particularly enjoyed the Old Faithful area of Yellowstone National Park, which is not only gorgeous during the winter months but supposedly much less crowded than it is during the summer. In addition, although all of the accommodations experienced during this particular press trip were notable in their own unique way – the Chico Hot Springs Resort & Day Spa, for instance, boasted a wonderfully refreshing pool fed by natural hot springs; the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel reminded me of the Overlook in The Shining; and the Holiday Inn in West Yellowstone had a rejuvenating hot tub in the room – my favorite was indeed the Old Faithful Snow Lodge & Cabins, where the furnishings were modern and comfortable, the on-site Obsidian Dining Room served delicious bison short ribs, and the dimly lit ice-skating rink became the site of my first solo ice-skating experience (without rails, surrounded by snowdrifts, and beneath a canopy of stars).

But Yellowstone National Park wasn’t the only focus of this trip. On the second-to-last day, we ventured via snowcoach to West Yellowstone, where I experienced yet another “first” – the first time that I ever wore a snowmobile suit (as pictured above) and, yes, rode a snowmobile, which, save for my near-capsize on an unruly snowdrift, was as exhilarating an experience as I’d always hoped it would be.

So, if you’ve ever considered venturing to Yellowstone and its environs during the winter months, I’m here to tell you that it’s definitely worth the cold temperatures, the layers of clothing, and the potential for discomforting frozen nose hairs. Although I’ve heard that Yellowstone is marvelous in the summer – something I certainly plan to observe for myself someday – I can also attest that it’s truly stunning in the winter, when the small bison herds stand out amid acres of blinding-white snow, against a backdrop of dramatic geysers. No wonder, then, that it’s America’s first national park.

If you’re still curious about my wintertime adventures in Yellowstone, don’t despair. I’ll soon be sharing a few more details on my new American Nomad blog (along with a wide range of other travel topics, tips, and stories) – after all, it’s never too early to start planning your next wintertime vacation. Until then, though, I want to thank you all for reading my posts over the past four years – and for sharing your own adventures with me. I hope that you’ll continue to explore this wonderful country – and may your travels always be safe, happy, and memorable!

Gearing up for a Family Camping Trip

Photo © Laura Martone.
Photo © Laura Martone.

Now that spring is here, it’s a good time for families to start planning their summer vacation, and for many, there’s nothing better than a good, old-fashioned camping trip. Besides its obvious economic advantages, camping offers a wonderful way for parents and their children to bond amid the great outdoors and develop a deeper appreciation for Mother Nature.

Luckily, America boasts a variety of landscapes – from mountains and forests to deserts and beaches – so there’s no shortage of camping possibilities. In addition to a slew of private RV campgrounds from coast to coast, the country also features a wide array of affordable campgrounds in national and state parks, most of which cater to tents as well as RVs. Given how large the United States is – and, therefore, how varied the climate can be – it’s possible to go camping in any season. California’s Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks, for instance, can be excellent options during the summer months, while Bahia Honda State Park and other state-operated parks in the Florida Keys can be popular choices in the wintertime.

No matter where you go, though, it’s critical that you and your family members adhere to Leave No Trace (LNT) principles at all times. Such guidelines include, but are certainly not limited to, using established trails and campsites whenever possible, packing out all trash, and observing wildlife from a distance. So, it’s important that you familiarize yourself with these LNT principles ahead of time.

When planning a family camping trip, you should also make sure to gather all necessary gear beforehand, and fortunately, you’ll find several helpful resources for campers, including Coleman, Cabela’s, Camping World, REI, Bass Pro Shops, the Sierra Trading Post, and Campmor – all of which I’ve used in the past to procure necessary camping gear and supplies.

Another helpful outfitter is Coghlan’s, the self-proclaimed “outdoor accessory people.” Founded in 1959 and based in Winnipeg, Manitoba, this family-owned Canadian company doesn’t offer large items like tents and sleeping bags; rather, this is where you go for the little, inexpensive, but necessary stuff, from binoculars and survival ponchos to tent pegs and first aid kits. I’ve been relying on Coghlan’s camping gear for decades, but recently, I was given the opportunity to review several items (pictured above) that I’d never thought to purchase for myself, such as the durable Flint Striker, which can ignite tinder even when it’s wet and cold outside, and the Dynamo Flashlight, a compact LED flashlight that literally fits in the palm of your hand, needs no batteries, and requires only a minute of fast winding to achieve 30 minutes of bright light. Kids, too, will find some must-have items in Coghlan’s catalog, such as the Bug-Eye Headlight, a lightweight, battery-operated LED headlamp that’s mounted on an elastic head strap and ideal for both exploring the woods or reading in the tent at night.

Yet another fun option for your favorite little camper is the Camper’s S’mores Grill, made of chrome-plated steel, fitted with a 17-inch handle to keep small hands away from the campfire, and equipped to accommodate three S’mores at one time. True, there’s nothing quite like sticking a marshmallow over an open flame and hoping it doesn’t catch on fire before you’ve had a chance to squish it between some chocolate bars and two graham crackers, but the trouble with that method is that the marshmallow is usually the only thing that’s warm. So, I, for one, am excited to try the S’mores Grill this summer – after all, you’re never too old to savor a S’more with your family and friends around a campfire. As a bonus, Coghlan’s even includes some curious S’mores recipes with each grill. Who knows? I might just have to give peanut butter or banana S’mores a try.

So, what kind of camping gear must you always take when venturing into the great outdoors, and where have you had your favorite camping experiences with your family?

Avoiding Identity Theft While on Vacation

A bed with white linens in a room brightly lit by french doors.
A hotel room in the Florida Keys. © Laura Martone.

Identity theft is, unfortunately, one of the many pitfalls of traveling. In the past, I’ve offered several posts on the subject, including a piece about evading pickpockets and a two-part series about safeguarding your identity. Since this is my last official week as Moon’s American Nomad, though, I thought I’d provide just a bit more related advice, which will hopefully prove to be helpful on any future trips you take—no matter the destination or circumstances.

So, here, courtesy of a comprehensive identity protection service known as TrustedID, are several more safety tips (a few of which I’ve shared before) for avoiding identity theft while on vacation:

  • Stay thin: Before you take on your summer adventure, go through your wallet and remove unnecessary credit/debit cards, as well as anything displaying personal information. Make copies of important documents before you leave, such as passport, driver’s license, and travel tickets, in case something happens to them.
  • Stay secure: Hotel computers and unsecure Wi-Fi connections are easy targets for hackers and identity thieves. If you need to check your email, always ensure that you’re using a secure network. Never access sensitive information, such as your bank account, on these networks.
  • Stay safe: While you shouldn’t carry personal documents with you when you’re out and about, hotel rooms aren’t necessarily the safest option. Smartphones, tablets, and laptops contain a huge amount of valuable data, so use room or hotel safes to lock these valuable items away.
  • Don’t stand-alone: Stand-alone ATMs are more likely to have skimming devices. Stick with bank ATMs whenever possible.
  • Beware pickpockets: It sounds old school, but this does still happen. Pickpockets prey on you in high traffic areas such as malls, amusement parks, and sporting events. Some are only interested in cash, but others are out for your driver’s license and social security number. Keep your credit cards and ID in a secure place, like a money belt. Don’t keep all your cash in the pouch though—spread it around with some in your wallet, some in the hotel room, and some even in your shoe.
  • No checkbook checkout: Checking account fraud is one of the most difficult types of identity theft from which to recover, and being far from home will only add to your frustration. When traveling, use cash, traveler’s checks, or credit cards for purchases.
  • Don’t brag: You may be traveling the world, but don’t let the world know you’re away. When you share your excitement and plans on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc., the Internet now knows that your home will be unattended. There’s no better opportunity for a thief to empty out your house. Share travel plans only with close friends!

So, have such tips worked for you while traveling—and do have any additional advice for avoiding identity theft?

Money-Saving Travel Tips from Nomadic Matt

Photo of the book How to Travel the World on $50 a Day.
© Laura Martone.

If you tend toward budget-friendly travel experiences, then you’ve no doubt already heard of Matt Kepnes—an award-winning blogger and well-known globetrotter otherwise known as Nomadic Matt, whose personal and professional mission is to “travel better, cheaper, longer.” While, by his own admission, he didn’t do much traveling as a child, this Boston native and occasional Big Apple resident has, as an adult, certainly made up for lost time. During an eye-opening trip to Costa Rica in 2004, the travel bug bit him hard—and apparently hasn’t released its grip yet.

Following a 2005 trip to Thailand, in fact, Matt quit his job back in the States, finished earning his MBA, and set off to see the world. Although his original trip was only supposed to last a year—long enough to expel this newfound passion for travel from his system—12 months soon turned into 18, and he’s rarely stopped traveling since. Roughly seven years later, he’s still exploring the world and embracing a plethora of unique experiences, from scuba-diving in Fiji to hiking the Grand Canyon to getting lost in a Central American jungle—yikes!

After his first round-the-world adventure, it didn’t take Matt long to start helping others realize their own travel dreams. Through his comprehensive website and popular blog (which he began in 2008), he’s not only shared his passion for travel with others, he’s also spread the belief that everyone should—and can—travel whenever he or she wants to… and not just wait for the perfect convergence of time, money, health, desire, and other favorable circumstances—a convergence that, for most of us, never happens—unless, of course, we make it happen.

As he states in the introduction of his recently released book, How to Travel the World on $50 a Day: Travel Cheaper, Longer, Smarter (New York: Perigee Books, 2013, $15), “The greatest lie ever told is that travel is expensive.” He wrote the book, in fact, in order to dispel this widely-believed myth. “I’m here to tell you that you don’t need to tap a trust fund, have your parents pay for you, or win the lottery to travel. Anyone can travel cheaply and comfortably if that person knows the secrets to saving money on the road.”

As a fan of budget travel myself, I can certainly appreciate his belief—and expertise—and I can definitely understand why he’s been quoted by a variety of major media outlets, from National Geographic to the BBC. I have such respect for what he does, in fact, that I’d hoped to interview him for this very blog. I’d wanted to ask him about a variety of things, such as why he decided to get an MBA before embarking on his global adventure, what he considers the advantages and disadvantages of solo travel, how long he plans to be a globetrotter and how supportive his family and friends have been about his nomadic lifestyle, why he chose to share his expertise with others, how many people he’s inspired to travel the world, and what his favorite place is. Given my focus on domestic travel, I was also hoping that he’d be willing to share a few budget-friendly tips for traveling in the United States, as his new book only focuses on Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Southeast Asia, Central America, and South America.

But, sadly, he declined my request for an interview. Although I realize that he’s a pretty busy guy these days, I was naturally disappointed. I’d been looking forward to our chat, from one Nomad to another, but I have no doubt that most of the answers to my questions can be found somewhere on his comprehensive website.

In fact, I did discover some helpful advice there pertaining to U.S. travel, which Matt admits isn’t terribly popular among foreigners. For one thing, he says, “it’s a large country without a real tourist infrastructure. Hostels really aren’t big in the United States, trains don’t go a lot of places, and unlike a lot of places, we don’t offer working holiday visas. Moreover, round-the-world tickets only stop in L.A. or NYC.”

Nevertheless, there’s a lot to be said for taking a road trip across America, a country that boasts, in Matt’s words, a “lot of national parks, a diverse geography, culture, music, and great regional food.” As someone who’s lived in New Orleans, Chicago, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, South Padre Island, northern Michigan, the Florida Keys, and many other wonderful places throughout America, I can attest to Matt’s perspective. According to him, bargains are also easy to find here, from urban hostels and couchsurfing opportunities to cheap food and money-saving national park passes. Happily, he also recommends several of my favorite destinations, including Boston, New York City, the Appalachian Mountains, the Great Lakes, Chicago, California, the Grand Canyon, New Orleans, the Florida Keys, Disney World, and, of course, Washington, DC.

Even though Matt’s new book doesn’t cover U.S. travel, I still consider it useful for domestic travelers—if only for the inspiration that he provides as well as his assurance that anyone can travel, no matter how small the budget in question. In the first chapter, “Getting Over Your Fears,” Matt even dispels many travel myths with the following words of encouragement:

You aren’t the first person to travel abroad.

You are just as capable as everyone else.

The world isn’t as dangerous as the media says.

You will make friends.

You are never too old.

You can always come back.

Beyond the introduction and three helpful appendices about travel companies, packing suggestions, and vaccinations, the book itself is divided into three major parts: “Planning Your Trip,” “On-the-Road Expenses,” and “Breaking It Down by Region.” In essence, it’s a more compact version of his blog, with so many handy travel tips that I’d have to write my own book just to list them all here. Suffice it to say, though, I highly recommend this book to novice travelers and veteran globetrotters alike, and I’m extremely grateful that I was given the chance to review it for you. After all, it’s almost guaranteed to teach you a few new tricks for saving money—before and during your next big trip.

I, for one, learned lots of things while reading Matt’s book, including how to use money-making credit cards, find cheaper airline tickets, secure reputable travel insurance, avoid money-sucking pitfalls such as traveler’s checks, and save money on accommodations, food, transportation, and activities in a variety of countries, from France to Thailand to Costa Rica. I also appreciated his inclusion of other travelers’ advice and experiences to help illustrate and validate his own tips; after all, the world is filled with equally knowledgeable bloggers (such as Sean and Dawn Lynch of WanderingWhy, Nora Dunn of the The Professional Hobo, Michael Hodson of Go See Write, and my fellow SATW member Gary Arndt of Everything Everywhere) who are more than ready and willing to dispense useful tips to the masses.

Admittedly, though, not all tips work for all travelers. An older couple, for instance, might not feel comfortable sleeping in a hostel filled with rowdy teenagers, and I, for one, would probably never feel at ease about hitchhiking, just to save a few dollars. But, overall, How to Travel the World on $50 a Day is quite a beneficial resource—filled with humor, enthusiasm, and oodles of practical details. Within its pages, Matt also clarifies that not every place will cost only $50 a day. As he explains throughout the book and reiterates in his “Putting It All Together” chapter, you’re likely to spend an average of $25 daily in Southeast Asia and $100 daily in Scandinavia, but if you follow Matt’s money-saving advice, the presumption is that it will all even out in the end. Of course, one of his most enlightening observations is that we often spend a lot more than $50 daily at home—which is why putting your stuff in storage and traveling the globe for a year might not be as farfetched as you may think.

Lastly, I should point out that his suggested packing list—culled from years of experience—has proven to be fairly helpful, although there are, at least for me, several items missing, such as sunglasses, a hat, my favorite hoodie, and a notebook. Of course, to keep my luggage light, I could always do what Matt suggests and “simply buy what I need on the road.” It seems like my husband, Dan, has been dispensing that same advice for years; after all, he’s a light packer, too.

Fashion, Fun, and Convenience for the Modern Traveler

The items mentioned in the article are laid out on a red deck chair.
Photo © Laura Martone.

Today marks the beginning of my final week as Moon’s American Nomad – and to be honest, I’m feeling rather bittersweet about it. I’ll miss sharing my experiences, tips, interviews, and travel finds with all of you. In spite of the fact that I’m currently wrapping up work on the second edition of my Moon Florida Keys guide, I’m going to do my best to post something every day this week – in an effort to leave you with as much information and inspiration as I can.

Of course, after this week, you’ll still be able to contact me via laura@wanderingsoles.com or check out my blog posts at the soon-to-be-revamped Wandering Soles website.

Anyway, back to today’s post…

Kicking off this final week, I’ve decided to share with you a few of my latest travel product discoveries. After all, there are innumerable items available to travelers – of all tastes, budgets, interests, and needs – and it’s not always easy to figure out their benefits and drawbacks from an online catalog. Just do an Internet search for “travel essentials,” and you’ll discover an array of relevant articles and websites, listing everything from compact luggage and stylish apparel to handy toiletries and electronic gadgets. I’ve even written my own share of posts about road trip essentials, RV-ing necessities, and other must-pack items.

But, in all truth, a list of helpful travel essentials could go on forever. Every traveler is unique, after all, and while some people might prefer traveling as lightly as possible, others only feel comfortable when they have access to all the comforts of home.

Still, I’m always on the lookout for new products, and I’m grateful to those who have occasionally sent me samples to review for you, my fellow travelers and soon-to-be-missed readers. So, while perusing the items that I’ve received in recent months, I’ve decided that the following five (all pictured above) might be of some interest.


Nuu-Muu X-Dress

Even as a travel writer and a frequent traveler, I often find it hard to pack efficiently. Will I need my bathing suit? A fancy dress? A warm coat? Sandals? Boots? Sneakers? Sometimes, depending on where you’re going and what you plan to do once you get there, it’s hard to streamline your baggage. Of course, versatility is often the key when packing. For instance, I’ll typically bring a dress that’s comfortable enough for sightseeing and fancy enough for dining in a nice restaurant, but of course, I’m always open to new ideas. That’s why I appreciate the sleeveless, lightweight dresses offered by Nuu-Muu, each of which is short enough to double as a long top over jeans, yoga pants, or similar garments. Both stylish and loose-fitting, they’re ideal for exercising, touring, lounging on a beach, or going out on the town, and you can even use them as an extra layer in cooler weather. In the case of the one that I own – the figure-flattering X-Dress ($70) – it can serve as both a roomy top or a little black dress, making it suitable for hiking trails, gyms, restaurants, and nightclubs alike. Generally speaking, these dresses fall into one of three categories – Nuu-Muu Classic, which come in various eye-catching colors and patterns; Ruu-Muu, which feature convenient pockets; and Mini-Muu, which are made for kids – and luckily, no matter which one you choose, it will be easy to clean while on the road, as Nuu-Muu apparel only requires a cold wash and a bit of air-drying.


MapiCase Nicea

After my husband, Dan, bought me my first (and, so far, only) iPhone, he admittedly set about finding a sturdy case for it. After all, as a classic klutz, I’ve been known to drop – and, consequently, break – more than a few items in my day, and even though we’d purchased the normally expensive iPhone at an extreme discount, I still didn’t fancy breaking it right out of the gate. Ultimately, I ended up with a waterproof OtterBox, and though I’ve had to replace it once (since, unfortunately, the belt clip isn’t as sturdy as the rest of it), it’s certainly spared my phone the typical consequences of various spills, including inadvertent tumbles onto concrete sidewalks. Still, the OtterBox can be rather bulky in certain situations, so it’s nice, from time to time, to have a more streamlined option, such as the Nicea Book iPhone 4/4S leather purse ($70), a slim, lightweight, wallet-style case that fits easily in most apparel pockets and can protect your iPhone from everyday scratches and abrasions. Although it opens like a book, with a magnetic lid that closes firmly, the Nicea still provides access to your iPhone’s camera, flash, headphone port, speakers, volume controls, and battery-charging port – and as a bonus, it features an inner pocket for stowing your ID, a credit card, and perhaps a business card or two. The only drawback for me is that the lid doesn’t close as tightly when the inner pocket is filled. Nevertheless, it’s a handsome case – I have the tea-hued one in crocodile-style leather – and it’s certainly not the only choice available in MapiCases‘ vast array of colorful cases, which are crafted not just for iPhones but also for Android smartphones, iPads, and tablets.


Etón Rukus Solar

Speaking of iPhones, mine goes pretty much everywhere with me, and while that’s partially because I like to stay in touch with friends and family, particularly my hubby, it’s also because my phone doubles as a Walkman, thanks to music-streaming apps like Pandora and Rhapsody. Unfortunately, though, it’s better to use my phone with earbuds than without them. After all, the little outer speakers don’t amplify the sound enough while I’m walking or biking around my busy French Quarter neighborhood – and they’re even less ideal for a large group of listeners, especially at a noisy place like a public park. Thank goodness, then, for the Etón Corporation, which has produced the Rukus Solar ($150), a wireless, solar-powered, lightweight, and easy-to-carry boombox with Bluetooth compatibility, making it possible to, yes, sync up my iPhone (or other smartphones and tablets) and stream music wirelessly – and loudly. There’s also a USB port that allows you to charge your phone and various other devices, no matter if you’re hanging out with friends at a secluded beach or staying with your family in a primitive campground, and while the internal lithium battery will enable you to use the Rukus for several hours after dark, it also comes with a handy AC adapter, just in case. So, you’d better believe I’ll be using my new Rukus at our next crawfish boil!


MirrorCase for iPhone

If you have a smartphone and you’re anything like me, then you probably employ it as a camera almost as often as you use it as a communication device. The only trouble is that, while we’re busy taking pictures or video clips of famous landmarks, fellow travelers, even a yummy dish at a fancy restaurant, we’re usually missing the actual experience. After all, it’s hard to appreciate the Taj Mahal or Golden Gate Bridge with a phone planted squarely in our line of sight. To solve this dilemma of “phone face,” MirrorCase has designed a sturdy case ($50) that features a high-quality mirror below your phone’s camera lens, allowing you to hold your phone at a horizontal angle and still see the action or scene in front of you while you snap a photo or record a video. In addition, because you’ll be using the free MirrorCase app instead of your phone’s own camera feature, the photos will be automatically flipped and inverted before being saved to the camera roll. The only problem is that, at least for now, MirrorCase caters exclusively to iPhone and iPad users.


HuMn Wallet Mini

If you’ve never heard of radio-frequency identification (RFID), it is, according to Wikipedia.com, “the wireless, non-contact use of radio-frequency electromagnetic fields to transfer data, for the purposes of automatically identifying and tracking tags attached to objects.” U.S. passports and many credit cards contain RFID chips, making them – and you – easy prey for hackers. Luckily, RFID-secure wallets offer a solution for travelers concerned about identity theft. One such option is the HuMn Wallet Mini ($75), a thin, credit card-sized wallet that features two plates made of aircraft-grade aluminum and secured around your ID and banking cards by a durable, shock-cord strap. Sold in a microfiber bag, the HuMn Wallet Mini comes in a whole range of colors, from sunkissed orange and mint green to pearl white and matte black. True, it’s a bit pricier than what I might normally pay for a wallet, but it certainly has helped to put my mind at ease. Of course, according to the “Pickpocket King,” slim wallets are easier to swipe than fat ones, so be sure to keep yours in a safe place.


If you’re looking for additional ideas on the latest travel products – whether for you or for your favorite traveler – you can also take a look at the holiday travel gift guide that I posted a while back. The five-part series is filled with items that relate to inspiration, preparation, protection, convenience, and relaxation.

In the meantime, let me know if you’ve tried out any of the above products – I’d be curious to hear what you think!

Getting Fit for Treks in Yosemite and Elsewhere, Part 2

Hikers walk a snowy bank beside a river.
Hiking in Yellowstone. Photo © Laura Martone.

In my last post, I offered you several fitness tips, courtesy of certified personal trainer Erin Desharnais, to help travelers get into shape for their next adventure trek in Yosemite, Yellowstone, or elsewhere. Besides sharing her tips with me, Erin fortunately agreed to answer some additional questions via email:

American Nomad: You’ve suggested that “the best workout routine for the outdoor enthusiast is a blend of strength training, interval training, power endurance, and outdoor endurance training,” and since I’m a big fan of yoga, swimming, and walking – all of which can be done with weights – I’m wondering… do you think that combining such activities is beneficial (for instance, power yoga, which is essentially doing yoga positions with weights), or is it better to do weight-training and cardiovascular activities separately?

Erin Desharnais: I think the first step is for people, especially in our country, to just get out and move. Whatever medium people choose – strength training, swimming, walking, yoga, interval training – is better than not exercising. I think having yoga, swimming, and walking as part of a fitness routine is great, especially if those are the activities that motivate you to exercise.

As people increase their fitness levels, the “best bang for your buck” workouts are a combination of interval/power endurance training. You can do intervals with swimming, walking, running, cycling, hills, stairs, etc. You can do a power endurance workout with body weight exercises, medicine balls, kettle-bells, dumbbells, etc. For example, perform the following five exercises as many times as possible in 20 minutes: Box jumps x10, DB forward lunges x10, walk-out push-ups x10, DB squat to press x10, and jump rope x100. Below are some key reasons why this type of training is so beneficial.

  • It is less time-consuming: You can work yourself harder in just 30 minutes doing HIIT than doing one hour of low-intensity training.
  • By challenging both your aerobic and anaerobic systems simultaneously, you dramatically improve your cardiovascular threshold.
  • Burns more calories and elevates metabolism significantly more than other forms of cardio. This means you burn more fat.
  • It combats monotony.
  • Will help you lose weight, not muscle.

AN: Running is one of your suggested activities, but based on my father and stepmother’s experiences, I know that running can cause a lot of health issues, particularly in regard to backs, ankles, and knees. Are there ways to minimize such negative effects?

ED: As with any exercise program, start slow and, if you have injuries, consult a professional to help you exercise properly to correct your injuries and to teach you how to exercise properly. People can start by alternating between walking for two to three minutes, and jogging for 30 seconds to one minute. If people simply cannot run, then they should walk, bike, swim, do yoga, or weight train.

AN: I spend my summers in the woods of northern Michigan, so I can certainly appreciate the benefits of outdoor endurance training – such as cycling, hiking, and swimming in the great outdoors – but I wonder… can those who live primarily in urban areas achieve the same results – such as walking or cycling in a nearby park?

ED: Yes, I believe they can. You just have to make the best of the area you live in and utilize parks, stairs, stadiums, local tracks, bike paths, etc.

AN: Do you have any suggestions for those who can’t afford or access a gym? For instance, do you think at-home programs like Wii Fit and Xbox Kinect would help travelers prepare for an outdoor adventure, like hiking in Yosemite?

ED: Again, whatever gets people exercising and challenging themselves I support. The better shape you are in physically and mentally, the more you will enjoy exploring the beautiful destinations on your vacations.

AN: If a traveler is fairly out-of-shape, how many weeks do you think he or she would need to follow your fitness program prior to an outdoor adventure in Yosemite or one of America’s other incredible national parks?

ED: This is hard to answer because everyone is different. I believe the more prepared you are for anything in life, the better. So, making fitness and healthy eating a lifestyle will set you up for success and adventurous vacations.

AN: Many travelers visit Yosemite with their families or groups of friends – and just as one’s body is only as strong as its weakest link, so do a family or group’s activities depend upon the weakest link – so do you have any suggestions for families or groups hoping to be in equally good shape for an outdoor adventure?

ED: Make fitness a family mission with the goal of a fun, adventurous vacation at the end. Get the whole family to choose a hike, backpacking trip, or white-water rafting trip that may seem impossible at the time. Then get the whole family committed to fitness and eating healthy so the group as a whole can do that hike! Group support provides accountability and will bring the family closer together and increase the family members’ happiness and confidence.

Hopefully, my brief interview with Erin as well as her previous tips have motivated you to get in shape – and better prepare yourself for your next adventure trek, whether you’re headed to Yosemite, Yellowstone, or one of America’s other national parks.

In the meantime, do you have any additional fitness tips to share?

Getting Fit for Treks in Yosemite and Elsewhere, Part 1

The exposed rock and scattered trees of Sentinel dome.
Get fit and ready to hike. Photo © Carl & Peggy Backes.

Earlier today, I posted a recent conversation with John DeGrazio, co-founder of YExplore – an adventure tour company that leads an assortment of birding tours, wildflower walks, snowshoeing treks, yoga hikes, overnight backpacking excursions, photo workshops, and other guided tours through Yosemite National Park. As John mentioned during the interview, some tours, such as the 15-mile Clouds Rest hike, are more suitable for avid fitness enthusiasts, but even if you’re not in the best of shape, it’s certainly possible to get more fit before your next adventure and prepare yourself for an array of outdoor activities.

In fact, YExplore has recently teamed up with certified personal trainer Erin Desharnais to offer an outdoor fitness program that might just boost your energy and enable you to meet your fitness goals. “Exercise is an aspect of daily life that doesn’t ever need to be considered a chore, but rather time that is dedicated to personal physical and mental development,” Erin has stated. “YExplore offers people a unique service that pairs both physical and mental fitness in one of the most beautiful locations on Earth. Whether you go on one of YExplore’s lengthier hikes throughout the park or climb Half Dome for the first time, it is important to do some training beforehand to be prepared for any physical challenges that may arise.”

Erin, John, and the rest of the YExplore team believe that routinely exercising outdoors will both inspire people and encourage them to adhere to their fitness goals. The natural world, after all, provides geographical challenges that ensure some of the most exciting, inexpensive ways for travelers to get into shape and prepare for a variety of adventures, and Erin claims that hiking can offer you the same level of health benefits that you might find from running, except with even better scenery. “Hiking on trails is a low-impact way to get in aerobic exercise that won’t put heavy stress on joints. It might not be apparent in the moment, but the constant change in elevations and terrain works great for building cardiovascular health, overall strength, and mental toughness.”

An avid outdoor enthusiast, Erin promotes a flexible fitness schedule: “The first step to any fitness program is to commit to it. Schedule your workouts as part of your daily routine so fitness is part of your lifestyle. Aiming for three to six days a week, at 30-75 minutes is broad enough to fit into any schedule.”

Here’s the back-to-basics approach that she advises for your own fitness program:

Power endurance, strength endurance, mental toughness: Train inside the gym to perform outside the gym. You want to train your muscles to work in harmony with one another!

The best workout routine for the outdoor enthusiast is a blend of strength training, interval training, power endurance, and outdoor endurance training. Stronger, longer is the goal. Developing the ability to stay strong for extended periods of time can be as much a mental task as physical ability and stamina. The following exercises can help people everywhere and of all fitness levels prepare for outdoor hiking and other mountain adventures:

Strength training: Increasing strength is the foundation of athletic ability, increasing performance, and resisting injury.

  • Strength training is not only great for your muscles but does a lot for your bones, tendons, and other connective tissue. Sometimes people overlook the positive changes that cannot be visibly seen. Remember, you are only as strong as your weakest link!
  • Do a combination of body weight exercises, dumbbells, medicine balls, kettle bells, and battle ropes.
  • For the best “bang for your buck,” do exercises that use your large muscle groups, perform four to six exercises in a row, and alternate between a lower body, upper body push, upper body pull, and core exercise. Repeat three to five times with no rest between exercises, rest one to two minutes between sets. This will challenge your cardiovascular system as well as build strength: squat (front, back, goblet), pull-up, push-up (regular, inverted, diamond, staggered, etc.), row (dumbbell, body weight, TRX), walking lunges, and front plank.

Interval training and power endurance: Interval/power endurance workouts alternate high intensity levels with lower intensity levels and are the key to fat loss and building mental toughness. You can get a full workout in 20 minutes of hard work.

  • Extended bouts of cardio-respiratory and muscular stress at high, but sub-maximal levels perhaps best mirror mountain activities. Muscles burn. Chest heaves. The mind grows weak. Power endurance and strength endurance give you the ability to keep on moving up that mountain, no matter what.
  • You can do interval training any way you want: walking, running, hills, cycling, etc. Start with a three- to five-minute warm-up, alternate between 30-second to one-minute high intensity, and one- to two-minute low intensity for four to six sets. As your fitness level improves, you can increase your speed, time at high intensity, number of sets, and decrease your time at low intensity.
  • Power endurance can be made up of a combination of different body weight/plyometric exercises. Do each of the following exercises for 30 seconds with no rest. As you get more fit, you can add weights and/or increase the time: jump squats, burpees, split squat jumps, mountain climbers, power skipping, and plyometric push-ups.

Outdoor endurance training: Get outside, have fun, and move!

  • Increase your cardiovascular threshold, and before long, you will be able to go farther and harder with more confidence: Hike uphill for as long as you can, hike with a weighted pack on for as long as you can, run up stadiums or stairs, mountain bike, or run.

“The first step to achieving your personal fitness goals,” Erin adds, “can begin with the first step you take out of your front door.”

Hopefully, Erin’s fitness tips have motivated you to get into shape – and better prepare yourself for your next adventure trek, whether you’re headed to Yosemite, Yellowstone, one of America’s other national parks, or somewhere else together. For more fitness advice from Erin, stay tuned for my next post, in which I’ll feature a recent conversation with her.

In the meantime, do you have any fitness tips to share?

Two Travel Contests Worth Mentioning

A Kennedy Space Center Tourbus with the launch platform visible in the distance.
Photo © Carl & Peggy Backes.

People all around the world dream of traveling to exotic destinations. Even those who live in enviable places—such as Hawaii, Paris, New Zealand, and Costa Rica, just to name a few—probably long to see other cities and landscapes that are markedly different from their own. For instance, I might be from New Orleans—a town that many people include on their travel wish lists—but while I appreciate the uniqueness of this place, that certainly doesn’t keep me from dreaming of other locations, from Ireland to Japan.

So, it’s no wonder that the Internet is rife with travel contests, sweepstakes, and giveaways of all kinds. In fact, just this afternoon, a random Google search netted several disparate results, from Virginia’s “I’d LOVE to Go There!” Vacation Sweepstakes to the Cook Islands’ “Win a Romantic Week for Two” offer to the Travel Channel’s Trip of a Lifetime.

On any given day, the list of available travel contests could go on and on. I recently discovered two, however, that I thought my fellow explorers my appreciate.


NASA’s “Why Space Matters?” Video Contest

It’s no doubt that space exploration has inspired and challenged the human race for more than five decades, spawning everything from satellites to medical devices to better versions of Velcro. To celebrate this fact—and the possibility of space exploration in the future—the Coalition for Space Exploration and the NASA Visitor Centers Consortium have launched an expanded version of the Coalition’s existing “Why Space Matters to the Future” video contest. In essence, the contest urges U.S. residents (who are 13 years or older) to envision what life would be in like 10, 25, or 50 years if humans continue to explore the vast unknown and push the boundaries of space travel.

“Some people think the U.S. space program is ending,” said George Torres, chairman of the Coalition, “which couldn’t be further from the truth. This contest engages the public during an important time, giving them a powerful voice to our nation’s leaders.” After all, according to the Coalition’s website, “NASA and the space industry are currently developing technologies, systems, and strategies to explore space beyond Earth’s orbit.”

To enter the contest, you simply need to submit a short video (of one to two minutes) that encapsulates your reasons for why space exploration matters and how it will benefit future generations, from the ability of humans to migrate onto other planets to the development of as-yet-unseen technologies. In other words, consider how space has influenced or inspired you, outline the values and benefits of space exploration, and justify our continued efforts to explore the endless vastness beyond Earth’s orbit.

Entrants can upload their videos and share them online from now until April 7. Public voting will then occur April 8-14, so it’s important that entrants ask their friends and relatives to vote. A panel of judges will use several criteria, including the number of votes accrued, to determine three winners on April 17. Beyond the fact that the winning videos will be shared with the public as well as national leaders, the three winners will each receive a VIP trip for four people to one of three of NASA’s visitor centers: the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida, the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Alabama, or the Space Center Houston in Texas. The prize includes travel and accommodations—not too shabby for a die-hard space lover.


My Destination’s Biggest, Baddest, Bucket List

As the name indicates, this is one doozie of a contest. Dubbed the “ultimate travel competition,” My Destination’s Biggest, Baddest, Bucket List invites travel lovers of all shapes and sizes to vie for a chance to venture around the world for a whopping six months (from June to December 2013), during which the lucky winner will experience more than 25 destinations (of his or her choosing) on six continents. Not only is this “trip of a lifetime” of the all-expenses-paid variety (meaning that all flights, accommodations, food, and activities will be taken care of, up to $50,000, which, incidentally, includes $10,000 of spending money), but the winner will also receive a $50,000 cash prize once the trip is over. As a bonus, it was recently announced that 10 lucky finalists will enjoy an all-expenses-paid, weeklong trip to the United Kingdom, where they’ll meet the My Destination team as well as guest judge Ben Southall (the winner of Tourism Queensland’s 2009 “Best Job in the World” campaign). From this pool of fortunate finalists, the grand-prize winner will be chosen.

To enter the contest—which, besides My Destination, is co-sponsored by Hotels.com, Travelex, and Viator—you simply have to prepare a short video (of up to three minutes and with you featured) about a destination for which you’re passionate (whether you live there or not), write a brief tale (between 200 and 500 words) about a memorable travel experience, and provide three photos to accompany said tale—and do all that by March 31. For all of the above, passion, enthusiasm, and originality happily matter more than technical prowess. The only “catch” is that the winner will be required to write blog posts, take photos, and film short videos about his or her experiences in each destination, from riding in an Austin rodeo to learning to surf in Bali to visiting a Bollywood movie set in Mumbai; lots of Tweets and status updates are also encouraged.

But, seriously, that’s more than a fair price to pay for such a once-in-a-lifetime adventure, and what’s even cooler is that the winner doesn’t have to travel solo. Besides the fact that he or she will be meeting new friends along the way, it’s also possible for the winner to bring along a partner or spouse—whose accommodations will be taken care of and whose other expenses (such as food and local transportation) can be covered, in part, by the $10,000 spending money and/or the $50,000 post-trip cash prize.

As I said, the application process closes on March 31, after which 10 finalists will be selected by April 8. In what I consider to be a pretty fair method, five of these finalists will be chosen by the contest judges and five will be based on the most top-rated videos—so there’s a chance that people could win a finalist spot even if they don’t rally votes from every person they’ve ever met. The finalists’ week in the U.K. will begin on April 20, and the grand-prize winner will be announced on April 26, after which he or she will start planning their own personal “biggest, baddest, bucket list.”

Both contests, while obviously very different, could lead to some amazing experiences. If you’re interested in entering either or both, just check out the websites noted above for more details and caveats. Seriously, what are you waiting for?

Celebrating the Marvel of Hot Air Ballooning

A gout of flame ignites as a hot air balloon is being filled.
Balloon festival takeoff. Photo © Carl & Peggy Backes.

Yesterday, the streets of New Orleans were filled with Mardi Gras Day revelers. True, the French Quarter didn’t seem nearly as crowded as it has in times past – which some residents attributed to bad weather reports, others to the multiple-victim shooting that occurred on Saturday night (not far from where my hubby, Dan, and I were watching the Krewe of Endymion), and still others to the weeklong interruption of the Carnival season by the 47th Super Bowl (a chaotic event that inspired extremely mixed reactions in the community). But, nevertheless, there were plenty of colorful costumes on display – and in general, people seemed to be having a grand old time, including me and Dan.

Luckily, though, Mardi Gras hasn’t cornered the market on colorful displays – or outdoor celebrations. Throughout the year and around the world, spectators can watch vibrant hot air balloons take flight at a wide assortment of annual festivals and events – all of which will, for some, seem more appropriate for a family vacation than the clothing-optional antics of Mardi Gras in New Orleans. So, if you’re a fan of outdoor activities like hot air ballooning (whether as a spectator or as a rider), here are just a few of the upcoming opportunities to marvel at these wondrous inventions:

Winthrop Balloon Roundup – March 1-3 – Winthrop, Washington – Now in its 16th year, this three-day event is not only a photographer’s dream, but also an excellent opportunity to enjoy an array of wintertime activities. As kaleidoscopic hot air balloons soar over the old Western town of Winthrop, which lies against the snow-capped mountains of the North Cascades, recreationists can embrace everything from skiing and snowshoeing to ice skating and snowmobiling.

New Smyrna Beach Balloon & Sky Fest – April 5-7 – New Smyrna Beach, Florida – In addition to featuring roughly 20 hot air balloons, this fifth annual event will host carnival rides, live entertainment, and nighttime air shows, including the crowd-pleasing Balloon Glow. Attendees can also take afternoon rides on airplanes, helicopters, tethered balloons, and, amazingly enough, a B-25 bomber.

Red, White & Blue Balloon Rally – May 24-27 – Castile, New York – Celebrating its 12th year, this thrilling event takes place above the 17-mile-long Letchworth State Park, nicknamed “The Grand Canyon of the East” and known for its numerous waterfalls and incredible gorge scenery. In total, there will be at least 30 hot air balloons on display, launching from the Archery Field Overlook during six scheduled flights. As with other hot air balloon festivals, attendees can participate as balloon passengers by reserving their spots in advance.

Great Galena Balloon Race – June 14-16 – Galena, Illinois – Now in its 11th year, this annual three-day spectacular showcases more than 20 vibrant hot air balloons and also features two balloon races, two night glows, tethered rides, live entertainment, a car show, and other family-friendly activities. Benefiting the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF), this worthy event will take place on the North Course Practice Range at the Eagle Ridge Resort & Spa.

Of course, that’s just a small fragment of the hot air balloon festivals, rallies, and events on offer throughout America and the rest of the world, from Belgium to the Philippines. For more information about such celebrations, consult HotAirBalloon.com, “an international compendium of hot air balloon festivals and events” around the globe. Just remember that, as with any third-party source, some information on this website might be outdated, so be sure to do your homework before packing up the family and heading to a particular gathering. Bear in mind, too, that such events are dependent on the weather, as high winds and other extreme weather conditions can make flying hot air balloons rather dangerous – for riders and spectators alike.

So, have you ever attended a festival dedicated to hot air balloons – or better yet, ridden in one of these fantastic creations?

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