Heather's Hangout

Sharing the people, places & little moments that make a difference.

Travel planning tips February 20, 2017

Travel planning tips

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Traveling has always been a favorite activity. When I was younger, I loved our family getaways (and still do!) and now as an adult, ‘travel’ is a definite budget line item goal so I can afford to plan my own trips and choose new destinations. I love exploring new locations, learning new cultures (even those local cultures in the U.S.!), trying new activities and simply getting away from life’s daily responsibilities and grind.

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There are many factors that help make a trip memorable, fun and smooth. I truly believe that the people you travel with are the greatest factors in a successful trip. Finding someone/some people who are flexible, easy going and can ‘go with the flow’ if snafus happen can make or break a trip. I recall one of my backpacking trips to South Manitou Island with a group of friends – we woke one morning to thunderstorms and hard rain. Three of us girls piled into a tent and spent a few hours sharing stories, laughing, braiding hair and basically making the most of the unplanned event. When the storms cleared, the planned hikes and fun resumed but it was awesome to be with people who shrugged at the circumstance and moved on.

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Hiking outside of Las Vegas

Traveling solo can be fun too. You can set your own plans and pace, and either do as much or as little as you want without worrying about keeping everyone happy.

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Regardless of how and who you travel with, the advance planning of a trip will help ensure you have a smooth, enjoyable time once you arrive at your destination. Here are a few tips to get you started:

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1. Be prepared to spend some time doing research. Whether it was Maui, Ireland, Alaska or somewhere in Michigan, I took the time to check out local websites and read reviews. This up front research helped me know some local spots, things to be cautious about, and feel a bit more comfortable with a new area. This was especially important when I went to Ireland, as despite it being an English-speaking country, it was still a foreign country with different cultures, currency and customs.

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2. Check out the homes, cottages and condos available on rental sites, such as Vacation Rental By Owner (VRBO.com), Air BnB, HomeAway.com and others. I found the awesome oceanfront Maui condo on VRBO, thanks to the suggestion of a friend. These options can sometimes be more affordable, spacious and cozier than a standard hotel (I especially like having the option of buying your own food and making meals when you want). Some questions to consider: When were the pictures taken? If there’s a kitchen, what’s included (dishes, coffee, detergent, etc.)? Are laundry facilities available? Is there a local person to contact if something happens? Is there a cleaning fee and other fees not included in the listed nightly fee?

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3. Read reviews. I like to find a potential facility on TripAdvisor to get some feedback. VRBO usually also has guest reviews of each facility. Keep in mind that these reviews are subjective (what one person finds lacking may not be a big deal to another). However, if consistent problems or concerns are listed, it might be time to look at another facility. For example, my family was ready to book a location for our summer trip until we skimmed the reviews and noticed a lot of recent complaints about cleanliness and cranky staff. We moved on. Check dates of the reviews to ensure the concerns aren’t from years ago. If you want to pay it forward, write a review after your trip of the lodging, entertainment venue or restaurants you experienced during your trip.

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4. Look for a Groupon or other discounts in the local area for lodging, meals and entertainment. If you’re looking for local ideas at your destination, search Groupon, Living Social or similar online discount sites for discounted tickets, restaurant and activity coupons. There are a lot of great choices. You may find a food spot or activity that you wouldn’t have known about without searching.

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Exploring Alaska, one of my favorite trips.

5. Cash in credit card or airline miles. Many people don’t know that these earned miles aren’t just for airline tickets. Most of the time you can redeem for car rentals, restaurant gift cards, cameras, hotel rooms and more. Make sure you know the redemption rules to check on blackout dates and fees.

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6. Ask for input from friends and family. A plus of social media is the ability to share your personal business with a large group of people at once. Heck, often times, friends of friends can learn your business with the click of a button. Take advantage of this by asking for input, suggestions and reviews on Facebook, Twitter and other sites.

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7. Be flexible. If you can adjust dates and also be flexible in the type of lodging or car you reserve, you may find a better deal. Also, once you arrive at your destination, be flexible in your activities if possible. I like to have some ideas for activities but try not to set too much in stone so I can be ready to try something new if the opportunity arises. When my friend and I went to Riviera Maya, we had zero plans except relaxing at the resort. However, I woke one morning and decided to hike the ruins. It was fun!

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8. Check out Costco or other member companies. While I haven’t personally used Costco to book travel, several friends regularly book rental cars, hotels and more through the big store and assure me that they receive great discounts.

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If you put a little time into the planning portion of your trip, you can relax and have fun on the actual trip. And the golden rule of travel for me is to take life in stride – you’re on vacation, enjoy it! And don’t forget to take pictures!

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What tips do you have for trip planning?

 

Back to basics in the new year (5 goals for 2017) December 30, 2016

A few months back a friend talked me into going to see a tarot card reader to find out what’s in store for my future. I had never been to one and admit I had bit of trepidation. What might she tell me?

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Cheers to a new year!

The woman was very welcoming and sweet. She asked what I might want to focus on learning. I really didn’t have a specific focus; mostly wondering if, after making some major life changes in the early year, I was on the right path and what might come in the future, if she could tell. I didn’t admit that I wasn’t sure I really believed these cards could tell about my life…but I was willing to give it a try. At this point in my life, I feel so open to new experiences (one of my new mottos is “bring it on, life.”)! I shuffled the deck and then she started laying out cards on the table. I waited with bated breath while she studied the cards. Then she smiled and said, “Wow you’ve been through a lot, but there so much positive energy and love in your future.” Well how about that? I could have walked out with that bit of refreshing news, but she had more to share. As we talked about the cards’ various meanings, it admittedly was a bit eerie when she commented on things that had happened in my life (health challenges, relationship ending, etc.) that I didn’t tell her (and she had no way of knowing). Then she mentioned things that I’ve been pondering professionally (according to her will be successful!) and house hunting struggles (soon to end!). And the cards indicate my love life will be very full of love, happiness and…… well I’ll keep some of that to myself so I can see how it plays out.

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I know that I am still the person in charge of my present and future, however, it’s nice to have someone say that I’m on the right path. The overall message was to be open and ready for the many positive things that will happen in the new year. I walked out feeling hopeful and excited about my future.

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Whether or not you ‘believe’ in tarot cards and all that, the point is that I liked the message of being open and ready. I am an admitted planner, so often like to plan things. I make lists, schedule things in advance and probably overthink too much. I worry about other people’s feelings, which often time slips into my plans and sometimes even alters what I do in my life (I’ve realized there is a threshold of being too nice). I’ve been learning that I can still focus on my life while being kind, helpful and supportive to others.

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What I’ve really learned in my 40+ years on earth is that not every year, not every moment, will be perfect joy. Not every situation ends in joy. And that’s okay (although it doesn’t always feel okay). We sometimes need those less than stellar moments to guide us into a new version of life and our self. Remember that you’ll make it. Despite sadness, confusion and frustration, there is always hope. That’s at least what I hold onto. There are new chapters to write, new adventures to experience, new people to meet and new moments to heal and fill the heart.

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So that’s what I am bringing into the new year. I’m walking into it with my arms open, ready to live life with laughter, smiles, an open heart and…hope. Lots and lots of hope.

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I usually like to set specific goals for myself each year (shocking from the planner!). This year I want to focus on more simple, yet motivating goals for myself.

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Find what fills your heart with happiness.

Happiness. The quote below from the Dalai Lama is so true. You can’t rely on others to create happiness for you. I believe that life is what you make of it. I don’t always like what happens in life – I didn’t like getting cancer, didn’t like my dad being diagnosed and dying from cancer, didn’t like having a failed marriage, didn’t like the sadness and challenges affecting my family and friends. But through each of these, we all had to pick ourselves up, dust off and move forward. Hopefully with support from others, yet mostly it’s your own decision on how you move forward. With your head high and hope in your heart? I admit that earlier in the year, I was ready to accept that this year would be blah and slow moving as I transitioned. But it really wasn’t. There have been so many times that my heart felt so full of love and happiness that I thought it might burst. Or I’d start crying tears of joy and relief (yes, that happened once or twice). When I recently commented to a friend that I’m touched at the love and joy in my life, she said she wouldn’t expect it any other way because I’m so open to being happy and sharing love that it’s natural those type of people would gravitate to me too. It’s an interesting thought and one I’ll accept because I love and appreciate all of you who bring your own sense of love and joy. Part of creating your own happiness is keeping the ‘right’ people in your life, the ones who reciprocate the time and energy needed to keep a relationship/friendship moving forward, the ones who bring their own joy and happiness so they don’t suck yours away. Simply put, I love being happy and am going to focus on bringing so much more of that to my life, and others, in the new year.

“Happiness is not something ready made. It comes from your own actions.” ~ Dalai Lama

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Love. I admit it, I’m a romantic. Not ‘I need a bunch of gifts’ romantic type, but ‘kindness, affection, sweet gestures, remembering things I shared, exploring and creating new memories together’ romantic. Real true love is unselfish, kind and joyous. It makes you feel vulnerable, yet won’t hurt you. It makes you smile at the simplest gestures and words because you know it’s genuine. It’s crazy fun, and simple, relaxing moments together. It’s long talks about life, and quiet compatibility. I have not given up on love. I’ve definitely learned some lessons and my mind is aware. Yet, my heart is open. And while I am opening my heart and arms to romantic love, I’m also wrapping my arms around love in general. Love of family and friends, love of simple things and actions, love of life. As my tarot cards suggested, I’m open and ready to accept love in all forms.

“Love is when he gives you a piece of your soul that you never knew was missing.” ~ Torquato Tasso

“As soon as I saw you, I knew an adventure was going to happen.” ~ Winnie the Pooh

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So many places to explore!

Adventures. I feel like 2017 is a new adventure waiting for me to explore. So I want to be more spontaneous and open to new opportunities. I love traveling. I love to not just travel but explore new places, meet local people and learn new things about locations, cultures and more. Having adventures isn’t just about traveling to new locales, it’s about being open to people, activities, foods, drinks, opportunities and more! But no worries if you haven’t been bitten by the travel bug, adventures are also about stepping out of your comfort zone. Join a social group (check out meetup.com for tons of options in your area), try an activity, learn a language. There’s so much to do and see in the world around us. I don’t plan to sit on my couch while time moves by me. Do you?

“Life is either a daring adventure or nothing at all.” ~ Helen Keller

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Health. I’m always slightly obsessed with my health. I guess cancer does that. This is different though. I want to be even healthier and more focused. I want to feel energized and simply feel good as many moments as I can. So what does that mean? I want my body to feel as strong and confident as it did before bone cancer. Okay, I realize that I was 21 when I was diagnosed so feeling 21 in my 40s is probably wishful thinking….my point is that I felt confident and completely sure of myself. I trusted my body. Cancer raised a distrust and then a dip in confidence from the titanium rod in my femur/tibia. I hesitate to try activities because I’m worried I might hurt myself. I don’t plan to throw all caution to the wind in the new year, because I sure as heck won’t jeopardize my leg, but I want to feel confidence when I try new activities or push myself in a current. For instance, I want to bike a few hundred miles on my new road bike and feel confident that I can do it. So I’ll be setting some goals to get healthier and stronger (and maybe reward myself with a cute new outfit).

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“If today were the last day of your life, would you want to do what you are about to do today?” ~ Steve Jobs

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Hello, you!

Me. It’s always a little odd for me to say I’m going to focus on…me. It kind of feels a little self-centered or selfish, yet what I realized this year is that you sometimes need to be selfish in your ‘me’ time. And it’s not truly being selfish. If you’re not happy and well, then you can’t truly help others. This past year was the first in a long time that I truly stood up for myself, making difficult decisions, having honest conversations and focusing on what I needed. It was at times unnerving and challenging; it was also liberating and stress-relieving. In the end, these were actions that I needed to take so I can live the life that I want and should. I learned how to be an advocate for myself, recognizing that if I can’t stand up for myself, how can I truly help others? I had a very real moment this past spring when I was in my Washington, DC hotel room after cancer advocacy training, networking, and dinner and drinks with new friends – as I mentally reviewed the previous two days of fun, accomplishment and laughter, I suddenly fell back onto the bed, smiling ear to ear and thought, “welcome back, my friend.” Because in that moment, I realized my heart felt so very full and light, laughter bubbled out and I remembered what it felt like to be me. And I had missed just being me. So going forward I’m going to just be me. Because, honestly, who else should I be?

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“All our dreams can come true if we have the courage to pursue them.” ~ Walt Disney

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A dear person in my life told me to make 2017 the best year ever. It is some solid advice that I can grab onto and run with. Ready to join me?

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“The greatest adventure is what lies ahead.” ~ J.R.R. Tolkien

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May the sun set on this year and rise high in the new year!

 

Exploring food and drink spots in Austin, Texas October 24, 2016

Filed under: Random Travels & Exploring — Heather @ 11:17 am
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austinsign_hhWhen I traveled to Austin last weekend for the 20th anniversary of the LIVESTRONG Challenge, I was fortunate to travel with some great friends. In between our LIVESTRONG events, we had time to explore Austin.

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We decided to stay near South Congress so we could walk as much as possible around Austin. A great decision as it was convenient for lots of fun (and I got a ridiculous amount of steps on my Fit Bit)!

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While we wandered through much of downtown Austin to see the sites, we also indulged in some great food and drinks. Here are a few of the places we visited:

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Home Slice Pizza: This New York style pizza is available by the slice or whole. It’s so good that you might as well order the entire pie because you won’t eat just one piece! You can eat in or carry out. I love the ‘neighborhood’ feel as you walk in, breathe great scents and indulge in some very good food.

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Snack Bar (adjacent to the Austin Motel). There’s a cool, laid-back atmosphere when you walk into this diner. With space to sit inside or outside in a covered area, it’s a great place to simply hang out. But they also have good food that includes locally grown options and a nice selection of wine, beer and cocktails. Sadly, we learned that both Snack Bar and Austin Motel are scheduled to close Oct. 30 so get there quickly.

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Hotel San Jose’ lounge: This hidden gem on Congress is like walking into a secluded snackbaraustin-signsanctuary. Oddly, the noise of the street seems to disappear as you step through the opening to the garden. The outdoor lounge is surrounded by lush greenery, the relaxing pool to one side and a mellow vibe throughout. I enjoyed a delicious Tokyo Mule cocktail (okay, maybe more than one!). In the evening, the dimly lit area is perfect ambiance for good conversation.

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Torchy’s Tacos: With clever taco names (Trailer Park, The Democrat, and Brushfire), you’re not quite sure what to expect. Thankfully, we were rewarded with good food! I love Mexican so was happy to try this location for lunch. Be forewarned though – the tacos are big and filling! I tried the Baja Shrimp and Chicken Fajita tacos. Both were delicious (although the chicken was a bit spicy) and filled me up.

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Container Bar: Located on popular Rainey Street, this eclectic venue was created using shipping containers. Seriously. It’s a trendy area yet somehow finds a way to be laid-back and fun (only in Austin?).

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Iron Works BBQ: It’s a good thing we walked to/from this place because, holy moly, I needed to burn some serious calories after eating here. Located in a brick red, old iron work shop, Iron Works serves traditional Texas barbecue. With very generous portions of the meat (I think I laughed at the portion of chicken that was plopped onto my plate), as well as several choices of sides , you can’t leave here hungry. The chicken was juicy and the brisket pretty much melted in my mouth. The corn on the cob was yummy. The macaroni and cheese put me over the edge. Food coma.

 

Penguins, butterflies and giraffes, oh my! October 1, 2016

Lions, tigers and bears, oh my! Sorry, but I couldn’t help it. Every time I enter the gates of the Detroit Zoo, I think of that scene in Wizard of Oz. Although my recent visit to the zoo should have included a chant of ‘penguins, butterflies and giraffes, oh yes!’

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Inside the underwater tunnel.

It was a beautiful, sunny day during my recent visit to the 125-acre Detroit Zoo. Home to more than 2,400 animals, the zoo has a new penguin center and baby giraffe, which were my main interests of the day.

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There is much to see at the Detroit Zoo. You can meander through the paths to view animals in various habitats or pick and choose your path (maps and signage help direct you to specific points of interest). Since there were several in our group that day, we each voiced one attraction we hoped to see. Happily for me, everyone also wanted to view the penguins and baby giraffe.

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We were given a time slot to visit the penguin center when we purchased tickets so that was the first stop on our visit (I was told that timed-entry is only on weekends right now). This new center is 33,000 square feet, with a 326,000-gallon, 25-foot-deep aquatic area. Plenty of clear glass allows you to watch more than 80 penguins swim, eat, snooze and play. I find penguins cute, and interesting to watch them interact with each other, swim and waddle around. As you walk through the penguin center, a path takes you to the ‘deck’ of a ship where awesome 4-D video makes you feel as if you’re crossing Antarctic waters. Once you leave the ship area, you can enter an underwater gallery with two acrylic tunnels to watch the penguins swim above and around you. It’s very cool!

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So many pretty ones.

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Once we left the arctic, we entered the balmy Butterfly Garden. Home to thousands of butterflies, representing more than 25 species, the beautiful gardens are maintained at 75 degrees to ensure optimal flora growth and butterfly activity. And active these butterflies were that day! It was fun to watch them take flight throughout the gardens.It’s funny my human instinct to duck when something flies at your head, even a harmless, lightweight butterfly. To enter the Butterfly Garden, you walk through one door, wait for it to close, then go through another door. This ensures that any butterfly that happens to slip past the first door can be caught and returned to the garden area. Which was a good setup to have as a large pretty one landed on my leg as I was walking out. Thankfully someone spotted it before I went too far and, with the help of the docent, we returned it safely to the garden.

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An adorable ‘little’ girl.

I was so tickled to walk up to the giraffe habitat and immediately spot the ‘little’ female giraffe (born in August). She’s adorable! She walked around the enclosure several times, often stopping to check out all of us humans smiling and taking pictures of her. The zoo added an elevated viewing platform several years ago, making it easy to get almost eye level with the largest mammal in the world. Some interesting giraffe facts (courtesy of the Detroit Zoo): Giraffes have the same number of vertebrae in the neck as a human (there are only seven bones in its neck); a giraffe’s heart can weigh up to 25 pounds (an adult human heart weighs about 10 ounces), and giraffes sleep about 20 minutes each day.

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There were many other animals to watch, from gorillas to polar bears to red pandas to kangaroos to zebras. It’s a good time of year to visit these animals as the cooler weather often provides a more active viewing opportunity. It was a great day to be outdoors and learn about the conservation efforts of the zoo and the many animals living in metro Detroit.

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Fall hours begin today, 10am-4pm. Keep in mind that the zoo doesn’t sell bottled water (in a cool effort to reduce plastic waste) – you can bring your own or purchase a reusable bottle at the concession stands.

 

41 reasons to love life September 12, 2016

Filed under: Life Lessons — Heather @ 1:15 pm
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Birthdays have always been kind of a big deal in my family. My parents made sure every new year was celebrated, particularly the ‘big days’ of turning 10, 13, 16, 18, 21, etc. When I was diagnosed with cancer at 21, birthdays took on a very special meaning and milestone for me, and my family. I recall spending my 22nd birthday in the hospital, sick from chemo and disappointed and frustrated to be sick on my birthday, yet my parents made sure to throw me a small party with family and my nurses packed into my hospital room so I could feel joy and love. It was awesome. Since that day, I welcome and celebrate every birthday. I’m so grateful to be alive!

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Love my family so much!

Many moments and people stick out over the years that have helped make life grand. And while I certainly could fill a few pages with the challenges, hurt, sadness, losses and failures that I’ve faced in life, all of those moments and emotions helped shape me into the person that I am today. I’m okay with that woman. I feel great joy in knowing what I have overcome to be here in this place.

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So on my birthday, I wanted to share 41 items (in no particular order) that are my reminders of what makes life so awesome for me, in the hopes of spreading some optimism and love to each of you. And if you really want to help me celebrate this special day, I ask you to share a smile or act of kindness with someone you encounter today.

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1. Being alive.

2. Feeling content in the moment.

3. Amazingly loving and supportive parents.

4-9. My nieces and nephews who I love like my own children and make me smile daily.

10-12. My sisters and brother in law who always have my back.

13. Fabulous friends who love and support me for me.

14. Giving back to the cancer community that saved me physically, mentally and emotionally many times during and after cancer treatment.

15. Walking, dancing, hiking and more on my own two legs after bone cancer.

16. Waking up every day with strength, courage, optimism and freedom to enjoy life.

17. Riding a bike.

18. Hiking in the woods.

19. Camping under the stars.

20. Dancing in Zumba, my kitchen and anywhere!

21. Loving and trusting my body’s strength (strong enough to survive cancer) and

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Staying strong to stay healthy – and have fun!

abilities to be active. When I get frustrated at what I can no longer do because of cancer, it reminds me of all that I can.

22. The comfort of a strong hug.

23. Excitement of seeing someone special.

24. The beauty of a horse and the true peace these animals bring to me.

25. Fresh, bright flowers that bring cheer to the day.

26. Happiness of appreciating simple things in life.

27. A good book.

28. Opportunities to emerge myself in new adventures that create great memories.

29. Learning and trying new activities.

30. Working with other cancer survivors and volunteers to make positive change in the fight against cancer and helping others.

31. Watching the sun set and knowing a new tomorrow, filled with new possibilities, is on the horizon.

32. Smile-invoking memories of moments with family and friends.

33. The promise of a loving, fun, supportive friendship/relationship.

34. Laughter, the kind that makes your stomach hurt.

35. Music that strums to your soul.

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Appreciating every day and excited for tomorrow!

36. Quiet time alone to reflect on blessings.

37. Facing fears, sadness, frustrations and challenges with optimism, smiles and hope.

38. Being loved.

39. Falling in love.

40. Confidence in yourself and your decisions.

41. The exciting anticipation of what’s to come – the people who will join you, new adventures to experience, and days filled with love, laughter and good health.

 

10 things to love about Alaska August 16, 2016

Filed under: Random Travels & Exploring — Heather @ 4:00 pm
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Alaska is beautiful!

Over the past few weeks, I’ve encountered several friends and acquaintances who mentioned they are planning to visit Alaska. It brings back memories of my amazing trip several years ago to this great state. I was fortunate to have two friends move to Alaska and extend an invitation to visit. Never one to turn down the chance to travel and create new adventures, I took them up on the invitation (along with my friend, Marie) to visit our biggest state!

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My friends lived in Anchorage so we decided to spend our seven-day trip exploring that area, as well as traveling south to Kenai National Forest and Seward. We weren’t disappointed as this area is breathtaking, full of great places to explore and wonderful people to meet. The natural beauty of Alaska stunned me every time I turned my head.

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As the 49th state of the United States, Alaska has the largest coastline (over 6,600 miles) with more than 3,000 rivers and 3 million lakes! Of the 20 highest peaks in the U.S., 17 are in Alaska (Denali is the tallest in the U.S. at 20,320 feet above sea level). Alaska was always the state that I’d love to visit because I love the outdoors but admittedly it wasn’t high on my list (and I can’t remember why!). Until the opportunity to visit arose and I realized what a great experience this would be! Everything kind of fell into place for our trip and soon we were heading to Anchorage. We traveled to Alaska in mid-August when the weather is fairly mild and daylight extends until close to midnight (which was a bit weird to my body that couldn’t figure when it was time to sleep).

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There were so many moments that I loved. It’s hard to describe the beauty and respect you feel about the land unless you’re standing in front of the water watching a bald eagle catch a fish or a moose eating alongside the road or looking down into a valley from atop a glacier field. Alaska reminds you that the world is so much grander than what we truly know. It reminds you that nature is awesome and should be respected, and man can appreciate it and live in it.

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There is so much to remember about that trip so I thought I’d share some of my favorite things about Alaska:

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Close but not too close!

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1. Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center (Portage): This center offers a permanent home to orphaned and injured animals that can’t be released into the wild. You can see animals, such as bears, moose and eagles in up-close, natural environments. Special programs let you watch certain animals be fed (we watched the black bears eat…..definitely don’t want to encounter a hungry bear!). This center provides a great opportunity to learn about a variety of animals.

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2. Camping in Kenai Fjords National Park (Seward): Alaska hosts more than half of our national park lands with 17 national parks. Kenai is one of the beauties. We started the day with a boat tour. While we didn’t see the whales we were hoping to, we did see a lot of wildlife and a few glaciers. More than 50 percent of this park is covered in glaciers! We pitched our tent along a river with views of glaciers – certainly don’t get those views in Michigan!

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Hiking the glacier field (with my bear bell!).

3. Exit Glacier hike (in Kenai Fjords National Park): It was still light at 8pm when we set up camp in Kenai so we started a hike to Exit Glacier, which is part of the Harding Icefield. A series of trails start at the Exit Glacier Nature Center that allow you to check out different views of the glacier. We were able to get close enough to the glacier to hear it shifting. At one point, we saw cracks forming as the ice shifted (we were safely away; it was so cool!). This was an eye-opening hike as there are signs along the trail that mark the glacier’s recession over the past 120 years. It is glaringly obvious that the ice is quickly melting away.

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4. Flattop Mountain Trail: It’s no surprise that this is Alaska’s most visited peak – the location near Anchorage makes it easy to access and the beautiful views are addicting. We hiked to the top and it was worth the views. The trails are busy though, with some steep drops down the side, so don’t be in a rush (although in a beautiful place like Alaska, you shouldn’t be in a rush!). Some of the trails had an abundance of blueberries but, while we sampled a few fresh fruits, we left the bulk for the bears to eat. Better to let them eat the food way up high rather than wander into the populated towns.

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5. Alaska Native Heritage Center (Anchorage): I love learning about the history of places that I visit so was happy that we found this cultural center and museum focused on Alaska’s indigenous people. There were some great exhibits featuring five different local cultures. We were able to watch some live programs and see hands-on demonstrations.

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6. Alaska SeaLife Center (Seward): This is another great opportunity to see Alaska’s animals up close and personal. We saw lots of marine mammals, fish, birds and invertebrates. You also get to learn about the research and conservation being undertaken in the state. When we visited, there was a fascinating, albeit sad, exhibit on the long-term effects of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. We really need to appreciate and protect our natural habitats more than we do.

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Hiking part of the Iditarod trail!

7. Winner Creek Trail: One of the best parts of this trail in the Chugach Mountains is that you hike through the northernmost rainforest in North America…while in Alaska! The trail begins behind the Hotel Alyeska and is a fun hike because of the cool vegetation and experiences. First, you cross a wooden bridge over the Winner Creek Gorge. Then you get to a hand tram where you get inside a metal cage and pull yourself over Glacier Creek, more than a hundred feet below! I’m not going to lie – this took guts for me to do (I dislike heights, especially in a rickety-feeling metal cage!), but it was awesome (once over!)! This trail is also part of the Iditarod National Historic Trail, Alaska’s only National Historic Trail. At the end of this hike, we stumbled upon a great little coffee and book shop.

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8. Seward Highway: This 125-mile highway goes from Anchorage to Seward and is worth noting because the drive is So.Darn.Beautiful. The highway runs through the Kenai Peninsula, Chugach National Forest, Turnagain Arm and the Kenai Mountains, which caused me to turn my head in pretty much every direction, exclaiming, “oh how beautiful” every 90-seconds. Or hang my mouth open in awe over the views!

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9. Seafood: I wasn’t a big seafood fan until I visited Alaska. I guess it just wasn’t fresh enough. Our friends welcomed us with a delicious scallops dinner, then we were introduced to several friendly Alaskans at a neighbor’s dinner complete with fresh grilled salmon (and Alaskan craft beer!). I indulged a few more times on fresh seafood during my visit. And I haven’t tasted it that good since the trip.

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Portage Glacier field

10. Portage: When the Great Alaska Earthquake occurred in 1964, the ground sank below sea level causing a ‘ghost forest’ of trees. These ghostly looking trees are very eery and amazing. Some of the original buildings can still be seen. Definitely worth a stop to explore the past. The wildlife conservation center and Portage Glacier are popular spots to visit here.

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This trip was also a great reminder that the people you travel with can truly make or break a trip. I had an amazing trip, mostly due to the wonderful friends who shared the experience with me. Even when we hit our exhausted phase due to the time change and busy schedule, we spent most of the day laughing and being silly rather than cranky (who likes to be cranky on vacation?!). We giggled while swapping stories every night before falling asleep. When I got frustrated because my titanium rod forced me to turn around on a slippery glacier trail, my friend soon had me laughing and focused on all that I was accomplishing while I reciprocated in her moments of needed humor.

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Alaska is one of our country’s treasures and I highly recommend you visit!

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How often do you see moose on the side of the road?

 

10 fun facts about Mackinac Island, Michigan July 26, 2016

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Approaching Mackinac Island from the ferry.

During my family’s recent getaway to Mackinaw City, we took a day trip to Mackinac Island. The island is located in Lake Huron between the lower and upper peninsulas of Michigan. This is one of my favorite spots to visit in my home state.

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The 3.8-square mile island once served as home to a Native American tribe, a center for fur trading, then a military post when the British built Fort Mackinac (still available to tour on the island). It became a popular tourist destination in the late 19th century. The primary way to get to the island is via boat so there are several ferry companies that depart from Mackinaw City and St. Ignace. In the winter when the lake freezes, some residents will drive snowmobiles across the ice. There is a small airport that private planes use.

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I love visiting Mackinac Island. It’s relaxing, even during the busy summer season, and beautiful. I love the uniqueness of horses, bikes and walking as the only modes of transportation. I love that it’s like a secluded getaway in the midst of busy civilization.

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Here are 10 things I find fun and interesting about Mackinac Island:

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1. No vehicles: Motor vehicles were banned from the island at the end of the 19th century and the restriction continues today (except for emergency and some construction vehicles). M-185, the country’s only state highway without motored vehicles, goes around the 8-mile circumference. The only modes of transportation are horses, bikes and your own feet. I love this about Mackinac Island. It makes the island unique, and also provides a sense of peace and break from our crazy, honking society.

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2. Mackinac Island State Park: Mackinac Island was the second national park, then the land was given to Michigan in 1895 and became our first state park. The state park comprises 82 percent of the island. There are more than 70 miles of trails for hiking, biking and horseback riding. I’ve hiked the majority of these trails and there is always something interesting and informational to see and learn.

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3. Family time: I love any place that enables my family to relax and spend time together. Mackinac Island is the perfect place to do just that. From the ferry ride over to the horse-drawn wagon tour to fudge sampling to simply wandering the streets of the island, we felt worlds away from ‘regular life.’ We even all agreed to suspend technology use (except for pictures) while on the island (so awesome to me!). It was so fun being on the island with my family, especially for the first time with the younger nieces and nephew. We discussed quite a bit of history, horses and nature.

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Horses are everywhere!

4. Horses: I love visiting Mackinac Island where my favorite animal is pretty much everywhere I look. More than 500 horses are brought to the island every spring, and taken off the island for the winter. Many of the horses are used to pull wagons for guest taxis, maintenance supplies, island tours and business needs. You can also rent saddle horses for tours around the island. I unfortunately never got to ride a horse on the island before my cancer surgery so I’m disappointed that I can’t experience this. However, I was happy that my two older nieces and my niece’s husband took advantage of this fun outing.

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5. Grand Hotel: This 390 room hotel opened in 1887 to summer tourists. It has the world’s largest porch (660 feet) overlooking Lake Huron and the hotel’s beautiful gardens. No two guest rooms are the same, which makes me want to walk through every room to see the decor! There is an evening dress code and non-guests are charged $10 to visit the porch. It’s definitely a pricey hotel, but a pretty one.

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6. Biking: Riding bikes is one of the most popular ways to get around on the island. You can bring your own across the lake on the ferry or rent one of the more the 14,000 available from vendors on the island.

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Beautiful lake waters below Arch Rock

7. Arch Rock: This is one of my favorite spots on the island. The natural limestone rock is 146 feet above sea level. It’s unique in the size and shape. Many legends surround the arch. It’s predicted that it will erode completely in the next few decades so check it out.

 

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8. Population: Approximately 7,000 people live on the island during the summer months as tourist season brings many temporary workers to help at the restaurants, shops, hotels, bed and breakfast inns and elsewhere. During the winter, only 400-500 islanders remain.

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9. Education: I find it fascinating that there is a K-12 school on the island. Of course, the year-round island youth need to be educated but I guess the island size and sort of remote location made me think there wouldn’t be a school. The largest graduating class in recent years had eight students. The 2016 class graduated five students.

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10. Fudge: There are 14 fudge shops on the island! So much fudge is made that more than 10 tons of butter is brought to the island every year. I’m not a huge fudge fan but I admit to some sampling when on the island.

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There is so much more I could share about the island! It truly is a fun, unique, relaxing experience. Have you been to Mackinac Island? If so, what was your favorite experience?

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I love this phone booth next to the Grand Hotel! Phone doesn’t work but I still think you can call a superhero if needed.

 

 
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