Tag: destination review

Panama: more than a canal

Panama: more than a canal

Panama has more than just hats, people. For one blissful month after finishing grad school and before the student-loan repayment plan kicked in, I was able to join my family in this cool Central American country. Here are ten interesting Panama facts. Locks Panama was 

Poland Do’s and Don’ts of Travel

Poland Do’s and Don’ts of Travel

Last year, R, C and I did a little traveling through Poland. Below are a few do’s and don’ts from our experience there. The first “do” is, of course, go to Poland! After that, you can worry about the specifics below. Do’s and don’ts of 

Top 10 Estonia

Top 10 Estonia

Estonia is a lovely little country located on the Baltic Sea. I cannot think of a single negative thing to say about this country. It is beautiful and easy to travel. Things are really, really, really old. There is a history here that is hard for us in the U.S. to understand. But there is also a beauty that is not at all hard to comprehend. We were lucky enough to experience Estonia and all that it has to offer. Should you find yourself in the same lucky boat, below are 10 recommendations from us Janes.

View of Old Town Tallinn Estonia
C calls this the money shot!

1. Explore Tallinn, Estonia

Set out on foot and get as lost as you can (it won’t be hard). Old Town is basically car-free, giving pedestrians room to roam…and gawk. Tallinn was founded in 1248, but it first appeared on a map in 1154. Can you believe that? Old Town is an authentic, intact medieval city, and apparently one of the best preserved in Europe. There is so much history here. I am sure there are plenty of tours you can sign up for. We opted for a self-guided tour from our handy travel guide. We still managed to get lost but we learned a lot in the process. And the views! There is no describing them other than “postcard perfect.”

Note: although Tallinn is old, it has all of the modern conveniences and is sometimes called the Silicon Valley of Europe. Wifi is everywhere and it is the birthplace of Skype. It really might be the perfect city.

Main square in Tallinn, Estonia travel vacation
Tallinn after a little rain.

2. Stay here while in Tallinn

Trust me on this. The converted chapel is old (like 1400s old), the location is amazing and the experience is unforgettable. There is also a sauna in the basement, which is a nice perk, and we very much enjoyed a mid-vacation respite here. Our time in Tallinn would not have been quite the same if we had stayed anywhere else.

Airbnb chapel rental in Tallinn, Estonia travel vacation
Stay in a converted chapel.

3. Eat some chocolate

Kalev chocolates have been made in Estonia since 1806. You can find it almost anywhere. I picked up a bunch of bars at the grocery store to take home as gifts. The white chocolate with blueberries is particularly good—and I am not even a fan of white chocolate.

4. Buy local

Estonia has talented artisans that specialize in all sorts of crafts including woodworking and amber. You will have to search out the shops that feature locally-made products and not mass-produced souvenirs, but it will be worth it. I brought home a lovely handmade wool hat from a shop called Eesti Esinduse. The Visit Estonia website is a good resource for finding such shops.

5. Ride a traditional swing or kiik

It is much harder than you might think but it is a novel experience. You’ll probably have to get out of the city and into a nice little country town to find one.

Kiik swing in Estonia vacation travel
So much harder than it looks.

6. Eat at Kompressor

This well-known pancake house (serving what we would call crepes) does not cater to tourists and is actually kind of hard to find. But don’t give up. I am not a huge fan of savory crepes, but the bacon and smoked cheddar pancake I ordered was delicious. And we all loved the cherry and coconut pancake we split for dessert. Prices were good and the portions were huge.

Estonian pancakes

7. Ride a bike

Bicycling around the Estonian countryside is an experience I will never forget. I cannot recommend Thoomas and his City Bike enough. They really went above and beyond to make sure we had a good experience. Thoomas himself was our driver and as he drove us to and from the route we biked, he educated us on his country. We learned so much from him about Estonia, in addition to having a great time. And at the end of our ride, he gave us chocolates shaped like gold medals…because he is adorable like that.

Cycling in Estonia bike bicycling travel vacation no hands
Just a little bike ride through the Estonian countryside.

8. Get a cup of hot cocoa

Maiasmokk Café is the oldest operational café in Tallinn. And it has been in the same location, with basically the same décor, since 1864. We visited on a rainy day, which was actually kind of perfect. It kept us warm and cozy. You might be a little overwhelmed with fresh pastry options. So I will just go ahead and recommend the poppy roll.

Maiasmokk Café in Tallinn, Estonia yellow building vacation travel
Perfect on a rainy day…or any day for that matter.

9. Visit the countryside

We did this via bike and it was wonderful. But renting a car would work as well. We rode through the Lahemaa National Park, toured Sagadi Manor, observed the largest natural waterfall in Estonia (Jägala Waterfall) and took in the varied landscapes. Forests cover over one half of Estonia and about one fifth of the country is covered with marshes and bogs. But we also saw plenty of farmland, adorable villages and of course, the seashore.

Baltic Sea in Estonia sand travel vacation
Cold, cold, cold.

10. See the sea

If you are going to visit a Baltic country, then you have to check out the Baltic Sea. There are plenty of adorable coastal villages just waiting for you to show up and take that perfect picture. Another fun option is to take the ferry. Helsinki, Finland, is just a couple of hours away and assuming the weather cooperates, the ferry makes a nice option for traveling across the sea.


Estonia is lovely and a true gem. I highly, highly recommend it for your next vacation.

Jane Verses the Volcano

Jane Verses the Volcano

When S, B, and I visited Bali, we knew we wanted to see as much of the island as possible. One way to do this was through a sunrise hike, where we would experience a sunrise after making our way up the side of a 

Tour group challenges in Ecuador

Tour group challenges in Ecuador

Let us talk about tour group challenges. Since last week’s post discussed Morocco and some of the benefits of group travel, I thought it only fair to discuss some of the less pleasurable aspects of traveling with a tour group. Knowing both sides can only help 

A tour group takes on Morocco

A tour group takes on Morocco

B and I are travel junkies; there are few places we really don’t want to visit (hello, Moldova), but overall we’re pretty much open to whatever. This is helpful when we come across a good travel deal, like we found a few years ago for a guided tour of Morocco. Tour groups are a whole other breed of traveling; you have to think carefully about the pros and cons before heading out with a group of strangers for a length of time. Here are eight tour group advantages and some things to think about if you are considering booking a guided trip.

Tour Group Advantage #1: Getting sick

In the Getting sick on the road post, I mentioned that it was in Morocco that a few poor souls got really sick and even B was stricken for a short time. Our tour guide, Rahid, was able to explain their symptoms to a pharmacist who gave them some miracle pills that made them feel better. In Costa Rica, I woke up one night to find my legs twitching uncontrollably. I was (I feel) justifiably concerned. I made it through the night and it hasn’t happened since, but I remember how scared I felt because I didn’t know how to handle the situation. Tour guides are usually local to the country you are in and they know where to go for help and the steps to take in a health-challenged situation.

Tour Group Advantage #2: Cultural norms

It’s always a good idea to learn a little about the culture before visiting a country. For example, prior to visiting Morocco we read up on the country’s dress code. Since it is a conservative, predominantly Muslim culture, we made sure to pack clothes that weren’t too revealing or immodest. Beyond this though, we didn’t know very much. Morocco isn’t as strict as other Muslim nations, but a tour guide would have been able to instruct us when we needed to cover up, etc.

Tour Group Advantage #3: Language barriers

This one is a no-brainer. In a country where you don’t speak the language, it is useful to have an interpreter.

Traffic Stop Sign in Arabic
Means ‘stop’…doesn’t it?

A few of us ladies in the tour group decided we wanted to get henna tattoos. We mentioned it to Rahid and in about ten seconds, he had found a lady who did henna and negotiated a good price for us. Just darn handy.

Getting a henna tattoo
B getting all hennaed up

Tour Group Advantage #4: Complicated red tape

Some countries have confusing entry/exit processes. With a tour group, you don’t usually have to worry about any of this as the tour company takes care of it. It can also be useful when purchasing tickets for admission to places; the tour company purchases them in advance and so you don’t have to wait in lines. In Casablanca, we jumped right into a guided tour of the Hassan II mosque with very minimal effort on our part.

King Hussein Mosque, Casablanca
Mosque in the background

Tour Group Advantage #5: Expanded cultural opportunities

When traveling by a guide book you will see most of the highlights that you would in a tour group. But tour groups provide for experiences that would be more challenging or impossible because you didn’t know about them. In Morocco, we stopped off at a home of a local. We were shown in and the daughter, Fatima, prepared tea for us and showed us how they cook with their clay oven. Rahid explained that in most families in Morocco a daughter is named Fatima, after Muhammad’s favorite daughter.

Primitive Cooking Stove in Morocco
That’s a Viking, right?

Later on the trip, we visited a co-op where women made products out of argan oil. These women were ‘unprotected’ for different reasons; they either left their husbands or chose not to get married, and they found safety and a home at the collective. We never would have learned this much about the lives of Moroccan women on our own.

Women working with Argan Tree seeds to make oil
Unprotected Janes in Morocco

Tour Group Advantage #6: Compressed amount of time

Tour companies have finely honed their guided tours to fit the most in as comfortably as possible. On our tour, called ‘Kasbahs and Deserts,’ we covered over a thousand miles in our coach bus, stopping at seven different towns. This was a very tight schedule, planned to maximize the time in Morocco. You’d be hard pressed to fit in more than a tour group does. *Tip: to get an idea of an itinerary for a trip you are taking without a tour group, you should check out a few tour companies’ websites to see where they take their groups. You don’t have to follow it exactly, but you’ll get some ideas of what to see.

Riding camels in Essouira, Morocco
Riding a camel in the Sahara…nbd

Tour Group Advantage #7: Ease

One of the most stressful parts about travel is having to make so many decisions. Where you are going, what you are eating, how you are getting there, etc. Everything takes effort. On a guided tour, however, you just have to show up. If you prefer having people telling you when to be somewhere and taking care of all of the details, a tour might be a dream come true. I think it can be a bit stifling, but sometimes it is really nice to not have to think too much.

Tour Group Advantage #8: Cost

Every week I get an email from Travelzoo that lists the top 20 travel deals they have found for that week. At least one of these is usually a guided tour, and it boggles the mind how affordable these can be. Just this week I saw a seven-night trip to China with airfare for $700. That’s insane. You wouldn’t even be able to buy a plane ticket for that much. Our tour to Morocco cost us about $2000 and included airfare, lodging, transportation and some activities. Tour guides can be super good deals.


Unless it is super cheap, I probably won’t be buying a tour to most countries. I felt very comfortable making my way around Germany. And even if it was not as comfortable, we did just fine touring Indonesia on our own. However, in countries that are very different or remote, I would probably take another tour if I wanted to go there. In Morocco, I felt more harassed by men than I ever have in any other country. (Not in the ‘ooooh baby’ way but more in the ‘buy this crappy necklace from me’ way.) I felt much better knowing Rahid was there to help. And I am very glad we got to see the parts of Morocco that we wouldn’t have had we not been on a tour.

Moroccan scenery
and here’s why we travel

North Dakota Via Train

North Dakota Via Train

One year ago today, I rolled through North Dakota. It was very exciting. Now normally, a trip to North Dakota is not necessarily worthy of any sort of celebration (no offense to the 750,000 people who live there). But this was no ordinary trip for 

A Modern-Day Icelandic Saga

A Modern-Day Icelandic Saga

This post about Iceland is written by our friend and fellow traveler, C. Enjoy! A year and a half ago, B, R and I went to Iceland for a long weekend. We spent a couple of days in Reykjavik and one day touring the Golden 

Weekend camping in the Sawtooths

Weekend camping in the Sawtooths

Ahhhhh summer. While not my favorite season, summer weather does mean some pretty great things like rodeos, drive-ins and camping, to name a few. This post will discuss that last one, camping, since C and I recently camped out in just about my favorite place in Idaho. Read on to learn about Sawtooth Camping.

Getting there

About three hours northeast of Boise, the small town of Stanley, Idaho, sits at the bottom of the glorious Sawtooth Mountain Range. During the winter, Stanley is frequently the coldest place in the nation (that’s right people, I said nation and not just state). But during the summer months, it is a little slice of heaven. The town itself is rustic, with a year-round population of 63 hearty folk. When the weather gets warmer, this number swells as river rafters come from all around to ride the Salmon River that runs right past town.

C and I loaded up my Subaru on a Friday after work and by 9:00 p.m., we pulled into our campsite. As it is still the beginning of the season in these here parts, we had the whole site to ourselves and were spoiled with the alpenglow as the sun set on a meadow of purple shooting star wildflowers under McGowan Peak. Just to make the night a little more surreal, a herd of antelope trotted through the field in the distance. Ridiculous, right? After a roaring fire, complete with guitars and smores, we turned in for the evening and said goodnight to a star-filled sky.

McGowan Peak
McGowan Peak

Sawtooth Camping Breakfast

The next morning we had a delicious campfire breakfast of muffins and sausages. By spraying foil with PAM and wrapping sausages tightly, we cooked them in the coals of the campfire. However, the real gem was the orange blueberry muffins. To make these, we cut off the very top of a large orange and scooped out the insides (fresh squeezed oj, anyone?). Then we filled the oranges with a blueberry muffin mix C had found that only required you to add water. We even mixed the batter inside the package. After placing the tops back on, we wrapped them in foil and placed them in the coals, turning once after about 20 minutes. About 45 minutes after we started, we pulled our foil packages out and feasted. So good!

Blueberry Muffins baked over campfire in an orange
Off with their heads!

Blueberry Muffins baked over campfire in an orange
Foil at its finest

Blueberry Muffins baked over campfire in an orange
Bon appetit!

Sawtooth Camping Hiking

Our goal for the next day was to hike one of the many trails in the Sawtooth National Recreational Area. We opted for the Yellowbelly Lake trail, a 4.8 mile in and out hike, mainly because the name was cool. One of the most magical things about the Sawtooth Mountain Range is the plethora of gorgeous mountain lakes sprinkled here and there. Our trail began at Pettit Lake and at the junction of the Alice Lake trail, we headed north. The trail is well maintained and marked…well, it will be well maintained and marked once the forest service is able to get in there for the summer season. As it was, we had to climb over and around several trees that had fallen over during the winter. The hike started out at a pretty steep incline, but since it was sprinkled with yellow arrowleaf balsamroot and Indian paintbrush, it was quite pretty. Almost pretty enough to get my mind off the burning in my calves as we climbed. Almost.

Arrowleaf balsamroot hiking in the Sawtooth Mountain Range
Arrowleaf balsamroot. Say that 5 times fast.

Getting Lost

Once we made it to the top it leveled out and we plodded on, past Ponderosa Pines and McDonald Lake, a little hidden gem we weren’t expecting to be so pretty. Maybe it was because the lake was so pretty that we got a little sidetracked and didn’t notice the junction in the path. Or maybe it was the giant tree that had fallen over and blocked the right half of the trail. But either way, we missed our turn and continued on.

Hiking train paths
Left or left????

Still Lost

After a while, we reached a creek (pronounced ‘crick’ in Idaho) that looked more like a river. Thinking it was just spring runoff, we decided to ford it and continue on, climbing up the opposite ridge. After a while, C noticed that the lake that could only be Yellowbelly was off in the distance, and definitely not in the direction we were climbing. We turned around and recrossed the water (so very cold) and found where we had gone wrong. Once we were back on track, we hit the lake and then headed back to the car without further incident. Our 4.8 miler turned into a 7.2 miler, but it was a beautiful day so it didn’t much matter. We were stocked with snacks and water so all was well with the world.

Hiking train to Yellow Belly Lake
Following the trail is for amateurs.

Sawtooth Camping Bonus: Hot Springs

After our hike, we felt we had earned a sit-in at some soothing hot springs. So we popped over to the Sunbeam Hot Springs; a natural hot springs that pours into the Salmon River. Industrious individuals have collected boulders and piled them up in the river, creating a little pool where you can control the temperature by allowing more of the cold river water in. We finished up the day by grabbing some dinner and listening to some music at the local lodge. Not a bad way to spend a spring day in Idaho. After another star-filled night, we woke, packed up our camp and headed home.

Tent in the trees
Tent, sweet tent

Sawtooth Camping Site
R being sous chef


Sometimes you just need to get away to the mountains. If you are lucky enough to live close to them, do it. Do it now. And even if you don’t, remember that Robert Frost fellow really did know what he was talking about. To get where you really want to be, take the road less (and more camouflaged) traveled.

MacDonald Lake
The mountains are calling


Affordable ski trip to Whistler, Canada: see how much a weekend getaway costs

Affordable ski trip to Whistler, Canada: see how much a weekend getaway costs

Janes often get asked, “How can you afford to go on so many trips?” Well, the answer is simple: you don’t spend a boatload of money on every trip. If you can’t afford to go big every time (man, wouldn’t be great?), go little a