On a recent visit to the Balkan Peninsula, B and I found ourselves spending one full day in beautiful Montenegro. This country is blessed with sweeping mountains, azure seasides and historic medieval towns. It is simply wonderful. Here are the five Montenegro must-sees that we …
R and I spent five and a half days driving around and exploring São Miguel Island in the Portuguese archipelago of the Azores. Locally, it is referred to as The Green Island. I just called it stunning.
Turns out the Azores make a great micro trip. We are part-time travelers with full-time jobs, so we have to maximize our weekends, holidays and vacations days. It is very easy to see all of São Miguel Island in a relatively short amount of time.
We knew it would be pretty and we figured we would have a good time. It was and we did. However, there were definitely some surprises in store for us on this particular adventure. Most were good. But there were a few that were not so good. Below are 10 surprising things we learned about São Miguel Island, Azores, Portugal:
The size of São Miguel Island
At 293 square miles and with a population of 150,000, São Miguel Island is the largest and most populous island in the Azores. However, large is relative. Five and half days was more than enough time to see the entire island. By the fifth day, we were actually struggling a bit to find something new to do and we even went back to a couple of places. I did not realize how manageable the island is until we had been there a couple of days. It really is possible to see and do everything on your to-do list in less than a week.
Driving around the island
Everything I read said it was easy to drive a rental car around São Miguel Island, that the roads are well maintained and relatively car free. This is all true. But what I failed to read anywhere was a warning about the teeny-tiny streets through towns. Every car on the island is small because they have to be. The roads are narrow and although they are sometimes a one-way street, often they are not.
The most challenging part is maneuvering around parked cars. People park pretty much wherever they want. So you have to figure out how to get around them, often with oncoming traffic. Oh, and sometimes there is also a pedestrian or two walking down the street because sidewalks are microscopic or nonexistent.
Perhaps, if you are vising from another part of the world that has a similar driving situation, you will not be fazed. But coming from the western U.S. (where everyone drives a truck), this was a whole new driving environment for us and one we were not mentally prepared for.
Other thoughts on driving around São Miguel Island:
- Official signage will sometimes point you down a dirt road. Beware.
- Eventually, you will be stopped by a herd of cows being moved to a new pasture. Slow down.
- Tractors use all the same roads you do. Watch out.
Talking to the locals
Okay, so we knew the official language was Portuguese before we left. But what we did not know was that many of the islanders would only speak Portuguese. We got around and bought stuff just fine, but it has been a long time since I have visited a place where English was not readily known. It was a bit more challengimg, but it was also a nice change of pace.
The weather on São Miguel Island
I knew the weather could change on a dime and we expected rain at some point. However, we mostly enjoyed gorgeous, warm weather. So warm, in fact, that most of the clothes I packed were all wrong for the weather (60s in Idaho means something very different than 60s in the Azores). With the sun and the humidity, my long-sleeve shirts were completely useless. I am not sure if we just got lucky or what, but I recommend preparing yourself for warmer rather than cooler weather.
Side note: hurricanes do make it to the Azores (who knew?), although they are rare and more mild. One rolled through the day after we left and although the danger was minimal, there were driving restrictions.
The food on São Miguel Island
I actually had high expectations for the food based on everything I read. But my reality was much different and overall, I found the food to be just meh. Our first restaurant meal, chosen because of a local’s recommendation and a busy atmosphere, left much to be desired. We had the famous Cozido das Furnas (or Furnas stew), a dish of meat and vegetables cooked for six hours in the ground by Mother Nature. To be fair, I did not read good reviews of the stew itself. But we were excited for the experience. However, it was bland and rather expensive, and it felt like this first meal set the stage for the rest of our meals.
In addition, places to eat are a little hard to find in the smaller towns. Often, they have a bar in front where local men like to stand outside and smoke. To be honest, it is a little intimating. We found ourselves gravitating toward grocery stores to fix our own meals instead of looking for a place to eat.
Pineapple saved the day!
Thankfully, there were some exceptions to the meh food. The Azorean pineapple is definitely a winner, as are most of the pineapple dishes made from them. As you drive around the island, you notice dairy cows everywhere (including the road). Naturally then, the cheese is pretty darn tasty. We enjoyed the yogurt as well. In fact, the yogurt section in the grocery store was much larger than any I have ever seen. The local bread, Bolo Lêvedo, was very good and very versatile. It worked for savory dishes as well as for sweet dishes. And speaking of sweet, I have no complaints about the pastries. They were delicious! Although most of our restaurant meals were disappointing, we did not go hungry while we were there.
Tourists, or lack thereof
One of my favorite parts about this trip was the lack of tourists. They existed, but they existed in far fewer numbers (and packs) than I am used to seeing. We only encountered them at major tourist stops and even then, it was not hard to find a private spot to enjoy whatever it was you came to see. Sadly, I do not think the lack of tourists will last much longer. This place is too great.
You don’t have to watch out for dangerous critters
Good news: there are no poisonous insects or snakes on São Miguel Island. That means you can hike around to your heart’s content and not have to worry about stepping on something that can hurt you. Also, I did not get bit by a single mosquito. I did not even see one! If they exist on São Miguel Island, they did bother me at all. And we spent a lot of time outdoors.
The cost of travel on São Miguel Island
Things are very affordable in the Azores. For example, I paid €1 for a large slice of pineapple cake from a local baker. It was awesome! When you visit places like the tea and pineapple plantations or the ceramics manufacturer, the price to enter is zero. That’s right. It is free to walk right in and roam around. And very few areas are off limits. You just walk around and check out how things are made. The workers ignore you and go on their merry way, just doing their job. It is a novel experience and it is hard to believe you do not have to pay anything to enter. Of course, most of the places we visited sold goods. But even those goods were affordable. I gladly paid €1.50 for my green tea and €8 for my handmade ceramic dish.
There are exceptions of course. Where there are tourists, there will be higher prices. We found a company online located in Ponta Delgada (the capital cities where most of the tourists hang out) that would rent us a kayak for €30 per person. Thankfully, we ignored that and instead found a place in Sete Cidades (a small town on the lake with much fewer tourists) that rented us a kayak for €10 total. That was the Azorean price we had come to love and expect.
The architecture all over the island
I loved the use of lava rock in the Azores. Here in Idaho, people sometimes build homes from lava rock. We call them giraffe houses because they look like a giraffe’s hide. In the Azores, people build just about everything from lava rock, but we rarely saw anything that resembled a giraffe. The towns are quite beautiful with their narrow streets, old buildings and towering churches. Walking around and admiring the way they were built is very enjoyable. You will fall in love with the small, seaside towns on São Miguel Island. It is impossible not to.
The capital city of São Miguel Island
Most of the things I read about Ponta Delgada were not flattering. However, I enjoyed this small capital city very much. It has a lot of charm. Plus, it is the best place to go shopping and find a bite to eat. I would not have wanted to make it my home base while on the island, but it made for an enjoyable afternoon visit.
I hesitate to say too many wonderful things about São Miguel Island and the time we spent there. I do not want it ruined by mass tourism. However, I have no control over that. For now, São Miguel Island in the Azores is lovely, with just enough surprises to keep even a seasoned Jane on her toes.
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On Jane Sees the World we’ve casually mentioned planning a trip in pretty much every post. Then again, it is a travel blog, so this probably makes sense. Both B and I have been asked many times over the years how we pick where to go and decide what we want to do. I know when I am wondering about something, it helps to have a step-by-step guide. So this post is going to be a instructional guide for how to plan a trip my aunt took a while back. You will be able to see the process and follow suit when you are planning your next trip.
Note: if you prefer more spontaneous travel, then feel free to skip to step 5. But as previously mentioned, we enjoy a good plan here at Jane Sees the World.
How to plan a trip step 1: pick your country
Aunt P was scheduled to visit England with some of her gal pals. She and one of her friends decided they wanted to throw in a quick jaunt to Scotland since they were going to be close. She enlisted me to plan out their schedule. Since I wasn’t given any particular instructions on how to plan a trip for her, I planned her time the way I would have if it were my trip.
We’ve covered some tips on choosing your next travel destination before.
How to plan a trip step 2: decide on your must-sees
One of the hardest things about travel is trying to fit in all that you want to see and do. This is actually impossible–you can never fit in everything you want. Instead, you have to pick some highlights, using what is important to you as your criteria.
There are some things you just know you need to see, you know? For B in Australia, this was Snowy River. For me in Scotland, it was Glasgow. Just because I enjoy the song Super Trouper by Abba. “I was sick and tired of everything, when I called you last night from Glasgow.” It’s funny how when you grow up with something, it becomes a part of you. Also on the Scotland must-do list was the lochs, preferably Loch Ness. Who doesn’t want to catch of view of Nessie? Your photos could recoup all the cost of the trip when you sell them to the Enquirer.
The easiest way to find out the must-sees in a country is to look it up. You can do this from a guidebook or on the interwebs. Typically, guidebooks list the top 20ish places to see at the beginning of the book. You probably won’t be able to cover all of these, depending on your timeframe, but you will be able to select one or two that you gotta see. You can also rely on other travelers to tell you what you need to know and search that destination on wikitravel or tripadvisor.
A really sneaky way to learn how to plan a trip is to find out what everyone else is doing is to look at what the tour groups are doing in that area. Since the tour companies are nice enough to put together an entire schedule with top destinations for you, you will easily be able to see what the most famous sites are (and possibly which areas to avoid). When I was researching the Scotland trip, I re-learned that Hadrian’s Wall was in southern Scotland. Everyone has heard about Hadrian’s Wall, but if you were like me you were a little fuzzy on its exact location. When I got a history refresher, it was solidly on my list of must sees.
Word of mouth
It’s great when you are able to ask a local for travel advice. They know the ins and outs and can help you get off the beaten path. Social media has become increasingly useful to discover these insider’s gems, so even if you don’t directly know the person who has knowledge of a place you can find some good info tangentially by their associations.
- If your friend on FB just ‘loved’ a picture her friend took in an exotic place, you can get some ideas about where you want to go from that kind-of friend/stranger.
- B gushes about how much she loves the city of Edinburgh; it tops her list of favorite worldwide cities. I knew I’d have to make some time for this capital city in my Aunt’s itinerary.
How to plan a trip step 3: map our your route
This step can be a little sad because you will inevitably have to cross off some of the must sees that you’ve spent so much time compiling. Thems the breaks, though, so you’ll need to prioritize your needs from your wants. Aunt P had about three days to get a taste of Scotland, so we had to make some decisions. When you only have a few days to be somewhere your days will fill up quickly.
For Scotland, Aunt P was going to travel up from London. The best options were to take a train or plane; trains take about six hours and planes take about one and a half. If you are B, you will pretty much always take the train if it is available. But if you only have three days in a place, the train ride is going to have to be one of your must sees if you are going to dedicate one sixth of your total trip to it. For Aunt P, I decided to split the difference; one way would be by train, the other would be by air.
If you look at a map of Great Britain, you’ll see Hadrian’s Wall is on the way from London to Edinburgh. As such, Aunt P could take the early train from London to Carlisle, explore the Wall for a few hours and take a late afternoon train the rest of the way to Edinburgh. This would leave the remainder of the evening to take in the sights of Edinburgh at night time.
Day 2 was the only full day Aunt P had in Scotland and as such would be her day for a full tour of the Lochs. It is doable to rent a car and explore the area on your own, but for Aunt P, it was well worth 40 pounds to have a guide and chauffeur. We’ve talked about the pros and cons of tour groups before. In some cases, it is just worth the money to let someone else take care of you. If she was going to do this trip on her own, I would have looked at several tour companies’ routes and mapped one similar to where they all go. The Loch trips are technically day trips, but they are loooong day trips. After they returned to Edinburgh, there was no time (and it would not have been much fun to try) to cram something else in on Day 2. Instead, Aunt P could enjoy her last night in Scotland at her leisure.
Day 3 was a travel day back to London. Since we went with a flight, it gave Aunt P time to see what daytime Edinburgh was like. Choosing where to go was a repeat of Steps 2 and 3, but the highlights I recommended for Aunt P was the Edinburgh Castle and the Royal Mile. Throw in some souvenir shopping and this took up pretty much the whole day before heading to the airport.
I find the best way to map a route is by taking some pencil and paper and map times out. It is a little tedious, but the best way to lay out where you want to go. And give you a reality check that you can’t do everything you want to.
How to plan a trip step 4: book it, baby
If you have a compressed amount of time, it’s best to book early and not try to snag a deal. It would be such a bummer if you allotted a whole day to visiting Nessie and then found out you couldn’t catch a glimpse because no one would take you. (I don’t really think this would happen, but you get the idea.) There was no reason for Aunt P not to buy train, plane, and tour tickets as soon as possible.
How to plan a trip step 5: day dream and anxiously await your trip
When all of your planning is done, all you need to do is wait. Tom says the waiting is the hardest part, and in the case of travel, I believe he is spot on. But be patient and the trip will come around soon enough.
Well that’s it. It’s not rocket science to plan a trip, but it definitely is time consuming. For B and me, planning is half the fun of travel, so we are willing to do the legwork for others. I still haven’t been to Scotland myself, but I will have a leg up on what I want to do when the opportunity arises. I’m looking at you, Glasgow. Let us know if you need some help planning your next adventure. As full fledged travel junkies, we will gladly assist.
I am very excited to share this road trip itinerary for three days on the Oregon coast. I take no credit for its amazingness. It was given to me by a former local and all-around Oregon expert. She really came through and provided the greatest …
Last spring B, C and I were thinking about where we could go in the fall for a quick, affordable vacation. After looking through Google Flights and seeing where we could get from Boise on the cheap, we narrowed it down to two options: Aruba or Puerto Rico. None of us really cared about where we went because really, how can you go wrong with either? We decided to go with Puerto Rico because it was a little cheaper and the flight time was shorter. Here are the activities and costs associated with five night trip to Puerto Rico.
From Boise we would fly to Dallas and then onto San Juan. The legs of the flight were pretty long but because we only had one layover total, trip time was ten hours.
Tip: it’s a good idea to know what cities are a direct flight from your hometown. This knowledge will help with plotting the shortest flight time so you don’t have to backtrack. On short trips, the length of time it takes to get somewhere is just as important as the cost. Direct flights at airports don’t stay static; just this year Boise added the Dallas direct flight.
Our flights from Boise cost $452.
We knew that we wanted to see more of the island than just San Juan so we opted to rent a car. Puerto Rico is a foreign country but is also protected by the U.S. So after checking with my insurance company, I rented a car through Enterprise. My go-to for car rentals is usually Hotwire, but I wanted to make sure I rented through a company I recognized since we were out of the States.
We did some checking on wikitravel and learned that Puerto Ricans have a bad rep for being crazy drivers and so foreigners should opt for the insurance on their rental, just in case. However, my car insurance carrier covered me in U.S. protectorates so we were able to skip that expense. We knew that we wanted to explore San Juan for a few days and that driving around downtown would be a disaster so our game plan was to return the car a few days before we headed home and just walk around the capital city.
Our car rental for four days was $196.
I did some searching on the interwebs and found an article from a gal who visited Puerto Rico and went on an excursion to a deserted island, Caja des Muertos (Deadman’s Coffin), on the southern part of the island that mainly locals visit. This sounded most promising and we booked right after we bought our plane tickets. Unfortunately, a few days before we left Boise, I got a call from the company saying the excursion was canceled due to weather. (Did I mention our trip was during hurricane season? Hurricane Matthew passed by the island a few days before we arrived. Because we knew we would be traveling during hurricane season, we went ahead and purchased travel insurance for $32.)
Bioluminescing it up
The only other activity we knew we wanted to do was visit a bioluminescent bay. For some reason, we didn’t book this in advance and almost missed out on our chance since all but one outfit were sold out. A little context: Puerto Rico is one of the few places in the world that has bays with organisms that glow, or bioluminesce, when agitated. It looks a bit like fireflies in the water and is very cool.
Kayak tip: get a good kayak-mate
C, B, and I joined up with a group of teachers from the States and a little after dark, we climbed into two-man kayaks. The kayaks had little lights (like glow sticks) at the end of them and the idea was that even if you couldn’t see anything else, you could follow in the general direction of the kayak in front of you. This worked better in theory than practice as most of the group hadn’t kayaked before. People were fine crossing the broad bay but when we began going down a canal with mangroves, all hell broke loose. C and B were in a kayak at the front of the group so they didn’t experience what I was seeing. At one point two people tipped their kayak. I have no clue how this is even possible as there wasn’t a current or rapids or anything. But somehow they managed it. The guide had to come back and help them climb back in. Luckily, the water was only about three feet deep.
I think the only thing that made me not lose my cool was how awesome it was to see the water glow every time my partner put her oar in the water. Eventually we made it to the lagoon with the highest concentration of bioluminescent critters. We got to swirl our hands around in the water and see the tiny fireworks. It was a very unique experience and the highlight of the trip. The route back to the bay was better because the current did all the work and took the kayaks back. Somehow people in our group managed to turn themselves in circles (seriously……how?) but eventually we made it back.
Tip: this is the coolest thing to do in Puerto Rico. Even though there are lots of companies that offer these trips each night, they fill up with the cruise ship people. Book early to ensure a spot. We went on a good night for seeing the critters; some nights with a brighter moon or different meteorological events I don’t understand change how well the bio lights show up. It is worth the chance to do this activity no matter how well things are lit up. At the worst, you’ll kayak in the dark in a mangrove canal. That’s pretty cool on its own.
Our kayak through a bioluminescent bay was $55 each.
El Yunque Rain Forest
Our other planned adventure was a hike through the El Yunque Rain Forest. We stopped at the visitors center to the national forest and got some recommendations from the friendly guide. The main hike we did took us down to a lovely waterfall that was chock full of other hikers swimming, or sitting rather, in the water. We opted not to join them and hiked out through the lush jungle back to the road. On our way out of the rainforest, C purchased a delicious Piña Colada from a roadside stand.
Tip: the national forests and parks in Puerto Rico are part of the U.S.’ National Park system and as such I could use my annual parks pass to get us into places for free.
Our hike through the forest was free with the Annual Parks pass.
Since our Caja des Muertos excursion was cancelled, we had some free time and no real need to be anywhere. Instead of booking something new, we opted instead to take a better look at this island. Since we had our own car we had the freedom to explore and decided to follow the coastline and stop wherever our hearts desired–which were usually beautiful beaches. The highlight of our wandering was the Los Marillos lighthouse in the southwest corner of the island. The lighthouse was built in the 1800s and is quite pretty and well maintained. But the real star of the show was the dramatic cliff line and drop to the turquoise ocean. Quite stunning, really.
Tip: if you have the time, get off the main highway and take the back roads whilst driving around. You’ll find hidden gems and probably get stuck in a traffic jam or two but you’ll get a better taste of how the locals live.
The lighthouse and beaches were all free, with the biggest cost at the lighthouse being the delicious maracuya (passion fruit) ice cream I ate.
Old San Juan
Our final adventure was exploring downtown San Juan. Again, we used the annual parks pass and got into the cool San Juan National Historic Site, the fortresses that protected people here for hundreds of years. We did a walking tour using our Lonely Planet guidebook and then spent the rest of the time wandering and shopping and trying in vain not to be mistaken with the tourists filing off the huge cruise ships.
Our costs for this part of the trip were pretty expensive (mainly for me) because mama likes to shop. Eek!
We ran into some issues with lodging this trip as two of our previously booked Airbnbs canceled on us at the last minute. One due to the poor guy getting dengue fever and the other due to the guy being incompetent. B had her heart set on staying on a sail boat moored at the marina, so it was sad the guy turned out to be a flake. Our places ended up just fine though and who knows–could have been better than what we originally planned.
Our lodging cost for two nights in the beach town of Luquillo, one night at a resort that reminded me of the place Baby finds her man in Dirty Dancing, and two nights in Old Town in San Juan cost us $570.
Puerto Rico was a nice little excursion to help us ‘blow off the stink’ as C’s farmer father says. Since it was Columbus’ day weekend, we only had to take three days off work. There were some unexpected challenges–two canceled hotels and two canceled adventures–but overall we were able to just go with the the Caribbean flow and chill.
For lodging, flights, travel insurance, excursions and a car rental we each paid $815. I will say the extra costs (food, shopping, etc.) cost more than what I was expecting. I was thinking this would be like other Latin American countries I’ve been to, but it really was more like mainland U.S. prices. Oh well, it was totally worth it.