Island Hopping On Oahu & Kauai With Hawaiian Airlines

Island Hopping in Hawaii

Exploring Waikiki Beach in Hawaii

Hawaii, United States

The aloha spirit is alive and well on the tropical islands of Hawai’i. With delicious food, cultural experiences, beautiful beaches, and outdoor adventures — there’s something for everyone in the rainbow state.

This post is sponsored by Hawaiian Airlines & Barclays.

Last week Anna & I visited the islands of Oahu and Kauai with Hawaiian Airlines to celebrate the re-launch of the Hawaiian Airlines World Elite Mastercard, issued by Barclays.

Hawai’i and I go way back. Back to my college days, when I took a break from school and moved to Honolulu to become a beach bum. I lived in Waikiki for a year, and had such a great time!

Days were dedicated to surfing and hiking, while nights were spent working the front desk of an international backpacker’s hostel.

Temporarily living in Hawaii, I was able to experience ho’okipa — Hawaiian hospitality. I also fell in love with the state’s natural beauty. So many epic beaches, jungles, mountains, waterfalls, and waves to explore!

Even though I no longer call Hawaii home, I return every chance I get.

Hawaiian Airlines Plane

Aloha from Hawaii!

Flying With Hawaiian Airlines

To kick off the adventure in style, we flew Hawaiian Airlines first class from Los Angeles to Honolulu on the A330. I don’t fly first-class often, but it definitely helps with getting some good sleep on overseas flights.

Especially with lie-flat seats like the ones we had on this trip! As a side-sleeper, the ability to stretch out makes a HUGE difference in whether I get any sleep on a plane.

Free mai-tais and tasty Hawaiian-inspired meals prepared us for the start of our island hopping journey on both Oahu and Kauai.

In July, Hawaiian re-launched their Hawaiian Airlines World Elite Mastercard. It offers 30,000 bonus miles to new cardmembers after their first purchase, no foreign transaction fees, first checked bag free, and an annual $100 companion ticket discount on Hawaiian Airlines flights.

It’s a great way to earn miles towards free Hawaiian Airlines flights with 3x miles on Hawaiian Airlines purchases, 2x miles on gas/groceries/dining, and 1x miles on all other purchases using the card.

Hawaiian Airlines

Breakfast With a View

Surfing in Hawaii

Longboarding on Oahu

Exploring Waikiki

Our first stop in Hawaii was the island of Oahu, and the capital city of Honolulu. We stayed at the beautiful new Ritz Carlton in Waikiki.

Honolulu’s Waikiki neighborhood has some of the most famous beaches in the world, and it’s where most tourists stay during their first trip to Hawaii.

Waikiki is also where I learned to surf many years ago, just beyond the bronze statue of Duke Kahanamoku, known as Hawaii’s father of modern surfing.

The area is home to many high-rise hotels, restaurants, and nightclubs. One restaurant you shouldn’t miss is Roy’s Waikiki.

Hilton Hawaiian Village

Kahanamoku Lagoon at Hilton Hawaiian Village

Hilton Hawaiian Village

Water Biking Around the Lagoon

Hilton Hawaiian Village

It’s said the Duke himself learned how to surf the same waves in front of where the Hilton Hawaiian Village now stands. This slice of pristine white sand is full of history, and a fun sunbathing beach in Waikiki.

Along with the awesome beach, there’s also Kahanamoku Lagoon which is open to the public for swimming, kayaking and stand-up paddle boarding. Anna and I rented a water bike and paddled around the calm lagoon soaking up the sun.

Every Friday night, the hotel launches an awesome free fireworks display around 8pm. The best place to watch is from the lagoon, where fireworks explode right over your head!

Organic Farm in Hawaii

Ma’o Organic Farms

Mao Organic Farms

Making Hawaii Self-Sufficient

Ma’o Organic Farms

Maʻo Organic Farms is based in Wai’anae on the west coast of Oahu. We visited to learn how they are growing sustainable, organic produce for some of Hawaii’s best restaurants — and giving back to the community in the form of college scholarships for local students who volunteer there.

Before Europeans landed in 1778, the Hawaiian Kingdom (with a population of up to 1 million) was self-sufficient at producing its own food supply using a sustainable agricultural system called ahupua’a.

These days Hawaii basically imports about 80% of its food from elsewhere, and being so remote, it’s very expensive to ship it there. For example, a gallon of milk can run $7!

There’s been a growing movement on the islands to produce more food locally, and small farms like Ma’o are teaching a new generation how to grow sustainable agriculture as their ancestors did.

Aloha Shirt Creation

History of the Aloha Shirt

Hawaiian Shirt Store

Reyn Spooner Hawaiian Shirts

Aloha Shirt Fridays

Do you know the history of the Hawaiian shirt (aka aloha shirt)? It all started back in the 1920’s, when clothing manufacturers from Honolulu’s Chinatown started making colorful, gaudy shirts out of Japanese silk kimono material.

Eventually, in the 1930’s, aloha shirts were mass-produced for tourists, worn after a day at the beach in Waikiki, and taken home as souvenirs. In the 1940’s, some local companies began allowing employees to wear more relaxed clothing during the hottest months of the year.

Then came “Aloha Fridays” in the 1960’s. Wearing aloha shirts was typical business attire on Fridays all over Hawaii.

One of the most famous Hawaiian shirt makers is Reyn Spooner. We toured their offices and learned how they make these iconic shirts from scratch (and, I happen to be wearing mine right now as I type this).

Chefchaouen Blue Stairway

Hawaiian Pupus Appetizers

Blue Doors in Chefchaouen

Roasted Kalua Pig

Koko Head Cafe

If you’re looking for a good bite to eat in Honolulu, you need to visit Koko Head Cafe for their famous brunches. Chef Lee Anne Wong is an executive chef for Hawaiian Airlines, overseeing the airline’s in-flight meal program.

You may also recognize her as a contestant on Bravo’s popular reality show, Top Chef. Chef Wong prepared us a huge assortment of Hawaiian dishes, from raw fish pupus (bite-size appetizers) to slow-roasted Kalua pig.

Mao Organic Farms

Searching for King Kong!

Mao Organic Farms

Jurassic World Set at Kualoa Ranch

Kualoa Ranch

Kualoa Ranch is a 4,000 acre Private Nature Reserve and cattle ranch that’s open to the public on the East coast of Oahu.

The area is made up of jagged green mountain ridges and a series of three lush valleys, an ancient and sacred training ground for Hawaiian royalty in the art of war & history.

Because of its incredible natural beauty, Kualoa has been the backdrop for countless Hollywood movies and TV shows like Jurassic Park, Jurassic World, Kong: Skull Island, 50 First Dates, Pearl Harbor, Jumanji, LOST, and more!

We spent an afternoon touring the ranch in the back of a 4×4 truck, checking out all the famous movie set locations. Like the Indominus Rex padlock from Jurassic World!

My favorite stop was probably the giant ape “graveyard” from Kong: Skull Island. Massive and realistic-painted bones made of foam were scattered about under tall green cliffs.

Learning to Make Poke

Making Traditional Poke

Hawaiian Poke Bowl

Tasty Poke Bowl with Seaweed!

Learning How To Make Poke

One day for lunch, we learned how to make fresh ahi-tuna poke with Foodland Supermarket’s corporate chef Keoni Chang.

Poke is raw fish salad served as an appetizer in Hawaiian cuisine, and sometimes as a main course with rice.

There are many different ways to make poke, but I think the traditional style was my favorite. Chunks of raw ahi-tuna, seaweed, sea salt, and crushed Kukui nuts.

Mao Organic Farms

Koloa Rum Tasting Room

Hawaiian Rum Tasting

Hawaii has a long history of sugar cane production, first initiated by ancient Polynesian voyagers during their migration from the South Pacific. The first commercial sugar production began in 1935, and with it, the first batches of Hawaiian Rum.

After jumping on a Hawaiian Airlines flight from Oahu to Kauai, one of our first stops on the Garden Island was a free rum tasting session at Koloa Rum, located at the old Kilohana Plantation in Lihue.

Dark rum, spiced rum, coconut rum — we learned which types of rums pair best with different mixers, or on their own. Koloa Rum is distilled twice using a vintage 1,210-gallon copper-pot still from 1947 with a copper column and condenser.

Flowers at the Grand Hyatt

The Grand Hyatt Resort Kauai

Grand Hyatt Resort

Anna Chillin’ at the Lazy River

Grand Hyatt Kauai

Checking into the Grand Hyatt Resort on Kauai was quite a treat… this place was stunning. Set right on the beach, with flowers and palm trees in all directions. It has its own lazy river, waterslides, and a salt-water lagoon.

Anna and I learned how to make traditional Hawaiian flower “leis”, attended a luau with traditional hula dancing and mountains of poi, and spent time floating down the lazy river to relax and cool off in the tropical heat.

Beach on Kauai Hawaii

Shipwrecks Beach

Shipwrecks Beach

Right next to the Grand Hyatt there is a public beach called Shipwrecks, a local favorite for surfing and body surfing.

The waves can get quite big, and break close to the shore, so it’s usually not the best beach for swimming — but fun for watching the locals brave the massive water.

There’s a great lookout point over the coastline from a cliff not far away, where you can watch locals fishing or just catch the sunrise.

You can access the cliffs from a trail at the end of the beach. There are sea turtles that swim below the cliffs too, so keep an eye out for them if you can!

Waimea Canyon

Hiking Waimea Canyon on Kauai

Get Closer To Hawaii Every Day

Well, I hope I’ve inspired you to visit Hawaii soon (like you didn’t already need another reason)! These Pacific islands are incredibly beautiful, diverse, and full of memorable things to do on your vacation.

And if you’re interested in collecting miles & points for a free flight to Hawaii, make sure to check out the all new Hawaiian Airlines World Elite Mastercard issued by Barclays Bank and get closer to your goal every day.

Hawaiian Airlines

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A complete guide to Island Hopping On Oahu & Kauai! More at ExpertVagabond.com
A complete guide to Island Hopping On Oahu & Kauai! More at ExpertVagabond.com

Have any questions about traveling to Oahu or Kauai? Have you ever flown with Hawaiian Airlines? Drop me a message in the comments below!

This is a post from The Expert Vagabond adventure blog.

This Is Why You Need To Visit The Big Island Of Hawaii!

Big Island of Hawaii

Things To Do On The Big Island

Travel Tips

I’ve wanted to visit the Big Island of Hawaii for years, mainly because of the Kilauea volcano. But there’s so many other cool things to do there too! Here are some of my favorites.

Did you know I once lived in Hawaii? On the island of Oahu, for a year back in college. Oahu is the most popular and busiest Hawaiian island, but The Big Island of Hawai’i is the largest, and incredibly it’s still growing!

When I lived on Oahu, I was a broke college student who couldn’t afford to visit the other Hawaiian islands…

However after my recent trip to the Big Island, I can’t believe how much I was missing!

With so many adventure activities, a laid-back attitude, and far fewer people, it really demonstrated how different the Hawaiian islands can be.

Planning a trip to the Big Island? Here are some of the best things to do!

Kona Hawaii View

View Overlooking Kona from Holualoa Inn

Best Of The Big Island!

Because the Big Island is, well, so big (4,028 square miles, a bit smaller than Connecticut) — driving around it takes a long time. You won’t be able to do everything unless you stay a while.

I’d recommend visiting for at least 4-5 days, however a full week should let you experience the best of what this beautiful Hawaiian island has to offer.

While the Big Island has some nice beaches, it’s really not a typical “beach” destination like Oahu is. Most people travel to the Big Island for the many volcanoes — both active and dormant.

You can find stunning beaches all over the world, but visiting an actual erupting volcano is much more unique!

I think another highlight of the Big Island is fewer tourists, and a laid-back country vibe — making it a great place to relax if that’s what you’re after.

Halemaumau Crater Big Island Hawaii

Kilauea’s Halemaumau Crater

Visit Hawaii's Volcano

Exploring the Lava Fields

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

In the Hawaiian religion, Pele is the goddess of fire, who lives in the active Halemaʻumaʻu crater of Kilauea Volcano at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

The Hawaiian Islands are essentially a chain of massive volcanoes, and the Big Island is over the hotspot right now, so the island is still being formed by these active lava flows & eruptions.

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is pretty big, with tons of different things to do. It’s open to the public 24 hours a day, year round.

National Park Highlights:

Crater Rim Drive – Driving your car along this route is the easiest way to see the park, it’s an 11 mile route full of scenic overlooks and interesting stops.

Jaggar Museum – A museum on volcanology with displays of equipment used by scientists to study the volcano. Also one of the best views of Halemaumau Crater!

Thurston Lava Tubes – A cool lava tube/tunnel you can explore after a 20 minute walk through a tree fern forest.

KÄ«lauea Iki Trail – This 4 mile (6.4km) loop trail takes you into a former lava lake that erupted with 1900 foot tall fountains of lava back in 1959.

Lava Viewing on Big Island

Red Hot Magma!

Where To See Lava Flows?

If you drive up to Jagger Museum at Halemaʻumaʻu Crater, you might catch a glimpse of lava bubbling in the distance. But nighttime is the best time to visit, as the whole crater glows with red light.

To see lava up close, you’ll need to visit the Kalapana Lava Viewing Area, an hour long drive away from the National Park entrance (and closer to the town of Hilo). After the road ends, it’s another 3 miles by foot or rented bicycle.

To find the lava flow at Kalapana, you can either join a tour, or you can explore on your own like we did. The bike rental places will give you a basic map with instructions on how to find the lava.

The National Park Service also posts daily lava updates here.

Sea Turtles Big Island Hawaii

Sea Turtles on Punalu’u Beach

Punalu’u Black Sand Beach

The dark black sands of Punalu’u Beach is the result of the Big Island’s long history of volcanic eruptions. It formed over time as hot lava flowed into the ocean, exploding into tiny fragments and washing ashore.

The beach is home to endangered Hawksbill turtles and Hawaiian Green sea turtles that like to sunbathe on the warm black sand.

While it’s a wonderful spot to see these incredible creatures in person, just remember not to get too close.

There are rules in place to protect the turtles from human harassment.

Aside from checking out the turtles, Punalu’u is also good for swimming, snorkeling, walking, or even camping (with a permit).

Big Island Kealakekua Bay

Historic Kealakekua Bay

Big Island Kealakekua Bay

Anna Snorkeling the Bay

Kayak Kealakekua Bay

The water of Kealakekua Bay is crystal clear, and full of colorful fish and coral reefs. It’s also where Captain James Cook, the first Westerner to visit Hawaii, was killed in a skirmish with Native Hawaiians.

The bay is one of the best places to go snorkeling on the Big Island. Most people book snorkeling tours by boat, but for the more adventurous, you can also rent a kayak and explore on your own.

Anna & I rented a two-person kayak from Kona Boys and spent the morning swimming with tropical fish. Occasionally you can even find spinner dolphins and sea turtles!

Unfortunately we didn’t see any dolphins that day… but we heard they were spotted further down the coast.

On the East side of the bay you’ll find the ruins of a Hikiau heiau (sacred temple) dedicated to the Hawaiian fertility and music god Lono.

Mauna Kea Volcano Big Island

Watch the Sunset from Mauna Kea

Sunset On Mauna Kea Volcano

Did you know that it snows in Hawaii? And that Hawaii is actually home to the tallest mountain in the world? Well now you do!

Mauna Kea Volcano is Hawaii’s tallest mountain, at 13,796 feet (4205 meters). But most of the volcano is actually underwater. If measured from the sea floor, Mauna Kea towers 33,476 feet (10,204 meters).

That’s taller than Mount Everest!

At the summit of this long dormant volcano lies the Mauna Kea Observatory, a collection of 13 high-powered space telescopes.

Driving up to the observatory for sunset is a popular activity, and so is late-night stargazing. There are also a few short hikes around the top of the volcano. In the winter, the summit can be covered with snow.

Big Island Holualoa Inn

Our Fun Cottage in Holualoa

Holualoa Inn Hawaii

Breakfast At Holualoa Inn

Unwind In Holualoa Town

Sitting along the fertile slopes of the Hualalai Volcano above Kailua-Kona lies the artist-friendly town of Holualoa, where we based ourselves on the western side of the Big Island.

Holualoa has tons of small-town charm, with a winding two-lane road lined with art galleries, coffee shops, and friendly locals. It was the perfect place to relax after our different adventures.

We stayed at the Holualoa Inn, in the heart of Kona Coffee Country. In fact, the inn grows its own coffee, fruits, vegetables, and collects eggs from a chicken coop out back.

When not off exploring the rest of the island, we were strolling through Holualoa Inn’s zen gardens, sunbathing by the pool, or getting a massage on our cottage’s lanai.

Papakolea Beach Big Island

Hawaii’s Green Sand Beach

Papakolea Green Sand Beach

The Hawaiian islands are full of beautiful beaches, but one of the most peculiar is the green sand beach of Papakolea located on the South West coast of the Big Island.

This 49,000 year old cinder cone belonging to the Mauna Loa volcano contains billions of green crystals called olivines that give the beach its name.

Papakolea is a bit off the beaten track, and not easy to reach. The hike out is 5-miles (about two hours) round trip, so be prepared with plenty of water. There’s nowhere to hide from the sun either.

However this also means only the most adventurous souls make the trek — limiting the number of people out there.

Manta Rays Hawaii

Snorkeling with Manta Rays in Kona

Manta Rays Kona

Manta Rays Feeding at Night

Snorkel/Dive With Manta Rays

Just off the coast of Kona, groups of huge 20 foot (6 meter) wide manta rays soar through the water hunting for plankton to eat. It’s possible to jump in the water at night and watch them feed.

Our manta ray adventure began by chasing a stunning pink & orange sunset along the coastline on a sailing catamaran with Kona Style.

After the sun went down, we jumped into the ocean and grabbed onto a custom floating SUP board with hand holds. The board also has an ultraviolet light shinning down onto the ocean floor.

The light attracts millions of microscopic plankton, and the graceful manta rays swim under you to scoop them up in their massive mouths. It’s a magical experience! Scuba diving with the mantas is also possible.

Kona Coffee Shops

Drinking Some Kona de Pele Coffee

Kona Coffee Farms

Coffee Trees Growing in Kona

Coffee Tasting In Kona

You can’t leave the Big Island of Hawaii without getting your caffeine fix at one of the world’s most famous coffee towns. Kona’s rich volcanic soil helps produce smooth coffee with low acidity.

There are roughly 600 coffee farms in the Kona area, and many offer tours to the public, some are free! The most famous one is probably Greenwell Farms.

Or, if you just want to visit some great local cafes, make sure to check out some of our favorites including Holuakoa Gardens Cafe and Kona Haven.

As a hardcore coffee lover, I was in heaven trying all the different types of Kona coffee around town. Make sure to bring some home too!

Big Island Waterfalls

Akaka Falls State Park

Visit Akaka Waterfall

At a towering 442 feet tall, Akaka Falls is Hawaii’s largest waterfall. It’s located in Akaka Falls State Park, about 11 miles north from Hilo. Entry into the park costs only $5 per car.

The easy 0.4-mile loop hike takes you through a lush jungle filled with orchids, bamboo trees, and a stream-eroded gorge. You can complete the whole thing in about 30 minutes.

Along with the famous Akaka Waterfall, there’s a second “smaller” 100 foot waterfall called Kahuna Falls.

Akaka Waterfall can be viewed from several points along the trail through the park, but the best spot is from high above on the edge of the gorge. Late morning is a good time to visit so the sun will be shining on the falls.

Hawaii Puuhonua o Honaunau National Park

Ki’i Statues at Puuhonua

Pu’uhonua o Honaunau National Park

In ancient Hawaii, long before it became a state, local sacred laws or kapu governed every aspect of Hawaiian society. The penalty for breaking these laws was death…

But if the criminals managed to get themselves to a pu’uhonua, or place of refuge, they were absolved of their crimes and could return to normal life.

Today you can visit Pu’uhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park to experience the history of this place, still considered a sacred site.

The Hale o Keawe temple located here contains the bones of chiefs that infuse the area with their mana (power). Dramatic looking wooden statues called Ki’i act as guardians to the bay and nearby temple.

Getting To The Big Island

There are two main airports on the Big Island of Hawaii. Kona International Airport (KOA) to the west, or Hilo International Airport (ITO) in the east.

You can try flying directly to these airports, or hop on a short 40 minute flight connecting from Honolulu.

We choose to visit the Big Island after our trip to Oahu, booking a one-way flight to Hilo, renting a car to drive around the island, ending in Kona, where we flew out from.

Generally Kona is the more popular destination/airport for travelers.

Holualoa Inn

Our Holualoa Inn Cottage

Where To Stay

For most of our trip, we stayed at the beautiful Holualoa Inn outside Kona in the small village of Holualoa. It was the perfect place to relax after exploring the island all day.

Its position perched on the slope of the volcano gave us awesome views of the ocean and Kailua-Kona area down below, plus the gardens were full of birds and colorful green geckos.

They provided yoga classes, snorkeling equipment, as well as excellent food and coffee sourced from their own farm. The breakfasts were amazing!

More To See In Hawaii!

While we spent 5 days exploring different things to do on the Big Island, I really wish we’d stayed longer — at least 7. There was a lot more we didn’t get a chance to see!

For example, the Hawaiian cowboy countryside of the Kohala Coast and the thick tropical jungle and waterfalls of Waimea Canyon.

However I know we’ll be back one day, because the amazing Hawaiian Islands are one of my favorite travel destinations in the United States. ★

READ MORE FROM UNITED STATES

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Canoeing Minnesota’s Boundary Waters
Flying Over The Grand Canyon

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Things To Do On The Big Island. More at ExpertVagabond.com

Have any questions about the Big Island of Hawaii? What about other suggestions? Drop me a message in the comments below!

This is a post from The Expert Vagabond adventure blog.

Boundary Waters Canoe Area: Paddling Into The Wild

Minnesota Boundary Waters

Canoeing the Boundary Waters in Minnesota

Ely, Minnesota

If you’re looking to get away, unwind, and reconnect with nature, you really can’t beat a backcountry canoe trip into Minnesota’s pristine Boundary Waters Canoe Area.

With the wind at my back, I glided effortlessly over the cool lake water with every thrust of my paddle. The calming silence broken only by the lonely wail of a loon swimming close by…

My father & sister were slightly ahead of me, scouting for our first campsite. Our lightweight kevlar canoes loaded with enough food & gear to support us for 10 days in the wilderness.

The Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA) is an outdoor lover’s paradise — encompassing over one million acres of North Woods backcountry and 1000+ scenic lakes.

Part of Superior National Forest, it hugs the border of Minnesota in the United States and Ontario in Canada. This is a summary of our first adventure canoeing the lakes of the BWCA, fishing for dinner, and camping in the forest.

I hope it inspires you to embark on your own journey into Minnesota’s Boundary Waters one day!

Minnesota Boundary Waters

Me, my Sister, and Father

Minnesota Boundary Waters

Canoeing the Lakes of BWCA

Boundary Waters History

Canoeing, camping, fishing, and hunting have been practiced in the Boundary Waters area for hundreds of years. The Ojibwe and Sioux indigenous tribes called these woods home, traveling the numerous lakes in birch-bark canoes.

Next came French fur trappers and the English-owned Hudson Bay Company, who made fortunes selling beaver pelts caught in the region. Eventually, in the 1900’s, the area became a popular recreation destination.

Finally in 1978, after many legal battles, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Act was passed to protect the region from development.

It’s one of America’s greatest land conservation success stories, and is enjoyed by over 200,000 visitors a year. However because it’s so large, the BWCA doesn’t feel as crowded as more popular National Parks.

Canoeing the BWCA

Paddling a Northstar Magic Solo Canoe

Canoeing Lakes in Minnesota

Navigation Stop to Check the Map

Boundary Waters Map

Boundary Waters Map: Entry #23

Canoeing The BWCA

In July of 2017, I drove up to Ely, Minnesota along with my father and sister to begin our first “epic” Boundary Waters adventure into the North Woods.

We’d been looking forward to it for months! A way to bring back childhood memories of canoeing & camping together in New England… some family bonding time.

It’s also healthy to simply a break, immerse yourself in nature, and disconnect from the outside world for a bit. One of the best ways I’ve found to recharge your senses, de-stress, and gain some perspective on life!

After packing up our gear the night before at a rented cottage in Ely, we awoke before sunrise, strapped two canoes onto the car’s roof-rack, and drove towards Entry Point #23 at Mudro Lake to start our 10 day journey.

Our Boundary Waters Route:

  • Mudro Lake
  • Fourtown Lake
  • Boot Lake
  • Fairy Lake
  • Gun Lake
  • Gull Lake
  • Thunder Lake
  • Beartrap Lake
  • (then back to Mudro the way we came)
Boundary Waters Portaging

Portage Trails in the Boundary Waters

Carrying a Canoe

Carrying the Canoes from Lake to Lake

Portaging Through The Forest

If you think a long-distance canoe trip is easy, I’ve got some news for you. While many of the lakes are next to each other, you still have to cross portions of land to get from one lake to another. This is called a “portage”.

Basically, you get out of your canoe, unload it, then take turns hiking the canoe and your gear through the woods to the next lake. Depending on how many people are in your group, and how much gear you have, it could take a couple trips back and forth to get everything over.

Some Boundary Waters portage trails are only 50 yards long. Others can be up to a mile long. And portage trails aren’t measured in meters or feet, but in “rods”. A rod is about 16.5 feet long, or the approximate length of a canoe.

Portaging can be a nice way to break up the trip — a chance to stretch your legs and give your arms a rest.

However if the trails are overgrown, steep, or muddy — or if you hit a series of small lakes with multiple portages over a short time, it gets tiring too.

Hammock Camping Minnesota

Camping in my Hennessy Hammock

Boundary Waters Lake Sunset

Sunset Over the Boundary Waters

Wilderness Toilet BWCA

The “Biffy”, or Campsite Toilet

Camping In The Wilderness

Each lake has a handful of designated campsites that are snatched up on a first-come, first-serve basis. They’re equipped with a fire-pit, metal cooking grill, and a biffy (open-air camp toilet).

If all the campsites are taken, you must continue on to the next lake and check there. True wild camping is not allowed in the Boundary Waters, unlike on the Canadian side (called Quetico Provincial Park).

Usually we’d pick a good campsite in the early afternoon, set up our tents and tarp, then go fishing nearby. Sometimes we’d stay in the same spot for 2 nights in a row — in order to relax between travel days.

Gathering firewood was a regular task, requiring us to jump into a canoe and seek out dead trees (white pine, cedar, jack pine) along the shoreline. We’d saw some limbs off, load the canoe, return to camp, and cut the wood into smaller pieces.

Walleye Fishing Boundary Waters

Lindsay Catching an 18″ Walleye

Boundary Waters Canoe Area Fishing

Frying Fresh Fish for Dinner

Fresh Water Fishing

Many people take canoe trips into the Boundary Waters for the amazing fishing found there. The fish are plentiful, and large! The most common types are walleye, smallmouth bass, northern pike, lake trout, brook trout, and crappie.

The pristine lakes offer plenty of opportunities for catching fish.

A Minnesota fishing license is required for the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. Licenses may be purchased online here or in person at many local businesses or canoe outfitters.

We caught a mixture of walleye and smallmouth bass using leeches as bait. My sister hooked a northern pike one afternoon, but unfortunately it snapped the line with its sharp teeth as she attempted to reel it in!

When fishing the BWCA, it’s important to only keep what you can reasonably eat. That said, we ate plenty of fresh fish for dinner during our journey. Often breaded & fried up with onion, lemon, beans and rice! Yum.

Boundary Waters Wildlife

Early Morning Moose Sighting

Boundary Waters Snakes

Swimming Garter Snake!

Wildlife Spotting!

One morning, on Gull Lake, we watched from camp as a large female moose came crashing out of the forest and swam across the bay to disappear on the opposite side.

After days of tranquil silence, it was a bit startling! I imagine that’s what Big Foot would sound like if he was coming to get you…

Other animals we came across included partridges thumping the ground to attract a mate, garter snakes, rabbits, loons, bald eagles, and angry beavers slapping the water with their tails as we approached.

Timber wolves, black bears, and bobcats also call the Boundary Waters home — but are a bit more difficult to spot.

Boundary Waters Campsites

Camping on Gull Lake

Boundary Waters Canoe Gear

Loaded Up For our Adventure!

Boundary Waters Tips

Most BWCA visitors “base camp” for a night or two near the entry points. So if you want to find less crowded lakes, you simply need to travel further out into the backcountry.

Even though we were there during the busy mid-July high season, we rarely saw anyone beyond Fourtown Lake.

Beware the mosquitos! After the sun sets, they’re the worst I’ve ever seen. You definitely want to pack, at a minimum, strong bug spray and a mosquito head net. However a full bug shirt works wonders.

Boundary Waters Weather

Rainy Day in the BWCA

BWCA Camping

One of Our Campsites

BWCA Permits

To visit the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, you need to buy a permit online. The BWCA is made up of different “entry points” near roads. You buy your permit based on which entry point you want to begin from.

Each entry point only allows a certain number of permits per day, so you’ll want to try and book a BWCA permit at least a few months before your trip — because they can sell out fast.

We began our adventure from Entry Point #23, Mudro Lake. It’s a popular one, so we booked our July permit in March. You pick up the permit in person from the closest ranger station to your entry point.

Boundary Waters Outfitters

Voyager North Outfitters in Ely, MN

Boundary Waters Outfitters

If you don’t have all the gear necessary to canoe the Boundary Waters, it’s possible to rent gear from local canoe outfitters. Or even hire a guide to help you with navigation, camp setup, cooking, etc.

While we had most of our own gear, we chose to rent two Northstar kevlar canoes with paddles from Voyager North Outfitters. Highly recommend them!

Kevlar canoes are incredibly lightweight, which makes carrying them on your shoulders during a portage MUCH easier than aluminum ones.

Packing For The Boundary Waters?

I’ll be publishing a packing guide for the BWCA shortly! Make sure to join my mailing list if you want to get notified when it’s complete. ★

Bonus Video! Boundary Waters Canoe Trip


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(Click to watch Boundary Waters Canoe Trip – BWCA on YouTube)

Have any questions about my Boundary Waters trip? What about other suggestions? Drop me a message in the comments below!

This is a post from The Expert Vagabond adventure blog.

Flying Over The Grand Canyon In A Helicopter From Vegas

Grand Canyon Helicopter Tour

Helicopter Flight Over the Grand Canyon

Las Vegas, Nevada

The helicopter’s rotor fired up, whirring above our heads. Our pilot took the controls and we suddenly began to hover off the ground, rising into the sky above Las Vegas.

It was early in the morning, about 7am, just after sunrise at Henderson Executive Airport in Las Vegas.

Anna and I were flying out to the Grand Canyon with Maverick Helicopters after they’d picked us up from the Venetian Hotel.

I love helicopters. When I was a kid, I wanted to become a pilot (ok, I still do).

Scenic helicopter flights like this are one of the things I sometimes splurge on when I travel. Not only is it a super cool experience just flying in them, but the aerial photography opportunities are excellent too!

I was especially looking forward to flying over the Grand Canyon in a helicopter. After traveling the world for years, this was actually going to be my very first trip to the Grand Canyon!

Las Vegas Helicopter Tour

The Las Vegas Strip

Helicopter Tour

We’re Not Excited at All…

Hoover Dam

Impressive View of the Hoover Dam

Leaving Las Vegas

The journey started as we flew above the Las Vegas strip in Maverick’s 8 person ECO Star EC-130 helicopter. It was fun looking down on the casinos and landmarks of Vegas from the aircraft’s large windows.

Iconic hotels like the the Venetian, the MGM Grand, and even the golden (and gaudy) Trump Tower.

Flying away from Vegas, we entered the desolate and beautiful Nevada desert. A vast dry mountain landscape stretching on for miles. We passed over Fortification Hill, an extinct volcano that was formed about 13 million years ago as the crust around Lake Mead stretched thin.

Next it was on to the impressive Hoover Dam, where we circled a few times to admire this marvel of engineering and labor built during the Great Depression that employed 21,000 workers.

A massive 60-story wall of concrete and steel, the Hoover Dam provides electricity to cities nearby using the power of the Colorado River. When it was built, it was the largest concrete structure in the world.

Nevada Desert via Helicopter

The Vast Nevada Desert

Flying by Lake Mead

Lake Mead in the Distance

Valley of Fire Nevada

The Valley Of Fire

Lake Mead & The Valley Of Fire

The Hoover Dam holds back the bright blue waters of Lake Mead, the largest fresh-water reservoir in the United States. It’s difficult to get a sense of just how large this lake is until you fly over it.

Lake Mead National Recreation Area provides many opportunities for boating, hiking, cycling, and camping within its boundaries.

Another landmark we passed on our helicopter journey to the Grand Canyon is the Valley Of Fire, a stunning & colorful valley in the Mojave Desert full of strange Aztec sandstone outcrops.

This magnificent red sandstone landscape was formed by great shifting sand dunes during the age of the dinosaurs more than 150 million years ago.

While flying over it was awesome, driving through the Valley Of Fire is a wonderful day trip or weekend getaway from Las Vegas if you want to get away from the city!

Grand Canyon Flight

Flying Through the Grand Canyon!

Landing in the Grand Canyon

Landing for Snacks & Photos

Grand Canyon Helicopter Tour from Vegas

West Rim of the Grand Canyon

Landing In The Grand Canyon!

Finally, the West Rim of the Grand Canyon itself came into view. I knew it was going to be epic, and wasn’t disappointed.

The canyon was formed by the Colorado River cutting channels through layers of rock over millions of years, exposing colorful bands of rock that reveal a rich geological history of the Earth.

But we didn’t just fly over the Grand Canyon, oh no. We descended and flew THROUGH it, cruising past steep canyon walls on each side of the helicopter. So much fun!

Then, as if that wasn’t enough excitement, we landed inside the Grand Canyon itself. A special remote area of Hualapai Indian Territory, perched on a cliff 300 feet above the Colorado River.

Here we watched the morning sun crest over the walls of the canyon with champagne and snacks. Hiking around to admire the natural scenery and taking photos before taking off again for Las Vegas.

Maverick Helicopter Tour Vegas

Maverick Helicopter Flights

Grand Canyon Helicopter Tour

This was the Wind Dancer Grand Canyon Tour from Las Vegas. It includes a Grand Canyon landing with champagne and snacks.

While there are many different time-slots, we choose the early morning one to avoid crowds and for the pleasant morning light, which is usually better for photography.

The Grand Canyon helicopter flights are popular, and the landing zone can accommodate multiple helicopters. Because we chose the first flight of the morning, we had the whole place to ourselves!

Maverick offers other types of helicopter flights too, like a shorter Las Vegas Strip Tour (available both during the day or at night) plus a HeliYoga Tour. ★

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Grand Canyon Helicopter Tour from Vegas. More at ExpertVagabond.com
Grand Canyon Helicopter Tour from Vegas. More at ExpertVagabond.com

Have any questions about my helicopter flight over the Grand Canyon? Have you ever been before? Drop me a message in the comments below!

This is a post from The Expert Vagabond adventure blog.

Why Is Asheville North Carolina So Cool?

Asheville North Carolina

Fun Things To Do In Asheville

Asheville, North Carolina

Asheville has to be one of the coolest small cities on the East Coast, with a relaxed bohemian vibe and adventurous spirit. Here are some fun things to do there!

Located in North Carolina’s scenic Blue Ridge Mountains, Asheville has a unique mix of hipster coffee shops, award-winning restaurants, outdoor activities, and more breweries per capita than anywhere else in the United States.

After hearing about Asheville for years, whether from friends, or the Obama’s visiting on vacation — it was time to learn what all the fuss was about.

Why was Asheville rated the #1 US travel destination for 2017? Why does everyone think Asheville is so cool?

Pack Square Park Asheville

Pack Square Park

Jack of the Wood in Asheville

Travel Tips for Asheville, North Carolina

Things To Do In Asheville

Anna and I spent 4 days visiting Asheville in partnership with Explore Asheville Tourism, and had a wonderful time eating, drinking, shooting photos, and enjoying nature.

Asheville’s creative (and slightly eccentric) locals contribute to a lively downtown unlike any other. You can experience an intoxicating drum circle, shop at vintage boutiques, sit down to an amazing locally-grown meal, and admire cool street art all in one day.

One of the best ways to experience the city fully is by exploring on foot. With about 87,000 residents, Asheville isn’t huge. But it’s not too small either.

It feels like a large town, and just the right size. Asheville’s downtown in particular is easily walkable, with a charm all its own.

Writer for hire

Asheville Street Performers

Asheville Street Art

“Chicken Alley” Mural

Tons Of Art & Music

Asheville is known for its art scene, and you’ll quickly understand why. There’s fun street art all over the place, like colorful murals painted on the side of buildings & under bridges depicting the city’s history.

My favorite was probably “Chicken Alley” by Molly Must, which you can find on Carolina Lane & Woodfin Street. Two giant chickens watch over the alley, a place that used to be full of real chickens in the past.

In the 1980s artists began transforming a bunch of old industrial buildings along the French Broad River into studio space. Now the public can visit these studios as part of the Rivers Arts District and browse the work of over 200 local artists.

The town is full of small lounges, clubs, and breweries featuring live rock, jazz, and bluegrass. Many don’t charge a cover either.

Or you can check out some fun (possibly strange) street performances in the center of town. Don’t forget to tip if you enjoy the show! Asheville wouldn’t be the same without them.

Beer in Asheville

Lexington Avenue Brewery

Pack's Tavern Asheville

Pack’s Tavern

Beer City USA!

Asheville is known as “Beer City USA”. Because with 26 different craft breweries in the city, and another 60 nearby, beer lovers won’t want to leave.

Some of the most popular in town are Green Man, Catawba, Wicked Weed, and Lexington Avenue Brewery.

About 100 local beers can be enjoyed in Asheville, and each brewery has its own unique character. From strong hoppy IPAs to dark stouts, to fruity raspberry ales, you’re bound to find something you’ll love.

On top of the incredible beer scene, the city is also “steeped” in tea culture.

Check out Dobra Tea, afternoon tea at Biltmore, and The Herbiary.

Asheville River SUP

Whitewater Stand-Up Paddleboarding

French Broad River Asheville

The French Broad River

French Broad River

The French Broad River winds its way past Asheville, providing a natural space for all kinds of outdoor activities & adventures.

You have your obvious river sports like whitewater kayaking and inner-tube floating, but there are some lesser-known activities here too, like “bellyaking” and whitewater SUP.

Bellyaking was actually invented in Asheville — it’s a face first kayak-type ride using special “paddle gloves” to maneuver through the rapids.

I decided to try some whitewater SUP (Stand Up Paddleboarding) for the first time with Wai Mauna SUP Tours.

Stand-up paddle-boarding through class I & II river rapids on the French Broad River requires a lot of balance, it was more difficult then the lake or ocean SUP I was used to. I fell a few times, but it was still fun!

The Marketplace Restaurant Asheville

Eating Our Foraged Food at The Marketplace

Restaurants in Asheville North Carolina

Salsa’s Restaurant in Asheville

Farm To Table Dining

Asheville is home to over 250 restaurants, many serving locally produced meats and veggies while supporting North Carolina’s farmers. They’ve been doing “farm to table” long before it became a cliche.

We obviously couldn’t try every restaurant in town with just four days, but my favorite places to eat in Asheville were The Marketplace and Salsas.

French Broad Chocolates is an ice-cream lover’s dream too. The line outside is long, but there’s a reason for that.

The chocolate ice-cream floats are sooooo good! It was worth the wait.

Biltmore Estate in Asheville

The Famous Biltmore Estate

Vanderbilt Library

George Vanderbilt’s Extensive Library

Biltmore Estate View

View Off the Back Deck

The Biltmore Estate

The historic Biltmore Estate is one of the most frequently suggested places to visit in Asheville. George Vanderbilt’s gigantic, hundred-year-old property is indeed quite busy all year long.

George, an heir to the Vanderbilt railroad fortune, fell in love with North Carolina and began building his property by late 1889. He decided to create a dream home surrounded by natural forests and productive farms.

This 178,926 square foot mansion sits on 8000 acres, with over 250 rooms, and is America’s largest home. The Biltmore holds regular exhibitions — they were displaying movie costumes used in films set during the XVIIIth century when we were there.

George Vanderbilt was one of the most-read men in America, and amassed a library of more than 22,000 books — including over 3,000 he read himself. Gazing at the walls of books in his preserved library was fascinating.

Foraging Tour in Asheville North Carolina

Wild Foraging with No Taste Like Home

Mushroom Hunting in North Carolina

Picking Chanterelle Mushrooms

Wild Foraging Tours

I’ve never been wild mushroom picking before, so we signed up for morning foraging tour with a company called No Taste Like Home.

Our day began with an overview from owner Alan Muskat about types of edibles we’d be looking for, and which poisonous plants to avoid.

After being equipped with baskets, harvesting knives, and paper bags, we headed into the enchanting North Carolina forest. I was completely surprised at how many things you could eat, and how good they tasted!

We collected Day Lily flowers, Chanterelle mushrooms, Stinging Nettle, Sassafras leaves, and strange mushrooms called Hairy Rubber Cups. While not popular in the US, they are apparently a delicacy in Malaysia.

After, you can bring your “catch” to local restaurants in Asheville like The Marketplace, where chefs prepare your dinner using the wild ingredients.

Asheville Blue Ridge Parkway

The Blue Ridge Parkway

Hiking around Asheville

Many Fun Hikes in the Mountains

The Blue Ridge Parkway

Nestled between the Great Smoky Mountains and the Blue Ridge Mountains, Asheville offers year-round access to hiking trails and exhilarating views along the famous Blue Ridge Parkway.

The complete route stretches 469 miles from North Carolina to Virginia, and is home to a wide range of diverse plants and animals. It’s technically part of the National Park System.

Along with hundreds of hiking trails, the parkway includes sections of the Appalachian Trail — one of America’s classic long distance hikes that stretches from Georgia to Maine.

Asheville was a perfect base for exploring the Blue Ridge Parkway, and we spent a full day cruising its winding pavement. Stopping occasionally at mountain lookouts and for short hikes to admire the area’s nature.

Waterfalls near Asheville

Looking Glass Falls

Sliding Rock Falls Pisgah Forest

Sliding Rock Falls

Asheville Sliding Rock

Natural Waterslide!

Pisgah National Forest

Pisgah National Forest is located South West of Asheville, only 30-45 minutes away. It’s considered the birthplace of modern forestry in America, and home to the country’s first forestry school.

Driving through Pisgah on Route 276 is a fun little road trip complete with waterfalls, white water rapids, hiking trails, and camping opportunities.

We stopped by two different waterfalls. The first is called Looking Glass Falls. Located right off the side of the road, it’s super easy to reach, and a nice place to cool off in the summer heat.

The second is Sliding Rock — basically a huge natural waterslide made of smooth stone. A quick ride down the 60-foot flat, sloping boulder will definitely wake you up due to the chilly 50 degree water!

The Davidson River is a popular area for fly-fishing too.

Asheville Grove Park Inn

Grove Park Inn

Abbington Green Asheville B&B

Abbington Green B&B

Places To Stay In Asheville

If you’re wondering where to stay in Asheville, here are my recommendations:

Grove Park Inn – Asheville’s most famous hotel is one of a kind. Built out of stone on the top of a hill, it features various restaurants, a beautiful spa, and scenic views of the city.

Abbington Green B&B – This has to be one of the best bed & breakfasts I’ve ever stayed at. Beautifully designed with a peaceful garden, tasty breakfast, and friendly southern hospitality.

Downtown Asheville North Carolina

Downtown Asheville

Asheville Travel Tips & Advice

  • There’s a fun public drum circle every Friday night between 6pm – 10pm in Pritchard Park, where people of all ages join in to dance to the music.
  • Asheville has a beautiful array of wildflowers that bloom between April and June. Keep your eye out for trillium, lady slippers, wild ginger, evening primrose, mountain laurel, rhododendron, and many more.
  • The best time to visit Asheville is during the fall foliage season (October), as trees & mountains are incredibly colorful. Summers are usually pretty busy too, and get the best weather.
  • Parts of the Appalachian Trail pass through this region. For a taste of this famous 2,180 mile trek, try hiking the Max Patch Mountain trail for great views.
  • The Biltmore Estate is Asheville’s most popular attraction, so it can get quite crowded. Go super early for awesome photos and less people.

Asheville has a little something for everyone. You can enjoy scenic mountain vistas, fun live music, locally produced food and beer, a vibrant arts scene, hiking and other outdoor adventure activities too.

I have to say it has become one of my new favorite mountain towns in the United States, and an excellent weekend vacation destination. Who knows, you may never want to leave! ★

Bonus Video! Things To Do In Asheville

(Click to watch Things To Do In Asheville – North Carolina on YouTube)

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Things To Do In Asheville. More at ExpertVagabond.com
Things To Do In Asheville. More at ExpertVagabond.com

Any questions about traveling to Asheville, NC? Do you have any other suggestions? Drop me a message in the comments below!

Hanging Out Of A Helicopter Over Manhattan

Helicopter Flights NYC

Open Door Helicopter Flights in New York

New York, New York

One of the best ways to see New York City is by air, and this scenic helicopter flight company lets you dangle your feet over famous Manhattan landmarks for amazing photos!

I’m a complete helicopter fanatic. Sometimes I think if I hadn’t become a travel blogger, I’d have become a professional helicopter pilot by now.

Soaring free above the clouds, hovering only hundreds of feet over mountains or buildings, able to take off and land almost anywhere.

Helicopters are incredible machines. While expensive, I try to hitch a ride in one whenever I can for a truly unique photography experience.

Plus, helicopters are just so much damn fun!

FlyNYON Helicopter

Eurocopter TwinStar AS355

Manhattan Helicopter Flight

Flying Over Manhattan Skyline

Scenic NYC Helicopter Flight

After all the times I’ve visited New York City over the years, I’ve never taken a scenic helicopter flight over Manhattan. It was Instagram that finally convinced me to take the plunge and splurge on an aerial photography helicopter adventure.

I started seeing these crazy “shoe selfies” showing up in my feed on popular accounts. Photographers were taking photos of their shoes floating over the Brooklyn Bridge, the Empire State Building, and Central Park.

A company called FlyNYON are the ones who make these epic Instagram shots possible with their crazy open-door scenic helicopter flights over some of Manhattan’s most famous landmarks.

Open Door Helicopter Tour

What a Crazy Helicopter Ride!

Shoe Selfie Photo

New York City Shoe Selfie!

Open-Door Photography Flight

Here’s the thing about aerial photography. For the best possible shots, you don’t want a window in front of your lens. So flying in a helicopter without doors is the perfect way to capture incredibly clear, crisp images from the air.

Anna and I began our adventure from Blade Lounge Heliport in midtown Manhattan, where the FlyNYON team briefed us on safety and asked where we wanted to go.

There were 4 of us going up, and we discussed which landmarks we should visit during our 15 minute helicopter flight. They also fitted us with full-body harnesses.

Flying a helicopter over New York without doors means you need to be strapped into a harness for safety. Your camera gear is also attached so it doesn’t fall on people below or get sucked up into the rotor.

You literally have your feet dangling outside the door on the skids!

Inside the Helicopter

Pilot Christi Rocking the Controls

Empire State Building

Empire State Building from the Sky

FlyNYON Helicopter Experience

Our badass pilot Christi brought us out to her sleek black Eurocopter TwinStar AS355 “Angry Bird” to be strapped in. Engines were powered up and off we flew into the sky!

We then soared past some of New York’s most iconic landmarks like Governor’s Island, the Brooklyn Bridge, Battery Park, One World Trade Center, the Empire State Building, and Central Park.

Earlier, Christi was yanking on my photography gear, making sure nothing would come apart once we were flying. I thought she’d been a bit rough…

Until I actually felt the force of those blades whipping around directly over my head 1000 feet in the air. It was like a mini-tornado!

Helicopter Photo Tour

Difficult Tail Rotor Shot

Central Park NYC

Flying Over Central Park

Incredible Aerial Adventure

At first it’s a bit unnerving to be sitting on the edge of a chopper thousands of feet in the air. But you slowly get more comfortable as the flight goes on.

Eventually I trusted the harness enough to lean out and feel the power of the wind as adrenaline coursed through my veins, shooting photos of the helicopter’s tail rotter.

When the helicopter banks sideways in a turn, you’re looking straight down at the tops of New York City’s massive skyscrapers, the only thing keeping you from plummeting to your death is those straps!

If you find yourself in New York, and want to have the experience of a lifetime, make sure to book an epic open-door ariel photography helicopter flight with FlyNYON. You won’t regret it. ★

Watch Video: Helicopter Over New York City

(Click to watch Helicopter Over New York City on YouTube)

READ NEXT: How To Visit Cuba For Americans

Would you fly in a helicopter without doors like this? Afraid of heights? Let me know in the comments below!

Disclosure: Some of the links in this post are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers.

Fantasy Fest: Key West’s Crazy Street Festival

Fantasy Fest

Fantasy Fest in Key West

Key West, Florida

Want to learn about the best-kept secret for street celebrations in the United States? It’s a wild 10 day costume party in October called Fantasy Fest in Key West, Florida.

If I had to describe Fantasy Fest in one sentence, I’d say it’s Burning Man meets Mardi Gras for Halloween on a tropical island. Except in a place where you can also stay in a beautiful B&B surrounded by ancient banyan trees.

A place so diverse that gays, bikers, pirates, artists, strippers and entrepreneurs are the norm, living a motto “One Human Family.” A place where you can watch the sun both rise and set over the ocean every day.

After knowing about the festival for years living in South Florida, I finally made it down to see what all the hype was about with my blogger friend Steph from Travel-Break.net.

Our week was incredibly fun, absurd, and liberating all at once.

Fantasy Fest Pirate Bash

Shiver Me Timbers!

Fantasy Festival Key West

Super Heroes Showing Some Skin

The Conch Republic

Key West is America’s own little Caribbean island, known as the Conch Republic to locals who fancy themselves a separate country. The island is located at the southern tip of the beautiful Florida Keys.

With certain laws being a bit more lax (like allowing “open containers” on the street) and such a unique blend of people and styles, you actually do feel as though you’re in another land.

Spend an afternoon walking past Key West’s pastel colored homes or browsing some of its 50 art galleries while still never more than a dozen blocks from the sea in any direction.

The whole island’s 1 x 4 miles is navigable by quaint lanes bordered by tropical flora, feeling a bit like a secret garden which you can navigate by foot, bike or moped.

Fantasy Fest Toga Party

Steph is Attacked by Sexy Spartans

Fantasy Fest Parade

Fantasy Fest Parade

Fantasy Fest Vibe

This magical little island gets even wilder when it celebrates Halloween for 10 days at the end of October in an incredible wonderland known as Fantasy Fest… where almost anything goes.

Bring out any piece of your character (or a different one every night)!

During the festival venues host their own special events. These celebrations create an entire world within themselves, worlds that you are encouraged to join in! They pull together a combination of local cuisine, talented artists, and fundraising for various local charities.

This collaboration makes each event take on a life of its own, feeding everyone’s creative inner-child that you’ll leave the festival feeling closer to.

There are costume competitions, AIDS fundraisers, family-friendly parades, drag-queen contests, and more.

Pirate Party

Pirates

Alien Costume

Intergalactic Alien Invasion

Intergalactic Freak Show

The theme for 2015 was the All Hallows InterGalactic Freak Show, and it certainly lived up to its name. This small town welcomed 60,000 freaks, free spirits, and aliens from all over the country.

People spend months planning out their costumes (or lack thereof) for the multitude of themed parties that happen throughout the week. I got into the spirit of things by packing 3 different costumes myself — Greek God, Dirty Pirate, and Intergalactic Alien complete with full-body paint job.

One night Steph and I found ourselves at Irish Kevin’s annual Fantasy Fest 80’s party when who should crash the stage but Mr. Margaritaville himself!

Jimmy Buffett (ok, maybe not the real one) picked up a guitar and played along with the band for a few songs as the rest of us danced like no one was watching.

Just a typical evening at Fantasy Fest in Key West.

Exploring Ireland

Is that Jimmy Buffett?

Fantasy Fest Queen

King & Queen of Fantasy Fest 2015

Fantasy Fest Events

Some highlights of Fantasy Fest include The Coronation Ball where the Conch King and Conch Queen make an appearance. They win this royal title by having raised the greatest amount of funds for AIDS Help.

In 2007 they raised over $200,000 and since 1989 almost $2.6 million has been donated.

Goombay is a two day street party held in Key West’s Bahama Village neighborhood. It’s named after the goatskin drums that generate the party’s rhythms and celebrates the heritage of Key West’s large Bahamian population with food, art and a lot of dancing.

Other popular events include the Zombie Bike Ride, Pet Masquerade, Anything But Clothes Party, Rum Barrel Pirate Bash, Airbrush Expo, Sloppy Joe’s Toga Party, and much more.

You can find a full listing of events on the Fantasy Fest Website.

On the last day, the festival culminates with the Fantasy Fest Parade down the town’s main Duval Street spanning the 1 mile cross-stretch from the Atlantic to the Gulf shore.

Key West Parade

There’s No Place Like Home

Pirate Bash

Arrrrrgh! Rum Barrel Pirate Bash

Fantasy Fest Tips & Advice

While basically an extended adult costume party at the end of October, Fantasy Fest doesn’t always fall on Halloween itself. It did in 2015, but that’s not always the case.

There’s some nudity at Fantasy Fest, but that’s not all it’s about. You’ll find people of every race, age, body type, sexual-preference, and career here too. A celebration for judgement-free and open-minded people.

With only 75 taxi cabs and 60,000 people during the event, finding a taxi isn’t always easy. Renting a bike might be a good option for getting around, provided you don’t drink too much.

No Fantasy Fest experience is complete without some body paint. Airbrush artists from around the country set up shop to make your dreams reality. Prices range from $100 to $800+ depending on how intricate the work is.

Need a cure for your killer hangover the morning after? Grab a bite to eat at Blue Heaven or some strong cuban coffee at Cuban Coffee Queen.

Clown Costumes

Psychotic Clowns

Fantasy Fest Costumes

Don’t Mess With These Two…

Getting There

So how do you get to this crazy party called Fantasy Fest in Key West? Fall down a rabbit hole? Hope a tornado picks up your farmhouse in Kansas? Fortunately you can just drive 160 miles South from Miami on Highway US1.

The road trip to Key West from Miami is a beautiful drive over endless bridges across the Florida Keys islands, flanked by the Atlantic Ocean on one side and the Gulf of Mexico on the other.

A quick 45 minute puddle jumper flight from Miami or Ft Lauderdale airport directly to the island is also possible.

Good Places To Stay

We stayed at the beautiful Casa Marina Resort on the edge of the water. But I’m a big fan of AirBnB too. If you haven’t yet, make sure to read my article about how to find cheap hotels.

So if you’re looking for a good party, and wild photos of crazy and scandalous costumes, you have to check out Fantasy Fest sometime. I hope I’ll see you there next year! ★

READ NEXT: Ultimate Key West Road Trip

Whitewater Kayaking Down The Pemi River

Whitewater Kayaking the Pemi

Whitewater Kayaking the Pemi

New Hampshire, United States

Charging forward through a wall of spray, I make a quick S-turn ducking my head away from a boulder as the drop approaches. Powerful whitewater churns 10 feet below.

Just seconds from powering through my very first Class 5 whitewater rapid, and I’d be lying if I told you I wasn’t nervous. It’s a steep waterfall chute known to local kayakers as Thank You Ma’am.

The rapids are part of the upper Pemigewasset River in New Hampshire.

“You’re kayaking down THAT?!”

A 10 year old boy stares at me, eyes wide, as I peel off a popular hiking trail lugging my boat down into the forest. He’s not the only one watching. A small crowd has gathered along the covered wood footbridge above the falls.

They weren’t planning on witnessing some nutjob go over it in a kayak.

Kayaking the Pemi

The Pemigewasset River

Cayman Jack

Cayman Jack Margaritas

Whitewater Kayaking

Paddling through swift-moving whitewater in a little kayak is one of my favorite adventure sports. Rafting is fun too, but with whitewater kayaking, you’re calling all the shots yourself. It’s you against the turbulent water.

Running rivers in a kayak is like riding a wild rollercoaster.

You get tossed side-to-side by waves and pushed around by strong currents, all while attempting to maneuver past boulders and avoiding dangerous river obstacles like sieves and strainers.

Testing your skills & endurance against the awesome power of nature.

Kayaking Rivers in New Hampshire

Over the Falls!

Kayaking Rivers in New Hampshire

Liquid Rollercoaster

The Pemigewasset River

Located in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, the Native American named Pemigewasset River runs 70 miles south from Franconia Notch where it meets up with another river, the Winnipesaukee.

It’s long been a favorite area for fishing, canoeing, and kayaking. While a majority of the rapids are rated Class II, there are a few decent Class III, IV, and even V sections.

I actually grew up nearby in the Campton/Plymouth area, and worked a summer job that included dropping off and picking up kayakers along The Pemi (the river’s nickname).

Anytime I’m back in the area visiting family, I’ll check water levels on American Whitewater, looking forward to rain like a skier prays for snow.

Kayaking in New Hampshire

Whitewater Kayaking the Pemi

Kayaking New Hampshire

Cheers To Adventure!

Crafted By The Journey

I was in New Hampshire for my sister’s wedding (congratulations Lindsay!) and decided to run the river a few times. Mostly on my own, as friends & family have normal jobs that don’t allow them to go kayaking during the middle of the week!

However I did drag my sister along on the weekend to kayak a new section of the Pemi I hadn’t explored before, and we packed a few Cayman Jack Margaritas for the trip.

It rained a couple days earlier, so the river was flowing strong at over 700 CFS (cubic feet per second).

We had a wonderful day playing in the fast water under blue skies.

To celebrate our successful river run, we finished the afternoon with a few cans of that refreshing Cayman Jack margarita made with organic limes and proposed a toast… cheers to adventure! ★

Watch Video: Whitewater Kayaking New Hampshire

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Cayman Jack

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Charging forward through a wall of spray, I make a quick S-turn ducking away from a boulder as the drop approaches. Powerful whitewater churns 10 feet below. Click through to read more...

This is a post from The Expert Vagabond adventure blog.

Miami To Key West Road Trip: Things To Do Along The Way

Key West Road Trip

Road Trip to Key West

Key West, Florida

Driving down through the beautiful Florida Keys from Miami to Key West is a classic American road trip. Here’s what you can expect on the journey.

Key West is the Southernmost city in the United States, just a 4-hour drive from Miami on the scenic coastal Overseas Highway with plenty of interesting (and kitschy) things to do during the 110-mile trip, including crossing 42 different bridges.

No visit to South Florida is complete without road tripping down to the Conch Republic for a few days. Especially if you like pirates, key lime pie, water-sports, and live music!

I spent 4 days exploring the Florida Keys with my friends Steph & Lauren. These were our favorite things to do on a road trip from Miami to Key West.

Key West Road Trip

Rocking the Drop Top Jeep

Key West Road Trip

Driving Down from Miami

Rent A Jeep In Miami

The best way to experience the scenic Florida Keys is behind the wheel of a convertible, like the fun Jeep Wrangler we rented with Tons Of Fun Tours.

They make it easy by delivering it to the airport or your hotel in Miami. Once you have it, just drop the top, remove some clothing, turn up the volume, and enjoy the drive!

We made our way down to Marathon Key under the warm sun stopping for photos and quirky souvenirs, like a stuffed shark who would become our mascot for the rest of the trip.

Key West Road Trip

Feeding Tarpon at Robbie’s

Feeding Wild Tarpon

Dangling my arm over the water, a massive sea creature suddenly leaped out and wrapped its mouth around my hand to the horror of screaming onlookers.

Growing up to 8 feet long and weighing over 200 pounds, Tarpon is huge game fish that live in the tropical waters off the Florida Keys. Fishermen from around the world travel here just for a chance to catch (and release) one of these monsters.

However, you can also buy a bucket of bait and hand-feed these giant fish from the docks of Robbie’s Restaurant on Islamorada. Be careful, they have small teeth that will leave marks!

It’s a must-do experience for any road trip from Miami down to Key West.

Key West Road Trip

Faro Blanco Resort

Key West Road Trip

Fish Sandwich at Tarpon Creek Bar & Grill

Marathon Key

While you could drive directly from Miami to Key West in about 4 hours, there’s a lot of cool stuff to see around the rest of the Florida Keys too.

I recommend driving down over the course of 2 days, spending a night in Marathon before continuing on to Key West.

That’s exactly what we did, booking a room at the beautiful Faro Blanco Resort to break up the drive.

While in Marathon, make sure to grab some lunch at Tarpon Creek Bar & Grill and dinner at the Lighthouse Grill. Both serve up all kinds of tasty fresh fish caught locally.

Key West Road Trip

Old Railroad Bridge

Key West Road Trip

Seven Mile Bridge

Seven Mile Bridge

Driving over the vibrant blue ocean for miles on a bridge that never seems to end was one of my favorite parts of road tripping the Florida Keys.

The Seven Mile Bridge was originally constructed in 1912 for railroad traffic.

These days you drive across it on your way to Key West, or park just north of the bridge at Mile Marker 47 in Marathon and go walking or biking over to Pigeon Key along the older span.

Key West Road Trip

Fort Zachary State Park

Key West Road Trip

Sailing in Key West

Things To Do In Key West

Learn To Sail

Gather a few friends and charter a boat for sailing lessons with Sunset Sail Key West like we did. Explore the islands powered only by the wind. They offer day trips, sunset sails, and overnight excursions.

Go Snorkeling

Dive into the ocean and swim with sea turtles, nurse sharks, parrot fish, and spiny lobsters on the shallow reefs around Key West. Join a boat tour or snorkel from the beach at Fort Zachary Taylor State Park.

Hemingway House Cats

Ernest Hemingway lived in Key West during the 1920’s, and you can visit his old house, and make friends with the 50 or so six-toed cats that live there. Perfect for crazy cat lovers (like me).

Key West Road Trip

Key West Sunset

Key West Southernmost Point

Southernmost Point

Key West Sunsets

The sunsets in Key West are some of the best I’ve ever seen. Grab a beer and watch in awe from Mallory Square as the sun drops below the Gulf of Mexico, painting the sky in brilliant shades of pink, purple, yellow, and orange.

Southernmost Point Buoy

You can’t visit Key West and not stop by the the southernmost point in the continental United States, which is marked by a red & white concrete pillar. The line for photos is long unless you get there early in the morning!

Bar Hopping Duval Street

Duval Street may only be a mile long, but it’s packed with small bars & old Victorian mansions. Pop in and listen to one of the many live bands playing Jazz, Cuban, or Salsa music. Don’t miss the Green Parrot Bar or the (clothing optional) Garden of Eden!

Key West Road Trip

Key West Marriott Beachside

Where To Stay In Key West

While we were in Key West, we stayed at the Key West Marriott Beachside. The suite included a kitchen, which was great for preparing a late-night snack after coming home from the bars on Duval Street.

For other options, here are my recommendations:

Hostels In Key West

Seashell International Hostel – Excellent central location, but a bit cramped. Not many options for backpackers though!

Hotels In Key West

Key West Marriott Beachside – Waterfront location, super nice, full suites with kitchens available.

Courtney Place Historic Cottages – Charming, comfortable, and close to everything. Very friendly staff.

COUPON CODE! For a special $30 off your next Booking.com hotel stay over $60, make sure to use my special link.
Key West Food

Fresh Caught Hogfish at Bagatelle Restaurant

What To Eat In Key West

One of the best meals I ate in Key West was at Bagatelle Restaurant, located in a beautiful old building on Duval. Locally caught Hogfish with jasmine rice and pineapple salsa. Yum!

Key lime pie was born in Key West during the early 20th century. It’s made using the small key limes native to the area, more flavorful than regular limes. The Key Lime Pie Company makes a good one! ★

Traveling To Key West Soon?

Don’t forget travel insurance! I’m a big fan of World Nomads for short-term trips. Protect yourself from possible injury & theft abroad. Read more about why you should always carry travel insurance here.

Watch Video: Key West Road Trip


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More Information

Location: Key West, Florida
Accommodation: Key West Marriott Beachside
Useful Notes: The drive from Miami to Key West takes about 4 hours without stopping, but you’ll want to plan for many stops. You’ll get the best weather during winter high season. Summer can be humid and rainy with the occasional hurricane.
Recommended Guidebook: Lonely Planet Miami & The Keys
Suggested Reading: Key West: A Quirky Slice Of America

READ MORE FROM FLORIDA

Fantasy Fest In Key West
Learning To Sail In Key West

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Key West Road Trip Guide. More at ExpertVagabond.com

Have any questions about Key West? What about other suggestions? Drop me a message in the comments below!

This is a post from The Expert Vagabond adventure blog.

Learning How To Sail Around Key West

Key West

Sailing Captain Matt

Key West, Florida

Slicing through emerald water under the sun, we speed into the backcountry with full sails & wide smiles. Dolphins play off the port bow. It’s a beautiful day in the Florida Keys.

There’s something magical about cruising the ocean powered only by the wind. I think it’s the silence that makes this ancient form of transportation so special. No engine sounds, no exhaust.

Creaking wood and flapping canvas is all you can hear.

Just you and the wind, free to travel in any direction you please.

Key West

Exploring Islands

Key West

Learning to Sail

Sailing Key West

I’d just driven down from Miami with Stephanie Be and her friend Lauren. A road trip to Key West with new friends. Our mission in the Conch Republic?

Stuff ourselves with key lime pie, drink margaritas, and learn to sail!

Captain Seth & Captain Kala from Sunset Sail Key West offered to show us the ropes on board their 33’ foot long, green-hulled Glander Sloop named “High Tide”. A sturdy, small ship with the ability to navigate shallow waters.

To fuel our ocean adventure, the sailboat was stocked with fresh fruit, hummus, and a few bottles of ice-cold Cayman Jack Margaritas.

Key West

Enjoying the Ocean

Wind Powered Transportation

During our 13 mile voyage, Seth & Kala explained the mechanics of sailing — moving at an angle with the wind, always slightly left or right of your intended destination.

The art of tacking requires sailing in a zig-zag direction to reach your goal, flipping the sail from one side to the other — without knocking someone overboard as the boom swings across the boat.

You must use all 5 senses to find the most efficient course.

Listening for a fluttering sail that’s not completely full. Watching ripples on the water to prepare for gusts. The sensation of wind blowing the back of your ear…

Key West

Sailing Around Key West

Key West

Cheers to Adventure!

Snorkeling With Lobsters

A steady 10-15 knot breeze sent us gliding over nutrient rich, emerald green water. Maneuvering through a particularly shallow section of reef, carefully threading our craft between two buoys marking a narrow channel.

Get it wrong, and we’d run-aground. With a motor this isn’t a problem, but trying to zig-zag your way to the correct spot on a wind-powered sailboat is more challenging.

Once through, we dropped anchor and leaped head-first into the bathtub-warm water for a bit of snorkeling! Swimming around a large patch of live sponges — the perfect hiding place for Spiny Lobsters in the Florida Keys.

Key West

Snorkeling with Lobsters

Key West

Famous Key Lime Pie

Key Lime Pie

After snorkeling, we sailed back to port enjoying our cool hand-crafted Cayman Jack margaritas in the hot sun. Celebrating a successful ocean adventure with new friends!

But then hunger began to set in…

Luckily this is Key West! Famous for their tasty Key Lime Pie.

We stopped into the Key Lime Pie Co. and ordered a round. Of pies. Which happened to pair perfectly with our refreshing Cayman Jack margaritas, also made with organic key limes.

There is no such thing as too much key lime in Key West. ★

Watch Video: Key West Road Trip

Subscribe to my YouTube Channel for new Adventure Travel Videos!

(Click to watch Road Trip – Key West, Florida on YouTube)

More Information

Location: Key West, Florida
Company: Sunset Sail Key West
Accommodation: Key West Marriott Beachside
Useful Notes: Captain Seth offers daytime sailboat charters along with sunset trips and overnight excursions. Split it with other travelers for the best value. Snacks and water are provided, however you’ll have to pack the margaritas yourself!

READ NEXT: Surfing Siargao In The Philippines

Have you ever been sailing before? Would you like to learn how? Drop me a message in the comments below!


Cayman Jack

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Slicing through emerald water under the sun, we speed into the backcountry with full sails & wide smiles. Dolphins play off the port bow.

This is a post from The Expert Vagabond adventure blog.