A Little Update…On my Radio Silence, Fighting Overwhelm and Gratitude

I have this tendency with my site to focus on the positive, to write about my travels, and sprinkle in my back story, my point of view, but very rarely my current life. And so, as I spent the last three months fighting overwhelm back home in Florida (writing a non-fiction book, handling family dynamics, and trying to meet deadlines), I chose to mostly stay silent, figuring if I didn’t have some inspiring travel story to share, everyone reading would likely just prefer me to say nothing.

But I’m breaking the silence now because I can’t be the only one who has to pause from one part of life and just take care of things. I travel…a lot, and when I am traveling other things tend to be left undone. And on top of that, life just throws curve balls. When I returned in May from my travels with my niece, these “undone” things decided curl up under my desk chair, mewl pitifully, and taunt me.

I write this now as a way toward a bit more transparency. From emails of reader feedback, it tends to look like I quite seamlessly integrate travel and home . But really, I’m on this odd rollercoaster of circumstances, choices and life too…which means I juggle unequally weighted balls labeled: work, family, blogging, homeschooling, travel plans, and time with friends. And for the past two months I just couldn’t keep all these balls in the air. (And yes, I’m done with the strange mewling-juggling-rollercoastering analogy now, I promise).

Anyhow, last summer I described my relationship with travel in an introspective piece, a love letter to travel that detailed my decision to come home for the summers each year and see my family, while traveling for four-six months at a time to other places. That still summarizes the travel side of my life, though I have now added a tween-aged student to the mix, which changes the dynamics of travel and life altogether.

A few weeks ago I hit a wall with this site – the fact that I had not posted in weeks caused me all sorts of stress. I was overwhelmed by the number of “must dos” pulling my attention, and yet felt an obligation to the site. For nearly four years now I have written at minimum four posts a month. And yet in the last 30 days I managed nada. Okay, that’s a bit of a lie. I got frustrated one night and penned an epically dramatic post entitled (and my eloquence here is fabulous): A Little Decision…I Quit. I’ll spare you the details of that, but it was stream of consciousness post scrawled in dark navy ink and barely legible since it was written in near darkness on the top of a hostel bunk bed. The final thing I wrote, though, was perhaps the truest of it all:

I can’t quit, I love writing. I love how my photography has grown over four years because of a commitment to A Little Adrift. I am grateful to the community and the people I have met by the mere fact that in sharing my travels, I joined a global community of like-minded souls. I’m grateful for the opportunities traveling and writing have brought to my life. I’m grateful to every person who has ever read and support A Little Adrift.  I won’t quit, I can’t quit, I just don’t have time this month…and that’s okay.

And so, instead of a travel post, you get this. My honesty that life is overwhelming for all of us, and this is a summer of overwhelm for me. And it’s ebbing a bit. And with that in mind, I’d like to share a series of photos. The summer’s highlights so far. And to share my thanks and gratitude to the friends who hosted me, the travelers who touristed me around their town, and people who shared time, space and stories with me at conferences and get-togethers.

habitat for humanity pdx
In early July, a group of WDS conference attendees and I gave our time for a build day at Habitat for Humanity in Portland, Oregon in the days after the conference. I roomed with each one of these great people (and each deserve a thanks: Devon, Jacob, James, Steve, Jodi, Nicky, Nate, Nathan, David, Dave and Nathan for making it such a fun and rewarding day). And in true form, I encouraged us all to do an epic jumping shot on site :)
At Discovery Cove in Orlando, Florida with my bestest of friends :)
Back in May, my friends and I went to Discovery Cove at Sea World, Orlando to see dolphins and generally just to spend the day together. It was good fun and neat to see the dolphins up close and playful. These are some of the people I leave behind when I travel, and it was so nice to relax, snorkel, and chat with few other worries.
Raspberry picking and a fallen tree in Seattle, Washington.
After the conference in Portland, friends (and fellow Chiang Mai expats) Sean and Eva took me into their home in Seattle. They showed me a lifestyle I often miss from my two years spent living on the West Coast: fresh juice each morning, a focus on nature, and huge quantities of berries just nearby for the picking!
At the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Visitors Center
The NVR guys took me on an informal walking tour of their city and hilarity ensued for most of the day. A highlight was the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Visitors Center — it was free and worth a visit, so a heartfelt thanks to Kent and Caanan, I hope our paths cross again soon. (PS Can you find us in the photos? :)
Denver Colorado
My friend Jenn opened up her home to me in Denver, Colorado and then showed me around the city. We found beautiful flowers in the Botanical Gardens and I learned the value of sunscreen at high altitudes on our visit to Red Rocks. And best of all, I got to meet her new son on the trip. :)
B-man in Denver
And this little guy, Jenn’s newly turned 1-year-old  was a highlight of the summer. Just three days with him in Denver reminded me that we’re meant to see, smell, taste and experience this world of ours.

Thank you,

~S

key-west-florida

A Little Nostalgia… A Portrait of Key West Culture, Then & Now

I spent a decade of summers in my childhood camping in the Florida Keys with my family; the Keys were a mere eight hour drive from our home and our nine days of vacation were gloriously free as my parents kitted and fitted us five kids with fishing poles and snorkeling gear and reveled in the hours of kid-free time while we entertained ourselves. My memories of grilled dinners, sandy swimsuits, and campfire chess games are tinged with the honeyed orange rays of long summer days and faded at the edges like an old photo.

Key West from childhood
Enjoying yummy grilled camping food with three of my brothers many, many years ago. I’m the one in pigtails. :)
Sand Key Lighthouse, Key West
The Sand Key Lighthouse snorkeling spot is just off the coast of Key West, Florida and popular for pretty coral and brightly colored marine life close to the surface and easy to see!

As we grew up though, other summer plans, namely hanging out with friends, took precedence over family vacations and before I knew it more than 15 years had passed since my last visit to the Keys. And yet, my enthusiasm hasn’t changed; if you ask me about the Keys I wax poetic about the impossibly variegated turquoise expanse caused by shallow waters and miles of coral reefs.

The memories were sweet with the innocence of childhood and I yearned to go back for a visit, to beat back the uncertainty of nostalgia and instead confront the Keys as an adult. When James, a fellow travel friend from Chiang Mai, passed through the region I leapt at excuse to drive south and show off my home state.

The drive was altogether different, instead of five kids jumbling around the backseat (“mo-om, make him stop touching me!”) we had air-conditioned comfort as we left mainland Florida and started the several hour trek on the Overseas Highway to the southernmost city in the continental United States.

Bike Ride and Mural, Key West, Florida
A woman enjoys an afternoon bike ride near a beautiful mural in Old Town, Key West

The Strand, Key West, Florida Conch Restaurant, Old Town Key West

Conch Republic license plate
They have a sense of humor down south and that cliche, relaxed island flavor

Within a few hours I was weaving the car through Old Town Key West, nervously navigating the non-car culture as bicyclists breezed by me traveling faster than traffic and pedestrians stepped off the curb with nary a care in the world as the sticky breeze blew in from the nearby Gulf waters.

Because we camped in the state parks throughout childhood, I remembered Key West only for the fire-breathing, sword swallowing antics during the Sunset Celebration on Mallory Pier, the drag queens standing in doorways as we slugged back to the car at night, and the overall amusement park aspect to our day-trips to the tiny island at the end of the chain of Keys.

Coming back as an adult was different altogether, I found Old Town Key West a vibrant city pulsing with tourism and though the locals were still quirky, everyone swirled together into a happy little medley so much more normal than my childhood memory.

You see, though Key West teems with tourism, the island is tiny and as often as I encountered other tourists on the streets, it was just as easy to chat up the sales clerks and cafe owners. Well beyond the ploy of appeasing the tourists, I found the locals incredibly willing to share stories and humor from the Conch Republic, the unofficial tongue-in-cheek name given to Key West when the “micronation” seceded from the US back in the 80s.

Conch Republic, Florida, and US Flags
The Conch Republic flag wave proudly in Mallory Square next to the Florida State flag and the US flag

Cafe owners shared coffee at the counters with regulars and the curious tourist (me) could sidle up nearby and casually drop into the open conversation with questions and observations about the town. In the evenings, the locals are just as likely to hit the pubs on Duval Street as the tourists and I found it pretty easy to prod a local into regaling me with uncensored stories as the night progressed.

The locals love their culture and Conchs (Key West born locals) are just a different breed altogether. I’m a native Floridian, rare enough in and of itself, but the local Conchs I met on the islands are a quirky bunch who stand apart. Many were local artists, eccentric by nature most anywhere in the world, but welcomed and indulged in Key West as just another piece of flavor and culture. Those non-artists seem to have at least an indirect connection with the island’s tourism industry, the driving economic force in Key West.

All of these nuances were missed as a child; quite frankly I simply didn’t care about the locals, not when there was promise of tightrope walkers and trained cats….

Images of Sunset at Mallory Square, Key West
Sunset street performers and artists take over Mallory Square each evening in Key West, Florida

As the sun set on my first night in Key West, I watched the performers at Mallory Square milk the crowds for laughs and tips; I soaked in the atmosphere as the cool breeze lifted strands of my hair, tickling a smile from my face at the gaped jaws of children watching the street performances with rapt attention.

Nostalgia is a fickle beast and my memory flitted back to the summers all those years ago, my undiluted joy and wonder on this very same boardwalk, and I notice that the moments etching into my memory now are the conversations with locals, the mouth-puckering tartness of a sweet key lime pie, and the mild confusion of navigating the quaint city streets. It’s not that Key West has changed, though it has, because there is still so much of the same. I can’t go back in time and instead embraced the new version of Key West, one filled with lively pubs, snorkeling excursions and friendly faces at every step of the way.

passports and travel

A Little Perspective… How Do You Get a Passport?

passports and travel

The U.S. offers a wide range of diverse cultures, foods, and landscapes. There’s just no denying our country’s natural beauty—our national parks are stunning, and I grew up soaking in the beauty of Florida’s coastal beaches.

But there’s fascinating, great big world out there, too. One we see far too little of since we internally produce the vast majority of our mainstream media, entertainment, and food. Only once I left the United States did I realized that I had grown up in a culture that values xenophobia. That’s harsh but true. There’s a subtle undercurrent in our country teaching us that the U.S. has everything you could possibly want in life. But I contend that the U.S. would be a better place if we, as a nation, traveled more.

Thankfully, 42 percent of Americans are passported—while that’s an astoundingly low percent for a Western country, the number has increased every year for decades. That’s because getting your first passport buys you a lot.

Why I Love Having My Passport

  • Travel promotes understanding and destroys prejudice.
  • Travel humbles you. We are a wealthy country and have freedoms and opportunities others afforded to us by merely being born US citizens.
  • Travel fosters learning and fuels curiosity … about us, the world, humanity.
  • Travel shows you that you can live with a lot less—and happily, too.
  • Travel generates awareness and that generates change. Once you see, then you’re empowered to act.

Travel has taught me that the United States doesn’t have it all figured out. Other nations have better health care systems, cleaner food, more racial harmony. This is one key reason I moved to Barcelona, Spain after a decade of round the world travel—my American Dream feels more attainable here. The U.S. is still figuring out some key issues, and as our society travels more, citizens like me see these perspectives and consider what elements might make our nation stronger.

For all our differences, it’s our similarities often stand out the most. Travel taught me that lesson. The name on the front of our passports doesn’t even come into play in the daily human experiences. We all have babies, experience death, share meals with our family, and laugh with our friends. People are people. Travel has taught me to keep perspective. Travel beat into me that classic line of simple advice: Don’t the small stuff. Even more, it taught me to be grateful for what I have. Some people have more than me, many others have less. Money doesn’t equal happiness. It’s clichéd, but true. I won’t idealize the poor by saying they are happy, but instead note that those who have chosen a path of less focus on consumerism have always struck me as happier, and it took many years on the road to discover that.

Why You Should Apply for Your Passport

Owning a passport is more than a lark, it’s an American right—a right that painfully few Americans are exercising. Even if you don’t have international travels planned, owning a passport opens up the possibility of travel. Throughout my childhood, I dreamed of what it would be like to travel the world. Even before I had the means, my passport represented that dream. It reminded me that I had the extreme privilege of owning a powerful passport—now all I needed was the time and money.

And I don’t say that lightly either. I know that travel can be expensive, but I also know that if it’s a priority in your life than there is a good chance that you can save for travel. Owning your passport is the first, very important step toward leaving the country and experiencing another culture.

How to Apply for a Passport

Applying for your first passport is a big step, congrats on making that decision! It’s not too tricky, but there are a few things you’ll need in place before you can apply. Plus, after years of renewals and going through many visa applications on the road, I’ll suggest a few tips where you can save costs, as well as areas that sometimes cause delays if you’re not prepared for every step of the passport application process.

1. When should you apply for your passport?

Start your application early! The average processing time for a new passport is six weeks. You can expedite that process down to three weeks for a fee, or for an astronomical fee (and a big hassle), you can receive your passport in eight days. Trust me, you don’t want your first trip to start with the stress of hoping your passport arrives in time—apply several months before your planned trip.

And even more—start the process of gathering your documents at least a month before you need a passport appointment. If you can’t find your birth certificate for face any other small issues, you might be looking at waiting weeks just for your state to mail you the documents you need to apply.

2. What documents do you need to get a passport?

You’ll need to prove your identity beyond a shadow of a doubt—and no, your driver’s license alone will not suffice. You must show each of these things.

  • Proof of Citizenship. You can use a previously issued passport for this. Or, if you don’t have one, you will need one of these: a certified, government-issued birth certificate; a consular report of birth abroad; a naturalization certificate; a certificate of citizenship.
  • Proof of Identity. This includes a passport; naturalization certificate; driver’s license; military ID card; or other current government-issued ID.

If you don’t have both of those types of ID, then the government has listed other, secondary ways you can prove your identity. And always check this government page to ensure you have all the most updated forms and proofs of identity.

If you are applying to get a passport for a minor, there are other forms you may need to submit. A minor child must have the consent of both parents to receive a passport. And if one parent is absent or deceased, there are other forms you will need to print and submit to prove that you have the right to receive a passport for that minor child. I have done this process for each of my three nieces and nephews, and it pays to start gathering documents weeks ahead of your passport appointment—especially if both parents on the birth certificate will not be at the appointment.

Tip: Photocopy of both of your forms of identification—you must mail these alongside your application. If you don’t bring copies, the office will charge you to for photocopies.

3. Where to get passport photos?

You’re going to need a good passport photo. Your local CVS or drug store will take a passport photo for you. Costco and Sam’s Club also offer the service.

There are very specific requirements about lighting, sizing, and facial expressions. Also, this will be your photo for 10 years—you will likely want to ensure you look nice for your passport photo appointment. This photo must be a single 2×2-inch photo with a white background, you need a neutral expression on your face, and your face must take up the majority of the photo frame.

Tip: Make your own passport photo! If you have time and you’re on a tight budget, then take and print your own passport photo for less than a dollar. Stand against a well-lit white wall. Ensure there are no shadows (you might need to bring extra lamps into the room), and then stand against the wall while someone snaps your photo. It’s easy to Google passport photo examples—duplicate that distance/framing/facial expression. Then use an editing program to cut your face and shoulders into the 2×2-inch square. Make a row of three by two of those squares using a free program online and then bam! You have a 4×6 photo that you can easily print at CVS Photo. Then you’ll have six tiny photos of yourself that you can use if you’re traveling somewhere that also requires photos for visas (particularly helpful if you’re planning a round the world trip!)

4. Where to get passport forms?

You will need to submit the U.S. State Department’s Form DS-11. You can either print out a blank copy and fill it in, or the government has a passport registration form. You can fill in all of your details online and then print the form. All of this information must be legible and precisely accurate or they cannot and will not accept your application at your appointment.

If you don’t have a printer, then visit your local post office or nearest official location (use this tool to find one near you) and you can pick up a form for free.

5. Where to apply for your passport?

Make an appointment to submit your forms. You must apply for your first U.S. passport in-person, so either make an appointment at your local post office, or visit your county offices. This government page has a handy tool that helps you find a place to get your passport. Use that tool to find the nearest application office—if you picked up your form in person you can likely also apply there.

Tip: Bring your checkbook so that you can pay for it. In addition to the current fees (find out how a passport costs here), you may find that you forgot to copy something important. The offices will take checks, so an extra check or two on you so that you’re not forced to make a second appointment to come back with the right money!

6. How long does it take to get it your passport?

Watch the mail because Your passport will arrive within about four to six weeks, depending on how busy it is at your regional office. The months leading up to summer are often much busier at the passport offices, so not only will you have a harder time finding appointments, but it definitely might take the full six weeks.

Tip: Keep checking your mail. Your important personal documents, like your birth certificate, will arrive in a separate envelope from your new passport.


It sounds like a lot of work, but once it arrives, there is immense pleasure in knowing that you can book a ticket to anywhere in the world. Why not check out my free travel guides to my favorite places in the world (I’ve been to 60+ countries!), or follow me on Instagram for travel inspiration.

Safe and happy travels,

~S

harry-potter-world-universal

A Little Declaration… Hogsmeade & Butterbeer Rocked My Socks at Universal Orlando’s Harry Potter World

I’m shucking my mantle of sophistication here on A Little Adrift to admit I’m a Harry Potter geek. And as a Florida native-born and raised, it overjoyed me to learn that the Universal Studios Orlando had bought the rights to develop a Harry Potter World. Yes, please! I wasn’t always a huge fan; I caught onto the series later than some, but earlier than many. When the book series first gained popularity I pooh-poohed the trend and refused to join the masses in the Harry Potter craze. Then, my best friend handed me book one with pointed instructions to “shut my face and just read the book.”

Fast forward three years, and I happened to “accidentally” stumble upon — just by chance, of course — a Barnes & Noble midnight release party for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. The series had hooked me, and I was giddy with anticipation as I waited hours in line behind a doe-faced eight-year-old Hermione look-alike. Then, I read the book in one sitting (a very, very long sitting).

Now you’re thinking, “OK, thanks for the backstory, but what about that butterbeer you mentioned?” The backstory serves as a point of view check on the rest of this review of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios. I am a hardcore fan. I’ve reread the books many times, I went to early release parties, and I cried along with the main characters as the events of their lives unfolded. And as such, if you’re a fan too, know that I went to the Wizarding World hoping and wishing for a level of nuance aimed at mega fans. Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley deliver with inside jokes, nerd references, and a carefully executed layout designed to fulfill the magic promised throughout the book series.

Hogsmeade Village from above at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Universal Studios Orlando
View of Harry Potter World’s Hogsmeade from the roller-coaster!

Overview: The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios Orlando

As a native Floridian, I was instantly charmed by the snow-capped buildings sweetly nestled on the cobblestone street when I stepped into Hogsmeade Village, a fictional town from the book series. Florida suffers from a pervasive heat that bakes you down to your soul. But visually, walking through the Harry Potter world is an amazingly detailed trip through the intricacies of J.K. Rowling’s imaginative wizarding universe.

And if you’re observant, if you carefully read the books, Hogsmeade rewards you with fun nuance and deep layers to search for when you’re in the Wizarding World. There’s hidden writing on the walls, and small details etched into every aspect of Hogsmeade. The subtleties of the experience stand out as a what makes it stand out above my expectations. There is a bit of something for everyone, from the diehard fan to the casual theme park lover. There is no doubting that Universal took time and great thought into crafting the world, adding details that only true fans would find and appreciate.

All of the key elements from the series are represented: Ollivander’s Wand Shop, Dervish and Banges, Zonko’s Joke Shop, snack cakes, and pumpkin juice. Paraphernalia for each House is rampant — I was SO tempted to buy a Gryffindor scarf, they are quite striking. Every detail you could want is within the world. By stepping foot into this area of the Universal Theme Park, I had subsumed myself in the fictional universe I had lived in the 10+ years I had loved and enjoyed the books and films.

Hogsmeade Village in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Universal Studios Orlando
A snow-capped Hogsmeade Village at Universal Studios, Orlando.
Honey Dukes sweets shop at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Universal Studios Orlando
The various Harry Potter shops line the streets for sweets, jokes, and souvenirs

Let’s Not Forget: Butterbeer

Ah Butterbeer. It’s worth the price of park admission just to try this delicious concoction. And although I love real beer too, rest assured that Butterbeer is non-alcoholic (for muggles that is. Just like in the book series, if you bring some house elves it’s a different story ;-)

The drink is delicious and the park offers it in two forms, frozen and liquid. The frozen Butterbeer is tastier than the traditional liquid one, which tastes like cream soda — if you’re traveling in a couple, you get the shiny, happy ability to order both!

In fact, it’s so tasty that my friends and I left the Harry Potter world mid-morning to explore the rest of the park, but later we returned —which involved switching Universal parks and an extra 45 minute walk — just for one last taste.

Hogsmeade town at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Universal Studios Orlando Delicious Butterbeer at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Universal Studios Orlando

All aboard the Hogwarts Express at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Universal Studios Orlando
All aboard the Hogwarts Express!

New Ride: Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey

Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey wowed me. The journey through the queue alone is fully a part of the experience. I’m an avid theme-parker — I grew up an hour from Orlando, how could I not be? As I waited in line and wound through Hogwarts Castle, the level of detail, interaction, and care put into the experience made my inner geek smile at all the inside jokes. There are many delightfully geeky Harry Potter details. If you have kid fans with you, they will stay plenty occupied looking for the hidden details (and you can cheat and find out some of the hidden ones ahead of time!). We luckily had just 20 minute waits for each of the rides since we had Early Park Admission thanks to a shared room at the Hard Rock Hotel — none of us minded sharing beds and using the pull out couch because it meant we were able to “do” most of Hogsmeade before the crushing crowds. (Below I explain how to get Universal Early Admission!)

Hogwarts Castle and the new ride at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Universal Studios Orlando
Hogwarts Castle and home of the new Harry Potter ride

One of the coolest parts is the holograms. The interior castle decorations have the best holographic technology I’ve ever seen.

The ride itself is nothing short of innovative. Or should I just give in and say it’s “magical?” In all seriousness though, words don’t do it justice except to say even the hours of queuing are worth it for the end result.

For the sake of full transparency here, know that the Forbidden Journey is not for the weak-stomached. Each person in my group felt ill walking out. I often get sick when they’re too much, but I was lucky not to need a sudden dash to a nearby trash can, thankfully. It’s a bit rough, but still doable!

Hogsmeade lit up at night at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Universal Studios Orlando
Hogsmeade as night settles, and yes, more Butterbeer

Islands of Adventure’s Diagon Alley

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter got even bigger with the immersive world of Diagon Alley, which may be even better than the orginial. It’s just so nuanced and so incredibly detailed. The setup takes from a charming London Street directly into a world not meant for muggles. Anything that felt like it was missing from Hogsmeade made it here, plus all the greatest parts of the other half of the World, too. So you can find an expanded Ollivander’s here, but then look deeper. Knockturn Alley is a side-street for devotees of the Dark Arts, and Gringotts Wizarding Bank is just amazing, as is the ride.

It’s just too much to fully encapsulate who well Universal has done with making this world a reality for true fans. It lives up to the hype in every way. It’s delightfully creepy sometimes when they bring dementors to life, fascinating to find small touches meant for hardcore fans, and just plain fun.


Between the creamy butterbeer, the Universal Studios cast members dressed in robes, and the tinkling Harry Potter music throughout the village, I completely geeked out. Other Harry Potter fans will love it too, and even those fans in denial. :)

This was pretty much as good as it gets for a Harry Potter experience in the U.S. And I’ll admit that I am looking forward to visiting the Harry Potter studio tour in London when I next pass through the city. It looks like another geek-out worthy experience!

Quick Tips: Harry Potter World at Universal Studios, Orlando

When: Weather is decent all year round for the theme parks but school holidays are, naturally, the busiest and craziest times of the year. Visit in shoulder season if possible. I visited in fall and it was perfect weather and crowd levels.

Navigate Like a Pro: Insider guides offer tips and maps that save time. They are seriously amazing and make your whole visit smoother. Consider this Universal Orlando Insider Guide with heaps of tips to Harry Potter World. Also pick up the Insider Guide for Walt Disney World if you’re heading that way, too.

How to Get Early Admission! Early park admission is essential to truly enjoying the Harry Potter World and it’s a perk offered to all guests staying at a hotel on Universal Property. So, if you book a night at the Hard Rock Hotel like we did (or the other resorts like Portofino Bay Hotel, Cabana Bay Beach Resort, or Aventura Hotel on Universal property), you can enter the park an hour earlier than general admission. This extra hour allows you to ride the major rides in Harry Potter World without huge lines and crowds. Everyone in our group found it convenient and worth the extra money. In fact, that extra hour is probably the sole reason that we were able to see so much of the park besides Harry Potter World. If you don’t opt for Early Admission, budget an hour to two hours per queue for every ride you hope to experience (and Escape from Gringotts is regularly a 3+ hour wait in peak season). And even if you stay elsewhere, a bonus perk for your vacation planning: ALA readers receive $25 off their first booking if you’re new to Booking.com, which is my preferred hotel booking engine. Once you’re in Orlando, use this handy Crowd Calendar to figure out the best days to visit which parks in the area, as well as to determine if the Early Admission is for Diagon Alley in Universal or Hogsmeade in Islands of Adventure, or both (it varies throughout the year). And super bonus is that you can use your Early Admission for a different perk each day, because it also gets you early access to Volcano Bay and its six rides.

Extra Tips:

  • Wear sunscreen or you will burn in the Florida sunshine. Remember, even in cool weather the sun is strong.
  • Frozen butterbeer tastes better than regular. If you’re forced to choose just one, go with frozen.
  • All of the merchandise inside of the Harry Potter souvenir shops is available at other shops in the park — don’t stand in the 30+ min lines just to walk into the souvenir shop. That said, you will have to wait in line if you want to see the wand selecting ceremony, that’s only available at Ollivanders.

Prepare: Cozy up the week before you leave and stream the entire series so you can geek out like the other Potter fans.

12 Apostles on Australia's Great Ocean Road

A Little Travel Memory … Goodbye Ye Faithful Apostles

The scenery on the Great Ocean Road in Australia reminded me of the blown Murano glass scupltures in Venice , Italy. This post was really inspired entirely by the photo below. Like a glass-blower, nature purposefully highlighted the scene with a sizable dose of reddish-orange limestone (two colors opposite on the color-wheel and therefore complimentary :). My tour guide on the Great Ocean Road shared all kinds of facts and stories, with a handful of local lore thrown in for good measure, but it was this drive’s likeness to the another beautiful road that makes me smile inside; the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) in California also possesses a constant gag-me-there-is-just-no-end-to-the-pretty-landscape feeling and the Great Ocean Road was actually specifically built to model the PCH.

12 Apostles on the Great Ocean Road in Australia.

On a sadder note, this photo of the 12 Apostles is one of those “enjoy now, it won’t be there later” shots. Originally there were nine limestone formations ( nicknamed the 12 Apostles) and in the intervening years they are crumbling into the sea. These austere sentinels stand guard over the southern Australian coastline and when I visted there eight were still standing. Now, two years later, just seven.  :(

Quick Travel Tips: Great Ocean Road and the Pacific Coast Highway

Where: Daytrips for the GOR leave at least every other day from Melbourne, . The PCH is best done in a rental car with friends and a picnic basket.
How long: All of the highlights can be driven on both of these in about 7-10 hours…but that doesn’t make for a hugely enjoyable day if they’re done in one shot like that!
Personal Recommendations: On the PCH drive, stop off at the Winchester Mystery House – it’s a “roadtrip into the paranormal” and a bizarrely intriguing side-trip. On the GOR, sitting inside the Loch Ard Gorge with the swelling sound of the ocean ebbing sticks with me to this day, make sure you make it that far on the road!

A Little Reenacting…Huzzah! Time Travel to the Renaissance

Last fall I spent a day wandering the grounds of the Lady of the Lakes Renaissance Festival outside of Orlando, Florida. I’m habitually traveling in the spring every year and miss the one in my hometown, but I chanced upon one outside of Orlando last fall and the lure was too much to resist; I went and played for the day.

My previous participation in (and on going love with) Renaissance Festivals is one of those things that my friends tease me about even though I know they love me (it ranks up there with the “let’s laugh at Shannon because she was once a synchronized swimmer” jokes). The thing is, they’re not exactly “mainstream;” when the State Fair comes to town, that’s “normal” whereas Ren Festivals appeal on a slightly different level.

So what exactly is a Renaissance Festival?

The Queen and Lady-in-Waiting at the Lady of the Lakes Renaissance Festival, Orlando, FloridaLord and Lady of the Lakes Renaissance Festival, Orlando, Florida

Well, it’s a handy way to time travel. Yep, that’s right, even cooler than round the world travel is time traveling back to Elizabethan England. Well, at least, in my book it’s cooler.

Renaissance Festivals take place all over the world (just looked that up to be sure, and they do indeed have Medieval Fares all through Europe and Australia too)  but I’ve only ever experienced a US Festival. And boy do I love them. It may tip my dork-o-meter off of the charts, but I still love them.

Looney Lucy at the Lady of the Lakes Renaissance Festival, Orlando, Florida

In fact, if any of these travelers I meet all over the world actually come to visit me, I’ll drag them to a Renaissance Faire because once you go, they’re actually less odd than you’re thinking. People fall on one of two opinions on Ren Faires:

  • Those who have never been, think it’s supremely odd, ranks it up there with Civil War reenatments and never want to visit one.
  • Those who have been, know its supremely odd and habitually attend for a day of playing with interactive actors, creative games, crafts, and unhealthy food.

My sophomore year in high school I auditioned for my local Faire, the Bay Area Renaissance Festival. I got in and promptly forfeited every weekend of my life for six weeks in excahange for dialect lessons, interactive acting classes, and character building workshops.

Peasants at the Market Cross at the 2001 Bay Area Renaissance Festival.Me and my Faire Father, the Executioner, at the Bay Area Renaissance Festival in 2000.

By opening day of our six week Faire I had perfected a 16th Century lower class English accent, sewed together a raggedy peasant costume to highlight my inferiority in the class system of Renaissance England, and fallen in love with the open acceptance and alternative community of adult actors also acting in that year’s Faire.

Monday through Friday was the humdrum of highschool classes and all-night study sessions. But come Saturday I traded that in for a whole new persona. A character I built from scratch and could adjust, change, and humanize while I played with all of the turkey-leg toting visitors to the Ren Faire.

Robin Hood and archers at the Lady of the Lakes Renaissance Festival, Orlando, Florida

That first weekend of Faire was the first time I really feel in love with acting; the character and experience was an escape and I met people my parent’s had never previously exposed me to – they were “alternative,” a bit crude, but warm and accepting.

If you’ve never yet visited one (and I sadly suspect that’s a large portion of people reading this), the character actors at the Faires are a hoot. Many of the Renies (think Carnies…but decidedly different) have perfected these personas over decades and take their Renaissance characters and costumes touring Faires all over the US.

Yeah, they do it for a living.

The Spanish Ambassador and his Spanish Ladies (me included) at the 2001 Bay Area Renaissance Festival.

That concept floored me. My parents both go to work every day in an office and Faire was my first exposure to a more nomadic existence…and the community you can still create as a nomad.

Back in high school my weekend escapes acting in the Renaissance Festival gave me an “out” from the stress of high school and that notion of “fitting in.” All of the Ren Faire actors are just a tad wacky…and it was nice to be accepted wholly and totally no matter what I said, did, wore, thought (a marked contrast to high school let me assure you) – whatever I did was all welcomed with a “yes, and” (which is a standard improv game where you just build upon what the other actors feed you, never negating an idea).

Really, it just feels open. I went last fall and though I didn’t know half of the people at the Orlando Faire, I know they’re the kind of people I’d love to grab a beer with and lose an entire evening to swapping stories.

The Mistress of the Goal at the 2001 Bay Area Renaissance Festival.

To write this post, I flipped through my scrapbook and there was a catch in my throat as I thought about those years. There’s this nostalgia writing about the Ren Faire. It’s only in retrospect that I value the experience and see how it shaped who I am today.

I love the memory and now enjoy going back as a visitor,  walking the festival grounds and reveling in the quirky Renaissance environment I tried so hard to perfect a decade ago.

Visitors are invited to walk around for the day shunning modernity and instead playing games made out of wood and ropes. There’s the jousting and human combat chess. Princesses and peasants.

Prepping for the jousting match at the Lady of the Lakes Renaissance Festival, Orlando, Florida.Chess Match at the 2001 Bay Area Renaissance Festival.

The people are friendly and if you’re outgoing enough you can spend the day captivated in the story the interactive actors have created for you. There’s almost always a plot to assassinate the queen.

One of my favorite shows was in Orlando this year; the Washing Well Wenches are raunchy (which I adored back in high school and I was thankful to see it’s still funny now) and they tie with the Mud Show as best show to catch. My first year working in the Faire I visited the mud pit as a part of my morning ritual so I could slather my face in mud and really feel like a peasant…commune with the dirt and all that jazz.

Both shows tour the US Faires extensively so if you’re visiting the US, and a Faire is nearby, how lucky for you that you get to attend!

Washing Well Wench at Lady of the Lakes Renaissance Festival in Tavares, Orlando.Washing Well Wenches in a show

Also have to shout out to Empty Hats – their music pulls at my heart and I was so glad to hear their tinkling melody at the Orlando Ren Faire…because Faire is just not Faire without them. My Ren Faire memories are thoroughly laced with the sounds of these talented musicians.

Empty Hats playing at the Lady of the Lakes Renaissance Festival, Orlando, Florida.The Village Idiot at the Lady of the Lakes Renaissance Festival, Orlando, Florida

If you get the chance, I have to say – just go. I know it sounds weird. Even people who know me think it’s strange. But seriously. Go. It’s a bizarre slice of culture you won’t find anywhere else and a travel experience in its own right.

Ever been to a Ren Faire? Want to go? Think I’m a dork who should lose all speaking (er…writing) privileges? ;-)

A Little Museum…Rediscovering Beauty at the Getty Center

The Getty Center in Los Angeles sits sentinel on the faded, olive green hills to the west of Hollywood; a sprawling and artistic estate with glistening white marble construction framing the surrounding scenery with poetic picture frames built into the building’s architecture.

Los Angeles and the cactus garden, Getty Center in Los Angeles, California

I so easily forget parts of my own home; as I travel endlessly in search of other cultures and experiences I forget the US has so much to offer (a fact a lot of my fellow Americans point out to me when I tell them I travel extensively overseas…I get a “what’s wrong with the US?”)

And then I land at a place like the Getty Museum in Los Angeles; the Getty museum channels the look and feel of a villa in the Tuscan countryside of Italy.

Although you can see the surrounding city and buildings, you’re sitting far above in a colorful landscape of preserved international sculpture and artwork picked and conserved out by the Getty research institute.

And though I’m often a fan of open and undisturbed nature, the elaborate and manicured gardens transported me into an experience far away from the honking car horns and city-bustle. All of this is a legacy left by a man named J. Paul Getty as a gift to Los Angelinos and the world; the museum is free-of-charge – not the norm in the United States.

Elaborate gardens, Getty Center in Los Angeles, California

My visit to the Los Angeles Getty Center took advantage one of California’s notoriously sunny days and I took advantage of the free sun umbrellas as my friend Jenn, her Aunt Viv and I explored the sprawling grounds on one of the Getty’s free tours.

The position of the museum, perched on tall hilltop in the center of the county, affords panoramas of every major highlight on the Los Angeles skyline: downtown LA in the distance, Beverly Hills up close, and the Hollywood Hills just in the foreground

Then from the other side the sun glitters on the nearby Pacific Ocean with sightings of Malibu, Venice, and even further south on a clear day (ie. after the rains clear the smog from the air). Really the only iconic LA landmark missing is the Hollywood sign (go hike Runyon Canyon to see that!).

The photography exhibit was captivating with portraits of communities and sub-cultures around the world, as well as a humbling and hard to look at photo-series spanning an entire long wall that documented a day spent in a medical tent on the battlefield as military medics operated on the soldiers fighting our wars.

We spent the entire day at the Getty Center and lunched with views looking out over the flowering landscape. The Getty Center is far from a traditional museum because of the huge variety of different experiences.

Gardens at the Getty CenterGetty Center Gardens

To lift ourselves out of the weighty feelings after the photography exhibit we played in the colorful gardens and walked through the sculpture exhibit.

We even got in touch with our inner child on a slopping green hill and rolled down the hill alongside the other playing children (they inspired the hill roll you’re about to witness…we figured, why not be a little silly on such a beautifully sunny day?!)

The Getty Center was more enjoyable than I had anticipated; it’s one of those things I completely put off visiting while I living in Los Angeles but now can’t imagine not associating with the city. The architecture of the Center so seamlessly fits into and frames the surrounding cityscape and hillsides – if you’ve always said you “hate Los Angeles” I challenge you to visit the Getty for a day, see the city from above, and feel the same way!

Quick Travel Tips: Getty Center Los Angeles

How: You need a car to get there, it’s off of the 405 just north of Sunset Blvd. You park at the base and take the tram up the hill to the museum.
How much: The museum is free but you will pay $15 to park each car (so fill your car with friends!).
Travel Tips: Wear comfortable shoes and sunscreen. They have a very decent cafeteria for lunch. Bring your camera!
Additional: The Official Getty Museum Site

top of muir woods national park

A Little Travel Memory … Getting Lost in Muir Woods

My friend Jenn is a long-time friend from Florida who also made the move to Los Angeles after college. Our M.O. was long hikes through the mountains surrounding LA to rid ourselves of the city-angst. When I started talking about my RTW trip we road-tripped it up the California coast to San Francisco to test our travel style compatibility.

top of muir woods national park
My friend Jenn and I hiked to the top of Muir Woods National Park in California.

With Muir Woods so close to San Francisco we couldn’t pass up an opportunity to visit the park and see the redwood forest first hand. And like all stories of me hiking anywhere … we got lost for a couple of hours. I say that lightly because we were still mostly on a trail, and we had lots of water, so we knew it was safe enough for us to indulge in the desire to just pick a path and go.

In the end, as with most times I follow instinct and just wander—or in this case hike—it was worth it. Not long after we hiked straight up out of the dark base of the redwood forest we surfaced to the piercingly sunny skies and epic views of the huge trees and hills rolling toward the Pacific Ocean.

Jenn is the only of my Stateside buddies who has actually taken me up on my open offer to all of my friends to meet me somewhere in the world. Last year she flew to Italy halfway through my round the world trip and we spent three weeks downing copious amounts of gelato together between hikes where we took tons of surprisingly similar camera-timed pictures of us in random forests all over Italy and Croatia.