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Adventure Travel Cities Outdoors

The 7 Most Beautiful Places on Earth

Need a little inspiration for your next vacation, either real or imagined? SmarterTravel’s editors have crisscrossed the planet, visiting dozens of countries on every continent—and these are the spots they’ve declared the most beautiful places in the world.

The Antarctic Peninsula, Antarctica

The Antarctic Peninsula, Antarctica

“Antarctica feels otherworldly. It’s devoid of human life, with an almost eerie emptiness in places—no manmade buildings, no power lines, no planes flying overhead, and no lights. Simultaneously, it teems with natural life, from penguins calling for their mates in a cacophony of sounds to fur seals lurking below the surface waiting to pounce on their next meal. All that against a backdrop of towering mountains, brilliantly blue glaciers, and an unpolluted sky—I’ve yet to find anywhere else on earth that can compare.” — Caroline Morse Teel, Principal Editor

Granada, Spain

sunset over the alhambra in Granada, SPain

“Like all the towns in Andalucia, Granada is something special. The architecture, the food, and the people all make for a memorable trip. But the real gem in Granada is the Alhambra. Climb up the steep, skinny streets of the Albayzin neighborhood to the Mirador de San Nicolás and watch the sun set over the Alhambra. It’s been (accurately) called ‘the most beautiful sunset in the world’ and is one of those magical experiences that will stay with you forever.” — Noemi de la Torre, Senior Photo Editor

South Island, New Zealand

landscape south island new zealand.

“My then-partner (now husband) and I were reduced almost to speechlessness during a road trip around New Zealand’s spectacular South Island. ‘Wow,’ I said as we rounded a curve and a crystalline lake spread out before us. ‘Wow,’ he echoed a few minutes later as the late-day sun cast a rosy glow across hulking mountains capped with snow. Glaciers, fjords, beaches—the South Island has it all, and it’s all stunning.” — Sarah Schlichter, Deputy Executive Editor

Krka National Park, Croatia

Krka National Park was supposed to be a small pit stop on my guided trip to Split, but it ended up being the highlight of the week. Rivers and streams crisscross the ground beneath you as you navigate the forest on elevated wooden pathways. The entire journey has a deep stillness to it, with only your own footsteps and the sounds of water and bird calls to interrupt. Finally, at the end of the walk, you’re greeted by a picnic ground surrounded by tiers of beautiful waterfalls. The views were stunning and, on the way out, I got to visit a family of wild kittens—so it was probably the best day ever.”  — Carol McPherson, Video Editor/Creator

Great Bear Rainforest, British Columbia, Canada

great bear rainforest section

“The Great Bear Rainforest in British Columbia haunts my dreams in the best possible way. I only spent two days there, but even that short amount of time earns it a spot at the top of my list. This picture was taken after a short flight from Vancouver Island to the tiny wilderness lodge of Nimmo Bay. It was an intoxicating blur of dense temperate rainforest hikes, paddling bays so still that my kayak seemed to skim above the clouds, and rushing waterfalls that exhaled the rainforest into the sea.” — Christine Sarkis, Executive Editor

Haputale Tea Country, Sri Lanka

Haputale tea country Sri Lanka.

“The most beautiful places are always the ones that photos inevitably can’t do justice. And for me, that paradox always brings to mind Sri Lankan tea country. I took a rickety train ride to Haputale in monsoon-season rains, snaking through verdant slopes and misty gorges made even more dream-like by the drizzle. As if the postcard-esque viaducts and Nine Arch Bridge along the way weren’t enough, meeting Haputale’s local tea pickers in a cloud forest precariously perched at 7,000 feet above sea level certainly was. From the foothills of Agarapatana Plantation I was gobsmacked by the views, which only grew more dream-like as we ascended to the peak to enjoy many fresh cups of tea, served with roti and sweets, overlooking the cloud cover that would occasionally break to reveal miles of rolling greenery below. It’s the closest I’ve ever been to walking into the pages of a Dr. Seuss book and staying a while.” — Shannon McMahon, Editor of News and Features

Tayrona National Park, Colombia 

tayrona national park.

“Many of the world’s most beautiful places come with crowds of tourists and lines that you have to wait in; it’s rare to find that true sense of unspoiled beauty. And when you do, it’s often far, far away from the beaten path. But you’ll usually find that it’s the search that makes the final destination worth it, and that’s exactly the case with Tayrona National Park in Colombia. A trip here makes you feel like you’re on your own journey of youthful exploration in Lord of the Flies. Hours from the vibrant city of Cartagena sit miles and miles of coastline where the Sierra Nevada foothills kiss the Caribbean coast. Find relaxation in the secluded coves and lagoons, or trek in the rainforest to ancient Taryonan ruins. To get here, find the beach city of Santa Marta and then make your way via bus to the forest. There are plenty of hidden retreats and treehouses to stay at, where inviting hammocks swing in the wind waiting for you. There’s nothing quite like following a winding path in the rainforest that suddenly ends with golden sand and open ocean.” —Ashley Rossi, Senior Editor

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Adventure Travel Health & Wellness

Be Safe and Prepared Anywhere: VSSL First Aid Kit Review

The VSSL First Aid Kit contains everything you might need in an emergency, and it’s small and lightweight enough that you can always have it on you.

VSSL First Aid Kit Review

Price and Where to Buy: At the time of writing, the VSSL First Aid Kit was on sale for $94 on VSSL’s website.

How the VSSL First Aid Kit Rates

  • Usefulness: 10/10. The VSSL First Aid Kit is thoughtfully stocked with everything you might need in an emergency, including an LED flashlight, a compass, bandages, a whistle, a thermometer, and more.
  • Durability: 10/10. The VSSL is made out of military-grade aluminum, so it’s tough and waterproof. It’s also backed by a lifetime warranty.
  • Portability: 10/10. The emergency supplies are packed inside the flashlight, and the whole kit weighs less than a pound. It’s less than 2 inches in diameter and is easy to keep in your glove box or backpack.
  • Style: 10/10. The unique VSSL design is perfect. It’s shaped like a flashlight, with the flashlight at the top, the compass on the bottom, and all the supplies inside. The bright red color makes it easy to spot when you need it.

Final Verdict: Hikers, travelers, and drivers should keep the VSSL First Aid kit nearby at all times.

More from SmarterTravel:

Caroline Morse Teel is always on the hunt for the newest and best travel gear. Follow her on Instagram @TravelWithCaroline.

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Adventure Travel Beach Cities Outdoors

The Safest Places in Central America for Travelers

Editor’s note: This story was researched and written before the current COVID-19 pandemic. While we look forward to traveling again soon, we recognize that the most important thing we can all do right now is to stay home. For the most current information about COVID-19, check the CDC website.

With active volcanoes, Maya ruins, and extensive coastlines in both the Atlantic and the Pacific, Central America is an idyllic destination that is often overlooked by travelers. Given the region’s history of political instability, many foreigners are wary of visiting, wondering if Central America is safe, and end up missing out on the cultural, historical, and culinary richness of the seven countries that comprise it.

But while these fears are justified in some cases, you shouldn’t judge an entire region by its news cover. Not every country in the area is experiencing conflict, and while caution is always advised no matter where you travel, you certainly won’t be stepping into the war zone Central America is often made out to be.

To help you have an amazing—and safe— trip, we have compiled a list of the four safest countries to visit in Central America.

Costa Rica

Costa Rica wins over the heart of every visitor with its “Pura vida” philosophy. The entire nation exudes a relaxed vibe that calls you to breathe in and enjoy life—something that’s not too difficult to do here. During your time in this mesmerizing country, you can watch sea turtles hatch on quiet beaches, climb the Arenal Volcano, or see monkeys and jaguars at the Manuel Antonio National Park.

Often considered a pioneer of eco-tourism, Costa Rica takes great pride in its natural resources and its status as a megadiverse country. In fact, 98 percent of the country’s energy comes from renewable sources, and 26 percent of its territory is made up of protected natural lands. Because of this natural richness, the country attracts intrepid adventure travelers who come to surf tall waves, zipline through canopies, rappel down waterfalls, and white-water raft down swift rivers.

As for safety, foreigners usually don’t have much to worry about. The Global Peace Index ranks Costa Rica as the 33rd most peaceful country in the world. For comparison, the U.S. is ranked at 218. The U.S. Department of State Travel Advisory gives it a level 1 warning, making it safer than Spain and Italy in the eyes of the U.S. Basically, you should exercise common sense precautions like avoiding dark streets at night and hiding your valuables.

Costa Rica takes such pride in its commitment to peace that it doesn’t even have an army. As if that weren’t enough, it is considered one of the best countries in Latin America for LGBTQIA travelers, given locals’ open-minded attitudes towards sexual diversity and the legalization of same-sex marriage. Ready to book your tickets yet?

Panama

panama city skyline at sunset panama.

If you judge Panama by its rankings on the Global Peace Index and the U.S. Department of State Travel Advisory, you’ll soon be at ease. The former ranks Panama at 47th, and the latter suggests a level 1 advisory. Do keep in mind that certain areas should be avoided, including the Mosquito Coast, and the Darien region along the border with Colombia. Again, normal safety measures are recommended to avoid being pickpocketed or mugged, particularly in urban centers.

Now that you know Panama is much safer than most people believe, you should also know that it is much more interesting than most people imagine. In fact, many people simply know Panama for its famous canal, which continues to be a tourist attraction but which is not by any means the only thing the country has to offer.

Sure, take a scenic flight over the canal to see it for yourself, but also allow some space in your itinerary to swim with whale sharks in astonishing Bocas del Toro, or to soak up the metropolitan glitz of Panama City. Adventure travelers will also find plenty of thrilling activities, like hiking through cloud forests, watching the migration of humpback whales in the Pacific, and climbing the country’s highest point, Baru Volcano.

The best part about Panama? It seems like tourists have yet to wise up about it, so you can enjoy small village beaches and forest treks without hordes of Instagram-hungry tourists.

Belize

boat on great blue hole belize.

Yet another wonderful but often overlooked country in Central America, Belize is impressively diverse for its tiny size. The English-speaking country boasts jungles riddled with Mayan ruins, the second largest reefs in the world, and idyllic islands scattered along its coast.

Divers absolutely love Belize because of the diversity of its reef, but also because of its famous Great Blue Hole. This underground sinkhole is the largest of its kind, and is equally impressive from above and from underneath the water’s surface. In fact, the great conservationist, explorer, and diver Jacques Cousteau included the “hole” as one of his favorite diving spots on the planet.

Even if you’re not a big fan of diving in a dark, seemingly unending ocean abyss, the Belize coastline offers plenty of opportunities for swimming in warm waters, paddle boarding, and kayaking through mangroves. One of the best things to do is to simply lay in a hammock with a bottle of cool beer in your hand and enjoy the sun kissing your skin.

The U.S. Department of State Travel Advisory gives Belize a level 2 warning, which is the same level as countries like France and the U.K. That said, increased precaution is recommended, since its proximity to Mexico inevitably makes it part of Central America’s drug route. The south—where many of the country’s Mayan ruins lay hidden by the jungle—is of particular concern, so we recommend researching before planning a trip, or going with a trusted tour company.

LGBTQIA travelers might want to rethink a trip to Belize, as locals tend to have a more conservative mentality and may even be hostile to non-heterosexual couples.

Guatemala

santa catalina arch in antigua guatemala

Like Belize, Guatemala has a level 2 warning from the Department of State. Certain areas present an increased level of risk, specifically the areas along the drug trade route. It is recommended that travelers do research before deciding their itineraries, particularly if they plan to go to remote regions that are not as frequented. Again, visitors looking to explore natural or rural areas might want to consider using a trusted tour company with local guides.

Once you have taken the necessary precautions, don’t even consider missing out on picturesque Antigua. The former capital of Guatemala, this well-preserved colonial town is one of the most beautiful towns in Latin America. Cobblestoned streets and colorful balconies are perfectly complemented by the volcanoes that surround the town, providing breathtaking views from almost any street.

Another must-see destination in Guatemala is Lake Atitlan, one of the most important in the region. If you want a simple thrill, you can hike around the lake and enjoy the invariably impressive views it provides. Those with a harder adrenaline addiction can opt for more extreme activities, like paragliding over or scuba diving.

No history or Indiana Jones lover can afford to skip out on the mighty Tikal National Park, the former capital of the Maya Empire. Surrounded by the jungle that once hid it, Tikal boasts the tallest existing pre-Columbian structure in the Americas, and is considered one of the most important archaeological treasures of the continent.

If this doesn’t seem like enough, you can also ride through the canyons of Rio Dulce, learn about Afro-Guatemalan culture at Livingston, explore the caves of Verpaces, and delight your taste buds with the country’s rich culinary tradition.

More from SmarterTravel:

10 Natural Wonders to See Before They’re Gone
The 13 Safest Places in Mexico for Travelers
The Best Caribbean Destinations for Gay and Lesbian Travelers

Categories
Active Travel Adventure Travel Fashion & Beauty Health & Wellness Travel Trends Women's Travel

The Best Travel Leggings of 2020

Whenever I travel, leggings are a must. They’re the perfect travel-day outfit, especially when paired with a baggy sweater or long shirt, for a chic but comfortable look. There’s so much to love about a good pair of travel leggings. They’re slimming, they stretch, and they don’t take up tons of room in your suitcase. Plus, should you feel the need to utilize the hotel gym or join a pop-up yoga class, you’ll be ready for a workout.

The Best Travel Leggings

Below I’ve divided the best travel leggings into the three most useful categories for travelers: the best leggings with pockets (to hold your phone and documents), the best leggings to make a fashion statement (to show off your personality), and the best leggings that don’t look like leggings (to travel comfortably incognito).

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Travel Leggings with Pockets

Lululemon Speed Up Tight

The sleek cool Speed Up Tight has sweat-wicking fabric and four-way stretch—and four pockets. With two side pockets large enough for your phone and two waistband pockets perfect for tucking away cash, these leggings are a great choice for the active traveler with stuff to carry.

The North Face Motivation Pocket 7/8 Tights

From the North Face, the Motivation Pocket 7/8 Tights provide support and storage. They feature two discreet thigh pockets, an extra-wide waistband, and are also available in a similar cropped style.

Core 10 Onstride Run Full-Length

With both mid-rise and high-rise waistband options, Core 10’s Onstride Run Full-Length Leggings are customizable for everyone, and they come equipped with a drawstring for adjustability. The two side-panel pockets and a stylish behind-the-knee mesh detail prove that these travel leggings combine function and fashion.

alo High-Waist Cargo Legging

The High-Waist Cargo Leggings from alo features numerous pockets throughout the leg but are stylish enough to run errands in, and comfortable enough to work out in. They’re also available in multiple colors, such as black, bone, and olive branch.

Clever Travel Companion

The Clever Travel Companion leggings pack comfort and security into one ultra-functional pair of pants. These leggings for travel are equipped with two zippered pockets. The first is big enough to hold your phone and passport; the second slightly smaller pocket is still large enough to fit your credit cards and keys.

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Travel Leggings That Make a Fashion Statement

Outdoor Voices 3/4 Two-Tone Leggings

With blocks of navy and black, the 3/4 Two-Tone Warmup Leggings are chic while still maintaining an athletic look, which makes them great for both the airplane and a jogging trail. The material is sturdy, comfortable, and opaque, so you won’t have to worry about anything showing through. If you’re a big fan of the color block style, make sure to check out the Outdoor Voice’s tri-colored Zoom Leggings, too.

Columbia PFG Tidal™ Legging

Up for some serious adventure or maybe just a day hike, but want cute leggings that still work? Sturdier than the average yoga pants, the PFG Tidal™ Leggings will perform well in the great outdoors. Made of moisture-wicking and UPF 50 sun-protecting fabric, these travel leggings are smooth to the touch and even include a large pocket on the side.

Girlfriend Collective Trail Compressive High-Rise Legging

For a fashion statement that’s extra comfortable and eco-friendly, the Trail Compressive High-Rise Leggings from Girlfriend Collective really deliver, and come in a slew of gorgeous colors. Made from 25 recycled water bottles, sizes also range from XXS to 6XL, so there is truly something for everyone.

Beyond Yoga High Waisted Alloy Ombre Midi Leggings

With bright blue coloring and plenty of shimmer, there’s a lot to love about these statement-making leggings. The metallic splatter ombre is a unique plus.

Palazzo Leggings

If your flair is a little more bohemian, check out these high-waist lounge pants for a fashionably daring set of pants that are just as comfortable and flattering as any pair of leggings. They’re affordable, available in lots of different patterns, and fabulous for flying.

Travel Leggings That Don’t Look Like Leggings

Betabrand Dress Pant Yoga Pants

If you want to make sure you’re maintaining a little class while staying comfortable on your flight, check out the Dress Pant Yoga Pants from Betabrand. Made of comfortable, stretchable material, they’re totally chic. I love that they come in multiple colors and are perfect for a business-casual look.

Wit & Wisdom Jeggings

If you need jeans to complete an outfit, but dread the discomfort of wearing denim on a long-haul flight, get yourself a pair of jeggings like Wit & Wisdom’s Jeggings, made of lightweight stretch denim that can be worn around the city or to a casual dinner. No one will ever know the difference.

Blank NYC Faux-Leather Jeggings

Sport a lean silhouette with an edge with these super-stretchy faux-leather and faux-jeans leggings from Blank NYC. These flattering jet black jeggings are also very comfortable and will go a long way in your travel wardrobe.

More from SmarterTravel:

Jamie Ditaranto is a writer and photographer who is always looking for her next adventure. Follow her on Twitter @jamieditaranto.

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2017. It has been updated to reflect the most current information.

Categories
Active Travel Adventure Travel Fashion & Beauty Outdoors

11 Warm, Lightweight Jackets and Coats for Travelers

Bulky jackets are the bane of cold-weather travelers. If your coat isn’t taking up precious space in your carry-on, you’ll have to lug it around the airport to avoid sweating profusely and looking like a nervous security risk. Here are 11 of the best packable, lightweight winter jackets for travelers that will keep you feeling warm and looking stylish on the road.

Patagonia Women’s Vosque 3-in-1 Parka

Looking for a packable jacket that works for every part of your trip, from the mountains to the city? Patagonia’s Vosque 3-in-1 Parka has it all. The outer shell looks like a stylish tweed jacket, and can be worn alone or paired with the insulated liner for really cold days. The liner can be worn alone and works well when you’re active.  The parka uses 100-g THERMOLITE eco insulation, an environmentally friendly material (it’s 92 percent recycled) that’s lightweight but still super warm.

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Arc’teryx Men’s Atom LT Hoody

The Arc’teryx Men’s Atom LT Hoody is a packable jacket that delivers the warmth needed in a whole host of situations and environments. Insulated with 60 grams of lightweight, water-resistant Coreloft™, this hoody maintains thermal performance if exposed to moisture, and compresses into the tiny nooks of your backpack when not in use.

L.L.Bean Quilted Riding Jacket

L.L.Bean quilted riding jacket

Most easy-to-pack winter jackets look like activewear and are tough to pull off on a city trip, but L.L.Bean’s Quilted Riding Jacket is the ultimate winter coat that can do both. Its classic design goes with any outfit and won’t make you look like a tourist who just wandered into town off a hike. Thanks to the insulated synthetic lining, it will keep you warm in -15 degrees F (with moderate activity). Want to layer this jacket? It has adjustable waist tabs that let you customize the fit based on what you’re wearing.

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The North Face ThermoBall Eco Hoodie

The north face thermoball eco hoodie

The ThermoBall Eco Hoodie, available for women and men, packs down incredibly small thanks to PrimaLoft technology that traps heat within small air pockets. This winter jacket is water-resistant and made of recycled polyester and nylon.

Columbia Women’s Mighty Lite Hooded Jacket

Omni-Heat lining and insulation give Columbia’s Mighty Lite Jacket plenty of warmth. It comes in a range of colors and can be found for a surprisingly low price when on sale. This lightweight coat won’t add much bulk to your bag and has a handy interior security pocket to stow valuables.

Uniqlo Men’s Ultra Light Down Parka

If you’re looking for an affordable and packable down jacket, try Uniqlo’s Ultra Light Down Parka, which folds up into its own handy carrying pouch so you can easily slip it into your suitcase. The hood and water-repellent fabric will protect you in rain or snow showers, and the range of colors will suit any style.

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Obermeyer Women’s Tuscany II Jacket

Based in the snow sports mecca of Aspen, Colorado, since 1947, Obermeyer knows a thing or two about cold and wet weather. It’s developed a patented HydroBlock Sport fabric tested to resist nearly 400 inches of rain (and roll stain-causing liquids right off). Find it in the Tuscany II Jacket, which also uses another unique Obermeyer material: Thermore Classic insulation, which is thin and light but still warm. The hood is removable and adjustable, as is the faux fur trim.

Patagonia PrimaLoft Nano Puff Coat

Patagonia’s PrimaLoft Nano Puff Hoody (available for men and women) is the lightest jacket I’ve ever owned. The women’s version weighs just 10 ounces (the men’s is 12.8 ounces), yet is ultra-warm and waterproof. Unlike some other methods of insulation, you can feel good about this jacket: Its 60-g PrimaLoft Gold Insulation Eco is more than 50 percent recycled material.

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The North Face Arrowood Triclimate Jacket

The north face arrowood triclimate jacket

The North Face’s versatile Arrowood Triclimate Jacket (available for women and men) is a three-in-one coat that’s perfect for travel: You can wear the waterproof, windproof shell or comfy inner fleece liner by themselves, or combine them to make a warm winter jacket. The hood, wrist cuffs, and hem cinch cord are all adjustable for a better fit. This breathable coat is designed for hiking and other outdoor activities.

Lululemon Pack It Down Jacket

The Pack It Down Jacket can be folded up into the right-hand pocket, making it one of the best packable down jackets for women. The fabric is weather-resistant, and the 700-fill-power goose down is certified to the Responsible Down Standard. You can remove the hood to further cut down on weight and space.

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Arc’teryx Men’s Cerium LT Hoody

The Cerium LT Hoody from Arcteryx is incredibly lightweight—just 10.8 ounces—yet it’s surprisingly warm thanks to its combination of goose down and synthetic insulation. (Note that on rainy or extremely cold days, it’s best combined with a weatherproof shell.) The Cerium LT Hoody compresses into its own stuff sack for easy packing.

For more options, see The Best Winter Coats on Amazon.

More from SmarterTravel:

Caroline Morse always packs lightweight winter jackets for travel to cold destinations. Follow Caroline on Instagram @TravelWithCaroline for style and travel photos from around the world.

Some review products are sent to us free of charge and with no incentive to offer a favorable review. We offer our unbiased opinions, positive and negative, and will never accept compensation to review a product.

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2017. It has been updated to reflect the most current information. Sarah Schlichter contributed to this story.

Categories
Adventure Travel

The 5 Best National Park Live Webcams We’re Watching

Missing the great outdoors? Us too. While we’re spending more time planning our next national park vacation than we are being outside, we’re making the most of quarantine with these live cams of national parks. 

Did we miss any that you’ve been watching? Share them with us on Facebook! 

Yosemite Falls, Yosemite National Park

Watch the upper part of Yosemite Falls in real-time with the park’s live stream of the 2,425-foot falls. Peak flow time is early summer, so lucky for us, the timing is perfect for optimal viewing. 

Old Faithful, Yellowstone National Park

Old faithful inn geyser

Want to watch Yellowstone’s famous geyser erupt? Check out this live stream from the park, which features (not always up-to-date) predictions about when it will next go off. 

Lake McDonald, Glacier National Park

Click into Lake McDonald’s webcam for your daily moment of zen. Positioned at the foot of the lake, the camera shows off one of the most iconic views in Glacier.

The North Atlantic Coastline, Acadia National Park

Schoodic Point, Acadia National Park

Pretend like you’re on Maine’s rocky coastline with Acadia National Park’s webcam. This solar-powered camera is perched next to the ocean and offers beautiful views of the water, especially at sunrise. 

Sunrise and Sunset at Zion Canyon, Zion National Park

Follow Zion National Park on Facebook and Instagram to see when they’re live broadcasting the sunrise and sunset at the national park. The live cams are set up at the bottom of the canyon so the views of the canyon wall’s shadows are particularly rare and interesting. 

Listen to our audio tour through Zion National Park:

Don’t have Spotify? Find Virtual Vacations on your preferred listening platform here.

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Active Travel Adventure Travel Fashion & Beauty Health & Wellness Outdoors Packing Travel Technology Travel Trends Women's Travel

10 Best Workout Clothes and Tools for Travel and Home

Finding the motivation to work out while on vacation is no easy feat. I try and stick to my normal exercise routine as much as I can while I travel, and this list of the 10 best workout clothes and tools helps me stay in shape on the road—and at home between trips.

Vi Headphones and Fitness Tracker

Say goodbye to tangled headphones, wearing a Fitbit, and paying for expensive fitness-tracking apps—the Vi headphones and corresponding app are the ultimate travel workout companion. With a variety of earbud sizes and clips, these wireless headphones are comfortable and won’t fall out once you get the right size.

If you run outdoors at home and on the road, the Vi Fitness app is a great way to track your runs and mileage. Hikers and cyclers can also benefit from the activity tracker. Dubbed a “personal trainer,” the activity monitor tracks things like speed, heart rate, and distance. It also adapts to your fitness level and personalizes workouts. Plus, the app links to your favorite music streaming service.

Takeya Water Bottle

A reusable water bottle is an essential workout item for travelers, and I especially love Takeya’s insulated stainless water bottles. The handle is great for travel, since you can hook it onto the outside of any bag, and it’s easy to carry around the gym. The double-wall vacuum insulation keeps water cold for hours, and the narrow mouth is great for grabbing a quick sip mid-workout.

Zella Live In High Waisted Leggings

Built from moisture-wicking fabric and fitted with a no-slip waistband, these stretchy, figure-sculpting leggings keep you cool as your workout warms up. They’re comfy enough to wear in other situations as well, including on the plane or while working from home.

Burt’s Bees Facial Cleansing Wipes

Don’t forget one of the most important things to do after working out, even on vacation: taking care of your skin. I am obsessed with these facial cleansing wipes from Burt’s Bees for a post-workout refresh. Whether you don’t have time to hit the shower or you need some immediate rejuvenation, these wipes, made from white tea extract, cucumber, and aloe, are a must. I even use them over my whole body sometimes if I need to skip a shower.

Adidas by Stella McCartney Sports Bra

This mesh-backed sports bra is one of the best workout clothes you can travel with because it doubles as a bathing suit top. The full coverage bra is quick-drying and moisture-wicking, so it won’t stink or stay wet for long after sweating or swimming.

 

Nike Dri Fit Head Tie

Nike makes a great moisture-wicking headband that fits any head size. I typically find myself shifting any sort of headband during a workout because it sits too far forward or back—but you won’t have that problem with this one because it ties.

L.L.Bean Coolmax Nano Glide Multisport Socks

I swear by L.L.Bean socks (with styles for both men and women) for working out. The quick-drying, breathable fabric and thoughtful cushioning on these moisture-wicking socks will keep your feet cool and dry during any activity. These socks are also designed to reduce friction inside your shoe to prevent blisters.

Hoka Bondi 6 Running Shoes

I always travel with my Hoka Bondi 6’s, because I can wear them to the airport with a travel outfit or put them into my carry-on, where they don’t take up too much room. These shoes (available for men and women) are extremely flexible and comfortable for workouts and provide incredible sole support; that’s actually part of Hoka’s mission as a shoe company.

Salomon Agile 250 Running Belt Pack

I cannot say enough how much I love this running belt pack from Salomon. It miraculously fits a phone, keys, and some cash or cards. It doesn’t move while running, and I’ve worn it for stationary workouts as well to hold my phone. It takes up zero room in your suitcase and helps make your workouts annoying armband-free.

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Lululemon Break a Trail Jacket

This Trail Jacket from Lululemon is an ideal choice for hikers and others who love to exercise outdoors. The fabric is both water-repellent and wind-resistant, so the jacket will hold up in any climate. The hood is designed not to bounce when you move, and there are vents in the fabric so you don’t overheat. There’s even a hidden pocket for your phone.

More from SmarterTravel:

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2017. It has been updated to reflect the most current information. Codey Albers contributed to this story.

Some review products are sent to us free of charge and with no incentive to offer a favorable review. We offer our unbiased opinions, positive and negative, and will never accept compensation to review a product.

Categories
Adventure Travel Outdoors

The World's 11 Best Hot Air Balloon Rides

There’s no other experience like a hot air balloon ride: waking before first light, watching the sun rise as you drift over the hills and towns below, and then touching down to a Champagne breakfast. Exploring a new place from the basket of a hot air balloon offers a perspective you can’t get any other way.

Hot air balloon rides don’t come cheap, but in these 11 places they’re well worth the money, from the vineyards of Napa to the temples of Myanmar. Read on to discover the world’s best hot air balloon rides.

Editor’s note: Due to COVID-19 concerns, the U.S. State Department is encouraging potential visitors to reconsider all travel abroad, and many of the destinations below have been affected by the pandemic to various degrees. Read more here for updates on the situation and information on when it might be safe to travel again to destinations like the ones below.

Bagan, Myanmar (Burma)

Hot air balloons fly over Bagan, that always recognised as amazing buddhism landmark.

Scattered across the plains of the Bagan region in Myanmar are thousands of historic temples, pagodas, and monasteries, mostly built between the 11th and 13th centuries. You can explore them by bike, taxi, or horse-drawn cart, but to get a true sense of their scope, hop into a hot air balloon. The temple ruins look particularly beautiful by the golden light of sunrise. Recommended operators include Oriental Ballooning and Balloons Over Bagan.

Cappadocia, Turkey

view of hot air balloons flying over the Valley of Love in Cappadocia

Dotted with cave hotels and otherworldly rock formations (called “fairy chimneys” by the locals), Cappadocia’s landscape is best appreciated from the air. Dozens of companies offer hot air balloon rides over the Goreme Open-Air Museum, filling the early-morning sky with brightly colored globes that only enhance the incredible view. Recommended operators include Royal Balloon and Kapadokya Balloons.

Masai Mara, Kenya

Low flying hot-air balloon in the Masai Mara, Kenya

Game drives are one way to check the Big Five off your safari must-see list; hot air balloon rides are another. From your bird’s-eye perspective, you might spot wildebeest running across the savannah, a herd of elephants gathering at a watering hole, or hippos lurking in the Mara River. Recommended operators include Governors’ Balloon Safaris and Hot Air Safaris.

Melbourne, Australia

Hot air balloons passing by Melbourne, Australia.

While most hot air balloon flights travel over scenic countryside, in Melbourne you can enjoy a unique opportunity to get a bird’s-eye view of skyscrapers and streets. You’ll drift over the city’s landmarks, including the cricket stadium, the Shrine of Remembrance, the Royal Botanic Gardens, and the Yarra River. It’s a great way to get an overview of the city before or after exploring on land. Recommended operators include Picture This Ballooning and Global Ballooning Australia.

La Fortuna, Costa Rica

Hot Air Ballooning Costa Rica with Free Spirit

From a hot air balloon, your view of Costa Rica might include lush rainforests, remote mountain villages, and the cloud-shrouded Arenal Volcano. In the quiet of early morning you’ll likely even hear monkeys and birds calling from the treetops. Costa Rica’s hot air balloon rides are operated by Free Spirit.

Luxor, Egypt

Orange hot air balloon riding over the desert and ruins in Luxor Egypt

Drift peacefully over ancient temples, the Nile River, and the tombs at the Valley of the Kings on a spectacular hot air balloon ride above Luxor, Egypt. After landing, you’ll have the rest of the day to visit a few of the sites you glimpsed from the air. Recommended operators include Sindbad Hot Air Balloons and Hod Hod Soliman Hot Air Balloons.

Tuscany, Italy

Vineyards with hot air balloon near a winery before harvest in the tuscany wine growing area, Italy Europe

Walking around Tuscany’s historic hill towns is one travel pleasure; seeing them from the air in the soft morning light is another. Keep your camera ready as you sail over vineyards, stone farmhouses, quaint villages, and fields of sunflowers. Recommended operators include Ballooning in Tuscany and Tuscany Ballooning.

Queenstown, New Zealand

hot air balloon over lake in queenstown new zealand

There are plenty of adventurous ways to see Queenstown from the air, including hang gliding, paragliding, bungee jumping, and skydiving. But if you’re looking for a less hair-raising way to take in the area’s spectacular vistas, a hot air balloon ride might be just the ticket. Sunrise Balloons offers panoramic views over the Remarkables, Lake Wakatipu, and other natural attractions in the Queenstown/Arrowtown area.

Sedona, Arizona, U.S.A.

hot air balloon in sedona, arizona

The famous red rocks of Sedona, Arizona make for a stunning landscape unfolding beneath the basket of your hot air balloon. Keep your eye out for wildlife on the ground such as mule deer and coyotes. Recommended operators include Red Rock Balloon Adventures and Northern Light Balloon Expeditions.

Napa Valley, California, U.S.A.

hot air balloon over napa valley Up & Away Ballooning

While you’re in Napa enjoying a wine tour, why not book yourself a balloon ride and experience stunning views of the vineyards from up in the air? Try Up & Away Ballooning, which offers a post-flight brunch with mimosas to toast the start to your day.

Albuquerque, New Mexico, U.S.A.

Balloons over the Rio Grande

The Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta is the largest hot air balloon event in the world. The event takes place in October each year; the highlight event is the mass ascension, when hundreds of balloons fill the sky in two waves. You can hop aboard a hot air balloon in Albuquerque any time of the year and experience stunning views of the Rio Grande. Rainbow Ryders Hot Air Balloon and World Balloon are two recommended operators.

More from SmarterTravel:

Follow Sarah Schlichter on Twitter @TravelEditor for more travel tips and inspiration.

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2017. It has been updated to reflect the most current information. Noemi de la Torre contributed to this story.

Categories
Active Travel Adventure Travel

Bike Safety Tips: How to Stay Safe and Comfortable While Riding

Cycling is often one of the fastest and cheapest ways to get around a city, but it can also be one of the more dangerous ways to travel. Follow these bike safety tips to protect yourself while riding.

Stay Visible

Beryl pixel light

Drivers can’t avoid you if they can’t see you, so make yourself (and your bike) as visible as possible. I love beryl’s Pixel light, a waterproof, two-in-one light that can shine red or white and comes with a Velcro strap and multi-mount that lets you attach the light to your bike, helmet, body, or clothing. Since the Pixel can be used anywhere (and doesn’t need tools to attach), it’s perfect for using with rental bikes. The light will last for up to 10 hours, and is rechargeable.

For a larger light option, Nite Ize’s Radiant 125 Rechargeable white bike light is a super bright 125 lumen light that makes for a good headlight on roads without any light. It comes with silicone attachment bands that make it easy to take on and off your bike, and lasts for around three hours before needing to be recharged.

Communicate Your Actions

beryl burner brake.

Unlike cars, you don’t have turn signals or brake lights on your bike, so you have to communicate your actions to drivers with the hand signals for biking. This chart from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is a good graphic depiction of what to do.

Signals can be hard to see in the dark (and confusing for drivers who might not know what hand signals mean), which is why beryl’s Burner Brake is ingenious. This bright (200 lumens) rear light works just like a car brake light, sensing when you are slowing down and flashing to alert the people behind you. It can be used day or night, and is waterproof and rechargeable.

You can also buy turn signals for your bike, or cycling gloves with light-up turn signal indicators, if you want to make your intensions even more visible.

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Let People Know You’re There

Spurcycle bell.

As someone who’s frequently both a pedestrian and a cyclist, I hate being startled while walking on a path by a cyclist screaming: “on your left” at full volume. And as a cyclist, I don’t want to scare someone by sneaking up behind them. The Spurcycles Bell pleases me as both a walker and a rider—a light press on the bell’s level delivers a sound that’s much more pleasant than other bells, yet still louder and longer ringing (up to three times longer than most bells) that gets people out of the way in a polite manner. The ring is loud and distinct enough that it will also catch the attention of drivers who might not see you otherwise. These bells are made in the U.S. and guaranteed for life, plus are easy to install and will work on any size handlebar.

Prevent Theft

According to Markel Insurance, an average of 188,500 bikes are reported stolen each year. For quick stops, like stopping into a café or store during a ride, the Ottolock is a great, lightweight (145 grams) lock that’s compact and easy to carry, and will prevent someone from just walking off with your bike.

For heavier security, consider using a folding lock like this one from Abus which folds down small enough to fit in your pocket, but still offers a good level of protection. This travel-sized u-lock is also a good choice, as it’s small and lightweight is still a good deterrent for thieves. It even comes with a lighted key so you can easily unlock your bike in the dark.

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Stay Dry, Clean, and Comfortable

Cascadia bike fenders

You’re more likely to bike somewhere if you know that you can arrive there clean, so make sure your bike has fenders that will protect you from mud and puddles while you ride. I previously bought some cheap bike fenders off Amazon that did absolutely nothing—I still got sprayed anytime the streets were wet. I recently upgraded to Planet Bike’s full coverage, polycarbonate Cascadia fenders, and now I can confidently ride on wet or muddy streets without worrying about clothing damage. Attached, oversized mud flaps (130 mm) set these fenders apart by extending far enough over your wheel that even the biggest puddle won’t get to you. These black polycarbonate fenders blend in with the wheel, and look much better than plastic ones.

Wear a Helmet

If you only follow one piece of advice from this list, let it be this one: Always wear a helmet while cycling. Your bike helmet should have a sticker indicating that it meets the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) standards for cycling.

For my everyday commuting, I wear this stylish helmet by Thousand. I like it not only for its looks, but for the secret pop-lock that safely locks the helmet to your bike, so I don’t have to carry it around all day.

The sleek design is more low-profile than most helmets, and comes in a wide range of fun colors (like rose gold or striped).

More from SmarterTravel:

Caroline Morse Teel believes bike safety is important, especially while traveling. Follow her on Instagram @TravelWithCaroline for travel photos from around the world. 

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Adventure Travel Experiential Travel Group Travel

8 Hard-to-Plan Dream Trips to Research at Home While You Have the Time

In stressful times like this global pandemic, it’s easy to get caught up in fear, confusion, and the never-ending news cycle. But perhaps the best way to escape it all is to mentally dive into a good vacation. Researching your dream trip of choice is a helpful reminder that the world will go back to normal again—and when it does, you’ll have a decisive plan of action for a trip you’re excited to take. Whether it’s a new type of travel for you (sailing, hiking, train itineraries, or road tripping) or a destination you’re unfamiliar with, now’s the time to tackle all your wildest travel ambitions.

Here are the dream trips we’re researching while we’re stuck at home, and where to look for the most reliable and up-to-date information on each.

Island Hopping Greece’s Far-Flung Islands

aerial view agios sosts zakynthos greece

While Greece’s main hot spots get a break from the overtourism they’ve faced for years, explore the country’s thousands of islands online to find out which groupings are best for your travel style.

There are the easily accessible Ionian Islands of the north (think Corfu and Zakynthos), more remote North Aegean options near Turkey, and, of course, the famous Cyclades: hard-partying Mykonos and picturesque Santorini included. But you also won’t want to miss their smaller siblings either: Folegandros, Milos, Amorgos, and more are among the lesser-known Cycladic gems. There’s simply not enough time to see them all, so why not choose now which ones you want to see later?

Where to look: Visit Greece’s guide to the Greek Islands is the perfect place to start. Here you can download brochures, guides, and maps, and sign up for their newsletter.

An Off-the-Beaten-Path African Safari

zebras botswana okavango delta khwai.

Go beyond the standard South African romp by extending your dream trip into even more untouched areas like Botswana’s Okavango Delta, where you can safari via canoe, or Zambia’s Liuwa Plain, one of the oldest nature reserves on the continent.

Where to look: African Parks is a 16-park nonprofit organization that advises travelers on up-to-date travel information, including travel advisories and which parks are leading in balancing conservation and tourism. You can find information about visiting each park here, and sign up for their good-news newsletter here.

Hiking Jordan Top-to-Bottom

camels Wadi Rum desert Jordan.

Petra is far from the only site to see in Jordan, which recently opened its new 400-mile Jordan Trail to hikers’ delight. If you’re not aiming to tackle the entire route, you can opt instead for mapping out the sections you would like to conquer, like the southernmost part of the route from Petra to the Red Sea’s world-renowned snorkeling and scuba sites.

Where to look: You can virtually explore the Jordan Trail and monitor when its sites will reopen here.

Meeting Penguins on Antarctica

chinstrap penguin antarctica.

Watching nature documentaries at home can certainly make your travel bug act up. And there’s perhaps no wilder adventure than heading to the southernmost continent for untouched beauty and penguins.

Where to look: Read about one SmarterTravel editor’s Antarctic adventures at sea, and bookmark our 12 Amazing Ways to Explore Antarctica for when tour companies heading to the icy continent reopen.

A Grand Wildlife Tour of the Galapagos

darwin's finch galapagos islands.

A warmer wildlife adventure than setting out for the South Pole, Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands are an adventure of a lifetime that you’ll need to plan to a tee considering environmental regulations limit access to government-trained tour guides. Species unique to the islands include Galapagos penguins, tortoises, sea lions, rare birds like waved albatross and blue-footed boobies, and more.

Where to look: The Galapagos Conservancy offers travel information like its sustainability restrictions/park rules, where to plan a dream trip, and corporate travel partners that enforce policies in line with the islands’ standards. You can sign up for their newsletter here for updates on all of those topics.

Seeing Japan’s Cherry Blossoms by Bullet Train

cherry blossom japan bullet train.

With Japan’s cherry blossom festivals canceled this year, many travelers vying for this dream trip during peak season start planning up to a year in advance to ensure they’ll get their ideal hotel during what’s usually the busiest time of year for the country’s tourism. The fast and affordable bullet trains, which were recently updated to accommodate the now-postponed Olympics, are the best way to get around the mainland.

Where to look: The Japan Rail Pass website is perhaps the best way to familiarize yourself with Japan’s regions and transportation options, and it provides cherry-blossom-season information here, including information about the typical timing of peak blooms for different regions and major cities.

The Ultimate New Zealand Road Trip

Road Lake Wakatipu Queenstown New Zealand.

Not familiar with New Zealand’s North Island and South Island geography? Most people aren’t aware you can drive both in their entirety if you plan out an appropriate route and spend at least two weeks. That’s a lot of pit stops, hikes, and hotel stays to plan: Check out SmarterTravel’s best places in New Zealand and How to Do New Zealand’s North and South Islands in Two Weeks.

Where else to look: Pure New Zealand provides detailed itineraries and background information on road tripping around the country’s otherworldly landscapes.

The Towers of Pain: Patagonia via Buenos Aires

Patagonia Torres del Paine Three Giant.

Patagonia’s Torres del Paine (or Towers of Paine) National Park is a bucket-list item for hikers, skiers, and just about any outdoor enthusiast. The best way to conquer a trek in 800,000-square-kilometer Patagonia is with a seasoned tour company that can show you the way, but you’ll still need to figure out which season you want to see this spectacular scenery in, how to get there, and if you want to tack on some time in romantic Buenos Aires since most air routes will include a stop there. See our story on planning a trip to Patagonia and check out one SmarterTravel editor’s experience of conquering the challenging paths in winter.

Where to look: The South America Tourism Office has lots of background information and recommended tour providers specific to Patagonia.

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Share Your Virtual Vacation or Travel Inspiration With Us:

Are you itching to travel? So are we … that’s why we started the #GoLater campaign on social media. We want to see which destinations YOU are dreaming of. Head over to our Instagram channel (@smartertravel) to learn more. 

More from SmarterTravel:

SmarterTravel’s Shannon McMahon writes about all things travel. Follow her on Instagram @shanmcmahon.

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Adventure Travel Experiential Travel Group Travel Island Luxury Travel

10 Rules for Sailing the Seychelles

Remote, wild, lush—when the first European explorers discovered the 115-archipelago that is the Seychelles, they thought they had found the Garden of Eden.

Upon arriving at these pristine, white sand, palm tree-fringed islands populated with gorgeous creatures that don’t roam the earth anywhere else, I wasn’t sure that they were wrong.

On my island-hopping cruise around the Seychelles with Zegrahm Expeditions, I learned a few valuable lessons that apply to the Seychelles or any adventure.

Always Get Off the Boat

Our Zegrahm Expeditions cruise director wanted to manage expectations. The snorkeling wasn’t as good as some of the other times, the announcement warned. There was a light chop in the water, and we might not see as many fish as before. Not needing more of an excuse to stay in bed for a long post-lunch nap, many people opted to stay on the boat. I dragged myself out and had one of my favorite snorkels of all time, thanks to two sea turtles that joined me (apparently they didn’t get the announcement). Sure, I swallowed some seawater due to the waves, but I would have always wondered what I’d missed if I didn’t go out.

Take a Trusted Guide (or 14)

Me, on this trip: “I saw a fish; it was shaped like a potato but a bright yellow color.” “What’s that crazy thing that looks like it’s embedded inside a rock but has teeth and moves?” Rich Pagen, a conservation biologist and one of our designated marine life guides/”fish guys” onboard always had an answer for me, no matter how odd my description sounded.

We had a team of 14 expedition guides on this trip, with expertise in microbiology, ornithology, anthropology, and more—it was like having access to a highly specialized (and fact-checked) Wikipedia of the Seychelles. The experts dined with us at every meal and were always socializing in the ship’s lounge at night, so we could corner them with more questions at any time.

Perhaps most importantly, we had Gemma Jessy, a naturalist and native Seychelloise. Gemma grew up on the island of Praslin and was invaluable for her knowledge of the Seychelles’ history, culture, and best places to go.

If you try to do this trip alone, you’ll miss out on the knowledge, stories, and expertise that make it so memorable.

Ask Questions

Don’t be afraid of looking dumb. Ask the question. The experts onboard won’t judge you, and you’ll learn things in a way that you’ll remember for the rest of your life. It’s better to say “hey, what’s that?” any time you see a unique bird or animal and get an instantaneous answer (usually along with a few fun facts) rather than try to Google it yourself later.

However, if you’re the person who asked (while we were on a boat) what elevation we were at, the other guests might judge you a little. Blame your mental lapse on the altitude sickness.

Never Miss a Sunset

On a cruise, your daily life can be a bit regimented. There are set times for meals and activities, with repeated announcements to get you to the right place at the right time. But sunset is an extracurricular that you’ll have to plan for on your own.

Make it a priority to figure out what time the sun sets each day and which side of the boat will be best for viewing. Be settled in well before the sun dips below the horizon, so you can watch the sky gradually change from a golden glow to a fiery red—the show is spectacular, wildly unproductive, and different every night.

Saving time for simple joys in life like a sunset can remind you to slow down and appreciate each day.

Bring SPF 50…

…and a sun shirt, swim tights, and a bandanna. The Seychelles are only a few hundred miles from the equator, and the sun is merciless down here. Any inch of exposed skin gets sunburned after an hour or two in the water, so covering up is the way to go. Just make sure that any sunscreen you wear is reef-safe.

Covering up is a reminder that sometimes, there’s an easier and simpler solution to what you’ve always done (slathering yourself in sunscreen).

Don’t Forget to Look Up

Change your viewpoint from what’s in front of you and you’ll find more stars than you’d know the sky contained. Birds you won’t see anywhere else on the planet, eyeing you with confusion and curiosity but no fear. Clouds lit up by the setting sun. Stunning, clear blue skies with an unbroken horizon that you could lose yourself in.

Sometimes in life, we’re so focused on what’s in front of us, or watching our feet so we don’t trip, that we forget to look up and appreciate the bigger picture.

Minimize Your Impact

The Seychelles are special because they are so untouched by humanity. Follow the “leave no trace” rule by packing out anything you bring in and never stealing anything (like sand or shells) for a souvenir.

Protect the wildlife by keeping your distance from animals, who can catch diseases from humans or learn bad behaviors. Never touch a coral reef (the oils from your skin can cause destruction), and avoid kicking or walking on coral, which can kill it.  

Many of our Zegrahm guides on this trip made their own reef-safe sunscreen, picked up marine trash, and even took home plastic water bottles for recycling—emulate that behavior. 

Don’t Give up the Moment for the Photograph

I could have taken a million photos and videos and never quite accurately recreated the delicate light here, the sparkling emerald-turquoise color of the waves, or the softness of the sand. If I spent the whole time trying, I would have missed out on the real-life moment.

Snap a photo or two and then put the camera down, so you can fully embrace this moment in time that you’ll never have again. Feel the heat of the sun warming your skin. Smell the unpolluted fresh air. Taste the salt spray on your lips. Run the sand through your fingers and marvel at its softness. Be fully present, and the memory will stick with you much longer than any photo.

Leave Your Plastics at Home

The Seychelles have banned plastic bags, cups, plates, and cutlery. Remember that as you’re packing and leave your Ziploc bags behind—and think about how you can replace them with eco-friendly alternatives. It was an eye-opening lesson to me as I was packing for this trip just how much I rely on one-time use plastic bags for travel, and I’ve now replaced them with reusable alternatives.

Be Flexible

The Seychelles are wild, and you can’t plan your trip down to the minute, unless you want to miss out on an amazing snorkel because you refused to wait for the right tide. No matter where you go, you can’t plan every minute of your trip, or you’ll lose the chance for spontaneous adventures to occur.

Be flexible in your plans, release your expectations, and give yourself up to the flow of the islands—you’ll be rightly rewarded.

More from SmarterTravel:

Caroline Morse Teel was hosted by Zegrahm Expeditions on its Ultimate Seychelles Tour With Aldabra Atoll. Follow her on Instagram @travelwithcaroline for pictures of the tour and more.

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Adventure Travel Airport Packing Travel Technology

7 Great Water Bottles for Travel

Whether you’re going through security, hiking up a mountain, or exploring a new city, there’s one essential item you should take everywhere: a good water bottle. Anyone who has ever paid too much for bottled water at the airport knows how convenient and cheap it is to bring your own water bottle and fill it up after passing security. But not all water bottles are created equal. Some leak, others are too bulky, and some are just plain ugly. Below are some of the best water bottles to keep you happy and hydrated on your travels.

Kor Nava

The Kor Nava is a stylish bottle that filters water through a built-in straw and replaceable filter. With a sleek design and a comfortable handle that makes it easy to carry, this water bottle is great for walking around a big city or waiting it out at the airport. The click-open cap ensures that the bottle won’t leak in your bag and protects the straw from outside contaminants.

Vapur Element Anti-Bottle

If you’re tight on space, the Element Anti-Bottle from Vapur is a convenient solution. When empty, it’s totally flat and easy to roll up into a very small package. And because it’s so flexible, it’s easy to pack even when it’s full of water. The spout is covered by a cap that will keep your water free from dirt. Despite its appearance, the bottle is extremely durable, dishwasher-friendly, and BPA-free.

LARQ Bottle

LARQ

If you’re worried about the drinking water in your destination, you can save money on bottled water with the self-cleaning LARQ Bottle. LARQ uses UV-C LED technology to sanitize water as you go, killing bacteria with a powerful ultraviolet light. Simply fill up the bottle, press the button on the cap, and give it a shake. At $95, the LARQ is on the pricier side for a water bottle, but having safe water to drink is worth the investment for frequent travelers.

S’well

S’well makes fashionable bottles that promise to keep your cold drinks cold for up to 24 hours and hot drinks hot for up to 12. The bottles come in a multitude of designs, perfect for every personality, and though they’re on the pricier side, some of the proceeds go to charity.

CamelBak Chute Mag Water Bottle

The Chute Mag Water Bottle comes in a wide variety of colors and sizes, and has a magnetic cap that prevents leaks when you’re not using the bottle. The plastic is lightweight, durable, and BPA-free.

Klean Kanteen

If you’re going to be spending time outdoors, this metal canteen is durable enough to survive the most rugged adventures. Its slim design will fit easily into your backpack, and insulated siding helps keep drinks cold or hot. Made of steel, this is a tough bottle that’s sure to last.

ValourGo Collapsible Bottle

This collapsible water bottle is made of a durable silicone material, which makes it leak-proof but also very flexible. For easy storage, roll it up and secure with the rubber strap. The sleek bottle also comes at a fair price.

More from SmarterTravel:

Jamie Ditaranto is a writer and photographer who is always looking for her next adventure. Follow her on Twitter @jamieditaranto.

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2016. It has been updated to reflect the most current information.

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Active Travel Adventure Travel Arts & Culture Booking Strategy Experiential Travel Family Travel Outdoors Road Trip Sustainable Travel

Planning a Trip to the Grand Canyon

No matter how many photos you’ve seen of the Grand Canyon, standing at the rim’s edge for the first time will take your breath away—especially if you’re there at sunset, as the fading light paints shades of rose, violet, and gold onto the ancient rocks. But planning a trip to the Grand Canyon requires more than just booking a hotel and packing your camera.

Planning a Trip to the Grand Canyon

When should you travel to avoid the heaviest crowds and the most intense heat? Should you visit the North Rim or the South Rim? Where’s the best place to stay? For answers to these questions and more, read the following tips for planning a trip to the Grand Canyon.

Editor’s note: Many Grand Canyon facilities and tour operators have temporarily closed or made other modifications due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Check each provider’s website for full details before making plans.

South Rim vs. North Rim vs. Grand Canyon West

Grand Canyon National Park is split into two sections: the South Rim and the North Rim, located more than four hours apart by car. Then there’s Grand Canyon West, located on the Hualapai Native American Reservation, four hours from the South Rim and nearly seven hours from the North Rim. If you’re planning a trip to the Grand Canyon and your time is limited, where should you go?

The South Rim is the most visited part of the Grand Canyon for a reason. It has more viewpoints than the North Rim, with more expansive views of the canyon’s depth, as well as a wider range of lodging options and other visitor services. It also has plenty of hiking trails and activities like river rafting and mule rides. If you’re looking for classic Grand Canyon views, this is the place to go.

Popular with hikers and photographers, the North Rim is the South Rim’s quieter, more heavily forested cousin. While the views may be less spectacular, many travelers prefer the North Rim for its undisturbed wildlife and pristine trails.

The key draw at Grand Canyon West is the Skywalk, a glass bridge that extends 70 feet over the canyon for dizzying views on all sides—including right under your feet. (Important note: The Skywalk does not permit cameras or phones. Professional photos are available for sale.) This isn’t the best bet for avid hikers, as there are only two (relatively easy) trails here, but other activities include zip-lining, pontoon boat rides, and touring a Native American village. Grand Canyon West is the closest part of the canyon to Las Vegas, making it a convenient, though long, day trip.

Note that because Grand Canyon West is located on Native American land, it requires a separate entry fee than the North and South Rims, which are administered by the National Park Service.

When to Visit the Grand Canyon

planning a trip to the grand canyon

When planning a trip to the Grand Canyon, consider visiting the South Rim any time other than summer—especially if you’re hoping to hike all the way down to the bottom of the canyon, where temperatures can soar above 100 degrees Fahrenheit in July and August. Summer is also the busiest time of year; lodging in the park is expensive and sells out quickly, and viewpoints along the rim can be jammed with crowds.

The South Rim is open all year round, and you’ll find pleasant temperatures and smaller crowds in the shoulder seasons (spring and fall). Even a winter visit can be rewarding; bundle up and enjoy the sight of the canyon dusted with snow.

Thanks to its higher altitude, the North Rim has a cooler climate and is closed between mid-October and mid-May. Fortunately, this part of the park sees fewer visitors and isn’t usually crowded even during the summer high season. Consider visiting in the fall, when the Kaibab National Forest erupts in vibrant colors.

Grand Canyon West, open year-round, is less crowded outside the summer months.

Getting to the Grand Canyon

Most visitors to the Grand Canyon fly into Las Vegas or Phoenix. There’s also a small airport in Flagstaff, just an hour from the South Rim, and some North Rim travelers fly into Salt Lake City. No matter where you land you’ll need to rent a car, as public transit is extremely limited in this part of the U.S.

Once you arrive at the Grand Canyon, you might need to park your car and take a shuttle bus to get around. Grand Canyon West is closed to private vehicles and operates a hop-on, hop-off shuttle around the park, while certain parts of the South Rim are only accessible by bus. A shuttle service makes the 4.5-hour trip between the North and South Rims; it’s particularly handy for rim-to-rim hikers. The North Rim is fully open to private vehicles.

One fun alternative way to arrive at the South Rim is via the Grand Canyon Railway, which runs from the town of Williams, Arizona, into the heart of the park, allowing for a half-day of exploring before returning in the afternoon.

Grand Canyon Lodging

The most convenient Grand Canyon lodging options are within the national park or Grand Canyon West rather than in nearby towns, but these options tend to book up quickly—sometimes months in advance. When planning a trip to the Canyon, reserve your accommodations first.

The South Rim section of Grand Canyon National Park is home to half a dozen lodges, including the venerable El Tovar, which dates back to 1905 and has hosted former presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Bill Clinton. Another option is the Bright Angel Lodge, situated at the top of the park’s most popular trail. There’s also an RV park near the main visitor center, as well as two campgrounds.

If you can’t find lodging within the South Rim section of the park, there’s a handful of options in nearby Tusayan, as well as dozens of hotels (mostly chain motels) in Williams and Flagstaff, each a little more than an hour from the park entrance gates.

The North Rim has just two places to stay inside the park: the Grand Canyon Lodge, which offers motel rooms and cabins, and the North Rim Campground. If these are booked, consider the Jacob Lake Inn, 45 miles away, or head farther afield to Kanab, Utah, or Page, Arizona.

The most unique place to stay at Grand Canyon National Park is Phantom Ranch, located on the canyon floor. The only ways to get there are to hike or ride a mule down.

If you want to stay overnight within Grand Canyon West, you can book a cabin at Hualapai Ranch; each one features a front porch where you can relax and enjoy the desert views.

Grand Canyon Hikes

When planning a trip to the Grand Canyon, leave time for a hike or two.

The simplest walk at Grand Canyon National Park is the Rim Trail, which stretches for 13—mostly flat—miles along the top of the South Rim. Much of it is paved and wheelchair-accessible, and you can enter and leave the path at any viewpoint.

If your fitness allows, try to hike at least part of the way into the Grand Canyon; you’ll get a completely different perspective than you do from the top.

The most popular South Rim trail into the canyon is the Bright Angel Trail, which is well maintained and offers some shade along the way. Another good option is the South Kaibab Trail—it is a little steeper and has less shade, but boasts slightly more dramatic views if you’re only doing part of the trail. While both of these trails go all the way to the bottom, you can easily transform each of them into a day hike by turning around at one of the mile markers and going back the way you came.

The North Rim offers a variety of day hikes ranging from less than a mile to about 10 miles round-trip. It’s possible to hike into the canyon from the North Rim on the North Kaibab Trail and back out of the canyon via one of the trails on the South Rim (or vice versa); this is recommended only for fit, experienced hikers.

For information on all the trails listed above, see the day hiking information page on NPS.gov.

The National Park Service strongly recommends against hiking down to the river and back in a single day, even if you’re a veteran hiker. Instead, plan to overnight at Phantom Ranch or one of several backcountry campgrounds within the canyon.

Keep in mind that it usually takes twice as long to come back up the trail as it does to go down, and that temperatures at the bottom of the canyon can be up to 20 degrees higher than those at the top. Hundreds of hikers are rescued each year from the canyon due to dehydration, heat exhaustion, or injury.

Grand Canyon West offers just two hiking trails, one easy and one moderate, and neither one goes into the canyon.

One intriguing Grand Canyon hike to consider is the 10-mile (each way) track to Havasu Falls, the famous turquoise cascade you’ve probably seen on your Instagram feed. It’s located on Native American land between the South Rim and Grand Canyon West. Reservations are required (and limited). To learn more, see the NPS website.

Mule Rides, Rafting Trips, and Helicopter Tours

When planning a trip to the Grand Canyon, don’t forget about other activities besides hiking, like riding a mule into the canyon. (Why a mule? They’re more sure-footed than horses.)

From the South Rim you can ride a mule to the Colorado River and spend a night or two at Phantom Ranch, or take a shorter two-hour ride along the rim. (See GrandCanyonLodges.com.) From the North Rim you can take one- or three-hour rides along the rim or part of the way into the canyon. (See CanyonRides.com.) Book as far in advance as possible to guarantee yourself a spot.

Dreaming of rafting the Colorado River? You can take a guided trip in the national park with options from a half-day to more than two weeks, or plan your own trip with a permit from the National Park Service. To plan a one- or two-day rafting trip at Grand Canyon West, visit GrandCanyonWest.com.

Finally, one of the most incredible ways to view the Grand Canyon is from the air. Numerous companies operate helicopter tours over the canyon, including Grand Canyon Helicopters and Papillon.

General Grand Canyon Travel Tips

As soon as you arrive, stop by the visitor center—especially if you have limited time. Park rangers can help design an itinerary to make the most of your visit, suggest hikes to suit your fitness level, and recommend the best viewpoints for sunrise and/or sunset.

The desert heat can be deadly, so hikers should pack plenty of water as well as salty snacks. Bring a reusable bottle that you can fill up at water stations located throughout the national park. Start hiking early in the morning to avoid the midday sun. If you get a headache or start to feel dizzy or sick to your stomach, stop to rest and rehydrate.

The South Rim is located at 7,000 feet above sea level, and the North Rim is at nearly 8,300 feet. Some travelers may experience fatigue, headaches, or other symptoms of altitude sickness.

Stick to the trail. Not only does this protect the landscape, but it also protects you. Numerous tourists have died after falling from the rim of the canyon.

The most crowded viewpoints at the South Rim are those nearest the parking lots and bus stops. To avoid getting a hundred other people in every photo, walk along the Rim Trail in either direction. Often you can snap great shots along the trail or find your way to a less congested viewpoint.

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Follow Sarah Schlichter on Twitter @TravelEditor for more travel tips and inspiration.

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2017. It has been updated to reflect the most current information.

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Healthcare Abroad: How to Find an English-Speaking Doctor or Clinic

Sweaty, squinting, and red-eyed, I exited the cool waiting room’s automatic sliding glass doors. I got in the DiDi rideshare car outside the international clinic, preemptively thanked the driver, and opened my heavy paper bag of new medications: antibiotic eye drops to use every five hours, saline solution to use every six, antibiotic tablets and painkillers to take every 12, and cough medicine for whenever I felt like I couldn’t breathe. A receipt listed the out-of-pocket prices of my bloodwork appointment plus the medicines: $3,000—which I luckily didn’t have to pay thanks to the travel insurance that covered my unexpected need for healthcare abroad.

Pulling away from the small storefront of the Nanjing international clinic, we idled in traffic about a block away. I stared up at a behemoth building, a black glass skyscraper marked by red neon Chinese symbols that flashed and changed on its glass every several seconds. The parking lot was jam-packed with both cars and people.

“What’s this building?” I asked my local guide, who was accompanying me in the back seat. “A movie theater?”

She looked at me and smiled slightly: “That’s the hospital.” I felt my swollen eyes widen, and redirected them to my bag of medicinal loot.

I don’t recommend getting sick in China (as I did in mid-2019). But if you’re going to come down with bronchitis and a bacterial infection on vacation, somewhere with ample tea and warm hospitality is not a bad place for you to be. I unequivocally do recommend, however, having travel medical insurance—preferably from a company with a user-friendly app you can pre-download on your phone. It’ll afford you the luxury of entering and exiting a clinic to see an English-speaking doctor abroad in a fraction of the time that a 3,000-bed hospital would ever be able to see you.

How to Find the Right Healthcare Abroad

Because I have a medication allergy, I felt it was crucial I saw an English-speaking doctor so I could be confident in the prescription I received. While navigating the many international clinics in the college city of Nanjing, I learned a lot about how to responsibly find covered healthcare abroad. Here’s how to purchase and navigate medical travel insurance, find a good doctor or clinic, and ensure you won’t be stuck with the bill.

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Plan Ahead

Researching your insurance options and purchasing medical travel insurance coverage for your specific needs is the first step to being able to find healthcare abroad, and there are a number of things to consider. If you’re going to be participating in adventure activities like kayaking, scuba diving, or hiking, make sure you purchase a policy that doesn’t exclude “dangerous activities.” Travel insurance policies with good medical coverage will also include worst-case scenario expenses up to and including emergency medical flights home and repatriation of a body, which would otherwise cost tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars out of pocket.

You’ll also want to know the general state of medical services in your destination so you can make an informed decision in an emergency. For example, I knew public hospitals in China often have hours-long wait times, so instead I pounced on an available appointment at a private international clinic that my insurance covered.

If you aren’t familiar with the country you’re visiting, the U.S. State Department’s Consular Information Sheets are a good place to start to see what type of medical services will be available to you once you’re there. Select your country and look for the “Health” section. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also has destination-specific health information, and the International Association for Medical Assistance to Travelers (IAMAT) provides free destination-specific health information as well.

Know Your Medications

Knowing the generic/medical names of common medications can be helpful when you’re talking to a doctor about your prescriptions or hunting for over-the-counter remedies in a foreign country. Many doctors abroad speak English, but they might not know what the brand-name medication you take contains since it’s not available to their patients. Keep in mind the following generic medication names in case you need to purchase them from a pharmacy:

  • Advil/Motrin= ibuprofen
  • Aleve= naproxen
  • Tylenol/Excedrin= acetaminophen
  • Bayer, others= aspirin
  • Benadryl= diphenhydramine
  • Dramamine= dimenhydrinate
  • Bonine= meclizine
  • Pepto-Bismol= bismuth subsalicylate
  • Robitussin= dextromethorphan
  • Antacids= calcium carbonate, aluminum hydroxide, or magnesium hydroxide
  • Imodium= loperamide

Choose a High-Tech (and 24-Hour) Medical Insurance Provider

Keep your standards high when it comes to purchasing travel medical insurance—you are paying for it, after all. Straightforward insurance that gets you healthcare abroad doesn’t need to be pricey to come with a high-tech app and 24/7 support: It’s easy to weigh options and seek out one that has both thanks to search-and-compare options like SquareMouth and InsureMyTrip.com. (Also note that, like most private insurance companies in the U.S., Medicare and Medicaid don’t cover healthcare abroad.)

The specific insurance provider you choose will probably depend on your preferences and possibly your home location, but there should be options available that have high-tech features like an app no matter where you are. My coverage for healthcare abroad was with GeoBlue, which offers an app with covered doctor listings by country and fast 24/7 phone support. If you have a credit card that offers travel insurance, read the fine print to make sure it offers the medical support you could need; if it doesn’t, buy your own separately.

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Locating the Right Doctor Abroad

The CDC lists some resources that can help you locate a doctor abroad, and states that the nearest embassy or consulate in your destination should also have doctor recommendations. But the only way to see a list of providers in your destination that are covered by your insurance is typically via the medical insurance company’s app or customer service line—which should offer 24/7 contact, in case you’re visiting somewhere with a tricky time difference. International travel clinics are usually named as such, and when in doubt you can call the office to confirm; those with bilingual doctors typically have an automated recording that will prompt you to select a language.

Payment Approval and Proof of Insurance

Approval of funds from your insurance company can be referred to as “direct payment approval” or “direct deposit approval,” and you might need this authorization sent before you even set foot in a doctor’s office. It guarantees that the insurance company will pay the provider directly so you don’t have to. Whether or not you’ll need one varies depending on the destination and type of doctor/clinic you’re visiting, but it was necessary for me in China—so I was happy to have an insurance provider that was readily available to confirm coverage to the clinic I was visiting, especially because it was 2:00 a.m. at home at the time of my appointment.

You’ll probably also need proof of insurance. Keep your insurance card, or at least a digital copy of it, handy in case you need to provide a policy number or contact info to the office you’re visiting. Many clinics require both proof of insurance and an accompanying payment approval before letting you see a doctor. And if direct payment isn’t required or doesn’t occur via your insurance provider for the healthcare you received abroad, you’ll likely need to file a claim with your insurance company as soon as you can—don’t wait too long to file one and risk finding out you’ll be billed.

Know It’s Worth It

Travel insurance can feel like a waste of money if you don’t end up using it, but that doesn’t mean you won’t need it in the future. The slight chance that you might need emergency or even routine healthcare abroad makes travel medical insurance a necessity for every international trip. No one can anticipate if and when they’ll have a medical emergency, and not having coverage when you need it can be the difference between going on vacation and letting a doctor’s visit put you into debt.

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Editor Shannon McMahon writes about all things travel. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in July 2019. It has been updated to reflect the most current information.

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Greater Zion: The Side of Zion That Most People Miss

Unbeknownst to many travelers, Zion National Park is part of a much larger group of communities that makes up the 2,400 square miles often referred to as the Greater Zion region. Springdale, the town closest to the national park, is just one of many areas worth a visit if you’re headed to Southern Utah.

There’s so much to discover in Greater Zion—from the national park’s hidden corners to nearby towns such as St. George and beyond, to nearby state parks, hidden artist communities, and beautiful golf courses—that a trip to the area can easily fill a week.

The Distinctive Areas of Greater Zion

During my stay in the Greater Zion area, I spent a few nights in Springdale and was able to experience a spectacular day in the national park. But it really was exploring the surrounding communities that left me wanting to return.

The region is best known by avid IRONMAN athletes and mountain bikers for its exceptional trails, competitions, and training environment. But there’s plenty to  appeal less extreme outdoor enthusiasts and adventure tourists as well.

Four main towns and areas make up the Greater Zion communities:

The town of St. George is 37 miles from the park’s entrance, and is an idea hub for exploring Greater Zion. The joke here is that everything is “20 minutes” away, and during my exploration of the region, that proved pretty much true (although the drive to the national park takes just under an hour).

St. George is home to the region’s most convenient airport, which offers nonstop flights from Dallas, Denver, Salt Lake City, and other cities. Shops, an old-time theater, and mom-and-pop restaurants dot the streets of St. George’s downtown area. You’ll also find the second outpost of the region’s first microbrewery, Zion Brewery, which is set in an old firehouse with a patio area ideal for basking in the sun.

Veyo Pies
Zion Brewery, Station II

It’s no surprise that artists and galleries have found inspiration here, and there are plenty of places to explore local art. Make time for a visit to the local artist community of Kayenta, where you’ll find dozens of galleries, a day spa, a labyrinth garden, and a garden cafe. The area is also home to a red-rock amphitheater, Tuacahn, which hosts family-friendly musicals and bands, including well-known Disney productions. 

National and State Parks

When you’re at Zion National Park, you’ll likely encounter lines of tourists waiting to board the park’s shuttle busses along the main canyon road, and you’ll be lucky to get a parking spot. As the fourth-most-visited national park in the country, Zion sees more than its fair share of tourists.  But there’s a lot more to see: I recommend also exploring the Kolob Canyons and Kolob Terrace areas (note that some permits are required for Wilderness-designated land). Check out the Timber Creek Overlook Trail and the North Fork or South Fork of Taylor Creek trails in the canyon area. In the Kolob plateaus, you’ll find fewer tourists at Hop Valley Trail, Grapevine Trail, and Northgate Peaks Trail.

Furthermore, don’t discount the region’s four state parks: Snow Canyon (which really could be a national park), Quail Creek (home to a massive reservoir for boating), Gunlock (if you get lucky, you’ll experience rare waterfall features – they only happen about once every 10 years), and Sand Hollow (one of the best spots for ATVing).

Getting Outside the National Park

When you’re ready to leave St. George, most attractions are just, you guessed it, a 20-minute drive away. Whether it’s playing a round at one of the area’s 13 golf courses, tasting a Mountain Berry pie from Veyo Pies (trust me on this one, and send me an email if you go), mountain biking on Gooseberry Mesa, hiking through other-worldly Snow Canyon State Park, or canyoneering relatively unexplored BLM land (hit up Paragon Adventures for a unique experience), there’s plenty to do in the area beyond the boundaries of the national park.

Where to Stay in Greater Zion

The newly opened The Advenire, an Autograph Collection Hotel, has impeccably decorated rooms, a rooftop hot tub and lounge, as well as a fantastic on-site restaurant and bar, Wood. Ash. Rye. It’s centrally located right in downtown St. George.

If you’re looking for a boutique-like experience in Springdale, the Cliffrose Springdale, Curio Collection by Hilton, is just steps away from the Zion’s entrance as well as the Virgin River. It’s newly renovated and has plenty of outdoor hangout areas along the riverbank perfect for families and groups of friends to enjoy.

For a health and wellness experience in the Greater Zion area, book a package at Red Mountain Resort in the community of Ivins, just outside of St. George. Located next to Snow Canyon, you’ll get plenty of time to hike, and lounge by the pool or at the spa.

If you’re after a more immersive experience, the area has two glamping sites in addition to the national and state park’s camping areas. The first is Under Canvas Zion, which is located close to the Kolob entrance of the park. The second nearby site, Wildflower, is currently under development and set to open soon. 

There are plenty of budget-friendly and hotel chain options scattered throughout the region if you’re looking for affordable accommodations outside of camping.

Welcome to Virtual Vacations, our series of meditative audio travel tours of both popular and off-the-beaten-path destinations around the world.

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Ashley Rossi is always ready for her next trip. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram for travel tips, destination ideas, and off the beaten path spots.