Christmas in Athens, Greece

Cover: Syntagma Square in Athens at Christmas
Photo: Kim Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media
Article by Kim Hull


After visiting so many wonderful places over the last year on the road, we wanted to return to one of our very favorites for the holidays – Athens.

Greece in December? Yes! It is lovely. We were in Athens the entire month of December and most of the days were sunny and in the mid 60°s F (16C). On a few days the cruise ship tourists descended on Plaka for a few hours (usually on Tuesdays), but soon they would be on their way and the quiet December life in Athens would return.

Metropolitan Cathedral of the Annunciation on a sunny December day, Athens, Greece
The Metropolitan Cathedral of the Annunciation on a sunny December day. Also, known as the “Mētrópolis,” it is the cathedral church of the Archbishopric of Athens and all Greece. Photo: Kim Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

98% of the Greek population is Christian Orthodox, so Christmas and Easter are the two big holidays in Greece. We were fortunate to be in Athens for both in 2017.

What is the Christmas season like in Athens? It’s much like celebrating in other locations with eating, shopping, gift giving, decorating, events, festivities and gathering with others. However, as with all cultures, the Greeks have some of their own traditions and customs and learning those makes celebrating the holidays abroad an even more special experience.

Greek Christmas traditions and decorations

Christmas tree at Syntagma Square, AthensWhile Christmas trees can be spotted around Athens, including in the giant one at Syntagma Square near Parliament (there’s really no tree, it’s constructed of poles and lights), Greeks also decorate small boats with lights and place them over the fireplace,  on a shelf, or in a store window.

Decorated Greek Christmas boat
Decorated Greek Christmas boat in a store window. Athens, Greece Photo: Kim Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

A nod to the significant role sailing, the sea, and the islands play in Greek life, decorating small boats in Greece during the holiday season is an old tradition that has been revived in recent years. About mid-December, decorated Greek Christmas boats began to appear throughout Athens. We saw them in shop windows, in bars, in restaurants, and in homes.

Greek Christmas boat
Traditional Greek Christmas boat. Athens, Greece Photo: Kim Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

For a bit of Christmas in Athens any time of the year, Noel the holiday bar is a spot in central Athens with creative cocktails that will put you in a merry spirit. Over-the-top festive, it’s always Christmas at Noel. We popped over on the 23rd of December to get into the holiday mood and it was beyond crowded, lively and quite beautiful.

Noel the holiday bar, Athens, Greece
Noel the holiday bar, Athens, Greece Photo: Kim Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

Christmas shopping in Athens

Shop windows decorated for the holidays in Kolonaki, Athens, Greece
Shop windows decorated for the holidays in Kolonaki, Athens, Greece Photo: Kim Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

I decided I wanted to send my great niece a collection of made-in-Greece items for Christmas, so we hit the ground shopping the first week of December in order to get her package in the mail with hopes it would arrive before Christmas. (It did, yay!)

Athens has a wide selection of shopping options ranging from worldwide-known labels to local Greek brands to specialty stores. Along Ermou Street between Monastiraki and Syntagma, you can find American Eagle, Sephora, Marks and Spencers, and H&M and countless other large stores. In Kolonaki, high-end, luxury labels, such as Baccarat, Dior, Prada and Louis Vuitton, and Greek designer boutiques are in abundance.

The Monastiraki markets and the tourist shops in Plaka are both fun areas for a stroll and also a good spot for finding an eclectic item or two. Both areas also have countless places to stop for a coffee, a meal or a wine and, if one is craving soy chai or a holiday beverage, a Starbucks can be found in Monastiraki at Mitropoleos 80.

Monastiraki Starbucks in the holiday spirit
Monastiraki Starbucks in the holiday spirit. Athens, Greece Photo: Kim Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

December dining and Christmas treats in Athens

Greece is a paradise for food lovers any time of the year, but in December, Athens restaurants are quiet during the week, making dining especially pleasurable at the slower pace. Feasting on multiple courses and lingering over coffee and conversation amidst the holiday decorations is an absolute delight.

Santa Claus and Christmas decorations in Athens, Greece
Santa Claus and Christmas decorations at a Plaka restaurant in Athens, Greece Photo: Kim Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

While quiet during the week, Athen’s restaurants and bars come alive in December on the weekend as Athenians gather with family and friends for pre-holiday parties and gatherings.

On the Sunday before Christmas weekend, we happened upon a large party at one of our favorite restaurants in Plaka, Stamatopoulos Tavern. We arrived just as the group was finishing dessert and had turned their attention to dancing. Different groups danced to each song – it was a priceless experience!

In addition to the fabulous food found in restaurants, the bakeries begin to add Christmas delicacies to their offerings.

Kourabiedes, which are also called kourabiethes, (shortbread sugar cookies with almonds covered in powdered sugar) and melomakarona (spiced, honey cookies) are two traditional Greek Christmas cookies – we’ve had way too many of both and they are delicious!

Christmas baked goods at Takis Bakery, Athens, Greece
Christmas baked goods at Takis Bakery, Athens, Greece Photo: Kim Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

Christopsomo is a Christmas bread with a cross on top that is traditionally made on Christmas Eve and shared by the family on Christmas Day. We headed to our favorite bakery in Athens, Takis Bakery (Misaraliotou 14 near the Acropolis Museum), on Christmas Eve to purchase a Christopsomo for our Christmas table.

Christopsomo Christmas bread from Takis Bakery in Athens, Greece
Christopsomo Christmas bread from Takis Bakery in Athens, Greece Photo: Kim Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

Christmas events and festivities

Christmas tree reflected in balloon at concert by Greek Air Force Band, Athens, Greece
Syntagma Square Christmas tree reflected in balloon at concert by Greek Air Force Band in Athens, Greece Photo: Kim Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

The Greek holiday season continues through Epiphany on the 6th of January with Christmas events and festivities occurring all around Athens. Finding events is easy as the City of Athens publishes a pdf calendar of Athens holiday events (English is in the back half beginning on page 32).

We enjoyed multiple free concerts at Syntagma Square including performances by the Greek Air Force Band and the City of Athens Philharmonic Orchestra. Combined with the glow of the Syntagma Square Christmas tree and the bustling holiday crowd, the Christmas music created a joyous spirit in Athens.

Greek Air Force Band Christmas Concert at Syntagma Square, Athens, Greece
Greek Air Force Band Christmas Concert at Syntagma Square, Athens, Greece Photo: Kim Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

Spending December and celebrating Christmas in Athens has been a wonderful experience! καλά Χριστούγεννα / Kalá Christoúgenna! (Merry Christmas!) and καλές γιορτές / Kalés giortés (Happy holidays!) to everyone!

Plaka decorated with Christmas lights. Athens, Greece
Plaka decorated with Christmas lights. Athens, Greece Photo: Kim Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

Disclaimer: The content & opinions expressed are entirely our own. We received no compensation for this article. Reviews are opinion only and Chasing Light Media accepts no responsibility for how the information is used.

Sonoma–Marin Area Rail Transit - SMART train at the San Rafael station

Why is it so difficult getting from San Francisco to Santa Rosa and Sonoma County?

Cover: Sonoma–Marin Area Rail Transit – SMART train at the San Rafael station
Photo: Kim Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media
Article by Kim Hull


San Francisco at sunset
San Francisco at sunset. Photo: Greg K. Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

Four years ago we decided we wanted to live near San Francisco. More accurately – we wanted to live in San Francisco but, to avoid the ridiculously high cost of living in the City by the Bay, we drew a circle around San Francisco taking in all cities located within 60 miles, and examined which cities seemed to have a somewhat reasonable cost of living (it’s California, so that is a relative term) with decent amenities.

Golden Gate Bridge at sunset, San Francisco
Golden Gate Bridge at sunset, San Francisco Photo: Greg K. Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

We chose Santa Rosa, a mid-sized city, with two Whole Foods, quite a few restaurants, and a location in the center of Sonoma’s wine region. We envisioned daily life amongst the vines and frequent day trips into San Francisco for lunch and shopping.

Then, we encountered life with the 101. For those not acquainted with California’s north–south highway route, in northern California the 101 connects San Francisco to the North Bay area and frequently achieves near standstill conditions. We only went into the city a handful of times and, after eight months in the North Bay area, we decided to move to Lake Tahoe to be closer to the mountains.  In the end, we still spent about as much time in San Francisco as we did when we were living in Santa Rosa.

San Francisco
San Francisco Photo: Greg K. Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

Even now with our nomad lifestyle, we still get back to the west coast multiple times per year and one thing that continues to amaze us is how few good/easy options exist for getting between San Francisco and Sonoma County. According to the San Francisco Tourism Board, over 25 million people visit San Francisco each year. I’m betting quite a few of them drink wine and would like to visit the beautiful wine region of Sonoma – so why is it so difficult to get there?

View of San Francisco and Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco
View of San Francisco and Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco Photo: Greg K. Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

The one-day wine tour

Drinking wine in Sonoma
Drinking wine in Sonoma, Photo: Greg K. Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

If you are in San Francisco and want to just do a one day Sonoma or Napa day wine tour, there are a variety of private coach tours for about $120-$150 per person available that leave San Francisco in the morning and return in the evening. However, if you are seeking a true wine country experience, spending a day or two (or more) while casually sampling wines and enjoying the slower pace of Sonoma County, a one-day tour just won’t do.

Sonoma County, California
Sonoma County, California Photo: Kim Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

Getting from San Francisco to Sonoma County by car

There are many cities where renting a car is as big a hassle as it is an expense. By the time you rent a car, navigate where you need to go, find parking, pay for parking, pay for in and outs, and pay for gas – that’s quite a bit of irritation and money that could have been used for taking Ubers or Lyfts – and nobody has to drive. For those opting for the rental car experience, once you leave San Francisco, you get to hop on the 101 and head north for a not so leisurely experience getting to Santa Rosa. While having a car in wine country is convenient, it also requires designating a driver, which if there are only two of you, takes a bit of the fun out of wine tasting.

Getting from San Francisco to Santa Rosa by Uber or Lyft – Cost: About $100 for 2

Lyft San Francisco to Santa Rosa
Lyft San Francisco to Santa Rosa

In the U.S., ride sharing, namely Uber and Lyft, is our typical mode of transportation. We’ve only had a few bad experiences (filthy car, bizarre driver, and, one of my favorites, the driver got lost and wouldn’t believe the app knew how to get there and just yelled back at the phone as we drove in the wrong direction). But, those are by far the exception – we take numerous ride shares every week of the year and most are great.

Uber San Francisco to Santa Rosa

That said, a long distance ride share can be expensive. A comparison of both Uber and Lyft fees revealed the ride to Santa Rosa would be about $100 + tip. Doable, but a bit pricey – so we continued exploring options.

Grapes on the vine, Sonoma County
Grapes on the vine, Sonoma County Photo: Kim Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

Airporter: San Francisco to Santa Rosa – Cost: $86 for 2

When we lived in Santa Rosa and we’d fly out of SFO or Oakland, we’d use the Airporter to get to and from the airport. The Airporter picks up/drops off at the Park & Ride near the fairgrounds in Santa Rosa or at the Santa Rosa airport. A one-way adult fare to/from either SFO or the Oakland airports and Sonoma County is $34 per person. The buses are comfortable and it’s a good option if going straight to/from Santa Rosa to/from either airport.

But, what if you want to spend a few days in San Francisco then head up to Sonoma for a few more days? The Airporter doesn’t run between downtown San Francisco and Santa Rosa, so you need to get back out to SFO or OAK from San Francisco to catch one. BART fare from downtown San Francisco to SFO is $8.95 per person or a Lyft or Uber runs about $35-$50 to the airport. So for two people, the trip to Santa Rosa from downtown San Francisco using the BART – Airporter route would run about $86.

Getting from San Francisco to Sonoma County by the SMART train – Cost: $75 for 2

SMART (Sonoma–Marin Area Rail Transit) train at the San Rafael station
SMART (Sonoma–Marin Area Rail Transit) train at the San Rafael station Photo: Kim Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

The first phase of the SMART (Sonoma–Marin Area Rail Transit) train, a 43-mile / 69-kilometer rail service between Northern Santa Rosa and Downtown San Rafael, began operating in June 2017. Over the next few years, SMART is scheduled to expand service to Larkspur on the south end of the route in Marin County and to Windsor, Healdsburg, and Cloverdale on the northern end in wine country.

But, first, you have to get to San Rafael from San Francisco. Option1 is taking a bus from San Francisco to San Rafael – not expensive, but rather slow with many stops. Option 2 is to catch the Golden Gate ferry from the San Francisco Ferry building to the Larkspur Ferry Terminal, then taking the route 31 shuttle to connect to the SMART train station. The ferry cost is $11.50 for each person. Option 3 is to take an Uber or Lyft to the SMART train station in San Rafael.

Uber from San Francisco to San Rafael SMART station
Uber from San Francisco to San Rafael SMART station Photo: Kim Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

Considering we needed to get from our hotel on Nob Hill to the ferry terminal or bus station and each had a large roller bag, we would have needed a Uber or Lyft to get that far, so we decided on option 3 for simplicity. The Uber to the San Rafael SMART train station cost $45 + tip. We then caught the SMART train to Santa Rosa for $9.50 per person using the mobile app. The train is about an hour ride from San Rafael to Santa Rosa. The train was clean, with plenty storage areas for luggage and bikes. Some seats on the train have tables, others are airline style.

Riding on the Sonoma–Marin Area Rail Transit (SMART) near Petaluma
Riding on the Sonoma–Marin Area Rail Transit (SMART) near Petaluma Photo: Kim Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

The train was packed – standing room only. While I tried to get a bit of work done on the ride, we had seatmates at our table and the train was very loud, so it was a bit challenging. I’m not sure if it is some sort of acoustic issue or we just had a car of extremely loud talkers, but we’ve ridden trains in 10 countries this year and I’ve yet to experience so much noise on a train. The kid behind me screamed most of the way and kicked my chair while his father stood in the aisle playing with a yo-yo. In the end, we got to Santa Rosa and it was fairly inexpensive, but not what I’d call a relaxing experience.

Lyft and Uber in wine country

Drinking a Larsen Projekt grenache rosé in Santa Rosa
Drinking a Larsen Projekt grenache rosé in Santa Rosa Photo: Kim Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

Once we arrived at the Santa Rosa airport train platform, we called a Lyft. Our wait time was only 3 minutes and the fare to our hotel was $10 + tip. We were a bit worried that ride share may not be plentiful in Sonoma Country but we used Uber the entire time during our three-day stay and typically only waited 5-10 minutes for the car to arrive.

Sonoma County wine tasting
Sonoma County wine tasting Photo: Kim Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

That is good  – no, great news. If ever there was a place to not drive, it is in wine country. Uber provides the flexibility to craft your own tasting agenda – you pick the wineries, you chose the amount of time spent at each location, and everyone can sample the wines and safely return to their hotels without driving.

Fountaingrove Round Barn, Santa Rosa
Fountaingrove Round Barn, Santa Rosa Photo: Kim Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

Disclaimer: The content & opinions expressed are entirely our own. We received no compensation for this article. Reviews are opinion only and Chasing Light Media accepts no responsibility for how the information is used.

American Travel to Cuba: A Guide to Traveling to Cuba

Cover: Havana, Cuba at night
Photo: Greg K. Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media
Article by Kim Hull


View our Havana, Cuba photo gallery


Sitting on the tarmac in a Southwest Airlines jet, I looked out the window as an American Airlines plane rolled by. Across the runway, passengers were disembarking from a Frontier jet and next to it a United Airlines plane was parked.

Havana, Cuba airport
Havana, Cuba airport Photo: Kim Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

From the look of the airport, we could have been in any Caribbean destination – but we had just landed at José Martí International Airport in Havana. For the first time in over half a century, commercial air service to Havana from the United States was once again underway.

The lure of Cuba

With the easing of travel restrictions to, we knew we wanted to get to Cuba before the crowds.

We wanted to experience and photograph Cuba in its authentic state before American tourism took its toll on the country where much of life remains tied to 1959 and the time before Castro’s revolution and the embargo.

What did we find? Havana is a vibrant, charming city filled with friendly, welcoming people. Not yet overrun by tourists, everyday life plays out before you in the narrow streets lined with colorful buildings.

Was it what we expected? In some ways, yes; in others, no, but in a good way.

Can all Americans travel to Cuba?

No. Tourism is still officially prohibited for U.S. citizens with travel only permitted for those journeying to the island nation for a purpose that falls into one of the approved 12 general categories, which are listed below.

We were asked our purpose of travel when obtaining a visa and at the Southwest Airlines ticket counter when checking in, then never again. Per U.S. government requirements, travelers must keep a schedule of their activities for five years after their return from Cuba.

Southwest Airlines Havana, Cuba counter in Fort Lauderdale
Southwest Airlines Havana, Cuba counter in Fort Lauderdale Photo: Kim Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

In other words, your activities log shouldn’t include catching rays on the beach or dancing away the nights in Havana clubs.

Visas are available for purchase online at the time of ticket booking (recommended, as it speeds up the process) or they can be acquired at the airport. At the time of our flight, the cost was $50 per person.

The Visa has two parts, which need to be completed carefully. If you have an error in filling out your name and date of birth, you have to purchase a new one. One part will be taken at immigration in Cuba, the other is kept with you while in the country and then retrieved at immigration upon exit.


Update: Due to changes implemented in 2017, check the US State Department for current travel restrictions.


The 12 approved categories for American travel to Cuba

  1. Family visits
  2. Official business of the U.S. Government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations
  3. Journalistic activities
  4. Professional research or meetings
  5. Educational activities and exchanges
  6. Religious activities
  7. Public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic/other competitions, and exhibitions
  8. Humanitarian projects
  9. Support for the Cuban people
  10. Activities of private foundations, research, or educational institutes
  11. Exportation, importation, or transmission of information or information material
  12. Certain authorized export transactions.

Before heading to Cuba

Get and bring cash… and more than you think you are going to need.

Credit cards issued by U.S. banks and U.S. ATM cards do not work in Cuba. Americans rely so much on plastic – you will be surprised how much cash you need that you’d normally just pull out a card to pay for. Taxis fares, food, beverages, tips, internet access and more all add up quickly. When traveling, things don’t always go as planned and the last thing you want to do is be stuck in Cuba with no money, so bring double or triple what you think you may need.

A few hotels can be booked and prepaid online. We found some of the room prices are significantly higher than rack rates displayed when arriving at the hotel. For example, for one hotel where we stayed, only had suites available for purchase online, with standard rooms available at the hotel for almost half the rate.

The benefit of prepaying is the ability to pay in advance with a credit card. If you do so, make sure the reservation is clearly identified as prepaid as some hotels take credit cards to hold the room but require cash payment at the hotel.

Getting to Cuba

Major cruise lines and airlines began regular service from the United States to Cuba in late summer 2016 with flights to cities in the outer areas of Cuba such as Varadero and Santa Clara. Prior to this change, flights had been via much more expensive charters.

In December 2016 commercial flights to Havana with bargain prices –mostly around $150 roundtrip from Fort Lauderdale or Miami. We booked our flight on Southwest Airlines for a few thousand points during the second week of their service to the capital city.

Local Cuban health insurance is required by the Cuban government and, at least with Southwest Airlines, was included in our airfare. Your boarding pass is proof of health insurance so don’t toss the boarding pass into the trash once you land.

If you go – arrive at the airport a minimum of two hours in advance. We flew from Fort Lauderdale, where Southwest has set up a check-in counter on a separate floor for Cuba departures. Stop by the visa counter near the main counter and pick up a visa prior to heading to the main check-in counter.

Nearly everyone in line had piles of large duffel bags to check for the flight. It was the holiday season, so we’ll assume they were taking a vast amount of Christmas presents to family and friends in Cuba.

As with any new service, there are generally bugs to work out in the process and it appears new flights to Cuba apply here. We departed nearly an hour late – primarily due to the vast amount of stuff people were bringing with them.

The instant the wheels touched down on the 45-minute flight cheering erupted from the passengers. Before we reached the gate, an elderly man rushed to the front of the plane and quite a few others quickly followed him.

After a quick immigration process, we departed to the arrival area to a crowd of hundreds waiting on arriving passengers outside a barricaded area. A family rushed to greet an elderly woman who made her way with a walker to the end of the barricade. Watching the families reunited it was well worth the delays and slight chaos associated with the short flight.

Currency exchange

The Cuban Convertible Peso, or CUC, is the currency of Cuba. The exchange booth at the airport is located near the arrival check in area and was the place where we received the best exchange rate of 90 CUC to 100 U.S dollars. At the hotels where we exchanged currency, the rate was 87.3 CUC to 100 U.S. dollars.

Getting around Cuba

Cuba is a huge island, with a land area of 42,426 square miles or 109,884 km2. If you are considering venturing into areas other than Havana, make sure to calculate the estimated cost of the transportation before arriving on the island to ensure you have sufficient funds.

For example, the resort area of Varadero, which is also an alternative airport to Havana, is about two hours away from Havana. Cab fare between the locations runs between 100 and 120 CUC.

Cab fare from the Havana airport to Old Havana in an official cab runs 25 CUC. Negotiate taxi fare, whether in a metered taxi or not, prior to departing.

The most common word heard when walking in Havana is “taxi?” and there are numerous taxi options…

Official taxis are yellow, newer automobiles that can be metered or flat rate. They are a good choice to and from the airport as they are typically air-conditioned and the ride is about 20-30 minutes. The standard fare to a major hotel is 25 CUC.

Unofficial or illegal taxis are the older cars that can be found in popular areas and outside hotels. Fares are fully negotiable.

The convertibles are a great way to tour Havana while snapping some photos and are available by the hour for a flat rate. We found the range between 30 and 60 CUC.

Greg and Kim Hull in Havana, Cuba
Greg and Kim Hull in Havana, Cuba Photo: © Chasing Light Media

Little yellow cocotaxis are a scooter-powered rickshaw-type vehicle for two plus the driver. They are cheaper and, albeit zipping around the Malecón can be a bit harrowing, they are fun and a bit cheaper than the cars.

Bicitaxis are quite prevalent in Old Havana. The three-wheeled, human pedaled vehicles are also a less expensive method for short trips around the city.

Additional transportation options include buses, horse carriages and, of course, walking – which is truly one of the best ways to explore the city.

Communication

As far as coverage from your existing phone provider, check with your cellular provider prior to departing for Cuba to determine coverage and rates. Upon landing in Cuba, I turned off Airplane Mode to check if I’d receive the standard text we typically receive from Verizon advising of rate information in the country where we are visiting.

It came through immediately. At the time of our trip in 2016, Verizon’s rates on our plan (provided only as an example) were $2.99 per minute for voice calls, $ .05 text sent or received and $2.05 MB for data. My phone went back into Airplane Mode.

WiFi in Cuba is through ETECSA, the government-owned telecommunications provider. Cards providing one hour of internet time can be purchased at most hotels and at Cyber Cafes. Rates vary – at the Hotel Nacional cards were 7 CUC and at other hotels, the rate was typically 2 CUC.

Lobbies of the hotels, and outside on the curbs, are typically filled with countless people looking at their phones. The reason is that the coverage doesn’t extend to hotel rooms so, if you want to get on the internet, you do it in the lobby.
As far as television, we were surprised with the variety of television coverage at hotels. Available channels including CNN, BBC, and the Denver Broncos were playing on the big screen in the café when we stopped by for a pizza and a beer.

Where we stayed

We choose to split our time in Havana between two hotels – the historic Hotel Nacional de Cuba and the Iberostar Hotel Parque Central Havana. Both were wonderful hotels and deliver a completely different experience.

Hotel Nacional de Cuba

The Hotel Nacional de Cuba was built in 1930 and on a hill next to the sea in the middle of the Vedado section of Havana. The most famous hotel in Cuba, it has been declared a National Monument and proudly displays numerous photographs throughout the hotel of the many famous personalities that have stayed at the facility throughout its history.

We stayed in a large room on the seventh floor with sweeping ocean views.

Iberostar Hotel Parque Central Havana

Located across from Havana’s Central Park along the Paseo del Prado, the Parque Central contains two buildings, several restaurants, shops and a rooftop pool and restaurant area that offers stunning views of the city.

Rooms are located in either the modern tower or the colonial section, with the building linked by an underground tunnel. Our time at Parque Central was in a large suite in the modern tower.


View our Havana, Cuba photo gallery


Disclaimer: The content & opinions expressed are entirely our own. We received no compensation for this article. Reviews are opinion only and Chasing Light Media accepts no responsibility for how the information is used.

Kansas City Plaza Lights, a spectacular holiday tradition

Cover: Kansas City Plaza Holiday Lights
Photo: Kim Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media
Article by Kim Hull


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While there are many spots around the world that transform into winter wonderlands during the holidays, the Midwest is home to one of the United State’s most beloved annual holiday traditions – the Plaza lights in Kansas City.

Plaza lights in Kansas CityPlaza lights in Kansas City Photo: Kim Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media


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Dating back to 1925 when a single strand of lights was hung at the nation’s first suburban shopping district, the Kansas City Plaza lights have grown into a magical display that is now known worldwide for its beauty and grandeur.

Tower decorated with lights at The Plaza in Kansas City
Tower decorated with lights at The Plaza in Kansas City Photo: Kim Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

Beginning on Thanksgiving, when the lights are illuminated in a huge lighting ceremony complete with fireworks, the Plaza lights shine brightly through mid-January. Each night beginning around 4:30 the 15-block shopping district is filled with festive, twinkling lights. Stores stay open late during the season and the shops are decked out with dazzling window displays.

Plaza lights after dark in Kansas City Plaza lights after dark in Kansas City Photo: Greg K. Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

Visiting during the Plaza lights season is also one of our favorite times for a stop in Kansas City, having done so numerous times over the past decades. While planning our December calendar this year, we discovered some available time between Cabo and Cuba, and happily scheduled a Kansas City Plaza lights visit.

Visiting Kansas City at Christmas
Visiting Kansas City at Christmas Photo: Kim Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

Having stayed at the Intercontinental since it was the Alameda Plaza in the 70s, it is always our hotel of choice when visiting Kansas City. Conveniently located across from the Plaza, the hotel has a great staff, large stately rooms and stunning views of the Plaza lights.

Hotel Intercontinental at Christmas in Kansas City Hotel Intercontinental at Christmas in Kansas City Photo: Kim Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

Strolling through the Plaza in the crisp early evening air is a wonderful time to simply enjoy the joy of the season.

Carriage rides at The Plaza in Kansas City Carriage rides at The Plaza in Kansas City Photo: Kim Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

The clip clop of the horses pulling carriages, the sound of laughter as friends headed for drinks and dinners, the wide eyes of children as they marvel at the magic of it all, and, of course, the shoppers as they bustle from store to store – it’s as if a holiday card has come to life.

BM3V8934 Kansas City’s Country Club Plaza at Christmas Photo: Kim Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

The Plaza is a beautiful setting for a beautiful season. Happy holidays!


Disclosure: The content & opinions expressed are entirely our own. Reviews are opinion only and Chasing Light Media accepts no responsibility for how the information is used. Some posts on this website may contain links to our partners’ websites and Chasing Light Media may be compensated by those partners.

Kansas City Plaza Lights
Kansas City Plaza Lights Photo: Kim Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

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Disclaimer: The content & opinions expressed are entirely our own. We received no compensation for this article. Reviews are opinion only and Chasing Light Media accepts no responsibility for how the information is used.

Quito, Ecuador - Old Town

Travel to Ecuador: Things to do in Quito

Travel to Ecuador: Things to do in Quito
Photo: Greg K. Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media
Article by Kim Hull


Surrounded by the volcanoes of the western Andes, some of which are active, Quito sits near the equator at an elevation of 2,850 meters/9,350 feet making it one of the highest capital cities in the world.

Balcony art, Old Town, Quito, Ecuador
Balcony art, Old Town, Quito, Ecuador
Photo: Greg K. Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

Dating back to 1534, the historic center of Quito, Old Town, lies on top of the ruins of an Incan city and is considered to be the best-preserved colonial city in South America. Quito was placed on the World Heritage List by UNESCO (United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization) in 1978.

La Compañía Church, Quito, Ecuador
La Compañía Church, Quito, Ecuador
Photo: Greg K. Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

Now a sprawling city and home to over two million people, Quito is a bustling metropolis with many hotels, restaurants, cafes, shopping centers, and parks.

View of Quito from Mirador El Panecillo
View of Quito from Mirador El Panecillo, Quito, Ecuador
Photo: Kim Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

Getting to Quito

The main entry point for international arrivals into Ecuador is Quito’s Mariscal Sucre airport (airport code: UIO). A quick four-hour flight from Miami or Ft. Lauderdale, Mariscal Sucre also welcomes visitors to Ecuador from numerous international destinations and serves as the largest hub of the Ecuadoran airline, TAME. Transportation into the city, which is approximately 18 km from the airport, is available via bus, rental car or taxi. Taxi fare is $25.

Bird's eye view of Quito, Ecuador
Bird’s eye view of Quito, Ecuador
Photo: Kim Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

Things to do in Quito

Old Town

There are many things to do in Quito, but the place to start is Old Town. The bustling historic district of colorful buildings lining hilly cobblestone streets are decorated with flowers, flags and, on occasion, artwork.

Hilly streets of Quito, Ecuador
Hilly streets of Quito, Ecuador
Photo: Greg K. Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

A mix of markets, Ecuadorian food vendors, cafes, shops, government buildings, museums, and churches, exploring Old Town is a true immersion into the culture of Quito.

Food vendor, Old Town, Quito, Ecuador
Food vendor, Old Town, Quito, Ecuador
Photo: Kim Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media
Old Town food vendors, Quito, Ecuador
Old Town food vendors, Quito, Ecuador
Photo: Greg K. Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

Vendors at tables in markets sell goods ranging from handcrafts to food to toys, while others roam the crowds offering bananas, ice cream or lottery tickets.

Things to do in Quito: El Pasaje Amador, Old Town
Things to do in Quito: El Pasaje Amador, Old Town
Photo: Kim Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

Home to dozens of cathedrals, museums, and squares, a stroll through Old Town provides an immersion into Ecuadoran history.

Things to do in Quito: El Arco de la Reina
Things to do in Quito: El Arco de la Reina
Photo: Kim Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

Colorful historic buildings line the cobblestone streets, as crowds scurry along the narrow sidewalks and traffic slowly navigates the narrow passageways.

Colorful streets of Quito, Ecuador
Colorful streets of Quito, Ecuador
Photo: Kim Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

Plaza Grande – Plaza de la Independencia (Independence Plaza)

Things to do in Quito: Independence Plaza
Things to do in Quito: Independence Plaza
Photo: Greg K. Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

In the heart of Old Town is Plaza Grande, also known as Plaza de la Independencia. Surrounded by the Presidential Palace, the Archbishop’s Palace, and the Metropolitan Cathedral, the plaza is also a central gathering point for locals and tourists.

Things to do in Quito: Plaza de la Independencia
Things to do in Quito: Plaza de la Independencia
Photo: Kim Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

On the northwest side of the plaza, is the Palacio de Gobierno, or the Presidential Palace. Serving as both the president’s home and office, the building can be toured when the president is not in residence. Formerly the Archbishop’s Palace, the Palacio Arzobispal has now been converted into an arts center and is also home to shops and several restaurants.

Things to do in Quito: Metropolitan Cathedral of Quito
Things to do in Quito: Metropolitan Cathedral of Quito
Photo: Kim Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

Continuing around to the southwestern side of the plaza is the Metropolitan Cathedral. Established as the Diocese of Quito in 1545, the Cathedral was elevated to the archdiocese in 1849.

La Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús

Interior of La Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús, Quito, Ecuador
Interior of La Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús, Quito, Ecuador
Photo: Greg K. Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

Considered to be Quito’s most ornate church and the most beautiful church in Ecuador, La Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús is located close to Plaza Grande in Old Town on the Calle de las Siete Cruces (Street of the Seven Crosses). With a large sanctuary lavishly decorated with gold leaf and carvings, La Compañía took over 160 years to complete, with construction beginning in 1605 and not completed until 1765.

Things to do in Quito: La Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús
Things to do in Quito: La Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús
Photo: Kim Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

Mirador El Panecillo

Virgen de Quito at Mirador El Panecillo, Quito, Ecuador
Virgen de Quito at Mirador El Panecillo, Quito, Ecuador
Photo: Kim Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

High atop a hill above Old Town called El Panecillo an immense statue of the Virgin of Quito (La Virgen de Quito) keeps watch over Quito.

Things to do in Quito: La Virgen at the Mirador El Panecillo
Things to do in Quito: La Virgen at the Mirador El Panecillo
Photo: Greg K. Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

Constructed between 1955 and 1975, La Virgen de Quito is a Madonna with a crown of stars and wings, holding onto a chained dragon.

Interior, Mirador El Panecillo, Quito, Ecuador
Interior, Mirador El Panecillo, Quito, Ecuador
Photo: Kim Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media
Stained glass at Mirador El Panecillo, Quito, Ecuador
Stained glass at Mirador El Panecillo, Quito, Ecuador
Photo: Greg K. Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

Inside the statue, stairs lead to several floors offering a historical account of the construction of the monument. Climbing to the top, it’s interesting to note the numbers on the backs of the panels used to construct the statue of La Virgen de Quito.

Mirador El Panecillo interior panels, Quito, Ecuador
Mirador El Panecillo interior panels, Quito, Ecuador
Photo: Greg K. Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media
Interior, top of Mirador El Panecillo, Quito, Ecuador
Interior, top of Mirador El Panecillo, Quito, Ecuador
Photo: Greg K. Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

At the top of the stairs, visitors enjoy open access to a viewing platform providing panoramic views of Quito and the surrounding mountains.

View of Quito, Ecuador
View of Quito, Ecuador
Photo: Kim Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

Basílica del Voto Nacional

Things to do in Quito: Basílica del Voto Nacional
Things to do in Quito: Basílica del Voto Nacional
Photo: Greg K. Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

The largest neo-Gothic church in the Americas, Basílica del Voto Nacional is a spectacular church that technically remains unfinished to this day. Adorned with Ecuadoran animals such as Galapagos tortoises, iguanas, and penguins instead of the traditional gargoyles, construction on the church began in the 1880s.

Legend has it that when the church is finished a cataclysmic event will occur, and so, parts of the Basilica remain unfinished to the day. Visitors can climb to the top of the towers providing views of the city and the surrounding volcanoes.

Tower of Basílica del Voto Nacional, Quito, Ecuador
Tower of Basílica del Voto Nacional, Quito, Ecuador
Photo: Kim Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

Centro de Arte Contemporáneo

Things to do in Quito: Centro de Arte Contemporáneo
Things to do in Quito: Centro de Arte Contemporáneo
Photo: Kim Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

Housed in the Old Military Hospital of Quito in the San Juan district, the Contemporary Art Center hosts a wide variety of exhibits in painting, sculpture, photography, visual and digital arts as well as theater and dance.

Quito, Ecuador street art
Quito, Ecuador street art
Photo: Kim Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

Additionally, don’t miss the excellent street art in the areas surrounding the Contemporary Art Center.

Street art, Quito, Ecuador
Street art, Quito, Ecuador
Photo: Greg K. Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

La Mariscal / Plaza Foch

Restaurants and bars of La Marsical and Plaza Foch, Quito, Ecuador
Restaurants and bars of La Mariscal and Plaza Foch, Quito, Ecuador
Photo: Kim Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

A popular meeting place, La Mariscal in north central Quito is home to numerous bars, discos, coffee shops, cafés and restaurants and Quito’s nightlife. At the center of La Mariscal is Plaza Foch, also called Gringolandia, which translates as hummingbird, because of a statue of a hummingbird in the area.

El Ejido Park

Things to do in Quito: El Ejido Park
Things to do in Quito: El Ejido Park
Photo: Kim Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

South of La Mariscal, El Ejido Park transforms into a large market on the weekends with vendors and artists offering jewelry, crafts, and paintings. On the north side of the park near Amazonas Avenue, the Arch of the Circassian, also called The Circassian Gate, serves as the entrance to the park. The arch originally served as a gateway to the gardens of the Palacio de La Circasiana in the northern center of Quito.

Jardín Botánico and Parque La Carolina

La Carolina Park Skateboard Park, Quito, Ecuador
La Carolina Park Skateboard Park, Quito, Ecuador
Photo: Greg K. Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

North of the Mariscal, the Parque La Carolina is a large green space where Quiteños gather to participate in sports and relax in the outdoors. The park includes a pond with paddleboats and a skateboarding park. Quito’s botanical garden, Jardín Botánico, is located in the park as well. The Jardín Botánico encompasses 18,600 square meters with plants representative from regions across Ecuador.

Kiddie tram, La Carolina Park, Quito, Ecuador
Kiddie tram, La Carolina Park, Quito, Ecuador
Photo: Greg K. Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

Where we stayed

Wyndham Quito Airport

On our way to the Galapagos, we stopped for one night in Quito, staying at the Wyndham Quito Airport. Built in 2016, the hotel is modern and luxurious, with large, well-appointed guest rooms, beautiful marble baths with rain showers, a bar and restaurant, 24-hour room service, and WiFi. A free airport shuttle is available (requires a call to the hotel to have shuttle sent).

JW Marriott Quito

JW Marriott Quito pool area, Quito, Ecuador
JW Marriott Quito pool area, Quito, Ecuador
Photo: Greg K. Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

On our return from the Galapagos, we spent two days in Quito at the JW Marriott. One of the top hotels in the city, the JW Marriott is a beautiful, luxury hotel located in the Mariscal district. The hotel is filled with tropical plants and flowers, especially roses, in abundance. A waterfall cascades from the lobby level down to the lower level, where one of the restaurants, the spa, and access to the pool are located.

View of JW Marriott Quito from pool area
View of JW Marriott Quito from pool area, Quito, Ecuador
Photo: Greg K. Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

The resort-size pool and hot tub are surrounded by multiple waterfalls, tropical gardens and immense palm trees – amazing considering the hotel is at an elevation of most ski resorts in the United States.

The JW Marriott Quito’s rooms are large with wood floors and accents, a marble bath, upscale bedding, an in-room safe, bathrobe, flat panel TV and sweeping city views. The coffee shop near the shops is a great spot to begin your day with a cappuccino and pastry and is very reasonably priced. We also had sushi in the bar and an excellent dinner in La Hacienda restaurant.


JW Marriott Quito hotel room
JW Marriott Quito hotel room
Photo: Kim Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

Know before you go

Luigi Stornarono, Plaza de los Cappelanes, Quito, Ecuador
Luigi Stornarono mural, Plaza de los Cappelanes, Quito, Ecuador
Photo: Kim Hull © Chasing Light Media

Getting around. Licensed taxis are yellow and marked with a green placard. Some taxis are not metered so inquire what the fare will be before leaving for your destination. Your hotel should be able to provide you with an estimate of cost. Quito also had a double decker tour bus running on a three-hour loop to many of the major attractions for a very reasonable fee of $15 per day.

Use caution when exploring the city. Theft is common in the streets of Quito, so strap your camera or bag around your body and be aware of your surroundings. If possible, don’t venture out alone and consider taking a taxi instead of walking, especially at night.

View of Mirador El Panecillo, Quito, Ecuador
View of Mirador El Panecillo, Quito, Ecuador
Photo: Greg K. Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

Altitude sickness. At such a high elevation, many people may experience some effects of the altitude – especially if arriving from sea level only a few hours before. Keep hydrated, avoid excess alcohol and take it slow when you arrive.

Rooftops of Quito, Ecuador
Rooftops of Quito, Ecuador
Photo: Greg K. Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

Use sunscreen. Quito’s location near the equator and high elevation can result in sunburn quickly so don’t venture out without sunscreen – even on a cloudy day.

Poor air quality. As with most large cities, Quito has significant pollution, especially in the narrow streets of Old Town, where the bus fumes can be considerable.


Disclosure & disclaimer: The content & opinions expressed are entirely our own. Reviews are opinion only and Chasing Light Media accepts no responsibility for how the information is used.

Andean woman selling candy, Quito, Ecuador
Andean woman selling candy, Quito, Ecuador
Photo: Kim Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media
View of Madden's Resort from Gull Lake, Brainerd, Minnesota

Exploring Brainerd Lakes Minnesota

Cover: Exploring Brainerd Lakes
Photo: Kim Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media
Article by Kim Hull


As we continued on our journey around Minnesota with Explore Minnesota, we discovered an outdoor paradise in central Minnesota, a beautiful region just a couple of hours north of Minneapolis-St. Paul: Brainerd Lakes! The region has luxury resorts, gorgeous golf courses, fine dining, spas, and an abundance of activities and fun things to do, from zip lining to yacht cruises to amusement parks. And, watching a spectacular Minnesota sunset is a truly amazing way to end the day in Brainerd Lakes.

Exploring Brainerd Lakes Minnesota: Take in a sunset
Exploring Brainerd Lakes Minnesota: Take in a sunset
Photo: Kim Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

The Brainerd Lakes area is located in the center of Minnesota and home to multiple cities and several countries. With over 500 lakes and rivers, including beautiful Gull Lake, it’s no wonder that the Brainerd Lakes region is so widely known as a premier vacation destination.

Exploring Brainerd Lakes, Minnesota: Gull Lake
Exploring Brainerd Lakes, Minnesota: Fun on Gull Lake
Photo: Kim Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

Things to do when exploring Brainerd Lakes

While the list of things to do in Brainerd Lakes is long, there are a few adventures that are “must do” activities and attractions when visiting the area.

Cruise Gull Lake with Destiny Cruises

Explore Brainerd Lakes with Destiny Cruises
Explore Brainerd Lakes, Minnesota with Destiny Cruises
Photo: Greg K. Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

Our cruise aboard Destiny Cruises’ luxury yacht was one of the highlights of our time spent exploring Minnesota.

A relaxing afternoon enjoying delicious food and beverages while gazing at the shimmering, blue waters of Gull Lake, it was the perfect way to explore Gull Lake and view the beautiful coastline. The Destiny Cruises crew is fun and provide excellent service, delivering an authentic Minnesota welcome aboard their beautiful boat. While we experienced a lunch cruise, Destiny Cruises also offers happy hour, dinner, brunch and sunset cruises, as well as private charters.

Cruising Gull Lake aboard Destiny Cruises, Brainerd Lakes, Minnesota
Cruising Gull Lake aboard Destiny Cruises, Brainerd Lakes, Minnesota
Photo: Greg K. Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

Get an adrenaline rush at Brainerd Zip Line

Once you’ve seen Brainerd Lakes from the water, you need to see it from the air.

Exploring Brainerd Lakes: Brainerd Zip Line
Exploring Brainerd Lakes, Minnesota: Greg Hull at Brainerd Zip Line
Photo: Kim Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

Ziplining at Brainerd Zip Line Tour is exciting, fun and offers some of the most amazing views you’ll find in the Brainerd Lakes area. With 7 zip lines of varying lengths, a 65-foot suspension bridge, and an optional 50-foot free fall jump, Brainerd Zip Line Tour will have you soaring at top speeds over the trees at Mount Ski Gull, while taking in spectacular, panoramas of Agate Lake and Gull Lake.

Kim Hull ziplining at Brainerd Zip Line Tour, Brainerd Lakes, Minnesota
Kim Hull ziplining at Brainerd Zip Line Tour, Brainerd Lakes, Minnesota
Photo: Greg K. Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

Spend a day playing at a lake

Exploring Brainerd Lakes Minnesota: Water sports
Exploring Brainerd Lakes Minnesota: Water sports
Photo: Kim Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

Celebrate the natural beauty found in the state of 10,000 lakes with a day of water activities and family fun. Whatever your water sports preference may be – boating, paddleboarding, snorkeling, tubing, water skiing, fishing, canoeing or simply floating on a raft – the crystal clear waters of the Brainerd Lakes region is the place to play on the water.

Hit the links

Hit the links at The Classic Golf Course at Madden's
Hit the links at The Classic Golf Course at Madden’s
Photo: Greg K. Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

Nationally recognized by leading golf publications as a top golfing destination, the Brainerd Lakes area is home to courses that are nestled amidst tall trees and set against a backdrop of stunning lakeside landscapes. Emerald greens and fairways, resorts with vast amenities, and a variety of courses playable by all skill levels attract golfers from across the nation to this section of central Minnesota.

Madden’s Resort on Gull Lake is home to four courses, including Minnesota’s oldest 18-hole resort golf course and the top-rated Classics course.

Brainerd Lakes: A top golfing destination
Brainerd Lakes: A top golfing destination
Photo: Kim Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

Put on your plaid shirt and pay Paul Bunyan & Babe a visit

Exploring Brainerd Lakes Minnesota: Paul Bunyan, Paul Bunyan Land
Exploring Brainerd Lakes Minnesota: Paul Bunyan, Paul Bunyan Land
Photo: Greg K. Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

No visit to the Brainerd Lakes area is complete without a visit to see and talk to the legend himself, Paul Bunyan. Greeted by the giant Babe the Blue Ox in the parking lot, a visit to Paul Bunyan Land offers a full day of family fun with 40 amusement rides and attractions, Paul’s petting barn, The Pioneer Village, and of course, the famous 26 foot tall lumberjack with eyes that blink and a head that swivels, that greets you by name as you enter.

Babe the Blue Ox, Paul Bunyan Land, Brainerd, Minnesota
Babe the Blue Ox, Paul Bunyan Land, Brainerd, Minnesota
Photo: Greg K. Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

Where to stay at Brainerd Lakes

Town Hall Conference Center at Madden's, Brainerd, Minnesota
Town Hall Conference Center at Madden’s, Brainerd, Minnesota
Photo: Greg K. Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

With accommodation options in the Brainerd Lakes area ranging from campgrounds to luxury resorts, there’s a perfect place to stay for every taste and budget. A fabulous choice for the utmost in relaxation and amenities is Madden’s on Gull Lake. From time on the fairway to luxuriating at the spa, to enjoying fine dining, Madden’s is the spot for enjoying all that Minnesota has to offer in peaceful, laid-back luxury.

Read our review of Madden’s Resort »

Where to stay when Exploring Brainerd Lakes: Madden's Resort
Where to stay when Exploring Brainerd Lakes: Madden’s Resort
Photo: Kim Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

Know before you go

Location

Brainerd Lakes, Minnesota is approximately 200 miles north of Minneapolis-St Paul in central Minnesota.

Climate

Summer temperatures (June-August) in the Brainerd Lakes area range from 76°F to 80°F, with average lows between 52°F to 57°F. January is the coldest month of the year, with average daytime highs of 20°F and average lows of -4°F.


Disclosure & Disclaimer: Special thanks to Explore Minnesota and the Explore Brainerd Lakes for hosting us as their guests. The content & opinions expressed are entirely our own. Reviews are opinion only and Chasing Light Media accepts no responsibility for how the information is used.

The MinneSODA Ice Cream Fountain, Park Rapids, Minnesota

Park Rapids Minnesota: Small town charm at the gateway to the Mississippi River

Cover: The MinneSODA Ice Cream Fountain, Park Rapids, Minnesota
Photo: Kim Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media
Article by Kim Hull


The center point of north central Minnesota, Park Rapids is abundant with natural beauty, outdoor adventures, and a relaxed charm.

With over 400 lakes in the region, hiking, cycling, numerous events to explore, and its close proximity to Itasca State Park, Park Rapids is a perfect retreat for a few hours or a few days. Add to that an inviting small town ambiance and the good eats found in the area, and you may want to stay even longer.

Things to do in and around Park Rapids

Go shopping in Downtown Park Rapids

Shopping in Park Rapids, Minnesota
Shopping in Park Rapids, Minnesota
Photo: Kim Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

Small town America is alive and well in Park Rapids. With a downtown district filled with cute shops and an abundance of friendly locals, Park Rapids is a great spot to spend an afternoon browsing the specialty shops and boutiques filled with gifts, fashion, antiques and more.

Molly Poppin's Gourmet Snacks, Park Rapids, Minnesota
Molly Poppin’s Gourmet Snacks, Park Rapids, Minnesota
Photo: Greg K. Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

One foot in the door at Molly Poppin’s and you know you won’t be leaving anytime soon. The aroma is, well – I bet I gained weight just inhaling. Then you taste the samples and it’s all over, as bags of deliciousness fly into your arms and out the door with you.

Moving down the street, we spent the rest of our time in the quaint town exploring all the shops and dining options, having a throughly entertaining and casual afternoon on one of America’s classic main streets.

Artisan balsamic vinegars, Park Rapids, Minnesota
Artisan balsamic vinegars, Park Rapids, Minnesota
Photo: Kim Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

Visit Dorset, the “Restaurant Capital of the World”

Trading Post, Dorset, Minnesota
Trading Post, Dorset, Minnesota
Photo: Kim Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

Every visit to the Park Rapids area must include a lunch or dinner at the nearby “Restaurant Capital of the World,” Dorset, Minnesota. Home to 22 people and 5 restaurants, Dorset lays claim to the title, with the restaurants per capita ratio being 1 restaurant to 5 people.

We dined at Dorset’s Italian option, La Pasta – a lovely lunch and the breadsticks were out of this world.

La Pasta, Dorset, Minnesota
La Pasta, Dorset, Minnesota
Photo: Kim Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

But, before lunch we had a tour of the town with the mayor, James Tufts, and his older brother and former two-term mayor, Bobby Tufts, who now serves as the town’s ambassador (you may have seen them on the Today Show and in other national news).

Elected at the age of three, as was former mayor Bobby, it’s safe to say that Dorset has a unique political system. Quirky, fun and definitely not to be missed, Dorset is so deserving of the hashtag #OnlyInMN. Learn more about our visit to Dorset, Minnesota »

Mayor James Tufts & Former Mayor Bobby Tufts, Dorset, Minnesota
Mayor James Tufts & Former Mayor Bobby Tufts, Dorset, Minnesota
Photo: Greg K. Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

Hike or bike the Heartland State Trail

While in Dorset, we noticed an awesome bike and hiking path passing through the town.

The Heartland State Trail is a 49 mile, paved multi-use trail reaching between Park Rapids and Cass Lake and was one of the first rail to trail conversions in the United States. The flat trail runs along the abandoned railroad the entire distance except for a four mile segment that uses a roadway north of Walker. 49 miles of paved bikeway? Sweet – we’ll be back.

Cross the headwaters of the Mississippi at Itasca State Park

Greg & Kim Hull crossing the headwaters of the Mississippi
Greg & Kim Hull cross the headwaters of the Mississippi
Photo: Caitlin Rick

Itasca State Park is a nature paradise just 26 miles from Park Rapids. The 32,000 acres of soaring pines and over 100 lakes are reason enough to visit, but it is also home to the Mississippi Headwaters. Truly a cool adventure – learn more about Itasca State Park »

Itasca State Park, Jacob V. Brower Visitor Center
Itasca State Park, Jacob V. Brower Visitor Center
Photo: Greg K. Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

Attend Legends & Logging Days each August

Legends & Logging Days logo

Get your plaid shirt ready and head to Legends and Logging Days each August in Park Rapids. A summer festival that includes Lumberjack action, Water Wars, Chainsaw sculptors, music, food and much more, it’s fun in the summer and a celebration of the rich heritage of the region.

Spend some time on one the area’s 400 lakes

Spend some time on one of Minnesota's lakes
Spend some time on one of Minnesota’s lakes
Photo: Kim Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

No time in Minnesota, the land of 10,000 lakes (which I hear is actually 11,842), is complete without some time on the water and there are plenty of opportunities near Park Rapids. A wonderful spot for family vacations, the Park Rapids Lakes area offers a chance to explore the pristine lakes of Minnesota and engage in the water sports that abound in the region. Climb aboard a speedboat, kayak, paddleboat or pontoon for a sunset cruise or a spend the day on the water fishing for your own aquatic adventure.

 

Downtown Park Rapids, Minnesota
Downtown Park Rapids, Minnesota
Photo: Greg K. Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

Know before you go

Location

Park Rapids, Minnesota is 186 miles northwest of Minneapolis-St Paul and 85 miles east of Fargo, North Dakota.

Climate

July is the warmest month in Park Rapids with average daytime highs of 82°F / 28°C and average lows of 56°F / 13.5°C. January is the coldest month with average daytime highs of 17°F / -8°C and average lows of -21°F / -6°C.


Disclosure & disclaimer: Special thanks to Explore Minnesota and the Park Rapids Chamber of Commerce for hosting us as their guests. The content & opinions expressed are entirely our own. Reviews are opinion only and Chasing Light Media accepts no responsibility for how the information is used.