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Packing More Travel into Your Summer

Packing More Travel into Your Summer | CosmosMariners.com

Now that Memorial Day has come and gone, it's official:

Summer's here! And those summer travels are ready to begin.

For as long as I can remember, those hot days have been my favorite part of the year, filled with long, lazy days at the beach, surfing lessons (before my husband broke the fins on my surfboard), swimming at the pool, and family gatherings (usually with lots of watermelon and strawberries).

But my favorite part of my favorite time of year has to be the summer traveling. When we were small, my parents would pile my sister and I into our car (which varied from a 1989 Oldsmobile to a 1994 Volvo as we got older) and head out on the open road. Some years, we'd end up in Walt Disney World, while other years took us to Canada, Mexico, or any of the states along the eastern seaboard!

Now that I'm older and have a kid of my own, I'm still carrying on the tradition of family trips: we've got some fun jaunts planned to Edisto Island, South Carolina; St. Augustine, Florida; and Cape Canaveral, Florida.

Between those trips, we'll be doing everything we can to pack even more fun and travel into our summer months. Here's how:

Make a summer bucket list. If it's written down, you're more likely to accomplish it. So, have a big gathering with the kids, your spouse, your friends--whoever you'll be with during the summer--and see what you'd like to accomplish. Ice cream all around if you manage everything on the list by August 1!

Use your long weekends wisely. Make use of those extra days you get off of work on Memorial Day, 4th of July, and Labor Day, and take a road trip. You could also take a longer trip each of those weeks, but only have to take four days off from work. Make the system work to your advantage!

Packing More Travel into Your Summer | CosmosMariners.com
St. Simons Island lighthouse, Georgia
Utilize the free stuff. With warmer temperatures comes the ability to use those water-based activities. For the most part, going to the beach, lake, or pool costs little to nothing, which makes them all attractive options even for the traveling family on a budget.

Summer's also a great time to visit a few county, state, or national parks. They're packed with activities for the whole family, and the entrance fees are very reasonable.

Packing More Travel into Your Summer | CosmosMariners.com
Indian Rocks Beach, Florida
Check out the deals. Even though summer is the high season for travel, you can still find great ways to save money through travel rewards programs and attractions. Some theme parks run specials on ticket packages or hotel rooms to make the most of those fleeting summer vacation days. Don't assume that you won't find a great price on travel just because it's peak season.

Packing More Travel into Your Summer | CosmosMariners.com
The Dali Museum, St. Petersburg, Florida
Combine family visits with sightseeing. Summer's a great time to catch up with family, and many people are driving or flying to visit the grandparents, aunts, uncles, and children. Make use of that time away from home by exploring your destination: when you're at Grandma and Grandpa's in Tampa, go see the Dali Museum or Fort De Soto. While you're out in California seeing your siblings, make a detour at the Hearst Mansion or have an impromptu road trip up U.S. 1. See what's nearby and make a family outing of it!

As you go on your merry way around your city, state, or the globe, consider joining the Discover It Miles program, so you can make even more out of your travels. There aren't any annual fees, your miles never expire, and you can redeem any amount of miles for cash. Plus, the program was named the highest in customer satisfaction in 2014. Sweet!

I was selected for this opportunity as a member of Clever Girls and the content and opinions expressed here are all my own.

What are your summer travel plans? Do you have a miles program to help you make the most out of your travels?

10 Tips for Dining Well in Paris: Guest Post by The Hungry Traveler

Today, you, my awesome readers, are in for quite the treat (literally, since this post is about food), so I hope you're hungry! Jordan from The Hungry Traveler has been kind enough to share her best tips for dining well in Paris. 

She's very passionate about food and traveling, and has been to 30 of the states in the U.S. and over 15 countries; when she's not eating her way around the world, Jordan is a chef and culinary instructor in Cincinnati, Ohio. 

Bon appetit, Cosmos Mariners!


10 Tips for Dining Well in Paris: Guest Post by The Hungry Traveler | CosmosMariners.com

Eating in any foreign culture can be a bit stressful but I hear more people worried about dining in Paris than anywhere else.  I’m not sure what makes Paris so intimidating to visitors but I would imagine it’s a combination of high expectations, stories about rude French waiters (not usually true!), the overwhelming dining options, and the ever-present fear of missing out.  

Paris is one of the best eating cities in the world but that doesn’t mean dining well is a given.  Tourist traps exist, reservations are crucial, and there are some quirks to the French dining etiquette that Americans find unfamiliar. 

While I consider Paris to be the best food city in the world, I understand it can be tough in some circumstances. After living in France and spending several weeks in Paris, I’ve had my share of frustrations and confusion but also some of the most spectacular dining experiences of my life. 

After much reading, research, and travel experience, I’ve put together a list of some tricks and tips to ensure you dine well in Paris.  But before you read these suggestions, there is one key piece of advice to keep in mind and David Lebovitz explains it best, “How you get treated is directly proportional to the way you behave and present yourself.” While this is true in nearly any culture, it is especially good advice for Paris. 

1) Do Your Research

Think about the kind of food experiences you want to have in Paris and then start researching.  Be honest with yourself – if you hate fine dining, you don’t have to go to fancy restaurants just because you’re in Paris.  There are many different types of restaurants in Paris and you have to figure out what is right for you.  Consider your dietary preferences and be sure you book restaurants you find appealing (just because a guidebook recommends it, it doesn’t mean it is right for you). If there are certain foods you’ve always dream of eating in Paris, make sure you book restaurants that serve them. 

These are some of my favorite Paris dining resources: 

Websites and Blogs 
Paris by Mouth – http://parisbymouth.com/
Le Fooding Paris - http://lefooding.com/en
Chowhound France - http://chowhound.chow.com/boards/49
David Lebovitz - http://www.davidlebovitz.com/
The Paris Kitchen - http://www.thepariskitchen.com/
Lost in Cheeseland - http://www.lostincheeseland.com/
Chocolate & Zucchini - http://chocolateandzucchini.com/
*Many of these sites have Paris dining apps available for mobile phones so be sure to check those out as well.

The Food Lovers Guide to Paris by Patricia Wells – Available on Amazon: http://amzn.to/1FrB4ZU
Hungry for Paris by Alex Lobrano – Available on Amazon: http://amzn.to/1AcOvup

10 Tips for Dining Well in Paris: Guest Post by The Hungry Traveler | CosmosMariners.com
Yamtcha Soup: One of the best dishes I've had in Paris...and it definitely does not look like the traditionally French cuisine one might expect.

2) Plan Ahead

Now that you have done some research, you should have a list of restaurants you want to try. Before making reservations, take a minute to think about what you want to accomplish on your trip.  

If you’re booking a few Michelin-starred restaurants, space them out throughout your stay in Paris. These tend to be longer meals and can be exhausting to have back to back.  Don’t book your most anticipated dinner on the day you’re doing the most sightseeing or the first day of your trip when you may be too tired or jetlagged to appreciate it. 

Leave a few meals open for spontaneity.  Maybe have some cafes in mind or try La Fourchette / The Fork, a mobile phone app and website that allows you to make last minute bookings.  You can see what is available nearby, read reviews, and pick something appealing to you.  I always like to ask my hotel for at least one suggestion and give the place a try.  You may also want to visit a few shops and markets to pick up the makings of a picnic. 

10 Tips for Dining Well in Paris: Guest Post by The Hungry Traveler | CosmosMariners.com
A crepe is always a good spontaneous lunch or dinner option. This one was from La Drogerie in Le Marais.
3) Make Reservations

It’s always a good idea to make reservations.  Dining out is popular in Paris so don’t expect to be able to walk into any restaurant and be able to get a table. Restaurants in Paris prefer to know who is coming in and it’s a courtesy to them to call ahead.  Remember to always call and cancel as soon as possible if you are not able to make your reservation.   

Some restaurants take reservations online or by email but you can also have your hotel make reservations for you.  I prefer to ask my hotel to make the reservations because it’s much easier than struggling with international calls, time changes, and a language barrier. 

If you have any food allergies or dining restrictions, communicate them when you make the reservation. This gives the restaurant time to plan or allows you to make other plans if they cannot accommodate you. 

4) Be Polite

Many French restaurants are tiny and cramped.  Try to use the restroom before being seated so you don’t have to get up throughout the meal and disturb those next to you. Be aware of noise levels and try not to speak too loudly.  While you may be sitting very close to the table next to you, this is not an invitation to engage in their conversation.   

Knowing a few basic French phrases will get you far. At the very least, you need to be able to say “bonjour” or “bon soir” when entering a shop or restaurant and “merci” when leaving. It would also be beneficial to learn some basic ordering phrases.  I recommend a pocket phrase guidebook such as the Rick Steves’ French Phrasebook and Dictionary sold on Amazon - http://amzn.to/1POzWyQ

5) Go with the Flow

If your meat is a bit overcooked, your entree is not what you expected, or your meal is dragging a bit long, just go with the flow and enjoy the cultural differences – these are what make travel fun! Here are a few hints that will help avoid you avoid some common frustrations: 

Most restaurants do not serve food all day.  Lunch is typically from 12:00pm until 2:00pm and dinner is from 8:00pm until 10:30pm.  If you’re looking for somewhere to eat in off hours, try a café or bakery and look for a sign that says ‘service continu’ on the door. 

Servers will not remove your plates until you give them the signal to do so.  When you’re finished eating, place your utensils face up on your plate at 10 o’clock and 4 o’clock. French service tends to be a little different than Americans are accustomed to but don’t interpret this as the waiters being rude. Most French restaurants have less staff and the French prefer a more hands off style of service. 

Meat tends to be cooked a little more rare than we are used to in the US. Here are the common meat ordering temperatures:
Bleu – very rare
Saignante – rare
A point – medium rare (This is usually the best choice)
Bien Cuit – well done
You may check out this very thorough guide to ordering a steak by the Behind the French Menu blog.

Another great resource is this list of 10 Common Ordering Mistakes People Make in Paris from David Lebovitz. - http://www.davidlebovitz.com/2010/01/10-common-ordering-mistakes-in-p/

10 Tips for Dining Well in Paris: Guest Post by The Hungry Traveler | CosmosMariners.com
The bar at Le 6 Paul Bert

6) Avoid Tourist Traps

Of course this is easier said than done but here are three warning signs: 
1) The restaurant is located right outside of a major museum or landmark 
2) The menus are laminated (a sign they are rarely updated)
3) The menus are posted in the window in 5+ different languages

During a busy day of sightseeing, it can be tempting to stop for lunch at the closest café but you’ll likely find yourself disappointed. Instead, try to walk a few blocks away from the tourist attractions and pick a restaurant in that location instead.  

Paris by Mouth is an excellent resource and provides recommendations for restaurants around tourist sites. Check out their ‘Not Terrible Near the Louvre’ article here and scroll down to see more of their recommendations for avoiding tourist traps near other major attractions. 

Many bakeries and markets offer take away sandwiches or prepared gourmet lunches.  You can buy these and then eat them in a park or at a bench around one of the museums or tourist areas.  This saves time and allows you to eat a nice, inexpensive lunch in a scenic location. 

10 Tips for Dining Well in Paris: Guest Post by The Hungry Traveler | CosmosMariners.com
A case of gourmet prepared food ready for purchase at Maison Guyard

7) Consider Lunch and Fixed Price Menus

Dining in Paris can be expensive but you can always save a few dollars by making reservations for the higher price point restaurants for lunch.  Just be careful about planning two big meals for the same day. 

Most restaurants and bistros in France offer a daily fixed price special. It’s often found scribbled on a chalkboard. You typically have the choice of two or three courses and it can be a great value and way to try some special items. 

8) Take a tour

If you’re looking to get an in-depth Parisian food education, consider taking a food focused walking tour. A tour can help you get oriented to the city and your guide will teach you the ins and outs of dining in Paris and provide you with excellent recommendations for the rest of your trip. One of my favorite Paris experiences was taking the Paris Culinary Traditions tour offered by Context Travel. I highly recommend Context Travel but there are many tour providers in Paris offering walks with different themes and focuses. Do some research, read the reviews, and pick what sounds the most interesting to you. 

10 Tips for Dining Well in Paris: Guest Post by The Hungry Traveler | CosmosMariners.com
Just a small selection of the cheeses available at Androuet, one of the stops on Context Travel's Paris Culinary Traditions Tour

9) Don’t Waste Time on Breakfast

Many Americans are used to a big hot breakfast of bacon and eggs, but this isn’t typical in Paris.  The French typically eat some bread and coffee/tea/juice for breakfast.  While your hotel may serve an American style breakfast, I don’t think it’s worth the money, time, or calories. Instead, grab a croissant from a bakery near your hotel and eat it outside.  

10 Tips for Dining Well in Paris: Guest Post by The Hungry Traveler | CosmosMariners.com
My favorite breakfast in Paris: the tartine from Eric Kayser Boulangerie

10) Know How to Pay the Bill and Leave a Tip

In a restaurant or bistro, the server will not bring the bill until you ask for it.  When dining in France, the table is yours for the evening and the waiter would not want to imply he/she is rushing you by leaving the bill at your table.  Once you ask for it, they will bring the check and you can set your credit card or cash on top of it to indicate you are ready to pay.  Once the waiter sees this, he/she will bring the credit card machine to your table or make change for you. 

While you may find conflicting information on tipping, I find it’s best to err on the side of being generous.  If you’re happy with your service at a restaurant, it’s appropriate to leave a 10% tip.  If you’re at a café, you can simply round up and leave a few extra coins on the table.  However, one thing is certain – you must always tip in cash. 

But above all, remember:

You’re in Paris and life is good. Don’t sweat the small stuff. This advice is meant to make your trip easier, not induce worry. Don’t get stressed and turn an amazing trip into a source of anxiety. Be yourself, have fun, and don’t be intimidated. 

10 Tips for Dining Well in Paris: Guest Post by The Hungry Traveler | CosmosMariners.com


For even more yummy Parisian tips, sign up for Jordan's Guide to Paris that she's releasing later this summer. You can also find her here:


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Experience the Magic of Glacier Bay, Alaska: Guest Post by Dirt In My Shoes

Good morning, lovely readers! I'm floating around somewhere in the Caribbean for my fifth anniversary cruise and enjoying every minute of it. I'm really excited to hand the blog over to Ash from Dirt In My Shoes today because she's had some amazing adventures in parts of the U.S. that I haven't visited. Plus, her posts are peppered with gorgeous photos! 

Enjoy her guest post about one of Alaska's most beautiful national parks. See you in a week!

Hello, fellow Mariners!  My name is Ash and I write over at Dirt In My Shoes.  Because I am a former park ranger, I love to help people create unforgettable memories and experiences in our beautiful National Parks.

I was blessed to live and work in Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska, and I truly believe it is one of the most magical places on this earth.  Nowhere else is as wild with the sheer beauty that comes from being untouched by the human hand.  It took my breath away just to stand and watch the forces of Mother Nature hard at work, shifting and shaping the landscape.  The grand and majestic glaciers move with such force that the rocks and the trees bow down to their power.  Living creatures dot every inch of the region, some big and some small, that make me grateful to be a part of this incredible world.

The thing that people always said was that they wished that they had made it to Glacier Bay sooner, and that it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for them.  Although I can’t get you on a plane and take you there, I can provide you with these 5 things to do to experience the magic of Glacier Bay!

1.  Go Halibut Fishing
Halibut fishing with Forrest Braden of True North Sportfishing
I am not much of a fisherwoman, but I could not pass up the opportunity to go fishing in the Alaskan Seas.  I will never forget the feeling of reeling in not only one, but TWO fish that each weighed in at half of my body weight.  What a grueling process trying to wrestle those things into the boat.  Oh yeah, and then there was this time that a very rude sea lion ate my fish while I was reeling it in.  My heart was pounding frantically.  Halibut fishing in Glacier Bay is an experience that will forever be etched in my memory.

Fishing is a part of life for all who live or lived near Glacier Bay.  The area was once inhabited by members of the Huna Tlingit Tribe, who were long ago displaced by the glaciers creeping through the waters and onto their land.  Even today, they depend on the ocean and its creatures to stay alive, and you can feel that reverence and respect being passed down to all who visit.

2.  Hike to the Bartlett River

Not many hiking trails exist in Glacier Bay, so the Bartlett River Trail was one that I hiked often.  I enjoyed weaving through a forest of old trees covered in a blanket of moss, listening to the warble of the birds perched high above me.  In the distance, I loved hearing the occasional crunch of a moose making its way through the brush.  And then there is the river.  That gorgeous river with such crystal clear water you can see every detail of the salmon swimming under its surface.

This was one of my favorite areas to just sit and watch and listen, taking it all in.  We need more places like this in the world.  Somewhere that we can truly experience nature.

3.  Explore the Intertidal Zone

The tides at Glacier Bay are a force to be reckoned with and something that should not be taken lightly.  Land that is exposed at one time of day can be completely immersed by feet of water within a few short hours.  At low tide, the area that was once covered in water becomes entirely visible and dozens of unique creatures can be found.  My favorites were the starfish and the sea urchins, but sometimes I would see things that I never knew even existed on this earth.

My supervisor at Glacier Bay was one of the first Rescue Swimmers for the Coast Guard.  He was actually interviewed for the movie The Guardian and was a great inspiration to me.  The most memorable piece of advice I learned from him was to take time to get down on your hands and knees and appreciate the smallest things before you.  While appreciating the small things, the big things start to make more sense.  That is how I felt peering into those tide pools, and that is why everyone needs to experience the intertidal zone at Glacier Bay.

4.  Kayak in Bartlett Cove

The magic of Glacier Bay is best seen from the water.  Kayaking gives you a chance to be close to the many animals that call this place home, and gives you a greater appreciation for the landscape that surrounds you.  I had some incredible encounters with marine wildlife from my kayak.  I felt the spray from a humpback whale, was playfully followed by a seal, had harbor porpoises swimming underneath me, and was caught in the middle of an otter play-time.

Harbor porpoises that were following me around in my kayak

Being on the water is a humbling experience as you submit to Mother Nature and her tidal mood swings.  In a way, you almost feel out of control because you never know what is going to happen.  Often, I wouldn’t even paddle.  It was so invigorating to be surrounded by so much beauty and to truly allow myself to be taken by surprise.

5.  See the Glaciers
Reid Glacier

Well, you can’t visit Glacier Bay without seeing any glaciers!  Have you ever seen a glacier calve and heard the thunderous roar that the ice makes as it drops into the sea?  You need to visit the Margerie Glacier and just wait in patience to witness this glorious sight.  

Margerie Glacier

Next, be sure to snap a photo of the Johns Hopkins Glacier with its dramatic mountain backdrop and seals hanging out on the drifting ice.  Then, if you are really lucky, you will be able to see the Reid Glacier from the shore at low tide, getting up close to appreciate its vastness.

Each glacier in Glacier Bay has its own personality and characteristics.  Taking a boat tour of the Bay will help you get to know the massive sheets of ice that give this beautiful National Park its name.  You will be awe-struck and inspired.

Thanks for joining me on this magical tour of Glacier Bay National Park.  While these 5 things are guaranteed to provide you some amazing experiences, I’ve got a few more ideas for you up my sleeve!  I am happy to help you plan your visit so be sure to keep in touch!

Make sure to show Ash and her fantastic blog some love!

Cruising into Our Fifth Wedding Anniversary

I first met my husband Landon in August 2003. We were freshmen, and he was helping my roommate move into our room.
Cruising into Our Fifth Anniversary | CosmosMariners.com
November 2003, just a few months after we started dating (the first time)

I didn't know it then, but seven years, many breakups (one that lasted over two years), and an engagement (to another person) later, Landon and I would get engaged. 

And unlike my first engagement, this one would actually stick. I'd still be petrified at the thought of getting married, and I'd seriously consider my dad's offer to go get ice cream rather than walk down the aisle, but I'd go through with it. And be so, so happy I did. 

Cruising into Our Fifth Anniversary | CosmosMariners.com
Getting hitched, May 2010

I've now known Landon almost half of my lifetime. We've watched one another grow from headstrong, stubborn teenagers into well-rounded, responsible adults (who are both still pretty headstrong--and stubborn). We've bought two houses together and supported one another as we began parenthood. 

We've traveled as much as our jobs, student loans, and budgets would allow since we've been married. We've ziplined in St. Maarten, explored Scotland, snorkeled in the Bahamas, watched plays on London's West End, and traveled all over the Southeast

Cruising into Our Fifth Anniversary | CosmosMariners.com
Edinburgh Castle, 2011

For our honeymoon, we decided to go on a cruise through the eastern Caribbean: I'd just finished my graduate program, and I wanted nothing more than to relax for a few days. That week-long trip allowed us to learn about one another's travel habits (good and bad!) since we hadn't done much traveling with one another while we'd dated.  

Cruising into Our Fifth Anniversary | CosmosMariners.com
Honeymoon cruise, 2010

We enjoyed ourselves so much on that trip that we've made the anniversary trip an annual tradition. We went to Jekyll Island, Georgia, Balsam, North Carolina, and St. Petersburg, Florida, for our 2nd, 3rd, and 4th anniversaries, respectively--they were smaller trips, but just as much fun. 

Cruising into Our Fifth Anniversary | CosmosMariners.com
Jekyll Island, Georgia, 2011

Now, five years into this marriage gig, we're headed back out on another cruise--but this time, we're going to the western Caribbean. Even though the locations are different, I hope we manage as much relaxation and fun as we did on our honeymoon cruise. 

Since I'm going all out on this trip and making it a real vacation, I won't be working next week. (Plus, have you seen how much wifi is on a cruise ship!?!) 

However, I am leaving the blog in the hands of some very competent guest bloggers while I'm lazing by the pool and soaking up some sun, so show them some love next week. I'll be back to life as usual on Monday, June 1 with lots of pictures, stories, and adventures from our Caribbean cruising. 

Happy 5th anniversary to us! 

How do you celebrate your anniversary? Have you taken a cruise? How did you like it?

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History, Picnics, and a Surrey with the Fringe on Top: Fort De Soto, Florida

In between checking out of Cay Pointe Villa in Indian Rocks and checking into the Plaza Beach Hotel in St. Pete Beach, we had a few hours to kill. Most people would've headed straight to the nearest public beach access, but I'm not most people.

Instead, we headed to Fort De Soto, a park that sits at the mouth of Tampa Bay. It is the largest of the Pinellas County Parks and straddles five small islands.

When I'd written an intro about where we were going on our Superior Small Lodging road trip, I had several readers write in and tell me that Fort De Soto was not to be missed. When we had that free morning, I knew exactly where I would take Landon and Britton.

At first glance, the park was quiet with only a few bicyclists making use of the path. But as we drove further in, we began to notice all of the different things we could do. There were kayak rentals, a self-guided fort tour, six miles of beaches, a fishing pier, picnic areas and a little cafe just off the fort.

Normally, I would've headed straight to the historical stuff since that's my Achilles heel, but Landon and I had promised our toddler that she could ride a bike.

Of course, with her tiny legs and toddler coordination (or lack thereof), we didn't actually expect her to ride her own bike, but we were hoping that there would be a carry-on option for her. We lucked up and found that there were two and four person surreys, which absolutely delighted Britton to no end.

Landon and I loaded up the surrey with some snacks, drinks, and a picnic lunch, and headed out on the biking trails. Britton loved zooming along (at 5 MPH) with the wind in her face while Landon and I huffed and puffed. We needed a little exercise after all of the delicious food we'd tried on the trip.

First, we biked along the historical trails, where we saw some of the ruins from the military encampment that was once there. While the area was first scouted in the mid-1800s as a possible military defense spot, it wasn't until 1898 that the buildings and fort were constructed. Although the post house, cafeteria and barracks aren't standing any longer, there are markers outlining where each building used to be.

After we'd been doodling around in the surrey (with the fringe on top) for about an hour, Britton started hollering about lunch. We pulled into the nearest picnic area, plunked our cooler down, and enjoyed our food with only the waves and the birds as company.

Our bike rental was up after lunch, so we had to head back and return it.

Next, we headed to the fort, which (unlike the out buildings) is still is great shape. When it was being built, there was an issue with the stones that were being sent from the North down to Florida. Rather than wait for the delayed building stones, the workers decided to make use of the plentiful shells around the island to construct the walls and ceiling of the fort.

With walls that range from 8 to 20 feet deep and ceilings that are 5 feet thick, this place was built to last. Yet, the fort has never been in any battles and the weapons have never been fired! The men assigned to Fort De Soto didn't see any conflict--unless you count the hordes of mosquitos that harassed them day and night. The bugs were so bad that they even made it into the post quartermaster's report in the early 1900s. Yikes.

We perused the fort, ducking in a few of the rooms and reading the plaques that we came across. Along the way, we found this little girl had been thrown in the clinker for excessive noise, but we were feeling nice and posted bail.

It wasn't the longest trip, but we managed to pack a good bit in. I wish we'd had more time to play on the beaches or bike around more. Fort De Soto is definitely worth a stop if you're in the St. Pete area!

Do you like visiting county or national parks on your trips? Which activity would you have liked doing at Fort De Soto the most?


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Road Trip Stop #3: Plaza Beach Hotel, St. Pete Beach, Florida

Plaza Beach Hotel, St. Pete Beach, Florida | CosmosMariners.com

For our third and final stop on our Florida road trip, we packed up the car and headed south to St. Pete Beach. Throughout our adventures, which took us from Pass-a-Grille all the way to Clearwater Beach, we'd passed through St. Pete Beach multiple times, but hadn't slowed down to take it in.

After stays in two of the area's quieter locales, we were excited to see what it would be like in the middle of the action at the Plaza Beach Hotel.

Situated along Gulf Boulevard in the heart of St. Pete Beach, the Plaza Beach Hotel is in an enviable position--it's steps from the beach, yet it is within walking distance of multiple restaurants, ice cream shops, putt-putt golf places, and the nearest Publix.

Plaza Beach Hotel, St. Pete Beach, Florida | CosmosMariners.com

If you plan on just enjoying the resort and beach, there's little need for you to get in the car during your stay since everything around it is so close.

We had one of their bottom floor rooms (109) that was on the non-parking lot side of the building.

Plaza Beach Hotel, St. Pete Beach, Florida | CosmosMariners.com

It came with two queen beds, a large wardrobe area, and a kitchenette.

Plaza Beach Hotel, St. Pete Beach, Florida | CosmosMariners.com

The room was plenty for the three of us, but if I'd come with older kids, I think I would've wanted to get adjoining rooms. There were only three chairs at the kitchen table, so having more options for eating would be great with larger families.

Everything (both in the room and out) was fun, funky, and colorful with a unique beachy kitsch that definitely set this place apart! Furthermore, the room was extremely clean, which cannot be an easy task for the housekeeping staff since the hotel is situated right on the beach.

Plaza Beach Hotel, St. Pete Beach, Florida | CosmosMariners.com

The one thing that we didn't love about the room was that we didn't have an oven included. We worked around it using the microwave and oven, but it would've been nice to throw our chicken in an oven to cook. Still, I doubt that many people are coming to the beach to bake and cook that much, so the lack of oven shouldn't stop you from visiting.

Since this was a much larger hotel than the other two on our road trip, I didn't have as many opportunities to interact with the staff. That being said, everyone that I encountered was friendly, prompt in their responses, and eager to assist.

Plaza Beach Hotel, St. Pete Beach, Florida | CosmosMariners.com

When I first stopped by the hotel, our room wasn't ready, but the front desk clerk took my number and called me when it was prepared about an hour later. He helped me with directions to the nearest ice cream stand and Publix so we could stock up on necessary supplies while waiting for our room.

After I came back to the front office to get my room keys, the general manager, Robert, and the guest relations manager, Luanne, were there to welcome me. They both emphasized the fact that they, and the rest of the staff, was there to help if we needed anything.

Our housekeeper, Kat, was very sweet and gladly gave us extra towels after we used all of ours at the pool and beach.

For a mid-sized hotel, Plaza Beach packs plenty into its grounds. The office has a computer cafe for all of those visitors who want to unplug as much as possible but still need access to a desktop for printing boarding passes and the like. There's also a coin-operated washer and dryer just outside the front office if you need to freshen up those vacation clothes.

We were given a wifi code at check-in, and I was able to work on my laptop and phone throughout the resort, even posting photos of the sunset from the beach! I know that wifi shouldn't be that important on a beach trip, but I'm always appreciative when I can access my email.

Plaza Beach Hotel, St. Pete Beach, Florida | CosmosMariners.com

In terms of entertainment, you're spoiled for choice here: there's a nicely sized pool that goes to 6 feet (nearly unheard of these days), shuffleboard, cornhole boards, a life-sized chess board, ladder golf equipment, hammocks, a few holes of putt-putt golf, children's beach toys, and (of course) the beach.

Plaza Beach Hotel, St. Pete Beach, Florida | CosmosMariners.com

If that's still not enough to keep you busy, there's a water sports hut out on the beach, where you can rent paddleboards and giant water tricycles, or arrange a parasailing tour.

Final Thoughts
This hotel, like the two we'd visited before, had such a unique vibe to it--one reason why I love supporting locally owned accommodations! The Plaza Beach Hotel had an old-school feel to it (in all the best ways) and reminded me of what it must have been like to stop at cute mom and pop places during the Golden Age of travel (back before chains and interstates!).

Plaza Beach Hotel, St. Pete Beach, Florida | CosmosMariners.com

The Plaza Beach Hotel was quite a lively spot with patrons ranging from young families like ours to older couples from abroad to families with teenaged kids. It really was a great mix of people, and everyone was polite and friendly throughout our stay. While I was at the pool one day with Britton, I talked to a man and his teen son, who told me that they'd been to St. Pete Beach many times--and while they'd occasionally tried new places, they always came back to the Plaza Beach Hotel.

Plaza Beach Hotel, St. Pete Beach, Florida | CosmosMariners.com

The hotel isn't your cookie cutter chain hotel--and thank goodness for that!--and that quirky charm and stellar location will certainly keep people coming back for years!


Have you been to the St. Pete Beach area? Which part is your favorite? For a beach vacation, would you rather stay at a smaller, more relaxed place with fewer amenities, or a more upbeat, larger place with more amenities?

How to Choose Great Locally Owned Accommodations When You Travel

Over the years, I've stayed in many hotels. Some were awesome, some were so-so, and some had me worried that I wouldn't see the next sunrise.

One thing that I have learned along the way is that some of my favorite stays have been at locally owned and independently operated places: each is different, and your stay is more likely to leave an impression.

After all, how often do you think back and say, "Wow, those two nights in the Orlando area Hampton Inn were super stellar and unique"? Probably never since every Hampton Inn I've ever seen looked exactly the same.

If you're looking to break out of the mold of chain hotels, you're in luck, as there are some fantastic local places to call home while you're on the road. From 4-room bed and breakfasts to independent luxury resorts to someone's extra apartment on AirBnB, there's a huge range in what can be called "locally owned accommodations."

But how do you separate the delightful ones from the duds?

Thankfully, in this technological day and age, there are plenty of ways to research some independent lodging options. Here are great ways to choose a safe, clean, and memorable locally owned hotel:

1) Check out the ratings. While these are certainly not the be-all-and-end-all, they do give you a place to start.

See what people are complaining about (and there's always something) how universal the issues are. If one person complains about the toilet paper not being triple ply, and another complains that the pool wasn't the perfect warmth, and yet another bemoans the fact that the bathroom only had three towels instead of four, you're probably going to have a decent stay.

However, if all of the complaints center on the same thing--noise, terrible customer service, filthy bathrooms--you need to take heed. When more than a few people are noticing parallels in their experiences, you have to assume that the problem is with the establishment more so than the reviewers.

Cay Pointe Villa in Indian Rocks Beach, Florida--a small place with some amazing Trip Advisor reviews!

When you're looking for an independent lodging location, these reviews can warn you of resort charges, how much extra toilet paper you need to bring, and if you have daily laundry service.

2) Go to the hotel/ motel/ inn's webpage and social media. 
Sometimes, these can be really helpful--if you get a location that regularly updates them. It's a mixed bag when it comes to independent places and social media, as some hire full time coordinators (as The King and Prince Resort in St. Simons Island, Georgia, does), while others have Facebook pages that haven't been updated since their inception back in 2008.

The King and Prince Resort in St. Simons Island--gorgeous and super tech savvy

Having an internet presence in no way indicates if the place is good or not, as I've stayed in great places with a very basic (if any) website, and some awful places that were all over the place on the internet.

If you do find that your intended locale has a webpage or social media channels, read through them. They can be great sources of information on renovations, recent guests' thoughts, and particulars about your accommodations.

Hopefully, you can also find a few pictures, and compare them to what you saw on TripAdvisor. You're going to get a more well-rounded view of what the destination will look like between the more structured, controlled display given by the hotel and the more candid, critical approach from TripAdvisor users.

2) Look at the street view on Google Maps. 
We've all been there: the pictures on the website looked AMAZING, but when you show up, the place is a dump...or next to one.

While it's easy to take professional photos from flattering angles, it's not so easy to get Google Maps in on the lie. Take a virtual tour of the neighborhood before you book, so you won't be surprised that there's a busy highway right next to your private patio or that the "recently updated" place has half of the shutters hanging off.

If you check on the street view for the Geneva Riverside in Lake Lure, North Carolina, all you see is Chimney Rock. Not a bad view!
3) See if the hotel/ inn/ motel is affiliated with any groups. 
There are many groups that independent inns can join--and the majority of these group keep certain standards that their members must sustain.

For example, the Florida Superior Small Lodging Association (which helped me organize my recent trip to the Florida Gulf Coast) asserts that the properties within its membership will provide clean, safe, and comfortable lodgings for their clients. Any properties not meeting these requirements during a routine check will be dropped from the roster and will lose their FSSLA support.

The Historic Hotels of America group is another fantastic organization with a rigorous application process and standards. Every one that I've had the pleasure of visiting is unique, but all are extremely high-quality.
The Dunhill in Charlotte, North Carolina, one of the Historic Hotels of America in which I've had the pleasure of staying
4) Reference the local CVB (Convention and Visitors' Bureau).
Sometimes, popular local places will shell out cash to their community websites as a way to focus their advertising. If you're unsure of how to narrow down your options, take the names you've found and give the CVB a call.

While a CVB often won't recommend one hotel over the other (at least, not on record), they will happy to share any knowledge on recent awards or accolades (such as if a local place just won Southern Living's Favorite B&B).

5) Ask the locals. 
If an inn, bed and breakfast, or hotel is good enough that the locals speak favorably of it, you know it's worth your time. While I haven't stayed in every single hotel in downtown Charleston, I'm still able to give an educated opinion about cute, clean, and charming places in the historic district because I hear so many great things from people, both locally and visiting.

So, call that old friend from college who's living wherever you're headed--she'll probably have some great suggestions about where you can stay for a fun getaway.

Hopefully, this list will help you locate some great local accommodations--you might find new friends, a favorite vacation spot, or a perfect getaway!

Tell me about your experiences with finding a locally-owned place. What are your worries when booking non-chain accommodations? What's been the best local place that you've stayed?