Jun 27, 2011

Maine Monday 3: My favorite beaches

Happy Monday, everyone! It's the last week of the month, so that means it's time for another installment of Maine Monday. Since summer is fully upon us, I thought I'd share a few photos of my

              ...favorite beaches

I can't pick my top favorite out of the three -- I like them each for different reasons, so, in no particular order...

Popham Beach

Popham Beach State Park in Phippsburg is, according to some, the most popular state park in Maine. It's got miles and miles of sand, making it a great place to walk along the water.

At one end is Fort Popham, built in the mid-1800s to defend the coast and now on the National Register of Historic Places. It's a fun place to poke around and collect rocks and shells.

On nice Saturdays, the beach gets full fast, so we always make sure to go early (before 9:30) to get a prime spot. At low tide, you used to be able to walk across a sand bar to an island, but a river running along the coast has caused some erosion and made the passage risky.

Since it's so popular, it's a great place to people watch, run into friends and hang out with a crowd. During the spring and fall (and even winter, if it's sunny!), it's a great place to walk along the sand, looking for sand dollars.

Small Point Beach
Also known as Head Beach, this is the beach we went to a lot as kids. It's also in Phippsburg, on Hermit Island, but lesser known and less crowded, so if you try to get into Popham and can't, this is the place to go.

It's in a little cove, so the water is a little warmer and calmer, making it great for kids. It's not a state park, so you can bring your dogs and your alcohol too. :) And you can stay past dark, so we love to come here in the late afternoons, grill up some hot dogs and s'mores on our cookstove and watch the sunset.

There's a campground on the island and a great food shack too.

Reid State Park
This giant state park in Georgetown has tons and tons of beach, and lots of parking, so no worries about not getting in even on a hot Saturday. I have a soft spot for it because this is where my mom used to come as a kid with her parents and siblings every Sunday.

It's got quite an undertow and big waves, so make sure you're a strong swimmer if you decide to go out far. If you're not, there's a lagoon that fills up during high tide, where we loved to swim when we were little. As kids, we spent lots of time walking along the rocks looking for tide pools, and I still love walking on the rocks and watching the piping plovers run along.

It's a great place to fly kites too! We go every Labor Day with the hubs' family, and it's lots of fun.

We have a big appreciation for beaches here in Maine, because it's only really warm enough to enjoy them for three months out of the year (though I do love going in the spring and fall, when there's no one there and plenty of space to enjoy). And yes, I do swim in the ocean, and yes, it's very cold! Sometimes it takes your breath away it's so cold, but there's nothing like it.

I haven't been to the beach yet this summer, and I'm crossing my fingers for a hot and sunny Saturday very soon!

What are your favotire beaches?

See the first two Maine Mondays here and here!

Jun 24, 2011

Our Quebec excursion: A recap

I'm taking a break from the usual DIY/decor theme here to share a little bit about our recent anniversary trip to Quebec City. Well, actually, it's a little related, since -- as I mentioned in my post about our budget-setting -- we decided to dedicate some funds to this trip instead of home improvement and furniture. While we're itching to buy some new couches, taking a trip to celebrate our first year of marriage was priority numero uno this summer -- and I don't regret it one bit!

The hubs and I have only taken one big trip together, and that was our honeymoon last year. I was a little nervous to see how we'd do traveling together, because the stresses of travel can bring out things in people you might not see otherwise. But we had a total blast and I even learned something new about my new hubby (this usually introverted guy isn't afraid to chat up cab drivers to ask about how their tourist season is going or what restaurants we should try -- totally adorable!). I love doing new things with him, because even after years together, a new adventure brings out things (hopefully mostly good!) in your relationship that routine doesn't.

For our second big trip as a couple, we decided to pick a place neither one of us had been, and a place we could get to easily and for not a lot of money. Quebec is only about five hours from us, and I'm really fascinated by the region's history and French heritage, and since the hubs had never visited our neighbor to the north, "la belle province" was the perfect spot to go.

Quebec is known for the stone walls, a vestige of its original settling in the 1600s, that surround much of the older parts of the city.

We spent three nights at this completely adorable hotel inside the walls that we found just by Googling hotels in Quebec City.

Centrally located, it was easy as pie to leave our hotel and walk around to everything we wanted to see (which was good, because those Quebeckers drove like crazy people! Or maybe we're just not used to city drivers). But what really sold the hotel for me was this:

Okay, it doesn't look like much, until you open it...

O.M.G. I want it all again right now in my belly.

Every morning, the staff hung this adorable basket on our door, so we woke up to fresh croissants, fruit, juice and yogurt. Twice the croissants came with organic maple butter. If you've never had maple butter, just imagine maple syrup but with a peanut butter-like consistency, super smooth and super sweet. Seriously, it's a jar of deliciousness.

The hotel was renovated a couple years ago, and our room was comfortable but still rustic.

Quebec City is full of incredible history every where you turn: cobblestone streets bursting with cafes and storefronts, stone buildings with colorful wooden shutters and hanging baskets of flowers, gorgeous churches tucked in amongst the trees around every corner. We spent most of our time just walking around, taking in all the sights and reading about the historic places.

The rest of the time, we were stuffing our faces with awesome food like tourtiere (traditional meat pie), steak-frites and maple syrup pie (I wish I got a picture of the maple syrup pie, because it was one of the best things I've ever eaten!).

Don't believe what you've heard about the Quebecois being rude to you if you don't speak French. While I do speak some French, I had to transition into English with many people because I'm terribly out of practice, and everyone was extremely nice and helpful. Just remember to say bonjour, merci and au revoir, and most people will appreciate your effort. We brought a little pocket French-English dictionary with us, which helped translate menu items (although many of the wait staff were more than willing to translate for us, and would even describe a certain vegetable or dish if they didn't know the word in English).

At night, we walked the streets, which stayed busy but not crowded, as people ate late, grabbed drinks at outdoor patios and even shopped, since many of the stores stayed open until 9 or later (a rarity in Maine!).

It was quite a charming, romantic place.

I spent a few months living in France, and Quebec definitely reminded me of Europe. It was hard to believe this place was only a few hours from our home, and yet completely different from anything we've seen in the U.S.

We left feeling like we'd seen a lot of what we wanted to see, but of course wanting more time to explore all those little nooks and try all the dishes we hadn't tasted yet. We're already talking about what we'll do next time we visit.

True to my trip advice, we didn't come home with a lot of generic souvenirs. Instead, we snagged some locally made products, like blueberry caramel sauce, maple coffee chocolate sauce and artisan soaps scented with blueberries, maple and cedar. I also bought one of those adorable baskets, which the hotel sold for $35. I told the hubs to put some croissants in it and hang it on the door every morning...yeah, that's not gonna happen :)

Soaps...I bought three!

I hope you enjoyed this little (big??) recap of our trip. Now, it's time to get back to real life and tackle all of those projects waiting for me, like our office redo, which really needs some attention. We've finally gotten our desk, and I can't wait to show you...once I clean up in there. :)

Where are you going this summer? Or where do you dream about going? I'd love to hear about it!

Linking up to Centsational Girl's Travel Destinations link party! Though we've only been once, it's safe to say Quebec City will be one of our favorite places to visit. Stop by the link party and live vicariously through all the great and exotic destinations!

Jun 22, 2011

A Quebec state of mind

Hello all! Sorry I've been a little MIA lately. The hubs and I spent last week doing lots of fun things in Vermont and Quebec City to celebrate our one-year anniversary, and after such a great vacation, I've been a little slow to return to normal life. But I'm here, I swear!

I'll have lots more for you about our trip later this week, but for now, I'll leave you with just a couple photos of Quebec.

In other news, I'm linking up last week's post on tips for a happy honeymoon to Home Stories A to Z's Tutorials and Tips party. Stop by!

I'm also linking up my deck with its rescued patio set and my front porch to the Blogger Block Party at Savvy Southern Style. Stop by here too!

Jun 15, 2011

Tips for a happy honeymoon

A year ago, we were celebrating being newlyweds in the lovely island of Aruba -- its motto: "One happy island." It was our first big trip as a couple, and we had a fantastic time (of course, how can you spend five days on a beach in 85-degree weather and NOT have a good time??).

I'm no travel expert, but I learned a few things from our honeymoon, so I thought I'd share some tips on how to make the most of your honeymoon or vacation.

Budget beforehand
Remember how much we love to budget? With all the resources out there, especially online, it's so easy to research how much everything will cost -- hotel, airfare, meals, activities, etc. And don't limit yourself unrealistically. Sure, you may not buy pina coladas every day, but if you budget for the expense, you're less likely to go over and you won't feel so guilty indulging yourself.

The view from our hotel room

That said... don't pick a trip you can only afford if you bare-bones it. We picked a honeymoon we knew we could afford AND have a good time. That included doing a few excursions, a little shopping and some good eating. Lots of popular honeymoon locations have all-inclusive packages, so definitely look into those, so you don't have to worry every day about how much you're spending on booze or food. We did a semi-inclusive (some meals and alcohol covered), which we really liked, because we didn't feel obligated to eat at the resort every meal, but knew we'd always have breakfast and lunch covered.

Breakfast at the hotel

Keep peak travel times in mind
Research when the peak season is for your destination, and keep that in mind when you plan your trip. If you're looking for a quiet, secluded experience, you might not want to go during peak season. We found it really helpful to read hotel reviews tripadvisor.com that people submitted for the same month we were going, instead of just the most recent ones. At many of the hotels in Aruba, even the five-star ones, many reviewers in January and February complained about crowded beaches and noisy hallways. But reviewers who went in the off season, when we were going, had practically the opposite experience. Not only did it reinforce our decision to go on the off-season, but it gave perspective to the negative reviews (i.e. it wasn't the hotel, it was the time of year).

Talk to the locals
Hotel concierges and guidebooks are great, but no one knows the best restaurants like the people who live there. We asked our cab driver what restaurants he'd recommend (have a pen and paper ready!), and ended up at this little, off-the-beaten-path, authentic Aruban restaurant. Since it was mid-week and off season, we practically had the patio to ourselves, and the owner himself came over to explain to us traditional Aruban dishes and he even opened our champagne for us. It was an experience we'll never forget, and one we wouldn't have gotten by staying near the resorts (but remember to be safe!).

Go easy on the souvenirs
It's easy to get carried away, but seriously, people don't really want T-shirts or keychains. We settled with just getting people a nice postcard and a small piece of coral from the beach. Ditto for yourselves, too -- really, the most important thing you can bring home are lots of pictures and good memories. We skipped the tchotchkes for ourselves too -- the hubs bought a T-shirt with the name of a local brewery, since he's into beer, and I bought a cute tote bag I knew I'd use for the beach back home. (I admit, though, I did buy a keychain at the airport, and I use it every day!)

A local product with significance is a good souvenir too. For example, in Aruba, they grow aloe and make lotions, soaps and other products out of it -- it's the island's only export industry. We visited the aloe factory, and I bought some lotion for myself and my mom. It had cultural significance, it supported the local economy and it was something I knew my mom would use, instead of a trinket that would collect dust.

I also brought home the cork from a bottle of wine we had at dinner one night. Little things like that are easy to bring home and hold lots of sentimental value.

Make yourself relax
This is especially important if you're going on your honeymoon right after your wedding. You've just spent months doing practically nothing but wedding planning, and thrown a giant party where, unless you have the World's Perfect Family, there was probably some drama. After that trajectory, it's hard to just sit and do nothing, but make yourself do it. We planned absolutely nothing for the first day of our honeymoon, so we could settle in, check out the hotel and decide what we wanted to do that day. Mostly, we sat on the beach.

I'm not gonna lie, it was harder than it seemed -- by 11 a.m. I was feeling restless, feeling like I should be doing something. But after a couple more hours (and perhaps a frosty beverage...), I was thoroughly enjoying not having to stuff envelopes or figure out seating charts.

These will help!

Make time for two
It might sound like a no-brainer, since you're on your honeymoon and the whole point is to spend time together, but if you're the kind of person who likes to go on guided tours, or you're thinking about doing a lot of resort-organized excursions, consider blazing your own trail and going off just the two of you. We knew we wanted to snorkel in Aruba, but since we were already doing a group motorcycle tour around the island, we decided not to do an organized snorkeling excursion. Instead, we rented a Jeep and used our guidebook to find a few good snorkeling spots that we explored on our own. It was so nice to spend the day just the two of us. Plus, the cost of renting the Jeep was about the same as paying for the hotel's snorkeling excursion,  but it was a lot more personal and romantic.

We did a little accidental offroading trying to get to that road you see in the middle of the photo.

Again, be safe. Some places aren't safe for tourists to go wandering around without a guide. We did enough research to know the places we visited were tourist-friendly.

Related to that, don't be afraid to invest in things that will maximize your experience. We bought an underwater camera from L.L.Bean that straps on your wrist, just to take pictures and videos while we snorkeled, and it was worth every penny. We also bought our own snorkel equipment. It wasn't any more expensive than renting, and we got equipment perfectly sized to us and in new condition -- definitely good to consider if the equipment is not too pricey and requires a good fit to be functional (like a snorkel mask). We also brought our own beach towels so we could dry off when we went off the beaten path.


Have a memory trigger
This might seem random, but it really works. My sister gave me a candle as a bridal shower present called Caribbean Escape. Since it was small, I brought it with me to Aruba and lit it every night. Now, whenever I light it at home, the scent brings me right back to the honeymoon, and it. Is. Amazing! It doesn't have to be scent -- the feel of a silky nightie or light cotton dress, a song you heard or that you played while you were there, a picture of ocean waves or a sunset. If there's anything special to your trip, just having it around will help remind you of all the fun and hopefully make you smile.

I also kept a journal while we were there, and wrote in it every day while lying on the beach, and while on the plane home. It's crazy how fast things can leave your brain, even just a year later. I love being able to read it now and relive the once-in-a-lifetime experience.

I hope you found these tips helpful! And if you're thinking about going somewhere warm, I would highly recommend Aruba. It's one of the safest Caribbean islands, everyone speaks English and you can use U.S. money, and it's outside the hurricane belt so good to go on the off season, and also not too hot in the off season, since the temps stay pretty much the same all year round. Its economy is mostly tourism, making it very safe and traveler-friendly. And, did you see those gorgeous beaches?! Yes, please!

Happy vacationing, everyone!

Linking up to the Tutorials and Tips party at Home Stories A to Z!