Spotting “The Big Five”

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Thornybush, Sabi Sands, Kruger National Park, September 2017

When I first started dreaming of an African safari (many, many years ago) all I knew was that I wanted to see “the big five”. You know, lions, tigers & bears (oh my!). HA…well, I quickly came to realize that I didn’t even know what the big five were! Or why they were called that. A little nature lesson: the “big five” game animals were coined that by hunters, referring to the five most difficult animals to hunt on food. Yes, some of these animals are huge, but they’re also camouflage, quick, and always one step ahead. They’re also five of the most dangerous. By the time you would spot them on foot, it would be too late. They are now the gold standard by which all safari tours operate – it was most definitely our goal to spot the big five during our safari and I am so thrilled to say we did!

African Elephant

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We always saw them in herds of 5+

This was very first animals we saw as they were at our lodge’s watering hole when we arrived. And holy crap they are HUGE! Being the largest land mammal, the average African elephant is over 10′ at shoulder height and weighs around 5 tons, with the largest being over 7. It’s so crazy how much they blend into the trees, given how large they are. Over the 4 days, we came across 5-6 different packs. I must admit, to me, they were the most frightening in person. Their behavior is typically calm but they’re a little unpredictable and we heard a lot of stories about them charging at people. They were the only animals that I felt a little uneasy around – though the babies are beyond adorable!

Fun fact: Mama elephants are pregnant for 22 months and at birth, babies are already 3 feet tall and 200 lbs.

Black Rhinoceros

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I mean, look at all that muscle!

Oh, the rhino. Looking at pictures of these pre-historic beauties makes me equally happy and heartbroken. They are the most unbelievable animals to see in person – I truly felt like I was in Jurassic Park. At the same time, it’s devastating to know that they are being closer to extinction by the day. Our guide estimated that at the rate they’re being killed (for their horns by horrible, ignorant poachers), they will likely be extinct by 2020. That’s only 2 years away y’all! I won’t get too much into my “save the rhinos” rant but you can read more about the animals here, the poaching crisis here, and how you can help here.

We were lucky enough to see one on our first drive & saw four more throughout the stay. They were typically alone and usually just chillin’ – eating some leaves or bathing in the ponds. They are unbelievably strong, travel alone and are very territorial. I feel so blessed to have seen these beautiful creatures in person. 

Fun Fact: Though they’re large, they are speedy! A rhino can run up to 40 miles per hour – over twice as fast as the world’s fastest human. So finding a tree to climb is your best strategy to stay safe!

Cape Buffalo

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These guys were so creepy – always watching us watch them

Considered to be the most dangerous for hunters, the cape buffalo are notorious for being aggressive & ambushing. So, naturally when we learned that a group of 20 were lounging around a mere 50 yards from our front door, we were a wee bit nervous. At first glance, they just look like a cow or normal buffalo but then you hear stories of how quickly they charge and you’re on high alert. When we saw them, they just sat around eating grass for about 20 minutes and then we drove off. Uneventful – the way I like it on safari ha!

Fun Fact: Actually, crazy story – our guide told us how he accidentally stumbled upon a cape buffalo while walking back to his lodge one day and it started to charge him. He had to sprint the other direction & climb a tree to hang out there for a few hours until the buffalo left. He said it was the scariest experience he’s had in the bush!

African Leopard

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The male leopard waiting for the female to give the “ok” to begin mating

The smallest of the big cats, and solitary by nature, these look like sweet little cats that you just want to cuddle up with and pet…until you realize that they will quickly eat your face off. (as evidenced by the feeding leopard we saw). The Sabi Sands area is known for their leopards so we knew we had a great chance of seeing them. What we witness though, blew us away. Days 1 & 2 we saw a pair of leopards mating – a very rare occurrence to see – and it was fascinating! We were total creeps and watched them for a while and took videos. Our guide told us that in his 10 years in South Africa, he’s only come across this three times. How lucky are we? On day 3 we also saw a female leopard feeding on a recently killed kudu. We watched her try to carry this 80# dead animal…in her mouth… up a tree. Nature is fascinating, y’all!

Fun Fact: Female leopards birth 2-3 cubs at a time and they stay with their mama until about age 2 when they’re old enough to hunt on their own.

African Lion

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King of the Jungle

I think my husband said it best: “when you see a lion for the first time and you know exactly where you stand on the food chain”…this was the one and only lion we saw (we did see a lioness but the females don’t have the manes) and it was spectacular. This was the only animal that took my breath away, which was such a surprise! For some reason, the sheer presence of a male lion is surreal – they are so regal and grand. Lucky for us, we saw him on our last drive of the trip. My hope is to see more on our next safari. They travel in prides so there’s usually a good chance that you’ll spot multiple.

Fun Fact: A lions roar can be heard for up to 5 miles away. One night at dinner, we all heard a lion roaring in the distance. The next morning, our tracker noted that a male lion had walked through our camp while we were all sleeping. So scary!

And just because these other animals aren’t part of “the big five” doesn’t mean they’re not incredible to see. A few of my personal favorites…

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The zebra, so cute with that little mohawk! While their skin appears to be white with black stripes, rumor has it that if you shave them, the skin is actually black. The mystery continues!

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A personal favorite, the warthog. So ugly that they’re cute, these silly fellas are always frolicking around the bush and chasing each other around. They totally reminded me of our French Bulldog, but with horns!

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The hyenas are mangy, mean & big bullies. But they are a little cute at times. We had one visit our BBQ site on our first night and I swear, he looked like a little teddy bear.

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Given their height, the giraffes are always watching from afar and curious what you’re up to. They are long, lanky, clumsy & adorable. Especially the babies.

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Fun Fact: African cash is also known as “The Big Five”, with each having a picture of one of the big five animals on the front.

All I can say is – if you’ve ever considered going on a safari, do it now. Time is of the essence with these animals and nothing is guaranteed. This was the most humbling experience and I am just itching every moment to go back.

Africa, I love you!
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10 pictures that will make you want to visit South Africa

South Africa is one of the most naturally diverse countries I have ever been to. The Western Cape offers beaches and mountains, while the inland countryside offers beautiful wine country, while the Southern side offers cliffs and lush forests and the Eastern side offers incredible safaris and animal spotting. With a brief two hour flight you go from million dollar beach front homes in stunning Camps Bay to impoverished villages near the Kruger National Park. Whether you’re looking for an eco-friendly tent camp, a luxurious spa retreat, a mountain camping experience or a food & wine tour, this country has it all. There is so much to do that it is a bit overwhelming. One common denominator among all of the variety though? The people. Oh, the people are just a special kind of wonderful. Especially those who have little to nothing of their own – the kindness, the generosity, the spirituality…it’s something I’ll never forget.

Of course, we couldn’t do it all during our two week vacation to South Africa, but we tried our best! Over the next few weeks I’ll be breaking down our trip into various posts – Cape Town (what to do, eat, drink, hike, etc.), Cape Winelands, Road Trips, Hotel Reviews, Safari specifics and more. But for now I’ll leave you with this – 10 stunning pictures to get your heart racing and your soul excited for what’s to come. Looking at these pictures makes me know one thing for sure – I cannot wait to go back!

10 pictures that will make you want to visit South Africa

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The vineyards of Franschhoek, Cape Winelands

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Female leopard feeding on a Kudu

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Giraffe walking through the bush at sunset

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Enjoying the sunset view from the V & A waterfront in Cape Town

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Enjoying the views of Camps Bay from the side of Table Mountain

 

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A killer view of Lions Head from halfway up Table Mountain

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 In the ice cold Indian Ocean about to go shark diving!

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The adorable penguins of Boulders Beach, Simon’s Town, ZA

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Watching the clouds roll in over Lions Head, with Robben Island in the distance

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Soaking in the view of the 12 Apostles from the peak of Lions Head

Okay…let’s make it 11. This last one is too exciting not to share. Our first animal spotting on our very first game drive!

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Spotting a herd of elephants in Kruger National Park

 

 

Hotel Review: La Petite Ferme

When in Africa on our honeymoon, we spent one night in Franschhoek exploring wine country. It was about an hour drive from Cape Town (we took uber) and reminded us a lot of Sonoma. We drove right past downtown Franschhoek and ended up at La Petite Ferme.

The property is set on a hill and looks quite modest from the front, but don’t let this fool you. We walked into the quaint, charming lobby and immediately felt at home. The lodge is an adobe style house with doorway arches, natural decor elements, and an entire wall of windows overlooking their vineyard. The entire property had a very quaint, European cottage feel. The decor was full of creams, light blues & green colors. The rooms were full of texture, including our velvet headboard, silk drapes, ornate mirrors & fireplaces, etc. Beyond the vineyard is the mountain range, which provides an absolutely stunning backdrop.

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To the left is the main dining room where we had breakfast and to the right is a bar / lounge / library area. This area has a grand fireplace with a few chairs, a small library with their wine displayed and a bar with 8 high top seats. We were seated here to sign our check-in papers while the bellman took our bags to our room. Refreshing spritzers and salty nibbles were served.

Within five minutes, our butler led us to our room…and I was floored. If I’m being honest, this room is much nicer than it looks online. We walked through a pristine courtyard with a running fountain where a set of French doors opened into our room. We stepped into a stunning library area, equipped with a sofa, two chairs, a wood burning fireplace, built ins bookshelves and an armoire cleverly storing our mini bar & coffee maker.

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From there we saw the powder room and walk down the hall into our master, which just so happens to be bigger than any bedroom I have ever lived in. It was very classic meets cozy, with our second wood burning fireplace (with freshly chopped wood in a basket), a writing desk, a flat screen television, an wardrobe, an oversized king bed and two side tables. The excitement continued when I saw the oversized soaker tub in our bathroom, overlooking our back yard pool. Yup, our bedroom had French doors that led to our private patio and infinity pool, which overlooked the vineyards I previously mentioned. 

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The next morning, we enjoyed the tasty breakfast spread served in the dining room & sunroom (each has a wood burning fireplace). The food was an English breakfast spread of fruit, cereal, pastries, breads, jams, meats (something you’ll see a lot in South Africa). There were also eggs, sausage & bacon made to order.

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I have to just take a moment to brag about the staff. From check in to check out, we were treated by the friendliest, cheerful, accommodating people. The kind wait staff heard that I had food poisoning (not from their restaurant) and so they dropped off some hot tea, extra bottled water & toast for me when they brought Terry his dinner. Our sweet butler even brought us fresh firewood and started a fire for us…twice! We also had a change to speak with the manager a good bit before breakfast and learned so much about the property. The personal touches they provided did not go unnoticed and truly made our stay that much more special.

Needless to say, we were very bummed to leave – I would have loved to stay at least two nights here. The property is stunning, the staff beyond accommodating & the room just exquisite. Everything was outstanding and I can’t imagine a better place to stay in Franschhoek.

 

Thank you to La Petite Ferme for sponsoring this post. Even though our stay was complimentary, thoughts & opinions are my own.

Iceland: 10 things to know before you go

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  1. Book everything ahead of time.

Unfortunately, Iceland is not one of those places where you can just “wing” it, especially if you’re only going for a long weekend like we did. The Blue lagoon sells out & excursions book up quickly. For example, I went online about 2 weeks ahead to purchase our Blue Lagoon tickets and every single day except one was sold out. I was shocked! We also booked FlyBus to/from the airport ahead of time so we didn’t have to waste any time buying tickets once there.

Travel Tip: If you’re there for a 24 hour or less layover, I would recommend just renting a car and doing your own tour. It will be cheaper, easier & more flexible. You can squeeze a lot into 1 day if you’re your own driver.

2. It’s expensive. Like, insanely expensive.

The only other place I’ve ever been to that even compares is Zurich, Switzerland where we paid over $50 for a B. Good salad & sandwich. Iceland is, well, and island so things are understandably priced higher than anywhere in the U.S. Food, drink, hotels, excursions – you name it, it’s expensive. I remember drinking a 12 oz Heineken Light at happy hour for “half off drinks” and my beer was $9. Yup, you read that right – that’s almost $20 for a can of beer. As long as you do your homework and you’re mentally prepared for this, you’ll be fine.

Travel Tip: Make sure you book a hotel with breakfast (most of them include it) to save!

  1. Bring your own booze & snacks.

For risk of sounding like the biggest cheapass on the planet, let me explain…so given tip #2, you’ll want to pack a variety of snacks to save money during flights and excursions. (The excursions last 8+ hours so trust me when I say, you’ll get hungry!) Also, bring water bottles to refill instead of buying bottles of water.

Travel Tip: You can buy booze & snacks duty-free at the Keflavik Airport as you arrive.

4. Pack layers.

Trust me on this one. You can read my post HERE regarding what to pack.

5. The wildlife is so different

 

Yes, this is kind of a random fact; however, I couldn’t stop talking about it! It’s one of those bizarre things that we noticed a few hours in…where are the birds? Does nobody here have pets? Am I in the twilight zone? Haha. Our tour guide from our Golden Circle Tour told us that in all of Iceland, there are no snakes or scorpions. There are minimal animals and very few native ones. All we saw were Icelandic horses and a few sheep. Believe it or not, I only saw 2 dogs the whole time I was there…two! We weren’t sure if that was because it was mostly raining or if people just don’t have as many house pets.

6. It’s not all snow

After all, this is the “land of fire and ice”. We were interested to find that although much of the land is desolate and covered by ice or rock, there are over 600 types of moss in Iceland. The moss (and the grass) cover a vast majority of the land and is insanely lush and vibrant shades of green. The water is unbelievably blue. The color are truly out of this world. It’s one of the many lures of Iceland

Travel Tip: Take many, many pictures. You won’t even need filters as the colors are beautifully saturated on their own.

7. Everyone speaks English

Maybe not a surprise to most, but it’s helpful to know. Language barriers can add an additional level of stress to travel so rest assured that you will have no problem getting around or communicating with the locals.

8. Drink all of the water

Literally. Bring a water bottle to fill up – don’t be a sucker and buy bottled water. The water everywhere is glacier fresh and ice cold – hotel sinks, water fountains, bar dispensers, you name it. This is not only a huge cost saver but their natural water is seriously the best of all!

9. Get ready to walk

In a good way! Bring shoes that are warm, comfortable & waterproof – no matter the season. We walked over 16,000 steps on day 1, over 11,000 steps on day 2. There were a lot of stairs & a lot of climbing. We felt great and exhausted at the end of each day.

10. Come with a plan

If I could give one main piece of advice when visiting Iceland, it’s to make a plan (as I mentioned in #1, #2, #3 & #9!)  There’s a lot to be prepared for – the weather, the food, the cost, etc. The list goes on and on so it’s really just best to do as much research as possible. This way, you will enjoy your trip much more!

I hope this post helped any of you planning an Iceland trip – I cannot recommend this beautiful country enough. Feel free to email me with any questions!

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Our Wedding, Part 1: The Pavilion Grand Hotel

It’s crazy to think that five short weeks ago we were checking into our hotel room at the Pavilion Grand for our wedding weekend. It feels like just yesterday that we stepped into the most beautiful hotel room in Saratoga Spring, NY and unpacked all of our clothing, gifts, wedding decor, etc. Truthfully, it felt like we had our own home for the weekend, which was exactly what we wanted.

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If you’ve been following along on this journey, you’ve read about why we chose this hotel (details here). To briefly recap, we wanted a hotel room that felt more like a “home away from home” since we were flying in over 100 guests from all over the U.S. and many of them (50+) would at some point in time, join us in the room.

I must admit, calling this a “room” is a bit misleading – our two story penthouse hotel room was over 1,000 square feet and about a million times nicer than our actual apartment. It was outfitted with huge floor to ceiling windows, high end stainless appliances, two balconies and a full size laundry room. The two-bedroom, two-and-a-half-bathroom setup was ideal for hosting. We spent Thursday night hosting a welcome reception for over 30 close family & friends (more to come on that!) and Sunday morning having brunch and pre-track drinks with more family & friends. We chose this specific hotel suite for the layout as it was ideal for hosting.

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Our exact room – bottom level living space

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Our guest bedroom – on the second floor

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The second bathroom – our master one was quite larger

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The upstairs living area, with doors leading to a large balcony

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The upstairs balcony area (didn’t snap a picture of the first floor one, which was a bit smaller)

 

The real appeal though was the “day of”…the preparation leading up to the main event. Between bridesmaids (I only had 5), hair & makeup, parents, photographers, videographers, florists, caterers & friends dropping in, I was beyond thankful to have this huge, spacious room where everyone could talk, relax & enjoy the day. We never felt overcrowded or uncomfortable. For any of you brides out there, I cannot recommend enough the importance of having space on your wedding day! This alone was worth the splurge.

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 Gifts for my bridesmaids & our parents

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Mis-matched, long blush bridesmaids dresses made for the most beautiful combination

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 Bouquets & My dress

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With my beautiful mama

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The magician makeup & hair artist, Katie

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SO glad she talked me into this bright pink lip!

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So much natural lighting in this living space

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Perhaps my favorite picture of the day

Now it would be unfair of my to share my experience without bragging on the fabulous staff at the Pavilion Grand Hotel. From the moment we arrived, we were treated like absolute royalty (doesn’t everyone want to feel this way on their wedding weekend?!). The bellman, the valet, the front desk staff – they were all so kind, friendly & professional. We had an ice cold bottle of champagne waiting in our kitchen when we arrived and they were very accommodating with every request we had.We even ordered a few meals from the on-site cafe which we wolfed down really enjoyed.

Hint to all you brides: my bridesmaids all had their hair done in the hotel salon, Make Me Fabulous, and they were amazing! Each of the girls had blowouts with a twist (one had a braid, one half up/half down, etc.) and they were beautiful, stylish & so far from “wedding hair”, which was exactly what we were going for. Seriously can’t recommend them enough.

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My beautiful bridesmaids

All in all, the Pavilion Grand Hotel was absolutely the best choice, without a doubt. They elevated our wedding weekend to the next level and made us feel like a million bucks. If you’re getting married in Saratoga Springs – stay here! You can thank me later 🙂

A huge thanks to the Pavilion Grand Hotel. Though I received a discounted rate for this post, opinions & thoughts are all my own.

Travel Guides: Santa Monica + Malibu + Santa Barbara

Last winter we took a road trip up the PCH from LA to SF…and yes, I’m just now finishing the recap. What can I say, sometimes I’m scatterbrained! You may remember our road trip plan here. Well, let me just say…all we did wrong was not make enough time. This drive is STUNNING and I am dying to do it again and spend more time in some of the places we zipped through.

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We stayed night 1 in Santa Monica at a friends condo. We hung by the rooftop pool, went for a jog on the beach, explored the area & grabbed some sushi at SugarFish. Okay, okay – I know this place has alllll of the hype (maybe because Ryan Seacrest talks about it all the time on his radio show?) but I gotta be honest- we didn’t love it. In fact, we left after our glass of wine and edamame. From the moment we walked in, the staff were a-holes quite rude, the service was horrible and we just weren’t feeling the vibe. At all. Maybe I’ll give it another try in the future, but for me this place was a miss.

Lucky for us, we found passed Blue Plate Taco on the way home and popped right in. They had a killer patio, fun music playing & a chill, friendly vibe. We had a blast drinking margs and eating tacos. Win for sure!

Our time in Santa Monica was pretty short – less than 24 hours. Given that we were coming off of a 6 hour flight, we relaxed a bit more than usual and enjoyed our time lounging. We were hoping to make it for happy hour at Shutters on the Beach but weren’t ready. Next time!

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The next morning we got up and drove a quick 30 minutes to Malibu, where we hiked the Corral Canyon Trail. It was an 2.5 miles up & down the mountain. We walked up, ran down and thoroughly enjoyed the warm sun! I swear, getting a morning workout not at the gym while on vacation is the best thing ever. We spent a couple of hours soaking in the sun while burning off last night’s margaritas – win/win! Plus, the best part of this trail is that the trail ends at Malibu Seafood- my new favorite place. It’s a seafood shop & cafe where you can sit right outside on the picnic tables and enjoy the fresh catch of the day. Highly recommend this combination of activity + food!

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Headed up the coast to Malibu

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If you’re near Malibu, check it out!

After lunch, we drove about an hour or two, stopping off here & there for photo ops- and made our way to the Four Seasons, Santa Barbara which is hands down one of the most beautiful properties I have ever seen. This is where we got engaged and where I never, ever wanted to leave. Aside from the fact that it was the best day of my life, the service was unbelievable & the property just flawless. The sprawling, lush grounds felt like a rainforest inside, with a beach outside. We spent time at the pool, the bar, the lobby & of course, on Butteryfly Beach where Terry proposed (having flashbacks & loving every moment!)

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The stunning property

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Truly felt like we were in the Mediterranean

We had our engagement dinner at Lucky’s in Montecito, a charming steakhouse with an oversized fireplace. It’s just perfect for winter. The food was delicious, service amazing & truth be told, I hardly remember any of it because I was still in shock! (Needless to say, I didn’t snap a single photo)

One other place I must mention is Jeannine’s, also in Montecito. This adorable cafe with the best outdoor patio surrounded by trees. The owner heard that we were recently engaged and sent over a celebratory dessert on the house. So thoughtful! You order at the counter and they serve your coffee & bites on a very eclectic-vintage blue & white china. It’s fabulous and you should go there.

The yummy food & darling plates at Jeannine's

The yummy food & darling plates at Jeannine’s

Lastly, no trip to Santa Barbara would be complete without a stop at McConnells ice cream. They’re world famous for a reason – the ice cream is to die for and you’ve gotta get some. Don’t leave SB without a scoop!

Next stop on our road trip was through Big Sur to Carmel-by-the-Sea. AKA Heaven – I cannot wait to share more!

ICYMI: Our weekend in Sonoma and review of the Cottage Inn & Spa

 

 

What to Pack for Iceland (in Summer)

One of the biggest challenges when traveling to Iceland is knowing what to pack. I mean, let’s be honest…when you think of Iceland you think freezing / snow / cold / ice. Am I right?! Well, interestingly enough, it can also be warm / sun / green / heat. If I can give you one piece of advice when packing for Iceland, it is pack all of the layers. This is the one thing I kept reading and let me tell you, this is the best packing advice one can give for Iceland. Thank goodness we listened!

— WHAT I PACKED —

For excursions: Various tops (sleeveless, short sleeved, long sleeved), base layers (tops & bottoms – similar to the ones we take skiing), rain shell, down jacket, puffy vest, beanies, scarves, boots & lots of socks (more than you think you’ll need!)

For the Blue Lagoon: bathing suit, flip flops, cover up.

Extras: Small backpack (to pack on excursions), sunglasses, hats, eye mask (to sleep as there is sun 24 hours), camera, go pro, chargers, refillable water bottles, protein bars, beef jerky, nuts & chocolate. (<–spoiler alert: we went through all of the snacks!)

— WHAT I ACTUALLY WORE —

Day 1: The Golden Circle

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50’s and sunny (and dry) felt g-o-o-d for Iceland!

Weather: 50s, mostly sunny, occasional drizzle in the am.

Outfit: Zella black leggings, black tank, gray LS longer shirt, black Patagonia down jacket, hiking socks, short hunter boots.

Packed: Arcteryx rain coat (only used once), gloves & extra socks

Should have packed: scarf (it was pretty windy)

Had to buy: nothing

…because there was minimal precipitation this day, I was dry & warm. I had an extra jacket that rarely got used but it was worth having. Read about our day here & here.

Day 2: Southern Iceland

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I’m smiling but really I was miserable

Weather: 40s, heavy rain off & on

Outfit: old navy black leggings, base layer Patagonia half zip, Burberry scarf, puffy vest, arcteryx rain coat, beanie, hiking socks, short hunter boots.

Packed: gloves, extra socks (used both pairs!)

Should have packed: waterproof rain pants, another pair of socks.

Had to buy: poncho because I was soaked

…even though we packed many layers and backup gear, we both got soaked. I really should have packed water-resistant pants (or ski pants) because once my base layer pants got wet, it was game over. Lesson learned! Read about our day here.

Day 3: Reykjavik

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No joke, this is the ONLY picture I have from this day!

Weather: 50s, sunny with clouds, no precipitation

Outfit: black jeans, long sleeved shirt, arcteryx rain jacket, thick-ish socks, short hunter boots, crossbody purse

Packed: a beanie & scarf in my purse

Had to buy: nothing

…while walking around Reykjavik the main thing is to have comfy shoes and a raincoat (it can seriously start/stop raining at any moment). Also be sure to bring your camera as the city is very picturesque! Read about our day here.

Bottom Line: you literally need it all. One minute it’s raining, the next it’s not! As you can see, I pretty much lived in black leggings, long sleeved tops with sweaters layered over, a shell (either wet or dry, depending on the weather) and thick socks with boots. Aside from the hellish rainy day, I was comfy, warm & dry!