My time in the air as a flight attendant and chef has allowed me to travel to some amazing destinations. This year’s travel was a little different, but nonetheless adventurous.
My travel destinations in 2022 were guided by the lingering COVID precautions still in place at the beginning of the year. Determined to still travel but maintain some level of social distancing protocol, we opted for exploring closer to home and hit the state parks of Arizona. At the beginning of the pandemic, we bought and restored a vintage Airstream Trailer, so we took advantage of having a home on wheels and hit the American road.
1. Catalina State Park
Outskirts Of Tucson
Catalina State Park on the outskirts of Tucson is a great choice. It is close to town and shops but tucked into the Santa Catalina Mountains with lots of opportunities to hike, bird watch, and explore the Coronado National Forest. The campground has gorgeous views and great amenities. We lucked out and arrived just hours before a flash flood closed the entrance to the park. It was 2 days before the water receded and we spent New Year’s enjoying the park with only the people trapped in the flood waters. The sun came out and we hiked the rugged Romero Canyon Trail. The park offers many hiking options from short, interpretive, or bird-watching loops to the grueling Sutherland Trail that climbs to 8,600 feet. The proximity to town makes it easy to enjoy a meal out. Many restaurants were still closed but we took advantage of the gorgeous weather and enjoyed a meal on the patio at Wildflour. The cocktails were creative and delicious and the food was fresh and inspired.
2. Patagonia Lake State Park
Patagonia Lake State Park is a hidden gem in southern Arizona. This small campground tucked along the shore of Patagonia Lake offers a tranquil stay with beautiful RV sites. We had great hikes along the abandoned rail line and paddle boarded on the calm lake in the mornings. The park offers guided bird-watching tours from a boat as well as narrated bird-watching hikes. The town of Patagonia offers an eclectic mix of unique shops, great food, and free Wi-Fi at the library, which you will need as cell coverage is spotty. We took advantage of the amazing gravel bike riding in the area. The Gravel House is a great resource for cycling around Patagonia.
3. The Sleeping Dog Ranch
Near Sonoita, Arizona
The Sleeping Dog Ranch near Sonoita, Arizona, isn’t a state park, but it was our favorite find for camping in southern Arizona. A friendly, funky-working ranch tucked into the Santa Rita Mountains welcomes campers in a communal campsite circle with water and electric hookups. There is a comfortable clubhouse with a complimentary washer and dryer, fast Wi-Fi, and showers. The owners are welcoming, and our dog was able to run free and spent her days watching over the chickens and sheep while we rode our gravel bikes on the many dirt roads and trails. Empire Ranch is fun to explore by bike, or you can hike the many trails available. The weather in January is cool in the morning and evening, with daytime temperatures in the 50–60 range (Fahrenheit).
The Venice Of The North
As pandemic restrictions lifted across Europe, I headed to southern Spain in March for a 2-week cycling vacation. However, heavy rains left many of the cycling routes underwater. I abandoned ship after 3 days and headed for Amsterdam, which was unexpectedly sunny and warm. The rain in Spain ate into my travel budget, so I had to do Amsterdam on the cheap side. I used Hilton points to stay at the Hampton Inn Hoofddorp near the airport. It is a 20-minute train ride to Amsterdam Central Station and costs around 5 euros ($5.33).
The best way to see Amsterdam is by bike. Skip the expensive guided tours and do it yourself. Star Bike Rentals is close to the main train station, and has great bikes at reasonable rates, a funky vintage shop, and free maps to plan your route. The owner is helpful and personable. Using an app like Strava or Google Maps makes plotting a course easy. Cycling in Amsterdam is busy and can be stressful. Having a route loaded onto your phone makes it a lot more enjoyable. Some good suggestions on city routes or exploring nearby towns can be found here.
Explore The City
Head to the public library and take the elevator to the seventh floor for a free gorgeous view of the city and surprisingly good food. If you want to splurge and explore the canals by boat, go with Those Dam Boat Guys. They are hugely informative and entertaining, and you can bring all the food and booze you want. It’s like a DIY-dinner cruise with comedy. Do a free art tour by finding mysterious and strange sculptures or tiny houses spread throughout the city.
5. Costa Del Sol
The weather and pandemic restrictions greatly improved, so I headed back to Spain in October for my missed cycling trip. Costa Del Sol may get all the hype and glamor, but further north up the coast, the Costa Blanca is less touristy, cheaper, and has gorgeous beaches and mountains.
6. Jalon Valley
Spain’s Alicante Province
Between Alicante and Valencia lies the Jalon Valley, a perfect place to cycle, hike, and enjoy nearby towns and beaches. We had gorgeous weather with daytime temperatures in the ‘70s. Lodging here is affordable with plenty of options from Airbnbs to private villas. There were five in our group, and we paid less than $250 a night for a four-bedroom villa with a pool, outdoor pizza oven (our favorite feature), and walking distance to the town of Xalo.
Spain’s Mediterranean Coast
We brought our own bikes, but there are several places to rent excellent road or electric bicycles in Calp. This is a popular area for cycling teams to train. The roads are excellent, drivers are polite, and the views are gorgeous; although, you will have to ride some big climbs to really enjoy the surrounding vistas. If cycling is not your thing or you need a day off the bike, there are many hikes and walking routes to choose from.
Another Alicante Town
Xalo has a great variety of restaurants and bars. Cyclists meet up at the popular and busy Velosol Cycling Bar for hearty sandwiches, healthy salads, and great coffee. I like the Café de Palmera for its creative menu, devastatingly good pastries, and homey atmosphere situated on the main street overlooking the river. For authentic paella and local wines, hop on your bike or drive to a mountaintop restaurant to enjoy delicious food and amazing views. For a spectacular meal with a view to match, you can hike, drive, cycle, or crawl your way up to the stunning La Venta del Callao restaurant. If you get tired of rural life and cycling, head to the beaches at Moraira or Calp for all things beach-related, nightlife, and restaurants.
I have previously volunteered for Habitat for Humanity in Africa, but the pandemic travel restrictions curtailed many humanitarian and volunteer opportunities over the past few years. So I jumped at the chance to join a build in Portugal.
Our all-women build team, Women of Hope, has been active over the last 15 years, participating in builds in Mozambique, Nepal, Paraguay, and South Africa. In October, our team headed to Braga in northern Portugal to build with the Fuller Center for Housing. Fuller Center Portugal focuses on rebuilding or completing homes in rural areas on the outskirts of larger cities. This project was refurbishing a decrepit furniture factory into six apartments for refugee and local families.
Portugal is doing an amazing job of supporting refugee families and helping them integrate into the local community. The Fuller Center is a partner with Asssociação Humanitária Domus in providing support to this effort by mobilizing volunteers, securing material donations, and involving the partner families in “sweat equity,” paying for their own home through affordable loans.
Staying at the beautiful Domus Guest House for volunteers was a treat at the end of physically demanding build days. The average age of our group is around 60, and this was the hardest build we have participated in. We learned how to jackhammer concrete, mix and haul cement, sledgehammer floors, shovel endless loads of sand into wheelbarrows, tie rebar, move mounds of bricks along the “woman line,” and perform endless tasks of demolition.
We were all tired and sore at the end of our days, but the local coordinator, Filipa, was a tireless champion. She organized delicious meals, fun outings, a tour of Braga, and constant and welcoming positive feedback. I highly recommend searching out international volunteer opportunities. It is a great way to learn about a country and be a small part of supporting a local community.