Into the Wilderness: Exploring the Minnesota Gunflint Trail

Seagull lake

Wildflowers burst along the side of the road and clear lakes sparkled in the warm sun. The scent of the pines covering the gently rolling hills filled the air. And just when I thought life couldn’t possibly be more spectacular in the far northern wilderness of Minnesota along the Gunflint Trail, I was caught in a sudden hailstorm—both humbled and proved completely right. Life is spectacular here.

Although I grew up in the Twin Cities, I’d never ventured farther than Two Harbors when I was younger. Thankfully, two of my siblings have spent decades exploring Minnesota and know where the treasures are tucked away—which is how I came to Grand Marais.

A town of 1,300 people just 40 south of the border with Canada, Grand Marais is many things: Coolest small town in America, French butter scones at The Pie Place, a haven for angry seagulls, jumping off point for gorgeous waterfalls and hikes, and a gateway to the endless Boundary Waters.

grand marais bear pentraveler
I mean, yea. You make a cozy with ears for your wooden bear statue, and you deserve the “coolest small town” ranking.

Grand Marais is also the start of the Gunflint Trail, a very old route for the Ojibwa, the original people of northern Minnesota, and from the 1700s, a trading/traveling route for the early Europeans on the continent. Today, the Gunflint Trail is a route into the wilderness—which you know because you pass a sign with an old-timey voyageur carrying a canoe and a bear in a boat as you turn onto County Road 12 from downtown Grand Marais. And then another trail sign for good measure on a water tank with a moose.

The Gunflint has enough experiences to keep you enthralled for weeks, and enough draw to keep me longing for it even now, weeks back home. If I had to choose (so hard to choose!), here are my Top Five on the Gunflint:

1. Canoe and portage the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.

A 1,090,000-acre wilderness of lakes separated by slivers of forest, hills and glacier-carved rocks, the Boundary Waters stretches from Lake Superior 150 miles west to Voyageurs National Park. With canoes rented from Stone Harbor Outfitters in Grand Marais and my brother’s 10-year-old Princess Pug who had never spent a day hiking in her life, we were totally prepared and excited to explore a small piece of the wilderness.

pug in canoe in boundary waters
This oh-so-dainty Pug can be a bit of a princess. “I’ve never seen a pug in the Boundary Waters before,” one canoer said to us on one of the lakes. Unspoken, but clear from his tone: “I’m not really sure there should be a pug in the Boundary Waters.”

Our route was simple on paper: Clearwater Lake-portage-Caribou Lake-portage-Little Caribou Lake-portage-Pine Lake-Johnson Waterfalls-return. (I swear, on a map, it looks both short and easy.)

Fifteen seconds into the first portage, we realized this was not going to be so easy. First, although the canoes only weighed 40 pounds, we didn’t have shoulder pads for carrying them (major mistake!), so the wood bit into muscles. Second, the portage path was a mud slush over our ankles for nearly 1 mile on the first portage. Third, Princess Pug decided trotting through mud was something she definitely did not want to do.

But being three out of four hardy Midwestern stock, and one very in-shape East Coaster—well, and one city-only-ever-until-now Pug—we sucked it up and took turns portaging the canoes and the pug, trudging through the mud. All of which was immediately forgotten on heavenly Caribou Lake, with its glassy water and only the sounds of birds and the breeze for company.

Caribou Lake MN
More proof that Minnesota in the summer can’t be beat.

Seven hours and fourteen miles later (never believing deceptively easy maps again!), we treated ourselves to 12-inch malts at quirky Trail Center restaurant while the now thoroughly muddy Adventure Pug slept in the car.

2. Discover movie-perfect lodges and quirky restaurants.

Tucked away along the Gunflint Trail are very Northern Minnesota quirky and delicious restaurants catering to locals as well as explorers. If you like beer-battered walleye and wild rice, you will be in heaven. And if you don’t like those two Minnesota staples, please just go on to Wisconsin.

In addition to perfect malts, Trail Center Restaurant has to-die-for bread pudding French toast with pumpkin-spiced maple syrup. If I ever had to eat only one food ever, this would be it. I might end up weighing something like a baby elephant, but I would be happy. And baby elephants are adorable anyway. Trail Center also has 14-inch round, 2-inch thick flapjacks, for which they offer: Eat 3 and they’re free!

pentraveler Trail Center restaurant
The pancakes are about the size of this wheel that hangs from the ceiling at quirky and delicious Trail Center Restaurant on the Gunflint Trail.

Further down the road, the Gunflint Lodge looks like it’s from the setting of a romantic comedy—beautiful wood lodge right on a stunning lake. This one just happens to look across to Canada. (Plot line: Minnesota fisherwoman bumps into Canadian fleeing via the lake. Big reveal: it’s Justin Trudeau! You’re welcome, Hollywood!) The lightly beer-battered walleye with mango chutney and wild rice are as dreamy as the scenery.

wildflowers on the Gunflint Trail
Gunflint Trail so pretty.

3. Look for wildlife during a drive along the Gunflint Trail.

Lupine and other wildflowers (invasive but beautiful) line the roadside, and lakes peak through the pines. In the winter, moose are often sighted licking salt from the road at night.

As my brother the Minnesota birder told us how he’s never seen a lynx in the wild, we crested a slight hill on the Gunflint Trail and in front of us on the road lay—a lynx, clearly injured. At up to 40 pounds and three feet long, these brown and white wild cats are a federally threatened species and roam just a few remote parts of Minnesota. Which doesn’t stop many people from thinking they see them frequently in their backyard, calling the DNR to report a lynx when really it’s just Puddles the Neighbor’s Cat.

We watched as this massive cat staggered to its feet, a paw bent fully backward, and all winced for the animal. Thankfully, it hobbled off the road to avoid further injury, and my brother called the DNR to assist as soon as we got back to service.

lynx in northern MN
Even injured, this powerful Lynx we saw along the Gunflint Trail looked like the powerhouse of a hunter that it is. Hard to imagine confusing house cats for this, but well.

4: Revel in Mother Nature’s summer randomness.

Just a few miles before the Gunflint Trail ends at Gull Lake, my friend and I rented a canoe for a leisurely afternoon paddle on Seagull Lake around on its many islands, sure it would be another gorgeous day like earlier in the week with my brother.

Except as we paddled out, we struggled to maintain forward movement into waves from 10-15 mph winds. And then dark clouds appeared on the horizon. And then we were a little lost in the many islands.

Just as lightening appeared in the much-closer and getting-darker clouds, we docked on a small island and identified the best rock and pine to huddle under. Within minutes, pea-sized hail pelted the ground as thunder shook my bones. The downpour soaked through our pine covering as we watched the islands disappear behind a sheet of rain.

With what looked like a short break in the clouds, we speed-paddled back to the dock, only to get soaked by another wall of rain.

But then, just as quickly, the clouds moved on, and we were back to sunshine and glassy water. I couldn’t help but laugh at the changing weather. Mother Nature in the summer in Minnesota never fails to surprise.

Seagull lake
In about 1.5 hours, we experienced high winds, a hail storm, severe downpour, and glassy water on Seagull Lake near the end of the Gunflint Trail.

5: Watch the sunset at Honeymoon Bluff.

From Clearwater Road, the pull-off for a short hike up to Honeymoon Bluff is a perfect end to a day on the Gunflint. From a rock outcropping high above Hungary Jack Lake, the sun sets over the pines and the world glows a soft gold to pastel pinks and blues.

honeymoon bluff MN
As the sun set over Hungry Jack Lake, I felt so full.

I long to be back there now, exploring hidden treasures in the sweet air and ever-changing skies. After two amazing Minnesota summer trips in a row, I’m already dreaming of where to explore next in my long-ago home state.

Paradise is Kauai: Top Five Dreamy Experiences on the Garden Isle

Lush tropical forests, sweet clean air, razor-thin ridges that plunge to the sparkling ocean, and gold-pink sunsets—Kauai is a dream from which you don’t want to awaken.

Recently my friend and I spent two weeks in Kauai chasing sunsets, exploring verdant valleys, and laying on as many beaches as possible. The northern most island of the Hawaiian chain, Kauai has 113 miles of shoreline, of which 50 are beaches, so plenty to explore.

Yes, it was a hard two weeks, but I did it for you, Dear Readers.

Okay, I did it for me, too (mostly for me). The only negative: I returned with little pinch-mark bruises on my arms, since about 10 times a day I had to make sure I was awake and this was all real.

Kauai Poipu sunset
This sunset was real at Po’ipu Beach on the south shore of beautiful Kauai. Everything in this blog really happened, as dreamy as it sounds.

 

If for some tragic reason you can only spend three days in Kauai, here is my must-do Kauai dreams list. The most beautiful, least populated sights required some effort, but were well worth it.

Top Five Dreamy Things to Do in Kauai

Number 1: Take a boat ride along the Na Pali Coast. Yes, you have to get up early (6:45 a.m. arrival to Hanalei Bay). Yes, it may be raining as you wade in the ocean to board your boat. Don’t let these details stop you.

Stretching 15 miles along the northwest shore of Kauai, the Na Pali coast is wild and so severe in formation that only a one-to-three-foot wide hiking trail hugs its cliffside. Otherwise, you can see it by helicopter or boat.

By boat, we sped out of the bay (quite nicely drenched) and as promised the rain dissipated; a massive rainbow stretched from the cliffs to the ocean. The boat hugged the coastline for most of the four-hour tour, and we saw waterfalls 1,800 feet tall plunging through green valleys and spilling out at the ocean, razor-thin cliffs making a cathedral of nature, and battered sea caves opening to the sun. We snorkeled in 30-feet deep crystal clear water, and three pods of dolphins jumped along in the white wake of our boat.

Version 2
When you are staring at one of the most spectacular coastlines in the world, and a rainbow appears, and then DOLPHINS start jumping in front of you—you’ve kind of got to be like: Ok, Nature, dial it back a bit. I got it.

Number 2: Snorkel at Po’ipu Beach. Most of my friends are well acquainted with my (totally rational) fear of sharks in any body of water, let alone the ocean. So I did not commit to snorkeling before we arrived in Kauai. I had, however, committed quite bravely to wading out to mid-shin.

When we arrived on the south shore of Kauai at Po’ipu Beach to read and lay about, I noted the presence of maybe 15 snorkelers swimming inside a reef, which broke the large ocean waves from shore. Through narrowed eyes peering over the top of my kindle, I observed the snorkelers carefully for signs of distress, large pools of blood, or missing limbs as they exited the water.

After an hour, there still seemed to be about 15 of them. No shark losses.

My friend returned from the snorkel rental shop with two sets of masks and fins, so I made the (insanely brave) decision to give it a go. Wading out, I clung to his arm and insisted he swim on the side with the deeper (more sharks) water, because I’m just that good of a person.

In 30 minutes of snorkeling, I hyperventilated only three times, freaked out eight times, and saw at least ten types of incredible fish. Which I took as a rousing success, and even went back twice.

poipu beach
Po’ipu Beach, which has spectacular snorkeling and watching for people who are potentially about to get bitten by sharks. 

Number 3: Watch the sunset and stars at Polihale Beach. As you drive west in Kauai—which you certainly will do if you want to avoid the rain showers that briefly pass through the north and east sides of the island—you will eventually come to the end of the road, where a sign points to Polihale. Make a left, and for six miles you bounce along a dirt, deeply cratered road.

As in, we traveled six miles in 40 minutes. (During which time, we went through varying stages of Jeep and massive truck envy as they zoomed past our compact rental.)

But at the end of that road was Polihale Beach, an unbroken wide stretch of wilderness that fires the heart. We walked to the northern end of the beach where the sand stops and the NaPali coastline begins, marveling at the sheer cliffs. Strong wind whipped the sand against our skin even as the sun kept us warm, so we ducked behind one of the sand dunes back from the water and napped.

By sunset, the wind calmed, and we watched the sun sink below the ocean. As the light faded, we watched the stars pop into the sky. No towns anywhere near to create ambient light, we returned in pitch darkness, the stars shining as neon points in a blanket of black. Only the croaks of frogs and the swish of the breeze in tall grass accompanied us out.

Polihale Beach
We had Polihale Beach almost to ourselves. Well, to ourselves and a few nudists taking selfies. But mostly to ourselves.

Number 4: Hike to a 410-foot waterfall. Kauai has so many waterfalls, two weeks isn’t enough to come close to seeing them all. Of the ones I did see, Hanakapi’ai Falls was my favorite, partially because of the strenuous route to get there, which requires hiking the first two miles of the Kalalau Trail, often ranked as one of the world’s best hikes. At just .5 miles in (and several hundred feet up), we encountered stunning views of the Na Pali coast. At 2 miles in, we arrived at Hanakapi’ai Beach, where you do not swim—as attested to by makeshift memorials for hikers who have done so. 

From the beach, we hiked into the heart of the Hanakapi’ai Valley through lush and changing vegetation, including palm trees, blankets of hot pink flowers, and soaring bamboo. Following days of heavy rain on the north shore, we crossed four major (sign-warned) streams, 14 minor streams, and slogged through miles of muddy trail—twice. Some distance up the trail, we learned from a returning hiker that a group of hikers had been caught on the opposite bank of a stream crossing the day before during a flash flood, and had spent the night there.

Now, granted, Kauai has no predators in the wild (but a heck of a lot of wild chickens) and no snakes. The average temperature in April ranges from 69F at night to 79F in the day. There are worse places to get caught overnight.

The Hanakapi’ai waterfall was a cooling reward, its spray fiercely coating everything nearby given its four-lane width. I ate lunch and admired both Hanakapi’ai and the six other falls spilling down the cliffs.

Hanakapiai Falls
Oh, just another gorgeous thing in Kauai. Hanakapi’ai Falls, a 4+ mile hike along the Na Pali coast and then into a very muddy and gorgeous valley.

Number 5: Explore Waimea Canyon. There is an easy way and less-easy-but-more-gorgeous way to do this. Easy = drive and stop at the five viewpoints that put you on the edges of the “Grand Canyon of Hawaii.” Less-easy but so much more rewarding = hike some of the many miles of trails in the park.

waimea canyon 2
You make it to the overlook, where you are hanging on the top edge of this canyon, and one thought undoubtedly rises stronger than any other: Meh.

From the final viewpoint of the canyon’s drive, the Alaka’i Swamp trail took us 8 miles and 5.5 hours to hike. Every curve was breathtaking, from walking along a brick red ridge on the top of the trees to a meandering boardwalk through a swamp at 3500 feet, and then, finally, hiking right into and through a cloud.

And somehow in all the beauty of the rest of that hike, I keep forgetting to mention—it began on a ridge overlooking a lush valley that plunges to the ocean (which happens to be Kalalau Valley, which you hopefully saw by boat earlier!).

Akali swamp trail Kauai
It was really hard picking photos for this blog post. Kauai is just too freaking gorgeous. These are the clouds rolling in over the top of the island, which you float along during your hike on the Alaka’i Swamp trail.

Incredibly Close Runners Up: More Amazing Things to Do in Kauai

You would probably regret missing any of these, too, so definitely take more than three days for Kauai if you are an outdoors-lover. I also can’t recommend enough:

  • Chilling to live music, Mai Tai in hand, at Duke’s Bafefoot Restaurant on the beach in Lihue.
  • Hanging (from afar) with sea turtles and monk seals (both protected, so don’t get too close) that come up on the shore in Po’ipu.
  • Drinking the best-ever fresh juice at Kauai Juice Co.
  • Savoring coconut and pineapple pancakes at Olympic Café in Kapa’a.
  • Finding serenity with yoga on the beach at sunrise.
  • Discovering your favorite beach.

Bottom line: Hard to go wrong in Kauai. The only wrong decision, it turns out, might be to return to the mainland.

Version 2
One more dreamy shot of the Na Pali coast, this one from the Kalalau Trail .5 mile viewpoint.

Walking the Path of the Gods in Italy

In Italy, the evidence of belief is everywhere in gorgeous, glorious form. The columns of the Temple of Vesta stand sentinel over the remains of Rome’s ancient forum, a radiant dove watches from high above St. Peter’s tomb in the Basilica, and carved into smooth marble, Cupid and Psyche embrace for eternity in Florence’s Uffizi museum. But of all the beautiful buildings and prized masterpieces in Italy, I found conviction most clearly in the landscape—Amalfi Coast’s Path of the Gods.

I’d originally envisioned a January hike through the Amalfi Peninsula as another multi-day Patagonia-like affair, including one day on the famous Path of the Gods, or Sentiero degli Dei. It seemed entirely possible from the blogs and one book on the topic, and I’d done at least three whole hours of planning. My friend and I would hike from the town of Amalfi to the town of Sant’Agata over three days, stopping for pasta and wine and a comfortable bed.

Hard to go wrong.

Of course, when we arrived to Salerno—the point for which we would take a SITA bus to Amalfi—it was snowing and windy, and everything absolutely did go wrong.

Undeterred, and with a slightly-above-freezing temperature in Praiano the next morning, my friend and I asked our hotel owner for directions to the Path of the Gods. He took us to the window and traced the path we would climb up the steep mountainside. It wouldn’t be the full Path of the Gods, but it would be the most beautiful part.

“Up to the convent, then up again, over to that town, then down to Positano,” he explained. “Two hours, no problem.”

path of the gods pentraveler
From Praiano, the Path of the Gods is straight up to a convent, then west to Nocelle, then down to Positano.

“Easy peasy,” I said to my friend. “I bet we could make it all the way to the end of the peninsula if we wanted to.”

amalfi peninsula pentraveler
Just to be clear on the extent of my delusion–you can barely see the end of the peninsula in this photo. I thought I could hike this whole thing in one day. On the plus side, no one can say I’m lacking self-confidence.

The hotel owner pointed us to the stairs across the street from our hotel, conveniently marked with a “Path of the Gods” sign. Up we climbed through the town’s narrow stairs, flanked by white houses and framed with bright pink flowers and lemon trees. Painted Roman myths mixed with Christian paintings and sculptured gods dotted the climb along the stair’s wall and then the forest as we gained elevation.

path of the gods 1 pentraveler
I think this is Medusa.Or the sun with curly rays.

Thankfully, the wind had quieted today, none of the fierce gusts of the previous days in Italy this trip.  The sun rose and warmed our skin, although a broken pipe pouring water into a spontaneous ice sculpture reminded us that it was still quite cold.

At about stair number 1,000+, we reached the convent of San Domenico and the church of Santa Maria a Castro, a sweet rest stop. Two men and a dog arrived shortly after us—one, the caretaker of the convent, opened the small church and asked if we wanted a snack.

Never one to turn down an espresso in Italy, I chatted with the man, practicing my Italian.

He said for a few days in the summer everyone from the village comes up to the small church for a special mass, the whole area lit with candles. Inside, the church was cool and dark, its frescoed walls looking untouched since the 1400s when it was built.

san domenico pentraveler
Easy to imagine this beautiful church from the 1400s filled with candlelight.

Freshly caffeinated, we continued up past the church, where the Path of the Gods was immediately less clear. Exposed small rocks led up with a sharp vertical drop to the side. We scrambled up, wondering aloud if we were still on the path.

But then—a sign. (An actual one, no doves or anything like that.) To the right, a hike to the summit, and to the left, continuing the path to Positano. We veered left, walking the two-foot ledge fit snuggly into the cliff. I say “snuggly”, because I am happy being literally dangled from a rope two stories high, but if you have a fear of heights, this is probably not the path for you.

path of the gods 3 pentraveler
It helps to think of these types of paths in comforting terms because otherwise you might just be terrified you are 400m/1300ft+ above sea level with a sheer drop to your left.

Time faded as we followed the mountains’ curves into hollows and out along its ridges. We passed a ruined house and belled goats roaming above us on the mountainside. The path widened briefly, where a couple sat snacking on the most amazing location for a picnic bench I’ve ever seen. White and orange markers reassured from time to time that we were, in fact, going the right way.

mary statue path of the gods pentraveler
Every second of the Path of the Gods is breathtaking. Sometimes because you think you are going to fall off the cliff edge, but mostly because of the view.

The exposed cliff toyed with perspective, feeling never quite closer to our final destination, and I finally admitted there was no way we were making it to the edge of the peninsula today.

Eventually, we started a descent that curved back along a hollow into a wooded area, then out again with guard rails appearing as we approached the town of Nocelle.

guardrail path of the gods pentraveler
Don’t be fooled, guard rails are very rare on the Path of the Gods.

In Nocelle, the first sight that greeted us: The Kiosk of the Path of the Gods. Closed. “Get your prosecco here!” the sign said anyway.

I glowered at the sign. I wanted that a bubbly drink very much after the last four hours. Why had our owner said only two?! Until that moment, I’d been quite happy with our nearly solo January walk—we’d passed only seven other hikers the whole time. But faced with a closed refreshing beverage shop, I had my moment of doubt.

Just then, two cats appeared, purring like little motor boats, so I took the solace they offered, and we started the descent through lovely Nocelle. 1,700 stairs of descent, to be exact.

nocelle stairs pentraveler
Purring cats in Nocelle tried their hardest to make up for the closed beverage shops.

By the time we reached the road, I was ready to fall to my knees—not just in gratitude for being done with the stairs, but also because 1,700 stairs is A LOT.

We crawled/walked the last stretch to Positano and collapsed into the first restaurant we found open along the beach. With a glass of prosecco and gnocchi on the table, the stairs were forgiven and I found all that was left in my heart was the lightness, once again, of a beautiful experience.

positano sunset pentraveler
The sunset over the Mediterranean Sea in January from the nearly empty beach in Positano is something to behold, and hold onto, long after it has sunk below the waters.

Traveling with wrong and light on the Amalfi Coast

Amalfi view at sunset

As the sun sinks lower over the steep mountainside 3km up from the town of Amalfi, Italy, I shift my backpack forward, and a bubble of laughter escapes my lips. My friend and I just finished descending 300 steep steps to the hotel where we’d booked a room for the night, only to find it definitely, fully shut down. Now we have 300 steps back up to the roadside—and the nearly empty road—with our bags and no working phones.

“CIAO!” I yell, laughing fully this time.

Absolutely everything about this day has not gone according to plan—which has made it my favorite day so far on this two-week Italian trip.

Pastries in Sicily
Another cannolo? Why, yes, grazie! We were probably a combined 30 pounds heavier post-Sicily portion of the trip.

Lost and delayed

First, there was the Catania, Sicily, airport, where we couldn’t figure out how to leave our rental car. No attendants, no instructions. Just our flight time approaching rapidly. And again, no phone. (Note to self for next trip: Pay the extra $10 to turn on international service!)

Thankfully, a kind stranger passed by and pointed to a box where we should drop the car key, about five feet from where we stood. (He was also kind enough to not roll his eyes, raise an eyebrow, or make other totally warranted comments about dumb tourists.) We dropped the key, and then wandered the perimeter of the walled and wired parking lot, unable to locate the exit. Just as we were starting to ration out the remainder of the cannoli—it had been at least 12 hours since the last—a freezing blast of wind hurried us along.

Oh, did I mention it was below 32F? Ever since we’d visited Erice, a castle on the top of a mountain, we’d had fierce wind and cold—very un-Sicily like weather.

By the time our plane landed in Naples, we were a few hours behind schedule. The tourist information booth advised on a bus to Salerno, from where we would take another bus to Amalfi. But by the time the bus was 30 minutes late, we caught a horn-obsessed taxi to the Naples train station. Cars and people packed into chaotic, lively streets, and we were most certainly no longer in laid-back Sicily.

Delayed and freezing

We disembarked the train in Salerno and I couldn’t stop laughing—because not only was it sunny, it was somehow snowing, too. In southern Italy, where the averages are usually 45-55F in January.

As the wet, windy snow smacked us across the face, I asked a fruit vendor when and where the bus to Amalfi departed.

“No, no,” he said. “It’s not running today because of the snow.”

Va bene,” I said. “All right.” Except it was definitely not.

Freezing and kinda screwed

We ducked into a café and I had my third espresso for the day. While divine inspiration continued to elude me, we loitered outside the café.

Three burly, bearded men approached us at the corner, cigarettes hanging from their lips.

“Are you lost?” the burliest one asked, in perfect English.

I smiled widely and sent up a “grazie!” because here was divine intervention in the flesh—the travel angel.

If you’ve traveled extensively, you know what I’m talking about—a stranger who helps you find your bus, or hotel, or a secret spot to eat with no motivation other than helping a foreigner who is clearly hopelessly lost and clueless.

Now just delayed again 

Over the next ten minutes, the trio found where we could buy tickets, when the next bus would arrive (not canceled after all!), and directed us to the exact bus spot, finding us again even after we thought (wrongly) we were on the right path.

The bus ride to Amalfi unwound like a dream—switchbacks tucked in tight U-shapes into the cliffside, the ocean a sheer drop to the left. The sun haloed clouds and outlined castles on outcrops. I overused “Wow.”

Amalfi coast views
Awe-inspiring and carsick-inducing views await along the Amalfi Coast road in Italy.

From the town of Amalfi, we caught a bus to our hotel-keeper meet-up point on a road 3km up the mountainside from the town. While no one was waiting as promised, we saw the sign for our hotel and remembered the 300-steps-down description. So down we went through the lemon and orange tree groves, tucked into narrow winding terraces.

Stairs in Amalfi
If anyone tries to tell you 300 steps aren’t that much, they are using an alternative fact.

Which is what we’re walking back up now. And why even though it’s getting dark and there seems to be absolutely no one else on this mountainside and we still have 200-some steps to go back up, the scenery is so lovely that I really don’t mind at all.

“CIAO!” I yell again, figuring if we can find a person with a phone, we can at least call the hotel keeper.

“HELLO!” I switch to English in the completely unrealistic chance anyone who is listening doesn’t realize I am not actually Italian and do, in fact, need assistance.

Unhelped but also fine minus a little huffing and puffing, we arrive back at the top of the stairs and start walking back down the road as the sun sets.

Amalfi view at sunset
Beautiful views make everything better, even after 600 steps up and down from an abandoned hotel.

Just as I’m ready to flag down a passing car, we spot a roadside market and ask to use their phone to call the hotel number. A man answers, and we work out a deal with him after explanations pass on both sides. He takes us back into Amalfi, from where we catch the 8th transport of the day to Praiano, just 6.3 miles west on the peninsula.

We hop off the bus and thankfully our hotel for the next night is open and has space, so we settle in. The hotel owner points us to the two open restaurant options, where I inhale the most amazing spaghetti with cherry tomatoes and red wine on our red-and-white checkered tablecloth, set across the room from a wood-burning pizza oven.

Outside the window, a stiff wind sways a tall tree’s neon-lit branches, and I find that I can’t stop smiling.

Nearly everything went wrong today, and yet, I’ve never felt so light.

Praiano in January
Lovely Praiano in the early morning January light, quiet and beautiful.

Finding Heaven and Home on the North Shore

Sunrise on the North Shore of Lake Superior, Minnesota.

I left Minnesota at 17 and promised I would never, ever live there again. The winters are too cold (-4C/24F as a high should not be a thing). The land is too flat. Everyone thinks Fargo is a part of your state. Tornadoes.

But, oh, Minnesota summers.

Now, that’s another thing altogether. The air is clean and buzzes with cicadas. Oaks and maples and willows rustle in soft breezes and the 10,000 lakes come alive with laughter from beach-goers and bird songs. Fireflies create magic shows at dusk — little bursts of light as you walk through the woods. Thunderstorms rattle your windows and bones and you snuggle in tighter to watch the lightening and wait out the pounding rain.

mn-best-and-worst
Good and bad things about living in Minnesota.

A few weeks ago, my friend and I were looking for a quick ocean getaway location. But with a heat wave hitting everywhere along the East Coast, a radical idea popped into my head and out my mouth: “What if we went to the North Shore?”

The North Shore of what exactly, you ask?

A little slice of heaven on earth, in fact.

Specifically, this slice is along Lake Superior in Minnesota. (Ok, so technically, it’s only heaven on earth for a few months of the year unless you are a polar bear.)

The coastline of Lake Superior, Minnesota
Look! So beautiful! For at least three months every year!

The North Shore stretches from Duluth, Minnesota, through the border with Canada, and arches all the way to Sault Ste. Marie in Ontario. The greatest of the Great Lakes, Lake Superior is the largest freshwater lake in the world by surface area and third largest in volume. It is so big that almost half of Florida would fit inside its shores.

Actually, I am pretty sure it would be okay to lose Florida, so consider that a suggestion.

Technical map of states that could fit into Lake Superior.
Technical map of states that could fit into Lake Superior.

I’ve been back to Minnesota off and on over the years to visit family, but I hadn’t been back to take just relax and explore, so that’s what my friend and I decided to do.

From Minneapolis, we rented a car, skirted Lake Wobegon and a few Paul Bunyan and Babe statues, and arrived three hours later at a recommendation from my sister: New Scenic Café.

Just north of Duluth and across the street from the lake (“It’s big, but I can still see the other side,” my friend said, not yet impressed), New Scenic Café should be a required stop if you are in the area. Armed with a Duluth Bent Paddle beer, we started with honey-glazed figs, followed with an heirloom tomato and truffle oil sandwich and finished with a passionfruit panna cotta.

This was not the Minnesota fare I remembered.

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This is the Minnesota fare I remembered.

From there, we hugged the road that hugged the lake, and drove a bit farther to our home for a few days, a wood cabin right on the shore. To celebrate our arrival, we popped open a bottle of wine and parked in lounge chairs beneath a big oak along the water. For breakfast, the lodge offered us wild rice and cranberry pancakes and trout lightly fried with wild rice batter. Oh, and a hot plate of homemade cinnamon rolls for good measure.

Full and happy, my friend was at this point sufficiently impressed with the lake’s size. “Maybe we should swim,” he suggested.

“Maybe you should swim,” I suggested.

Instead, we hiked at Tettegouche State Park and stood in awe at the shoreline and waterfalls. More wild rice dishes for late lunch, local beer, and a bedtime of 6 p.m. Oh, yea, we were partying hard.

High Falls at Tettegouche State Park
50-foot High Falls at Tettegouche State Park is a few miles of easy hiking into the park.

The next day, we biked to Split Rock Lighthouse, which was built after 29 ships were destroyed or damaged in one violent November storm on the lake. Lake Superior has long treated ships like they were silly toys trespassing on her domain — since 1816, 240 ships have been destroyed or damaged in just one area of Lake Superior (affectionately known as the Graveyard of the Great Lakes). Even in recent history, the SS Edmund Fitzgerald sank in 1975 on the lake during a fierce November storm of hurricane-force winds and waves 35 feet high, swallowing the crew of 29.

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Split Rock Lighthouse on the North Shore of Lake Superior in Minnesota.

On our way back, we found a secret little rocky beach and napped in a hammock, determined to stay up until at least a non-senior citizen hour tonight. For dinner, we switched it up with a Minnesota-style pizza (very flat and not crisp) and local beer and a game of speed cornhole, which I totally won, which makes sense, since being good at cornhole is a requirement if you live in the Midwest at any point in your life.

Our last day, we commandeered a free canoe from the lodge and paddled out on the lake. I was completely calm and chill about the fact that I could see clearly 35 feet down in the water, a brown film covering the rocky bottom. It didn’t bother me at all that if I fell into the water I would be freezing in its average depths of 483 feet and most assuredly immediately gobbled up by a giant fish, who could see me easily through this clear water and was obviously trailing our canoe already just waiting for that to happen.

Nope, I was totally cool and collected.

Canoeing Lake Superior
I believe that is the tip of a lake shark along the rocks in the middle of the photo. It’s a real thing. Just ask any Minnesotan.

We (okay, fine, mostly my friend) paddled until we found a little river coming out from the mainland, and turned in, sure we were going to hit Gooseberry Falls, the most visited state park in Minnesota. Yellow flowers reflected in the still river, a murky brick red after the clear lake.

After a few turns, the sound of the waterfall louder and louder, we hit water too shallow to continue, so beached and walked up.

Gooseberry Falls MN
The official story is that we paddled over the Gooseberry Falls.

Returning back home to the city where I live now was harder than I expected, with its traffic and rush and what-do-you-do and who-do-you-knows.

“What if I just live on the North Shore?” I asked my friend.

“You’d starve in winter,” he said.

“But I’d totally have a greenhouse,” I said.

“Well, then maybe you’d be okay. But awfully cold.”

Now I’m beginning to wonder: Is it possible that that little Minnesota star has just been in hibernation inside me all these years? Flannel shirts and ice skating and snow angels and summers with fireflies and thunderstorms—I feel a longing tight in my chest. Maybe these do still feel like home, even after all the amazing places I’ve lived and traveled in the last 15 years.

Maybe they’ve always been home, even when I’ve sworn they weren’t.

It’s as if someone with a lutefisk is gently slapping my cheek, in a Minnesota-nice kind of way: Never say never. You betcha you’ll come back.

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Sunrise on the North Shore of Lake Superior, Minnesota.

Season by Season: Fall in Love with Where You Are

Like a shy suitor, Padova, Italy, has revealed itself to me slowly over the last year and a half. Never quite sure where I would like to call home, this city has won me over, brick by brick, season by season.

After five years of feeling like I didn’t fit where I lived, this slow intertwining of myself with Padova is a gift.

I am falling in love with where I am.

Winter: Solstice and ghosts

I first visited Padova with my sister in the dead of winter 2014 — literally, on the shortest day of the year, winter solstice. Arriving here from sunny, brash Rome, we were cold, and it was dark and so medieval — close-in streets, cobblestones, almost dreary. I half-expected knights to round a corner with someone in chains, miserable and wet, in tow.

We met up with Dan, an Italian friend of mine from a lifetime ago in the jungle of Amazonian Ecuador, who kindly showed us Padova’s strange astrological clock in the main square and introduced us to the joys of a cocktail called “spritz.”

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Designed in the 1400s, this clock is curiously missing one of its 12 astrological signs.

At night, we walked the city’s streets, quiet and nearly alone with the city’s university out of session for the holiday. The specola loomed out of the darkness, a 1,000-year-old tower with a complex history of torture, defense and even discovery — in the late 1700s, it was converted to an astronomical observatory.

We wandered to a lovely circular open garden, where a huge Christmas tree warmed the space with lights, and a few couples marveled. I imagined this is where the ghosts of the specola come to spend their time in the long cold nights.

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I imagine ghosts glide across the bridges to Prato della Valle in Padova.

I imagined I could return here some day.

Fall: Every movie ever about Italy

The day after returning in September, I joined new friends at a neighbor’s vineyard near Padova to pick grapes (not grapefruit, as was originally explained to me, to my great confusion).

Here, I met Paolo, a 70-something-year-old who proceeded to create the most Italian experience I could possibly imagine in all my “Walk in the Cloud” dreams — but for real.

First, we sat in a stone building, the door thrown open wide to let the lovely early fall warmth circulate. Paolo began loading the table as he finished preparing dishes: risotto with fresh-grated cheese. Salami with bread. Homemade strawberry wine. Grappa — northern Italy’s grain alcohol of choice — white wine, coffee.

Paolo chatted on toward me as if I completely understood what he was saying (I had absolutely no idea) but I smiled wide anyway, happy to be in what felt like a real-life enactment of the vineyard scene in every movie set in Italy I’ve ever seen.

Only after we were good and decently liquored up were we given a pair of sharp scissors and sent into the vineyards. I snipped along, the majority of the grapes making it into the basket below but a fair number into my mouth — juicy, sweet and rich explosions on the tongue. The sun lowered in the sky as Paolo’s cat Mimi meowed along with us in the field.

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Sweet mimi followed us to the fields for grape picking.
At the end of the row, we took a mildly-earned break for more wine (really, we were just starting to sober up) and salami and coffee. And heck, why not, one more shot of grappa.

Spring: Poetry and invention

Last weekend, I parked myself at café on a plaza next to a profusion of white blossoming trees. I ordered a café and chocolate croissant (in Italian, thank you very much!) that sticky-flaked on my fingers.

I thought about how this was the appropriate moment to use Italian’s newest word, petaloso, which means “full of petals,” and was added by blessing of the Italian Language Academy that makes such decisions just this February. A young boy wrote this word for a class paper, and instead of correcting him, his teacher submitted it to the Academy. They agreed.

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A perfect example of “petaloso.” (Padovan friends, please don’t disown me for this!)
Now, my new Italian friends, with one exception, hate this word and love to talk about how ridiculous it is. I have since suggested other new words — biciloso (full of bikes) and vinoloso (full of wine) — with no success so far.

A man walks by, asking to another man, “Hai visto la luna? / Did you see the moon last night?”

I think: Yes, and I was struck (lunaloso).

Summer: Inside and known

I have yet to know Padova in the heat of summer, but this year, I should. I’m told it’s the kind of hot that presses you into the cool ground and saps all but the energy to create lazy daydreams at midday.

But may I please confess, Dear Reader, that I believe I have found Summer inside of me here in Padova already.

Take, for instance:

  1. Some weeks ago I wandered the streets at night with my boyfriend. We had a drink at a wine cellar, walked arm in arm, and he dipped me for a kiss, both of us laughing under a charming street lantern.
  2. People here regularly say “Mamma Mia!” in all earnestness — and I jump (just a little bit, enough to be kooky-cute but not crazy) every time I hear it.
  3. Paolo has sent a bottle of wine just for me via a friend.
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Reason No. 120: Stumbling upon festivals occurs with delightful frequency, like this one for Carnivale, from which we exited with lots of confetti in the hair.

I have to leave Padova for some weeks, so I will keep this light burning bright. I can’t wait to return in the heat of summer to know this city further.

Padova, until then — un bacio.

 

Four Reasons to Get Off the Couch and Go Travel

Inevitably in the life of a traveler, you are having a glass of wine with a friend, talking about where you’re headed next, and they will pop the question:

“But why do you need to travel?”

Or some variation thereof.

As if it’s a choice, I always think, followed immediately by — I am so incredibly lucky. Travel is an incredible privilege, and of course it’s a choice.

But I think once you cross a certain line — maybe it’s a number of days abroad or a surprise experience or your first foreign friend — it also becomes a part of who you are, and you can’t stop traveling any more than you can stop getting older.

San Juan de la Costa, Chile
I travel for stumbling upon beautiful moments like this, in San Juan de la Costa, Chile.

When I’m the U.S., I can be in my city of residence for maybe one month before I start to itch to be somewhere else. At two months, my leg starts to twitch and I’m booking a flight, and by three months, I’m on a plane.

I remember once in the last five years being asked where I was going next, and responding, to my own surprise, “I have no trips planned.”

Which immediately set off a major internal panic attack and frantic Kayak search for flights.

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Entirely accurate self-portrait of how I get when I don’t have a flight on my calendar.

But the best way to answer this question of “why travel” is to recount one of the many, many amazing days exploring a new place.

#1: Travel for the taste and feel of a new place.

Last month in Chile, I spent a day in Bahia Mansa, this tiny fishing village on the Pacific Ocean, rugged cliffs and forested hills.  The one road into Bahia Mansa dead ends at the pier’s dusty parking lot, framed by wooden seafood stalls. At the entrance to the town is a sweet cove of a beach, where I sat in the sun, eating blueberries and cherries I bought from a family at the weekend-only market one town over.

Savoring the slight sweet-tart of the blueberries on my tongue, I watched a puppy wildly chase seagulls along the sand – only to wildly run away whenever the water broke a little too close to his paws.

Bahia Mansa Chile
I totally wanted to run after this puppy that was chasing gulls and then save him from the waves he was running away from.

#2: Travel for the lazy discovery of something new.

I had gone to Bahia Mansa with the plan to see penguins by boat, lured by a flyer left in my hostel. On the pier, a man came up to me with the same flyer, and I said I was in. Vamos!

But no, he explained, he needed a minimum of five people, and we were now just three. So, in about 30 minutes we would go, he said.

Having played this game before, I clarified: “Are we going in 30 minutes or when you get five people?”

He smiled. “Five people.”

So I settled into life on an active fishing pier, watching the bartering between fishermen and buyers. Two fishermen pulled up nets full of crabs. People approached, jumping back with squeals and laughter when the claws moved. Families came and went, heavy bags of fish in hand.

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This little guy was fascinated by the just-caught crabs.

After an hour, the penguin guide hurried to me with his thumbs up —good to go, we were now five. I hustled to the boat launch with three other tourists — and it’s clear we are still definitely not five.

The guide goes back to search for his missing No. 5. We keep waiting.

This person supposedly shows up, because the guide comes back and says, “Vamos!”

Only now he checks the boat and realizes we are missing our illustrious captain. The guide goes in search of El Capitano, and we can see the outcome at the end of the pie: He is found eating a leisurely lunch at one of the stalls.

We wait some more.

#3: Travel to meet wonderful people.

The day before coming to Bahia Mansa, I was two towns to the south on a beautiful but ginormous-fly-filled beach. I spent my quick 30 minutes there fending off attacks from kamikazing flies like a crazed person with a branch — imagine the sound of bees, but twice the size.

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I was not the only one battling the monster flies on this beach.

A kind family offered me a ride back to my beach town, so I took it to avoid another hour walking with these aggressive flies. (Which apparently only plague this town for three weeks in January, so avoid those few weeks if you can!)

I arrived at my hostel, and within seconds realized I had lost my phone. I was sure it had fallen out in this nice family’s car, and I was hopeful they would bring it back.

Now waiting in Bahia Mansa a day later, as I spied the penguin guide and our now-satiated captain coming back up the pier, a couple approached me, asking if I speak Spanish. Thinking they wanted to chat, I was slightly tripped up when they ask if I was at a beach yesterday and lost something.

Yes, I answered hesitantly, because this was not the people of the van who gave me a ride.

“Where were you yesterday? Were you batting flies with a branch?”

I laugh, happy my crazy performance made me recognizable as it clicks into place — this couple has found my phone!

They found it in the sand, they explained. They saw me get into the family’s car, they’d been waiting for me to call the phone to find it, and they even went to the police station to see if anyone had reported it missing.

They were so happy to find me, and me them. I exchanged big hugs with the woman, and we exclaimed over and over how amazing it was that we found each other (as the penguin guide was tapping his foot in the background, as if I had kept him waiting for hours).

We said goodbye, and I sent a big thank you to the universe for the incredible kindness of strangers.

#4: Travel for the thrill of adventure.

I have an awe- and terror-filled relationship with the ocean.

I love to be on the beach — at least 30 feet back from the waves.

I love the sound of waves crashing from my room window at night above the tsunami hazard line.

And I love the idea of body surfing, but there is no way in hell I am going in to try unless it’s crystal clear and there are at least 5 people around me creating a perimeter for sharks to bite first.

But penguins!

I will brave this shark-infested body of likely death and drowning for a look at penguins.

As we exited the harbor, I kept a white-knuckled grip on the bar under my boat’s seat as large swells rocked our tiny boat. We hugged the jagged rocks — a little too huggy for my comfort.

The guide asked the captain if we could make it through the rocks in the swells.

“I’m going to try,” the captain said. (Sometimes it’s better to not speak a language!)

By the time we got to the penguins, I was feeling quite green and had decided against my odds for making it to land safely if we were smashed against the cliffs.

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Do these penguins realize their adorableness will not save them from being shark stew?

With my eyes closed half the time and a forced breath at least twice every minute, we made it back to the pier. I wobbled back to the beach and collapsed to the sand, digging my feet and hands into its warmth.

The next day, the local news reported massive irregular swells along the Chilean coast of up to 5 meters (16 feet). We had been just ahead of the storm.

Bahia Mansa Chile
The view of Bahia Mansa from a path to a lighthouse in San Juan de la Costa, Chile.

I finished the day in a hammock with a glass of wine. Seriously, traveling is the best.

Why do you travel?