Getting to Europe on a Budget

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Just like for many of you out there, money can be an issue when planning your trip. We were fresh off first trip together in Utah when we started planning this trip in the wee hours of the morning in the Dallas airport. Europe for under $500/person round trip? This was possible! And possible in the very near future. But with a catch. As mentioned in the previous blog we were stuck on Iceland for several weeks. But, after deciding we wanted a more all encompassing experience we decided to put our dreams of Iceland on hold for now.

So what was the catch? Well, the trip was going to take place in the winter. Austria in February? No problem. That wasn’t the catch at all. See, we live in a town with a small airport that only flies to the regional hubs. The next closest airport is just a little bigger. And both of these airports are not cheap! There was no way we would get to Europe for under $500 from our neighborhood airports. So we broadened the search to include places like Washington, DC, Orlando, and Atlanta. These large east coast international airports would be the ticket to savings. We had narrowed are destinations to Central Europe. Places like Zurich, Munich, Prague, Vienna would lead us where our interests lied. If we wanted to save money-and lots of money-we couldn’t be picky and we would need to drive. We also knew this trip had to happen in the off-peak seasons. Summer airfare and hotel rates would be budget busters. Plus we wanted to avoid the crowds.

We found our savings flying from Orlando (we also wanted to avoid any northeast winter weather), nearly 8 hours from home, with a great fare to Zurich. I know this sounds like a pain. After calculating the fuel, parking and additional nights lodging in Orlando the saving were astronomical compared to flying from our home airport which is about 3 miles away. We saved about $600 per person using this method. Thru our research, places like Munich are Zurich were the least expensive European destinations at the time. A flexible schedule is a must to do it that way. It involved two extra days of travel. Two days that weren’t in Europe and 16 hours in a car. But the savings were worth it.

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We got on the plane in Orlando and went straight to Dublin. No layovers in the United States! Straight to Europe. After a stop in London, we were on our way to Zurich and the adventures were about to begin!

Where to?

It goes without saying that the Utah trip was a great success. We saw some amazing sites and beautiful vistas, ate some awesome meals, and took some challenging hikes. On a personal level, it was the beginning of our relationship. Pearl and I forged a bond that continues to grow as I type this. It was our first adventure and we would just be getting started. The prospect of future travels and explorations together excites us both to this day.

Our Utah trip wasn’t even over as we began tossing around ideas on the way home. Sitting in the Dallas airport during something like a 15-hour overnight layover we started “Kayaking” plane tickets for the next trip. But where? Was it time to go big? Time to take it to the next level and just maybe leave the country?

Our attention that night quickly took us to Europe. Iceland specifically. Iceland was a country that always interested us both and, with a little late night airport research and googling, we were finding affordable airfare to Reykjavik. The next morning we took our next trip idea and jumped on our plane back to the east coast.

Over the next couple of months during the busy holiday season we started getting very serious about the whole Iceland trip. Airfare was remaining affordable. We bought guidebooks, language guides, and even a National Geographic Adventure map of the country. Things appeared to be coming together. But…what usually happens…we began thinking and talking. Iceland is such a beautiful, enchanting place with fjords, wilderness, coastlines, seaside villages, the northern lights. It was a great idea. But we wanted to see as much as possible during our two weeks. We wanted to take in different cultures, cities, languages, foods. We wanted to experience as much as possible. Be immersed in as much as we could take in during our time off. Iceland’s location was just a little too limiting. It was just one place. An amazing place. A place we want to visit in the future. But for our first trip to Europe together, we wanted to see and experience it. And with all due respect to Iceland, we weren’t sure it would be accomplished there. So Iceland was out! (For now). Our research was taking us on that traditional Alps route of Switzerland, Germany, Austria, and Italy.

Airfares were looking great for a mid-winter trip to Europe. The guide books were arriving and yes even another National Geographic Adventure map. This one of Central Europe. As we entered the busy holiday season and entered the new year we started checking things off of our list. We found great tickets to Zurich. Check! Our Eurail Passes were purchased. Check! Our route was finalized. Check! We made all our lodging reservations. Check! We were ready to go! Our route would take us to Zurich via Aire Lingus with layovers in Dublin and London. From Zurich we would travel to Konstanz, Germany. Then on to Innsbruck, Austria. Ljubljana, Slovenia and Trieste, Italy, before returning to Zurich.

So there it is, the beginning of our next adventure. We look forward to sharing all of our experiences and tips we learned. It was a true learning experience for the both of us. Over the next several weeks we will take you along on what was, for us, an epic trip.

Capitol Reef, Torrey, & fireside pie

Capitol Reef National Park and the surrounding area are a collection of contrasts. From the peak of Boulder Mountain – rising over 11,000 feet high with groves of birch and aspen  – to the depths of Capitol Gorge and Grand Wash with folded rock formations and dry bed trails. From the desolation and solitude of Cathedral Valley to the history and comfort of Fruita. And from the barren, seemingly lifeless isolation of the Bentonite Hills to the conveniences and civilization of Torrey, Utah. The area has a little of everything and, at the same time, a whole lot of nothing.

 

The popular, accessible areas like the Capitol Gorge and the Grand Wash are an absolute must and very easy hikes that lead you deep into the two most prominent canyons of the park. They allow you to feel all alone even when only hiking these few miles. The low visitation of this park allows one to escape the “crowds” quite easily.

 

The Fruita orchards, originally planted by the Mormon settlers and now maintained by the National Park Service, are a perfect oasis from the hot, sweltering desert sun. The orchards are all along the Fremont river. Apple, cherry, peach, pear and others are fenced off to protect the fruit from the deer herd. During the harvest season the fence gates are open and for a fee visitors can pick their own fruit.

Adjacent to the Fruita campground is a small Mormon museum and gift shop where fresh pies are baked and sold everyday. They are amazing. A treat after a long day on the trail. We personally recommend heating the pie up over the fire.

 

To really get away from the crowds of Capitol Reef (and I use the word “crowds” very lightly) you can make the the drive out to Cathedral Valley. The Cathedral Valley Loop road is only accessible by a dirt road of varying conditions. Starting from the west, one must have a high clearance vehicle with four wheel drive to ford the Fremont River. The river is usually passable, but in a rental car with only All Wheel Drive we were not brave enough to take the risk. It didn’t look bad, but one wrong move and not only our day and trip would be ruined, but potentially the next several years of our lives. The other option, and one that we chose, was to travel down highway 12 another 10 miles or so and get on the Cainesville Rd. This is the eastern access point of the loop. We would not be able to do the entire loop due to the river, but we did get in plenty of gorgeous stopping points and expansive views. We toured the Bentonite Hills, Valley of the Moon and Sun, and up to the Cathedral Valley campground. This is when the road became just too rocky and rutted and steep for our little rental SUV. The whole trip takes about 8 hours with stops and lunch and is highly recommended if you have the appropriate vehicle. CAUTION: Use extreme caution when thinking about this when it has rained, is raining, or is forecasted to rain. In any vehicle it can become impossible. The surface mud turns to “ice” in its slickness and roads can become impassable.


After a long day of hiking and exploring, and after several days of camping, we were ready for a bed and something not cooked in our camp pot. The small town of Torrey is just outside of the park and is an oasis for the weary hiker. Torrey has a nice little selection of clean hotels and its small selection of restaurants is impressive. The Rim Rock restaurant with its view of the park overlooking the canyons at sunset will quickly become a highlight of your Capitol Reef Trip.

Capitol Reef National Park Camping

We left Arches and the Moab area around midday and made the short but desolate drive towards Capitol Reef National Park and Torrey, UT. The drive would take us along a remote stretch of Interstate 70, then an even more remote stretch of Highway 24 thru central Utah. This is not somewhere to breakdown. There is not much of anything for miles. It’s wonderful! I am always amazed to still find these places in the United States. Whether it’s traveling across Wyoming, thru the northern plains of Montana and North Dakota, or the deserts of southern Utah. It always impresses me when I find vast expanses of nothing in this country.

We rolled thru the canyons with the Fremont River on our left as we approached Capitol Reef from the east. The steep canyon walls shielded the sunlight, making it feel later than it was. We entered the park passing the historic Mormon orchards and the few Mormon historical sites before going to the Visitor Center. The very first thing we noticed was a sign saying “campground full!”. Ok. No problem. We can handle this. We didn’t want to hotel it. We didn’t want to stay in the RV park in town. We weren’t outfitted to backpack. So it was time to get out our handy National Geographic Adventure Map and check out our options. We found there was plenty of BLM land in the area where camping is free and dispersed (camp just about anywhere). This was an option. But. a bathroom might be nice.

About 20 miles from the park was a collection of campgrounds in the Dixie National Forest. This is where we would head. So we would leave the National Park for the night and head east to what we would quickly realize was a different world. We left the desert floor and started to climb Boulder Mountain on Highway 12. The environment changed from the red rocks and sand of the lower elevations to the birch and aspen forests of the 11,000 foot mountain. Halfway up the mountain there are three different campgrounds – all offering something different. After scouting them we settled on Singletree Campground. It was a mixture of RV’s and tents in a beautiful wooded setting. We were lucky enough to get a site along a little brook. All of the sudden it felt like we were in the Pacific Northwest. The campground of maybe 20 sites would eventually fill up, but it was a quiet respectful group of campers.

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Just outside of the campground was a small unmarked trail that led thru an idyllic mountain meadow (sunset hike was beautiful), then to the bottom of the canyon to a “secret waterfall”. It was getting dark, and we were all alone, so it was secret. Upon our return to the campsite the sun had set and we built our fire, cracked open the beverages, and began to reminisce of the day’s events and plan the future day’s events.

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The plan had always been to camp in the Fruita campground in the national park among the orchards and along the river. It is a very nice looking campground. Much larger. Many more people. More developed of course. Not as natural of a setting. No “secret waterfalls”. Not to take anything away from it. I would stay there, but I’m also very thankful it was full and allowed us to discover the National Forest where we would stay the subsequent nights.

When going to National Parks, also research nearby public lands. Local state parks, National Forests, and BLM lands offer amazing camping experiences that can sometimes be overlooked by others and give you an unforgettable experience.

So with the camping dilemma resolved, it would be time to explore Capitol Reef National Park the next morning.

A Private Island Experience

Bulls Island, Cape Romain NWR

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We’re going to take a break today from the Utah adventures of months past. We will occasionally be taking breaks from the big trips to talk about our day and weekend trips closer to home. We live very near the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge in South Carolina, but had never visited. It is only accessible by personal boat or by Coastal Expeditions. The boat trip leaves from Garris Landing near the small community of Awendaw. The trip only takes about 30 minutes and the boat only carries 45 passengers. Coastal Expeditions is a small environmental education-focused company that ferries visitors to the refuge. They also lead kayak tours, hikes, and they also run the small Inn on the island.

The ferry travels through a maze of estuaries on its way to Bulls Island. We were greeted by nobody. It was great! As we exited the boat and made our way on shore, we quickly separated ourselves from the other 43 passengers. Most of them stopped at the bathroom and the rest we were able to over take on the trail. It didn’t take long for it to seem like we were on our own private island.

From the boat dock it is a 1.5 mile hike through the coastal forest and marshes to the beach. We were the first on the beach for the day. Not only were there no other people within sight, but no footprints. No evidence of people. It was wonderful.

We decided earlier that we would head north to an area called Boneyard Beach and walk, hike, or wade around the northern tip of the island. High tide was at 12:30, so it was important to get around the point before the wading became swimming and we would have to retreat into the dense forest. We walked among, over, under, and around the dead driftwood remains of oaks and pines that lay upright and on their sides as they get pounded by the surf. A few times the “bones” get thick and the surf a little rough so we had to find our way into the forest, only to quickly return to the beach.  A pod of dolphins were our only other companions as we waded.

As we got to the northern point of Bulls Island we were greeted by a large, broad beach with a few of our companions from the ferry in the distance (there is an expansive trail system on the island leading you to several points of interest). This section of the island was teeming with life. Conch shells everywhere. Blue crabs, hermit crabs, sand dollars, jellyfish and dolphins. The refuge is also a bird lovers paradise. During our visit we saw bald eagles, osprey, coots, buffleheads, oyster catchers, flycatchers, turnstones, herons, egrets and many many others.

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We explored this section of beach studying the marine life and collecting a few shells (all empty, of course) when it was time to slowly make our way back to the dock. The plan was to take a series of trails through the forest and marshland. We were a little uncertain of our location on the map, but we soon oriented ourselves, left the beach and entered the marsh and woods, which is home to gnats, mosquitoes, and biting flies. The swarms became so unbearable that I had to cover my legs with my rain pants on a perfectly sunny and pleasant day. We fought through the bugs with the occasional respite courtesy of a breeze. I can only assume that in the heat of the summer this section of the island being worse.

We made it back to the dock with plenty of time to spare. So much time in fact that we walked back out to the beach for a bit. It had gotten much more crowded than it was earlier in the day. There were about 4 people within sight! Accessibility limits the number of visitors who can visit the area and this is what makes it so special. If you’re looking for that deserted island without having to travel halfway around the world, check out Bulls Island within the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge.