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Eastern Tennessee: A Haven for Nature Lovers

I was not familiar with Virgin Falls when we began hatching a plan to travel there. I was certainly not familiar with Sparta, TN, the rural town, home to just over 5,000 inhabitants, that sits nearest to the falls. I was born and raised in the southeastern US, so I at least had some level of familiarity with Tennessee in general. However, my limited expertise pretty much began and ended in Memphis, so this trip was going to be something entirely new for me. IVHE has previously highlighted what a great spot Tennessee can be for nature lovers and fans of the outdoors, but I was not as yet familiar with this reputation. The area to which we traveled was a reasonable eight-hour drive from our Floridian home, being just over the boarder of North Carolina and into Tennessee. This made the actual travel portion of our journey fairly simple. My husband and I, along with another married duo, made the trip to this out-of-the way locale in White County. Thankfully for us, our friends had previously visited the area (in fact, they were the reason we found out about Virgin Falls in the first place), so they served as our guides in the mountainous regions.

We made plans to camp at the falls for a couple of days, but decided on getting a hotel room for the first night so that we could begin our hike into the mountain at first light and not risk getting stuck in the dark on a steep trail. It was the dead of winter, but we were lucky to find Tennessee having a mild time of it. There were a few patches of ice and decidedly chilly temperatures, but no snowfall to reckon with as we made our way. We pulled into Sparta quite late at night, and I'll admit that the drive through the winding mountain roads put me a bit on edge. The fog was incredibly thick and frequent signs warned of falling rocks - a phenomenon we were all too aware of as we drove over the evidence of smashed rocks already in the roadway. Thankfully, we made the "perilous" journey safely and tucked in for a few hours of anxious sleep. We were all quite eager to get on the trail, but the rest did us a world of good before our big trek.

The trails themselves were a sight to behold. I'm sure that no matter what time of the year you visit, these falls and the surrounding state park are gorgeous, but I was particularly impressed with the stillness of the woods in the wintertime. Our drive from the hotel to the park area was even remarkable. I'll admit, Sparta grew on me in the daytime, after the fog had burned away and the scenery was more visible. The fact that there were no more signs in this direction which mentioned falling rocks helped enhance my experience, I think. We had quite a bit of gear between the four of us (for the record, I told my husband he was over-packing), so it was a bit of a physical undertaking to get ourselves and our packs to camp. However, we were all at least moderately experienced hikers, so it was manageable. We took frequent rests, but were still able to make it to our camp and get set up before nightfall. We got a prime spot, in a cave directly underneath Big Laurel Falls. The rush of the water created fantastic white noise for our first night of sleep, but the trade-off was the sheer amount of bat guano coating the cavern floor all around us! If you could get around that, and didn't mind leaving your hiking boots outside of the tent, it was a killer location.

We took day hikes to the much taller Virgin Falls and explored the well-marked trails in the area. The chilly temperatures were far from a burden, making the physical exertion of the hike much more enjoyable. Going into this trip I did not have many preconceived notions of Tennessee, outside of the bigger cities, but I can assure you that the more rural part of the state is a sight to behold. We met plenty of hikers who were visiting the falls for the day, along with a couple of fellow campers. Everyone in the area seemed to know how pristine this spot is and what a great day trip it makes. 

While staying in the state park definitely constitutes a "primitive" camping experience (no toilets or potable water available), and we were all very happy to see a real restaurant at the end of our hike back to civilization, the scenery and serenity make the trip well worth it. You needn’t go so far as pitching a tent in a cave to enjoy the wilderness of the area either, with an abundance of scenic rural areas just a short drive from civilization. I would gladly sing the praises of Virgin Falls to anyone looking for an outdoorsy vacation idea. Even if you're not much of a camper, the trail lends itself well to a reasonable day hike, with lots of picture-worthy spots to stop and rest along the way. The state park educated visitors on the surrounding landscape and provides several different routes of varying difficulty to hike, so that everyone from the most advanced hikers to novice outdoorsmen will find a suitable trek. I would have easily overlooked this particular little dot on the map in East Tennessee, but if you're planning a trip to the area (including the western part of North Carolina, just across the border) I'd encourage you to put Virgin Falls on your travel itinerary! If you’re looking to go off the grid for several days, or just hoping to stretch your legs in a uniquely pristine environment, the mountainous areas of Eastern Tennessee have plenty to offer you.

IVHE will help to make your trip a little lighter on the bat guano, with lovely luxury accommodations throughout the area. Take a look at our available properties to see what might suit your tastes for potential Tennessee accommodations.

Thank you to travel blogger Emma Sledge.  

Starting a Travel Bucket List

I am certain that the travel buffs among us will all know the feeling: you are on the way back after a truly magical vacation. You’re happy to be heading home at last, but have a conflicting feeling of sadness when you think about your most recent adventure coming to a close. There is something decidedly bittersweet about wrapping up a trip; you know that the excitement has peaked, the wave has broken, and you won’t feel that way again until the next time you’re able to snag some vacation time. It’s no cause to fear though, it’s just a natural part of the highs and lows of the travel experience. However, if leaving your vacation state of mind behind is getting to you, there might be an option. So far, there has been only one thing that I have found to be truly effective at curing this post-vacation slump; the travel bucket list!

The psychological benefits of planning avacation have been well documented, so don’t feel guilty for indulging in this act of daydreaming – it’s good for you. When I have returned from a trip, and before I have cause to plan my next, I like to take the time to work on my bucket list. The first place to start is with some travel inspiration. Sitting down to any episode of Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown on Netflix or scrolling through National Geographic’s Instagram will usually get me scribbling the names of exotic places pretty darn quick, but you can find great travel inspiration nearly everywhere. It can be as easy as Googling “best travel destinations in…” to find nearby destinations that can make for great day trips right in your own backyard. Of course, one of the best ways to find inspiration for your travel bucket list is right here on IVHE’s blog.

The materials that you need to start a bucket list of your own are likely already right in front of you. Most people who love travel have a few key destinations already in mind that they’ve been meaning to visit, feats they are hoping to accomplish, or sites they would love to see; viewing sunflower fields in Tuscany, hiking the Appalachian Trail, or glimpsing the illusive Arora Borealis, for example. Start by jotting these down in a safe place, and don’t forget to add to them as you go. There may even be a particular IVHE property that speaks to you loudly enough to earn its own entry on the list (as is the case for me and the world’s first rotating house). That is what is so inherently fun about making a vacation bucket list, it’s completely about what speaks to you!

The next time you find yourself in the unenviable position of not knowing when or to where your next vacation is going to be, might I suggest breaking out the vacation bucket list? It will help get you excited for what is to come and, in time, become a memento of all of the great trips you have taken. There are few feelings in the world better than ticking off one of the entries on the bucket list and thinking, “I did it!”

Thank you to Emma Sledge.  

Uber on Holiday: Much More than Just a Ride

I booked a boatload of Uber cars on my travels this summer and met some really interesting folks along the way.  Uber is one of the best ideas to come along for travelers in a long time.  It’s a quick, convenient, cashless and very economical means to get from Point A to Point B plus it’s a much more personal experience than a traditional cab ride.   Each driver has a story to tell and by the time you’ve arrived at your designation you’ve made a new friend.  If you haven’t yet tried out this service let me give you an amusing little overview of the types of drivers you are likely to encounter. 

The Retired Executive
He’s not in it for the money. His wife wants him out of her hair for a few hours each day and he’s not a golfer.   Uber driving provides a way for him to get out a few mornings a week on his own schedule.  You won’t find him picking you up after a night out on the town, he’s fast asleep by then even though he’s probably napped.  He’s most likely a kind, older gentleman who’s used to being a productive member of society and not ready to give that up just yet.

The Young Girl in Transition
She’s super sweet but a bit lost in life at the moment and usually lost on the roads as well.  It’s probably her first or second day on the job but don’t look for her in the weeks to come as she’ll most likely be on to something new by then.  I find I often take on a mothering role with her by saying things like, “You should finish your degree” or “Don’t accept customers who have below a 4 rating.”  There’s plenty of time for counseling as you direct her to your destination. 

The Professional Uber Driver
This is his main source of income and he has no plans of leaving this vocation.  He’s out to get a 5 star rating.  He appreciates your business and he’ll let you know that several times throughout the ride.  He knows shortcuts to avoid traffic and knows where construction could cause potential delays.  He’s expecting a big tip so give him one, he’s earned it. 

The Nightclub Caterer
He doesn’t mind the late night shift.  He knows there’s an abundance of clients at that time and he doesn’t mind dealing with the “over-served.”  You might even come across one who has a disco ball and strobe light in his car in an effort to keep the party going (true story).  He counts on you wanting to be driven from club to club in search of your friends, knowing that you’re incapable of doing the math.  He’s not out to take advantage of the situation though.  You’ll appreciate the fact you got home safe and sound even if you don’t remember how. 

Uber is widely used in tourist areas and major cities so if you’ve booked a luxury home exchange with a company like International Vacation Home Exchange and you’re wondering how you’ll get around town then I highly recommend Uber.  Not only will they get you to your designation but will also give you some local history and a quick tour of the area unless, of course, your driver is one of these sweet young girls…then you’re on your own. 

Thank you travel writer Lisa Medeiros.  Follow her on Twitter @lisamedeiros_

6 Ways to Spend Less on Your Next Vacation

If you’re like most folks, by the time you’ve booked your flights and arranged your travel plans you’re already stressed about how much money you’ve spent and you haven’t even left your couch yet.  Not to worry, there are many ways to cut your vacation costs and save money so you can continue to live out your travel dreams. 

Look into What’s Free
Wherever you may be heading on your next getaway there’s bound to be a host of free activities for you to enjoy.  For instance, many cities offer their visitors free admission to area museums or they may offer some outdoor attractions that do not require an admission fee.  It’s worthwhile to do some research and hunt down a few of these “freebees.” 

Cut Out Hotel Cost
There are many accommodation options available these days that can save you a bundle on your next vacation.  Home exchange is a great alternative to paying a hefty hotel bill.  Companies like International Vacation Home Exchange offer some great luxury home options while saving you a bundle on your vacation budget, on average IVHE members save over $5,000 on a two week vacation!

Use Uber Instead of a Car Rental
During my travels this summer I ended up returning my car rental several days earlier than planned after finding it much more economical to Uber to my destinations.  After doing some quick accounting, I figured out that the amount I was paying in car rental fees plus parking would be equivalent to many more Uber rides than I could ever possibly need.  It’s also a much more convenient way to get around unfamiliar surroundings. 

Eat In
Choosing a home exchange option can save you more than just exorbitant hotel fees.  It gives you the opportunity to dine in a few nights and pocket a big savings.  Make a quick trip to the grocery store, throw together a simple meal and not only will you save money by not eating in restaurants but you may find it a more relaxing way to spend the evening.  Isn’t that what vacationing is all about?

Buy Tickets in Advance
For those attractions that are on your Bucket List but not on the “freebees” list be sure to buy your tickets way in advance.  It’s worthwhile to spend some time researching all the deals that are out there for your destination.  For example, many cities offer a City Pass that allows you to see many of their main attractions at a discounted price.  You’d be surprised how spending a little time on Google can yield you some big travel savings.

Try Not to Forget Anything at Home
If hiking is on your travel itinerary and you discover you only packed flip flips then get ready to waste some precious travel funds on a pair of shoes you don’t really need.  When it comes to packing, take the time to really plan out what you will need and be sure to double check that you have everything.  Forgetting items is not only a waste of money but a waste of precious time. Time you could be doing something more enjoyable.

So now that you’ve saved a few dollars with these money saving tips you’ve earned the right to  splurge a little.  It is a vacation after all.  Spend of little of your hard earned savings on special souvenir or take that exciting excursion that may be a bit out of budget.  The goal isn’t to not spend any money at all on vacation but rather to spend it as wisely as possible.   Happy travel.

Thank you Travel Writer Lisa Medeiros.  Follow her on twitter @lisamedeiros_

Solana Beach and Surrounding San Diego County

Few places in the world have more pleasant year-round temperatures than San Diego County in Southern California.  For instance, Solana Beach, a small community in San Diego County, features an average temperature of 77 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer and 62 degrees in the winter.  One can visit for a week and never turn on indoor heating or air conditioning.  I should know; I recently stayed in Solana Beach in September and managed the indoor temperature simply by opening and closing windows during the day.  This may seem like nothing to those who live in a mild climate, but to those of us who experience wide temperature changes during the day, this is truly amazing.
Also amazing is the coastline.  From the high-cliff homes overlooking the sea in Solana Beach, to Oceanside’s iconic harbor, San Diego County features some of the most beautiful beaches in California.   For a high-brow yet accessible beach, visit the beach off at the Hotel Coronado on Coronado Island very near San Diego.  The exclusive, historic hotel adds its touches to the beach, but beach access is open to all.  This reflects California as a whole—equitable in philosophy, but always hints of luxury.
Another pleasant feature of San Diego’s coastline is its moods.  Most mornings are foggy—perfect for contemplation, work, exercise, or snuggling.  The fog typically burns off by about noon, and sunny skies rule the rest of the day—perfect for sunbathing, relaxing, and a happy, convivial atmosphere for which California is famous.
Just south of Solana Beach is Del Mar—home of the famous Del Mar racetrack, the second largest venue for thoroughbred racing in the Western United States.  The season is primarily during the summer. 
Further south of Del Mar is fashionable La Jolla.  Enviable homes and exclusive shops dot this coastline community.  For fun, watch the seals off of a centrally-located park; these creatures never cease to entertain.
In San Diego, visit Anthony’s Fish Grotto, one of the oldest restaurants in San Diego.  The restaurant overlooks the harbor which is especially entrancing at night.  For a sense of history, visit Old Town San Diego.  Here, there a Mexican treasures to purchase and eat (a lot of fun to eat outside).  There are also old buildings and western stage coaches, etc. 
Make sure you bring your work-out gear to San Diego County.  This is a very athletic place.  The roads are bicycle-friendly, and it is not uncommon to see numerous joggers on the beach and on paths.  A curiosity to me were people going through their workout routines on the beach or parks totally uninhibited as they did sit-ups, jumping jacks, etc.
A visit to San Diego Botanic Garden is worth the trip to Encinitas a little inland.  Because the climate is so temperate, plant-life flourishes; flora from all over the planet abound.
If your plans include a trip to Southern California, see these luxury home exchanges available through IVHE.  See how this works, and read testimonials.

Thanks to travel writer and photographer Sona Schmidt-Harris - Follow her on Twitter @Sonag2000

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