Monday, January 25, 2016

The 15 Best Things To Do In Minnesota This Winter

I love Minnesota, and there is no secret about that. I grew up in Minnesota and spent the majority of my first 23 years living in the beautiful state. Even now, after having spent several years living elsewhere, a major portion of my heart will always be in Minnesota. Now, you maybe have your reasons for not wanting to visit Minnesota (mainly, let's be honest, the cold.). However, along with the cold often comes snow, which can make Minnesota even more beautiful than it is during the summer for those willing to brave it! Here are the 15 best things to do in Minnesota during the winter months!

1. Go dog sledding in Ely, Minnesota. Ely has become famous for dog-sledding. Over half a dozen companies now run dog-sledding excursions, and can transport you back in time and take you on a tour of the country like you've never been before!

2. Tour the Ice Castles in Eden Prairie, Minnesota.

OK, so it wasn't totally frozen - but isn't Lake Superior beautiful in the winter?!
3. Stroll the Duluth Lakewalk along Lake Superior in Duluth, Minnesota. Each winter, as Lake Superior freezes over, ice shards and blocks crash and collide along the lakeside forming spectacular views. This is truly something you have to see to believe!

4. Check out the Mississippi Headquarters in Lake Itasca State Park, near Bemidji, Minnesota. 

5. Warm up indoors, strolling through the skywalks in downtown Minneapolis, Minnesota.

At the U.S. Pond Hockey Championships in 2013
6. Take in an outdoor hockey game or two near Minneapolis, Minnesota. The U.S. Pond Hockey Championships are held on Lake Nokomis January 28-31 (just recently postponed!) and hosts teams from around the world for a fun-filled weekend of pond hockey. Alternatively, you can also nab hockey tickets to see the Minnesota Wild take on the Chicago Blackhawks at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis February 20.

7. Go cross-country skiing or snowshoeing. Cross country skiing is available throughout the state, and most counties will have designated groomed trails just for skiiers! Located just a short 15 minute drive from Minneapolis, the suburb of Maple Grove offers over 4,900 acres of parks and 12 miles of groomed ski trails. Snowshoeing is another popular favorite. If you don't have your own, often many park rental facilities throughout the state will have snowshoes you can rent by the hour or day!

8. Visit the iconic Split Rock Lighthouse in Duluth, Minnesota. While you may not be able to partake in the hiking activities as trails are closed in the winter, the stunning views of frozen Lake Superior cannot be beat!

9. Take a snowmobile trip and immerse yourself in the outdoors. My personal favorite location to snowmobile is on the trails near Bemidji, but trails can be found throughout the state. Minnesota boasts over 22,000 miles of groomed trails throughout the season, so you are never far from one! If you are looking for a fun winter activity in Minnesota, this is one that everyone can enjoy!

10. Catch a fish near Lake of the Woods, Minnesota. Lake of the Woods County is home to some of the best fishing in the state year round, and the season just continues on in the winter with ice fishing! There are over 50 resorts in Lake of the Woods County, and surely a place for everyone to explore. The ice fishing season typically runs from December through early April (pending ice levels across the state!)

11. Join in the fun at the St. Paul Winter Carnival.

12. Cruise downhill in a sled. Sledding is always a winter favorite. Anywhere you find a hill, you will be able to cruise down the hill and have some fun! This is a winter activity for the whole family - kids included!

Bentleyville City of Lights 2015
13. Visit Bentleyville City of Lights! This past year was my first experience at Bentleyville, located in Duluth, Minnesota, and it was so perfect! It reminded me a lot of European Christmas markets. The best part about Bentleyville is that it is totally family-friendly, and free!

14. Go chasing waterfalls! Throughout Minnesota in the winter, there are tons of frozen waterfalls that you can capture. Gooseberry Falls, Tettegouche, and Minnehaha are the most popular ones that come to my mind. Really, any waterfall in Minnesota will be frozen in the winter and give you an experience unlike any other!

15. Go Biking! You might think this one is crazy - but biking in the snow is actually fairly popular in Minnesota winters. Not only is it going to be a great workout, but I bet it is something not a lot of your friends have done.

Of course, these are just 15 great things to do during the winter months in Minnesota. There are so many other activities, both for singles, couples, families, friends - whoever! The cold does not have to stop you from having fun. What are your favorite things to do in the winter?

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"What good is the warmth of summer, without the cold of winter to give it sweetness"

Sunday, January 17, 2016

8 Common Travel Scams To Avoid

how to avoid scams when traveling

"Travel is the only thing you can buy that makes you richer." Who hasn't heard this quote? Certainly, the opportunities that travel allows us do make us richer and enhance our lives. However, there are moments that travel is not all about glamour and Instagram-worthy pictures - as a matter of fact, it is quite common for travel to be the perfect time to be scammed. And scams happen all the time while you are traveling. So, today, I'm going to take about the not-so-glamorous aspects of travel and discuss common travel scams! Now, I'm not going to lie- I've gotten sucked into a few of these. Many people have. It's not something to be ashamed of, rather, it is something to be aware of to prevent it from happening to others!

1. "Free" Bracelets/Flowers/Gifts ... Often when you are traveling, a friendly person will approach you and try to place a free bracelet on your wrist, give you a flower, or some other sort of gift. These types tend to hang out around the more tourist-y areas, and as soon as you let them place this free gift in your possession - BAM, you are expected to pay for this 'gift'! In Thailand, this tends to be flowers in your hair. In Mexico, it is often shot glasses. Throughout the world, this travel scam generally means a cheap trinket in order to lure you in. No matter where you are, be aware that this "free" gift may end up costing you much more than it is worth. Be polite, firmly say no, and move on with your business!

2. Taxi Drivers ... Unfortunately, often when traveling in another country you are at the mercy of a taxi driver. You get off an airplane, hop in a taxi, and give them an address. Chances are, they know the area much better than you - perhaps they will take you on an 'extended' ride to your destination, or they will encourage you to stay somewhere else (where they just so happen to receive a stipend for the referral). My personal experience with this was paying 20 euro for a 3-minute taxi ride in Riga, that didn't even end with us being in the correct destination (ouch!)! To avoid this scam, prior to arriving to any destination, learn what common fares are, and always negotiate taxi prices in advance.

3. Street Games ... Oh, the cup game in Paris and Connect Four in Thailand! I'll admit, I fell for both of these- even after knowing they were scams. In Paris, you simply have to guess which cup (out of three) the ping-pong ball is located, while in Thailand you have to beat a 10-year-old child at Connect Four. Look up either of these on the internet, and you will quickly learn they are scams. However, who isn't tempted to beat something so simple? My best advice...forget about it. I've tried, both before and after I knew these were some of the most common travel scams in the world. Just settle for beating your friends at these games at home!

4. Free transportation... Similar to taxi drivers taking advantage of you, it is common in Thailand to be taken advantage of by tuk-tuk drivers. Your ride (wherever you would like to go!) is free. All you have to do along the way is stop in to this shop that is owned by their friends - you don't "have" to buy anything, you just have to spend 1-3+ hours of your time dodging their sales pitch! Tuk-tuk drivers can know the best spots in town to visit, but if you already know your destination, don't trust somebody giving you a free ride. I absolutely loved riding in tuk-tuks while in Thailand, and it was so cheap - just make sure you are in charge and giving a destination, with a fair price!

5. Pickpockets and overly friendly locals... Pickpockets are one of the most common travel scams. They tend to hang out in highly busy, touristy areas where there are bound to be tons of people who may accidentally bump into each other. Variations on this include beggars who ask for money, or random people advising you of a recent pickpocketer. Both of these are hoping to see you pat wherever you keep your wallet, alerting an accomplice of exactly where to find it.

6. "Here, hold this super cute/exotic animal!" Unfortunately, animals are commonly utilized in tourist areas. Be it 6-foot snakes in Mexico, cuddly sloths, iguanas, the list goes on for days - animals are sadly often used in order to make money off of tourists. Many times, it can be a local walking down the street, thrusting this animal in your arms, and then expecting you to pay for a picture with them. The unfortunate part about this scam is that often these animals are drugged up to be very calm, or when they aren't working are kept in tiny cages much too small. Other variations on this include exotic animal shows or exhibits, such as pictures with tigers or elephant riding in Thailand. You can hear about my experience with elephants in Thailand - something I hope no tourist ever has to experience.

7. Overly friendly photographers... in highly touristy areas, be on the lookout for somebody who approaches you and asks if you'd like your picture taken, especially when you can't pinpoint who they are there with, or if they are even a tourist. There is definitely a chance that best case scenario, they will demand money for the picture, worst case scenario they will run off with your camera and all of your travel memories. Don't let this happen to you!

8. The fake wake-up call... This is a common scam that occurs in the middle of the night. You are sleeping after a long day, and in the middle of the night your hotel telephone rings, with someone claiming to be the front desk and needing your credit card information. Word of advice? Never give your credit card information out to somebody who you aren't sure of their identity!

Of course, there are certainly other travel scams that exist around the world. In my opinion, these are the most common, and relevant, travel scams. Either myself or a close friend has personally experienced each of these within the last several years, and they have been known to occur around the world. Some may note that I have left some of the other 'popular' travel scams off the list - the crying baby, the found gold ring, etc. I've left these off because I have yet to meet somebody that has personally experienced this. Overall, I would say this is the list of travel scams tourists must be aware of in 2016. Can you think of any that I may have left off, or what is the craziest scam you have experienced while traveling?

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Friday, January 8, 2016

City of Lights: Bentleyville, USA

I'm slightly late to the game on this, but Happy New Year everyone! I hope you had a terrific end to your 2015 and that 2016 has started off smoothly for you. Personally, I couldn't have asked for a much better end to 2015! Nick and I spent some time visiting with family over Christmas, then headed to Duluth Minnesota (northern Minnesota, for those of you unfamiliar!) to enjoy a friend's wedding. We had some time off before the wedding, and were able to explore some of the best Duluth has to offer during the Christmas & winter season! A highlight of our time was most certainly Bentleyville, the largest (and free!!) walk through display of Christmas lights in the U.S.!

Duluth Winter Activities

Prior to stopping by Bentleyville, I had read about it online. However, I'll be honest - we just happened to be driving by, saw all of the lights from the freeway, and decided to stop and see what it all the lights were about! It wasn't until we were walking in to Bentleyville that I realized where we were, and I'm certainly glad that we made the stop. First off, Bentleyville is pretty easy to access- you can see it from any of the major highways in Duluth, and just have to take a quick exit and follow the lights (or, if you must, the road signs!) Second, Bentleyville is completely free and open to the public!
Duluth Christmas lights
entrance to Bentleyville!
Once we had parked our car and bundled up, it was time to head into Bentleyville. First, you are greeted by a stunning hallway of lights. It really feels like you are walking through a fairytale! Please, just take a minute and imagine strolling through a hallway of lights. Personally, this hallway led me directly back to Christmas Markets in Europe, and boy was I ever craving a good ol' glass of glühwein! Full disclosure: Bentleyville doesn't offer glühwein, or any alcoholic beverage, for sale.

Free cookies at Bentleyville? I'll take it!
Fortunately, I didn't have too long to sulk about not having glühwein, as I quickly discovered that Bentleyville offers free hot chocolate, cookies, and popcorn, among other treats, to visitors! With a cookie in one hand and a piping hot cup of hot chocolate in the other, I was set to continue exploring Bentleyville.

Around every corner, you will see great light displays. There are Santa displays, Reindeer, the Noel sign behind me in the above picture, and many more! Bentleyville is definitely a great attraction to visit while in Minnesota in the winter.

just another magnificent hallway of lights!
If you are ever around the Duluth area in the winter, Bentleyville is definitely the perfect way to get into the Christmas spirit! Display after display of lights, and hallway after hallway makes you truly get into the holiday spirit.

Bentleyville Tree
Of course, one of the great highlights of Bentleyville is the tree! The entire town of Bentleyville is centered around this brilliant tree, featuring thousands and thousands of lights. From each and every angle, you are bound to get this great view!

I know anytime I am looking to get into the Christmas spirit, a trip to Bentleyville will certainly be happening. What is your best tip to get into the holiday spirit?

Saturday, January 2, 2016

How My Relationships Changed When I Moved Abroad (And Back Again)

Moving abroad changes a person in a lot of ways. Beyond the changes that I have noticed in myself, I have noticed a lot of changes in my relationships with people- both the people I have encountered while abroad, and the people back home. Today, I'm going to talk a little bit about how these relationships have changed. I started noticing these changes immediately upon moving to Sweden. The more time we spent abroad, the more my relationships changed with family, friends from back home, friends I met while living in Sweden, acquaintances, and my husband. I'll be honest, I started writing this post while wrapping up the season last April. Now, after having spent a full two years abroad and finally moving back home, only to move a few hours away yet again, changes have continued happening. Truly, I feel this is something that anybody who moves away experiences, but it is especially prevalent among expats who live a back-and-forth lifestyle. So, here we have it with how my relationships have changed!

With Nick and I's family on Thanksgiving
With my Family

Since moving abroad, I really feel that my relationships with my family members have gotten so much stronger. This may seem contradictory since for two years I lived 4,000 miles away, but it is 100% truthful. However, my family has been terrific and made huge efforts to come and visit each year. The little time I was able to spend at home in the summer and visits, much more of this time was spent with family. While in Sweden, my family also was able to come and visit Nick and I for several weeks. This extends even beyond my immediate family, as one of my aunts and a second-cousin of mine also visited and I was able to reconnect. Now that I have moved back to the U.S. but am still several hours away, each and every trip back to Minneapolis has family as a priority.

With Friends Back Home

The biggest area in which I see how my relationships have changed is with friends I had prior to moving abroad. To be entirely honest, many of my friendships have fallen to the side. Part of this is a communication thing- in Sweden, I was always seven hours ahead time-wise. It can be difficult enough to maintain friendships when you are in the same time zone, let alone when you are living in a completely different country and are seven hours ahead. On top of this, as a person I changed. My experiences abroad and traveling changed me, and became a major part of my life. There were friends back home that I no longer had as much, or even anything, in common with.

My first year abroad, when I did not have as deep of connections with new people that I had met, I was desperate to keep these friendships alive. I would routinely reach out to friends, calling, texting, skyping, trying to make plans to see them when I was home on break. I found that for some friendships, because I was not physically present, the friendship got forgotten about. This realization was difficult, but it helped me to move on from friendships that had become a one-way street. It also helped me to strengthen friendships with those that had stuck by me, as well as with friends that I continued to make. As such, I've realized to let go of those friends that cannot maintain a friendship without your physical presence. If somebody cannot make the effort to reply to a text message, phone call, letter, or Christmas card - for months on end - then clearly, they are not worth my time.

With Friends Made in Europe

I became very close with many of the people I met while living in Sweden. I've talked before about how many of these friends became family, or at least a temporary family for while we were all together. One of the things I realized with many of the other hockey wives, especially the North American ones living abroad, is how similar of experiences we have. These were truly the women who understood the challenges of living thousands of miles away from friends and family. These were the women who understood that sometimes, people back home simply don't understand. While I don't talk with all of these friends daily, or even weekly, I know that because of our shared experiences, these people will always be there.

With Acquaintances

For this post, I'm going to talk about two types of acquaintances. First, there are the acquaintances that you know from some time in your life. You are familiar with each others names, and part of each others backgrounds. With acquaintances, I have found that through social media and blogging, many acquaintances I know have been able to keep up on portions of my life. Often, these people will ask how my time abroad was, and inquire about my thoughts and feelings on traveling. I have had several people comment to me on how much they love being able to connect with me through my blog, and others who have told them how my experiences and blog have inspired them to travel. While before, I may have brushed these conversations off and left quickly, I now enjoy the fact that I run into people I know every once in awhile. It is nice to know that the world is still small!

The other acquaintances I want to talk about are strangers that you meet for the first time. Now, when I first meet people, I am more patient with them and want to understand more about their backgrounds and what makes them tick. I'll be honest, specifically I love meeting other people who have a passion for travel, or who have lived in other countries. It is all about a desire to bond over a shared experience, including the highs and lows of expat life. This is something I think all expats who have repatriated have in common.

With my Husband

Finally, the most important relationship of all: my husband. I moved abroad with a fiance, and at the time I thought we were very close. However, between all of the challenges and triumphs that two years abroad and moving back home brings, we are exponentially closer. When you move abroad, you are forced to rely 100% on each other. Not only did we live in another country together, but we spent every single holiday away from family, and with each other. We traveled together. We laughed together, and we cried together. Truly, we grew as a couple, and our relationship is much stronger than I had ever imagined possible. Our communication skills are excellent, as we can now communicate in several different ways. Sometimes we speak, sometimes all we need is a pointed look, sometimes no words are needed and we just understand each other. I am so grateful that my husband is the one I chose as my life partner, and that we have been able to experience this life together.

With Myself

I've talked about how my relationships changed with family, friends, and my husband - but my relationship with myself has also changed. I'm more independent now than I used to be. I have learned how to be more patient and understanding with people. I have better learned how to identify good intentions and relationships with people, and no longer waste my time on poor relationships. After several years abroad, I am better at identifying exactly how I am feeling and understanding why I am feeling a certain way. In this manner, I have grown more patient with myself and have learned to cut myself breaks sometimes.

Overall, living abroad will change your relationships with people. Some of these changes will be positive, and some of them may be negative. In the long run though, the people who are meant to be there for you, will always be there for you.

Question of the Day: To others that have moved abroad, or simply moved away, what changes have you seen in your relationships?
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