Archive | hiking

Into the High Sierras! Our Kid-Free Adventure in Yosemite (Part 2)

IMG_0239 This story picks up midway through our five-day hiking trip in Yosemite. Part 1 is here!

When I left off, we were at Merced Lake High Sierra Camp (HSC) for the night. We slept well, sharing a tent with some roommates we’d had before: an older couple who were traveling by mule train between camps instead of hiking between camps. We really liked them, and we deeply respected their mule wrangler, a tall and dignified woman in her 60s named Sheridan. She’s been leading mule trains in Yosemite for over 30 years!

IMG_0243 At 7am, the bell rang for hot drinks, and everyone gathered outside the meal tent to drink hot coffee and talk. Afterwards we feasted on cream of wheat, eggs, sausage, pancakes, hash browns, and fresh fruit.

IMG_0253 We had the steepest hike ahead of us that day to Vogelsang HSC: 3,000 feet of elevation gain over about 7.5 miles. That morning Sheridan came up to us and said, “My pack mule is carrying a light load. Would you like to give me some extra things in your packs and I’ll carry them for you? I can give them back to you at Vogelsang tonight.”

What a gift! We unpacked everything but the essentials and enjoyed a lighter load up into the mountains that day.

becca-garber-yosemite-high-sierra-camps-5 After a couple of miles, we came to a fork in the road. One trail was shorter but wound through a dry valley, and the other trail was a couple miles longer and steeper over Vogelsang Pass. Which to choose? Sheridan and other veterans of these trails had strongly recommended the latter trail. We finally decided to take the road less taken… or at least more beautiful.

IMG_0261 becca-garber-yosemite-high-sierra-camps-6 We purchased our lunches each day at each camp: two PB&J sandwiches and two pieces of fruit. Today for the first time we got three-layer sandwiches; they knew we had a hard hike ahead of us!

Also pictured here are my moleskin- and duct-tape-wrapped toes. I learned that duct tape works a lot better and actually stays on, so by the end of our trip four of my toes were wrapped in thick silver tape! Trust me, it’s works like a charm. (You just might have to take a long bath before you can get it off.)

IMG_0308 (1) becca-garber-yosemite-high-sierra-camps-7 Just before our final steep climb over Vogelsang Pass, we passed through the most beautiful valley. We lingered there, taking pictures and savoring the flowers and quiet creek.  becca-garber-yosemite-high-sierra-camps-8 IMG_0327 And then we climbed! Well done, Elliott, on the selfie with the big camera.

IMG_0329 That’s the beautiful little valley down below, and Merced Lake is back over those near mountains.

IMG_0335 At the top of Vogelsang Pass, where it was a lot winder and colder than it looks!

IMG_0340 (1) Poor little frogs, so cold they could hardly move!

IMG_0352 Vogelsang High Sierra Camp, where it was unfortunately so cold that we I put on about 4 extra layers and a hat before I could sit outside and read comfortably. 10,300 feet!

IMG_0354 Steak and baked potatoes with all the fixings that night, and some kind of amazing chocolate cake with whipped cream and mint for dessert. Also, for the very first time, Sheridan invited us into her pre-dinner social group with her box of wine (carried by her pack mule) and asked us to sit with her group and another mule wrangler’s group at dinner… so basically we felt like the cool crowd that night.

IMG_0359 Beautiful but very cold sunset! We lit the wood stove in our tent for the first time that night.

IMG_0371 The next morning Elliott fired up the stove again while we got ready for our last hike.

IMG_0372 Beautiful Vogelsang HSC, which by 9am was already warm enough for short sleeves in the sunshine.

IMG_0378 This was perhaps my least-favorite trail of all, unfortunately. The 8 miles wound steadily downward (no uphill relief for your knees and feet) over a powdery, chewed-up trail, and it marched down the center of a valley without much change in terrain. Made me realize how much I enjoyed that challenging, beautiful, varied hike the day before.

However, I also think we were anxious because we knew we were just a couple of hours away from talking to our kids, finding out if they were ok, and putting our minds at ease.

Some of you, I know, might wonder how a young mother can leave her kids for 5 days, be totally out of touch with them, and bear the separation — especially those of you who have young babies and can’t imagine doing such a thing! I will tell you that it wasn’t easy, and I wouldn’t have chosen it myself (although I loved being unplugged otherwise). Sure, I like taking short breaks from my kids, but generally I’m with them most of their waking hours, and they are the dearest people in the world to me. As attached parents go, Elliott and I are pretty attached.

So I chose at the start of the hike to pray every time I thought of Lena and Gil and commit them to the Lord’s care (knowing that we do not know our day or hour to die — or be hurt, or whatever else — and I could not do much about that wherever I was). And after that, I just did not allow myself to think about them any more. Praise God, it wasn’t that hard, and I never descended into panic, although I could feel intense anxiety creeping at the edges of my consciousness before I pushed it away.

I also know that part of our peace came from knowing they had such excellent babysitters. Our parents adore their grandchildren but also know how to say “no,” share our values down to the minutiae, and spend a lot of time with their grandchildren and in our home and so know the kids’ routine and personalities very well. We couldn’t have left them in better hands. Thank you again, parents!!!

IMG_0383 And there I am, done with the hike! We called Lena and Gil shortly after that, and they were headed back from church with my parents and were happily chattering and glad to hear from us. My mom told us that they had been very calm and peaceful while we were gone, didn’t ask about us that much, and knew we were coming back in a few days. Gil even called “Grammie!” instead of “Mama!” when he woke up from his nap, and was proud of that fact.

IMG_0386 And now… on to a much less rustic side of our trip! We spent a night in The Ahwahnee Hotel, a famous old lodge in Yosemite that has housed presidents and queens, and had a deep bathtub, a bottle of body lotion, and a soft robe that I couldn’t wait to enjoy.

IMG_0402 The magnificent Great Lounge on the main floor, where we sat for a long time reading and savoring tea and cookies during the afternoon tea hour. IMG_0404 The facade is famous and blends in so beautifully with the surrounding park.

IMG_0406 My scruffy hiking buddy in the famous Ahwahnee dining room! becca-garber-yosemite-high-sierra-camps-9 The next day we rented bikes and pedaled around Yosemite Valley, exploring trails, reading books, and even seeing our first bear. Poor guy was a teenager and looked pretty scrawny, almost like a dog wandering through the woods.

IMG_0423 (1) We also hiked up to Vernal Falls, which is usually about 20xs larger than this stream coming down the rocks. The California drought is really affecting Yosemite! We sat for a long time on this rock, reading and watching swimmers down below playing in the cold spray.

IMG_0425 At the top of Vernal Falls… more like Vernal Drips. We also saw Nevada Falls above it, equally anemic. Oh well, the hike was beautiful, and we loved those steep, rugged granite rock faces.

IMG_0430 Speaking of which… this was the last photo I took of them before we headed home…

becca-garber-home-from-yosemite … to these precious people. Happy day! Elliott and I feel rich indeed after such a trip and such healthy, happy, cute little people to come home to! Thanks for adventuring with me, Elliott; I hope this is just the first long hiking trip of many we take together.

13 :: in hiking, husband, marriage, travel

Into the High Sierras! Our Kid-Free Adventure in Yosemite (Part I)

Version 2 We’re back from a week in Yosemite… a week with no kids and no cell phone reception! For those who are curious about what we did and how we did it, here is a bit of our itinerary, and also all my best photos.

Our children are now 4.5 and 2.5, and so Elliott and I had been talking about taking a longer trip away, just the two of us. We’ve slipped away before, but never for more than two nights. This time we were dreaming of going for a week or so, maybe out of cell phone reception, and perhaps as far-flung as South America.

The grandparents eagerly lined up to care for the kids; Elliott’s parents came to our house the first three days and my parents took over for the final four days of our trip. Thank you again, wonderful parents, for making this possible!

Eventually we decided to do something rugged, something we couldn’t do with our children anytime soon. We chose the Yosemite High Sierra Camps loop, which is a network of five camps each located about 10 miles apart, and all at about 9,000-10,000 feet in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of northern California. We chose the option that allowed us to eat a full breakfast and dinner at each camp and sleep in their tent cabins (more about those below), which meant that we only had to bring a daypack with us that held our clothes, toiletries, and books.

And then at 4am on Wednesday, August 26, we took off for Yosemite!

IMG_1128 After eight hours of driving, we arrived and found a place to leave our rental car for a few days. Then we caught the shuttle to the trailhead and started walking. By now it was about 4pm and dinner would be served at the camp at 6:30, so we were glad we only had 2.5 miles to go that evening to get to our first camp.

IMG_1131 IMG_1134 May Lake High Sierra Camp is beautiful, especially because of the quiet, calm mirror of the lake itself right next to the camp.

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IMG_1142 That night we got our introduction to the meals at the camps. Each one was better than the last!

At 6pm the bell rang for hot drinks, and everyone gathered to talk and sip tea, coffee, or hot cocoa. At 6:30 the bell rang again, and everyone filed into the meal tent to share long tables and eat a family-style meal. Dinner always started off with a bowl of homemade soup, freshly baked bread (at 10,000 feet!), and a green salad. Afterwards came the main course (salmon, pulled pork, chicken, steak, spaghetti and meatballs… it changed every night) accompanied by sides like roasted vegetables or rice. And they always served dessert!

That night we slept for the first time in a tent cabin. We always hoped to get our own tent cabin, but they were four- to six-person tents and we never got so lucky! Thankfully we always had great roommates, and with earplugs we didn’t hear any snoring. The cots were comfortable, and we slept in our own sheet sacks between the blankets and pillows that the camp provided.

IMG_1140 Beautiful spot for morning worship by the lake!

becca-garber-yosemite-high-sierra-camps-1 After hot drinks at 7am and then breakfast at 7:30 (hot oatmeal or cold cereal, fresh fruit, pancakes, bacon or sausage, and a large omelet to share… it was ridiculously good food), we set off on our 9-mile hike to Sunrise Lakes High Sierra Camp.

IMG_1147 (1) Along the way we stopped for our last bit of cell phone reception to call our kids for the next four days. A mule supply train walked by, carrying food to May Lake for that evening’s dinner.

IMG_1152 IMG_1155 I waited by this lake for 1.5 hours while Elliott decided to catch the shuttle back to the car, dump a bunch of extra stuff he had overpacked, and get my camera — because my phone battery was dying quickly and I wanted to take lots of photos. A good decision all around, although it set us back on our hike that day.

IMG_0121 This is one of the Sunrise Lakes, which were all so calm and beautiful. This was the hardest day of hiking for me, because the last six miles of the hike were all uphill, and I was really feeling the altitude. That night I woke up to a splitting headache that lasted most of the night, even after I took some Ibuprofen. Thankfully, though, that was the turning point! Afterwards the hiking was smooth sailing.

IMG_0132 Setting off across Sunrise Meadows for our third day on the trails. My naturalist husband loved watching and identifying birds and animals along the way, so this was a familiar pose.

IMG_0134 Gray morning because of a forest fire nearby. Thankfully this is the closest we got to one. becca-garber-yosemite-high-sierra-camps-3 becca-garber-yosemite-high-sierra-camps-4 My husband catching trout with his bare hands on our lunch break! And me by a mountain juniper tree, one of my favorites that I learned to recognize on this trip.

IMG_0187 IMG_0209 IMG_0235 Merced Lake High Sierra Camp was the largest of the five camps, with about two dozen tent cabins arranged in a circle in a meadow. We made friends that night with some hikers our own age from the South, two things which were pretty unusual — everyone else was middle-aged and from Minnesota.

OK, just kidding about Minnesota.

IMG_0231 We spent the afternoon on the beach by the creek at Merced Lake, reading and dozing. Actually, Elliott said, “This photo should be titled, ‘Where Becca took a nap.'” There are few things more satisfying than sleeping, though, after you have finished your hard work for the day and have nothing else to do — no dinner to make, no kids to care for, no work to accomplish — nothing else to do all day… except rest!

And so we did.

More tomorrow from the rest of our hike!

14 :: in hiking, husband, marriage, travel

Here’s to Romantic Getaways to Wine Country and Mountains!

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Falkner Winery

Pretty much every time Elliott and I try to leave the house, plans change at the last minute and we forget some critical piece of attire and nothing is quite as we expected… and usually we end up having a pretty good time anyway. I’m guessing most of you can relate on some level, being human and all. ;)

This past weekend is the perfect example. Elliott had been invited to speak to veterinary students at UC-Davis, and his parents were in town, and so we were planning a getaway to Davis (cool college town) and Napa (wine!) for just the two of us.

But then UC-Davis postponed the event, and we were left with a four-day weekend and nothing to do.

In true Garber style, we made no new plans until the day of, and then decided… let’s stay closer to San Diego but go away anyway!

So Elliott booked us a room for the night, we put our kids down for naps, packed our bags, hugged Elliott’s parents, and set off for wine country.

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Ponte Vineyard (left) and South Coast (right)

An hour later, we drove into one of Southern California’s wine regions, located just outside Temecula, CA. The vineyards were clustered together, some within walking distance of each other, so we got to visit seven (!) while we were there. I was writing an article about them for eCoronado, so it made sense to visit as many as we could, even if we didn’t drink wine at all of them.

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The tasting room at Ponte Vineyard.

For the record, our favorite was Ponte Vineyard, pictured above. The facility includes an outdoor restaurant, beautiful tasting room, and a inn (rated by TripAdvisor as the 13th best hotel in America!), and the property is surrounded by picturesque vineyards. King Family Vineyards in Crozet, VA, will forever be my favorite vineyard of all time, but Ponte might be second.

Other favorites included Falkner Winery (for the view and wines), Callaway Winery (for the restaurant and wines), and South Coast Winery Resort & Spa (for the grounds and picnic foods).

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I promise Elliott is wearing pants!

Later that afternoon we checked into our “hotel” for the night, an AirBnB rental. We were renting an RV! I haven’t stayed in an RV since I was about eight years old, so this was totally fun. The RV is parked beside the owner’s ranch house, future fruit orchard, and large petting zoo with an alpaca, dwarf goat, three miniature horses, and about 100 chickens. The owner also runs her own chocolate business, and I might have been very excited about the chocolates she left in our fridge. We were very happy.

becca-garber-getaway-san-diego-temecula-wine-idyllwild-4 The next afternoon we decided to extend our stay (thank you, grandparents!) and head up to the sleepy mountain town of Idyllwild. Don’t you just love that name? Idyllwild… stay awhile…

IMG_7653 Once again, our accommodations were simple, rustic, and suited us perfectly. Also this is one of my favorite things in the world: watching my husband build us a fire!

IMG_7577 In the morning we discovered the most amazing cafe: Idyllwild Bake Shop & Brew. The atmosphere is warm and friendly, enhanced by the young proprietor sporting flannel and a big beard, and his wife making all their baked goods from scratch in the back. We bought breakfast, lunch, and afternoon coffees there!

becca-garber-getaway-san-diego-temecula-wine-idyllwild-2 Elliott was eager to go on a hike before heading home, but we had packed for wine-tasting, not serious hiking. (Can you say “last-minute planners”?!) In the end, we opted for the easiest local trail (Deer Springs) and hiked a total of 6.5 miles in the quiet, piney forest.

Elliott took this photo at the mid-point of our hike after we ate our Idyllwild Bake Shop sandwiches. This kind of tired is the best kind of tired!

becca-garber-getaway-san-diego-temecula-wine-idyllwild-1 The two days away were so refreshing to both of us. We spent a lot of time in quiet togetherness, not necessarily talking or not talking, but just abiding. Savoring peaceful unity in our time alone together.

And a big thank you again to Elliott’s amazing parents! We could never have relaxed or stayed away so long without knowing our kids were in such capable hands. We returned to them much better parents than when we left!

34 :: in hiking, husband, marriage, pretty places, travel

Post-Deployment Family Fun Around San Diego

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Elliott came home from deployment on a Wednesday afternoon, and his amazing commander gave him a four-day weekend to enjoy time at home with his family. Thank you, ma’am!

We spent the weekend doing so many fun things: hiking on Thursday, hiking on Friday (so basically Elliott’s ideal life), biking all over downtown San Diego on Saturday, and then topping off the weekend with beers and friends at Balboa Park on Sunday evening.

Here are a few of my favorite photos from our first weekend back together as a family:

becca-garber-after-deployment-family-fun-san-diego-7 Our first adventure on Thursday was at Cuymaca Rancho State Park, which is about a 45-minute drive east of San Diego.* Elliott had flown over those hills on his plane flight home, and he saw that there was a little snow left since SD had so much rain the week before. We went to find that snow!

*Side note: It is so weird to say something is “east” of your home when you’ve always lived on the East Coast and anything east is the Atlantic Ocean. I feel like I’m driving on the wrong side of the road or something every time I say, “It’s west of San Diego… oh no wait… I mean east, definitely east!”

becca-garber-after-deployment-family-fun-san-diego-3.jpg I love Gil’s face in that first photo! He can’t get over the crazy snow! He hasn’t seen snow since Mt Etna, our backyard volcano in Sicily. He got used to it pretty quickly, though, and Lena and Elliott went right for the snowball fights…

becca-garber-after-deployment-family-fun-san-diego-4.jpg … and building a tiny snowman. And Lena was so sweet to help her brother in the snow!

becca-garber-after-deployment-family-fun-san-diego-6 The most exciting part of the day was coming around a corner and seeing a fire truck. Gil was beside himself with joy… a FIRE TRUCK.

And then we noticed all the people working around the fire truck to clear the fire road were wearing orange jumpsuits with “PRISONER” on the back in large black letters. Yiiiiikes. We walked right past them several times as they were working on the road and we were hiking. I wasn’t too nervous, though, because I doubted prisoners with recent or horrific crimes would be allowed to work so freely, and because mostly I felt sad for them as we hiked past, free and whole and happy.

(And I’ve plugged it before and I’ll plug it again, but Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison totally changed my view about the American criminal justice system. It’s not at all like the TV show, and it is really, really worth a read.)

becca-garber-after-deployment-family-fun-san-diego-3 And then Lena and I made snow angels for the first time, “just like Laura did in Little House in the Big Woods!”

And then that evening we went to the beach for sunset just to say we went to the snow and the beach in the same day! Hurray for living in gorgeous California.

becca-garber-after-deployment-family-fun-san-diego-16 We met up at the beach with some of our best friends in Coronado, and it was so good to see Elliott back with our group and our kiddos. I’ve missed that!

becca-garber-after-deployment-family-fun-san-diego-8 The next morning we went with those same friends to eat brunch at The Cottage, a delicious breakfast spot in La Jolla. Afterwards we took our friends hiking at Torrey Pines State Reserve, which you already know from here and here that I love so much!

becca-garber-after-deployment-family-fun-san-diego-1.jpg becca-garber-after-deployment-family-fun-san-diego-9 Our friends Adam and Jackson… and blue blue blue sky.

becca-garber-after-deployment-family-fun-san-diego-13 The colors of the California coast.

becca-garber-after-deployment-family-fun-san-diego-14 The whole group! We have loved sharing life with this dear family in Coronado, and we’re so sad that they moved just this week back to Oklahoma. Stacy has been an incredible friend to me — authentic and kind and spontaneous and generous and real. We have loved girls’ nights and last-minute dinners and sunsets at the beach and so, so, so many hours together at the park and library and Bible study. Aren’t good friends such a gift in this life?!

becca-garber-after-deployment-family-fun-san-diego-12 The three I love the most in this world.

becca-garber-after-deployment-family-fun-san-diego-11 Watching a helo, as I’ve learned to call them here.

becca-garber-after-deployment-family-fun-san-diego-10 Jackson and Lena — two happy little friends!

becca-garber-after-deployment-family-fun-san-diego-15 Gil’s hat… I can’t even.

collagebecca-garber-after-deployment-family-fun-san-diego-2 … and pouting, just for good measure.

The next day we biked through Coronado to the ferry, and then we rode the ferry across the bay to downtown San Diego. It only takes about 10 minutes, but it’s so much fun! Once on the other side, we spent the day at a splash park/awesome playground, the New Central Library, and Seaport Village, a quaint (but touristy) seaside shopping area. If you’re wanting to visit San Diego, these are all wonderful places to go with kids!

becca-garber-splash-park-san-diego-1.jpg becca-garber-splash-park-san-diego And finally, on Sunday we went here, an amazing outdoor restaurant in Balboa Park. I didn’t take a single picture, but it’s one of our favorite places to hang out with our kids and friends. I don’t know of many places where you can drink fine beers and let your kids play in the grass… of a sculpture garden, no less! Highly recommended if that’s your jam. ;)

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Time apart from your husband — and doing every social activity by yourself — will make you SO grateful to have your husband back and home and with you! Friendships are more fun when you can share them with whole families and your whole family, don’t you think?

1 :: in 52 project, Coronado, deployment, hiking, San Diego

Our 10 Favorites in Sicily {Within 1 Hour of Sigonella}

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I’ve been wanting to share some of our favorite day trips, restaurants, and beaches in Sicily because these places hold our best memories from the three years we’ve spent in this beautiful place. I hope new generations of visitors and Sigonella military families to enjoy them after we depart!

If you have questions or if my directions are wrong, please let me know in the comments, and I’ll be sure to get them updated. And if you have suggestions of your own, add them there too!

Taormina

I love Taormina so much that I could go there every week, and Elliott thinks that I pretty much do. It is the prettiest town in Sicily, and it’s what you dream of when you hear the word “Italy.”

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When you visit Taormina, you can park in two different places: at the bottom of town and ride the cable car up into the old town, or in the public garage right outside of the old town.

The cable car parking lot costs about 5 euro a day, and cable car tickets are 3 euro each way per person. (Small children ride for free.) The cable car drops you off right outside the city walls of Taormina.

If you prefer not to ride the cable car, follow the road signs from the toll booth to “Taormina” or “Porta Catania” (the name of the huge public garage). Once you park in the garage, you can walk up the hill and enter the city. I usually do this, and I pay about 8 euro to park for 5 hours.

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Now you’re in Taormina! I always eat lunch at Da Cristina, which was written up in the New York Times and sells the best Sicilian street food I’ve ever eaten. We stop for mini cannoli at one of the little pastry shops along the way. We generally walk through the town until we reach the beautiful Villa Comunale gardens, which has stunning views, quiet benches, stone picnic tables (yes!), a fish pond, Amazon parrots that say “ciao!”, and a dilapidated playground that my kids love.

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On our way back up the hill from the park, we always, always stop at Bam Bar for the best granita (Italian ice) in Taormina. Actually, it’s the best granita in the world. Get the lemon and raspberry (limone e lampone) or maybe the coffee granita with thick whipped cream on top. Order a brioche (sweet bun) and a cappuccino, and take a bite of everything for me!

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Beach tip: The cable car parking lot is also a great place to park if you want to visit the beach in Taormina. You just have to walk out of the parking lot, turn right, climb the hill, and cross the street (follow the signs) to take a long flight of stairs down to the rocky beach. In April, this staircase is full of brilliant purple wisteria! On the rocky beach, you can also wade across to the beautiful little island of Isola Bella, where a Scottish heiress built herself a house when she escaped her unhappy marriage.

To inspire your visit, here are all our many Taormina adventures!

Cassibile Nature Reserve Beach

We love a lot of beaches in Sicily, but Cassibile is our favorite. It’s also called Fonda Pineta del Gelsomineto. It’s an hour drive from Sigonella, past Siracusa, so generally we make a day of it. The pin in this map indicates the beach. Admission costs 10-12 euro during the week and 12-15 euro on the weekend during the summer, and you pay the parking attendant when you turn at the new yellow building by the side of the road.

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Bring food, a portable grill, a beach umbrella, a beach tent, your dog, whatever you like. There are virtually no rules. There is a tiny cafe, and sometimes a guy walks down the beach with a cooler full of fresh coconut, but otherwise no food for sale. There are public bathrooms, but nowhere else to change, so I come and go in my swimsuit.

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My husband loves to take visitors and friends on a short walk/hike (shoes or flip flops are recommended) up the cliffs to a safe place to jump off into the water below. I’m always stuck on the beach with a baby, but he says it’s great! We’ve also explored the pillbox on the northern end of the beach; it was used by the Germans during WWII to watch for invaders by sea.

Siracusa & Ortigia

I love to take visitors to beautiful Ortigia, the little island connected by a short bridge to the city of Siracusa. I usually park at this large parking lot and then wander through the city towards the main piazza.

My absolute favorite place to eat is right there in the piazza at the delicious pizzeria called La Volpe e  l’Uva (The Fox and the Grape). Their menu is trendy and their food is delicious, and I will dream about their four cheese pizza forever.

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After lunch and a gelato cone, we wander down to the waterfront, where papyrus grows in a little freshwater pond. Sometimes we go swimming at the tiny little beach in the port. One summer my sister-in-law and I were so hot, and the teenagers in their mismatched bikinis looked so happy jumping off the pier into the sparkling water, that finally we just took off our shorts and jumped into the water with them!

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While in Siracusa, I have also visited the Archeological Park several times. It’s about a 10-minute drive from Ortigia, and it’s possible to do both in the same day. Admission is 10 euro per person (buy your ticket across the street from the entrance), and there are three large archeological sites to see inside the gates: an amphitheater, a theater that is still in use during the summer, and a cave with a notorious echo.

Here are photos from three trips to Siracusa

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Catania

I visit Catania at least once a month, mostly because I absolutely love the huge market. It’s open every day except Sunday from 8am-1pm, and the prices and produce are incomparable.

I park here underneath the arched bridge. My friend taught me to do this and I’ve been parking here for three years with no issues. The attendant (a friendly guy with gray hair) guides me to a parking spot and will watch my car until about 1:30pm for whatever I want to pay him. I usually give him two euro. Clearly it’s not “legal,” but it isn’t illegal either, a paradox that only makes sense in certain parts of the world.

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Once I park, I walk through the main city gate into Elephant Square (Piazza Duomo/Fontane dell’Elefante). I then might:

  • Ride the tourist train around the city (here are pictures and information from a trip we took)
  • Walk into the huge and magnificent Cattedral Sant’Agata
  • Stroll down the main street of Catania (Via Etnea) to get the best arancini in the city at Pasticceria Savia. I then walk across the street to eat them in the Giardino Bellini, the beautiful public gardens.
  • Wander around the market for fresh produce and fish. When you’re in Elephant Square, look for the white marble fountain. The fish market is behind it (a must-see!), and the fresh fruits and vegetables start there. I buy fresh live mussels (three euro a kilo) for dinner almost every time I come here.

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On our way out, the kids love to visit the playground right next to where we park. The playground is in pretty good condition and has a lot of equipment, which is unusual for Sicilian playgrounds.

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Mount Etna

It is possible to hike most of the way up Mt Etna, and we did it once as a family right after we moved to Sicily. It was an experience I don’t want to repeat — lava is not interesting scenery! — but I’m glad we did it. Mt Etna erupted while we were as high as we were allowed to climb, and that is definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience. You can read about that whole adventure (and get some advice) here.

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These days when we hike on Mt Etna, we drive to Etna Sud (the South Station) and hike on a trail nearby. You can find the trail head by driving through the South Station, passing the Silvestri crater on your right, going down the hill, and parking at the T intersection at the bottom of that hill. There’s a little volcanic ash parking lot to your left at that intersection (here’s the location on Google Maps). A wonderful trail starts at that parking lot; just walk around the metal boom and start up the rocky path. The hike takes about 45 minutes for active adults and leads you around the side of Mt Etna to look down into the huge, black lava field. You can continue up the path from there to climb more of Etna if you’d like. Here are pictures from one of our hikes.

You can ski on Mt Etna, too! Here’s everything you need to know.

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Nicolosi

While you’re near Mt Etna, there is a lot to see and enjoy in Nicolosi. This beautiful mountain town is full of delicious restaurants, shops, cafes, parks, and B&Bs. Elliott and I have gone there twice for overnight getaways, staying in this lovely little B&B both times.

We’ve enjoyed delicious spreads at three restaurants and I recommend all of them: Antichi Proverbi, Antico Orto Dei Limone, and 1877 . We also love cappuccinos and gelato at La Dolce Vita and pre-dinner drinks at Santo Doca in the main piazza.

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Here are links to our first getaway without the kids and our romantic skiing weekend (oxymoron?).

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We also love to hike in Monti Rossi, which is a beautiful park on two small hills just outside the town of Nicolosi. There is a ropes course there that’s a lot of fun for kids’ birthday parties (Monti Rossi Adventure Park), and past that is a picnic and grill area. Elliott and I have hiked all over the two hills with and without our kids, and we always feel like we’re in another world when we step into the quiet pine forest.

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Borgo Antico Agriturismo

There’s nothing like Sunday lunch at a Sicilian agriturismo! Our favorite farm-to-table restaurant is Borgo Antico Agriturismo, which is about 30 minutes from Sigonella. As of Summer 2014, the meal costs 30 euro per adult and it is worth every penny. There are four courses:

  • Appetizers, which consists of about 15 different dishes, all more delicious than the last!
  • Pasta, usually two different kinds with homemade pasta
  • Meat, usually three different platters accompanied by a simple salad
  • Dessert and seasonal fruit

The meal also includes as much wine and olive oil as you want to consume, and both are made from grapes and olives on Borgo’s land. The setting is lovely, and between courses the kids can run outside in the citrus groves. I’ve been there at least five times and each meal is better than the last.

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We also enjoyed an incredible agriturismo meal in Randazzo on Mt Etna at Etna Quota Mille. where the meats were grilled instead of breaded and fried like at Borgo. A vineyard called Nanfro (also about an hour from Sigonella) serves an incredible agriturismo meal accompanied by their own delicious wines, and the tour of the vineyard is also fascinating.

Casa delle Farfalle (The Butterfly House)

We love to go here as a family on Sunday afternoons, which is when the butterfly garden is open to the public. We park for two euro for the day, and admission to the butterfly house costs 5 euro per adult. The employees will want to give you a tour in English if they can, and we’ve enjoyed that every time, although it is tedious with small children. Afterwards you’re left alone to enjoy the beautiful butterfly garden.

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We picnic in the grass behind the butterfly garden, usually surrounded by other picnicking families. We’ve always been the only Americans there, so it’s a wonderful chance to mix quietly with Italian families enjoying the sunshine and outdoors on a Sunday afternoon.

becca-garber-casa-delle-farfalle-butterfly-house-sicily-2.jpg The butterfly garden is also open on Saturdays and weekdays, but you will have to call and make a reservation. Only Sundays are public. It’s open from April to October during the year.

I wrote about the butterfly garden twice before: visiting with other moms and kids and a Sunday afternoon family trip.

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The Sigonella Inn Pool

There is a pool on base at Sigonella, but you have to pay to use it (usually $4 for adults and $3 for kids) and it is only open for recreational swimming from 12:30-6pm from roughly Memorial Day to Labor Day. By 12:30, the baby pool is in the shade, and it gets cold for kids and moms.

So, because of sunshine, nap schedules, and general thriftiness, I head to the Sigonella Inn pool across the street from NAS 1 instead. This pool is free if you don’t rent a deck chair (which is 5 euro), and the shallow kids’ pool is beautiful and lit with sunshine. We usually leave by 2pm because apparently the pool party really heats up later in the day. On the weekends, it’s bustling with Italians and Americans together, and I love being a part of the melting pot.

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Also, their restaurant makes pizza at the poolside for about six euro a pizza, and you can eat it in a take-out box right by the pool. This summer my friend Sarah have gotten into the habit of swimming with our kids and enjoying pizzas at least once a week!

Random mom tip: if you’re looking for a cool place to go on a hot day, IKEA is not a bad choice. During the week it’s not crowded, and there is a delicious restaurant to break up your browsing for everything you don’t need but are going home with anyway. The restaurant is also right by the kids’ section, which has a great play area. My kids play, eat the food I brought (hello thrifty), get a 50-cent ice cream cone from the super fabulous machine, and then play some more before we leave. I love the place so much that I’ve blogged about it here as a playdate and here with a brand new baby!

Caltagirone

Home of Sicily’s traditional yellow-and-blue ceramics, Caltagirone is a lovely spot to browse take visitors, shop for souvenirs, and eat a delicious meal at a tucked-away restaurant. In addition to shopping for ceramics, I have visited during the Christmas season to see the many presepe (nativity) scenes set up in garages and little shops throughout the town. More details in these blog posts: pottery shopping and the presepe.

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——–

We have loved our three years in Sicily, but I know it isn’t everyone’s cup of cappuccino. If you’re about to move here, it will probably be a lot different from what you’re expecting. And those who have lived here for any length of time know that it’s easy to focus on the negatives, like the driving, or the trash, or everything that comes with living in a rural area.

What we have found is that it’s best to focus on what Sicily does best: deliciously fresh produce and seafood, rich red wine that’s cheap as water, the tallest active volcano in Europe, farm-to-table meals that last all afternoon, sparkling turquoise water by yellow sand beaches, warm and filling street food, and — of course! — sweet gelato cones on hot summer afternoons.

Combine this with Sicily’s warm, generous, welcoming, wonderful people, and you have a whole new world at your fingertips. I wish you a wonderful time in Sicily!

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