Five Reasons to Visit the Art of Living Retreat Center in Boone, North Carolina

Nestled high in the Blue Ridge Mountains in Boone, North Carolina, the Art of Living Retreat Center is the perfect getaway to unwind, find balance, and ground yourself. AOLRC offers a number of programs tailored to different goals. I attended the three day Happiness Retreat. Whatever your spiritual goals may be, AOLRC has a program for you.

Before I get any further, I want to share that AOLRC is giving away a free Happiness Retreat to one of my followers. Enter here:

https://artoflivingretreatcenter.org/lp/christine-connell-giveaway/

Art of Living was founded in 1981 by humanitarian and spiritual teacher Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and currently operates in more than 150 countries. Art of Living Programs are guided by Sri Sri’s philosophy “Unless we have a stress-free mind and a violence-free society, we cannot achieve world peace.”

Now, here are the top five reasons you should visit AOLRC:

  1. It’s for a good cause. Art of Living is a volunteer-based nonprofit organization that supports various service projects in the US and globally. In the US, Art of Living USA supports prisoner rehabilitation, disaster & trauma relief, youth empowerment in schools, and trauma relief for veterans. Internationally, the Art of Living Foundation works in collaboration with The International Association for Human Values and with the United Nations Social and Economic Council to implement numerous humanitarian and service initiatives including conflict resolution programs, disaster relief, sustainable rural development, empowerment of women, education for all, and environmental sustainability.
  2. You will learn to be present. I’ve always considered myself a happy person. I have a great life filled with great people. However, as a lawyer and a blogger, I’m always busy working and planning. I obsess over my schedule and planning in the future. I’m not always good at living in the present. But being present is necessary to be truly happy. AOLRC will teach you breathing techniques and other methods that will help you be present. You’ll also learn to have greater control over your mind.
  3. The food is healthy and delicious. I’m a vegan, so it’s often difficult for me to find food while traveling. AOLRC serves all vegetarian and mostly vegan food. Vegan food is clearly labeled, as are several allergens. AOLRC will work with you to accommodate any dietary restrictions you have.
  4. It’s a great place to meet friends. Everyone I met at AOLRC was kind and genuine. I met friends who have similar interests and values. I’m sure I will continue to stay in contact with them for years to come.
  5. The property is gorgeous. AOLRC is located in the beautiful mountains of North Carolina. When you look outside, you’ll see green trees and soft blue layers of mountains. I couldn’t imagine a more serene setting to relax and reset.

How to Visit the Uvac River Meanders in Serbia

The Uvac River is an international trans-boundary river that flows for 115 km (71 miles), through Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Uvac River carves a deep and winding valley through a dramatic landscape. Along the river you can find staggering mountains, expansive caves, and interesting wildlife, including Griffon vultures.

The Meanders were formed as the river flowed through limestone over many years. Today, they are in impressive series of tightly packed looping turns below tall canyon walls. The Meanders is one of the most photogenic places in Serbia, and I highly recommend visiting if you have the opportunity.

Visiting the Meanders wasn’t as straightforward as I expected, so I put together this post with some helpful information on how to get there.

Where to Stay

We were coming from Bosnia, and Užice, Serbia was a convenient place for us to stay. The Meanders are about a 2:15 drive from Užice, and since the walk to the viewpoint is not long at all, it was easy to drive there and back in a day. Družiniće is closer to the Meanders, but there isn’t as much to do there.

How to Get to the Uvac River Meanders

If you’re looking at a map, the viewpoints are located here:

There are actually two viewpoints that are quite near each other. You can put “Видиковац” or “Vintage Point Uvats” in Google Maps for the first viewpoint and “Видиковац Молитва 2” in Google Maps for the second viewpoint. You can walk between the two viewpoints if you want to see both.

The last 30 or so minutes is along a dirt road filled with rocks and potholes. Be careful! We had a tiny car and there were several times when we were worried we wouldn’t make it. I would definitely recommend using a high clearance vehicle.

This is the easy part of the dirt road. I was too focused on driving to take photos at the bad parts.

Once you park, it is a fairly short (but not well marked) walk to the viewpoint. Follow the little dirt path in the direction of the river (it’s fairly obvious where the river is), and remember which path you came from.

You’ll come to a wooden lookout. This is the viewpoint.

Feel free to leave a comment here or message me on Instagram if you have any questions!

How to Get the Best View of Kozjak Lake from Mount Jasen Observatory

Mount Jasen Observatory offers a great view of Kozjak Lake with no hiking required, but you can hike around if you want to! It’s about an hour car ride from Skopje, and well worth the drive.

Google Maps and Waze both have the location as “Kozjak Lake Observation Point. There is cell phone service most of the way, including at the top. We only lost service for a few minutes right before the top.

There are several pull outs on the road, and I recommend stopping at a few to get different views. I also highly recommend hiking around a bit if you’re up for it.

A few of my favorite photos are below:

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A Relaxing Weekend at Deerfield Health Retreat and Spa

Located just a couple of hours outside of NYC and nestled in the Poconos Mountains is Deerfield Health Retreat and Spa, a modern version of an “adult sleepaway camp.” Located in cozy country style inn, Deerfield offers a “choose your own adventure” style camp minus all of the planning. Deerfield is a great place to meet likeminded people. Meals are enjoyed with other guests and you can choose from many activities scheduled throughout the day – including hiking, fitness classes such as yoga and Pilates, and bingo. Deerfield is located just a few minutes from the famed Delaware Water Gap where guests can spend the day hiking or canoeing.

Deerfield is the perfect place to meet new friends while going through a healthy reset. Many visitors come back time and time again and claim they are “addicted” to this special place.

Britton and I drove from La Guardia airport to Deerfield on Friday evening. The drive took us about two hours. We were greeted and shown around the property. We enjoyed some tea and fruit before heading to bed.

Saturday morning we woke up, ate some fruit for breakfast, and headed out to hike Mount Tammany: Red Dot and Blue Loop trail.

The hike took us about 2 hours and 15 minutes including stops. The hike has a few light scramble sections, but is mostly an easy to follow trail.

I recommend stopping at the first viewpoint, as I think it is more scenic than the top, which also gets extremely crowded. We made the mistake of passing by the first viewpoint, assuming the top would be better.

On the way back down, there are beautiful waterfalls.

After our hike, we returned to Deerfield for dinner. I’m a vegan and Britton is a pescatarian. I got a rice and vegetables dish and Britton got salmon. The food tasted fresh and healthy. It was the perfect post-hike meal.

After dinner, we enjoyed Deerfield’s incredible spa. Britton and I both got facials. The esthetician was knowledgeable and customized our facials based on our skin types. The products were great as well. She did a great job with extractions and added a nice massage (she’s also a massage therapist!) while we had masks on. Britton and I spend a little more than our fair share of time in spas, and we both were impressed with our experience. Our skin was glowing the next day! We would go back to Deerfield for the spa alone.

After our facials, we went to sleep. We woke up Sunday, had breakfast, and got ready to tackle Deerfield’s fitness classes.

Britton and I took the butts and guts class and then Pilates reformer back to back. Both were good classes. Britton and I are fairly active and we felt like we got a good workout. The instructor was fun and supportive. All of the guests bonded over squats and lunges. It was fun!

Deerfield is a great place located conveniently outside of NYC and Philadelphia. If you’re looking for a relaxing escape where you can meet new friends and make a healthy lifestyle charge, Deerfield is your place!

Isopure 20 Gram Apple Melon Protein Drink for an Active Lifestyle

If you know me, you know that I’m always on the go. #Sponsored I hike, climb, run, and ski whenever I have free time. As a lawyer, free time can be hard to come by. It’s really important for my body to be ready to go whenever I get free time so I don’t miss out on opportunities.

I recently tried Isopure 20 Gram Protein Drink by @isopurecompany available at @costco. It’s a light and refreshing zero carb protein drink made with pure, non-GMO whey protein isolate. It has no sugar, lactose, fat, or fillers. I especially love how crisp Isopure 20 Gram Protein is. While I enjoy rich protein shakes, sometimes I want something less heavy. And that’s where Isopure comes in. Unlike other protein drinks, I can drinking when I’m hungry, and when I’m not.

I drink protein when I’m being active because it helps with muscle building & recovery, helps keep me feeling full between meals, and keeps my muscles healthy.

If you haven’t tried Isopure and are looking for a high quality, refreshing protein, I highly suggest you try it! #Isopure # Isopureprotein #Costco @costcodeals @cosco_doesitagain

Roadtripping around the South Island of New Zealand with Mad Campers NZ

Meandering down windy roads with each turn giving us a glimpse of staggering peaks and breathtaking fjords was a routine that was easy to get used to as Caroline and I spent a week roadtripping around New Zealand in a Mad Campers NZ van.

One of the first things I learned upon arrival in New Zealand is how quickly the weather can change. While it’s a good idea to have some hikes in mind, it’s important to realize that sticking to a firm schedule likely won’t work out. We had a list of ideas and adjusted our schedule day-by-day based on the weather. Our Mad Campers NZ van gave us the flexibility to keep our plans loose and take full advantage of the good weather when it came. No pre-booked hotels, nothing holding us to a certain place at a certain time – we drove the van around and slept wherever it ended up being convenient. New Zealand is full of “holiday parks” where you can sleep in your van, so van life is quite easy.

Hike Outside of Queenstown

Our first overnight hike (which I promised not to disclose the location of) was a few hours outside of Queenstown. Five hours of slogging through mud and climbing over fallen trees led us to a peaceful river where we set up camp. The next morning we hiked up the river to the glacier for some absolutely stunning views. The hike ended up taking much longer than we anticipated and we didn’t get out until around 10pm. We were SO excited to be back at the van. We immediately cooked ourselves a nice dinner, drove to the nearest holiday park with availability, set up our bed in the van, and went to sleep. It was cold outside, but the van was nice and warm. My tired and sore body really appreciated the padding of the bed.

A Couple of Days of Relaxation

After our first hike, the weather turned bad and it rained for two days straight. We took advantage of the downtime to catch up on work, edit photos, and let our bodies recharge. Sometimes we ate at cafes and sometimes we cooked in the van. And let me tell you, sleeping in a van is soooo much nicer than sleeping in a tent when it’s raining!

Mitre Peak

When the weather got nice again, we drove down to Milford Sound. After taking a few photos at the sound, we got on a Milford Helicopters flight to the foothill of Mitre Peak. We camped there that night and woke up to a beautiful sunrise. We hiked the rest of the morning and got picked up that afternoon. Mitre Peak is a beautiful mountain that rises directly out of the ocean. It is peaceful and not heavily trafficked, so you’re likely to have the mountain all to yourself. Be careful if you hike – it’s easy to get lost near the bottom and it’s very exposed.

Gertrude Saddle

Gertrude Saddle has gotten extremely popular in the last few years – and for good reason. It’s a fun hike with gorgeous sunrises and sunsets. The hike is about 8.6 miles out and back and took me 5.5 hours with an overnight backpack and sprained ankle. The beginning of the hike is through some trees, but the remainder follows a river/river bed until a short scramble and then a boulder field before reaching the saddle. The trail is fairly well marked, though I did get briefly lost coming out of the trees on the way back. I’d recommend downloading the AllTrails map just in case. The beginning of the hike is basically walking over loose rocks, so if you have a bad ankle like I do, be careful! The scramble section has cables, so it’s fairly easy even if you aren’t comfortable on rocks. The boulder field is well marked with cairns and markers and if you follow them, it’s not bad. While Gertrude Saddle is very safe on a dry day, people have died when the weather has been bad. Numerous signs along the trail warn hikers of the danger. Do not attempt Gertrude if it has been raining! We were the only campers the night we stayed at Gertrude Saddle. It was peaceful, but very windy and cold! Be prepared if you plan to camp.

Why I Loved Traveling in the Mad Campers NZ Van

Our van was the perfect little home for our weeklong road trip. It was a great combination of convenience and comfort. We had the flexibility to travel as we pleased, but always had a comfortable warm bed, a mini kitchen, running water, and even a bathroom. I wouldn’t travel around New Zealand any other way!

French Polynesia on a Budget

A place where honeymooners flock to stay in extravagant overwater bungalows that can run up to thousands of dollars per night. It seems like a bit of an oxymoron, but French Polynesia can be a budget-friendly destination.

Of course, going on a budget trip is not the same experience as going on a luxury vacation, but you will still get to enjoy the beauty of French Polynesia, which I can promise you is more than fancy resorts.

I traveled to Tahiti and Mo’orea with two other people for a week. We shared accommodations and rental cars. My total cost for the trip was $1,620.43.

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Islands to Visit

We visited Tahiti and Mo’orea, which I believe are the most budget-friendly. Even getting to some of the outer islands can be pricey.

Flights

I flew United, which now offers direct flights from SFO. A round trip flight from DC cost me $1,170.

Getting Around

The ferry from Tahiti to Mo’orea is relatively cheap and convenient. It costs $15 each way, so $30 round trip.

Car rentals are expensive, but I highly recommend having a car. The car in Tahiti cost $199 for three days. The car in Mo’orea cost $242.53 for three days.

Accomodations

We found that Airbnb is the the most affordable way to book accommodations. Our Airbnb in Tahiti cost $219 for three nights. In Mo’orea, we stayed at a cute Airbnb called Mark’s Place that cost us $237.76 for three nights.

Food

Food can be expensive or cheap. I’m a vegan, so my options were somewhat limited. We mostly got our meals from the grocery store. I spent $121 on food for the week.

Total = $ 1,620.43

Flights = $1,170

Ferry = $30

Car rentals (199 + 242.53) / 3 = $147.18

Airbnb (219 + 237.76) / 3 = $152.25

Food = $121

Safety First in Working with Brands: Things to Think about as an Influencer

We all know the excitement of getting an e-mail about an interesting campaign. “Hi! This is [ ] from [Company/tourism board]. We saw you on Instagram and think you would be a great fit with our brand. Would you like to [try our product/go on a trip]? Please let us know what your rates are.” When it’s a company or a destination you’re excited about, or when you have it’s so easy to get caught up in the moment and immediately respond “YES!” then soon after give away personal information such as your address (to receive product) or personal information for flights/visas. Even when you’re not necessarily excited, sometimes it’s second nature to quickly respond “Sure, I’ll try the product and if I like it we can discuss working together” followed by an address.

I’ve been in this situation plenty of times myself, and one day as I started responding to an e-mail, I started thinking “what if…?” These days, I’m pretty careful when working with brands. Here are a few questions to ask and thoughts to consider when considering working with a brand:

Who are you really talking to? Can you confirm the brand’s identity? If you were approached through a DM on Instagram, is the account that approached you verified? How many followers does the account have? Did you do a search for the brand to see whether there is another account out there? Check the contact email on Instagram. Is it a company email address? If you receive an email from a brand, is the email a company email? Does it match the email on the brand’s Instagram account? Did you google the sender’s name to see whether they have a LinkedIn that says they work for the brand? If you are approached through a reputable Influencer platform or thorough a reputable PR firm, you can probably feel safe – but don’t forget to vet platforms and PR firms before working with them!

Who are you giving your address to? So what if you aren’t dealing with the brand you thought you were dealing with…and you give your home address to a random stranger on the internet? Yeah, not good. Always, always vet brands before telling them where you live. And if you can avoid using your home address, please do. Maybe you can have products shipped to a P.O. Box or to your office. I’ve always felt safer having products shipped to my home because I live in a condo building with a 24 hour front desk.

Are your travel plans really what you’re told they are going to be? If you’ve been approached by a tourism board or travel agency, or are for some other reason going on a press trip, I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to verify your travel plans. Do you remember hearing about the scam luring influencers to Indonesia? If you’re going on a press trip, get an itinerary beforehand. Independently verify the details of that itinerary. Call the rental car company, call the hotels. Make sure they all have a reservation under your name. Consider speaking with influencers who have worked with the brand in the past.

Are you protecting your money? Be careful with your money. Don’t ever give money to a brand that reaches out – whether it’s to get a visa or for anything else. Be skeptical about promises of reimbursement. Be careful about information you give out to get paid. Don’t give someone the information needed to hack into your bank account. Also, make sure you get paid. Keep track of who you’ve worked with and what they owe you.

I wish there were a hard and fast rule for verifying the identity and reputation of a brand you are considering working with, but unfortunately there is not. Take into account the advice I’ve given in this post and ultimately trust your gut – if something seems off, it probably is.

The Perfect Five Day Cuba Itinerary

I know from experience that planning a Cuba trip can be intimidating. If you want to travel to Cuba but haven’t done much research yet, check out a few general tips here. Figuring out the travel logistics can be complicated and confusing, and itinerary planning isn’t much easier. There is not much information out there on Cuba. Websites are sparse or nonexistent. Figuring out just how to get from point A to point B isn’t easy. After A LOT of research, Britton and I went to Cuba and had an incredible time during our five day trip. From a show in Havana to waterfalls near Trinidad, we got a great taste of what Cuba has to offer. Here is our itinerary:

Day One: Arrive in Havana and stay the night.

Day Two: After breakfast in Havana, drive 2.5 hours to the beaches of the Bay of Pigs. Go scuba diving with a local dive company. There is beautiful shore diving and you’ll get a chance to see deep blue water and a vibrant reef. If you have your own mask, I highly recommend bringing it, as most of the dive shops have worn out gear and the masks are scratched and not easy to see out of. Stay the night in Cienfuegos. Cienfuegos is relatively small, and food options are limited.

Day Three: Drive one hour to El Nicho waterfalls. Spend a few hours hiking and swimming around this lush, tropical paradise. There are several spots where you can take photos and go swimming, and I recommend taking your time and visiting all of them. Try to get to El Nicho early, as it is a popular tourist spot that gets very crowded by mid morning.DSC09543 After El Nicho, drive one hour to Trinidad and stay the night. Trinidad is my favorite city in Cuba! The colonial old town and cobblestone streets have a historic charm and I could have easily spent hours aimlessly wandering around. For dinner in Trinidad, go to Cafe Bistro Madeley. It is hands-down the best food we had in Cuba. The chef told us that he developed his menu by asking guests what they would like to eat and working with the limited ingredients available in Cuba to come up with something similar. The food options are diverse and creative, which is hard to come by in Cuba. Better yet, there are labeled vegan options!img_1649-1

Day Four: Drive back to Havana. Have a late lunch at El Cafe – an open-air cafe in Old Havana with healthy food and vegan options. In the evening, go to a show at Buena Vista Social Club. Buy your tickets as soon as you get back to Havana, as shows often sell out. Buena Vista Social Club is a world-famous ensemble of Cuban musicians established in 1996 to revive the music of pre-revolutionary Cuba. The show is excellent; the food, not the other hand, is subpar. But the exceptionally talented performances will make you quickly forget how terrible your dinner was.

Day Five: Start the day driving around in a 1950s convertible in the morning, before it gets too hot.

Spend the rest of the morning and early afternoon wandering around Havana before you fly out.

Six Things You Should Know About Cuba Before You Visit

  1. If you plan on paying for anything, bring cash. Cubans do everything in cash. And I mean everything. Want to buy a car? Better bring bags of cash. A house? Cash. So don’t plan on using your credit card at any restaurants, hotels, or stores.
  2. Cuba is communist. Almost everything – from hotels to restaurants to stores to taxis – is owned by the government. Government rations are low, and often not enough to live comfortably. Therefore many Cubans count on tips for a better lifestyle. Despite this, many Cubans are highly educated and very intelligent, even, and in some cases especially, in what would usually be considered less desirable jobs. While a lawyer or a doctor will work for the government on a government wage and can be sent to live wherever, a tour guide has more control over his or her life and because of the ability to earn tips, will likely be better off financially than a lawyer or a doctor. Therefore you can expect to meet incredibly intelligent tour guides.
  3. Grocery stores have about 6 items. if you’re looking to buy liquor, milk, water, tomato sauce, beans, or rice…you’re in luck! If you want anything else, sorry, but Cuban grocery stores probably won’t have it. I expected to at least find soy milk, but had no such luck. Markets sell tomatoes, avocados, onions, garlic, and peppers. And most restaurants have menus based off of this very limited food selection. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to bring a few bars and maybe some hot sauce for added flavor.
  4. WiFi is difficult to come by. It’s not like other countries where you’re likely to have free WiFi in your hotel, hostel, or bed & breakfast. No such luck in restaurants and cafes either. WiFi is relatively new to Cuba. There are certain areas throughout the cities that have WiFi connection, typically town squares and hotels. However, WiFi is controlled by the government and you’ll need a WiFi card with a username and password to use the WiFi. You can buy a WiFi card at various stores for about 1 CUC for an hour of connection. The card will only work on one device. The WiFi is slow. I highly recommend doing the majority of your research and planning prior to arrival.
  5. Hotels are expensive, and most tourists stay in Casas particulares. Expect a nice hotel in Havana to put you back about 500 USD per night. An average hotel – and I really do emphasize the word “average” – will cost about 300 USD per night. Casas particulares are bed & breakfasts that range in price from about 20 USD to 50 USD. Casas particulares can vary greatly in terms of cleanliness and comfort; however, they are much more reasonably priced than hotels. And if you’re from the U.S., you need to be careful with hotels because staying at certain hotels is a violation of OFAC sanctions. I’d recommend staying at casas particulares because it’s a great way to immerse yourself in Cuban culture and hotels are just so expensive. Having said that, be aware of what you’re getting into and don’t expect high-end accommodations.
  6. The U.S. has sanctions against Cuba. While travel to Cuba is at the time of this post allowed under twelve categories of general licenses, it is restricted and you do need to make sure your trip is allowable based on current regulations. As an attorney in the US, I’m going to refrain from interpreting the law or giving legal advice on my personal blog, but make sure you do your research.

If you decide to go to Cuba and want some advice on what to do when you’re there, check out my five day Cuba itinerary here.