The old gold mining area of Calaveras County, CA, is up in the Sierras about midway between Yosemite and Lake Tahoe. The area is roughly 3 hours from San Jose, CA and the Silicon Valley. The area was originally settled by gold prospectors but now is known for wineries, hiking, and skiing/snowboarding in the winter. We stayed in Arnold, which is a quick 10 minute drive to Calaveras Big Trees State Park. What to Do: Besides hiking, there are tons of little mountain towns up here to explore, and friendly mountain folk abound. We spent an afternoon in Murphys, a little one-street town whose main street is flanked by winery tasting rooms and little curio shops. Pro Tip 1: If you’re into beer more than wine, check out Murphys Pourhouse at the near end of town by the highway. It’s a cool little hipster bar with a lot of great craft beers! I think there were 16 beers on tap, plus multiple full coolers of bottled beers from craft breweries all over the States. They also have soups/salads/sandwiches…but designate a driver because a lot of their beers are pretty strong. Where to Stay: We rented a beautiful cabin in Arnold. It was cozy and the town seems to be right in the middle of the county and is a good jumping off point to explore other towns and state parks in the area. It rained off and on but we did get about 1/2 inch of snow on December 23 but 10 minutes up the road there was significantly more snow, more like a foot, at Big Trees State Park. How to Get There: The area is mainly clustered around State Route 4 (SR 4–or, as we Californians call it, “the 4”) that runs east-west between the I-80 in the Bay Area almost all the way to Nevada. There is a ton of traffic getting out of the Bay and through the Central Valley but once we got past Stockton we were flying up and down the mountain roads without any traffic. I don’t know when it’s a good time to leave the Bay area because it seems like the roads are gridlocked all the time. But the traffic really lets up once you’re through the valley. Pro Tip 2: A lot of these roads require chains in the winter, even if you’re driving an awesome Subaru. We did not need them but if we would have ventured farther out we would have needed them. There is good signage that tells you where you need chains and speed limit changes when the roads are icy. The parking lot at Big Trees was slippery with a lot of black ice and folks had trouble getting in and out to the main road.
According to the treasure map, we had to stay on course between the helipads, then turn right and take the path up the hill. At the bottom of the hill we would find our treasure–a village! Seven of us, 3 adults and 4 kids, abandoned the picturesque stretch of beach in front of the Abaka Bay all-inclusive resort to relive our Peace Corps days and wander to a village on the island of Île à Vache, a 25-minute boat ride off of the southwest Haitian coast, under the guise of a treasure hunt for the kids. But really, we just wanted to explore a little and found the perfect foil with which to do so. Abaka Bay on Île à Vache (English: “Cow Island”) is a serene, idyllic half-mile or so of beautiful, sandy beach a short boat ride from Les Cayes on Haiti’s southwest coast. CNN recently picked Abaka Bay as the 57th best beach in the world, and it’s easy to see why, with its near-perfect white sand, well-groomed beach, and warm, crystal-clear Caribbean water. Since the beach is in a protected bay, the water is glassy-still which makes for great photos and easy kayak rides. The resort is all-inclusive: 3 meals per day are included, as are various activities like horseback riding and ocean kayaking, and a separate excursion to “Lover’s Island” can be purchased as a day trip away from the bay ($50/person). Breakfast included fruit, pancakes, omelets, and coffee. Lunch and dinner always included at least 2 proteins (a fish and beef/chicken), vegetables, a rice and/or couscous dish, and dessert, and the food was well above what we expected! My only complaint about the food is that there were no snacks available nor was coffee available all day (breakfast only). The rooms are clean, air-conditioned, and right on the beach. Honestly, the warm Caribbean water is only about 30 meters from the rooms! Getting there: From Port-au-Prince, the drive to Les Cayes is, for the uninitiated like myself, a 5-hour, anxious slog. After leaving Port-au-Prince, take the main two-lane highway through rural Haiti, through beautiful mountains and low agricultural valleys. Expect hidden potholes, passing motorcycles and tap taps and work trucks at high-speed on the left and right, unmarked speed bumps, and tiny market towns along the way. Once you are used to driving in Haiti, the mountain views are breathtaking. As the Creole proverb goes, dye mon, gen mon: beyond the mountains, there are more mountains. The jumping off point for the island is Les Cayes, the capital of the Les Cayes commune and Sud department. Les Cayes is a nice, colonial city in which we wished we had more time to walk around. Our inner Peace Corps volunteers wanted to mingle with the locals at a market. Pro tip: Visit the village! There is a cool little village about a 20-minute walk behind the resort. Ok, there isn’t much to do in the village besides walk through it, and some enterprising English-speakers will probably follow you around and try to sell you some sort of boat ride but hey, I like villages. And a rural village soccer field to boot! It takes me back to our Peace Corps days and reminds me of simpler times, but now I get to experience it with my kids. How cool is that? We walked up and down a hill and heard, and were then enveloped by, a raucous church group singing hymns on the outskirts of town. We walked through the village, bought some packs of cookies, and then were escorted out by a gaggle of kids, all the way back to Abaka Bay, to finish out our week of lounging on the beach.
Barahona is located in the southwest corner of the Dominican Republic, and, according to the Moon travel guide, it is the least developed area of the country for tourism. However, at only a 3-4 hour drive, it is the closest area of the DR to Port-au-Prince, and it’s a great place to spend Christmas. Folks do not spend their time in the crowded city of Barahona but rather 30+ minutes down the road in one of the many little cities that dot the beautiful coastline. We spent all of our time south and west of Barahona along the coast. The Barahona-Enriquillo Coastal Highway is a long, beautiful drive along the coast and through little fishing towns, with perfect shores on one side and a stunning mountain range on the other, and is DR’s response to California’s famed Highway 1 that wriggles along its own coastline. If you find yourself driving around in Barahona Province and are tired of the beach, check out Polo! Polo is a coffee town in the mountains not far from Barahona city (maybe an hour or two?). We were not able to visit because everything was shut down on Christmas day when we returned back to Port-au-Prince, but they have an annual coffee festival–which is good enough reason for me to skip the beach altogether and head straight for the mountains. Barahona is also the jumping off point for Bahia de las Aguilas, a stunning, 8-km long white sand beach. We recommend booking a tour to get here. You need to take a 15-20 minute boat ride to get here from a small fishing port. The dirt road from the highway to the little fishing port is sometimes deep sand and the prices for the boat ferries are extortionate. If you do insist on going alone, bring lots of cash as there are no ATMs and make sure you bring an umbrella because the beach has no shade. Getting There: From Haiti, cross the border at Jimaní, then turn right at the Barahona turn-off. From there you can hit top speed with no traffic or potholes to slow you down. There are minimal towns and villages between Jimaní and Barahona. When you get to the city, make your way through to the malecon and turn right to head southwest–this is the highway you want to be on. The main tourist attraction in the province is Bahia de las Águilas, which boasts 5 miles of picture-perfect, powder-white sand, considered by many to be DR’s best beach. It takes 2-4 hours of delightful coastal driving from Barahona and though the roads to the jumping off point of La Cueva are poorly maintained and the boat ride is expensive (US$50 for 4 adults and 4 children, but you can negotiate a little), it is a must-see destination if you find yourself in this little corner of the country. Pro Tip: Air BnB! Skip the hotels and find yourself an Air BnB on the coast. They’re cheaper and you can score an entire condo with WiFi and mosquito nets and fall asleep and wake up to the sound of the ocean.
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