meghan lee harris

 

Guys. I am FINALLY ready to recap our first *legit* international European trip. I say legit, because can we really count our van trip around Iceland as quintessential “European”?? Haha, just sliiightly different vibes. After getting our feet wet in international travel, choosing our *second* euro destination seemed like a no-brainer. After seeing countless inspiring photos from coasts to mountains and vineyard valleys, and hearing endless hype on the food, culture, architecture, etc, etc.. we were eager to make ITALY next on our list!

 

Itinerary

We decided (in true Meghan fashion) that we could not just stick to one region, and instead would try to see as much as we *comfortably* could in a 14 day trip (16 if you’re counting travel days, which we did a direct flight round-trip between Chicago & Rome). I understand how privileged we are to take this much time out of work schedules. We booked this trip just a couple months in advance when I realized I had two weekends in a row off weddings (which might have been intentional to save room for such a trip hehe…) and Alex has a flexible work schedule to be able to roll with the punches.

I think after the pandemic, we were running more on a scarcity mindset and feeling like this would be our ONE shot to see it all (in case we can’t travel again). So we wanted to try to see as much as we could in one big trip, versus a few smaller trips over the years. Of course, there is SO much to see in Italy that even spending two weeks there, you’re still never going to see it all. Yes, I am already planning my next trip back lol!

But, for our first trip, we wanted to experience that quintessential Italian culture (with tried and true classic areas like Tuscany where life in the country vineyards is slow paced), mixed with some buzzy hotspot hangouts (like Amalfi Coast and the colorful stacked town of Positano), and lastly, infuse some of our love of the mountains and nature and hiking! So we broke our trip into three different “parts.” All with it’s own Italian personality!

Part 1: Tuscany (5 nights)
1. Pienza / Val d’Orcia (1 night)
2. Siena (2 nights)
3. San Gimignano (1 night)
4. Florence (1 night)

Part 2: Dolomites (5 nights)
1. Alpe di Siusi (1 night)
2. Ortisei (2 nights)
3. Cortina d’Ampezzo (2 nights)

Part 3: Coastal Towns (4 nights)
1. Venice (half day)
2. Cinque Terre (2 nights)
3. Amalfi (1 night)
4. Positano (1 night)

It’s hard to know in advance what a comfortable pace will be. In hindsight, some areas we felt like maybe we could have done with a day or two less (like the Dolomites – I would have done with one less hotel and night), but other parts felt like we definitely needed more time to enjoy (like the Amalfi Coast, definitely need more than 2 nights especially given the journey to get there and back!)

Although it was so exciting to keep seeing new things, in all honesty by day 10 we were starting to feel so exhausted from all the logistics haha. Even if you’re having fun, the logistic stress of it all does creep up on you. And it definitely did end up draining our energy for our final – and MUCH anticipated location – the Amalfi Coast. (Not to be dramatic, but my body ACTUALLY gave out on me and I got physically ill there lol!) So if I were to do this whole trip again I would actually advise to skip Dolomites and save it for a special Lake Como & Dolomites combo trip, separately. Sticking to Tuscany and Amalfi Coast (with still the side stop in Venice) would have certainly still felt like a wonderful tour of Italy. We also would likely only have done 10 days, since that seemed to be the max amount our energy and bodies could take (also when you have three doggies at home, you hate leaving them too long!)

 

Packing List

One thing you should know about me, I love packing LIGHT. Especially in Europe, where you are likely going to have to haul your luggage with you – everywhereee. On the trains, metros/buses, ferries, then walking narrow cobblestone streets (that are located outside the city center) to your hotel room…or up many flights of steps. Traveling lightly turned out to be one of the best decisions. Without it, we would have had to rely on a lot of private transfers, or pay extra baggage fees on public transportation, which adds up on time, money, and is yet ONE more logistic you have to plan for.

I have spoken with quite a few people who have gone to Italy – and they ALL recommend the advice to skip the larger luggage and stick with one carry-on and personal item. (For your personal item – I love this vegan leather anti-theft backpack and carry it with me everywhere I sightsee!)

We went in summer so packing everything into one carry-on each was a lot easier than packing for let’s just say, Iceland.

In my carry-on:

  • A white linen dress (I’m laughing cause I ended up wearing this nearly EVERYDAY, it was the only thing that felt breezy and comfortable yet still looked timeless/classy while in the hot sun)
  • Four linen shorts
  • four tank tops
  • a button up top
  • A couple gowns for at night – TBH I packed a few colorful frilly dresses that I didn’t end up wearing because it was so stupidly hot & annoying in August. If you do pack evening dresses, choose something breezy and timeless that you’ll actually want to wear in the moment. And maybe stick to just one “for show” dress so they don’t overtake your suitcase!
  • Sunglasses
  • Born sandals (or any pair of sandals that look nice but can still walk in them all day. The Born sandals I wore were pillows for my feet & so amazing in every way, but sadly aren’t available anymore! These are similar, but I’m also eyeing up these for my next Italy trip this summer?)
  • A pair of strappy heels (for fancier dinners – or for the pictures ;))
  • Pair of white sneakers (for those heavy walking days)
  • Two swimsuits
  • Undergarments
  • A couple laundry detergent sheets (for when you need a refresh!)
  • Curling iron – that I don’t even think I used haha
  • Makeup – minimal, small bag of essentials + travel toothbrushes, travel deodorant, body wash & face lotion
  • Water bottle

In my personal item (the anti-theft bag linked above):

  • Camera gear
  • Phone chargers
  • Ear plugs for on the plane
  • 2 european plug adaptors
  • Car charging port (we would be renting a car)
  • AAA International License (if you’ll be driving/renting a car)
  • Passport
  • Travel/Pocket Wifi

Other:

To save room, we did not bring items we could easily purchase there, such as SPF/body lotion. I also did not bring my hairbrush but instead made do with a fold down comb. We used free shampoo/conditioner/soap from hotels (but I recommend having some sani-wipes or hand sanitizer for public transportation). We did also strap a neck pillow to our bag for our overnight flight although it did not help much and we are so terrible at sleeping on planes.

 

Final Notes before Getting Started

Book Regional Trains & Ferries in advance: While it is totally okay to save the inner-city transportation like buses, taxis, for while you’re actually traveling, it was a huge peace-of-mind having all of our major connecting transports between regions booked in advance. Anything too far to technically “walk it”, we booked in advance. It’s also nice to see what the schedule is before booking your daily activities, as you may only find an afternoon connection available.

  • For trains, we mainly used the FRECCE trains through Trenitalia
  • For our ferry from Naples to Amalfi Coast, we went through a third-party FerryHopper and boarded an “NLG Jet” (but any of the other main ferry brands will also do). We also booked a ferry between the different Amalfi Coast towns through TraVelMar.

Book Popular Restaurants & Activities in advance as well:

  • Restaurants: As you know, Italians love to eat! And tourists also love to eat! Because many restaurants close around 2:30 and don’t open up again until 7:00pm, it’s important to plan your meals and schedules accordingly so you’re not left with “sorry, we have no availability” everywhere.

    We found lunch to be the most challenging time of day to find an opening without reservations since the restaurants are only open for a couple hours (and everyone wants to make sure they fill their bellies before having to wait again until 7:00 dinner!). Europeans also have longer lunch breaks, so they are able to sit and relax longer, making table turnover not so great. Always remember that everything is on European time that we Americans are not used to lol! So if you desire to sit down and rest a bit do make reservations each day of your trip for lunch (or, plan on eating plenty of gelato & sandwiches as you walk!) Although you won’t likely make it to all your reservations perfectly according to plan, it’s nice to have an option in place to fall back on once your hunger brain starts to set in.

  • Tourist Activities: Definitely book popular tourist activities like Sistine Chapel/Vatican, Uffizi Gallery, Accademia Gallery, etc in advance through their actual website, Viator, or GetYourGuide to receive “Skip the Line” priority (unless you want to spend 2-3 hours in line). But do be aware, there is still a tiny bit of a line (due to everyone else also buying “skip the line” tickets haha).

  • Excursions or Beach Clubs: One of the best ways to see the coast is on the actual water. If booking a boat trip (or beach day) of any kind, and if you have more than one full day in the area, always book it for the *first* full day of your stay. That way, in case of bad weather, it can be rescheduled (hopefully free of charge) or you can receive a voucher to use within the week. That way you’ll still have time leftover in your stay to actually be able to reschedule it. We made the mistake of booking our private boat on the Amalfi Coast through Viator for our final day and the weather turned out to be really windy and choppy. We would have loved to reschedule, but unfortunately for us we waited until the last day so it was then or never! It was so beautiful the seasickness was still worth it 🙂

Consider the off-season: While we could have waited until the following April, we decided we didn’t want to prolong our travel goals any longer after already having lost some time due to COVID, so we used the only consecutive off-weekends available in August for an end-of-august into September trip. From Aug 22-Sep 6 to be exact.

We knew going in that August would be rough, since this is when Europeans have the entire month off. But we were hoping it would have settled down by end of August as teenagers/young adults/families get back in the School schedule. EEEP! We were still battling so many crowds. Mainly the popular tourist hotspots like Venice and Florence and trending coastal towns (that aren’t meant for big crowds) like Cinque Terre and Amalfi Coast. There is so much room in the hills of Tuscany to spread out, that we didn’t feel the effects there. But definitely prepare yourself if hitting up cities and the coast, and consider waking up early to enjoy the day before the crowds!

This time, we will be going end of September into October, and after speaking with a few family/friends who went this exact time last year, the weather was still very hot (and swimmable) so I’m hoping we’ll get that nice weather with a little less crowds. But when in doubt, end of October-April is always a safe bet!

Whatsapp: I HIGHLY recommend downloading Whatsapp in advance and learn how to use it, as a lot of Italians / Airbnb or excursion hosts use this to communicate. We noticed this especially in the Amalfi Coast.

Cash on hand: While it’s not super necessary to have a TON of cash, it is important to have if staying at places like AIRBNBs that require a tourist tax up front (usually just 5 euro or less per person for the entire stay). It is also nice to have if you want to tip a waitstaff who went above and beyond (although not necessary to tip in Italy), or for a taxi driver, or if someone offers you limoncello shots on a ferry, and you think they are free when in fact they are not. It’s nice to have a little cash!

Language: Because this trip was planned only a couple months in advance, we regretfully didn’t have much time during our busy summer schedules to learn much of the language. I STRONGLY advise learning more of the basics than we did (like mainly restaurant lingo would have come in handy). While we did manage to survive with only knowing the basics like hello (“Buongiorno”), and thank you (“Grazie”), knowing a littttttle more would have made our trip more enjoyable and competent. Lowkey still a little scarred from attempting to order our first meal, coming off of an overnight flight on 27 hours no sleep, in a very local/authentic tiny town of Pienza. Literally just trying to just order a table for two and some water HAHA but instead resorting to a lot of sign language and puzzled looks. This is where our journey begins!

 

PART 1: Tuscany

 

PIENZA

After arriving in Rome, we immediately set off in our rental car for our Tuscan Airbnb in Pienza / Val d’Orcia region. Val D’Orcia is likely the area you imagine when you think of Tuscany, with all its picturesque rows of cypress trees, rolling hills, and various wineries and villas perched on the tops of them. We decided to skip Rome, assuming we’d be far too tired after the long overnight flight and no sleep to actually enjoy all that a big city involves. So we planned to hit it at the very end, just before our way home (Spoiler: this never happened, due to getting violently ill. We joke that I may be the only person ever to fly in and out of Rome without actually seeing the Colosseum, or any of it for that matter!)

I’m not sure if starting small –> large was a good or bad decision!?!? Good in the sense that Pienza was a much calmer environment for our tired minds. Bad in the sense that it’s authenticity and small town charm required much more language skills. Turns out our travel WIFI had not yet begun working yet?? Our rental car had some old school navigation system so we were able to find our way in the direction of Pienza. But once in Pienza, we wandered around rather aimlessly, without WIFI to look up information on things like: when the restaurant is open/closed and what kind of food it offers, how do you say “table for two,” and order a glass of water. What does this entire menu mean haha. We couldn’t even look up the directions to our Airbnb – major oops. Luckily, I had the address screenshotted in advance, I recommend saving important addresses somewhere on your phone in case you get disconnected from signal!

 

Our favorite memory: waking up at sunrise the next morning to catch this view of Belvedere all to ourselves (photo spot= Belvedere – SP146, bivio Alteta 52, 53027 San Quirico d’Orcia SI, Italy) **Also yes, their addresses are confusingly worded lol but just copy/paste to google maps and it should pull right up 🙂

Other tip: Don’t drive your rental car straight to your Airbnb address (if it’s in the city center LOL). The roads (can I even call it that??) became so narrow I thought our car wouldn’t fit through and our mirrors would hit the sides lol. Definitely park outside the city center, and walk. (Also, to avoid a $65 fine mailed to you several months later 🙂 Memories & laughs were kind of worth it though??) In other words, we did all the typical stupid American tourist mistakes. I am blaming us going on 27 hours no sleep for our carelessness and confusion lol.

 

 

SIENA

Situated an hour south of Florence, this medieval town with it’s charming main square is not to be missed! I now think of Siena as a mini version of Florence. Coming from the smaller town of Pienza, and not yet hitting Rome or Florence, this was our first time seeing Italian renaissance art and architecture and it felt like the perfect, approachable Italian town. I’d say if Florence seems a bit too big city, Siena will be much more your pace. It will still give you a similar experience in terms of Italian renaissance art and architecture, and a GORGEOUS square, just without everything that comes with a big city!

    I highly recommend getting to the main square early and going inside the Duomo di Siena and getting access to the museums (do make sure you cover up or you’ll be given a lovely white toilet paper cover up thinger like me haha). Coming from Pienza it was our first actual “city-like” experience, and it was all the more charming because we arrived before 9am and before the world really woke up. We marveled at the duomo exterior before the lines formed, and went inside which was even more fascinating. Perhaps if you went to Florence first, it would be “a lot of the same” but since this was our first ever art/architecture experience we thoroughly enjoyed this experience!

    The streets surrounding the main Piazza del Campo became lively as the day went on. Sooo many different shops and restaurants, I would need a week to explore it fully and give actual recommendations! However, the best pasta I had was in Siena, right on the square. Pecorino cheese is local to this region, and if you can find Cacio e Pepe (Pasta, black pepper, and Pecorino Romano) on a menu, definitely try it in this region as it will be the freshest!! PS: they also do a horse race here twice a year so make sure to look into those dates if you want to avoid (or see) that!

     

     

    One thing that was high on my list for Tuscany was to find a quiet respite in an olive grove, preferably an infinity pool to soak in after a hot day of wandering. Luckily, there are TONS of villas/airbnbs to choose from. Seriously. Even with our last minute trip planning, it took many days just to decide on one. I found this Airbnb in the olive groves to be rather charming and so we stationed here for the next two days, while we enjoyed the town of Siena (an absolute favorite!!), and our pasta cooking class which turned out to be so so precious.

    Tourist tax: It is normal for airbnb hosts to ask for your passport at check-in. Many times they will also need to take a photo, or have you scan a photo to send them. While it may seem a bit scammy at first (we were very hesitant, until I googled it lol), this is actually totally normal practice for them and has to do with collecting and paying tourist tax, and having to report any and all guests for tax purposes. Each stay also incurs a small tax (typically under 5 euro/pp), so do make sure to have a couple of small bills with you.

    Pasta Cooking Class: One of our standout memories in Tuscany was a recommended Pasta cooking class. However this was not just your average cooking class within a back room of a restaurant or kitchen. This was an immersive afternoon experience, taking you into the fields to forage your herbs from the garden set in the beautiful countryside. After gathering the goods, we learned how to roll our own pasta in this authentic 1600s villa, then ate our (delicious) meal together and drank all the prosecco on the patio, cheered to our first limoncello shot, all in the company of a small group.

    Together our group covered almost the entire USA, geographically speaking. Mother/daughter. Friends. Couples. Careers ranging from celebrity chefs to plastic surgeons haha. Everyone was so interesting and it was nice to break up our couple’s trip with some other human interaction (in English!) and comparing notes on each of our Italian adventures so far. Highly highly recommend the pasta cooking class by Lucrezia in this 1600’s villa. You can also choose the dinner version that includes an opera singer (say what?) which I will be trying out next time. (Shoutout to my photographer friend Kim for recommending this experience to me!)

       

       

      SAN GIMIGNANO

      Okay, San Gimignano just hits a little different. Highly highly recommend spending at least a half day in this old-world UNESCO World Heritage town perched on a hill of surrounding vineyards with famous gelato. I’ll save you the history lesson (google it – so fascinating!), but glancing up at the different towers you can’t help but imagine life years ago when families would actually compete to build the highest tower. Driving through the hills on a summer day, you’ll see the hazy skyline emerge in the distance and it makes it all the more whimsical knowing they are ancient towers that were built hundreds of years ago, as opposed to your modern-day skyscrapers.

      As you walk the streets into the heart of the main piazzas, definitely check out these spots:

      • Piazza del Duomo (square with cafes & a historic church)
        • We stayed RIGHT on the Piazza, with views looking down at the square. This was probably my favorite airbnb to date. Loved drinking wine in our room at night and glancing down at the terrace dwellers below, the town beginning to glow from street lamps and restaurants. Then walking a few steps down to join them. So romantic. It was so neat in fact, that Alex wouldn’t come to bed, and I have actual video footage him walking around the square at night just taking it all in.
      • Piazza della Cisterna (grand square with a historic cistern/fountain)
        • Gelateria Dondoli (world renown gelato – a muuuuust)
          • This was my FIRST experience with gelato in Italy, and now I’m forever ruined
          • I believe I ordered the vanilla with saffron and pine nuts flavor by recommendation
      • Via S. Matteo
        • This street in particular I remember being a nice nearby market street with different linen shops and galleries and pottery stores, as well as wine and cheese shops and convenient stores if you’re in need of something to stock your nearby hotel room. But I’m sure there’s more streets we didn’t get to!
      • Restaurants
        • My personal advice for San Gimignano (and Italy in general) would be to either look up an amazing restaurant and make a well-in-advance reservation (if you’re a foodie), orrr if your vibe for the day is more about ambiance and wanting to enjoy the people watching, find a restaurant in one of the piazzas and watch it turn into night.
        • Because it is a popular tourist town, it is recommended to make dinner reservations at well sought after spots a month or more in advance (I know, crazy). And definitely within the week for any others. Alex and I were a little more go with the flow this trip on restaurant reservations and planning, so we didn’t have many lined up and probably missed a lot of amazing meals nearby. Buuut, it’s Italy. CAN you *actually* go wrong here haha. When in doubt, pizza.

       

      FLORENCE

      Because we (unintentionally) skipped Rome, I am so happy we got to experience at least a day in Florence. I have heard from a lot of people that Rome is a bit overwhelming (in size, layout), and underwhelming (in terms of overall vibe), but Florence is really the gem of the larger Italian cities. I have nothing to compare it to, so I really can’t speak on Rome (and I so so hope it’s not as underwhelming as people say!) But after spending only one night in Florence I can absolutely say I loved this city and can’t wait to go back and experience it more.

       

      I will never forget our first time walking around the area from our hotel, and seeing the massive Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore peeping ahead of us on the narrow street. Seeing pictures just isn’t enough, the architecture here was just SO impressive.

      We stayed just one night at Grand Hotel Cavour and I highly recommend this 4 star hotel for their rooftop bar views over Florence and the Duomo, clean rooms, a great brunch, in an excellent heart-of-city location. We took one of the nicest (and necessary) naps here upon check-in, also their bathrooms are huuuuge. Elegantly styled and spacious. Will actually be staying here two nights on our next girls trip I loved it so much.

      My favorite memory was crossing the bridge over to Piazzale Michelangelo for sunset (get here early to snag a bistro table and chairs up top. Warning it gets VERY VERY crowded with selfie takers lol). Followed by a romantic stroll at dusk through the Piazza della Signoria where we admired the Fountain of Neptune and watched the flag dancers parade to the beat of a brass band ensemble. Lastly, a night cap and aperitivo on our hotel rooftop. Ahh just the loveliest! Are we turning into city people finally?

      One regret: We made the mistake of thinking the Statue of David (located inside the Accademia Gallery) was the iconic museum everyone told us we had to see. We were wandering around the David museum, severely underwhelmed, wondering where everything else was (LOL oh goodness). Until finally we realized Statue of David is totally separate from the world renown museum, which we learned is called the Uffizi Gallery. Anyways, I recommend doing both Accademia & Uffizi in the same day (Accademia being a quick side stop), and get your tickets well in advance of course 🙂 I will definitely be seeing all that was missed on my September return to Florence!

       

      Part 2: Dolomites

      As we said goodbye to the charming hills and towns of Tuscany, I was kind of sad to be leaving it already, but excited to see our long-awaited destination of the Dolomites.

      The Dolomites (Italian Alps in northern part of Italy known for its jagged peaks), was actually the reason we put Italy at the top of our travel list. As a photographer, and mountain lover, I just couldn’t not go see this majestic landscape with my own eyes. It was a relatively under-the-radar location, typically you don’t think of this region on your first trip to Italy. But I was determined to make it work in our itinerary, so we carved out time to take a little drive up into the mountains for a few days, exploring various popular hiking towns. Venice was also on this route (just down from the mountains), and so we were able to check off one more bucket-list by venturing out this way.

       

      ALPE DI SIUSI / SEISER ALM

       

      The day of arrival was actually our 7 year Anniversary, and I don’t think I could have picked a more magical (and bougie) mountain setting for us. This entire town felt like it was made for two kinds of people: elite hikers/photographers/travel bloggers – the ones that have all the know on hiking gear and luxury brands. And the elite “non-hikers” lol (people who booked a secluded getaway through a travel advisor that recommended stationing them in this remotely beautiful location and probably arrived via private jet since virtually nothing else is around lol).

      It was incredible. It felt….too beautiful to exist. No crowds or sounds of people. Modern fancy hotels and infinity pools dotted the area, but in a way that still blended into the landscape and Austro/Hungarian architecture. Views of mountains everywhere you looked. Italian cows and rolling hills and little shacks in the distance (some of which you can Airbnb). It was just SO DANG PERFECT.

      We stayed at Hotel Rosa Eco Alpine Spa and it was hands down my favorite stay while in the Dolomites. That pool, all to ourselves. Just magic. There’s also an indoor pool and many other spa perks that I didn’t get to enjoy do to our limited time there 🙂 Lastly the five course meal (included in hotel room price). Somehow the best meal I may have ever had in Italy despite being nowhere near anything. It was perfection.

      The next morning we woke up for sunrise to get some beautiful shots of the surrounding scenery. Just past a very small village called Compaccio (Compatsch), you will start to see the little shack community and this incredible picture-perfect view of various cabins situated in the foreground of the mountains. I do agree with other photo enthusiasts that it is a landscape photographers playground! The road to access this main viewpoint is only open to the public from 5-9 (hence the hiking). If you want to arrive at sunrise, or before 5, you’ll have to park in Compatsch and hike it (or get an expensive fine!) Or rent a hotel in this specific area, as the roads stay open to those that are hotel guests.

      When we arrived for sunset, there was only one other photographer doing the same, which in August, I found to be super surprising since we were in one of the most picturesque locations in all the Dolomites! We did have a bit of cloud coverage so perhaps the other photographers slept in – something Alex would have loved to have done! 🙂

       

      ORTISEI

       

      We chose this town next for it’s location to Seceda (the epic location I saw that first brought my attention to the Dolomites, a peak featuring a grassy green plateau that jets out towards the sky (if you’re lucky you will get the perfect amount of cloud immersion so it looks like the “ends of the earth” or heaven, or both)! In order to get to Seceda, you have to take a very vertical gondola up (or hike it, which unless you’re a serious hiker I would not recommend haha). It was a pretty penny to make the round trip up, I want to say $70 for the both of us. And the last trip up departed at 4:00 or so (which I didn’t realize so soon, as I had planned to go up for sunset photos)! It was approaching 4:00, and I saw the weather forecast would be iffy during our entire stay, but it looked like we might get a little break in the sky if we went NOW. So up we went!

      By the time we got up there (probably 20 minutes later), the clouds were now way more extreme than they looked down below. I worried we missed our window. Sure enough, nearly a minute later, dense rain clouds came in and we became entirely soaked within seconds and no end in sight. But I – Meghan – crazy photographer – having come all this way to Italy, rented a car up the mountains including this scary cable car just to see this vantage point had to wait it out. So while Alex hung back by the shelter to stay more dry (like a normal person), I like a crazy person ventured out to wait my perfect photo moment. In a white dress. WHY was I wearing this white dress ?? Please someone explain my thought process? I figured I wasn’t doing any hiking so no need to wear workout gear. Instead I’ll look cute for some photos with this **epic** scenery. But DEFINITELY no one else wearing dresses here and I officially felt like those “influencer in the wild” girls we roll our eyes at. EEEP HAHA. I like to think I’m not quite that bad 🙂

      A good thirty or so minutes later, I’m still standing out in the rain. Patiently waiting. By myself. Because I am a photographer and we are psycho. I rarely give up, but I became veryyy close. I actually might have cried in the rain now that I remember and I *do NOT cry easily*! I just felt sooo defeated. I wouldn’t have even minded all the rain, had it not taken the ENTIRETY of the view with it. I debated going down and coming back tomorrow, but saw it would be cloudy and rainy too, and I definitely didn’t want to do this scary expensive gondola ride for a second time only to be met with the same cloud immersions. It had to be now!

      I looked back a few times at Alex waving at me and shaking his head near the shelter, I decided to wait one more additional 5 minutes :). It seemed like the sky was getting a little lighter, and the rain lighter too. Alex began walking toward me. And in some sort of miracle, the green hills became more and more illuminated, until finally, the sun broke through and we could see the whole mountain range. It was stunning. It wasn’t the experience I had imagined, spending the day walking alongside the cliffs together, getting the perfect photos all the way up until sunset (we were rather unprepared for this journey up the mountain on short notice time and had no food or water). But at least I could say – I SAW IT. We held onto that moment in the sun for as long as we could (somehow became completely dry again, mountain air does wonders) until the adrenaline wore off, and we realized we were really, really tired and hangry haha.

      Back down, the town of Ortisei was super cute and charming and walkable. Way more going on here than the previous isolated town with essentially no restaurants or anything besides hotels. But not QUITE as large (or spread out) out as the final town coming up next. Since most of our time was spent in nature, we didn’t do a ton of town exploration besides food so to be honest, all I remember was amazing pizza and limoncello spritz’s. We stayed at Hotel Digon which was lovely, especially the infinity pool and lawn area with a view of the town and like our previous hotel, the course meal was included in the room price. We would consider staying here again if revisiting Ortisei just for that pool view!

       

      CORTINA D’AMPEZZO

       

      Our final town in the Dolomites, and a great “base” location for many nearby scenic attractions and hikes. I’m not sure if it was our Airbnb that weirded me out (haha – I won’t even link it). Or the weather being unpredictable and mostly rainy, or that it was now approaching day 10 of constant travel. But mentally, I think we both hit a snag!

      We still had one more big exploration day to check off in this area, and so we picked the sunniest of the two days, said a little weather prayer, and drove a couple hours over to Tre Cime di Lavaredo. This is a very popular hiking area, and I do recommend getting to the parking lot early because there is limited parking! Luckily, we got one of the last remaining spots (and we even arrived around 9:30am!).

      Tip: Many will hike the long route around the three peaks of Tre Cime (linking this very extensively written trailhead article on it here), but few know about this back route called “Cadini Di Misurina” (which I find way cooler, and a great option for those shorter on time and energy, as it’s only 2 miles long!)

       

      HIKE TO THE CADINI DI MISURINA VIEWPOINT

       

      Like Tre Cime, this short hike also starts at Rifugio Auronzo (parking lot address= “Localita’ Forcella Longeres, 32041 Auronzo di Cadore BL, Italy”) . It takes about 90 minutes to complete the out and back trail, and takes you along the edge of the mountain to a stunning viewpoint Cadini di Misurina, an expanse of jagged pinnacles that easily separate itself from the rest of the Dolomites, and even inspired Lord of the Ring’s Gates of Mordor. I am surprised not more people know about this trail, as it is honestly the most impressive mountain view I have ever seen both in images and with my own eyes.

      Like the following location in Seceda, we were met with cloud immersion right off the bat. I started to understand this is just the name of the game up here in the mountains, so I had a bit more patience. Sure enough, the clouds broke after we waited about 15 minutes and the view that was once entirely opaque grey showed us what it was hiding.

      Unbelievable. There was also no one else around which made it even more special , as everyone else had kept following the trail further for the “main viewpoint” but honestly, we didn’t feel we needed to! Definitely our favorite memory in the Dolomites.

       

      Afterwards, we hit up Lago di Braille which reminded me so much of Banff, Canada with it’s teal waters surrounded by picturesque mountains (again, if you have multiple days, I recommend getting here at sunrise for some clean shots of the lake and the adorable row boats all tied up before the water gets busy). The driving here is very stunning, not scary mountain driving, just nice and peaceful. I loved admiring every windowsill decorated with matching florals and picturing what color I would choose if I lived in such a home!

       

      We had one final day left, so we spent the next rainy day driving around our town looking for some scenic spots, and finding more pizza in town (Alex I swear ate pizza the entire time!)

      Our mountain-loving hearts were definitely full, and we were ready to see what was next on our Italian journey!

       

      Part 3: Coastal Towns

      Ever since laying my eyes on the colorful stacked hills of the Amalfi Coast, I had only dreamed of one day being able to experience and photograph it. I don’t think you can be a photographer and go to Italy and NOT make your way to the Amalfi Coast. It is just that gorgeous. Even on a cloudy day, it still takes your breath away.

      While some say this part has become a little overcrowded with tourists (and it’s definitely true), as someone who finds joy in seeking out the most picturesque of places, to me the crowds just come with the territory and culture! Will you see a few more posing for the gram? Absolutely. But it’s also such a fascinating vibe and you can’t help but wonder, is there a celeb or two at one of those ritzy luxury resorts nearby?

      For me, I just felt lucky to have seen and experienced it – and for have taken just a few photos! We decided to add in Cinque Terre as well, as we weren’t really sure which coastal town area we would like better – that or Amalfi Coast. Both offer colorful stacked villages, just on different scales. We figured we would get a small sample of both, and hopefully return again to our favorite of spots.

      VENICE

      Can you have a first trip to Italy without seeing Venice? We thought not. Luckily it was on the way down the mountains so we decided to drop off our rental car in Venice, give ourselves juuuust enough time to catch a gondola ride, before hitting the train to Cinque Terre. Please don’t come at me, yes I am wearing the white dress again. YES I did wash it… turns out I hated everything else I packed and just really REALLY liked this dress. I was going for daily comfort/looks okay and not thinking how ridiculous this would look as an entire trip portfolio LOLLOL

      All I remember is weaving our way through the maze of what is Venice, trying to find the quickest way to the gondola port. Taking a quick 30 minute gondola ride through the canals (worth it!), crossing the grand canal and navigating the crazy packed Rialto Bridge area, dodging tourist groups and mazing our way back to the train station. All in 90 minutes time! Whew!

      It was a fun little rush, but I definitely wish we had more time to enjoy Venice, in the early mornings or late nights without the crowds (off season would be amazzzzing here). If visiting again, which I hope I do!, I will definitely be looking into a hotel or rental home right on the canals. So dreamy.

      CINQUE TERRE

      I was very very excited about Cinque Terre. I have heard it’s more off-the beaten path compared to Amalfi Coast, and we always tend to prefer those areas best. In hindsight, I think it’s safe to say the secret is now out, as we saw giant ships dropping off massive loads of people by the hour. Making it sliiiightly more difficult to enjoy the small town vibes and very few available restaurants!

      Cinque Terre consists of 5 towns, and from La Spezia you can get on a smaller train that will connect between all towns: Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza, and Monterosso. There is also a hiking trail that connects the towns from above, which we so so wanted to do had it not been so dang hot (and our feet already so exhausted)!

      MANAROLA

      We chose to stay in Manarola, as I thought it had the prettiest viewpoint and was more of a quieter, family town. Versus the buzzier town of Vernazza, which also grabbed my attention due to it’s picturesque views. Of course our airbnb was all the way at the top, but luckily there was an amazing restaurant nearby for when we didn’t want to make the trek down.

      In Manarola, I highly recommend putting in your name at Nessan Dorma, a seaside restaurant along the cliff with the best restaurant view I have ever experienced from the terrace looking over the town and water. We waited nearly two hours in the heat, all for some meat & cheese platters and drinks (get the delicious pink self-titled “Nessan Dorma” drinks which consists of Vodka, Batida de coco, Watermelon puree. smashed lime and brown sugar, Fresh mint. It absolutely hit the spot after a long hot wait). We luckily got a table right at the edge and it was entirely worth sweating it out for.

       

      MONTEROSSO

      The following day we attempted to do the hiking trail (short lived due to heat), and decided instead to take the town train over to the last town, Monterosso, to enjoy ourselves a gorgeous beach day at Monterosso Al Mare. I absolutely LOVED the orange and green striped umbrellas of this beach club, can you tell? You have to pay a little fee for a “lido” (umbrella + chairs) I want to say $30 euro and then it’s yours for the day. To me, it was worth it!

       

      AMALFI

      Okay, I know I keep saying “I couldn’t go to Italy without seeing….” but as I mentioned, Amalfi Coast is really one of those top top, WOW, hard-to-believe-is-real locations that I absolutely wanted to experience. Should we have given ourselves more time to do so? Yes. But my optimistic self thought that 2 days would be better than 0 days 🙂 We decided on 1 night in the town of Amalfi, and the last night in the very epic Positano.

      SOOO we took the long train day down to Naples. And a taxi to the port (so short on time and almost missed the ferry. DO give yourself time in Naples, it is a big city!) Then the ferry to the town of Amalfi, and at last, our Airbnb fam greeted us to take us up to the home.


      Our first night we were pretty exhausted from the day’s travels so just quietly enjoyed the view from our balcony. Eventually walked to the restaurant just below and had such a lovely dish of lemon pasta (highly recommend Lemon pasta in this area, as it is known for all it’s lemon groves!) Then went back up and watched some fireworks display, and listened to the distant sounds of the piano player from the restaurant. Ahhh….la bella vita.

      The next morning, I an early riser, enjoyed the little magazines and local books on the balcony, as I waited for Alex to wake up so we could begin our boat day!

       

      POSITANO

      Positano Amalfi Coast Italy Wedding Photography Meghan Lee Harris Destination Photographer

      Ahh Positano. It’s origin is lost between myth and history. The name “Positano” is said to mean Neptune, and linked to the legend of fugitive sailors that heard a voice saying “posa posa (put down put down” and they interpreted those words as being the will of the Virgin Mary to land. Now, it is a famous tourist resort town, where people from all over the world come to spend time at luxury hotels on the colorful cliff, relax on the many beach clubs, and be seen. 

      “Positano bites deep. It is a dream place that isn’t quite real when you are there and becomes beckoningly real after you have gone.” – John Steinbeck

      On our train ride to Amalfi Coast, I read the fittingly titled book “One Italian Summer.” An adorable mother/daughter-themed novel of grief, but finding oneself again (and finding her late mom in her youth) in Positano. The book romantically described the history of the town and all her mom’s favorite locals (which are actual places!): Hotel Poseidon, Chez Black, the Path of God’s, taking a boat ride to Capri. I just couldn’t wait to experience this much-anticipated, fancy colorfully stacked resort destination that inspired so many artists and film makers before me! PS: fast forward to this coming September, where I will make a return trip with my own mother (who equally enjoyed the book), and sister. I have never traveled with anyone on such a trip, other than my husband. So I am so excited for what our girls adventure will be like, and to experience such a place with them.

      Anyways, I heard the best way to experience the beauty of Positano is from the water. So, since our check in wasn’t until 3pm and we had some time to kill, we decided to have ourselves a little boat day on the sparkling teal Mediterranean waters (jk, it was sooooo windy and cold and choppy, we almost cancelled!) Alex – not a big ocean guy – braved it out and piloted his first boat ever using this rental boat – along the Amalfi coast!! I mean….what a first of firsts to be had.



      I’ll never forget the excitement staring along the coastline, wondering “is this it?” …”maybe just around this corner.” Admiring the grand hotels perched along the cliffs and other vertical communities along the way. I couldn’t fathom people actually live up there. My fear of heights could never allow!

      At last, in the distance, it seemed like it could possibly be Positano? I told Alex to head inward, and the closer we got, the closer I realized…omg we actually made it. We are here. Positano!

      We got as close as we could (Alex not the most comfortable navigator in choppy waters was worried he wouldn’t be able to meander through the boats!) and we just laid there on the front of the boat. Admiring the view. Admiring the other boats. Until the sea sickness started coming in. Believe it or not I never even dipped into the Mediterranean water – just too cold and windy to cross my mind.

      With more clouds rolling in, we decided to cut our boat day short. Definitely would not be making it to Capri. But we were happy for the unique vantage point of Positano, in a way that I will surely remember forever.

      We dropped off our boat back in Amalfi, grabbed our stored luggage, and took the Ferry back to Positano. Somehow it became so so sunny just in time for us to climb the 100 or so sets of stairs. I swear to god, they never ended. I am a patient, strong-willed person, and even I about 1/3 way through thought how ridiculous this was, and who would set up a town like this!

      By the time we got to the top we were so exhausted, sweaty, we couldn’t even think straight. Then, after checking into our Airbnb (yes another one at the very top of town – turns out views come with a price), I frustratingly reread the directions from our host which said to **take the bus up**. LOL this is what travel brain does to you. I swear I can be so proactively detailed in planning, but lose half my IQ points while actually there in the moment. TIP: take the bus up, especially if on Hotel Poseidon level or above (google maps makes it look like just a road or two up from the beach – but there are many many steps up and levels in between these roads lol! You’ve been warned).

      The view was definitely gorgeous from our hotel balcony. However, I was a little overwhelmed thinking about how hungry we are and now having to navigate all the steps…back down and around to the other side of town where we had our reservations (again, google maps make it all feel so close). So we showered, took a very scary vertical bus ride to the other side of town, and ate at a restaurant with a gorgeous view but which I won’t name because let’s just say I may have gotten food poisoning from them and don’t want to put down anyone’s business!

      The walk back up to our hotel suddenly didn’t seem so bad with a little alcohol (and without the heat scorching our backs) and was so romantic seeing some of the boutiques and other restaurants all lit up at dusk, while trying very hard not to get hit by any cars on the narrow windy (and now dark) streets. Haha!

      We made it. Our final night. And we were exhaaaausted. I wish I could say I slept well, but I woke up in the middle of the night with terrible stomach cramps. I’ll save the details, but let’s just say…spending the last 24 hours of our trip with a heavy travel day, while battling food poisoning / exhaustion and dehydration / AND that time of month, in a foreign country and nonstop modes of public transportation. I was in a living hell. haha. Luckily I kept things inside me the entire ferry back to Naples, the taxi to the train station, the train back to Rome, and the taxi to our hotel in Rome.

       

      BACK TO ROME

      While in Rome, we spent the next 16 or so hours with me near verge of death in our tiny hotel room, located near the airport and not anything cool to walk to (so sorry to Alex). Me in between sleep and running to the bathroom, and eating all the bananas I could to help regain strength and retain water. Then, finally, the next morning, and last home stretch – waiting at the airport before our 9 hour flight home and 4 hour drive back to Appleton. I made it without any embarrassing public incidences. WHEW.

      It honestly took me three weeks to fully recover from our two weeks in Italy. But I would do it again in a heartbeat.

      I still truly wonder if I am the only person in the world who traveled to Italy, for multiple days vacation, who flew in and out of Rome, and never saw the Colosseum.

      ~~~~~~~

      If you have made it this far, I hope you have enjoyed our little tour of Italy! And I hope my advice and lessons learned saves you from making similar silly mistakes – hehe! That is the best part of travel, it comes with good, bad, sometimes ugly. But it is the gained experience and lifelong memories that make it alllll invaluable.

       

      FINE  (“THE END”)

       

       

       

       

      May 8, 2024

      Our Tour of Italy – Through Tuscany, The Dolomites, and Colorful Coastal Towns

      Positano Amalfi Coast Italy Wedding Photography Meghan Lee Harris Destination Photographer

        Guys. I am FINALLY ready to recap our first *legit* international European trip. I say legit, because can we really count our van trip around Iceland as quintessential “European”?? Haha, just sliiightly different vibes. After getting our feet wet in international travel, choosing our *second* euro destination seemed like a no-brainer. After seeing countless […]

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      This one is for the true art lovers!

      Ever since I saw a glimpse of Milwaukee’s new venue, The George and Madcap Lounge with it’s unique gallery wall space, I hoped to be able to shoot there someday! Luckily it must have been written in the stars because it didn’t take long. When the ladies of Events to a T reached out to see if I would photograph a styled shoot there during winter, I said absolutely yes!

      Sometimes spaces are much different than I had imagined. In this case, immediately when I walked in I was taken aback – in the best of ways. Every inch of this space is so intricately designed and artistically inspiring. The gallery wall was even larger in person and makes for a stunning backdrop for indoor ceremonies or portraits. This bright naturally lit venue is also perfect for winter or rainy days when outside portraits are not an option! The bridal suite and downstairs lounge are also works of art in themselves – between the flooring, wall décor, ceiling, light fixtures, I could stare at the different rooms of this place all day and still find more to discover!

      While the ballroom space offers a more traditional romantic ceremony with floor-to-ceiling windows and a rooftop overlooking the city for sunset photos, the other eclectic spaces offer the best of both worlds for a dynamic couple looking to shake things up. As we were photographing the lounge downstairs at the pool table I couldn’t help but think, “Wow, I want to be a guest at a wedding here!” Something I honestly don’t think of or say haha. But the space is just *that* cool and such a vibe.

      Haley & Cassi of Events to a T’s vision implemented refined textures and a desert color palette. Light pinks and warm tones of peach, terracotta, yellow and sand mixed in with sage green. Zap Bloom, sister company of Milwaukee Flower Co, recently announced their brand new shop that focuses on quick fix “add to cart” style florals to couples for their wedding day, and featured their Sedona-themed blooms for our shoot. And Miss Ruby Boutique provided our model the stunning sleeky, draped corset gown with a high slit and sheer chiffon gloves (which I had way too much fun incorporating the trendier direct flash looks down in the lounge).

      Thank you so much to all who helped make this a gorgeous and fun day! 😍Here’s just a few highlights!

      Insta reel: https://www.instagram.com/p/Cozydw3tQCV/

      Creative Team:

      Planning: @eventstoat@haleyabbate@cassi_frank / https://eventstoat.co/
      Venue: @thegeorgemke / https://www.thegeorgemilwaukee.com/
      Florals: @zapbloommke / https://zapbloom.com/
      Dress: @missrubyboutique / https://www.missrubyboutique.com/
      HMU: @archapothecary / https://www.archapothecary.com/
      Paper Goods: @paperenvyusa / https://www.paperenvy.com/
      Dessert: @cakeladydesigns / https://www.cakeladydesigns.com/
      Rentals: @canopiesevents@bbjlatavola / https://www.canopiesevents.com/ https://bbjlatavola.com/
      Videography: @filmsbydesign / https://filmsbydesign.co/
      DJ + Lighting: @soundbydesign / https://soundbydesign.co/
      Bride: @baileypetitgoue

      June 19, 2023

      The George and Madcap Lounge in Milwaukee Styled Shoot

      The George Madcap Lounge Milwaukee Wisconsin Wedding Photographer Meghan Lee Harris Wedding Photography Art Gallery Artful Inspiration

      This one is for the true art lovers! Ever since I saw a glimpse of Milwaukee’s new venue, The George and Madcap Lounge with it’s unique gallery wall space, I hoped to be able to shoot there someday! Luckily it must have been written in the stars because it didn’t take long. When the ladies […]

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      It is currently spring and we are getting ready to celebrate Savannah & Tate’s wedding tomorrow! Before their wedding photos come to be, I first had to take a look back at their *incredible* engagement session last fall at Picnic Point in Madison. Completely opposite seasons ago, but I can still smell the perfectly crisp end of October air. We were blessed with a beautiful morning, and I was glad Savannah & Tate chose Picnic Point. This lakeshore path offers a lot of variety and makes for a great spot year round, featuring a nice walking trail along the peninsula between tall grasses (runners and dog walkers love it!), with access to various small beaches. You can even overlook the city across the water.

      While walking the trail I immediately fell in love with this couple! So laid back and down to earth, equally dog-obsessed with their new pup Remus (who will be proudly featured on their wedding day signage & favors!) Savannah first met Tate in high school, where they went to school together and Savannah was best friends with Tate’s sister. But they didn’t start dating until the recent years of the pandemic, where they were able to spend a great deal of time together and really solidify their relationship. He proposed to her at Taylors Falls in Minnesota last summer and immediately got the ball rolling with their perfect venue Fields Reserve and other vendors.

      I am so excited to see it all come together!! And to celebrate this sweet couple. More to come soon! 🙂

      May 11, 2023

      Savannah & Tate’s Fall Engagement Session at Picnic Point, Madison WI

      Picnic Point Fall Engagement Session Madison Wisconsin Savannah Tate Meghan Lee Harris Wedding Photography Fine Art Photographer

      It is currently spring and we are getting ready to celebrate Savannah & Tate’s wedding tomorrow! Before their wedding photos come to be, I first had to take a look back at their *incredible* engagement session last fall at Picnic Point in Madison. Completely opposite seasons ago, but I can still smell the perfectly crisp […]

      VIEW THE FULL POST

      April 26, 2023

      Amanda & Nate’s Punta Cana, Dominican Republic Destination Wedding

      Amanda Nate Punta Cana Destination Wedding Dominican Republic Photographer Meghan Lee Harris

      VIEW THE FULL POST

      Foreword

       

      March 6, 2020

      More than ever I find myself longing for the road and reminiscing our first road trip out west⛰. Google maps voice as our only other companion. Gas stations to brush our teeth and a yeti cooler as our fridge. Sleeping in a van, every night (sometimes at truck stops when we couldn’t make it to to our destination😳). It was the closest quarters we have ever lived in, and the most consecutive time spent together since EVER.

      But if I could make a movie out of my life and replay it over and over, it would be these 30 days. Him, the van, the laughs, cries, pure terror, moments we couldn’t stop giggling, the fights, deep convos, good tunes, incredible hikes, the views, the feeling of freedom, overcoming, growing, and coming back home forever changed.

      If you could do one thing in this lifetime, I encourage you to travel unconventionally. Take a multi-day road trip to a place you’ve always wanted to go. Skip the plane, skip the hotels, & immerse yourself in nature. Put yourself out of your usual comfort zone & I promise you will be forever changed too.

      ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

      January 23, 2018

      I never thought I’d see this day, but we’re researching vans (and no, we’re not thinking kids just yet)! But rather we’ve been quite inspired by #vanlife and life on the road. We literally shout out “van!!” every time we drive past one, call us crazy but it’s going to be our little escape. Now that I’ll be entering full-time photography, and realllly only need to be in Wisconsin May – October, it leaves a whole lot of grey area to explore. We’re finally starting to make a few plans… can’t wait to share more with you as they develop!! 🤗

      ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

      March 8, 2018

      A busy next month as I shoot two more weddings, leave my full time job, then pack up and immediately set off for a long road trip out west before full on wedding season begins in May! We’re buying a used conversion van and kinda just gonna wing it! We do have a few places on our list, including Zion National Park, seeing the sequoias and redwoods in California, Napa Valley, and driving the California coast. We’ll be people watching in Portland, and eventually heading up north through Washington and up to British Columbia. Then back down through Montana and Glacier National Park and the Badlands. Whew! We have never been out west before, and there is so much we could see! All you adventurers out there👋🏻, what are your recs/advice and must-sees!

       

       

       

      5 years ago

      One thing feels very certain. There was life before the van, and then there is life *after* the van. But the van was really the defining point in my life where I truly started living it.

      Although this was only five years ago, it feels like a completely other lifetime ago! So much has changed. We’ve changed. A lot for the best (haha look at our style choices – YIKES). But looking through these photos and digging up old journals, I feel so much SOUL and energy. I smile at my youth and the lightness and carefreeness of it all. The “whatever happens will happen!” and “Carpe diem” aspect of it all.

      I find my younger self way cooler and inspiring. Down for whatevs. Making something extraordinary out of nothing. Free-spirited but at the same time beginning to seriously realize what was lacking in her life & taking intentional action to go and get it. She was a force and nothing could have stopped her. This wasn’t just a little vacay, but a long overdue awakening. And Alex. My sweet, still baby-cheeked Alex. At this time we were only married 1.5 years but life partners for nearly nine. Equally playful and inspired by possibilities, first time seeing the mountains. I speak of it like it was so long ago, seriously how is it possible we were THESE kids just five years ago. We learned a lot about each other on this trip, and looking back it feels like a coming of age for the both of us. And the start of a much deeper bond that would only further deepen the coming years. It’s wild to recollect everything that has happened in our lives since, and now proudly see the result of what I intuitively felt in this moment – that these doors we were opening would be just the beginning.

      Of course no epic road trip is complete without it’s way of transportation. A large part of what made our trip special and nostalgic was “Freida the Van,” not quite the remodeled Mercedes sprinter that was all fixed up and pretty like the professional vanlifers on YouTube. Rather ours was a 98 Ford Econoline we bought for a good deal from my friend’s parents who didn’t have a need for her anymore and wanted to send her off on her next adventure. She was brown, carpeted, ugly — and we loved her immediately! We named her after my late, beloved childhood dog. Not a golden retreiver, but a German wirehaired pointer who upon the sight of her I also thought, “brown, moppy-haired, ugly” — yet loved her immediately. Alex took out the back seats and built a basic wooden panel bedframe in the back and we added a mattress. Bought a yeti cooler, and that was the end of our renovations! 😉 We were set to go, we just needed to wait a few more weeks until April.

       

       

      April, come she will

      Our departure date of April 9, 2018, came with so much meaning. It would not only be the day of us leaving on our trip, it would be my first day I began living my life — for me. We received news several months back that the company we were both working for was being sold and that all of its employees would be laid off, but they needed us to help merge the company until spring. It was a complete shock at the time, my friends and coworkers I adored working with were all in a frenzy. To make things worse, Alex had recently been hired on after 3 months as a temp (note to self: don’t put all eggs in one basket), so now it would be back to the drawing board for both of us. No one knew what they would do. I had never been a part of a mass layoff before, and it was incredibly heart breaking.

      I remember that moment of panic, but I also remember it turning into this feeling of reassurance. A sense of “knowing” that this was likely a necessary ending and as difficult as it seemed – a blessing in disguise. All the past year, I had been working hard to build up a side wedding photography career. I completed a math degree in college, and after I realized I no longer wanted to pursue teaching once I graduated (my dream since I was a child) I felt a sort of identity crisis. I found myself as a commissions processor at a brokerage, which kept me occupied and paid while planning our wedding. But after the wedding day, and realizing I had the whole future ahead of me and here I was typing on a keyboard day after day. I felt this deep longing to get back to my creative side.

      My side hustle quickly turned into something that proved it could be more than a side hustle, to the point I had to start turning clients away. I had more than enough clients for me to consider going full time, but I was just afraid to make the risky move. So when the news broke of my company’s closure, it was the clearest indication the time was now right to leave the career that was no longer serving me. It was the (abrupt) push I needed to go full time into entrepreneurship. And it would mean I could finally be granted time to travel, and see the world beyond Wisconsin. I was 28 and due to either being broke college students, or having a lack of PTO for both Alex and I, we had never traveled much of anywhere yet. But since we met in 2009, we had always dreamed of taking a road trip out west, so when we were given this unexpected chance, the sudden need to travel hit hard and it hit BIG. And so come April, with a month long open schedule until wedding season began, we decided we would make the most of it. We would finally do what we always dreamed of, and head west.

      Are you ready? Without further ado — this was *us*! Spring 2018. Just learning photography & exploring out west. Baby faced. Carefree. And *lots* of questionable style! 😉

       

       

      Getting There

       

      Driving from Appleton and hitting the highway west was one of the most sensational feelings, we were on such a natural high and seeing the mountains for the first time together was exhilarating. Freida the Van didn’t play CD’s, just cassette tapes. So before our trip my dad stocked us up with some of his old classics. One that he was missing however was John Denver, a staple for every road trip. So we stopped and bought a CD and a converter. I wish I had a picture of this ridiculous 90’s contraption. But nothing is more suiting when finally approaching the Colorado mountains than listening to “Rocky Mountain High.”

      As for the rest of our soundtrack, I recall lots of Amie Pure Prairie League along highways and Tom Petty in the red rocks. We were saving the soundtrack from our favorite movie, Into the Wild, until we reached Yellowstone. If you’ve never seen this *incredible* film, you must. And then go get yourself the soundtrack. In short, the songs are all by Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder and written for this film that told the story of an American wanderer Christopher McCandless, who after graduating as a top college student, decides to give up all his money and travel solo into Alaska. It’s a heartbreaking tale of the struggle between society and nature. We listened to this on repeat as we drove through America’s iconic and first National Park, admiring the natural beauty and geysers and wildlife. Knowing full well that we humans are the reason these lands need to be protected in the first place. Shoutout to good Teddy Roosevelt for protecting the most beautiful lands, and giving us all this gift to be able to experience it for just a $30 pass. Yellowstone would ultimately become the highlight of our trip (but more on that to come)! 😉

       

       

      Zion National Park, Arizona

       

      I was looking back through my emails to recall some of the details of our route, which made me realize I didn’t even make campsite reservations (shock, dismay, who is this girl) — with the exception of 2 Airbnb’s where we’d be cheating the van life for a night & have access to a nice hot shower & clean bed. One being this rad canvas tent just outside Zion. But everything else was completely unscripted — something I have certainly gotten away from in my recent travel years, with wanting to fully maximize every trip with well-thought out itineraries of all the best spots.

      I’ve now learned the ins and outs of the western half of the states, and I gotta say, looking back I find myself shaking my head a few times at our route haha (like when I made Alex turn around in Zion just a mile in cause I was too scared of the scenic route, or not hitting Moab on the way down, or not riding the Cali coast once we made it San Fran. Don’t make the same mistake we did by thinking Highway 101 is the same thing as Highway 1. And then not notice until you were basically in Oregon and never hit the coast haha WOOPS). But when you wing things, it comes without research so it’s all part of the adventure. Sometimes things don’t go as planned, or you don’t get to see it all! But then you wouldn’t have a reason to go back and explore further now would you 😉

       

      Red Rock Canyon Las Vegas, Nevada

      April 13, 2018

      Took a little detour to finally do some hiking! Red Rock Canyon just became our favorite part of the trip so far! 👍🏻Drove the Vegas strip now gearing up for another long drive and 50 degree temp drop as we approach the Sequoia forests. Gonna be a cooold night in the van 🙄

       

       

      Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Park

       

      This was the part of our trip where the stress finally got to us. I still have nightmares from driving our old Freida van up these scary windy mountain roads into Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park. It was so terrifying in itself, add in a van that could hardly accelerate upwards and that would send you bouncing in your seats with any little road bump. I questioned my safety quite a few times with the no guardrails, and straight drops to our death. Alex began singing calmly as I kept my head down to prevent me from a full panic attack. I may have had my hand up a few times, ready to grab the wheel in case Alex somehow forgot to follow the road, something he didn’t particularly enjoy and an instinct I have since learned to control better 🙂 We were now certainly far away from flat land Wisconsin (why is everything in the west SOOO mountainous??) and I wasn’t expecting my total fear of mountain driving and heights to become such a damper to our trip. As you’ll notice from above I was quite relieved seeing the welcoming spring countryside and kissing the ground knowing we made it down alive.

      It was also made worse with not being able to breathe once we made it to the top, due to elevation (and probably the stress).

      The trees however, were INCREDIBLE. If we ever go back, I’m returning more in shape, and in a low seated car where my imagination can’t get the best of me out the passenger window 🙂

       

      Napa Valley, California