Lisbon, Portugal: The City Of Seven Hills

Seems like Lisbon has been everywhere lately.  It was even named one of the top 10 cities in the world to visit. So, one long weekend, Chad and I decided to take a trip over to Lisbon and see what all the hype was about.

Lisbon is the second oldest capital city in the world, the first being Athens, Greece. It is also built on seven hills, and trust me, after a weekend of walking around the city, you will feel each and every one of them in your calves! Lisbon is divided into six main districts, but the most popular districts in Lisbon are: the Baixa District, which is the heart of Lisbon; the Alfama District, which is a maze of beautiful streets and seems to be the artistic district;  the Belem District, which has many of the popular tourists attractions and for which you need to visit via transportation; and Bairro Alto & Chiado, which has all the nightlife and shopping.

BELEM DISTRICT

We started our trip with a visit to Belem.  Belem is west of central Lisbon, and is worthy of a half day visit. You can get here by taxi or by tram from central Lisbon.  We started our visit at the Monumento aos Combatentes do Ultramar, to watch the changing of the guard.  This war memorial honors Portuguese soldiers who died during the African independence uprisings of the 1960-1970s. The name of each soldier who died is inscribed in the walls that surround the memorial.  This monument is en route to Belem Tower.

Just a few feet away is Belem Tower. The tower is the ceremonial gateway to Lisbon.  It was commissioned by King John II to be part of a defense system at the mouth of the Tagus river.  It also played a significant role in the Portuguese maritime discoveries of the era of the Age of Discoveries. There is typically a line to get in, but we got lucky and had no line! The cost of the entrance ticket was 6 Euro per person.

A short walk along the promenade brings you to a beautiful monument called Padrão dos Descobrimentos, or the Discoveries Monument.  The monument is dedicated to the adventurers and explores who helped establish Portugal as a 14th century superpower.  For 5 Euro per person, you can  climb up to the top of it and get some great views!

Just behind the monument is a large marble map of the old world.

We did not climb up because one of us is scared of heights, but if you did, Mr. Google says that this is what you would see:

Across the street from this monument is a neighborhood where we came upon a little gem called Descobre.  It is not only a restaurant, but also a wine shop.  Even though they weren’t open yet, the owner welcomed us in and did an impromptu port wine tasting for us!

By this time, we were ready for a little snack break. So, we headed to Pasteis de Belem, the most famous bakery in all of Portugal to try a Portuguese classic– Pastel de Nata, an egg tart pastry.  These tarts were created by Catholic monks at the Jerónimos Monastery, which is just down the street from the bakery. Apparently, the convents and monasteries used large quantities of egg-whites for starching clothes and had a bunch of yolks leftover, so they created this warm egg custard party in your mouth! This is probably the first time that something amazing is credited to the chore of laundry! If you do just one thing in Belem (hell, in Lisbon!), then make that one thing a visit to this place to try this pastry.  Do not let the hoards of people out front scare you away.  Go inside and sit down for service.  The place is HUGE with many dining rooms.  You can enjoy lunch here or just pastries.  We ordered a bunch of snacks and pastries.

After eating such a dreamy little custard, we couldn’t not visit the monastery that invented them, so it was off to Jerónimos Monastery we went.  The monastery has a beautiful courtyard.  It is also the resting place for Vasco da Gama.  In fact Vasco da Gama spent his last night here before his voyage to the Far East.

The cost to visit the monastery is 7 Euro per person.  While the line to enter the Mosteiro dos Jeronimos is very long, there is rarely a line to visit just the church, plus there is no entrance fee! We had pre-bought tickets thanks to Diogo, our fantastic guide from Sintra Magik, so we did not wait in line at all.

Our next stop was to Lisbon’s greatest food hall at the Time Out Market at Ribeira Market.  This food hall has a collection of Lisbon’s best chefs with both traditional and modern dishes. It is top chef stands at low-cost prices with communal tables.  This was also the first place that we would try Santini ice cream, what some call the best ice cream in the world.

The only sites we didn’t see in Belem was the pink Belem Palace, which you can only see from the outside anyway, but which also has a changing of the guard ceremony, and Jardim da Praça do Império, which is one of Europe’s largest plazas and close to the monastery.

BAIXA, CHIADO, AND BARRIO ALTO DISTRICTS

Up next, we explored the Baixa District and parts of the Chiado District.  Our first stop was to Igreja de São Domingos.  This church has been destroyed by two earthquakes and one massive fire, yet it still stands.

Outside of the church, we had the most unusual encounter that we have ever had in any country.  As our guide was telling us the history of the church, a young man came up to us in broad daylight with a Ziploc bag full of oregano and wanted to know if we wanted to buy hashish, marijuana, or cocaine, which he assured us “very nice” and “very good price.” I had many questions, like who actually though that gigantic bag was real weed for 10 Euro and why did they feel so comfortable just openly soliciting us to buy drugs? Apparently, intent to sell is not illegal in Portugal, so if the cops stopped them and the drugs are not real, there is no problem.  We would be approached to buy drugs two more times during our stay. Here’s the moral of that story: 1) don’t be surprised if this happens to you in Lisbon (that is the only place we experienced this in Portugal), and 2) the drugs aren’t real, so if you are into that kind of thing, don’t waste your money.

Anyway, our next stop was just around the corner of this church to a little spot called A Ginjinha. This is a small walk-up bar in the theater district that is home to the traditional Ginja liqueur. Ginja is a sweet cherry liqueur that originated in Lisbon.  It is a fortified wine infused with Ginja cherries and a whole lot of sugar. There are two ways to drink Ginja: with or without cherries inside.  The cherries are sour and give the already strong drink and extra kick! Also, you can get your drink served in a chocolate cup, and I highly recommend you opt for that! Since this place was the first to sell the Portuguese favorite, there is usually a line to get a taste.

Just across the plaza from A Ginjinha is another ginja bar called Ginjinha Sem Rival.  Some say that this is the better of the two, so Chad tried both. We both liked the second one better. Also, at this bar you can get another drink called Eduardino, which is actually sweeter than ginjinha. Eduardino can only be found here.  It is made from herbs, fruit, and aniseed.

Right next to the bar was a small traditional shop that sold salted cod and sardines.  Both are a favorite and staple in Portuguese cuisine, especially for the dish Bacalao.

Our next stop was to the beautiful Rossio Square. The dizzying tile work makes this square so unique.  It was my favorite square in the city!

But the best views of the square, ans the whole city really, are from the Santa Justa Lift. The lift takes you from the steep hill of the Baixa district to the Largo do Carmo and the ruins of the Carmo Convent.

This is a very popular attraction and this is what the lines look like on a good day:

But, I don’t like lines, so I have a little secret for you.  The better way to do this is to start from Largo do Carmo. Just behind the Carmo Convent (pictured below) is an entrance to get to the platform that takes you to the view point that all these people are waiting in line to visit.  See the left hand, bottom corner of the picture below to see the walkway to which I am referring.

Once at the platform, you pay 1.50 Euro per person to climb this winding staircase:

Which leads to a platform that has these views:

Then, instead of paying 5 Euro per person for a return ride on the elevator, you just ride it down to the street level.  In other words, do the opposite of what the crowds are doing and save time and money!  You’re welcome!  This also put us in the perfect location to walk down Rua Augusta, which is lined with shops and restaurants.  At the end is Arco Da Rua Augusta, which leads to Praça do Comércio.

You can actually visit the top of this arch by taking an elevator nearly to the top, and then a steep spiral staircase to reach the terrace.  We did not do this, but Mr. Google says the views from the top are as follows:

From Praça do Comércio, you can walk along the waterside and see some artists at work, like the guy behind me who constructs massive sand statues and then charges people to take photos of it. I mean, who doesn’t love a sand puppy!

Or the rock sculpture garden that stretches for quite some way.

Our day ended with a stroll through the Chiado District to do a little shopping before dinner.

And that is where we came upon Sant’Anna, a ceramic factory dream come true! Their factory is actually in Belem, and you can arrange a visit there if you call ahead.

Lisbon is pretty much an outdoor tile museum, but there is actually a National Tile Museum that we did not get to visit.  It is definitely on my list for next time, because it looks amazingly beautiful, and I am OBSESSED with tiles.

We also visited  A Vida Portuguesa, which is a small boutique that sells authentic Portuguese products.  I bought the most divine hand and body creams as gifts for myself and for others!

We ended the day at one of Lisbon’s best, Belcanto, in the Barrio Alto District.

The restaurant,  by chef José Avillez, has two Michelin stars and is considered the best gourmet experience in Portugal. The mulit-course menus are modern takes on classic Portuguese dishes, including barnacles, a Portuguese delicacy.

After dinner, all I wanted to do was visit Pink Street, but considering we hadn’t slept in two days, had just gotten off a transatlantic flight, had spent the entire day touring the city, and had to get up early to do it all again the next day, we retired to our hotel and crashed.  But, in case you are interested, here is what pink street looks like:

ALFAMA DISTRICT

Alfama is one of the oldest districts of Lisbon.  It is a maze of narrow cobbled streets and ancient houses.  It also has a very boho, artsy vibe. The best thing to do is to take the famous number 28 tram, which costs just under 3 Euro per person and runs all over the city. You can take the tram to Alfama and spend an afternoon wandering the neighborhood streets and admiring all the tile and street art.

Just make sure that at around sunset, you make your way over to Miradouro de Santa Luzia, a beautiful terrace next to the church of Santa Luzia to catch the beautiful sunset from the terrace and see the gorgeous views of Alfama.

You might just catch some local musicians playing Fado, a traditional folk music genre unique to Portugal and which got its start in Lisbon. You can also opt for a famous Fado dinner where you can hear and watch a live music performance while enjoying dinner. The most famous places for such an experience are Clube De Fado and Sr. Fado de Alfama, both in the Alfama district.

After our short little weekend trip to Portugal, I can say that I agree with the hype.  Lisbon is an overlooked city in Europe; but, it is indeed one of the most unique and charming, and provides one of the best bangs for your travel buck! Lisbon is very affordable.  The food and wine are fantastic, and at a fraction of the cost of other European cities.  It is also easy to navigate (by walking or using trams, tuk tuks, and Uber), it is clean and safe, accommodations are affordable, and there are a lot of free or low cost attractions to visit. Take my advice and at it to your list of European destinations. You will be so glad that you did!

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Porto, Portugal: Tiles and Wine and Other Things Fine

If you have a thing for tiles on the walls and on the floors, love Port wine, or are a foodie, then this is the place for you. Porto, or Oporto as the locals call it, is a modern city with iconic building facades and dynamic gastronomy.

It is like the San Francisco of Portugal and the Douro Valley is its Napa. As a matter of fact, Porto’s historic area was classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996. In 2001, its wine region, the Alto Douro Wine Region, was also declared a UNESCO World Heritage.

Port wine, that sweet, red dessert wine, is a fortified wine produced exclusively in the Douro Valley. It is the literal reason why most people come to Porto. The Douro Wine Region Valley is the oldest demarcated wine region in the world.

Unfortunately, we only had one day to spend in Porto. We woke up early in the morning and took a 30 minute flight from Lisbon to Porto (you can also take a 2.5 to 3 hour train from Lisbon). Because of our tight time frame, we did not have a chance to visit the Douro Valley.  If you have more time, I recommend an overnight in Porto so that you have at least one full day to visit the city and an overnight in the Douro Valley so that you have another full day to visit the region and do proper wine tastings.

We were met by Sara of Oporto & Douro Moments who would be out guide for a whirlwind of a day in Porto. Sara specializes in the Douro Valley and is native to Porto.

Despite that we would not have a chance to visit Douro with her, Sara made sure that we still experienced the heart of Porto – Port Wine. So, our first stop was Vila Nova de Gaia (or Gaia as it is locally know), which is just across the river from Porto, over the Dom Luís I Bridge, a bridge designed by Gustave Eiffel, you know, the Eiffel Tower guy. In Gaia is where most of the Port wineries have set up shop outside of the Douro Valley. We visited Pocas Junior.

We took a private tour and learned all about the history and tradition of port wine.They still use the traditional method of cleaning their wine storage units, which means that someone who is small enough to fit in this hole, climbs in and cleans by hand.  They have one dedicated employee for this task! They also have one dedicated employee who hand-makes their wine barrels at this on-site workshop.

Um, are these not the literal largest wine barrels you have ever seen in your entire life?  Apparently, at their Douro Valley location, they have even bigger ones! After tasting several varieties of port, including a port rose (there is such a thing and it is splendid!), we were in need of some food, so we headed back over the bridge to sink our teeth into a sandwich for which Porto is famous: the Francesinha (the Little Frenchie).

There is NOTHING little about this sandwich. The name is kind of comical, actually. One sandwich is enough for two people. Oh, and don’t even bother putting this one in your calories app.  I am pretty sure you will break the damn thing. Just know that you are going to need to up your steps after this one, which is fine because Porto is all hills anyway and calories don’t count on vacation.

Okay, back to the sandwich that gave me a mini panic attack: in between two very thick slices of white bread, you will find cured ham, two different kinds of sausage,  and steak. The sandwich is then covered with melted cheese and a hot thick tomato and beer sauce. And, because there isn’t enough protein in the sandwich, it is topped with a fried egg.  And served with french fries. Take that McDonald’s! I see your Big Mac and raise you the Little Frenchie!

So. Much. Meat.

Okay, so after all that eating, it was time to walk. We walked all over the city admiring the amazing tiled buildings. We even went to a tile museum, kind of.  This place is a government owned and operated tile cooperative. While it does display all of Porto’s traditional tiles, it also supplies tile. So, if you have building that has traditional tile, and you are missing a few pieces, you come in, they verify that you are legit (as in you own the building and you are restoring it), and then they just give you the tile. As in, for free. They will also take tile if you are remodeling and getting rid of the tile (why you would ever do that is beyond me). They will not, however, sell you tile (trust me, I tried). We also visited some of Porto’s most famous food shops. These are legit shops that sell traditional Portuguese products. The most famous among them is A Perola Do Bolhao, open since 1917, and Comer e Chorar Por Mais, also in operation for over 100 years.

Now, if you are a Harry Potter fan, you are going to want to come to Porto. It is in Porto where the author, J.K. Rowling, got inspiration for her series. She apparently split her time between a little cafe, Café Majestic, and the oldest and most beautiful bookstore in the world, the Lello Bookstore, also known as Livraria Lello & Irmão.  Rowling frequented the bookstore when she taught English in Porto. The Lello Bookstore was built in 1906 by the Lello Brothers.

This was her cafe of choice:

And this is the bookstore.  The photo of the facade is mine, but the photos of the inside are courtesy of Mr. Google because there is a huge line to get in. This bookstore has become so popular that they actually charges 4 Euro per person to enter; but, if you buy a book, that is credited towards your purchase.

After all that walking in the heat, it was time for a little treat: Portugal’s famous Santini gelato! Some call it the best in the world.  It has been a staple in Portugal for more than 60 years, ever since an Italian named Attilio Santini set up shop in Estoril, Portugal.  With over 50 flavors made fresh daily, you are going to want to make more than one stop here!Alas, our day in Porto was coming to an end. We headed back to the airport with full bellies and achy feet; but it was worth every minute (and every calorie)!

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Sintra, Portugal: An Enchanting Fairytale Land

I have a confession to make. Prior to planning my trip to Portugal, I did not even know that Sintra existed. Sintra may just be Portugal’s best kept secret.  Sintra, I learned, is a popular day-trip from Lisbon. It is just a 30 to 40 minute drive from Lisbon. Or, you can take a 30 minute train from Lisbon’s Rossio station to Sintra station.

Since it was our first time to Sintra, we decided to explore this magical little place with Sintra Magik Private Tours. Out guide, Diogo, was fantastic! He is a Portuguese historian and filmmaker.  He is patient, unconcerned with the clock, and 100% focused on your interests. He is a wealth of information about Portugal, and he really made Sintra come alive for us.  He took us to secret little spots and planned our tour so that we would always be running opposite the schedules of the big group tour buses.

To say that Sintra is picturesque is an understatement.  It is downright enchanting.  It is up on a hill, so it is cooler than Lisbon.  And, it has a seemingly endless number of castles to explore.

The most popular of the castles is Pena Palace. The palace stands on the top of a hill in the Sintra Mountains above the town of Sintra. Pena Palace is the greatest expression of 19th-century romanticism in Portugal. Its color and tile work make it a breathtaking site. This was our first stop in Sintra. We got there right as the doors opened and were the first in line to buy tickets.

Exploring Pena Palace sans crowds makes this spectacular palace even more magical. The palace is surrounded by Pena Park.

You have two options to reach the palace.  You can stroll through the park, which is slightly uphill and takes about 10 minutes of walking. Or, you can pay 2 EU per person and be driven up on a trolley. We opted for the short and picturesque hike.

The views as you approach the palace from below are incredible. The palace, lording over you from above (as you approach on the footpath below), is so striking that it doesn’t even look real.

We made our way through the impressive stone entrance, and then Diogo guided us through the part of the palace from which you would normally exit. This gave us a chance to see the entire palace complex with NO other people around. 

We next explored the outer grounds of the palace. The color and stone and tile detailing of the exterior of this palace are truly breathtaking. Seriously, pictures do not do it justice. 

But don’t think that all the eye candy is just on the exterior.  The interior of this palace is equally as impressive. 

You can also walk around the palace complex using exterior walkways and get some incredible views of Sintra and the Sintra Mountains, including views of the Castelo dos Mouros (the Moorish Castle), which pre-dates the Pena Palace by about 1,000 years.

We left the palace just as throngs of tour groups started filing in, and we headed back to Sintra’s town center to do some exploring. First, stop – snack time! We stopped at this little cafe, the oldest and most popular in the region to try the local queijadas, Sintra’s version of a pastel de nata (the ubiquitous Portuguese custard tart) made with a sweet cheese filling.

Sit inside by the window to enjoy a fantastic view.

The little town of Sintra is so charming, with darling cobbled streets that are lined with shops and cafes. After our brief snack stop, we made our way to the National Palace of Sintra, situated in the heart of Sintra.

We spent the remainder of our time exploring the shops, streets, and corners of this beautiful little city.

Diogo suggested that we head to the coast for lunch so that we can eat at an authentic Portuguese family-owned restaurant and visit Cabo da Roca, the westernmost part of mainland Portugal and continental Europe.

Next, Diogo took us to a secret spot that I promised him I would not identify in this post where we had the landscape and beautiful views all to ourselves!

We ended our day in the beautiful seaside city of Cascais.

Honestly, our day trip to Sintra was my favorite part of our Portugal visit. But, I left Sintra feeling like I really just scratched the surface. To really appreciate Sintra, I think you need to stay here for at least one night, but probably two nights. There were so many sites that we did not get to explore, like The Quinta Regaleira, which has this beautiful spiral and courtyard inside (courtesy of Mr. Google):There are some beautiful properties to choose from for an overnight stay.  You can go wine tasting in this region, and, I am told that once the day-trippers leave, Sintra becomes a different place, and the sites stay open to allow the people staying there to enjoy them without the crowds.

This website offered a helpful three-day itinerary for Sintra:

sights of sintra portugal

If you find yourself in Portugal, make it a point to visit (and stay) in Sintra.  It is well-worth your time. Obrigado and Viagens Felizes!

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Rhodes, Greece: The Island Of The Knights

Rhodes is often overlooked on most people’s Greece itinerary because it’s one of the furthest islands away from the mainland. Also, Rhodes doesn’t have the hype that Santorini and Mykonos have. Most people, especially first-timers to Greece, flock to these touristy islands for the sunsets, white washed buildings, blue domes, and the windmills.

Don’t get me wrong, both Sanotrini and Mykonos, like all of Greece’s islands, are beautiful. But, in my opinion, they lack the authenticity of the Greek culture.  They are  expensive and overrun with tourists and the dreaded cruise boats. Rhodes, on the other hand, is less crowded, more affordable, and, in my opinion, more interesting. It is also a photographer’s dream! Allow me to introduce you to this little gem.

If you read this blog, you already know that I am Greek and that Chad and I visit Greece at least once a year because my dad lives on the island of Crete. Every time we go to Greece, we try to visit new places and new islands in Greece. This year, Rhodes was at the top of our list.

Rhodes is part  and also the capital of the Dodecanese, “The Twelve Islands” (which is a misleading name because the Dodecanese are actually made up of 15 larger islands plus 150 smaller  islands in the southeastern Aegean Sea). It is the largest of these islands. Rhodes is most famous  for the Colossus of Rhodes, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, and the Medieval Old Town of the City of Rhodes has been declared a World Heritage Site. In fact, the Old Town is surrounded by a huge, intact, wall, and there is even a castle!  It’s very A Knight’s Tale; and, even more importantly, it has a look and feel unlike anywhere else you’ll experience in Greece.

Rhodes has a long and rich history. Suffice it to say, there were many things that attracted to us to Rhodes. To get to Rhodes, you can take a very long ferry from Athens or Thessaloniki or you could take an less than an hour flight. I’ll let you guess which option we chose and which we recommend you do as well.
We chose to stay in the Old Town of Rhodes. Old Town is surrounded by medieval walls with seven “gates” (Gate of the Naval Station, Gate of Agios Ioannis, Gate of Agia Ekaterini, Gate of the Apostle Paul, Gate of Amboise, Gate of Agios Athanassios and the Gate of the Port). Today, the gates are the seven entry points into the Old Town. When you enter these gates, you feel as if you have entered another world. I am so glad we chose to stay in the Old Town. It was truly enchanting and much more charming than staying at one of the huge beach resorts in the modern city. You literally feel as though you have entered some sort of enchanted land.

We stayed at a small boutique hotel called Kokkini Porta Rosa (which loosely translates into  the red door) in the Old Town. Now, this is NOT a sponsored post, but I love this hotel (it’s really more of a guest house than a hotel) and its owners (who were just the loveliest, warmest, and most interesting couple) so much that I am going to dedicate part of my post about Rhodes to this fantastic gem because I think this hotel really colored our view of Rhodes in the most positive of ways.

This hotel is a model for what hotels should be. In a world that has become so impersonal, Angela and Nikos, the owners (who have lovingly restored an old home, while staying true to its history), break the mold and have truly created a home away from home.

Every single guest of their small five-suite hotel is treated like family. Angela and Nikos pay the utmost attention to detail. This little hotel is luxury and service re-defined, from the moment you walk in until the moment you check out, with homemade gift in hand.

First, there is no such thing as a bad room.  All the rooms are breathtaking. They are large, they are beautifully appointed with the couple’s own hand-selected furnishings from around the world.  The rooms have every comfort you could ask for, including a pillow menu, luxurious local, organic bath products, and a fully stocked mini bar that is FREE in every room for every guest for your entire stay. You read that right- the mini bar is FREE. Everything in it is FREE! And, there are A LOT of choices, which are replenished daily. Also, the Wi-Fi is strong! Angela and Nikos have anticipated your every need. They literally have thought of every single little detail. Each room comes with a fully stocked beach bag that includes towels, mats, and bottled water.

Also, every single room is assigned a tablet that is pre-loaded and customized to each guest every single day of your stay. Your tablet will have maps, itineraries, places of interest, and restaurants, which are hand-selected by Nikos every day for every single guest based on what you tell him that you are interested in.

The tablet acts as a GPS (which is helpful in the maze-like roads of the Old Town), and a means to communicate directly with Nikos and Angela from anywhere on the island. If you book directly with them, your room comes with a free car rental on a day of your choosing so that you can leave the Old Town and explore other areas of Rhodes, like Lindos.

Every day when you return, Angela and Nikos are there to greet you with a drink in hand and snacks. Every evening, they leave out a full array of cocktails for you to enjoy before or after dinner, including Angela’s homemade limoncello, which is literally the best I have ever had.  Ever. Including the ones we tried in Italy. Even in Positano. Breakfast is included with your room, and you would be a fool to miss it. It is literally the best breakfast I have ever had at a hotel, and Chad and I have stayed at some VERY nice hotels all over the world. Angela serves up a three-course, homemade breakfast. First, she brings you a French pressed coffee or a hand-squeezed juice (all of which are amazing) and an array of bread with homemade jams (which are also amazing).

Your first course will be something sweet and something savory from the local cuisine. This selection will change every day. Your second course is Greek yogurt with fresh fruit and bee pollen and/or honey. Finally, she will cook your eggs to order.

The presentation is beautiful, the food is delicious, and by the second morning, Angela has your preferences committed to memory. Oh, did I mention that your breakfast is taken in the garden oasis featured above? Also, the hotel is located in a quiet residential district, so there is no noise from cars, bars, restaurants and people, but it is walking distance from all the action.Here’s the best part: this hotel is affordable, especially when you consider what you are getting (breakfast, fully stocked mini bar, daily cocktails, car rental, etc.) and compared to the other options on the island. Hell, even if the hotel was a splurge, I’d spend it! Nikos is a wealth of information about the island, and both Nikos and Angela are truly passionate about what they do, which translates into the guest experience.  Everyone on the island knows them and their hotel. I am quite confident when I say that you will never again stay a hotel that is quite like this one.  I dream about this hotel and coming back. Hats off to Angela and Nikos for creating the ultimate guest experience. If you go (and, I truly insist that you do), please let Angela and Nikos know that I sent you.

After we were done swooning over the hotel, we spent our first full day wandering around the Old Town and taking in all of the beautiful little corners of this charming town. By the way, if you are into doors and floors, then hold on to your britches, because Old Town Rhodes is an assault of charm in the door and floor department. The ancient mosaic stone work on the floors is incredible! And, the doors…I died! On Angela and Nikos’s suggestion (which, by the way, were always spot on), we stopped to eat lunch at this amazing little restaurant and loved the food so much that we came back again, which is VERY rare for us, as we try to eat at as many different places as possible. After lunch, we decided to explore the area outside of the Old Town wall. On our second day, we hired Nick of Rhodes Private Tax Tours to give us a tour of the Rhodes outside of the Old Town and to take us to Lindos to visit the famous Acropolis of Lindos.

Lindos is a resort town with a small (touristy) village at its center, which is pedestrian only.  The village gets pretty crowded as does the Acropolis of Lindos, but it is well worth a visit. I would recommend spending an entire day here so you can go to the Acropolis as early as possible and then have time to explore the little village. You can also overnight in Lindos if you want to enjoy the beach.

However, before we left for Lindos, Nick showed us one of the places where the Colossus of Rhodes was thought to have stood. The Colossus of Rhodes was an enormous statue depicting the city’s patron god, Helios (the god of the sun).  Many believe that this wonder of  the ancient world stood in Mandraki Harbour, and there are rumors that a fundraising effort is underway so that an architect can build a new monument, albeit one five times larger than the original, to straddle the entrance of this harbor. However, there are some theories that because this monument was so important, it did not actually stand at the harbor, but at the Acropolis of Rhodes Lindos is a cute little village that has many shops and small, but stunning churches to explore before you make your way up to the Acropolis of Lindos, a climb that includes several hundred stairs of various heights with no guardrails.  Not to worry, it is totally do-able (if you are wearing the right shoes), the views are incredible, and there are donkeys to assist.

The irony of a Greek bank building being used to store donkey is not lost on me. This is just ripe for Greek financial crisis jokes…like the only ASSets being stored in Greek banks this year…but that’s not funny. I mean, it kind of is, but not really.

I wish we had a little more time to explore this village, but it was pouring that day, so as soon as the sun came out, we hiked up to the Acropolis!

And the views from the Acropolis of Lindos are not too shabby:After Lindos, Nick took us to the cutest little beach side taverna for lunch (which had the most INCREDIBLE views) before we set off to explore other sites around the island, including Filerimos, monastery is dedicated to Virgin Mary that has monuments of the seven stations of the cross and  is overrun with friendly peacocks, and Anthony Quinn Bay, which is a beautiful little bay riddled with controversy and drama. 

Filerimos:

Anthony Quinn Bay:On our third day on the island, we took advantage of the free rental car that came with our room and took to the roads with our tablet to explore other points of interest, such as the Castle of Monolithos, Profitis IliasAncient Kamiros, and the Seven Springs (Epta Piges). Also, in the right season, you can also visit the Valley of the Butterflies. Rhodes is a fairly flat island, so it is easy to drive and navigate. I would highly recommend renting a car for a day or two to do some independent exploring.

Monolithos: Ancient Kamiros: Seven Springs:

Make sure the water is running at the springs before you go because when we went, the water had dried up, so this lovely shot is courtesy of Mr. Google!On our last day, we stayed in the Old Town and visited the Palace of the Grand Master of the Knights of Rhodes. We also walked through the moat, which was kind of cool because you see the Old Town above you and there are a few little nooks to explore.  And, we walked on top of the medieval wall, which had fantastic views of the Old Town below, and the exist was literally in front of our hotel!  Finally, we visited the archaeological museum.

Moat:

Palace:

Medieval wall:

 

Museum:

There are several day trips you can take from Rhodes, including trips to Symi,  Kastellorizo, Alimia, and Chalki Islands. You can also visit Turkey for the day from Rhodes! We didn’t have time to do any day trips on this visit. We do, however, plan to come back to Rhodes to explore more of the island (but really to stay at Kokkini Porta Rosa again) and to visit some of the neighboring islands. Second to Crete, Rhodes is my favorite island in Greece. Add this little medieval gem to your bucket-list.  I promise it will not disappoint!

 

 

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Athens, Greece: It’s Not Just A Stop Over City

Judging by the number of people reaching out to me for tips and recommendations, it appears that you all are going to Greece this summer and, honestly, lucky you! Greece is one of my favorite countries, and not just because my family lives there and I go there a lot. Greece truly has something for everyone- history, sites, culture, food, wine, beaches, city, countryside, islands, landscapes, mountains, hiking. The food is delicious. The people are so hospitable. The country is just breathtaking. I can go on and on. And, now is a GREAT time to go. The flights have never been cheaper. The Euro is reasonably low. It is one of the safest countries you can visit. And, let’s be honest, Greece needs your tourist dollars.

Naturally, when people ask me for tips on Greece, I always ask for their itinerary. Without fail, I get the same response- “We are only spending a day or so in Athens to see the Acropolis before going to the islands.” Big mistake! Athens is not a stopover city. You know, like one of those cities you just fly into before you move on to the main attraction. Athens is an attraction, and not just for the Acropolis.  Athens is a world class city. There are so many things to see in Athens: amazing food, GREAT shopping, awesome nightlife, but, most importantly, it serves as the best base to really see mainland Greece (which is SO worth your time). Seriously. Greece is more than just Santorini and Mykonos (or as Greeks like to call it, Greece for beginners).

I am going to show you some of my favorite parts of Athens right here in this post. And then, in a separate post, I am going to show you all these neat little places you can easily visit as a day trip from Athens. Ready?  Let’s go!

The Acropolis and The Parthenon

I think the obvious must-see is the Parthenon, which is located on the Acropolis of Athens. See what I did there? I subtly explained to you that the structure is the Parthenon and the hill upon which it sits is the Acropolis. If you can, I highly recommend waking up early and getting to the Acropolis first thing in the morning, before the rush of cruise ship people and the buses of tourists. Another great option would be to go about an hour before it closes. The visiting hours, entrance fees, and general information on how to get to the Acropolis can be found here. If you go early in the morning, you can pretty much have the place to yourself with relatively few people. By 10:00-10:30 a.m., it’s like a zoo.

On your way up the Acropolis, you will see this ancient amphitheater, the Herod Atticus Odeon, which is itself an antiquity.  The cool thing about it is that they still hold summer concerts and performances at the amphitheater! Once you are at the top of the Acropolis, you enter from here to see the Parthenon: And now, for the main attraction: The Parthenon! Don’t forget to spend some time visiting some of the other temples on the Acropolis. By the way, on your way out, don’t just pass by this olive tree without stopping to admire it. It is the oldest olive tree on the Acropolis! Also, here is a list of the best places from which to photograph the Acropolis. Here are some interesting facts about the Acropolis, and some motivation to wake up early on a Sunday to visit it.

The Acropolis Museum (And Other Museums of Interest)

Your next stop should be to the new(ish) Acropolis Museum.  Seriously, don’t miss the museum. It is the best museum in Athens, and my personal favorite. If you are into museums, the other one worth visiting (and which also stays open later in the evening) is the National Archaeological Museum of Athens. If art is your thing, then you will want to visit the Benaki Museum. For the largest collection of Byzantine Art, visit the Byzantine and Christian Museum. For the best collection of Cycladic art in the world, visit the Museum of Cycladic Art.

Anyway, back to the Acropolis Museum. The exploration starts with the walk in.  The floor is excavated to reveal antiquities before you even enter the museum.

Once you enter, you will find a light, airy, and very well laid out museum dedicated to the Acropolis and the Parthenon.

The most interesting (yet infuriating) part of this museum is the space that is dedicated to the Parthenon Marbles, more commonly known as the Elgin Marbles, named after the man who stole them from Greece and sold them to the British Museum. If you want to see the marbles that used to line the Parthenon, you will have to go to London. But if you want to see where they belong, well, that would be here:This sculpture is my favorite in the museum. It is a replica of what used to sit atop the entrance to the Parthenon (the darker pieces are original).

One of the greatest features of this museum, is that you can see the Parthenon from the top floor and can even stop for a break at a rooftop snack bar that faces the Acropolis.

Anafiotika and Plaka

I am about to let you in on a little secret of Athens. At the foot of the Acropolis, on the back side, sits a little community called Anafiotika. It is part of the Plaka neighborhood, and the houses were built  to mimic those on the island of Anafi, whose people came to Athens as construction workers to refurbish King Otto’s Palace during the era of Otto of Greece. Here is what is amazing about it: it still exists; it is pretty well-preserved; people still live there; and it is EMPTY.  As in tourist free! You can actually climb up the Acropolis from here or you can visit after you go to the Parthenon and make your way to Plaka – an ancient, yet still thriving, neighborhood of Athens (a.k.a the “Neighborhood of the Gods”), for a lovely lunch at a fantastic Greek taverna.

As you exit Anafiotika and continue on to Plaka, you will encounter some beautiful street art. A few minutes later, you will be at the beautiful Plaka, where you will have your pick of excellent taverns for lunch.

Ancient Agora and Monastiraki

From Plaka, you can walk through the ruins of the Ancient Agora as you make your way to Monastiraki, which is a large open air flea market and a great place to pick up souvenirs and gifts. 

Syntagma Square (And a Side Note About Shopping!)

As you exit Monastiraki, you will find yourself across from Syntagma Square, or Constitutional Square, where every hour on the hour you can watch the ceremony of the changing of the guard at the tomb of the unknown soldier. While this happens everyday, the official ceremony using the official costumes happens on Sunday at 11:00 a.m. The guards are part of the Evzones, a special unit of the Hellenic Army, also known as Tsoliades, who guard the Monument of the Unknown Soldier in front of the Hellenic Parliament and the Presidential Mansion.

The job of the Tsoliades is very tough. They are there every day, rain or shine, wearing extremely heavy costumes and shoes, even in the summer. Every soldier stands guard for about an hour, for a total of three times in a 48 hour period. For the hour they are on guard, they have to stand perfectly still until it is time to switch with another guard. They are now protected by Greek police thanks to ignorant tourists who used to come up to take pictures with them and sometimes torture them by hitting them, attempting to knock them over, or lifting up the skirt of their uniform, which is worn because of its historic meaning. Unfortunately, because of this, you can no longer stand next to them as they stand guard for photos, but you can stand below them. By the way and in case you are interested, you can now tour the inside of the Greek parliament building.

From here, you can visit the beautiful Hotel Grand Bretagne and grab a drink on their roof-top bar with views of the Acropolis.  If you are in the mood to do some shopping, head to the nearby Ermou Street, Athens’s main shopping street (with a great selection of shoe stores!) and Psiri. Also, if you are looking for the famous Pantelis Melissinos, the poet Sandal Maker, you will find him near Syntagma Square, in the beginning streets of Psiri. If you want to buy his custom-made sandals, get ready to wait in line to get into the tiny shop. Don’t worry; its worth it.  You choose a style and then they custom fit them to your feet.  It is cash only, and the sandals cost about 50 Euro per pair, but they are excellent quality and very comfy. We used to buy these sandals all the time crowd free, but after appearing in some travel books and on some travel shows, the tiny shop has become very busy. If Pantelis is there, he will even autograph your pair!

If high end shopping is on your list then DO NOT miss the trendy upscale neighborhood of Kolonaki and the coastal Glyfada. Here you will find luxury boutiques (including Greek designers), shoe emporiums, and haute couture shops.

Mount Lycabettus

If you are looking for the best panoramic view of the city (and best city sunset), look no further than Lycabettus. It is the highest point of the city.  You can walk up, take a funicular from Kolonaki, or drive up. However you get there, just go.  The views are impressive, especially at night. 

The Panathenaic Stadium and The Temple of Olympian Zeus

A short walk from Syntagma Square and within walking distance of each other, both the Panathenaic Stadium and the Temple of Olympian Zeus are worth a visit. The Panathenaic Stadium is where the first modern Olympic games were held in 1896, and it is the only stadium in the whole world built entirely of marble. In addition to thew new Olympic stadium, the Panathenaic Stadium was also used in the 2004 Olympic games, which were held in Athens.

The Temple of Olympian Zeus was one of the largest temples in the ancient world. Today only 16 columns survive.

Beaches

You read that right. Beaches.  Athens has beaches, and pretty good ones, too. To be clear, they do not compare to the beaches of the Greek islands (I mean just look at what is in store for you in Crete!), but they are pretty good for city beaches, and Athens has the longest coastline of any European capital. So, here is a list of the top five!

This is just a sampling of what Athens has to offer and of what you miss when you ignore this gem of a city. We haven’t even touched on the world class dining and the incredible nightlife of this city, which truly never sleeps. Not to mention all the great day trip options from Athens. I have been coming to Athens for over 30 years now, and I STILL make new discoveries about this city every single time. So please, do me a small favor, and make some time in your itinerary to scratch the surface of this magnificent city. Trust me, you will not regret it!

Καλώς ήρθατε στην Αθήνα (kah-los  ear-tha-te  steen  Athena) or Welcome to Athens!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Matala, Crete: Today Is Life. Tomorrow Never Comes.

This summer in Crete, Chad and I found a place where tomorrow never comes.  A place where everyone seemingly lives in the moment of today. And, we are officially obsessed. If you find yourself in Crete this year (and we highly recommend that you do in fact go to Crete, like now), put Matala on your itinerary. Trust us, you will not regret it!

My dad lives in Crete, so Chad and I find ourselves there pretty regularly, i.e., once a year.  Every time we go to Crete, we make it a point to visit parts of the island that we have never seen before. The options are virtually limitless. This year, we planned a day-trip from Chania to Matala, which is located in the prefecture of Heraklion.

If you don’t already know, Crete is the largest of Greece’s islands and the fifth largest island in the Mediterranean. Crete is divided into four prefectures: Chania, Rethymnon, Heraklion and Lassithi. Crete was also the home to the ancient Minoan civilization.

There are two ways to reach Crete: you can fly in from Athens or other European cities or you can take a ferry from Athens and certain other Greek islands, like Santorini.  If you choose the ferry option (I suggest the upgraded cabin seats if you go with this option), you will port in Heraklion.  Matala is located about an hour away from both the airport and ferry port in Heraklion.  However, we prefer the flight option. The flight is the easiest option as it is only 30 minutes from Athens with multiple regularly scheduled flights that are not very expensive on Aegean Airlines. You can fly into either Chania or Heraklion.  We usually fly into Chania because this is the closest city to where my family lives, which is in Anopoli, Sfakia.

We rented a car for the day from the city center of Chania. The daily rate was about 65 Euros with unlimited miles and a turn in time of 10:00 p.m. If you prefer to use the pretty reliable public bus system that runs throughout Crete, called the KTEL, you can find the schedules and prices here. The drive from Chania to Matala is about two hours, mostly on highway, and it is very scenic. Our first stop was to the Archaeological site of PhaistosTo reach Phaistos, follow the signs along the highway, which direct you up a pretty easy mountain road.  If you use your iPhone navigation, you will be directed to leave your car and walk.  Ignore those directions.  The road is paved all the way up to the site, and it is in great condition.  When you reach the site, there is a parking lot on the left, and the entrance is a short 3 minute walk on a paved road to the right. It costs 8 Euro per person to visit the site.  Once inside, there are clean restrooms located inside a snack bar that also doubles as a small souvenir shop. Also, there is free Wi-Fi! More information on visiting the site can be found here, including hours of operation. The site is certainly not as big, well preserved, or as popular as the Palace of Knossos, but it is also WAY less crowded (you almost have the whole place to yourself), and it is pretty interesting and well worth a visit. We were able to visit the entire site in a little over an hour. 

Phaistos, like the Palace of Knossos, was a Minoan palace and the place where the Phaistos disc (which is now on display in the archaeological museum of Heraklion) was discovered. Phaistos was one of the most important centers of Minoan civilization and the most wealthy and powerful city in southern Crete. If you are coming from Heraklion, I suggest you stop at the museum first and then make your way to Phaistos.

We were pretty hungry after our visit, so we decided to drive over to Matala for a sea-side lunch and swim. The drive from Phaistos to Matala beach is about 15 to 20 minutes.Matala is small beach community that now caters mainly to tourists. The beach is just breathtaking, with a large cliff to the right of the ocean. Matala was originally the port of Phaistos in the Minoan period. In the Neolithic Age, artificial caves were carved into the cliff by the Romans and were used as tombs. In the 60s, Matala was a fishing village that became the home of several hippies who lived inside the old tombs in the cliff.  The most notable of Matala’s hippie residents was Joni Mitchell, who wrote the song Carey while living in Matala. Joni came to Matala breaking up with Graham Nash.  Other notable hippies who inhabited Matala’s caves include Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin and Cat Stevens. Matala gained international attention in the 60s after Life Magazine published a story about it. Today, Matala still has a very distinct boho hippie vibe, although it is more commercial than it once was. And, the “new hippies” of Matala still inhabit a more remote set of caves not far away from the ones on the beach.

You’ll know when you have arrived in Matala because you will be greeted by this beautiful tree which sits in the center of the non-pedestrian part of the village.There is a large parking lot that has direct access to the beach, and it only costs 2 Euro to park there all day. The lot has beautiful street art on the buildings.From the lot, it is just a short walk onto the beach, which, in late May, was not that crowded. You can walk a path to get to the cliff and actually climb up the cliff and visit the now empty tombs. The cost for the all-day ticket is 2 Euro per person. It’s kind of wild to think that you are visiting both a grave site and the former “homes” of some of the world’s most notable musicians. Apparently, there are additional tombs that have not yet been excavated.

Once in the water, you can actually swim into the caves of the cliff. The water is clear and cool, and there is a small reef not far from the shore, so bring your snorkel. On the opposite side of the beach, away from all the crowds, sits a sea wall with welcome greeting: “Welcome to Matala George.  Today is life. Tomorrow never comes.” Some say that this is a greeting to George Harrison of The Beatles.  It is unknown if George ever made it to Matala to see the greeting. Others say that George was a well-known hippie who lived in Matala.  If you are interested, I came across this post which is about Matala’s last known hippie (from the 1960s). But, one thing is for sure, this is more than just a greeting; this is a motto for life in Matala. Everyone there is seemingly living in the moment of today. It is refreshing. Matala has several sea-side taverns with a view of the beach or you may opt to walk into town where you will find several taverns, bars, and shops. We ate at Taverna Sirtaki, which was great and had an awesome view.  After lunch, we walked around town where I got a great pair of handmade sandals and some fantastic handmade jewelry from the shops in Matala. As you walk around the town, you will notice drawings on the street.  These are allegedly made by a hippie named Frankie who, like many of the part-time nomadic hippie residents, spends the summers in Matala.

We left late in the afternoon to make our way back to Chania, but we decided that on our next trip, we will come back to Matala and spend the night. Apparently, at night, when the sun goes down, the hippies appear in their VW vans and set up makeshift shops to sell their handmade jewelry for 2 Euros and smoke weed. Everyone hangs out at an open-air bar called Hakuna Matala where the drinks are cheap and served with watermelon slices.

If you are planning to visit Matala in June you should know that every year there is a huge music festival that takes place during the second or third week of June called Matala Beach Festival. During this festival, approximately 50,000 to 80,000 people descend upon the beach of Matala (where the actual festival takes place) to camp and enjoy the live music. Vendors also overtake the streets of the town. I am certain that this element brings a completely different vibe to the otherwise laid back town of Matala.

On our way back to Chania, we made an hour detour to visit the beach of Triopetra. The beach was breathtaking and empty, but the road to get there was terrifying, which is probably why it is not a touristy spot.  If you are not comfortable driving on very narrow, extremely elevated, winding, two-way mountain roads with no guardrails, I suggest that you skip this place. On the other hand, the beach, named for the three (trio) rock (petra) formation, is popular among yogis who come here for yoga retreats and believe the place to be very spiritual.

These next two images are borrowed from the internet to give you an idea of what the beach looks like.

Matala is a place that sort of stays with you. I think part of the reason is that it seems so out of place in Crete. The ethos of Matala almost reminded me of Tulum. Since returning home, I have been thinking a lot about the Matala motto. It seems like a good reminder to live in the moment. After all, isn’t life really just a series of todays?

If you make it to Matala this year or have been before, please send me an email or leave a comment and let me know if you are/were as enchanted by it as we were. It has truly become our favorite place in Crete, and we cannot wait to get back!

 

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Tikko Travels: Dorian’s Story

Guess what!  We have a new travel companion!  Meet Tikko.  Tikko is a traveling polar bear that belongs to a very special boy named Dorian.  Dorian is a 13-year old boy with Autism Spectrum Disorder (“ASD”).

Tikko travels the globe through the help of his ambassadors to raise awareness for ASD. Tikko takes a letter from Dorian outlining some of the characteristics of Autism, and an invitation to “Join the Journey” on Tikko’s Facebook page, “TIKKO TRAVELS“.

Tikko has been to a lot of places.  But Tikko came onto my radar in an unusual way.  As you may recall, I recently wrote a post about a friend whom I lost in a tragedy.  My friend had been a Tikko ambassador, taking Tikko with him on many of his adventures, his most notable being to the summit of Mount Everest.

My friend had other adventures planned for Tikko, but unfortunately, his journey with Tikko came to an end.  In honor and memory of my friend, I agreed to pick up where he left off and continue the journey with Tikko.

Tikko may not be able to top the travel tales that my friend provided to him, but he sure will get around the globe a bit with me, and, hopefully, in the process, we can do our part to accomplish Tikko’s mission of raising worldwide awareness for ASD.

I hope you will join our journey as we take Tikko to the corners of our beautiful globe to raise awareness for ASD and to remember a most extraordinary friend.

Where to next, Tikko?? GREECE!!

 

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Tulum, Mexico: A Boho Chic Paradise

In my heart, I am a wanderluster with a gypsy soul who craves a life of clean eating, knowledge through exploration, and satisfaction derived from simple pleasures. Unfortunately, my real-life and my day job are not conducive to living the life I crave. But, a short trip to Tulum gave me a taste of that life. Calling all wanderlusters, gypsy souls, boho babes, hippies, yogis, beach babes, juicers, holisitc chicks, and wannabes of the aforementioned; I have found your haven!

Tulum is the prefect escape.  If you are looking to unwind and eat your heart out, you should come here.  But, I have a confession to make. I think I may have done Tulum wrong. Don’t get me wrong, Chad and I enjoyed our trip, but I feel like we missed some of the best that Tulum has to offer, and I take full responsibility for that. Our anniversary is in April, and we always do an anniversary trip. We decided on Tulum because it had been on our “long weekend destination” list for a while, another trip we were working on for April fell through, and we needed to visit somewhere close(ish).

So, we planned our trip to Tulum as kind of a last minute getaway, during a time that both Chad and I were slammed at work. As a result, I did not do as much research as I usually do. We kind of winged it.  Kind of. We planned for our transportation to and from Tulum (because of the distance, you kind of have to), and we planned for a day trip to some of the ruins, but other than that, there was no plan. But after three days (which, by the way, is too short; you really need like 4 or 5 full days), we left Tulum feeling a little unfulfilled –like there was more to this little gem that we didn’t get to experience. Maybe that is just the pull that Tulum has on some people. In this post, I hope to help you avoid that pitfall and help you make the most of your time in Tulum.  As for Chad and I, well, I guess we will just need to go back fora do-over!

VISIT TULUM

Not surprisingly, high season in Tulum is between October and December. We went in April, which is off-season. We found the weather to be comfortable, but, we are from Miami, so we are used to warmer temperatures, and most of the hotel options were affordable. The other nice thing was that it was not as crowded. However, the seas were a little rough, and the beaches were full of seaweed when we were there.

Getting to Tulum takes some planning.  You will likely fly into Cancun airport and then drive to Tulum, which is an hour and a half drive from the airport in no traffic. The flight from Miami to Cancun was only an hour and 20 minutes, so it actually took longer for us to drive to Tulum than it took for us to get to Mexico! Depending on where you stay, some of the hotels offer transportation, or as was the case with ours, can arrange transportation at an extra cost.

Initially, we had our hotel coordinate the transportation, but it was NOT cheap. As in a couple of hundred dollars each way. So, I started doing my own research, and I found Tucan Kin. They specialize in transfers and offer the best priced options that I could find. You can request a shared ride or a private transfer, and you can book online. You can pay in cash on arrival or through PayPal. In my opinion, it is better to pay in cash (and don’t forget to account for a tip for the driver) because the rate is a little cheaper. They were very responsive to email requests and were very easy to deal with.

We scheduled a round trip transfer, and they were right on time when we got out of the airport and also right on time to pick us up for the return. We were transferred in a comfortable van with air-conditioning and a cooler of coll drinks. They also offer other transportation services for your in-country stay. We literally saved $200.00 using them, so I would highly recommend booking your transfer with them.

If you fail to plan for your transportation, expect to be solicited at the airport for a ride. Good luck with that, and I hope you have cash on had. But, if this is the situation in which you find yourself, then your best bet is to book a transfer from the transfer desk at the airport. When you arrive at the Cancun airport, you will clear customs, which was a pretty quick process, and then be directed to baggage claim.  From there, walk out the doors on the arrivals level and look for the transfer desk just to the left.  You really can’t miss it because it is a fairly small airport and it is located in the only hall you have to walk through to actually exit the airport. Expect to wait up to 30 minutes for car or van (it won’t be a taxi because they are not allowed to pick up from the airport), and the cost will be about $100 USD.   

I would not have done it on our first visit, but after visiting once, I think I would be comfortable renting a car and driving to Tulum ourselves. The roads are excellent and there is plenty of signage.  At a minimum, Chad and I would consider renting a car once we are in Tulum to drive around the town.  Otherwise, your only options are taxis (which can get expensive), walking (which isn’t always feasible due to the distance), or biking (which is probably the most common mode of transportation).

Bikes are everywhere in Tulum. They are easy to rent and cost about 150 pesos a day, which is about $8 dollars.  If you rent for multiple days, it is cheaper.  Some places will rent you scooters or 4x4s but hardly anyone we saw had rented these.  There’s a bike path from town all the way out to the beach, and the ride takes 20 to 35 minutes depending on where you’re staying along the beach road. While the road is flat, keep in mind that depending on when you go, it can be pretty hot in Tulum.

A taxi from the beach to town should be about 100 pesos (or $5.00) and up and down the beach road about 80 pesos (or $4.00), but honestly, this varied wildly depending on the cab driver.

I research car rentals when we returned and it looks like you can rent a car once you get to Tulum for under $10.00 USD per day.  This seems to be the cheapest and easiest option. The only problem I foresee is parking. There are lots up and down the Hotel Zone (see below for what that means), but they are few and far between. Also, not all hotels offer parking.

STAY TULUM

There are a lot of different options for accommodations in Tulum that span all budgets, from luxury resorts to beach tents and rustic beach huts with communal restrooms and sans electricity. Other than budget, I think the most important consideration to make is where in Tulum you want to be. There are basically two areas: Tulum Town and the Hotel Zone. If you want better prices, then you should look for properties in the town. If you want to be close to or on the water, then you should look for properties located in the Hotel Zone, which stretches for miles. A nice resort in off-season is about $300.00 USD per night.

We stayed at Maria Del Mar Tulum which is located in the Hotel Zone, probably about halfway between the Tulum Ruins and the town and the stretch of the Hotel Zone where most of the restaurants are located. The location was good, but (as with most accommodations) we still needed a cab to get to most restaurants and shops and a cab to go to the town. The hotel is fairly new.  It has an on-property restaurant called Mina, which is the sister-restaurant to the popular Casa Banana (more on the restaurants below). The hotel had its own little boutique, but right outside of the hotel therewere a few cute shops. A convenience store, a bike rental shop, an ATM, an exchange station, and some other causal eateries are located literally across the street and, in some case, just a few steps from the hotel. The draw for us was 1) it had air-conditioning and electricity, 2) it was on the water, and 3) it is adults only! We stayed in the room on the right hand corner on the second level in the picture below, so we had an ocean view from the front and the side of our room. The room comes with a beach bag to use while you are there, which was very helpful, and their toiletries were amazing, all organic, and smelled like heaven. The staff was friendly. Housekeeping replenished the bottle water that was provided for brushing your teeth daily and accommodated requests for extra pillows. The hotel also helped with reservations to restaurants and rental of snorkel equipment. They also offered yoga every morning for an extra price and could arrange in-room massage services.

The other hotels that are on my list of places to stay in Tulum include Sanara (home of the my favorite breakfast restaurant of all time- The Real Coconut), Nomade, Nest (this one gets GREAT reviews), Be Tulum (the most expensive option at $500+ USD per night), and Ana y Jose.

SEE TULUM

Tulum is not just all beach. I mean, you could just do the beach and nothing else, but we live in a beach destination, so the beach is never really the main attraction for us. There are a lot of things to see and do in and around Tulum. If we were going to the Yucatan, we were going to see arguably the most famous ruins in the region, Chichen Itza. But, they aren’t close. Indeed most of the ruins, except for the Tulum ruins, are an hour or more away. So, we hired Experiencias Riviera Maya. They offer a wide range of private day tour options and were the most responsive and reasonably priced operator I found.

We booked a day trip from Tulum to Chichen Itza, Akumal Bay, and the Tulum ruins. They were very professional and responsive from the start, quickly answering emails and working with us to customize our itinerary. They offered the best pricing and were accommodating to changes in our schedule. On the day of the tour, they were right on time for our (very early) pick up in a large, clean, and comfortable van with air-conditioning and a cooler of cold water and snacks, which is important because it is a long drive. The driver was professional, and the guide was great and spoke perfect English. They were willing to accommodate stops for restrooms, snacks, etc. They got us to Chichen Itza just as it opened to avoid the crowds (and it does get very crowded). They gave us a tour of the ruins at Chichen Itza and Tulum and allowed time for independent exploration. They were always right on time and in the exact meeting spot that was selected. I plan to book other excursions with them the next time we are in Tulum.

Ruins

If you want to get off the beach, there are plenty of day trips available from Tulum. For our first trip, we chose Chichen Itza and the Tulum Ruins. Chichen Itza is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  It was a sacred, mythical Mayan site and was one of the greatest and largest Mayan centers of the Yucatán peninsula. Just an FYI, you are no longer allowed to climb this pyramid. The most surprising thing we saw at Chichen Itza is that they allow a regular ole’ flea market to operate within the grounds of the ruins. Hundreds of vendors set up selling all kinds of trinkets, art, t-shirts, magnets, and other souvenirs. If you are going to buy them, this is as good a place as any. You can haggle on the price, and it is cheaper than the shops in Tulum (including the downtown shops), but you need to pay cash. Also, who doesn’t want to buy a Mexican souvenir, from a Mexican, in Mexico, wearing a Mexican sombrero?!? Nobody!From there we made a stop in Akumal Bay to swim with the sea turtles. Akumal Bay is a small town between Playa del Carmen and Tulum on the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico. While there were some sea turtles, I would skip this. First it is uber touristy. The beaches are very crowded because there are a lot of resorts here. The best part of Akumal Bay was this bar with swings. I love swings. But even this bar would only serve guests of its resort, so it was a fail. Seriously, just skip Akumal Bay. Go to a cenote instead (see below for what that means).Our last stop was to the Tulum Ruins. After seeing Chichen Itza, the Tulum Ruins weren’t as impressive, BUT they are right on the water. So, you can visit the ruins and walk down to the beach for a swim, which is pretty cool. On our next trip, we plan to visit Ek’ Balam, Coba (where you can actually climb up the ruins), and the enchanting little town of Valladolid.

Cenotes

Tulum is surrounded by cenotes, which are collapsed limestone caves that are very common throughout the Yucatan peninsula and are great for fresh water swimming. The Mayans considered them sacred waters. Because of our limited time, we did not visit a cenote, which begs the questions, did we even go to Tulum if we didn’t go to a cenote? Probably not. This is yet another reason why we need to get back to Tulum. So, all the photos of them below are borrowed from the internet so you get an idea about what a cenote is and why you need to visit one (or three).

El Gran Cenote is the most famous in the region. Other popular cenotes include Cenote Agua Dulce (near Valladolid), Cenote Palomitas (also near Valladolid), Cenote Ik Kil (some consider this one the most beautiful), Cenote Dos Ojos (near Tulum), and Cenote Sac Actun.  You could literally do a tour of just cenotes. You can swim in them, snorkel in them, and for some, dive or zip-line.  Other cenotes that are close to Tulum include Manatee, Carwash, Zacil Ha, and Crystal and Escondido. I even found a blog post dedicated just to cenotes.

If you don’t visit a cenote as part of a tour, you can get a cab tell the driver where you want to go.  Some people recommended paying the taxi to wait for you so you have a way to get back to Tulum. This is where renting a car for the day is a good idea!

If you are looking for other water-based activities (other than Akumal Bay), you can also look into visiting Contoy Island and Isla de Mujeres, but I suspect that they are a little touristy, like Akumal Bay, except full of day tourists coming on boats. You are probably better off visiting the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve.

Sian Ka’an Biosphere Preserve, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is a massive biosphere reserve near Tulum. Part of the reserve is on land and part is in the Caribbean Sea, including a section of coral reef. Five species of cat are found in the reserve, including the jaguar and puma, as well as the tapir and a wide range of bird species, turtles, dolphins, manatees, and crocodiles. The reserve also includes 23 known archaeological sites of the Mayan civilization, the most famous being the Castillo. Apparently, there are only a couple of operators who tour this area, but I found a guide on how to do it alone here.

Wellness

You can’t throw a rock in Tulum without hitting a yoga spot. Yoga is everywhere in this town. Tulum is a yoga mecca. Pretty much every hotel offers yoga, and people who aren’t staying at the various yoga retreats can still join the yoga classes. Sanara had a great yoga studio with a lot of class options. But, if we are being honest, I am not much of a yogi. I much prefer Pilates, barre, and a good HIIT class, so I found this post that gives you some insight on the yoga scene.

Juicing is also big in Tulum.  You can pretty much get a fresh juice everywhere. My favorite was at The Real Coconut.  They had one of the largest and most comprehensive juice menus I have ever seen.  I also heard that Posada Margherita made a mean green juice as well. There are also no shortages of spas in Tulum. While I did not get to visit one this time, when I return, the spa at Coqui Coqui is on my list. In addition to their spa, I really really want to visit their perfume shop! The Mayan Clay Spa is also supposed to be very nice and one of the more affordable options.

EAT TULUM

One of the main reasons to come to Tulum is to eat (especially for vegetarians and vegans).  This is also the number one reason that I need to go back to Tulum. We simply did not have enough time to eat at all the places on my list. At this stage in the post, you should know that my favorite breakfast spot was The Real Coconut.  The views were amazing and the food was incredible, especially considering that it is all grain free, gluten free, dairy free, and free of refined sugars! I was in heaven! Chad was dreading it, but even he will admit that the food was tasty! It also had the best and most tasty juices, but it was NOT cheap. Breakfast was approximately $80.00. Whatever. It was worth it. We also tried Casa Banana for breakfast because it is kind of a Tulum institution, but, I have to say, I liked The Real Coconut better. Also, this place (like a lot of local places in Tulum) was cash only, which was kind of annoying considering how touristy it is and considering that its sister restaurant, Mina, takes credit cards.  We kept hearing over and over that Be Tulum also had an amazing breakfast, so that is on our list for next time.

For dinner, we tried Kitchen Table one of the nights, and it was good, but also cash only. Overall, I left Tulum feeling like I didn’t really eat at the places that I wanted to try.  These places include Cenzontle Secret Garden, which has a traditional Mexican menu and looked so stinking cute! The one night we went, there was a line out the door! For modern Mexican, Gitano is also supposed to be great.
Also, the famous Hartwood was closed (for Easter weekend) when we were there, and that was high on my list! Hartwood is  an open-air spot famed for fresh, local ingredients cooked on an open fire and wood burning oven and grill. Reservations are now possible, but still difficult to get as they do not consistently respond to emails. Your best bet is to line up around 3:00 p.m. to secure a table for the evening. But if you do not, I hear Arca is just as good!

Wild is fairly new and is getting great reviews. It is a Mediterranean/Mexican fusion restaurant. Another legend in Tulum is Posada Margherita, an Italian place. Who goes to Mexico and eats Italian food? Apparently, everyone. It was the most recommended restaurant. Another place that was frequently recommended was Casa Jaguar.

We also made a special trip into downtown Tulum just to eat at Cetli, a traditional local Mexican restaurant that serves Oaxacan fare, only to find that it too was closed! We were there on Easter weekend, so that might have been the reason. We were, however, able to score a reservation at Noma, which is currently operating a pop-up restaurant in Tulum while their restaurant in Copenhagen is undergoing renovation.

Noma has been the number one restaurant in the world basically forever. It is on every single foodie’s bucket list of restaurants. I refuse to die before I eat here. I almost peed my pants when I got the email saying we got a reservations. And then, they disclosed the price, which made me want to poop my pants. Dinner for two was going to cost $1,500.00 USD. Chad and I literally held a family meeting over this. Ultimately, we decided that $1,500.00 for dinner (which cost more than our flights and hotel combined for the weekend) was ridiculous, and in an email to the restaurant, I explained to them that while it hurt my heart to not visit and experience Noma Tulum, we just didn’t feel right spending that kind of money on a meal in a place where the average daily wage is $15.00. Instead, we plan to visit the flagship in Copenhagen one day (if we can ever get a reservation again), where the meal will be (slightly) cheaper. If you are planning on Noma, here is what you need to know.

If you are after truly local fare, then Chamico’s (known as a secret fish shack) is the place to be. Get to this hidden spot by heading north from Tulum on Highway 307 past the ruins.  You will see a sign on the right for Jashita Hotel. Turn right onto the unpaved road across from Oscar & Lalo’s and driving to the end. There is no menu, but they have fresh caught fish and great views.

Other local favorites include the cochinita pibil at Taquería Honorio, a traditional Mayan breakfast at Don Cafeto (one of Tulum’s oldest restaurants), tacos al pastor at Antojitos La Chiapaneca (a street-side stand in downtown where you can get tacos for $.50), and the best tacos at Taqueria La Eufemia, which invites you to “relax and eat some fucking tacos.” Okay, you don’t have to ask me twice!

The point is, there are no shortages of options here. From fine dining to local eats, there is something for every palate and budget in Tulum, and most of them are cute and insta-worthy.

SHOP TULUM

Tulum has some of the cutest boutiques selling caftans, handmade jewelry, dream catchers, and hammocks, but if you plan to shop here, bring your cash and non-American Express credit cards, because things are NOT cheap here. In fact, they are downright overpriced. That being said, the shops are still the cutest road-side, sandy-floored, bohemian dreams I have ever seen. Other than the perfumes at Coqui Coqui, the one thing I wish I would have brought back is a beautiful, handmade dream catcher. If you want to buy one too, there was a shop directly across from our hotel that sold them for about $30.00 (all cash) or you could go into downtown and get them from the shops there for way cheaper than at the shops in the Hotel Zone.

KNOW TULUM

So here is what you need to know before visiting Tulum:

  1. Cash is king. A lot of restaurants, local vendors, and all cabs only take cash.
  2. Get pesos. You can get them from home before you go, at the airport, or at change stations throughout Tulum (although this is probably not the best rate). There are ATMs in the Hotel Zone, but I am not sure how reliable they are.
  3. DO NOT DRINK THE WATER. The hotels will provide you with bottled water for brushing your teeth, and all the restaurants used filtered water for ice.
  4. Bring sunscreen and bug spray.
  5. Leave your heels and wedges at home. This is not a place to dress up, even at dinner. It is a very relaxed and laid-back vibe, and the dress code reflects that.
  6. Everyone pretty much speaks English in the hotels, restaurants, sites, and shops. To communicate with most of the cab drivers, you are going to need to know basic Spanish.
  7. When people refer to “the Jungle” they mean across the street from the beach; not an actual jungle.

Anyway, I hope you have found this post informative and that it helps you maximize your time in Tulum. I know I am going to use it to plan our next trip to this beach-side paradise.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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London: Highlights of the Queen’s Land

If you have ever thought about crossing the pond to visit London, now is the time. London is Europe’s New York. It is a city that never sleeps with 24-hour restaurants and lots to do.  It has history, sites, world class museums, an dynamic dining and foodie scene, theater, and some of the best shopping. It is surprisingly walkable. The whole country speaks English (obviously). And, contrary to popular belief, the weather is pleasant (when Chad and I were there it only rained one time and only for a few short hours in the afternoon). It is perfect for families (i.e., European Spring Break anyone??), for couples, for girls’ trips, for solo travelers, for first-timers to international travel, and for long weekends. That’s right, I am suggesting you go to Europe for a long weekend. Why not? You are going to live those days anyway, might as well live them at a destination. But here is the best part: it’s affordable!! I bet you never thought that London and affordable would be used together in the same sentence where affordable was the adjective for London. But, thanks to Brexit, the pound is not that much more expensive than the Euro. Couple that with fairly affordable flights (I’ve seen them as low as in the $400s), a plentiful range of hotel and Airbnb options, reliable public transportation and Uber, and tons of free things to do around the city, and you have the makings of an epic vacation.

SEE 

The best way to “meet” a city is to get out and walk it. But, where are you going? What are you looking at? I am a firm believer in hiring a private local guide to introduce you to the city.  I like this to be the first full day experience. As you might expect, London is full of city tours, and hop-on-hop off buses, but I am not about that life. I do not want to be herded like cattle. I want personalized attention and the freedom to tailor my experience to my tastes and preferences.  I want Charley from London Tailored Tours, and, trust me, so do you. Charley knows London, and she loves London. She is passionate about sharing her city with you.  She is also a stand-up comedian, so she’s pretty entertaining. She has a range of tour options (city, royal, food, shopping, sports, Harry Potter) or she will create and itinerary for you. She is also very responsive both during booking and after you take her tour. She’s like a personal concierge. She will communicate with you while you are in London to help you with restaurant recommendations, things to do, even directions! You leave her tour as friends.

Chad and I chose the Best of London in a Day, but because we like to eat, we also added parts of the Borough Market Food Tour and then we threw in some off menu items as well.  Charley was happy to accommodate. We waited in zero lines.  She had pre-planned the tour and pre-bought our attraction tickets which saved a lot of time and allowed us to pack it all in. Also, she knows her way around Borough Market.  She knows the best vendors, and they give personalized attention when you show up with Charley.

First, Charley took us to meet Ben.  He lives in the Houses of Parliament and is one of London’s most iconic landmarks. He was as handsome as advertised, and she got us there just as he began to chime! Here are a few interesting facts: Big Ben is the name of the bell inside the clock tower, and not the name of the clock tower itself; the origin of the name Big Ben is unknown; and unfortunately, overseas visitors cannot visit the clock tower. On the way there, she told us about the London Eye, which is located on the South Bank of the River Thames and is view-able from the Westminster Bridge. It is Europe’s tallest Ferris wheel, and it offered the highest public viewing point in London until it was superseded by the 804 feet observation deck on the 72nd floor of The Shard, which opened to the public in February 2013. It is the most popular paid tourist attraction in the U.K.From there we proceeded to Westminster Abbey, final resting place of several notable Brits and most famously known for royal weddings! From there, we took the garden route to the palace, where we happened upon the filming of the Netflix series The Crown. Charley timed our visit perfectly so that we would catch the changing of the guard. If you didn’t know any better, you would think that this was it, and you’d miss the whole thing! The changing of the guard ceremony actually starts here and it is filled with A LOT more pomp and circumstance than these beautiful black horses and fashionably tassel-headed men! It starts with a band and then there is a whole lot of procession! We got the pom-pom hats! And the red coats! And it culminates in a parade around Buckingham Palace!
Unfortunately, Buckingham Palace was not open to visitors when we were there, but it is at different times of the year. Charley told us an interesting tale of Michael Fagan, a palace intruder who made it all the way into the Queen’s bedroom. Nonetheless, the palace is lovely to admire from the outside, but is not quite as impressive as you may imagine it to be. While London Bridge may be falling down, Tower Bridge is as majestic as ever and is the gateway to visiting the Tower of London.

MUSEUMS 

While Westminster Abbey and the Tower of London are not free, the British Museum, the National Gallery, and the Tate are totally free to visit (and totally worth a visit). So, if you happen to find yourself in London on a rainy day, these are great options.

If you want to see the crown jewels, you have to go to the Tower of London. Entertaining tours of the Tower of London complex are given by the Yeoman Warders, commonly known as Beefeaters, of which there is just one woman, and she is famous. You are on your own to see the jewels, and it is a pretty quick little exhibit, culminating in this beauty: If you like contemporary and modern art, then head to the Tate. But if you only have the time (or the patience) to visit one art museum, make it the National Gallery. If you like Monet and van Gogh, then this is the place for you. An art lover could spend the whole day (or several days) there, but if you want just the highlights, here are the 8 best, the 10 best, the 30 best, and the 100 best. These are my personal favorites: If art is not your thing or you only have the time (or patience) for one museum, then make it the British Museum. Pack your patience because in addition to being free, this museum is large and very popular, so it is a mad house inside.  I suggest getting there right before it opens at 10:00 a.m. when the lines to get in are not that bad and have a plan of attack. Here is a list of the 7 best things at the museum, which I don’t necessarily agree with since it excludes the 2 most interesting artifacts: the Elgin Marbles and the Rosetta Stone. Here is list of the top 10 artifacts.  Or you can plan your visit based on how much time you have to spend: 1 hour versus 3 hours Our visit was focused on seeing the Parthenon Marbles, because unfortunately, Greeks have to go to London to see artifacts that belong in Greece. The Parthenon Marbles, more commonly known as the Elgin Marbles, are a collection of Classical Greek marble sculptures that were originally part of the temple of the Parthenon and other buildings on the Acropolis of Athens. In the 19th century, Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin removed about half of the surviving sculptures of the Parthenon, as well as sculptures from the Propylaea and Erechtheum and transported them to Britain. Apparently, he got a permit from the Ottoman Empire to remove the marbles, but if you ask Greeks, he stole them.  The British government later purchased them from Elgin and displayed them in a museum. After gaining its independence from the Ottoman Empire, Greece began a series of projects to restore its monuments, and has expressed its disapproval of Elgin’s removal of the Marbles from the Acropolis and the Parthenon, which is regarded as one of the world’s greatest cultural monuments. Naturally, Greece disputes the subsequent purchase of the Marbles by the British Government and urges the return of the marbles to Greece for their unification. This disagreement has been ongoing ever since.  The British government has given numerous excuses over the years for why they won’t return the marbles, including that Greece did not have a proper place to display and care for them.  So, Greece built the Acropolis Museum and has left a big open space for the marbles homecoming. Interestingly, most Brits believe that the marbles should be returned.

Also, don’t miss the Rosetta Stone and the statue from Easter Island.

EAT

No visit to London would be complete without a stop at Borough Market. it is, after all, Britain’s most renowned food market. It is s a wholesale and retail food market, and is one of the largest and oldest food markets in London. It has over 100 stalls (these stalls are highly coveted and rarely turn over; and, when they do, hundreds of vendors vie for the spot) and sells everything from fruit, veggies, meats, chocolate, oysters, flowers, and spices.  The pub culture is strong in the U.K., so you kind of have to visit a local pub to get a true flavor of the city.  You can stop for a casual meal or just for pints.

And, you simply cannot leave London without first having fish and chips.  It’s like the national dish. If you want fine dining, then there is no lack of options.  The city is teeming with Michelin starred restaurants and hard to snag reservations. We chose Pollen Street Social and Restaurant Story, both of which need to be reserved well in advance. But if you’ve got a sweet tooth and an affinity for pink, then it’s Peggy Porschen for the win. You can visit the cafe for some sweet treats, tea, and coffee, or you can join one of their baking classes. While these are thought to be the best cupcakes in London (some would say ever), I am not sure I agree (certainly not the best ever). Don’t get me wrong, they are good.  But best might be a stretch. They are cute though and the shop probably is one of the more adorable ones.

TEA

If you go to London and you don’t do an afternoon tea, did you even go to London?  Tea is the lifeblood of the entire country. It is like a big deal. Plus, even if you don’t love tea, it is a fun experience. There are several tea houses to choose from.  We did two.  We did a more traditional afternoon tea at the Goring Hotel, where Princess Kate had her tea before her wedding:We also did an afternoon tea at Fortnum and Mason, the grocer to the royals. While it is the more touristy option, I recommend the one at Fortnum and Mason. First, the Diamond Jubilee Tea Salon is darling. Second, the tea selection is mind blowing. Third, the service is top-notch and the staff is uber knowledgeable about the teas and their origins.  They are also very good at answering all of your questions and helping you make a selection. Finally, the food from the menu items, to the tea sandwiches, to the scones, to the desserts are amazing.  It is all you can eat and drink.  They serve bubbly and beer. And, they will even pack you a doggy bag of treats to take with you. 

SHOP

When it comes to shopping, it is all here, and, non-EU citizens can take advantage of the Value Added Tax Refund.

If you are looking for unique gifts to take home, shop Fortnum and Mason’s multi level retail store where you will find sweets and teas that make the perfect gift! If you are after high-end fashions, then Harrods is the obvious choice. Hell, the store is a destination in and of itself, so even if you aren’t going to shop, it is worth a visit.  It is the most impressive department store that I have ever been in, including all the ones in Paris. The first floor is miles of handbags and beauty counter. Each floor thereafter is themed: women’s fashions, men’s fashions, children’s fashions, home decor, furniture, electronics, jewelry, and ENTIRE floor of shoes for women, a floor of the most opulent perfumes, and then the food halls! A floor of dozens of edible choices, a gourmet grocer, an unparalleled wine and spirits shop, and a cigar specialty store. It is impressive, and this is coming from a world class shopper.

Also, do not forget to visit the ground floor where you will find a memorial to Princess Diana and Dodi Fayed. But if you prefer to stroll charming little streets lined with posh boutiques and a quaint little flea market, then a visit to Notting Hill and the Portobello Market is in order.  So there you have it. As you would expect, London offers everything you could ever want in a city vacation – no matter what your particular tastes, interests or budget may be – and, best of all, you can do it all in as little as a long weekend! So, do yourself a favor and hop across the pond and see for yourself. Cheerio!

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Living Life To The Fullest: In Memory Of A Friend And Great Adventurer

“I can’t believe that we would lie in our graves, wondering if we had spent our living days well.”

Lyrics from Lie In Our Graves, Dave Matthews Band.

You always hear these adages, encouraging you to live life to the fullest.  To live with no regrets.  But what does that really mean, and, honestly, how many of us really heed that advice? How many people do we know that actually live these full lives?

I recently lost a friend in a tragic and unexpected way.  To me, he was the living embodiment of what it means to live life to the fullest, and to never take a single day for granted.  He was the one person I knew that lived these truths.

Neither my friend’s identity nor the details of his death are important.  What is important is the person that he was.  He was the kind of guy that had seemingly lived 100 interesting lives.  I met him 10 years ago in law school.  We were in the same section, and, if you know anything about law school, you know that means that we spent the next year together because we had the exact same schedule– every class, every day for a whole year. We bonded over our mutual love for travel and for animals, dogs specifically.

He was the kind of guy that basically excelled at everything he did, but not in an annoying way. In an inspiring way. He attended the Portuguese Air Force Academy where he graduated first in his class. He had a career as a military pilot and as an airline pilot for one of the largest airline companies in the U.S.  He was an accomplished private, commercial, instrument and ATP rated pilot as well as a Gold Seal Flight Instructor. He once told me that he enrolled in law school as a result of a bet/dare from his wife.  True to form, he was accepted to the best law school in the State of Florida and graduated second in our class, booking almost every class he took (non-lawyer translation: at the end of every class in law school, they give out an award (often endowed), called a book award, to the person who has the highest grade in that class). I always wondered if finishing second annoyed him since he was so used to being first.

He had an affinity for adventure and speed.  He loved fast (German) cars and fast motorcycles, and had both. He also loved to fly. He was the only person I knew in law school who had a plane, and that includes the faculty and staff.  He loved taking his fellow classmates up in the plane.  Two of my girlfriends and I once flew to his home to meet his wife and puppies (all 5 of them) and have dinner.  He let me take control and fly the plane on the way back, which was so exciting because I had never before (or since) flown a plane.  I saw a light in the distance and told him that he should probably resume control of the plane since there was some air traffic up ahead.  He laughed and said, “That’s not a plane, Anastasia; that’s a planet!” Whoops!

He was the kind of guy that always had time for conversation (especially if the conversation was a debate). He as not afraid to take a position, even an unpopular one, and he stood by his convictions. He believed in himself. He was also the kind of guy that never said no. He was always willing to help.  If you were struggling to understand a concept, he would take time and explain it to you the way he understood it.  I sat next to him for an entire month during our bar preparation course, which I was in charge of running.  He was early every morning, ready to help. He was an authentic and genuine soul.

After law school, we kept in touch through Facebook.  He briefly worked at a law firm, but hated the structure, so he started his own firm with his wife who was already a lawyer. He also provided safety consulting services to the offshore and land-based oil and gas industry. In his spare time, he volunteered his time and his plane to provide free air transportation to financially distressed people with medical needs and to health care organizations through a non-profit charitable organization.

As a law school graduation gift, his wife got him a climbing trip to Kilimanjaro.  He was certainly no stranger to travel or to adventure. He  was a skydiver, mountain biker, sea-kayaker, and scuba diver. But, I think this gift began his love for the climb. My law school friends and I followed his travels on social media, and every time I would open Facebook, he would be in some other corner of the world, conquering some unimaginable feat.  Waldo had nothing on this guy.

Over the course of two and a half years, he completed the Seven Summits Challenge.  That means that he summited the highest mountain on each of the seven continents: Mount Everest in Asia, the Aconcagua in South America, Denali in North America, Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa (twice), Mount Elbrus in Europe, Vinson in Antarctica, and Puncak Jaya in New Guinea (Australia).  Because there is a debate about whether Mount Kosciuszko or Puncak Jaya is the tallest in Australia, he climbed both. I teasingly told him that I would be impressed only after he also summited K2. He matter-of-factly told me that he already summited the highest mountain in Asia and the world. Touche.

In between climbing mountains, he had some other pretty epic adventures, including gorilla trekking in Uganda and Rwanda, expeditions to Antarctica, and 100s of “trips of a lifetime” to the Galapagos Islands, Australia, South America, North America, Europe, Asia, and Africa. It seems he that he always immersed himself with the locals wherever he went, and he always found dogs to love all over the world. His pictures are National Geographic amazing, because he was, of course, a professional level photographer. He was my travel icon, and we often compared notes on travel, although my travels paled in comparison to his.

On the rare occasion that he wasn’t off on some bucket list journey, he spent time at his second home in the Bahamas, which he built and dedicated to his squad of adorable Cavalier King Charles Spaniels.  In my next life, if I can’t come back as him, I want to come back as one of his dogs. He would load up the pups in his plane, put the  protective earmuffs on them, and fly them down to their island home, Sandy Paws. They would spend time exploring the island in their golf cart and taking to the seas in their boat, the Barkardi. He and his dogs would go paddle-boarding. These dogs live a charmed life, and I loved it.

He got involved in a local charity in the Bahamas that built homes for and fed stray Potcake dogs on the island, which is a mixed breed dog commonly found on the Caribbean Islands.  He flew plane loads of supplies to the island from the States to support this cause and the these dogs. He loved all animals and our environment, but he especially loved dogs. He had tattoos of the face of every one of his dogs on his body. I judge the greatness of a person by the way they treat animals, and he was one of the greatest.

The last country he visited was Bolivia, where he was hiking up a volcano. Before he died, he was working on completing the Explorers Grand Slam, which he planned to start next month. That involves skiing to both the North and South poles. I am sad that such a great adventurer will never get to complete this feat.

He was truly the most interesting person I have ever known (and probably will ever know). His life was remarkable, inspirational, and one that deserves celebration. He lived life to the fullest. The last time I spoke to my friend was on March 15.  He died four days later.  I never got to tell him how much I admired him, and for that I am sorry.

As news of his death spread, his Facebook wall was loaded with pictures and messages of condolences from people around the world. Literally, around the world: his climbing friends, his Island friends, his local community, his law school friends, even people who had met him once in passing.  It is amazing to see the impact and reach that one person had on so many. The messages are similar: “amazing man”, “great human”, “inspiring person”, “authentic”, ” positive, fun-loving and gregarious” “remarkable and wonderful[ly] accomplish[ed]”. In times where humanity can’t seem to agree on anything, scores of people from different cultures, races, and religions seemingly agreed: he was good people.

They say all dogs god to heaven, and if that is true, on March 19, heaven’s dogs met their greatest angel.  I hope that he is resting peacefully in heaven, surrounded by dogs, gazing over the highest and most amazing peaks. I hope he died feeling like he spent his living days well. 

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