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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Luang Prabang, Laos: A UNESCO World Heritage Centre

Chances are that Luang Prabang, Laos (pronounced Lao, without the “s” at the end) is not on your travel list (it wasn’t on ours), but it should be.  There is something spiritual about this little city that just mesmerizes you. We actually had some of the most memorable cultural encounters in little-known Luang Prabang. We came to Luang Prabang on the recommendation of our travel agent, and I am sure glad we did.

I am almost hesitant to write this post.  I kind of want to keep Luang Prabang a secret and all to myself and those who have discovered it. Luang Prabang has a small village hippie vibe. It is a backpacker’s paradise. It is considered the best preserved city in Southeast Asia, which also earned it its designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Centre. Unlike other major Asian cities, the pace of life in Luang Prabang is slower and the scenery more rural. We spent three days there, but Luang Prabang is the kind of place that you think you only need three days for, but wish you had a little more. In fact, a lot of people we met along the way came to Luang Prabang with the intention of staying a few days, but extended their trip for several more days, or, in some cases, weeks.

Before you go, you should know that a visa is required for U.S. citizens who visit the People’s Democratic Republic of Laos. To get a visa, your passport must have 6 months of availability on it, and you must have two blank pages available for the visa. You can purchase the visa at the airport upon arrival, but, I strongly recommend you get a visa before you come as many visitors purchase the visa on arrival or are unaware of the visa requirement and then purchase upon arrival.  Since most people are in line for visas, the lines can get quite long. If you purchase a visa on arrival, you get a 30-day visa.  If you pre-buy the visa, you get a 60-day visa. Since we already had visas, we bypassed all that mess and went right through customs in a matter of mere minutes, with no lines at all.

We stayed at the Luang Say Residence, which is a colonial-style boutique luxury hotel set in a lush tropical garden. The hotel is very tranquil and serves an excellent American-style breakfast.  The property is also worth exploring. We arrived in Luang Prabang just in time to visit the night market. Apparently, there are a lot of unexploded ammunition left over from the Indochina and Vietnam wars. The locals take these wartime leftovers, turn them into keepsakes and jewelry, and sell them at the local markets.  We had some action packed days in Luang Prabang! Along the way, during our all-too-short time in this magical little place, we had some very meaningful experiences and encounters with locals.

On our first full day, a visit to the Pak Ou Caves was on the itinerary.  The Pak Ou Caves are about two hours by boat from Luang Prabang.  So, to get there, we had to first board our very own slow boat, which was an adventure in and of itself.  Check out the gang plank we had to walk: On the two hour journey down the peaceful Mekong River, we got to see a lot of rural everyday life along its banks. After a couple hours, we arrived at the caves! The caves overlook the Mekong River and are  hidden in a mountain side.  Inside the caves are hundreds of old Buddha statues. There is something very spiritual and peaceful about climbing into a cave full of treasure! Little golden Buddhas glittered from every corner.  The caves are guarded by monks… After our visit to the caves, we stopped at a local village, the Muangkeo Village, to try rice whiskey. We came to a village where we were greeted by an older woman who makes the rice whiskey at her home. Rice whiskey in clay barrels: I’m not gonna sugarcoat this part– the village rice whiskey is not smooth. It is unlikely to ever win any tasting awards. It tastes like liquid fire. But it’s all part of the experience, so, by all means, drink up!

We stayed a bit to explore the village and meet the local people. Walking through this village, which only got electricity the year before we arrived, you get the sense that it is set up as a cultural stop for tourists looking for a village experience. There were several “shops” where locals sold handicrafts and I questioned whether they were really made by these particular locals. The best part about this visit was stopping in at the local school house, where we got a chance to visit the local children at school. They were so cute that we ran out into the market and bought them all snacks. Word gets around fast in this little village because the next thing you know, little kids were coming out of everywhere lining up for their snack! It was like Christmas came early for these little kids! They were so happy and appreciative that they sang us songs as they ran around eating their treats! At last it was time to bid adieu to our new village friends and get back into town. After a long day on the Mekong, we came back into Luang Prabang to visit the museum and have some lunch.During lunch, we saw a group of monks crossing a make-shift bridge.  We decided to follow them and explore the temple on the other side. By the way, the reason why this bridge seems so ill-constructed is because it only exists for several months. Every rainy season it is destroyed by flooding, so, every year, they construct a new ramshackle bridge to replace the one destroyed the year before. The next day started way before dawn! This was probably my favorite day because we got to do three very cool things that gave us a more authentic experience. The first, and probably my favorite, is that we got to participate in the daily ritual of givings alms (or thanks) to the monks. This is a sacred ceremonial tradition in Laos, and our guide set it up so that we could not only witness it, but participate in it.

This ritual takes place a sunrise in the streets of Luang Prabang, but you have to get there way before that to secure a spot and set up. Our local guide set up our mats and brought our offerings for us.As the sun rises in Luang Prabang, around 200 Buddhist monks depart from their various temples to gather their daily meal (as monks only eat once per day). All the food that is collected is shared by the monks of each temple.

There are many rules to both attending and participating in this ritual, but the most important is that it is a silent ritual, so you are not supposed to talk, break up, or follow the processional. If you are giving alms, you must be dressed modestly, you must kneel, and must remove your socks and shoes, and you must not touch the monks. You typically sit on the floor to give your alms as the monks pass you by. Offerings are typically rice and fruits.  We had traditional offerings, but we also brought along some American treats, like peanut butter, almonds, and snack bars, which the monks were very excited to receive.  The monks carry a large bowl which they keep open, and you place your offering in their bowl as they pass by. This processional goes quickly and there are a lot of monks, so you need to be on your game, as they will not stop and wait for you.  Here’s a pro tip: when you get your big bowl of sticky rice, roll it into balls so you are ready make an offering at lightning speed!  At the end of the processional, the monks line up in front of their temple and chant a prayer before heading into their temple to share their food and eat their daily meal.

After the ceremony was over, we were invited to explore the inside of one of the temples. First, we left an offering of sticky rice in the tree. When the locals visit the temples, they typically bring an offering of marigolds, and our guide came prepared.  She gave us this beautiful cone of marigolds that we offered to the temple. Our next order of business was to go to the morning market and buy all the ingredients we would need in order to cook a traditional meal at our guide’s home which we would share with her family. She gave us our lists and our money, and we were on our way.The morning markets are fascinating.  They are a great way to get a glimpse of everyday life and interact with the locals.  There is an array of fresh vegetables, fruits, and fish on display. And then there are these: Insects and snakes?? My adventurous spirit only goes so far… No thanks!

After our shopping was done, we went into to town for a different kind of shopping, which leads me to the second coolest thing we did on this day: a visit to a Hmong village! We were so intrigued with our cultural village visit, that we asked our guide to take us to a true local Hmong village that is not set up for tourists. Before we went, we stopped off at a local market to purchase snacks and educational materials to give to the children, and then we were off.

On the nearly hour-long drive, we got to see some more rural areas of Luang Prabang.We arrived at the village with our goodies in tow! The Hmong are an ethnic group that live up in the mountains. There is a long history of persecution of these people, which you can read more about here. But, we were here to visit the children of this ethnic village, and help them practice their English!The children were so excited to receive their treats and clapped along as we sang the English ABCs. They were very curious and excited to see Western tourists in their village. We happened to visit when UNICEF was there for the purpose of vaccinating the children. They come once a year to hold a vaccine clinic and provide basic medical care to rural populations of children.On the way back from the village, we stopped at the famed Kuang Si Falls. These falls, while certainly not as large as Victoria Falls (which we visited the year before in Zimbabwe), are stunning in their own different way.  They are a series of smaller falls that collect in beautiful turquoise pools.  The cost to get into the park is about $2.50 per person. There are a series of trails and bridges that you can use to walk among the falls. You can even swim in them, although when we were there in late November, the water was cold; but that didn’t stop this spectacle.  Allow me to introduce you to the Amazing Asian Man, with whom I fell in love. Not only was he wearing a magnificently small Speedo, but he would climb up to a tree or rock, strike a pose, and demand that his friends photograph him before he jumped into the water.  I was mesmerized by this creature, and he has inspired in me a book idea! After studying this jewel for a very long time, we made our way over to the bear sanctuary on property. These black bears are an endangered species because their bile is used by the Chinese for medicinal purposes. This sanctuary rescues them and houses 23 bears. I love animals, so I just loved watching these bears roam and play.Our next stop was to Ok Pop Tok to get our weave on! Ok Pop Tok is a living crafts center set in the jungle on the Mekong River. It teaches traditional weaving techniques in demonstration style classes or you can sign up for half day, full day, or multi-day classes. You can even stay on the property while you attend classes. They have a shop that follows fair trade principles and have Village Weaver Projects, where their weavers work with local NGOs to teach skills to artisans in villages in 11 different provinces, using their knowledge of the market to help villagers make a better living from their handicrafts, as well as buying, selling and promoting their products.

We came for a half-day class where we learned about the different fabrics, how the dyes are made using natural ingredients, how to create and then to dye the fabrics, and how to use the weaver’s loom to make different patterns.  The cool part about our class is that we got to come home with a scarf that we made! But, our day of learning was not over.  It was time to go to our guide’s home and learn to cook a traditional meal that we would share with her family, which is where we had the third coolest experience!

First, we had to get dressed for the occasion…Then we got to work cleaning, chopping, mincing, and cooking. While we worked in an outdoor kitchen, inside, the elders prepared the centerpiece that they would use to offer a blessing to us. They used banana leaves, marigolds, and sweets for the offerings. Candles were placed in the center and poles of white string were placed in the center. Our guide’s uncle, a former monk, led the blessing ceremony as the elders sang.One by one, each elder removed a set of white strings and came around in a circle placing one string on each of our wrists as they gave us a blessing.  At the end of the ceremony, they offered us the marigolds.  After the ceremony, it was time to eat and party! We shared the lovely meal we prepared with her family.You see the guy in the back row, third from the left? We nicknamed him “Uncle Crunk”! He kept coming around with a growler of Beerlao (the main, locally brewed beer in Laos, which Chad says is actually a pretty good lager) and  doing the ‘ol “one for me and one for you!” It wasn’t long until Uncle Crunk, was well, Crunk!  He turned on the tunes and then it was time to dance; and, let me tell you, Uncle Crunk LOVES to dance, especially with his new American lady friends. Here is also where my sister, whose name is Haroula, solidified her nickname: Colorado, Asian Temptress. If you are wondering what I am talking about, then you need to read this.

Although we only spent few days in Laos, they were truly excellent days! That’s the thing about traveling; sometimes you come across a gem and love it more than you could have ever imagined, and it changes you as a person. That is how I feel about our short time in this charming little country and city. I hope you too make it to Luang Prabang one day, and when you do (or if you already have), I’d love to hear from you! Sa Bai Dii!

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Krabi, Thailand: Koh Lanta

No trip to Thailand would be complete without a visit to one of Thailand’s breathtaking islands. I strongly urge you to skip the overly commercialized Phuket and opt for one of the less developed islands.  During our trip, we chose Koh Lanta, which is located in the Krabi Province. Conde Naste Traveller has listed Koh Lanta in the top 10 islands to visit in Thailand. If you are looking for a low-key boho vibe and nearly deserted beaches, then this is where you want to go; and, may I suggest that you make this destination the splurge part of your trip.

To get to Koh Lanta takes some effort, which is why the party crowd has not yet overtaken this paradise.  We took a regional flight from Bangkok to Krabi.  Once we got to Krabi, our resort staff was waiting for us with a sprinter van. We drove for almost two hours to their private dock where we boarded the property’s speed boat for a 45 minute ride through utter beauty.We chose the Pimalai Resort and Spa, which is Lanta’s first five-star hotel. It is set in a tropical forest on the edge of white-sand Ba Kan Tiang Beach near Lanta Marine National Park.  We stayed in their Chairman’s Villa, which is totally private, beach-side, and has its own infinity pool! The resort itself is a destination. The on-property restaurants are delicious and the spa is top notch!  The resort also has an array of activities you can book, including diving, snorkeling (which Chad loved), island exploration, cooking classes, and treks. I am going to shut up now and let the photos tell the rest of the story (although these pictures don’t do the natural beauty of the island justice, nor do they properly convey the absolute peace and tranquility that this resort provides to its guests; I HIGHLY recommend that you make it to this Heaven on Earth sometime soon!)…

Chairman’s Villa: Private foot path to the nearly private beach: The sunsets were unreal: Relax, snorkel, float…

 

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Chiang Mai, Thailand: The New City

It has been over 800 days since Chad and I were last in Chiang Mai, but the memories of our time there are fresh.  We often think back to a moment or a experience we had in this magical little city. It was certainly our favorite city in Thailand, and one of our favorites of all time. Chiang Mai is peaceful, spiritual, friendly, and beautiful. It is a place that stays with you. It is worth a trip to Thailand just to visit this serene city. Allow me to share with you a perfect three-day itinerary for Chiang Mai, Thailand’s principle northern city.

As with most flights, we arrived into Chiang Mai in the late evening and checked into an oasis, 137 Pillars House, a luxury property that is located in the heart of Chiang Mai.  This would turn out to be one of our most favorite properties throughout our journey. The property consist of 30 luxury suites in a literal oasis. We stayed in one of six East Borneo Suites, which had a  large vintage tiled verandas extending over tropical gardens, a vast walk-in closets, and an en suite bathroom with Victorian bathtub and separate indoor/outdoor garden showers. It was like heaven.  Their breakfast was held in an outdoor pagoda and was delicious.  Their small pool area was so serene.  It was like returning home to a haven everyday after long days of touring. The next morning we were met by our private guide, Nikki, who, together with our driver, would be with us for the rest of our time in Chiang Mai. Nikki, like most of the Thai people, was so warm and friendly.  Her goal was to make sure we were having an amazing time, and, she succeeded in that goal. No ask was too great a feat for Nikki!On our first full day in Chiang Mai, a city tour with plenty of temples were on the itinerary! Chiang Mai has some very beautiful temples right in the heart of the city. If your are going to visit the temples, here are some things you should know. First, bring a scarf to throw over your shoulders. It can get pretty warm in Thailand, but bare shoulders for women is a no-no. Second, wear shoes that you can easily take on and off and which you do not mind leaving outside while you visit the temples. Shoes are not allowed to be worn inside the temples. Third, and probably most important, bring a good pair of socks that you don’t mind getting dirty because you will be doing most of your temple walking in socks!

Before we set out on our temple tour, Nikki made sure we stopped and got a Thai delicacy- mango sticky rice.  We literally stopped at a woman’s house, who Nikki said made the best mango sticky rice in all of Chiang Mai. She was right! What is mango sticky rice, you ask? Well, it is just what it sounds like– warm white sticky rice, topped with sweet, sweet mango, then topped with sweet coconut cream/milk and garnished with a few nuts. Even if you don’t care for mangoes, like Chad, you will like this. You can’t not like it. It’s incredible.Now we ready to temple! Temples, or wats as they are called in Thailand, are the backbone of Thai culture. Our first stop was to Chiang Mai’s best known temple, Wat Phra Singh. The temple houses an important Buddha statue: the Phra Buddha Sihing which gives the temple its name.

We next visited Wat Chedi Luang. While this temple might not look like much from the outside (comparatively speaking), it is stunning inside, and, the most interesting part is that you can buy prayer banner based on your birthday and hang them from the temple ceiling. We also visited Wat Chiang Man, Chiang Mai’s oldest temple. We visited some other smaller temples as well: One of the coolest experiences we had while visiting the temples was a chance to sit with a novice monk and have a monk chat. You can ask the monks anything you want about life as a monk, and it gives the monks a chance to practice their English. While becoming a monk is sort of a process, it is voluntary, and a monk can return to civilian life whenever he chooses. This blog post gives a good concise explanation of the process.  Monks eat twice a day and depend entirely on charity and donations in order to eat.

This is the monk we chatted with:Throughout the day, we had some other monk encounters, like this one:This may be a good place to tell you about one of the stranger Thai customs we encountered: Thai public restrooms. The Thai are concerned with cleanliness, so, at some of the temples, in addition to paying to use the restroom, you also have to wear what they call toilet shoes.  Yes, you read that right, toilet shoes. Oddly enough, toilet shoes are public shoes that they loan you in the restroom facilities that are worn only when using the toilet. You leave your regular shoes outside. Seems kind of opposite of sanitary, right? Also, this is where you become thankful for those socks. Another odd bathroom custom are the signs that instruct you not to stand on the toilet seat and squat, but rather, to sit on the seat.  I am not sure why this needs explaining, but I assume that local or indigenous people who do not have indoor plumbing sometimes take a pilgrimage to the temples and are unaccustomed to using an indoor toilet facility.  I don’t know; all I know is that I was amused and grossed out at the same time.  After a morning of visiting temples, we decided to spend the afternoon at a weaving cooperative where we learned about ancient weaving techniques from Thai weavers. Our next order of business was to get a famous Thai foot massage! Not only was this cheap, it was an hour of pure bliss.In the evening, we visited my favorite temple in all of Thailand, Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, to watch the sunset ritual. You have to climb over 300 steps just to get to the temple, but it is sooooo worth it. In addition to the temple, there is monastery on top where regular people can stay and join a silent meditation program. You get a lotus flower when you come in, and, at sunset, the temple bells begin to ring. The monks come out in a processional and all chant prayers together.  You, along with the silent retreaters who are wearing all white, can join the monks as they circle the temple and kneel to pray. It was a magical and spiritual experience, and one of my favorite during out visit to Thailand.  I thought it was going to be hard to top our first day in Chiang Mai, but I was wrong.  On our second day, we visited Patara Elephant Farm, and this was by far my most favorite experience in Thailand. Before I tell you about out incredible experience here, I strongly encourage you to read my post about being a socially conscientious traveler. If you know Chad and I well, then you know that we are major animal lovers, and we would never intentionally support, visit, or participate in an activity that exploited animals.

Elephant tourism is very popular in Thailand, and that often means that the elephant is being mistreated for the sake of tourism and revenue generation. While Chad and I were very excited about the possibility to have one-on-one interaction with these beautiful, gentle giants, we love animals and we did not want visit a program that exploited them. After a copious amount of vetting, we visited Patara Elephant Farm, which is an elephant conservation organization that rescues unwanted or formerly exploited elephants with the goal of preserving the Asian elephant population in Thailand. Patara emphasizes education about the plight of the elephant with programs that allow you to learn about elephants while participating in their daily care. Their “mahout” for a day program, includes a bareback ride on the elephant. We did not see bull hooks being used, and, importantly, there were no chairs or wicker basket strapped to the backs of elephants to facilitate the ride, which hurts the elephant.

When we got to Patara, we were introduced to the baby and juvenile elephants and got a chance to feed them and interact with them. This included petting them and getting elephant hugs and kisses. I was already in love. After a couple of hours of that, we were taken to another part of the park where we were assigned a uniform and an elephant whom we would be responsible to care for that day.  Our elephant’s name was BunJin. He was the largest elephant, the only adult male, and the baby daddy to all the other elephants.  Needless to say, he was a pretty popular guy. But, even popular guys need to eat and be cleaned, and that was out job! We also learned simple hand gestures and commands in Thai that the elephants knew, like telling them “Didi” which means that he or she was a good boy or girl, that helped us interact with our elephant. This is my sister, Haroula (Ha-Rue-La), and this is a fun story that would probably embarrass her! Needless to say, her very Greek name isn’t the easiest to pronounce for American people, let alone the Thai! Well, they guy who assigned to help her decided that since he couldn’t say Haroula, he would just call her Colorado! And then, to top it all off, as the day went on, this young Thai boy fell in love with Colorado, so we began calling her Colorado, the Asian temptress. This name turned out to be pretty appropriate as the trip went on!
After BunJin was groomed and fed, it was time to ride him for an hour through a hillside jungle where we would find a pool in which to bathe him in. Have you ever mounted and dismounted an animal that is taller than you standing on your head and weighs as much as house? It ain’t cute, I can tell you that. How do you get up? Well, you climb onto his head from the trunk or you hoist yourself onto his back from his leg. Getting off? Now that is the sexy part.Don’t we just look like an advertisement for visiting Thailand? If you could only hear the expletives that we were whispering to each other as we were trying to stay balanced on this gigantic creature who liked to look down, chase lady elephants on the trail, and always (without fail) tried to shove himself between two trees because the scratch felt good! Remember, we are riding bare back, so there is nothing keeping us on this elephant but pure balance! Also, he’s got coarse little hairs poking us in the butt, and, as Chad will later learn, a colony of fire ants on his back! Alas, we made it to the pool alive! BunJin just walked us right in, rolled over and then demanded to be bathed.  After splashing around with the elephants for a while, we were treated to a delicious picnic.This truly was an incredible experience. Nonetheless, I continued to wonder whether riding an elephant at all was ethical. I have read several articles about this since then, and while it is probably best to not ride an elephant at all, the safest way to ride an elephant is bareback and on the neck, like we did at Patara. Also, I can honestly say that I did not see any of the elephants being mistreated, and all the locals truly seemed to care for and have bond with these animals.

The best option in Chiang Mai is probably Elephant Nature Park. They have several elephant interaction day programs to choose from and even overnight and week-long volunteer programs, but none of them allow riding. Another beautiful aspect of this operation is that they have an on-property dog rescue.

Along the way during our travels in Thailand, we met other travelers who had also visited Tiger Temple and Tiger Kingdom in Chiang Mai, places that Chad and I made the conscious decision to avoid. I urge you to do the same. These tiger attractions have captive tigers and allow visitors to pet not only baby tigers but also full grown adult tigers.  Based on my research, they are known for drugging the tigers to keep them sedated enough to not attack tourists and also beating the tigers when they are too sedated to interact with the tourists.  It literally made me sick to hear that people were supporting these attractions and perpetuating the exploitation of tigers. So, I implore to you avoid these inhumane places if you go to Thailand.

Another popular but controversial tourist draw in Chiang Mai is visiting the Karen Long Neck Villages. The artificial hill tribes popped up around the northern Thai border in the mid-1980s as a result of a civil war. The tribe has a custom whereby female tribe members have elongated their necks as a result of years of wearing heavy brass rings around their necks (from as early as the age of 4 or 5), thereby inspiring tourism to these villages. Many international tour companies discourage these visits because it is like visiting a human zoo, which was why Chad and I avoided the visit. This article does a nice job of explaining why the visit is considered exploitative of the tribe’s people, particularly the women and children. However, that does not stop thousands of tourists from visiting these mostly fabricated villages to buy “local” goods, watch children perform for tourists, and snap pictures of themselves with women and children who have the golden rings around their necks. To be fair, there are other articles that discuss respectful/socially responsible ways to visit these hill tribes.

It is exploitative experiences and attractions like these, found all over the world, that I emphatically encourage you to avoid. There are so many other alternatives and more meaningful and authentic experiences to have in the world that do not contribute to the suffering of an animal, a child, or a woman. You just need to spend a little time fully researching the activities, attractions, and experiences that your travel agent, your friend, or the internet recommends.

Okay, I am climbing off my soap box now. After a wonderful day spent at Patara, we decided to spend the evening at Chiang Mai’s famous night market. You can find everything from food, music, massage, and handicrafts at the markets. If you are adventurous, you can find almost any insect or bug to eat. No thanks, but you can. On our final day in Chiang Mai, we decided to indulge. We spent the day at the best hotel in Chiang Mai, the Dhara Dhevi. The Dhara Dhevi is like a luxurious Vegas hotel. It has beautiful grounds, several restaurants, gorgeous shops, and a top notch spa. It is an incredible hotel, but I still preferred the intimacy of 137 Pillars House, so I recommend a day trip here.

We came for the brunch, which, although pricey, was exquisite. It had offerings of every kind, including carving stations, full seafood buffets, made to order sushi, and the most beautiful deserts ever. After eating way too much, we strolled the grounds and visited their beautiful on-property temples and shops, including their macaron and pastry shop!  We next indulged in a nice long massage followed by tea! We ended the night in one of their fabulous restaurants where we enjoyed a traditional Thai dance and dinner show. Chiang Mai is like Shangri-La. It has beautiful scenery, friendly people, and amazing experiences just waiting for you. It is a clean, budget friendly city with relatively mild temperatures and serves as the perfect place to start your journey of Northern Thailand. Chad and I truly loved our time there and would like to return to experience the Yi Peng Festival, where thousands of lanterns are released into they sky (Google image search it if you just want to swoon).

If you have been to Chiang Mai or are planning a trip there, drop me a line. I would love to hear about your experience in Chiang Mai. Until then, sawatdi.

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Iceland: A Guide To Visiting The Blue Lagoon

BL16The Blue Lagoon in Iceland is probably the most famous geothermal pool in the world.  It is certainly the prettiest and most luxurious. There are hundreds of geothermal pools all over Iceland; but, people travel all the way to Iceland just to visit this one. Trust me, I get it. It is every bit as beautiful as it looks online. So, here is all you need to know about the Blue Lagoon in one neat little post. You are welcome!

The most important thing you need to know about your visit to the Blue Lagoon is that you need a reservation; and I sure hope you made your reservation way in advance of your actual visit, because if not, I am sorry, but no lagoon for you! Only a certain amount of people are allowed into the lagoon per day and reservations are a must.

You can book your reservations online.  They have four different packages, ranging from standard to luxury, that include different benefits. The most basic package includes entrance into the lagoon and use of their silica mud masks for about $50.00.  The luxury package includes entrance, the mud mask, use of a towel, a free drink, an algae mask, use of a bathrobe and slippers, reservations (but not the cost of the actual meal) at their restaurant (LAVA), wine with your meal, a product set, and access to the exclusive lounge for about $234. In my opinion, the premium package (which includes everything that the luxury has except for the product set and exclusive lounge access) is the way to go, and that is what we did. With this package, you don’t need to worry about bringing your own towel, slippers, and bathrobe.

If you are on a budget, the standard package is fine; just remember to bring your own towel, cover-up or robe (you need this because it is freezing once you get out of the water!), and slippers.  You may want to also bring your own snacks or lunch because food at the lagoon, like in the rest of Iceland, is very expensive. There is a water fountain. Otherwise you have to purchase your drinks.

When you make your reservation, you will select a time. Depending on the day and time of year, the lagoon is open from 8:00 a.m. through 11:00 p.m. Also, it is open every single day of the year! In my opinion, the earlier you come, the better. If you come right when they open (at 8:00 a.m.), you will practically have the whole place to yourself! The picture above was taken around 9:00 a.m. The later you come, the more people you will be sharing the lagoon with. When planning your visit, keep in mind that from April 23 to April 27, 2017 the Blue Lagoon will close for renovations.

Also, from the reservations page, you can book your transportation to the lagoon. Buses will come pick you up from your hotel or even from the airport if you are doing a layover visit (Yes, this is a thing)! Transportation will run you about $30 round trip. You can also drive yourself and park in their lot. From the reservations page, you can also request a reservation for an in-water massage at an additional cost.

If you are coming from the airport, there is a handy luggage check area where you can leave your bags while you visit the lagoon. If you forgot to bring your swimsuit, no worries, they will rent you one along with a towel, robe, and slippers!Blue Lagoon Iceland Luggage StorageOnce you arrive, you will take a winding path to the entrance.  Just before the entrance are little trails you can take to see the outside of the lagoon.BL blue lagoon to cieland entrance path Blue Lagoon Iceland Outside 2 Blue Lagoon Iceland outside Blue Lagoon Iceland EntranceWhen you walk in, you will line up based on the package you purchased to check-in.  At check-in, they will assign you your towel, robe, and slippers, and give you a bracelet that acts as your locker key and your credit card on the property.Blue Lagoon Iceland Entrance Inside Blue Lagoon Iceland check in Blue Lagoon Iceland locker keyFrom the check-in, you will be escorted to the locker room where you will choose a locker. You must shower before entering the lagoon. The locker rooms have restrooms and shower facilities, but don’t expect the same amenities as a spa. They have a soap and like one blowdryer, so bring your own toiletries and blow dryers if you need them for afterwards. Blue Lagoon Iceland lockersThe locker rooms lead out to the lagoon entrance area.  There are two ways to enter the lagoon: from the inside pool that has a door that leads to the outside or from the outside using a sloped ramp. There are places to hang your towels and robes inside and outside, but space is very limited. Blue Lagoon Iceland Exit from Lockers Blue Lagoon Iceland Map Blue Lagoon Iceland inside entrance to pool Blue Lagoon Inside pool entrance Blue Lagoon Iceland door to pool Blue Lagoon Iceland hanging rack BL3 BL7Once inside the lagoon, there are shallow and deep areas. There are also saunas and steam rooms as well as swim up bars where you can buy drinks and from where you can get your mud and algae masks. If you plan to take pictures while inside the lagoon, make sure you bring a waterproof case for your camera or phone.BL10 BL6 BL12 BL8 BL9 Blue Lagoon Iceland main building Blue Lagoon IcelandThe water temperature is between 98 and 104 degrees Fahrenheit (37-40 degrees Celsius). Apparently, there are 9 million liters of water in the pool that renews itself every 40 hours. It is about 2 feet at its shallowest point and 5 feet at its deepest point. There is no visibility under the water. Because it is so hot, it is important to stay hydrated before, during, and after your visit. Also, the sulfuric water can really dry out your hair, so load it up with conditioner and try not to get your hair wet.

The water is made up of silica, algae, and other minerals.  The water is looks blue because the silica reflects sunlight; however, the water is actually a whitish color.

The Blue Lagoon has three dining options.  There is a small snack bar right outside the locker rooms on the ground floor, a cafeteria, and a full-service restaurant.  If you want to eat at the restaurant, you must make advanced reservations.  You can order a la carte or from a three-course pre-fixe menu.  The food is tasty, but be prepared to splurge on lunch.  We did the pre-fixe menu, and our meal was about $125.00 for lunch!Blue Lagoon Iceland Cafe Blue Lagoon Iceland dining Blue Lagoon Iceland restaurant BL17 we2 Blue Lagoon Iceland patioIn addition to their exclusive lounge, there is a rest and relaxation area, a gift shop, conference rooms (so you can hold a meeting or event here!), and a full service hotel (as in you can sleep at the Blue Lagoon, which has its own set of perks!).Blue Lagoon Iceland shop Blue Lagoon Iceland Relaxation AreaAlso, if you are going to get a massage or other treatment, you are taken to a secluded pool that has these floating beds where your treatment takes place. Every few minutes they dip you into the water to keep you warm.Blue Lagoon Iceland massage treatment areaAlthough it is majorly touristy and pretty pricey, the Blue Lagoon is certainly worth a visit. I loved that we went during the winter.  There is something sort of surreal about being in your bathing suit while the ground is covered in snow, and you are bathing in super hot water while snowflakes hit your face. It was definitely a memorable experience!

 

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