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Belfast Travel United Kingdom

2 Nights in Belfast

July 7, 2019

“Belfast is a city which, while not forgetting its past, is living comfortably with its present and looking forward to its future.” 

James Nesbitt

Belfast, Northern Ireland. It was only within the past 20 years when this place was even considered as a safe travel destination. I am drawn to places slightly out of the norm and had been curious about Belfast for quite some time.

I experienced a city that’s vibrant and modern yet carries the heavy weight of a tumultuous and tragic past. There are reminders of this past everywhere from the politically themed murals, to memorial gardens, to the fences and gates that still separate the Protestant and Catholic areas. To really understand Belfast I think it’s important to read the history of the conflict and also to take a Black Cab Tour where your driver will take you to the different parts of town and explain the background of the murals you’re seeing (see below).

While I would never advocate visiting a destination that is truly dangerous, I am all for exploring places that were once considered dangerous but have become safer in the recent past. Also keep in mind that if you are touring around Ireland and mention to others that you are visiting Belfast, you might get a mixed reaction. While the younger generation seems to have a more positive reaction and openness towards the Northern city, there is still definitely tension among those who lived through the Troubles. 

STAY

Jurys Inn Belfast | Great Victoria Street, Belfast, BT1 6DY, United Kingdom 

While I usually opt for AirBnBs or Boutique hotels, for my first trip to Belfast I wanted to be extremely centrally located. Not knowing the different neighborhoods yet or having a feel for the safety situation, we wanted a place was 100% in “neutral territory”. Our room was great and the hotel staff was attentive and friendly. We particularly enjoyed that the hotel also had a restaurant and bar and was in walking distance to the Courthouse, the Cathedral Quarter and Crowne Bar. They also arranged our Black Cab Tour (see below) for us for immediate pickup onsite. 



Booking.com

EAT & DRINK

44 Hill Street | 44 Hill Street, Belfast BT1 2LB, Northern Ireland

Mediterranean cuisine served tapas style – a lovely option in the cute & vibrant Cathedral Quarter. Also close to all the bars and nightlife in the area so a great place to start your evening. The cheese plate was delicious!

Cafe Metz | 55 High Street, BT1 2AB Belfast

Found this place when walking from the Cathedral Quarter back to our hotel and liked the cafe atmosphere. I was also happy that they offered a Vegetarian version of the famous “Ulster Fry” – it was delicious and filling!

The Pocket | 69 University Rd, Belfast

We stopped in here after walking around the Queen’s Quarter and the Botanic Gardens and I loved the atmosphere and food at this adorable place! The interior is cozy and the food and drinks were healthy and delicious. I loved how in Ireland and Northern Ireland so many places offered Haloumi cheese (which is more rare in the States) and adding it to the Buddha Bowl was delicious!

White’s Tavern | 2-4 Winecellar Entry, Belfast, BT11QN

Very cool old pub, in fact one of the oldest in Belfast. Nice place to grab a pint, the food was also good (even though we had to take it to go to not miss our tour bus)!

Crown Liquor Saloon | 46 Great Victoria Street, Belfast BT2 7BA, Northern Ireland

I would say this is a “must visit” in Belfast – we happened to luck out because it was right by our hotel. I would say it is the most well-known and famous pubs in the city, a beautifully restored relic from the Victorian era complete with intricate wooden interior booths and stained glass.

DO

Cab Tours Belfast | (Arranged through the front desk at Jurys Inn)

First off, I would 100% recommend doing a Black Cab tour when in Belfast. Belfast has so much history and I believe it adds so much to the experience of seeing the city when you try to understand the culture and background. I found the murals and memorials and was fascinated by all the history we learned.

Run by a Catholic and a Protestant, this company gives you an unbiased tour of the city. Our guide Jimmy drove us through both the Protestant and Catholic areas and gave us a real understanding of the history and tensions between the two groups. We were also able to get out and take pictures at the murals and memorials while he told us the information and history behind them. He went above and beyond to provide us an unbiased history of The Troubles along with stories of his personal experiences.

I would say that a cab tour is essential when visiting Belfast and I would definitely recommend this company as I’ve heard they don’t all equally show you both sides.

Botanic Gardens | College Park, Botanic Avenue, BT7 1LP

Adjacent to the Queen’s University Campus (aka real life Hogwarts), the Palm House was a lovely spot to warm up on a brisk damp day and enjoy the beautiful tropical plants. If you are a fan of the BBC/Netflix crime drama The Fall, you will recognize it from the first season when serial killer Paul Spektor went to stalk his next victim.

Street Art | Cathedral Quarter, City Center, everywhere

In addition to the political and historical murals you will see on your Black Cab Tour, Belfast has a TON of other street art everywhere. There are a lot of cool facades and murals in the Cathedral Quarter, including a little alleyway with umbrellas that was sadly under construction when I went. You can find the umbrellas and some other great gems on Commercial Court, the Alleyway between Hill Street and Donegall Street.  See some of my favorite finds from the city below:

STAYING SAFE & SENSIBLE

As an American tourist in Belfast City Center, with no local political or religious affiliation I felt perfectly safe.

Safe/Not Safe Areas?

That said: there are definitely still tensions between the Protestants and the Catholics in Belfast and a clear separation outside the city center. It was described to us as “Sure, everyone gets along and works together in the city, then the Catholics go home to their neighborhoods and the Protestants go back to theirs.” There are still gates that separate the sections of town that are closed and locked at a certain time every day. Falls Road is where the Catholic neighborhoods are centered around, while Shankill Road is where the predominately Protestant/Loyalist community is centered. People will ask each other, “Where do you hail from?” to get insight into what their affiliation is, a kind of asking without asking sort of thing. Again, I highly recommend doing the tour we did above because they take you to the different areas and explain what you are seeing and why.

We stayed predominately in the City Center, Queens Quarter (during the day around the University and Botanical Garden), Cathedral Quarter (in the evening) & did a run from our hotel to the Titanic Quarter. I did not feel awkward or unsafe in any of those places.

Talking Politics

The guide books will tell you to not discuss politics with locals, to not wear any colors seen as Irish (green, yellow, orange) when walking or running through the city. It would also make sense not to walk into some random pub in a neighborhood you are not familiar with and start discussing Irish or UK politics. You will likely NOT run into this problem in the city center. In fact, the young staff at a local bar we grabbed drinks at were actually quite open to discussing the situation in Northern Ireland, Brexit, healthcare, etc. My take on it is, the younger the person is you are talking to, the more open they will be about discussing it, especially if you are in a touristy area. I was happy we were able to have these discussions with the locals, as I find history and politics fascinating. I wouldn’t recommend bringing it up unless they do first though. Like American politics as of late, it could be very polarizing.

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Ireland Kinsale Travel

A Getaway in Colorful Kinsale, Ireland

July 5, 2019

Even though I’ve been to Ireland 3 separate times, each trip has held special meaning for me. My first trip was during St. Patrick’s Day weekend when I was studying abroad in Italy, visiting my friend who was studying in Cork. I had dreamed of visiting Ireland since I was a little girl (for some reason I always felt a pull to the idea of it’s rolling green hills) and so my first brief trip there was a realization of that dream. My second trip there was also special because it was with my love (at the time my soon-to-be fiance who is now my husband) and it was to celebrate my 30th birthday.

This most recent trip was also special, as I traveled with my best friend Molly. Molly and I met our freshman year of college in the dorms and had always talked about doing a trip to Ireland together. The trip was over 10 years in the making but we actually did it and had an amazing time touring around together! After spending our first night night in Cork City, our next stop was the colorful and quaint Kinsale, a seaside village on the south coast of County Cork. Molly had a particularly important reason to visit Kinsale: not only did her great grandfather grow up here but she also has relatives still living in the town!

Imagine walking into a local shop in Ireland and telling the person working there that you are actually their cousin visiting from America!

That was the scene when Molly and I walked into Mylie Murphy’s Bike & Bait Shop and were greeted by Gillian, Molly’s cousin with whom we soon became fast friends. Between loaning us bikes to explore with, chatting over photography and Instagram strategies (Gillian owns a LOVELY plant and gift shop in Kinsale, see below) and enjoying a (few) bottles of white wine over lunch, Kinsale became a destination that will hold a special place in my heart. 

Candy colored shops, locals enjoying an ice cream cone from the local Centra, sailboats on the horizon and fields of colorful yellow flowers – Kinsale is postcard perfect! We stayed there for 4 nights and it was a great amount of time to explore and relax. I would certainly recommend stopping by for at least a day if you are visiting Cork City, and staying for a few nights if you have the time. We were there in late April and it was still a bit chilly but very popular – I can only imagine how lively it gets during the summer months. 

WHERE TO STAY

Kinsale Cozy Studio/Tiny House

We had a wonderful 4 night stay at Rosemarie’s adorable cottage! Rosemarie went above and beyond to make our stay comfortable, starting with picking us up at the bus so we wouldn’t have to walk with our bags which we really appreciated. She and her dog Curly were so friendly and gave us plenty of tips on where to go and what to do in Kinsale. The cottage was beautifully decorated and well equipped with breakfast and snack staples and toiletries. The location was close to the main village (about a 5 minute walk) and the front yard had a gorgeous view of the water. I would definitely stay here again and would recommend to anyone planning to stay in Kinsale.

FAVORITE EATS

Bulman | Summercove, Kinsale, Co. Cork, Ireland

A colorful (and popular!) spot on the outskirts of town as you head towards Charles Fort. The inside has a cozy and jovial atmosphere while the outside affords you a great view of the water. Come a little after lunch hour in order to try to avoid the crowds.

Fishy Fishy | Crowleys Quay, Kinsale Co, Co. IE, Ireland

If you love seafood and want to treat yourself to a nice lunch or dinner, this is your place! We had an amazing meal here with Molly’s family. Delicious mussels, seafood pie and a rhubarb cobbler that was the perfect ending to the meal, washed down by a bottle (or 2?) of the house white wine. Elegant atmosphere and great service.

UNIQUE SHOPPING

Greenhouse & Other Stories | 8 Pearse Street, Kinsale, Ireland Co. Cork

Molly’s cousin Gillian owns this adorable shop filled with beautiful plants and curated gifts including stationary, pots, jewelry children’s clothing. I would definitely recommend stopping by if you’re looking for something unique to bring home for someone, or a little gift for yourself.

Aesthetically pleasing display at Greenhouse & Other Stories

Rain Bath & Beauty | 42 Main Street, Kinsale, Co. Cork, Ireland

Assortment of gorgeous responsible and ethical beauty products – a great shop to buy something to pamper yourself with.

Gourmet Pantry | 4 Market St, Sleveen, Cork, Ireland

We did a lot of self-catering in Kinsale for our evening meals (buying prepared foods, cheeses, wines etc and bringing them to our AirBnB.) While there are a few groceries downtown, this shop has higher quality and locally made items – perfect for a picnic, aperitif or souvenirs to bring home (jams, crackers, etc).

LIVE MUSIC & NIGHTLIFE

Dalton’s Bar | 3A Market St, Sleveen, Kinsale, Co. Cork, P17 E068, Ireland

Molly is a huge fan of traditional Irish music, so we went out to listen to a session pretty much every night. That said, we had our best live music experience in Kinsale at Dalton’s Bar during our first night out in Kinsale. We went in on a Monday night, which is when they have an open mic situation of sorts called a “sing-a-long” with a local band to back up the hauntingly beautiful melodies. Cozy interior with a fireplace, friendly bartenders, and unlike more touristy places that play the same 5 Irish songs to a raucous audience, during these sessions everyone shushes the patrons before the person starts singing so everyone can listen and enjoy. It was a genuinely moving experience and I would definitely recommend this place especially if you are here on a night they are doing a sing-a-long.

The Harbour Bar | Scilly, Kinsale, Ireland

Off the beaten path, this bar was truly unique. It’s inside a house where the owner has turned his first floor into a pub. You grab a drink from the fridge (bottled beer, wine and mixed drinks only), pay, and make yourself at home while his little jack russell terrier might jump into your lap. There is old fashioned decor, a TV with the game on, a local crowd and a stunning view of the Harbour (hence, the name).

View from the Harbour Bar

ACTIVITIES

Drive out to The Old Head

About a 10 – 15 minute drive from downtown, the Old Head is a must see. Like a mini Cliffs of Moher, it’s adjacent to a well known golf course and is the closest piece of land to where the RMS Lusitania sank. We went during golden hour to check it out and it was absolutely stunning, especially with all the seabirds flying around below us. It would be a gorgeous spot for an evening picnic or to take photos.

Scilly Walk/Charles Fort

There is a nice walking path from downtown Kinsale to Charles Fort. (We actually took bikes even though I don’t think you are technically supposed to bike on the walking trail.) You can take Lower Road and follow it from the downtown up to the Spaniard Bar, then past the Bulman Pub and out to the fort. You pass great views and lovely homes along the way, there and back is a little over 5km.

Explore Downtown Kinsale

Kinsale’s downtown is incredibly charming. I am a sucker for colorful waterfront towns and Kinsale certainly hits the mark. There are plenty of cute shops to explore, cafes to duck into and the locals we met were all very friendly. If you get the chance to immerse yourself in this place for a few days, definitely do so.

Headed to Kinsale? Don’t forget to pin this post!

Amsterdam Netherlands Travel

A Solo Girly Guide to Amsterdam

May 20, 2019

What do you first think of when you think of Amsterdam? For a lot of Americans at least, people associate the city with legalized marijuana (actually this isn’t even true) and the red-light district. In fact, according to Lonely Planet, recent polls have shown that only 7% of the Dutch people actually use pot and only 5% of customers frequenting the red-light district are Dutch. So, when I decided to take my first solo trip to this city, I wasn’t really sure what my experience as a female traveling alone would be. The short of it: 1. I was pleasantly surprised, and 2. I wanted more time.

So, when I decided to take my first solo trip to this city, I wasn’t really sure what my experience as a female traveling alone would be. The short of it: 1. I was pleasantly surprised, and 2. I wanted more time.

WHERE TO STAY

My first task as a solo female traveler was finding a safe, clean, well-located yet affordable place to stay. And let me tell you, that last part wasn’t easy. Hotels in Amsterdam are generally expensive and during this time of year even more so. Even so, I was able to book a room at Hotel Adolesce for 100 euros/night. I had a bit of a mishap with my dates and ended up booking the wrong night (LOL), but the owner was so kind in letting me switch and giving me an even larger room with a canal view. I liked how the hotel was a bit out of the crazy tourist zone so I could come back to a quiet and calm location after sightseeing, but yet was within a 20 minute walk to all the major sights. I would 100% stay here again and would recommend it as an affordable option in Amsterdam for solo, couple or friends traveling.

WHAT TO DO

When visiting a new city, I like to spend some time just walking around and getting a feel for the energy and culture. Actually, I walked an average of 10 miles per day on the two days I was there! Here are some of the highlights:

Van Gogh Museum

This was my #1 priority for my Amsterdam visit and it did not disappoint. Make sure to pre-book your tickets here as soon as you know you are going to Amsterdam because it will sell out. I booked my tickets about a month in advance. This is also true for the Anne Frank House (see below), which unfortunately I didn’t realize and the tickets for the dates for my visit were sold out. If you love Van Gogh’s art and are interested in his life, I would definitely recommend making this a priority. I also recommend getting the audio guide for 5 Euros more as it gives you so much more background into Van Gogh’s works and life.

Moco Museum – Banksy Exhibit

I hadn’t planned on visiting this museum, because I didn’t know about it before my trip, but I’m so glad I decided to stop by. You really only need an hour or less and if you’re interested in Banksy’s art and street art in general, it’s a nice way to spend a little time. Also it stays open late: 7pm during the week and 8pm on Friday and Saturday. The Banksy Exhibit runs through September 2019 and you can pre-order your tickets online for a discount here.

Canal Tour

This is kind of a no-brainer. If you want to see a good portion of the city while learning about the history and architecture, a Canal Tour is really the best way to do it. There are several companies that offer them, and I chose to use Lovers Canal Cruise for no reason other than I found them first. Most tours originate near Centraal Station, and you can buy tickets there or at one of several tourist offices. Pre-booking didn’t seem to be necessary, I bought a ticket the day of for a boat leaving 1/2 hour from my time of purchase. 

Jordaan

I loved this neighborhood! Beautiful Canals, cute shops and quaint streets – this area was my favorite part of Amsterdam. I’ve linked shop and food/bar info below. 

Floating Flower Market

Touristy? Yes. But it’s fun to walk through and a nice spot to buy souvenirs, from tulip bulbs, to off brand Delftware and everything in between. Make it the last stop of your daily exploring and stock up on goodies for yourself and your people back home – just make sure you get there before it closes at 5:30pm. Find more info here.

Typical Booth in the Flower Market. They all pretty much look like this!

Red Light District

Yes – I was curious. So I decided to walk around the RLD and check it out. I was a little worried to go at night, but honestly I had no need to be worried. I went around 9pm and it was super crowded – men, women, families, groups of tourists…I felt perfectly safe. And it was indeed something to see, but I only needed 15 minutes or so. If I were to go again I would have visited the Museum of Prostitution for background and context. As a solo female, I wouldn’t have wanted to stay too late because I imagine it only gets rowdier.

PSA: If you know you are going to Amsterdam and you want to visit the Anne Frank house, reserve your tickets ahead of time here. You can only buy tickets online. I unfortunately didn’t realize this and when I went to reserve 2 weeks ahead of time they were sold out. Every day at 9am they release 20% of the tickets for the day so you can log on and try to purchase, but that is a risk (I was unsucessful). When I go back to Amsterdam I will definitely make this a priority and reserve well ahead. 

If I would have had more time I would have visited more museums, particularly the Rijksmuseum and Anne Frank House. I think in nice weather it would be nice to take a chill day and hang out in the Vondelpark, Amsterdam’s largest green space. Next time!

EATING AND DRINKING

It’s funny, as a solo traveler I found that eating in a restaurant wasn’t a priority for me. My days consisted of walking around till I got hungry and then grabbing something on the go, because for some reason a high-end or atmospheric dining situation is much more enjoyable with another person. I joked that my “Amsterdam Diet” was walking 10 miles, stroopwafels for breakfast and vlaamse frites for dinner. That said, I did eat well, including a nice sit down lunch on a canal that I treated myself to (solo travel tip: when dining alone it’s fun to set yourself up at a place where you can people watch). 

Broodje Bert | Singel 321HS, 1012 WK Amsterdam, Netherlands

Great place to grab a healthy lunch adjecent to the Jordaan. If you can and the weather permits, grab one of their canal side tables and enjoy the people watching. The burger is famous here but they also have other choices, including vegetarian options. Also very affordable!

Polaberry | Prinsengracht 232 H, 1016 HE Amsterdam, Netherlands

After following this place on Instagram, it was at the top of my lists of spots to see. Adorable little shop owned by blogger Polina Burashnikova with handmade chocolate covered berries as well as cake pops and other goodies. There are also an assortment of girly Amsterdam themed souvenirs and stationary at the store for unique gifts for yourself or others.

Bar Parry | Eerste Looiersdwarsstraat 15, 1107 SN Amsterdam, Netherlands

This cute little wine bar in Jordaan was recommended to me by a friend. When I got caught in a downpour, it was the perfect spot to hide out and enjoy a glass or 2 of wine. Very quaint and solo traveler friendly!

Van Wonderens Stroopwafels | Kalverstraat 190, 1012 XH Amsterdam, Netherlands

Another instagram find! If you’re going to try fresh stroopwafels, why not make sure it’s the prettiest stroopwafel in the city? And it was also tasty – the perfect way to start a day of sightseeing.

Vlaamse Fries | Literally Anywhere, Amsterdam

Hot Fries, served in a cone and slathered in sauce were my dinner of choice after walking 10 miles a day in Amsterdam. You can find these fry shops all over the city, but here’s a guide put out by iAmsterdam if you need some recommendations. It’s a must try food if you’re visiting the city. 

UNIQUE SOUVIENERS

Kunstboer | Prinsengracht 270, 1016 HH AMSTERDAM

Unique accessories for children and adults – glittery unicorns and cute animal theme is king here. You can also customize your own apparel and accessories with their unique patches. Such a cute shop!

Locals | Spuistraat 272, 1012 VW Amsterdam, Netherlands

Loved the selection of stationary, apparel & accessories by (you guessed it) local Dutch artists.

It’s a Present! | Gasthuismolensteeg 4, 1016 AN Amsterdam, Netherlands

Another fun assortment of gifts for all ages, many with a Dutch theme. I bought the cutest little notebook here by the company Orange Panda. 

FINAL THOUGHTS

Amsterdam is architecture & art, canals and bicycles. Amsterdam is historic yet modern. Amsterdam is clean, safe, friendly and green. Amsterdam is compact and easy to explore on foot. Being there during tulip season and the week leading up King’s Day, it was crowded but tolerable and I was still able to wander down some quiet streets. 

I absolutely loved it. I would come back as a solo traveler, with my husband, with friends or with kids (some day!), and I really hope to make another trip here soon. 

Peru Travel

Why You Should Definitely Do a Homestay on Taquile Island

March 27, 2019

When thinking of a visit to Peru, one thinks of llamas, ceviche and of course Machu Picchu. There are so many places in this beautiful and diverse country thought that can take your breath away, and Lake Titicaca is one of them. Located on the southeast border of Peru and Bolivia, this large blue lake is famously known as the highest navigable body of water in the world at an altitude of 12,507 feet. 

When we first considered going to Peru, Lake Titicaca was not really on my radar. In fact after reading another blogger’s article (who I won’t name), who said it was the least favorite art of their trip, I was almost dissuaded to go. I am so glad that my husband convinced me otherwise though as it was a completely unique and beautiful experience I almost didn’t get to have.

We arrived in Puno just before sunrise after a 6 hour overnight bus ride from Cusco. I was a little leery of the long haul bus situation but Cruz del Sur, the company we booked with, had comfortable reclining seats, bathrooms on board, pillows, blankets, snacks…honestly it was more comfortable that sleeping on a plane! 

At the bus station in Puno we encountered several people rather aggressively promoting their tours of Lake Titicaca. We opted to wait and simply take a taxi to the port to see what ferries and boat taxi collectivos were available. We ended up talking to people in one of the few offices on the dock who said that once they got enough people they would depart to Uros & Taquile, the two islands we were wanting to visit (we had also booked our homestay on Taquile so we would be sleeping there.) It was very cheap (around 25 soles aka $8.3 USD) for a RT ticket and we were told we could take the 2:30 pm boat the next day back to Puno.

IMPORTANT: Pack light! If you are staying on Taquile Island, only bring a small bag, preferably one you can carry on your back. Taquile has NO CARS and you will be walking, uphill to where you are staying, so having a large bag would be impossible. We almost brought our big rolling suitcases and we would have been pretty screwed so at the last minute we decided to leave them at the office of the boat company. (Spoiler alert: everything was still there and intact when we returned). 

We first stopped at Uros, which are a series of floating reed islands constructed by the people that live there. I heard this this was the most “tourist trappy” part of the area, so my expectations were low, but it was a pretty unique sight. Once you arrive on the island you are given a presentation (in Spanish) by a local explaining their way of life and how the islands were built. You are then invited into the home of another local who will take out all of her handicrafts and try to sell them to you. This part is a bit awkward, as we had no interest in buying a bunch of woven goods, but we did get away with buying a friendship bracelet and a keychain.

After Uros the boat continues on to Taquile and it takes about 2.5 hours…for some reason the boat is EXTREMELY slow but this bodes well if you are prone to seasickness as you will most likely not have any problems! At the port on Taquile we were greeted by our family stay host, Señor Celso. We booked our accommodation with him that very morning on Booking.com, and he got in touch with me via WhatsApp to confirm the time we would be at the dock. He walked us to his home which was up several steep hills (be prepared, the altitude here is no joke) and showed us to our room which was clean, comfortable and detached from the main house. We also had access to a real bathroom with running water (not a given on the island) and a hot shower. We were told that the island has no electricity except for solar panels, so if we wanted to charge our phones we would need to give them to him to do so with his solar powered battery.

Life on Taquile is wonderfully and refreshingly simple. 

The air is some of the cleanest you will ever breath, due to the lack of car fumes. The only sounds you here are from people and nature, and the green hilly fields are filled with purple and yellow flowers from the potato plants they grow. You pass people dressed in brightly knit traditional clothing – sometimes weaving as they walk. The only restaurants on Taquile are cooperatives, meaning that local families take turns working at them and supplying the ingredients. They eat an almost strictly pescatarian diet, and your meals there will always consist of quinoa soup to start, followed by grilled trout and potatoes with muña or coca tea to finish. There is also a huge knitting cooperative where the locals work to handcraft beautiful garments that you can purchase. If I had to do things all over again, I would have saved space in my suitcase and money spent at other markets to buy more of their wares, as there was almost no comparison to the quality between what we saw there and the massed produced items of the markets in Lima and Cusco. Breakfast was provided for us by Celso’s wife (delicious pancakes) and we chose to add on dinner to our stay (trout soup & omelet) which was also very good and a nice experience to dine with the family. It was also quite interesting to communicate because they did not speak English (only Spanish and their native Quechua language) and we had very rudimentary Spanish, however we were able to have meaningful interaction. Celso’s 13 year old son sat with us as well, working on his knitting as his father had taught him. 

The next day we departed from another side of the island, so we got to see even more beautiful scenery and dine at another cooperative restaurant before catching our boat. I left feeling refreshed, enlightened grateful to have such an awesome opportunity. Out of everything we did in Peru, this might have been my favorite and certainly my most memorable experience, and I hope this post encourages you to look into doing a homestay on this island like we did!

Things to do on Taquile Island:

Walk around – the scenery is remarkable here. You can walk to the top of the mountain to see Inca Ruins and an incredible 360 degree view of the island and the lake.

Visit the main square and knitting cooperative. We spent an hour sitting in the sun in the square, observing the locals and tourists and even kicking around a soccer ball. There are little convenience shops, a cooperative restaurant, photo exhibit and even a place to get a special passport stamp.

Swim! We walked to the smaller beach which was closer to where we stayed. There honestly wasn’t a clear path down to the beach, but we figured out a way to get down there. We were the only ones, besides a herd of curious sheep watching our every move. The water was pretty cold, but Mike swam anyways…I watched with the sheep.

Get to know your host family. Even speaking basic Spanish I was able to find out things about their way of life, education system, what countries their tourism mainly comes from, etc. By staying with a local family you have a unique opportunity to learn firsthand about a remote culture.

DON’T FORGET:

Pack light! There are no cars or ways to carry luggage other than your own brute strength.

You might not have acccess to electricity, so charge your devices before you go and pack a portable batter/charger if this is important to you.

USEFUL LINKS:

Inn Taquile Familia Celso 

Celso and his wife and son were a delight to stay with. Very helpful, yet we had time and space to do our own thing. Our room was clean and comfortable, the shower was hot and they cooked us a delicious dinner and breakfast. I would definitely recommend them for your stay on Taquile Island!

Cruz Del Sur Bus Line

We had a great experience with this bus (we also did their bus from Lima to Ica.) Very comfortable and safe.

Peru Travel

Visiting Machu Picchu via Aguas Calientes

March 21, 2019
One glass of vino for the road in Ollantaytambo

The Journey to Machu Picchu…undoubtedly the holy grail of the Peru Trip.

Before I planned on going to Peru, I really didn’t know much about the process of getting to Machu Picchu, except that it was near Cusco. Fly to Cusco – go to Machu Picchu. Easy, right? Well, turns out, there are no direct roads leading from Cusco to Machu Picchu. You cannot drive, Uber or take a taxi. I knew you could trek there via the Inca trail, but due to our visit being during the rainy season (it closes in Feb for maintenance) that was not an option for us. There are other treks and expeditions you can take though that involve hiking on alternate trails.

The other option is to get there by a combination of train to Aguas Calientes (a small Hamlet at the base of Machu Picchu) and then a bus to take you up the mountain to the site. If you’re up to it, you can also walk from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu, which I’m told can be done in about an hour and a half.

When you arrive in Cusco there are tons, and I mean TONS of tour agencies offering to coordinate your trip to this World Wonder. On our hotel street alone there were at least 5 different tour agencies. We stopped by one of them to inquire about pricing, and they were able to quote us a price of $250 USD per person for the next day, including train, bus, admission & guide. Having just arrived in Cusco and feeling a bit overwhelmed, we decided to not make a quick decision and do some other sightseeing first, then try to DIY it for Machu Picchu. It ended up being a good thing we did because the next day we came down with food poisoning and were confined to the room all day (imagine if we had pre-booked all of our tickets for the next day?! Phew!) 

A few people had told me that the best way to see Machu Picchu was to sleep in Aguas Calientes and then take the earliest bus to see it at sunrise. In the non-rainy season you can take a train directly there from Cusco, but during the rainy season the busses replace trains between Cusco and Ollantaytambo, so we figured we’d be more comfortable in a taxi and it would also give us time to hang out in the village (an ancient Inca town that is a wonderful place to explore if you have time). We took the 3:35pm PeruRail Vistadome trains which is the mid range train with a panoramic view. Your other options for trains are the Expedition, the budget option without the panoramic windows, and the Belmond Hiram Bingham, a luxury rail experience. We chose the Vistadome because the Belmond was way out of our budget (although it looks sweet!!) and I wanted the panoramic windows because I heard the view from this train ride was unreal (and it was).

The train was really nice – they serve you complimentary tea/coffee and a snack while you ride up and the views really are spectacular – it took about an hour and 45 minutes. Arrival in Aguas Calientes is exciting – everyone is coming for one purpose and you can feel the energy and excitement. The town itself is so strange – in the middle of this beautiful lush jungle mountain setting are these buildings all piled up on one another, every other one under construction. There are also no cars besides the buses that go up to Machu Picchu. There are a selection of budget to luxury hotels and hostels here (there is even a super luxury resort right at the entrance to Machu Picchu). We chose a mid range option, Gringo Bill’s based on it’s price, last-minute availability and Booking.com rating.

When we checked in we were told by the front desk clerk to immediately head to the Machu Picchu office and bus ticket counter to ensure we had our tickets for the next day. You can buy admission for a 4 hour time slot, as they only allow a certain number of people to view the site at once. You can also purchase admission to climb Machu Picchu Mountain or Huayna Picchu mountain with your admission tickets, which I’ve heard are both amazing but given my fear of heights and our food poisoning recovery status still in flux, we decided not to do either one and just purchase the admission from 6am to 10am. The bus tickets are general admission and you can get on at whatever time you choose. We had a lovely dinner at Tree House Restaurante, one of the more high-end dining options in Aguas Calientes. 

The morning of our visit we were worried we wouldn’t make the first bus (the first bus leaves at 5:30AM), but there were several buses lined up to accommodate people and we got on one right away. The bus ride also has phenomenal views so try to get a window seat! Once you arrive at the entrance you will immediately be approached by guides offering their services. We ended up joining a group of English speaking people with a guide so we payed significantly less per person than having a private tour. Make sure you secure your guide before you enter, as once you enter there are no guide services. Unless you have an independent knowledge of Incan history, I really do think it’s essential to have a guide, otherwise you won’t really know what you are looking at and having the background adds so much to your experience. 

There are also NO BATHROOMS inside the gates Machu Picchu, only at the entrance, so make sure you go before you go, if you know what I mean, and bring a snack if you think you’ll get hungry…although you may have to share with a llama. We had an amazing 4 hours at the site before taking the bus back, grabbing a quick lunch at French Bistro 

COST

Okay, so in the beginning of this post, I told you that the tour agency quoted us at $250 USD per person and we decided to try our DIY luck. Here is our DIY price breakdown of what we payed PER PERSON in USD:

Machu Picchu Cost Breakdown PP in USD
Taxi to Ollantaytambo $30.00
Vistadome PeruRail Train From Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes $60.00
Machu Picchu Entrance Fee $50.00
Round Trip Bus from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu $24.00
Joined Group Guided Tour $6.00
IncaRail Voyager Train from Aguas Calientes to Cusco $54.00
TOTAL $224.00 *

*Accomodations & Food in Aguas Calientes NOT included

So, as you can see, we did not save much doing a DIY version – HOWEVER, I would say my takeaway was that you can DIY it for a similar price and have more choice and freedom over your time frame. If you don’t want to worry about anything and have everything already pre-purchased and taken care of, doing it through an agency should not cost you much more than buying it piece meal. I also would recommend sleeping in Aguas Calientes the night before as I liked being one of the first people to enter the site.

OTHER THINGS TO KEEP IN MIND:

Remember that all of this was done during the Off Season, so prices and availability will vary if you visit during more popular times. If you do decide to visit during the popular season, I would recommend booking all more in advance than we did!

Bring water and a snack with you – after you enter the gate of Machu Picchu there are no services. There are bathrooms and a snack bar right outside.

If you bring your passport you can get a special Machu Picchu stamp!

Try to get a window seat on the bus up the mountain, the view is spectacular. 

USEFUL LINKS:

PeruRail

IncaRail

Gringo Bill’s Boutique Hotel

The Tree House Restaurante

La Boulangerie de Paris

Machu Picchu Ticket Office

Colombia Travel

Colombia Highlights

October 29, 2018

Medellin → Cartagena → San Andres/Providencia → Palomino → Minca

MEDELLIN

STAY

Finca Marrokos | Kilometro 4.5 Via Aeropuerto hacia Hipodromo, Via Guarne, Rionegro 054040, Colombia

This was the hotel we stayed in when we first arrived in Australia and had one night before meeting our friends back at the airport to head to the Whitsundays. It was a good inexpensive option, no frills but clean and well located in Chinatown. From there we had lots of yummy options for Thai food & were able to easily walk to the Sydney Harbor to toast our arrival with a view of the Sydney Opera House.

61Prado Guesthouse | Cl. 61 #50 A-60, Medellín, Antioquia, Colombia

This is where we stayed when we were in Medellin. The neighborhood was somewhat residential but the hotel was nice and clean and had a 24 hour restaurant (super convenient) and ROOF DECK with an awesome day and night view of the city! 

EAT & DRINK

Hacienda | Cra. 49 #52-98, Medellín, Antioquia, Colombia

A bit touristy but nice with typical food, a Lonely Planet recommendation. We mainly ate at the hotel and then had a meal out at Hacienda.

DO

Real City Tours -Free Walking Tour

Register online before to save your spot. Meet up with group is a few metro stops away from Hotel – MUST DO especially if you’re only there a day!

After the tour you could take the metro to the cable car and ride it up to Parque Arvi to see another awesome view of the city. Only costs Metro fare! Once you take the cable car up the Parque Arvi is nice and you can walk around it, there were little markets & food.

Guatape & El Penol Day Tours

This was awesome and your hotel will have information on this. It’s a full day tour that includes some different countryside villages, El Penol which is this huge stone tower you can climb (there are stairs!!) with an amazing view, meals & a boat ride on a lake. Just a heads up though if you get carsick, the ride is a little zig zag-ish 🙂

CARTAGENA

STAY

Hostal Santo Domingo Vidal | Calle San Juan #25-72, Getsemani, Cartagena

Nice, simple, breakfast available … 5 minute walk from walled city. I liked staying in the Getsemani neighborhood outside the walled city because it wasn’t as expensive or touristy and had a hip vibe. Lots of street art and near a square with bars and restaurants. Young clientele.

EAT & DRINK

Ohlala Bistrot | Calle Larga Callejon Vargas, Getsemani, Cartagena

Very charming & airy bistro with a French chef. Decor and food was delicious, a great place to eat lunch. Nice wine & ceviche!

DO

The old city of Cartagena is a great place to wander, shop & take pictures. To be honest, we didn’t do many of the typical “tourist” things, but I liked bargaining for the oh so trendy threaded bags & sandals with colorful pom poms. Ask a local maybe before you go looking what they think you should be paying. They also offer the free walking tours, but we did not take advantage because we weren’t there for very long.  

PALOMINO

STAY

The Dreamer Hostel | Palomino

We had a great stay at Dreamer! Since we were on our honeymoon and we’re in our thirties lol we opted for a private room & bath with a terrace, but they also have dorms available. This place had a great location on the beach, a nice pool & a large bar and restaurant. This is a good place to stay if you want to meet other travelers but also have the option of privacy. You are also not limited to just eating or drinking at the hostel, as there are other options within walking distance. 

We took a bus from Cartagena to Santa Marta and then from Santa Marta to Palomino. You can also fly directly to Santa Marta or Barranquilla, depending on where you’re coming from. 

EAT & DRINK

I’m not going to lie, we pretty much ate all our meals at the Dreamer. Honestly, it was so convenient that it was right on sigh and the food was decent. They do a very looooong happy hour at their bar with very yummy drinks. They also have trivia night! If you’re not into the hotel food, there are several options as you walk along the beach and on the road leading up to the main highway. It’s a cool little backpacker/yogi community there.

DO

Besides the pool on site and hanging at the beach (which is pretty but unfortunately the waves are a little strong for swimming), there are lots of activities in the area that the staff at Dreamer are happy to give you info about. One of the biggest attractions is Tayrona National Park, which you can get to by bus. We actually ended up getting talked into chartering horses (!) to ride to the beach, which was a cool experience but also a little scary. Seriously, sometimes I just had to close my eyes and pray that the horse could manuver the twists and turns. It did cut out a lot of time though so we were able to enjoy the beaches for longer. Not all of the beaches are swimmable, but the horses & guides took us to Cabo San Juan de Guia, which is the most popular and is swimmable. There was a place there to eat lunch. We ended up walking back along the beach for a bit and then through the marked trails in the jungle which was really pretty, we even saw a Capybara

Another fun activity we did with some other travelers we met was tubing. The staff at Dreamer will let you know what time tubing trips are leaving, and there are guys on motos that will be offering tubes for rent. They take you on their motos with your tubes and let you off at a trail, where you still have to hike quite a ways to get to the river. Wear flip flops! Some of the girls that came with us didn’t wear shoes because they didn’t want to worry about them in the tube, but then they had to hike for a long ways without anything to protect their feet from the bare forrest floor, complete with horse poop and fire ants. Trust me, you will be happy you have protection on your feet for that. Also I would suggest to bring beers or something to drink. Once you get to the river, it’s literally just floating down lazily until you reach the ocean. It would have been nice to crack open a beer while relaxing and taking in all of the birds and other wildlife we saw. It’s really cool because you get to see where the jungle meets the ocean, all the while getting to know your new Dreamer friends. It’s a nice way to spend a half day!

PROVIDENCIA/SAN ANDRES

When we first booked our trip to Colombia, we weren’t even aware of these islands – no joke. BUT, they were such an amazing and memorable part of our trip, I can’t imagine our honeymoon without our visit to these jewels. The islands belong to Colombia but are closer geographically to Nicaragua and have a total Caribbean feel. You can take an hour flight from Cartagena to San Andres, we flew Viva Colombia. San Andres is nice but Providencia was pure paradise. To get to Providencia you have to either take another small plane or a 3 hour catamaran boat ride (we did the boat ride, and definitely took our Dramamine!). 

STAY

Hotel Refugio de la Luna | El Bluff, Providencia Island, Colombia

Carmeni provides a very comfortable guesthouse in a scenic location. We had breakfast and fresh juice every morning, and interacted with her very nice family when we were there. She also was super helpful arranging for us to be picked up from the boat, helping us rent a golf cart, tips on what to do each day, etc. I would definitely recommend staying with her if you can!

EAST & DRINK

The first day we went to the beach and found an open air restaurant with a guy grilling fish – this is common, casual and inexpensive. 

Cafe Studio | Soroeste, Providencia Island, Colombia

Very popular spot- cute little restaurant with a garden. We ate there for dinner one night, I had the black crab – delicious but I did feel a little bad later when we passed a bunch of black crabs on the way to Roland’s Bar (see below). 

Roland Roots Reggae Bar | Manzanillo Beach, Providencia Island, Colombia

This place is THE place to go at night on the island and everyone knows about it! Be prepared to drive your moto or golf cart down a long road (just ask all the locals, they will direct you) and watch out for the giant black crabs crossing the road. Once you get there you’ll find hammocks, a bonfire, coconut drinks, reggae music, dancing and cute dogs. It’s really fun.

DO

First thing you will want it to rent a golf cart or a moto bike to get around the island, as cars are rare and unnecessary. Our hostess arranged for a driver to pick us up at the dock when we arrived, and then she also helped us rent the golf cart from her friend. This will be the only transportation you need during your stay.

We spent one day here on the beach (the sand and the water there are pure magic) and one day snorkeling at Crab Cay. Our hostess recommended where to go to find snorkeling equipment to rent and we drove our golf cart there and were met by people trying to rent us equipment. You can rent them fairly cheaply, and then we talked to a guy who we ended up paying to take us to the Cay on his boat (not far) and then pick us up after snorkeling to take us around to a few other locations. That was totally worth it, and you can bargain for a rate. You also will have to pay a fee at Crab Cay because it is a national park. The snorkeling was amazing- lots of beautiful fish and Sea Turtles! There is a bar where you can get a drink before and after snorkeling, in a coconut OBVIOUSLY. 

MINCA

STAY

Casa Elemento | How to get there

We went to Minca for the sole purpose of staying at Casa Elemento. My husband saw the 20 foot hammock on it’s website and was totally sold. It was Quite. A Trek. Not for the faint of heart, and done easier if you only have a backpack, which we did. Once you get to Minca you ride on the back of a mototaxi for 45 minutes straight up a mountain through beautiful, albeit muddy, terrain. Once you get there though, you feel like you’re on top of the world.

The food is excellent, the staff is super chill (it seems like it’s made up of travelers who visited the hostel and wanted to stay), and the guests are friendly. There are resident dogs, a cat, and most delightfully a toucan that lets you feed it! The wifi is non existent, but it didn’t matter. The bathrooms are also open air to the wilderness, as are the “private cabanas” which are basically 3 walls around a bed with an open front view of the mountains and valley below. It was a little bit different for me and a lot more exposed to nature than I’m used to. Would I do it again? Absolutely.

From Casa Elemento there are birdwatching and coffee excursions but sadly we did not have time and the weather had turned rough (we experienced the start of hurricane Matthew there). After our delicious dinner we drank with the new friends we had made and played games until late in the night as the fog rolled in. Such great memories were made and it was a wonderful end to our trip. 

France Provence Travel

My Favorite Spots in Provence

October 27, 2018

One of the reasons I love Marseille is it’s proximity to so many amazing towns & natural wonders! While I wouldn’t have enough info to write a detailed guide for each place, I thought I would do a little list for anyone traveling to the area that highlights towns I would recommend checking out..

We always have a car when we are there which makes traveling to the villages much easier, although some are accessible by train from Marseille. There are sooo many quaint little villages so I may expand this post eventually or write longer posts for specific villages. For my detailed Marseille city guide, please click here. ♥

AIGUE-MORTES/CAMARGUE

The Camargue is a really interesting region in Provence, known for it’s marshy land, birdwatching & wildlife, salt flats & quaint villages. We spent a day in the village of Aigue-Mortes which is an old medieval walled city with towers, lots of shops & restaurants. It is at the edge of a large pink body of water known as an Etang, or Lagoon that gets it’s color from the high concentration of salt in it. You can take a guided tour of the salt flats on a little train – cost is around 10 Euros. It was a neat and unique experience! You can also find wild pink flamingos as well as over 400 species of birds. Wild horses and cattle roam the rolling landscape, which looks a bit like a Monet painting. While in the area, you can also visit the village of Arles, made famous in part by Vincent Van Gogh’s painting “Cafe at Night” (you can actually visit the cafe where he based his painting off of – I’ve read that the food is not great so you can go for the picture only!). We ate at this very cozy Spanish tapas place in Arles called Bodeguita

AVIGNON

Avignon is a must see – about an hour and a half from Marseille on the Autoroute. It’s larger than the other villages I’ve recommended (more of a city) and has quite a rich history as well as nice shopping & restaurants. The city center is walled so when you arrive there are large parking lots between the city and the river that is priced very reasonably and you are able to leave your car and walk in. Once inside the city, it’s easy to spend hours walking around exploring. Place de l’Horloge is great for strolling or people watching from a cafe. Rue de la Republic has a lot of French stores & international Boutiques – you can also find many shops selling local products and souvenirs. Les Halles d’Avignon in Place Pie is a large vine covered market with 40 stalls selling local and regional food & wine.

Avignon was briefly home to the Catholic church, and you can see evidence of that in the form of the grand Papal Palace that sits in the center of the city. The palace is colossal and you can simply walk inside or you can pay an entrance fee to tour the museum, which I would recommend. Avignon is situated on the Rhone river, and you can take a boat tour around the city which is a nice way to spend an hour or so. There is also the famous Pont Saint-Bénézet, the inspiration for the song Sur la Pont’Avignon. You pay a small fee to walk on the bridge, but you get a headset which tells you all about the history as you walk on it.

AIX EN PROVENCE/PUYRICARD

Every time I’m in Marseille I make at least a few trips to Aix, about a half an hour away on the autoroute. A large University town in the middle of gorgeous countryside with charming pedestrian streets, Aix is what I would picture/describe as a classic Provence experience and it is absolutely lovely in my opinion. Since we usually just drive in for the day or the afternoon from Marseille we haven’t needed to stay overnight much. There have been a few occasions though where we have needed to book accommodations, including a week stay with our friends in a luxury villa outside of Aix (that was AMAZING but unfortunately got sold and I’m not sure if the new owner rents it out!) and an AirBnB for my Grandfather right in the heart of the city that he thought was great.

Like most French and European villages, one of the best things to do in Aix is wander the streets. There are so many great shops (from luxury, to bargain, to local artistsans & souvenir shops) and great places to stop and eat or drink. A tradition for us is getting a slice of Pizza at Pizza Capri on Rue Fabrot- with takeaway slices as big as your head – you will not regret it! Walk by the Place d’Albertas – an old brothel but now a nice little fountain square where people hang out and there is sometimes live music. Rue de la Verrerie has a lot of bars and a good Kebab shop. There is a large market on Tuesdays, Thursday and Saturdays that is not to be missed.

One experience I highly recommend it Chateau LaCoste – a beautiful winery/restaurant/museum outside of Aix in Puyricard. I’ve been here several times and the grounds are beautiful, the wine is great and they have a lovely terrace restaurant where it’s nice to get lunch or aperitif.  There are also beautiful sculptures throughout the grounds and an art and architecture museum. During the summer they have movie showings on a large screen outside. It’s truly a wonderful place!

CASSIS

About a half an hour from Marseille along the beautiful (and winding!) Mediterranean coast. Cassis is a special place to me because I got engaged there, on the top of the Cap Canaille, which I highly recommend you visit for sunset. Cassis has more of a Riviera vibe being right on the sea and there are plenty of cafes and restaurants on the harbor where the people watching is excellent. Also there’s plenty of great boutique shopping in the village and there is usually a market in the Place Baragnon with art or different items depending on the day and time of year. There is a beach in the village, but if you feel like an easy hike you can visit my favorite calanque (see the Marseille post re: Calanques), Port Pin! There is a car park and a snack bar before the hike and it’s really not bad. The water there is gorgeous, just make sure you watch for jelly fish and you can because the water is CRYSTAL clear. You can also take a Calanque cruise if you prefer to see the Calanques by boat. If you decide to spend the night in the area, we stayed at a lovely B&B right after our engagement right outside the city center called Le Clos De Cigales.

LE CASTELLET

About 40 minutes from Marseille, this charming little village is easy to visit for an afternoon. Do not get confused, as there are apparently 2 places in France called Le Castellet, but I am recommending this one! Perched and walled, you park your car at the foot of the village in a car park and walk up and into the pedestrian streets. There are plenty of little gift and artisan shops and nice cafes, and the view is amazing. If you want to make a day of this area, there are tons of vinyards around as it is in the Bandol wine region. Also – there is a feral (?) cat colony there so you will see plenty of them roaming around, sleeping on your car, and some may let you pet them!

GORDES

One of France’s most picturesque perched villages, the breathtaking part of visiting Gordes will be your approach. Make sure to stop at the foot of the climb to the village and take photos! Once in the village it is mostly pedestrian and you will have your typical shops, cafes, restaurants, etc. It is very close to the famous Abbaye de Sénanque which you will most likely recognize as the church among the lavender fields in countless Provence posters, stock photos, etc.

ÎLE DE PORQUEROLLES

Lovely day trip from Marseille, drive to Hyères and you can take the ferry to this beautiful and virtually vehicle free island with a gorgeous beach. There are also dolphin watching excursions you can book from here, as well as biking, windsurfing, paddle boarding, etc.

LAC ST. CROIX/VERDON

The Gorges du Verdon are known as the Grand Canyon of France and are within 2 hours of Marseille. We rented kayaks with our friends during our summer group trip to Provence and had a great time paddling our way through the river running through the gorge. The water is a beautiful light green and there are plenty of caves and mini waterfalls to explore. It was pleasant and also a pretty good workout! There is also Lac St. Croix nearby which is a beautiful crystal lake with a beach where you can swim, camp and canoe. After our day of adventures we went to Sainte Croix du Verdon and had a magnificent dinner with a view overlooking the lake at Le Comptoir. I still think about the lavender honey & goat cheese bruschetta I ate there, and the view was truly unbeatable.

VALENSOLE/LAVENDER FIELDS

If you’ve ever dreamed of running through the never ending lavender fields of provence like you see in all of the posters/stock photos, this is the place to go! Lavender is in season June-August so if you are visiting in the summer be sure to check it out. You can find sprawling acres of fields around the village of Valensole, where you will also pass numerous farms/shops selling lavender honey and various other deliciously scented goodies. You can pull off the road to take pictures in the fields, and trust me you WILL have company! There are also many bees flying around the fields but they seem to be really focused on the lavender blossoms vs. stinging unsuspecting tourists. We made the mistake of having our windows down the first time we drove through and had a few bees fly into our car, so maybe only crack your windows or put on the AC :). After some photo ops we drove to the village of Puimoisson and had dinner on the lovely terrace of Cote Soleil, a simple and lovely pizza/french food place there.

Lavender fields near Puimoisson

THE VAR

The Var is a department that is included in the Provence Region and borders Bouche-de-Rhone (where Marseille is located). It is home to some beautiful countryside and quaint towns, including the towns of Tourtour and Correns which we spent a few days exploring. We stayed with friends in Correns (fun fact: this is where Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie got married at their winery Chateau Miraval) which was small & simple but was a great base for exploring the region. During our stay we visited Le Cascade de Sillons – an easy walk to a lush (and freezing) water hole where we had a lovely picnic. There is a gorgeous waterfall where brave travelers take the plunge and jump into the deep waters below. We went to Tourtour one day for lunch and it was such a charming village with amazing views of the valley below, shops , restaurants & a sprawling antique market.  

France Marseille Travel

Why You Shouldn’t Skip Marseille

October 7, 2018

ABOUT

Marseille is a complex and beautiful place that I feel has somewhat of an unfair reputation. It’s not as shiny or neatly manicured as Nice or other places on the Riviera. It can be gritty. But it also has such a cool culture and sense of pride in it’s residents and it seems to me to be more real vs. the touristy Nice & Cannes.

It is a big port, and the population is very diverse. The location is amazing, right on the sea but surrounded by mountains, and it’s full of great little pockets if you know where to look. The more I spend time there, the more I love it. I would recommend watching the Anthony Bourdain Parts Unknown Episode on Marseille if you can before you go – it’s a great little preview and commentary on the city!

STAY

Apartment in Endoume | Rue des Flots Bleus, Marseille France

We are extremely lucky in that we always have a place to stay in Marseille with family. Last fall though, we took a trip with my grandfather and rented a place that was in a better location for sightseeing and had a good experience. This apartment, while a bit dated in decor, was perfect for a stay with 2 couples (one room did have 2 bunk beds though) or a family.  The view & terrace alone would alone would make me book it again. The location was right on the Corniche JFK near the Michelin starred restaurant Le Petit Nice. 

Cours Julien

This neighborhood is one of my favorites in the city, and would be a great place to stay and explore. For a New York reference: It’s like the east village of Marseille – lots of fun bars and restaurants, cute boutiques, graffiti, hipster/boho vibe. I love to walk around here and browse the shops – there are also plenty of good restaurants & bars here. If you book an AirBnB in this area it would be easy to walk to plenty of places. There is also a metro stop here so you can access other sites and areas easily through public transport (see below under TRANSPORT).



Booking.com

EAT

Marseille is famous for seafood (specifically Bouillabaisse) but our favorite thing to eat there is PIZZA – the pizza in the south of France is SOOOO good! Also if you see Nougat de Montelimar in any shops, be sure to try it. Even just browsing through a grocery store is fun and you can get lots of great goodies to eat while you are there and to take home (did someone say French chocolate?!).

Chez Ze | 402 Chemin de Morgiou, 13009 Marseille, France

Chez Ze is our absolute favorite restaurant in Marseille, a big part of it being the lovely terrace with a large tree growing out of it, providing shade. Even if you can’t sit on the terrace, the food is really good- I usually get a Salade Niçoise but they also have excellent pizza and pasta. It’s also at the foothill of a mountain where you can hike to the Calqanque Sormiou (see below under DO).

 UMMAGUMMA | rue des Trois Rois, 13006 Marseille, France

Cute place in the Cours Julien, delicious food & romantic/cozy atmosphere. As I recall, they give you a sample of house liquor with your meal.

Chez Jeannot | Vallon des Auffes, 13007 Marseille, France

The food here is fine but you really go for the location – right on the Vallon des Auffes which is a small port with ships where you can watch the sunset while enjoying your food. They have a little but of everything here – seafood, pizza (of course), traditional French, etc.

La Grotte | 1 Avenue des Pebrons, 13008 Marseille, France

This place is on the outskirts of Marseille in a small village called Callelongue. The restaurant is run by a family that has owned it for years, and the decor is regal. It’s in a great location right on the water and the food is pretty good. They have pizza (sensing a theme here) but also lots of local specialties and fresh seafood. If you go during the day, you can do a hike to the Calanque Marseilleveyre, enjoy the beach, and then finish your day with apéro and dinner at La Grotte.

Pastis: the drink of Marseille

NIGHTLIFE

The drink of Marseille is Pastis – a liquor with a slight licorice flavor that is mixed with water and served over ice. It’s not for everyone but you should try it once. I prefer it mixed with almond syrup, which is called a “Mauresque”. It’s usually only 1 or 2 euros at the bar! Also wine is generally very cheap, so even picking up a bottle at the store and drinking it on your terrace is really nice!

Fun areas to go out are the Cours Julien & the Vieux Port, Cours Julien has lots of little bars and pubs that you can walk to. The place below is a spot called Au Petit Nice where we’ve gotten a drink on occasion – they also have a big terrace that may or may not be open Also the Vieux Port has a lot of bars and restaurants, O’Malleys is one we’ve gone to a lot to watch games and get drinks

20000 Lieues | 12 boulevard Alexandre Delabre , 13008 Marseille, France

Another really neat bar that is a bit off the beaten path is in a cute little old fisherman’s village on the outskirts of Marseille called Les Goudes. It’s right on the water and feels like you’re in an old ship! Definitely a local spot – they serve food during the day, have outdoor seating and I think live music sometimes.

DO

Calanques & Beaches

The calanques are a series of inlets that run along the Mediterranean coast from Marseille to Cassis. If you like hiking, nature, and beautiful beaches, this is a must for any trip to the Marseille area. Most of them are only accessible by foot or boat. There are a few calanques that you can access around Marseille, which you will find more information on from the link above. From Cassis (approx half hour drive from Marseille), you can take a Calanque Cruise, which will show you all the different Calanques from the boat. That option won’t allow you to swim in the Calanques, but is a good option if you want to see them all in a shorter amount of time. The tours are usually in French only :). Port Pin is my favorite Calanque in Cassis, and Sormiou is a great option in Marseille. Sormiou can also be accessed by car during peak season if you have reservations at the local restaurant there, or from October-Spring.

Marseille city has a few of it’s own beaches – Plage de la Pointe Rouge &  Plage du Prophete are the main ones. These beaches are okay but not as clean and have more of a “city beach” feel if that makes sense. For a more pleasant beach experience I would recommend hiking to a calanque in Marseille or Cassis.

Vieux Port 

The “Old Port” of Marseille, lots of shops, restaurants, sometimes markets. Fun to walk around and take in all the sights and sounds

MuCem 

Mediterranean Culture Museum near Vieux Port, cool architecture – great to even just walk around if you don’t feel like going in

Notre Dame de la Garde

Large church of Marseille that sits on a hill – there’s a cute little touristy train you can take up the hill which is fun – I don’t think it’s too far from the Cours Julien to walk to the base of the hill.

Chateau D’If 

Island off the coast of Marseille – it’s an old prison and the site of Monte Cristo! There is a museum and tour. You can take a ferry from the Vieux port. The ferry also goes to the Frioul which is another island with a nice beach where you can bring a picnic and hang out. 

Colorful Street in the Cours Julien

SHOP

Cours Julien

Mostly boutiques and fun vintage/antique stores. One of my favorites is Fifty Balloons, I’ve bought a few things there over the years.

Le Pleine Market 

Large open air market where you can find everyone from produce, to shoes to beauty products! Every Tuesday and Thursday in the Cours Julien. Just really watch yourself there- I’ve always felt safe but it is very crowded so bring only a small purse (if any) and keep it very close to you just in case. There is a Pizza truck there called Pizza Claude and his pizza is AMAZING fyi.

Vieux Port Rue Saint Ferreol 

Large shopping street near Vieux Port. Has lots of European chains. There are also lots of little shops and markets selling souvenirs.

STAY SAFE

Like any big city, Marseille has it’s share of crime. In general, I feel very safe in Marseille and I would just follow the common sense rules of going out in a city. Stay in well lit and well populated areas & keep your belongings close to your body. You might also see armed guards at places like tourist spots & train stations – they carry machine guns which can look intimidating, but that’s just how they all are and there are more of them because of the European attacks in the past few years. Avoid the Quartier Nord.

TRANSPORT

Marseille’s Metro system is really simple. There are only 2 lines: Red and Blue. The metro tickets are 1 or 2 Euros each and you can purchase them on the machines in the station (which you can set to English). If you stayed in the Cours Julien for example, you would be near stop Notre Dame du Mont Which is only 2 stops from the main train station. At that stops you could switch to the blue line which would bring you to the Vieux Port. I’ve ridden it by myself many times – like anywhere just be alert and mind your belongings.

Can’t wait to visit Marseille? Don’t forget to pin this post!

Denver Travel USA

My Favorite Spots in Denver, Colorado

June 29, 2018

Denver is a hip city located in the midst of amazing natural beauty. We have some really good friends in Denver so over the past few years we’ve had opportunities to visit and explore in both the winter, spring & summer seasons. I am sharing some of my favorite spots, as well as places to explore in the surrounding areas. (Pro tip: If this is your first time visiting Denver, just be aware that the altitude can cause symptoms such as nausea and dehydration, so make sure to drink plenty of water and take it easy if you are doing any hiking.) ♥

STAY

River North Arts District

While we are lucky enough to be able to stay with friends when we visit Denver, we spend a lot of our time in this artsy neighborhood and it has plenty of great spots within walking distance.

Street Art in Rino

EAT

Thump Coffee | 1201 E 13th Ave, Denver, CO 80218 (Multiple Locations)

I’ve spent several mornings teleworking from this chill cafe. In addition to delicious coffee beverages they also offer breakfast & lunch options and local beer & kombucha on tap. Wifi is free and unlimited and there are plenty of spots to set up and plug in if you get there early.

Snooze an A.M. Eatery 2262 Larimer St, Denver, CO 80205

This was a happening diner in a fun neighborhood, complete with bright & retro decor. Expect a wait and an amazing selection of egg’s benedicts, breakfast sammies and sweet treats.

Rosenbergs Bagels & Deli | 725 E 26th Ave, Denver, CO 80205

Don’t miss this authentic New York bagel shop on your breakfast rotation in Denver! Yes, the line is really long. Yes, maybe the sandwiches are a bit pricy. But you will not be disappointed with the quality! I mean, they import the water they use to make the bagels from New York, so you know it’s gotta be good. 

Sassafras American Eatery | 2637 W 26th Ave, Denver CO 80211

This restaurant has a 2 locations in Denver and one in Golden, Colorado and is also a popular spot. The location we went to in Jefferson Park was in an old house and had eclectic decor and a cute outdoor dining area. The food was American Southern with a strong Cajun flair, and my “Maque Choux Grits” were sooo good with pimento cheese. They also have lots of creative cocktails, milkshakes & coffee drinks – the first Bloody Mary I tried was too spicy (the Sasafrass Mary) and when I couldn’t drink it easily they brought me the Garden Mary with no extra charge which I thought was really nice. We shared the beignets at our table which were pillowy and excellent. 

Los Chingones | 2463 Larimer St, Denver, CO 80205

Upscale Mexican in RINO district, has a nice outdoor dining area, creative tacos & good margaritas. 

Mizu Izakaya | 1560 Boulder St, Denver, CO 80211

I was surprised to discover Denver has a sushi scene! Mizu had an ultra trendy vibe and the sushi was great – they also had a lot of alternatives to sushi rolls & interesting appetizers, like the crispy brussel sprouts with candied walnuts & lemon oil which were delicious. 

The Inventing Room | 4433 W 29th Ave #101, Denver, CO 80212

This place had the most interesting desserts I’ve ever seen – and they are all made with science! Ice cream made on to order with liquid nitrogen is then combined with imaginative ingredients to create instaworthy (and drool worthy) masterpieces. I had the Coconut Rice Pudding Ice Cream with Tropical Fruits & Curried Rice Paper (Amazing), but other items include Creme Brulee Waffle with Grilled Strawberry Jam Ice Cream & Nutella and Sticky Toffee Pudding with Butterscotch Cream & Vanilla Bean Cotton Candy. How could you skip this place?

NIGHTLIFE

Ratio Beerworks | 2920 Larimer St, Denver, CO 80205

As you will discover, Denver and the surrounding areas have a lot of breweries, lots of which I have yet to visit. Ratio, however, has been a staple of ours during our time spent in Denver, located in the RINO neighborhood. It’s selection is simple and I enjoy their French saison the best. The outdoor seating area is really fun and has corn hole and usually cute dogs (with their humans of course!). There are rotating street trucks parked outside if you get hungry.

Avanti Food & Beverage | 3200 Pecos Street, Denver, CO

This whole “upscale cafeteria” with a bar trend has really caught on…and I like it! Avanti is one such place – a group of food vendors and a bar all under one roof. There is also a really cool porch/rooftop area where you can sip your cocktail (Paloma in my case) while looking out at the Denver skyline. I hear it gets crazy crowded for happy hour and at night, my friends and I visited during the week mid afternoon and it was lovely.

View from Avanti

DO

Venture Out of the City

I recommend you spend at least a day outside of the city, exploring the surrounding nature and towns. Some great places to visit are Breckenridge (great in the winter for skiing with a cute downtown), Golden (historic town with a river where you can go tubing in the summer), Boulder (college town with pedestrian shopping area and hiking nearby at Chautauqua Park). You can also visit drive up the Mount Evans Scenic Byway and take in the views at the top of this 14,000+ peak, or if you are more ambitious you can also hike it. Red Rocks is a large music venue right outside of the city and is breathtaking – definitely stop by and see it even if you can’t catch a show there.

Denver Cat Company | 3929 Tennyson Street, Denver, Colorado 80212

I have this thing where I now visit Cat Cafes in every city I go to. This isn’t 100% true but I have started racking up my experiences! As far as Cat Cafes go, Denver Cat Company rates really well. There is not a strong discernible “cat smell” and they had tons of ADOPTABLE cuties to play with, some of which were kittens! There is also wifi and nice areas to sit, work & read. There is an $8 entrance fee to cover the cost of the foster program which I think is totally reasonable. Like most cat “cafes” in the US, this is not an actual cafe with meal service, although you can buy coffee, hot chocolate or snacks.

SHOP

Tennyson

This is a cute area where the cat cafe is and has some nice boutiques & vintage stores. Jolly Goods had a good mix of locally made art, gifts & clothing. SecondLove was also really cute – the interior had a really cool aesthetic and they had a really curated collection of designer and affordable consignment pieces. Lady Jones was a really nice boutique with a lot of trendy yet classy pieces that you could wear to work or out. 

RINO (see above) also has a few neat shops, notably Topo, the flagship store of high-design, colorful, USA-made outdoor gear, apparel & bags.