November 2017 - Bermuda for Thanksgiving Trip Report

About a year ago, I knew there was no way I wanted to stay in NYC for Thanksgiving weekend. I grew up here my whole life so the magic of the holidays in NYC is not as appealing to me as it is for others. I also really hate the cold and knew I wanted to go away, but where could I go that would be close by, warm, and easy to travel around?

In Feb. of last year I found a pretty good deal to visit Bermuda for about $1,300 including flight and hotel. I've been stalking going to Bermuda for a few years and in general I would say going in the summertime, it usually costs more than $1,500 for flight and hotel. I booked on Expedia.com as usual, because if you also use www.upromise.com, which is a cash back rebate site similar to ebates.com and you get like 3% cash back on vacation combos.

I've always heard amazing things about Bermuda and always wanted to check it out. So is going to Bermuda for Thanksgiving weekend worth it? I will break down the pros and cons.

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Pros:

  • Such a short flight! I think it's just 2-2.5 hours away from NYC. Note there is also a one hour time difference.
  • Locals are really friendly. I don't find that to be the case at all island countries but in Bermuda, it felt very safe and people were helpful. There's a significant expatriate community due to all the companies that have offices there for tax purposes so you'll see a good mix of people.
  • No Zika. Apparently, mosquitoes can't thrive in Bermuda since there is no standing body of fresh water. Bermuda is surrounded by the salty ocean.
  • Easy to get around. You can't really rent a car due to limits on cars on the road, but it's pretty easy to get around on the local buses. There's not that many roads either, so everything kind of moves directionally.
  • Gorgeous clear blue water. Even on a cloudy day, the water was a brilliant shade of blue! It's because Bermuda sits on very white sand reef. So diving, snorkeling here is good.
  • The island is on the same latitude as the Carolinas, it's not as far south as the Caribbean islands. As such, Bermuda is not within the usual path of hurricanes.

Cons:

  • Everything on the island is expensive! Particularly the food. There are some affordable options but for the most part, eating here is as pricey or more than an average meal in NYC.
  • Weather in November is hit or miss. I was there from Wed through Sunday during Thanksgiving weekend and it rained pretty hard all day half the time. It was warmer than being in NYC (it was about 60s-70s) but the rain was a drag.
  • Not much to do on the island. Yes there are a ton of beaches to explore and some caves and museums to see, but if you're a well-traveled person, this place won't be as interesting from a cultural or activity perspective. There are things to see, but at this point in my traveling, I'm sick of seeing naval fortresses unless they're intricately designed/different. On the other hand, if you haven't been to many other islands, you may find their local attractions more appealing.
  • Had the weather been nicer, I would have liked to gone on a glass bottom boat tour since the water seems to be clear. I probably would've had a nicer time in the summer but it's also more expensive to go then.

Overall

Bermuda was a good weekend getaway from NYC but would I recommend it for Thanksgiving weekend? Yes, if you've always wanted to check it out and you want to get a better deal than going in the summertime. No, if you travel a lot and have been to a lot of other island getaways. Of all the islands I've been to, this is probably one of my least favorite. It was very pretty and nice, but just boring to me. The weather played a factor as well. I think the weather was pretty good the weekend before we arrived so it's a gamble. When it rained, it rained pretty much the whole day and at times, very heavily. The food was good, but not that amazing that you should go there just for that. Plus it's so expensive to eat there. However, it really is an easy trip from NYC so I'm glad I got to see it but I would never want to return unless I was going there for free! 

I stayed at the Princess Hotel in Hamilton, Bermuda (a Fairmont resort) and it was good for its location. It's not on the beach, it's close to downtown Hamilton (a 10-15 min. walk) but I picked that in case the weather wasn't great. They have a free shuttle to the beach though which gets PACKED so definitely line up early for it. 

Highlights:

  • Horseshoe Bay is gorgeous. Pink sand beaches hug the turquoise shoreline. In off season though, there are no services (ie bring your own food, beach towel, chair, etc.)
  • Eat at Hog Penny Pub. Apparently the inspiration for Cheers, the Boston pub, the food here was delicious (ate twice) and they have a good pre fix deal during the weekday. Can make rsvps on Open Table.
  • Lunch at Lost in Triangle (LIT)--best fresh fish tacos! A local casual sports bar, but the owner catches the food he serves. Came back twice for the fish tacos, didn't try much else. So filling, healthy, and tasty. It's in the heart of downtown Hamilton.

Skip:

  • Barracuda Grill--it's one of the most highly rated place to eat seafood but I thought it was overpriced and overrated. It's elegant and service was great, but in terms of quality and price, Hog Penny which is right next door is a much better deal and experience.
  • St. George--it's the other larger city in Bermuda but really not much to see there. It's about a 30-40 min. ride from Hamilton by bus, unless you're really bored and have nothing to do then go visit but not a must-see, in my opinion. Ferries do not run from Hamilton to St. George in off-season.
  • Royal Navy Dockyard--tourist attraction. Go if you've never seen anything similar, otherwise nothing to write home about this place. You can take a ferry to here from Hamilton during off season though.

May 2017 Trip Report: Amalfi/Ravello/Positano (Day 9)

Thursday was an amazing day. It started off kind of bleak--it was drizzling in Positano so not a good time to relax on the beach. I knew Friday's weather was supposed to better for the beach so I decided to head over to Amalfi and Ravello instead. I'm so glad I did because even though Amalfi is so close by, it was sunny! 

I wish I started my day off earlier. In my opinion, taking the ferry boat over is way better than the public bus since you don't know when it might arrive. I wish I had gotten on the 10 am ferry from Positano to Amalfi but I took the 11:10 am instead after I had breakfast at my B&B (they have umbrellas!) and got ready, etc. The ferry fare one way was 8 euros and I bought a roundtrip ticket. You buy them right off the ferry deck to the right of Spagio Beach (I checked/took snapshots of the schedule the day before). I knew the last ferry back was at 6 pm but I didn't want to risk being caught in a huge crowd so I aimed for the one before that, at 4:20 pm.  

Anyway the ferry ride from Positano to Amalfi was fine, it was raining at the time so didn't really see much and was sitting below deck indoors. Within 25 minutes we reached Amalfi though and the sky was clear and the sun was shining! 

In order to get to Ravello, I knew the public bus was the only way to get up there since it sits on top of Amalfi. I found out from the information desk that you can't buy tickets on the bus, you must get them from the Tabacchi shop right across from the bus stop (there is a huge awning that indicates it's a bus stop for all the Amalfi Coast towns--it's about a 5 minute walk to the right as you leave the ferry dock near the parking lot). Tickets were really cheap (2.80 euros I think) compared to taking a taxi up to Ravello which can be 30 euros or so. The bus supposedly comes every 30 minutes so I waited for the 12:15 pm bus with throngs of other tourists.  

 Riding up Amalfi town via bus! 

Riding up Amalfi town via bus! 

However as I waited for the bus I started to doubt I could even get on it!!! There were so many people waiting!!!!! Also 12:15 came and went and no sign of the public bus but lots of traffic going by. At the same bus stop, there is also the red tourist bus where you can jump on/off. Luckily there is a city sight seeing tour bus just going between Ravello and Amalfi and it doesn't make any other stops. I asked how much it was and it was 5 euros one way, 9.50 roundtrip. I decided to spend the extra money as I was limited on time, plus the bus was open air which makes it great for pictures and more comfortable to sit in anyway. I'm so glad I did this because I got to Ravello way earlier and more comfortable than if I took the public bus (and I saw so many other public buses that were crowded and packed w tourists standing). So totally skip the public bus and spend the little extra on the red tourist bus for comfort and convenience. Plus you get to hear interesting facts along the way on the tourist bus. The red bus also comes and goes every half hour (whenever it's :15 or 45). It's more reliable since it doesn't stop anywhere else.

By the time I got up to Ravello it was 12:45 pm and I knew if I wanted to see Amalfi town too and get on the 4:20 pm ferry back to Positano, I needed to leave Ravello either by 1:45 or 2:15. So as soon as I got up there I speedwalked everywhere! 

Ravello is breathtaking though. I really wish I spent at least a half day, not just a couple of hours. Or even a whole day! It's just so pretty and charming. It truly is a garden city. It is very small so you can see most it in a couple of hours but to really enjoy and take it in, I think half or full day is better. Especially compared to Amalfi which was soooo congested and not as pretty.  

The views to the coast are amazing! I thought Oia on Santorini was beautiful (and it is) but I love how Ravello was short and sweet. I didn't have time to eat lunch since I was trying to cram so much sight seeing in a short amount of time.  

 View from Ravello! 

View from Ravello! 

The main square is lovely and wish I had time to sit and have a snack or coffee. Everything just looks like straight out of a magazine on the Italian countryside. Flowers and trees were nicely manicured and Richard Wagner (composer) is celebrated here. 

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Walking around town is just magical and serene. Much more calm and secluded than Positano or Amalfi. 

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I definitely rushed around to see what I could, grabbing some gelato for lunch in the main square. I wish I had more time to leisurely explore! 

 Private garden on the other side

Private garden on the other side

The most popular attraction up in Ravello is Villa Rufolo. Admission is 7 euros but I think it's so worth it. The villa is spectacular and they hold classical concerts here as the setting is fantastic. Great views of the coast from the villa as well. You can see all this in about 30 minutes if you walk thru quick. 

 View from the Villa

View from the Villa

After enjoying what I could of Ravello, I caught the 2:15 pm bus back down. While doing my research I read that staying in Amalfi was better as it's cheaper but I'm sooo glad I stayed in Positano instead. Amalfi was full of tourists!!!! Positano is touristy as well but it's better controlled since you can't really park there. In Amalfi there are huge parking lots which makes bringing in people easier. I did not like it that much. It seemed more 'cheesy' than Positano although souvenirs and shopping is cheaper here. 

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I kind of wish I spent another hour up in Ravello but I didn't know I would feel this way about Amalfi. I just walked through the main shopping area and then along the coast line while I waited for the 4:20 ferry. I did pick up a small bottle of limoncello for 4 euros (among the cheapest I saw and it had a label verifying that it's made with Amalfi lemons).  

 Religious fountain in Amalfi town

Religious fountain in Amalfi town

The ferries run pretty on time so definitely show up 5-10 minutes before so you don't miss them. There's usually a sign on the boats that say what the next destination is so just look for that as there are many boats that come and go on the dock. There are organizers who will tell you as well. 

 Panorama view

Panorama view

The ferry ride back was beautiful as the weather was better and I got to sit outside on top of the boat. 

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After I was back in Positano, I headed back to my room and took a shower. I was dying for a great meal and all the highly rated places near Venus B&B were booked up!! I was not deterred though. I headed over to Da Vincenzo, which I really wanted to try, and at 6:15 pm it was pretty empty since everyone eats later. I asked if I could eat right now and they said absolutely but I had to leave the table by 8. No problem for me! And so I happily sat outside, right by the road, with an amazing view. It's everything I thought dining in Positano would be! 

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I know some people think sitting outside right next to traffic is gross but it's not too bad...I could smell the diesel fumes 10% of the time and being from NYC, where I've sat outside before and would get soot or micro dust/dirt in my glass of water, that didn't happen at all here. So it may not be perfect but it's not as gross as it is in major cities. For an appetizer I had a fresh tomato stuffed with raw shrimp on fresh mozzarella cheese and it was amaaaaazing!!!! I hardly eat raw shrimp and was afraid to but wanted to try it and it was soooo delicious. And no I did not get sick. In fact I came back the next night (at the same time and got the same table!) and had it again! The waiter recognized me and was pleased. I also had the lobster linguine which was also good and very filling. The next night I didn't want any more pasta so I had the yellowtail dish which was ok. I do recommend this place for the quality and price and definitely get rsvps in advance! Otherwise come at 6 pm to be seated!

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After dinner I walked off the calories along the path which goes past the center of town. You can only really walk (with a proper sidewalk) to the last bus stop in town (you wil see people waiting) but it's great views of the town in the evening.   

 Sunset time Positano

Sunset time Positano

May 2017 Trip Report: Catania to Positano (Day 8)

I've been wanting to visit the Amalfi Coast for years . I had been to Capri and Sorrento a year after college but didn't have enough to make it down the luxe area of Southern Italy. I am so thrilled to finally achieve my dream of coming here! It's everything I thought it would be! Beautiful views, laid back vibe, but also classy. I love it here in Positano. 

Planning on how to get here was a nightmare logistically. There is so much info and many options you can take. The most popular areas to stay in the Amalfi Coast are Sorrento, Positano, and Amalfi. I chose Positano as it's in the middle and I just always loved seeing pictures of it. 

 Spagio Beach, the main beach in Positano

Spagio Beach, the main beach in Positano

On Wednesday morning I left for Catania airport at 7:30 am even though my flight wasn't until 11:40 am. I'm so glad I left that early!! While driving to the airport, the exit from the highway was closed so had to take an alternate route. It worked out fine but you never know with these things. Then when I tried to check in, it just took forever! People at the airport were just soooo slow especially at the computer desk check ins. I had a flight with Alitalia from Catania to Naples but apparently when I booked it, I didn't purchase it with the ability to check in luggage. Since I knew my luggage didn't meet carry on requirements I just paid to check it which was 48 euros! Oh well at least my one way ticket wasn't too bad ($92 USD but better to fly one hour than take the ferrry/train for half the day!).  Anyway by the time I checked luggage and cleared security, it was 10 am which left me an hour to eat before boarding the plane. Catania Airport is small and there weren't a lot of options to eat. 

The flight to Naples ended up being delayed due to congestion on the runway. I landed at 1:30 pm instead of 1 pm and I got an email from my B&B host that the car service he sent for me was about to leave. Luckily my luggage popped up quick and I was able to catch the driver (who was also shuttling 8 other people and I was the last to arrive, whoops). However had he left, the next shuttle was at 2:30 but I'm glad I made it in time. 

So if you've been reading this blog, you'll know I value time. Getting from Naples to Positano by public transportation seemed like a nightmare so I asked my B&B host to arrange a dependable private transfer service and he really came through (the original one he proposed had atrocious reviews and when I sent him the link, he found another company which had better reviews). I was picked up by Seahorse Car Service and it was 90 euros round trip which I thought was great since I was traveling this leg of my trip solo and I knew the ride was over an hour long. We made a couple of drop offs as we headed south and before I made it into Positano, the driver stopped somewhere along the way and said I would be changing cars. The next car was right there and instead of a big van it was a nice small luxury call all for me! I think it's because Positano is further away so they have someone else take you the rest of the way. Anyway, service and everything was great and I'm thankful that my B&B host took care of all the arrangements (he sent me the voucher and I will pay him the fee for the ride since I think he covered it already). 

if you ride down to the Amalfi Coast, be sure to sit on the right side for amazing views of the coastline!  

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As for where to stay in Positano, everywhere I looked seemed quite expensive for just one person. Somehow I stumbled upon Venus B&B Inn and I am super thankful I did. Not only is the owner, Gippy, very responsive, but he's so friendly and welcoming and his place is in a great location for the price. For three nights single, I'm paying 285 euros.  As for the location, it's on via Fornillo and it's right at the beginning of the long walk down to the main part of town/beach. If you're healthy, love to walk or exercise, this is a great location because although it's a 15-20 min walk to the center of town , it's a beautiful downhill walk and a slightly challenging walk uphill (but not really if you're active). I also liked staying here as it's easy access to the main road, rather than staying somewhere with a lot of stairs to climb. And let me tell you, there are TONS of stairs. I inadvertently climbed 50+ flights twice because I thought I was taking short cuts. And yes, taking the stairs is 'shorter' in distance than walking downhill/uphill but thigh killers are thigh killers. I prefer a mild slope any day!

However one positive thing about taking the stairs is you don't have to watch out for cars. If you walk on the main road back and forth you have to be vigilant with the traffic. It's not too terrible but it can be slightly annoying.  

Unfortunately for me it was cloudy when I arrived in Positano. The views were still great though and I spent the evening getting familiar with the town. For dinner I made the mistake of trying to walk to the restaurant from the beach. I ate at C'era Una Volta which was decent but wouldn't say I'd go again (paperdelle bolognese was nice but not omg I have to have it again nice). Anyway it's further uphill than my B&B and from walking up from Spagio Beach, it took me about 40 minutes and I arrived drenched in sweat with aching calves!

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Luckily the restaurant has a free shuttle service and when I asked, they kindly let me take it back down.  

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I spent the rest of my night admiring the view from my balcony. I was also woken up at midnight with loud firecrackers for a wedding celebration! C'est la vie. 

 

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May 2017 Trip Report: Ortigia (Day 7)

Last day in Sicily was spent eating as much as possible! The pros of staying at a hotel with breakfast is it's easy to access and included in the price. The cons are of course not being able to go out and try breakfast and you might fill up by loading up on hotel breakfast. 

On our last full day in Ortigia, I tried not to eat too much to save room the rest of the day. Although Ortigia is very lovely, I think we could've cut it short by a day. But I didn't want to feel rushed which is why I planned to stay in town for 3 full days. You really need just a day or so to stroll around the city. I doubt there is an alley or street we did not walk down on at some point! If you love history and want to see everything, three days is good. But for me, I'm not that interested so I just like sampling food and wandering scenic venues. As I've said in past posts, I have limit to seeing museums and fortresses and churches!

The thing to see in Ortigia, however, is the archaeological park. I read mixed reviews on it and since Greece is still fresh in my mind, I passed on looking at more rocks. We did walk to the park (to get exercise in and walk off breakfast), it's about 20-30 minutes from Ortigia. Tried to wait for the local bus #2 instead but it didn't seem like it was coming!

 Brilliant sandwiches  

Brilliant sandwiches  

Highlights of Food in Ortigia

All this was luckily discovered on our last day:

  • Caseificio Borderi: cheese maker by trade who now makes amazing fresh sandwiches for just 5 euros each! One is enough to share for up to three people (ask him to cut In thirds). The line starts at 9 am and can get long. I was the fifth person in line at 10 am and waited almost 45 minutes! The guy who makes the sandwiches is chatty and he tends to make two at a time (so if you order one w specific toppings he will make an identical one to sell later). My sandwich was on fresh bread with fresh tomatoes, mozzarella cheese, ham, mushrooms, rocket salad, and lemon juice and some other cheese. Was delicious and the cheapest meal we had! There are a variety of different toppings you can request. Great to pick up early in the morning and have it for lunch later in the day. They also sell olive oil and other items. 

 

  • Everywhere in Sicily you'll find jars of cream of pistachio and pesto pistachio for sale. Pistachio apparently grows very well in Sicily due to the climate so they have tons of pistachio products. We ended up buying cream of pistachio jars as well as cream of almonds. They are delicious! It basically tastes like Nutella but instead of chocolate flavored it's pistachio or almond. We bought large jars for 7 euros and found the price to be about the same (or higher) everywhere. Great for souvenirs too. 

 

  • Arancini Gluten Free: I love arancini! These hand size rice balls can be found throughout Sicily. In Ortigia we came across a gluten free Arancini fast food place near the center of town. Very cheap, 3 euros each and can totally share one. They have a bunch of options, including vegetarian and seafood and meat. We tried the Italian state one, which is vegetarian and mostly potatoes with a spicy kick to it (it was pretty spicy but good) and the one with beef sausage. Both were delicious and had a nice crunch. 

 

  • Sicily Fish and Chips:  We actually did not eat here but wish we did based on reviews. The internet is not that reliable with hours of operation for restaurants in Sicily so if you want to eat somewhere you should try to find it during the day first and check out if hours are posted. In this case we thought we could come for dinner but when we arrived at 6 pm it was closed. Knowing that most locals eat later we returned after 8 pm and it was still closed on a Tuesday night! Then I saw in one of the reviews that they close after they sell out so maybe that's what happened since many people seem to come here for lunch. Supposed to be fresh fried seafood. 

 

  • La Tavernnetta de Pietro:  Turned out for the best that Sicily Fish and Chips was closed as we got to try this place instead and this was the best meal we had in Sicily!!! Not only was the food so fresh but also so cheap compared to the other two places we had dinner in Ortigia! A large plate of mussels for 7 euros and three perfect pastas that were all 10 euros or less!!! The house white wine was also delicious and half a liter was only 5 euros!!!! Definitely come here for great homemade pasta and fresh seafood. There are two locations (across from one another on the same street but diagonally within a block). On the weekends I think both locations are open but on the weekday only one is. You can sit inside or outside on the pedestrian street. We did not have rsvps though you can make them online. We got lucky as showed up around 8:30 and waited just five minutes for a table. Others after us got turned away, the place was packed. 
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Sicily was great and we only had time to see the eastern side. Of all the places, Ortigia was my favorite to stay in but I did enjoy visiting and walking around Taormina for the scenic views. Ortigia has more charm but not a ton to do whereas Taormina there seemed to be more to sightsee and explore. Just depends what you like to do and how fast you want to pace yourself. If you don't care for museums, history, etc. you can definitely just spend 5 days visiting both. But if you want to relax and not rush then a week is good.  

May 2017 Trip Report: Ragusa (Day 6)

On Monday we left Ortigia and headed for the nearby Baroque town of Ragusa. It was about an hour and a half away and I'm glad I did some research on where to park because the streets are super narrow and windy!

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The best place to park if you're just gonna walk around for a couple of hours is probably near Piazza della Repubblica, at the bottom of Ragusa Ibla. Ragusa is a city divided into two parts. Ragusa Ibla is to the west and Ragusa Superior is to the east. If you put in "parking lot near Piazza de Repubblica in Ragusa" in Google Maps it will take you there. In general I had no issues at all using Google Maps but I stuck to the cities and not off the beaten road. Parking is public and for free. There was plenty of parking by the time we arrived around noon. At 3 pm it was a lot fuller but still spots left. Another parking area closer to Ragusa Superior is by the garden (Giardini). There is a ton of uphill/downhill/stairway walking in Ragusa but if you love to walk/hike/be physical you'll be fine. Public toilets cost 50 cent euros but were clean. 

You can spend about 2-3 hours in Ragusa depending on what you wanna see and how much you want to walk. We were here from noon to 3 pm and that was more than enough for us. The main highlights are the big churches, one in Ibla and the other in Superior, and the garden was very nice too. It's about a 30 minute walk in between the two areas depending which route you take.  I'm not big on souvenir shopping (unless it's for food items!) but there were some cute stores around.  

 View of the countryside from the public gardens of Ragusa

View of the countryside from the public gardens of Ragusa

Ragusa is one of the oldest cities in the world and a UNESCO heritage site. Very quaint and a different feel from Taormina and Ortigia. 

 Under the Sicilian sun

Under the Sicilian sun

Afterwards we headed back to Ortigia to walk around and have dinner. The prettiest part of Ortigia is the western side where you can catch the sunset and wander around the scenic paths along the water and restaurants. I especially love the very long promenade underneath the city walls. As you stroll along you can listen to music from the bars/restaurants and people watch.

 Walk along the city walls

Walk along the city walls

I also like how the locals just find a spot they see fit and sunbathe where they please.  

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Dinner was at Schiticchio Pizzeria, which we liked (but not love). Very casual place to eat and many things to choose from. I thought the toppings for the pizza were fresh (tomatoes, cheese, rocket salad)and we tried one of the calzones with ham and cheese. I love ham and cheese so Italy is a great place to sample my fave combo!

 

 Calzone

Calzone

May 2017 Trip Report: Ortigia/San Lorenzo Beach (Day 5)

Sunday! Usually in Italy things are shut down on Sunday so we planned to go to the beach today. I had done research a while ago and saw that you can rsvp for beach chairs at the private beach of Agua Resort. This resort is right near San Lorenzo beach and is supposed to be one of the best beaches in the area. So after breakfast off we went. It took us about two hours to drive there but it should've taken an hour. There was some traffic on the way to Noto but once we passed the congestion traffic was free.  

Agua Resort is kind of misleading. I thought it would be this nice resort with nice facilities but it was more of a collection of beach homes for rent and public facilities. The facilities were nice, clean and casual but I expected something a bit more upscale. Oh well.  It was also hard to figure out where to 'check in.'  Eventually somehow directed us to a group of Italians just standing around so I went over and showed them my rsvp which they did not have on their beach map. It was fine though, they had plenty of chairs and we rented three beach hairs under a palm tree for 20 euros. I was also told we could rent towels from them (our Ortigia hotel didn't have beach towels) but there were none to rent. Lastly I didn't see any food or drink services!!! Maybe we just too early in the season. It was kind of windy today and too cold to go in the water. Anyway we sat around for a few hours just relaxing. The chairs were nice and clean, not grimy so it worked out not to have towels over them at least. 

I do recommend this place for later in the summer but probably too cold for May. It wasn't cold but not really too warm either. The beach was pretty well kept and the colors of the water were clear blue.  

 

 San Lorenzo beach

San Lorenzo beach

Afterwards we came back to Ortigia and explored parts of the city we had seen before. The main attractions seem to be on the northern and western end of the island and it was very lovely to walk around and take in the culture.  

Our best meal of the trip in Sicily so far was at Divino Mare. Everything was well cooked and fresh. The mussels were delicious and meaty and the salmon was sooo good. I had the truffle pasta with small shrimp and that was strong flavored and perfectly al dente as well. We also tried the codfish which was good but a tad saltier. All for 68 euros with wine! Cheaper and better quality than yesterday's meal.  

 

 Divino Mare

Divino Mare

Then we walked by the Duomo at night which was beautiful and capped off the night with gelato nearby. Pistachio anything in Sicily is so good! 

 Duomo   

Duomo

 

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Pistachio gelato is the best! 

May 2017 Trip Report: Mt. Etna (Day 3)

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Friday was spent all day on Mt. Etna, an active volcano that blew up as recently as a month ago! We did the tour with Etna People, who I thought did a fantastic job.  I think you can book up to a month in advance as the tours may be altered based on weather and what's happening on the mountain. 

We did the Etna Easy tour, which was 149 euros per adult and includes 4 stops--a cable car ride to 2700 meters up, then lunch, then walking around some old craters, then going into a lava cave, then visiting a gorge carved by lava.  

We had two tour guides, one who gave the tour in Italian and the other in English so the groups were split whenever necessary. One of the guides who spoke English well was a geologist so they give tons of facts.  

The Etna Hard tour goes to the summit but I don't think it was available due to the recent lava eruption last month. It is a bit chillier up the mountain and the tour gives you good jackets and hiking boots to borrow for free if needed.  

 

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We were supposed to see the valley at the top but it was too cloudy. Was still cool though, the terrain was all black rocks and sand and felt like we were on the moon instead. You do need to have good balance to walk around since it's so rocky but really if you're remotely fit you can walk around. It was also cool to feel the heat from the surface below. Just pockets of hot air when walking around. 

 Where the eruption from April 2017 occurred.  

Where the eruption from April 2017 occurred.  

Lunch was a typical Sicilian lunch of some veggies with vinegar and two types of pasta. One was ravioli with pistachio cream and beef and the other was a macaroni pasta with mushroom and tomato sauce. Pretty decent, it's lunch at one of those restaurants that caters to tour groups.  

 Crater face

Crater face

After lunch we walked around some craters. We walked around the entirety of the one above which was cool and great views of the area.  

 

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Afterwards we headed down to explore a lava cave. They give you helmets to wear and flashlights as it's total darkness and you must watch where you step. We only walked about 0.15 miles in but it felt longer due to the rocky jagged surface! 

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Lastly we went to see this gorge which was carved by lava flows hundreds of years ago. The water that flows through here is said to be therapeutic for your body and they unite you to soak your feet in the water so bring a towel/flip flops if you're interested in that.  

Overall a good tour to do if you're interested in volcanos/nature. A lot of walking is involved so it's quite active. We were picked up at our hotel at 8:45 and our day ended by 6:30 pm.  

 

May 2017 Trip Report: Taormina (Day 2)

Taormina is a beautiful little city. Perched above the sea with a grandiose view of Giardini di Naxos below, it reminds me of the charming Greek towns of Oia and Crete. Due to the impending G7 summit next week, there was a ton of military and polic presence all around. I didn't mind though, I'm used to that being from NYC and it made me feel safer walking around. I think many tourists canceled or moved their plans as I didn't find visiting crowded at all at this time of year in mid-May. 

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I'm glad we stayed a bit further away in Giardini di Naxos as it's cheaper and more low key. In my opinion you can see the highlights of Taormina in two days.  

Getting Around Giardini di Naxos and Taormina 

The Interbus is the local city bus (blue bus). Fares are cheap, about 1.50 euro one way in between both towns. You can buy a one day pass for ten euros, but it's only worth it if you ride more than 6 times which you probably won't do in a day. You can buy tickets at the Recanati terminal if you're staying near Giardini di Naxos or at the Taormina bus terminal. You can also buy from the bus driver directly.

The timeliness with the bus is a hit or miss. Between the two towns there seems to be a bus (not the same bus but different buses going different routes but at least between these two destinations) every 15 minutes or so. We got lucky and was able to catch a bus from Recanati to Taormina and connect to a bus going to Castel Mola 5 min. after arriving in Taormina bus terminal.  On the way back was a different story. The return bus from Castel Mola to Taormina took forever!! We waited over an hour and half to come back down. Even though there was a bus scheduled to depart it never came. It's a long walk down, good for a hike, but we didn't want to walk. A taxi between Taormina and Castel Mola starts at fifteen euros but since we had bought the one day pass we refused to take it. A taxi from Castel Mola to Giardini di Naxos was quoted to us at 35 euros. 

Later in the day we walked down from Taormina to Mazzaro and then we took a bus from Mazzaro (where the beach is) back to Taormina. The bus was scheduled to leave at 17:20 but it arrived and left at 17:14 (we were there at 17:10 just in case). So plan accordingly! The next bus after 17:20 wasn't until 18:50. 

Highlights of Taormina

I skipped the Greco Theatre since I saw a lot of that in Greece a few months ago. I'm sure it's nice but thought admission was steep at ten euros. What I did like visiting was:

  • the Public Gardens
  • walking around Corso Umberto
  • going up to Castel Moral
  • walking down to Mazzaro/Isola Bella

The Public Gardens

A nice walk with beautiful views south of city center. Can prob spend just 20 minutes around here walking around, smelling the roses and enjoying the overlook.  

Walking Around Corso Umberto

Basically the city's Main Street and full of designer and local shops geared towards tourists. I like just people watching and going from one end of the town to the other (less than a mile walk). Definitely stop for gelato at Gelatomania (near the Port Messina side). Also if you walk to the other end where Excelsior Palace Hotel is, definitely walk towards the hotel and go down to the pool area (piscina) to find awesome views as well.  

 Castel Mola

Castel Mola is a tiny town perched father up from Taormina. You can walk here but it's a quite a hike. One hour is good enough to see the town and the remains of the castle at the top. Breathtaking views of the sea below and of Mt. Etna. There's shops and cafes in the town and the bus stop is also a wonderful overlook. 

 What you see from Castel Mola

What you see from Castel Mola

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Mazzaro/Isola Bella

The walk from Taormina city center down to the beach is about half an hour. It's a nice walk and not too challenging if you like to walk in general! You also see more of town life and pretty views of the water. Walking back up is more challenging though as you will have to go up a ton of steps but going down is totally relaxing and fine. 

Once you reach the bottom of the walk, you have to cross the street and go down more steps to actually get to the beach. About 5 minutes. The beach is pretty and not too big. Water is crystal clear and you can rent chairs from the restaurants there. 

Isola Bella is an island that you can across a narrow sand path to and you have to pay admission to go on the island. I just went to see it but didn't bother to try to access it. It's pretty but that's all I can say! I didn't spend more than an hour here because of the delay we had with the bus at Castel Mola. By the time we got here it was 4:30 and didn't want to stick around til 6:50 pm for the next bus up so we took the 5:20. 

The bus stop to go back to Taormina is right in front of Cafe Isola Bella (which is to the right once you come down from the stairs to Taormina). You can buy bus tickets at the cafe.  

 

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All in all, Taormina was nice to visit and glad to have seen it before the G7 summit rolls into town! The city shuts down to all visitors this upcoming Sunday the 21st.  

May 2017 Trip Report: Taormina/Giardini de Naxos (Day 1)

15 years! That's how long it's been since my very first visit to Italy. I can't believe so much time has passed since then. Traveling in your 20s vs. 30s is a huge difference. I definitely know more about myself, what I like/dislike, how to manage my time and resources, how to approach people, and not gonna lie, having more spending power is great!! Gone are the days when I was frugal to every cent. I mean, I still appreciate the value of a dollar but I also appreciate time management and comfort as well!

This Trip is all about Southern Italy. Well, parts of Southern Italy. At the moment I am on the isle of Sicily. I was a bit hesitant to come but due to work, this is the only time of the year I can come here. But it coincides with the G7 Summit being hosted in Sicily as well so I rearranged my plans to avoid it.  

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Getting to Sicily

I did a lot of research on visiting Western Sicily vs. Eastern Sicily. Given that I was just in Greece a few months ago and Sicily has a lot of Greek influence/artifcacts, I decided to focus on Eastern Sicily which seemed to have more of its own character and I liked the proximity to Mt. Etna.  

If visiting Palermo, you fly into Palermo airport. If visiting Taormina, Catania, Syracuse, or Ragusa, the Catania airport is the best.  

I flew via Alitalia and had a connecting flight via Rome to Sicily. The connection was easy to make within an hour. I would say 30-45 minutes is cutting it close. Once you arrive in FCO (Rome's international airport) at Terminal 3,  it's about a 10-15 min walk to the domestic terminal, terminal 1. You do have to go thru customs here at FCO (and not again in Catania) and it might be a good idea to grab euros at an ATM as you see one! I didn't see any in Catania airport but possible I missed thm. 

The flight between Rome and Catania is short and smooth--only one hour! After we arrived in Catania, we tried to find Avis for our car rental but apparently, unlike other rentals, the Avis station is not in the airport! It's outside to the right of the terminal (just look for all the car rental signs), about a 3-5 min. walk. 

I was a bit nervous about our car rental because I booked it through Autoeurope UK and not Autoeurope US. For some reason U.K. has better deals and prices than the US (by a significant amount of at least $100 USD) which is why I used it. I thought Avis would say something but they didn't say anything so it doesn't matter what resident you are. I think Autoeurope U.K. can negotiate better deals and rates with car suppliers than the US. We did get the excess insurance with Autoeurope but since we wanted to be really cautious and have roadside assistance we got the total coverage insurance. This was about 24 euros a day in addition to our already paid AutoEurope voucher ($259 USD, it was $360 when I booked months ago but a few weeks earlier I checked and the rate dropped and was able to get it at a cheaper rate!). 

After we got our car we headed to Giardini de Naxos, about 45 min. away. There is a toll. booth along the way so just grab a ticket and proceed. When you exit the autostrada is when you pay. Our ticket was 1.50 euro and the booth is manned so you will get change. 

Where to Stay in Giardini de Naxos

We are staying at Hotel Villa Daphne and though it's only been a few hours, I'm glad we came across it. The staff is super friendly and they have a small parking lot beneath the hotel for 10 euros a day. There is free parking a few minutes walk away though on one of the side streets. But it's also great for its proximity to the Recantini Bus Terminal Station. It's literally two minutes away by walking and here you can grab a ride to Taormina. 

 

Accss to Taormina

Maybe we got lucky but despite the preparations for the G7 summit, we had no problem getting into Taormina today. The bus ride to and fro was no more than 30 minutes. Sure there's a lot of military and police presence but it makes me feel safer. Plus I guess I'm used to that from NYC. Will see how tomorrow goes with access! I expected security checkpoints or closed off roads but we didn't encounter any...yet!

Food Adventures

  • Granita is the bomb!!!! I read about it online and didn't know what to expect but it is sugar and fresh fruit goodness rolled into one. BamBar in Taormina is famous for it and did not disappoint. Fave flavors were hazelnut and melon.  

 

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  • Had dinner in Giardini de Naxos at a pizza place called Valentino and tried the vegetarian pizza and pizza with pistachio sauce and prosciutto. So good! And affordable prices as well. I wouldn't say it's the best pizza I had in my life but was freshly made and good quality.  
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Feb. 2017 Trip Report: Houston, Texas

I wanted to go somewhere for President's Day weekend, but wanted to go somewhere much warmer than NYC but not longer than a four hour flight and reasonably priced. My two options were Savannah or Houston, and since I was treating my mom, she picked Houston to bank on the weather (turns out Savannah's weather was about the same, and was sunny the whole weekend while it rained half the time while we were in Houston--oh well!). We booked the trip back in November and was able to get a direct flight and hotel stay through Expedia for just under $600 per person. 

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Where We stayed in Houston

I stayed at the Whitehall Houston, which is right at the edge of downtown Houston. While I enjoyed our stay overall, I was kind of disappointed in our room. The hotel gave us a handicapped room, which I wouldn't have mind except the shower area seemed small. It was basically a small area with a curtain and it just seemed that water would get everywhere since there was no door/tub/etc. So I called the lobby to change rooms and they were nice enough to allow us to, but the next room we had were right behind the hotel elevators! As we were settling into the room, I kept hearing rolling mechanic sounds and it took me a while to realize it was the elevators! I didn't want to change rooms again though, the noise eventually lulled me to sleep but it was a bit annoying. Also, when we arrived, the room had two bottles of water that seemed complimentary so we took them. Then the next evening we were given only one bottle and the last day none! So I am confused as to whether we were supposed to get water or not. The hotel also only had valet parking available. Upon my research for hotels, I think that's the case for most hotels located in the city center but I thought the prices for Sunday were a bit excessive. Friday and Saturday night valet parking is $19/night but Sunday jumps to $29! So overall, I did like the hotel for its location and the staff was fine, but the minor things like the room comfort, water bottles, and parking gouge for Sunday night were the "cons" to me. The hotel was very clean though and also has an outdoor pool, which we did not use since it was not warm enough. So I would say stay here only if you can get a good deal.

Highlights of Houston

There are tons of resources online of what to do in Houston. The information that was most helpful to me for planning was Thrillist's list of 50 free things to do in Houston. I also was NOT in Houston on a Thursday, but if you find yourself there on a Thursday, a bunch of their museums are free so plan accordingly!

For our trip, we saw/visited:

  • The Heights' 19th Street Shopping District: This stretch of vintage/antique shops is about 20 minutes from downtown Houston. If you love antique/vintage shopping this might be worth a look. It's about two city blocks long, so you can pretty much browse the block in less than half an hour. Parking is free on the street.
  • Discovery Green: An urban park in downtown Houston, not much was going on when we went. You can stroll thru it in 15 minutes! Easy to find street parking (metered). Probably more lively in the summer. Had these cool flower sculptures below though.
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  • The Downtown Underground Tunnels: It rained half the time we were in Houston. On the first day we arrived, it rained most of the day! Luckily, because we were staying downtown, we were able to get around the city center by going underground. These tunnels span over 6 miles and is meant for city workers to get around when the weather is too hot out or raining. There is NOTHING worth seeing in these tunnels though--everything below was fast food, fast food, fast food places and then a random Hallmark-type shop here and there. However, it was interesting to see all the people working in the area file thru the tunnels like ants on their lunch break. You can wander in/out of office buildings that lead into mini mall areas so you can probably kill an hour or two here if you just want to move around the city and the weather is bad, but otherwise, there is not much to experience here. Also, it's easy to get around if you just follow the color-coded maps. I think the tunnels are closed on non-office working days/hours though.
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  • The Galleria: Another option to kill time when it's raining. This mall is about 20 minutes from downtown and it is HUGE!!!! Probably one of the biggest malls in America I've ever been to. It has every single store you can imagine for clothes/shoes/dept. stores, etc. It even has a indoor ice skating rink! 
  • Hermann Park: Huge park in the city center. Can be hard to find parking though there are dedicated lots. I think Lot C is the bigger one so a little easier to find parking. Can rent a paddle boat or just stroll around. This park seems bigger and more family-oriented (more picnics, more lawn space) than the Buffalo Bayou one (where you seem to find more bikers and joggers and distinct trails).
  • The Johnson Space Center: This was by far the best part of visiting Houston, especially if you are a bit of a space nerd like me! I've always been fascinated with space since I was a kid and to see scientists and artifacts from past missions was surreal. I was in awe of all those who work here and to think about all the work that goes into exploring a realm beyond Earth.

Tips on visiting the Johnson Space Center

Buy tickets online. When you do, you have to pick 'times' for when you want to do the tram tour and visit the shuttle (they call it the Orbiter tour online). I don't know if it's because we went on off-season day, but no one checked on the times you actually entered these exhibits but a lot of what I read online recommend that you get a timed entry. We went on a Saturday, and the center opens at 10 am. Definitely start your day as early as possible so you can see as much as you can. The highlights are the tram tours, the Journey to Earth movie, and then check out the Orbiter tour. Below is a picture of what you are allowed to board/explore at the end of the Orbiter (the Endeavor Shuttle!) tour.

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For the tram tour, note there are TWO TRAMS. Although most reviews suggested to allocate 90 minutes total to both tours, it took me two hours because there was some congestion/crowding to get on the trams. Also, if you do buy tickets at the center instead of in advance, you can rsvp for timed entry later but honestly, I don't think they check unless it's super crowded. To risk wasting time, just take these tram tours ASAP. The two trams are the blue line, and the red line. Start with the blue line, which will take you to the Mission Control Center--which is 100% for reeeeeals! This stop lasted no more than 5-7 minutes. We were lucky and it turns out that just as our group arrive, the sun was rising above Earth from the vantage point of the International Space Station that's orbiting Earth. Sunrises like this last 3 seconds! And astronauts up there get to see a sunrise/sunset every 45 minutes during orbit.

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At the end of the first tram tour, you will end up at Rocket Park. You get off and can explore some of the rockets that were launched on previous missions.

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I thought this was the coolest thing to see in person. While this looks like a continuous unit below, it's actually 4 separate pieces (which you will see that it is as you walk alongside of it). You can see rocket park in about 15 minutes, after which you get back on a tram to the main center. This is where we had line congestion, because both blue and red trams take you here before ending back at the museum. So after you get off here on the blue tram, explore rocket park, go back to the museum, get online again to take the red tram, and skip the rocket park on the way back.

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The thing to see on the red tram tour is the place where current missions are being prepared for. it's in a warehouse-type place that spans a couple of football fields, and you will see people at work and all the models they have. The 'next big thing' they seem to be working on is called Orion, and the mission is to one day send humans to Mars and to travel back!

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After the tram tours are over, you can check out other parts of the museum but I think the other main highlight is the movie shown at the Journey to Earth theatre. It talks about the history of past space missions and is engaging. Then you can head to Independence Plaza (ie Orbiter tour aka visiting the shuttle) and see artifacts, including touching a rock from the moon (it felt smooth, after years of probably millions of people touching it!).

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Above: Last spacecraft to return to us from the moon. Below: Model of what it was like for astronauts on the moon.

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Overall, I really found the visit to the Space Center educational and interesting. It's great for kids and adults. If you have zero interest in space though then skip this!

  • Menil Collection: The Menil Collection is a small museum in the Museum District of Houston. They're probably most famous for Magritte artwork. It's a nice visit which you can do in 20-30 minutes. Free parking.
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  • Houston Center for Photography: This place is literally a block away from Menil Collection. It's also very small, free, and you can see everything in 15-20 minutes. Worth seeing if you're in the area.
  • Buffalo Bayou Park/Rain Exhibit at the Cistern: The weather was not great the day we went to Buffalo Bayou Park so I didn't see much of it. However it seems like a great place for a hike, run, or biking activity with miles of trails. We also came here though to see the Rain Exhibit at the Cistern. It's basically an art show with light and thundering rain sound by artist Magdalena Fernandez. It's $10 though and you must rsvp for it. The whole show is 30 minutes and I thought it was cool but I can see people either liking it or hating it. The exhibit closes sometime this spring.
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  • James Turrell's Skyspace: This art installation is on campus at Rice University. It's free and online it says rsvps are required but honestly, you don't need to make them! No one checks, and people on campus can easily wander in and out of the exhibit. The "show" starts right at sundown, although the lights turn on ten minutes before. It's basically a light show (no music or sounds), where the roof of this exhibit changes from deep blues/purples/reds/yellows, etc. It's meant to be meditative I guess, as you gave thru the hole into the sky but it was hard to enjoy with a bunch of rowdy school kids around. So your experience will depend on what you expect and who else is there. There are two areas of seating, benches on the ground floor and benches on the level above. Honestly, I thought the exhibit looked more beautiful on the outskirts. Tip on parking: Rather than pay for visitor parking on campus, just park a couple of blocks outside of the university on the residential streets! It's probably a 15 minute walk (or less) from the residential street to the installation. Just make sure to park near the Shepherd School of Music, or near West Lot 1 (you can google this Google maps!).
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Above: The view from inside. Below: The view from outside (which I thought was more interesting!)

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  • Houston Museum of Natural Science: It rained the morning we were leaving Houston and we had four hours to kill before going to the airport. Most museums are closed on Mondays but luckily the Museum of Natural Science was open! There is a parking garage (which is $20 for guests; there is street parking in front if you can find it) and tickets to all the exhibits are sold separately, which worked out for us because we only wanted to see an iMax movie and the Butterfly exhibit. The iMax move we saw was Wild Africa and it was wonderful! I loved it. I love nature films and this one was very well done and in 3-D. The film was shot lusciously and lasts 40 minutes. Admission was $11 and I thought very much worth it compared to other nature films I've seen in other museums (including NY!). The Butterfly exhibit on the other hand was just ok, you can see it all in 20-30 minutes and I was more interested in seeing some of the unique bugs/reptiles they had on showcase. The butterflies were nice to see but there wasn't too many of them or too much variety. Great for kids, but for adults, might be a bit boring unless you've never seen a butterfly before!
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  • Market Square Park: This is an area of downtown Houston where they seem to have a lot of cool bars and restaurants. It's a quick 15 minute walk around the area and is probably where the nightlife is popping. Since I was with my mom, I didn't try any bars but the bar scene did look cool. We had dinner at one of the restaurants around here (La Fisheria) but I thought it wasn't good so I won't comment further on it except it was a waste of a meal for me!! Oh well. 
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I love how you can grab a drink at the bar below and sit in the outdoor living room couch setting!

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  • Kemah Boardwalk: If you have extra time, or visit the NASA space museum, you can drive out to Kemah Boardwalk after. It's about a 20 minute drive from the Space center (about an hour and change from downtown Houston), and basically this is where people go to eat seafood and go on rides. It's like a mini Coney Island/amusement park. Seemed expensive though but kids would love it. Food is probably overpriced as well but it's right by the water and the ambience is nice. There is free street parking but you have to look for it, and there's also parking lots where you can pay for the day. We got lucky and found free street parking though, just be patient! We just walked around here for 15-20 minutes to have a look since the weather was good but otherwise didn't stay long here.
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  • Chinatown: Being Asian, I'm always curious about other Asian communities outside of NYC. Houston has a big Chinese/Vietnamese community and it was interesting to see it sprawled out over mini shopping plazas. There didn't seem like any place to really 'walk' around like you can in NYC Chinatown, but we did come across Hong Kong City Mall which had a ton of Vietnamese food vendors and a huge Asian supermarket to explore. Long story short though--I'd skip trying to explore Chinatown Houston unless you're really curious. Also, I didn't find the food that compelling (sorry! NYC Chinese/Vietnamese food is way better!)
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  • Brookstreet BBQ: The highlight of all my meals was hands down this DELECTABLE place in the Montrose area of the city. I loved it so much we came back here on our last day before we went to the airport. Everything was very fresh, juicy, and flavorful and you can pick how many meats you want to try (ie 1, 2, or 3 different types of meats) and you get two sides. Most of what we tried was very good. I'm usually not a fan of brisket (find most places make it dry) but this place was soooo juicy. The St. Louis ribs were my fave, and the chicken was good too. Tried the pulled pork which was ok but I'm not a fan of pulled pork in general. The Mexican-styled corn was also yummy as was the bread (I have no idea what kind, but it was buttery) and the potato salad and baked potato casserole was also winners in my book.
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Above: Ribs, pulled pork, and chicken. Below: briiiiiisket! Great value meals (never spent more than $35 for two!)

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  • Good Dog Houston: Another good, casual spot to eat by the Menil museum. Can get a nice gourmet hot dog with different types of toppings. Not a place you have to go out of your way for to try, but if you're in this area and hungry, it's worth coming here to get a snack.
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So...Is Houston Worth Visiting?

Overall impression: Houston is not terribly exciting, there is some stuff to do and I think it would be a great place for families to visit (lots of things for kids to do) but for an adults-only trip, I think there are better options (ie Chicago, LA, Austin). However, we did enjoy our time in Houston and the art scene was much more vibrant than I expected. I'm used to being able to walk around neighborhoods though and I found that you really need to drive to get around the city, which is sprawling. So yes, Houston is worth visiting if you haven't traveled to many other cities in the U.S., much less outside of the U.S., but if you're a seasoned traveler, you might find Houston a bit boring (and I don't mean that to be insulting, just that it's very family-friendly and not the type a visit a solo traveler or adventurous traveler might find as interesting).

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Los Angeles 2016/2017 Trip Report Part V (Spas)

I love spas. There's nothing better than the feeling of being pampered and I'm always on the lookout for great spa deals/places. Knowing that L.A. has a big spa culture, I looked up a bunch to see which one to try and I settled on two: Wi Spa, a Korean spa in downtown L.A., and the Four Seasons Spa in Westlake (about 30-40 minutes from downtown).

Wi Spa

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Wi Spa is a 24-hour spa in downtown L.A., in the K-town section. I came here on New Years Eve, and was a bit nervous that it would be packed with people but it actually wasn't bad at all! Or maybe I am used to worst crowds in NYC, but by nighttime, the place thinned out.

Admission to the spa (which has free valet parking) is $25 and provides you access to saunas, the rooftop lounge area, and the gender-specific hot tubs (no clothes in this area only). If you get a facial/massage/etc., the admission price is included in the service. Since I came on NYE, I decided to go for the Buff & Seaweed treatment, which includes a body scrub, oil massage, seaweed body wrap, facial mask, and shampoo treatment for a glorious 110 minutes. I made the rsvp a week in advance for 8 pm, so I arrived at 4 pm to enjoy the other amenities.

I found Wi Spa to be very clean but not as big as the Korean spas in NYC. There are 4 hot saunas set at different heated temperatures and one ice room. You can also order food there but I didn't try any of it since I had a big lunch earlier. Compared to Spa Castle in Queens, NY, Spa Castle is more 'fun' in that it has more saunas in addition to co-ed jacuzzis on the rooftop (as well as gender-specific hot tubs). The body treatment was pretty good, my skin was baby soft after. Great place to relax and unwind if needed but coming on a weekday is probably better. While the place wasn't that packed as I thought it would be, there were definitely way more kids/teens that I care to be around when I want peace and quiet! My fave sauna rooms was the Salt Room (picture above, where you literally lie in salt!) and the Clay Room (where you lie in tiny balls of clay!).

Four Seasons Westlake Village Spa

When I was researching L.A. spas, the Four Seasons Westlake Village Spa popped up on many lists. I am so glad I checked this one out as the amenities and service here are great! On weekdays, they have specials so come then if you can. I did the Unity Daycation package, which is a 50 minute facial and a 50 minute massage for $290. I thought it was a good deal considering the amenities of a swimming pool, hot tubs, sauna, steam room, and access to the fitness classes (though I didn't get to take any classes). My treatments started at 5 pm but I came around 1 pm and wish I came earlier to enjoy! They also have a nice sleeping/relaxation room too. 

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This Four Seasons Spa is also the largest in the world, with 28 treatment rooms. Thus the amenities are also one of the nicest of all the hotels. There are three hot tubs, two of which are outside and one inside.

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Even though it was 50 degrees out, the plush robes kept me warm, as did the outdoor hot tub. The service staff is really great here too, greeting you with a smile and providing anything you need. I stayed outside for about 1.5 hours, reading by the pool and enjoying the hot tub.

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Lying on these nice beds while listening to water trickling in the spa was lovely too. This was a perfect place to recover after my hiking activities!

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I really enjoyed my time here. If I do come back out to L.A. I would probably check out a different spa just to see what else is out there but this one was super nice to enjoy and may be hard to beat!

Los Angeles 2016/2017 Trip Report Part II (Hollywood Sign Hike)

Griffith Observatory/Hollywood Sign Hike

 

 Hollywood hike from Griffith Observatory  

Hollywood hike from Griffith Observatory  

The highlight of my L.A. trip was hiking from the Griffith Observatory to the Hollywood sign on New Years Day. I initially had planned to go the day before but the weather was gloomy. I'm glad I didn't try to do this Saturday because I had lunch plans with a friend. If you do this hike, allot 4-6 hours!!! 

I had done a bunch of research online but some of the information is confusing until you get there yourself. The number one thing to know is that there are multiple ways to hike up to the sign. Though I haven't explored all the other ways, I feel like starting from the Observatory makes the most sense due to parking and facilities and the views are just breathtaking all the way!

 La la land

La la land

The Observatory opens at 10 am and is closed on Mondays. I thought if I got there a little before 10 am I would have no problem grabbing a parking spot in the lot. I could not been more wrong! I arrived around 9:45 am and the lot was completely full. However, you can also park on the road up/out of the Observatory. I highly recommend you eat breakfast before coming--there are no food facilities and if you're gonna trek 8-10 miles roundtrip, you are gonna be hungry and thirsty! 

I had ended up grabbing Burger King breakfast on the way which I am so glad I did. Below is the view of all the trails going up to the mountain from where I parked my car. I have no idea if these trails lead up to the Observatory but some probably do.  I ended up parking on the road out of the Observatory, off to the side. A ton of cars were parked this way, up on the curb of the road. Basically, if you see a spot on the way to or from the Observatory, just take it! I ended up having to park in a way that my car was on a slant. Californians are super friendly. I was nervous with squeezing into the space and this random guy behind my car helped guide me into the space, and even lifted a big rock from the ground so I wouldn't hit it! And he disappeared before I could say thank you! Trust me, that type of kindness and thoughtfulness is rare in NYC!

 Couldn't ask for a more beautiful day

Couldn't ask for a more beautiful day

I then went to the Observatory to use the bathroom before I started the hike. Although there are bathroom facilities right by the parking lot, there was a long line for them. At the Observatory (which is about a 5 min. walk from the lot), there were no lines and it's free to go in and the facilities are clean. 

At 10:30 am, I finally started my hike. The trail starts right to the north of the parking lot (easy to spot). Even though there were a lot of people on the trail, it was never overwhelming. By the time I came back in the afternoon though, the Observatory was SWARMING. The lines for the bathroom were like 10x longer than in the morning, and it felt more suffocating as people milled around the grounds of the Observatory. I think people who arrive in the afternoon just come for the views from this area and maybe do a short walk on the trail. Morning is definitely best to enjoy this place without hordes. I think getting here by 10 am is safe, but any later it might feel frustrating.

Anyway, at the very start of the trail, there is a sign and map. Definitely have a look!

 

 The map  

The map  

As you can see above, there are MULTIPLE trails. If you don't want to hike all the way to the Hollywood sign, you don't have to. You can just go up to Mt. Hollywood summit, which is about 1.5 miles from the parking lot one way.

 Pay attention! 

Pay attention! 

This little box on the bottom informs you how to get to the sign, which is 4 miles away, one way! To get there, you basically have to hike all the way to the top of Mt. Hollywood, then go down all the way behind it on another trail (there is only one). You'll come into concrete road (but there are no cars), make a right, and walk a bit further where you will see a gate. Make that left entrance to get back on the trail towards the sign. If you stay on the concrete road, you end up somewhere else. Basically, just follow all the signs you see! They are clearly marked and look like this:

 Trail signs

Trail signs

Just keep following the signs to Hollywood Sign. Even though it's listed three times, it just means there are certain overlooks. Just keep going until you get to it. And when in doubt, ask someone coming from the opposite direction if you're going the right way! It's good to check, because like I said there are multiple trails in this area. Following the signs will take you to the sign but it's easy to miss if you're not paying attention. On the way back, I ignored a sign, thinking I knew the way to go. I ended up going down the trail to Canyon Drive and had to climb up a steep hill to get back on track. My quads or appetite were NOT happy with this detour!!

As gorgeous as this hike was, it was definitely a quad kicker. I consider myself pretty active and fit and I was tired after 1.5 miles!! The walk from the parking lot is steep but manageable. So if you're not as active/fit, allot more time. All in all, it took me two hours to get to the top, and a bit over two hours to get back (due to the detour). My legs were so exhausted by the end of the hike and I knew if I sat down, I was not getting back up! There's not too many places to rest on the hike either. You can sit at the top (on the ground) but there are no benches or anything on the way up (well, there was a bench on the Canyon Drive trail detour, which is how I realized I went the wrong way because I did not remember seeing it on the way there!).

 

 Made it to Hollywood! 

Made it to Hollywood! 

The view of La La Land from the top of the Hollywood sign is breathtaking. I got here around 12:30 pm. Thank goodness I had a huge bottle of water. This hike definitely dehydrated me!I What better way to spend the very first day of 2017! 

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I forgot to mention, the night before on NYE, some pranksters changed the sign to say "Hollyweed." Lol. I only caught the sign when it said "Hollywoed", the authorities were quick to change it back. By the time I reached the sign the letters were back to normal.

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On my way back to the Observatory, I stopped by the top of Mt. Hollywood summit (I bypassed it earlier). You can also go to another viewpoint called Captain's Roost nearby but I skipped that since I was so tired and just wanted to eat. Below is the view from Mt. Hollywood summit. 

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By the time I got back to the Observatory, it was 3 pm. I wanted to check it out but like I said earlier, this place was swarming with tourists! So I ended up just leaving. Another reason to start your day here as early as possible: it took me over an hour to get out!!!!!! Because there ar a ton of people here as well as at the park down below at the base, there was so much traffic. I think I got into my car around 3:45 and didn't get out of the Griffith Park area until close to 5:30. I did put my time to good use though--I ended up calling a bunch of restaurants because so many were closed on New Years Day! I ended up eating pizza at Gjelina Take Away, which was thankfully open (and so delicious--will do a food post too).

I really enjoyed this hike though and it's one of the best ones I've been on. I'm not a huge hiker, and this one was challenging, beautiful, and very safe, which is very important to me as a female solo traveler. I'll also post my thoughts on two other hikes I did (Runyon Canyon and Culver City Steps) but of the three this was my fave for sure!

Los Angeles 2016/2017 Trip Report Part I (Overview)

Have you ever wanted to hear a particular song on a radio (and not necessarily something that's currently in the top 10 of the music charts) and then suddenly that song comes on? That type of coincidence has happened to me many times in my life. I remember these moments because my song of choice may not be that popular for that point in time. I've always found it funny when I come across something in society that seems to directly pertain to my life. For example, tonight, about 15 minutes ago, I opened up mail after I finished unpacking from my L.A. trip and this cover stared back at me:

 

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What are the chances my fave NYC magazine, which hardly ever discusses other cities, covered La La Land the same weekend I was there? 

I've been to L.A. a few times before. My first time was during a layover back to NYC from Australia when I was 21. I remember I was in awe of the palm trees, the cool laid back vibe, how everything looked so shiny and new. I visited two more times during my 20s, once with family and another with friends, and I remained fascinated with West Coast culture. It's probably been close to 10 years since my last visit and a few months ago, I just had an itching to go back out to California again so I decided to head out there for New Years weekend. I am so glad I did because it was exactly what I needed to nourish my soul.

Living in NYC is great, I love it here. But every so often I need to get out of town because although everything is accessible here, I do feel like I'm living in a bubble sometimes. In NYC, it's so easy to get caught up in yourself, your peers, your jobs, high expectations, etc. Before I left for L.A., I was feeling stuck, frustrated, and just bored with life. Getting out to sunny L.A. was just what I needed.

I came back last night and I feel so refreshed and relax. L.A. is an excellent place for a solo trip, there's a million things to do. I also forgot how nice Californians are. When you talk to someone, they seem genuinely nice, unlike in NYC where (and I'm guilty of this too), you're generally in a rush to go somewhere else or you have your guard up and/or you don't care to make small talk with anyone. In L.A., I struck up a conversation with a woman in yoga class, something I can say I've never done in NYC. In addition, some random stranger on the street helped guide me in parking my car in a narrow space. He even lifted a heavy rock out of the way of my car wheels, and he disappeared before I could say thank you! 

L.A. has everything--culture, beaches, outdoor activities, great food, and generally awesome weather (it never got lower than 50 degrees during the day while I was there, compared to the freezing temperatures we've been having in NYC!). It was nice to see everything that I fell in love with in L.A. years back was still there and seemed even better than before. I was there for just 5 days and the trip for me was my own personal health/wellness trip. I wanted to be outside as much as possible and do non-touristy things (ie I could care less about shopping or visiting Beverly Hills). A brief summary of my itinerary is below.

The Itinerary (arrived 12/30 but this starts with 12/31 and ends on 1/4)

Day 1: Yoga class, lunch with an old college friend in Studio City, then spent the evening at Wi Spa, a popular 24-hour Korean spa. Admission is $25 ($35 if you go btwn midnight and 4 am) and gives you access to saunas and hot tubs.

Day 2: Visited Griffith Observatory and did an 8 mile roundtrip from the observatory to the Hollywood sign and back. I'll do a more extensive post on how to do this and what to expect!

Day 3: Checked out Runyon Canyon, walked around Santa Monica, Venice, and the Grove.

Day 4: Went to Malibu and visited Zuma Beach, then had a spa afternoon at the Four Seasons Westlake Spa.

Day 5: Checked out Culver City Steps (aka Baldwin Scenic Overlook) and realized how I unfit I am compared to Angelenos! Flew home in the afternoon.

All in all, I had a fabulous time. I stayed at an Air BnB in Venice Beach and my hosts were AMAZING. So friendly and thoughtful. I arrived on Friday evening at 7 pm and they offered to share their dinner with me which was much appreciated after a long flight. Dinner was just a salad but it was a super fresh and tasty salad. They also invited me to ring in New Years with them, which was so lovely of them. I had just gotten home from the Korean spa and planned to go straight to bed, but right after my shower, they called my name and offered me a glass of champagne. They also lit up their front patio with fireworks at midnight! It was such a fun but low key way to celebrate, and quite unexpected!

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It was also nice to just drive around everywhere. I love just cruising around singing to music. The freeways were a bit nerve-wrecking but I got used to it (and stuck to the right lane most of the time!). All the signs and roads are clearly marked and makes sense once you get used to it (like knowing if lanes were going to merge or not). You can easily Uber everywhere but I like the freedom of coming/going anytime I wanted. Parking was not bad either, but I didn't really go out to anywhere except a couple of restaurants and parks. All parking meters took credit cards and I was able to find free street parking in some areas as well. The Santa Monica parking garages all offer free parking for the first 90 minutes too. Never had to valet! But that depends on where you go/what you do. 

I will post details on the highlights of my trip in upcoming posts (total of 5 posts)!

Other Links

Though there are a ton of resources online for L.A., my favorites ones were:

Other Things I Wanted to Do but Didn't On This Trip

  • Museums. I thought I would visit some but didn't because I rather be outside! If I had time, I would've gone to LACMA, Getty Museum, The Broad.
  • Other beach communities. I heard Manhattan Beach and Hermosa are pretty nice but didn't make it down there. I've been to Laguna and Newport Beaches before and can attest that those are lovely as well!
  • Venice Canals. I did go here at night for a peek but couldn't see much since it was so dark at night! It's a small neighborhood with a few canals running through it but the homes there were gorgeous. See it during the day if you're near Venice Beach or Marina del Rey!
  • Amusement parks. Of course Disneyland and Universal Studios would be fun to go to but I've been to the Florida ones multiple times and would only have gone here if I really had nothing else to do.
  • More hikes in Malibu/around L.A. There are a ton of places to go! While the 3 that I did were good, there's still so much to explore.

Where to Stay

Since I was traveling solo, I didn't want to spend too much at a hotel. I also wanted to go somewhere low key, so I opted for Air BnB. Venice Beach was really the perfect location. So close to LAX and it's a good mid point to travel to anywhere else in the L.A. area. Santa Monica would be good too but there's not as many Air BnB options in Santa Monica as there is in Venice Beach, and it's just a 10 min. drive away.

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People did warn me that Venice Beach can be seedy, and that's true. It's not a place you can really walk around at night. There are bums around and druggies near the very commercial streets at night. But I found the residential area I stayed in with my hosts on Woodlawn Avenue was very safe and quiet both day and night.