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 IV (Food)

The one downside to solo travel is there's only so much you can eat on your own! I generally love to try as many things as possible but that's hard when you have no one to share plates with. I came armed with a list of places to try but only got to hit up 3 spots! Below are some of the places I checked out that I really liked.

Bardonna

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On my first full day in L.A., I took a yoga class in Santa Monica and was starving after the 90 minute session was over. I was on Montana Avenue and needed to eat ASAP so I went across the street to Bardonna. There was a line out the door which is always a good sign. Very California-styled cafe, with indoor and outdoor seating. I ordered a healthy breakfast, poached eggs on avocado with toast and a side salad and some lavender tea. It was a great place to read a book, people watch, and just enjoy the scene.

Gjelina Take Away (GTA)

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When I was researching where to eat in L.A., Gjelina kept coming up on many must-eat lists. It came up whenever I asked people who have lived in L.A. for foodie recs. So I came here after my long day of hiking the Hollywood Sign, it was one of the few places that was open New Years Day. Well, actually Gjelina was closed but next door is Gjelina Take Away and they are open all day long! 

Being a New York native, I am quite picky about my pizza so I had to try theirs. They have a bunch of different options but I went for the classic--pomodoro with burrata cheese. Now it's quite possible that I was soooo hungry that even Dominoes pizza at that point in the day would've been a 5-star meal to me. But the perfect combo of red sauce and soft cheese exploded in my mouth and every bite was delicious. If you're anywhere near here (Venice Beach/Santa Monica), I would highly recommend it but I wouldn't say go out of your way to come here. The other offerings were sandwiches and salads. I got a sandwich to go when I left for the airport, it was good but not mind blowing (but definitely probably a lot better than anything you would get at the airport). The place sits on the famous Abbot Kinney Blvd. so you can come stroll the street of boutiques and then grab something to go here.

Sqirl

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Sqirl was another place that came with glowing praises on the web. I'm very thankful I got to try it (I initially tried to go on New Years Day but it was closed). It's located in the Silver Lake area, closer to Runyon Canyon or Griffith Observatory. I wasn't able to find street parking but I did find free residential street parking around the corner. I wish I had more time to try other dishes here, everything looked so good! My breakfast above was fantastic, it's one of their specials called the Cauliflower Hash. Tons of flavor and very fresh veggies (cauliflower and potatoes) with a fried egg on top. I really wish there was a location here in NY. I got here on a Monday morning at 9 am and there was not much of a line but by 9:30 am the line was down the block! It's a very casual place, you order and then seat yourself (and they bring the food out to you).

sugarfish

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sugarfish is an L.A. chain that recently opened in NYC. I've been to the one in NYC 3x already but had to try the original! The real original is in Marina del Rey but I went to the one nearby in Santa Monica. It's very affordable high quality sushi. The L.A. menu was the same as NYC but much cheaper (the cost of rent, I suppose!) There's 3 different omakase-style sets to choose from. If you love sushi definitely come to one of these in L.A. or NYC. The best is the Albacore belly sushi (it's a side order though, not part of the omakase set). In L.A., the most expensive sushi set is $37 and it's $51 in NYC (includes tax and tip).

Eggslut

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I actually texted a friend that we should consider getting in on the Eggslut franchise! This place only serves egg-type breakfast dishes and it is sooo delectable. I really love eating eggs. The order above is called the slut. It's a poached egg in a glass jar on top of pureed potatoes with toast and a side order of bacon and fresh OJ. I went to the location in Venice. It's super casual (metered parking nearby and close to the beach) with small area of seating (no bathrooms). You're basically in and out in 20 minutes. 

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I came back on my last morning in L.A. and also tried the bacon, egg and cheese sandwich on brioche and it was so good too. Basically you probably can't go wrong at this place.

Malibu Seafood Fish Market

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I love seafood and wish I could've ordered more from this menu at Malibu Seafood Fish Market but I wasn't that hungry at the time. Right off the Pacific Coast Highway, this place has very fresh seafood where you can eat on a patio overlooking the ocean or buy to bring home and cook or eat. I got the special, dungeness crab meat on salad with a clam chowder soup. Wanted to get a pound of mussels too but didn't have room for it. I didn't think the meat would taste as good when I saw how it was plated but it was very flavorful and filling. Definitely recommend if you're in the Malibu area.

Other Places

Other places I wanted to try but didn't get to (but came highly recommended to me) were:

 

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. 

Before I Fly...

It is Friday, December 30, 2016. Roughly noon time in NYC. I am sitting at JFK, waiting to go on my last trip of the year.

When 2016 started, my New Years Resolution was to take a trip at least once a month. It didn't matter where, as long as it was outside of metro NYC. I sort of cheated by booking some of trips at the tail end of months (like leaving at the end of March and returning at the beginning of April) but I fulfilled my resolution. As a recap, over this past year I went to:

  • Jan 2016 - Ft. Lauderdale, FL. Visited a friend for a weekend.
  • Feb 2016 - Went to a resort in Playa del Carmen, Mexico all by myself. I thought it would be weird to go on a beach vacation by myself but not at all. It was really relaxing and I never got bored.
  • March 2016 - Went to Cartagena, Colombia with the intention of going alone, but ended up meeting up with a mutual friend who happened to be there the same time as me. It was great. Cultural and definitely outside of my comfort zone, compared to the environment in NYC.
  • April 2016 - Orlando, Florida for a conference. A friend from Texas was also in town for a different conference the same weekend so we got to catch up which was nice. 
  • May 2016 - Copenhagen, Denmark, solo. Loved it. I highly recommend Copenhagen for a solo trip. So much to see and do. Best to go when weather is warm and the daylight hours are long so you can take in as much as possible.
  • June/July 2016 - Nova Scotia, Canada. Was lovely but probably not worth the time/money to fly over there (kind of expensive). Great family trip if you have a lot of time to drive and love to go camping/go somewhere rustic and low key.
  • August 2016 - Went down to Baltimore for work. I was really tired of trip planning by this point in the year so I was totally fine not going anywhere else for this month.
  • September/October 2016 - Greece! This trip spanned almost 3 weeks due to the air traffic controller strikes that happened towards the end of the trip. Went here with family, loved Santorini. Santorini was the highlight destination of all trips I've gone on this year.
  • November 2016 - Visited a friend in Charlotte, NC. Was so good to catch up with her, hadn't seen her in over two years since she moved and we've known each other since high school.
  • December 2016 - Off to La La Land in a few hours

I really love the thrill of travel. Not knowing what the day will bring or who you might cross paths with. I also always see it as an opportunity to learn and reflect on life in general. I love being introspective and taking in other lifestyles.

Even though I've been to LA a few times already, it's been about 10 years since I've back. And in general, traveling in your 30s is way different than traveling in your 20s so I'm looking forward to it. I've always had a thing for West Coast culture and wonder what's new since I last visited.

This morning I felt super anxious though. Despite having traveled solo many times over, whenever the day arrives for me to get out of town on my own I get butterflies. I'm not expecting anything life changing to happen on this trip but it's just breaking out of the normal day to day routine of life that we easily get sucked into that I'm looking forward to the most. I just wish I had more time to go off on trips like these. I know it seems that based on all the trips I took this year I have a ton of vacation time but I don't. I took most of my trips on holiday weekends and took maybe a day or two off in addition. I mainly used most of my vacation days up for Greece. 

Anyway there is no point to this post. I just wanted to collect my year end thoughts of all my travels so far this year. Look forward to see what's in store for 2017!

 

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Greece 2016 Trip Report: Day 18 & Day 19 (Athens & Departure)

It's good to be home! I will do one more post when I have more time summarizing the trip and provide additional thoughts and tips. In the meantime, below is a short recap of this past Monday and Tuesday (I am so jet lagged!) 

 On the way to the highest point in Athens

On the way to the highest point in Athens

Day 18

After breakfast, decided to trek up to Mount Lycabettus, which is the highest point in Athens. You will notice this point right away, it towers over Athens, much higher than the Acropolis. It's not hard to get to, it's about a mile walk from Sygmata Square but it's a walk upwards with many stairs. 

If you put Mount Lycabettus in Google maps, I believe it takes you on the easier route up (which means the entrance on the western side of the park). This path is just more uphill and less stairs. If you enter in from the east side, it's a zig zag of staircases up. Or, you can take the furnicular up, which is what we did.  

To ensure you can find the furnicular, just type this into Google maps as well and it will take you to the right streets/entrance.  It may not seem obvious when you get there but that's because the furnicular is inside the park and goes up through a tunnel. So there are zero views if you take the furnicular. It's also kind of pricey for what it is (5 euros one way and 7.50 roundtrip). But it's for people who are not active and have issues with stairs. Otherwise the walk up/down isn't bad. 

There is not much else to see besides a 360 degree view of the city but I enjoyed it. You can spot the Acropolis, Temple of Zeus, the Olympic Stadium, and the Aegean Sea. People tend to go at sunset but I think it's probably packed at that time (and also not worth wasting time taking the furnicular which would be surely crammed!). We went around noon. 

 

 Population of 600,000.  

Population of 600,000.  

 Acropolis rising above the city with the Aegean Sea in the back on a rare cloudy day

Acropolis rising above the city with the Aegean Sea in the back on a rare cloudy day

Afterwards we spent the rest of the day walking around the city and shopping. All stores are closed Sunday so we didn't get to shop the day before. Then we had our last dinner at Lithos, which is slightly off the beaten track but I liked it. Service was great and food a bit cheaper than in city center.  

Day 19

Our flight to go home to NY was at 10 am. We decided to leave the hotel by 7:20, thinking that getting to the airport by 8 am would be plenty of time. Wrong!  

First, I was annoyed our taxi to the airport was 43 euros instead of the flat rate of 38. I think it's because we stayed at the Electra and there's an additional fee for them to coordinate the taxi (and maybe because it's on one of those questionable pedestrian or non pedestrian streets--meaning cars are not really allowed on the street unless necessary).  

Then it took us 40 minutes to get to the airport even though there wasn't any traffic. The other two times we went back and forth I know the taxis took different ways and for some reason yesterday morning seemed like it was a longer route though it was mostly highways.  

 Last image of Athens at sunrise on the way to the airport.  

Last image of Athens at sunrise on the way to the airport.  

When we got to the airport, the check in line for Delta was long. Think we waited 10-15 min. to clear it. Then we rushed to get a tax refund at customs which is right next to the security line for Gate A departures. The lady there was so slow! Not caring that people were in a rush (ie making unnecessary small talk).  

Then after we cleared security, tried to use the bathroom before boarding. I can't believe that at such an international airport, there are only one or two bathroom stalls! So we had to wait for that as well. By the time we finished, we had 10 minutes left before going thru one more security line to the actual gate. Once you go thru this security line, no more shop access.  

Anyway so I wanted to rush to buy a water bottle and casual snacks but they don't really have a casual newsstand type place to grab and pay and go. Had to wait in a line at a cafe. By the time this was done, it was time to go thru the last security check to the gate. This check in point closes 30 min. before departure I think.  

Long story short, had zero time to even glance at duty free shops or do anything else! 

All in all though, had a nice time in Greece but was thankful to go home. And luckily for us, the only day it rained during the trip was the day we left. 

 

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Greece 2016 Trip Report: Day 17 (Back in Athens)

I didn't realize how much Saturday's travel stresses wore me out. Even though there was nothing I could control, I couldn't relax until I knew everything was sorted out. Late Saturday night, the strike was called off and did that mean Delta would keep its Sunday departure back to JFK? After some calls and research, I found out the Saturday flight from JFK to Athens was canceled so it was very unlikely there would be plane anyway to go from Athens back to JFK on Sunday. It is so frustrating to hear that the strike was called off to avert travel disruption. I know that there is probably more to the story than I will ever know but to use that as an excuse to spin it positively is ridiculous. So many people have already been inconvenienced. 

Anyway we checked into Athens Status Suites Saturday night. Staff there was great in responding and arranged for a taxi pickup for us from the ferry port for 25 euros. For the price and room size (which was huge!) it was a great deal for $144 USD a night for three people right in the city center near Plaka.  Unfortunately they were all booked up the next two nights so I had to figure out a place to stay Sunday and Monday nights. 

There weren't too many options so we decided on Electra Hotel Athens. It's an old school hotel, very traditional and more pricey. But it was only a block away and we didn't want to move too far so we can relax on our last days and not worry about taking the metro or being in an undesirable but cheaper area. So we bit the bullet and paid for $221 USD a night. And though yes it's a classier hotel, it's a little stuffy and the room was half the size of Athens Status. Oh well. 

Spent the day just walked around the center of Athens again. Went to our favorite juice bar Novagea again. Had dinner at some place in Plaka. We had passed by it many times and it was always packed so we decided to try it. After we were given water though, I looked up reviews on Trip Advisor and there were strings of recent bad reviews and how it was a tourist trap. Ugh! I usually look up reviews in advance but I was tired and just wanted to eat. Anyway so I played it safe and got grilled salmon w veggies and it was actually delicious. Salmon was fresh and wasn't overcooked. Was glad it was good but because of my concerns we didn't order much else besides entrees and refusing the bread (in Greece water and bread is not complementary so you need to refuse it if you don't want it). 

Then we saw the changing of the guards at the palace (happens on the hour every hour), got some beers to drink in the room and fell asleep.  

 

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Greece 2016 Trip Report: Day 16 (Aegean Sea)

This morning my worst (travel) nightmare happened. I received an email from Aegean Airlines saying that our flight for Sunday morning at 6:40 am was canceled due to an air traffic control strike. I leaped out of bed. We have to be in Athens to get on our Delta flight at noon back to NYC. I raced to reception of our hotel without washing my face or even combing my hair. I asked what should we do. They said our best option was to get on the next ferry to Santorini right away. The next one would be leaving at 3:30 pm and take about 8 hours to reach Athens. I would need to go to a travel agency to pick up tickets when the office opens at 9 am. I raced back to my room to get ready. 

The Unglamorous Side of Travel

When I returned to the reception desk in a more presentable manner, the woman there gently told me that if my flight to Santorini to Athens was canceled, than most likely my flight with Delta was as well. That thought had not crossed my mind at all during the frenzy of recalibrating my thought process of forgoing the other hotel we had booked tonight on the other side of Santorini and getting a refund from Aegean. But deep down the news sunk in and I checked my Email and had no communications from Delta. I went on the Delta website and it said my flight was still on. 

Confused, I tried to call Delta but because I'm in Greece, you cannot make toll free calls to the US. Ok. Let me trying calling a Delta office in Greece. I checked online only to find those offices are only open Monday to Friday. Of course. Given that it was 9 am on a Saturday in Greece, I wasn't sure who I could text in NY to put me thru. Luckily I have a night owl friend in Florida and I saw on facebook messenger she was just active 6 minutes ago.  

I texted to see if she was still awake (must have been 2 am her time). She wrote back yes immediately and asked what was up. I told her I needed to call her so she could connect me to Delta. Done. She helped put me thru.  

The woman I spoke with at Delta insisted the flight was still scheduled to leave. I asked if she was sure. She said yes. An hour later, Delta even sent me an email asking me to check in online. By then I had gotten the tickets to Santorini with Blue Star Ferry. I gotta say the staff at Santorini Princess Spa was kind. They saw how upset I was and did whatever they could to help. You would think I'd be thrilled to have an extended vacation but that's not how I saw it. I saw this as a mess I would have to untangle later with refunds and rebooking and new bookings. Also I have so much work waiting for me in NYC, I do feel bad being out of the office for any more time.  

Anyway I tried to find more news about the strikes. Finally the Athens International Airport spelled it out loud and clear. Two strikes are to happen. Sunday and Monday and then Wednesday and Thursday. A glimmer of hope. That means the airports should run on Tuesday. And they obviously planned it this way to annoy travelers and promote their cause but not have too much disruption.  

 

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I was really upset by the news. Moreso because I remember when I was booking this trip, I was going to leave Saturday instead of Sunday. Had I left today, I wouldn't have to deal with the stress and extra expenses. I also remember reading about the strikes from the around the same time as last year. And I remember thinking what are the chances it'll happen again on my exact travel dates?

Anyway I tried to call Delta again, by way of another friend who woke up in the middle of night who saw my text (Florida friend was asleep). I spoke to a man and he also said my flight was still on not to worry. I asked anyway if there were any seats for Tuesday and could I rebook just in case. He said there was nothing available for Tuesday (Delta seems to have just one flight a day to JFK from Athens).  I insisted it didn't make sense. I told him about the Athens airport website and how other guests at my hotel definitely had canceled flight notifications too. He finally seemed to check into it and put me on hold to talk to supervisors or another support area. I was on hold for maybe ten minutes. Finally he confirmed yes. The flight would be canceled due to the strikes. I don't know why Delta didn't have this information sooner. I had spoken to guests from Canada earlier that morning who said their Airlines had told them and the receptionist also had told me other American flights had said it too (but she didn't remember which ones). 

He then said he could get me out next Saturday! On a flight that would connect via Rome. It would be of no extra charge. He said I could rebook before the 17th and try to take a train to another city in another country and fly out if there's availability with Delta or one of their partner airlines (Air France, Alitalia, KLM). Since I was about to board my 8 hour ferry, I told him I would think about it then and call Delta back later when I got to Athens. 

I hate wasting time so I was annoyed to take the ferry to Athens. But honestly it's not too bad at all. Economy tickets are cheap (40 euros) and it's a huge ferry and no assigned seating. But the way the seats are seem more comfortable. There's tables and chair settings to choose from like at a restaurant rather than lined seats like it is on planes. They have those for business class but I honestly think Econ is more roomier because you can rearrange your chairs around.  

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Also there is wifi on board (3 euros for 2 hours) and places to charge your electronics. And phone carrier service works well too. Before we left Santorini I did manage to book a hotel in Athens for tonight. We were initially going to sleep at the airport but once we knew there are no flights there was no point. Also I wasn't sure if we could get on the ferry tomorrow and didn't want to risk it so gave up our last day in Santorini to get to Athens as soon as possible. 

Because we don't get into Athens until close to midnight, I asked the hotel to arrange a pickup for us at the port. Athens Status Suites was very helpful and so we have a transfer to the hotel for 25 euros. I like arranging with the hotel just in case because I don't feel you can trust the taxi driver you run into especially late at night.  Also I had done no research on how to get from the Athens port to Athens and didn't have time to either so having the hotel arrange it was easier. 

So 30 min. into our ferry ride, the boat made an announcement that it was returning to Santorini due to a sick passenger. I thought, wow could this day get any better. Luckily they also said the boat would still continue at least. 

I forgot to mention if you ever take Blue Star Ferry from Santorini, the check in is at Gate 4 and best to get there an hour early to get in line. The ferry is coming from other islands first so there is as rush/horde to get on after other passengers depart. Otherwise boarding wasn't too bad and unlike Hellenic Seaways where we had to put our luggage downstairs, we could bring everything up. I think because this ferry holds automobiles down below. 

Finally another hour later, I got an email from Delta. They had rebooked us on a new flight at 10 am to JFK to depart Tuesday. I'm not sure if this is a brand new flight in addition to their usual 12:30 pm one. I had checked before that there was only one Tuesday flight at 12:30 and not sure if this is moved to 10 am or they are having one flight at 10  and another at 12:30. In any event, my fleeting dream of one extra week of vacation in Rome faded and it looks like I just need to figure out a hotel for Sunday and Monday.  

I know there are bigger issues in the world and this travel inconvenience is really nothing in the grand scheme of things but I just didn't want to stress about making more bookings or dealing with refund requests. And I do feel bad not being at work because it is a busy period for us this week. Lastly I'm sad I missed out on a final beach day! But I'll get over it. I'm also not thrilled about having to be in Athens again but will make do...

The ferry ride has been beautiful though.  

 Naxos

Naxos

 One last island sunset

One last island sunset

 Zooming away towards Paros  

Zooming away towards Paros  

 My love for the Aegean Sea remains though

My love for the Aegean Sea remains though

 Okay this ferry ride is not so bad

Okay this ferry ride is not so bad

 Whoops didn't realize this is blurry and don't know to delete from the blogging app

Whoops didn't realize this is blurry and don't know to delete from the blogging app

 Love the afterglow

Love the afterglow

Greece 2016 Trip Report: Day 15 (Santorini)

 Touchdown

Touchdown

Today we took a sunset boat tour around Santorini and it was lovely! It is something worth doing but don't go expecting amazing food. We went with Santorini Sailing, on their Dream Catcher catamaran. This one was slightly more pricey than others but I didn't want to be a huge boat or a small boat and this one was pretty steady in terms of not having too much motion sickness. If you pay in cash it's 95 euros but they charge your card first for 105 euros pp and then refund you later.

The tour lasted 5 hours and they picked us up from the hotel and dropped us off. Food was given about three hours into the trip, it was your typical Greek salad and grilled meats. I've given up on hoping for amazing food in Greece. The food wasn't terrible but nothing compares to NYC food! I get that food here should be more authentic but if that means overly salty (and believe me I love savory food) then no thanks. Also I noticed here in Santorini they don't really give complimentary desserts the way they do on Rhodes or Crete. 

 Pick up from Ammoudi Bay

Pick up from Ammoudi Bay

We made two swim stops but I didn't get in because I didn't want to come back feeling wet and cold. I'm also not a strong swimmer but they give you life jackets and floaties. The first stop was near the hot springs and the second was near a black sand beach. I loved just being on the boat though and marveling at the Caldera and its history.

It was amazing to see all the towns of Santorini lined up along the edges of the cliffs. And to see the sheer cliffs that were created by the volcanic eruption thousands of years ago. So according to the tour, Santorini used to be a circular island with a volcano in the middle. When it erupted, everything around the volcano collapsed and the sea came in. The cliffs all around the western edge was caused by the tsunami, which apparently reached as high as Imerovigli.  In addition, the volcano is still active and land continues to form from the lava flow which is cooled by the seawater above. They think that in a few hundred years, there will be land rising again and no more water all around. I can't imagine that happening in this beautiful place but who knows. 

 The vast Caldera  

The vast Caldera  

We also grazed by a red sand beach (which they recommended not to visit because of possible landslides) and we saw more cool limestone cliffs. The tour ended with clear views of the sunset and we were back at the hotel by 8:15 pm.  

 Black sand beach

Black sand beach

 Red sand beach

Red sand beach

 Limestone cliffs

Limestone cliffs

 Sun down

Sun down

Forgot to mention earlier this morning we did a mini hike from Santorini Princess Spa hotel towards Oia. We only went a mile north because the road gets really narrow and steep and the sun was coming up fast, which seems to make any kind of walking outside more difficult. The mile north hike was also only about one third of the way to Oia and I was starving for breakfast so we walked back. Took us a whole hour in general (started at 7:30 am and sun came up at 7:15) as it is quite steep in some parts. We saw some people running the trail. I don't know how they do it! 

 

 Sun rise

Sun rise

 Part of the Caldera Walk to Oia  

Part of the Caldera Walk to Oia  

Greece 2016 Trip Report: Day 14 (Santorini)

I had trouble posting yesterday so posting Day 14 & 15 today! 

 Oia

Oia

Today was a spectacular day of walking. The Caldera hiking trail from Fira to Oia sounds great in theory but I have no idea how people do it in the summertime, or any even after 9 am even in October! With the sun beating down on you and zero shade anywhere, it feels way hotter than the temperature says. That and the humidity, I don't get how people venture this climb at all!

Instead of doing the hike, we took the hotel car service to Oia to walk around. It's tiring just walking in the city! With all the steps up and down and also with no shade.  

 Stair master city  

Stair master city  

I love Oia more than Fira. Oia was more scenic and had more pathways to walk around and explore on. We spent about 4 hours (including lunch at Skala, which was very good and beautiful views) walking around and taking it all in. Aim to get near Ammoudi Bay, and then you know you've seen most of it. It's about 200+ steps down to the bay so we didn't go (didn't want to climb back up!) but there's supposed to be good seafood taverns there and an area to swim in. 

 Ammoudi Bay

Ammoudi Bay

After Oia we went back to Fira to explore it some more as well but we were done in two hours. After we went back to the hotel and rested, we watched the sunset from our hotel which was gorgeous and different from the night before since there were some clouds. 

We then raced against the fading light to dinner up in Imerovigli. We barely made it, it got dark fast and the way up from the hotel it is not   an easy walk. A flashlight is recommended as there are some parts of the trail that are well lit be others not so much. Also, although it's generally pretty safe in Santorini, best not to walk this alone since it's so dark and you need to be careful since the path can be rocky/not even/has steps. We ate somewhere not worth recommending and then went for a stroll all the way down to Fira. Walking along the rim of the island at night was also wonderful.  It took us about twenty minutes to walk thru Imerovigli to Firastefani and then finally to Fira (think this walk was about a mile total). It was a different experience to see the villages at night. From Fira to Oia, it's about 5 miles. From Santorini Princess Spa to the center of Imerovigli, it's about a mile (due to the uphill climb). From Imerovigli to Fira it's about a mile. 

 Down to Fira

Down to Fira

 The northwest side of the island, Firastefani and Imerovigli  

The northwest side of the island, Firastefani and Imerovigli  

 Cruise ships in the Caldera 

Cruise ships in the Caldera 

Greece 2016 Trip Report: Day 13 (Santorini)

The day I've been waiting for finally arrived. Off to Santorini!! Bought the ferry tickets in advance and booked online through Hellenic Seaways.  One way tickets were $70 USD from Heraklion and the first ferry is at 9 am. So we took a taxi from Kronos hotel to the port, which was $7.50 euros for three and got there by 8:15 am to board. Every ticket purchased comes with an assigned seat and the ferry doesn't allow you to walk around outside after it passes thru the city port. I thought we were in for a smooth ride when we departed Heraklion but as soon as we reached open water, the boat swayed side to side and everyone on deck was ushered back in. Thankfully it's a short trip, just under two hours to get to Santorini. Also, the ferry was recently upgraded in April 2016 so the Hellenic Seaways 7 was quite nice. The ride was a bit rocky but not too much to get you sick. I fell asleep for most of it and we arrived in Santorini at 11 am. 

 Hellenic Seaways 7

Hellenic Seaways 7

 Port  

Port  

We were picked up by our hotel, Santorini Princess Spa. I picked this hotel because I wanted to eat in between Fira and Oia and read that this place has great views of the Caldera (where everyone angles to watch the famed sunsets). I also picked this hotel as I know they have their own car service (which you need to pay for but it's less than taking a taxi and apparently there are only 35 taxis on the whole island!). 

Here are the views from the hotel:

 Picture perfect  

Picture perfect  

 Santorini sunset

Santorini sunset

Had lunch at the nearby town Imerovigli and then went swimming at the pool before heading to dinner in Fira. Feel very relaxed here!  

 Fira from afar (really took my breath away in person)

Fira from afar (really took my breath away in person)

 Brave to walk out to this point! It's so hot! 

Brave to walk out to this point! It's so hot! 

 The high life

The high life

 As night falls

As night falls