Monday, February 18, 2013

Top Ten Favorites Abroad

image by zug55

Cape Town, South Africa
Cape Town, the first place I set foot outside the USA, is hard to top.  South Africa is a heartbreakingly beautiful country and Cape Town is its crown jewel.  From the Atlantic Ocean, the city rises quickly and majestically toward Table Mountain. Roads weave up the slopes, lined with white and pastel houses that vary in style from Dutch Colonial to Modern. The Botanical Garden is filled with interesting plants. The waterfront mall is within walking distance of a penguin colony. At the top of Table Mountain, you'll find dassies, little rabbit-like animals whose closest living relative is the elephant.  And on an island in the harbor, a man who would later become the first non-apartheid leader of the modern country was jailed for 27 years.  It's hard to reconcile the beauty of the landscape with the story of its people, but together they make South Africa one of the most unique places on earth.

image by bass_nroll

Tsitsikamma National Park, South Africa
I honestly don't have much to say about Tsitsikamma, except that it's one of the most beautiful places I've ever been.  If you have the chance to go, take it.  It's at the end of the world, and it feels like it.

image by Wild Dogger

Safaris in Shamwari Game Reserve and Kruger Nat' Park, South Africa
Of course, a safari would have to be on the "tops" list.  We went on two in South Africa, one to a private game park called Shamwari, and of course, the other at Kruger National Park.  I'm glad to be able to compare the experiences, as both had their advantages.  Shamwari was smaller and more personal - only about six people per vehicle meant much more one-on-one with the guide.  While the large cats were enclosed in their own separate area, going off-road to find the animals meant we saw loads more of them in a very short amount of time (a baby rhino stole the show).  Afterwards we were treated to tea and hot chocolate up at the lodge.  Meanwhile, Kruger is known around the world and is immense.  We spent our two days there in one corner of the park and still felt we'd seen a lot.  It generally took longer to find the animals and the vehicles held many more people, but the night-time safari and staying overnight were definite advantages.  Plus, lions, roaming free!  By the side of the road, or in the road, in some cases.

image by WJMcIntosh

Neuschwanstein, Bavaria, Germany
This is what we expect castles to look like as children.  We grow up and learn that real castles are made of grey stone and are stalwart and boxy and drafty.  They rarely have soaring turrets and are much smaller than we'd thought.  Neuschwanstein is the exception.  The structure may have inspired Cinderella's castle, but it was inspired itself by fairy tales and operas.  A reality-defying castle built by a "mad" king, Neuschwanstein is perfectly set - perched up on a mountain, surrounded by forests and waterfalls.  The inside is decorated like something out of a fantasy, though pictures are not permitted and your memory both fades and embellishes the interiors in your mind once you've left.

image by Patrick.Raymond

The Vatican, Vatican City
I'm not Catholic, which colors my view of the Vatican as more of a cultural experience than a religious one. I'd read The Agony and the Ecstasy in my Aesthetics class, so perhaps it was Michelangelo's work that really impressed me.  The Sistine Chapel was jam-packed and filled with annoying guards hushing people one moment, then yelling, "No pictures!" the next.  The artwork still managed to transcend the experience.  In St. Peter's Basilica, I ditched our guide and walked around on my own.  The place is enormous.  I love Rome in general (and yes, I'm purposely ignoring that the Vatican is its own state as I say this) because it's living history in a way no other city is.

image by claudio.marcio2

The Louvre, Paris, France
First of all, I love the name of this museum.  I will never be able to pronounce it quite right, but "LOU-vre" is so much fun to say.  Anyway, the pyramids were still fairly new and novel when I went there and the entire entry was quite impressive. I treated my short time at the Louvre almost like another safari.  The Mona Lisa, the Venus de Milo, the Winged Victory of Samothrace, and Michelangelo's Dying Slave were my "big four".  (I had hoped to see some Ingres as well - another fun one to pronounce - but that wing was closed at the time.)  Though I spent enough time looking at each to satisfy me, I still managed to knock off my itinerary in record speed.  I wandered and saw a bit more, but by this point, I was *done*.  I left the building and walked around the Tuileries Garden by myself.  Paris is a place I'd love to go back to and spend more time on everything, but art especially.  The Louvre, Musée d'Orsay, Musée de l'Orangerie... with a side trip to Giverny.

image by

Harry Potter and London, England
College and Harry Potter are tied together for me - I was obsessed with the series and most of my friends from that time were people I met because of the books.  When one of the group did study abroad in Brighton for a year, we decided to take  a trip to visit her.  Four of us flew to London, where one of the friends, webmistress of a major Harry Potter news site, had business to attend to.  The rest of the time was spent visiting so many of the things I'd missed in London on the first go-round - the Tower of London, the Globe Theater, the British Library, Covent Gardens.  And of course, we made the pilgrimage to Platform 9 3/4 in King's Cross Station.  (We also explored Euston, to see if Rowling had indeed mixed up the platform numbers.) After wasting a couple hours at a pub, we had the nerve to go and get a picture with Ian McKellan by a stage door, without actually having attended the play.  Then, like Lydia Bennet, it was off to Brighton.  A few months later, I would return there to read the 5th Harry Potter book.  After receiving our books at midnight, we ran down to the beach and read all night.

image by TiaBat

Venice, Italy
You know a place has gotten under your skin when you smell a faint whiff of sewage and fondly think, "Ah, Venice..."  But I should explain.  Does Venice stink in the summer, as so many would-be tourists want to know?  It does, in certain places.  In my particular case, I'm recalling a  tiny back street on the island of Giudecca, a street 99.9% of tourists will never walk down.  For me, it was part of the walk from painting class to the small shop where I'd buy lunch.  The laundry-lined streets were sunny and empty at noon, my classmates and I were on break, and the shop had a barrel of wine where locals would fill up their plastic jugs for less than 10 euros.  I spent about six weeks living in Venice thanks to my school's study abroad program.  At the time, it was the hottest summer on record and our apartment in Castello had no AC.  Looking back, I still wouldn't trade it for the world.  My advice for Venice is this - stay overnight.  Once the tourists leave for the day, Venice is a different place.  Second, if you have more than an afternoon, get lost (it's the easiest thing). Make sure you see Piazza San Marco, then step away and wander down to very edges of Dorsoduro, Cannaregio, Castello - maybe even take the boat across to Giudecca.  The perfect light is much more enjoyable when you don't have to share it with 20,000 other people.

image by *sarahdippity

Cinque Terre, Italy
This side-trip from Venice did not begin with promise.  Our train was delayed in Bologna, which meant we arrived in Parma minutes after the final connecting train had left for the night.  After spending the evening in a square near the university, we boarded our final train and watched, bleary-eyed, as the countryside slipped by.  Emilia Romagna seemed to be the one green corner in Italy that summer, which already made it feel a little unreal.  Between the lack of sleep and the heat, that sense of other-worldliness continued as we stumbled out of the train at Riomaggiore. After dropping our things at the apartment, we felt refreshed walking the easy paved section of trail to Manarola.  It was a sunny day, and the turquoise sea and steep slopes were dream-like.  The next two sections of the trail were much tougher and the day got hotter.  The sea, hundreds of feet below, looked inviting.  We stopped at Vernazza for lunch and many of us called it a day.  We went back to Riomaggiore and swam in the water by its rocky beach.

A Week in Umbria, Italy
At the end of my study abroad program, my parents and brother met me in Venice for our first, and only, trip abroad as a family.  We spent the next two weeks traveling around Italy, from Tuscany to Rome.  While the entire trip was great, the week we spent at a rented villa in Umbria was truly wonderful.  The villa itself was a small converted barn, at the top of a steep gravel road.  As hair-raising as the drive up was, it was worth it for A) the view and B) the pool.  Again, it was the hottest summer since 1540, so between daytrips to places like Cortona (a stone's throw away), Assisi, and Gubbio, we ate good food, enjoyed the breath-taking view, and stayed in the pool.

*Note: Someday, I hope to put my own pictures in this post.  (What did we do before digital cameras?)  Until then, thanks, Flickr. 

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Egypt Packing Planning

Egypt Travel Packing

1) TOPS. Five tee shirts in neutral colors, two long-sleeved tees.
2) PANTS. One pair of wide-leg black yoga pants, one pair of cargo pants.
3) DRESS. Casual but modest maxi dress.
4) HAT, SCARVES, AND JEWELRY. Floppy black sunhat, two scarves, cheap and simple earrings and bangles.
5) SWIMWEAR. Modest swimsuit, tunic coverup, sunglasses, and sunscreen.
6) LAYERS. Black cardigan, camp shirt for a pop of subtle color.
7) LUGGAGE. Carry-on suitcase, backpack for Luxor side-trip, small camera bag for necessities.
8) FOOTWEAR. One pair of sneakers, one pair of casual flats, one pair of sandals.
9) HEALTH. Hand sanitizer and wipes for easy clean, emegen-c for rehydration.
10) MEMORY MAKERS. Travel journal, camera, and flashlight for the tombs.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Christmas in South Beach, Miami

Thanks to my parents' friends who lent us the use of their penthouse apartment, we spent a lovely Christmas holiday in South Beach, Miami.  Here's my recommended itinerary, which closely follows our own:

DAY 1:
Walk along Ocean Drive/on the beach
Stop by Art Deco center and gift shop
Espanola Way
Lunch at Charlotte Bakery   
Lincoln Road Mall
Dinner at Oliver's

Ocean Drive contains the highest concentration of art deco buildings anywhere in the world (iirc).  The Art Deco center has a cute gift shop full of retro items.  Both Española Way and Lincoln Road Mall are major shopping areas - the former is smaller, more boho, and has more restaurants.  Resist the urge to stop and eat, and head over to Charlotte Bakery instead, where you can sample empanadas in the style of several different South American countries.  Be sure to visit the bakery instead of the cafe next door and ask for the special sauce!  After lunch, Lincoln Road Mall has more of your chain stores, but is the perfect place to buy ridiculously tacky souvenirs at 'Surf Shop'.  For dinner, Oliver's is a nice little cafe with good service and food.  It had the added advantage of being a block away from where we stayed, and was cheaper and calmer than things on the beach side.

DAY 2:
Big Bus Tour of South Beach and Miami
Stop at Versailles for lunch, doggy-bag it for dinner
Walk down to South Pointe for the sunset
Stop by Joe's Stone Crab for a take-out slice of key lime pie

The Big Bus tour was kind of a mixed bag, but it was a good way to see South Beach and Miami in one day.  More importantly, it got us to Versailles, where we stuffed our faces with Cuban food.  The restaurant was insanely crowded, but lines moved fast.  Our waitress spoke mostly Spanish, which might be an issue if you have dietary restrictions, but just added to the experience for us.  We returned to South Beach stuffed.  I walked down to South Pointe just in time to see the last few cruise ships leave for the day.  On the way back to the apartment, I picked up some Key Lime Pie from Joe's Stone Crab.  (Look for the carry-out shop to the left of the restaurant.)  I took it back to the apartment and had it with coffee.

DAY 3:
Drive down to Everglades Nat' Park
Take the Anhinga Trail to see birds and gators
Stop by the 'Robert Is Here' roadside stand for shakes
Snorkeling at John Pennekamp State Park

This was our day to get out of Miami.  A note about tolls in southern Florida - there are no booths.  Either you have a local smartpass, or they take a picture of your plate and send you the bill in the mail.  Honestly, it's a great way to do things (sparing the locals the extra cost and slowed traffic), and none of the tolls were exorbitant.  Anyway, we took the toll road down to Everglades National Park.  We only had an hour, but the Anhinga Trail, close to the park's entry, delivered - we saw about a dozen gators.  On the way out, we stopped by the fruit stand for shakes - so good.  Finally, we headed down to the keys to snorkel at John Pennekamp State Park.  We had reservations for the last tour of the day, but the water was still pleasant and very clear.  We even saw a nurse shark! 

DAY 4:
Spend a day at the beach
Cubanos and medianoches from Puerto Sagua for lunch
Walk down Ocean Drive at night

On Christmas day, we relaxed, spending most of the day on the beach.  The liquor laws seem to be unenforced on the sand - we saw plenty of people with coolers.  We indulged in cubanos from Puerto Sagua, which was open Christmas Day, and lazed about in the sun.  That evening, we took a stroll down neon-lit Ocean Drive for one last look.

Of course, in nicer weather, more beach days should be added.  It was a chilly 72 on Christmas Day!  I don't usually eat breakfast, but for those who do, Big Pink was highly recommended - we just never got around to going there.  Finally, there are closer places to snorkel, like Bills Baggs State Park on nearby Key Biscayne, where you can also check out the lighthouse and Stiltsville.  Any must-sees we missed doing?

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Top Ten Travel Wishlist

Let's start off my travel blog with some goals - here are the ten places I'd most like to visit within my lifetime, as of this Saturday afternoon:

image by ayman_ay17

I'm almost scared to type this, as if it will slip away or self-destruct as soon as the words are saved to this blog.  But I've bought my airfare for Egypt!  My former roommate, Kate, is currently working there, so (our mutual friend and roommate) Lis and I hatched a plot to go and visit her over spring break.  It's a trip I've dreamed about since the age of seven, when I wanted to be an Egyptologist.  I always figured it was something that would happen "later", especially after the Arab Spring.  Instead, we're making plans for Cairo, Giza, and Luxor, and I am simply too excited to write any more.

image by beckstei

This is the trip I've actually been saving up for over the past three years, and I feel a little guilty that my Egypt trip will take away from what I should have been able to save for Brazil.  But this trip would cover two travel wishes.  The first is to attend a World Cup, and where better to do so than Brazil, especially seeing that the next two cups will be held in Russia and Qatar.  The second is to see Brazil itself.  My father's family lived in Rio for several years when he was a child, and I've always been intrigued by it - souvenirs, old pictures and postcards, and stories from my father and aunts.

image by Douglas Griffin

I've had my Scotland trip planned out for years now, but other trips keep pre-empting it for various reasons.  I'd start in Edinburgh, and do a northerly loop, up to Inverness and across to the Isle of Skye, before heading down toward Glasgow.  Aside from the gorgeous scenery, Scotland holds an interest for me for personal reasons as well.  I was seriously into genealogy a few years back, and while my family is as boring, WASPy American as they come, my most recent (1830s) immigrant ancestors were from Scotland. I've tracked down a cemetery where a few of their family members are supposedly buried and would love to get a chance to see it myself.

image by F H Mira

This is a fairly recent wish, inspired by Pinterest.  I found myself drawn to the gorgeous light in pictures of Portugal (given, all Pinterest travel shots glow with "magic hour" lighting, and the help of expensive lenses and photoshop).  My parents spent part of their honeymoon there and loved it - it was more remote, and at the time, cheaper than Spain.  Its size would make it easy to travel in about three weeks, and the different regions look like they'd provide enough variety to keep you enchanted at every turn.

image by marcp_dmoz

I actually have three separate trips I'd love to take in Spain - a week in Madrid, with small side trips, two weeks in Northern Spain, and two weeks in Southern Spain.  My parents have done all three at this point - thirty years apart - and all look interesting.  As a fan of Real Madrid, I'd also love to get the chance to see my team play in their own stadium, the Santiago Bernabeu.  And while I'd avoid Camp Nou, I would quite like to see Gaudi's Barcelona.

image by Andras Jancsik

Southern Italy
Of course, I'd love to go back, but I've seen a good deal of Northern Italy.  Aside from spending a long weekend in Florence, to give the Uffizi the attention it deserves, or a trip up to Milan and the Lakes, I'd love to concentrate on the Amalfi coast next time I visit.  Positano is a place I've wanted to visit ever since repeatedly watching seeing 'Only You' as a teen.  I'd probably spend more time in Rome as well (though I've been twice, there's a ton of things I missed), but those amazing views of the Tyrrhenian are something I definitely want to experience in this lifetime.

image by Apel.les

Greece and Turkey
I would love to take a week or so to travel around Greece (see Athens, Cape Sounion, Delphi, Meteora), then set off on a cruise of the Greek Islands.  The ideal would be to cover a bit of Turkey as well while cruising - Ephesus, Troy, and Istanbul, specifically.

image by paul bica

New Zealand
This is a trip I actually had the opportunity to take and couldn't.  Aforementioned Kate is an Aussie who married her Kiwi partner, Simon, in New Zealand this past January.  In hindsight, it wouldn't have worked out - at the time I had no money, by January I had a job and no leave.  But it's a place I've wanted to visit since watching 'Lord of the Rings', plus every person I've talked to who has been there raves about it.  A week for the northern island and two for the southern would be perfect.

image by Carmelo Aquilina

Southeast Asia
Southeast Asia is another relatively recent addition to the list.  While part of me thinks India (the Taj Mahal!) or Sri Lanka (I could stay with my aunt's family) would make more sense, the beaches, sights, and low cost of Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos make them really appealing.  I'd love to take six weeks to backpack around.  Angkor Wat has been a place I've wanted to see since it featured on the GeoSafari games that were in every early 90s classroom (I was ace at that game, and Oregon Trail). 

image by gigilivorno

All 50 States
Currently, I'm at 38 of 50 on my list of states visited.  And while traveling to be able to say you did something is a dumb reason to travel, I would like to complete my list.  I figure it will take me about six trips to do the remaining states justice - naturally, Alaska and Hawaii are full trips in themselves.  My brother currently lives in Oregon, a place I'd love to visit.  Everything else will be tricky - I'm thinking a major midwest roadtrip would knock off the Dakotas, Nebraska, and Kansas (maybe even New Mexico).  I'd pop over into Wyoming and Colorado as well, to get to see parts of those states which I have yet to visit.  Idaho will be the toughest, I have a feeling.

There are others, of course, like India, Eastern Europe, the south of France, and Peru.  But I think ten is a good place to start.