My Top 5 Favourite Islands

My Top 5 Favourite Islands

Last summer I wrote a series on some of my Favourite destinations. But one of these lists needed some serious updating after my travel adventures over the past 12 months. So without any further ado, here is my updated list of favourite island escapes.

Spanning five unique countries, all of the islands on my list have one important thing in common: stunning natural beauty.

Top 5 Favourite Islands

Galiano Island, BC

This lovely little gem in the Gulf Islands is the nearest to Vancouver making it a perfect weekend getaway or even day-trip from the mainland. Very few people live here year round, but those that do love it’s laid back vibe and tight knit community. Galiano is the only place where I’ve ever felt safe enough to hitch hike or leave my bike unattended. They even have a free store and a free book store where you are welcome to take whatever you like – no donations required. With stunning views from the top of Mt Galiano, lovely trails near Montague harbour, and the friendliest locals around – It’s no wonder I have come to consider Galiano my second home.

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Hvar, Croatia

If you are looking for an intoxicating blend of old world charm, exhilarating night life, and ruggedly beautiful coastline, then look no further than Hvar. Touted as the sunniest spot in Europe, this beautiful island on the Dalmatian Coast convinced me that it would make a perfect Honeymoon destination. A consistent contender on many top 10 lists – it’s no surprise that Hvar easily holds its own among the most beautiful places I’ve ever been.

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Capri, Italy

I just can’t get enough of the Amalfi Coast and especially my favourite little piece of la dolce vita – Capri! Twice I’ve visited this lovely island off the coast of Naples and twice is not nearly enough time to soak it all up. Famous for its dazzling Blue Grotto and beloved for its majestic Cliffside vistas, Capri is the perfect place to soak up luxurious Italian living.

Capri, Italy

Maui, Hawaii

Oh Maui… how do I love thee? Let me count the ways! Before I first visited Maui, I had previously been to Oahu twice. And I thought it was great. Then, I went to Maui and now I wonder why anyone even bothers going to Honolulu because Maui is E V E R Y T H I N G ! Less crowded than bustling Waikiki, Maui offers a more laid back vibe but still delivers a ton of activity if you want it. In my four day escape I lay on gorgeous beaches, snorkeled with sea turtles, drove the winding and scenic road to Hana, summited a volcano, and ate my heart out. I still look forward to visiting the other islands in the future but for now I am content with my version of paradise!

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Santorini, Greece

Located in the Aegean Sea, about 200 km southeast of mainland Greece is Santorini, one of the most popular islands in the world – and for good reason! I fell head over flip flops for the spectacular caldera views, beautiful beaches, cliff-side villages, amazing restaurants, and friendly local hospitality. Santorini was a dream destination for me and it absolutely lived up to all the hype. I had one of my favourite travel days of all time while riding an ATV around the island and touring the nearby wineries. It was so unbelievably gorgeous that it almost pained me to leave. I will definitely be back someday!

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What’s your favourite island escape?

Introducing Istanbul: Touring the Top Sites in 48 hours

Introducing Istanbul: Touring the Top Sites in 48 hours

If you’re planning a trip to Turkey, then you will undoubtedly pass through the fascinating city of Istanbul. Not only is it the largest city in Europe with a population of nearly 14 million people, but it is also the only city in the world to straddle two continents. The Asian side of Istanbul, which I regrettably didn’t have time to visit, is separated from the more famous and touristed European side by the Bosphorus strait – a beautiful waterway that I fortunately did take the time to sail across.

In a city that has served as an imperial capital for the Roman, Byzantine, Latin, and Ottoman empires over the past 1600 years, it would be impossible to see it all in just 48 hours. But, we sure did our best to tackle the medley of Christian and Islamic historical sights – a truly intoxicating mix of East meets West.

These are the top sights I would recommend if you only have 48 hours to explore Istanbul.

The Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmed Mosque)

Named for the blue tiles adorning the walls of its interior,  this is one of the two mosques in Turkey that has six minarets (tall towers used for the call to prayer). Visitors are welcome free of charge but must abide by a few important rules. There is a strict dress code (women must cover their hair, shoulders, and knees), every one must cover their shoes with plastic bags, and you should avoid entering at prayer times. Our group were eager to take on the challenge of being culturally respectful – and I think I would have loved wearing a scarf on my head if it wasn’t so hot.

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Unfortunately my experience was a bit frustrating as I became increasingly annoyed by other tourists who were incredibly disrespectful and ignored the clear signs and instructions about proper dress. It was a strange feeling inside the blue mosque because although I was grateful to see such an important and beautiful building up close, I felt like we visitors shouldn’t have been allowed inside. It felt like a place that was too sacred and special to be a spectator. I wonder… Where do we draw the line between respect and tourism?

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Hagia Sophia

What a history! Right next door to the blue mosque is this ancient structure with quite the varied past. Beginning as a Greek Orthodox Cathedral in 537 AD, the Hagia Sophia transitioned into a Roman Catholic Cathedral, then back to Greek Orthodox, to an Imperial Mosque, and finally to the museum it is today. It’s quite something to see the fragments of various religions peeking through the cover-up attempts.

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Basilica Cistern

One of our favourite stops of day one turned out to be the Basilica Cistern – but not for the reason you may think. The  largest of several hundred ancient cisterns that lie beneath the city of Istanbul, the basilica provided a water filtration system for many palaces over the centuries. Okay, so yeah that’s impressive. And, we very much enjoyed the cool underground location as a way to beat the heat. But, what really made it our favourite stop of the day was the ridiculously cheesy photo shoot that we happily forked over 20 lira in which to participate. The four of us dressed up like a sultan and his wives and were taken through a series of hilarious poses with props and everything. The final product is simply priceless.

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Topkapi Palace

Topkapi palace was one of the major residences of the Ottoman sultans for almost 400 years and one of the best examples of palaces from that period. It also contains important holy relics of the Muslim world, including Muhammed’s cloak and sword. We spent a couple hours wandering about the grounds and visiting various museums. The crowds, heat, and sheer size of this compound definitely wore us down so come prepared with water and snacks.

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Grand Bazaar

I’ve never been much of a shopper when I travel. I prefer to spend my money on experiences rather than tangible souvenirs but I have to admit that the Grand Bazaar won me over. It’s one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world, with 61 covered streets and over 3,000 shops – the word overkill comes to mind. I still didn’t make any purchases but I really enjoyed the incredible variety of products and labyrinth like maze of shops. It’s definitely worth a visit even if you don’t like shopping.

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Dolmabahçe Palace

Dolmabahçe is the largest palace in Turkey and the most opulent place I’ve ever seen up close. My travel partner, Mindy, has been to Versailles and even she agrees that this place takes the top spot. It definitely had a different feel than the other sights in the city as it was built in the mid-1800s and evoked a much more contemporary and luxurious style similar to that of other European monarchs. We took a 45 minute guided tour of the inside and we were gutted that we couldn’t take photographs. However, I couldn’t resist sneaking a pic of the world’s largest Bohemian crystal chandelier that we came across at the end of our tour in the Ceremonial Hall. A gift from Queen Victoria, it has 750 lamps and weighs 4.5 tonnes!

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Fortunately, the grounds were equally gorgeous so we took plenty outside to make up for the lack of indoor footage.

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Bosphorus Cruise

I love water. I love lakes. I love the ocean. I love rivers. So it was a no-brainer when I learned that you could take a two-hour round-trip ferry cruise (one of my favourite forms of travel) on the Bosphorus for only 12 Turkish lira (less than $6 CAD). It was a very relaxing way to take in the sights from a completely different vantage point.

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Istanbul has a ton to offer. And even though I was impressed by many of the world-class sights I saw during my stay, I left feeling a bit disappointed. I don’t think Istanbul quite lived up to my expectations.

I blame the majority of this on the fact that Istanbul was our last stop of the trip and followed our time in Cappadocia which was nothing short of magical. Our apartment was probably the least favourite accommodation of the trip and we were all getting a bit tired of being together 24/7.

Honestly, I don’t think Istanbul got a fair shot. I would LOVE to go back and spend a whole week. Without the pressure of needing to see all of the famous sights, I imagine myself getting lost in some of the local neighbourhoods and indulging in more of the delicious street food. I would revisit some of the places I really loved, spacing out the visits so that I could stay longer. Overall, this was a great introduction but not enough for me to fall in love. I guess I’ll just have to come back again someday. Aww shucks!

Eating my Way through Greece & Turkey

Eating my Way through Greece & Turkey

When I first started telling people that I was planning a trip to Turkey, the one thing that everyone told me was that food was ahh-mazing!

Now I already rank Mediterranean cuisines like Italian and Greek on the top of my list so I was confident that Turkish would be just as delightful (pun intended). After two weeks of indulging in meal after decadent meal, I couldn’t help but share some of my favourites. Hope you’re hungry :)

Tomato keftedes (fritters) & Greek Salad   Skala Restaurant (Oia, Santorini)

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Santorini is famous for its flavourful tomatoes. We sampled them many times in our daily Greek salads but we also sampled the local island delicacy of deep-fried tomato fritters. They were so good that we ordered them more than once. And with a view like the one from Skala restaurant… I could have sat and savoured them all day long, especially when a parade of donkeys passed by our table. Dinner AND entertainment… what’s not to love?

Chicken Souvlaki with Tzatziki     Fanari Restaurant (Fira, Santorini)

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For our final dinner in Santorini we headed to Fanari Restaurant in the main town of Fira where we enjoyed flawless sunset vistas and a classic Greek dish – souvlaki! It’s simple but it’s famous for a reason – you simply can’t do Greece right without this dish.

3. The best Gyro in Greece  Lucky’s Souvlaki (Fira, Santorini)

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If there is one meal that stuck in my mind for the entire trip it was this gyro in Fira. A gyro is like a doner or a kebab, essentially meat cooked on a vertical rotisserie and then wrapped in a pita or sandwich. The toppings differ from place to place but I prefer mine fully loaded. I did some pre-trip research and found out that the best gyros on the island could be found at Lucky’s. The internet did not let me down because this place was cheap (2-3 euros) and mind-blowingly delicious.

4. Authentic Greek Frozen Yogurt   Selatrevo (Fira, Greece)

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I’m was already a frozen yogurt fan before this trip but now I’m craving a Greek fro-yo place to frequent at home. The flavour of the Greek yogurt is so much richer and Selatrevo has even caught on to the craze of letting you add your own toppings. The store clerk told us that she knew we were from North America because no one else knows what to do with the self-service bar. I’m not sure if that’s a compliment but we certainly knew what we were doing :) It may have been the priciest cold treat we bought during our travels but it was well worth it.

5. Gözleme   Kelebek Hotel (Goreme, Turkey)

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Our cave hotel in Cappadocia ended up having a very nice restaurant terrace that became a permanent fixture during our stay. For our first dinner, I ordered a dish that I had never heard of before called gozleme, which is a savoury traditional Turkish flatbread made of hand-rolled dough that is lightly brushed with butter and eggs and filled with cheese, chicken, and mushrooms. It’s basically a pancake that you’re allowed to eat for dinner – so that made this breakfast obsessed traveller verrrry happy.

Farm to Table Lunch   King’s Valley Farm (Goreme, Cappadocia)

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The best meal we had in Turkey was this unbelievable lunch that was included in our History and Adventure tour by Heritage Travel in Cappadocia. They took us to this private farm in the King’s Valley where a group of local ladies cooked us a four course, vegetarian meal consisting of bread, salads, stuffed peppers, soup, bean stew, and dessert. I’m not exactly sure what I ate but it was all quite delicious and the experience of sitting outdoors in the middle of this hidden valley was definitely a highlight.

Chicken Curry  Kelebek Hotel (Goreme, Turkey)

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I said we couldn’t stay away from our hotel restaurant and I wasn’t kidding. We returned for another dinner and the Turkish version of chicken curry did not disappoint. But then again, I think everything on the menu was a win.

Meatball Durum Wrap    Mama’s Shelter (Istanbul, Turkey)IMG_4263IMG_9969One thing that I knew we HAD to do in Istanbul was eat dinner on a rooftop terrace. I found Mama’s Shelter online and even though the price tag was a bit steep for this crew of backpackers – the sunset views of the Sultanahmet were well worth it. And they didn’t even charge me for my delicious rose sangria so I can’t really complain.

What are some of your favourite travel dining experiences? What country tops your list? Leave a comment below.

My Favourite Travel Day: ATV Adventure on Santorini

My Favourite Travel Day: ATV Adventure on Santorini

On our second full day on Santorini we decided to venture away from our adorable villa in Finikia and the unbelievably gorgeous streets of Oia to explore what the rest of the island had to offer. Well let me tell you… it had a lot!

The view from our villa... it was hard to tear ourselves away.

The view from our villa… it was hard to tear ourselves away.

To maximize our freedom (and fun for that matter) we decided to rent two ATVs for four people. At a rate of €34 for 24 hours – we figured we were getting a pretty good deal. I was super stoked about this whole experience as I’d never driven an ATV before. And the last time I decided to rent a vehicle while traveling was on my wildly successful trip to Maui – another island paradise! Are you sensing a travel theme these days?

As it turns out, this day was quite possibly one of my favourite travel days of all time!

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By the time our two ATVs showed up (that’s right… we had them delivered to our door) we were more than ready to hit the streets. I handed over my drivers license and signed my life away before some 14 year old kid showed me how to operate the ATV properly. I even had to go for a test drive with the rental guy for him to assess my abilities. My male friend Caleb did not. Another loss for feminism… but I digress.

After a quick pit stop to fill our tanks, we were off. Our first stop was lunch in the centrally located town of Pyrgos. The main draw to this part of the island was the proximity to a plethora of wineries. We had trouble finding the first one on my list but ended up stumbling upon a winery recommended to us by the owner of our wine store in Finikia. Are you sensing another travel theme?

Art Space was a completely delightful addition to our itinerary. Immediately upon arrival, the owner of this winery turned art gallery started leading us on a tour of the facilities. He spoke in rapid Greeklish with me only comprehending one in every 20 or so words. But he was completely adorable and the space was very cool which more than made up for my lack of understanding. Plus, we concluded our not-so-informational tour with a €5 wine tasting that included various blends of the Assyrtiko grape, the local sweet speciality Vinsanto, Ouzo, and something akin to moonshine at 42% alcohol. 

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Conveniently located just around the corner was Santorini’s first and only brewery. This craft beer obsessed Vancouverite was definitely excited to taste the Greek brews, which were adorably named the Yellow Donkey (lager), Red Donkey (red ale) and Crazy Donkey (IPA). They gave us a free tasting and I have to say that I really enjoyed all three, even the IPA which isn’t normally my drink of choice. I’m definitely rooting for this new business!

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The final stop on our self-guided wine tour was the one I was most looking forward to – Gaia Wines. We drove to nearby Kamari where an old tomato factory was converted into a winery. The beach front location didn’t hurt either.

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Next up was a frolic in the sea on a black sand beach in Kamari. By this time we were completely blissed out and feeling the vacation vibes in a big way. There’s nothing that puts me in a better mood than oceanfront dining and the sound of crashing waves.

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We had some time to kill before our final activity of the day so we took our ATVs for a drive to a lookout at the top of the island. I couldn’t believe how high we were able to drive and the view – stunning!

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Mandatory helmet selfie :)

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Our final activity of the day was the highly anticipated outdoor movie at Kamari’s famous Open Air Cinema. We got there early to nab front row reclining seats for an English screening of Age of Adaline. The movie wasn’t great but the atmosphere was top notch. The cinema featured complimentary blankets, a full bar, and reasonably priced snacks. What’s not to love?

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What a day! Aside from the post-movie ATV incident (it wouldn’t start but then it did) and the adrenaline filled ride home (imagine pitch black switch back roads with 1000 ft cliffside drop-offs) we had a perfect day. It was fun. It was adventurous. It was delicious. Santorini – you did it again!

Coming up on the blog… we left Greece just in time to miss the economic meltdown and turned our attention to neighbouring Turkey. Stay tuned for some of the most incredibly weird and wonderful sites that I’ve ever seen!

Everything they say about Santorini is True!

Everything they say about Santorini is True!

I have been dreaming of Santorini for over a decade. Villages of white and blue perched atop rocky cliffs. Aegean sea waves meeting caldera backdrops. Donkey traffic jams and Greek salad dinners. Nightly sunset photo shoots. Needless to say… I was expecting a magical place and was mildly concerned that reality could not possibly live up to the hype. Fortunately, my fears could not have been more misplaced. Santorini was everything they said it would be and MORE!

I had heard rave reviews from friends, family, and travel bloggers. Everyone told me that it was amazing! Touristy? Yes. Overcrowded? At times. Worth it? Most definitely.

Santorini was so intoxicatingly gorgeous that I started to hate myself just a little bit. As I wandered the streets of Oia, you could hear me exclaiming “Look at this view! This is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen!” Only to hear me say, just minutes later, “I take it back… THIS it the most beautiful view!” And then again around the next corner, “Here we go. Money shot! Is this real life?!!!” You get the idea.

The pictures do not come remotely close to doing it justice but here’s a little teaser of what I saw in Santorini.

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I’m not quite done with Santorini yet because I had one of my favourite travel days of all time when we rented ATVs to explore the island. Stay tuned for the full post to come.

Santorini was a dream destination for me. But I want to know… Have you ever been to one of your dream destinations and did it live up to the hype? Leave a comment below.

Second Time is the Charm in Ancient Athens!

Second Time is the Charm in Ancient Athens!

I had incredibly low expectations for my two nights in Athens.

I first visited this Grecian capital back in March 2003 as part of a 10-day Art & History tour with my high school. I did not love it. Far from it. In fact, I have spent the last decade telling people that it is my least favourite city in Europe. Ouch!

So when I decided to return to Greece my heart was set on the islands. But, since Athens still made the most logical starting point, I relented to the wishes of my travel companions and spent a full day touring many of the same famous sites that failed to wow me the first time. And… what do you know. Athens was NOTHING like I remembered it.

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This is not the first time that a city has improved upon its initial impressions. Barcelona, Rome, and Portland are just a few names that won me over on the SECOND visit and now are some of my favourite cities ever! This is why I absolutely NEVER SAY NEVER. I am so glad I was willing to go back to all of these places because the memories I made the second time around are worth every bit of letdown on the first run through.

So, what changed my mind about Athens? Better weather. Better company. Low Expectations. More Freedom. Open Mind.

But enough preamble… here’s what we got into!

The Acropolis

The most important site in Athens is without-a-doubt The Acropolis – an ancient citadel perched high on a rocky outcrop above the city. It contains the remains of several ancient buildings, most famously the Parthenon, a temple dedicated to the goddess Athena (patron and namesake of Athens).

Knowing this was a must-see and with only a short stay in the city, we opted to stay in a very well-located apartment just minutes away. This made our early start time much more manageable. We were waiting at the ticket entrance before it opened at 8:00am to beat the crowds and I’m so glad that we did. It wasn’t difficult to get photos and we had plenty of time to soak of the panoramic city views. We even had time to climb neighbouring Mars Hill sans spectators.

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Parliament Buildings – Changing of the Guard

Every Sunday at 11:00am there is an elaborate changing of the guard ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier outside the Presidential Mansion in Syntagma Square. And what do you know… our one day in Athens just so happened to be on a Sunday. I didn’t even plan that! So we made sure to get there early to nab a spot on the street and gleefully watched the impressive procession of synchronized guardsmen in all their skirted, pom pom tossing glory. I think I enjoyed it even more than the UK variety at Buckingham Palace.

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The Temple of Olympian Zeus

Not too far down the road we came across yet another ancient ruin. This time the Temple of Zeus! The entrance fee was included in our Acropolis ticket and we only stayed long enough to marvel at the sheer size of it. How did people build these monstrosities 2500 years ago?

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Panathenaic Stadium

Okay – this one I did remember and was definitely excited to revisit. It probably has to do with my Olympic obsession but seriously, how could you not be impressed by a 50,000 seat stadium built entirely out of MARBLE! The site of the very first modern Olympic games in 1896 even dates back to ancient times. Mindy and I couldn’t help getting cheesy with a sporty photo shoot.

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The Acropolis Museum

This new museum opened to the public back in 2009 to house the artifacts found on the Acropolis. It was even built overtop of an archaeological site with glass walkways allowing you to view the ruins below – how cool! I loved the juxtaposition of this modern building amidst the surrounding ancient architecture. I’m only a casual fan of museums but it was a nice air-conditioned break from the summer heat and an interesting walk through. Plus it has miniatures! I’m such a sucker for those.

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The Ancient Agora

The Agora was the heart of ancient Athens, the focus of political, commercial, administrative and social activity, the religious and cultural centre, and the seat of justice. This one also happens to be the best-known example of an ancient Greek agora. Honestly, by the time we got here I was a bit tuckered out from our full day of sightseeing. Even though it was approaching golden hour (my favourite time of day for photos!) I couldn’t muster up a lot of energy. But the grounds are extensive and beautifully nestled in below the Acropolis. It’s definitely worth a visit!

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So by the end of my two nights in Athens, I was actually wishing I had a couple more. I could have happily dined and strolled in the Plaka neighbourhood for another evening, soaking up the European café culture that I have become so insanely fond of. But, alas, the Greek Islands were calling and I didn’t want to miss one second of my time in the Cyclades… not even Zeus could stop me.

Next up: Santorini at last!!!

In My Bag: Packing for Summer in Europe

In My Bag: Packing for Summer in Europe

While I’m currently gallivanting around Europe, I thought it might be apropos to provide another dose of packing advice.

It is my travel mission to pack as light as possible (hello carry-on!) while still managing to look stylish. I look back at the photos from my 8-month back packing trip to Europe in 2005/2006 and I cringe at the outfits I put together. I wore a ski jacket in 80% of my photos and couldn’t have looked more like a tourist if I tried. Since then, I’ve learned that comfort and efficiency does not have to sacrifice style. With some strategic choices and some handy tools (read: packing cubes!) I am travelling in Europe for 2 weeks with less than 20 lbs on my back!

Here is the breakdown of what I packed in my bag:

CLOTHING AND SHOES

  • 1 pair of walking shoes (BOBS with memory foam)
  • 1 pair of dressier sandals (Clarks)
  • 1 pair of flip flops (Flojos with arch support)
Three is the perfect number for travel shoes.

Three is the perfect number for travel shoes.

  • 1 pair of jeans (for the plane and chilly evenings)
  • 1 pair of loose fitting hippie pants
  • 2 pairs of shorts
  • 3 dresses
  • 1 skirt/dress (convertible)

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  • 8 tops (3 t-shirts, 5 sleeveless)
  • 2-3 cardigans (for the plane, chilling evenings, hot air balloon)

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  • 1 bikini
  • 1 set of sleepwear
  • 12 pairs of underwear + 3 bras (excessive maybe)
  • 3 pairs of socks
  • 1 pair of bandelettes
  • 1 belt
  • 1-2 scarves (for the plane or to use as a shawl)

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Note: Packing Cubes!

All of my clothing easily fits inside three small packing cubes. The larger blue one is for all of my bottoms and dresses, the medium red is for tops, and the small red is for underwear. These packing cubes make it insanely easy to pack and repack quickly when living out of a backpack. Read more about my packing cube obsession here.

TOILETRIES & ACCESSORIES

  • Stella & Dot Hang On Travel Case (toiletries/make-up/jewelry/sunscreen)
  • Norwex Cloth
  • Small Medicine Bag (Kleenex, band-aids, medication, hand sanitizer, wet wipes)
  • Travel Flat Iron
  • 1 Pair of Sunglasses
  • Tote Bag (for beach use/extra stuff for airplane)
  • Cross-body Bag (Lug – Moped Day Pack) – The best travel day bag that I’ve found!

ELECTRONICS

  • iPhone 5C
  • Headphones
  • iPhone Charger
  • Camera + Charger (Canon Powershot SX700)
  • Spare Memory Card
  • Portable Charger
  • E-reader (Kobo Aura)
  • Voltage Converter
  • Adapters

DOCUMENTS & MISCELLANEOUS

  • Passport & Visa
  • Wallet
  • Travel Documents & Insurance
  • Sleep Sheet
  • Pillow Case
  • Ear Plugs
  • Travel Journal / Pen
  • Travel Umbrella
  • Luggage Locks

This was my first time bringing only a carry-on to Europe. Do you find it difficult to travel light?

What I love most about Europe

What I love most about Europe

Guys, I have a confession. This may not come as a surprise to you but I’m completely smitten by Europe.

I am a total Europhile: A person who is fond of, admires, or even loves European culture, society, history, food, etc. I know that it’s ridiculously expensive compared to popular backpacker trails in Southeast Asia and South America, but I don’t care. It’s like something magnetic keeps pulling me back to the cobblestone streets and fairy-tale castles that first intrigued me as a child. I just can’t get enough.

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Carcassone, France

Next week I’ll be traveling back to one of the first European countries I ever visited, Greece! Since my inaugural visit back in 2003 I have traveled in 16 European countries on 6 separate trips and spent nearly one year of my life on European soil. I’m no Rick Steves but I’ve certainly seen my fair share.

And while I’m off collecting beautiful photographs, hilarious stories, and moments that I’ll cherish for a lifetime… I thought it fitting to reflect on just a few of the reasons why I love this part of the world so much.

Train Travel

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Excited for our train at Roma Termini

There is something so romantic about train travel. And even though I’ve had some less than glamourous overnight journeys on sleeper trains… I still get giddy at the thought of it. Maybe it’s the click clack of the station flip boards or the way the gentle rocking always lulls me to sleep. Maybe it’s all the famous film farewell scenes with lovers blowing kisses from the caboose. Something about train travel (and especially in Europe) feels magical and always transports me to days gone by. It’s efficient. It’s affordable. And the scenery doesn’t suck either.

Walk-able Cities

Visiting Edinburgh Castle

Visiting Edinburgh Castle

I love that so many of the great European cities have a completely walkable city centre, often anchored by a beautiful river. I rarely have to use public transit during my European travels. Perusing major tourist sites on foot and casually wandering through nearby neighbourhoods is without-a-doubt my favourite way to see a city. Often as a broke backpacker, transit and even entrance fees were too much for my meager pocket book – but fortunately walking around is completely FREE! I love that! Some personal favourites – Amsterdam, Bruges, Edinburgh, Florence, Munich, Paris, Salzburg, and Venice.

Accessible Alcohol

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Enjoying a glass of wine with my gnocchi

Cheap. Plentiful. Unrestricted. I don’t think Europeans know how good they have it. We here in North America pay a not-so-pretty premium for alcohol in all its forms and face steep fines if we’re caught drinking in public spaces. In Canada, we are very behind the ball and can only buy liquor in designated stores although apparently select wine and spirits are coming to grocery stores in the never near enough future. Europe just does it better. I cannot tell you how lovely it is to sip a glass of wine with dinner without stressing about blowing my budget. They say the beer is cheaper than water… and they are usually right!

Street Food

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I had no idea that guy was going to do that…

North America has definitely caught on to the street food appeal with its plethora of trendy (and pricey) food trucks in most urban cities. However, once again, Europe does this way better! Not only is their street food delicious and iconic but it’s also super cheap. I cannot even fathom visiting Turkey and NOT eating a doner kebab from a street vendor or going to Paris and not ordering a Nutella-Banana crepe from the side window of a café. I’m already salivating.

History

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The Roman Forum

I live in a young city that is really still a baby at 129 years old, especially when compared with ancient greats like Rome and Athens. When I travel in Europe I get to walk where 2000 years of former generations have stood. I get to see the ruins of ancient civilizations and visit the most famous monuments of all time. These cities are steeped in a rich history with fascinating stories just waiting to be uncovered. I don’t know about you… but I think that is pretty cool.

Do you love Europe as much as I do? What do you enjoy most?

Departure Lounge: Greece & Turkey

Departure Lounge: Greece & Turkey

It’s the most wonderful time of the year!!!! Summer is swiftly approaching and with it… my next big travel adventure!

In many ways, this trip has been 5 years in the making. It all started in a crowded pub after the first day of an economic conference. My university friends, married couple Rachel & Caleb, were hilariously sharing the story of their disastrous honeymoon in Paris. It was a 3-week comedy of errors and the retelling had our table in stiches. But this story was more of a tragedy in truth because poor Rachel virtually swore off international travel ever since. Being the travel evangelist that I am, I promised that someday I would take her back to Europe and show her how awesome it can be. Well, that someday has finally arrived.

In just a few weeks I am travelling to Greece and Turkey with both Rachel & Caleb (wish me luck!) as well as my frequent travel partner Mindy. If summer in the Mediterranean can’t win them over, then nothing will. We only have 2 weeks but I am confident that our itinerary has something for everyone: Beaches, History, Culture, Adventure, and Food!

Itinerary

June 20-21: Athens, Greece

June 22-25: Santorini, Greece

June 26: Bodrum, Turkey

June 27: Ephesus, Turkey

June 28: Pamukkale, Turkey

June 29-30: Goreme, Turkey

July 1-4: Istanbul, Turkey

These are the activities I am most looking forward to:

  • Renting ATVs and driving around the island of Santorini.
  • Drinking wine while watching the famed Oia Sunset
  • Exploring Ephesus, one of the best preserved ancient sites in the world
  • Riding a hot air balloon in Cappadocia!
  • Sinking my teeth into Turkish cuisine (rumored to be A-MAZING!)

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I am SOOO excited for this trip and I can’t wait to start posting about it. Stay tuned this summer for all the details!

Where are your summer plans taking you? Have you been to Greece or Turkey? Any tips? Leave a comment below.

Photo Essay: 5 Hours in Amsterdam

Photo Essay: 5 Hours in Amsterdam

On my way home from Spain last month, I ended up with a five hour daytime layover in Amsterdam. It was a beautiful, sunny, Sunday morning and my bag was checked through to my final destination so I decided to be adventurous and leave the airport. I bought myself a train ticket from Schiphol to Amsterdam Centraal station and in less than 15 minutes I was wandering around the quiet streets of the city centre. I ate delicious pastry. I marvelled at the impressive bike lanes. I photographed the lovely canals.

In all my travels abroad, I have never left the airport during a layover before but I’m so glad I did. It was the perfect way to stretch my legs and pass the time. And it was easier than I could have imagined. Can’t wait to go back to Holland for a longer stay!

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Have you ever done something fun on an airport layover?

Montserrat: A Must-see Mountaintop Monastery

Montserrat: A Must-see Mountaintop Monastery

Day tripping has become one of my new favourite ways to explore a region. I love the convenience of settling in a cozy apartment for several days and then taking mini day trips to explore sights outside the city limits. Some of the perks of having a home base include not having to pack up and move every couple of days, getting familiar with a neighbourhood (like I did in Gracia), and actually feeling like you have a home away from home.

When it came to my day trip to Montserrat, I was definitely excited to get out of the city. But if truth be told, I wouldn’t have complained about an extra day in my beloved Barcelona either. I didn’t know much about Montserrat but the interwebs highly recommended this easy half day excursion so the decision was made. And what do you know… I think it was quite possibly my favourite day of the entire trip.

For starters… we had amazing timing. We masterfully navigated the Espanya station and purchased our train tickets (sounds simple but not always so) allowing us to catch our train with mere seconds to spare. We enjoyed a peaceful one hour ride to the Montserrat Aeri station where we then took a cable car to the mountaintop. Can I just say how much I love cable cars?

IMG_0475Our early arrival time made for a thoroughly relaxing morning with relatively few crowds. In fact, we were pretty much the only people on the Degotalls trail. This scenic pathway lined with sculptures, wall frescoes, and other artistic works was the perfect leisurely stroll to start the day.

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And then there was the monastery itself. It just so happens to be Catalonia’s most important religious retreat. Many make the pilgrimage to the sanctuary to visit the Virgin of Montserrat, Catalonia’s favourite saint. Make sure to get there early or be prepared to stand in an extremely long queue for time with the saint.

The impressive basilica houses a museum with works by many prominent painters and sculptors as well as one of the oldest printing presses still running. And if you happen to be there at 1:00pm you can hear one of the oldest boy’s choirs in Europe.

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But more than the peaceful walk, more than the beautiful monastery, was the V I E W ! Montserrat could not have been more gorgeous. We got a bit out of control with all the photos but what else is new.

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Do yourself a favour and visit Montserrat. On a clear day like we had, this is a must-see sight!

New Year’s Eve: A Catalan Celebration!

New Year’s Eve: A Catalan Celebration!

We are three weeks into 2015 (how did that happen!) and I’m still enjoying the fresh start feel of a new year. But, January is also a great time for reflecting on past goals – and one of my recent travel-related missions has been to ring in the new year in a different city every year!

Last year I counted down to midnight alongside friendly strangers and my best friend by the Mississippi River in New Orleans! From devouring beignets in Jackson Square to catching beads on Bourbon Street, we thoroughly enjoyed our NOLA experience. Fireworks over the river. Drinking hurricanes in the street. Dancing the night away. If you haven’t been to New Orleans yet… then maybe 2015 is your time!

New Year's Eve in New Orleans

New Year’s Eve in New Orleans

This year I flew from Lisbon, Portugal to Barcelona, Spain on December 31st with just enough time to prepare for some authentic Catalan celebrations. In my pre-trip research I discovered that the most important Spanish New Year tradition is to eat twelve grapes just before midnight. You eat one at a time at each chime of the clock as it counts down to midnight and then you toast with Cava, a sparkling wine produced in Catalonia. My friend Megan and I chose to pre-drink our lovely rosé “champagne” before we left our apartment but we brought the grapes with us for the midnight countdown! IMG_3094 The main event was held at the spectacular Font Magica de Montjuic (or Magic Fountain) near the Plaza Espanya. I think we ended up here at least three times during our stay in Barcelona. It’s fantastic by both day and night but especially on New Year’s Eve when the fountains were lit up and dancing in time to the music. It was a short metro ride to the festivities and the mild winter weather made it easy to stand outside. The perks of living on the Mediterranean!

At 11:30pm the main stage featured a fabulous show by La Fura dels Baus, a Catalan theatrical group with a 15 metre high iron man sculpture. My explanation probably won’t make a lot of sense but essentially it was a human tower of lit up figures high above the crowd. Definitely my first time seeing anything like it. IMG_2970 IMG_2969 And lastly, a fireworks show over the Palau Nacional! Apparently, this was the first year that Barcelona had ever had a fireworks show so it looks like we timed our trip perfectly. IMG_3084 I have had two back-to-back fantastic New Year’s Eve celebrations and I sure hope the streak continues. I don’t know where I’ll be in 2016 but it definitely has some steep competition.

Where do you think I should ring in 2016? Leave a comment below.

I left my heart in Barcelona

I left my heart in Barcelona

I’ve experienced love at first sight before. It just took one glance at Dubrovnik‘s old town to knock me off my feet.

But sometimes you meet a city at the wrong time. Maybe the weather is bad or you’re feeling under the weather. First impressions are important and can really affect how you feel about a particular place.

Over the past couple of years, I have given out some second chances and revisited past cities that didn’t thrill me the first time. Each of these second impressions gave me a new outlook and a remarkably better experience.

So nine years after my first ambivalent visit to Barcelona, I returned for a do-over. The result: LOVE! In fact, I could see myself happily living there someday. It was just that good.

Here are five reasons why I’m crazy about Barcelona:

1. Mediterranean Climate IMG_0365 It’s no secret that I hate cold weather so any city that boasts palm trees and year-round sunshine gets my vote. I love that winter in Spain feels like spring anywhere else. Some people like having four distinct seasons but I could easily do without the rain and snow.

2. Delicious Food IMG_3025 One word. Tapas. Spanish cuisine is based around these bite sized delicacies that essentially turn every dining experience into Happy Hour. Not to mention the cheap alcohol and relaxed drinking laws in Europe. What’s not to love?

3. Coastal CityIMG_3067I’ve grown up living within 45 minutes of the Pacific Ocean and now live a whole 1 minute walk from the beach. I don’t think I could ever be happy living away from the coast. Fortunately, Barcelona has a gorgeous pier and great beaches.

4. Cosmopolitan CataloniaIMG_0486Let’s be clear about one thing. Barcelona is not Spain. Although it’s technically located in Spain, it’s actually the capital of a region called Catalonia. They have their own language, customs, and culture – giving it a distinctly modern and classic European flavour. Whereas the rest of Spain is a bit rough around the edges, Barcelona is clean, organized, and reminds me a lot more of Paris than Madrid.

5. Drop Dead Gorgeous IMG_0518Unique architecture. Palm Trees. Plazas. Beaches. I could go on and on but I think the pictures say it better than I ever could. Barcelona is beautiful.IMG_2961 IMG_0479 IMG_3076 IMG_3080 IMG_0500I’m not sure why Barcelona didn’t wow me at first but it definitely stole my heart the second time around. I don’t know when I’ll be back but I wouldn’t be surprised if it ends up being sooner than later.

Park Guell: Exploring the World of Gaudi

Park Guell: Exploring the World of Gaudi

I have a confession. Sometimes I get tired of sightseeing.

It hasn’t happened to me very often, but travel fatigue can hit even the most passionate and voracious globetrotter.

Back in January 2006 I was halfway through an 8-month European backpacking expedition when I ended up in Barcelona. Cold. Tired. And honestly ready to give my camera a break. I had already been through four countries and had five more ahead of me. After months of traipsing around in freezing cold climates I was more than ready to feel the warm Spanish sun on my skin and to kick back and relax. I sat on the beach. I went to Starbucks. I taught myself about siestas. I was taking a little vacation from my vacation.

It wasn’t until I had moved south and started covering the rest of Spain that I realized all of the amazing things that I had completely missed while in Barcelona. How is it possible that I hadn’t seen even one piece of Gaudi architecture? In my frustration, I promised myself that someday I would return and make up for my little episode of burnout.

Nine years later (almost to the day) I finally made it back. This time was different.

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Hola Gaudi.

His architecture is unmistakeable and seemingly unavoidable (although I previously proved that theory wrong). This time it felt like we couldn’t walk anywhere without passing by one of his distinctive achievements.

But of all Gaudi’s works, our favourite spot was absolutely Park Guell.

This public park system on Carmel Hill is composed of gorgeous gardens and architectural elements that entertained us for hours. The park was designed by Gaudi and built between 1900-1914 and declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984.

It can get quite crowded and in order to preserve the monuments, portions of the park are only open to paying guests. Access to the most famous areas are limited to 400 people every 30 minutes. We ended up having to wait for a while but the rest of the park had plenty to keep us occupied with stunning city views and street performers playing Spanish guitar.

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And the monument precinct was definitely worth the price and the wait.

The Dragon Stairway

The Dragon Stairway

The most popular area is without a doubt the Greek Theatre. This open square is surrounded by a gorgeous tile-shard mosaic bench. While we were frantically trying to get the perfect photo… it seemed like everyone else was using the seating to take a nap in the sun. Clearly they didn’t appreciate the art in the same way we did.

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So after nine years of suspense I finally got to see what all the fuss was about and it lived up to my expectations. Beautiful. Unique. Awe-inspiring.

Next up: More Barcelona and the Magnificent Montserrat.

Once Upon a Time in Sintra

Once Upon a Time in Sintra

Ever since I was a young girl I’ve had a fascination with fairy tales, princesses, and castles. I blame it on Disney’s expert brainwashing. But, for all of my European travels, I’ve actually visited relatively few actual castles. And the ones I did see turned out to be more like military fortresses than the elegant palaces of my dreams. So imagine my delight when I googled “day trips from Lisbon” and discovered Sintra, a town near the coast dotted with royal retreats, estates, and castles. Needless to say I was sold.

All it took was a 1 hour train ride (don’t get me started on the ticket purchasing process… you need to up your game Rossio station) and an accidental hike up a mountain. #worthit

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Introducing beautiful Sintra and the Pena National Palace!

We arrived in Sintra on a picture perfect winter day (that honestly felt more like Spring) and instantly got swept away by the magic of this town. We could barely take a few steps before we HAD to stop for another photo. Progress was slow.

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Sintra National Palace

We had done our research in advance and knew that of all the castles and palaces in the region, the Pena National Palace was the one we wanted to see most. According to google maps, the pink and yellow palace was approximately a 30 minute walk from the main part of town. Easy.

We started walking up the hilly roads along with many other tourists. But, as we continued up the cobblestone road, our fellow travellers started to dwindle until it was just Megan and I left. We initially didn’t think much of it until it became clear that google maps was a BIG FAT LIAR. This was no 30 minute hike. But we soldered on… (a) because we kept hoping we were almost there (b) because we were too cheap to pony up for a bus pass, but mostly (c) because there really wasn’t another choice. We were alone out there.

At least we had pretty castles to motivate us.

Castelo dos Mouros

Castelo dos Mouros

Pena National Palace!

Pena National Palace!

We did eventually make it to the ticket office where we purchased a park pass for €8 which gave us access to everything except the inside of the palace. Cue epic fairytale photo shoot.

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Sintra was such a worthwhile day trip. My feet may have been throbbing but my camera was full and I definitely got my castle fix for the next year or so.

Do you love castles as much as I do? Any recommendations?

Highlights from Lisbon, Portugal

Highlights from Lisbon, Portugal

From the very first evening wandering the streets of old Alfama, I knew that I was going to fall hard for Lisbon. This city has everything I love about Europe. Narrow winding streets. Grand Squares. Beautiful vistas. Awe-inspiring monuments. I had high expectations for my inaugural trip to Portugal and it did not disappoint. Lisbon is quintessential Europe and a city that deserves a spot on every traveller’s bucket list.

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We jam-packed so much activity into two days that it’s hard to choose just one highlight… so here are a couple of my favourite spots in the city.

Praca do Comercio

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One thing that Europe does better than anywhere else is expansive plazas. In Lisbon, the Praça do Comércio is not only surrounded by gorgeous and brightly coloured buildings but it’s also situated on the Tagus River. A square that is also a waterfront? Yes please.

Belém

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This region of the city is home to not one, not two, but three UNESCO World Heritage sites. So obviously it was a must see.

(1) The Tower of Belém

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(2) Jerónimos Monastery

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(3) Monument to the Discoveries

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Jardim Botânico da Ajuda

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Every once in a while you stumble across a place that isn’t on any must-see tourist list and then ends up being one of your favourite spots. That’s what happened to my park loving travel buddy Megan and I when we stumbled across this completely empty garden with beautiful river vistas. It looked like it fell straight out of a Jane Austen novel and was such a lovely reprieve from the crowded tourist sights. We may or may not have staged an hour long photo shoot…

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Castelo de São Jorge

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What would a trip to a European capital be without a hilltop castle visit? The Castle of St George is an 11th century, Moorish castle & royal residence strategically positioned high on a hill with stunning city views. Unfortunately, the clouds rolled in during our visit which inhibited the view but definitely added a level of mystery quite fitting to playing in such a fortress.

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I could have spent weeks exploring this city that clearly has so much more to offer than the conventional sites, but I know that a return trip to Portugal is in my future. This trip was just a teaser for what’s to come.

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Departure Lounge: Portugal & Spain

Departure Lounge: Portugal & Spain

I am finally doing it! I am actually going to visit one of my Top 5 Dream Destinations – PORTUGAL!

Most of the time, my next travel destination is rarely the place I want to go most. That may seem a bit strange but there are a lot of factors to consider when you’re a part-time traveller… for example:

(1) Other people. Am I visiting someone? Am I travelling with someone? This can majorly affect where you go. I probably never would have visited Colombia when I did had my friend not been living there at the time.

(2) Budget. This probably goes without saying but some of the destinations of my dreams are really expensive. I’m looking at you Scandinavia and Australia!

(3) Time of Year / Weather. Call me wimpy (I certainly do) but I am not the least bit excited about the prospect of winter in Iceland. I can usually deal with the extreme heat (and I have – Egypt, Vietnam, Texas, and Italy in summer!) but cold weather makes me quiver like a baby Chihuahua. Not cute. I prefer to travel when the weather is nice and the crowds are less hectic.

So yeah… it doesn’t actually happen very often that I end up going exactly where my heart desires… until now!

On Boxing Day 2014, I am heading to Portugal and then on to Spain with my new favourite travel buddy, Megan. We met in Vietnam a few months back and we are deliriously excited about our next travel adventure. We have limited time off work/school so we chose to split our time between two world-class cities: Lisbon & Barcelona. They are both coastal cities with a mild winter climate… and I’m crossing my fingers for sunshine! Barcelona is known to be a really fun, party city so I’m hoping they show us a good time for New Year’s Eve!

The countdown is on!

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Lisbon to Barcelona

My 7 Wonders of the World

This is a special edition of my Favourites series.

It seems like there are so many variations of the Seven Wonders of the World floating around that I decided I would create my own from places that I’ve actually been.

My 7 Wonders of the World

Machu Picchu, Peru

Without a doubt, Machu Picchu is the most spectacular, awe-inspiring site that my eyes have ever seen. It absolutely lives up to all the hype! I trekked 33 kilometres over three days from Lares to Ollantaytambo before finally taking a train to Aguas Calientes and making the early morning trip to Machu Picchu. From touring the ancient capital of the Incas to hiking Wayna Picchu, the whole experience was incredible from start to finish. These Incan ruins need to be on every person’s bucket list.

Machu Picchu

Pyramids of Giza, Egypt

While I was planning my trip to Egypt, people were constantly asking me Why Egypt? This question seriously puzzled me. Don’t people understand that to see the pyramids one would have to go to Egypt? Well this original wonder of the world certainly earned its place. Riding camels around the site didn’t hurt either…

Camel Time

Ha Long Bay, Vietnam

The most recent wonder on my list is the magical Halong Bay. Even on a mostly cloudy day this place had a mystical hold on me. With nearly 2000 limestone islets and floating fishing villages creating a tropical kaleidiscope above the green waters, this place is more than worthy of a spot on the new 7 wonders of the world list… and mine too!

Fishing Village

The Colosseum, Italy

I’ve visited this famous amphitheatre twice now and both times it transported me back in time. I’ve read so many stories and seen so many films (Gladiator anyone?) from the era of the Roman Empire and it is always haunting and humbling to be standing in a place so rich in history and tragedy. I can only imagine how impressive it would have been back in its glory days.

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The Eiffel Tower, France

Paris je t’aime! Sometimes I still can’t believe that I’m not living in a chic apartment in the Cinquième (5e) arrondissement splitting my time between the cafe culture and long walks along the Seine. But, I digress. There is no building on earth that I was more excited to see than the Eiffel Tower. After studying French for 8 years, this was the place that I most wanted to see when I went to France and the place that I would most like to re-visit… and soon!

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Alhambra, Spain

This palace/fortress, originally constructed in 889 and reconstructed in the mid-11th century by the Moors was a major highlight of my 3 months in Spain. It might not be as popular as some of the other wonders on this list but it is every bit as beautiful. My only regret is that I didn’t take more pictures… I was too busy experiencing in the present tense.

Alhambra

Plitvice Lakes National Park, Croatia

Croatia, Croatia, Croatia. The country that won my heart in one, all-to-brief week. And the crowning jewel is this absolutely stunning national park filled with turquoise lakes and magnificent waterfalls. This was the perfect day trip from Zagreb and a must-see stop for any trip to the Balkans. I can’t wait to go back!

Plitvice Lakes

 

My Top 10 Favourite Cities

According to my Trip Advisor travel map, I’ve been to 265 cities and counting! I believe that this stat gives me a bit of credibility in listing some of my favourites thus far. I wholeheartedly recommend all of these cities and have visited half of them more than once. As always, I reserve the right to update this list whenever I like because I’m constantly visiting fabulous new destinations. But, for now at least, here are my top 10 favourite cities.

My Top 10 Favourite Cities

San Diego, California

La Jolla

I first visited San Diego on a family vacation when I was 10 years old. We did the typical touristy activities like SeaWorld and the San Diego Zoo. I loved them both and even got called up on stage during two of the shows (my 15 minutes of fame). Flash forward a decade and my views have certainly changed. I may no longer support animal captivity but fortunately SD still has a plethora of amazing (cruelty free) things to do – try whale watching or surfing instead. When one of my best friends moved to the city in 2012 I was beyond excited about frequently visiting (and I have!). With blissful temperatures year-round, stunning cliffs and beaches, and amazing restaurants, San Diego is my favourite winter getaway. I could even see myself living here someday – Hello Vitamin D!

Paris, France

Paris

A wise woman once said, “Paris is always a good idea” and I couldn’t agree more. If you were to visit my apartment, one thing would quickly become apparent, and that is that J’adore Paris! I can’t possibly think of a city with more class and culture. Just imagine perusing the markets in Montmartre, strolling the grounds of les Jardins du Luxembourg, or savouring a crepe on the Champs-Élysées. An exemplary model of urban planning, this world-class city has so many unique neighbourhoods to explore. Not to mention being home to some of the world’s most famous sights; L’arc de Triomphe, Notre Dame, Le Louvre, and La Tour Eifel, to name a few. Now if only I could remember my 8 years of French lessons…

Rome, Italy

Rome

Ah Roma… a textbook example of why you sometimes need to revisit a city to truly appreciate it. Ten years after my first visit, I went back to the eternal city to discover what I had missed back in my teenage years. Yes, I remembered that the monuments were impressive and that the gelato was tasty but I couldn’t seem to understand what the fuss was all about. Well, let me tell you – Rome is simply magical. The entire city is like an open air museum with rich history spanning more than 2,500 years and amazing architecture around every corner. You could easily spend years in Rome and still not discover it all. I’ve thrown my coin in the Trevi Fountain twice and I’m sure I’ll be back again!

Dubrovnik, Croatia

Dubrovnik

My inaugural trip to the pearl of the Adriatic was almost ruined by a missed train and a spiral of lost connections. Fortunately, I pushed passed the roadblocks with the lovely premonition that I was about to fall in love. Most of the cities on this list are places that I’ve courted over several trips but Dubrovnik is my only one night stand. So, you can imagine how intoxicating a city it must be to have such power over me so quickly. Well let me tell you that one walk around the old city walls is all it took to have me spouting off grand declarations and adding Croatia to every list in my book. Dubrovnik is quite simply the most beautiful city I’ve ever seen and even though our time together was brief, it left a lasting impression on me. I hope I won’t have to call her The One that Got Away for long.

Edinburgh, Scotland

Edinburgh

Edinburgh was one of the very last stops on my 8 month European backpacking adventure in 2005/2006. I arrived there feeling a bit of travel burnout and was definitely looking forward to heading home. Fortunately I arrived to perfect spring weather and a gorgeous city dripping with classic European charm. Edinburgh has a distinctly medieval feel with cobblestone streets, Gothic architecture, and a castle resting on an extinct volcano. But, it’s also a great city for young people and maybe even a place to find love… I mean if it worked for Will & Kate! I have yet to hear a negative review of this Scottish gem so if it isn’t on your bucket list yet… you know what to do.

Bogota, Colombia

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This is one that may raise some eyebrows. Bogota is a very unconventional choice and probably won’t make many top ten lists (unless you’re looking at the negative side). But, I don’t care what the critics say – I have my own opinions and my own experiences and Bogota won me over big time. It likely had a lot to do with my personal tour guide / travel agent friend who hosted and entertained me the entire 5 days, but that also proves that there is plenty to love about Colombia’s capital. The historic district La Candelaria (pictured above) has lovely Spanish Colonial and Baroque architecture with a wealth of churches and squares to fill your camera. The city has great shopping and dining options plus Monserrate, one of the most beautiful mountain top attractions I’ve ever seen – the funicular ride to the top is a must-do for all tourists. Transportation may not be super easy (although I was kind of taxi fairy) and English still isn’t widely spoken (if at all) but the effort was definitely worth it to discover the inner beauty of this very misunderstood city.

Salzburg, Austria

Salzburg

Visiting Salzburg was the realization of a childhood dream – to step into the world of Fräulein Maria and the Von Trapp children. After growing up with an obsessive passion for the Sound of Music I knew I had to do the official SOM tour when I finally made it to the famous city – and it did not disappoint. Even in the fall, the Mirabell Gardens (pictured above) with views of Hohensalzburg Castle were enchanting. The nearby palaces, abbey, and Lake District easily appeased the fan girl in me and proved that my adoration of Austria was well deserved. But, the city has even more to offer. As the birth place of Mozart, culture in the way of museums and music is at a premium and the lovely riverside hosts one of my favourite little Christmas markets in the winter. Although it is much smaller than Vienna and harder to avoid tourist groups (sorry – that was me), it is worth your time and will always hold a very special place in my heart.

Florence, Italy

Florence

Tuscany. That’s probably the only descriptive word that I need to use to explain why I love Florence so much, but this is a blog, so I will elaborate. Firenze is another city with a medieval feel. Often considered the birthplace of the Renaissance, it is so easy to get swept away with the impressive art (Michelangelo’s statue of David), gorgeous churches (Duomo and Santa Croce), and unique bridges (Ponte Vecchio). I loved exploring the winding streets and discovering epic views (see above) from the Piazzale Michelangelo. And to top it all off, Florence is where I first discovered gelato (Tiramisu flavoured nonetheless)! There’s something dreamlike about this part of the world and it’s orange roof tops – it easily makes my list.

New Orleans, Louisiana

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Welcome to Nawlins y’all! There is just something special about the South that makes me want to slow my speech and eat something fried… but maybe that’s just the Bourban talking. Joking aside, New Orleans is a truly amazing city that in many ways doesn’t even feel like part of America. With buildings dating back to the 1700s and a unique French influence, Louisiana is easily one of the most interesting of the 50 states. Known for its delicious Cajun food, amazing jazz music, beautiful colonial architecture, and the wild and crazy Mardi Gras – NOLA has something for everyone. You can party in the street all night long or step back in time on a beautiful antebellum or creole plantation. The city has faced a lot of adversity with its history of slavery and recent tragedies like the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. But, what I saw here was beautiful resilience, hope, and a whole lot of fun! Do your part to help and make New Orleans your next vacation stop.

Vancouver, BC, Canada

Vancouver

My city. My home. My happy place! The past two years of living in Vancouver have been some of the very best of my life. I still pinch myself every time I cross the Burrard Street Bridge (which is usually twice per day) because I can’t believe that this is my real life. Vancouver is by far my favourite place on earth. Wherever you look you see water or mountains or both! You can ski, golf, bike, sail and kayak– all on the same day. Not only is this city breathtakingly beautiful but it is bursting with activity, diversity, and general awesomeness (that’s a technical term)! In Vancity we know all about living well – we are clean and green. We love yoga and craft beer and playing outside all year long. If you’re not planning a visit to the magnificent Pacific Northwest – then you should be!

Honourable Mention:

My Top 5 Favourite Countries

I’ve been having so much fun with this Favourites series… let’s keep the ball rolling with my favourite countries.

The criteria I used to make my decision are as follows:

  • Natural Beauty
  • Rich Culture
  • Interesting History
  • Liveability
  • People (i.e. friendly? interesting? etc.)
  • Overall Experience (i.e. weather? ease of travel?)
  • Intangible – Wow Factor

Top 5 Favourite Countries

Croatia

This country knocked my socks off! Not only is it one of the most beautiful countries I’ve ever been, but the locals were incredibly helpful (and basically all spoke English), the history is fascinating (was there really a war here just 20 years ago?) and the cities were dripping with old world charm and romance. After my first trip in 2013, the Balkans region has climbed to the top of my dream trips list. I hope to be back again by 2016.

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Italy

Where do I even begin with Italy? In some ways I don’t want to put Italy on my list because it seems too obvious, but three trips later and I still can’t get enough. Italy was the first European country I ever visited (way back in 2003) and since then I have covered Western Europe on 4 separate trips (one that lasted nearly 9 months). I have visited many of the big ticket attractions but there is still so much to explore. I constantly feel drawn here – to the place that made me fall head over heels for Europe. I can’t dream up a better afternoon than sipping a glass of red wine in a beautiful square while listening to the musical language of the locals. Italy, I love you!

Venice

Switzerland

People always ask me which place has been my favourite? That’s partly what motivated me to write this series. For years, my default answer was always Switzerland. And, for good reason: Swiss Alps, Swiss Chocolate, and Swiss Cheese. Because it’s such a small country I was able to see quite a lot of it by train, car, and gondola! I met some truly beautiful people who are like family and got the thrill of a lifetime when I went skiing on Christmas day 2005. Some may find it stuffy and expensive, but I love the clean streets and polite drivers. It also doesn’t hurt that it is spectacularly beautiful!

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Austria

I was blessed to call this country home for about three months in fall 2005 but that isn’t when it first stole my heart. I first discovered Austria through Julie Andrews’ voice in the magical film…The Sound of Music. I can’t remember when I first saw it and I can’t remember how many times I’ve seen it (clue: A LOT!) but I do know every song by heart and I can tell you that the hills definitely are alive! From sleepy alpine villages to vibrant world-class cities , Austria has everything this city girl / nature lover / history enthusiast could want, except for maybe an ocean, but the lakes are a lovely substitute.

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Colombia

Have you ever been travelling, and for no apparent reason, you just felt like you were somewhere special? It doesn’t happen to me very often (anymore) but it definitely hit me as I was boarding the plane from Cartagena; I knew that I had to come back someday. Colombia is the least touristy country I have ever been. The violent history. The language barrier. The difficult terrain. All of these things should have deterred me, but I couldn’t be stopped. What a thrill to go somewhere where I had absolutely no expectations. After spending time in the capital, Bogota, I proclaimed (probably foolishly) that I could totally live here (and I don’t say that very often). Maybe it was the rainy weather. Maybe it was the mind-blowing coffee. Or maybe it was being reunited with my friend Beatrice and meeting her amazing family. I’m not sure exactly… but something felt right and oddly familiar while being completely different at the same time. Tropical. Cosmopolitan. Diverse. Colombia had me at Hola!

Cartagena

 

My Top 5 Favourite Beaches

I decided to finally take the time to reflect on my travel past and document some of my absolute favourite finds over the past twenty-something years.

This is the first post in a new series on my travel Favourites (yes – I am Canadian, and this is how we spell favourite!)

Since it is summer, I thought it would be apropos to begin with the best beaches I’ve been blessed to sink my toes into.

 

Top 5 Favourite Beaches

 

Bai Dai Beach, Nha Trang, Vietnam

This gorgeous beach on the South China Sea had everything: White Sand, Warm Waters, and No one around. Touted as the best beach in a country with over 3000 km of coastline… it is easy to see why people love Southeast Asia.

Bai Dai Beach

Muchavista Beach, El Campello, Spain

I was incredibly lucky to spend 3 months living just a mere 5 minutes from this expansive beach north of Alicante. The entire length of the beach is lined with a boardwalk and a tram so that even getting groceries became an exciting event.

El Campello

Lanikai Beach, Kailua, Oahu

On my second trip to Oahu, I decided to do my research and find a beach, ANY BEACH, other than Waikiki. My search landed me on lovely Lanikai in the sleepy town of Kailua where public access is restricted to pedestrians only, making it the perfect island escape. It’s also made quite a few top 10 lists so this one is a no-brainer.

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Coronado Beach, San Diego, California

Whenever I go to San Diego (which is fortunately quite often) I always look forward to spending time on the island of Coronado. I can’t believe that people actually live there all the time because it is almost too lovely to be real.

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Kitsilano Beach, Vancouver, BC

No top 5 list would be complete without the place that makes me happier than any other. I live about 1 minute from the Pacific Ocean and it is a frequent stomping ground for me all year long. Vancouver has a lot of great beaches that I could include on this list (English Bay, Jericho Beach, Spanish Banks, Wreck Beach) but Kits beach is home. With breathtaking views of the North Shore mountains, Stanley Park, and the Vancouver skyline, it’s my favourite walk in the city! Our version of Venice Beach is also great for people watching, dog walking, bike riding, or playing some beach volleyball all year long.

Kits

 

What is your favourite beach?

Plitvice Lakes National Park

A picture is worth so much more than a thousand words. Every once in a while I see a photo of a place I’ve never heard of before and immediately add it to my bucket list: Bruges (check). Dubrovnik (check). Plitvice Lakes National Park (check).

This trip was fantastic for exploring lesser known wonders that deserve every bit as much recognition as the big seven. Plitvice Lakes is the oldest national park in Croatia, made famous for its 16 cascading lakes and renowned for the stunning range of colours from turquoise to green, grey or blue. The park was officially added to the UNESCO World Heritage register in 1979 and was one of the first natural sites to make the list.

We planned our trip to Plitvice on our last full day in Croatia. Our hired guide for the day, Mladen of Funky Zagreb, gave us a world class tour with all the history and local hookups to make our day a memorable highlight. Our first stop of the day was at the Croatian War Museum just south of Karlovac where we learned about the city’s role in the Croatian Homeland War from 1991-1995. It is still shocking to think that the bombed out buildings were destroyed less than 20 years ago.

From there we continued on to a dairy farm where the Novkovic family made us a delicious breakfast fit for a king: home-made cheese, jam, eggs, bread, organic apple juice, and even some morning liqueur (When in Croatia!!). We also stopped in the sleepy watermill village of Rastoke where we enjoyed a wake-up coffee and landscapes akin to scenes from Lord of the Rings. I was almost expecting to see hobbits emerging from the cute little houses.

By lunch we had arrived at the park and spent a magical four hours wandering along the wooden pathways and climbing beside waterfalls as we photographed the lakes from every angle. It was so tranquil and rejuvenating to be out in nature and simply appreciating the beauty of creation. Although, no single image was as impressive as Niagara Falls, it was the culmination of the colours, size, and sounds that contributed to such a beautiful sensory experience. I couldn’t think of a better way to end our trip. Until next time…

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A Kaptol Celebration: Croatia joins the EU

Many people told me that Croatia’s political capital wasn’t worth visiting. So after we left the coast for our final three days in Zagreb, I had low expectations. But, what we experienced was nothing short of lovely. The northern temperatures were much cooler and allowed us the opportunity to explore the city all day long without having to break for the heat. We discovered a city reminiscent of the Austro-Hungarian architecture of places like Vienna and Munich with the familiar old-world feel that is so classically European.

Zagreb is such a liveable city and was definitely a refreshing break from the throngs of tourists that we’d been dodging the entire trip. We kind of felt like celebrities as we road our uber-touristy Hop-on Hop-off bus, waving at everyone we passed in the streets. It sounds ridiculous but it was actually extremely fun and an interesting social experiment.

With beautiful parks, historic buildings, and a plethora of pubs, there was plenty to keep us busy. So when we casually stumbled across the preparations for a great celebration in the old Kaptol, we were thrilled to learn that in mere days Croatia would officially join the European Union as the 28th member. What an exciting time to experience the culture of a country rebounding from years of war, economic turmoil, and political change. It is my opinion that Zagreb is severely overlooked as a travel destination and no trip to Croatia should be complete without visiting the nation’s capital.

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A Modern Twist in Ancient Split

Croatia’s second largest city may be best known as a transportation hub for buses, ferries, and flights but that’s not the full picture. We didn’t do much more than pass through Split on our way from the islands to the North, but we did find a little piece of paradise along the way. The main harbour was buzzing with activity with tourists flocking to the beautiful promenade lined with palm trees, cafes, shops, and the UNESCO world heritage site, Dicoletian’s Palace. At first it seemed out of place to stumble across the beautifully preserved Roman palace at the epicentre of the city’s transportation network, but soon the old and new blended together in a perfect split that didn’t seem divided at all. One minute we were shopping in an upscale boutique and next we were climbing on a pile of 4th century ruins. Around every corner was a new discovery and the unexpected time travel felt oddly perfect.

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Next up: Heading Northwest to the capital city, Zagreb.

Hvar: The sunniest spot in Europe

It was a cold, dark, and rainy January evening when I randomly met my first Croatian at a Pita Pit in Vancouver. We struck up a conversation that started with olives and ended with an email exchange of must-see places in Croatia. I had never heard of Hvar before and I certainly hadn’t planned to go there, but my new friend Davor assured me that it was not to be missed.

Fast forward 6 months and I spent two amazing days on the beautiful island that claims to be the sunniest spot in Europe! We stayed a short five minute walk from the harbour and spent our time strolling along the promenades lined with cafes where we enjoyed dinner, drinks, and dessert al fresco every night.

And of course no Mediterranean vacation is complete without a beach day. After a mere 30 minute water taxi ride we reached the tranquil and even more remote Palmižana island.  A part of the Pakleni chain of islands, this popular spot is the perfect place for yachts (both big and small), swimming, and sunbathing. We rented some luxurious beach chairs and spent a blissful day soaking up the sun, which played hide & seek, but fortunately, mostly seek.

Another highlight of our time on Hvar was our hike to visit the Fortica (Spanjola). After an easy 20 minute “hike” up the stone steps and winding pathway we reached the 16th century fortress that provides stunning panoramic views of Hvar town and the surrounding Pakleni islands. We were once again blown away by the beauty of Croatia (see Dubrovnik post) and took an embarrassing number of photos to document the stunning vistas. At this point, Croatia is a top contender for the most beautiful country I’ve ever visited… although it does have some stiff competition (I’m looking at you Italy, Ecuador, Spain, Costa Rica, and Switzerland).

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Ferrying up the Dalmatian Coast

Growing up on the West Coast, I’ve spent my fair share of time on ferries. But the magical voyage to Vancouver Island that I remember from childhood didn’t quite hold up into adulthood. These days ferries have come to represent painful lineups, multiple sailing waits, crowded decks, and exorbitant fees. Not so glamorous eh?

So it was with mild trepidation that we boarded an overnight ferry from Italy to Croatia. Although, glamorous still isn’t a word that I would choose to describe sleeping on a row of chairs in public… it wasn’t as bad as I expected. In fact, the views at sunset and sunrise were quite spectacular from the sea.

The following day we endured a painful, five hour bus ride with no air-conditioning from Split to Dubrovnik. After that, travelling by ferry was once again starting to sound a bit more magical.

With nearly 1800km of rugged coastline and over 1000 islands, ferries really are the ideal mode of transportation in Croatia. Over the course of a few days we spent over 20 hours ferrying up the Dalmatian Coast and to be honest… I loved every minute of it. It was so calming and refreshing to be at sea. Perched on the edge of the railing with the breeze blowing through my hair, I was entertained by windsurfers and sailors, while passing peaceful seaside towns and subtropical islands. Starting to sound more glamorous after all? Sure it wasn’t a yacht (and we saw tons of those) but for this budget travelista… it was the next best thing!

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Ferry

Dubrovnik: The Pearl of the Adriatic

Nearly 8 years ago, I received a book of the 100 most beautiful cities in the world. Croatia had never really crossed my mind until I opened the page to Dubrovnik – The Pearl of the Adriatic. One glance and I was sold. Someday, I told myself, I will go there! And now, after many missed connections, planes, trains, ferries, and buses, I’m finally there!

Dubrovnik is a tourism mecca. As a popular cruise port, throngs of visitors pour into the old town’s narrow streets in search of the quintessential European charm and coastal beauty that makes it a UNESCO World Heritage site and a top contender for the most beautiful city I’ve ever seen.

The city is steeped in stunning architecture and sculptural detail, boasting spectacular churches, monasteries, museums, and fountains. And despite past violence and destruction from earthquakes and war, the magnificent 13th-century walls that surround the Old Town still stand as the highlight of my trip so far.

This is where we found ourselves after a leisurely dinner in the main square observing three joyful wedding parties on their celebration marches. The 2km city walls that wrap around the Old Town provide the most beautiful panoramas of the city including Lokrum Island nestled near the harbour mouth and beyond… the Mediterranean Sea. We spent more time than we care to admit wandering around the walls on this warm summer evening, drinking in the picture perfect vistas and filling our cameras with complimentary souvenirs. Every turn led to more ooh’s and aah’s and I really never got sick of photographing those red-tiled roof tops. Trust me, I have evidence. And isn’t it curious how laundry hanging to dry somehow becomes magical in a foreign land? In the end, our one  night in Dubrovnik was all too short but worth every bit of effort.

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The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

This is one of those days that you hope never happens but end up reliving for years to come because it makes for a great story.

The Good
On our last day in Rome we spent the day exploring the nearby neighbourhood Trastevere. We started early in the hopes of beating the heat and enjoying breakfast in an outdoor cafe. We accomplished both tasks and even discovered the riverside boardwalk lined with white tents that I had read about online. It’s a festival that takes place every night during the summer months called Lungo il Tevere Roma. During the day it is very quiet and makes for a great bike ride and at night it turns into an open air night club containing more than a kilometer of stalls along the Tiber river, each one a shop or cafe, restaurant or bar.

Trastevere

Trastevere

After some final shopping near the Pantheon and a delicious piece of buffalo mozzarella and tomato pizza to go, we headed to the Rome train station to catch our 2:50pm train to Bari, Italy where we were scheduled to board an overnight ferry to Dubrovnik, Croatia. This of course had been carefully researched and booked in advance to secure the cheapest and best way of getting around. After our 20 minute city bus ride we were watching the giant train screens to see from which track our train would be departing.

The Bad
The number finally came up on the screen about 20 minutes before our train was scheduled to depart: Track 18. Great! It was right in front of us. This was very good news since Rome is the second largest train station in Europe. Unfortunately Track 18 was actually 400 metres further down. We started walking but then quickly began to feel uneasy as we thought we heard that our train had been switched to another track. This happens quite often and they announce the changes over the speaker in Italian and English if you are able to catch it. We stopped and I stayed with the bags while Mindy went ahead to check. Nothing was showing on the sign so we gambled and decided to go anyways. Wrong decision. It was not our train but since we were 400m away from the main screen and now only had 5 minutes we knew we weren’t going to make it.

We started running and calling for help like hopeless idiots. The police, customer service, other passengers, and a poor travel agent named Marina couldn’t help us. We had missed the only train that could get us to Bari in time to catch our ferry. The next ferry didn’t leave for 2 days. After switching our train tickets twice, going to an Internet cafe, talking to a travel agent for about an hour, and waiting in line for customer service for about an hour we had a new game plan. We called our landlord Sergio and were able to get another night in our same apartment in Rome. We also had new train tickets (this time to Ancona, Italy) and a new ferry ticket from Ancona to Split, Croatia for the next day. We would still make it to Dubrovnik but it just meant a lost day, a 5 hour bus ride down the coast, and a lot of extra money.

The Ugly
After sweating more than I thought was humanly possible we finally made it back to our apartment for an impromtu final night in Rome. We were so physically and mentally exhausted from our 4 hour ordeal at the (non-airconditioned) train station that we were almost delirious. Unfortunately not quite delirious enough to miss the fully naked man standing in the balcony outside our window. It was actually quite a fitting end to our day and actually made us laugh out all the stress we had been carrying.

Next up: Croatia at Last!

Unfinished Business: Neapolitan Pizza & the Blue Grotto

Okay… time to catch up on some serious blogging.

On our third day in Italy we decided to take a full day trip to nearby Naples to search for Pizzeria Da Michele’s made famous by Julia Roberts in Eat Pray Love. We took the high speed train in business class (fitting for two former business students) and found the place with little trouble. Since we were early we squeezed in some shopping and then got there for the opening in order to beat the crazy lineups. There are only two items on the menu: Pizza Margherita and Pizza Marinera. We got one of each. The pizza is cooked in a wooden oven and we were able to watch the whole thing. It was definitely worth the trip and only cost 4 euros for an entire pizza.

Pizzeria da Michele

 

Next up was a trip was a trip back to the island of Capri near the Amalfi coast: my second time. The first time I was unable to visit the famous Grotto Azzura (Blue Grotto) due to weather conditions so this time the perfect summer conditions made my dream come true. We started off with a 40 minute hydrofoil to the island and then quickly hopped onto a one hour boat trip to the famous cave. We loved being on the water and snapping as many photos of the island as physically possible. Mindy was totally in her happy place. We got to the cave and then hopped in to our own row boat with a very charismatic boat rower who led us into the narrow opening and showed us the amazing blue water in the cave while serenading us with classic Italian songs. It was kind of comical and overpriced but a great memory nevertheless.

Anacapri

Once back on shore we once again had perfect timing and caught a bus from the port to the upper town called Anacapri. The town is draped along the cliffs with white pristine houses and flowers. Picture perfect at every turn. After shopping and visiting the Villa San Michele we decided to take the small funicular (chair lift) to the summit of the island where we could see the whole island and get photos of the stunning little islands called the Faraglioni. The chair lift took 13 minutes each way and was the perfect end to our day on the island. We love being on the water and are immensely looking forward to more time on the water in Croatia.

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Rediscovering Rome: 10 Years Later

Ciao!

It’s rare when I get the opportunity to revisit a place that I’ve been before simply because my bucket list is long enough for several lifetimes. However, I always knew that I would go back to Rome. Maybe it was my belief in the legend of the Trevi Fountain coin toss or maybe it was the fact that my memories were going dimmer with each passing year, but whatever the reason I am so glad to be here again. The gelato is just as good as I remember it but the city is far more beautiful and vibrant.

Taverna dei Quarenta

This time around I did a lot of pre-trip research that is definitely paying off. So far we have skipped the lines to the Colosseum and the Vatican, which was a godsend in the heat wave we are currently experiencing. We’ve eaten at some delicious restaurants including Taverna dei Quaranta courtesy of the blog Revealed Rome. And we’ve visited sites that I missed the first time around.

I was delighted to leisurely stroll through the Roman Forum instead of being hearded onto a bus and missing so much of the history that makes the city of Rome a living museum. We also found ourselves at the tranquil and uncrowded Garden of Oranges behind the Church of Santa Sabina, which boasts the BEST view of Rome. The dreamy twilight was the perfect setting for the end to our first day of sightseeing and I was so enthuised that I could have stayed there all night. The eternal city has found a way to make old things very new again and reinvigorated this travelista for the journey to come.

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View from the Garden of Oranges

View from the Garden of Oranges

Next up: The Great Pizza Quest!