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Travel is the only thing you buy that makes you richer. – Unknown

HANOI & HA LONG BAY, VIETNAM

July 25 – 31, 2013

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A few years ago I came across a friend’s photograph on Facebook.  I typically take a quick look at photos in the news feed, sometimes I comment, but mostly I just move on down the feed.  This particular photo entranced me.  It awakened my desire to see and explore more than any other photo that I can remember.  It was magical.  It was breathtaking.  It simply blew my mind.  The photo was a scenic view of Ha Long Bay, Vietnam.  I knew from that moment I would have to travel there one day.

A majestic view from above Sung Sôt (Surprise Grotto)

A majestic view from above Sung Sôt (Surprise Grotto)

Day Four

  • Leave Hanoi by van to Ha Long Bay
  • Over night Paradise Luxury Cruise with stops at Sung Sôt and Đảo Ti Tốp

From Hanoi to Ha Long Bay

By staying at the Hanoi Elegance Ruby, we were able to easily book our trip to Ha Long Bay.  The hotel arranged our pick-up, held our bags overnight, discounted our stay since we were not staying one night out of our planned stay with them, and booked us a new (and even nicer) room for the evening when we returned.  Amazing service.

After looking at several options, we choose to book our overnight cruise to Ha Long Bay through Paradise Cruises.  This company was one of the few that had spacious rooms with balconies as an option.  We booked and were very happy with our room.  The energy on the boat was quite low from most passengers.  This did put a bit of a damper on our stay since we like to eat, drink and be merry.  We still did…just by ourselves!  Towards midnight, we heard a boat that appeared to be having way more fun – great music, cheering and excitement echoed from their boat.  Ours was quiet and dim by that time.  So warning – if you are looking for a party boat or want to socialize and meet new people, then you should try a different boat.

Paradise Luxury & Cabin

Paradise Luxury & Cabin

 

Enjoying everything there is to offer...

Enjoying everything there is to offer…

 

FYI, there's no shop for miscellaneous items on the boat...  We were hanging out on our balcony when we heard voices down below.  We looked down and saw a small raft approaching with goods for purchase.  These ladies had everything from chips, candy bars, water, fresh coconuts and more.  We turned them away as we didn't expect we would need anything.  A few minutes later another lady came by and it occurred to me that we might need a bottle of wine for the room.  What are my chances?  Sure enough, she had a bottle of Vietnamese wine for sale.  Then I thought, is she going to throw it up to us?  Then, how I am going to pay her?  My thinking didn't last long...she had a net to make exchanges.  Awesome!  What's not so awesome...hot wine that has spoiled.  Oh well!  It was a fun purchase.

FYI, there’s no shop for miscellaneous items on the boat… We were hanging out on our balcony when we heard voices down below. We looked down and saw a small raft approaching with goods for purchase. These ladies had everything from chips, candy bars, water, fresh coconuts and more. We turned them away as we didn’t expect we would need anything. A few minutes later another lady came by and it occurred to me that we might need a bottle of wine for the room. What are my chances? Sure enough, she had a bottle of Vietnamese wine for sale. Then I thought, is she going to throw it up to us? Then, how I am going to pay her? My thinking didn’t last long…she had a net to make exchanges. Awesome! What’s not so awesome…hot wine that has spoiled. Oh well! It was a fun purchase.

 

As part of the cruise, the ship stops at several places to give you an option of hiking, kayaking, swimming or visiting a cave.  Here we are at Dao Ti Top.  We were able to climb to the highest for a scenic overlook and then hang out on the beach to relax.  It rained when we were climbing but cleared up just as we were heading to the beach.

As part of the cruise, the ship stops at several places to give you an option of hiking, kayaking, swimming or visiting a cave. Here we are at Dao Ti Top. We were able to climb to the highest point for a scenic overlook and then hang out on the beach to relax. It rained when we were climbing but cleared up just as we were heading to the beach.

 

Ha Long Bay - Bay of the Descending Dragon; a UNESCO-declared World Heritage area

Ha Long Bay – Bay of the Descending Dragon; a UNESCO-declared World Heritage area

Day Five

  • Return to Hanoi from Ha Long Bay
  • Dong Xuan Market
  • Dinner at Pho 10

After a wonderful night of dining, gazing at the stars, playing games on our balcony, we slept like babies.  The next morning our boat headed back to the port where our van was waiting to take us back to Hanoi.  My last thoughts on Ha Long Bay…simply majestic!

Our return trip took a few hours.  Along the way we planned out how we wanted to spend our last night in Vietnam.  There was one restaurant we had yet to try…but we had one very important stop to make before dinner.  After learning how to make traditional northern-style pho, we knew we would want to recreate it at home.  That meant we needed the secret ingredient since we were told it would be quite difficult to find it in the states…back to the market we went!

Sa sung; dried sea worms for pho from Dong Xuan market. They add a wonderful savory sweetness to the broth...all natural umami!

Sa sung; dried sea worms for pho from Dong Xuan market. They add a wonderful savory sweetness to the broth…all natural umami!

Dinner at Pho 10

A wonderful friend bought me the book, Where Chef’s Eat – A Guide to Chefs’ Favorite Restaurants.  I made a point to look up if there were any chef recommendations before heading to Hanoi.  Sure enough, I found one!  Pho 10 was recommended by Chef Neal Fraser as being a restaurant worthy of traveling out of your way to enjoy.  He was right on point!

A must try in Hanoi!  Delicious, inexpensive, packed with locals, and great service.  Don't expect to hang out...this is an in and out stop.  The servers are quick so that everyone can eat without a long wait.

A must try in Hanoi! Delicious, inexpensive, packed with locals, and great service. Don’t expect to hang out…this is an in and out stop. The servers are quick so that everyone can eat without a long wait.

Day six (really day seven but the first day was cut short) was spent eating a quick breakfast and heading to the airport.  We were sad to leave as we could have used a little extra time to travel to other cities in Vietnam but we had other plans… off to Taiwan for a road trip with friends!

Verdict ~ Visit Vietnam!  If you are in Hanoi, stay in the Old Quarter, be careful crossing the road, drink Vietnamese coffee like an addict, and take in the all the pleasures the city has to offer…great people, even better food, history, markets, street food, and more.  Whether you are in Hanoi or another city in Vietnam – make it a point to travel to Ha Long Bay and be prepared to revel in the beauty our planet has to offer. 

For more on this journey – check out Part One and Part Two

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A soup like this is not the work of one man.  It is the result of a constantly refined tradition.  There are nearly a thousand years of history in this soup.  – Willa Cather

HANOI, VIETNAM

July 25 – 31, 2013

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Thank Goodness for Smart Phones & A Little Faith

Jonathan and I have found ourselves in some funny, albeit stressful, traveling situations.  For example, showing up very late to the wrong airport to board a flight to Singapore was about the worst prior to our most recent trip. So what takes the cake?  Trying to get your boarding pass two hours before your flight without a visa to the country you are flying to.  Yes, that’s us, standing at the United check-in line looking dumbfounded when the receptionist told us we weren’t able to get on our flight without our visa documents.

Going back to the city and waiting a few days to head to the embassy in order to apply was not an option.  All it took was a few reassuring looks between the two of us, a quick Google search…and poof!  We were ready to outsmart the system.  For about $40 dollars a person you can apply online for an express Visa.  In one day, you can receive a PDF document allowing you into the country.  It took some convincing, but we were able to get United to send us to Thailand (our last layover city before Hanoi) with the hopes that by the time we arrive, our visa documents would be ready.  United cancelled our flight from Bangkok to Hanoi and made it clear that if we were unable to get into Vietnam or happened to be stuck in Thailand it was all on us.  We didn’t flinch.  We boarded our flight with good faith that our online application would go through before landing.

For anyone who travels, not quite fully prepared (like us), then it may be good to know that Vietnam does require a Visa for entry.  Also good to note, the Bangkok airport has a printing station and passport photo booth to complete any Visa requirements.   Thailand saved us…as if we needed another reason to love that country!

19 Hours…

Our plan for Vietnam was to indulge in great food and overcome serious jet lag before heading to Taiwan.  Although the beginning of our trip was not going as planned, we finally landed in Vietnam and were back on track.

It took everything out of me to not check in the hotel and go right to sleep.  It was roughly 6pm and I knew that if I wanted to get over the eleven hour time difference I would have to keep myself awake until an appropriate time to sleep…and then I remembered how amazing Vietnamese coffee is.  What better way to keep myself up than a cup of cool, sweet addicting goodness!

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Vietnamese coffee at the ever relaxing and air conditioned, Align 3D Café.

There simply wasn’t enough caffeine in the whole café to supply me with enough energy for the evening but I only had one choice.  Power through it.  Next up, dinner.  Anything would do after two days of in-flight meals but we were lucky to find ourselves near the famous Bat Dan Street.  It is rumored that Hanoi’s best pho can be found here on this street.  After strolling along for several blocks we settled down for dinner at the only place with a line of families and couples waiting for a seat.  Score.  When in doubt, look to the locals for clues on where to find the best food. Finally, a decent hour to catch some sleep.  We headed back to the hotel (Hanoi Elegance Ruby) and collapsed…  The next thing I know, Jonathan is waking me up from a lovely, deep sleep.  Whatever he wanted I imagined would go away if I just ignored his calling my name but suddenly it hit me like an amplifying echo…wake up, wake up – it’s 4:30 in the afternoon….wake up, wake up, it’s….  WHAT?  I was baffled; where was I?  And how on earth did I just sleep – wait let me count…19 HOURS!  That, my friend, is what they call jet lag.  Avoid at all costs.

Pho on Bat Dan Street.  More subtle and less fragrant than other places but certainly fulfills any need for a comforting bowl of beefy goodness.

Pho on Bat Dan Street. More subtle and less fragrant than other places but certainly fulfills any need for a comforting bowl of beefy goodness.

Day One

  • Sleep until an ungodly hour
  • Dinner at Highway 4
  • Night Market
  • Drinks

Sleeping 19 hours straight only leads to one thing…a ravenous belly.  No, two things…a ravenous belly and severe grogginess.  It was dinner time when we finally left the hotel and entered the world of the living.

Highway 4:  Get the catfish rolls!

Bo Tieu Den:  Beef sautéed in black pepper sauce

Bo Tieu Den: Beef sautéed in black pepper sauce

Nem Ca Xa:  Catfish spring rolls

Nem Ca Xa: Catfish spring rolls

Feast for two!

Feast for two!

An Evening Out:  Night Market and Drinks

The local night market is a great place to roam and purchase souvenirs.  The market basically had the same items found in the shops around town during the day but the draw to this market is not what it has to offer you but the energy it encompasses.  We were only a few among the tourists.  This market seemed to draw the locals out to pick up essentials, mingle with friends and to grab a bite to eat.  For a city that has little to offer for night life, I thought this market was an enjoyable way to walk off dinner and spend the evening.

Nothing like a beefy after dinner treat...

Nothing like a beefy after dinner treat…

...sweet and savory treats.

…sweet and savory treats.

Late night beers...

Late night beers

Just as we were beginning to relax and take it all in with a few beers we were ran off by the police.  After living in NYC for a few years, it is quite normal for us to eat dinner at 9pm and then head out for a drink.  Not quite possible in Hanoi.  The police rolled up in a truck and banged their long clubs on the bar’s awning.  We were quite surprised but quickly realized we were expected to leave and the bar owner needed to close down quickly for the curfew.  Plan according if you are used to late nights!

Day Two

  • Morning run around Hoan Kiem Lake
  • Bảo Tàng Dân Tộc Học Việt Nam (Vietnam Museum of Ethnology)
  • Don’s Tây Hồ (A Chef’s Bistro)
  • Hỏa Lò (Hoa Lo Prison or “Hanoi Hilton”)
  • Dinner at Essence Café and Restaurant
Jog around the lake...

Jog around the lake…

Our epic night of sleep apparently didn’t do us any good – jet lag still had it’s hold on us.  So…after lying wide awake in the wee hours of the morning, Jonathan and I decided to go for a run.  Since we were staying in the old quarter we decided to head out towards Hoan Kiem Lake.  We may have been the only ones up due to jet lag but definitely not the only ones who happened to be out exercising.  In the early hazy hours of the morning, you will find crowds of people at the lake.  Some doing yoga, some Tai Chi, and others jogging along beside us.

Vietnamese coffee post run.  Our only defense against the 12 hour time zone difference...and well, it's simply addicting.

Vietnamese coffee post run. Our only defense against the 12 hour time zone difference…and well, it’s simply addicting.

Bảo Tàng Dân Tộc Học Việt Nam (Vietnam Museum of Ethnology)

The great thing about being on vacation means that you don’t have to follow a schedule.  The downfall is without proper planning and scheduling you just might miss some things.  We had planned to start out our day at the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum.  Despite our early morning run, we took our time getting ready and enjoying breakfast.  By the time we arrived, the line was epic and it was raining.  We didn’t come all this way to spend an afternoon soaked and waiting in line…so we improvised.

We hopped in a cab and headed to the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology.  Glad we did!  The museum, although small, had much to offer in the way of learning about the culture and makeup of the Vietnamese people.  The museum highlights the tremendous amount of ethnic groups the are the backbone of the country.  I learned so much and it was a great way to escape the nonstop drizzle.

Don’s Tây Hồ (A Chef’s Bistro)

Oyster bar and views of the lake.  Yes please.  For lunch, we headed away from old quarter and towards West Lake.  Here you will find a less populated and more relaxing area to unwind.  Don’s Tay Ho has an eclectic mix of modern and traditional Vietnamese food as well as some international dishes that draw in an array of locals and tourists alike.  We sat down and devoured a lunch that would have probably fed a group of four.

Lunch overlooking West Lake

Lunch overlooking West Lake

 

Hỏa Lò (Hoa Lo Prison or “Hanoi Hilton”)

I was intrigued by this place…any prison that has Hilton in it’s nickname seems worthy of a visit.  Maybe that’s just me; I do love sarcasm.  This prison was a bit creepy but didn’t leave you with the skin-crawling sensation you can get from such sites (I happen to like that). However, it was interesting to learn about the history of the museum and the people that were once imprisoned there.  As we walked through and I was taking it all in, it became very clear that much of the information presented to the visitors appeared biased.  Bothersome but still worthwhile.  I was quite excited to see the guillotine room.  I can’t really explain why this was appealing but it was…I also found the artifacts and media covering John McCain’s imprisonment interesting (he was held as a POW at Hỏa Lò Prison in 1967).

Hỏa Lò Prison

Hỏa Lò Prison

 

Dinner at Essence Café and Restaurant

Surprisingly enough, we were able to muster up more energy to shower and head out to dinner.  Glad we did too because we had a fantastic dinner.  Essence Restaurant is ranked number two on Trip Advisor for restaurants in Hanoi.  You can expect great service and authentic Vietnamese food… and a long wait time if you don’t make a reservation.

Essence Restaurant in Old Quarter

Essence Restaurant in Old Quarter

Want to read more about this trip, check out Part Two

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Embrace the detours.  – Author unknown

VIS, CROATIA

July 24 – 27, 2012

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DAY THREE

Before settling in our room on our second night, we decided to book a private boat to the island of Bisevo where we could explore the famous blue cave.  By morning our trip was cancelled.  It was a beautiful day but the winds prevented any excursions leaving Vis from happening.  Unarmed with back up plans, we decided to rent another scooter and see the rest of the island.  On our way out, we asked our concierge how to go about visiting some of the vineyards on the island.  Within minutes we had a private tour set up for the evening.

The Detour

The previous day of getting lost, then back on our path and finding a few unexpected great places led us to ditch our map and just hop on the scooter.  We headed off with hopes of finding another beach to soak up some sun and make our way around the whole island before heading back.

We set out for the main road and was about 10 minutes into our drive before we stopped for a short detour.  What would make us stop abruptly and pull over.  Old man, bottles of wine and a tarp at the edge of a vineyard.  It’s like stopping at a fruit stand on the side of the highway but way better!!!

Wine detour...

Wine detour…

We got out and greeted this man with such enthusiasm that we must have startled him.  Within seconds we realized we had no way of communicating.  We knew about three words in Croatian and he knew nothing in English.  So, point and mime it was all we could do.  From our understanding, he was the farmer and was selling wine from his vineyard along with some unknown fruit, capers, and what we thought for a long time was possibly very sweet and thick balsamic vinegar or a liquor…  We decided to purchase a bottle of red wine and the ‘vinegar/liquor’.  It seemed very special and had a tag attached with the description of the contents – which, of course, we could not read.  Jonathan pulls out a few bills and lets the man dig through for his share – I mean how else do we know how much we owe?!  Turns out our two bottles equated to less than five dollars.  SCORE!

Man selling wine and other goods from his land

Man selling wine and other goods from his land

Jonathan debating on what to buy

Jonathan debating on what to buy

Back to the ‘vinegar/liquor’…  Curiosity got to us a few days later so we took a picture of the label and had someone translate it for us.  We were for sure we had something unusual and special – turns out we did.  We bought medicine.  Yep, good for your heart, good for indigestion, good for high cholesterol, and well, anything really kind of medicine.  According to the label, it’s recommended for good health to take a shot a day.  Ha, joke was on us…or maybe not.  It’s quite delicious and even though it contains no alcohol we will enjoy it and the story behind it for years to come.  And hey, our translator said it is something that you would not be able to buy elsewhere – so cheers to us for finding something truly one of a kind!

Rukavac

Back to the scooter and off to find a beach.  About 20 minutes later we found ourselves in a small fishing town, Rukavac.  We noticed several beaches all within a short distance from each other. We parked the scooter and headed out on foot to find a place to chill our for a few hours.

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Not thrilled about the rocks but loving the crystal clear water and the perfect weather

Not thrilled about the rocks but loving the crystal clear water and the perfect weather

Where Mountains Meet the Sea

A picture is worth a thousand words right?!  I know it is annoying to Jonathan to whip out the camera during our rides so that I can catch a snapshot of the landscape but I just can’t help myself.  Luckily, he’s a skilled scooter man and can take me moving all about on the back…here’s what we find as we head around the island and back to our hotel.

Photographing the view of the sea while on the back of the scooter

Photographing the view of the sea while on the back of the scooter

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A Private Tour and Wine Tasting

After another day of cruising around on our scooter, we headed back to the hotel for a quick shower.  We were excited for our private tour but weren’t expecting too much.  Touring an island by car doesn’t seem that appealing but we had nothing else to do and were hoping to see some parts of the island that we may have missed on our scooter journey.

We got ready and headed out to meet Mr. Ivan Pecarevic – the owner of a local vineyard, a taxi company and more.  We arrive and learn that instead of Ivan we meet up with his son, Josko Pecarevic.  Lucky for us, Josko was closer to our age and spoke perfect English.  He was young, extremely knowledgeable and fun.  We set out by car to see some of the lesser visited areas of Vis.

As we headed up through the mountains we learned more about the culture and history of Vis.  We saw old churches, abandoned schools, an olive oil mill where the oil is pressed, and breathtaking views of the island all while learning about the daily life of Croatians on the island.  We talk non-stop about the adventures we’ve had so far and question our guide about everything we were hard-pressed to know…much of this was about the vast amount of vineyards.  The question of wine brought up the fact that the Pecarevic family are winemakers.  Our faces lit up!  We had no idea that our tour would be ending at the family cellar where we would be tasting (and buying) lots of wine.  What luck!  I think I did a little dance in the back seat and from this point I couldn’t wait to get there…but not too fast.  We had one more place to see.  Tito’s Cave.  Unimpressive but a beautiful hike up the mountain.  Thanks to my excitement of wine, I was lost on the history part of Tito’s Cave.  Lost as in, not so interested rather than a lack of understanding.  But if you know me, I tend to lose focus once my mind is set of food or wine.

Josko Pecarevic at the door to his family's wine cellar

Josko Pecarevic at the door to his family’s wine cellar

The grand finale of our private tour – the wine cellar!  Thank goodness we sent home our dirty clothes to make room for wine because Jonathan wanted to buy everything there was to offer.  We tried a white, red, a dessert wine, a liquor and olive oil all produced and bottled by the Pecarevic’s.  Jonathan was not holding back and tried several hefty pours from a bottle of white wine and the dessert wine.  The red was lacking in my opinion but Jonathan was excitement for his choices led us to walk out with several bottles in tow.  All in all, this was an unforgettable experience.  We learned so much and loved how easy and laid back the tour was.  Private tours can be quite affordable and the experience is always more personal than a group tour – for this reason, we will be taking advantage whenever the occasion arises.

The tasting begins...

The tasting begins…

The lushes

The lushes

Happy as a clam...

Happy as a clam…

The damage...Josko was kind enough to open anything that we like in order to try it

The damage…Josko was kind enough to open anything that we were interested in so we could try it

Beautiful door to the cellar

Beautiful door to the cellar

Savoring the Moment

I find spontaneity and the ability to welcome a last-minute change of plans a must in a traveler.  Jonathan and I can adapt at a moments notice when plans don’t necessarily go our way.  We brush it off and move on and often find ourselves more content with the unexpected.  This day was one of those…we didn’t let our cancelled trip get in the way of enjoying our day.  It was our last evening on the island and we made the most of it.  From a detour on our way across the island, a lovely afternoon on the beach, a long and peaceful ride around the island to an amazing tour with a local winemaker – we had to stop and take it all in.  What a day so far!  We took some time to enjoy the lovely view and sunset on our patio, savoring the moment before heading out for dinner.

View from our patio

View from our patio

Enjoying the sun on my back

Enjoying the sun on my back

Dinner at Villa Kaliopa

Everyone we met in Vis who knew we were on our honeymoon recommended that we go to dinner at Villa Kaliopa before leaving the island.  From locals’ recommendations and online reviews, this restaurant was touted as one of the most romantic places to dine in the world.  To me that’s a bold statement that is hard to live up to.  This restaurant is first mentioned for the ambiance and then the food.  Not sure what to expect, we made reservations for a late night dinner.  A long busy day makes for a big appetite so as dinner approached we were ravenous and ready to try everything on the menu.

Villa Kaliopa (courtesy of Google Images)

Villa Kaliopa (courtesy of Google Images)

Menu?  No menu here.  You get what is fresh, local and in season.  Those words had me wanting to jump out of my seat with glee!  To me, this means everything is made to order and must be damn good.  I was right.  The waiter ran off the options for the day and asked us to describe the type of wine we like.  She came back with a delicious bottle of white wine (from a vineyard we passed along our way exploring) and then a plate of cheese.  Heaven…no better way to start a meal.  We enjoyed a bowl of the soup of the day as well as two whole lobsters and ended with a local treat for dessert.  Delicious and worthy of the price (be careful what you order here – without a menu it is hard to remember what you are spending if you are on a budget).

Seafood bisque - creamy yet light and flavorful

Seafood bisque – creamy yet light and flavorful

Lobster, typical Croatian potatoes (boiled then drizzled with olive oil and herbs) and swiss chard - not pictured

Lobster, typical Croatian potatoes (boiled then drizzled with olive oil and herbs) and swiss chard – not pictured

Playing with my food. Don't worry - I made sure no one was looking, never want my immaturity to be offensive

Playing with my food. Don’t worry – I made sure no one was looking, never want my immaturity to be offensive

As for the ambiance…I don’t think this place is really one of the most romantic restaurants in the world but it is certainly romantic and a definite ‘eat here’ recommendation.  The restaurant was built in the 16th century as a summer-house.  Over centuries the garden expanded and was then walled.  In recent history, this summer-house was turned into a restaurant serving only local food grown on the island or caught by seasoned fisherman.  The garden is lined with palm trees and has various walkways that lead to tables.  The tables seem to be hidden throughout the garden and even though the space isn’t huge it is hard to see other tables while you are dining.  Really, if you couldn’t hear the faint echoes of laughter you would feel like you are the only guests there.  I decided to take a few pictures after dinner from where we were sitting but due to the lack of lighting and a basic point and shoot camera I was unable to capture the real beauty of Villa Kaliopa at night.

The garden at night

The garden at night

After dinner we headed back to our hotel, ready to relax and drift off to sleep in one of the best hotels we’ve ever stayed in…sweet dreams of the island, the food, and the people.

Verdict ~ Looking to book your honeymoon?  Go to Croatia, especially the island of Vis, it is the most romantic place we have ever traveled to.  Croatia is for lovers.  Period.  But Vis is for honeymooners.  Plan to take long walks, indulge in great food and wine and relax at some of the most beautiful, crystal clear beaches around.  There’s very little shopping in Vis which means that you can spend your time browsing boutiques that offer up goods by local artisans rather than international chain stores.  Food is all locally grown, most of which is organic.  The wines found on the island are made there.   Tourists mingle right in with the locals..leaving you  feeling like you belong – with everything so new and beautiful you will take none of it for granted.  Vis has much to offer but it’s best attributes are the leisurely pace of life and beautiful landscape…

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The cure for anything is salt water – tears, sweat, or the sea. – Isak Dinesen

VIS, CROATIA

July 24 – 27, 2012

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DAY TWO

On our second day we awoke with just enough energy to seek out some sunshine and beach time. There are very few options for relaxing on the beach in and around the town of Vis so we headed out for to find a place where we could rest and recover from day one. The island of Vis is quite small with few towns to really explore so we decided to find the one and only thing to get us around to where the locals go…a scooter. Our favorite method of easy exploration!

Exploring the Beaches

We geared up with a quick breakfast of fruit and water in the room. Packed our suits and towels, borrowed a map from the concierge and then set out to rent a scooter. There’s quite a few places to choose from and all are about the same price so we went with the first one we came to. In hindsight, it would be a good idea to figure out which roads allow motorized vehicles and which don’t – we ignored this little rule and got some dirty looks from the townspeople..but I don’t blame them.

No matter how hard you try, you never look tough on a scooter

No matter how hard you try, you never look tough on a scooter

We were headed to a beach on our map that was supposed to be great for swimming but we couldn’t find it, as a matter of fact, we sort of got lost. At some point, we found ourselves on a dirt and gravel path going up a mountain that our trusty scooter just could not handle. We turned around and decided to just stop at the first beach we could find and put the map away.

View of the town of Vis.  We would have never seen it this way without the scooter

View of the town of Vis. We would have never seen it this way without the scooter.

The Explorers

The Explorers

Unknown beach - our first stop after we gave up with the map

Unknown beach – our first stop after we gave up with the map

One part fish, one part husband...a breed of his own

One part fish, one part man…a breed of his own

Stoncica Beach

I’ve been to rocky beaches in the past but still couldn’t tolerate the pain of walking barefoot on the beach. Note to self, if ever visiting a rocky beach in the future – I will invest in some water friendly shoes, no matter how unattractive they are. I mean, who looks attractive hunching over to investigate every rock while yelping the whole time anyway, comfort wins.

We hopped back on the scooter with the intention of seeing more of the island and with the hopes of finding a road that was on our map before dark. Luck was on our side. Somehow, we found a main road and chose the direction leading us to the other side of the island. We were aware that over 20 percent of the arable land was dedicated to vineyards but had no idea that we would see so many of them in a day. Along with the vineyards, we passed up olive groves, fig trees, and more.

This little journey unexpectedly led us to a beach that I recognized on our map, Stoncica. I was in luck – it happened to be the only sandy beach on the island. Following the small signs, we parked our scooter and headed down a mountain path. Even luckier considering it was nearing lunchtime, there happened to be a tavern located directly next to the beach, Konoba Stoncica. We ordered a bottle of wine, stuffed ourselves silly with locally grown food (the tavern happened to be on the end of the owners farm) and then headed to the beach. Both the food and beach are certainly worthy of a trip if you find yourself on the island.

crvstoncica

View of Stoncica Beach

Lunch at Konoba Stoncica

Lunch at Konoba Stoncica

Scampi

Scampi

Seafood spaghetti

Seafood spaghetti

Croatian mashed potatoes

Croatian mashed potatoes

Grilled vegetables with olive oil and herbs

Grilled vegetables with olive oil and herbs

The aftermath, a food coma...both of us passing out on the beach

The aftermath, a food coma…both of us passing out on the beach

Stoncica Beach

Stoncica Beach

As the evening approached, we headed back to our hotel. The views of the island from the scooter and the search for good food and beaches had us feeling completely relaxed and grateful for life and for each other. Our day didn’t end here, we did clean up and set out for more good food and drinks but I took the night off from photographing and journeling. It’s hard for me not to try to capture every last thing…but there’s nothing more pleasurable than living in the moment, especially with great company.

 

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A meal without wine is like a day without sunshine. – Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin

BUDAPEST, HUNGARY

Day Two

…and we said, “Let there be wine!”

On the morning of our second day in Budapest, we awoke with renewed energy and were ready to conquer our second favorite thing after finding delicious food – it was our day to explore Hungarian wine! To do so, we decided to escape our side of the Danube and head towards Buda. After doing our own separate research on things to do in Budapest, Jonathan and I descovered that we both had written down the same wine cellar. This meant that our day as oenephiles would begin there…Faust Wine Cellar on Castle Hill. Lucky for us, it was right next to other must see places – why not check a few things off on our way?

Labyrinth of Buda Castle

We were staying in Pest so we opted for a quick, although expensive, taxi ride to Buda. There we would go directly to Castle Hill and spend our time exploring while waiting for the first wine tasting of the day. The architecture in Budapest is the most amazing I’ve ever seen and from Castle Hill you are able to take in the breathtaking views of both sides of the Danube at once.

Castle Hill is flooded with activities that will engage every traveler out there. We arrived with much to do but decided since it was already becoming quite a hot morning to go to the underground labyrinth of Buda Castle where we could cool off a bit. There wasn’t much to the labyrinth, after about 20 minutes of roaming around inside we were bored and ready to resurface. The history behind the caves and labyrinth is interesting but much of what we learned was at the entrance – in my opinion, only go here if you need a place to cool down or you want to play around like zombies…

Labyrinth of Buda Castle – map

The Royal Palace

The Royal Palace is a beautiful sight to see although the best views are from the Danube at night. We strolled through the grounds and found a few fun things along the way…pretzels, over-priced souvenirs, archery, and ‘Chippy’ the hawk!

Royal Palace

A little archery while exploring the palace grounds

Not bad for a first timer!

Husband taking his weapons seriously…

Chippy, my new best friend! I really wanted to free him but was sure the outcome would not be in my favor…

Matthias Church & Fisherman’s Bastion

Just a few hundred yards away from the palace lies Matthias Church and just beyond, the Fisherman’s Bastion. We decided not to tour the church – the outside view is magnificent and was enough to satisfy us. We did have more to see and little time before the wine tasting so at this point we became a bit conservative with time.

Matthias Church

For the best views I recommend paying the few forint and taking a walk on the Fisherman’s Bastion. There are at times many people to skirt around but just walking along and seeing the Danube and Pest from this area will be worth every effort!

Fisherman’s Bastion – view from one end looking across to the other

Views of Pest from the Fisherman’s Bastion

Faust Wine Cellar

If you’re looking for an introduction into Hungarian wines – your journey should start here. Prior to this trip, I don’t ever remember hearing much about Hungarian wine and am pretty sure I have never tried any before. Faust Wine Cellar is ranked #1 in the top 100 best things to do in Budapest, or at least was at the time of our honeymoon. It has honestly earned this rating for good reason. The service is brilliant and the location, simply beautiful. The cellar is located under the Hilton on Castle Hill. It is situated deep in the caves below and sets the perfect stage for a wine tasting.

Our visit started a bit of a craze for the two of us. After this tasting we bought several bottles of wine and mailed clothes home so that we had room to fit these treasures in our luggage. This was our most memorable and favorite experience while in Budapest so, as I have done in previous posts, I will save a solo post on Faust for the future. If you are curious now, check out their website for a look into what Faust Wine Cellar has to offer – http://www.gbwine.eu/palinka_tasting_wine_tasting_budapest.html

Faust Wine Cellar

Pool Time!

After several hours of tasting wine we decided to head back to our hotel and relax a bit before dinner. We were staying Continental Hotel Zara in the Jewish District. I highly recommend this hotel for several reasons. First, it’s just beautiful! From the moment you walk in the front door you know you are staying somewhere special. The rooms are small yet comfortable with modern decor that adds a luxurious feel for the size. The location of the hotel is probably the best part – it is so close to some amazing restaraunts and just a few blocks away for the most popular ruin pubs. But on a hot and busy day – the pool is where it’s at! Continental Hotel Zara has an outdoor rooftop pool and just inside and next to it is an indoor pool, jacuzzi and saunas. No better way to relax while traveling.

We packed a few beers in our bag and headed up to the rooftop for a swim and some down time. The views from the pool are unbelievable. You find yourself inside a modern swimming pool looking at the roofs of building that are centuries old with the mountains and beautiful surroundings peppering the horizon.

Continental Hotel Zara – entrance

Rooftop pool at Continental Hotel Zara

Dinner time – Costes

After long day of touring, drinking, and well…relaxing we set off to dinner at Costes. This was the third of three of Jonathan’s planned-in-advanced honeymoon dinners. Costes is one of two Michelin Star restaurants in Budapest (both of which he reserved) and was his favorite of the three.

Costes, like many things from this journey, will have it’s own post once I complete my day to day breakdown of our trip. Interested now, check out Onyx’s website and drool over the next pic! http://www.costes.hu/en#etlapunk

Costes Restuarant in Budapest

Another ruin pub!

After visiting the most famous ruin pub, Szimpla Kert, the night before I had already become a ruin pub fan. So next up for a night out after an unforgettable dinner was Convintetö. This ruin pub consisted of two floors (that we know of) and the second being the rooftop. From the entrance you immediately get the sense that you are entering somewhere unique and off the radar. Corvinteto is built on the top of an old socialist type department store building. It’s a cool hangout spot in the city with the one and only openair rooftop underground club in Budapest! Sunset, heavy duty elevator, huge open space, pálinka, panorama, ice-cold beer, comfortable sofas, dancing ’till dawn, sunrise in the middle of the city, on the top of the once state owned department store…go here!

Corvinteto – ruin pub

Beer after a long day of….wine, late night at Corvinteto

I love this picture! We have no idea where this leads to or how you get in but it’s inside Corvinteto and is the perfect background for hilarious pictures…

Day Two in a Nutshell:

  • Exploring Buda
  • Royal Palace
  • Buda Castle
  • Labyrinths of Castle Hill
  • Fisherman’s Bastion
  • Faust Wine Cellar
  • Dinner at Costes
  • Ruin Pub ~ Corvintetö

Day Three at a Glance: (Writing Soon)

  • Lunch at Paprika Étterem
  • Turkish Baths – Széchenyi fürdő
  • Alcatraz Pub
  • Evening cruise on the Danube
  • Dinner at Borkonyha Wine Kitchen

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Architecture in general is frozen music. – Friedrich von Schelling

BUDAPEST, HUNGARY

July 18 – 22, 2012

Budapest in 10:

  1. Romantic
  2. Wine
  3. Divided city
  4. Goulash
  5. Danube
  6. Ruin bars
  7. Wordly
  8. Castles
  9. Paprika
  10. Architectural paradise
    The honeymoon continues…

    Leaving Prague

    Spending our last few crowns on the train

    …and this is how you sleep on a train.

    Arrival Day
    After a very long day on the train from Prague to Budapest we finally arrive to our hotel.  We were sleep deprived but what was worse was our hunger!  We boarded the train without knowing that the cafe car only accepted cash and sadly, we had just enough crowns to buy two beers or nothing at all.  So first thing on our agenda was to find some food!  Unless you want to eat at McDonald’s it’s quite hard to find late night food in Budapest.  It was well after midnight and our search began…sorry but I’d rather go hungry for the night than end my day with a whopper.
    Lucky for us, the only place that the concierge knew of that was open this late happened to be within walking distance.  Off to Montenegroi Gurman we went.  This happened to be a Serbian restaurant.  Until this night, I was completely unfamiliar with this cuisine.  Now, I’m still unfamiliar but know that you best be a carnivore if you want to eat here… or better yet, if you’re not into beef, lamb, pork or goat, then go elsewhere!  This was really a true challenge for me since I’m still new to eating meat.  I had no idea what to order, not just because there were no understandable translations but I also couldn’t decipher from the pictures of the menus what I would be eating.  So what did I do?  I ordered two dinners and crossed my fingers with hope that I would like one.  Here’s what we had..

    So the plate Jonathan is eating off of is his dinner. Everything else, mine. He had some beef something or other and enjoyed it. My plate farthest to the left is filled with sausages of some sort. They were good. I couldn’t eat them all but when eaten with the bits of tomatoes and cucumbers the meat was even better. The plate directly in front of me was translated to be something like ham and cheese. See next photo…

Serbian ham and cheese.  A teaser with the cheese – I only found evidence of something cheese-like that tasted more like butter. Was this good, yes. Just not enough of it on the sandwich. So, I deconstructed my meat sandwich. Hopefully I didn’t offend anyone but really a plate full of sausages and then a sandwich with an infinite number of slices of pork was just too much. I will however try Serbian food again – everything deserves more than one chance.

Day One

Breakfast/Lunch

After a long journey the day before, we were ready to hit the ground running.  We woke up with the energy to conquer Budapest.  After comparing many reviews and consulting multiple websites we heading out for the day.  First on our list – eat Hungarian food.  After reading some reviews on restaurants near our hotel, we headed to Ladó Cafe, a family run restaurant and jazz bar.  Good choice!  We got there just past breakfast time so we ordered lunch.  To my delight, Hungarian was unexpectedly delicious and a bit lighter than the Czech cuisine we had just acquainted ourselves with.  I would recommend this for lunch or suggest going here for dinner if you’re in the mood for great food and live jazz.

Gulyás (goulash soup)…oh so tasty! The broth is full of flavor with tender meat and potatoes.

Hideg meggyleves (cold fruit soup – sour cherry)…this one surprised us – it was delicious and not too sweet.

Pörkölt (beef stew). This is a winner! Obviously, we practically finished it before I remembered to get out the camera.  This was a hearty, full-flavored beef stew with tarhonya (egg barley).  Tarhonya or spatzle is served with many Hungarian dishes and is so yummy.

Fungarian

After lunch, we decided to start checking off some of our Budapest to-dos and signed up for a Hungarian language class.  We found an available teacher and was there ready to learn within an hour.   And because we loved it so much, Fungarian deserves its own post…stay tuned!  But for a sneak peek here’s Jonathan and I studying.

Fungarian – Hungarian language class.

Central Market Hall

We spent the next few hours exploring the neighborhood and Central Market Hall (Vámház körúti Vásárcsarnok).  Central Market is one of the largest market halls in Europe and worthy of visiting if you are in Budapest.  The market consists of three levels.  On the ground level you will find meats, cheeses, spices, fruits and vegetables.  Go upstairs for prepared foods and souvenirs.  The basement (we never made it this far) consists of more meat stalls and fresh fish as well as a small supermarket.

Vámház körúti Vásárcsarnok (Central Market Hall)

Central Market – dried fruits and more

We decided to make a lunch out of this visit.  Jonathan scooped up some hungarian sausages, caviar, and goose liver pate while I sought out some local, pungent cheese and crackers.  Nothing beats a thrown together meal like this!

Local market selections for a quick and delicious lunch!

My favorite market find – stinky cheese!

Jonathan’s favorite market find – Dobos cake! (sponge cake layered with chocolate paste and glazed with caramel and nuts)

Exploring Belvaros – District V

After the market we had some time to roam around the streets.  We found ourselves zig-zagging through busy tourist filled streets* (see note below) and then into quite, desolated streets shortly after closer to the Danube and further away from the market.  It was nice to get away from the bustle and be able to walk quietly and admire the beauty of the architecture in Budapest.  It is such an interesting mix of Roman, gothic, neo-gothic, Turkish and baroque styles.  It really is an architectural paradise.  I don’t believe I’ve been anywhere in the world that had such a striking variety dispersed throughout the city.

*Avoid Vací Street – for some crazy reason this street was on a few must-do lists for Budapest.  I have no idea why anyone would want to go here.  It is a street lined with souvenirs and restaurants all competing for your business.  As you walk by everyone feels it’s okay to interrupt you and ask you to sit down and eat at their place or buy their merchandise.   The rest of Budapest is nothing like this – don’t let this tarnish your views of the city, just avoid it.  The souvenirs aren’t worthy and the rest of the street is filled with overpriced goods and jewelry.  Spend your time elsewhere…

The honeymooners – roaming the streets of the Belvaros district next to the Danube

Dinner

On to dinner…my favorite part of everyday!

As mentioned in a previous post about Czech Republic, Jonathan made reservations before our trip to several Michelin Star restaurants – it was our honeymoon, so why not splurge!  On this evening we had a table at Onyx.  For me, this was my most memorable meal in Budapest.  And of course – I’m only going to give you a teaser photo – Onyx is being saved for its own lovely post in the future!

Onyx – One of only two Michelin Starred Restaurants in Budapest

After dinner drinks

One big meal and I’m done!  Or so I thought.  We decided to walk for a bit and see what we might feel like doing once some of our food digested.  As expected, the walk perked us up a bit and we settled on trying one of Budapest’s famous ruinpubs.

Trip Advisor reviews led us to the ruin pub, Szimpla Kert in the Jewish district, only a few blocks from our hotel.  The reviews were spot on.   I later learned that this pub, Szimpla Kert, happens to be voted as the third best bar in the world by Lonely Planet readers.  I cannot argue against this one.

The website, www.ruinpubs.com, explains ruinpubs far better than I can so here’s a tidbit on what they are…

The beginning of the 21st century was an exciting turning point in the nightlife of Budapest: in the central area of the city new places were opened one after another in tenement houses and factory buildings doomed to destruction. These were equipped with rejected furniture of old community centres, cinemas, and grandmothers’ flats, bringing a retro feeling into these places. They were soon called ruinpubs and became popular very fast among the youth of Budapest – ruinpub is the exact translation of the Hungarian name.

Ruinpubs often move to a new place, or close for some years, then open in a new place again. They are not only good places to drink and have a party but also function as cultural community areas with film clubs, theatre performances, concerts, exhibitions, and creative workshops, too. They do not work in a franchise system, there is no specified design, and there are no rules, how to make them. Every place has a unique style and atmosphere. In Szimpla kert, (Simple Garden) you can have a beer in a cannibalized old Trabant car. In Instant, you can stroll around in the labyrinth of the tenement house. In Kertem, (My Garden) you can feel the atmosphere of a socialist beer-garden of the 1980s. From Corvin tető, (Corvin Roofgarden) you can have a view at the nightlife of this cosmopolitan city. Some of the ruinpubs are open in Summer only, while others have indoor areas, so you can visit them all year.

My advice – when in Budapest go to a ruinpub!  Here’s some photos taken at Szimpla Kert…

In the corner at Szimpla Kert – taking it all in for a moment before we explore the second floor and garden

Awesome stairway!

Relaxing outside in Szimpla’s garden where a black and white film is being projected on the exterior wall of the pub.

Second floor, overlooking the ground floor entry way

Day One in a Nutshell:

  • Brunch at Ladó Cafe
  • Fungarian – Hungarian language class
  • Central Market Hall – farmer’s market and picnic lunch
  • Exploring Belvaros, District V
  • Dinner at Onyx
  • Drinks at Szimpla Kert

Day Two at a Glance: (Writing Soon)

  • Exploring Buda
  • Buda Castle
  • Labyrinths of Castle Hill
  • Fisherman’s Bastion
  • Faust Wine Cellar
  • Dinner at Costes
  • Drinks at Corvin Tetö

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