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I hope that in this year to come, you make mistakes. Because if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world. You’re doing things you’ve never done before, and more importantly, you’re doing something. ~ Neil Gaiman

Weligama, Sri Lanka

December 31 – January 1, 2015

Weligama Beach in front of Fisherman's Bay Hotel

Weligama Beach in front of Fisherman’s Bay Hotel

In a nutshell, all you need to start your new year off right…good company. Whether that is spending the evening cuddled up with someone you love or a festive night with close friends, either way you can’t go wrong. We were lucky to have both. And even more fortunate to be spending it on a beautiful beach in Sri Lanka.

New Year’s Eve

After leaving Yala, we headed to Weligama where we would meet back up with our friends and begin an evening of celebrations – a birthday and New Year’s Eve. I often find myself with my eye glued to one side of the camera and as much as I like photography, I realize that this little habit can really prevent me from being present in the moment. For this reason, I (for the most part) hid my camera and let the night unfold shutter free.

Yep, for the most part.

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My love…

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My beautiful friends…

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…and a little debauchery.

New Year’s Day

After nursing a bit of a hangover, we headed out to go snorkeling. We rented equipment from a company right around the corner from where we were staying (Fisherman’s Bay Hotel) and then headed directly out past the boats in front. I’m not a fan of going far out from the shore or too far away from a boat so I spent the time following everyone’s flippers rather than looking at the beautiful fish. Regardless of me allowing my fears to take over, I still can say that I saw enough to know there must be better places nearby to snorkel. My highlight was finding a sea cucumber, or did someone toss it at me? Either way, they seem to always give me a good laugh.

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Hydration station on the way to Mirissa Beach

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Coconuts!

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Alex not wasting a single bit of her coconut ūüôā

Want to read more about our trip to Sri Lanka? Check out our itinerary here. Check back soon for my next post about our stay in Mirissa.

 

 

 

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Not all those who wander are lost. ~ J.R.R. Tolkien

Uda Walawe National Park, Sri Lanka

December 30, 2014

Elephant spotting at Udawalawe National Park

Elephant spotting at Uda Walawe National Park

For as long as I can remember, I’ve always had a love for animals, especially large animals in the wild. From the time we booked our flights to arriving in Sri Lanka, I could not contain my excitement about experiencing my first safari. I looked forward to this moment more than any other in the trip.

Did the safari end up being the highlight of my Sri Lankan travel? ¬†No, even though I expected it to be. As I’ve grown older, I’ve become exceedingly aware of the impact we (humans) have on our environment and how our actions can have a tremendous impact (negative and positive) on the lives and habitats of some of the world’s most amazing creatures. The safari left me with such mixed feelings; I was elated at having seen so many animals in the open wild yet troubled by the ‘footprint’ we were leaving behind.

About Uda Walawe National Park

With over 500 elephants estimated to live in the park, Uda Walawe rivals the most popular East African national parks. Other than elephants, you can see wild buffalo, samba deer, leopards, crocodiles and masses of birds.

We visited the park in the late afternoon. I highly recommend this time as we were able to see at least 50 elephants or more. Although the park was busy with many other jeeps on the paths, I heard it is much more crowded in the early morning. We saw plenty of other animals although we were never able to spot any leopards. One thing to note, the jeeps at UWNP seat about 8 people. A guide for your jeep is included in the entrance fee.

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Deciding between a safari at Uda Walawe or Yala?

Question yourself no further. Jonathan and I went on both safaris (look for my post on Yala next week). Between the two parks, we by far preferred Uda Walawe over Yala. We saw many more animals at UWNP and it was not nearly as crowded. Had we just done Yala, I would have been disappointed with my first safari experience.

Want to read more about our Sri Lankan itinerary? Find more in this post, A Winter Escape. Prior to arriving at Uda Walawe National Park we spent the morning hiking in Ella. Next up, we head to Yala for another safari and a wonderful evening provided by our driver and his sister at her guesthouse.

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Think of the beauty still left around you and be happy. ~ Anne Frank

Ella, Sri Lanka

December 30, 2014

SLELAP

Feeling on top of the world at Little Adam’s Peak

Captivating. Simply put, no other words will do. Standing atop Little Adam’s Peak I feel a gush of joy and the type of weightlessness that only seems to accompany true happiness. The mountains crest¬†and roll in every direction. I fight the urge to immediately photograph the views and remind myself to experience the moment as is.

The Hike to the Top

Little Adam’s Peak is a relatively easy hike. It’s nearly 3 miles round trip (about 35-40 min hike each way). The first 25 minutes or so uphill are quite easy but the last remaining bit is steep and the stairs in the hillside aren’t easy to navigate. The path leading you up winds through a tea plantation. If you are hiking early, you will see the tea pickers hard at work.

Tea plantation workers on the path up to Little Adam's Peak

Tea plantation workers on the path up to Little Adam’s Peak

Collected tea leaves in bags

Collected tea leaves in bags

Village girls exchanging smiles for rupees

Village girls exchanging smiles for rupees

The Views

Imagine 360 degrees of pure beauty. Sri Lanka’s landscape in the hill country is like none I’ve ever seen. Much of the mountains are covered in tea trees. This gives the mountain sides a texture unlike anything else. The green is lush and at various times of day, the clouds descend upon the peaks adding a beautiful softness. Without a great camera handy, I never felt like I could truly capture the beauty before me but luckily, the views were so fantastic I will never forget them.

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Taking a break and capturing the moment!

Taking a break and capturing the moment!

Considering Ella?

If you’re undecided on whether to stay in Ella, I would suggest that you at least make time for the quick hike up to Little Adam’s Peak, especially if you are driving through anyway. What a better way to break up a long drive from one town to the next?! As far as whether to stay nearby, I don’t think it’s necessary to spend a night in the area but if you are looking for a place that’s close and want to escape further into the mountains, check out my previous post on Bandarawela. It’s a very short drive and can be combined with Little Adam’s Peak in your itinerary.

To read more about our Sri Lankan itinerary, check out this post. Next up, we head to Udawalawe National Park for a safari, check back soon for the newest update!

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To seek is to suffer.  To seek nothing is bliss.  ~ Bodhidharma

Kitulgala, Sri Lanka

December 27 – 29, 2014

Breathtaking views found on the drive from Colombo to Kitugala

Breathtaking views found on the drive from Colombo to Kitulgala

A light mist dances all around.  A soothing waterfall ebbs gently from the mountain creating a hypnotic sound, mother natures own therapeutic drug.  Perched on a branch six feet away, a kingfisher stands entranced by the tranquility of Kitulgala.  I, too, sit motionless.  Here, even the most turbulent mind will succumb to peace.

Getting There

We left Colombo early morning on the 27th.  Our plan was to head inward towards the hill country.  Our first stop outside the capital, Kitulgala, was a bit off the beaten path.  Tucked away into the low mountains, Kitulgala is an unlikely destination and usually just a passageway for travelers making their way from Colombo to Nuwara Eliya.  In the most recent years, this town has grown more popular as a white water rafting and jungle trekking destination.  Maps can be deceiving considering the roads to hill country are not flat nor straight.  What seemed like it should take an hour ended up being a four hour drive.  Luckily, the views were jaw dropping and made time pass by quickly.

Lodging & Food:  Royal River Resort

Exploring:  white water rafting

Royal River Resort

If you are looking for a serious escape and don’t mind a 30 minute, 6km drive deep into the jungle and away from everything else then you will be in heaven at Royal River Resort. ¬†This four room resort is situated (literally built into) a waterfall that cascades across every view from any one of the rooms, pool, or dining area. ¬†Each room has a fireplace and a balcony. ¬†Other than swimming, reading, and dining at this resort, there’s not much else to do and you have to account for a long semi-scary drive to the main road. ¬†That being said, you can arrange any excursions with the staff or your driver if you hired one. ¬†This was the perfect place to decompress, adjust to the time change and recharge for the rest of our journey through Sri Lanka.

Royal River Resort:  Kitulgala, Sri Lanka

Royal River Resort: Kitulgala, Sri Lanka

Inside views at Royal River Resort

Inside views at Royal River Resort; the fireplace was my favorite feature, especially on our first cool, rainy night.

Authentic rice and curry meal at the resort; not on the menu but you can request it (make sure to do so about 6 hours in advance)

Authentic rice and curry meal at the resort; not on the menu but you can request it (make sure to do so about 6 hours in advance).  This was for two people!

White Water Rafting on the Kelani River

On our second day, we decided to request a white water rafting trip (through our driver) and were connected with the company, White Water Rafting 99 (no website). ¬†I grew up near great rafting in southern WV so in comparison, this was more like a lazy river ride with a few class 3 or 4 rapids. ¬†That being said, this is so worth your trip just for the views. ¬†I did not have my camera with me so I didn’t get to capture any of it. ¬†To give you an idea of how beautiful this area is, watch¬†The Bridge on the River Kwai. ¬†It was filmed on the Kelani River and your rafting experience will take you past where the bridge was destroyed. ¬†One tip if you go rafting: DON’T SWALLOW THE WATER.

Going to Sri Lanka?

I highly recommend staying a night or two in Kitulgala, mainly to stay at the Royal River Resort. As long as you aren’t afraid of long, narrow roads leading you away from civilization you will be in heaven! ¬†My suggestion is to plan this stop on your way to Nuwara Eliya or Ella from Colombo or reverse.

After we left Kitulgala, we headed further east towards Nuwara Eliya to visit a tea plantation. To read more about our Sri Lankan itinerary, click here. For more about our previous stop in Colombo, click here.

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The traveler sees what he sees, the tourists sees what he has come to see.  ~ Gilbert K. Chesterton

COLOMBO, SRI LANKA

December 26 & January 3, 2015

Manning Market

Manning Market

Colombo was a starting and ending point for our road trip around hill country and the south of Sri Lanka.¬† I arrived with very little expectations.¬† What I had read about Colombo left me unimpressed.¬† Sometimes this is a great thing because you can be easily surprised and delighted¬†by the unexpected.¬† After a full day of wondering the city in search of good eats and interesting places I was left feeling confident that we made the best decision to stay only one night in Colombo.¬† My lens is very narrow and I am sure I missed a lot of what Colombo has to offer¬†but if one place doesn’t have an initial draw, why wait to be convinced?¬† Life is short.¬† Move on.

Colombo (The Beginning)

Lodging: Decoco Guest House

Food:  Pilawoos (Hotel de), Sponge Bakery, Arpico

Drink:  Castle Hotel 

Explore:  Manning Market, sunset at Galle Face Green

Lodging

Guest houses are a dime a dozen in Sri Lanka.¬† Decoco Guest House was a nice place to stay for a night.¬† Was it fantastic? No…but it was certainly fine.¬† The owners were very accommodating and helped us with a few unusually difficult situations that we’ve never had to handle in another country.¬† Other than that I would say this guest house was quite average.¬† The location is hard to find on¬†your own¬†and also hard for drivers to find; if you are choosing a place based on location, I would suggest you skip Decoco.

Food

After settling our things at the guesthouse we headed out to explore for the day.¬† When staying in a city for as little as 24 hours, you have to decide wisely on how to spend your time.¬† Food was our number one must do, especially after so many endless hours in flight and in airports.¬† One of my favorite ways to experience food, culture, and the people of a new place is to visit the city’s markets.¬† We started our journey by heading to Manning Market.¬† It’s¬†Colombo’s wholesale fruit and vegetable market.¬† It is cheap, if that is what you are looking for.¬†¬†After roaming for nearly 45 minutes,¬†everything seemed unappealing. ¬†We left hungry¬†but I knew just the place to brighten our spirits…

Hotel de Pilawoos…not a hotel but a 24/7 joint that serves the city’s best short eats.¬† We sat down and devoured two huge plates of kotthu roti.¬† This is hangover food at its best and is the meal everyone should have¬†after a long flight.¬† Get the kotthu with cheese, I promise you, you will like it.¬† Spicy, with loads of texture from the chopped roti¬†and a¬†bit of creaminess from the cheese.¬† Dig in!

Kotthu Roti at Hotel de Pilawoos: 417 Galle Road

Kotthu Roti at Hotel de Pilawoos: 417 Galle Roada

Although we had plenty to eat, Jonathan always manages to find room for something sweet. ¬†A short walk down the street from Pilawoos and we find ourselves in Sponge bakery. ¬†Another miss. ¬†But that doesn’t stop him from finishing his plate.

Passion fruit and yogurt cake at Sponge

Passion fruit and yogurt cake at Sponge

We had plans to meet up with some friends who were having an unfortunate stay at the hospital so for dinner we headed to a grocery store with the hopes of finding some easily transportable edibles. ¬†We went to Arpico which reminded me of a super Walmart with more interesting groceries. ¬†I mention this because if you find yourself in need of anything from snacking cheese to perfume…you will find it at Arpico.

Exploring

With a little guidance from Lonely Planet, we decided to walk toward Galle Face Green. ¬†It’s recommended as a fantastic spot to indulge in some treats from street vendors and to watch the sunset. Jonathan and I have fun just about anywhere and Galle Face Green was no exception but I wouldn’t recommend it as a place for street food or to see the sunset (unless it’s an unusually clear day). ¬†However, it was nice for people watching and there’s something worthy of your time if you take in a bit of the culture here. ¬†After an hour of lounging on the wall by the beach, I began to gather how connected Sri Lankan families are. ¬†There were so many families walking or playing together. ¬†Everyone seemed happy and enjoying their time connecting with each other and the outdoors. This seemed to me like a daily pleasure rather than a family vacationing together. ¬†A lesson our society could stand to learn, where the couch and television are too often the centerpiece of the evening.

Galle Face Green

Galle Face Green

Drinks

Intrigued by Lonely Planet’s description of Castle Hotel (a misnomer at best) as a “timeless boozer offering up cheap drafts” and located in “once-posh surroundings”, we headed that way; other options were nearly all overpriced cocktails in locales swimming with tourists. ¬†Upon arriving, I sensed this moment was going to be a game changer for me. Something about the looks I received upon entering, the dim lighting and lack of any appeal to the interior had me on guard.

Priding ourselves on our ability to face discomfort in the eye, we proceeded to find a table and order some drafts. It was quickly evident, a female in this bar was not a typical or likely occurrence. We were offered a seat in a different section of the bar when we entered but turned it down to be in the main area where it seemed more lively. ¬†I think that was the first hint we overlooked, the second came when our table was approached by a man who took our order without ever looking at me. ¬†He would only address Jonathan until I finally spoke up on our second or third round. He wasn’t unfriendly by any means and eventually gave me a kind smile. Uncomfortable as I was, the cold drafts were quite welcoming. I always hope to be considerate of others’ beliefs and customs yet never apologetic for being a female. ¬†So I sat with a bit of uncertainty. ¬†At the end, I withstood the initial desire to leave and rather enjoyed the hour or so at Castle Hotel. ¬†I would return again…next time, without any trepidation. ¬†In fact, I highly recommend it. ¬†From this post, it appears that it may not exist much longer.

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Castle Hotel

Colombo (The Ending)

Lodging: Cinnamon Grand Hotel 

Food:  Beach Wadiya

I have to say, by the time we were headed back to Colombo I was very sad, and not because I didn’t fully enjoy it the first time. ¬†I was sad to come to the realization that our travels were quickly coming to an end and we were also having to part ways with two of our best friends. ¬†The country blew my expectations out of the water. ¬†It was absolutely one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. ¬†I would go back in a heartbeat to experience the rest of the country we were unable to see. ¬†I look forward to sharing the next steps in our Sri Lankan journey. ¬†Up next, two nights in Kitugala. Stay tuned!

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As with any journey, who you travel with can be more important than your destination. – Unknown

TAIWAN

July 31 – August 10, 2013

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It’s been over a year since I traveled to Taiwan and with that much time between, my retelling is not as acute as I would like. One thing is for sure; traveling with truly smart, interesting and adventurous people will leave an ever-lasting¬†etch in one’s memory.

If you followed my previous post, you already know that prior to meeting up with two of our great friends, we spent about a week in Vietnam.¬† We had an amazing time but the best was yet to come. Unfortunately, Jonathan and I became quite ill on our way from one country to the next.¬† In a matter of 24 hours we went from energetic, giddy travelers to ones on a hunt for a true medicine man to cure our ailments.¬† We had no real luck and were both probably the sickest we have ever been but that didn’t stop us from making the most of our adventure.

Two Couples

We are quite lucky to have such amazing friends.¬†It would take a whole other blog to explain how we have met some of the finest people around but to make it simple,¬†the four¬†of us met over a decade ago while living in Washington, DC.¬† One thing for sure is that distance never breaks up a true friendship.¬† Jonathan and I now reside in New York City while Dave and Alex are living in another great city, Singapore.¬† That hasn’t stopped us from getting together.¬† We’ve made a point to make the globe our playground….and who do you want to go out and see at the playground??? Your friends!

Miranda & Jonathan

Miranda & Jonathan; living in New York City

Alexandra & David

Alexandra & David; living in Singapore

The Adventurers

The Adventurers

One Car

If you really want to explore and don’t mind getting lost (come on, that’s how you find the best places), you should rent a car while traveling.¬† Terrible at working that GPS?¬† Try figuring it out in Mandarin!¬† Bonus – you will actually get to know your travel companions even better.¬† Who knew Alex had the uncanny ability to¬†tell you the release year of just about any song she hears?¬†¬†It’s a rare gift, especially when she has never heard the song before…crazy talent I would have never discovered had the four of us not been squeezed into a little vehicle packed with over flowing suitcases, 7eleven snacks, and a¬†never-ending supply of tissue boxes.

The Island of Taiwan

Our Itinerary:

  • Taipei:
  • Kenting
  • Taitung
  • Haulien
  • Yuanshan
  • Taipei

Taipei (The Beginning)

Lodging: Muzik Hotel

Food:¬† James Kitchen, Old Wang’s Beef Noodle Soup, Din Tai Fung

Drink:  Wistaria Tea House, Revolver

Explore:  Keelung Temple Night Market, Shilin Night Market, Longshan Temple

James Kitchen

James Kitchen, Da’an District

Din Tai Fung, Da'an District

Din Tai Fung, Da’an District

Wistaria Tea House, Da'an District

Wistaria Tea House, Da’an District

Keelung Temple Night Market, Keelung

Keelung Temple Night Market, Keelung

Old Wang's Beef Noodle Soup, Jhong Jheng District

Old Wang’s Beef Noodle Soup, Jhong Jheng District

Shilin Night Market, Shilin District

Shilin Night Market, Shilin District

 Kenting

Lodging:  Uni Resort

Food & Drink:  Kenting Street Night Market

Explore: Hiking in Kenting National Park, Eluanbi Lighthouse

Kenting National Park

Kenting National Park

Eluanbi Lighthouse

Eluanbi Lighthouse

Kenting Street Night Market

Kenting Street Night Market

 Taitung

Explore: Hiking in Jhihben National Forest

Jhihben National Forest Recreation Area

Jhihben National Forest Recreation Area

Hualien

Lodging:  Silks Place,  Tienhsiang Youth Activity Center

Food & Drink:  Mei Yuan, The Wellesley

Explore: Baiyang Waterfall Trail,  Swallow Grotto Trail, Lianhua Pond Trail

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Baiyang Waterfall Trail

Swollow Grotto Trail

Swallow Grotto Trail

Lianhua Pond Trail

Lianhua Pond Trail

Yuanshan

Explore:  Kavalan Distillery

Kavalan Whiskey Distillery

Kavalan Whiskey Distillery

Taipei (The Ending)

Food:  Shao Shao Ke

Drinks & Entertainment:  Sublime, Brown Sugar, inHouse, KTV @ Party World

Shao Shao Ke, ZhŇćngzh√®ng District

Shao Shao Ke, ZhŇćngzh√®ng District

The Grand Finale

The Grand Finale

Verdict ~ Make your own road trip in Taiwan.¬† You will not be disappointed.¬† Vibrant, bustling cities full of culture, some of the most interesting and delicious street food in the world, breathtaking mountains, and gorgeous beaches…how could you go wrong?¬†

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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 S√īt (Surprise Grotto)

A majestic view from above Sung S√īt (Surprise Grotto)

Day Four

  • Leave Hanoi by van to Ha Long Bay
  • Over night Paradise Luxury Cruise with stops at Sung S√īt and ńźŠļ£o Ti TŠĽĎp

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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 Little by little, one travels far. Р J.R.R. Tolkien

HANOI, VIETNAM

July 25 – 31, 2013

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Day Three

  • Orchid Cooking Class with Chef Tien
  • Dinner at Nha¬†Hang Ngon
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Chef Tien

 

Orchid Cooking Class with Chef Tien

One of the best ways to learn about a culture is through their cuisine.  On our third day, we signed up to take a traditional northern Vietnamese cooking class at Orchid Restaurant (25 Hang Bac Str, Hoan Kiem, Hanoi, Vietnam) with owner, chef, and local food expert, Chef Tien.

The class begins with a basic introduction into traditional foods and a quick review of the menu you will be preparing.  After that, Chef Tien takes you on an adventure to the local food market to shop for main ingredients.  Next you are back in the kitchen to learn, cook, taste, share, and experience great food from start to finish.

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Orchid Restaurant & Cooking School

 

At Dong Xuan market shopping for ingredients we needed for the class.  Chef Tien steers us towards a lady selling balut and encouraged us to try it.  Jonathan takes him up on the offer and is quite surprised that it was better than his last balut experience...

At Dong Xuan¬†market shopping for ingredients we needed for the class. Chef Tien steers us towards a lady selling balut¬†(duck embryo) and encouraged us to try it. Jonathan takes him up on the offer and is quite surprised that it was better than his last balut experience…

 

Trying out chŠļ£ quŠļŅ; a delicious meat pate flavored with cinnamon, star anis and other spices.

Trying out chŠļ£¬†quŠļŅ; a delicious meat pate flavored with cinnamon, star anise and other spices.

 

Pho Bo: basically a whole day of work goes into making this delicious bowl of heaven...this particular bowl was the best I've tried and yep, I helped make it!  Secret ingredient...sea worms.  Look no further, these add a depth to the broth that is hard to substitute (that's why we smuggled into the US...shhhhh).

Making phŠĽü¬†t√°i; basically a whole day of work goes into making this delicious bowl of heaven…this particular bowl (with cooked beef and then topped with rare beef) was the best I’ve tried and yep, I helped make it! Secret ingredient…sea worms. Look no further, these add a depth to the broth that is hard to substitute (that’s why we smuggled some into the US…shhhhh).

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Hanoi style Vietnamese spring roll and a seafood salad

Here we are making cha ca (pan fried fish with turmeric and lots of dill); this is a famous dish in the area and we made it with a twist...rapped up with romaine and rice paper..

Here we are making cha ca (pan fried fish with turmeric and lots of dill); this is a famous dish in the area and we made it with a twist…rapped up with romaine and rice paper.

I highly recommend this class.¬† Just the trip to the market with a local chef was worth the experience; learning to make all these wonderful dishes…was the cherry on top.¬† No, wait, eating them was the best part!¬† So what do you do after about 8 hours of cooking and eating.¬† Nap.¬† Guess what happened after that…¬† Yes, I was hungry again.

Dinner at Nha Hang Ngon

I don’t know how we actually do it.¬† Jonathan and I don’t eat like ravenous animals at every meal when we are at home but somehow we easily fit in enough food for a family of four at almost every meal when we travel.¬† I would be ashamed or embarrassed but I’m not…because we eat it all (or nearly so) every time.¬† There’s always this looming feeling that if we don’t try ‘it’ now we may never have the chance to…so we order and we order and we order.¬† Needless to say, I was not hungry the next morning.

When you encounter a menu the size of a novela, you get one of everything that is most appealing...and if you're indecisive, just order it.

When you encounter a menu the size of a novela, you get one of everything that is most appealing…and if you’re indecisive, just order it.

What a day!¬† We learned so much and enjoyed every waking moment.¬†¬†Vietnam¬†has so much to offer and if you aren’t convinced yet…stay tuned for part three, coming soon!¬† A little teaser… on day four we head off on an overnight trip¬†to Ha Long Bay.

 

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Cooking done with passion is an act of love. – Tammy Mollai

TROGIR, CROATIA

July 2012

Chef Tatjana Ciciliani in her kitchen

Chef Tatjana Ciciliani in her kitchen

Last year, during our honeymoon in Eastern Europe, Jonathan and I got the pleasure of spending a day of shopping, cooking, and dining with the passionate chef, Tatjana Ciciliani. Of all of our adventures on this trip, this is the one that we will cherish and remember forever. For more details on how we found Tatjana check out my post, The Secret to Traveling in Croatia.

The Kitchen. The heart and soul of a home.

Deep within the walls of a 13 century palace, lies a kitchen. Not just any ordinary kitchen but one that is so full of love and passion that this incredible warmth spills out into the streets and entrances passersby. This kitchen, unlike any kitchen I have ever had the pleasure of entering, has its own pulse. It beats with energy yet is soothing and slows time which can easily make you forget that hours have passed and you’ve created enough food to feed a village. This kitchen belongs to Tatjana Ciciliani. A brilliant chef, a culinary artist, a mother, a wife, a friend to everyone. A passionate, loving, and joyful woman whom has changed the way I will forever view cooking and whose influence I will never be able to fully capture in words.

Tatjana is the type of person you meet for the first time and you immediately wish you had known forever. Her kindness and joy of life is simply contagious. After spending a day with her, you will not only be incredibly inspired but you will also feel as if you just traveled deep into the core of Croatia. I learned more about the Croatian culture in this single experience than I could have ever imagined.

Lessons Learned. More than a recipe.

Rather than write the specifics of our trip to the markets, what we bought and what we cooked, I feel drawn to share our experience through the lessons I learned while cooking with Tatjana.

  • Make use of all your senses. Taste is only one aspect of selecting ingredients to cook. Investigate everything, pick things up, feel them, smell them, listen and talk to the vendors. Buying quality, in-season and local ingredients will not only yield a better dish but will also bring you closer to your land and your community.
  • Waste nothing. Unless it’s an old cucumber…it goes in the stock! Or somewhere else equally important like infusing salt! I can’t remember how many times I almost discarded what seemed like a useless peel or the top of an onion and was caught by Tatjana. It was like she had eyes in the back of her head! I had no idea how easy it was to make use of every single bit. Why have I been so wasteful? I was astonished by how many items seemed disposable moments before suddenly transformed into something totally new and delicious. Fish bones, onion tops, stems of herbs, soggy old vegetables, extra flour from bread making…
  • Don’t rush. Be patient. Slow down and enjoy the process. I don’t remember one timer being set. We cooked for hours, yet somehow the morning and afternoon blended into one magnificent experience. We had pots and pots of items boiling away, bread rising, fish waiting to be descaled while out in the blazing sun…and not once did we ever rush or worry about time. I’ve never felt so nourished physically and mentally after a meal.
  • Buy wholesome food to feed the people you love. Not one item we used was from a can or a box. Every item was traceable to the earth or the sea…not a factory.
  • Make what you love and love what you make. Everything tastes better when you’ve created it from your heart.

The Gallery. From market to belly.

Learning how to select the freshest fish at the market in Trogir

Learning how to select the freshest fish at the market in Trogir

Farmers market in Trogir

Farmers market in Trogir

After hearing me rave about cheese, Tatjana selects some cheese for an appetizer

After hearing me rave about cheese, Tatjana selects some cheese for us to try

Tatjana whips up a delicious cheese plate with honey and figs

Tatjana whips up a delicious cheese plate with honey and figs

The final cheese plate

You know you want a bite, don’t you!?

Getting ready!

Getting ready!

Loving the denim apron!

Loving the denim apron!

Gutting the fish

Gutting the fish

Tatjana giving all the hard work to Jonathan...haha!

Tatjana giving all the hard work to Jonathan…haha!

Breading the sardines after descaling them

Breading the sardines after descaling them

Happily chopping along...

Happily chopping along…

Teamwork in the kitchen!

Teamwork in the kitchen!

We got all this going on and more...risotto, fish stock, fried sardines and bread rising

We got all this going on and more…risotto, fish stock, fried sardines and bread rising

Tatjana teaching me how to make a delicious cheese and olive loaf

Tatjana teaching me how to make a delicious cheese and olive loaf

My turn!

My turn!

Working with the cuttlefish...

Working with the cuttlefish…

Ready to fry!

Ready to fry!

Frying sardines

Frying sardines

Final product!! So delicious and crispy

Final product!! So delicious and crispy

Such a fresh and simple salad, straight from the market!

Such a fresh and simple salad, straight from the market!

My favorite dish - cuttlefish risotto!  And not just because I got to watch Jonathan burst all the ink sacs...

My favorite dish – cuttlefish risotto! And not just because I got to watch Jonathan cut all the ink sacs…

Jonathan making a creamy dressing for the sardines

Jonathan making a creamy dressing for the sardines

Setting the table...notice those cucumber skins I was about to throw away...they found a home in the water pitcher

Setting the table…notice those cucumber skins I was about to throw away…they found a home in the water pitcher

Packages!  Filled with fish, veggies, herbs and olive oil

Packages! Filled with fish, veggies, herbs and olive oil

Dessert!  I wish I could remember what was in this - Tatjana whipped it up in seconds flat and it was an delicious and sweet way to end of day of cooking with an very talented and charming woman!

Dessert! I wish I could remember what was in this – Tatjana whipped it up in seconds flat and it was a delicious and sweet way to end of day of cooking with a very talented and charming woman!

Jonathan and I learned so much in such a short amount of time. We have a better understanding of Croatian cuisine and of the wonderful people we met along the way. I no longer waste so much food and have jars upon jars of herb-infused salts for cooking, my freezer is full of homemade veggie and chicken stock, and my enthusiasm in the kitchen grows with every meal I prepare with Jonathan. We are forever grateful for this one-of-a-kind experience.

Much love to Tatjana and her family for welcoming us into their home.

xoxo, Miranda

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I want to be with those who know secret things or else alone. ~ Rainer Maria Rilke

Hotel San Giorgio (on the left)

Beautiful and quaint street in Vis (Vis Island, Croatia)

The Secret

I love Rilke’s quote above. But really, who doesn’t want to be with someone who knows all the secrets? For example, if you happen to live in NYC you may remember the all too recent Speakeasy craze. Location and means of getting through the door was the secret to share with everyone you knew. Almost like a right of passage… I mean, some things are just meant to be shared and I am grateful for those who do! When it comes to travel, the person with all the secrets becomes a saint in my opinion. There’s nothing worse than hearing how you missed an opportunity to participate in something abroad just after you’ve returned from your journey.

And for that reason alone…I will share my little secret for those who plan to travel to Croatia.

The Discovery

While planning our honeymoon, Jonathan and I became a bit uneasy about our last destination. We had planned three days in Prague, four in Budapest and then had seven to plan for in Croatia. After overloading our brains on what we wanted to do, should do and couldn’t miss out on…we felt lost and back to square one in the planning stage. We had so much we wanted to experience in Croatia and much of it were things not easily done by purchasing a ticket or making a reservation.

We were hesitant. Really, on the break of throwing in the towel and extending our stay elsewhere. Until I just happened to discover the man who could make it all happen…and on any budget. This discovery is my secret to share!

While enjoying a glass of wine and doing some fun food googling one weekend evening, I came across a website that made me all too excited to get back to planning our trip to Croatia. I happened to come across a site, Culinary Croatia. After some playing around it all dawned on me…we could actually have it all – on our top to-dos in Croatia was a cooking class and to experience wine, either through a special wine tasting experience or visiting vineyards. I dug a little deeper and discovered that we could do everything we wanted with a little help from someone with all the secrets. That website led me to Secret Dalmatia, the ‘end all’ to our reluctance and frustration with planning this trip.

Secret Dalmatia

We aren’t the typical travelers that make use of travel agents or other sources before heading abroad. We usually have a plan we’ve made ourselves and somehow make it happen on our own. But Secret Dalmatia had so much to offer and could plan everything that we wanted…by insiders with our best interests at heart.

I wrote down a list of all we wanted to accomplish and contacted Secret Dalmatia. After a quick rundown of our budget and a list of what we wanted to do and where we wanted to go. The agent immediately reviewed my responses and summarized what we wanted overall…he totally got us. I got off the phone feeling completely reassured that he would, no doubt, find us the perfect places to stay and the right balance of personalized experiences and down time to relax and explore on our own.

My list looked something like this:

  • boutique/locally owned hotels within our budget that were more about sharing their culture rather than accommodating to ours
  • cities/locations that were vibrant/lively that offered lots of opportunities to mix with locals – less touristy destinations but with much to occupy our time
  • a cooking class – preferably private (just so you know, we were blown away by the experience we got!…post coming soon)
  • a wine tasting or a private trip to a vineyard
  • a beach destination that is more relaxing than anything else – no extreme nightlife required
  • destinations where food mattered – staying someplace where we could experience fine dining as well as great street food was a must
  • time to do nothing or plan our own excursions

The Experience

Within a week, we got a draft of our trip. Everything met or exceeded our expectations and was still within our budget! We were not expecting private transportation to all our destinations and the best rooms in the hotels we stayed but that’s what we got! It was immediately evident that once we checked in we were in good hands due to the fact that we had booked through Secret Dalmatia. It is apparent that the owner and founder of Secret Dalmatia, Alan Mandic, is well-respected in the tourism community. We were treated with so much respect without it being overbearing.

To top off the experience, we were given many recommendations for great restaurants in the areas we were staying. I have to say, as a true ‘Yelp’er, I rely heavily on recommendations and reviews when deciding on a place to eat. Every personal recommendation was beyond amazing. We were able to enjoy authentic Croatian food like the locals without having to do any research on our own.

The Gallery

The photographs below are only a small bit of our trip to Croatia. For more details on our experience or to see what we did and everywhere we stayed check out the links below the gallery.

Split, Croatia

Split, Croatia

Hotel Peristil (Split, Croatia)

Hotel Peristil (Split, Croatia)

Klub Gurmana i Hedonista (Split, Croatia)

Private wine tasting experience at Klub Gurmana i Hedonista (Split, Croatia)

Private tour of Diocletian's Palace in Split, Croatia (this is a photo of the model of the palace outside the entrance)

Private tour of Diocletian’s Palace in Split, Croatia (this is a photo of the model of the palace outside the entrance)

Best tour guide ever!  If you aren't a history buff before the tour you will be at the end - she was so enthusiastic and made history come alive!  To top it off, she taught us how to take it easy and enjoy a shot of rakija like the locals.  If I ever return to Split and she is there...I will find her!

Best tour guide ever! If you aren’t a history buff before the tour you will be at the end – she was so enthusiastic and made history come alive! To top it off, she taught us how to take it easy and enjoy a shot of rakija like the locals. If I ever return to Split I will find her!

Private day of cooking with Tatjana in Trogir at her home in a 13th century palace! Here, Jonathan and Tatjana are prepping the fish...Best experience of the trip!

Private day of cooking with chef Tatjana Ciciliani, in Trogir, at her home in a 13th century palace! Here, Jonathan and Tatjana are prepping fish…Best experience of the trip!

View of the town of Vis. (Vis Island, Croatia)

View of the town of Vis from the hillside (Vis Island, Croatia)

Our view from our room at Hotel San Giorgio (Vis Island, Croatia)

A great view from our room at Hotel San Giorgio; with unexpected champagne and fruit as a honeymoon welcome gift (Vis Island, Croatia)

Lobster, typical Croatian potatoes (boiled then drizzled with olive oil and herbs) and swiss chard - not pictured: dinner at Villa Kaliopa in Vis

Lobster, typical Croatian potatoes (boiled then drizzled with olive oil and herbs) and swiss chard – not pictured: dinner at Villa Kaliopa in Vis

Croatia – Part One

  • Split

Croatia – Part Two

  • Vis Island

Croatia – Part Three

  • Vis Island

Croatia – Part Four

  • Vis Island

Croatia – Part Five

  • Zagreb

The Verdict ~ Book your trip to Croatia for a romantic or adventurous getaway, full of history and culture, great food, relaxation, and lovely people. If you want to experience Croatia like a local then book your trip through Secret Dalmatia where Alan Mandic and his team will customize your experience exactly as you want. For all of you skeptics, this is not a paid advertisement…I love to share my experiences and only hope that the next person has as great of an experience as we did. Please comment if you have any travel questions!

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