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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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Keeping one’s guests supplied with liquor is the first law of hospitality. ~ Margaret Way

Yala, Sri Lanka

December 30 – 31, 2014

Whole fish, shrimp, rice and curry made straight from the hearts of our host and hostess

Whole fish, shrimp, rice and curry made straight from the hearts of our host and hostess

It only occurs to me nearly a year later as I sit and reminisce about our overnight stay in Yala, Sri Lanka that maybe I don’t fully understand the nature of true hospitality. Have I ever taken in a stranger and made them feel at home and cared for as if they are family or dear friends? I haven’t and in many ways, I feel ashamed to say that it seems very awkward to me. I love entertaining and having guests over but I have never simply opened up my home to strangers. I have always been on the receiving end and never given it too much thought; this doesn’t mean that I take any of my experiences for granted as I’ve always felt and expressed my gratitude to those whom have welcomed me.

Is genuine hospitality lacking in¬†our American culture? Or have I just been ignorant of the beautiful opportunities to meet and welcome strangers in my home? Am I too wrapped up in my own life to give up my home and time to welcome someone I don’t know?… After giving this more thought, I hope to challenge myself to grow and to reciprocate the next time an opportunity arises.

Road Trip from Hill Country to the South

After spending four days in the hill country, Jonathan and I headed south. Our goal was to make it to the coast by New Year’s Eve to meet up with our friends. To break up the long drive, our driver, U.P., suggested we stop in Yala for the night and stay at his sister’s guesthouse. This would also allow us to venture out for another safari since Yala National Park is only a short drive from the guesthouse.

A Family Affair

After spending nearly a week with our driver, he quickly learned that the best way to get us excited was finding us a good bite or meal. We often found ourselves pulling off on the side of the road, many little pit stops of sorts, to try local delicacies or to pick up a handful of fruit or coconuts to quench our thirst. Jonathan and I talked about food around the clock and U.P. shared with us his love of cooking as well. As we neared his sister’s guesthouse for the night, he decided to pick up some fresh fish and vegetables so he could cook us a dinner once we arrived.

After showering up and settling in we were invited to a huge dinner prepared by U.P. and his sister in their home. The time they spent working hard in the heat to make sure that we had an incredible dinner was unbelievable. The family made us feel as if we were part of their own clan coming home after being away for a long time. It was special and quite a genuine display of hospitality. After dinner, we enjoyed a bonfire in the yard.

Our evening ended with many rounds of arrack, a Middle Eastern liquor. ¬†U.P. insisted we try it. ¬†I was not a fan as it tasted too sweet for me but I sincerely enjoyed every minute around the fire. ¬†I couldn’t help but to be filled with a warm feeling. It was as if we were part of their family rather than strangers passing through.

Traveling to Sri Lanka?

Hiring a driver while traveling in Sri Lanka was easy. It helped us relax and not worry about directions and also gave us the advantage of having a local’s opinion on everything. ¬†A driver can also suggest excursions and plan them for you if you like. ¬†I highly recommend doing this . We often could not get phone service so getting directions would have been difficult and it was rare to see road signs in the hill country. Interested in hiring our same driver, you can connect with him via his website (www.srilankaturist.com). ¬†I loved his sister’s guesthouse too so if you are interested you can find more information on her Trip Advisor account or her website www.jcguest.com.

Want to read more about our Sri Lankan itinerary? Find more in this post, A Winter Escape. Prior to arriving in Yala we went on a safari in Uda Walawe National Park. Next up, we head to Weligama to meet up with friends and celebrate the New Year. Check back soon for this post!

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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

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

 Sri Lanka

December 24 – January 4, 2014

Sri Lanka Flag

The first snow fall of the season always fills me with a sense of calm.¬† I can’t help but to stare up into the sky and try to follow a snowflake dancing its way home to¬†a final destination.¬† Something about stopping and taking in the beauty of the first winter snow day entrances me.¬† The chill in the air, the tingling of cheeks and the desire to cozy up to someone you love is a grand feeling.

As blissful as the moment is,¬†it is sadly, only a brief one. When living in a city of over eight million people and nearly 14,000 taxis the once beautiful snowfall quickly turns to grimy piles that seize up¬†the¬†already limited¬†space on the sidewalks.¬† You¬†suddenly realize you’re¬†under dressed¬†and are¬†a long walk from home, the subways are packed and every taxi in sight is taken.¬† This is when the moment of bliss disappears and you begin fantasizing of the warm sun on your face and lazy days at the beach or in the park.

The Escape

I’m not quite sure what led us to Sri Lanka other than the fact that our friends, David and Alexandra,¬†threw it out as a suggestion.¬†¬†My first thought…it is warm.¬† My second thought…I’ve never been.¬† My third thought…I’m all in!¬† Goodbye dirty snow piles.¬† Goodbye oversized down coat.¬†¬†Hello breathtaking mountains!¬† Hello sun-kissed island!¬† Hello hiking boots and bikini!
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Itinerary Overview

Colombo:  Eating & Exploring the city

Kitugala: Relaxing and White water rafting

Nuwara Eliya:  Tea Plantation & Factory

Bandarawela:  Ayurvedic Massage & Scenic Overviews

Ella:¬† Hiking Little Adam’s Peak

Udawalawe National Park:  Safari

Yala:  Safari

Weligama:¬† New Year’s Eve on the beach and snorkeling

Marissa: Whale watching and lazy beach days

Galle:  Ananda Spice Garden and lunch

Colombo:  Eat, Drink, and Relax

Interested in what we did in each city?  Follow my blog or check back soon for posts on each of the above destinations.  Also, look forward to tips on where to stay and how to find the best driver to take you everywhere your heart desires!

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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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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.  РWilla 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 caf√© 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
  • BŠļ£o T√†ng D√Ęn TŠĽôc HŠĽćc ViŠĽát Nam (Vietnam Museum of Ethnology)
  • Don’s T√Ęy HŠĽď (A Chef’s Bistro)
  • HŠĽŹa L√≤ (Hoa Lo Prison or “Hanoi Hilton”)
  • Dinner at Essence Caf√© 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.

BŠļ£o T√†ng D√Ęn TŠĽôc HŠĽćc ViŠĽát 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 T√Ęy HŠĽď (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

 

HŠĽŹa L√≤ (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 HŠĽŹa L√≤ Prison in 1967).

HŠĽŹa L√≤ Prison

HŠĽŹa L√≤ 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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