A Road Trip to Manchester

Road trips are the best, aren’t they? All the excitement of going somewhere new without the hassle of dealing with crowds, security check points and little kids kicking the back of your seat. Plus with road trips, getting there really is half the fun because of 90’s singalongs (is that just me?) and pit stops for whatever catches your eye like farmer’s markets and scenic views. So when my friends and I were in desperate need of a break from NYC, instead of hopping on a flight to typical spring break spots like Puerto Rico or Mexico, we opted for a change of pace and rented a car heading for Manchester, Vermont.

What the heck is in Manchester?

Thank you! I’m glad to hear that I’m not the only one who had no idea. Manchester is an adorable town that’s pretty ideal for skiers and snowboarders in the winter and those that like to flyfish in the summer. It’s centrally located to both Stratton Mountain and Bromley Mountain, and there are even several trails in Manchester for those that prefer cross-country skiing. That being said, we weren’t heading there for the winter sports but instead to relax, do some hiking, and just enjoy the adorable town. Oh, and let’s not forget about the fantastic outlet shopping to be had! So if you find yourself staying in or nearby Manchester for a few hours or even a few days, here are some places that you should definitely check out.

Fun fact: Manchester is the home of the Orvis flyfishing chain.

Must-do: Hike the trails at Equinox Preserve

equinox pond-002

Alright, winter isn’t exactly the best time for some hardcore hiking in Manchester as many of the trails are very icy or very muddy. That being said, we managed as best we could with the trails at Equinox Preserve. Mount Equinox is one of the highlights of the town, and up until 1996 the 900+ acres around it was owned by the Equinox Resort. The resort donated this to make sure the land would always be preserved. Start your hike by picking up a map of the trails at the Equinox Resort hotel. Their concierge was very friendly and gave us some excellent suggestions of ideal routes. Regardless of what trails you choose, at some point circle back to Equinox Pond where you’ll have a stunning view of Equinox mountain over the water. The pond also has a historic waterfront property which used to be an ice house, and the building is a popular spot for wedding venues. After you have finished up with the trails, walk back on Taconic Road to pass some beautiful historic homes. If you do happen to come to Manchester in the warmer months you’ll have even more wonderful trails to choose from so take full advantage of it!

equinox trail-002

 

Must-see: The Hildene House

estate3-001

The Hildene House is the summer home of Robert Todd Lincoln, Abe’s eldest son and the only child to live to adulthood. This house is spectacular and is just part of over 400 acres of the property. Robert first visited Manchester with his mother and brother when he was 20 and they actually stayed at the Equinox Resort at that time. The property was built in 1905 and has spectacular views of the Battenkill Valley as well as Mount Equinox. Descendants of the family lived there until 1975, the longest out of any Lincoln residences. Today it is owned and maintained by the non-profit, Friends of the Hildene. I really enjoyed walking through this estate, especially because most of the furniture and possessions were actually owned by the Lincolns. The house has a 1,000 pipe organ which was added in 1908 as a gift from Robert to his wife. There are over 200 rolls and the guide actually plays the songs for you as you tour the house. It’s actually quite comical at how loud it is but is still a fun peek into the past.

Fun fact: The garden in the back of the house is actually in the shape of a stain-glass window, an idea designed by Robert and Mary’s daughter, Jessie. The garden was a gift from Jessie to her mother, and can be seen from the windows of Mary’s room on the second floor. Of course the flowers weren’t in bloom when we visited, but if you go in the spring or summer you will be able to see that the colors of the flowers are coordinated to match the stain-glass look.

dining room-001

Must-peruse: The books at the adorable Northshire Bookstore

If only every town had a bookstore as quaint as this one! Think 10,000 square feet of pure bookworm bliss, complete with a pretty extensive children’s section as well as a delicious cafe. The company itself was founded in 1976 but the current location was only bought and renovated in 1986 (and then renovated and extremely expanded again in 2003.)  While this bookstore is always bumping, there is so much space that we never felt crowded (I love you Strand but you raise my blood pressure.) Oh, and let’s go back to this cafe! Spiral Press cafe is connected the bookstore but is way better than your average Starbucks in Barnes & Nobles experience. The food is legit and the seating is ample – we saw lots of students studying as well but there was always open tables. Definitely worth a walk-through, although you’ll probably walk out with a handful of great reads, too.

 

Where to stay:

The Equinox Resort is clearly the leading hotel in terms of the four-star experience, but for those of you that are looking for a more affordable stay there are plenty of other options as well. Ask yourself if being walking distance to the city center (where many of the outlet shops and restaurants are) is important or if you are ok with driving. We chose to stay at Manchester View, a hotel that is very close to the center (about a 10 minute walk to Northshire Bookstore) but is very affordable. It was a no-frills hotel but the rooms were very spacious and the grounds had some entries to trails and even a trout pond! Surprisingly you will notice a stark difference between the part of town that has more luxurious hotels versus the more budget-friendly options (think marble sidewalk versus no sidewalk.) We drove by most of the other hotels I was looking at which all seemed charming in their own way, too.

Where to eat:

Up for Breakfast: I have to start with this place – you MUST brunch at Up for Breakfast. This is non-negotiable. Delicious meals, absurdly large portion sizes, an obsession with chicken decor, and a friendly but super efficient staff. ‘Nuff said.

Spiral Press Cafe at Northshire Bookstore: You already knew this you savvy reader, you.

Mulligans: Excellent pub fare and great atmosphere.

Ye Olde Tavern: Next door to Manchester View, the food at Ye Olde Tavern is absolutely delicious. Know that it is definitely an upscale establishment. We stumbled in here on our first night thinking that it was more of a low key restaurant and were caught off guard. The food was excellent though so it was definitely not a problem!

 

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The Girl On The Train by Paula Hawkins

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The Los Angeles Times Featured My Recommendation!

titi-004

Last summer I was thrilled to celebrate a big birthday in Costa Rica’s Manuel Antonio. It was an amazing week and one of the highlights was taking a guided tour through Manuel Antonio National Park. Yes, sloths showed up to the party and I couldn’t handle their adorable awkwardness, but it was our guide, Johan Chaves, that truly made the tour. So when I saw that the LA Times was looking for reader recommendations, I had to spread the news about Johan. And I was so excited when I got word that they chose to publish my recommendation in this week’s paper because our tour guide truly deserves the recognition for his hard work, vast knowledge of the local wildlife and nature, and excellent customer service.

http://www.latimes.com/travel/deals/la-tr-recs-20150405-story.html

I hope you have a chance to make it over to Manuel Antonio National Park if you haven’t yet! And trust me, the cost of a tour guide is absolutely worth the incredible experience you’ll have that you’ll be talking about for years.

slothysloth-001

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The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

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The Soapbox Chronicles: Foreign Languages In The US

If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.

 – Nelson Mandela

::Steps onto soapbox.:: Ahem. Is this thing on?

In my building, there is this cute old Spanish speaking couple that I have come to love. The woman is kind enough to bring any packages she finds of mine to my door, and the man is so friendly and strikes up conversation with me in Spanish when we pass each other in the hallway. I rarely have the opportunity to practice my Spanish anymore, so I love our talks and also appreciate his patience if I stumble with my grammar. It reminded me of how envious I was of many of my classmates who already had an arsenal of various European languages under their belt. And there I was, perpetuating the stereotype that Americans can’t speak other languages fluently outside of English. Grr-eat.

It’s not that I don’t know any other languages. I studied Spanish for six years throughout high school and college and even did a semester abroad in Madrid where all my classes were in Spanish. That being said, I would prefer to have another immersion or intensive course as a refresher. And I know a lot of other people who would fall into this same category, perhaps because we didn’t have the opportunity to learn foreign languages from a young age like many of our European counterparts. Of course I’m not talking about Americans who have grown up speaking a second language at home. But to put it in perspective, only about 18% of Americans say they speak more than one language, versus 53% of Europeans. Which begs the question, “Why hasn’t the US done more to change this?”

I think there are several factors for this. One recent issue is school budget cuts, where educators are forced to take out entire departments that don’t seem as necessary. As of 2008 only 25% of elementary schools in the US taught foreign languages (I couldn’t find more recent data but would love to hear updated stats.) So that means the best options for children who aren’t learning directly from their parents would be through private school educations or tutoring, or online apps which I will get to at the end of this post. And while the numbers are higher for foreign languages taught in high school and college, think about the greater potential kids have for fluency if only they could start learning from elementary level. And then think about how that could radically change things for the country as a whole. Oh, another reason? Some may say that English is the language of the global economy so there’s not as much of a need to learn other languages. And true, Americans are fortunate to grow up learning English because from what I hear it is a challenging foreign language and you can get around pretty well if you know it. But the economy is always changing, and with developing countries becoming bigger who knows if English really will stay the dominant language. Regardless, with learning another language comes learning about a different country’s lifestyles and getting excited about wanting to see more of the world. It can lead to increased partnerships with entrepreneurs in other countries and more global career opportunities, or even just more confidence to explore and travel more. Undoubtedly it would result in less ignorance towards other cultures, and let’s not forget the pure joy of just being able to order a meal in the local language when you are traveling.

Earlier this month I read an article from Fast Company that mentioned how Washington legislators are trying to push computer programming as a language for high schoolers to meet college requirements. Partially because they feel that the current system of learning a foreign language at a high school level is not as productive, and a good part of their reasoning also supports the idea that language should be taught in elementary school where its more effective. While I am all for pushing computer science in high school, I wouldn’t want kids to opt out of the foreign language requirement either. I can say with certainty that studying Spanish in high school had a snowball effect in my life which resulted in having some amazing international experiences and being passionate about travel and other cultures. Even though the current system is flawed, there should be more emphasis on learning other languages in today’s super connected world.

But I digress…

To be honest, this post was supposed to be about fantastic online (and mostly free!) resources for learning foreign languages as an adult and even as a child. So I’m going to get to it, and also get back to Duolingo to continue practicing what I’m preaching.

::Steps off soapbox::

 

Online foreign language resources:

1) Duolingo – I use this one so I can vouch for the addictive and fun nature of this app. It’s FREE and the website says that 34 hours on the app is equivalent to time spent taking one university course. And how cute is their mascot??

2) Livemocha – Also free! This website is great because it relies on its community to help each other with their learning. For example, you can post an exercise of you speaking or writing online and native speakers can offer advice. Pretty valuable if you’re looking for some legit feedback.

3) Pimsleur – I also used this to learn some basic Italian before moving to Italy. It’s all audio and A LOT of repetition which is great for long commutes (although you will be repeating phrases out loud so you may want to avoid this on your subway ride home.)

*Bonus – Just heard about its sister app, Little Pim, with videos, books and apps for kids up to age 6. Perfect with what we were just talking about!

4) Babbel – Some people say Babbel is the most effective online app out there. It has similar tools to Duolingo like vocabulary and pronunciation, and a huge community as well. The first lesson in any language is free, and then there’s a monthly fee for unlimited courses.

5) Lingorami – Another free app. I haven’t tried this one yet, but from the reviews it seems like if you’re the type to be addicted to Candy Crush then you will like this as well. Right now it teaches Spanish, French, Portuguese and English and uses addictive games to keep you interested and learning. Considering its ease of use , it may be a good choice if you’re looking for something to help you brush up on your skills when you have sporadic downtime.

6) Memrize – Also free!  Memrize also has rave reviews and a component for teachers to use it in class. Oh, and for all your competitive types out there, it also lets you compete with your friends. Now I’m intrigued.

 

Parents! Soon to be parents! Aunts, uncles, godparents… you get the idea. I also found this great article that gives language learning app resources for those that want to teach their children new languages.

 

Currently reading:
All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

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Journey To The Galápagos

About a year and a half ago during the summer of business school, I visited The Galápagos Islands. It was by far the coolest place that I’ve ever seen but I haven’t been able to get myself to write a blog post on it. To be honest I think I feel that I could never do justice in really capturing the magic of that place. How can I eloquently write how unbelievable it was to be surrounded by animals that have zero fear of humans because they have never been hunted. The awe of walking next to blue-footed boobies. and their adorable fluffy white chicks. The moment that took everyone’s breath away when a flock of albatross took flight. And the delight of having to actually run away from a baby sea lion that wanted to play even though every bone in my body wanted to hug the living cuteness out of it. Even now, over a year after being there, I still remember the emotions tied to that place. I remember the passion and love for the land that the crew shared, and how many of them grew up in Ecuador with an appreciation for wildlife conservation and a desire to work with conscious tourism here. It is a natural park after all so you do not take anything onto the islands that you cannot take back with you, and the crew goes so far as to wash the sand out of your shoes so not one bit of the land, one seashell or rock or flora, gets taken away. One of our tour guides even recounted how she got married and had her entire wedding party take a trip here since it is a place that is so close to her heart.

The islands are reachable by boat from Santa Cruz island, and we flew in from Quito to San Cristobal and then took a transfer to the port at Santa Cruz. You can choose to stay in Santa Cruz and take boat trip each day to the different islands, but if you prefer a more personal experience, you can take a small 4 or 5 day cruise around the islands. I use the term “cruise” reluctantly here because we actually were on a smaller boat and it was a much more intimate feel than what you would typically picture a cruise ship to be like. You sleep and eat on the boat and then take trips, or “expeditions” as our team called it,  by day. The boat itself had all the great perks you would expect to find on a cruise, including excellent chefs that served delicious local cuisine, but the real gems of the trip were the different expeditions each day. Every day we were given a few options of what we wanted to do in the morning and afternoon, varying by intensity. For example, the scrappier folks could go on more difficult hikes while those that were looking for something more leisurely could go on a beach walk or even a boat ride around the island. One day we were hiking from one end of the island to another, the next we were snorkeling around a reef surrounded by a pod of friendly sea lions in the morning and then doing nature bird walk to spot birds in the afternoon. It was absolutely amazing and I recommend going with a sustainably focused tour company like the one we used. Not only will you blown away by how beautiful it is, but you will also walk away with a newfound appreciation for wildlife and nature. I also realize that I didn’t talk about the amazing, hospitable country of Ecuador which is also worth a mention, but that will have to wait for perhaps another post.

(Click these images for bigger sizes).

An albatross chick

A blue-footed booby chick

Ah one more thing! If you are interested in planning your next trip there I shamelessly plug contacting Dream-Ality Travels, my family’s travel agency, to set it up for you. They can talk you through more details than what I mentioned and tell you all about the awesome tour company we used. Or feel free to get in touch with me about it since I am always excited to share more about my experience there.

Update: While I was finishing up this post, I came across this Nat Geo article from last year that discusses how the blue-footed booby population has been dwindling due to lack of breeding from a change in the island’s ecosystem. Even though these birds can be found elsewhere, they have the biggest population in The Galápagos. I hope there is a way that these species can continue to thrive here, and that you have a chance to see them in person if you haven’t yet.

Books read:
The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest by Stieg Larsson
Divergent by Veronica Roth

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The Other Side of Spring Break Central

When I told people I was heading to Cancún with my family for New Years, I received my fair share of odd looks. It’s safe to say that Cancún has quite the reputation for Spring Break, college-style partying with its white beaches that pave the way towards Señor Frog’s and Coco Bongo. But no, that’s not exactly why we made our way over there. What many people miss when considering venturing over to the northeast coast of the Yucatán Peninsula is just how much beauty and history surrounds the area: the beaches in Isla Mujeres and Playa del Carmen, the Mayan ruins in Tulum and Chichen Itza, the reefs in Cozumel, just to name a few places. We only had three days so when we weren’t busy being beach bums at our hotel we day tripped it over to Chichen Itza and Isla Mujeres .

Chichen Itza

The archaeological site of Chichen Itza, one of the largest Mayan cities abandoned in the 1400’s, is one of the New 7 Wonders of the World. The most impressive structure there is the The Kukulkan Pyramid, named after the Mayan feathered spirit deity, is also known as El Castillo. The Mayans were known to have strong astronomical skills and during the spring and autumn equinoxes you can see a serpent-like shadow slithering down the side of the pyramid. The pyramid also represents the Mayan calendar, with 91 steps on each sides plus 1 at the top (to signify 365 days) and 18 sections of platform for the 18, 20 day-long months. Mind. Blown.

Other main parts of the site include the open-air Great Ball Court where heated games resulted in the losers being decapitated, and the Cenote Sagrado, or sacred sinkhole well, where people and valuables were sacrificed as a form of worship to the Mayan rain god in times of drought. While we weren’t able to visit this cenote on our tour due to the size of the grounds, we were taken to the impressive Ik-Kil cenote nearby, a freshwater sinkhole where we could dive in and pretend that we were just sacrificed. Just kidding – I was trying not to think about that while contently dog paddling around.

Panels like these at the base of the Great Ball Court depicted the players. In the below photo you can see a carving of a decapitated head.

Ik-Kil ("Sacred Blue Cenote") is a freshwater cenote that's 85 feet below the surface and 130 feet deep. There are many cenotes in the Yucatan due to the porous limestone.

Tips for visiting Chichen Itza: Go with a tour group. We saw people coming on their own but without a guide you might miss out on a lot of great historical information. Also, avoid the vendors in the ruins who will try to rip you off with cheap imitations of Mayan handicrafts.

Fun fact: From one end of the Great Ball Court, you can hear what someone is saying at the other end (500 feet away) due to the great acoustics. Archaeologists who have been restoring the ruins even said that the sound is improving as more work is being done.

Isla Mujeres

On New Years Eve we decided to treat ourselves with a day trip to Isla Mujeres, a small island just a short ferry ride away from Cancún. Isla Mujeres has beautiful beaches and reefs for snorkeling and scuba diving. The preferred method of transportation for tourists is the trusty golf cart, and the island is small enough to put put from the downtown area in the north side to the other end at Punta Sur in under a half hour. We managed to cover a lot of ground in the few hours we had wheels, stopping for photo opps along the way and for lunch, and finishing the afternoon at the beautiful beach in Playa Norte. There’s lots of other fun things to do on the island, including visiting a turtle farm, scuba diving or snorkeling at Garrafon Park, ziplining, and seeing a Mayan temple and sculpture garden at Punta Sur.

Tips for visiting Isla Mujeres: If you’re not staying on the island, catch an early ferry over (ideally by 9am) so you have your pick of golf carts. We took a 10am ferry and were fortunate to get one of the last carts, but the pickins sure were slim.

Fun fact: There is a really cool underwater museum that was a project designed to slow the effects of climate change on the ocean.

Happy New Year, and many exciting travels to you in 2015!

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Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

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Reasons To Love New York: Storm King Art Center

It was back in April 2012 when Japan Tourism Agency sponsored a trip for me to visit Japan to help promote tourism. By far one of the coolest places I visited during that trip was the island of Naoshima, known for its abstract art installations spread out all over the island. So when I heard that there was a large sculpture park upstate, I was reminded of the awesome time I had in Naoshima and knew I had to check it out.

Storm King Art Center is absolutely beautiful. Located about an hour north of the city, it is home to over 100 art sculptures dating back through the last century. I had never heard about it before this year but it seemed to have gained a lot of popularity with its current exhibition, Zhang Huan: Evoking Tradition, specifically with its Three Legged Buddha sculpture.

While most of the larger sculptures are made of steel, the smaller ones are made of all kinds of different materials including rubber, wood, and stone. And if you are lucky to visit on a beautiful day like we were, then you may end up spending just as much time appreciating the scenery as well as the sculptures. The park itself is huge and they recommend leaving six hours to see everything, although we saw a good majority in about three. And while it can be a busy spot on weekends, there is enough space and a lot of different trails where you can avoid the crowds for the most part. I definitely recommend a visit now because of the beautiful fall foliage. The center is open until the end of the month (and then closed until April) so get there soon. And don’t forget to pack some snacks!


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Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand

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Costa Rica: Land of the Sloths!

I finally did it. After years of sitting, waiting, wishing (did you catch that Jack Johnson reference?) I finally made my way over to Costa Rica for a belated 30th birthday getaway. I already knew what a good time I was in for after hearing about the awesome trips my friends have made either for honeymoons, bro getaways, Teaching English stints, etc. And even so, amidst my pure joy after arriving I almost broke down into tears when I realized I left my Canon Rebel back in New York. Nooooo, but the SLOTHS. I must capture the beauty of the slow-moving beasts that I love so much! After whimpering for 20 minutes or so I got over myself, because I was in rainforest paradise after all, and I proceeded to have one of the most relaxing, yet active weeks of my life. Ahh, where to begin?

We decided to spend the full week in Manuel Antonio, the destination that my bestie Dory raved about from having spent a month in Costa Rica last year. I must admit that I was a little skeptical about this plan – what about the volcano in Arenal, the Caribbean vibe on the east coast, the wildlife at Tortuguero!? Won’t we just get bored sitting in one place for the entire time? This place better be frickin’ amazing. And well, it was. First of all, I absolutely loved the laid back vibe and how friendly everyone was – it reminded me of a certain Costa Rican classmate who always had a smile on his face (miss you, Fernando!) It was also very cool to meet some expats – the majority of those I met being American – and hear their stories about what brought them there. We chose to stay at Mango Moon, a boutique hotel up the hill in Manuel Antonio. The owner is an American expat who’s lived in MA for the past 6 years and she is absolutely wonderful. And what did I mean when I said the week was relaxing, yet active? Well, even though we had our fill of beach days, we also did plenty of activities. Since tourism is such a big part of Costa Rica’s economy, it was very easy to set up tours of pretty much anything we wanted to do and have the tour companies pick us up at the hotel. The only tour we set up in advance was with a well known guide that leads nature walks through Manuel Antonio National Park, but we had no problem planning the rest of the week once we got there. And even though we only arrived at our hotel around 9pm and were exhausted after a full day of travel, we were up at 7am the next day to greet our national park guide and start on the week’s adventures. The walk through the national park itself is not too far, but since there is so much to see on the trails we spent 4 hours with Johan, mesmerized by all that was there to see but would have been impossible to spot if we were on our own. Our guide parted ways with us at one of the park’s beaches and we spent the rest of the afternoon swimming and beach bumming to our heart’s content. The rest of the week was similar with kayaking through the mangroves one day, rafting through the Savegre River and even taking an intense hike to get to the beautiful Nauyaca Falls. Up at 7am each morning to start our day with breakfast with a view, off and exploring by 7:30, and back and in bed by 10pm to start it all again the next day. It was my first time both rafting and kayaking and I had a blast. My favorite day trip was the trip to the falls, which I heard is the biggest and most impressive waterfall in the area. We worked up a sweat getting to the falls and as soon as we arrived we awarded ourselves with a nice long dip in the natural pool.

Nauyaca Falls

Rafting down the Savegre River

Manuel Antonio is best known for its national park, and for good reason. In addition to being able to spot all kinds of wildlife, there are several trails that lead to different beaches. As I had mentioned before, you absolutely need a guide the first time you go so they can point out all the animals, plants and insects for you, and then from then on you can always go back just to relax and swim at the beach. We actually ended up there 3x over the course of the week, taking different nature trails and hiking over to different parts of the park. And what kind of wildlife did we spot? I just so happened to keep a list throughout the walk. And yes, I did get my sloth sighting, complete with fuzzy pictures and all!

Sloth
Red Crowned Woodpecker
Iguana
Crab
Frog
Howler Monkey
Cicada
Eyelash Pit Viper & Fer De Lance
Baby Iguana
Helmet Headed Lizard
Golden Web Spider
Green Tree Anole
Lesser White-Lined Bat
White face (Capuchin) Monkey
Walking Stick
Basilisk (Jesus Christ Lizard)
Raccoon
Squirrel Monkey

Manuel Antonio Beach

Gemelas Beach

Escondido Beach

Espadilla Sur Beach

Tips for Manuel Antonio Nature Park: Make sure to get a guide in advance. We found Johan Chavez through Tripadvisor and he was a very sweet, knowledgable guy. It’s obvious he loves what he does, which is so refreshing to see. We ended up running into him each time we visited the park, and once he went out of his way to show up a pit viper that was just spotted on the trail. Also, while Manuel Antonio beach is the most picturesque, if you want to have the beach to yourself take the trail that leads to Espadilla Sur. We spent hours in the water and felt like we had the place to ourselves.

As if that wasn’t enough wildlife, we had frequent visitors at the hotel every day too – the adorable Titi monkeys.

And finally, we ended the week with an awesome 20 minute flight from MA back to San Jose to catch our flight back to NY. It was definitely one of the highlights of the trip.

So if you haven’t yet been out to this amazing country where the people are so warm and friendly, plans are made depending on the tides, and the raccoons are actually kind of cute, maybe now’s the time to get on that. And while peak season brings more days of sun, I loved going in July when the rain was welcomed by didn’t ruin plans and the sun wasn’t as harsh. Of course, now I feel the need to go back and visit the other parts of Costa Rica. See you next year? Pura vida!

Where to eat: Coming from NYC, we weren’t exactly heading to Costa Rica for the food (yes, I’ll admit that we are spoiled in New York.) That being said, we did have a couple good meals and of course indulged in the seafood. Best meal of the trip hands down was dinner at Emilio’s Cafe, which fortunately for us was just up the street from our hotel. The great food was also well complemented with a live Latin band. Splurge for the tuna trio!

Where to stay: It seems like there are a lot of great options for hotels depending on your budget. Mango Moon was perfect for us because it had fantastic views and was clean yet still super affordable. And really, the friendly owner and staff make the place as great as it is. Even the dog who couldn’t be bothered by my presence warmed up to me by the end of the week.

Black sand beach at the bottom of the trail from Mango Moon

 

Books read:
Orphan Train by Christina Baker
Invisible by James Patterson and David Ellis

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Yum Cha Wishes and Dim Sum Dreams

I arrived in Hong Kong late Monday evening, my limbs aching from the 16 hour flight and my vision blurry from my in-flight Oscar nominations marathon. My mom had sprung an impromptu trip at the end of my sister’s visit to Japan and I simply refused to be left out. I expected some major jet lag with the 12 time difference, but upon touch down I was too excited to care. It was my first time in what is often hailed as one of the best cities in the world, and with one of the best food scenes at that! I may or may have not flown across the world just for the food… my mouth was watering before I even got on the airport shuttle.  For those of you that may not know, Hong Kong is a “special administrative region” of China, which means that its not part of the mainland China but it still falls under its sovereignty (it was under British control under about the mid ’90s.) So it has its own currency — the colorful Hong Kong dollars — and also a lot of Western influence. The other special administrative region is Macau, which we’ll get to later.

Hong Kong indeed is pretty impressive. I was surprised at the sheer number of skyscrapers, both commercial and residential, that were packed into such a small section of land. Perhaps I’m too used to NYC’s skyscrapers to notice them anymore, but HK seemed much more dense at first glance. And of course, let’s not forget about all the millions of people out and about, which may explain why the culture includes walking fast and cutting others off when necessary. Ahh, I feel more at home already. Oh, can I just comment on the absurd number of shopping malls everywhere? At least it helps me better understand where China gets its obsession with luxury goods. Too bad the prices are far more expensive than back home. ::sigh::

While I’m super excited to get to the local cuisine, I will hold off (briefly) to point out some awesome sights to check out if you find yourself in HK for a few days. While we stayed in one of the more touristy parts of town on the Kowloon side, we managed to cover quite a bit of ground all over:

The Big Buddha on Lantau Island: This was probably my favorite non-foodie part of the trip. It includes a cable car (spring for the glass bottom one) that takes you up into the hills. The big tourist attraction there is the Big Buddha, but there are tons of hiking trails and you can also take buses to Tai O, Hong Kong’s oldest fishing village (see below for one of its storefronts.) The view from the cable car is pretty cool, too. Tip: If you decide to go, purchase cable car tickets online in advance. We were able to cut the line with ours, which probably saved us a good two hours of waiting.

The Markets: If you are a street vendor type of person (I’m talking to you, Noelle!) you would find paradise within Hong Kong’s many markets. There’s the Ladies Market, the Fa Yuen Street Market, the Goldfish Market, the Flower Market… let’s just say you have options. Some of these markets have pop up booths while others are actual stores, and I personally found that the Goldfish Market or Flower Market to be more interesting than others.

Victoria’s Peak: Victoria’s Peak is on the Hong Kong island side and is reachable by bus, gondola or good ‘ol fashioned taxi. We actually went for the hiking, although we soon found that the actual “trail” was more of a flat path. That being said, the walk provided some amazing views of Hong Kong from above as well as some exotic trees and plants on the walk for all you nature lovers. The area up top also has some stores (shocker) and a few look out points closer to where the buses drop you off.

Sky bar at the Ritz Carlton: Perfect for ending a day of sightseeing with a cocktail and a view. I hear the Four Seasons also has a great view from its dim sum restaurant. Tip: Stay on the bottom floor at the Ritz if you want to catch a great view of the sunset as the view from the rooftop is blocked.

Other mentionables worth checking out: Chi Lin Nunnery (Buddhist temple), Avenue of the Stars boardwalk, the Star Ferry and Dragon’s Back hiking trail. I’m sure I am missing so many other nuggets, which will have to wait for next time!

 

 

Ok, now for the other part of Hong Kong’s amazing culture: The Food! It was definitely a dim sum party for the Mony’s during our week there, but we also made time for other delectables like soup dumplings, peking duck, and even some tea time. My tummy was the happiest it’s ever been — here’s the low down on where to go:

Dim Sum at Tim Ho Wan: The most talked about and arguably best dim sum in Hong Kong, this Michelin-star restaurant chain doles out the most amazing pork buns I’ve ever had in my life. You would never realize its high rating though at first glance; not only is it a no-frills type of place but each plate of dim sum is about $2 each. The secret is definitely out though since many of its locations come with an hour (or two) wait, but we went to the Sham Shui Po location which is in a less touristy area and got seated right away. Note: I should also mention that there was some discrepancy as to if all the locations had Michelin stars or only some, but this one definitely does (if anyone knows this btw, please share!) That being said, if you want a fix before hopping on a flight out of HK (or maybe first thing upon arrival) there’s a restaurant right next to the airport shuttle at the IFC mall in Central.

Soup Dumplings at Crystal Jade: My sister and I are big fans of xiaolongbao, aka soup dumplings, and so we did our research to find this place. The soup dumplings and the rest of our meal (including this phenomenal chili oil dumpling dish!) was absolutely delicious.

More Soup Dumplings at Din Tai Fung: Couldn’t resist adding this one, another affordable michelin-star restaurant with awesome food. Tip: If you have room to spare at the end of the meal, definitely get the sesame and red bean buns for dessert. Delicious!

Peking Duck at Spring Deer: Diner beware, only come here if you are ready to stuff yourself silly. This restaurant is a favorite among locals and a reservation is best, so if you do manage to get a seat you better be prepared to eat your fill. The duck here is brought to you whole and sliced up before your eyes at your table. I know we ordered other dishes but I was so happy with the duck (in all its fatty glory) that I don’t even remember anything else. Sure, its probably not healthy to have duck all the time but if there’s a time to break the diet it has to be when you’re here.

Afternoon Tea at The Peninsula: While this wasn’t exactly something I expected to do while in Hong Kong, having tea and fancy little finger sandwiches at The Peninsula was pretty great. Granted, it was pricey for what it was, but the ambiance was so nice and it was a great way to relax with my mom and sis after a long day. Being a tourist, tough life.

As its pretty obvious, the food was my favorite part of the experience. I also really liked how many expats live here – probably a good number working at the big financial companies. As for the bad, I was pretty sad to see how much smog was in the air but I guess thats to be expected with the number of people crammed in. Lower your carbon footprint already, HK!

 

Next up, an overnighter in Macau…

 

Books read:
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood for Education and Was Shot By The Taliban by Malala Yousafzai

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A Trip To The Keys

The Florida Keys! A little key lime slice of heaven just a 3 hour drive south of Miami. I never gave much thought to visiting Key West before; I think whenever I imagined clear turquoise waters and gorgeous sunsets I immediately would start dreaming of the Bahamas or Mexico instead. However, Key West can be a relaxing destination with less headache.

To make the trip a bit more scenic, we opted to fly into Miami and rent a car to drive through the keys. It turned out to be a great idea because not only is the drive beautiful but there’s so many places outside of Key West to check out. We dropped the car off at the Key West airport when we got in – the island is so small that you can walk or bike to the major areas. We even rented a scooter one day and did some sightseeing around town for a few hours in style. One of Key West’s best beaches, at Fort Zachary Taylor state park, is a must visit if you’re a beach bum like me. It’s a hike to walk to so I definitely recommend taking a bike or scooter there if you plan of making a day of it. Walking around Key West though is great, especially through it’s residential neighborhoods. One of my favorite parts of the weekend was checking out all the brightly colored, Victorian-style houses with beautiful wrap-around terraces and eclectic decorations and patio furniture.

And what’s the Key West nightlife scene like? I definitely recommend Key West if you are looking for a laid back weekend. Think bike rides, lobster rolls and maybe even fly fishing. That being said, if you want some rowdiness, you can find that at the many bars lining Duval Street. The average age in Key West is on the higher side but that doesn’t seem to stop the level of partying. While a few blocks of the top of Duval tend to be for the college/spring break types, the rest of the area has people of all ages enjoying their key lime margaritas (which made the people watching even more entertaining.)

Where to eat:

Start your morning right! Help Yourself has delicious smoothies and organic breakfast items to pick you up after a late night of overindulging. Reminded me of Joni’s in Montauk minus the gigantic line out the door. We went there everyday – I recommend the Happy Monkey smoothie!

For a delicious Cuban meal that won’t break the bank, make sure to make resies at El Siboney. It was the cheapest and quite possibly the best meal of the trip.

If you are looking for something different, take a boat ride to Sunset Key to dine outdoors at Latitudes. It’s part of the posh Westin cottages on the island and so its on the pricey side, but the food is delicious and the view is unbeatable. It definitely wins  best sunset spot for me. (Also, don’t let the stuffiness of their website fool you – the restaurant is absolutely flip flop friendly.)

For your seafood fix, I recommend 3 very different types of places that hits the spot. Eaton Street Seafood Market is great if you want to pick up some fresh seafood and ready made sides for a meal at home, or just some lobster rolls to enjoy outside on their benches. DJ Clam Shack also has delicious lobster rolls as well as mahi mahi fish tacos. It also has the added value of being on Duval Street so you can people watch while you eat. Finally, if you’re looking for something a little more sophisticated that is off Duval, be sure to make reservations at Seven Fish close to old town.

Guilty confession – I tried the key lime pie at every restaurant. Which one had the best? Can’t even tell you, they were all so good.

Where to stay:

We got lucky with our stay at The Palms Hotel. I was uneasy when picking hotels because hotels were either on the extremely pricey side (upwards of $400-500/night) or affordable but on the other side of the island. Some even had shared bathrooms! The Palms is pretty affordable for the island and only about a 15 minute walk or so from Duval Street. It’s definitely “cozy” but very clean and with a nice pool area to relax at after a long sweaty day of walking or biking around town.

However, I must admit – if I could afford it, I would have loved to stay at the Westin cottages on Sunset Key!

On the way back from Key West we decided to do a mini food crawl for breakfast and lunch and also made a stop at Bahia Honda State Park. I fell in love with this place and would have loved to spend hours at the park walking along the beaches long sandbars. I also realized just how much there is to see in the keys outside of Key West. Will I be back to explore more? Most definitely.

Book read: The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling)

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Santa Barbara Dog Park


Meet Odie. A furry two year old malitpoo puppy who loves veggies, squeaky toys and a good game of chase. Odie has always been a bit coddled ever since he suffered a puppy virus that threatened his life when he was just a few months old. He’s been a blessing in our family, acting as the surrogate grandchild and taking the heat off my sister and I for the time being. While Odie loves people, we recently discovered that he has a bit of social anxiety when he’s around other dogs. So with that we have been trying to find places where he can be outdoors with plenty of space and the occasional dog around so he can get more used to them. This weekend we took a trip to Santa Barbara to head out to the Douglas Family Preserve, which is an off-leash park located up on the cliffs with stunning views of the ocean. It is the perfect place to stop if you are doing a road trip up north and need a quick pit stop to let your four-legged friend stretch. At the base of the cliffs is Hendry’s Beach, a dog friendly beach that’s also a great spot for surfers. While Odie is not a fan of the beach (to my utter discontent) he still humored us and let the humans enjoy the afternoon. If you’re in SoCal with your pooch, hope you have a chance to make it out here!

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Filed under California, The States