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Is Exuma, Bahamas the Most Beautiful Place on Earth?

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NASA astronauts have said that Exuma, Bahamas is the most recognizable and beautiful place on the planet when seen from outer space. I guess that makes it some kind of official! Its shallow waters and hundreds of cays make the water that bright, nearly fluorescent, blue that locals and visitors alike can’t seem to stop talking about.

Seeing the “most beautiful” Exuma blue with your own eyes and swimming with the famous pigs are probably on your bucket list, so here are a few tips for your visit to the beautiful Exuma Islands:

  1. If you’re on a budget, you can stay on Great Exuma, the main island of the Exumas, which has the most options for hotels. Keep in mind that most of the island shuts down over the holidays, so if you’re visiting during this time, I’d recommend staying at either Hideaways or Peace and Plenty, which both had restaurants open when everything else was closed.
  2. If budget isn’t an issue, Staniel Cay Yacht Club is the place to be. Accommodations come with use of a boat to adventure around the cays at your leisure. Nearby, Staniel Rents also has some beautiful homes you can rent that would make for an incredibly relaxing vacation.
  3. To see the famous swimming pigs from Great Exuma, the best way is through a day tour. I went with 4 C’s Adventures and had a great time, but would have preferred a smaller group for easier photo opportunities at each of the stops. Sugar Adventures has much smaller boats and a more intimate tour experience. These tours also stop to see iguanas, nurse sharks and Thunderball Grotto made famous from James Bond movies. All of these activities are located much closer to Staniel Cay than to Great Exuma, so when I return to Exuma, I’ll definitely stay in Staniel Cay to have the flexibility of seeing the pigs when nobody else is around, and the grotto when there isn’t a major current,  etc.
  4. Stocking Island with the famous Chat ‘N Chill bar/restaurant is gorgeous and has some really sweet stingrays that love to be touched and hand fed. You can get there via a quick ferry ride from George Town, Great Exuma and is a nice place to spend a relaxing day.
  5. Last tip – if you want to rent a car to tour around Great Exuma, book it far in advance. I was told cars book up over 6 weeks in advance around the holidays.

The Exumas are pretty easy to get to with nonstop flights from Miami. It’s one of those places I could visit again and again because it’s like a natural water playground with so many critters. I was there just 2 months ago and am ready to go back! Who’s with me?

Bagan: Top Spots for Photography

French architect Pierre Pichard inventoried all 2,834 temples, pagodas and stupas in Bagan, describing the scene as “a balance between uniformity and diversity.” Upon arrival, the thousands of structures all look pretty similar with variations on a few themes, but each one really has its own personality, which morphs with the changing light throughout the day. Our travel group of four was all very into photography and after spending the first 2 days in Bagan seeing all of the main sights, we decided to spend day 3 on the search for the perfect photo spots.

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Since online resources on best photo spots were scarce, we had to do our own research. We’d first search google images for photos of Bagan that we wanted to re-create (most of which indicated what pagodas were shown in the photo but not what pagoda the photo was taken from). Armed with these images, a couple rudimentary maps and our own photos from the past couple days, we were able to figure out where almost all of the best Bagan photos were taken from! Also, though our balloon ride was rained out that day, we were gifted with the luck of getting the best taxi driver who seemed to know every pagoda worth visiting, even the really obscure ones that nobody else knew about, and we ended up having the most magical day exploring these hidden gems. Because we had such a difficult time knowing where to go, and even the local taxi drivers didn’t always know the pagodas aside from the most famous ones, I am sharing all of my secret (and not so secret) spots right here.

 

Buledi – Best Sunrise Spot

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There are actually only a handful of pagodas that you can climb up (safely). The ideal view of Bagan is from about halfway up one of these pagodas. Too low, and you only see a couple pagodas nearby. Too high, and you see a lot of land in between the pagoda spires. Halfway up, you can see the tops of many pagodas clustered together. Zoom in to get as many spires in your shot as possible. I was handicapped by my 24-105mm lens, which didn’t zoom as much as I’d wanted. If I ever go back, it won’t be without a lens that zooms to at least 200mm. I didn’t actually see sunrise from Buledi, but based on this view and the direction of the sun, I think this one is one of the best sunrise spots.

 

Pyathada – Most Spacious Spot for Sunrise or Sunset

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Crowds can be an issue for sunrise and sunset viewing, as almost every tourist in town will be climbing up one of the 5 or 6 pagodas that are able to be climbed. Pyathada has a huge, I mean HUGE, terrace that could almost fit all of Bagan’s tourists without feeling crowded. One morning, we had this place entirely to ourselves, so it seems to be more popular for sunset than for sunrise. It’s a little farther from the surrounding pagodas than I’d like for photos, but if you’re claustrophobic or don’t want to be fighting for a spot to view the sunrise/sunset, this is your spot.

 

Ananda – Beautiful, White & Amazing

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Ananda was breathtaking in its vastness and detail. The ornate spires looked different from every angle. It looks so different from the other temples in the area that it should be high on your list to visit.

 

Sulamani – Magical

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For some reason, the magic of Sulamani doesn’t translate in photos, but this was by far my favorite of the well-known temples in Bagan. Something about walking barefoot along the mossy brick grounds next to this towering structure aging gracefully was so powerful. I still can’t quite place why exactly I loved it so much so if you have been here before, I’m curious if you had the same reaction. There must be some magical spirits wandering the ancient corridors or something.

 

Shwegugyi – One of The Best Views

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The views from Shwegugyi were some of the best in all of Bagan. There were so many temples very close by that you felt like you were right in the center of the action. This would be another great spot for either sunrise or sunset, though the standing room is a bit limited so it could get crowded.

 

North Guni – Most Underrated

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I’ve saved the best two for last. These happened to be the final two stops on our visit to Bagan before we headed to the airport. To think we would have missed this if our outstanding taxi driver hadn’t taken us there! This is one of the reasons I’d highly recommend a private taxi to get around (the other being A/C). North Guni was hands down the coolest temple that you could climb up (and I’m pretty sure we climbed all of the climb-able ones), yet it was completely deserted because it’s not on many of the top temple lists. It has many levels and some tight corridors and I really felt like an explorer winding my way through hidden passageways to make it to the top level. Because we visited after some heavy rains, we were rewarded with a view of green farmland that reminded me of Tuscany, with pagodas instead of villas!

 

Khaymingha – Top Secret Spot

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This incredible cluster of stupas was our final stop, and possible the most under-visited site in Bagan. I’ve tried to find out more about it, but there is just not much information out there. The decaying, lopsided sea of stupas could not have been a more charming way to end our tour of Bagan. I haven’t included any maps because google maps does a better job than I ever could. Good luck in your Bagan explorations!

 

Be Kind To Animals: The Moon Restaurant

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Not a top photo spot, but I had to mention this amazing vegetarian restaurant with a sweet name. Everything was delicious and it’s a good place to try Burmese Tea Leaf Salad.

How to Beat the Post-Vacation Blues

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Happy New Year! I don’t know about you, but coming home from a really good vacation can put me into a funky mood for a few days, at best. The more your vacation shifts you away from your routine, disconnects you from the computer, or opens your eyes to a culture vastly different from your own, the harder it is to transition back into regular life. Here are a few things I do to help make the transition easier:

 

1. Continue the mindset of exploration

When traveling, you are constantly seeing new sights, walking down new streets, and trying new restaurants, etc. When you return home, rather than slipping into your old routine, use the momentum from vacation mode to try a new place or walk/drive a different way to work. This helps to keep up the excitement of discovering new things that you had while traveling.

 

2. Talk to people about their vacations

Friends always want to know about my vacations when I return home, but I also want to know about theirs. Hearing about their travels is exciting, and I make mental notes of places I may want to travel in the future. I especially love to hear about other cultures, and we can share our observations about the vast and various cultures of our beautiful world.

 

3. Bring the scent of your travels home

Scent is the most powerful of our senses related to memory, so I always buy a little something that smells like the place I visited. I just returned home from a trip to Fiji and Australia, and our resort in Fiji used this yummy coconut soap by Pure Fiji so I bought a few bars of it for myself at the airport. Whenever I use it now, it takes me right back to our little hut on the beach, showering sand off my legs.

 

4. Start planning your next adventure

This is really what helps me the most with my post-vacation blues. The day I returned home from Australia, I started reading a guide book about New Zealand. A trip to New Zealand may just be a daydream at this point, but that doesn’t mean I can’t start researching and planning for it. Planning a trip can take months to figure out exactly what sights you want to see, how long you will need in each location, etc., so why not start when you aren’t under a time constraint? Even if your next adventure is something small and local, having something to look forward to really takes the edge off the post-travel downer!

 

5. Connect the dots

If you made any friends while traveling, take a moment to send them an email or connect with them on social media so you can stay in touch. Send them a few photos of your trip, especially if you have any photos of them. I love seeing my friends’ status updates and photos on social media from all over the world. You never know when your paths might cross again in the future – you now have friends to visit the next time you travel to their area, in your hometown or somewhere unexpected!

What do you do to beat your post-vacation blues?

Succulent Cafe – Oceanside, California

Some places draw you in from a single photo. I was browsing Instagram one day and saw a picture of someone drinking coffee surrounded by walls of beautiful succulents on all sides and when I discovered it was in the San Diego area, I was so thrilled and couldn’t wait to go.

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Succulent Cafe in Oceanside is a succulent shop in the courtyard of the Apotheque Spa with a coffee cart at the back. It’s more about the plants than the coffee, and there are several tables where you can sit amidst the carefully crafted succulent pots.

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Many of the succulents are lovingly planted in unique containers, and all are for sale which means if you fall in love with one (or many), you can take them home with you!

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Sitting in the courtyard is a magical experience. If you are anywhere near the area, I hope you will stop by and appreciate the artistry that went into creating this cafe/shop. Sometimes exploring your own neighborhood can reveal the most surprising finds. What have you discovered in your own neighborhood?

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The Best Castles in Scotland

One of the main reasons I was drawn to Scotland is the abundance of castles dotted around the country. I visited so many castles I lost count, and can tell you which are the best based on my criteria which include: 1) well preserved history (in the case of intact castles, as opposed to castle ruins, whose charm is drawn from the lack of preservation), 2) unique features that set it apart from other castles and 3) minimal “museum” feel, as I want to see as many original features as possible, rather than bits and bobs behind a glass case. In all, I like to be able to imagine living in the castle hundreds of years ago just meandering up the secret stairs from the kitchen to my bedroom, looking out of a turret over the misty woodlands…if you know what I mean.

As a bonus, I’ll also tell you which castles you can skip, and they may surprise you as they are the most popular and commonly visited. But first, the gems!

Craigevar Castle

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If you’re looking for the ultimate fairytale castle, Craigevar is it. The castle was the Forbes family home for 350 years before it passed onto the National Trust for Scotland, which has maintained the property in as close to the original condition as possible. This continuity of ownership and care makes it one of the best preserved castles in Scotland. The interior of the castle can be viewed by guided tour, where they take you into nearly every square foot of the castle (quite a rarity). The tour guide was excellent, and each piece of furniture seemed to have an interesting story.

 

Caerlaverock Castle

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If the word “castle” conjures up images of a medieval fortress surrounded by a moat, and of course a drawbridge, Caerlaverock Castle will not disappoint. The structure has been around since the 13th century, and since then has survived many battles and sieges due to its location near the English border. The castle has not been reconstructed since the 1600s after its final battle where it lost a tower and major wall. Since then, it has continued to deteriorate into its current, charming state of ruin. You can walk across the drawbridge, explore the castle ruins and walk the surrounding nature trails.

 

Culzean Castle

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This is probably the most impressive looking castle in Scotland due to its imposing size and location at the edge of a dramatic cliff overlooking the sea. The castle was built in the 1300s and owned by the Kennedys from the 1700s until 1945, when it was given to the National Trust for Scotland. In addition to touring the castle, you can enjoy the landscaped gardens and surrounding woodlands.

 

Dunnottar Castle

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More of an castle village than just a castle, the ruined medieval fortress of Dunnottar Castle is located on a clifftop along the northeast coast of Scotland. The geography’s natural defense, consisting of the headland surrounded on three sides by sheer cliffs with connection to the mainland by a narrow strip of land, made it an ideal fortress (and hiding place for the Scottish crown jewels at one point in history). The castle “village” includes ruins of a gatehouse, palace, barracks, stable, storehouses and chapel.

 

Cawdor Castle

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The two words “walled garden” make me tingle with excitement as I imagine myself transported into a dreamy secret garden all to myself. Cawdor Castle’s gardens, including a Walled Garden dating back to the 17th Century and Flower Garden from the 18th Century, are the best I saw in Scotland.

 

Castle Fraser

_DSC5725I’ll be honest – these castles, though stunning, all start looking the same at some point. What is memorable about Castle Fraser is the walk from the parking lot when you first spy the castle and it takes your breath away. See the people at the top of the tower? If the weather is decent, you can climb up there for lovely views. I could have breathed in that lush air all day.

 

Crathes Castle

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Located outside of Aberdeen, Crathes Castle has a little of everything with that fairy tale pink-hued exterior, well-preserved interiors, and famous walled gardens. The painted ceilings, impressive furniture and architectural details inside the castle are all memorable. The castle is solid, but the gardens are outstanding with ancient topiaries that date from the early 1700s.

 

Drumlanrig Castle

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This beautiful hunting estate had some of the most opulent interiors, and definitely the most impressive art collection (including a Rembrandt painting), of all of the castles in Scotland. You could spend an afternoon meandering around the expansive gardens. What sets it apart from other castles is that it is still privately owned, which means it’s still remotely possible to get an invitation to a dinner party or weekend stay…right?

 

Elgin Cathedral

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Though it is not a castle, I had to mention Elgin Cathedral, which is the most beautiful medieval ruin I have ever seen. The towers of the West Front and the Chapter House are still intact and you can climb to the top for aerial views of the entire cathedral site, as well as the town of Elgin. In the cathedral you can admire the miraculously preserved decorative moldings and clerestory, with a ceiling of sky and a floor of grass, how all churches should be designed, in my opinion!

 

Most Disappointing Castles

And now for the castles you can skip, which I only mention because they are so popular I want to set the record straight that there are much better ways to spend your time with just a bit more effort (and distance from the main cities).

Stirling Castle

I suppose its proximity to Glasgow and Edinburgh may be a draw for some people, but there are so many more incredible castles just a bit further outside of the cities that I would skip Stirling Castle altogether. Though impressively large, everything else was a disappointment, with anything of interest gutted to create museum exhibits and bland, faux-historic interiors. To end on a positive note, I will say that Stirling Castle was much less crowded than most of the other castles I visited, so if you do visit, you can take your time and enjoy the grounds, in particular the views over the surrounding countryside. However, if you are looking for a castle excursion from Glasgow, drive an hour the opposite direction from Stirling and see the magnificent Culzean Castle instead.

 

Edinburgh Castle

I know this is one of the most commonly visited castles in Scotland due to its convenient location in the heart of the Royal Mile of Edinburgh, but it’s overly museum-y quality and the insane crowds make it a less pleasant experience than most of the other castles I visited. If you’re in the area, by all means visit it, if only for the views of the city from its vantage point, but skip the long line to view the crown jewels!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Los Olivos, California – Sun, Wine & Relaxation

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Whether you’re into wine, relaxing, or both, there’s a lot to enjoy in Los Olivos, California, located about 45 minutes outside of Santa Barbara.

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With a climate similar to that of Tuscany, it’s no surprise that this region is known for its production of wine and olives. Wineries and horse ranches dot the surrounding valley, while the charming town of Los Olivos is full of modern wine tasting shops, farm to table restaurants and shops.

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From the town’s main intersection there are really only three blocks of town to explore so you quickly get the feeling you can see it all, making it easy to downshift into the cozy town’s slow pace. I’m not into wine, which is the main focus of the town with its 25+ wine tasting rooms, but I enjoyed sitting at the cafe watching people and dogs and popping into the charming home and clothing boutiques.

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Along the road from Los Olivos to nearby Solvang are several homes and ranches with miniature horses decorating their front yards. You can pull over to the side of the road to see them grazing, and if you’re lucky, one may come up to you for a snuggle.

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Also nearby is the famous Ostrichland USA, where you have the unique opportunity to feed ostriches and emus.

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If you are staying in the area and looking for some night life, The Maverick is about the only option, but it is unexpectedly lively with pre- and post-wedding events from all the people attending weddings at the nearby wineries. You’ll fit in best if you wear a cowboy hat and boots, but don’t expect to hear much country music – it’s club / dancing music all night long. Be prepared to stand on the bar and stick a dollar bill to the ceiling!

Insider Tip: None of the wine tasting rooms or boutiques seem to have public restrooms, so they send you to port-a-potties down the street. Instead of braving the port-a-potties, stop in at the cafe or have a bite to eat at Sides restaurant, which both have lovely real restrooms!

A Walk Through Huntington Gardens – Pasadena, California

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Living in Southern California, I feel as though I have an endless list of places to visit nearby, or with a day or weekend trip away from my home in San Diego. I keep my travel wish list organized by continent, country, and region (does anyone else do this?). Despite countless trips to the LA area, The Huntington in Pasadena, CA had been on my wish list for so long and I finally had the opportunity to visit!

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It has a library with rare books and lovely museums, but the main draw is the 120 acres of botanical gardens. Walk with me first through the rose garden…and try not to smell each variety of rose like I did!

20140906-IMG_5304All of that rose sniffing had me a little woozy and in need of a rest. This spot will do nicely.

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The Japanese Garden has a bit of everything – moon bridge, tea house, koi pond, and even a bonsai courtyard! It seems to have been designed with inspiration and reflection in mind, with many nooks to sit and absorb the surroundings.

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This is the only zen rock garden I have seen outside of Japan. Walking through it took me right back to the famous Ryoan-ji in Kyoto. Especially during this epic drought we are experiencing in California at the moment, I have great appreciation for a garden that requires no water!

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In contrast to the Japanese Garden that invites reflection and intimacy, the Chinese Garden promotes community with its tea house overlooking the lake, and large, intricately decorated gazebos.

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There are so many other gardens to explore at The Huntington, including an Australian Garden, a Cactus Garden, and one of the largest Camellia gardens in North America. If you have been before, what was your favorite garden? I loved the Japanese garden the most, but felt I could have sat at the Chinese tea pavilion for hours!

Day Trip from Venice – Murano and Burano

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When Venice starts to fee a little congested, which is likely with the number of visitors the small island hosts every day, it might be time for a day trip to the nearby islands of Murano and Burano. The vaporetto (water bus) heads to Murano from the Fondamente Nove stop in Venice, making just one stop on the way at the cemetery island of San Michele. Since the vaporetto comes by every 20 minutes or so, you can hop off the boat to walk around the scenic cemetery island (Igor Stravinsky is buried here), then catch the next boat to Murano.

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Get off at the first stop in Murano (Colonna) and walk up the main street, Rio dei Vetral, along the canal. The street is lined with shops selling mainly glass souvenirs and charming restaurants. The slower pace here is Murano is such a nice break from the crowds of Venice.

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The opposite side of the canal from where the vaporetto drops people off is much less crowded, and one of the cafes or restaurants there would make a great spot for a lunch break or just to watch people and boats pass by. You can watch glass blowing demonstrations, visit the glass museum, or buy souvenirs to take home – there’s a little something for everyone here.

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Once you’ve followed the main canal to the other side of the island, take the 30-ish minute boat ride on to Burano. Many people visit only Murano since it’s closer to Venice, skipping the farther Burano island, but I think they are missing out on the best of the outer islands.

 

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Burano, also known for its lacework, is mainly known for its photogenic, brightly colored houses. As you can imagine, the house colors are carefully planned, and must be approved by the government because you wouldn’t want to see two blue houses next to each other, now would you?

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You could walk the entire island of Burano in about 20 minutes, but I spent hours here wandering off the main streets into residential areas that were deserted aside from me, a few locals, and their laundry hanging overhead. I live for these moments of solitude while traveling that allow me to really “feel” a place without any distractions.

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The 45 minute boat ride back to Venice is especially peaceful at sunset. You can easily explore both Murano and Burano in the greater part of a day, and get back to Venice for dinner and a late night walk through the crowded streets, while thinking of all the colorful sights you saw and wondering if your friends in Burano took their laundry down.

 

Insider Tip: There could be a long wait for the boat from Burano to Venice, so be prepared to wait up to an hour if you plan to head back to Venice toward the end of the day. You might consider a tour with a tour company that would take you to the islands – downsides are that these can be sales pitches for glass factories and you will be on a tight schedule with no wiggle room, but if you aren’t comfortable figuring out the vaporetto schedule or need to be back in Venice by a specific time, a tour could be a good option. If traveling in a group of 4+, a private water taxi might even be worth the cost to avoid potentially long waits.

I found Rick Steves’ Venice travel guide to be so useful, in particular about how to get to Murano and Burano. I would have been pretty lost without it, since most of the information I found online was so fragmented or confusing. I’m not normally a guide book carrying tourista, but as a testament to how useful this particular book was, I carried it everywhere in Venice!

 

5 Things To Do in Downtown LA

I have to admit, in my many visits to Los Angeles over the years, I consciously avoided the downtown area. I was too busy with beaches and Beverly Hills to detour into unknown territories. What a mistake! I’ve been missing out on all the deliciousness – in food, architecture, and overall vibe – that DTLA has to offer.

Here are 5 things to check out the next time you’re in LA – and don’t skip downtown like I did!

 

1. Eat (lunch and) dessert at Bottega Louie

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Bottega Louie has possibly best macaroons this side of the Atlantic. Laduree still has my heart, but I know I am easily swayed by the packaging, and macaroons just taste better in Paris, don’t they? If you aren’t a macaroon fan, not to worry – there are about 50 other masterfully crafted desserts for you to indulge in. Ask someone working there for their recommendation because apparently, they’ve been lucky enough to try them all. Best job ever?

Try to forget the macaroons for a second and let me describe to you The Scene that is Bottega Louie – it buzzes from every inch of its whitewashed interior. I enjoyed the fashion show of hip-ly dressed girls over my delicious salad with fresh fava beans and summer peas. The beautiful food and people deserve every one of the 10,500 photos it inspired people to post on its yelp page. It is noisy, though. With no attempt to reduce sound with materials or architecture, you get this din of voices and forks on plates. Shouting over it is tiring, so might as well just eat and absorb the scene.

 

2. Admire Art Deco buildings

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Thanks to a financial and building boom in Los Angeles in the 1920s and 1930s, the era of Art Deco style, the downtown area has some stunning examples of Art Deco architecture. You can take a guided walking tour with the LA Conservancy or just explore on your own on 5th and 6th between South Flower and South Broadway.

 

3. Wander down St. Vincent’s Court

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This odd little alley in the middle of the Jewelry District has a long, confusing history you can try to make sense of somewhere else, but today you can at least appreciate its kitchy Euro-mishmash of cafes and restaurants. If it feels a bit like a studio back lot, that’s because the city decided its charming tables spilling out over the alley were illegal which put an end to outdoor dining. It seems like it’s missing something, but the food looked good, and I couldn’t help but snap a bunch of pictures to try to capture its strange allure.

 

4. Spend some money at one of a kind boutiques

Los Angeles knows how to make you want to spend your money, even when you aren’t trying to. A couple stores worth checking out:

angelo:HOME has vintage and vintage-inspired home goods, furniture and gifts, as well as pieces from local designers. It’s one of those stores that makes you want to buy everything in it. One look at their Instagram feed an you’ll know what I mean.

I was drawn into KuKuly because of its packed-from-floor-to-ceiling colorful, South American fabrics. I couldn’t leave without a few bracelets and a pair of shorts made of fabric from Peru, designed and sewn in LA. Some of the items sell at high end LA boutiques like Planet Blue for much, much higher prices.

 

5. Happy Hour at The Perch

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Seemingly named for the way it perches above all of downtown LA for the best views, especially at sunset when the buildings glow with California sun, Perch is where all the cool kids hang out. The downstairs restaurant/patio serves lunch, dinner, weekend brunch, and happy hour, or you can take the stairs up to the rooftop bar. The decor is like your dignified but quirky Parisian grandmere’s living room.

After you admire the scenery and have some fancy drinks, can someone explain to me how having to take 2 elevators to get to the top makes you feel all special, instead of annoyed you had to take 2 elevators?

 

How to Drive on the Wrong Side of the Road

Driving on the “wrong” side of the road is disorienting and anxiety-provoking for anyone, no matter how confident of a driver they are. On a recent trip to Scotland, I wanted to experience parts of the country only accessible by car (or bus), and since I prefer more freedom than a group tour allows, I didn’t have much choice but to rent a car and drive myself around. Depending on where you are from, the “wrong” side of the road may be the left side or the right side, but either way, there are some things you can do to maximize the pleasure of driving in another country.

 

1. Learn the Basics

Wouldn’t it be nice if there were universal traffic signs and symbols? Unfortunately, there aren’t, so it is worth spending at least a few minutes learning the basic signs, symbols and markings in the country you will be driving in. You can’t assume symbols mean the same thing in another country as they do in your home country.

For example, a dashed white line in the U.S. divides two lanes of traffic going the same direction, while in the UK, it divides two lanes going in the OPPOSITE direction. Mistaking these could be disastrous.

Also, in the UK, you may see a flashing amber traffic light between a red light and a green light, which means that if there are no pedestrians in the crosswalk, you can go. It’s not dangerous to wait for the green, but it’s considerate to the drivers around you to know the rules and drive like a local as much as possible!

While driving in Scotland, I kept seeing a sign the read “Changed Priorities Ahead.” I couldn’t even fathom what this meant so I had to look it up – it turned out to be something about the right of way changing recently to alert drivers follow the new directions. This reminded me how different our signs can be from country to country. Just a little bit of online research before your trip can help you to know what to expect in terms of signs and symbols, so you have one fewer thing to worry about when driving in a new place.

Keep in mind different localities may have its own set of rules, as well. In New York City, you can’t turn right on red, while in California, you can.

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2. Let YouTube Be Your Driving Instructor

Whatever country you are traveling to, there are probably YouTube videos demonstrating basic driving scenarios that are unique to that country. I’m a visual learner, so I needed to see what driving on the left side of the road looked like before I felt comfortable trying it myself.

Watch lots of videos, especially if the country you are going to loves their roundabouts and you don’t have much experience with them. I watched so many videos about roundabouts before my trip to Scotland since I knew I’d be doing quite a bit of driving all over the country. Reading rules and instructions wouldn’t have helped – I needed to see real life examples of different types of roundabouts and realistic traffic scenarios. It is more confusing than you might thing, and in real life it happens very quickly because people are in a hurry, just like you are on your daily commute at home! I watched the videos (like this one) over and over until I felt comfortable that I understood the procedure, so I could be as safe and considerate of a driver as possible.

3. Splurge on the GPS in the Rental Car

Even if you have a smart phone with maps and the most powerful portable wifi, there are times when that rental car’s GPS system will save you. Like when I was driving in Scotland and the main route was shut down due to construction, and the GPS wouldn’t re-route us because it didn’t know that the road was closed, and the smart phone’s map wasn’t updating because we were in the middle of nowhere with no wifi service, but because the car’s GPS map was still visible, we were able to figure out an alternate route. Without the car’s GPS map, we probably would have backtracked about 30 miles to the last turn-off and hoped the GPS would re-route instead of saying “make a U-turn” to send us back toward the closed road, which would have been so frustrating.

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4. Book Your Rental Car Pick-Up and Drop-Off Points Strategically

First of all, don’t rent a car in a city that has ample public transportation or is walkable. You will save yourself (and all of the locals) a lot of headache, not to mention parking fees. When picking up a car to continue on your travels outside of the city, map out all of the rental car locations in the city and select the place that has easiest access to the highway with minimal driving in the city. Even if you have to take a longer bus/train/taxi ride to the rental location from your hotel, it is worth not having to drive through the center of town, especially if it’s your first time behind the wheel on the “wrong” side of the car!

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5. Ask the Rental Car Agent for Advice

Your rental car agent has probably heard every horror story about foreigners driving on their roads, so before I was handed the keys to my ride for the next week around the Scottish countryside, I asked the agent for any last minute tips for a first time driver on the left hand side of the road. In her sweet Scottish accent, she told me to just keep thinking “left” at any turn or roundabout, and also to try to follow the cars around me. Then, she told me I’d be just fine. With that final bit of encouragement, I set off through the green hills of Scotland chanting “left left left” (and my own addition of “watch out for sheep”).

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Driving can be the best way to experience parts of a country – to have the freedom to stop on a whim, explore without a schedule, and wander down side roads because something caught your eye. You will probably be surprised how driving on the wrong side of the road begins to feel natural within a few days, and when you return home, you may even have to stop to think about which side of the car to get into to drive!