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.

Cuba – Go Before It All Changes

I just returned from a dream trip to Cuba and feel compelled to tell the world to go visit NOW before the things that make it so special change. Cuba’s unique political history has frozen it in time, and in so many ways, it is still stuck in the 1950s. For blocks on end, you can wander the streets of Havana and not see anything that would give away what year you are in. I can’t think of many places I’ve visited that gave me that same experience. As travel restrictions from the U.S. continue to lighten, tourism to Cuba has been increasing at lightning speed, so amenities for tourists are on the rise. Construction is going on everywhere in Havana, which on one hand is exciting, but also means, well, things are changing!  Also, with the potential of embargo restrictions letting up in the near future, so many of those beautiful old cars are going to be traded for 15 year old Hyundais, which are just not as charming to see winding their way through Old Havana. For me, it was the decay of the buildings and the old cars that made Cuba so special, and with the potential of these things changing soon, the time to visit Cuba is now.

If you are from a country that can visit Cuba legally, lucky you. If not, and you want to go legally, you’ll need to book a tour through a licensed tour provider. Some are listed here.

I will do another post in the future about my impressions of the people, culture and politics of Cuba, but for now how about some photos to encourage you to go ahead and plan that trip you know you’ve been wanting to take!

 

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Great Ocean Road, Australia – Quick Guide

An opportunity to tour the Great Ocean Road was the main reason I was so excited to visit Australia for a second time within such a short amount of time (7 months, to be exact). You can do a day-long bus tour from Melbourne all the way to the famous Twelve Apostles and back, but I wanted to take my sweet time and be able to make spontaneous stops along the way since that’s more my travel style, so I rented a car and made it a two-day trip. Here are the highlights of the beautiful Great Ocean Road:

Bell’s Beach, famous surf beach and home of the Rip Curl Pro Surf & Music Festival

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A spontaneous stop to get a closer look at this otherworldly beauty of the Great Ocean Road (one of many reasons to avoid the tour bus)

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The highlight of the Great Ocean Drive, the 12 Apostles. I saw these beauties at sunset…

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…and again the next morning via helicopter!

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We stayed the night in Port Fairy, about another hour’s drive past the 12 Apostles. You could stay closer to Port Campbell near the 12 Apostles if you didn’t want to do so much driving, but I loved waking up in this charming little port town. I even made a local fisherman friend with an Aussie accent so thick he might as well have been speaking Nepalese, but I understood his hand gestures well enough to have him point out a nearby seal sitting in the water staring at me.

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Loch Ard Gorge, named after the clipper ship that ran aground here in 1878, leaving only two survivors stranded on this beach.

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Another highlight of the drive, Teddy’s Lookout:

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Where to eat & drink along the way:

Maid’s Pantry Brunchbar (Anglesea)

Cumberland Milk Bar (Lorne)

Sandy Feet Cafe (Apollo Bay)

 

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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Autumn in Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada

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On my first ever trip to Canada, I welcomed the beginning of autumn in Banff National Park. Banff and the other nearby national parks (Yoho, Kootenay, etc.) have so much beauty packed into a relatively small area. You can experience the most beautiful lakes, waterfalls, and mountains, and even spot some elk, mountain goats and deer if you are lucky (I was not so lucky).

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The best known of the Banff National Park sights is Lake Louise. Crowds flock to see the famous milky deep blue waters, making is one reason it was not my favorite. It was crowded even on that rainy day, so the best way to enjoy the lake is over lunch or coffee with a view at the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise!

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Emerald Lake (in Yoho National Park)  is the kind of place that makes you want to go back and stay a while. The lodge had a cozy, laid back feel, and the lake was a nice size – not too big, and not too small. Of all the beautiful lakes I saw, this one was unique with its namesake green color.

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In case you were wondering, the unique blue-green color of the lakes is caused by fine-grained rock particles (rock flour) carried into the lake from glaciers melting. Now for my favorite of all the glacial lakes – Moraine Lake. I would never tire of looking at this stunning natural sanctuary.

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Lake Minnewanka is so picturesque, especially with the autumn yellow of the Aspen trees against the blue waters. On a sunny day, the water is so glassy that the reflection is as bright and clear as the real deal.

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Once you’re lake-d out, you can head into the town of Banff for a meal, souvenir shopping, or buying up some of the great outdoor gear Canada has to offer. I had never seen such a variety of stylish, high quality outdoor clothing, and coming from the U.S., the prices were pretty good with a favorable exchange rate.

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Someday, I’d love to do a week long road trip from Calgary to Vancouver, stopping at all of the national parks on the way. Have you ever done a road trip through Canada?

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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!

Breathtaking Snoqualmie Falls – A Jaunt from Seattle

Just 30 minutes outside of Seattle are the impressive Snoqualmie Falls. You might recognize the waterfall and lodge from the opening credits of the TV show Twin Peaks! If you were a fan of the show, as I was, I challenge you to visit without hearing the theme song in your head. The view from the upper observation decks, close to the main parking lot, is the same view as the one in the TV show.

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The upper observation deck is easily accessible from the parking area, and most people only see the falls from this platform. If you are up for a bit of a hike, you can walk the 1.2 miles round trip to the lower observation deck, seeing many shades of green, moss-covered trees and giant fallen tree trunks on the way down. The entrance to the trail is not well marked, but on the way back to the parking lot, if you keep to the left past a playground area, you will find the trail.

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Or, you could skip the hike and drive down to the lower parking lot, and from there, take the short walk to the lower observation deck. This part of the walk is the prettiest anyway, with the wooden walkway passing directly alongside the river before the view opens up to the falls.

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This is the view from the lower observation deck – definitely worth the drive or hike!

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A little tip – if you are planning to walk the distance between the upper and lower observation decks, skip the main parking lot that gets very crowded and drive straight down to the lower parking lot, then walk and back from there. The lower parking lot was nearly empty when I visited, while the upper main lot was full to the brim, with people circling looking for spots. I wish I had known there was a parking lot at the lower observation deck! Now you know, and can make the most of your visit to Snoqualmie Falls.

Hall of Mosses Trail – Hoh Rain Forest – Olympic National Park, Washington

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You can see nearly every shade of green on the  Hall of Mosses Trail in the Hoh Rain Forest in Washington’s Olympic National Park. The green mosses are so vibrant you can practically taste them.

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Every surface is covered with moss except the trail that winds through the forest. Even the streams have stringy mosses flowing through. All sorts of interesting things grow in this humid rain forest climate.

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Because of the nutrient-dense soil in this area, the trees do not need to grow long roots, but because of that, they are prone to falling over in a strong wind. Then, the fallen tree becomes part of the landscape and inevitably, covered in moss from tip to toe.

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Nothing escapes the clingy green moss-nster. Even the moss is covered in moss!

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The trails are well marked and easy to walk – you can circle the entire trail in about 20 minutes unless you are stopping for photos every few feet like I did, in which case you may need well over an hour.

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The forest has soft, eerie, other-worldly quality that I have not experienced anywhere else. I assume there are a few fairies living here – maybe you’ll be lucky enough to spot one!