Tag Archives: destinations

Is Exuma, Bahamas the Most Beautiful Place on Earth?

BahamasBlog-6 BahamasBlog-5 BahamasBlog-3 BahamasBlog-1BahamasBlog-2

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

20151229-IMG_8795 20151229-IMG_8276 20151229-IMG_8850 20151229-IMG_8843

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

20151007-IMG_2599

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

20151006-IMG_2181View climbing up Buledi

20151006-IMG_2187View from Buledi

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

IMG_4561Pyathada all to ourselves at sunrise

20151007-IMG_2387 View from Pyathada

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

IMG_4850

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

IMG_4657 IMG_4660

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

IMG_4848 IMG_4849

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

IMG_5096 IMG_5097

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

IMG_5134 IMG_5135

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

IMG_4851

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!

 

20151219-IMG_5953 20151219-IMG_5991 20151219-IMG_6050 20151219-IMG_6059 20151219-IMG_6071 20151219-IMG_6154 20151219-IMG_606320151220-IMG_6481 20151221-IMG_6827 20151222-IMG_7098 20151222-IMG_7141 20151223-IMG_7200

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

20150814-IMG_5770

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)

20150814-IMG_5826

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

20150815-IMG_5976

…and again the next morning via helicopter!

20150816-IMG_839720150816-IMG_8381

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.

20150815-IMG_6064

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

20150815-IMG_608520150816-IMG_8491

Another highlight of the drive, Teddy’s Lookout:

20150815-IMG_8210 20150815-IMG_8211

Where to eat & drink along the way:

Maid’s Pantry Brunchbar (Anglesea)

Cumberland Milk Bar (Lorne)

Sandy Feet Cafe (Apollo Bay)

 

Best Travel Apps

How on earth did we travel before smartphones existed? I rely on mine for finding my way around, coordinating meet-ups with friends, travel planning on the fly, and of course sharing photos with family and friends while on the road. Here are a few of my favorite apps that make travel more efficient and fun.

_DSC8122_v2

Instagram

Well, what kind of travel blogger would I be without an Instagram account? For me, photography is one of the main purposes of travel (I almost wouldn’t go somewhere if I knew I couldn’t take photos), and I post simultaneously on Instagram and Facebook to reach all my friends and followers. Whenever I travel to a new place, I end up connecting with so many new Instagrammers who are posting and hash tagging photos from the same places, and we end up following each other and becoming InstaBFFs! I’ve even made a couple really good friends through Instagram who became real life friends (y’all know who you are). Also, I use Instagram as a travel resource to look up photos in an area I want to visit to get an idea of what I might want to do and see there. I’ve actually discovered some great restaurants that way. #thankyouhashtags

Google Maps

This one may seem obvious, but did you know Google Maps shows public transportation information for many major cities? Just put in where you want to go, and it will give you details down to the train departure time and platform number. Practically foolproof, but if for some reason you aren’t finding any public transportation information on Google, check for a local transportation app for that city.

DSC_5270 copy

WhatsApp / LINE

I don’t have an international plan on my phone, so I rely on a rented mobile wifi device (which I mentioned in a previous post about the best travel gear here) and texting apps to communicate with people. LINE is the most popular in Asia, and WhatsApp everywhere else. LINE has the best stickers, which is probably not a surprise since it’s so popular in Japan, where everything is just sooo cute. Facebook messenger works, too, but with so many people using the apps, I end up using them frequently, too.

Pasteasy

I have a few ways of transferring data between my phone and computer, depending on the purpose. For the quickest transfers, I use the Pasteasy app, which lets you send text or photos between your phone and computer with just the “copy” and “paste” functions. If I have a photo on my phone that I want to use in my blog, I just hit “copy” on the photo and it automatically appears in my computer’s clipboard so I can drop it easily into a blog post. Or, if I want to text a novel to my friend about my adventures without getting a repetitive stress injury, I can type it up quickly on my computer (I type 102 words per minute, thanks to decades of piano lessons!), hit “copy” on my computer, then “paste” into a WhatsApp chat on my phone, and then my friend can enjoy wordy descriptions of my encounters with interesting people and hugging lots of animals (obviously)!

What are your favorite apps for travel?

Best travel gear

I’ve been asked by several people about my favorite travel gear – comfortable clothes, bags, electronics, etc. I tend to get caught up in wanting to show pretty pictures and don’t stop to think about all the gear I use to get those shots. So, here it is – my list of essential travel gear. This is not a comprehensive list by any means – just a list of things that make traveling more comfortable and enjoyable.

 

1. Eye-Fi SD Card

Everyone always wants to know how I get my photos from my DSLR to my phone and up to Instagram so quickly. Many new cameras have a wifi feature built in that allows you to transfer photos directly from camera to phone, but all of the camera systems I have used have been so clunky that I prefer to use an Eye-Fi SD card. With this card, I can either have all photos I take transfer to my phone automatically, or if I have limited space on my phone, I set it to transfer only selected images. To start the transfer, you just connect to the Eye-fi card like you would connect to any Wifi under your phone settings, then open up the Eye-Fi app on your phone and the photos transfer automatically. This way, I can upload photos to Instagram and facebook that were taken on my nice camera while sitting at a cafe enjoying a flat white.

2. Comfortable shoes

20141221-IMG_9811

When I travel, I like to walk everywhere so I can see everything between here and there. Since a typical day can involved 10+ miles of walking (with at minimum a purse and giant camera strapped around my neck), combined with my sensitive back, I need shoes that support my love for walking. I’d probably wear these even if they hadn’t made a big comeback, but I notice I’m in good company wearing Birkenstocks again! These are the only shoes that I can walk in for 10-15 miles without having any foot or back pain.

I chose the vegan version, but you can find many options for the Gizeb Birkenstock Thong here:

 

3. Mobile Wifi

After booking a flight and hotel, the next thing on my mind is how I’m going to stay connected while on the road. When traveling internationally, I’ve found that the best solution for me is to rent (or buy) a mobile wifi hotspot device. Most countries I’ve visited have these available for rent (or purchase) and you can usually pick them up and drop them off at the airport, which makes it very convenient. With my mobile wifi, I can map my way around town (google maps even shows you public transportation options with train info even down to which platform you need to catch the train from), yelp a good restaurant, and of course post photos on Instagram!

Many people choose to get a local SIM card, but the disadvantages of this route are that that not all countries let you do this, the SIM card is tied to just one phone, your phone has to be unlocked, and there is no guarantee that it will work once you are there. The mobile wifi device works with any phone and allows you to connect multiple devices to it, but you will only have wifi (not voice) so you would need a Skype type option to make phone calls. So, when planning your next international trip, just google search “mobile wifi” in that country to find the best rental or purchase options.

 

4. My favorite travel bag/purse

I have taken this Kipling Machida crossbody bag (that I’m wearing in the photo above) on every trip for the past year, and it still surprises me how useful it is with the many pockets and compartments without being overwhelmingly large. I like to pack light for a day of walking around since, as you now know, I like to walk for miles on end and am usually also carting a heavy DSLR. This bag fits my wallet, phone, mobile wifi, water bottle, snacks, hand sanitizer, a couple cosmetics products, note pad, pen, and still has compartments for random things I may collect throughout the day.

 

 

5. A good backpack

I’m still searching for the perfect travel backpack (if you know of one, please let me know!), but this High Sierra backpack has many features I love. I always buy 2 liters of water before getting on the plane, and this is one of the only backpacks that can fit the large liter bottles in the side pockets. In the main compartment, I can fit my 15″ Macbook Pro, a DSLR with 2 lenses, an inflatable airplane pillow, and snacks, leaving 2 other compartments for everything else. It has a small zippered compartment where I keep small headphones and ear plugs, and another pocket for my phone charger. My ancient Jansport backpack was more comfortable and durable, which is why I am still looking for that ideal backpack, but for now this one is pretty good. Plus, it comes in so many fun colors and I get many compliments on my gray floral print backpack.

 

6. DSLR Insert for a Backpack

There are loads of great camera bags and backpacks out there, but I wanted just one backpack that works without carrying a camera, so I decided to get an insert to turn my regular backpack into a camera bag. These inserts come in many sizes, so you can find one that fits best into your bag. This sits in the bottom of the main compartment of my backpack and can hold my DSLR with lens plus one extra lens (and a few smaller accessories). It has a padded top so you can pack other things on top of it.

 

What travel gear makes traveling more convenient for you?

 

How to Beat the Post-Vacation Blues

IMG_0005_02

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.

20140628-IMG_9994

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.

20140628-IMG_9922

 

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!

20140628-IMG_9970

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?

20140628-IMG_9936

Autumn in Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada

IMG_3716

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).

IMG_3879

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!

IMG_4037

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.

IMG_3985

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.

IMG_4059

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.

IMG_3724

IMG_3727

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.

IMG_3849

IMG_3845

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?

IMG_4091

A Walk Through Huntington Gardens – Pasadena, California

20140906-IMG_3032

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!

20140906-IMG_3181

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.

20140906-IMG_3009

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.

20140906-IMG_3045

20140906-IMG_3142

20140906-IMG_3152

20140906-IMG_3149

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!

20140906-IMG_3147

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.

20140906-IMG_3068

20140906-IMG_3089

20140906-IMG_3091

20140906-IMG_3056

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!