We woke up to the second delay of our flight, bumping it back now to two hours after our initial takeoff time. That’s no big deal, as we had a long enough layover between flight legs to accommodate, but it would have been nice to get those two extra hours of sleep.
Flying out of Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall airport (BWI), we arrived to a much busier airport than we expected. Our shuttle from long-term parking was full and when we arrived, the line for security was seemingly endless.
The line was long, but it moved pretty quickly and the TSA agents were pretty friendly this morning. The only holdup was the three people in front of me set off the metal detector which bottlenecked the process. The first guy was an older gentlemen who left several accessories on before being instructed to remove them one at a time until he passed through successfully. The second lady left her watch on which set it off. The last guy left his phone and keys in his pocket that set it off. No need to remove your shoes, either, as you’re required to walk in tandem with a partner past a K-9 unit that sniffs behind you.
All in all, it only took 20 minutes to get through, but I’m very surprised at how busy this airport is.
The smallest of the three islands in the Koh Samui Archipelago, Koh Tao, isn’t as popular as its larger neighbors in terms of partying and vacationing, but it one of the most popular spots in the world for obtaining your scuba licensing.
The island was, for the most part, abandoned until the 1980s-90s, meaning its infrastructure isn’t quite capable of handling much in the way of a luxury vacation or holiday.
Unless you know where to look.
When we arrived on Koh Tao and were met by Lamai at the pier, we hopped into the back of a pickup truck and were driven past Sairee beach and the roads that ran parallel. We ascended a few steep roads and as we rounded a corner, we saw the gate to The Place.
This was a ridiculously steep hill that started its incline almost immediately (we would workout our leg muscles a few times climbing the adjacent stairs over the next couple days) until we plateaued and were met by a dozen or so employees who clapped at our arrival. We were greeted with hot towels dipped in lemongrass water. Honestly, we were pretty awkward in our reception. Why are people being so kind and hospitable to us, like who are we to deserve such special treatment?
We approached the gate to our villa and saw an entrance sign with our names on it (this was a really nice touch), opened the gate and were met with one of the most amazing views I’ve ever seen. All of those hills we climbed put us above the tree canopies and gave us a gorgeous view of the Gulf of Thailand.
We toured around our villa, were given a cellphone preprogramed with a few convenient phone numbers and a giant basket of food and goodies, shown how to use all of the amenities, asked if we needed anything, and left to enjoy our mini life of luxury.
Some of the highlights are straightforward from the pictures, but there were so many extra services that we really appreciated:
📱 The preprogrammed cellphone gave us instant access to Mr. Bear, a local taxi driver with incredible timing and solid rates.
🚲 Free access to bicycles which we never used for some reason that escapes me still.
🤿 Free use of snorkel equipment that we took out on Aow Leuk Bay.
🧺 A laundry service. When you’re traveling more than one to two-ish weeks, these services help you cut down on your packing list. They use line drying as part of their commitment to Save Koh Tao and eco-friendly practices.
The inside had a long, stretching couch with a bagillion comfy pillows to lounge on, a full kitchen along with some food staples including a delicious banana jam that we crushed. The large bed sat elevated from the rest of the floor, enclosed in a mosquito net with some entertainment options (I took a nap to Casino Royale in our comfy, included robes while Rachel was sorting through some things one day. When I woke up, she had passed out too from the comfort.) The best part, however, was the bathroom – the glass ceiling, the stone pathway, and the numerous plants making it look like we were bathing in a tropical jungle rather than a bathroom.
Once we stepped outside the floor length sliding doors, we were met by plenty of lounge, bean bags, and chaise chairs. Seriously, we could have sat on a new chair every day for over a week. There is a bamboo fence around your deck that provides plenty of privacy from the neighboring villas. But the number one feature was the infinity pool that we got to hop in and take in the view. It’s not heated, so the water was fairly cool when we went during shoulder season in October. We also only used it at sunrise or sunset, so the middle of the day may have been better, too.
The Place is currently priced at $450 for two nights (prices went up ฿1000/night after we went), but when you compare that to a stay at a traditional hotel on a beach in the US, you’re looking at a great deal for all of the added luxuries that you get.
Is Koh Tao on your bucket list? Let me know if you’d stay at The Place or if you’d rather find a budget hostel in the comments below.
I stopped in Belgium for a brief layover between Paris and Rome. It should have been a forgettable few hours where I could find enough time to grab a bite to eat and relax before the second leg of our flight. But Brussels had a different plan for me.
When we arrived at the airport, we began our layover by getting on the wrong train (heading in the opposite direction towards Luxembourg.) The layover ended by finding out my luggage had been lost once we returned for the second flight to Rome. This should have been a bad experience, but it just wasn’t.
We realized, rather quickly, that our train was going in the wrong direction and made the switch at the next station to head back into the city center. Once at the Central Station, we headed down a hill towards a pedestrian-only walkway. We had no plans here. We didn’t look up “Top Things To Do In Brussels” or have any recommendations of where to go and what to see. That ended up being the best part.
The cobblestone alley we stumbled upon was what I had imagined Europe to look like. It was busy, intimidating, and foreign. You couldn’t tell where one restaurant or shop ended and the next one began. While one host is pointing you towards their menu exclaiming how its in English, you have a host across the alley beckoning for you to look at their high-quality dish pictures, all while avoiding the never-ending sea of tourists walking through you as if you didn’t exist. In other words, it was exactly what I wanted.
We found a tourist-facing restaurant to sit down for a meal, but they had €10 specials that included an entrée, frites, and a beer. It was a lot of food, too, so our bellies left happy. Our next stop were the Saint Hubert Galleries’ to window-shop some chocolates and Smurf memorabilia.
The trip was short, unplanned, and uneventful, but it left me craving more of the maze-like corridors and small, family owned shops that I romanticized about Europe having. I look forward to visiting again in the future for an extended stay, maybe with a trip out to Bruges or Ghent.
Consistently listed among the most expensive counties in the United States to live in, Montgomery County hugs the west side of Washington, D.C. and is home to many industry leaders, especially in the biotech field. You can find city shopping centers that rival any large metropolitan area and awe-inspiring skyscrapers that don’t just look like pick-and-place rectangles. But for all of the modern conveniences and allure, the area has a lot of misunderstood history ready to be explored.
Public education in America often starts its US history lesson with “the shot heard ’round the world” and ends around the shot from John Wilkes Booth’s gun. Unless we use our own time to research, we miss out on the gritty, labor-heavy endeavors that existed outside of our many wars.
In an effort to connect the eastern shore with the Ohio River Valley, President George Washington advocated for a canal system to be built around the Potomac River to help boats traverse its several waterfalls. 50 years and several leadership changes later, and the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal (C&O) finally opened in 1830. It held on for almost 100 years, finally connecting as far as Georgetown to Cumberland, but due to some bad flooding and the rise in popularity of the automobile, had to close in 1924. Today, an organization seeks to maintain the parkland that the C&O Canal and its towpath exist on. Among the attractions are several lockhouses, where keepers would live to raise and lower the locks at moment’s notice for boats traveling by. We had the chance to stay in one of the houses, Lockhouse 6, for a weekend.
Our lockhouse sat on the side of the Clara Barton Parkway, which runs one way during parts of the day, and both ways during other parts of the day. This is fine, because it enabled us to arrive later in the evening and avoid rush hour on the Beltway. Siri took us into a turn too early and that caused us to revert all the way back to I-495 before revisiting the map and seeing our stop was only a few minutes past where she originally told us to turn left. This would come back to annoy us once or twice more as the only way to get to that side of the road was to drive fifteen minutes out of the way just to get on the correct side of the barrier. By the end of the weekend, I had started from further down the road and just popped a U-ey in the middle of the street before we got to the barrier.
The cottage sits almost directly on the canal with a lock on one side and a small stream on the other. Back on the opposite side of the Clara Barton Parkway, atop a hill were large, eccentric houses, pretentiously looking down on us common folk (we ended up on top of the hill during one of our drives and passed one of the houses that had an armada of Teslas pouring out of their driveway.) We checked ourselves in with a lockbox and checked out our home for the weekend. It was cozy, clean, and decorated like the 1950s never ended (seriously, there was chinaware with Dwight D. Eisenhower’s face on it.) There was one downside, however; it looked 100% like the set of a movie where a young couple would be killed by a ghost during a weekend getaway. The bathroom was downstairs in the dungeon basement. Other than having to doublecheck behind every door before bed for the lingering spirit of the former lock keeper, it was nice.
What to do
The area doesn’t have a shortage of things to do, but staying here in the winter and during a COVID-lockdown makes things a bit difficult. With everything within 15 minutes driving, we drove over to Bethesda Row to look for a late night dinner before things were all closed and had to revert to cooking after a day of work, packing, and driving. We grabbed a delicious Mexican meal at Uncle Julio’s, a multi-state chain-restaurant, before retiring back to the cottage to catch up on some reading and grab some Zzz’s for the next day.
The C&O towpath is a great place for an easy nature walk; it is flat and topped with soft dirt. We bundled up (it was about 30°F) and started to trek north, encountering a group of kayakers coming out of the nearby Potomac River. None of them seemed happy or satisfied with their feat. They just had a look on their face like “why did I do that?”
The dirt had frozen over and we shuffled along at a leisurely pace pointing out pairs of ducks and generally taking it easy. After an hour-or-so long walk, we lounged around the lockhouse a bit longer, catching up on more reading and I turned on our 50s-style radio to listen to the Capitals hockey game and some Tony Bennet.
We never really got hungry again, but were worried we might, so we headed back into the city to do some mild shopping. The whole area was very COVID-conscious, everyone wore their masks with regard to others and there was plenty of hand sanitizer available at each establishment. I’ve been reading a book about a family’s venture through Japan and its culinary history, so naturally I had a predisposition towards sushi that evening. A quick Google search, and we found a highly-recommended place to make reservations. I waited a little longer than I should have, so our wait time was pushed a little further than expected. No worries, I came across a mezcal bar that we could check out in the mean time.
We took a 15-minute walk over to Gringos and Mariachis. This place had a cool, trendy vibe to it – a mural-coated brick wall, antique liquor cabinets, and rustic wood décor. Our server was super nice and very knowledgeable about their cocktails. We talked briefly about how chartreuse liqueur balances perfectly with a clean mezcal in drinks and understood our ask to adjust the amount of agave syrup in a margarita to make it a little less sweet. I 100% recommend checking out this place if you’re in the area.
As our reservation time came closer, we strolled back towards Raku, where we were now getting excited to eat because our bellies were starting to wake up by now. Again, remarkable service and delicious sushi were a perfect nightcap to the evening.
The next morning, before returning home, we stopped by Praline Bakery & Bistro, and picked up a couple danishes and some macaroons with the most perfect shell I’ve ever had.
The drive back wasn’t bad at all. Traffic was pretty fluid and non-troublesome the whole weekend, which made getting home a piece of cake. Or a piece of apricot pistachio danish, if you prefer.
Amsterdam is one of the most famous cities in the world – and rightfully so. Its laidback atmosphere lends itself to any and all visitors. When someone tells you they’re interested in going, you might instantly think of some sex shop, weed-filled Eurotrip-esque adventure, but there’s more to the city. Much more. I look forward to my chance to go back and explore the Dutch country, but these are my recommendations if you have just a brief stint in Amsterdam:
1. Take a canal tour
Nicknamed Venice of the North, the city boasts over 100km of canals and 1,500 bridges. Because of this, I believe the absolute best way to get a grasp of the city is to see it by boat. Ranging from €10-35, the nearly hour and a half trip will lead you around the outer city accompanied by a guide that will explain the purposes of creating half-circle canals, how the residents got furniture in their skinny houses, and tidbits about the Dutch Resistance.
2. unwind at a coffeeshop
Depending on what time of day you arrive and how stressful your flight was, you may want to stop by a coffeeshop (different than a coffee shop) and pick up a little treat. You’ll notice the distinct smell as you walk by and you can stop in for cannabis or spacecake. My understanding is that drugs aren’t as legal as they are just decriminalized and tolerated – an idea that would save plenty of lives in the USA if we adopted a similar mindset.
3. Visit the Anne frank house
Currently closed until Spring 2021 due to COVID-19, the museum shares the story of the young girl who hid from Nazi occupiers between 1942 and 1944. Tickets are €14 and it is a quick walk from Central Station (where you’ll likely end up after a train ride from the airport.)
4. Ride a bike around the city
In the Netherlands, there are more bikes (23 million) than people (17 million), meaning traveling by bike is the most authentic way to experience a Dutch city. With over 500km of bike lanes in the city, you’ll find yourself either leisurely coasting down an empty street or in the middle of rush hour with a hundred other bikes in each direction going at high speeds. Obey traffic signals, use your hands to signal turning, and use the bike lanes, but enjoy the self-driven tour of Amsterdam.
5. embrace some culture in an art museum
Home to some reknowned museums, you have myriad choices depending on your interests. The Rijksmuseum offers classic art tours and things to do for everyone. The Van Gogh Museum and Rembrandt House show off collections of the titular artist’s work. The Moco Museum sends you through stunning visual exhibits with a more contemporary flair.
6. Hang out in vondelpark
The largest, and most famous, park in the city, you can stroll through Vondelpark and see people jogging, walking their dogs, or lazing about. Take your time and relax until the next leg of your flight.
7. take a picture with the “IAMsterdam” sign
Located in the Schiphol Airport, these letters offer a great selfie to make your friends jealous on the ‘gram. An original, larger set were once sitting infront of the Rijksmuseum since 2004, but were removed in late 2018 because the city council thought it delivered the wrong message (they wanted it to celebrate the diversity of the city rather than be a mass-tourism hot spot.)
*Warning – some may find pictures below disturbing*
There aren’t many things that I’m afraid of. Bears, snakes, spiders, no problem. I’ll pet the biggest lion or the slimiest slug. But there are a few things I won’t tread near – the creepy beasts of the world beneath us. I mean… have you seen a naked mole rat? Nooo way.
Relatedly, I don’t seek out scary movies to watch. I’ve never understood the appeal of wanting to be scared, usually with some obviously timed jump scare that still gets you each time. There are two, however, that came to mind when I last visited Paris. The Descent (parts 1 and 2) is about a group of girls who have to fight their way out of a cave while fighting some naked mole rat zombie mutants. That is my literal nightmare… The other is As Above, So Below – a group ventures into the Catacombs of Paris in search of the philosopher’s stone before realizing they’ve essentially entered hell.
If you are going to invite me on any kind of spelunking, caving, or potholing adventure, my answer is probably no. But maybe. As much as I don’t want to come face to face with an albino, eyeless monstrosity, there’s something appealing about a site that warns you:
The creation of the catacombs can be summarized fairly concisely. Paris expanded in size rapidly and overfilled the existing cemeteries. In need of space, over 6 million Parisian bodies were moved underground into abandoned quarries by way of covered wagons that worked overnight. There is no way to tell who is who down here. You could be looking at a peasant or an aristocrat, the bones of privilege or the bones of frugality. We all end the same.
The logistics of getting into the Catacombs is straightforward. You arrive at a rather unassuming green building and will likely see a line (sorry, a queue) that is an hour long. They only let 200 people down at a time, pre-COVID and presumably post, as well. There is a longer line that costs less, but you may not be able to get in. We opted for the shorter, pre-purchased ticket line for €29. We grabbed an English-language audio guide and started our descent down 20 meters of stairs.
It’s fairly cold by the time you get to the bottom, so bring a jacket with you and some walking shoes for this 45 minute, 1.5km walk through tight alleyways of rock and bone. There are a lot of sections that are not friendly to tall people. I highly recommend spending the extra €5 for the audio guide, because you can take a gentle stroll between the numbered guide points taking in the history and stories of the underground Paris.
Various gated passages will peak your interest as you try to look down them for a glimpse of what’s being hidden from you. Maybe a cult of druids who are summoning the king of naked mole rats, but probably just some ballsy Parisian cataphiles who are trying to escape the life above for a few hours.
You can only spend so much time around a city of dead. Your mind will wander and there’s some lingering dread that you’re ready to shed by the time you get to the stairs that will take you back up and drop you by a side street and skull-themed gift shop.
If you’re in Paris and have a few hours free in the morning, I’d suggest venturing over to the Catacombs of Paris. I may not have sold it to you on excitement and flare in this post, but sometimes we need a bit of realism that can bring us back to Earth. You may be in the city of lights, but it hides a dark history beneath.
I’ve definitely thought about riding an elephant. Bruising through the trees atop a 4-ton behemoth, claiming your throne as Hannibal of the jungle. But this thought is best left as just that… a thought.
A vast majority of Thailand’s elephants live in captivity, with the estimated 2000 still in the wild being declared endangered due to loss of habitat. A large tourism sector in the country centers around elephant encounters. People from around the world come to watch them paint pictures, play with soccer balls, or ride them. All of these can be cute when you first see them, but they’re very destructive to the elephant’s well-being. Hooks and chains are used to make the animal docile and submissive, causing pain and restricting their ability to move freely.
Currently, the best weapon against this type of animal abuse is education through organizations such as Maerim Elephant Sanctuary. Located in the Chiang Mai, they rescue elephants from logging companies, riding camps, and circuses, usually by purchasing the animal with donated money. They then offer visits to the sanctuary for a donation that goes towards saving more elephants.
Our visit started off by being picked up from our guesthouse before circling around the city to pick up a few more travelers. After arriving to the sanctuary, we were greeted by a couple young, enthusiastic Thai men who taught us about each of the five elephants they had, what their mission was, and how we were helping. You could really tell they cared about the animals.
We were given a change of clothes, a ridiculous amount of bananas that we stuffed into every pocket and pouch we could find, and let through a gate to meet the friendly giants.
At first, the nerves are there. It’s you standing right beside something nearly twice your height and fifty times your weight, so you hastily hand them bananas because that’s the only muscle movement you feel comfortable doing. The nerves subside fairly quick, though, as you realize what marvelous creatures they are. You begin to pet them and slide your hands around their skin, finding scars from their old lives. The elephants remind you, however, that you have more bananas – and they want them. Their trunks will find its way into every nook, cranny, and crack you have to get what now seems like a never-ending supply of the fruit.
The camp has four adult, female elephants and one baby boy – an obvious crowd favorite. They all had welcoming, gentle personalities and the size of our group made it easy to interact with the elephants without feeling like you were imposing on their space. We took pictures and pet them as the last few bananas were fed to them before heading back to the main hut.
Our instructor led us back to the trucks and said we were going to get some more food for the elephants while they took a little break.
We ended up down a path by a pond and a banana tree grove and were one-by-one given a machete to chop down our own tree. The way we were lined up, I was going to be the last person to cut my tree and I absolutelyrefused to be embarrassed by some failed cutting attempt, so I watched each person ahead of us and their technique:
That guy hit the middle of the trunk where it might be too thick.
She was standing straight up, not enough leverage.
He swung it hard but his leg was on the other side of the tree. A bit dangerous there.
Rachel went in front of me and did a fantastic job with hers. A nice, hefty trunk, hacked down with great form. She handed me the machete and I stepped up to the biggest trunk I could find, squared up, and let a nice slice into the trunk. Perfect strike. Our group struck a pose with our tropical tree trophies, dragged them back to the truck, and drove back towards the sanctuary.
When we got back, we were brought back onto the grounds and led the elephants on a hike into the nearby jungle. After a short walk, navigating a narrow trail beside our large friends who had zero interest in ceding right-of-way to us when we got to a bottleneck.
We arrived at a clearing and the elephants still had an appetite, stripping the banana tree trunks of their leaves and going to town on them (they are loud chewers.) It was really neat seeing them use their feet to hold down branches to get a good grip on the leaves. I left my phone in the lockers at the main hut, and I missed out on some great photo ops between the trees. One of the female elephants kept trying to walk away with the baby until his mom came over and took him back. Watching the dynamic relationship was really astounding.
As the elephants finished up their banana leaves, we began to lead them along another path until we reached a clearing. It was mud bath time. The elephants went straight for the mud pools while we stripped off our denim outer layers to just our swim suits. By this point, one of the volunteers had already dived into the mud, fully covered. You couldn’t help but hesitate when you saw all of the elephants had started peeing and pooping. This wasn’t just mud we were playing in.
The elephants showed visible enjoyment, plopping down and letting us rub mud all over them. It was a great way to exfoliate their skin and cool them down on the hot day. The same guy that had gone head first in was now chucking mud balls at people and slathering anyone’s skin he could find to make sure we were all equally sharing in the experience. After spending some time here, we hopped over a mound of dirt and got into some cleaner water to rinse off, said bye to the gentle giants, and finished off in a human-only shower and swimming pool.
Before leaving, the volunteers had set up a make-your-own-noodle-soup station at the main hut and we each had unlimited access to lunch. This was super fun and the soup was delicious. The entire time we were there, one of the guides had been taking very high-quality candid pictures of everyone and they had each group of people come up to see if they wanted to purchase a package based on their visit. I really, really kick myself for not getting ours. The proceeds go towards saving more elephants in the future.
As social media and internet access has expanded, tourists have put pressure on the institutions that previously held elephants in abusive situations. As our dollars go towards sanctuaries and education, the riding camps and circuses are forced to remove the negatively-associated activities in order to maintain a profit.
You can absolutely enjoy an elephant encounter in Thailand, but do so responsibly.
I never considered taking a cruise before. I envisioned them as either too family-friendly with kids running around, screaming, being in the way or full of old, entitled people, playing bingo and white washing the culture in all of their destinations.
I was mostly wrong.
As part of my trip to Greece through a group tour company, we ended our stay in the country by taking a cruise around several of the islands:
What do you notice first? The gorgeous, white buildings that backdrop the harbor, providing a beautiful contrast to the vibrant blues and purples of window shutters and flowers. The pleasantly arranged seafood platters at each restaurant that tries to ensnare you from your first step off the boat. Or do you go straight for the maze of walking streets that take you from one bougie store to the next, juxtaposing your life into that of a Kardashian’s for but a few moments.
We meandered through some back alleys to bypass some of the busier sections, but ended up behind homes of the local workers and business owners, subject to the law forcing them to keep their homes the white and azure blue you picture when thinking of Greece.
I split a delicious seafood feast with a friend, enjoying calamari, clams, and more, while escaping the 95-degree weather for a bit. We were on a tight schedule and had to be near the ship for boarding to the next destination.
The next stop for the cruise ship was actually Kusadasi, a beach resort town in Turkey. For reasons I’m still not positive on, no U.S. citizens were allowed to disembark the boat for this stop. I’m guessing it was related to Turkey’s involvement with Qatar or the 2016 coup d’état attempt. Still not sure, but it cost me an evening in the country. Luckily, I had purchased the all-inclusive drink plan right after boarding, so I explored the ship seeing which bar had the heaviest pour.
The next morning, we ventured onto the island of Samos. The Archaeological Museum of Pythagorion had a great collection of statues, busts, and trinkets from the island’s past. Just south, near the port, is the Tower of Lykourgos Logothetis, a residence/defense tower used by the island’s leader during the Greek War of Independence.
We continued along the beach and followed a trail made by a Jeep to a restaurant, the Pegasus Tavern. The owners were beyond hospitable, immediately letting us sit wherever and provided excellent service. The combination of a tall lager and the shade from the grape vines helped fight off the heat until we got closer to boarding time.
When our group all met back up at the port, our tour director, Ally, gifted me a bottle of wine for my birthday which was a few days prior. I didn’t open this until we were back in the U.S. The label was all in Greek, so I had no idea what to expect. Not my favorite, to be honest. Some Google and reverse-image searches later and it turns out it was church communion wine.
My favorite thing about the Greek islands is how each one has its own personality. Mykonos was about luxury and partying, Samos shared its history and had easy-shopping. Patmos was a laid-back beach island. We had arrived mid-afternoon, but hardly any shops were open, so we easily strolled to a stretch of beach recommended by Ally.
The beach itself was nice. It was completely empty except for us, leaving plenty of room to lay out our towels on the sand. There was a short border of rocks and shells as you entered the water before coming out to sand. The water was surprisingly cold until you mustered up the courage to dip all the way in.
We were soon joined on the beach by the happiest labradoodle who ran circles around us in the sand, leaving only to go pee in the ocean. “Max,” called a man approaching from one of the buildings behind the beach. In decent English, the man explained who he and his dog were and how he ran a beachside business here. He grabbed some folding chairs for us to use so we didn’t have to lay in the sand.
The man continued down the beach until he reached a speed boat, apparently his. He came and offered some thrilling water activities to us. For some reason, I did not participate, but two of my friends did, strapping onto an inflatable raft that he began to drag behind his boat. It was really funny watching them bounce around on the waves as he whipped them around at high speeds over the water. I always regret missing the experiences more than paying the cost to do them.
A short while later, we returned to the ship and stayed up a little too late waiting for last call.
This was an early, early wake-up call. Between the lack of sleep and the lingering hangover, a good portion of me wanted to stay in bed all day. But, we’re here. We have to at least visit.
Most of our group felt the same way about skipping this island, opting to sleep in while two of us ventured onto the biggest island in Greece. It was a full-on city, but rather empty. We easily walked around, snapping pictures of some of the cooler buildings (most of it looked like any other city – office buildings and apartment complexes.) I would love to get a chance to come back and visit the Knossos Palace.
I grabbed a gyro for an early lunch and we returned to the ship.
After a much needed mid-day nap, lots of water, and some reawakening, I was prepared for the afternoon destination – the beautiful island of Santorini.
Formed around the caldera of an ancient volcano, the cities sit at the top of a cliff that can be reached via cable car or stairs. The way up offers a gorgeous view and when you reach the top, no words can describe it.
We wandered into the town, stopping in shops looking for the perfect souvenir to reflect on our journey here. There was plenty of jewelry to try on, a sex shop that welcomed our middle-school aged boy maturity, and a wall art shop that I stopped in to grab a Crazy Donkey brewery t-shirt. I was half-tempted to lose myself in the alleys, hiding from the inevitability that I would have to leave this perfect paradise in just a couple hours.
The hunger hit us quickly and we found a rooftop restaurant to stop into. I ordered some bread, another calamari dish, and a carafe of the house white. I thought one of the five other people with me would have had a glass, but nope… I got to had to drink the whole thing to myself.
This trip was before I took an interest in photography, opting for the “live in the moment” style of travel, but I really wish I had taken some more pictures to look through. The important moments are easy to remember, but its the small intricate details that really let you delve into a memory.
As we approached the cable car station to ride back down, we noticed the line was extraordinarily long and we had a brief window to get back to the ship. We decided to take the 800+ stairs down the face of the cliff instead, a tiring walk when you’re finishing a long day.
Don’t ride the mules.
I cannot wait to go back and explore the islands again, on my own, to really get a chance to take them in at my pace. I got to witness their beauty, now I want to go back and see what they really offer.
Prague is one of the most walkable cities that I have ever been to. It’s winding, cobblestone streets leading towards Old Town Square are dotted with shops, pubs, restaurants, and more. You can easily pass people without the awkward struggle of waiting for them to make space for you or jumping out of the way for the inconsiderate brute who thinks the sidewalk was made for them and them only. If you know me, you know I hate being stuck behind slow walkers.
Our hotel, U Zlatého stromu, was right beside Charles Bridge and offered a great start to the day’s journey. The bridge has two towers on either side and for about $4USD, you can climb to the top for an epic view. Going down the stairs takes you to a little exhibit of items found around the bridge, from old tools to cellphones. The bridge itself is decorated with 30 statues, mostly of saints, that have been replaced with replicas over the years. Grab a picture with them as you stroll around pop-up vendors selling art and souvenirs.
Once you arrive on the Lesser Quarter, you can quickly find the Lennon Wall. Named for John, not Vladimir, the wall quickly popped up with symbols of freedom and western culture shortly after John’s assassination in 1980. It was used to protest the communist regime in then-Czechoslovakia. Each time we passed by, we found a busker performing “Imagine” that is impossible not to sing along with in your head.
Climb the steps to the north until you arrive at Prague Castle, the largest ancient castle in the world. The most prominent structure here is the St. Vitus Cathedral, where you’ll find an incredibly long line to get in. The good thing is, you don’t need to wait in line to take a picture of the outside. Spend some time wandering around the grounds where you can find all kinds of history surrounding Bohemia and the Holy Roman Empire. Statues, medieval-era buildings, one of the most fascinating things about Prague is how untouched it was during the World Wars, leaving many structures still intact, a feat that much of Europe can’t also claim.
As we descended down from the castle, we stopped by the oldest tavern in the city for a beer, and made our way towards Petřín Hill. It’s a doozy of a walk, but you can take a tram to the top if you need a little assistance. At the top, you’ll find it covered with parks and gardens. My favorite spots, however, were the Lookout Tower (it looks like a mini-Eiffel Tower), the Hunger Wall (a 14th century defense wall for the Lesser Town), and the Štefánik’s Observatory (an astronomical observatory used mainly to popularize astronomy.) Take your time here, you have a chance to slow down and take in a great view of the city, while meandering through beautiful gardens.
We ventured back down, towards the Charles Bridge. Just north is the Jewish Quarter, where you’ll find one of the largest Jewish cemeteries in Europe. Continuing down the pedestrian-only street, you’ll come across Old Town Square. This is the perfect place to relax with a beer and food. Even the tourist trap restaurants aren’t bad, but a quick dive into some online recommendations and you can find plenty of food and drink options for under 200CZK (~$10USD.)
The gothic architecture is great to see, as well as several museums, but the biggest draw here is the Astronomical Clock. Operating since at least 1410 (with a brief lapse in 2018 for repairs), the clock has several animated figures that put on a show each hour. It’s an overstimulating experience, but it’s one you can’t miss if you’re in Prague.
From here, depending on the time of day, you can take it easy and enjoy some food and drink for the rest of the night, or you can continue on to Wensiclas Square. We chose the former, enjoying some goulash in a restaurant above a bank as I practiced my Czech with our server. It was just the most basic of phrases, but she was very happy with the effort insisting I was an exchange student, at the least, to have spent the time learning some vocabulary. I assured her it was just because I’m a fan of the city.
Below here is a shopping district where you’ll find some international brands like H&M and Zara, but you can skip that and make your way back towards the river. By now, your feet will probably be tired, but you have to make it down to the Dancing House, a pair of office buildings that stick out from the typical Baroque and Gothic buildings you’ve seen around the city.
We took an easy stroll back up the river until we reached the Charles Bridge and our hotel. One last beer while I finished the latest episode of Game of Thrones, and we’ll call that a perfect day in Prague.
Roughly 100km northeast from the birthplace of the pilsner, Prague is home to beer that is literally cheaper than water. And it’s good beer, too.
The Czech Republic consumes near 192 liters per capita every year. That’s nearly double the next closest nation, Austria (107 liters per capita), and far more than the US (73 liters per capita.) The Czech people love their beer.
You’ll find a fairly liberal atmosphere surrounding the drinking culture here. It’s not unheard of to order one or two small beers with your lunch and knock a few more back after dinner, and it doesn’t stop there – the nightlife is never ending. I stayed in an incredible hotel a stone’s throw from the Charles Bridge, but it was right beside a night club and across the street from another bar. There was partying and commotion all the way until sunrise.
Though the tap water is safe to drink in this central European country, don’t expect it to automatically come with your meal. We found a carafe or .3L bottle of water to be around 40Kč or $2 USD. Being one of the most walkable cities that I have ever been to, it’s a good idea to stay hydrated while exploring.
After visiting the Prague Castle and Petřín hill, we passed by U krále Brabantského – the oldest tavern in the city. It has an awesome, medieval aesthetic inside and offers shows on certain nights (we didn’t get to see.) Now my mom definitely isn’t a beer drinker, but we ordered a couple and she enjoyed them just as much as I did. One of the things that may shock you is the large head of foam on top of the drink. You’re still getting the .5L of beer, but the foam provides a different taste and a little complexity.
There’s even a pour called the mlíko that’s basically all foam, meant to be drank all at once for a sweet, dessert-style drink. I never had one, but I’ve seen sources say you get it for half-price.
Near our hotel was a long, indoor passage, called a pasáž, which is essentially a small mall. It’s a great way to get around the city. You get to avoid any inclement weather and pick up a sweet beer stein souvenir. Some of the bigger ones, like Lucerna pasáž, have pubs inside where you can pick up a .5L for 35-38Kč (~$1.75USD.) That’s more to drink for a lower price than water. All around Old Town Square, you’ll see green Pilsner Urquell awnings. It’s the most popular beer in the country and quite delicious. It’s nice to stop to people watch for a drink and continue on.
In the past decade, some public officials have attempted to enforce regulations that will make pubs sell a non-alcoholic beverage at a cheaper price than beer. This is been in an effort to curb underage drinking and the negative effects thereof. Business owners and the public have fought back and, at least during my first visit in 2017, have been doing quite well.
Make sure to add one of my favorite cities in the world to your travel bucket list and enjoy the beer. Na zdraví.