Category Archives: Travel

TEXAS HOLLYWOOD

I just returned from a week of last-minute, spontaneous trips. Two cities in five days. The first half was spent visiting a best friend in Austin, TX; the second half was with family in Los Angeles, CA. I literally spent 2 1/2 days in each place, but there was not a minute wasted. You can accomplish a lot in less than 3 days if you use your time wisely. If you ever find yourself passing through these cities for a short time, here are some places to go/things to see while you’re there!

AUSTIN, TEXAS
Standup Paddling on the Colorado River
Did you know there are two Colorado Rivers? I didn’t. There is one Colorado River which is entirely in Texas, and the other Colorado River which courses through Colorado, Utah, Arizona, Nevada, California, Baja and Samora. We went standup paddling on the one that belongs to Texas. This 862-mile long river is a stunning and endless gathering place for all outdoor lovers. Kayaking, standup paddling, canoeing, you name it. There are multiple spots along the river to rent equipment if you don’t have your own.
Graffiti Park
This colorful park tucked away in Castle Hill is easily one of the most impressive and coolest public art projects I’ve ever seen. Decorated with animals, cartoons, movie characters, declarations of peace and love, they have it all. The best part? It’s ever-changing. Go the next week and it may be replaced by new graffiti art, just as colorful and mesmerizing. This multi-level graffiti park was introduced in 2011 by HOPE, an Austin-based nonprofit along with the help of street artist Shepard Fairey.
Barton Creek Greenbelt
Oh man. I could have spent all day at “the greenbelt”. Apparently there are numerous greenbelts in Austin, but this particular one is so treasured that locals speak of it as if it were the only one. This one at Barton Creek is 12.68 miles of enchanting trails, limestone bluffs, and gorgeous swimming holes [when there is enough water in the creek]. We saw groups of friends scattered along the water, perfectly content with their own version of the perfect pass time. Listening to music, reading books, cooling off in the water, dancing, swimming, doggy play dates, hula hooping, etc. Easily one of the most enchanting places I’ve ever seen. I don’t know if it was the shallow water reflecting the surrounding trees, but it was literally a river of emerald green. I will never forget this special place.
Rainey Street
Renovated houses transformed into bungalow bars. A charming row on a tucked away street where bars reign supreme. You can easily visit 10 bars in one night without taking a taxi! Just stroll across the street to the next enticing bar, or take a carb break at one of the many food trucks parked in between. As much as I would have loved to visit every bar, the ones I visited each had their own unique charm and dazzle. Best bar-hopping spot in Austin for sure!
Bouldin Creek Cafe
Austin is known for its specialty of BBQ and Tex-Mex, but if you need a refreshing and healthier alternative, head over to Bouldin Creek Cafe. This eco-friendly bohemian cafe offers a lovely selection of hearty vegan/vegetarian dishes, coffee, and tasty cocktails. The portions are HUGE and the pricing is perfectly affordable. And, they make the best Curried Lentil soup in the world!

LOS ANGELES, CA | HOLLYWOOD, CA | SANTA MONICA, CA
PCH
PCH – as in, Pacific Coast Highway. This gorgeous stretch along the coast will travel from California to Washington. After my little sis picked me up from the airport, we cruised along the PCH for a few miles which was a beautiful way to start the day. Stunning views of the coast line, ocean, curving in and out of probably the most expensive residential areas in California. I felt like I was on an episode of “The Hills”.
Santa Monica Pier
A state fair on the ocean. A boardwalk of roller coasters, carnival rides, games, funnel cakes, and ferris wheels. I’ve visited the Santa Monica pier a handful of times since I was young and it’s always a treat to go back to. But sometimes the boardwalk can get a little crowded. When I’m not vibing the boardwalk or the beach, I like to rent bikes and ride along the path aimlessly. My sister and I rented bikes for $8.00/hour and pedaled from Santa Monica to Venice and back. Workout and a view!
Boot Star
If heaven had a country western store, it would be Boot Star. I stumbled into this store while walking along Sunset Blvd. and I was in complete mind-blowing country bliss! I could have stayed in the store all day to try on every pair of boots and would have been perfectly happy. They carry floor-to-ceiling wall length selections for men and women, and each pair of boots is uniquely different from the rest. I must’ve seen every style of boot from Western, to exotic, to biker, to chic. I wanted them ALL! And I am now saving for a pair of these boots.
Carneys
This former Pacific Railroad passenger train turned hamburger/hot dog joint is a gem in Hollywood. Family-owned since 1975 and serving some of the tastiest burgers and hot dogs in LA! Their menu has unbeatable prices and serves a variety of items including Polish sausage, Chili, salads, wraps, and beer! And you get to dine in an old passenger train! Like visiting a small town diner with friendly staff and tasty food, with train views of the Sunset Strip. Can it get any better than this?

Come back soon for a post featuring the Andaz Hotel on Sunset Blvd! You’ll want to visit this eclectic hotel the next time you’re in California!

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

THE BIG EASY

I finally had a chance to go through my photos from New Orleans which are WAY overdue. The second the trip ended, I caught the flu which then transitioned to laryngitis. I’ve been germ-filled, lethargic, and apparently allergic to blogging for the past two weeks. But, I needed to revisit these photos. It was my “Bachelorette” weekend after all.

I’m doing this whole wedding thang a little backwards. I don’t have a wedding date yet but I felt that a weekend with my best girlies was in order. I’ve always wanted to visit NoLa and I hate Vegas. So I rounded up my Bride Tribe and we headed to The Big Easy! Now, I realize that these photos don’t show much proof of a girly, rowdy, Bachelorette weekend… and I shamefully only have one photo of us as a group. Sadly, photos of my friends were replaced by beautiful colonial buildings and enchanting street performers. But trust me, the weekend was filled with beignets, dancing, jazz, late night snack fest’s, endless Pringles, and a Chambong [A bong made for chugging Champagne. Yup, we did that. Numerous times.]

I loved New Orleans as much as I thought I would. A mysterious city surrounded by art, music, and culture. And I was pleasantly surprised with their love of ghosts, Vampires, tall slushy drinks, and fried chicken. I will definitely have to return one day. This time with more photos of the people who traveled with me.

xx

Tagged , , , , , , , ,

HAVANA DIARIES: PART III

As I reflect back on my time spent in Havana, the most lingering feeling is how much Cuba surprised me. I remember in the middle of the trip while cruising in a vintage car, my best friend said, “I feel nostalgia for a time I was never a part of. A simpler time.” Havana was a time-machine for us. A chance for us to visit the 50’s, to ride around in old-fashioned cars, to see people interact organically without technology getting in the way. We wandered aimlessly through the streets of Old Havana, stayed content off-the-grid, and were fully present while absorbing the Cuban culture. To me, that was the best part of the trip.

Along with this, there were a few other highlights. A few places that were planned ahead of time, and some that we simply stumbled upon. For future visitors, be sure to make time for these places! I promise, it will enhance your trip [and you can thank me later].

Book Market in Plaza de Armas (Old Havana)
Don’t let the words “Book Market” defer you. This ain’t no outdoor library. It’s more of a vintage market buried in Plaza de Armas, but locals will refer to it as the “book market”. A handful of vendors will gather to offer antique and vintage goods for unbeatable prices. You can find anything from vintage cameras to cigar labels, stamps, old and new books including Hemingway, vintage postcards, jewelry, etc. I bought a vintage film camera for only $25 CUC!
La Floridita (Old Havana)
Buried in Old Havana is La Floridita – home to Hemingway’s favorite daquiri. He claimed it was the best in the world. Once inside, it is jam-packed with tourists. I actually never enjoyed a drink, but it was a beautiful old-fashioned  restaurant/bar to see. Hemingway’s bar stool is still inside, protected by a velvet rope. No touch-ee.
Fabrica de Arte Cubano (F.A.C) (Nuevo Vedado)
This former cooking oil factory is now a well-curated art exhibition and entertainment club in Nuevo Vedado. F.A.C. is easily the most impressive venue/nightclub I have ever visited, far from the nightclubs we are used to in the US. This multi-level venue is an endless display of creative work, music, local influence, and innovative architecture. AND, there are multiple bars! I enjoyed the largest mojito I’d ever seen; it was literally served in what looked like a flower vase. A truly remarkable place to see a younger, edgier, emerging Cuba.
Paladar La Guarida (Central Havana)
Hands down, the most stunning rooftop bar I’ve ever seen. The unassuming entrance into the building off of a run-down street in Central Havana invites you into a truly magical place. The building, originally known as La Mansión Camagüey, remains historic with its magnificent wooden entrance door and marble staircase up the two flights of stairs to the restaurant itself. At the top, you’ll have the most breathtaking views of Havana and lovely rooftop seating. Their menu also offers tasty nibbles and delicious cocktails.
Coppelia Ice Cream (La Habana)
Coppelia is the ice cream parlor chain of Cuba. Like our Dairy Queen, but cuter. Cheap ice cream, served in old-fashioned 1960’s ice cream cups. Need I say more?
Hotel Parque Central (Old Havana)
Next to Central Park and short walk from the National Capital, the rooftop bar at Hotel Parque Central had equally if not the most stunning views than all of the rooftops we visited in Havana. This beautiful historic hotel maintained its Spanish-colonial charm combined with modern amenities. The staff is extremely welcoming and friendly, and invites non-hotel guests to their rooftop bar. The bar is pool-side and has a wonderful menu of affordable cocktails and food. We devoured two Margherita pizzas. Random, but SO good!
The Malecón (Havana)
There is almost no other place to see more of Havana’s soul than walking along the long stretched Malecón. This boulevard runs nearly 8km along the coast of Havana, from the historical center (Habana Vieja) to residential Vedado. Between the charming buildings and endless sight of vintage cars, the Malecón is a resume of Havana’s history. The Malecón, which translates to “pier”, will give you the real feeling of Havana, and is a prime spot for sunsets.

 

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

HAVANA DIARIES: PART II

Havana is where you go to travel back in time. Spanish-colonial buildings, vintage 50’s cars, NO modern influence anywhere. Spending time in Old Havana was truly nostalgic and humbling, like you got to go back to a simpler time. But we didn’t spend the entire time in Havana. We ventured out to Viñales and Varadero.

Viñales, Cuba
Cost – 
$67 CUC per person (day trip included round-trip transportation, tour, and lunch)
Tour Company – Cubatur
Travel Time – 2.5 hours by bus, approx. 179 km each way
My friends and I woke up early for a day trip and headed West to Viñales. Viñales is an extremely rooted and picturesque town in the heart of Cuba’s prime tobacco-growing region. We settled into the small town and started at a rum factory, headed on to Mural De La Prehistoria in Viñales Valley [where I fell in love with a horse in front of one of the most largest murals in the world], then to a 4th-generation tobacco farm where we purchased fresh hand-rolled cigars. We ended the day cave-exploring and then I met a water buffalo named Thomas. Needless to say, it was a pleasant rural getaway from the hustle and bustle of Havana.
Fun Fact – When Christopher Columbus first visited Cuba, he found the local population smoking a local herb, cohiba, through a pipe, or tobago. They called the act of smoking “sikar”. Columbus brought back some samples, and it wasn’t long before millions of Europeans were smoking tobacco rolled into cigars and cigarettes. Tobacco was grown commercially in Cuba as early as the 16th century, and by the late 17th century, it was the country’s most important export crop. By all accounts, the finest cigars in the world come from Cuba. [Source: Frommer’s Easy Guide to Cuba]

Varadero, Cuba
Cost – $190 CUC roundtrip by taxi
Travel Time – 2 hours, approx. 145 km each way
In short, Varadero is the prime beach destination of Cuba. It is a beautiful drive from Havana which stays along the coast to this resort-filled peninsula. My friends and I traveled to Varadero to visit some other friends who were staying there. This day trip was interesting to say the least.
Tip – Unless you are part of a tour group, or have hotel reservations, DO NOT visit Varadero on a whim. Most of the hotels are all-inclusive resorts, and unless you are a guest at one of these resorts, these places will not exactly be waiting for you with a welcome mat and a Mojito. We found it extremely difficult to step within 5 feet of these hotels once they found out we were not guests. Most wouldn’t let us inside, and we never found our friends who we intended to visit. For such a hospitality hub, I am sad to say that the Varadero we saw was anything but hospitable. One hotel even called security on me when I tried to get my money back after buying a failed Internet card. Ouch.
Now, I am not trying to slam Varadero. It is a lovely place to visit, and perfect if you need some R+R on the beach. I would simply advise planning ahead and making a reservation to stay at one of the hotels so that you can enjoy the amenities, or go with a tour company that will have everything lined up for you to enjoy.

Havana Diaries Part III coming soon!

Tagged , , , , , , , , , ,

HAVANA DIARIES: PART I

About a month ago, one of my best friends and another girlfriend invited me to go to Cuba and I said “Yes!” on a complete whim. Without thought, I instantly booked my flight [which was ridiculously cheap] and the countdown to Havana began! In the short weeks before the trip, we learned that there is a lot of preparation required before visiting Cuba. And thank God we did our homework! It could have been a completely different and probably disastrous experience if we did not do our due diligence. So I feel it as my duty to share some helpful tips to my fellow travelers and wanderlusters who would like to visit one day!

Currency
CUC – Cuban Convertible Peso (what most tourists use) or CUP – Cuban Peso
DO NOT bring US dollars to Cuba. Cuba does not accept US credit cards or debit cards either. I advise exchanging your USD to Euro, Canadian dollars, or Pesos before you get there. The CUC and CUP are the two currencies of Cuba [which means you will commonly see two prices listed], but the CUC is mainly used for tourism. And I cannot stress this enough – bring enough cash with you! Anticipate on spending approx. $100 per day to be safe [which I rarely did, but Cuban cigars and excursions can add up quickly]. Food and beverage are fairly cheap [approx. $5-$10 CUC for lunch/dinner or a cocktail], but you’ll need extra spending money for taxi rides and tourist activities.
Passport + Visa Required
Visa’s are required to travel to Cuba as a US citizen. I purchased mine through Cuba Travel Services for approx. $85.00 plus shipping. The Visa process will ask for a reason for travel, and “Tourism” is not one of them. The most common would be “Educational – People to People”, which you can easily justify if you intend on learning the Cuban culture and having people to people interaction. I was never questioned during immigration though.
Lodging
Airbnb, all the way! I’m biased because I only stay at Airbnb’s on international trips, but I feel that it’s part of the adventure! You can stay at a hotel anywhere – but staying at an Airbnb is a fun and affordable way to experience the culture of any country. And in Cuba, hotels are Government owned and very expensive. But, hotels were very useful in purchasing Internet cards or speaking with tourism/travel agencies. Most hotels were willing to help us even though we were not hotel guests.
Internet [or lack thereof]
WiFi is extremely scarce in Cuba. Prepare to be OFF THE GRID. And with this, I also suggest printing copies of any Airbnb itineraries, copies of your VISA/Passport, tourist activities/receipts, etc. Even if you do purchase an Internet card from a hotel, the signal is usually spotty and weak. You may also come across “WiFi zones” around Havana, usually in a public park or alley [you will easily recognize these “zones” by seeing 15-20 people sitting closely together and glued to their cell phones].
maps.me App
Download this app before the trip! It will save your life. The maps.me app is an offline map/GPS that is very easy to use and does not require data or WiFi. You will always have a clear view of where you are, and you can save pins of your hotel, Airbnb, places you plan to go, etc. It was also very helpful in showing taxi drivers where we were staying whenever there was a language barrier.
Taxi’s
There are two types of taxi’s in Cuba; the classic vintage-style cars, or the yellow Government taxi’s. We were discouraged from taking the Government taxi’s. Vintage cars are the way to go. But be sure to negotiate the fare before you get in! Average price from the Jose Marti International Airport into Havana was approx. $35 CUC, and trips between Havana were typically $8 – $10 CUC. Just be sure to confirm the price before you get into the car.

I will stop here and provide more helpful tips in the next post, Havana diaries Part II! Come back soon!

Tagged , , , , , , , ,