Tag Archives: travel

Amsterdam, Netherlands

For those who have never visited Amsterdam, it’s easy to assume a young, daring city with the reputable “coffee shops”, Red Light District, exciting nightlife, and Space Cake. I personally associated it with the hash brownie scene from Eurotrip. But Amsterdam is SO much more than that. It’s a city thriving with history and artistic heritage, a maze of canals and narrow houses, 17th century buildings that tilt at impossible angles, a beautiful countryside with some of the last remaining windmills that are centuries old, and the best made Gouda you will ever have in your life. There are few cities that can combine history with modern urban flair like Amsterdam. This city truly holds a special “personality” if a city could have one.
Bikes, Bikes, Bikes!
Cycling is the heart to Amsterdam’s character. It is a way of life and there are are nearly double the amount of bicycles than residents. Most people own two bikes; one for work, and one for leisure. Bikes are how Amsterdammers do everything – whether riding to work, or meeting a friend for coffee, or heading to a dinner date. If you’re feeling daring, head to a rental shop and take a spin. But you better keep up! Everyone yields to bikes. They simply rule the city.
Canal by Boat
If locals aren’t on a bike, they may well be on a boat. Amsterdam has an endless network of canals and many options for taking a boat ride. I would suggest taking an open-air canal boat or one of the free ferries behind Centraal Station. If you really want a workout, try the paddle-boats. But speaking from experience, it’s only fun for the first ten minutes… and make sure you can paddle and steer fast enough to get out of the way of every other boat on the canal. Paddle-boats never have the right-of-way.
Gezellig!
Amsterdam has a feeling of gezellig, a Dutch trait that translates something similar to content and cozy. It’s easier to experience than define. It’s as if time stands still, an awareness of the present that puts all of your stresses aside, at least until tomorrow. You can feel it anywhere, whether you’re sipping coffee at a traditional cafe, walking aimlessly through the flower market with the smell of fresh waffles in the air, or simple chatter after a tasty dinner. There is a calmness and quietness about this city – and I think it’s gezellig.
Zaanse Schans
Windmills are the icon of Holland. Amsterdam used to be filled with windmills for various purposes, whether to prevent the city from flooding or grinding seeds for mustard. Most of the country’s windmills have been taken down, some relocated to the outer city where wind conditions are more favorable. We ventured out to Zaanse Schans in the Dutch countryside for a day trip to see some of Amsterdam’s remaining windmills, followed by Marken and Volendam. I would highly recommend taking the trip!
Red Light District
Back in the day, as in the early 1300’s, women would practice the “worlds oldest profession” by carrying red lanterns (due to their flattering light), and waiting for sailors near the port. Amsterdam’s infamous Red Light District is a neighborhood of vice, skimpy prostitutes in brothel windows, seductive bars, haze-filled “coffeeshops”, strip clubs, and sex-themed museums. It’s not for everyone – but if you choose to satisfy your curiosity, here are some tips:
1. Watch for pickpockets. The Red Light District can be crowded, especially at night. Sticky fingers could be anywhere…
2. Don’t take pictures or videos of the prostitutes. I’ve heard that pimps will harshly take your phone and toss it into the nearest canal.
3. Have an open mind. The Red Light District leaves nothing to the imagination.
Grub
I noticed an on-going theme with the cuisine in Amsterdam. Dutch waffles (which are thin wafer-like cookies filled with honey or syrup), Gouda which is commonly paired with mustard, French Fries with mayonnaise, and croquettes with ham and cheese. Oh, and Heineken. All of which I was happy to eat in excess every day while I was there. But Amsterdam has inherited a variety of international cuisine including Argentinian steakhouses, Italian trattoria’s, Indonesian cuisine, and German Schnitzel. There is something to satisfy every type of craving. So you better have a big appetite!

A charming city that surprised me in every way. I truly cannot wait to return to Amsterdam one day. Come back soon for when I recap my time in Italy!

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 , , , , , , , ,

Holla Days

img_2836

img_2839

img_2847

img_2842

[top: VICI Collection | belt: Buffalo Exchange | skirt: littlelace]

My Christmas Eve outfit was a bit more unconventional this year. It consisted of a “Happy Holla Days” tank (had to), boho skirt, and legit cowgirl belt that I scored from a consignment store. All completed with cowgirl boots. But I also noticed that my wardrobe becomes more daring when I travel. I spent Christmas in Queenstown, New Zealand with the family + fiancé, which was perfect, because New Zealand was on my bucket list and I got to cross it off right before the end of 2016. Mastered procrastination right thurrr!

I also became obsessed with Lake Wakatipu, which is a stunning inland lake surrounded by The Remarkables mountain range. And Queenstown was the most quaint mountain town which got to benefit from the incredible views. My brother-in-law calls it “Vail on steroids”. Totally accurate.

The day was spent with good food, loving people, and lots of picture-taking. Seriously, my eyeballs were on overdrive. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more beautiful place. The Remarkables totally put the Rocky Mountains to shame…

Cheers to everyone from down under. Happy Holla Days, y’all!

xx

Tagged , , , , , , , ,