Tag Archives: travel blogger

Taormina, Sicily

Until my fiance decided that he wanted to trace his Sicilian roots, I had never thought of Sicily as a place that I would visit. I let him take the reigns on this portion of the trip and he suggested that we stay in Taormina, a charming hilltop town perched on the side of a mountain on the east coast of Sicily. Although warned as a chi-chi touristy destination, I found Taormina to be one of Sicily’s best-kept secrets. A hidden gem with breathtaking views and cliffs that drop down to the sea. And maybe a bit overlooked with Mount Etna and Palermo as some of Sicily’s main attractions. We spent 4 lovely days here and I couldn’t get enough of the town’s dolce vita. This island was truly different than any other place I have ever visited in Italy – a rooted Italian culture with Mediterranean influence. Here is my share of helpful tips and top recommendations for Taormina, Sicily!

Take a taxi – don’t rent a car!
While the winding roads of Sicily may look idyllic to drive, I would not suggest renting a car. Taormina is approx. 1 hour north of Catania airport (CTA), and while taxi fares to Taormina are expensive (approx. $100 Euro one way), the hassle of a rental car is worse. First, all road and highway signs are in Italian. So unless you are fluent or have a very reliable GPS, it can be very difficult to navigate. Second, gas can be pricey and we learned the hard way that if you don’t get out of the car fast enough to gas up yourself, you’ll be charged nearly double for the “gas attendant” to put the nozzle into your car for you. Third, Taormina not built for cars with their narrow streets and tight corners and is very limited with overnight parking options. We got two parking tickets during our stay because we simply couldn’t find parking anywhere else and left it on the street overnight. Last, Taormina is extremely walkable around town and offers many tour/bus options for going out of town. So stick to taxi’s and local transportation – it’ll save you from lots of headaches and parking tickets.
Mount Etna
Dominating the landscape of eastern Sicily, Mount Etna is easily the island’s natural epicenter. At 3,329m it is Italy’s highest mountain south of the Alps and the largest active volcano in Europe. From Taormina, visiting Mount Etna is the perfect day trip. There are many tour excursions and trekking adventures available, but Rob and I went on our own (and our trusty rink-a-dink rental car…). Drive time from Taormina is approx. 1 hour and 15 minutes, and there are a couple of different entrance points. We followed the south entrance which leads directly to Mt. Etna’s small village of shops, restaurants, tourist information, and transportation to the top. The “Funivia dell Etna” (cablecar of Etna) will travel up to 2,500m for approx. $30 Euro per person, and from there you can pay another $30-$35 Euro per person for special off-road busses to continue up the volcano (tour guide included).
Isola Bella
I unknowingly saw dreamy photos of Isola Bella on Pinterest before realizing that this enchanting island is just a cable car ride down from Taormina. The Mazzaro cable car from Taormina is an expressway down to the base of the mountain ($7 Euro roundtrip). From the bottom, it is a quick 7-minute walk to Isola Bella with surrounding restaurants, shops and hotels along the way. This beach is unashamedly crowded but totally worth spending the day. The beach is formed with small rocks and pebbles instead of sand, so I would recommend renting a couple of beach chairs and an umbrella at the Mendolia Beach Club for $10 Euro per person. The beach club also has a restaurant with tasty lunch options and a lovely view of Isola Bella.
Teatro Antico di Taormina
One of the icons of Taormina is the Teatro Antico di Taormina, an ancient Greco-Roman outdoor amphitheater built in the 3rd century BC which is still in use today. Unfortunately we were not able to step inside the theater because of summer concerts and events, which was a heartbreaking tease because the theater was a 2-minute walk from our B&B. Still, I hear that it is a MUST SEE in Taormina and I am using it as a reason to go back one day.
Corso Umberto I
The Corso Umberto I is the vibrant main street and soul of Taormina. The ultimate delight is to wander this pedestrian-friendly street which is lined with boutiques, restaurants, gelato parlors, and souvenir shops. Start in Palazzo Corvaja which dates back to the 10th Century and make your way to Piazza IX Aprile and its stunning panoramic views. Standing tall in the square is the Chiesa San Guiseppe, a beautiful church that dates back to the early 18th Century. The entire square is surrounded with rich history including the Torre dell’Orologio, the 12th Century clock tower. Take a break and dine at the Piazza Badia, a charming trattoria which easily became our favorite restaurant in town. We dined there nearly 3 nights in a row. Owned by the coolest couple with authentic food and home-cooking vibes. Ask for Anastasia – she will spoil you to death and will treat you like family!

Next on the blog (and my favorite place in the entire world), PARIS! Check back soon!

xx

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Venice, Italy

“My love of Venice begins with the lagoon in which it stands. Although often overlooked, this 550-sq-km shallow bowl is as great a marvel of engineering as San Marco’s golden domes. Every palace and every person is reflected in its teal-colored waters creating the mirage-like double image that lends the city its magical quality. Not only has it inspired the extraordinary physical fabric of the city and countless creative and technological inventions, but it also shapes the unconventional and creative spirit of all who reside here. Therein lie possibilities barely imagined in other cities.”
– Paula Hardy

Taking a trip to Venice is like taking a gondola ride back in time, to a fairy tale city of marble palaces built on a lagoon. Kind of sounds like Disneyland actually. But Venice is truly unlike anything I have ever seen before. Imagine the world’s biggest outdoor promenade with the best selection of Venetian cuisine, Prosecco, endless shopping, masquerade influence, canalside bistros, and sightings of romantic gondola rides floating through emerald green and enchanting blue waters. One of the strangest and loveliest things about the city was the absence of cars. No honking, no roads, no traffic, no chaos. Just boats and gondolas taking their sweet time with their awe-inspired passengers. I wish I could have spent a little more time there. If you ever get a chance to visit, and I hope you do, here are some of my personal recommendations and highlights:

GET LOST
Put down your map and wander. Don’t bother trying to find your way – you’ll get lost in Venice no matter what. Even with the best GPS. But that’s the fun part! If you work tirelessly trying to navigate the impossible maze of Venice, you’ll miss what else Venice is hiding; the calming serenade of gondoliers, a morning Spritz in a sunny square, unassuming bars with lavish spreads of cicheti (Venetian tapas), storefront windows displaying the most beautiful Masquerade pieces, and fuschia-pink sunsets that have inspired centuries of artists. I think in Venice they would call these pleasures la bea vita (the beautiful life).
Hotel Mercurio
If you want affordable and authentic lodging in Venice, I would suggest Hotel Mercurio. Just a quick 4-minute walk from the San Marco ferry stop, but perfectly tucked away in Venice and all of its magic. For an unbeatable price, we upgraded to a suite with a canal view which happened to face Mozart’s home. Can’t get more historic than that! Our room was beautifully decorated with Venetian art, high ceilings with wooden beams, Italian furnishings, and marble floors. The hotel also delivered Prosecco to our room and offered complimentary breakfast every morning. Lovely. Just lovely.
Piazza San Marco (aka St. Mark’s Square)
Piazza San Marco is the heart of Venice. I’ve seen it in countless movies, but I never realized it was in Venice. The “lightbulb” moment happened for me when I saw swarms of pigeons frantically fighting for rice and crumbs and I had a flashback of Ashton Kutcher fighting them off in Just Married. Visiting Piazza San Marco is definitely a MUST; here you will see St. Mark’s Basilica with its great arches and marble decoration, the stunning palace of Doge, Piazzetta di Leoncini, the free standing Campanile, the Clock Tower, and a handful of shops and restaurants lining the square. And definitely take some playful photos with the pigeons.
Dal Moro’s – Fresh Pasta To Go
Customized made-to-order food is universal. We all love it. For America it’s Chipotle, and for Venice it’s Dal Moro’s. They were also voted #1 for Italian food in Venice! This unassuming take-out spot serves fresh pasta with made-to-order sauces in Chinese to-go boxes, leaving you to explore Venice with lunch in hand. I sadly did not have a chance to experience Dal Moro’s, but my sister swears by it and I did see the line of people wrapped around the block. That was convincing enough of their popularity.
Lavanderia Gabriella
Laundry. Totally random, but totally necessary. My sister recommended Lavanderia Gabriella after her trip to Venice. And after living out of a backpack for two weeks, I was in desperate need of clean clothes. Gabriella and her adorable mother run their own laundromat and they are perfectly affordable, approx. $15-$20 Euro for 1-2 hefty loads! They’ll even fold your laundry for you. Did I mention Gabriella speaks English? TOTALLY WORTH IT.
Rialto Bridge
Crowded, but another MUST. Ponte di Rialto is Venice’s most popular bridge and overlooks the Grand Canal. The view from the top and center of the bridge offers the most iconic view of Venice where you can observe the gondolas, ferries and boats travel between the most mesmerizing buildings. Try visiting the bridge at sunrise. You won’t regret it.

Up next…SICILY! Specifically Taormina. Come check back soon!

xx

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Rome, Italy

Oh, Rome… a historic powerhouse with haunting ruins, inspiring art, and vibrant street life. Just as Rome wasn’t built in a day, it is literally impossible to see Rome in day. In my opinion, you need at least seven. We only had 2 short days in Rome so we saw as much as we could, ate as much as we could, and consumed as much coffee and gelato as we could. The “eternal city” is no doubt the epicenter for artistic heritage and architectural masterpieces, but the Roman lifestyle has a lovely and delicate culture outside of its historic landmarks. In between the Colosseum, the Pantheon, and St. Peter’s Basillica are little details which often go unnoticed, but are an every day part of Rome: the cobblestone streets and hidden corners, charming trattorias and street-side gelato shops, couples embracing each other on the Spanish Steps, the aroma of freshly ground coffee wafting out of its cafes. Rome’s streets and piazzas perfectly made for strolling and people-watching. Something I wish I captured more photos of, but probably wouldn’t have appreciated as much if I had my face behind a camera the entire time. I guess it’s something that should be experienced organically.

Overall, a lovely couple of days spent in Rome. Venice on the blog soon!

xx

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THE ANDAZ

I love discovering unique travel accommodations. Whether staying at a cozy Airbnb, a tent in the middle of the wilderness, a trendy hotel in a new city, I love it all. A couple weeks ago I stayed in a stunning boutique hotel in West Hollywood on Sunset Boulevard called the Andaz – where luxury meets Rock-n-Roll.

One of my favorite things about this hotel is the music history. The Andaz opened in 1963 and was called the Gene Autry Hotel back then. A few years later, it was renamed the Continental Hyatt House, and then eventually became the Hyatt on Sunset. Fast forward to 2009 when the hotel was renovated and renamed the Andaz West Hollywood. The Andaz is part of the Hyatt family, a personal favorite of hotel chains that I have always stayed at. One of the highlights of the Andaz is the location; Sunset Boulevard. AKA: the Los Angeles hub for touring rock groups, notably English bands Led Zeppelin, The Who, and The Rolling Stones. With the hotel’s proximity to popular clubs and music halls, the Andaz  quickly became the desired hotel for traveling rock bands and was nicknamed the “riot Hyatt”. They even give you a complimentary pair of ear plugs for your stay.

I’m totally going to brag now – we had the penthouse suite during our stay. [I’m not a big deal or anything, but my parents are loyal Hyatt members and got the ultimate hook up] The penthouse was so rockstar. Upscale amenities, luxurious and trendy furniture, lighting effects, stunning views of Sunset, walk-in closet, most comfortable bed everrr, and a giant balcony with succulents and cozy patio furniture. Even the toilet had an iPad with flushing features, lighting, and music! We soaked up the entire experience that weekend; laid by the pool with beers and nibbles, yoga on the balcony, enjoyed late night bites and cocktails in the lobby restaurant, strolled along Sunset Boulevard, saw a band in West Hollywood, and of course, jumped on the bed like we were five. I bet rockstars did it too.

Everything about this hotel screamed glamorous Hollywood and classic Rock-n-Roll. From the animated furniture to the photos of famed musicians on the walls, this hotel has beautifully embraced their history as the “place to stay” for traveling rock bands. And being located right on Sunset Boulevard means endless things to do the second you walk out the hotel lobby. So whether you’re a fan of rock, or a curious shopper in Hollywood, or vacationing in Los Angeles, be sure to visit the Andaz. Walk the halls that so many famous musicians did before. It’s a Hollywood treat. Can’t wait to return one day!

xx

DID YOU KNOW?
– In the mid-to-late 1970’s, Led Zeppelin reserved approx. six floors of the hotel for the band and entourage. Drummer John Bonham supposedly drove a motorcycle along the hallways [some say it was tour manager Richard Cole].
– Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards threw a TV out the window of room 1015 in 1972. The Who’s Keith Moon also threw a TV out of a hotel window. In the film Rock Star, Jason Bonham, son of Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham, throws a TV out the window in rage. Poor TV’s…
– Lemmy wrote the song “Motorhead” on one of the hotel balconies in the middle of the night.
– Scenes from the film Almost Famous which depict the hotel were actually filmed in the hotel. Parts of the hotel were staged with the exact same decor that existed in the 1970’s.
– Little Richard lived in room 319 at the hotel through most of the 1980’s – 1990’s.
– Jim Morrison lived in the hotel until he was reportedly evicted by management for hanging out of a window by his fingertips, dangling over the pavement.
– Elton John and his entourage stayed at the hotel on Elton’s first trip to America in August 1970.

 

 

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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!

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