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Ciao Italia!

A week wandering the Bel Paese

sunny 26 °C

Sample One-Week Itinerary
Day 1: Florence – check out the key religious sites (especially the main cathedral – il duomo), visit a museum or art gallery (there are endless options!), and spend the evening piazza-hopping from Piazza della Signoria to Piazza della Repubblica listening to live music
Day 2: Tuscan countryside, Florence – Tuscan daytrip! Although we didn’t have the time to do this, many of my friends have taken daytrips to beautiful surrounding towns and highly recommended it. You can also check out Pisa, if you’re really craving a classic touristy Italian photoshoot
Day 3: Florence – enjoy the area around the mercato centrale, consider a free walking tour like through La Bussola (bring cash tips, of course), visit the sinagoga e museo ebraico (Jewish synagogue and museum), cross any one of the beautiful old bridges (don’t miss ponte vecchio) to get to Villa Bardini and watch sunset from the Piazzale Michelangelo
Day 4: Pompeii, Salerno – spend the morning and/or afternoon at Pompeii (easily accessible by train) before returning to Salerno, shopping and seeing its historical sites
Day 5: Amalfi Coast, Salerno – take the ferry to Maioiri, hike the “Lemon Trail” to Minori, take the ferry to Amalfi, consider bussing to Ravello (beware the crowds), walk over to Atrani, ferry back to Salerno taking in the beautiful Amalfi Coast sunset before strolling its pedestrian thoroughfare and walking by the seaside promenade
Day 6: Rome – spend the day exploring the Vatican City, both the surrounding areas and the museums (make sure to purchase the guided tour in advance!). Make the most of Roman nightlife in Trastevere
Day 7: Rome – cross through Isola Tiberina to explore the former Jewish ghetto and then the many historic sites Rome has to offer: Torre Argentina, Piazza Navona, Pantheon, Trevi Fountain, Spanish Steps, and finally a tour of the Colosseum, Roman Forum and Palatine Hill. Check out what’s happening at Mattatoio, a former industrial complex, and dine at Testaccio Market across the street

Overall Tips
- Carry a pack of Kleenex wherever you go – many restrooms don’t have toilet paper, will charge you (so carry coins too!), and might not have a toilet seat either
- Don’t forget to get a travel charger and also an adaptor (or even a converter depending on the electronics you’re bringing)
- Bring cash and credit card, most places accepted either but it’s helpful to have a back up
- Consider purchasing an anti-theft purse or backpack as certain areas are extremely crowded with tourists and have become hotspots for pickpocketing
- Download a language-learning app like Duolingo in advance so that you can practice some common phrases like “grazie”, “prego”, etc.
- Always make sure you have the medications you’ll need, my seasonal allergies really flared up (for example) so I was glad to already have my pills on hand
- Confirm what Covid restrictions are still in place. As of June 2022, it was necessary to wear a KN95/FFP2 mask on all of the high speed trains and inside the Vatican City museums but no Covid testing was required

Where to Stay
- Florence: B&B Relais Tiffany – roughly $100/night, 10-minute walk to Florence S.M. Novella Train Station
- Salerno: B&B Il Reticolo – roughly $80/night, 10-minute walk to train station
- Rome: B&B Suites Trastevere – roughly $115/night, 10-minute walk to Trastevere train station

Where to Eat
Florence: All’antico Vinaio sandwiches; I Tarocchi pizza; Mercato Centrale for everything
- Gelato, ranked in order of deliciousness: GROM (their signature flavour) then Edoardo’s and finally Venchi (likely wouldn’t go back there)
Amalfi Coast: Divin Baguette in Maioiri for superb sandwiches; Pasticceria Sal de Riso in Minori for treats; Ristorante Cicirinella and Pizzeria Giagiu’ in Salerno (our favourite pizza on the trip!)
- Gelateria Giallo Limone and Zer0ttoNove Bar Caffetteria in Salerno both had fantastic sweets
Rome: Mercato di Testaccio (especially pizzeria Casa Manco); Roscioli Salumeria con Cucina and Pizzeria da Baffetto were both recommended by friends but were totally packed so we couldn’t try them
- Frigidarium (chocolate dipped gelato) and the Pasticceria Boccione (kosher bakery) were both delicious

How to Travel
Trains
- We took high speed Frecciarossa trains between our destinations – they go up to 300 km/hr. I booked all our tickets in advance using Trenitalia. The competitor company, Italo, would have been fine but I found the prices higher or the schedule less convenient for us. I spent some time calculating whether Eurail passes would be helpful, but in our case it was cheaper to buy each individual ticket.
- Always double check the stations you’ll travel to. For example, Pompeii Scavi is the closer train station to the ruins, not Pompeii, but we couldn’t get there (on time) from Salerno so we had to budget additional time.
- When you buy a train ticket you won’t know which direction the seat will face. Since there were two of us, we always bought seats facing each other so I could always take the seat facing forward (to avoid motion sickness). The trains have washrooms, in case of emergency.
- They provide complimentary snacks and drinks depending on the tickets you purchase; otherwise, you can purchase them on board for a small fee. We brought our own snacks.
- KN95 (FFP2) masks are required on board, unlike the American Airlines flight to and from Italy (with more than one maskless, coughing American). The conductors really take masking seriously in Italy as on more than one occasion I saw customers being reminded that cloth masks weren’t good enough and that they had to wear the FFP2 ones.
- The train platforms won’t necessarily show up on the screen until a few moments before departure, but you can ask a staff member where they’re more likely to depart from.

Ferries
- We bought all of our ferry tickets on the spot, rather than in advance. We never had to wait and were able to get on each ferry. That said, the ferry from Amalfi was chaotic and it was unclear where to wait or whether everyone would get on so try to get there early and consider buying those tickets online.
- There were restrooms on board but I saw one restroom out-of-order, so I’d recommend using the toilet while you’re still on land. And if you know you get motion sick, always carry a "barf bag" just in case.

Buses
- In Rome, we took a bus upon arrival. We purchased our tickets from a central booth and then had to validate the tickets once on the bus. I’ve heard stories about travelers not validating their tickets and then getting fined.

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My Travel Diary

Despite visiting all of its neighbours, I had never become acquainted with Italy until this year. When I stumbled across roundtrip tickets for less than $500 each, I knew it was time. The only issue? (Aside from the ongoing pandemic…) We only had one week! For that reason, this blog entry will be more like the antipasti than the main meal – it’ll give you a taste of Italy, while leaving you (and me!) wanting more.

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This was my first trans-Atlantic flight in over three years. Since the pandemic started I’ve become a nervous flyer, feeling uncomfortable with the idea of being trapped in a small space with so many strangers especially since there’s always a chance that my motion sickness may strike. So, even before boarding, I dreaded the thought of having to fly for ten hours each way. It helped me to think about everything I was excited for – the food, the hikes, the history – but, it helped me more to fall asleep after taking motion sickness medication. We arrived at Roma Fiumicino (Leonardo da Vinci) airport and made it to the train station within half an hour or so of landing despite my groggy state. I was shocked by how easy it was! Then I noticed the chaos of the train ticketing area: a couple of long lines, some broken machines, and many confused tourists. We skipped the machines and went straight to the line for ticketing agents. The trains could go to either Roma Tiburtina or Roma Termini – make sure you catch the right one! We headed to Tiburtina and from there we caught a train to Firenze (Florence) Santa Maria Novella train station.

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Upon arrival in Florence, I was instantly impressed. It’s bellisima! Across from the main train station, we stumbled upon the Basilica di Santa Maria Novella which is a Gothic church that’s hundreds of years old (like much of the city). The style, to me, looks similar to the famous Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, also known as “il duomo”. Seeing Brunelleschi’s amazing approaches to art and architecture (including the world’s biggest masonry dome) made me better understand how Florence was the starting point of the Renaissance. Brunelleschi, Donatello, Da Vinci, and Michelangelo (among many other talented people) all lived in Italy during the 15th century – what a roster of genius.

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To fuel our Florentine expedition, we needed plenty of food. Fortunately, in Italy, there’s never any shortage of gelato – in Florence alone, I tested GROM, Venchi, and Edoardo’s. As I learned in my college statistics classes: sample size matters! On our first day in Florence, after filling up on too many treats, our only meal was sandwiches at the famous All’antico Vinaio – I got vegetarian #2 with Stracciatella, pistachio cream, tomatoes and basil. On the second day, we ate a proper dinner at a nice patio on the other side of the river. The pizza took so long to arrive that I was tempted to offer my assistance in the kitchen, but it turned out to be well worth the wait. My favourite meal in Florence was actually at the Mercato Centrale where Dmitriy and I ate with my friend, Dave. The three of us split everything from liver on toast to pesto pasta. The only thing I didn’t try was the famous Florentine lampredotto (tripe sandwich) – weeks later, I still don’t regret not eating the fourth stomach of a cow. In addition to food, we made sure to quench our thirst with local drinks. Downstairs we purchased cappuccino at the Caffe del Mercato while upstairs we went for an Aperol Spritz, famous in that region. As a side note, you have to pay for water there, but at least, for once, the washrooms were free!

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Florence, like many cities, offers fantastic free walking tours; the only caveat is that you should tip the guide for their expertise and time. Dmitriy, Dave, and I spent a couple of hours wandering the streets of Florence with our guide from La Bussola Tours who gave us a solid foundation in Renaissance architecture and insight into the incredible power of the Medici family in the 1400s. He explained that, in his opinion, the Renaissance started in 1401 and ended in the 1520s. It was the perfect storm: wealth in Florence, competition between rich families, and the prominence of religion and skilled artists. Wealthy people, in those days, would be patrons to artists like Donatello or Michelangelo and insist on religious art being displayed around their palaces to show their virtue. Doing terrible things and then hanging pious paintings sounded like my trick of eating three gelatos but following up with a salad and calling that healthy eating. Everything is a matter of perspective!

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As we looked at the family coats of arms (like the 3 moons of the Strozzi family) on the palaces, we noticed how the buildings were built with bigger windows at the bottom and smaller windows on the highest floor to give the illusion of grandeur. All over Florence, we had to play with the illusion of reality: much of what you see is a replica, not an original. For example, outside of the Orsanmichele Church we saw a statue carved by Donatello… but not actually the one made by Donatello, just a copy. Regardless, the workmanship was incredible and we were fascinated to hear about how the church had been run by trade guilds like bankers, woolworkers, butchers, and sword makers, for example. I particularly liked the image of St. George made by Donatello, although every time I mentioned the artist’s name out loud my childhood obsession with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles bumped up against my adult art sensibilities.

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The tour ended at the Basilica di Santa Croce, where Michelangelo is buried (another great ninja turtle!). Apparently, it’s the largest Franciscan church in the world but it has a massive Star of David on the front façade in honour of the Jewish architect, Niccolo Matas. We took that as our sign to seek out the Jewish area of town, a short walk away (as most everything is in Florence). Sadly, the imposing Sinagoga e Museo Ebraico was closed by the time we arrived; however, we did bump into a nice American Jewish couple who highly recommend the Ba Ghetto kosher restaurant. Always good to get firsthand recommendations!

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Throughout our trip, Dmitriy and I made time for romance - admittedly, a pretty easy feat in Italy. So, on our last evening in Florence, we crossed the picturesque medieval Ponte Vecchio (where we had seen a proposal the night prior) to climb up to Piazzale Michelangelo and watch the sun set over the city. We had anticipated a serene scene but were met instead with throngs of like-minded tourists and the constant shutter of camera phones.

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So, our next stop, Salerno, came as a welcome respite with its local vibrancy complemented by quiet corners. Although it served as our base for a trip to Pompeii and the Amalfi Coast, Salerno is a beautiful city in its own right. Traces of human settlement in the area go back over 2,500 years and the city’s central cathedral hosts the tomb of St. Matthew. Since Salerno was the only city we visited where my friends and family hadn’t yet traveled, everything felt new to us. We opted to have dinner there both nights, wandering the wide pedestrian thoroughfare, Corso Vittorio Emanuele, to find the hidden restaurant Cicirinella and then the more prominent Pizzeria Giagiu’. In both cases, I enjoyed our dinners and also the subsequent treats at the delicious gelateria Giallo Limone and bar/café Zer0ttoNove Bar Caffetteria respectively. At the latter, Dmitriy ordered crema del nonno, which sounded slightly more questionable when translated into English: “grandfather’s cream”. Dmitriy, as always, was nonplussed and happily enjoyed his creamy iced coffee.

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While Dmitriy is generally a very easy-going person, our afternoon at Pompeii managed to get under his skin. For anyone who’s not been, the site is expansive – we’re talking over 98 acres of potential walking. When we arrived in the town of Pompeii, we weren’t at the train station closest to the ruins (Pompeii Scavi) which meant that even prior to the tour we had already walked half an hour in the heat. It turns out, unsurprisingly, that there’s very little shade, very few restrooms, and a whole lot of space to wander. Our guide, Melania, worked with the company “Enjoy Pompeii” and was full of interesting information. She started by providing us with context and myth-busting facts like how lava wasn’t the killer, but rather asphyxiation from the gas and metres of volcanic dust shrouding the city. These people’s nightmarish deaths were helpful for historians as everything is incredibly well-preserved. That said, during WWII, Pompeii was bombed many times so some areas are more damaged from the recent past than the ancient tragedies.

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Pompeii, like any contemporary city, went through different cultural transformations, but our guide talked to us most about who was living there in the first century AD. She talked to us about the earthquakes people experienced prior to the eruption and how the townspeople believed it was Bacchus (who they thought resided within Mt Vesuvius) sending them messages. Their main deity was Jupiter, and we saw evidence of this. Regardless, because Pompeii used to be a port city with people coming (and being forcefully brought) from all over, there were many languages and belief systems. For that reason, visuals were key to communication. For example, carved penises were used as street signs to advertise the 20+ brothels and within the brothels there were illustrated menus of sex positions with numbers underneath them. In fact, we saw phallic symbols all over the place. Apparently, horizontal penises were directional markers while etchings of vertical penises were actually symbols of prosperity.

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The richer families also had some beautiful frescoes and mosaics with all kinds of vibrant, less sexual images. Melania emphasized that the incredible artwork and advanced systems like windows, geothermal heat, sliding doors, roadways and so on were mainly made by enslaved people. Another disturbing fact that she told us was that life expectancy was very short. Many of the 20,000+ residents would die in their 30s because of improper hygiene, lead pipes, and lack of medicine; even prior to that, babies were often killed if they weren’t considered “perfect”. Melania’s tour certainly wasn’t uplifting, but it was informative.

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Our daytrip to Amalfi was a much gentler experience. We hadn’t bought ferry tickets in advance, so when we arrived at the dock at Salerno, we bought tickets for the next boat (regardless of where it was going!). After a very short 3-euro ferry ride, we got off at Maioiri. Because we knew we would be hiking the Sentiero dei Limone, Lemon Trail, we decided to stop and eat there first.

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We got to Divin Baguette shortly after opening, so the server had lots of time for us. This came in handy not only for my many questions about which sandwich to get (the salmon one was excellent!), but also for the miscommunication surrounding my order of “lemon juice”. In my mind, lemon juice obviously meant lemonade; I couldn’t fathom someone opting to suck on liquid lemons. To the server, lemonade was not “naturale” enough to serve, so his “lemon juice” was obviously just freshly squeezed lemons – nothing more, nothing less. Suffice it to say, the drink left a sour taste in my mouth. We knew that the Amalfi Coast was famous for lemon everything, from alcohol to desserts; however, we weren’t expecting that level of immersion.

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To access the trail, we began by climbing past the supermarket and up to Santuario Santa Maria e Mare with its beautiful green and yellow domes, preparing us for the many lemon orchards to come. The signs for the Lemon Trail were clearly marked, and truth be told it was mainly stair climbing past people’s homes and lemon trees – sometimes overhead, other times below us, but the plentiful lemons were always there. The views were stunning and we took about 45 minutes to walk (and photograph) it.

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This wasn’t exactly wilderness, but we did meet a few stray dogs and some mules on route to Minori. Next time I wouldn’t mind staying at one of the many B&Bs, or stopping for limoncello, but we decided to keep going past the beautiful mosaics down the stairs to Minori and the Basilica I Santa Trofimena. We bought treats and boarded a ferry to Amalfi, savouring the sweet flavours and sights simultaneously.

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Arriving in Amalfi your eyes feast on the cliffs and colours, and it’s clear that this town is much bigger (and busier) than the others along the southern coast.

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The beaches were full of little pebbles, and all privatized so we set off instead for the central square: the Piazza Flavia Gioia. We appreciated the Fontana di Sant’Andrea and Cattedrale di Sant’Andrea, dating back to the 9th century. We then walked past famous fountains like the one devoted to donkeys, the Fontana “de Cape ‘e Ciucci”, built in the 18th century. I’m not sure how donkeys and dolls are connected, but this fountain has been decorated with dolls since the 1970s. Fortunately, they weren’t half as creepy as the dolls littering Xochimilco in Mexico City. Chucky couldn’t hold a candle to them. Following Lorenzo d’Amalfi, we arrived at Dalla Carta alla Cartolina/Scuderia del Duca – a casual postal museum and stationery store. I’m not quite sure what a postal museum is supposed to look like, but this one certainly surprised me. I had very little time to explore its contents before needing a washroom. This was an ongoing challenge in Italy. I’m not asking for a Tim Horton’s on each corner, but at least one public washroom for every few blocks would be helpful. Fortunately, there’s a public washroom near the Museu della Carta uphill from where all the tourism is, so I had access to a free toilet. It turns out there’s also a beautiful waterfall, gorgeous mountain views, and access to a hike up there.

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Eventually, we made our way downhill to walk over to the neighbouring town of Atrani. It’s exceptionally narrow and tall. We didn’t stay long before heading back to Amalfi to catch our ferry. Unfortunately, the ride to Salerno was less than pleasant. Of all three ferries that day it was the ferry from Amalfi to Salerno which was, (1) the longest ride; and, (2) the bumpiest ride. It didn’t help that the washroom was broken. The views were still beautiful but I didn’t appreciate paying 9 euro for nausea. A man behind me paid to vomit. I got the better deal.

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Speaking of transit, the trains were all wonderful – spacious and clean. I felt bad for the tourists with suitcases so large that they could barely fit in the overhead storage areas though. One woman looked about ready to leave the country and go home, cursing and muttering about the weight. The irony is that she wasn’t even doing any manual labour as a young Italian man had lifted her suitcase for her since she was blocking everyone from taking their seats. Because we never knew which direction the train would go, we had purchased seats across from each other. I knew it would be easier that way since my motion sickness won’t let me face backwards on a moving vehicle and I wasn’t sure how accommodating our train companions would be. I found out pretty quickly that not everyone takes the seats they pay for. On our journey from Salerno to Rome, we noticed an elderly Italian couple across the aisle who were seated beside the windows and had pulled out countless snacks. In Naples, a foreign couple got on and tried to kindly inform the old Italians that they were in their seats. After about five minutes of miscommunication and much huffing and puffing, the Italian man pretended to start gathering his goods but his wife stopped him. Dmitriy and I stared out the window, not daring to make eye contact with the naughty nonna. We got off at Roma Termini station and promptly our luck ended. We couldn’t figure out where to buy tickets for the train to Trastevere station which was leaving in a matter of minutes. Instead, we bought bus tickets, which turned out to be a blessing as it helped us situate where we were and how ancient this city really is. When we got to our B&B, we also quickly learned how prehistoric the elevator was. The doors had to be manually shut for it to work. We learned this when, approaching our floor, we excitedly started opening the inner door and the elevator abruptly came to a halt. We were stuck in the elevator a few inches below where the floor should have been. Fortunately, we’re good escape artists and we made our way back to solid ground within a matter of minutes. It’s a good thing too because no one responded to my cries for help; instead, an older Italian woman on the ground floor began yelling for us to hurry because she needed the elevator asap for her groceries. It’s a hectic city and this was just the beginning.

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The day we arrived in Rome I had booked us a Vatican City Museums tour, so we had to hurriedly walk through Trastevere. We stopped along the way very briefly to take in sites like the 15th century Ponte Sisto and Castel Sant’Angelo (built BC by Emperor Hadrian as a mausoleum). It’s impossible to capture just how much life is vibrantly on display in the streets of Rome, and Italy overall. There’s an incredible togetherness when cities are built for people, not cars. Our tour started at 3pm and we arrived early at the Basilica di San Pietro, the world’s largest church and supposedly where Peter the apostle is entombed. We realized fairly late that we were at the wrong spot and we had to rush to the other side of the city where the museums are located. Everywhere was packed, and I’d made the mistake of not eating a proper meal yet – relying on free snacks instead. The lack of sleep, water, and food combined with the heat and crowds wasn’t an ideal combination. I found it hard to take in everything the small guide was loudly lecturing about.

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She started the tour by explaining the symbolism of the Sistine Chapel including the size of the books that captured details of who would go to heaven and who to hell. I found listening to her less important than actually being present in the chapel (after the tour had ended) and taking in the immensity of the artwork: from Jonah and the Whale to Moses parting the sea, I was amazed by the detail and beauty of the tableaus. The chapel itself is also home to many security guards whose job it is to keep the area quiet and keep people from taking photos. They failed over and over again, until finally one of them warmed up a microphone and in a tone and pace like that of a Gregorian chant, he began reciting his prayer for “silenzio” followed by “no fotos” and finishing with “no videos”. I was entranced; Dmitriy was irritated.

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On the museums tour, we just scratched the surface of Vatican City's immeasurable wealth. But the guide never mentioned any of the controversies, like what's covered in articles like this: https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/metis-researcher-counter-narrative-vatican-indigenous-1.6394948. We started the physical tour by walking through a courtyard with a giant pine cone and peacocks, which were originally built near the pantheon (decidedly not a monotheistic locale). We also saw Pomodoro’s sfera con sfera showing the dynamic and fragile nature of the world. The gravity of the work was lightened by the English translation of the artist’s name: Mr. Tomato. We kept exploring the endless museums like Pio-clementino with sculptures predating Christianity like Laocoon (40 BC) which tells the story of the Trojan War. Our guide talked about how the Romans imitated the Greeks, their styles and stories. She gave us a long lecture about it; my short attention span couldn't keep up.

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One of my favourite rooms was actually the map room, which depicted the many areas of Italy in surprising orientations (by modern cartography standards). We also saw more recent works like in the Sala dell’Immacolata (19th to 21st centuries), the Rooms of Raphael, the Room of Eliodora and other modern art by Dali and Chagall; however, the guide was in such a rush that we couldn’t even stop to see these pieces. In her tour, she shared too many details but not enough foundational information. Bits and pieces stuck with me though like how often faces would be dedications in art. For example, the Pope’s face might be painted on a hero’s body. It was also curious how only living people would be painted looking directly at the audience. She also underscored trivia like how all of the guards in the Vatican City are Swiss, which dates back to the reputation of the Swiss as killer mercenaries. Apparently, it had nothing to do with their chocolate-making abilities or purported neutrality – I guess those aren’t skills you look for when hiring people to save your life. Overall, I felt destroyed by the time we finally entered the Sistine Chapel at the end. We took our time sitting on a bench staring up at the glorious artwork, but it was hard to fully absorb the magnitude of the magnificence. Regardless, my feet welcomed the rest. On our way out, we still had to pass by multiple stores, cafeterias, and myriad other museum exhibits about topics like coins and stamps. In fact, they have a Vatican post office where you can buy a special stamp and send your mail. Whether the secular system will deliver the holy mail is another story. Right before exiting the Vatican City, we saw a small stand with photos and quotes about Indigenous people like “Your culture… must not be allowed to disappear”. The irony was not lost on me.

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Hungry and tired, Dmitriy and I wandered in circles until he found a restaurant he was confident in. I’m less bothered by reviews when hungry, but Dmitriy is a stickler for stars. We ordered immediately and were promptly brought a multitude of antipasti. My fried tempura zucchini tasted mediocre at first bite, but it was the second that surprised me. It turns out that the cook had run out of the cheese advertised in the menu so had substituted… anchovies! Suffice it to say I’d rather sip pure lemon juice than bite into something so fishy. Sadly, “Claps” is not a restaurant I’d recommend if you have dietary allergies, or preferences. Anyway, we made up for it later. After wandering the Mattatoio area, which used to be a slaughterhouse and industrial complex, we came across the open-air Mercato di Testaccio. It had live music, dancing, and (most importantly) tons of great food stalls. We tried four different types of pizza at Casa Manco before waddling our bloated bodies to the dance floor. They played English, Spanish and Italian music… and hosted a Zumba class! We had a great time and I loved that everywhere we went felt so safe, even in a big city like Rome. It was a welcome change. That said, it’s a fairly dirty city – there’s litter and graffiti all over!

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Speaking of safety, a trend on this trip was people trying to enter our hotel rooms. In Rome, this meant that at 1 am we suddenly heard jangling on the door handle, while in Salerno it was the housekeeper entering before 9 am every day (which somehow felt less reasonable). Our first morning in Rome, we were awoken to knocking on the door because it turned out (for once) breakfast was included but we hadn’t indicated what we wanted to eat. We weren’t thrilled about being woken up like that, but the delicious breakfast in bed was worth it.

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We still opted for a second breakfast – we didn’t want to repeat the mistake of undereating. I had read about Rome’s Jewish quarter and wanted to experience it for myself, whether we attended services at the synagogue, visited the museum or just ate some tasty kosher treats. In the end, we opted to pick up sour cherry ricotta cheesecake (crostata di ricotta e visciole) from Pasticceria Boccione – it was soft on the inside and perfectly crispy on the outside. Dmitriy and I shared a slice, but secretly wished we’d bought at least two.

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We also wandered past the impressive Tempio Maggiore di Roma, built in the early 1900s after centuries of Jewish people being contained within the Jewish ghetto. The Jewish Museum is located within the temple building, while the powerful Fondazione Museo della Shoah, Holocaust Museum, can be found beside it. We wandered through the latter and learned more about the resilient Roman Jewish community. In fact, Italian Jewry date back over 2,000 years. A couple of friends had recommended going on one of the Jewish tours in Rome and Florence (the food tours looked especially great!), but we never found the time. As a side note, one of the companies that came recommended was: https://www.florence-jewish-tours.com.

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The famous Arch of Titus tells some of the story of Jewish enslaved people being brought to Rome. With its implicit and explicit depictions of the Roman attack on Jerusalem, destruction of the sacred temple, murder and enslavement of Jews and pillaging of their treasures (like the famous menorah), it’s a harsh reminder of how Jewish life in Israel was drastically altered leading to thousands of years of diaspora living for so many Jews. I hated how this was being celebrated in this arch, which is, to so many tourists, seen as just another unique piece of ancient art on their trip to the imposing Colosseum. There's always a juxtaposition between recognizing the beauty of a place and reflecting on its bloody past, I suppose.

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Before leaving for Italy, I was really torn about whether we should take tours at Pompeii and the Colosseum but after speaking to friends about it, it became clear that if you aren’t a historian or archeologist, you should probably take a tour. Our Roman guide was incredibly enthusiastic even when recounting gruesome details of the Colosseum’s construction. He discussed how macabre the Colosseum was: from the enslaved people who were made to fight (and die) as gladiators to how Romans killed so many lions that they became extinct in North Africa. The amphitheatre, though it may not look like it, was the largest ever built, yet it was built in eight years (in the first century AD). The guide facetiously pointed out that the metro stop there has been in a state of renovations and upgrades for over ten years already. He should try visiting cities like Toronto or Chicago where extreme weather means that transit expansion, let alone maintenance, feels like it takes millennia. Anyway, at its peak, the Colosseum could hold 50-80,000 people who were able to watch the performances free of charge. Apparently, this was (and still is) a popular political strategy: distract the populace with free entertainment so they won’t fight back against the squalor.

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A lot of innovations went into making the Colosseum: they would flood the stage and host water shows or have set changes with exotic plants they’d pull up and down using lifts and underground tunnels. The roof itself was even retractable! I made a joke about the Toronto Skydome, but I think the guide’s laughter was an automatic response rather than actual acknowledgement. He lectured us about the many uses of the Colosseum: entertainment, housing, and even prayer. On site we saw a lot of original relics like graffiti from the stadium, seats, and mosaics. While wandering, we were fortunate enough to hear an Italian singer taking advantage of the acoustics – her striking sounds wafted up through the air lending us an impression of how exciting it must have been to see a performance of any kind in a structure so intentionally built to bring together tens of thousands. We also watched our guide’s flirting in action as he complimented the singer and invited her to join our group... as long as her boyfriend wouldn’t mind.

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The Roman Forum was literal layers of history. Once again, it felt overwhelming trying to catch all the details spilling out. The guide picked ancient artefacts up off the ground and reminded us never to think of the past as just one static point in time because it’s a mishmash of so many cultures and civilizations coexisting, killing, and conquering. There are so many distinct periods of time with so many unique customs that he could never answer a question like “what was marriage like for the Romans?” without specifying which century he was considering for his response. He hurried us past the crowds and into a church that was unearthed after destroying the one on top of it – frescoes of sullen faces were still fresh after 1400 years. I can only imagine how humans would be perceived if the images unearthed thousands of years from now were of botox-infused duckfaces. The guide pointed out Basilica Giulia, the temple of Rumulus and other places frequented by emperors like Caesar. The Roman Forum was always a gathering area while the Palatine Hill was for the emperors. We were forced to explore that area ourselves as the tour abruptly ended after two hours (I thought it would last three). Based on the signage, we learned about the ruins of Temple of Vesta where the Vestal Virgins kept the flame burning to signify Rome as an eternal city – no men were allowed except one, and the women would be buried alive if they made a mistake. Linkedin would have trouble advertising that one. Meanwhile, the Imperial Palace took up the whole hill above and was split into three parts. We were exhausted by the time we made it up the hill so we quickly looked around the Farnese Gardens (named after the family that bought this land in the 16th century), took photos for a tall tourist and then headed to get our Covid testing done. At this point, the US was still requiring negative antigen or PCR tests for re-entry. I found it odd that people were forced to test before entering the country, but they weren’t required to wear masks on the 10+ hour flights. I’m not the one making the rules though, just abiding by them (with negative test in hand).

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While in Rome it felt inappropriate not to visit the key tourist spots, so we made sure to snack in Piazza Navona, pose on the Spanish Steps (not sit though – that’s prohibited!), fill our water bottles outside the Pantheon, throw coins into the Trevi Fountain and stare in awe at the Piazza Venezia. I was most impressed by Trevi Fountain, much to my surprise. I couldn’t believe how huge it was! Neptune is incredibly detailed for his size and I can only imagine that even in the 18th century the crowds must have been huge. It’s an interesting spot too because on the one corner you have this fountain which is hundreds of years old and the other is a Benetton.

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One of the older customs that some restaurants still honour is being closed on a Sunday. So, when it came time for our last supper we made our way to Roscioli Salumeria con Cucina, a place my friend Adrian had recommended, only to learn that it was not accepting new patrons and that many of the surrounding restaurants were closed. While frantically searching for an open, tasty restaurant, the tall red-headed man from the Colosseum strolled up. It turned out that he was from Amsterdam and was equally surprised by the coincidence of us running into each other again in such a large city. Fortunately for us he recommended Pizzeria da Baffetto and the Gelataria Frigidarium next door to it. We chose to eat at a restaurant in Piazza Camp de’ Fiori instead because of its phenomenal people-watching, including a very dramatic fight wherein a woman angrily crossed her arms, turned around, and then stormed off from a friend who promptly burst into tears. We couldn’t hear what transpired, but the stereotype was proven true: Italians really do talk with their hands.

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Our last night ended with my sticky gelato hands meeting Dmitriy’s for a sweet slow dance on the Ponte Sisto footbridge to acoustic guitar music. We pulled ourselves away from the moonlit river and our private concert to wander the winding alleys of Trastevere, full of fun and mischief. Although it was hard to say "ciao Italia", I’m looking forward to sampling many more of its flavours in the future...

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Posted by madrugada 19:11 Archived in Italy Tagged mountains beaches churches buildings food architecture hiking italy florence paradise rome beauty ancient eating amalfi tuscany cafes minori pandemic salerno amalfi_coast romantic_getaway bilingual_travel atrani maiori Comments (0)

Back to Beautiful B.C.

Wandering Western Canada

sunny 28 °C

Sample Itinerary (Vancouver and Vancouver Island)
- Day 1: Vancouver
- Day 2: Vancouver Island: Sidney, Island View Beach, Victoria (downtown and Cook St. Village/Beacon Hill Park)
- Day 3: Vancouver Island: Juan de Fuca Beach Trail (French Beach, China Beach, and Sombrio Beach)
- Day 4: Vancouver Island: Sooke Potholes, Victoria (Dallas Rd. circuit including Cadboro Bay)
- Day 5: Vancouver: Granville Island, picnic dinner at Kitsilano Beach
- Day 6: Vancouver: English Bay Beach, Stanley Park, Downtown dinner
- Day 7: Vancouver: Van Dusen Botanical Gardens and Queen Elizabeth Park, picnic dinner at Spanish Banks
- Day 8: Pacific Spirit Park and UBC campus
Optional: daytrip to Whistler or Squamish from Vancouver; visit other islands, e.g., Salt Spring or Quadra; travel further north up Vancouver Island to Cathedral Grove and Tofino/Ucluelet (surfing and storm-watching capital)

Where to Stay
- East Sooke, Vancouver Island: SookePoint Ocean Cottage Resort Rentals (~$400 CAD)
- Victoria, Vancouver Island: Helm’s Inn (~$150 CAD)
- Vancouver: Hotel or Airbnb in Gastown, Yaletown, or Kitsilano

Where to Eat
- Victoria, Vancouver Island: Rebar (vegetarian cuisine), Red Fish Blue Fish (seafood take-out), Pagliacci’s (upscale Italian), Blue Fox Café (brunch), Moka House Coffee in Cook St. Village (snacks and coffee), Little June in Fernwood (snacks and coffee), Fernwood Inn (casual pub fare), and the Empress Hotel for high tea
- Shirley, Vancouver Island: Stoked Wood Fired Pizzeria and Market (delicious pizza near French Beach)
- Vancouver: Arbutus Coffee (Kitsilano), Siegel’s Bagels on Granville Island (rosemary rocksalt with lox and cream cheese!), Petit Ami (great caffeinated drinks on Granville Island), Bella Gelateria (award-winning flavours located near Canada Place), Japadog (chain of gourmet Japanese hot dogs), Terra Breads (chain of tasty baked goods – especially the scones!), Aphrodite’s Organic Pie Shop (surprisingly tasty focaccia too!), Maria’s Taverna (affordable, delicious Greek food in Kitsilano)

Covid-19 Policies
- As a Canadian, I didn’t have to take a test or quarantine since I was flying from another Canadian province and am double vaccinated but I did have to pay $100 for a rapid viral antigen test to fly back into the U.S.
- As of August 9, 2021, fully-vaccinated U.S. citizens and permanent residents are able to fly into Canada as long as they’ve had a negative test within 72 hours of entering the country, and take one more test upon entry
- Be mindful of changing travel policies at both the federal and provincial level in Canada, and then your local pandemic travel policies too

My Travel Diary

Vancouver

There was a reflective feeling to this trip, partially because I was journeying to the past by visiting a city I had lived in years ago but mainly because I arrived in Vancouver, B.C. shortly after the discovery of hundreds of unmarked graves near former residential schools across Canada. There was nothing surprising about the announcement because it’s well known that a number of children died or were killed at these sites, but it was horrific nevertheless. There is so much work that Canada, the church, and individuals still need to do not only to address the past, but also to improve the present. There’s a lot of talk about “allyship” nowadays, but it misses the mark if we’re not looking at our own lives, workplaces, and social interactions to make positive changes. In Vancouver, this took the form of protests in front of the Vancouver Art Gallery to “Cancel Canada Day”, which also included placing hundreds of children’s shoes on the steps, and showcasing a plethora of signs encouraging people to take a moment of silence amid other concrete actions. It was a strange Canada Day all around because there were so many competing (and very visible, vocal) viewpoints: people wanting to celebrate Canada Day, others advocating for its cancelation, and others still fixated on rallying against Covid-19 vaccinations. We stayed publicly-apolitical in our celebrations because we wanted to maintain distance and chose to reflect amongst ourselves instead. I visited the protest in front of the Vancouver Art Gallery days later where any bystander could still feel the raw pain palpating through the air.

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Vancouver isn’t a large city, mainly because of its topographical constraints. For that reason, it’s easier to find a few neighbourhoods of interest and explore them in-depth. On this trip, I made Kitsilano my base, so I spent a good deal of time at Granville Island: trying to eat my food in between aggressive, coordinated seagull attacks. Obviously this is where Hitchcock found his inspiration for "The Birds".

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If you’re an old soul and fear that Kitsilano will be too loud and hip with its ironically named boutiques (looking at you, Spank) and Instagrammable bars, restaurants, and cafes, I can safely say you’ll be fine. Although it has a few bustling strips, its overall vibe is more like an island beach town. Ultimately, in most place, nobody notices you since they’re so caught up in their own worlds anyway. Mostly I appreciated Kitsilano’s proximity to beaches, which, I should admit, isn’t hard to accomplish anywhere in Vancouver. As a tourist in Vancouver, there’s almost no need to eat in a restaurant when you can just order take-out and sit on the beach instead. This lends itself well to a safer pandemic social outing too. So, wearing our uniform of bathing suits and flip flops we enjoyed sunset picnics at Kitsilano Beach and also nature’s even more stunning angles from Spanish Banks and Jericho Beach. A definite highlight was when my sister and I ventured out in low tide at Spanish Banks one morning. There was an illusion of so much exposed sand to the point where it felt like we’d be able to walk out to the tankers (we definitely couldn’t!).

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Any visit to Vancouver will likely include a trip to Stanley Park. Unwilling to buck the trend, my sister and I spent a few hours wandering the paths, admiring the Totem poles, and smelling the flowers. Although the views are beautiful in Stanley Park, I was more surprised by the biodiversity at Van Dusen Botanical Gardens and the sights at Queen Elizabeth Park. The Botanical Gardens were reasonably priced at just under $12 (CAD) each, and we spent two hours wandering through the grounds following the map and creating our own self-guided tour. The redwoods were a treasure, and a reminder of our responsibility to protect the planet in the face of human destruction, pollution, wildfires and deforestation. In fact, even flying into Vancouver, the air was hazy as a result of all of the smoke. I also happened to arrive at the tail-end of the worst heatwave they’ve ever experienced: hundreds of people died, and a town literally burned to the ground. Climate change is very real, and devastatingly efficient.

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Queen Elizabeth Park is just over 50 hectares and is actually the highest point in the city of Vancouver, so from the elegant Seasons in the Park restaurant you can take in the city skyline against the many mountains. It just so happened that while I was in Vancouver, a number of friends from across Canada were also visiting B.C. So, I was fortunate enough to have really fun group outings with friends. At Seasons, two friends from grad school and I reunited for the first time in about seven years: one visiting from the east coast, and the other living in Vancouver permanently. On another occasion, I met two friends from Toronto who both happened to be visiting this western paradise too. One brought his young son to our adventure outing, so we bore witness to the realness of a sugar high and its subsequent crash. Another friend has temporarily created an island escape for himself, so we also spent time lazily soaking up the sun with him. It was really rejuvenating seeing so many people from such disparate points in my life. It just so happened that I had arrived shortly after the pandemic policies had loosened, so I was legally able to enjoy the company of others. My cousin also hosted us in her beautiful backyard, so I got to hear about her kids’ pandemic education experiences and how she and her husband had been coping work-wise. As an epidemiologist, I suppose society finally understands the value in what she does! Had I visited a month before even these outdoor encounters may have been trickier, but as it stood, I had the chance to see familiar faces and also work on my own anxieties transitioning away from being a recluse hiding out under my mask like Zorro or the Phantom.

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Although visiting a university campus may not be a top priority for a tourist, I highly recommend visiting the University of British Columbia (UBC). On the way there, you pass through Pacific Spirit Regional Park where you can spend hours hiking the 750 hectares of forest. The smells and sounds of the cedars, maples, and other gentle giants were so reassuring. It felt like one of the calmest points on my trip. It helped that my sister and I were hiking with our mom’s best friend who is like a walking meditation app – she’s got the most peaceful presence, and reminded us to just take deep breaths while setting a tone that feels good for everyone. Afterwards, the three of us took the chance to explore the UBC campus with my sister playing tour guide. The most important features were likely the water fountains and washrooms since it was a hot day, and fortunately they were plentiful. The most scenic spot was definitely the rose garden. From right above the gardens, you can look out at the ocean and overlapping mountains. If I hadn’t injured my knee, we likely would have also climbed down the 500 steps to clothing-optional Wreck Beach on campus but alas we had to forgo the naked beachgoers and just head back to the crop tops of Kits instead.

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Throughout my time in Vancouver, I noticed a lot of charming community initiatives. The Arbutus Greenway in Kitsilano stands out: it provided a green walkway, full of community gardens, back to my accommodation from my frequent visits to Granville Island. Even the island felt like its own inclusive community with its friendly shop owners like at Granville Island Treasures. The more I enjoyed Vancouver the more I wondered why I’d ever left B.C. But a visit to Vancouver or Vancouver Island in June or July is very different than time spent there in October or November – I enjoyed the colourful landscape without the gray filter. There are countless other questions of fit (apart from probability of precipitation) when determining where to move, so for now a visitation will definitely suffice.

Vancouver Island

Driving to Vancouver Island was a first for me. Not that we literally drove on water (although I’m sure that’ll be viable in a few years thanks to Mr. Musk), but I don’t think I’ve ever boarded the ferry by car before. It definitely saved us time because we didn’t have to coordinate our public transit from Vancouver to Tsawwassen or from Schwarz Bay to Victoria (which takes hours, cumulatively). Although I haven’t really felt increased anxiety on buses, it has worsened on planes so I half-expected to feel a pounding heart on the ferry but to my delight that never happened. My sea legs were shaky at times, but my motion sickness never materialized either. It really helped that we were able to sit outside and observe spectacular scenery, and that the whole trip was only about an hour and a half.

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Arriving on the island, we stopped by Sidney to take in all of its book shops. Even if you’re not a Belle (i.e., a bookworm), you can still enjoy the views and dining options. Views were clearly better from Island View Beach though, which we walked along en route to Victoria. On a clear day, you have some incredible vistas, although I don’t think anything compares to the views from Victoria’s Dallas Rd.

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My priority every time I’ve been back to Victoria has been to retrace my past: eat at my favourite restaurant (Rebar), spot the peacocks in my favourite park (Beacon Hill), grab a drink at my favourite café (Moka House in Cook St. Village), and visit my old neighbourhoods. This time I donned my tourist guide cap so that my sister’s boyfriend could soak in more of the Victorian vibe. We wandered Fan Tan Alley, which is actually the narrowest street in Canada’s oldest Chinatown, so that they could get an idea of the invaluable impact that Chinese-Canadians have had on B.C.’s culture. We also strolled past the Empress Hotel, which is over 100 years old, a popular site for tourists to take photos, have high tea, or use the restrooms (the latter being especially important if you opt-in to tea time). I showed them the museums from the outside, but none of us were interested in entering buildings unnecessarily in spite of the island having low case counts.

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This was my first time visiting, let alone staying in, East Sooke, so it really felt like an adventure for all of us. The rustic location of our resort meant that we truly felt isolated from the world but wholly one with nature. It helped that our main source of entertainment was watching the ocean’s waves and finding new incredible vantage points for watching the sunset. On one sunset stroll, we interrupted a romantic embrace atop a hill, a.k.a., a new construction mound. As it happens, my sister had competed against one of the lovers in Ontario-wide sporting events years ago. We all cheerfully reminisced about the olden days when everyone knew someone on Degrassi and MuchMusic actually played music videos.

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We took in plenty of incredible views while hiking (or “walking” according to my sister’s boyfriend) around the west side of the island: from Sombrio to China to French Beach – listed in order of ease. We spent the most time at Sombrio Beach, which makes sense because it’s the most challenging to reach! My sister and her boyfriend took a quasi-hidden path to beautiful waterfalls in a cave, but I opted to relax on the beach instead. Along the way I met a nice German tourist who gave me toilet tips (avoid the outhouse by the waterfall path, if possible) – it still feels unnatural engaging in casual conversation, and I prefer it to be outdoors. I could never have imagined that meeting strangers would be nerve-wracking, but a full pandemic later here we are. On this trip, I actually ended up talking to a few people about newfound social anxieties. In a boutique shop, a salesperson and I commiserated about how hard it can be to get out of our heads. Closing time passed and we kept chatting. Maybe the key to vanquishing pandemic-induced anxieties is forgetting they exist.

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Overall, aside from more deforestation and newer developments (neither ideal), the areas of the island that were familiar to me in the past still felt recognizable to me now. There’s something comforting about stepping into your old grocery store and still seeing the same specialty items available, or walking through your favourite park and stopping at the cutest turtle pond to throw stones. No matter where you move, you can’t escape the past you’ve created. Not that I’d ever want to forget the beauty of B.C., even if the sun has set on that chapter of my life.

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Posted by madrugada 21:06 Archived in Canada Tagged waterfalls sunsets_and_sunrises beaches people food victoria ocean wildlife nature hiking restaurants ferries scenery summer paradise wilderness canada vancouver british_columbia vancouver_island protest forests roses cafes indigenous environment picnics granville_island safe_travel western_canada island_time scenic_road_trip sand_and_sea return_to_canada reentry social_distance east_sooke sooke u_b_c Comments (0)

Hawaiian Island Hopping

Aloha Oahu and the Big Island!

Sample Itinerary for 5 days on Oahu and 5 days on the Big Island

Day 1: Arrive in Honolulu, Oahu
- Walk around Waikiki and down Ala Wai blvd.
- Swim at Ala Moana Beach

Day 2: Honolulu
- Hike Diamond Head
- Explore historical sites: King Kamehameha’s statue, Iolani Palace, the State Capitol and Kawaiaha’o Church
- Swim and dine at Waikiki

Day 3: Honolulu and the East Coast
- Hanauma Bay
- Makapu’u hike
- Waimanalo (for lunch)
- Pearl Harbour
- Dinner in Waikiki

Day 4: North Shore and Polynesian Cultural Center
- Haleiwa (for breakfast)
- Laniakea Beach (check out the turtles!)
- Waimea Beach
- Sunset Beach and Turtle Bay Resort
- Polynesian Cultural Center (including the lu’au buffet dinner)

Day 5: Kane’ohe area and Honolulu
- Byodo-In Temple
- Lanikai Pillbox Hike
- Pali Lookout
- Ala Moana Beach to watch sunset
- Fly to the Big Island

Day 6: Kona on the Big Island
- Walk around town
- Swim at Magic Sands Beach

Day 7: Kona's Surrounding Sites
- Snorkel at Two Step Beach
- Visit Pu'uhonua o Honaunau National Historic Park
- Check out Kealakekua Bay

Day 8: Drive east to Hilo
- Manini'owali Beach/Kua Bay
- Lunch in Waimea
- Chasing waterfalls: Akaka, Umauma, Rainbow

Day 9: Volcanoes
- Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

Day 10: Back west to Kona and fly home
- Botanical World Adventures near Hilo
- Maunakea
- Mountain Thunder Coffee Company near Kona
- Stroll around Kona and watch sunset at Magic Sands Beach

Where to Stay
- Honolulu, Oahu: Wyndham Vacation Resorts Royal Garden at Waikiki
- Kona, Big Island: Airbnb

Where to Eat
Oahu
- Nanding’s Bakery near Diamond Head – the best macadamia nut cookie you’ll ever have
- Duke’s Waikiki Restaurant - great salad buffet, and right on the beach
- World Famous Hawaii HotDogs beside the State Supreme Court - hot dogs pair well with lilikoi (passionfruit) soda
- Hawaiian Island Café in Waimanalo - the gorg sandwich is amazing!
- Coffee Gallery in Haleiwa – mocha freeze was a great way to wake up
- Koa Pancake House in Kane’ohe – excellent macadamia nut sauce on the pancakes

Big Island
- Fish Hopper Restaurant in Kona -- beautiful view of the water, and tasty breakfast
- Annie's Burgers in Kealakekua -- award-winning burgers
- Humpy's in Kona -- good food, better view of the beach volleyball court right next door
- Waimea Coffee Company -- good caffeinated beverages
- Cafe Pesto -- best restaurant in Hilo, hands-down
- Papa Pa'aluo Bakery -- amazing apple bran muffins
- Island Ono Loa Grill in Kona -- creative burgers

What to Bring
- Sunscreen, dressy and casual clothing, swimsuit, flip flops, hat, sunglasses, umbrella, hiking boots/running shoes, USD cash, assistive devices, etc.

My Travel Diary
Departing from Chicago for Oahu, the Hawaiian island with roughly two-thirds of the state’s population, we had to fly through Oakland. When we arrived in Honolulu, Hawaii’s capital city, we were both exhausted from our 10+ hours of flying so we promptly picked up our Alamo rental car and headed straight to the Wyndham Vacation Resorts Royal Garden at Waikiki. Unfortunately, the parking there was pricey, so instead we parked about 20 minutes away where the street parking was free and available. As it turns out there is free parking right beside the hotel on Ala Wai blvd., but it’s rarely available since it’s such a hot commodity. Tiredness aside, we were both really happy to feel the Hawaiian heat (yes, even at night you could feel it!).

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Since we were in Hawaii for such a short time and had decided to explore two islands, our itinerary was packed. This approach is not for everyone, and if/when we go back we'll likely try for a longer trip so that we can spend more time relaxing, and also budget time for more islands: Kauai and Maui. Back to Oahu! As soon as we woke up on our first day in Honolulu, I was already pushing us both out the door to hike Diamond Head. In my rush, I forgot to bring cash – big mistake! You can’t enter Diamond Head, whether you’re walking, running, or driving, without cash. Our delay had a plus side though: it meant more time to savor the baked treats we’d purchased at Nanding’s Bakery. Once we finally got our cash (we only needed $1 USD per person to walk in!) and made it back to Diamond Head, it was already packed. We still managed to find a free parking spot on the way in, and save ourselves slightly more cash… to later spend on cookies, clearly. When you arrive at the base of the trail, you’ll notice some explanatory signs. That’s where I learned that Diamond Head was named such by explorers in the 1700s who thought the calcite crystals there were actually diamonds, but in Hawaiian it’s known as Le’ahi because its profile resembles the ahi fish.

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The trail is open every day from 6 am to 6 pm, although you can’t enter after 4:30 pm. It’s only a 1.3-kilometre hike to the summit, but you’re climbing up 560 feet. The hike itself wouldn’t have been too challenging compared to what I’ve done in the past, but compounded with the lack of sleep, my underlying conditions, and heat, it caused my body to react in strange ways. I felt lightheaded, heavy chested, and nauseous to the point where I made it about 10 minutes from the top and had to turn around. I get really upset when I set goals that I don’t reach. My boyfriend kept going and showed me photos, but that’s just not the same. It seems that I turned around at a popular spot because I ended up hiking down with some other Canadians (whose accents were just as absent as mine). When I reached the bottom, I purchased one of the many pineapple products available to drown my sorrows. I also took a look in the mirror, and realized that I resembled the lobster from the Little Mermaid. Not a good look.

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Keeping with the diamond theme, we drove by the Diamond Head Lighthouse, which was first built in 1899 and later rebuilt in 1917. After our brief drive southeast, we returned to Honolulu to see King Kamehameha and Queen Liliuokalani’s respective statues, Iolani Palace, the State Capitol and Kawaiaha’o Church. The church was the first built on Oahu, in the early to mid 1800s and continues to use Hawaiian in parts of its service. It’s made of coral rock, which I found really visually appealing. The most beautiful building though, to me, was the Iolani Palace. Surprisingly, it was only finished in the late 1800s but the site had already served as residence to multiple Hawaiian kings (in another building that was later demolished), and was considered a site of worship prior to that. The last monarch of Hawaii, Queen Liliuokalani, was actually imprisoned there for months after her ousting from the throne. There’s a lot to explore at the palace, and it’s open Monday to Saturday 9 am to 3:30 pm with admission set at $20 USD using an audio guide, which is available in nine languages.

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Right behind the palace are huge, graceful banyan trees, a statue of Queen Liliuokalani and the Hawaiian State Capitol building, which is open to public visits. I’d recommend taking a tour if you’re interested in architecture – particularly if you like Bauhaus or 1960s architecture.

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While you’re in the area it’s worth paying homage to King Kamehameha who united the islands we now call Hawaii in the early 1800s. His bronze statue stands tall at 18-feet in front of Aliiolani Hale (Hawaiian Supreme Court Building). History doesn’t appeal to everyone, but I think it’s a crucial part in understanding the current societies you’re visiting. In any case, all of these sites were in short walking distance to each other, so the only real challenge was finding parking. The consistent issue on all of our road trips – unless we’re headed to rural areas, like the Maritimes, or small-town Georgia – was definitely the availability and cost of parking.

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Honolulu has a number of beautiful beaches, including Waikiki. Our favourite spots were: the beach that Maita’i Catamaran launches from and Ala Moana Beach. Both had beautiful views, but the Ala Moana Beach definitely had less available space when evening came as it turned into a prop for engagement photos. In fact, one evening the shoreline was covered almost entirely in engagement photoshoots as about six couples were lined up in a row for their “unique” photos.

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I understand the hesitation in visiting Waikiki because of all the crowds, but I actually enjoyed the strip. Then again, I like Vegas, so what do I know? As we were walking toward Waikiki for the first time, we were caught off guard by the number of SWAT team vehicles and men with machine guns hanging out in front of a hotel. What further confounded us, was that tourists were still freely milling about… If there were an emergency, wouldn’t the area be cordoned off? Or are Hawaiians just that laid back? As it happens, we had accidentally walked onto the set of Hawaii Five-O. Feeling pretty VIP after that, we got ourselves a fancy corner seat at Duke’s Waikiki and ate our hearts out with my boyfriend’s Hawaiian friend. After the feast, we took a stroll past the Moana Hotel, which was Waikiki’s first hotel (opened in 1901), and savoured all the Christmas festivities in the outdoor malls and streets. The beauty of a busy area like Waikiki is that there are always events happening – from live quilting lessons to matcha tastings in the Japanese Market to ukulele concerts on the streets. From the get-go, Honolulu had me feeling all the aloha.

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Honolulu was great, but our favourite moments were in the southeast and north of the island. We were happy to explore the more rural areas of Oahu. We drove east along the H1 exploring all the stops we could along the way, including a seaside park where my boyfriend tested his Tarzan skills by climbing a tree. We also drove past Hanauma Bay, Halona Blow Hole, and Sandy Beach Park. Parking was fairly tough along the way because there was so much tourism. We were still able to stop a few times to take brief strolls by the water and climb the chunky rocks. The most stunning views, hands-down, were at Makapu’u Point. We arrived on a beautiful day, so we could see 26 miles across the Kaiwi Channel to the island of Moloka’i. Roughly 20 000 years ago, Maui, Moloka’i, Lana’i, and Kaho’dawe were a single island when sea level was lower. Nowadays humpback whales are able to swim through the channel between November and April. Anyway, the hike itself was about 1.5 miles with no shade, restrooms or water but it was paved which means it’s still a good place to visit on a rainy day. Apparently the trail (before it was paved) was made in 1909 for mules/horses to reach the previous lighthouse property. As is the norm, the lighthouse was automated in the 1970s meaning that the families who lived there had to leave. It’s amazing when you think about how the places you visit have shifted in time and place – from the geological changes, to the human footprints.

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Driving around Oahu was breathtaking, from the seaside views to the journey through the Ko’olau Mountain Range which stood like noble green gatekeepers bowing for us to travel through. I also enjoyed our drive through the interior, past the Dole pineapple plantation (which was closed, unfortunately!) up to Haleiwa. Driving around listening to local radio was fascinating – from all the casual conversation about Filipinos (I'm not sure why?) to the ongoing pop music obsession with “Hot Girl Bummer”. It felt like the whole island was a tight community, which wouldn’t be surprising given the size. Although, when we delved a bit deeper we found out that there is some resentment toward perceived foreigners; so, when we saw the Hawaiian flags flying upside down, we came to understood it’s a form of visual protest.

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The North Shore is a very different vibe. It was even more relaxed, if that’s humanly possible. We loved watching the massive waves crashing into the land, but unfortunately didn’t have many opportunities to hike because of the windy, rainy weather. We stopped briefly at Laniakea Beach where we sought out giant turtles. Sadly, we saw none but later on the Big Island my boyfriend was lucky enough to swim with one at the Magic Sands Beach. Next, we jumped out at Kawela Bay Beach Park to visit the secluded beach and incidentally stumbled upon huge banyan trees that were used in scenes from the TV show “Lost”. Right next door is the Turtle Bay Resort where “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” was filmed, so we continued our Hollywood tour. To be honest, it didn’t seem worth the cost to stay there so I’m glad we just paparazzi’d and left. The natural beauty is so bountiful that you don’t need to pay hundreds of dollars to stay at an exclusive resort in order to soak up the scenery.

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Some of the strangest experiences we had on this entire trip were at the Polynesian Cultural Center (PCC) in Laie on the northeast coast of Oahu. The city’s history is interesting because it was a sanctuary for fugitives until the early 1800s. Since the 1860s it’s become the Hawaiian Mecca for Mormons. Unbeknownst to me when I purchased our tickets, the PCC is owned and operated by the Mormon Church. They've stated that the profits all go to daily operations and the student-employees from Brigham Young University (the campus is right next door). I wasn’t aware of any of this when I purchased tickets – all I knew was that the prices were high ($123 USD each), but the reviews were excellent. When we first arrived, we felt like we’d hit Polynesian Disneyworld – cultural presentations, activities, and a lu’au! We set out to learn more about Fiji, Samoa, Hawaii, Tahiti, Tonga, Aotearoa (New Zealand) and Rapa Nui (Easter Island) before the 4pm lu’au began. We started at the Polynesian Football Hall of Fame, which was an eye-opener into the traumatic effects of concussions on these football players, including suicide. We then moved onto lighter things, by engaging in a ukulele lesson. I’ve been meaning to learn to play for years, so I really appreciated the introductory lesson. I’ve committed to buying one before 2021. There were plentiful activities, including a canoe ride through the grounds where we learned about patterns of migration through the islands and started learning some local lingo. I’m a much better linguist than spear thrower, as we learned in Tonga. We also tragically learned that I’m unable to board a Tongan outrigger canoe without dropping my phone in the murky Polynesian lagoon. A man reached in quickly and grabbed it for me but it was soaked by that point. I can’t pretend that I didn’t mope about it; all my photos were on there, not to mention my point of contact with others around the world through social media, etc. We still continued on our canoe ride but it all felt like a blur until we hit the lu’au where I was given a real orchid lei, which made me feel ok… until I started having terrible allergic reactions to it! It turns out a small percentage of the population has allergies to orchid sap. Count me in.

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The most enjoyable games at the PCC were definitely from the Maori area. We played Maui Matau, which is a stick game requiring rapid hand-eye coordination and an astute ability to predict others’ behaviour. We also really enjoyed the Titi Torea game. After I deemed myself the big winner, we agreed to get matching Fiji warrior (temporary) tattoos. We also ate some celebratory Tahitian coconut bread, which was made in the ground. Surprisingly, it was even better than the lu'au food - although that's not saying much. I was fairly disappointed by the lu'au meal, but the people were very helpful – bringing me rice in a Ziploc bag to help my battered, drowned phone recover. The show itself was wonderful. We learned all about Queen Lili’uokalani, the last ruling monarch and only sovereign queen of Hawaii (who also happened to be a skilled composer!). She ruled until 1893 when the US overthrew the monarchy, and she was then placed under house arrest. This gave us greater context for why there’s still ongoing contempt of “foreign interference” for some people there.

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Speaking of interference, it became clear fairly early on that the cultures being shared were more than just Polynesian when all the staff there kept asking if we’d yet visited the Brigham Young University campus, or seen the Mormon temple. While staff were wandering the audience at shows trying to convince people to go on a Hawaiian mission settlement tour, we just didn’t engage. We just consistently shut down any of the missionary talk, in favour of questions about the Polynesian islands instead. It’s neither here nor there really because the place was fascinating, but if you’re not interested in supporting the Mormon church then you should probably be aware of who’s running PCC. We were happy to enjoy the PCC in our way, sticking to ourselves, and enjoying the entertainment. We had a lot of fun watching the Huki Canoe Celebration, which showed clothing and dances from all the islands. Later, we appreciated the skills it took to perform the Ha: Breath of Life show. All the seats had fairly good views, but you’d probably need to reach out in advance if you have accessibility needs. The show had incredible pyro displays, like men even sitting on fire! The music was great too. Although I was irritated at myself for breaking my phone, it probably made me more present in enjoying the shows. There’s often a silver lining to frustrating situations…

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The next day we explored the area around Kane’ohe, including the Byodo-In Temple. It’s located in the Valley of the Temples Memorial Park at the foot of the Ko’olau Mountains. The Temple was established in 1968 to commemorate 100 years since the Japanese landed in Hawaii, and it’s modeled after the 950-year-old original temple in Uji, Japan. Unlike the PCC, there was no one actively trying to convince you about anything regarding their religion, so I felt more comfortable initiating engagement with an elderly gentleman who prays there. I had used the last of my cash to get us into the temple grounds, so we couldn’t make any purchases in the restaurant on the grounds, but we built up a bit of an appetite walking the grounds (and by that, I mean following the black swans around).

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We were relieved to find out there was no cost to do the Lanikai Pillbox Hike, although I hadn’t expected it to be as rugged as it was. It had started drizzling by the time we arrived, so I was confused about whether to put on sunscreen, bug spray (not necessary on Oahu), or take an umbrella. It ended up being an uncomfortable, but beautiful hike. It was very steep at the beginning with no clear path, and the drizzle had made the path slippery. Fortunately, the rain didn’t last long but the skies broke open with fury. We beat the windy assault to make it all the way to the top. We were then blown away by the rich colours of the water, grass, and sky. Once we made it to the top, the challenge felt worth it: my concerns about what happened at Diamond Head, the lack of infrastructure, the bad weather – it drifted away with the waves. The reason it’s called the “pillbox” hike is because at the top there’s a concrete pillbox, which soldiers used to hide in to watch for incoming enemies during the war. I'm not sure how anyone could focus on approaching enemies with such gorgeous views.

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I found myself inappropriately dressed when we stopped at the Pali Lookout. Due to high winds, my loose t-shirt became a liability. Every two minutes the wind would hit and my hair would attack my face, while the t-shirt would fly up like it was trying to escape this world. Suffice it to say, the pretty views couldn’t keep me away from the car for very long. The expensive parking also helped keep me anchored to my car seat because we decided to leave almost as soon as we came. The only photos we got were utterly ridiculous, but we still enjoyed ourselves regardless. If you have accessibility issues, Pali is a good option because you can just park and then the views are a couple of minutes away (on paved ground), there’s no hiking required.

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Before leaving Oahu, I’d recommend taking time to pay respects at the Pearl Harbour Visitor Center, which also serves as a memorial site. I will warn that it can be tricky to secure tickets because it’s done online and it’s a matter of first come first serve. The moral of the story: check early and be vigilant! There are multiple options, and we chose the free one – the USS Arizona Memorial. It entailed a 75 minute program with film and boat trip to the memorial. The memorial itself was built on top of the shipwreck of the USS Arizona, which made it eerie but meaningful. It’s simple and calming: white rectangular blocks with wide slits on top and at both sides, where it also sags; it’s higher on both ends to represent victory sandwiching the sagging defeat of lives lost in the middle. It was powerful visiting the memorial for many reasons, including the constant stream of leaking oil which reminds us of the ongoing impact of the previous devastation. I wasn’t surprised to hear that many survivors of the attacks on Pearl Harbour on that fateful day of December 7, 1941, felt guilt in the aftermath because I think that's a common response to tragedy; I was surprised that many of them have been cremated with their lost brethren. It turned out that a number of ships were destroyed that day, and over 2400 people were killed – many of whom remain lost in the waters below. The site also served to educate people by explaining the history of the Japanese attack on Hawaii, and how it led to America’s involvement in World War II. In fact, Japan attacked Pearl Harbour to reduce any potential challenges to their own intentions of taking over Southeast Asia, e.g. The Philippines. Of course, there are many theories about how things played out – many centered on the fact that Japanese planes (forming the largest aircraft carrier strike ever up until 1941) were able to attack in spite of active Hawaiian radar monitoring the airs, and also sail their fleet over 4 000 miles undetected. In some ways visiting Pearl Harbour becomes an academic exercise in studying political and military strategy, historical context, and current culture; but, it’s still a site of great loss and conduct should reflect that.

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For me, it’s important to reflect on how the tragedy impacts our individual and collective actions nowadays. How do we memorialize? How do we identify as communities and nations? How do we protect our most vulnerable? And how do we come to share the narrative of caring, in spite of political difference? Overall, Oahu felt like paradise. We were able to learn about Hawaiian history and current culture, explore incredible hikes and take in beautiful scenery, eat all the macadamia nuts we never knew we needed, and soak up the sun. I kept wondering why we don’t live there, but then I realized the fatal flaw: the sense of isolation would surround me. It was hard for me living on an island on the west coast of Canada, and I was relatively close to the mainland (I could do a day trip, if needed!) – knowing myself, I don’t think I could handle being such a distant flight away from family and friends. Travel helps you push yourself, but also makes you realize your limits.

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Travel between Hawaiian islands isn't as cheap as I expected, but the diversity of experiences is great. As soon as we arrived on the Big Island, we realized that it would be a much more rural experience than Oahu. The lack of light meant that it was slightly challenging finding our Airbnb, but once we did arrive we were happy with how private and spacious it seemed. At the end of the day, each couple is different but I like to have as much alone time as possible with my boyfriend on our trips given that we're already in a long-distance relationship which means limited face-to-face. It's been wonderful traveling with him because we like to do similar things: physical activity, cultural exercises, and delicious dining. As usual, we started our time in Kona at a restaurant. We chose Fishhopper because they had a nice view of the water and a good selection of food. The guava jam turned out to be terrific! I love visiting tropical destinations because the food reminds me of my family, and the meals we would have when visiting them in South Africa. Travel is always about taste.

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Kona is the big city on the Big Island apparently, but its population only sits at about 15 000 people according to locals we spoke with and it can't compare in size to Honolulu which is home to around 70% of Hawaii's total population. Thinking Honolulu is like all of Hawaii would be a problem though. It's like considering Toronto representative of Ontario, or Canada - it's not, in the slightest. We really enjoyed Honolulu, but we were also happy to see the smaller towns and more recent volcanic scenery. That being said, my boyfriend loves the beach. So when our local host suggested Magic Sands Beach, we were happy to follow his advice. We had a lot of fun frolicking in the waves, but I don't enjoy turning into a prune quite so much. Unfortunately, my aversion to wrinkles meant that I missed the giant sea turtle that was swimming by us in search of Nemo. One girl screamed and ran out of the water. According to my boyfriend, the turtle was giant and looked prehistoric, so I can understand why she ran for land. I wouldn't be interested in coming face to face with Jurassic World either.

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The other beach we enjoyed was called Two Step, although it's more of a snorkeling spot than anything else. My boyfriend actually borrowed snorkel gear from our hosts and so he was able to see the underwater world surrounding us. Instead, I observed the social dynamics surrounding me. Suffice it to say, there was blood, gore, and drama. Literally, there was a woman with a bloody hand. It turned out she had stuck her hand flat onto a sea urchin, and it was full of black spikes and dropping blood. Let this be a lesson to anyone who's visiting that area, please be aware of where you stick your hands. In fact, that's a good life lesson overall! Just south of that site is Pu'uhonua o Honaunau National Historic Park, which was a place of refuge and royal grounds. It also functions as a cemetery of sorts as 23 chiefs are buried there. Hawaiian islands have been populated since around 900 - 1100 CE and people continued back and forthing to Tahiti til the 1400s when chiefdoms flourished on the islands. We continued our history tour by visiting Kealakekua Bay where James Cook first had contact with Hawaiians in 1779. After all the learning, we had to do some eating so we conducted a burger tour around Kona. As a former vegetarian, I have to admit that burgers were one of the few things I missed, and I definitely made up for lost time while in Hawaii.

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We went north of Kona to visit Kua Bay and Manini'owali White-Sands Beach. I was really touched seeing a woman use her hands and arms to move herself to avoid the waves because she had no control of her feet and legs. It was great that she was able to enjoy that beach on her own terms. Traveling in spite of chronic illness or accessibility needs can be challenging, but it's so important to remember that modifying an experience doesn't diminish it. I lose sight of that myself sometimes, like when I can't complete a hike (i.e. Diamond Head) I get really angry at my limitations but in those moments I forget my abilities. Anyway, we continued east to Waimea where we had a coffee stop before continuing east to get to the Umauma Falls near Hilo. The area wasn't well-maintained, but you still have to pay an admission fee. I enjoyed the scenery so much that we kept chasing waterfalls. We were going against destiny though, and the rains started coming down hard to halt us. We made it to Akaka Falls, but couldn't get out of the car due to the rain storms. We shouldn't have been surprised though because Hilo is on the wetter side of the Big Island, and we were visiting during the wet season. The only thing dry was our sense of humour.

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I found Hilo very troubling. It had more dilapidated buildings, and a very visible problem with drug-use and lack of shelter. Hawaii is a study in contrasts: some of the most gorgeous scenery (and beautiful houses) I've ever been privileged enough to visit, but also some deep poverty. It turns out that much of the poverty is concentrated in the Hilo area. There is an active campaign to prevent drug abuse with slogans like "smoke salmon, not drugs". I can't really comment further given that I'm not part of the community. I can say that I felt very lucky to be visiting and I tried to really make the most of it, and support local businesses all over. I also loved the scenery close to Hilo, which included black sands beaches, waterfalls, and botanic gardens. Waterfalls really ground me: I find peace watching their powerful fall. My favourite waterfalls in the area were probably Rainbow Falls. The waterfalls were supercharged, but there weren't too many colours - just murky brown. I loved the shrubbery and trees though. It all felt like we had walked into a magical kingdom; all that was missing were the talking animals.

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Our day at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park continued in the otherworldly vein. The rock formations, and colours were so unbelievable they felt like they were literally out of this world. The park has over 150 miles of trails and you can go as high as the Kilauea Summit (at 4000 feet). We started at the most popular trail: Kilauea Iki Crater. It was about 4 miles and took just over 2 hours with photo stops, of course. We actually did it "backwards" because we ascended the 400 feet on the stairs rather than the graded slopes. If you're interested in doing it that way, you start by going left from the parking lot instead of right. We had beautiful solitude for the first quarter of our hike with views of the lava fields from the rainforest. The lava spewed in 1959, but some areas still seem fresher than others. It was amazing to see how the ground has cracked yet vegetation has sprouted from it. The Kilauea caldera was beside us and includes lava flows from 1924 (and even before) until 1982. We couldn't really see it from our hike, but drove by later on the Crater Rim Drive and saw all the steam vents. It felt like the earth was opening up to prove its power. There's an angry boiling world below us, and occasionally the cracks reveal its potency. Honestly, the black cracked ground reminded me of Toronto's roads: although, I'm not sure which actually has more potholes.

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We drove down Chain of Craters road about 20 miles to get to the Holei Sea Arch, which reminded us of the Hopewell Rocks we saw months before in New Brunswick. It costs $25 USD to enter the park, and it's all well worth it because the parking is included as well as a useful map, and the roads are well-maintained. The lava flow sites from the 1970s along the way and the 1.4 mile hike at Pu'u Loa Petroglyphs allowed us to really get a feel for how the area has changed over time. You can also look to the mountains and see the black, brown, green, and grey which is like a map for how lava flows have changed the landscape over time. If we had been there 30 years before or if we visit again 30 years from now, it'll be a different outlook altogether. The petroglyphs highlighted how cultures preserve themselves and their legacies over time. In the etchings we saw people and tiny circles, which indicated where placenta and umbilical cords were buried to represent birth and life. It's interesting how many cultures use imagery to represent their most sacred stories. It's amazing how the images weren't covered in lava flows when just 1 mile west all the lava from the 1970s covered the grounds. The most recent eruption was in 2018 and drastically changed the landscape of the park - shutting down the lava tube and museum. It also ended up destroying 700 homes nearby, creating a new black sand beach too. Most importantly, the visitor center is still open. We found many useful resources there. They also confirmed that there are no longer dangerous sulfur dioxide gases in the environment. I wonder if all of the 400 national parks in Hawaii are as well-run.

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Although we both preferred Oahu, we really did appreciate the geology and also the flora on the Big Island. On our last day there we visited Botanical World Adventures where I spotted the incredible Rainbow Eucalyptus Tree. I've never seen such a colourful tree in my life; it almost looked like an homage to the 80s with its green and orange neon hues. The grounds were really large so we were also able to admire all kinds of flowers and trees. We also saw more waterfalls. I'm starting to think Hawaii may be called the Rainbow Nation because there are so many waterfalls that play backdrop to the rainbows above them. Even the spiders in Hawaii were colourful; which made it easier to spot them, and then promptly run in the opposite direction. Apparently the huge spider with yellow markings that we saw a few times wasn't actually poisonous, but still scary for me. I really appreciated that Hawaii brings paradise without the trouble: no bears or giant cats to beware of, and even the snakes and spiders are generally fine. This was a far cry from our recent trip to Costa Rica where every day I learned about a new predator: from jaguars to tiny bullet ants, whose bite makes you feel like you've been shot.

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There's an incredible amount of spirituality and symbolism on the Big Island. We happened to visit while there were protests around the mountain, Maunakea. I had heard about the protests and seen the signs as we drove through Oahu and the Big Island saying "Ku Kia'i Mauna/We are Maunakea". I had even followed the movement online. I still didn't really grasp the full significance of more development on this sacred site until we drove by and saw it. It's a huge area, and just driving through you feel the weight of its significance. In fact, it's earth's tallest mountain - yes, it's taller than Everest - but so much of it is submerged below water that you wouldn't realize its height from base to summit. It's also already home to thirteen telescopes (built on the mountain), and even an army base. This wasn't supposed to happen though. As the land is very meaningful to Native Hawaiians - it's considered the center of the universe - it was supposed to be held "in trust" for them after Hawaii's Queen was overthrown. The land was later leased to the University of Hawaii which was supposed to request approval before developing it, but instead they went ahead and built multiple observatories. It's a familiar narrative: colonized peoples losing sacred lands to development. It's an ongoing struggle in Canada too - especially when there's discussion about more pipeline development. In this case, there's an alternative option for development. Apparently the project could be built in Spain with similar scientific results.

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On a less political note, after our Costa Rican adventure we both became curious to learn more about coffee so when we returned to Kona we visited the Mountain Thunder Coffee Company. We learned about the history of Kona coffee, and also enjoyed plentiful taste tests. Their grounds weren't as large as I anticipated, and each tree only produces about 1 to 1.5 pounds of roasted coffee per annum so surrounding farms actually bring their crops too. I also hadn't realized how much of the raw coffee beans aren't even viable. In order to sort the beans, they first look at size and weight before moving on to colour. The tour consisted of us and one other couple: the other man and I ended up throwing a lot of questions at the very knowledgeable guide. We even got into a discussion about insurance policies for business near volcanoes. Interesting stuff! The guide's mom is Japanese, so she also made a point of telling us about how the Kona coffee industry wouldn't exist if it hadn't been for hardworking Japanese people who committed to it flourishing. Hawaii's largest ethnic group is people of Asian descent, even greater than people of Native Hawaiian background, so I wasn't surprised to learn about the influence of the Japanese community on the Big Island.

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Before leaving the Big Island, we made sure to spend more time strolling by the water and soaking up the sun (away from the coffee plantation's cloud forest base). We also had to have another burger because they had just been so delicious everywhere we went! We followed that up with a dole whip, which is an absolute must if you're in Hawaii. I hadn't ever tried pineapple flavoured soft serve ice cream before, but I really hope I get to try it again one day! I'm glad our final memories in Hawaii were so peaceful and happy because our return flight was an absolute nightmare. You have to take the bad with the good, I guess. We flew without interruption to Seattle, but then returning to Chicago we hit scary windstorms. In fact, a number of flights had been grounded and I'm not sure why ours wasn't. A high wind warning was in effect, and it seems really irresponsible for them to have continued flying even though they already had that information before taking off in Seattle. The wind gusts got up to 60 miles per hour, which caused turbulence like I've never experienced. Even once the plane had landed, the winds were so bad that the plane was being rocked side to side. I got through three airline sickness bags, and felt absolutely humiliated when I even ended up throwing up on myself a bit too. Thankfully, my boyfriend was really supportive and quick-thinking. He asked the flight attendants for a cloth for my head, and also some water so that I wouldn't get too dehydrated. He also got them to bring a wheelchair because I actually lost feeling in my feet. I've had motion sickness my entire life, and it can legitimately be debilitating but this quite possibly was the worst experience with it that I've ever had - I had even take tablets before the flight, as always! I was incredibly disappointed to find out that there was no first aid area in the airport where I could lie down in the dark - instead we were told to just sit in a boarding area until I felt well enough to leave, at which point an attendant could come wheel me out. After some sips of Gatorade, and many dirty looks (no, motion sickness is not contagious!), we were finally able to leave the airport. Worst ending to the best vacation. All I can say is, what a trip!

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Posted by madrugada 11:27 Archived in USA Tagged beaches ocean hiking scenery palm_trees paradise wilderness tropical forest beauty oahu hawaii coffee botanical_gardens honolulu waikiki pineapple big_island aloha island_hopping rainbow_eucalyptus romantic_getaway lush_greenery Comments (0)

Colourful Costa Rica

Driving from Liberia through Central Costa Rica down the Western Pacific Coast to Manuel Antonio

all seasons in one day

Sample Itinerary
- Day 1: Fly into Liberia
- Day 2: Liberia to Arenal/La Fortuna, stopping at Rincón de la Vieja for hiking en route
- Day 3: Explore Arenal/La Fortuna - I recommend checking out Mistico Arenal Hanging Bridges Park
- Day 4: Arenal/La Fortuna to Monteverde where you can stroll and eat well at El Trapiche tours
- Day 5: Monteverde (check out the Selvatura bridges before you leave) to Jacó
- Day 6: Jacó to Manuel Antonio - enjoy the local beach
- Day 7: Manuel Antonio - spend the day at the national park
- Day 8: Manuel Antonio to Cañas - appreciate the art, wildlife, and food
- Day 9: Cañas to Liberia, and fly away home

Where to Stay
- Hotel Javy in Liberia -- although I wouldn't necessarily recommend staying in Liberia overnight
- Volcano Lodge, Hotel & Thermal Experience in Arenal/La Fortuna -- amazing accommodation and facilities, including games area, multiple pools and delicious breakfast buffets - just watch out for the ants!
- Belcruz B&B in Monteverde -- as long as you're ok with rustic lodgings
- Rancho Capulin -- near the Rio Tarcoles crocodiles, and fairly close to Jacó; make sure to request the Mirador if you want a stunning sunset from high above the trees
- Hotel Costa Verde near the Manuel Antonio National Park and close to Quepos -- Area D is isolated from the complex, but has beautiful views since you're surrounded by nature
- Hotel Hacienda la Pacifica near Cañas -- former presidential retreat that's still secluded, but in need of some repairs

Where to Eat
- Maria Juana Restaurant in Liberia -- cool outdoor setting and hearty pasta
- Casa de Calá in Liberia for drinks
- Casa la Fortuna Restaurant in La Fortuna -- not the best beef, but an adorable setting with cute hammocks and tasty smoothies
- Volcano Lodge, Hotel & Thermal Experience in La Fortuna -- phenomenal breakfast buffet, and delicious dinner
- Sabor Tico in Santa Elena (near Monteverde) for a regional tortilla aliñada as a snack
- Soda Angel in Manuel Antonio -- cheapest and tastiest food you'll find
- Aguas Azules in Manuel Antonio -- nice, sit-down dinner place
- El Wagon and El Avion in Manuel Antonio -- affiliated with the Hotel Costa Verde, so you can request a shuttle
- Hotel Hacienda la Pacifica in Cañas for another great breakfast and dinner combo - it's also worth stopping in town for a leche dormida since that's the famous local drink

What to Bring
- Bug spray (I cannot emphasize this enough!), sunscreen, clothing for all weather (e.g. waterproof jacket, tank tops, swimsuit, etc.), hiking boots, assistive devices (and make sure to confirm accessibility of sites before you go), flip flops, hat, sunglasses, umbrella, pocket tissues, useful medicines (e.g. for bug reactions, etc.), an SUV (if you choose to drive), US and/or Costa Rican cash (this was very useful), a water bottle (most areas had potable water), and Spanish-English help through an app or pocket translator

My Travel Diary
When I first started planning our three months of travel in 2019, I knew that Costa Rica would likely be the pinnacle. I've always been curious to see the eco-tourism haven of Central America. As such, it was no surprise that when we arrived in Liberia we were met with a smaller city than anticipated and a tremendous amount of greenery. Due to its wild nature, there's a huge emphasis on conservation, and also environmental consciousness. This flies in the face of much of what is shared on social media, so it's no surprise that the airport has actual posters instructing tourists not to disturb wildlife for pictures - "sloths are not made for selfies". What if selfies were made for sloths though? Anyway, we had decided (as per usual) to rent a car, so once we had picked up our Mitsubishi Outlander from Sixt we began on the real adventure, i.e. where to park, and how not to disappear into potholes. Liberia has a unique parking system in that you need to go into an official vendor, like a pharmacy, to purchase time and a specific parking spot. There are no parking meters on the street, and not even some of the locals I spoke to could really identify how the system works. It was still cheaper than having our car stolen and replaced, so I happily paid the pharmacist. Liberia actually seemed very safe and liveable - I'm fluent in Spanish though, so I'm not sure how challenging it might be if you're not - but it's just not an ideal tourist destination either way. Apart from the downtown square and imposing white church, there wasn't much else to explore. We did enjoy watching the birds all line up on cables taking in the striking sunset - it felt like the rom-com version of Hitchcock's "The Birds".

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I very quickly learned that my favourite thing about Costa Rica was actually one specific bird: el gallo, a.k.a. the rooster. Although it wasn't the bird itself that I loved as much as their famous local breakfast dish: gallo pinto. I happily devoured the rice, beans, and special spices every morning (and even a few evenings, where I could find it). Our first morning in Liberia I ate a tremendous amount at the hotel, which prepared me well for our long hike ahead in Rincon de la Vieja. There were a number of accommodations near the volcano park, which were pricier than the hotel we stayed at in Liberia - but you're paying for the adventure retreat instead of the discounted city lodgings.

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Rincon de la Vieja is a fairly short drive from Liberia and well worth visiting. There are two main entrances and areas to explore: Sector Santa Maria, and Sector Pailas. We chose the road less traveled (and also less paved), by visiting Sector Santa Maria. The road was actually just a gathering of huge rocks assembled in a fairly straight line, basically a miniature Stone Henge. If we didn't have an SUV, there's zero chance that we would have attempted that drive. Once you actually reach the ranger's station though, you realize that it'll likely have been worth the ups and downs. The ranger was a kind older gentleman who told us we were lucky that it was a fairly dry day (just spitting rain), but didn't go into much detail beyond that. About 15 minutes into our hike, we questioned his judgement when we ran into a river. Yes, there was a literal river for us to cross at the beginning of our hike. My boyfriend and I chose to cross the river at different spots: with rocks submerged but closer together vs. rocks above the water but farther apart. Thankfully, we were calm as the current and managed to cross safely. Since we were basically river otters after that experience, the next two rivers didn't faze us - it also helped that there were cables strung across to assist with balance. With or without the cables, I felt like a brilliant explorer mapping out my rocky route across the rivers. My bravery came into question every time I heard a sound though: was that a puma? or a snake? or a scorpion? Usually it was just me scaring myself by stepping on a stick. For someone who is actually more terrified of bugs than animals, Costa Rica is a tough destination. I won't sugarcoat it: I had a very hard time managing my insect anxiety because they are everywhere - whether you're indoors or outdoors, they'll find you (dead or alive).

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The Santa Maria sector of the park is open daily at 8 am and you have to come prepared to pay a cash entrance fee of $15 USD per person. Although I've read reviews suggesting sandals I would argue that's totally misguided - if you're crossing rivers, you want tread, and I'd prefer to have waterproof boots on instead. Unless, of course, you plan to step in the rivers. My boyfriend, for example, decided to jump right into a river in order to reach some isolated hot springs. I was more hesitant. Once I finally caved and stepped in, I was eaten alive within seconds. I panicked and ran out of the river without ever making it to the hot springs, instead I had little bloody bug bites all over my legs and a weird red worm on my toe. I guess what they say is true: you can’t step in the same river twice. The river my boyfriend entered definitely treated him differently than me. For my boyfriend, the hot springs were the highlight of our trip, but my experience wasn’t so hot.

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The (live) volcano itself can't be seen from Sector Santa Maria; however, you do get to explore multiple waterfalls: bosque encantado, and the morpho waterfalls. In addition to the hot springs, there are also cold water pots and an old sugar cane processing plant. All in all, we spent about 3.5 hours hiking in the area, and ran into 4 people. If you're afraid of being alone in the woods, this is definitely the wrong part of the park for you.

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It took us about three and a half hours to drive to La Fortuna (the town beside the volcano, Arenal). Weather in Costa Rica is really unpredictable and, on our drive, it alternated between gorgeous skies and windy/rainy storms. There's a gorgeous lookout en route and we were mesmerized by the volcano itself. It's an active volcano, which last erupted in 2010. At 1633 metres high with a 140 metre diameter crater, it literally looks like a picture-perfect conic volcano. The prettiest conehead you'll ever see! From our hotel, we had a lovely view of it, made even better by the fact that we were spying on it from our thermal hot springs. In fact, our hotel had so many amenities that our first day there we spent most of the time hiding from the rain by playing pool, darts, Foosball and other games in the bar area. Finally, we decided to brave the rains and head off to the Mistico Arenal Hanging Bridges Park. To be honest, we weren’t that brave – the whole park was paved, resulting in less mud and discomfort than even walking around our own hotel’s trails. It was also fairly empty, likely due to the rains and the late hour of our arrival. We got there at about 2:30pm and it closes at 3:50pm.

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The views were spectacular because it wasn’t just the forest – it was also the volcano. The sights became more interactive as we had to follow the path and explore the 22 bridges; the highest (#9 puente la catarata) was 148 feet tall. I’m good at dispute resolution, but I can’t imagine building bridges like that. I also can’t imagine crossing those bridges daily because even an hour of it made me nauseous from the swinging motion. This discomfort was amplified by an allergic reaction to a bug bite. I’m awfully afraid of bugs, which, unlike my Spanish fluency, was not an asset in the wilderness of Costa Rica. This trip actually helped me realize that I need help addressing some of my anxieties. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with being afraid of bugs, but there is something wrong with negative thought patterns that spiral into obsessive behaviour. I had to separate fact from fiction when I saw bugs and remember that Aragog, the giant spider from Harry Potter, is not real and does not vacation in Costa Rica.

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Apart from the bugs, the weather was also a nuisance at times. I was really glad to have a raincoat with me for our time in Monteverde and La Fortuna. I was also happy that we rented an SUV for our drive from La Fortuna to Monteverde given the prevalence of potholes that sucked you in like the Bermuda Triangle. They were buffered on both sides by ditches as deep as black holes. To make the drives even more like a video game, my boyfriend (the driver) had to keep his eyes open for loose cattle, and overzealous dump trucks on these narrow, eroded roads. Another obstacle was the constant stream of cyclists that appeared around every corner. The cattle on roads was a constant theme on this trip. In fact, I’m surprised we never saw a cow-on-car collision – that would have been mooving, in all the wrong ways.

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In Monteverde, apart from the cloud forest, we really enjoyed visiting El Trapiche tours. We caught their last tour of the day at 3pm, which was fortunate because I definitely needed a mid-day snack. They supplied plentiful amounts of coffee, sugarcane and chocolate while also providing the added bonus of an informative tour of their stunning grounds. The wildest part was probably the moment when we watched a mother sloth feed her young in a tree, while we took an ox-ride down below. Our ox rode us down a path of enlightenment as we learned everything there is to know about coffee. My favourite fact was that in Costa Rica they only produce high-quality Arabica, since they actually made it illegal to grow poor quality coffee. I wish we could make it illegal to sell bad quality coffee in Canada, although that would likely undermine Tim Hortons’ entire business model. Anyway, it turns out all the volcanoes have made the soil rich in minerals, and led to an appropriate level of acidity. I’m glad the coffee isn’t as bitter as my views of politics, or we wouldn’t have enjoyed it much. We also got to see the trees that grow coffee berries/beans, and learn that the caffeine is more potent once they’re roasted. In fact, we learned all about coffee processing: peeling, sorting and roasting. In addition to coffee, we learned about cacoa, which grows in pods on trees. Once the pod is broken you see that it’s full of seeds. We got to try them raw, but also processed. My boyfriend even got to work off some of the calories by riding a bike that ground up cacao. I made him pay 35$ USD to ride a bike, but he loved it. Although he enjoyed the tour, we did not appreciate the fact that the bathroom door broke. Fortunately, neither of us was in the bathroom when the door jammed; unfortunately, we were both desperate to get in. As they say, travelling definitely brings couples closer together – especially when both people are locked out.

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Anyway, we survived a number of other disasters that day and still managed to enjoy our time at the Selvatura hanging bridges. The grounds were muddy, but they didn’t cloud our views of the lush green forests. We even spotted some wildlife from our bird’s eye view (including many types of birds). The most gorgeous views appeared seemingly out of nowhere on our drive southwest. We even stopped a few times to take photos and just stand hand-in-hand soaking up our moments together.

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Our romantic journey continued when we arrived at Rancho Capulin (bed and breakfast), our gorgeous jungle habitat for one night. The hosts are a lovely couple who moved there from France about a decade ago. They also happen to be the parents of one of my childhood friends, so our stay was not without nostalgia. It was heartwarming hearing about how their kids are doing, and also listening to their story of adapting to this new country and building both a home and business there. It’s inspiring when you see people pursuing their passions, and creating their communities. Life isn’t prescribed, no matter what social norms may exist.

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Rancho Capulin is right beside the Tarcoles River, so on our way to Manuel Antonio we managed to cross the famous Crocodile Bridge and peer down at a tremendous number of man-eaters. I like swimming, but you couldn’t pay me to plunge into those waters. We bypassed Jacó because we were more interested in arriving safely in sunlight at our Manuel Antonio hotel. Our hotel room was in an isolated part of the hotel complex, which meant additional privacy and also stunning views of the water, wildlife and jungle from our balcony. I basically felt like we became Tarzan and Jane, or Romeo and Juliet – but without the problematic underpinnings.

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Manuel Antonio has a fair number of restaurants, and also a few beaches to explore – in addition to the obvious draw, the national park. My main advice in that region is not to trust the many scammers that hang out in the parking lots, and near the park’s entrance. They will tell you they work for the government, that you need to pay them to enter the park, that there are limited spots available daily, and a number of other bold-faced lies. For better or worse, I’m a very blunt person. I was very clear with these men that their behaviour was manipulative, and that I wouldn’t give them a dime (or the Costa Rican equivalent). Needless to say, we were slightly concerned with parking our car around these men after my honest diatribe and so we mainly chose to walk – accepting instead the narrow, windy roads and lack of sidewalk. Espadilla (public) beach wasn’t far, so the walk didn’t inconvenience us.

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I also enjoyed looking down on the beach from our hotel’s helipad structure. The view from above allowed us to really soak up all the scenery, and also stay dry under the umbrellas. I couldn’t really complain about the constant drizzle though given that we made the decision to travel during the rainy season. I did try singing: “rain, rain, go away, come again another day”, but apparently my Canadian lullabies don’t translate into impacting Costa Rican weather conditions.

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The Manuel Antonio National Park is closed on Mondays, and open all other days from 7 am to 4 pm. Tickets are purchased near the entrance at the Coopealianza where it’s definitely preferable to pay the $16 USD entrance fee with cash, although they will accept credit card too for an additional fee. To save some money (and help the environment) take your water bottle with you - the park has potable water, like much of Costa Rica apparently. The park is quite large (1950 hectares), but the paths are manageable and you can see most of it within a few hours (depending on your pace, of course). Although we weren’t heading to Jurassic Park, it definitely felt wild. We saw so many animals and insects, even without having hired a guide. It wasn’t hard to spot most of the animals: from agouti to deer. The birds could be a bit trickier, but the tremendous number of guided groups made it easier because they would crowd near a spot in the forest and point their cameras in whatever direction we needed to follow. We walked all through the park, and my boyfriend even swam through parts of it. While he turned into a merman, I chose to binge on ice cream. My gluttony was punished very quickly, as I got pooed on by a monkey while walking back to the beach. Thankfully, the monkey didn’t aim at my ice cream, but it definitely splashed its lunch all over my bare shoulder. The monkey mafia targeted me again later because when we got back to the hotel, a monkey in a nearby tree ripped off some bark and whipped it at me. I’m not sure what I did to deserve that kind of violent crap, but they weren’t monkeying around with their attacks.

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It was hardest leaving our hotel room in Manuel Antonio because rain or shine, we couldn’t stop staring out into the beauty surrounding us. In fact, in a flash rainstorm, I stood on the balcony in solidarity with the toucans, monkeys, taipirs, and agoutis hiding in the jungle in front of me. I’m glad to have had the chance to see the world they still live in, and hope not to contribute to its demise. No matter how much I hate bugs, I recognize that they have as much of a right to exist as me. It’s a shared world, and without those bugs these animals couldn’t feed themselves. Life lesson from a trip to Costa Rica, or from the Lion King? Not sure, but it’s an important one either way.

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Our final stop on this Costa Rican journey was near Cañas, which is about an hour outside of Liberia. We decided last minute to stay at a hacienda there built in the 19th century by a former president of Costa Rica. It was definitely a rustic retreat: as we pulled up, we were greeted by deer. We also played hosts, as our room was visited by cockroaches and lizards. The nearby town of Cañas made for a nice visit because of its beautiful cathedral decorated with mosaic tiles. While there it’s worth trying a leche dormida, their local specialty drink. We couldn’t find an open restaurant so we spent the evening back at our hotel grounds, eating at the delicious on-site restaurant and strolling like president and first gentleman around the large grounds.

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The hotel’s neighbour is actually el centro de rescate las pumas – a conservation site for rescued animals. The entry was $12 USD and we appreciated that most of the money seemed to go toward saving and treating animals in need. Each animal had a troubled past, from the two jaguars who were rescued when their mother was poached to pumas who had been kept in chicken coops as pets. It was hard seeing the animals caged, but it seemed (and we really hope) that they're treated ethically. Most encouraging was seeing all of the children visiting and learning about the plentiful environment around them, and the importance of respecting and preserving it.

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Like those children, I think this trip was an opportunity for me to recognize the importance of my role in environmental protection too. I can choose whether to spend my money on visiting (and petting) animals in captivity for entertainment, or those that have been rescued and are being sheltered for their protection. Overall, travel creates a large carbon footprint, so it’s important to act on ways to offset that. Even at home, it’s also crucial to consider how best to reduce waste and improve recycling. I have a lot of room for growth, but I really am inspired by Costa Rica’s progress. That being said, I won’t miss its monkeys.

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Posted by madrugada 10:04 Archived in Costa Rica Tagged landscapes beaches animals chocolate rainforest rivers monteverde ocean wildlife costa_rica coffee crocodiles liberia roadtrip greenery environment central_america arenal jungles rincon_de_la_vieja la_fortuna manuel_antonio cloud_forests jaco sugarcane romantic_getaway bilingual_travel hanging_bridges _pura_vida tarcoles spanish_speaking_country cattle_traffic Comments (2)

Beach, Please! Let's Explore Southern California!

Driving through SoCal: from San Diego to Los Angeles

sunny

Sample Itinerary
- Day 1: Fly into San Diego, pick up rental car at the airport, and explore the San Diego Zoo before watching sunset at Sunset Cliffs Park and eating dinner in Old Town
- Day 2: Drive (or bus) to Coronado Island and then Balboa Park (or vice versa), before watching sunset from the Embarcadero/Waterfront and eating dinner in the Gaslamp Quarter of San Diego
- Day 3: Drive from San Diego to L.A. (or any surrounding town where you're staying, e.g. Irvine), stopping at La Jolla, Laguna Beach, Newport Beach, Huntington Beach and Crystal Cove along the way
- Day 4: Check out Venice Beach, Santa Monica, and the Beverly Hills area before seeing a comedy show in Hollywood
- Day 5: Universal Studios, or any other theme park that your heart desires!

Where to Stay
- San Diego: Comfort Inn Gaslamp Convention Center (excellent breakfast, terrible soundproofing)

Where to Eat
- Panevino's Italian Restaurant in the Gaslamp Quarter of San Diego
- Guelaguetza (Oaxaca, Mexican) Restaurant in L.A.'s Koreatown

My Travel Diary
After taking a solo roadtrip to Northern Ontario in September, I was happy to take the passenger seat while my boyfriend drove us through California. For our trip, we decided to rent a car at the airport and start our journey at the nearby San Diego Zoo. We didn't anticipate spending the whole day there, but the tickets were so expensive ($56 USD each!) and there was so much to see that we wanted to make it worth our while. The tickets included bus tours and air gondola tours, so we took full advantage of that (as well as the free parking!). The zoo, like most I've been to, is doing a lot of work on conservation. As such, they even sell recycled elephant poo paper to promote different ways of reusing resources. Our guide made a crappy joke about how the paper isn't really a #1 gift, but it certainly could be #2. His pun inventory was almost as big as the zoo itself. We started in Africa Rocks so we could learn about lemurs (they're matriarchal, and existed even before apes!), and also watch the 12:30 Animal Encounters show wherein a huge reptile slowly made its way across the stage for a bite to eat. Strangely enough, we also started feeling hungry after that - not for insects, but for salad. We ate at the Huamei Cafe, which I would definitely not recommend. In fact, if you can bring your own lunch, you're probably better off. The food may not have been a highlight, but we did have a spectacular view of San Diego from the Skyfari aerial tram. In fact, my boyfriend liked it so much that we rode it twice (back to back). The tram drops you off near a beautiful bridge, which you can take to see the Lost Forest area. Unfortunately, we got lost (mainly thanks to poor signage); fortunately, we made our way out before the zoo closed at 6pm. Although, I'm sure a slumber party there would have been wild...

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Sunsets in San Diego are really beautiful, and they're that much better when you're sitting on the rocks at Sunset Cliffs National Park. It's always nice to sit peacefully and just appreciate the beauty around you. It's also nice to have a full belly. Suffice it to say, I kept my cool til the last glimmers of sunlight before announcing that I was desperate for dinner. There wasn't a lot of traffic, so our time between destinations was never more than 15-20 minutes all day long - even our final leg, from Sunset Cliffs to Old Town before returning to the Gaslamp Quarter. Old Town for dinner wasn't a bad idea, but our choice of restaurant was. We both had bland meals at Cafe Coyote, which had surprisingly good online reviews. I liked the atmosphere, but definitely wouldn't recommend the food. In fact, if I were to redo anything that day I would likely save Old Town for daylight so that we could explore the heritage sites within Old Town San Diego State Historic Park and eat anywhere aside from Cafe Coyote.

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For context, San Diego is considered the birthplace of modern-day California. Prior to the Spanish landing there in the 1500s, Indigenous peoples had already lived there for thousands of years. In fact, when the Spanish arrived there were five separate groups living in that area with a population of roughly 20 000 people. In 1769 the King of Spain ordered a permanent settlement of Europeans there, which became the first permanent European presence in the west coast of the U.S.A. In the 1800s the area known as California became part of Mexico, and in 1848 it became a territory of the U.S.A. Nowadays, it's still clearly a part of the U.S.A.; however, there are separatists who would rather it become independent. One of the most popular souvenirs you can buy in Old Town (or anywhere in SoCal, really) are items like mugs or t-shirts with a picture of a bear that say "California Republic". Apparently, it's a nod to the one month in the mid 1800s when California declared itself an independent nation. I'm no Nostradamus so I'm pretty unsure of what will happen even 20 years from now, but perhaps it will one day become independent again. Sadly, I can predict that terrible climate events won't relent though. In fact, we were in L.A. when wildfires began. It's scary to think about how many people, animals, and plants are affected by the ongoing damage we're doing to our environment. As a traveler, I'm well-aware that my flights and drives aren't helping matters. That's why I think it's really important to try to offset our footprints in other ways. When you're home, are you using public transit? Are you recycling goods? When you travel, are you staying at green facilities? Are you bringing reusable water bottles, etc.? There are loads of articles on sustainable travel, and even carbon offsetting, so I won't delve deeper; I just wanted to mention the topic because it's something all travelers should consider. We aren't ghosts: we leave cultural and environmental impacts wherever we go.

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A much less harmful footprint was left while walking barefoot in the sand at Coronado Beach. The sand seems to stretch for miles, and it's a lot of fun strolling along the shoreline spotting the crabs scuttling by. It's even more fun to burst into the Little Mermaid song about Sebastian the "sweet, little succulent crab." I should clarify: what's fun for me, isn't necessarily fun for everyone around me. In any case, my boyfriend found a stray lei so that made his day. I also had to say that it seemed fitting in a way because we were going to Hawaii in a month and a day. Rhyme time over. That may also have been more fun for me than anyone around me. In any case, if you're heading to Coronado Beach you should check out Coronado Hotel which was built in 1888 and offers daily tours (for a fee). Be careful with the parking in that area: it's better to go early, and aim to park on side streets.

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Our next (not-so-quick) stop was Balboa Park, which houses an Arts Village. The highlight was not the art, but rather a geology museum with an exhibit called "Paul's Glowing Balls". I have nothing but a glowing review for Paul's balls. In all honesty, if you want to really explore Balboa Park you'll need to set aside hours, if not days. The park is full of museums, exhibits, and gardens. The zoo is even housed within its bounds! As I'm more of a museum-buff than my boyfriend we had to compromise, so that he wouldn't be too bored and I wouldn't be too deprived. That meant that I had a fairly short visit to the San Diego History Museum and the Museum of Photographic Arts. If I had more time, I would have perused in more detail and also visited the Natural History Museum. It was a pleasant surprise that the museums' entry fees were actually by donation. I think it makes a lot of sense to open cultural sites up. I think it's phenomenal when a local museum (like the San Diego History Museum) actually educates its own inhabitants too. While I was exploring the exhibit on Japanese American Internment, I overheard two locals talking about how shocked they were that this had happened so close to home and that they had never learned about it in school. Dark chapters in history should never be erased, and it's important that museums can complement our other sources of education about these matters. At the time I went, I also visited their exhibit about LGBTQ+ history and rights in the region (and the broader U.S.A.). I learned that Massachusetts had legalized same sex marriage before California, and that California had actually legalized it briefly in 2008 before outlawing it again until 2013. I still can't believe how recently it was illegal there. In my mind, it should never have even been illegal in the first place.

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Before watching sunset, we briefly stopped at another museum: the Maritime Museum. It has 7 ships, including the Star of India, the oldest active sailing ship in the world, and a Soviet-era submarine. Apparently the submarine had been purchased by a man in British Columbia after the fall of the USSR, but it made no money so he sold it down south. It was a pretty impressive feat of engineering, with a crew of 70 individuals. Even more astounding was the USS Midway Aircraft Museum Ship - it's gigantic. It dwarfs the "Unconditional Surrender" a.k.a. kissing statue, beside it. We found it frustrating trying to find parking near the Embarcadero/Waterfront area so by the time we were parked and ready to explore we had basically missed the sunset. We made up for it by eating our feelings in a delicious restaurant in the Gaslamp Quarter: Panevino's Italian Restaurant. The food was superb, but the service was spectacular. My favourite part? Our waiter looked identical to Jon Hamm. I wasn't convinced that he wasn't Jon Hamm until I realized that his thick Italian accent and unique mannerisms were real, not just a clever act. Really, I was just trying to prepare for our drive to L.A. - celebrity central. I was practicing the sport of spotting the celebrity vs. the doppelganger. Round two was the next morning when we thought we saw Bill Nye cycling down the freeway. I guess we'll never know if the cyclist guy was actually the science guy.

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To get from San Diego to L.A. I'd recommend alternating between highways 101 and 5 - take the scenic route, when possible. To start, La Jolla is an absolute must-see. The wild sea lions and seals will whet your appetite for more beach time, which is easy enough when the whole route is coastal. There were some small highway-side beaches along the way, and then we hit the big names like Laguna Beach. Suddenly it felt like we were truly in the O.C. - although I still didn't have the desire to get plastic surgery, and spend millions of dollars on crystal-studded dog collars. In fact, we even found the $15 parking for Crystal Cove steep since we wouldn't be staying long. It was a beautiful beach though, and as it's part of a conservation site they're doing a good job trying to maintain its cleanliness and biodiversity. It's funny to see how close this conservation site was to a shopping center. Then again, the whole coast is littered with shopping malls. We made a quick stop to one - aptly named Fashion Island - to purchase a gift from Nordstrom's. I name it to warn you: I've never seen such rude service in my life. We had to practically beg the woman working there to assist us. I started questioning whether she was practicing for an audition in The Exorcist as she kept huffing and puffing and rolling her eyes. I realized she was just condescending and rude when she finally graced us with the words: "This is good for Nordstrom Rack too." Beach, please. We were done with people and needed more beach so we grabbed some gross food from In-N-Out Burger and headed to Newport Beach for sunset. I may have casually thrown that in there, but truly I have no words for how disgusting I found the In-N-Out Burger to be; I'll stick with Five Guys for my burger chain fix, thank you very much.

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As we were staying with family in Irvine, nothing was a quick trip. The traffic in L.A. was as bad as predicted, which meant that our early morning departure for more beach time was in vain. Yes, we made it to Huntington Beach, Venice Beach, and Santa Monica, but no, we did not keep our cool along the way. To make matters worse, parking can be a nightmare in certain parts of L.A. To be honest, I found most aspects of L.A. disappointing. Hollywood and Beverly Hills, in particular, just felt wrong - seeing such opulence and in-your-face wealth when California has such high rates of poverty and homelessness. I think it felt different than visiting castles in Ireland or Austria because I didn't see the same level of inequality there (although that's not to say that it doesn't exist). Every day of our trip we saw people sleeping on the streets, and tent cities taking over bridges. We saw the obvious faces of homelessness, but that doesn't even start to delve into how many thousands of people are probably among the hidden homeless population in California. These are people who may find a couch to sleep on from time to time, or a car where they can rest, but who don't have stable housing to meet their needs. It reminded me of British Columbia, Canada. I've read that homelessness is so high in both of these places because housing costs are exorbitant, and climate is mild (which is attractive if you'll be sleeping outdoors). As with sustainable travel, I'm not going to delve too deep into this topic, but it's important to note what you see and remember what you can do. If you can't give money or time, then try giving a smile. I briefly worked at a homeless shelter in Mexico, and I'll never forget the guys there telling me how dehumanizing it was to be on the street. The worst part often, for them, were the looks of disgust, and the abuse that they faced just for being homeless.

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Suffice it to say, L.A. was not my favourite destination. Similarly, the comedy show we saw there was definitely not the best I've seen. The one exception was Bryan Callen - that man was hilarious. And, not to be too much of a Debbie Downer, but Universal Studios was also disappointing. I was actually surprised by how small the park was, given how high the price was ($315 CDN for two discounted tickets). We started off in Harry Potter World, which was definitely a highlight. I loved seeing the attention to detail in the village they had created! We then took our place in line for the Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey ride. The lead-up to the ride was fun: listening to speeches by Dumbledore and watching paintings talk, but it soured fast. I get motion sick, but my boyfriend doesn't. So although he had taken the ride before, his encouraging advice about the ride being fine for someone like me was not the most accurate. As soon as we were strapped into our seats and jerked to the side, I knew it would be a bumpy ride. Before I could even share my displeasure with him, the ride broke. That's right: the ride stopped with us suspended in mid-air, tilted backwards staring straight at Aragog, the giant spider. To be clear, on top of having motion sickness, I have spider sickness, a.k.a. I am a huge arachnophobe. We were stuck for about 10 minutes, although it felt more like an eternity. Halfway through, they turned on the lights. The rest of the ride was experienced with the lights on, which probably lessened by motion sickness but definitely not my irritation. After that nightmare, I chose not to go on any other rides (mainly because my nausea and neck soreness didn't subside for days). I did manage to watch a special effects show, do the studio tour (incidentally, the man in front of me became motion sick and vomited off the bus), watch adorable animal actors, and see the greatest show of all: Waterworld. My boyfriend and I were both blown away by the pyrotechnics, and the extreme stunts. It was also made better by the fact that the actors hosted a meet-n-greet afterwards. We learned that many of them have reprising roles on TV shows, and yet somehow manage to slot this physically-demanding show into their busy schedules. I barely manage to cook and clean for myself, so I was impressed.

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On the last night of our trip we stumbled upon the fabulous Guelaguetza restaurant in L.A.'s Koreatown. I am not a huge fan of cooking (nor is my boyfriend), so it's no surprise that on our trips we tend to eat out. This can be hit or miss. The Cafe Coyote in San Diego was a miss, but Guelaguetza in L.A. was definitely a hit. They specialize in food from the Oaxaca region of Mexico, which I visited about 12 years ago now. To relive old memories, I ordered mole coloradito and tlayuda. The food was great, and the experience was enriched by the live cumbia music. Speaking of music, it turns out that the only actual celebrity sighting on this trip was on my flight back to Toronto where I shared the plane with the rappers from Migos. It just so happens that my boyfriend loves their music, unlike me, so it was bittersweet when I realized they were on my flight and not his. The best part of this celebrity sighting was that, in the most Canadian way possible, the other passengers were passive-aggressively complaining when they noticed these men boarding before even the first class passengers. So, once I boarded I asked the flight attendant whether those rappers were Migos. She came back to me about 10 minutes later and confirmed that they weren't Raptors (no kidding), but that one was married to Carly B (a.k.a. Cardi B): "whoever she may be". Overall, it was a fitting ending to a trip where fact and fiction weren't always so easy to disentangle.

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Posted by madrugada 19:21 Archived in USA Tagged sunsets_and_sunrises beaches food road_trip san_diego california zoo universal_studios venice_beach rollercoaster newport_beach harry_potter santa_monica coronado_beach fires socal l_a balboa_park Comments (0)

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