Travel Guide: The World is a Small Place

Sometimes you don’t need a plane ticket to learn about a new culture. I came across this video a few weeks back that captures why I think travel is so important: students from the U.S. are given the opportunity to connect via skype with students from Europe, Africa and Asia, and connection is precisely what happens.

After finding common ground in music and crushes, racism and daily obstacles, do you think these kids will grow up espousing an “us versus them” mentality? Of course not, because now they know someone who is not like them, and have discovered that they’re more alike than they thought. Take a few minutes to watch the video—it will totally make your Friday!

Travel Guide: New Orleans

New Orleans is quite possibly my favorite vacation destination. I love the atmosphere (off Bourbon Street, that is), the architecture, the cocktails, the food—oh and one of my best friends has lived there since right after high school. So, inspired by my fifth visit a few weeks ago, here’s your guide!

Where to eat: I quite literally plan my days around meals in New Orleans, so this category comes first this time around! The absolute must for breakfast is of course Cafe du Monde. Go to the iconic location on Jackson Square—there will be a line on Saturday and Sunday, but it’s absolutely worth it for the best beignets and chicory coffee IN THE WORLD. Not exaggerating!

IMG_5054I would be content with beignets every morning, but if you need more variety in your breakfast fare, the Jazz Brunch at The Court of Two Sisters is absolutely incredible. You’d need two or three mornings to try everything, but if you’ve only got one, make sure to pick up as many crawfish and shrimp dishes as possible! Oh, and their biscuits are amazing. Ruby Slipper Cafe is another fantastic brunch spot—they don’t take reservations and there will be a wait, but it’s worth it! And their mimosas are great… and consist primarily of very tasty Champagne!

Lunch… mmm… lunch… There are so many options! Definitely make sure to get a po-boy at some point. This time around, I tried Mothers’ debris and gravy (that’s the meat that falls off the roast while it’s slowly cooking, along with a healthy helping of the flavorful juice) and it was awesome!

IMG_5057Regional specialties abound at the French Market—po-boys, crawfish, gumbo…. This time I tried Meals From the Heart Cafe’s crab cakes. Really crabby, really good, you can even get them gluten free if you’re in to that.

For a sit-down lunch or casual dinner, my number one choice is Gumbo Shop. I’m incredibly disappointed I didn’t get there this trip, I always get the Crawfish Combo Platter (with etouffee of course!) so I can get a little bit of everything! In years past, Cochon has also been a hit. If you end up venturing out of the French Quarter, try The Avenue Pub in the Garden District. They have a ridiculous number of beers on tap and their frites are uh-maz-ing!

The best part about knowing a local (besides knowing her, of course!) is getting out of the touristy areas and having and experience closer to real life in the city. For me, this of course means restaurants, and this trip that meant Capdeville. They specialize in whiskeys, I beleive, but the thing I remember most are the red beans and rice balls. They’re like Italian arancini, but made from the New Orleans staple. So tasty!

Honestly, there are too many amazing dinner places to name them all, but one of my favorite memories is K-Paul’s. Remember Chef Paul Prudhomme from the early days of food TV? He’s the big guy with the beard and beret, the “Magic” seasoning mixes, and a nearly 40-year-old standby restaurant. It’s heavy and southern and indulgent and absolutely delicious. He was even there when we went! This trip, we tried EAT New Orleans which was very good! And they were able to handle our 14-person party with no problem.

You really can’t go wrong. One of the best things about New Orleans is that they don’t let crappy (or good, for that matter!) chains open within the city limits. On top of that, the food scene is so vibrant, every restaurant has had to fight to survive—which means it’s really well done. Some of the best meals I’ve had were at restaurants I never even learned the names of—I couldn’t go back there if I tried… although I’m still dreaming of those corn and lobster beignets…

Where to drink: Again, you almost can’t go wrong (unless you order a blended drink on Bourbon Street. Then you’re just asking for trouble… and gut rot). I really appreciated the skill of NOLA bartenders this trip, as that’s a bit hard to come by in Bermuda. I had some delicious Old Fashioneds of course, but I also made a point to ask for a cocktail menu—something they don’t look down on here—and try something unique.

A don’t-miss spot for me is the Carousel Bar in Hotel Monteleone. First of all, the main bar is topped with an actual carousel roof and it moves. The entire bar, the stools, wells and bartenders all rotate slowly—if you glance at it, you might not notice, but if you’re standing outside the bar stools, you’ll have to take a step every few minutes to catch up. Even more importantly, the space is elegant and beautiful, far enough to the edge of the Quarter that it’s usually not too crazy, and they make amazing craft cocktails. My favorite is the Ginger Royal, a mix of bourbon, Champagne and who knows what else.

This trip we also hit up Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop Bar, which despite being on Bourbon Street, is actually pretty cool.

DSCF4240What to do: Walk around! This last trip we were lucky to stay in the Marigny/Bywater area, which is a bit east of the Quarter. We were nestled in a residential neighborhood, so we got to see a lot of the beautiful architecture: Shotgun houses mixed in with Creole cottages and grand mansions, brick sidewalks and ferns hanging from every porch.

DSCF4204Since you’ll be starting your day at Cafe du Monde in Jackson Square anyway, start there. Explore the blocks between Decatur and Bourbon or all the way up to Burgundy—get some pralines, explore the shops, have a beer, maybe pick up some sidewalk art. There are carriages lined up at the square and I’d highly recommend a ride, although perhaps wait until the evening.

One end of Decatur (which it splits into St. Peter’s) in the Quarter ends with chain shops and Harrah’s Casino, but at the other end, you’ll find the French Market, the oldest public market in the country. I’ve touched on the food offerings already, but you’ll also find jewelry and accessories, art and gifts here.

Once you’re French Quarter-ed out (or just tired of walking), hop on a streetcar to the Garden District. You must have exact change ($1.25 at the moment), and it moves slooowwww, but that’s good—you’ll get a chance to look at all the amazing houses in this neighborhood. And really, the streetcar is an adventure by itself.

Yes, there are museums and tours you can take, but I think the best thing about vacationing in New Orleans is just being there, settling in and letting whatever adventures come your way happen. Enjoy!

Travel Journal: East Coast Road Trip Part 2

IMG_3389When I left you, we were on the way from Virginia into North Carolina. I thought it would be a good place to pause since it was very much the transition from North to South. Know how I know? WAFFLE HOUSE!

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I seriously love Waffle House. The hashbrowns! The grits! The waffles! Amy and Molly had never been there, so I insisted we stop at the first one we came across. It wasn’t our last.

IMG_3400As I mentioned previously, we plowed through North Carolina in an effort to have more time in Charleston and Savannah. I don’t have much to report except that 1) We saw a lot of rainbows. A lot. 2) Corn nuggets are the best invention ever. An order came with my meal at some restaurant on the side of a country highway and we ended up ordering more for dessert because we liked them so much! Imagine really good (not canned) creamed corn, mixed with cheese, somehow battered and deep fried. Mmmm…

IMG_3447Anyway, back to the trip: we’re finally in South Carolina! We got the day started off right with chicken and waffles at the Early Bird Diner. The place is tiny and there was a wait, but it was so worth it! Molly loves the south and wanted to go on a plantation tour, so after breakfast we trucked out to Magnolia Plantation in Charleston.

IMG_3465To be honest, a big part of me felt like it was an insane thing to take a tour of… the plantation is not a tribute or a memorial to the people whose lives and freedom were taken there and at thousands of other places like it, it was simply billed as a pretty, historic property. And it was beautiful, but it was also hot and buggy and at one point so humid it was miserable to walk around for the hour or two we were there. It’s hard not to consider the misery it must have been to do physical labor there, day in and day out.

IMG_3584Anyway, the plan was to end the afternoon with a swamp tour, but as we got to that area, the humidity I mentioned turned into an all-out downpour. We bucked up and made the attempt—it felt kind of good after the intense heat of the day actually—but only lasted 15 minutes or so, as the rain kept pounding down harder and harder.

After a classic in-car wardrobe change, we headed in to town. We didn’t really do anything but walk around and take it all in… I don’t think I’ll ever get used to how beautiful old Southern towns are. I love the cobblestone streets and tree roots that have grown around the sidewalk, old doors and awesome architecture.

IMG_3524 IMG_3526We spent that night in Beaufort, a teeny little town with cute restaurants and bars… including a tucked-away pub called Hemingway’s whose regulars showed us a great time.

The next morning we drove into Savannah. After grabbing some lunch and checking out the shops in the touristy historic district, we took a carriage tour of the city, which sounds cheesy, but it really was a great way to see a lot of the town and learn a lot in a short period of time.

IMG_3585IMG_3596The shop above was the original Ford showroom—how cool is that? After the tour we did even more shopping (such a great city for reasonably priced, super cute clothes!), and then we decided we wanted to see the ocean one more time before the end of our trip, so we headed out to Tybee Island.

IMG_3624The next morning, we headed to the airport and our trip was officially history. We drove a little more, spent a little more and fought a little more than anticipated, but it was so worth having an adventure with my sisters. Hope you’re inspired to plan (and not plan) a road trip of your own!

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Travel Journal: East Coast Road Trip Part 1

IMG_3275Since I’ve been feeling awfully homesick lately, I thought I’d share an awesome trip I took with my sisters (the hooligans pictured above) last summer. Don’t think of it as a guide—simply inspiration for a trip of your own! The most fun parts were the spontaneous stops we made along the way.

So we had decided to do a road trip down the East Coast as a last blast before I moved to Bermuda and Molly (the youngest, on the left above) moved to Atlanta. The idea had been bopping around my brain for years—mostly because I wanted to eat all the awesome food in the region (hello, crabs and cheese steaks and barbeque and soul food!). Have I mentioned I usually plan my vacations around culinary adventures?

Anyway, we started just north of New York City for the sole reason that we could get a cheap direct flight early in the morning. We hopped in our rental car and navigated our way to Staten Island. That’s right people—I drove through NYC on a late weekday afternoon. It wasn’t even that bad! Amy wanted to take the ferry back in to the City so we could get a good look at the Statue of Liberty. We got a pretty great view of the skyline as well!

IMG_3284After a couple hours of walking around, we hopped back on the ferry, back in our car and headed to Philadelphia for the night.

First thing in the morning (ok, it was like 11), we hit up Reading Terminal Market for coffee and ended up buying lots of locally made snacks. Then it was time for lunch and my first must-do: Getting famous cheese steaks from both Gino’s and Pat’s to see which was better. As a group we were split, but I would like to mix them together (one had better bread, one better meat… we obviously got cheese wiz on both) for the best cheese steak sandwich known to man! Maybe in my next life…

IMG_3301We took our time moseying back to our car so we could explore some of the neighborhoods. We ended up wandering through several blocks of Asian markets where one of the proprietors saw us commenting on the lychee and offered a taste test. Also, how beautiful are these crabs?

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Speaking of beautiful, Amy had done a little research and found a cooky last stop before we left the city (her specialty). Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens is a house and adjacent lot that artist Isaiah Zagar began covering in mosaic tile in the late ’60s. Literally surface of the home (bathroom included) and the two-story maze outdoors is covered in shards of glass, dishware and who-knows-what-else.

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We of course made the obligatory stop in the historic part of town to see some of the most historic places in America, but didn’t stay long. After sweating all day in the hot sun, we were glad to pile back into the air conditioned car for the two-hour drive to Baltimore, just in time for dinner and then beers at what we were told is America’s oldest continuously operating tavern, The Horse you Came in On. We didn’t verify whether this was actually factual… but we had a great time anyway!

IMG_3344The next day, we decided to skip exploring much more of Baltimore in favor of spending the gorgeous day in Ocean City. The original plan had been to spend the night in Richmond, but then Amy discovered a bridge that went under the ocean, so obviously plans needed to change!

IMG_3379Ocean City was so cute—great boardwalk with trashy little beach shops (where we obviously made a matching sisters tank purchase). And on the way out we stopped at a crab shack! Finally!

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That night we stayed in the middle-of-nowhere, MD… or maybe we were in Delaware by then, I really can’t remember. The beauty of this trip is that we didn’t book anything in advance—we just found a hotel online an hour or two before we were ready to call it a night and took everything day by day.

The next morning we drove the rest of the way down Delaware and over/under the crazy bridge that leads to Virginia Beach. I didn’t take any photos because I was driving, but let me tell you… it was pretty cool. After spending much the day in Virginia Beach (which was just like Ocean City, on steroids), we put in some serious miles. We wanted to make sure we had plenty of time in Charleston and Savannah, which I’ll tell you about next Friday! Stay tuned!

Travel Guide: Dubai

This week’s travel entry marks our first guest post ever! Elise Mooijman is a Dutch journalist and blogger. For more travel reads check out her blog The Beauty Suitcase.


 

Dubai: the city of oil and gold. A city where no architectural idea is too crazy and where money flows like water. I visited this city in the United Arab Emirates desert for one week back in September.

The first thing you’ll notice once you get out of the airport is (that is if you’re crazy enough to go in the summer like I did) the intense heat. I can best describe it as a hot blow dryer being turned on right in front of your face. At night it only cools down slightly. For someone like me who is from a colder country darkness and heat just don’t mix. Feeling the scorching heat while it’s pitch black (or as black as it can get with all the neon lights of Dubai) is a weird experience.

Burj Khalifa View Skyline
My father was in Dubai for work commitments and the company he works for was nice enough to let me stay in an apartment at one of the most luxurious hotels in the city with him. I hope this does not come across as bragging as I would never be able to afford a hotel room – let alone apartment – there myself, but staying in a place like that gave me a good impression Dubai’s high-life. However, the gap between the poor and the rich in Dubai is very large. Always leave a tip for the hotel staff as they earn little and work long hours.

Many Arab women in Dubai are covered completely from head-to-toe in black clothes, including a veil. But don’t let this fool you: Dubai is quite a women-friendly city for tourists. They for example have special women’s taxis that are driven by women only. Men are only allowed to ride in the company of a woman.

It’s important to dress respectful in Dubai: cover your knees and shoulders (it is mandatory inside the malls, so men: ditch those Bermuda shorts ;) ). You won’t be arrested or anything like that if you don’t, but locals will greatly appreciate your decency. I have heard of women (and men) though that were stopped on the streets or in the mall by strangers and scolded for their raunchy clothes.

Elise at the Dubai Mall
Elise at the Dubai Mall

Highlights

Where to go: Hands down the Dubai Mall, don’t be ticked off by the word ‘mall’, because the Dubai Mall will be unlike any shopping mall you’ve ever been to. First of all it is the largest mall in the entire world, and with that in mind it might not come as a surprise that the Dubai Mall is home to an ice-rink and an aquarium filled with 2,64 million gallons of water and more than 33,000 living creatures (of which 400 are sharks). Standing in front of this giant while surrounded by stores feel very unreal.

Burj Khalifa
Also in the Dubai Mall is the entrance to the world’s tallest building: the Burj Khalifa. From the observatory deck you’ll have a magnificent view, but I’ll be honest: I personally find the ledge experience at Willis Tower in Chicago more impressive. However, it never hurts to be able to stay that you stood on the tallest building in the world right?

If you want to see the historic and less polished side of Dubai visit the Souks. There is the gold souk, which offers silver and gold jewelry for great prices, and the spice souk where sales men will literally shove the most interesting spices under your nose.

Spice Souq
Where to eat:

The restaurants around the Dubai Fountain (right outside the Dubai Mall and at the foot of the Burj Khalifa) make for a great place to grab a bite. The food isn’t anything spectacular— you’ll find a lot of typical American chains like Red Lobster and Texas Roadhouse there—but eating while watching the fountain ‘dance’ to the most beautiful music is an experience that you’ll never forget. The water jets get as high as 500 ft. and after 6:00 p.m. there is a show every 30 minutes in which the fountain ‘dances’ differently to each song.

Dubai Fountain
If you’re on a budget try Italian-Japanese restaurant Scoozi, but stay away from the sushi. Not that the fish is bad, but what is a California roll with nothing but crab inside? If you have a little more to spend I recommend having breakfast at the InterContinal Festival City hotel. I have never seen a breakfast buffet with so much choice (sushi for breakfast anyone?). It will cost you an arm and a leg, but you’ll leave with the fullest stomach you’ll ever have.

 

Thanks so much to Elise for sharing her travels with us! Interested in writing a travel guide? Email me at kristink_64@yahoo.com.