Rome & Amalfi Coast, Italy

This was a more “leisurely” trip, compared to most of my previous. We decided to spend 10 days in Italy in early October, and split that time between two locations so as to minimize packing/unpacking and traveling. We spent 4 nights in Rome and 5 nights in Amalfi (Amalfi Coast). This was definitely a more relaxing option…though we did feel like we had a little too much time on the Amalfi Coast and would have been better off doing 3 nights in Rome, 3 nights in Amalfi and 3-4 nights elsewhere!

HOTELS: Staying between two cities made hotels easy. We also had the advantage of leaving our belongings in the room as we took various day trips.

  • Westin Excelsior – Great old world vibe. We loved our room – which had an antique feel to it and two balconies. Being a Platinum member with Marriott, we opted for the free breakfast each morning – which was well worth it! They had a full IMG_3864continental spread, an omelet bar, custom juice bar, etc. The location was right off of the Borghese Park, which was elegant and convenient. It was also a bit quieter compared to staying within the heart of Rome. It was easy walking distance for all the touristy sites. The King size bed was plush and lovely (and rare for Italy!). The hotel had a nice gym/spa, for those that partake while on vacation! 
  • La Bussola Hotel Amalfi – Awesome location! Right off the water and a quick 3 min walk from the main ferry docks and downtown Amalfi. The hotel had a minimal IMG_3924continental breakfast but it was enough to get us going in the morning. There was also a rooftop with great unnamed (3)views of the waterfront. The bed was fairly uncomfortable and the air conditioning wasn’t ideal, but we did have a nice balcony overlooking the water/coast. Overall, a good option for the cost. We IMG_3950booked on hotels.com and received a free bottle of wine with our room!

Even though we didn’t stay there, we did visit the NH Collection Grand Hotel and wished we had spent the extra cash to stay there – lavish grounds with many lemon tree zen spaces to read on a lounge chair or hammock, sit by the pool, work out in the outdoor or indoor gym, etc. This picture of their honeymoon table summarizes the gorgeous details of this hotel.

RESTAURANTS: In Rome, we just wandered around and found unbelievable wine, food and gelato everywhere! You really cannot go wrong with fresh pasta and pizza every place you look. Amalfi was similar, with excellent seafood blended in. The two restaurants below stood out in Amalfi.

  • Pizzeria Donna Stella (Amalfi) – great, affordable pizzas under the quintessential lemon trees. Casual dining. A definite favorite.
  • Ristorante Pizzeria Teatro (Amalfi) – the food and ambiance were fantastic! The service was a little slow (had to ask for the bill 6 times), but we loved feeling like we were in a locals spot and a bit off the main drag.

ACTIVITIES/SIDE TRIPS: A few of our adventures in both regions…

  • Rome:
    • Vatican (Sistine Chapel) –¬†we used the tour company “Headout” and booked a one day comprehensive tour that covered both the Vatican in the morning and Colosseum in the afternoon. We assumed that by getting on the early Vatican tour (and paying for the cut-the-lines feature) that it would be less crowded. NOT the case. This was my least favorite experience of the entire trip. There were people everywhere and tour groups blocking every nook in the museums and finally, in the Sistine Chapel. Tourists took photos in the Chapel, despite the many reminders that this was not allowed. Therefore, the guards unnamedwere constantly yelling and disrupting the silence that should come with the experience. Our tour guide was difficult to understand and the audio devices they gave us were terrible quality. I would not recommend this Vatican tour or going when there is still any remote semblance of tourism season.
    • Colosseum – same tour company but this experience was much better. Our guide spoke clear English and there seemed to be a lot more room to spread IMG_3862out and enjoy the sites. The inside of the Colosseum was staggeringly cool. I could definitely visit this again and again.
    • Trevi Fountain, Pantheon, Roman Forum, Spanish Steps, etc – all worth walking to and taking in the rich heritage. There were still a lot of tourists, but at least these are free attractions and the people come and go. The Pantheon is my favorite – the architecture and art within draws me in for hours. It also reminded me of the “moon door” from Game of Thrones. ūüôā
    • Cooking class – highly recommended! There are a few options, but book in advance. This was such a neat and authentic experience to have while in Rome.
  • Amalfi Coast:
    • Salerno – we took the train from Rome to Salerno, which was an easy affair. I recommend booking early to take advantage of discounted fares. The train station in Rome and Salerno were easy to find and navigate. Just watch out for unsolicited help in “finding your train”. Only trust those in uniform. Once we unnamed-2.jpgarrived in Salerno, we had about 2 hours to kill before our ferry to Amalfi. We ate at Miglio Zero, a small seafood restaurant on the dock that serves fresh catch. It was fantastic! The TravelMar ferry (which you could book ahead or right at the dock) was right on time and only took about 25 min to get to our dock in Amalfi.
    • Amalfi – this is the town we decided to stay in throughout our trip. It was centrally located and had easy ferry and bus access to all the other towns on IMG_3889.jpgthe coast. The ferries can be booked right there on the dock, but in peak tourist season, it was recommended to book in advance. There is a quaint but vibrant downtown area and a beautiful marina ocean front. There is a famous papermill to visit and the mountain cemetery is pretty neat too. It’s a nice place to get lost amidst the winding mountain streets/walkways.
    • Positano – very crowded and posh! It is, of course, beautiful and the beach is the nicest of the towns we saw. The shopping and restaurants were crowdedIMG_3912 but it was worth spending half a day exploring. We hiked there from Agerola, which took about 3 hours.
    • Minori/Maiori – small town, local feel. Definitely not as high trafficked as the other towns, which we liked. We had breakfast there and began our short hike, known as the “Path of Lemons“. This was one of the shorter but more memorable hikes.
    • Hikes – there are lots of local walks/hikes through the lemon groves between towns. We tried to do a hike a day. Highly recommend this! There are adorable shops and restaurants to stop at along the way, and many photo moments. It can be tough on the knees (lots of downhill stairs) but a nice way to explore the area. We did all of the hikes without a tour guide or company. It really isn’t needed! The hikes are pretty well marked and there are usually quite a few tourists going on the same itinerary that you will meet on the buses, etc. The drivers all know too! When getting local bus tickets, you can buy them the day of but get to the bus early. Seats are a premium and you don’t want to be standing as the buses maneuver those tight hair pin turns!
    • Capri – our favorite of all the towns in the Amalfi coast! The island is insanely crowded on the waterfront (and very touristy) but once you get away from that, the island opens up nicely. I imagine that staying the night would be lovely, as all the ferried tourists are gone by 5pm. We arrived via ferry for a day trip and opted to pack our day with a nice hike and some exploring. We felt overwhelmed by IMG_3894the crowds at the water, so we bought ourselves some local bus tickets (cheap) and waited in line for 25 minutes to catch the bus up to Anacapri. We loved this little town! Lots of shops and restaurants, and a decent gym (if you like to work out while on vacation in Italy, ha). From here, we found our way to the trailhead and did the hike up to Monte Solaro. This was a great, non-crowded hike with spectacular views at the top. We ended up taking the chair lift down to preserve our knees and take in the views. Taking the bus back down to Capri was no picnic – we waited in line for about an hour and a half for a non-full bus (it was 2pm on a weekday). The attendant kept saying the bus was a few minutes away…it was not. May be worth the extra cost of a private shuttle or the convertible taxis! Capri is a definite must go back on the list!
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New Zealand – North Island

An endless array of outdoor activities and a laid back vibe. Our main mistake was only spending one week there and not being able to explore the south island as well! We went over the week of Thanksgiving, and lucked out with incredible weather. While the wine was excellent, we were not overly impressed with the food.¬† Tipping is not standard but if service was excellent, we were told that 5-10% was greatly appreciated.¬† Since we were planning to be both hikers and tourists, we packed one normal carry-on suitcase with our basic needs and then our camping backpacks with our hiking gear.¬† It was easy to check both bags and be able to leave the stuff we weren’t using in the trunk of our car. One other tip – don’t be fooled by the weather forecasts.¬† Despite the expected top temperatures being shown as around 70 degrees, when the sun comes out there…it is incredibly hot!¬† Pack light, breathable layers and lots of sunscreen. Below is our itinerary and a few of the trip highlights!

Type of Trip: Self Planned 

Day 1: AucklandArrive in Auckland, direct LAX-AKL on American Airlines.¬† We picked up our rental car at Hitch (fair priced and easy to pick up/return) and drove to our hotel.¬† Get ready for driving on the other side of the road!¬† We dropped our stuff at the B&B, where they greeted us with a complimentary glass of wine and coffee.¬† We spent the rest of the day exploring Auckland – stopping at the Wharf for lunch, visiting the bridge bungee jump (didn’t do it though), and popping in a random bar on our walk home.

Hotel:¬†The Great Ponsonby Art Hotel¬†‚Ästlovely accommodation¬†with a fabulous breakfast in the morning! Totally recommend this spot.

Day 2: Raglan –¬† After a restful, jetlag catch-up sleep, we took our rental car and began the road trip down to Raglan.¬† Beware of tons of road construction with gravel roadways and large trucks.¬† Our first stop was the famed movie set “Hobbiton”, where the Lord of the Rings movies were shot (The Shire).¬† While pricey, this turned out to be really awesome!¬† Either make your reservation in advance (it gets slammed) or go first to the Matamata Visitor’s Center and book your tickets there at the same price.¬† We ended up doing that and the bus picked us up and dropped us back at the Visitor’s Center.¬† Before the tour, we stopped for lunch at¬†Redoubt Bar & Eatery. ¬†The waitstaff was friendly and accommodating and the food was the best choice that we found in the small town.

Hobbiton was seriously cool.¬† Such elaborate art design and the tours are spaced out well so you don’t feel overcrowded.¬† The tour takes you through the set and provides fun movie trivia along the way.¬† The tour ends with a complimentary drink at the Green Dragon (yes, the bar from the movie).

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The rolling hills of farmland along the way was gorgeous.¬† Lots of cows and sheep, which added to the ambiance.¬† When we finally arrived in Raglan, the vibe shifted to chilled out surf mode.¬† Our studio hotel room was perfect, and ideally located.¬† We had an extended dinner at Orca Restaurant…the service was dismal (they didn’t come to the table for 30 min and when we did order, they forgot about our order)…so that turned into a 3 hour dinner of sub par food, but we didn’t seem to mind with the view of the water and it being the start of our trip.

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Hotel:¬†Bow Street Studios¬†‚ÄstRachel quotes “this place is amazing to meditate in!”¬† Two story apartment with lots of space and serenity.¬† Very enjoyable.

Day 3: Turanji –¬†We woke up early on our own and had a lazy morning, with breakfast at this great cafe called The Shack. Driving out of town, we detoured to the Bridal Veil waterfall. It was much bigger than expected and made for a nice, steep morning walk to stretch our legs during a long day of driving.

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We tried to stop at the Waitomo Glow Caves, however all the main tours were booked up for the day and it seemed a tourist sink hole.¬† There were people and tour buses everywhere and the cost of the tours were pretty hefty.¬† We opted to skip it on our trip, though other people have said it’s pretty cool.

We finished up the day by driving to Turanji, where we would be staying for the night before our big hike.  The town was a small trucker town, a bit run down.  We stopped at the local Tavern for bad cheese pizzas and some penny slots.  Rachel was the big winner, so that was decently exciting.

Hotel:¬†Parklands Motor Lodge¬†‚Ästsimple, no-frills, inexpensive motel¬†accommodation. Lots of truckers and few amenities.¬† The rooms were clean and it was nice to be able to order breakfast the night before and have it delivered at a certain time in the morning.¬†¬†

Day 4: Northern Circuit The BEST part of our trip. We got up early this morning, had a big breakfast at the motel and finished packing our backpacks. Our carry on luggage went into the trunk and we began the half hour drive down to Whakapapa Village (our starting point for the Tongagiro Northern Circuit loop hike).

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***

Info on hut accommodations and our hiking route:

We had reserved our camping huts five months before our trip – which is highly recommended since the hike is highly sought after and the beds book up. Booking information and availability is HERE. The huts are awesome and well maintained.¬† Each has a Ranger that stays overnight and lays out important rules and information. The huts have varying numbers of bunkbeds, situated in a few rooms.¬† Privacy is limited, but the amenities are great for a camping spot.¬† There are gas stoves, bunks with bed pads, bathrooms (no showers) and heating/lights.¬† There isn’t a place to charge devices.¬† You should bring a sleeping bag, inside shoes (boots are not allowed), food and a pot to cook it in (along with dishware). The water is clean and can be consumed from the huts without treatment.

We opted to take the route counterclockwise, which is not the normal direction most hikers take.  I opted for this for a few reasons: less people, flatter first day (elevation wise), and hut availability.  Our original plan was to stop at two huts for the nights, the Oturere Hut and the Mangatepopo Hut. This plan would make our first day the longest (distance) at 23.5km, but our legs would be fresh.  The second day would have the most elevation/climb (~1900m, and 12km) and the last day would be a short out back to the Village (9.4km).  Our hike ended up going a little differently, as described below.

PACKING LIST

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Once in Whakapapa, we checked in at the Visitor’s Center and got our parking pass. We left our car in the designated lot and got on the trail about 9:30am.¬† It was easy going and gorgeous from the start.¬† We felt like we were all alone for many aspects of it.¬† Given that we had a long day ahead of us, we only made two specific stops.¬† The first was a side trip to the Tama Lakes (worth it).¬† We dropped our bags and trekked to the lake with just our water bottles, making the extra distance a little easier.¬† The second stop was for a late lunch at the old Waihohonu hut.¬† “This was the first hut built in Tongariro National Park (1904) and is the oldest existing mountain hut in New Zealand. It was the base for the first recreational skiing in New Zealand. It was in active use for over 60 years and remains standing on its original site. The hut was registered as a category one historic place by the Historic Places Trust in 1993.” Pretty cool stuff! You cannot camp there but it’s neat to check out. We also made a brief stop at the new Waihohonu Hut to check out the amenities and use the bathroom.¬† This hut was by far the newest and nicest!

Convincing ourselves to keep going after that first 5.5 hours was tough, but we pushed on to try and make it to our hut with a few hours of daylight left. The scenery begins to darken and become more volcanic.¬† Really cool…especially when you realize that you are hiking through Mordor (Lord of the Rings) and circling Mt. Doom! Absolutely stunning and we barely ran into anyone along this stretch.¬† Arriving at our campsite around 6pm, we immediately began an evening of easy dinner and endless gin rummy games.¬† I think we were hard asleep by 9pm!

Recommended items to bring: sleeping aid and ear plugs!  There are other campers at the hut with you, going to sleep/waking up at very different times.

Food we brought for the trip:

  • Snacks: Clif bars, individual peanut butter packets, gushers/fruit snacks
  • Breakfast: Oatmeal, instant coffee/tea
  • Lunch: Tuna packages (with little mayo packets collected from fast food restaurants beforehand) and mixed nuts
  • Dinner: Easy mac, instant mashed potatoes, hot chocolate

Hotel:¬†Oturere Hut¬†‚Ästbest camping accommodation¬†I have stayed in! Obviously, it’s a no-frills scenario but it was super nice to not have to lug thermarests, extra layers, stoves, etc.¬† They have a campsite there that you can book for less money, but we found the hut to be totally worth it…and warm! Our main complaint was that the hut was shared among many people so sometimes you had to wait to use the stove and sleep still was difficult, given all the different sleep/wake-up patterns.¬†¬†

Day 5: Northern Circuit¬†We were woken up at 5am, when another guy in our bunk room decided to hit the trail at sunrise and needed to pack his stuff up.¬† Once up, we just decided to get a move on as well. I don’t do well on limited sleep and our legs/hips were sore, so we made an executive decision to skip our second hut reservation and push through for another long distance day.

The first few hours were a gradual uphill climb with a few beastly ups that kicked our butts. The scenery was stunning though, as we were now totally immersed in the volcanic land.

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We came across the first of the Emerald Lakes and took a lunch break before ascending the steepest climb of the circuit.¬† These is also where the one-day “Alpine Crossing” intersects the main circuit.¬† Hence, people of varying hiking experience levels were everywhere! It was a bit chaotic and frustrating to navigate the traffic, but it definitely solidified our decision to NOT simply do the Alpine Crossing and instead hike the full loop. Since we hiked counterclockwise, we were forced to climb the uphill in volcanic ash…which gives a bit with every step (like walking in sand).¬† That was challenging but I preferred that to the opposite, where there were serious lines/waits to climb up the rocks. The view from the top was perfect, below shows “Mt. Doom” in the backdrop.

Once we came down the other side, we stopped at the Mangatepopo Hut to check it out and have a bite (it was around 1:30pm). This too was a nice set-up, perhaps a little cleaner than the hut we overnighted in.

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The final hike out was deceiving.  We noted that the signs said 3.5-5.5 hours, depending on weather conditions.  We quickly realized why that was Рmost of the final few miles is an uneven and not-maintained trail. There are challenging rocky areas and trenches dug in, making it difficult with boots and a pack.  We commented that if it had been raining, we would have been screwed.

We finished the 26 mile loop at around 5pm that afternoon, back in Whakapapa Village.  After picking up our car, we made the hour drive up to Taupo, where we reserved a last-minute hotel room.  Embarrassingly enough, as true Americans, we stopped at Burger King for a much needed fatty, delicious burger and fries. The hotel was perfect, with an excellent (well-needed) hot tub and free LAUNDRY!  We threw our entire backpacks into the washer and were good to go. The hotel owners were really sweet and had excellent restaurant recommendations.

Hotel:¬†Gables Lakefront Hotel¬†‚Ästhighly rated on TripAdvisor and worth the reviews.¬† The rooms were very clean and substantial, with comfortable beds.¬† Most rooms have private hot tubs, though those were booked up.¬† So we settled for the communal hot tub, which we had to ourselves anyways!¬† The rooms have home-made cookies and all the coffee, tea, etc you could ask for. It was also right on the shore of Lake Taupo, so this made for a beautiful sunset view. The laundry was an excellent addition.

Day 6: Taupo & Rotorua Our trip was beginning to wind down and we were exhausted from the hike, with sore legs and bruised hips/collarbones.  Hence, this day was more of a relaxing endeavor.  We stopped by a few of the tourist attractions on the way out of Taupo, including the Craters of the Moon geothermal area.  This was actually pretty cool ($8/person) and provided a nice excuse for a short walk around the grounds.  There are meteor craters, geothermal hot springs steaming, and lots of cool colors in the landscape.

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We decided to relax the rest of the day and drove up to Rotorua.  We booked 3-hour massage treatments at our hotel (yes, this was overindulging for sure).  They have an in-house spa and it was fabulous.  One hour massage, followed by a honey scrub/mud wrap and then a facial to end it.  Our bodies felt totally rejuvenated afterwards! We ordered great pizzas from Pizza Imperfetto in town and were in bed by 9pm. Perfection.

Hotel:¬†Silver Fern¬†‚Ästlovely accommodation¬†with private hot tubs in the room and an in-house spa with reasonably priced treatments.¬† The hosts are lovely people! Short walk into town. Highly recommended.

Day 7: Rotorua It was nice to stay in the same hotel for two nights in a row. We spent this last free day completely chilling out.  We took private hot tubs sessions in our room, and ventured out to the Redwoods Forest and walked along the treetops.  That was cool and an educational experience.

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Hotel: Silver Fern 

Day 8: Back to AKL The roadtrip back to the airport!  Car return was easy, as was airport check in.  The American Airlines lounge was a nice stopping point in the airport, where we enjoyed our final class of local Sauvignon Blanc.

Next on the list…the south island!

Oxford, England

I’ve taken 5+ trips to Oxford this past year for work, and each time a little more charm rubs off on me. ¬†I adore this scholarly college town, and the history that comes along with it. ¬†If you are planning a vacation to London, and want to include the countryside, I highly recommend including Oxford in the itinerary. ¬†I always think of Oxford fondly as the place which inspires me to sit by the fire at one of the small pubs, write my life’s masterpiece manuscript, and then throw it in the fire and walk away smiling. ¬†There is so much academic inspiration in this small town, I simply adore it. ¬†Below are a few of my highlights.

HOTELS:¬†I’ve stayed in a bunch of different hotels in Oxford, each one with its own benefits. ¬†I booked through hotels.com so as to receive rewards.

  • Malmaison – Really cool ambiance. ¬†Old prison turned into a hotel. ¬†I have stayed in the main building (“cell” rooms) and the detached building. ¬†I prefer the main
    malmaison

    Malmaison Entrance

    building as the rooms are larger and layout is better.  The hotel is a short walk from the main drag in town, but everything is walkable.

  • Old Bank Hotel – LOVE this hotel. ¬†Great room setup and excellent location. ¬†It was hard to get to driving myself (I am not familiar with high street traffic regulations). ¬†The restaurant in the hotel was a nice surprise and I enjoyed the free walking tour that the hotel was able to set up for me (tip your guide!).
  • Old Parsonage Hotel – beautiful, high end hotel. ¬†It has an intimate charm to it and is close to most of the campus and some historic bars. ¬†A must visit, even if you don’t stay there.
  • Macdonald Randolph Hotel – I loved the bathtub in my room. ¬† ¬†Afternoon tea is wonderful and the hotel has a vintage feel that is welcoming.
  • Vanbrugh House Hotel – My first room was too¬†noisy due to a campus event, but the hotel moved me without an issue. ¬†The reception desk was very friendly and accommodating. ¬†Good location and less expensive than the others.img_4729

RESTAURANTS: Most of my meals were on the run there, but here are a few spots that stood out to me:

  • Turl Street Kitchen – wonderful farm to kitchen food. ¬†Everything is seasonal and the menu is changed constantly. ¬†Warm atmosphere and in the heart of campus.
  • The White Rabbit – great pizza and bar scene. ¬†Lots of college kids having beers and pizza. ¬†I ordered for takeout and was happily surprised by the pizza.
  • Isis Farmhouse – lovely outdoor seating along the Isis River (River Thames). ¬†You have to walk down the river path a bit to get there, and their hours can be funny (check online first), but worth the adventure.

BARS: A good drink is always appreciated.

  • Eagle & Child¬†– a cozy, quaint pub, deeply rooted in Oxford‚Äôs history. This rustic little pub dates back to the 17th century. It is best known as the meeting place of the Inklings, a literary group including J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, who would regularly meet in the Rabbit Room at the back of the pub to discuss their own and other works of literature.
  • Turf Tavern¬†– tricky to find (down a narrow winding alleyway) but another fun spot to have a drink and some fish & chips. The pub has a long list of famous patrons, from the fictional, (Colin Dexter‚Äôs Inspector Morse), to the real, including Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton and Bill Clinton.
  • The Head of the River – excellent place for a casual meal and pint on a sunny day. ¬†They have an outdoor beer garden facing the Thames River.
  • The Bear Inn – simply cool place to have a beer. ¬†The ceilings are low in Oxford‚Äôs oldest surviving pub, whose history can be traced back as early as 1242. It’s in a dark
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    The Bear Inn

    corner along some side streets. The spot is also known for its bizarrely large collection of old ties, representing sports teams, colleges and university clubs, etc.  Their Sunday roast is awesome too.

  • Old Bookbinders Ale House – Another traditional pub – cozy yet quirky, full of character. ¬†Located in Oxford‚Äôs trendy Jericho area, the food is french-inspired and quite tasty.
  • The White Horse – GREAT English pub food. ¬†The bar is full of nooks and crannies and the menu is very reasonably priced. ¬†Yet another must-visit!

ACTIVITIES/SIDE TRIPS: Just a few fun things to do around campus and in the neighboring towns.

  • Christ Church Cathedral Choir Sing – a must. ¬†The music is heavenly and completely captivating. ¬†oxford
  • Old Bank Walking Tour (contact the hotel for details and signup). ¬†There are a number of other free walking tours there as well – just google.
  • Harry Potter walking tour, if that’s your thing. ¬†Here’s one:¬†TOUR
  • Tours of other film locations (you can explore any of these on your own too).¬†LOCATIONS
  • Drive to Bath. ¬†This town is adorable to explore for a day and there are roman baths¬†to enjoy.
  • Stonehenge – because you sort of have to if there.

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    Stonehenge

 

Kauai, Hawaii

An oasis from the everyday chaos in our urban lives. ¬†Up with the sun, down with the sun. We loved every aspect of our first trip to Kauai (May), so much so that we scheduled another for a few¬†months later (October)! Of course, there is always the beach, surfing, paddleboarding, etc…but below are a few of my highlights from both trips, aside from the standard beach activities:

Type of Trip: Self Planned 

Hotel:¬†St. Regis¬†‚ÄstGORGEOUS, luxury hotel on the north shore of the island. ¬†They spared nothing in creating this beautiful hotel. ¬†If you don’t stay here, then you must at least come for a sunset cocktail on the balcony – stunning views overlooking the ocean.

Transport: LAX-LIH (non-stop), then rental car at Advantage.  The first time we went, we tried to go cheap on the car and it was a mistake.  We rented at Fox.  Not only was it far off the airport, but it took an hour to leave the lot due to the sales associate trying to upsell us on every insurance policy (even after I had refused multiple times).  Advantage was a much smoother process and an easy return.

Activities:

  1. HIKING: Kauai has some epic hikes, many of which we have explored.  Our favorites (within an hour drive of the resort) were:
    • Nualolo Trail: (7.6 miles round trip) This hike in Waimea Canyon started out pretty rough. ¬†The mud was slippery and you are mostly descending for the first half through covered forest (hence, poor traction led to multiple slips).
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      Nualolo Trail

      If you wait it out, the trail opens up¬†around mile 2.5 and then the extreme dropoffs begin! ¬†It is gorgeous, and slightly frightening. ¬†I have a fear of heights, so I almost couldn’t make it through. ¬†Glad I did though, as the vista is crazy cool. We hiked back the same way. The Nualolo Cliff trail, which connects this hike to the Awaawapuhi Trail is closed due to erosion. ¬†We hope to try the Awaawapuhi trail next trip.

    • Hanakapiai Falls Trail: (6.9 miles RT) This hike shares the first 2 miles with the famous Kalalau Trail¬†(which you need to request a permit far in advance for). ¬†After that, you head uphill to a massive waterfall. ¬†We packed a small lunch, which we ate at the base of the falls. ¬†A must do, especially if you do not have a permit for Kalalau.
    • Sleeping Giant: ¬†(4 miles RT) This was a nice one, if time is an issue. ¬†It was short and steep, with cool rock structures and views from the top. ¬†We have done this one multiple times.
    • Secret Beach: It’s not really a secret…but you should go. Beautiful, expansive beach with huge cliffs behind you.
    • Okolehao Trail: (5+ miles RT) This one was aggressive as we couldn’t seem to locate the end…we hiked past the main vista viewpoint (2.5 miles) and continued into the rope-assisted trail. ¬†It was muddy and didn’t seem to be much traveled. ¬†The vistas leading up to this point were cool though, so next time we will likely stop there.
    • Wai Koa Loop: (5 mile loop) an easy, muddy trek that is all flat. It guides you through the botanical gardens. ¬†Make sure to stop at the Stone Dam. ¬†It’s like a little Garden of Eden.
    • Some other sites I found helpful:¬†Full List¬†and Top Five
  2. ADVENTURES:
    • Koloa Ziplining: ¬†Super fun! ¬†The guides were awesome and the ziplining cords are long and fast. ¬†It cost around $150/each but we felt like it was one of the best activities we have done there.
    • Luau Kalamaku: We ordered discounted tickets¬†HERE¬†for around $95/each, which included dinner and the show. ¬†It was totally touristy, but we enjoyed it. ¬†I thought the food was fine but the show was a neat experience. ¬†Either way, it gave us something different to do on our vacation!
    • Self-driving: We drove around the perimeter of the island to check out Waimea Canyon State Park. ¬†The drive itself wasn’t that pretty but the views once you reach the canyon are indescribable. ¬†It is not that dissimilar from overlooking to Grand Canyon. ¬†fullsizerender-2
  3. RESTAURANTS:
    • Tiki Man Pizza: We really liked this place! ¬†Went on a Saturday night, there was a good crowd and live music. ¬†The pizza was fine, it was more about the atmosphere.
    • The Dolphin: felt overrated. ¬†It was expensive sushi, and the service was slow and disorganized. ¬†Not a favorite.
    • Bar Acuda: cool vibe, tapas. ¬†Was expensive but nothing stood out to us.
    • Kilauea Fish Market: excellent fresh fish and poke!
    • Lighthouse Bistro: this was a favorite. ¬†Romantic vibe but not overly done. ¬†Our waitress made the dinner even better. ¬†She was hilarious and honest about which items to order.
    • Foodland (Grocery): great spot to pick up a few items for hiking lunches, snacks and breakfast in your hotel room. ¬†The sushi and coffee were great as well!
    • 9th Island Sports Pub & Grill: we were looking for a spot to watch the Cubs baseball game and stumbled across this gem. ¬†Great crowd, solid bar food though they don’t have a liquor license. ¬†However, they do let you go to the grocery store next door, buy beer and bring it into the pub at no cost! ¬†Awesome spot to watch¬†sports.
    • Kountry Style Kitchen: fabulous greasy spoon. ¬†Breakfast was big and hearty.
    • Hideaways Pizza Pub: we were looking for a restaurant outside the hotel that we could walk to – this was it. ¬†Despite the reviews, we thought it was just fine. ¬†Lots of families with kids and local residents.
    • Tip Top Cafe: a bizarre favorite, near the Lihue airport. ¬†Typical Hawaiian fare, we stopped here after landing both trips. ¬†Full of locals and inexpensive. ¬†We ordered the “surfer combo” (or something like that). ¬†I still crave the macaroni salad.

Mahalo, Kauai!

 

 

 

 

 

Kyoto, Japan

Continuing on from my Tokyo &¬†Hakone¬†posts…Day 6 marked our arrival in Kyoto, Japan. ¬†Kyoto, the old capital, is full of religious sites and quaint neighborhoods.

Type of Trip: Self Planned РPart III: Kyoto (4 days, after Tokyo and Hakone)

Hotel: Guesthouse Sanjyotakakura Hibiki Рvery simple guest house in an AWESOME location (prepay via paypal), booked through Booking.com

Transport: JR Railpass (Odawara to Kyoto on Shinkansen Bullet Train), then taxi to guesthouse

  1. DAY 1: Arrive in Kyoto in mid-afternoon.  Our hotel was simple but the location was fabulous.  Lots of little bakeries, coffee shops and boutiques.  I tend to prefer spending less on hotels during vacations, as we are never in them.  Location is preferable for me.
    • Samurai show and class! ¬†Based on one of my client’s recommendations, we signed up for a show and full-costume lesson at the¬†Kembu Theater. ¬†Worth every penny. ¬†The show was entertaining and showed us a glimpse into traditional samurai culture. ¬†Afterwards, we got to pick our “costume” and learn a simple routine to perform. ¬†The teachers were patient and funny – they took pictures and video with our phones. ¬†Seriously so fun.img_7742
  2. DAY 2: Tour eastern Kyoto by foot Рthe best way to explore.  The trains are not as accessible, compared to Tokyo, so we ended up taking cabs a lot.
    • Fushimi inari taisha: the famous red gateway of the Shinto (God of rice) shrine. ¬†The torii gates are a beautiful work of art, though I am terrible with crowds and this one was slammed with people. ¬†That made the whole experience rather
      img_7769

      Torii Gates at the Shinto Shrine

      claustrophobic for me. ¬†My recommendation is to GO EARLY¬†(we went around 11am). ¬†Another observation, the area surrounding these sites offer tons of kimono-rental shops…so you see hundreds of foreigners dressed in traditional kimono dress.

    • Kiyomizu-dera Temple: the views of Kyoto are excellent from this spot (as it is at a higher elevation). ¬†Too many people for my taste though. ¬†Pick your arrival time wisely.
    • Shopping: in this whole area (Higashiyama), there are lots of cute shops selling tea sets, pottery, etc. ¬†We spent a few hours exploring this part of “old Kyoto”.
    • Gion: the Geisha District. ¬†I LOVED this neighborhood. ¬†Lots of wood-paneled facades on the private tea houses, lanterns dimly lit in the evenings, excellent restaurants. ¬†Walk down Shijo Avenue and then alongside the canal that runs parallel. ¬†Go around dusk (6pm-ish) for the best chance to see a Geisha heading into one of her appointments. ¬†We were lucky enough to see one in a taxi!
    • Though we didn’t go out after dinner, we did have a local bartender tell us that Pontecho Street is an excellent place for food and Kiyamachi Street for drinks.
  3. DAY 3: Continued exploring the sites in Western Kyoto.
    • Ryoanji Temple & Zen Gardens: This was a highlight of the trip. ¬†We woke up early so as to arrive to the gardens by 8am, when it opens (we took a taxi). ¬†fullsizerender-3It felt like we had the whole place to ourselves. ¬†Super peaceful and a great place to meditate and reflect. ¬†The landscaping is something to be admired as well!
    • Kinkakuji (Golden Pavilion): you can walk here from the gardens above. ¬†Still a great idea to get there early – we arrived around 10:30am and there were tons of school tours. ¬†Still enjoyable with the crowds though. ¬†The pavilion is stunning, especially reflecting on¬†the pond. ¬†We stopped at the tea house here, paid 500 YEN to enjoy traditional matcha tea and a small cake. ¬†fullsizerender-1
    • Arashiyama: the bamboo forest. ¬†This place was super cool and a free tourist activity. ¬†The overhead bamboo made you feel like you were walking through a fairy land. ¬†It was crazy crowded by the time we got there though
      fullsizerender-2

      Bamboo Forest

      (so a lot of sudden stopping when people decided to take a photo).  If you have an additional day, I would suggest doing this first thing that morning.

    • Togetsukyo Bridge: Walk over from the bamboo forest and check this out. ¬†Magnificent views of the mountains and river.
    • Shiatsu massage: we needed massages after all the walking over the past week so we opted for a traditional massage, walking distance from our hotel. ¬†We found this gem: Hiyoshido. ¬†The women at the front were welcoming and the massage was fabulous – 90 minutes for 7,500 YEN (around $70 USD). ¬†We were able to get the massages in the same room, as you wear traditional Japanese pajamas. ¬†Totally worth it – we thought about gong back the next day for the 3 hour option!
    • Dinner: We were hoping to get a traditional kaiseki¬†dinner (belated Thanksgiving celebration) but had trouble finding a restaurant that could accommodate us on the spot on a Friday evening. ¬†We realized that this is because most of the restaurants are very small (sometimes just a bar) and the meal can take a few hours. ¬†I suggest making a reservation in advance (this was the place we wanted to try but needed a reso: KARYO) ¬†We ended up finding a place in Gion, and ordering the expensive chef’s selection. ¬†I didn’t particularly care for the majority of the dishes, but we did try everything (including snails). ¬†They brought out a sushi platter as one point with a lobster head on the plate. ¬†It was still moving, which totally freaked us out. ¬†Totally bizarre experience, but one that I was glad we tried. fullsizerender-4
  4. DAY 4: Depart back to airport
    • Our flight wasn’t until the evening, out of Tokyo…so we spent the morning walking and shopping in our neighborhood. ¬†We bought silk kimono robes that I am pretty sure I live in 24/7 now.
    • Our reserved bullet train from Kyoto Station to Tokyo Station left around noon. ¬†Easy commute to Tokyo Station with views of Mt. Fuji along the way (~2.5 hours). ¬†Once at Tokyo Station, take the local train (5 or 6) to Hamamatsucho, then catch the Haneda Airport train (<1 hour). ¬†The JP Railpass covers these trains too.

That’s it for our trip! ¬†We departed on a morning flight on 11/17 and departed on an evening flight on 11/26. ¬†It was the perfect amount of time to see everything we were hoping.

„Āė„āÉ„Āā„Ā≠ (See ya, Japan!)

Hakone, Japan

Continuing on from my Tokyo post…Day 3 marked our arrival in Hakone, Japan. ¬†Hakone is famous for its relaxing onsen (Japanese hotsprings) and close proximity to the sacred Mt. Fuji. ¬†We needed some downtime after all the commuting and chaos of urban Tokyo. ¬†Hakone proved to be the exact oasis we were hoping for.

Type of Trip: Self Planned РPart II: Hakone (2 days, after Tokyo)

Hotel: Mount View Hakone Рryokan with private onsen (cash only), booked through Hotels.com

Transport: JR Railpass (Tokyo Station to Odawara on Shinkansen Bullet Train)

  1. DAY 1: Arrive in Hakone in mid-afternoon
    • Commute: First, we took the bullet train from Tokyo Station using our JR Railpass. ¬†We got off at the Odawara stop (~45 min). ¬†From there, exit the station to the bus stop (on the East side). ¬†Take the Tozan Bus Route (“T”) to the “Sengokuhara-bunka-center-mae” stop (~1 hour). ¬†It cost us around $10 USD. The buses are easy to navigate and the stops are shown in English in the front. If you are going to Hakone for 2-3 days total…I highly recommend getting the Hakone FreePass at the Odawara station. ¬†This would cover that part of your transit (bus) and you will use it again for the tour loop. ¬†
    • Ryokan¬†– we reserved a Superior Twin room with a Tatami area (make sure to order the breakfast and dinner for at least one night – the “half board” option!). ¬†The room was gorgeous and simple. ¬†A separate big-claw bath in the room and traditional Japanese sleeping arrangements. ¬†When you¬†check in, they provide you with traditional Yukata (a casual kimono) to wear during your stay. ¬†When you get the “half-board”, you also get one free private bath session for your room (45 min, great for couples). ¬†Most go nude in the onsen…the water was SO hot, but completely relaxing! ¬†The hotel also has a public onsen for women only, men only and coed. ¬†You do not need a reservation for these and you can choose to go nude or with a swim suit. ¬†This was exactly what we needed after all the walking around Tokyo!

      img_7636

      Private onsen at ryokan

    • After enjoying our private bath session, we got ready for our traditional kaiseki dinner in the hotel. ¬†I was not expecting how awesome it was! ¬†There were about 15 plates set up in front of each of our chairs, in a private dining room. ¬†You serve yourself, order sake as you please, and enjoy a traditional kaiseki meal. ¬†TRY EVERYTHING!¬†fullsizerender-3
  2. DAY 2: Hakone Loop Tour – in search of Mt. Fuji. ¬†Pick a clear day so you can see it! ¬†We woke up to the earthquake in Fukushima, thankfully it didn’t result in¬†the tsunami that was anticipated!
    • Breakfast, like dinner, was epic. ¬†Another billion courses…including a crab claw miso soup that was boiled in front of us. ¬†So awesome and flavors I had never tried before!
    • We purchased¬†the Hakone Freepass (mentioned above)¬†at a local stop near our ryokan. ¬†We bought the 2-day for 4,000 YEN. ¬†It covers all of your day’s transportation and comes with a comprehensive bus map that is easy to follow. fullsizerender-5From there, we hopped on the bus to Gora (where the loop begins). ¬†LOOP
    • We loved the loop adventure…four modes of transportation in one day (bus, cable car, ropeway, and boat). ¬†The first epic views of Mount Fuji arrived on the ropeway. ¬†You are inside a gondola…try to sit on the right side of the car (right side if you are facing uphill).
    • We ate black hardboiled eggs in Owakudani (where the ropeway drops you off). ¬†This volcanic site was interesting but we didn’t find it appealing to stay long. ¬†img_7691
    • Pirate ship across Lake Ashi to end the loop – sit on the top level. ¬†It gets crowded but the views aren’t anything new. ¬†fullsizerender-4We found it a great time to chill out, instead of fighting the crowds of tourists with cameras. ūüôā ¬†The Fall foliage is simply gorgeous.
    • The bus took us back to the ryokan and we had a late lunch at the Petite Prince (french restaurant). ¬†We were craving some bread after days of fish and Japanese fare.
  3. DAY 3:¬†Depart Hakone…on to Kyoto!

Tokyo, Japan

Japan…what a fascinating culture and country. ¬†We spent nine amazing days exploring in November 2016, during the gorgeous Fall colors. ¬†One overlying observation…I was surprised how many of the venues (hotels, restaurants, etc) were cash only. ¬†So be prepared! ¬†I will break this blog into three separate entries to cover the cities we visited.¬† Below are a few of my highlights:

Type of Trip:¬†Self planned…9 day itinerary including Tokyo, Hakone, and Kyoto

Hotel: Citadines Shinjuku Рbooked through Hotels.com

Transport: American Airlines non-stop LAX-HND, then JR Railpass

Pre-trip Advice: Download the following Apps on your phone: maps.me (maps downloaded to your phone to use without cell data plan), currency xe (current exchange rates), HYPERDIA (train routes and planning), and Travel Japan (free wifi in many areas).  Use ATMs in Tokyo to pull out money (you get the best exchange rates and there are 7-11 ATMs everywhere).

  1. We took a 12 hour non-stop flight from LAX to Haneda Airport (recommended – much closer to the City compared to Narita Airport), and landed in the evening. We took a taxi to our hotel in Shinjuku, which cost us around $50 USD. ¬†The Tokyo Monorail picks up in the Haneda Airport and takes you just about anywhere in Tokyo and is very easy to use…we were just exhausted and wanted to get to the hotel. We crashed early to get ourselves ready for the next few days. ¬†Our hotel was similar to a small, efficient apartment with a little kitchen. ¬†The location was excellent too, for exploring the various neighborhoods on foot! ¬†I debated between Shibuya and Shinjuku and found that I preferred Shinjuku – seemed a more 30yr+ crowd and less chaotic.
  2. DAY 1: Due to jetlag – wake up at the crack of dawn and attempt the Tsukiji Market. ¬†You will need to get there SUPER early (some say 3am, depending on the time of year) in order to get a vest to witness the world famous tuna auction (free). ¬†They only give out 120 vests each day…it will be over in the early morning, when you can eat some of the freshest sushi ever for breakfast. ūüôā¬†AUCTION DETAILS. ¬†We then spent Saturday walking around the city. ¬†It was a rainy day, which actually turned out to be a blessing as the streets were empty and we were fortunate to experience some of the sites with few to no tourists (rarity in Japan).
    • Shinjuku neighborhood – largest train station, entertainment center (bright night lights)
    • Stumbled upon the AWESOME ramen chain:¬†Ichiran¬† img_7434You order at a vending machine (cash) and take the ticket into a little bar area. ¬†You leave the ticket on a dish and they bring you your order. ¬†Each seat at the bar is closed off to the others, so you can eat semi-privately, if desired. ¬†We saw many solo Japanese business people come in for lunch. Theoretically, you could go there and never have to speak to anyone the whole time…wait staff included!
    • Gyoen Park (Shinjuku) – there is a small entrance fee to this magnificent park and gardens. ¬†Again, we had bad weather so it was empty…which made it a little more magical.

      img_7554

      Gyoen Park in the Fall

    • Shibuya Crossing & Takakini Street (Shibuya) – crazy amount of people.
      Largest intersection crossing in the world and a must see!  Takakini Street was slammed with people but made for epic people and fashion watching (shops line the street).
    • Dinner at one of the best sushi restaurants I have ever tried.
      img_7531

      Sushi Chef and our dinner

      The quality is on par with those of the elite restaurants written up in our Foodie magazines and documentaries… ¬†It was definitely still expensive (cash only, around $100USD/person), but totally worth it for the experience. You must make a reservation if more than two people. The owner is the only sushi chef there, and the restaurant only accommodates 10 people at a bar. ¬†He is super friendly and welcoming, along with his wife who called herself the “mega boss”. ¬†It was awesome. ¬†HIGHLY recommended. ¬†SUSHIRYORI INOSE

  3. DAY 2: This was another day to continue our walking adventure…and happened to be a Sunday. ¬†We were pleased to find out how accessible Tokyo is by train too! ¬†There are English translations on the ticket machines, as well as on the trains. ¬†Google Maps and maps.me helped us navigate a lot!
    • JR Railpass Activation – we purchased the 7 day railpass, so we needed to be conscious of when we activated it. ¬†We chose Sunday so that it would be able to cover our trips to Hakone, Kyoto, and back to Tokyo (Haneda airport). ¬†You must purchase the rail pass well before your departure date (order from the US). ¬†There are many sites selling them, I found these guys to be the most affordable and the order process was easy:¬†RAILPASS¬†. ¬†Bring the vouchers they send to Japan with your passport to any one of the local¬†EXCHANGE OFFICES¬†to activate it. ¬†You can activate it to start on a future date (if you want to go to the exchange office a few days prior to your first use day). ¬†Using it is easy – the information centers have English-speaking staff. ¬†I would highly recommend pre-reserving seats on the trains (it’s free)…if you know your travel dates and destinations in advance. ¬†For instance, when we activated our passes, we also reserved tickets for the bullet trains to 1) Tokyo – Hakone, 2) Hakone – Kyoto, and 3) Kyoto – Tokyo. ¬†The clerk gave us a print out of all the train options for each day for the routes we wanted. ¬†It was nice to have this out of the way and know that we had seats. ¬†It also gave us a more concrete schedule to plan around.
    • Meiji Shrine – there must have been a wedding or ceremony as most of the women were in formal kimonos, along with their daughters. ¬†It was beautiful to watch and experience this traditional dress.
    • Yoyogi Park – Shibuya. ¬†HUGE open park…similar to Central Park in NYC but felt more active. ¬†Families everyone, playing frisbee and picnicking. ¬†There was also an Elvis-impersonation sock hop¬†dance situation happening near one of the entrances. ¬†They sell grapefruit beers at the beverage tubs as well. ¬†Really entertaining.
    • Robot Show – a must do, and an equally indescribable experience. ¬†We did it as a dinner and show option. ¬†I found discounted tickets through Veltra.com (around $60USD/each). ¬†Book early to ensure availability. ¬†ROBOT SHOW

      fullsizerender-1

      Robot Restaurant – Waiting Room

  4. DAY 3: Last day in Tokyo.  Get up early to explore more before checking out of hotel at noon to head to the next city.
    • Tsukiji Market – sushi for breakfast and $20 strawberries! ¬†Yes, $20 is ridiculous for strawberries…but they were the best we have ever tasted. ¬†Not kidding.img_7626
    • Train to Tokyo Station – Shinjuku stop to Tokyo station for 200 YEN…from there we caught the JR bullet train (Shinkansen Line) to head to Hakone (off the Odawara stop).
    • Arrive in Hakone (known for its traditional onsen (mineral hot springs/baths)…see my next post for details on Hakone.