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.
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’s 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’s 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’s oldest surviving pub, whose history can be traced back as early as 1242. It’s in a dark
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’s 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.
- 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.
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 – GORGEOUS, 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.
- 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).
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
- 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.
- 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.
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 – Part III: Kyoto (4 days, after Tokyo and Hakone)
Hotel: Guesthouse Sanjyotakakura Hibiki – very 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
- 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.
- DAY 2: Tour eastern Kyoto by foot – the best way to explore. The trains are not as accessible, compared to Tokyo, so we ended up taking cabs a lot.
- DAY 3: Continued exploring the sites in Western Kyoto.
- 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.
じゃあね (See ya, 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 – Part II: Hakone (2 days, after Tokyo)
Hotel: Mount View Hakone – ryokan with private onsen (cash only), booked through Hotels.com
Transport: JR Railpass (Tokyo Station to Odawara on Shinkansen Bullet Train)
- 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!
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!
- 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. From 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.
- Pirate ship across Lake Ashi to end the loop – sit on the top level. It gets crowded but the views aren’t anything new. We found it a great time to chill out, instead of fighting the crowds of tourists with cameras. 🙂 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.
- DAY 3: Depart Hakone…on to Kyoto!
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 – booked 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).
- 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.
- 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. 🙂 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 You 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.
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.
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
- 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
Robot Restaurant – Waiting Room
- 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.
- 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.