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Destinations

It’s  been a while since I’ve fallen hard for a city — and Singapore really was it. I had been putting off an Asia trip along the line of reasoning that the flights were too long and I’d want more time than a job in the US would allow for. Two weeks of vacation simply wouldn’t be enough.

But it’s been almost 4 years since I last switched jobs, and I’ve never been in a place where I could just take 3 months off — and a decent flight deal to Singapore made it feel just right. Singapore isn’t a city where you’d feel like you’re diving head-first into Asia; as a former British colony and a major business hub throughout the world, you’ll find so many of the amenities you’d miss while traveling in less developed countries. In fact, there were moments when it barely felt like I had left the US, but then, you turn a corner and are reminded that you’re enveloped by a completely different world.

Anyway, more on the specifics of why I loved Singapore later. But in the meantime, here’s my go-to list of places to stay, things to eat, and views to explore on a short trip to Singapore.

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I never thought the Bahamas would be one of my favorite destinations. Never.

The Bahamas always conjured up old 90s commercials for Sandals or Club Med resorts — and in my 20s and 30s, I always imagined my taste for travel transcended that. But the day after the 2016 election, I couldn’t bear the thought of being in DC for inauguration weekend, so Emily and I did a quick flight search for planes departing DC that Thursday, and lo and behold — the Bahamas was the cheapest international option. So… we booked it.

We also booked domestic flights from Nassau separately, and while I desperately wanted to swim with pigs in Exuma, the flights to Eleuthera were shorter and cheaper — $60 each way for a 20 minute flight. So we did some research, found a great Airbnb, and decided to hit up Eleuthera instead.

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Ah, Tulúm. The first time I visited, I was 22, and took a 60 peso “luxury” bus from my Airbnb in Puerto Morelos, and to be honest, I wasn’t even that interested in going. But once I got to the view from the cliffs at the ruins, I was hooked.

This was in 2012. Back then, the now-famed Hartwood had been open maybe 18 months (and I didn’t even go to that part of Tulum until my third trip). Only a few of the hard hitting hotels existed back then, and they weren’t even on my radar. That first time I went to Tulum, we walked from the ruins to Playa Paraíso, which was more than enough to make me fall in love with this seemingly undiscovered paradise. And for the record, even then, it was far from undiscovered.

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It had been a while since I fell absolutely head over heels for a city — since the first time I went to Oslo, I think!

I’ve made quite the habit of hopping on a red-eye flight out to Europe. Luckily, I have my flight drug situation teed up like a pro, and can reset my own body like an alarm clock. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work as well when I’m trying to get into the office by 9am, but hey, the vacation adrenaline rush is real.

Lisbon staked the beginning of what would be a mostly solo, two-week adventure in Portugal and Spain. Nickerson joined me for the first few days, and then on my 31st birthday, I sent him off to the states, and continued on my Spanish quest.

But first, Lisbon.  Read More…

Something I love about my job is that I get to explore cities in the US — and when it comes to personal travel, I’m typically focused on getting out of the country. A couple of weeks ago, we opened our first (and then second) restaurants in Austin, TX… so I got to spend a few days exploring the city, working from coffee shops, and hanging out with coworkers and friends.

Luckily, one of my favorite travel buddies lives in Dallas — so Nickerson drove out to Austin to hang out and splurge on a bougie weekend with me. Nothing beats alternating coffee with rosé and constantly hunting for air conditioning on a hot, summer Texas day. Here are some of my favorite bites (and sips) from my week in Austin!

 

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Having grown up in Los Angeles, and being one of those people whose parents rarely understood the need to leave California, I could count on one hand the number of times I had witnessed snow falling. That is, until I moved to DC, where I heard it “rarely snowed,” and in my first winter, we got about 48 inches of snow.

There’s no better introduction to snow than one of those rare, city-shut-down, break out your skis blizzards. And since I haven’t seen snow quite like that first East Coast winter, getting to Montreal just before a blizzard gave me that magical winter wonderland that I had been craving for the last nine years.

My travel partner, hailing from Montana by way of Spokane, was less entertained – but nevertheless, entertained me by trekking through Vieux Montreal amidst a white out.

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Leaving Oslo is always a painful affair for me – and I’ve been finding myself in Norway once a year now, because I love it so much.

This time, I needed one more long trip to hit Star Alliance Gold, and Norway flights happened to be the most reasonable option for an extended Labor Day weekend trip. So naturally, I booked flights with a friend and hopped across the pond to the happiest country on earth (literally).

I hadn’t actually explored Oslo in at least three years – last summer, we spent about 12 hours there on our way out, and the year before, I came for a winter wonderland new years. But the last time I had a few days of decent weather in Oslo was 2013, so I was ready to see it all! After all, moving to Norway is a serious goal of mine, so I treat every trip as a research event.

We found the cutest two-bedroom apartment in the Grünerløkka neighborhood, and walked almost everywhere (unless we were crunched for time). When you arrive at the airport, take the local train to Oslo Sentralstasjon – seriously, it’s half the price of the Flytoget and only takes a few minutes longer – and stop by a Narvesson to pick up a bus pass. A 7-day pass costs 240 NOK, and you just have to tap it on a screen the first time you hop onto a bus.

If you ever head towards Oslo (or anywhere else in Norway – I’ve probably seen it), let me know! I’m madly in love with that country.

EAT

Villa Paradiso – bustling little pizza shop in Grünerløkka. Put your name in, and have a cocktail at the adjoined bar, Bar Bellini.

Egget Kafe – A cute little bistro overlooking a fountain with an egg in the middle. Catch a midmorning breakfast, and watch all the locals walking their pups!

Riwaj of India – great casual Indian spot with a warm, sultry atmosphere. Save room for dessert.

Hitchhiker – Asian tapas, located on the second floor of Mathallen Oslo (which you should also wander). Get 2-3 courses per person, and then get dessert.

COFFEE

Stockfleth’s – this really ended up being our favorite coffee chain on the trip. We spent half a day working remotely, and I ended up taking a couple of bags of coffee home!

Tim Wendelboe – recommended by the New York Times, and a fabulous little roaster shop. No space for working, so just grab your espresso to go.

DRINK

Kulturhuset – recently relocated to a large space on Carl Youngs Gate, this bar has several rooms on several floors. Check out the local beer selection, and cozy up in the library room.

Postkontoret – formerly an actual post office – this place is now a pizzeria, coffee shop, and bar. Grab an iced coffee and chat up some locals on the patio.

Oslo Mekaniske Verksted – once a mechanic garage (circa 1850), now a hipster cocktail bar with plenty of nooks and crannies and midcentury modern furniture to cozy up to – and a fireplace! They don’t have a kitchen, but you can bring outside food with you.

ESCAPE

Oslo Opera House – this is usually everyone’s first stop as a visitor. How can you not? Snøhetta’s killer opera house is a stunner, and you can climb all over it.

Mellomkollen – taking the bus to a trailhead is the norm in Norway, and you can even take your dog. Based on the maps my hosts had, a ton of trailheads branch off from this area, and we even did some swimming in a lake. Pack a sandwich and live your best Norwegian life. Blue markers are for summer trails, and red ones are for winter trails.

Øya (Norwegian for “Islands”) – with your bus pass, you also get access to the ferries that cross the bay all day. You could pay $40 or more for a fjord tour, but taking the free ferries to the islands was a fun tip from our Norwegian friends. Bring a swimsuit on a warm day, and jump in to the water off Hovedøye – there’s nothing quite like it.

Ekebergparken – One thing I love about Oslo is that it can feel like you’re in the middle of an old world city one minute, and the next, you could be on the edge of a mountainside forest. Ekebergparken is one of those places. Wander the park, enjoy the views, and check out the weird sculptures all over the place.

Kleivstua – if you have access to a car and want to have a really, really good meal, head over to Kleivstua for a city escape, or just a fantastic fine dining meal for not a ridiculous price. We had 4 courses and several glasses of wine for about $160 USD per person. Get there early and take the 20 minute hike to Kongens Utsikt (The King’s View) – work up that appetite just enough to hike back down and relax in front of a fireplace.

“When I got to my gate at JFK, it was chaos — it was like we were already in Morocco.”

This was the response we got when we greeted my friend Lauren and asked how her flight was. To be completely honest, I had a similar experience on my flight from Brussels to Marrakesh.

I had a middle seat, which I don’t usually mind — short legs! There was an older, very glamorous Moroccan woman in the window seat, and she repeatedly tried to speak Moroccan Arabic and French to me. My modern standard Arabic was rusty at best, and French words just sound like Arabic words I simply do not know… so we quickly gave up on communicating.

But when my aisle seat companion arrived, she was a tiny young woman with a toddler — and before I knew it, she just handed me her baby while she got situated. And right before landing, the woman in the window seat made a phone call in Spanish (yes, mid-flight), and we realized we had a common language after all. She invited me and my two girlfriends to stay at her oceanfront home in Tangier.

This is Morocco.

Marrakesh is a loud, bustling cultural capital awash with pink clay — meant to keep the buildings cool and the light unblinding. The streets are really just alleys with names, and it’s a city of juxtapositions that feel comfortable and unnatural at the same time: Porsche SUVs  and donkey carts loaded with oranges share the roads, and in Djemma al-Fna, a cobra handler will put a snake on your neck no matter how hard you protest (in Arabic, French, and English, because that’s how we roll).

The Lonely Planet describes Fes as an assault on the senses, but Marrakesh has its own aggressive personality, too. Wherever you go, the fumes from motorbikes will invade your lungs — but then you’ll pass by a French bakery, or a fresh orange juice cart, and you forget about the fumes for a few minutes.

In the souks, the shopkeepers will pull you in and pour argan oil into your hands, and then open up tall glass jars of blocks that look like soap, inviting you to smell every apothecary glass in their shop. Tagines bubble over open flames, and butchers shoo kittens away from their windows. Someone almost always yells “NO PHOTOS”  at me as I capture moments in the souk — the lantern shops are the most mesmerizing.

I turned 30 in Marrakesh, with two of my closest friends, who not surprisingly, have more in common with each other than either of them has with me. We arrived in Marrakesh to a torrential downpour, and ran through the streets of the old medina in search of our riad.

Riad, in Arabic, refers to a large building with no exterior windows, but an interior courtyard — something that keeps the noise of the city out of the home. Some riads are restaurants, some are mini hotels, and most are both. All of them are simply beautiful.

Marrakesh is the perfect introduction to Morocco: aggressive peddling to tourists, souks that connect reality to what Disney portrayed in Aladdin, and plenty of rooftop restaurants and cafes to pique your interest with Moroccan food. But beware visiting only Marrakesh — because there is so much more to Morocco, and Marrakesh is simply the epicenter of all Moroccan tourism. It claims to be the center of all culture in Morocco, but if there’s anything we learned on our two week road trip throughout central and northern Maroc, it’s that Marrakesh was merely an introduction to what was a deluge of Moroccan history, scents, politics, and culture.

In all, go to Marrakesh — but don’t let it be your only stop.

Have multiple meals atI Limoni. We did.

Sleep and relax at: Riad Lena. I would stay there a million times again.

Buy a pool pass for: Palais Namaskar, or go with the classic, La Mamounia. Pro tip: reserve your day pass in advance, because they were sold out the whole time we were in Marrakesh.

Escape the city life for: Essouiara. Take a luxury bus from the Marrakesh train station, and spend the day wandering the seaside souks.

Tulum’s been on the hot list for several years now, and there’s a good reason why. It’s the ultimate place to relax on the beach, dine at incredible restaurants, and admire a minimalist beach chic design aesthetic. And there are many, many ways you can do up Tulum – it can easily add up to a pricey trip, but at the same time, you can explore Tulum and the Mayan Riviera on the cheap. And that’s really how I prefer to do Tulum!

To be completely honest, I’ve never been able to convince myself to fork over the cash for a room in one of Tulum’s boutique beachfront hotels… because even when you don’t do Tulum to the nines, it’s a pristine beach with great food and plenty to do. Here are my pro tips to getting the best value out of every dollar you spend on a trip to Tulum.

Where to Stay — Tulum Pueblo vs. Tulum Beach

I was an early adopter to the Airbnb scene – and the first time I used the website was actually to visit Puerto Morelos, a town about an hour north of Tulum. We visited Tulum for a day trip, on a recommendation from our host, back in 2011.

Tulum is really one city, made of two separate communities. There’s Tulum Beach – it’s what you’ve read about in Conde Nast Traveler, on DesignLoveFest, and in the New York Times.

Then, there’s Tulum Pueblo, which is less luxurious, a little rough, and much cheaper. I prefer traveling on the more adventurous side, so when I visit Tulum, I like to book an Airbnb in Tulum Pueblo – there are so, so many great options for luxe apartments and villas when you expand your search from the beach areas. Tulum Pueblo is about a 10-minute drive away from the beach areas (check the map above!)

Staying in Tulum Pueblo

Pros: better value for per dollar, and the ability to get a glimpse of what Tulum is like for people who live there – cheaper, less touristy, and easier to use as a jumping off point for other adventures on the Mayan Riviera.

Cons: not walking distance to the beach, dirt roads, and the need to rent a car. Related to that — dealing with parking when you go to Tulum Beach.

Staying in Tulum Beach

Pros: walking distance to restaurants, bars, and ruins. Posh hotels and wellness retreats, no need to rent a car

Cons: Expensive, boujie, touristy.

Real talk: If you’re someone who really values exploring and adventuring in your travels, then finding a nice Airbnb in Tulum Pueblo is probably going to be a great option for you. But if you’re someone who likes the luxuries of boutique hotels and the convenience of walking to dinner, then Tulum Beach is probably a better value!

Alas, I have never been much of a luxury traveler – I swear by Airbnb, and when I travel alone, you’ll probably find me in a hostel, taking swigs from a bottle of rum, with 5 new traveler friends. So this is my guide to Tulum on the cheap: what’s good, what’s expensive, and what’s worth it. If you haven’t done Airbnb before, and think I’ve sold you on it, please do use my link for referrals!

Where to Eat

Playa

Hartwood: You’re likely to read and hear a lot about Hartwood. I’ve had two fantastic experiences there — but my advice would be to focus on the ceviche and sides, and just order an entree if it really speaks to you.

ARCA: One of the best meals of my life. Go here.

Taqueria La Eufemia: cheap, awesome beach tacos. Great spot to escape the upscale Tulum visitors that tend to hail from NYC.

Kitchen Table: Treehouse-like atmosphere, great service, and where I learned to love Mexican wine.

Casa Jaguar: went here for a first meal on a trip with five friends, and they did not disappoint. Great food and cocktails, and the best service.

Gitano: cocktails were fantastic, and dinner was alright. Go for the drinks, the people watching, and the open air disco ball atmosphere.

MurMur: underappreciated, but solid. The short ribs are what stand out to me the most.

Tabano: Mexican grandma-style cooking. If you’re somehow sick of ceviche…

Literally any beachfront spot with a bar — it’s all good. Live your life.

Pueblo

Antojitos la chiapneca – only open at night. Line out the door, but it’s worth it. Known for tacos al pastor.

El Camello – ceviche institution for the locals. Get the small… grande is extreme

El Milagrito – cute spot for a beer or three during the day. Fun bar at night! Good escape from the usual Tulúm beach crowd hailing from UES.

Ki bok – cute little coffee shop if you find yourself in Tulúm town and in need of a cheap brunch.

What to Do

Las Ruinas

Tulum’s known for it’s cliffside Mayan ruins, which are really cool to explore. It costs about $6 USD to enter the park, and you can walk around all the building structures. On the ocean side,  there’s a view point with stairs down to the ocean, where the waves crash against a little beach cove. Make sure you bring your swimsuit and some drinking water — this place gets hot.

Cenotes

The Yucatan Peninsula is known for its incredible sinkholes — in this part of the world, they’re called cenotes. Though there are several pretty close to Tulum itself, my personal favorite is hidden in the jungle near Puerto Morelos, about an hour or so north of Tulum. Drive yourself in a rental, or hire a taxi to find Siete Bocas — all the locals will all know where it is. Entrance fee is about USD $20, and it’s well worth the price. The cenote has six openings (there used to be 7, but they collapsed 2 holes into one giant one). Some have stairs for accessing, and others require a leap of faith! Say hi to Maria, and practice your Spanish. Bring a lunch and relax a bit.

Snorkeling off Playa Paraíso

Just south of las ruinas, you’ll find a beach that’s mostly used by the locals — a couple of beach bars with cheap cervezas and some bachata music set the scene. If you’re as lucky as I was, a local will offer to take you snorkeling in one of the boats on the beach. Pick up a six pack of Sóls at the bar, and hop on the boat to check out the reefs.

Siam Ka’an Biosphere Reserve

Also further south of the ruins is a huge wildlife reserve — to get there, you can either continue driving down the Tulum Beach road (and be prepared for a dusty, long, dirt road). Or, you can Enter through the town of Muyil, from the main Cancun highway. If you enter through Muyil, you can take a boat tour for about USD $45 and hopefully see birds, dolphins, and sea turtles! We explored a bit through the Tulum Beach road, and unfortunately didn’t see anything — but I’ve heard great things from people who have made a day trip out of it.

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