travel

travel

Spectacular views and glistening blues: This is Mallorca

Looking at Mallorca's sparking clear waterLooking at Mallorca's sparking clear water

The largest of Spain’s three Balearic Islands, Mallorca genuinely surprised me with its beauty, nature, fulfilment to the taste buds and its charming villages. But besides all that, it’s a fantastic destination for a girls trip!

My best friends have made a pretty cool habit of visiting me wherever I’m living (Austin, Los Angeles, Moscow, and most recently, Madrid). I knew that Madrid would not be worth spending an entire week in while they were taking time out of their busy lives to visit me (Sorry, Madrid), and since they had all been to different parts of Spain, Mallorca came out as one of those destinations we all wanted to check out. And we are so glad we did!

Here’s how to spend 4 glorious days in the sunny Mediterranean island, if you want a good mix of the four pillars of an amazing vacation: beach, culture, hiking and delicious food.

Day 1: Arrive in Palma de Mallorca
We debated whether to stay in the capital or a remote location, and in the end, the choice to stay in Palma de Mallorca paid off. Besides being really beautiful with lots of yummy places to eat and drink, it was a great spot to be based out of (less than 20 minutes to the airport and about 1-1.5 hours to all the other ends of the island).

We picked an AirBnb in the center of Palma. Parking was relatively easy, but beware of the street signs of whether it’s permitted for non-resident parking, as we got a ticket and were almost towed once. Oops! [Insider’s tip: If you do get a traffic ticket while in Spain, you get the fine reduced by half if you pay it online within the first 20 days.]

Having taken an early flight and three of us fighting jet lag, we were sleepy and hungry (when am I not, come to think of it?), so a coffee and quick bite were on the agenda. We discovered a lovely cafe near our place, called Mama Carmen’s. Perfect for a brunch or breakfast, with an assortment of really good coffee and beverages – it was just what we needed to refuel for the day ahead.

Perfect matcha latte at Mama Carmen
Healthy veggie breakfast

Beaches: Our first stop was the coveted Platja des Trenc, a beach that is supposed to be the most beautiful on the island. However, parking was no where to be found, so we had to find a new beach and leave Es Trenc for another day, where we could get an earlier start to find parking. I suggest getting there before 10:00 am to guarantee parking, especially if on a weekend. Keep reading to learn about Es Trenc, as we ended up coming back on our last day.

Nonetheless, the next beach we found would be equally beautiful but slightly harder to get to: Caló des Moro – about an hour away due to small roads; get used to it in Mallorca! This required a bit of a walk from the parking lot and then short hike down to the cove with topless sunbathers and sculpted bronzed bodies (really, it was a great place to people watch).

The water at Caló des Moro is blindingly clear, albeit the small sandy beach is packed to the brim with people like a can of sardines, even in early September when we went. Also, once it gets to be about 5:00 p.m., the sun disappears from the cove, as it is tucked away between the cliffs. Plan to come pretty early to make the most of it here. While there is a tiny drink stand at the top of the cove, you should definitely bring a picnic lunch or snacks if you’re staying for a while.

Calo des Moro
Crowded and beautiful
A very cute, albeit limited drink stand at Cala des Moro

Bonus views: If you hike a bit beyond the path to get to the beach, you can explore the craggy cliffs and beautiful background against the sea and golden sunlight. A prime sunset spot, as long as you know your journey back. We hiked okay in our sandals, but I wouldn’t do it barefoot.

Rewarding, isolated views atop Calo des Moro

Bars in Palma: At night, back in Palma de Mallorca, we had a fun night of food and bar hopping. A great first stop for cocktails is at the Sky Bar rooftop bar of the Hostal Cuba (don’t let the name fool you, as it’s neither a hostel or hotel!) It’s quite nice, actually, with yummy cocktails to match.

Next, we checked out a very unusual bar called Bar Abaco – it’s something between a fruit basket that exploded inside of a swanky mansion that is about to have an Eyes Wide Shut-style orgy. Note: we didn’t witness any orgy, but that’s not to say it couldn’t happen in a place like this. It was an interesting experience, where you can tour the whole house, get a drink at the bar, pretend you’ve gone back in time (or future) to a dystopian Victorian-decorated universe that plays music from all centuries, it seems. Bottom line: A really unique experience worth the pricey cocktails.

Bar Abaco
Photo courtesy of http://www.innasky.com/en/abaco-palmas-schonste-bar/
Image courtesy of http://www.innasky.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/P1720928.jpg

Day 2: Frolics and Folies

Beach Club Gran Folies: After waking up and getting dolled up, we headed to a beach club I had heard great things about called Gran Folies Beach Club, about a 40-minute drive outside of Palma in Andratx. After making a slightly dizzying trip down a mountain, we were rewarded with spectacular views of the Balearic Sea with colorful cliffside homes. We were fortunate to get a circular day bed in a prime spot with beautiful views in the club. This beach club has theme parties, like Gatsby Night, where it turns into a party after 8:00 p.m.

Beach Club Gran Folies

Can you spot us?

Now, when I say beach club, I’m not talking about techno-blaring party club scene like Nikki Beach. This is a very relaxed beach club that serves food, drinks and offers folks to escape the hustle of crowded beaches in Mallorca. It’s actually a very romantic and fun spot to get away with your significant other, as we saw many couples here. However, when a fun group of four girls appear in an array of bikinis, safe to say we unintentionally stole the show and disturbed the chill vibe a bit. Everyone was very friendly, and we had a great time.

Note: There are no sandy beaches here, but you can enter the water by walking along the rocks to take a dip, as many people did, and there are stairs going into the water from the rocks. We spent the better part of the day here, swimming, relaxing, eating and just catching up, as best friends who live thousands of miles apart do.

My bikini bod diet is whatever tastes good on vacation
A girls trip for the ages
Dive into the sea to cool off from the sun

For the relatively high amount of money you spend here, I recommend spending most, if not, all day here. The views are really nice and relaxing, the vibe is romantic and you will no doubt wish you could live in this paradise. Soak it all in!

Check out my post on Menorca, Mallorca’s little sister!

Day 3: Towns, beaches and lighthouses

This was perhaps my favorite day in Mallorca, as we really got to explore a full array of what the island has to offer: charming villages, beaches and mountains. Unequivocally we had heard that Sóller and Fortnalutx (pronounced For-nah-looch) were must-see places. Located in the north of the island, they’re about one hour away from Palma. You can take the paid tollway of Highway Ma-11, which is a straight shot through a mountain tunnel, or to take a 30-minute detour through incredibly twisty mountain roads (Ma-11A). We took the tunnel without hesitation, as we wanted to maximize our time in the towns.

Sóller is a perfect place to wander the narrow, cobblestone Balearic streets and have a nice brunch at any of the delicious cafes in the center. As with every European city, there’s a large cathedral (Església de Sant Bartomeu) in the central Plaza d’Antoni Maura.

Charming streets of Soller

But the real treat was the next door town of Fornalutx. It is a medieval gem, enveloped by mountains, picturesque homes brimmed with flowers of every color – and even in September, it was calm and hardly touristy. Take an hour or so to hike through town (I’m not kidding when I say hike, as there are seemingly endless stairs and hills throughout the town). Just about everything about this place is Instagram-worthy!

Soaking it all in
Not crowded, which was the best part

Lush, green and perfect Fornalutx

By this time, we were ready for the beach. We drove to the Northwest tip of Mallorca to explore the long stretch of sandy beach called Platja de Muro. This beach was definitely more crowded and family-friendly, but at least parking was a cinch. The sand is soft, there are no rocks and you can rent sun loungers and umbrellas starting from 10€. The water is crystal clear, despite the beach being crowded and folks playing water sports.

Platja Muro

Taking the plunge off the pier!

Cap Formentor: To top an already adventurous and truly fun day, we chased the sunset on Cap Formentor, or the “meeting point of the winds,” as local Mallorquines call it. And they aren’t wrong! Cap Formentor is a wild peninsula on the eastern tip of Mallorca, giving you stunning (and very windy) views of the Serra de Tramuntana mountain range and the glistening Ballearic Sea. There is a crowded observation deck that offers views in all directions, but if you have a daring spirit, drive up the windy mountain road to the Lighthouse of Cap Formentor. The climb up to the actual top of the Lighthouse is an adventure in and of itself, as it’s very steep and the only way in and out. However, it’s phenomenally worth it to watch the sunset from the top.

Views of Cap Formentor
The Lighthouse with steep ‘stairs’ leading to the top for rewarding views
Overlooking Cap Formentor from the Lighthouse

The day wouldn’t be complete without a tasty meal back in Palma at a restaurant called Duke. This turned out to be my favorite meal of where we ate, and I cannot recommend it enough, especially the “artisanally” crafted cocktails. The atmosphere is really fun, dynamic and they really put their heart into every meal they make.

Day 4: White sand and nudist beaches

Before you get excited (or hesitant?) about the nudist beach, let’s start with the fact that in Spain, much like other European countries, it is normal and common to go topless on public beaches. No matter their age, you’ll see women ditching their bikini tops and basking in the sun. As for nudist beach, it was an underwhelming experience, having witnessed only a handful of fully nude folks.

We started the day where we began the trip essentially, at Es Trenc. Only this time we came earlier in the day (on a weekday, I should add) around 10:00 a.m., and we got parking on the street heading leading to the beach easily. Note: you need coins to pay for the parking meters, and you better believe they check the time on those tickets.

Es Trenc is a long stretch of super fine white sand and the clearest, calmest water. It’s not as chaotic as Platja de Muro, especially earlier in the day. To me, this was the best beach of the island.

Soaking up our last day in Mallorca
If you didn’t do a Baywatch run, did you really go to the beach?

For lunch, we drove through a cute town called Ses Salines, where we grabbed a bite at a super trendy and cute restaurant called Cassai.

Trendy, full of light and plants
Bar at Cassai
Gotta stick to the classics sometimes

The next and final beach we decided to visit was Cala Varques, on the southeast part of the island. It was pretty hard to find using Google Maps, and here’s why: this place requires a good 30 minute hike though a forest to reach the Cala. And it’s a nudist beach. I’m talking full frontal of guys and gals. The beach here was definitely 18+, you’ll catch whiffs of marijuana and they sell alcohol with edible straws on the sand. There are people playing music, slacklining, surfing, hiking and just relaxing. The day we went, the sea was quite rough, so swimming in huge crashing waves did not happen. It was a neat beach to check out, but it’s a very particular vibe that I concluded was not for everyone.

A doggies enjoying the sea breeze
Some folks may be brave enough to cliff dive, but it’s very high up and dangerous

Mallorca is the Goldilocks of the three Balearic islands – if you’re looking for a fair-priced European vacation with sunshine, beautiful beaches and tasty bites, look no further – especially if you have a girls trip in mind. Have you been to Mallorca yet?

PIN IT FOR LATER:

travel

Hacks to booking your next flight

IMG_6453

Air travel is usually the most convenient way to get to distant locations, but it is rarely a cheap experience. If you’re anything like me, one or more of the tabs open in your current internet browser will be someone’s travel blog, a flight booking site and Google Maps. You’re always on the lookout for new trips and deals. I can’t count how many times I’ve said, “Okay, the prices are low, I’m gonna book this flight first thing in the morning” only to find out by morning the price has skyrocketed by 30% or much more. You momentarily wonder if there’s a time machine you can use to reverse your stupidity for not booking the trip sooner!

While I can’t offer you a time machine, I can offer you 10 travel hacks and lessons I’ve learned to book the best deals for travel, especially flights. Many of these are taken either by my first-hand experience or what other trusted travelers have sworn by. Happy travels!

  1. If you see a good deal for a flight, book it immediately. Don’t wait even a few hours. There’s usually a 24-hour cancellation period (sometimes even shorter) with 100% money back, so if you really regret the trip the next morning, you can call to cancel it with a refund.
  2. Clear your cookies NOW. On all your devices that you search with. Travel websites notoriously track how many times using algorithms and how long you’ve been on travel sites, and they boost the prices accordingly to get you to buy a trip.  And it works! You find yourself in a panic with credit card in hand, booking it because you think it won’t be as low as now.
  3. Alternatively use Incognito Mode to search without your information getting saved. If your web browser doesn’t have that, use SnowHaze browser app that offers untracked browsing.
  4. Scott’s Cheap Flights is an excellent source of finding cheap flights and emailing you about it. I didn’t find the airfare I needed at the time, but they did have excellent deals if you’re not sure where to go next, but you’ve got the time off and budget for a trip.
  5. You can get on a free VPN service to mask your location.
  6. My top travel site, bar none, is Kayak.com. It’s super convenient and compares prices of different websites in one place (including other travel agents). Following that are Momondo, Hopper and Skyscanner.
  7. While this is under debate and changes yearly, as of 2018 the best days to book airfare at least 21 days in advance of your trip are Sundays. That sounds like a complicated formula, and many studies indicate it’s not the day you buy, buy the day you fly. I think it’s a little bit of both, so keep a look out on Sundays for airfare, but don’t be let down if that’s not the case either.
  8. If you’re a young person or student, use StudentUniverse to find cheap deals on airfare.
  9. Note what currency you’re searching in, as sometimes it’s higher in the country you are searching in versus USD, for instance.
  10. Sometimes if there’s a sharp increase in a brief period, take screen shots of the prices and call the airline directly – they may be able to match it if you complain and book with them directly.

Obviously none of these are guaranteed, and there are TONS of websites and resources out there to get great deals. If you know of some other great hacks, share them below!

 

travel

Into thinner air: hiking Rainbow Mountain

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERARainbow Mountain

Rainbow Mountain, or Vinicunca, is picking up popularity as a day trip from Cuzco, Peru, with mesmerizing striations of red, yellow and green minerals comprising the fantastic landscape that resembles, you guessed it, a rainbow! But behind this Instagrammable paysage is an arduous journey that requires grit and perseverance, and I’m here to share my experience of conquering this bad boy.

I had one last free day in Cuzco before I was off to Chile, and I had already experienced the lush Sacred Valley and extraordinary Machu Picchu. I had met a cool couple from Quebec at my Airbnb who had just returned from a trip they were raving about to Rainbow Mountain. When I saw their photos, my mind connected this vaguely familiar scene to an acquaintance who had posted a photo in this very place a while back. I asked them a ton of questions about the experience, just as they were getting my advice about going to Machu Picchu.

By then, I needed no further convincing: I was going to see Rainbow Mountain.

It was about 7:00 p.m. when I went into central Cuzco for dinner and happened to walk by a tour agency that had a photo of that striated mountain. Being a complete control freak, I inundated the seller with every question I could think of: how high is the mountain, how far is the drive, how do people normally feel in those altitudes, what kind of shoes I needed; I was clearly stalling.

Nonetheless, I purchased a ticket for about ~$25 USD, which included transport from Cuzco, food and guides. Easy and cheap! Turns out if you book online in advance, it’s astronomically high – so it’s better to buy from a local operator. I got some dinner but also bought enough food and water to pack for my journey.

After a night of literally one hour of sleep from both anxiety and altitude (I didn’t sleep too well in Cuzco that whole week), I was picked up at my Airbnb at 3:00 a.m. from Cuzco in a small bus for about 12 people. This portion of the drive to the place where we were to have breakfast was to be ~3 hours long, so I settled into my seat and dozed off, despite the windy mountain roads.

Here’s where there’s an unfortunate twist, and I don’t want to scare anyone.

I woke up clutching a man as I felt everything around me move violently from side to side. I knew something was wrong. Then BOOM!

The bus had crashed! HOLYFUCKINGSHIT! I was still groggy and confused, looking up at this man who, just moments before, had been sitting across the aisle also sleeping. It appeared I had been thrown from my seat and into his lap as the bus pulled to a crash. I apologized and got off of him. His wife was kindly comforting me, and I was in shock, not knowing what the fuck was happening. There were some cries from the back of the bus of confusion and fear, but it seemed no one was hurt. I was okay, just shivering from shock, I suppose. What a rude wake-up call! No, it could have been worse. I was filled with regret and bad omens, thinking I should have never come on this trip – the signs could not be clearer!

It turns out that the driver had fallen asleep! And to think, this person had actually stopped to buy coffee on our journey, and he still managed to knock out behind the wheel and put everyone’s life at risk. We were driving on the edge of the Andes Mountains, for Pete’s sake! If we had gone off to the right, we would have crashed to our deaths in the depth of the mountains. Luckily, we had veered left and he jolted awake to try to gain control before we stopped.

In the midst of all this, I went outside to observe the damage – it didn’t look like much, but the bus wouldn’t be able to take us further. This is a rural mountain road, and there wasn’t a person or car in sight!

Beware of sleepy drivers

Within the next half hour, another bus came by and picked up a few passengers, and the rest of us went on the next bus, which was smaller and more cramped. I had managed to meet a new friend, a cool British chick also solo traveling, and we already considered ourselves blessed after surviving a crash.

2 hours later, we arrived at a small village nestled in a valley, where we were served breakfast and the guides explained the directions, distances, etc. I could barely eat, to be honest, and this was a clear effect of the altitude. I tried to force myself to have a few bites, because I knew I needed the energy. This was late September, and the weather was frigid but sunny (it was about 6:30 a.m.). I had dressed in layers, thankfully. And with that, we set off to the base camp, some 30 minutes away.

The hike began at 4,300 meters (14,100 feet). I was glad I had at least spent a week in higher altitudes to acclimate. The extent of the effects I felt up until that point were breathlessness going up any stairs and a harder time sleeping. But at this altitude, at least 1,000 meters higher than Cuzco, I felt very winded.

Let’s do this thing!
Beginning our snowy hike
You can negotiate a trip up with a horse and porter
Welcoming the break

The ascent is gradual throughout most of the hike
Unusual mountain plants
Alpacas greeted us along the way
We peeled off layers as the sun melted the snow
Andean clothing is always so colorful

The hike itself is 10 km roundtrip, so about 3-4 hours up and 2 hours down.  The hiking level is difficult, but that’s really only from the altitude. The terrain is normal, no extremely steep parts, and with hiking boots it’s not hard on the feet. The physical exertion feels 100 times worse than at sea level, so I really didn’t know what I was in for. The guides did have emergency oxygen tanks if anyone felt ill, and there were locals walking beside us offering a horse to carry us or our stuff up, for about $20.

What I remember was taking a lot of breaks, which I kind of beat myself up over, thinking it was a reflection of my fitness level (which is normally quite high). No, this was my body’s reaction to the high altitudes, and I should have given myself a break.

(If you have ever watched the show Malcom in the Middle, then you’re familiar with Malcom’s friend Winston. Well, I sounded like Winston the entire way up – I had to breath and wheeze through every single word I said. It was funny and awful at the same time.)

Snow had fallen the night before, so the trail was covered with snow throughout the journey. By the time we’d come back through, the snow would melt and the mountain range would transform colors.

Even lifting my arms was a struggle
“Just keep going!” My mantra during the hike

My friend had decided to get a horse about 2/3 of the way into the journey to help her up, and I gladly gave her my heavy backpack to carry to the top with her. I continued on foot with my water bottle in hand, munching determinately at the coca leaves between my teeth. By the way, Andeans believe coca leaves and any products made from them relieve symptoms of altitude sickness. Whether that’s true or not, chewing them also helps give you a jolt of energy, and I knew I needed it along the way.

Plenty of horses available if you need one
I may have eaten one of his brothers for dinner that night… oops

No matter how hard it got, the views at every step were distraction enough

Just when I thought I was getting close to the end of the journey, the guide would literally run past me (damn you with your freakish large lung capacity…) and yell, “Almost there. Only 2 more hours to go! Let’s go!” I wanted to punch him, but I could not even raise my hands to do so. So I persevered on.

Views like this literally took the little breath I had away

The ascent was gradual, but the final meters were the steepest and hardest. I could see the finish line, but it felt like the Vertigo Effect would taunt me and surprise me with another ridge I had to cross.

Almost there! This part was the steepest ascent and super hard

Finally, I had made it! Sweet victory, it tasted so good. Seeing the fantastic Rainbow Mountain in all its unique glory at 5,200 meters ( ~17,000 feet) felt like conquering the world in that moment, especially considering the trying experience getting there that day.

I did it!!!
These views will forever be etched in my memory
Kelly, a great hiking partner throughout this whole ordeal!
Parts of the mountain are closed to hikers to preserve it
View of our trek from above
Absolutely worth it!
That moment when you realize you have to go allllll the way back
Wild furry friends enjoyed playing in the snow! They trekked the entire way with us

We got to hang around the top for a good 30 minutes or so, taking photos and enjoying the view. The actual Rainbow Mountain is closed to the public for preservation and rightfully so. This trek is getting more popular by the day, and I’m lucky I got to visit it before it becomes the tourist mecca of Machu Picchu, which can bring with it environmental consequences. It’s the double edged sword of tourism.

Some of the other great hikers who conquered Vinicunca that day
A selfie for the ages (mind my clearly exhausted face!)

The fun didn’t stop there though. Now came the long hike back for about 2 hours, and mine included a splitting headache from the altitude. The way down did get a bit easier as altitude decreased, I just remembered wanting to tie a compress around my head to reduce the headache. Along the way back were much fewer people, at times we were completely alone with only wild alpacas keeping us company.

The snow was all melted by now
These guys are lucky to have this view every day
Alpacas galore!
It felt surreal to end this journey
The desolate road back
Debating if there’s time to use the toilet

We made it back to the bus, which took us to the small village where our day began for a warm and savory lunch about 3:00 p.m. Remarkably, my appetite had come back swinging, so I devoured the local dishes they prepared, as I wrapped my mind against the huge feat I had accomplished.

It was time to go back to Cuzco – a bumpy three-hour bus ride that got us back at about 7:00-8:00 p.m.  I made sure to share the experience with my Quebecois friends, as we compared our tales of alpine defeat.

The experience was truly remarkable, and I’m so glad I did it. If you’re wondering, the bus crash was never brought up once among the tour guides, nor was there even a wink at a partial refund for the danger we had faced before even arriving. If this were another country, I guess it would have been handled very differently. This was Peru, for better or worse.

I do have tips if you’re interested in doing this:

  • Drink plenty of water and electrolyte-enhanced drinks
  • Pack power bars or fruits for replenishment (if you have any appetite)
  • Chew on coca leaves or drink coca tea to fight off altitude sickness
  • If possible, spend a few days beforehand in Cuzco to acclimate to the altitude
  • Slather on sunscreen
  • Wear layered clothes for different microclimates you’ll encounter
  • Don’t be afraid to take breaks on the hikes, even if you fall behind – it’s a very hard hike for any level of fitness and everyone’s bodies react differently to high altitudes, so take it easy. The guides will try to push you to go so they can fit their time commitment (assholes…), but I say listen to your body first and foremost.
  • Leave nothing but footprints, literally. The mountain range is so beautiful and pristine, but people are the worst thing to happen to nature. Take care of the environment the way it has taken care of you.
  • Have your cameras or phones charged and ready to document your journey.
  • Bring cash, as there’s a 10 Sol entrance fee ($3 USD) and then coins if you need the toilet
  • There is an alternative you can do to the group tour, which is to hike the trail on your own and take a taxi there and back – you will need to negotiate the price (I’ve heard it’s ~300 Sol roundtrip). You don’t have to leave at 3:00 a.m., and you will go when there are no crowds. But you will be on your own without any guides or help. The trail is not difficult to follow, but bear in mind with high altitudes not having any help around can be risky.

Would you try this trek? If you have already done it, share your experience below!

“Leave nothing but footprints”
travel

The real Shark Tank: cage diving with great whites in South Africa

DSC_0073

Often called one of the most exhilarating experiences on earth, I decided to try cage driving with great white sharks while visiting Cape Town for about a month. It seemed like a hell of a way to kick off my time in South Africa – daring, bucket list experience that I will never have to do again in life. And frankly, that’s exactly how I feel about it to this day. If you have a free day in Cape Town and want to try something different, then this experience may be for you. If you hate getting seasick, long boat rides and feeling a shark’s slippery skin rub on your bodysuit, this may NOT be for you.

There are dozens of cage diving operators in the area, so we took one that our hotel suggested (rookie mistake, as I usually do my own research and book something without a middle man getting kick-backs, but the hotel owner was a very kind man, and we trusted his suggestion). The operator is called Supreme Sharks, they are highly experienced – and a day with them (including transportation from Cape Town and back, breakfast, lunch, boat ride, cage diving, wet suit and diving mask) sets you back ~2,000 ZAR (~140 USD) per person, which seems astronomically high compared to prices in the rest of South Africa. Nonetheless, keeping in mind it was a once in a lifetime experience, why the hell not?

At 3:00 a.m., we got picked up from Cape Town in a small van along with a couple of others and began a ~3 hour journey to Gansbaai, a small town near “Sharkstown”.  You can get some shut-eye on this journey, the road isn’t too windy or bumpy.

Arriving at the Supreme Shark center, we were fed a hearty breakfast of eggs, ham and hot tea (which many should NOT have eaten, but I’m getting ahead of myself…). We were also asked to listen to important instructions and warnings, and we signed waivers, essentially relieving the company of all wrong-doing in case we became shark food. So on that cheerful note and a few nervous chuckles later, we selected our wet suits. Note: I’m not scuba-certified, nor do I want to be. It was my second time ever in a wet suit, and unfortunately I learned later that the size was completely wrong (too large) and I’d regret this. We also got dry bags to carry things like cameras and waters, but most of the stuff was left securely at the Center.

Cage diving operators “Supreme Sharks” begin easing their boat into shark-infested waters
Appropriately apprehensive about this insane thing I’m about to do

We walked to the boat aptly named “Great White” to begin a rough 30-minute voyage to a spot where we might find great white sharks. Now, you’re not guaranteed to see any sharks, nor are you compensated if you have this bad luck (I think they give you a discount on your next trip, but no money back…). They do, however, monitor tide levels and weather the day before, so the journey would be cancelled or postponed for safety reasons.

They asked everyone to change into the wetsuits over our bathing suits on board while the boat got anchored in the middle of the sea.

Wet-suited up and wanting a lollipop

This was 7:00 a.m. The weather was not in our favor yet, and we worried that visibility wouldn’t be great, which meant shark sightings could be limited. It was slightly overcast and cold as hell during the month of October. While we were changing, we got divided into 3 groups of 8, as only 8 people can fit into the cage at a time. We were in the second group, so we watched and learned as the first group climbed into the cage to face their fate.

“Helping” people in and out of the cage – I suppose it’s better than becoming shark food
Packed like a can of sardines

The boat captain then tried to lure any nearby sharks in by throwing  stinky chum out into the water on a rope. After what seemed like ages in tumultuously wavy waters, we heard the captain yell “Down! Down!” to the first group. Before I knew it, I saw an ugly gray, razor-like fin speed its way in our direction from below. I would even say the view from the top is more impressive than in the cage if visibility is bad. I stood, stunned and frozen (literally and figuratively) as my mind wrapped around the fact that I was going to be in these icy waters (which was literally about 19 degrees Celcius) moments from now, going head to head with has been ranked the greatest predator on earth. No big deal. I didn’t feel fear, just the usual anxiety. All I saw were rows of jagged teeth, big dead black eyes and that ghoulish fin.

Fins of foes
Comin’ in hot!

Getting after that shark bait

Finally it was our group’s turn. I got in the middle of the cage, putting my swimming mask on tight, and then I felt the cold water hit me like a ton of bricks, because the damn wet suit was a size too big. ARGH!! I decided to divert my attention on not being eaten by a shark instead as the top of the cage door slammed shut with a loud bang. Now all I could hear was the nauseating creakiness of the boat and metal cage rocking against the rise and fall of the sea, while the eight of us waited, partially submerged in the Atlantic Ocean. What sucks is they don’t give you the snorkeling breathing tube, just the mask for your nose and eyes – if you struggle with holding your breath under water, this could be very difficult.

It seemed like an eternity waiting and shivering, and I was about to say, “Get me the fuck out of here” when I heard the dreaded words, “Dive! Dive! Dive!” And intuitively, without taking a deep enough breath, I stuck my head below the water level and moved closer to the edge of the cage, forcing my eyes wide open.

Everything looked murky and green for a second, when I saw a shadow darting around. That can’t be the shark, can it? As the shadow transformed into that familiar gray mass of the predatory creature I saw from above, I caught a glimpse of the stinky chum swing just in front of the cage top, followed by those teeth!! HOLYSHIT! I was cage diving with a great white shark!  The shark came around the cage several more times, bumping the cage angrily as it couldn’t tear off all the chum on the hook. We waited for further signals to dive while we graciously replenished our oxygen in between. I had to remember to hold the cage bars that were NOT outwardly facing the shark… because I fully intended to come back with the 10 fingers I came with.

Dark shadows that turned out to be sharks
View from the cage
When the sharks tail/fin almost knocked the GoPro out of our hands!
They do get insanely close to the cage without actually being inside
Someone wanted breakfast.. and it wasn’t me!
Hangry noms! And those teeth…
Dead eyes, am I right??

After about 20-30 minutes in the cage and a few more appearances by Mrs. Great White (we learned there were several females in the area that morning), we climbed out of the cage.

Me behind two German girls – ready to get into some warm clothes

The third and last group went next, ironically having worse luck and fewer sightings. The captain asked if anyone else wanted to go a second time, but frankly, I had had enough. I was freezing cold, to a point I could not enjoy the experience anymore – and what’s worse, half of the people on the boat were at the edge losing their breakfast. And I’m one of those people who has a serious aversion to vomit. Luckily, I had taken a precautionary Dramamine that morning specifically fearing this situation – but the sight of everyone puking truly made even me feel green at the gills. Funny enough, the solution for seasickness onboard was sucking on these obnoxiously bright sugary lollipops. Literally, the whole boat was all all over them! I hope it helped…

Finally, we changed back into our dry, warm clothes as the boat turned around and made its way back to Gansbaai (by now it was around 11:00 a.m.). I could not WAIT to get off of that boat and kiss the ground. If you haven’t guessed by now, I’m an anxious traveler who get sweaty palms and nervous from all unpredictable turbulence, bumps, waves, turns and what not. But sharks? Meh.

One thing I should mention is there’s a professional videographer on board who captures this entire experience for your viewing pleasure. Honestly the boat got so wet and you’re concentrated on seeing sharks, that I didn’t even take our my own phone or pro camera once! So we opted to buy the footage (I believe it was around 30 USD), and it was worth it!

The divers that day

Once back on land (and after breathing a sigh of relief and swearing off boats for a solid year), we actually had worked up a hunger. Lunch was warm and tasty, while they played the video montage from that day on the screens. I purchased the photos and videos, and after that, it was time to head back to Cape Town (around 1:00 p.m.). On the journey back, the entire van was knocked out, including myself.

I may have dreamed of swimming with sharks on the ride back, but my memory is a bit hazy. Overall, it’s an experience I’m glad I did but don’t plan on doing ever again, unless I know the sea conditions are smooth, visibility is high, and my wetsuit fits like a glove!

Would you go diving with sharks? Share your experience or thoughts below!

travel

The marvels of Menorca

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERACala Macarella, Menorca

Ahh, the Spanish Balearic islands… just the name immediately brings to mind crystal clear, azure water, bronzed bodies, bright sunshine and delicious foods. That’s exactly what I got in Menorca when I went in July!

I spent a good 4 days exploring Menorca, which is the chilled out little sister to Ibiza and Mallorca, offering more affordable prices and equally beautiful calas, or coves. It’s a great place for couples, families with kids and solo travelers. Here’s a quick and easy itinerary to maximize 4 days on this small but precious Spanish island. I recommend renting a car to explore the island, as I found it much easier to travel around without the burden of waiting on buses. One downside is it’s a small island, so expect equally small two-way roads that occasionally become congested with slower drivers, but they are scenic and lush with forests.

Day 1:

I stayed in Cala Galdana in the south of the island, versus in either Ciutadella or Mahon (the two largest cities). Cala Galdana has everything you could want, with a half-resort and half-tiny coastal town feel. There’s a nice beach within walking distance, many restaurants and supermarkets, and lots of accommodation choices. I stayed in a charming apartment “Encanto del Mar,” which had incredible views from the large balcony (although admittedly, there was no AC in 2018, so that was tough in July).

View from Apartamentos Encanto del Mar in Cala Galdana

Cala Galdana is located between several beautiful beaches and calas within relatively short hiking distance (hiking level: beginner to slightly moderate across 2-5 km). The one I checked out and fell in love with was Cala Macarella (and Cala Macarelleta, which is a cove within a cove nearby). It’s about 25-40 hiking from Cala Galdana, depending on your speed; bring water to stay hydrated. The beach in Cala Macarella is beautiful with soft white sand, and there are many families here. There’s also a restaurant, snack bar, restrooms and showers (for 1€) on location, so you don’t necessarily need to bring a packed lunch here. Most other calas, however, are remote and don’t have any bars or restaurants, so just make to know beforehand if you need to bring some food and plenty of water.

Cala Macarella

A brief hike away from Cala Macarella offers a spectacular view of the bluest water your eyes will see, as you enter Cala Macarelleta. It’s a great photo op, plus a chance to appreciate the beauty of this island.

The view on the way to Cala Macarelleta

Once you get to Cala Macarelleta, you can be sure to find a crowded beach of mostly younger adults and topless girls (hey, it’s the European way!). A word of caution: not sure if it was bad luck or just the timing, but in July it was jellyfish season, and they were everywhere around the island. Several people I saw got stung, so just a word of warning… Nonetheless, I soaked up the sun a bit before heading back to Cala Galdana.

Note: You have the option to hike further from Cala Macarella on to get to Cala Turqueta, which I hear is beautiful too. After a long day in the sun and water, the last thing I wanted to do was hike another 3 km to a new beach, totaling 5 km on the way back to Cala Galdana. Perhaps if I had gotten an earlier start on the day, it would have been absolutely fine.

Cala Macarelleta

I don’t know about you, but I love seeking out a beautiful sunset spot when on vacation. I picked the lighthouse Far de Punta Nati in the Northwest tip of the island. The car park is a bit of a walk from the lighthouse itself, and it’s best to get there an hour before sunset to get a spot, otherwise just park on the small road heading to the lighthouse. While I was surprised to see the lighthouse closed for visitors (it was  chained shut), tourists have clearly avoided this by climbing over the fence to the edge of the cliffs. And from there, you pick a ‘comfortable’ rock to sit on and you wait for the sky to begin its miraculous change. I brought sandwiches with us to have dinner there on the spot, so depending how hungry you get, you might think about bringing some food too, as it’s pretty remote out there and it’s during the Spanish dinner hour. While we did have a few last minute clouds encroach on our sunset, it was still a memorable and beautiful view.

The Far de Punta Nati Lighthouse
Lighthouses are always so peaceful to me
Even with a cloud closing in, it was a memorable sunset at Far de Punta Nati

Day 2:

Get a head start on your day and head to Cala Pregonda. Or more accurately, you can’t actually park at Cala Pregonda, since the road leading up to it is private; instead you have to drive to the Binimel.lá beach and park at the restaurant Binimel.la. Then prepare for a bit of a hike (25-30 minutes) to reach the first beach that you may assume is Cala Pregonda, as there are tons of people here. It’s what I thought too, as I planted myself in the sand and chilled on the beach. If you keep hiking 15 more minutes, you’ll reach the actual Cala Pregonda. On the way, savor the views of of both coves.

One side of the beach as you approach Cala Pregonda
The shimmering sea in the middle of the calas
The actual Cala Pregonda, a bit less crowded as it’s farther to reach

Making my long trip back to the car, I was very hungry, so I grabbed a bite at the Binimel.lá restaurant, a beautiful finca remade into a place to get food and drinks after the beach. If you’re lucky, you’ll get a window that faces the sea to enjoy the breeze and the views. The food there is quite good, but be prepared for a wait when you go for lunch, as it’s the only place to eat in the vicinity and a popular spot.

The next stop was the beautiful Cala Morell, which is a small cove amidst a charming white-washed town. I will say the beach was a mix of sand and pebbles, so it was not comfortable to walk on compared to the sandy coves. Here I would recommend to go mainly for the view and an hour of sunbathing, maybe even stay here a night if you like the vibe. The crowd is definitely more adults, no families from what I saw, and some nude sunbathers. Ahh, Europe!

This way to the playa
Cala Morella

In the evening, it was time to check out Ciutadella, one of Menorca’s largest port cities. And let me say, it’s such a gorgeous place! It has colorful, medieval streets and a really nice port filled with restaurants where you can watch the sunset. There are plenty of places to shop and eat, you won’t get bored here. As with any European town, there is a main square, a cathedral and palaces comprising the old town. If I go back to Menorca, I would almost certainly stay in Ciutadella.

Charming streets of Ciutadella

Lovely harbor
Venice vibes in Ciutadella

Day 3:

I decided to check on the Southeast corner of the island, and you guessed it: another cala! This time it was Cala de Binidalí, which has an easily accessible parking and a brief hike down. This beach had a lot of jellyfish when I was there, as it’s common in the summer time. This was not my favorite cala in terms of aesthetics, but what I did like was there there were far fewer people at this beach. Folks picked a space on a boulder or the sand and relaxed. After an hour or so in the beaches, I made my way to Binibeca Vell, a tiny white washed village that I had gotten several recommendations to visit.

Bininbeca Vell is a whitewashed town that mimics authentic Balearic fishing houses. It has narrow alleys, white streets and houses, and there are actually signs to be quiet, as it’s a residential/resort community. It’s worth a short stop in to get lost in the white streets and then eat a delicious meal on a terrace in of the restaurants nearby. Parking is pretty easy along the streets, just mind any signs that require a permit.

Coming back to the apartment, I enjoyed the last rays of sunshine on the balcony of Cala Galdana, welcoming the cooler temperature. By then, it was time for dinner (which, in Spain, is about 9-10 p.m.). Plenty of restaurants in Cala Galdana, and I recommend you try ‘Alaska’ – it has excellent tapas and seafood for a decent price.

Cala de Binidalí
Some seaweed but otherwise ultra clear water at Binidalí
Bininbeca-Vell
Against the white-washed walls of Binibeca-Vell
Small white church in Binibeca-Vell

Day 4:

Keeping in mind that on the fourth day I would be parting with this magical, tiny island, I decided to head in the direction of Mahón, the capital, to enjoy a few hours exploring the historical center and harbor – plus it’s conveniently located by the airport. While Mahón is a very nice city, I wouldn’t stay there if I came back. It’s a good place to spend a few hours, and several boat tours take off from the harbor, but I didn’t find the city as charming as Ciutadella. Plenty of restaurants and shopping in the historical center, with several churches and an outdoor market on Placa Esplanada. If you’re traveling with kids and don’t feel like walking, there’s a 50-minute tourist train that shows you all the city highlights, including the harbor. There is also a 19th century fort called Fortalleza de la Mola that overlooks the city, if you fancy a historical introduction to the city culture.

After a nice lunch, it was time to wrap up the trip and head to the airport. I will definitely be coming back to this lovely island!

Mahón port

Are you planning a trip to the Balearics? Give a shout below with your plans!

 

travel

I hate sardines, but I love Sardinia

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERACala Luna

Sardinia is a very unique and enriching island. Incredible nature, beaches, food and people. Also, it’s a HUGE island, and it takes time to get from one place to another. I decided to stay in the East near the coast of Orosei. It’s the most mountainous region of Sardinia, and it’s absolutely stunning. Here is how I spent my 8 days there:

Day 1:

I landed in Cagliari in the afternoon and immediately rented a car in airport. I used EuropCar, as I needed an automatic transmission and was told they don’t require the I international drivers permit (relevant for those outside of EU). I just used my US Driver’s License and was on the road in no time. In truth, this was my first time to rent a car in Europe! In retrospect, I overpaid for a one-week rental by at least twice as much, especially the insurance, so I think other companies can give you a better rate when booked in advance. Note I didn’t need a GPS, because I have an international data plan on my phone that has GPS. I definitely recommend saving your accommodation’s address in advance as some places have no signal, and you’re stuck until you find reception. You definitely need a car to travel around Sardinia! No buses between some towns and it’s just too vast to cover via public transport alone.

I decided to base the first half of my trip out of Baunei, a beautiful and quiet mountain town overlooking the sea. It’s about 2.5 hours from Cagliari and most of the time on hairpin, winding mountain roads if you drive inland. Incredible views and adrenaline rush for the speed demons, but not for the faint of heart! I sped like a grandma…

Baunei is split into the mountain part and the coastal part which is called Santa Maria Navarrese. Both are very charming, just whatever you prefer more: mountain air or sea breeze. They are 17 minutes apart by car.

I stayed in a super cute Airbnb called B&B Art House Giaminera, with my lovely host MariaLaura. It’s a really nice stay for good prices, delicious breakfasts and a gracious, helpful host. Only downside was no AC (common in Europe). However in the nights, the mountain is cool and pleasant, plus there’s a fan.

Day 2:

I drove down to Santa Maria Navarrese (hereby referred to as SMN) and began a hike to Pedra Longa, a stunning rock that juts out over the water, offering magnificent panoramic views. You can park your car at Ostello Bellavista, then begin the trail from there. Bring plenty of water; the hike one way is about 1 hour and 20 minutes, and it is HOT!

Once you get to Pedra Longa, you can buy more water or refreshments, there’s even a restaurant. Or you can take a very welcoming dip in cool waters on either side of Pedra Longa. Note it’s all stone, no sand or pebble beach there. I spent a good hour or so swimming and relaxing before heading back. The way back for some reason was harder, but I think it’s because I hadn’t eaten and felt exhausted. That’s also when I learned that my Nike Free TR6’s just didn’t cut it for hiking, and I should have brought my proper hiking shoes! Biggest lesson learned here. Note, you can drive and park at Pedra Longa in case you’re short on time and don’t want to hike. It’s about 18 minutes driving from SMN.

And hey, don’t forget sunscreen, sunglasses and a hat. Not a cloud in sight, and the Mediterranean sun is unforgiving, although the views are stunning.

In the afternoon, I was quite hungry after the hike, so I drove to Bar O’livastro in SMN for some delicious local pizza with super thin crust and dough made with potato. It’s typical in Sardinia and tastes delicious. You have a pleasant view of the sea as your heart rate comes down and you replenish your hunger. Then I basically walked right onto the beach in front of the restaurant and face-planted into the sand, passing out for a good hour.

I spent the evening exploring Baunei, which you can walk through in like 20 minutes, it’s so small and quaint. A great spot to watch the sunset. A wonderful and relaxing way to end the day. You won’t have energy to do more!

Day 3:

I decided to do a full day’s worth of boating across the Orosei coast. I booked a ticket for 55€ through my host. The boat is actually a motor yacht, fits just the right amount of people and feels so spacious. It’s clean, service is great – the company is called Fuorirotta Charter aboard the Federica. You meet in the marina of SMN, which has plenty of parking.

We visited and got off at Cala Meriolu, Cala Sisine and Cala dei Gabbiani. They provided a good lunch onboard and aperol spritz, among other snacks. The sea on the way there was very calm, but a tad rough on the way back; it just depends on weather patterns. We had to turn in an hour earlier due to unsafe sea conditions.

You have the option to visit a cave if you wish for an extra fee. I didn’t do this, just relaxed on the beach in Cala dei Gabbiani instead. We returned to SMN around 5pm, and I was pretty tired from being in the sun all day. So what did I do? I face-planted on the beach once more, this time on Spiaggia di Tancau in SMN. Had dinner nearby there while watching the sea (pizza again, because why not?).

Day 4:

I woke up not too early and had no plan for the day. I felt like I had maximized my activities for that area, so decided to do a quick day trip to Cala Gonone and hike to Cala Luna, and just return in the late afternoon. The drive from Baunei to Cala Gonone is around 1 hour on twisting mountain roads, but holy moly are the views amazing! Once in Cala Gonone, I explored the town for a short bit, grabbed some food and water for my hike, and was on my way.

I parked my car in Cala Fuili, which is actually a really gorgeous small beach with exquisite views. Nonetheless I began my hike going down steep stairs and onto a rocky path. This one was tougher than the Pedra Longa hike, with a lot of vertical movement, slippery stones and even a few metal handles to help you up and down the steep boulders. However this wasn’t mountain climbing, just medium-level hiking. Again I regretted not having my hiking boots, and my toes paid dearly for it. Several people go this route, so you will run into folks now and again. It took me about 1 hour 20 minutes one way. Once I arrived, I enjoyed the crowded beach and beautiful sea caves. Cala Luna was PACKED with people, even though I didn’t see that many on my hike. How? Well there are boat transfers that go regularly between Cala Gonone and Cala Luna. And what I did after my hike, realizing there’s no way I’d have the energy or time to hike back, I just purchased a one way boat trip back for 10€ in Cala Luna at the small tent. The boats come every 20-30 mins or so. Super convenient. In 10-15 min you’re back in Cala Gonone after a pleasant speed boar ride. My transfer even included a complimentary shuttle that took me to my parked car not far from the marina at Cala Fuili, where most people leave their cars to hike or swim at Fuili.

After a very rewarding day of hiking, swimming and beautiful views, I drove that afternoon back to Baunei. I had a nice dinner watching the sunset at Pisaneddu a few minutes walk outside of Baunei. Delicious food and yummy rose. Let’s just I slept like a rock.

Day 5:

Early morning, I checked out of my B&B in Baunei and decided to do a hike to the pristine Cala Goloritze before heading in the afternoon to the next town where I’d be based out of. Cala Goloritze is only accessible by hiking, no boat or car road can reach its shores. But it’s a relatively easy hike down, about 45 minutes, and the reward is worth it. It’s €6 to hike and enter the beach, and it includes parking on the mountain. Early in the morning (9-9:30am) there’s practically no one there, and you have this beautiful beach and azure water all to yourself. Everyone else begins arriving closer to 11am. I headed back up at noon, and it was already crowded. Many boats, though they can’t dock at the beach, would have their passengers just swim to shore… so there’s that trick if you’re a good swimmer. Also since there’s no food or bar at the beach, bring a panini and plenty of water with you for a nice picnic there. The hike back up was a bit harder as it’s quite an ascent and by then much hotter. But nothing compared to the Cala Luna hike! Also I can’t stress the importance of hiking shoes, enough WATER and sunscreen! You’re welcome.

I then set out for my next base, which was the lovely town of Dorgali. It’s a 15-minute drive from Cala Gonone, and it’s nestled in a sort of valley of Supramonte. I wanted a place close enough to reach everything within a few minutes but for a much more affordable accommodation price than staying on the coast. I stayed at B&B da Zietto, with my host Antonio, which I found on Airbnb. Again an outstanding accommodation, host and breakfast for a great price. I settled in and explored the town, got dinner (possibly pizza again..) and then went to bed.

Day 6:

I had a relaxed day, went to the local beach in Cala Gonone at Spiaggia di Sos Dorroles. In the late afternoon I decided to try something different and headed to nearby Lago Cedrino for a scenic horseback riding adventure. I did it through Agriturismo Neulè, and it’s about 1-2 hours guided horseback tour for €30. They don’t speak English, only Italian, so there’s not much of a tour just a guide. It’s quite nice and relaxing ride, albeit very hot. Also as I’m not a seasoned horseback rider, my legs were very sore after and it hurt to sit. Just keep in mind to wear pants and sneakers if you can (I woke jean shorts and sorely regretted it). You go at a nice trotting pace with a few gallops to keep things interesting. They only accept cash, as many places in small towns do, so make sure you have enough whoever you go. At night, I watched the peaceful sunset over Dorgali and finished off yet another pizza.

Day 7:

I explored nearby beaches and took the day at a leisurely pace, as it was my last full day. I stopped by the town of Orosei, which I must admit I wasn’t very impressed by. The beaches nearby were finally sandy, after a week of pebbles and rocks. One in particular I liked that was sandy was Spiaggia di Cala Ginepro. Lots of families and a very relaxed vibe. To finish the day off, I returned to Cala Gonone, spent some time in Cala Fuili where the pebbles were too large to be comfortable unless you bring a lounger or mat. Finally, I headed back to Dorgali to have a nice dinner on my B&B’s terrace as the sun set.

Day 8:

As my flight was in the late afternoon, I decided to head to the west coast, which was on the way back via the main highway E25. There are ancient Roman ruins called Tharos on a narrow strip of land overlooking the sea. The beach just below, Spiaggia di Capo San Marco, is absolutely wonderful. In the morning hours, it is tranquil and not crowded.

As a final stop, I headed just a few kilometers out to Mari Ermi, a beautiful beach with sparkling water to match the sky, and fine, soft pink and white quartz pebbles, which are so soft to walk on for pebbles. It’s worth visiting and spending the day there. Parking costs just a couple of euros. These pebbles don’t heat up like the sand, so it’s pleasant to walk on even in the middle of a hot day. It’s a good stop before the airport in Cagliari, which is only about 1:15 away.

In summary, if you’re looking for beautiful beaches, mountains, local culture and delicious food, but want to break way from mainland Italy – then Sardinia, particularly the East, is where you should go. What other places have you been to in Sardinia?

travel

8 great places for the solo female traveler

Views over Machu PicchuView over Machu Picchu

I am a seasoned solo traveler, and I am immensely proud of this! Perhaps now, it’s less uncommon as it was several years ago, and my heart is full seeing other women embrace the experience of traveling alone. There is something liberating about exploring new places on your own schedule, trying new dishes and sipping a local beverage (Party of 1, what it do?) and the unknown of who you may meet.

Many women worry that traveling alone can be boring, unsafe or they just don’t really know what to do with themselves. I’m here to tell you that you have nothing to worry about, and that a solo adventure will teach you quite a bit about yourself. Here are some GREAT destinations you can try on your own, based on my experience.

1. Dubrovnik or Split, Croatia:

Brela, Croatia

Dubrovnik was actually my first solo trip while living in Russia. Croatia is a tremendously beautiful country, largely overshadowed by its Mediterranean neighbors like Greece and Italy. You can take day trips to islands from Split such as Brac or Hvar, or you can check out stunning Montenegro (Kotor Bay is really nice), or you can explore the medieval old towns in white limestone. Try some burek and crni rizot (black risotto). Learn some history about former Yugoslavia, which has shaped what Croatia is today. People are very nice, but beware going in the peak of summer, where every beach is super crowded with families and kids.

2. Santorini, Greece

Sunsets in Oia, Santorini

Don’t let anyone tell you Santorini is a honeymoon destination. I went alone and LOVED it, and I wasn’t on any honeymoon. In fact, I went in early May before the hoards of tourists arrived for summer, the weather was a bit chilly at night but hot enough during the day to soak up some sunshine. Price-wise, Santorini is not cheap, but if you go during the shoulder seasons, you can get some great deals on places that would otherwise cost an arm and a leg. I stayed in Oia, the picturesque village on the north end of the island with Instagram-worthy views. I did a day trip sailing throughout the caldera, swam in hot springs and enjoyed a fun lunch on board, where I met an amazing couple I still keep in touch with. For my fit vacay folks, you can hike from Oia to Imerovigli in several hours of hours, then take a bus to the volcanic beaches on the south side of the island. And Greek food and Santorini wines? DELICIOUS!

3. Jaipur, India

Jal Mahal, Jaipur

Okay, so India may have stolen a HUGE chunk of my heart, and going there alone engulfed me in so many emotions that I will never forget the experience. Its dirty streets cleansed my heart, ironically, at the risk of sounding completely cheesy. Indians are some of the kindest and most humble people I’ve met. I went in March, and I did a 4-day tour of the Golden Triangle with a private driver and tour, where you see New Delhi, Agra and Jaipur. While the Taj Mahal in Agra is a sight to behold and a must visit, Jaipur wins for a place for solo travel. Known as the pink city, the buildings do, in fact, shine in a salmon hues. Be sure to visit the Amer, or Amber fort, ride up by elephant if possible (a tourist cliche, but I was told their treatment is humane, before you judge me for exploiting animal rides!), and take in the majestic mountains of Rajastan. Check out the Man Sagar Lake with the Jal Mahal palace standing erect among its placid water.

4. Cusco, Peru

The Sacred Valley of Peru

Cusco is so much more than the Machu Picchu starting point. The culture, food and richness of the the architectural ruins throughout the region, nestled among the soaring Andes Mountains, is something everyone should witness. Despite how cold Cusco was when I went in September, the warmth I felt with the host family I stayed with still touches me today. I did a few day trips, including to Rainbow Mountain, Maras, Chinchero, Moray and Ollantaytambo. There are plenty of buses that go to each destinations, or you can opt for a private transfer, arranged through your accommodation. Treat yourself to a Pisco Sour after a day of hiking and exploring, plus some alpaca (to wear and eat!). It’s a lovely city filled with tons of other solo travelers, ones you’re sure to meet and befriend.

5. El Nido, Palawan, Philippines

Island hopping, El Nido, Palawan

I first went to the Philippines with my best friends for one of their weddings, and I knew I had to come back to explore more of this incredible country and its thousands of islands. El Nido, Palawan, is paradise on earth, very cheap, and beaches will transform your last ounce of stress  into pure relaxation. I came alone, but almost immediately I met really cool, new friends that I went island hopping with and partied until dawn. You can scuba dive, explore nearby islands, snorkel, sunbathe, kayak, hike – you name it. Palawan has it all! Try some lechon (a giant Filipino pig, literally) and pancit for some local flavoring. Note: the south part of the island can be quite dangerous for tourists, so I am recommending to stay in El Nido. Also, flying directly into El Nido from Manila is much more worth it than flying into Puerto Princesa and taking a 7-hour nauseating van ride.

6. Cape Town, South Africa

Lions Head, Cape Town

I was pleasantly surprised with how incredible and affordable Cape Town was, despite all the warnings I had heard about the dangers in South Africa. Granted, I stayed in nice, safe neighborhoods and away from any crime zones, but I don’t think I looked over my shoulder in fear once. There’s a rich and complex recent history to South Africa that has shaped its diverse culture, but everyone I met was very friendly and helpful. The beaches in Camps Bay are as picturesque as they come, with the Twelve Apostles of Table Mountain looming in the background. Check out hikes to Table Mountain and Lions Head for rewarding views of the land and sea, check out Robben Island to relive Nelson Mandela’s 27-year prison sentence, lounge with penguins in Boulders Beach, sip the country’s best wines in Stellenbosch, take in the magnificent view on Chapman’s Peak, and, of course, hike the southwestern most tip of the African continent at the Cape of Good Hope. Oh, and if you’re really feeling brave, why not go cage diving with great white sharks?

7. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Beijos from Rio

Get ready for a colorful, artistic and musical experience when in Rio. You won’t feel lonely for a second! In fact, after taking a very interesting walking tour of the Rocinha Favela (which I highly recommend), I met very cool new friends with whom I explored the rest of Rio for several days. Stay in Copacabana beach, walk through the iconic Ipanema beach (preferably while listening to “The Girl from Ipanema”), hike through the Tijuca forest, see the EXTREMELY crowded Corcovado Mountain with Jesus looming over the city, and explore the colorful, multicultural Escadaria Selarón. Be sure to try the many flavors of caipirinhas, the heavy typical dish Feijoada, and if you have a sweet tooth, Brigadeiros are to die for! Plenty of rich and fun nightlife in Rio de Janeiro – but of course samba music is what you should catch while in this fantastic city. Note: not all parts of Rio are safe, so I don’t recommend wearing anything too ostentatious while out, especially alone.

8. Tel Aviv, Israel

Relaxing in Rabin Square, Tel Aviv

Forget about everything you’ve heard from the media about Israel. It is hands-down one of the safest places I’ve ever been to in my life. Next, the people are the most vivacious and assertive you’ll encounter – with an obvious history and conflicts that have formed the attitudes and ideals of the Jewish State. Politics aside, I have been to Israel six times, and each time I fell in love with Tel Aviv more and more. Try some yummy Shakshuka for breakfast, relax or play Matkot on the long stretch of Mediterranean coast with extremely clear water, or take a day trip to Jerusalem for some spiritual enrichment (or just to explore a new city, whatever floats your boat!). Let me tell you: solo female travelers won’t stay solo for long here. Between the hoards of extremely attractive men who will be vying for your attention and the super friendly groups who are always welcoming to strangers, especially if you are alone and don’t a place to have Shabbat dinner, you will quickly feel a sense of family here. A remarkable place, where the nightlife rages 7 days a week!

 

travel

My most memorable hikes

IMG_3348

There’s something unique about hiking in the mountains – the fresh air, the varying altitude that at times can make you feel weird in your head, and of course the spectacular views. Above all, I found hiking to be symbolic of overcoming life’s obstacles: just keep going, one step at a time, don’t look back.

And so, ironically, in looking back at some memorable hikes I’ve done, there are three that really stand out in my memory:

  1. Rainbow Mountain, Peru
  2. Table Mountain, Cape Town, South Africa
  3. Preikestlolen, Norway

Rainbow Mountain (Vinicunca) Peru

Cusco is probably best known as the base city for exploring the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu. That is certainly true, but in addition to those marvelous places, there’s a challenging and exceptionally rewarding hike you can do to what’s called the Rainbow Mountain. There are plenty of tour operators who offer a day trip to do this from Cusco, starting at 3:00 am (yes, don’t expect to be well rested for this), when you are picked up from your accommodation and driven to the base camp for breakfast and meeting the hiking guides. If you can stomach any food (I apparently had no appetite at 4,300 meters or 14,000 feet), you get your energy and begin the hike. Definitely bring good hiking boots! We had a mix of snow and mud on our journey, which made for a slippery mess. You make your way to the highest and most rewarding point of the journey, Rainbow Mountain, standing at a staggering 5,200 meter or 17,000 feet. It’s impossible to put into words how impressive and stunning this journey is, and I loved that when I went in September 2016, there weren’t too many other hikers (especially when compared to the hoards of hikers at Machu Picchu). The mountains were snow-capped on the way up and already melted on the way down. And while I struggled to breathe the entire journey (I can’t tell if the cocoa leaves I was chewing helped or hurt me), I finished on my own without the help of a horse/donkey and porter. That said, if you do need some assistance, you’ve got plenty of chances to pay for a porter on the way. You’re back in Cusco by about 7pm that same day, and while thoroughly exhausted and sore, the sense of accomplishment is incomparable.

5,200 glorious meters stop Rainbow Mountain
The snowy ascent to Rainbow Mountain

Table Mountain, Cape Town, South Africa

So there’s good memorable and there’s bad memorable. For me, what seemed at the time as a brave and spontaneous decision to take the India Venster route up to Table Mountain, ended up being a bit of a lesson. I’m not a hardcore climber, and I had no idea what I would be facing when I decided to take this route up Table Mountain. I’m a fit and adventurous girl who decided to mountain climb by herself. Mind you, there’s a cable car that goes up in 3 minutes, or an alternative steady-paced hike in another direction, both of which end up at the top of Table Mountain. The India Venster route is for seasoned climbers, those who are prepared for extreme heights, no cables and can manage cloud, wind and some rain on the way up. I was not prepared for any of that, nor did I wear the proper shoes (trainers vs. hiking boots) – plus I began the hike at about 2:30pm, not even considering for a moment I might get stranded overnight without any cell phone signal. Nonetheless, I made it to the top in about 2.5 hours. I got lost a couple of times, even though the path is mostly marked with visible yellow tracks. I may have clung to a huge boulder mid-climb while a cloud passed over me, unable to tell which way was up. I may have cried for a minute and made a ‘If you find this video, I may be dead’ clip on my phone. No matter, I made it out unscathed! Seeing oblivious tourists at the top made me want to hug them tight but also scream with frustration. This hike is really tough, but I also don’t want to mislead the Kilian Jornet’s of the world who are pro’s at climbing. Just recognize what you’re going into, understand all the risks, don’t do it alone, bring plenty of water, and start early in the day. I am happy to report that I did, in fact, take the cable car down…

India Venster climb up Table Mountain
The taunting cable car that would pass above to Table Mountain

 

Preikestlolen “Pulpit Rock”, Stavanger, Norway

Norway is chock full of beautiful fjords and mountains – too many to list. But if you’re in Stavanger and have a free day, be sure to check out Pulpit Rock. There’s a convenient ferry that leaves from the Stavanger Marina and leaves you at Tau. From here, there are regular buses that take you to the begin the hike to Preikestolen. You can get return tickets to come back the same day. Be sure to pack a nice lunch and plenty of water/electrolytes to stay hydrated. I went on a rather rainy and windy day, so the rocks were extra slippery. I wouldn’t call this a difficult hike though, as people of all ages can go, including kids and elderly folks. The top, offering views of the fjords and the jutting rock that looks straight out of The Lion King, is one for the books. A pretty easy round trip, and when you’re back in Stavanger, treat yourself to a burger and beer. You’ve earned it!

Pulpit Rock “Preikestolen”
The fjord view
travel

Bagan: Sunrise or Sunset?

While I was in Myanmar for two weeks, I heard Bagan was the crown jewel of the country – with over 2,000 Buddhist temples still standing today from an impressive original 10,000. The landscape, a mix of lush green trees and dirt roads over a flat horizon, boasts a plentiful amount of these ancient brick temples as far as the eye can see. Sometimes a mist shrouds the surface, or clouds create impressive contrasts with the sunlight. Nonetheless, I decided to check out the hype of these frequently Instagrammed shots of a sunrise in this mystic ancient city with hot air balloons all around.

As we went in April 2018, one important thing to note was we could not officially climb up temples to claim the BEST spot for sunrise/sunset, high enough to see the other temples but not too high from the ground. Myanmar decided to ban climbing on temples (again). Officially. But we asked locals who agreed to take us to the few temples that people could still climb and weren’t guarded. So we did this for a sunrise at Ta Wet Hpaya, which as of April 2018 was open for secret sunrise viewing.

Good news, it was indeed a beautiful spot to watch the sunrise. Bad news, we weren’t the only ones who learned about this ‘secret’ temple, so there were quite a few of us up there catching the most distinct part of Bagan sunrises: the hot air balloons!

While we didn’t have the clearest day to watch a super sunrise, we ‘got the gist’ of it. We arrived around 5:45 am while it was still dark out, climbed up the stairs to the roof of the temple, waited for the balloons to float out and for the sun to rise. The balloons came out very slowly out of a corner in the horizon around 6:45 am or so. I’ll say this, on a clearer day, I bet it would have been much more beautiful, and the colors would have swirled against that cotton candy pink and blue backdrop into a scorching ball of yellow fire on the horizon. It was a nice experience, but we decided that would be our only sunrise in Bagan, as the weather and cloud cover was supposed to be about the same for the other days. Bottom line: WORTH IT, IF you find a temple to safely climb and you have luck with a clear day. It’s a memorable experience, and I hope Myanmar revisits their ‘no temple climbing’ policy soon!

Sunset is a different story. Since the temples are officially closed for climbing, the Burmese authorities have attempted to narrow the spots to watch the sunset to two manmade hills where they actually check if you’ve paid the 25,000 Kyat pass to access all the temples. Guess what? We actually didn’t know this, and no one told us about this ticket in advance, so we never bought one. In the end, we got to catch a sunset on one of the hills for zero Kyat, as we convinced them that we left our ticket at home. Oops and yay!

Here, it was way more crowded than sunrise, because like I mentioned it’s a hot spot and one of the few ways to officially watch the sunset, plus it has a controlled entrance. So to get a nice spot in peace without people on the way is harder. Yet again, we did not have the clearest day for a sunset, so we took our pics and enjoyed the weather cooling down after a very hot day. Bottom line: WORTH IT to see sunset from the hill. Just buy your temple passes in advanced.

Lastly, or should I say firstly, we checked out the Nan Myint tower on our first sunset tour, which logically seemed like the highest, ergo best place to see the sunset. Alas, no, it was not and for multiple reasons. Firstly, it is too high up – and remember when I mentioned you don’t need a bird’s eye view, just to be slightly higher than one or two stories up? From the tower, the horizon doesn’t look as impressive. Then, reason 2, it is quite far from the densely populated temple area, which is the gem you want to capture in photos. And lastly, it’s not free. You have to pay an entrance of about US$5, and if you’re thirsty or hungry, the restaurant (with a lovely view) is available for a pretty penny. As such, the bottom line for this: NOT WORTH IT, but if you have an excellent camera lens, you may get some nice zoomed shots.

I think ultimately that sunrises are the most impressive in Bagan, although they depend on whether you can find a temple to climb with fewer people and cooperative weather.

What do you prefer: sunrise or sunset?

travel

European summer holiday ideas

IMG_0268Views from Oia, Santorini

Living in Europe has been a very cool experience, mainly because there are so many beautiful places with cultures and languages that are just a short train ride or flight away. Here are my favorite summer holidays in Europe, ranging in price and landscape.

  1. Sardinia, Italy
    Cala Luna,  Sardinia

    Why I love it: It’s a huge island, so there’s a mix of beaches (literally the entire coastline), hikes, mountains, Italian villages and very delicious food (they cook pizza crust with potatoes, and it’s major noms!). It’s a gem in the Mediterranean best discovered by car, with stomach-dropping hairpin mountain roads and soothing sea views. Price range: $$ (I went in June, but I hear prices skyrocket later in the summer, especially in the pricey Costa Smeralda)

  2. Santorini, Greece
    Oia, Santorini

    Why I love it: No matter who you are, you will agree to the picturesque beauty of Santorini that make it internationally renowned. The food is delicious, they make their own wine, and the views are ridiculously pretty. Famous sunsets on the Oia end of the island will be etched in your memory. I recommend staying in Oia in one of the cave houses. It can get pretty busy in summer, but I went in May, and it was just right. Price range: $$$

  3. Dalmatian Coast, Croatia
    Brela, Croatia

    Why I love it: Croatia is one of those countries that surprised me how much I loved it. A rocky mountain coast with glittering clear water offers amazing sunsets and a refreshing swim in chilly waters. The food in Croatia is VERY good, and you can explore the islands around Split, such as Brač and Hvar. Price range: $$

  4. C’ôte d’Azur, France
    Cannes, France

    Why I love it: While I wouldn’t make a habit of going to the South of France due to the impressive price tag, it’s also something recommend you experience at least once. Between the colorful and classic town of Montecarlo, relaxed and stylish Nice, to the star-studded Cannes, there’s something for everyone, between the beaches, parties and shopping. Be prepared to spend a pretty penny for an unforgettable experience.  Price range: $$$$ (especially during Cannes Film Festival)

  5. San Sebastián, Spain
    La Concha, San Sebastián, Spain

    Why I love it: I’d be remiss if I didn’t give a shout out to at least one place in Spain I really enjoyed for a holiday, and San Sebastián takes the bait. From incredibly delicious and cheap Basque pintxos to the glittering Bay of Biscay engulfing the horizon, San Sebastián is both great as a getaway with your partner, your girlfriends or your family! There are enough activities for everyone. If you go during a festival, like Semana Grande, there’s even more activities in the streets that are fun, loud and memorable. Price range: $ (Could be $$ during Spanish holidays)