2016: My Year in Review

2016 was full of changes and adventures. I’m not going to write about the losses of the past year (ie Prince, David Bowie, George Michael, Carrie Fisher, to name a few), nor will I talk about our president-elect, He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. Instead, I want to review, mainly for myself, the amazing things I was able to do because of the life I’m lucky enough to have.

So, here goes…

I started off the year living in my parents’ basement while getting my affairs in order for a great upheaval of my life, that would include putting most of my belongings in storage and heading to Minneapolis, MN for a travel contract job. I’m now self-employed and, though that causes stress at times, it allows me the freedom and flexibility to go on month-long adventures without anyone telling me I don’t have the vacation time to use. It’s lovely.

With that freedom, I spent 3 weeks traveling around the US with Kathryn Budig supporting the release of her 2nd book, Aim True.

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I took a month off and traveled to Western Australia (Perth, Yallingup, and Margaret River), Cambodia, and Vietnam with my platonic life partner of Burning Man and Iceland “fame.”

I saw kangaroos in the wild, which is like seeing deer in the US, but to me it was AWESOME!

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I saw some of the most stunning wine country in Margaret River.

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I visited Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples in Siem Reap.

 

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I kayaked and sailed around Ha Long Bay in Vietnam.

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As if that isn’t enough, I was one of the extraordinarily lucky people to have seen (mostly) the original cast of Hamliton: An American Musical on Broadway. This “luck” was due to the well-connectedness and generosity of my friend Kate Fagan. Seeing Hamilton was not just a highlight of the year, but of my life, I think. Look at our seats! I mean, feel free to hate me…

 

I made my first visit to Duluth and Lake Superior with my lovely friend Becka and, all I can say is that it’s totally worth the trip. If you’re looking for a charming B&B in a great location, look no farther than Solglimt.

More Lake Superior vistas…

 

No travel list is complete without a little exertion and effort… to that end, I took a backpacking trip with fabulous friends to and around Havasu Falls (shout out to the super company Wildland Trekking). I highly recommend the trip and definitely the trekking company. If Dara Kelly happens to be your guide, you’ve won the lotto.

 

After close to 40 years, my parents left the state of Virginia, rendering me somewhat homeless officially nomadic. The upside is that I’ve been calling the frozen tundra of Minneapolis “home” and my ‘rents moved to the Gulf Coast of Florida, which, as it turns out, is so charming and lovely… and is a nice warm free escape from the Minnesota winter.

 

In addition to travel, I had the great fortune to dine at some of the best restaurants in the country. If you love food as much as I do, this was a highlight.

“One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.” ~Virginia Woolf

“People who love to eat are always the best people.” ~Julia Child

My list includes St Genevieve, Corner Table, and Spoon and Stable in Minneapolis, Pineapple and Pearls and Rose’s Luxury in Washington, DC, and Giant and Alinea in Chicago.

If I learned anything about my dining preferences, it’s that I’ll take delicious, casual, and friendly over fancy ANY DAY OF THE WEEK. Because of that, my favorite restaurant experience was Rose’s Luxury x 2, with Giant coming in second place. Though Giant’s food was every bit as fabulous as Rose’s, they didn’t serve up happiness as well–part of Aaron Silverman’s (the chef and owner of Rose’s Luxury) goal is to make people happy and if you aren’t happy at Rose’s, you’re the problem… no matter how long you waited to get in. 

I’m also obsessed with Corner Table and St Genevieve in my newly adopted home of Minneapolis. The wine guy, Nick Rancone (and co-owner), of Corner Table seriously impresses me with his truly unique pairings, which go so well with the positively scrumptious food of chef Thomas Boemer. St Genevieve is a charming French bistro style restaurant with delicious food and a top notch champagne selection (my reason for existing).

Here are some photos from a few of these places:

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Rose’s Luxury

So fabulous you may just lick your plate and worth a possible 2 hour wait (made easier with bourbon in a purse). They may say “fuck perfect,” but they’re pretty fucking perfect.

 

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Rose’s Luxury’s  2 Michelin-starred, fancier (and not as good, in my opinion) sister.

 

Needless to say, I’ve had a great year, but I’d be remiss if I failed to mention the heartbreaking loss of my beloved Bailey–the cutest, sassiest, most easy-going corgi in the world. We went through life side by side for more than 15 years and he crossed the rainbow bridge on October 6, 2016. Cheers to you, sweet Bailey! I miss you terribly.

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Bring it, 2017!

So I went to Cambodia…

… and it was fabulous!

I made the error in judgement to think that 3 weeks was enough time to explore Western Australia, Cambodia, and Vietnam– ie 9 flights, 6 different lodgings, 6 different cities/towns, 2 long bus rides, and a car trip. I’ll just say now that it was too much. I learned that, if I’m going to move around that much, at the very least, I need to stick to one climate in order to pack less. Also, PACK LESS. I’m the type of person who likes to bring everything I might possibly need as well as drugs for every possible symptom that might occur (see here). I’m great to have with you because, odds are, if you forgot it, I’ve got it–from q-tips to prescription anti-nausea drugs. With all of those packings and unpackings, being the ever-prepared, must have options traveler, begins to wear on one’s psyche. That being said, the trip was still great and one of its highlights was Cambodia.

Sava (adventure buddy featured in multiple posts) and I only made it to one city, for 4 days, and that was Siem Reap. One of the first things you may notice when planning a trip to Cambodia is that it is far cheaper than many other countries. For instance, we opted to stay at the Park Hyatt Siem Reap and somehow scored a rate of around $160/night! It’s a smaller hotel than some of the resorts around the city, but lovely.

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I mean, who needs to see Angkor Wat when you can sit here?

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A tranquil courtyard at the Park Hyatt

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This may look like a painting, but it’s actually the koi pond at the hotel

You may recognize the Park Hyatt chain from popular movies such as this. The Tokyo hotel, as seen in Lost in Translation, will run you at least $700/night.

Back to Siem Reap… I am so glad we picked the Park Hyatt! There are plenty of fancy hotel chains in the area, if that’s what you desire, but they seem to be outside of the city center. The Hyatt, on the other hand, is smack dab in the middle of everything I wanted to be near. We could easily walk to many restaurants,  spas, Pub Street, the night market, etc. Though we walked many places, our favorite mode of transportation was definitely tuk tuk.

You probably know that the main attraction in Siem Reap, and Cambodia in general, is the Unesco World Heritage site Angkor Wat, the largest religious monument in the world. Rather than pay upwards of $100/ person for a hotel-organized tour of the temples, I put my negotiation skills to the test and set out to find a tuk tuk driver who would pick us up at 4:30 am, take us to Angkor Wat for sunrise, then around to as many other temples as we could tolerate. We easily found one and he was great! He even brought a cooler of water and handed us a bottle each time we got back in the tuk tuk. This cost us 15 USD each. I believe we agreed upon a lower number, but after our trip and how much I liked him, I wasn’t particularly inclined to haggle.

How about the pictures now?

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Sunrise at Angkor Wat

 

Though it’s lovely to watch the sun rise at the temple, the early morning light didn’t make for the best pictures, so I only have a few worth posting.

 

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Monkeys apparently flock to Angkor Wat for contemplation as well…

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Pretty much the only way I want to encounter a scorpion of this size

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The photos above and below show the South gate to Angkor Thom. Please note that my long-sleeved blouse is in my hand, but that I had to cover my knees and shoulders (and cleavage) in order to go in the temples. I purchased the pants (shown below) in a market in Siem Reap, though I no longer have said pants as they ripped in the crotch when I bent down to take a photo and then basically disintegrated throughout the day, forcing me to toss them in the trash. I guess you get what you pay for and 2 pairs for $5 doesn’t get you much quality.

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Bayon Temple is the central temple of the ancient city Angkor Thom, located north of Angkor Wat, and an easy tuk tuk ride away. I think it was my favorite temple as there’s just something amazing about all the faces.

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I can’t remember the name of this one–perhaps the cardinal sin of the travel blogger–but I do like the photo.

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I absolutely love elephants and feel sorry for those in captivity, so instead of paying to ride these guys/gals, I opted to stand by them and just send them love. Yes, I actually stood by the elephants and hoped they felt my love. They never acknowledged me, but oh well…

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The temple of Ta Prohm is becoming one with the surrounding jungle and is magnificent…

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Siem Reap Restaurants:

Genevieve’s – Owned by an Australian man who traveled to Cambodia as a tourist, but ended up returning to teach… and eventually opened a restaurant. Genevieve’s is named in honor of his late wife and employs people of all ages in need of work, training or not. They give 10% of the profits back to the employees in hopes they can, one day, open a business of their own. All those good intentions aside, the food just so happens to be delicious. In order to eat at Genevieve’s, you should make a reservation or go very early, like we did. Nana Gwen and Yiayia (as we affectionately call ourselves) like to eat around 5:30 pm, so it worked out well.

George’s Rhumerie – So cute with it’s idyllic patio and twinkle lights–like dining in a fairy garden. The food was quite good and the service was fabulous. It may have been that they were nice and I kept telling the server that I loved her, but it’s hard not to profess your love to someone who practically cheers each time you order another glass of wine. The inside part is fine, but SIT OUTSIDE!

Touich – This place is more off the beaten path than the others. So much so that your table comes equipped with a bottle of bug spray to fend off mosquitos. The service is pleasant, setting is quaint, and the food is quite good. At the behest of my travel partner, I ordered the prawns–my first in Asia–and loved them. Still, Genevieve’s food was our favorite, but each of these were a good choice.

The Living Room at the Park Hyatt – If you happen to be staying at the Park Hyatt, you will not be disappointed by the Asian choices at this restaurant. We ate breakfast there once and I had dinner prior to going to the airport–both were quite delicious.

 

The Beauty of Western Australia

So, yeah, I’ve been embarrassingly lax about posting lately. Of course, I have many excuses involving travel without a computer (it’s hard to write a blog on a phone), jet lag, work, illness, and romance.  But I’m back now and better late than never, right?

The first of my adventures on the other side of the world was in Western Australia, home to my travel soulmate who you’ll know from many posts past (see here, here, here, and here).

After 33 hours, I landed in the beautiful city of Perth, WA, was scooped up by Sava and whisked to Fremantle for brunch and bloody marys at Bib and Tucker. I was a bit dazed and have zero pictures, but it’s right on the beach, totally lovely, and has yummy breakie.

We walked around Fremantle and despite my haze, I did take a photo of a cool old hotel.

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In an effort to kick jet lag’s ass, we stayed out most of the day and walked through King’s Park in Perth next. It was such a gorgeous day to take in the views.

 

This trip was prompted by the fact that Kathryn Budig would be making her maiden voyage to Perth to teach a weekend of yoga workshops. Many of my trips have been instigated by Kathryn and her travel schedule, and I’ve acquired a few lovely friends who live in WA, so I jumped at the opportunity to go.

 

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sometimes she makes me demo (please note the 3 layers of shirts as they aren’t all fat rolls)

 

Once Kathryn’s work was done, we headed south to Smith’s Beach Resort for some R & R, with a side of wine tasting. The views from our rented condo were quite stunning.

 

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a few of my favorite things: bubbles and beautiful views

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Now, my friends in Napa and Sonoma may revoke my card for saying this, but the Margaret River wine region may be one of the most beautiful wine countries I’ve ever seen (of California, Burgundy, Bordeaux, Tuscany, and Chile). Perhaps it’s just that the landscape and flora are so different, or maybe the hundreds of kangaroos swayed me. I don’t know.

We visited Wills Domain, Clairault, and Vasse Felix and I truly cannot say which was the most beautiful.

 

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Fabulous wine and delicious lunch (Aussie sandwich not on the menu) at Clairault.

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Aussie sandwich at Clairault

 

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A Wills Domain vista

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Though my wine heart will always belong to California, Australia has certainly found its way in as well. I guess I’ll have to plan another trip to visit my Perth friends… in the summer, they tell me.

I’ll leave you with this bit of humor…

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Time spent in wine country often has it’s price, but when your girl needs her B12 shot, you rise above your hangover illness, put your metaphorical nurse hat on, and help.

Stay tuned for Cambodia and Vietnam!

 

My Continuing Love Affair with Minneapolis

I’m here to tell you that Minneapolis is an AMAZING city!!

Travel is my passion. Whether it be to lounge on a gorgeous beach and do nothing, hike to some secluded destination, eat my way across France, do yoga while peering into Santorini’s caldera, or jump off a bridge in New Zealand, I’m in. I don’t claim to be the most well-traveled person out there, but I’ve done my fair share of exploring. With that in mind, I want the world to know that Minneapolis (and St Paul, for that matter) is winning me over with each passing meal. And each street festival. And each walk around a lake. And each wonderful person I meet. The city has just enough hipsters, just enough trendy people, just enough tattoos to make me feel at home, all the while being friendly, gorgeous, clean, and full of fantastic activities. I may never leave. Seriously. Yeah, yeah, I know I haven’t lived through a winter, but that’s the beauty of being an independent contractor–I’m pretty sure I could take off one week a month to go somewhere warm, but I digress.

My platonic soulmate/life-partner-who-lives-on-the-other-side-of-the-earth/travel mate (See here, here, and here for prior adventures) came for a visit and left “loving it large,” as he’s known to say. We checked out a festival called Art a whirl

 

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Also a rosé tasting event (my second since coming to the Twin Cities), put on by my new favorite wine shop–Cork Dork–but held at Italian Eatery.

Basically our friendship revolves around laughter and booze.

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We even ventured over to a St Paul Saints game. The stadium is great and we had a fabulous time.

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Fast forward a couple of weeks, and a few other adventures, and although I was getting over a deathly illness, I found myself at yet another festival called Northern Spark. This one started with the launch party in the ruins of an old flour mill on the most gorgeous night.

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They had a great jazz hip hop band called Doks Robotiks, small bites from several local restaurants, and (of course) a bar.

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After the party, the festival opens and runs all night. It was full of really cool stuff and really weird stuff that, collectively, add to the splendor that is this city.

 

My first stint here is about to come to an end, yet I love it so much I will be returning in August. I even went from a complete lack of interest in riding a bike to feeling like I MUST own one to ride around the Twin Cities. I mean, look at what it’s like…

My trip to Western Australia, Cambodia, and Vietnam is up next, but in all honesty, I’ll be ever-so-slightly missing Minnesota while I travel.

I’ll leave you with a little collage from pride weekend:

Minneapolis, I totally heart you!

Minneapolis restaurants. Oh, the restaurants!

I came here with exactly 1 friend in the Twin Cities. That beautiful woman has managed to see me about 10 times already, despite the fact that she has a toddler, infant twins, and works full-time. At the recommendation of my amazing friend and her husband, my mom and I made reservations at Spoon and Stable. I have since found out that we were incredibly lucky to get said reservation since most people book weeks in advance. It was either meant to be or someone cancelled at the last minute–probably the latter, but the end result was the same.

I’ve lived in some foodie havens–New York City, Charleston, SC, even Washington, DC is catching up–but I am so impressed with what Minneapolis/St. Paul has to offer. Like, seriously impressed.

Everything about Spoon and Stable makes it worth the trip. Each morsel that touched my lips was delicious. The One of the most important things to me about a meal is the wine that accompanies it, and they have many great options, as well as craft cocktails.

The restaurant is truly beautiful and has top notch service. I am anxiously awaiting my opportunity to return.

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delicious endive salad

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my pot roast was so good I forgot to take a picture

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for “special” occasions there is cotton candy

 

Don’t get me wrong, I loved Spoon and Stable, but I really LOVED Corner Table. I’m on a constant mission for restaurants that can be my place–ones in which I can go frequently and kind of be known. Corner Table is definitely more that than Spoon and Stable. It’s neighborhood-y, friendly, and completely fabulous. Unfortunately, I have no photos of my trip there, but I shall snap some on my next visit… and there will be many more visits. When I went, we asked one of the owners to pick our courses and pair the wine. OMG, was it fabulous! Not all of the wine pairings were what you’d traditionally receive. For instance, he paired a lamb dumpling with a really funky white wine (versus a red that you may expect with lamb) and it was glorious perfection. If I lived in their neighborhood, my waistline and wallet would be in big, big trouble.

You need reservations (unless going at some odd time and hedging your bets), so plan ahead. I have so many restaurants left to try, so bear with me. As of now, I absolutely love this place!

 

**Online dating update: The 1 guy, out of 4, that I liked, that I didn’t hear from after meeting, finally did reach out…

I’ll leave you with a pre-debauchery photo of my friend and me at the Solo Vino wine tasting event in St Paul.

aforementioned beautiful friend at the Solo Vino Rosé tasting

Minneapolis, City of Lakes

It’s been a long time since my last post and, like with most tasks, the larger-looming the more likely I am to procrastinate. So, instead of posting chronologically, I’m going out of order and jumping right into Minneapolis–my current residence. I’ve been living here for a little more than 3 weeks and although it has rained an awful lot, she’s really shown me a lovely side.

I arrived the day after Prince died, which sucks on several levels. The first being that I was just sure he and I would become friends and I would get to attend all the Paisley Park parties. So, for that reason, and that we lost yet another musical genius it was quite sad. Most people loved Prince, but the people of Minnesota, particularly the greater Twin Cities area, really loved him; he was one of them–having grown up and continued to maintain a residence here.

Naturally, I went to Paisley Park to pay my respects to the artist known once again as Prince.

Since my little rental cottage was not yet available, I spent my first night at an absolutely lovely hotel downtown called The Ivy.  Upon arrival, Bailey (my scrumptiously cute corgi) was greeted with a plush bed and bowls already in our room.

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If you want to win over a dog person, suck up to her dog.

We had drinks and delicious snacks in the hotel at Constantine Bar–the decor, ambiance, and abundance of real candles everywhere makes it worth checking out. The food, though really good, is definitely bar fare and not the best option if looking for something remotely healthy… like us after 2 days of the junk that a road trip provides.

Prince’s music was the only thing in the rotation for the evening and there was a small altar set for him. In the immortal words of Vivian (aka Julia Roberts), “Don’t ya just love Prince?” More than life itself, Vivian, more than life itself.

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I’ve started drinking eating my way through the Twin Cities and I have several restaurant recommendations coming your way. Stay tuned.

If you’ve been considering a trip to this part of the world and are a foodie, into biking, water (lake-type) activities, enjoy being outside (this time of year, anyway) and men with beards, you should definitely come here. Even though it’s 46 degrees right now, and 75 back in my native land of Virginia, I love it.

 

**Online Dating Update**

Just so my millions handful of followers can have a good chuckle, my aforementioned plan to “online date the shit out of the Twin Cities” has been quite amusing so far. I came here as an online dating virgin and decided to jump in with both feet. I’ve had a profile in the past, but have always been able to talk myself out of going out with anyone who contacted me. I’ve had 3 dates so far… 1 was terrible and I actually think I hate him, 1 was bad and lasted WAY too long, and 1 was good. 1 out of 3 isn’t so bad except the one that was decent never contacted me again. Perhaps my comment about our next meeting being somewhere with booze led him to believe I drink too much. Oh well, it’s probably for the best. I spent no less than 3 hours with any of these guys, so I’ve learned that I truly can talk to anyone, my instincts are usually correct, and online dating is exhausting.

To close, I’d like to leave you with a picture of Bailey in his new wheels (my guy likes to be out and about, but can only walk a block or two at his advanced age).

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My Next Adventure…

Over the past few years, I’ve found myself getting deeper and deeper into what I call a “life rut”. Not any one thing is really the culprit and, objectively speaking, I have an amazing life, full of love and adventure, but still… something is missing.

This feeling started creeping its way into me around 2012, so I changed jobs in an effort to mix it up, challenge myself in different ways, and see if that would help. It didn’t. In the course of that change, I met some amazing people (both professionally and personally), learned some new job skills, and, most importantly, proved to myself that I could excel under pressure.

Still though, I wasn’t happy, and made another job change, hoping simplification would improve the situation. Much to my dismay, that didn’t work either, and I found myself constantly trying to escape–by traveling at every opportunity and spending WAY too much money. Don’t get me wrong, traveling at every opportunity is not a bad thing, unless the kind folks at Visa and Amex are paying for all of it.

Let me preface my woes by saying I am extraordinarily lucky for my station in life. To have family and friends who support me, a successful career, the means to travel and experience amazing things is a gift. In spite of all that, I have the audacity to want, dare I say it, M-O-R-E.

Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.

~George Bernard Shaw

An offhand comment to a friend about my “unhappiness situation” had me set up with a lifecoach (Mike Halsey, in case you need one), something I never would have pursued on my own. Mike was unique to me–a little older than I, a former naval fighter pilot, current commercial pilot, AND lifecoach. Someone who had already experienced so much of what life can offer and I trusted to push and guide me. Several months of work with Mike, along with the unfaltering support of my best friend Kathryn Budig, a wonderful talk with the brilliant Marla Gottschalk, and I had a plan to depart my current situation.

I tossed around the idea of quitting my job without any prospects, but due to my ridiculous student loans, car payment, and overall life expenses, decided that wasn’t the best idea I’d ever had. Plan number two: take a temporary position of the 1099 variety, therefore rendering me… self-employed and holding all the control over where I go, when I’ll work, and how much. I’d love for this blog to pay my salary (I have a handful of regular readers, so I’m about as far from that as one can get). I’d love to travel, write reviews, and give my opinions to make a living. Since I haven’t figured that out quite yet, I’m staying in my current profession, but changing the rules of the game a little.

I wanted a perfect ending. Now I’ve learned, the hard way, that some poems don’t rhyme, and some stories don’t have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what’s going to happen next.

~Gilda Radner

So, on December 19th, 2015, I packed my possessions into a storage unit and moved in with a couple of roommates my parents to save a little nest egg and sustain the upcoming adventure. My last day at work is March 25th, after which I’ll join Kathryn on our her Aim True book tour around the US. A few weeks of that, and I’m off to Minneapolis, MN for a work assignment. I will write entries along the book tour on anything that is worth sharing–with regard to cities, hotels, restaurants, and so on.

Once in Minneapolis, I’m going to shake things up and try to break my rhythm. I’m an incredibly routine-bound person, which is part of what currently ails me. I go to work, hang out with the same people, spend a fair amount of time alone (which I love), and stick in my oh-so-comfortable rut.

NO MORE!

I am doing this to force myself out of this comfort zone and open up to new people and experiences. A common misconception is that I am doing this to meet a mate–should that occur, great, but it is not my motivation. That being said, I’m going to embrace the 21st century (several years late) and online date the shit out of the Twin Cities. I’m going to say “yes” (within reason) to everything that comes my way because, why the hell not?

So, that’s where I am, where I’m going, and what I’m thinking.

In the immortal words of Dr. Seuss, “You’re on your own and you know what you know. And you are the one who’ll decide where to go.”

Here goes…

**Keep up with me here. I have big plans for my freedom to come. Along with book tour updates, keep an eye out for the Minneapolis scene and a future trip to Australia/Vietnam/Cambodia. I’m always up for sharing my adventures… maybe even a good/bad dating story or two.

 

 

 

Machu Picchu on a Budget

I took this trip several years ago, but think the information is useful enough to go ahead with a delayed post of it. I shared the details with a friend, who used the same hotel and trek company, more recently, and loved it. Whether or not you plan to hike some version of the Inca Trail, visits to Cusco and Machu Picchu are so worth it. I did this for quite a reasonable price considering the level of service received… naturally, I want to share the info.

You’ll most likely fly into Lima, then connect to Cusco.

Tip: schedule the flight to Cusco early in the morning, when the chance of cancellation for wind conditions is less likely.

Less wind over the Andes = less scary

Cusco is a beautiful little city, set at a gentle 11,000+ feet (3,400 m) of elevation. If you don’t live at that altitude, you WILL feel this. You might even wonder, “how the hell will I walk for 4 days like this?” It is possible to have that thought and still complete the Inca Trail hike. Diamox also helps with the elevation (see here for some drug info).

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Beautiful Cusco

I stayed at a quaint hotel, called Encantada, on the outskirts of downtown Cusco. It was quiet, comfortable, and cozy, with warm and helpful staff. The location keeps you off the noisy streets of the city and also allows some time to practice walking up hills at a higher than normal elevation.

Breakfast is offered every morning and coca tea is always available in the lobby, which is more like an idyllic living room (with fireplace) than a hotel lobby.

There are plenty of restaurants, shops, and day hikes to keep you occupied and happy in Cusco for days. My main goal was to hike the Inca Trail, so I only planned for the “required” 2 days of acclimation before setting off. I wish I’d had more time to explore.

The hike

If you are relatively active and fit, you can do this hike… and should. I’m referring to the 3 night/4 day Inca Trail trek. There are tons of guide companies, of varying cost and amenities, from which to choose. After hours of reading reviews, I went with Llama Path–a porter and eco-friendly company that seemed to have smaller groups, happy customers, and were reasonably priced.

Our group of 8 also had 1 guide, a chef, and whole staff of porters tasked with carrying (and setting up/breaking down) camp. We saw other groups out there with at least 20 people in them. 8 was nice.

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Our small group + our “red army”

At times, I felt as though I couldn’t take another step, even with the mound of coca leaves in my cheek, but we all made our way up countless steps, over an almost 14,000 foot pass (Dead Woman’s Pass–named because the mountain looks like a woman in repose, not because they’re terribly sexist), down through the jungle, only to go up again, and finally to Machu Picchu.

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Day 2 is definitely the most trying with 2 high altitude passes

Somehow, the food they serve is actually really good. Perhaps it’s the combination of altitude and exhaustion, but I swear it was delicious, relatively speaking.  Each morning you’re awoken by one of the staff members bringing coca leaf tea to your tent in an effort to help with the altitude. It may or may not work.

The views are stunning and the hike is a wonderful experience which ends (obviously) at the breathtaking site of Machu Picchu. Once you’ve walked 4 days to get there, you do feel ever so slightly more entitled to it than the folks who took the train in, but there’s nothing to be done about them. When we arrived, however, the Machu Picchu from all the famous photos was not who greeted us…

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A cloud-masked Machu Picchu

There is another peak to climb, called Huayna Picchu, that requires a separate ticket and does sell out. I missed the opportunity when I went, but heard the views are spectacular. If you want to walk up another hill, buy that ticket as soon as you can upon arrival.

I highly recommend doing this hike if you’re physically able. Walking through such a beautiful part of the world, en route to the magical place of Machu Picchu is quite rewarding… and worth it. You’ll pass many Inca sites along the trail as well. After touring MP, a bus takes the group to Aguas Calientes, where you can explore, eat, and wait for your scheduled train back to the bus, which takes you to Cusco. The last day is a long one, worth it, but long.

Without further adieu, more pictures:

 

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Day 1

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Dead Woman’s Pass did not harm this woman!

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Day 3 Inca ruins

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The alpacas are adorable and everywhere

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Who doesn’t do yoga at MP?

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A far less dangerous perch than it appears

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The End!

I Heart New York in a New Way Every Time

My favorite thing about New York is the people, because I think they’re misunderstood. I don’t think people realize how kind New York people are.”    ~Bill Murray

I lived in Manhattan for a year after college and have been traveling there my entire life (dad being a native and all). Still though, the experience is different each and every time I visit. Sure, it’s crowded and dirty and loud, but the city has such grit–in a good way–and energy and truth. Don’t get me wrong, without a second home or millions of dollars, I wouldn’t want to live there permanently, yet a little part of my heart will always belong to New York City.

Sometimes I like to play tourist, other times local. On my most recent visit, over Halloween weekend, it was probably more touristy, and one of my favorites.

I flew up after work on a Thursday afternoon and had just enough time to drop my bag at my aunt’s apartment before walking–my favorite head down, brisk walk that’s only acceptable in NYC–to a delicious Upper West Side restaurant called Bustan. Despite its small size, they were quite accommodating of our large (8 person) group. The food though… THE FOOD WAS DELICIOUS! I don’t think you can go wrong, but be sure to get the spicy feta dip. Ah-mazing! Out of all those people, everyone was happy, if not thrilled, with the food and drinks. Yum!

An undisclosed amount of alcohol may have contributed to a late start on Friday. We did, however, manage to cram a lot into the remainder of the day… starting with Artie’s Delicatessen–a quintessential NYC deli/diner with deliciously fresh omelettes. Then the bikes…

If you don’t happen to travel with a bike, you can rent one from Citi Bikes, which are EVERYWHERE. There’s even an app to track pick-up and return sites–important since some are usually empty, while others are too full to accept a return.

I used to live on the Upper West Side, so that’s where I prefer to stay when visiting. Such a beautiful part of the city, sandwiched between Riverside and Central Parks, for speed walking strolling and bike riding. We set off down Riverside Park on a gorgeous day, stopping occasionally at the piers along the way to the World Trade Center site.

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Riverside Park

 

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The Freedom Tower

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Pier pit stop

 

This was my first visit since the completion of the memorial/museum/Freedom Tower. Time constraints would only allow us to wait in one long line and recalling a memorable visit to the Empire State Building observation deck, we opted to go to the top of the One World Trade Center. You can, and should, buy tickets online before going. That being said, time sometimes gets away from you in New York, so should you find yourself down there without a ticket, buy them online (with your smart phone) instead of waiting in the physical line to purchase tickets.

I won’t blow the little surprise you get at the top–which is great–and the view is amazing, but it’s a little more theme parkey up there than I would like. Also, the observation deck is windowed, unlike the Empire State Building, making pictures full of glare. So, though it has a great view and is a large, wonderful, symbolic F-you to terrorists, it doesn’t have the romance of the ESB. Perhaps the tallest building in the Western hemisphere doesn’t need to be romantic, but I don’t think Disneyland-ish is the right atmosphere either. All that being said, go ahead and go up, just to say you did.

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9/11 Memorial Plaza

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The 9/11 Museum

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One World Trade Center/Freedom Tower

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Obligatory selfie from the top

 

Rather than supply a narrative about how I got from one place to eat and drink to another, I’ll just give you a descriptive list for the blur that was the next day and a half.

There is something in the the New York air that makes sleep useless.”   ~Simone de Beauvior

UWS Indian Food

I couldn’t decide whether to include this meal in my list of things to do. It’s not necessarily something I’d recommend, or do again when in NYC, BUT it’s cheap! And decent. Located on the Upper West Side, Alachi Masala is a byob restaurant, making for a rare, cheap, full meal in the city. I left completely full and paid $24! Of course, that doesn’t include the wine I brought with me… but still. Definitely not the best Indian food I’ve ever had, but it is good (except for the salad), and the price is great.

The Highline

If you haven’t walked the Highline, you must! DO NOT, however, do it after brunch on a weekend. I had a photo shoot there years ago, at 7 am (see here and here)–a time when weekend NY is surreal and empty. Sadly, the relationship didn’t last, but aren’t those photos fabulous? Anyway, I digress… go to the Highline at an off-hour. It’s such a unique, beautiful place. If you’re lucky, you’ll see something scandalous while glancing up at the Standard Hotel windows.

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Strolling the packed Highline with my bestie Kathryn Budig

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On the Highline with KB and the fab Kate Fagan

Queen of the Night

When I was told we were going to Queen of the Night on Halloween, I can’t say I was excited. Though I heard it was unique and great and crazy, I just couldn’t imagine that it actually was worth $200. Fast forward to getting to wear my blue bob wig with a fascinator/birdcage veil headpiece, and I was pretty excited. So, long story short, there are surprises, weird things, hot things, amazing things, and the dinner is actually really delicious. If you’re looking for something different, but still show-ish, go see Queen of the Night. Wear something fabulous and fancy.

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With my mom and aunt, enjoying blue lighting and complimentary cocktails

 

Cafe Wha

Sadly, I had never heard of Cafe Wha prior to going there… and my mom and aunt are the ones who introduced me to it! Please look beyond the fact that it’s in a basement, packed with people, and has stiflingly low ceilings. If you go at a busy time, you’ll wait in line until space opens up, then be escorted through a packed room to your table. Some how, some way, the wait staff is able to navigate through all of this and actually take orders, but more importantly, bring drinks without spilling them. I’ve recently become obsessed with pickelbacks and had a few of those. The truffle fries aren’t to be missed either. You could take away all of that though, and people would still go for the house band. NEVER, ever in my life have I seen such a fabulous cover band. Ever. They play current music, classics, Latin, 90s, 80s, whatever, and they do it amazingly well! I love live music and have seen more than my fair share, but this was really special. Located in the Village, it’s so worth going. Thank you, Comedy Cellar, for being sold out.

The best picture of the weekend:

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The subway. Halloween. 2 am. HILARIOUS!

As for New York City, it is a place apart. There is not its match in any other country in the world.”                                                                                              ~Pearl S. Buck

See you soon, New York. I totally heart you.

The End

Iceland Part 2… the details

This trip was planned on a whim, just 2.5 weeks in advance. I booked my flight on Wow Air, as it was the only cheap-ish flight at the time. They are a budget airline that offers no frills and cheap fares, but charges extra for everything– from water to a carry-on over 5 kg (11 lbs). I did the backwards thing and booked my non-refundable ticket prior to reading reviews of the airline I’d never heard of. Many reviews were terrible, but I had no problems. On top of a fare deal, they seem to have a nice sense of humor–a much appreciated feature. Oh, the planes are a stylish fuchsia.

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Due to the snow potential and time constraints, we stuck with the southern part of Iceland for our exploration. After landing at 5:30 am, we got our rental car, and headed to the blue lagoon, with a breakfast stop along the way. The lagoon is only about 20 minutes from Keflavik airport, so it’s convenient to go on your way in or out of the country. I highly recommend getting your tickets online in advance here. Yes, the lagoon is a tourist trap and, yes, it is worth visiting. Arriving when they open will cut down on the amount of people there ever so slightly. Be sure to put the lagoon mud (located in pots around the edge) on your face–meant to soften skin and contain anti-aging properties. Don’t get your hair wet! The high silica levels in the water render hair completely unmanageable.

Vik and beyond

I chose Vik as our first spot. It’s a very small town on the southern coast, about 3 hours from the airport and 2.5 hours from our farthest destination of Jökulsárlón.

Airbnb has several listings in Vik, but none of the available ones were quite what I wanted, so opted for the Icelandair Hotel. It was quaint, reasonably priced, and clean. As someone who lives for her next meal, the restaurant being good was an added bonus. After only 2 hours of sleep on the plane and driving most of the day, staying in for dinner was a welcomed option.

Vik has black sand beaches, birds, ponies, and picturesque views such as this:

Church on a hill in Vik

Church on a hill in Vik

It is not uncommon to see the picnic site sign while driving around Iceland. Such a sweet country.

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The first night in Vik, we could barely muster the energy to go to the restaurant in the lobby (which was fantastic, by the way) and almost had Jameson on the rocks for dinner. Our second night, however, we did some research and set out for Haldórskaffi, a small, warm restaurant in town. I can’t say it’s a locals place, but it’s hard to tell if any Icelandic haunt is really for locals or not. The population in the entire country is just over 300,000, so a large group of tourists can easily take over an establishment on a given night. Haldórskaffi was packed, so we sidled up to the bar for our wait…go figure. The food is pretty good, but not great. For some reason I didn’t get the burger, but had read that it’s fabulous. 

While eating, we missed a brief Northern Lights appearance, but set out in search of them. Plenty of Jameson, and hours later, we gave up and went to bed. The quest for Aurora led to a hungover late start on the third day. The drive from Vik to Reykjavik is easy and, of course, stunning. Even if retracing your steps in Iceland, the scenery looks different in the other direction. 

On to Reykjavik

Perusing AirBnB listings in Iceland will teach you 2 important things: 1) Icelanders love to use the word “cozy” when describing apartments–something they must think tourists are seeking when visiting a place with “ice” in the name. 2) All listings will tell you the proximity to a pool. The natives LOVE their heated pools and even frequent them after work to socialize.

There are SO MANY great AirBnB options in Reykjavik, so I picked one that was centrally located and adorable, with a really comfortable bed to boot. Most of the island has geothermically-heated water… which means it smells like sulfur (or rotten eggs). Get used to it and embrace the natural resource.

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The owners have a few other rental apartments, as well as a hotel, which I did not see, called OK Hotel. A perk of staying at any of Kathy’s properties is the 15% discount at her really yummy K-Bar–a Korean restaurant infused with a little Icelandic flair. DEFINITELY try the cauliflower and the dumplings (both pork and tofu were delicious).

The warm decor at K-bar

The warm decor at K-bar

Whether you’re in Reykjavik for just a day, or longer, you have time to explore the Golden Circle–see my other Iceland post for pictures–and knock out a few top tourist attractions. It’s easy to do this on your own, but there are plenty of tours to take as well. If on your own, be sure to stop in Laugarvatn and eat at Lindin. IT IS DELICIOUS! And, sadly (kind of), so is the reindeer burger… like, really good. I ate Rudolph.

In addition to all of that, here’s the view:

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So, my 4 full days in Iceland definitely weren’t enough and I WILL be returning. The country is not only stunning, but easy to navigate on your own. At least a week is needed to drive the Ring Road, which is as it sounds and circles the whole country. I’m not sure how passable the road would be during the winter, so it will be a summer trip for me.

Tips:

  • Food and alcohol are expensive–pick up some booze at duty free, preferably in the US, where it’s cheaper, though it’s possible to stock up when you arrive at Keflavik airport. The second duty free you encounter is for incoming passengers.
  • Note that it almost never gets dark during the summer and there is very limited daylight in the dead of winter.
  • The Aurora Borealis is more elusive than you might expect. The lights start showing up in October, but are the strongest on cold, clear nights, and best seen away from the light pollution of cities. If you happen to see anything like the famous photos, consider yourself lucky. They don’t always show up as colors and those photos are often the work of a DSLR camera on a slow shutter speed.
  • Airwaves is a music festival that occurs at the beginning of November every year. Next year, I think I’ll go. My cousin and his wife DID go last year and loved it. If you’d like to know more about Reykjavik’s coffee and music scene, go here.
  • Learning to pronounce the name of that volcano that shut down Europe for a bit–Eyafjallajökull–is a fun activity.

**I get nothing for recommending these places, but would be happily accept freebies**