November 6th, 2017

6 Things I’ve Learned in 6 Months of Travel

I left New York on April 29; this month in Chiang Mai is my seventh on the road. I’m not quite halfway through—currently planning to head back sometime in June probably—but it seems like a good moment to pause and take stock.

I was feeling a bit melancholy in September, thinking about how I don’t feel like I’ve changed much on this trip. Prior to this adventure, the most extended time I’ve spent away was a seven-week study abroad program in college. That was my first time leaving the country (apart from the Atlantis Resort in the Bahamas, which hardly counts), and I grew so much. During my last week, navigating the streets of London alone—and pre-Google maps, for the record—I had an epiphany: that I didn’t want to keep heading down the road to early marriage with my small-town boyfriend, that I wanted to see more of the world, and I wanted to see much of it alone. 

Well…mission accomplished, 20-year-old Jennifer. She might have revised her wish slightly had she known just how far the scales would tip away from love and marriage, but that’s a topic for a different day. To today’s point, I think that with such a grand experience, I was expecting this journey to be similarly revelatory. But six months in, I’m still epiphany-less. To be fair, I’m in my thirties now. I’ve lived in five different cities, moving from coast to coast, worked numerous jobs in three different industries, and dated…quite a few men. I may be past the epiphany stage. Still, I am growing a bit, pushing my boundaries and learning new things—here are six of them.

1. I can go anywhere.

Before this trip, I’d traveled solo more than most people I know, but there were places I felt hesitant to go and things I wasn’t sure I could do. My solo travels were limited to Europe, the Caribbean, and one trip to Buenos Aires. I wasn’t sure I could navigate Asia alone. I’d never rented a car in a foreign country. I had a strange aversion to buses. 

Now I’m spending my birthday alone in Bangkok this week, I’ve rented cars in Germany and Croatia and just mapped out a road trip through both New Zealand islands, and I’m about to book a bus to Chiang Rai. There are still a few places in the world I’d choose not to go (I have a lot of Feelings about the harassment of women in many parts of the Middle East, for instance), but I feel completely confident that wherever I want to go, whatever I want to do, I can figure it out. 

2. I still have so much to learn about the world. 

A couple months ago, someone messaged me on OkCupid and asked whether I was traveling to learn more about the world or myself. Though that’s somewhat oversimplified—you’ll always be doing a bit of both—it made me realize that perhaps the reason I don’t feel like I’ve changed a great deal on this trip is because I’ve already invested a lot of time into self-growth over the years. I’m looking to discover the world, rather than find myself. 

The first couple months I was just spinning with all the changes, but starting in Berlin, I’ve made a conscious effort to learn more about the places I’m visiting—not just where the best restaurants are, but a bit about the history, culture, and current political climate. I’m trying to read at least one work of fiction and one of nonfiction each month and to read the local news. It’s highlighted how little I learned in school, where history classes generally stopped with World War II. Even in a relatively familiar country like Germany, I realized I knew almost nothing about the Cold War and how it still affects Berlin. With a place like Thailand, I’m a blank slate. It’s all connected, though, especially in our rapidly shrinking society, and I feel like I understand the world a bit better than I did a few months ago.

3. Where I am has a huge effect on how I feel.

When I decided to move to NYC from Houston about five years ago, my dad was not pleased, to put it mildly. We were talking about it over dinner, and he said, “I don’t understand why you can’t stay here. Some people are just happy wherever they are.” 

I could only reply, “Okay…but I’m not one of them.”

I’ve really always known that about myself (oh, how I itched to leave Oklahoma growing up), but this trip has made it even more clear. I’ve felt at home in about half the cities I’ve visited. In Barcelona, Berlin, Belgrade, and now Chiang Mai, I’ve been markedly more cheerful and productive. In Prague, Split, and Seoul, I watched more TV, ate nutritionally worse food, and left the apartment less often. For my own wellbeing, I need to be somewhere that energizes me.

What’s interesting is that this trip is changing my idea of where that might be. Before I would have told you that I need to be somewhere with a million things to do, a big city with lots of culture. But there’s loads to do in Seoul and very little in Belgrade and Chiang Mai. This is going to sound so simple and silly, but I think what makes me feel most content is having several good restaurants and coffee shops, places at which I enjoy hanging out, within walking distance. If it takes too much effort to get somewhere, I wind up staying home.

4. I actually like being alone.

I’m clearly comfortable being alone, or I wouldn’t have named my blog Girl Flies Solo. But for some time now, I’ve had this question in the back of my mind: do I really enjoy being alone, or have I just become comfortable with it out of necessity? The past six months have confirmed that yes, I actually do appreciate spending time by myself. I’m not a hermit; I need regular socialization as well. But I get cranky if I don’t have enough quiet time alone.

And on the flip side of this, I am finally ready to give up trying to be a group person. For much of my life, I’ve felt bad about not being adept in a group setting. I’ve been awkward and uncomfortable on the cheer squad, in a sorority, as a member of Junior League. And while there have been numerous benefits to traveling with We Roam, there have also been many times in which being part of a group has made my experience worse. I’d rather focus more on the places I’m in than the people I’m with…and that’s okay. 

5. The more I see, the more I want to see.

I’ve added more places to my list than I’ve checked off this year: Northern Croatia has a truffle festival in the fall. How have I not yet been to Seville and Granada? And those are just the places I haven’t visited at all; there are many more where I’m desperate to spend more time: That day trip to Timisoara, Romania was not enough. I need at least three months (a year? a lifetime?) in Berlin…but maybe a winter home in Chiang Mai. 

Many travelers keep track of the number of countries they’ve been to, which is fine; I do it, too (loosely…I think I’m somewhere in the low 30s at the moment). But I feel certain I could visit every country in the world and still not be finished traveling. Each place I’ve been has inspired me to explore further and more deeply.

6. I can travel as much as I want…but I don’t want to travel full time. 

I think the greatest gift We Roam has given me is the knowledge that I can travel long-term and work on the road. For reasons I still can’t quite fathom, it just never occurred to me. I had a remote job and a desire to travel more, and I was still sitting in my apartment in New York, planning a one-week vacation here and a two-week trip there. Ridiculous! I love spending a month in a destination—it’s enough time to feel like you understand a place, to see a bit of the surrounding area, to know if you want to spend more time there, and to get your work done in the process. I’m definitely going to continue traveling this way in the future.

But this trip has also made me realize that I don’t enjoy being on the road semi-permanently. I like having a home; I miss my bed and bookshelves and closet. I haven’t become one of those nomads posting a photo of myself on a mountaintop with a long explanation about how I’ve left everything behind and now I feel so freeeeee! This lifestyle has some amazing benefits, but like everything else, it has its drawbacks, too. I think my ideal going forward will be having a base in the States and taking around two extended trips a year. But we’ll see what unfolds.

 

For now, as ever, onwards. I can’t wait to see what I discover in the next part of my journey. 

 

October 17th, 2017

3 Things to Do and 3 Places to Eat in Hong Kong

First of all, let’s be clear: there are a million things to do and places to eat in Hong Kong. In five nights, especially since they were jetlagged nights followed by 95 degree days, I barely scratched the surface of all the city has to offer. I actually just decided to remedy that and booked a follow-up trip for December. But, nevertheless, I did manage to check a couple things off my Hong Kong to-do list. Here are a few favorites.

Things to Do

1. Mount High West

I can’t take any credit for my favorite thing I did in Hong Kong; I was just going to head up to the Victoria Peak viewing platform like every other tourist. Instead the  expat friend I made led me on a trail around the platform and up over 500 steps to the top of Mount High West, which has an even better view than the Peak, in my opinion. (And there’s something to be said for having to work for it rather than taking an elevator.)

We got up there just as the sun had set over the islands:

And we watched as the darkness grew and the lights came on in the city:

2. Chi Lin Nunnery and Nan Lian Garden

I’m going to squeeze these technically separate spaces into one entry, since they’re physically connected. Chi Lin Nunnery is a Buddhist complex entirely constructed out of wood, with a lovely lotus pond-filled courtyard:

Nan Lian, just across the street but connected by a bridge so that the structures flow seamlessly into each other, is a beautiful traditional Chinese garden:

Together, the two form a peaceful respite from the bustle of Hong Kong. Though they’re just a couple blocks from the subway and surrounded by skyscrapers, they’re quiet and almost make you feel like you’re in another time. 

3. Islands!

I had a lot to learn about Hong Kong geography on my first visit, continually looking down from various windows and viewpoints and requesting that whoever was nearby explain what I was looking at exactly. Hong Kong is made up of the Kowloon peninsula and over 200 islands—including Hong Kong Island itself.  So on my last full day in the city, I hopped on a ferry to investigate one of the outlying islands: Cheung Chau.

The process of getting to the islands couldn’t be simpler; you can use the same Octopus card you use for subways and buses to scan into the ferry. It was, as per usual, hot as hell, but I sweated it out for a bit to get some shots of the city as we cruised away:

I chose Cheung Chau almost at random and didn’t have an agenda really, just a desire to explore another aspect of Hong Kong. There’s a beach and a small swimming area if you’d like to do that, and it’s a popular windsurfing spot if you want to kick your water activities up a notch. If you’re ready to hike up a hill (I wasn’t after climbing to spot #1 the night before), there are some pavilions and outlook spots to visit. But just by wandering around, I came across a vibrant temple:

And I also found some gorgeous street art, a lantern-lined street, an altar at the base of a spectacular tree, and more:

I found the excursion to be well worth the 45 minute trip; the small island had a different, slightly more mainland, vibe than Hong Kong proper. 

Places to Eat

To be honest, one of my favorite “things to do” in a new city is to try places to eat, and Hong Kong provided no shortage of those. From street food to pizza to fine dining, everything I ate in HK was delicious.

1. Tim Ho Wan

Billed as the world’s cheapest Michelin-starred restaurant, with three starred locations in the city, and more locations around Hong Kong and the world, Tim Ho Wan is famous for its baked barbecue pork buns, and as I type this, I am craving one desperately. 

I went to the Sham Shui Po location at an off hour (basically as soon as I’d checked into the hotel) and got a seat right away, but it was crowded—mostly with locals who were ordering extras and packing them into the tupperware they brought with them. They get enough tourists that they make it easy with English ordering cards, but it still feels like a pretty authentic experience.

2. High Tea at Cafe Gray Deluxe

I deeply love high tea, and this one was excellent. They sat me in a corner booth with views for days (views are everything in Hong Kong), and the tower was filled with treats: four kinds of cake, scones, and savory snacks and sandwiches. None of that cucumber and mayo nonsense either; think burrata and pesto instead. I feasted and alternated between staring out the window and spying on the ladies who lunch set.

3. Tin Lung Heen

I love a super fancy meal, and Tin Lung Heen, a two Michelin-star Cantonese restaurant in the Ritz Carlton on the 102nd floor of the ICC (the giant building across the water in the nighttime city shots above), more than delivers. I go into tasting menus knowing that not every course is going to be something I would have chosen for myself, but my hope is that one item I wouldn’t have picked blows me away. And that’s exactly what happened here: I generally find lobster to be overrated (I know, I’m a monster), but the wok-fried lobster with spring onion was incredible. I didn’t even get a picture; sorry, too busy eating.

And beyond the food, the atmosphere and service were perfect. When I looked over my shoulder, a server rushed over to direct me to the restroom. When the table by the window finished, they asked if I’d like to have my dessert there. Flawless. 

 

Hong Kong, I’m not done with you yet—more to report in a few months.

August 21st, 2017

Three Nights in Dubrovnik with a Mostar Day Trip

Last week I boarded yet another ferry to travel to Dubrovnik. I’d intended for this to be the last city on my island hop, but since I detoured home and then to Tisno, it was a completely separate trip—so a 7 AM, six hour ferry ride, it was. (Technically the ferry is only supposed to take four and a half hours, but it was massively delayed on the way there and back, so I don’t buy it. If you’re hoping to go straight from the ferry to the airport, plan accordingly.)

I was a little tired after the back and forth, and I might have skipped Dubrovnik entirely, but a new friend on the trip decided to join me for the first night. She provided exactly the motivation I needed to get my butt out of bed and to the ferry dock. 

Day 1

Our adventure got off to a late start—not only was the ferry slow, but the Airbnb host left us sitting at a cafe for over an hour. Luckily, I’d packed a lunch, so we ate chips and shared a peanut butter sandwich while kicking things off with a couple beers, which we regretted as soon as we saw how many steps were involved in reaching the apartment. Once we made it up there, though, we realized the view was more than worth it.

After Instagramming our fill from the windows, we walked down into the old city. Walking in the gates, you truly do feel like you’re entering an ancient castle. We were instantly charmed. 

Not quite satiated from half of a sandwich, we proceeded to snack our way through town, starting with a 10% off happy hour pizza, followed by iced coffees. Thus fortified, we were able to scout an actual destination, D’Vino Wine Bar. We sat on stools in an adorable alley and each had a wine flight, while sharing an exceptional cheese plate with goat cheese and fresh ginger. 

Then with just a couple hours until dinner, we had to work up our appetites again, so we decided to walk the city walls. The views were fantastic, and while the walk had a few (a lot) more steps than we’d anticipated, it wound up being my favorite Dubrovnik activity. It’s crowded no matter when you go, but aim for early in the morning or, like we did, an hour before closing when you get the golden hour light. 

By the time we completed the circuit, it was nearly time for dinner at Nautika. The restaurant overlooks the water and the city walls, and everything—the views, the service, the food—was delightful. We started with scallops covered in flakes of black truffle, then had sea bass and tuna. The portions are relatively small, but the flavors are excellent. With dessert, we tried two of their signature cocktails. Our waiter served my whiskey-based drink in a teapot, and I was very. very. happy. 

We turned in early, but the beach club down the hill, Banje, had the music going, so we opened the windows and felt like we had the best of both worlds, listening and lying in bed.

Day 2

We had a leisurely breakfast on a patio in the old city (just pick one; they’re very similar), and then we powered up the steps to get to the cable car. The wait was a little long and a lot hot, but eventually we made it up the mountain to take in the view:

If you only have time for one touristy activity, I’d pick the walls over the cable car, though both were fun. I said goodbye to my travel companion, as she decided to Uber to the ferry from the top of the hill, and I went back down the way I came.

By then it was mid-afternoon, and I didn’t have quite enough time to visit the island of Lokrum (pictured above) or head to the beach, so I finished exploring all the twists of the old city. If you’re a Game of Thrones fan (I’m not), there’s a lot to see—I accidentally settled in for a short break on what I thought were just some picturesque steps and then ran away after the fifth group walked by filming themselves yelling, “SHAME, SHAME.” Ugh.

Even though it’s incredibly touristy, I decided to check out Buza Bar, basically built into the cliff. It’s ridiculously crowded, but the ocean views are lovely. I then had an early dinner at Kopun and ate rooster (capon) prepared in the traditional way, which I highly recommend.

I had to get up early the next morning, so I headed home and spent the evening watching the sun set from my apartment’s window. My Airbnb called itself “Apartment Perfect View,” a surprisingly honest description. 

 

Day 3

On my last day, I took a day trip, booked through Viator, to Mostar, a town in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Mostar—as you can tell from the name—is famous for Stari Most (old bridge). Originally built in the 16th century, the bridge was completely destroyed in the war in 1993 and reconstructed in 2004 with the help of global donations. We arrived just in time to see a member of the Mostar Diving Club jump off the bridge, a leap they make a few times a day. 

Beyond the bridge and the bazaar, there isn’t too much else to see in Mostar, but I appreciated learning a bit more about the history of the region on the guided tour. It made me realize just how little I know—I had no idea the country was divided into Bosniaks (generally Muslim), Serbs (Orthodox), and Croats (Catholic) and that the presidency is comprised of one person from each of these groups, who fill a rotating chair position.

Though Mostar was full of tourists, the country is in the early stages of tourism. You can still see some of the ruins from the war around town, and our guide was generally pessimistic about their recovery. I bought a few books to help me better understand, but I’m glad I was able to visit in person to gain some context. And I love these guided tours for solo travelers; it would have been difficult to replicate this experience on my own.

On the way back to Dubrovnik, we stopped at Kravice Falls—not quite as beautiful as Krka, but very pretty. The description of the tour unfortunately failed to mention this, so I didn’t think to bring a swimsuit, but I had a nice sit on the riverbank.

We returned in the early evening, and I grabbed a quick pasta dinner before watching the sun set once more and packing up my things for the long and early ferry ride back to Split.

 

Dubrovnik is one of those places that’s incredibly touristy but still manages to hold onto its appeal. I’d recommend it over Split, should you be deciding how to spend your time; while Split is technically larger, Dubrovnik’s old city is much more impressive. If you’ve been, let me know what you think in the comments. And check out my Instagram for more photos of these magical places.

August 11th, 2017

4 Things I Learned from Bailing on My Croatian Island Hop

Last Saturday, I boarded a catamaran to visit the island of Vis, the first stop on what was supposed to be a 10-day vacation, hopping to Hvar, Korcula, and Dubrovnik. The very next day, I returned home to Split, tired and sweaty and annoyed.

I haven’t made a secret of the fact that Croatia is not my favorite. I’m not really an ocean person in general—I enjoy the occasional beach vacation, but more of the “stay in a hotel that’s two steps to the beach and go to that beach every day and read a book while a waiter brings drinks” variety, rather than the Croatian “hike to this random rocky outcrop or take a scooter halfway across the island and walk across some pebbles to swim in the sea.” I think I’d like Croatia okay in June, but in August (particularly this August), it’s just not my idea of a good time.

So I got to Vis, and it’s cute and all, but it didn’t take my breath away. Then I met my (very sweet) Airbnb host who took me to the apartment…where I realized that I had royally fucked up.

I made my reservation both too early and too late. Too early because I was still in Berlin, where it was rainy and chilly, and the importance of air conditioning was not at the forefront of my mind. Too late because by the time I had booked, there were approximately two apartments to choose from in this little town.

And the apartment was stifling. By the time my host finished describing tours and telling me where the best beaches were (on the other side of the island…and the closest beach was a 40 minute walk away), sweat dripped down her face. I left all the windows and the balcony door open and left for dinner, hoping it would be cooler when I came home.

It was not. And I was in a foul mood because I’d dropped my knife and spattered gravy all over my favorite shirt, and it took a literal hour to get the bill. So I waited and watched Felicity on my laptop, hoping it would cool down as the night progressed. Around 3 AM, I finally dozed off, and I think I slept for a solid 15 minutes or so as I lay there, hot and miserable.

At 10 AM, I dragged my sticky, sweat-coated, unrefreshed self out of bed and decided I’d had enough. Vacations are supposed to be fun, and I wasn’t having any. I re-packed my stuff and got on the noon ferry back to Split.

Hi, Vis! Bye, Vis.

As frustrating as it was to waste time and money like that, I did learn a few lessons from the experience that I hope I can keep in mind as I travel:

1. I can’t do everything.

I’ve always said that I want to travel (almost) everywhere. Now I’m on this adventure, and I’m getting to experience so many different places. But I’ve felt such pressure to do more. If I’m in Croatia, I must do all the things there are to do in Croatia. Islands! Waterfalls! Go go go go go! And if in addition to seeing Croatia, I can fit in a side trip to a neighboring country, too, so much the better. 

But, in month four of my trip, I’m realizing just how unfeasible this is. I’m tired. I don’t have time to prepare for all these adventures, either practically or psychologically, so I’m not enjoying it when I get there. Instead…

2. I need to prioritize what I really want.

The night before I was set to leave on the trip, my roommate for the month noted how unexcited I seemed about it. She wasn’t wrong—I haven’t really dreamed of seeing these islands; it’s just the thing you do in Croatia, so I was doing it.

The thing about joining We Roam is that while I can choose my itinerary, the individual countries are set. The upside is that sometimes I discover a place like Berlin that I had no idea I would love so much. The downside is that sometimes I spend a month in a country I don’t like. 

But I do have control over my side trips, so it’s silly to plan those based on some external idea of what I *should* be doing. Instead I need to look at a map and figure out where I can go that excites me and ignites my sense of adventure. If I do that and still find myself in a spot I don’t really want to be, though…

3. It’s okay to bail. 

I don’t like quitting things. Even if it’s just a vacation, quitting feels like failure. And it sucks to lose money. But I think what sucks more is sitting alone on an island (or wherever), miserably holding fast to your principles. 

I tweeted something last month that still resonates with me:

I’ve regretted quitting things because I was lazy but never because I was unhappy.

That’s particularly true when it comes to something like vacation, where pleasure is the sole purpose. And the best thing about it is…

4. Bailing makes room for things I enjoy more.

You’ll get the full story in another blog post soon, but since my island hop was a bust, I decided to accept an offer to visit the little town of Tisno, where I wound up having the best two days I’ve had since I joined the trip. And that never would have happened if I’d stayed, sweaty and sad, on the island of Vis.

 

I recently listed to the audiobook of The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a Fuck, by Sarah Knight, and I highly recommend it. It’s all about not giving a fuck about things you don’t actually care about so you have more fucks to give on the things that you do. This whole post is very much in line with that philosophy: when it comes to side trips, I need to do a better job going forward of allocating my fucks.

July 28th, 2017

Solo German Road Trip: Bremen, Kassel, and Rothenburg ob der Tauber

Last Friday, I set off alone for a German road trip adventure. I had a rough start: I’d scoured the car rental sites looking for an automatic (I know–I’ve tried to learn how to drive a stick…someday, I hope) and thought that I’d found the perfect deal with Sixt. But when I got there, they told me that I couldn’t rent the car I’d reserved because my license was issued less than two years ago. They were baffled by my explanation of moving states and having to get a new license; I was baffled by this ridiculous rule. It took nearly two hours and a lot of yelling, but I finally hit the road…in a far shittier car than I’d anticipated, but oh well.

ON THE AUTOBAHN

The Autobahn is the German highway, and it’s achieved mythic status for many in the States. I have to admit I was a little disappointed–there are in fact speed limits on much of the highway. A friend of mine has the mailed traffic ticket to prove it (I may get one soon as well, who knows). But moreover, there’s just a shit ton of road construction. It felt like every few miles, the lanes were reduced and narrowed to the point where I was gripping the wheel in a panic. The fact that there were two sets of lines on the road didn’t help matters; many people straddled lanes as they drove. It also poured rain on half of my driving days, making speed impossible.

Yet there were a few stretches where it lived up to my expectations. I couldn’t do much in my go-kart of a car–there were times when I was in the far right lane going 150 kmh (about 93 mph) while other cars whipped by me. It’s a far more active sort of driving overall. If someone is moving faster than you, you’d best get over. 

BREMEN

Because of the delay, I didn’t arrive in Bremen until around 4 pm. But that was just enough time to do what I wanted to, and I was pleasantly surprised by the town. My hotel, the Atlantic Grand, was perfectly situated just steps from the main square, which was completely adorable.

I started off with a visit to a small museum. Bremen houses the first museum dedicated to the work of a female painter, the Paula Modersohn-Becker Museum. While I enjoyed her expressionist works, I really loved the temporary exhibition of Slawomir Elsner, his works featuring subtle crosshatching and a blurred, vague effect, as seen at right.

I then wandered through the Schnoor, the oldest part of Bremen and very picturesque. There are a ton of shops and galleries; I had to seriously resist temptation. I settled on ice cream instead, in the Schnoorkuller flavor–it’s traditionally a cake, but it worked nicely in a cone. 

I wandered back through the main square and snapped the obligatory pic of the Bremen Town Musicians statue. I kept wandering into the less pretty, but more functional, part of town, and since I had a little time to kill before dinner, I read on the grass for a while beneath the Kaffee Muhle, a windmill turned cafe. I also took my favorite photo of the trip there:

I had dinner at Grashoff, a little bistro that was perfectly fine. Then I watched the sun set over the river and went to bed to prepare for the next day’s drive.

KASSEL

Kassel is the main reason I embarked on this trip. Every five years, the city hosts Documenta, a massive, month-long art exhibition spread out over many venues across town. 2017 brought Documenta 14, and with it, the Parthenon of Books: a life-sized replica of the Parthenon in Athens, constructed from 100,000 copies of banned books and built on a former Nazi book burning site. I came across an article about it on Facebook, noticed it wasn’t far from Berlin, and decided I had to go. And so here it is, in all its glory:

My visit to Documenta 14 suffered a bit from my lack of time to plan. I really needed a couple of days to see more of the exhibition. But it was early afternoon when I arrived, the booklet describing the various exhibits was 50 pages long, and every venue I saw had a line wrapped around the block. So I decided to be satisfied with getting to see what I most wanted to, and my only other touristy stop in town was the Grimmwelt

The Grimmwelt is a museum dedicated to the Brothers Grimm, and it’s nearly as magical as the stories. The building itself is lovely, as you can see, and they have exhibits set up from Z-A, many of which are interactive. In addition to seeing some old documents and household objects, you can talk to a magic mirror on the wall and walk through a forest of trees that whisper at you. 

The town was a little overrun with art lovers, so I wasn’t able to get dinner reservations. I wound up at a pizzeria (pizza is never a bad idea), notable only for its giant portions, and walked some of it off on the mile and a half trek back to my hotel. I wouldn’t stay at the Grand La Strada unless I had to. It’s allegedly four stars, but it’s stifling, and my room had crimson shag carpeting that I was reluctant to walk on.

I almost had a very quick stay there indeed. My final stop on the trip was supposed to be the famed Neuschwanstein Castle. The night before I set out, the forecast was clear. By evening in Bremen, the forecast was for nonstop rain when I was supposed to go but spotty the day before. I contemplated leaving Kassel at 3 AM to get there by opening hours, a day earlier than I’d planned. But by dinnertime in Kassel, the forecast was fairly wretched for both days, and I decided I had to abandon my castle dreams. It was incredibly frustrating to come so close, but I thought it was better to let it lie than spend hours of effort when it would likely end up disappointing me. So I went ahead and slept in, then drove on to my final town. 

ROTHENBURG OB DER TAUBER

Rothenburg odT is a tiny tourist trap of a medieval town–but it is, admittedly, very cute. The Burg-Hotel, where I stayed, was absolute perfection, from the exterior, to the sweet elderly man who insisted on carrying my suitcase up three flights of stairs (not pictured, sorry, haha), to the view from my window.

There isn’t much to do in the town except wander. There’s a small Christmas museum and a preserved medieval home-turned-museum, but neither seemed worth the price of admission. Instead, I simply wandered, through the park that gives you an outside view on the walled city…

through the center of town…

and through a narrow walkway on the walls themselves for a rooftop-level view:

Dinner that night was the best of the trip, at the Hernschlosschen restaurant (part of a hotel). Popcorn soup, a perfectly (not) cooked steak, and truffle fries with actual shavings of truffle. The dream, basically.

And with the perfect meal, my road trip came to an end. Though I didn’t get to see everything I wanted to, I did thoroughly enjoy all that I saw. And just the road trip itself was an accomplishment for me. I travel by myself frequently, but there are still many things I’ve been hesitant to do solo–renting a car in a foreign country was one of them. As this trip progresses, I’m slowly expanding the boundaries of my comfort zone.  

June 29th, 2017

Lovely Lugano: A Solo Three-Night Visit

As you might suspect from my blog name, solo trips are necessary food for my soul. I’d been feeling particularly run down after the first six weeks of my global adventure, so I was eager to run to the lakes and have quiet time with my Kindle and some pasta. 

This was my first time in Lugano, and if you’re unfamiliar (as I was), it’s a little town that’s just barely in Switzerland, a breath away from the Italian border. Only the currency is Swiss, really–they speak Italian, the food is Italian…though that famed Swiss efficiency does appear as well. It’s beautiful, especially when viewed from the water: 

I flew into Milan and took a very easy and cheap (20 euro) hourlong minibus ride with Jetbus, straight from Malpensa Airport to the Lugano train station. 

I arrived on a Sunday afternoon, so most of the shops were closed, but I dropped my bags at the Hotel International au Lac, strolled through town, and settled into a lounge chair at Mojito Tropical Lounge, a lakeside outdoor bar that’s crowded at 6 pm and spilling over at 10 (or 18 and 22, if you will). 

To be honest, though, I only know it’s spilling over at 10 from walking by on my way home–if you’re reading this post expecting scandalous tales and late-night adventures, I’m afraid you’ll be disappointed. This was a recovery trip for me, so it was straight to bed after dinner and no alarm clock.

Dinner was delicious, though–I encountered a dish I haven’t seen before, which always excites me, a matcha tea pasta with a bell pepper and yellow tomato coulis at La Cucina di Alice. I followed it (unnecessarily, but when on vacation) with a tasty veal stew and creamy blancmange, then rolled myself back to the hotel. 

On Monday, with a rental stand just across the street tempting me, I decided to hire a boat. Everyone I’ve told this to has been shocked: you just RENTED a BOAT…BY YOURSELF? I was a little nervous truthfully. I haven’t driven a boat since I was a teenager, and I barely drive a car anymore since I moved to New York. But I needn’t have worried. Without a boat license, I got the Barbie Jeep of speedboats; I pushed the throttle up, expecting it to roar, and instead I putt-putted across the lake. 

But it was delightful to be out on the water. I cruised (inched) past the Swiss-Italian border, saw a few more little towns from the water, took a dip in the lake–the deepest lake in Switzerland, if you’re into fun facts–and enjoyed the lunch I picked up from the grocery store. The views were even more stunning on the water than the shore.

After a brief rest, I headed to dinner at Grotto della Salute. I decided to eat outside the center of town, and while Lugano has a very easy-to-use bus system, I didn’t check the times, and as it turns out, the bus I needed ran only every half hour in the evening. Then I didn’t realize that I had to request the stop (buses in Prague automatically make every stop), so I had a bit more of a hike than I’d anticipated.

The restaurant was none too pleased when I showed up 25 minutes late for my reservation, but I eventually got a table outside under the massive tree that shades their terrace and had a wonderful meal of lemon and pecorino cappellaci (similar to ravioli) and iberico pork tagliata. The restaurant had a very local vibe–patrons tooled up on their scooters, the people at the table next to me had their large dog sitting under the table, and the menu was in Italian and German. I honestly love when there’s no English option.

On Tuesday, I considered my options: I could take the funicular to the top of Monte Bre. But it was a hot day for a hike, and after just two months of travel, I’m already growing weary of climbing to the top of things to look at the view. I could go to the museum next door, LAC. When I previewed the exhibitions, though, there wasn’t anything I was longing to see. In the end, I decided to indulge myself and do what I actually wanted: lounge by the lovely garden pool. Again…vacation!

I left early for dinner so I could stroll slowly through the park on the way. And I’m glad I did; it was the perfect final view of Lugano. 

I’d saved the best for last with dinner: Arte al Lago, a one-star Michelin restaurant that sits right on the lake. I had the four-course menu, which was very well-executed–my favorite course was a cucumber and watermelon gazpacho with a spicy mint sherbet. But the setting really made the meal for me. When I got there, the shades were closed, and I watched the light play across the sculpture on the wall. Then, when the sun had dimmed enough, they raised the shades, and I watched the day fade as birds and boats skimmed across the water.

My days in Lugano were perfectly pleasant. The town won’t knock you over with charm; it tends towards luxury brand stores instead of boutiques, and the streets have only a little of that winsome wind. But there were very few Americans in June, which I consider a huge plus; I only heard two or three people speaking English. Add to that a shimmering lake and appetizing cuisine, and Lugano is well worth a visit. 

June 19th, 2017

A Solo Overnight in Cesky Krumlov

Cesky Krumlov doesn’t sound like the name of a picturesque old town, but excepting the title, it’s adorable. A preserved UNESCO World Heritage Site, it’s similar to Bruges in its bite-sized quaintness.

All the guides say that it’s less crowded in the evening, after the day trippers leave (very true), so I made a night of it last weekend, taking a RegioJet bus down from Prague on Sunday afternoon and returning Monday evening. The ride is a bit long for a day, at three hours, but the bus was surprisingly comfortable for 7 euros each way, with leather seats, drinks for purchase, and an on-board restroom. 

The bus stop is set just outside of the city center, and to walk into town, you climb up a short, forested hill. At the top is the first view of Cesky Krumlov, and from that initial moment, the city did not disappoint.

The town is similar to Prague, with its red-tiled roofs, a castle at the focus of every vista, and the Vltava River winding through. But I find it sweeter in miniature, and I love the vibrant colors of the castle and church spires. 

I got to town around 6 pm, with just enough time to check into the hotel and walk around a bit before dinner at Papa’s Living Restaurant, where I had a table by the river and finally got the sizzling beef tagliata I’ve been trying and failing to order for the last six weeks. (Groups! One of the joys of solo travel for me is getting exactly what I want–there’s no one with whom you have to negotiate or compromise.) It was as good as I’d imagined. 

I spent the evening at the theatre–the revolving theatre, to be precise. It’s a bit hard to describe, but let me try. The theatre is open air, in the gardens of the castle. It’s a large disc, essentially (see photo below), so the audience is seated all on one side. The entire contraption, the theatre in which the audience sits, can rotate 360 degrees. There’s no stage per se, though there are a few sets built in various spots on the ground surrounding the seats, as well as one permanent structure that serves for some of the interior scenes. So we’d face one way, watch a scene, and then the theatre would rotate to a different point of view for the next scene. And occasionally the seats would rotate to track action; they drove a real-life horse and carriage in at one point, and the theatre moved along with the horses.

It was fascinating enough to keep me occupied through The Hound of the Baskervilles in Czech! The only words I understood were hello, thank you, and Sherlock Holmes. But while I wish they would have been staging opera or ballet, something more universal, I’d go see just about anything there to experience the lovely outdoor setting and unique staging. 

By the time I trekked back down the hill–the walk up to the theater is not for the infirm–it was past 11 pm, and it seemed the only people walking through town were the ones who had also gone to the theater–all in pairs, mind you. (It seems only fair in counterbalance to the above raving about solo travel that I do get a slight twinge when everyone else in arm-in-arm, and I’m the only one trudging forward alone.)

I stayed at the Hotel Ruze, originally a 16th-century monastery. Its origins still show; the hallway sitting area was decorated with a rather intense religious theme, the room featured dark wood and heavy drapery, and the toilet was a literal throne. Pictured at right so you believe me.

The next morning threatened rain, so I had breakfast crepes at MLS and then strolled through the Egon Schiele Art Centrum. The art won’t astound you, but they had a couple interesting exhibits by lesser-known artists, and the space itself was a beautiful mix of old and new architecture. The skies had cleared by the time I was done, and I crossed the river to the less populated side of town (the tour groups are out in full force during the day) and spent a quiet hour in a park.

I was planning to sit in this pretty gazebo I could see from my hotel window, but when I got there, I discovered it was a little grungy, with graffiti, cigarettes, booze bottles, and unidentified puddles…I opted for a bench under a tree instead. It amused me, though, as a lesson in the ideal versus the real while traveling. Even charming villages have their dingy corners.

If I’d had a little more time and/or slightly better weather, I would have gone for the full castle tour–there’s a baroque theater and real live bears!–or rented a kayak to go down the river, as I saw many doing. But it was a welcome break from Prague and a delightful 24 hours. 

May 23rd, 2017

A Solo Weekend in San Sebastian with a Bilbao Day Trip

Last Wednesday morning, I got up so early that I’m sure some people were still out for the night to catch a flight to San Sebastian, also known as Donostia in the Basque language. After a couple weeks of traveling in a crowd, I was ready for a little alone time, and I was really excited to see San Sebastian, a town I’ve been longing to visit for years. (I think it started with The Sun Also Rises…)

The main attraction is food–San Sebastian is second only to Kyoto in the number of Michelin-starred restaurants per square kilometer, and I had reservations at two of them, Arzak and Mugaritz, both of which also feature on the World’s 50 Best list. The early flight, in fact, was made in the service of lunch at Arzak–I couldn’t get a dinner reservation, but it’s the same menu. And beyond the super fancy, San Sebastian is also famous for its pinxto bars: tiny restaurants that serve delectable small plates, which you eat standing up.

Beyond food, there’s not a lot going on. It’s a small town with three great beaches–even a surf break at one of them. The photo below sums up San Sebastian’s beach life; the dogs run free in that town. Unfortunately, three out of four days I was there were cold and rainy, so I spent a lot of time catching up on Netflix. There’s a museum, an aquarium, and loads of cute shops, but since I’m living out of a suitcase for a year, I took the time to recharge.

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On Saturday, the sun finally came out, and I attempted to cram a long weekend’s worth of tourism into a day. First up, a trip to the Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim in Bilbao, which is an easy hour and fifteen minute bus ride from San Sebastian, a drive that winds through beautiful mountainous countryside.

The Guggenheim, like so many things, was smaller than I’d imagined, but lovely. The building itself is fascinating; every angle gives you a fresh perspective:

The main exhibition was Abstract Expressionism, and they had some interesting and significant works, though I have to admit that period leaves me a little cold. I was listening to the audio guide as I browsed, and while I’m fascinated by the artists’ processes, and I can intellectually understand the idea of creating a reaction through color or shape, rather than specific forms, it just doesn’t do much for me, much in the same way that I don’t like house music–my book-obsessed brain longs for narrative.

But I always look for at least one new painting to fall in love with, and at this museum, that was Anselm Kiefer’s The Renowned Orders of the Night. The photo doesn’t do it justice; it’s breathtaking in its scale.

Back in San Sebastian, I braved the hordes of children heading up to the rides at the tiny, rickety amusement park at the top of Monte Igueldo to get this breathtaking view of the city.

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It was interesting–I don’t know if it’s because it was Saturday, or it was finally sunny, or the combo of the two, but I’d been thinking that San Sebastian was the sleepiest little town, just some surfers and a lot of old people, all of whom seemed to know each other, and hundreds of adorable pups. But then the sun comes out, and all of a sudden, the beach walkway is packed, and I’m fighting my way through the streets of Old Town like it’s Times Square.

I went to a pinxto bar recommended by none other  than Anthony Bourdain, La Cuchara de San Telmo. Really, you’re supposed to do a pinxto crawl, but I only had it in me to elbow my way through one insanely crowded bar. It really is a bit of a fight, and then you’re left standing up eating gourmet food as if it were a bad canape at a reception. But I had delicious veal cheeks and pig’s feet in romesco sauce and suckling pig with an apple sauce (all the food my mom would refuse to eat, basically) and called it a night.

It was a slightly disappointing weekend, if I’m being honest, just because I’d built the city up so much in my mind–the difference between travel expectations and reality is something I think about often. And it was definitely one of those times, where if I hadn’t been flying solo, I might have been pushed to do more and explore further. But sometimes travel can be about recovery as much as discovery.

The only truly sour note of the weekend came as I was trying to leave at 7 AM on a Sunday morning. There were no taxis at the stand (you can’t hail one), and the promised 7:15 bus didn’t arrive. The taxi companies weren’t answering their phones. One group of people, just going home from the bars, promised to call me a cab from another town, but then they took the first one, and their drunk friends surrounded me and shooed me down the street, mocking me from the windows of the taxi that was supposed to be mine as they drove by.

Back at the taxi stand, another group of men came by and started talking to the girl standing next to me. In Spanglish, they offered me first a ride, then the open containers of beer they were holding–for obvious reasons, I accepted neither. I finally got through to a company and mustered enough college Spanish to communicate, “Necesito un taxi. Voy a aeropuerto. Estoy a Idiakez.” Not the most elegant turns of phrase, but a taxi did appear–which the other girl tried to take, since she was next in line. We communicated, insofar as we were able, and agreed that the taxi would drop her home first and then take me. Luckily (who has ever thought this?), my flight was delayed an hour, or I probably would have missed it.

So I suppose all’s well that ends well, and I never felt like I was in real danger–but it was a slightly dicey moment for a solo female traveler with only a moderate grasp on the language.

Nevertheless, I’m happy I saw the town and ate (some of) the food. It’s changed a lot from the quiet fishing village Hemingway visited, but it still has a certain charm.

March 3rd, 2017

Aren’t You Bored?

On my recent trip to Anguilla, multiple well-meaning staff members, upon learning that I was traveling solo, asked incredulously, “Aren’t you bored?”

I stared at them, baffled. Yes, yes I’m terribly bored, lounging here on this pristine beach with a wave-side view of the turquoise water.

But okay, I’ll entertain the question. In fairness, a week in Anguilla is an aggressive choice for a solo vacation. When I first traveled alone, I started small: a weekend in a city. Plenty to do and a limited amount of time. On a quiet island for a week, though, you have to be able to self-entertain. Here are the three biggest reasons why that’s not a problem for me:

1. I think.

This isn’t as facetious as it sounds, I promise. Solo trips give me the time and space I need to reflect on my life and re-center. On this trip, I thought about how busy January had been and confronted the reality that I needed to scale back my activities. I evaluated my priorities and set new goals for the coming months.

It’s hard to take a time out to think about the big picture when you’re in the midst of the day-to-day. And when you travel with a group, or even just one other person, there’s far more activity–which is fun and has its own value, but it can be distracting if what you need is to consider your life and your choices.

2. I observe. 

Sometimes my observation looks like a photo in a brochure for something: a young woman sits in the sand, contemplating the ocean… And truthfully, I did spend nearly forty-five minutes one day watching a crab industriously dig a tunnel. (I live in New York; animals that aren’t pigeons, squirrels, or rats are fascinating.) I also feel like I get a better sense for the place I’m visiting when I’m alone–I pay more attention to the scenery and the locals when I’m not having a conversation with a companion.

But also, let’s be honest, I people watch. And eavesdrop. It’s hilarious. On this trip, in beach chairs nearby, a young couple was talking to an older woman. The woman asked if they were on their honeymoon. *cue awkward laughter* “Uh, no, we’re just on vacation,” the young man said. “But…um…someday…maybe.” Things were uncomfortable between the couple for the rest of the morning, and I enjoyed every minute of it, because schadenfreude, amirite?

3. I read. 

This is the game changer. I’m not such a mindfulness master that I can sit silently for a week in full awareness of my surroundings. I love to read, and since I work in publishing, I don’t get nearly enough time for non-work books. My Goodreads goal could not be as ambitious as it is without my solo travel time; I blazed through ten books on the island.

And truly, when I read, I don’t feel like I’m alone. As I read a sociological nonfiction work, I felt like I was in conversation with a large swathe of critical discourse. As I read women’s fiction, I felt like I was hanging out with new friends.

Rory Gilmore put it best: “I live in two worlds. One is a world of books. I’ve been a resident of Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, hunted the white whale aboard the Pequod, fought alongside Napoleon, sailed a raft with Huck and Jim, committed absurdities with Ignatius J. Reilly, rode a sad train with Anna Karenina and strolled down Swann’s Way.” While my reading list for the week was less literary than Rory’s, the characters felt no less real.

So no, I’m not bored. Just mildly irritated that you interrupted me mid-paragraph to ask.

February 16th, 2017

A Solo Week in Anguilla

I miss last week already. The grey harshness of New York in February feels especially brutal after a week of hot sun and soft sand. My skin is tan but freezing. I’m stuck at a desk instead of sending the occasional email from the beach.

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Saying goodbye to St. Maarten…

On February 5, I took off for the tiny island of Anguilla, a British overseas territory in the Caribbean that’s just 16 miles long by 3 miles wide. There are no direct flights–while Anguilla does have an airport, it’s serviced by tiny planes from San Juan–so I opted instead for a nonstop flight to St. Maarten, followed by a very pleasant 30-minute boat ride. Having been to St. Maarten before and knowing how bad the traffic can get, I opted to pay more for Funtime Charters, which leaves from a dock just a few minutes from the airport, rather than traversing the island to the French side to take the public ferry. The boat ride was actually delightful; with a rum punch and the ocean breeze, it was a lovely way to start the vacation.

 

 

Spurred on by a 25% img_5137off Expedia discount, which made the hotel a couple hundred bucks a night cheaper than other options on the island (Anguilla is many things, but inexpensive isn’t one of them), I stayed at Zemi Beach House, on Shoal Bay East Beach, in a premium ocean view king room. The view (on left) was gorgeous, and you could lie in the cozy bed and see the ocean. I was very impressed with the hotel overall; the staff was friendly and accommodating–I stayed an extra day, thanks to the NYC snowstorm, and they extended my stay at the same rate. And with only 69 rooms, the two pools (one, an out of the way, adults only tranquility pool; the other overlooking the ocean) and private beach were never crowded. After having been to large, family-oriented resorts in the Bahamas and Bermuda, I can’t tell you what a joy it is not to have to wake up at dawn and fight for beach chairs. Instead, I slept in and strolled out at 10 to take my pick of oceanfront loungers.

 

I stayed close to the hotel during the days. The one downside to Zemi Beach is that many of the restaurants (and other hotels) are clustered on the opposite side of the island, a $20-35 cab ride away. You can rent a car–many who wish to explore the various beaches do–but given the rural roads (roosters and goats roaming free!) and left-side driving, I decided nighttime taxi excursions were the way to go. And the beach at Zemi suited my lounging and reading needs just fine, although with slightly rough waters, it’s not the best location for swimming and snorkeling. If you do decide to explore, it’s easy–most beachside grills have lounge chairs you can rent for a nominal (about $5) fee. But I was more than content with my wide-open expanse of sand:img_5207

I did drag myself off the beach to indulge in the on-site Thai House Spa twice–well worth it, as it won World’s Best New Resort Spa 2016 in the World Spa Awards. On my first full day on the island, before I got too much sun to make massage impossible, I got the deep tissue grapefruit and rosemary muscle melt. Girl was not messing around with that deep tissue; it fully lived up to its name. On my last day, I got a much-needed cucumber and aloe wrap to soothe my sunburned skin. And the spa itself is beautiful, though it feels a bit strange (yet awesome???) to be walking around the open air setting in your robe. Spa treatments come with a complimentary bathing ritual, consisting of time in the hammam, the only one of these Turkish steam rooms on the island, a scrub or mud mask rinsed off in the outdoor rain showers, and a dip in a bathwater-temp pool. An overly friendly male employee made the ritual my only real negative moment of the trip–but it’s a bit of a story; stay tuned next week for more on that.

img_5145At night, I ventured out. The day I arrived was Super Bowl Sunday, and I watched the game on a giant screen set up in the sand at Elvis’ Beach Bar, comfortably crowded with tourists and locals alike. Aside from the tranquil beaches, the other big Anguilla draw is the food. Several chefs have decided to expat on island, and there is some seriously haute cuisine happening in tropical, open spaces. My favorite meal of the trip was at the French with Asian influences Hibernia, where I ate smoked fish and ginger cream cheese on toasted bread (like the Caribbean version of a New York bagel) and the most amazing aromatic duck with some cinnamon tea and homemade rum raisin ice cream for dessert, while overlooking this lovely art-surrounded pool.

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But I also highly recommend my two other nice dinners. At Blanchards, situated right on the beach, I ate fresh corn chowder and amazingly tender braised lamb shank, followed by their signature cracked coconut, a chocolate “shell” filled with coconut ice cream. And at Veya, a palm-treehouse style restaurant with live music, I had delightfully decadent conch fritters and grilled shrimp with curry sauce–and their amuse bouche, a lobster and lemongrass soup, was the most delicious thing I ate all week.

The hotel food was similarly excellent–one of the highlights for me was the packet ofimg_5195 macarons they left every night at turndown, which I saved to have as breakfast in the morning with the complimentary in-room illy coffee. Zemi Beach’s casual restaurant 20 Knots had a tasty lunch menu that was varied enough to keep me happy all week–I recommend the simply skewered option or the mango and zucchini salad–though you can also walk down the beach to a couple of casual grills. Breakfast in the sand was the perfect farewell to the island. img_5214

Though I have a hard time returning to places when there’s so much of the world still to explore, I could easily see Anguilla becoming a favorite winter retreat. On one of my cab rides, the driver and I started talking about the radio show he was listening to, on which a local politician was arguing for expanding the airport. While I certainly understand wanting to expand tourism–their main economic resource–the lack of a cruise port and slight inaccessibility keep many travelers away. And that’s what makes this traveler want to keep going back.