How to Plan a Holiday

My last week got overrun by more vacation planning and I didn’t really have time to do much writing. However, since I’ve turned my gaze once more to the fun fun prospect of organizing my next international adventure, it seemed like a great time to share my process with you.


Related imagePlan? That sounds like WORK! Isn’t a holiday supposed to be FUN? Yes, but if you want to maximize your vacation time and money, taking the time and effort to plan ahead makes a world of difference. Unless you’re rich enough to just hire someone to plan the trip for you (and even then, finding the right tour company is important too!) you need to commit to planning. The time-money-quality triangle applies to everything, even holidays. The more time you put into the plan, the less money you need for high quality results. 

Step 1: Find Your Holiday Mission Statement

Planning a trip doesn’t start with booking a hotel and flight. There are some pre-trip questions you should really think about before any web searches or bookings take place.

How do you want to feel?

One of my friends loves laying on the beach with a book for days on end, but that sounds boring as heck to me after about 3 hours. Neither of us is right or wrong, but we want different things from our holiday. It’s important to know what your goals are, it’s kind of your vacation mission statement. From then on, any time you’re faced with an option or choice you can check to see if it matches your mission statement. Much like for a business, a vacation mission statement works best when it’s as specific as possible, while still being brief.

What you want from your holiday? Leisure? Adventure? Food? Shopping? Change of scenery? Nightlife? Art? History? Be pampered? Get dirty? 

What do you want to see?

Decide if you’re having a destination holiday or an experience holiday.

Destination holidays are those where you want to see a specific place like Rome or the Pyramids. There are awesome things everywhere in the world, but there’s only one Rome. Destination driven holidays should be more focused on off-season travel to maximize savings and also to avoid the high-season crowds. 

Destination driven holidays also need to think about weather as well as expenses. My favorite Thai island is closed 6 months of the year. Last fall, I had to find a different magical island getaway. My friend wants to go to Egypt and for a minute she thought she’d go in the summer break until I showed her the weather reports that include regular temps in the 40s (C). Now we’re going in February.

Experience holidays are ones in which you first consider your time off, and then see what’s having an off season sale that you might be interested in at that time. Sometimes, you can’t help but go to the popular place at the popular time. Work and school schedules are not always cooperative, but it is worth considering what else is available.

How long do you want to go?

Long weekend? 10 days? A month? There are vacations for nearly every length of time. Bear in mind shorter times should focus on one or two main activities in a single place with minimal travel. 

The less time you have in one place, the more detailed the planning needs to be. You might be fine spending an afternoon getting lost in town or just sitting at a cafe people watching if you have several days to spare, but if you get lost on your only day to do/see THE THING you’ll be really sad.

How much do you want to spend?

There are places in the developing world where you can book a luxury resort for 300$ a week (I did that in Egypt), places where you can eat amazing gourmet food for 25$ a meal or less (China and the Philippines for sure), there are places where a beer is 0.50 cents (Prague!) and places where a beer is 8-12$, places you can get a private room for 5$ a night with breakfast included, and others where a room in a dorm (sheets not included) costs 40$.

Don’t worry about the cost of individual things at this point, just think about how much you are willing to spend per day on average (take your total trip budget, subtract airfare, divide by the number of days you want to travel)Once you know your budget, you can check it against other travelers’ experiences to see if it’s enough for the place you’re dreaming of. I find that a lot of the blogs for backpackers are decently accurate for minimal daily expenses, and that the cost of living websites are more accurate for “family vacation” style spending. Most of SE Asia is 30-40$ a day for good times and EU is 80-100$ a day if you’re frugal.

Who are you going with?

Discuss the practical things – I almost forgot this one because I’m so used to travelling alone, but it is important. Not only do you have to ask all the previous questions of your travel buddies, you also have to think about room sharing (my mother snores so loud I’m not sure how that’s going to work when we travel together), as well as age or ability limitations (meeting my friend with a 3 yr old last summer, I had to think about 3yr old human needs). Travel buddies can be great company and help save money on things like renting a car or a room when you can share, but it’s a compromise on location and activities.

Be upfront about your goals and expectations – If possible, try to pick travel buddies who share your travel goals and habits. If you can’t do that, discuss them in advance so you have a way to handle when you want different things. It is so easy for a holiday to turn into resentment when people are tired, sunburnt, hungry and didn’t get to see/do the thing they wanted. If you are travelling with people who don’t share your goals, make sure you’re both ok splitting up sometimes so that no one’s feelings are hurt when you want to do something different.

Make time for each other – I don’t just mean plan with them, I mean that they need to have a place on your itinerary. What will you share together other than the hotel room? It’s almost impossible to make another person your top priority when you’re going on a (probably expensive and unique) travel experience, but it will help if part of every day is focused on each other more than the sites, even if it’s just one of your meals or a drink before bed. This applies to anyone, not just a romantic interest or spouse, but family, friends, and acquaintances. 

Step 2: Accommodation and Transit

Wait! All that was Step 1??? Yes, but it’s not as bad as it sounds. Step one is mostly thinking, and a little bit of research to help you get the answers to those questions. Don’t skip it, though, because you’ll use those answers to shape everything that comes next.

The Flight

The flight is the biggest purchase you’re going to make and it defines the rest of your holiday. I think of it as the spine of the vacation.

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For a destination trip (or once you’ve decided your experience locations):
The flight search matrix used by Google is a great way to be able to see all available flights between to airports. Websites like Travelocity, Priceline, Expedia, and Kayak ALL use the matrix to search. It’s faster to go directly to the matrix instead of comparing 20 websites.

For experience vacations (or to narrow a list of potentials in a specific area):
You can look at a website like Kiwi.com to search “Anywhere” and see the cheapest flights during your holiday time, or you can search by country, or you can use the map function to just scroll around the globe and see where cheap prices are. I love this for wanderlusties who find themselves with time and money restraints because there’s always something awesome at the other end and discovering can be fun.

My trip to the EU was I’d say 40% destination 60% experience. I wanted to go to north Europe, I was less picky about the specifics.  I looked around at prices and noticed that CDG is cheap and convenient to fly into. I could have opted for round trip, but it would have meant making my route a circle or doing a long backtrack and I wanted to get at least one Nordic country in on this trip. I did a quick check on some sample bus prices (like Paris to Amsterdam, Amsterdam to Oslo) and decided I could do it. Thus my return flight airport was decided, and I went over to the Matrix to find the cheapest flight. I got a ticket with Russian airline Aeroflot through Moscow for under 1000$. The cheapest options on flight booking websites were 500-700 more.

Conversely, my winter holiday is far more destination driven. It’s going to be much harder to find such a great deal. I originally wanted to do Morocco, Israel, Jordan and Egypt (my friend is joining me for Jordan and Egypt). I haven’t found the perfect ticket yet. Kiwi thinks it will be around $2000 to fly Korea to Morocco to Jordan to Egypt and back to Korea. It IS a lot of flights, but I hold out hope that several hours of testing options on the flight matrix will save me a few hundred dollars.

Search nearby airports – Flying one airport and then taking a bus or train out to a cheaper destination could save you hundreds of dollars. It’s worth comparing airports, and checking the price and timing of the ground transit before you buy, just to be sure. I don’t recommend this for short holidays (less than 3 days), but the longer your holiday is, the more worthwhile this becomes. In New Zealand, I flew in and out of Auckland even though I didn’t want to do anything in that city. In the Philippines, I had to fly into Manila, sleep in a little airport hostel, then fly to Bohol the next morning.

Choosing Your City/Cities

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Destination vacation people will have done this step before buying plane tickets.

Experience vacation –  “I’ll just see what’s there when I land” is not a reliable recipe for a great holiday. It’s a little like the lottery. Stack the odds in your favor and read up. Even if you think you know where you’re going, it doesn’t hurt to read about your destination on something other than Trip Advisor and Lonely Planet.

In the winter of 2016/17 my destination was “the Malay peninsula”. It looks small on a map, but it is big on the ground. I almost ended up missing out on Koh Lipe because Langkawi has been famous longer. Reading more sources gave me more options, and better information to make my decision with.

Read the blogs – Find some bloggers who share your holiday mission statement. It doesn’t do me any good to read bloggers who love to bike across Europe because I will not be doing that. Ever. I found a blog that talked about running tours of cities and nearly fainted from thinking about it.  Find unique bloggers who share real details. Mainstream bloggers like Nomadic Matt are fine for finding out the basic details and some run off the mill travelling advice, but for my taste, when I’m trying to decide where to go, I need the atmosphere, the mood, and the experiences of someone like me.

Check the local transport options – In addition to attractions, hotels and ground transit can shape your city choices. If you’re going to places with good public transit, it’s easy to land in one place for a bit and then move to another hub. If rental cars are cheap, you might consider driving around some of the rural parts of your chosen holiday spot. 

Move at least once a week – Happiness experts say that the shiny new vacation smell wears off after about 7 days in the same place. I like to change cities at least once a week, but if you want to spend your whole summer in the Maldives laying on the beach, it’s still a good idea to break it up by moving to a hotel on the other side of the island or taking a weekend to explore the mainland. After 7 days, things become a “routine” and the mental mood boosting benefits of vacationing begin to taper off sharply. Relaxing holidays will tend to move less, while exploring holidays will need to move more. How much more often than every 7-8 days you move will depend on your goal.

Finding Accomodation

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Don’t stay anywhere you don’t feel safe or can’t get good sleep. It’s not worth saving money if you’re stressed or too tired to enjoy the next day’s activities.

Do try to minimize your accommodation costs unless the resort itself is the center of your holiday (which is fine, private beaches are dreamy).

Shop around – It’s good to have a range of search options to keep your prices down. I like Airbnb and Booking.com the best, but I’ve been known to poke around Hostelworld. Sometimes I’ve just made email arrangements because I’m traveling to the back end of nowhere. Most of these places give discounts to non-cancellable reservations, but if you want to maintain flexibility, its a good idea to book places you can change later in case you find something better or change your plan altogether.

Beware hidden costs – Things to think about besides the room price: are any meals included? Do you need parking? Do you need a shuttle service? Will you need laundry service? Is it close to public transit? A great room price can be ruined if you have to pay 20$ a night for parking, if you have to walk a mile to the bus stop, or if there’s no place to eat nearby (this happened to me once in Korea and my hostess, bless her heart, fed us, but it was embarrassing!)

Location, location, location – When booking my rooms, I’m typically going back and forth between the booking site, a map of the region, and some travel blogs. Sometimes the map will show me something interesting because Google does that now. Sometimes the hotel will mention famous nearby sights to check out, and always travel bloggers will tell you about their own experiences there.  I spend ages staring at maps, reading blogs, and looking at the map function of Airbnb. It can show you the prices of a large geographical region. Sometimes I find great prices and realize I don’t really want to GO to that place so it’s useless.

Quality is subjective – Reading reviews of accommodation is tricky. If the person leaving the review has a different set of values and expectations than you, their review may not be helpful. Don’t just look at stars. Look at how many people reviewed something. A 4 star rating from 200 reviews is better than a 5 star rating from only 10 reviews. Read the things people liked, but also read what they didn’t like. Are those things important to you? Can you sleep in a room where you might see a rat to save $$? Do you HAVE to have A/C? Do you want to meet other guests or have more privacy? What is the standard in that country? I found that a 2-3 star (of 5) rating in developed countries is equivalent to a 4 or 5 star place in developing nations.

Prioritize – For me, feeling safe is #1. I don’t like to stay in co-ed dorms if I can avoid it but female only dorms are often more expensive. I also won’t stay in an Airbnb with all men (one or many, I don’t do it unless there’s a female in the house).  I’ve learned I can sleep just about anywhere for one night, but I prefer a single room, or a women only dorm in a clean place in a non-party part of town (I do not like hearing people throwing up from being drunk while I’m trying to sleep). I also look for transportation options (parking if I have a car, bus stop if I don’t).

Things like lux decorations, pools, spas, and services are less important to me, but you need to know your own priorities. If you want to party all night, stay in the party zone. If you can’t enjoy yourself unless you’re staying in the Marriott, then increase your budget or pick cheaper parts of the world where those resorts are affordable. Sharm el-Sheik in Egypt is great for that. You can stay in fancy beach resorts for a fraction of the cost of other countries.

Local Transportation

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Minimize travel time – I’ve seen tourists travel for hours to reach someplace and look for 15 minutes, take a few pics, and then get back on the bus. I don’t understand this method of travel. I think transit should be minimized. I don’t like to spend more than 4 hours a day in transit (except the flights in and out). It’s not always possible, but it is important. The comfort level of your transit is also important, as I learned in Thailand. A 3 hr bus ride in a plush comfy air conditioned seat is much more tolerable than a 3 hr ride in a cramped, hot, minivan.

Travel in your down time – In EU this summer, I traveled on Saturday so I wouldn’t have to fight weekend crowds at popular venues, and I used them as rest days where I could just relax and travel from one place to another. On shorter trips, I like to do intercity transit early in the morning or last thing at night. If you have to go a long way, it might be worth looking into sleeper cars. When we were in China (a huge landscape) we did that a couple times and skipped out on hotels for the 8-10 hour train rides overnight.

Research the details – If you’re going in the off season, you can probably buy tickets the day of your travel, but in the high season it’s best to make reservations. Look at the time tables and make sure you can get to the bus/train station on time. Compare the bus and train costs. I found that taking the bus around France and Holland was great, but that in Germany the train was cheaper.  I took a bus from Singapore to KL, but a train from KL to Ipoh.

Look at alternative travel options – Sometimes local flights can be more efficient and cheaper than bus or train. Sometimes there are even boats. Which I love. I took a ferry from Jordan to Egypt last time I was there. It was not any cheaper than flying, but it was a much cooler experience. I also had to take a boat to get to Koh Lipe and back since there are no airports on the tiny little island. Now that I’ve been, I know I probably could have bought my ticket when I got to the port, but at the time I had no idea how full it would be so I made sure to book online.

Check the reviews – In some cases you won’t have choices, but when you do it’s best to check and see if you can find a picture of the fleet that is NOT on the company website. I thought the boat to Koh Lipe would be like the ferries I’m used to where we could go up on deck and with that in mind, I was looking into a 3 hr boat ride. When I read more and realized that the Thai ferries in the region are all very restrictive and make passengers stay seated below decks, I opted for the shortest possible ride instead.

When in Rome – Not literally, but when it comes to getting around, it’s a good idea to see what locals do. I did so much research on inter-city transit to get from one place to another, I neglected to pre-research city buses to learn how to get around once I was there! It turns out, every one is different and it was a huge source of stress for me last summer.  How do you use the bus/tram/metro system? Do you need a bus pass? Where do you buy tickets? Does it cost more to buy one at a time or get a pass? Is the tourist pass worth it? Don’t assume it will be easy to figure out when you get there… it won’t be.

Step 3: The Details

Now you have your cities chosen, your hotels booked, and a solid idea of how you’ll get around. Time to narrow your focus and figure out what you’ll do in each location. Show up and see what happens is not a strategy that works for most people. It seems very romantic, but most people find they end up sitting around on Google trying to do the research they should have done before they arrived.

Brainstorm

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Write a list – Just make a list of names of all the places you can find where you’re going. Websites like Trip Advisor and Lonely Planet come in handy at this stage. They are great resources for building a basic list of things to see. They are a bit limited to the most popular tourist attractions, however, so try adding something like Atlas Obscura to your search.

Dig deeper For more unique travel opportunities, check travel blogs and Facebook pages and other types of social media from smaller voices to see what isn’t being seen by the big famous travel sites. I found a magical heated waterfall in NZ this way. I’ve learned about unique food in tiny restaurants, and the less famous but just as beautiful temple or church next to the one full of tourists. You get beautiful memories and you often get the place mostly or even all the way to yourself. I can’t provide links because each blogger focuses on different places and experiences, but if you type the name of the place + “blog” or “travel blog” you should get some decent results.

Check the map– Once you get a list written down, you can start searching for what’s near them geographically. Pull up the Google Map and see what pops up next to your famous site or on the route from your hotel to that site. Read more blogs about people who went to a famous site and see if they did any side trips. I had a side trip for buffalo ice cream on my way back from a famous site in Bohol. Local water-buffalo being milked for ice cream… that’s a unique holiday experience.

Expand your search – If your’e staying in one hotel more than 3 days (it hardly ever takes longer to see the highlights of one city, although of course you could explore a single city for years and not see everything, many people on holiday like to maximize experiences), you can look at day trips from the city you’re in. Can you do a tour to a nearby natural reserve for hiking, kayaking, fishing, etc? Can you get a bus to a neighboring city and see their sights? I found an amazing spa in Aachen Germany about 2 hours away from my hotel in Lanaken Belgium.

Read until your eyes blur – Keep adding things to your list.  Make your list as long as you like, don’t worry about all the details of each place yet, this is the brainstorm phase. Anything that sounds interesting, put it on the list.

Edit the List

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Location, Location, Location – things that are close together can be done on the same day, while things that are far away, not on the public transit line, or not near anything else cool might be cut from the list. I had the Tower of Eben-Ezer on my list, but when I realized how far out it was and that it would take me hours each way without a car, I reluctantly took it off the list. Other times I’ve gone to a place I was only semi-interested in because it was 5 minutes walk from my primary stop and had a great experience.

Timing is everything –  Check the days and hours of operation, and the price. If it’s not open when you’re there, if it conflicts with something you want more, if it costs too much, cross it off the list. Do you need to book in advance or can you buy tickets at the door? How long is the line? Many attractions have “skip the line” tickets that let you save time. When we went to the Catecombs in Paris, the line was 3 hours long. We had skip the line tickets and got in with only about 5 minutes wait. I completely failed to buy my Kremlin tickets ahead of time, and had to choose between standing in line and seeing the Kremlin or doing literally anything else in Moscow that day.

Read the reviews – Read reviews, look at pictures, visit the website. Look beyond rating and see what people are saying. Are the things they talk about important to you? Does this seem like something you’ll like? More than once I’ve declined to visit a city’s most popular tourist destination because it just didn’t seem that interesting to me.

PrioritizeYour list should be divided into “must see” and “see if there’s time”, with a side of “bad weather options”. Make sure you have no more than 50% of your list as “must see”. Even after editing out all the places you can’t get to, can’t afford, aren’t open, or aren’t interesting, the list should still be huge, and contain more things that you can actually do in the time you have because you might need to change something based on weather, unexpected closures, illness, or random acts of gods.

Step 4: The Schedule

It’s a good idea to have a schedule, as long as you know that it will change. I don’t want to spend my precious vacation time thinking about what to do each day. Sometimes I write detailed schedules down to the half hour, other times I make “day itineraries” grouping nearby activities together so I can wake up and say, ok today I’ll do itinerary 3.eu trip plan

Booking in Advance

Use your priority list and start with things on your “must see” list that require (or strongly suggest) advance reservations. Once those are filled in, you can start adding things that have variable times and things from your “see if there’s time” list.

Visit the website – Almost all of them have an English page and will tell you how important it is to buy tickets in advance. Some places don’t even sell tickets at the door. 

Don’t Over-schedule

The temptation to squeeze sightseeing into every moment of the day is strong. Avoid it. A single event or a bike/walking tour that lasts 2-3 hours is a “half day” event (2 per day). Anything more than 5 hours is an “all day” event (1 per day). I can’t make you slow down, but thousands of travelers over several decades agree that seeing fewer things, but experiencing them more fully is a more satisfying experience.

Make time for meals! Oh man, the number of times I’ve ended up not getting food because I’ve been so busy looking around. It’s a tragedy especially if you’re travelling anywhere with good food… soooo basically everywhere. Street food is awesome and should be tried, but you need to sit down and rest too.

Organize by geography – When I was in the Philippines, I had itineraries that could be done on any day, as long as the items were done as a group because they were all close together. You can sneak tiny things into a day this way. If there’s something that will take less than an hour quite close to one of your half or all-day events you can work that in without killing yourself.

Time is a Gift – You look at an itinerary like this and you think, OH we’re wasting so much time, but you are not. You are giving yourself a precious gift. Now you have time to get lost, to explore, to check out that cool thing on the way you didn’t know about, to stop for an ice cream or coffee, to meet people along the way.

Be Prepared to chuck the plan – If you travel with an open eye and open mind, you’ll also find new and interesting things along the way. Sometimes it’s meeting people who invite you along, sometimes the concierge or Airbnb host tells you about a local secret, sometimes you just walk into a wine festival in the park (true story, happened to me in Prague). You want to be able to make time for these things, and in order to do that you need things you can move around in your itinerary.

Step 5: Organize Your Documents

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Gone are the days of having to print our whole holiday itinerary and carry them around in waterproof document cases! Yes, people did that. Sometimes I still see older couples doing it. I’m not saying it’s a bad idea, and if you’re not going to be around computers or the internet, it’s VITAL, but now that we can store everything in the cloud, we can access schedules, booking details, and vouchers with our phones!

At a Glance – There are countless apps you can use to organize your itinerary, but be sure you get one that is easy to read at a glance. You’ve seen my color coded spreadsheet that shows a calendar where I put the things I’ve scheduled and bought tickets for, but I also use something like a Word.doc for the list of things I can do more or less whenever that includes addresses, websites and phone numbers I may need, and any itinerary groupings.

On the Cloud – I make a dedicated folder in my cloud storage for all vouchers and receipts for everything I bought online from hotel reservations to museum tickets for each trip. I filter all my emails related to the holiday into a dedicated email folder for easy reference. I also keep photos of my critical documents. I know not everyone is comfortable with this, but if you lose your passport or ID, it will be easier to show your Embassy a picture of your missing credentials so they can help you faster.

Offline – If you won’t have data or internet when you arrive you can also download the documents you need to the phone’s storage. Some strange places in the world are still requiring printed vouchers/ tickets, so double check when you make reservations if you can use the pdf or email as proof or not.


What is all this for?

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Planning a holiday can certainly be fun and help you build anticipation for your upcoming adventure. However, it can also be a lot of work and there are days when you’ll want to throw the towel in and just wing it when you get there. Trust me. Don’t. 

All of this painstaking work helps make sure you get to see the best your holiday destination has to offer you.

  • make sure you don’t show up to a venue that is closed or sold out.
  • minimize transit time by grouping your events together.
  • maximize your bucket list by prioritizing only one or two things a day. 
  • have enough time to do everything and a way to stop and rest as needed. 
  • alleviate the stress of where to go and how to get there while you’re jet-lagged and culture-shocked.
  • explore organically by leaving a little extra time every day that could be filled or changed as needed.

I hope your next adventure is everything you dream.

Happy Travels!

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Hello Bohol: Beaches

There are a seemingly endless number of tiny beaches on the island of Panglao, and each one has pros and cons. I wanted to look at several to get a good idea of the best beaches for my tastes. While only the paid beaches (resort run) are “clean” in the sense of pristine sand and crystaline waters, the other beaches aren’t what I would think of as dirty. They do have natural debris, tree branches, leaves, seaweed, driftwood, etc, but I didn’t feel like any of them were trashed by human junk, a few pieces of litter sometimes. If you’re looking for a postcard beach, it’s better to pay the entrance fee for a resort. If you don’t care so much, just get a decent pair of water shoes and have fun!


Momo Beach

Momo was my first beach visit mostly because it was between two other stops we were making on Sunday, and it had decent reviews online.  Momo was almost eerily quiet. Despite the fact that it was Golden Week in East Asia and it felt like half of China had come to the Philippines, Momo’s only tourists besides ourselves were a diving class practicing in the shallows. There isn’t any deep swimming off the beaches of Panglao; it’s all shallow for a long way out, making it great for kids or weak swimmers, and it’s full of life which is fun for everyone.

The water at Momo was dark with the sea grass growing just beneath the surface, but it was so clear I could see all the creatures who lived there… including lots of spiky sea urchins. I waded out carefully, working to avoid stepping on anyone sharp, and tested out my underwater camera apparatus. In preparation of snorkeling, I’d purchased a phone bag that was water-safe, and a floater in case the phone strap broke. Although a cursory test of waterproofness had been done before, this was my first chance to try to take pictures underwater. It was harder than it sounds.

The touch screen worked great through the plastic above water, but went nuts as soon as the sea surrounded it. It took a while to get all the settings under control so I could launch the camera and take photos with buttons instead of touchscreen. In the end, I never did figure out how to get it to focus on what I wanted, so my underwater shots are a little hit or miss, but it was nice being able to take any at all. Along with the fields of sea grass and myriad urchins, I found a beautiful brown starfish, colored like a pointed Siamese, and managed to get a single focused photo without having to lift the creature out of the water, yay!

Alona Beach

Also on Sunday, we headed over to the famous Alona Beach. I had read that it was once a paradisaical white sands tropical beach which has become overrun with tourism and is no longer so pleasant, but I wanted to look anyway. Alona certainly is beautiful, but there is none of the quaint island charm that I found at Momo. The beach was better tended and the water cleared of sea grass and urchins, but other than a tiny marked off swimming area no larger than a pool, the ocean was covered in boats.  Just above the high tide line, the beach is lined with restaurants, souvenir shops and diving shops.

Since we were on bikes, we had to park in a lot just off the main circumferential road and walk the rest of the way to the beach. (parking was only 5p, btw). I don’t think this is as bad as the blogs I read made it sound as long as you know what you’re getting into. We passed every kind of food, drink, cultural market, and tour group set up you can imagine. I didn’t want to join any tour groups myself, but if you need a tour experience, you’ll find it on Alona beach. Ok, that’s not totally true, I did want to join one group at least to get myself out to the island with all the turtles for some snorkeling, and I found that there too.

Once I hit the beach, I walked all the way to the right, scoping out the options for dive groups. It’s not a huge place, so within a few minutes I’d reached the end. Vendors were constantly calling out, selling tours, drinks, food, pearls… so many random guys selling pearls out of a box on the beach. They may be fakes or they may be cultured pearls, but I’d say if you like them, just don’t pay more than you would for costume jewelry. I have my grandmother’s pearls, so I’m set. I did cave in and buy from one street vendor: an older lady selling fresh mangoes. It was 20p, probably more than it cost at the market, but she peeled and sliced it for us on the spot and it was ripe and delicious.

I headed back the other direction, trying to figure out which of the diving shops I wanted to patronize. I wasn’t planning on diving (I’m not licensed and also it’s super expensive), but after some internet research and asking people who’ve lived/traveled there, I found the best bet for good snorkeling without being ripped off is to join a dive group and just snorkel from the boat while they dive.

At one point, I thought about doing a tour over to swim with the whale sharks (because how cool would that be?), but as I read more about it, I came to realize that the tours at Oslob are damaging to the environment, and to the animals. Although the sharks are rarely harmed directly (though sometimes by thoughtless tourists or bad guides), the fact is that the Filipinos feed the sharks to keep them there year round as a tourist attraction which interferes with their migration, breeding, and feeding habits. It also teaches the sharks that humans are safe, which is not true outside of Oslob, and it puts them at greater risk elsewhere in the ocean. Whale sharks are gentle giants who eat only krill and plankton and have no teeth to hurt humans. As much as I would love the opportunity to swim among them, I cannot do it in a way that endangers their future as a species.

However, while I was learning about this tourism tragedy, I found a dive shop in Alona that felt the same way and offered all kinds of conservation based dive classes for advanced learners. Even more hilariously, it turned out to be the same dive shop that an old high school buddy who moved to Manila an age ago had recommended, although he’d given me the name of an instructor rather than the shop at first, so I didn’t realize until later. With all that coincidence it felt like fate. This ecologically sound dive shop is called Sierra Madre Divers (on Alona).

Inside I found a very frazzled young man running the front. I explained the desire to join a dive as snorkelers, but it turned out that every spot on every boat was filled for the entire duration of my stay in the Phillipines… by Chinese tourists. One day I’m going to get back on a holiday schedule that is not the same as a billion other people. However, he was kind enough to recommend another company. I figure all these dive shops have to know each other at least a little on such a small island, and I was more than willing to take his suggestion rather than try to filter through internet reviews searching for another by myself. He called over another young man who introduced himself as Rafi (short for Rafael) and told us he’d be happy to take us out the day after tomorrow, just show up at 8:30am.

We paused on the way back up the beach for milkshakes and as I sat on the bench overlooking the water, the most adorable tiny little girl came up to me with a ukulele and began to sing “I Wanna Be a Millionaire”.  I’ve been on the receiving end of a lot of money scams in my travels. I still remember the little girl in Petra who gave me postcards “as a gift” but wanted money in return.  I like supporting the locals who are trying to make a living from the tourism trade by doing things like making and selling goods or food (the totally grown up women in Petra I made sure to buy handmade jewelry from, or even the mango seller earlier that day). I also like busking as a way to earn money, though I’m hesitant to give money to bad performers. Not only was this girl so adorable she could be on a cereal box, she was a very talented musician. Her uke work wasn’t complex, but it was solid and her voice was very nice. I am big sucker and I only wish I’d thought to pull out my camera, but she was so close, she was nearly in my lap, and I was genuinely enjoying the song so I didn’t think about filming until it was too late. Of course I gave her money, don’t be silly.

White Beach

The last beach of Sunday was another locals only kind of place. Despite being just up the coast from Alona, it was far less developed and by late afternoon it was occupied by Filipino families doing evening barbecues on the beach. The sand beneath the water was much less infested with urchins than Momo,and we waded out into a clear sandy patch where we could play around in the warm water that came only up to our hips. Some of the locals came by to make conversation, and I felt obligated in the growing darkness to lie once more about my marital status.

I haven’t done that since the Middle East, and I have to wonder if I would have done it in the daylight, but the sun was behind the trees and it was getting quite dark.  I felt exposed in the sea, even with another American woman beside me, as a man I didn’t know asked about my age and my husband. I want to believe he was just being friendly. I’ve learned that in many places the standard questions are “Where are you from?, What do you do?, How old are you?, and Are you married?” I want to be a proud single traveler. I want to scream from the mountain tops that I don’t need a man to do this. And yet, from time to time I feel less than safe admitting to my spinsterhood, as though by admitting I’m single it will become an invitation for attention I do not want, or worse be taken as an admission of promiscuity. So until the day women are safe and independent all over the world, I may sometimes have an imaginary husband in the US military to scare away unwanted male attention. Sigh.

We splashed around in the shallow water, trying to take selfies in the dark and watching the lightening pop in the distance until it got so dark we couldn’t see our bags on the beach. Looking back on it, I need not have been worried about the bags on a local beach, but at the time I didn’t know yet how things were, and although there wasn’t too much in the bags (phones and keys were with in the waterproof bags with us, money in the wallet was minimal, important ID was in the hotel,etc) it would have been a bad first day to end with them stolen. Plus we were getting more looks from the men as women and children became scarcer in the water. I still don’t think anyone would have hurt us there, but there’s never a need to take chances, and I wasn’t sure how long that lightening would stay in the distance before the thunderstorms hit. I did NOT want to be on a motorbike in the dark and the rain.

Dumaluan Beach

After getting a monumental sunburn while snorkeling on Tuesday, I figured a rest day would be in order and decided that Wednesday would be a great time to check out the “semi-private” beach at Dumaluan that had been recommended by both the hotel hostess and the taxi driver. Panglao has three types of beaches: public, private, and semi-private. Most of the very public ones are not what anyone would put on a post card, the sand has debris from the jungle and the sea, and the water has things growing in it that show it’s clean and healthy, but do not promote a turquoise tropical beach vibe. I personally find these places worth visiting, but there is also something deeply luxurious about the postcard beach experience.

There are a couple of hoity toity resorts with private beaches, and some of them will let non-guests use the beach for a day fee. Unfortunately, I found zero information on what that fee is, or which resorts do and don’t allow, or if there’s a limit, or anything really because all their websites are geared toward getting people to stay in the resort, not just stop by for the amenities. The Bohol Beach Club is supposed to be right up on the top of that list, and I had been thinking about checking it out, but when the locals told me about Dumaluan instead, I decided that was a better option.

Dumaluan is semi-private, meaning that it’s tended to and cleaned up, and there’s a small fee for use, but anyone can go. It’s attached to the Dumaluan Resort, but not exclusive to guests. The fee to enter the beach area is only 25p (about 0.50 US) and the parking fee for motor bikes is the same. Plus, there are little cabin/picnic areas you can rent out for the day. Ours was a “B” and cost 350p for the day. I only saw the B and C cabins; the B were granted an unobstructed view of the water, while the C were set farther back. I presume the A were possibly somewhere nicer and the D somewhere less desirable? I looked but never found them. The cabin area included bathrooms, showers, some entertainment options like volleyball and a karaoke room, as well as a little grill serving light meals, fruit shakes, and cocktails.

The cabin had one long table between two benches, and was covered by a thatched roof, making sure guests would have plenty of shade. There were also lots of trees around which helped keep the area shaded and cooler. Although the sun on the beach was bright, making the sand and sea pop in white and azure, there was a nice breeze and I felt comfortable in my shady seat. It seemed once again we were the only tourists there. There were people at the restaurant, in the karaoke room, and in a few other cabins, but as far as I could tell they were all Filipinos. The cabin next to ours was having a big family birthday party for one of the kids and they’d arranged to have a whole roast pig delivered in for their picnic! We were generally surrounded by (but not crowded by) happy families and playing children throughout the day.

And dogs. So many dogs. In Thailand, there was a profusion of semi-wild street dogs which (other than on Koh Lipe where an animal shelter works to keep them safe and healthy) they are generally scrawny, sick, diseased, injured, and very shy of humans. It’s sad. When I got to Bohol and saw dogs everywhere I was worried it was going to be a similar situation, but as I got settled in, I found that most of the dogs here were better cared for and while collarless, seemed to have good relationships with the humans. Someone told us that they were really family dogs who just wandered around at will. I guess they’d have to be well trained or the chickens and baby goats that also wander around unattended wouldn’t last long. Either way, however many dogs I saw, I never saw a single leash.

Many times throughout the day, a dog would wander over and hop up on a bench to lay down in the cabin. I don’t want to  judge, some people might like that. I don’t hate dogs, but I am allergic, and I also had no idea if these were trained, well behaved, or just thought they owned the park. There are safety concerns with unknown dogs when no owners are nearby. I tried to shoo them off with great difficulty several times until finally one of the Filipino neighbors noticed our predicament and told me what to say. For all the world it sounded like “sit” to me, perhaps with a less aspirated “t”? And when I said it the dog obeyed at once getting down from the bench and moving on, so it was clearly a well understood command and a well trained dog. Later on, I found a list of Tagalog dog commands, but none of them seemed phonetically similar, and the island dialect Boholano is too small to be well documented or have a Google Translate option, so I’m afraid I can’t accurately relay the “go away dog” command for I was taught that day.

The beautiful sun made the water more attractive, but I didn’t want to risk worsening my burn, so I hid under the cabin and partook of the snack bar, which was decent, but not really on par with the amazing food I had elsewhere on the island. Finally the sun retreated behind some clouds or trees, and the beach was no longer quite the burn threat. By this time the tide was in full retreat and it was amazing to see the huge swaths of land revealed. The beaches around Panglao are all very shallow for a long way out, so when the tide goes out, it really goes. I got up to have a walk around the beach and try to take some nice pictures. The clouds there are basically stunning all day, so that helps.

Kids and families played around in the wet sand, hunting down clams and other critters that had dug down during the tidal retreat. There were places where the sand was a little deeper and the water hadn’t gone out with the rest of the sea, creating miniature ponds replete with tiny fish who were trapped until the next tide returned. I waded around the shallows, but had avoided wearing my swimsuit that day to let the burn work on healing. Instead I contented myself looking at the textures in the sand, the piles left behind by digging clams and the ribbons left by the retreating waves. I found a few places where cool water came from under the sand, including one where it emerged with such pressure it almost seemed to be boiling, but it was ice cold.

There were resort workers out raking the piles of debris to keep the sands clean and white. I played a little game of how far out can you walk before the water hits your knees (quite far), and had some fun taking pictures in the glassy reflections of the tiny pools left behind.

Doljo Beach

The last beach I visited was a quick stop I made between two other stops on Thursday just to see if it was a beach I wanted to return to a different day. Doljo is another small, local, free beach that’s far away from the resorts. By the time I made it there, the tide was out, leaving a fleet of boats stranded on the wet sand, but I could tell it was still a pretty place. There wasn’t much around, a couple of huts that were falling apart and some guys selling fresh coconuts to a family of Chinese tourists. It’s small, and a little out of the way. I gather there is at least one resort over there which gets good reviews, but I would have been happy to go there when the water was higher, or even stayed with the low tide to see the sunset. It was amazingly quiet and private. However, sunset wasn’t an option for that day, since I’d already booked an evening activity, and I never did make it back, opting instead to spend my final day of holiday chasing waterfalls.

Conclusion

I think a person could easily visit 3 beaches a day for a week and not see them all. Choosing a beach on Panglao depends a lot on your goals, but regardless of your plans, I would advise:

  • looking at a tide chart because the water goes far far away at low tide and although it is still fairly shallow at high tide, it is much more beautiful and easier to swim in
  • getting water shoes because only the pay to play beaches are safe for tender bare feet (although the locals might have Hobbit blood because they don’t seem to mind)
  • using more sun protection than you think you need because you will burn. Double up, sun screen and covering clothes. The locals swim in street clothes, only tourists go in only swimsuits, so you’ll actually stand out more in a bikini than you will in a covering, skin-saving shirt.

Don’t forget to go over to my Facebook page to see more beautiful sunny beaches! Why? Because WordPress charges more for photo storage than Facebook, and I’m putting off the day I have to beg for money to supplement this blog. Enjoy!


It’s hard to reminisce about beaches in December with below freezing temperatures outside. I’ve been busy job hunting for my next posting, and while I know the responsible thing is to try to get hired for the spring semester, a tiny beach bum part of my brain can’t help but wish for a fall start and the chance to spend 5 months living on a beach in SE Asia while I wait. It seems like I’ll be ok either way, but no out of country trip this January :/ I’ll have to make do with a winter wonderland weekend in the snow instead. 

Royal Decree Holiday: The Resort at Sharm

This is the story of my stay in the Park Inn by Radisson. It was a pretty epic deal that I found online and not a bad place to relax. The story is a little less jam packed than most because unlike my previous trips, my stay at this resort was all about doing as little as possible.

The Food and the Grounds

I woke up Saturday morning rather early since my normal sleep schedule gets me up at 6am. The bed was gloriously huge, you know the kind you can roll over in a half dozen times before you reach the other side? I’m not sure if the sheets were Egyptian cotton (being in Egypt) but they were much nicer than the ones in my hotel in Saudi anyway. So I lounged around in bed while waiting for the dining hall to open for breakfast. My all inclusive deal there included 3 meals a day at scheduled intervals in the buffet style dining rooms, but judging from the hours these were open, I couldn’t actually imagine anyone ever having enough time to get hungry between meals.

20150321_075532Breakfast was a bit heavy on the carbs, being full to the brim of pastries, breads, porridges and potatoes, but I managed to get an omelette made to order, an apple cinnamon cheddar danish (omg make that for yourself!) and some fresh fruit including, much to my surprise, fresh dates. I’d never even seen a fresh date before, so I was guessing that these fruits that looked like well hydrated dates were in fact just that. They were quite interesting, and had about as much in common with the dried dates as grapes do with raisins. They were far less sweet and had a texture not unlike a persimmon or khaki fruit. On the whole, I think I prefer the dried ones, but it was a really cool experience to taste them fresh.

The food at the resort was not particularly remarkable otherwise. Despite it’s claim to 4.5 stars, the food was closer to 3. It was perfectly tasty food, but nothing besides the danish and the fresh dates was a new or fascinating taste experience.

20150321_071427After my first breakfast, I decided to wander around the grounds. The weather was simply perfect, sunny but not hot with a nice breeze coming in off the ocean. The water slides don’t get turned on until 10am, so I was able to take a lot of pictures without worrying about disturbing anyone’s privacy. Although Egypt is more open than Saudi, I still saw plenty of women there in modest Muslim dress, including several burkinis (the head to toe bathing outfit that replaces the abaya and hijab for water wear) and I wouldn’t have wanted to offend them by snapping pictures.

IMG_1743The resort compound was huge. It took me most of an hour to walk all the way around the grounds. There were two swimming pools, two restaurants, several bars (also not serving until 10am), an indoor and outdoor dry children’s play area, and of course the water park. Everything was done up in the architectural and decorative theme of ancient Egypt. Having lived in Memphis, TN for some time, I was sort of accustomed to this style. The Memphis (TN) zoo is totally Egypt themed, there are several buildings and restaurants that like to add Egyptian style architectural flourishes or cartouches, and there’s even a giant pyramid down town (concert hall and sports arena, as well as the site of the debaucherous Eyes Wide Shut style parties that the city’s elite hedonists throw). And of course Las Vegas has some similar Egypt themed attractions which may or may not be even more debaucherous. The point is that Americans like making Egypt themed stuff and I’ve seen and even lived with quite a bit of it.

IMG_1744Then suddenly it hit me. This wasn’t some knock off Egyptian history being subverted for marketing, this WAS Egypt. They were totally subverting their own history for marketing!

It was so luxurious to have a week of time in one place, to not have to hurry to see everything that I ended up having naps most days. In the afternoon, I settled into some drinking by the lazy river and met some other Americans (although they hadn’t been back to America for more than a decade) and spent a happy afternoon chatting and drinking having accomplished almost nothing at all.

The Beach and the Staff

IMG_1797The next day I decided to go find the private beach, which entailed crossing the road into the partner resort, the Radisson Blu. All resort guests had wristbands to show we were entitled to free food and drinks and use of the facilities, color coded by resort. It was another beautiful day, so I decided to walk down to the beach rather than wait for the shuttle bus. The Radisson Blu was definitley the more classy of the two resorts, and I’m sure more expensive as well, but it was nice to be able to wander the gardens freely on my way to the beach. There was no sign whatsoever of the over the top Egyptian decor that the Park Inn sported. My resort had a specific area of beach claimed, where I could get a towel with my towel card and where my wristband would be honored at the bar, but past that, I was really free to go where I liked.

IMG_1774The water was surprisingly cold and the ocean floor was covered with shells and rocks that made it uncomfortable to walk barefoot. So after a breif foray into the water, I settled down in a deck chair under a date palm umbrella with a gin and tonic to enjoy the view and the sea air. I spent a rather pleasant morning there alternating between reading my book and watching the water and finally decided to head back to my side of the road for lunch. If my days at the resort seem slow and idle, then I have accomplished my goal. After the February vacation of running around to three countries, I wanted to just lay on a beach or next to a pool and relax. It was blissful.

IMG_1763The Red Sea at this particular location is not at its most stunning, but there were still plenty of people trying to sell boat trips, diving excursions and even dolphin meetups. In fact, these sales people were one of the only downsides of the resorts, since they are constantly roaming the poolsides and beaches to try to sell you something. And maybe they have good deals, so if I was interested in a boat ride or a spa day, I think I would have been glad to see them, but I was not the only guest who felt that they were more pushy than helpful. After a couple days, they all recognized me so started bothering me less. However in the first couple of days at the resort I got invited out a lot, and not just by the sales staff (who invited me to go bar hopping with them) but also by the hotel staff who tried to get me to go out on a date! I might have done the former if I hadn’t been alone, going out to the bars with a group would have been ok, but I really couldn’t imagine going on a date. I also had several of the dining hall staff single me out for special treatment and some intensely over-friendly service until one said to me that he had dreamed about me the night before, to which I replied that I felt he was being inappropriate and the unwelcome attention stopped. I really can’t decide if they were really flirty (because of all the loose Western women in bathing suits running around) or if they just thought that all the women enjoyed this kind of attention. I can certainly imagine that some women would find it very flattering, I may have just been in Saudi too long to be comfortable with it. Either way, I was pleased to see that they desisted as soon as I expressed displeasure.

The cleaning staff were astonishingly persistent. If I forgot to hang up the do not disturb sign when I took a nap, they would knock and knock until I got up to tell them to go away. Once, after calling from the bed for them to go away (“no thank you”) they had the reception call my room to ask me to let them in! However, if I had the sign on the door, there was not so much as a peep. And when they did clean the room, they left beautiful arrangements of fresh spring flowers and folded my fresh towels in interesting patterns on the bed.

The Water Park

IMG_1759Other than a toe dip in the wave pool and a short wade in the sea, I hadn’t really done any swimming. The pools were actually rather chilly, which is probably awesome in the hot weather, but the mild spring weather meant that the pools were not quite comfortable. I never did get to take advantage of the swim up bar because it was just too cold to be both in the water and in the shade.

IMG_1753However, the friendly Americans (who live in Jordan) that I had made friends with were often at the poolside after lunch and invited me to join them and hang out. This was nice because I love meeting and talking to new people and it also meant that I got a lot less attention from all the male staff (because we were surrounded by children). It was really nice to see what looked like 3 or 4 separate families interchanging kid duties so that various adults could take turns doing other stuff, and it’s part of how I got the idea to try to organize a similar trip with my kid bearing friends.

IMG_1751So I sat with them and sipped my g&t and watched their children play. I had been looking longingly at the water slides for some time, determined to get in a few good rounds while I was there, but they seemed so intimidating to do alone. Not because the slides were scary, but because there were almost no people using them at all and a single woman still attracted a lot of attention. (sometimes I wonder how long it’s going to take me to be comfortable in mixed gender company again after all this). Fortunately, I was saved. The 8 year old boy was itching to go, but his mother had insisted all the children go with buddies and none of the other kids wanted to do the scary high slides he wanted to go on. IMG_1749So I asked if he would go with me instead and we had an absolute blast. I forgot to hold my glasses on the first slide down, and he happily dove to the bottom to retrieve them for me. We rode several slides and I always let him decide where we would go next, what order we would go down the slides in, and for the two person raft, who would sit in front. I felt totally safe from the attention of the male staff with an 8 yr old in tow and his mother told me later that I absolutely made his day because an adult wanted to hang out with him.

The Food Poisoning

I debated about putting this in, because I feel like it was otherwise an absolutely stunning trip, but for the sake of posterity and narrative tension, here it goes (don’t worry, there aren’t any  pictures). I was staying at the resort from Friday to Friday (although realistically, that was 2am Saturday morning to 2am Friday morning) and figured that an entire week of relaxing was just too much, so I had scheduled a day trip to Cairo for Tuesday thinking that would give me three days of getting adjusted and relaxing before, and another two days to relax afterward. I think this would have been a great plan, except that Monday night I fell astonishingly ill.

You can make jokes about the free booze and overdrinking, but really, I had never gone beyond lightly tipsy at any point, I don’t really like being drunk and certainly not when I am alone among strangers. This was not a booze related puking. Also, with booze you generally throw up and then feel better. I almost couldn’t stop, and even a sip of water would bring it on again. I spent hours like this and worse, I couldn’t get anyone from reception to pick up the phone. Although at the time, I only wanted to order peppermint tea, I can’t imagine if it had been a real emergency how they would have handled that. I guess they aren’t used to single guests there and rely on a family member to be able to run for help. Insane.

Somewhere around 3am I realized I was not going to be able to go to Cairo. The shuttle to the airport was supposed to arrive around 5am and I had had zero sleep and the vomiting wasn’t stopping. So I called the travel agency and said I couldn’t go and asked about rescheduling. Eventually I realized that I had to stop putting anything in my stomach, even water, and was able to get a few hours of sleep. When I woke up, I tried the water again with better results and went down to the dining hall to make myself some hydration fluid (salt, sugar and lemon in water). Armed with several bottles of this concoction and a couple of white bread rolls, I went back to the room and dozed in and out of consciousness while trying to make myself drink slooooowly. There was no way I could have gone to Cairo that day.

I won’t accost you with the remaining symptoms of the food poisoning, but suffice it to say I was concerned about dehydration and ate only very plain foods in tiny amounts. Tuesday was entirely lost. Wednesday wasn’t a whole lot better. I was able to eat a bit more food, but I don’t think I was digesting it well, I still slept a lot and felt weak and tired the rest of the time. Thursday was my last day in Egypt and the day I’d rescheduled my trip to Cairo for, and come hell or high water, I wasn’t going to miss out on that, so Wednesday evening I asked the hotel to prepare a boxed breakfast for me and I packed my backpack up for a day trip. Thankfully, the lingering effects of my illness were mostly a complete lack of appetite and the excitement made up for any lack of energy that may have remained.

By the time we got back to the resort late Thursday night I had only a few hours to repack my bags and nap before the bus back to Taba arrived, where I would catch the early morning ferry to take me back to Jordan, where I would await my driver to take me back to Tabuk, ending my (mostly) magical adventure.


The rest of the story will be continued in “A Day in Cairo”… don’t forget to check out all the pictures on my facebook page and thanks for reading! 🙂

The Beach: A Week in Jeddah

The beach I chose to go to in Jeddah is called La Plage. I ended up going twice, once on Monday, my first full day, and again on Saturday, my last full day. I’ve learned a few things in the art of vacationing, and two of them are – make sure the beginning and the end of the experience are awesome; and after about 7 days in the same place, you start loosing the vacation benefit and its time to move. So, the beach became my first and last experience, maximizing my vacation happiness.

The first try wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows, there were a few hiccups. First there was the quest simply to find the right beach. I wanted someplace I could be in a swimsuit instead of an abaya, and I wanted a swimming beach, and to see the coral reefs. La Plage had all that, but I was told had some picky membership rules. Fortunately, the country director for our company lives here in Jeddah and had a spare ticket!

I got a taxi easily enough, but the driver didn’t really know where we were going. Google maps is a trans linguistic miracle and with some phone help from a friend of his with good English, we were on our way. Travelling in the modern age, yay!

Or not. Turns out there’s more than one place with the name La Plage, since that’s just the French word for beach. We ended up and the wrong one and had a little side adventure trying to find it, but I was able to call my co-employee who’d provided the ticket and get more specific info as he googled landmarks we passed and guided us to the right gate.

This entire stretch of road is just walls and gates. There are no names on the gates and no address numbers, so you have to know about it before you show up. Private beach indeed. The unassuming green gate emblazoned with the Saudi flag’s palm tree and crossed sabers hides thatched rooftops baredly peeking above the walls. The man at reception took my ticket and advised me to remove my abaya and keep it in my bag while I was inside. A real relief I can tell you, to be abaya free outdoors, feeling the sea breeze directly on my skin.

Additionally, the driver arranged to return for me at 7pm and we exchanged numbers in case I had a change of plans before then, so no worries on how to get home from this middle of nowhere stretch of road.

img_0138I arrived a little after 10, staked out a place on the beach, not that it was really necessary since even at 2pm on a Monday, there were still only a few of us out here. I wandered around the grounds to see what else was there. A nice pool, a lap pool, an area with couches where you can snack and smoke shisha, and a lovely restaurant where I sat down to a nice breakfast. (You can read more about it in The Restaurants post)

I admit, with the whole day before me, I lingered a long time over this meal, chatting to folks online and savoring the flavors and the view. After a final cup of coffee, I headed back to my place on the beach and decided to check out the diving area. After all, I had a bucket list item to attend to today, snorkeling in the red sea coral reefs.

You have to walk out a ways on a little path to get out past the cleared out swimming area and the shallows where there isn’t any coral yet. The gentlemen at the dive area asked me what kind of diving I wished to do. I don’t really know how to scuba, so I said so, and that I would like to snorkel if possible. They kitted me out with some boots to protect my feet, a mask, snorkel and fins. They made sure I felt confident in my swimming skills and showed me where to go.

Because boats come quite close to the reefs, they had a little area roped off to keep divers safe from the traffic. There were some steps leading down to the water, at the end of which I strapped on my fins and headed into the water.

It was like being inside a documentary. Despite the fact that I cleverly forgot my contact lenses back in Tabuk, I could still see fairly well under water. I had to de-fog the mask a couple times, but the corals and fish were quite close, and the water was so clear, I hardly noticed the lack of 20/20 vision.

The corals weren’t as bright themselves as in other places, though I did see many beautiful soft, well, coral pinks, and a few spots of greens, purples and brilliant blues. But the FISH! The colors and sizes of the fish, as soon as my mask hit the water I was confronted with a moving mosaic. Electric blue and yellow, flashing stripped silver, some fish had a whole rainbow down their flanks, iridescent and shifting as they moved.

I stayed at the surface because the coral was very shallow and I could breathe easily through the snorkel while admiring the view. I swam out to one corner of the cordoned off area and as I curved inward following the buoy line, the coral reef dropped off sharply into placid turquoise depths where I could see the outlines of much larger fish swimming in the depths.

Despite the fact that I was floating easily on the surface, the sharp drop off gave me an intense sense of vertigo, just as if I were standing on the edge of a sharp cliff, or perhaps more so as I had nothing to hold on to. However, I reassured myself that I could not fall, and that the force of the waves coming in toward shore would prevent me from drifting out accidentally.

There were yet more fish at this break, new shapes and colors that only hovered in the space between shallow and deep. They didn’t think anything of me at all, swimming within inches of my face and hands, calmly avoiding me, but not fleeing.

I just floated for a while, not swimming anywhere, only watching the scene below me. The waves started picking up and tossing me back toward the shallow end, even occasionally washing over my snorkel and bringing a mouthful of saltwater. I decided it was time to head in, as fighting the waves was becoming increasingly challenging, but I lost a flipper.

I turned around to find it, but in the process of retrieving it the other one cam off. I was only in a few feet of water at this point, and still had the boots on to protect my feet, but the ground was slippery and the waves were intense, so I was knocked down more than once, and pushed into some coral. Scraped by a coral reef may now be checked off my life to do list as well. It didn’t really hurt until I got out of the water, but I suspect that was adrenaline.

After a few very focused, heart pounding minutes, I made it back to the base of the stairs and up onto the diving area.I washed off the scrapes with soap and water then lay down on a bench to catch my breath. Found some iodine in the dive shop, too. I suspect it was the combo of salt water and sunscreen that made it sting like all get out, but I really can’t say I cared that much. The reef was amazing, I don’t know how it compares to anything else, because I was my first coral reef, but that alone makes it pretty special.

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I headed back to my deck chair and lounged in the shade, enjoying the view and the breeze. Occasionally I’d wander out into the swimming area for a bit. The water was delightfully warm for about the top four feet, then suddenly turned cold. The sea is salty enough that floating is ridiculously easy. I hovered vertical in the water and only had to flip a hand or foot to adjust my orientation. Every time my feet dipped below the warmth line, it was like dipping my toes into a cold pool, even though I was entirely suspended in water.

Later on I went up to the pool but the water was actually too warm for me, and I came out again pretty quickly.

I spent the sunset floating in the sea chatting with a nice Palestinian lady who recommended some other places I might enjoy in Jeddah (she was right). The taxi drive back was its own ‘adventure’ you can read about in The Taxis.

By Saturday, I’d learned a lot about taxis and of course I knew where the beach was this time. The way in was different. This time, they checked my passport at the gate, but didn’t take my ticket. Instead, there was a check in counter that hadn’t been open on Monday where they had me fill in my name and nationality on the ticket and asked me if I had any food or water in my bag. I was told it wasn’t allowed to bring any in because of the restaurant on site. I told them I planned on eating at the restaurant, too and they let me in with my water, warning me not to bring so much next time. He also would not let me out of the reception area until I’d stowed my abaya in my bag.

img_20141004_103342I was also greeted by a pretty blue and gold macaw at the gate. These are big birds and there wasn’t a handler with him, so I was a little wary at first, but he clearly wanted attention, and kept holding his leg out to try to reach me. When I moved my arm over, he climbed right on. I gave him some neck scritches, cause parrots love those, before saying good bye and heading off toward the water.

I got there early again, but this time I headed straight to the dive shop because the waves were really low that morning, and I wanted to tackle the reef again so that being beaten up by strong waves and coral wasn’t my final memory.

It wasn’t quite as populated by fish as it had been on Monday. I don’t know if it was a time of day thing or a weather thing, but it was still nice, and it really helped me to get back in the water after the adrenaline inducing experience of Monday.

I discovered on my way back toward the beach that there’s supposed to be a fee to rent the snorkel equipment, oops. No one had asked for one on Monday, and they were kind enough to let it slide, cautioning me that I should make sure to expect to pay next time. I think if I lived there, I’d buy my own gear, but its not unreasonable to rent it if you’re just visiting. Plus, next time I’m sure to have my contact lenses and an underwater camera!

After the snorkeling, I headed in to get breakfast, much like last time. There were definitely more people at the resort than on Monday, but it never got to be what I’d call “crowded”. I guess having been to beaches in Florida, Southern California, and the Bahamas I have a different perspective on what a crowded beach looks like. Maybe it was because of the holiday, but I’d have thought if anything, that would mean more people would show up than usual.

I chatted with a young man trying  to learn paddle boarding. He asked me how I was enjoying “Miami” referring to the beach. I said I liked it a great deal better than I had liked actual Miami, which he got a real kick out of.

I listened to some little girls singing “Eid Mubarak” (Happy Eid), clearly happy to be celebrating the holiday. A little girl, maybe two or three, showed me her seashell finds and asked how I got the scrapes on my leg, whereupon we discussed why it was important to stay in the safe part of the beach and not go out near the boats in the very solemn way that toddlers have before she ran off to find her dad.

I enjoyed the sea some more, floating in the deep of our little lagoon, and walking through the shallows looking for pretty sea shells and coral bits that had washed in from the reef. I read in the shade, snacked at the restaurant and generally had a really nice day.

Both nights right as the sun was setting I turned around just in time to see a tiny shoal of silver fish leap from the water in a little flashing arc of bodies reflecting the golden pink sun. Pretty darn magical.

While waiting for my Uber to arrive (I couldn’t deal with another taxi), the person who I think was the manager (very proprietary and obviously in charge) chatted with  me about my visit. Apparently he’s Greek Orthodox and took the opportunity to tell me how great it is. For a country where people aren’t supposed to talk about religion, I sure get asked what I am a lot here.

A friendly Uber ride back to the hotel sealed in the goodness of the day.

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Overall findings?
La Plage is a great beach. Beautiful, clean, it has swimming and diving which is rare in combo. Good restaurant, nice service. The weekdays are nearly empty, and the rules are clearly less adamantly enforced. However, the weekends are more lively and the restaurant seems to have a wider menu as well. They don’t allow Saudis, and other Middle Eastern nationals may have a few more hoops to jump through to get in. Like everywhere else in Saudi, the rules are not set in stone, and they seem more interested in pleasing their rich Western patrons than anything else, really. I’m pretty sure if I lived in Jeddah, I’d be out there as often as I could afford it, though, and I’d never save any money at all.