9 Days in Taiwan 1/2: GeoParks, Butterflies & Temples

I have been told over and over by native Taiwanese and twitterpated Taiwanese tourists that I simply HAVE to go to Taiwan, that it is nothing like China, or possibly it was everything I love about China with none of the Communism. It’s so close to Korea, the flights are easy, but the weather is hard. In January 2019 I had a spare 2 weeks before I would meet my friend for our whirlwind Middle East tour. It seemed like a great chance to finally see the Ilha Formosa. The rest of the holiday that winter was so much, I forgot I didn’t write about Taiwan until my Facebook Memories started popping up this January. Faced with an unexpected rainy week on my holidays in “sunny” Spain, it seems like an opportunity to fix that.

I went to three main cities: Taipei, Taichung, and Kaohsiung. I ate more delicious food than I thought could exist on such a tiny island, and I enjoyed local sightseeing, temples, and natural wonders. In the first post, I’m going to give a little historical context and then talk about the natural beauty and the temples I visited. In the second post, I’ll share my more urban tourist experiences and saving the best for last, the food.


A Very Very Brief History

I used to live and work in mainland China (in Jinan, and later Yanjiao, a small town outside Beijing), plus I studied Chinese history, culture and language in university. I knew Taiwan was different, but I didn’t really understand how much.

Taiwan separated from China when the Kuo Min Tang fled there after Mao and the Communists took over mainland China in 1949. China under the KMT government was part of the Allies in WWII. We gave them money to fight the Japanese, but they ended up using it to fight the communists, and still lost. Most of the Western World didn’t recognize the communist government of China until the 1970’s. We were busily still supporting the Taiwanese government as the rightful government of all China.

A few countries at a time slowly came to realize that the communists weren’t going anywhere, and then Nixon had his famous visit to Beijing to stand on the fake Great Wall and show solidarity and that was pretty much it. Since then, China insists that Taiwan is a part of China and everyone just sort of humors them. We make separate treaties and trade agreements, plus Taiwan has a different language, flag, currency, government and legal system from mainland China…. but, ONE COUNTRY! (says China)… Taiwan is starting to disagree.

Of course Taiwan has a strong Chinese identity and history, but it diverges sharply at 1949. At the end of the Civil War, the KMT retreated to Taiwan and the Communist (Mao) government claimed the mainland. Mao’s government worked hard to erase a lot of history in order to position the Party at the top and center of all life in China. It was huge disaster and tens of millions of people died from persecution and starvation. Plus temples and relics were destroyed or stripped of decoration and re-purposed as Party business community halls. Some time in the 80s, the government went “oops” maybe we need history after all, and started rebuilding both physically and narratively. Therefore almost everything you see nowadays in China is a reconstruction, and the few practicing monks and nuns in the temples are there under very strict observation because someone told China that civilized countries don’t murder all their religious leaders. (most of the literature on this is academic research and NOT readily accessible in Wikipedia, you can take my word or you can go ask a Chinese Studies scholar). Although, now with Hu… who knows?

Taiwan, on the other hand, continued the Nationalist traditions that were started in the 1911 Xinhai Revolution that finally eliminated the monarchy and established a “people’s” government… although arguably back to the Boxer Rebellion because everyone was so fed up at those Royals supplanting Traditional Chinese Culture™ with Western European goods and values… and opium…The point is that the KMT were basically in favor of traditional Chinese culture, where the Communists were pretty opposed. So while mainland China went through this holocaust level cultural purge (The “Great Leap Forward” followed by what is still referred to as the “Cultural Revolution” which makes it sounds like hippies dropping acid and doing free love), Taiwan and other Chinese communities in Asia (Malaysia makes this super ovbs, too) were continuing to move forward with a more normal level of cultural changes influenced by post colonialism, globalization, and technology just like everyone else.

2000 years of shared history, followed by 60 very divergent years brings us to the ‘same but different’ cultures of mainland China and Taiwan. So while China firewalls out anything it doesn’t like and creates its own online reality, arrests anyone who dissents, and sends religious or sexual minorities to reeducation camps, prisons, or organ harvesting factories, Taiwan is a proud democracy that legalized same sex marriage last year. While that sounds a little behind to most westerners, its stunningly progressive for Asia. They were actually the first country to do it.

Lastly, a quick note on the spelling. Mainland China adopted a variety of romanization (“roman” letters, like the ones you are reading now) called “pinyin” while Taiwan used the older form Wade-Giles. Some brief examples (minus tone marker): Beijing /Peiking, Gaoxiong /Kaohsiung, Deng Xiaoping /Teng Hsiao-p’ing, Guomindang /Kuomintang. Although now-a-days a lot of things in Taiwan are romanized in Pinyin, those places which were internationally codified with Wade-Giles spelling still remain. Pronunciation remains a challenge for those who have not studied the language because neither system is intuitive for English speakers. (try typing the pinyin spelling into Google translate to listen).

Natural Wonders:

Taipei:

Yehliu Geopark 野柳地質公園

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This was part of a package bus tour I took, but honestly, if I ever go back to Taipei, I want to take the public bus out here and spend a whole day at this park. This website has some very nice English language explanations about the rock formations and erosion patters, if you’re curious.

I do love the science, but I have to say that I, like most of the visitors, was more enchanted by the fairy-tale like shapes that these rocks have come to embody. When I arrived, I got a little pamphlet showing the most famous formations. It was a little bit like a scavenger hunt trying to find them all, and I kept getting distracted by not at all famous, but still amazingly beautiful rock formations like joints and fossils all around.

The most famous rock is the Queen’s Head, which you may have seen on listicles of “cool things to visit”. The line to get a photo from the best angle was insane, and because I was in a tour group, I had to choose between standing in line for the famous rock, or going to see all the others. Still, I got a glimpse of Queens Head rock from the queen angle by wheedling past the line creatively (really the line is for people who want to pose with it, you are allowed to take a picture from anywhere). In case you can’t tell, it’s the one in the background that looks sort of like woman’s head with an updo or royal headdress.

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The park is well aware the Queen is their biggest draw, and that it is eroding a little more every year. It won’t be long before her neck erodes entirely and she becomes Marie Antoinette instead. To maintain tourism, the park has named a new “Cute Princess Rock” which is shaping up to become the main attraction when the old queen dies.

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Other rock formations I found include the Elephant Rock & The Pineapple Bread Rock. Pineapple bread is just cut to look like a pineapple.It doesn’t taste like and isn’t made with pineapple (unlike pineapple cake which is, but looks like tofu squares).

One little island turned out to contain at least 3 of the targets: the peanut rock (far left), the fairy shoe (about 3/4 on the upper right, kind of looks like a sandal) and the pearl, or globe (far right, the lower sphere, yeah, I know there’s like 4).

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Our tour guide challenged us to find a particular rock and take a photo of it that matched the angle in the brochure. The angles of these rock formations matters quite a bit. The queen doesn’t look like a queen from any other angle (see below). In this case it was a gorilla, and you had to walk all the way around to the side facing away from the path to see the illusion. Most people were taking photos through the hole in the rock without ever realizing they were at the gorilla! (I won the scavenger hunt).

Looking at the brochure and the website, it’s painfully obvious I saw only a tiny part of the park, and I had a very limited time to try and find and appreciate these unique formations. I’m glad I had the opportunity, but a full day return is on the top of my list for a second visit to Taipei (right behind the food).

Shifen Waterfall 十分大瀑布

This was a short stop on the same all day bus tour. To be honest, I’m not sure it would be easy to get here on public transit, so a tour to Shifen might be the only way if you aren’t renting a car. We were pretty rushed at this stop, and the waterfall itself is a medium length walk from the car park with lots of stairs and long bridge.

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I felt a little like I was playing tag with the scenery. I just about had time to get there take some pics, stare longingly at the cool water for a couple minutes and hike back to the bus. There is nothing “cold” about winter in Taipei. I saw pictures online of people in the snow, but I think it must be a real rarity. Locals did tell me the weather on my visit was unseasonably warm, but rushing around the geopark and speeding through the countryside to see the waterfall had me soaked in sweat.

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Nonetheless, it is a remarkable waterfall. No mere trickle through the rocks as far too many advertised waterfalls can turn out to be, this was a broad and strong roaring fall. If you are lucky enough to have more than 20 minutes here, there are also several restaurants and picnic tables where you can enjoy the waterfall over lunch.

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Kaohsiung:

I actually only included Kaohsiung in my travel plans after I read that one of the only sites of mass butterfly migration was near there and was going to be happening during January (when I was traveling). Like waterfalls, butterflies are an irresistible draw for me. I do enjoy a butterfly park, where many species are raised for ecological conservation or just because they’re pretty, and visitors can walk through a mesh enclosed garden to see them, but I also treasure butterflies in the wild. It always feels like a tiny little brush with magic when they pose for me.

Maolin Butterfly Trail 茂林賞蝶步道

Thus, when I read about the mass migration of the purple crow butterflies I was very excited. There are only two species in the world that overwinter en masse in a valley like this, and the other is the monarch. I’d seen beautiful footage of the monarch masses in Mexico (not open to tourists, btw, to protect the butterflies) and while the articles I read warned me not to expect anything so profuse, it is still the second largest natural gathering of butterflies in the world. I had to go.

I did a lot of research to prepare. Optimal butterfly viewing is 8-11am, but the buses don’t run that early. I actually emailed with the park about this. The best public transit option from Kaohsiung is to take Kaohsiung Bus E25 & E28 (Kaoqi Express) to Qishan and then change to H31 (Qishan-Maolin-Duona) (website link) The problem is the distance and time. The E25 takes just over 3 hours, and then you wait for one of the 6 daily buses to Maolin park entrance and ride another 45-60 minutes. Both E25&28 don’t run before 7am. Nothing gets you to Qishan early enough to reach the park entrance before noon. I also looked into hostel, b&bs or other options closer to the park, but even searching in Chinese with my not entirely terrible language skills, information was scarce. The few places I found online couldn’t take reservations online and were not on the shuttle bus route in any case.

To make matters even more complicated, there was an earthquake in 2005 which decimated a lot of that area, but there’s not a lot of information on what is or isn’t still functional post quake.

I could have just bused in and arrived at noon, and taken my chances the butterflies were not all having their afternoon nap, but I wanted masses of butterflies. I looked at videos as recently as two days before my arrival in Kaohsiung and saw them fluttering all over the roads. In some places, roads were even being shut down to protect the butterflies! So, I booked myself a car to drive me there at the very crack of dawn. I used a company called Tripool, and instead of a 4-5 hour bus trip for 5$, I had a 1 hour car ride for 35$. If it had worked as planned, I still say it would have been worth it.

I had been watching the weather forecast like a hawk, but it was barely reliable in the city and there was next to no data about the mountains. Several days of weather patterns led me to hope that a gray misty early morning would burn off into a sunny mid-morning, so I bundled myself in the car at 7am and headed to the Taiwanese countryside.

When I arrived, the weather was still terrible. The car I hired dropped me off here.

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I found what looked like the trail head which had lots of signs about trails and how to spot the butterflies, but they were old and dirty, like no one had used them in years. You don’t know how unsettling it is to be in this kind of fog filled emptiness and see signs that are obviously new (it has a QR code for heavens-sake) but look like they’re from some kind of post-apocalyptic survival film.

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It turns out the reason is that no one HAD used them in years. The original structures from before the earthquake had just been abandoned. Eventually, I found the actual visitors center, which made me feel a lot better. The people there said there wouldn’t be any butterfly activity that day, but the weather outlook for the rest of my time in Taiwan didn’t look any better. Plus, it was 4 hours until the next bus out of town.

I watched a movie about the butterflies with a group of school children on a school educational trip. I didn’t understand that much, but it was mostly fun to watch the kids react to the video (and to me). After that, I decided to hike the trail despite the weather.

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I climbed stairs for hours and saw zero signs of butterfly presence. My photos from the hike look like they should be eerily silent, but the music from the cafe could be heard pretty much all over the trail, and despite the terrible weather, there were a significant number of other tourists out here chattering away. 

Although I found no butterflies for most of my hiking time, I did find plenty of interesting things. There were adorable snails who thought the rainy atmosphere was perfect. There were beautiful tropical flowers, flourishing in the warm winter air. And,  there was an army of giant spiders. I experienced the summer spiders in mainland China, and to a lesser extent in Korea. These are monsters who build webs that are several meters across. I am not kidding or exaggerating. These suckers are like 5cm not counting legs.

Honestly, I rarely see them quite that big in Korea… at least in the cities, and they are really good about not ever coming inside houses, and about building their webs where people aren’t likely to walk. I don’t think they’re considerate, just that it’s a lot of effort to make an enormous web, and they don’t want us to smash it.

The spiders in Maolin think 5cm body length is scrawny. If I was not familiar with the species behavior, I would have totally freaked out. Luckily I know from experience, they are not interested in me. They don’t want to put a web across a path. They will not drop on you from above. That last one is really relevant since, to avoid the humans, a lot of them just built their webs about 10ft up. Where they can catch birds.

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To be honest, I was really surprised there were no butterfly corpses in these webs. And, however intimidating these spiders can look, the webs in the mist and rain were beautiful jeweled works of art.

After a couple hours of meandering, I finally found some butterflies. I saw maybe 20-30 the whole day, and only one close enough to photo. It was a far cry from the hundreds or thousands I had been hoping to see.

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It is awfully beautiful there, but I really wish I could have seen it in action. Just in case the Taiwanese government was exaggerating, I did check the live video feed and some Instagram filters from sunnier days, and it looks like it really is a little fairy land. Next time, I will have to watch the weather more carefully and be ready to rush to Kaohsiung at short notice. The good news is, it’s only a couple hours from Taipei to Kaohsiung, so I won’t have to stay there waiting (Taipei has better food, sorry Kaohsiung), but I will have to have a more flexible plan.

Temples

Taoism (pinyin: Daoism), Confucianism and Buddhism are considered the three main “religions” of China. Taoism is mainly a mix of local folk practices that consolidated after the introduction of Buddhism. It has a LOT of gods and spirits and ancestors and immortals and magic animals. The main goal of Taoism is immortality (although there is a split on whether that means corporeal or spiritual), but you can pray to any of the gods for help with more mundane stuff like health, marriage, or passing your driving test.

Buddhism, often heard of but rarely understood, is a spiritual practice without any gods. Buddhists search for Enlightenment and subsequent freedom from this world which is both an illusion and full of suffering. This takes a few hundred (thousand) lifetimes, so in the mean time a lot of people pray to the boddhisattvas (a little like saints?) for the same mundane stuff they ask the Taoist gods for.

Confucianism is more a total package social structure than a “religion” but it does incorporate a certain amount of ritual and spirit oriented behavior and a very clear “how to live” guide, though not a lot of praying for mundane stuff. To be even further removed from the Western traditions, a lot of people don’t choose just one, but rather go to whichever will serve an specific purpose at a time. They simply aren’t viewed as exclusive “truths”. Honestly, almost nothing we associate with “religion” in the western traditions applies to any of these, but until we have a better word, here we are.

Taipei:

Dadaocheng Cisheng Temple 大稻埕慈聖宮天上聖母 (Taoist) is dedicated to the Tianshang Shengmu (Heavenly Holy Mother), the guardian of sailors and also known as Mazu or Tianhou (Empress of Heaven). It is in the midst of an “eat street” and even has a dining area in the temple courtyard. Far from being serene and heavenly, it is quite lively and bustling.

Taipei Confucius Temple 臺北市孔廟 is more of an interactive educational experience than a holy place. It’s not surprising as Confucianism isn’t really a religion. The scholar Confucius (Kongfuzi 孔夫子) was more interested in the smooth running of things on the earthly plane than the spiritual one. Rituals were an important part of a social order for him, but he didn’t spend much time speculating on any gods or spirits.

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The entire compound is beautiful, but more that that, you get a wonderful English language detailed explanation of the meaning and purpose of each hall (which, under other circumstances I might have transcribed off the brochure, but I feel like you’ve had enough education for one post), a truly early-tech 3D film explaining the history of Confucianism and it’s modern interpretation (it was so campy it was fun) and interactive displays for the six Confucian Arts that Confucius considered vital for any civilized person in a civilized society: Calligraphy, Music, Archery, Charioteering, Computation (math), and Rites (religious, political, and social ceremonies).

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It was a big contrast to the Confucian temple I visited in Beijing which was a beautiful monument with little to no explanation as to it’s historical function. Plus, where Taiwan still teaches pieces of the 6 arts in schools and even holds some public Confucian rites today, the mainland has subsumed Confucian values into the Communist Party Line.

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Dalongdong Baoan Temple 大龍峒保安宮 (Taoist) is dedicated to Baosheng Dadi (Great Emperor Protecting Life). It claims to be the oldest temple in Taiwan, or at least the oldest Chinese temple. (Yes, there were indigenous people living in Taiwan before the Han ethnicity mainland Chinese people arrived many centuries ago). It’s been restored many times over the years and is now an important heritage site. There’s several stunningly decorated buildings, as well as beautiful gardens with statues of famous Taoist stories, and a dragon in the lake. I especially enjoyed the tile work of the roof dragons on these temples which is distinct in both color and style from the mainland.

Kaohsiung:

Fo Guang Shan Buddha Museum 佛光山佛陀紀念館 was disturbingly hard to get to, but thankfully I can read bus timetables in Chinese. It probably would have been easier if I’d been coming direct from the city, but I was coming on my way back from the Maolin Butterfly Park. I also missed the last buses returning to the city, but it was ok because I was able to share a car with some other travelers. I don’t think it’s necessary to do this with a tour company, but if you aren’t at least “survival” level in Mandarin, then perhaps plan better than I did.

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Fo Guang Shan is a global sect of Buddhism which started there in Taiwan at the largest monastery in Taiwan. It really is huge, and not only the enormous statue of the Buddha, but the sprawling grounds filled with gardens, exotic birds, and more beautiful statues than you can count.

The grounds are divided reflect the three treasures: sangha (community) where the monks and nuns live, study and work; dharma (teachings) where scriptures (sutras) are housed and ceremonies held; and the Buddha (the teacher) where the famously enormous statue rests at the end of the majestic walkway.

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I think most people come for the third part, and honestly, that’s why I was there. I just took a “wrong” turn at the entrance and found myself walking all the way over to the Sangha, and then meandering back through the Dharma, before finally getting to the Buddha in time to for most of the tourists to leave and for the lights to come on.

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Their website is everything you would expect elderly monks to have created, but if you want to learn more about Fo Guang you can visit. Also, the museum’s website reflects a more worldly involvement and may be more palatable to the modern internet consumer as well as more helpful to the hopeful visitor.


That’s all for part 1. Thanks for reading! I hope you enjoyed the historical and natural side of my Taiwan trip. Next time, I’ll write about the more modern aspects including the “old streets” for tourists, a medieval style castle made by an eccentric millionaire, flowers, light shows, street art, and of course what Taiwan is best known for: the food.

The Dingle Peninsula

The joy of planning any vacation is discovering new things. Naturally, I had a list in Ireland of sites I knew I wanted to see, but there were whole swaths of countryside between the known destinations for me to fill in. Going from the Ring of Kerry directly to the Aran Islands was just too long a drive. When I looked at the map, the Dingle Peninsula came up as a must see for it’s beautiful coastline, charming local culture, and one special local resident named Fungie.


Fungie the Dingle Dolphin

I love dolphins. This makes me basic, but I don’t care. I struggle sometimes because they can be real jerks (BBC article, TW: rape), so I don’t go in for the “dolphins as spiritual healing animals” line, but like many intelligent wild animals, I find them fascinating. I was in Florida in middle school, and we went to local marine parks a lot. I wanted to be a marine biologist – or a dolphin trainer – but then we moved away from the sea and I learned about the horrible things that happen to dolphins in captivity.

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Since then, I have sought out responsible interactions with fascinating wild animal. Although some animal protection extremists say there’s no such thing, I go with “as responsible as possible”. My swim with the wild dolphins in New Zealand is a good example. The NZ government limits the number and type of boats that can legally interact with the dolphins and it reduces random tourists and boats from interfering with them while raising money and awareness for environmental preservation.

Fungie is an entirely unique case and there’s not really another dolphin like him in the world. He’s a solitary middle aged bachelor who lives in the Dingle Bay and likes hanging out with the humans. He was never a captive, never “trained”, isn’t fed by people or enticed to stay in any way other than through social interaction. And if he’s tired of people, he can swim out of the bay and the small boats can’t follow him into the unsheltered Wild Atlantic.

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I ran into people (Irish people, not just tourists) outside of Dingle who thought that he was a myth, or an exaggeration, or one of a long line of different dolphins that the town named Fungie to keep up the tourism, but Fungie is actually the subject of some scientific interest because he is so unique among dolphins. He’s a little bit like a “wolf child”. In the sad case where a human baby isn’t socialized with other humans before a certain age, they don’t learn language or basic social skills… ever. Fungie was separated from his pod at a relatively young age, just old enough to feed himself, but not fully socialized… think about Mowgli or Tarzan? He came into the Dingle Bay because it’s extremely sheltered and safe, plus lots of food (good fishing). He never got reconnected with his pod or any other, and now he tends to hide from pods passing through the area. Scientists who study him think that he can’t communicate well with other dolphins, sort of like having a speech impediment.

However, dolphins are very social, much like humans, and whatever his reasons for avoiding other dolphins, Fungie discovered he could get some degree of socialization from humans. I suspect it’s similar to the way that we interact with our pets. Fungie has lived in the Dingle bay for about 36 years, and they think he was about 4 when he moved in. For a long time, he was only known to the locals, but in more recent years, he has become a mainstay of Dingle tourism.

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I chose my tour boat because of the timing. Partly because I wanted to do two things that day, and partly because dolphins are most active early in the morning. This is the only boat that goes out in the early morning and it only holds 10 people, so book in advance. The good news is that this smaller boat inside the bay is unlikely to be impacted by the weather, unlike the larger boats, which as I will relate shortly, definitely are. Plus, the tiny boat means you get quite close to the water, and consequently, the dolphin.

There’s also the option to swim, but the Atlantic Ocean there only gets up to 15C/60F in the warmest month, and that’s still colder than most people who live south of the 60th parallel want to swim in without a wet-suit. The water I went in NZ was 13C and even with a short wet-suit, I just about stopped breathing when I went in. I didn’t have a wet-suit in Ireland, and I hadn’t figured out how to rent one in advance, so I was SOL. There was a family on the boat with us who decided to just go in in swimsuits. I think they were Swedish. The children turned blue, and Fungie never really got that close.

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The tour company kitted us out with outerwear, pants and jackets, that was super warm and waterproof. I am so glad they did, because however pleasantly cool the weather on land was, it was insanely cold out on the water, plus we got boat spray and rain. It was a gray, wet morning, I got some nice photos (as seen in the first part of the post) as we pulled out of the harbor, although the visibility was limited. I was a bit sad I couldn’t see the cliffs around the bay, but all was forgiven once Fungie showed up.

Our guide told us a bit about Fungie’s history and the studies I briefly outlined here, and then we set about trying to play with him. The guide said later in the day, there would be dozens of boats in the area all competing for his attention, so going in the early morning we got him all to ourselves. The best way to play with Fungie is to run the boat quickly, creating a wake, then pumping the breaks so the wake passes the boat. Fungie loves to race the boat and then body surf in the wave the boat creates. We did this over and over to the delight of everyone on board, and apparently Fungie as well.

When he was done with us, he just swam off. Even with our guide trying to lure him back, he was ready for a break. I point this out, because it’s really important that Fungie isn’t being exploited. He doesn’t want to live with other dolphins, and if humans stopped playing with him, he’d probably get really depressed (which happens to all social animals in isolation).

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We had a quick run out of the bay just to feel the difference in the weather, which is intense. It was wet, cold, and insanely fun. We bounced like a roller coaster and although I got splashed many times, the waterproof outerwear did a good job of keeping me warm and mostly dry. This is very important, because I the next day I ended up on a boat with no waterproof clothes and it was an entirely miserable experience. Crazy wet splashing raining Wild Atlantic boats WITH warm waterproof clothes = fun. Crazy wet splashing raining Wild Atlantic boats in regular clothes = soaking wet underwear. Choose wisely.

As we came back toward the harbor the other tour boats were starting to gather. We spotted Fungie a few more times, but even just having a few other boats around made me really appreciate the time we got with him while we were the only boat on the water.

The Weather

I mentioned our morning was gray and rainy, with an extra side of nose numbingly cold on the water. This was August, by the way, the warmest month although not the driest (that’s June). The morning’s short excursion out of the bay and onto the ocean gave me my first taste of why it’s called the Wild Atlantic. Even doing the speed up/sudden break trick with Fungie in the bay was a smooth calm ride compared to the unsheltered open ocean.

I did not actually think the weather that day was bad. It did rain on us a bit, but it wasn’t anything like a storm. Nonetheless, shortly after we were back on land from our morning visit with Fungie, I got an email from my afternoon tour that the boat trip was cancelled due to bad weather. I have to say I was very surprised. I didn’t think a light rain was enough to warrant a cancellation, but this just goes to show how little I understood about the Wild Atlantic. Yes, I’m going to keep calling it that, because the Atlantic Ocean is big and has different temperaments on different coasts, but what goes on along the west coast of Ireland can only be understood in terms of elemental forces.

The afternoon tour was meant to be a visit to the Blasket Islands, an eco tour where we could see some of the wildlife and get to have a short walk on the island. It was meant to be the alternative to missing out on Skellig Michael. When the tour company cancelled, I asked around at some of the other boat operators to see if anyone would be going. Please remember, in my ignorance, the slightly overcast, intermittent light rain just didn’t seem like a weather obstacle, and I thought, surely a saner company would still be going. One company operating a smaller boat said they were planning to go, but were all booked up, and we could be on the alternate list in case anyone backed out. I left them my number and went to the tourism office around the corner to see what else I could do in Dingle that afternoon.

There were a few things, caves, churches, museums and I probably could have made a go of it, but in the end, I didn’t have to. The small boat company had a family of 4 drop out, so all of us who were waiting got to go after all. The upshot is that I got to go out on the Wild Atlantic on a day when all but one tour boat was docked for bad weather. Let me say again, “bad” meant a little windy, and a little rainy. Honestly, it got downright sunny and pleasant over lunch. The ocean is a crazy place.

Why did the small boat go when the big boats dared not? Smaller, lighter weight boats are more maneuverable, and also lower to the ocean surface, with less surface area. They’re less impacted by high waves and high winds. So, there I was, all bundled up in the waterproofs again, and holding on to a boat that was more inflatable life raft than seaworthy vessel for a 3 hour tour, and trying not to hum Gilligan’s Island under my breath.

Is there a way to be sure of a good boat ride? Sadly, no. Ireland just rains a lot. I honestly do not know how people out there made a living at fishing… well, I do… a lot of them died. Even in the “driest” months, the weather can turn ugly and it can last your whole vacation. We didn’t see nice weather for 4 more days. This is not to say it was all miserable. The sun comes out a lot between the raindrops. If you’re on land, it’s fine with an umbrella and some waterproof shoes/shoe-covers. Maybe a water proof jacket if you’re on the coast, because wind does make umbrellas useless. If you don’t mind a wild wet ride, it can be great fun, but if you are counting on a beautiful clear sunny day like the brochure photo either be prepared to hang out all summer or go somewhere that isn’t famous for rain.

The Blasket Islands

Once I got over the weather, it was pretty good. I think it would have been stunning in sunlight, but we got some nice up-close views of the cliffs, and some history about the pirates, which were really more like smugglers, but pirate sounds cooler. We passed by another Star Wars film site, where Luke leaps from rock to rock to harvest the green milk.

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The Blasket Islands are a little series of Islands that were occupied by a very small (100 or so people) population of very traditional Gaelic speaking Irish. I gather there was a lot of tension between them and the occupying British/Anglicized Irish, hence maybe some of the pirating. In the 1950s, the last 22 occupants were relocated to the mainland for safety reasons. In the high season, it is still possible to spend the night on one of the islands, but most people who want to visit, go for a single afternoon, much as I had hoped to do.

I was starting to understand why a 70 person ferry wasn’t going to navigate around a bunch of huge jagged rocks in high wind and waves, but I wasn’t sure why we weren’t allowed to land until I saw the dock. The dock that was a nearly vertical stone stairway up the cliff. I have to say, that if it had been a sunny day, I would have fought through it, and climbed, but I’m slightly glad I didn’t have to. I also very much understand why no one wanted to try and navigate that with rough currents and winds.

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After a couple hours on the rough seas, I was slightly beginning to regret my choice. For safety, the boat’s seats were basically saddles with backs. They were very stable, and I never once felt like I might fall off, but if you’ve ever ridden a horse at a trot or canter, you know that saddles aren’t super comfortable at speed. There’s a reason racehorse jockeys don’t sit. You aren’t actually supposed to sit, but rather put your weight in the stirrups and use your thighs to stay balanced and level. Otherwise, your internal organs bounce all around and  your sitting area gets very sore. The waves of the Wild Atlantic were not unlike a bouncing trot. At first, I could handle it, I planted my feet and bent my knees and kept myself pretty well stable. As my legs got tired, I had the choice of three positions: stand, which is bouncy and awkward and requires a lot of core strength, sitting, which is comfortable when the boat goes up, but painful when the boat meets the water, and the saddle squat which gives the most control over the bouncing but uses the most extra muscles.

We didn’t get to see the puffins, I don’t really blame them, but we did stop in a little sheltered beach to see the seals. I am very curious as to why there isn’t a nice easy dock on or near this beach, because it was obviously sheltered, and much flatter than the vertical cliff face the actual dock is built into, but I’m sure there’s a reason involving winter storms or wildlife preservation.

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The seals like to sun themselves on the beach, which was obviously not happening that day, so we drifted to a slow stop in the smooth glassy waters and I realized that the water around us was positively filled with seals. Children of the corn style.

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I’m a bit spoiled on wildlife after living in the Pacific Northwest. The average sail around the sound will result in several seal, porpoise, and even whale sighting. People on the ferry see orcas on the regular. My last visit to Seattle, we got to see some humpbacks breaching as well as a little pod of dolphins, and a seal pup hanging out on a little bit of driftwood waiting for mom to come back. On a single sail. Nothing I have seen compared to the colony of seals *watching us from the water.

In all the photos and videos and they just look like driftwood or waves or shadows. First I noticed one or two as they bobbed a bit higher out of the water to get a good look at the weirdos in the boat. Then, like one of those 3D pictures or an optical illusion suddenly changing from duck to rabbit, I realized the sea was full of these animals and they were all staring at our boat. I am super happy that seals are much more like chocolate Labradors than sharks. They were just curious, but in that super foggy weather it was a spooky moment.

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Despite the gray skies, near constant rain, kidney jostling waves, and view obscuring fog, I am still glad I went. There were moments that the ocean sparkled turquoise, which I didn’t think it could do without sunlight. There were times as the islands came toward us out of the fog and sea spray that it felt like magical lands emerging from the mist. And there were times when I was really glad that staring at the horizon works for seasickness. As stunning an experience as a ride on the roughest possible while still being safe seas was, I was very happy to return to dry land and dry clothes.

Leaving Dingle that evening, the sun came out once more and I was treated to a beautiful roadside rainbow as I drove on to my next destination, Doolin and the Aran Isles.

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Fall in Korea

During my first two years in Korea, I took almost every opportunity to go to a festival or event. In large part, it was because as an EPIK teacher, I had very short holidays, so I spent my weekends seeking fun. Now that I have great big holidays, I find I’m saving my money for those long trips abroad. Plus, it is a bit repetitive to go to the same festivals and events each year. This year, my favorite tour group, Enjoy Korea, changed up the line-up on their fall foliage trip, so instead of going to the DMZ and Seoraksan, we would visit a famous penis park, a coastal railway, and Seoraksan- a mountain that’s quite large enough to visit twice and see totally different sights. I decided to sign up, and as luck would have it, some other ladies I know from around the country also signed up so we got to hang out together. Although it was a lot of riding in buses, the weather was everything we could have asked for, and I had a lovely time.


Haesingdang Penis Park (해신당 공원)

It is a constant source of curiosity and amusement among the foreigners that in such a conservative country as Korea there are multiple overtly sexual and outright pornographic sculpture parks. I visited the famous Love Land on Jeju Island a few years ago, and so I was curious to see the similarities and differences with that very modern invention and what was ostensibly a more historical park at Haesingdang.

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The legend of Haesingdang has some inconsistencies, but basically there was a young maiden who’s fiancee (new husband? she’s supposed to be a virgin, though so they can’t have been married long) is a fisherman and through a series of unfortunate events he ends up leaving her on a large rock rather far from the shore (perhaps to harvest the edible seaweed?) while he takes the boat to fish, promising to return for her at the end of the day. However, a horrible storm arises and he is unable to fetch her and she drowns.  The next day, there are no fish to be had, nor any the day after that. The people believed that the spirit of the drowned maiden was ruining the fishing.

Here’s where it gets extra confusing. There’s a group of three statues up on the hill overlooking the ocean that are supposed to be a part of the legend. The are very… um… priapic. I’m unclear as to whether they were masturbating into the sea, or simply showing this poor virgin girl what a good dick looks like. Many versions of the myth also state that it was a man urinating into the ocean that caused the spirit to be appeased and the fish to return, and anyone who knows the function of a prostate knows you can’t urinate when you’re .. um.

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All the legends agree that it was the sight of a penis that made this virgin maiden relent and bring back the fish… I guess she was really horny? I don’t really know. Since then, the locals carved several wooden phalluses to put along the seashore and twice a year they have a religious festival to show big wooden penises to the maiden in the sea.

It’s really hard to get any hard data about this park or the statues in it. It’s likely that the myth and the rituals are hundreds of years old, but given the near total destruction of everything in that region during the Korean War, it is highly unlikely that those are genuine historical statues. More than likely they are modern reproductions and best guesses combined with truly modern art pieces like the golden penis on the stairs that was made in 2006, and a row of new statues that seems to be growing one penis a year down the path (the latest one was dated 2019).

Most of the museum looks like it was either made in the 70s or by someone aesthetically stuck there. The fishing village museum included a series of arrows leading nowhere past some large fake aquariums (plastic fish, no water) and a large diorama of a historical fishing village, plus some interactive video games and “fishing” toys.

There are plenty of photo ops where you can sit on a giant penis, or sit on a bench and look like a large erect penis and hanging balls are sprouting from between your legs. There’s a small temple dedicated to the maiden who drowned in the legend. And there’s about 50 or so wooden carvings of exaggerated penis shapes, or people with penises for heads, or penis totem poles. A star attraction is the 12 zodiac animals in penis pillars.

Aside from the overwhelming collection of dick, there is a stunning view of the sea from the top of the stairs which is in my opinion, one of the best parts of the whole park. You can actually see the rock from the legend in this photo. There’s a statue of the maiden on the rock you can see with binoculars.

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Normally conservative and reserved Koreans take these kind of parks as a place to cut loose. Although no one did anything inappropriate like public exposure, there’s plenty of lewd gestures and old ladies laughing while their husbands look a bit uncomfortable. It’s not all bad for the guys, though, they get to pose next to unrealistic dicks and dream.

Yonghwa Coastal Rail Bike (삼척 해양레일바이크)

Also known as Samcheok Costal Rail Bike, it’s the same thing because there is only one rail bike in all of Korea.

“the one and only coastal rail bike in Korea and it runs on 5.4km-long double tracks through beautiful rocks and special type of pine trees called Gomsol (Bear Pine)”

I love the coast. Sandy beaches, rocky shores, sweeping cliffs, I don’t care I love it all. So when I heard this trip was going to include a leisurely hour long rail bike up the coast, I was pretty stoked. Now, I won’t say that this wasn’t hilarious fun, but if you’re expecting an hour of beautiful ocean views you will be disappointed.

A rail bike is basically a little car that is mounted on rail tracks and powered by pedaling. Thankfully, these cars had real seats and we were not mounted on bicycle style seating. Myself and the other short person had a very hard time both sitting and reaching the pedals, but with 4 people working on it, and some motorized assistance, the trip is not especially exerting.

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The beach that we left from (Yonghwa) is quite pretty, but it is dominated by the rail bike station, and by the time we pedaled out of the building we only had a few moments of beach before we were leaving it behind. The beautiful view of the sweeping coastline is also partially obscured by those special pine trees and a fence. I had hopes that with the better part of an hour still to go, we would get more sea views, but the next part of the ride took us into a tunnel.

There was some distinctly Korean attempt to make the tunnels more interesting by adding colored lights and some neon underwater scenes, all set to strange 80s music in English. I think it would have been ok for a short tunnel, but it soon became droning and repetitive. My peaceful, sunny, seaside bike ride had turned into some hellscape of neon, concrete and bad club music. I didn’t even think about taking video at the time, so I’m borrowing my friend’s which is unforgivably shot vertical… sorry! I did at least replace the horrible 80s music with something less aggressive.

I know there’s probably no way we could have stayed outside in the mountainous terrain, but I feel like there is much more they could have done to make the tunnel more enjoyable. I was so relieved when it ended… only to have us go into a second tunnel! In the end, I’d say we spent at least 1/3 of the “coastal” ride underground.

Another 1/3 was spent outside with little to no view of the sea. We saw some cute pensions (a kind of Korean hotel), and a few resort attractions, and even a large sculpture of a battleship covered in some found art objects (I was moving to fast for a decent pic). The woods were randomly dotted with the leftover remains of the summer glamping (glam+camping) season, a few heavy machines, and a LOT of debris.

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I know we had like 3 typhoons in three weeks and the coast did get a bit messed up, but it really seemed like zero effort had been made to collect the rubbish. There was a brief stop at a little “rest area” after the tunnels and the beach there was pretty and clean, but we had only a few minutes to enjoy it before we were rushed back to the rail bikes and sent on our way.

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Although you and your group pedal yourselves, there’s not any wiggle room to slow down to see nice things or speed up to get past boring things because it seemed like 50 cars were on the tracks at the same time and although we’d been told to keep 10m between cars, it was often closer to 2. On the plus side, when we passed a group coming the other way, it was a lot of fun because they were excited to see a large group of foreigners and we got lots of greetings, big smiles, and high fives in passing.

Overall, I’d say it’s a fun but silly way to spend an hour, and not a calm bike by the sea. As long as you go into it knowing what you’ll get, it’s worth it.

Seorak Mountain and the Fall Foliage

Also known as Seoraksan, san simply means “mountain”, Seorak is one of the premier places in Korea to take in the fall foliage. It’s pretty far north, and close enough to the sea that you can see the ocean from the peak on a clear day. Plus, it’s elevated. This means that the conditions for beautiful leaf colors are really promising. It’s a little like driving up to Connecticut for Americans.

I went once three years ago and had a gray drizzly day which made the leaf colors really pop, but made the sweeping views pretty much a misty, uh, mystery… I also struggled a lot with the ajuma and ajoshi (Korean’s of a certain age) who all showed up in their special hiking clothes and walking sticks and charged up the path like it was a race to the top. I personally wanted to meander and enjoy the trees, take some pictures, admire the little details. They wanted to walk. Quickly. I was elbowed so frequently that it made it almost impossible to enjoy anything, let alone obtain any sense of serenity. I was almost knocked off the mountain (down a steep ravine) and when I slipped and fell on some wet rocks, people just shoved past me instead of giving me room to stand up or heaven forbid, helping. I did not want a repeat of this experience this year.

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I am spoiled by the PNW mountain hikes which are quiet and often very private. I love forest bathing in Japan, and the peaceful mountainside temples. There is a temple at Seoraksan, but it’s a bit tricky to find. On my first visit, I managed to get a ticket to ride the cable car up and from the crowded platform, I followed a small trail with signs I recognized from the Chinese characters up and around to a small temple. There was no one else around, and I finally got some of the peace and serenity I was looking for. I was very much looking forward to visiting that place again.

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This year, we had amazing weather. The sun was shining, the sky was blue, and it was just warm enough not to need a jacket but not hot enough to make us sweat. Upon arrival, we charged straight for the cable car ticket office only to find that everything was sold out until 3pm. Our bus was leaving at 4, and we couldn’t reasonably expect to get up and get back unless we rushed, which was counterproductive to my reason for going -eg to relax and meditate in that beautiful temple. I suppose we could have tried to race up for the chance to see the clear weather view, but neither my friend nor I were particularly interested in stress or speed that day.

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I think that the park is gorgeous in any weather, but I’m glad I got to see it in the sun. I’d like the chance to hike it one day, but clearly the fall foliage isn’t the right time for me. It makes me think of the mountains I climbed in China, Tai Shan and Hua Shan. There were certainly other people climbing those days, and I was inevitably the slowest, but the Chinese were so much more relaxed about going around me, some liked to stop for a chat or a photo, but even those in a hurry didn’t run me down. It’s been a recurring issue for me in Korea that I feel like the frog in Frogger any time I’m anywhere crowded. I really don’t think it’s only crowds as other large cities, even mega cities like Beijing and Tokyo do not have these problems. It can make it a struggle to go to an event here knowing that being shoved around all day will definitely be part of it.

My goal for this trip was to try and find the part of the park that wasn’t going to make me play elbow dodge-em. We decided to stick to the less popular paths that wandered the foot of the mountains and just to enjoy ourselves and take a million photos. It was lovely. There were still a lot of people on the “boring” trails, but with only one or two hiking-gear clad racing groups it was easy to step aside and let them by. The rest of the people on our path seemed to share my idea that it was a lovely day for a stroll. Plus the walkways were smooth and wide, so there was plenty of space to go around / step aside and no risk of being knocked off a steep slope!

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I got to spend a long time with the giant Buddha and even go to the small temple beneath it which had not been open the first time I visited. It wasn’t quite the same as my mountain peak temple, but it was nice to soak in the beautiful chanting and just still my breath and mind for a while. There was a monk inside performing a ceremony. It seemed like visitors could donate to the temple to have a prayer recited for them. I hadn’t realized it while I was above ground, but the chanting we were hearing all around the statue wasn’t a recording. It was the monk below chanting live. If you’ve never had a chance to hear a Korean Buddhist chanting, here’s a sample:

Most of the colors were higher up the mountains, we could see them from where we were, but still declined to hike up. Instead, I scampered off the path after the lone red tree or orange branch and ended up with a lot of close up photos. The effect of the sunlight streaming through the colored leaves was so stunning that I really didn’t mind that being my primary subject.

We came upon a clearing near the river about the time we were ready for a break. I sat down on the rocks overlooking a beautiful little valley view and just enjoyed life for a while, the trees made a perfect picture frame for the mountains beyond. When I had a bit of energy back, we climbed a little down to into the river bed. My friend actually went out on a huge rock in the middle of the river for photos, but I settled with a rock that was a bit closer to shore.

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Next we explored the large (aka main) temple in the park. It had beautiful carvings of flowers on the buildings and bright blue ceramic tiles on the roofs. I think that my best overall landscape photo of the day came from a small grassy knoll just behind the temple compound. Bonus, I got to refill my water cup at the sacred mineral spring! Along the way, I also found several balanced rock towers left by previous tourists, any number of glittering spiderwebs, a few really beautiful spiders that hadn’t given up for the fall yet (they hibernate in the cold, I think because I never see them), and even a stray mushroom patch.

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We walked a short way past the main temple toward the base of another arduous uphill hike. We had no intention of going up, but we thought it might be nice to walk along and see what else was on ground level. I’m glad I did because we found the Legend of Ulsanbawi Rock. The hike we were avoiding would have taken us up to this famous rock, but we could see it pretty well from the ground that day.

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According to the legend, a looooong time ago, the gods ordered all of the rocks to gather together to create the 12,000 peaks of Geumgangsan. Also sometimes spelled “Kumgang”, this is the most famous mountain in North Korea. Obviously the myth predates the 38th parallel. However, it’s only about 50km (30 miles) north of Seoraksan. Ulsanbawi was a very large and heavy rock, travelling from Ulsan, about 350km (217 miles) from Kumgang. He had only got as far as Seoraksan when it became dark and he laid down to have a rest. The next day when he awoke, he learned that Kumgang was all finished being made, and he was no longer needed there. However, he was too ashamed and embarrassed to return home to Ulsan, so he curled up on Seoraksan and has remained there until this day.

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On the way back from our low ground view point of Ulsanbawi, we found yet another small temple, and passed a number of beautiful bridges criss-crossing the rivers. Lunch was only slightly challenging as we looked for a keto-option. I had hoped for the famous seafood pajeon for myself, but there was such a large back order at the restaurant, they said it would take over 30 minutes. I ate bibimbap instead, and it was still delicious sitting on the patio staring out at the mountains as a backdrop.

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We rushed to grab more last minute photos of the park entrance we had raced by on our arrival (hoping to get those cable car tickets), and made it back to our tour buses with about 1 minute to spare. It wasn’t an action packed adventure, but it was almost everything I could have hoped for. I was still a little sad about the cable car situation, but I saw so many other beautiful things, and I didn’t get run into by a speeding ajuma even once.

Amsterdam: Cheese, Gin & Canals

I chose to do Amsterdam as a day trip from Den Haag. I looked at rooms in Amsterdam, and even the possibility of renting a flat for longer, but the city is just so insanely expensive, I couldn’t justify it. I left Den Haag as early as I could in order to cram as much Amsterdam as possible into one day. I enjoyed the canals, and the beautiful architecture while walking around.  My top priority was the Van Gogh museum (posted elsewhere), but I also enjoyed a cheese tasting class, and a tour of the Bols distillery where I learned the true meaning of Dutch courage, and a nice stroll along the canals.


Landmark Photos

Right outside the Van Gogh museum is the main entrance to the far more famous Rijksmuseum (which I did not have time for on this trip), as well as the “I Amsterdam” sign that EVERYONE needs a selfie with, and a rather large sculpture of an astronaut floating over a nice shallow pool where everyone was playing and splashing on the hot summer day. I don’t have a story because I didn’t try to fight the crowds to climb the letters, but I thought you’d like to see the photos anyway.

 

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Cheese Tasting

Dutch Gouda cheese is famous. Well, cheese famous anyway. I am a cheese-a-holic, and gouda is at very least in my top 10 favorites. I couldn’t visit the home of gouda without doing a cheese tasting. I managed to find something that was a little bit more than just a taste however when I stumbled on to Reypanaer. I signed up for a cheese tasting CLASS.

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This was no mere cheese taste, it was truly a learning experience. The woman instructing us reminded me of Minerva McGonagall if she were Dutch instead of Scottish. We were given a paper to record our impressions of each of the cheeses, and we were taught to recognize common notes in cheese like “wood”, “grass”, “caramel”, “alcohol”, “salt”, “butter”, “cream”, “vanilla”, and “nutty”.

Each cheese was paired with an appropriate wine or port to enhance the experience. Our teacher had us examine the color first, while she would tell us about the cheese itself. When we sliced, we were told to slice thinly, not because the shop was being stingy with samples, but because thin slices of cheese allow you to taste the more complex flavors more fully (we were allowed as many slices as we liked until it was time to move on to the next flavor, but really they were so rich I couldn’t eat much and didn’t feel like I needed to). Next we were asked to smell the cheese and think about what kind of smells we got. Finally we were allowed to taste it and asked to think about both flavor and consistency as we took our notes.

When everyone had tasted and jotted down some basic impressions, we talked about what we had experienced and our teacher guided us toward a better understanding of the complex flavor experiences of each cheese. I think a lot of the people in the room just wanted to eat cheese and drink wine, but I very much enjoyed the classroom environment and the chance to learn more about the traditions of Dutch cheese making. I think the informative instruction enhanced my experience of the flavors and textures of the cheeses by making me more aware of what I was consuming and how I was perceiving it.

Our first cheese was a chèvre affiné, a 4 month aged cheese made from goats milk. My mother thinks she hates goat cheese because she’s never eaten this. It was not the most amazing cheese I’ve ever eaten, but I could eat it regularly with a side of sliced fruit and not be sad. It had notes of butter, grass, and bread. The color was almost pure white, and the texture was quite smooth while still being firm.

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The next cheese was a chèvre gris, a 10 month old goat cheese with notes of hay, caramel, and bread. The color was nearly identical, but the texture was more crumbly and there was some presence of salt crystals (as cheese ages, salt crystals form in the cheese, no extra salt is added, this is a natural process as the moisture slowly evaporates over time). The flavor was strong enough that I would choose to eat this in moderation, or as a meal finisher with some nuts.

From here we moved back to cow’s milk cheeses in the Gouda family.

Taste #3 was a 6 month old Gouda the color of a fall harvest full moon. It was very creamy and highly munchable. Another great option for a finger food platter or a sandwich cheese.  Taste #4 was the Reypanear 1 year aged Gouda. It was recorded in my notes as “zomg spicy zingy full on wow”. It was amazing how much another 6 months on the shelf could change the flavor of the cheese. Salt crystals were beginning to form, the texture was a little dryer and the flavor was a million miles higher.

If I thought taste #4 was amazing, my tongue was not prepared for taste #5, a 2 year aged Gouda from the Reypanear fromagerie. I really believe my taste buds died and went to heaven and reincarnated back into my mouth. I recorded the color as “smokey topaz”, the smell as “caramel, alcohol, chocolate, nuts, and vanilla”, the taste as “all the flavors on a magical journey”, and my overall impression as “could eat it forever”. It’s strong, with a crumbly texture and visible salt crystals, and it is one of the most amazing things I’ve put in my face.

And lest you think I was just getting a cheese high and every taste was better and better, I did come back from the edge of ecstasy on the last cheese of the class: #6, the 3 year old Gouda. I still enjoyed it very much, but it was far more sharp with almost a citrusy overtone, and something I would only eat occasionally. While everything else was served with wine or port, this was appropriately served with scotch whiskey.

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Not all Gouda are produced alike. Please don’t read my reviews and get some random 2 year gouda and then get mad when it doesn’t change your life. Like most foods, the quality of ingredients count for a lot, and in the case of aged foods, the environment has a big impact.

Reypanaer uses as much grass fed cows milk as they can to get the best tasting milk. Much like Cantillon, Reypanaer allows the curds to rest in trays and collect unique wild microbes from the environment that will be crucial to the flavor of the finished cheese. In addition, their cheese is aged in old-fashioned warehouses where the only controls for temperature and humidity are opening and closing various doors around the space. The warehouse itself is considered a micro-climate because of it’s long tradition of aging cheeses and the accumulation of special bacteria, fungi and molds that add to the flavor of these naturally aged cheeses.

Cheaper, mass produced cheeses use sterilized climate controlled rooms to age the cheese and get a fast, inexpensive, and easy way to get a consistent product. The old fashioned techniques at Reypanaer are labor intensive since cheeses must be checked regularly during the aging process and the warehouse environment must be carefully balanced by humans instead of machines. In the end, there’s nothing wrong with using a factory produced cheese on your sandwich, but the difference in quality and gustatory experience is so significant that I must recommend to every cheese lover to try such a traditionally made cheese at least once in your life. Take my word, I’m officially an expert in cheese tasting 😉

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I got a steep discount by purchasing my Reypanaer and Bols tour tickets together, anb after the cheese class, I took a nice walk to clear my head and my palate. On the way, I passed an enormous and imposing building that I thought must surely have been some kind of castle or government building, but it turned out to be a shopping mall… Europe has too much extra architecture!

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Bols

Ever wonder where the expression “Dutch Courage” comes from? Well, I found out at the Bols Distillery.  Upon presenting my ticket at the main counter, I was given an audio guide, a little vial of liquid, and a token.

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This tour was totally self guided and I could play, pause, skip or repeat portions of the pre-recorded audio guide as I wanted. The first room was a timeline history of the distillery and the evolution of their product over time.

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As you might guess from the photo, the history starts in 1575 when the Bols family started making flavor infused liquor with cardamom, orange and cumin. In 1664, the family started producing Genever, a kind of distilled spirit made of “long fermented rye, wheat, and corn”. By 1700, Bols became a major shareholder in the Dutch East India trading company, giving them access to so many spices from around the world, and leading to the development of more than 300 unique flavors, as well as untold post-colonial damage to the cultures that originally grew those spices. It’s still weird to me how proud the Dutch are of their role in that part of history…

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In the 1800’s they got really good at making a totally unique version of Genever with a proprietary distilling technique and the addition of a secret recipe of botanicals – mostly juniper berry, but also anise, ginger, hops and angelica (an herb described as “earthy, herbal, and reminiscent of wormwood, so no I don’t know what that tastes like either). Later that century they began to also age the Genever in oak barrels. During the Anglo-Dutch wars, British soldiers would drink Genever before battle to steady their nerves and it became known as “Dutch Courage”. When the war was over, they missed the beverage and English Gin was born. Although the original Bols recipe was discontinued for a while, it was resurrected in 2008, so you can still taste it today.

The next room was filled with a display of tiny delft pottery houses. The Dutch Royal Airline (KLM) gives out these collectible and limited edition bottles to their first class passengers since the early 1950s.

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Once the history and art lessons were past, the museum took a decidedly sensory turn. Instructions on the wall as well as in the audio file told me to enter one of the small experience rooms and to keep my flask at hand. It was time to use the little bottle of liquid I’d received at the beginning of the tour. I couldn’t help but feeling a bit like Alice holding a “drink me” bottle, but I figured if it wasn’t safe, then it wouldn’t be legal either. Once in the room I was given a countdown and told to consume the whole bottle’s contents (it was a large swallow, nothing crazy) when the counter reached zero. With trepidation and a leap of faith, I did as instructed and was rocked to my core with a whole body multi-sensory experience. 

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As soon as the timer hit zero, the experience began. I slugged my liquid and the whole room erupted in sound, light and vibration. The vial was not alcohol, but pure flavor. It started berry fruity, went on a trip through spicy, and finished with citrus and mint. As I was tasting these intense flavors, my eyes were treated to a series of colors, my ears were regaled with changing sounds, and my body tingled from the vibrations of the floor coming up through the soles of my feet. It was like someone just flipped the ON switch for all my senses at once.

And lest the sense of smell feel neglected (though that liquid was so strong, I’m pretty sure it came up my sinuses anyway), the next room on the tour was a rainbow smelling room. The Bols Distillery was starting to seem less like a museum and more like an alcoholic version of the Wonka factory! More than 30 smells were ranged on the wall, and by squeezing the bulb, a puff of scented air would come forth. The bottles were labeled by number, and the name of each flavor was revealed if you lifted the number. It was fun to play sniff and seek, trying to guess each one of the Bols flavors as I went, and it also gave me a good idea of which ones I liked the best, so I could choose my cocktail later on.

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The final display room got into more details about the ways in which infused liquor is made. I’ve actually had the chance to play with making my own infusions with fruit, spices, and vodka, so I knew a little, but it was a very thorough display. There were jars of spices and fruit peels on display, as well as a mad scientists laboratory worth of glass jars, copper pipes, and mysterious floating things.

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You can see “maceration” and “percolation” in this photo because the main goal of this display was to show the ways that flavor is extracted from fruits, nuts, herbs, and spices and turned into delicious drinks. Maceration is just soaking your stuff in the alcohol (this is what I did at home). Percolation is basically how coffee is made, you drip the liquid through the ingredient. And because no mad scientist lab would be complete without a big red button…

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Don’t worry, it doesn’t do anything sinister. Once the tour shenanigans were over, I was released out into the Bols cocktail bar where I was able to redeem my token for one free cocktail. I ordered the Spring Amour, a lavender colored, floral, lemony drink. I had been intrigued by the fragrance of the Parfait Amour in the smelling room, and this drink seemed to be a good mix: 40ml original Genever, 15 ml Parfait Amour, 30ml lemon juice, and 10ml simple syrup, with a sprig of fresh mint. I chose the Parfait Amour based solely on my olfactory experience on the tour, but later I found this description, “a beautiful dark purple liqueur flavored with flower petals and vanilla, together with orange peel and almonds. The Parfait Amour liqueur flavor is centuries old and probably one of the most fascinating and complex of all the Bols liqueurs.” I chose well.

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Walking Around Amsterdam

After my Bols tour, I tried to walk to the antiques area but it was all closed up by the time I got there. It really is amazing how much of Europe closes up at 6pm. When I read about the quaint area of Nieuwe Spiegelstraat, the blogger I read recommended going in the evening to see the shops lit up, but I think they must have gone in the winter when the sunset / street light time is before closing rather than 3 hours after it. Summer days are looooong. 

I had also planned to do a walk from Nieuwe Spiegelstraat through the Red Light District on my way to the train station but I was pretty wiped out from heat, walking, and day drinking. I looked at a lot of restaurant menus before I managed to find a place to eat for less than 15€. Amsterdam is, as I may have mentioned before, insanely expensive. I wasn’t looking for a fancy meal, just a simple sandwich and beer! In the end, I was very happy with my choice. I tried a local specialty of ossenworst, an Amsterdam local raw beef sausage. It’s beef spiced with salt, pepper, cloves, nutmeg, mace and lightly smoked. OM NOM NOM.

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After dinner, I walked through what should have been the Red Light District according to my maps, and while I did see more ads for clubs and sex shows and smelled a lot more pot fumes, I was either on the wrong street or it was too early. I’ve heard it only comes alive after sunset and during the summer dark is not until around 11pm. At 7-8 in the evening, I didn’t see anything risque. I did find China Town and closed Buddhist temple, and took plenty of photos of the beautiful Amsterdam canals before returning to the train that would eventually get me back to my Airbnb in Den Haag.

 

 

 

 

Back in the USSR? This time with a visa!

I am falling right behind on my goal of 1 blog post a week. In a desperate effort to get moving, I went and found the most complete draft on file, also the only one I wrote AFTER vacation instead of quick notes on a bus this summer. Maybe there’s a reason Dostoevsky and Tolstoy wrote such long novels. I was also inspired toward verbosity by my brief visit to mother Russia and I have had to split up the story into 2 parts. In part one: explore the bureaucracy of communism, the truth behind the soviet stereotypes, and an encounter at the Metropol Hotel.


Airports Are Ugly

I have flown through the Moscow SVO airport before. It’s not especially exciting, but their primary state run airline is dirt cheap so I find myself having layovers lasting on average 3-4 hours there. This time I had a 20 hour layover on the return flight. I can’t imagine many airports I would willingly spend 20 hours inside. As Douglas Adams once famously wrote, “There is a reason why no language on earth has ever produced the phrase ‘as pretty as an airport’.” Since the first time I read this I have had the singular experience to be in some of the best and worst airports in the world, and I can say with certainty that the Moscow International Airport is not a place to linger.

There are few places you can sleep inside the airport, like hourly rental sleeping pods, or even the airport’s very own hotel (the one Snowden hid out in). I looked into these and discovered that the prices are almost as much as the plane tickets. Even if you’re willing to camp out on the crowded and uncomfortable airport seats, there is no way to get WiFi unless you have a Russian phone number, so be prepared to be both uncomfortable and bored. In order to take advantage of any less expensive hotel (or WiFi) option, you have leave the airport, but unless you are from a very narrow list of close Russian allied countries, you can’t leave the airport without a visa. And you can’t get a visa at the door, you have to apply for and pay for that visa well in advance of your arrival.

You Need a Visa To Get In

Tourist visas to Russia require a letter of invitation. These are usually arranged by tour guides which seems like a giant scam, but that’s a whole other rant. Transit visas can bypass the letter requirement if you have proof of your ongoing flight. The transit visa can be used for up to 3 days if you’re flying and 10 if you are travelling by train.

Thus, my trip to Moscow actually started in June with the Russian Consulate in Busan, South Korea. Since they weren’t open on my day off, I got up very early in the morning on a Friday and bused into Busan to file my paperwork. I was able to fill out and download the application online and print it at my office, however the application took several hours to fill out because in addition to all the normal information, they wanted the exact dates of all my international travel for the last 10 years. They also wanted complete information on all my secondary education, and on my parents, and to know if I had any education whatsoever about nuclear weapons (I do!). I felt like I was filling out a background check for the CIA.

I nervously handed over the painstakingly researched application form and paid the 100$ fee, hoping that nothing would disqualify me from going and returned to my home to wait a week for the results. I shouldn’t have been worried. Communism loves bureaucracy and to make people jump the hoops and I have become an expert form filler. A week later I made the trek back to the consulate and my passport was returned to me with a shiny new 1 day visa inside. I booked a hostel and an airport shuttle and more or less forgot about it for 2 months.

Midnight Arrival

When I landed in Moscow, it was just after midnight and amid a flood of Chinese tourists, but it didn’t actually take all that long to go through customs and immigration. Since I was technically on a layover with a connecting flight, I had checked one bag through and was only carrying my day pack and a basic change of clothes with me. My visa was scrutinized intensely. This guy busted out a jeweler’s lens to stare at it in minute detail. Eventually, finding nothing wrong, they allowed me to pass out of the international terminal and onto Russian soil.

There is an oddity about the Moscow airport in that the WiFi requires you to give a phone number where they will send you a code to log on. It’s “free WiFi” but you can’t access it if you don’t have a Russian phone number. It’s frustrated me every time I’ve flown through, and I’ve never been able to get it to work. Really, it’s free if you’re Russian, but it’s a taunting WiFi dream to international travelers. Knowing this, while still in Norway, I had downloaded the offline version of the Moscow map in Google maps (which is a lie), and the Russian language on Google translate (which I never actually used) as well as information about my hostel, just in case.

I got some money changed to Rubles, and I found my driver. If my flight had landed during the day, I might have tried out the public transit, but at midnight thirty I was happy to see a man holding a sign with my name on it and ready to take me directly to the hostel, even if the ride did cost more than the room. It was a long and empty ride through Moscow. I’m not sure if it was just the late hour but the roads were empty. And they were huge! City roads, with business and sidewalks, not like highways, just roads that were 10 lanes across, 5 lanes in each direction. I stared at them wondering how people crossed the roads on foot and even more if these behemoths aided in the flow of traffic. Do enough people in Moscow own cars for this to be actually useful or is it just for show?

Hostile Hostel?

Checking into the hostel was another long rigmarole of paperwork: fill this out, sign this, make a copy of my passport and visa, etc. I chose a cheapish hostel thinking since I only was going to get maybe 6 hours of sleep, I didn’t need much but I also carefully selected one that was highly rated with plenty of good reviews and a location that would make it easy to get to Red Square in the morning.

One day… the lesson is going to stick. When travelling in less affluent countries: spend the money on a private room! The hostel bed was around 10$ and a private room would have been about 30$. It’s a big difference and at the time I was thinking about every little penny because I wanted to keep my budget down and Moscow was already costing me 100$ just for stepping out of the airport. I had spent a single night in Paris in a dorm and slept pretty well, but that was Paris.

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The hostel itself did not live up to my expectations based on ratings and photos. Looking back I can see those are real photos, but they were clearly taken when the interiors were brand new or at least recently deep cleaned. In reality the place was much more dark, dank, cramped and dirty than the photos represent. Even by the light of day. Now, I’m not saying it was a shithole… it did meet my minimum standards of clean and the staff were very polite in a cold sort of way, but I did not rest well.

Like many hostels in Europe, I was expected to make my own bed. The staff do not consider it their responsibility to put sheets on the bed, nor to remove them. I struggled with this as it was almost 1am and I had a top bunk and everyone else was asleep, so I couldn’t turn on the light. Also, the bedroom door seemed to have no lock at all. The bathrooms were very tiny and when you’re sharing a single bathroom with all the other women in a large hostel, that’s a challenge.  One of my roomies snored so loudly that it made my bed actually vibrate. I could feel her snores. I put in earplugs, headphones, and squashed pillows, blankets and towels around my ears to no avail. When I got up to get dressed, there was no place private to do so.

The hostel included WiFi, which did work well, yay, and a free “breakfast”. In the morning I discovered this meant a choice of two sugar cereals, luke-warm milk, watery coffee, and packets of what I really think were yogurt powder. I couldn’t read the Russian labels and I didn’t try to eat it, but they were packets filled with what felt like a powder with pictures of bowls of yogurt and fruit on the front. And somehow this breakfast is rated 7.7 on Booking.com. In fairness, that is the lowest internal rating and every other criteria is rated 8.4 or higher. I don’t know what your life has to be like for this to be a 7.7/10 breakfast, but I never want to live it.
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Just, please, if you see me talking about booking a hostel dorm in a developing country or a current/previous communist country STOP ME. I’m not trying to be a snob, but sleeping properly is so important to my well-being and my ability to enjoy waking activities and I just can’t sleep properly in those conditions. I envy the people who can.

Metro Mishaps

Despite these setbacks and the severe lack of sleep, I was still determined to make the most of my day in Moscow. I had a detailed and timed itinerary that I hoped would allow me to see everything I wanted to before it was time to go back to the airport. The first thing I discovered is that the Google Map of Moscow isn’t great, and the offline function doesn’t really do anything. Here’s a pretty building I found while searching for the metro.

20180821_091840It took me ages to find the Metro station that was meant to be a 5 minute walk from my hostel in part because Google, and in other part because the Metro stations in Moscow don’t have any helpful signs with pictures or symbols to identify them. Maybe they say the name of the station on the outside, but I was looking for a big “M” or an icon of a subway train which has been a constant in every other metro system I’ve used. This is actually the logo for the Moscow metro and it was not on any of the buildings or any signs nearby.Image result for moscow metro

When I finally realized that the big square beige building was the metro station, I had walked past it at least 7 times because I thought it was a government building like a post office or police station. It was much easier every other time because at least they all look the same. Of course I didn’t take a picture at the time, and now looking at stock photos of the building I see that it clearly has a big red M on top and a sign out front, so I can’t explain why it eluded me so. I blame sleep deprivation.

Once I found the entrance, I was happy to learn that the metro system itself is actually very easy to use, and cheap too. Rather than go through the hassle of buying a ticket for every trip, I just bought a 24hr pass for about 3$ US. That’s a whole day pass for less than the cost of a single trip in most EU countries, by the way, and goes a long way to explaining the powdered yogurt situation.

On top of its ease of use and affordability, the Moscow metro is famous for it’s unique and beautiful (on the inside) metro stations . At some point in the soviet era, it was a gift to the people to make each public transit station a work of public art. No one could visit them all in one day, but I tried to get some pictures inside the ones I did use. They are very very Soviet, but amazing works of art nonetheless.

Red Square Obscured

When I emerged from the station at Red Square I was instantly lost. I had expected the world’s largest public square to be visible from the metro station that shared it’s name, silly me. I adopted the time honored method of picking a direction and watching where my GPS dot went on the map. The first landmarks I ran across were actually the Metropol Hotel and the Statue of Marx. I recognized them from my plans as places I had intended to go later in the day, but it did help orient me to find Red Square and St. Basil’s Cathedral which was the top of my list for the day.

20180821_100129Sadly, I still don’t know what Red Square looks like, since there were about a million white tents set up and a large area blocked off and converted into a stadium for an upcoming festival. I walked slowly and perused the kiosks selling a narrow but colorful array of Russian souvenirs. I didn’t stop to buy, however because it looked mostly mass produced.

I also walked past the line to Lenin’s tomb, where he is preserved and laid out in a rather grotesque honorarium. Entrance to the monument is free, but there is no way to reserve an entry time, so people queue for hours for a chance to gawk at the dead body. I told myself it would be interesting if the line was short enough, but by the time I arrived around 10am, it was already all the way down the block and didn’t seem to be moving very fast.

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Tourist Stuff

St. Basil’s did not disappoint. It was crowded as heck, but it is a fun building. Everyone has seen at least one picture of the iconic colorful onion turrets and it was definitely a treat to see it in person. I wandered around trying to find the best angle for a photo, but since large swaths of the surrounding area were blocked off for the upcoming festival, it was a little challenging.

20180821_101349It’s possible to go inside for a fee, but online reviews all agreed that the cool part is on the outside. Bonus, there was a marching band practicing in the temporary stadium field nearby, so I got to watch a little bit of counter-marching through the fence and experience some serious cognitive dissonance as they played the 1812 Overture (for non-Americans, that’s because it’s a staple of our own Independence Day celebrations).

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Checking the clock, I realized it was time to head over to the gardens and try to find the entrance to the Kremlin. Only, because the entire breadth of Red Square was fenced off with a giant temporary stadium and lots of souvenir booths, I couldn’t follow my pre-planned route and Google maps was turning out to be f*ing useless. Once more I adopted the “pick a direction and walk” method, which resulted in me walking nearly all the way around the Kremlin, which is not a small building. In the middle of my walk, the sky went from a bit overcast to “wrath of Neptune”.

I always have my travel umbrella but it would not have withstood the torrential downpour that issued forth from the skies. Lucky me, at that precise moment, I happened to be passing under the only cover for several blocks in either direction, a bit of scaffolding along one corner of the Kremlin’s outer wall. Even standing under the scaffold with my back to the wall, I could feel the spray from the force of the rain around me. I sat there as other pedestrians scurried to the shelter and wondered if my plans to explore outdoors would be totally rained out, and what I could possibly do instead with no working internet. But before I could even really start to work it out, the rain slowed to a drizzle and I felt confident in resuming my walk armed with my little umbrella.

When I did reach the entrance, I found another huge line for the people who already had tickets, and I continued on through the gardens in search of the ticket office.

What’s With All These Lines?

I know there is a stereotype about lines in Russia. Or at least there was when I grew up in the cold war in America. We were told about how people had to just stand in long lines for hours to get bread, or sometimes not even knowing what was being passed out at the head of the line or if there would still be any by the time you got to the front of the line. They were communism horror stories told to show us how terrible the USSR was and how great America and capitalism were by contrast. I know it was propaganda, but I’m not sure it was untrue. I had already seen the huge line for Lenin’s tomb, but I knew that was a free event, and no way to buy tickets in advance.

Looking at the line to buy tickets to stand in the line to get in at the Kremiln was just insane. I freely admit that I ignored my note to myself in my calendar to book those tickets online in advance. Everything else in Europe I booked before I even left Korea, but Russia only takes reservations for the Kremlin 2 weeks in advance. While I was in Sweden. I made a note to do it, and I saw the note, and I ignored the note. My own fault. However, looking at the lines, I am not sure I would have made it through the “advance ticket line” even with enough time to really see anything.

I am a bit sad I didn’t get to see the Kremlin and especially the museum with the historical art and artifacts of pre-communist Russia. However, if I do make it back to Moscow, I will dedicate a whole day to the Kremiln alone, knowing what I know now.

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Fun With Costumes

Instead of sulking about it, I decided to move on and see what other fun things I could find. I was not disappointed. Shortly past the ticket office, the scenery livens up and I found some more public gardens, statues, fountains, and a quite charming pair of street entertainers dressed up in “historical” costumes and posing with tourists for tips. They made me smile and so I probably gave them more money than I should have, even though it was less than they asked for.

Continuing on I managed to find a slightly more accurate historical costume depiction where it seemed like a professional group was showing off the history of Russia and perhaps it’s trade partners with booths showing different herbs and spices, old astronomical tools and charts, paints and dyes, and other medieval type crafts and pursuits. It was all in Russian, though, so I wasn’t able to glean much from the informative talks the costumed historians were giving to the other folks in the park.

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Thwarted at Every Turn

After a quick gander at the statue of Karl Marx and the Bolshoi ballet because I was standing right there,

 
I headed up to the Metropol Hotel to see what I could find in the way of a fancy lunch. I had found a few places on line that seemed to indicate there was a high tea available, and while the website of the hotel still had it displayed in some places, the actual “high tea” page was not working. Still, I had seen the restaurant menu and knew it would be ok even if I just had lunch.

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The very first thing I saw was a bunch of construction and a sign saying the restaurant was CLOSED for repairs and upgrades. My optimism and adventurousness was wearing thin at the edges around now. So far, all of the things I’d set out to do with my very limited time in Moscow had either been harder than expected or totally impossible. I was also VERY hungry since the last meal I ate was a deli sandwich I got in Oslo the night before. I am not counting the bowl of sugar coated flakes at the hostel as a “meal”.

Clinging to the very last shreds of my “lets have a good time anyway” thoughts, I found the main entrance to the hotel to see if they were serving anything anywhere because I really didn’t know what else to do or where else I could go for a much needed lunch.

Although the staff at the hotel bar had no idea what tea ceremony I was talking about, (even though it’s on their website!) they were happy to seat me at a comfy chair in the lobby and bring me a menu. I ordered a “Stranger in Moscow” to drink, and salmon blinis for lunch.

The WiFi Is a Lie

When I went to explore the WiFi options, I discovered that the special nature of the Moscow airport WiFi was actually the rule of thumb for all Russian WiFi. I asked the staff if there was any way to log on, but without a room number or Russian phone number it was impossible. They didn’t even have a guest account available for customers of the bar or restaurant.

The more places I went, the more I realized this is just the way it works. Even Starbucks, a place famous for it’s free WiFi was inaccessible to anyone without a Russian phone number. So, if someone tells you not to bother with a SIM card because there’s plenty of free WiFi, well, they are both right and wrong. The WiFi is free, but you can’t use it without that SIM + Russian phone number. If I had known, I would have made the SIM a higher priority since it seems they are not too hard to find, but by the time I realized that WiFi was going to be impossible, I was more than halfway through my day and had no way to look up where to buy a SIM!

This obstacle was suddenly one straw too many in a morning full of them and I slowly began to leak from the eyes. I try really hard not to sink into despair or self pity when things don’t go my way on a trip, but everyone has a wall, and it gets closer with things like lack of sleep and low blood sugar, both of which I was suffering from at the time. It’s likely that I would have recovered after a some food and a rest, but that day I didn’t have to do it alone. A very kind fellow solo-female traveler sitting one chair over asked if I was ok and invited me to join her. She let me vent a little about my morning and then we quickly moved on to talking about our travels and experiences.

Lunch is Saved!

It did so much to lift my spirits and we chatted all through a leisurely lunch. The blinis were nice, a little sweeter than I was expecting for a seafood pairing, but not really much different from crepes.. maybe a little more oily? but not unpleasantly so. Out of curiosity I looked up the difference, and it’s yeast. Blinis have it, crepes don’t. The smoked salmon was delicious, and even though I had eaten lots of it in Sweden, I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of it. Plus it was served with sour cream and salmon caviar so there was a nice blend of textures and flavors.20180821_122655

The Stranger in Moscow was a vodka drink made with Campari, ginger, and blackberry syrup. The presentation was stunning. The drink was quite different from the cocktails I have had before. It was more bitter than sweet which is usually a good thing for me and I attribute that to a healthy portion of the Campari, but there was a slight “cough syrup” aftertaste that I associate with Jagermeister or almost any cherry liquor. My best guess is that the type of blackberry syrup they used carried that flavor, which many people find appealing in drinks. It was also served with a tiny bowl of dark chocolate chips which made an excellent compliment to the drink. Quite a unique cocktail experience overall.

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My lunch companion told me about the book “Gentleman in Moscow” which is set in the Metropol Hotel and I am now on the wait list to check that out of the library. In case you’re curious, a standard room at the Metropol runs close to 150$ US/night, but my drink and lunch were a much more reasonable yet still high for Russia $27 US together. I still wish I could have found that tea ceremony, but I am happy with the experience I had, especially with company to make it better.


Here’s a little slideshow with more photos from the first half of my day in Moscow. Please pardon the lack of music. I’ve been using YouTube Editor, and recently it’s decided to delete everything good and useful from it’s online service and I haven’t found a replacement yet. Stay tuned for part 2 where I go “off the beaten path”.

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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