Father’s Day from Above: A Helicopter Ride over Los Angeles

When you travel or live abroad long term, it’s inevitable that you’re going to miss a lot of the important little holidays and events that you don’t really realize are so special until you don’t have the choice to be around for them. Like Father’s Day, for example. Ever since I started spending more of them away from my dad than with him, the ones we do get to celebrate together have become infinitely more significant.

Four years ago, all four of the Baackes sisters gathered in Philadelphia for a weekend of fun. Two years ago, my younger sister and I flew to Los Angeles for the first time to help my dad settle into his recently purchased house. Last year, I made my way back to LA, but I was on my own. I knew I had to plan something epic.

And what could be more epic than a surprise helicopter ride over my dad’s new city?

I had considered plenty of other options for the day before settling on this particular aerial adventure. An architecture tour of downtown? (Already booked up.) A paraglide from Malibu? (Perhaps a tad too adventurous.) A brunch cruise from Santa Monica? (Ugh, beach traffic.)

But a helicopter sightseeing tour with a mountaintop landing and a champagne toast? Couldn’t find any complaints there. Best of all, the departure point of Atlantic Terminal in Burbank was less than a thirty minute drive from my dad’s home base in Koretown — in Los Angeles, that made them practically neighbors.

Los Angeles Sightseeing Tour by Helicopter

Los Angeles Sightseeing Tour by Helicopter

Los Angeles Sightseeing Tour by Helicopter

I was thinking of keeping my dad in the dark until we pulled into the airport, but it was too tricky — I ended up spilling the beans that morning so he would know what to wear and how to prepare. Speaking of what to wear, here’s a tip from a girl who has found herself on many a helicopter: wear black! It doesn’t reflect into the windows, allowing you to get much clearer photos.

He was so excited! As an architecture buff, geography nerd and all around lover of all things mapped and gridded, getting to see his new home from an aerial viewpoint was just perfect. I was thrilled. After a quick check-in and weigh-in and introduction to our pilot, we were off!

Los Angeles Sightseeing Tour by Helicopter

Los Angeles Sightseeing Tour by Helicopter

Los Angeles Sightseeing Tour by Helicopter

First, we made our way toward Downtown Los Angeles, passing over Universal Studios California, The Hollywood Sign, and Griffith Observatory. I was I was on the lookout for hikers at the Hollywood Sign after my own adventure doing so the year prior, but apparently the 109 °F temperatures that record-breaking day kept them away — we didn’t see a single one.

Los Angeles Sightseeing Tour by Helicopter

Los Angeles Sightseeing Tour by Helicopter

Los Angeles Sightseeing Tour by Helicopter

Our pilot was super accommodating — while he couldn’t get close to my dad’s downtown office building for zoning reasons, he was more than happy to hover around and let me get a great photo when I realized we were right above my friend Lindsay’s house off the Sunset Strip. It was super fun to send her the below photo after with a creepy message that I was watching her.

Thankfully, she shares my sense of humor — and loved seeing her house from above!

Los Angeles Sightseeing Tour by Helicopter

And that was only the start of the house peeping. From there, we flew onward to the mega-mansions of Beverly Hills and Bel Air, and I knew there was no way any dinky celebrity homes bus tour could ever top what we were seeing. We just gaped at the compounds below, wondering how much the electricity bills must be on such palaces.

I also knew I was really starting to think like an Angeleno when I mused that lovely as those houses were, the traffic to get anywhere worth going must be really killer.

Los Angeles Sightseeing Tour by Helicopter

Los Angeles Sightseeing Tour by Helicopter

My favorite sighting of the day? The Playboy Mansion! I admit, repeat viewings of The Girls Next Door when I was in high school made the place feel larger than life — it almost seemed too normal looking down on it with it’s super close neighbors, and its pool that seemed way too small for the legendary parties that were held there.

Playboy Mansion from Above

Soon, we were swooping down the coast to the famous Santa Monica pier — an LA landmark I’ve yet to see from sea level. This was to be my favorite part of the whole day. The beach was packed, and it made me smile to look down and see so many people outside and enjoying the beautiful ocean!

Los Angeles Sightseeing Tour by Helicopter

Santa Monica Pier from Above

Santa Monica Pier from Above

Santa Monica Pier from Above

Santa Monica Pier from Above

I think I’d like to canvas wrap the above photo someday and hang it above a couch somewhere.

The final stretch of our ride followed the coast up to Malibu, and then turned east and up into the hills.

Helicopter Ride over Malibu

Helicopter Ride over Malibu

Then came the really special part — landing in the Malibu Hills. This particular helicopter operator is the only one with a permit to land in this particular location, making it an incredibly exclusive experience.

We marveled at the views… and the heat. Did I mention it was literally one hundred and nine degrees? While our pilot broke out the bottle of champagne, I munched on ice chips from the ice bucket. It was another level of heat.

Helicopter Landing in Malibu

Helicopter Landing in Malibu

Helicopter Landing in Malibu

We toasted to Father’s Day, of course!

As I’ve mentioned before, I was skeptical of my dad moving to Los Angeles — I was happy for the exciting opportunities that awaited him there, but I was worried we’d see each other less and that he was maybe taking on too much. A year later, I felt he couldn’t have made a better call. My sun-worshipping dad is a perfect fit for California, and so we toasted, too, to his ne

Champagne Helicopter Landing in Malibu

Helicopter Landing in Malibu

On the return ride, we chatted over the intercom and agreed we’d made the right call not bringing our beloved cocker spaniel, Tucker. I’d waffled back and forth all week after calling the helicopter company and getting the okay to do so — would he like it?

He’s an easygoing dog who loves nothing more than a long car ride, but we were worried the noise would have gotten to him. Once the day ended up being such a scorcher, we were relieved we hadn’t chanced it!

Canine companions aside, us humans had a blast. While this was, I believe, the most expensive helicopter tour I’ve ever taken, it was also a memory we will have for the rest of our lives. If you are looking for a seriously wow way to celebrate a special occasion in Los Angeles — this is it.

Father's Day Helicopter Ride

Father's Day Helicopter Ride

Los Angeles Sightseeing Tour by Helicopter

Father's Day Helicopter Ride

It was already the perfect day, but I had one more trick up my sleeves — pancakes! One of my most resounding memories of my childhood is my dad making pancakes for us on Sundays, which my sister and I obsessed over. So I knew I wanted to take my dad somewhere fun for pancakes to celebrate our flight. Imagine my excitement when the internet informed me that the best pancakes in Los Angeles were right in Burbank at Bea Bea’s!

With flavors like S’mores, Thai Iced Tea and Super Pumpkin, I knew we were in for a treat. My green tea version were fantastic, as were my dad’s classic buttermilk. The staff couldn’t have been sweeter or more friendly, and it was the perfect nostalgia bomb to cap off a day of thrills.

Okay, now here’s the real dilemma… how will I ever top that?!

I am a member of the Viator Ambassador initiative and participated in this tour as part of that program.

Summer in San Francisco

Last summer, while planning my now-annual visit to California to visit my dad, I added in a new stop that I hope becomes a regular one — San Francisco. One of my hometown best friends had recently moved cross-country to settle in Lower Pacific Heights, and I couldn’t wait to explore the amazing life she’d created for herself out west.

Presidio San Francisco
Golden Gate Bridge San Diego

After a long flight from Albany, where I’d barely caught my breath after my Boston and Martha’s Vineyard trip, I couldn’t wait to give Michelle a squeeze — and enjoy four days in a city I hadn’t properly explored since a school trip when I was thirteen.

San Francisco Nightlife

After losing my mind at the amazing-ness of Michelle’s brownstone apartment (she lucked into the third bedroom of a rent-controlled apartment her two sweet roommates have rented for more than eight years), we headed out for drinks. San Francisco, I’d learned, isn’t huge on rooftop bars — so the heated “roof-ish” patio at Jones was a pretty big deal.

I was immediately glad Michelle had insisted I bring a sweater. You know that famous Mark Twain quote, “the coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco?” THAT DUDE KNEW WHAT WAS UP.

We continued our reunion celebration with dinner at Hops and Hominy and bar hopping what felt like all over the Bay Area. As someone who is often in serious trip planning and logistics coordinating mode, there’s nothing I love more than visiting my friends and just blindly following them around for a few days with little to no awareness of where I actually am. Makes blog writing difficult in retrospect (ha!) but it’s such a treat at the time.

San Francisco Nightlife

The next day, Michelle had an amazingly fun itinerary planned with hiking and brunch and so many of my favorite things. Unfortunately, I was feeling sicker than I have in ages and so was basically a useless blob the entire day — more on that later. But leave it to this super host to find the perfect activity even for an invalid houseguest: a feel-good movie at the fancy Kabuki 8 theater.

Golden Gate Bridge San Diego

Golden Gate Bridge San Diego
Golden Gate Bridge San Diego

The following morning, though still feeling pretty weak, I couldn’t stand the thought of wasting another day on Michelle’s lovely itinerary, and so we set off for a gentle walk through Crissy Field. It was a chilly and windy morning, and fog dramatically clung to the bright red Golden Gate Bridge in the distance.

At the base, we climbed up the Fort Point tower for better views, and could only take our hands out of our pockets long enough to snap quick selfies before they felt like they were freezing again! I could not believe that it was June in California and I was so cold (and yes, in fact, I am writing about this trip nearly a full year later — whoops.)

Golden Gate Bridge San Diego

Golden Gate Bridge San Diego

Thankfully, things started to warm up by the time we got back to the car. The walk had wiped me out but also worked up the first bit of appetite I’d had in over 36 hours, so I was pumped for our next stop — Chestnut Street in Pac Heights.

Golden Gate Bridge San Diego

Golden Gate Bridge San Diego

We could have spent all day strolling this too-cute neighborhood. After evaluating several options, we settled on lunch at Tacolicious, where I nodded in agreement to their signature tagline, “fingers over forks.”

Tacolicious San Francisco

Presidio San Francisco

When we emerged from the restaurant, I was shocked by what awaited us outside — bright blue skies! I never would have guessed based on the morning that our day would turn out this way. Michelle was kind enough to drive me back to see the bridge from another vantage point so I could obsessively take photos with this beautiful gift of sun. Ah, tourists.

But seriously… how beautiful is this?!

Golden Gate Bridge San Diego

Golden Gate Bridge San Diego

Golden Gate Bridge San Diego

We ended up going for another wander, this time down to the harbor. The views looked familiar — they were the same I’d seen from my Alcatraz Cruise, my one little pop-in to San Fran since my last proper visit almost fifteen years prior.

Harbor San Diego

Harbor San Diego

But sometimes, when you’re catching up with an old friend, it doesn’t really matter so much where you are or what you’re doing… it’s all just background to a great conversation, anyway.

Golden Gate Bridge San Diego

Golden Gate Bridge San Diego

Golden Gate Bridge San Diego

The morning’s activities left my still-rough-self pretty wiped, but Michelle knew just what to do: a driving tour! I did get out of the car at our two main destinations, but mostly I was quite happy to watch the city go by from the car window, listening to my friend’s narration about her new home.

Perhaps my favorite stop was the Painted Ladies. This famous row of Victorian Houses got its big break in the opening credits of Full House, but fame hasn’t gone to its head.

Painted Ladies San Francisco

Painted Ladies San Francisco

A little less overwhelming was Lombard Street. In theory, the world’s second windiest road sounds very cool, but in reality it’s actually pretty hard to appreciate (or photograph) unless you’re taking in an aerial view. Still, we drove down it, which was cool, and it was fun to see the huge tour group all angling for the best photo.

Lombard Street San Francisco

Lombard Street San Francisco

Lombard Street San Francisco

That night, we went to Tony’s for pizza and the Warrios game. While the waits are notoriously crazy at this popular eatery, we beat the system by sitting at the bar — a trade off I’m almost always happy to make when dining as a pair.

The next day was the first that I truly had my appetitive back, a terrible thing to lose in a city so famous for its cuisine. Michelle was working from home this day and it was so nice to just have side-by-side laptop time. As someone who often works alone, it really makes you appreciate the silent company of someone else doing the same. Other than a quick lunch outside on the street at The Grove, we chilled from our office on the couch all day.

And suddenly, it was my last night in San Francisco. We ran around town meeting up with various friends — dinner with Michelle’s roommate, drinks with my childhood neighbor and friend — and discovered two gems in the process. The first was Smuggler’s Cove, an intensely-themed pirate bar that would put most tikis to shame. While the night we visited was a little weird (there was no music playing, which I hate in a bar), I’ve had enough personal recommendations for this place to conclude that we just had an off night. I’d love to give it another chance and really work my way through the rum menu someday!

San Fran Girls Weekend
Smuggler's Cove San Francisco

And our next stop was Chambers Bar, which looked like it was made for Instagram. Though we arrived not long before closing, this was one of my favorite finds from the whole trip, and also left me itching for a return.

We turned in after, as the next morning Michelle was back to the office, and I was on to San Jose for a night with my friend Abby before flying to Los Angeles. I always love visiting Abby — when travel bloggers get together they do boring stuff like go to the gym and go to nondescript restaurants and sit on the couch and watch TV and basically do nothing but catch up and gossip about our weird and wonderful industry. Well, at least these travel bloggers do. (And clearly, based on the zero evidence I have of these 24 hours with Abby, we don’t take many photos either.)

Five days in Northern California flew by.

Chambers Bar San Francisco

Chambers Bar San Francisco

Chambers Bar San Francisco

They did so in large part due to the illness I mentioned before… which wasn’t just a bug.

I really hesitated on if I wanted to write about this or not, but I am pretty sure that I was drugged on our first night out. I have many reasons for thinking so, the primary one being that at our last stop for the night, Michelle and I were approached by a sketchy guy who tried to sell us drugs. We laughed off his dancefloor sales pitch (um yeah NO THANKS) but he wouldn’t quite leave us alone. Michelle says she noticed I started acting funny and the guy started speaking to me in Spanish, and I replying in it, so she couldn’t follow what was going on. I don’t remember any of this — because him buzzing around us like a fly you just can’t swat was my last memory of the entire night.

And so I also don’t remember that shortly after, as Michelle was putting us in an Uber, that same man muscled open the door or our car and forced himself into the vehicle just as we were pulling away. Michelle screamed that he wasn’t with us, and our driver screeched to the side of the road, yanked the guy out of the car and onto the curb, and hightailed us home to safely.

I was violently ill for two days; nauseous, weak, and unable to keep food or even water down. While I definitely considered the possibility that I was having a very weird hangover (for better or for worse, at this point I know my body’s reaction to excessive partying pretty well, and vomiting just isn’t party of the equation) but a call to my doctor back east confirmed that my symptoms were in line with those of date rape drugs. He encouraged me to go to a hospital for testing and treatment and  to file a police report, which in retrospect I wish I had done. But I didn’t have health insurance at the time and was worried what it all would cost, and I was also fearful of the reaction of whoever I might report what happened to, considering nothing really happened.

It was a reminder that with all the far flung, exotic destinations I travel to, terrible things can happen anywhere and women especially must always, always be vigilant when it comes to their personal safety. While it was a very unsettling experience and I can’t remember the last time I felt so physically terrible, I am so grateful to have escaped the situation relatively unscathed and to have had Michelle take such good care of me while I recovered.

Golden Gate Bridge San Diego

As for all the things I missed while I was healing… I’ll just have to go back. I’ve got the perfect host to crash with, after all.

Till next time, San Francisco…

Twenty Four Hours in Pattaya (Without a Prostitute in Sight)

So, while I’m still catching up on my ridiculously delayed 2016 travel recaps, I just can’t wait to start sharing my big trip (thus far) of 2017. So I’ll be jumping back and forth a bit again between two timelines — this recent trip and the old ones I’m still catching up on. Apologies for any confusion, my friends. One of these days I promise to lock myself in a dark room and not travel again until I’ve published every past trip in my drafts folder, but that day is not today. 

3-devide-lines

In all my time in Thailand, I was absolutely vehement there was one destination to which I would never go: Pattaya. I’m not normally one to write off a destination with a fake gagging gesture, but what can I say. The seedy, sex-tourism capital of Thailand just isn’t for me — and everyone I know who’s ended up there somehow has been horrified by their time there. Just Google “Pattaya is disgusting” to see what my fellow travelers have to say! (To clarify, it’s the tourists that make it so repulsive, not the residents.) I literally could not think of one, single, teeny tiny reason I had any interest in ever so much as passing through such a hell-hole.

Until I decided to attend Wonderfruit, a festival held in the countryside forty-five minutes outside the city.

Wonderfruit 2016 Review

Okay Wonderfruit, you got me — and more on that festival coming up soon. After weighing up dozens of plans for getting my crew all the way from Koh Tao to our camp site, we realized that it was going to be a heck of a journey, and we might need a night to chill before heading into party mode.

So after an overnight ferry to the mainland, a private shuttle to the airport, a cheap early morning flight to Bangkok, and finally being picked up by another private shuttle at the Bangkok airport, we were on our way down to Pattaya, DIY paper cup mimosas in hand! The nine of us who had traveled together from Koh Tao were joined by my frequent travel buddy and honorary Koh Tao Crew member Heather, who flew in from Bali to meet us.

(Technically we could have ferried from Koh Tao to Koh Samui early in the morning and caught the once-per-day Bangkok Airways direct flight from Koh Samui to Pattaya, but that particular flight was out of the price range of most of our crew.)

Wonderfruit 2016 Review

Wonderfruit 2016 Review

Our first stop was one that will ring of enormous excitement to expats on tiny thirteen square mile islands everywhere: a proper grocery store, in the form of Central Pattaya’s Tesco Lotus. We had a couple missions here: get groceries for the next twenty-four hours, buy whatever snacks we wanted for the festival, and stock up on booze.

The latter become a major issue when we were casually strolling the aisles and an employee came up and breathlessly alerted us that alcohol sales were halted at 2pm, which was in approximately seven minutes. (Technically, alcohol sales are banned in the after-school hours of 2-5pm throughout Thailand, though it’s not enforced in Koh Tao). CUE PANIC! You have never seen farang pushing shopping carts with such unbridled anxiety as we did until we were safely through the checkout six minutes and fifty-nine seconds later. Crisis averted.

Next stop, our villa for the night! One bonus of Pattaya’s popularity is the market is flooded with cheap villa rentals — we nabbed this four bedroom for a mere $139 per night. Well, that’s the price we paid after having the $50 cleaning fee refunded because, ya know, we arrived and the place wasn’t cleaned. Frankly, we didn’t mind the discount! For $13.90 each per night, I was more than happy to fluff a few pillows upon arrival. Want to score a similar deal? Get $40 off your first Airbnb booking by using my coupon!

Jomtien Airbnb Rental

Jomtien Airbnb Rental

Yeah, the villa was a bit tired and the downstairs hadn’t been cleaned when we arrived, but we were thrilled with it, considering our very low expectations. It was located on Jomtien Beach, just far enough south from the prostitution circus of downtown that we could pretend we were somewhere else entirely.

Jomtien Airbnb Rental

Jomtien Airbnb Rental

After an afternoon of unwinding from eighteen hours of travel, the boys cracked into cooking a feast for dinner while the girls wandered the hundred meters down to the beach for a sunset drink on the seawall.

This was far and away my favorite moment from our brief time in Pattaya — marveling at the sight of skyscrapers on the beach, watching the sky turn from brilliant shades of blue to pink, and gossiping and giggling with some of my favorite girls.

Twenty Four Hours in Pattaya

Twenty Four Hours in Pattaya

Twenty Four Hours in Pattaya

Back at the house, the boys had outdone themselves! I’ve mentioned before around here the irony that because expats on Koh Tao eat out so regularly (it can actually be cheaper than cooking at home!) and have relatively small living spaces, it’s actually the biggest treat of all to get to share a big home-cooked meal together.

While going out to a big dinner at a restaurant might be the highlight of a vacation back in our Western homes, the ability to make one for ourselves is something to celebrate here in our adopted one.

After dinner, we toasted to Janine’s birthday — the second in a row we’ve celebrated with a big group trip! — and turned in early to prepare for the big events ahead.

Twenty Four Hours in Pattaya

Twenty Four Hours in Pattaya

Twenty Four Hours in Pattaya

The next morning, our crew of ten grew by two more, our friends Ryan and Bron, fresh off a flight from Australia! With several hours to kill between checking out of the villa and checking into the Wonderfruit campsite, I’d done some serious research into activities in the area that didn’t involve red-light districts — and to my surprise, we planned a really fun day.

Wonderfruit 2016 Festival Review

After nixing, much to my heartbreak, a day at the largest waterpark in Thailand, we settled on two much drier stops — first, a short stroll around Buddha Mountain, and second, a tour of Silverlake Vineyard.

While Buddha Mountain didn’t hold our attention much beyond a simple group photo-op, it was a very cool variation on the typical Southeast Asian Buddha statue and made for a quick and quirky stop. (Though not, admittedly, as quirky as the Upside Down House Pattaya, or the Pattaya Sheep Farm, where real sheap mingle with their statue counterparts, both of which we also passed en route.) Bonus, Buddha Mountain is free to enter!

Buddha Mountain Pattaya

Next up, the real star of the show — Silverlake Vineyard. As many of you know, I’m on a mission to visit every winery in Thailand, and so visiting this one was a major motivation for tacking on extra time in Pattaya pre-Wonderfruit.

So you can imagine my annoyance when we arrived to a notice that the winery was currently closed. Great. Well, we were there anyway, so with no option to take the full winery, vineyard and tasting tour (for 250B) we settled on taking the vineyard and grape juice tour (for 100B), and buying a couple of bottles of wine to try with lunch.

Silverlake Vineyard Pattaya

Silverlake Vineyard Pattaya

Silverlake Vineyard Pattaya

I’m not going to sugarcoat it — the “vineyard tour” was a bit of a joke. I’d gleaned from the research I’d done that this was going to be miles away from the stunning and sophisticated vineyards we’d visited in Khao Yai and in Hua Hin. But this was even more of a bizarre celebration of kitsch than I’d expected, with about half a dozen wordless stops at strange photo-props followed by a quick glance at some grapes before being dumped at a grape juice processing plant.

Thankfully, I had a group who made the absolute best of it, and we had so much fun you wouldn’t believe we hadn’t cracked into the wine yet.

Silverlake Vineyard Pattaya

Silverlake Vineyard Pattaya

Silverlake Vineyard Pattaya

Silverlake Vineyard Pattaya

Can you even imagine a better crew to tour a fake winery with?

Silverlake Vineyard Pattaya

Silverlake Vineyard Pattaya

At least, I must admit, the grape juice was delicious. We peeked into the temporarily-closed winery building next door, and the tasting room did look quite nice.

Silverlake Vineyard Pattaya

Silverlake Vineyard Pattaya

After the tour, we had a lazy lunch at the winery’s onsite restaurant, where we ordered a carafe each of the shiraz, rosé, and sauvignon blanc to do our own DIY tasting. The restaurant was a good call — the wine was nice, the food and service were good, and the prices were reasonable.

It really was a shame that the winery building wasn’t open — I think it would have balanced out the silliness of the “vineyard tour” with some explanation of what were a couple decent wines. But, such is life. And there wasn’t much time to mull it over — we were en route to Wonderfruit!

Silverlake Vineyard Pattaya

Silverlake Vineyard Pattaya

Will I be rushing back to Pattaya? No. (Though the checklist-lover inside of me is tormented that I didn’t technically visit the Silverlake Winery. Curses!)

But we really did make the most of our twenty-four hours there. Between quirky quintessentially Thai attractions, quality time with my favorite crew, and a bargain of a villa to rest our heads in at night, it was the best trip to Pattaya a girl not interested in go go boots could ask for.

Silverlake Vineyard Pattaya

Stay tuned for my next dispatch from Wonderfuit!

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Martha’s Vineyard On a Budget — Yes, It’s Possible!

Martha’s Vineyard… on a budget? I admit, it doesn’t sound right. Like Thailand and good bread and cheese, or Brazil and being on time, or England and a reliably sunny weather forecast, it just doesn’t feel like a feasible travel combination.

But lean in, because I’m about to spill what feels like a major secret. The rumors aren’t true – Martha’s Vineyard isn’t an uber-exclusive, snobby haven reserved for only the insider elite. That’s Nantucket! (I kid, I kid – though there’s always been a friendly rivalry between the two islands.) First time visitors to the island are often surprised to find a thriving arts community, a strong agrarian culture, and a laid-back and barefoot feel.

Martha's Vineyard On a Budgetsource

Martha’s Vineyard is expensive. But it’s also one of the most magical places in America, and this community-focused island, where humble houses still outnumber mega-mansions, is proud of its inclusive history of welcoming all. You could be next.

Admittedly, I have been blessed with the unique opportunity to fall in love with Martha’s Vineyard in a way most people don’t have access to – my family vacationed on the island nearly every summer when I was a girl, and my mom now lives seasonally in Oak Bluffs. I know from your comments and messages that many of you feel Martha’s Vineyard isn’t an accessible travel destination for you, and I’m hoping that the insider secrets and stories I’ll share here might convince you otherwise.

You’re not going to travel Martha’s Vineyard on a shoestring. But you also don’t need a private jet, a beach mansion or a Kennedy bank account to make it happen. Here’s a guide for those looking for something in between.

Martha's Vineyard On a Budget

When to Go

Timing is everything when it comes to planning a budget-friendly trip to the Vineyard. If you’re really on a shoestring, aim for anytime before Memorial Day at the end of May and after Labor Day at the beginning of September. If you have a bit more wiggle room in your budget, come between Memorial Day and the Fourth of July, when the weather is slightly warmer, the crowds are still manageable and prices not yet peak. Heart set on July and August? God bless you.

While July and August undoubtedly have the best beach weather with average temperatures in the 80’s, June and September are still lovely, mostly hanging in the 70’s. Pushing further into the shoulder seasons, May and October are definitely sweater weather, with highs only in the 60s.

Choosing these off-peak times means not only will crowds be thinner and reservations of all sorts easier to come by, but accommodation prices will be significantly more manageable, and transportation will often be impressively discounted. And events like The Martha’s Vineyard Wine Festival in May and the Food and Wine Festival in October prove there’s plenty going on outside peak season.

Martha's Vineyard On a Budget

Getting There

Martha’s Vineyard is an island, so eventually you’ll end up on a ferry or a flight in order to arrive.

First of all, don’t rule out air travel entirely. I’ve nabbed midweek JFK to MVY fares for a mere $75 before, and I’ve seen them as low as $60. Book early, fly off-peak, and travel off-season for your best bet at scoring similar fares. (Book at the wrong time and you’ll see fares of over a thousand bucks round trip from New York — for a 40 minute flight!)

Flights generally connect through New York and Boston. You can also fly via Washington DC, Nantucket, Hyannis, Providence, Westchester, New Bedford, White Plains – some only seasonally. Read more about how to generally find cheap airfare here.

Most frequently, however, budget travelers will travel by ferry. If you’re planning to bring your car onto the island, your only option is the Steamship Authority, which departs from Wood’s Hole, Massachusetts. Seasonal passenger ferries also leave from New York and New Jersey, from Quonset Point in Rhode Island (which you can connect to via Amtrak from New York), and from Nantucket, New Bedford, Falmouth, and Hyannis in Massachusetts. Learn more about the various ferry options here — or just read on below.

Getting to Martha's Vineyard on a Budget

But back to the Steamship Authority from Wood’s Hole – because it’s by far the most budget friendly option at just $8.50 a pop each way. In contrast, the Seastreak Ferry from New York City is a cool $155 each way (and only runs in each direction once a week).

So now you have to get to Wood’s Hole. If you’ve decided to bring your car onto the island, you’re all set (more on that below in the Getting Around section). If not, you can still reach Wood’s Hole via your own vehicle, but you will have to pay to park it.

Parking in the Steamship Authority lots ranges from $13-15 per day, depending on the distance of the lot. Frequent complimentary shuttles will bring you from your vehicle straight to the ferry. There’s no cheaper option – once, after hearing a rumor that Wal-Mart often looks the other way for long-term parkers in its lots, my mom’s boyfriend tried calling the closest one on the Cape to see what the manager said (apparently they will tell you if they do allow it.) It’s not one of those locations.

But, if you’re staying on the Vineyard for more than seven days, feel free to loose your parking ticket. The maximum fee for a lost ticket is $105, which becomes the cheaper option after a week.

Another incredibly convenient option for reaching Woods Hole is the bus. Peter Pan Bus Lines will delivery you straight to the dock from Boston’s South Station and Boston’s Logan Airport as well as New York, New York and Providence, Rhode Island. I’ve used Peter Pan to travel from Albany to Boston and Boston onto Wood’s Hole for $53 and it was a comfortable, seamless ride. If you find a cheap flight into Boston, it’s only $55 round trip from the airport to the ferry terminal and back – that’s cheaper than a one-way cab fare from the airport in some major cities.

Getting to Martha's Vineyard on a Budget

So while there are dozens of options for reaching Martha’s Vineyard, my favorite options are (1) to fly straight to the island, (2) fly to Boston and connect to the Peter Pan bus, or (3) drive or bus to Wood’s Hole.

Where to Stay

This is where the “ouch!” factor comes in — accommodation on Martha’s Vineyard is steep. But you don’t have to rent a $5,000 a week beach house to make it happen, obviously.

• The Martha’s Vineyard Family Campground

Not to be confused with the Campmeeting Association, commonly and confusingly referred to as “The Campground,” the Martha’s Vineyard Family Campground is the one and only official place to pitch a tent. My mom, her boyfriend, his daughter and I all stayed here years ago before my mom became a part-time resident on the island (in fact, it was on that trip that we stumbled on our future home!) and I highly recommend this clean and organized option for those on a budget.

The Campground offers tent camping sites, RV and trailer hook-ups, and modest one and two bedroom cabins. All camp sites have picnic tables and fire pits and cabins come with a small grill. Shared bathrooms have hot water showers, and an on-site laundromat, playground, convenience store and rec room make this a one-stop shop for campers. There is a bus stop right at the campsite, which is located between Vineyard Haven and Oak Bluffs, and buses stop every 30 minutes. Bike rentals are also available and it’s a convenient way to reach both towns (we rode bikes to and from each so I could take photos for this post.) The biggest downside? You have to bring your own bedding.

The Martha’s Vineyard Family Campground is open from May 25th-October 11th for the 2017 season. There’s no maximum stay – you can post up for the whole summer, and many do! Two person tent sites start at $60 per night or $371 per night (there’s a discount for single campers outside of peak season.) Four person cabins start at $150 per night or $945 per week.

The Martha's Vineyard Family Campground

The Martha's Vineyard Family Campground

The Martha's Vineyard Family Campground

• Hostelling International Martha’s Vineyard

Yes, Martha’s Vineyard has a hostel! In fact, in 1955 it became the first purpose-built youth hostel (meaning it was built specifically to be a hostel) in the USA. Last summer, I stopped by to see what the Vineyard’s most affordable sleep was like.

The rural surroundings of the HI Martha’s Vineyard lend it the feel of a summer camp, as do the frequent bike tours, scout groups, and families that sometimes fill the sixty-seven beds spread across dorms and private rooms. Unlike many US hostels, this one is filled with primarily domestic travelers – as well as the occasional Europeans or more far-flung wanderers. The downside of the hostel is it’s somewhat remote location near the airport, though there is a bus stop directly in front of the hostel that will whisk you all over the island.

The Martha’s Vineyard hostel is open from May 20th-October 8th for the 2017 season. The maximum stay is one week. Dorm beds start at $38 per night, private rooms with shared bathrooms start at $82 per night. All rates include breakfast. Though I can’t give it a personal recommendation, my mom’s boyfriend’s daughter (whew!) stayed here with a bike tour and gave it two thumbs up. You can also read another blogger’s review here.

HI Martha's Vineyard

HI Martha's Vineyard

HI Martha's Vineyard
HI Martha's Vineyard

• Hotels, Inns, Airbnbs and beyond

Believe it or not, there are plenty of small hotels, motels and locally owned inns that charge less than $100 a night – several of them can only be booked directly though and don’t have a huge online presence, so poke around. This is where the timing of your trip is huge. A room at the centrally located and charming Dockside Inn starts at $99 a night midweek in May – and shoots up to $279 a night midweek in August – and is back down to $109 in September. Edgartown will generally fetch the highest accommodation costs.

Airbnb is also becoming popular on the island, with 19 listings currently available for under $100 a night, and 103 listings currently available for under $150. Get $40 off your first booking here!

Budget Accommodation Martha's Vineyard

Getting Around

If you are staying in the towns of Oak Bluffs, Vineyard Haven or Edgartown, chances are you will be in close walking distance to restaurants, shops, beaches, and other attractions. To get further afield, you have several options.

• Bus

Sure, you could get around the island on a pricey tour via trolley or van or brightly painted school bus. But you’ll be joined by just as many tourists – and plenty of locals! – on the public Vineyard Transit Authority bus.

The buses on Martha’s Vineyard are reliable, efficient, and affordable, and reach every corner of the island in the summer season. If you’re staying down-island, there’s really no reason not to use them as your primary mode of transportation. There are bus stops at the airport and all major ferry terminals. Fares range from $1.25-$6.25 per ride, though one day passes are available for $8, three day passes for $18, and seven days for $30. Bring exact fare if you plan to purchase your pass or single ride on the bus directly.

Download the Vineyard Transit app to plan routes and track when the next bus is your way. And bonus! There are bike racks on most busses – so feel free to combine a long bike ride out to a destination with a relaxing bus ride back home.

Martha's Vineyard Bus System

Getting Around Martha's Vineyard on a Budgetsource

• Bicycle

Martha’s Vineyard is a cycler’s paradise, covered in over seventy-five miles of dedicated trails. Find a map of the island’s bike trails here. Also check Google Maps, which shows a bike option when you search for directions for the island! Even with a car on the island, I love the ride between Oak Bluffs and Vineyard Haven, and Oak Bluffs and Edgartown – no parking stress!

All passenger ferries allow bikes onboard for a modest fee, if you wish to bring your own. Rental companies in Vineyard Haven, Oak Bluffs, and Edgartown offer rentals starting at $22 a day or $95 a week – call around for the best rates.

Biking on Martha's Vineyard
Biking on Martha's Vineyard

• Cabs

Uber and Lyft are now available on Martha’s Vineyard – rejoice! Get a free ride of up to $20 here with Uber, and up to $25 with Lyft here. I always check the quote for both since it varies which is cheaper. If a heavy surge is happening, keep in mind that a local taxi may be cheaper – call one to ask. Already steep rates double from midnight to 7am, so if you really want to enjoy the local nightlife you might consider staying in Oak Bluffs or Edgartown.

If you’re on a budget, local cabs should be used quite sparingly – a bike or the bus are great alternatives.

• Your Own Vehicle

If you’re set on having your own set of wheels, start crunching numbers. Depending on where you’re coming from and how many days you’re staying, it might be most cost effective to bring over your own vehicle, if you have one, on the Steamship Authority ferry.

It costs $137 round trip, not including any passengers, and reservations are absolutely essential. Make a booking as early as possible – like, yesterday – though you may have more wiggle room traveling off-season. If the ferries are full, try for the waiting list. We usually wait list a reservation a couple times a year and often they come through. Fill up your tank before you arrive on the island to save on inflated gas prices.

If you’re planning to rent a vehicle on island, try calling around to local island agencies in addition to checking the usual big booking sites. Car rentals start at around $60-$85 a day. Mopeds are often pricier to rent than cars, rarely starting at less than $100 per day. Keep in mind that depending on the season, parking on the island can be extremely limited.

Getting Around Martha's Vineyard on a Budget

What To Do

This is the easiest area to save – the best things to do on Martha’s Vineyard are free or nearly so! Wandering the island’s six charming and distinctly different towns, and spreading out on its classic New England beaches, should be top of your list. Honestly, my happiest childhood memories of Martha’s Vineyard are of doing a whole lot of nothing – it’s a place you come to relax and recharge.

Yet here are a few other ideas for $5 and under:

• Jump off the infamous Jaws Bridge – or enjoy the spectacle of those who are crazy or brave enough to do so: Free

• Climb to the top of the Edgartown Lighthouse, the Gay Head Lighthouse, or the East Chop Lighthouse and admire the view: $5

• Ogle the Aquinnah Cliffs, a favorite local photo op: Free

Budget Things to Do on Martha's Vineyard

• Take a community yoga class at the beyond beautiful Yoga Barn: Free

• Make furry friends and check out a local farm at Island Alpaca: $5

• Watch the sunset in Menemsha: Free (Plus the cost of whatever beach picnic you put together from local seafood shacks and the case of wine you brought to the island – no? Just me? Do like the locals do and bring a blanket and a beach chair and clap when the sun dips below the sea.)

• Ride the famed Flying Horses Carousel in Oak Bluffs: $2.50

Budget Things to Do on Martha's Vineyard

• Check out the galleries and weekly Vineyard Artisans Festival in West Tisbury: Free

• Work on your tennis swing on the local high school courts: Free

• Take photos of the colorful gingerbread houses of the Martha’s Vineyard Campmeeting Association: Free (Or pay $2 to visit the museum, or really splurge on $12 for an official tour of the neighborhood– my mom might be your tour guide!)

Budget Things to Do on Martha's Vineyard

And for $10 and under:

• Grab a hotdog and hit the stands to see local baseball team The Sharks play: $7

• Tour the Martha’s Vineyard Museum in Edgartown: $10 in the summer, $8 in the winter ($12 combo passes provide admission to both the museum and the Edgartown or Gay Head lighthouses.)

• Take an hour-long farm tour at The Farm Institute or The Grey Barn and Farm: $10 (cheese tasting and milking tours are also available for $20 at Grey)

• Ride your bike over to Chappaquiddick and tour the Mytoi Gardens: $6 round trip for the short ferry ride across the sound with a bicycle, an attraction in and of itself, and the gardens are free.

Budget Things to Do on Martha's Vineyard

Where to Eat

No surprise here – bargain eats are hard to come by. If you’re traveling on a tight budget, staying in accommodation where you can cook many of your own meals (the hostel, the campground, or a rental with a kitchen) will be a huge boon. We always arrive on the island with a huge haul of groceries, which my mom reckons are about 20% cheaper on the mainland. You can supplement the basics with fresh produce from local up-island farms, often available at roadside stalls outside the entrances.

Eating in Martha's Vineyard on a Budget
Eating in Martha's Vineyard on a Budget

Yet even if you cook the majority of your meals, you can still get that “on vacation” feel splurging on casual treats like ice cream at Mad Martha’s (literally, a Martha’s Vineyard must), apple fritters at Backdoor Donuts, or casual picnic eats like lobster rolls or clam chowder packed up for sunset.

Like most of the US, portions are huge in the Vineyard, so don’t be afraid to split an entrée if you do venture out for a splurge. Here’s a list of my favorite restaurants to do so at.

And here are a few other budget eat ideas:

• Seafood: On Fridays at Grace Church, you can get a massive lobster roll, chips, and a drink for $22. My mom says you get the best deal ordering them “unconstructed.” Available in season only, on Fridays from 4:30-7pm. Other affordable seafood favorites include The Net Result in Vineyard Haven and The Bite in Menemsha.

• Picnic supplies: Grab sandwiches and other to-go treats from 7aFoods in West Tisbury, Skinny’s Fat Sandwiches in Oak Bluffs and Edgartown, and Slice of Life in Oak Bluffs.

• Sit down specials: My beloved Sharky’s Cantina has 50 items under $10 on their menu (my go-to order of a pulled pork quesadilla is just $9.99, and I always have leftovers), the lunch specials at Bangkok Thai Cuisine are a bargain (and the owners are Thai and couldn’t be sweeter), Biscuits offers sit-down breakfasts at low-down prices, and the cheese and charcuterie boards (starting at $11.99) at Bad Martha brewery are more than worthy of a meal. The chef at my favorite restaurant on the island, Red Cat Kitchen, recently recreated the bar menu at the casual local pub The Ritz – an amazing opportunity to try his creations at a fraction of the price.

. . . . . .

Bottom line? If you want to visit Martha’s Vineyard on a budget, you will probably have to compromise on something. If you love having the freedom of your own wheels, consider the hostel or campground. If you’d rather get cozy at a front and center inn, take the bus around. If you absolutely must visit in peak season, start pinning some fun summer recipes and planning some beach picnics.

That said, compromise tends to have a negative connotation, and in this case I don’t think it’s true – it’s really quite hard to do Martha’s Vineyard “wrong.” Come with a smile and regardless of how budget or bottomless your wallet might be, you’ll inevitably be swept up in the charm of — what one very biased blogger feels is, at least — one of the most magical islands in the world.

Any questions? Ask away! Are you a Vineyard regular who noticed something I missed? Feel free to add in the comments!

Surprises From Six Weeks in Brazil

As my biggest getaway of 2016, I spent plenty of time meticulously planning my six week trip to Brazil. And yet for all my research and reading, nothing can actually prepare you for the culture shock of completely immersing yourself in a new country, new language, and new lifestyle.

So many aspects of Brazil took me completely by surprise — both good and bad! While I’ve sprinkled in plenty of stray observations throughout my coverage, here are a few final thoughts on the biggest bombshells of my trip. Of course, in the end these are just the musings of a tourist — my experience was shaded heavily by my luck and by my mood. Others might have a different take. Brazilians, feel free to set me straight if I’ve misinterpreted your culture in any way.

Brazil Travel Blog

How safe we felt

One of our pleasant surprises of the trip was how comfortable Heather and I felt as two women traveling alone through what is often considered a very dangerous county. I should note that we had very low expectations in this regard. Stories of theft in Brazil are so rampant that I literally considered buying a backup iPhone before this trip, because that�™s how much I had pre-accepted that I was going to be robbed blind. My first day in São Paulo was a hilarious wake up call that I really needed to chill.

While we were constantly — like literally, constantly — warned by everyone we encountered to be careful with our cameras (to which we were like, yeah, duh), we were vigilant and cautious and had zero issues and really felt surprisingly safe and secure throughout our time in Brazil, with a few uneasy but brief exceptions. Of course many travelers do experience crime in this country, hence the constant warnings, but our experience was a reminder that there are plenty of travelers who move through the country grief-free, too.

Brazil Travel Blog

How no one gave a flip about Zika

Our trip was at the HEIGHT of Zika mania. My dad, a busy CEO who probably isn’t really sure what country I am in the vast majority of the time, called me specifically to ask if I might consider postponing or canceling my trip — Heather’s parents did the same.

So I arrived half-expecting some sort of Hazmat-covered country under quarantine. And seriously? No one cared. No. one. cared. The first few times Heather or I casually brought up Zika to Brazilians, they looked at us like we were paranoid nutjobs. When we told them that Zika was still headline news every night in the US, they were baffled. “Oh yes, Zika. I had it last year. Dengue is much worse,” a doctor we met at Tomorrowland told us flippantly before casually ordering up another caipirinha. As someone who is kind of the opposite of a hypochondriac, I found the whole attitude very refreshing.

Also? We literally did not see one mosquito. Anywhere. Ironically, our two biggest fears before arriving in Brazil could not have been less of an issue.

Brazil Travel Blog

How hard it was to communicate

Yet the thing I didn’t think to fear left me so frustrated I nearly flew home early. Living in Thailand, a country where I speak no more than a pitiful few throwaway phrases in the country’s notoriously difficult and tonal language, I have done plenty of pantomiming and getting by with little-to-no shared vocabulary. I’ve traveled to 37 countries now and before Brazil, communication has never been an issue beyond a passing flicker of frustration — I certainly never imagined that a language barrier would negatively influence one of my trips.

It started with a very misplaced sense of confidence. I like to classify myself as a “blissfully barely-competent Spanish speaker.” Which is a winking way of saying that while I’m far from fluent, I love speaking Spanish and embrace the challenge with gusto, never letting an improperly conjugated verb get in the way of a productive conversation in Latin America. And I thought, how different can Spanish and Portuguese be?

Ha! That false sense of security was only heightened by the planning stage of our trip, in which I was able to fairly easily understand several all-Portuguese websites. Oh, how naive I was! I’d soon learn that written Portuguese and spoken Portuguese are two entirely different beasts. While the former is quite similar to its Spanish cousin, the ladder was unlike anything I’d ever heard. “When we first boarded our plan to Brazil for Argentina, we wondered why they were giving the announcements in Russian,” confessed my Israeli travel companions in Jericoacoara. At the risk of offending my Portuguese-speaking readers, the primary adjective I’d use to describe Brazilian Portuguese was mushy. Without the sharp clarifying corners I’d grown to love in the Spanish language, I couldn’t even pick up the different words when spoken to in Brazilian Portuguese. And again, I greatly hesitate to write this and offend any Portuguese speaking readers, but the truth is the language didn’t agree with my ears. In the same way that some people’s taste buds are predisposed to certain foods, the sound of different languages appeal to different people. Portuguese just isn’t my jam.

Of course, I accept full responsibility for not knowing more than the basic guidebook phrases when I arrived in Brazil. Translation apps can only go so far, and I should have been better prepared.

But regardless, you must be thinking, surely there are plenty of Brazilians who speak English? Nao muitos! Studies claim only 3% of Brazilians speak English as a second language. And I found that those who might were extremely reluctant to speak it.

In Southeast Asia, for comparison, my experience has been that there is no expectation among locals that foreigners will speak Thai, Khmer, or Laotian. Fluency in English is also a rare trait in this region, though communication between traveler and local is generally light-hearted and earnest. There’s a sense of, we’re in this together, and neither of us is leaving until we figure out how many papayas I want to buy and how much you’re going to charge me for them, gosh darn it. 

Brazil Travel Blog

But I found that in Brazil, it was harder to get anyone to even attempt to communicate �” my apologetic English or hapless attempts at Portuguese were frequently met with terror, blank stares, and the person I was speaking to simply walking away from me. At Tomorrowland Brazil, I was unable to hear an employee at the information booth’s hesitant reply to me in English due to the loud music playing; when I asked her to repeat herself, she shook her head over and over again in mortified horror until I finally gave up and walked away. In Duty Free at São Paulo’s international airport, multiple employees practically sprinted from me in fear when I, again, always apologetically, requested assistance in English. When I wrote emails to hostels with English websites, they went unanswered. And more than once, I called a business and was told harshly, in perfect English, “we don’t speak any English,” before being hung up on. Needless to say my attempts to politely ask, “puedo hablar in Español?” were, with a few exceptions, also a giant flop.

I don’t think any of the people — just a few random examples plucked from six weeks of exasperation — were trying to be rude or unhelpful (in fact, the Brazilians we met who were comfortable speaking English were overwhelmingly warm and bubbly.) It was explained to me that many Brazilians are simply embarrassed by their lack of English abilities. In fact, one Brazilian I met explained that the reason we’d encountered so many domestic travelers at the hostels we stayed at was that Brazilians are often hesitant to travel to other countries, given their limited English abilities. It affects not just travel but business, too. And while many articles I’ve read in researching the lack of English speaking in Brazil assured me that locals would go out of their way to help me despite our lack of shared languages, I unfortunately did not find that to be the case. Maybe we just had bad luck.

Heather and I spent a lot of time reflecting on why we personally found the language barrier in Brazil so upsetting. We met quite a few men on the road (women traveling without male companions in Brazil were rare from our observation) who were basically like, “ha ha yeah we don�™t understand anything! Who cares!”

Is it that as women we have to be more concerned about our physical safety? Is it that we are highly attuned to being talked over and brushed off? Do we just find communication to be more important? Whatever it was, I found myself very on edge knowing that I was unable to express myself in the local language, and that if I were to try to use body language or, heaven forbid, my mother tongue, I’d clear the room. I felt invisible and vulnerable in a way I never have before while traveling.

Brazil Travel Blog

The champagne campaign

On a lighter note, I couldn’t believe how much Brazilians LOVE bubbly. I was extremely onboard with this. Tomorrowland Brasil had more champagne tents than beer ones, our brunch restaurant in Rio de Janeiro had a DIY Bubbles Bar for creative mimosas, and at three out of the five hotels I stayed at on the trip, sparkling wine was handed to us at check-in — at in some cases, again at check-out!

We learned at our cooking class in Paraty that the sparkling wine industry in Brazil is booming, which made it all click.

Brazil Travel Blog

How diverse it is

One thing that struck me immediately is how many nationalities Brazil encompasses, especially coming from uber-homogonous Thailand. Brazil is enormous and incredibly ethnically diverse, and there is no one way to look Brazilian.

From the blonde-haired, blue-eyed, German-descended Brazilians of the south to the Afro-Caribbean Brazilians of the northeast to the indigenous tribes of the Amazon and everyone inbetween, Brazil is a really beautiful mosaic of different faces.

Brazil Travel Blog

What novelties we were

I mean hello — this is the country that has hosted the World Cup and the Olympics in just a few short years! Surely a few blonde gringas wandering around would be no big deal? Yet even in one of the most famous cities in the world, we were blessed with some very authentic little interactions that reminded us that we were a fairly exotic sight to some, and provided a sweet and refreshing counter-point to the frustrating anecdotes I outlined above.

It started with the dozens of Brazilians whose eyes lit up with excitement when they saw the American flag I was waving at Tomorrowland and came over to give me a high five — a refreshing reaction, as a citizen of a country that tends to take a lot of international flack.

And it continued with the hilarious National Park Ranger at Christo Redentor who whipped out a notebook and solemnly quizzed us on random English slang and insults after hearing us chatting; furrowing his brow and taking detailed notes at each of our replies. The employees at the pet supply shop it Botafogo who were very indiscreetly taking photos of us with their cell phone until we started chatting in broken Spanish and showing them pictures of our dogs, at which point they dropped the secrecy and each took turns taking photos with us and shyly gifting each of us a special free dog toy to bring home to our pups. The man in the favela who waved us over and insisted I try his BBQ meat straight off the grill, wanting only a smile in return. The salesgirl who sold me a $12 dress and gave me a huge, heart-felt hug before I left the store.

The Uber driver who saved us from disaster and drove us all the way from Rio to Buzios, calling everyone in his phonebook and excitedly repeating the same story — we got the gist of it when we heard “Americanos!” sprinkled in over and over again. Though he didn’t speak a single word of English, he chivalrously tried to be of assistance when we stopped at a rest area for snacks, hugged and kissed us when we got to Buzios, and looked back at his star fares with pride as he started the long three-hour drive back to Rio.

Brazil Travel Blog

How much I loved São Paulo

While planning this trip I kind of considered São Paulo a necessary evil; a place we had to fly into and out of and stop in on the way to and from Tomorrowland. And yet it literally turned out to be one of my top two favorite destinations of the trip (alongside Jericoacoara, its polar opposite).However, while São Paulo might have been the greatest surprise, all the destinations I visited were great in their own ways. There’s not one stop on our trip that was a disappointment in and of itself, though some were somewhat marred by terrible weather and other circumstances.

I originally only planned four nights in São Paulo, but it was long enough to have lingering moments of wondering what it might be like to move there. (And also to my great surprise, I never once had that “if I lived here…” daydream in Rio.) I loved South America’s largest city so much, however, that I ended up stopping there for three more nights on my way back out of the country.

I spent most of it chilling out and reflecting on the six weeks behind me and little else (hence the lack of a blog post on this time), and what a better place to do so than Hotel Unique, where I wildly splurged on one last night of luxury. One of the most architecturally distinctive hotels I’ve ever stayed in, Hotel Unique summed up the cutting edge art, stylish design and bold style that made me fall for São Paulo in the first place — what a perfect note to say goodbye to the city, and the country, on.

Brazil Travel Blog

Brazil Travel Blog

Brazil Travel Blog

Brazil Travel Blog

Brazil Travel Blog

The crazy kissing culture

Heather and I didn’t go out much for the first five weeks we were traveling together (my final week, when I was itinerary-less in Jericoacoara, I let loose a bit more.) However, we had one big night out in Rio and one big night out in Buzios, and both of them had one common theme — we were fending off random liplocks left and right!

In Buzios, we actually ended up chatting to a group of guys away on a bachelor weekend who spoke great English, and playfully confronted them about the apparent Brazilian preference for kissing first, asking names second. They conceded with a laugh that it was true, but countered with a scandalized observation of their own. “But American women… it’s crazy… they dance like they want to [redacted term for intimate activities]!” 

The finer nuances of twerking, it seems, have not reached the shores of Brazil. We couldn’t stop laughing. But it’s true — in the US, it’s fairly common sight in nightclubs for people to wordlessly approach each other and dance pretty intimately, which we were learning was as shocking to Brazilians as their saying-hi-with-a-snog was to us.

Brazil Travel Blog

That Brazil is not a year-round tropical paradise

Perhaps some of you will read this and say “duh.” But Heather and I were ridiculously unprepared for the weather we encountered throughout April and May in Brazil, which is their autumn. Our first week was glorious (residents of São Paulo complained of a heatwave but it felt great to us!), our second was a disaster (it downpoured in Paraty non-stop for days), and the two weeks that followed were mostly nice with a few full days of rain tossed in to keep us on our toes. We had to cancel a bunch of activities as a result, which was a bummer.

However, the larger issue is that we were just completely unprepared for the evening temperatures. During the day, these two Southeast-Asia expats were happy and smiling in sleeveless tops and sundresses. But as soon as the sun went down at 5:30pm, the temperature would drop down to the fifties — omg! — and we would literally be sent into a frenzied cold panic. Neither of us had anything more substantial than jeans and a cardigan, and I kid you not when I say there were multiple people in Paraty wearing puffy coats and winter hats to keep warm. There were many days where we’d make big plans to go out for a few drinks in the evening and as soon as we felt that chill in the air we would freak out, run back to our rooms, put on as many layers and possible, make ourselves into bedding burritos and wish for for the warmth of the sun until morning. Dramatic? Abso-freaking-lutely. But there is very little that I loathe more than being cold — I’ve literally designed my entire life around avoiding it. And I didn’t do a very good job in Brazil.

Don’t let the pictures of palm trees fool you. Brazil is an enormous country with four seasons and a major range of eco-systems. Do your research and pack accordingly!

Brazil Travel Blog

How carefully you need to pack

In addition to the weather wake-up call above, we also discovered a few other surprises that make packing well essential for a happy trip to Brazil. First of all? Laundry is surprisingly tough to do. Hostels don’t offer per-kilo laundry service like travelers might be used to in Southeast Asia or other parts of Latin America, and laundromats are few and far between.

Second? Electronics are insanely taxed and tough to track down. For long trips, bring extra camera batteries, a spare laptop chargers, the works. I got the shock of my life when my MacBook charger fried and it was going to cost a cool $17oUSD to replace it. No joke! I heard at least one Brazilian explain that Apple products in particular are harshly marked up by both authorized and off-the-books retailers — one of the reasons iPhones are one of the prime targets for street snatchings.

How few backpackers we met

I’ve touched on this before, but in our weeks of traveling through Brazil, I was absolutely blown away by the lack of English-speaking travelers we encountered (which meant, compounded with our issues communicating with locals, Heather and I got to have a lot of deep and meaningful conversations with each other. I’m pretty sure she was ready to never, ever hear the sound of my voice again by the time she headed home.)

Having experienced the Gringo Trail full blast in Peru and Ecuador and throughout Central America, I found it baffling at first. Hello… where are all the battered-passport, backpack-toting Europeans, Australians, and North Americans on long haul trips around the continent?! Where are the retirees in zip-off pants? Where are the honeymooners? I didn’t find a heavy concentration of any of them, or any sort of traditional backpacker scene, until I hit Jericoacoara.

Why? Brazil has more visa restrictions than its neighboring countries, it is bigger and more expensive and thus a bit more intimidating to travel. Plus, six of the seven hostels I stayed in throughout my six weeks in Brazil were overwhelmingly populated by domestic Brazilian travelers. The cool thing is that the Brazilians staying in hostels are more likely than the rest of the population to speak a bit of English, and getting to bond with locals who are also traveling is pretty unique and fun — I went to the beach and to dinner with Brazilians in Jeri, we partied with Brazilians at Tomorrowland and I had some awesome chats over breakfast with Brazilians in São Paulo. However, those were kind of the exceptions and for the most part, everyone in the hostels spoke Portuguese and it was hard to break into that clique as an English speaker. Speaking Spanish does help, as many non-domestic travelers hail from neighboring Spanish-speaking countries, specifically Argentina.

Typically I love traveling alone, however in this case I was incredibly grateful to be on the road with Heather for the majority of my trip, lest I feel totally linguistically isolated from the world for six weeks straight.

Brazil Travel Blog

How unique the beach culture was

As a certified beach girl, I thought I knew a think or two about spending a day on the sand. Nah. Brazilians have the most unique beach culture I’ve encountered anywhere in the world — I wrote a whole post about it! People always talk about how Brazilians can teach the world a thing or two about how to party. I think they can also show us how to go to the beach!

Brazil Travel Blog

How tough it was to get a visa

Seriously, hats off to those of you who have to go through the difficult process of procuring a visa for every country you travel to. As a US citizen, most of the visas I’ve applied for in my life have been because I have desired to stay in a specific country longer than the standard visa-waiver would allow. And while they’ve often been a headache to procure, Brazil was the biggest eye opener by far.

First, I had to travel in-person to Bangkok to apply, and by that point I’d already gone back and forth with the embassy multiple times with questions about the application questions and procedure and other logistical issues. The amount of information I had to procure was astounding and I felt like I had assembled approximately twenty-seven documents by the time I was finished. My appointment was stressful, with my interviewer grilling me on minute details of my trip, cross checking my application with Heather’s (who had gone in separately) and berated me for not photocopying my passport ahead of time to the point that I broke down after my appointment worried that my application was going to be denied.

And it was expensive! The whole shebang set me back about $230, not including the cost of a trip to Bangkok, where thankfully I was going to be anyway. I was definitely left with a newfound respect for my fellow travelers who have to cut through this much red tape and more for every trip.

Brazil Travel Blog

Have you been to Brazil? If so, what surprised you about your trip? If not, which of these would catch you off guard?

Kicking the Can: How I Broke My Addiction to Diet Coke

For about a full decade of my life, I was a full fledged Diet Coke addict.

It was a part of who I was — I cracked open a can first thing in the morning, friends sent me Buzzfeed articles about things only Diet Coke addicts could understand, I had a little Diet Coke keychain and a Diet Coke mousepad, and my family I would send each other level red, full blown SOS texts when the fridge was running low. I was drinking 2-3 cans a day, plus fountain (my preferred delivery of choice) whenever I could get my hands on it, and I really had no true interest in stopping.

Breaking a Diet Coke Addiction

And then, suddenly, I did.

On March 1st of 2016 I started a one month Diet Coke free month while in Thailand, and on April 1st I decided what the heck — I extended another two weeks until I flew through the USA. After six weeks, the spell was broken, and I no longer feel powerless over the pull of the silver can.

So why cut the cord? I admit, of the many reasons people kick Diet Coke habits, I did so for pretty superficial reasons. I wasn’t getting headaches, or staining my teeth, or having any negative health repercussions — yet, anyway. But I was trying desperately to lose ten pounds that had creeped on slowly, and the connection between diet sodas and out-of-whack metabolisms and insulin production are hard to ignore. The more I learned the more convinced I became that a trial period without it was something I needed to try.

But in addition to hoping to drop some weight, it was also at times a very inconvenient addiction and I hated feeling so beholden to a particular can of fizz. When I woke up in the morning, it was the first thing I drank, and I was cranky and irritable all day when I couldn’t source it — which was fairly often, considering I often travel to remote areas, and diet sodas are still rare in many corners of the world.

At the time, I searched pretty desperately for first-hand accounts those who were also trying to kick a soda habit, and came up surprisingly empty. So, my carbonation loving friends, here is mine.

Breaking a Diet Coke AddictionMy uncle — who once ran a Coca Cola museum! It runs in the fam!

How I Did It

I never intended to cut Diet Coke out of my life entirely. Drinking Diet Coke was so much a part of both my daily routine and my identity I don’t think I ever could have started had that been my intention. Yet after years of trying to casually “cut back,” I knew I had to do something drastic if I ever wanted to make it a reality.

Today, I am no longer addicted to Diet Coke and that is all thanks to the initial six week cleanse in which I did not consume a single sip (more about my current consumption later.) In fact, it started as just a month long challenge which I extended for two weeks based on how good I felt! That cleanse was completely necessary to sever my dependence to the stuff and allow me to start living with a normal, non-crazy person’s relationship with soda after it ended.

I should probably note that Diet Coke was the only soda I ever really drank — I think Coca Cola tastes repulsive and outside of the rare diet root beer or craft soda on some sort of special occasion (hello, artisanal sodas at a county fair!), Diet Coke and I had a pretty monogamous relationship.

Everyone warned me about the withdrawal symptoms I’d have. Aside from a few terrible headaches the first few days, I actually didn’t find the physical side-effects to be too dramatic. I attribute the ease with which this cleanse went to these steps:

Breaking a Diet Coke Addiction

Breaking a Diet Coke Addiction

1. I did a ton of research

Once I decided to do the cleanse, it was actually pretty easy in practice. And that steely resolve was inspired by research I did as part of my DIY Health Retreat.

Documentaries like Fed Up and books like What Are You Hungry For? really spoke to the specific reasons I was personally looking to cut back — vanity, duh. They dove into how aspartame disrupts the body’s metabolism and craving systems and leads to unintentional weight gain, despite being zero calories. I was also recently recommended the documentary Sweet Misery, which I plan to watch on the plane back to the US to strengthen my resolve for another addiction-free summer.

Also, I read several interviews with skinny people — LOL — who said that they never drink diet sodas, and message board accounts from those who dropped pounds doing so. In the spirit of full disclosure I also read a ton of comments and message board posts from those who quit and never lost a pound, but everyone who did so seemed to feel it had a positive impact on their life.

Now look, it’s not like until last year I was walking around thinking Diet Coke was this super healthy product that I was treating my body like a temple by consuming. Not in the slightest — I knew Diet Coke was bad for me and I literally did not care, at least not enough to make me change. Thankfully, in this case, my desperation to lose a few pounds led me down an unlikely path that has had a holistic and positive effect on my life.

Breaking a Diet Coke Addiction

2. I told my friends

So strong was my resolve that the only serious cravings I had in those first six weeks were the two times I was tragically hungover. And because I had already told my friends what I was doing and they knew how important it was to me, they stopped me from giving in, reminding me how proud I’d feel when I hit the four — and then six — week mark.

3. I replaced it with something else

One of my primary concerns going into this cleanse was that Diet Coke made up the vast majority of my beverage consumption. Like literally, what was I going to drink?! Because in those days the only water I consumed was what I had while I was working out. Well, I now drink tea like it’s going out of style, as well as one or two carbonated waters per day and a TON more straight up tap water than I’ve ever drank in my life. Let’s get into each of those:

Tea

I have never been a tea drinker and so I did a bunch of research to find out which teas had caffeine — which I wanted — and which I would actually like. I absolutely loathe black tea, still to this day (sorry, Brits) but found green tea sort of tolerable, so I started out by putting one green tea bag into a mug with another herbal flavor that I enjoyed more, like lemongrass. For the first week or two of my cleanse, I sweetened my tea with local honey, though I quickly phased that out and I now drink my tea straight up, no sweetener.

A year later, I am a complete and total tea fiend and start every day with a mug of green tea rather than a Diet Coke, and usually go for an herbal tea over ice in the afternoon. I love trying new flavors — this brand from Hawaii is a recent obsession.

Water

I have struggled my entire life to drink water. My cleanse kick started a new habit in which I drink more than ever. I generally try to drink a full 17 oz. bottle between breakfast and lunch, between lunch and dinner, and whenever I work out. Combined with my carbonated water at meals and my morning and afternoon tea, I now easily exceed the recommended 64 oz. per day without too much trouble.

My recommendation? Get a fun, easy-to-drink stainless steel bottle that you love and will want to take everywhere, and have a jug or filter in your fridge so you have easy access to cold, ready-to-go tap water anytime. If you live somewhere with great water you can literally just use a nice pitcher, if you live somewhere where drinking tap water isn’t advisable — like I do — I highly recommend this Clearly Filtered Pitcher, which filters all bacteria, viruses, and other no-nos.

Breaking a Diet Coke Addiction

Breaking a Diet Coke Addiction

Carbonated Water

Or seltzer, or if you’re here in Thailand, soda water. To this day I can’t stand to drink straight up tap water with meals, it just doesn’t feel right. Seltzer is literally just regular water infused with air, and is just as safe and hydrating to drink as regular water (though studies do show it can be slightly more filling, and does have some extremely mild effect on dental health.)

So I now have unflavored seltzer with pretty much every single lunch and dinner. When I’m in the US, I sometimes go wild with the naturally flavored ones. I drink so much of the stuff I’m thinking of getting a seltzer machine like my mom has at home, and bringing it with me back to Thailand.

4. I did it somewhere away from the USA

I know this probably isn’t exactly replicable for most people, but it was a huge factor towards my success. Doing the Diet Coke cleanse in Thailand, where I’m not a fan of the local formula, made it so much easier than had I tried it stateside. If you can find some way — any way! — to shake up your routine, I think that will make all the difference in helping you to snap out of deeply ingrained habits.

While you may not want to mar a trip or vacation with withdrawal symptoms, starting a few days before you leave and your enthusiasm is still strong and arriving in a new destination just as your willpower might be wearing off could be the perfect way to distract yourself. (And ya know, now that I added this, it’s totally relevant fodder for a travel blog! Nailed it!)

5. Make a calendar

I actually didn’t do this, but if I started to struggle or stumble I would have bought or printed out a calendar, and marked off each day I made it without Diet Coke. I always find tracking and visual aids to be incredibly effective in helping me meet goals and stay strong through a challenge.

Breaking a Diet Coke Addiction

Breaking a Diet Coke Addiction

What I Learned

I have always considered myself to have an insane sweet tooth and ravenously consumed candy, desserts and all kinds of sugary goodness on a near-daily bases. Very quickly after giving up Diet Coke, those cravings all but disappeared. I still loved my sweet treats but I noticed that I didn’t HAVE to have them, and so throughout the course of my cleanse they were more of an actual occasional treat instead of a daily obsession. I even noticed my cravings for/consumption of things like bread and pasta subsided.

It was somewhat disorienting to realize that this thing I thought was just a core part of who I was was actually induced by a chemical I’ve been consuming daily for the last decade and a half. Some researchers believe artificial sweeteners like the aspartame in Diet Coke actually fuel the brain’s desire for the real thing, and after six weeks, I agreed with them.

Today, recognizing that my cravings are at least partially a result of choices I’ve made has actually been incredibly empowering. When I’m perusing 711 for snacks before a late night work session, I can no longer grab a bag of M&M’s with the excuse that, “Well I’m just a sweet-tooth having, sugar-loving fiend and there’s nothing I can do to change it!” Instead I think, “Well, I’m craving candy right now because I made the choice to have Diet Coke with my lunch. I can choose to go for it, or I can choose to have a banana instead.” It actually feels really good.

No, I didn’t drop a dress size. But I did find a new awareness of what was fueling my cravings. And as someone who considers herself to have like, zero willpower, it was kind of cool to set such a lofty goal and not just meet but exceed it.

Breaking a Diet Coke Addiction

One Year Later

Like I said earlier, I never intended to give up Diet Coke entirely — and I didn’t. Some warned that after six weeks I wouldn’t be able to stand a sip of the stuff, and I can assure you that did not happen. But I do feel like I have a normal, non-psycho person’s relationship with Diet Coke now, and that is a beautiful thing.

For the most part, I probably average about a can a week. When I’m extremely stressed and sleep deprived, I definitely fall back into a can a day. But that has only happened a couple times and within a few days I actually now see it as a big red flag I’m waving at myself — whoa girl, pull in the reigns on your life. Something isn’t right.

Breaking a Diet Coke Addiction

Breaking a Diet Coke Addiction

I split my year between Thailand and the US, and I admit that it’s much easier to go without here in Thailand, where I never even really liked the local formula but drank it out of pure dependence. In the US, I still love the taste of the stuff, especially the fountain version, and so it is much harder to avoid — especially because when I’m stateside I bounce between staying with various family members who are all still hardcore hooked.

What I tried experimenting with last summer was not allowing myself to drink cans at home, and instead only treating myself to fountain Diet Cokes when I was out and about running errands. Therefore it felt more like a special treat that I savored every second of, and less like something I was mindlessly downing out of habit. If I’m staying in a house where I have any input over what’s in the fridge, I keep it Diet Coke-free to avoid the temptation.

While there are definitely certain locations that tempt me to spiral out of control again (hello, my mom and dad’s houses!), overall I feel incredibly free from my old aluminum shackles. It kind of grosses me out now to think that in the past I would drink Diet Coke out of a plastic bottle, or even, heaven forbid, the occasional fountain Diet Pepsi at a restaurant — thing I literally don’t even like — just because I was so hooked.

Breaking a Diet Coke Addiction

It feel so good to go to a four day festival where there’s no diet version of Coke and not lose my shit. It feels so nice to stay at a resort that stocks Pepsi (gross) and not freak the flip out. It feels very freeing to no longer wake up in the morning, bug out that the fridge is empty, and disrupt my day by sprinting to the closest minimart to stock up before my dang morning can start.

While breaking my Diet Coke addiction didn’t make me the size zero supermodel I had hoped — just kidding, there are no catwalks in the future of this 5’2″-er — it was one of the best things I’ve ever done for myself. It made me feel empowered, it removed a frequent hassle from my life, and it was a major game-changer in the healthier lifestyle I am always trying to cultivate.

Are you a current or reformed diet soda addict? Tell all in the comments!

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Please note I know there are a lot of different opinions out there about food and addiction and if you happen to disagree with what I write here, please know it isn’t meant to offend you — I’m just sharing my own personal experiences and thoughts, and I respect that other people’s will be different! Feel free to share your own experiences in the comments.

Want to learn more about the science behind Diet Coke addiction? This article is a good place to start. 

Out On the Dunes: ATV Adventures in Jericoacoara

You’ve already read how in just one week, I fell deep under Jericoacoara’s spell. While the tiny, remote Brazilian beach town had charm in spades, most people were drawn to what lay beyond its borders — miles upon miles of endless, untamed sand dunes, their shapes changing with the whims of the wind.

To explore them, you’ll need a set of wheels. From what I discovered, the tourism industry in Jeri is still quite underdeveloped and most “tours” are arranged on a whim. If you’re traveling solo like I was, you’ll need to form a group of your own before approaching a tour operator or they are likely to shrug you off.

ATV Sand Dune Tour in Jericoacoara, Brazil

ATV Sand Dune Tour in Jericoacoara, Brazil

Thankfully, I was adopted by a group of a dozen Israelis who arranged two separate days exploring on ATVs for us. The first day we had a slightly smaller group than the second, and each paid 140R ($40US), while for our second outing we each paid 115R ($33). My newfound travel tribe were excellent negotiators, I should note — I have no doubt we would have paid more had I been the one in charge of setting a rate.

In general, it appears there are two general routes the guides will lead you on — one to the east, and one to the west. You could also tackle either of these routes in a buggy with your guide behind the wheel, if you didn’t feel like self-driving. In our case, the guides zoomed ahead on monster-sized dirt bikes, leading the way for our caravan of ATVs.

ATV Sand Dune Tour in Jericoacoara, Brazil

ATV Sand Dune Tour in Jericoacoara, Brazil

ATV Sand Dune Tour in Jericoacoara, Brazil

On our first day, we went west. I have to admit that I’m not the most comfortable behind the wheels of an ATV — I’ve had a few friends get in serious accidents in the last few years and well, I just feel vulnerable bouncing around on this big ‘ol hunk of metal that could flip over and crush me any second.

So I was more than happy to be a passenger on this little excursion, though within moments I could tell that at the speeds my crew was driving, I was going to spend a lot of the day screaming with my eyes clenched shut.

Our first stop was in the hamlet of Mangue Seco. It’s not every day you get to use the word hamlet, but in this case it seems the only descriptor appropriate for the blip on the map that Mangue Seco was.

ATV Sand Dune Tour in Jericoacoara, Brazil

ATV Sand Dune Tour in Jericoacoara, Brazil

Water levels were high in the area at the time, and so we eventually reached a standstill where our ATVs had to be loaded onto precarious rafts and pushed across the water onward. On the other side, our guide asked us if we wanted to take a short boat trip for another 10R to see the “Cavalo Marinho.”

We puzzled over what this could possibly be, my Israeli friends turning to me and asking if my Spanish knowledge might reveal any clues. “Well… caballo means horse in Spanish,” I said with a shrug. “Could they be talking about… sea horses?

I said it with incredibly trepidation. After all, we were crossing a freshwater lake, right? But shortly after we loaded into the boat, the new guide leaned over the hull and scooped into a mason jar, yup, three tiny little seahorses. It was my greatest moment of communication victory in all of Brazil. Six weeks, and I finally was able to accurately predict what sea creature I was about to see.

ATV Sand Dune Tour in Jericoacoara, Brazil

ATV Sand Dune Tour in Jericoacoara, Brazil

After exiting through a surreal, jumbo-sized mangrove forest that we unfortunately didn’t stop to photograph, we were back to the dunes.

ATV Sand Dune Tour in Jericoacoara, Brazil

We soon spotted a crowd in the distance, and paused as we pulled up next to them to see what all the commotion was about, out here in the sand-filled middle of nowhere. We found an enterprising group of locals selling rides down into a rainwater lake for a mere 5R. After watching a few groups face-plant in the sand, I grabbed a board and took my own turn publicly humiliating myself. It was wonderful.

Finally, a chance to relax after the super stressful day we’d been having (ha!) Looking back at a map, I can’t say for sure if we were at Lago Grande or Laguinho da Torta Tatajuba, but I can confirm that it doesn’t really matter. The dunes surrounding Jericoacoara are surrounded by scenic lagoons dotted with in-water hammocks and fringed by palm trees. I wouldn’t get too picky about which one you end up in.

ATV Sand Dune Tour in Jericoacoara, Brazil

ATV Sand Dune Tour in Jericoacoara, Brazil

This was the best part of the day. It was incredibly windy, but we didn’t mind. Hours melted away as we lounged in the sun, watched kite-surfers work their magic, and marveled at the paradise we stumbled upon in what felt like the end of the earth. Seafood and beer were offered every time we so much as looked at a hammock; and my travel companions were all too happy to take one for the team with a few orders.

ATV Sand Dune Tour in Jericoacoara, Brazil

ATV Sand Dune Tour in Jericoacoara, Brazil

ATV Sand Dune Tour in Jericoacoara, Brazil

ATV Sand Dune Tour in Jericoacoara, Brazil

ATV Sand Dune Tour in Jericoacoara, Brazil

ATV Sand Dune Tour in Jericoacoara, Brazil

All good things must come to an end, and eventually we packed up and prepared ourselves for the long drive back to Jericoacoara. Now, all day, I’d been lightly teased for my clear discomfort with our driving speeds. As our guides geared up, one of the boys, Eliko, approached me and asked what was making me so nervous. “These things flip over all the time,” I pointed out. “No, no,” he assured me. “You are very safe. We all drove in much more difficult circumstances in the army. You are safe.” Who can argue with a man who just dedicated three years of his life to compulsory military service?

I hopped on the back of another ATV and braced myself when the adrenaline-loving driver started taking it in tight circles. Maybe now would be a great time to ask him to stop doing this, I thought to myself, and in that exact moment I felt the left two wheels of ATV lift off from the ground as we both were launched into the air. Somehow, time really did go into slow motion, enough for me to push off with my feet to get as far away from the vehicle as possible, and enough for me to lock eyes with Eliko, who was looking on in horror. If I didn’t know better, I might even recall that I had time to shake my head with disapproval mid-air. When we hit the ground, time resumed at a normal pace, and I was quickly surrounded by a dozen faces of concern.

ATV Sand Dune Tour in Jericoacoara, Brazil

ATV Sand Dune Tour in Jericoacoara, Brazil

We slowed down a bit after that. Eventually, the girls teamed up and I hopped on the back of Maude’s ATV for a bit, where we happily enjoyed the view from the back of the caravan. Never a dull moment, as they say!

ATV Sand Dune Tour in Jericoacoara, Brazil

ATV Sand Dune Tour in Jericoacoara, Brazil

A few days later, when my bruises and memories of the crash had faded, I was talked into doing it all over again (sorry mom.) This time, we went east.

ATV Sand Dune Tour in Jericoacoara, Brazil

ATV Sand Dune Tour in Jericoacoara, Brazil

Our first stop was the famous arch called Pedra Furada. It was quite the scramble to get there after we parked our wheels, but it was worth it for the gorgeous geological formation that awaited us. Here, I wowed everyone with my remote shooting capabilities to capture a group photo with my dSLR balanced on a rock and triggered from an app on my iPhone. Stick with the travel blogger, I assured them. They always have the best selfie tricks.

ATV Sand Dune Tour in Jericoacoara, Brazil

ATV Sand Dune Tour in Jericoacoara, Brazil

Next up was Arvore da Preguica, a truly amazing tree shaped by years of wind and harsh desert conditions. We didn’t have it to ourselves for long though before the next group rolled up next to us — this route was far busier and far less remote and wild than the one we’d taken the previous day, when I wondered how the guides knew which way to go into the endless dunes ahead of us.

ATV Sand Dune Tour in Jericoacoara, Brazil

ATV Sand Dune Tour in Jericoacoara, Brazil

ATV Sand Dune Tour in Jericoacoara, Brazil

This was a much more subdued journey, a balance I was more than a-ok with.

ATV Sand Dune Tour in Jericoacoara, Brazil

Again came my favorite portion of the day, the one in which we lounged in Instagram-ready water hammocks. This time, we ditched the local beer shacks in favor of the upscale beach club (or should I say lake club?) Alchymist at Lagoa Paraiso. As the fanciest of its kind in the area, stepping into Alchymist felt a bit like stepping into a portal to a European beach club — and I didn’t hate it.

ATV Sand Dune Tour in Jericoacoara, Brazil

ATV Sand Dune Tour in Jericoacoara, Brazil

ATV Sand Dune Tour in Jericoacoara, Brazil

That said, we didn’t spring for beach chairs or expensive cocktails. After splurging on a late lunch, we happily spent the rest of our time splashing around in the lagoon and enjoying our last day in Jericoacoara together.

ATV Sand Dune Tour in Jericoacoara, Brazil

ATV Sand Dune Tour in Jericoacoara, Brazil

Simply put, you’d be crazy to come to Jericoacoara and not spend at least one day out on the dunes exploring the wild west of the desert. These were some of my greatest adventures in all of Brazil — I loved them almost as much as the town we went home to.

Are you an ATV wimp like me or an adrenaline-loving daredevil like the rest of my crew?

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A Guide To Jericoacoara Brazil

ATV Adventures in Jericoacoara Brazil

The Great Escape: Month 59 Roundup

Oh, my monthly roundups. They are so ridiculously out of sync with real time now (this post is basically one year late, ha ha) that I recently considered axing the series, but I decided to play catch up instead — so brace yourself for a couple of these coming up! However, now that I’m writing on multiple timelines they do serve as a nice roadmap of my archives for those who want to follow my travels chronologically.

Apologies for the delay, but I suppose better is late than never… right? 😛

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Oh, how hard it was to leave my island life! This was my final month in Thailand before jetting off to Brazil and a stateside summer, and it was a struggle to say goodbye. Aside from one hellish visa run and one giggle-filled girl’s weekend in Samui, I stuck close to Koh Tao and enjoyed my last bit of stillness.

This is a simple post for a simple month!

Where I’ve Been

• One night in overnight transit

• Five nights on Koh Tao

• Two nights on Koh Samui

• Twenty-one days on Koh Tao

Koh Tao Travel Blog

Highlights

• Breaking my Diet Coke addiction! Long time readers know that I’ve long considered the stuff to be carbonated gold, and I spent years jolting out of bed and immediately heading out on a mission to source a can if I happened to find myself without it. I was well and truly addicted.

When I started thinking about doing a DIY health retreat, I knew I wanted to kick my ridiculous Diet Coke habit. But it took me months to psych myself up for it! I knew that there was nowhere better than Thailand to do it, since I don’t actually love the Thai formula for Coke Light. And you know what? It was raging success — so much so that I extended my initial four weeks to six! I took a million notes and learned SO MUCH from the process. Literally one of the greatest gifts I’ve ever given myself. It’s basically not travel related at all, but give me a shout if you’d be interested in a post about getting un-addicted from diet soda!

• Crushing my 5K time. Well, perhaps crushing is a bit of an exaggeration. But I did semi-train for a run for the first time ever, and I saw the results! I set a new best pace for myself, and had a blast crossing the finish line. It wasn’t just that final moment of euphoria though — I also cherished my sunset jogs with my running buddy Amy leading up to it.

• Easter Brunch. Our whole Samui girl’s trip was divine — not because we did anything super special (apart from the race, of course) or ate or drank anywhere especially noteworthy. But we were together, and it was our last big hurrah before my summer departure, and I just loved it. The highlight was our Sunday brunch complete with DIY mimosas and endless toasts to friends and upcoming farewells.

• Not one but two diving courses! A sidemount speciality and an enriched air certification were the perfect courses to take side-by-side. I learned so much, I got excited about diving on Koh Tao again, and I got to cap it all off with a group trip to Sail Rock surrounded by friends. I couldn’t have asked for better days in the ocean.

• Celebrating Sonkgran! My first Songkran years ago was just days into a heart-wrenching breakup with my boyfriend of three years, so suffice it to say that was pretty bittersweet. And I’ve been just missing the big day ever since in my comings and goings from Thailand. Finally, in 2016, I got to have a big wet and wild, happiness-fueled do-ver. Travel BFF Heather even flew in from Bali! Honestly, it was the best day I could have asked for. It’s one of the greatest holidays I’ve had the privilege of celebrating!

• Calling quits on Photo of the Week. It had to happen! I didn’t regret it for a second and I’ve really enjoyed focused more on my Instagram and Facebook since. (My newsletter has been far less successful, unfortunately.) It just took so much pressure off!

• Getting enough sleep. It says something funny about our society that I write here every day about my travels around the world but I’m almost embarrassed to say that I get 7-8 hours of sleep a night when I’m on Koh Tao because I know what a luxury that is.

I’ve spent years with various degrees of sleep deprivation due to anxiety and extreme scheduling. Not that both those didn’t flare up occasionally over my time in Koh Tao — and not that I didn’t have the worst mattress on the planet — but overall it was the most well-rested half a year I’ve had.

Koh Samui Travel Blog

Lowlights and Lessons

• Another hellish visa run to the Burmese border. Paying to spend twenty-four hours being motion sick and be bored to tears by a bureaucratic puppet show? I vowed then and there to never do another one — and so far I’ve stuck to it! (I take mini-vacations instead.)

• Our Samui hotel was pretty disappointing. After all the fabulous places we’ve stayed over the years, it was kind of a letdown to land somewhere so meh for such an epic trip — I really wanted to treat my girls to something special! Ah well, that’s what we get for booking last minute! We still had a blast.

• My Brazilian visa photo. Lol? I know it sounds like a funny thing to complain about, but I was legit horrified to learn that the awful passport photo I’d submitted with my Brazilian visa application was PRINTED ON THE VISA AND PASTED INTO MY PASSPORT. Of all the passport photos I’ve had to submit over the years, none but the original have actually ended up in my passport! Lesson learned: I’ll never settle for anything less than frame-worthy again. Tears were shed, guys. My vanity knows no bounds.

• The Boat Party… ugh. Honestly, this was so traumatizing of an event that this is the first time I’m mentioning it anywhere in public. And frankly, I’m still going to be super vague, because I’m always on edge writing negatively about anything pertaining to the Thai Government or authorities, considering the country’s track record of warmth towards free speech and criticism.

But basically, what happened was this: a yacht was hired for a private party of mostly long-term expats. We boarded the boat with much elation and enjoyed our fun at sea for about an hour before being approached by a police vessel which boarded the boat and forced it back to a pier other than the one we’d departed from. When docked, we headed for the end of the long pier — only to realize the police had locked it from the other side. We spent two hours in the hot sun with no water or access to bathrooms, portions of it on our knees with our hands over our head, while the police tossed the boat and tried to figure out what charges we could be held on. When we were released, we had to write down names, passport numbers, addresses, and more. It was incredibly traumatizing and I actually cried when we were finally freed. Anyway, that’s the short version — for the longer one, you’ll have to wait for an incredibly juicy chapter of the book I’ve finally accepted I’ll try to write someday.

• Leaving Koh Tao. Seriously, it never gets any easier. This was one of the best seasons I ever spent on the island, and leaving literally felt heart-wrenching. That said, a travel writer stranding herself on an island that is the isolation equivalent of being a 4-5 hour drive from the closest, most expensive airport and a 7-8 hour drive from the more reasonably priced one is not a sustainable business plan and I recognize that my time off the island is necessary for both my business and my mental health! Still, there are always things I long for when I’m away.

Burma Travel Blog

Best and Worst Beds of the Month

Best: Well I didn’t really travel much this month but I did soak up my last beautiful weeks of sleeping in my own apartment! Kind of a shame that I loathed, ya know, my actual bed.

Worst: Easy — my evening on the night boat with broken AC followed by a miserable motion-sickness inducing car ride to the edge on Thailand on my visa run. (Though frankly, the hotel in Samui was nothing much exciting either.)

Best and Worst Meals of the Month

Best: Our post-Songkran brunch at my friend Janine’s house! I made banana cinnamon pancakes and mango mimosas — hangover food in the tropics.

Worst: Sorry to be a broken record, but I’ll have to go with “whatever shitty snacks I compiled from a five-minute stop at 7-11 just over the Burmese border.” Yeah, I really hate those visa runs.

Koh Tao Travel Blog

Spending

I had another nice and low-key month of expenditures (much needed before the spend-storm that was Brazil!). While Songkran and our trip to Samui were mild splurges, my day-to-day lifestyle on Koh Tao is so affordable it can definitely absorb the blow of a few fun activities thrown in per month. In Samui I also used some built up hotel credit I had — nothing special for being a blogger, just normal loyalty programs anyone can use! — to cover the majority of the cost of the rooms.

Unusually for me, two of my biggest splurges were clothes and accessories — new bikinis from local Koh Tao designer Flip Flop and Treacle, and some new jewelry from local island jeweler Amy Jennifer Jewellery. Had to send myself off in style!

Saving

Hallelujah! I doubled my income from the previous month thanks to a few big campaigns coming in with my regular blog partners, as well as a successful month for affiliate income. Again — right before Brazil, I seriously needed it.

Health and Fitness

Between my 5K, the training for it, and trying to use up all my gym and yoga passes before heading off to Brazil, I basically crushed it. Admittedly, Songkran was quite debaucherous, but overall

What Was Next

Six weeks in BRAZIL!

Koh Tao Travel Blog

I simply couldn’t ask for better travel companions than all of you!

Since I left home for my Great Escape, I’ve been doing monthly roundups of my adventures filled with anecdotes, private little moments, and thoughts that are found nowhere else on this blog. As this site is not just a resource for other travelers but also my own personal travel diary, I like to take some time to reflect on not just what I did, but how I felt. You can read my previous roundups here.

The Great Escape: Month 58 Roundup

Oh, my monthly roundups. They are so ridiculously out of sync with real time now (this post is basically one year late, ha ha) that I recently considered axing the series, but I decided to play catch up instead �” so brace yourself for a couple of these coming up! However, now that I’m writing on multiple timelines they do serve as a nice roadmap of my archives for those who want to follow my travels chronologically.

Apologies for the delay, but I suppose better is late than never… right? �Ÿ˜›

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Looking back (way way back, at this point!) this was just one of my favorite months ever. Frankly, none of these travels felt wildly exotic — I was exploring my own backyard, in a way, of my adopted part-time home in Thailand. But I got to travel with some of my favorite people, discover new corners of one of my favorite places, and mostly enjoy the fruits of seeds I planted here in Thailand years ago — a close-knit circle of friends, exciting professional opportunities, and an island I love to come home to.

Where I’ve Been

• Two nights on my Thailand Wine Tour

• Three nights in Bangkok

• Three nights in Hua Hin

• Two nights in Khao Sok

• Seventeen nights on Koh Tao

Khao Yai Travel Blog

Highlights

• Hostel highs! We kicked off our wine trip with a night on Khao San Road, where I discovered an awesome new hostel. I’m so excited to have a great place to recommend in Bangkok’s backpacker epicenter! It’s called Nitan Hostel (we booked through Airbnb so we could use my $35 discount code) and we managed to fill a ten person dorm, essentially making it a private room.

• All the wine! My Thailand Wine Tour was an absolute victory. Huzzah. It was my favorite trip I�™ve taken in a long time �” a challenge and adventure to plan, and unbelievably rewarding to execute. I�™m blessed with the most amazing group of friends and getting to explore a totally new destination together in a country we call home (at least part-time, in my case!) is a memory I�™ll treasure. Especially a destination as beautiful and peaceful as this one. All three wineries were totally unique and lovable in their own ways. Granmonte was so special for the beautiful grounds, amazing restaurant, and the fact that it’s a family business helmed by a woman. PB Valley was a legend for letting us pick our own grapes! And Alcidini was a crazy cute family run vineyard with an emphasis on organic. And again, Airbnb killed it — we loved kicking back in our enormous rental house in the countryside.

• Our skyline suite! A few hectic days in Bangkok were made heavenly by the fact that we had a plush suite at the Amari Watergate to call home — considering we had fourteen friends (!) in Bangkok at the time, it provided the perfect ground zero for our group, especially when we learned that we’d accidentally planned a birthday bar crawl on the holiest Buddhist day of the year, when alcohol sales are banned — oops. Hotel suite party it is!

• Spa time! It’s no secret that I love me some spa sessions, and Bangkok was no exception. I treated Janine and I to a spa package at the Breeze Spa in Bangkok and I am now their most loyal fan ever. Mango sticky rice fans, treat yourself to the mango sticky rice scrub — I’m now hooked on the stuff from the spa’s gift shop and feel like I’m eating dessert every time I take a shower.

• Bangkok eats! As always, a combo of new discoveries and old classics. This time it was a big group dinner at Peppina, a chic pizza restaurant I’d long been dying to try, and a much-anticipated ice cream at Coldstone, a serious guilty please from the US with outposts in Bangkok.

• Beach bumming! Ian and I were the worst tourists ever in Hua Hin and I didn’t care — we had the most adorbs hotel ever to hang in. The beach there was unlike any other I�™ve seen in Thailand, with wild waves and a strong salty smell that reminds me of the beaches of my childhood. This charming mainland beach city felt like a different country from the sultry tropical island we live on — and we loved it!

• ….and more win! Hua Hin Hills was the most scenic vineyard yet. Now that I’ve got four Thai wineries under my belt, I think I’ll have to just keep going until I hit them all.

• Khao Freakin’ Sok! This Thai National Park has been top-of-my list for a while now, and so I couldn’t jump out of my seat fast enough to accept when Elephant Hills, Thailand’s first luxury tented camp, reached out to invite me there. Janine and I played with elephants, wore matching ranger shirts, slept in a tent floating on a lake, learned the fascinating history of the park, and relished the rare joy of being out of cell service. It was an awesome little friend-cation too.

• Enjoying life back on Koh Tao! It’s easy to fall into a routine of working obsessively when I get back to Koh Tao after a trip, but if there’s one thing that can peel me away from my laptop it’s a yoga class. Over one fabulous weekend, I did back to back weekend workshops — an acro afternoon at Grounded followed by a day of inversions at Ocean Sound. Double score!

• Tackling a new hike! After one previous failed attempt, this was the month I finally conquered the Dusit Buncha route. Considering we had no directions and were basically feeling our way through the jungle, it was an enormous accomplishment! And this reminds me, I need to hit that trail again soon…

• Trapeze in the breeze! Another fun physical challenge this month? Getting back on the trapeze rig. I had so much fun swinging among the palm trees…

• Boozin’ on the beach! Always one of my favorite activities. Sadly, the amazing establishment that served actual craft cocktails (as opposed to crappy piña coladas) on the beach during the day was short-lived on Koh Tao — but we really enjoyed it while it lasted.

• St Paddy’s Day! It’s always a super-fun holiday on Koh Tao, and last year was no exception.

• House of Cards! Yes, the release of a new season of House of Cards was one of the highlights of my month. What is the purpose of renting a long-term apartment with a couch if not to binge-watch an entire Netflix series upon it?

Bangkok Travel Blog

Lowlights and Lessons

• Our wine trip driver. Seriously, he was hilariously bad. He missed every turn, ignored all our Google Maps traffic warnings, and put us hours behind schedule. But he was a pretty good sport about having a dozen rowdy farang in the van, so we gave him a big tip despite our dozens of internal eyerolls.

• Rooftop bar rules. Nothing annoys me more than Bangkok’s obsession with footwear. Our group was turned away from a rooftop bar because a few of the crew were wearing stylish dress Havaianas, while frumpy looking tourists wearing Crocs were ushered right in because their toes were covered. Hello, is this the fashion police? I’d like to report a crime against HUMANITY!

• Janine’s birthday disaster (turned not-at-all-disaster). Yes, we were bummed when we discovered we’d planned a massive birthday bar crawl for Thailand’s one single day of no alcohol sales. Ha ha. But it turned out beautifully — we stocked up on booze the day before and had a tipsy night of cake and champagne in our hotel suite instead. More quality time together, less overpriced cocktails in bars, and more hours in our sweet suite? It ended up a massive win in my book. Oops — I guess that’s not really a lowlight.

• Getting my Brazilian visa. O. M. G. You guys. That was a mission! I’ve always had empathy for those who have to fight through red tape to nab a visa for every country they want to travel to before, but now I have SERIOUS RESPECT for those people. I couldn’t believe the amount of paperwork (and, um, money) that I had to compile and confusion I had to work through in order to prepare my application. And I was shocked by the interrogation I received at the embassy in Bangkok when I went to submit it! When I realized I had forgotten to copy my passport and politely asked for a copy, I seriously thought my application might be denied based on the vitriolic response I received. Obrigada, Brazil, for letting me in!

• Getting to Hua Hin. Ha ha, yeah we messed up — we just rocked up to the train station expecting to waltz into a second class train seat and found that the only remaining tickets were for third class wooden benches. The next five hours were a hazy hell of profuse sweat, sore bums and jostling our belongings around to make room for an ever-increasing crush of humans. I’ve enjoyed the third class train ticket in Thailand before, but it’s a strict no-go for me from here forward for rides of more than two hours.

• Missing the wine bus in Hua Hin. Then leaving my wine in Hua Hin. Ha ha, we had some vino-related snafus in Hua Hin. First, we missed the shuttle to Hua Hin Hills vineyard, forcing us to pay for a more expensive private taxi (not the biggest deal ever). Then I left my three new bottles of wine at our hotel before heading to the train station, forcing me to pay to have them shipped to Koh Tao (that hurt a little.) Frankly, I think I was starting to get stressed about my work backlog at this point in the trip and so I was letting little things get to me. Ah well, all’s well that ends… soaked in wine.

• Leaving Khao Sok. Oh, how I wish we’d had one more night at Rainforest Camp! Then, that trip truly would have been perfect.

Hua Hin Travel Blog

LOLs

“Because France.” Oh, how we still laugh about this! At Granmonte Winery, our adorable young guide was making an impressive effort to give the vineyard tour in two languages.

However, as one point, she became exasperated trying to explain why their sparkling wine product could not be called champagne, and after stammering a bit finally gave up and spat out, �œ…because France.” Everyone onboard, including the guide herself, doubled over with laugher and �œbecause France” has become our crew’s catchphrase for “ugh, well, you know and I know you know, so why bother explaining it” ever since.

Best and Worst Beds of the Month

Best: I’m pretty torn — our chic beachside design hotel in Hua Hin or our barefoot luxury floating tent in Khao Sok? Both basically blew my mind.

Worst: Didn’t have a bad one — what a blessing!

Best and Worst Meals of the Month

Best: Vincotto. Can’t beat a three-course meal at a winery topped off with grape cheesecake. You just can’t. (Although the next day’s lunch at a castle in Khao Yai definitely made an effort to.) Come to think of it, homemade dinner prepared by friends in our Airbnb didn’t suck either. Basically, we ate well that weekend.

Worst: Again, I can’t remember anything that stands out as unpleasant. Dang, it was a great month!

What Was Next

A low-key final month on Koh Tao and Koh Samui… and then off to Brazil!

Khao Sok Travel Blog

Thanks for looking (way!) back over my shoulder with me.

Since I left home for my Great Escape, I�™ve been doing monthly roundups of my adventures filled with anecdotes, private little moments, and thoughts that are found nowhere else on this blog. As this site is not just a resource for other travelers but also my own personal travel diary, I like to take some time to reflect on not just what I did, but how I felt. You can read my previous roundups here.

Florida Fanatic: My Summer Plans for the Sunshine State

Happy Thursday! This post is sponsored by AVIS
.

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“How did you end up here?”

I can’t help it – it’s one of my favorite questions. When I talk to other travelers on the road, my insatiable curiosity kicks in and I always want to know how they picked this destination, what their itinerary is, and why they chose that particular route. I just love to know how people’s minds work when it comes to travel!

Florida Travel Blog

Florida Travel Blog

That’s why sometimes I like to give you a behind-the-scenes look at what goes into planning a trip before takeoff. These posts are a good reminder that a big part of my “job” happens off-screen – coordinating my Tetris-like calendar, figuring out when I need to be where, and what I’ll be doing when I get there.

Last year I shared a post about my holiday getaway to Siem Reap and Bangkok as a real life example of how my Wanderland Guide to Travel Planning comes to life! Now, I’m going to give you another glimpse into the planning process for an upcoming trip to Florida. Or as I like to say, here’s how I got from daydream to departure gate.

Florida Travel Blog

1. Picking a Destination

The destination was pretty much picked for me! Last summer one of my best friends from high school announced his wedding in Sarasota in May.

Florida is the punchline of a lot of jokes (I’m looking at you, Florida Man Twitter account) and to some seasoned adventure travelers, might not seem like the most exotic destination. But I love it. For me, since I was little, Florida has meant family and kitschy fun in the sun. Now, I have even more family members (and friends-who-feel-like-family) there than ever, so I knew I’d want to turn this wedding into a larger, multi-destination trip.

Miami Scenic FlightFlorida with friends…

St. Pete Florida Color Run…and family!

Feeling out my dates was the first step. As usual, I’m currently spending the winter in Southeast Asia, and so this year I booked a flight back to New York landing just in time to make it up to Albany for Mother’s Day weekend. I gave myself just four short days of jetlag restoration and repacking there before jetting off to Florida on May 16th (a full week would have been ideal, but you can’t have it all!)

On the other end of the calendar, I’m going back to Bonnaroo! So I knew I had to touch down in Nashville by June 7th. That gave just around three weeks in Florida to play with.

Florida Post Office

Florida Beaches

2. Booking Airfare

Traditionally, the next step is to book flights. Now I know I’m going to fly into Tampa, however some of the trip is still up in the air (and you’re going to help me finalize it!) so I’ve held off booking the return trip. And it’s a good thing, too, because I ended up fitting in a work opportunity that will take care of this for me.

USA Travel Tip: Booking with Southwest is a perfect choice for those who need a little flexibility in their schedule. Technically I booked a Southwest flight from New York to Florida using miles a while back when I saw they were having a sale, but thanks to Southwest’s amazing flexibility, I can easily get a refund for those miles and use them for another summer flight.

Florida Food

Florida Travel Blog

3. Creating an Itinerary

With quite a few items on my Florida bucket list and not enough time to pull them all off, creating an itinerary was (and actively is!) the struggle of this trip.

• First stop: Tampa

Family time! There are several direct flights from Albany straight to Tampa, and so that will be my first stop to soak up time with my hilarious aunts.

I’ve been to Tampa a billion times but I always look for something new to do when I’m there. A walking mural tour through the Central Arts District and a visit to the Tampa Museum of Art are calling to me for this trip.

The Florida Aquarium Tampa

Scuba Diving in Florida

• Next up: Sarasota

Wedding time! I’m super excited about watching Steve and his gorgeous wife-to-be Ali at the end of the aisle, but I’m also looking forward to time with my fellow wedding guest and childhood BFF Kristin. I’m also hoping to take in some of Sarasota’s big sights – the Ringling Brothers Museum is top of my list, as well as a possible boat tour of the tiki bars strewn around the surrounding Keys.

Florida Yacht Miami

• And then: Orlando

I am actually obsessed with water parks but strangely as a woman in her late twenties, I struggle to find friends to join me (so weird right I know). So basically I could not be more excited to be attending the opening of Volcano Bay at Universal Orlando Resort from May 22-26th!

I will in fact be seeing a lot of Orlando this summer — at some point I’ll also be bringing my sister and our friend Ashlee for a little Muggle Marriage Harry Potter themed bachelorette party! We can’t wait – though I suppose first I should actually, er, read the books.

Universal Studios Orlando

Universal Orlando Resort

Plus, though I’m generally not a Disney World fan (I FAR prefer Disneyland in California), I am also super excited about Pandora, the long-awaited Avatar themed land opening in Animal Kingdom this summer. My dad is a DVC member, and so we might do a family weekend there at some point as well – though we will definitely give it a few months post-opening for the crowds to thin out.

Universal Orlando Resort

• After: St. Petersburg 

Breaking news: I’ve just confirmed I’ll be partnering with Visit Florida in May to promote the state’s fabulous array of boutique hotels. I’m super excited to be spending three nights exploring St. Petersburg, a destination I’ve spent so much time near — it’s Tampa’s neighboring city! — and so little time actually in. This is my absolute favorite kind of project.

Dali Museum St. Pete

Dali Museum St. Pete

• Finally: You pick!

From May 26th-June 7th, the calendar is wide open (apart from whenever I fit in the aforementioned campaign). What to do with those beautiful twelve days? Well, I have a lot of options! The most sensible one would be heading back to Albany to rest and regroup before Bonnaroo. But I think we all know I’m rarely sensible when it comes to booking a trip. Which is why I’m also considering these three options:

— Central Florida diving trip: A road trip to Central Florida’s amazing dives (Blue Grotto, Devil’s Den, etc.) via an adorable vintage VW vans… with some mermaids and a paddle boarding side trips thrown in!

— Florida Keys camping trip: Enjoying all the great campsites and natural adventures throughout the Florida Keys from a brightly painted camper van… do you sense a theme here?

— Jacksonville and Amelia Island friendcation: Now that Angie’s officially a homeowner (!) I’m dying to get up to Jacksonville and see her new digs, hang with the extended Orth crew, and get a proper tour of the city (we never left her apartment last time I visited due to an unexpected cold snap and our resulting panic). My friend Kristin’s coverage of her recent visit has me even more excited. Plus, we’ve been throwing around the idea of sneaking off to Amelia Island for a little friend-cation, too!

Which trip would you like to see me go on?

Florida Manatees

Homosassa Manatee

4. Booking Ground Transportation

Since Florida’s destinations are relatively compact, air travel within the state is a bit silly – you’d spend as much time going through security as you would hitting the highway.

Enter Avis. I’ve been dying to put their new Avis Now app into action since reviewing it for this blog, and this is my big chance. I know that I’ll be flying into Tampa so I used my phone to reserve a car with a few simple swipes. When I land, I’m going to receive push notifications to my phone letting me know where my car is located so I can simply bypass the rental counter, find my car in the parking lot, and unlock the car straight from my phone. I’ll be able to save time and best of all, drive off the lot having never made contact with another human. Sound intriguing? Read my full review here! Fellow introverts, I know you feel me.

SUP Yoga Tampa

Miami Florida

Right now I’m thinking that I’ll want to drop off my rental in Orlando, since I won’t be leaving the property once I arrive at Universal. Avis is the Official Car Rental Partner of Universal Parks & Resorts, which means I’ll be able to drop the car right at my hotel when I check in! How dang handy is that?

But – if I decide to change that last minute it’s not a problem. The app allows you to modify your reservation, extend your rental, and even change your drop-off location on the fly.

Sapphire Falls Resort Orlando

5. Booking Accommodation

Like flights, booking accommodation was an unexpected breeze for this trip – so far, at least.

In Tampa, I’ll be crashing with my aunts. In Sarasota, my friend and fellow wedding guest Kristin and I debated several of the official wedding hotels but decided to crash with her mom and dad, who are like my second parents and will be renting a house nearby on Siesta Key for a few months to celebrate their retirement (how perfect is that!).

In Orlando, we’ll be staying at the budget-friendly onsite Cabana Bay hotel, which I’ve been dying to check out since I toured it briefly during our retreat in October (which yes, you’ll read about eventually!)

Beyond that, it will depend on which final leg of the trip I choose! But it looks like I’ll either be camping or crashing with Angie. Both options I love!

Miami Restaurant

The Freehand Pool Miami

Florida Food

 6. And beyond!

And then comes all that good stuff that’s planned after the big decisions are made and the important stuff is booked – decisions like which artisanal donut to eat in Tampa or which tiki bar to hit up along the Sarasota Keys.

My research for my first three destinations was pretty minimal considering I’ve been to Tampa a million times, I’ll be in Sarasota with a group, and in Orlando I’ll be on a work trip where I won’t have too much control over my schedule. In St. Pete, I’ve already thrown myself into a super detailed itinerary with museums, active adventures, beach bars and more!

Everglades City City Hall

Weeki Wachee Mermaids Florida

Weeki Wachee Mermaids Florida

But whatever destination I chose for my final week, I can’t wait to really dig deep into planning some fun adventures… and man am I curious to see which trip you all are most interested in.

Airboat Rides Everglades

Florida Travel BlogDid you enjoy this behind-the-scenes peek at how my May came together? Let me know and I’ll write more of these! In the meantime, help me decide which trip to take for my final week – and give me your Florida tips in the comments!

How are your summer plans coming together? Tell me all about your planning process below!

Florida friends

Miami Sunrise

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 Many thanks to Avis for sponsoring this post! As always, you receive my honest thoughts and opinions regardless of who is footing the bill.