Waking Up With Christ Redeemer in The City of God

There are two attractions that are pretty much non-negotiable must-sees for more travelers to Rio — the Cristo Redentor statue, also known as the Christ Redeemer statue, and Pão de Açúcar, also known as Sugarloaf Mountain. Heather and I were no exceptions, and planned to make both a priority during our one week in Rio de Janeiro.

However, we chose to check off each in what I considered especially spectacular fashion.

Downtown Rio de Janiero

Early Access Tour to Christ Redeemer Statue

As a professional photographer and a professional blogger, it pretty much goes without saying that photos are a top priority for Heather and I when we travel (but I went ahead and said it anyway, just in case.) Which is why, despite being very distinctly not morning people — at least not setting-the-alarm-for-before-sunrise-morning-people — we enthusiastically signed on for a Viator Exclusive: Early Access to Christ Redeemer Statue Tour. Photos of Rio’s top attraction without hundreds of our fellow tourists loitering in the background? I could get up early for that.

And so on our first morning in Rio de Janeiro, we sprung out of bed, grabbed our cameras, and set off to meet Jesus — and maybe let him take the wheel (please tell me I have at least one country music fan in this crowd).

Cristo Redentor Rio de JanieroPhoto by Heather Holt

Early Access Tour to Christ Redeemer Statue

Cristo Redentor Tour Rio

We were mildly irritated by the three different phone calls back and forth that were required to confirm our tour, but at this point we had grown at least mildly accustomed to the daily miscommunications that were a fact of traveling in Brazil for us. We were also a little bummed that our hostel in Botafogo wasn’t within the pickup zone, which required us to travel in the opposite direction of our final destination in order to reach the designated meeting point for those not on the pickup list, but we just rolled with it.

At 7am, we were scooped up from the meeting point in Copacabana and on our way. Our tour guide Solomon switched seamlessly between English, Portuguese and Spanish for the mini-bus full of travelers from around the Americas, and we settled in for the ride up to Corcovado Mountain.

Cristo Redentor Tour Rio

Early Access Tour to Christ Redeemer Statue

We reached the ticket gate about ten minutes before the attraction’s opening time, and remarked on the chill at 2,300 feet above sea level — bring a cardigan, friends! As soon as the clock struck 8:00am, we were on the very first official park shuttles from Paineiras (private vehicles cannot go past this point).

When we reached the top, we had the choice of climbing the 220 steps to the top or hoping on the elevator. Heather and I were not shy about practically sprinting onto the elevator in our attempt to be first to the top — and it worked! We probably had a good three or four minutes before the rest of our group appeared, and then another five or six more before another bus-full showed up. It might not sound like much, but if you’re shutter-ready, you can get drool-worthy travel shots in a matter of seconds. When it comes to having one of the world’s top attractions to yourself, every minute matters! We were pretty lucky that things stayed low key the entire hour or so we were onsite.

Early Access Tour to Christ Redeemer StatuePhoto by Heather Holt

Early Access Tour to Christ Redeemer Statue

Early Access Tour to Christ Redeemer StatuePhoto by Heather Holt

When we were finally able to momentarily chill and cede our perfect shot spot for others the snap away at, Solomon filled us in on the history of the iconic statue. Constructed in 1931 from concrete and sandstone and named one of the Seven Wonders of the World in 2007, the statue was bigger in our minds than it was in reality — we both remarked we though it would be bigger! Apparently, we don’t have a concept of what 130 feet tall with a 98 foot arm span really translates to.

Cristo Redentor Tour Rio

Cristo Redentor Tour RioGoPro fail // Photos by Heather Holt

The morning, like many in Rio, was foggy, giving the city below us an other-worldly feel — but making it somewhat tricky to photograph. Still, the morning light was perfect for photographing the statue, as well as taking portraits in front of it. And of course that was that whole “escaping the crowds” thing going on too — which was made even more successful by the fact that we came on a weekday.

If you still want to beat the crowds and the heat but your priority is taking photos of the view, you might prefer to come in the late afternoon.

Early Access Tour to Christ Redeemer Statue

Early Access Tour to Christ Redeemer StatuePhoto by Heather Holt

Cristo Redentor Tour RioAbout as crowded as it got // Photo by Heather Holt

When Solomon finally summoned us we’d had plenty of time to snap statue selfies, soak up the view and enjoy the morning air. We opted to take the steps back down to basecamp, and after getting the okay from our guide, grabbed a morning tea and snack from the overpriced onsite cafe… which we immediately had to frantically chug/inhale because we were told we couldn’t bring them on the shuttle with us. Ha! Cue us asking Solomon why he encouraged us to get hot beverages when we knew we couldn’t bring them onboard and we had to leave urgently that moment, and filing it away in our “We Literally Never Knew What Was Going On Ever in Brazil” folder.

Would I recommend this tour? I’m going to skip yes and just go straight ahead to DUH. Despite some of the logistical hassles, we were just giddy with happiness at at the swoon-worthy photos and exclusive experience we walked away with. I often find myself seized with stress at big crowded tourist attractions, and it was so dang nice to just saunter around the place like had rented the place out for a small private party of ourselves and a dozen friends.

One thing to keep in mind is you will not be taking that cute little cog train up the mountain. We didn’t read the tour description very well and were a little disappointed, so just be aware of the trade-off when booking. A minibus might be little less glamorous than a train car (and a lot more motion sickness inducing, so prepare for that if needed) but in my opinion the compromise is well worth it.

Cristo Redentor Tour Rio

Early Access Tour to Christ Redeemer Statue

Back at the base of the mountain, it was time to go our separate ways. The tour actually offers an optional upgrade in which you can visit Sugarloaf on the same day, which is awesome for those with limited time, though because we had a whole week we decided to save that for another outing.

Plus, we had big plans for the rest of the day. We decided to forgo our ride back to south Rio and instead take advantage of being up in the north to do a little DIY walking tour of Lapa and Centro using my trusty guidebook to lead the way.

Escadaria Selarón, Lapa, Rio

Escadaria Selarón, Lapa, Rio

Escadaria Selarón, Lapa, Rio

Next stop? Escadaria Selarón! This expansive piece of open-air, public installation art is the brainchild of Chilean-born Jorge Selarón. Began in 1990, the steps lie between the bohemian neighborhoods of Lapa and Santa Teresa, and are a popular draw for art-lovers from around the world.

Wandering the steps, I was reminded me of similar mosaic installation projects I’ve seen in Philadelphia and in Utila — each the inspiring work of one dedicated artist. This 215 steps that make up this constantly evolving work of art are covered in tiles from over sixty countries, many of them gifts once Selarón’s project became widely known — in the early days, he scavenged tiles from trash and construction sites and sold paintings to fund the work. Selarón once claimed that “this crazy and unique dream will only end on the day of my death,” a quote that felt omniscient in retrospect when he was found dead under mysterious circumstances at the top of the stairs.

Escadaria Selarón, Lapa, Rio

Escadaria Selarón, Lapa, Rio

Escadaria Selarón, Lapa, Rio

While many arrive, take a quick glance around, snap a few photos and then leave, Heather and I spent ages on the steps. We moved slowly, admiring the various tiles and excitedly pointing out to each other the ones from destinations we ourselves had visited. We also did some wonderful people watching — the homes along the stairs are still very much occupied, and it was fun to imagine what it must be like to walk along art every day to make it to your front door.

Escadaria Selarón, Lapa, Rio

Escadaria Selarón, Lapa, Rio

If you want people-free photos on the steps, you’ll have to follow one of my favorite photography tips: be patient. Still on a roll from our successful morning at Cristo Redentor, we were relentlessly persistent while waiting for those brief moments when the steps cleared so we could frame the shots we envisioned. As you can see from Heather’s behind-the-scenes shot below right, it was no easy feat.

Escadaria Selarón, Lapa, Rio

Escadaria Selarón, Lapa, Rio

But the portraits we took of each other in front of the most famous section of the stairs were well worth the wait.

Escadaria Selarón, Lapa, RioPhoto by Heather Holt

Escadaria Selarón, Lapa, RioPhoto by Heather Holt

One of the things I love about traveling with Heather is seeing how different the world looks through her lens! One thing this chick excels at is portrait photography. Generally, I am far too shy and too nervous to take portraits when I travel, but Heather comes from a journalist background and really makes magic happen when she points her camera at someone. How beautiful are these portraits of the people of Selarón steps?

Escadaria Selarón, Lapa, Rio

Escadaria Selarón, Lapa, Rio

People of Rio de Janiero

People of Rio de Janiero

After spending so long at the steps we basically became honorary locals, it was time to wander on. We meandered over to the nearby Arcos da Lapa, an aqueduct dating back to the 1700s. A local landmark, the aqueduct was architecturally impressive, but we didn’t linger long in the nearly abandoned square. Both of our guards were up and we later agreed that this square was one of the few places in Brazil that we felt uneasy.

Downtown Rio Walking Tour

Downtown Rio Walking Tour

Downtown Rio Walking Tour

Luckily it was a relatively short walk to our next stop, Catedral Metropolitana Church. Our guidebook had a long list of Rio churches to explore, but this one stood out to us as the one must-see. Built in 1976 after over a decade of construction, the cathedral is a textbook example of ultra modern, brutalist architecture. Though we both felt there was a very strong spaceship inspiration going on, we later read the true muse for the cathedral was the Mayan pyramids.

Downtown Rio Walking Tour

Downtown Rio Walking Tour

Downtown Rio Walking Tour

Downtown Rio Walking Tour

Next up, we made our way to the Theatro Municipal, a stunning theater built in 1905 to mimic the Paris Opera. Though we skipped the guided tours of the ornate interior, we loved admiring the building from the outside, which truly did feel like a piece of France plopped down in the middle of a South American street.

Downtown Rio Walking Tour

After wandering by a few more museums, churches, and busy downtown streets, we could wait no longer for lunch. We decided to dine at one of Brazil’s famous per kilo buffets, settling on The Line. Bursting with color and set along a busy, narrow alley, we exercised literally zero self control at the buffet and piled our plates as high as can be before nabbing ourselves two outside seats. For both our heaping plates and drinks below, we paid just 40BRL, or about $11 — not a bad deal in pricey Brazil.

The Line Lunch Buffet Downtown Rio de Janiero

The Line Lunch Buffet Downtown Rio de Janiero

Most tourists head to the Christ the Redeemer statue, but few stick around the explore Lapa and Centro during the day. I can’t recommend more highly to start your day with Viator Exclusive: Early Access Tour, and then take advantage of your location and strategically spend a few hours exploring Rio’s under appreciated downtown.

It was the perfect day. We experienced a very, very different side of Rio than what we saw in the southern zone — and both left so glad we set aside time to explore here. And with a dash of patience and the help of the perfect tour, we captured it beautifully in priceless photos.

What’s your secret for getting crowd-free travel photos?


I am a member of the Viator Ambassador initiative and participated in this tour as part of that program. This post contains affiliate links for which I earn a small percentage of any sale made at absolutely no cost to you. Thank you for supporting Alex in Wanderland!

One Week in The Cidade Maravilhosa

One Week in The Cidade Maravilhosa post image

“On the eighth day, God created Rio.”

It doesn’t take long to understand why cariocas love to say so. Palm fringed beaches bookended by iconic granite morros, the world’s largest urban forest, and one infamous statue of Christ perpetually watching over the city. One of the most geographically blessed cities I’ve had the privilege to visit, it’s hard not to believe that whatever or whomever created this universe, they had a soft spot for Rio de Janiero.

Cristo Redentor Early Access Tour

Cristo Redentor Early Access Tour

And so did I, long before I first set my own eyes on the city. When I was cleaning out boxes of old college notebooks and projects last summer, I came across detailed ramblings about a fantasy semester in Brazil scribbled in the margins of many a class note. More recently, my mom took on a similar project purging my sister and my’s grade school stockpiles, and came across a report I’d done when tasked with researching any continent – I’d lovingly selected South America. For years, when asked what destination topped my bucket list, I barely had to hesitate.

For as long as I’ve loved travel, Brazil was a tornado force of a desire, with Rio at the eye of the storm. That’s a lot for one city to live up to, regardless of how marvelous it may be.

Sunset at Sugarloaf

Rio de Janiero Botanical Garden

Rio de Janiero Botanical Garden

Itinerary

Originally, as this dream began to take shape in reality, I hoped to spend two full weeks in the city. Later, as I negotiated with Heather, my travel copilot, and accepted how much else of the country I wanted to see, that time was pared down to just one week.

I was determined to make the most of it.

Rio de Janiero Street Art

Sunset at Sugarloaf

By the time we arrived in the Cidade Maravilhosa, we had partied at Tomorrowland in Itú, fallen for the biggest baddest city in Brazil in São Paulo, been charmed by Paraty, and got lost in wild Ilha Grande. We were ready for Rio.

After careful consideration, Heather and I had chosen to split our time in Rio between two different digs – kicking things off at a hostel in Botafogo, and then later moving to an Airbnb near Copacabana beach (get $35 off your first booking!) We bit off a lot before we’d even arrived, booking several tours and creating an exhaustive itinerary. We were so excited we were practically powerless to do otherwise, despite being fully aware of how burnt out we’d be by the end of the week. We even skipped one tour we’d pre-payed for, a favela nightlife tour – pretty much unheard of from this penny pincher — because we were too exhausted and hungover to make it.

Santa Marta

In one week, we crammed in a sunrise tour of Cristo Redentor, a DIY photo safari of Lapa and Centro, hang gliding over São Conrado, a walking tour of Santa Marta favela, a sunset at Aproador, a night out in Ipanema, two beach days, a street art tour, a trip to Jardim Botânico, and sunset at Pão de Açúcar. We literally loved every single one of these activities and I’ll be writing in more detail about each of them.

Even so, we left with much not crossed off our lists.  Rio is a big, sprawling city with so much to see and do — it could take weeks, or months, or a lifetime to explore. I think one of the biggest struggles for any do-and-see-it-all-er heading to Rio will be accepting that in this city, that would be an impossible mission.

Cristo Redentor Early Access Tour

Hang Gliding in Rio

Impressions

There’s a famous comparison that Rio is Brazil’s Los Angeles and São Paulo, Brazil’s New York. After being well and truly and very unexpectedly swept off my feet by São Paulo, I couldn’t help but see why.

While what I loved about Rio did remind me of what I love about Los Angeles — the beach! — a lot of what I didn’t like about Rio reminded me of what I don’t like about Los Angeles – namely, urban sprawl and charmless seediness.

Santa Marta Favela

Santa Marta Favela

Santa Marta Favela

The rivalry between the Cariocas (people from the city of Rio de Janeiro) and Paulistas (residents of São Paulo) is an intense one, just like that between residents of the US’s largest east and west coast cities. To state the obvious, Rio wins by a landslide when it comes to setting. The city’s natural beauty is unrivaled, and the ocean it’s surrounded by is its number one draw.

Sunrise over Sugarloaf

Experiencing this city’s unique beach culture was the highlight of my time in the city, so much so that I’ll be dedicating a whole post to it coming up — stay tuned! While we were visiting in Brazil’s autumn, we found the beaches pleasantly buzzing.

The weather, our busy itinerary and a few unexpected wrinkles in our plan (hello, last minute work assignment and Heather going to the hospital) meant we spent less time there than we would have liked to, and so I dream of returning one day in the summer to spend a whole week doing not much more than beach bumming.

Sunset at Arpoador

Sunset at Arpoador

Beaches aside — and I admit, it’s a rather important factor to put aside — I was surprised to find myself favoring São Paulo in many other categories. Through my eyes, São Paulo had an undeniably chicer, hipper vibe. The art scene was a bit more sophisticated, the restaurant scene a bit more diverse and trendy, and transportation was more accessible (though traffic in both cities was insane).

The more I travel, the greater emphasis I have placed on food. After really swooning over the restaurant scene in São Paulo, especially for Heather as a vegetarian, we were a little disappointed in Rio’s — though I was warned. That said, we did find a few gems. We fell in love with hip Meza in Bogafoto (we went for both dinner and Sunday brunch – with a bubbles bar!) and bohemian Zaza in Ipanema, and made three different trips to cute Oficina Gelato. Yet overall, we were super grateful for the kitchen in our Airbnb – it meant we could cook a few meals, eat takeaway in comfort and not rely on eating every meal out at a restaurant.

Brunch at Meza, Rio de Janiero

Brunch at Meza, Rio de Janiero

Brunch at Meza, Rio de Janiero

Getting around in Rio was a bit of a struggle at times. Traffic was intense and destinations were quite spread out. Due to the language barrier we used Uber exclusively for cab needs — get a free ride of up to $20 with Uber here — but even then we did run into some issues with drivers getting lost and taking ridiculous routes. We spent ages attempting to use the city’s municipal bike program but it requires a local SIM card to unlock the bikes. Heather had one but I didn’t, and so that was out.

The best thing we did for ease of movement was simply splitting our time in two different areas of the city and creating a logical itinerary around those two bases. This allowed us to walk quite a bit, which is always my favorite way of getting around a new city. Next time, I’d love to try using the metro.

Cristo Selfie

One of the pleasant surprises of Rio was how comfortable we felt as two women traveling alone. While we were constantly — like literally, constantly — warned by everyone we encountered to be careful with our cameras, we were vigilant and cautious and had zero issues and really felt surprisingly safe and secure throughout our time in the city.

Frankly, overall we felt this was all throughout Brazil, but it was most poignant in Rio, where multiple viewings of City of God had prepared me to be relieved of all my belongings within moments of stepping onto the streets. It was a nice surprise.

Rio de Janiero Street Art

Ideas

Bottom line? We had a blast. But we were also so busy – and rounding the corner of travel burnout – that we didn’t leave much time to just soak up the magic of the place, which Rio requires quite a bit of.

I look forward to returning someday and putting less emphasis on tours and attractions (only because I’ve now seen them – I don’t regret a single one) and focusing instead on soaking up the beach culture, my absolute favorite aspect of the city, enjoying some of the nightlife, which we regretfully missed out on aside from one over-indulgent night, and attempting some of the beautiful urban hikes and beginner surf breaks I learned about in the area.

Sunset at Arpoador

Sunset at Arpoador

Sunset at Arpoador

I hope I don’t have to wait too long for that return. In the meantime, I can’t wait to share more details from our week in Rio de Janeiro.

Have you been to Rio? Did it live up to your expectations? What part of my trip are you most excited to read about?

3-devide-lines

Many thanks to Heather for the beautiful portraits she took of me throughout this post!

New Year, New Passport Stamps: My Travel Plans for 2017

Hello, 2017. You’re a sight for sore eyes.

You’re also, so far, a bit of a mystery. Since I started this blog, I’ve never kicked off a year with less travel on my plate. In a way, it’s thrilling — anything can happen! — and in another it’s a little scary. Can I really let a year pass by without ticking one of my dream trips off my list? For someone who often can’t fall asleep at night because they are so consumed by all the places in the world they still have yet to see, it’s kinda of a panic-inducing thought.

Travel Plans 2017

And yet I find myself quite content, settled back in Koh Tao with a bright and cheery little apartment, a faithful little motorbike and unpacked bag nestled in the corner of my closet. As I do weigh up options for the year, I’m torn as always between revisiting old favorites (oh hello, island I’ve been returning to for seven years and currently living on again) and big bucket list dream trips (oh hey there, diving in Mozambique, which I daydream about constantly yet have no plans to actually make a reality).

Anyway, last year’s post outlining my 2016 travels was fairly accurate — it will be fun to see how this one fares!

January-May // Asia

I state this with a pretty inordinate amount of pride for someone who makes a living as a travel blogger, but at the moment literally only like 14 out of the first 120 days of 2017 will be spent not in my bed here on Koh Tao. I need this for a lot of reasons, not the least of which being I am so backlogged on content here on Alex in Wanderland. I just need to lock myself away and furiously type until I’m caught up writing on all my trips! I’ve already nixed two opportunities to travel to new countries in the first quarter of this year, with this being one of my primary reasons.

So what will I be getting up to?

In January, I will spend just three nights off Koh Tao — a quick trip to Bangkok to see my sister off. (In fact, I’ve already come and gone!) I actually wasn’t planning to leave the island at all as I really just got here in December, but alas, I can’t say no to Olivia — nor can I turn down a weekend in one of my favorite cities in the world. In fact, what started as a fun fantasy over the years solidified on this quick jaunt into a very strong determination to rent an apartment in Bangkok for a month or two someday, and see what it’s like to experience one of my favorite places for longer than just a few days at a time. Maybe in the fall that will come to fruition.

Bangkok

I have some pretty exciting plans at home for the rest of the month, though, like a week-long aerial silks workshop with Flying Trapeze Adventures and all my favorite shows re-starting after their winter hiatuses (don’t judge).

In February, I’ll be taking my “big trip” of this Southeast Asia stretch. First, I’m cobbling together a big crew to take to Wonderfruit, a festival in the Pattaya countryside that I couldn’t be more excited about attending. Between the fanciful stages hosting musicians from around the world, the wonderfeasts by some of Thailand’s top chefs, and the workshops on everything from yoga to living a plastic-free life, I’m not even sure which aspect I’m looking forward to the most.

Wonderfruit(source)

After the festival, Ian and I are off to Penang, Malaysia — Ian has to go to process his Thai work permit, and I’m tagging along for fun (and to reactivate my own visa.) I’ve never been to Penang other than in transit and look forward to exploring the city of Georgetown and hiking in Penang National Park. I’m still fairly bitter that the direct flight to Penang from Koh Samui has been discontinued, but alas, I still want to go. Who knows, we might even tack on a few days in Bangkok in-between!

Penang(source 1, 2, and 3)

In March, I currently have no plans to leave Koh Tao. Gasp! Now that you all convinced me to get PRK surgery I am considering blocking off a week to go to Bangkok and do it then, but I also might also put it off until the fall. Back on Koh Tao, there’s going to be a big new festival that I’m pretty excited about (if you haven’t sensed a theme for the year yet, you will soon!)

In April, I’ll pop over to Koh Samui for a few days to meet a friend and possibly attend Paradise Island Festival. Otherwise I’ll be on Koh Tao enjoying Songkran, Easter, and my last long stretch of stillness for a while.

In May, I have a one last little trip in the works before catching my flight to the US for the summer. It’s all in pencil now but it involves a river cruise, showing Ian around one of my favorite Thai cities, and (duh) more Bangkok. Fingers crossed it all works out!

Ayutthaya(source 1, 2, and 3)

May-August // USA

I’ve fallen into a pattern of spending more and more time back in the US every year, however I have to be frank — our current political climate makes me want to spend less time there than ever before. I’m not being defiant or trying to make a statement. It’s just that my heart literally sinks out of my chest every time I think about home, and unless that starts to fade I don’t know how many consecutive months I can walk around with that heaviness. I’ve never felt more disconnected from the place that made me. I’m adrift. Here’s hoping some peace and clarity find me in this department in 2017.

That said, I have three confirmed weddings and one other up in the air, one confirmed festival and a few others on the back burner (wink wink, fellow playa fans!), and lots of family and friends I love dearly and need to catch up with, regardless of what else is happening around us. Here’s a peek:

In May, I’m flying to Florida for the wedding of one of one of my closest high school crew in Sarasota. I’ll also be visiting my girl Angie in Jacksonville, heading to Orlando for a bachelorette weekend I’m planning at Universal Orlando, and hanging with my two favorite aunts in Tampa. I’m obsessed with Florida and would be thrilled if time allowed for me to dip over to Miami to see my cousin Eric, do some diving, or maybe even take that road trip down to Key West I’ve been dreaming of… but allegedly there are only thirty days in this particular month, so we will have to see how flexible the time space continuum ends up being.

Florida(source 1, 2, and 3)

In June, I’m going back to Bonnaroo. Even better? I’m bringing my mom and her boyfriend Miller! The two of them hit it off big time with blogger bestie Kristin this past summer, and we all vowed this would be our year for fulfilling Miller’s dream of making it to ‘Roo. A festival as a family affair? I can’t wait to try it.

In July, I’m going to Maine! This is actually the only new state and/or country I currently have on the docket for the year, which is kind of crazy pants. Another one of my dearest friends from high school is getting hitched in Harpswell, and I’m pining to turn it into an excuse for a full-blown road trip. At an absolute minimum I want to spend a few days in Portland and check out Kennebunkport — and if the calendar shakes out enough days for me, I’ll venture north to Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park, too!

Maine(source 1, 2, and 3)

In August, I’ll head to Chicago for my cousin Kirsten’s wedding (congratulations to the beautiful bride-to-be!).

Aside from those anchors, the summer is still fuzzy. Here are some maybes: I might be sticking around post-Bonnaroo for a bachelorette party in Nashville. I will most likely be in Martha’s Vineyard the first week of July for family time — and I’m also considering popping over to Nantucket for the Nantucket Yoga Festival! I may have another family wedding in Illinois before the year is out.

And then there’s Nevada. I may return to the playa — Burning Man is still very much on my radar. I may put into action the Nevada road trip I’ve had percolating for the last year or two (I need to see Britney’s revamped show, visit the Seven Magic Mountains art installation and camp in Valley of Fire National Park, stat) so if those came together it would be pretty perfect.

Nevada(source 1, 2, and 3)

Also, some big changes are heading my way and while I’m not ready to discuss them publicly just yet, I might be popping down to Central America for a bit over the summer to let them percolate in private first. More details coming your way soon.

September-December // And beyond…

Nine months down the line is simply too far to predict with too much accuracy where I’ll be. This time last year, I could have never guessed I’d spend these months in the United Kingdom, Hawaii and Jamaica (content coming soon!)

In the last month, as I started to feel the pressure of writing this post and having basically nothing on the horizon — a lot of the above has come together in the last thirty days! — I started to think more about really prioritizing my dream trips rather than just waiting and seeing what the universe throws at me or what’s convenient, as I have fallen into a habit of doing. In fact, I recently started working on actually putting pen to paper and writing a comprehensive travel bucket list, which I may turn into a blog post soon.

So in that spirit, here is a sampling of some of my dream trips that feel feasible for 2017, which I may work on slotting in somewhere from June onward, en route back to my winter basecamp of Thailand.

• Uruguay: I just really want to go here. I don’t know why. I feel like Uruguay is usually an afterthought tacked on to trips to Argentina or Brazil but I’m completely captivated by this little country. Maybe it’s my obsession with tiny nations, maybe it’s my love for their famously humble ex-president, maybe I just like beaches and wine and yoga. Bonus! This would be a new country for me. However, Uruguay’s beach cities and towns have a fairly tiny window of action in December-March, and since I’m in Asia through May this would have to be a December trip.

Uruguay(source 1, 2, and 3)

• Burma, Borneo and/or Brunei: It’s now been eight years since I first began traveling to Southeast Asia, and I regularly marvel that there is still so much I have yet to see. Including both the countries of Burma and Brunei (I still have Timor Leste still to visit as well, but I’m shelving that one for the moment) and the Malaysian state of Borneo. Eventually visiting every country in this region is important to me, and so I hope that either a trip to Burma or a joint trip to Borneo and Brunei is in order for late 2017.

• Jamaica:  I’ve had a Jamaica road trip on the noggin for a while now. My surprise trip here at the end of 2016 (more on that coming soon!) only made taking a big one feel more urgent. I want to rent a car, hit the open road, and explore the raw, soulful side of this island nation in a way that few get the opportunity to do. Unlike Uruguay, Jamaica is a place I’d be thrilled to travel in the low season, and so summer or fall might be the perfect fit.

Jamaica(source 1, 2, and 3)

• Mexico: There’s a glaring un-scratched swath on my scratch-off travel map, and it’s Mexico. It’s a place I’ve always wanted to wait and really do justice to, but I’m starting to think I just need to start somewhere and dive in there and get hooked so I can keep coming back over and over again. It’s hardly unchartered territory, but The Yucatan Peninsula is calling me pretty loudly. Whale sharks of Holbox… here I come! And yup, this would be another new country to add to the list.

3-devide-lines

I have a lot of other dream trips rambling around in my mind — CONTINENT OF AFRICA HI I WANT TO BE IN YOU — but these are the ones that I feel I could realistically tackle right now given my current energy levels and priorities and desires, though clearly, a lot can happen in a year. I think I kind of need a lower-key year in order to get my house in order — lol JK I don’t have a house but it’s a thing people say right? — and get really whipped up into a travel frenzy again for some wild adventures in the future.

When I first began this post I fretted that you all might think it a bit boring. Now that I’ve put it together, I couldn’t be more excited about the year ahead! Festivals, weddings, and so many favorite old places to fall even further in love with.

Love 2017

Okay so now that I’ve dished… what are your travel plans for 2017? Which of these trips are you most excited to virtually come along on?

Looking forward to talking all things travel in the comments!

One Last Sip of Sun: A Tour of Hua Hin Hills Vineyard

After three days in Hua Hin, Ian and I’s relaxation retreat was almost complete. We’d ticked almost every box: sun, sand, sea, and sleep. There was just one last unwinding agent to attend to: wine.

So far, our explorations of Thailand’s unknown wine country had been a wild success. Two days in the Khao Yai district had revealed three beautiful vineyards — the boutique, female-helmed GranMonte Wines, local powerhouse PB Valley, and family-run, organic Alcidini. Now, in a totally different region of the country, we had one more chenin blanc to cheers to at Hua Hin Hills, the southernmost vineyard in Thailand.

Hua Hin Hills Winery Vineyards

Hua Hin Hills Winery Vineyards

About 45 kilometers inland from coastal Hua Hin, the vineyard is picturesquely set among rolling jungle hills dotted with temples. We arrived just in time for the latter of two free tours offered per day, at 1pm and 4pm. The tour was short and sweet and conducted from the back of a bright red, branded, open-air jeep. Had this not been our fourth winery in a week I might have been a little bummed we didn’t stop once for photos, but as it was I’d had my annual fill of photographing grape vines.

There are other activities on offer to allow you to explore the vineyard a bit more thoroughly. Mountain bikes can be rented for 100B for thirty minutes, or 150B for an hour, and in retrospect would have been a lovely way to explore — yet we were too hungry pre-tasting, and too tipsy post. For the creatives at heart, bottle painting is on offer for 300B per set. Elephant riding is also available, but as romantic as it may seem to cross a vineyard atop Thailand’s national animal, I personally recommend you don’t for all the reasons detailed here.

One important detail to keep in mind is that Hua Hin Hills consists only of a vineyard, not a winery. The production facility, Siam Winery, is located in Samut Sakhon, about two and a quarter hours back towards Bangkok. Someday, I look forward to visiting the winery and taking one of their tours as well!

Hua Hin Hills Winery Vineyards

Hua Hin Hills Winery Vineyards

Hua Hin Hills Winery Vineyards

Togther, Hua Hin Hills and Siam Winery produce Monsoon Valley Wines, one of the most common bottles spotted on shelves in Thailand. The company also produces Spy Wine Coolers, the best-selling “wine-based drink” in the country, a financial stepping stone that allows them to produce their prestige wines. The family behind the brand is no stranger to beverage-based success: the winery was founded by the late Chaleow Yoovidhya, cofounder of and recipe-creator for Red Bull.

In 1986, Yoovidhya’s oldest son Chalerm established the Siam Winery company, which today represents over 30% of the Thai wine market — and recently overtook PB Valley as the most prolific producer in the country. As of 2014, the company was producing 260,000 bottles per year, with over half being exported to Europe, the US, and beyond.

And so after much anticipation, we were off to taste a few in The Sala.

Hua Hin Hills Winery Vineyards

Hua Hin Hills Winery Vineyards

Hua Hin Hills Winery Vineyards

Hua Hin Hills Winery Vineyards

Inside The Sala, which serves breakfast as well as a daytime menu, our eyes widened at the offerings for both wine tastings and treats. The obscenely affordable Khao Yai region had spoiled us, and these prices seemed shocking in comparison. But we quickly decided to throw budgetary caution to the wind, accept that this was going to be far and away our most expensive winery visit, and just enjoy it.

In the end we spent 2,500B (about $70US!) at the restaurant and a further 1,750B ($50US) on wine to take home. Considering the tastings ranged from 100-200B per person at the previous sites we’d visited, it was a good thing we’d decided to laugh about the bill.

Hua Hin Hills Winery Vineyards

Hua Hin Hills Winery Vineyards

We settled into a vineryard-side table and I selected the Sweet Wine Tasting for 240B, which included glasses of the Muscat and Chenin Blanc Late Harvest. Ian went big with the Grand Monsoon Valley Tasting for 1,050B, which included a Colombard, a Cuvée Blanc, a Chenin Blanc, a Shiraz, and a Cuvée Rouge. We passed on the Thai tapas pairings and instead ordered a cheese board, which was perfection. Unlike the wineries we’d visited in Khao Yai, which were European influenced in everything from their menus to their architecture, this one was all Thai.

There’s no mistaking it — these are Thai wines produced from Thai grapes to complement Thai food. The labels are emblazoned with the mythical naga, a Thai guardian figure, and the bottles are stamped with the Thai Buddhist year — currently, it’s 2560 — rather than the widely used Gregorian calendar in which we just rang in 2017. Funny enough, there is one quirk in this otherwise thorough exercise in Thai nationalism: a German winemaker, Kathrin Puff, who makes the magic happen at Monsoon Valley.

Hua Hin Hills Winery Vineyards

Hua Hin Hills Winery Vineyards

Hua Hin Hills Winery Vineyards

Hua Hin Hills Winery Vineyards

Hua Hin Hills Winery Vineyards

Hua Hin Hills Winery Vineyards

After our final toast, I was ready for a little playtime among the vines.

Hua Hin Hills Winery Vineyards

Hua Hin Hills Winery Vineyards

Hua Hin Hills Winery Vineyards

Hua Hin Hills Winery Vineyards

It had been the perfect afternoon — though it hadn’t quite started as planned. We had taken our resort’s free shuttle into Hua Hin to catch the official vineyard shuttle from their Hua Hin Hills Bistro & Wine Cellar downtown. (If you can’t make it all the way out to the vineyard, this is a chic little spot to taste and buy Hua Hin Hills wines right in town!)

The round trip shuttle leaves twice a day for 300B per person, first at 10:30am and returning at 2:00pm and next at 3:00pm and returning at 6:00pm. However, we made the critical mistake of not booking ahead, and arrived to find that the shuttle had filled and left before our arrival. It’s worth noting I’d scoured the website and seen nothing about reservations… but I still should have known better.

Luckily, an ex-employee-turned-taxi-driver was loitering around the bar and heard our tale of woe and offered to take us for 1,000B (about $35) round trip. Considering we were going to spend 600B on the shuttle, it wasn’t a bad deal for a forty-five minutes each way in a private SUV — and he even called the winery for us to let them know we were coming and to hold the tour! Lesson learned. If you plan to take the vineyard’s shuttle, call ahead to book.

Hua Hin Hills Winery Vineyards

Hua Hin Hills Winery Vineyards

So yes, our trip to Hua Hin Hills was a bit pricier and more chaotic than our previous Thailand winery trips. But it was a completely unique experience, and possibly the most scenic — and when it came to The Sala, architecturally impressive — of them all, and so we treasured every last drop.

Cheers, Thailand, for another delicious tasting!

Uma Bela Caminhada: Hiking on Ilha Grande

Ilha Grande stole my heart — and it also gave it a workout. Cardio and adventure fans alike will flip for the hiking opportunities on this untamed Brazilian island.

With sixteen marked trails of varying length and difficulty, we were spoiled for choice when it came to which corner of Ilha Grande to wander. As we were hoping to cool our budgets and enjoy some solitude, we eliminated the trickier routes for which guides were recommended and stuck to the classics. We spent our three short days hitting three of the island’s most popular routes, and left daydreaming about our return to tackle a few more.

Hiking on Ilha Grande

Abraão to Mangues/Pouso: Trail T10

Leaving directly from the far East side of Vila Abraão, and connecting directly to Trail T11, together Trail T10 and T11 make up one of the most popular hikes on Ilha Grande. And we were perfectly positioned to tackle it: our hostel, Che Legarto, let out directly onto the path.

A helpful sign at the start of T10 alerted us we were in for a 5.6-6 kilometer, 2.5-3 hour trek to reach the twin beaches of Mangues and Pouso.

Hiking on Ilha Grande

Hiking on Ilha Grande

We set off a bit later than we’d hoped, around noon, but were still surprised to have the trail more or less to ourselves as we headed away from Abraão village. We’d dutifully let the receptionist at our hostel know where we were going before setting off, and were shocked when we checked to make sure we’d be able to buy more water along the way — and were told we couldn’t. So like good little responsible hikers we brought everything we’d need for the entire hike and then some, practically drowning ourselves along the way in an attempt to lighten our loads.

Hiking on Ilha GrandePhoto by Heather Holt Photography

Hiking on Ilha GrandePhoto by Heather Holt Photography

Hiking on Ilha GrandeWeb photo by Heather Holt Photography

Just over an hour into our trek we hit our first beach, Praia de Palmas. We quickly realized our receptionist had never done this hike when we saw enterprising locals all along the beach had hung out hand-painted signs advertising water, coconuts and other treats for the thirsty hiker for sale. It was the kind of beach we ordinarily might linger on, especially when we discovered it all but abandoned. Yet we had loftier stretches of sand in mind.

Hiking on Ilha GrandePhoto by Heather Holt Photography

And so onward we forged.

Hiking on Ilha Grande

Hiking on Ilha Grande

Hiking on Ilha Grande

Exactly another hour later (after a few lengthy photo stops), we hit Praia Mangues, and cheered as we soaked up yet another postcard-perfect beach. After a quick scramble over the rock separating Mangues from neighboring Praia Pouso, we paused to confirm with local boat captains about the return trip to Vila Abraão. Unfortunately for us slow starters, the last boat was at 4pm — but if you’re headed to these parts, check for yourself, since it seems to vary based on the sunset.

By the time we got moving again to tackle the T11 portion of the trail, about two hours and twenty minutes had passed — and that included plenty of time for photo shoots and dawdling.

Hiking on Ilha Grande

Hiking on Ilha Grande

Hiking on Ilha Grande

Mangues/Pouso to Lopes Mendes: Trail T11

From the end of Trail T10, we picked up Trail T11. Boat tours advertising transport to Lopes Mendes are actually a bit of a sham — in reality the boats cannot reach that side of the island due to waves, and the boat will actually leave you at Praia Pouso. So regardless of how you get to Praia Pouso, you’re getting to and from Lopes Mendes on your own two feet.

The good news? At 2-2.4 kilometers, it’s just a 30 minute to one hour roundtrip trail. While the trail gets quite steep, it’s shockingly short — we made it from start to finish one way in twelve minutes. And while we were decked out in trainers from the bigger bulk of the hike, we saw plenty of people returning in flip flops.

Hiking on Ilha Grande

Lopes Mendes Beach Ilha Grande

At this point, I’d really just been enjoying the journey and not worrying too much about the destination. But as we laid eyes on Lopes Mendes beach for the first time, I think my jaw may have actually dropped, cartoon-character-style.

Hiking on Ilha Grande

Lopes Mendes Beach Ilha Grande

Lopes Mendes beach is often hailed as one of the most beautiful beaches in Brazil — and we could easily understand why. But even on this beautiful sunny day after a long stretch of rain, we really didn’t have to look to hard to find a wide space to spread out our cangas on.

Unlike the other beaches we’d passed on our journey, this one had no permanent structures, yet there were plenty of locals with coolers hawking cold drinks and even snacks sandwiches, and we settled in to enjoy the last stretch of the day’s sun.

Lopes Mendes Beach Ilha Grande

Lopes Mendes Beach Ilha Grande

Lopes Mendes Beach Ilha Grande

Lopes Mendes Beach Ilha Grande

In total, it took us 2.5 hours to hike the full 7.2 kilometer route to Lopes Mendes beach, plus a little bonus 1.2 kilometers to hike back to Praia Pouso for the boat ride to Abraão — which was a bargain and a blessing at 15R (or $4USD). Much as I loved getting there, I don’t think I’d have been up for the full trek back!

Our only regret? Bringing so much water — we could have packed half — and not leaving first thing in the morning. Lopes Mendes truly is stunning, and you’ll want to spend literally every second you can there.

Lopes Mendes Beach Ilha Grande

Lopes Mendes Beach Ilha Grande

Lopes Mendes Beach Ilha Grande

Circuito de Abraão: T1

On our last full day on Ilha Grande, we decided to tackle one last trail, the unassuming Circuito de Abraaão. This easy stroll covers 1.8 kilometers and takes about an hour to an hour and a half, according to the trail marker at the kick off. You could do this one in flip flops, as we ourselves did.

Hiking The Circuito de Abraao on Ilha Grande

Hiking The Circuito de Abraao on Ilha Grande

This trail starts on the far East side of Abraão, the opposite end from T10. Just walk as far as the road goes from town, and keep going. You’ll run into it eventually — but not before stopping to ooh and aah over beautiful views of the bay.

Hiking The Circuito de Abraao on Ilha Grande

Hiking The Circuito de Abraao on Ilha Grande

Hiking The Circuito de Abraao on Ilha Grande

Hiking The Circuito de Abraao on Ilha Grande

What I really loved about this little loop were the near constant distractions of little stops along the way. We tackled the trail clockwise, and so our first stop was a viewpoint over Praia Preta. Not bad, eh?

Next was an aqueduct viewpoint that we couldn’t quite see the aqueduct from, followed by an unspectacular waterfall. But all were lovely distractions from the physical exertion, which are always welcome in my book.

Hiking The Circuito de Abraao on Ilha Grande

Hiking The Circuito de Abraao on Ilha Grande

Next up, the aqueduct! Now, this was cool. At eleven meters high, the twenty-six arches stretched so far deep across the jungle we couldn’t see either end, and felt like we’d stumbled upon a mysterious clue from the series Lost.

Constructed in 1893 using stones and whale oil, the aqueduct still carries to Abraão village to this day.

Hiking The Circuito de Abraao on Ilha Grande

Hiking The Circuito de Abraao on Ilha GrandePhoto by Heather Holt Photography

Eventually, we wound back to the coast and arrived on the beautiful shore of Praia de Galego. Here, we stopped for a well deserved beach break.

Hiking The Circuito de Abraao on Ilha Grande

When we’d had our fill of sun, we wandered next door to the Lazareto Ruins, a reminder of Ilha Grande’s seedy past. This now abandoned building has had many lives. Originally a farmhouse, in 1884 the structure was redesigned as a Brazilian Ellis Island, a quarantine stopover for European immigrants by order of the Emperor of Brazil in the midst of a devastating cholera epidemic.

Closed in 1913, Lazareto was given new life as a penal colony from 1940 to 1954, and finally abandoned for good again in 1963.

Hiking The Circuito de Abraao on Ilha Grande

Hiking The Circuito de Abraao on Ilha Grande

Hiking The Circuito de Abraao on Ilha Grande

Hiking The Circuito de Abraao on Ilha GrandePhoto by Heather Holt Photography

After lingering just a tad too long in the damp old ruins, I cheered when we reached Praia Preta. Here, we shared the beach with a few local pups, a fisherman who proudly showed us his catch, and other travelers vying for the last bits of beach at high tide.

Hiking The Circuito de Abraao on Ilha GrandePhoto by Heather Holt Photography

Hiking The Circuito de Abraao on Ilha GrandePhoto by Heather Holt Photography

Hiking The Circuito de Abraao on Ilha Grande

The the label “adventure paradise” is thrown around pretty loosely these days, I feel confident bestowing the title on this beautiful island. Equal parts beautiful and accessible, I can’t think of a better hiking destination I’ve visited recently — and we only brushed the surface! If you’re looking for an independent adventure in Brazil, look no further.

While Ilha Grande feels idyllically safe, we still took some base-level security precautions — this is Brazil, which as guidebooks, other travelers, and our mothers warned us frequently, has a bit of a reputation for crime. Though we took the calculated risk of hiking with our cameras (after backing up all our memory cards), we carried very small amounts of cash and always told our guesthouse reception where we were going. While T1 and T11 were well-trafficed trails, T10 was quite desolate. Some trails should only be tackled with a guide — ask around if you’re considering others.

Hiking on Ilha Grande Brazil

Happy hiking! Next stop… Rio de Janiero!

Traveling Like The Thais Do: A Weekend In Hua Hin

Happy 2017, my friends! It turned out 2016 was my year of vacationing like the Thais do. After seven years of visiting their country, why not take a cue from those that know it best, after all? I’ve always found it fascinating to note the differences between destinations loved by domestic travelers, and those favored by their international counterparts… to explore them myself? Even better.

I earned my first nod of local approval by planning two separate trips to Khao Yai, both to the National Park and to the wine region in the countryside. Next, I set my sights on Hua Hin, site of the royal family’s seaside retreat and arguably the country’s most popular beach resort among its own people.

I couldn’t wait to see what all the fuss was about.

Hua Hin Weekend

Hua Hin Weekend

Hua Hin Weekend

Coming from our birthday bash weekend in Bangkok, Hua Hin was a simple — though lengthy — train ride away. After a fabulous stay at the Amari Watergate in the big city, Ian and I broke off from the group to check out the brand’s sister resort, Amari Hua Hin.

We made the mistake of not buying our tickets ahead of time and got stuck in third class, which was a bit rough for a four to five hour ride. Yet all thoughts of hard wooden seats and sweaty cars were forgotten when the sun started to dip and the Thai countryside lit up with late afternoon glow.

Hua Hin by Train

Hua Hin by Train

Hua Hin by Train

And it was all worth it the moment the train pulled into Hua Hin’s historic station. Frankly, we weren’t planning on doing much sightseeing over the next three nights — we were traveled out and mostly just looking for some alone time! — and so we were quite pleased to check off at least one local sight.

The iconic train station was once the royal waiting room during Rama VI’s reign, and now serves as both a gateway to the popular getaway, as well as a prime example of local architecture.

Hua Hin Train Station

Hua Hin Train Station

Hua Hin Train Station

A short tuk tuk ride later, we’d arrived at the Amari Hua Hin. Located just ten minutes south of the heart of town, the Amari is just close enough to take advantage of local dining and nightlife and just far enough away to feel like you’re out of the hustle and bustle.

Hua Hin Amari

Hua Hin Amari

From the moment we started check-in, we could tell this hotel was going to be distinctly different from the Amari Watergate in Bangkok. While that property had been fabulously located and spoiled for amenities, this one was swoon-level chic, with thoughtful design details and bright pops of color tucked into every corner. This was my kind of place.

I was in hotel heaven.

Amari Hua Hin

Hua Hin Amari

Hua Hin Amari

We stayed in a standard room, and since we arrived to our room after dark and the housekeeping left something to be desired — really our only complaint about the Amari brand — I never really got to photograph our room in it’s just-checked-in glory.

However, we did get the chance to peek at one of the hotel’s four suites and had to pretty much wipe the drool off our faces as we did so — if you’re headed this way and have the means to do so, spring for one of these babies (standard rooms start at around $100, while suites go for about $200).

Amari Hua Hin

Amari Hua Hin Suite

Amari Hua Hin Suite

Hua Hin Amari

Hua Hin Amari

Amari Hua Hin Suite

So what was on the itinerary if sightseeing was out of the question? With the exception of our trip to the area’s winery, which I’ll cover in a separate post, it was all about pool, beach, spa… and watching movies in bed. Sometimes even adventure-loving travel bloggers just want a vacation.

The next day we kicked things off at the hotel pool, where we nibbled on snacks from the Aqua Pool bar and marveled at having the place nearly entirely to ourselves even when the hotel was almost at full capacity. Thai people cherish light skin the same way Americans worship tans, meaning you’ll rarely struggle to find an empty seat if you hit the pool mid-day at a Thai beach resort.

Amari Hua Hin Pool

Hua Hin Amari

Hua Hin Amari

When we tired of that pool, we hoped down to the Shoreline Beach Club. Just a short walk or a free thirty second shuttle ride away from the hotel, Shoreline allowed us to enjoy the ocean breezes and views and the luxury of a hotel pool that we didn’t have to sneak into all at once. I absolutely loved this gem and we spent plenty of time here, walking the beach at low tide, eating dinner under the stars and reading between the pool and ocean.

The beach in Hua Hin is unlike anything I’ve ever seen in Thailand. The islands I’ve visited are sultry and tropical, full of piercing turquoise water, smooth as glass, and blinding white sand. Hua Hin is quaint and charming, with an endless shoreline, wild waves and a strong salty smell that reminds me of the beaches of my childhood. I was swooning.

Amari Hua Hin Pool

Hua Hin Amari Pool

Hua Hin Amari Pool

Amari Hua Hin Pool

Amari Hua Hin Pool

The next morning, we decided to tick off a few more of the hotel’s hotspots. I was very much in a fitness routine at this point (universe, help me get back to that place) and was delighted by how beautiful the onsite fitness center was. Not only that, but I had it completely to myself throughout both my cardio and a weight circuit.

Hua Hin Amari Gym

Hua Hin Amari Gym

The best way to reward yourself for a workout? Why, a trip to the spa of course!

Breeze Spa Hua Hin Amari

Breeze Spa Hua Hin Amari

Breeze Spa Hua Hin Amari

After just one visit at the Amari Watergate in Bangkok I was already a Breeze Spa devotee, and so I couldn’t have been more thrilled to return, this time with Ian in tow, to the Amari Hua Hin version. The stylish and hip branding was comfortingly consistent, though this particular spa had a slightly more beachy feel appropriate to the setting.

We settled in for the Hua Hin Seaside Escape package, which was glorious and involved being exfoliated with crushed seashells.

Breeze Spa Hua Hin Amari

Breeze Spa Hua Hin Amari

Breeze Spa Hua Hin Amari

In general, the spa is my happy place, and this day was no exception. I’m in love with the Breeze branding, products, and treatments — if they opened one in Koh Tao I’d be their most loyal customer!

Breeze Spa Hua Hin Amari

Breeze Spa Hua Hin Amari

Breeze Spa Hua Hin Amari

That afternoon, we retreated to the Coral Lounge for high tea. This gorgeous lobby bar won me over from the second I stepped through the door with its dramatic red coral chandeliers — luckily not for sale in any giftshop, or I would have really struggled to repack my suitcase — and its impeccable design details all around.

I don’t normally jump at the chance for proper tea service, but this one was pretty phenomenal. I’m getting hungry just thinking about those sliders and scones!

Coral Lounge Amari Hua Hin

Coral Lounge Amari Hua Hin

Coral Lounge Amari Hua Hin

Coral Lounge Amari Hua Hin

Coral Lounge Amari Hua Hin

Our last day at the Amari was all about soaking up every last second of vacation vibes — that, and eating. We kicked things off as we had twice already with breakfast at Mosaic, the hotel’s included breakfast restaurant. With five different restaurant options onsite — plus room service — we never returned to Mosaic for any other meals, but we did love starting our days here.

Mosaic Amari Hua Hin

Mosaic Amari Hua Hin

Mosaic Amari Hua Hin

Later that afternoon after packing up, we had a beautiful lunch at Reef Deli, where we’d also enjoyed dinner on our first night. My highlight was a dessert called Sweet Mango Caviar, made up of coconut and pandan cake served with vanilla ice cream and topped with mango “caviar.” Yum!

Throughout our stay, we were impressed with the prices at the hotel’s onsite restaurants. When we met briefly with the hotel’s manager, he explained that for Amari’s many Thai guests, eating at Hua Hin’s famous seafront seafood restaurants is one of the main attractions, and so they have to price themselves competitively to remain an attractive option.

Reef Deli and Wine Lounge Amari Hua Hin

Reef Deli and Wine Lounge Amari Hua Hin

Reef Deli and Wine Lounge Amari Hua Hin

Reef Deli and Wine Lounge Amari Hua Hin

Reef Deli and Wine Lounge Amari Hua Hin

Reef Deli and Wine Lounge Amari Hua Hin

Reef Deli and Wine Lounge Amari Hua Hin

I really savored this short getaway and understood more than ever why people don’t just go traveling but also take vacations. I live a life blessed by beach time, setting my own schedule and a lot of other things that most people associate with being on vacation. Yet the one thing I can’t just get on a whim is quality time with my favorite man! Ian and I live separately, work opposite hours (I work during the day and Ian manages a bar six nights a week), and both value quality time alone and with our friends. And so when we do get away like this, we really savor it. And I can’t imagine a more perfect place to do so than this particular beach town and this particular hotel.

Hua Hin really left an impression on me. Considering it’s prime location between Bangkok and Koh Tao, it’s kind of wild it took me so long to get there. But while this may have been a long overdue first trip, I feel almost certain it won’t be my last.

Stay tuned for a post about Hua Hin’s winery!

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Many thanks to Amari Hua Hin for hosting us for two nights. As always, you receive my honest opinion regardless of who is footing the bill.

The Wanderland Essential Holiday Travel Apps

This post was brought to you by Avis. As always, all ideas and opinions are my own.

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I’m not embarrassed to admit I consider my iPhone as essential a travel necessity as my passport. Which is kind of entertaining considering I was one of the last people on earth to release their iron-clad grip on the Blackberry and make my way over to the Apple side, but I guess you could say we are making up for lost time.

As a full blown app-oholic, I’m always looking for new ways to be wowed by game-changing travel apps. Heading out on the road this holiday season? Here are a few of my favorites.

Essential Apps

1. The Transportation Treat: Avis Now

Already dreading the lines at the car rental counters this holiday season? Download the new Avis Now app.

This new app allows you to go through the entire rental car experience without ever taking your eyes off your iPhone – until you sit in the driver’s seat, that is. You can make a reservation, choose an exact car using real-time availability, and then use your phone to guide you to the particular parking spot and even unlock vehicles with connected capabilities. Same deal on the way back in. You can return your car with a few phone taps, and don’t have to interact with a representative whatsoever — unless you wish to. It’s the introverted automobile lover’s dream!

Having had a few fairly stressful car rental experiences recently in the UK and in Hawaii, I only wish I could go back in time and have avoided all drama with this brilliant time-and-hassle-saver of an app.

2. The Airport Must Have: Gate Guru

Is there anything worse than half-heartedly settling for a mid-terminal Sbarros only to learn that there was a Chipotle just a few gates away? Never feel that pain again with the download of Gate Guru, which I use almost exclusively to check out airport dining options, filtered by gate and terminal. While it’s not always reliable internationally, it’s a must have for domestic travel in the US.

Runner up: For the most part, I’ve been flying long enough to know what seat I want – aisle for a short daytime flight when I plan to be working and guzzling water and tea to stay awake, and window for overnight flights when I want to sleep against the window. But occasionally I turn to Gate Guru’s sister app, Seat Guru, for a few more details. Seat Guru will tell you what kind of plug situation a seat has (full outlet vs. USB vs. fend for yourself), if reclining is blocked by an exit row or bathroom, and any other perks or pains you need to know about for those seriously long haul stretches. To be honest I find the desktop version of Seat Guru to be much more user-friendly than the app itself, but I still have it downloaded just in case of on-the-go emergencies.

3. The Time Killer: Been

Flight delays, long bus rides, endless lines at the train ticket counter. There’s no avoiding it – travel involves finding a way to entertain yourself through lots of long boring stretches. Enter Been, a deliciously indulgent app in which you can create a 3D map of your global and US travels. I was humbled by the calculation that I’ve hit up just 15% of the world – lots still to go! – but was pretty chuffed with reaching 42% of the states in my home country. This is basically the digital version of the scratch off map I have in my childhood bedroom… and I can’t wait to get more color on both.

Runner up: Next Episode. Fellow TV junkies, gather round – I got this tip from an in-the-know reader when I confessed I had a hard time keeping track of my series. If you’re marathoning your way through Bloodline en route to Florida, download this app and never lose track of what episode you’re on ever again!

Been App

Been App

4. The Accommodation Star: Overnight

I don’t have many accommodation booking apps on my iPhone – frankly, that’s the kind of travel detail that I usually take care of ahead of time on my laptop. However, spontaneous trips do happen, and when they do, Overnight has got your back.

What’s Overnight, you ask? I like to describe it as the love child of Airbnb and HotelTonight; an on-demand accommodation app that allows you to find chic and stylish rooms and apartments available around you that very evening. Perfect for everything from nightmare travel days when you’re stranded in the wrong city to impulse getaways when you’re suddenly in the right one.

5. The Budget Big-Wig: Splitwise

Long before Splitwise existed, long before an iPhone was even a twinkle in my eye, I basically hobbled together an analog version of Splitwise on the back of an envelope for every trip I went on… quaint as that was I’m feeling pretty darn grateful for the app these days.

Splitwise allows you to create trips with multiple friends, family members or whoever and input what each person has spent, and who the expense should be split between. At the end, it does all the math for you and spits out who owes who what – and is even connected to Venmo so you can settle up with the swipe of a screen. Splitting the check – or hotel bill, or flights — has never been easier.

Runner Up: I’ve raved plenty about Trail Wallet around these parts – after experimenting with several travel budget-tracking apps, this one is my absolute favorite for juggling multiple currencies and tracking cash transactions. Worried about over-spending on Christmas gifts or going over budget for your big New Year’s trip to Mexico? Create a custom category and you’ll never again wonder what happened to all those pesos you withdrew.

Splitwise App

Splitwise App

6. The Vacation Photo Editor: Snapseed

Don’t you dare post that sunset photo with a crooked horizon line (unless it’s intentional of course, in which points for artsy effort). I’ve never met an iPhone pic that couldn’t be gussied up with Snapseed. Lighten, brighten, crop, remove red eyes and more with a few finger swipes – it’s basically Photoshop for smartphones.

Runners Up: Typic and TimerCam. If you want to add fun text and quotes to your photos, try Typic, which I’ve found to have an impressive range of fonts and a wide editing ability. Flying solo this season? Grab great shots and wide-range selfies with TimerCam, which works exactly like a timer would on a traditional camera.

Snapseed App

Considering how many of these apps came as suggestions from friends, family and my travel community in the first place, I can’t wait to hear what you guys are going to recommend in the comments!

What are your personal essential holiday travel apps?

A Bangkok Birthday Bash at the Amari Watergate

It will come as no surprise to long term readers that I never miss a chance to spend a weekend in The Big Mango. As much as I love my island life in Thailand, I can’t seem to stay away from this city.

Amari Watergate Bangkok HotelPhoto by Leah Davis

Bangkok Birthday Bash

After wine weekend in Khao Yai wrapped up, I’d planned to squirrel my Koh Tao BFF Janine off to Bangkok for a girly weekend of yoga, massage and brunches. Of course, in true Thailand fashion, pretty soon not only was the entire wine weekend crew sticking around, but a few others were coming to join too. The more the merrier — we ended up with a group of fourteen!

Our base camp (for ten of us, anyway) was the Amari Watergate, a hotel I’d actually been to before for a midnight fun run a few years prior — but never actually stayed in. I’d met some of the Amari crew at TBEX Bangkok at the end of 2015 and I was looking forward to taking them up on their offer to check out some of their hotels — starting with the Amari Watergate.

Amari Watergate Bangkok Hotel

Amari Watergate Bangkok Hotel

Amari Watergate Bangkok HotelPhoto by Leah Davis

Amari Watergate Bangkok HotelPhoto by Leah Davis

Janine and I were spoiled rotten with an Executive Suite on the club level, with our friends checking into various other room categories. We loved having so much space for our crew to drop in and out as they pleased!

Note: Tragically, I lost all my photos from the day we checked in due to a serious of technological mishaps. Luckily, my friends Leah from The Sweetest Way and Kate from Adventurous Kate have both stayed at the Amari as well and generously offered to let me swipe some of their room photos — check out their posts for even more angles of this beautiful hotel!

Amari Watergate Bangkok HotelPhoto by Kate McCulley

Amari Watergate Bangkok HotelPhoto by Kate McCulley

Amari Watergate Bangkok HotelPhoto by Leah Davis

I was almost a little sad we had such a busy three nights planned — I wouldn’t have minded just kicking it in this room for seventy-two hours. I mean, can you blame me? Just check out that tub!

Amari Watergate Bangkok HotelPhoto by Kate McCulley

Amari Watergate Bangkok HotelPhoto by Kate McCulley

One of the perks of being on the club level was a daily happy (two!) hours during which we could sip on complimentary wine, cocktails, and beer, and nibble on free snacks. It was a really nice perk, and a lovely way to kick off the evening. And we never went thirsty — at any time of day we could pop by the lounge and grab complimentary sodas, juices, tea and coffee.

Amari Watergate Bangkok Hotel

Amari Watergate Bangkok Hotel

There was also a standard happy hour down by the pool which we checked out as well. The Amari Watergate pool is unlike any other I’ve been to in Bangkok, which tend to be sleek, rooftop infinity affairs. The lagoon-style here was a refreshing change.

Amari Watergate Bangkok Hotel

And yet I think the best thing about the Amari at any room level (aside from the gym and spa, which I’ll get to soon!) is the location. The Amari Watergate is across the street from some of the best shopping in Bangkok, from the high-end malls of Siam to the market-like Platinum Center where clothes and accessories can be snapped up at wholesale prices, and the overwhelming Pantip Center where electronics can be had for a song.

On our first night back in Bangkok we took advantage of our location to stroll across the street and meet our friends staying elsewhere at Red Sky bar, the dramatic rooftop of the Central World Mall. I’d been here once before and loved the wild, color-changing arch and was excited to show it to the soon-to-be birthday girl. Unfortunately, we hit a snag.

Red Sky Bar Bangkok

Bangkok bars are obsessed with footwear, and it’s not unusual for a hostess to shamelessly lean right over the podium to see what’s on your feet before so much as saying hello to you. Flip flops are often not allowed, regardless of the fact that they are pretty much the standard issue uniform of Southeast Asia. So despite the fact that we were dressed to the nines, the Red Sky team wouldn’t allow our group onto the roof since a few of the girls had on nice pairs of Havianas — even when we offered to get bottle service. Oh well.

They generously allowed us to spend our money in the downstairs bar, however. Since we was wearing sandals, Janine and I went to the roof to have on drink and grab our friends who were already there to bring them downstairs. And that’s when I got really riled up, guys… because I saw people in CROCS AND ZIP OFF PANTS. You want to class the place up a bit and draw the hard line on high-end, designer metallic flip flops? Fine, fair enough. But you simply cannot then allow Croc-clad tourists in adventure vests to waltz around the place like it’s fashion week!

At least you all know what to pack now to get past the doorman at Red Sky.

Red Sky Bar Bangkok

Back at Amari the next morning, the birthday girl and I enjoyed breakfast in the exclusive Executive Lounge and laughed over our misadventures from the night before. The city views were almost as delicious as the crazy breakfast spread before us. We also discussed our plans for the day, since we’d learned a little too late that our big dreams for the day were definitely not going to happen.

You see, the Buddhist calendar in Thailand is chock full of days when alcohol sales are somewhat restricted, and they are tough to keep track of since the dates are based on the lunar calendar and thus change every year. With most of them, however, you can find a drink if you’re desperate at hotel bars and fine restaurants and certain above-the-law establishments. There are one or two however, that are so important that not a single bar dares keep its doors open. And as we’d discovered with just two days warning, Janine’s birthday was one of them this year. Whoops.

Amari Watergate Bangkok Hotel

Amari Watergate Bangkok Hotel

Amari Watergate Bangkok Hotel

So that day, with our dreams of mimosas at a favorite brunch café crushed, we decided to head to the mall and to the movies. After some shopping and food court hopping, Ian and I were quick to recommend our new obsession the Blue Ribbon Theater. For many of our friends it was their first time at the best screen scene in Bangkok, and we loved showing them the ropes! While I wasn’t a fan of the movie the group decided on — Deadpool, ugh — I still had a blast. Once you go Blue, you never go back.

Blue Ribbon Theater Bangkok

Blue Ribbon Theater Bangkok

Blue Ribbon Theater Bangkok

Back at the suite, we toasted to our good fortune. Sure, it wasn’t the birthday we’d planned (which had involved a river-side beer garden and a ride around the ferris wheel at Asiatique!) but we couldn’t have been luckier with our Plan B. We were in beautiful suite surrounded by good friends, cake, a gorgeous city skyline and the cases of wine and champagne we’d stocked up on the night before. In retrospect, we couldn’t have asked for a better night.

Bangkok Birthday

Bangkok Birthday

Bangkok Birthday

The next morning, Janine and I were up early to hit the gym and relax at the spa… basically, to start her next spin around the sun in style.

Now, I’m not being hyperbolic when I saw that the Amari Watergate has perhaps the most extensive gym at any hotel I’ve ever stayed at… possibly anywhere. An enormous weights room, a bocce ball court, and ten classes per week were all on the menu, though sadly the class we rose for happened to be cancelled that morning. But as a group exercise addict I was serially impressed to see a schedule with classes in step, aero boxing, yoga, aerobics, and more.

Amari Watergate Bangkok Gym

Amari Watergate Bangkok Gym

After our workout, we made our way to the Breeze Spa. Janine and I have a regular weekly spa date, and so it was only fitting that for her birthday trip we took our usual routine and cranked it up a notch.

After much deliberation we chose the Lift Off Package, which included an hour long massage, a fifteen minute foot ritual, and a forty-five minute wrap or scrub. The treatments started with an energizing juice shot and a cool towel as we tested various massage oils and scrubs — I went with the mango sticky rice scrub and I was so infatuated with it I bought not one but two bottles of the stuff on the way out. As much as I love spa outing I literally never buy the products, so this was a huge deal.

Breeze Spa at Amari Watergate

Breeze Spa at Amari Watergate

Breeze Spa at Amari Watergate

Our treatments were fantastic! And on the way out, we had more treats waiting for us — hot teas and green tea macarons. Yum! Hands down, I think this was my highlight of the weekend. I loved having some solo girl time in a busy few days full of friends and frenzy, and I absolutely adored the entire Breeze experience, from the chic branding to the good-enough-to-eat products to the quality of the treatments.

Even if I was staying elsewhere, I’d come back to the Amari just for treatments at Breeze. It’s my new go-to in Bangkok when I’m looking for something a little more special that a cheap streetside foot rub.

Breeze Spa at Amari Watergate

Breeze Spa at Amari Watergate

Breeze Spa at Amari Watergate

That night, we caught back up with the full crew again for dinner at a restaurant I’d long awaited a visit to — Peppina. There are a couple outposts of the chic eatery now, but we headed to the flagship location on Sukhumvit Soi 33. The speciality of the house is Neapolitan pizza, though salads and other Italian treats round out the menu.

Peppina Restaurant Bangkok

Peppina Restaurant Bangkok

Peppina Restaurant Bangkok

Peppina Restaurant Bangkok

While I can’t say the service was all that stellar, in their defense we were a huge group and we didn’t give them tons of notice we were coming. Still, the food was fantastic, we had a blast, and I can’t wait to check out their new pop-up location — in The Commons in Thonglor, for all my fellow Bangkok addicts out there.

Peppina Restaurant Bangkok

Peppina Restaurant Bangkokthe whole crew… almost!

After dinner, it was one final night out in the big city! Ian and I led a bar crawl along our favorite Thonglor bars, starting at the steampunk Iron Fairies before winding our way to Thai hipster favorite Bad Motel, and eventually capping off the night at one of my favorite rooftops in Bangkok, the vertigo-inspiring Octave (if you have a sweet tooth like me, don’t miss the mango sticky rice martini — you’ll thank me later!)

Bad Motel BangkokJanine sampling “The Barf Bag,” Bad Motel’s version of a Long Island Iced Tea

Octave Bangkok

Octave Bangkok

The next day I’d have a full schedule of errands to run, including procuring my Brazilian visa, getting my quarterly fix of Coldstone Creamery, and doing some festival shopping in anticipation of Tomorrowland Brasil. But on this night, I said a wistful goodbye to Bangkok. It would be my last time in the city for a long while, and it’s not an easy one to leave in the rearview. But it couldn’t have been a better sign off.

Octave Bangkok

Red Sky Bangkok

Next stop, Hua Hin!

 
Many thanks to Amari Watergate for their hospitality. As always, you receive my honest opinion regardless of who is footing the bill.

My Kind of Paradise On Ilha Grande

I guess I have a thing for seedy islands.

A pirates lair, a leper colony, and a penitentiary for political prisoners — much like Koh Tao in Thailand and Isla de Coiba in Panama, Ilha Grande in Brazil has quite the illicit past. And much like those islands before it, this one also managed to steal my heart in just a few short days.

Ilha Grande BrazilPhoto by Heather Holt

Ilha Grande Brazil

Vila do Abraão Ilha Grande Brazil

Ilha Grande Brazil

Though the last island prison dissolved in the mid-90’s, gorgeous Ilha Grande’s sordid reputation kept developers at bay, much to the delight of travelers now lucky enough to stumble upon it. And it’s pretty convenient to stumble onto — several boat and van services offer door-to-door connections between Paraty and Rio, making Ilha Grande a natural stop on a hop along Brazil’s emerald coastline.

The first stop for visitors to the island is Vila Do Abraão, a once sleepy fishing village now bursting with pousadas, canga shops, acai stands and other tourist trappings that manage to maintain the tiny town’s ramshackle charm. Adding to the adorability factor is the lack of motorized vehicles. A garbage truck, a fire truck and a police vehicle make up the list of exceptions, and everyone else gets around on foot or by bicycle.

Ilha Grande Brazil

Vila do Abraão Ilha Grande Brazil

Vila do Abraão Ilha Grande Brazil

Vila do Abraão Ilha Grande Brazil

Vila do Abraão Ilha Grande Brazil

After our rainy five days in Paraty, we could not have been any more thrilled to be greeted by the sun in Ilha Grande. Yet we quickly learned that one thing we were seriously unprepared for pretty much all through Brazil, with the exception of our first lucky week? The weather.

We spent three glorious nights on Ilha Grande, and during the day the weather was beautiful and the temperatures in the high sixties to low eighties. But with strong island winds and temperatures dropping into the fifties at night, we were seriously unprepared for anything Brazil was throwing at us past sunset — which was around 5:30pm at that time of year.

Thank goodness I had bought a pair of jeans specifically for this trip! We fell into a pattern of enthusiastically planning a night out every day, then gradually putting on every layer we had in our bags as the temperature dropped until we were huddled in our beds wrapped in our comforters cursing ourselves for having acclimated so seamlessly to the tropical climates of our adopted homes. The last thing I expected to be on this Brazilian holiday was cold — though on the upside, I’ve lived happily through a Thai heat wave with no air conditioning, so there’s that!

Vila do Abraão Ilha Grande Brazil

Vila do Abraão Ilha Grande Brazil

Vila do Abraão Ilha Grande Brazil

Vila do Abraão Ilha Grande Brazil

Vila do Abraão Ilha Grande Brazil

Ilha Grande Brazil

Vila do Abraão Ilha Grande Brazil

Vila do Abraão Ilha Grande Brazil

We’d waffled on where to stay in Ilha Grande, entertaining lush pousadas, budget hostels and even a charming houseboat on Airbnb. In the end, we settled on the Che Legarto Paraty, a sister property to the hostel we’d tried in Paraty.

We’d been won over by the waterfront location, though I can’t say I’m itching to return. Our dorms were painfully pricey at $25 per night per person (private rooms are no longer offered), the included breakfast was pitiful, the location was a bit out of town and there wasn’t much in the way of hostel camaraderie during our stay. We were tickled by the local luggage service, however, which consisted of a bicep-flexer tossing our bags into a custom push cart and leading the way to our hostel for $4 each.

Che Legarto Ilha Grande

Vila do Abraão Ilha Grande Brazil

How to fill one’s days on such a charming island? Options are a-plenty. We’d originally enthusiastically planned to go diving though were warned off by the local dive shop due to the storm that had plagued us in Paraty and churned the visibility up to nothing.

Other tours for snorkeling, island hopping, and waterfall rappelling were appealing, however in the end we decided to give our budget a rest and entertain ourselves on the cheap. We spent the majority of our time on Ilha Grande tackling three of the island’s sixteen signposted hiking trails — leading to just a few of its hundred and two beaches! This was such a special experience that I have a whole post coming up dedicated to our hiking adventures. Stay tuned!

Ilha Grande Brazil

Hiking on Ilha Grande

And, needless to say, with a professional shutterbug as my co-pilot (she took both the beautiful photos above!), photography walks were a fun part of almost every day. I love how creatively challenged I can be by my travels with Heather, and comparing the different ways we see the world through our lenses.

Vila do Abraão Ilha Grande BrazilPhoto by Heather Holt

Vila do Abraão Ilha Grande BrazilPhoto by Heather Holt

Vila do Abraão Ilha Grande BrazilPhoto by Heather Holt

Also kind of needless to say when it comes to the two of us, eating and drinking were also a main form of entertainment.

While Ilha Grande doesn’t have close to the dining scene that Paraty boasted, we did find a few favorites. Fornilha Pizzaria was the perfect comfort food for our first chilly night, Kebab Lounge was a healthy dinner option, and Cafe do Mar was our pick for chic beachside eats in the sun — don’t forget to look for their special evening BBQ a few night a week, too! We both gave a thumbs up to the vegetarian-friendly self-serve buffet at Biergarten, and the flavored mojitos and fresh empenadas at Coruja were definitely the hippest thing happening in town. And let’s just say we made a thorough sampling of the local acai bowl offerings, and we weren’t let down once.

Ilha Grande Brazil

Vila do Abraão Ilha Grande Brazil

On our final morning, we decided to go wild and for over a few riels for fun. While rentals for bikes, surfboards and kayaks were tempting, we saved our mild splurge for a mutual favorite: stand up paddle boarding.

Stand Up Paddleboarding on Ilha Grande Brazil

Stand Up Paddleboarding on Ilha Grande Brazil

Stand Up Paddleboarding on Ilha Grande Brazil

For 40BR each (about $11), we had an hour to play in the bay. We were heading onward to Rio de Janiero that afternoon, and while it was a city I’d looked forward to visiting for much of my life, I couldn’t help but feel wistful about leaving. The three nights we’d originally budgeted due to rumors of horrific wifi (a serious concern for two online business owners) suddenly seemed far too short. We’d actually tried to extend our trip by another day, but found our transfer was non-refundable and couldn’t be budged.

We were both overwhelmed with happiness as we paddled around and looked back on the beautiful island we were saying goodbye to all too soon. How rare to find such a gem of nature, so unsullied by overdevelopment. Ilha Grande is truly a special place.

Stand Up Paddleboarding on Ilha Grande Brazil

Stand Up Paddleboarding on Ilha Grande Brazil

Stand Up Paddleboarding on Ilha Grande Brazil

Ilha Grande left a big impression on my heart. Here’s hoping I’ll be back someday!

Nitrox Now! A Review of the PADI Enriched Air Diver Course

Fellow scuba enthusiasts, do you want your dives to be safer, to stay down longer, and to have more energy for celebratory drinks after rinsing out your gear? I’ll take that as a duh — which is why it’s so crazy it took me so many years to get my nitrox certification.

Earlier in 2016, before leaving Thailand for the summer, I realized I’d hit a bit of a diving rut. My solution? I signed up for three different continuing education courses at three different dive schools on Koh Tao to shake myself out of it! And I chose topics that challenged me. After tackling the Self Reliant Diver certification at Master Divers — which you can read about here — I moved onto the Enriched Air Diver certification course at Ban’s, the largest dive school in the world by volume of divers certified.

Ban's Koh Tao Course Review

Ban's Koh Tao Course Review

The Enriched Air Diver course, also often referred to as “nitrox,” is PADI’s most popular speciality — and it’s easy to see why. (I’ll use the two terms interchangeably throughout this post.) This simple one-day course can be done and dusted in a matter of hours, and in fact as a “dry course,” it can technically be completely without stepping a single fin underwater — though, ahem, why would you want to miss the fun part?!

I chose to take this certification quite seriously. As a PADI Divemaster, I have always felt self-conscious about the gaps in my understanding of dive theory, and I figured this course would be the perfect opportunity to fill them out. And so I turned to my longtime friend and Senior Instructor at Ban’s, Chris Pearson.

As the local coordinator at Hyperbaric Services Thailand, a key member of Koh Tao Rescue, and a PADI Staff Instructor, he was almost over-qualified to certify little ‘ol me in a simple Enriched Air course. I mean, just look at this list of qualification!

• PADI Staff Instructor
• Diver Medical Technician (IMCA)
• Emergency First Responder Instructor Trainer
• C.E.E.R – (Chalenging Environments Emergency Responder) Instructor
• M.I.R.A – (Medicine In Remote Areas) Instructor
• DMR Level IV – (Diver Medical Responder) Instructor
• Hyperbaric Chamber Tender & Operator (SSS Recompression Chamber Network)

Phew! Thankfully, Chris was more than willing to take me on as a student. I knew he’d know exactly how to get the information through to me — Diet Coke lecture analogies, coconut quiz-passing bribes and all.

Enriched Air Nitrox PADI Course

Enriched Air Nitrox PADI Course

So, let’s start with the basics. What is enriched air? It all comes down to what’s in the tank. A standard scuba tank is filled with compressed air identical to what we breathe on land, which is 79% nitrogen and 21% oxygen. Nitrox tanks on the other hand have an oxygen content of 22-40%, with 32% and 36% being the standard mixes.

Don’t worry, this blog post does not require a calculator — I just wanted to impress you all with the use of fancy fractions. (Did it work? Discuss amongst yourselves.) Yet the real benefits of diving nitrox go beyond wowing your friends with math and the fashion potential of coordinating with those sassy green and yellow tanks.

Less nitrogen is, for the most part, a good thing. Nitrogen is enemy numero uno when it comes to decompression sickness, long breaks between dives, post-diving naps and something called “no decompression limits,” which calculate how long you can stay at certain depths. Diving enriched air allows you to dive longer (due to less nitrogen exposure), safer (you can dive an air profile on a nitrox tank for super conservative dives), with shorter surface intervals (as there’s less nitrogen to off-gas) and with less fatigue (yup, you guessed it, another byproduct of less nitrogen exposure).

So what keeps the entire dive community from ditching standard air and breathing nothing but nitrox? Good question. The answer, for most divers, is simply price. It’s more expensive! Other factors include limited availability, the hassle of checking the blend in your tank for each dive, and stricter depth limits due to the increased risk of oxygen toxicity (there’s always a trade-off, eh?).

Ban's Dive School Koh Tao Thailand

Ban's Dive School Koh Tao Thailand

The course itself is straightforward. In fact, it is the only PADI dive course ever to be streamlined rather than expanded. Why? Because, dive computers! In some ways, these magic little wrist machines have made diving nitrox as simple as the touch of a button.

But yet you still need to understand the concepts behind the calculations, and that’s where the certification comes in. Things like partial pressure and oxygen toxicity are, in my opinion, quite complicated, and I didn’t want to just pass the test and move on. I really wanted to understand. And so I didn’t move past a single sentence in the course manual until I felt confident I could explain it to a child if necessary. Bottom line? Praise Chris for his patience.

The course kicked off with an introductory video by PADI followed by a custom lecture from Chris and many interruptions by me to ask questions. Next, I sat down for some quality time with my manual, completing a simple knowledge reviews at the end of each chapter to seal in new concepts. Finally came the exam, which I aced with the humble pride that some accept PHD’s with.

HTMS Sattukut Koh Tao

HTMS Sattukut Koh Tao

And then we put it into practice. After learning to set my dive computer for various nitrox blends, I mastered how to check tanks with an analyzer tool and record my findings, and finally how to read the markings on a nitrox tank. One thing I didn’t realize before taking this course is you MUST check your own gas blend each and every single dive so you can plan accordingly. While oxygen poisoning is incredibly rare, it is serious, and thus divers have to be vigilant about checking their air blend, making a dive plan and staying within their computer’s dive limits.

Ideally, though this step is technically optional, you’ll conclude your course with a dive or two on nitrox so you can see what all the fuss is about. Which is exactly what Chris and I did, to the HTMS Sattakut, one of my old favorite dive sites on Koh Tao.

HTMS Sattukut Koh Tao

HTMS Sattukut Koh Tao

HTMS Sattukut Koh Tao

Enriched Air Nitrox PADI Course

While it was interesting to note the different readings on my dive computer and to see the different markings on my snazzy new tank, the contents were indiscernible otherwise from standard compressed air — it doesn’t taste, feel, or smell any differently.

Thanks to our longer dive time and shorter surface intervals, we were the last ones back on the boat from the first dive and the first ones back in the water for the second, at good ‘ol White Rock dive site.

Ban's Koh Tao Course Review

Ban's Koh Tao Course Review

Ban's Koh Tao Course Review

Enriched Air Nitrox PADI Course

Ban's Koh Tao Course Review

Ban's Koh Tao Course Review

And then I was certified, sealed with a high-five at the surface! As we hopped off the dive boat, I felt ready to take on the world — a far cry from my normal post-dive sluggishness.

So what divers should consider getting their Enriched Air certification? Anyone who wants to dive longer and feel sprightlier! Those doing multiple dives over multiple days — on liveaboards, at dive resorts, etc. — are the primary targets. Those looking to brush up on certain dive concepts (like me!) will also find it a great catch-all little course to really check your comprehension of dive theory, with the right instructor. And finally, those pursuing other specialities like Intro to Tech, Photography, Sidemount, and other courses that involve staying underwater for longer will find nitrox to be a natural step in their continuing education.

If you too are considering this course, you’ll walk away with a comprehensive understanding of what nitrox is, when and when not to dive it, what the risks are, and how to plan for enriched air dives.

Ban's Koh Tao Course Review

Enriched Air Nitrox PADI Course

I feel strongly that finding the right PADI dive shop and instructor are key when it comes to this course. I’ve heard it described by so many in the diving industry as “an easy sign off” and “a throwaway course” and while I don’t want anyone reading this to be discouraged or intimidated from signing up, I also don’t like to see it treated dismissively. So look for the right fit.

Only a handful of shops on Koh Tao compress their own enriched air. I recommend taking the course at a school that does, and asking your instructor if they actually use it. Ban’s is one of those schools, and Chris is one of those instructors. Clearly, I was thrilled with my experience and can’t recommend Chris more highly. If you’re looking to take this or any other recreational diving or dive medic training course on Koh Tao, reach out to him!

Enriched Air Nitrox PADI Course

Enriched Air Nitrox PADI Course

Enriched Air Nitrox PADI Course

Personally, I’ll be diving nitrox whenever it’s available and affordable to me from here forward. It just feels good!

And as someone who used to joke that I had to stop watching Bill Nye the Science Guy because all the theory was a bit over my head, I was proud to really wrap my mind around this course. If these things come easy to you, kudos! If not, don’t be discouraged. Science has never come easy to me, and for too long I let that mental block dictate what I thought I could and couldn’t achieve with diving. These days I know that with the right instructor, the right attitude, and a bribe of one fresh coconut for passing my final exams, there’s little in diving I can’t do.

Do you dive nitrox? Let’s get gassy in the comments!

3-devide-lines

This post is brought to you by PADI as part of the PADI AmbassaDiver initiative. Read my latest ramblings on the PADI blog!