Visiting Seattle with a Kid

Back in September, I took my first trip to Seattle with a kid. Well, not just any random kid – my own, of course.

I’d last been to Seattle in around 2005-ish with my now-wife. We walked all over the place, found all the tasty food and searched for good beer. As walkable as Seattle is, it would still present some different challenges with a 4-year-old along for the ride (and walk!).

If you’re thinking about visiting Seattle with a kid or three, let me share a few recommendations.

travel to seattle
Getting there is part of the fun for us.

Where to Stay

Hotel prices in Seattle are kind of obnoxious. We also try hard to avoid huge hotel chains. We wanted to be somewhat near the Space Needle since many cool things radiate out from that area.

My wife found a reasonably-price-for-Seattle place called Hotel 5, which is almost as cool as one of my other favorite hotels. It couldn’t have been friendlier or more comfortable. The lobby had all sorts of games, ranging from chess to (free) old-school arcade games. They also have a decent free breakfast — nothing fancy, just oatmeal, hardboiled eggs, pastries and the like. They also have a small cafe there that sells various fancier breakfast items, coffee and bar food (later in the day).

It’s a good location that’s pretty close to public transit stops and the Pike Place Market. I can’t say enough about the comfortable rooms and the overall friendliness of the staff. It’s a perfect place to stay in Seattle with a kid.

How to Have Fun in Seattle with a Kid

I realize your mileage will vary on this point. But my 4-year-old is a seafood fiend. She even helps me cook it at home by sprinkling the seasoning. When she walks into Nelson’s Seafood at home, the people there know her by sight and say “are you here to see the fish with eyes?” (She’s partial to whole fish.)

So you can imagine her delight at the seafood markets at Pike Place Market. At one point, she was looking at a pretty gross-looking fish on ice, and then it moved! Turns out the pranksters there planted a fake fish and have it rigged up so they can make it move whenever someone comes in for a closer look.

seattle with a kid
One of the any awesome playgrounds in Seattle.

But there’s plenty of other cool kid stuff aside from looking at fish. There are some epic playgrounds — some that compare favorably with even those in New Zealand — scattered all across the city. The playground at Seattle Center is a grand scale of challenges that will keep kids of all ages occupied. Mine also made several friends during her visits. There’s also the Cascade Playground, which is a lot smaller. But it will definitely keep a preschooler happy, especially since it’s a hotspot for dog walkers.

We had mixed results at the Pop Culture Museum. My little person loved the interactive area where she could play guitars, keyboards and electronic drums. She was also completely nuts over the sci-fi movie exhibit, where she was able to name every cool display from Star Wars. And the other costumes and displays also blew her away. She wasn’t so into looking at old guitars.

seattle with a kid
I’ve had so much trouble finding the right drummer that I’m trying to grow one at home.

The Seattle Aquarium was a hit that kept the little person occupied for several hours. From jellyfish to seahorses to octopi to sea otters, she enjoyed herself. My advice would be to get there early like we did. It gets crowded, so having 30 minutes or so where it’s nearly empty makes it a better experience.

We also took a little side jaunt on the ferry out to Bainbridge Island, which I found to be a very posh Sedona-on-the-water sort of place. We put in plenty of miles walking, which included foraging around for wild blackberries. It looked like we missed most of the prime season, so I was left rooting around for what the birds lefts behind. But it was still fun.

Where to Eat

I’m going to be honest here: If Seattle food is as good as Portland food, we weren’t able to find it quite as easily. That said, we had some wonderful meals there.

La Teranga, another find of my wife’s, served Senegalese food. It was my first time having it. Literally everything I tasted blew me away. There are three tables in the place, but it’s worth the wait. We had Thibou Djeun (a fish dish) and lamb mafe, along with a drink made out of baobab tree fruit called bouye juice. It was much thicker than a juice, and also one of the more unique flavors I’ve experienced. I’m not even sure what comparison to draw.

food in seattle
Delicious Senegalese food!

We all also loved the Skal Beer Hall in the Ballard neighborhood. We’re all big fans of charcuterie, and the little person particularly loves havarti. Everyone went away happy. There’s also the cool atmosphere as a bonus.

Oh, yeah. The little person also enjoys donuts. I made it a point to find her a few local donuts to try. We, of course, tried the local Hot Pot chain. Their plain glazed scored highly with the little person. But Tempesta, a tiny coffeehouse, makes a far better donut. Their coffee is also tasty, but the skew more toward fun coffee creations with a bit of sweetness.

A Little Bit of Fun for the Parents

Two of the things we always like about cities in the Pacific Northwest are beer and coffee.

Let’s start with coffee. This is clearly the city that built Starbucks, but you’re missing out if you don’t hit the local places. I could write a whole post just about coffee and beer, so I’m going to name some top spots for you to put on your list. To give you an idea of what it takes to get on the list, here’s my test: I order a real espresso drink, usually a cortado or a cappuccino. No whipped creme, no sprinkles, no pumpkin spice.

seattle with a kid
Having a donut with Lufthansa Lu.

That said, I recommend you check out Ghost Note, Monorail Espresso and Street Bean. Each has something that’s a standout about it. Ghost Note has a relaxing atmosphere and a barista who takes coffee very seriously while also being friendly about it. Monorail is tiny enough to walk past, but they use the space they have to also be very friendly while making serious espresso drinks. Street Bean stands out to me for its mission to help “street involved” young people in Seattle. All of these will serve a top-quality espresso. I also like Ghost Alley, even though I opted for a seasonal cold brew recipe there.

There be Beer Here

Then there’s beer. A quick note on visiting Seattle with a kid – or anywhere in Washington: Apparently, an archaic law on the books results in some places not allowing minors into the premises. Still others install some sort of a weird wooden bar as a barrier, and minors aren’t allowed beyond it. It’s truly strange. But just know where a brewery stands on this before making a long journey out to it before being turned away.

We are primarily about stouts and IPAs (preference to West Coast and hazy styles). We eschew blondes, most lagers, reds and other more mellow stuff. There is really one big winner from all the breweries we tried, and that’s Stoup. They had literally everything right: great beer, a food truck, a friendly atmosphere, and even stuff for the kids to do. We happened to drop in during fresh hop season, so they had a variety of seasonal IPAs that were mind-boggling. Their selection rotates often, so you won’t often see the same beer. I advise getting a flight.

We agreed that Stoup was our favorite beer place in Seattle.

I also enjoyed Flying Lion quite a bit. I would’ve spent a lot more time there had it not been for a little person completely crashed out asleep at that point. Not many places do cask-conditioned ales, so that was a nice treat. I also loved the old warehouse vibe, and the entire place smelled like cedar. It was so comfortable and easygoing that I wanted to take it home with me. My standout aside from the cask IPA was a blood orange IPA.

Then there’s Optimism, a no-tipping establishment that is sprawling and fun. It has plenty for kids to do, but they could probably take the decibels down a notch. They’re also a Bring Your Own Food sort of place, and they provide utensils. To be honest, Optimism is a bit undistinguished from a beer point of view (their IPAs tasted way too similar to each other), but as a concept, I can’t help loving it.

Point A to Point B

Seattle is awesome at public transit. The bus system, monorail and subway are easy to navigate. It’s a pedestrian-friendly environment. And there are ferries for little desert kids like mine who aren’t used to waterways that are navigable!

seattle with a kid
Taking a ferry to Bainbridge Island

We used Uber for getting to the hotel from the airport and back, and on only one other occasion (the trek for Sengalese food — well worth it).

Seattle with a Kid — Do It

How much did our little person like Seattle? She already wants to go again. We didn’t have to really go too far out of our way to entertain here. She found adventure in every street and on every bus ride. It’s hard to go wrong.

Could Your Hotel Room Key Card Work on More Than One Room?

Shortly before midnight at a rural Clarion hotel in West Virginia, a man slips his key card into the door of his room. He enters – and immediately hears a woman scream. Seconds later, a man wearing only his underwear comes running at him from the darkened room. He immediately backpedals into the hallway -- and realizes that he somehow opened the door to the wrong room.

hotel room key card
Are these key card-activated locks having more problems than hotel guests realize? (original image found at Gizmodo – and you should read their story, too)

Just in case you haven’t figured it out, I was Underwear Man. And this recently played out at the Clarion Shepherdstown. You can imagine this was a pretty startling experience for everyone involved. You’d also think the the front desk staff would’ve been maybe just a bit apologetic about it when my wife told them about it the next morning.

"That’s been happening to us recently," someone told her.

Wait – what?

I can’t say I expected them to comp our room or anything. But I would expect them to act as if having rooms that are far-less-than-secure would maybe be cause for action and maybe some sort of reassurance.

This particular Clarion loses a lot of points for not seeming to care very much about the security of its rooms. But this can’t be the only hotel with such problems, even though I’ve literally never had this happen anywhere else.

So exactly how safe are these hotel room key cards? When I searched for information, most of the results were about how the most-common magnetic strip cards eventually stop working and need to be re-magnetized. I also found a few results about ID theft via the key cards (which seem entirely the stuff of misunderstandings turned into urban myths). Maybe I’m just searching with the wrong terms.

That means nobody is talking about one key card working for multiple doors. Granted, for criminals this seems like a very low-percentage endeavor. Most likely, when this happens you’ll just have two guests scaring the crap out of each other. It stands to reason that the industry would rather not talk about it – it doesn’t happen very often and it’s potentially embarrassing. But it still deserves more than a shrug and "shit happens" attitude like the Clarion’s front desk staff.

Have you ever heard of this happening? How would you expect the front desk staff to react? How should upper management handle this?

 

 

 

Best of Travel 2015

westjet
Headed to Toronto on WestJet.

Despite 2015 being my first year as a parent, this has been a good year for travel. We got the Little Person on her first international trip, in addition to numerous runs around the country; she may have even outflown me with a total of 18 legs to her credit.

In spite of my expectations, I have some really interesting thoughts about my travel highlights. So here’s my Best of Travel, 2015 travel edition.

Best Airline

Considering that I flew two trans-Atlantic flights on a Lufthansa 747-8i, you’d expect Lufthansa to win this handily. All the Lufthansa employees I encountered were as polished as they were personable. They were excellent with our Little Person (let’s not forget the onboard bassinets and stuffed animals), and the economy class seats were the best I’ve flown in.

By WPPilot (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Orange County John Wayne is a better airport than you probably realize. By WPPilot (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
But not so fast, says WestJet. This Canadian carrier was the surprise of my travels in 2015 – a likeable, eager-to-please, reasonably priced revelation that makes me wish it had a few US hubs. It’s Boeing 737 fleet is honestly nothing special, especially next to the marvel that is the 747-8i or even a newer iteration of 737. But WestJet one me over by having modestly priced upgrades to its premium cabin, which also gets you free food and snacks.

I am bummed that I can’t fly WestJet more. But you can bet that I will go out of my way to get on a WestJet intercontinental flight; they just added some 767s to the fleet. I’m eager to see what WestJet can do on a widebody aircraft on a long flight.

I expected Lufthansa to be great. And they were. I wasn’t sure about WestJet – but they delivered a wonderful air travel surprise.

Best Airport

This is hands-down Orange County John Wayne Airport. It has barely any lines or queues to speak of. It has an open, airy design that makes the best use of natural light. It’s easy to get around.

Lufthansa 747-8i
Lufthansa was great – but WestJet wins the upset for my favorite airline of 2015.

And in VinoVolo, it has terrific food. Skip all the the restaurants and hit VinoVolo. If you have time to sit and dine, they have an excellent charcuterie platter; though they pride themselves on wine, they also serve a small stash of bottled craft beer.

If you’re in a hurry, go for the to-go picnic boxes. I got a Mendocino Picnic box before my last flight out of John Wayne, which they modified with some pieces of prosciutto for me. I made everyone on the plane jealous with a fine selection of cheese (including an amazing brie), fruit, nuts, crackers and dark chocolate.

My only quibbles were the terrible WiFi and scarcity of power outlets.

In contrast, Chicago O’Hare International Airport is nothing short of the worst of the worst, from taxi times to TSA. Avoid connecting at O’Hare if you can. It truly stinks. I’ve had a lot of things happen at O’Hare, and none of it is good.

Best Brewery

Best of Travel 2015
Good times at Iron Fist Brewing.

When my family travels, we are on the lookout for great breweries. And by far my favorite is Iron Fist Brewing Company. It had everything I like – a warehouse/industrial vibe, a decent food truck and a stellar and varied selection of beers.

If you’re visiting, a flight is the way to go. But do yourself and a few good friends a favor and grab a few bottles of the outrageous Pillow Mint stout.

I also have a lot of great things to say about Noble Ale Works. It’s the best thing happening near the House of the Mouse in Orange County.

Best of travel 2015
An absolutely perfect autumn day in Schwabisch Hall.

Best Destination

If you crack open a travel guide for Germany, you won’t find any mention of Schwäbisch Hall. I wouldn’t have known about it if I didn’t have family in the area. So all those "follow the guidebook" people are missing out on a picturesque, storybook example of a German village (pronounced "willage" by my relatives, father included).

You can spend some time shopping in the town center. Or you can head out to the Einkorn ro hike – if you’re there in fall, pick some apples! If you’re a diehard fan of American football, you can also check out the – and I’m not making this up – Schwäbisch Hall Unicorns, which is one of the stronger gridiron teams in Germany. Be on the lookout for the very amusing sausage-dispensing vending machine.

Oh, and if you’re near the village of Rosengarten and you notice some cool art hanging up in a public area, the odds are good that you’re seeing my Uncle Johann’s work.

Best Laugh

Best of travel 2015
This mannequin is definitely yelling “ja!”

So my family rolled into Stuttgart Airport on the German equivalent of a harvest holiday. Everything in the airport before security was closed with three exceptions: A convenience store, an electronics store and a sex shop. I don’t know many people who hit the airport for a ballgag or a flogger – but if you’re one of them, Stuttgart has you covered.

I figure the outfit pictured would make security searches a breeze, but I would want to accessorize with a nice gas mask -- which might cause difficulties at the security checkpoint. So I refrained. (Equality points to Germany for having a male mannequin in the window.)

Best Hotel

We absolutely fell for the Hôtel BELVUE. But after the events in Belgium following the Paris terrorist attack, I wonder how this wonderful place is getting along. It’s right on the edge of the neighborhood that was a focus for the subsequent investigations.

If you can get past that, you’ll enjoy great architecture, a reasonable price and far more space than the European norm. A few other things add to the Belvue’s cool factor: It’s designed to be energy efficient, and is also used to train people for hospitality careers. I could go on about this, but the Hotel Belvue website says it best.

Best Travel Gear.

I have this Grey Ghost backpack that the company calls the “Lightweight Assault Pack.” So yeah, it’s largely aimed at the military crowd. But me? The only thing I assault is the mundane, the ho-hum, the boring. The Lightweight Assault Pack helps me in that endeavour ably.

I picked up a selection of MOLLE pouches to add to the outside of the pack for different purposes. That makes it really quick and easy to configure it for a pretty serious hike (complete with knife and fire-making materials) or as a perfect carry-on items (definitely minus the knife and fire stuff). It fits beautifully under an airline seat, it wears comfortably and it has plenty of space even before adding external pouches. Great stuff!

Best News Overall

My daughter made her first trip abroad at the age of nine months. She was just about perfect – excellent on the airplanes, willing to eat anything, constantly ready to go for a ride in her Ironman stroller. Here’s a little story about what we did and how it all worked out.

 

San Diego: Beyond Mission Beach and the Usual Suspects

San Diego
San Diego Airport looks like an airport should.

So what do you do in San Diego when you’ve been to Horton Plaza, the Gaslamp District, Mission Beach, Sea World and all the other usual suspects?

Well. Let me tell you. We all packed up for three nights near San Diego, and we were determined to do a few things that were – while not exactly unknown – at least a bit different from the usual "Arizonans Go to San Diego" trip. Here’s a breakdown of our trip.

San Diego
The Coffee & Tea Collective is for people who like espresso in their espresso.

THURSDAY

We arrived into the shiny Terminal 2 at San Diego International Airport. It was a quick shuttle run over to the Avis counter, where we had a Subaru Legacy waiting for us. Car rental rates in San Diego are really reasonable – something like $115 for us to have the car until Sunday.

Soon, we were on our way north. Sarah had business in San Diego the next day, but all the downtown hotels were booked at absurd rates thanks to the Wookies, Hobbits, Minions and other creatures that were in town for Comicon. We checked into the Comfort Suites San Diego Miramar – just by sheer coincidence, it was across the parking lot from Shozen BBQ, a Korean BBQ restaurant. We ordered some bulgogi, and the friendly staff stuffed us with marinated, grilled-at-the-table meat and banchan (I believe Koreans are the Italians of Asia – the meal isn’t finished if you can walk away from the table unassisted).

Inside Ballast Point Brewing Company
Inside Ballast Point Brewing Company (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We had to walk a bit of the meal off, so we waddled further across the parking lot to San Diego Games and Comics. Sarah and I aren’t really much into that sort of thing, but I always find the staff and customers at gaming stores to be fun people. San Diego Games and Comics upheld that perception, and we walked out with a Firefly boardgame (Firefly is simply one of the best shows ever, and cursed be the Fox suits who canceled it).

Afterward, we felt like beer. Amazingly, the nearby tasting rooms close a bit early. That left us with Ballast Point Brewing Company – Miramar, which was just a few miles away. We arrived to a far larger and more elaborate building than we imagined; some of the fermenters looked as large as ICBMs! We ordered tasters of a bunch of their more interesting brews (consult my OnTappd profile for some highlights). We had a great server, and enjoyed the overall ambiance – energetic, but not too noisy for our little person -- who remained asleep the entire time.

On the way there, we also noticed the Flying Leatherneck Aviation Museum; I wanted to stop sometime, but we never got around to it this trip. But if you like aviation, it looks like a very fun place.

San Diego
The Ironsmith crew works it.

FRIDAY

Sarah’s business was Priority 1 for early Friday. We parked and parted ways – I loaded Tiny into her carriage and set off on-foot throughout downtown San Diego. We passed a coffee shop that was attached to a cat shelter (I didn’t drink the coffee since I just didn’t the feeling it would have very good coffee) and a who’s-who of comic/sci-fi characters: Sam & Frodo, Imperator Furiosa, many to-me-unknown anime characters, and so on.

San Diego
A sweet breakdown of espresso drinks.

My Find of the Morning, though, was definitely the Coffee & Tea Collective (East Village/Downtown). What a cool place! First-rate cappuccino; taps for cold-brew, kombucha and tea; an airy, open atmosphere; and a staff that I really liked. Now, I can imagine people who like coffee that tastes like ice cream will leave the Coffee & Tea Collective in a huff – they don’t sling syrupy, sugar-filled drinks. But if you know the difference between a cortado and a macchiato, this is your place.

A few hours later, Sarah was ready to head north. I got some time behind the Subaru Legacy’s wheel – both of us are Subaru owners, with both of ours being the 2006 vintage. We grew to appreciate the read-facing camera. The controls were all familiar enough, once we figured out the difference in the cruise control apparatus. I still am unclear on the paddles on either side of the steering wheel – and honestly, the brakes on both of are ours (Forester and Outback Sport) felt more progressive, and our acceleration feels less abrupt.

But enough of that. I felt like taking a little break before getting into Carlsbad, our final destination for the day. I made a guess on an exit; fortuitously, this exit dumped us out right in the middle of Encinitas. From there, we happened on three places the we really liked:

  • The delicious Ironsmith Coffee Roasters. Excellent cappuccino and tea – and they even have flat whites! Try a chocolate chip sea-salt cookie, too. Ironsmith caters to all sorts: You can get a lovingly crafted espresso drink, or a toothachingly sweet creation that more confection than coffee.
  • Ecotopiia, which sells some awesome goods made out of eco-friendly materials. Sarah picked up a few hemp-cotton dresses, and I got a few hemp-cotton t-shirts (I can never have enough of them). I’d love to have a store like Ecotopiia near me.
  • Sonima Wellness Center is a wellness center, so it has some tasty foods along with its fitness room. I’m still a little skeptical of a $9 smoothie – but the caramel-coconut brownie is the real deal. Dates are its main ingredient, and it’s one of the best vegan foods I’ve ever had. Plus Sonima Wellness Center is a nice place to sit down for a few moments.
San Diego
A nice place to get a great snack.

We were then on to La Quinta Inn & Suites San Diego Carlsbad. We took some time there for some exercise, plus watching the US National Team play in the CONCACAF Gold Cup. Then we were out for dinner and brew. We had a hunger for seafood, which led us to Fish House Vera Cruz. I had a delicious grilled ono, and Sarah had a skewer with a good five different species represented – all were cooked just right. Fish House Vera Cruz could probably stand to update its list of early 1980s-style side dishes, but its seafood is pretty darn timeless.

san diego
How good does that sound?

We were in a beer quandary next: the boisterous, chaotic mess that is Pizza Port, or the more laid-back 83 Degrees? The latter’s list didn’t blow us away, so we wound up on the patio at Pizza Port – inside, it’s simply too cramped and loud to enjoy yourself at all. Sarah volunteered to get us some samplers. Moments after she sat down, the staff announced that they were closing the patio. So we didn’t get our usual leisurely time to linger over the beers, and that’s too bad. They were absolutely wonderful, and I would’ve liked some Untappd time with them. But no – the staff was too eager to herd everyone off the patio. We didn’t stick around for a second round, and just called it a night. Next time I go to a Pizza Port, it definitely won’t be this location.

SATURDAY

This was a beach day. Little Traveler got her first dip in an ocean, which wasn’t exactly her favorite thing ever. I’m sure she’ll grow to like it better as she gets older.

carlsbad beach
Baby’s first time at the beach!

After that, we were off to have a look at Oceanside. Honestly, Oceanside is nothing special. We talked around for awhile, had lunch at Bull Taco, and left. Bull Taco has other locations – go to one of them rather than Oceanside.You’ll like nearly any taco on the menu, and the huge selection of hot sauces will also help.

It was still early, so we picked a brewery tasting room. This time, it was Iron Fist Brewing Company. I didn’t love every beer, but some were outstanding (again, connect with my untappd account for the highlights). And the atmosphere and staff were everything you want in a brewery tasting room. Iron Fist Brewing also has food trucks to provide some solid food to accompany the craft beer.

san diego beer
Delicious samplers at Iron Fist.

We spent some time relaxing at the hotel before heading back to Encinitas for some walking around and the promise of dinner. Warning: Things in Encinitas – and all the other beach communities – close early. We didn’t really want pizza, but wound up having a perfectly nice pie at URBN Coal Fired Pizza.

Part of our nighttime experience was seeing these weird lights in the sky. Being the aviation aficionado that I am, I was still unable to identify what I was seeing. If you’re an Encinitas local, can you explain? They were visible from the time were arrived in Encinitas (around 9:15) until we left (past 11). My best guess is drones or some sort of tethered balloons with lights on them.

San Diego Beer.
Hanging out at Culture Brewing Company.

SUNDAY

Well, we just reprised a few stops in Encinitas before pulling over near Solana Beach for a few moments. The highlight there is Culture Brewing Co; I had tasters of a nice IPA made with Nelson Sauvin hops and a sweet, roasty stout. You’ll also find food trucks at Culture. I wish I’d found them a few days earlier, but they never appeared on my brewery searches.

We ran out of time for the Flying Leathernecks Museum, but that just gives us a to-do for the next time we’re near San Diego. I hope you’ll borrow a few of these ideas for your own future trip to San Diego.

 

Four Ways to Make Me Hate a Hotel

English: Looking north across 11th Avenue at K...
English: Looking north across 11th Avenue at Kimpton Hotel, 659 11th Avenue, on a sunny midday. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I hate to admit this, but I spend more nights in hotels than in tents when I travel. I wish it didn’t have to be that way, but it’s tough to camp in the middle of a city (at least legally … without establishing your own shantytown) So I’ve had some thoughts about hotels – mainly, about how hotels can do little things that make me really, really dislike them.

I’ve wound up staying at the Loews Ventana Canyon Resort over the past few years. Each time, Loews gave me very few reasons to like it. Rather, it offered a case study in how to make a traveler hate a hotel that should have everything going for it. Let’s take a look.

It’s Isolated from Everything Interesting

This particular Loews is tucked into the mountains on the north side of Tucson. It is extremely far from everything interesting about Tucson – the funky shops, the cool cafes, the museums. The scenery is pretty, but wow -- this neighborhood is dull. This seems to be a Loews theme. Consider the Loews Coronado Bay Resort near San Diego. Each cab trip to the interesting bits of Coronado Island is going to set you back a good $25. Or you can wait for its not-frequent-enough shuttle that runs on octagenarian hours.

My theory? Loews would rather have you pay $8 for a pint of local microbrew (double the going rate) at its own bar than shell out for a cab and spend time going to the actual brewery. So they don’t do a good job of standing by local businesses, either.

Charging for WiFi

Fancy hotels seem to invert everything. They charge you for stuff that cheaper hotels include. Case in point: WiFi. A hotel might as well charge guests for broadcast TV if it’s going to charge for WiFi. The Internet is necessary whether you’re a business traveler or a leisure traveler. And it’s 2015. Wise up, hotels.

Wasting Resources

Some hotels have this nailed. I checked into  The Grand Hotel Minneapolis (operated by Kimpton Hotel & Restaurant Group) and marched straight into the shower. There, I found refillable glass-and-metal dispensers on the shower wall – they held liquid soap, shampoo and conditioner. This is so much better than the hotels that have individual-sized, individually wrapped or bottled bars of soap and liquid toiletries.

Hotels that haven’t caught onto the importance of eco-friendliness earn a big points deduction. It’s short-sighted to their bottom line, too. So they’re not good at acting in the planet’s best interests, and they’re not good at acting in their own best interests.

So, hotels – let guests reuse their towels and bedding for a few days. Use refillable dispensers. Maybe even think of using linens made from sustainable materials like bamboo fiber.

Terrible Hours for Amenities

Here’s another chance for me to pinata Loew’s a bit. I had an urge for a workout. My schedule was a bit discombobulated, so I wound up hitting the gym at 7:45 p.m. That’s when I found out it closes at 8. Every single night.

Why bother having a gym if you’re going to close early? Travelers need to burn calories when they’re away from home. And traveling messes with people’s schedules. They might not fit into the local time zone.

Wrapping it Up With Some Praise

I mentioned Kimpton Hotels earlier. I’ll go out of my way to stay at a Kimpton hotel. Each one I’ve seen has a much more contemporary vibe (compared to the better-known hotel chains), a friendly staff and a reasonable price. The Minneapolis location I mentioned? It had a wonderful little bar with some great regional microbrews; it also had a knowledgeable bartender who was quick to point out some great local craft beer hangouts. So much different from the frosty, corporate-enforced courtesy and laminated luxury from the older, bigger hotel chains. Keep it up, guys!

My Quick Iceland Travel Guide

Over the past few months, I’ve had a lot of people ask me about Iceland. And my post about a suggested itinerary is one of my most popular posts. I think it might be handy, though, to do a Wandering Justin-style Iceland travel guide.

Here’s what I have to say about some of the common questions people ask me, beyond my suggested Iceland travel itinerary.

What’s the Food Like in Iceland?

Nearly everywhere we stayed, we woke up to a huge Scandinavian-style breakfast that was included in the price of our accommodations. We’d find grains, cereals, bread, jam, a variety of meats, plenty of cheeses, jam, tea, coffee -- well, you might get the idea. I even got into the pickled herring and shrimp spreads.

iceland guide
Roasted sheep, anyone?

When it came to lunch, we were a bit more on our own. We spent many of our days on the road, so we’d run into a roadside convenience store and grab sandwiches. This would usually get us a better sandwich than we’re used to in the United States, with more exotic sorts of ingredients.

Dinner, dessert and coffee is where Iceland really excels. I ate enormous amounts of fresh fish, lamb and smoked trout. If you like chocolate, you’re in luck – so does nearly everyone in Iceland. Many of the restaurants and coffeehouses feature some rich desserts. Oh, and coffee – the entire country seems to be full of classy coffeehouses. Though Kaffitár appears to be a country-spanning chain, its baristas turn out top-quality cappuccinos (my espresso drink of choice, and one that says a lot about the barista’s skills).

Iceland does lag in craft beer, though. There are some rather draconian laws inhibiting homebrewers, which is usually Ground Zero for any nation’s craft beer movement. The Icelandic government is hell-bent on getting a cut for alcohol sales, so it seems to view homebrewers as an economic threat.

iceland guide
Many of Iceland’s colors all in one photo.

What Historical Sites are in My Iceland Travel Guide?

I’m going to be straight-up on this one: I didn’t put many historical sites on my itinerary. I lean more toward scenery and geology. That’s not to say that Iceland doesn’t have plenty of of history – Vikings populated this country, and did their best to survive its conditions hundreds of years before modern conveniences.

If history is part of what makes you travel, though, Thingvellir National Park is a must. It’s the site of the world’s oldest parliament. And this list of historical sites offers plenty of ideas. But the very best resource I’ve found for getting ideas about historical sites in Iceland is the book "The Tricking of Freya." Though it’s a work of fiction, it is packed with for-real information about Iceland’s historical, archaeological and natural sites. It’s also a top-quality mystery.

iceland guide
You’ll see a reflection of Iceland’s culture everywhere, from bookstores to turf houses.

Now, if you’re also interested in natural history, I don’t even know where to begin. I loved the area near Myvatn, with its steam explosion craters, the Dimmuborgir lava field, Hverfjall crater and the Hverir thermal area. If you’re staying in the area, be sure to stay on the north edge of the lake – there are far fewer flies buzzing around on that side.

If you’re into hiking, a stop at Skaftafell National Park for a few days is a must. Looking back at it, I wish I’d known about Kristinartindar. It’s one of the coolest-looking mountains I’ve ever seen, and I want to go back to Iceland just to climb it. And it wasn’t in a single Iceland travel guide that I’d found. Oh, and don’t miss Jökullsarlon or any chance to hike on a glacier.

Icelandic Culture is Everywhere

Culture in Iceland isn’t reserved for museums. You’ll find it in the murals in neighborhoods, the independent shops selling hand-made goods and even at the geothermally heated city pools. You’ll definitely find it in the astounding number of bookstores, where you’ll find books from Icelandic authors (I’ve heard Iceland has the highest per-capita number of published authors). The culture is even embedded right into the language – a council of experts approves new words that enter the language, and rigorously keeps out influences that can erode it. I met some friendly Swedish travelers who told me that Icelandic is very much like Swedish would’ve sounded a thousand years ago.

iceland guide
Iceland resists chains, and its locally grown businesses thrive as a result. (PS – Kotturinn is a word for “cat.”)

If you just must have a museum recommendation, be sure to visit the Icelandic Phallological Museum in Reykjavik (In a way, I’m sad it moved from the beautiful northern town of Húsavík – you should go there anyway). It’s in every Iceland travel guide for a reason: It is a perfect avatar for Iceland’s humor and curiosity – and willingness to take an idea further than anyone ever imagined. If you do decide to visit the museum, I also recommend watching the movie "The Final Member" before your visit.

The Views Outdoor

People like to say Greenland is white, and Iceland is green. Umm, that’s kind of true – but don’t go getting the idea that Iceland is covered in old-growth forests. The green comes more from moss and smaller, shrub-like plants. Glaciation and other factors are behind that.

iceland guide
You’ll lose count of all the spectacular waterfalls.

Iceland has a very raw, unfinished natural beauty with lots of colors besides green – I mean red, brown, yellow, white, just about everything. The mountainous terrain lends itself to great views, too. Here’s the truth: You will not fail to find a great view every single day, no matter where you go. From the coasts to the interior, the scenery will never fail to astound you.

You’ll be able to get around the most in the summer; from September until early June, many of the roads into the interior are closed. But the cold months will also allow a glimpse of the Northern Lights. In the summer, you won’t see so much as a single star – you’re up so far north that the sun will just dip below the horizon for a bit before popping back up. And cloud cover is also common.

What About Accommodations?

Hotels in Iceland can be pricey, well past $100 a night. But if you’re a good shopper, you’ll find some good deals. When I go back to Reykjavik, I’ll book a room at the Guesthouse Isafold. It’s more bed and breakfast than hotel, but it was was than $100 US per night, friendly and comfortable – and just the right proximity to the downtown area. Elsewhere, camping is a great option. Free-range camping is allowed with certain limitations, and campgrounds are about $25 a night … a nice option since they include bathrooms and often kitchens. I also liked the Hotel Laki, Efri-Vik, Guesthouse Frost and Fire (Frost og Funi) and Hotel Lundi Restaurant. Hotel Laki and Frost and Fire were a bit higher-priced, but nice indulgences after camping – and they were also very stylish. Hotel Lundi was a bit less expensive, and much more homey; I felt like I was visiting a family friend’s house.

iceland guide
In Husavik, horses graze just a few minutes’ walk from the harbor and downtown.

Other Good to Know Iceland Travel Tips

  • It’s astoundingly easy to get around Iceland, even if you don’t rent a car. The bus service is reliable and punctual – and the buses take credit cards. Even far into the interior, the drivers use wireless devices for busfare.
  • If you do rent a car, don’t expect American-style travel times based on getting around at 70 mph. Speed limits are slower because of smaller, narrower roads. Renting a car is great if you’ll stick to the main roads because you’ll have the freedom to be more spontaneous. But if you want to head into the interior, especially on the F Roads, I’d recommend you take a bus. The interior roads are unpaved, and they can challenge drivers not accustomed to the conditions.
  • It might be a quick stopover that brings you to Iceland – many people ask me what they can do in three days. My answer: “You can make yourself wish you stayed longer.” Look, spend enough time to get a true taste of what the country offers. It’s magnificent, and it’s a more unusual and adventurous destination – why go the same places everyone else does?
  • Iceland also really wants you to stick around. Aside from the considerable hospitality, there’s also the VAT tax refund. So you can do some shopping and get a little cash back. It’s not a huge deal, but it’s just kind of nice.

This article may contain affiliate links. 

Find an Australian Island Getaway

Australian island getaways
English: Aerial view of Ball’s Pyramid, Lord Howe Island Group, NSW, Australia (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m still diving further into my research for a future return to Australia. I’m learning something unexpected – there are some great Australian island getaway destinations. Some were already familiar to me, like Tasmania. Others, like Lord Howe Island, have caught me by surprise. And they are all worth considering for your itinerary. Let’s check out a few Australian island destinations and see where you might end up!

On South to Tasmania

I was lucky enough to meet an interesting character online who happens to live in Tasmania. He tells me two things about the island: It has great hiking trails, and beer in Australia gets better the further south you go. He knows what appeals to me!

Australian island getaways
Mount Ossa – highest mountain in Tasmania, at 1,614 metres (5,295 ft) en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mount_Ossa_(Tasmania) Day 4 of Overland Track Australia oz2009 298 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Overland Track is the hiking route I’ve heard about in more than a few blogs. The official route can take about six days and has a number of huts where hikers can sleep. But bring a tent, just in case, too. The scenery has some glacier-formed terrain. Aside from the Overland Track, there’s also mountain biking and -- caving! I can’t resist a good cave. Oh, and about those Tasmanian brews – how does a smoked molasses porter at Devils Brewery sound to you?

Australian Island Getaway on Lord Howe Island

Australian island getaways
Photo by David Morgan-Mar. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

There are a few easy ways to get me hooked on Lord Howe Island – tell me that it’s the remains of a volcano, and mention the SCUBA diving. My friends at PADI have been trying to get me strapped onto a tank for a long time, and Lord Howe Island and its neighboring islands could get me hooked – we’re talking about sub-surface caves, trenches and drop-offs, plus coral and 490 species of fish. And the Pinetrees Lodge has Lord Howe Island packages available, including wilderness, adventure, wellness and photography experiences. Speaking of adventure, there’s a crazy island nearby called Ball’s Pyramid, and it’s home a huge stick insect called the tree lobster. Awesome!

Now let’s talk about relaxation – you won’t find TV or Internet service on Lord Howe Island. And bicycles are the most-common way to get around.

http://gty.im/148917248

Adventures on Moreton Island

Here’s another destination that’s new to me -- and probably to many non-Australians. What’s the big deal with Moreton Island? Well, for me, it’s shipwrecks. Hand me a snorkel and mask, or teach me to SCUBA dive, and I’m headed belows the waves to the Tangalooma Wrecks. They’re shallow enough for novices to get in on the action. But there’s more than 100 wrecks around Moreton Bay, including some for more experienced divers. Oh, and the water is super-clear.

Back onshore, there’s also sandboarding – there’s no way I can resist that. And you can go from high-end resorts to just grabbing a camping permit and popping your tent up.

What are your favorite Australian island getaways?

This post was brought to you by Pinetrees Lodge.This blog accepts forms of cash advertising, sponsorship or other forms of compensation. All information reflects the opinions, experience and research of WanderingJustin.com

Best Hotel in Hanoi?

best hotel in Hanoi
The reception area at the Rendezvous Hotel in Hanoi

I can’t tell you that the Rendezvous Hotel is the best hotel in Hanoi. It’s the only one I stayed at. So I truly don’t have the authority and experience to call anything the best hotel in Hanoi.

That said, if I ever return to Hanoi, I will stay at the Rendezvous Hotel again for sure. Here’s why:

Location

It’s right in the Old Quarter. If you are pretty energetic, you can get just about anywhere interesting: The Hanoi Opera House, the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, the Vietnam Military History Museum just to name a few. You’ll also be a few steps away from the crazy night markets that happen a few times a week. At any given time, you’ll be just about overwhelmed by all the stuff you can eat, drink or look at.

best hotel in Hanoi
This might be the very room I stayed in …

The fancy Ciputra area is a fairly short cab ride away.

Services

Free breakfast isn’t uncommon in hotels. And in Vietnam, just about every hotel can arrange tours. We booked overnight trips to Sapa and Halong Bay at the Rendezvous Hotel; they all went flawlessly, and the hotel staff even gave us a lift to the train station.

best hotel in Hanoi
Wait … this has to be Photoshopped. WHERE ARE THE MOTOR BIKES?!

One of the most-impressive and useful details, though, was a well-written binder of good places to shop, eat and visit. The staff even recommended specific dishes – this is where I learned about cha ca la vong, which is my now my favorite Vietnamese dish. The guide also hooked us with a great place to get a great massage that restored some spring to our weary legs.

There’s also wifi n every room, plus a handful of computers for guests to use down in the lobby.

Value

Our price for a large room with wifi, TV and two beds was about $30 a night. Factor in the breakfast, and it gets even more reasonable.

You can find fancier hotels around, for sure. You can pay a lot more. But will that guarantee you a room at the best hotel in Hanoi? Eh. Take my advice – book a room at the Rendezvous Hotel.

 

Enhanced by Zemanta

What Would You Do With $3,000?

travel to new zealand
With trails like this, why wouldn’t you want to ride in Rotorua, NZ? (Credit: www.flowmountainbike.com)

A few weeks ago, I paged through the latest Mountain Flyer magazine and saw a review of the Foundry Broadaxe mountain bike.The base-level Broadaxe will set you back $2,950. That’s a hefty chunk of change. The Mountain Flyer writer describes the Broadaxe as "more capable than I would have imagined."

Look, if I drop $3,000 on a bike, I expect its biggest limitation to be me. I’d be appalled by a $3K bike that isn’t excellent. And it made me think of how a bike can be the smallest part of the mountain bike experience.

I started to think about what I’d do if someone handed me $3,000 with the condition that I spend it on something bike-related. Here’s my answer … and I’d love to hear yours in the comments.

travel to new zealand
Check out the trails near Auckland.

The last thing I’d spend my money on is another bike. I have two great bikes. And great as they are, they’re not the endgame. They’re the means to the endgame of great experiences. So I’d seek a great experience -- I’d travel to New Zealand and ride the trails near Auckland and Rotorua, which has great scenery and riding. I’d love to include Queenstown, but that would eat away at my budget and time.

travel to New Zealand
You can now grab a flight to New Zealand on Hawaiian Airlines. (Photo by Dylan Ashe)

First step: Find a flight from Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. This overgrown regional airport has one intercontinental flight per day. But Hawaiian Airlines recently started service from Honolulu to Auckland -- and Hawaiian flies direct from Sky Harbor to Honolulu. I can skip the Los Angeles International Airport chaos and still travel to New Zealand. And I’d get to spend about a day hanging out in Honolulu before my connecting flight to Auckland on the outbound flight. Some people might like to split the trip into two flights, but I love long flights. A bonus – I’d finally get to fly Hawaiian Airlines, which has a reputation as one of the best U.S. carriers. But I’d be deprived of a flight on the Air New Zealand 777, which is one nice airplane. The Hawaiian Airlines bottom line is too attractive to pass, though: $1,212 for a round trip leaving Dec. 4 and returning Dec. 17.

travel to new zealand
You can rent a Yeti 575 in New Zealand – not a bad ride!

Next, hotels!

This is late spring/early summer in New Zealand – peak season! My standby, Anns Volcanic, was booked for weeks around my proposed date. But the YHA Rotorua website shows all sorts of options. A room with double beds and a private bathroom ("ensuite" in the local parlance) is $44 NZ. I should be able to match that rate at a similar hostel in Auckland, which also has great trails. That’s $550 NZ. And with the exchange rate? That turns into $465 US. Tack on $100 for a basic hotel in Hawaii during the layover, and that’s $565 US.

That leaves bike rental -- or bike hire, as it’s called in New Zealand. Hardtails are around $60 NZ a day, with dualies as high as $150 NZ. There’s a place that rents Yeti 575s from $75 a day. Factor in a price break for multi-day rental, the occasional day off the trails and I came up with a conservative budget of $541 US in bike rentals. That’s based on eight days of rental out of 11 full days on the ground. The days off are for other fun stuff like hiking, loafing and local flavors of adventure sports like the Zorb and Schweeb at The Agrodome, one of my favorite places ever.

Total? $2,318 US – with cash left over for meals, transportation and visits to places like the Agrodome.

To me, this beats the pants off a new bike, even something as cool as a Foundry Broadaxe (and make no mistake, it’s pretty sweet). Every bike wears out or gets less cool as new products roll out. But awesome days of adventure? They live forever.

This post contains affiliate links.

 

Enhanced by Zemanta

Hostels – Four Reasons They’re Awesome

hostels

Anything can happen in hostels – from just a good night of sleep to waking up to a naked Dutch dude parading around.

If you’re not used to that sort of mayhem, the latter can be a bit off-putting. You might even conclude "Well, I’m never staying in a hostel, then." And your travel experience will be poorer for it.

I’m not literally talking about The Flapping Dutchman here – but the overall vibe of a hostel. Here’s what I like about hostels, and why you should make it a point to stay at one.

They’re cheap – You dropped serious scrilla on airfare. Staying in hostels is a good way to take your budget back. You’ll pay less than a hotel. And yeah, in many cases, you’ll give up some amenities and privacy. But let’s remember: You’re traveling to get out and do things, not faff about in your room.

 

hostels
Me enjoying a relaxing moment at the Skotel in New Zealand.

You’ll meet people – Hostel crowds are more gregarious than typical hotel folk. They’re often younger, too. So if you’re just venturing into travel, you’ll find people who have something in common with you. It starts to get fun when you move from town to town and start bumping into the same people. Next thing you know, you’ll be hiking together or hitting a nightspot for a drink.

They’re not as Spartan as you’d think – Some hostels are far from the glorified barracks you’ll expect. Sure, in some places, you’ll bunk 20 to a room. But there are some way sweet hostels out there – like the three-person rooms at the Skotel ski lodge in Whakapapa, New Zealand: The cozy wood rooms and sparkly bathrooms make it one of my favorite hostels ever. You’ll be surprised at the quality of other hostels like it.

They’re great for planning travel – Hostels seem very plugged into the cool places to go. Often, the staff members are extra-helpful for planning excursions, getting boarding passes and finding local places to eat and drink. I’ve always felt the service is a little less polished, yet more personal. And I’ll take genuine friendly over corporate-mandated courteous any time.

So, what are your thoughts on staying at hostels?

Enhanced by Zemanta

Plan a Better Vacation – 4 Easy Tips

This hike was one of the high points of my Nordic adventure.
This hike was one of the high points of my Nordic adventure.

An awesome trip is rarely an accident. It’s a combination of preparation, planning and flexibility. You start with a game plan and leave holes for spontaneity. Let me show you how it’s done, using my recent trip to the Nordic countries as an example.

Pick Your Destination(s)
I’ve wanted to visit the Nordic countries for quite awhile. The music (the heavier side of it), the food, the culture and the scenery all appealed to me. I also haven’t been to any part of Europe since I was a wee tyke. But I wanted to avoid the well-trod destinations most American travelers choose. Based on our activities (see below), we decided to arrive and leave via Stockholm, Sweden.

Another country, another 10k finishers medal.
Another country, another 10k finishers medal.

Read Up
You probably have reasons for your choice of destination. Fair enough – but pick up guide books and read some quality travel blogs to get a handle on other activities and ideas you haven’t considered. I like a guidebook for multiple ideas on accommodations and food.

Recently, though, I’ve downgraded the credence I previously placed in guidebooks for activities. Especially with hiking. I question whether guidebook writers do even a quarter of what they write about. Hit the blogs for the first-hand perspectives and photographic evidence of any activities you find in the blog. You’ll be far better prepared.

Figure out 2-3 Key Activities
I’d always wanted to go to a European music festival. I figured out what was scheduled around Finland and Sweden since they’re the bases of some of my favorite bands. Another part of the mix: Sarah and I have a fairly new tradition of running a race (10K or half marathon) when we travel. We scoured the Web for dates of running races and music festivals.

Getting there is your biggest expense - shop well!
Getting there is your biggest expense – shop well!

We scored huge by finding the Midnight Sun Run in Tromso, Norway. And I came up with the Ruisrock festival in Turku, Finland, and the Bessegen hike at Jotunheimen National Park, Norway. Everything else on the trip revolved around those three high points. We had several days between each to go for side trips.

Watch for Airfare Deals
Chances are, airfare will be your biggest single expense. So do everything that’s reasonable to shrink it. One of my favorite techniques is to sign up for the newsletters of airlines that serve the region you want to visit. For instance, if you want to hit Finland, sign up for any newsletters from Finnair, SAS or Norwegian Air Shuttle. That’s how you’ll get tipped off first to fare sales.

And give a thorough check of the websites. That’s how you’ll find out about great packages that let you assemble a package deal of flights. The Qantas Aussie Pass is a perfect example – it lets you arrange several flights around the continent for a far better price than booking individually.

Enhanced by Zemanta

5 Great Cities to Visit

Helsinki looks like a seafaring slice of an earlier time. photo IMGP0542_zpsb7534161.jpg
Helsinki looks like a seafaring slice of an earlier time.

I wrote a post for Barrelhopping.com about 5 great cities to visit. Like many of the better things I write, it came from getting all fired up about something. It was a Conde Naste article with the same mission … but it was ll over-priced and over-hyped fluff. I wrote something of my own, but aimed at Average Joe travelers like me.

You should head to barrelhoppping.com and read it. And in the meantime, enjoy some photos from those five great cities.

Seoul's cultural attractions include a plethora of palaces. photo IMGP8695_zps50f345f4.jpg
Seoul’s cultural attractions include a plethora of palaces.
From hipsters to submarine tours, Portland has it. photo DSCF9117_zps43db6f31.jpg
From hipsters to submarine tours, Portland has it.

 

Get up in the air at Tree to Tree Adventures just southwest of Portland. photo DSCF9102_zps66d14414.jpg
Get up in the air at Tree to Tree Adventures just southwest of Portland.
Don't be surprised if you walk through Cairns and catch a bike race. photo DSCF0177_zps3ab871d5.jpg
Don’t be surprised if you walk through Cairns and catch a bike race.
Panorama of central Wellington, New Zealand, f...
Panorama of central Wellington, New Zealand, from the summit of Mount Victoria at night. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Serenity Now! – Four Places to Find Quiet

[wpgmappity id=”1″]

Photobucket
Morning outside the Gaia Riverlodge.

Sometimes, the din has to stop. You need to get away from TVs, traffic and the white noise of people-people-everywhere. But where? A slice of quiet seems harder than ever to find, but I have some ideas.

The Cayo District, Belize
Far from the legless beggars, heat and general unpleasantness of Belize City, you’ll find the Cayo District. People go there for Mayan ruins, limestone caverns – and quiet. There are probably dozens of cool places to stay. Our stay at Five Sisters Lodge – now known as Gaia Riverlodge – was my wife’s work, not mine. Finding the Gaia Riverlodge involves dirt roads – and it’s at least 30 minutes by car away from the small city of San Ignacio.

And what a find – you won’t hear so much as a hair dryer. Gaia Riverlodge gets its power from a hydroelectric dam nearby. The power flickers according to the flow, and there’s nowhere near enough for power-sucking stuff like televisions. Mornings are misty and serene – perfect for a hike or a mountain bike ride. Nights are great for a stroll -- just know that those little sparkles you see reflected in your flashlight are the eyes of thousands of spiders.

Photobucket
Find serenity in Monteverde – along with herds of curious coatis.

Monteverde, Costa Rica
Getting to Monteverde by road involves pummeling – the road seems like it was paved by having a B-52 carpet-bomb the jungle with a line of bowling balls. Monteverde is your reward. the first thing I noticed was light rain floating down despite the sunshine – locals call the fluffy, vapor-like rain pelo de gato, or cat’s hair.

Yoga retreats are big in Monteverde thanks to the solitude. But you can still find good food everywhere, from Italian staples to the best damn veggie burger I’ve ever had -- served from an unnamed outdoor kitchen by the roadside. Take a hike and see coatis and purple hummingbirds the size of sparrows. And let’s not forget the zip line thrills of the Original Canopy Tour.

Our "room" at Woodlyn Park. We even had the cockpit!
Greenery, blue skies, quiet, cool

Waitomo, New Zealand

The search for cool caving expeditions put Waitomo on our radar. And when I found out about Woodlyn Park, I was sold. No normal hotel, this one: The rooms include suites made from a Bristol freighter plane, railroad cars, a yacht and even Hobbit holes. We booked a room in the airplane, which has a mini-kitchen.

Our caving adventure was amazing, and so was the pastoral quiet. Between the comfy room and the silence, we slept deep. When we wanted a bit of pre-sleep fun, Curly’s Bar (which burned down in November 2012 – thought the website is still up) isn’t far away. Or we could drive up the road to the Thirsty Weta on some quiet streets. Convenience, yes – but you’ll feel far away from it all.

wandering justin myvatn iceland
On the shore of Myvatn at Vogar campground.

Myvatn, Iceland
Solitude is hardly in short supply when you visit Iceland. But certain places are more peaceful than others – just try getting any sleep when a bunch of college kids are singing Joan Osborne songs at the Skaftafell campgrounds! The campsites in Reykjahlid are a different story.

Not only is the area quiet, but the shoreside campground are nice and grassy. Put up your tent, crawl into the sleeping bag, relax -- and you’d swear you’re on a mattress. After a busy day of hiking the Krafla Fissure, Dimmuborgir, Hverir Crater and other crazy places nearby, you’ll be ready for a rest. And if you really want to apply the knockout to a restful night, visit the Myvatn Nature Baths. It’s like the famous Blue Lagoon, minus the price and crowds.

Enhanced by Zemanta

24 Hours in Turku – A Visit to Ruisrock

Nightwish concert
Nightwish performs at Ruisrock (Photo credit: tiendan)

It’s a warm summer weekend in Turku, Finland. I just stepped off the VR train from Helsinki to check out Ruisrock. This is a swift, convenient, punctual train trip that I’ve never seen equaled in the U.S. – for some reason, we’re a nation that hasn’t grasped the benefits of high-speed rail travel.

Now, it’s time to wander Turku. We have a good eight hours to kill before we head to Ruis Salo, the island that hosts Ruisrock. Today’s lineup ranges from Nightwish – the day’s headlining band and Finland’s best-known musical export – to Children of Bodom, Apocalyptica and The Cardigans.

Continue reading

Darwin, Australia: My Guide to the Top End’s Top City

Morning on Sandy Billabong – just hours from the Northern Territory city of Darwin.

I’ve never talked to people about travel to Australia and had them say “you know, I’ve always wanted to visit Darwin.”

But ever since my visit to the city on the Indian Ocean, I’ve touted it to everyone who asks me about Australia. I don’t know how many people I’ve swayed with my pro-Darwin raving – but I’ve at least put it on the map of those who previously hadn’t thought much past the opera house and the monolith in the desert. Here’s everything that’s cool about Darwin, and everything you need to get the most out of your visit to the Northern Territory (aka the Top End) – outdoor adventures, dining and snagging a hotel room after a few days of camping.

Launchpad for Adventure

The promise of three nights of camping in the Outback brought me to Darwin. Tour companies vie for the chance to cart visitors into the Never Never. Trips can last mere hours or stretch into weeks. You’ll wind up fording rivers in off-road trucks, sometimes in water reaching the top of your wheel wells. You’ll hike to Jim Jim or Twin Falls. And animals? You’ll never stop scanning the water for salt-water crocs. The tours generally head to Litchfield Park or the monstrous slab of Outback known as Kakadu National Park. Wherever you go, have your camera batteries charged and plenty of room on your memory card.

Enjoying a sunny day in Darwin, NT.

Small City, Big Nightlife

Darwin is no Sydney. Heck, it’s not even Cairns. But its residents know how to have fun. Clubs and restaurants line the main streets. There’s no kind of food you can’t find. I was sad to hear that Lewinsky’s, my favorite wine bar in the world, closed a few years ago. But don’t fret too much. There’s plenty else to eat and drink. My favorite find was the Darwin Wharf Precinct; you can pick from a number of different selections at its food court. Being the culinary Indiana Jones I am, I picked the camel schnitzel. And I was pretty stoked to see a box jellyfish swimming near the pier.

Don’t Go Homeless

Darwin fills up pretty quickly. It’s remote, but is the place to be to see the Northern Territory. That kind of demand can make hotel rooms pretty scarce. So book a hotel well in advance. You’ll find everything from hostels to fancy four-star sorts of accommodations in Darwin. Even the low-budget choices can sting the wallet next to other Australian cities. Early planning can help your cash go further.

Want to see really Australian wildlife? Then get to Darwin and book a tour.

Shopping and Stuff

The Aboriginal culture takes front and center in Darwin. Numerous galleries sell art and Aborigine-made goods. Obviously, it can descend into kitsch – but you’ll see some genuine talent. And a few miles outside the city, you’ll find the Didgeridoo Hut – that’s where I snagged a beautiful eucalyptus didge -- and for a far lower price than I found in other cities. You can shop for the usual trinkets at the Parap Village Market, too. But the real reason to go there is for the food. Darwin is home to a diverse group of people, many from Southeast Asia. Parap Village Market is where you can get some great tastes of their cuisine. My favorite: Thai papaya salad with a hit of fiery flavor balanced with sweetness.

This post is sponsored by Accor Hotels. With over 4,000 hotels in more than 90 countries stretching across all continents, Accorhotels offers you a huge choice of destinations.

There are over 400 hotels and resorts in 18 countries across Asia Pacific. Choose from a range of hotels, from Sofitel to Ibis, Pullman to Novotel. Accorhotels offers accommodation to suit all budgets.

Jumbo Stay at Stockholm Arlanda Airport

The Jumbo Stay blends into the background at Stockholm Arlanda Airport. If you spot it as your plane rolls along a taxiway, you might notice an aging widebody jet parked by its lonesome self in a secluded part of the airport.

But the Jumbo Stay is no regular Boeing 747. A closer look reveals that its four engines are gone. A tire swing hangs from the bottom of the rear fuselage. There’s a metal structure permanently attached to its left side. It’s not going anywhere. Though it says “747” on the outside, inside it’s all hotel. As far as I’ve discovered, it’s one of just four airplanes throughout the world converted to hotels. Here’s what you need to know about the Jumbo Hostel.

jumbo stay
Evening in the former first-class section of the 747 that is now Jumbo Stay.

Cool Factor + Convenience
Jumbo Stay is a quick bus ride from the terminals – it’s possible to walk, but I wouldn’t do it with luggage. We arrived late in the afternoon and had a flight to catch early the nex morning. We got pretty lost while trying to walk to the terminals. Some better signage pointing the way would be nice (and yes, you will lose sight of the old Boeing jumbo as you walk). Speaking of convenience, the rates include breakfast. It’s typical Scandinavian fare – cold cuts, bread, cheese, jam, some herring – which I love. The cafe is in the first-class section of the retired Boeing jet, and you can also buy other food and beverages during the non-breakfast hours.

More Comfort Than Coach Class
The Jumbo Stay owner did a great job in keeping the air travel vibe alive. There’s still a distinct sense of Boeing jumbo jet, despite being nearly unrecognizable  as you walk down the hallway. The rooms are small but efficient; ours had bunkbeds and a small TV. The mattresses were comfortable. Despite the airport location, we didn’t hear much airplane noise – and what we did hear didn’t affect our sleep.

jumbo stay
Welcome aboard Jumbo Stay.

Connect to Other Fun
You can book through the Jumbo Stay website to combine nights there with stays at other cool places – the ICEHOTEL in Jukkasjärvi and the Tree Hotel.

More About the Rooms
You’ll find all sorts of rooms at the Jumbo Stay. If you’re really well-heeled, book the cockpit room – you’ll get an incredible view from the distinctive hump of the old Boeing. You’ll also find dorm rooms with four beds, private rooms and nicer private rooms with their own bathrooms. Our room had room for three, but we used the shared showers/toilets (the same room we had goes for about $112 right now).

jumbo stay
Our room in the Jumbo Stay.
jumbo stay
Looking down the Jumbo Stay’s hallway.

Brisbane – Overlooked City of Australia

BNE CityFerry
The Brisbane riverside at night. (By Bachya Byrne via Wikimedia Commons)
Brisbane is Australia’s overlooked city. It was my last stop Down Under before heading back to the United States. Though I knew little about Brisbane, it became one of my favorite cities.

We arrived with barely any plans. Our first mission was to look for cheap Brisbane hotels. We picked a bad time to wait until the last minute because of a city-wide festival about to begin. We got lucky, though, and found an affordable place near the Queen Street Mall. That put us across the street from the apartment of some friends who lived in Australia at the time.

So what’s cool about Brisbane?

First off, the Brisbane Festival in September. It begins with a crazy fireworks display called Riverfire. In 2007, the fireworks started when F-111 jet fighter-bombers screeched over the city at sub-skyscraper altitude, flames from their afterburners casting a glow over the city. Australia no longer flies the F-111, so I’m not sure how Riverfire launches now. The weeks-long festival showcases art in all its forms. We had no clue about the festival when we arrived in Brisbane, but left blown away by its scope and quality.

Then, we did what we always do in an unfamiliar city: We walked. One of the better finds? The Queensland Museum. Since we like science and nature, we found a lot to enjoy. I always approach museums with caution – some are weighted heavily toward the kids. The Queensland Museum’s literature and displays had a nice balance – simple enough for younger visitors, but thorough enough for adults.

A look inside the Queensland Museum.

Then there’s the Queen Street Mall, an open-air thoroughfare of shops and dining. I didn’t do much shopping. I was there just to stroll around and enjoy the Brisbane ambiance. But I could’ve found anything from the usual touristy items to pretty much any clothes or sportswear – especially if it’s rugby, cricket or Australian Football League-related!

We also found a brewery called The Brewhouse. The selection wasn’t huge back in 2007 – but craft brewing was still filtering through Australia at the time. It’s a nice place to hang out and have a chocolate porter.

And I know this might be routine for some people -- but for a desert dweller like me, a ride down the Brisbane River on the CityCat is a lot of fun. Any amount of standing water gets me excited. Embarrassing, I know! It just continues the Australia theme of good public transportation by rail, boat or bus.

This post is sponsored by QuickBeds.com, the fee-free way to book cheap domestic and international accommodation. They’ve done their fair share of sleeping around so that you have the best deals on a not-so-slumberous 50,000 international and 4,000 domestic accommodation options. This includes hotels, apartments, B&Bs, backpackers, resorts, motels.

Inside a “Love Hotel” in South Korea

love hotel
A look inside a room at Busan’s Queen Hotel

The amenities in a South Korea "love hotel" are not what you’ll see at your local Holiday Inn: flashing colored lights over the bed, a higher-than-average number of mirrors, a "personal massager" for sale in the minibar.

If you travel to South Korea, though, you’ll find some good reasons to check into a love hotel. Here’s what you need to know about the "love hotel" experience:

Why They Exist

In South Korea, it’s not unusual for several generations of a family to live together. Sure, that can make for a close-knit family. But it also detracts from privacy. So when couples feel like gettin’ freaky/frisky/funky, they might leave the family at home and check into a love hotel for a night – or even a few hours.

Why They’re Different

love hotel
An outside view of the Queen Motel in Busan

First of all, a love hotel in South Korea is cheap – as much as half the cost of a conventional hotel. And they’re considerably nicer than hostels or guesthouses: You’ll find a generously sized TV, a computer with Internet and very likely a fancy Japanese toilet that can blast a jet of water a good 12 feet. It’s everything people need while they travel – and then some. Also, you’ll enter through a discreet entrance designed to conceal guest’s identities. You’ll pay through a bank teller-like window (and possibly not even make eye contact with the staff) in cash per day. And I’m serious about the in-room amenities. The staff issues a little care package with things like powdered coffee, tea bags, razors, hair ties, bubble bath gel … and condoms.

Why You Might Think Twice

As far as I could tell, most love hotels allow smoking in rooms. That’s a tough smell to get out of the rooms to nonsmokers’ satisfaction. It took a little arm twisting to make sure it was eradicated from our room – or at least enough to pass muster.

love hotel
A typical love hotel amenity kit

How You Can Find One

It seems love hotels don’t really fly their flag on the Internet. There’s a feeling that the people of South Korea consider them ever-so-slightly tawdry (if necessary). But they stick out in the landscape. Just look for a building that’s on the garish side, likely with a word like "Queen" or "Castle" or somesuch in the name: I saw one called the Wow Motel. If you see neon, fringe and jarring colors, you’ve found yourself a love hotel.

 

Enhanced by Zemanta

Camping adds Natural Flavor to International Travel

Camping makes international travel better. You won't get this experience in a Reykjavik hotel.

I don’t travel without a sleeping bag – and I even prefer to bring my own tent.

Ever since my trip to New Zealand, I’ve tried to work camping into my travel itinerary. That’s where I first discovered that international travel is a good chance to break away from staying in hotels. And New Zealand’s system of hiking huts in its national parks also impressed me. I regretted that I didn’t think to bring a sleeping bag every time I saw a tent off in some quiet spot.

My Kiwi camping revelation made me re-think the possibilities of where to lay my head at night. My next trip was a summertime jaunt to Iceland. I know – it’s not the first place most people would think to camp. But the days I spent camping in Iceland were some of my most memorable experiences. I slept in my tent near the noses of glaciers at Skaftafell, on the shores of Myvatn, even in the remote highlands along the Laugavegur. Hotels in Iceland aren’t exactly cheap, so I was able to save a fistful of króna while getting a little closer to the landscape.

wandering justin myvatn iceland
On the shore of Myvatn at Vogar campground.

For my recent trip to South Korea and Japan, I knew the chances of camping were more remote. Still, my tent and sleeping bag were the first items in my backpack. I didn’t wind up getting a chance to camp, but I was ready for anything.

When I finally get to the UK, my camping gear will go with me. I’ll find some good campsites and be ready for some outdoor fun. Iceland was nearly silent since there’s very little wildlife scampering about – I imagine a forest in Ireland or the UK would be much more alive with the sound of creatures.

Give camping a try on your next trip. You don’t even have to bring your tent. New Zealand, Iceland and the UK all have sites with huts, yurts and other accommodations far more fun than the typical hotel or hostel experience. You’ll save some weight in your backpack and still have a close-to-nature place to sleep.

This post is featured by Pitchup.com. Pitchup.com is your free guide to all types of camping and caravanning in the UK and Ireland – judged Best UK Travel Website of the Year 2011 and Best UK Travel Information Site 2010. With 5,000 campsites and holiday parks (including more than 200 to book), nifty searching and loads of offers, it has never been easier to find and book the perfect site – and rediscover the glee in camping and caravanning.

On the List for Next Trip: Scotland and Wales

This great photo by Dave Dunford shows the majesty of Pen Y Fan.

It never fails – before the afterglow of my latest trip wears off, someone asks me "where are you going next?"

My official answer? "Hey, give me a chance to savor Korea and Japan -- if not the flavor of the boiled silkworms."

The truth is, I’ve already thought about my next trip. I’ve never been anywhere in the UK before, and as a soccer fan it’s definitely on my list. But where to go? Yes, London is the obvious choice -- which means it doesn’t really suit me.

But Scotland intrigues me. I can picture swinging further north and checking out some Glasgow hotels. There, I could take in Celtic versus Rangers if I timed it right. And I could finally bring my five-year quest to eat haggis to a final and successful conclusion (really, all my failed attempts to eat haggis are worth a post of their own).

What else might Scotland have for me? Well, the scenery looks spectacular. I’ve seen photos in FourFourTwo that really made me want to visit Scotland. Oh, and let’s not forget BrewDog, the crazy craft brewery that does insane things like release limited-edition beers stuffed into a squirrel carcass. Oh, and a little break from Arizona’s angry sun would be nice. Sometimes I forget that clouds and greenery occur naturally in other places.

Glasgow looks like a nice city for some strolling - with a warm jacket!

I could also head an entirely different direction -- Wales. Word is that it’s an up-and-coming destination with castles and hiking drawing visitors in. I’m sure I’d satisfy my itch to hear interesting new languages. I’ve heard bits of Welsh and really enjoyed its sounds and cadence.

And Pen y Fan looks like some incredible hiking. Better yet, the Pen Y Fan race in mid-July takes runners straight to the 2,907-foot summit in just 3.5 miles. A cool t-shirt or medal for finishing would put this right on the list with the Hi Seoul Marathon or the Miđnæturhlaup in Reykjavik.

No matter where in Cardiff I’d stay, it would be pretty easy to get to a Swansea City match to check out some Premier League action. And there’s still Cardiff City in the League Championship. Either way, I’m bound to catch some enthusiastic fans in a great atmosphere. Of all the hotels in Cardiff, though, I’ll admit the St. David’s Hotel & Spa wins some points for having the word "spa" in the name.

So, U.K., I might be headed your way soon. Save me some haggis and lobscows!

This post is featured by eurobookings.com, which helps travelers find hotels in Europe – at the lowest rate possible. Browse more than 140,000 hotels in thousands of locations in Europe and across the globe until you find the hotel that is right for you.