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Travel Guide: Santorini

One of the perks of being an international educator is the time and opportunity to travel. This October break, we scooted off to Greece! (Literally – Scoot is the name of the budget airline that provided an eleven-and-a-half-hour direct flight with food, water, blankets, or entertainment not provided but available to purchase. But it got us to and from Greece for under SGD550, so I’m not complaining.) Upon landing in Athens, my girlfriends and I switched terminals and then boarded our 45-minute flight to Santorini. (Olympic Air is a budget airline so we got those little cleansing towelettes and two snacks – Greek hospitality is just so lovely.) We were staying in Oia,  the town you probably picture of when you hear “Greece”. It is simply stunning.

Oia is pretty at night, too . . .

. . . and it has a fantastic bookstore, Atlantis Books, which we visited and purchased from twice. The exterior should give you a hint at the wonder of the interior. Books in all languages stacked floor to ceiling, hidden behind the staircase, and available to borrow and trade on the upstairs patio. Small signs and notes with suggestions from the bookstore employees. Just the best.

Watching the sunset is a popular activity in Oia, and considering how crowded the western part of town grew in October, I can’t even imagine how it would be during peak tourist season. It was cloudy every night, though only once during the day, so many of our fellow viewers were disappointed but I thought the clouds made for some really beautiful pictures. And just being there with good friends was easily the best part.

We took a few adventures from our first base in Oia. On our first full day, we spent five hours on a very fancy catamaran with a delightful crew, unlimited beverages, and delicious lunch. The weather was bright and sunny but slightly chilly so they even made us coffee!

We stopped at the hot springs, where I actually got into the very chilly water . . .

. . . the Red Beach . . .

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. . . and the White Beach. Snorkeling was an option but it was cold! And I was perfectly happy to bask in the sunshine and chat with the crew. I miss being on boats.

The next day, we walked down the steps of Oia, from the top of the volcano to the water, to check out the seafood restaurants at Ammoudi Bay and go on our next adventure. I’m a vegetarian but one of my friends was really excited about the sun-drying octopus and booked us a seat for dinner at a restaurant that turned out to be delicious.

We waited at Ammoudi Bay for a ferry to take us across to Thirasia, another of Santorini’s islands. My brother recommended that we go and it was really cool to be able to share travel experiences and advice with him. He told us to walk up all the stairs . . .

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. . . and eat at the restaurant at the top where an elderly man greeted us, singing and grilling fresh fish. So we did!

And then we wandered around town, which was eerily empty. It felt like a combination of an abandoned film set and a ghost town. In addition to the people running the restaurant, we saw three construction workers, one elderly woman, and another woman running the town’s only other restaurant (it was actually called Different Restaurant because it’s obviously not the one, but the different one). My pictures are a little weird and grainy, which accurately reflects the strangeness of the town but is actually because I mistakenly used the wrong setting.

The part of the town near the water was more like a boardwalk of restaurants and again, this was low tourist season. Empty.

Our last full day in Oia was probably my favorite day of the whole trip and that’s because it was the greatest adventure. It’s pretty common for travelers to hike the path between Fira, Santorini’s largest city on the eat side of the island, to Oia on the west. We’d read that the path is mostly downhill, not terribly strenuous, and difficult to lose. Great!

But not so when you go the other way! Of course, we learned this hiking the other way, from Oia to Fira, and it was challenging in parts, a little scary when we found ourselves on the side of a cliff in gusts of wind, and a little more scary when someone we couldn’t see started hunting birds. But we made it!

We left Oia at 7am, which is before the sun rises and before anything is open. It was so cool seeing the streets dark and empty, lit by streetlights.

There were some signs along the 10.5km route . . .

. . . but also a critical point that was difficult to navigate coming from Oia. Turns out we did have to go behind the desalination plant on the edge of the cliff. Found that out after realizing we were on a road curving the wrong way and had to hike up a hill behind a hotel to reorient ourselves. And then, under a menacing sky and loud gusts of wind, we traversed the beautiful, sometimes desolate wilderness that is the edge of the caldera.

No matter how tiny or empty the landscape, though, Greece has many churches . ..

. . . and their frequency increased as the hike became more urban. . . .

At times, the hike took us through resorts and villas, which was a little strange, but it was also comforting to see people. After a stop for breakfast and about four hours, we were delighted when we finally reached Fira!

Once in Fira, we found a taxi to take us a little further to Santorini Brewing Company, the only brewery in Santorini. They brew five beers and offer free tastings of three, which we enjoyed very much. And because I wanted to be able to say I’d had all of them, we bought bottles of the remaining two and sat outside the brewery (because it doesn’t have a liquor license) to drink them.

Afterwards, hungry from our hike and having made the acquaintance of the adorable kid on staff at the brewery, we asked for recommendations for lunch. He suggested Artemis Karamolegos Winery, a 5-minute walk down the road. The winery is beautiful, staff delightful, and food absolutely excellent. Best meal I’ve had in recent memory and the most full I’ve been in recent memory. And then they turned up with desserts and a digestif, which happened throughout our time in Greece. Truly an amazing country with wonderful people.

Finally, we decided it was time to return to Oia. Hiking the four hours back would have lost me two friends so we took the local bus first into Fira and then onto Oia. Forty minutes and keeping my friendships instead of four hours and losing them seemed worth it.

All in all, we loved our time in Santorini (and in Athens and Delphi). The people were wonderful, the food superb, and the wine plentiful. And it’s just gorgeous.

Travel Guide: Sapa

When my sister told me she was coming to visit, I knew I wanted to take her to Vietnam, but I also wanted to go somewhere I’d never been. We spent a day and a half in Hanoi before taking a very lovely night train northwest to Sapa to spend two days trekking with local Hmong guides. I first learned about the Sapa trek from someone I met on an airplane on the way to Hoi An a couple years ago and was excited to finally make it there!

We booked this part of our trip with the friendly, helpful, ever knowledgable people at Lily’s Travel Agency. They were very responsive via email and WhatsApp, which made the planning very easy on my end. Lily’s Travel works with Mao, a Black Hmong woman who leads Sapa treks, to provide a “backroads” trekking experience and an authentic look at the lives of the Hmong people.

Our train left Hanoi at 10pm and we arrived at Lao Cai station at 6am. It was very cozy and truly delightful to curl up with a book and listen to the sounds of the train. I’ve always found the whistle of a train to be simultaneously romantic, mysterious, and exciting.

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From there, we took an hour-long bus ride to Sapa where we met the spunky, warm Mao. Everyone we met in Sapa seemed to know her! Mao introduced us to several other local guides and to her sister-in-law, our guide for the next two days. Mao took a particular liking to my sister’s pink curly hair – but then again, who doesn’t?

Our trek started from the town of Sapa at about 8:30am to give us time to swap the glasses for contact lenses and have some eggs and coffee. It was sunny but cold and I was glad for my winter coat and gloves . . . and skiing sweatshirt . . . and thermal leggings. (My sister, on the other hand, had come from the very cold upstate New York and maintained that it was in fact rather balmy.)

I really love meeting fellow travelers and trekking in Sapa provided a great opportunity to do that. Our group included a Malaysian man, several Singaporeans, a French woman, and two German girls. Along the way, we met other travelers from the US, Canada, and Israel. I really enjoy knowing that people from all over the world were on the same trail on the same chilly but sunny day, happy to be where they were and excited for what they would see.

I also really loved that we were all guided on our journey by a group of Hmong women who were wonderfully knowledgeable, liked to talk and make jokes, and made for excellent company.

The trek took us through rice paddies that are dormant in the winter because of the weather. Winter in northern Vietnam is too cold and dry for rice to grow but I’ve been to rice plantations in Malaysia and can imagine what it looks like in the summer. For that reason, though, I loved seeing the landscape at a different time of year. It was beautiful just as it was.

We also saw our fair share of animals! Pigs, water buffalo, and dogs were all in abundance.

By the time we arrived at the homestay, also coordinated by Mao, we were exhausted and very glad to huddle up around a charcoal fire in a large stone bowl on the floor. Our crew for the night was a really lovely group – the German and French women we’d been with all day and an American living in Thailand who we’d met over lunch. One of the girls was brave enough to test the hot water in the bathroom located just outside the house. Thanks to her, we all took a hot shower! The hardest part was figuring out where to keep our clothes so they wouldn’t get wet. Except for my sister, we wore jackets, hats, and scarves indoors because any spot away from the fire was as cold as being outside. I slept in my jacket, too, but I think I was the only one.

It was really relaxing to sit and talk and get to better know the people we’d hiked with all day. Because of that, I’m glad we stayed in the more traditional of Mao’s two houses. Our homestay had a ladder to reach the unlit second floor loft, which housed cozy mattresses and quilts under mosquito nets. There were curtains on the main floor separating one room from the other, single lightbulbs to illuminate the kitchen and main sitting area, and a combination lock to secure the sheet metal door at night. Our guide told me that her home with her husband’s family is very similar to the house where we slept. We visited the newer homestay the next morning and while it was made of brighter wood, better lit, and had private bedrooms with doors and a staircase to the second floor, I feel that we had a far more authentic experience  than we would have otherwise. At any rate, it was an adventure and that’s why I travel.

And speaking of adventures, the second day of our trek was my first day of mountain trekking in mud and rain! The rice fields looked completely different and the mist all around us made for an experience quite unlike the sunshine of the previous day.

It was still pouring when we finally returned to the town of Sapa where we had arranged to spend a night in a proper hotel rather than taking the 9:30pm train back to Hanoi the same day. Since the downpour continued and we were cold, wet, and muddy, I am very glad we made this decision. I would not have enjoyed sitting on a train for eight hours under those conditions, let alone trying to sleep on one.

There isn’t much to do in Sapa, but we enjoyed a calm day of wandering. It was much warmer in town than in the mountains, which also very welcome.

That night, we were back on the train to Hanoi, already missing the mountains and the “trek life”, as my sister termed it.

I’ve been hearing wonderful things about Sapa since my first trip to Vietnam and I’m really glad that my sister and I could experience a new place together. After a couple days in Hanoi, we were off again, this time to one of my favorite destinations – Chiang Mai! Stay tuned!

Travel Guide: Tel Aviv

A lot gets packed into our eighth grade trip to Israel. After four nights in Jerusalem, two nights in the Negev, and three nights on the Kinneret, the trip staff were exhausted. Built into the trip was a weekend with host families, usually students’ relatives or family friends. For staff, this meant two nights to choose anywhere in Israel to stay and just relax. One of my carpool friends was also a trip chaperone and we chose to spend the weekend in Tel Aviv; it was nothing less than glorious.

With the kids, we stopped in Tel Aviv twice over the course of the trip: Once to eat falafel and hang out in a park before visiting the Olympic Museum, which was entertaining for the kids and a lovely display of Zionism, and once to go to the beach. Suffice it to say that Tel Aviv (and perhaps anything) with kids is completely different than with adults.

After traveling by bus with a group of students also staying in and around Tel Aviv, we were free! We dropped our bags at the hotel and headed straight to Nachlat Binyamin, the artists’ market where, back in 2007, my parents bought a fruit plate that still sits on their kitchen counter and I bought a pair of purple earrings that I wore every single day until they turned green. (Those earrings are the reason that I chose purple studs when I pierced the second hole in my right ear.) I didn’t buy anything this time, but it was still fun to look around.

From there, hungry, in the mood for shakshuka, and still in need of gifts, we wandered Shuk HaCarmel, the most famous of Tel Aviv’s markets. As readers of this blog know, I adore markets. I love food and smells and flavors. I love the dedication of the vendors, the passionate bargaining of customers, and the speed of each transaction. I love the crowds and how markets are universally loud, frenetic, and a true delight for all the senses.

This particular market area of Tel Aviv is also a great spot for really neat street art. Shout out to my weekend partner-in-crime for her patience every time I said, “Wait, need a picture.”

Truth be told, however, we spent most of our weekend just sitting on the beach. I’m generally really bad at sitting but that’s all my body wanted to do. Sometimes we sat with food or drinks and sometimes we just sat and watched the water. We met up with a friend and some friends of friends and had ourselves a lovely time.

In addition to a great beach atmosphere, Tel Aviv also has a great restaurant and bar scene. On recommendation from one of our trip guides who lives in Tel Aviv, we went to Four One Six, a vegan restaurant that exceeded all expectations. After a few minutes of talking to the owner, we made a New York connection – he and his twin brother, the head chef, are from Brooklyn and opened the restaurant together a few months ago. He had previously worked at Candle 79, a phenomenal vegan restaurant that was blocks away from my Upper East Side apartment for the month that I lived there. The owner was really friendly and told us that he and his brother are working to challenge the food scene in Tel Aviv by introducing delicious vegan food that highlights what vegan can eat rather than what they can’t. Sounds a little like Candle 79! (And Vedge in Philadelphia, which I also highly recommend.) The owner dropped off a plate of chocolates and stopped back to ask if we’d figured out the flavors. Delicious isn’t a flavor but that’s what they were.

Other food highlights from the weekend include shakshuka, which we didn’t find at Shuk HaCarmel but ate outside at a sidewalk bakery/café, and burekas, which we also enjoyed while sitting outside. I could eat nothing but Israeli food every day for the rest of my life and never get bored. Every meal, including breakfast, is full of various types of fresh salads and I just love it.

After dinner, we met up with our guide, his girlfriend, and a few other friends at Dizzy Frishdon, a great bar with outdoor seating, several indoor bar areas, a table with swings instead of chairs, and a few rooms of normal tables and chairs. It was a really lovely evening to sit outside (are you noticing a theme?) and enjoy just being in Tel Aviv and watching the nightlife all around us. Our guide’s friend is a part owner of the bar and that came with food and drinks perks, which was a lot of fun.

Overall, it was an incredibly relaxing weekend and exactly what we needed to prepare for the final two nights of the trip back in Jerusalem. It actually ended up being two and a half nights after a seven-hour flight delay, so it’s a good thing that we were relaxed and rejuvenated. Beautiful beaches, beautiful food, and beautiful people have a way of doing that.

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View from our hotel room