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Month: November 2016

My Favorite European Skiing Tradition: Après Ski

My Favorite European Skiing Tradition: Après Ski

Before you take off your skiing attire, before the trek back to your lodge, before a soak in the jacuzzi, there is après ski.

Literally meaning “after ski” in French, après ski is originally a European tradition, although there are some popular après ski scenes at some of the more serious North American slopes these days. While only certain ski areas in the US or Canada may boast opportunities for après ski enjoyment, I’ve found that there is an après ski scene – to some degree at least – at all of the European slopes I’ve frequented. Certainly my first exposure to the concept and enjoyment of après ski was in Europe.

What to expect from the après ski scene:

You’ve been on the slopes all day. You’re a little bit chilly now that the sun is low in the sky, and your muscles are feeling the day’s exertion. Maybe you’re dreaming of relaxing in the hot tub or a trip to the sauna before a hot shower and hearty dinner. But before all that, the party that is après ski awaits!

Festive Atmosphere

Even if you weren’t originally planning on going out somewhere still sporting all of your ski gear, walking past large groups of people enjoying some drinks and the buzz of a lively happy hour will change your mind. It’ll be a mix of people who are back in regular shoes after returning their daily equipment rental and the really serious ski bunnies still in their ski boots, all sharing in the celebration of a successful day out on the slopes.

Music

And what kind of party would it be without music? At après ski, there is often a DJ spinning dance beats to keep the energy up and the crowd moving. For most European skiers, après ski *is* the main event for the night. Even at the more low-key spots, you’ll be enjoying some music to keep up your post-skiing energy.

Drinks

Drinking alcohol after a day of exercise is totally normal in Europe (and that’s if you haven’t already had a beer or something stronger with lunch). At après ski, some people opt for beer, wine, or cocktails, just like any happy hour or dance party. There will also be plenty of places offering hot beverages for those who want something to help them warm up after the chill of being out on the slopes all day. The most popular hot beverages I’ve seen at après ski are some kind of spiked hot cider or mulled wine (which you’ll see listed as vin chaud, vin brulee, glühwein, etc. depending on what country you’re skiing in).

Peak Time in the Late Afternoon

In most cities 4pm would be too early for the club scene, but late afternoon is prime time for après ski. For the most part, it will be at its most lively in the late afternoon before dinner, and located either at the base of the ski slope or somewhere close by, on everyone’s path back to their hotel or car. It’s pretty much intended as the activity immediately following skiing, still giving people time to unwind and relax after, so everyone can head to bed early to be able to hit the slopes first thing the following morning.

 

The most memorable places where I’ve enjoyed après ski were in Saas Fee, Switzerland & Courmayeur, Italy – both places with lively après ski scenes that are packed with people at the end of the ski day. Where are your favorite spots for après ski?

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Why Everyone Should be Giving Thanks this Thanksgiving

Why Everyone Should be Giving Thanks this Thanksgiving

It’s that time of the year again, Thanksgiving. Whether or not you’re American, taking a few moments to think about what you are thankful for is powerful stuff. And not just because I said so, that is also what decades of research have to teach us about finding what for many is elusive – happiness.

Shawn Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage, lists gratitude as one of the main avenues to happiness. Read the book if you get a chance, but more importantly take the time daily to reflect on a few things that you are grateful for that day. I know some people who write this before bed or discuss it at the dinner table. In any case, the act of practicing gratitude leads to a mental focus on the positives in any situation. As Brené Brown (another researcher and author I’ve enjoyed reading) has noted, it is the active practice of gratitude that leads to happiness, not the happiness that comes first.

I certainly have tried to be more mindful each day, and especially during difficult times, to focus on the many ways I am blessed and fortunate. Even if you are in a less-than-ideal situation, you can still be grateful and even find peace in the moment. With Thanksgiving, for me it is a more formal time to mark the many reasons to be satisfied.

So, what am I thankful for in 2016?

Opportunities for Travel

I truly believe that everyone has the opportunity for travel of some kind even on the most limited budget, but I also realize that I have been especially blessed in this department. Not just for having the financial resources to do so, but also having the flexibility in my schedule to make many trips happen. I’ve been to 9 (!) new countries this year, I think the most I’ve ever visited in a single year, and 2016 isn’t even over yet. Most have been in Europe, but not only. What an incredible gift.

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Living in Europe

Let me just say, European life really agrees with me, ever since I first arrived in Milan just after Thanksgiving three years ago. It takes a bit of adjustment, but the Italian approach to living – from a sweet pastry with your morning cappuccino to an evening aperitivo out with friends – is an opportunity to savor the little moments of your day. Not only that, but distances between cities and countries in Europe are small, and transportation by train or budget airline can be quite inexpensive. For someone who likes travel (and good food) like me, it has been such a wonderful experience to be based in Europe.

Being Good with Languages

Living in Milan I’ve seen many foreigners struggle with learning Italian. Don’t get me wrong, speaking another language takes countless hours of effort and practice, but I’m also fortunate in that I seem to have an easier time learning a new language than most. Even for languages I’ve never studied formally, I have definitely picked up a bit of “Menu French” and “Menu German” in my time living and traveling in Europe, something that can prove incredibly useful in a country where there is very little in English, like Liechtenstein. Anything that makes everyday life abroad and travel just that little bit easier is something to be thankful for.

Experiencing Beauty

I am much more likely to be stopped in my tracks when out in nature – at the peak of a mountain taking in the view, enjoying a colorful sunset, or inhaling the intoxicating perfume of flowers in bloom. But sometimes there are also physical objects of art that are so breath-taking they literally stop me in my tracks. Last year, it was when I saw the Vitruvian Man sketch by Leonardo da Vinci, which was part of an exhibition in Milan. Something about the sheer beauty of the original really stunned me.

This year I have been wowed beyond description by three very different objects, that I am so thankful to have been able to visit:

  • Gutenberg Bible. In January I was privileged to see three Gutenberg Bibles in a single room at the Gutenberg Museum in Mainz, Germany, close to Frankfurt. Famous for being at the forefront of the printing revolution, these large books were printed and then decorated by hand, and the three Bibles on display were all turned to the same page so you can clearly see the variations that came with the different illustrations. I was mesmerized and stared at them for quite a while. At one point with the flow of other visitors I was alone (alone!) with the Bibles. The thrill continued as I left to see the other displays on the floor and then came back for another peek. And of course, before leaving, I couldn’t resist and took one more chance to soak up the moment and just experience the sheer beauty of the books.
  • Stradivarius Violins (and Guitars). Like me you may have heard the name Stradivarius in connection with violin-making, or know that these violins are the most expensive musical instruments in the world. But seeing a picture in a book is nothing compared to seeing one in person, or seeing a roomful of them as I did this year at the Stradivarius Museum in Cremona, Italy. The craftsmanship is excellent, and even distinguishable from the other similar violins on display. Something about the sense of proportion and lines and curves creates this incredible, beautiful result that is hard to describe other than to say that something about it is just so aesthetically pleasing. And did you know Stradivarius made guitars as well? Standing in front of any of his musical instruments, I was simply awestruck. And feeling so lucky to be there.featured-dsc_0474
  • David Statue. Many people make the trek to see Michelangelo’s original David statue in Florence, so you are certainly not alone when you see it. Despite the crowds, I had an equally awe-filled time seeing the statue back in September on my third visit as I did on my first visit a couple of years ago. The sheer beauty and craftsmanship is just incredible. It’s not just the details like the veins you can clearly see on David’s hands, but also something about the sense of proportion and balance of the whole that cannot be explained, although the stark beauty is clearly felt being dwarfed by the statue in person.

Opportunities to Grow

2016 has been a year with many professional and personal challenges for me. Sometimes I’ve been absolutely petrified, like when taking on a leadership role in a non-profit organization or when first having my blog go live. But I also remind myself that fear is a sign that you are about to embark on something unknown and challenging. And having these opportunities to blaze new trails or try your hand at something new are really just reminders of being alive. New things to tackle keep life interesting and exciting, and often take you by surprise, which is something to be grateful for regardless of the outcome.

Amazing Friends and Family

Many of my travels and memorable experiences of 2016 would not have been possible without my incredible friends and family. I have been really fortunate to have so many visitors to Milan this year, as well as friends in Milan and throughout Europe that are willing to join me for a crazy weekend adventure or checking out a sight around town. For being a travel buddy, opening your home to me as I travel, and being my most vocal cheerleaders, thank you, thank you, THANK YOU!!!

 

It’s nice to reflect on an entire year at a time and the many things that you are grateful for from that period, but even more meaningful to incorporate a little bit of Thanksgiving into your daily reflection. What 3 things are you grateful for TODAY??

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The Coolest Thing I Did in WA that I Didn’t Even Know Existed: The Pemberton Climbing Trees

The Coolest Thing I Did in WA that I Didn’t Even Know Existed: The Pemberton Climbing Trees

When my friend suggested that we climb some trees on our recent weekend camping trip in WA (Western Australia), I think I replied with something along the lines of “Oh, I love climbing trees.” But ladies and gentlemen, this is not the tree-climbing of your childhood, this is some exhilarating adventuring.

And once I found out more about the trees, the question I couldn’t wait to answer was: What does it feel like to climb a giant tree?

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Now, when I am talking giant tree, take a second and think of how tall that might be. Twenty feet? Fifty feet? Thirty meters? Nope. The shortest of these 3 Pemberton climbing trees is 51 meters. Yup, not feet, meters! As in, 167 feet is the shortest tree, with the tallest of the trio reaching a height of over 245 feet (75 meters)!!

Of course, I couldn’t help myself. I climbed all three trees =)

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One of the first things I asked myself was “why on earth would someone put all of these metal rungs into the side of a tree?” But the answer is actually quite logical and stems from a problem sadly Australians know all too well – bush fires. When it was difficult to build a tower tall enough in this forest area of naturally tall karri trees to accurately spot and extinguish the bush fires, the idea of the tallest trees in a particular area becoming the lookout point began. Pegs were inserted into the sides of these tall trees to allow rangers to climb to the top and see the surrounding area to triangulate the source of the fire.

Even with a bit of background though, I still didn’t know quite what to expect approaching the first tree that I climbed, the Diamond Tree (which is the “short” one, at just a mere 51 meters). Certainly, my American instincts were totally unprepared for the self-reliance protocol typical of the Australians. When you arrive, there is some signage explaining the climb, but there are a lot of other things I expected to see that were simply absent. Like an entrance fee. Or a park ranger to keep an eye on things. Or a legal waiver to sign. Or a net underneath the metal sticks spiraling up and serving as stairs.

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Instead, there is a pretty casual sign recommending closed-toed shoes, that you carry nothing with you when you climb, and the official message from the Aussie park authorities: “Your safety is our concern, but your responsibility.” Eek. There was a quite open net along the non-tree side of the climbing pegs, but that was pretty much it. Not even a net underneath. I’d hope that most people who fall would catch themselves, but the pegs were spaced far enough apart that you could plausibly fall and slip through the space between the pegs. Nothing like a bit of danger to get the adrenaline pumping, let me tell you.

There was definitely a bit of nervousness at the start of the first tree, but let’s be real – that’s never stopped me before. At each step, I consciously thought to myself about only moving one foot or hand at a time and also made sure that I was properly gripping the bar with my hand each time. After the first ten steps or so, I hit a bit of a rhythm, looking up to the next bar and methodically moving my limbs and leaning ever so slightly forward toward the next grip. About halfway up, around the 25-meter mark, there is a platform where you can catch your breath and take a bit of a break before ascending to the top. And then you see the sign:

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Well, if you weren’t sure about climbing in the first place, this might be the nudge that sent you back down to the safety of the ground. At this point though, I had figured out the hard part of gripping the initially awkward metal posts, and was ready to go to the top. Plus, there are a few platforms in close proximity when you near the top, offering a bit of enclosure and a standard ladder to climb instead of just the pegs.

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When I tackled the tallest one, the Bicentennial Tree, I had a bit of an idea of what to expect. Although my initial nervousness and alertness did not completely dissipate, especially since the tree was a bit different meaning that the peg placement was a bit different as well. The first platform here (with the opportunity to change your mind and go back as before) was also about 25-meters off the ground, but the next one up from there was even longer and you still weren’t even at the top. That stretch between the initial two platforms was definitely the one that held the most trepidation for me.

And since we were doing a 10.5-kilometer hike in the area of the Bicentennial Tree, there wasn’t enough time in the afternoon to climb the third one. The Gloucester Tree was the challenge for the following morning, at which point I was already sore between the tree-climbing and hiking. It was a whole new experience to climb one of these giant trees relying on already-tired muscles. And my friend who had climbed this one several times previously let me enjoy the solitude of ascending the final tree on my own. All 61 meters to the glorious view at the top.

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At the top of the tree, the view is so peaceful and extensive over the treetop. There is just something I find so harmonious about being on your own with nature all around you. Then of course you realize that you still need to come down all those metal rungs. Carefully. And at the end when you’ve reached your goal, nothing beats that sense of accomplishment, not to mention the feeling of your mind relaxing completely in the aftermath of the mental and physical exertion.

If you’ve ever used the term “adrenaline junkie” to describe yourself, the Pemberton climbing trees are obviously not to be missed if you find yourself in WA. Pemberton is only about a 4-hour drive south of Perth, and is right in the middle of some of the best wineries and restaurants of Western Australia. Even if you’re not constantly plotting your next adventure, the exhilaration of the tree climbing experience was just wonderful – and totally worth it.

Interestingly, the question I was asked most by other visitors was not whether I thought climbing the trees was safe, but “Is the view worth it?” I was first asked this by someone on the ground who was debating starting the climb and again had the question posed when I was on my way down the Bicentennial Tree and someone on there way up was frozen at the first platform, twenty-five meters above the ground (the first person didn’t climb, and the second person didn’t make it higher than that first platform).

But when the woman in her 60s who has run several marathons comes down from climbing the Gloucester Tree to say how it’s the most insane thing she’s ever done, and she asserts this with a giant smile across her face – yeah, that’s exactly the kind of thing you want to experience as you travel.

 

What is the “coolest thing” that you’ve done? Something that once you knew it existed, you just *had* to do??

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Pemberton Climbing Trees Coolest Things to Do in Western Australia

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Venice CHEAT SHEET

Venice CHEAT SHEET

You could spend weeks in Venice without exhausting your options for museums to explore, churches to visit, and places for a delicious meal. But since your time visiting will likely be much more limited, here’s the Travel Savvy Gal “cheat sheet” for the essentials:

Things to Do

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Rialto Bridge

It’s iconic. It is quite tall, so offers a great view of the Grand Canal. You’re decently likely to pass it anyway as you wander Venice, but in case not, seek it out at least once.

St. Mark’s Square

This is the piazza you see in many of the typical photographs of Venice. With several tourist attractions right on the square you’ll likely be here already. When you are, take some time in the square itself to appreciate its grandeur.

Doge’s Palace

Exploring here will give you a solid insight into Venetian history and life.

TIP! It’s worth reserving a ticket for the Doge’s Palace in advance, as you’ll have a much shorter queue to enter.

Churches of Note

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St. Mark’s Basilica

If you’re going to see one sight in Venice, this should be it. The decoration is a little over-the-top for my personal preference, but the church is just incredible.

TIP! Lines to enter the Basilica can be long, so reserve a time slot in advance on the “Reservations” section on the website linked above.

TIP! Be sure to go to the outdoor terraces for a lovely view of St. Mark’s Square.

Basilica dei Frari

There are more sections to this basilica than meets the eye, so it was a wonderful place to explore and see a variety of artwork and carved altars in different mediums.

Off the Beaten Path

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Islands

As you know from my 10 Commandments for Visiting Venice, it’s definitely worth it to set aside the time to explore some of Venice’s islands beyond the main sections. If you do take a day to island-hop, the best meal I’ve had outside of Venice’s main areas was on the island of Murano – see the Best Bites section below.

Jewish Museum & Ghetto Tour

While 2016 marked 500 years since the establishment of the Jewish Ghetto in Venice, Jewish life has existed in the city for even longer. The museum gives a good overview, and the tour of the ghetto is engaging and excellent.

TIP! Typical tour times may be altered for the Sabbath (from late Friday through Saturday) and on Jewish holidays, so verify availability in advance.

Clock Tower

The tower requires advance booking, which you can do not far in advance at the ticket office on the other side of St. Mark’s Square. It’s a different perspective on the area, and has some great views of St. Mark’s (the Square and the Basilica) from the upper levels.

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Biennale

There is a massive art exhibition in odd-numbered years, with pavilions by country that contain some fairly progressive art. Most are located in the Giardini area, although there are pavilions all around the city. Even-numbered years have been focusing on architecture.

Peggy Guggenheim Collection

The art collection here is truly outstanding, and is situated with some lovely sculpture gardens and terraces on the Grand Canal. Worth a visit, although not typical to Venice per se.

Best Bites (favorite restaurants)

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Corte Sconta

A well-known fish restaurant, you can get a tasting menu of small plates to sample the variety of Venetian seafood, for a minimum of two people. It also has popular pasta and gnocchi specials daily that I’ve found to be quite delicious – be sure to ask your server about these as they’re not printed in the menu.

La Lanterna da Gas

Some of the portion sizes are quite sizeable, so order accordingly or ask your server for recommendations. While large, the polenta with baccalà (salt cod) appetizer was exceptional.

Osteria al Duomo

Located on the island of Murano, there are a variety of typical Italian pastas, meat dishes, and pizzas on offer. I had a seafood carbonara here that I still dream about.

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Vecia Cavana

An institution for Venetian cuisine with a lot of local customers, a meal here can be a good value or extravagant, depending on what you order. Although known for its fish options, the standout dish on my recent visit was the fried liver and polenta.

Best Bites (for cicchetti, Venetian tapas)

My three favorite spots are listed below. Check out my cicchetti post for a thorough run-down of different spots for Venetian tapas, organized by neighborhood.

Cantinone Gia’ Schiavi

This spot is off-the-beaten path, but thankfully close to two main art attractions in Venice, so if you’re seeing art in the afternoon, you can pop in here afterward before heading back to other parts of the city. I like it for the old Venice feel coupled with interesting combinations of flavors on their cicchetti, like primosale cheese and radicchio, or less-seen but delicious ingredients for cicchetti, like truffle spread.

Do Spade

This long-time Venetian spot has solid cicchetti choices and a traditional atmosphere. There is a warmth and a buzz about the place that make it clear how cicchetti became a Venetian tradition.

Osteria al Cicheto

Don’t let the location close to the train station fool you, this is a spot where locals congregate as well as some tourists. This osteria is down a very narrow alleyway so you may walk past the turn off the main street the first time like I did, but it is worth seeking out for the friendly staff and high-quality cicchetti ingredients.

Best Bites (gelato)

I haven’t loved any of the gelato I’ve had in Venice, although I’ve tried many places. I’d recommend waiting to be in other parts of Italy to savor some frozen goodness, but if the craving hits in Venice, these are the best places I’ve tried:

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Gelatoteca SuSo

A bit hard to find, but many agree that this is Venice’s top gelato spot.

La Mela Verde

Their signature green apple flavor (mela verde in Italian) is my favorite of what I’ve sampled.

What’s your favorite part about Venice?  Share in the Comments below.

Venice Italy Cheat Sheet - Best Things to Do and Eat

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10 Commandments for Visiting Venice

10 Commandments for Visiting Venice

Every time I’m in Venice, I feel like I am seeing visitors who arrive unprepared. Situated on an archipelago of many nearby islands with canals and waterways in between, Venice is a different kind of city than the ones you’re used to back home. Here are my Commandments for Visiting Venice, to make the most of your time in the city:

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  1. Get ready to climb some bridges. Yes, you know that Venice is a city of islands, but you may not have thought about what logically follows – there are a ton of bridges connecting the various parts of the city. A 10-minute walk could easily involve 5 bridges to cross. And since all of the waterways have active boat traffic, the bridges typically involve a series of steps up one side and then down the other to allow enough room underneath for the boats to pass.
  2. Leave your wheelie bags at home. If you formed a mental picture of how many stairs you’ll be climbing up and down as you traverse Venice’s many bridges, you’ll understand my strong recommendation that you leave your wheeled luggage at home. Plus, when there’s not a bridge to cross, the streets tend to be cobblestone, which is not fun for you – or for your bag. Although rumors a few years back of a ban on wheeled suitcases are not true, it’s still wise to do without.TIP! If you must bring large luggage on wheels to Venice, stay somewhere that is a short walk or direct vaporetto (public transit boat) ride away. Even the hotels just opposite the train station involve crossing one of the taller bridges, so if you must bring a wheelie bag, stick to the same side of the train station or boat stop for your accommodation.

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  3. Getting anywhere will take at least twice as long as you expect, especially on foot. People walk slowly in Venice, and many “streets” are just narrow passageways with no room to pass. There is not always a bridge where you’d like one, especially across the Grand Canal. It is also hard to navigate around Venice, so you may end up down a dead-end street or try to walk along the water’s edge only to discover that the path ends abruptly and you’ll need extra time to backtrack to your route.signs-dsc_0869
  4. Keep an eye on the signs. I remember while preparing for my first trip to Venice that one of the guidebooks suggested wandering to Saint Mark’s Square as a recommended activity. Then when I arrived, there were large signs everywhere I turned saying “Per S. Marco” with an arrow pointing the way. While this makes it harder to “wander,” these signs are your friends when it comes to navigating! Nothing will slow you down more than every minute or two stopping foot traffic to check your phone or try to make sense of a paper map. It will speed up your walking time immensely if you know which way you’re headed and use the signs to guide you.TIP! Even if you’re going somewhere else, know which of the places on the typical street signs are in the same direction you’re trying to go. The most common signs will be for: S. Marco (Saint Mark’s Square), Rialto (the Rialto bridge), Accademia (art museum, but *also* indicates the location of the other main pedestrian bridge across the Grand Canal besides by the train station), Ferrovia (the train station), & Piazzale Roma (the bus station).

    TIP! The signs don’t appear every block, but once they indicate a direction, keep walking that way (including over bridges) until you see the next sign.

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  5. Explore areas off the beaten path. No, I don’t mean the famous islands when I say this. The main islands that form Venice have plenty of neighborhoods away from the most popular tourist attractions, and this is a great way to get a feel for the city and its people.island-dsc_0665
  6. That said, visit at least one island away from the main section of Venice. Lido, Giudecca, and Murano are the closest islands, while Burano and others are a longer boat ride away. Not only is it great to get a view of the main section of Venice from the water, each island has its own flavor that will give you a fuller picture of the city overall. And some islands are known for their local crafts (like Murano for blown glass and Burano for lace and its colored houses) that you can explore through various museums and shops when you visit.boat-dsc_0887
  7. Take a boat ride. Besides walking, the most budget-friendly (and fastest) way to get around Venice is often the vaporetto, which is the pubic transit boat. An individual ride is pricey, but the single-day and several-day passes are good value – decide which one is right for you before you arrive.Many people also come to Venice with the romantic notion of a gondola ride. If this is non-negotiable for you, by all means do it. However not only is this quite expensive, but gondolas are restricted to certain routes and there’s basically a continuous line of gondolas one after another in a bit of a traffic jam, so you are not likely to get the romantic seclusion you may have envisioned.

    There are also a few alternative options. First, ride the vaporetto. You may find that the experience along the Grand Canal or traveling to one of the islands (see #6 above) gives you enough of a view of Venice from the water that you are satisfied. You can also at some point take a taxi boat, for example back to your hotel after dinner and a long day of walking around. Or, for the tour experience, while the gondolas are too tiny to go in the Grand Canal, for a similar price you can get a private boat hire (different from a taxi) that can give you a bit of a tour and private ride along Venice’s largest waterway.

  8. Eat like the locals. There are some lovely seafood restaurants and fancy Venetian fare to sample – and you should. But if you really want to eat like a local, take in an early evening drink with some Venetian tapas, cicchetti. Never heard of them? Check out my post on the best spots in Venice to sample cicchetti.locals-outdoors-cicchetti-dsc_0217
  9. Follow the Italian. No, I’m not suggesting that you stalk someone. But do listen for the places where you hear Italian spoken, or where the locals are congregating. This is your best indicator for a spot worth checking out.
  10. Chat up the Venetians. Whether this is the person working at your hotel, a server at dinner, or the friendly person pouring wine with your cicchetti, you can always get the best feel for a place from the people from the city. There have been some protests lately against the tourist influx and a campaign to ban large cruise ships, so engender some goodwill by showing genuine interest in the local opinion and experience, even if it’s as simple as taking a recommendation for a local’s favorite glass of wine instead of sticking to the one name you recognize on the list. Even with the recent protests, Venetians are curious and friendly if you’re respectful of local tradition and willing to open up.
  11. Be spontaneous and enjoy! Okay, so this is a bonus one, but also important. Most visitors to Venice have a short amount of time to spend in the city, and jam pack an itinerary filled with museum visits and timed activities. Some of the best experiences I’ve had in Venice have been ones I couldn’t have planned in advance (like an art exhibit I saw a poster for and then visited, or a side street that led straight to a stunning view of the Grand Canal), so leave time in the schedule for spontaneity – you won’t regret it!

10 Commandments for Visiting Venice

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How to Eat Like a Local in Venice: Best Spots to Sample Cicchetti

How to Eat Like a Local in Venice: Best Spots to Sample Cicchetti

What is typical local food in Venice? This was one of the initial questions I researched before my first trip to the city two years ago. I tend toward seeking out regional specialties when I travel, as another dimension of getting a feel for a destination. Plus, the local fare is usually best close to the source. I had some preconceived notions about Venetian food (like seafood, of course), but the surprising part of my research led me to Venice’s version of tapas that I had never heard of before: cicchetti (chee-KETT-ee).

Cicchetti is a word in Venetian dialect to describe small bites like tapas, and takes many forms. The most typical cicchetti you’ll see is some form of topping on small slices of baguette-like bread (think crostini, although I don’t think I’ve ever had my cicchetti bread toasted). Also common are polpette, which are meatballs or meatball-like mixtures made with fish or vegetables, then breaded and fried. You’ll also see a fair amount of battered and fried fare, from fish to stuffed squash blossoms – it depends on the place.

You’ll see locals popping into places for a drink and a few cicchetti all day long, and especially at the end of the work day. Some people treat is as an appetizer, like the Milanese aperitivo, to be followed by a sit-down dinner later in the evening. Or a mid-day snack. Others pick a single cicchetti location where they’ll linger for several hours, during which time they’ll eat enough cicchetti to count as a meal. Or you can always stop into a few different bars as you might do sampling tapas in Spain, consuming a beverage and a cicchetto or two at each place.

Now that I’ve traveled to Venice on three trips totaling a week spent in the city, I’ve tried my fair number of cicchetti spots and have some definite favorites. In general, wherever you are outside the central touristy area, you can spot the locals’ favorite bar by the crowd gathered outside, so keep your eyes open as you stroll around.

TIP! Watch the opening hours and days as some cicchetti places are open late into the night, while others cater more to the breakfast and lunch crowd, shuttering by 7pm or so.

I’ve listed my cicchetti picks overall in order of preference (with my favorite bars first), and also in clusters of places that are close to one another geographically if you’d like to cicchetti bar hop. Here’s where I recommend you check them out:

Close to Accademia and the Peggy Guggenheim Collection

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Cantinone Gia’ Schiavi

This spot is off-the-beaten path, but thankfully close to two main art attractions in Venice, so if you’re seeing art in the afternoon, you can pop in here afterward before heading back to other parts of the city. I like it for the old Venice feel coupled with interesting combinations of flavors on their cicchetti, like primosale cheese and radicchio, or less-seen but delicious ingredients for cicchetti, like truffle spread. The cicchetti are on smaller pieces of bread than other places, but this just means you can try more varieties. Plus, it is very affordable, with 3 cicchetti and a glass of wine on my recent visit setting me back only €5.60.

In the Cannaregio area of Venice, east of the Train Station

If you’re going to cicchetti bar hop in one spot, this is the area of Venice I’d recommend you go. In particular, the stretch along the canal walking between the first two places is away from the tourist fray and has a lot of lively spots to pop in for a drink or more formal places for dinner. Or just enjoy the relaxed atmosphere as you stroll between these three spots:

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Vino Vero

The cicchetti here are both colorful and delicious, and it’s situated in a lovely spot with tables out overlooking the water. Stop by for a few cicchetti, or stay for your entire meal like many others did when I visited. The night I went, there was even a boat tour that pulled up in the water and had one person jump out to grab some cicchetti for the passengers to sample.

Cantina Aziende Agricole Roberto Berti

I did not eat any cicchetti here, although there were several typical ones available. There are only a few tables outside, but this is a great spot for people-watching as it’s along the street that many locals take in the early evening from the train station to this more local part of town. And there is a great wine selection.

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Osteria al Cicheto

Don’t let the location close to the train station fool you, this is a spot where locals congregate as well as some tourists. This osteria is down a very narrow alleyway so you may walk past the turn off the main street the first time like I did, but it is worth seeking out for the friendly staff and high-quality cicchetti ingredients. There is a decent amount of table seating as well as spots around the bar, and could easily be a spot for a meal.

In the Santa Croce area, south of the Train Station

Hostaria Vecio Biavarol

This is the closest of the spots to the train station, making it not that far from Osteria al Cicheto (listed above). The cicchetti are also delicious, and they are more than happy behind the bar to steer you in the right direction for both the food and wine choices, and it is in a beautiful location.

Bacareto Da Lele

This is my least favorite of this cluster of three cicchetti spots, although it’s quite popular – you’ll spot it easily by the lively crowd outside. I’d skip the food but possibly enjoy a drink here and soak up the atmosphere right on the water on one side, and overlooking a church square on the other.

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Cantina Arnaldi

Cantina means a wine cellar in Italian, and the delicious wine selections here live up to the name. There are also varied, tasty cicchetti and this place is the most conducive of the nearby spots for staying for an entire meal. People will linger later into the evening enjoying just one more glass of delicious wine.

In the San Marco area, just east of St. Mark’s Square

Magna Bevi Tasi

This is obviously in a very tourist-filled part of town, but is a nice escape from the crowds with some tasty bites and great beverage selection. It’s also nice to sit outside on the busy square and watch the crowds as you enjoy your cicchetti.

In the San Marco area, south of Rialto Bridge

Enoteca Al Volto

If you are going to several cicchetti spots around Rialto (see the several other options below), I highly recommend coming here first – the ambiance is local despite its proximity to high-traffic tourist areas, and the cicchetti are high-quality.

In the San Polo area, north of Rialto Bridge

The three spots below are definitely the most touristy of the list, due to their proximity to Rialto Bridge and to each other. Their doors are filled with stickers of international recommendations, and the clientele reflect that. You’ll hear a lot of English and non-Italian languages, and even see tour groups clustered outside sometimes. But they’re popular by being convenient to where visitors will already be, and if your time in Venice is limited, these may be the places you check out for cicchetti (in addition to the other place close to Rialto listed above):

Cicheti, or Venetian tapas, with our aperitivi

Do Spade

This is my favorite spot of the three cicchetti bars on this side of Rialto, for its solid cicchetti choices and traditional atmosphere. There is a warmth and a buzz about the place that make it clear how cicchetti became a Venetian tradition.

All’Arco

Another traditional place quite close by, All’Arco tends to close earlier than the other spots, so swing by for lunch or early in the evening for a great wine pour and typical Venetian hospitality.

Osteria Alla Ciurma

I find the cicchetti here a bit greasy, and there are a lot of tourists (and tourist groups) that stop by. While not my favorite food stop, it’s another location quite close to the others mentioned above that has great local wine choices – just ask about the wine in the large container at the bar.

 

Whatever neighborhood you’re in, there’s no shortage of places to pop in for a glass of wine or a small bite. Which place are you most inspired to try on your next visit to Venice?

How to Eat Like a Local in Venice Italy Cicchetti

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11 Things That Look Just a Bit Different in Venice

11 Things That Look Just a Bit Different in Venice

If you’ve never been to Venice, it’s hard to envision what it would mean to have a city built on a series of islands connected by canals and waterways. No motorized vehicles are allowed, which means that some everyday things you take for granted look just a bit different here:

Ambulance

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Building Entrance

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Construction Site

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Delivery Vehicle

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Metro

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Metro Stops

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Parking Spot

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Police Patrol

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Taxi

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What other things did you notice were different in Venice?

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11 Things That Are Different in Venice Italy in pictures

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11 Ways Singapore is Like Hong Kong – and why you should visit both!

11 Ways Singapore is Like Hong Kong – and why you should visit both!

I had very little in the way of expectations before visiting Singapore. I knew that its cuisine was a mix of influences from across Asia, and that food culture is strong. But really, I did not know much else. I booked my plane ticket without having a single item on my “To Do” list – although I had already gotten recommendations from friends for two places to eat when I arrived. And I have three different sets of friends living there, for various reasons. Some Singaporean, some as expats, and what I wanted most was to spend time with them.

So onto this blank slate, after a lazy first morning, I spent an afternoon getting to know the city. By the time the late rain broke and I was heading to the marina area for some more tourist exploration it occurred to me what had been on the edge of my consciousness all day – Singapore is so similar to Hong Kong!

I wondered if talking about the similarities between the two locales would be enough material for a blog post, and jotted down a few notes. Within minutes, I had nearly a dozen ways the two places were alike. An idea that was later cemented by a Singaporean friend who commented how “Singapore is becoming more like Hong Kong every day.” I loved both places and would go back to visit Singapore and Hong Kong in a heartbeat – and this is after a week (or more) in both places, coming nowhere close to exhausting the “things to do” or “places to eat.”

Here are some of my observations on ways the two cities are alike:

Efficiency
Airports with a lot of international arrivals should be taking their cues from Hong Kong and Singapore (I’m looking at you, Milan Malpensa). Customs waits are negligible or sometimes nonexistent, and everything is done with the customer in mind. Even taxi lines are rapid – in Singapore I didn’t even have the two minutes it took to get a WiFi password before I was whisked away in a cab. And in Hong Kong, you can check your luggage with your airline at the Central Station in town, so you don’t need to worry about dragging your large bag on the train to the airport.

Of course, an airport is just a microcosm of how efficient a place is overall, and the smoothness and quickness of service everywhere mirrored this. If you want to see efficiency in Singapore at its best, just go wait in line for a Singaporean breakfast somewhere, it functions like clockwork or perhaps a well-orchestrated ballet.

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Cityscape filled with High-Rise Buildings
Both Singapore and Hong Kong have dramatic cityscapes, where one modern high-rise next to another has sprung up to meet the increasing housing demand that comes with economic growth. Both places also are in the top five most densely-populated areas in the world. This means a lot of people packed into a small geographic area, but this is also what gives both places its bustle and energy, not to mention endless culinary options.

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Abundance of Street Food
Speaking of which, there is an abundance of street food or food-on-the-go in Singapore and Hong Kong. A lot of this I think is tied to the speed of life that comes with high population density and people toiling away at work. Also, as apartments get smaller (and kitchens along with them) it can be practical to get your meals out of the house. Not only is eating out at these small vendors often cheaper than cooking at home, you also encounter someone who has spent a lifetime mastering the one dish that they sell, yielding delicious results.

Spread at Hong Kong's Tim Ho Wan, at the time the cheapest Michelin-starred restaurant in the world
Spread at Hong Kong’s Tim Ho Wan, at the time the cheapest Michelin-starred restaurant in the world

Michelin Dining on the Cheap
Hong Kong has had a Michelin guide for a while, and through when I visited in 2015, the cheapest Michelin-starred restaurant in the world was located there. When the first Michelin guide to Singapore came out in mid-2016, a couple of hawker stands that received one star served meals that were even cheaper. Certainly Michelin is not the only arbiter of good cuisine (that’s a whole ‘nother debate), but it is definitely an indicator of the value for money and delicious bites you can get eating in both places.

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Metro Systems
Hong Kong’s MTR and Singapore’s MRT systems are nearly twins. Some features – like the lanes marked on the ground so people leaving the train have space to exit before others board – I’ve seen in other Asian cities, like Bangkok. However, even the station map inside the train car has an incredibly similar setup of flashing lights for the current station and a separate indicator to let you know which side of the train will have its doors opening at the next stop. An excellent and inexpensive means of transport in both cities that I relied on heavily during my stays.

Large Expat Communities
Not only does this explain why I had reason to spend so much time in both Singapore and Hong Kong (thank you, hospitable friends!), but having a large expat community in both cities is intricately entwined with their growth. Large expat communities also mean that the services to keep them happy follow, so everything from yoga classes to restaurants serving a variety of ethnic cuisines are readily available for you, the visitor. What makes expat living easy and comfortable also extends to travelers, making both cities great places for a holiday.

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Rooftop Bars
Build a city of skyscrapers and what do you get? Rooftop bars! Singapore has a lot of rooftop or high-floor bars, especially in the area of the marina. Hong Kong offers more of the same, including the highest bar in the world – so high, that the night I went there we were *above* the clouds and there was no view of the city. But I hear it’s amazing on clear days…

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Light Shows
For some reason, both Hong Kong and Singapore love their light shows – and so did I! In Hong Kong, there is the LED digital display of animation that shows nightly on the ICC building. If you’re in the vicinity, watch from the outdoor terrace where you can also hear the musical accompaniment. Singapore also has a musically orchestrated show, with lasers and fountains around the iconic Marina Bay Sands Hotel – watch from anywhere on the marina or from a boat on the water to hear the music as well. And even more surprising for me, the light show in Singapore’s Supertree Grove at the Gardens by the Bay is not set to classical music like the others, but instead features Broadway showtunes. So fun =)

Cheap Taxis
Yes, public transit is wonderful, but sometimes a taxi is the most convenient way to arrive at your destination. Not to worry, Hong Kong and Singapore feature the cheapest taxis of possibly anywhere I’ve ever visited. Want to bar hop across Singapore’s downtown area? No problem. Want to catch a taxi to the start of an obscure hike off the beaten path in Hong Kong? Yup, I did that too when I visited. Having cabs as a cheap transportation option makes it an easier decision to just go and do something spontaneous or inconvenient that you might otherwise think twice about doing.

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Islands Galore
The relatively self-contained areas make both destinations easy to explore with many coastal areas and islands. Singapore of course is its own country, with the main island, and dozens of other smaller ones nearby. Hong Kong is now a “Special Administrative Region” of China (like Macau), and consists of a few main islands and areas, with lots of smaller islands nearby. In both places, you can stay in the center and soak up city life, lounge on the beach of a nearby island, or hike the lush, green hills. Variety is the spice of life.

English!
Thanks, British colonialism, for making Hong Kong and Singapore such easy travel destinations. Due to their history, The English language abounds in both locations, making it that much easier to be a tourist. From restaurant menus to museum descriptions, it’s just a little bit easier to navigate a new place when everything is ready to read and you can ask for directions or recommendations in English from most people you encounter.

 

Although I now have spent a week in both Hong Kong and Singapore, I loved them both so much I want to go back the next time I’m in Asia. Fortunately, both locales have excellent flight connections around the region, so kicking off my next Asian adventure with a few days in Hong Kong or ending with a few days exploring more of Singapore is totally feasible.

Have you ever been somewhere that so strongly reminded you of somewhere else? Of course, Hong Kong and Singapore have their own nuances, but it is clear to me why I love both so much!

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How to Order and Eat a Typical Singapore Breakfast

How to Order and Eat a Typical Singapore Breakfast

Whether you think breakfast is the important meal of the day (or not), it is certainly my favorite. I’d just as soon have breakfast for dinner, or craft an elaborate weekend brunch that is my only meal before dinner rolls around. When I travel, eating breakfast like the locals is one of the ways I immerse myself in the culture of a place.

In general Singaporeans tend to stick to savory breakfasts like other nearby Asian countries, and you’ll see people slurping noodle soups (like pho in Vietnam), eating congee (in the Chinese style), or picking up rice dumplings steamed in banana leaves (like Thailand), and everything in between. But there is only one “Singaporean” breakfast that I came across – basically a delicious variation on the all-familiar eggs, toast, and coffee. Thanks to a bit of jet lag I wasn’t hungry my first few mornings, but once my appetite arrived, I could not get enough of Singaporean breakfast and only hope I’ll be able to somewhat replicate this at home someday.

Here are the essentials you need to know:

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1. Coffee (or Tea), aka Kopi (or Teh)

Singaporean coffee lacks the bitterness you may be accustomed to. Why, you ask? Because the beans are roasted in butter! And what was hugely surprising for me is that the brewing method is the same as one I just discovered this past summer for the first time, the Costa Rican chorreador. It’s basically a sock-shaped bit of cloth suspended from a metal ring that can rest on a pitcher. The grounds are placed inside, and then boiling water is poured over top for brewing. The result is a robust coffee flavor that is strong in small doses – in fact, some of the breakfast spots only serve one size of coffee.

As with anywhere, there is also a lot of coffee customization that you can get with each cup. Not only hot vs. iced, but the traditional method for serving, if you ask for just “kopi” you’ll get coffee with condensed milk, as you would in Vietnam. The main other options are “kopi-C” with Carnation milk or “kopi-O,” black coffee. For any of the above you can add the word kosong to the end of your order to request no sugar. For more of the nuances of ordering coffee in Singapore, check out this Serious Eats post.

With coffee this good, I didn’t have tea out once. Although it is definitely available if that is your preferred breakfast beverage, and can be ordered in the same variations you would do for coffee.

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2. Kaya toast

I probably don’t need to explain what toast is, but kaya is such an excellent accompaniment. A coconut-based spread, it is typically served on toast with a pat of butter, giving some flavor and sweetness without being overwhelming. Kaya is made with coconut milk, eggs, sugar, and flavored with pandan, a local plant used as an aromatic in many types of Asian cooking. Of course, the flavor is all in the balance of ingredients and texture.

My favorite kaya, hands-down, was the fresh version served at Killiney Kopitiam. If you’re looking to take a jar of kaya home from here, purchase it at the end of your visit as their kaya has no preservatives and will expire within 3-4 weeks. (And if you’re going to Australia after like me, since it contains eggs you probably can’t even bring it with you, sorry.)

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3. Soft-boiled eggs There’s actually no need to specify the cook on the eggs that come with a Singaporean breakfast, as they only come one way. Most places I went gave you the eggs still in the shell, and it was up to you to crack them into the bowl. Others gave you a bowl that already had the two “half-boiled” eggs nestled inside. TIP! I didn’t always do the best job of cracking my eggs and sometimes broke a yolk. The way I saw locals doing it seemed to work well: cracking the wide middle of the egg against the table and cracking it into the bowl (the way you would if the egg was still raw). The typical condiments to make the eggs extra-savory to contrast with the sweet kaya toast (and possibly sweet coffee as well) were ground pepper to sprinkle on top & soy sauce to pour into the bowl. Locals tended to slurp the eggs out of the bowl, while I preferred to break the yolks and enjoy it one small spoonful at a time or with the toast dipped inside. 20161105_123911 Where to Find Singaporean Breakfast I sampled Singaporean breakfast at what are probably the top 3 local chains. You’ll be able to find one of these nearby wherever you stay in Singapore: Killiney Kopitiam Kopitiam means coffee house, and while the coffee was delicious here, I was blown away by the kaya toast at their original location on Killiney Road. And if you’re looking for one last breakfast, there is a Killiney branch in the upstairs 24-hour food court at the airport, although there’s usually a bit of a wait as they still grill the toast fresh for each customer. Toast Box I waited in line with a lot of young professionals, as it seemed relatively easy to order takeaway breakfast. The one I visited was so busy I even had one of those light-up buzzers to alert me when my toast was ready. Ya Kun Kaya Toast This was the one spot where my eggs were already in a bowl when they were served, so the least assembly was required. Plus, it was a bit cheaper than Toast Box and included quite a large portion of toast.   What breakfast have you enjoyed so much that you then tried to replicate it at home? Singaporean breakfast will definitely be my next experiment!

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What It’s Like in Australia for Melbourne Cup Day: “The Race that Stops a Nation”

What It’s Like in Australia for Melbourne Cup Day: “The Race that Stops a Nation”

Shortly after moving to Perth, Australia in March 2012, I decided to go to a trivia night both because I love trivia and also as a way to meet people. Although I don’t think I walked away with any new friends, I did learn some key details about Australian life. After a bit of small talk and socializing, the trivia got underway, although it was a question that came up after the first half hour that really caught my attention.

What important Australian event takes place on the same day as the Election Day in the United States?”

As the lone American on my trivia team, all eyes immediately turned to me. I shrugged and tried to adjust my facial expression to indicate just how clueless I was. “I have no idea, sorry.”

After a few panicked moments among the Aussies, someone turned to me and asked, “but when is the US election?”

At least that was a question I could help with. “Usually the 1st Tuesday in November.”

Suddenly all of the Australians instantly knew the answer: Melbourne Cup Day. Affectionately known as “the race that stops a nation,” Melbourne Cup Day really does dominate life in Australia in the days leading up to it and of course, on race day itself.

Around six months after that trivia night, I was preparing to have the full Melbourne Cup Day experience in November 2012, channeling my inner Aussie. Which, occurring on a Tuesday, meant it happened at the office with my coworkers. I had only worked in the US before, and Australian workplaces overall are a lot more relaxed than American ones. For example, “morning tea” and “afternoon tea” were 15-minute tea/coffee breaks codified in my work contract, and several people in my office had no problem shifting their work hours earlier or later to accommodate daily visits to the beach for swimming or surfing. But the most relaxed day I had working there was definitely on Melbourne Cup Day.

Things to expect on the day:

What to Wear. Start by envisioning the finest, most proper British horse race you can conjure, with a bit of a fashion twist. Of course, attending the Melbourne Cu p in person is a procession of fine outfits from head to toe. Even for those like us in the office who planned to watch the race together on the TV though, dressing up was fairly universal. Coworkers arrived in smart slacks and, posh dresses accessorized with fascinators, those fancy and sometimes elaborate small British hats with lace or other adornment (think Kate Middleton). Even if you were not there to witness it in person, you certainly dressed for the races.

Where to Watch. The pub, of course! Being that we were in Perth, several hours earlier than Melbourne, the races began early, with the main event taking place at noon. So after the gossipy buzz that infused work that morning, we all headed to the pub around 11am to claim our table and get situated for the big race. There is limited capacity to be at the Flemington Racecourse itself, so even if you’re in Melbourne (where the day is a public holiday!) the next best thing is to watch in a large group of friends or coworkers. In our case, we had organized a potluck lunch and enjoyed the pub refreshments to complete the festive atmosphere.

Betting. This is the same society that takes bets on the name of the next royal baby, the winner of The Voice starting in week one, and pretty much anything you can think of that has more than one possible outcome. Lines to bet in person on any of the races on Melbourne Cup Day wrapped around blocks, so that was also the day I set up an account for Australian on-line betting, which I only used just that once. There of course was also an office pool to bet on the race’s outcome.

Between the office pool and my single online bet, I actually did quite well – doubling my money! But don’t get too excited as I’m not much of a betting gal. Overall, I wagered 15 Australian dollars, and had a whopping 30 by the end of the day. But feeling like I had gotten an authentic Australian experience of Melbourne Cup Day.

 

Now 4 years later, again the US election looms, which means it is time for Melbourne Cup Day once again. There is actually a nuance to the way both the American Election Day in the States and Melbourne Cup Day is calculated so this year “the race that stops a nation” will take place the previous week, on November 1st. Why, you ask? Well, the Melbourne Cup races take place every year on November’s first Tuesday, no matter what. US Election Day’s scheduling is a little more particular, occurring the Tuesday after the 1st Monday in November – this year, falling on Tuesday, November 8th.

How will *you* be spending this Melbourne Cup Day?

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