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Month: July 2017

An Encounter in Rome: Tales from the Road

An Encounter in Rome: Tales from the Road

“OK, I’ll go around the block, and if I don’t find somewhere else, I’ll come back here.”

This might sound like part of a conversation, but this was just me negotiating with myself, with the convincing voice in my head making a mental deal to only look just a little bit further to find a place to eat lunch.

On this brisk day last fall, I was walking around by the Pantheon in Rome, Italy. It’s a pretty popular part of town with visitors, but I didn’t want to end up in a tourist trap restaurant with mediocre fare. I had done research and marked some spots nearby as possibilities, but as I strolled and perused their menus along the way, nothing really inspired me.

It’s the quintessential tourist experience. You’re hot, you’ve been walking around all morning so your feet are getting tired, and your stomach is now grumbling so you’re just hunting for anywhere to sit down for a bit to rest your legs and have your lunch.

This is the point where most people stop at the first place they see and take their chances. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

But if you’ve read other blog posts that I’ve written and gleaned something about my travel style, you know that grabbing a seat at the first available restaurant is not my typical approach. I’ll go somewhere random in a pinch, but especially when I have limited time in a city known for its cuisine, I try to be a bit more discerning with my choices.

And if I’m traveling solo like I was on this trip, I get to decide all on my own how much time and distance I’m willing to trek for a good meal.

READ MORE: Top Reasons to Savor Solo Travel

Finally I passed one place that wasn’t super exciting, but was certainly good enough and I was getting quite hungry by this point. And this is when I made the deal with myself – that I’d go around one more block to look for alternatives, and then would make a decision and end up *somewhere* for my meal.

Fortunately, as I rounded the corner, there were two more spots across from one another on a cobblestone pedestrian street, and the first one I stopped at had an interesting enough menu to pique my interest. Plus, I was quite hungry, and there was a table available outside so that settled it and I got comfortable.

Normally I would have asked the server for advice on what to order. Especially in Italy, servers will typically steer you to a favorite dish or what is freshest that day, so even if it’s not what you would have picked, it’s often your best bet for a wonderful meal.

I probably should have done that here as well, but after all my trekking I just picked a few things and didn’t have much in the way of expectations for what would arrive in front of me. Luckily for me, lunch was good and I was pleasantly surprised with how beautifully the dishes were presented:

An Encounter in Rome Italy 20161001_133925 (2)An Encounter in Rome Italy 20161001_140323

Once I finished, the server was bustling at the bar inside so instead of waiting for someone to appear to ask for the check (this can take ages it Italy as it’s considered rude to bring a check when someone’s enjoying a meal), I went inside to pay. Since I was planning to pay with my Italian bancomat (debit) card, it was likely I’d have to go inside anyway to use the machine anyway.

It was when I politely requested the check that my whole impression of the meal and restaurant began to shift. In an interaction I had played out many times at restaurants all over Italy, as I’m standing at the coffee bar inside, I was offered dessert and politely declined.

“Oh, but we have these special biscottini made in house that you absolutely must try.”

An offer that is always hard to refuse, so I accepted.

At my first bite into the surprisingly moist yet still crumbly and flavorful cookie, my casual demeanor changes to one of intense concentration. I chew slowly, trying to figure out what exactly is making my taste buds dance with delight. I’m not sure what it is, but the biscottini are truly outstanding and different from anything I’ve ever tried (and that’s saying something, trust me!)

As I start up a nonchalant conversation to try and find out what exactly is it that I’m both savoring and devouring, the waiter insists that I must have some moscato dessert wine, because it is the absolute perfect pairing with the cookie (which of course turns out to be the case, and I’m given quite the healthy pour as you can see):

Biscottini and Moscato Wine An Encounter in Rome Italy 20161001_144853 (2)

I begin sipping away, savoring all of the flavors together, and then I get the real gem: the recipe! Easy to memorize, but hard to follow. No numbers, no details, just the typical Italian approach of a few high-quality ingredients, combined in precisely the right proportion, to fabulous result:

  • White wine
  • Oil
  • Flour
  • Hazelnut

Yup, that’s it. Sounds simple enough, but I don’t know how I would even begin to approach combine those 4 things in the right way and cooking it ‘just so’ to get the result I enjoyed that afternoon.

And keep in mind that this was on all Italian generosity, as I had long paid my bill. I was just having a connection and an experience over food. The Italian way.

*****************************

I’m now back in US after 3 years living in Milan, Italy. I keep trying to explain what it was like living there – the coffee, the food, the wine, the atmosphere on the streets, the people, the hospitality.

My words often fail me. Even though I’ve now had 6+ months of practice fielding those questions, the right response that conveys the spirit of what I’m missing continues to elude me.

It is really hard to explain what living in Italy is like without living there yourself. Strolling the cobblestone streets day after day and engaging in all of those little interactions – at the coffee bar, boarding the tram, in line at the post office – that comprise a day in the life of an Italian (or anyone else who is lucky enough to live there).

For whatever reason, I’ve had a lot of reminders of Italy this week and it is making me miss it terribly, although I’m not sure that “homesick” is the right term for what I have.

Which is why I’m thinking and writing of this wonderful encounter in Rome that was so typically Italian in so many ways – the service I received, the openness of my server to strike up a conversation, & the insistence of trying the house specialty because someone put their heart and soul into its creation. Making the server happy to watch me savoring the biscottini he had raved about. Reflecting the well-known Italian “fact” that if you’re eating, you must also drink for proper enjoyment of both.

And leaving with a full heart and a recipe in my pocket.

*****************************

Have you experienced a similar memorable travel encounter? Share your inspiration in the ‘Comments’ below. In these days of longing and wanderlust, I need all the help I can get!

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An Encounter in Rome Italy

 

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Top Tips for Taking a Cruise

Top Tips for Taking a Cruise

“Oh, this is obviously not your first cruise!”

This sentence was uttered at dinner the first night of my most recent cruise, and was spot on about the couple across the way. How did my tablemate know?

What you may not realize is that not all information about taking cruises is intuitive or readily available on your cruise line’s website. So there are all sorts of tips and tricks that you only pick up with experience. And so you if you’ve gone on a cruise before, you can pick out the other experienced cruisers by how they take advantage of this insider knowledge.

My most recent cruise was for just over a week, but now I’ve spent a total of 50 nights of my life sleeping on a cruise ship – that’s nearly two months!

It had been about a decade since my last cruise, so even though I wrote most of these tips the night before I left, I waited until after the cruise to publish them so they could be as thorough as possible. I only had a few new ones to add, though – most of these tips are tried and true over many years and sailings & will still apply when you go.

For ease of reading and planning, the tips are organized into sections:

  • Before You Go
  • On the Sailing Date
  • Aboard the Ship
  • In Port
  • At the End of the Cruise

Read on for all the details of how to make the most of your cruise, and happy sailing!

Before You Go

When to Book

There’s probably not an exact magic time to book, although you can get great deals far in advance or last-minute. The best time to book in general though is whenever the cruise line is running a sale. If you have an idea of which cruise lines or itineraries you want to travel, be sure to join the cruise line’s e-mail list to be the first to know when they are running specials.

Free Wine Fruit Cheese Platter Top Tips for Taking a Cruise DSC_0251

TIP! I called with a few questions and was intending to book later online, but the agent on the phone then offered a free bottle of wine & fruit and cheese plate if I booked before hanging up. Like in any sales situation, you might get more than expected if you don’t commit at first.

What Room to Choose

No matter what you expect, it’s highly unlikely that you’ll spend much time in the room besides sleeping. So if you’re on a tight budget, book an interior room and save the extra money for extras and excursions. Although if you can afford it and you’re cruising for your honeymoon or want an extra-special experience, by all means go ahead and splurge!

Gratuity for Cruise Staff

Your lovely cruise staff probably works for meager pay with long hours on a moving ship. Back in the day tipping was at your discretion, while on my latest sailing it is compulsory and at a set rate per person, not per room. You had the option to pre-pay, otherwise expect this charge to be a hefty chunk of the charges you amass on board.

TIP! You will be tipping either way, so account for this in your travel budget. For my cruise it was $13.50 per person per day, and a bit more per person if you had a suite. It adds up fast!

Beverage & Internet Packages

Cocktail Top Tips for Taking a Cruise 20170713_215855

No, this is not your typical hotel room with WiFi included, so don’t expect to be spending your time online unless you purchase internet access. And if you’re enjoying cocktails on vacation, that can run anywhere from $10-16 a drink. Like with booking the cruise itself, wait for a SALE. It’s worth paying attention to the pre-cruise messages, I was able to get my beverage package bundled with internet access on a single device at just two-thirds the normal price.

TIP! At least on my most recent ship, the way the internet worked was each person got an access code, but you could switch devices. I mostly used it on my cell phone, but twice switched it to my laptop to do a few things. Don’t get sucked into buying a plan for multiple devices if you won’t need to use more than one at a time.

TIP! I have cruise line status that entitled me to a 15% discount, but the discount during the sale time was still a better deal, especially with packages bundled together.

Dress code

Fortunately I’ve cruised before, so I knew to expect some nights with more formal dress in the Main Dining Room. But this really wasn’t information that was readily available before my cruise without a bit of digging. Even for short cruises of 3 to 5 nights, there’s usually 1 formal evening, and some ships have “smart casual” nights as well. Be prepared with at least one outfit for each, although be advised that “formal” dress can range from a button-down and slacks for men and a dress for woman to a tuxedo and formal ball gown.

TIP! Find out what others in your group will be wearing, and dress to match their level of formality so you all fit in with each other for picture-taking (and feeling comfortable).

Bringing Alcohol On Board

Wine Bottles Top Tips for Taking a Cruise DSC_0058 (2)

There is usually a limit to the amount of alcohol you can bring with you on board. For my last cruise, this was 2 bottles of wine per room. Be aware that you can request wine glasses and enjoy some in your room, however if you bring your own bottle to a restaurant on board there is typically a corkage fee that can be quite high.

TIP! If you’re bringing your allotted bottles, plan for this with your packing and travel arrangements to the ship, especially if you’re flying in.

Booking Excursions

Excursions are another item that will often be discounted if you book these in advance. And in all likelihood, at least some of the activity options will be offered as part of a pre-cruise sale. Certainly book early if there is something you really want to do, otherwise wait for the cruise line to offer a discount. And there are usually at least some availability after you board, although typically at full price.

Bring Lots of Reading Material

Reading Top Tips for Taking a Cruise 20170714_133658

Yes, there is usually a full schedule of events on the ship, but you likely won’t be interested in all of them. I always stock up on books to read before I sail since it’s a bit hard to find new books in the middle of the ocean. Or if magazines or podcasts are your thing, bring more than you think you’ll need, just in case.

READ MORE: Summer Reading List

Join the Rewards Program

Royal Caribbean Platinum Status Top Tips for Taking a Cruise 20170725_181006

You never know when points or status will come in handy. I’ve cruised enough to have status, and there are extra discounts plus an expedited check-in line at the terminal. There’s no reason to wait on this – even if it’s your first cruise, start working toward status now!

Bring Cash for the Casino & Additional Tipping

Sure, you can charge your gambling money to the room no problem. The fine print? There will likely be an additional percentage added on as a fee for the service. Even if you think you might want to gamble a little, bring plenty of cash to maximize your net winnings. You may also want some cash on hand to tip staff along the way (you’ll certainly get better service from your bartenders by doing that!) or for additional gratuity when you depart.

Online Check-In

Online Check In Top Tips for Taking a Cruise 20170709_172356

This is a great way to save time on the check-in day. And it’s not like flying when you can only check in 24 hours in advance, since ships usually require more advance notice to have all the details ready at the cruise terminal. On my ship you needed to check in 3 days in advance, or you had to bring your documents to the terminal and wait for someone to type it into the computer. So basically it saves lots of hassle if you do it yourself ahead of time, find out when the deadline will be for your sailing.

On the Sailing Date

Don’t Arrive in Your Departure City the Same Day you Leave

Whether flying, taking the train or bus, or driving, there is plenty that can go wrong when you plan to arrive the same day as your cruise. And I know of people who have literally missed the boat after a failed flight connection or some other transit delay. Arrive a few days in advance and make a trip of it, or at a minimum, plan to be in town the night before you cruise.

The only exception? If you are an hour or less driving time away. Leave early, and you should have plenty of buffer time to make the cruise. (I was fortunate this time to be a mere 5-minute taxi ride from home to the Cruise Baltimore Terminal!)

Plan to Eat Lunch on Board the First Day

Most ships start boarding in the late morning, so don’t make lunch another logistic to figure out when you can enjoy lunch on board for free. Just be sure to allow enough time for the check-in and boarding process that you’re not finding yourself in line at the cruise terminal getting hangry with your stomach grumbling.

TIP! Find out if there is more than one dining option for lunch when you board. Even if there are multiple options, most people tend to head in a single direction, so you can have a more relaxed and less crowded first meal by hitting up the alternate spot.

Pack a Carry-On Bag with Anything You’ll Need Through Dinner

It is too chaotic on departure day for anyone to board with their full luggage unless you’re a super-light packer, so expect to be separated from most of your things for at least a few hours. A good rule of thumb is to pack all your valuables, plus everything you might need through dinnertime in a carry-on bag. For many this includes a bathing suit if you want to wave goodbye to dry land from the jacuzzi, plus any essential medicines and a camera or other electronics. And if you’re carrying on wine bottles, it’s best to carry those with you to be inspected during your security check.

TIP! Your room will likely be ready right when you board, so you can drop off any heavy carry-on items right away and just keep the essentials with you until your luggage arrives.

Lock your luggage

Luggage Top Tips for Taking a Cruise DSC_0062

Your large luggage gets whisked away pretty much on arrival, and will sit around unattended a lot at the terminal and again on the ship. Usually bags are left outside your cabin door until you see it and bring it inside, which might be hours. For peace of mind (and if you like your stuff!) lock your bag.

Aboard the Ship

Maximizing Mealtime

If there is a buffet restaurant, it’s implied that it will be all-you-can-eat. What frequent cruisers know is that all main dining areas are all-you-can-eat, including the formal dining room. Regardless of the meal, don’t be shy about asking for two appetizers if you want both or a special combination of dishes with everything you’d like to eat. There was even one night I wasn’t particularly fond of the appetizer I ordered originally, so requested a different appetizer as a replacement. It’s all included, so take advantage!

Getting Discounts

In Room Discount Top Tips for Taking a Cruise DSC_0197

Booking excursions and beverage or internet packages are usually cheaper in advance when they’re on sale (see above), but lots of other things will be cheaper once you’re on board. Wait for on-board coupons and daily specials – especially for spa bookings and specialty restaurants that aren’t full. Just show some interest without committing, and in all likelihood someone will be able to offer you a service or meal at a discount.

Snagging a Deck Chair with a View

Deck Views Top Tips for Taking a Cruise 20170716_081118

I love a cozy spot to watch the ocean go by, but I hate having to pounce on one of limited spots on the pool deck, which I think gets packed on pretty much every cruise ship. Explore the boat on your first day and find the less-frequented spots, especially on the lower and upper decks. My go to spot for reading and relaxing on my last cruise was Deck 5 under the lifeboats because there were chairs for lounging, beautiful views, it was always in shade, & servers came around to bring you drinks from the bar.

Avoiding Lines for Activities

To avoid lines for sports and activities, don’t go right at the beginning or the end of the time frame. For example, it seemed that the first and last hour of the 3-hour rock climbing time slot was always busy, but there were never long lines during the middle hour.

Corollary: Activities will be packed on the last day of the cruise, hit up anything you want to do before then.

In Port

Beating the Crowds

Top Tips for Taking a Cruise DSC_0280

No matter how organized the ship, getting on and off in port can take some time. You may be allowed to depart first if you have a scheduled excursion, otherwise you’re likely to be waiting in a fairly long line. Just waiting an extra 10-15 minutes before you try to leave can mean a pretty hasty exit.

You’ll also want to avoid boarding in the last half-hour to hour before the ship leaves port, when lines can snake back-and-forth a few times and it can be a bit of a wait. You’ll spend much more time waiting in line as the deadline approaches, possibly with the hot, tropical sun beating down on you. Leave a little late, come back a bit early!

Stay Nearby for a Few Hours Before the Cruise Leaves

Late to the Boat Top Tips for Taking a Cruise 20170716_144504

Being in port is just like your departure day – you don’t want to be somewhere far when the time for the boat to leave approaches. I’d plan to be back in the vicinity of the ship at least 2 hours before it is scheduled to depart, that way you’re not stuck in some mode of transportation on the far side of the island or somewhere far from port. On this last cruise, the four people you see above arrived 15 minutes after we were supposed to set sail, and nearly got left behind!

Buying Alcohol & Other Duty-Free Items

Alcohol Top Tips for Taking a Cruise 20170725_181157

Usually there is at least one spot, if not several, that is close to port and sells duty-free items. This can be anything from jewelry to bottles of liqueur, and usually they’ll be delivered directly to the ship and dropped off in your stateroom on the final night. Even if you buy alcohol outside of duty-free establishments, it will get confiscated when you board and also returned to you the last evening.

TIP! You won’t have bottles of alcohol while you’re on the ship, so have a plan to carry it off and get it home at the end of the cruise.

Making the Most of Beach Days

Beach Day in Port Top Tips for Taking a Cruise 20170719_114330

Nothing inspires people to set an early-morning alarm like a chance to get an early start on suntanning.

Head out early for beach days if lounging chairs are limited, or if you’d like to get an umbrella or other covered area to spend your time. And bring plenty of sunscreen!

At the End of the Cruise

Additional Gratuity

Even if gratuity is pre-paid or automatic, you’ll likely get the opportunity to leave additional tips for outstanding staff, which they definitely always appreciate. If you think you may want to do this, have some cash on hand at the end of the cruise to leave behind.

Double Check Your Duty-Free & Alcohol Purchases Before You Depart

Duty Free Top Tips for Taking a Cruise DSC_0202

You’ll probably be so sad that your vacation is ending and focused on stuffing all your clothes back in your bag that you’ll forget all about your duty-free purchases. These are typically delivered on the final night, so keep an eye out and be sure that everything you’re expecting actually arrives before you leave the ship.

Leaving the Ship

Usually there will be the option to self-carry, if you can transport your luggage on your own. It’s nice to have the freedom and flexibility, but you do need to be able to maneuver or possibly carry your own bags. And you may be in line behind people with specific time slots trying to catch airport transfers. The elevators can also get pretty backed up on the departure morning.

The other option is to register for a specific time slot to leave, which means tagging your luggage and having it packed and outside your door the night before ready to be picked up. Then of course you’ll need to wait for your group to be called to exit and again to retrieve your bags when you exit immigration, but are spared all of the time waiting for an elevator and lugging it around.

Know your options, and choose what’s best for you.

 

There’s certainly no one right way to take a cruise vacation, but whatever your preferences, use these tips to make the most of the experience!

Have you taken a cruise before? Any other questions about the experience? Any tips or tricks that I missed? Share away in the ‘Comments’ below.

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Top Tips for Taking a Cruise

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9 Reasons Why a Road Trip is the Best Way to See Oman

9 Reasons Why a Road Trip is the Best Way to See Oman

Oman wasn’t on my radar at all until a friend in Milan visited with her daughter and came back raving about this Middle Eastern country that I honestly hadn’t given much thought to before that moment.

She described Oman to me as an unspoiled corner of the Middle East, which is the perfect thing to say to me to plant the idea of a new travel destination in my mind! Oman doesn’t have the over-commercialized sheen of Dubai and you can experience local culture and history that hasn’t simply been jazzed up for the tourists. And did I mention that there are natural wonders everywhere?

It was probably about two years from when I first heard about Oman until I was arriving in Muscat for a week-long road trip with my sister. Intel from our other sister (yes, there’s a 3rd sister!) who had already visited Oman was that sights are spaced far enough apart that renting a car is best for getting around on your own. And since we weren’t interested in an organized tour, it didn’t take much convincing to reserve a rental car and have that be our transportation plan.

But one of the things that became very clear to me as we made our way driving around Oman – hitting up forts and castles and canyons and wadis – this is a country that is perfectly suited to a road trip, for so many reasons. I actually had this blog post nearly written a few days in to the trip, since the benefits of road tripping were so overwhelmingly obvious:

Parking is free (almost everywhere)

Coming from a mindset of needing to pay for parking in most places, I noticed immediately that parking at tourist attractions and beaches and hotels was free everywhere we went. It was great to not have to figure out rules and payment systems in a foreign language or worry about rushing through a sight because the meter was about to run out.  You can pretty much park anywhere, however you’d like!

Parking Top Reasons Road Trip Oman DSC_0458

Over 8 days in country, we never paid for parking. In fact, we only saw metered spots once, on our last night as we strolled along the water bordering the Muttrah district of Muscat, by the famous market, or souk. But if you’re the Imam, you still get to park for free:

Imam Parking Top Reasons Road Trip Oman DSC_0790

Gas is cheap

On average we spent around 4.700 or 4.800 Omani rial to fill up our tank of gas, about 13 US dollars (or 11 Euros). Inexpensive petrol is a definite benefit of road tripping somewhere close to the source of gasoline. Apparently it’s a bit more expensive than it used to be, but with Oman remaining one of the cheapest countries in the world to buy gas, it’s still a huge bargain for the vast majority of visitors.

Scenery is beautiful

Beautiful Scenery Wadi Top Reasons Road Trip Oman DSC_0381Beautiful Scenery Top Reasons Road Trip Oman DSC_0987Beautiful Scenery Coast Top Reasons Road Trip Oman DSC_0488Beautiful Scenery Desert Sunset Top Reasons Road Trip Oman DSC_0258

Omani landscapes are breathtaking! As I wrote in my post on Road Trip Tips for Europe, flexibility is one of the top things I love about road trips. And you’ll definitely want the flexibility while you’re in Oman to stop and pull over to take pictures or randomly take a highway exit to an archaeological ruin or divert your path to explore a natural sinkhole (we did all of these things!).

READ MORE: Top 12 Things to Do in Oman

No alcohol, so you’ll always be driving sober

There’s pretty much no alcohol outside of bars and restaurants located inside select hotels, and we did not stay or visit anywhere that alcohol was being served while we were there. And there are some liquor stores apparently for non-Muslims, but you need to have a liquor license to purchase anything. Plus, it’s illegal to drink in public. So this won’t be a boozy holiday, but at least you know you’ll be driving sober wherever you go!

Things are pretty spread out

Things Spread Out Top Reasons Road Trip Oman 20161204_150106

Sure, tourist attractions are pretty spread out across Oman, but what I wasn’t expecting? Accommodations can often be far from the center of town as well. It was helpful to have a vehicle not just for arriving at our hotel or guesthouse, but also to drive to dinner and then back to the accommodations again at the end of the night. It was hugely practical to have a car at our disposal.

Things Spread Out Top Reasons Road Trip Oman DSC_0744

And although I’m always one to change hotels as few nights as possible, it was helpful to be able to have a car to move to the next hotel and spend our nights in Muscat in different locations across the sprawl of the city. It let us drive around the all the spots in one area and then do the same in another part of town.

Animal sightings galore

Animal Sightings Top Reasons Road Trip Oman 20161207_125318Animal Sightings Top Reasons Road Trip Oman DSC_0360Animal Sightings Top Reasons Road Trip Oman DSC_0996

Unbeknownst to me until several days into our trip – my sister was not leaving Oman until she saw a camel! Fortunately as we drove around (and maybe even got a little lost) there were several times we just happened upon wild animals, camels included. If you want to get a feel for the local wildlife, there’s no better way to do that than having a car you can stop on a whim, which is how I got all the pictures above.

Traffic is pretty non-existent

Traffic non-existent Top Reasons Road Trip Oman DSC_0792 (2)

Roads in Oman are well-paved and in most parts of the country, there won’t be a ton of other cars. Even during periods of a high volume of cars on the road in the capital city of Muscat, everything might slow down a bit, but it keeps moving. And outside of the city, you’ll never be alone, but there won’t be a ton of other cars on the road to contend with, either.

Traffic non-existent Top Reasons Road Trip Oman 20161207_093515

Omanis are always there to help if you get lost

If you’re lost and pull over to get your bearings, even if it looks like you’re somewhere completely deserted, an Omani will be there to help in 2 minutes flat. No exaggeration. One time, we weren’t even terribly lost, but had simply pulled out of a gas station in what seemed like the wrong direction. As we pulled to the side of what seemed like an empty stretch of road to get our bearings, all of a sudden an Omani man appeared and approached the car to offer his help. This is the upside of driving around in a country where the locals are nomadic and have incredible hospitality toward visitors.

READ MORE: Why Hospitality in Oman Will WOW You

Endless entertainment on the road

Endless Entertainment Navigation Top Reasons Road Trip Oman 20161204_165009

You really get to experience a country like a local when you’re in a car driving the roads. We got a taste for the local and international music on the radio and had endless adventures trying to navigate in a country where road signs are limited (and sometimes only in Arabic) and GPS only points in you in the right direction most of the time.

And my favorite entertainment of our road adventures? Fake cardboard cutouts of construction workers as traffic enforcement. Which might have been believable except that most had been out in the sun so long the paint was pretty faded.

Endless Entertainment Fake Construction Worker Top Reasons Road Trip Oman DSC_0464

TIP! Definitely get a local SIM card with data for your visit to help you find your way around as you road trip, although be aware that it may only call other mobile phones and not land lines.

TIP! It is important to note that there are many places in Oman, especially away from cities in the desert, that are only accessible by a 4-wheel drive vehicle. Due to the significant cost differential of renting one, we opted to rent a regular car and arrange for appropriate transport on the 2 days we were away from regular roads – staying in a tent in the middle of the desert for a night & exploring the ‘Grand Canyon of Oman’ on a day excursion. This was still far cheaper than renting a 4-wheel drive vehicle for the entire trip.

So yes, road tripping around Oman was quite the experience, but I wouldn’t recommend seeing the country any other way!

How do you decide whether to road trip in a new place? Do you have any other questions about what it was like to drive around Oman, or to visit in general? Let me know in the ‘Comments.’

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9 Reasons to Road Trip Oman - Why It's the Best Way to See the Country

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Exploring Belize’s ATM Cave, a Mayan Archaeological Wonder

Exploring Belize’s ATM Cave, a Mayan Archaeological Wonder

I’m in a cave mostly engulfed in darkness, swimming. The water is cool, but I’ve just nearly become acclimated to the chill. I’ve hit a rhythm with my strokes, despite being in clothes and shoes as I chug along, weighed down ever so slightly.

And then I see it. An outcropping of rock nearly touching the surface of the water, not leaving much space to squeeze through with my head above water. I’m petite, so I feel like I can turn myself sideways and lift my chin, and just make my way through.

Until I remember that I’m wearing a helmet with a protruding headlamp. There’s no way I’ll fit in the tiny gap of air with my head above water.

So I take a deep inhale, dive head-first under the water and give a sharp kick to propel myself forward, trusting on sheer faith that I’ll emerge at the surface on the other side, to take another breath.

For some, I might have described your worst nightmare, however in Belize it is just another routine day exploring the ATM Cave. And while I really didn’t have much of an idea exactly what I was signing up for, there is such rich history and adventure that when I’ve encountered other travelers who have been to Belize, inevitably they all ask, “Did you make it to the ATM Cave?”

Signing Up for the ATM Cave Tour

San Ignacio, a Belizean town in the west of the country, close to the Guatemalan border, was my first stop when I arrived in Belize and served as a home base for my first five nights. Arriving mid-afternoon, I strolled around town to get my bearings, scope out nearby restaurants, and speak to a few tour providers about options for the next day.

Everyone I spoke with said the same thing when asked which day trip was best: an excursion to the ATM Cave. As a solo traveler, and with most tours having a 2-person minimum, I was limited to tours that others had already reserved. But fortunately there is one tour that nearly every provider runs daily – the one to the ATM Cave.

Exploring Belize's ATM Cave - Achtun Tunichil Muknal - Mayan Archaeological Wonders 20170509_083556

Don’t confuse ATM with that darling machine that dispenses cash, in this case it stands for the Mayan name of the archaeological burial site, Achtun Tunichil Muknal. Let’s just say that I was pretty convinced by this point, and signed up for an all-day tour departing the next morning.

When you go, I can’t recommend Francisco of Mayawalk Tours enough for a visit to the ATM Cave, be sure you visit with him! (Not sponsored, he is just really fabulous.)

Other than what to pack, I didn’t really ask many questions, and in my head simply expected it to be like other caving and spelunking I’ve done.

I knew my shoes would get wet (or I had the option of borrowing enclosed water shoes), to wear a bathing suit, & to bring a change of clothes, which all sounded to me like pretty standard for a caving trip that would involve some water. I had been in the water and mud in caves before, from my muddy experience on the spelunking tour of the Grotte di Frasassi in Le Marche, Italy and the occasional swimming section during a 7km underground tour of the Paradise Cave in Vietnam.

How different could this be?

Getting to the ATM Cave Entrance

Once the van arrives in the parking area just under an hour from San Ignacio, everyone off-loads and gets their gear together, as well as setting aside all valuables, phones, and cameras to be locked in the vehicle and left behind, watched by the driver. I got one last photo here at the entrance to the trail before parting ways with my technology:

Exploring Belize's ATM Cave - Achtun Tunichil Muknal - Mayan Archaeological Wonders 20170509_091521

On the way to the drop-off spot though, the van had to cross a not inconsequential puddle mini-lake on the way – which should have been the first sign of what was to come. We hadn’t even arrived at the entrance, and already we were fording a decently-sized body of water.

Yes, I had been caving before. Yes, I knew there would be at least some swimming inside of the cave. But no, I did not realize exactly how much swimming would be involved even on the hike to get to the cave entrance!

Like several places in Belize, tour guides are required to enter the ATM Cave, so I fell in line with my guide and the rest of the group from the drop off point, and we started making our way to the cave. Within the first 10 minutes, the level of swimming started to become clear as we strolled up to a lake with a flimsy rope strung across.

I confidently started taking steps to walk through the water, straining my arm muscles to keep my water container lifted above the water’s surface. About a third of the way across, it became clear that this was a fool’s errand as my feet squished ever deeper into the mud at the bottom with each step and the chilly water continued to rise, soaking my bathing suit and clothes. I know when it’s time to surrender so I gave in and started to swim (fortunately with my impeccably sealed water bladder!) as the water bladder and the bag I was carrying it in became almost completely submerged.

Of course, as you pick up the trail on the far side of the water, you have just enough time to air dry in the tropical heat before you encounter – yep, you guessed it – the next section of water to cross. On the 40-minute hike from the parking area to the entrance, I definitely got my first taste of just how water-intensive my day at the ATM Cave would be.

Fortunately, right before the cave entrance there is a final pit stop (a few good looking trees, essentially) and hooks where you can leave your water bottle due to some of the tight spaces inside the cave. There’s one last preparation of getting a helmet with headlamp for the cave interior, and then off you go a tiny bit further on the path and down the steps toward the entrance.

And this is where the van experience – or at least the swimming sections along the approach where I emerged sopping wet – should have foreshadowed what comes next. How do you enter the cave? By swimming in, of course!

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons
Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

Inside the ATM Cave

So what’s with all this swimming, anyway? There are a lot of sections of the cave to explore. Some, like the ATM Cave entrance, are areas where you’ll swim. Others you’re merely wading in ankle-deep sections. And occasionally, as I mentioned at the beginning of the post, you’re up against a section that’s a tight squeeze and you plunge underwater between the rocks to get to the next section.

One of the things I didn’t expect? The water was chilly! And you’ll air dry in parts of the cave, which for me always made the next plunge into water requiring just a little bit more will power to enter. But what I love about travel is how it makes you push yourself to your limits – with the right motivation, of course.

Inside the long, meandering land and water pathway of the cave, there are rock surfaces etched out over thousands of years stretching up on either side. There are the typical stalactites and stalagmites you probably learned about in school, plus various other cave features like columns where the two have met each other and resemble a rippled tree trunk.

The ATM Cave is principally formed from limestone, so there are porous sections of the rock. Over time, as the water has forced its way through the nooks and crannies of the rock, the cave includes small sections and huge caverns depending on the water’s meandering path.

And the rock itself, beyond its growth and erosion over time, has a colorful story to tell. Throughout the journey we observed sparkling quartz, yellow sulfur deposits, shining black manganese, and distinctive swaths of red iron.

The retelling of the cave’s history and discovery weaves in with the different sections of the path through the cave, with areas where the light streamed in from overhead and other parts completely submerged in darkness and only illuminated by the glow of the headlamp.

The main attraction is an elevated section that boasts the Mayan relics and archaeological remains. Of course, the reward of experiencing this section of cave is only attained after overcoming a small trial.

There is a hill-shaped rock with different ridges, about 10 feet (or 3 meters) tall that you must climb to reach the coveted upper section of cave. I am an experienced rock climber, so this part was a breeze for me. But even with the wide range of ages and ability levels in my group, with a bit of coaching by our guide Francisco, we all made it to the top.

This is where you know the Belizeans are serious about preservation – everyone, guides included, toss their shoes by the wayside and proceed only with a pair of socks on to not cause too much damage to the site. There is a marked off path through the center, and wonders jutting out on either side.

What most people know about the ATM Cave is that it was the burial site (or relocation site) for Mayan skeletons over 1,000 years old. They are positioned in several different parts of this elevated section. Some skeletons are only partially exposed, with a part of a skull or fragment of bone protruding from the rock. You’ll pass small skeletons presumably of children and others that match with the small stature of a Mayan adult.

You’ll see the skull over a millenium old that was crushed by a tourist’s camera back in 2012, prompting the photography ban. And you’ll see what many consider the absolute highlight of a visit to the ATM cave, the “Crystal Maiden.”

It is definitely a young skeleton, and was thought for many years to be female, hence its name. Now it is believed that it might instead be a teenage male. According to the guides, most of the information about the gender of the skeleton interestingly enough comes from the assessment of various past visitors to the cave, including a doctor and an osteologist. In any case, the calcification of many centuries has led the skeleton to have the appearance of being encrusted in crystals:

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons
Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

Another impressive Mayan relic is the pottery. These vessels supposedly made using the coil method, look nothing like the rudimentary coil vases I constructed in my high school art class. Also, none of the pottery inside the ATM Cave is completely intact. The Mayans deliberately left them with a section removed, to allow the spirit to escape.

And as the cave was seen as the Underworld, with the roots of the local Ceiba tree ultimately transporting the souls of the Mayan skeletons through Earth to Heaven, there are also pottery altars for blood-letting and sacrifice. And it is believed that there was often older royalty buried with a younger skeleton to aid them in escaping the Underworld.

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons
Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

The souls of the Mayan skeletons are believed to have undergone quite the journey from the ATM Cave, and as a modern day visitor, I too, felt as if I had undergone a massive journey. One of adventure, caving, swimming, geology, and archaelogy, exploring the natural aspects of the cave and appreciating it for the significance it still holds for local Mayans.

It was seeing the rocks and formations of the cave, coupled with Mayan archaeological relics, along with the adventure of the swimming and climbing throughout the cave that really made this whole experience so incredible and memorable for me.

And now I understand why that first night in San Ignacio, Belize, this was the tour everyone couldn’t stop talking about.

Have you been caving before? Was your experience anything like Belize’s ATM Cave? Any other questions about what it’s like to visit? Let me know in the ‘Comments.’

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Best Wineries in Charlottesville, Virginia: The Monticello Wine Trail

Best Wineries in Charlottesville, Virginia: The Monticello Wine Trail

If I asked you to name US wine regions, what would be the first ones that come to mind?

Probably Napa and Sonoma valleys, in northern California. Possibly some other California regions that are up-and-coming for wine making, perhaps Oregon for its Pinot Noir production, Hill Country in Texas, or maybe even the Finger Lakes region of NY.

Far less likely to cross your mind? The wine region of Charlottesville, Virginia. Even though I think that some of the best wines on the east coast of the US are from there, and it’s a relatively easy weekend trip from Washington, DC, Baltimore, and other surrounding cities. Plus, when Food & Wine magazine calls Charlottesville the most underrated wine region in the US, it’s time to take notice!

Honestly, Charlottesville is a more typical destination as a university town and for its nearby presidential estates. The University of Virginia – UVA – is located there, as well as the former home of Thomas Jefferson (the Monticello Estate) and James Monroe’s Highland.

The real draw for me, although I’ve visited the other sights in town, is the wine region in the area

known as the Monticello Wine Trail. The term “trail” is a bit misleading because there are 30 wineries spread all across the region, however there are a lot of similarities in the grapes they grow and the style of wine they produce.

On my previous wine weekend trip to Charlottesville, Virginia in 2007, I had no idea it would be a full decade before I returned. Fast forward ten years, and the wines are even more exciting, with new grape varietals to the region producing some very interesting – and eminently drinkable – bottles of wine.

Wine is definitely more expensive stateside than in a lot of parts of Europe where I’ve done more of my wine tasting lately, like the Piedmont or Valpolicella and Soave regions of Italy. But I’d much rather spend $10-25 a bottle at an American winery where I’ve tasted and know I like the wine than take my chances blindly purchasing a bottle in a wine shop for a similar price.

For this visit, I pulled information from a lot of sources (and my past experience!) to determine which wineries I should visit. And I enjoyed some really great wine along the way.

Here is the run down of my favorite spots:

Best Wineries to Visit

DelFosse Vineyards & Winery

DelFosse Vineyards Tasting Room Best Charlottesville VA Wineries 20170610_121445 (2)

Reservations: Not needed for a Classic Tasting, Private Tastings require advance reservation

Tasting: $10 for the Classic Tasting, $15 per person for a Private Tasting

Varietals: Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Viognier, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot, Petit Manseng dessert wine

Both times I visited, I felt a bit of apprehension when the road turns into a gravel path for the last few minutes of the approach. The bit of extra driving is more than rewarded though, with a secluded spot and a great-value tasting of 10 wines made in the French style. My favorites included the Viognier and both Cabernets, and the delicious wine is enhanced by the relaxed atmosphere and knowledgeable staff. The grounds include picnic spots, and you’re welcome to bring outside food to enjoy.

DelFosse Vineyards Best Charlottesville VA Wineries DSC_0779

King Family Vineyards

King Family Vineyards Tasting Room Best Charlottesville VA Wineries DSC_0831

Reservations: Not needed for a Classic Tasting, Private Tastings require advance reservation, Tours are first-come, first-served at 1pm & 3pm on the weekend

Tasting: $10 for the Classic Tasting, $15 per person for a Private Tasting (with a purchase minimum)

Varietals: Chardonnay, Viognier, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Petit Manseng dessert wine

This location boasted a polo field before the idea for a winery was born. Polo matches continue to this day, but King Family Vineyards has also become known for its quality wine production. The tasting area is inviting, and staff are welcoming and really know both the history of the property and a ton about the wine. I really loved the rosé here – playfully named after the nearby town of Crozet – as well as their white blend.

Stinson Vineyards

Stinson Vineyards Tasting Room Best Charlottesville VA Wineries DSC_0840

Reservations: Not needed for a Regular Tasting, advance reservation required for groups of 7 or more

Tasting: $10 for the Regular Tasting, $12 per person for groups

Varietals: Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Franc, Meritage blend, Tannat, Petit Manseng dessert wine, Port-style dessert wine

The tasting room is located inside a quaint former garage, and both feels a bit industrial and also connected to nature with the view of the surrounding countryside. Tastings are relaxed with delicious wine options. I especially loved their white wines, including the Petit Manseng dessert wine which was refreshing without being too sweet. There is also a farm store on site, and many food options to sit and stay awhile and enjoy the view.

Just To Eat

Veritas Vineyard & Winery

It’s possible that the wines beyond what was available for tasting were fabulous, but the ones I tasted were not memorable or stood out as particularly good. Come here for the food and view instead!

Veritas Vineyards Best Charlottesville VA Wineries 20170610_134154

This winery had my least-favorite sips, but it still made my list as a great spot to eat or hang out for the afternoon. There is ample seating on the grounds, and plenty of food options that you can order on site or you can bring your own picnic lunch. I enjoyed a wonderful cheese plate, made even better since the bread was served warm.

https://www.instagram.com/p/BVOAEB5g03A/

The tasting room is beautiful, but the tasting itself was rushed and very commercialized. Basically you were herded into a line upon arrival, and then were clumped into random groups to squeeze in as many people as possible at a time up at the tasting counter. And the staff couldn’t even answer basic questions about the wine. The wines themselves were not particularly notable, especially compared to some of the other wonderful sips I enjoyed at other nearby spots.

(More) Practical Tips for Visiting

Have a plan for getting between wineries. Some of these wineries are in close proximity, and others will involve a 20-30 minute drive in between. If you’re driving, know who in your group will be the designated driver. There are also several organized tours available in the area if you prefer to be chauffeured between places.

Share a wine tasting. If you’re like me, and are going in with the mindset of trying different wines and finding ones you like to buy for later, there’s no need to go crazy on the wine tasting. I usually find that two people can easily split a single tasting. Also, most wine tastings are for a fee, unlike other wine regions that offer complimentary tastings or waive the tasting fee if you purchase wine. Which makes sharing an economical option, too. It’s also good to share a tasting if you have a designated driver that will be doing some tasting of wines.

Have a plan for getting wine home. I’ve always driven on trips to Charlottesville, and the trunk of a car is a handy place for transporting wine. Pretty much all the wineries also have shipping options within the US if you’re coming from outside the area. Definitely something to think about before you go!

If you want a tour or private tasting, reserve in advance. Not only are there lots of families from the region who take advantage of the vast picnic areas at most wineries, but there are also lots of groups of all kinds, from bachelorette parties to alumni groups. So if you are planning to take a tour or would like a private tasting, reserve this with the winery in advance so you’re not disappointed.

Have you visited wineries in Charlottesville? What were your favorite places? Let me know if there are any great wineries I missed!

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What It’s Like Celebrating July 4th Abroad

What It’s Like Celebrating July 4th Abroad

There is something particular about being overseas for a national holiday – especially your country’s Independence Day – and I’ve had my fair share of experience celebrating July 4th abroad. Which for me has always been a very different experience from celebrating at home.

Perhaps my desire to mark the day somehow is due to the many all-American July 4th celebrations I’ve had stateside. As a kid on a road trip with my sister and grandparents, we spent the evening of July 4th in Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, watching fireworks in a historical American setting with staff milling about in period dress.

As an adult, I lived in Washington, DC for nearly a decade, and spent many Independence Days there. Once spending it in the crowds of people down on the National Mall by all of the monuments. Another year at the top of a hill overlooking the fireworks from a neighborhood spot where everyone had poured out onto the streets. I also enjoyed hosting a barbecue and watching the fireworks from afar for many years with large groups of friends on the rooftop of my apartment building. Eating red, white, and blue colored desserts and taking in the many fireworks displays across the horizon.

And then after so many typically American July 4th celebrations, I moved abroad.

Whether living abroad or simply taking advantage of the day off for the holiday to take a trip overseas, many of you have probably been out of the country for the 4th of July, even if it was just once.

I’ve enjoyed celebrating July 4th abroad many times now, whether it was where I was living at the time, or on a summer trip. Here are a few of the ways I’ve marked the day when I’ve been outside of the US:

Celebrating July 4th Abroad in Perth, Australia

When you live abroad, it’s sort of an unwritten rule that you have one week before and after to properly celebrate a holiday from back home that is just another regular day where you’re living. Especially when it’s a holiday that falls on a weekday.

So in 2012 when I was living in Perth, Australia, my July 4th celebration actually happened a few days early – on July 1st (thanks cell phone camera, for helping me figure that out exactly!). Definitely within that week leeway on either side of the actual date.

I knew the celebration was a carnival, taking place mostly outdoors. And remember that while July is summer in the US, it’s wintertime in Australia. Fortunately Perth has one of the mildest Australian winters, so it was still quite pleasant strolling around.

I knew the event was a carnival, but there were a lot of unexpected ways that the event was an “American” celebration.

Like the American classic cars:

Classic Cars Celebrating July 4th Abroad Perth Australia 2012-07-01 11.39.16Classic Cars Celebrating July 4th Abroad Perth Australia 2012-07-01 11.36.05Jeep Celebrating July 4th Abroad Perth Australia 2012-07-01 11.41.49

Although you typically need to re-fit any cars you bring over to move the steering wheel to the right-hand side like the Australian vehicles, you can get a special dispensation to keep the steering wheel on the left if you have a classic car.

Or the tons of motorcycles, many outfitted with American décor:

Motorcycles Celebrating July 4th Abroad Perth Australia 2012-07-01 11.38.59Motorcycles Celebrating July 4th Abroad Perth Australia 2012-07-01 11.46.50

Yes, there was a carnival, too. A costume contest and an American flag cake and booths all around, including from the local Perth baseball team.

Costume Contest Classic Cars Celebrating July 4th Abroad Perth Australia 2012-07-01 13.12.59

But it was the unique aspects of the day – namely the vehicles – that still stand out in my memory the most.

Celebrating July 4th Abroad over a Road Trip in France

One year the 4th of July fell over a summer road trip. On July 3rd I waved goodbye to the foodie mecca of San Sebastian, Spain, and headed toward a small town across the border in France to stay with family friends of my traveling companion.

This was a British couple with a vacation home in France, and the timing just happened to work out for us to pop in for a night. What I didn’t know was that the couple had just recently become American citizens, after several years living in the US.

So when we first drove up to the gate, this was our welcome:

American Flag Welcome Celebrating July 4th Abroad small town France 20150704_153135 edited (2)

Obviously we had found the right house, and had even been placed in a room in the house meticulously decorated with American memorabilia. However, that was the end of the American-themed part of the day.

We enjoyed a dinner of local specialties with bottles of wine we picked up at a winery just down the road. In the morning, we strolled through a local market and had a typically French start to the morning with cafe au lait and fresh croissants.

Just Another Day Celebrating July 4th Abroad small town France 20150705_093515 edited (2)Market Breakfast Celebrating July 4th Abroad small town France 20150705_094445

Somehow, though, as I reveled in the local French experience, it stood out as a contrast to what the day would have been like had I been in the US instead.

Celebrating July 4th Abroad in Milan, Italy

July 4th last year, which I spent at home in Milan, Italy, had the potential to be my biggest July 4th overseas yet. I had lived in the city nearly three years at that point and knew a ton of other Americans. I was a member of an English-speaking women’s club that had a lot of American members. I was invited to a large Independence Day celebration.

While the day had the potential to be a blowout July 4th, it ended up being incredibly low-key. It was like any other Monday, and although as an American I definitely wanted to celebrate somehow, I did not feel up for the party atmosphere.

So instead I had what for me was the perfect way to mark the holiday. I met up with a small group of American friends locally and we went for dinner together at a restaurant owned by an American friend.

And as my own personal way to mark the day as being different, I conducted a mini act of American rebellion in Italy of wearing flip flops out. Which definitely marks you as an outsider, as this is not how the locals dress when they leave the house in Italy.

Flip Flop Rebellion Celebrating July 4th Abroad Milan Italy 20160704_194716

Although my July 4th in Milan might not sound so exciting, when you’re overseas and national holidays come along, it’s up to you how you would like to celebrate. Sometimes the big organized party will be your speed, other times it’s a quiet meal with close friends.

However you decide to mark the occasion, the important piece for me has always been doing something special and recognizing the day in some way. Making the holiday your own, even if it’s not a typical celebration.

Happy 4th of July!!

Have you ever been in the position of celebrating July 4th abroad? What was the experience like for you? If you’ve always celebrated July 4th stateside, would you ever consider being abroad for the holiday? I’d love to hear your thoughts and about your experiences!

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