Friday, February 22, 2013

Aberystwyth, Wales

View from Aberystwyth Castle

Aberystwyth has been for me what an ashram is for yoga practitioners. It's an odd comparison I know. It's strange for me too that a place with such miserable weather, moldy, damp walls, and up hill both ways walking would be my sanctuary. But it is. I have been lucky enough to come here at two different times, once in October and once now in February. Both times the weather has been cold but sunny, windy, but clear.  I haven't seen much of the surrounding area, but that's not why I was here. 

Student housing along the beach
Wales has been my hideaway from reality and a dream job that turned sour. A three and a half hour train ride from the Birmingham airport transports me to another world. When I'm here, I can walk on the rocky beach watching the frigid, foamy waves or sit on the grassy field and watch the sheep frolicking in the sun. Being here is like taking a trip back in time. The town is filled with old shops selling "vintage" items that no one is calling vintage. The book stores are stocked with spotted old volumes with prices no one would even think of paying. And the pubs speak to another time altogether boasting names like "Ship and Castle," "Cooper Arms," and "The Scholars."There is even the remnants of a castle that has seen better days. It's a university town with the requisite old Hogwarts-like buildings and idealistic students. It surely isn't the bustling city of Amsterdam where I currently reside, but it definitely feels more like home. 

There are some really great cafes like The Tree House which serves wonderful fresh organic food and Salt, a great place to grab a burger and a pint. It's a summer tourist destination for UK beach-goers, so the promenade is lined with shops, restaurants, and B&B's. You can always find a group of hungry seagulls circling the nearby fish and chips shop which is a favorite among locals and tourists alike. 

In the sun, Aberystwyth is stunning, but in the cloudy rain you want to do nothing more than curl up with a good book and a heavy blanket. But isn't that what hideaways are for?

The Best Welsh Pub

What's a trip to Wales without the search for the best pub? Now you could spend days, weeks even trying out each little hole in the wall establishment. Why do that though when you can spend your time in one great one? The Scholars is the place to be in Aberystwyth, Wales. It's spacious and roomy for a pub, and they show all the best football matches on flat screen TV's. They even have free wifi. But that's not why The Scholars is the best pub in Aber. It's Sunday Carvery! After church and after the hangovers have subsided, locals wander into this establishment to spend the afternoon with a pint of Rev. James and a heaping plate of Thanksgiving-like fare. It's heaven. That's where I have spent two of my Sundays in this lovely ocean side town, eating potatoes mashed, fried, and fried again. Green veggies are in short supply, and carbs rule, but it is well worth an afternoon tucked away inside a tiny booth with mismatched chairs. Families quietly eat their plate-fuls while rugby players shovel piled high mounds of turkey, pork, and beef into their hungry mouths.  The guy behind the carving itself is great as well, truly enjoying his work on Sunday afternoon. It is a sight to be seen.
Tim enjoying his carvery fare!

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Top 10 Most Romantic Destinations According to Me

It's that time of year again, you know the one where the little baby in the diaper with the bow and arrow causes millions of people to spend a ridiculous amount of money on things like flowers and chocolate. That's right, it's Valentine's Day. And while some may scoff at the mere thought of the day, why not take an opportunity to relive some magic travel memories? While most of this top ten list is made up of destinations where I traveled alone or with friends, they are definitely places where sparks can fly. This list is a bit Europe heavy, but what can I say, it's where I'm living these days. These destinations are in no particular order, but consider this a "best of" list of my travels up to this point in my life.

10  Zanzibar Beaches
In addition to this being a fascinating spice island, Zanzibar has some absolutely stunning beaches with crystal clear water and old fishing boats washed up on the shore. Here you can live large, or enjoy the scene on a budget. Either way, you will have a wonderfully relaxing time.

9   Greek Islands
All the ones I have visited have been absolutely stunning. Some are known for the party crowd, and others are known as honeymoon havens. Santorini tops the list of typical tourist destinations, but Tinos is a diamond in the rough. The best place to stay here is the Tinos Beach Hotel, minutes away from the port and steps from the salty Aegean Sea. Amazingly fresh food and a beautiful backdrop can't be beat for romance.

8   Amsterdam 
Amsterdam is full of all sorts of surprises for both the experienced and novice traveler. The city itself is beautiful, full of hundreds of really old (we're talking 1600's here) leaning buildings and lazy canals. You could spend days just wandering around the little neighborhoods like Nieuwmarkt, the Jordaan, or de Pijp. If you don't feel like walking, there are tons of boats for hire where you can pack a picnic lunch and love the one you're with.

7   Belgium 
Have a Belgian Beer With Your Honey
Not only can you find some of the best beer in the world, you can also find some of the cutest small towns in Europe. Belgium, in my humble opinion, is highly underrated. It's easy to get to from surrounding countries, and it is easy to take a day trip there. It is also just downright angelic in the winter when the snow covers the gabled rooftops.  It's great fun to just wander around or go on a brewery tour.

6   Paris
Eiffel Tower
'Nuf said, but there are some truly great spots that don't include waiting in line at the Eiffel Tower. Just about every street in the city has a cafe and a bakery. Choose one and make it your home for a week. Get to know the locals and practice the sultry sounds of the French language. If that doesn't strike your fancy, the National Archives has a lovely courtyard in the center of the building where you can sit among the well manicured gardens. There are many spots like this around Paris including small parks and museum gardens. I highly recommend walking through open doors throughout the city because you never know what will be on the other side. It's an Alice in Wonderland sort of approach to travel.

Costa Rica

5   Costa Rica 
If adventure is more your speed, then Costa Rica is the perfect place to go. This country has the best of everything, relaxation, diverse landscapes, and a lot of fun. Zip lining is a great way for couples both new and established to take a risk and be spontaneous. You can climb the side of a volcano, go on a wildlife hike, or just bask in the sunshine. Anyway you slice it, Costa Rica is perfection.

4   Venice 

No list of romantic destinations would be complete without Venice. Who wouldn't want to eat some fabulous Italian food and watch the pigeons in St. Mark's Square? But there's more to this location than all the tourist hype of gondola rides with singing gondoliers (although I highly recommend spending the money to do this). The overall feel of the city, especially at night is one that can compare to few others. Walking through the dark labyrinth of alleyways, you hear the echoes of others talking, getting lost in the moment.  The canals are calm and quiet in certain areas of the city, and the lights provide a calming backdrop to this truly unique locale.

Hurricane Ridge

3   Olympic Peninsula 
I only allowed myself one U.S. destination for this particular post, and keeping with the spirit of adventure, hiking in Hurricane Ridge topped my list. Even in the spring, snow tops the mountains providing some fantastic vistas. It's not uncommon to see deer wandering free and coming quite close it you are still enough. Pack a picnic lunch and strap on your hiking boots for a lovely trek through the mountains.

Tented Camp in Tanzania

2   Tanzania
One of the best once in a lifetime (hopefully more than once) experiences is a safari in Tanzania. Picture a Hemmingway-esque tented camp complete with hot water and all of the essentials including three beautifully catered meals per day.  You spend your mornings and evenings on game drives and afternoons napping by the pool. Surrounded by some of nature's most exquisite wildlife, you forget all of the troubles and stressed surrounding daily life. If being with your partner doesn't quite take your breath away, being just feet from a lion will.

And the # 1 most romantic destination according to me is......

Wherever Your Honey Is
Take it from a girl who has spent the last year and a half in a long distance romance, this one beats all. No really, it does. The best destination is anywhere in the world with the one you love.  You don't have to travel long distances to find a romantic destination; where you are is sometimes the best place to be. Yes, it can even be the living room couch.

Have a very Happy Valentine's Day, Galentine's Day, or whatever you may celebrate!

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Weekend Getaway in Spain

Amsterdam is a cold, miserable place in the winter as most countries in the north are at this time of year. It just seems like it is dark all the time, and sometimes there are several days in a row when you don't see the sun. I needed to get out. One of the fabulous things about living in Europe is that you can be in a new country in just a couple short hours.  Taking advantage of this, I decided to go to Spain for the weekend.

I flew into Malaga (just a 3 hour flight from Amsterdam) by myself after work on Friday evening. I decided that I didn't really want to see sights and spend time in a city, but I did want to spend some time at the beach even if it meant being fully clothed and in a coat.

Spanish Tortilla, Pulpo, and an Icy San Miguel Beer

I used airbnb to book an affordable apartment for the weekend. I love this site because you can not only find interesting places to stay that make you feel more like a local, you meet new people too. From Malaga Airport, I took a train about 25 minutes to a small beach town called Fuengirola.  The apartment was literally around the corner from the station.  I was starving when I got there so I went across the street to a restaurant and sat down. I was surrounded by Spanish, and it was great. Actually, I was really proud of myself because I understood a lot and was able to use a little bit of it too.  This place was absolutely perfect.

The town of Fuengirola is a beach town, slow in the winter, but I could tell that it is the place to be in the summer. Many of the restaurants and shops were closed up for the winter, but there was still enough for me to do while I was there. I liked it that way actually. It wasn’t crowded, and I always got a nice sunny table wherever I wanted.

Constitution Square

I’ll start with the sun. While I had told people in Amsterdam that the weather wasn’t bothering me as much as I thought it was, it was not until I walked the couple of blocks from my apartment to the beach when I realized that yes, the weather had been bothering me. I missed the sunlight and warmth on my face. The sky was that beautiful clear blue, and while it was really, really windy while I was there, it didn’t matter because it was beautiful.

I tried to sleep in Saturday morning, but I couldn’t. I was out exploring the town by 9:30 am. I was starving, but I was even more hungry to walk around and see some things. After a little while I found a bakery down a side street and ordered a café con leche and a pain au chocolate (called something else here of course).   I found a little plaza called Constitution Square with a nice little church and fountain. Two blocks away was the beach. That’s where I spent most of my time walking along the promenade past beach cafes and British tourists sunning themselves.

I walked for what felt like hours and ran into a castle of some sort. I still have no idea what it was for, but I walked up to the top of the hill and sat on the wall for a while. I let everything and nothing swirl around in my head while the sun beat down on my pale face. I sat there for a long time looking at the ocean and realizing how happy and at peace I felt. It was a feeling that I haven’t had in a long time.

The rest of the afternoon was just like that, walking around and stumbling upon things. I found the bullring (closed), oranges growing on the trees that lined the streets, and a zoo. I didn’t go in the zoo though because there is a zoo in Amsterdam that I haven’t gone to yet, and I wanted to wander around some more. After a full morning of walking, I went to the grocery store to get some things for dinner. I dropped it all off at the apartment and went out for a late lunch. I was sort of disappointed in my dining options. I wanted some Spanish tapas, but my options were limited. Most of the restaurants catered to the Brits and the Dutch. There were plenty of pubs and UK flags hanging around. I found a place by the port. It didn’t have an ocean view, but it was run by an abuela who spoke to me in Spanish (I understood most of it), and every time she walked by my table she would squeeze my arm. I liked her very much. Her grandson was riding his bike back and forth in front of the restaurant, and every so often, I could hear a little voice yell, “abuela!” I spent the rest of the afternoon between that place and a spot on the sand.

By the time I got back to the apartment I was really tired. It was that good tired though. It was the kind where you feel like you have really done something.  The town was cheap, and I was able to eat and drink everything I wanted from the time I got to the Amsterdam airport to the time I left Malaga for under 100 euros. I think I even have about 15 euros left over.

The next day was much of the same except I hung out at the apartment until about noon. I didn’t have to leave for the airport until 5, so I still had plenty of time. I didn’t feel the need to see anything else because I had pretty much seen it all the day before. What I did want to do is find a nice café with a view of the water for a coffee. After a walk I did just that. I liked it so much that I stayed there for lunch.

After I left, I found a spot to sit on a short wall. It was facing the sun, and it was much warmer there than walking in the shade. I was just sitting there thinking when I was approached by an African man selling DVD’s. This was not a new occurrence, but all the other times as soon as I said no he would walk away. Not this time. For a while I shook my head, but then he asked if I spoke English. We got to talking, and I found out that he was from Senegal. He sat on the wall with me and we chatted for a while. His name was Mustafa, and he had been living in Spain for 8 years selling things on the street. He spoke English, Spanish, French, and I’m sure a local language of his home. He said he had to in order to do his business. His family is all still in Senegal, but he can’t go back because (from what I could gather from his story) he doesn’t have a passport. We talked about missing our families and friends from home, but I was hit by a very sharp realization about the two of us. While we were united in our experience of being away from home and learning to adapt to a new culture, we were from different worlds. I am free to travel the world, to come and go in most any country. I can work anywhere too and make quite a bit of money. I have the ability to travel on a whim, and I can visit my family tomorrow if I needed to. My life, while in my eyes is hard sometimes, it does not compare to the difficulty that Mustafa has had to endure. Our definitions of hard do not match. When he came to Spain he left his girlfriend in Senegal with the hope that they would be together again someday. She grew tired of waiting and married someone else. He told me that eventually he wants to go back to Senegal and get married because he would never get married to someone from Spain, “they are rude.” So eventually I bought one of his DVD’s, and he was on his way.

I spent some time writing after that just sitting on the wall in the sunlight burning my face. That moment was another affirmation that the place doesn’t matter; it’s the people. While my interactions here were short, I felt a connection.

Fuengirola Beach

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The Essence of Travel

Why do people travel?

Since the beginning of people there has been the urge to explore, to find out what is on the other side of the mountain or beyond the horizon. Catching the "travel bug" is a common phrase among my friends, and I hope that I, in some way, inspire others to seek out the unknown. My first real trip alone was to Greece where I spent a summer living on the small island of Tinos teaching English to two young children. It was the experience that prompted me to become a traveler and not a tourist. There's a big difference (but that's another blog post).

After that trip I continued to seek out the unknown in various situations, many of which are detailed in this very blog. When I first started out I thought it was all about the location. I sought out the best beaches and some of the most exciting destinations in the world. I did volunteer work, tour leading, conference presenting, teaching, and much more. All of my travel experiences provided an opportunity to add to my growing list of "places I've been." For some that's enough, to check a box and move on with life. For me, it has never been enough. I frequently find myself planning my next trip before my current one has ended. I like finding places that are off the beaten path, and as I get more adventurous in my choices, the path continues to veer.

But these are just places. What makes one trip more memorable than another, and what makes a trip fade into just a collection of vague memories? I have recently discovered that the answer is very simple. It is the people. People make memories, places do not. The trips that were most life altering for me have resulted in life long friends. Meeting friends along the way, having challenging moments and working through them, this is the essence of travel.

So how do you get the most bang for your travel buck? Talk to the locals, travel alone and put yourself into situations that push the limits of your day to day life. Travel will then become part of life and not just something that you do to get away from the grind.

"Be brave. Take risks. Nothing can substitute experience." -Paulo Coelho