Las Vegas: Top 10 Things To Do With A Family.

Most of us think of Las Vegas as Sin City or an adult playground.  Well, in reality, there’s a ton of stuff to do with kids.  In this Blog, I’m going to talk about the top things to do with kids that puts a totally different spin on our thinking of what a Las Vegas vacation is all about.  And if you have a teenager in the house (like me), you can even manage to sneak in a pretty epic date night in the midst of all that family fun.

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Transportation

The trip I planned was on Spring Break while the kids were out of school.  I always plan a family trip for Spring Break, and try not to go too far being the kids have to jump right back into school after one week off.  I also try to avoid flying on this week of vacay, because getting a family of six anywhere with flights increases my cost incredibly.  If we are flying and spending that extra money, I prefer to have more time than one week to enjoy the trip.  So, I save those trips at far away places for different times in the year. The kids got so excited about Las Vegas and the thought of seeing a little example of different places in the world ex.  Paris, New York New York, Venetian, and Caesars.  The weather is absolutely perfect at this time of year in Las Vegas at 80-85 degrees.  We initially had planned to drive to Las Vegas (from Northern California).  However, at the last second we started to dread the 10-12 hours in the car with four children.  LOL.  We decided on taking the train instead.  This was such a great idea!  It was a new and exciting experience for the kids!  We scored great seats with four top tables.  We could work, do school work, play electonics, get up and walk around, grab a drink at the bar, eat at the cafe when we were hungry, all while avoiding traffic and not stopping to use the restroom every five minutes.  The train was  in no way faster than flying but it was WAAAAYYYY better than driving and was half the cost of flying our family of six.  Being there is no need for a car in Vegas, this ended up being a great choice for us.

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Vegas here we come!
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Settling in for our train ride to Vegas.  So comfy with table tops, cafe, bar, bathrooms, no traffic.  Winning!

 

Accomodations at Tahiti Village

It is absolutely ridiculous for my family of six to stay in a regular hotel room (IMO), and I refuse to do it unless it is a short weekend trip.  When I’m with my entire family, I need to have more space and a full kitchen to feed their hungry mouths that are asking for food every 30 minutes.  Hashtag TRUTH.  Las Vegas is mostly hotels near the Strip, but I came across a place called Tahiti Village online.  Guys, this place ended up being totally awesome for a family trip!  The rooms were huge condos with full kitchens but the property was more like a grand hotel.  If we didn’t feel like cooking or going out, we had a restaurant and bar right on the property.  The best part about this place was the pools and activities.  They had a huge pool with a sandy beach entry where they held sand castle making contests and a long Lazy River with intertubes, which is where my kids spent most of their time.  An evening movie on the grass was shown twice per week.  It was perfect!  Tahiti Village is located just a mile from the Strip, so we could take the free shuttle, or jump in a quick Uber ride to all the Las Vegas action.

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Our condo at Tahiti Village.  A must for our family to have a full kitchen.
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Main pool at Tahiti Village.
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Sandy beach entry to the main pool where they had organized sand castle making contests.
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We rode in the lazy river all day long on our relaxing days.
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Living our best life in Las Vegas.

 

Top Things to Do

Ok, so let’s get into it.  What are the top things to do in Las Vegas with kids??  Well, we barely could scratch the surface in one week but these were my top picks.

High Roller Ferris Wheel

High Roller is a 550-foot tall, giant Ferris wheel on the Las Vegas Strip.  It is currently the worlds tallest ferris wheel and is a 30 minute ride.  This absolutely puts those county fair ferris wheels to shame, and will be quite the experience for your little ones.

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High Roller Ferris Wheel.  The largest in the world.

Circus Circus

Circus Circus is definitley the most kid friendly hotel on the Las Vegas Strip, and is where the Adventure Dome is located. The Adventure Dome is a five acre indoor/outdoor Adventure Amuesment Park.   The kids can ride rides, play games, rock climb, and even catch a creepy clown show.

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Circus Circus.  The most kid friendly hotel on the Las Vegas Strip.
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Virtual Reality Experience at Circus Circus.
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Adventure Dome Circus Circus.

 

Shopping at the Forum Shops

Las Vegas has some of the best shopping!  I have two teenage girls in the house, so we snuck away for a girls day and hit the shops.  We visited several malls, but the Forum Shops at Caesars were our favorite.  The hotel is really beauiful and you feel as though you are shopping in Rome, Italy.

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Shopping at Caesars Forum Shops.

 

Best Restaurant To Dine At On The Strip: Sugar Factory!

Our kids are crazy for sugar (who’s aren’t?), and when we spoil them with a sugary treat they are so so so happy (before they turn into little monsters).  What better place to take them than the Sugar Factory!?  This place is located right on the Strip, and the menu is filled with things like Cheeseburgers with donuts for buns, fried chicken and waffles, or a truly gourment stack of pancakes and chocolate.  The $20 milkshakes are pricey, but you simply have to try one.  Everything is a total sugar masterpiece.  It’s a really beautiful restaurant too with elegant decor, and is a true sugary fine dining experience.  We ate dinner here, and then returned for a milkshake on our girls day in the middle of shopping.  Yum yum!

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The milkshakes at the Sugar Factor are an absolute must!
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Candy Shop at the Sugar Factory.

 

Siegfried and Roy’s Secret Garden, Tiger and Dolphin Habitat

We set the teenagers free one day to do more shopping, and went to see some tigers and dolfins with our little guys, who are 10 and 5, at Siegfriend and Roy’s Secret Garden and Dolphin Habitiat.  Here, you come face-to-face with some of nature’s most exotic creatures.  Explore, learn and play in an enchanting world of Bottlenose Dolphins, White Tigers, White Lions, and Leopards.  The little guys loved it!

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LOL.  My son had to have this photo…what can I say?

 

Slotzilla Zipline Over Fremont Street

SlotZilla is a 11-story slot machine-inspired zip line attraction on Fremont Street, and is one of the best things to do in Las Vegas!  It was $25 per person or $45 if you wanted to do Superman Style.  I thought these prices were great for the experience you receive!  Making a reservation in advance is a must!  I made mine one week in advance.  The wait could be hours if you don’t have a reservation.  I personally think it is best to do this once the sun goes down and the Las Vegas lights are shinging as bright as can be.

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Slotzilla Zipline.

 

Seven Magic Mountains

Ok, so now that you’ve walked up and down the strip and gotten a taste of all the Las Vegas action, why not take a 15 minute ride outside of the Strip to see a beauiful place in the middle of the desert called Seven Magic Mountains.   A large scale desert artwork comprised of seven towers of colorfully stacked boulders standing more than thirty feet high.  If you can believe it, our kids wanted to go at dawn to exprience the sun coming up in the middle of the desert.  I can never get my kids to catch a sunrise.  This was an absolutely beautiful experience, and one I think they will remeber forever!

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Seven Magic Mountains.
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Catching a sunrise in the dessert.
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Never a bad idea to get up early.  Perfect lighting for great photos.
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Love in the desert.

 

New York New York

I think this was our favorite Strip hotel to visit as a family.  We visited Houdini’s Magic Shop, which the kids stayed at for over an hour learning magic tricks.  There was a bar right outside the magic shop where mom and dad posted up for some adult beverages.  We road the Big Apple Roller Coaster…well, half of us did.  The other half who were either too scared or too small, stayed back in the super enormous arcade.  We ate awesome pizza by the slice, and snuck in a little gambling.  This was definiley a day of fun for everyone, with good mix of adult and kid things to do.

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Houdini’s Magic Shop.
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Little smooching after we won some money at the tables!
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Big Apple Roller Coaster.
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New York New York was our favorite hotel on the Strip that was fun for everyone.

 

Town Square

Located within walking distance from Tahiti Village is Town Square.  Town Square is a shopping, dining, and entertainment center.  There is a huge park in the center of the Square with a train ride, playground, and hoolla hooping for all.  A lot of the restaurants have patios that overlook the park so the adults can enjoy some wine while keeping an eye on the kiddos.  This is an awesome place to go out to eat or shop if you don’t feel like dealing with the crazieness of the Strip.

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Having some Happy Hour while we watch the little guys below at the park.
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That is the exact balcony we sat at for Happy Hour to watch the littles below play at the park and ride the train.

 

Silverton Casino Mermaid’s Aquarium

Named the “Best Free attraction in Las Vegas” is the Mermaid’s Aquarium.  It’s a huge tank filled with tropical fish and live mermaids that interact with the guests.  My kids are Disney’s Little Mermaid fans, so this was a really cute experience for them to wave and blow kisses to real mermaids.

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Mermaid’s show at the Silverton Casino.
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Interacting with real mermaids.

So there you have it!!  These were my top things to do with a family in Las Vegas.  This ended up being one of our favorite Spring Break vacations!  Easy too if you live in California or Nevada.  Hopefully this shows Las Vegas in a different light for you, and that this trip really can be fun for the entire family!

Thanks for reading!!!

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All you need is LOVE.
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Exploring the Strip at night.
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Date night.
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Sunrise in the desert.

 

 

 

 

Greece: Land Of Party Time, Views, And Rich History…Opa!

Greece has always been at the top of my bucket list.  It was #2 on my list to be exact.  I assure you that I can not accurately describe in words how over the moon excited I was to take this trip!  I will say this right off the bat: this certainly was not the cheapest vacation I have ever taken.  I started out with a budget and went way over.  I had to take side job after side job to cover this dream of mine, but it was worth every penny.

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Map of the Greek Islands.

Greece has so many islands, all which are very spread apart.  Unless you are taking a cruise or traveling for a long period of time, you need to plan what islands you want to see.  It isn’t one of those places that you can island hop day by day and see all there is to see, like my trip to the British Virgin Islands or Croatia (which is next up on my list to do a barbeboating trip).  I had two weeks in Greece so I chose the Cyclades Islands .  I decided on three stops:  Mykonos, Santorini, and Athens.  I was so happy with these choices!  Each stop was so polar different from the other, and it really mixed things up.  Mykonos was party time, Santorini was relaxing time, and Athens was a beautiful city.

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My route for my trip to Greece.  Mykonos, Santorini, and Athens.

MYKONOS:

My stay in Ornos Beach

San Francisco to Mykonos is quite the journey.  Long travel days are not ideal, but if that’s what I have to do to get to places like this, then that’s what I have to do.  I will never skip a place to see in the world because the flight is too long.  After a long day and night of travel, I arrived at my Ornos Suites Airbnb  in Ornos Beach, Mykonos at about 2:00am.  I was about 90 feet from the sand, which is why I chose Ornos Beach.  It was really difficult to find Airbnb properties that were oceanfront on Mykonos.  I was excited to check out my surroundings, anxious for my first Greek cocktail, and feeling a little hungry.  I assumed I would have zero options at that hour.  Wrong!!!  All the bars and restaurants stay open super late, and are straight up crack-a-lackin all night long.  Ornos Beach was beautiful and actually ended up being my favorite after I had explored the entire island.  Mykonos beaches are filled with beach clubs that thump music played by world renown DJs from the day to the night to the morning.  It doesn’t stop.  I wouldn’t call this island the most relaxing.  It was party time….all the time.  Ornos Beach was just the right amount of party mixed with the ability to unwind and relax.  I would say it is one of the more quiet beaches on Mykonos.  It is a beach cove lined with amazing restaurants in the sand.  The bars play music here, but they don’t have that beach club vibe that most of the other beaches had in Mykonos.

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Ornos Beach.
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Ornos Beach at sunset.

Scorpios

Being that I enjoyed my first meal and cocktail at 3:00am it was safe to say that I was sleeping in the next morning.  A bit of an understatement as I woke up at 4:00pm panicking that I would miss my sunset table reservation at Scorpios Sunset Party.  Scorpios is said to be one of the best beach clubs in Europe, and I can see why.  This is by far my favorite beach club I have ever been to in my life!  And it is the ONLY place to be on a Sunday.  They throw their weekly sunset party on Sundays, and honestly it is a “must see” when visiting Mykonos.  The music and vibe at this club were so good!  Dress to impress in your sexy beach wear and get ready to see a very beautiful crowd of people.  I danced the night away, which turned into dancing the morning away back at one of the bars in Ornos Beach, and then lead to watching one of the most beautiful sunrises I have seen.  I’m not much of a morning person so this was a huge perk of not being adjusted to the time difference just yet.

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Dancing at Scorpios on Mykonos.
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Perfect seats to say goodbye to the sun before Scorpios turned into a full blown raging dance party.

Lohan Beach House

On day two I slept half the day away, and I rented an ATV to explore the island.  I landed at Lohan Beach House.  Lindsay Lohan went from Hollywood star to Beach Club Owner in Greece.  Talk about reinventing yourself!  This beach club has a sexy boho chic vibe with a great DJ on a beautiful beach.  I want to copy her decorating style and make my home look exactly like her club.  It was beautiful…you go girl!!

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Lohan Beach House.

Mykonos Town

Mykonos Town is filled with all the classic white and blue traditional Greek homes.  Wandering around here truly makes you fall in love with Greece.  It also has tons of shopping, and lots of bars and restaurants.  I visited Mykonos Town once  in the day and once in the night.  Just exploring the streets of Mykonos Town is worth the trip to Greece alone!  While here, you can also check out the Windmills  and Little Venice.  The entire area is pretty small and walkable.  At night you can choose from an array of amazing restaurants (OMG the food in Greece is so good) and do…what else…shake your booty all night long at any one of the fun bars that are everywhere.  I chose to eat a seafood dinner at Nice and Easy Restaurant .  It’s right on the water and the seafood was to die for!!

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Wandering around the streets of Mykonos Town.  Can you imagine this being your front porch?
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Windmils of Mykonos Town.

More beaches to see exploring on a quad.

We wanted to see every square inch of Mykonos, so we rented a quad to do more exploring.  Honestly, this is a “must do” recommendation of mine.  Riding a scooter or quad in Mykonos is extremely common, and it is how most tourists get around on their own.  Of course you can rent a car, take the bus, or call an Uber but I really encourage you to explore on a quad at least for one day…if you are experienced enough to drive one of course.  Most people don’t wear helmets, and although this was a bit scary to me, I went with it.  Not only did I go with it, but I ended up getting comfortable enough to cruise around in a bikini.  LOL.  Driving through the mountains and seeing the most beautiful views of Greece would have been enough of an adventure, but we beach hopped the day away.

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Cruising through the middle of the island on the mountain tops.
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Typical parking lot at Mykonos beach clubs.

Elia Beach:  This is the most beautiful beach on Mykonos (IMO).  It was also the most relaxing on the island.  Definitely the most family friendly as well.  The water was crystal clear!  It was absolute paradise.  There is a restaurant and bar here, so you can post up for the whole day in total relaxation mode.

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Floating in the most beautiful ocean water at Elia Beach.

Psarou Beach:  This beach is where the world famous beach club Nammos is located.  We had planned on spending an entire day here, but the locals talked us out of it.  Although it is the most famous club in Mykonos, it is also crazy expensive.  We were told to expect to spend $1,000 in our afternoon there.  Although an experience to dance on tables, spray champagne on each other, and stare at multi-million dollar yachts sounded amazing…we opted to save our duckets.

Paradise Beach and Super Paradise Beach:  These beaches are right next to each other but are separated.  Seriously, these places were wild.  They had world famous DJ’s thumping the beach while everyone, and I mean everyone, danced their butts off.  I’m sure it has become clear through this blog by now that coming to Mykonos means sleep when your dead!!

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Always a dance party.  Sleep when your dead!!
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Super Paradise Beach.

ON TO THE SECOND LEG TO THE ISLAND OF SANTORINI

We took the ferry from Mykonos to Santorini, which took close to three hours.  The ferry was really nice and fast.  That baby was cookin’, and it was so beautiful to see all the little Greek Islands along the way.

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Catching a ride to the next island, Santorini.

I can’t even put into words (again) how magnificent the views on this island are.  This island is straight up and straight down, but truly the most beautiful views I have ever seen.  Santorini was so different from Mykonos!  It is so incredibly romantic, scenic, and relaxing.  I was ready for this after all that hooting and hollering in Mykonos.

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Twirling on the rooftops of Santorini.
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So romantic in Santorini.

My Stay in Oia

I chose to stay in a traditional cave Airbnb property in Oia.  It is called Armenaki.  It was awesome!  It was a true cave room that had the most postcard worthy view of any other place I have ever stayed in.  A cave room is exactly what it sounds like…a room that’s a cave.  It was sort of a studio tube in the mountain with a bedroom, full kitchen, bathroom, and breathtaking porch.  It was perfect for a couple.  I love staying in hotels, but this Airbnb property was a genuine Greek experience.  Let me just say that this is one of those vacations that I am so thankful I took while I am able and in shape.  The hike up/down from our cave room to town was no joke, and would never work for anyone with any sort of disability, elderly, young children, or someone who isn’t in decent shape.  If you fall into any of these categories, I would suggest staying away from the mountainside properties in Oia, and recommend going to a hotel.

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Eating breakfast on my beautiful porch in Oia, Santorini.  Pinch me!
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Making some coffee in our cave in Oia, Santorini.

Hike Oia to Fira

The hike from Oia to Fira is a must!  You need to be in good shape, but it is just breathtaking!  The hike is around 8 miles (one way).  It is much more challenging from Oia to Fira, as it’s all uphill.  If you were going Fira to Oia, you can count on a pretty easy walk downhill.  I can officially say I sweat out all of those Mykonos toxins on this day.  Ha ha!  But you don’t do this hike for the work out, you do it for the views.  These words come to mind:  grandiose, magnificent, stunning, unbelievable, and scary.  Again, just the most amazing views I have ever seen in my life.  Fira is much more laid back than Oia.  Oia is filled with romantic restaurants, art galleries, and very high end hotels.  Fira is the Capital of Santorini, and has bars, cheaper eats, great souvenir shopping, and cheaper stays.  It is a really great place to stay if you don’t want to pay the Oia prices, but still want to be close by.

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Hiking Oia to Fira.
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The most magnificent views on the hike from Oia to Fira.

Exploring Santorini by road.

Next up was exploring the other side of the island.  We rented an ATV and ventured out to explore.  I wore a helmet everywhere in Santorini.  The roads were nothing like the back road feel of Mykonos, and felt much more like highways.  Although a lot of people went without helmets, I did not feel safe.  You’re welcome mom!  😉

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Exploring the other side of Santorini.

Astarte Suites:  I was invited to stop at the Astarte Suites to have a drink and enjoy the beautiful hotel.  Huge perk to writing a Travel Blog!  I initially wanted to stay at this hotel for my Santorini leg, because it simply looked like the most beautiful hotel on the island from the internet.  I decided to go Airbnb, but if I had chosen a hotel, this would have been my dream place to call home for my time on the island.  It was everything I imagined!!!  It starts off with a stairway to heaven.  It’s true!  These steps have become pretty Instagram famous, and I see the stairway entrance to this hotel everywhere on the internet.  Astarte Suites had a very boutique feel, yet so luxurious and high end.  It was relaxing, while still playing great music that was loud enough to create a vibe, but not too loud to disrupt the peacefulness of the property.  The best part was the most beautiful infinity pool overlooking the ocean.  This is the definition of pool goals!  And of course, the cherry on top was the swan floatie.  You can never go wrong with a swan floatie!

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Stairway to heaven at Astarte Suites.
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You had me at swan floatie!  Pool goals at Astarte Suites.

Red Beach: The road to Red Beach feels like you are headed to no where.  If you feel like you are lost the entire time, you are on the right path to Red Beach.  After questioning our directions for quite a while, we decided to ask Siri for help.  Believe it or not, she got us there.  This is an absolutely beautiful beach with red rock and sand.  It has a restaurant and bar too, so you can post up.

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Surprisingly on the right path to Red Beach.

Parissa Beach: This is a very laid back beach lined with restaurants.  Most of the restaurants own umbrellas on the beach in front of their places.  After a meal, they will set you up with an umbrella and chairs, and serve you drinks in the sand.

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Parissa Beach, Santorini.

Exploring Santorini by sea

OOOOMMMMGGGG!!  Exploring Santorini by sea was my favorite day of the entire Greece trip!  It was the one thing I wanted to do that was somewhat of an “excursion”.  The problem (which is always the problem) was that my husband hates group activities.  So that leaves us always having to do days like this privately which is usually four times the cost.  We knew we wanted to rent a boat without a captain.  A boat in Santorini without a captain is so over the top expensive.  So I found the absolute cheapest option possible.  I kid you not, this boat looked like a big dingy with a motor.  It was a total piece of crap.  Piece of crap that cost $400 for the day!  But it didn’t matter.  It was all ours for the entire day to explore the beautiful ocean around Santorini.  Old Betsy did the job, and we had the most amazing day!  Having the freedom to explore at our own pace was the best.  We swam in caves, bobbled in the water at the volcano eating cheese and drinking wine, went to lunch at a private beach club that you can only get to by boat, and watched the sunset before heading back to the marina.  It was a full day at sea, and we swam in the ocean all day long.

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Looking for our cave room from below.
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I swam in the warm waters ALL DAY LONG.  Paradise!

THIRD LEG IN ATHENS

The ferry ride from Santorini to Athens is about 5 hours.  We opted for first class, which is not much more, but it was very nice to have a bit more plush of a ride for that length of time.  As we arrived at our Airbnb by cab we unloaded our bags to the sidewalk.  We couldn’t locate the apartment right away, and apparently weren’t paying enough attention, because bam….we got robbed.  Our backpack was plucked within minutes out of our pile of stuff sitting right next to us.  This bag had our computer, Ipad, credit cards, batteries, money, and worst of all, our passports.  What do you do when you loose your passports and you are out of the country?

Step 1 – Call your parents for advice.  LOL.

Step 2 – File a police report so that you have proof of your loss and you can hopefully make a claim through your insurance back at home.

Step 3 – Head down to the US Embassy to have emergency passports issued.

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Anything for a photo shoot!  LOL.  New Passport photos!
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Proud to be an American in a sticky situation.  The Embassy treated us like gold!

We only had three days in Athens and one of them was now designated to spending it at the Embassy.  I was really thankful this happened at the end of our trip!  This was completely our fault and we know better!  We consider ourselves to be very aware travelers but this goes to show you, anything can happen.  Lesson learned…never again!  On a more positive note, the US Embassy treated us like gold.  I have to say, in a bad situation such as this, it felt pretty good to be an American.

Enjoying our final days in Greece

Athens is an absolutely beautiful city!  Our Airbnb property was a penthouse apartment with a view of the Acropolis. This was the cheapest leg of the trip, and I got this penthouse for just over $100 per night.  So cool to sit out on our patio enjoying some wine while staring at this beautiful site.  Right below our apartment, the streets were lined with little alleyways of great bars, coffee shops, and shopping.  We loved roaming around this area and getting lost in these alleys.  Besides getting our bag stolen upon arrival, I never felt unsafe here.  We roamed around into the wee hours of the night, and I never felt threatened.

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Drinking wine on my patio. What a beautiful front row seat to the Acropolis!

With one day left to spare, we decided to head up to the Mont Parnes Casino  on the recommendation of my aunt.  I had planned to spend an entire day at the Acropolis, but we decided to sacrifice that day for the day spent at the Embassy, since we were able to stare at the Acropolis from our balcony.  So we headed to the Casino to see if we could get a stroke of good luck.  The gondola ride up to this casino was a bit scary, but wow what a view!  Athens is huge, and we got a bird’s eye view of just how big the city really is.  Once up there, we didn’t hit it big, but we ended up winning a couple hundred bucks to pay for our day of fun.  It felt good!  We finished our trip off with a huge shared plate of seafood spaghetti at the harbor in Athens.  We cheersed a lot to how every moment of this trip was different.  Opa!  As always, I was feeling like I wanted a couple more days to spend here.  This truly was the trip of a lifetime.  Check off number two on the Bucket List for Jessica Lynn!!

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Gondola ride up to the Mont Parnes Casino in Athens.
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Enjoying a huge shared plate of seafood spaghetti at the Athens harbor.  Final meal in Greece!

Panama City, Panama: Old World Charm Meets Modern Day.

I flew into Panama City on a red eye and was lucky to be picked up by business associates of my husband, who gave us a tour of the city.  I learned a lot in those three hours along with having the best empanada of my life.  Street food is safe to eat in Panama, and delicious!  There are also fresh juice stands which are quite common and so refreshing.  I had two large fresh juices, which didn’t quite sit well with my three hour car ride.  Best to always have quaters on you in Panama City as the bathrooms are public, but cost 25 cents.  I learned interesting facts along this tour, such as the tap water is safe to drink, everything is negotiable in Panama (even the high end retail stores), and I got a detailed explanation of the definition of a Push Button”.  A “Push Button” in Panama is a very private motel (aka a love motel).  Complete discretion and privacy is the main goal of these establishments.  They are called “Push Button” because typically you can pull up to a window, push a button, slide some money through a slot, get a key, and head to a room all without actually seeing a person.  Being that prositution is legal in Panama, I’m sure these motels come in quite handy for those in need of privacy.  This was personally not the most useful information to me, however it made for a very comical conversation.  Our final stop along the tour was at the Fish Market for some ridiculously delicous, fresh, and cheap ceviche.  After a red eye flight and a three hour tour, I was ready to relax at my hotel.

I decided to stay in the Casco Viejo area of Panama City.  Casco Viejo (Spanish for Old Quarter) is the historic district of Panama City.  It was built following the near total destruction of the original Panama City, which was attackeed by pirates in 1671.  I guess you can say it is the new old Panama City.  After reading blog after blog about how this neighborhood is the hip and trendy area of the city, it sounded like a good fit.  In the Casco Viejo neighborhood, you will find a huge difference from the chaotic metropolis of Panama City.  This area is filled with old world charm of Spanish colonial buildings, boutique hotels, rooftop bars, and amazing restaurants.  You won’t find any chain hotels or restaurants here.  Everything is mom and pop.

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Chasing sunsets on the rooftops of Casco Viejo.
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Casco Viejo at night.
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Panama City metropolis vs Casco Veijo neighborhood.

I booked a room at the absolutely stunning American Trade Hotel.  It is located in the heart of Casco Viejo, and everything you would want to see in this area is within walking distance.  This hotel is the epitome of mixing old world charm with modern day luxury.  This is one of the only hotels in the area with a pool.  Let me tell you…it is necessary.  Panama is hot and humid and I did not accomplish to have even one good hair day during my stay.  Back to the hotel….Did I mention it was stunning?  From the beautiful balcony room, food, ambiance, location, pool, grounds, service, adjacent jazz club, bar….I could go on and on.  I spent a lot of time at the hotel on this trip, and it truly made my vacation unforgettable.

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Old world charm meets modern day luxury in the lobby of the American Trade Hotel.
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Having some vino on my beautiful balcony.
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American Trade Hotel.
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Headed in fors some smokey scotch, cigar, and smooth jazz at Danilo Perez’s Jazz Club, which is part of the American Trade Hotel.

The food in Panama was phenomenal!  I love to eat, and some of the dishes I had here completely blew my mind….dishes I had never heard of or tasted before.  The cocktails are also superb.  Rum is Panama’s alcohol of choice, however those that read my blogs know that I am a spicey margarita kind of gal.  Panama did not dissapoint!  Every cocktail I had was fresh squeezed and delicious.  As you take the first sip of these drinks, you already want a second one.

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Enjoying some fresh squeezed spicey margaritas at the rooftop bar Casa Casco.

I was only in Panama City for six days.  I can officially say that I ate and drank my way through Casco Viejo.  My favorite dining experience for traditional Panamanian food was Diablicos.  They put on a show while you eat, and it was very lively and fun.  It is located directly in front of the President’s Palace, so you get to check that out during your walk to/from.  My favorite Rooftop Bar?  Well, I have two!  Casa Casco, which is directly across the street from the American Trade Hotel is a super chill spot with great drinks and postcard perfect views of Panama City.  If you want a more lively rooftop scene, the best place to go (hands down) is the Tantalo.  It is the closest you will get to a nightclub experience in this area.  It is all outdoor on the rooftop with great music to dance to and a VIP area.  BTW, the restaurant at this hotel is also amazing!  I had my favorite meal of the trip at the Tantalo Kitchen.  It was a clay pot of tamale mash on top of a bed of slow roasted pork.  YUMMMY!

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Eating traditional Panamania food and enjoying the show at Diablicos.
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Tantalo Rooftop Bar at night.

Ok, I think I have beaten in how great the food and cocktails were in this old world Spanish neighborhood.  On to the Panama Canal!  If you go to Panama City, you simply can’t miss out on visiting the Panama Canal.  It is the number one visited site in Panama.  The Panama Canal is a waterway that has created a shotcut between the Pacific and the Atlantic Oceans.  It takes ships on average 8-10 hours to travel the Panama Canal. This compares to 2 weeks if a ship tried to bypass the canal and travel around South America.  The best place near Panama City to see the ships go through the lock system is Miraflores Visitor Center.  The viewing center is directly in front of the locks, so you get a front row seat to watching these huge ships pass through.  They also have a restaurant buffet where you can eat lunch and have wine while taking in all the action.  You can visit the museum and watch a film in both Spanish and English about the history of the Panama Canal.  The best time to visit the Panama Canal changes daily, depending on when ships are scheduled to go through.

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Having a Titanic moment…waving hello and goodbye to ships passing through the Panama Canal.
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When you look at the Panama Canal on a map you can see why they chose this location to create this shortcut.

With one day left to spare, and being so close to so many beautiful islands, I decided it was time for a change of scenery.  I got up at 6:00am to catch a 1.5 hour ferry ride to Contadora Island.  I felt like I had been trasported to another world!  It was a small and jungly island with beauiful white sand beaches and crystal clear waters.  I purchased a day pass from the Mar y Oro Hotel which included lunch, two welcome drinks, and umbrella/chairs on the beach.  It was absolute paradise, and a really relaxing ending to my trip!  If I had one more day (which I always wish I did on vacay), I would have most definitley visited the San Blas Islands.  Here you can rent private cabannas to spend the night in paradise.  The cabannas don’t have much to them. They have no electicity and sand bottom floors.  But who cares, because you can almost have the entire island to yourself for the night.  Although still in Panama, these islands belong to the Kuna Indians  On this excursion you can snorkel with star fish, and see how these indiginous people live.  It wasn’t so bad leaving something behind that I was desperate to do and see because now I am anxious to go back.  Until next time Panama!!

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Mar y Oro Hotel on Contadora Island.
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Beautiful Caribbean Ocean of Contadora Island, Panama.
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Contadora Island is a mix of jungle and beach.
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Until next time Panama!

Seoul, South Korea: A Quick Trip Of Business Mixed With Pleasure.

My trip to Seoul, South Korea was a quick one.  I had three nights and four full days to explore this beautiful city.  Surprisingly, I left feeling like I knew it pretty well.  Let me just say that nothing pleases me more than beginning a trip that is far away with a red eye direct flight.  A lot of people can’t sleep on planes….I am not one of them.  I flew Korean Air and it was totally awesome.  The economy seats are so roomy and recline so much more than your average seat.  So comfortable!  I flew out of San Francisco at midnight, slept a solid nine hours, and arrived in South Korea very early in the morning.  I felt so rested.  I checked into the hotel, showered, and was immediately ready to begin exploring the Capital of South Korea!

What to pack?

I am from California, and women here tend to dress a bit on the sexy and casual side.  I always research “proper attire” to wear before visiting a new country.  What I found was Koreans cover up below their collar bone and their shoulders.  It is ok to show your legs but your shoulders and chest should be covered.  No cleavage.  This is what is respectful to them.  They dress to impress!  I loved reading this and it was true.  No flip flops and sweats.  Everyone dresses to impress from sunrise to sunrise.  Many of my photos on this trip seem to be breaking the rules.  I packed additional outfits for photos or always had a sweater on me to cover up.  I assure you guys, I followed the rules.  Always good to be respectful when you are in another country.

What Neighborhood To Choose??

When you look at Seoul on a map, it is overwhelming to decide which area to stay in.  It’s a huge city!  I began to research “best neighborhoods to visit in Seoul”.  What I found was a wide array of diverse neighborhoods offering everything from culture, history, shopping, food, and nightlife.  I visited five different areas of the city in my four days spent here.  I decided to book my hotel in the area of Itaewon.  After visiting the different neighborhoods, I felt really happy that I chose this because it ended up being my favorite district.  I decided on the Imperial Palace Boutique Hotel.  I didn’t plan on staying at the hotel much, so I really wanted something inexpensive.  The standards are so much higher in Seoul.  If it says three stars, I can vouch that it is more like 4 compared to USA standards.  I paid $88 per night for this room and the hotel was perfect!  The ambiance and decor were very modern.  The room was nice and the price was right.  Yet what I found to be the best part was the location.  It was located in the heart of Itaewon!

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Imperial Palace Boutique Hotel.
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Matching the lobby at Imperial Palace Boutique Hotel.
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How cute is all the decor at Imperial Palace Boutique Hotel?

 

Right outside the hotel door were so many restaurants, bars, cafes, and nightclubs.  Everything is walkable in this area, and having a car is just not necessary.  It was the perfect area to be in after a day of sightseeing.  It was lively and busy, yet somewhat smaller than the other areas I visited.  It was difficult to get lost. Coming from someone who tends to loose direction in unknown places, this was a plus!  This area felt very safe and I did not feel scared to walk around everywhere until the wee hours of the night.  The Hamilton Hotel is also located in Itaewon, and the alley that is located behind it is filled with international cuisine.  It has everything….Greek, Italian, Mexican, Thai, Japanese, Pizza, and so on.  In my opinion, the Korean food was the best.  My favorite dinner in Itaweon at the Maple Tree House Restaurant, which served traditional Korean BBQ.  Yummy!  I also loved Thai Licious for when I wanted a break from traditional Korean food.  The soup was seriously to die for!  To be honest, I never had a bad meal in Seoul.  I ate from hole in the walls to fine dining, and everything was delicious.  The area of Itaewon is also filled with nightlife.  This is one of the main reasons I actually chose it.  I always like to choose my hotel in an area where I will like to end up spending my time at night.  It really felt as though Seoul didn’t sleep.  These nightclubs were thumping all night long and the streets were filled with party-goers.  I only made it until 4:00am (one night), and I was blown away at how alive the city is until then.  Even older people are out all night long.

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One of my favorite restaurants in Itaewon!  Thai Licious.  I am in absolute heaven in this photo!!

 

Other Areas To Visit:

Day 1:

This trip was a business trip that I tagged along on.  The first day was spent in Jongno District.  This area has been the center of the city for over 600 years, and it is referred to as the face and heart of Korea, due to its important roles in politics, economics, culture, and history.  The South Korean’s president resides here.  I spent the day tagging along doing banking and hanging out in government buildings.  Let me just say, it was a bit of an adjustment navigating around a city that doesn’t speak any English.  Google Translator is an absolute must when traveling to Seoul.  I wouldn’t have gotten anywhere without it.  It was cool to trek around this area but I was eager to explore more.  The first evening was back at home in Itaewon for dinner and an early bed time.  I was still a bit tired from traveling.

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Can I please get some major respect for the soups that Koreans prepare?  So yummy!
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Ha ha…trying to find our way around to find specific offices in banks and govt. buildings.  Thank goodness for Google Translator!

 

Day 2:

The “work” portion of the trip wasn’t done, and I really didn’t feel like spending another day in banks.  I headed off to explore the city….all by myself.  When I say this city is safe, I mean really safe.  I felt completely comfortable exploring on my own.  The most difficult thing was communication.  So, I jumped in a cab with my camera, tripod, Google Translator App, and set off to explore a beautiful palace called Gyeongbokgung Palace.  It was built in 1635, and is the largest of the five Grande Palaces.  It was huge!  Once upon a time it had more than 7,000 rooms.  It was really cool to wander around this large property.  So many visitors were dressed up to the nines in traditional Korean attire.  I loved roaming around and people watching.

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Entrance to Gyeongbokgung Palace.
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Just me and my tripod exploring away.
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I just loved people watching!  So many people were so fancy in their Korean attire.

From there, I got back in a taxi to visit Bukchon Hanok Village.  This was probably one of my favorite stops in seeing sights!  It is a traditional Korean village, and sits on top of a hill.  It has a beautiful view of modern Seoul, yet feels so peaceful and quiet even though you are right next to the hustle and bustle.

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Roaming around Bukchon Hanok Village.
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If I lived in Seoul, this would be my porch.  I loved this neighborhood, and would call this area home above everything I saw!

After two stops, I was getting hungry, so I headed over to the Myeongdong area for lunch.  This area is a huge shopping district.  Myeongdong was listed as the 9th most expensive shopping street in the world.  The streets and alleys seemed endless, and ranged from mid to high priced retail stores.  It is also filled with cosmetic shops.  Korea is huge for beauty and skin care products.  The one thing I loaded up on while shopping here was face masks.  So many to choose from!  I had lunch here and ate…what else??…Korean BBQ!  I wish I knew the name of the place because it was so good!  The truth is that it was a tiny hole in the wall down a random alley that lured me in with it’s loud Bob Marley tunes.  Ha ha!  I’m always a sucker for reggae music!  The plus was my babe was done with work and we got to eat lunch together.

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Shopping in Myeongdong.
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Korean BBQ lunch in Meongdong.

With a full belly, it was time to head back home to Itaewon.  I had this brilliant idea to take the subway.  I had read that the subway in South Korea was so easy and not intimidating at all.  Well, what a sh*t show that ended up being for a first timer!  I believe the subway is most likely not intimidating for those that can read and speak the Korean language.  For those who don’t know the Korean alphabet, the language is incredibly intimidating.  I tried the entire trip to master “please” and “thank you” with no success.  Needless to say I got completely lost on the subway.  Luckily we found the nicest man who spoke English and got us home.  Always ask for directions.  As long as you are kind to people, they are mostly likely kind in return.  BTW, I feel like I would be way better at the subway on my second try.  Just saying.

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LOL!  Sure…this doesn’t look intimidating at all.

 

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The nicest man who got us all the way home to Itaewon.

 

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Happy girl because we got directions to the correct way home.

 

We headed home to rest up, as we wanted to enjoy the Itaewon nightlife this evening.  It was so much fun!  This area comes alive at night.  There were soooooo many nightclubs and bars to choose from to do some hard core booty shaking all night long.  What a blast!  My favorite nightclub was Club Compton.  Ha ha!  You could hookah and listen to good hip hop that reminded me of home.  Most places that I went to played all American music.

Day 3:

Today I got to spend the entire day sightseeing with my babe.  He was stuck on exercising, and I was stuck on sightseeing.  We decided to head up to the Namsan Seoul Tower.  This a a place that is very special for couples, as you can lock a padlock of love onto the railing that overlooks the most beautiful view of Seoul  It is actually the second highest view in Seoul!  We got dropped off in a cab at the bottom of the hill.  You have to walk literally straight up for about 20 mins to get to the tower.  Exercise mixed with sightseeing.  Winning!  We had purchased a lock from a hardware store before heading up, but found there were stores selling them near the tower.  Once at the top, you can eat, have cocktails, and soak in the most incredible views.  After a little vino, we locked our love in at the Namsan Seoul Tower.  It was super cute and romantic….an absolute must for couples or those who love photography.  Definitely my favorite thing I did in Seoul!!!

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Locking in our love at Namsan Seoul Tower.
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I hope to come back one day and find our lock of love!  How cool!?
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The most romantic thing we did the entire trip.

For our last night out, we decided to go to the Hongdae District.  This is the University area of Seoul.  The nightlife here was crazy…in a good way!  So many bars and nightclubs filled with college students partying the night away.  It was like Itaewon, but felt 20 times as big.  With all of this crazy nightlife, I never once saw anyone out of control.  No one was acting stupid or overly drunk.  Just such a good vibe everywhere you go.  This was the night I stayed out until 4:00am, and you would have thought the night was just getting started when I headed back to the hotel for bed.  People were still standing in line at 4:00am to get into clubs and the streets were absolutely packed!  We ended our night (or began our morning I should say) with eating pizza with two Korean guys at 4:00am.  We got lucky…they spoke English!  They were so cool and it was an awesome ending to our trip to have a meal with locals….at 4:00am.  LOL

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Party time in Hongdae District!
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The ending to our trip…eating pizza at 4:00am with two Korean guys who spoke English and were so cool!  What an ending!!!

Being I went to bed so late, I spent the final day sleeping and relaxing until it was time to go to the airport.  I was fine with wasting the last day in bed, because partying in Seoul at night was just as much of an experience as seeing it in the day.

All in all, my write up of Seoul is that it is a clean, safe, beautiful, modern city that doesn’t sleep.  Oh, and has amazing food, shopping, nightlife, and sweet people!  I am always so focused on being next to a beach when I travel,  that it really surprised me how much I enjoyed a “city” vacation.  Two thumbs up!

 

 

Joshua Tree Oasis: Get Wanderfully Lost.

It’s that time of year again.  Time to celebrate my anniversary with my hubby!  We get to travel out of the country and stay in hotels for most of our trips so I always try to plan something “different” to celebrate this with him.  It was going to be difficult to compete with last year’s anniversary trip to Havasupai .  This year I decided on Joshua Tree.  Joshua Tree is located in Southern California and is where the Mojave and Colorado deserts meet.  The desert setting is gorgeous!  Joshua Tree is well known for camping, music festivals, and getting in touch with one’s “real” self.  For this trip, I wanted to sit back and relax and enjoy the pretty scenery.  I wanted to hole up…have a staycation!  I always plan our trips with my husband’s opinion in mind.  I know what he likes and doesn’t.  For the most part though, my husband goes with the flow of whatever I choose.  His mama didn’t raise no fool!

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Ha ha…truth! No, joking aside, I really do plan my trips with what I think will make my husband happy.

I turned to VRBO and Airbnb to look for the perfect place and stumbled upon Joshua Tree Oasis.  It looked perfect by the photos.  It was a bit higher than I wanted to spend, but we weren’t going to be going out and spending any money on wining and dining.  We were going to hole up and cook at home.  Taking that into consideration, it definitely penciled out and we were able to splurge a bit on the accommodations.  This has turned out to be my favorite VRBO/Airbnb yet.  I loved it so much, I wrote a blog on it!

Joshua Tree was about a 10 hour drive from our house.  We stocked up on very gourmet goods to cook our meals, including all the ingredients to make some amazing cocktails.  We also picked up a ton of wood for the outdoor fire pit on the property.  It felt like we were going camping.  We pulled up to our private gate and entered the property.  It was so much more than I expected!  The house was decorated to the nines, we had views from every room, the kitchen was well stocked, we had a bumping sound system that went through the entire property, and the best part was there was not another soul in site.  We literally had this huge slice of earth all to ourselves (except for the coyotes who kept photobombing me).  We had complete privacy for the next five days.  It was perfect for an anniversary trip!  This place was a two bed/two bath with an in law unit with another bed/bath.  We loved it to enjoy as a couple, but you could fit a large family or three couples perfectly.

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I can’t believe I didn’t get the coyote in the background. It was running behind me trying to photobomb me! LOL

The first morning we woke up with bacon jalapeño bloody mary’s in hand and jumped right in the hot tub (bathing suits optional!).  We spent the day doing all there was to do on the property.  Hot tub, cowboy tub (which was very refreshing), horse shoes, more eating and drinking, bbqing, napping, repeat, and finished the night off with a gourmet meal and a campfire.

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Bacon jalapeno bloody marry in hand to enjoy my first morning in the desert.
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This view though…just perfect
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Refreshing Cowboy Tub
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Horseshoes anyone??

This property is also located about five minutes from the Joshua Tree National Park entrance.  The second day we explored the park, saw all the sites there were to see, scouted our favorite campground for the next trip, and hiked the day away.  Cholla Cactus Garden and Skull Rock were fun and perfect photo ops.  The park is huge and there is so much to explore!

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Joshua Trees all around me.

There isn’t much to the actual “town” of Joshua Tree.  This property is just a short five minute drive down the hill to the town but there really isn’t much to see.  We did stumble on a fun saloon called Joshua Tree Saloon (of all unique names).  It was super fun!  They had live music, karaoke, pool, darts, and a beer garden.  Being the incredibly brilliant young lady that I am, I wore the highest heels I own to enjoy this beer garden.  Always trying to look my cutest for my man!  Well, I then returned home to my desert property only to walk through a cactus garden in those five inch heels.  Low and behold, I ate it hard and took a fall straight into a cactus (hands first).  No matter how much I enjoyed that beer garden, it couldn’t numb me enough for the pain of diving hands first into a cactus.  That ish hurt!  My husband had to sit me down and pull out the needles, one by one.  I may have shed a tear or two…and maybe had a shot of tequila or two.  Maybe.  I actually had needles deep in my hand for over a month after this trip.  Very wise advise to share with you guys…don’t wear your high heels to enjoy a beer garden and follow it up with a walk through a cactus garden.  Cactus 1, Jessica 0.  I still love the desert though!

Belize: You Betta Belize It!

Jungle or Beach???  Why not both??

Belize is located in Central America.  It is a tiny country on the western edge of the Caribbean Sea.  Belize is located below Mexico, east of Guatemala, and north of Honduras.  Half of Belize is covered by dense jungle.  Belize also has many coral reefs, cayes, and islands in the Caribbean Sea.  Most of these form the Belize Barrier Reef, the longest in the Western Hemisphere.

When I first began planning my trip to Belize, I read that most first timers break up their trip between the jungle and the beach.  I’m very glad I listened to these reviews!  Fast forward through an 8 hour plane ride and a 2 hour drive into the jungle and I landed in the middle of the Belize rainforest in a city called Belmopan.   I chose Sleeping Giant Rainforest Lodge to call home for this leg of the trip.  It was a larger lodge in comparison to others in the area with 25 rooms and casitas, pool, bar, and a restaurant where you eat every meal.

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Sleeping Giant Rainforest Lodge

I’m typically a beach baby and was nervous about spending time in the remote jungle.  Would it be boring?  It was a bit of an adjustment upon arrival….no TV, no internet, and no phone in the room.  I’ve never been on a trip where I was forced to completely disconnect.  I gulped down my rum welcome cocktail and went to unpack.  Now what?  That first night I explored the grounds, ate ridiculously amazing food, and closed down the lodge bar.  The next four days were filled with adventure, mind blowing food and cocktails (all made fresh), and forced restful recharge.

My activities included a hike through the thick jungle, a bike ride to the orange orchards, paddle boarding on the river, relaxing by the pool, a massage on the river, and a full day of adventure exploring the famous ATM Cave of Belize.  ATM stands for Actun Tunichil Muknal.  The ATM Cave was the top rated tour to do for adventure and it did not disappoint.  I hired a private guide for this tour which I highly recommend.  If you can’t swing private, definitely ask how many people will be on the tour with you and go with a smaller group.  I saw large tours with 10 people going through in a line.  They just weren’t getting that much attention from their guide.  If you are 10th in the line, how can you learn anything from your guide who is leading?  Plus, I had very heightened nerves on this tour.  Being the 10th person in line of a tour would have been terrifying (for me).  Our guide led us through 6 miles of adventure.  We crossed the river (neck deep) six times, hiked, and explored the ATM Cave which you have to swim into.  Once in, you climb and swim your way through two miles of total darkness with only a headlamp for sight.  I literally had a minor panic attack going on for about three hours.  But just like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, the only way out was through.  It was pretty amazing learning about the Mayan people and what this cave meant to them.  We came across many artifacts and skeletons that were human sacrifices to the gods.  Our guide was Gonzo from River Rat Expeditions.  He was so knowledgeable and actually spends about three months per year living in these Belize caves doing research.  He took his time educating and calming my nerves all the way through.  Once out of the cave, I was on an adrenaline high.  I was so proud I finished but I’m in no rush to do it again.  Ha ha.

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Vino break in the orange orchards.
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Paddle boarding on the river.
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Pool time!
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Just completed the six miles of adventure exploring the ATM Cave.

For beginning my adventure in the jungle with the question of “will I be bored here?”, I actually began to freak out by day three that I wouldn’t fit in all there was to see.  I fell in love with the jungle!  I’m usually pretty attached to my phone and staying in touch with my family.  For this leg, I had to forget about all of that and it was all about exploring and recharging.

Once my stay at the jungle lodge had come to an end, I was ready to put my toes in the sand and have more than one dining option.  Five days in the jungle was perfecto but now it was on to the beach for another nine days.  I decided on Ambergris Caye.  It is the largest Caye (island) of Belize.  From the jungle, it was a 2 hour drive to the ferry station and a 1.5 hour boat ride to Ambergris Caye.  I chose Captain Morgan’s Retreat as my hotel on Ambergris Caye for the sole reason that they had true beach huts in the sand for much cheaper than your average hotel room.  However, we were still part of a huge resort with all the amenities including the only Casino on the island.

OOOOHHHEEEMMMGGGEEE!!!  Opening my porch door and stepping into the sand was truly paradise.  When I arrived I was warned how bad the bugs were from another guest.  He told me to soak myself in bug spray every day.  After four days of literally getting eaten alive, I accidentally forgot my bug spray and didn’t get any bites.  I ditched the spray and never had a problem again.  Thanks for that sweet advice bro!

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Relaxing under a palm tree off of my beach hut porch on Ambergris Caye.

The  coolest thing about Ambergris Caye is that there are very few cars and the mode of transportation is by golf cart equipped with off road tires.  Oh hells ya!  Look out for me!  I drove that golf cart up and down and back and forth.  We mostly only ate breakfast at our resort and spent the rest of the days beach and bar hopping our way around.  Ambergris Caye is so lively!  Whether you are eating pizza or the abundant fresh sea food they have to offer, it was always a party.  Live music was everywhere.  My favorite drive was a 40 minute golf cart ride to Secret Beach.  It was a bumpy adventure through the center of the island to a beautiful beach with food and music.  A must see (or drive) while on Ambergris Caye.

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Beep beep!
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Beach bar hopping.

Belize is famous for it’s ocean life.  I’m sadly too big of a wimp to dive but the snorkeling was the best I have ever seen with my own eyes.  Belize has the second largest coral reef system in the world, with Australia’s Great Barrier Reef being the largest.  If you like diving and snorkeling this is truly a wonderland, or wonderwater I guess.  Our captain took us to Hol Chan Marine Reserve .  As soon as you get in the water there are a gazillion fish around you.  I saw huge spotted eagle rays, eels, large puffer fish, endless schools, oh ya….and sharks!  Our second stop that our captain took us to was Shark Ray Alley where he chummed for sharks to come right up to the boat.  My crazy husband jumped into the water to swim with them.  I volunteered to be his photographer from inside the boat.  😉  The day was perfect.  I wish I had spent more time exploring the reef of Belize because (not to be lame) it was magical.

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Well after exploring every nook and cranny of Ambergris Caye, pigging out at all the fresh seafood restaurants, bar hopping to every bar, and hearing every live band on the island, I jumped on the ferry to explore the sister island of Ambergris Caye….Caye Caulker.  It’s a 30 minute hop to this tiny island that has a super laid back vibe.  There were a lot of backpackers and simple people who love to party.  If you bring more than a bathing suit, cover up, and flip flops to this island, you have over packed.  You walk everywhere on Caye Caulker and I spent most of the day at a place called the Split.  A hurricane split this island in half and they turned it into the largest place to party with a picture perfect setting.  They have a bar there called the Lazy Lizard that has everything from hot bodies to grannies with fanny packs twerking and taking shots.  I took the last ferry ride home to Ambergris Caye which was a very fun ride home at night. I wished I packed a backpack and stayed overnight.  One more day would have been fun to run back into the friends I made there in such a short time.

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The “Split” on Caye Caulker.
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Swinging away at Caye Caulker.

One last day on Ambergris Caye to stuff my face with fresh seafood, drink too many fresh squeezed margaritas (the ice was safe and I didn’t get sick once), and listen to one last performance of live reggae music (my favorite).  The people of Belize are so incredibly friendly and I always felt safe day and night.  Belize was a great trip and mixing in the jungle with the beach was a twist I enjoyed more than I realized I would.  I also brought home five dread locks!  Lol.

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Italy For A Month: How To Plan From Scratch.

So, let’s start from the very beginning…straight-up from scratch.  Probably the most common question that I am asked is how I plan my trips on my own.  Where do I start? Well it usually involves me staring at the computer scratching my head with a glass (ok a bottle) of vino in hand.  And little by little my trips take form.  I will write multiple blogs from this 30 day trip to Italy but for this blog, I’m going start with how to plan it.  I did all of this planning on my own and felt so overwhelmed when I started.  This is a blog on how my Italy trip came to life.

bikini

I rarely take big trips in the summer.  I always get my big break right after Christmas.  I’m running out of new places on my Bucket List to explore in a bikini at Christmas, so this year I opted for a summer vacation.  I chose Italy.   I didn’t know where the heck to start as I really had never vacationed there.  I went about 20 years ago but I just drove across the boarder and ate lunch.  Doesn’t count.  As always, I was on a budget for this trip and I knew one month in Italy isn’t cheap.  Hotels were out!  I went VRBO and Airbnb all the way through and kept my budget at $200 per night.  If you haven’t traveled through these two sites, you are missing out.  Click on this link to join for free and get a credit for your first reservation:  Airbnb They are awesome!

drinks on plane

I was traveling with my husband and two children (ages 8 and 3).  I knew it would be nice (and less expensive) for us to have a kitchen and cook at our rental vs. being in a hotel and having to order room service for every meal. When I’m vacationing, I’m usually planning my next trip so the more I save from one trip is more I bank for the next.  Also, hotels in Italy don’t work like they do in the USA.  In the states you can get a “double” room and have two double/queen beds.  It is easy to stay with two small children in one room with that bed setup.  In Italy, a “double” room means two twin beds.  If you have four people, you need to upgrade to a suite and I quickly found that my budget of $200 per night in the areas I wanted was simply not going to fly.  VRBO and Airbnb was the answer for me!

Step 1:  Plan your route.  When you think of Italy, what do YOU want to see?  Me personally… Venice, Rome, and Positano were at the top of my list.  Then I thought, I’m going to fly all that way and when will I get to Italy again?  Maybe I can do one extra week and see more?   I decided on 30 days to explore but you can do this in three weeks if you are ambitious or just choose a few places and go for two weeks.  There is SO much to see in Italy.  So much history  that you feel guilty sleeping in.  You have to go, go, go, so you don’t miss a thing.  I booked a longer trip to really work in relaxing too.  I wanted one day to explore for every one day of relaxing.

When traveling through Italy it is best to go top to bottom or bottom to top.

map of italy

I decided to go top to bottom because I knew this would be a busy trip and I wanted to finish it off on the beach relaxing on the Amalfi Coast.

Step 2:  Once you have an idea of your route, you have to check flights to make sure they will work with your itinerary.  At the time of my planning, AirBerlin was the cheapest ticket from San Francisco to Italy.  They were actually $500 cheaper per ticket which is a lot when traveling with four people.  I later found we paid the price for that cheap ticket but we will get into that later.  AirBerlin flew into Milan (top of map) and they flew out of Naples (bottom of the map).  The flight out of Naples only went on one day per week so I had to plan for that. Once I figured out what my flights were I broke the trip apart leg by leg.  I decided on this route:

Lake Como: 5 nights/ Venice: 4 nights/ Florence: 5 nights/ Cinque Terre: 6 nights/ Rome: 4 nights/ Amalfi Coast: 6 nights.  One month in Italy!!

Step 3:  Find the VRBO/Airbnb to stay at sticking to my budget of $200 per night.  This was the fun part to me.  How did I choose which places to stay at?  I read review after review on the the VRBO/Airbnb sites….like hundreds of reviews.  I hate the reviews that say “it was a nice place…I highly recommend!”.  Ok well thanks for those riveting details but you didn’t say crap about the property.  I want to know things.  How far to restaurants and bars?  Do you need a car?  How does “this” area compare to “that” area?  I want details people!  If I can’t find exact answers to my questions through the reviews on VRBO/Airbnb, I usually Google the exact question I have with the word “Tripadvisor” after the question.  If I’m between two areas to stay,  I will Google “Positano vs Amalfi, which is better? Tripadvisor”    Most of the answers to my questions come right up on Tripadvisor which is where I read hundreds more reviews.  Tripadvisor, Oh How I love Thee!  None of my trips would come to life with out the reviews on this site.

Step 4:  Plan transportation.  I did not want to rent a car in Italy.  Many people do and give reviews about their days explored with the freedom of their own schedule in their own car.  Not for me.  First off, the roads are pretty wicked in Italy.  I consider myself to be a very bad driver on the safe roads in California.  We are talking about a girl that totaled her car 3 times during her 16th year of life!  Oopsie!  So, driving on these winding roads that seem like they have one lane, honking as you approach a sharp turn to warn oncoming traffic that you can’t see.  Hmmm, yes I don’t think this blog would have ever come to life because I probably would have died attempting to drive these roads. Another reason?  When I travel, I tend to eat and drink my way through for most of my entertainment.  I wanted the freedom to indulge in lots of great food accompanied but lots of great vino.

I chose all accommodations to be in the heart of the action in each destination so that I could walk everywhere or take a cheap cab ride.  To get through the country we rode the Trentitalia train.  One month of traveling through Italy on this train cost me less than the cabs to/from the airport.  The train system is so easy, so affordable, so comfortable, so reliable, and such a nice way to travel!  You get to see the country as you travel through which was just lovely.  Each ride was only about two hours with the exception of one four hour train ride.  Tip:  Get to the station early to buy some snacks and wine.  More important tip: Have all the electronics charged for the littles so that you can enjoy those snacks and wine while riding in style.

train
Training to Cinque Terre.  Sipping on Vino while the kiddos play electronics.

I sprung for three long and pricey cab rides (transfers).  One from the Milan airport to our  first property in Lake Como.  After flying for 13 hours with two small children, we just wanted to get there.  The train from Milan to Lake Como isn’t as convenient as the other legs as the train we needed only left every three hours.  Just didn’t want to hassle with that after a long flight.  The second transfer was taking us to our last leg of the trip, Naples to Positano.  When heading south to the Amalfi Coast, the train won’t take you any further than Naples which is about an hour from Positano/Amalfi (see map).  We got off the train in Naples and took a private transfer (cab) to Positano.  Not very cheap at $130 Euro but it beat getting off the train and walking to the nearest bus stop which was reported to be incredibly crowded.  You may have to stand the entire hour plus ride on the bus and deal with pick pocketers.  It was so worth the private transfer!  Last high priced ride was Positano to the Naples airport.  This flight left once per week, so we could not have anything go wrong and risk missing the flight.  We also had to leave at 4:30am so the transfer allowed us to sleep the entire ride to the airport.  And that’s a wrap on transportation!  It was right around $700 for four people to travel through Italy for 30 days.  You certainly can’t rent a car for that.

Step 5:  Plan to pack.  Please someone tell me how in the heck I am supposed to pack light traveling to Italy with a toddler and 8 year old for one month?  There are things you need when traveling with kids…car seat, stroller, toys, electronics, etc.  I have to share with you the biggest find for packing light if you have a toddler.  It is Care’s Fly Safe safety restraint system. Cares Kids Fly Safe Airplane Safety Harness.  This gem is FDA approved and buckles your toddler into the airplane seat just like a car seat except it’s a just a belt.  Not only does it keep your little one safe but it also keeps them from running all over the plane all while packing up into a small little carrying bag that fits in your purse.

seat belt
Little guy all comfy for his 13 hours of traveling and I didn’t hit 20 people in the head carrying a huge car seat onto the plane.  Winning!

I then purchased an airplane stroller that is specific to traveling and folding up small for planes and trains.  I bought it off my Facebook for $10!  Tip:  I made $2,700 selling things out of my garage on Facebook that went directly to paying for this trip.  I also allowed my kids to pack a scooter each.  With as much walking as we planned to do in each location, I knew they would get so worn out and our days would be shortened to exhausted kids.  Instead of walking everywhere, they scooted the days away and we were able to explore as much as we wanted.

scooters

Lastly, I got three pieces of luggage that were the largest we could go without going overweight and incurring fees on the airline.  There is soooo much debate online about how big of a bag is too big of a bag to travel through Europe with.  It’s really a simple answer…you can pack as large of a bag that YOU can handle.  There is no one to help you up the many many stairs in between changing trains.  There is no one to help you load your bag onto the train.  No one to help you load the bag on ferries or cabs.  And if you plan on walking after getting off the train vs. taking a cab, you will be the one lugging that bag through town.  You get the point.  Luckily, I married a man with big muscles.  My bag was a big one and I got to pack as many bikinis as I wanted.  I don’t recommend this for everyone but it worked ok for us.

luggage
The scooters were so easy to throw on top of our bags.  Piece of cake!

This brings me to my final plug of the trip.  Remember that great deal I got on my airline tickets that was $500 cheaper per ticket than all the other airlines?  Well, you get what you pay for.  The airline ended up loosing our son’s bag on the way there.  Thank goodness it wasn’t mine!  Ha ha.  I can’t tell you how crazy it was to see how long the lost luggage line was at the airport in Milan.  It took us about 30 mins to get through the process of reporting our lost bag and we were 2nd in line.  Can you imagine how long it took the 20th person in line to get through this process?  What a terrible way to kick off your trip!  We were very hopeful that our bag would arrive any day on our trip but in fact…it never came.  My kids went all the way through a 30 day trip in Italy with nothing but the clothes on their back.  This lost bag also had all of our liquids, including all of my beauty products.  Of course we bought things along the way but it was such a pain in the butt!  I later heard that this is actually a common problem when traveling to Europe (explains the super long lost luggage line) and in actuality, your bag is just sitting in the airport waiting to be delivered.  Due to under staffing, there is just no one attending to these lost bags.  In fact, no one even answers the phone in that area of the airport.  Trust me I called a million times.  Horrible!  How will I make sure that this never happens again??  GPS in my luggage…DUH!

LugLoc Luggage Tracker – The Worldwide Smart Lost Baggage GSM Locator – Track The Exact Location Of Your Bag Globally (not just bluetooth like others) – Rechargeable battery that lasts 15 days

OMG, what a genius idea!  You never loose track of your bag and you know where it is at all times, even if the airline claims that it is lost.  I will never travel without one again! My kids bag was found and delivered to us two days after we arrived home in California…32 days after it was lost.

lost bag

Loosing the bag was devastating at first but in the end we had so many laughs about my son going all the way through Italy with one pair of underwear and them wearing the same outfits in all our family photos.