Plovdiv, Bulgaria

After two days of hiking, we headed toward Plovdiv. The drive took longer than expected and our fellow drivers were making me nervous (see my blog entry regarding the roads  and drivers of Bulgaria). Instead of making it all the way to Plovdiv, we rerouted and went to the Todoroff Hotel.

The hotel includes a spa, a winery, and a restaurant. We arrived with the idea that we would taste their wines and then maybe spend the night. By the time we got there, the wine tasting had ended for the day but the restaurant was open, so we grabbed a bottle of their Mavrud wine and ordered a few appetizers. As we drank the delicious wine (and realized that we could no longer drive the rental car), we asked about staying the night. We had seen it on Booking.com for $56USD for a double room. We inquired at the front desk and they offered us a “single room” (which included a double bed, not a queen bed) for $43USD including parking and breakfast. We took it. While this may not seem like the frugal option, we wondered where else we could stay at a winery for less than $50USD.

Once we dropped our stuff in the room, we decided that we needed more drinks. We wandered towards the center of town (about a 15 minute walk) and found an establishment with a Coca-Cola sign out front and a bunch of men drinking inside. We decided to go for it. Once inside, we realized that this was not really a bar but more a convenience store/restaurant/bar. We ordered two beers and one rakia. The rakia was the equivalent of four shots. We stumbled out of there having only spent 7BGN.

We only spent two days in Plovdiv so I don’t have a lot of recommendations. We spend most of our time wandering the Old Town. We did, however, pop into a wine bar called Vino Culture one afternoon and loved it so much we went back that evening for more drinks, tapas, and live music. It was such a great little space and I highly recommend a visit. We also visited a bar called Nylon which was a great little find. It felt like a neighborhood hangout and while it seemed like we were the only out-of-town visitors there, we felt welcomed.

The Roman Amphitheater in Plovdiv.
The Roman Amphitheater in Plovdiv.

There is also a fortress and a monastery near Plovdiv. We did not have the opportunity to visit them though we wish we had. If you have time, visit Asen’s Fortress and the Bachkovo Monastery.

I have read many blogs that compared Veliko Tarnovo and Plovdiv and chose one town over another. I would argue that both towns are worth a visit. Plovdiv seems like a regular town that has an Old Town area that attracts tourist. But there is a lot of shopping, art, and cultural options there as well. On the other hand, Veliko Tarnovo seems like a town focused on tourism with a real town hidden behind it. While there is a lot of public art, it feels like tourism is the focus. If I would have had more time on this trip, I would have spent more time in both towns to see what else they have to offer. Check out the Plovdiv tourism website as it is helpful and includes an events calendar which is very extensive. Here are other blogs and websites that I found helpful.

http://davidsbeenhere.com/2014/07/11/travel-guide-plovdiv-bulgaria-see/
http://www.freerangetravel.com/things-to-do-and-see-in-plovdiv-bulgaria/
http://wikitravel.org/en/Plovdiv

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Plovdiv, Bulgaria

Lancaster, PA

When a friend told me that she’d decided to have her wedding in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, I was skeptical about the choice. When she followed it up with the fact that the town has a brewery and a distillery, I was intrigued. When I arrived for the long weekend, I was excited. Lancaster is full of great restaurants and bars, a plethora of art galleries, and a central market that makes your feel like you’re in Europe.

We rented a private ensuite room through Airbnb.com from a lively woman named Bobbie. Her place is about a 15 minute walk from downtown, but there are restaurants and a few shops close by. Downtown has a lot to offer and didn’t have the touristy feel of some other quaint, historic towns on the East coast.

Between wedding duties and events, we explored. We found the pop-up park with food trucks, the Spring House Brewery, and the slightly hidden combined location of the Thistle Finch Distillery and Wacker Brewery.

This is the drink list from Thistle Finch Distillery.
This is the drink list from Thistle Finch Distillery.

We grabbed drinks at Annie Bailey’s, an Irish pub with live music on Saturdays. We also popped into Tellus360 (next door to Annie Bailey’s) for some food and more drinks. The food wasn’t inspiring but the drink list was extensive (including many whiskey flight options and local cold-pressed juice cocktails). What makes Tellus360 a great spot is their set-up. The space is four floors plus a rooftop area. They have ping pong tables, dart boards, and a pool table to keep you entertained.

We also had dinner at Aussie and the Fox and were impressed with the delicious food. For about $20 a person (without drinks), we shared a handful of starters, and left full and happy. We also heard rave reviews about the restaurant Pour, though we didn’t make it there ourselves.

We didn’t have a car in Lancaster, which wasn’t much of a problem. We walked just about everywhere and called Uber the few times we needed a ride. If you plan to take time to explore the surrounding area, having a car would be necessary.

While we were sad to leave this picturesque town after an amazing weekend of food, booze, and friends, I would definitely come back for the hospitality, history, and all-around relaxing atmosphere.

My husband and I dragged ourselves to the Amtrak station to make the journey back to the Phily airport. We grabbed one way Amtrak tickets to Philadelphia for about $19 each and then transferred at 30th Street Station to the SEPTA regional rail to the airport for another $8 each. From beginning to end, the trip took about 2 hours.

Lancaster, PA

Canberra, Australia

When we made it to Canberra to visit a friend, we were happy to get out of the car and stay in one place for a few nights. We stayed over a weekend which is probably not the best time to visit Canberra, as most people living there for work leave during the weekends. While the town was deserted, our friend filled us in on all of the events that go on in there throughout the year. Because it is the nation’s capital, many cultural events from all over the globe take place there including art exhibits, sporting events, and cultural activities.

Visiting weekend craft markets is a must when visiting Canberra. The Gorman House Arts Centre (http://www.agac.com.au/) market takes place Saturday mornings. There are craft booths and a few food vendors. My favorite of the food stalls was the little Mexican place. Theirs was some of the best Mexican food I had had in awhile. Each dish was around $7 AUD. Everything was so delicious that I went back for seconds. We also went to the much larger Old Bus Depot market (http://obdm.com.au/) on Sunday but the food options at the Old Bus Depot weren’t as appetizing to me.

While in town, we hiked from the road behind the War Memorial up to the top of Mount Ainslie. It took us about an hour to walk up as we stopped numerous times to watch the birds maneuver through the trees and to watch the kangaroos lounge in the grass. From the top, there is a view of the city below. If you are not up for the hike, you can drive up the back of the mountain and park at the top.

As an American, I would compare Canberra to the many Midwestern cities that don’t seem like they have a lot to offer visitors. But when you meet locals or when you take the time to visit, you find many interesting things to see and do. Visit these websites to check out what Canberra has to offer throughout the year:  

http://www.visitcanberra.com.au/find/event
Canberra, Australia

Roadtrip from Sydney to Canberra

We headed out of Sydney and drove down through the Royal National Park. We were hoping to get close to the coast on this route, though that turned out not to be the case. The drive through the park was green and lush, but no sea view was had. I think if we were to do this again, I would take the M1 to the town or Waterfall or Helensburg and then cut over to the coastal road from there. Once we made it to the coastal road, we drove through quaint little towns right on the water. Most had beaches and parking tended to be free.

Enjoying the tidal pool

We eventually made it as far as Wollongong before we looked for a place to stay. Along the way, we searched Airbnb.com and were lucky enough to find Jack’s place right near the beach. At $161 USD per night for four people, the apartment was a great deal. Street parking was free and we were right across the road from not only the water, but also from a public pool and a man made tidal pool.

For dinner, we ate at The [M]eatery. We decide that if we couldn’t be home for American Thanksgiving, we would gorge ourselves on multiple meats instead of the traditional turkey. We had been told that is was a pricey restaurant, but I thought it was reasonable for what we received and how full we were when we left. At about $40 AUD per person, we ordered a shareable platter of meats, a few appetizers, desserts, and drinks.

While we weren’t in town long, but we did enjoy some time at the Crown Street Mall. In the afternoon, we stopped in a little bar and restaurant called His Boy Elroy for happy hour. It’s a small joint with great drink options and a diverse menu. We returned to the mall the next morning (a Friday) for a craft fair which was set up right between the two main buildings of the mall. I thought combining a traditional shopping mall with booths for handmade crafts and produce was a wonderful idea.
 
Also while in Wollongong, we visited the Nan Tien Buddhist Temple. This is not just a single building, but an entire complex of breathtakingly beautiful structures. As I was not dressed appropriately (I was wearing shorts), I did not go into the prayer halls or other buildings. Instead, I peered in from the doorways and wandered the grounds which are beautiful and serene. The visit was free and was a calming change from the hustle and bustle of Wollongong.
Nan Tien Buddhist Temple in Wollongong

Continuing south along the coastal road, we finally made it to our first real destination of this roadtrip-Murramarang NationalPark. This park is off the main road and is not so much a national park as it is a publicly owned coastal area. When driving in, keep an eye out for kangaroos bouncing about. This is one of a few places where you can see kangaroos grazing on or near the coast, sometimes even hanging out on the rocks near the water. Keep in mind that kangaroos are nocturnal so going early in the morning or in the early evening is best. We arrived around 4 p.m. and were able to watch them hangout in a large grassy area behind some homes. We got as close as they would allow (about 50 feet) though we kept in mind that they are wild animals. According to Wikipedia, they don’t tend to be aggressive, but we didn’t want to take a chance.

Roadtrip from Sydney to Canberra

General Notes on New Zealand

–While we were excited to visit a country where English was widely spoken, there were still a few things that tripped us up and that we had to learn along the way. We found that most causal restaurants did not have servers, but instead, customers ordered at the bar and meals were brought to your table. Tipping is not necessary but is always appreciated. I only tipped when I felt that the service was better than normal or if the server was very attentive.

–Pedestrians do not have the right of way when crossing at a crosswalk unless there is a traffic light indicating your right of way. There may be some crosswalks where pedestrians can cross safely but we didn’t find them. Once we figured this out, we were much more cautious and only crossed the street at a traffic light. Also, cars drive on the right side of the road so I tried to train my brain to look both ways whenever I crossed a street. I’d rather be safe than sorry.

–Finally, most lakes in New Zealand have a pathway around the perimeter for wonderful views of the area. It’s also a great way to take in the beauty and get a little exercise.

Enjoying one of New Zealand’s beautiful lakes
General Notes on New Zealand

Arrowtown, New Zealand

We decided to stay in Arrowtown instead of Queenstown partially due to the fact that we couldn’t find a last minute place to stay in Queenstown. We found a great little house in Arrowtown on Airbnb.com. At $253 USD a night for four people, it was over our regular budget of $50 USD per person per night, but it totally fit our needs. We ate a few meals in to make up for the rental cost. We relaxed on the front porch and took walks down the river path a couple of blocks away. Once again, New Zealand knows how to make nature accessible.

There are restaurants, shops, and winery tasting rooms to visit. One restaurant we spend a lot of time at was the Fork and Tap. It had delicious food and a good drink list. And while it wasn’t cheap, it made for a great birthday celebration spot for our group. The Postmaster’s Residence also looked lovely but we didn’t make it in.

Arrowtown was so laid back and quaint. It didn’t seem as touristy as Queenstown. If I could go back, I would eat my way through this town.
Arrowtown, New Zealand

Akko, Israel

My sister-in-law Kim and I took a daytrip from Haifa to Akko (sometimes called Acre). It’s a wonderful old city with winding paths and streets that seem to lead you nowhere, but maybe that’s the point.
 
We took the train from Haifa which cost about 19NIS for a 25 minute ride. The Akko train station is about a 20 minute walk from the old town, but with the help of GPS, we made it.

We made two specific stops and other than that we just wandered around. First, we went looking for a hummus place called Said’s. We had heard that it was the “best hummus in the Middle East.” We were sorely disappointed by these claims. The waiter was very rude and the hummus wasn’t even in the top ten during our trip (and we ate hummus at least once a day for three weeks). Thankfully, after this disappointment, we found a little restaurant in the Turkish Souq called Kukushka. They had very inventive and interesting snack foods, delicious wine by the glass, and local beers. I ordered the veal sausages, fries, and a glass of wine. At about 70NIS, it wasn’t cheap but it was well worth it. 

Table and chairs at Kukushka

Our other destination was the tunnels under the city. It cost about 15NIS and included less than we expected. The brochure for Akko shows the tunnels as if they are part of the citadel. They are not; we were fooled. But we were having such a great time wandering around this amazing city, we easily gave up looking for the entrance to the citadel and just enjoyed Akko itself.

Also, there is a cheese shop in the Turisk Souq (which is really just a long hallway with shops inside). Once again, it was great to see a shop trying something different. I tried a few of their cheeses and each was better than the next.
 
Akko, Israel