Busteni, Romania

After flying into Bucharest a few weeks ago, we rented a car and made our way north to the small town of Busteni. We stayed for two nights in this beautiful little guest house. It is at one end of a narrow town but was still walkable to cafes, restaurants, the supermarkets in town. While in Busteni, we spent a day hiking and walking around town to a few of the sites. We visited the Cantacuzino Castle and took the tour (though did not call ahead to set up a touring English). We only visited the first floor as you have to pay more to visit the second floor.

IMG_0652

IMG_0669
The view of the Carpathian mountains from the Cantacuzino Castle.

After visiting the castle, we walked to the Caraiman Monastery nearby which is relatively new so not as interesting in a historical way but lovely just the same. From there, we hiked to a waterfall (Cascada Urlatoarea) which was small but still beautiful. The following day, we visited Peles Castle in nearby Sinia. Although it was closed, we enjoyed the views of the architecture and grabbed a drink at one of the cafes nearby.

IMG_0685
The monastery we visited had great views of the mountains.
Advertisements
Busteni, Romania

Stonehaven, Scotland

Towards the end of the trip (after having to say goodbye to most of our travel buddies), my friend Jackie and I made our way out to Stonehaven for two nights. We stayed in an adorable Airbnb right in town. It was a great place for us to unwind after the roadtrip and handful of days in Edinburgh.
There are some tasty restaurants in town; we found two that really hit the spot for us. We popped into Graingers Delicatessen for a light lunch. The sandwiches were tasty and substantial. Priced at £3-4GBP each, it was an affordable option in town.
We also visited The Bay Fish & Chips takeaway shop. We went for dinner and while there was a line, we only waited about 15 minutes. There’s no indoor seating but we were lucky enough to snag one of the picnic tables out front. We split the extra large fish and chips which was more than enough food. We could have easily split the regular sized-option and still been stuffed. At £10GBP, it was a very cheap meal and some of the best fish and chips I had while on the trip.
IMG_20170801_194511
We devoured our meal so quickly that there was no time for photos.
I think my favorite part of Stonehaven was the coastal walk to Dunnottar Castle. There is a path from the south end of town that continues to the castle. It was one of the most breathtaking hikes we took on this trip. We didn’t go into the castle as it was closing soon after we arrived so we sat and enjoyed the view instead. We also walked along the beach in town and out on the harbor. Stonehaven was a lovely last stop in Scotland.

IMG_20170731_171452IMG_20170731_164755IMG_20170731_171249

Stonehaven, Scotland

Roadtrip stops in Scotland

My friends and I drove from Glasgow, up into the highlands to John o’ Groats, and then back down to Edinburgh. During this long road trip, we found some great little spots to stop and break up the drive.
-We visited the town of Oban for a visit to the whisky distillery. While trying to figure out what to do about lunch, we realized that Dunstaffnage Castle was on a bluff overlooking the water not far from Oban. We popped into Tesco, picked up some picnic items, and drove to the castle.
IMG_20170724_110412 (1)
Oban Distillery did not disappoint.
-We took an afternoon to hike to Sandwood Bay Beach on our way to John o’ Groats. The hike was not difficult but was longer than expected. We estimated it to be 4.5 miles from the parking area all the way to the beach. The hike was nice but not as spectacular as the views of the beach. If you have the time, I highly recommend it. Also, here is a link to a video of the beach.
IMG_20170725_144709
Here we are on route to the beach.

-We stopped in Inverness for lunch at the Kitchen Restaurant which was very delicious and well priced. After lunch, we walked to Miele’s Gelateria which totally hit the spot after an amazing lunch.

-When we visited Aberdeen for the afternoon, we had a recommendation to go to Slains Castle for lunch. While the inside of the bar and restaurant is quite interesting, the food was only mediocre. I would recommend going in for a drink and to wander around but find your meal someplace else.

-We stopped off in Perth one day to stretch our legs and eat lunch. We stumbled across this quaint little French inspired place, the Tabou Bistro.  Everything was amazing from the homemade soup to the salmon salad to the charcuterie platter. For lunch under £12GBP, it was a great find.

Roadtrip stops in Scotland

Glasgow, Scotland

I recently spent a handful of days in Glasgow with my cousin David. We didn’t have much planned but definitely found things to do to occupy our time; mostly eating.
The city itself is not what most would call beautiful but it has an edgy, raw feel without the hint of crime. We walked through George Square, toured the City Chambers and visited the Kelvingrove Museum, and the Gallery of Modern Art (all for free, no less). But I think what really made me enjoy this city was the food. I did not have a bad meal while I was there. From the kebap shop to Ubiquitious Chip; everything was delicious, fresh, and relatively affordable. Here are some of the highlights.
IMG_20170716_122830
A view of the Cathedral from the Necropolis.
It serves some tasty, strong cocktails as well as some of the best Thai food I’ve ever had.
This was the perfect Italian style thin crust pizza. It was worth the wait at the West End location. You can also check out their other location in the city center. At about £9GBP per pizza it’s an affordable and delicious lunch or dinner option.
Check this place out in the West End for live music and an amazing array of whiskies to taste. We spent an evening drinking whiskies that the knowledgeable bartenders recommended.
They serve up a tasty and authentic bowl of pho but I also heard very good reviews for a place called Hanoi Bike Shop.
IMG_20170717_185202
A delicious bowl of pho.
This is an elegant, yet affordable restaurant which was lovely as expected. Right in the heart of the city center is this traditional gem that has stood the test of time. We had the set lunch menu and at £25GBP (which included a glass of wine), my two course meal was delicious and worth the splurge.
This place is actually two restaurants in one. I had lunch in their upstairs terrace restaurant. I did not choose from their set lunch menu but opted for the delicious mussels and a small pork pie which was wonderful. At about £15GBP, my lunch was cheaper than the set lunch in the downstairs restaurant.
IMG_20170720_131015
Mussels with chorizo and hearty bread to soak up the savory broth.
I am still thinking about this place and it’s food. It’s another restaurant worth the wait (or make a reservation). I had two dishes and a glass of wine for £20GBP. I highly recommend the beet hummus and whipped feta dish. I even tried to return later during my trip. Part of me was sad because I couldn’t get a table but the other part of me knew that there were other amazing places to try instead.
This is where I ended up when Ox & Finch couldn’t take me and I was not disappointed. I had their Thyme for Gin cocktail to whet my appetite followed by a beet salad and a gnocchi dish. I could not have been happier nor fuller. Once again, a delightful meal for under £25GBP.
After all that eating, we spent a few of our days wandering the streets of Glasgow, grabbing a drink at a few local bars (my favorites were Inn Deep and the bar in the Centre for Contemporary Arts), and enjoying the comfort of our room at the Charing Cross Guest House. What I really liked about this was the location (walking distance to both the city center and to the West End), the free breakfast (with your choice of continental or full Scottish breakfast), and the hospitality of the front desk staff. At $54USD a night for a double room, it was well within my budget.
While staying in Glasgow we took two separate day trips. The first was to Loch Lomond. It only took about an hour by train to the town of Balloch which is walking distance to the water. We choose not to take the scenic ferry ride but went hiking along the water’s edge instead.
We also took a train and ferry to the Isle of Arran. We spent our day hiking around the isle. If given the chance, I would love to return to see more of this beautiful part of Scotland.
IMG_20170718_145947
Here I am at the top of our hike on the Isle of Arran.
Glasgow, Scotland

Roadtrip from Oaxaca City to the Coast

We really wanted to rent a car and drive to the coast, so after getting screwed by Europcar we went to Alamo. We had car rental insurance from our credit card company and had proof that they covered car rentals in Mexico. But this concept doesn’t seem to exist in Mexico. Multiple car rental companies wanted us to have a specific document that no one would give us. And when we asked where to obtain this document, no one could or would tell us. I would advice others not to believe the cheap rental car prices that are advertised for Oaxaca as the insurance is not included in the price advertised. A six day rental at Alamo was $200USD. We wanted to be on our own schedule and while the rental car was not cheap, the cost was offset, for us, by the five nights in Oaxaca City that were free on hotel points (thanks Holiday Inn).
We were nervous to take the bus after hearing so many horror stories of people getting sick and it being such a long drive up and down mountain sides (hence paying for the expensive rental car). But in hindsight, and after being on the twisty-turny mountain road all the way to the coast and back (and with all of the other experiences that I have had with twisty-turny mountain roads), I don’t think that we needed to have a rental car. The roads were not as treacherous as people had suggested. While it was a long drive, around 5.5 hours each way, the roads were in good condition and there was not a lot of traffic. If you do drive yourself, definitely beware of all of the topes (speed bumps) that are not always marked on the roads. Also, the buses that make the trip to and from the coast are the smaller colectivo-sized buses that only seat about 14 people not the massive tour buses that I would have expected.
The first stop on our roadtrip was Monte Alban which was lovely. It was also a lot larger than we expected so it was wonderful to be able to take our time and not feel rushed.
IMG_0503IMG_0520
We then drove to the ruins at Yagul. These were just as interesting and informative (both sites have informational plaques in Spanish, English, and a local language). Yagul was completely empty when we arrive and it was lovely to have the place to ourselves. At $65MXN per person, it wasn’t much cheaper than Monte Alban ($70MXN), but still a great stop to make.
yagul
The ruins of Yagul.
We stayed the night in Mitla so that we could get to Hierve del Agua early the next morning. We found a few hotels in town including a brand new place called Hotel Carmelita. We had a double room with a private bath, hot water, tv, and wifi for $500MXN a night. The staff was very helpful and friendly. We asked for a dinner recommendation and were pointed towards a restaurant on the main square. We had a mole dish which was very tasty and the best chile rellano I’ve ever had. Our total bill for two entrees and one mezcal was $220MXN with tip.
The next morning we drove to Hierve del Agua. We paid the local entrance fee of $10MXN per person and then paid the federal entrance fee of $25MXN per person. Check out this blog for more information on driving there.
Once we parked, we hiked down for 20 minutes to the pools of sulfery water. We then hiked around to the top of the other petrified waterfall, the one in most of the photos. The path was mostly made of stone steps and was not difficult. It probably took us 25 minutes to get there and the views along the way were definitely worth it. There are free changing rooms as well as bathrooms ($3MXN) near the pools. If you can get there on your own, I would recommend getting there early. It opens at 9a.m. and from what we heard, the tour buses start arriving around 1p.m.
IMG_20170221_095939
A view of the pools.
IMG_0576
Hierve del Agua
IMG_0597
A view from below on one of the hiking trails.
We left Hierve del Agua and headed south. Because we were getting a late start, we decided to stop somewhere along the road for the night. With a little bit of research we found a place which was just perfect for us; La Puesta del Sol. They have a little collection of bungalows and rooms for rent just a one-minute drive outside the town San Juan del Pacifico. The room we stayed in was nice and cozy with satellite TV, hot water, breakfast, and a lovely view of the mountains. Wifi was extra and we opted to be off the grid for the night. At $400MXN for the night, we couldn’t have been happier.
Along the road to the coast, there were a lot of small hotels and posadas that are not listed on the internet. I felt confident that if we couldn’t get a room at La Puesta del Sol, we could have found a room somewhere else along the way.
For our first night on the coast, we stayed in Zipolite. When we arrived, we parked in town and walked up and down the beach price-checking a handful of different hotels. We found prices ranging from $200MXN to $1200MXN and finally settled on Hotel El Paraiso which was $500MXN per night which included a private bathroom, hot water, wifi, parking, and a balcony that overlooked the ocean. It was definitely the best option for us.
zipolite
The view from our balcony.
hotelzipolite
The beach was clean and not overcrowded while we were there. But be warned, or informed, that Zipolite is a nude beach.
The next morning we drove down the coast to the town of Mazunte. We had booked a room at Posada Ziga Playa for two nights. It was definitely the nicest place we stayed on the trip ($1000MXN per night) and our room included a private terrace with a hammock. But in hindsight, I think I would have rather stayed somewhere that was not as upscale but had beach chairs and umbrellas down on the beach (as Posada Ziga Playa had neither of these). Also, the hotel is situated up on a small hill so you have to walk up and down stairs to get to the beach.
My advice while visiting this part of the Pacific Ocean in Mexico is to be careful when swimming in the water. When we first checked into our hotel in Zipolite, we were given a full briefing of the undercurrent and the water conditions that day. And I’m thankful that they took the time to warn us. After our first slightly treacherous day in the ocean, my husband walked up and down the beach to find a less rough spot to swim in. We lined ourselves up with a few large rocks about two hundred meters out into the water. These rocks were able to break up most of the waves coming in and therefore the current and waves were not as forceful.
IMG_0644
The view from a hiking trail starting on the western edge of Mazunte.
While in Mazunte, we went to the turtle sanctuary which was very interesting though there didn’t seem to be an option for a guided tour. And while we enjoyed looking at a lot of different turtles, we did not learn very much. But for $32MXN per person, it was a nice little outing. We also went out for dinner and drinks in town a few times including a great little Italian place called Alessandro’s where I was able to get a $9USD steak that was delicious. We also came across a handful of small bars and restaurants that had live music and offered two for one drink specials.
After a few lovely days at the beach, we made the long drive back to Oaxaca City starting out early in the morning. Traffic was light which was a blessing on the winding roads. I was concerned that we would have to pay a lot of tolls to and from the coast but we really only drove on one toll road near Mitla. My suggestion would be that if you are going to rent a car know that everything will take longer than you expect. Also, I would not recommend driving at night due to the twisting roads and all of the speed bumps. Finally, the gas stations we went to did not take credit card but there was always a gas station attendant to pump the gasoline for you.
Roadtrip from Oaxaca City to the Coast

General Notes on Vietnam

-Unless a price is specifically written out (and sometimes even then) know that almost everything is negotiable.

-Before ordering any food, ask the price and make sure that you understand what you are getting for that price. We had many vendors who would show us the bill corresponding with the cost when we would ask “how much?” (bao nhiêu in Vietnamese, pronounced bow n-you)

-We were occasionally quoted a price that was inflated tremendously. When we countered with a lower price they would usually take it immediately. I read that the Vietnamese expect and appreciate a good negotiation. They do not consider it rude. We found this to be true. In some countries, the negotiation seems like a way to try in a rip you off, but here it is seems more like it’s what they think they can get away with. When you press them, they’re fine with a lower price. This is not to say that you won’t run into people whose plan is to try and separate you from your money. Be cautious and always ask questions.

-Most of our taxi drivers spoke very little English, so we were thankful for the small amount of Vietnamese that we had learned. The taxi drivers also do not seem well versed in explaining what they are doing or where they are taking you.

-Only ride in taxis with meters and tell them to turn it on. We used the taxi company Vinasun exclusively as they have a great reputation and an app for your smart phone.

-When researching this trip I came around many accounts of travelers renting motorbikes (motorcycles, Vespas, etc.) even though it is technically illegal to do so. What I didn’t grasp until we were in the country was that motorbikes were the only real option for independent travel outside a city. While I am glad that we did not rent motorbikes as we had no prior experience riding them (and we met far too many travelers with motorbike injuries and accident stories to tell), I did not like that this limited in our transportation options. In Hoi An and Tam Coc, we were able to rent bicycles cheaply, but could not cover the distances that a motorbike could. On Cat Ba, the hills were too much for a mere pedal bike and the only other option for getting around the island was by tour bus. Before I visit Southeast Asia again, I would take the time to become more familiar with motorbikes and how to ride them safely.

– Taking domestic flights within Vietnam was definitely worth the money to save some time. We flew VietJet Air three times with the average price for a one-way flight at $53USD. Beware that the site is buggy and it took me multiple tries to book tickets on each attempt. The trains take too long when trying to cover long distances. The sleeper bus is doable if you’re short in stature and small in build, but if you taller than 5’8” you’ll have a hard time fitting in the reclined seat.

 

IMG_3789
Here I am in a sleeper bus seat. I am 5’3″ tall so I fit but my husband and our friend (who are both much taller than I am) did not fit comfortably in their seats.

20160328_080533

– Consider using a trip to Vietnam as a cheap shopping opportunity. Need new t-shirts and flip-flops…why not get them there? If you’re looking for custom dresses, suits, etc., it might be worth more of a look than we gave it. Even for everyday things (sandals, umbrellas, etc.), it’s usually way cheaper to get them in Vietnam than at home. Also, the pharmacies in Vietnam offer most pharmaceutical drugs over the counter. When we needed Cipro and cough medicine we bought it there and the prices were cheap.

– It was easier to find triple rooms in Vietnam than it has been in other countries. This was great since we could usually split a hotel room three ways and it was only a bit more expensive than all three of us staying in a dorm together (along with others).

– As a traveler you cannot drink the tap water in Vietnam. Thankfully, you can find bottled water everywhere. Just shop around in each town or city you visit to find the going rate. The best deal we came across was 6,000VND for 1.5L of water.

-Vietnam is an amazing country to travel in when you are on a budget. The cost for my husband and I for this three week trip was just under $2,000USD which includes all of our flights, food, transportation, etc. We definitely could have spent even less than we did in Vietnam, but we wanted a few creature comforts once in a while; privacy, a clean bathroom, imported wine, and hassle free transportation in the form of taxis and faster ferries.

– As Americans traveling to Vietnam, you need to have a visa to enter the country and it is advised that you obtain the visa before you get to Vietnam. When we went looking for visa information, we were directed to a website (http://vietnamembassy-usa.org/consular) and email address (dcconsular@gmail.com). Having the visa in our passports when we arrived saved a lot of time, energy, and confusion.

General Notes on Vietnam

Cat Ba Island, Vietnam

During our stay on Cat Ba, we stayed in two separate hotels. First, we stayed at the Hai Long Hotel. We had a spacious room with a view of the water and breakfast was included. At 600,000VND (for a triple room) per night, it was one of the more expensive places we stayed yet still under budget. This hotel was really nice by Vietnamese standards but it still had some oddities. For instance, our bathroom had a bathtub but no shower curtain, making it essentially still a wet bathroom. Also, the elevators smelled like gasoline and the hot water was heated with coal brought in by the employees through the lobby. Overall, it has a great location in town and was a better option than other hotels we looked at (and better than the other hotel we stayed in).

We spent one night at Le Pont. While the amenities at Le Pont are wonderful (great views, 20% off already affordable food and drinks, and a less congested location but still walking distance to town) the rooms were another story. Kyle and I splurged for the bungalow, which was nice since it had its own bathroom, but the bed was really hard (much like most beds we slept in while in Vietnam). Also we weren’t given any sheets and the pillows had mold growing on them. Because the bungalow is located near reception and a lounge area, light poured into our room throughout the night. For $22USD, we expected more given that our usual room cost about $27USD a night for all three of us.

Rheanna had a similarly bad experience with her private room ($10USD). It was separated from the dormitory by only a slatted wall, which did not block sound at all. She was pretty sure that her bedding had not been changed between her and the previous guest. Also her room was located right behind the bar at Le Pont, which sometimes has music blaring into the wee hours. Le Pont has great reviews online, so if you still want to stay there I would give this advice: in the low season, arrive before booking a room and only stay on the left side of the reception area. There is a ramp up to the bar area on the right and that is where most of the dorm rooms and private rooms are located. The left side was significantly quieter when we were there then the right side. The views from Le Pont are beautiful, so if you are going to stay there, spend some time enjoying it. We had two day tours planned and therefore really didn’t get to enjoy the view.

While on Cat Ba, we took two day tours around Ha Long and Lan Ha Bays. We had saved some money by staying on land at night and going on different tours during the day. Plus, the weather was not amazing while we were there, so the overnight on a boat would not have been clear or warm. We took our first day tour with Asia Outdoors because we’d heard they were the best and worth the extra money. On the tour of Lan Ha Bay, we boated for about an hour, kayaked for 1.5 hours, then had a delicious lunch. After lunch, we boated around for another hour and then kayaked for one hour. Our guide for the day was named Fouk and while he was nice and he answered our direct questions, he was not very forthcoming with the history and make up of the nature surrounding us and provided minimal instruction on how to kayak . He also didn’t have a commanding presence over our group. The tour was fun and I felt safe on the boat, but I expected more out of the tour. At a cost of 495,000VND per person for a double kayak and 600,000VND for a single person (which did not necessarily mean you would get a single kayak if you wanted it), it wasn’t the stellar experience I hoped for. Maybe I have been spoiled by great guided tours in the past (see blog entries for Canada and  Maine).

1DSCF5503
The scenery of Lan Ha Bay was stunning.
1DSCF5496
One of the many floating villages we passed while out on our boat tours.

The next day, we took another day tour (one that was offered at Le Pont Hotel) which included boating, kayaking, a visit to Monkey Island, and lunch on the boat. For $16USD per person this tour did not include an English speaking guide but the plan for the day was just as unexplained as the day before with Asia Outdoors. We were first dropped off on Monkey Island for one hour with no mention of the fact that the monkeys are somewhat aggressive and will try and take your objects out of your hand. Thankfully, we knew this ahead of time and were prepared to guard our belongings closely. We then boarded the boat again and later kayaked for the first time with the guide for about an hour. The afternoon kayaking session was 40 minutes long and our guide did not join us in the water. Lunch was provided and was just as tasty as the lunch we had with Asia Outdoors. All in all, it was roughly the same tour for a lower price. We were just happy to be out on the water for day.

It did not seem like we could haggle the tour price at Asia Outdoors though we definitely had to discuss the price that we saw on their website versus the price they were quoting us. As for the other tour, we definitely got a discount from Le Pont but found out that others on the tour were able to get it a bit cheaper ($15USD per person instead of $16USD per person). I’m not sure what you can get away with in high season, but we definitely tried to haggle down prices everywhere we went.

1DSCF5510
Seeing monkeys up close was fun but also nerve-racking as they had no fear of humans and were very interested in taking the things that belong to us.
IMG_3953
Here we are returning from an hour of kayaking. Back to the junk boat for us to eat some tasty lunch.

The Vietnamese food in Cat Ba wasn’t amazing but if you do a little searching (and get off the main street near the water), the options get better and cheaper. We did eat and drink at a restaurant/bar called the Flightless Bird Bar. The drink prices were good (Vietnamese liquor and soda for 28,00VND) and the pizza was delicious. Just past the Flightless Bird Bar there is a little Vietnamese place with phở, bún, and rice dishes that were really tasty and the prices were great, about 35,000-40,000VND per bowl.

Cat Ba Island, Vietnam