El Castillo, Costa Rica

We drove from San Jose to the small town of El Castillo near La Fortuna and stayed a few nights. It is definitely a lot easier to visit this area with a rental car. The town of La Fortuna is a good base for doing activities in the area but I am really happy we stayed further out in El Castillo; La Fortuna definitely felt very touristy and more like a little city. Where we stayed was much more comfortable and closer to nature. We stayed at a small hotel and farm called Essence Arenal. For the three of us, the cost came out to about $25USD per person per night. The hotel is part of a working farm so you can tour the land on your own or with someone from the hotel. Also, most of the food that is served at the hotel is from the farm. They offer breakfast, lunch, and dinner at $6USD, $7.50USD, and $12.50USD respectively and all meals are vegetarian. We really enjoyed the views and the hospitality.

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The view of Arenal from our hotel in El Castillo.

There’s also a small restaurant just up the road called Comidas rapidas la pequeña that was more affordable and very delicious; some of the best food we had while in the area. Definitely get the fried chicken and the patacones. We also drove down into the town of El Castillo for lunch one day and ate at Restaurante Amigos and Pizza John’s. At Restaurante Amigos, the food was very delicious, though the portions were small. Pizza John’s was surprisingly good. Three of us ordered two pizza’s and had more than enough to share. The owner makes the dough (and the mojitos!) from scratch every day. It’s a lovely place to sit upstairs and take in the view.

While in the area we, rented kayaks on Lake Arenal. Our hotel arranged it with someone in town and we drove down to one of the two boat launches. We paid $20USD per person for the day and were gone about 3 hours.

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We also hiked Cerro Chato from the El Castillo side. When doing research, some websites and blogs said that this hike to the volcano lake at the top had been closed, but we did not find that to be true. We drove towards the Volcano Arenal Observatory but right before the entrance to the observatory is another parking lot with a sign that says “Hike Cerro Chato.” We asked a lot of questions at the entrance as we had heard this could be the wrong trail, but, in fact, it was the correct trail. It cost about $10USD per person and we were given a map which was not very helpful. We were also told that the hike would take about 2 hours up and 2 hours down but it definitely took us closer to 3 each way. I am definitely a slow hiker and this was by far the most difficult hike I have ever done but it was very invigorating and getting to the lake in the crater was pretty amazing. There are definitely spots on the hike where you are climbing over large rocks. I am only 5’3″ and do not have a lot of upper body strength so this was definitely difficult for me and I would have had a very hard time if I would have been by myself. I would also note that when we hiked Cerro Chato, it was the end of the dry season (early April) and it had not rained in at least four or five days. This definitely made it easier as I cannot imagine being able to complete the hike if it had rained recently as everything would be so slick and muddy.

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Here we are scrabbling down of the many hills on our way up Cerro Chato.

We also drove down to the river that runs just east of El Castillo. This is technically a road crossing when the river is low and we watched a handful of SUVs cross the river, but we were just there to bask in its cold water to help out our sore muscles. We read that there are some free hot springs in one of the rivers nearby but due to sunburn we did not partake.

Overall I really enjoyed our time in El Castillo. It was very relaxing but there are lots of options of things to do nearby including hiking trails that you can do on your own or with a guide. This area was definitely much easier to visit with a rental car. The roads are very bumpy and it would be very strenuous to walk to and from the town of El Castillo from where we stayed, and the public transportation was spotty at best.

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El Castillo, Costa Rica

Brasov, Romania

We booked an apartment on the edge of the city center via Booking.com. The price was right and the apartment was well furnished. Also, the location for parking was perfect. When we were looking to book a hotel, all of the hotels stated that parking was included but then when you would read reviews it was not explained very well that the parking available is actually public parking. When you’re in the very the middle of the city center, you must pay for parking. This is difficult because the parking meter machines only take coins which are very difficult to get your hands on. You can pay by SMS but only if you have a Romanian cell phone number. What we found was there if you park on the edge of the city center, parking is 100% free but finding a spot is difficult. If you are on a block with no parking signs or parking meters, then it is free.

We sent three nights in Brasov and while you could definitely see the highlights of the historic center in one day, it was nice to have the extra time to hike around the city walls and see all that the city has to offer.  Due to bad weather, we did not have an opportunity to hike up to the famous Brasov town sign but we did get some time walking around the trails in some of the parks on the edge of the city.

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The majority of our time in Brasov was spent wandering around the town and eating. While most of the restaurants we visited were in the center of town, they didn’t feel like tourist traps. Our favorites were Pilvax, La Ceaun, and Vino e Sapori. For drinks we frequented Cafe Central which had cheaper drinks than some of the bars closer to the center of town.

Brasov, Romania

John o’ Groats, Scotland

We stayed in a collection of pre-fabricated, albeit poshly decorated, holiday rentals right in John O Groats. Natural Retreats has a great location right near the coast, though their website makes it seem like there are far less of these rentals than in reality. This means some of the rentals don’t have the best of views but being so close to the water was a perk nonetheless. The rental was $58USD per person per night and though that is a little higher than my average nightly budget, it was a lovely apartment with everything we needed.

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Sunset on holiday rentals at John o’ Groat.
There isn’t much in John o’ Groats other than tourist shops (knicknacks, a coffee shop, and a fish n’ chips shack), but the scenery was lovely and it’s a great base to explore the area from. There is also a ferry dock within walking distance that can take you to the Orkney Islands. There are a handful of ferry ports near John o Groats so make sure to pick the one that fits your needs and schedule best.
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We visited Skara Brae while on the Orkney Islands. Note the beach in the background. This place is stunning in so many ways.
While at the top of the Scottish mainland, we toured the Queen Mum’s castle, sampled some local gin at Rock Rose distillery, and chatted up the locals at the Seaview Hotel bar.
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We sampled some tasty gins and one vodka at Rock Rose distillery.

 

John o’ Groats, Scotland

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

Essential phrases to learn in another language

With traveling comes the responsibility of making a good impression on the countries you visit. And one way of doing this is learning other languages. Here is a list of words and phrases that I have found helpful to know while traveling. A little goes a long way. Plus, knowing some basic words and phrases might help you feel comfortable in a new place.

I would like…
Can you help me
Can you write down the price
Yes/No
Hello/Goodbye
Please/Thank you
I’m sorry/Excuse me
That is okay/good
Where is the toilet/WC (this is totally different than a bathroom in most countries)
Do you speak English?
You should also know the number for how many people in your party so you can ask for a table for four, a room for two, etc.
Essential phrases to learn in another language