Travel

Traveling alone in Romania – Adventures in Transylvania

Two years ago, almost to the day, I found myself alone in Transylvania.

Biggest takeaway – it was beautiful.

Sinaia Monestary – Transylvania

Romania had always been one of my random must-see hot spots. Sure, saying you’ve been to Transylvania is a fun one-up on people, being one of those off-the-beaten-path destinations, but I’ve also always been drawn to that Eastern European landscape. So when I was asked to go Bucharest and train our European recruitment team, I jumped at the chance.

Beautiful walk near Parcul Izvor in Bucharest

I spent a week in our Global Business Services office, training and meeting my European counterparts, before then taking a long weekend to explore Transylvania before finally heading home to the husband and kids.

And let me tell you – Romania is a delightful little spot to go exploring alone. English is widely spoken, people are friendly, and anyone who’s not a complete travel amateur will find it easy to navigate. Because it’s not super touristy, you don’t have to worry about getting conned. Uber is widely used and dirt cheap.

It’s beautiful country in general but when I was there the fall colors were positively magnificent and every autumn since I haven’t been able to see a golden leaf without remembering the lovely week and half I spent in Romania.

Bucharest

Famous umbrella street

My first week in Bucharest was for work and we all stayed at the JW Marriott Bucharest Grant Hotel. This is a truly upscale hotel and it seems to be where a good amount of high class people stay (some musician and Japanese diplomat were there while we were). From a cultural standpoint I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it – you know me, I like unique and quaint – but it was a very nice place and in a pretty easy-to-get-around location. The palace is literally right across the giant round-about death circle.

View from my room at the Marriott – two years ago they were working round-the-close on this massive orthodox cathedral. I assume it’s done now.

It doesn’t look like a common area to take a walk but we did anyway and the guards were very suspicious of us snapping pictures.

Somewhat frowned upon picture of the palace at night

A few of my co-workers and I stumbled upon an absolutely delightful restaurant within walking distance called Locanta Jaristea. It’s entrance is completely unassuming – we honestly were a bit worried we were walking into someone’s house –

but once the door was open we were blasted with music and clapping and a total overload of stuff. Locanta Jaristea was a cornucopia of tourist bliss. The menu was almost entirely meat, the establishment was filled with gaudy relics of Romanian past, and dancers and performers entertained us non-stop.

A veritable Romanian-mariachi band walked amongst the tables and serenaded us. Since all four of us were from different countries (Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, and myself from the US) we were all treated to a “traditional” song from our country. I got Frank Sinatra.

The entire experience was delightful and I recommend visiting this establishment whole heartedly.

The weekend I was there they were hosting a street food and wine festival (#MEGAstreetfood) that literally took place at the palace. It was amazing and if you happen to be there when it’s happening – or if you want to plan your trip around it – I highly recommend it. The food trucks were so much fun (over 50!) and the wine tasting took place in the palace – you were able to walk around, learn about the different vendors, taste and buy bottles, etc. It was a really unique and fun experience that happens annually.

After this – I was on my own. I walked and explored the city – both on my own, but also in an organized tour. Both were excellent ways to see this Romanian capital. I always recommend explorers partake in at least one guided tour of a city, even if it’s a free one, but for Bucharest especially. There is so much history – recent history – to see and understand here. Bucharest looks very rough (there is graffiti everywhere) and to understand the cultural explanation of that was really rewarding.

Most Memorable Sights in Bucharest – 1-2 days

Parcul Izvor was a sweet little place not far from the Palace – I stumbled upon a touristy little craft market while on my way to Origo for some tea (see more below!)

Below are sights from my own walking and wandering – I didn’t end up doing a free walking tour but I guarantee if you go on one it’ll hit a lot of the beautiful spots below.

The tour I did end up taking was through Intrepid Urban Adventures, their Dark Side of Bucharest tour. The scariest part was almost certainly meeting in front of the KFC. We ended up visiting two cemeteries and, while they were a bit obnoxious to get to on the subway, it was interesting to see something I never would have visited on my own. The guide had some great stories, too.

After the cemetery visits, we were also taken around to the various monuments and locations of the revolution. This part was great and I really appreciated having the guide. I had always walked past a lot of the areas but didn’t know the details. It’s such recent past and I really felt I learned a lot about the city. I definitely recommend Urban Adventures if you’re open to paying for a tour.

That concluded all the activities of Bucharest before I made my way up to Transylvania. I found some amazing places to eat and relax though – see below:

Favorite Cafes and Restaurants in Bucharest

Origo
More known for the coffee, they were SO kind when I asked about the tea selection. She actually brought out the canisters for me to sniff (I chose one with infused violet) and gave me one of the many wool blankets for my lap. Delightful.

Cozy spot at Origo

Cărturești Carusel
If you know anything about my travel habits – this is my happy place. It’s a book store with amazing architecture and a café on the top floor. It has literally everything. I ordered a lemonade with orange and mint and made plans to eventually be buried here if my plans for living forever don’t work out.

Pasta Restaurant
Yes. It’s literally called Pasta Restaurant. They make fresh pasta on site, the décor is adorable, and they have dried pasta under glass on the tables. I meaaaan COME ON. Loveeee.

Pasta Restaurant

Cărtureşti Verona
Quite literally one of my favorite concepts in the world. It’s a book store, tea studio, and project space all in a unique historical building. It’s lesser known than it’s downtown sister but I loved it even more. Beneath lovely trees with flowers and happy people – delicious food with specials of the day and flavored lemonades. I asked if I could live there, but they said no.

Animaletto Pizza Bar
Absurdly adorable pizza place with a lovely patio space. I’m a sucker for good lighting and paving stones (oh, and the pizza was also legit).

Nothing like ordering a whole pizza for myself

Nomad Skybar
This place is in a really fun location right on one of the main restaurant/club areas. It’s a bit seedy of an area, the “old town” but still one you are bound to visit if you’re doing any kind of nighttime activity in Bucharest. Nomad was fun because the rooftop allowed for some great views of the city and people watching below (also with tasty apps and drinks!)

Brașov

After my week in Bucharest I hopped the train, 2.5 hours, up to Brașov, Transylvania. It’s surrounded by the Carpathian Mountains and is known for it’s medieval walls, the Black Church, and a beautiful Council Square. It’s so adorable with cobbled streets and an entire street dedicated to outdoor restaurant seating. Oddly, it has a Hollywood-esque sign on the mountain side that totally takes away from the historic air but I liked the quirkiness of it.

See the Brasov sign?

You won’t need more than a day, maybe two, here. I only spent the one night before moving on, but I enjoyed putzing around the little town. The free walking tour available was quite good as well.

View of Brașov from the sign. Can you see the main square below?

Not surprisingly, one of the main things to do is go to the top of the mountain to view the city. There’s a platform literally right next to the Brașov/Hollywood sign which I found lovely and hilarious. The views are truly amazing though. You can either hike the whole thing or, after a short beautiful walk, you can just ride a cable car to the top.

Edge of the sign from the viewing platform

Piața Sfatului, or the Council Square, is a lovely place to chill out and people watch. It’s clearly the most central part of the city with great views of the mountains, cafes, a fountain and historical buildings. People use this as a meeting place and the vibrancy of the city shows here. I grabbed a snack at La Ceaun which wasn’t bad but wasn’t great either. The vibe made it worth it, though.

I stayed the night at a hostel up the hill (Kismet Dao – I think it might be closed now) which was fine but not something I would specifically recommend unless you are a legit 20-something backpacker. I left early, opting to walk the almost 3 miles to the train station. Seeing the town square at dawn was really quite amazing and I’m glad I tired out my feet to do so.

There were a few more things I could have done in Brașov, but I opted to head to one of the many castles of Transylvania. Now – I had a few options and one of those was, notably, Bran Castle or “Dracula’s Castle”.

I skipped it.

I decided I didn’t need the tourism – it had very heavily mixed reviews – and instead headed for what was touted to be the far better castle in Sinaia.

Sinaia

Best known for it’s castle and a ski resort town, Sinaia was relatively sleepy while I was there. But that didn’t bother me in the least. I was there at the true peak of the fall foliage and the beautiful of the oranges and yellows were incredible.

My train to Sinaia was uneventful and I made it easily to my B&B, Vila Camelia. It’s super easy to get to from the train and I had an adorable top floor room with a balcony. The food was excellent. I loved the little spot and would highly recommend.

My balcony with a view ❤

It didn’t take me long to settle into the B&B and then walk up to Peleș Castle. I inadvertently took the scenic route (zigged when I should have zagged) and the road was steep but it was still a nice walk with great views up to the castle.

Now – Castle might be a bit of a misnomer as it’s really more of a palace, or legit nice house, but it’s well worth a visit. From the grounds to the inside, everything is immaculate and well-preserved. The guides are great and I learned a lot about the history of Romania.

And that was it! After seeing Sinaia it was back on the train to Bucharest, one more night there in a hostel, the Podstel Umbrella, (super nice with private rooms!) and then back on the plane for home.

I truly enjoyed my time in Romania and while, honestly, at the time I didn’t rank it as one of my top vacations, I find myself thinking back to the week or so I spent there a lot. It’s a country where I found some of the best things I love – book stores and views and flavored lemonades. I wouldn’t turn down the chance to go again.

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Becoming a Brewsader – The BEST Grand Rapids Breweries (Ranked!)

Those who know me know that beer is a serious passion of mine (heck, I even work for Molson Coors, one of the largest brewers in the world). So my husband and I took a long weekend in the self-proclaimed “Beer City” – Grand Rapids, Michigan in February 2020.

The best part is Grand Rapids has a really fun little adventure to help direct your activities in the city! You can become a “Brewsader” and get stamps at over 40 participating breweries. If you get 8 or more stamps you can get a free, super-exclusive, t-shirt! Nothing quite gets my competitive spirit going quite like free swag so you can bet I was on board.

The hardest part about seeking to be a Brewsader is selecting where to go. There are a LOT of great options and I spent an absurd amount of time ranking, mapping, and identifying where to go. Here’s a quick cheat sheet of where we went and and how they ranked. You might as surprised as I was!

1) Creston Brewery
Ok – so I loooooved Creston Brewery. We went there for brunch on our last day and I could sing praises for everything. The space – an old furniture factory – was adorable and bright, the food was delicious, the service was perfect friendly midwestern nice, and, the beer! Let’s not forget the beer. So good with lots of unique options – good for brunch and for later if you decide to do so.
Did I mention they had these AMAZING Ice Box Brand Ice Cream Bars in a cooler?! I literally looked after we got home to see if they will deliver to Chicago (sad face, no). So, it’s worth going for that alone.

Our memorable samplings:
– Honey Bear (3.75 – Golden Ale)
– Bokonon (4.5 – New England IPA)
– Blueberry Sweet Street (4.25 – American Pale Wheat – really well balanced)
– Michicalia (4.5 – Sour Gose)

2) Grand Rapids Brewing Co
This place was just down the street from our hotel and one of our first stops due to convenience. It made me wish I wasn’t specifically trying to find other places to go, because I really wanted to go back. The vibe was really fun and the food was excellent. And then the beer! It was SO good with excellent sour options. Really fun, vibrant selections. Definitely a place worth stopping.

Our memorable samplings:
– Rosalynn Bliss Blonde (4 – Blonde Ale – really fun flavor profile
– DDH Imperial Nordic Flux (4.5 – IPA – this one was ASTOUNDINGLY good)
– Petite Chouette (4.75 – Sour – a literally near perfect sour. YUM.)
– Princess Unicorn Pom Pom Party Passion Queen (4.5 – Sour – I would have given it a 4+ by name alone. But it was ALSO good. I mean, come onnn)

3) City Built Brewing Company
We stopped by City Built for lunch as it had latin-style food and, when it comes to bar hopping, it’s easy to get sick of the traditional pub fare quickly. This place did not disappoint with excellent tacos. The space itself was really cute with long tables, high tops, and a big selection of board games. It was super family friendly which made us miss our kids – well, kind of.
And the beer! Super tasty with a lot of interesting options including sours (yay!). Definitely would go back.

Our memorable samplings:
– #happyfriendsgiving (3.75 – sour)
– Even Higher Life (3.75 – IPL – how could I resist a play on High Life?!)
– Tender Elvis (4 – Farmhouse Ale – Saison)
– Noah On Monroe (4.25 – Sour)

4) New Holland – The Knickerbocker
Okay – so as a nationally (or at least regionally?) distributed beer, we knew New Holland needed to be a stop. I mean, who hasn’t tried Dragon’s Milk? We decided to take a tour here and it was a good one – samplings with a good education of the brewing and distilling they do on site.
But – the place is huge and it was crazy busy while we were there. Even with the size we couldn’t get a seat anywhere after the tour so we didn’t get to try much. If you can get there when it’s not a mad house (not sure if that ever happens?) then it’s worth going.

Our memorable samplings:
– Dragon’s Milk (4.25 – Imperial Stout)
– Tangerine Space Machine (4 – New England IPA)

5) Founders Brewing Co.
Ah – Founders. This was a must go for a variety of reasons for Eric and I. Centennial IPA is a family favorite and so we purchased the tour and made it our Saturday night stop.
First off – I personally wouldn’t go to the tour. I’m spoiled having worked for Molson Coors and I’ve been able to see on multiple occasion the big operations for Miller in Milwaukee and Coors in Golden, but even still I think if brewing would have been new to me the tour still would be disappointing. None of the operations were running and everything was shown from an overhanging balcony. It definitely wasn’t worth the time or money.
The taproom area was nice and had some live music while we were there. We didn’t stay because it was exceptionally crowded and the ordering process was actually a little confusing. Still, Founders beer is delicious and if you haven’t had it, it’s worth a stop. We just didn’t love the overall execution of the process.

Our memorable samplings:
– K.I.T. Pale Ale (3.75 – Pale)
– All Day (4 – IPA – a classic)
– Hello Jane (4.25 – IPA)
– Kentucky Breakfast (2 – Stout – guys, I’m just not a big stout fan in general but oof, I really don’t like KBS. Sorry, I know there’s a lot of KBS lovers out there)
– Solid Gold (3.5 – American Light Lager)
– Rubaeus (3.75 – Fruit Beer – let’s face it, I’ll always be a Rubeaus fan. After all, it’s what I consider to be a “gateway” to the best style of beer, souuuurs!)

6) Atwater Grand Rapids
Full disclosure – we specifically went to Atwater because this was the newest craft partner to the Molson Coors family and I was excited to give it a try for the sake of my work.
And I’m glad we did! The space was cute and the beer flight has some really tasty prospects. I will say this is the place where we encountered the worst service but I got the sense it was a bit of an off day so don’t judge too harshly. It’s definitely a good stop if you are in the area for New Holland.

Our memorable samplings:
– Fog (3.75 – IPA)
– Whango Raz (4.75 – American Pale Wheat – I loooved the balance of the mango and raspberry in this one)
– Hey Diddle Diddle (4 – American Pale Wheat)
– Sunshine in January (3.75 – blonde ale)

7) E.B. Coffee & Pub
This may be surprising to you, but finding breweries open for breakfast wasn’t an easy feat (I know, right? Amateurs). And that is where E.B. Coffee & Pub did not disappoint. It’s a drive – maybe 15 minutes – outside of Grand Rapids. If you’re looking for that morning option this is a solid location. No one blinked at our double beverage order of latte and beer and we were able to sit in some comfy chairs around the fireplace.
We only sampled a little of the beer selection but the two we had were solid options if not mind-bending.

Our memorable samplings:
– Dirty Dancer (4 – Blonde Ale)
– Blackberry IPA (4 – a dark IPA)

8) TwoGuys Brewing
Excellent reviews made this our first stop on the way into town from Chicago. Such a stereotypical hipster brewery. It used to be a convenience store from the looks of it and the tables were all wobbly and all the workers wore flannel, beards, and beanies. It was kind of adorable. The food was decent and the beers were good, but the ambiance was a bit lacking. If you’re driving past it’s not a bad spot but if you’re already in Grand Rapids you don’t need to make the trip out.

Our memorable samplings:
– Gingerbread Joe (4.5 – winter warmer – not normally my style, but good)
– TwoGuys IPA (4.5 – IPA – a very solid IPA)

9) Brewery Vivant
This brewery had a super high rating, ties to the founder of New Holland, and is in an amazing old refurbished funeral home (coooool!) – so I was psyched to go. We made the trek (a little over a mile) from downtown which was actually a really nice walk past some historical buildings. But – to be honest – we were a little disappointed.
Their beer were mostly farmhouse style and, while seemed decent, didn’t do much for us. The menu was quite small and a litte frou-frou/pricey for our tastes (think duck confit, etc).

Our memorable samplings:
– Jam Jar (3.5 – Farmhouse Ale – honestly, this reminded me of Rubeaus but… not as good)

All in all, it was a huge success and definitely a cute/fun town to visit. We were there in February so I can’t speak for outdoor options but I bet a lot of these places have them and have adapted for the social distancing requirements as well. We hope to go back to Grand Rapids soon and add to our list (even though we already earned the shirt!)

If you go, we found the Hyatt to be a solid place to stay for both comfort and location – it was very easy to walk to pretty much all these breweries and there were others in walking distance we didn’t make it to.

What did we miss that we have to make sure we get to next time?

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The Most Unique (and Best) Airbnbs in the World

I take the question of “where should we stay?” very seriously when I travel. I don’t stop at a Hilton. Like food, where you stay tells the story of a place and I make it my mission to stay in a place where I want to take a picture before I mess up the sheets. Here is my list of the most amazing and unique places I’ve stayed.

A Treehouse in Plymouth, Massachusetts

That’s right. A giant, friggin’ treehouse. SQUEE. It was roomy and so unique! Beautiful grounds, luxury inside, with a compostable toilet in the tree house and rustic outdoor shower that made it feel like real tree house living. Highly recommend!

A prison cell in Ljubljana, Slovenia

This has literally been my go-to “fun fact” about myself since 2009. Because no one believes me when I say “I’ve spent two nights in a Slovenian jail.” Not technically AirBnB but still thoroughly amaaaazing.

Hammocks Galore in Galapagos

The White House in Puerto Ayora was a delight. Tiny rooms but plenty of hammock space and such a great location. I mean, I pretty much just love the Galapagos so you probably can’t go wrong anywhere but this, THIS place is a great start.

Cloud Forest Views in Mindo, Ecuador

Las Terrazas de Dana are AMAZING. Filled with tropical plants, beautiful views, unfortgettable hikes, and food we just couldn’t get enough of. Go to Mindo because it’s beautiful, but REALLY go to Mindo because this place is to die for.

Balcony Dreams in Sinaia, Romania

Sinaia is a sleepy little ski town famous for the Peles Castle. While not the most famous castle in Romania, it’s a beautiful and wonderful little spot. The Vila Camelia was a wonderful true Bed and Breakfast with a delicious spread, gorgeous house, and I scored a beautiful top floor room with balcony that looked at the most beautiful mountain view!

The Sweetest Spot in Topanga, California

She isn’t kidding when she calls this the sweetest spot. Fluffy white blankets, comfy beds, a beautiful view – everything right down to the coffee cups are absolutely adorable. Such an amazing getaway spot – just don’t let the drive up the Canyon road intimidate you!

Dar with Beautiful Rooftop in Fez

This was such a magical place – finding it was a treasure hunt and walking inside was a breath of fresh air. It’s been a few years so I don’t know if the same staff is there but I STILL remember how delicious the chicken tagine was that we had from the cook.

The Fortress in Vermont

Okay – full disclosure – I haven’t actually stayed here. But it’s run by good friends of mine and it is on my “must go” list… and it looks AMAZING. I have no qualms promising epic views and hospitality.

Keep checking back for updates! Also – I would LOVE to hear about your favorite spots!!

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My Book-Ish Tour (In and Around) Boston

In the Summer of 2019 my husband and I took off for New England for a week. He had a Pinball Expo to attend to promote the newest game for his company which meant I had a few days to frolic around the area. That, of course, meant that I scouted out all the literary things I could find in the area and woo-boy I found some amazing things!

Boston

First off, we spent a day in Boston. We stayed in a nice little airbnb in the North End of Boston. It’s a very Italian area, super walkable and pretty centrally located. We didn’t have a lot of time in the city but racked up the miles by trotting around the area and following the Freedom Trail which is, very conveniently, marked on the sidewalks.

I’ll be honest, while I did enjoy Boston, after spending so much time traveling elsewhere – and especially a lot of time in Europe – I wasn’t overly impressed with the history. My favorite tidbits of Boston weren’t really part of the Freedom Trail. The Boston Public Library was nice to pop into with a beautiful study room (any library with long tables and green lamps wins me over)

We also kind of stumbled across two memorials that I didn’t read anything about in my copious Boston Tour Book research that felt very powerful to me. The first we found was the Iraq-Afghanistan Memorial which had hanging dog tags. It was a beautiful and moving way to capture the numbers.

The second was the Holocaust Memorial which was easily the most moving I have ever seen. The tall glass columns were filled with steam and name after name after name. Being able to step into the grating and be immersed in the sensation was… emotional. Don’t miss this if you make it to Boston.

Holocaust memorial

Cape Cod/Plymouth

After Boston we spent a couple days exploring Cape Cod and stayed in what can only be described as one of the coolest places I’ve EVER slept – an EPIC tree house in Plymouth. It was both luxurious and rustic and since it wasn’t quite on Cape Cod proper we didn’t have a crazy amount of traffic to deal with either. Honestly – I could have stayed there a week. The local spots were adorable and the tree house was a dream.

From there, we went up to Sturbridge for the pinball expo and HERE is where it start to get bookish. I waved good-bye and popped into a number of drool-worthy places for the literary inclined.

Concord, Massachusetts

It was a blisteringly hot day when I made my way to Concord, but I didn’t let it stop me. I parked downtown and walked down to the Minute Man National Park which was a lovely place to stroll through and read a little history. The town is famous for Henry David Thoreau, Louis May Alcott, Nathaniel Hawthorne (who wrote “the shot heard round the world”), and Ralph Waldo Emerson.

After walking the park, I found a couple websites that directed me to the cemetery where I could creep on/pay my respects to these literary heroes. It was a nice detour walk back into town.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

I popped into a number of shops in the adorable little town proper but my absolute favorite was Nesting. I don’t usually go bananas about little shops (honestly, I get intimidated by almost any place that isn’t a coffee shop or book store) but I felt comfortable in the twists and turns of this adorable beige and tan beauty. Definitely check it out if you are there – LOTS of cards and journals.

Before leaving town I knew I needed to find my way to Walden. It was mysteriously closed in the morning so I waited in a gigantic line. The parking lots were huge and the place was packed – which, for me, was a bit tongue in cheek given why it was famous. I almost turned around, worried the magic would be gone, but decided I would make good on my entry fee and found a path that circled the lake.

Walden Pond

While it certainly wasn’t the peaceful wilderness that Thoreau experienced, it is a truly gorgeous lake and I’m glad I stopped. The walk around the lake was pleasant but you could easily bring your swim suit and spend an afternoon – just be prepared to share the space if it’s a nice day.

The park did a great job highlighting where Thoreau was and there were a few literary gawkers there like me and not just sunbathers.

Hartford, Connecticut

I’ve always had a soft spot for Mark Twain and couldn’t pass up the opportunity to see his home in Hartford. The drive from Sturbridge was an easy one and I got to check off another state from my to-do list as well.

I got into Hartford early and planned to pop into a coffee shop for some writing and reading. I went to Blue State Coffee as they promised to donate 2% to democratic initiatives. The brew was tasty but, I’ll be honest, the downtown area where I needed to park and walk was not pleasant. I was nervous to leave my rental car where I did at 9am and Blue State overall had a cold atmosphere. I had hoped to walk around downtown Hartford but ended up getting my coffee, writing a journal entry, and heading to the house.

The Mark Twain House was a delight and well worth the drive to Hartford. The tour was expertly done. The information about Twain was super interesting but, even more, the house itself was awesome and fascinating. Very beautiful and unique with a top-notch gift shop.

I didn’t get the chance to visit the Harriet Beecher Stowe house and center as I ran out of time but it’s literally on the same grounds, which is super neat. I did pop into the gift shop which was full of feminist loveliness.

All in all

I had a lovely time bopping around the area and finding book-ish things to do. I can’t report on any really great coffee shops unfortunately (I went to a few but didn’t LOVE any of them). I also wish I could have gone up to Salem or a few other key historical spots. But if you’re in the area, I highly recommend the places I’ve highlighted here!

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The BEST Ice Cream in La Fortuna, Costa Rica

Headed to La Fortuna? Never fear – we tested out just about every ice cream option in town and can recommend our absolute favorites here:

ONE: The Guy in the Square

So good. So authentic.

Ok, so, to be fair, this isn’t “ice cream”. It’s shaved ice with condensed milk and your flavors -we got raspberry and coconut and I just about went to heaven. Stir it up, drink it up, all walk walking around the square. What’s it called? I’ve heard all kinds but we just ended up calling it a “Copa”.

TWO: Kiwi Caffee Gelato

Slightly off the beaten path but not far (considering you can easily walk every single block of this town in a single afternoon), it’s not the first ice cream spot you likely found but it’s definitely one to get to. It’s full service, cute, and had some legit flavors! Unique and very friendly.

THREE: Unnamed? Near Pollo Fortuneno

Ok – I’ve googled, I even have a picture of the place (not very good, but it’s there) and I still have no idea what it’s called. Honestly, even when we walked in there was almost left because there was no one at the counter… but then someone from chicken place like… hopped the counter and served us. It was strange, but the gelato was excellent and the seating adorable. So – worth it!

FOUR: Pops

If you’re in Costa Rica – you’ve seen a Pops. They’re everywhere! While not the most creative ice cream I’ve ever had, they are a solid option and were the ones open latest in town when we were there – so that’s always a plus.

FIVE: Gelatoland

Definitely our least favorite option. Don’t get me wrong, the product wasn’t bad, but the rum raisin was definitely skimping on the raisins, the flavors were only mildly creative, and they had a very string NO SAMPLE policy (excuuuuuse me?). Good in a pinch but I better be able to have a taste before I buy, I’m just saying

San Jose – Honorable Mention – Helados de Sorbetera

So, if you’re headed to La Fortuna then you will likely find yourself in San Jose at some point. If so, you need to find Helados de Sorbetera. Super authentic counter service that was packed to the gills and uniquely wonderful!

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G Adventures Costa Rica Kayak Adventure – My Review

In January 2020, Marjorie and I threw money at a tour company called G Adventures and jetted off to Costa Rica. It was somewhat of an experiment after our Bucket List Galapagos Adventure. We both knew nothing could top Galapagos – but could this come close? And would we find value is someone doing all the planning for us (instead of the intense heavy lifted we did ourselves for Ecuador)?

TL; DR – 3/5 stars overall. Enjoyed our time, would not do a tour again.

First you might be wondering – what the heck is this? G Adventures is a one stop shop – you pay, you fly, you follow the leader. Check it out here.

Our trusty little ride

Day 0: Car Rental and Quepos

Okay so we couldn’t resist a little self planning. We arrived one day early, met in the airport, and then we were off like a rocket. We decided to test the waters with a car rental. (This was a BIG DEAL for two city women who very rarely drive and don’t own cars)

We chose Adobe Car Rental after reading a fantastic review from My Tan Feet. My Tan Feet were SO helpful in the booking and understanding-what’s-next process – I highly recommend you use them as your jumping off point if you plan on renting a car in Costa Rica. Additionally, Adobe Car Rental was top notch. Excellent customer service (English/Spanish) and the worker came to the car with me, checked it, helped me adjust everything, etc. Top notch service I’ve never received with any other car rental company.

We jumped right on the highway and took the 3-ish hour drive down the coast to our ultimate destination – Quepos. For anyone squeamish about driving abroad – this stretch of road was pristine. Yes, some people liked to pass aggressively but there was nothing nerve wracking about it in the least.

Quepos is a cute little spot and we arrived in the midst of a political rally -which sounds ominous but was actually more of a street fest that was really fun to walk around in. We grabbed some ice cream at Pops (a chain that is everywhere in Costa Rica. Not bad but not drool-worthy. Think Chocolate Shoppe or Cold Stone, maybe?) and enjoyed the boardwalk.

View from the room

We stayed at Las Cascadas in a room up in the canopy. It had an amazing view but no screens (sigh) so we had to stay huddled away since it was dark and giant bugs were not invited to our sleepover. Also the trek up to the room was at least a 50 degree angle, it was intense. Overall, the space was cute but the room and restaurant felt something to be desired. I wouldn’t recommend this place but suggest another!

Day 1: Quepos and San Jose

The following day we heavily debated – do we go to Manuel Antonio or the Spice Farm? We decided a lot of nature was in our future and, even though I’m sure Manuel Antonio is amazing – we skipped it in favor of Villa Vanilla. And, look for anyone who has been in Central or South America, we found this to be a real treat. We’ve see cocoa, we’ve seen coffee, but this to me was truly unique. It’s a very small operation with a jungle of variety of plants. It was educational, beautiful, unhurried, and delicious. I highly recommend this tour.

Instead of trying to shove too much into one day, we hopped back in the car and made it to San Jose for our orientation. Looking back – and with some knowledge, I would have done this totally differently. Our hotel in San Jose was nothing to brag about (El Sesteo). Some rooms didn’t have air conditioning, some did, but all were depressing. The courtyard was cute but it was definitely not a place I would have chosen on my own. Location was fine, but not great either… and here begins the reason why tours are just not my thing. I hate feeling like the money I put into the tour wasn’t used the way I would have used it. That might not be fair, but it’s true.

We had orientation which, honestly, for anyone with an iota of previous travel experience, was unnecessary. We met our guide, Gabriel, who was a lovely human being, but otherwise the information was general and not something that needed walking through. We learned that night that immediately in the morning we were boarding a public bus for about 4 hours to get to La Fortuna.

Here’s where I would have done it differently – since we already had the car, Marjorie and I should have just driven up to La Fortuna and spent the night there. There was NO reason for us to have a night in San Jose at all if we were already going to have a car. We could have skipped the public bus and had that much time in comfort and in La Fortuna.

Day 2: La Fortuna

We started our day on the bus which, if I’m honest, was actually way nicer than anticipated – but still, a long bus ride! (Also at every bus station in Costa Rice you’ll find a chain bakery that is SUPER tasty! Musmanni – check it out!)

When we arrived in La Fortuna we had lunch at the Rainforest Cafe (no, not that one) which was tasty and a place we went back to for breakfast. We decided to try and squeeze in an excursion (and save a little money) and instead explored a little of the town. La Fortuna is tiny with only a few streets around the main square. It’s very cute but it’s really just a jumping off point for all the various activities. And it was going to be home for three nights. On one hand, it’s nice to not move around a lot, but on the other, the hotel was (again) something to be desired. We stayed in Hotel Las Colinas and our room in particular was so small it was literally impossible to unpack (it was our beds and ONE tiny table – no dresser or closet) which defeated the purpose of spending a few nights, in my opinion. Now – it had a few positives with being in an incredible location to walk around and having an amazing view. But the room seriously sucked.

View from the patio of Las Colinas

We did get an amazing ice cream on square and has a really great meal at Yellow Bark – so it’s not like it was a total loss of a day.

Day 3: La Fortuna and our First Group Excursion

I’ll admit, coming onto day three I was getting pretty salty. Two lackluster hotels, a bus ride, and basically nothing happening yet? I was feeling antsy and wondering where my money went.

Kayaking on Lake Arenal

But then – this! Our first kayak excursion! It was led by Desafio and I loved this. They took us over to Lake Arenal where we split the group into two – one group kayaked out to the peninsula while the other group did SUP (Stand up paddle board) and then we switched. During our break in the middle of the lake we had fruit and beer to enjoy.

This was my first time doing SUP and I was practically giddy I loved it so much. It was a beautiful and amazing spot to the activity and I highly recommend it. One thing to note – you do NOT need to be on this G Adventures tour for this! This is a tour hosted by Desafio and you can buy it one-off if you are in La Fortuna on your own.

After lunch, we went on a hike to get a better view of the Arenal volcano. This was organized through our guide and G Adventures, but it was, again, a tour hosted by Desafio that you can do without being part of a larger group. It was a nice little outing – definitely more “walk” than “hike” but did give some good opportunities to see wild life and pictures of the volcano with some informational tidbits.

Lastly, our group decided to partake in what our guide, Gabriel, called a more “rustic” hot springs experience. This, my friends, was the most unique and hysterical activity we encountered in our G Adventures trip. We stopped by a little market, bought some beer, and then Gabriel led us down some super sketchy steps into was was clearly just a dam run off or something super podunk. I almost lost my suit in a particularly aggressive portion but eventually the group of us set up shop in the back, Gabriel pulled out some candles, and it was downright relaxing and silly. We never would have found it on our own without Gabriel and it was definitely a perk to the trip. If you are in La Fortuna on your own and you ask around, you could find it, but I wouldn’t recommend doing it by yourself.

At the ridiculous hot springs!

Day 4: La Fortuna

Our last full day in La Fortuna was unscheduled so we opted to try the boat tour up in Cano Negro. And there was a bit of the problem with the whole “other people plan for you” type of vacation – we weren’t sure what we were signing up for. We thought there was some kind of hiking element… or some kind of really unique situation. It was pretty much just a long, slow boat ride where you almost saw some wildlife. All in all, not our favorite use of our time (though it was lovely… just not quite active enough for us). It did include lunch, but our lunch stop was very awkwardly on someone’s farm property and there was no place to take advantage of the “outdoor commode” without showing your butt to the world.

We spent our final evening in La Fortuna enjoying the weather, walking, and doing a little shopping. It was lovely, but definitely time to go. Dinner at Lava Lounge which was tasty, but expensive.

Day 5: Sarapiqui and the 2nd Kayak Adventure

Welcome to Summer Camp!

Seriously – this was the point in our tour that you have to either laugh or cry. I think I did a little of both. We left La Fortuna in a lovely little private van and made our way to Sarapiqui. My jaw dropped when we pulled into Cinco Ceibas. The painted bus was adorable, the main lodge was fun and campy, but the fact that they housed NINE WOMEN in one of these cabins (with 3 bedrooms… 4 if you count the one that was just curtained off from the kitchen) and one bathroom was, to me, not okay. And don’t get me started on the food (the first included meals ALL TRIP). (Spoiler: the food sucked).

Look -let me back up here. I am not a finnicky traveler. I don’t get grossed out. I understand limitations. I was HOT about this though. I did not pay for shared accommodations. I paid a very decent price for this trip – it wasn’t supposed to be shoe string and, lemme tell ya, this is shoe string accommodation.

Ok – but if I was able to put aside my frustrations and absorb the good – let’s be honest we NEVER would have found this place on our own. And it really was like summer camp – we were the only people there and ate cafeteria style. It was kind of adorable.

We got there early enough to do our kayaking trip in the afternoon and that was a blast. It was a level 1 rapids – basically, a river with a slight current – which made the kayaking trip a LOT of fun. We dumped ourselves but it was a solid workout and an amazing trip. For people who don’t like adrenaline it was the perfect level up from a lazy river and a truly unique experience.

Outside of the kayak trip though there was NOTHING to do there (they didn’t even have board games in stock) so we chilled out in the main lodge (the only spot with mediocre wifi) until it was late enough to go to bed.

Day 6: Tortuguero

We bid a not unwelcome good-bye to summer camp and made the long-ish trek to Tortuguero. Now, this was a truly lovely place. Only accessible by boat I imagine a lot of solo traveler skip it but I definitely recommend finding your way there. It took a lot of travel but we eventually made it to the Baula Lodge – easily our nicest accommodations on the trip. While no luxury establishment they had cute little rooms in pretty colors, a nice pool, and fun places to hang out near the water.

At the Baula Lodge

We took a walk around the little town which was adorable (and honestly larger than I thought)! It’s all water taxis and cuteness around here and I could have spent more time but decided to enjoy the lodge instead.

Day 7: Tortuguero and Kayak Trip #3

We decided to have a packed day and started off with a morning hike to a beautiful look out. We had enough people join us that we had our guide come but it was something you easily could do on your own. It was a lovely little hike with some good stairs at the end.

Then it was straight to our third kayak trip which was delightful. It was a good three hours down the canals. Wide and beautiful at times and super narrow little hidey-holes in others. It was so much fun – we got really close to caymans and limbo’d under fallen trees. A truly wonderful and fun experience.

After a well earned lunch we then went back to the Tortuguero side of the river and took a nice long walk. This was led by our guide and we walked through the jungle, looking for wildlife, and then walked back on the beach side. It was relaxing and energizing and I got all the walking in the surf a gal could want.

Day 8: Back to San Jose

We took out time enjoying some coffee in the morning before heading back to the mainland. The boat trip back certainly seemed to take longer than the way there but eventually we made our way back to San Jose (and my faaavorite hotel. Sigh).

We took a little walking tour downtown, really racking up our steps (and wandering through some fairly sketchy areas) but finding some cute little tidbits in town. I’ll admit, what you read about San Jose in the guide books is pretty accurate. There are a few interesting spots but for the most part it’s not a very desirable city to wander. Half a day was plenty of time to feel like we got what we wanted out of it.

Dinner was a Restaurant Machu Picchu – tasty with HUGE blended drinks (alcoholic and non-alcoholic).

Day 9: Home

And that was it! There was nothing in the morning at all, just shipping us off to our destination. We walked a few blocks (again, so sketchy around our hotel) but found this adorable place (Hotel Grano de Oro) that had an excellent breakfast. It was a breath of fresh air before getting on our flights home.

All in All

We had a lovely time in Costa Rica. It’s a beautiful country with lots of fun activities. Taking out trip through G Adventures gave us things we could have – and would have – easily found ourselves but also a few extras. The kayak trips – the whole point of the tour was chose – were all exceptional and truly different. We might not have ever done one of them and definitely wouldn’t have done all three – so that was a huge perk. But the let down with the hotels and food was a big one. And – we did the math – but this trip more or less cost the same as Galapagos and Ecuador (well known for being expensive). That was definitely a let down as we figured we’d save a little this way but there were SO many added fees. I feel like ultimately we enjoyed ourselves despite the tour, not because of it, and Costa Rica just held enough positive attractive to keep us positive overall.

Overview Costa Rica Recommendations:

Car:
Adobe Car Rental – 5/5 – highly recommend
Hotel:
Las Cascadas (Quepos) – 3/5 – okay but there’s better nearby
El Sesteo (San Jose) – 2/5 – cute courtyard is about the only kind thing I can say.
Hotel Las Colinas (La Fortuna) – 3/5 – if location is your game this is fine, for anything else try another
Cinco Ceibas (Sarapiqui) – 2/5 – I can’t even….
Baula Lodge (Tortuguero) – 4/5 – I’d be curious about other establishments, but this is a solid spot.
Food:
Musmanni (bakery, various locations) – 5/5
Los Guarumos (near Jaco) – 4/5 – huge and cute
Soda La Hormiga (La Fortuna) – 5/5 – so cute, so good, so authentic! We ate here twice!
My Coffee (La Fortuna) – 3/5 – fine, but Rainforest Cafe was better.
Yellow Bark (La Fortuna) – 4.5/5 – excellent burgers!
Nanku (La Fortuna) 4/5 – tasty but pricey
Rainforest Cafe (La Fortuna) – 5/5 – tasty and cute
Lava Lounge (La Fortuna) – 3/5 – good but really quite expensive
Restaurante Machu Picchu – 4/5 – decent dinner spot
Hotel Grano de Oro (Breakfast, San Jose) – 5/5 yummy and so nice!
Ice Cream:
y’all, I have a whole POST for ice cream

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Best Coffee Shops to Work from in San Antonio, Texas

When Zoe and I get together our main objectives are bookstores, coffee shops, and good food.

San Antonio did not disappoint! Here are the top locations we found that were excellent spots to hunker down, open up the laptop, and be productive.

Here are our rankings:

1) Press Coffee4035 Broadway St, San Antonio

Cute upper level Table at Press Coffee

We love Press place so much, we spent 2 out of 3 of our mornings there. The coffee itself was top notch – I personally had a hazelnut latte and it was spot on with taste and foam and all around yum. Our decision to share a cinnamon roll left me with regret, only because I really didn’t want to share.

But, guys, the venue. It’s beautiful unique building with all kinds of lush vegetation. Plenty of cute and unique seating with fun little multi-level hideaways. It was a bit chilly both the mornings we were there but there were 3 different patio spots that made for lots of outdoor seating while still being intimate. Definitely a must stop.

2) Candlelight Coffeehouse3011 N St Mary’s St, San Antonio

Board games available at Candelight! Couldn’t resist a little Battleship

This was my happy place. First to note – this is an evening coffee bar. It’s 4pm-12am most days and has a full bar. But it’s so much more! I can’t even begin to rank what I loved the most about this place so I’ll just make a laundry list: the patio was HUGE and amazing with quirky artwork throughout, the inside had tables and then multiple couches to provide perfect relaxation and friend time. Cool artwork, our tea was served in tea pots with strainers (and was DELICIOUS) and they have a Cake Bar. A CAKE BAR PEOPLE THIS IS NOT A DRILL.

The Cake Bar!

It was brilliant and lovely and best of all inclusive and I think I fell in love with a bar.

3) Local Coffee (at Pearl) – 302 Pearl Pkwy, San Antonio

View from our perch at Local Coffee

When you walk into this coffee shop, you may feel like you’ve been here before. Quintessentially hipster with a minimal menu – they may have had bakery items but I didn’t partake. It looked to me what Starbucks probably looked at before it became Starbucks. But the drinks were good (I had a chai and it was top notch) with a good amount of indoor seating. But I didn’t stay indoors, opting for one of the many tables in the cuteness of the square that is Pearl.

Zoe and I actually stumbled upon this place and were flabbergasted – the whole Pearl area and concept was adorable and should have been our first destination in town and yet we never saw it in any of the blogs we found. Highly recommend bopping around this adorable spot.

4) Rosella at the Rand – 114 E Houston St, San Antonio

Loved those half moon booths

Upscale little spot with easy parking downtown – we shared a plate of warm brie (drooool) and both got lavender chai lattes. One of their half circle booths was available that had an easy outlet for a good working session. They didn’t mind us camping out at all, though it’s possible they have their busier times and will want you to turn over the table. Still – a few good outdoor work locations too made this an excellent nice location to be.

5) Summer Moon Coffee – 3233 N St Mary’s St #102, San Antonio

This one is from their Frisco location but same great coffee!

There are a few Summer Moon locations around Texas. They are well known for their super-secret homemade cream that is to die for. I sampled their Cinnamon Latte which was excellent and then the true “Summer moon” which is a ton of cream with a shot of espresso. It was basically like drinking a melted milkshake and I was in some kind of heaven.

The location we found wasn’t the cutest – with a drive thru window it seems to be more of a convenience type of location. But there were plenty of seats, with even a few outdoors (though not much to look at besides the parking lot). Still, definitely an easy place to spend the morning getting through those work emails.

6) Crepeccino – 5500 Babcock Rd #104, San Antonio

This is a crepe shop and a coffee shop and it’s like my whole world combined into one beautiful, amazing pinpoint. It’s a smidge “further afield” and even though it has cute decor inside it is in one of those strip malls which made the experience a little harsh. But, other than the overly large aspect, we had an amazing savory (chicken alfredo?!) crepe with a top notch little side salad and followed it up with a truly happy dance worthy 3-chocolate crepe.

3 chocolate crepe!

Beauty and taste – who could ask for more? With more than enough seating and strong wifi it was a great spot off point.

7) Hayclon Southtown1414 S Alamo St, San Antonio

Chai at Hayclon – served with a few animal crackers!

Still along the river walk but one the path-less-traveled side, we really enjoyed Hayclon. Very hip and industrial, they advertised a drag brunch that I wanted to switch my flight to stay and watch. They had a very good crowd when we arrived right at brunch time on Saturday so we didn’t pull out the laptops, but we did see others working. We pretty much just focused on the food (my breakfast burrito was SO good) and drink. It was one of those places where you just knew every item on the menu would be spectacular.

Our only disappointment was we saw a ‘make your own smores’ on the website but it wasn’t part of brunch. We didn’t beg, so, I assume if you begged you could maybe get it, but we decided we weren’t hungry enough. It was close though – because let me tell you, the picture looked amazing.

If you come here to work, you might want to avoid the brunch hour as I personally would have felt a little strange trying to camp there at that time, but there were a few couches that seemed up for grabs (though they were full) and some great outdoor space as well, they just might have a calmer vibe any other time of the day.

We only had a few days so – what did we miss?!

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My Book-ish Tour of Los Angeles

I spent a weekend in Los Angeles to visit one of my best friends and we had only three things on our agenda: books, books, and more books.

When my friend Zoe and I get together, it’s always with a literary agenda. We’re both writers (she’s way better) and spend the majority of the time we have together sitting at coffee shops and visiting book-ish locations. We had a fabulous time and found some prime hide-a-ways that must be highlighted.

First – Zoe and I stayed in what is quick possibly the cutest Airbnb ever. It was tucked away in the Topanga canyons. It was built in the 1920s with full amenities, fluffy white blankets, fireplace, and an incredible porch with amazing views. Never mind the somewhat near-death driving experience to get there. It was SO worth it.

It was such a lovely place to sit, enjoy tea and wine, and spend time on our laptops writing for NaNoWriMo.

Favorite Writing Spots

  • Paradise Cove Beach Cafe Malibu – we stumbled upon this place on our way up to Ojai. We were hungry and made an abrupt turn off the PCH when we say the rather large street sign. We were a bit put off when we saw we had to pay for parking but didn’t regret it once we were inside. The food was excellent and they have both indoor and outdoor (on the sand) seating. After our meal, we took our laptops out to the beach and sat in the lounge chairs overlooking the water. It was very pleasant and a really easy spot to do some beach writing (which is no small feat!
  • Bricks and Scones – I love this place so much I made Zoe come back twice (not that she minded). The food and drinks are excellent (loooove the blended chai!) and there is plenty of both indoor and outdoor seating. Being the midwesterner I am, I am in absolute heaven if I can sit outside in the sun with my laptop in November. Highly, highly recommend as the perfect cafe to hang out in for a while.

Favorite Book Store Visits

  • The Ripped Bodice – Let’s face it, this might be my favorite book store in the whole world, not just LA. It’s filled with romance books as with lots of liberal and LGBTQ+ friendly materials as well. It’s a haven for gifts with all kinds of fun knick-knacks (I bought a “Kilty Pleasures” Calendar with muscular men in kilts for my book club’s white elephant gift. It was a riot!). It’s not huge, but it has a wonderful selection and does a great job of highlighting various items. So cute, I could have spent a lot more time there!
  • Bart’s Books – While not really close to Los Angeles, Zoe and I decided we just had to made the trip up to Ojai to see the famous outdoor bookstore – and I’m so glad we did! It was heavenly with a wide variety of books and what seemed to be a maze of shelves. It was a lot bigger than I expected and even had lots of little tables to sit and read. We didn’t stay long enough to pull out our laptops but this could definitely be a relaxing place to write as well!
  • The Last Bookstore – No tour of LA bookstores is complete without a visit the Last Bookstore. It’s not in the most desirable area of town (parking is a bit tricky) but it was worth a stop. It was quite busy while we were there and while there were some seating areas, it was noisy and not a place I would hang out. I’ll be honest – I didn’t love it. But I am still glad I went. It has some amazing book structures and it was also HUGE. Nice photo ops but I prefer a quieter place, myself.

Our literary adventure in Los Angeles did not disappoint! Zoe has lived in LA for a number of years now so she had many more suggestions that we just didn’t get to in the time we had.

Zoe’s Honorable Mentions

Like any large city there are many nooks and crannies and I know we missed some amazing spots – I’d love to hear them!

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