Monday, February 20, 2012

Tropical on the cheap

      In light of a co-worker going to Central America for the second time, and another friend possibly being deployed there, I wanted to see what there actually is to this section of the world.
     As an American, Central America evokes more of a sense of danger than anything else. Yet I've known some people to have pleasant experiences there. Have I misjudged? Or have they found a couple places out of the way of the violence down south we normally hear about in our US newspapers? I decided to investigate, if only to satisfy my curiosity.
Belize: My first look was a country that has rumored to have good surfing spots. Fantastic beaches? Check. Mayan ruins and other things a history geek like me might enjoy? Check. Caves to explore? Check. Uh oh, looks like I might be adding this country on the short list. When I first looked at the Destination 360 site, the picture blew me away, but this one really got my adventure mindset cooking.

Belize Images
This photo of Belize is courtesy of TripAdvisor

      These are the Lamanai ruins, located in the Orange Walk district of northern Belize. The weather is balmy and tropical through most of the year. Lamanai means "crocodile" in the Mayan language and was inhabited for 3000 continuous years. No one knows what happened to the Mayans. Theories abound about massive and rampant disease, hostile takeover and absorption by the Inca, and (this is on the far edge obviously) even alien abduction. Obviously the absence of remains lends itself to the mystery as well as the circular calendaring system which ends in December 2012. Already I'm getting anxious to explore this place!
 And the beaches.... seriously, who wouldn't want to stay here?! A round trip flight from LAX is only going to cost you $560 (already cheaper than Europe!), A 6 night stay at the Black Orchid in Burrell Boom, about 10 minutes from the airport and 19 miles from Orange Walk, is $840 for a double room with a view of the Belize River. We're still less than what I normally pay for one plane ticket to Europe!

Belize Photos
This photo of Belize is courtesy of TripAdvisor

Honduras: A little south and east we go to Honduras.... another tropical and jungle covered country in Central America. Why go? Well, why NOT? Another cheap vacation for those who want to enjoy the tropics without wanting to spend the money to go to Fiji or Samoa. Honduras also has the beautiful Bay Islands of Roatan, Guanaja and Utila which are located in the north in the Caribbean Sea. Like scuba and snorkeling? These islands are for you! Frolicking in clear aqua blue waters, laying about in the warm sun (with sunscreen of course!), indulging at the many day spas, playing golf and horseback riding. Sounds like paradise! Check out that picture.... those of you jumping on Kayak to book a flight, raise your hand!!

  Roatan Photos
This photo of Roatan is courtesy of TripAdvisor

     If you're interested in more historical pursuits, visit Tegucigalpa. Spanish colonial architecture abounds. Visit the Iglesia de Sayupa or Iglesia Dolores,the National Museum or the Archeology Museum.

Tegucigalpa Photos
This photo of Tegucigalpa is courtesy of TripAdvisor
     Adventurous spirit still kicking you? Good! Time to head on to San Pedro Sula. San Pedro is a major port for cruise ships. Market areas and plaza are everywhere, along with the crush of locals and tourists. Make arrangements to see the Pulhapanzak waterfall, swim with dolphins in the warm Caribbean Sea, and hike the jungle. 
     Round trip to Honduras will cost about $530 (oooh, even cheaper than Belize!!). Check Kayak or TripAdvisor for the latest prices. The Hilton Princess is about $710 for a king room in San Pedro Sula, while the Hotel Plaza del Libertador  in Tegucigalpa will be about $885 for a double room. So those Bay Islands, whats that going to run you? Well, here's where it's time to splurge a bit if you're up for it. Hotel Parrott Bay Beach Resort on Roatan is going to cost you $1550 for your own villa. (Say that to yourself. Your own VILLA. Yes, I know. Truly decadent, but don't we all want to say we stayed in our own villa at least once in our lifetime?!) A beachfront bungalow will be $1299 for a week at the Utopia Dive Village on Utila. 

Utila Photos
This photo of Utila is courtesy of TripAdvisor

Like I always say, let's go stimulate the economy people!!!

Monday, February 13, 2012

Knowledge is...

This year a lot of my acquaintances will be traveling internationally for the first time. Be it the UK, Italy (for many of us!), Greece, or parts unknown, there are some tips that can save you money and/or time and frustration.
                Money Exchange: Don’t bother will traveler’s cheques. Most places do not take them, and if you have to go to a local bank to exchange it for local currency, you will surely have to pay a fee. I have also stopped paying the money exchange at the airport. Why, when I can just withdraw money at the ATM at my destination?  Check your bank, you may be charged a fee for any international transaction, whether an ATM withdrawal or a purchase. I recently opened an account through another credit union that doesn’t charge those fees, as I happily discovered while I was on holiday in Greece. And last but not least, don’t forget to tell your bank and credit card companies you’ll be going abroad. Nothing is more embarrassing than being out of town and having your purchase denied. Yes, this has happened to me, and I discovered my bank is sort of like my mom and I have to tell them where I’m going and for long.
                Check your ingress and egress: Ok, I ‘ll freely admit to being a control freak when it comes to be vacation planning but certain things like not knowing how to get to my hotel bother me. I like to get that out of the way before I even get there. Do I take the subway? The bus? Taxi? For this I turn to my trusty old friend: the TripAdvisor traveler forums.  It’s as simple as typing in your question, and you will get a knowledgeable answer pretty quickly by location experts and other travelers. If I had not asked, I would not have known which bus to take from Dublin airport into Temple Bar to my hotel. Or where the bus to Hersonissos/Malia was at the airport in Heraklion, Crete. I would rather pay the 3 euro bus fare than 40 euro for a taxi! This also applies to getting to the airport when you leave. Make sure you know how to get to the airport and how long it will take. International airports are all over the place when it comes to efficiency, and you don’t want to be stuck in the security line and miss your flight. Perfect example: Heathrow vs. Athens. The English are masters of the queue, and they’re pretty quick. The Greeks are never on time for anything. You do the math.
                Transportation: You don’t always have to rent a car in a foreign country. Think about where you’re going. If you’re staying in a more urban area, then public transportation would probably work much better for you than a car. Staying on the outskirts of town or out in the boonies might work better with a car but not always. Look at train maps, bus routes, and when in doubt ask the traveler forums. If you must rent a car, make sure you read all the requirements. Many vendors require and international driver’s license (in the US, we can get those through AAA), and when in doubt ALWAYS buy the vehicle insurance. You can look at road maps internationally on the Michelin site, and AutoEurope for the cars. Many highways in Europe require tolls, but the Michelin site will tell you how much you’ll have to pay on the route they give you. Maybe a car isn’t for you and you’d rather rent a scooter. The Vespa is the transpo of choice for many crowded European cities and islands, so hop on!

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Oh how sweet it is!

     One of the things a lot of people remember about trips they've taken is the food. No matter where you go, one always remarks upon a yummy dessert, a decadent meal, or a drink they've never had before. This is a tactile memory that will forever place you back on that trip, every time you have that food. One of my favorites was this one:
Hazelnut chocolate filled croissant and strong Greek coffee.
Akrotiri, Santorini
     I love pastry in the morning, because I have a huge sweet tooth that won't go away no matter much I want it to. My quest for pastry and sweets has landed me in some interesting places. There was a 2.5 inch high quiche in Cork, Ireland. A lemon meringue pie topped with real, fresh, whipped cream at Avoca, in Wicklow, Ireland. Brownies in Glasgow, Scotland. Last but not least, bahklava and gelato all over Greece. A friend's recent trip to New Orleans also reminded me of those morning waking up, after maybe just a bit too much to drink the night before, and thinking the entire French Quarter smelled like a French bakery. Cafe du Monde? You bet your sweet Splenda!
     One of my best friends, who is travelling to Italy with me already has a budget for gelato. Seriously. But since we are going to Florence, where the best gelato in Italy (and therefore, the world) is made, why even pretend to play nice? This is what I'm talking about!

Photos of Perche No!, Florence
This photo of Perche No! is courtesy of TripAdvisor

This pic is a cheesecake gelato from the gelateria Perche No! in Florence, which is highly rated in Rick Steve's Italy travel guide, among other places. My question is this, "Who has my spoon?!"

Thursday, February 2, 2012

I've been seduced

So this week I finally convinced Sister With a Suitcase to travel with me. She didn't want to go to Italy with me this summer (let's not get on the topic of what self-respecting Italian-American DOESN'T want to go to Italy, because apparently it's my sister), but I did get her to agree to go on the 2013 Europe summer trip. Since I wrote about Spain a couple weeks ago, I decided this was where I wanted to go. I told her we could go to Ibiza if she came with me, to which she immediately said, "Heck, yes!"
Being the obsessive type-A person I am, I started to throw around numbers, look at some maps, consult Trip Advisor and see what the general game plan would be. One of my friends, Miz Brazil, had told me when we were in Greece that she really wanted to go to the Balearic Islands someday. I sent her a text message and she said, "HELL YES!", with the caviat: we have to go to Formentera. Formentera? Where the hell is that? So I brought the map back up and it turns out it's right next to Ibiza, just a short ferry ride away. On to Trip Advisor to see what the deal is with this place. This is what I found:
Formentera Photos
This photo of Formentera is courtesy of TripAdvisor
Good God. I might never come home! Sister and I grew up in a beach community, so this state of living comes quite naturally to us. Even now, I only live 2 blocks away from it, but it's a poor substitute compared to THAT! The more I looked, the more I was seduced by the pull of the Balearic Islands. Gorgeous blue waters, light soft sand, and the knowledge that the island is much more bent on relaxation than partying. That's what Ibiza is for, after all! When Miz Brazil and I went to Santorini it was the same atmosphere. Yes there were some pubs, but for the most part it was 4 days of just going to the beach, shopping, and just relaxing. There was no where to be but the beach, with a drink in my hand, wading around in the warm waters of the Mediterranean Sea. Just looking at the pictures makes me want to hop on a plane right now! And yes, the water really IS that color in reality. Wow....
Formentera Photos
This photo of Formentera is courtesy of TripAdvisor