Месечни архиви: September 2015

Best Mirrorless Camera for Travel: Fuji X-T1

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Kate with Fuji X-T1

This spring, I made a big decision that more and more travel photographers are making: I decided to switch from a DSLR to a mirrorless camera.

In other words, I said farewell to the Nikon D5100 that I had been using for two years in favor of the Fuji X-T1, a mirrorless model.

And I could not be happier about it!

The Fuji X-T1 is my pick for the best camera for travel. Here's why!

What is a mirrorless camera?

DSLRs are the big professional cameras with lenses that you see pro photographers and serious amateurs use. They have mirrors in their bodies — the light enters the camera, reflects off a mirror, and hits the sensor.

By contrast, mirrorless cameras omit the mirror. For that reason, they’re much smaller and lighter, yet they provide a similar quality.

All of the photos you’re about to see in this post, excluding the selfie of me with the camera at the top, were taken with my Fuji X-T1.

Oia, Santorini

Late afternoon in Oia, Santorini

Are mirrorless cameras as good as DSLRs?

Generally speaking, the best mirrorless cameras are very close in quality to many DSLRs. Some mirrorless cameras are even better. Technology has been catching up at a rapid rate, which is very exciting!

My Fuji X-T1 is better than some entry-level DSLRs like my Nikon D5100, but not as good as some high-end DSLRs like the Nikon D810 or Canon EOS 5D.

But the truth is that the vast, vast majority of photographers — even pros — don’t need the most high-end DSLR in order to take photos of excellent quality.

In other words, for your needs, a premium mirrorless camera provides all the quality you need.

Another thing — keep in mind that you don’t buy a mirrorless camera to save money. Some DSLRs and lenses, including my former Nikon setup, are cheaper. You buy a mirrorless because it’s a better overall product.

Sunset at Agriturismo la Rocca della Rosa

Sunset over Zafferana Etnea, Sicily

Why use a mirrorless camera for travel?

In a nutshell: excellent quality with a much lower size and weight.

Honestly, the irony is that carrying around a heavy camera can be a deterrent to taking photos! I know that there have been many times that I’ve skipped out on taking my camera with me because I didn’t want to carry the weight.

The Fuji X-T1 is so much lighter and smaller. It doesn’t bug me to casually take it out with me, even if I’m going out for the whole day. If I use a larger purse, it fits right inside!

Sankt Hans Nyhavn Copenhagen

Sankt Hans Bonfire in Nyhavn, Copenhagen

My Best Photos

I’ve wanted to write a Fuji X-T1 review since I bought it in May, but I decided to give myself a few months to get used to it and test it out all over Europe so that I could share a varied portfolio of photos with you.

Every photographer is different, but generally when shooting travel photography, you need to cover a wide variety of shooting: landscapes, architecture and cityscapes, food, people, street photography, and events. (Personally, I’m not big on shooting people, but I try to get the rest.)

Here are some of my favorite shots:

Bay of Kotor, Montenegro

Bay of Kotor, Montenegro, just after sunrise

Copenhagen

Kids riding scooters in Superkilen, Copenhagen

Bike outside Nyboder, Copenhagen

Herring in Riga, Latvia

Herring and pickled cucumbers in Riga, Latvia

Sunset in Santorini

Sunset in Oia, Santorini

Which Mirrorless Camera is Best for Travel?

At this point in time, there are three top-of-the-line mirrorless cameras by three top brands:

Fuji X-T1.

Sony A7II.

Olympus OM-D.

Mount Etna Sunset -- Before

Sunset in Mount Etna — Original Image

DSCF1931

Sunset in Mount Etna — Post-Lightroom Edit

Fuji X-T1 Review: Why I Chose IT

Honestly, this was a completely independent decision on my part. I had zero influence from sponsors and while finances are always a concern, I was willing to pay full price for the best camera. It was important to me to get the best quality lightweight camera possible for the sake of my work.

I wanted a camera that could grow with me — that would be useful for years, no upgrade necessary, and would take me into the future. A camera that I could add lenses to over a long time period.

After researching the particulars, I narrowed it down to either the Fuji X-T1 or the Sony A7ii and asked several of my friends who are professional photographers for their opinion. The verdict?

Every single pro photographer told me that the Fuji X-T1 was the way to go.

Seriously. I was floored by how in favor they were of Fuji. (That’s not to say that no pros use the Sony A7 or A7II — I know some who do and absolutely love their cameras.)

Here are the three main arguments they put forward:

“The Fuji’s lenses are better.” They’re also lighter and cheaper than the Sony’s Zeiss lenses.

“The Sony is better if you need full frame or are selling giant prints — but you’re not doing that.” Most people aren’t.

“Photos from the Fuji just look better.” Well. That’s not quantifiable, but certainly interesting.

Sunset in Sveti Stefan, Montenegro

Sunset in Sveti Stefan, Montenegro

Fuji X-T1 Specifics

  • Image sensor: 16.3 megapixel APS-C X-Trans CMOS II
  • ISO Sensitivity: 200 – 6400 (extended to 100, 12800, 25600, 51200)
  • Sensor Cleaning System with Ultra Sonic Vibration
  • Memory Cards: SDHX / SDXC memory cards / Class 10 (not included)
  • Still Image File Formats: JPEG, RAW (RAF format), RAW+JPEG
  • Movie File Format: MOV / H.264 / Linear PCM Stereo
  • Lens mount: FUJIFILM X mount
  • Image Stabilizer: Supported with OIS-type lenses
  • Exposure Control: TTL 256-zone metering, Multi / Spot / Average
  • Exposure mode Programmed AE / Shutter Speed priority AE / Aperture priority AE / Manual exposure
  • Synchronized shutter speed for flash : 1/180 sec. or slower
  • Continuous shooting Approx. 8.0 fps (JPEG : max. approx. 47 frames)
  • Approx. 3.0 fps (JPEG : up to the capacity of the card)
  • Focus Modes: Single AF / Continuous AF / MF Distance Indicator type Intelligent Hybrid AF (TTL contrast AF / TTL phase detection AF), AF assist illuminator available
  • Weight Approx. 440g / 15.4 oz. (including battery and memory card)
  • Battery Life for Still Images: Approx. 350 frames under “normal” shooting conditions.
Iceland Geysir

Geysir, Iceland, post-explosion

What I Love About the Fuji X-T1

Wi-fi connection. This has CHANGED MY LIFE. After shooting with my Fuji, I can instantly send the photos to my phone, edit them in Snapseed, and upload them to social media. An absolute game-changer, especially for a travel blogger who shares in real time!

Weather sealing. If you’ve ever tried to take photos in Iceland or Scotland, both of which I visited this summer, you know that the weather can turn violent in a flash. You want to have a camera that is as protected as possible, and the weather sealing is critical for that.

No more wasted shots while guessing exposure. On my previous DSLR I got pretty good at trial and error with guessing the exposure level. But on the Fuji X-T1, the viewfinder is electronic and automatically shows you how the photo is going to come out when you fiddle with the dials! No more wasted shots.

Dials on the top. It could not be easier to adjust my settings, including ISO and exposure compensation.

Retro design. It looks cool as hell, and I love that.

It feels great. I absolutely love having it in my hands. It’s strong, it fits my hands perfectly, and nothing slips out of place.

Edinburgh Fringe Festival

Edinburgh Fringe Festival

What I Don’t Love About the Fuji X-T1

Camera screen. I really wish that it flipped out to face the front for easy selfies — it only angles up and down.

Bottom dials on the knobs. They shift a little bit too easily and I sometimes knock them out of place without intending to.

Video quality. It’s decent but not as good as it could be; I shoot most video elsewhere.

Berat, Albania

Evening in Berat, Albania

Fun with the Fujifilm Camera Remote App

I love technology! It’s easy to set up your phone to connect to the Fuji X-T1 via wifi. The Fujifilm Camera Remote app allows you to browse your camera’s images and import your photos to your phone.

Best of all is that with the app, you can use your phone as a remote shutter release. It gives you all the controls and even shows you how the photo looks as you’re taking it. That is huge!

Sunset over Montenegro

Sunset near Bar, Montenegro

Lenses for the Fuji X-T1

Lenses are where Fuji really shines. Even so, if you just want to stick to one walk-around lens and never take it off, that’s fine, too!

Fuji 18-135 mm F 3.5-3.6 — If you want a good walking-around lens that you can use for most instances, get this one. (In fact, you save money if you buy it together with the camera body on Amazon — that’s what I did!)

So far, I’m just sticking to my 18-135, but I’ve got several on my list to buy next:

Fuji 10-24 mm F 4 — Wide-angle lenses are amazing on landscapes. This one has rave reviews.

Fuji 56 mm F 1.2 — This is the fixed lens that many of my pro photographer friends geek out over. It’s especially good for portraits.

Fuji 50-200 mm F 3.5-4.8, or, if you’ve got money to burn, Fuji 50-140 mm F 2.8: If you’re planning on shooting wildlife or sports, you should invest in a good zoom. I plan on buying one of these before my next wildlife trip, whenever that may be.

Edinburgh, Scotland

St. Giles’ Cathedral, Edinburgh

Gear for the Fuji X-T1

Pacsafe Camsafe V25 Camera Bag — I actually own a smaller version of this bag, the Pacsafe CamSafe V17, which I love (and which was given to me for free from Pacsafe as part of a campaign on which I worked), but I actually think the V25 is better.

I am a huge fan of PacSafe products and have used them for years. They work to make their bags as theft-proof as possible with lockable straps, unslashable mesh, and RFID compartments.

MeFOTO A1350 Q1P aluminum tripod — A tripod is the single most important gear that will improve your landscape photography. It’s also ideal for shooting in low-light situations and capturing the best colors of the sunset. This is the one I use. And it’s purple!

67 mm UV filter — PLEASE BUY A UV FILTER, NO MATTER WHICH CAMERA YOU BUY. It protects your precious lens, and even the most conscientious photographers have accidents sometimes. If you drop your camera onto something sharp, wouldn’t you rather replace a cheap filter than an expensive lens?

Samsung M3 1TB Hard Drive — Don’t forget to back up your photos, both online and in hard drives.

SanDisk memory cards — The brand isn’t vital, but I’ve always been pleased with SanDisk. Have a few memory card backups, just in case.

Universal memory card reader — This one is a good one.

Spare Fuji NP-W126 Li-ion batteries — Have at least one charged spare on you at all times, and more if you plan on shooting in cold temperatures. The cold makes batteries deplete quickly.

Microfiber cleaning cloths — For removing fingerprints and more from your lens. I keep one cloth in my purse and one in my camera bag — you’ll always need one!

Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop — This is the software that I use to edit my photos, and it’s great for both amateurs and pros. Tons of tutorials are on YouTube.

Snapseed. For editing photos on your phone, this is the best app there is. And it’s free!

Copenhagen

Busy afternoon at the Nyhavn, Copenhagen

Is the Fuji X-T1 for you?

If you’re looking for a professional camera that can grow with you over the course of several years, I think the Fuji X-T1 is an excellent choice. It’s light, it’s quality, it’s excellent for travel, and you wouldn’t need to upgrade unless you were getting into photography hardcore.

After making the investment in the camera body and a walking-around lens, you can spend some time using them, and if you want to improve your work, you can gradually add to your lens collection.

Copenhagen

Gardens in Copenhagen

The Takeaway

I could not be more thrilled with my decision to switch to the Fuji X-T1. Every day I am so, so glad that I made the switch, and I’m excited to see where this camera will take me in the future.

One last reminder: a better camera does not instantly transform you into a better photographer. Working on your skills and practicing is what turns you into a better photographer.

If you’re looking to improve your photography, take a class. Get a book. Read some blogs. Watch YouTube tutorials. Join an Insta-meet or photo walk. More importantly, go out with your camera, even if it’s just your phone, and practice.

And once you combine your newfound skills with a great camera, it’s nothing short of life-changing.

Essential Info: The Fuji X-T1 is available for $1,199 for the body only. I recommend buying it with the 18-135 mm lens ($1,899), which will save you some money over buying the lens separately.

Have you made the switch to mirrorless? Which camera do you use for travel? Share away!

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On Freedom to Travel

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The following branded content post is brought to you by the World Travel and Tourism Council. Once you see this video, you’ll understand why I agreed to run a branded content post for the first time in nearly a year.

One of my greatest joys was finally visiting my readers from the Philippines in Manila last year.

Filipinos are some of the warmest, friendliest people you’ll ever meet. And they love to travel. If you don’t believe me, check out the traffic on the Filipino travel blogs — despite being from a country with a smaller population, they regularly pull in numbers outdoing all but the biggest travel blogs.

Kate and Pinay Readers

Here’s another thing — it is a lot harder for Filipinos to travel internationally than it is for people from more developed countries. Just going to Europe is a long process requiring a complete itinerary with hotels already booked, proof of income, and bank statements dating back the last few months, among other things.

I couldn’t believe it.

Yet my friends from the Philippines still manage to travel, and not only to places where they can go without a visa. They spend the time jumping through hoops: collecting the bank statements, filling out those forms, making every travel reservation months in advance, and sitting in embassy meetings praying that nothing goes wrong.

Have you been to Europe? How easy was it to book a flight and pay your way? Did you have any moments of serendipity, changing your plans on a whim? Did you even need to get a visa? Think about it.

Serendipity is one of the things I enjoy most about travel — changing your plans at the last minute and doing something completely different. But even something like a little impromptu side trip to a different country would be restricted for someone with a passport from a developing country.

Why do my Pinoy friends and people from other developing countries even bother traveling with all these restrictions? Because they know how much value travel adds to their lives.

Boracay Sunset

The Benefits of Travel

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime. —Mark Twain

The single greatest benefit of my travels is that I’ve learned so much about the world. And the more you learn, the more you learn that your home country could be better.

Thailand, for one, could be a model on transgender visibility and acceptance. Kratoeys or ladyboys (a commonly used, non-insulting term) are publicly accepted and embraced far more in Thailand than in the United States. The situation isn’t perfect, but it’s already lightyears past what we have in America.

Environmentally, Bhutan is leading the way. Bhutan had the potential to bring in exponentially more tourism — but they purposely limit the number of tourists to cause a minimal impact to their fragile Himalayan environment and only allow people who are serious about treating the country with respect.

Scandinavia and the Nordics do so many things so well. You bet I would love to live in a Scandinavian-style system, pay a ton more in taxes, and receive free healthcare and childcare and mandated vacation time and have a prison system that actually rehabilitates.

Japan is marvelously efficient. Seriously, the Japanese make every effort to make every action, every device, every building to solve as many problems as humanly possible. People in almost every other country would come up with excuses not to do something — it’s too expensive; it’s nonessential. The Japanese just do it.

Travel helps us appreciate what innovations other places bring to the world — and allows us to return home and share what we’ve learned.

Everyone should be able to travel.

Take a look at this video and be inspired.

Take a moment to be thankful.

Think about it the next time you’re sitting on a plane next to someone who smells like they haven’t showered for a week.

Think about it when your bus breaks down and you’re stranded on the side of the road.

Think about it when you’re sweating and suffering from food poisoning.

Travel is a beautiful privilege that we have. Even in the tough times. Never forget that.

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Corfu, Greece, in Technicolor

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Corfu, Greece

Should I have allotted more than two nights for Corfu, the largest Ionian island off the coast of Greece? Of course I should have!

For me, Corfu was meant to be a stopover en route from Santorini to Albania. I flew there via Athens with two intentions: to see the UNESCO World Heritage-listed old town and to get the ferry to Albania.

I had spent the last eight nights in hostel dorms in Barcelona and Santorini and was desperately craving privacy — a place where I didn’t have to sleep with my valuables in bed with me, where I didn’t have to wait for the bathroom, where I could chuck my earplugs and sleep peacefully without interrupting snores.

I found a Corfu apartment on Airbnb and it looked great — pretty close to perfect, even. Modern, great reviews, wifi, very good price, right in the old town. Sadly, it was only available for two nights.

Hmm. You know what? I thought to myself. You want to get to Albania soon anyway, and it will be much cheaper there. You can just explore Corfu for a day and move on.

And so I booked it for two nights.

Right away, my Airbnb host admonished me. “Such a pity that you’re only staying for two nights! It’s not enough to enjoy this beautiful island!”

“Well, that’s all you had!” I pointed out.

My host’s father picked me up at the airport and dropped me off at the apartment. Finally alone for the first time in over a week, I cranked up the AC and took off my pants. I was HOME!

(Seriously, in the 36 hours I spent in that apartment, I think I spent a grand total of two minutes wearing pants.)

It was a short visit — but very sweet. In between receiving Airbnb message from my host (most of them reading, “You should have spent more time here!”), I explored the pretty and historical old town.

Beautiful Corfu, Greece

The verdict on Corfu? Very pretty, very historical, and absolutely lovely.

Here are some of my favorite shots from the island.

Greek Flags in Corfu, Greece

Immediately I was welcomed with vibrant Greek flags. I love this shot with the many layers of the buildings!

My apartment was on the edge of the old town — and at first I was underwhelmed as I wandered the streets, until I looked at a map and realized I had been strolling in the wrong direction.

Shutters in Corfu, Greece

Now, THAT’S what I’m talking about! Look at those incredible shutters!

I took that photo with the white balance on “shade,” playing up the warm tones. I love how warm it makes the photos feel.

Corfu, Greece

Corfu’s fortress has Seen Some Shit, let me tell you that. The fort held back three sieges from the Ottomans in 1537, 1571, and 1716.

In 1718, its powder magazine was struck by lightning and exploded, killing hundreds of people. This became known as “The Catastrophe.”

Later, during World War II, the Nazis used the fortress to imprison Corfu’s Jews.

Corfu, Greece

Corfu Town is full of color. It’s also full of souvenir shops, tourists, and cafe signs reading “COLD BEER!”

Not that there’s anything wrong with that…

Corfu, Greece

Spending a hot day underneath one of those umbrellas, enjoying the Ionian breezes? Perfection.

Until you get a beep from your Airbnb host on your phone. “If you stayed longer you would have seen the best beaches!”

Laundry in Corfu, Greece

I love photographing laundry everywhere I go. Not sure why.

Corfu, Greece

Look at that color of the Ionian Sea. Far in the distance, that’s Albania.

Corfu, Greece

Corfu Town isn’t home to the best beaches — for the real stunners, you’ll have to rent a car and explore the island. But if you’re sticking to town, you can certainly cool off on the narrow beaches.

Door in Corfu, Greece

I have no words for how much I love this photo. That old door. That jungle green paired with yellow. That sassy little fire hydrant!

Corfu, Greece

This is why I love the Balkans. Clearest water in the world, from Greece to Montenegro to Slovenia.

Corfu, Greece

So that’s how I spent my day in Corfu Town, exploring the different corners, sitting in different cafes, drinking lots of iced espressos, and devouring The Martian and Tomboy.

Then I went back to my apartment and took my pants off once again.

Corfu, Greece

I don’t think my host ever got over the length of my stay. Even my Airbnb review from him reads, “Sadly only stayed two days. I hope to host Kate again in the near future for longer.”

I GET IT! TWO DAYS WAS TOO SHORT! YOU MADE IT EXTREMELY CLEAR!

I’ll stay longer next time. I swear.


READ NEXT: Is it safe to travel to Greece right now? Absolutely.


Essential Info: Despite Greece’s economic crisis, it is very safe to visit Greece right now. This post goes into depth on the subject.

I stayed at this Airbnb apartment for $52 per night. It was an excellent rental, central and with all the amenities I needed. There is a washer but there was no laundry soap (a common refrain with my Airbnb rentals in Europe this summer). The host is responsive and communicative, but know that he will want you to stay as long as possible!

New to Airbnb? Sign up here and get $25 off your first stay!

If you’re traveling onward to Saranda, Albania, Ionian Cruises has one ferry from Corfu each day costing 19 euros ($22) and it takes an hour and 15 minutes. Keep in mind that the Ionian Cruises ticket office is not at the dock but down the street! Get your tickets in advance or you’ll have to hail a taxi in a panic like I did!

Have you ever visited somewhere for far too short a time?

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Where to Go in Eastern Sicily

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Kate in Avola

While Sicily is full of beauty everywhere you look, you’ll find many of its best treasures in the eastern part of the island. The east is home to active volcanoes, ancient ruins, Baroque cities, and gorgeous beaches, not to mention fabulous food and world-famous wine.

Why concentrate on the east in particular? Sicily is a big island, the largest in the Mediterranean, and it’s also not as developed as the rest of Italy. Once you factor in the lack of travel infrastructure and country roads, short distances turn into long journeys. As a result, circumnavigating the island is a tough endeavor.

If your trip is two weeks or less, I urge you to limit your time to either Eastern Sicily or Western Sicily. If your trip is for a week or less, I encourage you to concentrate on a smaller region within the east or the west.

You could technically fit more in if you were determined to, but I found Sicily to be a challenging destination and overscheduling your time there could lead to a lot of frustration.

I had nine days in Sicily with my mom and sister and we spent all of it in the east. The first five nights were spent in the northeast with a base at Agriturismo la Rocca della Rosa in Zafferana Etnea, on the slopes of Mount Etna, and the next four nights were spent at an Airbnb rental in Avola, a popular beach resort town in the southeast. Each base gave us the opportunity for day trips.

Here are the best destinations I visited in Eastern Sicily, from north to south, and the best ways to spend your time there:

Taormina

Taormina

Taormina is easily the most touristy place I visited in Sicily. It’s a popular cruise ship excursion and day trip from Malta, and here you’ll find pretty piazzas, lots of shopping, and scintillating views from far above the sea.

To be honest, Taormina fell a bit beneath my expectations. I thought it would be breathtaking — and while it was certainly beautiful, the massive crowds put a damper on the magic of the city. That said, I do recommend you visit — just know that it’s not the be-all and end-all of Sicily.

TaorminaTaorminaTaormina Gardens

The best thing to do in Taormina? Head to Cafe Bambar for granita. They have more flavors of granita than I saw any other place I saw on the island. Try it with cream. I had caffe with cream and it was stupendously delicious.

Mount Etna

Mount Etna

One of the four UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Eastern Sicily, Mount Etna has been erupting for 500,000 years. (Yes, roughly 494,000 years longer than the Duggars believe the Earth has existed.) As a result, it has a spectacular landscape — something very different to coastal Sicily. And a very welcome break from the heat, too!

Here you’ll be able to explore the volcano in depth, from the lava tubes beneath the surface to snows on the summit. It erupts for much of the year (sadly, not while I was there) and if you’re lucky, you’ll get a flame-topped photo.

Mount Etna SunsetMount EtnaMount Etna Sunset

The best thing to do in Mount Etna? Take a tour with Etna Experience. You’ll get so much more out of the landscape if you take a tour, and our guide had encyclopedic knowledge about the volcano, geology, and the plants and animals indigenous to the region. We also ended our sunset tour with wine and aperitivo as we watched a volcanic sunset.

Aci Trezza

Aci Trezza

Aci Trezza is the kind of place that doesn’t make it into travel guides. And if it did, it would probably lose everything that makes it lovely.

Aci Trezza is a quiet, low-key seaside town just north of Catania. There’s not a lot to do here besides relax and admire the Isole Ciclopi, but that’s more than enough to fill your day. You come here to chill out.

Aci TrezzaAci TrezzaAci Trezza, Sicily

The best thing to do in Aci Trezza? Just grab a seat at a nearby beach club. I chose the Ghenea Beach Club, which was on stilts, halfway in the ocean and half on land. Swim in the Mediterranean as much as you’d like.

Siracusa

Siracusa

Siracusa is home to another of Eastern Sicily’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites: the ancient city and the Pantalica, where tombs are cut into the rocks. While I enjoyed a brief visit to the ancient part of the city, the real stunner is Ortigia, an island home to Siracusa’s old city.

Siracusa was my favorite place in Sicily. I fell in love with the strong Baroque architecture set against the gentle colors. I was there during a rainstorm and it created the most beautiful light all over the city. Oh, and I loved that Siracusa’s patron saint, St. Lucia, is usually pictured with a knife sticking out of her neck. That’s the most Sicilian thing ever.

SiracusaSiracusaSiracusa

The best thing to do in Siracusa? Head to Ortigia, the old city, and take pictures just before sunset. Ortigia is home to my favorite buildings in Sicily and thus these photos are some of my favorites.

Avola Beach

Avola

Looking to get off the beaten path (for foreign tourists, at least)? Looking for some beach time? Avola is great for both. Avola is home to the nicest stretch of beach that I saw in Sicily and I’m fairly certain that my mom and I were the only foreigners in town! (There may have been a German or two, but Germans go everywhere — they don’t count. Ha.)

Avola was our base for southeastern Sicily and though the street parking and stop sign-less driving were a bit scary, it turned out to be well situated for exploring the region. The town is deserted during the day, but at night it comes to life, with whole families descending upon Piazza Umberto I and staying out late, kids riding their bikes well past midnight. Break out your Italian and Sicilian — you won’t find many English speakers here.

AvolaAvola BeachAvola Window

The best thing to do in Avola? In the evening (and by evening I mean 9:00 PM or later), head to Piazza Umberto I and grab an outdoor piazza table at Mizzica Wine Bar and order the meat and cheese plate along with a glass of the highly lauded Nero d’Avola wine. Yes, that’s very specific! Trust me. It was so good, we went back a second time and ordered the same thing.

Ragusa

Ragusa

Ragusa is yet another UNESCO World Heritage Site — one of the Late Baroque Towns of the Val di Noto (the others are Modica, Noto, Caltagirone, Militello Val di Catania, Catania, Palazzolo, and Scicli). These cities were destroyed in a big earthquake in 1693, then they were built in the Baroque style.

Ragusa in particular has two different sections: the Ibla is the old town, and the view from above is one of the best views I had in all of Sicily. There’s also a more modern section of town that is home to the cathedral. But if you’re looking for magic, it’s all about Ibla!

RagusaKate in Ragusa

The best thing to do in Ragusa? Honestly, we didn’t have much time here, so it’s hard to say anything besides walking around Ibla and taking photos. Seriously, look at that view!

Bonus: Four More Destinations

I haven’t been to the following four destinations, but they’re popular places in Eastern Sicily and they deserve to be included in this post.

Lipari (Aeolian Islands)

Image: unukorno

Aeolian Islands

I’ve been yearning to visit these islands for years, but there just wasn’t enough time on this trip! They are yet another UNESCO World Heritage Site and the home of Italy’s edition of The Yacht Week!

The islands are small, but each have different personalities. Lipari is the largest and most popular island to visit, followed by Salina. Vulcano has black sand beaches. For a real adventure, Stromboli is home to an active volcano that you can hike. Panarea is the big party island. And there are many more from which to choose.

Catania City Streets

Image: Alan L

Catania

If you’re looking to get a taste of urban life in Eastern Sicily, Catania is where to go. You’ll find spectacular Baroque architecture, low prices, and a mostly tourist-free experience. Catania is definitely a place to take the gritty alongside the pretty. Don’t go in expecting something like Florence and you’ll be fine.

My friend Peter (my Slovenia road trip buddy) went to Catania for three days and ended up staying for two months! He wrote about why here.

(For what it’s worth, Messina, the city in northeast Sicily, has absolutely nothing of tourism value. Skip it.)

Città di Noto

Image: Leandro Neumann Ciuffo

Noto

It’s a pity that I missed Noto, as it’s right next door to Avola! Ragusa won out when it came to the southeastern cities.

Like the rest of the World Heritage-listed cities in the region, Noto was rebuilt in the Baroque style following the 1693 earthquake, and its piece de resistance is its cathedral. Just look at the size of it! Also, when polling my readers, many of them said that Noto was their favorite place in the region.

Modica

Image: Malega

Modica

Looking at this photo of Modica (and remembering my brief glimpse of the city while crossing a nearby bridge), I’m reminded of Berat, Albania, with its flat, front-facing buildings of endless windows. That said, this is most definitely another Baroque city.

Modica is famous for its chocolate, which comes from a traditional Aztec recipe. Cioccolato di Modica can be found throughout the city and there’s even a festival called Choccobarocco.

Have Blog Will Travel wrote about their time in Modica here.

The Takeaway

I was so happy that we limited our time to the best destinations in Eastern Sicily. That said, the west is calling my name. Never Ending Voyage wrote a terrific post on where to go in Western Sicily and I’m now calculating when I’ll be able to make a trip to that part of the island!


Read Next: The Joys and Challenges of Traveling in Sicily


Where to Go in Eastern Sicily

Essential Info: In Zafferana Etnea, Sicily, we stayed in a two-bedroom suite at Agriturismo La Rocca della Rosa, which can also be booked on Airbnb here, for $115 per night plus Airbnb fees. This is a wonderful agriturismo with a pool, great food, and the kindest owners, Maria and Franz. You’ll love it here. It’s in a perfect location for exploring Mount Etna and northeast Sicily; the town of Zafferana is lovely, too (don’t miss Blue Gel gelato!). If you stay there, please tell Maria and Franz that Kate, Deb and Sarah say hi!

We did the Etna Summer Sunset Experience excursion from Etna Experience, and it was a wonderful way to see the volcano up close and hike a small part of it, finishing with wine and snacks at a beautiful sunset spot. 54 EUR ($60) in summer, 44 EUR ($49) in other seasons.

While in Zafferana, we made easy day trips to Taormina and Aci Trezza as well as Etna and our great-grandfather’s village, Castanea delle Furie (the latter of which has zero tourist value and you should not visit). It’s best to have a car in Zafferana and vital if you want to do any day trips.

In Avola, Sicily, we stayed at this two-bedroom Airbnb apartment for $40 per night plus Airbnb fees. The apartment is clean, cool, modern, and located right by the main square downtown. Giovanni, the host, is an osteopath, has his office downstairs, and offers both massages and adjustments for very good prices!

I got my SIM card at Vodafone in Rome’s airport. Vodafone shops are in most towns. I paid 40 EUR ($45) for a SIM card with 5 GB of data, calls and texting. When I ran out of data I got an extra gig for 5 EUR ($6). The coverage was great for Sicily and worked almost everywhere, though know you may not have coverage in more rural areas.

Which one of these places in Eastern Sicily would you like to visit the most? Share away!

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Viewpoints: Traveling With a Disability

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Justine and Dilara - The Pickle Sandwich

Our latest Viewpoints interview is a twofer! Here we will meet two ladies who travel with a disability: Justine, an Aussie who is legally blind, and Dilara, a New Zealand-living Scot who is profoundly deaf.

Together they are The Pickle Sandwich — a hilarious YouTube duo riffing on life, love, travel, and disability. I love their videos and highly recommend you check them out!

Here’s one of their videos on the most outrageous things people have said to them about their disabilities:

Traveling with a disability means having to plan ahead and make different accommodations. If you live with a disability, I hope these girls inspire you to travel! And if not, I hope you learn a little bit about what it’s like to travel in spite of these challenges.

justine performing

Adventurous Kate: You girls are new to the scene — let’s start by telling everyone about yourselves!

Justine: I am a 26 year old full-time musician. After completing a Bachelor of Music and then a Masters in Communication, I tried working a 9-5 job. My last job was for an IT Company! I finally quit and have been pursuing my music career full time as well as doing youth work for kids at risk. I also manage a creative agency, Velvet Crush, that delivers artist services such as photo shoots, portfolios, music videos and industry marketing.

I have always been eccentric, creative and a bit left of centre, but my biggest barrier to achieving things (like sustaining myself as a full-time singer!) is that I didn’t believe in myself. Over the years having met certain people, like Dilara, that belief went out the window and I realised my full potential! About a week into Dilara and I meeting, and her sleeping in my lounge room, I went to work and told my boss I was quitting.

Being visually impaired there are barriers — for example, I don’t drive, so you’ll often see me carrying a giant speaker and guitar on a bus and train to get to shows — but I find solutions and make it work. I have always been solutions-focused, so I really hate using excuses as to why I can’t do something.

I live in Sydney, right near the city — because I need to be close to everything and in a short taxi ride’s distance for when I have gigs on (not being able to drive and all). I also live 5 minutes from the beach, so I can’t find any reasons to complain!

Dilara at the Taj Mahal

Dilara: I’m the baby Pickle at 24. I work as a Resource Development Officer for an amazing organisation, Deaf Aotearoa, in New Zealand — this ranges from creating Sign Language courses to making exciting, fresh content such as film shorts to promote d/Deaf awareness.

After the 9-5 I live out my other passions: traveling and freelance writing. Currently piecing together my last 2.5 years of solo travel, my travel blog — fly wild — is going live 22 November 2015! My journey as a full time travel writer and vlogger is starting and within the next two years I’ll be back on the road, this time forever.

Being profoundly deaf means so many things I can’t list them all here but it does mean I get a more honest reaction from the world. I can tell who will be kind, gentle and funny with grace as soon as I let them know — and that’s a gift. Constantly pushing my comfort zone and other people’s expectations can only be a great thing!

The Pickle Sandwich is my dream — getting to laugh with one of my best friends — who has let me fully embrace all the ups and downs, whilst telling people how to sit down and behave (and laugh with us) is fabulous!

Justine, what things do you do differently as a legally blind traveler?

Justine: I have to plan my trip more thoroughly in terms of transport and accommodation. For example, it can be hard relying on signage in airports or finding hostels on my own, so I have to ensure I have my phone on roaming with GPS available and that I’ve researched in finer detail where everything is.

In terms of booking tours I also have to make sure there won’t be anything I can’t do on the tour. Recently The Pickle Sandwich visited New Zealand and we booked in a tour at an observatory (which you can watch here). I thought perhaps I’d be able to see the stars with their technology, but as it turns out I was only able to see a very limited amount and it wasn’t quite worth the money spent.

Dilara, what things do you do differently as a profoundly deaf traveler?

Dilara: I obviously have to rely on my other senses much more. I am already used to asking for help (with tannoys, health and safety etc.) so in that regard I have no qualms with walking right up to someone and striking up a conversation! It’s actually opened up many interesting exchanges and I’ve even made great friends this way.

The number of close calls I’ve had with missing connections is also ridiculous! So now I leave extra time (for freak occurrences), extra extra time (for my notorious inability to be on time) and extra extra extra time (for missing information because I can’t hear random things). Two words: DUTY-FREE.

Dilara with Australia Map

What are some destinations that are especially good for a blind or deaf traveler?

Dilara: This is actually a wonderful reverse of the usual preference for me – in countries where English (my first language) is not spoken, I am actually much more comfortable. We have to communicate through facial expressions and body language far more and this, for me, is so natural, plus it’s fun! I don’t have to decipher what people are saying so much anymore; even though I speak and hear ‘fluently’, it takes off some of the mental stress.

I’d recommend going places that are visually amazing – like the East Coast of Australia. Most countries in Asia and Europe are a feast for the eyes.

Justine: As someone who is legally blind, I am still able to experience viewing different environments such as landscapes and cities, that someone who is clinically blind might not be able to. This considered, destinations for anyone visually impaired includes experiences you can get up and close and personal with, such as tours within buildings, ruins or museums/galleries in Europe (personal favourites!).

Focusing on the other senses are also a great idea, so anything food- or music-related is a perfect start, and who wouldn’t want to experience food and music of another culture?

(Note from Kate: When I visited New Orleans, I thought it would be the perfect destination for a blind or deaf traveler. Different music on every street corner, beautiful architecture, wacky people, and sensational food — it’s the kind of destination that impacts all your senses at once!)

Justine in London Phone Booth

Do you like it when people offer to help you, or do you prefer to be independent unless you ask?

Justine: I think this is different for anyone with a disability, however for me I am always flattered when someone offers help. I think it is very kind and considerate of them to have noticed I have a disability let alone offer assistance.

Dilara: It’s not immediately obvious I have issues with my hearing, so when people offer to help, they’re offering anyway! I do love it, though, when people clock when I’m struggling with something and they step in to help. It can get awkward sometimes if someone oversteps the helping mark and sees me as this little helpless person but I think I nip that idea in the bud so quickly that it doesn’t happen so much!

In a way, asking for help is a way of being independent – it means you’re out there and likely out of your comfort zone: the best place to be to grow. As long as it comes from a good place, I appreciate it!

Dilara at Market

What can we do to make your travels easier?

Justine: We as in people without a disability?

Yikes. You’re right. I should have said “people without a disability” instead of “we.” I’ll make an effort to do that in the future.

Dilara: If “we” is for everyone, I think we’re halfway there.

More and more these days we are seeing a shifting attitude towards disability and impairments, which is fantastic. Just more awareness is great. I’d love to see more resources put out there for us to access things equally. Imagine a world where everything was accessible, then 90% of stigma and other issues like not being as independent as you’d like would disappear.

Patience is a big thing – it makes me equally angry and embarrassed when people treat me with impatience – for example, when I’ve not caught something the first time around. We interact with everyone every single day and not everyone interacts with “us” (not many people have ever met a deaf or blind person) – against the tide, if you like – and so if you just go easy, without judgment, my day is made infinitely better.

What's it like to travel with a disability?

Are there any online resources that you recommend for travelers with disabilities?

Justine: There are apps for people visually impaired:

SeeLight helps navigate through cities and crossing traffic lights safely.

Eyesight is a digital magnifier that replaces traditional ones.

IMove knows the address you are at and the schools, shops, pubs, etc. in the vicinity.

Dilara: Attitude Live is a great resource for general motivation and insight – traveler or not.

Be My Eyes is a great app for assisting a visually impaired person with any questions they have (like, “Is this milk past its drink by date?”) on an interface similar to FaceTime.

Snapchat, Glide & FaceTime are great for staying in touch – especially for anyone who signs. Plus on Snap you can make your writing heaps big.

The Pickle Sandwich, obviously! We discuss travel often – especially as I am a freelance travel writer myself – and how to laugh at life on the road or at home! Keep an eye out (or an ear, whichever works) for new videos on handling equipment abroad, more in-depth backpacking videos and how to dispel myths and smash boundaries!

justine and dilara in nz

What kinds of destinations inspire you as a traveler?

Dilara & Justine: Any place where the sun is shining and people are smiling!

Dilara: I love places with charm and history or great natural beauty. I love being outside and going on little adventures – whether it’s a little creek or a big ass mountain. It’s my sole purpose in life right now – seeing the world. It inspires me seeing what incredible designs our ancestors left for the world to enjoy – I’m obsessed with Rome for that reason!

Justine: Anywhere with a rich history and vibrant culture. Europe has always been awe-inspiring for me and I don’t think I will ever get sick of going there. My next trip will either be to Asia or South America. I love exploring countries that have deeply rooted cultures and old architecture; it transports me back to a different time.

justine snow

Which destinations rank among your favorites?

Dilara: India has been an obsession of mine since I was 12. Its chaos is delightful for me! India’s people are just amazing for me to be with. I feel very at home. It’s like this: everyone has 5.5 litres of blood. I can’t imagine Justine going there without a little freak out at first though – she’s big on order! Crossing the road….!

Japan is also one my favourites; it’s just a different world altogether. Such politeness and consideration for others. Myanmar also stole my heart – the people’s kindness there is overwhelming and really opens your eyes.

Justine: Italy, definitely. For a country with the land size of Tasmania, it is mind blowing the difference in culture, food, architecture and accents within cities that are less than 2 hours from each other. Every city and town has its own stories and charm, some haunting and some magnificent. You can never get enough of Italy!

dilara thailand train

What is your favorite safety tip to pass on to female travelers?

Justine: I think travelling within airports and legitimate transport systems is generally okay for females (or males), but just be aware of what is going on around you. I would recommend researching your destination and finding out which areas to avoid if you are going to be walking around cities by yourself.

Dilara: Just use your common sense! Don’t be afraid. Sure, there are bad people out there but there are also many, many great and generous people out there too, waiting to cross paths with you.

Thank you so much, ladies! For more from Justine and Dilara, please check out The Pickle Sandwich on YouTube or like The Pickle Sandwich on Facebook. Their videos will brighten your day!

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Aci Trezza: A Laid-Back Seaside Town in Sicily

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Kate in Aci Trezza

I love discovering a new place completely by chance. I had done a lot of research on Sicily beforehand, but one of my favorite places turned out to be a little seaside town I hadn’t even heard of until the day my mom, my sister, and I visited.

It was our second morning in Sicily and we weren’t feeling too energetic, but we wanted to get out and see somewhere.

“Why don’t you go to Aci Trezza?” our agriturismo host Maria suggested.

Hmm. I hadn’t heard of that. My mom and Maria started discussing the town as I absentmindedly scrolled through Snapchat, overhearing snippets of their speech every now and again.

A small town on the sea? Sure.

Aci Trezza, Sicily

“What’s that town, again?” I asked Maria’s husband, Franz.

“Aci Trezza. It’s close to Catania.”

“Aci Trezza,” I murmured as I pulled up driving directions on Google Maps. “Will it be tough to park?”

“Not during the day. More people come there at night to eat fish.”

Hmmm. Could be good.

Without knowing anything beyond Maria and Franz’s testimonial, we set off for that little seaside village — a village that I’d love to show you in photos.

Aci Trezza, Sicily

Aci Trezza is home to the Isole Ciclopi, or Cyclops’ islands, rocks that rise out of the sea.

Aci Trezza, Sicily

Like many islands in the Mediterranean, Sicily claims to be one of the destinations featured in The Odyssey. Namely, Cyclops is believed to have lived beneath Mount Etna and when he threw rocks at Odysseus, they landed in the sea here.

Aci Trezza, Sicily

Aci Trezza isn’t home to sandy beaches — instead, you’ll find rocky areas for perching and sunbathing.

Aci Trezza, Sicily

Better yet, go for a beach club built on a deck on stilts, where you can relax underneath an umbrella and walk down a staircase into the sea.

Aci Trezza, Sicily

Of course, nothing beats this beach club, where you can feel like the king of the rocks!

Aci Trezza, Sicily

You can rent a boat or stand-up paddleboard and explore the islands, including this one, the largest island of all.

Aci Trezza, Sicily

The marina? Pretty busy for such a low-key town.

Aci Trezza, Sicily

So did we do much in Aci Trezza? Nope! It was a glorious day of eating granita, crashing on chairs at the Ghenea Beach Club, and finishing the day with giant oysters and prosecco, the local 10 euro aperitivo.

Aci Trezza, Sicily

As the sun slowly set, boats in the bay slowly turning gold, I knew we had found something special — a respite from the constant craziness of a wild and unpredictable island.

It was rather short-lived. We took what looked like an easier route home and ended up in a goat stampede. Because it was still Sicily, after all.

Aci Trezza Sicily

Essential Info: Aci Trezza is a few towns north of Catania. There is a cheap parking garage (follow the signs for parcheggio) on the main street that runs through town.

We spent our day at the Ghenea Beach Club. It cost just 5 euros ($6) per person and you get a chair, umbrella, table, and access to bathrooms and changing facilities.

We stayed in a two-bedroom suite at Agriturismo La Rocca della Rosa in Zafferana Etnea, which can also be booked on Airbnb here, for $115 per night plus Airbnb fees. This is a wonderful agriturismo with a pool, great food, and the kindest owners, Maria and Franz. You’ll love it here. It’s in a perfect location for exploring Mount Etna and northeast Sicily; the town of Zafferana is lovely, too (don’t miss Blue Gel gelato!).

Where’s your favorite seaside town that nobody knows about?

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The Joys and Challenges of Traveling in Sicily

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Kate in Siracusa

Sicily kicked my ass and nearly destroyed me.

I did not expect that. Italy is my zone. I go to Italy once or twice a year. I lived in Florence for four months. I speak Italian (not as well as I used to, yet more than enough to get by).

As a result, Italy is one of the countries where I’m most comfortable. I understand how things work. I know what to eat, what to wear, what to do at different times of day. I’m well versed in the passeggiatta and penalties of not validating your train ticket.

I thought I knew Italy — and then I got to Sicily.

Agriturismo la Rocca della Rosa

The Wild Part of Italy

Sicily was my tenth region to visit in Italy (after Tuscany, Umbria, Lazio, Campania, Liguria, Lombardia, Veneto, Emilia-Romagna, and Puglia). I would immediately designate it the region that has the least in common with other regions.

Sicily had a wildness in the way the overgrown plants spilled onto the highway, in the way gargoyle-like rocks rose out of the sea, in the way children rode their bikes around piazzas at 1:00 AM.

But most significantly, I had a lot of communication issues. English was only spoken in the most touristy areas, and in the more rural areas, the locals spoke Sicilian dialect.

As a result, even when I spoke Italian, we could barely understand each other. I would understand maybe one word, tops, out of the whole sentence.

I’ll admit that this was overwhelming and embarrassing for me on many occasions. Traveling seamlessly in Italy is a mark of pride for me, and I hated feeling so helpless.

I’m not the only one who felt this way. Amanda of Farsickness wrote in a comment on one of my earlier posts:

In a weird way I am so glad you felt that way about Sicily. I spent 2 weeks there in May and found it to be way more difficult than I imagined. I speak Italian and have lived in Italy and I felt lost and confused so, so, so many times. I kept thinking about how I wouldn’t recommend it as a destination to newbie independent travelers or anyone who doesn’t know at least some basic Italian. A beautiful island with killer food and wine, but easy and often, not relaxing.

I am so glad that Amanda said that. It made me feel like I wasn’t crazy after all.

That said, in spite of the difficulties, Sicily is an incredibly rewarding destination. It’s filled with so much natural beauty and so many cultural destinations. The people are warm and friendly. The food is delicious. Everything looks and tastes like sunshine.

The Joys and Challenges of Traveling in Sicily

Tips for Traveling in Sicily

If you’re planning a trip to Sicily, get ready to plan more than you would for a trip elsewhere in Italy.

Here are my top recommendations for Sicily:

DSCF1931

Stick to the Beaten Path Unless You’re an Experienced Traveler

If you stay on the beaten path for foreign travelers, you won’t have most of the challenges that I had.

In Eastern Sicily, that means the Aeolian Islands, Taormina, Mount Etna, Siracusa, and the Baroque cities (Ragusa, Modica, Noto).

In Western Sicily, that means Trapani, Cefalù, Erice, and the western islands like Pantelleria.

In popular tourist destinations, Italian was spoken (not the dialect that I found in other places) and English was often spoken as well. They also had a more developed infrastructure for travelers and it was a less harried, more relaxed atmosphere.

Agriturismo la Rocca della Rosa

Off the Beaten Path Has Its Own Challenges and Rewards

You absolutely can get off the beaten path if you’d like to. Just know that you’ll be dealing with things including but not limited to:

People speaking only the local dialect and not Italian, let alone English.

Limited tourism infrastructure.

Roads in very poor condition.

Limited opening hours and dining options.

That said, getting off the beaten path can be very rewarding. You can end up getting to know locals who rarely see foreign tourists and are eager to share the best parts of their town (and food!) with you.

Taormina Shop

Learn As Much Italian As You Can

Even in popular areas in Sicily, it will benefit your trip greatly if you learn as much Italian as you can in advance.

At minimum, I recommend learning buongiorno/arrivederci/ciao, per favore/grazie, numbers one through 10, mi scusi and permesso (“regular excuse me” and “please move out of my way excuse me”), vorrei (“I would like” — use when ordering in a restaurant), and parla inglese? (“Do you speak English?”). It helps to learn food words, too.

Keep a translation app on your phone so you can double-check translations on the fly.

My favorite way to learn a language? The DuoLingo app. It makes language learning a fun game!

Aci Trezza

Get On Sicilian Time

Like in Spain, you’ll find that most businesses in Sicily take a siesta in the afternoon, often from 1:00 PM until 5:00 PM or a bit later. Oh, and they might not be open when they say they’ll be open. Just know that if you have something important to buy at a shop, do it in the morning!

Dinner is eaten at a late hour — you’re best off waiting until 9:00 PM, and even then you’ll be among the earlier ones getting their aperitivo. People will be out having dinner well past midnight.

Also, make like a Sicilian and avoid being outside during the hottest part of the afternoon, unless you’re at the beach. Everyone stays inside and smaller towns start to feel creepy when you’re the only one out.

Siracusa

Get a SIM Card

I picked up a Vodafone SIM Card in the Rome airport en route to Catania, and I was beyond glad that I did. It gave us so much help when it came to navigation and translation.

I paid 40 EUR ($45) for 5 GB of data with calls and texting. I later ordered another gig of data online for 5 EUR ($6).

I was happy with the Vodafone coverage. It didn’t work on most of the land at our agriturismo (which wasn’t an issue, as they had good wifi), and we didn’t get coverage on some of the tiny roads from Avola to Ragusa, but other than that, it worked great. You can find Vodafone shops in most cities.

Taormina

Rent a Car — A Small, Automatic Car

It is possible to travel around Sicily using only public transportation, but the quality, frequency, and connections aren’t as good as in the north. If you only have public transportation, you’re not going to see nearly as much of Sicily as you could with a car.

Traveling with a car was a very smart decision — one of the best of our trip. It gave us so much freedom to do day trips as we pleased without relying on public transit. Plus, when we stayed at our agriturismo, it was the only way we could leave the area.

Getting a tiny car should be a priority. Streets are narrow in many Sicilian towns and driving our regular-sized sedan felt like like driving a tank. (We survived, but we wish we had rented a smaller vehicle!)

I would only recommend renting a manual car if you’re very experienced with driving a manual. My mom drove a manual for most of her life, but she hasn’t in over a decade, and she was relieved that we had an automatic.

The reason? Sicily is very hilly. If you end up taking small streets, you’ll have tough driving ahead of you. This isn’t the kind of place to drive a manual if you’re iffy about it.

Also, book your car way in advance. Cars often sell out, especially automatics, and even after booking, we were told the night before our arrival (!) that our rental car provider didn’t have any more cars. We freaked out and booked last-minute with a more expensive provider.

Siracusa

Watch Out for Crazy Drivers

The driving in Italy gets crazier the further south you go. (And it doesn’t even stop once you leave Sicily — Malta is home to the most reckless driving I have ever seen.)

Sicily is a place where you should drive more conservatively. Stay out of the fast lane. Look in every direction a few times before driving through an intersection. Remember that many people ignore red lights and stop signs.

Driver super-defensively to maximize your safety.

Sunset at Agriturismo la Rocca della Rosa

Stay in an Agriturismo

An agriturismo is a farm that doubles as a guesthouse. It’s a very popular way to travel in Italy, both for locals and foreigners. You get to relax in the outdoors and sometimes you can help out in the garden if you want to!

We stayed at Agriturismo la Rocca della Rosa in Zafferana Etnea, the base for journeys to Mount Etna. This was a lovely place to stay and I highly recommend it for your time in Sicily.

The agriturismo is in such a convenient location — rural and slightly off the beaten path, but we were able to make easy day trips to Mount Etna, Taormina, Aci Trezza, and our great-grandfather’s hometown of Castanea delle Furie. If we had been more ambitious (or willing to drive 2.5 hours each way), we could have gone as far as Cefalù or Siracusa.

The three of us shared a comfortable two-bedroom suite. And the pool was very welcome on a hot day.

Avola Beach

Give Yourself Downtime — and Beach Time

Sicily is the kind of destination that demands quite a bit of you and exhausts you. If you don’t give yourself ample downtime, you could very well lose your mind. Soon it became apparent that we couldn’t visit all the places I wanted to visit, which was disappointing, but the downtime made it worth it.

The perfect way to have downtime in Sicily? Head for the beach! You’re spoiled for choice on this island.

Avola was home to the nicest stretch of sand we saw in Sicily, while Aci Trezza was a low-key town on the water home to rocky beaches and beach clubs on overwater decks.

Mussels in Siracusa

Dive into Delicious Food

Like the rest of Italy, both Sicily and the regions in Sicily have their own local specialties. Even the towns have their signature dishes!

Some dishes to try:

Arancini — Rice balls stuffed with anything from meat sauce to cheese and vegetables. The perfect snack food for any time of day (yes, I once had one for breakfast).

Pasta alla norma — Pasta with tomatoes, eggplant, basil, and ricotta salata.

Caponata — Fried eggplant with tomatoes, balsamic vinegar, capers, and other vegetables, on its own as a side dish or served on crostini or with other dishes.

All the fresh seafood you can find — It’s the Mediterranean — it’s good. Try everything. I once had a spaghetti alle vongole (spaghetti with clams) that nearly made me cry, it was so good.

Frutta martorana — This is what Sicilians call marzipan. It comes from the town of Martora.

Cannoli — The world-famous pastry is from Sicily (which may be why you couldn’t find one in Venice). Keep in mind that cannolo is the singular form.

Oh, and granita. Which brings me to my next item…

Taormina Granita and Cocktails

Eat Granita Every Day

If you’re used to eating gelato in Italy, go Sicilian — it’s time for granita!

Granita is basically slush for adults, and I don’t know what they put in it, but it’s better than any slush I have ever had. It’s dairy-free, yet tastes so creamy! Sometimes it’s served with brioche. Some people even eat it for breakfast!

Try as many flavors as you can, but I especially recommend mandorla, or almond. Honestly, I have no words for how good mandorla granita is. You won’t find anything like that in your home country, that’s for sure! Simply heavenly.

I loved lemon and caffe, too. My favorite granita cafe was Bambar in Taormina. Try granita with cream at least once, too!

Nuts in Sicily

Count Your Change

I hate to say it, but my mom and I noticed on four different occasions that we weren’t given enough change — and most of the time we didn’t bother to check, so who knows how many other times it happened?

By the time the final incident happened, when a granita seller handed me back a 50-cent piece instead of a euro, I snapped, “É vero?” (“Seriously?”) and held up the coin. He shrugged like it was nothing and gave me a euro.

Keep an eye on your change.

Mount Etna Sunset

Solo Travel in Sicily? It’s Not Easy.

After my experience, I’m not sure that I would recommend Sicily as a destination for most solo travelers. Of course, solo travelers (and solo female travelers) can go anywhere they’d like and have a great time; I just don’t think that Sicily would be one of the better choices within Italy or within Europe.

I say this mostly because of the driving. When my mother, sister, and I traveled together, driving was a three-person job. Mom drove, I navigated, and Sarah looked out for rogue drivers. Once Sarah left and I took on her job, it was still very difficult.

I could not imagine doing that driving on my own. If you drive alone, even with a GPS, know that you will be going down the wrong streets all the time.

Additionally, the communication difficulties mean that you may spend a lot of time feeling isolated and lonely. You may want to stay somewhere like a hostel or agriturismo in order to meet more people, including fellow travelers who speak English.

That said, Sicilians are very warm and friendly people. Even if you’re not able to communicate, they’ll welcome you with open arms. And the island is full of so many cultural treasures that you won’t lack for things to do and places to see.

Finally, if you’re traveling solo in Sicily, consider sticking to the beaten path. You’ll have an easier and more relaxing time. If you want to travel off the beaten path, I recommend getting more travel experience elsewhere in Italy first.

Essential Info: I got my SIM card at Vodafone in Rome’s airport. Vodafone shops are in most towns. I paid 40 EUR ($45) for a SIM card with 5 GB of data, calls and texting. When I ran out of data I got an extra gig for 5 EUR ($6). The coverage was great for Sicily and worked almost everywhere, though know you may not have coverage in more rural areas.

In Zafferana Etnea, Sicily, we stayed in a two-bedroom suite at Agriturismo La Rocca della Rosa, which can also be booked on Airbnb here, for $115 per night plus Airbnb fees. This is a wonderful agriturismo with a pool, great food, and the kindest owners, Maria and Franz. You’ll love it here. It’s in a perfect location for exploring Mount Etna and northeast Sicily; the town of Zafferana is lovely, too (don’t miss Blue Gel gelato!). If you stay there, please tell Maria and Franz that Kate, Deb and Sarah say hi!

We did the Etna Summer Sunset Experience excursion from Etna Experience, and it was a wonderful way to see the volcano up close and hike a small part of it, finishing with wine and snacks at a beautiful sunset spot. 54 EUR ($60) in summer, 44 EUR ($49) in other seasons.

While in Zafferana, we made easy day trips to Taormina and Aci Trezza as well as Etna and our great-grandfather’s village, Castanea delle Furie (the latter of which has zero tourist value and you should not visit). It’s best to have a car in Zafferana and vital if you want to do any day trips.

In Avola, Sicily, we stayed at this two-bedroom Airbnb apartment for $40 per night plus Airbnb fees. The apartment is clean, cool, modern, and located right by the main square downtown. Giovanni, the host, is an osteopath, has his office downstairs, and offers both massages and adjustments for very good prices!

Avola is a bit of an offbeat place, and you’ll be the one of very few non-Italians in town, but it has a great beach. Keep in mind that downtown Avola is dead during the day but comes to life at night. There is a wine bar on Piazza Umberto that makes a FABULOUS cheese and salume plate. Spend your days hanging at the beach or exploring cities nearby like Siracusa, Noto, Modica, and Ragusa; I visited Siracusa and Ragusa and recommend them both.

Have you ever been to a destination that challenged you as a traveler? Share away!

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Requiem for a Beloved Purple Dress

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Kate in Railay

Four and a half years ago, I found myself shipwrecked and posession-less in Indonesia. After jumping off a boat and swimming for my life in the middle of the night, I ended up with only four pieces of clothing: my Vang Vieng tubing t-shirt, my black and blue hippie pants, my pink Beerlao tank top, and a pair of tiny red shorts.

I flew back to Thailand with a backpack so empty, it was comical.

I had bought a few items before leaving Indonesia, but the selection wasn’t great. Luckily, Bangkok is one of the best shopping cities in the world, if not the best. I quickly set out to the MBK shopping mall to see what I could find, soon ending up in a clothing boutique called Eve.

And there they were…two dresses, soft and stretchy with black lacework and ties in the back. One in royal blue. One in grape. Each cost 200 baht — roughly $6.

I bought both.

Over the next few years, those dresses became mainstays of my travel wardrobe. The blue dress in particular would become my calling card, worn on every trip and instantly recognizable. But the purple dress, not as much of a statement, was more versatile. It always remained soft and stayed the proper size, while the blue one got dry and shrank to the point of needing to pair it with leggings.

I wore the dress on a weekly basis, wherever I happened to be in the world. I thought about evaluating the “cost per wear,” the system that rewards buying a versatile $800 leather jacket over an ugly $20 dress, and thought that my purple dress’s cost per wear must be the lowest in my wardrobe, even lower than underwear.

For four years, my purple dress and I were the perfect team.

Then this summer, the day I was dreading arrived: I could no longer deny that the dress had worn out. The lace on the back had been tearing apart for quite some time, which was bad enough; it had now gotten to the point where the two sides were hanging down at different angles and I was nearly flashing people.

This wasn’t the kind of thing that could be fixed. It was time to say goodbye.

So I folded it neatly and left it on a shelf in my apartment in Montenegro. Partly because I could barely close my suitcase, partly because I felt it appropriate to leave a much-loved sacrifice to the apartment’s ghost, who had haunted me for the past five days. Either way, before I left, I held the dress to my face, breathed it in, and whispered, “You’ve served me so well.”

Thank you, purple dress.

Kate in Boracay

You were the perfect beach cover-up in the Philippines…

Kate and Alex on the Catamaran

And you covered up just as well in Nicaragua.

Kate in Golden Gai

You were formal enough for a tapas bar in Tokyo…

Kate and the Cinnamon Roll

Though you looked right at home in a casual diner in San Antonio.

Kate working in El Tunco

You were my office-wear in El Salvador…

Beth, Kate and Sarah at Big Gay Ice Cream

And you were so comfortable on overnight transit days.

Kate on Lake Bled

I threw you on during a scalding day in Slovenia…

Kate in Bergen Norway

Yet you also worked when paired with a blazer, leggings, and boots in chilly Norway.

Kate at Khao Sok

And when I needed to swim through a cave in Thailand, hey, you even worked for that!

Thank you, purple dress, for being a wonderful travel companion. Next time I’m in Bangkok, I’ll head back to Eve to check out their dresses, but I know there will never be another one like you.

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AK Monthly Recap: August 2015

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Kate in Taormina, Sicily

Is it March that goes in like a lion and out like a lamb? Well, that was pretty much my August. It began with a bang, gallivanting in Riga before a wild sojourn through eastern Sicily. After slowing down a bit in Scotland and Iceland, I came home to Massachusetts and came to a stop.

Quite a few things happened this month: a family trip, my 31st birthday, and the single most challenging destination I’ve faced in years. Here is what went down in August.

Destinations Visited

Riga, Latvia

Zafferana Etnea, Taormina, Aci Trezza, Mount Etna, Castanea delle Furie, Avola, Siracusa, and Ragusa, Sicily

Edinburgh, Scotland

Reykjavik and the Golden Circle, Iceland

Reading, Salisbury, Newburyport, and Boston, Massachusetts, USA

Siracusa, Sicily

Favorite Destinations

Siracusa. I fell madly in love with Ortigia, the island holding Siracusa’s old city. Being there with perfect light after a rain storm made it even better.

Riga. Great city, great food, super fun, and I’m floored that it isn’t more well known.

Aci Trezza. Chilled out, totally local, and unlike the other offbeat places we visited in Sicily, completely relaxing.

Edinburgh. It will always be one of my favorite cities in the world, and just being there fills me with joy.

Kate and Mom in Avola

Highlights

Traveling with my family. I had a great time traveling over Europe with my mother and sister, tracing our family roots in Latvia, Sicily, and Scotland. It was definitely a time for bonding and seeing places we had always dreamed of.

Rocking out at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. One of my favorite festivals of all time, not to mention the festival where I felt the most comfortable being solo! So many performances all over the city, all for super-cheap. I could have stayed all month.

Having perfect photography conditions in Siracusa. That light. That sky. That just-after-thunderstorm look. I can’t wait to put together a full photo essay for you.

Taking Edna and Joe on a food crawl in Boston. Edna has already taken me to have the best food in Singapore and Paris, so I was thrilled to take her and her boyfriend out to eat at some of my favorite places in Boston! From Toro’s legendary corn to oyster shooters to cow tipper frappes with Guinness, we had a great day.

Snapchat Birthday

My first birthday on Snapchat! If you thought Facebook birthday wishes were nice, wait until you have a birthday on Snapchat! I received so many sweet, kind messages from readers with pictures, drawings, and even singing! I was so touched.

Meditating on Mount Etna. Maybe it was the power of the volcano, but I achieved a level of clarity I haven’t had in months.

A fun Edinburgh meetup. Edinburgh friends, blogger friends, and a few readers came for a night out in Edinburgh. Lots of fun!

Finding the perfect jewelry in Iceland. I rarely buy souvenirs, but if I do, it’s usually jewelry. After I fell in love with a pair of blue zircon and silver earrings and a ring, my mom got them for me for my birthday present.

Relaxing in Edinburgh

Challenges

Oh, that time my mom and I locked ourselves in a vestibule with a giant cockroach. Not kidding. Our place in Avola had a vestibule in between the apartment and the front door, and the inside door closed with the keys in it. We couldn’t get in; we couldn’t get out; during all this, a giant cockroach was running around. We had to call our poor host Giovanni to free us; thankfully, he was nearby and arrived in minutes!

Not being able to understand anyone in parts of Sicily. I speak Italian, and though I don’t speak it very well these days, I’ve always been able to get by and survive throughout Italy — until I got to Sicily. The touristy areas were easy, but in places like Castanea I couldn’t understand a word of their dialect and they couldn’t understand me!

It was horrible. Add that to the pressure of being the Official Family Translator and I was in tears at one point.

Driving in Sicily. Not for the faint-hearted, and one reason why I think Sicily would be a very difficult destination for a solo traveler. You need one person to line up the GPS with the actual roads because when it says to turn left, there are three lefts within ten feet of each other! Oh, and let’s not get started on the complete lack of stop signs in gridded cities, the fierce speeding and tailgating, and how people didn’t stop at red lights…

I got hurt. I’ve been running this month — more on that below — and just as I got into my ninth day, I hurt my leg. Shin splints. Very painful, but I’m mostly upset that they’ve derailed my fitness regime.

Kate with a Beaver, Riga

Most Popular Post

30 Things I Didn’t Do Until I Turned 30 — Who says life gets boring once you turn 30? Not me! It was one of my craziest years ever!

Cat Building, Riga

Other Posts

Why Snapchat Matters — This hugely influential network is much more than teenagers and nudes. Here’s how to get started.

How to Protect Your Belongings on the Beach — Don’t be afraid of hitting the beach alone! There are solutions.

What’s It Like to Travel in Albania? — An introduction to Europe’s most mysterious and offbeat country.

100 Travel Tips for Paris — One of the most comprehensive helpful posts I’ve ever written. Save this one for your trip!

Copenhagen in Photos — Part photo essay, part introspection in a very beautiful city.

The Genealogy Trip: Tracing Our Roots in Latvia, Sicily, and Scotland — An overview of my three-week family trip with takeaways and advice if you do your own.

Gulfoss Waterfall, Iceland

News and Announcements

Since coming home, I’ve been making two big commitments in my non-travel life.

The first: improve my health. I started doing Couch 2 5K and was amazed that I was actually fulfilling the running requirements each day without failing, on top of doing bodyweight workouts, and it was going so well…

And then I got hurt. Shin splints. Which suck. I apparently did too much too fast.

So I’m still working on my health — taking it easy as my leg heals, occasionally taking a very slow walk around the block, but still continuing to eat right. I hope to meet some goals by the end of the year.

The second: organize my finances. I’ve been reading a lot about personal finance lately and realized how much better I could be organizing my finances as a 31-year-old. When you run your own business and have varying, often irregular payments coming in each month, it’s incredibly hard to stay organized and consistent. Especially when it takes time and money to get your business off the ground and you spend years on a shoestring trying to stay afloat before getting into a comfortable financial state.

Well, I am resolving to go from kind of a disaster to being the girl who maxes out her Roth IRA and 401k’s on top of that, even without the incentive of having a company match. Oh, and building an emergency fund that would sustain her for six months in New York City, being smarter about taxes, and all that incredibly sexy finance stuff (are you still awake?).

Mount Etna Sunset

Finally, on top of those, I’ve decided to do Sober September. I won’t be drinking during the whole month. I was challenged by my bud Jeremy (you know how I love a challenge!) and now we’ve rallied up a motley crew of around 15 people who are doing the same thing.

Going sober for a month allows you to focus on yourself and reset your body. For me, I see it as an opportunity to improve my health, spend less money, learn how to socialize without that crutch, and know that drinking isn’t the end-all and be-all to social situations.

And…it’s good to know that you can stop if you want to.

Being sober in New York will be a bit tough, since I usually fill my trips there with cocktail get-togethers and boozy brunches, but I’m still looking forward to seeing my friends (and guzzling quite a bit of coffee and bone broth instead!).

Victoria Street, Edinburgh

Most Popular Photo on Instagram

This is a shot of my favorite street in Edinburgh: Victoria Street, which is home to a pork sandwich shop, one of my favorite Fringe venues, a great coffee shop, a lovely boutique, a chic distillery, and a cheese shop you can smell a mile away.

Not my favorite photo of the month, but hey, you never know what will do well on Instagram!

Salisbury Beach, Massachusetts

What I Read This Month

I’ve been plowing through book after book this month, thanks to mostly quick reads! I’m now 39 books into the 52-book 2015 Popsugar Book Challenge. This was the first month in which I dared to read a book that didn’t fulfill any categories!

Euphoria by Lily King — For my love triangle book, I wanted to read a GOOD romance — the kind that makes you close your eyes and savor it as your heart races. This was that kind of book. WHAT A ROMANCE. Loosely based on the life and memoirs of Margaret Mead, this tells the story of a prominent female anthropologist with her anthropologist husband as they live and research in Papua New Guinea in the 1930s, and the other male anthropologist who arrives and falls in love with her. (Thanks for the recommendation, Steph and Marie!) Category: a book with a love triangle.

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver — I adore Barbara Kingsolver and years ago I started this book, one of her biggest hits — yet I never finished it. Well, I finally see what all the fuss is about — this book is magnificent. It tells the story of a missionary family that moves from Georgia to a small village in the Belgian Congo in 1959, just before the country erupts into independence. In many ways, their trip is a complete nightmare.

Leave it to Barbara Kingsolver to do the impossible. Each character has such a unique and distinctive voice, I can’t believe she kept them all straight. But even more impressively, the abusive preacher father is an abhorrent character, yet she creates incredible sympathy for why he is the way he is. Category: a book that you started but never finished.

How Not to Travel the World by Lauren Juliff — This month, Lauren of Never-Ending Footsteps published her memoir, and I am so thrilled for her! Lauren is famed for her many disasters while traveling, and this book covers quite a few of them, like the time she sat next to a dead woman on her boat to Laos (!). She also writes about her struggles with anxiety and slowly breaks out of perhaps the most narrow and sheltered comfort zone I’ve ever known a backpacker to have (the girl had never eaten an egg or rice at age 23!). If she can learn to travel, you can, too. Category: a book written by someone under 30.

Hamlet by William Shakespeare — How on Earth is it possible that I got through four years of high school, four years of college as an English major, took a course on Shakespeare, played Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, represented my school at the Massachusetts Shakespeare Competition, and yet never read Hamlet? Don’t ask. Well, I finally did read it on the flight home from Iceland. It’s nice to finally understand all the Hamlet quotes and references in pop culture. Category: a book you were supposed to read in school but didn’t.

I Will Teach You To Be Rich by Ramit Sethi — Well, my mind has officially been blown. I am completely reorganizing my finances for the better, and I’m so relieved that at age 31 I can still reap the benefits of investing aggressively. If you’re looking for a book about personal finance in your 20s and 30s, this is a good one — I love Ramit’s personality and I learned so much from him. Didn’t fulfill any category.

A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson — Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, which tells the story of a girl named Ursula who is able to live our multiple versions of her life while surviving the Blitz during World War II, was one of my favorite reads two years ago. I was shocked and delighted to see that she wrote a companion novel about Ursula’s brother Teddy!

This book plays with time as well, though not in the same way as Life After Life, and its such a creative way of telling a story. The book focuses on Teddy’s time as an RAF pilot in World War II and how it affected his family and the rest of his life. At one point near the end, five words of dialogue sent me into sudden violent sobbing.

Even though it’s a companion piece to Life After Life, I feel like it’s more of a companion piece to another book I read this year: Unbroken. While one is a true story and the other is fiction, both books explore what the horrors of war do to good men, particularly when they are commissioned to kill as fighter pilots. Category: A book that made you cry.

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury — I’ll file this one under books that I appreciate more than I like. Definitely one of my egregious reading oversights, and while I appreciate the book’s dystopian view of the future (obviously being a reflection of the present when it was written, in the 1950s), I didn’t fall in love with it. But that’s okay. Perhaps it’s better to appreciate it. Category: a book with a number in the title.

Ragusa, Sicily

What I’m Listening To This Month

Sea Dance may be long over, but I’m still listening to my favorite artists from the festival — Flight Facilities, Doorly (my favorite artist for running!), TCTS, Odesza. Beyond that, here are a few more songs I’m loving lately:

Never Say Never by Basement Jaxx

This is my FAVORITE kind of dance song — the kind that hits me straight in the feels, like everything from Sea Dance. Seriously, I don’t know what that festival did to me. I’m not the same.

Omen by Disclosure and Sam Smith

Probably my favorite new song of the month. Love Disclosure, love Sam Smith (particularly when he’s doing less-sappier songs), love them together.

Black and White Village Scene

Coming Up in September 2015

It’s a stateside month before I gear up for a crazy fall! I’ll be spending the first two thirds of the month at home in the Boston area and the end of the month in New York.

I’ll be using this time to catch up on writing many Europe posts from this summer. There are so many cool places I need to tell you about!

Anything new or different in New York lately that I should check out? Let me know!

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