Месечни архиви: March 2016

Five Years Since the Shipwreck That Changed My Life

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Every March 28, I’m reminded of the night when the boat went down.

Falling asleep on a bench and woke up with a jerk at 2:00 AM, scrambling on the floor before a crew member came in and said, “Everybody, get your lifejackets on.” The night I cried and panicked on the same bench, holding on to a Canadian friend. The night I balanced myself on the deck as it slanted more and more, then vaulted myself overboard into the surprisingly warm water as rain poured down. The night I slammed into the black volcanic rocks on shore and climbed my way to safety.

I was shipwrecked on an overnight trip to Komodo Island in Indonesia.

I don’t look back on it so much as I live. The shipwreck is part of me. I think about it daily.

Now that that five years have passed, I thought it would be an opportunity to look back and talk about how this event impacted my life.

On Gratitude

“You realize that as far as shipwrecks go, you had it good, didn’t you?” a friend asked me at one point.

Yep. He was right. I pretty much had the best case scenario.

In 2014, there was another sinking on a similar journey from Lombok to Komodo. It was far worse than my experience and my heart goes out to everyone involved. It was another reminder that we were fortunate in so many ways.

I am grateful that none of us were killed or severely injured in the wreck.

I am grateful that we were close enough to shore that the crew was able to speed to land before we had to abandon ship.

I am grateful that there were enough lifejackets for everyone on board, even though there weren’t enough for a full boat.

I am grateful that I was sleeping next to a dry bag with my debit card, phone, and camera, and that I was able to put on my sports sandals before jumping.

I am grateful that one crew member kept us calm and helped us as we jumped from the boat.

I am grateful that we landed in the rain on a part of an island where there weren’t any komodo dragons.

I am grateful that a nearby dive boat sent their dinghy to rescue us from the island after only about 30 minutes of climbing the rocks.

I am grateful (and shocked) that my passport was recovered from the wreckage.

I am grateful to my parents for supporting me and accepting my decision to continue traveling, even though they wanted me to come home.

I am grateful to the friends, family, and readers who sent me donations to replace my belongings in Asia.

On Boats and Fear

I still struggle on boats today, five years later. I tend to think about the boat wrecking the entire time I’m on board. No matter how safe and professional the boat is, my default mindset is still WHAT IF IT GOES DOWN? until we’re back on dry land.

And it can get very bad — like on the “small ferry” from Ometepe back to the mainland in Nicaragua, where it creaked loudly and pitched so hard that it had to be bailed out constantly. I was frozen in fear, squeezing my eyes shut as people vomited around me.

And on my wild overnight ferry from Aberdeen to Shetland in Scotland, the North Sea was pitching violently and I maybe got two hours of sleep. Being in an inside cabin with no escape, scenes from Titanic played in my head all night long. I was able to sleep on the ferry back only because I had partied until 8:00 AM at Up Helly Aa the night before and decided to just push through until the night.

There were all those longtail boat rides in Thailand where I fixated on the bottom of the wooden boat and the water that would leak in, slowly, slowly, waiting until it caught the attention of the drivers.

And on my first tour in Guatemala, taking a fully loaded lancha (small boat) across Lake Atitlan from Jaibalito to San Pedro. I felt like the boat was a bit overloaded with all 14 of us and our bags. Frozen in fear once again, I closed my eyes and put my head down the whole time, to the alarm of one of my guests (“Kate. What’s going on? ARE WE OKAY? WHAT’S GOING ON?” “I’M FINE, WE’RE FINE, I’VE BEEN SHIPWRECKED BEFORE”) and then vomited in the privacy of the guesthouse bathroom.

After five years, this is something that I think I’m going to have to live with for the long haul.

That said, there have also been times where I’ve improved. Sailing in Belize was a huge step in my healing process — it was a catamaran (and therefore more stable than a sailboat), we were in calm waters, we sailed during the day only, and we slept on dry land. That, plus the fact that it was insanely fun, made it an overall fantastic experience. It even made me want to sail more!

On Crowdfunding

Once I realized I was safe on shore, reality set in. I had lost all of my clothes except four items, all of my toiletries, my expensive orthodontic mouthpiece, and all my electronics and work gear (save phone and camera) were ruined, including my laptop, which I needed in order to make money. I didn’t even have a single pair of underwear.

And I was extremely low on cash. A travel insurance payment wasn’t guaranteed and it would take time.

As soon as I announced the shipwreck on Facebook, lots of friends came forward asking if they could send me money. I sent them Paypal donation links, and they contributed generously.

Then came the tough decision: would I ask my readers to do the same? Would I actively solicit donations?

I wrestled with whether or not to do this. I was in a position of privilege, traveling the world, even if I was low on cash at the moment. By no means was anyone obligated to donate to me. But a lot of people loved my site and had been reading it regularly and they wanted to help me in my time of need.

Back in early 2011, GoFundMe and similar sites weren’t the powerhouses that they are today. The way to collect donations back then was through a Paypal button. So I put it up, and also asked readers if they could donate, making it clear that just $5 would be very much appreciated (most people donated more), it was absolutely no obligation, and it would not impact our friendship whatsoever whether they did or didn’t donate.

It worked. I raised enough money to buy new tech gear, new clothes, new toiletries, and keep me afloat until I got home a month later. The first things I bought were some awful cheap dresses. Then a laptop. Then underwear. (Priorities.)

Everyone who donated got a long, heartfelt, personalized email from me. (Except for the one who donated 17 cents. My email to him was equally thankful but significantly shorter.) Later, I was able to get a travel insurance settlement, but it only covered a small amount of what I had lost.

Months later, a blogger friend was robbed of $3000 worth of photography equipment while traveling. He sought out my advice and decided to go about it the same way I did. He also had the advantage of having lots of merchandise for sale, and he encouraged people to buy that stuff if they wanted to support him.

My intention was always to pay it forward — and I have and continue to do so. I have two regular charities I support on a monthly basis (Planned Parenthood and Doctors Without Borders), I have a few hundred dollars constantly being lended out on Kiva, and I make one-off donations to other charities, but today I also contribute to friends’ fundraising endeavors. Friend running a marathon for AIDS research? I donate. Cousin looking to adopt a new baby? I donate. Friend of a friend’s husband dies suddenly, leaving her with two very young children? I donate.

And, more recently, another blogger friend was in a similar situation, robbed of her laptop while traveling and wondering whether to ask for donations. I donated. And even after the laptop was found and returned to her, I told her to keep the cash and spend it on backup software like Crashplan.

Now…how does this play into a world where people try to crowdfund their vacations?

That’s a completely different subject and one that could be its own post. If someone is soliciting donations so they can take a trip, I don’t donate to that. If someone is soliciting donations for a service trip, I don’t do that, either. I feel like money goes further if you donate to an actual organization, not for an unskilled worker to volunteer there.

I feel like my position after the shipwreck was different because 1) I had been providing my readers with free, valuable content for quite some time and 2) I had been hit by an unexpected disaster and has lost nearly all of my belongings.

I’m sure some people will read this as justification, as “do as I say, not as I do.” That’s fine. You’re entitled to your opinion.

Even so, if this exact situation happened today, I wouldn’t ask for donations. I’m more financially secure and my site now earns passive income in the background, so I would have survived far more easily.

On Disaster and Solo Travel

As soon as we washed up on the island, I realized that solo travelers were at a disadvantage — we had nobody looking for us. At that point, I started calling out for the other solo travelers, making sure that all of us had made it. We all had.

This is something that I keep in mind to this day. When I’m on a day tour or doing an adventure event, I make an effort to get to know the other participants, not just the guide. Even though I’m an introvert and would be happy sticking in the background, I know that this adds to my safety, just in case the worst happens.

On Visiting Komodo Island Safely

Since the shipwreck, I’ve had around a dozen people emailing me to say that they took the same trip with Perama Tours and it was fine, so people should do it anyway.

I roll my eyes at those emails. Obviously, the boat is not going to wreck every single time! What my trip proved is that Perama Tours is not prepared if anything goes wrong. They had been navigating by flashlight. Neither of the lifeboats were in working order. The lifejackets were tangled and knotted and there were only enough because our boat was at half capacity. There was nothing for the baby — or children, for that matter. And we were robbed on top of it.

The worst part of this trip is that it involved night sailing in rough, volcanic, reef-filled waters. When we arrived in Labuanbajo, Flores, the local fishermen were dismayed that our boat had been sailing through that area at night in the first place.

If you want to visit Komodo Island safely, don’t take an overnight sailing trip and absolutely don’t travel with Perama Tours. Instead, do a day trip from the town of Labuanbajo, Flores. This way you won’t be sailing at night and you won’t have all of your belongings on the boat with you.

I’m not going to recommend any company in particular, as I haven’t experienced them myself; this list on TripAdvisor is a place to start your research.

Now, how should you get to Labuanbajo? You could fly direct from Bali or elsewhere in Indonesia, but I know some people express trepidation about flying an Indonesian airline. The decision is yours. If you don’t want to fly, you can take a series of buses and ferries across Bali, then Lombok, then Sumbawa, then to Labuanbajo on the island of Flores.

Be sure to avoid the “fast ferries” and don’t take any boats at night. See below for more on boat safety.

On the Crew

I was incensed that the crew robbed us after the sinking and even angrier that the police refused to give us a report (which we needed for insurance purposes) unless we said that the crew did nothing wrong, even though I understood why they did it.

Today, I feel a lot more sympathy for them. Working on a tourist boat is a great job, and wrecking the boat is a way to lose that great job. They were likely about to lose the best job they would ever have and did what they had to do to take care of their families. Besides, we were incredibly rich compared to them and could afford to replace our belongings eventually.

And they recovered my passport, which sank with the ship. They didn’t have to do that.

On Healing After Trauma

After the shipwreck, I splurged on a $100 flight back to Bali and checked into a crappy guesthouse in Kuta. I spent my days inside, only leaving to replenish my belongings and eat. (That said, I was without appetite for a long time after the wreck — I could only take two bites and then be full.)

Then I got a kind offer from the Alam Sari, a boutique resort outside Ubud, who offered to put me up for free until I felt better. I spent about a week there, much of it just spent hiding out and getting room service. What I appreciated the most was that the offer came open-ended, without any conditions or stipulations attached. It was low season, so they had plenty of open rooms anyway. I thanked them by providing them with content.

I didn’t realize how much I needed to be with friends until I got back to Bangkok and ran into my buds Ste and Darren during the Songkran celebrations. They were dear friends with whom I had traveled for about a month in Vietnam and Cambodia, and I finally felt somewhat normal once I tearfully hugged them.

I don’t have nightmares. The boat fears are as bad as it gets. And when I was sailing through Croatia, I couldn’t bring myself to jump off the boat with the others. It brought back too many memories.

I don’t take as many risks as I used to anymore. Yes, that might make me lame (I cannot tell you how often I hear “but you’re not adveeeeeeenturous!“), but you know what? I’d much rather skip out on a cool-but-risky activity than die and completely destroy my family’s lives in the process.

All things considered, I’m grateful that I don’t have any lingering trauma.

On Indonesia

When I arrived in Indonesia in 2011, I was several months into my Southeast Asia travels and was already feeling a bit burned out. For that reason, I didn’t explore Bali and Lombok as thoroughly as I could have, and I wasn’t as captivated by these islands as I was by other places in Southeast Asia.

Today, I don’t have much of a desire to return to Indonesia. Which is fine. I’m well aware that Indonesia has some beautiful and fascinating regions to explore, places that I would love, but I don’t feel a pressing need to return at this time.

What did leave an impression on me was the kindness of the Balinese people. Everyone was so open and friendly and interested in my life story and eager to talk for hours. It was a pure and unquestioning kindness, one that is so special when you find it, and I left the island with several new friends. (And at 5’4″, I towered over nearly all of them!)

On My Fellow Shipwreckees

We stayed in touch for a bit over email, but we haven’t talked to each other in quite a long time. I’ve lost touch with all of them, in part because some of them weren’t on Facebook and the whole internet situation in Labuanbajo was limited back then. We mostly used desktops in internet cafes, which meant impromptu friending didn’t happen. I’m glad the option is there if I need to email them.

Still, I think about them a lot. I’ve always remembered Juan and Meri’s offer to look them up if I ever come to Cordoba, Argentina.

I did recently hear from the mother of the baby on board! She commented on my Facebook page. Little Elin is doing well in Denmark. She should be almost six now.

On Boat Safety in Developing Countries

It’s important for you to know that nothing is ever 100% safe. Boat safety isn’t merely an issue in developing countries, as recent tragedies in South Korea and Italy have shown.

But traveling by boat the developing world requires extra vigilance, as countries often don’t have as stringent regulations as in developed countries. It’s not uncommon for boats to be filled past capacity or for old, rundown boats to continue to take passengers.

Boat safety is hard in particular because unless you know boats well, you don’t know what to look for. How can you tell the difference between a safe but old-looking boat and an unsafe boat? I still don’t know.

But here are tips that will help you:

Learn how to swim well before you start traveling. I was surprised at how many of my friends, especially Brits, described themselves as “not a strong swimmer” and didn’t go beyond shallow water. There is no shame in taking swimming lessons as an adult. Seriously. It could save your life.

And for my readers who are parents, teach your kids to swim from a young age. Get them into lessons if you’re not a strong swimmer yourself. Please prioritize this; it will be more difficult once they’re older.

Bring a dry bag. Today I travel with two dry bags: a small one for when I need somewhere to stash my camera and phone (5-10 liters is good), and a large one (20-30 liters) big enough to cover my day bag.

If you’re a longtime reader, you know that I always encourage you to keep your valuables (electronics, passport, medication, credit cards, cash, etc.) in your day bag, on your person at all times while in transit (excluding the backup cash and credit card hidden somewhere random in your luggage). That goes for boats as well as anywhere else. Check your luggage in the hold but hang onto your valuables as well as the big dry bag.

Avoid fast ferries; take larger, slower ferries. I’m speaking anecdotally as it’s hard to find data — but in my experience, when you hear about sinkings of tourist boats around Bali and Lombok, it’s often the fast ferries, sometimes the popular fast ferry from Bali to the Gili Islands. Also anecdotally, I’ve found that larger boats tend to be more stable, though keep in mind that anything can happen.

Stick to high season and avoid sailing in bad weather. If you’re planning a trip to a part of the developing world with lots of ferries, like Indonesia or the Philippines, you may want to time your trip to high season, when it rains less often.

Avoid night sailings. Stick to daytime sailing. (You may feel fine sailing at night in the developed world, but for the developing world I urge you to only take day sailings.)

Invest in your safety. Don’t let money be a major factor in choosing a less safe method of transport. If there’s a big difference in the quality of boats, take the nicer boat, even if it costs more or takes much longer. Be aware if you’re paying more for a quality trip or a faster trip.

If you’re taking a tour or trip, read reviews first. TripAdvisor and Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree are good places to search. The Thorn Tree is also good if you have follow-up questions. Local and regional sites are good too, like Travelfish for Southeast Asia, as well as local Couchsurfing groups for destinations.

Find a lifejacket and sit on it like a cushion. Grab it as soon as you get on the boat. If the worst happens, you’ll be prepared.

Familiarize yourself with all exit routes from the boat. This is good advice for wherever you go, but it’s especially important on boats.

On the Legacy of My Original Post

My original post had quite an impact. Years after the shipwreck, one of my readers emailed me and said that she was in an internet cafe in Bali and several people had my site pulled up and were debating whether or not to do the cruise.

I hear it all the time — “I almost did that trip and your post convinced me not to do it.” And the opposite, on occasion. Since I know the people who actually email me are a small minority, I can only imagine how many people this post has directly affected.

It also got a fair amount of press. Lonely Planet Indonesia used to refer to a “well-documented March 2011 shipwreck.” Now they briefly refer to a 2011 sinking. I actually make a regular habit of browsing Indonesia guidebooks just to see what they say about cruising to Komodo Island. Even five years later.

I will say this — prior to the shipwreck, Lonely Planet referred to Perama’s cruise as “one of the safer options.” Nowadays, they say nothing about safety and instead refer to my past sinking.

To be totally honest, the shipwreck was hugely beneficial to my career as a travel blogger. The post got widely shared in the early days of 2011 (I can only imagine what it would have been like today!). It grew my audience and also gave me credibility as a traveler. And it’s a hell of a story to tell. I honestly think that this was the point when I went from being a decently known blogger to one of the best known travel bloggers.

If the shipwreck had ended tragically, I would be carrying around quite a bit of guilt over my resulting success.

Looking Forward

Now that I’ve opined for more than 3000 words on this defining moment in my life, what’s the message I want you to take away?

Please take safety seriously. I know a lot gets said about “Don’t let fear keep you from traveling the world!” and “You could be hit by a drunk driver if you don’t travel!” and “It’s even safer than being at home!” and “Most of the time it’s totally safe!”

I get the purpose of those statements, but they’re overly simplistic. Travel can be risky. It can often be more risky than staying at home. And when you add traveling by boat in the developing world, you’re adding even more risks.

You could luck out and have nothing happen to you, like most people. Or something could go wrong while you’re traveling with a company like Perama Tours that is completely unprepared for any mishaps.

Please follow the safety advice I listed above. And if your intuition is screaming at you, that’s a sign to just say no. Even if you already paid.

If you want to visit Komodo Island, don’t take an overnight sailing trip. Do a day trip from Labuanbajo like I mentioned above. I’ve made it a mission to spread this information and I hope the overnight budget sailings eventually become obsolete.

Were you a reader back when this happened to me? What do you think now? Share away!

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Is It Too Late to Make It as a Travel Blogger Now?

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Laptop in Malta

There’s a question that I’ve been asked more and more often lately:

“There are so many travel blogs out there today. If I start, I’m going to be so far behind. Do I have any chance of making it a career? Is it even possible?”

A lot of people would say no — but I disagree.

I think now is actually a good time to start a travel blog. There’s more money to be had in the industry. Blogs and personalities become popular much faster. New social networks becoming progressively more prominent. In short, you’re open to a lot of opportunities that I didn’t have.


 

RELATED: How to Start a Travel Blog The Right Way


 

Here are a few tips from 2016 that did not apply to the space until fairly recently.

Chiang Mai Travel Bloggers

Know you don’t have to be the biggest travel blogger of all.

Just a few years ago, only the top tier of bloggers were making a full-time living from their blog, and only a few were making enough money to live anywhere more expensive than Southeast Asia.

That has changed. More people are making decent livings. You still see plenty of bloggers living in Southeast Asia, but an increasing number are living in pricey cities in North America and Europe.

A lot of new bloggers start with the goal of being one of the biggest travel bloggers of all. (Quite frankly, that was my motivation in the early days.) If you do that, you’re going to be chasing it forever. But if you don’t let fame motivate you — if you instead want to have a quality working career — you can absolutely make it happen.

Think of it this way: every TV actor dreams of having Viola Davis or Kerry Washington’s career, headlining a popular Thursday night drama. But you could also be a working actor appearing in small guest roles on everything from Law & Order to Brooklyn Nine-Nine to random commercials and the latest Judd Apatow flick, the kind of person where people say, “I know that face! What’s she been in?”

Those actors still make money from their craft. Many of them have a pretty good work/life balance as well. That’s something to keep in mind.

Kate Quaker Oats Murder

That said — most of the big names have slowed down their travels.

There was a time when the people behind the biggest travel blogs were on the road at least 80% of the time. That’s not the case anymore. We’re very tired.

I’m not going to name names because some people are keeping it quieter than others, but a great many popular travel bloggers have chosen to get year-round apartments with leases and travel far less often. (Most of you know that I am one of these bloggers, having moved to New York seven weeks ago.)

That means that if you have the opportunity to travel long-term, you’re going to be doing so in a way that not a lot of others are doing at the moment. That’s especially good for real-time platforms like Snapchat. More on Snapchat below.

Kate in Albania

Niche is good; personality plus specialty is better.

Niche is always a big discussion — people always talk about how important it is to HAVE A NICHE. You need to open that proverbial fly-fishing blog!

But in this day and age, I see it differently. I think the most important thing is to have a well-developed voice and personality along with a few specialties on which you can become an expert.

Alex in Wanderland, for example, has a specialty in diving.

Young Adventuress has a specialty in New Zealand travel.

Flora the Explorer has a specialty in sustainable volunteering.

These specialties are not the only subjects that these bloggers write about, so I wouldn’t go so far as to call them their niches. But they are areas that differentiate them and give them expertise and credibility. If I needed help with any of those subjects, I would go to their sites in a heartbeat. (Also, it’s worth adding that Liz didn’t even visit New Zealand until she had already been blogging, so yes, it is possible to develop a specialty on the road!)

This is especially important for all the women trying to differentiate themselves as a solo female travel blogger. There are a million of you now, ladies. Work on diversifying.

The most difficult part is developing your voice and personality, and that can only be done by writing, writing, writing.

Smartphone Challenge

Social media is more important than ever.

We’ve entered a time where social media can often eclipse the value of your blog. That was never the case early in my blogging years, but I’m seeing it more and more today, especially with Instagram.

At this point in time, Instagram is by far the most important social network. It’s widely consumed by “real people,” it’s prioritized by brands (translation: this is where the money is), and it allows you to show your strengths. A company may be more interested in advertising on Instagram than anywhere on your blog.

But this means you’re going to throw a lot of time and effort into creating a beautiful, engaging Instagram profile.

Snapchat is another big network on which I recommend getting started. It’s huge among “real people” and it’s still early enough that you can be an early adopter, like me.

Another place that can become a game-changer is Pinterest. Pinterest now regularly drives traffic to lots of my pages that don’t necessarily do well in search.

Other social networks are important. Some people swear by Facebook (and I do quite a bit with it); others live and die by Twitter. And by all means, yes, work on growing your Facebook audience in particular. But if I were you, I’d throw your time and resources into focusing on Instagram, Snapchat, and Pinterest.

Kate and Brenna in Koh Lanta

The time to get into video is now. Or yesterday.

Video is projected to grow more and more — a year and a half ago, Mark Zuckerberg said that he expected video to be the dominant content on Facebook within five years. I’ve said before that not doing enough on YouTube keeps me up at night. I just feel like I haven’t had to learn all the skills.

There is plenty of room to grow on YouTube — I’d argue that you can grow faster and far more effectively as a travel YouTuber than as a travel blogger. The time is definitely now.

FYI — Travel Blog Success is having a sale on their videography course this week. It’s 35% off. See below for more.

I actually bought the course last year but I need to make creating better videos a priority for this summer.

Angkor Wat at Dawn

I still mean it — get out of Southeast Asia.

This is one of the most controversial pieces of advice I’ve given, and I stand by it. Southeast Asia is tremendously oversaturated in the travel blogosphere at this point in time.

Is it possible to focus on Southeast Asia and still become a prominent travel blogger? Of course it is. You can stand out if you consistently create genuinely original content.

But most people who spend time in Southeast Asia don’t do that. They write “this is what it’s like to cruise Halong Bay” and “here are photos from my day at Angkor Wat” and “the best things to do in Ubud are these” and “this is how awesome Koh Lanta is.”

It’s good stuff, sure, and it will be useful to your readers who aren’t familiar with those destinations, but posts like those will not allow you to gain traction as a travel blogger. Major influencers will not be sharing these posts because they’ve been seen a thousand times before.

If you want to spend extended time in a cheap region, consider parts of Mexico and Central America (inland Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, inland Nicaragua), parts of South America (Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia), parts of Central and Eastern Europe (Balkans excluding Croatia and Slovenia, Poland, Romania and Bulgaria, former USSR), and/or parts of South Asia (India, Nepal, Sri Lanka).

Because while plenty of people have written about those destinations, they are nowhere near the saturation level of Southeast Asia.

Bloghouse Mentors: Kate, Lisa, Cailin, Mike, Steph

Travel Blog Success Will Help You Grow Fast, Well, and Efficiently.

I push Travel Blog Success because it’s the best product out there. Why?

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  3. The Facebook community is the best travel blogging group on the web. Forget the giant groups on Facebook — the private Travel Blog Success group is the only place where I give out advice to bloggers publicly, and lots of other experts do, too.

And yes, I earn an affiliate commission if you purchase through that link. 26% on the main course, 15% on the others. But I only link to products that I actually use, like, and recommend. Always have, always will.

What do I always tell people? Wait until the course on sale. Because even though that means I’ll be making a much smaller commission, I’d still rather have you get the maximum discount.

Well, it’s on sale now. 35% off all courses. And since I last wrote about it, more courses have been added in addition to the main Travel Blog Success course:

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The sale ends Friday, March 25, 2016, at 11:00 PM ET.

San Juan del Sur Sunset

Because yes: It’s still possible to make it if you start today.

I know some people will disagree with me, but I think that in many ways, it’s a lot easier to get started now than it was when I did in 2010. The market may be crowded, but there is always — always — room for excellent content.

And whether you’re watching a brilliant sunset on a beach in Nicaragua or sitting on your purple couch in your Harlem apartment (which I may be as I write this), the life of a travel blogger is incredibly rewarding. Each day, I feel so grateful that this is what I do for a living.

Note: the links to Travel Blog Success are affiliate links. I only use affiliate links on products that I actually use, like, and recommend. This course is worth every penny and then some!I think now is actually a good time to start a travel blog. There's more money to be had in the industry. Blogs and personalities become popular much faster. New social networks becoming progressively more prominent. In short, you're open to a lot of opportunities that I didn't have.

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Puerto Rico Seriously Has It All

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Kate in San Juan, Puerto Rico

Now that I’ve settled down in New York after five years of travel, one of my goals is to travel more within the U.S. I have a lot of cities I want to visit this year: Austin, Nashville, Portland. But the biggest goal of all? Puerto Rico.

Puerto Rico was a priority for late February. Or sometime in March. After growing up in New England, that’s been the most frustrating time of year, when you’ve been dealing with winter for months and months and just can’t take it anymore.

I started planning — but it wasn’t going to happen. I spent a lot more on home furnishing expenses than expected, I couldn’t find any flights with my miles, and I didn’t know any receptive hotels. Puerto Rico would have to wait, I decided sadly.

Then the most perfectly timed invitation landed in my inbox from Puerto Rico Tourism. Four days exploring the island in late February and early March. Would I like to join the trip?

Would I like to join the trip?! Of course I would!

I ended up having a wonderful time in Puerto Rico and I was surprised at just how much it has to offer.

Boat off Culebra

It’s So Easy

Normally, I have no qualms about traveling internationally. That said, I appreciated how much less work I had to do in order to travel to Puerto Rico, which is a U.S. territory. If you’re an American, here’s why it’s easy:

  1. You don’t need your passport — a license or ID is all you need to fly.
  2. The currency is the U.S. dollar.
  3. While Spanish is the main language of the island, English is widely spoken and everyone in the tourism industry speaks English.
  4. Your U.S. phone plan will work normally without having to get a SIM card or paying roaming charges.

Additionally, there are direct flights to Puerto Rico from all over the U.S. (but especially on the East Coast). I was also surprised to see that you can fly direct to Puerto Rico from as far away as Frankfurt and London!

Puerto Rico Beach

The Perfect All-Around Island

Plenty of people fly to Puerto Rico and never go beyond the confines of their resort. Not my thing, but I get it. Sometimes you need a getaway where you do nothing.

But if you want more than just a beach, Puerto Rico has it all. If you’re visiting for just a few days, like I was, you can easily fit in beach time, adventure time, culture time, and yes, even hanging-out-at-the-pool time.

Flamenco Beach, Culebra, Puerto Rico

Beautiful Beaches

Of course, if you’re going to the Caribbean, you want to see some beaches!

Culebra island, east of the main island of Puerto Rico, is home to Flamenco Beach, which is frequently voted one of the best beaches in the world in travel magazines and on sites like TripAdvisor.

Meh. I’ll believe it when I see it, I thought. Could this beach really compete with the tropical beaches of the Philippines, the white sands of the Florida panhandle, the unreal urban beaches of Sydney, the raw and untamed beaches of South Africa’s Eastern Cape?

OH, DID THIS BEACH EVER DELIVER.

Flamenco Beach, Culebra, Puerto RicoFlamenco Beach, Culebra, Puerto RicoFlamenco Beach, Culebra, Puerto Rico

Flamenco Beach is easily one of the best beaches I’ve ever seen. Perfect sand, bright clear water, and even though I visited in the heart of high season, it wasn’t too crowded.

For what it’s worth, I’ve heard that the neighboring island of Vieques has even better beaches. I can’t wait to check those out! Caroline from Caroline in the City wrote a great guide to Vieques.

Amanda Ziplining in Puerto Rico

Adventure Galore

Zip-lining is a popular adventure activity in resort destinations, and for good reason: it’s easy and requires no skill. I got to experience zip-lining at Toro Verde Adventure Park in Orocovis, in the mountainous center of the island, and it’s the most beautiful and dramatic place I’ve ever zip-lined in my life. (Not gonna lie — it was also the scariest. I kept my eyes shut a lot.)

My trip coincided with the opening of the new longest zip-line in the world: The Monster! The Monster has a total distance of 1.5 miles, or 2.5 kilometers, or 28 football fields. You do it while on your stomach, like Superman, and can achieve speeds up to 93 mph (150 kph).

(I know a lot of places claim to be the longest or the biggest or the highest zip-lines in the world, but this one is absolutely the longest. The Guinness Book of World Records people were there to certify it.)

IMG_4190Orocovis, Puerto RicoKate and Javier Ziplining

Plus: if you get stuck on the line, Javier will come out and rescue you, dragging you back between his thighs.

If you’re up for adventure, there’s far more than just zip-lining: Lillie from Around the World L wrote about visiting El Yunque Rainforest, and Cam and Nicole from Traveling Canucks wrote about doing a bioluminescent kayak tour in Fajardo.

San Juan, Puerto Rico

Legendary Culture

Puerto Rico isn’t just a pretty island devoid of personality — there is so much history and culture and art. While there are lots of cultural options all over the island, San Juan is the epicenter and an easy place to explore.

San Juan, Puerto RicoSan Juan, Puerto RicoSan Juan, Puerto Rico

If you’re looking to maximize your time, head to Old San Juan. Here, you’ll find the island’s only UNESCO World Heritage Site (La Fortaleza, or the three forts that protect the bay) as well as colorful buildings in the old town and a handful of museums.

If you time your visit to one of Puerto Rico’s legendary festivals, you’re in for a treat. Here are some of the better known ones.

Puerto Rican Food

Food

I had no idea what Puerto Rican food was before arriving on the island — but I left having having experienced so many different flavors.

Some dishes to try:

Mofongo — A popular dish where a dome of mashed plantains (or cassava or breadfruit) surrounds a variety of fillings.

Lechón — The ultimate roasted pork! Piggy heaven.

Tostones — Mashed plantains formed into patties and fried.

BacalaítosBacalao, or salted cod, is popular here; bacalaítos are fried bacalao patties.

Morcilla — Every culture has its own blood sausage. This one is Puerto Rico’s.

Arroz con gandules — Rice and beans. With Puerto Rican spices.

Rum — Puerto Ricans love their rum! Try some Don Q.

Puerto Rican food is delicious — but be warned, it’s also very heavy. I don’t know how Puerto Ricans don’t all weigh 400 pounds. You might want to balance out your feasts with lighter meals. I waved a white flag and ordered ceviche on my final night.

Next time, I’d love to drive the pork highway, written about in this post on Twenty-Something Travel.

Ponce, Puerto Rico

Off the Beaten Path Destinations

There isn’t much in Puerto Rico that hasn’t been discovered — but there are plenty of lesser-visited corners.

With a packed four-day trip, I didn’t get too far afield, but I did get to enjoy the city of Ponce in the south. From the moment I saw it, I was entranced. It reminded me of Granada, Nicaragua, mixed with a little bit of New Orleans.

Ponce, Puerto RicoPonce, Puerto RicoPonce, Puerto Rico

An added bonus? Ponce and the south have a wonderfully dry climate, a major change from humid San Juan.

Santaella San Juan

Nightlife

One of my favorite parts of our trip was the final night in Placita, a collection of open-air bars in San Juan. (I was also thrilled my Puerto Rican buddy, Norbert of Globotreks, was in town and came to join us!) We went on a Thursday night and it was hopping, though Norbert told me it really gets going on Friday and Saturday.

If you go, be sure to check out Santaella. It’s one of the fancier places in Placita. My Puerto Rican friends say this place has the best bartenders in San Juan and they made me a delicious tamarind margarita.

The casual bars are equally fun and you can get local Medalla beers for around $2.

San Juan, Puerto Rico

Where to Stay in Puerto Rico

San Juan is the perfect base for a trip to Puerto Rico — it’s close to the airport, the city is fun, there are lots of nice beaches, lots of tour providers will pick you up from hotels there, and it’s easy enough to get all over the island within a few hours’ drive.

On this trip I stayed at two Hilton properties in San Juan: the Hilton Caribe and the Hilton Condado Plaza.

Here are photos of the room, view, and grounds of the Hilton Caribe:

Hilton Caribe, San Juan, Puerto RicoHilton Caribe, San Juan, Puerto RicoHilton Caribe, San Juan, Puerto Rico

Here are photos of the room, view, and grounds of the Hilton Condado Plaza:

DSCF4359Hilton Condado Plaza, San Juan, Puerto RicoHilton Condado Plaza, San Juan, Puerto Rico

Both hotels are solid options — each has beautiful rooms, a nice outdoor space, ocean views, and beaches with calm, clear Caribbean water. But between the two of them, I greatly preferred the Caribe. It had much better pools, beachfront, and outdoor grounds, plus two Starbuckses on the premises (including one on the beach!). The Caribar has excellent tapas — I especially loved the ropa vieja arepas. That said, the rooms were better at the Condado Plaza.

Now — if you’d like something even more upscale, resort-like, luxurious, and secluded, check out El Conquistador Resort in Fajardo, on the east coast. This is a Waldorf Astoria property and it’s the largest resort in Puerto Rico. They even have their own private island!

El Conquistador, Puerto RicoEl Conquistador, Puerto RicoChocolate Cake and Champagne, El Conquistador, Puerto Rico

I didn’t stay overnight here, but I got to explore it one afternoon. And while I normally can’t stand hotel visits on press trips (“Look at this amazing hotel…but you can’t stay here. Please blog about us?”), I enjoyed my visit here so much that it left an enormously positive impression on me. I need to stay here on my next trip!! Also, the desserts at Chops are unreal, especially their mile-high chocolate cake and piña colada cobbler.

If El Conquistador strikes your fancy and you’ve got the cash, go for it. It’s a special place.

Puerto Rico Beach

The Takeaway

I can’t believe it took me 31 years to get to Puerto Rico! I honestly had no idea it had so much to offer until I got to see it for myself.

Between the ease of visiting and how much there is to do, I know this is only going to be the first of many trips to Puerto Rico in my future.

Essential Info: Puerto Rico has public transportation, but the best and most efficient way to get around is by renting a car. You can get anywhere around the island within a few hours. It was just 90 minutes from San Juan to Ponce on the south coast.

I visited Culebra on a one-day Culebra Snorkel Trip with East Island Excursions. The trip includes a snorkel stop next to the island and a two-hour stop at Flamenco Beach, plus a simple lunch, some snacks, and alcoholic beverages. The cost is $99 for adults and $79 for children under 12.

Personally, I think the snorkel trip is a little bit expensive for what you get, compared to similar activities I’ve done in similarly priced destinations, and not enough time is spent on the beach, but it’s a fun, fast, and easy way to experience Culebra for a day.

Do note that on this trip, you can only get to Flamenco Beach by swimming from the boat. This means that if you want to take photos on the beach, you’ll need a dry bag for your camera. They sell some smartphone-sized dry bags at the dock; instead, I recommend that you buy a high quality bag before your trip. This is a good dry bag that will fit a DSLR camera and it comes with a bonus smartphone bag. The crew will assist you if you can’t swim.

If you choose to visit Culebra independently, there are ferries from Fajardo, but it’s quickest and easiest to fly from the mainland.

I went zip-lining at Toro Verde Adventure Park in Orocovis. An eight-line zip-lining tour costs $85; The Monster costs a supplemental $175. There’s also a shorter version of The Monster, called The Beast, which costs a supplemental $65.

Rates at the Hilton Caribe start at $179. Rates at the Hilton Condado Plaza start at $179. Rates at El Conquistador Resort start at $199. These are all low-season rates; rates increase sharply in high season.

I visited Puerto Rico on a campaign with Puerto Rico Tourism. All opinions, as always, are my own. Special thanks to Amanda of A Dangerous Business for taking several photos of me for this post.

Have you ever been to Puerto Rico? What’s your favorite all-around destination?

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Inside Bushwick, The Weirdest Place in New York City

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Bushwick

What makes Bushwick so weird?

It’s the brightly painted warehouses that you can’t tell are functional or abandoned.

It’s galleries that double as yoga studios and coffeeshops that double as life drawing classes.

It’s strange parties in abandoned furniture stores where people wear crazy costumes.

It’s being hit on by guys who always end their catcalls with “God bless you.”

Bushwick

A Brooklyn Unlike Brooklyn

Of all the neighborhoods I’ve visited in Brooklyn (not all of them, not by a long shot, but a great many), Bushwick stands out as being the least like the others. Rather than brownstones or high-rises, this is an industrial-looking neighborhood of warehouses, many of them covered with bright paint. Everything is spread out.

Bushwick isone of the largest Latino neighborhoods in Brooklyn with sizable populations from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. Bushwick was a rough neighborhood for a long time — a blackout in 1977 led to mass riots and you can still see some damage to this day. The neighborhood began to turn a corner in the mid-2000s, when the city began pouring much-needed financial resources into the neighborhood.

Then came the Williamsburg factor.

In the early 2000s, Williamsburg, Brooklyn, went from being a no-go zone to the hipster artist enclave of New York City. Over the past decade, however, Williamsburg has gone from hip to yuppie and has become one of the most desirable (and thus expensive) neighborhoods in New York City.

Bushwick

Many low-income Williamsburg residents, including artists, were pushed out as a result, and many of them moved immediately southeast — to Bushwick. Now Bushwick’s longtime residents are dealing with an influx of gentrification. I don’t think Bushwick will ever be on the same level as Williamsburg, but you see a troubling number of luxury buildings popping up.

How is gentrification affect longtime residents? Both positively and negatively, as it always does. Bushwick’s crime rate is lower than it’s been in decades, yes, and those who own property are seeing their values go up. But most people are trapped in a neighborhood progressively growing more expensive by the day.

I strongly considered living in Bushwick at one point; after spending a few days there, I declared it a little too “out there” for me and decided to live elsewhere and visit often. (For the record, I think you get much more value for money in Hamilton Heights, where I live now, plus the rents are cheaper.)

Jessie in Bushwick

Touring Bushwick

Bushwick is the only place in New York that I recommend visiting with a guide or someone who knows the neighborhood well. Not because it’s dangerous — far from it — but because so much of it is hidden in plain sight.

Take this, for example:

Little Skips Bushwick

That’s my favorite coffeeshop in the neighborhood, Little Skips. Aside from a few bright bursts of paint, you’d have no idea there was anything there, let alone a cool coffeeshop. And that’s one of the more obvious ones!

Lots of places in Bushwick are like that — you pass right by without knowing what’s inside, and they don’t advertise it. In that way, the neighborhood reminds me of Melbourne, Australia.

For that reason, it’s great to go with a guide. And I received a chance to do so on a Bushwick Beer, Bites & Art #Instawalk, a tour created by my good friend Jessie.

Now, Jessie is not just a girl who does tours — she is a certified New York City tour guide. With Jessie, you get a professional tour and a real insider’s look to Bushwick, as she’s lived here for years.

Jessie invited me, along with two of our blogger friends, on a complimentary tour through the neighborhood.

Bushwick Cappuccino Black and White

Cappuccino Demonstration

Our first stop was at a cafe called Italo, where we had a cappuccino- and mocha-making demonstration. It’s a warm and homey cafe and I recommend stopping in!

Bushwick Cappuccino Black and WhiteBushwick CappuccinoBushwick Cappuccino Black and White

(I love these pictures so much! Thank you, Brooklyn hipsters, for dressing vintage-y and making it look like these are pictures from decades ago!)

Kate in Bushwick

Street Art Galore

The street art is everywhere in Bushwick. Here are some of my favorite pieces:

BushwickBushwick Street ArtBushwick Street Art

This is just the briefest of tastes. There is SO MUCH.

Bushwick Beer and Meat

Beer and Meat Tasting

One of the highlights was stopping at Hops and Hocks, an adorable specialty store featuring food products from all over Brooklyn and the region. Yes, they have artisanal mayonnaise.

Here Jessie arranged for us to have a beer and meat tasting. And it was out of this world! They actually had a beer flavored like Samoa (Caramel DeLite) Girl Scout Cookies! And some chorizo-like Croatian meat that blew my mind.

Mast Chocolate

SCANDALOUS CHOCOLATE! (If you’ve got time, read up on the Mast Brothers’ chocolate scandal. It’s juicy as hell. This is a good starting point.)

Bushwick

Odds and Ends

Here are some of my other favorite photos from the day:

Bushwick

This is one of the creepier courtyards I’ve ever seen.

Bushwick

Creepiest of all — that skeleton!

Kate in Bushwick

Pure Bushwick: sitting in a bicycle chair next to a thrown-out Christmas tree. In February.

Bushwick

Welcome home! This is an artists’ enclave, unsurprisingly.

Bushwick Scary Van

All this van needs is a FREE CANDY sign…

Bushwick Fire Hydrant

Cool water on a chilly day.

Bushwick

I love how these heads are illuminated.

Chocolate Factory Bushwick

Chocolate Factory? YES, PLEASE!

Raw Chocolate Bushwick

We were just there to gorge on the free samples. And I might have bought a teeny-tiny chocolate bar for five dollars, but maaaaaan. That salty chocolate was TASTY.

Bushwick Rum

We ended up at a rum distillery. (How amazing does this bartender look?)

Bushwick Rum

Cheers to a day very well spent.

Bushwick

The Takeaway

This was one of the best days that I’ve had in New York City so far! I’m totally serious. I loved this tour, I loved the neighborhood, and I loved the camaraderie.

Bushwick is such a cool and different place, and spending time there makes me feel like I know New York on a more intimate level. If you’re visiting New York, I recommend getting beyond the quintessential sights that everyone visits. Bushwick is a way to do that.

Avocado Toast at Dillinger's in Bushwick

A Final Note — My Favorite Bushwick Eats

If you do this tour, extend your time in Bushwick long enough to have a meal! These are all places that I discovered when spending a week here last fall.

If you’re up for coffee and a sandwich, the aforementioned Little Skips is my favorite coffeeshop in Bushwick and one of my favorites in New York. Another great option is Dillinger’s, where they do a lovely matcha latte and avocado toast, pictured above. (These are both located close to where the tour starts, so you may want to go beforehand.)

Roberta’s is one of the iconic pizzerias of New York City — and definitely one of the hippest. Ask for the Bee Sting, which comes topped with honey and soppressata. (It’s always available, even if they tell you they’re only serving off the menu that night.)

983 (Bushwick’s Living Room) is a warm, cozy place with truly excellent down-home comfort food. I got the chicken under a brick, on my server’s recommendation, and it was SO flavorful!

Two restaurants I have on my list to try soon are the Arrogant Swine, which specializes in Eastern North Carolina-style barbecue, and Northeast Kingdom, which specializes in ingredients and dishes from Vermont.

Essential Info: I visited Bushwick on the Bushwick Beer, Bites, & Art #Instawalk tour with NYC Tours and Photo Safaris.

The tour takes 3.5 hours and costs $65 per person, which I think is a very fair price for a great tour in New York City.

In the tour, you’ll visit local Bushwick businesses, do tastings, see a lot of street art, hear about history, and learn tips for getting great photos on your smartphone or regular camera. Your Instagram will be set for weeks!

Note: our tour was slightly altered from the itinerary. Speak to Jessie personally if you want to do this tour exactly as we did.

Jessie can also customize a tour to your preferences. If you like this tour but don’t eat meat, or drink alcohol, she can create a tour featuring what you like personally. She even customized a tour for someone who wanted to photograph interesting textures!

See the calendar and book now here.

Many thanks to Jessie and NYC Tours & Photo Safaris for hosting me on a complimentary tour. All opinions, as always, are my own.

What’s the weirdest place you’ve ever visited?

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The Best Things I Ate in the San Francisco Bay Area

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Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco

I adore California. It’s my favorite state to visit as a traveler. I love the beaches, the palm trees, the laid-back attitude. And I love In & Out Burger. (I don’t love how you have to drive everywhere in most places, but hey, no destination’s perfect.)

But my favorite thing about California is the constant sunshine — and with it, the bountiful fresh produce. Farmer’s markets are active year-round here. You don’t tend to appreciate this until you’ve tried to find an avocado for sale in London that wasn’t as hard as a rock. (Spoiler: I tried and failed.)

I visited California on a campaign for Visit California, focusing on the culinary culture of the Bay Area and Top Chef-owned restaurants. (For my international readers, the Bay Area is the area surrounding San Francisco, including Oakland and Napa Valley, which I visited on this trip.)

Chef Yigit Pura and Kate

Maybe it’s all the sunshine, but all of the chefs and culinary professionals were so nice, friendly, and eager to chat about food near and far! Like Yigit Pura from Tout Sweet Patisserie, pictured above.

The food was nothing short of stupendous. I decided to break down my absolute favorite dishes of the trip, so when you make your next trip to San Francisco, you can eat as well as I did!

Brussels Sprouts at Bottega

Brussels Sprouts Salad at Bottega in Yountville

If there’s any dish that I yearn for weeks later, it’s this — a shaved brussels sprouts salad with marcona almonds and pecorino and a Meyer lemon vinaigrette, topped with a sieved egg. I NEED TO LEARN HOW TO MAKE THIS AND IT DOESN’T LOOK TOTALLY IMPOSSIBLE TO REPLICATE. It was an absolutely perfect balance of flavors and textures and that’s honestly all I can say about it.

Bottega was, hands down, the best restaurant where I ate on this trip. Every single dish was outstanding — the short ribs (mentioned below), a simple spaghetti dish inspired by Sophia Loren’s hometown, a chocolate panna cotta, even the asparagus soup amuse-bouche and this fantastic dip for the bread! Chef Michael Chiarello features dishes from all over the varied microclimates of Italy.

(Just know one thing — the outdoor seating was underneath a red tarp, which gave all our photos a weird neon red tint. That’s why the color is so weird on that photo — I removed all of the red, pink, and magenta so it would look somewhat normal! Cailin remarked that my original photos looked like that episode of Seinfeld when the chicken place with the giant neon sign moves next door to Kramer…she wasn’t wrong. BAD CHICKEN!!)

Insalata di Cavolini di Bruxelles, $13.

Fried Chicken Benedict at Pican

Fried Chicken Benedict at Picán in Oakland

Eggs Benedict. But remove the Canadian bacon and add a boneless fried chicken breast. And top it with mustardy hollandaise.

WHY HAVE WE NOT BEEN DOING THIS FOR YEARS?!

Picán is a kickass Southern restaurant in the heart of Oakland and they definitely don’t scrimp on the decadence. Other standouts included the shrimp and grits (mentioned below), fried green tomatoes with gravlax and a kickass horseradish mascarpone sauce, and Louisiana-style beignets. And the Bloody Marys? KILLER.

Signature Chicken Benedict, $18. Brunch only.

Maui at Tout Sweet

The Maui at Tout Sweet Patisserie in San Francisco

If you have a sweet tooth in the least — or even if you’re like me and go for salty more often — stop in at Tout Sweet. Chef Yigit Pura, the winner of Top Chef Desserts, has created a variety of creative and whimsical desserts. And surprisingly, I didn’t find any of them overly sweet!

The Maui is so simple — tapioca, coconut milk, mango. It reminded me of my favorite Thai dessert, sticky rice with mango, and it’s named after Yigit’s beloved dog.

Other standouts: a fabulous pineapple cake, the WTF (“what the flavor”) cookie, a breakfast bar made by throwing lots of random stuff in a pan, and a raspberry pistachio macaron-like pastry.

Prices and selection vary.

Octopus and Chorizo at Shakewell

Octopus and Chorizo at Shakewell in Oakland

Who knew that octopus and chorizo was such a divine pairing? It makes so much sense once you taste it. This is actually Chef Jen Biesty’s favorite dish on the menu, and it was mine as well. Octopus can easily be cooked badly, but every piece was perfect, and the chorizo lit it on fire.

Shakewell is a rollicking Spanish restaurant in Oakland and their dishes are both classic and unusual. Bacon-wrapped dates and duck liver mousse…but also a black rice dish with clams, chorizo, and saffron, among other ingredients. Chef Biesty was also a Top Chef contestant!

Spanish octopus, potatoes, celery hearts, salsa verde, arbequina olives, spanish chorizo, $17.

Short Ribs at Bottega

Braised Short Ribs at Bottega in Yountville

I couldn’t just mention one dish at Bottega and call it a day — I have to mention the short ribs as well. Short ribs braised to the point that they were deeply smoky and sweet like candy, falling off the bone. This is the kind of dish you eat and make embarrassingly loud yummy noises over until it’s gone.

Costolette Brasate e Affumicate, $32.

Mozzarella at Mario's Bohemian Cigar Store Cafe

Fresh Mozzarella at Mario’s Bohemian Cigar Store Cafe in San Francisco

The best Italian food starts with the best ingredients. (Why else do you think Emilia-Romagna is my favorite food region in the world? Ah, I digress…) And this mozzarella astounded me. It wasn’t burratta, but the inside was so moist it was almost soupy. I’m closing my eyes and imagining spreading it on a baguette…

This was one of the first stops on the Tastes of the City North Beach Food Tour, which was led by North Beach native Tom, a hilarious guy who got just as excited about us trying the food as we did! The tour, specializing in all Italian-American food, was excellent. We were us a truly insane amount of food over a three-hour period. All of the ingredients were fresh and all the vendors were such cool people that I ended up gabbing with them for the whole visit!

Join the tour for $55.

Kate with Cannoli at Victoria Pastry

Cannolis at Victoria’s Pastry in San Francisco

This was another top-notch spot on the Tastes of the City North Beach Food Tour.

If you know me, you know I’m very serious about cannolis. If you’ve ever asked me what to do in Boston, I’ve ordered you to go to Modern Pastry, NOT Mike’s across the street, and get a cannoli. I won’t touch a cannoli if it’s been sitting around cream-filled all day.

Did these pass the test? Well, we walked in…and they were waiting for us, already filled.

“When were these filled?” I asked Tom suspiciously.

“While we were across the street,” he answered with a grin.

“THEN THEY’RE OKAY!” I crowed. And they were more than okay. Flaky, creamy, sugary perfection. We had a moment, as you can see in the photo.

Join the tour for $59.

Sandwich at Molinari

Sandwiches at Molinari’s in San Francisco

Another notable stop on the Tastes of the City North Beach Food Tour was Molinari’s, which looks exactly like an Italian deli should (there’s a picture further down in the post). Salamis hanging from the ceiling? Check. Bright blue boxes of Baci chocolates? Check. Butchers telling people to stay away from me because I’m a Boston Sicilian? Check.

If I lived in San Francisco, I’d shop here all the time. But I settled for having a sandwich with salami, mozzarella, roasted red peppers, and pesto. Perfection inside a loaf of bread.

Join the tour for $59.

Margherita Pizza at The Forge

Margherita Pizza at The Forge in Oakland

As I tried this pizza at The Forge, I lit up with delight — this was just like my favorite pizza in London, Franco Manca! Neapolitan-style sourdough pizza. Could not be more hipster. The great thing about pizza like this is that it puts the toppings on display, and I couldn’t get enough of the tomato sauce, which tasted like sunshine.

Also on the menu? Wisconsin-style cheese curds, delicious brussels sprouts, and a meatball pizza called Balls Deep. Which is the kind of thing I order based on name alone.

I visited The Forge as part of the Savor Oakland Jack London Square Food Tour, which is a great way to discover Oakland’s culinary side as well as the city’s Urban Wine Trail. They also offer a Chinatown food tour.

Join the tour for $55.

Satine Dessert at Tout Sweet

The Satine at Tout Sweet in San Francisco

My second favorite from Tout Sweet is not that double meringue lemon tart (though it was amazing!) — it’s the brown pastry behind it. The Satine is named after Nicole Kidman’s character from Moulin Rouge: a roasted, flourless, gluten-free hazelnut milk chocolate cake. So fancy.

(Also, guess what, celiacs? There are a few pastries at Tout Sweet that are naturally gluten-free. No recipe tweaks or crappy imitations. Just delicious desserts that happen to be gluten-free.)

Prices and selection vary.

Seafood Dumplings at M.Y. China

Seafood Dumplings at M.Y. China in San Francisco

You can’t go to San Francisco without getting Chinese food at least once. Look for Chinese food and there will be dozens if not hundreds of recommendations. As for me? I went to the modern M.Y. China, by Chef Martin Yan, and loved everything we had, from the Szechuan green beans to the Peking duck to the crispy tofu to the black pepper-glazed sea bass.

But most of all, I loved these little seafood dumplings. The dumpling is made with spinach and the insides are filled with scallops and shrimp. They reminded me of the euphoria-inducing dumplings I had at Shandong Mama in Melbourne, Australia!

Spicy seafood dumplings, $9.

Shrimp and Grits at Pican

Shrimp and Grits at Picán in Oakland

One of my biggest oversights when I ate my way through the South was never getting to try shrimp and grits. And perhaps I’m doing it wrong by trying them in California…but these were so fantastic, rich and deep and barbecue-y and moist, that I have to give them a shoutout here. The fried okra was a nice touch, too!

Gulf Shrimp and Logan Turnpike Mill Grits, $18.

Jicama Salad at Mijita

Jicama Salad at Mijita in San Francisco

At the time that I ate this fabulous salad, it was the culmination of a gluttonous afternoon at Tout Sweet and then the North Beach tour. But this was absolutely perfect — so light, so simple, a perfect combination of flavors. Jicama, grapefruit, avocado, pumpkin seeds. What more could you need?

Mijita is a fabulous Mexican restaurant located in the Ferry Building. It’s a great spot to drop in after photographing a pink sunset on the Bay Bridge. Also try the ceviche tostadas, the margaritas, and any dish Chef Traci Des Jardins happens to come up with for a special (we enjoyed a pork neck salad with chicharones).

It was also nice getting to share this meal with Chef Melissa King from Top Chef Boston — a.k.a. the only season of Top Chef I ever watched! She’s got a lot of exciting stuff planned for the next few months, including a stint in one of my favorite countries…

Jicama salad, $7.

And as for the drinks…

Coffee. Wine. Cocktails. Three of my favorite things, and California does all three quite well. Here are my #1 favorites in all three categories:

Kate and Salt Air Margarita

Salt Air Margarita at Calavera in Oakland

Salt on the rim? That’s been done a million times. But if you’re looking for something modern, Calavera offers a Salt Air Margarita, where you get a foamy cloud of salt that just sits on your margarita! I already love this so much more than salt on the rim!

Calavera is a cool restaurant with an amazing bar area — it’s all rare tequilas, white shelves, and a ladder sliding along it. Expect more on it in my Oakland post soon.

(Note that I’m holding the mini size given to us by the owner. The actual margarita you get off the menu is much larger.)

Salt Air Margarita, $13.

Wine at Bottega

Bambino e Mamma Cabernet at Chiarello Family Vineyards in Yountville

Chiarello Family Vineyards is tied into Bottega — both are products of Chef Michael Chiarello. Chef has named wines after all four of his children. My favorite was Bambino e Mamma, meaning Baby Boy and Mother, for his youngest son. I’m not good at writing about wine, so let’s just say that it was exceptionally lovely.

I was ready to buy a bottle of it — then when I realized it was $75 a bottle (even if that’s a good price for a wine you love!), I quickly moved on. Ah, someday I’ll be able to drop money like that.

Bambino e Mamma Cabernet, $75 per bottle in the restaurant or online, or $900 for a case of 12.

Latte at Blue Bottle Coffee

Latte at Blue Bottle Coffee in Oakland

If you need some caffeination, the Bay Area has tons of fantastic options. My personal favorite was the rich, full latte I got at Blue Bottle Coffee. I visited the W.C. Morse location in Oakland location, but they have additional locations throughout the Bay Area, New York, Los Angeles and Tokyo.

Caffe Latte, $5.

Molinari San Francisco

Kate’s Top Recommendations for the Bay Area

Really, every place on this list is excellent. But if you ate at all of them, you would explode. Hell, I felt like the gluttony dude in Seven after packing them all into four days. My stomach hurt so much after this trip that I was carrying around ginger tea bags for days.

But if you wanted to narrow it down to three out-of-this-world dining experiences, here are the ones that I would recommend the most:

Lunch at Bottega in Yountville. Seriously, make the journey out to Napa Valley solely to eat here. Go for lunch and enjoy the outdoor atmosphere. You will not regret it one iota. This was one of the best meals of my life.

Tastes of the City North Beach Food Tour. I’ve done a lot of food tours and this one stands out for the quality of the food as well as the friendliness of the vendors, which is rare. Plus, Tom, the guide, is a character and a half and knows North Beach like the back of his hand. He’s a little kooky in the best way possible. I loved getting to know him!

Brunch at Picán in Oakland. But you’ll get more out of it if you’re not from the South. Go totally decadent for brunch and be sure to top it with one of their fabulous cocktails.

That said, forget my top three — the best thing you can do is go to whatever place sounds awesome to you! Happy eating and don’t forget the elastic pants!

Essential Info: Tastes of the City North Beach Food Tour costs $59 for three hours, which I think is astoundingly good value considering the quality and quantity of the food. Do not eat beforehand — you will be getting more than enough for a full meal!

Savor Oakland’s Jack London Square Food Tour costs $55 for three hours, and while the food wasn’t quite on the level of the North Beach tour, I found it to be a wonderful way to eat your way through a city that so many people don’t know about. They also have a Chinatown food tour for $59.

While in San Francisco I stayed at two hotels: Hotel Zephyr and Hotel Zelos.

Hotel Zephyr is by Fisherman’s Wharf, a touristy area that I prefer to avoid (think Times Square/Faneuil Hall). There’s a lot of funky art in the lobby, including a wax statue of Leonardo DiCaprio, and rooms were very comfortable. I’d stay here if you want to be near the waterfront. Doubles from $359.

I much preferred Hotel Zelos, which was better situated near Union Square and had comfortable, luxurious rooms with crazy deep tubs, as well as a chic cocktail bar, Dirty Habit. Doubles from $348.50.

In Oakland I stayed at the Oakland City Center Marriott, which was in a convenient location and got the job done. Pretty standard, not too exciting, but very comfortable. Ask for a room with a view of San Francisco. Doubles from $189.

Are these hotels too expensive? In the past I’ve stayed at the Green Tortoise in San Francisco, which I think is the best hostel in the United States. It has a PERFECT location in my favorite neighborhood, North Beach. The private rooms (all with shared bathroom) are situated in a quiet house down the street from the main hostel. Free breakfast every day includes eggs (!!) and bagels (!!!), and they also do free dinner a few nights a week! Dorms from $34, doubles with shared bathroom from $80.

The best way to get around San Francisco and Oakland is to use a combination of public transit and Uber. (New to Uber? Get a free ride up to $15 with the promo code 9x41m.) Public transit is good in some neighborhoods but poor in others, and Uber will save you a lot of headaches. It’s best to rent a car to get to Yountville and Napa Valley, but PLEASE don’t drink and drive!

I was hosted in California as part of a campaign with Visit California. All opinions, as always, are my own.

Have you been to the Bay Area? Where’s your favorite place to eat?

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15 Ways to Leave the Country if Donald Trump Gets Elected

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Boston Fourth of July

When Donald Trump announced he was running for president, we joked that he’d be done within a few months. Comedians had a field day. He couldn’t gain any serious support, could he?

Until he started leading all the polls…and winning primaries.

Holy shit. This could actually happen.

“If Trump gets elected, I’m leaving the country!”

I know. Everyone says it. But there’s no way to actually do that, is there?

OF COURSE THERE IS! You could leave the country in SO many different ways — ways that are 100% legal and ethical.

Kate on the Sydney Bridgeclimb

1) Get a working holiday visa in Australia or New Zealand.

If you’re 30 or under, you qualify to spend a year living and working in Australia or New Zealand! These are the only traditional working visas currently available to Americans.

In both countries, you can apply for the visa if you’re as old as 30; you can enter the country within one year of receiving your visa, which means you could start your year at age 31. Australia also offers the option of taking a second year if you spend three months working in “regional Australia” (rural areas and outside the most popular tourist destinations).

You could spend your year bartending in Cairns or Queenstown, working on a winery in the Barossa Valley or Marlborough, working at a corporate job in Melbourne or Wellington, or taking on a hospitality job just about anywhere. And those are just a few of the possibilities.

For more, check out the Australia working holiday visa site and the New Zealand working holiday site.

Hongdae

2) Get a job teaching English abroad.

Teaching English abroad is one of the easiest ways U.S. citizens can get a job working abroad. Most countries only require a university degree in any field; others also require a TEFL certificate.

The most opportunity for Americans is in Asia. South Korea tends to offer the best packages: a competitive salary plus free housing and free flights to and from your home country. Many teachers in South Korea are able to comfortably save more than $10,000 per year and pay down debt or go traveling afterward.

Japan, China, and Taiwan also have great environments for teaching English with decent benefits. Entry-level teaching jobs in Southeast Asia and Latin America tend to pay only enough to get by.

While many Americans dream of teaching English in Europe, it’s extremely difficult to work in the EU without EU citizenship and the jobs are thus few. Eastern Europe and Turkey are a better bet.

Options in the Middle East tend to pay the most but have the most stringent requirements, often a teaching certification and experience in your home country and/or an advanced degree.

This is just the most basic of overviews — head to ESL Cafe to learn anything and everything about teaching English abroad.

El Tunco, El Salvador

3) Join the U.S. Foreign Service.

Dreamed of working as a diplomat around the world? The U.S. Foreign Service is your way in. If you’re able to pass the notoriously difficult Foreign Service Exam, you’ll be eligible to work two-year contracts in countries around the world.

The goal of the U.S. Foreign Service is “to promote peace, support prosperity, and protect American citizens while advancing the interests of the U.S. abroad.” Basically, you represent the United States while abroad.

There are several different tracks: Administration, Construction Engineering, Facility Management, Information Technology, International Information and English Language Programs, Medical and Health, Office Management, and Law Enforcement and Security.

You don’t get to choose your destination — you could be headed to any of 270 embassies around the world — but if you work in a hardship destination, you’ll often get preferential treatment regarding your next assignment. Like two of my lovely readers whom I met in Mexico last year — after working as diplomats in Pakistan, they got stationed in Cuba next.

Check out all the details on the U.S. Foreign Service’s website.

Bitola

4) Join the Peace Corps.

The Peace Corps is perhaps the most famous volunteer program in America, starting in 1961 under President Kennedy. Volunteers are sent around the world in primarily two-year contracts working in the fields of Education, Health, Community Development, Environment, Youth in Development, Agriculture, and Peace Corps Response.

You don’t get to choose where you go — you’re sent where your skills are needed the most. That means if you speak Spanish, there’s a good chance you’ll be sent to Latin America; if you speak French, there’s a good chance you’ll be sent to Africa.

Most people I’ve known to serve in the Peace Corps describe it as life-changing. It’s a fantastic way to serve your country and make lasting contributions toward building a better planet.

For more, visit the PeaceCorps.gov.

Koolbaai

5) Find a job abroad.

I know it sounds daunting to find a job abroad when you don’t know anything about it, but Americans do it successfully every day!

The U.S. State Department has put together a comprehensive list of resources for finding work abroad, no matter what field you’re in.

Ljubljana

6) Study abroad or get another degree.

Are you still in college? Studying abroad will be one of the most valuable (and fun!) things you do in your college career. Here are the lessons I learned from my semester in Florence in 2004.

Already have a degree? This could be a great opportunity to get your master’s abroad! Several countries offer you the option of getting your master’s in just one year, unlike the standard two years in the United States.

You probably know that several countries offer free university education to their citizens. Well, several countries offer free university education to international students as well, including Americans! Don’t speak the local language? They offer degrees given in English as well.

It was big news when Germany began offering free education to international students in 2014. Other countries include Brazil, Finland, France, Norway, Slovenia, and Sweden.

Many of these countries also offer stipends, making getting your degree infinitely more affordable than in the U.S.

London Millennium Bridge

7) If your job has an international office, see if you can transfer.

This isn’t an option if you work for a small, independent, local business. But it could work if you work for a larger company.

I used to work for a company with offices in Boston and London, and plenty of people migrated across the Atlantic in each direction. The company took care of the sponsorship and all the red tape.

Another option: if your company has an international parent company, see if you can find a job abroad in one of your parent company’s other companies.

Playa Samara

8) See if you can start working remotely.

If your job is mostly doable online, you may have the ability to start working remotely and set up shop anywhere in the world.

Note that this is something best done little by little. Start by doing exceptionally outstanding work for awhile, then ask your boss if you can work remotely one day per week. Make that your most productive day of the week. If it goes well and your company is pleased, keep negotiating for more time working remotely.

If you’re able to transition to working 100% remotely, keep in mind that you may need to stay within the same time zone or in a destination where you have excellent internet. Still, that’s a small price to pay for working from, say, a beach town in Costa Rica!

Berlin

9) Look into the German Artist Visa.

Entering the EU long-term is a major challenge for most Americans, but one of the easiest ways in (aside from getting a student visa) is to get the German “artist visa.”

“Artist” is a relative term here. In this case, it means freelancer. If you’re able to prove multiple contracts paying you enough to get by, that may be enough for you to secure this visa and live in Germany.

Most people with this visa choose to live in Berlin due to its art scene, expat scene, and relatively low cost of living (albeit one that continues to rise). Increasingly popular alternatives are hip Hamburg and artsy Leipzig.

Check out Travels of Adam’s guide to getting the German artist visa or, alternatively, a student visa.

Paris Marais

10) Become an au pair in Europe.

If you love kids, don’t mind living with a family, and want to live like a local, becoming an au pair could be an excellent option for you. Many Americans become au pairs by finding a job and family online, then registering for a student visa to give you a year in the country.

The student visa could be for as little as a few hours of language study each week; some countries, like France, are notoriously lax about whether you actually attend class and many au pairs decide to ditch the classes entirely.

Being an au pair could be the time of your life — or a complete disaster. The best thing is to know exactly what kind of experience you want — how many kids and how old? Living with the family or in your own apartment? Urban, suburban, or rural environment? Would you be expected to cook or not? — and finding a family that fits your needs well.

Ashley Abroad has a great resource for getting started as an au pair.

Christmas at JJ's

11) Save up, quit your job, and backpack the world for awhile.

Yes. You can absolutely do this. Plenty of people around the world travel for months at a time — it’s very common for people from other western countries, but far less popular for Americans.

If you want your money to go the furthest, stick to a cheaper region. Southeast Asia, the Indian subcontinent, Central America, and Eastern Europe are all great options. You can live in parts of these regions on less than $1000 per month if you want to (but that amount doesn’t include start-up expenses like flights, gear and insurance).

Here’s how I saved $13,000 in just seven months. That was almost enough to sustain me for six months in Southeast Asia from 2010-2011, but keep in mind prices have increased a bit since then.

Santa Cruz Atitlan Guatemala

12) Move somewhere cheap for awhile.

Not in the mood to be traveling all the time? You could just move somewhere. Many countries have visa policies that allow you to live long-term by leaving the country every few months and coming right back. (Be sure to check on your country’s latest visa regulations, as they can change at any time.)

I still think that Chiang Mai, Thailand, offers the maximum value for a great price. As a solo adult, you can comfortably get by in Chiang Mai for less than $800 per month, or even less if you’re part of a couple, and there are plenty of amenities for the many expats who live and work there.

Other popular options for expats? Oaxaca, Mexico. Ubud, Bali. Bangkok, Thailand. Medellin, Colombia. Lake Atitlan, Guatemala (particularly Panajachel and San Pedro). If you have the ability to live in the EU, consider Berlin, Germany; Lisbon, Portugal; Budapest, Hungary; Prague, Czech Republic; or any town you can imagine in Spain: Madrid, Sevilla, Granada, Barcelona.

Ragusa, Sicily

13) Get a second citizenship based on your ancestry.

Several European countries offer the option of getting a passport based on your ancestry. I’ve known Americans who have gained Irish, British, Italian, and German citizenship due to their parents, grandparents or even great-grandparents being born in those countries.

The best part? Gaining EU citizenship means you can move around freely within the EU, not just the country where you hold the ancestry! I have an American friend with new German citizenship who’s thinking about moving to London. That’s totally fine on a German passport.

Do research this first — every country is different and has its own conditions. Some don’t offer ancestry-based citizenship at all. (While my great-grandfather immigrated from Italy, I don’t qualify for Italian citizenship because he naturalized before my grandmother was born.) Here’s a guide to obtaining citizenship in European countries.

Israel also offers citizenship based on the Law of Return. You must either be Jewish by birth (meaning your mother or grandmother is Jewish) or a convert to Judaism.

Keep in mind that this could potentially take years, depending on the country. It took three years for my friend Mike to get his Italian citizenship. (Then again, as someone who lived in Italy and visits often, they are not the most organized of nations when it comes to this kind of stuff. Or anything else, frankly.)

Skellig Michael

14) Fall in love with someone from a different country, get married, and move to their country.

I know a lot of people, particularly women, dream of this — meeting a handsome fisherman on a Greek island, or a brawny Australian at a beach bar in Thailand, and falling in love and it being destiny and your friends being so jealous.

Well…as someone who has lived in another country for two different boyfriends, let me tell you that the reality can often be quite difficult, even if you have a good relationship. Living in a different country is like fighting through hundreds of cultural differences every day, and there can be a chasm in your relationship if you’re struggling while your partner is surrounded by everything he knows and loves. It’s much harder if you don’t speak the local language or you’re living in a small town.

Whatever you do, make sure you have a strong support system on the ground. Make sure you have interests, activities, and a social circle outside your partner. Most importantly, make sure your partner understands how challenging it is for you to be there, even if you’re happy most of the time. Make sure he makes an effort to travel to America, too.

You’re the one who is sacrificing here. Even if you were excited to move there. Even if he supports you financially. Even if you work online and have the freedom to live anywhere.

quebec-ice-slide-gallery

15) Just move to Canada!

Everyone says they’re moving to Canada if a candidate they hate is elected. Well, this guy actually moved to Canada when George W. Bush was elected. That link gives you an overview of ways for Americans to move to Canada today.

Pink House New Orleans

But in all seriousness…

I know this is a tongue-in-cheek list, but I seriously hope you’re not voting for Donald Trump. (I know I’m preaching to the choir here. The kind of person interested enough in other countries to read a travel blog is not the kind of person who would support a xenophobic presidential candidate.) Please do everything you can to keep him from being elected.

But there’s something else I want to say.

In the past six years, I’ve met many American travel bloggers who have said something along the lines of, “I just don’t like it in America. I don’t want to live where I could be killed in a random shooting or where I could be bankrupted if I’m hospitalized. I don’t like it here anymore, so I’m leaving.”

I get it. I was like that. Parts of me still feel that way. But not anymore.

I recently moved back to the U.S. after more than five years of travel. There were many reasons. One is because I am sick of doing nothing. I want to be here and fight to make my country better. And I’m getting started.

All of us can run away. Believe me — there’s stuff about America that keeps me up at night. Frequent school shootings and a Congress that refuses to pass any kind of reasonable legislation like closing the gun show loophole. Black Americans, including children, being killed by the police for no reason at all. The racism, both overt and subtle, that our president receives on a daily basis. Out-of-control elections and candidates supported by corporations. The possibility of a religious ideologue being appointed to the Supreme Court.

So why do I even bother? Because when you choose to be inactive, you’re giving power to the opposition.

If you choose to travel, or to live abroad, that’s wonderful! But don’t use it as an excuse to check out of America completely. Donate money to causes that will make America better. Donate your time to causes and see if you can help online. Get absentee ballots, familiarize yourself with candidates in every race, and vote in every election. These things really can make a difference.

Would you leave the country if Trump was elected?

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