Месечни архиви: March 2017

How to Spend a Layover in Paris

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Is it worth going into Paris for an eight-hour layover at Charles de Gaulle Airport? A friend of mine recently asked me this question, so I thought I’d turn it into a post for all of you!

The short answer? Hell yes! Eight hours is enough time to get a brief taste of Paris before you catch your flight to your next destination. But you need to plan it carefully — this is not a time to just wing it.

Do You Have Enough Time?

I wouldn’t attempt going into Paris unless you had a minimum of a five-hour layover, and even then your time in Paris would be very brief. Don’t attempt a trip into Paris if you have less than that.

So, Kate, my layover is four and a half hours — would that be okay?

No! I meant what I said! I wouldn’t attempt it on less than five hours.

A five-hour layover doesn’t mean that you’ll have five hours to explore Paris — it means you have five hours minus the time it takes to go through immigration, possibly check your luggage into storage, wait for a train, take the train into Paris, take the train back to the airport, and go through security again for your next flight. And even then, it could mean you’d be spending less time in Paris than at the airport.

Things to Consider

1) What’s your luggage situation? If you booked a single flight that routed you through Paris (say, if you booked an Air France flight from Boston to Rome via Paris), you don’t have to retrieve your checked luggage. It will be checked all the way through to your final destination.

If you booked two flights separately, though — say, an Air Canada flight from Toronto to Paris and an EasyJet flight from Paris to Prague, and you booked them in two separate transactions, you will have to retrieve your luggage in between and check it in once again

Whatever luggage you are taking as carry-on, whether it’s just a small bag or all of your luggage, will stay with you for the duration of your layover in Paris.

However, there is luggage storage at Charles de Gaulle Airport. It’s located in Terminal 2, across from the RER station. It’s open from 6:00 AM until 9:30 PM. Each piece of luggage is six euros ($6.50) for up to six hours and 10 euros ($11) for up to 12 hours.

2) Where are you flying to and from? If you’re flying from outside Europe, it’s obviously an international flight, and if you’re flying on to Nice, it’s obviously a domestic flight — but some flights within Europe are treated like domestic flights due to the Schengen Area.

Most countries in Western Europe (Ireland and the UK excluded) are part of the Schengen Area, which has open borders. This means that flights from Paris to cities like Stockholm, Warsaw, Florence, Barcelona, and Munich are treated like domestic flights, not international flights. You will go through security, of course, but there is no immigration between Schengen countries.

The blue countries are part of the Schengen area:

Why do I mention this? Because it can save you a bit of time. You don’t need to allow time to get through immigration if you are flying from Paris to somewhere in Italy, for example. Security, yes, but not immigration. This could save you around 30 minutes or so.

3) Which terminals do your flights arrive to and leave from? There are three terminals at Charles de Gaulle Airport. Terminals 1 and 3 are close together and share an RER train station; Terminal 2 is further away and has its own RER train station.

Write down the terminals from which your first flight arrives and your second flight leaves — this will make your life so much easier.

4) Are you arriving on a red eye? If you don’t sleep well on planes, you may be exhausted when you arrive. My advice? Have some coffee and get out there! You’re in Paris, darling! (Ask for un café for an espresso, un café crème for a latte, or un café americain for a regular coffee.

5) Do you have euros? If not, no problem — just go to one of the many ATMs at the airport and make a withdrawal. Don’t exchange money at the airport, you’ll pay terrible rates compared to what the ATM will give you.

Just be sure that you call your bank before your trip and let them know where you’ll be traveling so they don’t flag your card for fraud. Also, double-check how much you’re charged for ATM transactions and whether you’re charged a foreign transaction fee for credit card purchases.

(If you’re American and travel often, I highly recommend banking with Charles Schwab. They refund all of your ATM fees at the end of the month, even foreign ATM fees (!), and they don’t charge foreign transaction fees.)

6) Finally, how much time do you really have? Add in the time expected to go through immigration (30 minutes is a good estimate but it could be longer or shorter), walk to the train, take the train, take the train back, and go through security and/or immigration again. This will help you plan your day.

How to Get Into Paris

The easiest way to get into Paris from Charles de Gaulle Airport is to take the RER B train, which goes straight into the heart of Paris.

There are both express and local trains on the RER B. I recommend taking the express; it doesn’t cost extra. It’s about 35 minutes to the Châtelet stop, which is close to the geographical center of Paris. One-way tickets cost 10 euros ($11) per adult and 7 euros ($7.50) per child.

Alternatively, you could take a taxi from the airport, which costs 50-60 euros ($54-65) and takes 35 minutes to an hour depending on traffic.

Personally, I recommend the RER B train. It takes roughly the same amount of time, it’s cheaper, and it’s more reliable.

(It’s very unusual to have a layover at Orly Airport, as most long-haul flights are via Charles de Gaulle, so I won’t be covering it here — but there are RER trains from Orly that will take you into the heart of Paris as well.)

What To Do on a Paris Layover

With only a few hours in Paris, you can’t do a lot — but if you concentrate on one small area with several attractions, you can feel like you’ve seen a lot of Paris.

My recommendation: take the RER B to the “St. Michel/Notre Dame” stop, which is right by Notre Dame and some of the prettiest neighborhoods in Paris. This journey will take roughly 40 minutes on the express train. Once you arrive in the station, follow the signs for Notre-Dame.

Visit the cathedral of Notre-Dame. This gothic cathedral is one of the most recognizable symbols of Paris — and it’s a solemn, overwhelming place, even without the presence of Quasimodo.

The views from the towers are spectacular, with the gargoyles looking over the city and the Eiffel Tower, but the lines can be very long. Find out how long the line is before you commit to waiting. Notre-Dame is free to visit but going into the towers costs 10 euros ($11).

Check out the kiosks on the left bank of the Seine. These iconic green kiosks sell books, art, and souvenirs. It feels so Parisian to peruse them!

Walk over to Ile St-Louis and have ice cream at Berthillon. There are two small islands in the Seine: Ile de la Cité and Ile St-Louis. Notre-Dame is on Ile de la Cité and Ile St-Louis is directly to the east. I love Ile St-Louis because there are far fewer tourists and it feels like a village in the heart of the city. Rue St-Louis, the main street, is filled with lots of cool shops.

Berthillon is famous for having some of the best ice cream in Paris with many unusual flavors that you won’t find at home.

Browse books at Shakespeare and Company. It may seem strange to browse an English-language bookstore in Paris, but trust me — Shakespeare and Company is a legendary business and one of my favorite bookstores in the world. It has a rich history, writers still live in the shop, and there are some cute cats. Have them stamp your book at checkout.

Walk over to Rue de Buci in St. Germain-des-Pres. This is one of my favorite areas in Paris, with lots of cool shops and cafes. From here on, just wander the streets at your leisure. One of the true pleasures of Paris is strolling aimlessly and seeing what you find.

Spend time in at least one cafe. It’s the most Parisian thing to do at all. Cafes are perfect for whatever you’re in the mood for. A coffee? A glass of wine or champagne? Some French onion soup dripping with cheese? A crepe? A salad with roasted duck? (One very notable exception: working on a laptop. Not like I found out about that the hard way or anything.)

Sit outside if the weather is nice. Even in the winter, most cafes have heating lamps.

If You Have More Time…

I didn’t want to plan an overly ambitious itinerary because it’s easy to end up miserable if you rush your trip too much. But if you have some extra time, you could add a few of these (not all of these!) if they catch your interest.

Visit Sainte-Chappelle. This cathedral is home to some of the most intricate stained glass designs in Europe. It’s located close to Notre-Dame on Ile de la Cité.

Visit the Pont des Arts. This is the bridge that began the love locks trend around the world. These days the locks are removed regularly, but there are nice views from the bridge.

Visit St. Etienne du Mont. This is better known as the Midnight in Paris church! If you love the movie, it’s great for photos.

Have a coffee or meal at Les Deux Magots or Cafe de Flore. These two cafes, close to each other on Boulevard St. Germain, were the hangouts of Hemingway, Sartre, Fitzgerald, Picasso, and all those

Visit the Luxembourg Gardens. Head further south into St. Germain-des-Pres and you’ll end up in these are some of the most beautiful and famous gardens in Paris. Stroll around, watch the kids with boats in the fountains, and pretend you’re in a movie.

Note: if you finish your visit here, you’ll be closer to the Luxembourg stop, which is also on the RER B line back to the airport.

What Not to Do

Please, please, please don’t try to pack too much in. I know how tempting it is to see everything — but you can’t see the best of Paris in just a few hours. Hell, you can’t see the best of Paris in two weeks.

I’m fairly certain that one of the secrets to travel happiness is making peace with the fact that you won’t see everything you want to see.

Don’t go to Disneyland Paris or Versailles. Both are outside the city — I’m sorry, but there’s just no time to visit on a brief layover.

Tips for a Paris Layover

Bring an umbrella. Paris doesn’t have great weather; it often rains. Or choose to risk it — you can always buy one in a shop.

Don’t dress like a slob. You may have flown overnight, but don’t schlep around Paris in yoga pants and a hoodie — you will stick out like a sore thumb in a city where locals look neat and put together. Trade your leggings for slim jeans, your sweatshirt for a nice sweater, jacket and scarf.

Wear comfortable flats. Sneakers immediately label you as a tourist. Literally all the shoes I own come from The Walking Company — their Abeo flats have FANTASTIC arch support, which I need for my bad feet, and they’re chic enough for Paris.

Download a Paris map app to your phone. It’s the easiest way to keep track of where you are, rather than using a paper map. If you plan on taking the metro, there are lots of free metro apps as well.

Be conscious of pickpockets. Pickpockets target tourists in Paris. To minimize your risk, I recommend using a crossbody purse that zips shut and you hold in front of you, or a backpack that locks like my Pacsafe backpack. Consider getting a Speakeasy Travel Scarf — they have a secret zippered pocket no pickpocket can get into.

Make sure you have travel insurance for your whole trip. If the worst happens — if you’re pickpocketed, or if you trip and break your ankle and need to visit a hospital, travel insurance will protect your finances and reimburse you. I never travel without it. I use and recommend World Nomads.

GET BACK IN TIME FOR YOUR FLIGHT!!!!

The most important tip of all. Everything here is meaningless if you end up missing your flight to your next destination!

I like to give myself a nice, comfy cushion of time so I won’t be stressed. (Ask anyone who has ever traveled with me and has seen me freak out when we’ve cut a deadline too close.)

Get back to Charles de Gaulle at least two hours before your onward flight departs. I like to give myself two and a half. It may seem a bit excessive, but when you consider the alternative — missing your flight, being stranded, possibly fucking up your return flight as well — this is one place where caution reigns supreme.

Save This Map For Your Trip

Here are all the locations mentioned. As you can see, they’re all close together!

Have a fabulous trip!


READ NEXT: 100 Travel Tips for Paris


Have you been to Paris? What would you recommend doing on a short layover?

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On Dating After Long-Term Travel

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As he strolls up to me in the park, I’m relieved — he looks just like his picture and he’s wearing a nice outfit. I admire the whimsical navy-on-pale-blue paisley shirt, the slim dark pants, the warm leather shoes. He leans in for a brief, gentle hug.

It’s the most innocuous of first dates in Manhattan — a walk in the park followed by a coffee. No mind-altering substances, no major financial investment, and easy to escape if it comes to that.

After a stroll on this gorgeous spring day, we sit down at a cafe. We’ve gone through the pleasantries and talked about where we grew up, our families, the train wreck that is the 2016 election. Nothing about jobs, or how we spend our time, but that’s about to change.

“It’s so cool that you’re a digital nomad!” he exclaims.

I pause. I don’t tell anyone what I do for a living until the third date at least — the best option when a quick Google search could lead you to MY ENTIRE LIFE SINCE 2010. “What makes you think I’m a digital nomad?”

“I searched for ‘digital nomad’ on the site and your profile popped up!”

And then it hits me — under the “What am I doing on a Friday night?” tab, I put a list of wacky, whimsical activities in New York. Cocktails with friends. Coming up with new, awful phrases for Cards Against Humanity. Karaoke in Koreatown. The odd warehouse party in Brooklyn. And yes, some quiet nights on the couch with Netflix.

(Let’s be honest, though — on Friday nights I’m far more likely to be cleaning my apartment while listening to podcasts.)

And then I remember that I had listed digital nomad networking events on there as well. Why had I even written that in the first place? Most of my work-ish events revolve around entrepreneurship more than remote work. (Okay, let’s be honest again — most of my work-ish events are getting together with other travel bloggers, drinking copious amounts of wine, and gossiping.)

So that’s how he found me.

“I think it would be amazing to live in Thailand for a year,” he says.

I nod with a smile. Here we go. The travel conversation. Where I must strike the balance between being knowledgeable and not a know-it-all, experienced but not emasculating. The struggles that every straight woman faces when out on a first date. “Thailand is great. One of my favorite countries.”

“I haven’t been, but I want to go so bad!”

“You’ll love it,” I reassure him.

“Just — all that food. I hear that Thai food is so much better in Thailand than here. It’s so different. And it’s so cheap!”

“True. You can get a great meal for two bucks. Or even less.”

“So when you were traveling for five years, did you ever live in Thailand?”

“No. There was one point when I wanted to.” Large swaths of 2011, mostly. “It’s good temporarily, but ultimately, the bad outweighs the good for me.”

“How could you not want to live there?” he asks. “Thailand has everything!”

“Well, nobody ever talks about the downsides.”

“Like being so far away? I could live with that.”

“Yeah, that’s one thing. And it’s annoying being in the opposite time zone all the time.” I pause. “Do you really want to know about the bad stuff?”

“Yeah. Tell me.”

“It’s hard living in a culture that’s not your own, particularly when you don’t speak the language and especially when you’re in an Asian culture. The expat communities are great, but people are always arriving and leaving, and it’s hard when you’re constantly saying goodbye to your friends.

“And most people end up in Chiang Mai,” I continue, “because it’s the cheapest spot in Thailand that also has Western amenities and decent internet. And it’s a great city, but a lot of people think they’ll be on the beach and it’s a long way from the beach. Two hours of flying if you’ve got the cash, much longer by train or bus. Great food in Chiang Mai, though. Oh, just know that Thai food is full of sugar. Fruit shakes, too.

“And there’s this idea that Chiang Mai is full of brilliant entrepreneurs, and there are a few of them, but for the most part it’s full of people who can’t afford to live anywhere else. So you think you’ll be doing this amazing networking, only most people haven’t figured out how to make much money yet.”

His face falls.

“I mean, you never know,” I say, quickly backtracking. “I never rule out anything. I could go live in Chiang Mai for a few months if I wanted to reduce my living expenses and funnel all of my money into the business. And I’d still get foot massages every day. Seven bucks an hour.”

“What if I lived by the beaches instead?”

“They’re good. The really beautiful ones are remote, though. And it’s much more expensive there.”

“Cheaper than here, though.”

“Yes. Much cheaper than here.”

“And just imagine the quality of life — you can run on the beach every morning, you can work on the sand and watch the sunset every night.”

“Careful with that!” I laugh. “That’s one of the biggest myths — no one actually works on the beach. You don’t want sand in your laptop.”

“And I hear Thai people are so nice! Just, you know, the kind of people that would give you the shirt off their back. It must be the Buddhist thing. People are calm and happy.”

I smile tightly. “Yeah. I like Thai people a lot.” Though the words of a Singaporean bartender in Koh Lanta echo in my head: “You nice to Thai people, they’re nice to you three times. You FUCK with Thai people, they FUCK you three times!”

My date shifts in his seat and sighs. “Well, I can’t go to Thailand yet, anyway. I need to stay in this time zone for my job.”

“Oh. So you’re a remote worker?”

“I can work from anywhere as long as I can be on their schedule.”

“Ah. That’s cool.”

“Have you been to Medellín? I hear it’s so great there.”

“No, not yet.” (Though I would a few months later.)

“I hear it’s the most beautiful place in Colombia,” he tells me. “Just — it’s supposed to be a beautiful city.”

“Mmhmm,” I reply, biting my tongue. When most men talk about the beauty of Medellín, it’s not the city they’re talking about.

“There’s just one thing,” he says. “Why do you live in New York when you could live somewhere so much cheaper?”

I’m ready for this question. “Why would I live anywhere else if I could live in New York?” I say, tilting my head with a smile.

“Yeah, but you get so much more for your money everywhere else!”

“I don’t know,” I tell him. “I think I get a lot more here. My friends. The culture. Networking. A major flight hub. I’m just a bus ride away from my parents. Everything happens here.”

“You have a bigger chance of being shot to death in New York.”

“That is true.”

“And the healthcare system is so bad.”

“Agreed, it’s awful. I couldn’t come back if it weren’t for Obamacare.”

“So what makes New York so much better?”

“New York is everything and everything is New York.” The words tumble out of me; I’m surprised at how much I like them. “I’m never going to be bored in this city. There’s always something new to discover. And lately I’ve been feeling an urge to work to make my country better.”

“I don’t know. I just think Thailand is a much better place to live.”

“Well, maybe for you,” I offer. “At any rate, I spent five years traveling the world and I chose to settle down here. Plus, there are crazy milkshakes in New York. And 90s parties. And tacos.”

He lights up. “A lot of people go to Mexico! I hear Playa del Carmen is the place to be. It’s so cheap and it has a great expat community. And so much good Mexican food.”

I smile.

“What’s wrong with Playa del Carmen?”

“Oh, nothing — I just have a ton of friends there.”

“Digital nomad friends?”

Why does this phrase always make me cringe? “Yeah. They work online.”

This guy is nice. A little mansplainey for my taste, but this first date is far from the worst.

Dating is weird in the world after long-term travel. Mention your travels in an online dating profile and you’ll attract a lot of people who would love to travel but haven’t yet and see you as the catalyst. Mention your desire to settle down and you’ll attract a lot of people who aren’t into travel at all. “I’ve traveled a lot but I’m content being more settled here” isn’t exactly a category.

I’m grateful to live in New York, though, home to many driven, entrepreneurial, creative people, even if they’re always searching for something better. If my suburban friends’ OkCupid matches are any indication, things are far worse in sparsely populated areas.

It just goes to show that sharing common interests isn’t enough — you also need to be on the same timeline. It’s not enough to enjoy travel to the same kinds of countries, or to be able to work from anywhere. One person wanting to live abroad and the other being content in New York is a fairly big dealbreaker.

“So.” He plays with his empty coffee cup. “I don’t know if you have somewhere to be, but do you want to get a drink?”

I’m certain that this guy isn’t a match. A drink won’t change that. We’ll loosen up, we’ll tell more stories, we’ll say goodbye for the evening, and if he wants to go out again, I’ll let him know kindly that I had fun hanging out but I don’t think we’re a romantic match.

But it’s not like I have anything to do. I’ve already cleaned my apartment and listened to my podcasts.

“Sure,” I say. “Let’s get a drink.”

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Key West, You Are My New Favorite

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I remember back in 2011 when my friend Chris and I were on the bus from Luang Prabang back to Vang Vieng in Laos. We had left Vang Vieng earlier than we had wanted in order to stay with our friends; now that everyone was going their separate ways, we could go back and party some more.

WE COULD GO BACK AND PARTY SOME MORE.

And we giggled like maniacs the entire six-hour ride back. We would look at each other and just start cracking up. My god, we even wore our VANG VIENG – IN THE TUBING shirts for the bus ride. Knowing that the party of all parties lay ahead of us.

Chris and Kate in Vang Vieng, because THIS PICTURE NEVER FAILS TO MAKE ME LAUGH. Oh, Chris…if you only knew that was car paint and it wouldn’t come off for days…

Times change. Vang Vieng is no longer the bacchanal that it once was, and my personal tastes in travel have changed as well.

But there are still destinations that make me giggle.

Vang Vieng made me giggle at 26. Prague made me giggle at 20. Las Vegas made me giggle at 23. San Pedro, Guatemala, made me giggle at 30.

And Key West made me giggle at 32.

Welcome to Key West

“Everyone here looks like Guy Fieri,” I whispered to Cailin. Similar to our earlier stops in the Keys, it seemed like everyone was tanned, bleached, spiky, or all three. But one thing was for sure — people were here for a good time.

Oh yes, Key West is a party place. Mostly for people older than us — while there were a handful of visitors in their twenties and thirties, I found most visitors to be 40+ and especially 50+. And the crowd was very white.

See that waving group on the top right? That’s the demographic, right there.

So if you’re in your twenties or thirties, don’t go expecting to meet lots of people around your age. You might meet some, but I wouldn’t plan on it. You’d probably be better off going to Las Vegas or New Orleans for a younger party crowd.

Key West has historically been a very LGBT-friendly destination, but I was surprised at a few things. First of all, while there were plenty of gay travelers and gay couples visiting, I didn’t see a single sign of affection or PDA between a same-sex couple. I also didn’t see a single gay bar or group of gay travelers, which seemed unusual.

Secondly, there were T-shirts for sale everywhere that read “I’M NOT GAY BUT $20 IS $20.” Kind of like the “UP THE BUM NO BABYS” shirts of Kuta, Bali. (There were also a lot of Trump-friendly shirts — “SPEAK ENGLISH OR GET OUT OF MY COUNTRY,” etc.) It surprised me that vaguely homophobic apparel would be so widespread in a prominent LGBT travel destination.

Now — take this all with a grain of salt. I’m a straight cis woman; I’ve never experienced the difficulties LGBT travelers face and I’d never claim to speak for the LGBT community. And perhaps I was obtuse and walked by a ton of gay bars without noticing.

But I will say this: don’t expect Key West to be like Fire Island or Provincetown or San Francisco, where tons of gay couples walk around arm-in-arm and nobody bats an eye. It may be different at different times of year. But if you’re gay and planning a trip, Florida Keys Tourism has an LGBT travel resource site here.

The Beauty of Key West

Key West is such a beautiful city and the buildings blend together beautifully. One of my favorite things to do was just walk around the town and check out the homes.

Here are some of my favorite shots:

Are you in love with Key West already or what?

Yes, there are some taller buildings, but they tend to be outside the town center. That’s why you’re best off staying in a small guesthouse in one of these traditional buildings.

Sunsets Are Life

Every night, the waterfront and area around Mallory Square come to life just before sunset. They call it the Sunset Celebration — the streets are live with performers and food and booze vendors as everyone gathers to watch the sun go down.

Cailin and I see bright green slushies from a wagon parked by the water. “What is that?”

“It’s The Green Thing!” the bartender announces with pride. “I invented it twenty years ago! Here, I’ll pour you a sample.” He pours us an extremely generous serving into a spare glass.

We sip the sample, our lips turning green. It’s fabulously strong, tasting of rum and limes. We order two.

“Can I try?” asks a forty-something man behind us.

“Um. Okay,” I say, handing him my glass and internally screaming, Why are you giving some stranger your drink, McCulley? You should have ovaried up and told him no!

(“Why did you give it to him?” Cailin asks as soon as we’re away from him. “I DON’T KNOW!” I exclaim. “It was a sample! What’s the etiquette for samples?!”)

Green drinks in hand, we make our way down to the greatest show of all — THE CAT MAN.

Imagine a French dude with long white hair performing “magic tricks” with a collection of cats and then lifting their tails and screaming into their butts. That’s the Cat Man, and his Key West show is famous! Whatever you do, make your way over to see the Cat Man’s show.

(No pictures because he doesn’t permit them — but you can check out his website here.)

Key West Sightseeing

Key West has plenty of places to explore if you’re into sightseeing. We didn’t go on a major tourism binge, but we did check out a few of the biggest sites.

First of all, Ernest Hemingway lived in Key West and you can visit his home. The Sun Also Rises has been my favorite book since I was 17, so visiting his home was a must for me.

You can see his typewriter. And a portrait of him painted, in Cailin’s words, “when he was young and hot.”

Most famous, however, are the Hemingway cats. The cats are descendants of Snow White, a white kitten given to Hemingway by a ship’s captain. The cats are polydactyl, or six-toed, a trait that has lasted down many generations.

Crazy cat lady Cailin made a new friend.

Across from the Hemingway House is the Key West Lighthouse. It’s 88 steps to the top…

…and you get a great view across the island.

Just down the street from the lighthouse is the Southernmost Point. It’s the furthest south point in the continental United States — only 90 miles from Cuba.

It’s fun to stand further south than everyone else there and know that you personally are the southernmost human in the continental US!

Foodie Fun — And Key Lime Pie

Key West is a casual place, and most of the dining options here are open, welcoming, and unpretentious.

Tons of my friends and readers told me we had to go to Blue Heaven — and wow. I fell in love with it the moment we walked in.

Ramshackle tables were set up outside. Two guys were playing guitars on stage and making jokes throughout.

All the seats were taken, so we headed to the bar for a drink.

And the bar was hopping, even as early as noon. (This was a pattern I noticed throughout the Keys — you can always find somewhere to drink.) Also, how great is that HELLO sticker in the background?

Key lime pie was had, of course. This wasn’t one of my favorites, though — the meringue seemed lazy to me. Too overly done. It’s supposed to be messier than that.

If you’re looking for something more upscale, head to Mangoes for dinner.

And they had one of my favorite cocktails: the watermelon margarita.

(Fun fact: Cailin is always getting me to say “watermelon margarita” out loud because it’s one of the few phrases I always say in a Boston accent. She then asks me what I put my clothes in and I say “drawer” without pronouncing the last two letters and she finds it hilarious.)

Other standouts: crab cakes made with macadamia nuts; a conch sampler featuring ceviche, chowder, and fritters; and a Caribbean-style steak frites with yucca fries.

Mangoes has both a traditional key lime pie and unorthodox key lime pie on the menu, so we went for the offbeat choice: made with mascarpone and a ginger-graham cracker crust. After trying several varieties of key lime pie all over the Keys, this was a nice detour.

The gingery crust was fabulous, though I do prefer the tart traditional filling.

And if you want even more famous key lime pie, head to Kermit’s. I found their pie filling to be a bit too on the mousse-y side, rather than gelled, but I really loved their frozen key lime pie on a stick, dipped in chocolate!

Boston Reunion on a Sunset Cruise

Sunset cruises are one of the most popular activities in Key West. For our second night, Cailin and I decided to join a schooner cruise with America 2.0.

“Everyone here is already loaded,” I whispered as we boarded the boat. It was true — we were the only ones under 40 and while we were sober, about 90% of our fellow passengers had clearly already been drinking.

We set off into the late afternoon sunshine, welcomed by our smiling crew. Oh, and they filled our glasses at the earliest moment possible and kept us topped up. For me and Cailin, it was rosé all day.

At this point, I should mention that a large percentage of passengers were decked out in Red Sox and Patriots gear, toasting to Tom Brady and the Super Bowl win the week before.

Yes. We had found the Massholes.

“I’m warning you,” I told Cailin. “Between the open bar and the Massholes, I’m going be speaking in the thickest Boston accent ever in about an hour.”

And once they found out I was from their home state, too, we became the best of friends.

“TO TOM BRADY!” we cheered, toasting each other. “GREATEST OF ALL TIME!”

To be honest, Boston’s crazy sports culture is a major reason why I left the city in the first place. I got tired of sports dominating every conversation and not being able to talk to a guy in a bar, ever.

That said, now that I no longer live in Massachusetts, I love running into that culture on the road. Go figure.

Also, the Massholes told me that Gronk (the Patriots’ Rob Gronkowski) was in Key West at the moment. I had to text my dad: “GRONK IS IN KEY WEST. THIS IS NOT A DRILL!!”

So yes. We drank a lot of wine. We gazed at another beautiful sunset. We got back on shore far more inebriated than when we got on board. Our new best friends took us to an Irish pub (because Boston). And before you know it, guess who jumped on stage for a Guinness-chugging contest?

I came in last place. Cailin did much better than me.

That is probably all that should be said about that evening (except later we got hot dogs and in my addled state I was wise enough not to eat the bun, which I’m pretty sure didn’t even matter if I was chugging bloody Guinness earlier that evening).

So. If you’re looking for a party, Key West is definitely the place. I’m really glad we got to have a party night there!

Where We Stayed — Not Your Average Hotel

First things first: accommodation in Key West is surprisingly expensive. Prices often exceed what you would pay in New York for a similar property. And because it’s a small island, there’s a limited amount of inventory (though we did meet some people camping on Stock Island, the next island over).

Even so, you want to be in the center of town in Key West. The town is such a beautiful place and it’s so nice to be able to walk home instead of tracking down one of the pink taxis that dot the town (there’s no Uber or Lyft).

There is, however, a much more economical option that doesn’t sacrifice on style or amenities: the Not Your Average Hotel. Cailin and I were comped two nights here but even if we weren’t, this would be one of the best priced options in town.

Many of the private rooms are set up dorm-style, with up to three sets of bunk beds and an ensuite bathroom. The rooms are customized and beds can be converted into kings if you’d like. The rooms are relatively simple, but the bunk beds do come with their own cubbies and reading lights, like nicer hostels, as well as lockers.

On the grounds, there are three swimming pools and two jacuzzis. We found the crowd to be a bit younger than most Key West visitors, which was nice. Starbucks coffee is available 24/7 and they have a pretty decent continental breakfast, as well as happy hour specials from the bar.

Best of all, it’s in a central location, a short walk from Duval Street, the waterfront, and most area attractions. And there is a wonderful juice bar next door called Date and Thyme (I love that name!). They make a lovely beet juice if you’re like me and like to pretend you’re drinking blood.

The Not Your Average Hotel was great and I would absolutely stay there again. See Essential Info for pricing information.

The Takeaway

Would I go back to Key West? HELL YES I WOULD! Just tell me when! I can be at Newark Airport in 30 minutes and they fly direct on United!

Seriously, I would go back to Key West for an escape from the cold northeastern winter. I would love to bring a group of girlfriends, especially for something like a bachelorette party. Cailin and I talked about having another blogger girls’ getaway here, like we did in Mallorca in 2015. And I would love to return for Fantasy Fest, Key West’s racy Halloween celebration.

I would probably not come back to Key West during one of my sober months.

Because when I think of Key West now, I invariably start to giggle. I know how fun this place can be.

Essential Info: As much as I loved Key West, I found activities and especially accommodation to be very expensive. For that reason, you might want Key West to be a brief component of a longer trip, though I do wish we had stayed for three nights.

Rooms at the Not Your Average Hotel start at $152 for two, $161 for three, $170 for four, $186 for five, and $196 for six in low season. Those rates are generally about 50% more in high season.

For more Key West hotels, check out rates here.

Our sunset cruise was with America 2.0 and costs $85. The sailing lasts two hours, offers a variety of passed apps, and is open bar with beer and wine available. The staff keep your glasses filled!

Admission to the Ernest Hemingway House is $14 and includes an optional 30-minute tour. Please be respectful of the cats and don’t antagonize them. Admission to the Key West Lighthouse, along with its museum, is $10.

Street parking in Key West is common and you can park in the same spot for up to three days for free. We took this option. There are also parking garages. Neither Uber nor Lyft is available; grab one of the pink taxis instead. Better yet, stay in a central location so you don’t need to get a ride.

Don’t visit Key West without travel insurance. If you get sick or injured while in Key West, which can happen even if you’re careful, travel insurance will protect you and your finances. I use and recommend World Nomads.

Many thanks to Florida Keys Tourism for supporting this part of our trip. We received a press pass and received two nights’ comped accommodation at Not Your Average Hotel, a comped meal at Mangoes, a comped America 2.0 booze cruise, and free admission to the Hemingway House and the Lighthouse. Everything else was at our own expense. All opinions, as always, are my own.

Have you been to Key West? Is it your kind of destination? Share away!

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The Worst Books I’ve Ever Read

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Every month, I tell you what I’m reading; every year, I rank my favorite books of the year. Reading is a huge part of my life and I make an effort to read the best books I can find. (See the best of 2016 and best of 2015 here.)

That being said, anyone who reads this much knows that there’s no attraction in, “This is good, this is good, this is also good.” The bad stuff — the drama, the conflict — is what gets readers really interested.

And so I think it’s time to talk about the WORST books I’ve ever read.

I haven’t read Fifty Shades of Grey and don’t plan to, so you won’t find that here. Nor anything by Ann Coulter — in fact, I’ll exclude political books altogether. Nothing by L. Ron Hubbard. The Da Vinci Code won’t be on this list, either (Dan Brown gets a lot of hate, but dude knows how to write suspense and I can’t hate on him for that). And while some people can’t stomach it, I happen to love Lolita.

Here are the worst books I’ve ever read, in my opinion. Some are great works of literature that happened to rub me the wrong way. Some are more embarrassing than that.

And the worst book of all, a book that made me physically angry for having read it and forever changed my opinion of the author, is listed last.

The Worst Book from High School: Walden by Henry David Thoreau

Sophomore year was tough for me, capped by my experiences in Honors American Lit. My teacher and I butted heads from the start and I disliked much of the literature we read. I struggled to keep up, even deciding to drop Honors British Lit the following year in favor of English electives. (This is why I didn’t read Hamlet until 2015.)

And then came Walden near the end of the year. A book lauded by so many people — often including the travel blogging community. A book that took place and was written just a few miles from where I grew up.

Henry David Thoreau moved into a cabin in the woods. He read, he wrote, he observed nature and grew his own food and tried to create art from it.

“Every morning was a cheerful invitation to make my life of equal simplicity, and I may say innocence, with Nature herself.” –Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity.

Revisiting Walden after years of reading about privilege in America, it becomes more striking that Thoreau was only concerned with what a wealthy independent man could do with his time, ignoring everyone else in society.

Another problem was that much of what Thoreau actually wrote was cloaked in hypocrisy. In between talking about the beauty and fragility and nature, he described how much he loved burning down half the forest. He would go on and on about how the only books people should read are classic Greek literature — as he writes a new book for them to read. Also, his mother would do his laundry.

I wrote a scathing paper decrying Thoreau’s hypocrisy.

My teacher gave me an A-.

I consider that one of my greatest academic victories.

What To Read Instead: The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli. It’s pretty much as much an opposite of Walden as you can get, and I found it far more entertaining.

The Worst Conclusion to a Series: Allegiant by Veronica Roth

I get it — it’s hard to write a good ending to a book, much less wrap up a three-book series. But I haven’t seen anything crash and burn as badly as Allegiant, the conclusion of Veronica Roth’s Divergent series.

The series as a whole intrigued me a bit but ultimately made my eyes roll. In a futuristic society, teenagers take a test and are sorted into one of five groups based on their personality: Abnegation (the selfless), Erudite (the intelligent), Candor (the honest), Amity (dirty hippies), and Dauntless (the brave). But when Tris displays the traits of multiple groups in her test, she finds out she’s Divergent and she could be killed for it.

Now: the first two books were told from Tris’s point of view. In Allegiant, the story is suddenly told from two points of view, Tris and her lover Four — but both voices are exactly the same. They witness the same events. They have the same feelings. Their vocabularies and cadences are identical. I could never tell who was speaking.

Beyond that, the “big revelation” at the end of the book landed with a thump, and so many people died throughout that the deaths became meaningless.

“When her body first hit the net, all I registered was a gray blur. I pulled her across it and her hand was small, but warm, and then she stood before me, short and thin and plain and in all ways unremarkable- except that she had jumped first. The stiff had jumped first.
Even I didn’t jump first.
Her eyes were so stern, so insistent.
Beautiful.” –Vernoica Roth, Allegiant

Another theme throughout the first two books is that characters would occasionally get injected with serums that would create simulations — and sometimes led them to do evil things. The final book was a series of, “Okay, it’s time for another serum!” “Wait, here’s a serum to override that serum!” “No, that’s a bad serum, we’re the good guys, this one’s a GOOD serum!” Again and again, another serum. You’d think Roth owned stock in skincare products.

What to Read Instead: The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. Not only is it a fantastic novel, the story is told through several different narrators and each of the voices are unique and different.

The Worst Book Receiving Bewildering Levels of Praise: The Girls by Emma Cline

One of the buzziest books of 2016, The Girls is a fictionalized retelling of the Manson murders of the 1970s, focusing on the relationships between the women in Not Charles Manson’s cult.

One of the things I can’t stand the most is wasted potential. This book could have been so good in the hands of another author!

Emma Cline focused more on creating elaborate prose than telling a story. And when I say elaborate, that’s not a compliment — she stuffed her paragraphs with enough bewildering metaphors and similes as if they were banana peppers on a Subway sandwich (yes, I know what I did there). It goes to show that no matter how you write, if you don’t know how to tell a story, you’ve got nothing.

“Poor Sasha. Poor girls. The world fattens them on the promise of life. How badly they need it, and how little most of them will ever get. The treacled pop songs, the dresses described in the catalogs with words like ‘sunset’ and ‘Paris.’ Then the dreams are taken away with such violent force; the hand wrenching the buttons of the jeans, nobody looking at the man shouting at his girlfriend on the bus.” –Emma Cline, The Girls

At the same time, the book moved at a glacial pace. By the time the action started, I was psyched to finally have some excitement — only it withered and died instantly. The big showdown I had been expecting didn’t even come to fruition.

What To Read Instead: American Heiress by Jeffrey Toobin, a much better book about 1970s Bay Area counterculture. This one focuses on the kidnapping of Patty Hearst by the Symbionese Liberation Army, and it was so exciting I couldn’t put it down.

The Biggest Disappointment From An Author I Love: A Cook’s Tour by Anthony Bourdain

I love Uncle Tony. I worship the man. But A Cook’s Tour was not his best work.

You think combining Anthony Bourdain and world travel would be amazing, especially after his wild and raw Kitchen Confidential (one of my all-time favorite memoirs). This book is a collection of essays about his first major international trip as a food writer and personality. And he loved every minute of it.

But that was the problem — Kitchen Confidential was full of conflict. Pirate-looking chefs fucking brides in their wedding dresses in the walk-in. Crawling along the bar after work, snorting six-foot lines of cocaine. Going from cooking in world-class restaurants to flipping burgers in a crappy diner, the metallic taste of methadone in your mouth. It was gritty and ugly and utterly compelling.

A Cook’s Tour was just Uncle Tony eating food and having a good time traveling. There was no story, no narrative arc. It was just a lot of, “Hey, this is great.”

“What is love? Love is eating twenty-four ounces of raw fish at four o’clock in the morning.” –Anthony Bourdain, A Cook’s Tour

And while I enjoyed his stories from Russia and San Sebastian, Spain, they weren’t enough to sustain a full book.

Luckily, his writing changed direction in his subsequent collections, and I suspect he had a better editorial team behind him. Uncle Tony is at his best when he’s ripping on people he can’t stand.

What To Read Instead: Kitchen Confidential is great, but Bourdain’s best post-fame work is The Nasty Bits. It still has a lot of food and travel, but with a sharper, more ardent point of view.

The Worst Impulse Kindle Buy: On the Island by Tracey Garvis Graves

On the Island was an Amazon bestseller and I liked the concept: a teenage boy and his thirty-year-old tutor survive a plane crash in the Maldives, end up living on a desert island for years, start a romantic relationship after he turns 18, and are rescued following a tsunami and have to deal with the aftermath at home.

And absolutely nothing that happened was believable. This sixteen-year-old boy acted like a 40-year-old man the whole time. Neither character changed or transformed in any way. And even after being rescued after living on a desert island for THREE YEARS, the only thing they worried about was how people would judge their relationship that they started after the kid turned 18.

“You weren’t supposed to fall in love,” she whispered.
“Well, I did,” I said, looking into her eyes. “I’ve been in love with you for months. I’m telling you now because I think you love me too, Anna. You just don’t think you’re supposed to. You’ll tell me when you’re ready. I can wait.” I pulled her mouth down to mine and kissed her and when it ended, I smiled and said, “Happy birthday.” –Tracey Garvis Graves, On the Island

Yes, that’s an actual quote from a bestselling book.

It’s been translated into 27 languages.

I hate people.

What To Read Instead: Euphoria by Lily King. Now, THAT’S a great controversial love story set in a remote location — in this instance, Papua New Guinea in the 1930s.

The Worst Smash Hit: The Twilight Series by Stephenie Meyer

I’ll be honest — I was hooked on the Twilight books during their height of popularity. I didn’t like them, but I couldn’t stop reading them. And my friend Beth and I made a tradition of seeing the movies on opening night amongst the superfans, only somewhat ironically.

Nothing I say here is anything you haven’t heard before. These books are poorly written. The character development is scant at best. The plot holes are the size of football fields.

But the worst part is that these books glorify intimate partner abuse to an impressionable audience of young women. The behavior that Edward exhibits — stalking, controlling, threatening, saying “no one will ever love you like I do,” leaving you with bruises and suggesting you tell people you fell down the stairs, and ultimately leading you to give up your future for him — should be recognized as alarming, not held up as a model for romance.

“The waves of pain that had only lapped at me before now reared high up and washed over my head, pulling me under. I did not resurface.” –Stephenie Meyer, New Moon

Also, a werewolf falls in love with a baby.

What To Read Instead: The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins. It’s a much better, more intellectual book for teens that focuses on issues of justice, bravery, brutality, media culture, and utopianism, just to start.

The Best Book I Happen to Hate: The Road by Cormac McCarthy

The Road is a fantastic, gorgeous book worthy of its Pulitzer Prize and every other honor it’s received.

And I fucking hated every word of it.

It’s an incredibly frightening tale of a post-apocalyptic world after a series of unspecified disasters — a barren planet where survivors hide in the shadows and the world is pillaged by tribes of cannibals and rapists. Through the book, a dying father takes his young son on a journey to the sea, not knowing what lies there but hoping they’ll find something better than what they’ve left behind.

“Then they set out along the blacktop in the gunmetal light, shuffling through the ash, each the other’s world entire.” –Cormac McCarthy, The Road

This book is terrifying. And realistic. And that’s why I hated it with everything I had.

Maybe it shouldn’t be on this list. I appreciated every beautiful word. But it still makes me upset, years after reading it.

What To Read Instead: The Color Purple by Alice Walker. Also a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, it starts with an incredibly bleak beginning but blossoms into joy and forgiveness.

The Worst Book of All Time: Cleaving by Julie Powell

Julie and Julia was a commercial success, and deservedly so — a sweet if not overly literary memoir about how a directionless woman finds joy and meaning in cooking all of Julia Child’s recipes.

A feel-good tale about an everywoman with a sweet husband who supports her, encourages her, and makes her a better person. It got some hate, but it was overall a fun and engaging memoir, and it was commercial as hell, working even better as a film.

Cleaving, the sequel, destroyed all the goodwill Powell earned with her first book.

Following the success of Julie and Julia, Powell began an affair with a former boyfriend. Her husband found out. They decided to open their marriage, though it seemed like they didn’t want to actually work on their marriage, either. And she decided to go apprentice at a butcher upstate because…food is continuity? And this memoir is about, um, all of that. It’s unfocused at best; I suspect her publisher rushed it.

But it mainly focuses on Powell’s affair with the former boyfriend, her enjoyment of the affair and obsession with her lover, and her complete lack of remorse while her husband waits in the background.

The worst part is when Powell is out with her lover and gets recognized by a blog reader. Her lover introduces himself as her husband to save face and they both get off on the scenario. This sums up the book: Powell runs wild with her id, doesn’t care about who she hurts in the process, and learns absolutely nothing.

How did her publisher agree to release this?!

“Like the muscles knew from the beginning that it would end with this, this inevitable falling apart… It’s sad, but a relief as well to know that two things so closely bound together can separate with so little violence, leaving smooth surfaces instead of bloody shreds.” –Julie Powell, Cleaving

I’ve read raw memoirs that overshare the intimate details of a marriage — Glennon Doyle Melton’s Love Warrior comes to mind. But Cleaving is far worse. I find it to be a cruel book. Cruel in its lack of accountability.

The other part I hated was that Powell clearly discovered she was into rough sex — only she never explicitly says so. She implies things and hints at others, conveniently evading details. Dude, you’re not the first person to suddenly realize you’re into a new kind of sex. Stop patronizing your readers and actually say it.

The book ends with what I’m sure she imagined was a heartfelt revelation: her lover, who had been called D up until the final page, was actually named Damian.

Hey Julie — nobody cares. Literally everyone hates that guy.

Many reviewers focused primarily on Powell’s infidelity; I don’t thick that’s fair, and much of that criticism is rooted in sexism. Infidelity itself is not the issue here. What matters is that she went about her infidelity, as well as her apprenticeship and travels, with a complete lack of self-awareness. Powell wrote a sloppy memoir about her darkest, most selfish moments without a shred of insight or transformation by the end of it. The Julie at the end of the book is the same Julie at the beginning of the book.

This book is the reason why I eat grass-fed beef today, and that just makes me hate it more. I hate that something good came out of it.

What To Read Instead: Wild by Cheryl Strayed. She flew into a tailspin after her mother’s death, cheating on her husband and using drugs, but she acknowledged her failures, strenuously worked through her shit, and transformed as a result.

What’s the worst book you’ve ever read?

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AK Monthly Recap: February 2017

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After a quiet January, I got back to the road in February with two trips that were out of the norm for me. A trip to Florida and a cruise — two very typical American vacations, but not the usual kind of trip I take. Even so, I had a blast on both trips!

Best of all, these were trips with friends — a road trip through Florida with Cailin and a cruise through the Caribbean with Jeremy.

Punctuated with some fun times at home in New York, it made for a very satisfying month. Here’s everything I got up to in February!

Destinations Visited

New York, New York

Orlando, Islamorada, Key Largo, Tavernier, Marathon, Key West, and Miami, Florida

Grand Turk, Turks and Caicos

San Juan, Puerto Rico

Favorite Destinations

Key West is one of my new favorite places in the United States!

San Juan is a fabulous city and I was happy to return.

And I’m just discovering how awesome Miami Beach can be.

Highlights

Having fun at Universal Orlando. Universal Studios was the main reason for our Florida trip. Cailin is an ambassador for the park, and part of her partnership is that she gets to bring friends with her to experience the park for themselves. She kindly invited me and I was happy to join her. We had a great time!

Some of the highlights: throwing out beads on a Mardi Gras float, going to the actual Moe’s Tavern from The Simpsons, wearing our hot pink BEST FRIENDS shirts, experiencing The Wizarding World of Harry Potter (and doing a hilarious Bertie Botts Roulette video on Facebook live!), having breakfast with the Minions, riding The Mummy over and over (flying around in the dark, fiery explosions, Brendan Fraser demanding a cup of coffee — what’s not to love?), and THE FOOD. Seriously. I did not have high expectations for the food at Universal but the restaurants at CityWalk were excellent, especially Antojitos. They made the best salmon over sweet potatoes…

Road tripping down the Keys. The Florida Keys were amazing and both fulfilled and defied my expectations. They were absolutely beautiful, gritty in all the right ways, and surprisingly a lot like New Hampshire

Having a little too much fun in Key West. Let’s just say that at age 32, Key West is for me what San Juan del Sur was at 30, Vang Vieng was at 26, Las Vegas was at 23…it’s a fun place. And wild. And incredibly beautiful and historical as well, but still — this is a place where you come for fun. The highlight was our sunset cruise with a bunch of rowdy Boston sports fans and unlimited rosé…

Trying all the key lime pie. This was my major diet fail this month — but I did eat clean otherwise. Cailin and I decided to go on a quest to find the best key lime pie in the Florida Keys and we sampled eight different top recommended pies across the archipelago. Stay tuned for a post on the best slices!

Kicking back in South Beach. We had two nights in Miami at the end of our trip and decided to just chill out — we ate ceviche, relaxed on the beach, and vegged out at the W’s pool.

Enjoying my first cruise ever. Jeremy kindly invited me to join him on a weeklong cruise on the Carnival Vista. The cruise was split between February and March, so it seems a bit weird only writing about the first half of it here. I’m still on it as I write this, and I’m having a blast. It did take some getting used to (it was SO OVERWHELMING at first!) but once I found my zone (balcony, adults-only deck, fitness center, spa, and sushi bar), I was happy as a clam. And my favorite part was getting to know the staff. I’ll be writing more about my introduction to cruising in the future, so stay tuned.

An awesome catamaran ride in Grand Turk. We booked only one official shore excursion and it was a good one — a catamaran ride with snorkeling and a visit to a private beach. The water in Grand Turk is an UNREAL shade of blue and the beaches are fine white sand — Jeremy and I definitely chose the perfect excursion.

Revisiting Old San Juan. Jeremy and I had both been to San Juan previously, so this day was about wandering the town, revisiting some of our favorite places, and taking photos. Puerto Rico is a fantastic place and I’d love to return for a third time and see new spots (Culebrita, yo vengo!).

Meeting up with blogger buds for the first time. This month I met Hannah and Adam from Getting Stamped at Universal Orlando and Gloria from The Blog Abroad came to visit me in Harlem! It’s so nice to meet blogger friends in real life.

I also got some nice plane views over New York en route to Orlando. So pretty!

Challenges

As far as months go, there were no major personal challenges, and for that I am grateful.

From the “learn from my mistakes” files — Cailin and I decided to save money and have me be the sole driver on our Florida road trip, but we really should have paid more and shared the driving. Orlando to Islamorada took six hours and was a slog, especially through traffic around Miami!

Post of the Month

You may have noticed publishing was much lighter than usual this month. I only have one non-recap post, but it’s a good one: Where to Stay in Barcelona: Best Neighborhoods and Accommodation

Most Popular Instagram Photo

This is a bit of a misnomer — my actual most popular Instagram photo was the recipient of roughly 2,000 fake likes from a spammer that has started targeting me and a host of other travel bloggers. (Their method: give 2k bogus likes “as a gift” and then ask us to sign up for their paid service. No thanks. Plenty of travel bloggers use bots to artificially inflate their Instagram numbers, but I refuse to play that game.)

But this is the most popular photo minus the spamming — one of Key West’s legendary sunsets.

For real-time updates from my travels, follow me on Instagram and Snapchat at adventurouskate!

What I Read This Month

Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? by Kathleen Collins (2016). Kathleen Collins was one of the first prominent black female filmmakers, and she died in her 40s in the 1980s. This collection of short stories she wrote was only recently found among her belongings and published last year. Some stories read like poetry, some like prose, some like plays.

More than anything, this book is about how black women love and the sacrifices they make as a result. I loved these stories of women who fell in love, women who stayed by their cheating men, women who attempted to carve out a life of their own. You could call it a companion piece to Beyonce’s Lemonade. It’s a relatively quick read and one that I highly recommend. Category: A book by a person of color.

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi (2016). I was afraid to read this book for a long time, despite its stellar reviews. I tend to avoid books about confronting death and grief (the same reason why I haven’t read Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking), and I didn’t know how I would handle reading about a brilliant young neurosurgeon diagnosed with terminal cancer. This book is about how he evaluates his life prior to diagnosis and his outlook afterward. I shouldn’t have avoided it.

This book is written so beautifully. The best memoirs are fascinating stories that are told well, and this absolutely fits the bill. Dr. Kalanithi wrestled with whether to become a doctor or a writer, and tentatively planned on leaving medicine to focus on writing later in life. But what a way to leave the world — this book is a treasure. I read it in one sitting. I’m grateful that I got to know Dr. Kalanithi, if only posthumously. Category: A book about a difficult topic.

What We Do Now: Standing Your Ground in Trump’s America by various authors (2017). This book, obviously published quickly following the 2016 election, is a collection of essays by liberal leaders talking about what needs to be done in the resistance against Donald Trump. Some of the authors include Elizabeth Warren, Paul Krugman, Bernie Sanders, and the first Somali-American legislator, Ilhan Omar.

I had read a handful of the essays before, including Warren’s and Krugman’s. Everything was organized by topic, from LGBT rights to the environment. And honestly, this is a very preaching-to-the-choir book, especially if you’re a liberal who follows the news, but I enjoyed reading it nonetheless and got some new insights. Category: A book with multiple authors.

Wendy Darling, Volume II: Seas by Colleen Oakes (2016). My cousin Colleen is an incredibly prolific author and the mind behind two young adult series of retold fairy tales. My favorite books of hers so far are the Wendy Darling books — a dark retelling of Peter Pan from Wendy’s point of view. These books are visually lush and much more mature.

In the first book, Wendy realizes that both Neverland and Peter Pan are far more sinister than they appear, and she escapes with her brother Michael. In the second, she joins Captain Hook and his crew as they sail Neverland, trying to stop Peter Pan with the help of bloodthirsty mermaids and deranged fairies. And if Peter Pan was sexy in the first book, CAPTAIN HOOK was sexy in the second! I love Colleen’s view of Neverland! Category: A book involving a mythical creature.

Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie (1934). I’ve actually never read a book by Agatha Christie in my life (!) but I needed a book that’s becoming a movie this year, and I got excited when I saw that not only is Murder on the Orient Express going to be a movie in December, but Leslie Odom Jr. (a.k.a. Aaron Burr from Hamilton) will be in it! It has an awesome cast: directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh with Odom, Johnny Depp, Penelope Cruz, Daisy Ridley, Michelle Pfeiffer, Josh Gad, Willem Dafoe, and DAME JUDI MOTHERFUCKING DENCH.

This iconic mystery takes place on the Orient Express from Istanbul to Calais in the 1930s. A passenger is murdered and the train gets stuck in a snowstorm, which means the murderer is one of the passengers in the car. Good thing detective Hercule Poirot is on board and is able to deduce who the killer is.

One thing I didn’t expect…the surprising amount of casual racism about Italians and Italian-Americans. According to one character, the Italian must be the murderer because Italians love to stab people…That said, it’s a reminder that Italians and Irish were once treated with the prejudice and scorn that Muslims, Latinos, and Africans receive in America today. I’m eager to see how they modernize the film. Category: A book that’s becoming a movie in 2017.

What I Listened To This Month

“Etunnel” by Primary feat. Gaeko. Another one of Spotify’s picks for me (seriously, Spotify knows my tastes inside and out), this is a lovely Korean electronic/hip-hop song with a touch of Burt Bacharach. Give it a listen; I bet you’ll love it!

Fun fact: I didn’t even know it was Korean until I looked it up just now…

What I Watched This Month

I’ve started watching Santa Clarita Diet on Netflix. This comedy stars Drew Barrymore and Timothy Olyphant as boring-yet-happy realtor couple living in the suburbs with a teenage daughter — until one day Barrymore’s character suddenly turns into a zombie and starts eating people.

It’s not the sharpest or most cutting-edge comedy of all time, but it’s wacky and I love it! The cast is great, and it has a very sweet message of doing everything you can to protect your family, even if that means killing people you can’t stand in order to eat them.

What I Cooked This Month

No pics, but I am cooking these turkey spinach burgers all the time. They’re super healthy and a good source of protein, and I love making four at once so I have a few ready to go in the fridge! Plus, they look like Oscar the Grouch.

Four pieces of advice: 1) This recipe calls for a truly insane amount of spinach — just go with it. 2) Be very gentle when mixing the turkey; if you mash it too hard it will be too dense. 3) They will fall apart if you grill them, so bake them in a glass dish. 4) Top them with avocado or guacamole — it’s the best! Avocado is my main substitute for cheese these days, and I find it just as satisfying.

Fitness Update

I’m still working hard on my fitness and I think I’ve been making progress at a much faster rate lately. Something has shifted — I work harder and better and am feeling great!

That said, this was also my first month traveling since starting my fitness regimen, and it was challenging to keep up workouts and eat well on the road. I could have done better with both, but I’m glad neither trip turned into a gluttonous free-for-all, as it would have in the past.

I tried two new classes this month — Pon de Flo with Oneika, and IMAXShift with Beth. Pon de Flo is a Caribbean dance class in SoHo that includes HIIT segments — think Zumba but with more push-ups. IMAXShift is a spin class in front of an IMAX screen located in DUMBO — you ride through space and lasers and the sky.

I only lost a few pounds in February, but I don’t mind — according to my body analysis I’m gaining a ton of muscle, which is heavier and cancels out a lot of fat loss. Weight isn’t as important as you think. More important is that I look and feel different — especially in my face, my upper arms and my thighs. And I’ve lost three inches off my waist since December.

Also a bonus: I went bathing suit shopping and found three suits that I loved and felt great in!

Coming Up in March 2017

I have a few more days on the cruise at the beginning of March, and beyond that, I have no travel plans scheduled in March. Which, once again, is great. I feel like I’m actually starting to live my goal of traveling 25% of the time or less.

I do have a lot I want to do in New York this month, including visiting the new Golden Girls cafe in Washington Heights, so stay tuned for more local coverage!

Plus, Cailin is coming to stay for a few days (amusingly, she’ll already be at my place when I get back from the cruise). I’m also looking forward to hosting my book group at my apartment, which is shockingly the first time I’ve invited more than two people into my apartment simultaneously!

What’s coming up for you in March? Share away!

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Welcome to the Florida Keys

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Most of the time when I start dreaming of a new destination for the first time, I can point to several factors. Maybe it’s the setting of a book I’m reading. Maybe it’s getting a lot of press thanks to a news story. Maybe I have a blogger friend or two who visited recently and loved it.

In the case of the Florida Keys, one of my top dream destinations lately, I can point to one source. Bloodline.

My sister had been recommending the Netflix drama for quite a while, but it took me forever to sit down and actually watch it. Bloodline is about a prominent family in the Florida Keys: the parents (Sissy Spacek and Sam Shepard) own a luxury resort in the Keys; they’re pillars of the community. They have four children: a detective (Kyle Chandler), a lawyer (Linda Cardellini), a shipyard owner (Norbert Leo Butz), and a burnout who waltzes into and out of his family’s lives (the excellent Ben Mendelsohn, who won an Emmy for his role).

But behind this picture-perfect family are secrets, and crime, and murder. And the show raises questions about how far you’d go to protect your family.

(Just know one thing — Bloodline is a slow burn. I think it took me about four episodes to really get into it. I highly recommend you keep going even if you’re not sure how you feel about it — trust me, it’s worth it!)

What I love most about Bloodline was how it captures the Keys, and particularly paints a gritty image of the Keys — ratty local bars, grungy docks, and dirty trailer parks interspersed among the resorts.

I always had an image in my mind of the Keys being nothing but jaw-dropping beauty and luxury properties. This gritty portrayal was nothing like what I had imagined. And for that reason, I became obsessed with visiting this destination for myself.

I knew I had to visit the Florida Keys.

My friend Cailin and I decided to do a road trip through the Keys and Miami as an add-on to our trip to Universal Orlando. This jaunt would give us two nights in the mid-Keys, based in Islamorada, and two nights in Key West. (We were supported in part by Florida Keys Tourism; see the end of the post for details.)

Key West is like a completely different planet from the rest of the Keys — and for that reason will be covered in a different post. THIS post is about the Mid-Keys, stretching from Key Largo in the northeast to Big Pine Key in the southwest.

Here is the story of our trip to the Keys, told in a series of vignettes.

The New Hampshire of the South

As we drive into the Keys, I’m struck by the sensation that I’ve already been here — that this is a place I knew well.

It hits me when we drive into a sandy parking lot punctuated with palm trees. I’ve seen parking lots like those many times — only with pine trees. In New Hampshire.

Rural streets filled with discount souvenir shops, hawking cheap t-shirts and pool floats. Lots of prime waterfront space without any exceptional beaches of which to speak. Unpretentious restaurants where the dress code is nonexistent and hits from decades ago play loudly. Loud, warm locals that lean into your conversations and give no-nonsense answers.

Not to mention the sneaking suspicion that you would never want to get on the bad side of one of these locals.

This was what I grew up with during my summers camping in New Hampshire. Turn up the heat and humidity, add palm trees and mangroves, and the Florida Keys could be the same place.

Keys Drinking Culture

People in the Keys do seem to drink a lot. Locals do as well as visitors, a great number of them in their fifties and older. And this is a place where you can drink in abundance.

Cailin and I have driven all the way down from Orlando, a six-hour drive. It’s time to start our night at Ciao Hound, near Islamorada, a brand new Italian restaurant.

We start with prosciutto-wrapped shrimp and vegetables, then move on to heartier fare, a local beer, a sparkling water. It’s like heaven after a long day of driving. (Also, dogs have their own fancy dining area and menu here!)

Next we’re led back to the Tiki Bar behind the restaurant, torches flaming in welcome.

Cailin opts for their signature drink, a strawberry daiquiri and piña colada hybrid with a floater shot of rum on top. I’m driving that night, so I order a mojito and sip it slowly. Made with key lime-infused rum, I think that this is the best mojito I’ve ever tasted.

Didn’t you say the same thing about the mojitos at that salsa club in Cartagena, Kate?

I might have.

“Get off your phones!” the bartender yells at us. “You’re on vacation!”

Cailin and I stiffen. The reaction is to respond, “We’re working,” but that’s problematic. Sure, we don’t have to snap and Instagram and Facebook every moment of the trip, but we know our readers and our readers would love these pretty drinks. And most people would kill to do what we do for work, so to draw attention to what we do seems to be rude at best.

Where is the happy medium? Seven years into professional travel blogging, I haven’t found it yet.

We do at least put our phones away and walk over to the dance floor. A cover band is blasting “Beat It” while the intoxicated jump up and down, updating Michael Jackson’s iconic 80s dance moves with some modern twerking.

Cailin and I pose for snaps with a giant monster truck parked nearby and drive to our hotel.

Later on, we read about Snappers, a brunch spot in Key Largo with a make-your-own-Bloody-Mary bar. Might as well start the day right!

Reservations are necessary at this restaurant, I hear, and I make the requisite phone call, despite having developed a fear for calling strangers on the telephone in the age of texting.

Now — a brunch place with mandatory reservations sounds like it might be fancy or formal. Not whatsoever in the Keys. We dine outside underneath Samuel Adams-branded umbrellas, watching locals jet ski their way up and down the waterways.

The Bloody Mary bar is worth the hype. We’re each given a glass filled with vodka, ice, and a single shrimp, then are led to a table covered with bottles of juices, sauces, and accoutrements. Cailin is thrilled to discover that they have clamato juice and she can make a Caesar, Canada’s answer to the Bloody Mary. (Me: “So you’re saying there are clams in your tomato juice?”) I fill mine with pickles and peperoncinis and enough horseradish to clear my sinuses for the next month, then only drink a quarter of it because I’m still driving, after all.

The Keys has such a strong drinking culture, yet it’s a place where you can’t get by without a car. What did people do before Uber?!

Sunset Time

One night we head to Lorelei, a popular waterfront bar and restaurant in Islamorada. It’s a prime sunset spot, famous for its giant mermaid painted on the side of the road.

The drinks at Lorelei are terrific — Cailin and I both get key lime coladas. The food is meh. The key lime pie is an abomination. But that’s fine — the band consists of several men in their fifties playing covers of Green Day and Red Hot Chili Peppers songs.

People are dancing and partying until the band grinds to a halt and gives a speech talking about why we need to support our troops. (My non-American friends are always surprised to see this when they visit the States. It’s not common in other countries to talk this much about the military.) The band then transitions into a 3 Doors Down medley.

“3 Doors Down was one of few bands who actually played at the inauguration,” I tell Cailin.

Monroe County, home of the Keys, narrowly voted for Trump in the 2016 election.

We don’t talk about politics with any locals on this trip.

The sun goes down and everyone jumps up with their phone to photograph it.

“This is it. I love this,” says a white-haired man snapping shots with his Android, the brightness of the sun blowing out the rest of the sky.

“It’s great,” I agree.

“I know! I live here!” he exclaims, swaying in place to the band.

It’s something that I had missed for quite some time. American exuberance. Going up to strangers and starting a conversation for no reason at all. Less common in urban areas and the northeast but present throughout the nation, especially in this very American vacation destination.

It happens again on the trip. At a souvenir shop, I take of a picture of a bumper sticker reading SURRENDER THE BOOTY to text to my bud Jeremy, knowing he’ll love it. (Best left unexplained.)

A sixty-something woman sees me taking the photo and grabs my arm. “That’s my–” and she starts laughing so hard that she can’t get the words out. “That’s my — my — husband’s nickname!” She collapses in laughter; I tentatively join in before edging away.

How to Spend Your Days

Now, lest you think that the Keys are only for relaxing and doing little to nothing, you can fill your days with activities here, too.

Cailin and I start at the Florida Keys Brewing Company. It’s filled with all kinds of art, neon growlers and mermaid-tipped taps. The staff couldn’t be friendlier or more warm as they pour us a ring-shaped sampler.

The ingredients here come straight from the Keys — like Iguana Bait, a hibiscus-flavored beer. Go for the flight of 10 beers, featuring the best of what they have at the moment. I’m a big fan of the Coffee Stout and the Hurricane Hole Red.

The brewery is actually part of the Morada Way Arts District, a small collection of galleries and artists’ studios. Like most galleries I’ve seen in Florida, the landscape is the main subject. You won’t find gloomy art here.

For something quirky and different, Robbie’s Marina, just south of Islamorada, features tarpon feeding. you can buy a bucket of small fish and feed them to the huge, biting tarpons penned into the water.

It’s scary enough on its own. It becomes even more terrifying when the pelicans start chasing you, trying to snag the smelly fish for themselves.

Have I mentioned that my two biggest fears are fish and birds?

Despite that, it’s a lot of fun. Stay for lunch at the Hungry Tarpon.

For something more docile, visit the Turtle Hospital in Marathon and learn about the work that they do to save sick and injured turtles around the Keys and beyond.

Many of the turtles have “bubble butts” from damage that keep them floating on the surface. The hospital attaches weights to them to help them swim normally.

Panicking at the thought of being away from my gym for ten days, I look for Zumba classes and find one scheduled at the Cheeca Lodge, a gorgeous luxury property in Islamorada. As I drive onto the property, I grumble at being stuck behind a red SUV driven by a woman having a full-blown conversation with the security guard.

Eventually she leaves and I drive up.

“I’m just here for a Zumba class,” I tell the security guard.

“Oh, that’s your teacher!” she says, pointing to the SUV. I promptly drive after the vehicle to make sure I don’t get lost on the vast property.

Here’s something awkward: I’m literally the only person who showed up for class. That’s never happened before!

We do Zumba one on one, me dancing behind her in an upstairs ballroom. She’s got Pitbull on her playlist, which is my benchmark of a good class.

My teacher’s name is Denise. She’s from Germany. Like many people, she came to the Keys on vacation, considered spending longer, and when a job fell into her lap, it seemed like a sign.

I couldn’t imagine a place less like Germany. Perhaps that’s why she fell in love with it so much.

A Certain Kind of Girl

After several days in the Keys, Cailin poses a question: “There’s a certain kind of girl who lives here, don’t you think?”

“What do you mean?”

“They all have that look.”

Immediately, I know what she’s talking about.

The girls around our age work in the brewery and wait tables along the waterfront. They love to fish and go out on the water whenever they can. They’re open and friendly and loud, and they’re not afraid to call you on your bullshit.

These girls are deeply tan, what my family members would call “brown as a berry,” clad in denim shorts and worn tank tops with cheap sunglasses perched on their foreheads. Their hair is pulled back into sensible ponytails or worn down and wild, glinting in the sunlight in several different sun-bleached shades.

Could I live here? is a question that I always ask myself, everywhere I go. Could this be my life?

Living here would mean subverting the vast majority of my life. I could not be less like these girls. And not only  because my uniform is jeans, black tops, and tall black boots, which wouldn’t work for one minute in the Florida Keys.

These girls are interesting. Maybe it’s that they’re so different.

And then there’s the pie.

Key Lime Pie. World-famous, sweet and tart, made from the tiny limes that grow on these islands.

Every restaurant claims the best key lime pie of all. Most of them are lying. But taste is a subjective thing — you never know which one will appeal to you personally. The only thing to do is to taste them all!

If you’re in the mid-Keys, I recommend heading to Ma’s Fish Camp in Islamorada, the Blond Giraffe in Tavernier, or Mrs. Mac’s Kitchen in Key Largo. All of them serve excellent key lime pies.

Where We Stayed — Islander Resort Bayside

Islamorada was the perfect place to base in the Keys, and we stayed at a lovely little town home, the Islander Resort Bayside, for our two nights there.

I can’t tell you what we were more excited about — the fact that it was a two-bedroom apartment and we each got our own room, or that we had a washer and dryer! It was the halfway point of our trip and couldn’t have been better timed on either side!

I loved our little home. It was ideally located in central Islamorada, a short drive (or even a walk) from lots of attractions. There was a pool in the back overlooking the water.

It’s expensive to stay here, with nightly rates starting above $300. The Keys are incredibly expensive, though, and this is a standard price for a property of this quality. That said, you can save money by making use of the kitchen and cooking some of your meals.

The Takeaway

My time in the Keys feels like a dream. Not in a conventional sense when you can’t believe that you traveled somewhere so beautiful, but more like you just got back from a bizarre destination and you’re still trying to wrap your head around it.

 

Would I want to go back? Would I EVER. I feel like I barely scraped the surface of this destination. Plus, Bloodline has a third (and sadly final) season coming up. I’ll be Keys-crazy once again!

If you’re looking to plan a trip to Florida, I highly recommend the Keys. It’s a far cry from more conventional destinations like Orlando and Miami, and very different from beach destinations, but I think it’s the overall culture and feeling that makes it so interesting. I hope you agree.

Essential Info: While we based two nights in the mid-Keys and two nights in Key West, I recommend spending more time if you can, especially if you’re driving from far away. Budget at least three nights for Key West, possibly even more if you can afford it, and three nights would be great for Islamorada or elsewhere in the mid-Keys as well.

Feeding the tarpons at Robbie’s costs $1 per person and $3 per bucket of fish.

Tours of the Turtle Hospital in Marathon are $22 for adults and $11 for children.

The hourlong Zumba class I took takes place on Saturdays at 10:00 AM at Cheeca Lodge in Islamorada and costs $15. I recommend verifying before you arrive. You must call and book the day before.

The Keys, as you may have noticed, can be shockingly expensive, especially when it comes to accommodation. Rates at the Islander Resort Bayside start at $317. Find more hotels in Islamorada here.

If you’re a Bloodline fan, my friend Andy wrote a guide to the series’ season one filming locations.

Don’t visit the Keys without travel insurance — if you get injured on your trip, it could save your finances and your life. I use and recommend World Nomads.

Many thanks to Florida Keys Tourism and local partners for supporting our trip. We received several comps including accommodation at the Islander Resort Bayside, visits to the Florida Keys Brewing Company and Turtle Hospital, and meals at Ciao Hound and The Hungry Tarpon. Other expenses, including all other meals, activities, car rental and gas, were paid in full by me and Cailin. All opinions, as always, are my own.

Do the Florida Keys look like your kind of destination? Share away!

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