Месечни архиви: June 2017

14 Reasons Why I’m Smitten with Asheville, North Carolina

7

I’ve been wanting to go to Asheville, North Carolina, for quite a long time. I’d heard that it was a beautiful town with a cool arts scene nestled in the Blue Ridge mountains. And I’d heard that it was a little drop of blue in a sea of red — or “the blueberry in the tomato soup,” as one local told me — a liberal enclave within a strongly conservative region, not unlike Austin, Texas.

The Obamas took a weekend getaway to Asheville in 2010; in 2013, President Obama said he had thought about retiring there. That further intrigued me — I had to get to this town.

Earlier this year, the team at Explore Asheville invited me to come visit for a few days and I happily accepted. When planning my itinerary, I told them I wanted it to be local, local, local. I wanted to focus on cool small businesses. I wanted to eat local food. I wanted to spend my money close to the ground. I wanted to see how nature integrated into the city.

I knew I’d have a great time — but I underestimated just how much I would enjoy this city.

Here are the reasons why I fell so hard for Asheville.

Image courtesy of Asheville Farm to Table Tours.

1. Because Asheville has the most amazing people.

I want to get that out of the way first — Asheville is home to some of the nicest people I have ever met, anywhere. And that goes for the U.S. and abroad.

These days I don’t usually like to say things like that these days — even though I’ve written posts on that topic in the past. Truthfully, most places are filled with 98% nice people with a few jerks thrown in.

But Asheville is special. People aren’t just polite or welcoming — it’s a genuine, honest, open kindness on the level of which I’ve never seen elsewhere. And it’s not necessarily southern hospitality. While I appreciate it, as a native New Englander I sometimes find southern hospitality a bit much — almost insincere.

“Asheville is different — it’s ‘mountain south,’” a local told me. Hmm. Mountain south. All of the kindness but none of the cloying sweetness. I could definitely get on board with that.

The crazy thing is that Asheville is a city of transplants — I met people from Chicago, California, Florida, Michigan, New Orleans, elsewhere in North Carolina. And they all ended up in Asheville because they saw something special in the city.

I find it uncanny but wonderful that in a city of transplants, everyone seems to have such a sunny personality.

2. Because it’s got quirks in all the right places.

Asheville has a population of roughly 87,000, making it more like a large town than a small city, but it runs high in the weirdness department.

On Friday nights from April through October, Asheville erupts into a drum circle. From 6:00 PM until 10:00 PM, people bang on the drums like mad as an audience dances to the beats. Feel free to join in the dancing — or even the drumming.

On Biltmore Street, you’ll fine a “Before I Die” chalkboard with spaces to write out your life goals. It made me smile that most of them were people saying who they wanted to marry.

In Asheville, it’s totally normal to see a dude juggling while balancing on a board, dog on his head. (Also, how great is that dog’s smile?)

Impromptu van sales down by the River Arts District? Also totally normal.

Lavender lemon soda? Absolutely! I rarely drink soda, but I loved this stuff. The Waynesville Soda Jerks are headquartered not too far from Asheville and have other soda flavors like strawberry rhubarb, apple rosemary, and blueberry basil. You can buy them in downtown Asheville at The Rhu.

And a surprising amount of Art Deco architecture is in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains. We all know Miami is the top Art Deco city in the United States, but who would have guessed Asheville would be a runner-up? This is at the Grove Arcade, a collection of shops downtown. It reminded me of the arcades of Melbourne, Australia.

One of the shops at the arcade is the Battery Park Book Exchange and Champagne Bar, which is exactly what it sounds like. Used books. Champagne. A place to chill out.

Considering how much I adore books and champagne, you’d think I’d move in and never leave — but I actually liked another bookstore better. Stay tuned.

 

3. Because it’s got a literal CHEESE TRAIL.

Asheville is home to several spots on the Western North Carolina Cheese Trail, a new collection of creameries scattered throughout the region.

You know my feelings on cheese.

I got to experience a stop on the trail on a tour with Asheville Farm to Table Tours. These tours seek to educate visitors on how food is grown at the source and used to supply businesses and feed people throughout Asheville.

We started with a visit to Looking Glass Creamery where we learned about several of the kinds of cheeses that are made here and were served the prettiest cheese board I’ve ever seen. I mean, let’s take a closer look:

Yes. Without a doubt, the loveliest cheese plate I’ve ever seen.

In addition to cheese, they also served blindingly hot mustard, an indulgent dulce de leche spread, and strawberry basil “fruit paste,” a term I hadn’t heard before. Their fruit paste was like a thick preserves, but it’s usually even thicker than that — almost like a brick of fruit!

4. Because the farm stands run on an honor system.

Want to buy some produce? Just pick out what you’d like and put some money in the box!

And not just that — they’ve modernized for the present day. You can also pay via Paypal. How amazing is that?!

Our second stop on the tour was Flying Cloud Farm, which was home to fresh produce, flowers, and an adorable puppy keeping watch.

And what better way to finish your day of farm-hopping with a chance to ogle baby goats and pigs at Hickory Nut Gap Farm? We had a lunch with sandwiches made with home-cured capicola and a salad made with astoundingly fresh feta and topped with purple flowers.

A day out at these beautiful farms, getting to know the farmers and the pride they take in the work they do, was a perfect introduction to the food scene in Asheville.

5. Because I went on a blind date with a book.

I always like to check out independent bookstores on my travels, and Malaprop’s in Asheville is one of my new favorites. The best feature? You can go on a blind date with a book.

Favorite books of Malaprop’s employees are wrapped up in brown paper and labeled with words that describe them. You choose a book based on the words. They can’t be unwrapped before purchase, nor can they be returned.

I wanted something from a local author, so I picked up a book labeled, “Clear-sighted, graceful, illuminating, tender, mesmerizing, chilling, local!” I also grabbed a volume of Hafiz poetry from their Persian Poetry section. (Yes, a small local bookstore has a Persian poetry section. I love it.)

I couldn’t wait to tear off the wrapping as soon as I bought it.

The book was A Land More Kind Than Home by Wiley Cash, a native of western North Carolina. The Richmond Times-Dispatch said, “Reads as if Cormac McCarthy decided to rewrite Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.” Well, I’ve never been a big To Kill a Mockingbird fan, and I’m still scarred years after reading McCarthy’s The Road, so it’s fair to say I never would have chosen this on my own.

I look forward to reading it!

6. Because I had some of the best Spanish tapas of my life.

Asheville’s culinary scene has really picked up in the past several years, and one of the standouts is Cúrate Tapas Bar (pronounced Kyuh-RAH-tay), a Spanish tapas restaurant.

I expected the food to be decent but not extraordinary. Was I ever wrong. This was my first meal in Asheville and it remained the best, as well as the best tapas I have ever had outside Spain.

Jamon ibérico, because of course.

Crostini with morcilla blood sausage.

Cold almond and garlic soup with crab and flower petals.

Also served: pork and mushrooms, two different plates that were tasty on their own but positively sang when consumed together.

Here’s a hint for you — it’s not listed on the menu, but get the fried eggplant with rosemary ice cream for dessert. It may not sound like a traditional dessert, but trust me, you’ll be smitten.

And just in case, a gin and tonic meringue: tonic-flavored snow, gin-soaked berries, and torched meringue.

Cúrate blew my mind and I would leap tall buildings to have that same meal all over again. They’re also famous for their vermouth selection and I discovered how much I love white vermouth with a twist of lemon.

7. Because it’s a city of cool, welcoming artists.

After all you’ve read, would you be surprised to hear that Asheville is a major arts destination as well? Asheville is home to more than 200 artists, many of whom are clustered in the River Arts District, a little more than a mile from downtown.

You can walk around and explore the neighborhood on your own, but I recommend taking a two-hour Asheville Art Studio Tour. Led by John Miguel Almaguer, an accomplished glass artist who even apprenticed in Murano in Venice (!!), this tour took us to visit four studios in the neighborhood.

John has more personality in a fingernail than most people I’ve ever met. The man isn’t just a visual artist — he has the most wonderful presence. You’ll love him.

Here’s John posing with one of his works at his studio, the North Carolina Glass Center. (Also, I told him he totally reminded me of Bruno Mars. Maybe it was the hat.)

Stephen St. Claire, along with his wife Joy, create masterpieces of oil paint, metal leaf, and resin at St. Claire Art. He’s still tweaking his method, Stephen told us.

Daniel McClendon creates bright, primitive, abstract paintings inspired by all kinds of animals. I showed him my quokka selfies from Western Australia and suggested he visit WA to be inspired by the quokka for a future subject!

Andrea Kulisch at Studio A creates traditional Ukrainian eggs — and puts a modern spin on them as well with polka dots, trees, and even unicorns! Andrea is of Ukrainian heritage and I encouraged her to go to Ukraine and experience the country for herself.

I know I keep going on about how friendly everyone is in Asheville, but I was so impressed at how each of the artists talked to our group like they were telling their stories for the first time ever, not like they’d done the spiel a million times.

8. Because I got to frolic at the Richie Rich house.

If there’s any one attraction you should visit in Asheville, it’s the Biltmore Estate. This massive French-style chateau was built by George Vanderbilt in 1889 and it’s since become one of the symbols of Asheville.

As soon as I saw the mansion, I knew it looked familiar — but how? Then the answer came from a follower on Snapchat — it was the Richie Rich house! Of course it was! I used to watch that movie all the time when I was a kid!

Seriously, how is this place in North Carolina?!

The inside is spectacular — I can only imagine how beautiful it is decorated for Christmas.

George Vanderbilt was an avid reader — he averaged 81 books per year, which puts me to shame — so there’s currently a display of costumes from literary movies like Anna Karenina and Finding Neverland. Above is Uma Thurman’s peacock costume from The Golden Bowl.

If you want to see even more of the mansion, the rooftop tour is pretty cool. I can’t believe those gargoyles!

The Biltmore is such a cool place, and there are plenty more grounds to discover, including a winery and some gardens. And if you’re looking for the ultimate Asheville selfie, throw on your favorite red dress and pose in front of the building!

9. Because I found a brewery that was just right for me.

Asheville is home to more breweries per capita than any city in the United States — so if you love beer, you need to come here at least once in your life.

I like beer, but I’m not a hardcore beer fan — I’ll go to breweries in the company of my beer-loving dad and sister, but not on my own. Still, I liked the look of the Wedge Brewing Company, down in the River Arts District, and decided to give it a whirl on my way back from the Biltmore Estate. I couldn’t go to Asheville and not hit up a brewery.

Like everywhere else in Asheville, the Wedge is casual and welcoming. And it’s a family-friendly brewery, with games for kids and space for them to run around during the day. (It becomes adults-only after 8:00 PM.)

I tried four beers and especially liked their Hefeweizen and porter. But it was so nice to just sit outside in the shade, enjoying a few beer samples, and watching the freight trains go by. Chill breweries are the best breweries.

10. Because Southern cuisine is the sweetest of cuisines.

Blackbird is one of the signature restaurants in Asheville, and if you’re looking for something southern with a twist, this is a place to visit. I adore southern food and go for it whenever I can, but it’s always best at the source.

I started with a local peach and brie salad. Peach and brie is a heavenly combination — how have I never had that in my life?

Next up was trout with a peanut romesco and zucchini watercress salad. Owner Jesson Gil told me that he considered this dish his “death row meal.” It was fabulous — and also light, which is great considering how much heavy food you’ll be eating in Asheville.

Of course I had to order their award-winning coconut cake. (“Don’t worry, I’ll bring you a box,” my waitress told me. “Just how big is this cake?!” I thought. The answer? Pretty damn big, and yes, I did use the box.)

OH MY GOD, THIS CAKE. SERIOUSLY, THIS CAKE. It is so decadent.

11. Because creative small businesses thrive here.

One of my favorite shops I visited was the Asheville Bee Charmer, a beautiful store devoted to honey and related products.

Owners Kim and Jill came to Asheville from Chicago and envisioned their business out of “a passion for honey, a curiosity for bees, a love of cooking, and a yearning for connection to community.”

“What do you wish people knew about honey?” I asked Kim. “That honey is not just one basic product,” she told me. “There are 350 kinds of honey. Tasting honey is like tasting wine.”

And I tasted a lot of honey. Dark buckwheat honey that could substitute molasses. Chai infused honey that would be fantastic in green tea. And I even tried ghost pepper honey, which was certainly hot but not nearly as bad as I feared.

Since moving into my apartment, I’ve tried to pick up something for my home on most of my trips. In Asheville everyone recommended I check out Horse & Hero, a store filled with prints, cards, and creations by local artists.

This is a cool store, and you can find original art for fairly cheap. I picked up a print that reads LOVE IS OVER TAKING ME upward and downward.

Biscuit Head came highly recommended by my friend Amy, a former Ashevillian. In my experience, one recommendation trumps several recommendations, so I had to go. What are they famous for? BISCUIT AND GRAVY FLIGHTS. (Not the best picture, but I was so hungry I dove in and forgot to photograph it first. I apologize for what I did when I was hungry.)

You get to choose three kinds of gravy with your biscuits. I chose fried chicken, sweet potato coconut, and espresso red bean. Sweet potato coconut was simply outstanding. They also have several gluten-free varieties, which is nice, because biscuits and gravy are normally an extremely glutenous dish.

And this has to be the coolest — a red double-decker London bus turned into a coffeeshop! It’s technically called Double D’s Coffee and Desserts, but most people in Asheville just call in the double-decker bus.

The bus doesn’t drive anywhere, but it’s parked in a lovely little lot where you can sit outside at a picnic table underneath an umbrella.

 

12. Because local food can be twisted into something new and different.

For my last dinner in Asheville, I ate at Rhubarb. Rhubarb specializes in local ingredients but with very sophisticated twists, and it was the restaurant I found most akin to a high-end restaurant in a city like New York.

I go crazy for charcuterie in any form, but Rhubarb’s offering took it to the next level. Look at all those various meats packed into gel! Including headcheese! A lot of people might blanche at this plate, but I was in heaven.

Ever had goat cheese burrata before? I had not. (The goat cheese is in the center; mozzarella still forms the outside.) It was served with pickled strawberries, stewed rhubarb, and crispy shallots.

The pickled beets and cucumbers were perfect counterparts, but the highlight was the pickled ramps! Ramps grow wild in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Rhubarb is the only place besides The Spotted Pig in New York that I’ve seen serve gnudi — it’s like gnocchi, only made with ricotta instead of potato.

I have to say that no meal delighted me more intellectually than the spread I enjoyed at Rhubarb.

13. Because the cocktail scene is loads of fun.

Asheville might be most famous for beer, but I’m a cocktail girl — and there are plenty of places to enjoy cocktails around the city.

I stayed at the Hyatt Place in downtown Asheville and they’re known for their rooftop bar, The Montford. I ordered a Last Word cocktail made with Bombay gin, green chartreuse, maraschino, and lime. You should go for the view, especially during sunset.

For the cool factor, there are two spots I recommend you check out: Top of the Monk, where they serve each cocktail with a key to a tiny mailbox (what’s inside is a surprise!), and the Crow and Quill, a Victorian gothic lounge that looks like something Edgar Allen Poe dreamed up. (The door is unmarked; go by its address. Also, ask for a cocktail infused with tobacco smoke — it’s quite a show.)

But the absolute best cocktails, in my opinion, were made at Sovereign Remedies. I had the most fabulous gin cocktail — light and citrusy and delicate, the perfect beverage on a hot summer night. I never go to bars alone, but I did in Asheville for research purposes — and I actually made a friend! A cool girl who works in the hospitality industry in Asheville who was also enjoying a cocktail solo.

“It doesn’t look like it, but I’m at work right now,” she said, holding her glass up to toast.

I raised my glass in return. “So am I.” We burst out laughing.

I might have returned for a second night in a row.

14. Because there is SO much more I want to do!!

A weekend is not enough time to experience the best of Asheville. I think something like five days would be perfect.

At one point I gazed over the French Broad river and saw people floating along in tubes and thought, “I want to be there.”

I didn’t get to do too much outdoorsy stuff, and I definitely want to go rafting and do some hikes to waterfalls.

I want to visit the Sierra Nevada Brewery, which is a LEED-certified building and a beacon of environmental sustainability in architecture.

Oh yeah, and I need to hit up the French Broad Chocolate Lounge for dessert. I was fed such amazing desserts this weekend that I couldn’t justify going!

But most of all, I want to get into the mountains during the foliage season. The best foliage in Asheville is in mid-October, by the way.

This all sounds good — but did anything negative happen?

No, not really! Part of that was because the Explore Asheville team and I planned the trip to be closely tailored to my interests and what I thought you, dear reader, would enjoy reading the most.

I will say one thing, though — remember how I said that in most places, 98% of people are awesome? Well, I did meet part of the 2% as well. I was photographing a street with my wide-angle lens and a saxophonist who thought I was photographing him yelled, “You know it’s rude to take a photo of a musician and not give him a dollar!”

Oh ho ho. You’re talking to the girl who constantly yells at her friends, If a street musician made you stop in your tracks, you owe him a dollar!

Yeah. I wanted to say that. But you always think up your best comebacks a few seconds too late. (“Dude. I just gave a dollar to that guy juggling on a board with a dog on his head. You were literally playing Old McDonald Had a Farm.”) Anyway, long story short, he wouldn’t stop yelling at me and people were staring. So I gave him a dollar while grumbling, “This is just to prove I’m not a jerk.”

You guys know I always write about the bad experiences along with the good ones. And if that’s as bad as it got for me in Asheville, well, it was a pretty awesome weekend.

The Takeaway

Asheville is one of my new favorite U.S. getaways. And I feel like it would be great for all kinds of travelers — solo travelers, couples, groups of friends, families. But there are a few types of people who I think would especially enjoy Asheville:

Couples where one partner loves the city and the other loves the outdoors. I know a lot of couples like that and Asheville is the best of both worlds.

People into local, farm-to-table cuisine. There are so many options to get into local fare here.

Art lovers and collectors who like to chat with artists. I found the art scene here to be very open and friendly.

Beer fans. I mean, if you’re into beer, this is the place to come.

And even if you don’t fit any of that criteria, keep Asheville in mind. If you’re looking for a nice destination in the US that isn’t too overdone, where you can eat great food and visit cool businesses and spend time with some of the friendliest people in the world, I bet you’ll enjoy Asheville for sure.

Essential Info: In Asheville I stayed at the Hyatt Place and highly recommend it. It’s modern with artistic twists (they also bought some local Asheville glass art, I noticed!). My room was huge and had beautiful views of the mountains. Rates from $161. There’s an indoor pool. The hotel offers valet parking or self-parking at the same price: $16 per day.

I had hoped I could do Asheville without renting a car, but I soon learned it was best to have a car. If you’re visiting the Biltmore Estate, you absolutely need a car, unless you’re booking a tour that picks you up and drops you off at your accommodation. Plus, the airport is about a 14.5-mile, 20-minute drive from downtown. Other than that, you can get by walking and using Lyft.

The Biltmore

Asheville Farm to Table Tours start at $89 per person, start in the morning, and include a late lunch. My tour was in Fairview County, but the specific itinerary can vary each day. See more tours here.

Asheville Art Studio Tours last two hours and cost $32 per person.

I never travel anywhere without travel insurance — it could save your life (or finances). For this trip to Asheville, I used World Nomads and highly recommend them.

Many thanks to Explore Asheville for hosting my stay in the city and helping me plan an itinerary filled with things I loved. All opinions, as always, are my own.

Have you been to Asheville? Or does it look like your kind of city? Share away!

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14 Reasons Why I’m Smitten with Asheville, North Carolina

7

I’ve been wanting to go to Asheville, North Carolina, for quite a long time. I’d heard that it was a beautiful town with a cool arts scene nestled in the Blue Ridge mountains. And I’d heard that it was a little drop of blue in a sea of red — or “the blueberry in the tomato soup,” as one local told me — a liberal enclave within a strongly conservative region, not unlike Austin, Texas.

The Obamas took a weekend getaway to Asheville in 2010; in 2013, President Obama said he had thought about retiring there. That further intrigued me — I had to get to this town.

Earlier this year, the team at Explore Asheville invited me to come visit for a few days and I happily accepted. When planning my itinerary, I told them I wanted it to be local, local, local. I wanted to focus on cool small businesses. I wanted to eat local food. I wanted to spend my money close to the ground. I wanted to see how nature integrated into the city.

I knew I’d have a great time — but I underestimated just how much I would enjoy this city.

Here are the reasons why I fell so hard for Asheville.

Image courtesy of Asheville Farm to Table Tours.

1. Because Asheville has the most amazing people.

I want to get that out of the way first — Asheville is home to some of the nicest people I have ever met, anywhere. And that goes for the U.S. and abroad.

These days I don’t usually like to say things like that these days — even though I’ve written posts on that topic in the past. Truthfully, most places are filled with 98% nice people with a few jerks thrown in.

But Asheville is special. People aren’t just polite or welcoming — it’s a genuine, honest, open kindness on the level of which I’ve never seen elsewhere. And it’s not necessarily southern hospitality. While I appreciate it, as a native New Englander I sometimes find southern hospitality a bit much — almost insincere.

“Asheville is different — it’s ‘mountain south,’” a local told me. Hmm. Mountain south. All of the kindness but none of the cloying sweetness. I could definitely get on board with that.

The crazy thing is that Asheville is a city of transplants — I met people from Chicago, California, Florida, Michigan, New Orleans, elsewhere in North Carolina. And they all ended up in Asheville because they saw something special in the city.

I find it uncanny but wonderful that in a city of transplants, everyone seems to have such a sunny personality.

2. Because it’s got quirks in all the right places.

Asheville has a population of roughly 87,000, making it more like a large town than a small city, but it runs high in the weirdness department.

On Friday nights from April through October, Asheville erupts into a drum circle. From 6:00 PM until 10:00 PM, people bang on the drums like mad as an audience dances to the beats. Feel free to join in the dancing — or even the drumming.

On Biltmore Street, you’ll fine a “Before I Die” chalkboard with spaces to write out your life goals. It made me smile that most of them were people saying who they wanted to marry.

In Asheville, it’s totally normal to see a dude juggling while balancing on a board, dog on his head. (Also, how great is that dog’s smile?)

Impromptu van sales down by the River Arts District? Also totally normal.

Lavender lemon soda? Absolutely! I rarely drink soda, but I loved this stuff. The Waynesville Soda Jerks are headquartered not too far from Asheville and have other soda flavors like strawberry rhubarb, apple rosemary, and blueberry basil. You can buy them in downtown Asheville at The Rhu.

And a surprising amount of Art Deco architecture is in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains. We all know Miami is the top Art Deco city in the United States, but who would have guessed Asheville would be a runner-up? This is at the Grove Arcade, a collection of shops downtown. It reminded me of the arcades of Melbourne, Australia.

One of the shops at the arcade is the Battery Park Book Exchange and Champagne Bar, which is exactly what it sounds like. Used books. Champagne. A place to chill out.

Considering how much I adore books and champagne, you’d think I’d move in and never leave — but I actually liked another bookstore better. Stay tuned.

 

3. Because it’s got a literal CHEESE TRAIL.

Asheville is home to several spots on the Western North Carolina Cheese Trail, a new collection of creameries scattered throughout the region.

You know my feelings on cheese.

I got to experience a stop on the trail on a tour with Asheville Farm to Table Tours. These tours seek to educate visitors on how food is grown at the source and used to supply businesses and feed people throughout Asheville.

We started with a visit to Looking Glass Creamery where we learned about several of the kinds of cheeses that are made here and were served the prettiest cheese board I’ve ever seen. I mean, let’s take a closer look:

Yes. Without a doubt, the loveliest cheese plate I’ve ever seen.

In addition to cheese, they also served blindingly hot mustard, an indulgent dulce de leche spread, and strawberry basil “fruit paste,” a term I hadn’t heard before. Their fruit paste was like a thick preserves, but it’s usually even thicker than that — almost like a brick of fruit!

4. Because the farm stands run on an honor system.

Want to buy some produce? Just pick out what you’d like and put some money in the box!

And not just that — they’ve modernized for the present day. You can also pay via Paypal. How amazing is that?!

Our second stop on the tour was Flying Cloud Farm, which was home to fresh produce, flowers, and an adorable puppy keeping watch.

And what better way to finish your day of farm-hopping with a chance to ogle baby goats and pigs at Hickory Nut Gap Farm? We had a lunch with sandwiches made with home-cured capicola and a salad made with astoundingly fresh feta and topped with purple flowers.

A day out at these beautiful farms, getting to know the farmers and the pride they take in the work they do, was a perfect introduction to the food scene in Asheville.

5. Because I went on a blind date with a book.

I always like to check out independent bookstores on my travels, and Malaprop’s in Asheville is one of my new favorites. The best feature? You can go on a blind date with a book.

Favorite books of Malaprop’s employees are wrapped up in brown paper and labeled with words that describe them. You choose a book based on the words. They can’t be unwrapped before purchase, nor can they be returned.

I wanted something from a local author, so I picked up a book labeled, “Clear-sighted, graceful, illuminating, tender, mesmerizing, chilling, local!” I also grabbed a volume of Hafiz poetry from their Persian Poetry section. (Yes, a small local bookstore has a Persian poetry section. I love it.)

I couldn’t wait to tear off the wrapping as soon as I bought it.

The book was A Land More Kind Than Home by Wiley Cash, a native of western North Carolina. The Richmond Times-Dispatch said, “Reads as if Cormac McCarthy decided to rewrite Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.” Well, I’ve never been a big To Kill a Mockingbird fan, and I’m still scarred years after reading McCarthy’s The Road, so it’s fair to say I never would have chosen this on my own.

I look forward to reading it!

6. Because I had some of the best Spanish tapas of my life.

Asheville’s culinary scene has really picked up in the past several years, and one of the standouts is Cúrate Tapas Bar (pronounced Kyuh-RAH-tay), a Spanish tapas restaurant.

I expected the food to be decent but not extraordinary. Was I ever wrong. This was my first meal in Asheville and it remained the best, as well as the best tapas I have ever had outside Spain.

Jamon ibérico, because of course.

Crostini with morcilla blood sausage.

Cold almond and garlic soup with crab and flower petals.

Also served: pork and mushrooms, two different plates that were tasty on their own but positively sang when consumed together.

Here’s a hint for you — it’s not listed on the menu, but get the fried eggplant with rosemary ice cream for dessert. It may not sound like a traditional dessert, but trust me, you’ll be smitten.

And just in case, a gin and tonic meringue: tonic-flavored snow, gin-soaked berries, and torched meringue.

Cúrate blew my mind and I would leap tall buildings to have that same meal all over again. They’re also famous for their vermouth selection and I discovered how much I love white vermouth with a twist of lemon.

7. Because it’s a city of cool, welcoming artists.

After all you’ve read, would you be surprised to hear that Asheville is a major arts destination as well? Asheville is home to more than 200 artists, many of whom are clustered in the River Arts District, a little more than a mile from downtown.

You can walk around and explore the neighborhood on your own, but I recommend taking a two-hour Asheville Art Studio Tour. Led by John Miguel Almaguer, an accomplished glass artist who even apprenticed in Murano in Venice (!!), this tour took us to visit four studios in the neighborhood.

John has more personality in a fingernail than most people I’ve ever met. The man isn’t just a visual artist — he has the most wonderful presence. You’ll love him.

Here’s John posing with one of his works at his studio, the North Carolina Glass Center. (Also, I told him he totally reminded me of Bruno Mars. Maybe it was the hat.)

Stephen St. Claire, along with his wife Joy, create masterpieces of oil paint, metal leaf, and resin at St. Claire Art. He’s still tweaking his method, Stephen told us.

Daniel McClendon creates bright, primitive, abstract paintings inspired by all kinds of animals. I showed him my quokka selfies from Western Australia and suggested he visit WA to be inspired by the quokka for a future subject!

Andrea Kulisch at Studio A creates traditional Ukrainian eggs — and puts a modern spin on them as well with polka dots, trees, and even unicorns! Andrea is of Ukrainian heritage and I encouraged her to go to Ukraine and experience the country for herself.

I know I keep going on about how friendly everyone is in Asheville, but I was so impressed at how each of the artists talked to our group like they were telling their stories for the first time ever, not like they’d done the spiel a million times.

8. Because I got to frolic at the Richie Rich house.

If there’s any one attraction you should visit in Asheville, it’s the Biltmore Estate. This massive French-style chateau was built by George Vanderbilt in 1889 and it’s since become one of the symbols of Asheville.

As soon as I saw the mansion, I knew it looked familiar — but how? Then the answer came from a follower on Snapchat — it was the Richie Rich house! Of course it was! I used to watch that movie all the time when I was a kid!

Seriously, how is this place in North Carolina?!

The inside is spectacular — I can only imagine how beautiful it is decorated for Christmas.

George Vanderbilt was an avid reader — he averaged 81 books per year, which puts me to shame — so there’s currently a display of costumes from literary movies like Anna Karenina and Finding Neverland. Above is Uma Thurman’s peacock costume from The Golden Bowl.

If you want to see even more of the mansion, the rooftop tour is pretty cool. I can’t believe those gargoyles!

The Biltmore is such a cool place, and there are plenty more grounds to discover, including a winery and some gardens. And if you’re looking for the ultimate Asheville selfie, throw on your favorite red dress and pose in front of the building!

9. Because I found a brewery that was just right for me.

Asheville is home to more breweries per capita than any city in the United States — so if you love beer, you need to come here at least once in your life.

I like beer, but I’m not a hardcore beer fan — I’ll go to breweries in the company of my beer-loving dad and sister, but not on my own. Still, I liked the look of the Wedge Brewing Company, down in the River Arts District, and decided to give it a whirl on my way back from the Biltmore Estate. I couldn’t go to Asheville and not hit up a brewery.

Like everywhere else in Asheville, the Wedge is casual and welcoming. And it’s a family-friendly brewery, with games for kids and space for them to run around during the day. (It becomes adults-only after 8:00 PM.)

I tried four beers and especially liked their Hefeweizen and porter. But it was so nice to just sit outside in the shade, enjoying a few beer samples, and watching the freight trains go by. Chill breweries are the best breweries.

10. Because Southern cuisine is the sweetest of cuisines.

Blackbird is one of the signature restaurants in Asheville, and if you’re looking for something southern with a twist, this is a place to visit. I adore southern food and go for it whenever I can, but it’s always best at the source.

I started with a local peach and brie salad. Peach and brie is a heavenly combination — how have I never had that in my life?

Next up was trout with a peanut romesco and zucchini watercress salad. Owner Jesson Gil told me that he considered this dish his “death row meal.” It was fabulous — and also light, which is great considering how much heavy food you’ll be eating in Asheville.

Of course I had to order their award-winning coconut cake. (“Don’t worry, I’ll bring you a box,” my waitress told me. “Just how big is this cake?!” I thought. The answer? Pretty damn big, and yes, I did use the box.)

OH MY GOD, THIS CAKE. SERIOUSLY, THIS CAKE. It is so decadent.

11. Because creative small businesses thrive here.

One of my favorite shops I visited was the Asheville Bee Charmer, a beautiful store devoted to honey and related products.

Owners Kim and Jill came to Asheville from Chicago and envisioned their business out of “a passion for honey, a curiosity for bees, a love of cooking, and a yearning for connection to community.”

“What do you wish people knew about honey?” I asked Kim. “That honey is not just one basic product,” she told me. “There are 350 kinds of honey. Tasting honey is like tasting wine.”

And I tasted a lot of honey. Dark buckwheat honey that could substitute molasses. Chai infused honey that would be fantastic in green tea. And I even tried ghost pepper honey, which was certainly hot but not nearly as bad as I feared.

Since moving into my apartment, I’ve tried to pick up something for my home on most of my trips. In Asheville everyone recommended I check out Horse & Hero, a store filled with prints, cards, and creations by local artists.

This is a cool store, and you can find original art for fairly cheap. I picked up a print that reads LOVE IS OVER TAKING ME upward and downward.

Biscuit Head came highly recommended by my friend Amy, a former Ashevillian. In my experience, one recommendation trumps several recommendations, so I had to go. What are they famous for? BISCUIT AND GRAVY FLIGHTS. (Not the best picture, but I was so hungry I dove in and forgot to photograph it first. I apologize for what I did when I was hungry.)

You get to choose three kinds of gravy with your biscuits. I chose fried chicken, sweet potato coconut, and espresso red bean. Sweet potato coconut was simply outstanding. They also have several gluten-free varieties, which is nice, because biscuits and gravy are normally an extremely glutenous dish.

And this has to be the coolest — a red double-decker London bus turned into a coffeeshop! It’s technically called Double D’s Coffee and Desserts, but most people in Asheville just call in the double-decker bus.

The bus doesn’t drive anywhere, but it’s parked in a lovely little lot where you can sit outside at a picnic table underneath an umbrella.

 

12. Because local food can be twisted into something new and different.

For my last dinner in Asheville, I ate at Rhubarb. Rhubarb specializes in local ingredients but with very sophisticated twists, and it was the restaurant I found most akin to a high-end restaurant in a city like New York.

I go crazy for charcuterie in any form, but Rhubarb’s offering took it to the next level. Look at all those various meats packed into gel! Including headcheese! A lot of people might blanche at this plate, but I was in heaven.

Ever had goat cheese burrata before? I had not. (The goat cheese is in the center; mozzarella still forms the outside.) It was served with pickled strawberries, stewed rhubarb, and crispy shallots.

The pickled beets and cucumbers were perfect counterparts, but the highlight was the pickled ramps! Ramps grow wild in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Rhubarb is the only place besides The Spotted Pig in New York that I’ve seen serve gnudi — it’s like gnocchi, only made with ricotta instead of potato.

I have to say that no meal delighted me more intellectually than the spread I enjoyed at Rhubarb.

13. Because the cocktail scene is loads of fun.

Asheville might be most famous for beer, but I’m a cocktail girl — and there are plenty of places to enjoy cocktails around the city.

I stayed at the Hyatt Place in downtown Asheville and they’re known for their rooftop bar, The Montford. I ordered a Last Word cocktail made with Bombay gin, green chartreuse, maraschino, and lime. You should go for the view, especially during sunset.

For the cool factor, there are two spots I recommend you check out: Top of the Monk, where they serve each cocktail with a key to a tiny mailbox (what’s inside is a surprise!), and the Crow and Quill, a Victorian gothic lounge that looks like something Edgar Allen Poe dreamed up. (The door is unmarked; go by its address. Also, ask for a cocktail infused with tobacco smoke — it’s quite a show.)

But the absolute best cocktails, in my opinion, were made at Sovereign Remedies. I had the most fabulous gin cocktail — light and citrusy and delicate, the perfect beverage on a hot summer night. I never go to bars alone, but I did in Asheville for research purposes — and I actually made a friend! A cool girl who works in the hospitality industry in Asheville who was also enjoying a cocktail solo.

“It doesn’t look like it, but I’m at work right now,” she said, holding her glass up to toast.

I raised my glass in return. “So am I.” We burst out laughing.

I might have returned for a second night in a row.

14. Because there is SO much more I want to do!!

A weekend is not enough time to experience the best of Asheville. I think something like five days would be perfect.

At one point I gazed over the French Broad river and saw people floating along in tubes and thought, “I want to be there.”

I didn’t get to do too much outdoorsy stuff, and I definitely want to go rafting and do some hikes to waterfalls.

I want to visit the Sierra Nevada Brewery, which is a LEED-certified building and a beacon of environmental sustainability in architecture.

Oh yeah, and I need to hit up the French Broad Chocolate Lounge for dessert. I was fed such amazing desserts this weekend that I couldn’t justify going!

But most of all, I want to get into the mountains during the foliage season. The best foliage in Asheville is in mid-October, by the way.

This all sounds good — but did anything negative happen?

No, not really! Part of that was because the Explore Asheville team and I planned the trip to be closely tailored to my interests and what I thought you, dear reader, would enjoy reading the most.

I will say one thing, though — remember how I said that in most places, 98% of people are awesome? Well, I did meet part of the 2% as well. I was photographing a street with my wide-angle lens and a saxophonist who thought I was photographing him yelled, “You know it’s rude to take a photo of a musician and not give him a dollar!”

Oh ho ho. You’re talking to the girl who constantly yells at her friends, If a street musician made you stop in your tracks, you owe him a dollar!

Yeah. I wanted to say that. But you always think up your best comebacks a few seconds too late. (“Dude. I just gave a dollar to that guy juggling on a board with a dog on his head. You were literally playing Old McDonald Had a Farm.”) Anyway, long story short, he wouldn’t stop yelling at me and people were staring. So I gave him a dollar while grumbling, “This is just to prove I’m not a jerk.”

You guys know I always write about the bad experiences along with the good ones. And if that’s as bad as it got for me in Asheville, well, it was a pretty awesome weekend.

The Takeaway

Asheville is one of my new favorite U.S. getaways. And I feel like it would be great for all kinds of travelers — solo travelers, couples, groups of friends, families. But there are a few types of people who I think would especially enjoy Asheville:

Couples where one partner loves the city and the other loves the outdoors. I know a lot of couples like that and Asheville is the best of both worlds.

People into local, farm-to-table cuisine. There are so many options to get into local fare here.

Art lovers and collectors who like to chat with artists. I found the art scene here to be very open and friendly.

Beer fans. I mean, if you’re into beer, this is the place to come.

And even if you don’t fit any of that criteria, keep Asheville in mind. If you’re looking for a nice destination in the US that isn’t too overdone, where you can eat great food and visit cool businesses and spend time with some of the friendliest people in the world, I bet you’ll enjoy Asheville for sure.

Essential Info: In Asheville I stayed at the Hyatt Place and highly recommend it. It’s modern with artistic twists (they also bought some local Asheville glass art, I noticed!). My room was huge and had beautiful views of the mountains. Rates from $161. There’s an indoor pool. The hotel offers valet parking or self-parking at the same price: $16 per day.

I had hoped I could do Asheville without renting a car, but I soon learned it was best to have a car. If you’re visiting the Biltmore Estate, you absolutely need a car, unless you’re booking a tour that picks you up and drops you off at your accommodation. Plus, the airport is about a 14.5-mile, 20-minute drive from downtown. Other than that, you can get by walking and using Lyft.

The Biltmore

Asheville Farm to Table Tours start at $89 per person, start in the morning, and include a late lunch. My tour was in Fairview County, but the specific itinerary can vary each day. See more tours here.

Asheville Art Studio Tours last two hours and cost $32 per person.

I never travel anywhere without travel insurance — it could save your life (or finances). For this trip to Asheville, I used World Nomads and highly recommend them.

Many thanks to Explore Asheville for hosting my stay in the city and helping me plan an itinerary filled with things I loved. All opinions, as always, are my own.

Have you been to Asheville? Or does it look like your kind of city? Share away!

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On Influence, and Using It Wisely

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This week, Forbes named me one of their Top 10 Travel Influencers of 2017. You can also read CNN Travel’s piece about it here.

I’m deeply honored. After working so hard for so long, it’s gratifying to receive this kind of recognition, and all the sweeter to receive it alongside several of my friends.

And it got me thinking about the strange and wonderful industry in which I’ve been ensconced for the past seven years: professional travel blogging.

For those of us who are long-timers, dating back to 2010 or previously, we didn’t get into travel blogging for the money. There was very little money back then; if you made any money in 2010, it was probably from text link sales or a teeny bit of Google AdSense. Hell, when I started, I thought the only way you could make money as a travel blogger was through a book or TV deal.

We got into travel blogging because we wanted to tell our stories. Some of us started writing for our friends and family; some of us dreamed of writing for a wide audience from the beginning. We wanted to share the world with people, and for North Americans, we wanted to introduce our fellow citizens to the almost-unheard-of concept of long-term travel.

Me? I wanted to help women travel the world safely.

Of course I wanted to entertain strangers with my writing (I started blogging as a college freshman in 2002!) and share all my favorite travel stories. And once the money started rolling in, I wanted to keep my travels going as long as possible.

But helping women travel the world safely? Showing them that yes, it’s okay if you want to travel the world, you can do it alone if you want, and you’re not selfish or a horrible person for wanting that in your life? That has always been what drives me. That’s the audience I’m writing to with every word, including this sentence.

We all wanted to help — all us long-timers. We wanted to show people how to travel on a budget. How to hack points and miles. How to travel as a family. How to visit countries that were perceived as being too dangerous. Basically, we all wanted to change commonly held misconceptions about travel.

As the years passed — 2010, 2011, 2012 — more and more money entered our fledging industry. Freelance writing opportunities cropped up. Groundbreaking blogger campaigns took place in Costa Brava, Spain, and Emilia-Romagna, Italy. Sponsored content became a thing. Affiliates were no longer just for people with sky-high traffic. Bloggers proudly announced they were giving up text links. And then the holy grail arrived — the paid press trip.

It’s around then that the industry changed. In the early years, there had been plenty of bloggers who hoped to subsidize their travels and get some cool stays at swanky resorts; by 2014 or so, people were starting travel blogs specifically for the money.

When money is your biggest motivator, it affects everything — your travels, your content, and the industry as a whole.

I worry about the impact of other influencers entering the travel space.

As far as the travel blogging niche goes, it’s not as big or flush with cash as fashion, beauty, or home blogging. There are lots of reasons for that, but one is that travel is not an impulse buy. You see a pretty dress, a cool lipstick, or a cute set of placemats and it’s easy to rationalize buying it.

But planning a trip, especially an international, expensive, or complicated trip, can take years. You don’t just hit a button and randomly book a safari in South Africa for next week.

Case in point? I learned about the Sydney Bridgeclimb on season 2 of The Amazing Race when I was 17 and yearned to do it someday. I finally did it when I was 29. Travel ROI takes time.

There is money in the travel blogging industry, but it’s nowhere near the level of money for fashion bloggers. Travel blogging’s perks, however, are unbeatable. And that’s why lots of lifestyle bloggers, primarily fashion bloggers, have started to rebrand and add travel as a specialty. This mostly takes the form of posing in luxury hotels and in front of natural wonders in various outfits.

Some are quite good. Gary Pepper in one of the pink lakes of Western Australia is one pictorial that has always stunned me.

But to consider these bloggers and Instagrammers as travel influencers could potentially be dangerous. Why? Picture this. A luxury hotel invites a fashion blogger to Cartagena, Colombia. She gets picked up at the airport by a chauffeur, does several photo shoots in and around the hotel, and has a great time exploring the old city but doesn’t set foot outside it.

Predictably, her followers start asking her, “Is it safe to go to Colombia?”

And she replies, “Sure, it’s totally fine!”

Well.

For starters, Cartagena is by far the most touristy part of Colombia and isn’t anything like the rest of the country; walking around the old city of Cartagena at night is very different from other neighborhoods like Getsemaní, where non-luxury travelers are more likely to stay; the language barrier in Colombia is significant and you’ll struggle without knowing Spanish; much of Colombia is at a high altitude, which can lead to illness in some people; certain parts of the country are unsafe for overland travel; and Colombia at its core is a destination better for experienced international travelers, not newbies.

Colombia can be traveled safely — but it’s a challenging destination, even for experienced travelers. And a fashion blogger who waltzes in for a few days and doesn’t leave the old city of Cartagena doesn’t have the knowledge to advise her followers how to travel in Colombia safely.

That person should not be a travel influencer. But with lots of Instagram followers and partnerships with several gorgeous resorts across the globe, this person could be considered a top travel influencer. Even though she posed in the street with a designer handbag that didn’t zip up and are you kidding, this is Latin America, your wallet is going to be gone in ten seconds if you use that purse.

I worry that this is where the industry is going.

It’s time to stop ignoring politics.

One phrase you see frequently amongst popular influencers is, “I’m not a political person.”

Frankly, that’s bullshit. Are you breathing air in your lungs? Do you earn money and exchange it for goods and services? Do you cross borders and enter other nations? If so, your very existence is political.

I urge you to strike I’m not a political person from your vocabulary and replace it with one of the following options:

  1. I don’t care about people who aren’t as privileged as me.
  2. I do care about other people, but I’m afraid I’ll lose followers if I write about politics.

Boom. Honesty.

I’ve started writing more political content in the last year and a half or so. The ethics of attending a travel blogging conference funded by Robert Mugabe’s government. How to travel the world as an American without being embarrassed about Trump. Being the only white person to call out a racist travel blogger. Ways to travel more sustainablyThe overbearing whiteness of the wine tourism industry in Stellenbosch, South Africa. And in the aftermath of the 2016 election, why remote workers leaving the US can do more harm than good.

I started writing content like this because I wanted to go deeper. So much of the travel blogging industry had become increasingly shallow, the rise of Instagram no doubt being a factor, and I needed to plunge back in and bring something more meaningful to the table.

Did I lose followers? I sure did! Mostly people who called me unrepeatable names and told me I’d regret it when Trump’s army rose up. Which…yeah, I’ll let that speak for itself. But it wasn’t enough to derail my business. I also gained a lot of new followers at the same time.

Do you have to do the same thing? You don’t have to. But at the very least, you should take a look at your content with a critical eye and think about the greater political context in your travels.

One example is North Korea. I personally think there’s no way to travel to North Korea ethically at this point in time. And yet several top travel influencers have visited North Korea, often as a sponsored guest of a tour company.

Of the influencers who chose to visit, some of them did a ton of research beforehand, analyzed their options, and determined that visiting North Korea would do more good than harm (in the form of exposing North Koreans to outsiders, however briefly). While I disagree with their conclusions, I appreciate that they thought critically about this issue and did what they thought was ethical and right.

Others chose not to think critically at all. They ignore North Korea’s human rights violations and get hypnotized by the chance to visit North! Korea! And for free, too! and return with content about how awesome the trip was, and how North Koreans seemed happy, without examining any of the deeper issues.

But you know what’s worst of all? When people in the latter group come back and say they’re not going to discuss politics because they’re not a political person! Come on. You don’t get to have it both ways. All the videos of waving North Korean schoolchildren can’t make up for that.

People will always disagree on what is and isn’t ethical and on where people should and shouldn’t travel. Some will refuse to visit the U.A.E., Russia, or even the United States for ethical reasons. All I ask is that you do careful research, own your decision, and don’t let the allure of a comped trip or bragging rights cloud your judgement.

We can all do better as influencers — so let’s try to do better.

Nobody is going to be perfect. But all of us could stand to do a little bit better. Here are some ways:

Consider your purpose. Why are you blogging? What sets you on fire? Be honest with yourself.

If your reason is So I can continue my travels for as long as possible, I urge you to rethink your purpose. Even if it’s To inspire others to travel, I urge you to think a little deeper and see if you can come up with something that benefits others more than yourself.

Think beyond your personal experience. Did you manage a whole trip without getting robbed? Is that because you visited somewhere super safe like Japan or Iceland, or because you’ve had years of practicing travel safety to the point that you don’t even think about it anymore?

Not everyone is going to be as experienced a traveler as you, so share your knowledge. Put yourselves in the shoes of a less experienced traveler going through this for the first time. Your ultimate goal should be to do no harm.

Acknowledge that travel is not only for the most privileged. If you’re a straight, cis, white, able-bodied, English-speaking traveler with a first-world passport, you’ve won the global lottery. Travel is going to be much easier for you than literally anyone else in the world. Acknowledge that.

Talk to travelers of color, queer travelers, disabled travelers, Muslim travelers who wear hijabs. Read their blogs and share their narratives. The Philippines and India both have tons of excellent travel bloggers, along with eye-opening stories of jumping through legal and financial hoops in order to visit destinations you take for granted, like the EU.

Use your voice to amplify their voices as well.

Consider the impact that you have on the destinations you visit. Are you putting money into the local community or making a chain CEO richer? Are you causing harm to the environment or animals? Are you actually interacting with the people of your destination in a meaningful way or just using them for Instagram props?

Just doing a bit of research can make all the difference. Aim for sustainability — economically, environmentally, socially. When you’re an influencer, your actions are magnified by the travelers who follow in your footsteps.

Read as much as humanly possible. It always amazes me how many travel bloggers say they don’t read other travel blogs. How else are you supposed to stay up on the industry? But don’t limit your reading to just travel blogs. Read literature — fiction, nonfiction, travel-related and non-travel-related. Read the news from a wide variety of sources and stay up on issues of the world.

At the very least, reading will make you more knowledgeable and compassionate and turn you into a better writer.

Aim, always, to help people. And that is how you use influence wisely.

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In Odessa, Romance and Grandeur

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Several years ago, I was in Paris and perusing the books at Shakespeare and Company. As I lost myself in the colorful aisles, I came across a modest paperback: Moonlight in Odessa by Janet Skeslian Charles.

I was intrigued by this city I knew so little about, and after reading the back of the book, I decided to buy it. And while I liked the idea of the plot, about a twenty-something woman who tries to carve out a life for herself in Odessa and starts working part time at a mail-order bride company, it was the description of the city that won me over.

Odessa: a place where the streets were lined with candy-colored buildings, where people had conversations about classical music and art and literature, where cooking for friends and family was the greatest way to express your love, where women wore sky-high heels with miniskirts and clattered down the street. From that point on, I knew I had to visit.

Just as Bloodline brought me to the Florida Keys, it was Moonlight in Odessa that brought me to Odessa.

Did Odessa live up to my expectations? It went far and beyond. I fell madly in love with Odessa from the moment I arrived, and it’s one of my favorite destinations in years.

I arrived in Odessa on a bus from Chisinau, Moldova. After a quick stop at an ATM, I jumped in a taxi, agreed on a price that was likely far too much, and whirled down the pastel streets.

I was dumbfounded. I knew it would be beautiful, but how could Odessa be this beautiful?

I went out for a stroll with my camera and soon learned that Odessa is cheap. Ukraine is cheap overall. I knew it wouldn’t be too expensive, but I was shocked at just how low the prices were. Until this trip, I thought Albania and Macedonia had the cheapest prices in Europe; I soon realized Ukraine had them beat.

When Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimea a few years ago (or as Russian loyalists would say, they took back what was rightfully theirs), Ukraine’s currency took a significant hit. What was already cheap became even more so.

Some examples of prices? I would regularly have a multi-course meal with wine for about $8.

A latte in a fancy cafe would cost around 95 cents.

The most expensive tickets at the opera? Around $10.

My boutique hotel room that would run for at least $250 if it were in New York? $42.

But on that note, there’s nothing to be worried about in terms of Russia and safety. There is no violence or military presence in Odessa. You wouldn’t know anything was happening.

You can’t travel to Crimea overland from Ukraine, and while Ukrainians now need a special permit in order to enter, non-Ukrainians can visit at their will. Flights from Moscow to Crimea are now considered domestic.

Today Odessa is just as safe as any other European city.

 

When I heard there was a bakery called Make My Cake, I had to stop by — there’s a Make My Cake in Harlem (and they make some of the absolute best cupcakes in the city, so if you’re in New York, you should come visit). Rather than cupcakes, though, this place was all about macarons.

Including black truffle macarons.

It sounds crazy, but trust me — they were amazing. Who knew that black truffles tasted so delicious with a bit of sugar? And each macaron cost less than a dollar, because why would you ever pay more than that in Ukraine?

On the more traditional end, I tried my first Ukrainian food at a restaurant called Kumanets. If you look for traditional food in Odessa, that’s the first restaurant that pops up, and you should go. It’s touristy as hell, with servers in traditional Ukrainian costumes, but the food is delicious and they have a lot of traditional Odessa dishes.

If you’re going to get the vareniki, or dumplings, get them with cabbage. Those are most traditional.

I also got my first taste of borscht — a new addiction that I would order nearly every day I was in Ukraine.

The next day, I met my guide Olga from JayWay Travel for a walking tour of Odessa with some food stops along the way.

I don’t often do private tours — it’s usually a group tour, a solo wander, or nothing — but I learned so much about Odessa from Olga that I was nearly bereft at how much I would have missed without her.

For starters, Odessa has been home to a multi-ethnic population for centuries. And if you’re Jewish and of Russian descent, chances are high that your family came from Odessa. Jewish culture is strong here to this day: I asked Olga what a traditional Odessa dish would be, and she replied, “Gefilte fish.”

Beyond the Jews, Odessa is home to Greeks, Turks, Armenians, Poles, Bulgarians, and of course Russians. All of these ethnicities melding together have made for some wild history — and some very interesting and surprisingly Mediterranean-influenced cuisine.

I had expected Odessa to be full of six foot tall blonde women, but it wasn’t like that at all. People were shorter, darker, and heavier than you might expect.

How amazing is this heart? I’m not a fan of love locks in general because they weaken bridges, destroy the look of architecture, and at this point, they’re such a cliché.

But Odessa has figured out the perfect solution. Instead of a bridge, they have a heart sculpture designated specifically for love locks. This way you can lock a symbol of your love to an icon in the city without destroying a bridge in the process!

Every city needs to do this.

Odessa is famous for its courtyards, Olga told me. She took me into several of them and pointed out wells that dated back generations, the only places where you could get fresh water in the city. Today many of them had old cars.

I loved this tiny house and its plants, just sitting in the middle of the courtyard!

And some courtyards are home to elegant restaurants.

The Potemkin Steps are one of the symbols of Odessa. The steps are actually an optical illusion — they’re much wider at the bottom than they are at the top. This was meant to give the appearance of a much larger staircase and intimidate any wayward sailor who found himself in the city!

The steps were actually under construction during my visit, but I was able to get this photo across the street from them.

There were happy yellow buses…

Teenagers out with their friends…

Poles covered in urgent advertisements…

Red brick houses topped with yellow…

Proud Ukrainians marching in the streets…

Outdoor restaurants with gauze-covered tents…

Indoor arcades lined in Baroque sculptures…

And picture-perfect street cafes.

I was so in love with Odessa. My heart swelled with every step I took.

And then a rogue hailstorm hit! I’ve never seen hail that big or loud in my life!

Roughly the size of canned hams, am I right?

Afterward I couldn’t believe that the walking street completely flooded! It was fine a few hours later, though.

Checking out the Catacombs

Also worth seeing are the catacombs. But unlike Paris and Rome, the catacombs are not filled with bones.

Here in Odessa, they were home to the resistance against the Nazis during World War II. The resistance lived down here, plotted and fought. People would stay underground for months at a time.

At one point, there were seven children living in the catacombs. This was their classroom.

Yes, that’s literal cave art about Hitler. This image is of a Nazi coming back injured. Translation: you’re losing the war!

The catacombs were also where Olga handled a mansplainer with aplomb. As we were waiting to go in, a tall hefty man in a navy blue pinstripe suit (with a royal purple pinstripe shirt…what?) said something to her in Ukrainian. She smiled weakly and ignored him. He then said a second thing to her, then a third. From the expression on her face I knew she was dealing with a mansplainer.

“What did he say to you?” I asked once we were inside.

“Oh, he said, ‘You can’t go in there, it’s locked.’ Then he said, ‘It’s too early for you to buy your tickets, they don’t have money.’ Then he said, ‘You’re not allowed to go in there.’ And I said, ‘I’m here five days a week,’ and walked in.” Of course. He didn’t believe she could possibly be a guide; he assumed he knew more than she did.

I sympathized with Olga and told her my own experience: on my flight from Bucharest to Chisinau, the man next to me kept explaining to me what happens when you fly on a small plane. I had given him the same weak smile while thinking, “I fly for a living, pal.

No matter how far you travel, some things stay the same.

The Takeaway

Odessa brought me so much joy. I felt so light and happy the whole time I was there, almost laughing for no reason. And as a result, I’m worried that this blog post didn’t convey enough information about Odessa itself. Does it make you actually want to visit? Or am I just a crazy lady distracted by pretty things that made her happy?

This shy balloon seller made me happy.

This orange bicycle made me happy.

This little pink car made me happy.

These little yellow chairs made me so happy.

Odessa, you were pure joy to me. Thank you for bringing such a big smile to my face.

Essential Info: In Ukraine I was a guest of JayWay Travel, a boutique Central and Eastern European travel company, for a custom itinerary they built for me with hotels, transfers, and tours. They do custom trips so whatever you’re looking for, reach out to them. It was so nice to not have to worry about transfers, and I was grateful that Olga went into the airport with me and found out where I was to depart (one terminal is currently under construction) — with the language barrier, I never would have been able to do that on my own. Contact them directly for tours or other bookings.

I stayed at the Hotel Milano, a brand new boutique hotel ideally located close to the walking street. I highly recommend it — it was extremely comfortable and modern, the staff were very helpful and spoke English well (a bit rare in Ukraine) and for $42 per night, it was a steal. (Olga pointed out that it’s a much louder neighborhood during the summer.) You can see more hotels in Odessa here.

There is a significant language barrier in Ukraine, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as I feared. In central Odessa lots of people in restaurants and hotels speak a bit of English. I do recommend learning Cyrillic, which is pretty easy to do. It will make your life so much easier when you can read what’s in front of you, as many words are similar to English.

I visited Odessa in May, which was the perfect time. Odessa is a beach city and gets crazy in the summer months — which means it gets crowded, there are lots of late night parties with loud music, and older foreign men swarm the city searching for wives.

Moonlight in Odessa is out of print, but you can still get it for Kindle or secondhand.

Don’t visit Odessa without travel insurance. Whether you get appendicitis and need to be hospitalized, or your phone gets stolen, or an injury means you need to cancel all or part of your trip, travel insurance will help you out. I use and recommend World Nomads as travel insurance for trips to Ukraine.

Many thanks to JayWay Travel for hosting me throughout Ukraine. They paid for my hotels, airport transfers, and tours; I paid for flights, meals, and everything else. All opinions, as always, are my own.

Have you been to Odessa? Does it look like your kind of city?

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Six Ways to Travel More Sustainably

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The following branded content post is brought to you by AIG Travel Guard. When I was asked to co-host AIG’s solo and sustainable Twitter chat and write about sustainable travel here, I was all too glad to participate. I hope to see you at the chat on Friday!

We could all stand to do better when it comes to traveling sustainably. There’s more to it than choosing a green hotel and turning off the water when you brush your teeth.

Sustainability, at its core, is about making as positive an impact in your travels as possible. That means making compassionate decisions about where to spend your money, how to protect the environment, and how to interact with locals in order to leave the destination just as good or better condition than how we found it.

How can we make the most positive impact as a traveler? Here are some tips.

Support small businesses whenever you can.

On almost every occasion, you can eschew chains in favor of choosing a small local business. When you do this, you’re ensuing that the money goes into the pockets of local entrepreneurs, not CEOs who really don’t need a fifth vacation home.

Additionally, take time to support as many small businesses as possible, particularly when it comes to dining and shopping. You might find the most amazing textile shop on your travels and want to buy something for everyone in your family — and while that’s wonderful for the people who work in the textile shop, it’s less than ideal when you could be buying things from several different shops.

Educate yourself on local sustainability issues before your trip.

If you do any amount of research before your trip, don’t just look up the cool restaurants and hipster neighborhoods — also read about local issues and how they might affect your trip.

You might not be aware that there’s a drought in your destination, for example, and that water needs to be conserved even more closely than usual. If there’s significant unemployment, that might add to an increased amount of homelessness.

One of the biggest examples of this is elephant riding in various Asian countries. Elephant rides, no matter where they are done or what kind of place it is, are a form of animal cruelty. There is no way to train an elephant to give rides without abusing them, and no place that offers elephant rides should be financially supported.

One of the best things travel bloggers have ever done is create mass awareness about the cruelty of elephant rides. Because of their efforts, hundreds if not thousands of travelers have avoided elephant rides since.

Travel sustainably when possible.

In an ideal world, nobody would fly, ever. But if that were the case, few people would travel, ever. While flying is often unavoidable, there are ways to reduce your environmental impact.

Consider taking direct flights rather than indirect flights when you can. Consider contributing to a carbon offset program, of which new ones seems to spring up on a regular basis.

And once you arrive in your destination, stick to public transportation, rent a bike, take shared taxis, or walk whenever you can. If you’re driving, choose a hybrid vehicle if possible.

Eat locally and within the seasons.

It’s funny how things change over time. Having the finest tuna flown in from Japan used to be the hallmark of fine dining — nowadays, people are more interested in the basil that grows in the restaurant’s rooftop garden.

Local and seasonal dining used to be the only way to dine — and it’s nice that this year many restaurants are taking seasonality seriously even when you can get any food at any time of year. Focus on eating things like asparagus in the spring, tomatoes in the summer, squash in the fall, and root vegetables in the winter.

Another great way? Visit a farmer’s market! This way you’ll be eating locally, staying within the seasons, and supporting local farmers.

 

Plan to donate a set amount of money to a local charity.

Before you arrive, consider making a donation to a local charity. You may want to donate to a local food bank, school, animal shelter, or a local NGO. Chances are you’ll come across one in your travels or hear about one from someone you meet.

If you can’t find anything during your trip, local charities are easy to find online afterward.

Donating an amount of money you can afford is a kind way to ensure that your visit has a positive impact on the local community.

Talk to people — but also listen.

The easiest way to create cross-cultural understanding is to talk to locals whenever you can. Don’t use them as window dressing or Instagram props — make conversation.

Learn a few words of the local language — “hello,” “thank you,” and “delicious” are three good words to start with. And if there’s no language barrier and it turns into a longer conversation, continue the exchange — talk about your own life as well. Don’t seek to interrogate; seek to exchange and understand.

Join me in a Solo and Sustainable Twitter Chat on Friday, June 16 at 2:00 PM EDT!

I will be co-hosting a Twitter chat on solo and sustainable travel with AIG Travel Guard and Cassie De Pecol, who recently broke the Guinness Book of World Records for the fastest person and fastest female to travel to all 196 sovereign nations.

Join us for fun travel conversation — and the chance to win prizes, including a $100 gift card and a basket of travel gear curated by Cassie.

Date: Friday, June 16

Time: 2:00-3:00 PM EDT

Hashtag: #WhereNext on Twitter

Prizes: $100 gift card (three winners) or basket of travel gear curated by Cassie (Grand Prize)

RSVP: Please RSVP here in order to be eligible to win.

You can see the full list of rules here.

Note: you must RSVP to the chat in order to be able to win! RSVP here.

See you there on Friday, June 16, at 2:00-3:00 PM ET!

What steps do you take to be sustainable while traveling?

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Bucharest is Fabulous and Fun

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There are a number of countries where it’s recommended to arrive in the capital city and then get out as soon as possible.

The Philippines? Yeah, I’d get on board with that. I find Manila vile, but the rest of the country is lovely.

Nicaragua? Agreed. Managua has nothing to offer — you’re best off skipping town and heading to nearby Granada.

But what about Romania? Well, lots of travelers treat Bucharest, Romania’s capital, the same way, only passing through briefly before heading to the towns of Transylvania. But they really shouldn’t do that.

And this is where I raise my hand and admit that I’m guilty, too. Back in 2013, I found cheap flights from Istanbul to Skopje and, two weeks later, from Bucharest to Dubai, so I planned a big Macedonia-Kosovo-Bulgaria trip and only planned to arrive in Bucharest the night before my flight.

So what did I do on that first trip to Bucharest? I arrived off the train ride from hell, took a shower, got some pizza, slept in a dorm, and shared a taxi to the airport the next day. Not exactly hardcore tourism.

For years, I hated the fact that I counted Romania as a visited country but hadn’t done anything of value in Bucharest. But then I got a perfect opportunity to make up for that.

#ExperienceBucharest: A New Kind of Travel Influencer Campaign

Earlier this spring, my friend Monica told me about a new campaign taking place in May: #ExperienceBucharest. Several bloggers would be invited to a conference and event to show off the city.

Now, this was different than other blog trips. Most of the time, a PR agency rakes in the big bucks while the bloggers, the people who create the actual content, are undercompensated. In this circumstance, however, #ExperienceBucharest was put together by a team of volunteers who work in the travel industry in Bucharest.

This major campaign was put together by volunteers. They worked their asses off and made no money doing it — they just wanted to share Bucharest with the world and get more people to travel here.

They did it for love of their city.

When I heard that, I knew I wanted to be part of this campaign. And not only because it would give me a chance to visit some new Eastern European countries. I really enjoy trying to find the nicer places in less-appreciated cities like Colombo and Johannesburg.

So did this trip pay off? Did it ever.

Bucharest is an awesome city.

Bucharest is like Berlin. Alternative and gritty with epic nightlife.

Bucharest is like Paris. Grand and elegant and pulsating with style.

Bucharest is like Budapest. Weathered and proud and cultured.

And on top of that, Bucharest is a very affordable European city, it’s well-connected in terms of flights, the food is delicious, and the people are absolutely lovely.

I found the defining aspect of Bucharest to be its look — so many beautiful and elegant buildings, only they were interspersed with ugly communist architecture and covered in graffiti. At one point, I turned to my friend and said, “Bucharest feels like Paris if they neglected themselves.”

I don’t mean that as an insult — just an observation. I saw pictures of Bucharest from the late 19th century and it looked just like Paris. Maybe they didn’t prioritize their beauty; maybe it was simply bad luck and having to prioritize safety over beauty in times of upheaval.

But that look isn’t everything.

Bucharest has alleys that turn into elegant arcades.

Bucharest has traditional restaurants with stained glass.

Bucharest knows how to peekaboo.

Bucharest has murals all over the place.

Bucharest hides cheese in its tomato soup.

Bucharest is very gray.

But Bucharest can be gold, too.

Cafe Culture

Like elsewhere in Central Europe, Bucharest is all about the cafes. You go in the morning or afternoon for coffee, and by nightfall, people have switched to beer and wine.

One that I loved in particular is a little place called Artichoke Coffee Shop. It’s got plants perched on spiral staircases, water served in gin bottles, chunky chocolate chip cookies, and smooth flat whites that transport you straight to Australia. In other words, it’s Instagrammable as hell but with the delicious goods to back it up.

Greenery Everywhere

Bucharest is covered with parks — something that I didn’t expect in an Eastern European city. But Bucharest is actually one of the greenest cities in Europe.

I went to see Mogosoaia Palace on the outskirts of the city. It’s actually a pretty small palace, so don’t devote a whole day to it, but it’s a really nice place to stroll around and experience the greenery of the city.

May happened to be an excellent time to visit — I’ve never seen so many irises in bloom in my life!

Rooftop Bars

If you feel like drinking on a rooftop in Bucharest, you’re in luck: Pura Vida Sky Bar has excellent views in the heart of the Old Town. The cocktails are fabulous, too.

Yeah, you’ll have to walk up five flights of stairs, but trust me, it’s worth it.

The nightlife in Bucharest is pretty insane — Romanians like to party hard. Do yourself a favor and stay away from the bars catering to British stag dos and instead head up to Pura Vida for an Aperol spritz or some blue wine.

Want something crazier? Head to the Player Club to dance all night long with Romanians dressed to the nines.

Seeing Bucharest Through the Eyes of the Homeless

One activity in Bucharest that interested me the most was the Outcast Bucharest Tour from Urban Adventures, which is led by a guide who was once homeless in Bucharest.

Our guide Sergiu, dark and thin and in his late twenties, lived on the streets of Bucharest for years. He was an addict. He lost many loved ones to drugs. He did everything he could to survive. And eventually an NGO helped him climb out of homelessness and build a life for himself. Today he lives in an apartment and has a job.

A lot of poverty-focused tours, like slum tours and visits to impoverished villages, can venture into exploitative territory, but this one does everything the right way. It treats the homeless with dignity and respect, it’s not remotely voyeuristic, it creates jobs for the formerly homeless, and all net proceeds go to the Parada Foundation, a local NGO that gets children off the streets.

Sergiu’s story moved me deeply, and I’m so grateful that he’s getting his life together.

If you want to have an unforgettable experience in Bucharest, please go on this tour. You’ll never forget it.

The World’s Largest Collection of Irons

I love a few quirks in a city, and the best one I found in Bucharest was at the Museum of Romanian Records. They are home to the world’s largest collection of irons.

Yes. Irons.

I love crazy things like this — the weirder, the better. There are more irons there than you have ever seen in your life (well, I guess by being the world’s largest collection, that’s kind of obvious) — just when you think you’ve seen them all, they keep on going!

  

Get your mind out of the gutter. Those torpedo-shaped irons are for shaping collars and hats.

The Loveliest Chill-Out Spot in Town

On my final night in Bucharest, we had a going-away party at Podstel/Ceainaria 5, a combination hostel, tea house, and community meeting space. I had the most wonderful time here, and if you’re visiting Bucharest, you need to drop by.

I spent my time getting to know the owners and not only are they awesome people, but they were so smart in creating a hostel that ticks all the boxes. Not only did they optimize the (beautiful and modern) hostel itself, it was also important to them to have community.

So they have donation-based group dinners once a week. They have board game nights. Local musicians perform. There are yoga classes and all kinds of workshops. If you’re looking to meet people while traveling in Bucharest, I can’t imagine a better place to come than here.

In an age where hostels have gone from social gathering spots to places where people sit with their faces in their phones, it’s nice that Podstel is trying to bring back the community part of backpacking.

I think Podstel was my favorite place I discovered in Bucharest. So if you want to stay at a hostel, I encourage you to stay there. If you’re not into hostels, at least drop by for some tea (they have dozens of varieties) and a chance to hang out in that comfy outdoor room. Tell the guys that I say hi!

The Takeaway

I had such a nice time in Bucharest — an even better time than I was expecting.

I also feel like I didn’t see a fraction of what the city had to offer. Several of my friends arrived earlier and stayed later and got to take in a lot more — racecar driving, architecture photo hunts, communism tours, dance parties, dinners where a whole lamb was roasted on a spit.

A lot of people skip Bucharest in favor of other Romanian destinations, but now that I’ve experienced it, I hope that more people get the chance to explore Bucharest. If the rumblings are true, perhaps some of us will be back for an #ExperienceRomania trip next!

Essential Info: In Bucharest I stayed at the Radisson Blu. I absolutely loved this hotel, its design its luxurious touches, and the business areas. It’s also in a central location near the Old Town. If you’re looking for something on the luxury end but still surprisingly affordable, this is a great choice. Rates from 89 EUR ($100 USD). Just know that they put a hold of 89 EUR per night on your card until you check out — that’s the most I’ve ever had held by a hotel and it gave me a brief heart attack when I saw nearly $500 withdrawn on my bank statement!

You can find more hotels in Bucharest here.

Rates at Podstel start at 12 EUR ($14) per night. Thanks to Podstel for letting me use their photos of their property in this post.

The Outcast Bucharest Tour from Urban Adventures costs $47.38 per person.

Don’t visit Bucharest without travel insurance. Whether you get appendicitis and need to be hospitalized, or your phone gets stolen, or an injury means you need to cancel all or part of your trip, travel insurance will help you out. I use and recommend World Nomads as travel insurance for trips to Romania.

Many thanks to the #ExperienceBucharest team for hosting me in Bucharest. They covered my flights to Bucharest, accommodation, tours, and most meals and drinks. All opinions, as always, are my own.

Have you been to Bucharest? What did you think?

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AK Monthly Recap: May 2017

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This month I returned to my roots — I took a nice juicy solo trip to some countries I hadn’t visited before. Man, that always feels great. I took long walks. I photographed everything in sight. I drank lots of coffees in lots of cool cafes. Absolute bliss.

Since settling down in New York last year, I’ve been surprised at how much I’ve struggled with my identity. When you earn your salary based on your personality and then you make a major shift in lifestyle, on top of going from a moderate cost of living to a high cost of living, it can be quite disorienting. But after a year and a few months, I’m finding myself more relaxed.

Now, I think I’m getting pretty close to where I want to be — one week away per month, or two weeks away every two months, plus an occasional weekend trip thrown in. And the rest of the time I get to hang out in fabulous New York City. That feels right to me now.

Destinations Visited

New York, NY

Bucharest, Romania

Chisinau, Moldova

Odessa, Kiev, Chernobyl, and Pripyat, Ukraine

Favorite Destination

Odessa. Far and away. I’ve been dreaming of visiting Odessa for so long, and it didn’t disappoint me in the slightest.

Highlights

Bucharest was a lot of fun. I visited for the #ExperienceBucharest campaign, designed by volunteer tourism professionals to promote Bucharest to an international audience. Everyone was so passionate about sharing their hometown with us!

And I discovered a fabulous city. It felt a lot like Berlin in that the strangest little cafes and restaurants were hiding behind innocuous looking doors, but it also had a grandeur reminiscent of Paris. I loved getting to know the people of Bucharest, from formerly homeless tour guides to artists and entrepreneurs to the expats who had made Bucharest their home. It’s a special city. And while many Romania tourists skip Bucharest, you really shouldn’t.

At the conference portion of the event, I spoke on a panel about visual storytelling and didn’t mince words: “I am so sick of travel bloggers posting a million acro-yoga photos.” (Seriously, bloggers…no offense to my friends who are really into acro, but I hate looking at tons of photos of you balanced on the hairy legs of some random dude in short-shorts. Plus, doesn’t taking tons of photos of yourself doing yoga kind of defeat the mental benefits of doing yoga in the first place?)

Ukraine was awesome. Man, did I love that country! I had plans to visit Odessa, Kiev, and Chernobyl, and I partnered last-minute with JayWay Travel, a boutique Central and Eastern European travel company, for a custom itinerary they built for me with hotels, transfers, and tours throughout the country.

There is so much beauty and pride in Ukraine — a sharp contrast from Moldova. And it is by far the cheapest European country I’ve visited. Much cheaper than Albania and Macedonia! Think 95-cent lattes in fancy cafes and two-course meals with both wine and water for $8.

Odessa was my favorite spot, with its elegant streets and pastel colors, but I also really liked Kiev (especially the parts without Soviet architecture).

Chernobyl was unforgettable. It’s so hard to find the words to describe visiting the location of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986. (Yes, it’s safe to visit today. It’s the equivalent of staying in Kiev plus eating two and a half bananas. There’s radiation in everything.) It’s a site of great tragedy, but it’s also moving to see a town left frozen in time, as well as the effect of nature reclaiming a whole settlement.

Learning Cyrillic. I did learn a bit when I traveled to Macedonia and Bulgaria back in 2013, but I had forgotten most of it. This time in Ukraine, I jumped in and worked hard — and it paid off. There’s nothing more rewarding than sounding out a word and recognizing it. Once, I yelled out, “Oh! Sushi Bar!”

Some strange and lovely New York adventures. Like finally making it to Punderdrome, a monthly pun competition in Brooklyn. About a dozen people, some of them professional comedians, get up on stage and out-pun each other until there’s only one winner remaining. I loved it!

And, um, I ventured to HUMP!, Dan Savage’s independent sex-positive pornographic short film festival. If you ever feel like you’ve seen everything…that festival will assure you that nope, you haven’t.

I also made an appearance at Smorgasburg, a weekend food festival in Brooklyn, for the first time in forever. If you visit New York on a weekend, you should try to attend — they have tons of delicious and unique food offerings. It’s not a cheap outing, but it’s lots of fun!

Making lots of new friends — and connecting with two people in particular. I usually keep to myself when traveling solo, so that’s a bit of a novelty for me. And on this trip I met two different people — one in Bucharest, one in Kiev — with whom I connected in a deep, unfiltered way. The kind of connection you can only have with a stranger. It’s crazy to feel like someone can hold your soul in their hand for a few minutes.

Challenges

Moldova was a bit of a bust. After a few hours of walking around Chisinau, I felt like I had made a huge mistake choosing to spend three nights there. Over time, I found a few cool businesses and developed a bit of affection for the city, but I feel no need to return to Moldova and wouldn’t recommend Chisinau to the vast majority of travelers.

I wanted to see more of Moldova — Cricova Winery and Orhei Vechei — but Cricova wasn’t doing wine tastings (and what’s the point of visiting a winery without tastings? The visit is the boring part!) and the minibuses ran on a schedule that would have left me in the middle of nowhere for hours. I would have hired a driver, but I couldn’t find a professional and as a solo woman, I would only hire a professional, not some random dude wanting to make a few bucks.

By that time, I was just exhausted and didn’t even feel like venturing to Transnistria.

Illness in Bucharest. Conferences are a hotbed of germs to begin with, particularly when you combine it with party nights and lack of sleep. I usually get sick a few days after a conference, but this time it hit me earlier. Probably because everyone was sick. When it’s that bad, you know it’s a matter of time before you get sick, too.

Yet another far-longer-than-necessary journey home. It wasn’t quite as bad as my 48-hour Broome-Perth-overnight-Singapore-London-long layover-Boston journey last fall (which I am NEVER REPEATING), but my Kiev-Bucharest-overnight-Amsterdam-New York journey was 24 hours long. It pained me when I realized that I could have flown nonstop from Kiev to New York in just 10 hours, but alas, circumstances brought me elsewhere.

The older I get, the less I can tolerate those long journeys. I need to keep that in mind.

The Raindrop Cake is a lie! New York’s Raindrop Cake, a clear gelatinous half-sphere became an Instagram star a few months ago, and when I saw it at Smorgasburg, I wanted to give it a try. Well, it wasn’t anything great. It didn’t look THAT good, and it tasted like plain sugar-flavored gelatin.

Honestly, this was the most “the emperor has no clothes” trend I’ve found since moving to New York. And the fact that it cost $8 added insult to injury. Skip this one and walk to Ample Hills for ice cream instead.

And I dealt with a stye. I don’t get styes very often, but if you’ve had one, you know how unpleasant they are. They hurt, your face looks like you’re having a stroke, and you may need to throw your eye makeup away. A few days of tea bag compresses and baby shampoo washings got rid of it. Though several people told me that the best cure for a stye is URINE!

Most Popular Post

25 Things I Learned the Hard Way While Traveling — 25 mistakes I’ve made in 25 countries, some to hilarious effect, while on the road!

Other Posts

The First Step to Quitting Your Job to Travel — The best resource toward starting to work online, The Paradise Pack, is only available one week per year and that week is NOW. Check it out — ASAP.

TBEX Zimbabwe: An Unethical and Irresponsible Choice — TBEX, the largest travel blogging conference, is taking money from Robert Mugabe’s murderous regime in Zimbabwe in exchange for promoting the country.

Things to Do in Stellenbosch: A Guide to South Africa’s Wine Region — The absolute best way to wind down a busy trip to South Africa is to spend a few days lounging and wine-tasting in Stellenbosch.

Scenes from Košice, Slovakia — I loved this little Slovakian town and got some colorful pictures!

The Art of the Chilled Out Trip to Paris — Paris is so much better without a solid itinerary.

Most Popular Instagram Photo

Want likes? Post the Eiffel Tower. Pretty simple. I actually posted this photo to celebrate the election of Emmanuel Macron in France.

For more live updates in real time, you can follow me on Instagram (@adventurouskate) and Snapchat (also @adventurouskate).

Fitness Update

I’m officially in the worst fitness rut I’ve been in since the beginning of the year. I’ve just gotten lazy and I need to pick things up again.

I was so determined to work out throughout my Eastern Europe trip, but it didn’t happen. As a result, when I had my first zumba/training combo day after my trip, I was PAINFULLY sore for the next three days.

The good news? My trainer asked if I could keep my weight steady while away, and I actually kept it exactly the same, despite consuming tons of dumplings and wine. That’s something.

This month I also took the “Dance!” class at Equinox. The description said it could be from any genre of dance and I hoped it would be hip-hop…no. It was jazz. A jazz routine. I felt like I was back in high school drama class. Yeah, that one I won’t be repeating. I didn’t even break a sweat!

I’ll get back in there. I need to.

I’m also thinking about expanding to a global Equinox membership. It doesn’t make the most sense, since I live in Harlem and all the gyms are south of me, but it might be worth it to take classes with my favorite instructors on a more regular basis…

What I Read This Month

I’m up to 28 books read so far this year — I’m now officially more than halfway through the 52-book 2017 PopSugar Book Challenge! I had actually hoped to have read six to eight books this month rather than just five, but I’m working on a few others and will get there.

Also, I keep meaning to read literature from the country I’m visiting, but of course I spent two weeks in Eastern Europe and only read books set in Oklahoma, Florida, and Kansas. Go figure.

Losing My Virginity: How I Survived, Had Fun, and Made a Fortune Doing Business My Way by Richard Branson (updated 2011 edition) — I knew “a book that’s mentioned in another book” would be a challenging category — somehow, I could only think of the books that were mentioned throughout the Baby-Sitters Club series (Little Women and Baby Island?). But when I read You Are a Badass by Jen Sincero earlier this year, she had a list of recommended books and said that while you should always read books by people you admire, Richard Branson’s memoir was her absolute favorite. I was sold!

And what a thrilling ride this book was! It’s an in-depth account of Branson’s wild journey as an entrepreneur, as well as his adventures through love, life, and record-breaking. And I found it fascinating to see how he sees the world and makes decisions. He is just so optimistic and willing to jump into anything that seems fun, without even putting that much thought into it. I was also surprised to hear that Virgin had very little cash on hand until the mid-1990s, when they won a huge settlement from British Airways. (Consequently, I never want to fly BA again. They spied on Richard Branson and his family!!)

The best memoirs are ones that either show a major transformation or bare the soul of the writer. This book falls more into the latter category, and it’s absolutely worth it. Category: a book that’s mentioned in another book.

Nyssa Glass and the House of Mirrors by H.L. Burke (2016) — You know, I’ve made an effort to read a good book in every category, even the ones that aren’t really my thing, but when it came time to read a steampunk novel, I just wanted to get through one quickly. So I found the Nyssa Glass series: a set of mysteries about a teenage girl who solves mysteries in Victorian times while aided by cutting-edge steam technology. Steampunk has always made me roll my eyes a bit, but I’m sure it can be done well in the hands of a skilled author.

And this book? Just a quickie Young Adult book that wasn’t that compelling. I think younger readers might get more out of it. Category: a steampunk novel.

Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann (2017) — I chose this book from Book of the Month because it’s one of the hottest nonfiction releases of the year and it tells a fascinating story forgotten by history. In the 1920s, the Osage Indians of Oklahoma were the richest people per capita in the world because there was oil on their land and the rights couldn’t be sold, only inherited through family. Then dozens of Osage began dying unexpectedly — some from illness, some from gunshots. Eventually the newly formed FBI discovered a mass conspiracy to murder as many Osage as possible.

In addition to learning about this heartbreaking and forgotten chapter of history, I found it fascinating to see how Native Americans were treated by white people and how it differed from other races. It was common for Native Americans and white people to marry, and rather than being segregated, the attitude was more, “They need to assimilate and start doing things our way.” Like other forms of racism, it never ended — it just changed form. Also, I was very interested in the FBI parts and think I might want to read a biography of J. Edgar Hoover next. Category: a book recommended by a librarian. (PS — Library Reads is a great resource to find books recommended by librarians.)

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston (1937) — I had been meaning to read this book forever, along with more Harlem Renaissance authors, and when I saw it in a used bookstore near my gym, I snapped it up. In this novel, taking place in Florida not too long after Emancipation, a teenage girl named Janie yearns to fall in love — but she feels nothing for her first husband and runs off with a second, controlling husband. Then finally, as a 40-year-old widow, she meets a handsome 25-year-old and falls in love for the first time.

I love a good romance, and this delivered. But more than that, this book was about Florida, its stickiness and humidity, and its fledgling all-black communities created in the years post-slavery. And the only thing I love more than a good romance is a good ending — not necessarily a happy or sad ending, but an ending you’ll never forget. This falls into that category. Category: a book you got at a used bookstore.

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote (1965) — This was my book club’s pick for the month, and I was glad to read a book that I’ve always heard about. Truman Capote invented the nonfiction novel! It’s because of him that one of my favorite books, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, exists today! At the time of publication, it was unheard of for a nonfiction book to be written in the literary style of fiction.

In 1959, four members of a family were murdered on their farm in Kansas. There were no clues and no motive — but eventually an unlikely source led to the case cracking open. Capote tells the story of the murder from the points of view of the victims, the perpetrators, and the local community.

The writing is captivating but something felt wrong to me — it felt so voyeuristic. These people died, and there was no reason for their deaths. (It’s the same reason why I don’t listen to murder podcasts, despite their popularity — it feels cruel to me to geek out over the deaths of people.) But I appreciated it as a piece of literature. I also enjoyed that my hometown of Reading, Massachusetts, made a most unexpected appearance near the end of the book. Category: a book with an eccentric character.

What I Watched This Month

Master of None, Season Two. This show means so much to me and I’m glad it’s finally back after a year and a half. Not only is it the show I relate to the most, it somehow hits me straight in the feels and brings me nearly to tears, even when it’s not that sad. HOW DOES IT DO THAT? Do they have a blueprint of my brain?!

And then it was like Season Two was even more precisely tailored to me:

–They had a performance by my favorite singer, John Legend.

–They cast my favorite celebrity crush, Bobby Cannavale (yeah, I say it’s The Rock, but it’s really Bobby Cannavale) playing an Anthony Bourdain-like role and it’s the hottest he’s ever looked onscreen.

–They filmed in two of my favorite small towns in Italy: Modena in Emilia-Romagna and Pienza in Tuscany.

–They had a discussion about the Italian word allora that was pretty much lifted from my time living in Italy — I had no idea what it meant, but somehow I always knew when to say it!

–There was an homage to my favorite American quirk: giant pharmacies. Which is one thing I talk about all the time — I always LOVE returning to giant American pharmacies when I come home from my travels! They have everything you could possibly need!

At any rate, it was such a lovely season and I highly recommend you watch. It’s tough, though — Netflix hit us hard this month with new seasons of House of Cards, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, and Bloodline simultaneously…

Image: Jon Roberts

Coming Up in June 2017

After having a big trip in May, I’m taking it easier in June with only two short trips scheduled. First, I’m heading home to Massachusetts for my dad’s (milestone!) birthday at the beginning of the month.

And later in the month, I’m visiting Asheville, North Carolina, for the first time ever! I’ve wanted to visit this mountainside city for so long, but I was hesitant to visit North Carolina while HB2 (a.k.a. the bathroom law) was in place. The law has since been repealed by the new Democratic governor, so I feel comfortable going now. (Many LGBT advocates think that the repeal doesn’t go far enough. I agree with them. But I also know that political progress is most effective when it’s incremental and the repeal is a necessary step in gaining full equality for LGBT citizens in North Carolina.)

North Carolina is actually a new state for me — my final state to visit on the East Coast! And I’ve been working with Asheville to create a responsible and ethical itinerary that’s heavy on outdoorsy pursuits and features small local businesses. I’m really excited about it.

Any suggestions for Asheville? Let me know!

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