Archive | May, 2012
30 May

Great post by Sophy about Amsterdam. Check out her blog at http://anamericansophyinlondon.wordpress.com

An American Sophy in London

There are a few great showers you take in life. Some of them occur after you unintentionally spend the hottest day of the summer at the shore; most are related to day trips to Six Flags. My most recent Great Shower happened two hours ago – the one I took when I got home from Amsterdam.

4 of my 5 roommates and I left at the crack of dawn Friday for our train to Brussels. Armed with our hostel address, multiple guides from visitors past, and literally no Dutch, we set off with sleep and old mascara in our eyes and sleep and excitement in our hearts. Fast forward through security and “lunch” at a French patisserie in a weirdly silent Middle Eastern neighborhood in Brussels, and we’re on a local train schlepping to Amsterdam.

HIGLIGHTS OF AMSTERDAM:

– The architecture. Amsterdam is GORGEOUS. It looks incredibly European – just…

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Things To Do In Miami by Jeff

27 May

SOUTH BEACH

  • The Catalina Hotel on South Beach has a free happy hour from 7pm-8pm.  All well drinks are free, so throw ’em down before dinner.
  • Miami restaurant hot spots ($$$$) are: Joe’s Stone Crab (now in season if you like crabs), Prime 112 (steak), Nobu (japanese), and Barton G’s (high end continental with great presentations)
  • A Fish Called Avalon is right on Ocean drive and has really great seafood.  If you can sit outside, they have a great live band and is also great for people watching.
  • Walk around Lincoln Road for lunch/dinner.  Menus are all outside and many times the owners come up and try to convince you to eat at their restaurant.  Just go for the type of food you want and/or the best people watching spot.   Make sure to catch some street performers.
  • On the way, stop by Espanola Way  just before 15th street (if you’re heading north) between Washington and Drexel.  There is a great Spanish tapas restaurant on the corner called Tapas and Tintos.
  • Late night food: Best sandwich I have had on Sobe (and maybe ever) is from La Sandwicherie on 14th and Washington.  It’s open until 6am.
  • The nicest part of the beach (not sure where your hotel is) is up by 15th and ocean or down by 1st, 2nd.  If you’re down by 2nd, make sure to stop by the famous south beach establishment Big Pink’s for whatever type of food you can imagine because they’ve got it all.
  • Wet Willie’s is an icecream shop for frozen alcoholic beverages. Do it! At least once.  As the great Ludacris says “if you wit me ain’t no time to sleep, especially at Wet Willie’s on Miami Beach.”
  • Jazid has great live music
  • The Room is a great little bar with an amazing selection of beer on tap.  Then head to Primo’s pizza for the best slice on SoBe.
  • In terms of clubs, as I was leaving school in May 2010, the hot new clubs Liv and Louis.  Liv is the most exclusive.  Set is also really cool.  Mansion is the big ticket.  I’ve also been to Cameo.  These are both huge, impersonal clubs, but if you just want to dance you’ll have a good time.  There will be promoters trying to drag you into their clubs, and a lot of times they can get you in at a reduced cover, if that’s something you want.

BRICKELL (DOWNTOWN)

  • My favorite restaurant (both for the food and value) is Perricone’s in Brickell.  Perhaps one night, make a reservation to sit in their outside deck where they sometimes will open up the roof on a nice night while a jazz band plays from the second floor loft.  Really amazing setting.
  • Then there are a number of bars where most young professionals hang out at (i.e. Irish Pub, Blue MartiniTobacco Road (oldest bar in Miami-but not centrally located), and for a great view of Brickell (on the Miami River), head to Waxy O’Connor’s.  I would cab to Waxy O’Connor’s though because the neighborhood becomes dicey along the walk.
  • If you want an “authentic” Miami club experience, try taking a cab to Gloria Estefan’s Bongos (it’s close to the American Airlines Arena).  It’s more of a Latin crowd, along with Segafredo’s in Brickell.

CUBAN FOOD

  • The best Cuban food I know of is Havana Harry’s (located by University of Miami) and Versailles if you’re feeling adventurous and want to cab to Calle 8.

MIAMI AT ITS BEST

  • Monty’s in Coconut Grove for happy hour (I would suggest going Friday).  ½ price drinks and raw bar, tiki set up on Biscayne bay, music, etc.  (4pm-8pm)
  • Beach at Key Biscayne (South)

EVENTS

  • If you happen to be there for a full moon, head up to the beach on  82 and Collins (North Miami Beach) around 10-11pm for the monthly drum circles.  it is usually just a random group of people with drums, fire dancers, singing, screaming, whistles, dancing, drugs, booze, and oh-the police generally come and break it up but don’t give too many problems as long as you’re respectful!
24 May

Check out Rusja Foster’s blog post about the top 10 things to do in Brisband!! You can see that post and other posts by Rusja Foster at http://rusjafoster.wordpress.com!

Roo Around The World

1. Visit the Gallery of Modern Art.

2. Go to the Queensland Museum.

3. Wander around the Southbank (and go to the markets on a weekend).

4. Watch all the dancers rehearsing on the Southbank.

5. Visit Streets Beach on the Southbank (as you can probably tell, I really quite liked the Southbank!)…there’s a man-made beach and a lagoon to swim in…and lifeguards too!

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Things To Do In MIAMI by Chris

21 May

(Digital photo taken by Marc Averette; Found on Wikipedia)

FOOD

NIGHT OUT

Historic/Touristic

Events
  • If you happen to be in Miami on the last Friday of the month (check the website to be sure of the date:  http://www.viernesculturales.org/ ), then go to Little Havana’s monthly street festival called Viernes Culturales.  It’s a festival with live salsa bands, live cuban folk bands, live contemporary bands, artists selling paintings/crafts on the street, street vendors selling food, coffee, etc.  People dance in the street, sing to their favorite songs, restaurants stay open later than normal and you get to see the best in Cuban and Cuban-American art, crafts, culture and politics.  Absolutely amazing experience and it ends by 11pm/12pm so you ca still hit up bars and clubs afterwards.  It’s 100% cuban culture and something that can only be seen in Miami.  Also, it’s free, costs about $5 to park just off calle ocho.

Things To Do In KEY WEST (FL) by Chris

18 May

(Photo: Tore Sætre; found on Wikipedia)

1)    Tour the Little White House

2)    Tour Hemingway’s Home and Museum

3)    Buy sandals from Kinos (by far the best sandals in the world)

4)    Beer in Captain Tony’s Saloon (this was the original Sloppy Joe’s Bar where Hemingway used to drink; it changed its name after a new owner bought the place after Sloppy Joe’s moved around the corner to a bigger venue.  This is the one you want to see).

5)    Watch sunset and street performers at Mallory Square

6)    Happy Hour at Alonzo’s Oyster Bar (4-6:30pm)

  1. 700 Front Street, Key West, FL (305) 294-5880
15 May

Great post about Ballestas Islands (Peru) by “The Quiet Way.” Check out the blog at http://thequiteway.wordpress.com

Hard Rock Punta Cana (Dominican Republic) REVIEW

12 May

Matt and I celebrated his golden birthday (27 on the 27th) at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic.  We had an amazing time and wanted to share our experience with you all.  So, the following is our review of the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Punta Cana (& related trip features):

AIR TRAN:  We flew with Air Tran.  There were no films and two of the flights they seated us separately (thankfully the first one we were able to move, but the second one we had to sit with someone between us who refused to switch with us – didn’t make sense, especially when we offered for him to sit next to his wife, but oh well).

AIRPORT:  The line to buy the tourist card was a bit chaotic with people cutting in line, but it all works out once you realize that you can cut the line as well.  After that, it was smooth sailing, even with getting a cab.

CURRENCY:  If you buy Dominican pesos at the currency exchange, make sure to use them all.  I exchanged US$100, saved the pesos for an emergency, never used the pesos, and then exchanged them back for dollars upon return to the airport.  I only got back US$67!!   I lost $33!!  Don’t do what I did.  The cab we used accepted dollars.  The hotel accepted dollars and had a currency exchange.  Next time I will be all in or all out (in other words, only use pesos and use them all, or no pesos at all).

PUNTA CANA:  Beautiful beach.  Matt and I want to retire there.  Such a calm, beautiful place.

PRICE:  The hotel was A LOT.  However, I really wanted to stay there so I didn’t fuss about it.  And, some thing that did help us out was the $750 resort credit that we were given.  We used it on a special bottle of wine, a nice painting that is now hanging in our bedroom, a massage for Matt, a pedicure for me, and for two excursions (we only ended up taking advantage of one of them).  Do realize though that prices at the hotel for non-all-inclusive items are ridiculous!   For example, the same sunscreen I bought at CVS for US$11 was US$50 at the hotel!!  .

HOTEL GROUNDS:  Absolutely amazing!  Well maintained.

ROOMS:  Amazing!  We had a huge jacuzzi in the middle of the room.  The shower was its own room.  The only compliant I have is about noise.  They didn’t create thick enough doors/walls.  We could hear everything, including the next door’s TV.  For someone that is a light sleeper, bring ear plugs!

NIGHTLIFE:  The performances at the theater are disappointing.  Oro, the nightclub, was super nice but it was disappointing that the night club was not included. We paid US$40/pp.  We did get to see a Reggaeton concert that was really great.  Besides going out to the club, there are a lot of bars.

ACTIVITIES AT RESORT:  There were a lot of activities during the day, including beach volleyball, beach soccer, dance classes, live music, mini golf, and much more.  Lots to do during the day.  Night time there is not so many options.  The performances in the theater were terrible.  But, we were so tired after a day on the beach that we didn’t need much besides dinner.

GYM:  HUGE!  There were a lot of machines and workout classes.  However, I did not understand the need for all the TVs when there was no way to hear the TVs.

SPA:  Matt loved the spa. We used resort credit for his 50 minute massage.

SALON:  I used resort credit on a pedicure.  It was amazing.  They gave me hot tea, put a warm pillow around my neck, and gave me a foot massage.

CASINO:  If you like casinos, there are quite a lot of options.  However, we did not have any winning hands on this trip.

ACTIVITIES OUTSIDE RESORT:  The resort credit can be used on five different excursions.  We ended up booking the horse back riding on the beach and the snorkeling excursion.  We ended up skipping the snorkeling excursion because we just did not want to get up early (hey, it was free!), but we did do the horse back riding one, which was totally worth it.  The guides were super helpful with the horses and made us feel confident.

POOLS:  The lazy river was ok.  The adults only pool was really nice especially with the hammocks and beds.  We didn’t really go to any of the other pools because we were in love with the beach.

BEACH:  Absolutely breathtaking.  One of the best beaches I have ever been too.

Let’s talk about the RESTAURANTS:

BEACH/POOL BAR:  The food and drinks ordered at the pool were awesome for lunch and snacks.  The food and drinks ordered to the beach were ok, but the frozen drinks turned liquid quickly.

DELIs: We actually did not eat at any of the delis.

ICE CREAM:  Not so great.

CIAO (Italian):  The pasta we had was made by using a huge parmesan cheese wheel.  Super good!

IPANEMA (Brazilian):  We hated this place.  We didn’t really like anything there.

ISLA (Caribbean):  Great breakfast!  We only ate breakfast there.

LOS GALLOS (Mexican):  Great hosts.  Great entertainment (tequila man, singers).  This was one of our favorite restaurants.

PIZZETO (pizza):  If you think that no one can mess up pizza, think again.  This was terrible!  The food was so crappy that we left half way through the meal and went to the Italian restaurant.

THE MARKET (buffet):  We only ate breakfast there.  Great breakfast!

TORO (American):  We only ate lunch there but it was great.  Lots of options.  And, the chimichanga was amazing!  Favorite food I ate.

ZEN (Japanese):  Best meal!  Chicken, beef, shrimp (for Matt), rice, spring rolls, and more.  Yummy…

IN-ROOM DINING:  We only ordered chocolate cake and it was terrible!  Yucky!

Will we return to Punta Cana?  Yes.  For sure.  Will we stay at the Hard Rock again?  If there is a good deal.

Around the World Embassy Tour

9 May

Last Saturday, Erika, Stacia and I hit up Embassy Row in Washington, DC, for the Around the World Embassy Tour, which was part of Passport DC. Here are some of my comments about the embassies that we visited:

Brazil:  The Capoeira was entertaining.  The ambassador’s residence was beautiful.  Disappointed by the lack of food and drinks especially for a country that has such great food and drinks.

 Turkey:  Great art and booths about the different areas of the country and Northern Cyprus.  Wine tasting was not so great, but appreciated.  There were some food samples that were ok.

Japan:  Cool exhibits, such as the tsunami exhibit.

Chad:  You kind of just walk in and then walk out.  Super small space, but interesting to learn about a less familiar country.

Cote d’Ivoire:  We were treated like queens at this embassy.  The financial attache took a picture of us with guys dressed in traditional outfits.  We were given a good size plate of food.

Belize:  Not impressed.  Food for sale. No entertainment when we were there.  I think/hope they were still getting set up.

Indonesia:  Beautiful building.  The stairwell took our breathe away.

Mozambique:  Good info.  I really want to go to this country.

Peru:  Free drinks.  Food outside looked good, but they were charging.  Llamas were adorable.  This is a great embassy to visit.

Rwanda:  Supposedly great coffee (they ran out by the time we got there).  Beautiful brochure.  Not much to the embassy.

Venezuela:  GREAT juice!  The guava juice was amazing.  There was a tour, then juice outside, then music, then a tourism room.  Great set up.

Australia:  Best overall experience.  Got fake tattoos.  Did a wine tasting (great wine).  Tried some good cheese.  Saw some lizards.  Great exhibits.

Don’t forget that THIS SATURDAY is Shortcut to Europe: European Union Embassies’ Open House!  I hope to see you out there!

Kenya by Terence

6 May

Kenya believe it? I was fortunate enough to know someone that was going to be in Kenya and it gave me a chance to go to there whilst a friend was there at the same time.

To get around the city there is a common mode of transportation called a Matatu. It is basically a minivan or small bus that goes through the city making stops at every street corner. You pretty much have to know which ones to catch to get to your destination. They are fairly inexpensive and safe for foreign travelers.

I needed to fill my insatiable appetite for going off the beaten path and indulge in the local culture so riding on one of them was a must. If you don’t feel safe taking the local transportation there are always taxis. If you can, make a deal for the fare before entering the taxi. You will find that they are always eager to make a deal.

 (Riding on a Matatu through Eastleigh, Nairobi)

(Eastleigh)

Be sure to visit an orphanage while there. I was able to visit Mama Fatuma’s orphanage in Nairobi as I had a friend who knew someone who was volunteering there.

If you can, please try to donate tooth brushes, tooth paste, over the counter medicines, educational items, pens, paper, crayons, etc. These are the essential items needed but there are a lot more items necessary so try to coordinate with the volunteers and aid coordinators to see what they need and what you can afford to donate.

Please also try to interact with the staff and orphans. Everyone there was a pleasure to interact with. They were always ready to share a meal with me and were very eager to share their stories. Take the time to sit, listen, play and read to them.

These might seem like simple things to you and me but they vastly improve the lives of the orphans.

The orphanage I was at is in a suburb of Nairobi called Eastleigh. I encountered no problems during the day walking through the streets. You should take care if traveling through there at night. If you travel by taxi you should be ok.

(Mama Fatuma’s orphanage, Nairobi)

My first day at the orphanage they were having lamb and rice. It was very tasty. The second day I tried something more staple called ugali. It’s a starchy food that kind of looks like mashed potatoes. It was served with a side of spinach. I was told to add salt to make the flavor of the ugali pop.

Another local staple I tried was something called a samosa. It is made of fried dough and stuffed with minced meat and onions. Very delicious. For a snack the locals usually have what is called a mandazi. It is pretty much a donut. Also very delicious. Samosas and mandazis can be bought from street vendors and are fairly inexpensive.

Other than orphanages, in Nairobi itself, make sure you visit the New Central Bank Tower, the tallest structure in Nairobi. You can see most of the city from atop the tower. In the city there are many stores and restaurants and you should be able to find something to everyone’s taste. My friend and I managed to find a Thai restaurant within walking distance from the New Central Bank Tower.

(View from atop the New Central Bank Tower, Nairobi)

Just outside the city there are plenty of sights to see. One such site on the outskirts of the city is the Nairobi National Park. There you can see rhinos, zebras, lions and more. I was fortunate enough to see a mother rhino and her calf.

(Nairobi National Park)

There is also the Nairobi animal orphanage which has rescue animals that were either mistreated or orphaned. You can see Lions, Cheetahs, Leopards and more. If you are lucky enough you can get to play with a Cheetah. I was not as lucky as the park was about to close for the day.

(Nairobi animal orphanage)

Another place to see is the Elephant orphanage where they care for baby elephants. You can see the handlers feed them and you can also pet them.

(Elephant orphanage, Nairobi)

(Wild Boars at the Elephant orphanage, Nairobi)

One place not to miss is the Giraffe Center where you can hand feed giraffes. The Giraffe Center was started to educate the local population about the Rothschild Giraffe which is indigenous to the area. The Giraffe Center is a hands on experience. You are able to hand feed and pet them. One trick that the handlers want you to experience is when you place the giraffe food between your lips, the giraffe will gently take the food from you.

Giraffe Center, Nairobi)

(Giraffe Center, Nairobi)

About an hour from Nairobi is the beautiful Lake Naivasha. It is well worth the ride to see the wildlife. While riding along the trails you will see giraffes feeding on the acacia trees and zebras resting.  If you take a boat ride on the lake you will see the hippos.

(Lake Naivasha)

(Giraffes at Lake Naivasha)

(Zebra at Lake Naivasha)

(Hippos at Lake Naivasha)

While in Kenya I tried to see as much as possible. Once I visited the usual areas in and around Nairobi I decided to expand my sightseeing beyond the capital.

I met a few locals who had a small safari tour business. Their prices were ridiculously low compared to the bigger companies. One thing with the smaller tour companies though, you have to make sure they are safe. The crime rate in Kenya is high so tourists should make sure anyone they are paying money to are reputable.

The first place the tour guide took me to was Nanyuki. On the way there you really get to experience the local culture and the sights. I was able to go off the beaten path and experience things beyond the usual tourist areas.

We had stopped at a local street fruit market to stretch our legs from the long ride. The fruits were all fresh and delicious. One thing to note, if you stop at a fruit market, expect to be swarmed by dozens of children trying to sell you theirs. I was completely swarmed with I think the whole local kid population of the area with bananas and mangos shoved in my face. You can really make great deals for fresh fruit either at the market or with the kids. Free enterprise is alive and well there.

(Fresh fruit stand, Nanyuki)

(Great Rift Valley)

Further down the road from the fruit markets we entered the outskirts of Nanyuki. On the side of the road was a big sign claiming it was the area of the equator. Being the tourist that I am I had to stop to get a picture. There are a lot of locals hanging around the sign waiting for the unsuspecting tourists such as myself wanting to get paid to have your picture taken at the sign. Don’t fall for it. It doesn’t cost anything to have your picture taken but I did feel compelled to donate something as I was blessed with the life I lead and felt that giving what I can would help someone feed their family.

(Equator, Nanyuki)

Also in Nanyuki is Mount Kenya. I spent the better half of the day hiking up a very small part of the mountain. The temperature was high and also my heart rate. The nature hike is well worth it though. If you are lucky you will see elephants and Colobus monkeys. I was fortunate enough to see the Colobus monkeys but I wasn’t fast enough with the camera to capture them. They are very loud and very fast.

If you decide to do a hike on Mt. Kenya, bring lots of water and dress appropriately. While the climate is hot and muggy, I suggest wearing a hat, jeans and a light jacket or at least a long sleeve shirt. The brush is unforgiving and will thrash your skin. The long pants and sleeves also help keep the bugs (mosquitoes) off you. Also bring something to snack on as the hike took me eight hours total and you will get hungry.

(Mt. Kenya footbridge)

(Waterfall on Mt. Kenya)

Another spot outside of Nairobi is Lake Nakuru. It took about three hours from Nanyuki to Lake Nakuru and again, well worth it. This spot is famous for it’s thousands of pink flamingos. You will also see rhinos, baboons, zebras, Cape buffalo and yellow acacia trees.

(Flamingos at Lake Nakuru)

(Baboons at Lake Nakuru)

(Baboon enjoying the sights overlooking Lake Nakuru)

(Lake Nakuru)

Not everyone is as adventurous as I am. Be very careful hand feeding the wildlife as they are very unpredictable.

Kenya is a wondrous place. The wild life and views are stunning. The whole trip was surreal. If you ever get a chance to go to Africa please do, Kenya is a must on everyone’s list. My stay was pretty short and I managed to see quite a few places even without a set schedule. I just wish my stay was longer and was able to see more. Maybe one day I will make it back.

CourtneyMara.com is back!

6 May

Dear CourtneyMara.com readers,

After about a month without internet, CourtneyMara.com is back!  Stay tuned for posts about Kenya, my recent trip to the Dominican Republic, events happening in DC this month, and much more!  

Thank you for your patience and I look forward to reading your comments!

Sincerely,

Courtney Mara