February 24, 2015

Top 10 funny/embarrassing stories from Croatia

I like to think I'm a pretty seasoned traveler.  And then I end up in some new country in a ridiculous situation I never could have imagined, or I just make an ass of myself.  Croatia was no exception to this.  Here are the top 10 funny, embarrassing, or just plain weird happenings from my trip there back in September:

1.  I played on a playground in Sibenik like a boss.

2. Our guide took us through a pitch black and flooded WWI bunker on the side of a mountain at night.  My inner claustrophobe freaked out for 2 minutes, then I managed to calm the hell down.  I didn't even mind that much when we had to crawl through a hole in a wall to continue through to the other side.

3.  While kayaking around Murter, we stopped at a secluded beach where a man by himself was pushing off.  He had left his hat on shore, and one of our group waded out to give it back to him.  A few days later on a super secluded beach in Kornati (remember, this is not an easily accessible park), we ran into the dude's wife.  She recognized our group from his description, and she nearly flipped her sh*t thinking we had kayaked all the way there from Murter (3 hours away by boat). Then, we couldn't get rid of her.  She came back to us again and again exclaiming over the coincidence. Very loudly.

4. The boat that we took out to Kornati and back had the tiniest bathroom I've ever been in.  I also couldn't figure out how to flush the toilet.

5.  On the 3-hour boat ride back from Kornati, Alabama, my home state, somehow came up in conversation.  Our guide, Pero, started singing "Sweet Home Lalalama", who legitimately thought that was the proper name.

6.  We almost biked through a funeral in Murter trying to get to some Roman ruins.  Upon discovering what we were leisurely pedaling through, we promptly turned around and slunk away as quickly as possible. It would not have been the first time I'd crashed a funeral abroad.

7.  Pero got our park entrance tickets for us at the Krka waterfalls.  We started down the trail toward the falls, and the man that Pero had picked up the from appeared and held his hand out to me.  Naturally, I shook it.  He started laughing, and so did Pero.  He was there to rip the stub from our tickets, despite the fact that he had just sold them to our group about 60 seconds earlier.  I just thought he was really friendly.

8. On our last night, a few of us went out for drinks on the beach, including Pero, who was wearing sandals with Hello Kitty socks.

9.  I am utterly awful at mountain biking.  I skidded and slid all over the rocky, sandy trails around Murter, and I was Captain Chicken going downhill.  I was usually the very last person in the group, and they were nice enough to wait up for me every few minutes.

10. At the entrance to Manita Pec cave in Paklenica National Park was a tiny, ramshackle shed.  As we were waiting to go into the cave, Pero went into the shed, pulled out a large bottle of water, and handed it to us. I took a swig.  It was grain alcohol.  My eyes bulged out as I swallowed it, and I grinned at Pero.  Another woman took a sip, shrieked, and nearly spit it out.  You have to love a guy that takes you halfway up a mountain and serves you grain alcohol from a shack.

No trip is complete without a few nutty or embarrassing events, whether you're going to Croatia or Lalalama.  They make some of the best memories.

February 13, 2015

What did I do in Croatia?

Hopefully I got you somewhat curious about Croatia with my last post that practically described it as the best thing since sliced bread.  I ended up gushing about the country in general and Jamming Adventures a lot, so I figured I would save the beautiful details for this post instead of turning the last one into a War and Peace-sized production.

I'll start with one of my favorite things:  food and drink.  They make great coffee (this is very important to me), brew very nice basic beers (this is also very important to me), and boast some absolutely fantastic wines that just don't get exported (this is very perturbing to me).  Influence from Italy and northern countries like Slovenia, Austria, and Hungary mean that Croatia knows its way around pizza, sausage, steak, and seafood.  I had the best calamari of my life at a restaurant in a campground that we kayaked to. Sheep cheese from the region of Pag gave me a foodgasm.  My stomach loved Croatia.

And now, the stuff I got to do:  Torrential rains threw a bit of a wrench into our plans for the first couple of days, but thankfully it didn't stop us from doing anything at all.  We spent an afternoon running around the nearby town of Sibenik, where we explored an abandoned fort that just happened to be one of the locations where a little HBO series called Game of Thrones is filmed.  There was no one there except for us and a crew setting up equipment for shooting the next day.  After the rains cleared up on a couple of other days, we kayaked and biked our way around the island of Murter.  We kayaked to beaches not accessible by motor vehicle and snorkeled around a small shipwreck, and we biked through sandy trails and nearby towns throughout the island, where I found out that I SUCK at mountain biking.  The beautiful afternoon and picture-perfect views made up for my wimpy biking.

Walkway to the fort just outside Sibenik
Kayaking around Murter
Sailboats near Murter
Biking break
Man, I thought Murter was gorgeous.  Then Jamming started taking us to national parks for more kayaking, biking, and hiking, and it got even better.

We spent a day hiking in Paklenica National Park, which boasts steep, jagged mountains that makes rock climbers drool.  A steep climb up a winding, gravelly trail that criss-crossed streams and waterfalls brought us to Manita pec cave, an 8-story gigantic cave with stalactites and stalagmites that are millions of years old.  It was pretty mind-boggling.  It was also freezing inside.  The views the entire way were incredible.  Even from the parking lot.  I'm going to let the pictures speak for themselves.

Another day was spent kayaking in Kornati National Park.  This was my absolute favorite day, and I considered throwing a fit when we were told we needed to head home.  To access the park, you need a permit - and a boat to get you there.  You also need someone that knows their way around, because the park is just a bunch of (mostly) uninhabited rocky islands sitting in crystal clear blue water.

Well, Jamming knows a guy who has a boat and knows his way around.  So we loaded a bunch of kayaks into his boat and spent 3 chilly hours speeding our way over.  It really is nothing but clear water, hilly/rocky islands, and a few grazing sheep roaming around.  It was glorious.  Our guide, Pero, led us to one of the only beaches in the entire park, which was simply stunning.  I would have been happy camping out and kayaking this park for days.

Our final day was spent biking around Krka National Park and visiting the enormous waterfalls that are the main draw of the park.  This was (mercifully) a road biking day.  I love me some road biking.

Biking around Krka
It started raining - yes, again - as we arrived at the entrance to the waterfalls.  Much of the entrance area was actually flooded.  It wasn't until this point that I realized just how much rain Croatia was getting.  The waterfalls were completely out of control.  Paul, one of the owners of Jamming that came out to meet us at the falls, reported that this was the largest the falls had been in at least 25 years.  These falls were indeed incredible.  But the sheer amount of water we saw being thrown around was flabbergasting.  Everything - everything -  turned out to be flooded.  Open walkways had water rushing underneath.  If this park had been in the US, it would have been closed to the public.  I'm glad it wasn't, though.  It was an amazing sight, and we got to see it in a way that very few people ever will.  The power of water was very humbling that day.

None of this water is supposed to be here
This is the quick and dirty version of the trip, but I can't finish off talking about this trip without telling you about the funny and embarrassing stuff that always happens when visiting a new country.  So I'll save that for the next post.

February 8, 2015

Oops, I fell off the wagon

Sorry about that - I disappeared for 6 months.  I honestly don't have a great excuse.  Life and laziness.  They happen.  I announced I was going to Croatia, and for all you knew, I went and never came back.

That was pretty tempting, actually.  Croatia is officially my new favorite country, and I could easily see moving or retiring there.  For starters, it's a jaw-dropping gorgeous country.  Granted, most of what I saw was coastal, but dadgum was it breathtaking.  People were helpful and friendly without being too helpful and friendly.  I was always treated like a person, not a tourist with "ATM" tattooed on my forehead.  And I found the most refreshing was the safety.  There's very little crime in Croatia.  Shoot, my first night in the country, a group of us took bicycles to the town center for dinner and left them propped up against a wall without locks.  There was no concern that they would be stolen.  No one locks their doors.  I even left my passport sitting out in the apartment I was staying in with the windows open and didn't worry in the least about someone taking it.  I've been so many places where I had to keep my valuables practically in my underwear, watch my own purse like a hawk, and do research on elaborate scams that I needed to be aware of and avoid.  Not having to worry about all that was glorious.

Then there was the tour that I booked.  I have a history of traveling on my own, but the whole reason for this trip was to go on an adventure tour that I found on The Clymb.  They offered a kayaking/biking/hiking trip through a local Croatian adventure tour company called Jamming Adventures.  If the outdoors is your thing and Croatia piques your interest, I cannot recommend this company highly enough.  They are super organized, very responsive, flexible, and have a fantastic lineup of activities ("so many activities!").  They also restrict their tours to a maximum of 8 people, so it doesn't even feel like an organized tour.

People look at me funny when they find out I went to Croatia but didn't go to Dubrovnik, Zagreb, or any other major city with tons of attractions.  Sure, I'd love to see those places someday, too, but I couldn't have been happier going to breathtaking national and local parks that many tourists probably never get to see or don't have to resources to get to (like the Kornati Islands, which I'll talk about in a future post - very difficult to get to on your own).  The tiny town of Murter where I stayed offered both a large grocery store and a dramatic hilltop view of the surrounding islands, each just a 5 minute walk from Jamming's accommodations.

I'd go back in a heartbeat.

August 21, 2014

Preparing to travel on a whim

I just booked my trip to Croatia a week ago, and exactly one month from now, I'll be coated in sunscreen and paddling my way around the Adriatic Sea.  I think I booked this trip on something of a whim.  I know time is relative and all that jazz (and physics), but I'm not Neil deGrasse Tyson, so I'm not going to get into all of that.  But I did actually do a bit of prep work in order to book this trip as last-minute as I did.

Now, if you're rolling in dough and have Kardashian as one of your best friends, then traveling prep work is not necessary for you.  But if you're a cheap bastard like I am and don't want to pay a sick amount of money to be able to take a trip at a moment's notice, then setting a few things in motion long before you might want to go somewhere is totally worth the effort.

There are 2 main items that made my Croatia trip possible:

  1. Knowledge of companies and websites that offer reasonably priced or discounted trips that are highly regarded.
  2. A wealth of frequent flyer miles, none of which I accumulated from actually flying.

Let's talk about #1.  I didn't have any specific place I wanted to go, but I did have a date range that I needed to work with.  Since I'm mildly obsessed with travel in general, I already knew of a few places to look for trips that I thought might interest me.

There are places all over the internet offering trips, so that can feel pretty overwhelming.  One excellent company that I've heard about for years is Intrepid Travel, which offers small group tours all over the world.  Nomadic Matt has recently entered into a partnership with Intrepid, and if they're good enough for Matt, then they're, well, good.  And if you're unfamiliar with Nomadic Matt, he's pretty much the Jesus of budget traveling.

Another excellent place to look for trips offered by many different, smaller outfitters is The Clymb, and this is where I found my Croatia trip.  The Clymb offers not just trips (most are activity-based), but all kinds of outdoor clothing and gear at a discount.  Not all the trips they offer had user reviews, but every trip that did have reviews had nothing but fantastic ones.  And since booking my trip, I've also found the company to be very responsive when I've had questions.

Now on to #2, which is a little more complex.  First of all, in order to pull off #2, you MUST have a decent credit score and be financially savvy enough to not ever keep a balance on your credit cards.  Ever.  That's because the easiest way to bulk up on frequent flyer miles is to sign up for credit cards that offer awesome deals just for signing up and using the cards for as many every day purchases as possible to get even more miles.  This is one of the most frequently used strategies in what's called travel hacking.  That's a subject for another day, but the bottom line is, if you keep a balance on your credit cards, this method is totally not worth it.  You'll just lose a lot of money to interest, and any miles you gain from signing up and using a card will be completely negated.

Now that we have that little lecture out of the way, I'm going to assume from here on out that you are able to pay off your credit cards every month.  If you want to try for #2, you need to find and sign up for a credit card or two to sign up for that offer sign-up bonuses of at least 30,000 miles (or points that can be converted 1:1 into miles) and one year fee-free.  For many of these cards, you also have to charge a certain amount of money to the card in the first 3 months.  But, if you just charge every day expenses and bills to your card as mentioned above, this will not be a problem at all.  I would also advise against signing up for a whole bunch of cards at one time.  If they all have charge minimums in order to get the sign-up bonus activated, you'll have to spend that on each card during that time period, and unless you are a super big spender in general, this would be difficult to pull off for more than one or two cards.

But there are thousands of credit cards out there for you to choose from.  While there are many that are worthwhile, I'm going to focus on just a couple of them today.

The first one I'd like to mention is the British Airways Chase Visa.  Once every year or 2, they offer a crazy-ass monster deal that is, well, the best sign up offer I've ever seen.  You get 50,000 just for signing up alone - no strings attached.  And if you spend a minimum amount on the card in the first 3 months, you get another 50,000 miles.  They don't waive the fee for the first year, but paying just $95 for 100,000 miles?  That's nothing! This is THE deal to pounce on when it comes around.  Also, you can totally book flights on British Airways partner airlines with the points.  I flew from DC to Santiago using miles earned from this card, I didn't fly British Airways, nor did I come anywhere near Great Britain.  If you find out about this deal when it happens, drop what you're doing and freakin' sign up for this card.  But if you don't want to wait for this insane deal, this card is still a good deal at any time with a normal sign-up bonus of 50,000 miles.

The second card I'll talk about is a good deal any time:  the Chase Sapphire Visa.  This is the card I used to book my flights to Croatia.  There is a sign-up bonus with a minimum spend amount in the first 3 months, but there's no annual fee at all.  This card builds generic points instead of miles on a specific airline.  But you can redeem the points at a 1:1 ratio for miles on a whole mess of airlines.  And when you use the card for either travel or dining out, you get 2 points per dollar instead of 1 point for everything else.  But one of the best things about this card is redeeming the points - you can use the Chase travel center to book flights with your points.  Their travel site searches all available airlines that the points can be redeemed with, and there aren't blackout dates.  It's like using any other flight search engine.  It is SO easy.  While I love my British Airways card, I was pulling my hair out trying to figure out if I could use my miles with them to get to Croatia. I spent a long time trying different options with British Airways and came up with pretty much nothing that would work for me.  But with the Chase travel center?  I had viable options in 3 minutes.

I totally understand that signing up for more credit cards just to bank a bunch of frequent flyer miles might seem a little daunting, or even just straight up crazy and stupid.  I was a bit nervous about it when I signed up for my first card solely for this purpose.  But I've done it many times now (Delta AmEx, Starwood Hotels AmEx, Southwest Visa, US Airways MasterCard, British Airways Visa, and Chase Sapphire), and it's been absolutely worth it.  I've saved thousands in airfare over the past few years, and while it takes more advanced planning and coordination than, say, finding a website that offers quality trips at a discount, the payoff is truly fantastic.  Had I not signed up for my Chase Sapphire Visa approximately 2 years ago, I wouldn't have been able to purchase my Croatia trip last minute on the cheap.  I'm saving about $1300 through my bookings with The Clymb and using my credit card points.

I guess you could say that I started preparing for the Croatia trip 2 years ago when I signed up for the Chase credit card and when I heard about The Clymb website for the first time (that was a few years ago, too).  I know that sounds like a lot of "prep" work for a trip, but browsing some travel websites and filling out a credit card application online doesn't take a whole lot of work.  I actually consider it more "travel maintenance" than anything else - keeping everything in tip-top shape so that when I'm ready to pounce on an opportunity to go somewhere, I have the tools sharpened and ready to make it happen.

August 15, 2014

The next big trip will be to...

... Croatia!

Oh, you didn't know I was planning to take a trip?  Well, that makes two of us.

I've known for a few weeks that I'd have much of September to do pretty much whatever floats my boat thanks to having some time between jobs.  But due to many other factors, I didn't know if going anywhere during that time would be possible or even a good idea.  Maybe it's not a good idea, but I just said what the hell and booked it anyway.  It's on somewhat of a whim I suppose, but in a lot of ways it's really not.  I'm saving that for the next blog post, though.

So what exactly will I be doing?  Kayaking in the Adriatic Sea for a week, that's what. There will also be a little hiking and biking involved, and I'm going to entirely miss the crush of the main tourist season while still enjoying some rockin' weather.  It's been nearly two years since my last international trip, and I've been jonesing to get off the grid and go somewhere completely and utterly different - as in can't read the street signs (if they have street signs) different.

I am just a tad excited about all of this.

How did I decide on Croatia?  Well, for starters, I've never been.  But that wasn't a huge factor, because I pretty much want to go everywhere that I haven't been to yet.  I decided I wanted to do something, not just fly to a big city and mill around.  So I limited my search to a website that I knew would offer exactly the kind of trips I was looking for. - The Clymb.  Then I asked the following questions:

  1. Does this trip sound cool?
  2. Have I been to said destination before?
  3. Does this trip fit my desired time frame?
  4. Can I get there and back using frequent flyer miles?
Boom.  The Croatia trip I found met all my criteria.  Done.  Pass the sunscreen.  It's time to lather up and get pumped.

July 21, 2014

The best alternative to staying at Disney World

If you've never been to Disney World, I would bet a lot of money that you're planning to go.  Even if you've been before, I'd be willing to bet (not as much money) that you're planning on going back.

It's no secret that people freakin' love Disney World, and it's also no secret that it's freakin' expensive to go.  While many people stay on Disney property for all the conveniences of being a stone's throw from their favorite rides, there are plenty more that stay elsewhere for the sake of saving a bit of money.  I can't blame them.  I'm a cheapskate, myself.  If you fall into the latter category, I have just the place for you to stay:

Winter Garden, Florida.

Never heard of it?  I'm not surprised.  I had never heard of it until my cousin and her husband moved there.  Not that I was especially up-to-date on my Florida geography since I'm not a huge fan of the state as a whole.  But the town is only about a 30 minute drive from the heart of Disney, it's ridiculously adorable, and there is not a single touristy thing about it.  It's awesome.

Now, my cousin and her hubby have lived in Winter Garden for a few years, but I didn't really get to absorb all the charm of this little town until my last visit, where I actually stayed in a fantastic bed and breakfast smack in the center of town.  The family converged on the town for a surprise party for my cousin, so we all had to lay low and stay, well, anywhere but her house.  On previous trips to the town, my cousin and I would just hole up in their house catching up, doing something along the lines of drinking PBR and watching Top Gun in our pajamas (which is a glorious thing to do with your weekend, actually).

Actually staying downtown gave me a chance to really experience the life and flavor of this town.  It's completely different from Disney.  It's completely different from the beach towns and cities.  Being in Winter Garden almost felt like going back in time.   The whole place has an old-fashioned, casual feel.  And on the third Saturday of every month, downtown holds an event called Cruz-N-Cars.  People from all over God-knows-where converge on the downtown strip and show off their classic cars.  Oldies music is blasted from somewhere.  People bring out their camp chairs and just sit on the street enjoying the cars, talking to passers-by, and simply relax.  It's fantastic.  And if you don't like old cars and good music and chilling outside, you are a terrorist.

I don't even care about cars, but this is still cool.
Downtown Winter Garden even has solid food choices.  Good luck finding awesome food anywhere inside Disney except for Epcot.  Thai Blossom Restaurant rocks.  If you're in a pizza mood, Winter Garden Pizza is delicious.  And Moon Cricket Grille is a standard but solid place to enjoy a few beers.

Did I mention that there's a great multi-use trail that also cuts right through downtown?  Yeah, they have that, too.  And a really nice bike shop tucked among all the great food joints in case you're on two wheels get a flat.  Of course, you'll have to brave the oppressive Florida heat and humidity to make use of the trail.  And really, that's one of the main reasons I hate the whole dadgum state.  But at least they have wintertime going for them.

So where is there to stay in this oasis from Disneymania? Well, there's only one hotel downtown, but you won't need another one, because this one is fabulous.  It's the Historic Edgewater Hotel, and it's really more of a bed and breakfast.  The building is beautiful, they have a fascinating old hand-operated elevator, the rooms are charming and cozy, and they even make you a hot breakfast made to order.

I swear, this town really is worth the small commute to and from Disney World.  It's a great place to relax and regroup before diving into the crowds, lines, and expense of the theme parks.  And if you disagree, I'll be happy to pay up that money I wagered.  Which was none, actually, but never mind that.

May 21, 2014

Learn more about NYC by eating

If you look up "hangry" online, you will probably find a picture of me.  Hunger and I do not get along well.  So when my friend Marissa suggested taking a food tour of the Lower East Side in Manhattan two weekends ago, I was all for it.  God, I love food.

The tour was offered by the Tenement Museum, also conveniently located on the Lower East Side.  And despite already having a bagel and a donut earlier in the morning, I was ready to shove more food into my gullet.

We ended up being 15 minutes late because the subway is smarter than we are.  But as soon as we rolled up, we were escorted to our tour group, given a hearty welcome, and promised bottled water at the next stop. I hadn't even eaten anything yet, but I was already happy.

What I didn't realize about the tour was that it's purpose is to give a glimpse into the history of the Lower East Side through the foods that have been made and consumed there through the years.  We ate pretzels from a German saloon as our guide told us about the German settlers in New York.  We ate pickled pineapple from a Jewish pickle vendor and learned about the demise of food carts and old time propaganda claiming that pickles were terribly unhealthy.  We scored hot-right-out-of-the-oven bialys from a Polish bakery - something I'd never even heard of.  And we ate green tea flavored pastries from a bakery owned by the daughter of Chinese immigrants who wanted to fuse French baking with traditional Chinese flavors (and she has definitely succeeded).  

After it was over, I felt both educated and sufficiently not hungry.  The tour gave great insight into various cultures and the history of New York that I doubt you'll ever get in a classroom.  But exploring history and culture through food makes so much sense - it's one thing that is a central part of every human being's life.  I'd never thought of that until I got to stuff my face on this tour.

Our guides were fantastic, and so was the food.  In fact, I was so enamored with the pickled pineapple that I went online and ordered myself an entire gallon of it.  I highly recommend this tour if you find yourself in New York, and I'm pretty darn happy that Marissa discovered it.

And now I will wait for my tub of pineapple to arrive. I'm getting hungry.