My Guide to Venice, Italy

I heard a quote once about Venice:  “Visiting Venice is like eating a box of chocolate liqueurs in one go…” (author unknown).

Now it might not be just like that… It depends if eating an entire box of chocolates makes you sick or not lol. But I do understand the decadence the author might have been referring to…

Venice is luxuriously self-indulgent.

I envy any true Venetian who calls this incredible city “home”. The art scene in Venice rivals any museum, the city itself you could argue is an open-air museum and art gallery on display for the world to admire. Venice captured my heart.

Where to Stay:

Venice is expensive. I’ll be honest though, spend the money, it’s worth it. Some of the hotels you can stay in here are incredible, impeccably pristine and are an experience in themselves. Venice is not as large of an area as you may think. The alleyways and crowds can make getting from point “A” to point “B” a little longer than usual, but wandering the streets of Venice is part of the romance of this place.

Hotel Ca’ d’Oro – 3 Star – Located near the Cannaregio area of Venice, this 3 star property is great value. It’s about 15-20 minutes walk from Piazza San Marco, 7-10 minute walk from the famous Rialto Bridge and Market. Hotel Ca’ d’Oro is clean comfortable and reasonably easy to get to by Vaporetto (nearest station is within 5 minutes).

Santa Chiara Hotel – 4 Star – I booked this hotel solely on location on the way back from my cruise. It’s across the street from the People Mover to the Cruise Ship Terminals and across the bridge from the train station. It’s one of the only hotels on Venice that you can physically drive to. The buses to and from the airport also depart and arrive right behind the hotel, as well as several different vaporetto stops, so for location and ease it’s amazing. The service of the staff and rooms are amazing as well. I booked a Deluxe Canal View room and it didn’t disappoint. It’s been recently renovated, the rooms are very well appointed and a deluxe breakfast buffet was also included.

Hotel Danieli – 5 Star – This hotel is a Venice classic. Featured in so many films, once you stay here, you’ll understand why it’s a must. Part of the Starwood hotel brand, Hotel Danieli has the most perfect of locations, located mere steps from St. Marks Square and the Doge’s Palace. The restaurant here is incredible and overlooks the Grand Canal.

Other hotels to note: The Gritti Palace, Hilton Molino Stucky, JW Marriott Venice and The Westin Europa & Regina.

Where to Eat:

When you visit to visit Venice, “foodie town” is probably not what you are thinking. Sure Venice probably is in the place you want to have certain Italian foods if it’s your only stop in this amazing country, however Venice has amazing gastronomical offerings available to it’s visitors. Venetians have a very different way of living, but they’re definitely doing it right. Typical Venetian breakfast would be your cappuccino and cornetto (as with most of Italy). Lunch could be a slice of pizza at a local bakery, a Panini or even a calzone from one of the small bakeries you’ll find along one of the winding pathways. Remember, any good restaurant doesn’t need to have waiters outside trying to get you to sit down to eat with a “free glass of wine” or a “tourist menu”, all the good places are already busy.

Venice is known for its seafood and still to this day there is a fish market at the Rialto Market every Monday, definitely something to check out. Most cantinas and restaurants send their chefs every day to get local produce, fish and other daily finds for amazing daily creations and specials.

But early evening/late afternoon, is strictly for cicchetti. Cicchetti is similar to tapas, it’s a variety of small bites that you enjoy with a glass of house wine or as Venetians call it “umbra”, which literally translates as a glass of “shade”. Usually when ordering cicchetti, you can have an entire meal with a couple glasses of wine for under €20 per person. For dinner Venice boasts some of Italy’s best restaurants. In Venice you can find several Michelin star restaurants, and several restaurants that cater to the locals which in my opinion are just good. 

The local drink of choice, that depends where you go. As mentioned, house wines in Venice are amazing whether you choose white or red. However with Venice’s location to the DOC and DOCG areas (regionally protected wines) means the prosecco here is super fresh, crisp and reasonable. Check out Al Prosecco to try some amazing local prosecco by the glass in this hip wine bar setting. Also, Venice is the birth place of the real Bellini. Make sure you try this very refreshing cocktail at least once. I enjoyed mine whilst watching people go by near Piazza San Marco.

Some of my favourite restaurants in Venice include Ristorante Wildner which is located on the Grand Canal near San Marcos Piazza, walk along past Hotel Danieli near the San Zaccaria vaporetto stops, you’ll find this amazing restaurant. They had a delicious 3 course meal for €25 including a starter, main and dessert. For Michelin star dining, try Il Ridotto behind Hotel Danieli in a small piazza. I tried their tasting menu and it was INCREDIBLE! They also own a trattoria right across in the piazza, called Aciugheta. I had a pizza, Aperol Spritz and a few glasses of wine here for lunch after trying Il Ridotto for dinner one night. Good atmosphere and great selection of local wines. For cicchetti, favourite of many locals would be Cantina do Spade near Rialto, and Al Timon in Cannareggio.

What to see:

Venice is one of those magical places where you want to get up early to take advantage of the true local life or what’s left there of. Venice at sunrise overlooking the Grand Canal is one the most beautiful moments that I’ve ever experienced. Simply wandering the alleyways of Venice (and getting lost) is something that you definitely need to do. Taking in the sights, the smells, the atmosphere and truly the soul of this place. Sometimes that’s the great part of travelling. While wandering the streets of Venice I turned the corner and came across a gentleman playing the violin on the steps of a church. I stood there, for a few minutes, peering through an archway, whilst the locals went about their daily life. Again, one of those moments I was so happy to have come across. It can be easy to get lost in Venice, however follow the signs to the nearest popular points of interest (yellow signs on most buildings pointing the way down alleys to Rialto, San Marco, and other popular areas of Venice).

For museums, Doge’s Palace, St. Marks Basilica and the Peggy Guggenheim Museum were my favourites. I also wandered the area around the Accademia which is near where the Peggy Guggenheim Collection is located.

I also did trips over to Murano, Burano and Torcello. You can do a guided half day tour, which I did, however I revisited all the islands myself with vaporettos (the ferry system in Venice). Torcello holds most of the history of Venice, as this was the first of the islands in the lagoon that was inhabited when Treviso was invaded (more on Treviso in another post soon). Burano, is know for its beautiful lace making and colourful houses. It’s a stunning fishing village that you want to visit in the early morning or early evening once all the tour groups have left. Murano is the island of world renown glass. True Murano glass is still made here on this island and crafted by amazing artisans. I did purchase a few pieces, just be sure that you are buying from a reputable shop as some do sell glass from China.

Another thing to do whilst in Venice is to try to take in a performance at the opera (or at least try to do a tour of the opera house). It’s one of those things that truly gives you a glimpse of life into Venice’s luxurious and opulent past.

If you’re looking for a great local tour option, check out Urban Adventures. They offer some great small group tour options in Venice. I love Urban Adventures as they are typically food based tours and are also run by in the know locals, so you get a true taste of what local life is like in the place where you take a tour with them. They take you places that not many tourists go, so it’s very well worth it!

How to Get Around:

So as you may know their are no cars on Venice proper.

So getting around involves walking or taking water transport of some sort. There are multiple water transport options. To and from the airport you have the Alilaguna ferries. Around Venice and to the other islands, you have the vaporetto system (run by ACTV), which is very similar to city buses just on water. You can also hire private boats (water taxis) to take you from point A to point B in VIP style. Water taxis are by far the most expensive way to get around Venice when it comes to transport.

Finally, you then have the very touristic water transportation of gondolas. A gondola ride can cost you upwards of €80 for an hour and is not typical a mode of transportation anymore, but really just a tour of the canals. It’s still a beautiful way to enjoy Venice’s past and see the city from a different angle.

I did do a lot of walking around Venice, but found it very nice to use the vaporetto system. I would highly suggest buying the pass for as many days is you feel you need it, as it is a better rate, however you can buy a 24 hour pass (also a pass with the bus transfer to and from the airport). You do need to validate the pass before you get onto the vaporetto, you will see a validation machine, which you just hold the RFID embedded pass in front of until it goes green and beeps. If you failed to validate your vaporetto pass (ACTV pass), you can be fined. The passes are good for all ferries and vaporettos with ACTV, so day trips to the other islands of Murano, Burano, Torcello and Lido are all included.

Honestly I LOVED Venice. Italy to me as a country feels like home, but Venice even more so. My Great Grandfather is from the Veneto area, so I feel a connection to Venice. I can’t wait to come back here.

I know over-tourism is a problem, the “No Grandi Navi” (No Large Ships) debate is still strong, however after visiting, it seems the vaporettos and water taxis create more of a wake and waves than the large ships. Cruise ships at that speed really create no wake, but it’s a big debate. Where I think the true problem lies is the large amount of cruise ship passengers and tour groups that just visit Venice for the day only. I can see the frustration, I myself got frustrated with one tour group in an alleyway, I guided an elderly “nonna” past them whilst they took up the entire space, not being considerate to the passers by. These passengers also don’t necessarily support the true local businesses. The true locals who own restaurants, artisan shops and stores are being left out to the street vendors who hawk products made in China where they buy a magnet or a tacky tourist bag with “Venezia” written across it. I know this is a whole other conversation, but I think it comes down to being a conscious traveller. We do our best to support local at home, we need to strive to do this abroad as well.

I hope you are able to visit Venice for more than a day, it’s truly an amazing, romantic and unique city.

If you have any questions, I’d love to hear from you! Please contact me if you’d like more recommendations.

Happy travels!

 

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Cruise Review – 11 Day Mediterranean Cruise – Norwegian Spirit – Day 11

Day 11 – Naples, Italy

Today I celebrated my birthday in one of the most beautiful places on this planet… The Amalfi Coast.

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We arrived into Naples quite early, just after 6:30am. Had coffee on the balcony, taking in what today meant to me, I was grateful. Grateful that I was spending my 32nd birthday here. Grateful that I had the chance to re-start my life the way I was able to on my terms. Today was exciting and both sad. Excited that I would be seeing the Amalfi Coast, but sad this was the last full day of my cruise. After coffee, I had breakfast down at Cagney’s. After, I headed downstairs to depart the ship and meet up with my tour. I booked “Explore the Amalfi Coast” tour though Shore Excursions Group. There was about 20 of us all together, I lined up first and grabbed a window seat on the right side of the bus when looking out the from window (when getting on the bus, sit to your left), this is the best view of the Amalfi Coast as it’s on the right side as you travel.

Driving towards the Amalfi Coast, we passed by Pompeii and Mt. Vesuvius while listening to Marco our guide give us a history of the area. We then entered some crazy long tunnels to eventually arrive at Sorrento. We did a stop at a limoncello factory, did some tastings and I bought a small “Sorrento” ceramic mug. I was more interested in the view of Sorrento and taking in it’s beauty.

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We then continued on and arrived to the Amalfi Coast. The drive is incredible. It’s stunning. The roadway winds along the mountain, as the cliffs go straight down to the water, many hundreds of metres in some spots below. We continued on to Positano, where as we arrived, the entire bus sang “Happy Birthday” to me. This was honestly the best birthday ever. Positano was beautiful. I’ve wanted to come here for years and it took my breath away. I honestly can’t wait to come back here.

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The ceramics from this area were also equally as stunning. I was on the hunt for an olive oil pourer and I knew I would be able to find one today. We stopped for lunch just on the other side of Positano, at a restaurant over looking the water, perched on the cliffside. Lunch was included and consisted of bread, salad and a bowl of fresh made pasta (the pasta was a specialty to the Amalfi area). We sampled some of the olive oils with lunch and fell in love with a lemon infused olive oil (we are in the land of lemons), little did I know this was going to change my kitchen decor once I got home lol. I purchased the lemon olive oil as it was just so good.

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We continued on to the town of Amalfi, this is where we had the most free time. Some opted to go out on a boat tour, I just wanted to wander. I headed into the main square where I found a limoncello maker on the corner, right beside the Cathedral. I walked in and was immediately welcomed. I spent quite a bit of time here learning about limoncello and speaking to the son of the family run business. They not only sell limoncello but some beautiful ceramics which I found my olive oil pourer! I bought some Crema di Limoncello (please try this limoncello, if you don’t, you’re missing out!) and a few bottles of regular limoncello for gifts for friends.

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Heading down to the water, I stopped for some gelato at Savoia, which apparently has the most amazing cakes as well. Tip: Wear a swimsuit under your clothes! I waded in the water for a bit, it was so inviting and warm, it was really the only time I actually swam in the Mediterranean! So many said they would have loved to have gone in, but they didn’t have their swimsuit. Dried off  just in time to meet the bus to continue on to Ravello.

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This entire area is gorgeous. I can’t wait to come back and actually spend a week or longer here. The Amalfi Coast is where my great-grandmother is from before she moved to Scotland to marry my great-grandfather. It was so nice to have that deeper connection to this area. Unfortunately there were quite a few forest fires in the area, it did hinder slightly the blue skies, but it was still beautiful weather nonetheless.

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Instead of back tracking, we found out that tour buses (even the smaller ones) are only allowed to travel eastbound on the Amalfi Coast highway. It’s so narrow in places that it would be too dangerous. So we went over the mountains to head back to Naples. It was such a great trip. I totally recommend it! I am actually doing another Mediterranean Cruise in May 2019 and will be doing a similar tour again, this time spending more time in Positano and Sorrento.

Once back onboard the ship, I entered my room to it completely decorated for my birthday. It was such a nice surprise! I had another two bottles of prosecco, one from the Captain another from the Hotel Director and a huge cake! My towel animal was also a turtle (this one and the elephant towel animal was my favourite).

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I caught the “Farewell Show” tonight and it was great to see the final goodbye from the staff. Upon leaving the theatre, it was nice that the Hotel Director and other officers greeted me by name and wished me a “Happy Birthday”, honestly I can’t say enough how great the service was on the Spirit!

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I then had my last dinner at Windows with friends, again staff singing Happy Birthday and shared my cake with everyone who wanted a piece (it was huge). We all sadly said our goodbyes, I headed back to my room and regrettably packed. I tagged my luggage with my “priority” tags and placed my bag outside my cabin door.

The next morning, I had my last breakfast at Cagney’s and said my goodbye’s to all the staff. I picked up my luggage from the Priority area off the ship and boarded the shuttle to the port entrance. I took another shuttle to the train station and bought a €5 ticket back to Rome. This was almost the same train that I paid €16 for on the way here, just made two or three more stops. Once back at Rome, I checked into my hotel (Hotel De Petris) and headed out for my Vatican tour.

This cruise was amazing, the itinerary was incredible. Yes the ship is older, but I still would sail on the Norwegian Spirit again in a heartbeat. I loved the staff and the size of the ship. You could easily make friends and bump into people again and again. Nothing felt too busy. Food was very good, didn’t really have a bad meal anywhere.

I can’t wait to travel with Norwegian Cruise Lines again in the future!

 

Cruise Review – 11 Day Mediterranean Cruise – Norwegian Spirit – Day 6

Day 6 – Piraeus (Athens)

Woke up quite early this morning, just before sunrise and was very thankful I did. As this trip went on, I felt a new theme in a sense for more than just the cruise but in how these places were effecting me personally… Gratitude… It was a beautiful sunrise this morning just as we were docking in Piraeus, the main port area near Athens. I sat on my balcony for quite some time, drinking coffee watching the sun rising and just relaxing, with the ferry traffic coming and going. We docked at about 6:30am, earlier than our 9:00am scheduled arrival.

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I then headed up to Raffles and ate outside aft, again overlooking the port. This is another favourite place for me on the ship by far! After a light breakfast, I headed back to my cabin, grabbed a few items then ventured out to meet up with my tour. The tour I did here in Athens was through Shore Excursions Group called “Exclusive Athens with Free Time in the Plaka”. We met our tour guide just outside the terminal and boarded a bus to Athens. We did a driving tour of the city, making a few photo stops along the way. We drove by the now mostly abandoned 2014 Olympic venues. Some they are renovating and trying to utilize, others are just now in a state where they’ve been abandoned for too long and are in need of more repair than it’s worth.

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One of my favourite photo stops on the tour was of the Ancient Olympic Stadium, I love history. With Peyongchang 2018 on my mind, it’s crazy to see how far the games have come. This is where I also felt the first touches of Greek mythology come to life. Statues dedicated to Athena, Apollo and Zeus abounded throughout the city.

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After our city tour, we were dropped at the Acropolis and most of the group opted to do the guided tour of the Acropolis. I decided to skip it as I knew one day I’d be back. It was getting hot and the Acropolis had quite a bit of scaffolding around it, so I thought I would just wander the streets of the Plaka. I was so happy I did this. We were each given an ice cold water bottle at no charge after departing the bus, which came in handy let me tell you. The Plaka has some very touristy spots, but there are some spots that are very “local”. I was worried about visiting Athens, as most clients and friends tell me it’s not a nice place to visit, dirty and just not pleasant. I actually had quite the opposite experience.

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Walking and wandering the streets of the Plaka was great. Athens does have a bylaw that no buildings in certain areas of the city are over six stories tall, this is so that where ever you are in the city, you can view the Acropolis. I spent the last while at the Temple of Zeus and the Arch of Hadrian. I did do quite a bit of research on historical architecture before I left for Italy and Greece, so it was awe inspiring to see the different types of columns and just imagining how these massive structures were built in that day and age. The Temple of Zeus utilized a Corinthian style of column, whilst the Arch of Hadrian an smaller version of the same style.

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Arch of Hadrian with the view of the Acropolis through it…

Temple of Zeus by WanderlustJourney.ca

Temple of Zeus

Temple of Zeus

Temple of Zeus

After a day in the heat, I had an hour to kill, so I found a rooftop patio and had a beer overlooking the Plaka and the Acropolis in full view.

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It was then time to say “good bye” to Athens and head back to the ship. Once back onboard, I changed into my swimsuit and took a much needed swim in the pool. I bumped into friends in the pool and had a drink with them in the Bier Garten afterwards. After sail away I headed to my cabin and got ready for dinner, I was eating at Windows again. I was again seated at the very back of the ship at the large windows, which was a great view of leaving Piraeus. I was hungry after all the walking I did today, so I ordered two appetizers tonight, a tortellini caprese starter and an order of shrimp pot stickers, my main course was the beef brisket (they had me at Guinness mustard sauce) and a white chocolate coconut mousse for dessert.

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I then caught the 7:30pm showing of the Spirit production cast in “Soul Rockin’ Nights”. It was pretty good, great singing and dancing. After the show, I changed back into my swimsuit and headed back up to the pool. At this time the pool seems to be empty and you can normally get an entire hot tub to yourself. After, I wrapped up and went a deck up to the Bier Garten and had a gin and tonic under the stars, with fading sunlight in the distance. I noticed at this point we were cruising very slowly, many large ferries leaving us in their wakes, next up was Santorini, so it wasn’t too far away. As this was the case, I headed to bed, I wanted to be well rested for the next day. When I got back to my room, a little bear friend was waiting for me…

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Here are the “Dailies” for Day 6 – Piraeus (Athens):

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Next up… Santorini!

Cruise Review – 11 Day Mediterranean Cruise – Norwegian Spirit – Day 2

Day 2 – Livorno (Florence)

Woke up early again… 5:15am this time. Probably didn’t help that I was in bed by 7:30pm the previous night. We sailed into Livorno just before sunrise and I watched docking from my balcony with coffee in hand.

Livorno by WanderlustJourney.ca

Once docked I headed up to Raffles for breakfast. Most people don’t realize there is a great outdoor space attached to Raffles , where you can eat at the very aft of the ship.

NCL Spirit AFT - WanderlustJourney.ca

After breakfast, I headed downstairs once we were cleared by the port authority and left the ship. As they don’t want passengers walking through the port area, you do have to pay €5 round trip, per person for a shuttle to the centre of Livorno. From here I met my bus transfer that was going to take me into Florence.

Livorno by WanderlustJourney.ca

For this trip, I didn’t do any shore excursions through Norwegian Cruise Lines. The excursions through NCL are quite expensive and usually have quite a large group. I used Shore Excursions Group for my excursions for this trip and always book them for my clients on other cruises all the time. Like the cruise lines, they guarantee that they will get you back to your ship on time, or they will catch you up with the ship on their dime. Usually the groups are a lot smaller, I think the most people we had was this one, as it was a bus transfer to Florence at 36 people, followed by Athens at a group of 24. Most of the groups I experienced on this trip were between 10 and 18, that alone is much better than the cruise lines.

Once we arrived into Florence, our bus dropped us off at the Florence Centro Rail Station, right in the heart of Florence. From there I wandered the streets and enjoyed the sights (Ponte Vecchio, Ufizzi Galleria, and the Duomo). Unfortunately we were visiting on a Monday, so the Ufizzi Galleria was closed (most museums and national historic sites in Italy are closed on Mondays).

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The Duomo of Florence is amazing. It’s so stunning and intricate and it’s history is equally so, involving many intriguing families including the Medici’s. The dome over the main alter was an engineering feat of it’s era.

Afterwards, I headed to the Mercato di San Lorenzo for some market style shopping. This is a great place to pick up Chianti wine in mini bottles, spices, balsamic vinegars and other Tuscan specialties for souvenirs and gifts for friends and family back home.

Mercato di San Lorenzo in Florence - WanderlustJourney.ca

I always work up an appetite after shopping, lucky I found a great looking pizzeria out the back of the Mercato di San Lorenzo. It’s called Pizzeria i Camaldoli.  It didn’t disappoint. Honestly, probably the best pizza I’ve had… EVER. Check it out, it a great place to grab a pizza margherita and a “birra”. Don’t believe me? Check out the reviews here on TripAdvisor…

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After a great, well appreciated air conditioned food stop, it was time to start to wandering back to the train station for the transfer back to the ship. On the way back I got caught up in more shopping and bought myself a few pieces of clothing (it’s Italy, what can I say lol). It was a beautiful scenic ride back to the ship, however the bus had wi-fi so used some of that time to check back home and FaceTime with my Grama (I didn’t buy an internet package onboard the ship).

Once back onboard it was time to hit the pool and cool down after a long day walking around in the heat. Seems like I hit it just in time before everyone else arrived back, so had a good 45 minutes of peace in the pool before it was just too busy. I had dinner in Windows (one of the MDR’s aka Main Dining Room) which is a complementary dining room and the largest one on the NCL Spirit. I started off with the Brie with Cranberry Compote, followed by a Ceasar Salad. My main course was a Grilled New York Strip Steak (cooked to medium rare perfection) with a Peppercorn Sauce and Gratin Potatoes. My dessert was the Raspberry Chocolate Torte. So good!

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After dinner, I caught the late show which was a singer, Leanne Jarvis from the UK version of The Voice. She was pretty good, but I was so sleepy after the day in the sun. Back in my room, there was a towel dog and tomorrow’s Freestyle Daily waiting for me.

Next up… Cagliari, Sardinia!

Here are the “dailies” for Day 2 Livorno (Florence):

NCL Spirit Dailies by WanderlustJourney.caNCL Spirit Dailies by WanderlustJourney.caNCL Spirit Dailies by WanderlustJourney.ca

 

 

 

The Laguna, a Luxury Collection Resort & Spa, Nusa Dua, Bali – A Hotel Review

From the moment I arrived this place was amazing.

Nusa Dua is approximately a 30 minute drive from the Denpasar International Airport. Upon entering the Nusa Dua area, vehicles are inspected and go through a security checkpoint. Arriving at your respective hotel or resort, you go through yet another checkpoint.

Once at the lobby, I was greeted with a “gong”, signalling my arrival. I was seated at a couch in the beautiful open air lobby, served a welcome drink of Jamu (a traditional drink made of orange juice, mint, cloves, star anise and sweetened with honey) and checked into my room on an iPad. To my delight, they upgraded me to a Lagoon Access room!

This resort is so beautiful. You feel like you have arrived in paradise. The property is very lush and very well manicured. The pools around the resort create such an amazing tranquil atmosphere. The room I had direct access to one of the pools with a terrace out onto the pool’s edge. My room was very spacious and had butler service included. It also had a deep bathtub, great bathroom amenities and the beds were so comfortable. There are no coffee makers in the rooms, which was a first for me staying in a Starwood property, however I quickly learned that the butler will bring you a fresh carafe of coffee to enjoy in your room or on your terrace or balcony.

The beach here was well kept and the snorkelling was pretty good, lots of fish. There are many sunbeds and the local vendors don’t bother you too much if you’re firm. They have plenty of cabanas that can be rented through the resort, the most popular ones are near the beach. The resort does offer the option to dine next door at the St. Regis and it’s an amazing experience! The Laguna offers nightly entertainment, a couple nights a week they have a fire show and even a religious ceremony at the temple on their grounds.

The food here was really good. The breakfast was amazing and offered so many choices, from various different cuisines. I did eat dinner one night right on the beach, the ambiance they create is so romantic and magical. They also offered a “happy hour” at certain times and even had fresh coconuts available.

Within the area of Nusa Dua, there is a shopping centre which offers a free shuttle from most hotels and resorts. Yes, it does have a Starbucks, but this is where I was introduced to BaliZen home products. I purchased an off white Balinese umbrella and loved all the prints, colours and products they offered (I found the main store of BaliZen while I was in Ubud, more on the later).

I’m so happy I chose this resort as my starting point for my visit to Bali, it was a great atmosphere to get over the jet lag and admire the beauty of this area of the island. I can’t say enough about how wonderful and friendly the staff are. I honestly can’t wait to come back here!

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Getting the Most out of the Italian Grand Prix in Monza

The Italian Grand Prix in Monza was honestly a bucket list item for me. As a Ferrari fan, it’s the one race out of the year that true fans strive to attend. The tifosi are a passionate bunch, you can feel the excitement for the sport and especially for the home team. Monza is also one of the most historical tracks still on the race calendar to date. The track dates back to 1922, however it has changed since then. The unbelievably banked corners haven’t been used since 1969, however some of the original track are still in use, primarily through the pit straight.

It was an amazing experience but there were a lot of unknowns or answers I couldn’t find online. I’m going to try to answer some questions I had before the race that I found out just experiencing the grounds.

How to get to the Italian Grand Prix in Monza from Milan:

This is actually easier than it sounded. I stayed in the Ibis Milano Centro Hotel, which was about a 10-15 minute walk to the Milano Centrale train station. I wanted to arrive to the track early each day as I wanted the full experience of the weekend. There are trains to Monza every 10-20 minutes from Milan and the cost for the tickets were €5.50 per person, per direction. Monza is 12 minutes from Milano Centrale (depending on the train). Once at Monza Station, follow the signs for the shuttle bus to the autodromo. Once outside of the station, there was a line to purchase the tickets at a cost of €5.00 round trip per day. If you don’t like crowds, don’t do to an F1 race.  At no point did I ever feel unsafe, or worried about someone ripping me off, however I was diligent. Getting onto the shuttle bus, they try to pack as many people on them as possible, personal space does not exist. It’s about a 15 minute ride to the autodromo from the station, they drop you off along one of the roadways within the park. From this point it is about a 2 km walk to Gate “G”. See the map for where I’ve circled the drop off point for the shuttle.

Map of the F1 Race at Monza

Picking up Formula One tickets at Ticket Collection:

As my trip to Europe started earlier than the tickets would have arrived in Canada, I opted for ticket pick up at the race. I was actually glad I did this as I wouldn’t have wanted to carry around F1 tickets all over Europe with me, would have been awful if I lost them. As I mentioned earlier, I arrived by shuttle from the Monza train station, walked towards Ingresso G (Gate G), then turned left and continued walking down the path to Ingresso A (Gate A). Once there, there is a portable to the right for Ticket Collection. I was stressing that I had forgot my confirmation in my hotel room, however they were very accommodating and gave the tickets to me with presentation of my ID.

Going through security:

The longest line (other than a beer line), will be the security line. Keep in mind that security on Friday and Saturday will differ from Sunday (race day). Arrive early. You think a time is early, say 7 am to leave your hotel, leave at 6 am. Not joking. I arrived Sunday to lines that took 2 hours to get inside the secure area, took less than 10 minutes any of the other days. Don’t bother to bring alcohol or even a water bottle. I brought my BLK water bottle and pleaded to keep it, as I had no warning that Sunday they were not allowing anything with a lid through security, thankfully he allowed it. However the number of thermoses, water bottles, wine bottles, tall cans of beer and other items that were confiscated was just crazy. Be prepared for a pat down (by a woman if you’re a woman), a bag check and have your tickets ready to be scanned.

Getting the most out of your race weekend:

There are so many events, things to see and do on a race weekend. I’m a planner so I had the time table with me. Just keep in mind, there are lines everywhere.

Fan Zone: If you are a fan of the sport, you will find some pretty cool activities in the Fan Zone. They have a stage for talks with drivers, technical staff and higher ups in F1, live DJ’s, bands and other acts. Want to see how fast you can change a tire, try the “Pit Stop Challenge”. Fly a drone, wave the flag, jump on the podium, cast F1 news and see some pretty awesome F1 memorabilia. This year was Ferrari’s 70th anniversary, so there was a tent set up with Ferrari’s from many different years. There was also an Ayrton Senna tent, with his car, helmet and a few other historical items of interest. There is also the official Formula One Souvenir tent here. I picked up a ticket holder/protector (so that my tickets didn’t get wet) and an official programme.

Food and Drink Stands: Bring cash and again, be prepared to wait in very long lines. Beers went for €8 each and a bottle of water or Coke was €4. I had packed a lunch (a cornetto with provolone and salami) from my hotel, that was allowed in through security.

Historic Race Oval: The easiest way to access the race oval, especially the banked corner is near Gate G. The trails go up on either side of the bridge (it is a dirt trail, not a paved one). It is pretty impressive. Make sure you are wearing good shoes, particularly if you want to climb to the top of the track (it’s steep).

After the Race: Be prepared to run… Right after the last car is in the pit straight, the marshals will open the track. Run… Get on track and run to the finish line and get in with the infamous tifosi. If you were lucky like I was, a Ferrari driver will be on the podium and the celebrations are legendary.

Most importantly, have fun. Enjoy the fan energy that this special place brings.

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What to Expect on an Overnight Train in Vietnam

We arrived at the Hanoi Train Station at 7:10pm. Our Intrepid guide Khoa motioned us to follow him and we took a short cut to the platform through a loading bay entrance. We walked a few car lengths of the Reunification Express, peeking into what the train sleeping arrangements looked like, finally arriving at train car “11A”. It was first class! We settled into our cabins, which was quite nice. Bottled water, wipes and chocolates were placed on the table while fresh, clean duvets, pillows and linens were on the beds. I had read that you might want to bring a sleep sheet and I would definitely agree if you were sleeping in anything but first class. The beds are not the softest, so as I had a sleep sheet, I slept on top of the duvet for that little extra cushion.

We had put in a take out order earlier in the day, it arrived just before we departed at 7:30pm. I had read in the Lonely Planet guide that it is best to buy snacks and food before for the trip as these items are priced quite high onboard. So keeping this in mind I also stopped off at a convenience store earlier in the afternoon to pick up some snacks, a bottle of water and a couple beers (who can say no to 25 cent beers). They have water dispensers (bottled water) at either end of each train car which is great, was nice to refill my water bottle as it was quite hot. I was very happy that we had ordered food and snacks as the food carts did not look appetizing. The cars are air conditioned however it seemed at certain times it was having troubles keeping up with the crazy heat we were experiencing.

The bathrooms are an experience in themselves. We didn’t have squat toilets (those are found in a few cars down), but they aren’t the cleanest of spaces. This is where I was very happy to have Lysol wipes on me and a toilet paper roll. It seems like the bathrooms in first class cars are better kept than others, I didn’t need the toilet paper as it seemed there was always some (however I wasn’t going to risk not having any) and checked on a more regular basis.

The views from the train are really interesting. It’s not the Rocky Mountaineer by any means. If you are travelling on your own, you will be confined to your bunk and you could be sharing the cabin with other travellers. I had the bottom right bunk so the views from my seat were quite good. I really enjoyed the trip in the early morning when we woke. About 6:30am we were about 2 hours from Hue, enjoying views of workers in the rice fields. Lotus flowers separated the tracks from lush fields, while hundreds of white ducks seemed to be enjoying the ponds every so often. Some areas you couldn’t really see too much, like when we crossed over the remnants of the DMZ (de-militarized zone). There wasn’t even a marker. I basically knew it from keeping track of our movements on a map. Most backpackers depart in Hue and so does most tours. Hue is somewhere we didn’t have time to visit, however I’ve been told it is a highlight. We continued on the train to Danang, however the stretch between Hue and Danang is beautiful. The train takes quite a scenic route over the mountain overlooking picturesque and prisine beaches. This is where you want to make sure you can take in the scenery.

In regards to safety there is some luggage space under the bottom bunks and in a storage space above the top bunks. It is always recommended to have your cabin locked. Someone at some point at night did try our door, however we did have it locked. There is no security between classes, anyone can walk the length of the train. If sharing the cabin with others you don’t know, wear your money belt with your absolute valuables (passport, credit cards, cash, etc) and bring it with you when going to the washroom. Keep larger valuables away from the door, I had my head facing the door (feet were at the door, head at the window) and kept my camera in the corner, under my pillow. This way if the door was unlocked, no one can do a quick grab of anything. I did feel safe on the train, but was happy I read up on what to expect on the Vietnam overnight trains in the Lonely Planet guide. The conductors do know where you need to get off and do speak some English.

We pulled into Danang just after 11:45am and departed the train. I did enjoy the experience and it was worth it. If you want a reasonable way to travel from North to South Vietnam (or vice versa), the train is an awesome option.

 

 

My Guide to Hanoi, Vietnam

I arrived into Hanoi via Taipei on a Vietnam Airlines flight at 9:35am. Hanoi was my first point of entry into Vietnam and I had no idea what to expect. Upon landing, immigration was my first stop. As I already had my visa (I got it at the Vietnamese Consulate in Vancouver), so I joined in the very short immigration line. Glancing over at the very long “Visa On Arrival” line, I knew I had made the right choice. A few seconds later, my passport was scanned and stamped and I was on my way into the baggage area. Once I collected my bag, I went through the sliding doors into the arrival hall. The sticky, heavy, humid air hit me like a brick wall. It was hot in Hanoi, in some ways a much needed change from the unusual cool weather we’ve been experiencing in Vancouver. I then began searching the almost overwhelming crowd, yelling at me for my arrival transfer. I was glad I had booked it in advance. Hanoi is notorious for taxi airport scams. Most guide books and websites recommend organizing a transfer through your hotel or making sure you use a reputable taxi company, your hotel or hostel can recommend the best taxi to use. As I was on an Intrepid Real Food Adventure tour, I booked my transfer through them. I finally found the Intrepid sign in the crowd with my name underneath.

The drive into Hanoi from the airport is about 30-45 minutes depending on traffic and where your hotel is located within the city. The traffic is crazy here, you need to have patience. The streets are not blocks, they weave in many directions. As it’s an old city, the modern and the antique cross over each other. Once I had arrived to my hotel (May De Ville City Centre 2), I freshened up in the main bathroom (my room was not ready until 2pm) and asked for a map. The map I was provided with had recommendations on what taxi companies to use, marks on the city map where the hotel was located and popular landmarks.

I headed out to check out the Old Quarter and Hoan Kiem Lake areas of Hanoi. I walked down one of the main roads, Hang Duong (pretty well one road from my hotel which was quite good), I passed many stalls and was taken back by the grungy beauty of the Old Hanoi. I did have my camera with me and felt safe with it. I heard about motorcycle snatchings, however they are more prevalent in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). I was able to take some amazing photos along my walk. I loved the people. The people here are somewhat friendly, the odd stranger will still glance a smile your way, if not only with their eyes.

Crossing the streets for the first time in Vietnam can be quite the experience. Look for a crosswalk first, if there is one, wait for the light, but then make sure there are no motorcycles looking to sneak through. When crossing where there is no crosswalk, just be deliberate. Walk slowly and don’t stop unless it’s a car (apparently they won’t stop for you, unless you are really giving them the sign you are crossing lol). The motorcycles will just go around you while you cross the street, don’t be intimidated, but don’t speed up, run or stop, that’s when the accidents happen.

Along Hang Duong, you will find many stalls of clothing, cell phone accessories and even different counterfeit items. Here, you will also find the Dong Xuan Market. I would say Hanoi and Hoi An is the place to buy typical Vietnam souvenirs. I found Ho Chi Minh City to be extremely overpriced, especially in the markets there. Hanoi is much more reasonable and had some pretty cute boutique style shops as well. Once at Hoan Kiem Lake its a really nice walk around the lake. On Saturdays and Sundays the roads around the lake are closed off to traffic so that families can easily enjoy family time near the lake on the roads and creates more walkable and useable space, its a great new initiative. The pagoda on the lake is quite beautiful, very picturesque.

The food in Hanoi is diverse and delicious. French influence is everywhere here, and the baguettes are so authentic you would think you were in France. Crispy on the outside and so soft and fluffy on the inside, makes the perfect Banh Mi. Make sure you try the following foods and restaurants:

  • Banh Mi 25 – Amazing street food, small food stall in Hanoi where you line up among the locals for a delicious Banh Mi sandwich.
  • Bun Cha Nem Cut Be Dac Kim – Bun cha is another type of noodle soup consisting of vermicelli, pork slices, pork meatballs (which are the best part) and a mountain of herbs. Another small restaurant where you will be eating along with the locals.
  • Egg Coffee – Best egg coffee in Vietnam is found in Hanoi. There is a really good place just across the street from the Chau Long Market (the locals market), we were taken there on a street food tour. The egg coffee was amazing and the back sitting area was quaint.
  • Pho Huyen – 31 Chau Long – Amazing pho! Was just around the corner from my hotel and directly across the street from the Hanoi Cooking Centre.
  • KOTO – A social enterprise that helps disadvantaged and at risk youth by giving them training in the hospitality industry. The food was incredible. Make sure you visit this location or the one in Ho Chi Minh City.
  • Hien Tra Truong Xuan – A traditional tea house near the Temple of Literature. Offers a traditional tea ceremony with lotus tea (bitter but good) and several other teas. My other favourites were the ginger tea and the peach tea.

As for safety, as a single woman, I felt quite safe in Hanoi and walked around with a cross body purse along with my Canon 6D camera with no issues. I did read up on the scams and saw most of them in play.

In Hanoi, the biggest scams to watch out for are:

  • Women with the fruit baskets – they will try to put them on your shoulders and then take your picture, they typically overcharge for a photo and harass you until you pay them what they want.
  • Cyclo tours – Cyclo touts cheap rides, but normally way over charge by the time you are finished. Some may even lead you far from where you want to actually go then ask for a crazy amount to take you back. Before sitting down in one, make sure you agree to a fare and if you don’t feel safe ask to stop immediately (an excuse to use the washroom, etc).
  • Shoe repairs/shoe shines – Along some streets you will see some men sitting on the ground in cramped areas, they throw or dab disolvants onto your footwear and offer to fix your shoes, keep walking.
  • Free samples – Vendors along the streets will offer you free samples of donuts, fruit or other items, however once tasted they will demand unreasonable payment.
  • Taxis – Make sure they have a meter, also watch the meter and make sure it’s not going too fast. Speak to your hotel regarding how much it should cost to go to various locations around the city, most places should be within 15,000 to 75,000 Dong depending on traffic and location distance.
  • Drink spiking – As with anywhere in the world spiking of drinks in clubs and bars is popular, keep an eye on your drink if you are planning to enjoy an evening out. Drinking out of a bottle and keeping your thumb over the top is more safe than a wide open glass.

I really enjoyed Hanoi. It is a very walkable city and quite safe overall. I’m so happy I was able to experience this city which is over 1000 years old. The architecture and sights are intriguing and I wish I had spent a few more days here to explore. If you have any questions about Hanoi or if you would like more recommendations, please contact me!

Packing for Vietnam

I usually start packing for a trip about a week to two weeks before I go somewhere, this way I find it’s not a mad dash at the end, and I’m able to mindfully make decisions about what I pack (and what I don’t).

As I unpacked from my 1 night repositioning cruise on the Ruby Princess, I’m repacking the same carry on with my items for Vietnam. Yes, I am taking just a carry on to Vietnam.  I guess I’m challenging myself, I’ve always overpacked. Many times coming back from a destination I’m sitting on my suitcase trying desperately to zip it up, and/or buying a secondary bag to fit souvenirs I’ve accumulated along the way. I know I need to simplify, so to resist the urges of buying unnecessary items (partially to save money for my Europe trip in August), carry on it is.

I’m going to be packing light. I’m flying with China Airlines and Vietnam Airlines, carry on limit is 7 kgs, plus a personal item such as a purse. I’ve decided dress in layers, wearing the heaviest items of clothing that I’m planning to bring, this way it won’t effect my carry on weight. I get cold on planes anyways, so this way I’ll be warm and comfortable haha. I won’t be bringing my MacBook this time, I’m taking a journal to write in instead.

Traveling to Asia is definitely an adjustment. Public washrooms can be a very simple squat toilet, or a western style washroom with the toilet paper located near the paper towel where you wash your hands. I’ve learned to be and travel prepared. I always carry a roll of toilet paper or at least tissues in my purse, not to mention antibacterial wet wipes and hand sanitizer. I always wipe public areas down with wipes, especially my seat area in an airplane (tray, armrests, in-seat entertainment system and sometimes the window if it’s smudged), bathrooms, hotel rooms, etc. I might sound like a germaphobe (ok, if I’m honest I am one), but I really hate getting sick during a trip. For health related issues I bring Pepto-Bismol, Benadryl, Gravol, Advil, Ener-C packs (contains vitamins and electrolytes, important for hot, humid climates and warding off plane germs) and last but not least, Saje Immune roll on (for warding off colds and other germs).

I’ll be taking one swimsuit, I’m really hoping we will be able to kayak in Halong Bay during our overnight cruise. I know the hotel in Hoi An has a pool, so one swimsuit will be fine.

For technology, I’ll be taking my iPhone 6, for photos and posting to Instagram and Facebook, and to keep in touch with my family on FaceTime. I’m bringing my GoPro Hero 4 with waterproof housing. I brought it with me to Thailand and Bali and got some great footage with it. I’m also taking my Canon 6D for those photos that I want the extra quality for.

I have to say, I’m getting excited! Really excited, only a couple days to go!

Vietnam Countdown – 4 Weeks to Go!

My Vietnam countdown is officially on! 4 weeks to go!

I’m so excited and can’t wait to share my adventure with you all!

I am doing a “taster trip” of Intrepid Travel’s Real Food Adventure – Vietnam. Our journey will start in Hanoi and end in Ho Chi Minh City, spanning over nine days! This trip includes a couple cooking classes, an overnight cruise on Halong Bay, an overnight train to Danang and many street food stops along the way. I’m planning to document this trip day by day and also by video.

This past Thursday, I made the trip to the Vietnamese Consulate downtown Vancouver to get my Vietnamese visa. I paid $103.00 Canadian Dollars to get it completed and I will pick it up on Wednesday (so just under a week). I know there are other ways to get the visa for Vietnam, such as paying to get a visa on arrival. After doing quite a bit of research, I decided that getting it done before I left was the best (and safest) route for me. If you apply through a third party agency, you could be taking your chances. Not only that, when you arrive you have to make sure you have all your documents and passport photo with you, along with paying a “stamping fee” in US Dollars at immigration. The lines can be long and I just want to get to my hotel and start exploring Hanoi once I land. I’d rather not have any extra stress, just enjoy this journey.

On to what I’m packing… Still debating on bringing a suitcase, however I think I’m sticking to just a carry on. Going to be interesting, but I’m going to try. I tend to overpack and really not need half the items I take, so it’s going to be a test for me. My apartment is also getting very full, so by taking just a carry on, I’m limiting the unnecessary souvenirs I might purchase along the way.

May 18th can’t come soon enough!